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 were undertaking repairs to their ship when they were captured by what they thought was a T.O.R – a Transient Observation Report. Unfortunately, the giant ship was crewed by Ghar who have renamed the ship City of Triumph Over Humanity. After being brought aboard, they are confronted with an old nemesis of Batu’s from Shamasai: Force Commander Shaltok. The previous episode can be found here.
“Sir, the plumes have shut down. A shuttle is fleeing from us. Shall I destroy?”
“No. Follow its path. Pay close attention to every asteroid or planetoid within range of our sensors. This far out, a shuttle needs a host.”
Shaltok scanned the control room crew and was conscious of the strain on both his slaves and the Ghar officers as the humans tried to work to the Ghar’s tolerance of discomfort. Several humans were replaced when they almost collapsed onto their consoles: human shifts needed to be shorter than the Ghar. Yet more human weaknesses. They suffer pain more readily, become tired more easily. He sat back in his seat, put on his combat array and reviewed the data from the gunners and spotters in the Ghar turret weaponry. We need to manufacture some space-borne flitters for such conflict. He tried to track the slavemaster-tech to tell him, but the Outcast tech’s call signal was unavailable. Perhaps he is off-duty. He and his fellow engineers have committed themselves to this ship. Shaltok made a note to have Slavemaster-tech report to the bridge when back on duty.
“Sir, the City has located a human ship, frigate sized. It’s anchored to a stable asteroid, minimal emissions.”
“They’re hiding, perhaps making repairs.” The officer knew better than to reply. “Move into domination position. Force it to surrender. Minimal weapons fire.”
The vast City of Triumph slowly shifted course until it was following the shuttle. Communication broadcasts from the shuttle were identified, analysed and found to be encrypted with keys that the Ghar could not break. We need to operate these calculation machines better. Shaltok could not think of the ship’s computers as AIs as they were only a little more advanced than those of the Ghar. And the machines are certainly not on par with that destructive IMTel.
“Sir, all targeting systems have the human ship in range. The shuttle has docked. There are construction frameworks around it.”
A damaged ship performing maintenance here? “Target the framework. Blow it away.” Shaltok thought of what his engineers and technicians had done to the City. Useful that we have varying degrees of threat. A modern ship will have too many heavy disruptors and QG generators. The lack of response by the target nagged at his attention. The humans are not fleeing yet should be able to outpace us. They must be repairing their main drive. “Make sure you do not damage the frigate,” he added.
Low-power disruptor bombs launched out, along with the defensive weaponry of the ancient liner. In moments the construction frameworks were destroyed. The frigate released itself from the asteroid on which it sat.
A Communications Officer spoke. “Sir, we have a transmission from the frigate. A surrender.”
Good. “Bring them into the forward docking bay. Have them disembark and sent to prison cells, all bar their captain who I wish to interrogate. Send tectorists aboard to see if they have anyone left.” He waited for acknowledgements, commtechs to relay his orders through the jumbled confusion of ancient human and Ghar technology. “And find the slavemaster!”
* * *
Shaltok decided to interrogate the commander in the docking bay rather than wait. A troop of suited bodyguards waited outside the command centre whilst he clambered into his modified battlesuit – some of the corridors and newly-activated lifts and rapid transit cars were too awkward to use the command crawler. Besides, the suit is much more comfortable. He looked round at the other suits, the hasty repairs, several of his bodyguard now bearing physical, ceralloy shields to compensate for the weakened armour. Mine’s not much better. His own had suffered much damage, had been repaired several times and now sported a bomber cannon rather than the scourer of his bodyguard, different sensor heads, communication masts, additional plating. A technician clambered over it, checking the seals were tight. It’s still Ghar.
Reports flooded in as they clunked towards the lifts but seemed to make little sense. A heavily understaffed frigate? With a large contingent of primitives? Worse, still, the primitives appeared to be damage control specialists — used as muscle, no doubt — as well as ground troops, though they still had primitive weapons and even spears in their barracks.
The bodyguards fanned out into the hangar bay. Though 60 to 70 yan long, the frigate was still dwarfed by the scale of its surroundings. Wreckage that had once been scattered around the hangar deck was in piles at one end where the metal could be reclaimed and reused. Accepting the extra Outcast contingent at the last supply delivery was a good move. They have worked hard to clear the ship up.
Two prisoners were brought forward. Is that one female? “I am Shaltok, Captain of the Ghar Empire ship City of Triumph over Humanity. You will be spared if you co-operate fully.” Both humans nodded. The male caught Shaltok’s attention. Whilst dressed in a human shipsuit, the male also wore a fine cloak with ornamentation and colours that jogged a memory. “I have seen you before,” said Shaltok. The male raised his eyebrows. Surprise? “I believe it was on that useless dust planet. We tricked you.”
The human male winced. “I remember it very well, thank you.” He gestured to the female beside him. “This is Commander Baray, captain of the Shamasai Dust. She, too, was on Shamasai. Or Delhren VI as we sometimes refer to it.”
“And you are?”
The human bowed, swept his cloak around him and back in a fashion that suggested a dance. “I am Prince Batu tsulmari Delhren.”
“I’m told you are a commodore,” said Shaltok. “Where are your other ships?”
The human’s gaze flickered to the frigate and back. “Waiting to join us.”
“Then they will have a long wait. What were you doing here?”
“Repairs,” said the Commander Baray. “We were damaged in a fight.”
The damage on the ship was clear: patches could not cover the damaged hull where the frigate had taken numerous hits from human weapons. “You were not fighting Ghar.”
The Batu winced. “No, we weren’t.”
“You would have been destroyed.” On neither human could Shaltok see the tell-tale head growths of the Algoryn nor the organic lines of the Isori on their shipsuits. “Were you attacked by Isori?”
“Agents for the Isorians,” said the Batu.
“A human weakness. You fight amongst yourselves.”
The Baray glared at him. “And so do Ghar, we hear. Xilos bared your troubles to the universe.”
News has spread! “I serve the Supreme Commander.”
“And apparently so claims this Futtock fellow.”
“His name is Fartok. He is Rebel.” Why is the Batu chuckling to himself. “You will not laugh. You are in danger. A Ghar’s normal instinct is to kill humans on sight. We accept slaves only of necessity: my bodyguard here”—he gestured to the troopers— “will kill you with a single command.” He waited for a reaction to the threat: there was none. Are they not scared? “I might be able to make use of your ship. If so, I will need your expertise to adapt it to my needs. Co-operation brings you life.”
“We will co-operate,” said the Batu, “Won’t we, Captain?”
The Baray scowled. “Yes, Commodore.”
An interupt flashed up on Shaltok’s combat array, a message from the bridge. “The supply vessel has arrived, Captain. It is Captain Dramak with an urgent, personal message.”
“Very well. Have them dock to their normal station. Bring Commander Dramak down here.” He pointed to the frigate. “Show me your vessel, humans, what needs repair.” He opened up his suit and a tech scrambled up to disconnect the neural plugs. Shaltok jumped to the deck plating and looked up at the humans, expectantly.
The Batu bowed and gestured for him to lead them. “After you.” They fell into step slightly behind him as he walked forward, the bodyguards clumping along around them. “It’s a modern C3 design,” said the Batu. “Spinal lance, secondary plasma- and mag- batteries – used for defensive and anti-missile fire, too.”
“And those?” asked Shaltok, pointing to some bulges on either side of the hull.
“X-racks. Mag-missile launchers. They accelerate the missiles before—”
“I know what a mag-missile launcher is,” said Shaltok, scowling. He waved at the repairs, the mangled plating that had still not been fully replaced. “Tell me about the attack.”
“We won,” said the Baray. “Destroyed three ships and escaped the fourth.”
They are more effective than I imagined, thought Shaltok. “So why did you not return to your own systems for refit? Were you so badly damaged you could not travel far?”
“Yes,” snapped Baray. “Our shielding was compromised.” She waved at the partially reconstructed hull plating. “You can see that.”
She did not look at the Batu, thought Shaltok. And that was too quick an answer. There is more to her answer. “What about command surfaces?”
“Standard holoconsoles,” said the Batu. “We’ll show you.”
“They can be adapted for Ghar use?” Shaltok observed another meaningful glance from the Batu to the Captain. He is the weaker one. There was silence whilst they continued walking round the frigate. On one flank there was little damage. Their foe focused its attacks. Sensible.
“Are you from Fartok’s brood, then?” asked the Batu. “Brood 12-40, isn’t it? Altered for imagination?”
Shaltok tried to suppress his surprise. He is well informed. He considered carefully before replying. “I am Shaltok 12-41-9, a subsequent brood from the same hatchery.”
“Perhaps that’s why you’re still repairing the TOR,” said the Batu. He appeared to pick something up from Shaltok’s expression. “We saw three Ghar on the hull, working on the cabling.”
I had not ordered any repairs! Who is out on the hull? What are they doing? Further discussion was interrupted by a hail from across the huge hangar. “Sir, Captain Dramak 5-94-7 has arrived.”
“We will wait here,” said Shaltok. “My supply ship has arrived with a personal message.” He waited whilst Dramak and two assault troopers clumped over to them. To his surprise, Dramak did not salute and barely glanced at his human prisoners.
“Commander Dramak, you lack respect.”
“That’s Captain Dramak. I have promotion and a new command.”
What’s going on here? thought Shaltok. “Yet you arrived in the Bearer of Triumph, your small troopship. Perhaps your promotion is not as much of an accolade as you believe.”
There was triumph in Dramak’s eyes. “It is your promotion that has proved fruitless, Shaltok. I am aboard my new command. Karg wishes this vessel for his flagship, with me as captain of the City of Triumph.” Dramak turned to his pair of assault troopers. “I declare Shaltok Outcast. Take the nameless one away.”
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