Written by Tim Bancroft and originally published as a serial, City of Exile takes place following the chaos that engulfed the Chryseis system and prior to the events in The Dronescourge Returns.
Batu Delhren and his band of exiled Freeborn are holed up in the Shamasai system making urgent repairs when they detect the signs of a huge starship entering through the gate and cruising round the outer asteroid belts – where they are currently in hiding and trying to make repairs! The previous part can be found here.
A flickering shape appeared on the Shamasai Dust’s bridge holodisplay. In her command chair, Commander Baray leant forward. “What is that, Sensors?”
Lieutenant Tridethe flicked her fingers through the holoconsole, whispered quietly to the ship. “We don’t know, Captain. We’re struggling to get a fix on it. Hold on.” The image solidified.
Batu Delhren gripped the back of Baray’s command chair. “It’s huge!” Behind him hovered the nightmare that was his nano drone, tendrils writhing beneath its bulbous, scaly body.
“I can see that,” snapped Baray, “Dust, what is it?”
“The shape approximates to a Transient Observation Report,” said the Dust. “T.O.R. 563 – a starliner.” Figures flashed up on a side display giving the dimensions of the huge, ancient starship. “The key identifying factor is the severe stern damage, possibly a Vorl attack.”
Tridethe looked up from her console. “Captain, it’s changed since the last sighting.”
“Why didn’t we pick it up earlier?” asked Baray. “It’s five kiloyan long!”
“We shut down active sensors whilst we made repairs,” replied Tridethe. “The passive sensors are barely intelligent in this mode. It looks as if they assumed the TOR was still just a wreck – it’s been very roughly repaired.”
“Very well. Pull up what you can using low-trace active sensors.”
Tridethe focused on the displays as she called up more schematics and threw them up onto the bridge display. “Its engine emissions have Ghar profiles, Captain. And look.” She focused the display on the massive scar in the vessel’s side. Ghar in vacuum-proof suits were working amongst a tangle of cables, girders and protective layers of armour, diminutive ants crawling over a damage scar more than 200yan deep. “Looks like they’re still carrying out repairs.”
“And it’s only just come through the gate.” Baray sat back. “Bad luck.”
“Like Chryseis,” observed Batu, drily. “Bad luck seems to follow us.”
“You can stop that,” said Baray. “Chryseis was a misunderstanding. Sensors, is it coming for us?”
“It’s heading for the fabricator plant, Captain. It must have seen the waste plumes.”
Baray glanced across at her Weapons Officer, Centurion Temuchin. He was working furiously at his own station, oblivious to her gaze. Baray cleared her throat; Temuchin glanced up and reacted to the hint. “Captain, the ship and I have been running combat and evasion scenarios. Given the state of our refit, if that thing has any serious weapons we can’t escape.”
Lieutenant Tridethe called up further displays of the TOR. Along its flank were disruptor bomb projectors as well as the signs of huge, archaic weapon turrets. The image flickered, focused on a bulbous projector from which a central spike rose like an accusing finger.
“Skarkshit!” swore Baray. “Those are Ghar QG projectors.”
Batu gave her a quizzical look. “Quantum Gravity projectors? I thought they were normally planetary defences.”
“Guess the Ghar figure that the TOR is a small planet.” Baray barely hesitated. “Dust, recall the crew at the fabricator site. Have them abandon what they’re doing, recompress the fabricator and return immediately.”
“Yes, Captain. That may take some time.”
“Have them dump everything they’ve manufactured.” Baray glanced at the system holodisplay, the fabricator site some distance away from the frigate where it hid amidst the asteroid belt. “Tell the work parties they’ve time to do so and return to the ship before we run.”
There was a cough from Edoos Tsulmar, the Chief Engineer. Baray turned and he indicated an array of red status indicators around the main drive holodisplay. “Sorry Captain. We’ve been caught at the worst possible time. We can’t outrun even a Ghar vessel.”
Batu activated his personal shard interface. “MyShard, what does the Shamasai Shard think? It’s not said anything.”
MyShard paused a moment, then the nano drone twisted to face Batu. “I believe it wants to protect you, Batu, but does not know how. I believe there is an extended tactical discussion between the SITAI defence routines and the Shamasai core, but I am not party to the conversation.”
The nano drone stirred and a sac on its surface pulsed. “Existential threat to—”
“Primary host,” finished Batu, wearily. “I know. Look, drone, this is not a normal situation. This requires a little stealth – do you understand?”
“Comprehension arrays are in extended status.”
Baray glanced at Batu; he shrugged and held up his hands. I hope I know what that means. “We’re going to have to put all our drones into hiding or compression: if the Ghar see any floating around, they’ll destroy them.” He glanced at the display and watched the huge starliner drifting closer. “Given we haven’t been destroyed, it means the Ghar want us.”
“Or the ship,” added Baray.
Batu nodded. “Or both. Drone: can you remain in the background, worm your way to wherever they incarcerate us? Then try to co-ordinate a rescue?”
The drone formed and reformed tendrils as its surface bubbled and flattened in indecision. “Nascent protocol accepted as framework for operational developments.” The drone turned and exited the bridge.
Baray waited for the doors to close behind it before speaking again. “Is that thing of yours doing what I think it’s doing?”
Batu shrugged. “I don’t know. And I’m pretty sure it thinks it owns me.”
“Then we’ll have to hope.” Baray sat up straight in her chair, addressed the ship-wide comms network. “Crew of the Shamasai Dust. We are about to be captured by a large Ghar ship of unknown capability. We cannot fight, cannot run and cannot evade capture. We can hope. The ship is of an ancient human design but is partially repaired. Our hope is that we have a… weapon that they cannot know about. React on my signal. Pain suppressants and latent combat drug injections are ordered for all personnel.” She clicked off. “Dust, can you handle the suppression and drugs for me?”
“Yes, Baray. Your keyword is ‘regal’. I will issue them immediately.”
“Thanks, Dust. Let’s hope we give them no excuse to attack us.”
 Five kiloyan long = approximately 25km long. 1 yan is roughly 5 metres.
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