End of Worlds

Chapter 7

Bridge

TCS Absolution

0.1 AU from Veronica II

The day finally arrived, and quicker than Brenell expected. He anticipated a week stretched out over a month with seconds taking minutes to pass. Something like what happened if one was so foolish enough to fly too close to Enigma X-1. Of course, the tidal forces would have torn a ship to pieces that passed close enough for the singularity to have the big of time dilation, but the Marine decided to omit that fact from his thoughts.

The bridge was audible abuzz with activity. Ever station was manned and every monitor turned its attention in the direction of the approaching Kilrathi task force. Standing next to Kolowski at the operations station, Brenell watched the fleet of ships, each one resembling an assortment of bladed weapons. They were still well outside of firing range, and to the naked eye would not ever appear as points of light. Ship's sensors magnified them to as large as life.

"Kilrathi ships have slowed to combat speed," Kolowski announced. "Their Snakier is launching fighters. Fralthra and Fralthi are following suit"

Powers, sat leaned back in his chair, taps his fingertips together. "How many?" His voice was eerily calm. Brenell found it disturbing, the voice of a dead man walking, and preferred his angrier persona.

Brenell felt the jab of an elbow to his ribs. He took the hint from Kolowski and read out the sensor display. If he was going to take up the Chief of Operation's workspace, then he bloody well would make himself useful. "Ninety-six fighters, sixty-four from the carrier, and eight each from the cruisers."

Powers did not like the sound of that one bit, nor did anybody who could compute simple math. If the Cats still had that many fighters with them, then they obviously had the drop on Trafalgar IV. There would be no such easy kill here. They would have to fight their way through to Veronica II– then the surviving Cats can commence their bombings.

One of the kids in Communication spoke up– they all looked like kids to Brenell. "Captain, the Tango has launched its fighters. Commodore Harris is issuing orders for us to do the same."

For once, Powers did not fume. He simply waved a hand. "Relay the order."

Kolowski did just that. Brenell watched his own readouts as Epees, Arrows and Thunderbolt shot out ahead of their own respective ships. The Border Worlders launched a more colorful squadron, including a few old Scimitars, none with frigate engines. All of their fighters were displaying the appropriate IFF codes. Frontier fighters have been known to shut down their IFF to avoid detection, and Task Force 212 did not need any slip ups. Certainly none for today.

Brenell found himself oddly bored in the face of imminent death. He watched the Operation consoles slowly tracking the incoming flight of Cats. The fighters were approaching at 200 kps, running only at combat speeds. If they wanted to, they could have cruised in at 3 PSL and been on top of T.F. 212 in a matter of seconds. Instead, the Cats were taking their time. Could their Commodore be worried about opposition, or are they just savoring the kill. He met a few Cats like that on Repleetah. Of course, those type of soldiers ended up dead quick.

"Kilrathi Task Force is now ten light-seconds out." Kolowski reported.

"Are the PTCs charged and ready?" the XO asked, though it seemed needless. Kolowski knew his stuff.

"I've got two Fralthra pinged and ready to meet their ancestors," Kolowski reported with a savage grin. He reminded Brenell of a sniper; one shot, one kill.

"Not the carrier?" Brenell questioned his choices.

Kolowski shrugged. "They've already emptied their barrels. No point in wasting a PTC on a glorified fighter transport, especially after it launches its fighters. Those cruisers can hurt us more than an empty carrier."

It made sense. Brenell would not have killed anybody in the trenches who was unarmed, not with armed and dangerous Cats surrounding them. The Cats tended to have problems realizing this fact of war. It was a weakness easily exploited, as the death of countless replacement Cats can testify. Brenell suggested the use of a decoy to lure inexperienced fighters to their doom. The idea was vetoed. The system had no freighters large enough to sucker the Cats.

Ensign Vickers, one of the few bridge crew Brenell knew more than professionally, turned in his seat towards Powers. "Captain, I'm picking up increased comm chatter between the fighters and their ships."

"Micro-managing," Powers grumbled in disapproval. It was not just a slam against the Cats and their centralized system, but his own system as well. He knew the importance of teamwork, but wished Harris would quit ordering the obvious.

"Enemy fighters will be in missile range in two minutes," Kolowski informed those surrounding him.

Brenell suppressed a sigh. Two minutes, and then the end final begins. He finished placing his personal affairs in order a couple days ago. He sent out his final letter to Serena, not knowing if it would ever reach her. The war has screwed up enough of Epsilon Sector, that its communication network was not what it once was. Nor were the ones in the Enigma or Vega Sectors.

Come tomorrow, it would no longer matter. Though he was resigned to death, he was determined to die like a Marine. He would hold his station until the last breath left his body. So would his own crew. Those Marines not manning weapons or aiding the medics were working with damage control teams. They would all remain busy up until the last minute. It made him proud to see those under command facing the inevitable with such determination, and occasional defiance.

"Point-defense systems at 100%," Brenell read off what the ship already knew. If not for humanity's distrust of artificial intelligence, and AI's thus far unreliable, the ship might very well be running itself.

Kolowski tapped the communicator built into his own sleeve. "All gunners, pick you target. The moment they enter missile range, you are free to fire." A chorus of acknowledgments rang through his ear.

Brenell kept one eye on the Kilrathi fighters as they slowly approached. And approached. And approached– "Fine time for a bug," he muttered.

"What's up?" Kolowski asked, leaning to view his console.

Brenell pointed at the screen. "Is it just me, or are the Cats slowing down?"

Kolowski returned to his own console and tapped in a rapid-fire series of command. He snorted in surprise as the ships sensors told him the same thing. "Captain! The fighters are slowing down."

"What!" Powers snapped. "Who gave that order?"

Kolowski muttered something soft and sharp beneath his breath. "Not ours, sir. The Cats are slowing down." He paused to confer with his console. "Their warships have come to a complete stop, three million kilometers outside weapons' range."

Before Powers could wonder just what on Earth was happening, one of the communication officers spoke up. "Captain, the Kilrathi are having one hell of an argument out there."

"I can't quite follow it all," Vickers added. "Their speaking too fast. One of the fiercest arguments seems to be between two of the cruiser captains; one's a scion of the Imperial Pride, the other– I can't tell."

Powers scowled at the communication stations. "Get one of the Redstones up here. Maybe they can tell me what I need to know!" He did not bark at any specific victim, but to the bridge crew as a whole. His order was instantly relayed. Whether either of the resident Cats could get to the bridge in time was not known. What Brenell knew, was that the Redstone Pride could do little more than translate. They knew as much of Kilrathi politics as any of the human crew; little to none.

A flash on his monitor brought Brenell's attention back to the incoming storm. "Captain, sixty-four of the fighters are breaking off–"

Kolowski cut him off in mid-sentence. "Captain, the Kilrathi carrier and a destroyer have broken formation. They're– they appear to be withdrawing back to Trafalgar."

Sure enough, two of the ships were pealing away from the pack and backtracking. The remaining nine ships did nothing to stop them. It was as if they did not care their comrades were abandoning them. Kilrathi males were far more individualistic than the average man, thus the draconic discipline in the Cats' camp, but seldom would they flee in the face of an enemy. Unless their commander gave the order, they would continue the attack, less they appear to suffer from cowardice in the face of the enemy.

Brenell could see nothing here the Cats would fear. Captain Powers was the same. He spoke in a hushed tone to Mindalo. "Why are they running? It's not that they have a whole lot to fear."

"Maybe Confed sent one of its fleets this way," the XO suggested, though with little enthusiasm. Even if one of the fleets in the Enigma Sector had entered Trafalgar, it would still take them days to reach Veronica. That was more than enough time for the Cats to paste Veronica II and make for Granita. An Enigma Fleet was not as impressive as it once was, not with all of Confed's top-line ships defending the Sol Sector.

In less time than expected, Mrah'kar nar Redstone strolled on to the bridge. She did not stand upright with pride, as Brenell known warriors to do. Instead, she was hunched over, bowing in subservience. She could not be unaware of some of the– less-than-friendly glares she drew. She drew none from Brenell. Some of the crew might see her and those on the other side of space as similar, but as far as Mrah'kar was concerned, the Redstone Pride was her people and screw the rest of her species.

She bowed before the Captain, before coming to something resembling human attention. "Technician nar Redstone reporting as ordered, Captain."

Powers shot a finger towards the communication center. "We're getting a lot of noise from the Kilrathi. I want you to help in the translation."

"As you command," she said with a bow. Teaching a Cat she was suppose to salute met with marginal success. Some Captains were real sticklers on protocol, but surprisingly the hardcase Powers let it slide. Bow, salute, he did not care so much as he received his due, and that his crew did their job. Mrah'kar picked up one of the headsets, absurdly small in her massive paw. The headset was also too small for her large skull. Instead of adjusting it, she simply placed the ear piece at her ear.

She listened for a moment, cocking her head once in a while. If not for the deadly situation all around, Brenell would have laughed. A Cat making the same motion as a dog. Vickers briefed her on what little he knew. "It seems to be a breakdown of command. Their Commodore appears to be a scion of the Imperial Pride."

Mrah'kar beared her teeth at the name, "Yes, Rashra nar Kilrah. He is verbally fighting with a Captain from the Ki'ra Pride." Anybody with the rudimentary knowledge of the Kilrathi Empire knew those two Prides had a history. The Ki'ra were one of the Eight, but more than the other seven, wanted to take the Imperial crown for themselves. With the recent death of their Pride-king, Jukaga, the Ki'ra Pride has fallen on hard times.

"I do not understand," Mrah'kar said with some confusion.

Powers's gaze shifted from her back to the force on screen. "Surely they're speaking the Cats' common language."

"Indeed," the Kilrathi tech agreed. "It is not the language, but what they say. The Ki'ra is accusing the Kilrah of losing the war. Wrashrah nar Vilgarn– that would be the Captain of the Mren'nar'vik," when she saw that meant nothing, she amended. "That would be name of the carrier, Captain. He says that with the Kilrah Pride gone, he need not follow his order. Other captains are agreeing."

"Captain!" Kolowski interrupted the Redstone's lecture on current events. "One of the cruisers and two of the destroys are approaching at 50 kps." He paused for a second, and Brenell could see his eyes go wide. "Their forwards weapons are disarmed."

For one of the few times during his tour on Absolution, Brenell saw the look of surprise on his Captain's face. "What about their rear weapons?"

"Armed and ready," Kolowski told him.

"Not even a Cat would turn his back on a cat," Powers said with slight amusement. "Redstone, what is this about the Kilrah Pride gone?"

Mrah'kar shrugged, a gesture her Pride picked up since living among humans for so long. "I believe it means the Emperor is dead."

That did not surprise Brenell. Kilrathi live for about forty years, and the Emperor has been upon his throne since before the war began. He would be ancient according to Cat standards. From all the scuttlebutt floating around the fleet, Thrakhath nar Kilrah was twice as cruel as his grandfather. Some of the other crewmember understood that, and the bridge was a quiet buzz of confusion.

"The Emperor's dead, so what?" Mindalo asked Mrah'Kar. "They crown another one and continue, do they not?"

"Normally, if there is a clear heir, as there would be now. The way they speak, the entire Court, if not most of the Kilrah Pride, must have been wiped out."

"A palace coup?" Mindalo asked.

Powers answered in the Redstone's place. "No, the Kilrah Pride has the largest fleet of them all. The Imperial Guard is a posting for only the most skilled and valiant of warriors." They were so prestigious, their ships had gold plating on the hulls. Confed learned just how good they were, when they ambushed them at Vukar Tag a couple of years ago. That defeat nearly cost the Kilrah Pride its position as top dog– er, top Cat.

If so, that could tilt the balance of the war in favor of humanity. Or at least buy them some breathing room. The Kilrathi were strange when it came to feuds; they would turn on each other, even if an enemy was in front of both of them.

"Kolowski, what's the status of those approaching ships?" Powers had to focus more on the matter at hand than esoteric issues.

"Still approaching," he reported. "I'll vector fighters to inter–" He never finished his sentence.

On screen, Brenell saw the single most amazing sight in his whole career. In the Kilrathi formation, one of the Cat cruisers opened up upon its neighbor, tearing through shields ands armor. The rest of the bridge crew were transfixed on the explosions on screen. A second ship, one of the destroyers, came to the aid of the attacked ship– only to be intercepted by another destroyer. Closer to T.F. 212, the Kilrathi fighters returning to their respective cruisers began to engage in their own battles.

"Redstone!" Powers snapped himself out of his stupor. "Report!"

Mrah'kar was just as surprised. "Captain, the Ki'ra has opened fire upon the Kilrah."

That much was obvious, as were the fact other ships were taking side. A few were following the carrier's example and leaving the battlefield. Three were still approaching T.F. 212. The comm tech next to Vickers explained their situation. "Captain, they're hailing us," he said, not quite believing his own ears.

"It's not any Kilrathi language," Mrah'kar told him.

"Let me hear it!" Powers ordered.

The voice was full of snarls and hisses, like any Kilrathi voice, but sure enough he was not speaking Kilrathi. Nor was he speaking English. Brenell thought the words were familiar. They were between English and his native German. Dutch! They had to speaking in Dutch.

His hunch was correct, for the Dutch-speaking Vickers began to translate. "In accordance with the commands of the Kilrathi Provisional Government, we here by surrender to your forces."

Brenell had to blink in surprise. Did he hear that correctly? Maybe it was a mistranslation. Perhaps they were only defecting. The battle between Cats taking place outside of weapons' range stated the disorder in the Kilrathi's own house.

"It has to be more than coup," Powers said, giving voice to the Obvious.

"Captain!" one of crew manning the communication station jumped from his seat, with a mixture of joy and– astonishment on his face. "Incoming message from Confed." Before Powers could order it heard, the Ensign placed in on speaker.

"—cease hostilities, and accept the surrender of any Kilrathi ship that offers it. Do not pursue Kilrathi ships headed for their own space, only those traveling deeper into our own. If they do not offer surrender, assume they are hostile and take any actions to disarm them." It was a voice of authority. It almost sounded like– no, Brenell corrected himself. That was the voice of the President.

"I repeat; following the destruction of Kilrah and the bulk of their navy in orbit at the time, the Kilrathi Provisional Government has offered its surrender to the Terran Confederation. This is not an armistice, but a surrender. The Kilrathi will–"

Brenell quit listening to the words of the President, as had most of the crew. Unlike the young kids around him, he was suspicious of the offer. As were other senior officers. Kolowski raised an eyebrow at the phrasing.

"The President is saying it's not an armistice," Kolowski pointed out. And a good thing too; humanity made that mistake once, and was nearly destroyed. As such, Brenell was still suspicious. Their navy broken? According to Intel, the Kilrathi built their super carriers on the other side of their Empire. Is that still in one piece?

Powers fought to keep the excitement on the bridge from interfering with discipline. "Quiet! All of you. We still have a job to do, and sit back down in your seats and do it! Any of you ever stop to think it's 2668, all over again?" That burst a little bit of the bubble.

"Many pardons, Captain, but I think not," Mrah'kar interjected. "With the Kilrah Pride destroyed, and the power of the Eight broken, other Prides will battle for power. It is like the corks on champagne, and the Kilrah were the cork. Remove the cork, and the fluid flows freely."

Powers was not convinced. He pointed at the communicators. "I want confirmation of that order. There will be no celebration until I get it!" Never mind that it could take days for message to reach Earth or the nearest base, Powers was a cautious commander, and would not take anything the Cats did at face value.

"What about the Cats trying to surrender?" Mindalo asked.

"Accept it," Powers said dryly. "We'll send in the Marines, and the Cats try anything, they won't live to regret it."

Brenell frowned. Who? The Cats or his Marines? Like the Captain, he did not want to get his hopes up either. But if it is true– "Good thing that message didn't get here ten minutes later," he told Kolowski.

The naval officer flinched. "Wouldn't that be a kick to the head. Live through the whole war, only to get killed after we win."

It was with those words that today's events truly struck home. Confed was victorious. The Kilrathi have lost, they would not be able to threaten his home. If Kilrah was truly destroyed, then the Cats would turn in upon themselves in a vicious civil war. If any Prides survived to come out on top, their power would be a shadow of the former Empire. For a moment, he even hoped that he would live to see his daughter once again.

Cruiser Var'kong

Orbit of Veronica II

Over the next two days, all sort of rumors flew widely across the Task Force. Powers received his confirmation. The Kilrathi have surrendered– or at least their government has. Those Cats who did not recognize this provisional government, headed by a Melik nar Kilrah, were already fighter their own inter-Pride war. Just how the war was won, that was not so clear. Brenell heard from official channels that some new super-weapon was used on Kilrah. It took advantage of the planet's geological instability, and caused it to tear itself apart. Also on those channels, the Cats were in the middle of gathering the fleets of the Eight Prides around the Imperial Guard, for one last strike at Earth. They would have done it too, if not for the actions of a few pilots in some new fighters.

Brenell stood in shuttle bay of the Kilrathi cruiser that surrendered. The other cruisers, the ones fighting amongst themselves, were already destroyed. After tearing each other apart, the Border Worlds happily sent the damaged survivors to their version of an afterlife. The cruiser that did surrender had a very hot and dim interior. He did not mind the heat, for the Cats loved dry heat. The lighting took some getting use to. Kilrathi eyes evolved under a sun far dimmer than Sol. The gravity was a bit off too.

For the first time in his life, Brenell was surrounded by unarmed Kilrathi. Not only that, but the only people with plasma rifles, were his own Marines. Not Brenell. No, he carried his old shot gun, ready to tear apart any Kilrathi who came at him. The situation was still volatile, which was why he ordered his Marines to keep the visors of their E-suits down. Would not do to be killed in a sudden decompression while wearing E-suits. In fact, that would be rather embarrassing. Nonetheless, his own faceplate was up and open to the hot air.

Kilrathi soldiers ambled about with little aim. They followed the orders of their officers and the Terran orders relayed through them. Brenell marveled at just how fast life could change. Only two days ago, his own crew was on the verge of psychological collapse. Now– now the Kilrathi morale was shattered and their soldiers had no sense of direction. They were at a loss. Nothing in their history could have prepared them for this.

Like most humans, he had problems reading the expression of non-Terran mammals, but he could have sworn several Cats wore the thousand meter stare. He wondered if the loss of his own homeworld would have thrown his own crew into this much turmoil. Morale would have been shot to pieces. The crew would have continued to fight the good fight, until they to were blown to pieces. He doubted Confed would have surrendered, or that many of the ships would have obeyed.

He stepped aside to let a pair of naval technicians hustled past him down the wide and high corridors. His Marines would be taking away Kilrathi small arms, the techs would be disarming anti-ship missiles. That was a tricky business. Fusion warheads were simple enough; just remove the trigger. Anti-matter warhead, however– those went off by simply dropping the containment fields. One slip up there, and the whole ship would explode. That made Brenell hurry with his own task. To live so many years through the war, only to get killed after it ended–

One of the Kilrathi officers bowed to Brenell. The Cat towered over him, a mountain of fur contained within a red uniform. Even after so many years, Brenell still felt a twinge of intimidation standing before a Kilrathi warrior. Even a disarmed one. Despite his size and strength advantage, the Kilrathi waited to be recognized. Now that they have surrendered, Brenell found himself the highest ranking officer on the ship.

When Brenell told him to report, the Kilrathi officer spoke in passable English. "The last of our plasma rifles are now in your claws."

"What of the grenades?" Brenell asked slowly, trying to reduce his own Luyten Deutsche accent. No point in having a misunderstand here and now.

The Cat spread his hands out in a disarming gesture. "They have been removed."

"And side arms?" Brenell asked, marking a check on his data slate.

The Kilrathi hesitated. Like human officers and swords of old, the Kilrathi officers valued their hand guns. He withdrew it from its holster, and slowly handed it handle-end towards Brenell. "I am given to understand you are a veteran of Repleetah," the Kilrathi spoke. When Brenell nodded, he continued. "That world is a legend even amongst my own people. I will surrender my weapon to you personally, rather than to a clerk."

Brenell smiled, accepting the weapon. It was strange how much he could have in common with the alien. "Are Kilrathi clerks are mired in bureaucracy as Terran ones?"

The Cat had to think for a moment, translating the words in his head. "I believe the phrase used in English is 'red tape'."

"That it is. Other officers may not have the luxury of choosing to who to deliver their personal firearm." Many times in history, officers on one side were allowed to keep their side arms. Not this time. The Kilrathi will be disarmed, and completely disarmed. They would not even be allowed weapons for self-defense, save their own claws and teeth. Their ships would even be stripped of weapons, to the point of tearing off its turrets. Which was precisely why this cruiser, and its destroyers were in Veronica II's orbit. The Border Worlds were having a gleeful time stripping the Kilrathi ships, and repossessing said weapons.

The Kilrathi officer looked even more defeated, now completely disarmed. "This is the end, the end of everything."

"You'll live," Brenell said with little sympathy.

The Cat hissed. "You do not understand. We have failed, and the Gods' punishment will be without mercy. They will send the plague of the Mantu upon us once again, and not a one of my people will be left standing."

Brenell dismissed the Kilrathi, to send him back to rounding up remaining weapons. He knew little about Kilrathi religion, and cared even less. How many human civilizations faced their own imminent doom, only to come out on the other side, occasionally disappointed. Whatever problem the Kilrathi would face, it would be their own. As soon as his current tour of duty was over, Brenell had every intention of resigning his own commission. Once he returned home and held Serena in his arms, he would be very happy as to never see another Kilrathi as long as he lived.