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 have been captured by Ghar aboard a huge, ancient starliner the Ghar are reusing. Unfortunately, the Ghar captain, Shaltok, has just been Outcast by the Empire by a crony of Karg – though Shaltok’s soldiers refused to obey Dramak and, instead, returned Dramak to his own ship. Unfortunately, a Rebel ship has just arrived in-system, no doubt having followed the giant City of Triumph Over Humanity (once T.O.R. 563) and regarding it an excellent prize. The previous episode can be found here.
“Status!” snapped Shaltok as he trotted into the control centre.
“Nothing, sir,” squeaked a tactical officer, Bredt. “It’s confusing – Foornyn’s cruiser is standing off, repeating his call to surrender. He’s giving us a countdown to a deadline.”
“Is the Rebel ship in weapons range?”
“A few minutes more, sir. We’ve launched a few quantum gravity torpedoes but they’ve been ineffectual, countered before they got close.”
“And he has not fired in response?”
“No, Captain.” Bredt swallowed, nervous. “Sir, I really do not understand his tactics.”
Shaltok stared at the magnified image of Foornyn’s cruiser. What has he planned? “As soon as he is in range, fire. Destroy him.” We have a massive size advantage, but the firepower of a heavy destroyer – plus this ship’s own weaponry, however well that will work against a Ghar cruiser. “Sensors, show me data on the cruiser.” A battery of displays to one side of the huge bridge altered to display readouts on the cruiser. An Imposition class heavy cruiser, formally Imposition of Triumph over Humanity III. There was a name emblazoned along the cruiser’s flank, together with the purple and white, Outcast Rebel symbol. Imposition of the True Path? What sort of a name is that?
“Sir, we’re at maximum possible range for effectiveness. Batteries—”
“Sir!” The commtech interrupted. “The cruiser is broadcasting a message, all frequencies, in clear. One word: ‘Now’.”
The bridge went dark. Klaxons sounded and emergency lighting flickered on. Status displays flashed red as power to major systems dropped: weapons, targeting, thrusters, main drive.
“What’s happening?” snapped Shaltok.
A message boomed over the control centre’s speakers. “This is High Commander Foornyn on behalf of the forces of the True Ghar. Agents loyal to Fartok have made your ship helpless. Surrender. You will be boarded and overrun: it is your choice whether we do so through violence or with restraint.”
“Engineering! What have we got?”
“External comms, sir, and environmental controls.” The engineering officer was desperately flicking switches and pressing control surfaces, berating his interface slave before turning to the few controls that were Ghar-enabled. “Drive shielding is still active: at least we can fend off minor asteroid impacts.”
“That’s not much of a consolation. Details.”
“Sir, it’s as if power from all the main plants and engines has been selectively isolated.”
Shaltok sank into his control chair. Foornyn’s ‘agents’… He turned to his commtech. “Has anyone located the slavemaster-tech and his escort?”
The commtech whispered into his microphone, tilted his head to listen, then shook his head. “No, sir. They are nowhere to be found.”
Betrayed! Anger spurred Shaltok. “Send a message to Foornyn. Tell him that if he wants this ship, he will have to take it.” He jumped from his control chair and trotted down the gangway to the entrance. “Tactical Officer Bredt, take the chair. Have every platoon monitor where the cruiser will dock. I will direct the counter-boarding response myself: we will fight them as they board.”
* * *
In the comforting embrace of his command suit, data poured across Shaltok’s combat array. A pair of Foornyn’s QG torpedoes had disabled Dramak’s transport before it could detach itself from the City of Triumph. Accurate weapon fire from the cruiser had taken out the transport’s drives and primary batteries whilst other fire had destroyed sensor masts and power routes. The power plants are still intact. Dramak and his surviving crew were pouring back onto the ancient city-liner. Shaltok quickly assigned the troopers to his own platoons.
The display showed Dramak and a few bodyguards making straight for the City’s control centre. Well, I will not be there. I have to be where I am most effective. He quickly ran through post-activation checks then nodded to his bodyguard and the squads behind them. “To success!” They echoed the phrase, then followed as he lumbered across the bridges to the depths of the ship.
Shaltok ran past the point defence bomber and disruptor cannon defending the bridges to the control centre. All the cannon were fully crewed and Outcasts were erecting additional barricades from crates and scavenged partitioning. He routed an external feed to his combat array: it showed Foornyn’s cruiser coupling itself to one flank, then blowing holes in the outer doors to several hangars and erecting boarding tunnels. “Control, Officer Bredt: Where are the internal surveillance feeds?”
“Power to the internal surveillance system displays has been cut, sir. We’re tracing the source, but it appears to be astern, possibly outside the habitable portions of the ship.”
We are blind. Shaltok ground his teeth. I will have that slavemaster-tech and his cronies shot! I gave them all the freedom they needed. He ground his teeth and sent an order for his loyal Sheep to hunt down the trio of Outcast technicians.
Shaltok’s only advantage was that he and his troops knew the internal layout of the vast ship better than Foornyn’s rebels – or, at least, part of it as there were vast portions of the ancient starliner even his Ghar had never explored. He sent a dispatch to the few troopers evacuating Dramak’s troopship to co-ordinate with Force Commander Tren, detailed ambush points for Force Commander Dobat to establish, then led his platoon to where he reasoned Foornyn might launch his main assault. We can flank him.
A message came through: survivors from the batteries on the attacked flank had regrouped. Tectorists were with them and were reporting Foornyn’s movements through the maze of nearly-empty corridors, ramps, stairwells, and transit shafts. The survivors had released skitters and flitters, though the size of the City of Triumph meant there was too much area to cover. We could chase each other for days.
Shaltok clattered to a halt, his and his escorts’ suit legs screeching on the metal floors. The silence was deafening after the resounding tramp and clatter of armoured legs on the floor. If Foornyn knows it’s a maze, then he can only attack the Control Centre. It was too obvious an objective. He knows it will be defended, knows we will move to block him. He’s too experienced to take us on face to face, in ground we know better. What does he know we don’t? There was only one, obvious answer: Foornyn must be receiving the surveillance feed.
Shaltok could not help but feel dismay. Am I to lose my ship? Karg and Dramak’s political manoeuvring and career assassination were one thing, losing a fight to the rebels was another. Test the assumption. Without feeling any remorse, he assigned a few squads to make a possibly futile flank probe on where Foornyn’s column were most likely to be if they made a direct line for the control centre. He watched the feeds from the squad’s combat arrays, saw how quickly they ran into opponents who seemed to know exactly where they were. He pulled the survivors back, his suspicions confirmed.
A message request flickered on his combat array: Foornyn. He accepted the transmission. “Captain Shaltok. From that failed, probing attack of yours I believe you are now aware of how much my intelligence and battlefield monitoring is superior to your own. I will take control of your vessel. If you surrender and join the forces of the True Ghar, then you will survive.”
How can I defend such a vast ship when the opponent knows more about my defences than I do? His life would be forfeit if he lost his ship. But my life would be as an Outcast in the Empire, anyway. The thought of surrendering to Fartok’s Rebel cause felt anathema, despite the name Foornyn was using. True Ghar? Does Fartok believe he can establish a Ghar Empire in opposition to the Supreme Commander and Karg?
Foornyn continued. “Shaltok, you know I am High Commander: you are outmanoeuvred. Be sensible. We are not rebels, it is only Karg who has corrupted the true purpose of the Ghar. Fartok is merely attempting to re-establish what we were meant to achieve. Join us. Save your troopers and crew.”
Shaltok remained quiet, knowing that Foornyn’s combat array would know he had received the message. He silently reallocated his troopers to defend the control centre and auxiliary power plants. I will make it difficult for him.
Foornyn had not finished. “Captain Shaltok, if you do not surrender, then I will have no option but to kill all your troopers and crew who resist. Only the Outcasts will be freed.” The voice hardened. “And you will die. Slowly, as befits a supporter of the treacherous Karg.”