Admiral Martia Restino of the Rabit Space Force has to face her defeat. Should she stay longer, risking her crew, for the small chance to save a few pilots from the Haul or jump home immediately?





She-admiral Martia Restino of the Rabit Space Force watched the defeat of her troops with an impassive face. She had stopped wondering how the Haul had found them in the depths of space moments after the sensors had detected the enemy. It was the third time she had crossed swords with these vicious beasts. Like the last two times, watching the tactic screens was like watching over the shoulder of a kid playing some shoot 'em up. A very good kid. Unfortunately, not on her side. Ten minutes after deploying the fighters, Haul had shot down 40% of them without any apparent loss on their side.

«Status?» she asked.

«Morry should be in position in about 30 seconds. We lost contact with the other three.»

The admiral didn't allow her despair to appear on her features. Thirty seconds would mean as many lost pilots. Little scavenger units of the Haul already swarmed the battle field like flies, hogging the fighters she had lost. No one knew what they did to the pilots, only that they never left anyone behind, friend or foe or any piece of equipment that was bigger than the head of a pin. Restino watched the progress with half an eye. Her team knew what to do, her input wasn't needed which allowed her mind to wander. 'Why? Why are they doing this? It just makes no sense!'

There was a flash of light. Stunned silence. Heads turned to the sensor guys. Anxious silence. «Status.» Her voice sounded as parched as her mouth felt.

«Morry got to the target!» came the reply. «We're blind for another five seconds!»

'Oh Tar, please make the new prototype work!' she prayed. Seconds ticked away like eons.

«Confirmation! Target severely damaged!»

Cheers roared at the news. Restino rested her head against the back of her chair and took a deep breath. She didn't want to think about all the woman who had died under her command to make this possible. «Call the fighters back!» she ordered.

Even though they had discussed the strategy in advance, heads turned towards her, unbelieving. «Ma'am?»

«With the other three units lost or damaged, staying would only increase our losses. Call everyone back. Contact with Morry?»

The sensor chief turned towards her with an expression that told her what she wanted to know before he explained it with words. «She ... was very close to the explosion.»

They had feared as much. The original idea of the new prototype had been to sneak upon the target, deploy the bomb and then wait with the detonation until the pilot was at a safe distance. It was an idea born of pure desperation. For an unknown reason, warheads always failed to hit the target but fighters had been able to come close to the 1.5 kilometer long base ships of the Haul. So they had figured to hide the bomb in a camouflaged fighter and use the pilot to deploy it.

Psychologists had warned her that the pilots might turn this into suicide missions despite the strict order to wait with the detonation until they had reached safety. Their argument was that rockets with warheads had failed and the pilots knew that, so the pilots would want to reduce the risk of failure by manually triggering the explosion while they were still close, basically protecting the warhead with their body so it wouldn't be disarmed by whatever magic the Haul used. She had listened and then ignored them, knowing full well that they had no choice. If this was the price to protect the Rabit Commonwealth, she would gladly pay.

«Units are coming back,» she was told.

«Thank you. Barrage fire.»

«Aye, aye, Ma'am. Barrage fire. Switching to barrage fire. Barrage fire confirmed.» The sound of the big surface mounted turrets changed from the occasional burst to the deep rumbling of the heavy duty barrage fire mode. On her monitor, she saw a whole slew of rockets speeding out of their launchers to intercept anything tailing the returning fighters.

«Haul units do not pursue!» came the call from sensors.

Her head came up. «What?»

«They fall back! The Haul fall back!»

The cheers were deafening. She-admiral Restino realized that she might have secured the first victory of her race in this losing war. 'Oh Tar, thank you!' She felt a rush of joy which was cut short by the jump alarm. «What?» she cried, then space time was brutally forced into obedience. As her mind cleared, the planet, the sun, her woman, the Haul, everything was gone. Cold stars filled the displays. «What happened? Who ordered the jump?» she shouted. «How long until we can jump back?» With horror, she realized that her fighters were still back at LC-5437, without any backup, helpless victims of the Haul revenge.

«Ma'am?» The shaky voice of the head of engineering called for her attention. She shrunk under the glare of the admiral. «It was Mince Dexter. He triggered the emergency jump, I have no idea how. It ... it will take ... six hours to reconfigure the drives to get back ...»

Restino closed her eyes, wishing to be somewhere else. In six hours, the Haul would have killed everyone left behind. Or worse.

«It seems Mince has ... killed himself.»

The admiral didn't press the matter. Whether Mince had been ripped to shreds by the crew or managed to shoot himself in the head in time, she didn't care. «I see. Get those drives back. Status of the other carriers?»

«They followed when we jumped as per the automatic protocol.»

She-admiral Restino checked the displays. Only two pilots had managed to return before the mishap. 'Two out of almost 800,' she thought, locking her emotions in a deep, dark corner of her mind. The victory felt more like a defeat by now. «I'll talk to those who got back personally,» she decided.

Uneasy silence. «Yes, Ma'am.»

Taking a deep breath, she composed herself, forced a determination into her voice which she didn't feel. «Attention, all hands.» Ears turned. «Due to the misjump, there is no chance we will make it back in time to rescue our women. Right now, the Haul will be in shock but soon, they will start their revenge on anyone we inadvertently left behind. We all know the speed of their units. If we returned without the cover of our fighters to try to rescue anyone who might still be left, we would quickly become victims of a Haul attack like we never saw one before. No matter how alien they are, after the loss of one third of their fleet, the Haul will be filled with rage.» She took another deep breath, standing in the glare of disbelief of the many faces on the command bridge. «If we try to return to rescue those who fought to protect what we believe in and stand for, we would just add more bodies to the count. No, we must face the horrible and return home.»

Before anyone could protest, her head of engineering rose from her place. «Ma'am, this is all my fault. You bought a great victory for us all today and I blew it by allowing Mince near that damn switch. Ma'am, I'll make sure that the jump drives are back online as fast as possible to amend for my mistake and then resign from my post ... with your permission, of course.»

The admiral was moved by the gesture. «Thank you. Get us back home.»

«Yes, Ma'am!»

Restino leaned back in her chair, her features calm. 'I'll make sure you don't get under the wheels, I promise. That stupid Dexter! I didn't like him the moment I saw him the first time. None of them!'

* * *

«Did you see that?» Angrily, Chuck ripped the helmet from his suit and smashed it into the hands of the waiting ground crewman. «I cannot fucking believe it!»

«Yeah,» his wingman nodded. «I'm really in for the lame excuse they'll present us for this fuck-up!»

They pulled themselves towards the exit tube of the zero g hangar with quick, furious moves. In the corridor outside, they ran into a group of weapon engineers. «What the fuck were you bastards doing?» Chuck grabbed one roughly. «Why weren't the turrets firing?»

The engineer met his fury with a cold stare. «What are you talking about?»

«What I'm talking about?» Chuck took a deep breath. «What the fuck I'm talking about? Where was the fucking cover fire? Why were all the turrets dead? Why didn't I see a single rocket on my screen? What were you bastards doing while the Haul played with us? Fuck your ears off?»

«We had a failure in the ammunition transport system,» his victim replied.

«What?» Chuck hissed. «For hours? They didn't cover us when we went and they sure as hell didn't cover us when we came back! Why didn't any of the turrets cover us?»

«Only two of them ...,» the engineer began but he was cut short by Chuck's wingman: «Cut the crap. None of them fired a single shot the whole time!»

«Is that so.»

Chuck suddenly realized that while he had the engineer by his collar, the engineer had him by the wrists. Also a rather large group of them had them completely surrounded. «What ...»

A fist hit him in the upper stomach. Pain exploded in the middle of his body. He struggled to breathe. When he gasped for air, someone sprayed an aerosol into his mouth. Next to him, his wingman fought the same battle. Chuck tried to get to his gun but the engineer wouldn't let go. Just as he realized that there might be a deeper reason why there hadn't been any cover fire from any of the turrets on the surface of the Rabit battle ship, a wave of euphoria washed over him. 'Dexter,' he read on the name plate of the engineer. Dexter was ... was his best friend.

«Another one?» Dexter offered him a second container.

Chuck hesitated for a moment, unsure he was able to grasp it in his state, then sucked the stuff down greedily. This was good. Really good. The whole universe was his friend. The supply seemed endless.

The security crew found them half an hour later. They were hardly breathing anymore. A dozen containers floated around them. The air was soaked with the stench of the illegal drug. The security had to withdraw and come back with sealed suits because they were starting to feel light headed. The medics could only diagnose that a lethal dose of the drug was already circulating in their brains.

* * *

When She-admiral Restino wanted to see the only two survivors of the battle, she felt shaken to hear they had partied themselves to death, probably due to the first victory in the Haul war. '793 ... I lost every single woman and man under my command.' She pushed herself out of her seat, for once grateful that there was no gravity. «I will be in my room.»

She locked the door behind herself and started to sob. For the third time, she had lost everyone under her command. 'I resign. I just can't stand it anymore. She-admiral Richards can take over for all I care. I just can't take it anymore.'

* * *

The head of engineering had given all the necessary commands and had now some time to think. 'How did Mince Dexter manage to trigger the emergency jump? This should only be possible from the bridge!' She stared at the entry in the log which clearly stated that Mince had triggered the jump by using a valid activation code. 'Where the hell did he get the code?' She called her colleague Tina.

«Security,» Tina answered.

«Hey Tine. I need someone from your team to check how Mince did it.»

«I see. I'll send you Rickey, is that OK?»

«You're a boon.»

«Always,» Tina smiled.

* * *

Two hours later the heads of engineering, security and the leader of the Dexters on board reported to Restino. «Well?» the she-admiral asked sharply.

The two heads looked at the Dexter who floated next to them with an impassive face. «Like most of my team,» he explained with a monotone voice, «Mince had security access level 2.»

«Level 2!» Tina called out. «I have 4!»

The Dexter ignored her and went on. «This is unavoidable for our work. A preliminary investigation showed that Mince already generated the code for the emergency jump yesterday. Why he did and why he used the code now, we don't know. Since Mince is dead and he didn't leave any notes which might explain his actions, chances are slim that we will ever find out more.»

«You are aware that the action of Mince delivered more than 300 of my woman into the paws of the Haul Restino asked reproachfully.

«Yes.» After a pause, the Dexter added: «I regret this incident. We will do whatever is possible to make sure it won't happen again.»

«I hope so!» The she-admiral had to restrain herself not to shout in his face. His behavior rubbed her fur the wrong way. «I will file a complaint directly with Minister Dreick

The Dexter didn't comment. There was no sign that the situation affected him in any way.

«You're dismissed.» After the door had closed behind the Dexter, Restino shook her head. «Stone-cold geezer. Okay you two. I want you to investigate this incident as well. When I'll talk with Dreick, I want some facts in my paw. The whole Dexter story is getting out of paws in my eyes. Surveillance is one thing but to be able to issue orders, orders which must be given under the four-ears principle, that's going too far.»

«Yes, Ma'am!»


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