Queen of Kuat: Chapter 7 – Outnumbered

This used to be the final chapter. o_O Then the story got a lot longer.

Soundtrack time!!! Calamit’s palace… Jaesa’s rampage was provided by Disturbed (this and other tracks, not clear which ones anymore). Akuliina’s charge (I’ve been waiting so long to put this track in! <3); Akuliina’s fight. Quinn’s fight! (I know it’s cheating to use this music and it’s not Imperial enough but I just had it on in the background and it helped me get through the slog)

Speaking of which, Quinn’s fight was extremely difficult to write and I don’t know if I’m happy with it yet. I don’t know if I would rewrite it in the future.

Consideration of orbital mechanics in Star Wars: they probably apply, but on the other hand, these ships have engines powerful enough to transfer smoothly from atmosphere to space.

A great number of chapters in this story begin with people waking up. o_O

Chapter 6: Slaughter

 

Chapter 7: Outnumbered

She woke in her bed without any idea of how she had gotten there. The last thing she remembered was entering her quarters and collapsing face-first on the floor, all her exertion suddenly catching up to her. The release of having destroyed the immediate object of her wrath so completely, so utterly, had rendered her unconscious the moment she reached safety.

She stirred and became aware of a presence next to her – a beloved, hale, whole, Force-bonded presence. She pulled her eyes open and found the lights were dim but on, and rolled towards him urgently. He was awake and watching her. “Qui- Malavai!”

“I’m here,” he whispered soothingly, reaching out to her. “You saved me.”

“You’re well,” she said, snuggling into him. He smelled like kolto. “You were in kolto?” How long had she been asleep?

“I was. And perhaps you could have used some too.” His hands wandered down her arms, her sides, finding bandages and new scars she hadn’t even noticed. Apparently she’d been shot at least five times without having felt it. Her left shoulder, the one she’d dislocated, was stiff and aching. “The droid told me you’ve been sleeping since you came back.”

“How long was that?”

She felt a twinge of concern from him. “Three days.”

Three days she’d been unconscious and Quinn had been in kolto. “The fleet?”

“Jaesa’s taken charge; I’m still officially in recovery. We’re headed to Kuat. The fleet is a day behind us, but Agent Elshinix has arrived.”

She relaxed again. “Good.” She rested in his arms, listening to his heartbeat. Glad that he still had a heartbeat. “Are you angry?” She asked in curiosity, not in guilt – she felt no guilt over her actions.

He twitched in surprise. “Me? I thought you would be angry with me.”

“For what? I should have known better than to send you away alone. That is not on you.”

“It was my own mistake that brought his forces to me.”

“Do you want me to blame you?”

“No. But I…” She felt him thinking. “For destroying the base?”

“Yes.” And everyone in it. He’d been upset when he heard how many Imperial soldiers she’d killed without pause or mercy, just to prove a point. Now that she’d rested, it was appearing to her that they hadn’t really been worth her time. It had been a selfish indulgence, when there were only two deaths that would mean anything in the end. But she couldn’t risk taking out her fury on her own loyal crew…

He hesitated. “No. That’s simply… how… how you are. I should have expected it. Did expect it. May as well be angry with Dromund Kaas for raining.” He rested a hand against her belly, though she wasn’t showing yet. “No, I was concerned for the baby, but the droid assures me it’s fine.”

She covered his hand with hers, relieved of a worry she’d almost not thought about, shockingly enough. “Right. Good. I… passed out before I had any idea of checking.” She frowned at him. “I’m not completely convinced about you, but I won’t push you.”

His eyes were calm, fathomless. “I knew who you were when I married you, what I was getting into. I knew you might do things like this, and that I would not be able to change your mind, so if I truly let it bother me, I’d be a fool. You’re right: I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. However, I know you don’t normally waste Imperial life. And…” He smiled faintly. “You did rescue me.”

She gave him a demure half-smirk. “I did, didn’t I? How could I not, when you were so beautifully defiant to them? In fact, there was something I was meaning to do for you because of it…” Her hands began to wander to improper places, and he gasped and flinched, his spine – and other things – stiffening. “I was going to ask if you were interested, but I think I know the answer.”

“A-Akuliina- By the Emperor-”

She cackled, pushing him on his back, and sliding under the covers.

 

The next day they were both on duty, as aloof as asteroids. “I’ll go in immediately with Agent Elshinix to prepare for this confrontation. You’ll wait for the rest of the fleet at Balmorra and then hop over to Kuat at the appointed time unless I signal to delay.”

“I hate Balmorra,” he muttered.

“I know you do, but the way things are going, I’ll probably own that soon as well,” she teased. “Don’t crash there, it would be awkward.”

“You’re going to be completely isolated… Are you going to rendezvous with Countess Mareet?”

“No, that’s too obvious. She’ll have gone into hiding after my father’s slaying. She wouldn’t be able to hide my presence, even were I to find her. I will be in contact with her, but I will not physically visit her.”

“That’s what I’m for,” Agent Elshinix said primly.

“I’ll issue a challenge from the ruins of Yrington. Jaesa and my mother will be my messengers; Agent Elshinix will facilitate communications. And to ensure that their battling fleets don’t simply bombard me, you’ll be tying them up in orbit and dominating them with your usual brilliant strategy.”

“I’ll do my best,” he said. “We are dreadfully outnumbered, by any one side, disregarding the Drive Yard defenses.”

“I am aware of this, you know. I know you have a plan.”

“Yes, to use them against each other, to force their most powerful ships to attack each other first while I pick off the weaker ones. I’ll need more up-to-date information to determine exactly how. I’d also like to know which parts of the station are currently owned by whom, and if I can exploit that.”

“I will get that,” she said. “The Agent will transmit it to you.” Agent Elshinix blinked her glowing red eyes in stoic affirmation.

“If our moves are not precisely coordinated, you could fall,” he said. “I’m not inclined to surrender to either Calamit or Kadolan.”

“Then don’t be late,” she said, smirking at him. “I’m counting on you.” She wanted to touch him, hold his face in her hands, breathe in his breath. She didn’t.

“Yes, my lady.”

 

Agent Elshinix had successfully brought Akuliina and her apprentice to ground in a disguised shuttle, and everyone had since been very busy. While Akuliina sent Jaesa to journey to Kuat City, she herself scouted Yrington for a suitable location to fight Evryn and Calamit in – preferably simultaneously. The Intelligence agent had been infiltrating one of the planet’s major communications hubs, putting Akuliina in contact with Mareet Volkova and downloading as much military intelligence as she could.

What Agent Elshinix transmitted to her was displeasing news, more so when she was able to contact her mother. “Mother, the Terror and the Glory are listed as among Calamit’s forces.”

“Yes, he’s been attempting to steal everything we had, simply because your father is dead.”

“Why did you not stop him? The Commodore will need those ships.”

“The Commodore will have those ships, but there’s not much I can do when I’m trying not to fall victim to an orbital strike as well. There’s been a cruiser in orbit over the main estate for the past four days. The only reason it hasn’t fired is because I haven’t been there and they can’t find me.”

“I’m still disappointed, Mother. You could have sent them to me.”

“What’s done is done. They will serve you should you call.”

“Fine. Whatever you say. I need you to find Evryn Kadolan and deliver my invitation to him this evening.”

“I understand.” She could hear the approval in her mother’s voice.

“Do try not to attack him directly; I want him fresh for combat.”

“Of course, darling. I despise Evryn for what he did to you, but it’s Calamit whom I wouldn’t be able to control myself around.”

“Jaesa’s on it. Have you any idea where to go to find him?” He wouldn’t be too far underground; he was a charismatic leader and needed to be visible to use it.

“Yes. Have no fear. He will be in contact with you at the time you specify.”

“Good. I’ve a dance floor picked out and it would be a shame to waste it.” She hung up and turned to survey her chosen arena. It was the roof of an abandoned factory, one end blown wide open by an orbital blast. Once it had made parts that were then shipped to the ring overhead to be incorporated into new vehicles, both spacecraft and groundcraft. Now it was mute, the hum of industry gone from this area. It had been difficult to find a potential location for the duel, someplace wide and flat enough to have a fair fight, with enough obstacles to keep things interesting without giving cover for ambushes. The area was full of craters, collapsed structures, and piles of rubble that would be impassable to anyone on foot. She’d needed the boost on her borrowed speeder bike more than once to get here.

Somewhere nearby, her father’s remains lay buried – or perhaps he had simply been vapourized. She stretched out in an attempt to sense him, out of curiousity, but the Force here was too full of shock and horror and grief to isolate a single upper-mid-level Sith. Thousands had died in that bombardment. And all to kill Kadolan’s apprentice? That was Kadolan’s sort of trick; she had thought Calamit more cunning than that. Giving Kadolan a taste of his own medicine, perhaps?

Yrington as a whole was not destroyed. The industrial north end of town had been hit hard, but most of the city was still alive, and beginning to recover. The ruined area had been barricaded off from the citizens, and while she’d seen looters slipping about, trading the occasional potshot with local law enforcement, they were few and weak and would play no part in her plans. But, should the worst-case scenario occur, the remainder of the city ought to be exempt.

All was ready. Now her forces would play their parts.

 

It was so thrilling to get proper missions, Jaesa reflected as she slipped, ghost-like, through the shadowed corridors of Calamit’s palace. She liked having Lord Akuliina as a master, but she was so hands-on that she didn’t delegate many important tasks to her apprentice. So being sent to deliver her challenge to one of her enemies was very exciting.

She’d broken in through a side gate; the guards there had been too strong-willed to be mind-tricked so she’d killed them and walked in. Now she prowled the halls, looking for Calamit’s lair. She was no stranger to moving unobtrusively through palaces, unnoticed by everyone else who was supposed to be there, although Lady Geselle’s mansion had been considerably better lit. Even Lord Akuliina believed in decent lighting. But she embraced Darkness, both inside and out, and she didn’t need to see to know where she was going or to sense beings ahead of her. She didn’t miss that life, hated that life, full of pettiness and fear and submission; she had been nobody, even with her powers, and now she was somebody. She pretended that her heart wasn’t beating just a little faster than usual. It was only excitement at her mission, nothing more.

The hallway opened into a great throne room, still only dimly lit, but she sensed four people – Sith, all of them, Calamit’s apprentices, if she had to guess. She grinned to herself. This would be a considerable challenge. She could sense they were aware of her, of their eagerness to fight her; it seemed that Lord Akuliina’s slaying of Trathinus had left a gap they each sought to fill. If only she were clever enough not just to sense these weaknesses, but exploit them, too… Oh well! Red lightsabers ignited in the darkness, and she lit her yellow double-blade and sprang forward to meet them.

She was not nearly as good as Lord Akuliina, but she was good enough. Lord Akuliina worked her hard in saber play, and she’d bested Sith lords before. These four apprentices were uncoordinated, each hoping to seize all the glory for themself; if she played them well enough they might attack each other instead of her – no, that wasn’t likely. They would still hate her more than they craved power.

Saber cracked on saber, as she blocked first one, than another, a snarl of concentration twisting her lips. Their eyes gleamed hungrily in the light of their blades. They were trying to surround her, and she stepped back swiftly, swinging her saber in a burning shield before lunging back forward to stab. Her target blocked too slow, and her blade plunged through his shoulder; his defence dropped entirely in pain and she ripped her blade up and sideways, near-beheading him. The other three were on the attack, and she danced backwards again, batting away their strikes. The Dark Side was swelling in her, fear and hate rendering her ultra-sensitive to its whispers and demands.

She stomped one foot forward, sending shockwaves in the Force rippling at her enemies, and saw two of them flinch. The third was hurtling towards her; she flipped her saber end over end, beating her back, and counterattacked the first two, anticipating their moves. So it went, back and forth, scarlet against amber, no audible sound but the blaze of lightsabers, the rasp of breath, the shift of cloth and clip of boots – yet her soul was filled with a roaring that nearly drowned out her ears.

Another one fell, gut pierced by her blade, groaning in his death-agony. The others drew back, re-evaluating her. She didn’t intend to give them a breather and came on, running a fine line between control and chaos. Lord Akuliina always said she was sloppy, but she despised control and she’d gladly fight on pure instinct if she could. Fight, and kill, and win!

She locked sabers with one, and felt in his pressure that he didn’t know how to fight a double-blade. She grinned at him and swept the second end up, bisecting him. One left. But now she sensed a great darkness drawing nearer, a terrifying darkness, stronger even than Lord Akuliina. She had to finish this now, because that presence was undoubtedly Lord Calamit. Her last opponent seemed heartened by her master’s sense, and they plunged towards each other.

This last one dual-wielded, like Lord Akuliina, though her style was different. Jaesa would find out if she was better or not, and hacked brutally at her defences, forcing her back. The roaring of the Dark Side was threatening to burst out of her; her sweat-drenched dark hair was falling in her eyes; her limbs burned with gleeful exertion as she tore forward like a rabid dog. Now that she had no others to distract her, this apprentice was toast.

Her opponent knew it; she could feel the fear from her like a cold draft. She was going to try something clever… would she be able to catch it? She couldn’t let up the intensity to watch for it.

One red blade stabbed high, and as she twirled to block it, the other went for her knees. There was no time for shock or fear, only reaction through action – she leaped, her weight barely in place to spin over the deadly thrust. She was as surprised as the other woman when her boot met with a face, sending the apprentice staggering away. Jaesa followed and in a shriek it was over.

The shadows at the back of the hall shifted, and Jaesa had to squint to see the tall old man standing there. Only the red floor lighting and her own brilliant saber were left to illuminate the hall, but in the Force there was a far deeper darkness advancing towards her. She had half-planned to attack him when she met him, to dispose of him for her master; not anymore. She hesitated to even approach him. This man carried no weapon, but he was out of her league.

“Well done,” said the old man, and Jaesa felt shivers run down her spine. “For a former Jedi.”

“I am a Jedi no longer,” Jaesa snarled. “I never was.”

She blinked, and the figure had melted into the darkness. “I think that you lie, child. You are certainly no Sith. Your commitment to the Dark is… forced, contrived.”

“No!” Jaesa shouted angrily, looking around to find out where he’d gone. “I am a Sith! The Dark gave me freedom, and power – it has given me everything I ever craved and promises me more!”

The raspy voice seemed to come from everywhere. “You carve a bloody, hedonistic trail through the galaxy in Lady Volkova’s wake, always killing, and killing – killing those who turn to the Light, those who belittle you, or just because you are bored. And to what avail? You doubt, you fear, that you are still Jedi deep inside, that you are not worthy of being a Sith, and so you drive your lust to excess to compensate, offering sacrifices to an uncaring god. You want to be certain no one else doubts you the way you doubt yourself.”

“That’s not true!” Jaesa cried, turning, brandishing her lightsaber at the shadows. “I loathe the Jedi! I completely reject my pitiful past! I have no doubts!”

“You fear that you will never measure up to your master, who was born into this life. Child, you place your own chains on yourself, shackling yourself to her and her approval, like you always did with the Jedi, didn’t you? A good little dog, you bark at those she tells you to. And she sees your desperation and she laughs inside.”

Lord Akuliina had never given a hint that she thought Jaesa was wavering, or overcompensating, or whatever Calamit was trying to imply. But… if she did think that, it would be just like her to laugh behind her back. Whatever, it didn’t matter anyway. “Shut up, shut up! I don’t answer to you!”

“You just want attention. All the evil, wicked things you do, you do only to beg for her notice. You are a pathetic, frightened child in a big dark world.”

“I’m not afraid of the dark!” Jaesa cried. “I am the dark!”

There was a whisper behind her. “You lie,” said the raspy voice.

Jaesa whirled, her lightsaber raised – and it was ripped from her grasp and thrown across the room, and she followed it, hitting the floor hard. She was crushed to her knees, unable to even raise her gaze against the immense pressure forcing her down.

“If you are done being entertaining, you should leave,” Calamit said. “With such a weak apprentice, she’s really not worth my time, and you are not even worth killing.”

She was weak, wasn’t she? She was a failure as a Jedi and a Sith. She couldn’t return to Lord Akuliina with her mission unfinished…

Get up, you frakking fool! The voice in her head spoke with Lord Akuliina’s tones, though it wasn’t actually Lord Akuliina speaking across half the planet. You think I care whether or not you’re trying too hard as long as you serve my will? You kneel to no one but me and the Emperor!

She was weaker than Lord Akuliina, it was true. Weaker, and less thoughtful, less focused, more volatile. She was a weapon for her master to use when she wished. But Lord Akuliina was ultimately more powerful than this man, she truly believed, though his strength in the Dark Side was indescribable. So, too, Jaesa could be stronger. There was no ‘if’. There was no ‘try’. She would stand!

Her lips parted in a feral grimace of defiance, and slowly, slowly, she dragged herself to her feet, until she stood straight again before Calamit. Why had she listened to his words in the first place, let him bait her into debate? There was no debate to be had here. Lord Akuliina would speak, and he would listen. “I am an envoy for my master, and you will hear her message!”

 

Dusk was falling over Yrington; above, the Drive Yards twinkled with their artificial lights, slashing across the sky and the dimmer, more distant stars. Akuliina flicked the transmission switch on the holocomm unit. “Good evening, gentlemen.”

“Lady Volkova,” Calamit acknowledged her… barely.

“Lovely to see you again,” Evryn cried. “I see you are no worse for wear.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “No thanks to you, traitor of my heart.”

“Can I be blamed, for playing the game the way it was meant to be played? And I won, all those years ago, you only don’t know it yet.”

What was that supposed to mean? “I did not call to make small talk. I am issuing a challenge to you: meet me upon the roof of the Heston-Pother Building in one hour, and we’ll have it out once and for all. No more bombs, no more kidnappings. Only Sith against Sith, as it was meant to be.”

“And what shall happen if I refuse?” Calamit said. “Perhaps this is a trap, and you shall bombard me from space as I bombarded your father.”

“I have no reason to come, either,” Evryn said. “You are weak, not worth my time. You did marvelous things on Trandosha, but lizards are slow and clumsy.” She saw his camera jostle, and wondered if her mother were about to lose control. It would reflect poorly on Akuliina if she did so.

She smiled. She’d expected something like that. “I have no reason to break my word. Bombardment is cowardly and dishonourable, and besides, if I haven’t killed it with my own hands, I don’t usually believe it’s dead. Lost bodies are an old trope, and not one I’m willing to indulge in tonight. No, I think you will find my proposal very appealing very soon.”

Her personal comm in her pocket vibrated slightly. More perfect timing she could not have wished for. She pulled it out and held it to her lips. “Agent Elshinix, open a broad-band channel to all ships in Kuat’s space, and the Drive Yards.”

“Channel open, my lord.”

They will serve you should you call. “Good evening, all; this is Akuliina Volkova, the Emperor’s Wrath. I am sure you are all loyal citizens of the Empire; I am sure many of you, like me, are tired of this petty conflict that has become a stumbling block to our combined power.” With half an ear she could hear Evryn protesting that it wasn’t petty, but he was interrupted by an aide’s appearance – perhaps confirming the words she was about to say. “Now is the time to settle that conflict. I command your obedience towards that end. No doubt you’ve noticed the ships that just exited hyperspace; those ships are mine. If you are keen to see this ended, join with them now. If not, know that you will waste your lives in a futile show of resistance that only furthers the cause of our mutual enemies. Akuliina out.”

Many ships would resist. The Glory and the Terror of Volkov would break away from Calamit’s control immediately, if they could do so without being destroyed, and some others might join Quinn out of fear or idealism. But if Evryn had won his forces through his charisma, most of them would surely be loyal, and Calamit had ruled for decades; fear of him would be pervasive throughout the home fleet. The Drive Yards were still mostly under the rule of Calamit or those loyal to him; she had the vague idea that Quinn would lure the fleets away from the planet a little so he wouldn’t have to deal with them as well until later.

Both her enemies were staring at her, their faces changing, dropping their civil masks. Were they so upset to lose even a few ships? No… while Calamit was looking pinched, Evryn’s livid look was all out of proportion to losing a ‘few’ ships. “Very well, Volkova. I will meet you on your rooftop in one hour. Adieu.”

“As will I,” Calamit said grimly. “You have made your last mistake, girl.”

She laughed as they shut off their signals. “No. I have finally regained control.”

“My lord,” Agent Elshinix said softly through her commlink. “The fleet…”

“What is it, agent?”

“Seventy-five percent of Lord Kadolan’s fleet has defected to Commodore Quinn’s command. Only twenty percent of Lord Calamit’s has defected. But…”

“Indeed.” She was stunned, then suspicious. From Evryn’s look, the move hadn’t been planned – on his part. If not his, then whose? She was quite certain she hadn’t been that persuasive. “I’m sure Commodore Quinn will be suitably cautious… still, inform him I said to watch his back.”

“Yes, my lord.”

She couldn’t worry about it too much. The space battle could still take hours, and she couldn’t be distracted from her own battle to come.

 

Quinn stared momentarily at the radar in disbelief before frowning at the bridge crew. “You’re certain of these numbers?”

“Completely, sir,” Comms Ensign Hayna said, and Sensors Ensign Huxley nodded in affirmation. “I’ve received twenty individual messages of cooperation from ship captains… Transmission for you personally, sir, incoming from the Crimson Muse.”

“Yes?” Lord Kadolan’s flagship – former flagship, according to the radar.

The holocomm flickered and a man’s head and shoulders resolved over it, a man in his middle age and in a captain’s uniform. “Commodore Quinn. I’m Maran Lannes, captain of the Crimson Muse and of Lord Kadolan’s fleet. I’ve been instructed by one of my superiors to place my fleet under your command. There appear to be some dissenters, but on the whole we’re yours to command, Commodore.”

Quinn’s eyes narrowed. “’One of your superiors’? May I ask whom, Captain Lannes?”

“I’m afraid that’s classified. If they wish to disclose it in their own time, they may do so, but it is for their own safety that I cannot tell you. However, I assure you that we are entirely ready and willing to fight at your side. And I think you may be glad of the help, since it doesn’t look like the Revenant is budging.”

“You are correct upon that account,” Quinn said, slightly stiffly. If he could trust him, in one moment, his forces had effectively quintupled.

“What are your orders, Commodore?” Captain Lannes was looking expectantly at him. So was Captain Cheyomar.

He studied the radar for a moment; only a moment, he knew where the ships were. The Revenant, Lord Calamit’s largest ship, two kilometers long and easily four times the size of the Golden Conqueror, was sitting up against the Drive Yards, protected and reinforced by its defences. The closest ‘friendly’ aligned portion of the station was too far away to factor. Thirteen other ships remained in its close vicinity; the Terror and the Glory of Volkov had been hanging back and had taken off towards the Conqueror as soon as he’d come out of hyperspace, and two more ships were following, declaring themselves friendly. Some of the others were in confused pursuit, and his allied ships were taking mild damage just trying to reach his position. Captain Lannes’ fleet, on the other hand, was hidden behind Bador, Kuat’s larger moon. Only five of his ships had refused to follow his lead, and one of them was being heavily punished for it, already on the verge of surrender. The other four were fleeing. He’d keep an eye on them; they might come back later and cause chaos on their own initiative.

The Revenant and her fleet were now outnumbered, but she was still in an almost untouchable position. The particular segment of the space station behind her was one of the most valuable along the entire ring, one reason why it was so heavily guarded – but it held itself hostage.

He turned to Lannes. “Captain, if you would be so kind as to lend me three or four of your ships, our forces will be relatively equal. I am going to take advantage of their confusion to pacify as much of their fleet as possible. Make speed to these coordinates, and then we shall see about neutralizing the Revenant.” He indicated a location behind Calamit’s fleet and a little away from the ring.

“Aye, Commmodore. Austere Shadow, take Hawk’s Fist and Sickle and join up with the Golden Conqueror. Fleet, break cover…”

Lannes turned away from his holoprojector to give orders to his own bridge crew, and Quinn was glad of it; he didn’t need the distraction. When they needed to coordinate directly, he would let him know. “Ensign Huxley, tag the three incoming ships as Formation Beta, and the four ships fleeing from Lannes as Formation Delta.” Lannes had already given him a sign of trust; he’d sent a good mid-sized cruiser and two escort vessels. Big enough to be useful, not big enough to destroy his fleet should they turn on him. “Thunderbolt, advance to reinforce Glory of Volkov. Glory, Terror, Black Curse, Grim Justice, reduce speed by one quarter and engage the Belligerence. All other ships, full thrust, prepare encirclement of Belligerence, Nautilus, and Howling Doom.” The Glory and Terror group had just become visible to the naked eye; it would still be a few moments before their pursuers were in firing range, and anticipation was rising in his heart.

“Shields to bow,” Cheyomar ordered quietly. “Port gunners, make ready. Launch all fighters.”

“Commodore, message from Lord Akuliina,” Hayna reported. “’Watch your back’.”

“Acknowledged,” Quinn said, his heart making an odd happy jump that she would be thinking of him now. She had her own concerns. But she, too, found Lannes’ defection odd, no doubt.

The enemy ships pursuing his own had pounced on the Black Curse, the last-lying ship in the irregular formation; he’d ordered them all to attack the largest ship. Howling Doom was the faster of the pursuers, almost in range of his fleet; would she realize her mistake, or no?

Nautilus did, suddenly reducing speed in the hopes that more of Calamit’s ships would come to reinforce her. They would deal with her later. Belligerence was completely focused on the Black Curse, and Howling Doom hesitated, then committed to firing on the Black Curse as well. The smaller ship’s shields were about to fail, but so was the Belligerence’s, pounded by the Glory of Volkov’s heavy guns.

Now the enemy ships realized their position, as the Thunderbolt suddenly fired from above onto the Belligerence, and the fleet began to umbrella into their pincer. Formation Beta was about halfway to their position; they’d be too late to help here, but he needed them more for the Revenant anyway. “Shields to bow and port,” Cheyomar ordered.

Coldly, he watched as Belligerence and Howling Doom banded together, Black Curse slipping away from them and into the safety of the fleet. Nautilus was retreating, returning to Calamit’s other ships; some of his fighters were in pursuit until their squadron commanders ordered them back. The Conqueror still hadn’t fired, waiting to line up the ideal shot. “Target gun emplacements and engines first.” If they could remove the ships from combat with a minimum of damage, they could be salvaged later and used for their proper purpose: defending the Empire.

“Aye, sir. Fire!”

He felt the satisfying thud of the turbolasers going off in perfect unison, the only time that was likely to happen in the entire battle. There was just something about large-scale ship-to-ship combat that thrilled him to the core, something that had just begun to awaken at Druckenwell so long ago and not fulfilled until Akuliina had commissioned the Golden Conqueror. But these rapid calculations, the quicksilver tactics of space combat, the high-stakes risks of playing with so much power and so many lives made him feel alive as much as any hand-to-hand shoot-out. And it was slightly cleaner than a hand-to-hand shoot-out.

And the stakes were high here. If he failed to eliminate the ships against him, he himself would probably die, along with all the men and women who served under his command. And if he failed to eliminate the ships against him quickly and effectively, Kuat would be crippled, her fleet production slashed, vulnerable to attack by the Republic and frowned upon by the Dark Council. But most importantly, if he failed to eliminate the enemy, his wife was in danger. He’d already let her down time and again; he couldn’t do so this time.

Nautilus was pulling back with all speed, retreating back to the safety of the ring, and the other ships that might have come to reinforce her were regrouping as well. Calamit’s fleet would still equal his own, once Formation Beta arrived, except Calamit’s remaining ships had more mass tonnage. But Captain Lannes would arrive, and then… well, then they would see if he was honourable. If he was not, this would be a very difficult fight.

 

She stood at one end of her chosen playground, bathed in the light of both Kuat’s moons, waiting. There was little light besides the moons, no power left in the dead part of the city; most of the fires had burned out long ago. Her lightsabers hung loosely in her hands, unlit. The wind was cool, stirring her white hair, though this part of the planet was experiencing summer and the puesur crickets were cheeping softly in the distance, out on the plain to the north. The city itself was still, silent; even the looters were lying low tonight. They probably felt the aura she was giving off, her anticipation heavy in the air like thunder, the premonition that tonight in this place something was going to Go Down. This was where her father had died. With enough power and skill, this would be where his murderer died.

Overhead, the Drive Yards shone brighter than ever against the stars, and the blackness beyond was criss-crossed by tiny flickers of light. Massive turbolaser blasts and powerful engine trails became hardly more than an interesting light display from this distance. They weren’t quite overhead at this time, and yet their deadliness, though delayed, could not be discounted.

For once, she didn’t feel tired. She could feel the tiny presence inside her, and that life gave her energy. Not that she was fighting to protect it, for its future – that was too romantic for her. But supposedly there was a glow to motherhood, an energy that no one else had; she had that now. The city was silent, and yet her heart was already thrumming in her ears, her anticipation pulling a tight, eager smile from her lips.

A figure appeared on the other side of the rooftop from a roof access stair, then a speeder pulled in and discharged another, standing well away from each other. She had felt them approach, could feel without even trying that they were the ones she sought.

“Gentlemen,” she said, allowing her smile to broaden. “I’m glad you could find time in your no-doubt busy schedules of killing each other, for me to kill you both.”

“As if this isn’t what you wanted all along,” Evryn said mockingly.

She dropped the taunting from her own voice. “Actually, it wasn’t. I was busy, and perfectly happy to let you squabble amongst yourselves without involving myself, though this dissent makes us all look weak to the Republic. Though I would have been less than thrilled if you had won, Evryn. But you both had to drag me into this.”

“You can’t lie to us, child,” Calamit said. “Once you knew what was happening here, you were bound to interfere, to make your own claim to this power. Once you defeated your former lover, you would have challenged me yourself.”

“For once, I agree with my esteemed fossilic predecessor,” Evryn said. “Do you really think you can win? Against me? You loved me, once.”

She smiled viciously. “You do realize that means I only hate you more now. And my power has grown apace. I’m expecting a challenge, Evryn. Don’t disappoint me again.”

He bowed with a mocking smile of his own. “Never again, my lady. And don’t you underestimate me, either. I even tried to spare you. I knew this would happen.”

She snorted and ignited her lightsabers; they followed suit. Her pulse was pounding within her, her rage against both of them burning to its height. “I don’t expect to convince you of the truth, and ultimately I don’t care, because you cannot stand against me!” And she charged, bounding lightly along the surface of the roof, raising her lightsabers as she leapt on Evryn, the closest, with a shrill warcry.

He sprang to meet her, his own scarlet saber hissing as it ground against hers; after an instant of pressure, she was away again, reclaiming distance, whirling to meet Calamit. They were both focused on killing her first, and each other afterwards, and she was glad of it. She could push herself to the limit against both of them, without tenuous, temporary unspoken alliances and instantaneous betrayals. She needed none of that: as subtle as a turbolaser cannon, she was, and here to do what she did best, dominate and destroy.

Calamit flung out his arms against her, and she felt immense pressure against her body on all sides, as if she’d been caught in a vacuum sphere with the vacuum reversed. The floor crumbled away beneath her, meter-thick duracrete disintegrating under the pressure of the Force, revealing a ten-story fall. As her body floated in the air, frozen in place, she could feel an invisible, poisonous power seeping into her, trickling into her eyes, her lungs, her brain, her heart. She gave a furious shriek, scorching it away from her, and flipped to undestroyed roof, flinging one lightsaber in looping arcs at Evryn, making him shy away. Calamit was still sending tendrils of energy against her; she could almost feel them physically beat against her. It made her want to cut them apart, but what good would that do?

It was time to move again. Her feet beat out a staccato rhythm on the rooftop in her deadly dance, her heartbeat running faster still. Feinting with Evryn around ventilation housings, flipping over Calamit’s invisible stabs, she built speed, every ounce of energy focused on penetrating their defenses.

“And to think I tried to make your end quick, tried to spare you,” Evryn said, breathless, and lunged and stabbed at her, trying to draw her into a riposte-counter-riposte.

She snorted shortly, refusing to be baited. “You said so before. Why bring up such a useless statement?” He was matching her aggression, proving himself better at swordplay than she remembered. His body language suggested that he thought killing her ought to be simple enough, though he kept his guard up, and she took fierce pleasure in proving him wrong every moment.

“You really are ungrateful. Although I can’t claim all the credit. My wife wanted to see you in chains.”

“So you managed to dupe some poor girl into sticking with you.” Really, this conversation was a waste of breath. She really shouldn’t even answer him, just let him babble himself to death.

He grinned with conceit. “You don’t even know. How stupid you are. I’d tell you to thank her for your life, but I’m about to take it from you.”

“Then shut up and get on with it!” She made a powerful attack, pushing him back bodily, though she couldn’t break through his guard. He recovered quickly and counterattacked, and now he was pushing her away. Calamit hung back, content to let the younger ones wear themselves out in physical combat; she couldn’t let him sit back and relax, nor let him to his own devices and focus solely on Evryn. Now that Evryn thought he was gaining the upper hand, she slipped away, charging Calamit, tearing her way through his Force aura.

He caught her throat, tried to steal the air from her lungs; she couldn’t Force-scream back, but she broke it with a violent flexing of her upper body, spinning to counter Evryn. She didn’t want to throw one her sabers at Calamit, to risk him stealing it from her and depriving her, or even using it himself to try to kill her. But she would hound him, and Evryn would follow her, and their strange savage threesome would continue.

Her heart was going to tear itself out of her chest in the ferocious ecstasy of battle. If she wasn’t so consumed by wrathful concentration, she might have laughed for sheer joy.

 

Quinn staggered, the Golden Conqueror taking a full broadside from Sun’s Damnation. The Revenant had pulled her remaining ships about herself, an extra set of armour and shields that fought back. Captain Lannes and his fleet were attacking from the rear of the formation, while Quinn’s fleet attacked from the front. They needed a little more time to coax the enemy ships into a favourable formation…

In the meantime, they were soaking up heavy fire, and he had to cling to his console to remain upright. Fighters were skittering by outside, slightly too close for comfort: if any of them were sent into a death spiral in the direction of the bridge, he didn’t like the bridge crew’s chances of survival.

The Conqueror shuddered again, but not from turbolaser fire. “What was that?”

“It seems the station has aimed a tractor beam at us, sir!” Ensign Huxley cried in great alarm. “Or several!” The station was getting larger already, pulling the Conqueror out of position.

“Make up your mind, Ensign, and indicate them on the radar. Captain, send some fighters to deal with it.” They’d take heavy losses. It couldn’t be helped.

“Third and Fourth Squadrons, break off and attack the tractor beam emplacements on the ring,” Cheyomar ordered. Fourth Squadron was a bomber squadron; once they found the emplacements, they’d make short work of them. “Engines to reverse, maximum thrust.”

The Conqueror shook again from a broadside, and now warning klaxons were going off. The hull had been breached. Something popped behind Quinn, and he glanced back to see one of the fire control consoles had exploded. The operator was lying on the floor, clutching his face. “Damage report! Get that man down to medical.”

“Multiple hull breaches on Deck 5 and 6, sir!” replied the damage analyst ensign. “We’ve lost five turbolaser cannons and two shield projectors. Bulkheads have sealed.”

And they couldn’t roll the ship until those tractor beams had been taken out. “Third and Fourth Squadron status?”

“Down to half strength, sir, but they’ve destroyed several targets,” Huxley reported.

“Tell them to make it quicker. Hawk’s Fist, assume defensive position along our starboard. Captain, as soon as we have freedom to move, roll the ship.”

“Aye, sir.” The ships shook again, and the damaged areas on the readouts began to spread. Quinn kept a close eye on it, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it yet. It wasn’t even as important as the rest of the battle.

He glanced at the radar again. “Formation Sigma, attack on my mark. …Mark.”

“Aye, sir.” The Tyrant’s Pride and the three Volkov ships were formed in an arrowhead, waiting in the wings, and now moved at full speed to force themselves into the gap left by Quinn applying pressure at the front and Lannes at the back.

“Tractor beams gone,” Huxley reported, as the Conqueror suddenly seemed to relax and the station began to recede slightly.

“Roll the ship,” Cheyomar ordered. The planet began to rotate outside the viewport, beginning with the enemy ships on the right and ending with them on the left, upside down. “Reduce engines and maintain position. Third and Fourth Squadrons, return to dogfighting.”

“When Sun’s Damnation is out of action, send Thunderbolt and Shadow Walker to begin sweeping up the station’s defenses in their wake,” Quinn ordered. “Tell Captain Lannes to devote someone to doing that as well.”

“Tyrant’s Pride is reporting interference from Infinitum,” Huxley reported. One of Calamit’s ships had immediately curved in from defending against Quinn’s fleet to block Formation Sigma’s attack.

Quinn glared at the radar. Sun’s Damnation and Nautilus were blocking him and Austere Shadow from assisting. “Pride, engage the Infinitum. Take us closer to Sun’s Damnation.”

“Sir?”

“Do it,” Quinn said. The Conqueror would get chewed up, but Sun’s Damnation would get chewed up more.

This was stupid. Perfectly good ships, perfectly good crews were getting blown to pieces. He was unwilling to sacrifice any of his own ships to this madness, but it was starting to look like he would have to. Part of his problem was the fact that he had many small or medium sized ships, with medium sized guns, and too few big ships with big guns – except the Glory of Volkov, which was a medium sized ship with big guns. “Grim Justice, Black Curse, Sickle, move past Nautilus, strike her from behind. Take out her engines.”

“That will place them in range of the Revenant,” Cheyomar said.

“I know. Increase the pressure.”

“Aye, sir.”

The Conqueror’s shields were flickering, and stray shots were scorching armour. “Sun’s Damnation’s engines have failed!” Huxley reported. “Her shields are down!”

“Austere Shadow, finish off Sun’s Damnation,” Quinn said. “Cheyomar, bring us towards the Revenant’s bow.” Like a mother thranta, the Conqueror surged forward, past the burning Sun’s Damnation, behind the Nautilus, and up to shadow the smaller ships. And finally, into range of Calamit’s flagship.

Too late to help Black Curse; though her shields had regained strength since her escape from Calamit’s fleet, her hull had already taken damage. Fires were rippling across her hull now, and every strike from the Revenant wounded her more deeply. “If Black Curse’s captain has not already given the order to abandon ship, now would be the time to do so.”

“Sir, Tyrant’s Pride is down an engine, but Infinitum is withdrawing.” Captain Lannes was also slowly making his way through Calamit’s fleet towards the Revenant, though not as cleanly as Quinn had, and his arrival hadn’t been terribly clean to begin with. Ahead, the Black Curse began spitting out escape pods in all directions, most of them aimed at the planet below. The Revenant forbore to shoot at them.

“Pride, do what you can. Volkov ships, forward – give the Revenant something to think about. We’ll be there shortly.”

“Sun’s Damnation reports surrender,” Hayna called.

“Good. Guns, finish off the Nautilus’s engines quickly. Shadow, join the Conqueror in assaulting the Revenant’s bow. Hold the bombers in reserve.”

“Bow shields failing, sir.”

“Carry on,” Quinn said, feeling sweat trickle down his spine.

“Aye, sir.”

“Nautilus reports surrender,” Hayna said.

“Focus on the Revenant. Take down her shields. Thunderbolt, when the shields fail, hit her with everything you have.”

Captain Lannes re-appeared on holocomm. “Commodore, we’re ready to assist.”

“Target the Revenant’s engines. If you have any hotshots looking to prove themselves, you might send them hunting for the bridge.”

“The captain of the Last Star fits that description. They’ll switch to their auxiliary bridge, of course.”

“Of course.” But every little bit helped.

Tyrant’s Pride was closing the gap to the Revenant, bit by bit, turning their side with the dead engine towards the enemy to protect their remaining engine. Fighters buzzed around them all, attacking each other, taking potshots at the larger ships. It was almost time to send in the bombers.

And then the Revenant began to fire in earnest. A ship of that size, with the largest reactor currently in production, could pour out a lot of firepower. The Hawk’s Fist’s shields crumpled immediately, and the Sickle was about to follow suit. “Sickle, retreat. Hawk’s Fist, abandon ship if you deem it necessary; otherwise, also retreat. Volkov ships, let Pride cover you. Austere Shadow, cover the Sickle.” The Conqueror shuddered violently, shields flickering and failing, and he had to grab his console again. Another bridge console exploded, sending a spray of sparks flying across the aisle. And the Revenant’s shields were only just beginning to show wear. Shadow’s shields were in trouble, Pride’s shields were gone. And across ten kilometers of space, Captain Lannes’s ships were faring about as well.

But the Golden Conqueror was no wilting lorchad blossom, and though her guns were diminished, she was not muted, returning fire as relentlessly as she was able. And all her surviving ships were with her, too many targets for the Revenant to focus fire efficiently. If Quinn were the captain of the Revenant, he would be considering running now, rather than surrender, though Calamit had probably ordered him not to. If it was for Akuliina’s sake, he wouldn’t run or surrender either, but he suspected the captain of the Revenant didn’t have his reasons. Still, the Revenant was running out of options, and that was good for Quinn. Even if they were loyal Imperials, even if it was a complete waste to destroy such a powerful and useful ship, he couldn’t help the feeling of satisfaction at having outfought a difficult opponent.

If he survived. The Conqueror was on fire in at least six different places and depressurized in a dozen more, and while the bridge shields were still intact for now, they wouldn’t last long against the Revenant’s sustained fire. It was a race now to see which side could outshoot the other.

And the Revenant’s shields were weakening, melting. “Thunderbolt, prepare to fire. Bomber squadron, begin your attack run now. Thunderbolt, fire!”

The Thunderbolt’s artillery lanced across the void, creating a rippling fireball in the gradually widening hole in the shields; the bombers followed a few moments later, their armament tearing into the cruiser’s armour. Suddenly, there were a lot fewer turbolasers pointed in their direction. “Well done. Keep firing! We have them!”

Huxley’s head suddenly snapped up. “Sir! The Infinitum is turning its guns towards the planet!”

What!? Now? “Thunderbolt, fire on the Infinitum! Pride, can you block the shot?” There was only one target Infinitum could be aiming at. Pride was too far away, and still limping on one engine, but he had to ask, she was closest. And it wasn’t enough.

“Pride is too far away to get there in time,” Huxley confirmed. The Thunderbolt fired, missiles streaking towards her target, but the Infinitum had already fired its batteries towards the night-dim world below.

 

She was driving Calamit towards the edge of the rooftop when he began to laugh. “Ha! This is it. This is where it ends for you!”

“He’s lost it,” she called to Evryn, who had just recovered and was rushing back to the fight. “He’s finally, completely lost it-”

Both she and Evryn stopped and looked up. Scarlet beams were incoming from heaven, too fast to dodge, too massive to block. “Calamit! You colossal-” Whatever she had been going to say was drowned in the explosion of the first strike, and then the world was lit up with scarlet light.

 

Chapter 8

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