Action Stations is a prequel novel by William R. Forstchen based on the Wing Commander series of games. It tells the story of the beginnings of the Terran-Kilrathi war, 20 years before the first game.
It is 8 years after the ending of the War. Col. Wilhelm Schwarzmont of the Department of Military History of the Confederation Fleet Academy is compiling a report on the controversial Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn. Tolwyn was a brilliant military genious who saved Earth against a Kilrathi offensive, but then followed dishonorfoul political actions. Schwarzmont reports that he had briefly served under Tolwyn and witnessed the fanatical devotion of his subordinates.
Schwarzmont is compiling the events surrounding Tolwyn's first military operation back near the start of the War, more than 40 years ago. He is currently writing a study concerning the beginnig of the War, to which this novel will be a companion piece. This is owing to the declassification of Kilrathi documents which shed light on their part of the war (although their infamous "lost war orders" where Tolwyn played a part in remain a mystery) although he expects that all records of boths side's archives won't be fully declasified before at least a generation.
He then goes on to list and thank his sources, Humans and Kilrathi alike, such as Admiral Vance Richards, Tolwyn's nephew, Kevin, pilot Haga Kaligara and others.
He closes his foreword mentioning that as Historian of the Fleet, he met and interviewed Tolywn during his court martial, and even visited his cell right after his suicide.
It is 2634, 5 years after the first contact between Humans and Kilrathi. As requested by a CIC Admiral, Rear Admiral Joshua Speedwell of the Confederation Fleet Intelligence is compiling an update report about the political and military situation within the Kilrathi Empire; along with evaluations of all known Kilrathi ships, bases and industry. His division's sources was remote sensing, interrogation of smugglers, and some holo images from a covert op team.
The Humans first learned of the Kilrathi from the Varni aliens, who sought refuge after a disastrous war with them. Even now, not much is known about them. The frontier skirmishes against the Kilrathi antiquated vessels doesn't allow the Confederation determine their current capability.
The intelligence is in the dark, the frontiers are expanding rapidly, the Fleet resources are inadequate and there is a worry that border worlds, where law's grasp is not firm, may be contacted by Kilrathi agents.
Based on what Speedwell knows about the predtory Kilrathi, their existence is revolving around conquest and determination of superiority; peace is considered an avoidable stagnancy and believes there will be War.
To make matters more complicated, Humans know of a galactic almighty force from the center of the galaxy which is moving towards their area; the Kilrathi are probably aware of it and they probably wish to subjugate the Confederation and make it a buffer zone before turning against this new threat.
The Empire is technologically inferior to the Confederation, but the Kilrathi culture has a term for the surprise assault against an unsuspecting prey. Speedwell believes that the Kilrathi attack will be of that nature.
It is the Imperial Palace of Kilrah. The Kilrathi Emperor is behind a translucent courtain and has just announced his decision of War against the Confederation to the presence of 8 clan leaders. Vakka did not sound the growl of approvement. He knew that if other Barons asked for a blood challenge, they would win titles and planets from him, if he died.
Vakka bows and, to indicate ceremoniously his submission, he places his dagger made from a nagga tooth, pointing towards the dais and screen. Vakka's clan first met humans when they captured a planet with Terran colonists. He was impressed and afraid of the humans, and believed that they'd rather become allies rather than conquered.
He encounters opposition from Gilkarg, the only son of the Emperor and Crown Prince. As his father defeated the Varni, and his ancestors did against the Wu or the Eyoka and so on, Gilkarg is eager to take his turn to gain honor and vehemently has been urging war. His eldest son, Prince Ratha, accuses Vakka for fear, but has not the right to challenge him as he has already placed the dagger upon the floor. The younger Prince, Thrakhath, amends that Vakka should have been killed.
Vakka then attempts to explain his position: the Empire is extending too fast, they subjugate and kill the conquered populations and replace them with their own relatives. Their forces are scarce and the borders are thin. The Confederation must be attacked, but not yet; there are other borders and other dangers, including the power approaching from the galactic core.
His concerns are countered by Ratha and Gilkarg, who give the reason why they must attack the Confederation now; the war will make them stronger and after they defeat the humans, they will gave their technology.
Vakka replies that the Humans have a deep web of alliances and colonies. The Confederation is a solid mass whereas the Empire is a hollow shell; therefore they are more useful than allies, should the challenge from the core arrives, than underlings.
Gilkarg repeats that it is a reason why they must attack now; that solid mass of the Confederation will be weakened, if not smashed, by one fierce blow. Gilkarg confirms their war of surprise tactic; first feign confusion and then strike decisively.
Vakka is defeated and meets no support, not even from those leaders whose realms lie towards the core. The immediate promise of war and glory is more attractive than years of preparations for a possible threat. He collects his knife and along with the other lords, he lifts it. They all roar in confirmation. The hunt begins.
It is right after the graduation ceremony in the Confederation Service Academy, Houston. The reception room is full of Academy persnnel, ensign and their parents, politicians and lobbyists; there are also journalists as it is believed that the Academy will close soon. Admiral Spencer "Skip" Banbridge has given a speech, and is congratulated by his old colleague, comrade and friend for 30 years, Commander Winston Turner, who is a Professor at the Academy.
They give hostile looks to Senator Jamison More, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who is being interviewed. More is one of those who believe that there are more significant problems and traditions that must be held than the navy. There hasn't been a war in over a century and the Kilrathi are a minor threat. Banbridge takes it as a bait and insist that they should go and counter his criticisms.
The two officers then see a young Ensign approaching the Senator. He brings up personal motive for the cutting "wasteful" military programs and blockage of a new starfighter to replace the existing aging fighters, and reminds the Senator that his homeworld is very close to Kilrathi space. The Senator was hustled off by his aides instead of replying to the accusations. The two officers comment that the Senator will have his revenge from the boy sometime in the future.
The two friends retreat to Turner's office and serve themselves a drink. Banbridge examines his friend's office. They remind themselves of the old years, like a photograph from their fated mission with the Marine Commando Six: Turner had led 30 soldiers against a terrorist stronghold. They did save the planet and were decorated, but Turner could not bear in his conscience the loss of his men, so he opted to be reassigned from Special Ops and retreat to the Academy as a military history professor and writer. During that mission Skip suffered a near-fatal wound. Skip mentions that before coming here he met Ulandi, to whom both owe their lives since that mission, on McAuliffe. There is also a photograph from the Battle of Midway, where one of Turner's ancestors have fought, serving on Torpedo Eight.
Skip then comes to the point. He needs Turner for "a little exploratory work". Turner has written several historical papers and, after some history parallels, he believes the condition is critical. Skip tells him that the border world complain about the Kilrathi so the government will declare war to silence them. Confederation Intelligence Services say only what politicians want to hear and Fleet Intel is already rusty. Skip needs fresh ideas from his friend. He is also convinced that the Confederation has a leak, so he has to go outside the loop. After passing him a memory cube with Speedwell's report, Turner reluctantly agrees.
Skip has thought to assign Vance Richards and Robert Singh for Turner. However Turner was worried about the uncertain future of Geoff Tolwyn, the young Ensign who dared to attack the Senator, and wants him for his admin assistant.
Confederation Base McAuliffe, date 2634.120. Lieutenant Vance Richards climbs out of an old Hurricane and is saluted by newcomer Tolwyn. Richards recognises him as the one who confronted Senator More. He hit all the major vid services. Tolwyn was summoned to CICCONFEDFLT Admiral Banbridge's office and suffered one of his legendary loud reprimands and banished to McAuliffe.
The two men head across the tarmac to the flight desk where Tolwyn's orders are waiting. Tolwyn is impressed by the vast array of old craft, but soon learns that the place is actually a junkyard: although Admiral Nagomo and Senators report that the ships are A-1 status, the 3/4 of them serve as spare parts for the rest. On their way, Richards informs Tolwyn the recent developments: Seventh Fleet tries to conserve on fuel and materiel; the six carriers of the fleet can't afford being committed to the Facin Sector and wait docked; as a result Task Force 23 went to confront the Kilrathi with a very poor configuration. Richards sounds bitter with some political commentators who claim that humans are misunderstanding the Kilrathi, who just need a little counseling. Their actions are limited to just nudge them without being too provocative.
They reach the flight operations office, with 2 marine guards at the entryway. Vance turns in his flight report and takes the envelope from the Confederation Fleet Personnel Office. Tolwyn feels disturbed by a marine topkick observing them, until stiffened slightily in front of the superior Ensign.
Vance looks at the paper and leads Geoff out for a drink at the base officer's club. For the first time Tolwyn is made to realise that the gap between cadets and officers is no more. As an Ensign he can address the Lieutenant by his name. Richards shows the orders to Tolwyn which simply say that they should wait there until approached with further orders. They are then joined by Turner, who reveals that they are assigned to him. Geoff has been wondering where he might end up and feels a relief. Vance is not so happy as he will be grounded. Vance inquires about Turner's retirmenet to which Turner replies that this will be his last mission is not over yet.
Asked by Turner, Vance reports that the pilots in his squadron are top notch, even those from the outer world flight schools. Same for the nonflight personnel. Readiness however is not adequate: a Kilrathi attack would be their doom. Geoff makes parallel with the Varni incident, 40 years ago. He brings up a rumour about them taking a settlement, out of which they could deduce a lot about Confederation technology. Vance goes on telling his worries about the lack of carriers (only 9 in the whole Fleet). Only 2 new carriers have been built while Soryu is used just as spare parts.
Admitting that he had read some classified Varni reports, he entions that Varni fighters were almost able to destroy a Kilrathi heavy cruiser. He believes that carrier-launched fighters are more effective than fights between capital ships. Geoff also mentions the simulation of Panama system war games, concerning an experimental weapon that could penetrate phase shielding, but Turner dismisses it as theoretical, insisting that battlewagons are the spine of a space battle.
Then Turner comes to the point: He asks if they can fly the antiquated Wasp craft. He then asks them if they are willing to participate to a top secret operation for the next months. He is very strict concerning leaking information ouside. The young officers agree, and leave the lounge.
The smuggler ship Phantom, piloted by Kevin Milady travels in the Hallin system. Copilot Hans Kruger detects the arrival of two, then three ships entering through the jump point, Kilrathi Targu class frigates.
Igor, the topside gunner and navigator chews and spits tobacco. Merilyn Langer, the ship's chief engineer and tail gunner squats down the access passage, without knowing that Hans is checking her looks out.
Four Kilrathi ships (fighters?) close up to the Phantom, the two frigates are accelerating. Pilot Kevin Milady performs an abrupt maneuver: cutting off the scoop fields, he slams the stick forward, turning the Phantom over on its x-axis (the inertia-dampeners inadequate against the 10g load, stressing the ship) and facing it towards the jump point. He slaps in full throttle and rapidly slows down. The fighters close in while the frigates seal off their escape in the other direction.
Igor starts shooting photon blasts with the topside guns. Four points of light appear in front of Hans and lace into the starboard wing. Phantom's shielding dissipates the energy. Kevin orders to lock on with the laser, Hans sees 4 blips across the H.U.D. and a weaving target circle as Igor keeps firing on the adversary who hit them.
Suddenly the four fighters pop into view in front of view and peel off: 2 turn to starboard, 2 almost scratch the Phantom. Langer from the tail gunner's position opens fire as Milady curses while pressing the throttles up to the firewall. Kruger still can see nothing; the plot board shows the frigates closing, less than 2000 clicks astern. Then they lose their momentum. Igor then shoots one down and celebrates.
Milady once more flips the ship over, didges it away from their original trajectory, and lines it up again on the jump point. This fools the 2 frigates, still shoting lasers, mass driver rounds and plasma energy bolts where Phantom would have been earlier. However some of the shots hit the ship, and shielding drops; mass driver bolts slam through the starboard. Hans instinctively grabs his helmet knowing that some sparks and slug might hit him. Langer sees a Kilrathi Vak fighter coming up front and shoots it. The crippled fighter shoots past them. Hans sees the lock on and shoots the laser, destroying their second target.
The ship suffer one more hit from a fighter, which Igor tries to track cursing. Marilyn shouts that the frigates are coming about, quite quickly for their size, obviously the result of some upgrade. Langer is ordered to drops a nuke mine which the ship illegally carries, and a dummy one, being an empty casing with radioactive material inside. The light frigate close in as the 2 fighters attacked from either side shooting mass driver rounds. Soon the frigate is hit by the mine, tumbling out of control, while the other one is turning aside, to avoid the fake one.
Then three seekers emerged from the second frigate aiming for the Phantom. Langer attempts to shoot them, while Hans blows the chaff as Milady still weaves the ship toward the jump point. He activates the jump engine draining the power, forcing Hans to shut down the shields, making them vulnerable to any hit. 2 seekers plow straight through the chaff; Langer fires mass driver rounds against them while Igor still fights against the fighters; as they approach to the jump point, the frigate guarding it starts firing.
Suddenly Hans is relieved of panic. He feels the time extending and starts seeing everything clearly. He realises that the fighters aren't effective, being afraid of the frigate's fire they are approaching. The frigate's volley tears off a part from the portside wing, and Milady dodges off the next. Seeing that the fighters aren't dangerous, Hans turns the hydrogen scoops off, making the ship impossible to maneuver, but also cutting drag gaining speed.
The first seeker is detonated by Marilyn's shots as it leaps forward, the second maneuvered around the debris of the first, but the third went straight into it. 10 seconds to go and the Phantom is already past the light frigate which just starts turning to fire broadside. The jump engine begins to engage. However the last seeker leaps forward; Marilyn manages to hit it but it detonates too close; the explosion and the missile fragments tear the unshielded aft durasteel of the ship and envelop the stern.
Marilyn's fragments are whooshed out along with the air. A jagged hunk of durasteel imbedded in his seat, decapitates Kevin. Igor up in the top turret, is alive but trapped by the debris, his lower limbs broken and bleeding; he has no helmet and his flight suit is frayed. Hans quickly fumbles to put his gloves with pressurized cuffs securing his wrists and sealing his suit shut.
The jump engines kick in. Igor chokes and hovers above Hans. Everything freezes for an instant before he sees star fields again, through to the other side.
Igor slams down on the deck and, in the vacuum, claws against Hans, until he clutches at his throat and crumples to his knees. Hans feels a perverse satisfaction seeing his former tormentor suffering. His final move was smiling and giving Hans a thumbs up for his successful escape to the DMZ and drops dead.
Fuel is absolute zero and Hans opens the hydrogen scoops. He believes that they entered jump right οn the moment of the fateful explosion; the Kilrathi would believe that the Phantom has been engulfed by it.
His hyperawareness is drifting away and Hans ponders about this experience of vivid life and clarity of thoughts. He will pursue intense moments to experience it again. He has changed for ever. He looks at Kevin's remains, whom he secretly admired and feared. Not even he had this sense of control.
He then thinks about repairing the ship by filling punctures with plasti-seal and even seal the hole with an inflatable collar. The control systems are working. He considers delivering the ship as a salvage; by the rules of admiralty courts, half would be his. That will make a larger profit than the 1/15 he claimed for smuggling Kilrathi durasteel.
The Kilrathi Crown Prince is in an orbital base above Kirlah and has assembled the 8 clan leaders, and the comanders of the 2nd, 5th and 6th Claw Fleets. He briefs them concerning their assault against the Terrans in 80 days.
He activates a holo display field to show a simulation of their immense base orbiting McAuliffe, the primary strike target of the Second Fleet. That information was intercepted and cross-referenced by news links broadcasts, and supported by a computer on Fawcett's World.
Admiral Nargth, the veteran of the Varni war and commander of the Second Fleet under the Crown Prince, considers this impossible, but the Prince and Vakka go on to mention their new weapon: a torpedo which penetrates shields, an experimental technology which the Prince demands it ready in 80 days.
Vakka then shows on the holo field the recording of the test: A Kilrathi asjaka bomber approaches an old shielded Butha cruiser. The bomber weapons officer acquires the shield phasing and locks in the target. The pilot slows the bomber at a dead stop and then launches a torpedo. The pilot pulls the bomber away from the cruiser as the torpedo penetrates the shield and explodes directly on its hull, splitting its entire bow section.
The Kilrathi growled in approval but admiral Nargth was worried about the necessity for full stop before launching; their safety relies on the escorts who will assault the base directly, or defend the bombers, but the Prince admits that some will be lost. Nargth also questioned why the heavy ships aren't employed for this, to which the Prince replies that the heavy shielding will interfere with the targeting system; and secondly the target is 6 hours away, and the presence of heavy cruisers would warn the Confederation.
The Prince then proceeds to eplain his plan which will allow them to attack in 2 hours instead of 6, and catching their capital ships before they are eable to leave.
The Confederation keeps a frigate on picket duty guarding the jump opoint from the DMZ into McAuliffe; Kilrathi volunteers will guide 2 light smuggler-type craft carrying warheads and simulate a hot pursuit. The frigate will overhaul and board the craft for inspection, and then the Kamikazes will detonate the warhead destroying the frigate.
Right on that instant 6 Second Claw Fleet carriers will arrive at the highest speed and race to the jump point into McAullife and launch their full complement. They will be unprepared, having defenses only against heavy battleships (which can achieve only 3/4 of the carrier speed).
Clan leader Qazkar is sceptical about this untested theory which reverses combat doctrine. However the Prince replies that the reports on the Terran war game some years back showed that carrier speed, accumulated by the launched fighters, was the key to success of the winning team. The strike will hit the base less than an hour after the jump, while still the defenses will be down.
A first wave will hit the power reactors on the surface of the planet with the new torpedoes thus knocking down their shields allowing the Kilrathi to slaughter them.
To Qazkar's question on how the fast craft will be able to slow down, the Prince replies that they will be equiped with booster engines which will be jettisoned after slowing the craft.
Nargth is still worried that the Terrans will find the time to get their defenses up, but Vakka explains that the assault is scheduled to coincide during the Confederation Day, a celebration observed by humans and their allies and most of the crews will be asleep or drunk.
After opening the frontier, the Fifth and Sixth Fleets will penetrate the zones Etruria and Landreich, forcing the reserve fleet near Earth to sortie, and then combine the fleets straight there and annihilate what is left of them.
The Prince then dismisses the attendees ordering the fleet to practive their maneuvers until the last moment. Individual plans, missions and analyses will be loaded to each ship computers as they will maintain communications silence. The Prince then departs following with his son and their entourage.
The officials gathered into groups to discuss. Vakka's son, Jukaga is excited that he has been asked to fly in the lead strike, and understands it's part of the Prince's plot to endanger his life; as Jukaga is his only heir, Vakka's clan will be fragmented if he is killed.
Vakka feels contempt for the Prince and the Imperial line; although it was he who discovered the humans and provided all this intelligence, no one cares about his advice. He admires the humans, like his friend Harga does. He discusses with Nargth about the feasibility of the plan and the shift from the cruisers to carriers as a new battle doctrine. Nargth remains a supporter of the heavy ships; he also longs for a more aggressive punch to destroy the humans at once rather than take their planets. But as he is one of the few admirals not of the royal line he has no right to question a direct order.
They discuss about Jukaga, whom Vakka wants to serve under Nargth to be more safe. He advertises him as valuable part of the crew as he is going to study the humans. Nargth wonders about the necessity to understand the enemies; they don't need this knowledge to destroy them.
A captive Varni servant arrives and serves them hot beverage (xark) made of blood, which heightens killing instincts. Vakka loses himself in the enthusiasm and forgets all his misgivings.
Hans Kruger has limped back to the orbital base above Hell Hole, the capital of the Landreich. He repaired and upgraded the Phantom and rechristened the ship Lazarus (with appropriate bribes) registered to his name. For this he had to buy off some of Kevin Milady's old friends (with each buy off, more showed up). He enters a room and surveys the patrons, looking for a client, Mr. "Jackson".
Jackson was none other than Winston Turner. He was surprised about how "Meyer", the owner of the ship looked and sensed a nervousness not unlike that of a young fleggie during senior oral exams. But he also sensed a strange detachment, a quality of the best pilots. Turner said that he knew about him, as he saw a vid of his ship from the repair crew. This worried Kruger as such evidence would get into the wrong hands. Kruger would be now a respected pilot and survivor, but shipping firms were inquiring about him.
Kruger realised that his clients were from the Confed Fleet, but they posed as smugglers of Gotherian glasswork for the Kilrathi and they have to enter deep in their territory for a trade point. Turner offers half the profits, but Kruger asks 75% as after the frigate's destruction security will be tighter. They arranged their departure in 12 hours from dock station 33.
As Kruger left, Winston and the officers discussed about him. He believes he would be a good officer if he had been accepted in the Academy. He is inexperienced, but his story and ship upgrades are impressive. Winston also things a green Landreich pilot is safer, as most smugglers hate the Confed fleet for controlling smuggling and losing cargo to patrol ships.
The trio stands and begins to leave the bard. Winston then draws a small blaster from his pocket and hits one of the patrons. He was a Sarn who had drawn his weapon against him. As the Keeper and other 2 witnesses saw Sarn's attempt to shoot Winston, the matter was settled according to the laws of the Landreich. Turner gives Geoff 200 to put on the bar to compensate. Geoff thinks it is the first violent death he witnesses. Geoff begins talking to Vance about this and discuss the "rumors" of him being a commando in the past.
Jukaga nar Vakka has arrived on Fawcett's World and walks through an open-air compound where humans stand beyond a double strand of electrified fences. He tries to distinguish what they say, having studied the holo tapes his father had forced him to. He hears "bastard" and looks back to them. He is welcomed by Harga the old warrior, his former tutor and his father's oldest friend. He notices that Jukaga understands the human standard speech and explains to him that there is no point on punishing whoever insulted him, as soon there wouldn't be a single human left on the planet.
Harga explains that his father suffers the humans to live out of indulgence. Jukaga sits on the silken blanket spread beneath an ulanna tree and accepts the ceremonial cup of greeting with jirak from Harga. Jukaga relates the latest news from court and his father, and the forthcoming campaign. Harga longs for fighting again besides Vakka but believes he is better here.
He explains the history of the planet, the conquest of the colonists soon after their arrival, although the Confederation known nothing about their fate or the planet's existence. Vakka intervened to save them as he sensed something special about this prey. The human captives are working like slaves, but to feed themselves.
Jukaga is startled by a human, Abram. He spoke Kilrathi language (although in a strange, lisping and high-pitched accent), who was summoned by Harga to join them for jirak. As if he was an equal, he serves himself and sites besides them and talks to them looking straight at them. Abram was a teacher, leader of the colonists. Harga allowed him to study Kilrathi culture and language and compares Harga to the ancient noble Samurais. Jukaga also learns that humans call the Kilrathi "cats", creatures which they used to keep as pets.
Annoyed, Jukaga inquires Harga in the Imperial Court dialect, but Abram knows some of that too. Harga admits that Abram is his friend, under his protection. Harga says that Abram is lucky that they were found by him and not other clans or other retainers, but Abram knows that their peoples will soon be enemies and his days are counted. Harga does not believe that the humans will be an easy prey for the Empire and wants Jukaga to know what he will fight. Meanwhile, the lonely Harga always liked knowledge and discussion with the intellectual Abram was stimulating to him, avoiding military details. Abram is "honorless" by Kilrathi standards, but clings to life because suicide is not part of his principles. He also maintains a hope that he will someday escape, and relate what he knows about the Kilrathi to the government. He knows that humans can't stand against a Kilrathi in an one-to-one physical fight, he knows that they salvaged his ship's computer and they know everything about human history, coordinates, ships, weapons; but he believes that the Kilrathi will lose because they are based on discipline and not heart.
Kilrathi evolved from predators, Humans evolved from a hunted prey (before they discovered the tools). Therefore humans consider the jak-tu, a proper movement of the Kilrathi, to be coward and unacceptable. Jukaga was shocked by the human's admission of weakness without shame, his knowledge, and by an alien accusing them for cowardice. He is restrained by his tutor. Abram explains that humans will respond in terror and desperation to protect each other, in the face of being devoured. This is the essence of jak-tu, to kill in one strike, because if it fails, the victim will become dangerous in its despair.
As Abram refilled the Kilrathis' cups, they talked about the upcoing mutual declaration of war according to the intelligence reports from the Kilrathi stations. The Emperor's decision to not establish any communication with the Confederation after the first accidental contacts were normal to the Kilrathi, but alarming to the humans. The Kilrathi listen to Confed nonmilitary communications which are wide open. Confed launched a limited attack, believing that will make the Kilrathi more careful and dissuade them.
Vakka wanted his son, who will rule the clan and participate in the war, to understand the enemy, and realize the Crown Prince's foolishness. Harga tells that Abram and Jukaga must talk together for the days he will stay on the planet, recommending Sun Tzu or Machiavelli. Harga insists that humans are a foe worthy of respect with equal intellect, which the Kilrathi shun in favor of strength and courage, leaving it to their slaves. There were human clans who were like that, only to be destroyed.
Harga warns Jukaga that the Confederation is too big and humans are more dangerous than the Varni; the war will be a disaster, because the Emperor and the Crown Prince did not listen to Vakka. He reminds him a maxim by Xag, that the attack plans are worth only for the first contact with the enemy. He begs the young Baron to study the humans' culture (literature, music and history) not only to understand their enemy, but also to like them.
Abram rejoins the human laborers. Harga has orders from the Court to kill all of them. The Emperor laid claim to this planet in exchange for another. The planet is to be converted into a military base once the war begins because of the jump points. Jukaga feels a certain realisation after having talked and shared a drink with an alien, and begins having mixed emotions. Harga fears that the attack will only wake a sleeping giant.
Senator More strolls into Adm. Banbridge's office with an imperial air, as if it was his personal domain. Skip takes a sip from his mug of coffee, without offering his guest a cup. He heard him in the press saying that More's political motivations blocked the upgrade facilities for the Wildcat fighters and complains angrily, questioning why Spencer opposed the surgical strikes. He brings up the matter of the facility on his planet, which Spencer dismissed, as it would be too close to the front lines, and such installations are made to the inner worlds.
Banbridge explains that the Kilrathi are a totally unknown enemy and he can't risk sending pilots simply hoping that they will back off. Seeing the Senator's insistence on the "surgical strikes", ignoring the deaths of pilots and his politician maneuvers to shift the blame, Banbridge accuses him for politicality and swears that he will make him answer to the mothers of the dead pilots. More threatens Banbridge that he will begin investigations on him so that he can't breathe, before being ousted out of his office, joined by his lackeys.
Cursing, he smashes his coffee cup against the wall alarming one of his Lieutenant staffers asking permission to clean it up. Skip dismisses him, loathing officers who leave a messa leaving it for the enlisted staff to straighten them out, and cleans the mess himself
Skip knows that More is now his enemy and only hopes to stay on the chair long enough into the crisis. He fears that More will prefer Kolensky as the next CIC. Pushing the thought aside, he scans the latest reports from Speedwell, only to find lack of information. Only rumors about a nuke mine that troubled the Kilrathi. Otherwise an unsettling silence which the State Department doesn't recognise as alarming.
He was also troubled about the disappearance of Winston hoping he did not send his friend into an impossible situation.
The Lazarus brings his passengers to the Black Hole system 299, 2 jumps inside the Empire. It is a system around a black hole, and therefore dangerous. Its location was a trade secret, shared by smugglers merchants and others who wanted to hide. Geoff is manning the turret (controlled by hydraulic foot pedals) trying to acquire targets with the translight radar sweep; at first he picks debris of a light transport and then around 50 floating wrecks.
Hans is sitting in the left pilot seat, while Vance in the copilot's seat. Geoff would like to have the opportunity to pilot the Lazarus (although the inertia-dampening system was not very efficient as the engines pulled upwards of 10 gs).
Hans then punches up in a console a coded recognition signal which he said bought on Hell Hole for 1000 credits. Minutes later a blue blip appears as a sign of approval. Geoff gets its lock and navs the Lazarus in. The signal is from 1/6 of the way around the oute hub of the black hole, but dangerously close to the event horizon. The computer takes some time to calculate the nav solution, factoring all the dangerous variables of that envirnment. Per Confed regulations, Geoff runs a quick manual diagnostic to rule out any glitch, while repeating the automatic calculation. Eventually he locks in the solution and sets the threat-detection system on automatic, before exiting the turret. They will be there in 4 hours. Turner was already back up from the tail gun position.
Hans is going to the lower galley and bunk area to get some sleep, inviting Vance, while telling Geoff and Turner to stand watch. Vance does not think high of their pilot, but Turner tells him that he should get rest as the mission will soon require vigilant watch, so he should get a biorhythm alter pill to make him sleep.
As Turner is left alone with Geoff, he tells him that they must drop their ranks. Answering to Geoff, Turner responds that they just gather bits of information, without knowing what exactly they are looking for, and it will be far more dangerous than on the Hell Hole. There is a code, an ethical set of rules running the Landreich and holds it together: one's word is his bond, and no one questions or noses into another's business, never steal another's ship, and never help an ousider against one of their own. That's why he turned his back at the bar because if he was hit, not.
In the underworld, the signal intel, Confed Security or the State Department won't matter. Turner also explains that he picked him and Vance because they are young and will be able to blend in there mre easily, instead of Fleet Intel operatives. He closes the lecture, saying that either he will comes out with what they need, and a man worthy of respect, or dead.
Once more, he seems a hardened veteran and not a genial professor. Geoff undestands that durng the mission Turner won't show the fatherly concern he used to, but will consider Geoff expendable. But this thought also gives him an inner sense of confidence.
The Confederation News Network Dateline reports from the office of the President that Task Force 23 crossed into Kilrathi territory in the Facin Sector in retaliation for the raids launched by the Kilrathi. The President's announcement makes clear that it is not a general war aiming to the annihilation of the other side, but limited in scope, directed against the centers responsible. It is not believed that these actions are sanctioned by the Kilrathi Empire, but they originate from a rogue clan or rogue nobles. The attacks will be only against the verified origins of those raids, not wishing to bring a general war, something that have been related to the Emperor in an open message.
The news also report that Aju Akbar won the Confederation heavyweight championship.
The Lazarus approaches Gar's Emporium, an ore cylinder with dozens of ships gathered around it, such as heavily modified Kilrathi Tugar-class light transports, an ancient Confed Valiant-class destroyer, and other totally alien ships. Most seem to be modified, assembled with every kind of ship pieces from the last 100 years, some of the recogniseable. His attention is focused on the Emporium's pair quad mount particle guns aimed straight at them, while Hans exchanges coded signals, hoping that they will work.
Lazarus maneuvers off the side of the cylinder, and Geoff notices an old Wu ship painted over with an emblem of the Imperial Claw, having been part of the Kilrathi fleet. He shoots some footage of it with his holo vid camera, recordin the registration numbers Turner mentioned to him. The Lazarus then docks n a circular port, adjacent to an alien black ship.
Hans reminded his clients to be armed, but not with high-velocity weapons with jacketed rounds as they can open holes on the hull. Geoff's blaster's round is splintering and moves at only 800fps. Hans is armed with a heavy caliber scattergun on his shoulder. He opens the access hatch.
Outside, Geoff is sickened by the installation's poor air, because of its poor recycling system or old filters. He sees for the first time in his life a Kilrathi approaching them, 2 feet taller than them, wearing durasteel-plated body armor and a bright red helmet. In common English he introduces himself as Gar's representative. Tax is 10% of cargo on arrival in exchange of full trading access and protectin for ship and cargo. Then several humans and a Varni, wearing silver slave collars and carrying null gravity units come to the cargo hold. Geoff opens the access hatch, shocked for looking slaves, imagining they are of those humans who are disappearing and captured by the Mancusian pirates. The Varni and the first human leave with the first container, then he attempts to talk to the second pair, only to see that the slave had his tongue cut. The units are taken to the Kilrathi who will checks the readouts.
After inquiring for a place to drink and warned about the installation's rules, Hans tosses a heavy platinum 500 credit coin to the Kilrathi (nearly 2 months pay for a newly-minted Academy graduate) promising another one when he leaves, if his ship is protected well. As the Kilrathi motions them to the main corridor, Geoff notices his orange eyes (the only visible feature through his helmet) and senses an instictive hate, the primal urges of a predator looking towards a prey.
They enter the arrangement looking at the booths housing bars, brothels, illegal weapon stores (in front of which Hans slows down) and other wares. Turner finds amusing that although the Confederation has no official contact with the Kilrathi, beyond its edge the underworld has established extensive contact. They should do the foreign policy, instead of the inner world bureaucrats. Located in a very dangerous location beyond which nobody came back, frequented by dishonored outlaws, the Confederation could not infiltrate this. Possibly its existence is tolerated by the Empire for its information gathering. Turner tells Geoff to stick with him for a while until he gets its feeling and be ready to go alone, buy drinks and even visit a brothel to gather information. Geoff thinks of his love interest, Rebecca, and also fears the Black Rot.
They are attracted by the sound of cheers. The crowd they were wading through surged towards its origin, a small amphitheater with a fighting pit: 2 humans have killed a Kilrathi and are circiling a remaining one. Soon the Kilrathi cuts a human's throat, causing a Varni to exclaim loudly a roar of delight. He takes his blade and parries the other human's strike. The Varni explains Geoff that the Kilrathi accused the humans for robbing them, and Gar arranged apublic fight in the grudge pit where the winner gets loser's ship. He has bet 50 credits on the Kilrathi. He is surprised that a Varni is happy for a Kilrathi, until he seens Turner buying a bet ticket. Over the crowd's noise, he shares with Vance the thought that the mission "is nuts".