Conquerors legacy, p.1
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       Conquerors' Legacy, p.1

           Timothy Zahn
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Conquerors' Legacy


  Timothy Zahn - Conquerors 03 - Conquerors' Legacy

  Conquerors Saga, book 3

  DEDICATION

  For several years now, from time to time, he has been supplying me with little tidbits of ideas; and up to now he has not received a proper public acknowledgment of my gratitude. With this book, it's time to set that right.

  So here goes. The suggestion that part of this book be from Max's point of view came from him. So did the hand-built model that inspired the design of the Peacekeepers' Wolf Pack. For these ideas, for those that have come before, and for those that are undoubtedly yet to come, I dedicate this book to my son: CORWIN ZAHN

  1

  Directly ahead, the sky was a brilliant and cloudless blue. All around, at the distant circle of the horizon, the browns and grays and pale greens of the planetscape hazed with an odd seamlessness into the blue of the sky. Above and slightly aft, the planet's sun was a pale, red-orange globe.

  Directly beneath was enemy territory.

  "Samurai, I'm picking up response activity," the voice of the backstop Corvine's tail man came in Commander Rafe Taoka's ear. "Thirty-four klicks aft. Can't tell what kind of craft yet, but I read five of them."

  "Tally that," Taoka's own tail man, Juggler, confirmed. "Also tally Talisman's count."

  "Acknowledged," Taoka said, twitching his left eyelid to call up the tactical/sensor view aft of his Catbird fighter. The image superimposed itself on the enhanced forward view racing past beneath him, and he took a moment to study the flashing circles Juggler had marked. No vehicles showing yet, but the false-color scheme definitely indicated thermal and turbulence signatures. "Gusto, give yourself another half klick up-I want Talisman to keep an eye on those signatures back there. Juggler, Argus: you two stay sharp on forward wedge scan."

  "Acknowledged," Gusto said from the Corvine, his voice sounding a little strained. "Shouldn't we go to X?"

  "Standing Order Three, Gusto," Crossfire said from the other Catbird, flying a dozen meters off Taoka's wing. "We don't go to X until bogies are actually on scope."

  "This isn't a drill, Crossfire," Gusto said, a touch of asperity cracking through his voice. "This is real."

  "Yes, we know," Crossfire said patiently. "Just stay cool. We're doing fine."

  "Yes, sir," Gusto muttered. "Staying cool, sir."

  "Doesn't sound happy, does he?" Juggler commented from the aft cockpit seat behind Taoka.

  "Can't say I blame him," Taoka growled back. It was a stupid rule, St/Ord 3 was, and everyone from the Peacekeeper Triad on down knew it. Level X, the full Mindlink integration between the pilot, tail, and fighter craft itself, was the whole point of the Copperheads in the first place. The Level A linkage they were using right now really wasn't much better than the baseline heads-ups the poppers who flew Axeheads or Dragonflies got.

  But, then, St/Ord 3 hadn't been set up by military men. It was a political order, forced on the Copperheads by the NorCoord Parliament a few years back. Their ill-considered reaction to that oversensationalized flap over Copperhead burnout. A flap led and fed by the ambitions of then-Parlimin Lord Stewart Cavanagh.

  One expected idiotic and shortsighted ideas from politicians. What had twisted in Taoka's gut like splintered glass was the fact that Cavanagh's crusade had been aided and abetted by a former Copperhead. Worse, a Copperhead who had once held near-legendary status. Adam Quinn: Maestro. Or, as Taoka thought of him now, Adam Quinn: Traitor. It had been a hurtful and humiliating time, and Taoka had privately resolved never to forget that pain. But maybe all that bad blood had finally circled back to where it belonged. The last skitter message that had reached theTrafalgar task force before they left Commonwealth space had included a notice that Quinn had been arrested and charged with theft of Peacekeeper property. With a little luck maybe Lord Cavanagh could get dragged into it, too; Taoka had heard that Quinn was working for Cavanagh these days. Get the two of them thrown into cold storage for the next twenty years, and he might be willing to call it even.

  Beneath the three fighters a group of Conqueror buildings shot past, built in the same linked-hexagon style the aliens used for their warships. He caught a glimpse of a courtyard area between two of the buildings-the heat signature of a single Conqueror standing out in the open, no doubt looking goggle-eyed up at them-and then they were over a vast landing field with a scattering of small air- or spacecraft clustered at one end.

  "Got some heat signatures," Juggler reported from behind him. "Some of those craft down there are already gearing up."

  "Looks like word of our arrival's getting around," Gusto added.

  "Can't fault their communications any," Taoka said, calling up the image of the vehicles they'd just passed. "Lucky for us they're not too swift on the uptake."

  "They're swift enough," Crossfire cut in. "Argus has two groups incoming: twenty and forty degrees, two hundred klicks range. Intercept vectors."

  Taoka smiled grimly. Finally: a direct enemy threat. "All right, Samurai group. You wanted it; you got it. All Copperheads, go to X."

  "Signal from Samurai group, Commodore," the fighter commander called from across theTrafalgar's bridge. "They have incoming bogies. Samurai's ordered them to Level X."

  "Acknowledged, Schweighofer," Commodore Lord Alexander Montgomery said, running his eyes over the outer scan displays for probably the hundredth time since launching the probe teams. Peacekeeper Command had assured him that their sudden arrival would probably catch the enemy off guard; but Peacekeeper Command's collective hindquarters weren't on the line here. His were, and he had no intention of losing them or his task force to the Zhirrzh. Certainly not the way Trev Dyami had lost theJutland. "Smith, do we still have visual on the outriders?" he called across the bridge.

  "Yes, sir," the force coordination officer called back. "Visual and lasercom both. Still no enemy response."

  "That won't last much longer," Captain Thomas Germaine murmured from the fleet exec's chair beside Montgomery. "They must havesomething in this system that can fight. Only question is where they're hiding it."

  "Agreed," Montgomery said, running a thoughtful forefinger across the deep cleft in his chin. The outriders had clear visuals on both moons and all space debris within any reasonable range. Unless the enemy had something buried away underground-

  "Antelopereports enemy ship rising from the planet," Smith called. "Grid Fifty-five-Delta."

  Germaine had already keyed the main display for theAntelope's feed. The Zhirrzh ship rising at them was not all that big, perhaps half the size of the ships theJutland had encountered a few light-years off Dorcas.

  Still, considering how easily those four alien craft had ripped through theJutland's eight-ship task force, the presence of even one Zhirrzh warship was nothing to be taken lightly.

  And orbiting two thousand klicks away in outrider position, theAntelope might as well have been a floating bull's-eye for all the good the rest of the task force could do them. "Mendoza, you'd better get out of there," he ordered theAntelopes captain. "Mesh out, and wait for us at Point Victor."

  As if to underline the order, the rising conglomeration of hexagons began spitting laser fire, splashing tiny clouds of vaporized metal from theAntelopes hull. "Acknowledged,Trafalgar," Mendoza's voice came back. "You want me to loop back around and run backstop?"

  "Negative," Montgomery said. "Just run. Bravo Sector ships: deploy defense against incoming bogie. All fighters return to their ships at once, probe teams included."

  "Samurai group is about to engage, sir." Schweighofer reminded him.

  "Tell Samurai I saidnow."

  "Acknowledged.

  Montgomery looked up to find Germaine frowning at him. "We're leaving already?" the fleet exec asked. "Surely we can handle a sin
gle enemy warship."

  "Boldness is a useful quality in a warrior," Montgomery told him quietly. "Brashness belongs in your quarters with your dress uniform. Our mission objectives were to gather geographic data and to test the assumption that the Zhirrzh can't detect the tachyon wake-trails of incoming starships. We've accomplished both. There's nothing to be gained by adding head-to-head combat to the mission profile."

  "Except possibly a reduction of the enemy threat," Germaine countered. "Even withoutAntelope we've got a fifteen-to-one edge here, plus four wings of Adamant and Copperhead fighters. This is the kind of chance-"

  "Second ship incoming, Commodore," Smith interrupted."Cascadia has it rising from Grid One-sixteen-Charlie."

  "Deploy defensive," Montgomery ordered as Germaine pulled up the picture. Coming up from a group of low hills, the newcomer looked to be a bit larger than the first bogie, though given its completely different arrangement of hexagons, it was hard to tell for sure. "Any idea yet where they're coming from?"

  "Apparently from right under our noses, sir," Kyun Wu said from the sensor station. "I ran a check-the probe teams had them marked as buildings. Must have one hell of a lift system to be able to bring something that size up and down a gravity well."

  Montgomery grimaced to himself. Lasers capable of slicing through Peacekeeper hull metal, virtually indestructible ceramic hulls; a method of instantaneous communication across interstellar distances; and now an unknown but obviously highly efficient ground-to-space lift system. Even without anything else, the level of their technology would have red-flagged these aliens as a potential threat to humanity.

  Their use of that technology to invade the Commonwealth had turned that red flag into a red alarm. And had earned the Zhirrzh the name Conquerors.

  "Commodore,Antelope has meshed out," Smith reported. "First bogie changing course towardGalileo andWolverine. Second bogie has engagedCascadia andNagoya"

  "Nagoyasbeen hit!" Kyun Wu snapped. "Full round of laser fire from Bogie Two. Looks like severe damage to all forward sections."

  "Confirm that," Smith said. "Damage to command structure; severe damage to sensors and forward missile ports."

  "Cascadia'slaunched a missile attack against Bogie Two," Kyun Wu said. "Missiles hitting... no apparent damage. Bogie is attackingNagoya again."

  "Damage toNagoya starboard flank," Smith said. "Make that severe damage. Command center's gone; Prasad has ordered ship-abandon. Bogie One's engagingWolverine"

  "Trautmann, move us to backstopCascadia," Montgomery ordered the helmsman. "Kyun Wu: status onNagoyas honeycombs."

  "Nothing yet," Kyun Wu said tightly. "Bogie's still firing atNagoya. Wait a minute; I'm picking up some pod emergency beacons-"

  Abruptly, he broke off. "Beacons have gone silent, Commodore."

  Germaine swore viciously under his breath. "Damn them all."

  Montgomery squeezed his left fist hard enough to hurt, sudden fury burning along his throat. They were doing it again. Brutally, arrogantly, deliberately, the Conquerors were slaughtering the human survivors of their attack. Helpless survivors, in defenseless and unarmed escape pods. "Launch missiles," he ordered. "Full salvo."

  "Acknowledged," the weapons officer called. "Missiles away."

  "Too late, Commodore," Smith said quietly. "TheNagoyas gone."

  For a half-dozen painful heartbeats Montgomery just sat there, staring at the expanding cloud of debris that had been theNagoya, a cloud still flashing and flickering with secondary explosions and enemy laser fire. There were things he wanted to scream at the Conquerors; things he desperately wanted to scream. But he was a NorCoord officer, from the heritage and tradition of Great Britain. Such men did not lose control. "Fighter status?" he asked instead.

  "Samurai group is just coming into their bays," Schweighofer reported, his voice the bitter cold of a Rheinland on Nadezhda winter. "All other fighters have returned to their ships. Rather, all that will be returning."

  Montgomery's fist tightened again. But there would be time later to tot up the casualties. Right now his job was to keep his force from suffering any more of them. "Fire another salvo at Bogie Two," he ordered the weapons officer as he touched his comm control. "All ships: defense formation; mesh out in order. Rendezvous at Point Victor."

  He could feel Germaine's eyes on him as the other ships acknowledged and the task force began its orderly retreat. But the fleet exec said nothing. Perhaps because there was nothing to be said. Fifteen Peacekeeper warships, fleeing before two of the enemy, leaving a ship's worth of dead behind. And the two enemy warships not showing so much as a scratch.

  But at least he hadn't lost his whole task force-the way Dyami had lost theJutland.

  And, ultimately, it wasn't going to matter how viciously and arrogantly the Zhirrzh cut into them here. By now the NorCoord Parliament must certainly have authorized the use of CIRCE, the awesome weapon that had been used four decades earlier to end the Pawolian war, and which then for security reasons had been disassembled. Odds were, in fact, that all of CIRCE's components had already been gathered together from the dozen or more worlds on which they'd been hidden. Somewhere back in the Commonwealth-on Earth, on Celadon, perhaps somewhere out in deep space-top NorCoord ordnance techs were probably even now reassembling those components into the most spectacular killing device mankind had ever known.

  So let the enemy slaughter and destroy. Soon they would find themselves facing CIRCE, and the Peacekeepers would have the final word.

  And the Zhirrzh would find out who the true Conquerors around here really were.

  2

  The spokesman of the two Mrachanis spoke, his voice soft and low and with an earnestness that tugged oddly at Commander Thrr-mezaz's emotions. "You must listen to us, Commander of the Zhirrzh," the translation came a few beats later through the translator-link nestled in Thrr-mezaz's ear slits. "We are in great danger here on Dorcas. You must persuade your leaders to bring us to them."

  "We're doing everything in our power to protect you, Lahettilas," Thrr-mezaz said, the translation into the Human-Conqueror language coming a few beats later from the speaker on his shoulder, linked by darklight beams to the interpreter installed in one of the buildings across the landing field. "You must understand that the Overclan Seating and Warrior Command are extremely busy-"

  Lahettilas cut him off, the earnestness in his voice changing abruptly to scorn. "Everything in your power? You harbor the Human-Conqueror responsible for a vicious attack intended to be fatal to us; and yet you claim to be protecting us?"

  "The Human-Conqueror prisoner Srgent-janovetz is being carefully watched," Second Commander Klnn-vavgi said from beside Thrr-mezaz. "If he was the one who launched that explosives attack on your quarters last fullarc, he won't have the opportunity to repeat it."

  The second Mrachani growled something. "So you say," the translation came. "Yet you concede you don't even know the mechanism of the attack. How, then, can you presume to guarantee our safety?"

  "I never said your safety was guaranteed," Thrr-mezaz said coldly. There was something about these aliens and their mannerisms that he found vaguely but increasingly irritating. And the last thing he needed right now was a lecture on his responsibilities as the commander of the Zhirrzh ground warriors. "Dorcas is a war zone, which you chose to enter. You'll just have to face the dangers here along with the rest of us."

  Lahettilas spoke again, his tone matching the chill of Thrr-mezaz's own voice. "The difference is that you are warriors, Commander of the Zhirrzh. We are ambassadors. Furthermore, it wasnot our choice to come here to the surface into your war zone. Our request was to be taken to your leaders to discuss an alliance between our two peoples. As we have asked before."

  "And as I have said before, that decision is still being considered," Thrr-mezaz said. "That's the best I can do."

  Lahettilas inhaled deeply, then exhaled just as deeply, as if he were breathing out part of his own essence with the action. His voice changed again, turning s
oft, with a sorrow that seemed to twist beneath Thrr-mezaz's tongue. "I suppose I understand," the translation came. "Distrust and fear-perhaps they are an inevitable part of warfare. Still, it would be a bitter consequence if such distrust led to the destruction of both our peoples."

  "A bitter consequence, indeed," Thrr-mezaz agreed. "On the other side, the Zhirrzh are a long way yet from such destruction."

  Lahettilas spoke again, his tone turning dark and grim. "Perhaps you are closer than you realize. Your Warrior Command urgently needs to hear about the weapon called CIRCE. If the Human-Conquerors are able to reconstruct it-"

  Behind the Mrachanis an Elder abruptly appeared, only his transparent face protruding through the wall. "End this conversation immediately, Commander," he hissed.

  In the two fullarcs since they'd landed there, the Mrachanis had gotten faster at trying to locate the source of these brief Elder communications. But they weren't yet quite fast enough, and the Elder had vanished before they were able to turn around. Lahettilas spoke-"These faint Zhirrzh voices disturb me, Commander of the Zhirrzh. Where do they come from?"

 

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