El’Sha’nan concentrated hard as he scrolled on the new wrist pad with his artificial hand. His hope that they would be able to replace the limb with a vat grown clone had vanished when the medical Fio’vre had informed him that too many of nerve clusters had been fused by the var’sin’da weapon. He had nearly died of shock. In the end, he had received a nano-crystalline plate that covered the right of his chest. That had then allowed the medical fio’fann to attach a prosthetic arm. Despite the acclaimed increased durablity and dexterity, El’Sha’nan had already broken two other wrist pads. Looking through casualty reports should not take such an intense effort. He pulled his artificial arm back, focusing to not jerk it back.
His cadre had not been idle. They had rescued El’Savon, her command squad and another two XV-8 pilots. Her cadre was still at 63% operational status. Luckily most of the orcas she had deployed were not even half loaded. She had wisely left most of her cadre on the Regulant Auspice. Nevertheless, she was still unconscious and would be for at least several more rotaa.
El’Sha’nan’s cadre had fared better, but still had suffered loses. Outside of Vre’Mua’da, only one other shas’ui pilot had survived his death blossom and all his fire warrior teams had wounded. He would need to promote replacements, as the mobile suit teams provided an invaluable screen to his armor. He had already selected several candidates to undergo their trials, but that would have to wait until they returned to the Path Resurgent and the expeditionary fleet. Aside from the fio’fann El’Sha’nan’s cadre had rescued, no other survivors had been found. Kor’El’U’ten had been sending crews, mostly fire and earth caste to retrieve the dead and collect useful technologies from the surface. As the highest ranking, uninjured tau, El’U’ten had decided to abandon the colony. The structures had been set to collapse and already the last orcas were docking in the bays below. Still, destroying the colony, where so many had died, brought back feelings of failure and futility. He tried to shake that feeling, for if they had not come to He’pha’n then they could not have discovered the danger to the Tau fleet. Hopefully their warning had reached the Path Resurgent by now and the fire caste and fleet had been placed on high alert. He flexed instinctively, his artificial arm mimicking his left.
The medical drone chimed softly and in a monotone voice said, “Honored Shas’El, please refrain from any unnecessary activity as you are only cleared for light operational duty.”
It had only been the fourth time the drone had repeated its automated warning this rotaa. El’Sha’nan slid off the medical bed and slid on a jumpsuit. His new arm made the task somewhat difficult as the arm continuously kept jerking irregularly. The final insult came as he was pulling the suit over his chest, the cybernetic arm, unwarranted, released its hold of the fabric and hit El’Sha’nan in the face. The drone repeated its message while El’Sha’nan struggled to fix the suit’s clasp around his neck.
The halls were brimming with tau, a mix of earth, air, and even some fire caste, in fio’tek white, maintaining security. They nodded with respect as he passed. It took almost a dec to make his way down into the lower decks, where Vre’Shais’ka had established a makeshift rifle range. The bay was dark except for the lights that hung over the scorched slabs serving as targets. Mass pulse fire flashed, loud booms dissipating almost as fast as sounds were made. 22 fire warriors were lined up in a row taking shots in turn. Behind them stood three shas’ui’s, barking corrections and assisting with reloads. Vre’Shais’ka and Vre’Mua’da were further behind, dividing attention between the fire lines and their wrist pads. El’Sha’nan felt a twinge of jealousy as they moved fingers over the pads with causal ease. As he approached, he noticed that the fire warriors seemed to missing as often as they hit. Some seemed to squirm in their gear as if it were ill fitting. Further down the line, several El’Aloh’ka’s forest green warriors were firing with better accuracy and slightly faster than his own.
Vre’Shais’ka saw El’Sha’nan’s look as he approached and spoke, “Utterly horrible, aren’t they? They have been getting soft, seated in the armor and pirahnas. No reason to worry though, I will have them whipped into shape in the next 10 rotaa.
Vre’Shais’ka was in a lighter mood than El’Sha’nan had seen his brother in a long time. It was a welcome change and El’Sha’nan smiled, giving a grunt of approval. Behind him, Vre’Mua’da stood at salute. She also smiled, but there was an intensity in her eyes. El’Sha’nan would need to ask her about her condition later.
“And how are you faring at suit recertification?” asked El’Sha’nan.
Vre’Shais’ka’s smiled dimmed but he shrugged somewhat jokingly.
“I passed, but do not expect me to survive if you are going to perform any more death blossoms,” said Vre’Shais’ka.
El’Sha’nan expressed mild annoyance but again grunted in humor, even Vre’Mua’da chuckled. He again looked down the fire line as a pilot in full gear took a shot and completely missed the block.
“Tell me this isn’t happening across the entire cadre, Vre’Shais’ka?,” asked El’Sha’nan concerned.
“Kna! Here are the fire teams’ scores from earlier. If they were as bad as this kass, we would have all died a long time ago,” said Vre’Shais’ka
El’Sha’nan gingerly and awkwardly scrolled through the data, scraping the glass hard as he did. He breathed a sigh of relief. The scores were excellent. He looked up questioningly to Vre’Shais’ka, motioning to the crews firing.
“As I said, our crews have become too used to the targeting compensators on the tanks,” said Vre’Shais’ka.
“I suggested that we switch out the crews with line warriors,” said Vre’Mua’da jokingly.
“That would be madness,” spoke Vre’Shais’ka suddenly flaring.
Vre’Mua’da and El’Sha’nan laughed. Vre’Shais’ka flushed when he realized that they were teasing, but shook it off and laughed as well.
“It is good to be here with you both,” said El’Sha’nan.
They traded solemn smiles and nods.
“You should practice as well, there are some empty stalls there at the end,” suggested Vre’Shais’ka, pointing to the end of the row.
Vre’Mua’da bend down and pulled a rifle from a container, activating it and plugging in a fresh power cartridge. The pulse rifle hummed as it charged up. Vre’Mua’da passed it to El’Sha’nan. He looked at it a moment before taking it. As he walked toward the row, he tried not to show his nervousness. Normally pulse rifle firing would be second nature to El’Sha’nan, but with the replacement arm he was uncertain as to how he would perform. The target was a standard 24 tor’leks. He performed a quick check on the display and fit the butt of the rifle to the artificial plates of his right arm, chanting the focusing rituals his first instructors had taught him back on Fo’tan. He exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The pulse hit the fio’tek slab squarely. El’Sha’nan repeated this over and over, sometimes holding the trigger to fire a controlled burst. He moved to the slab to the left as it was unoccupied, firing faster and faster. Bolts of pulse plasma left the barrels and hit all his intended targets, though several times he had unintentionally fired burst as the artificial fingers seemed slow to respond. Nevertheless the rounds went were he intended. It felt good to fire the pulse rifle again. He alternated between the slabs, pulse after pulse slamming into them. His pace quickened, twisting at the torso as he continued alternating targets. Tight almost circular carbonized patches began to form on the slabs, still glowing from the heat of repeated rounds. El’Sha’nan paused, lowering the rifle, when he realized that he was the only one firing.
All the Shas’fann were looking at him, one of the shas’uis nodding in approval, before turning to the others and saying, “That is how you should all be firing those rifles.”
El’Sha’nan, suddenly shy about his performance, nodded and moved off the line but had to concentrate to let go of the pulse rifle. His new right fingers released the rifle in a clumsy motion as he handed it back to Vre’Mua’da.
“It is good that the few rotaa you were recovering have not dulled your aim brother,” said Vre’Shais’ka, seriously.
“I think that is the highest metric score we have seen, including myself and Vre’Shai…,” started Vre’Mua’da.
The deck shook violently as a deep distant boom drowned out all other sound. Everyone stopped firing, but managed to keep their balance. Most were trading confused looks. El’Sha’nan was about to call the bridge, when a second tremor rocked the deck. This time most, including El’Sha’nan, fell. He crashed against the deck but instinctively tried to struggle to his feet as he helped Vre’Mua’da and then Vre’Shais’ka to regain their footing. The Shas’uis were barking to clear the deck and assume battle stations. The command team was closest to the lift tube, only 43 tor’leks away, but they made a fraction of that distance before they all lost their footing again. A klaxon sounded, as the fire caste struggled to the lift. The crashes and shaking became constant, changing in magnitude, sometimes more violent and louder, drowning most sound out, others distant like a faint echo. Somehow the Shas’uis reached the command team and helped all three to the lift.
When they got to the lift Vre’Shais’ka turned and said,” Go, I will handle things here.”
El’Sha’nan and Vre’Mua’da more fell rather than walked into the lift. The lift doors swiftly shut and took off. El’Sha’nan felt anxious to find out what was happening. The shuttering continued, and with each violent shake, they could feel the lift lose speed. Lights flickered in and out and several times the two fire caste had to hold each other as they struggled to maintain balance. Holding Vre’Mua’da brought amorous thoughts and feelings to his mind. He flushed as he pushed them away, unsure of how to act. As the lights restored and the lift picked up to its original pace, he thought he saw Vre’Mua’da flush as well, though she turned quickly. The lift opened to a scene of klaxons blaring and a wall of frantic air caste and fire caste security forces struggling past each other. They made their way to the bridge, sometimes using their superior strength to forming gaps.
The bridge was a hub of excitement, each station on the three amphitheater-like rings manned with Kor’ui technician’s frantically passing technical data, firing solutions, and positions. Drones hovered overhead and behind them stood Kor’vre ring officers, guiding the drones from station to station. Down at the center, stood Kor’El’U’ten, griping one of the safety rails that surrounded the holographic table. The table projected images of the Regulant Auspice leading two strange vessels. A third, the largest of the odd vessels was lazily following far behind. Though curved and sleek, the unfamiliar vessels sported many sharp points. The images of the foreign vessels were unsteady and kept flickering in and out, sometimes disappearing entirely for moments at a time. The images would only solidify moments before the ship shook from an attack.
“Kor’fann, I would like to know the enemy’s position before they fire if at all possible,” said Kor’El’U’ten gripping the rail tight.
His voice was seemingly calm, but to El’Sha’nan there seemed to be a hard edge to it. With the ship under constant fire, the two fire caste struggled down past the rings to El’U’ten’s level. As they closed, El’Sha’nan could see that under each ship projection was statistical data indicating speed, heading, spatial positioning, angular and azimuth heading. The two closest flickering images were slowly gaining on the Regulant Auspice. The tau ship seemed larger than any of the other vessels but it was difficult to be sure. The Kor’El concentrated on the table, before looking up to speak but stopping when he saw El’Sha’nan and Vre’Mua’da. He passed a tight smile and nod to them before returning to ask, “Vre’Be’nai’su, what is the fastest recorded time that Gue’la vessels turn and spin?”
From the second ring, a response came, “4.1 UPD, but our vessel is capable of much faster turn…”
“Thank you, Kor’vre, I know. Kor’Ui’Ol’ni, turn to juntaas 4 UPD, down 4 UPD, and perform a spin at 6 UPD. Kor’ui’tush’an, where is my fire solution for those missiles?”
From another direction came, “Solution in 18 rai'kan.”
As the ship’s projection turned to match the course set by the helm, El’Sha’nan saw the other two vessels turn to keep pace, widening to come on either side of the Regulant Auspice.
“Good, on my word Kor’Ui’Ol’ni, continue the turn but increase speed to maximum until the ship at our juntaas is in front of us,“ said El’U’ten.
The ship continued to rumble as it took more punishing fire from the two closing vessels. El’U’ten kept his focus intently on the display indicators. Several times, the bridge shook hard enough to knock several of the Kor’fann out of their seats. During the latest barrage, El’Sha’nan had to grip his rail hard, Vre’Mua’da helping him as well. El’U’ten had leaned hard into his rail, but despite his height had maintained a steady stance.
“Fio’vre’Gen’to reports that the Juntaas side shield generator is getting close to overload,” said another Kor’ui.
“Noted,” said El’U’ten.
Moments seemed tortuously long before the Kor’El looked up and calmly said, “Now Kor’Ui, maximum speed.”
The turn was so fast that El’Sha’nan’s body shifted before the gravitational compensators adjusted.
The move had surprised the two ships. The Regulant was coming around to face one of her attackers. One of the vessels was now approaching from the rear while the other was raising, desperately trying to clear out of the Regulant’s front arc.
The captain’s calm under pressure was impressive. Suddenly, the image of the rear ship stayed solid, only fading after several rai'kans. El’Sha’nan realized that it was firing another barrage.
“Brace,” he yelled.
All at once, the ship rocked and boomed. In the bridge several of the crew were thrown violently into walls or against the floor. The bridge blacked out momentarily, before power was restored. El’U’ten was on his knees. Several technicians cried out in pain. Others made reports.
“Fio’vre’Gen’to reports that the rear shield generator is critically damaged,” said one Kor’ui.
“Juntaa thruster 2 is offline Kor’El, we will only be able to achieve 84% maximum speed” said one of the Kor’vre ring officers.
“You may fire when ready, Kor’Ui’Tush’an,” said El’U’ten, rising but still calm.
A red flashing projection appeared, moving fast from the front of the Regulant’s image. Its speed was great but El’Sha’nan frowned as he realized that the alien ship was still fast enough to evade the missiles.
“Kor’El, with due respect…,” started Vre’Mua’da
“Patience,” said El’U’ten as though he had read their minds.
“We should…,” started one of the other Ring officers.
“Wait,” said the captain, this time with only the slightest hint of annoyance.
The alien ship moved clear of the missiles. It sat high in front and already heading back to rake along the tau ship.
“Now Kor’ui, adjust the missiles’ heading,” said El’U’ten, somewhat smugly.
Unexpectedly the missiles altered their trajectory and realigned themselves with the ship, forcing it to evade again. El’Sha’nan had forgotten that they were still spinning from the image and as the alien vessel adjusted its path, the ship moved into the Regulant Auspice’s toroq side.
“Kor’Vre’Nu’van, please fire all Toroq side batteries,” said El’U’ten.
El’Sha’nan sat semi-stunned as an uncomfortable silence took hold of the bridge. Whenever he engaged a foe, the combat had always involved deafening sounds, recoil and heat of blazing guns, and fire born from the adrenaline of combat. There was a silent intensity on the bridge as the ship unleased a seemingly barrage, leaving the Shas’El feeling unsatisfyingly detached. Suddenly the bridge came alive again as blinking red circles surrounded the now solid alien vessel.
“47 confirmed hits, Kor’El,” said one of the Kor’Ui.
Kor’El’smiled and turned, “is the vessel dead?”
“No, but she is venting plasma badly and …breaking o…,” said first ring officer.
The ship shook violently as it was rocked again with a series of booms. The alien ship behind them was seeking revenge for the mauling of its sister.
“Kor’El, Juntaa thruster 4 is destroyed, maneuvering speed down to 64% maximum”
El’Sha’nan approached, “So the missiles were a distraction, but how will you deal with the other two vessels?”
“The missiles are not just a distraction, Shas’El,” said El’U’ten.
The missiles had continued to follow the wounded ship which had moved with all speed to get close behind its sister. As the two alien ships passed close, the missiles again altered course and were now closing the second undamaged ship. The missiles were so close they would not have time to evade.
“if the vessel is a true war ship then it will have close protection guns, however the spread should be enough for some to make it. Kor’Ui’Ol’ni adjust course. Come to Toroq 76 UD at maximum speed. Kor’vre’Fen’Sho prepare the ship for dive,” said the Kor’El.
Vre’Mua’da came up beside El’Sha’nan, “We are retreating then?”
El’U’ten looked at them both grimly and nodded, “We must. None of the enemy vessels are destroyed, the last ship is already moving to engage and given our status, we would not survive. Before we retreat though, we must break away.”
El’Sha’nan turned back to the holo-table. The image of the second vessel expanded and he could make out individual missile markers, eight in total. If only several hit, it would still resign the ship to a slow death. It had already altered course, trying to buy time for its close range guns to lock on and destroy the tau missiles. If the vessel succeeded, they would catch the Regulant Auspice. The quiet intensity returned as all the Tau’fann on the bridge focused on the holotable. When the first missile marker disappeared there were cries of distress from the rings. The second and third disappeared almost on top of each other. The markers seemed to move agonizingly slow, only crawling closer to the ship as the forth disappeared. The fifth disappeared, and a sixth icon disappeared as the missiles closed the last few hundred tor’leks. The last two icons both vanished and a solemn hush fell over the entire bridge. Suddenly the table lit up, flashes indicated contact. Cheers went up from the ring stations and El’U’ten exhaled in relief.
“Two confirmed hits, Kor’El,“ said the first ring Kor’vre.
The holotable panned out, the second ship turning down sharply and breaking pursuit. Already they could see the distorted disappearing image of the larger ship moving toward them. Despite its larger size, it seemed as fast as the other ships. El’Sha’nan could see concern take hold in the Kor’El’s face again.
“All available speed to the jump point Kor’Ui’Ol’ni. Divert power if you must, but we must be in dive position before that third ship reaches firing range,” said the Kor’El.
The din in the bridge grew as the kor’fann anxiously relayed information. Steadily the flickering image of the last ship continued to gain on the Regulant. A proximity warning icon appeared, also flashing and disappearing with the strange ship.
“12 rai’kan until dive,” came from one of the rings over the din.
The last ship was almost in position. El’Sha’nan felt the tension as El’U’ten frowned, leaning forward and gripped his rail tight.
“8…, 7…, 6…,” started someone from behind El’Sha’nan.
The large vessel’s image solidified and brightened. It had fired. Instinctually, El’Sha’nan’s body tensed, his replacement arm straining the integrity of the rail he was holding. However the ship never shook, instead the familiar and sickening pull of a dive took hold as the Regulant was catapulted way from the deadly vessel. Cheers again erupted across the bridge, but El’U’ten was quick to silence them.
“I need damage reports, status of repair teams, and our spatial position as soon as possible,” started El’U’ten.
“Spatial estimates- are available now, Kor’El,” stated the first ring officer.
El’U’ten nodded and asked, “Kor’vre’Fen’Sho, how much time until we can perform another dive?”
“Kor’El, it will be another 20 rai’kor before the dive engine is ready again,” said a Kor’Vre.
El’Sha’nan realized that they had made a blind jump. He let go of the rail, but grimaced as he saw an impression from his right hand embedded into the rail. El’U’ten clearly saw, but simply shook his head dismissively.
“We must choose our next destination quickly. They might be able to calculate our location as they would have a fix on our last position and speed,” said the Kor’El.
El’Sha’nan leaned toward the holo-table across from El’U’ten, conscientious of resting his new arm against the rail. A semitransparent sphere expanded out from the image of the Regulant Auspice. It stopped several times, leaving a marker at each pause before finally fading out. The Kor’El was looking between them, and his wrist pad, frowning.
“We are too far away from established space. All of these are non-empire installations, and from the available data, these are the only three would provide us with the means to repair our ship,” said El’U’ten, as though he had eaten something distasteful.
El’Sha’nan studied the options carefully, the closest being a Gue’la outpost. The outpost would be a dangerous prospect. Most Gue’la not part of the empire, had resisted helping the Tau. Some had blindly attacked Tau vessels attempting diplomatic contact. Even if they did assist, it might turn to treachery, for many Gue’la had only a simple twisted sense of honor. He dismissed the idea, as the security risk was too great. He found that the second was also Gue’la, a trading ship, known conspirator with the tau. Its captain and crew had agreed to pass on information regarding the imperium, in return for some mild technology. While El’Sha’nan had no personal account, he had heard that these deep space traders mostly operated on the fringe of the Gue’la imperium’s laws. Normally Tau interactions with them had always been when the Tau had superior fleet assets on hand. El’Sha’nan knew that the Regulant Auspice was damaged and with no escorts, the captain might attempt to take advantage of that vulnerability.
He realized that he was unsure of the ship’s status and asked, “Kor’El, how badly are we damaged?”
Kor’El’U’ten frowned, seemingly sad, “There is extensive damage. First and foremost, our communications array has been destroyed. We took initial barrages on the Juntaas side, damaging 83% its broadside guns and forcing us to seal the launch bay on that side. We have lost a third of our forward thrust capacity. Most of the shield generators are off line and there are several hull breaches that have force me to seal decks three and seven. I have lost close to 40 crew members and many more are injured.”
The Kor’El gestured into the room. Some of the bridge officers were helping injured technicians to their feet or out of the bridge. Two technicians were carrying a third, unconscious, between them. A Fio’ui came in tailed by a trio of drones, each fitted with beam cutters, grabber arms, and lum-fusers. The drones fanned out and moved to stations, removing paneling before beginning various repair routines.
El’Sha’nan nodded in sympathy. Battles were always hardest in the aftermath, when taking account of all that was lost and sacrificed.
He said, “As we are vulnerable, we should avoid contact with Gue’la. This last point, what is that?”
“It is an Okeni city outpost. It is located on a dwarf asteroid,” replied El’U’ten.
“The Okeni?” asked Vre’Mua’da, coming up to stand beside El’Sha’nan.
“Invertebrates, given non-threat status on the basis that the Okeni physically fragile and have no formalized government. They are a scattered race of traders and merchants. Most reside on other foreign planets offering interstellar economic expertise. A few acquire enough wealth to build isolated refuges such as this one. They are a mixing pot of alien races. Some water caste envoys have been to this particular station,” said U’ten.
“We should make for the city-station. Out of the three, they will have the least offensive capabilities and we are not at war with their people,” said El’Sha’nan.
The Kor’El studied his wrist pad some more, frowning in what El’Sha’nan hoped was concentration.
“I do not like any of our choices, but the last time we debated, I stood against you, and we have all paid a heavy toll for not listening to your wisdom,” said El’U’ten, rotating to face one of the ring officers.
“Kor’vre’Fen’Sho, prepare a dive for the Okeni Station, I have transferred spatial coordinates to you,” said El’U’ten in his flowing tones.
“They obviously will want something in return for use of their materials and repair facilities,” stated Vre’Mua’da.
“Obviously,” nodded El’U’ten, turning back to face them and the table.
Now it was El’Sha’nan’s turn to frown. He had not thought of trade. Very few of the Colony’s hydroponic food cells made it back to the ship. Due to the nature of the mission, the ship had only carried spare military hardware and additional power cells. Shas’ar’tol strictly forbade the trade of military grade hardware. In any case it would not be enough to buy the necessary materials for repair, even if they could have. It would have been the same with any of the options.
“Let us hope then, that it is not a price too hard to pay,” said El’Sha’nan.