***FOREWORD NOTE TO READERS:

Hello! Thank you for taking interest. Unlike other "Forewords" that I've written for my books, for this story I am inclined to warn new readers that this story is a part of the overall saga composed of: Robotech: The Ashes of Empire, Robotech: The Smoldering Earth, and Robotech: The Enforcers' War- as a continuation of the first, and taking place shortly after the conclusion of the third. At the risk of seeming self-promoting, I strongly recommend reading at least those two before this story lest the unique characters, storyline, and conflicts of this story be puzzling and unfamiliar to you.

That warning having been given, I hope you enjoy!

Respectfully,

-GVincent.

ROBOTECH:

The Enforcers' War Saga–

A Story:

The Hunters

By G. Vincent

Binary Star System 438-7-205.9

The eclipsing binary stars 438-7-205.9/1 and /2 burned cool on the relative scale of star temperatures and to only slightly varied degrees of dim luminosity dependent upon which aspect of the ancient pair they were viewed.

438-7-205.9/1, a red giant whose appearance was still more orange than its classification name suggested was in the process of burning the last of its gaseous star fuels and could be expected to continue to do so for several hundred-million years more before gas fuels yielded to metals. Given the star's age at just under nine billion years old, this great span of time as perceived by mortal beings could be considered for the star to be something of the last days of its autumn years.

438-7-205.9/2, a red dwarf and much truer in color to its name was considerably younger, even by stellar standards. It had coalesced and formed from similar, mind-boggling expanses of gas and dust in the universe's antiquity and had ignited by distant, faint light of what would be its companion while /1 was still in its prime. Only remote chance had brought them drifting together into the reach of that invisible caress of mutual attraction late in their lives to begin their celestial courtship dance.

Introductory orbits of centuries shortened with familiarity over time to scores of years, and then to decades as the distance between titans shrank with each rotation of their stellar waltz. In time, like all mutually attracted pairs engaged in aloof games of gradual seduction, they would join in a fiery communion before ending their eternity-spanning lives as one.

-But this was still far in the, and for now 438-7-205.9/1 and 438-7-205.9/2 were content to simply enjoy the dance.

Their company kept with one another was something of a blessing, even if the mismatched star pair did not enjoy the sentience to understand it –for with the exception of each other and their orbiting veils of gas, dust, and rock that had never formed proper planets the stars had all their lives been utterly alone.

In a universe of infinite possibilities and limitless potential, binary star system 438-7-205.9 had never come remotely close to the precise conditions required to produce and sustain life. Inconstant gravitational forces generated by the movement of the binary stars had prevented the formation of planets, so no microbes had ever appeared to evolve into any form of sentient life whose imagination might bond it with its local stars.

Even the artificial construct of a "name" had been denied to 438-7-205.9/1 and 438-7-205.9/2 until very late in their lives, and then only assigned systematically by artificial intelligence tasked to survey the cosmos by the creators of the first life forms ever to visit star system 438-7-205.9.

Being inanimate things 438-7-205.9/1 and 438-7-205.9/2 did not perceive the quite recent visits of two parties of the same race, nor did they have intelligence to grapple with the peculiar circumstances of the conflict that they brought with them or comprehend the violence that had ensued.

-And for the same reasons, they lacked the ability to understand the implications of a third set of visitors whose arrival was linked directly to the incursion and confrontation of the first two.

Space rippled with the successive emergence of five Thuverl Salan Class destroyers from hyperspace-fold. Generous intervals of space between the vessels intentionally afforded by their masters to offset chances of collision upon de-fold as was always a possibility when multiple vessels traveled by their individual FTL drive systems as a unit were closed quickly into tidy battle formation –and the business at hand began.

This was right.

Action Commander F'Yolkra of the 221st Battle Group of the 7th Grand Army of The Te'Dak Tohl trusted the instincts within his Warrior's core, and they were telling him that this place, as random and unremarkable as it was at face value, was the right place to be.

F'Yolkra's 9170th Destroyer Squadron had already seen action this campaign, significant action. His squadron had been one of the first Te'Dak Tohl units involved in the initial assault waves against the micronian home world that had prepared the battlespace for the arrival of Supreme General Krymina's main force. In that action his squadron of twelve had been reduced to nine, with varying levels of damage done to another three vessels.

Days later, as result of the fiendishly clever retaliation by a small number of micronian vessels, he had lost an additional destroyer to action and had been forced to detach two for return to the Trendok 145 Robotech Factory for critical repairs.

-But these were brutish and mundane duties that the 9170th Destroyer Squadron had been compelled to participate in, better suited for heavier units and the destroyer squadrons that supported them in major fleet engagements.

The 9170th Destroyer Squadron was a hunter-killer unit, and far more experienced in the techniques and tactics of the task of their present assignment.

Seditious as it was, within the circles of commanders where such talk could be had without fear of retribution, F'Yolkra had heard Supreme General Krymina's orders to scatter her forces in search of a retreating Breetai and his micronian allies' fleet spoken of as folly. Likened to throwing a handful of sand into the wind in the hopes of covering a field, F'Yolkra understood the derision, but also recognized the fundamental lack of vision being displayed by those who scorned.

No advantage was had by doing nothing. No adversary was ever surprised or his plans upset by keeping one's own fleet in a defensive posture.

It was true that the supreme general's plan had long odds against its success, but the odds were still better in the favor of the Te'Dak Tohl than if she elected to do nothing.

-Only now there were indications that the long odds might be yielding favorable results, and to F'Yolkra being here and just now-.

This was right.

"Secure fold system to stand-by condition and initiate post-fold maneuvers.", ordered Sub-Commander Culd whose duty station as executive officer of Destroyer 4592 was also within the command bubble overlooking the bridge with his superior.

F'Yolkra was content to take in the information populating the ship's tactical display as the three-dimensional, holographic image returned to life with the ship's re-emergence into realspace. Culd, solid in his tactical and command skill sets and reliably balanced in his decision-making was demonstrating again that the ship-handling aspects of operations were well under his control, leaving the action commander's mind to focus on the larger mission concerns.

Sensors drank in the electromagnetic impulses all around as though the brief period of transit in fold-warp had starved them and powerful banks of computers processed the inputs provided, interpreted, and recreated the universe around the ship in a form that their organic dependents/masters could understand.

The tactical display with its navigational layers enabled showed what the meager information that had been available about this binary star system to be true. Drifting rock and dust, in both bands and mass-clusters littered the space all throughout the immediately observable area. Foreknowledge of this had likely been a major factor in Culd not lighting up the sphere of space around the ship with an active sensor pulse upon emerging from hyperspace. With all the clutter, it would have been a fruitless effort in gaining a clear understanding of any immediate threats while at the same time providing potential adversaries with their exact position.

-No, Culd had been correct, F'Yolkra knew. The subspace ripple of defold was enough of a betrayal of their position to any adversary, an active sensor pulse would have been an act of recklessness.

-And F'Yolkra knew an adversary was near.

He sensed it.

This system with the clashing energy floods of its binary stars, the overabundance of physical clutter, and its remote distance from the center of The 7th Grand Army's evolving campaign made it ideal for concealment of a force –even as large as Breetai's was estimated to be.

The same qualities also made it an ideal environment for a trap.

The last, garbled and abruptly terminated communication from Destroyer 1859 –one of the most competently commanded and crewed units in F'Yolkra' s squadron of competently commanded and crewed units seemed to confirm this suspicion.

"-Extend all gun and missile batteries into ready position and charge the weaponry grid.", Sub-Commander Culd continued through a series of orders that with their exact sequence could have been mistaken as having been read from a prepared checklist. Culd was not switched fully into "automatic" mode though, F'Yolkra felt him assessing the tactical situation in the breaks and pauses of his command cadence.

"-Lord, I advise caution.", Culd suggested as acknowledgments and practiced reply phrases returned to him in response to his orders from the command center below. "-A force that could have surprised and so swiftly overwhelmed Commander Belsa would not likely be quick to abandon such ideal conditions for hunting."

"Precisely what I was thinking, Culd.", F'Yolkra agreed, "I'm counting on that."

Noting the tight clustering of the squadron's accountable destroyers as they reached the end of a set of random maneuvers dictated by the lead vessel's helming officer that was intended to remove them from the point of re-entry into realspace, Culd made a minor shift of gears in starting to say, "-Lord, may I recommend-."

F'Yolkra, in tactical lockstep with his executive officer did not need to allow the junior officer to complete his thought, "Do it."

Similarly, Culd knew no elaboration on his thought was required, but rather only the order that followed.

"Communications, direct squadron commanders to assume a sweeping formation – moderate spread. Assemble on us as the center."

"Yes, Lord.", came the reply from the communications station below.

The response to the order began to manifest quickly as the destroyers of the 9170th Squadron assumed a vertically and horizontally staggered "arrowhead" formation with Destroyer 4592 at the point. The operationally-tested and proven formation allowed the squadron the maximum tactical flexibility in the face of uncertain circumstances – preserving overlapping and mutually supporting arcs of heavy gunfire, while not providing a concentration of targets for an enemy force in the mindset to attack.

"What level of effort should we apply to locating Commander Belsa's ship?", Culd asked as the natural peril of transition from hyperspace into realspace diminished with each passing second. While seeming inconsequential, it was in fact telling to F'Yolka.

The fact that his squadron had not come under attack at a moment of heightened vulnerability told the action commander that one of three broad possibilities was likely. The enemy could have vacated the system following the action against Belsa, fearing what was now in play – that reinforcements would arrive to the enemy's disadvantage. There was also the possibility that the enemy was still in the area, but F'Yolkra's remaining destroyers had entered the system at a point not subject to quick or easy attack. This was a distinct possibility.

Then there was the possibility that F'Yolkra both feared most and yet hoped for –that the enemy remained in the system with every intent of resuming offensive action against any reinforcements coming to Belsa's aid – but they were biding their time, waiting for the optimal moment to strike.

Action Commander F'Yolkra was certain that if he had chosen Star System 438-7-205.9 as a refuge with the possibility of repelling attack, or as a position from which to stage an ambush on warships –this would be his mode of operation. –And as he was in the role of being stalked, the critical exercise would be to read the signs and conditions of the environment, and with Fate's favor to correctly anticipate the enemy's next move before he made it.

Even if the elements of chance fell completely to F'Yolkra, he knew he was still operating from the inferior tactical position. –But his commanders were battle seasoned and familiar with working cohesively as a unit.

These were the operational situations that F'Yolkra relished secretly –not the killing portion of commanding a hunter-killer squadron, but rather the hunt. It was what elevated true Warriors above the ranks of technologically equipped brutes.

"Minimal.", F'Yolkra replied to his executive officer's query that seemed to him to have gone unanswered for a long time, "-Coincidental effort. I have known Belsa all of my years of Duty as a destroyer commander, and he is not one to back away from a fight –even with the odds against him. If he made contact with the enemy, engaged, and had the tide of battle turn against him as his communication seemed to indicate –it is likely that he fought to the last. We will better serve Belsa and ourselves by fixing on the enemy who took him. –After that we will have time to locate Destroyer 1859."

"Very good, my Lord.", Culd replied with a mild hint of relief. The executive officer was not oblivious to F'Yolkra's long-standing friendship with the apparently lost Belsa, and he was grateful that this operation was not to become a vengeance-fueled quest for blood. That was not F'Yolkra's nature, Culd knew, but even the steadiest of Warriors could sometimes react uncharacteristically to meaningful loss.

He would monitor F'Yolkra of course, but he suspected that the mild concern was unwarranted.

"Set tactical display for system scale, and display from a polar aspect.", F'Yolkra ordered with compliance following his direction by only seconds.

438-7-205.9/1 and 438-7-205.9/2 occupied the center of the reconfigured and refreshed tactical display, greatly reduced in scale to allow a comprehensive model of the star system to occupy the limited display space. Viewing the system at a right angle to and from high above the plane of the ecliptic it was easy to be daunted by the task of finding an enemy who did not want to be found within the operational area. It was far more daunting to consider that the task might be complicated that the enemy might not simply be attempting to evade discovery, but evade discovery until an optimal moment of attack was reached.

In either case, the environment was not lending itself to easy operation for F'Yolkra's squadron. The hemisphere of space presented to the five destroyers since de-fold was growing more detailed with each automatic refresh of the tactical display. This was the result of additional information becoming available from the ship's sensors as they gleaned what they could in passive mode about the composition and material density of nearby space. Reflection of the binary stars' EM energy off of the distinctly different physical mass of gasses, dust, and rock allowed the picture to be painted in broad, undetailed, electronic brushstrokes.

The leeward hemisphere of the stars was a grey space whose even most general details was masked by the EM energy of the star pair whose system this was. The details would not improve until a better aspect for observation and analysis was reached.

"How would you suggest proceeding, Culd.", F'Yolkra asked in a way that was clearly a solicitation for consult and not an impromptu test of command abilities for his executive officer to pass.

"Cautiously, Lord-.", Culd replied, eliciting a chuckle from the senior officer that was a gem of genuine amusement in a situation that was at best nerve-grating.

"-Not precisely what I meant, but in general a good response."

Culd formulated his thoughts quickly and replied with certainty. This situation was only unique in the specific details. F'Yolkra's squadron had been ordered to track, locate, and kill clever adversaries before –and some with more powerful units than a single destroyer squadron. –But assuming any combat operation to be routine was the first step on a path of folly whose destination was invariably bad for the traveler.

"First, Lord", Culd said with effort applied to not sound as though it was he who was in the position to ultimately decide and issue orders, "-We must familiarize ourselves with the distinct peculiarities of this star system. The enemy, assuming he is still in the area, is doubtlessly counting on these local irregularities to either hide or stage their attack. Knowing this space will deprive him of the advantage in either case."

"Agreed.", F'Yolkra concurred.

Culd continued, enjoying the feeling of some authority – if only a little.

"I would then suggest a search effort not unlike we use against The Invid- probe likely areas of occupation one by one, denying them to the enemy until we have contact. Then-"

"-Then", F'Yolkra reasserted himself, "Then, planning is a moot point. It will be a different match of skill.'

"Agreed, Lord.", Culd said, reaching the next point of this interaction with his superior, "Orders, Lord?"

F'Yolkra sighed, coming down from the rush of heightened awareness and potential danger to grapple with the regularities of Duty.

"Your plan is more than adequate. Determine the required division of tasks and hand them out with my authority, Sub-Commander."

"Yes, Lord."

F'Yolkra withdrew from the command bubble without any of the formalities of turning command authority over to his executive officer. It was not necessary. –And Culd was not concerned because he knew that the action commander would not stray far, possibly no farther than a trip down to the command deck beneath his normal duty station.

Culd turned his attention rather to the tactical display and Binary Star System 438-7-205.9 that seemed to regard him indifferently in return.

The complexities of the search plan Culd had recommended to F'Yolkra were his to grapple with, and his alone.

"This is Fighter Control. All squadrons are to stand down and secure to five minute readiness status."

Sub-Commander Rhaf heard the order issued from Destroyer 4592's command deck –even recognizing the voice of the flight direction officer as being Point Lieutenant Amal.

Rhaf found the "stand down" order to be an unexpected relief, but for reasons he wasn't able to easily understand. The sub-commander was not a coward, nor was he new to the stresses and strains of his billet as Gnerl Fighter Group commander aboard Action Commander F'Yolka's vessel –far from it. He had held that responsibility almost as long as he had served aboard Destroyer 4592 having even declined the opportunitity to command his own vessel on more than one occasion, and more times than he could count he had led his Gnerl group into combat against both battle-seasoned norghil and fearlessly single-minded Invid.

-It was not the prospect of battle that was making Rhaf uneasy, nor was its postponement the source of its relief.

Rhaf considered that it might have been that Point Lieutenant Amal was the source of broad direction for the fighter group from his safe and insulated post on the command deck. Amal was not an incompetent or negligent officer, as F'Yolkra had a talent for sniffing that kind out quickly and relegating them to billets of minimal responsibility. Amal was aptly described in his duties as technically proficient and capable, just not innovative or creative in his application of tactics –a shortcoming that Rhaf had been forced to compensate for on numerous occasions to offset the possibility of uncomfortable operational conditions.

-No, it was not a temporary reprieve from Amal's mechanical, routine-driven direction of flight operations that was the cause either.

Easing the throttle thumb-lever back from its lowest idle to the start-up position, Rhaf quickly went through the powering down process of his Gnerl's engines and systems with the familiarity of working with a thing that was practically an extension of himself. Being essentially the same fighter issued to the warrior caste with the exception that the Te'Dak Tohl variant had its failure-mode systems disabled by default, the Gnerl had to Rhaf always been a machine that compensated in functional simplicity and intuitive operation for what it lacked in technological sophistication. It was a machine that had been designed unapologetically for the single purpose of providing a Warrior-pilot with an abundance of brutal lethality with minimal distractions in the form of complicated, multi-mode sensor systems or avionics customizability. Superior performance and combat effectiveness of the craft came directly from the pilot and his or her developed skill sets.

Unlike norghil, Sub-Commander Braf knew that the Gnerl's unrefined nature was more than a matter of economical manufacturing – the automated Robotech Factories could pump out items of the most advanced technology with the same ease that they produced frame brackets for deck plates Rhaf knew that the Gnerl's combat performance being invariably linked to the pilot at the controls was a direct result of The Robotech Masters' mad methodology of culling the warrior caste's ranks of the weak by way of attrition.

Also as easily as they produced the mounts for deck plates, The Robotech Factories were able to produce norghil- though not at the same rate. Hurling them in mass at The Invid who almost always had the advantage of numbers had a way of extracting less capable warriors from the active Zentraedi forces.

Dealing with the skilled and randomly talented norghil who recognized their worth and dared to try to slip subservience became the responsibility of The Te'Dak Tohl.

-This brought Rhaf back to the reason that he, his Gnerl Fighter Pod Group, and for that matter Destroyer 4592, and all of Action Commander F'Yolkra's 9170th Destroyer Squadron found themselves in Binary Star System 438-7-205.9. Breetai had revolted, knowing correctly that his strength and martial skills were greater than those of The Robotech Masters whom he had served for so long. When his aspirations had ceased to be serving the will of The Masters, he had just split with them with such ease that his betrayal itself had been made a secret cloaked in the falsehood of the story of his destruction in conflict with The Invid.

It was now the tasking of The Te'Dak Tohl to breathe truth into the carefully crafted lie.

-Truth insofar as it meant Breetai's destruction. The coincidental fact was that it was at the behest of Supreme General Krymina, and for the betterment of The Te'Dak Tohl and not The Robotech Masters was a matter of fine details that Te'Dak Tohl Warriors were best not to ponder at any great length lest they discover that they had more in common with norghil than any of the enforcer caste would have been comfortable to admit.

Duty to his superior, and he to his, and so on and so on up to the level of the commander of the 7th Grand Army of the Te'Dak Tohl demanded it.

What benefit was to be had, Rhaf was uncertain.

The wrath of The Robotech Masters in the form of another legion of the enforcer caste tasked to obliterate Krymina and her 7th Grand Army should their insurrection be discovered was sure.

The chances of The Robotech Masters discovering Supreme General Krymina's betrayal, let alone being able to effectively counter it without divulging the state of near collapse they were in to servants who feared their supposed strength was remote though. Rhaf and the 9170th Destroyer Squadron (whole at the time) had been part of Krymina's forbidden visit to Tirol and he had seen for himself the truth of The Robotech Masters. He had seen many civilizations in their death throes, and Tiresia had reeked the same gangrenous stench of slow demise as all those others.

-But Supreme General Krymina did not have free reign over her own fate, or that of The 7th Grand Army yet. There were other Zentraedi with as many allegiances and convictions whose strength was not diminished and to whom Krymina was still vulnerable.

Breetai could rightly be said to be one of them.

"Rhaf, you look as though you've heard the report of your own death."

Warhi. Of course it was Warhi.

Rhat had no quarrels or issues and no prejudices against Sub-Commander Warhi who had come to serve Action Commander F'Yolkra at about the same time as he aboard Destroyer 4592 –though she as a junior officer in the mechanized infantry contingent. At that time, many years and many campaigns before she had already been marked noticeably by battle scars whereas Rhaf had none. Since then, and in continuing opposition to Rhaf who to this day had not shed a single drop of blood in combat (with perhaps the exception of a time when he had nearly knocked himself senseless against the edge of his fighter's raised canopy frame in his rush to escape its cramped cockpit), Warhi had been repeatedly marked.

She was not a bad officer or a mediocre one by any measure –quite the contrary in Rhaf's opinion. Fate simply chose her to bleed for The Robotech Masters more than most, and she often boasted of leaving some of herself behind in every major battle.

What was unusual and what mad Rhaf uneasy, even if only a little, was that he more than any other warrior aboard Destroyer 4592 was the one that she spoke the most openly and freely with. Warriors called it, che-moht yal'kre meaning loosely "one you choose to bleed with" (even though Rhaf had never bled), but normally the bond was held between ones in the same unit and almost never outside of one's gender. It was not sexual, Rhaf knew that much for sure because Te'Dak Tohl unlike norghil who were made intentionally ignorant of many things were aware of natural reproduction and also of the dire consequences for those caught engaging in the prerequisite act –and their immediate unit too.

It was just Warhi and her peculiarities that included an uncommon openness with Rhaf.

"Fate reports everyone's death at The Awakening-.", Rhaf said, quoting a popular warrior's proverb whose age and exact origin was as unknown as the saying was known, "-It's only a matter of how premature the report is."

The scars of lacerations, penetrating wounds, and burns that seemed to be what held Warhi's face together contorted as best it could in their facsimile of an amused expression –the opportunity to apply the worn proverb clearly not having occurred to her.

"All the same, you don't look well.", Warhi said removing the left gauntlet of her armor to allow the three fingers of that hand not taken by an Invid Trooper's slashing claw years before to scratch at a crevice in scar tissue that itched with its thick dryness.

"I don't feel unwell.", Rhaf assured her as Warhi's comment was not rooted in mockery, but an expression of genuine concern.

"No, but you had the look of a Warrior too deep in thought.", Rhaf's counterpart from the mechanized and standard infantry element of the ship's complement asserted, raising the three fingers of her left hand to a scar that ran from the center of her chin to just short of the canal of her left ear.

"-Loose focus and this happens to ruin your pretty face."

Rhaf was always amazed that Wrhi had a scar to complement any story or point that required illustration.

"-And then who would you belittle for having stasis tube-soft skin?"

Warhi choked out a hoarse laugh furnished by vocal cords that had been damaged almost beyond recovery by flame.

"Precisely."

"I wouldn't deprive you of that joy.", Rhaf assured his equal.

"Appreciated.", Warhi said with genuine gratitude as warriors who could be mocked (even benignly) without having to come to the point of trading blows were few and rare. Warhi continued, "-I was going to visit the nutrient dispensary for a quick bite in case we're rushed into a lengthy battle later. Will you join me?"

"You ate two hours ago –I know because I was two tables over from you.", Rhaf reminded her, finding it easier to try to dissuade her from her intended use of the agonizing and undetermined length of time that preceded sudden contact battle than it was to explain to her how the idea of entering a melee of high-G maneuvers with a full stomach and bladder was unappealing.

"I thought I might just walk off the energy."

"Walk my way.", Warhi suggested, ever the clever tactician and clearly unwilling to give up yet another small meal –the only kind she had been able to eat for years following another battle injury.

Walking in the direction of the nearest nutrient dispensary was a harder evasion to make, and in truth Rhaf would not mind the company of Warhi for the time it would take to descend two decks and travel a short distance of deck.

"What have you heard?", Wahri asked after leading Rhaf through a short distance of corridor that provided access directly to the destroyer's second deck flight bay through an airlock-style set of pressure doors without the added journey through either flight prep rooms or equipment and ready-use ordinance storage compartments. She did however opt to open the hatch to the ladder well that was just short of the elevator foyer that served this portion of the deck.

-This, Rhaf realized, meant that Wahri wanted more time to talk than would be afforded to her by a brief lift ride and walk. Undoubtedly she was determined to wring whatever information Rhaf might have about the circumstances and details of their present operations which was actually quite absurd since Warhi had heard every announcement made over the ship's speakers and been present at all the same briefings as he.

It was in fact part of che-moht yal'kre in one of its common forms. Warhi would not accept the wetness of water or the heat of flame until Rhaf said it was so, and in that way it was not until he had told her that he had nothing to add to what she already knew that Warhi would accept that she knew "everything".

Rhaf needed the added movement of descending the steeply inclined stairs to shake that odd feeling that clung to him though, so neither mentioned nor protested the irregular method of descending through the decks.

"I wish I could say that I knew something beyond what you do, Warhi, but that just isn't the case. Destroyer 1859 was randomly given this star system to probe as we swept the sector, they made contact with someone, engaged, and were barely able to report the action before their communication was cut short. –They certainly never returned to the rallying point from this system. Anything else is speculation."

"-Do you think Breetai is in the area still?", Warhi asked, stabbing at the heart of what all quietly suspected.

"That would be speculation. –We can't even be certain it's Breetai."

Arriving at the same ladder platform Rhaf had reached only moments before, Warhi bolstered her argument for the identity of the offending party in the suspected loss of Destroyer 1859, saying, "-Breetai would explain why contact was lost so quickly with Commander Belsa. Who else might achieve advantage over a warrior of his experience so quickly?"

Rhaf was not even far enough down the last length of steeply inclined stairs needing to traveled to allow Warhi to take her first step when he paused to suggest, "-What about a solar flare, or a random asteroid with sufficient mass to penetrate his ship's deflecting screens. –Aren't these at least plausible alternatives to Belsa bumping nose-to-nose into one of the most famous generals that the warrior caste has ever produced?"

"More plausible", Warhi agreed readily, "but less intrigueing-."

Rhaf continued with the certainty of the odds being on his side, "-And assume that Belsa did stumble across Breetai's force-. He would have hundreds, if not thousands of units attached to his flagship. I doubt Breetai would feel obligated to deal with a single, probing destroyer personally."

"-I didn't mean that he had defeated Belsa personally.", Warhi conceded, "-But perhaps a trusted lieutenant then?"

"-Or a hundred", Rhaf continued to argue by the way of agreement, "-Or a solar flare, or an asteroid-."

Warhi hung on his first, far-fetched alternative culprit to Destroyer 1859's destruction, "-You think there may be a hundred of them nearby?"

Now at the airlock access point to the ship's third deck, Rhaf replied shortly with the irritation of one tired of arguing the inane, "If there were a hundred ships of Breetai's micronian fleet in this area, do you think that they would be applying the effort required to hide themselves from five destroyers?"

Warhi blinked, grsping firmly the improbability, "I suppose not. –Just as well though. I am not so eager to test my skills against any enemy that made such short work of Belsa –Breetai or other."

Rhaf was two steps into the main corridor of the third deck off of the elevator alcove before Warhi had completed her final thought and before he found himself needing to chastise her again for unsubstantiated speculation.

-But it struck him before verbalization of his initial reaction could pass his lips.

Warhi's last words connected with the unsettled feeling Rhaf had had since Destroyer 4592 and the remaining units of the 9170th Destroyer Squadron had scrambled to rally and fold to the originating area of Destroyer 1859's enigmatic last transmission and it resonated. Like an illumination panel running at low power mode suddenly receiving a surge in current, the words were almost shocking with their illumination.

It was more than disquieting uncertainty in collusion with nerve-fraying suspicion of what had happened to Destroyer 1859, but also the implications that came with the speed and ease with which it had happened.

While all of the possibilities that Rhaf had proposed to Warhi were both logical and entirely feasible, Rhaf himself could not quite bring himself to believe it. What remained was that violent pursuits had met a violent end abruptly.

The resonant thought that Warhi had voiced was that Belsa was an exceptional commander, and his subordinate action officers forged of the same material and honed to the same razor's edge. Whomever (..and Rhaf grudgingly embraced that it was a whomever..) had vanquished Belsa had done it swiftly, decisively, and with more than the mere advantages of surprise and random chance.

Destroyer 1859's demise had been the ultimate and climactic act of developed and disciplined predation. –And predators were emboldened like nothing else by a successful kill.

Rhaf now had a hazy form to give to his unease, but it did not assuage its heavy, enveloping feeling.

The 9071st Destroyer squadron was hunting a hunter who had tasted of their blood, and whom Rhaf now felt stalking them.

"-So, were you going to continue walking, or come with me for a bite?"

Warhi's words shook Rhaf free of the confines of his own thoughts and into the realization that he was something of an obstacle in the corridor whose traffic was increasing with the relaxation from a condition of heightened battle readiness.

"With you, I think.", Rhaf said as warriors, sub-officers, and officers continued to pass him in both directions with subordination-tempered expressions of curiosity on their faces.

Equal parts concerned and puzzled, Warhi concluded with a tug on his shoulder, "Hopefully the decision wasn't too strenuous-."

Rhaf did not reply but instead allowed himself to be led toward one of the deck's smaller nutrient dispensaries that complimented its more modest berthing spaces. The ship had gone to action stations just as the active watch was approaching a designated meal time. Between those whose meal had been postponed by the prediction of battle, and those who had been roused from their sleep by it and were feeling the hunger of the waking hour, Rhaf followed Warhi.

He was not certain that he would partake of food or drink, but he found suddenly that he wanted the company of other warriors.

There was after all safety in numbers.

16 hours.

Walking the labyrinth of functional areas and their various, inter-related duty stations Sub-Commander Culd could have told by the expressions of division officers, sub-officers, and specialists that the ship had been on elevated alert for some time. It was only the fact that he had fallen into a rhythm of checking the nearest chronometer on average four times an hour for the past three hours of his watch that he knew exactly how long that heightened state had persisted.

Looking up and to the rear of the command center from mid-compartment Culd was able to see through the acrylic, forward hemisphere of the all-seeing command bubble and well into its interior. The command chair was turned with its rear facing the command deck telling Culd that F'Yolkra was still at his duty station – but likely asleep.

It was F'Yolkra's prerogative as commanding officer to stay at his post as long as he wished, or at least no other warrior's aboard to challenge him. For F'Yolkra it was purely a pragmatic decision as remaining in the command bubble excepted from the logical sequence of events from alert to a situation to the ordering of appropriate action that period of time it would take action commander to walk from his quarters less than forty paces away.

It certainly was not for the benefit of confidence it might afford the crew on the command deck below, as it was rare in conditions such as these that eyes were allowed to drift from displays and instrumentation either by their owners, or their owners' supervisors.

F'Yolkra was exactly where he had determined that he needed to be, whether fully awake or dozing and at least Culd found some comfort in that attentiveness to Duty.

At this moment though, sixteen hours after de-folding in this binary star system, indications were that F'Yokra's attention to Duty was solely for the sake of attention to Duty and nothing more.

The 9170th Destroyer Squadron was prowling seemingly endless drifts and clusters of dust and rock for the reward of discovering more dust and rock.

It was the meager yield produced by their collective efforts that shaped the expressions that Culd was able to read as an indirect gauge of time.

The fatiguing technicians regardless of their specialty were divided unevenly across three principle categories with some divergence in the finer details.

The majority were technicians and their superiors who Culd easily identified as falling into the category of being bored into the dangerous complacency of operating as though under "normal circumstances". Most often this meant that eyes studied monitors and displays for changes in patterns recognized as routine or regular. -But the brains behind those eyes were in automatic mode and would only initiate higher processes of interpretation and investigation if the changes the eyes relayed were drastic.

Fortunately this category was the easiest to spot, and made proportionately easier the more bored the afflicted was by their condition. Most often the technician or a supervisor would snap to full alert in the performance of their duties if an outsider to the ecosystem of the command deck, particularly a senior officer, were to approach on their aisle. If the sanctioned intruder was keen to see the reaction, he or she could see a jolt of revivification sweep through the afflicted and sentience occupy the voided orbs of eyeballs once again.

Other times they were inside of their heads too deep for the mere appearance of rank to jostle them free. Culd found in these cases that a sharp but seemingly accidental nudge with an elbow as he passed roused the entranced, and a stern look at their immediate supervisor regained the full attention of an entire division's representative technicians.

Some officers and less frequently sub-officers found a verbal barrage at great volume to be their tool of choice. Culd had tried this several times in his younger days when he'd still been damp from stasis fluid and short on experience, but ultimately decided that it was not his preferred method. More often the attack hopelessly distracted the afflicted technician, and those within earshot of his rebuke as well. Some degree of normal execution of Duty was achieved again, but only after a while and never without the windfall distractions of the abused –normally fantasies of great violence befalling their attacker.

Culd had never applied corporal discipline, nor had he ever seen it used. This was something of a relief to the executive officer as he had found that dull approach to such minor infractions as drifting after many hours on watch to be something that norghil might indulge in for amusement.

Distinct from the "bored complacent" were another category as detrimental to efficient unit operations, but complacent in a different mode.

These were the functional obsessed. Unlike their bored counterparts, when confronted with building fatigue and monotony, these warriors redoubled their investment into their assigned tasks –several times over. They could reach a state of automatic checks and verifications on the systems that they monitored that they became something of a biological extension of the systems themselves.

Culd was not lost on the irony of this, as in many ways The Robotech Masters had intentionally designed all Zentraedi as biological components of their grand war machine –but to see them function literally in that sense….

Regardless, the functionally obsessed could present a similar danger to the bored complacent – in that in serious cases, the switch to initiate a required action would not flip.

Finally, Culd was familiar with the frustrated category who numbered more than the functionally obsessed, but who were not as great in number as the bored complacent. These warriors were the easiest to identify in the grip of their condition, and as easy to understand for becoming that way as were their bored comrades.

Zentraedi, warrior caste or enforcer, were bred to be guided primarily by their instinct to fight. Countless hours at a duty station anticipating a fight, or searching for one that was deliberately being elusive-.

Some warriors were just not able to handle it for prolonged periods, no matter what technical skills were conditioned into them or how those skills were refined by experience.

All of the particulars and specifics of warriors and the various conditions that affected them in the voids between actions were irrelevant though. All were simply manifestations of the same problem –they were all growing mentally tired and fatigued while remaining charged for combat in their Warrior's Cores.

Only committing to action or intentionally and consciously withdrawing from the promise of it would bring relief, Culd knew.

What Culd could not know was how close they were to that moment of decision.

"Command, Sensor Control-.", the senior sensor technician called guardedly over the intercom system with the command bubble whose conversations were carried over the public speakers in the command center for all to hear, "-Possible contact, bearing two-six-eight, mark one-four-one."

Sub-Commander Culd, not quite running reached the sensor control suite of duty stations before the sensor officer was finished speaking and at a cost of only three near-collisions with junior officers and crew who were in his path in the maze of the command deck.

He arrived to hear Action Commander F'Yolkra's voice replying to the sensor technician, interacting with him directly over the station's local intercom panel.

"What are you seeing?"

The senior technician studied briefly the screen before him filled with the graphic representation of repeating cascades of numbers and functionally meaningful symbols before answering pensively, "Lord, passive sensors are showing mass at the reported bearing more consistent with metal than rock –even dense metallic ore. We might not have noticed it, Lord, except there is a strong protoculture signature emanating from the same bearing."

There was a pause, before F'Yolkra repeated the stated in the form of a question wanting confirmation, "Metallic mass? -Enough to be a ship?"

"Yes, Lord.", replied the sensor technician, then more carefully, "-Or part of one. A protoculture emission that high Lord is almost certainly indicative of a compromised Reflex reactor or energy conversion system."

Culd was better than halfway back to the command bubble at the moment that the ship's alert tone began to shriek its call to action stations and Action Commander F'Yolkra called for his return. Upon his entry into the confines of the chamber he found his superior attending personally to tasks that fell into areas of his responsibility.

"-Relay to all commands that they are to hold station pending further instruction. All commanders are ordered to stand ready for battle."

Not word for word, but clearly to the intent of the order the communications officer with whom F'Yolkra had been speaking repeated the orders to be issued for his commander's approval and receiving it dropped from the intercom channel to pass the instructions on to the other destroyers of the squadron.

"My apologies, Lord-.", Culd said humbly, though in no fear of repercussions for his offense, "I should have been here."

"-To listen to me snore?..", F'Yolkra laughed with the giddiness sweeping over all –the kind that was the finding of an application for nervous energy, "You were keeping the crew on task. Warriors drift sometimes if not provided motivation.

Culd was familiar with that very challenge to unit efficiency….

"Sensor Control's alert was far more stirring than my walking the command deck circuit has ever been.", Culd confessed without admitting that he had not had some effect on the command crew.

F'Yolkra was beyond interest in idle banter, or in applying his energies to it. His focus was now wholly on the portion of the command center's main holographic display dedicated to the immediate area's tactical situation in three-dimensioned detail.

What the display showed the action commander was both exactly what he was coming to expect of Binary Star System 438-7-205.9's composition and exactly the kind of space he had dreaded having to probe more thoroughly for signs of enemy concealment.

A "marker sphere", an artificial construct that existed only within the special model of the tactical display hung in the area of space identified by Sensor Control, encapsulating the source of the anomalies the senior technician had reported. At nearly the edge of the range that passive sensors could be expected to sift and identify anything suspicious out of the ambient clutter short of energy weapons discharge or active use of subspace compression engines, the marker sphere was also nestled into a segment of the dual-star system that F'Yolkra was not eager to venture.

A great field, or more accurately for its amorphous shape, a cluster of asteroids orbiting the binary stars just above 438-7-205.9/1's equatorial plane held the marker sphere just far enough inside of its boundaries to be problematic. Composed of rocks varying from the size of the action commander's fist to those teetering on the verge of qualifying to be planetoids, the position was a navigational nightmare. To take a destroyer, let alone five into the cluster was to expose them to the constant peril of serious collision damage.

Navigational hazards aside, the area was also a tactical environment that at very best and with generous choice of words could be referred to as extremely challenging. The cluster was made that more daunting by the strong evidence that the quarry sought by 9170th Destroyer Squadron had been here with its own predatory agenda.

-And perhaps still was.

"Invitation politely declined.", F'Yolkra said, seeing in the environment of the plane-superior cluster an arena in which attack could come from too many directions to reliably guard against.

"Do you believe the sensor contact is Destroyer 1859, Lord?", Culd asked sounding skeptical, "-I have difficulty believing that Commander Belza would have been drawn into that to do battle."

"As do I.", F'Yolkra agreed to Culd's assessment, "Belza is –or was, aggressive, not impulsive. –But if he was simply probing that cluster and an enemy was laying in wait…. –Yes, then maybe. We don't know if that's Belza, Culd, but we need to find out."

Culd quickly weighed the few options available and suggested, "I would think that a Nolga Lan Theatre Scout would give us visibility to some depth into that cluster without exposing the squadron to the danger of sudden contact or easy ambush, Lord."

"Yes, it would.", F'Yolkra concurred, "-And supplementing it with Regult Recon Pods would broaden the view."

The mode and instrument of investigation was decided, but not yet the unit performing the function.

Action Commander F'Yolkra was silent and meditative as he surveyed the relative position of his subordinate units. Destroyer 4592 had detected the contact, and by virtue of its proximity closest to the area of interest was the best choice to investigate it. –Additionally, F'Yolkra wanted his hands directly on the controls of this operation where his intuition could translate into action with the fewest layers of intermediate relay.

"Culd, consult the senior navigator and Weapons Control to determine the key positions necessary to maximize covering fire for a ship in the vicinity of that sensor contact and then order the squadron to cycle through those positions."

The executive officer did not sound surprised at the direction as he sought confirmation, "Yes, Lord –I take it that we will be the ship in the vicinity of the sensor contact?"

"Correct.", affirmed F'Yolkra, "The front is the best place from which to lead, Culd. –And should things go awry, it's no worse place to be than any other."

"Yes, Lord.", Culd complied, "I will want to consult the Nolga Lan crew as well to determine our position to optimize their approach to the contact."

"Yes, do that.", F'Yolkra said, then added, "-And summon Rhaf and Warhi also. We will brief them all at once."

"Yes, Lord."

Sub-Commander Rhaf had come to understand during his time serving under Action Commander F'Yolkra that there was information and operational details that he provided openly and voluntarily, and that there were other elements that were implied or suggested without taking the form of spoken word.

Rhaf estimated that he had become quite adept at reading F'Yolkra for that which he would not openly say and at incorporating it into the expectations he set for himself in any given situation. So when F'Yolkra and Culd had provided him, Sub-Commander Warhi, and Point Lieutenant Gos who commanded the small crew of the Nolgan Lan Theater Scout craft with the clear instructions that their mission was one of reconnaissance and that they were to withdraw should the suspected enemy attempt to engage them –and then assemble a heavily armed reconnaissance force... It became clear to Rhaf that the suspected enemy presence was more on the order of expected.

Full transparency was not an obligation of Zentraedi commanders to their subordinates in any way or circumstance. Understanding of a situation was not a prerequisite of a warrior carrying out his or her superior's orders, but F'Yolkra was better than most commanders at providing his officers with the full scope of information that he possessed, assuming he was permitted to share it.

He would not share suspicions in the absence of supporting fact though. –Which is why Rhaf appreciated the trust he had in himself to read F'Yolkra.

The thought of encountering Breetai's norghil forces or micronian allies in sufficient force to require a heavily armed force to simply disengage and withdraw did not distress Rhaf at the time his mission and its rules had been explained to him.

Now that it was underway though, the uneasy feeling he had had at the time the 9170th Destroyer Squadron had arrived at the binary star system was back.

The overwhelming quiet of space flight was no help either in ignoring the dull ache that the feeling had brought with it. His Gnerl Fighter Pod's desired course and speed having been established, there was no need to run its three pulse-jet engines at any higher than an idle that generated only the most minimal vibration and hum within the cockpit. Even minor course corrections required by the prevailing gravitational forces of the system were handled by the auto-pilot system.

The regular clicks and chirps of automated systems became white noise, leaving the pilot only with the sound of his own breathing and the hiss of his pressure suit's air recirculation system.

Ordered to maintain communications silence until the Nolgan Lan was able to relay its sensor observations, Rhaf could not even count on the sometimes pointless prattling of Warhi –an annoyance he would have welcomed at this moment.

Sub-Commander Rhaf was alone in the cramped space of his Gnerl's cockpit with only his thoughts and the glare of 438-7-205.9/1 and 438-7-205.9/2 that seemed to stand side to side and blazed orange and red through the slight muting of the dust and asteroid cluster for which the reconnaissance mission was bound and would soon reach.

A Nolga Lan scout craft, two Gnerl squadrons, and the light and heavy Artillery Regults Warhi had extracted from the company-size mechanized infantry element she commanded –amounting to just under a full platoon in number plus herself in her Glaug –this was the force Rhaf had been given command of and his company with the exception of the binary stars and the threat of a phantom enemy. Even his base ship, Destroyer 4592 had fallen so far astern that it was little more than a fleck of green against the boundless, star-dotted black of space that perfect eyes would have to strain to see.

Running their defensive circuit, the other four destroyers of the 9170th Squadron were even less visible to the naked eye as they maintained a greater distance from the sensor contact and asteroid cluster being probed. Beyond the tactically advantageous positions that they passed through in an unrelenting cycle, there were only a scattering of minor planetoids before the openness of the void.

"Base, we have established positive contact with the object at the position reported by Sensor Control.", Point Lieutenant Gos reported, breaking communications silence as the mission rules allowed the Nolga Lan commander to upon contact, "The sensor returns are consistent with metal mass of sufficient size to be a vessel. –Electromagnetic interference is more severe than we anticipated and growing thicker as we close range. Passive sensors are unable to determine energy emission levels from here."

Sub-Commander Rhaf awaited a response from Destroyer 4592 to Gos, but noted that the screen of his Gnerl's sensor display had already been updated through the tactical data stream with the information the Nolga Lan was relaying back. Similarly, Rhaf had the small comfort of knowing the exact position of his base ship and the other destroyers of the squadron through the same data link –they being too distant to be registered by his fighter's sensors independently.

At least if the worst case occurred and a hasty withdrawal had to be made, Rhaf could find his way home.

"Scout unit, close on contact until you are able to make a positive identification. Perform a sweep of the area and report.", ordered Action Commander F'Yolkra through the voice of an anonymous controller, "You will be provided with further instructions at that point."

"Understood, Base.", Gos replied.

Action Commander Rhaf did not need detailed instructions from Destroyer 4592 to know how to perform his function, and he was not going to wait for it. Communications silence had already been broken, so he was free now to issue his own orders.

"Gnerl Squadrons, break down to three ship elements and assume a forward screen with me at center. Warhi, layer your Artillery Regults to cover the scout ship. –We'll reorganize as we reach contact position."

"Received and understood, Rhaf.", Warhi replied, "Request permission to attach myself to your screen. –You may want the extra firepower."

Rhaf's immediate impulse was to decline Warhi's offer, but looking over to his right and almost at the extreme of how far aft he could gaze, he was reminded that Warhi's Officer's Pod had been mated to an armored flight sled and its enhanced capabilities. Specifically designed to couple with the Glaug at the head of its roughly triangular, flat body, the armored flight sled gave the Officer's Pod comparable speed in space to the Gnerl, free use of all of the pod's independent weapons systems, and additional medium-range missile launchers.

Awkward-looking as they were flying in space, propelled in a "legs retracted"/squat posture by their single booster engines, the Artillery Regults of Warhi's unit could provide substantial defense of the Nolga Lan Scout, which was also capable of defending itself with limited weapons systems.

Considering these things, Rhaf's experience overruled impulse. Having the additional, brutish firepower that Warhi's Glaug and is sled could bring should any trouble arise was too much of a benefit to ignore.

"You're on with us, Warhi. We'll act as the first line, you smash anything that might get through. Agreed?"

Rhaf could hear Warhi grinning with the enthusiasm for combat that had gained her many scars and lost her minor body parts and full organs.

"That's what I do."

There was danger near –Action Commander F'Yolkra could feel it.

Every part of this situation was starting to feel like a trap, from the environment to the eerie absence of traces of the battle that savaged the sensor contact that F'Yolkra fully expected to find to be a friend's dead ship.

Everything spoke of a trap, but the 9170th Destroyer Squadron was bound to investigate and could only hope to spring the trap on agreeable terms.

Traps too could be turned on those who laid them, and if the supposed prey was stronger than what the enemy felt capable of handling –the trap might go unsprung.

For his part though, F'Yolkra was willing to bring the confrontation –eager even. Contests not entered were contests left forever undecided, and that defeated the sole purpose of the Zentraedi as The Robotech Masters had created them.

"What is the scout force's time to visual range on contact?", the action commander asked broadly, knowing that all ears on the command deck were attentive to his words and the correct functionary would reply.

"Lord, just over four minutes on current course and speed as we are tracking them."

If F'Yolkra was expecting the presence of a trap, Sub-Commander Culd at his side in the command bubble was showing mild anxiety that it had not yet tripped. F'Yolkra was not immune to the nervous energy his executive officer was suffering from, he just had more years of Service and experience to quell the visible symptoms.

"Lord, our commanders are reporting the same difficulty as the Nolga LanScout-.", Culd informed his superior after concluding an exchange with one such commander on which he expounded, "-Ambient energy levels are presenting them with significant difficulties. Their sensor systems are being impaired to the point that they are limited to the depth within the asteroid cluster to which they could engage a target. They are requesting permission to close their range to the cluster by half."

F'Yolkra consulted the tactical display hanging in hologram above the command deck. Bringing the sentries in closer would compress the area an attacking enemy would have to manage, but the squadron would not be confined in any meaningful sense and would still have ample space to maneuver. –And if they could not use their sensors to aim their weapons, then there was no point to the assignment F'Yolkra had given them.

"Granted."

Savagery had been done to what remained of the Thuverl Salan Class destroyer whose identity was not yet confirmed but at this point almost certain. In the time since his Awakening, Sub-Commander Rhaf had like the vast majority of Zentraedi had seen his share or more of violence in the perpetual application of martial Duty that The Robotech Masters required of the castes of his race. He had become familiar with it, accustomed to it, and to a degree comfortable with it like one was comfortable with a comrade warrior whose stability was sometimes unsound. He had come to recognize and know violence in all forms, and what he saw now was a rare breed.

The destroyer he saw in a combination of steady tumble and roll had been on the reciving end of wanton violence –malevolent violence.

It had not just been attacked and destroyed, but set upon in some unknown reckoning and meted out more than its fair due of wrath.

-And the cause of Rhaf's unease became clear to him, though he did not know how he had been so effected.

When the tumbling hulk's form had first become recognizable –barely, Rhaf had quickly become aware that a significant portion of the vessel's bow, perhaps half the length of the full run of the Ma'Kral gun's hull-integrated accelerator rails had been shot away.

As the dead form grew nearer and the details clearer to the running commentary by multiple pilots under his command, Rhaf saw that little of the recognizable attributes of a destroyer remained. With the exception of a single remaining antenna from the left flank array, the passive receivers were gone –clearly gnawed off to the base by withering energy-weapons fire. For every kinetic impact point the hull showed from its post-mortem passage through asteroid-dense space, there were a dozen that showed the scorch marks of particle beam strikes – the right engine being perforated through at several points aft of the intercooler gills.

It was only as the scout force had grown near enough to the wreck to begin to pass through its veil of ejected internal contents and bodies of crew that the hull markings became clearly visible for identification.

"It is Destroyer 1859.", pronounced Point Lieutenant Gos at the moment that Rhaf was able to establish that fact himself.

Gos's voice was heavy and dreadful, indications to Sub-Commander Rhaf that others were now sharing in his unease if they had not been before.

The lower portion of a Regult Combat Pod, its rounded main body sheered away just above the base of the pilot's hatch and the lower half of the pilot still inside drifted by Rhaf close enough to jar him out of ghoulish awe and back into his responsibilities.

"Gos, do you need to hold this close range to complete your scans?", the sub-commander asked as others of his element and flight began active evasion of the ghastly flotsam spilled from the open guts of Destroyer 1859, "We're going to start losing our own warriors to this debris field if we loiter."

"No", Gos replied, sounding relieved that someone else had suggested drawing back, even if just a little, "-I can complete my scans from a greater distance. Power output is-."

"-None.", Rhaf asserted, completing the junior officer's statement for him, regardless of how Gos had intended to finish it, "This wasn't a battle, it was a slaughter and I'd rather get to the business of discovering whether the ones who did this are still around than verifying with your scanners what I can already tell you-."

Presented with a choice that contained no real options, Point Lieutenant Gos made the right one.

"No, pulling back will present no problems so long as we're not expected to probe to full sensor range into that cluster. Our active signals are refracting on all that clutter and adding to the ambient interference I believe…."

The way Gos's last statement trailed off caught Rhaf's attention and hung him upon the pause, expectant of something more.

-And it came.

"-Wait…", Gos said vacantly, as though for his own benefit and not those listening, "Yes, contact!.. I'm reading a Transport Pod bearing relative zero-two-zero, low thirty! He's clearly under his own power and making a run for the cluster!"

Sub-Commander Rhaf was already tracking the new contact even as Gos was reporting on it. It was within the sweep of his Gnerl's sensor range, and as such automatically answered the fighter's challenge with its automatic identification transponder. It was a Transport Pod, huge and thickly disc-like, but provided with the powerful engines required to convey cargo and mechanized forces to and from planets' surfaces and that were now being used to build speed to run and escape.

Substantial asteroids showed up on Rhaf's sensor screen in the immediate area of where sensor contact had first been made with the transport, leading Rhaf to believe that it had been hanging inactive behind one of the rock bodies, powered down to minimal levels, and making its best attempt to hide. Spooked by the Nolga Lan's powerful sensors though, its pilot had been panicked into running –probably.

"Fighter group, you are instructed to pursue and disable that transport for capture and interrogation of its crew.", the same anonymous controller aboard Destroyer 4592 ordered with the authority of Action Commander F'Yolkra implied in his voice.

"Disable, do not destroy."

Running, perhaps.

Rhaf knew what he was supposed to be seeing in the rapid flight of the Re-Entry Transport, but he was not convinced.

"Gnerl flight, vector zero-two-three mark one-one-zero and accelerate to maximum in wave attack formation!", Rhaf ordered, demonstrating himself by action, "-We may have a scavenger, and we may have bait! Eyes outside of your cockpits and let Point Lieutenant Gos call threats to us! -Gos maintain a monitoring position for yourself!"

Scavengers were a real thing, more often in the warrior caste of Zentraedi, but on rare occasions, even from within The Te'Dak Tohl. Some commanders and their warriors submitted to their place under The Robotech Masters and adhered to Duty, even if grudgingly. Others however felt a compulsion to exist in the fringe. Like parasites, they fed off of the body of the Zentraedi Empire, resupplying at Robotech Automated Factories when they could, and from unsuspecting loyal units when they could not.

Sub-Commander Rhaf had hunted these kind too.

-But to believe that scavengers were operating in an operationally dead area of known space outside of the blindest luck of coming across a kill such as Destroyer 1859 was preposterous.

-And the damage done to Destroyer 1859 was more severe than a scavenger would want to inflict as it left no real meat to pick from the bones.

No, this transport reeked of bait, but bait that Rhaf was now compelled to run down.

"Regult units, maintain covering positions around the Nolga Lan!", Warhi told her subordinates.

Rhaf had forgotten for a moment that the other sub-commander had attached to his screening Gnerls, but remembering her Glaug and its armored flight sled, he was now happy and certain that including her had been the correct choice.

Destroyer 1859 was passing above now, a mountain of ruin adrift like one of the asteroids in the cluster that it would now forever be a part of. Sub-Commander Rhaf barely noticed the wreck however as his intense concentration was divided in brief intervals equally between tracking his Gnerl flight's angle and rate of closure on the Transport Pod, and on avoiding collision with the thickening debris –both artificial and natural.

In a flat-out contest of speed in open space, Rhaf would have been forced to relent in his pursuit, knowing that for its great size and weight, the Transport Pod did have a significant speed advantage over the single-seat Gnerl Fighter Pod if given the distance to stretch its legs. Rhaf, when he had confirmed the identity of the possible scavenger had been hopeful that he could close to within the striking range of his missiles quickly because of the transport pilot's awareness of his greater susceptibility to collisions because of his size and the resulting governance of his speed.

This did not appear to be the scenario playing out though, the unknown pilot being wisely more concerned by the likelihood of missiles than asteroids and electing to run for the cluster throttle-open. While this hobbled Rhaf's initial plan, it presented the less actively involved alternative that he and his Gnerls might keep the transport pilot panicked by their pursuit and cause a coincidental collision that had the same desired effect ordered by F'Yolkra – disabling the transport for capture.

"-We must have come along as he was finishing filling up-.", Sub-Commander Warhi speculated, having either come to the conclusion on her own that the transport was a scavenger, or more likely hitching to Rhaf's theory. The Glaug pilot enjoyed slightly more mental bandwidth with which to ponder, as her Officer's Pod still enjoyed the frontal protection from collision afforded by its energy shield system –a luxury not afforded to Gnerls.

"-Possibly.", Rhaf conceded, not having the attention or inclination to argue his other suspicion as he visually scanned the increasingly defined features of the asteroid cluster for threats as his flight rapidly closed.

A burst of motion that Rhaf caught out of the corner of his left eye coincided with an equally short squawk of garbled, communications, electronic gibberish –all drawing his attention long enough to see the scattering flurry of wreckage that had been a Gnerl in his squadron. –A random collision with something, but lethal at the speed Rhaf's command had achieved and was building upon.

"-You lost one, Rhaf!", Warhi exclaimed, that familiar combat giddiness fully infused in her voice now. Her words were more observation than warning, but even riding the wave of excitement, she understood the danger, "-Maybe we should ease back a little?"

Warhi's suggestion that Rhaf was considering was not unwarranted – the fleeing, suspect Transport Pod could absorb far more coincidental collision damage than a Gnerl and come away little more than cosmetically damaged. Gnerls did not enjoy that luxury and ran a higher risk in a prolonged, debris-strewn chase as the ones they were making.

Rhaf envied the forward hemisphere protection that Warhi's shield provided her as he glanced right naturally to concur with her thinking. –A partial destroyer squadron was converging on the area, lighting the invisible EM spectrum with active sensor pulses in search of targets for them batteries of guns and missile launchers. A Transport Pod could have its mobility reduced by a long-range missile from Destroyer 4592 as easily as from salvos of the lighter, medium-range weapons carried by Rhaf's Gnerls –and without the loss of half their numbers in the process.

"-I…"

As swift as a lightning strike, and from above and slightly behind a single, radiant orange orb of plasma energy intercepted Warhi's Glaug at the point where it was mated to its armored flight sled, and aft of any protection that was afforded by the operation of the mecha's energy shield.

Silent as the demise of the Gnerl that Rhaf had happened to witness had been, so was the end of his comrade –his friend –Warhi, only in a more vibrant display that was fitting of her energy. A brilliant bloom of sublimated and combusting metals and synthetics that ripped the mecha and its vehicle apart from within, an omnidirectional scattering of pieces both recognizable and not, and it was over.

Warhi's loss registered with Rhaf, but immediately only in that she was now absent. His mind –any seasoned warrior's mind –pushed through the brutal shock, cocooned in the buffers of tactical analysis and assessment.

In the moment that the single energy bolt had taken to traverse Rhaf's field of view and destroy his friend, his mind had already collected, collated, and interpreted the data to provide the form of the attacker if not his or her identity. –There was only one energy weapon that fired such a round, and only one platform that carried it.

-It was a Nacht-Rau combat suit, and only a limited variety of warriors operated them.

-And they were all Te'Dak Tohl…..

Sub-Commander Rhaf's cockpit came alive with the howl of his missile threat warning system as the confined space was lit by a cascade of energy weapons fire .

Having already started to trace the path of the destabilized plasma round that had killed Warhi, Rhaf found himself gazing up at the tumbling wreck of Destroyer 1859 and at the mix of Nacht-Rau power armor and mecha dropping upon his scattering flight of Gnerls from the effective concealing positions that they had occupied…

"-Confirmed, Lord-.", Sub-Commander Culd reported amidst frenzied conference with the Sensor Control division on the command deck below, "-Positive identification of Nacht-Rau in the attacking force-."

Action Commander F'Yolkra cut his executive officer short, not having needed actual verification of the moments-old report that had evoked a statement of confusion and disbelief from him. In seconds, a precisely managed and tidy probe and sweep operation had devolved into chaos. Between the irregular beat of sensor pulses from F'Yolkra's subordinate destroyers that charged the ambient clutter of the cluster into an opaque haze as it was represented on the tactical display, F'Yolkra saw the merging of the aggressor's forces with his own in a savage space brawl.

As the display hologram auto-refreshed a new force of mecha and Gnerls, not of the 9170th Destroyer Squadron, had appeared emerging from the cluster in the vicinity of area into which the luring Transport Pod was retreating. Closing rank and range on the melee, the sentry force of destroyers showed the initiation of salvo missile firing.

"Cease fire!", F'Yolkra raged, aghast and incensed by the rapidity at which his subordinate commanders had reverted to the heavy-handed, brute tactics that were to be commonly expected from norghi, but decidedly below the discipline of Te'DakTohl.

"Cease fire!", F'Yolkra repeated even as the issuance of his order was going out through his ship's communications division, "The fools are just washing out the blasted designator beams for their own missiles!..."

Culd understood his superior's frustration immediately.

While the destroyers of the 9170th squadron had closed to within firing range of their long-range, multi-purpose missiles – the weapons' seeker heads did not have the range to acquire and track independently the targets they were intended for. They relied on a designator beam of energy from the platform launching them to close to within range of their own acquisition systems and begin to independently track.

Each powerful wave of energy emitted by a destroyer's active sensor arrays overwhelmed the strength of the designator beams, leaving the missiles in flight at a loss for a target. Some would reacquire a target as the launch platforms re-established target designation and others would not. As the aggressors were also apparently answering electroni9c challenge with valid Te'Dak Tohl authentication, each reacquisition increased the threat that squadron destroyers were identifying one of F'Yolkra's pilots as a target for missiles running with their identification discriminators disabled.

–And with each sensor pulse the cycle of waste repeated.

There was still no sign of a base ship from which the attack had been staged, nor was there likely to be F'Yolkra estimated so long as his destroyers continued to pound the clutter with energy. No visibility in depth was gained, and quite the opposite it provided adequate screening for a ship –a whole armada if the enemy commander had such numbers to move without great fear of detection.

All the sensor strobing accomplished with any great effectiveness was to provide an EM backdrop against which F'Yolkra's ship could distinctly track the participants of the battle now fully joined. –Silhouetted as it were by the glow of energy.

-Like his squadron was to anything behind , F'Yolkra realized as a deep, cold emptiness formed in his belly with the understanding of his true tactical position.

From high above the equatorial plane of 438-7-205.9/1, and well out beyond the aggregated clutter of the asteroid cluster, a single, expanding particle beam of immense power was hurled randomly at one of the destroyers of the 9170th Squadron, striking it amidships with the precision of well-developed aim and ripping it to unidentifiable tatters with the single hit.

Stunned silence on the command deck of Destroyer 4592 prevailed for only moments. While the crew at their posts were not accustomed to being so utterly caught off-guard by an attack, they were longtime companions with battle and reacted accordingly.

It was Sub-Commander Culd that voiced the common question even as the officers and crew under his charge flew into the myriad of actions required to counterattack.

"-Where did that come from?!.."

The answer was immediately evident as sensors and computers that had been proximal to the EM glow of the sensor-lit cluster and too overwhelmed by it to detect the firing sequence build-up of a Ma'Kral gun were not too inundated to track the path of the particle beam it fired back to its origin.

-And the attacking vessel that had emerged from its concealment behind a nearby planetoid was also not hesitating to follow its initial attack with the rapid firing of its primary gun batteries while shock was still fresh with the ambushed.

"Helm, bring us about!", Action F'Yolkra snapped, feeling every bit as trapped as he was as bolts from the enemy's guns struck his ship high and aft –rocking Destroyer 4592 noticeably with the solid power of the hits.

"-Assume optimal attack aspect and get us clear of this wretched asteroid cluster!"

F'Yolkra's second command was only beginning to be barked when details of importance on the command center's tactical display vanished as result of the damage done to the ship's dorsal sensor arrays by the first barrage hit, and an interruption of the data streaming between the squadron's destroyers that should have compensated for the systemic loss somewhat. –Whether this was a result of jamming on the correct frequency or a failure within his own wounded ship, F'Yolkra could not tell.

Determining the cause was not foremost in F'Yolkra's priority of thinking, even before a second Ma'Kral bolt obliterated the destroyer closest to the action commander's ship.

This attack had come from low and outside of the rear guard that F'Yolkra's sentry destroyers had provided. Again a trace of the beam's path tracked it back to the originating vessel that had moved out from behind a second asteroid that was just shy of being massive enough to rate as a planetoid.

His advantage in numbers having shrunk in a matter of seconds from five on two, to three on two –that F'yolkra knew of- meant that any option of using brute force to decide the action was drastically reduced. As the second marauder's primary batteries joined the first in alternating less rapid but harder hitting fire on the remaining destroyers of the 9170th squadron and its minimally effective volume of returned fire, the disgraceful option of a hasty withdrawal began to seem F'Yolkra's best. –And the path to withdrawal, retreat –still meant fording withering fire from two mutually supporting positions.

Concentrated, cooperative fire from the two aggressors who had now moved well clear of their concealing rock forms to maneuver shifted in focus from Destroyer 6244 to Destroyer 4592 with the effects being felt instantaneously.

As enormous and invisible boots did their best to kick the deck out from under Action Commander F'Yolkra's feet and he weighed his waning options, his mind seized strangely on the class of his attackers.

Destroyers of the broad, Thuverl Salan Class, making them much like his own ship whatever variation fine or gross of the class they might be.

Action Commander F'Yolkra had expected destroyers deep in his Warrior's Core and in the absence of any evidence. Destroyer commanders, while the most common kind in the Fleet, were also the breed that if matched correctly to their billet were the most likely to construct just such a snare as the one F'Yolkra found himself in.

It was insidiously marvelous.

"Order the squadron to withdraw by fold to operational fallback position.", F'Yolkra ordered, sickened somewhat as damage reports poured in around him by his use of the word squadron to describe what remained of his command.

"Lord-.", Sub-Commander Culd replied with strong hints of desperation in his voice, "-Engineering reports the main reactor is faltering and on the verge of automatic shutdown, and will need to be taken offline to restore full power to the propulsion and weapons systems."

There were no orders of any meaning to be given, and F'Yolkra was calmly aware of it.

If Fate was merciful, the end would come before his crew realized this also.

Fate was not merciful this day though, or at least not in the way that F'Yolkra had hoped.

As the bone-jolting blows to the ship's modestly armored hull subsided and there was a flicker in the transition between primary and auxiliary power, there was a palpable sense of expectation from all others on the command deck for F'Yolkra to do something.

It was an unrealistic and unfair expectation however as systems status screens raised as holograms in the same air as the ship's viewing screen and tactical display showed propulsion and the weapons grid to be equally starved of power into ineffectiveness.

The tactical display, still fully functional with the situational information it provided coming from a few remaining, battered sensors showed how the punishment Destroyer 4592 had been given relief from was now the agony of Destroyer 3426 while a mauled Destroyer 6244 was showing signs of being adrift.

All that was left to do while the engineering division doubtlessly was in a frenzy to restore the reactor and the only true hope of survival was to wait.

The wait was not a lengthy one.

Before going dark, the tactical display over Action Commander F'Yolkra's command deck showed an end to the enemy's firing as sudden as its beginning had been surprising.

Blinded now to anything that he could not see through his own eyes, F'Yolkra was gratified to have the communications officer speak and take the focus of attention.

"-Lord.", the junior officer said shakily, "The enemy commander is ordering that the ranking officer of the squadron identify himself for conference."

Sub-Commander Culd's expression was one of a new warrior coming away from his first real battle, looking distantly aware of his surroundings but still shedding the numbness of shock. In the glance he exchanged with his superior he was coherent and collected enough to see that F'Yolkra was at his last line of defense and looking for suggestions on a course of action he may have not recognized as an option.

Culd could not provide one where there were none to be had.

"-Hail the enemy commander and inform him that we are willing to confer.", Action Commander F'Yolkra replied to the waiting communications officer, as he wiped the mass of sweat he was surprised to find wetting his face and straightened his uniform tunic in order to present his best appearance.

"-Coming on screen now, Lord."

The main viewing screen, useless now beyond its ability to show the victorious pair of destroyers parading back and forth in threatening watch over the vanquished, was eclipsed by a communications window that opened cleanly and displayed with only minimal signs of interference from the nearby, binary stars.

Action Commander F'Yolkra found himself in mutual study with a male officer –a norghil, warrior caste officer -whose expression was both stern and unsympathetic. He was not of great age, as the relative description applied to Zentraedi –but his face of pale blue was well creased about the brow, eyes, and mouth whose corners seemed to have been engineered into downward turn of the officer's tight-lipped scowl. It was a face sculpted and etched by uncompromising conflict and the burdens of uncounted, weighty decisions.

Eyes nearly as dark as the wavy, black locks of hair kept neatly but not excessively short in a manner that was purely utilitarian burned into F'Yolkra in scorn for an offense that was not his own.

"I am Pach, of The 604th Grand Army, 4234th Destroyer Squadron –and you will now receive and accept the non-negotiable terms of your surrender. –Or be destroyed."

Neither the norghil commander's name, nor his squadron identification register with Action Commander F'Yolkra. –But the warrior caste grand army with which he had claimed affiliation –that was vaguely familiar.

It only took F'Yolkra a moment or two longer to recall the probability that this had been the male, norghil army that Supreme General Krymina had appropriated to quickly force-increase her own 7th Grand Army.

Krymina had appropriated the army's ships at least, as well as those of a female army that serendipity had seen fit to have reconstituting coincidentally at the Trendok 145 Robotech Factory when The 7th Grand Army of The Te'Dak Tohl had arrived for the same purpose.

Deemed unsatisfactory to be folded into support of Krymina's self-actualizing plans for the Te'Dak Tohl, and seen rather as a liability –the norghil ranks of the two armies had been culled with two genius strokes.

The 9170th Destroyer Squadron, still an intact and cohesive unit at that time had been completing an assignment that had pre-empted its participation in the purging of the norghil ranks –but later, within circles of officers F'Yolkra had heard of the operation's only noteworthy hitch.

It was known but not discussed openly that there had been a minor retaliation against Krymina in the form of three avenging norghil destroyers. Their effort had been discovered just before the moment of initiation, and had been thwarted easily with only a minimal loss of Te'Dak Tohl life and damage to the Trendok 145 Factory.

Their destruction had been assumed –but like the retaliatory effort, not broadly discussed.

-Were these the same norghil?...

"I am Action Commander F'Yolkra, commanding officer of the 9170th Destroyer Squadron, 221st Battle Group of The 7th Grand Army of The Te'Dak Tohl, Commander Pach", F'Yolkra replied defiantly, "-And I do not recognize your authority to dictate to, or demand anything of me-."

The norghil commander gave a small nod to another, unseen within the controlled frame of the communications screen.

Twin body-blows shook Destroyer 4592 and auxiliary power failed over to the emergency reserves as a fully-charged salvo found its mark in the sensitive areas of the destroyer's engineering spaces.

The communication screen flickered, blanked out, but returned with the stabilization of the power flow from the ship's protoculture power cell banks. Commander Pach was still at the screen's center looking unaffected, with the exception of appearing visibly less patient.

"-That, Action Commander is my authority.", Pach said evenly and with an emerging edge of contempt, "Do not make me demonstrate it again, or I will be delivering terms to the next in your chain of command."

There was absolute silence beyond the reduced tones of automation on the command deck of Destroyer 4592, heavy and expectant as all awaited F'Yolkra's response.

"I'm listening.", said the squadron commander without conceding any measure of subordination.

Indifferent, Commander Pach resumed in a tone that dared F'Yolkra to decline, "You and the other two vessels of your command will receive boarding parties of my warriors and specialists. You will surrender the supplies, ordinance, mecha, fighters, vehicles, and systems components that the party commanders identify, and you will provide the labor support to transfer it all to our possession."

"In return, no additional offensive action will be taken against any of your vessels. When we have taken what we want from you, we will leave you with your communications systems disabled in such a way that repairs can be affected after we have withdrawn from the area. Fate and the compassion of your superiors will determine what happens to you then."

"Hostile action against any warrior or specialist of our boarding parties will result in your destruction. Failure to comply with the directions given to you by members of our boarding parties will result in your destruction."

"You will provide your answer, now."

Had Destroyer 1859 been similarly crippled and Commander Belza presented the same ultimatum? Belza had not been one to compromise or bargain.

To F'Yolkra, this norghil was clearly uninterested the survival of a Te'Dak Tohl crew and probably quite in favor of the opposite. –He had stopped short of destroying the last of F'Yolkra's 9170th, piteous collection that they now were. This could not have just been satiating bloodlust, he still needed something or things to make this well-planned endeavor successful.

Once this norghil had what he needed, F'Yolkra knew that any leverage he had would evaporate.

"Allow me to transfer my warriors and wounded to a ship with functional propulsion so they might withdraw immediately, and my officers and I will remain with the other two as your hostages and labor while you take what you wish.", F'Yolkra countered, "-Otherwise, I wish you luck sifting the provisions you need out of our ashes."

"Very well.", the norghil officer identifying himself as Commander Pach replied.

The communications screen darkened as the link was terminated from the other end.

Sub-Commander Rhaf was at ease now as the star field rolled and pitched gently all around him.

The damage his Gnerl Fighter Pod had sustained in the first minutes of the battle had not led to the immediate failure of all of its systems, as they were now. –That had come later and not before he had destroyed two of the ambushing force's Regults, a Gnerl, and noticeably damaged a Nacht-Rau combat suit.

When the failure had come, it happened such that no one on either side of the lop-sided melee had even taken notice. It had left Rhaf the involuntary witness to the demise of every pilot in his unit who had left the flight deck with him earlier on the reconnaissance probe.

He had also borne witness to the spectacular though ominously brief warship to warship exchange that had taken place wholly beyond his ability to see the fine details. –But the unhurried pace at which the attacking fighters and mecha had departed the battlespace told Rhaf how Fate had decided the contest.

To the sub-commander's way of thinking, the operation from the enemy's perspective had been brilliantly planned, executed, and fairly won.

Rhaf felt no shame of defeat at all.

There had been a brief period of calm when Rhaf had been left alone with only the cosmic display and the sound of air slowly escaping his cockpit through small punctures and fractures in the canopy. -But now, only moments old, a one-way barrage of particle beam fire had resumed from well out beyond the asteroid cluster directed at a target that only could have been a ship of the 9170th Destroyer Squadron.

Sub-Commander Rhaf had heard other warriors boast of the glories of being a sole survivor from one battle or another, and in this moment when it seemed that he was amongst their ranks, he just did not feel it. Suffocation appeared to be his grand reward.

Rhaf drew the blaster pistol that almost all Gnerl pilots carried from its holster, amused at how frequently Warhi had joked that it was wasted as his for lack of use.

At least, he thought, it would be used once.

Destroyer 741

"Power levels aboard the target vessel have dropped to zero, Lord.", Sub-Commander Dychi reported solemnly and his thin, blue face of fine features going pale as the ship's primary batteries continued to hammer at the disintegrating hulk that had been a Te'Dak Tohl destroyer only minutes before.

Commander Pach allowed a long moment to pass in silence as his guns continued to hurl hyper-accelerated particle beam bolts. Arms folded and held tightly across his chest, he only became aware of how firmly he was gripping his arms under his tunic sleeves when his fingertips began to tingle with the arrest of blood flow.

It was distasteful to witness needless slaughter.

It was quite another thing to be the perpetrator –even if the slaughtered were Te'Dak Tohl.

"Cease fire.", Pach ordered finally.

The weapons control division on the command deck below, poised and straining to act on the expected order did quickly and with relief. Duty and just action did not always assuage guilt, even for functionaries.

From the rear of the command bubble, there was a slight but deliberate scraping sound as Sub-Commander Gerrok, chief of the engineering division, used a spoon to scrape out the last contents of a bowl of nutrient paste.

Mouth half-full, the engineer offered the unsolicited remark, "-You know, the objective of scrounging parts and supplies off of the enemy is defeated when you shoot them to bits… I just felt I should point that out."

Dychi turned aggressively on the engineer, his face flushing to nearly the deeep blue of his long, meticulously kept hair that he wore flowing from a single binding at the back of his head. It was more aggression than Gerrok had seen in some time, and was actually more personality than he'd seen Dychi exhibit in a while, and it was almost impressive.

Almost.

"Gerrok, were you engineered to be insolent and insubordinate, or was it a skill you acquired along the way?"

"Both.", Gerrok replied, tapping the metal spoon against the metal bowl emphatically, "-But I give you permission to pick the one you like best and go with it."

Dychi recognized correctly that the engineer was attempting to draw him into a pointless confrontation –Gerrok's favorite pastime as best as Dychi could tell. Whether it was frivolous bickering with everyone, or just him, Dychi could not say.

Frustrating as it was, Dychi ignored the unspoken invitation and focused his concentration on a productive use of energy.

"Lord, shall we hail the remaining two destroyers to present terms?"

Pach dropped his hands to his sides and flexed the fingers of both hands until the tingling at their tips subsided.

"No –not yet. Give them a few minutes to sweat and imagine what's next. -Then we will present them with the same terms."

"Understood, Lord.", Dychi replied, adding uncomfortably, "-And should they refuse?"

Gerrok reasserted himself into the conversation with a snort from the rear of the command bubble, "-Then I spend the time between now and whenever the next unfortunate Te'Dak Tohl commander crosses paths with us holding this ship together with splices, patching, pleas, ant threats."

Unable to resist an opening to retaliate, Dychi jabbed back, "That's very generous of you, Gerrok –finding sympathy for the Te'Dak Tohl with all of the burdens heaped upon you…"

Gerrok took a step forward as to remind the executive officer of the significant difference in physical size between them, "I never said I was sympathetic –I just said it would be unfortunate for them."

Dychi withdrew again, as Gerrok was considerably larger and more solidly constructed than he. The executive officer had considered the unimaginable possibility that there had been an error in cloning on whatever Factory had produced Gerrok. –The indestructible body of a brutish warrior had been supplied with the gifted –extremely gifted –technical skills of a specialist. Gerrok's personality, Dychi had concluded, was the dysfunctional result of the merging of his other contradictions.

-Still, if it were not that he would have likely needed Commander Pach to prevent Gerrok from separating his limbs from his body at the joints, Dychi would have liked to have punched the engineer in the teeth just once.

"Lord, beholden as I am to your will, Gerrok may be correct in what-."

Gerrok cut the executive officer short, "-He's saying he thinks I'm right, Pach."

Dychi glared and snapped, "That is what I was saying, only less abrasively."

"-And four times as long.", Gerrok counterstruck, "It's not that he doesn't listen to you, Dychi –it's just that by the time you get to the end of what you are saying, he's forgotten the point you were trying to make in the beginning. Three words. Gerrok.. is.. right. Try it."

Gerrok swelled as Dychi simmered, but found refuge in his obligations to the commanding officer.

"Lord, just consider the waste in the face of the risks we are taking."

Benignly Pach replied as he turned his back to the command deck to face his subordinates, "My restraint is evident. Two Te'Dak Tohl vessels remain intact –mostly. –And I will honor my word if their commanders capitulate. Regardless of what you may think, I take no pleasure from bloodying our hands –even with Te'Dak Tohl blood."

Gerrok rolled his eyes slightly , muttering, "Now you've done it, Dychi –it's spreading. That was, I'm trying and I won't do it if I don't have to. –Am I the only one around here that speaks economically?"

Pach started slightly with intent, as though he had just now seen his friend and subordinate.

"-Gerrok, how long have you been here? Don't you have an engine room to be running and supervising?"

"I was asked to leave.", Gerrok replied, "Apparently some find me unpleasant."

"Should I feel this uncomfortable to be agreeing with you?", Dychi asked, affecting a perfectly timed jab that he found immensely satisfying.

"You don't know discomfort yet-.", the engineered growled, both stinging somewhat and impressed.

"Dychi, contact Destroyer 818 and let Sylas know that we haven't fallen asleep over here.", Pach instructed, then continued, "We'll be closing to within a quick transport flight's distance of the Te'Dak Tohl destroyers and will pick up our returning warriors on the way. Tell Sylas to maintain trail at the interval he deems prudent and to stay alert. –We believe those were all of the enemy units in the area, but we aren't certain and you know how I dislike being wrong."

"-He's still not past choosing you, Dychi.", Gerrok told the executive officer as he leaned casually into a bulkhead frame to scratch an itch at the center of his back.

Dychi's glare was merciless, but he kept in step with Pach's orders as they were issued.

"I will speak to the next Te'Dak Tohl in their command chain in a moment, so keep the gun crews aware and ready –in case."

Pach turned to face the command deck again, retreating momentarily into thought before adding, "-Gerrok, you had better select your survey and requisition team –."

"Survey and requisition-.", Gerrok repeated, hinting at mockery, "No, we're just scroungers."

"Call yourself what you like", Pach said, "Your presence will be required soon on the transport deck. Get what you need from the Te'Dak Tohl and fix my ship, Chief."

Gerrok took a distracted Dychi's hand unexpectedly into his own and deposited his empty bowl and spoon into its upturned palm before departing through the command bubble door, headed aft toward the engineering spaces, "-Stop getting holes punched into my ship, Pach."

Dychi regarded the emptied bowl in his hand with the same momentary loathing he felt for the warrior who had left it with him.

-Of course, he would return it to the nearest nutrient dispensary as soon as the moment allowed, because Dychi could still not abide a mess-.

"You and Gerrok are not wrong though-.", Pach said unexpectedly, catching Dychi off-guard.

"Lord?", Dychi asked, open-endedly –well aware now that his superior's statement was the result of something he had been turning over in his head, but now what thing specifically.

"This-.", the commander elaborated, cocking his head slightly toward the ship's tactical display and all of the evidence of carnage it showed, "-All of this is wasteful."

"In your defense. Lord, the Te'Dak Tohl commander was-.", Dychi began to reply.

Pach shook his head, "No, not that. That was an unfortunate decision on his part, but it was his decision. The waste that is weighing on me is the waste of ourselves. We aren't even Warriors anymore, Dychi. We've become the shadow of Warriors."

"We are doing what must be done to survive, Lord.", Dychi argued, "There is nothing shameful in that."

"-But nothing worthwhile beyond self-preservation, Dychi. Lowest form Invid are capable of self-reservation, but lack the thought to do anything above it.", Pach reflected bleakly, "We leap from one skirmish to another, not even certain that we will find a place to land -and all that we gain is sustenance for the short period of time before we have to do it all again. That is not being a Warrior, Dychi. It's playing a game of chance that Fate has favored us in so far, but that favor cannot last. Eventually we will set upon an adversary whom we can't best, or our victories will not provide the critical parts and provisions we need, or Gerrok will be presented with a system failure he cannot restore-."

"-There is only one end to this path, Dychi –I assure you. The question is simply that of the path's length."

Crestfallen in the face of a problematic situation for which he had no meaningful advice, Dychi simply remained silent.

Sensing the effect of the share of the burden he had laid upon Dychi, a burden that was in truth his alone, Pach raised the façade again that commanders were obliged to wear.

"Revel, Dychi, revel-. We are not at that path's end. Fate has favored us again today."

"-Are her communications systems down or something?!", Lieutenant Vala snarled as she leapt from the modest height of the first set of footholds intended to allow a pilot to safely dismount a Nacht-Rau combat suit. The artificial gravity on the hangar deck was slightly off though, and muscles confined and restricted for over nine hours were not up to the task of catching the Quadrano as she had expected.

Lieutenant Marosa had moved in close enough to her friend's power armor to react and prevent her from crumpling to the deck plates under her own enhanced weight, but had actually put herself where she was to intercept Vala whom she'd correctly anticipated would be livid.

-And Vala's ire was not unjustified.

The deck crew of male warriors whose duties were normally the routine maintenance and arming of Regult Combat Pods and who had been forced to extend their limited skills in support of the unlikely addition of Quadranos to Destroyer 741's crew, and the even more unlikely addition of Te'Dak Tohl combat suits to its complement retreated a short distance on the deck without locking down Vala's suit. This was not negligence or dereliction of their duties, but rather acts of genuine self-protection.

The object of Vala's anger staggered unsteadily within a hangar where space was already a premium commodity, and regulations for the stowing of mecha and equipment already ignored.

Lieutenant Etmal's battle damaged Nacht-Rau swayed and twitched in such a way as to suggest the pilot had forgotten or abandoned the securing and shutdown procedures of the combat suit and was working within at freeing herself from the controls and stirrups.

It was not unreasonable to assume as Etmal had already endangered Vala, herself, and six or seven surprised male deck hands by violating her place in the landing sequence and rushing the hangar doors and flight deck at three times the designated approach speed. Deck plates and probably the framing beneath them were already buckled and bend as a result of the great weight slamming to a stop with too much force, and now there was question of additional injury and damage should the suit topple.

"-No", Marosa said answering Vala's question that was now well past important, "She was responding to me as little as five minutes ago."

Sounding like a much larger warrior as she jogged over from her docked suit because of the thick application of gravity, the Quadrano commander, Point Lieutenant Tuissant asked breathlessly as she arrived, "What's wrong with Etmal? Is she alright?"

Hearing her superior's labored breathing suddenly made Marosa aware that she was now breathing heavily as well despite having increased the oxygen in her breathing mixture for the few minutes before landing. It wasn't solely the stale air quality of the hangar deck that the Quadranos had come to know, driven by the ship's failing air scrubbers and recirculation systems –it was also what was undoubtedly afflicting Etmal.

There was short hiss of differential air pressure as the breastplate hatch of the Nacht-Rau swung up and open allowing Etmal to spill out with a startling cry that was the mix of anguish and panic common to a particular breed of trauma that few recognized.

-Few as it were was many aboard this ship.

No, Etmal was not alright, and Point Lieutenant Tuissant knew it because she was not alright either.

The alright were in short supply like everything else aboard Destroyer 741.

Lieutenant Etmal flattened on the deck with an unnerving screech, striking her head hard enough that Marosa was certain it would have fractured her skull had she not failed to remove her helmet before her ungainly dismount.

As though terrified of communicable madness, male warriors many times the size of the slight-built Quadrano kept their distance as first her three present comrades, and then two others rushed in to subdue her.

Etmal wailed something unintelligible as five Quadranos struggled with keeping her from scrambling away.

"-Breathe and relax, Etmal!..", Tuissant urged more than ordered as she held her subordinate's shoulders to the deck plates while each of the other four fought with a limb, "-Breathe and relax!.. Breathe and relax!.."

Marosa was the first to understand their collective failing in snapping Etmal out of the fit, understanding and embracing the memory that gripped her.

"-Turn her over and let her see the open space!"

How the others heard her over Etmal's screams and arguments over how best to hold her, Marosa did not know –but the others did hear, and did what Marosa had told them.

On her back with the vaulted, open space of the hangar before her, Etmal's distress began to ease noticeably almost at once. Tuissant snatched the lieutenant's helmet off, casting it roughly aside so Etmal might breathe foul air freely.

"-Breathe now, Etmal…", Tuissant said soothingly as she stroked the sides of Etmal's face with an uncommon display of needed tenderness and smoothed down her unkempt green hair that was still irregularly short from another recent episode of self-destructiveness.

Etmal's fit was subsiding quickly now, and it was all that any of the other Quadranos could do to not retreat from her as a horrifying reflection of themselves.

-For who amongst them had not been in this very place?

Far too few, and almost none who had escaped Murhan-Thade 4.

Action Commander Gymalt, Commander Pach, and Commander Sylas had escaped with their vessels the purging of the armies aboard the Trendok 145 Robotech Factory and contrary to every instinct of self-preservation had rushed to the world that had been chosen by the Te'Dak Tohl as the site and instrument of mass execution for the armies' detached warriors. The escape from Murhan-Thade 4 for a fortunate few had been followed to hard upon by the retaliatory assault on The Factory for the survivors to feel anything but brief relief and gratitude. Escape from that futile effort had also resulted in a period of the same sentiments. –But it did not last.

One by one at first, and then in droves the affliction began to take hold. Too many warriors cramped into a vessel intended to support roughly a third of their number began to quarrel, and fight, and then fight savagely over things of little significance.

The berthing spaces intended and improvised were soon alive during hours when off-watch and idle warriors should have been sleeping with shrieking such as what Etmal had demonstrated. The assassin that came with sleep was uniformly the same terror, that of abject abandonment and suffocating death.

Most warriors accepted that these would be scars like any others they had received, only invisible, and braced themselves accordingly before shutting their eyes in daily surrender to sleep. Some warriors experienced fits in moments of duress as Etmal had, others had been known to use a weapon on themselves or to simply walk through the atmosphere retention field of an open hangar door.

Marosa had counted herself as fortunate that mostly she had to retreat from crowded spaces and passages, biting her lip to stifle the alien cries that struggled to free themselves from her throat, and sometimes to the point of drawing blood.

No warrior discussed the affliction, but all could easily recognize it.

So as Etmal was brought under control, the gathered groups of warriors and pilots quickly dispersed with none establishing eye contact with one another.

"-The hit she took from that Gnerl must have set her off, or primed the chamber at least…..", Vala speculated, holding Etmal's slack left wrist with less force now

"Probably.", Marosa agreed –but who knew? Etmal was more high-strung than most, and for her own part Marosa knew that four hours in her Nacht-Rau had begun to push what she thought to be her limits of confinement.

The Quadranos had been suited up for more than nine –by operational necessity, the luring force of Gnerls, Regults, and Quadranos all had.

"-She may be too far gone, Tuissant."

The male voice felt like an intrusion into the female unit's business to the point lieutenant, particularly because Tuissant recognized the voice's owner without need of looking, and doubly by what he was suggesting.

"-You make that determination for your warriors, Sub-Commander Ritzal", the point lieutenant said surrendering no ground, "I will make it for mine."

Ritzal, still in full combat gear minus his helmet that he left with his Glaug Officer's Pod one deck below closed the distance between himself and the subordinate, elite warrior to reassert his place in the order, "Point Lieutenant, as the offensive and defensive posture of this ship go, as it applies to mechanized forces –all the warriors are mine. –But, you know your Quadranos, and I defer to your judgment."

The four shock troops who had together struggled to manage the fifth, Etmal, now helped her easily to her feet. The lieutenant stood steadily on her own feet now, no signs lingering of the demons that had so violently possessed her moments before –only a profusion of sweat and the labored breathing of the struggle in poor quality air.

"-She's fine.", Lieutenant Vala told the sub-commander, an edge of challenge in her voice, "She just needs some deck space to walk it off."

"Vala.", Tuissant said, correcting with her firm tone the suggestion of insubordination that she did not want Ritzal addressing in her place.

Vala fell subordinately silent, most of the fire vanishing from her steady gaze.

"-And air.", Etmal added, a quiver still evident in her voice, "Good air that doesn't smell like The Invid Regent's crotch-."

The unexpectedly vulgar mental image drew a barking laugh from Ritzal that filled the volume of the compartment and broke the tension.

"Anyone that expressive has got to be fine.", Ritzal decided, "Good luck finding that good air, Lieutenant. –Point Lieutenant Tuissant, I will require you on the command deck in ten minutes to provide after action details to Commander Pach."

Tuissant nodded her compliance, "I will be there, Sub-Commander."

Ritzal had left the hangar deck and the Quadranos behind and was a good way through the main corridor toward the elevator alcove when Sub-Commander Kranna made a move to intercept him as he came from the other direction.

"Were you just dealing with that Quadrano that came unraveled, Ritzal?"

Seeing that the Gnerl Fighter Group commander was in need of being talked down as well, and that too many warriors who had been on the deck for the Quadrano's fit were now in the corridor for him to comfortably discuss it Ritzal turned Kranna about by the shoulder and continued them both on towards the lifts.

"Tuissant dealt with it herself.", Ritzal said blandly.

"Dealt with it?", Kranna asked, "-Or, dealt with it."

"The first.", Ritzal answered, "Honestly, Kranna –this is a bloodthirsty streak in you that I haven't seen before!"

Kranna, clearly displeased with Ritzal's answer fumed a little more at his counterpart, "-It's your warriors she almost drove into the side of the ship rushing for the deck, Ritzal."

"They were.", the mecha unit commander agreed, "-And Tuissant is dealing with it within her chain of command."

"If she should pop her seals on mission, Ritzal, it would take a platoon of yours together to neutralize her in one of those Nacht-Rau suits-.", Kranna warned with justification.

"At least one platoon.", Ritzal conceded, "-Or two of your squadrons, Kranna."

Walking side-to-side, Kranna put his hand on Ritzal's armored chest, stopping him to convey his seriousness, "-Ritzal, I would feel much better if I knew you were serious about this."

Ritzal sighed heavily, shedding the mask of unconcern.

"I am serious about this, Kranna. –But one twitchy Quadrano is not my only concern. I am still dealing with the friction between our warriors and the females and that both are certain that the other is going to crack up at a critical moment-. Stemming from that, I have to assure both sides that the other won't –despite moments like we just had… -And, I need to maintain some kind of unit cohesion and confidence with units that were never meant to work together. So, you see how blowing a Quadrano's brains out across the deck for a tantrum might not fit into our long term interests-."

"Ah-.", Kranna said simply, processing the entirety of the answer that was much more complex than he'd been soliciting, "So, besides those things, how has your day been?"

"I've had worse.", Ritzal replied.

They all had.

Marosa pressed herself into the corner of a structural frame and a bulkhead in the corridor junction with her eyes tightly shut and trying to mute out all else around her. She had felt the first twinge of the familiar panic as she had helped secure an improvised bunk in a mechanical compartment for Etmal from another member of the female minority aboard ship whose turn in the rotation it was to occupy it during her time off-watch. It had cost the Quadranos collectively a whole extra ration each day over the next three days, but portioned out from each of a few Quadranos' rations that did not amount to much – and Etmal absolutely needed the rest.

They were all exhausted, but Etmal had just been the first whose fortitude had just given.

Marosa was cursing her now though because she was suspecting that Etmal's break under the weight of the affliction might be contagious.

Not surprisingly, Point Lieutenant Tuissant had found her Quadranos again after reporting the last action to Commander Pach that they would be suiting up again within an hour to support the transfer of provisions and equipment from one of the Te'Dak Tohl vessels to Destroyer 741. It was an easy assignment as assignments went, so long as the Te'Dak Tohl understood the seriousness of the conditions Pach had outlined to them for their survival were and adhered to them. –Marosa had no fear of that after the Te'Dak Tohl squadron commander had volunteered his vessel as an example.

-And there was no question that the Quadranos were only being required to shoulder their share of the escort duties, as other units that had participated in the commander's well-devised trap were to be going out again as well. Commander Pach had shown himself to be fair and equitable in that also.

-It was just that it meant suiting up, again, and more time entombed while living in her Nacht-Rau and maybe it was that that had started world's collapse in on her.

Vala had seen the signs and without Marosa asking had offered to bring her half-ration (the entire ship had been on half rations for weeks) to her from the nutrient dispensary. The affliction dulled hunger and Marosa had not even wanted it, but she had not eaten since the day before and knew that her headache and overall faint feeling was the result. She had to eat, or her strength might give out at the moment when she needed it the most.

So, Marosa had agreed and now waited for Vala's return, and if she applied the maximum effort she thought that she might just be able to push away all those warriors boxing her in as they passed her obliviously in the corridor.

"Lieutenant-."

The voice was not Vala's, but male and not one that Marosa recognized. Had his intent been to attack her, Marosa doubted that she could have defended herself despite extensive training and expertise in hand-to-hand combat –she was not actually there, but rather on Murhan-Thade 4 waiting for her oxygen supply to run out.

Marosa opened her eyes and half turned to face the speaker knowing that a comparable horror was unlikely to be found. Instead it was a male warrior of the second sub-lieutenant grade who looked too fresh from the tube to hold that rank. He was a physically impressive specimen in size and apparent fitness, but he did not use it for intimidation as some male warriors did.

"I don't know you.", Marosa said, stating what she could be sure of and using that as hold with which to start pulling herself free of the darkness that had been beginning to swallow her.

"No, Lieutenant, you don't.", the sub-lieutenant said passively and at not much above a whisper, "Pardon me for speaking to you without your invitation, but you are one of the Quadranos, yes?"

Marosa nodded, "What gave it away?"

"I saw you on the hangar deck earlier", the warrior answered and added without hesitation, "-And on the Robotech Factory. You Quadranos saved my squad, saved my life."

"-Everyone saved at least one life that day, Sub-Lieutenant.", Marosa replied dismissively, uncomfortable with the thoughts of the battle's pointlessness.

Before Marosa was aware of it happening, the warrior had thrust a bowl warmed with the nutrient paste inside into her hands. Its weight told Marosa that it was more than the half-ration the dispensers had been set to portion out, but was too surprised to ask.

"-There are many times that I can't go in there either.", the warrior said explaining his gift and speaking volumes of understanding in only a few words. He then raised a small, folded square of insulating foil with something clearly enclosed in it.

"-This is a sedative for the other Quadrano. –They are forbidden for us to have because some warriors have grown dependent on their use, so do not get caught with it.", the warrior said slipping the drug issue into Marasa's left breast uniform pocket, "-It will help her."

The shock of the brief and highly irregular interaction had broken Marosa free of the affliction, but had also left her dumbfounded.

"-Why?", was all Marosa could articulate.

"Because I owe a Warrior's debt and will continue to, Lieutenant.", the male said, stepping away with the traditional salute of a clenched fist over his heart, "Duty and honor, Lieutenant."

"Wait.", Maroasa ordered, sounding more like a plea, "What's your name, Sub-Lieutenant?"

"Ulstik, Lieutenant."

"-Hey, Regult-filler!.."

That voice was Vala's, bold and unafraid even of the sizable warrior who she knew in neither in intent or recent action, "Move it along!"

Sub-Lieutenant Ulstik merged with the mass of warriors moving through the corridor, vanishing quickly without another word or contest.

"What did he want?", Vala asked when she was sure that the sub-lieutenant was not coming back with another three friends, "-He didn't hurt you or anything, did he Marosa?"

Marosa shook her head, saying solidly, "No. No, not at all."

"-As if he could.", Vala scoffed, and in glancing down to see that Marosa held a bowl identical to the one she had brought for her asked, "-Where did you get that?"

"From him.", Marosa said, the amazement still evident in her voice, "I think it was for us."

Destroyer 6244

"-I don't even want to imagine how painfully humbling this must be for you uniform-warmers-.", Sub-Commander Gerrok said, narrating his stream of thought for the Te'Dak Tohl engineering division whom he felt were entitled to hearing it.

As he continued to eviscerate the destroyer's subspace transmitter/receiver hub Gerrok could feel the burn of their hateful glares. Pach had generously provided him with a squad of Destroyer 741's most seasoned warriors to glare back for him though, and armed heavily to boot. Gerrok had no fear of his Te'Dak Tohl counterparts, as the guarding of their own lives from his ship's guns should have been protection enough –but the addition of the squad made for a more docile target for his abuse.

Gerrok did hate competing with others to hear his own voice.

Another component came free of its mounting and connections and was tossed casually into the accumulation of pieces that had formed behind Gerrok on the deck. He would have been just as happy to have borrowed the assault rifle from one of the warriors guarding him and simply shot the ship's long-range communications system to pieces, but this would not have been in keeping with Pach's word.

So far, and to the best of Gerrok's knowledge the Te'Dak Tohl had kept their end of the terms Pach had dictated to them. They had stood by with no more interference than vengeful fantasy as Gerrok and the bulk of his engineering division had stripped this destroyer to its systems' bones.

First and most important to sustaining a livable environment aboard Destroyer 741, Gerrok had cannibalized the Te'Dak Tohl destroyers atmosphere support systems. All but one air scrubber unit and a single atmosphere revitalizer had been disassembled and trundled off to the transport deck for return to the victors as a spoil of war.

What was left would sustain the crew of Destroyer 6244 for the time Pach mandated –probably.

Next –and this was a task that Gerrok had had no qualms about handing off to the lowest members of his "survey and requisition" team- the ship's waste processing and water reclamation system went.

It would be a little unpleasant aboard Destroyer 6244 within hours of Gerrok and his team leaving, but better them than Destroyer 741 that was supporting more than twice the number of warriors as a result of the atrocity of Murhan-Thade 4. His ship's system was woefully overburdened and every component transferred would be used, Gerrok was certain.

Then with much satisfaction to have the Te'Dak Tohl chief engineer witness it, Gerrok had overseen the stripping of every element of the power generation systems and subspace compression engines outside of the main reactor vessel assembly that was backwards-compatible to an older Thuverl Salan Lot 500 "Heavy", as Destroyer 741 was.

Plasma converters and ceramic superconductor conduit, flow valves and diverters, compression coils and coolant medium. Particle beam gun carriages, spherical cycle and linear rail accelerators. Workstation components, illumination panels, deck plates, bunk mattresses, temperature regulators, and for no other reason than it amused him –all the toilet seats from the officers' berthing areas.

This did not account for the ordinance, supplies and provisions, and pride that Destroyer 6244 had been freed from over fourteen hours with the same taking place on its counterpart and going directly to Commander Sylas's Destroyer 818. –Equity in distribution of the spoils would be reached later.

Having wrought significant enough havoc upon the communications systems, Gerrok straightened himself up from the working stoop he had been in to a delicious cracking of his own spine. He tossed a fistful of fiber optic wiring onto a disorganized heap of other wires and cables, and a final electronics sub-component aside carelessly.

"That should take you a while to put back together.", Gerrok said, standing squared-off opposite the Te'Dak Tohl senior engineering officer, "-But as you saw, all of the pieces are here. Tell your commander that you have life support and minimal auxiliary power –enough to transmit a call for help when you can transmit again. Assuming your masters care enough to come get you, you should survive –probably. But why wouldn't they? We went back for our own, and you're better than us, right?"

"Why not just kill us then?", asked the Te'Dak Tohl engineer, whose voice Gerrok was hearing for the first time in the hours of his company he believed.

"I haven't the wildest guess.", Gerrok replied, "I've argued that same point to my commander myself."

"-It's the same chance.", a junior Te'Dak Tohl engineer said.

Gerrok had a new target to torment –one that could not or would not recognize superior rank and how to address it.

"No, it's a chance.", Gerrok corrected, looming over the smaller, junior specialist who to his credit held his ground, "-And that's more than your kind gave ours on Murhan-Thade 4, or the Robotech Factory –like Jerl…"

Gerrok understood the vulnerability he'd opened evoking his murdered apprentice as soon as Jerl's name had passed his lips. ..Perhaps Dychi did have some small percentage of a valid point that he spoke too freely….

The Te'Dak Tohl engineer's mistake was understanding that vulnerability as well.

"All norghil –expendible.", the junior said with even contempt, "-Your Jerl isn't even a smudge on the deck plates anymore. No one will remember his name."

One of Gerrok's guards had stepped forward, implying himself to be a volunteer to bring some great physical harm on the loose-tongued Te'Dak Tohl. Gerrok was satisfied to do it himself.

The engineer snatched away the warrior's rifle easily, and jammed the muzzle into the foolish junior officer's belly, just below his sternum. The Te'Dak Tohl engineer's eyes were wide with shock and fear of the expected as Gerrok flipped the weapon's safety off.

-But oddly, uncharacteristically –Pach's words returned to reinforce that seldom-used portion of Grrok's brain that regulated impulse control. He had orders.

"I can't kill you.", Gerrok revealed, but twirled the rifle to bring the butt up into the junior engineer's groin with enough force to generate an audible popping as the smaller Zentraedi was raised from the deck.

"-I wager you'll remember Jerl's name now.", Gerrok said, handing the rifle back to its owner while standing over the wheezing heap of poorly contained groans, "-And enjoy putting your ship back together."

Destroyer 818

Commander Pach stood forward in a command bubble that was the same as his, and looked out over a command deck that point for point matched that of Destroyer 741 exactly- but in those precise, manufactured, "clone" qualities there were still perceivable differences that gave this ship its own unique personality.

The hums, clicks, and chirps of operating equipment and systems formed its own cadence that was an undertone to the distinct joining of individuals' speaking voices in the normal conduct of their duties. These distinguished Destroyer 818 adequately for Pach alone, but there were other sensory cues also.

-Like smell.

The normal complement of a Thuverl Salan Class destroyer was on average just above two thousand officers and crew –each an individual with their own particular aromas, enhanced of course by their hygiene practices. Both Destroyer 818 and Destroyer 741 were now burdened with roughly twice their personnel complement who all still depended on the vessels' design-specified facilities and systems whose adequacy for the original crew was arguable.

Environmental and water systems did not work as well or as efficiently, required more constant maintenance, and even with the additional care broke down regularly. Pilfering the Te'Dak Tohl destroyers' systems would prolong Destroyer 818 and Destroyer 741's operational endurance, but not save them from systemic overwork.

-And it certainly wouldn't improve the smell significantly.

Pach studied for a moment the symbolic representation of Destroyer 741 within the space of Destroyer 818's tactical display and the station it held, idle but aware out beyond the sensor-inhibiting effects of the asteroid cluster. He suspected that above his command deck, Sub-Commander Dychi was standing vigil in his command bubble on guard against any sign of Te'Dak Tohl reinforcement.

There had been none since an EM flare across the passive sensor bands two hours before had prompted Dychi to move Destroyer 741 off a distance, fearing wisely but wrongly the approach of another vessel. Since then, all had been quiet but at Pach's direction relayed by laser lamp, Dychi remained standing off.

It was likely an unnecessary precaution, Pach surmised –neither of the surviving Te'Dak Tohl commanding officers appeared to be expecting impending support or rescue. It was a precaution that Pach embraced regardless –conditions were already tenuous as they were.

Sylas was in the final stages of interrogating the second Te'Dak Tohl commander, a solid-nerved warrior with scarred skin of the same blotchy green as Sylas, named Ghark. Pach and Sylas had agreed that he should be questioned last, after the younger and curiously nervous Pa'Roska whose length of Service had clearly not been as extensive. Brought aboard Destroyer 818 together, and with their executive officers brought along but kept on the shuttles that had transported them to maximize the void of leadership aboard their commands, both senior officers had been assured their safety and their ships' safety –assuming cooperation. They had also been assured that lies or evasiveness during their independent interrogations would result in harsh punishment of both their commands.

Additionally, they were reminded that only true statements and answers would match one another, lies would not.

The preconditioning of the interrogations had had the desired effect. Pa'Roska had been a geyser of information –much of it unimportant to Pach and Sylas, but not reserved or conservative in speaking at all. Ghark divulged less voluntarily, but answered questions asked of him directly and consistently with what had been said by his more verbose counterpart.

Both Te'Dak Tohl commanders confirmed that the campaign against Breetai and the micronian species with whom he'd formed an alliance had begun.

Both confirmed that Breetai and his micronians had fled the opening engagement of the campaign before they could be crushed.

-And both denied any knowledge of the legendary warlord's whereabouts, hence their assignment that had brought them into contact with Destroyer 818 and Destroyer 741.

Not surprisingly, neither Te'Dak Tohl had knowledge of Supreme General Krymina's next strategic moves, nor did either Pach or Sylas seriously expect them to.

"You will be taken back to the shuttle that transported you aboard.", Sylas told the Te'Dak Tohl commander who listened in silence and without expression, "In a short time, you will be sent back to your ship and should find your crew unharmed. Soon after, we will depart from this area. If your engineering division should affect repairs to your communications or propulsion systems before we depart, do not make use of them until after we have departed. It would be unfortunate if we were to be surprised by the unexpected."

"-You will be under our guns and locked into our fire control until we fold out", Pach added, "-And you know we have no reservations about using them."

"There will be no incidents.", Commander Ghark said rising from the seat at the secured work station that normally was the duty station of the executive officer. Moving toward the command bubble door as an armed warrior stepped through it to escort him, Ghark added, "-I doubt we will meet each other again, Commanders."

"I suspect not.", Sylas responded, that being the final word before the Te'Dak Tohl officer was led away.

Pach wondered briefly whether Ghark was imparting the same dark possibilities that his mind had gone to at the comment.

No matter.

Sylas waited for a few moments after the door to the command bubble had shut behind the escorted commander before swiveling to face Pach more directly. Another few passed with Sylas swiveling a few degrees back and forth, left and right before speaking.

"Well, what now Pach?"

Answering quickly, Pach said, "We send them back to their ships, I go to mine, and we leave."

Sylas's well controlled expression showed mild amusement, but only for a moment.

"-That wasn't what I meant, Pach. It appears that we waited too long-."

"We weren't waiting, Sylas.", Pach countered, "We were trying to bring the Te'Dak Tohl situation to the attention of an army, or armies that might effectively assist Breetai. That's different from waiting."

"-The same end result, Pach.", Sylas maintained, "Of the three armies we were able to locate and establish contact with, one thought we were mad with our tales of the Te'Dak Tohl, one tried to destroy us because they feared reprisal from the Te'Dak Tohl if they didn't, and one tried to destroy us because we would not fold into their campaign against The Invid. –And now we find that Breetai is not even on the world where we knew where to look for him. Tally it how you like, Pach –the math comes out the same. It was only the blindest of luck that we detected the Te'Dak Tohl search activity in this region. Otherwise, we may have gone on chasing reinforcements for a campaign that has moved elsewhere."

"What do you suggest then?", Pach asked not disputing any of the accurate statements made by Sylas.

"Not continuing this is a good start I would say.", Sylas replied, "Beyond that, I'm game for almost anything."

Alternatives were few, so Pach did not require long to determine the best.

"We should go to the micronian star system then.

Sylas's ability to conceal his shock failed him momentarily, "-I said almost anything, Pach, and you hit on an option outside of that field. –You weren't serious, were you? You have no sense of humor, so it's sometimes hard to tell."

"Why would I not be serious?", Pach asked in that tone that would lead others to believe he lacked all humor.

"Because going to the place where the Te'Dak Tohl are, but Breetai isn't in order to help him seems to my way of thinking to be unproductive in the extreme. –And I won't mention the obvious that we're only two ships."

"Two ships can change a battle", Pach observed, "-You have seen it, Sylas."

"A battle, yes.", Sylas argued, leaning forward in his command chair, "A war, no."

Pach motioned out the transparent front dome of the bubble at the tactical display as his exhibit of reference, "Sylas, we could hardly do worse for ourselves moving to that area of operations. You said so yourself that three times we were almost destroyed by our own kind, and we were not even seeking conflict with them."

Sylas shook his head dismissively, "Oh, I don't know-. I can think of many ways we could do worse going there, Pach."

Pach leaned into the bulkhead behind him and continued to share his thoughts.

"Fact-. The home world of the aliens that Breetai has allied himself with is also a unique resource because it supports growth of The Invid Flower of Life. The Te'Dak Tohl are there to seize it, and Breetai has no choice but to fight them for it, whether it is for The Masters, himself, or just to keep it from being used by Krymina. He will return there."

"Fact-. Two destroyers can hide effectively in a star system. Krymina has larger issues with which to contend above us. We can lay low for quite a while, hunting and scavenging as we need."

This raised an immediate objection from Sylas, who retorted with equal certainty, "There's a significant difference between marauding the distant edge of nowhere and picking off the random, passing Te'Dak Tohl ship and hunting in the same star system as their entire grand army, Pach. –Fact."

Pach looked soberly at the commander who he had considered a threat within recent memory but now trusted in action and counsel as much as any officer aboard his own ship.

"Then give me another alternative, Sylas. Dychi and Gerrok even raised the larger point peripherally. If we continue to run and stalk the fringes, it's only a question of time before we meet our end."

"-More time than if we go after the Te'Dak Tohl directly.", Sylas asserted.

"Yes, more time", Pach agreed, "-But an end with no value. We have Te'Dak Tohl communications and encryption systems, so we are able to monitor their communications without their knowledge. –In the hands of a commander like Breetai, that's worth more than a thousand ships. That's worth the risk, don't you think?"

Sylas settled back into his chair and swiveled side to side in thought, then said non-committedly, "Sweeten the reward a bit more-."

"Revenge.", Pach said simply, "A Te'Dak Tohl vessel for the name of every warrior we lost that you can remember, and then some."

"That's not bad.", Sylas conceded, "A bit more-."

Pach dug deep.

"-If we should meet our ends there by the Te'Dak Tohl's hands, or Breetai's –you can tell me that you were right and I was wrong."

A small grin, almost unperceivable crept onto Sylas's face.

"Now I'm invested. Your mind works like your mentor, Gymalt's, Pach-."

Pach acknowledged the comparison with a huff, and added, "-I would be flattered if I thought that you meant it as flattery, Sylas."

"He made the same sort of argument before we committed to attacking The Robotech Factory, and look how well that went. It got many of our warriors killed and Gymalt too -and gained nothing."

"Very true.", Pach admitted, "-But there was no flaw in the intent."

"-If we do this", Sylas warned, "It could be the end of us too. Flawless intent or not."

"We will see."

49