Heppp was rendered speechless with a shock that competed fitfully with his rage. Live images were beamed from the All Seer cruiser to the holo-sphere and he still could not believe the veracity of what he was witnessing. Hundreds of Protip fighters wiped out in. One enemy vessel destroyed. Just one! The lopsided nature of this contest sent a numbing chill through every Protip in the Ops Center. Clearly, Heppp had underestimated these aliens, underestimated their technology. But how could he have not have underestimated them? No Protip, regardless of clan, could have conceived of facing a force of such indescribable killing power. The Toooi’s sweep to dominance over much of the Protip domain had been of unprecedented swiftness, but it was a still hard fought campaign that cost millions of Toooi lives.
If this enemy could impart such slaughter with just a few ships…Heppp sliced through that line of thought and discarded it like a useless appendage. This dreary rumination on the aliens’ capabilities was a useless exercise in self-inflicted fear. He would not allow himself to sink into that morass. “Task Giver, send more Fangbolts to intercept the enemy in the mountains. I want Mole bombers to join them.”
“Site Keeper if I may.” Itikkk lowered his upper body until his neck was almost touching the floor.
Allayed by the Task Giver’s humility display, Heppp raised a hand, allowing the latter to submit a suggestion.
“Thus far, no suborbital craft have been able to stand against the enemy. Sending more craft, even Moles, would only be a repeat of past dismal results. We should rely strictly on cruisers from this point on.”
“The enemy ships are too fast for the cruisers to lock onto,” Heppp protested. “Even the one they managed to destroy was only a result of luck.”
“All the more reason why we should deploy additional cruisers against them. The more firepower they can bring down upon those ships, the better their chances of having more luck.”
Heppp emitted a faint musk of consideration. It was actually a reasonable piece of advice. “Deploy more cruisers.”
Itikkk acknowledged and passed the order along.
Heppp turned his attention to a screen displaying a live image of the eight alien ships in space.
Why were they still there? He wondered. There was no way the alien transports were getting off this planet intact. And if they did, the Guardian station was not going to allow them to leave the system. It made no sense for the alien commander to keep his ships lingering on the edge of Protip space. No sense at all.
The mountain’s snow capped peak erupted like a volcano. But it was no geologic process that generated that immensely powerful blast. The second and third transports in the formation were shoved off course by the resultant shock wave. The second transport clipped the steep rockface of another mountain before its pilot regained control. The third shuttle executed a tight incline that brought it within literal inches of scraping that same mountain’s surface. A thick jet of snow and gravel boiled off the mountain’s summit in the transport’s hyper-velocity wake.
Massive explosions from successive orbital strikes showered around the transports, turning sections of mountains into steaming spouts of flame and lava.
The transports dove to a lower altitude, utilizing the deep depressions between the towering, craggy mountains as cover.
Colonel Goshin wanted to look away, but some odd morbid compulsion kept his gaze tensely fixed on the outside view. And quite a heart-hammering view it was. Mountains flew at him. His stomach coiled and he flinched when the pilot just narrowly avoided a collision with a wall of rock. Not more than two seconds of clearance elapsed before the transport was on another collision course which the pilot skillfully averted. All the while, hell from above continued to dog the transports, turning winding passageways into flame-choked, smoke-clogged corridors.
A deafening crack reverberated like the bellow of an angry god inside the transport. A piece of a mountain about half the size of the transport smashed against the vessel at a rocketing speed. The shield easily repelled the contact, but could do little to sooth Goshin’s frayed nerves.
“Release EMDs on my mark,” the pilot transmitted to the other transports.
Three seconds went by. “Mark!” The pilot toggled a control and two EMDs dropped from launchers at the bottom of the transport.
The three other transports released their EMDs simultaneously.
Within a second of their deployments, the drones emitted a series of potent omni-directional bursts…
Heppp jerked forward as if he had been struck from behind. His eyes raced across the holo-sphere, searching in vain for enemy blips that simply…vanished. He slithered through the Ops Center, glancing from screen to screen. “What happened to them? Where are they?”
Itikkk went to the comm and established contact with an All Seer. “We’ve lost visual and sensor contact with the enemy. Do you have them on your screens?”
“No, Task Giver,” the cruiser captain replied. “We have lost contact as well.”
“You must have destroyed them,” Heppp speculated optimistically.
“Unlikely,” returned the voice of the captain. “Our engagement computers have verified no neutralizations.”
“Nonsense!” Heppp’s head bobbed with catatonic fury. “Check your engagement computers AGAIN!”
“It is possible, Site Keeper that the enemy ships are jamming us,” Itikkk ventured. “If we can cut through it…”
“Waste of time.” Heppp snapped a command to the cruiser captain. “Direct fire on the length and breadth of the mountain range, saturate it with orbitals.” He looked at Itikkk. “Contact every strategic missile base on this planet. I want fusion ballistics launched against those mountains. If we have to flatten the entire range to destroy four blood-pissing ships then that is exactly what we will do!”
The executive officer entered the bridge level conference room to find Commander Greggory intently studying probe-fed holo-feeds.
“The transports have released EMDs,” Lian reported, coming around the table.
“I know,” said Greggory. “We have a good probe-track on them.” He pointed to a projection of four icons moving across a realistic rendering of a mountainscape. “They’re slowing down. There’s a deep depression here. The EMD pulses will throw off their pursuers. The nature of the terrain will make it even more difficult for the Protips to find them.”
“It’ll buy time.” Lian perched on the edge of the table, her lips pressed tightly in a troubled look. “But what happens when the pulses subside and we still haven’t cracked the station’s network. What then?”
Greggory clasped his hands on top of the table, closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them. He looked up, meeting Lian’s eyes with a steadfast optimism. “That network will be cracked. I won’t permit myself to think otherwise. I can’t.”
Mushroom clouds oozed into the sky from a thousand fusion missile impacts. The mountain range birthed a thousand more, layering pristine white peaks beneath a sooty blanket of fallout. Six All Seer cruisers hovered above at the lowest possible orbit. Lightning streaks of energy bolts blazed from their emitters stabbing downward in random strokes. Bombardment missiles contributed to the storm, delivering fiery vengeance. Perpetual explosions from an endless rain of ground and orbital launched projectiles bathed large sections of the mountain range in a thick, ashy haze. Temperature levels elevated. The spike in heat clashed with the frigid cold of high altitude to generate ferocious wind gusts that melded into a deadly tempest.
The transports rested at a low patch of rocky ground dividing two massive mountains. A fusion missile struck the other side of one of those behemoths, causing enough breakage to initiate a rock slide. Tons of dislodged rock drenched the stationary vessels.
Colonel Goshin stared out the window, but couldn’t see a thing. Visibility was nil, but enhanced optics lit the way, cutting through the fog of devastation to present a clear picture of the outside. Protip ballistics, launched from every silo across the planet, continued to pepper the range. The orbital attacks were similarly endless.
“EMD pulse is holding,” said the pilot, checking console readings.
Goshin slouched in his seat. “That’s good to know. Although, I think I’d feel better if we were on the move.”
The pilot looked back, putting on a wry, confident smile. “Moving only increases our odds of being hit or caught in a nasty blast swell.”
“That could happen to us standing still.”
“It could, but the odds of that being the case is less.”
“Well if you’re not worried about it then I won’t be.”
The pilot gave a thumbs up. “That’s the spirit, Colonel.”
A triple beam barrage raked the rockface several thousands yards up from where Goshin’s transport was idling. An ionic blast front slammed into the vessel, buffeting it within an angry, scorching hot eddy. Repulsor units flared from all sides of the transport, holding it steady until the driving effects of the explosion subsided.
“I retract my last statement,” said Goshin.
“Site Keeper. The Clan Lord wishes to speak to you.”
Heppp twisted around to face Itikkk. “What does he want?” The Site Keeper withdrew the question as rapidly as he’d posed it. “Nevermind…nevermind. Monitor the situation.” Heppp slithered to the rear of the Ops Center and entered a private communication alcove. He tapped the receive panel and an image of a Protip adorned with silver head gear and a brilliantly matching star shaped pendant draped his around his neck, appeared on the alcove’s circular screen.
Heppp lowered his body to near total floor level. “Clan Lord Oppal. I honor you.”
The Clan Lord skipped the formalities. “What is happening on my planet, Site Keeper?”
“Nothing that I am incapable of handling,” Heppp replied with an edge that skirted dangerously close to insubordination. “We are merely dealing with alien bandits who attacked us, unprovoked. We have them under siege in the Lilk Mountains. If they are not dead already, they soon will be.”
“Unprovoked?” Oppal let the word linger on his palette as if sampling a fine delicacy. “It would seem the definition of that term has changed. From my understanding, you ordered a number of these bandits killed before they in turn, attacked you. How does their present assault against you qualify as…unprovoked?”
A surging chill raised Heppp’s back bristles. The Site Keeper suppressed a rising annoyance at his own fear. He loathed this intolerable position he was in. He loathed those treacherous aliens who had succeeded in making him look like a bumbling fool. Most of all, he loathed with all the passion and energy he could muster, the smug, arrogant face staring at him from the comm. screen.
“Semantics, Honorable Clan Lord. The situation as it stands now is that the aliens on the planet will die. The ones in space will not dare cross our boundary. The station holds them at bay. The situation is contained.”
“At the cost of thousands of lives thus far,” Oppal added with infuriating dryness.
Heppp stiffened. “They are more powerful than we anticipated…”
“And this treasure you took from them,” the Clan Lord continued over Heppp’s attempt at an explanation. “Were you going to report this to me, or withhold that bit of information as you withheld the fact that you are under attack?”
“Clan Lord…I,” Heppp had to calm himself. “Clan Lord, the implication in your question is deeply, deeply troubling. Of course I was going to report the treasure. I was preparing a freighter to deliver your share. Rest assured…”
“That is the trouble, Site Keeper. I cannot rest assured. Not when the Toooi domain is under assault by a force unknown, with enemy clans lurking close by like expectant vermin waiting for us to expose a vulnerability so they can exploit it. I put you on that planet because I thought in the very least you could guard our farthest frontier with some degree of competency. Was I wrong in my thinking, Site Keeper?”
Heppp dipped his body sharply, displaying outward gratitude even as the corrosive acid of humiliation burned inside him. “No, Clan Lord. Of course not . I am most thankful to you for assigning me to this post, but you must understand, these aliens come from beyond Protip space. Their capabilities were unknown to us. But when we have destroyed them, we can comb through the wreckage of their vessels, unlock the secret of their power. With that power the Toooi will be stronger than it has ever been and all enemy clans will either submit to our might or be smashed by it.” Emboldened by his grandiose claim, Heppp rose to a height that suggested but did not overtly advertise equal status with the Clan Lord. “You will be the most powerful Protip that has ever lived.”
It was the Clan Lord’s turn to feel the not so subtle brush of an implication. The thought of obtaining alien technology and using it to bring all of Protip space under Toooi dominance encapsulated him in a pleasing aura of intoxication. That he would have Heppp to thank for this unexpected fortune…Oppal’s chin sagged at the thought.
“You need not send a freighter to me, Site Keeper. I will be arriving soon to personally retrieve my share. I trust by the time of my arrival you will have resolved your alien problem?”
Heppp was caught off guard by the prospect of a visitation by the Clan Lord. He very masterfully concealed his displeasure. “Of course, Clan Lord.”
Oppal’s face vanished and Heppp slapped his tail against the floor in frustration. Itikkk. Slavishly loyal Itikkk. Of course it was no surprise that the Task Giver would have blabbed to the Clan Lord about Heppp’s predicament. And now that pompous twit was coming here!