By: Frederick P. Kopetz



Space Battleship Argo

Port Side Upper Hangar Bay

January 8, 2202

0650 Hours: Spacetime

On board the Argo, warp klaxons were going off all over the place.

"I can't stand space warps!" yelled a mechanic as he ran up to Hartmann's Cosmo Tiger. Due to the imminence of the exercise, the pilots were on a high state of alert, strapped into their cockpits.

"So?" said Hartmann.

"Ma'am, I've been through too many warps on this ship! It's waaaaay bad up here on the upper bay!"

"So? Get to your station, strap down, and shut your eyes, Sergeant," said Laurel patiently. "We have one minute left..."

"And if we die?"

"We won't," huffed Laurel. "And if you think we will, when you get to your station, well, you've got thirty seconds or so to get right with God. Hurry up, or you might just miss your chance!"

"Aye, aye, ma'am..." said the sergeant as he ran off, looking very sweaty in his yellow on white Flight Maintenance uniform.

Ohhhh....these dweebs!, thought Hartmann irritably. How many other people are like this on this ship?

"C'mon! What the hell are you, half-trained boots?" snapped Hemsford as he looked around at his Marine Trooper Group.

"Sir, some of us have been through warps before...and all sorts of weird things happen! You'd better make sure you're strapped down good!"

"Yeah, I know, I know," said Hemsford as he locked his harness as he sat in a chair in the Marine Group quarters occupied not so long ago by Knox and his men. "You see green elves and pink elephants and other crap, you get sick, you use a barf bag while you're feelin' one with the Sea of Stars. Any other stuff you guys have to tell me?"

"THIRTY SECONDS TO WARP!" snapped Venture's voice over the intercom.

"Yeah, I know!" snapped Hemsford at the speaker. "Do you have guys down here ready to wet their beds, XO?" he sneered.

"Twenty seconds to warp," snapped Venture as he locked his harness into place.

"Roger!" said Wildstar as he snapped his harness.

"Wave energy, one hundred percent!" said Orion.

"Final warp countdown!" snapped Venture as he sat with his hand on the throttle lever. "Ten...Nine... Eight... Seven... Six... Five..."

Here we go, thought Wildstar. Once again, we bid a farewell to Earth and her moon...

"...Four ...Three ...Two ...One ...ZERO!" snapped Venture.

"WARP!" snapped Wildstar from his new bridge station at the aft section of the bridge.

"WARP!" repeated Venture as he pulled the throttle lever back hard while, beside him, Dash flashed him a quick thumbs-up.

The Argo's wave engine nozzle and auxiliary nozzles flashed pure white for a second with a fierce burst of tacyhonic energy before the ship began to waver and disappear into hyperspace in a dazzling, disorienting burst of scintillating white and rainbow-colored light as the space battleship blurred and faded away into apparent nothingness.

Aboard the Argo, her crew began to feel very uncomfortable and disoriented as they were snapped into a bizarre altered state of awareness by the effects of the space warp upon their minds.

At his post, Venture quickly shut his eyes to block out the bizarre and dizzying procession of images and colors that usually flew around as one disappeared into hyperspace for a moment. Closing his eyes helped, but it didn't block out all of the sensations as he mind his mind and body stretching out, out, out into infinity, becoming one with the Universe, becoming nothing, becoming all, and then coming back together.

Mark sat in his awareness for a moment and then groaned as the succession of bizarre sensations began all over again. He immediately began to feel nauseated and exhausted as his consciousness felt as if it was drifting out into space... if he was swimming in space... if he was a child, a man, an old man, and then a child... if he was and was not human all at once.

The ship shuddered for a second, and Venture opened his eyes just in time to see something that looked uncomfortably like an ancient Roman chariot racing towards him on the ship's bridge on an unaccountably sunny day as the bridge opened up...

...he closed his eyes again to restore a sense of sanity as he heard a weird voice chanting, over the buzzing hum, and that was the way it was, Tuesday, December...

Oh shut up, thought Venture as he firmly kept his eyes closed.

At her station, Nova's eyes opened for a moment during the warp. Around her was a vast crowd of screaming, cheering people. Where she was, she didn't know. She thought it was some kind of coliseum or ancient baseball park. Then, she looked. It is a ballpark she thought. Down below, the attention seemed to be focused on four long-haired jiggling little figures in brown Nehru jackets, looking surrealistically like some rock band playing along with the power on their amps "off". Nova's riddle was solved a minute later when some girl next to her in mid-60's clothes began to scream, "PAUL! I LOVE YOU! PAUL!"

I've been hanging around Rosstowski too long, thought Nova with a shake of her head before she got very sleepy, turned into Coca-Cola, and floated off into a Shea Stadium vendor's soda cup before realizing she was really on the Argo in warp space. Unknown place, unknown time...

In his plane, Bryan Hartcliffe was having a wonderful, unmentionable fantasy as he imagined images of his wife (and other women, too), running around the ship in various states of undress.

Suddenly, there was his MUM.... appearing out of the mist, looking very annoyed!

Shooooot! thought Hartcliffe as he felt himself drifting on what felt like the winds of space...screaming his tail off as galaxies, planets, and stars floated past.

"I told you ya shouldn't bloody stare at women like that, Bryan!" boomed his mother's enraged voice from deep in the cosmos.

"Mummy!" he yelled.

"I'll have to take you over me knee and spank ye, won't I, Bryan?" raged his mother as she appeared out of the mist to grab him.

"Mummy!" he yelled. "Protect me! I'm sorry!" he yelled, crawling up into her lap.

"Not until you take your medicine, lad!" she snapped. "HEY! Stop grabbing at that!" she raged as a smaller Bryan grabbed at her breast. "You've bloody been weaned already, luv!"

"Mummy...can I play with yer feet?"

"Certainly NOT!!!" yelled Hartcliffe's mother as the buzz of warp came over them and began to fade....

Right on schedule, the Argo faded back into real space in a blaze of multi-colored light right near Mars.

Venture raised his head, taking a few deep breaths as he collected himself. "Warp completed."

"What a mother of a warp," groaned Wildstar as he put his head in his hands and shook it from side to side. "Damn! It's worse back here, somehow."

"Wave motion engine, condition normal," said Orion. "The new Andromeda-class engine worked perfectly. The power output and throughput was better than we ever had..."

"Maybe that's why my head feels like someone's been usin' it for a basketball court," said Rosstowski from beside Homer.

"Your head...what about mine?" said Homer.

"Good, Orion...." gasped Wildstar. "Sandor?"

"Damage control reports no damage to the ship, Wildstar," said Sandor as he studied his readouts.

What about the crew? thought Derek as Nova looked back at him, looking somewhat green herself.

"Mummmyyyyyyyyy," groaned Hartcliffe as he lay curled up in what felt like his mother's lap.

He sat up, discovering that he was hugging the landing gear of his plane, just below the nose.

"Hey! Look at YOU!" laughed Jablonski, Hartcliffe's wingman, as Bryan straightened out his arm. "Are you in love with your plane, or what?"

"Shut up...we can't let Conroy or Hardy know about this," said Hartcliffe as he jumped back into his plane.

"HARTCLIFFE!" barked Conroy over his earphones as soon as he got back in and re-sealed his helmet. "Where were you? Hardy and I called for you and Jablonski three times!"

"Sorry, sir...just checkin' out me gear...the plane kinda shook durin' the warp..."

"Okay...I'll buy it...THIS time," said Conroy irritably.

"Venture, what's our current position?" asked Wildstar.

"We're...twenty megameters away from our planned launch position for the Tigers," said Venture after a moment. "We should be in position in just a few minutes at our current speed."

"All right."

It wasn't long before Laurel and the rest of her squadron were awaiting their takeoff order from the bridge.

So, here we are, thought Laurel as she sat back, listening to the sounds inside her sealed cockpit as the flight deckhands stood waiting at their standby positions in the upper fighter bay. Once again, we've left Earth, and we're about to take off on another exercise. It's going to be an easy one; I've led squadrons through simulated attack runs like this a thousand times before...But, why is every sense in my spirit telling me otherwise? Why am I sitting here as jittery as a new cadet on her first solo? Could it be something to do with...that attack last night? What is going on here?

Boy, I hope this is going to be nothing more than an ordinary exercise...

"Third squadron of Black Tigers!" snapped Wildstar's voice over Hartmann's headphones. "We have reached the launch point! Take off at once!"

"Aye, aye sir; we're on our way," said Hartmann in a cool, calm voice that masked the turmoil in her mind. "Strike fighters!" she barked as she flicked the proper controls and prepared to bring her throttles up to military as the elevator deckplate locked with her fighter bay and began to lower her plane down towards the flight deck. "It's time to rock!"

"Ha!" snapped Tatiana Lubyanska over hear headphones. "You'll be spotted and shot down like ducks!"

"What do you mean by that?"

"We've never been head-to-head before, ma'am! Today I'll see what YOU can do, and let me tell you, Bozhe moi, I can do it better."

"We'll see," grinned Laurel. "Third squadron... Launch!"

As soon as Laurel finished, the plane reached the flight deck. She began to maneuver towards the launch tube, zigging and zagging slightly as she turned her ship to face in the proper direction.

The flight bay tech's signal wand hit the deck, and Hartmann pushed the throttles all the way up to military and blasted out of the Argo's upper flight bay launch tube like a bat out of hell; open space was around her in an instant.

Now, she thought. We'll see if my hunch is right or not. I hope it isn't. We don't need any more real enemies around today...

Before long, the rest of her squadron was all around her. Together, they blasted off towards their first objective: an attack range on the Martian satellite Phobos....

So far, the exercise had apparently gotten off to a flawless start.

This was the general plan: Laurel and her squadron would "attack" the simulated range on the small moon, and, after facing some simulated ground defense fire, the ground crew on the base was to call the Argo for "rescue".

In the meantime, Hardy's squadron would launch, remaining near the ship as the BARCAP (Barrier Combat Air Patrol). Lubyanska's squadron would then launch, heading out as the FORCAP (FORward Combat Air Patrol) on a recon run.

After Lubyanska spotted the "attackers", her squadron would defend the ship at far range while alerting Hardy so that his squadron and the Argo itself could ready their defenses against the "attack" as Hartmann flew in to "attack" the Argo and her squadrons before the exercise ended; the squadron with the highest simulated "kill ratio" would "win" the exercise, of course.

It would be a challenging exercise, but it would be a smoothly run operation.

"Any contacts on the radar?" asked Wildstar.

"None," said Holly Parsons from her post. "It's as quiet as the grave out there, sir."

"Same goes for long-range contacts," said Nova.

Captain Wildstar nodded acknowledgement from his post. "Homer, any transmissions?"

"No... Uh...wait a minute!" Homer said. "The monitoring station on Phobos has just reported that it's under attack!" added Homer as he reported Laurel's mock attack on the target range, signaling the beginning of the exercise.

"This is Lubyanska," snapped a voice over the radio.

"What did you spot?"

"A formation of bogies...heading towards us."

"Take care of it!," snapped Wildstar. "All hands to battle stations!" he said as the klaxons went on.

"Derek, I'm picking up an indistinct radar image at RZV-225; range, twenty-eight megameters, speed, forty space knots. It's...breaking up...approaching at forty-three knots..." said Nova as she watched her screen.

"Captain, I'm picking up the same image...I can identify it...three deck planes, at twenty-four megameters, speed, steady at forty-three space knots!" said Parsons from the tactical radar. "They seem to be getting past the recon squadron's patrol area!"

"Hardy..." said Wildstar from his post. "Send a flight towards RZV-225 and intercept the aggressors!"

"Roger, they're on their way," said Hardy in his plane. "I'm stayin' heah to guard the perimeter!"

Even though they weren't thinking about it at the time, that was when the fun really began out near Mars.

Out in space, Laurel Hartmann and her squadron had just completed another mock attack on the target range on Phobos.

"That was a good one, ma'am," reported one of her flight leaders, a young Junior Lieutenant known as Bosley. "We got all of our targets!"

"This is Charlie Flight Leader Yarborough," drawled a heavy Southern accent over Laurel's headphones. "We got all of our designates, ma'am. Ah think they're still tryin' to clean up the damage back there on that rock!"

"This is Dog Flight Leader Susanne Washington," said a young Afro-American lady from her cockpit. "We just went over that base, chewed them up, and spit them out, ma'am!," she snapped. "I hope we can do the same to Lubyanska's squadron when they show up."

"So do I. Good shooting, guys," snapped Laurel. "Vakkur, Iiyama..." she called out to her wingmen. "Stick close, and tell your gunners to keep on scanning those skies; we could have the enemy showing up here any minute, and I know that they're guys just waiting to show me up. We're not gonna let them do that, are we, gentlemen?"

"NO WAY, MA'AM!" yelled both of them from their cockpits.

Then, Hartmann went silent.

"Ma'am!" called out Vakkur. "Anything wrong?"

"something doesn't feel right..." muttered Laurel.

"Ma'am?" called out Kris from Laurel's second place in the rear of the Tiger's cockpit. "What's wrong?"

"Miss Bormann, keep your eyes peeled on that radar! What do you see?"

"Nine...ten blips, ma'am. They aren't flying any kind of formation I recognize...and..."

At that moment, a hail of yellow surges of plasma energy appeared around the squadron.

Then, Hartmann's stomach dropped when she noticed visually that the approaching planes weren't EDF planes...and that they weren't firing practice-intensity rounds.

A scream came over the airwaves as Brandybuck's plane was hit over in Charlie Flight. Ensign Brandybuck died a mere moment later, his Tiger a pile of debris, his RSO and gunner both quick-frozen and dead in the blackness of space.

Two more Tigers blew apart as Hartmann finally saw what was approaching: a speeding, howling flight of Comet Empire Scorpion gunboats.

Interference (jamming from the enemy planes) made Laurel cry out as a blast of white noise came over her headset. Then, even though she was in a great deal of pain, Laurel managed to flip the stick over hard to starboard to evade the enemy fire as her black, gold and red Cosmo Tiger banked like crazy.

As she looked out and around, two bursts of flame told her that another one of her squadron mates, in Baker Flight, had just bought it.

"What's going ON?" yelled Begin from Laurel's aft 30/30 turret as more fire blasted around them. "Our ships aren't supposed to be doing that!"

"Those aren't our ships, Corporal, in case you haven't noticed!" snapped Laurel. "Get your guns out of practice mode and into full power now..."

"But we need orders from the..."

"To hell with orders!" snapped Laurel as the plane evaded another burst of enemy fire. "If we call up for permission, we'd be dead in seconds! Just get our systems up and running so we can give these green scumbags a real fight! Kris! Same goes for you!"

"Aye, ma'am!" snapped the young Ensign as she began to flip arming switches in a cold sweat.

"All planes!" barked Hartmann as she changed over to an alternate frequency and then back again. "This is Hartmann. "If you haven't done so already, get your systems into full combat mode and hit that enemy squadron! If you see Cosmo Tigers, do not attack them; the exercise is off...repeat...!"

"Hartmann!" snapped Tatiana Lubyanska over Laurel's headset. "We just caught your transmissions... what's going ON out there? OVER!"

Laurel flicked another two switches and said as all of the appropriate comm frequencies came up in multiplexing mode. "Lubyanska, Hardy, Captain Wildstar, this is Hartmann. We have just fallen under attack 3 megameters away from Phobos from a squadron of Cometine Space Scorpions. We are taking action to intercept the invaders, but may require backup...OVER!"

"Miss Hartmann, this is Captain Wildstar," snapped Derek over her headset. "Your transmission has been acknowledged! Lubyanska....the exercise is off: get out there and give Hartmann a hand!"

"DA, sir!!" said Tatiana.

"Hardy, keep that fighter cover up over the ship...we might..."

"Derek!," snapped Nova from the cosmo-radar. "Sixteen unidentified objects have just appeared on my scope at TX-112: range, fourteen megameters, speed, thirty-one space knots...they're..."

Suddenly, two of the enemy ships opened up with blasts of plasma fire from the three forward main gun turrets that appeared as Nova rapidly brought the enemy fleet up on the main video panel. The bursts dissipated before they could even reach the Argo, but they still looked rather impressive.

"Four battleships, eight destroyers, and four spacecraft carriers," said Nova as she looked at the image. "Distance, twelve megameters. Speed, thirty-two space knots..."

"Comet Empire ships," hissed Wildstar. "All hands, COMBAT STATIONS!" snapped Wildstar as the ships fired again. He rapidly flicked on the alert klaxons.

"Nova, Range!" he shouted.

"Eleven point five megameters!" she replied.

"I don't know why they're firing at us," said Dash from the Combat station beside Venture..."Their guns can't do any damage from that range; ours sure..."

Dash was proved wrong a moment later as three heavy plasma beams smashed into the Argo's port side observation post as they skidded down the ship's hull.

"Port side hit!" snapped Sandor.

Then, one of the battleships let loose with its bridge shock cannon array.

As the vortex sped towards the ship, Wildstar knew they'd be finished if it hit them; like everyone else, he had seen too many of those Cometime shock gun vortex beams crush EDF ships at Saturn-Titan.

"DAMN!" yelled Wildstar. "Venture!!!" he yelled. "Evasive!"

"Here we go!" barked Venture as he flicked the proper controls and the Argo dropped below the ecliptic like a broken elevator. She just barely avoided the vortex beams, but ran smack into a thicket of fire from the destroyers. Everyone held on as Venture evaded a second burst of fire from the destroyers by tilting hard to starboard.

The Argo's movement threw the growing plume of smoke and flame from her battle wounds backwards in an eerily familiar fashion that was all too much like the previous battles the great ship had fought in.

However, this battle was quite unexpected; just as unexpected as the Space Scorpion attack at the hands of the Comet Empire a few months ago that heralded the beginning of that conflict.

Now, in what seemed to be turning into a second chapter of the same conflict, Derek Wildstar was again taking the Argo into combat on this, the eighth of January, in the year 2202, at 0742 Hours, just a little more than an hour and a half after her departure from Earth.

The difference between that attack in early September 2201 and this attack in January of 2202 was all around him; this time, Wildstar was going into combat with the Star Force already deployed and ready for action. And, unlike that previous action, everyone aboard the Argo was primed and ready for combat.

I'm damn glad I have my regulars here this time around, thought Derek as he looked around the first bridge, thinking very much of that first attack a few months ago. I'd take Venture at the helm any day over that damned Junior Lieutenant McCoughlin, thought Derek as he looked over to his right at Venture as he worked his controls. I'd even take IQ-9 in a minute over that Lieutenant we had in Analysis on that patrol cruise as part of the Fleet; neither Commodore Falworth nor I could ever quite put up with that girl. And...that chubby old Lieutenant Cunningham we had at the cosmo-radar? Give me a break! I'd take Nova over him in a second. At least she doesn't complain  about the equipment....

"Derek!" cried Nova from her post. "If they bring in more of those ships, do you think we'll be able to keep up with them?"

"I'm sure of it" said Derek.

Of course... thought Derek with an upraised eyebrow. new Missus does have her quirks...

"Captain!" said Homer as the enemy fleet stopped. "We're receiving a transmission from the enemy fleet!"

"Put it up on the main panel," said Wildstar.

The crew gasped as a green Cometine face came up on the screen. "Welcome, Star Force, I am General Naska of the Comet Empire..." sneered the enemy commander, who seemed to be in young middle age. He wore an elaborate blue and black uniform with red and gold trim.

"General Naska," said Wildstar as he stood up much in the same manner that Avatar had when he was speaking to General Lysis of Gamilon. "I am Captain Derek Wildstar...the Captain of the Argo, and commander of the Star Force. Have you encountered us before? What do you want?"

"You haven't had the pleasure of speaking to me face to face before, but we HAVE met before in battle."

"Where?" demanded Wildstar.

"At Brumus," sneered the Cometine general. "Then, I ignored the warnings of Desslok and thought your ridiculous pile of scrap metal would be easy to beat. I was wrong. You fought me off into disgrace. But, in disgrace, it seems I survived Prince Zordar. Did you ever guess we would be back for vengeance?"

"No...we thought you were dead. Are you behind all of these recent attacks on Earth? If so, Naska, the game ends I'll see to it."

"Brave words, Captain," sneered Naska. "However, I am not the sole author of your disgrace, nor of your eventual conquest. I have been asked to relay a message to you by my new commander. His flagship is approaching the edge of your solar system even as we speak now. Here's an image of the doom your benighted planet will be facing."

The image changed, and everyone gasped. A large fleet was approaching the solar system, led by an immense black space fortress that looked just like the type of ship that Prince Zordar had been aboard when made his final stand against Earth. Only Trelaina had been able to stop him.

A bald, snarling Cometine appeared on their screen. "You look both delighted and pleased," said the enemy commander. "Star Force, greetings. I am Baron Gernitz, successor to the post vacated by the late Prince Zordar. It is my understanding that you had been defeated by Zordar and were about to surrender?"

"We were..." said Wildstar. "BUT, as you know, we didn't surrender."

"Yes. I've come to learn, from your news media reports, that YOU were the one responsible for what is proving to be a futile resistance. We have been probing your defenses for the past few weeks and monitoring them. Your world is soft. Exhausted. Still merely rebuilding. An easy plum for us to take. Today, many of your people will die, but you and the officers of the Star Force will live. Do you know why?"

"WHY?" snapped Wildstar.

"So that you can experience the doom that we reserve for traitors and rebels against the might of the Comet Empire. Zordar was not the only one of our commanders. There are many Houses of my people, spreading into space in all directions. I will enjoy seeing you before a firing squad, Captain Wildstar, after you are tortured, that is...after you experience a show trial...and after you see your young bride tormented before your eyes, maybe even growing fat with one of OUR children? Do you like that? My boarding party, therefore, has special instructions for our meeting. I'm sure it'll be quite pleasant..."

Nova went white and gasped a little as she looked into Gernitz's lust-filled eyes and guessed that he was the one who wanted to carry out the promised torment himself. YOU DEVIL! she thought as she looked back at Derek for support.

Wildstar stood gritting his teeth in a snarl. "Try it, Baron," he said in a low voice. "You'll have a hard fight to win..."

"Oh?," said Gernitz. "Before I leave you to Naska, you may want to see what we're doing to Earth at this moment. To your capital, that is..."

The view switched again to an image sent from a recon Scorpion. The Megalopolis was on fire in several places. Wildstar clenched his fists as the view changed to that of the area around Idlewild base...the base had been hit. Some Cosmo Tigers were in battle, and, the view changed again to that of some EDF SAM (Surface to Air Missile) batteries firing at the enemy planes, and a view of one of them being hit. The view switched, one last time, to that of another carrier task force in Earth orbit.

"We heard your flagship was away from the home planet on maneuvers," said Gernitz pleasantly. "After you're finished with Naska and he withdraws unscathed per orders, we'll meet assured of it."

At that, the transmission ended with much snarling and laughter.

YOU MONSTER!!!...thought Wildstar.

At that, Naska's fleet began to approach, at much faster speed.

"Distance, ten megameters!" said Nova. "Naska's fleet is now in firing range."

"Rosstowski!" snapped Dash.

At the Artillery post, Rosstowski said, "Main turrets one and two, and auxiliary turret one, ready to fire. Distance, ten megameters. Firing five degrees. Pulse lasers also being readied."

As more fire raked around the Argo and several enemy planes approached, the forward turrets turned and locked into the proper firing positions, with each striped gun pointing lethally towards its target.

"Ready to fire!" barked Dash.

"Great!" said Wildstar. "All guns, OPEN FIRE!"

And, at that, the Argo's forward gun turrets began to reply to the enemy's rude wake-up call with several impressive blue plasma energy surges of their own.

The Argo's fire blasted straight into the heart of the fleet. Two of the beams blew apart two of the destroyers, while the rest of them converged in a mighty surge that ripped through one of the enemy space battleships like a knife through hot butter, blasting it apart in a spectacular ball of flame.

Yeah, thought Wildstar. Paydirt! Good going, guys! Keep it up, and we'll teach those guys a thing or two!

Aboard the Argo, the ship's gunners were quite busy as the battle raged around them.

A typical battle routine was currently going on in the space battleship's number two main turret as the turret commander, Ensign Kyle Densbury, waited for directions from the bridge from Rosstowski.

"Okay, guys, stand fast!" snapped Densbury.

"Roger that," said the first gunner, who was a Sergeant named Rodham Maxwell. "Did the angle change?"

"Didn't hear a damn thing yet," said Tech Sergeant David Norris, who was manning the port side gun next to Maxwell. "Hey, Mike," he yelled. "What about you?"

"I didn't hear about any changes, either, Sergeant," replied the third gunner at the starboard gun, who was known as Tech Sergeant Mike Garrand.

As the turret crew awaited new orders, the turret speaker suddenly came on, and Paul Rosstowski's voice came over the speaker, stating, "Main Turret Number Two, correct gun angle by plus one point four degrees."

"Roger that, sir..." barked Densbury. "Crew, correct angle by plus one point four."

Garrand was the first one with his hands on his controls, quickly working the proper levers to raise the gun by the specified amount as he watched the enemy targets on his gunsight display; Maxwell and Norris quickly followed suit.

"Acknowledged," barked Mike as the two blurred video images that represented the two halves of the target met. They were aiming at a carrier and its escorting destroyer. "Correction completed."

"Correction completed," said Maxwell.

"Correction completed," added Norris.

At his station, Densbury quickly pushed a button that sent a "Green" signal up to the Artillery and Combat stations on the first bridge as he said, "Sir, all guns are on target" As soon as he did that, the three gunners sat waiting with their fingers on the green firing buttons at their stations.

"All guns ready and on target," barked Rosstowski over the speaker,.

"FIRE!" barked Dash a moment later on his circuit.

Like a well-oiled machine, the gunners in turret number two and their mates in the Argo's other main turrets and the auxiliaries pressed their firing buttons a split-second after the "green" signal appeared on their boards as Rosstowski pulled his gunnery circuit interlock lever on the first bridge, which closed and armed the firing circuits in each of the turrets.

A millisecond later, the gun breeches glowed white with liberated energy and flew back with a loud metallic bang as the distinctive roar of the main guns barked through the turret, followed by a momentary loud buzz and hiss as the plasma bolts blasted up the gun barrels and roared out into space as the magnetic seals locked behind the bright blue flashes of energy.

As soon as their eyes adjusted, the gunners glanced at their screens as the bolts of energy roared out towards their targets. They smiled as they noticed that the enemy's attempt to evade the Argo's fire would be unsuccessful.

A cheer went up in the turret as soon as the two of the beams of energy ripped through the carrier and one blasted through the destroyer. Both enemy warships went up in bright balls of flame that told them none of those aliens were gonna be writing home to Mother in the Andromeda Galaxy again in this life.

"Captain," said Dash on the bridge. "All turrets were right on target: we scored five hits."

"Confirmed," said Nova from her post. "One carrier and a destroyer just disappeared from my scope."

"Where are the others?" asked Wildstar.

At that, two of the battleships fired. One of them fired its forward turrets, while another fired its shock guns.

Venture, while evading the shock cannon vortices, ran right into a second salvo of conventional fire from the other battleship.

"Damn...they're playing a cat and mouse game!" snapped Dash.

"Yeah...looks like we're the mouse," quipped Rosstowski. "C'mon, you guys," he barked over the intercom. "Bring down that battleship! Correct all firing angles!"

"They're still coming," said Nova. "Range... now seven point two megameters."

"All turrets...Correct firing angles!" snapped Dash.

"All gunners correct angles by another plus one degree," said Rosstowski as the guns ponderously turned as the Argo twisted hard to starboard to evade the enemy fire.

"Nova, where's Hartmann and Lubyanska?" asked Wildstar.

"Still engaging the enemy planes near Phobos," said Nova.

"Dash!" snapped Wildstar. "Order Hardy's planes out to attack the enemy fleet...and order Conroy to take off and cover the ship!"

"Roger," said Dash as the Argo was hit again, this time by several plasma bolts from two of the battleships.

"The sonar room has just been hit," said Sandor. "Wildstar...if one of those ships hits us with those shock guns..."

"I know," said Wildstar. "I remember what happened to Slate's battleship squadron at Saturn-Titan...Homer, patch me through to Hardy. Dash...tell Conroy not to launch!"

"WHAT?" said Dash.

"You heard my orders, Dash," snapped Wildstar. "Homer! I need Hardy ASAP!"

"Doing it now," said Homer.

"Hardy!" barked Wildstar.

"What is it, suh?"

"Concentrate your attack on the Comet Empire battleships. Disable their shock guns. Then... just rake the flight decks of those carriers, and get back in here on the double with Conroy and the rest of his squadron."


"They'll be taken care of as soon as you land. I need the area clear...and tell Hartmann and Lubyanska to stay around RX-232 near Phobos until told otherwise."

"Got it," said Hardy, who was beginning to figure out what Wildstar was planning.

"Dash," snapped Wildstar. "Help out Hardy's squadron. Get those battleships."

In the turrets, Garrand and the others soon re-trained the guns, and, a moment later, the Argo's main guns fired yet another salvo at the enemy fleet. One battleship was hit, and another was damaged.

A moment later, Hardy's squadron began to strike. "Heah we go!" he smiled as he and his planes streaked down on the Cometine battleships.

But, as they were beginning to learn, this frontal attack wasn't going quite the way they wanted. Two planes were lost in the first few seconds.

"Damn!" snapped Hardy. "Everyone...regroup...we're trying that from another angle..."

"Aye, sir," said Bryan Hartcliffe. "I guess if we can't get 'em one way, we'll do it another, right, sir?"

"Right," said Hardy. "But without your chattuh."

Hartcliffe gritted his teeth in frustration as he swung his Tiger around for another pass, locking the aft part of the battleship's bridge tower in his sights in a hurry. "Missiles...take out those blokes...."

The missiles went, and the ship's bridge tower blew apart. Soon, the whole ship began to go up as Hartcliffe flew into the gas cloud, smiling as he watched bodies flying out of the ship.

Some of the officers and men were spacesuited...some weren't. It didn't matter as Hartcliffe let fly with his nose guns and sent them all to the next life as he took out his aggressions in a move that was just as vicious as it was dangerous.

"HARTCLIFFE!" snapped Hardy as Hartcliffe flew away from the ship as it exploded. "What did you do that for?"

"Puttin' em out of their misery, sir. Ah hope they go to 'ell as fast as we do."

"That was unnecessary as well as suicidal, Mistah," said Hardy. "We don't play it that way in the Star Force, got it?"

"Whatever you say, sir," sighed Hartcliffe as he swooped down on another battleship...checked behind him to look at his six...

...and then, his eyes bugged out as a shape began to shimmer in behind him.

"What the...bloody..." he said.

"Hartcliffe?" said Hardy.

"I'm ....I'm..."said Hartcliffe, who went silent as a load of static filled Hardy's headset.

"Mistah Hartcliffe!" snapped Hardy as he looked out towards the battleship and saw missiles and bombs streaking towards it from another ship.

"I'm...fine" said Hartcliffe. "Hadda break off me attack, though?"

"That wasn't you?"

"No..." said a shaken Hartcliffe.

"Who was it, then?," asked Hardy.

"A...Gamilon dive-bomber that just got SMITE'd onto me six," gasped Hartcliffe. "And...he must have a beef with the Cometines."


"Don't worry about me shootin' at survivors, sir. HE'S doin it!"

"Orion," ordered Wildstar. "Get ready to stop all engines at my command after Hardy gets in."

"Sir...we're gonna need that power..."

"Yes...but we'll need it elsewhere in about two minutes...if you take my meaning."

"Wildstar!" said Sandor. "Wave motion gun?"

Derek just nodded with a grim smile. "No other choice. And it needs a test."

"HUH?" said Nova . "Derek...twenty contacts...around Hardy's planes and the enemy fleet!"

"Did they launch?," snapped Wildstar.

"No....they just...appeared out of nowhere. They...."

"Wildstah!" said Hardy on the bridge speakers. "Gamilon planes have just appeared around us! They're usin' SMITE!"

"Hardy...keep them from getting to the..."

"I don't think you have to worry about that," said Hardy.

"Why not?" demanded Wildstar.

"Well....they're helping us attack the enemy fleet...and..."

"Captain Wildstar!" snapped Homer. "A message is coming in...directed to you by name!"

"Who is?" began Derek. However, he stopped a minute later as melodious, familiar, but mildly maniacal laughter resounded over the bridge speakers.

Wildstar and the others gasped as an all-too familiar image came up on the Argo's main screen a moment later. The image was that of a tall, chuckling Gamilon, clad in a grey uniform, with a red and black cloak, blond hair, and dark, piercing eyes.

It was a face Wildstar had seen a thousand times in his dreams...especially his nightmares.

"Desslok?" asked Wildstar.

Leader Desslok of Gamilon acknowledged Wildstar with a slow, ironic salute. "Yes. I hope I haven't arrived at an inopportune time, Captain Wildstar?"

"If...I may ask, what are you doing here?"

"Wildstar, it appears that we have a common enemy. I tracked him here and it seems I caught up with him just in time. Is Baron Gernitz aboard one of those carriers?"

"No..." said Wildstar slowly, as he began to realize Desslok's intent. I never thought I'd be giving him information, but.... "Desslok...Gernitz is not on the carrier. From communications we received from the enemy, it appears that he's on a Cometine space fortress at the edge of the solar system. A General Naska is in command of this carrier group. I met him before at Brumus, it seems."

"Naska?" said Desslok as his eyes narrowed and darkened.

"Yes...he said..."

"Wildstar, Naska and I had prior dealings...when I was once in the regrettable service of Prince Zordar and his daughter Invidia. Those dealings...were not pleasant," said Desslok with a dangerous smile that Wildstar recognized. For a moment, Derek almost pitied Naska. "As I note the Argo is damaged, would you and your planes clear the area, please?" said Desslok. "My fleet is at your space coordinates RJ-232, behind the Cometine fleet. I'll divert Naska with a conversation while you clear the area."

"Then?" asked Wildstar.

"Then, Naska will be dealt with. We'll speak about Gernitz a little later, you and I. For now, as you repair your damage, relax, and enjoy the show. It should be...interesting."

And, at that, Desslok faded off the Argo's main screen.

"Derek," said Nova a moment later. "Desslok's planes are heading back towards his fleet...which I've just spotted on radar. It's a pretty good-sized fleet..."

Wildstar nodded. "Orion, belay my previous orders. Dash, order Hardy back to the ship on the double. Full turboburners."

"Yessir. Then...?"

"I think we'd better close the blast shields. I  think I have an idea what going to do next."

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