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Even the worst of situations can prove to be an opportunity *** *** "Sir, the Ape-oid ships are freighters. I can only make out one small gunship among them. The Malakins are on a course toward them." *** Without hesitation, Captain Jelar ordered, "Battle stations! Attack! Helm, set course to intercept those ships! We must give our freighters enough time to leave orbit and escape. Communications, instruct the freighters to get under way quickly. They are not to wait for us." *** *** "One Malakin ship destroyed! One damaged!"
"Captain, sensors are picking up ships ahead at extreme range. They're Malakin ships! Positive identification on three Malakin destroyers!"
"Okay, helm, steer away from them. We have a convoy to protect in addition to our passenger."
"More ships on the scope, sir! I'm picking up Ape-oid ships now. Too difficult to make out what kinds yet. They're farther away from us."
"Let me know as soon as you can. First Officer, put the ship at battle stations. If any of them spot us, I want us prepared for battle. Signal the convoy to stay close."
The ship's interior lights briefly changed to a red intensity and back to white several times throughout the ship. As the lights changed, the First Officer intoned, "Man your battle stations. Enemy ships within extreme sensor range."
Captain Brantle said, "Looks like we finally have proof that the Ape-oids and Malakins are allies as we suspected."
"Seems to appear that way," First Officer Church replied.
Rear Admiral Dave Oden stopped chatting with some crew members and left for the bridge upon hearing the First Officer over the intercom. Had the convoy not needed some protection, the dreadnought carrying the admiral would have left Echo on a direct route to Beulah. Instead, Dave had ordered it to accompany the convoy to Leuion even though it meant passing by the solar system containing Bragh, the home world of the Ape-oids. The dreadnaught could have sped past Bragh's solar system. However, Dave had also felt it wise for them to take a quick look to determine if the orbiting space mines were keeping the Ape-oids limited to their world after they tried to break out with their illegally produced new warships.
Captain Brantle said, "Probably supplying the Malakins then. Let me know if any of those ships spot us."
"You think they've improved their sensors enough yet to spot us this far away?" asked First Officer Church.
"It pays to play it safe. I don't want Admiral Reason on my neck for needlessly exposing Admiral Oden to the enemy while we're at war. Not while Oden's responsible for everything in this theater of operations."
"Admiral on the Bridge!"
Captain Brantle turned to see Admiral Oden silently approach.
"Ape-oids break out, Brandon?" Dave asked.
Captain Brandon Brantle answered, "I don't think so. We've spotted only some Ape-oid freighters along with one gunship escort. I put the ship on battle stations because they appear to be meeting three Malakin destroyers. We spotted those first at extreme range because of their size."
Dave replied, "Yes, it's hard to miss a Malakin ship seeing as they build theirs so large. Only three?"
"So far," Brandon answered.
"Probably a scouting patrol then," Dave said.
First Officer Church said, "Judging by the course the Malakins are on, they're heading directly for the freighters. I think they're picking up supplies."
The navigator asked, "Escape to where, sir? They can't return to Bragh with the Union mines in place. This mining world is their only refuge."
Captain Jelar kept his eyes posted to the sensor screen while answering, "It doesn't matter where they escape to. It only matters that we give our ships enough time to escape. They can decide where to go later."
"Weapons coming in range, Captain!"
"Open fire!" Captain Jelar ordered.
"Sir! Something's wrong! The Ape-oids and Malakins are firing! On each other, that is!"
First Officer Church sidestepped to another sensor panel and gazed down at it intensely over the operator's shoulder. "She's right, sir. They're fighting each other."
"The gunship is destroyed, sir. Appears to have taken several direct hits and flared out in pieces. What's left is acting like chaff," the operator reported.
"I guess butterflies don't always win," Dave mumbled to himself. Then he said clearly and loudly, "Captain, order your ship to intercede on behalf of the remaining Ape-oid ships."
Brantle replied, "I can't do that, sir. I was ordered by Admiral of the Navy Reason to avoid battle while transporting you to Beulah."
Dave said calmly, "Forget that order of his and think about what we can accomplish here if we intercede. It just could be that the Ape-oids and Malakins aren't allies as we previously suspected. If that's actually the situation, we hold the opportunity in our hands now to directly influence the Ape-oids. Maybe even enough to discontinue their hostility toward us and become our allies. This is our chance to prove to them at last that we really want to become their friends, not their conquerors."
The sensor operator reported, "Two Ape-oid freighters destroyed."
Dave said, "We're losing valuable time, Captain."
Captain Brantle ordered, "Helm, change course as Admiral Oden just suggested. First Officer, tell our gun stations to open fire as soon as we're in range. Communications, notify the convoy to stay together and away from us. Tell them to run for it if necessary while we go into battle. Admiral, I hope you're right that we can take those three Malakin ships. We're going up against the equivalent of three of our cruisers."
The sensor operator reported, "Convoy is steering away from us."
First Officer Church said, "Correction! Most of our convoy is leaving. Four ships are still with us."
"Signal them again. Tell them all to leave," Captain Brantle ordered.
Admiral Oden said softly, "It won't do any good. Odds are that those four ships are Pennyweight Shipping Company freighters. They won't run from a fight. Besides, I think they know what they're doing."
First Officer Church reported, "The four freighters are taking up wingman positions on us!"
Captain Brantle asked, "Are you sure, Admiral? They don't have any real firepower. They're going to get themselves killed for nothing."
Oden replied, "Don't underestimate them. Besides, it's my guess that they're remaining with us because I'm on board. I own a small part of the company now. They're probably concerned more about what happens to me than themselves."
"I hope they're up to the task then. We won't have time to save any of them if they get into trouble," Brantle said.
"Another Ape-oid freighter destroyed! Correction, make that three more!"
"How many are left?" Captain Brantle asked.
First Officer Church announced, "We're in range!"
"Weapons firing, sir! We're scoring hits!" an operator reported.
Captain Brantle suddenly blanched momentarily as Dave asked, "Did anyone instruct the gunners to fire only at the Malakins?"
First Officer Church quickly toggled the intercom on. "Attention all gun stations! Open fire on the Malakins only! Do not fire upon the Ape-oid ships! I repeat, do not fire upon the Ape-oids!"
The communications operator quickly sent the same message to the four trailing freighters in wingman positions on the dreadnaught.
Captain Brantle asked, "Did we hit any of the Ape-oids?"
A moment later, the operator answered, "No sir. I didn't pick up any hits from our weapons on them."
Dave said, "At this range, our gunners probably concentrated on the largest, most dangerous targets first. We got lucky."
Captain Brantle nodded before wiping his brow of sweat.
Captain Brantle asked, "How are our freighter escorts doing? Are they still in one piece?"
"One's been hit badly and retired from the battle. Two are concentrating their fire on the damaged Malakin. The other one is still behind us protecting our engines."
Brantle said, "They're better than I expected, Admiral."
Dave said, "They're among the best when it comes to civilian companies. When we have time later, I'll tell you about some of their past exploits. Most folks don't hear about those. The merchant space mariners usually tell the stories only among themselves."
Captain Brantle said, "Well, I've heard one saying about them that if you can't see them, don't believe they're not there. My guess is that saying came about because of their rusty hulls since you can hardly see those visually against the black of space. Beats me why anyone ships with them though when all their transports are rusted on the outside. They ought to put some credits into their public image."
"Last Ape-oid freighter destroyed, sir!"
Admiral Oden shook his head sadly.
Captain Brantle said, "Sorry, Admiral. I shouldn't have waited so long to intercede. Otherwise, we might have stood a chance of saving some of them."
"It's not your fault, Captain. Judging from the condition of the two remaining Malakins, the Ape-oids would have been lost anyway. What's more important is that we tried."
"The damaged Malakin is out of action!"
"It's one to one!" shouted the First Officer.
Dave said, "No, it's four to one. Don't underestimate those freighters helping us, First Officer."
"But . . ."
Dave said softly, "After all, they just finished off that damaged destroyer."
A sensor operator reported, "Another Pennyweight freighter with heavy damage retiring from the battle."
Dave went over to the communications and accepted a microphone. "Attention Pennyweight ships. Well done. Please return to the convoy. I think we can handle the last Malakin ship by ourselves. Your assistance was greatly appreciated."
Captain Brantle asked, "Are the other two leaving?"
A moment later, the sensor operator replied, "No sir."
Dave said, "I told you they probably wouldn't listen to me."
"Last Malakin is now dead in space!"
First Officer Church asked, "Destroy or board them, sir?"
Captain Brantle glanced at Admiral Oden for a moment in indecision.
Admiral Oden said, "At this point, it doesn't matter. Make your own decision, Captain."
Captain Brantle ordered, "Board them! Take as many prisoners as possible! I want our intelligence people to find out what they were doing here. I'd like to know, too."
Dave whispered, "Might be a good idea to send someone around to the Ape-oid ships to search for survivors. All we need is just one survivor to return to Bragh as proof of our good intentions here today."
"You're right! We might not have failed after all!" Captain Brantle exclaimed.
"Sir, the Ape-oid ships are freighters. I can only make out one small gunship among them. The Malakins are on a course toward them."
Without hesitation, Captain Jelar ordered, "Battle stations! Attack! Helm, set course to intercept those ships! We must give our freighters enough time to leave orbit and escape. Communications, instruct the freighters to get under way quickly. They are not to wait for us."
"One Malakin ship destroyed! One damaged!"
END OF SAMPLE
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