Aboard the Akaki command ship, Tarq touched the holographic display in front of him and zoomed on Invincible. With bulging eyes, he watched a crimson single-seat space fighter leading a few dozen similar but dark gray craft evade Invincible’s weapons and hammer her with energy bolts, causing dazzling explosions. Tarq gulped and clutched at his chest. The Xortaags’ small space fighters were a lot more maneuverable and had much better weaponry than the Akakies’ intelligence, gathered by Tarq’s own agency, suggested.
That triggered an ominous realization, given force by his recognition of who was piloting the blood-red vessel. Tarq knew that pilot. Everyone in the universe knew him.
He slumped onto his seat and buried his head in his hands. Everything he thought he knew about the enemy fleet’s capabilities and tactics was wrong. He had been deceived.
No, he had been a fool.
Even so, this is impossible, thought Tarq. Invincible was capable of unleashing a world-killing array of heavy weaponry. A thousand space fighters could not possibly be a match for her.
It was as if the pilot of the crimson space fighter heard Tarq’s thoughts and decided to prove him wrong. The enemy vessel spit a deadly stream of laser bolts at Invincible, bringing about more explosions. Several sections of the starship were in flames.
The Invincible lit the space with countless white-hot energy bolts and filled it with thousands of missiles. The Xortaag vessels, and especially the devilish blood-red space fighter, zigzagged through the missiles and energy bolts with such skill that it made Tarq’s blood boil with jealousy. One of the starship’s blaster cannons came to life. It missed the targets and annihilated one of their own fleet’s vessels instead.
Biting his fingers, Tarq pictured Varina sitting at Invincible’s helm, desperately fighting for her life. He cursed under his breath and asked his assistant, “How did the Xortaag ships suddenly became so powerful? I personally observed their last two campaigns . . . Oh!”
Tarq paused for a second. “We saw what they wanted us to see.”
Tarq’s assistant, Lieutenant Barook, said, “My thoughts exactly.” He pointed at the red fighter. “It seems you have finally met your match.”
Staring at the crimson space fighter with burning hatred in his eyes, Tarq murmured,
“General Maada! I should have known defeating him would not be easy.”
The contents of the file Tarq himself had prepared about General Maada flashed through his mind. Maada was the Xortaags’ legendary warrior and military genius. The mere sight of his crimson space fighter sent shivers down the collective spine of space-faring species throughout the galaxy. As the commander of the fleet, there was no need for Maada to lead the attack personally. He could have stayed safely in Xortaag’s command ship and directed the assault from there. Instead, the General always deputized implementing strategy and coordinating the fleet to others and rushed to the frontline.
Under Maada’s command, the Xortaags had conquered around a hundred planets, including a few far more technologically advanced civilizations, exterminating all their inhabitants, killing billions of sentient beings.
Underestimating the general had proved to be a fatal mistake.
“Stop biting your fingers. You are going to leave blood stains everywhere,” said Barook.
Tarq looked down at his hands, and sure enough, he saw dark blue blood drops—
drawn by his sharp teeth—on his fingertips. He wiped his fingers on the top part of one of his four legs and kept staring at his station’s holographic display, desperately hoping for a miracle to save his daughter.
A frightened voice announced, “Here they come again!”
The crimson space fighter and its wingmen attacked Invincible, laser cannons blazing. Maada’s vessel dived at high speed, pulled its nose up at the last moment, and did a firing run close to the starship, hitting her repeatedly from bow to stern. The gray space fighters followed it, raining deadly laser bolts on the Akaki ship. Energy bolt after energy bolt tore into her, scoring devastating hits. As soon as the Xortaag vessels veered off, a massive ball of multihued fire engulfed Invincible, and in a flash, she blew up into millions of minute glowing shards shimmering in dark space.
Five thousand sailors, vaporized. Just like that.
The thought of his daughter made Tarq feel his hearts were about to give out. His only child, who could not wait to grow up, was dead. Varina, who loved his pranks, and who never got tired of listening to the stories of how her father had saved the galaxy multiple times, was gone, and it was Tarq’s fault.
The command ship was under attack. Someone shouted, “Brace for impact!” The vessel shook violently. Tarq did not pay any attention. He stared at what was left of Varina’s ship, and overwhelming grief cut through him like a thousand sharp knives. Trying to use physical pain to block his mental anguish, he grabbed his two front antennae and pulled them so hard the agony made his vision blur. That worked. For a brief second.
His PDD beeped. It was a video message from Varina. With terror in her eyes, she said, “Father, we did our best,” and the message cut into static.
His daughter’s last thought before being murdered by the Xortaags was how she had disappointed him.
The thought made his gut churn. He twisted his antennae as hard as he could. The severe pain pushed him to the brink of losing conscientiousness.
Barook approached him from behind, said, “This does not help,” and gently opened his fingers one by one, making him let go of his antennae.
A fleet lieutenant announced, “The fleet is retreating.”
That was a diplomatic way of putting it: The Akaki ships were zooming away from the Xortaags at maximum speed. Despite the tragic situation, Tarq could not stifle a bitter chuckle.
“This is no ‘retreat,’ you moron,” Tarq murmured under his breath, his voice so faint only Barook could hear him. “This is the worst every-Akaki-for-himself, save-your-own-exoskeleton, run-for-your-life tail-turning in history. ”
And the Akaki ships’ crew could not even do that right. A starship veered off its course and ran into another one. Both ships blew up with a spectacular explosion. Tarq noticed the first ship to escape to safety was Dauntless. He covered his face in his hands and groaned. Barook put his hand around Tarq’s shoulder in silence.
An explosion shook the bridge. Tarq looked at the damage reports coming in. For a moment, he wished Maada would come and finish what he has started. But them who would avenge Varina?
An admiral, wearing a white uniform almost identical to Tarq’s but with fleet insignia, shouted into his communication device, “You cowards! Where do you think you are going? Get back in there. I will have all of you court-martialed for this!”
“It seems they are more afraid of Maada than you, Admiral,” Tarq said, bleary-eyed.
The admiral took his frustration out on Tarq. With both pairs of his antennae standing erect in pure rage, he yelled, “And you, Commander Tarq. This is all your fault.
You are supposed to be the greatest strategist ever lived. All this was your plan.”
Tarq bared his teeth for one second, but he managed to control himself. Biting the Navy general’s head off would not help anyone. He took a deep breath, steadied himself and replied, “And I paid the price for my mistake. Or has it escaped your attention that I have just lost my only daughter?”
“I have to point out the command ship is also, eh, retreating,” said Barook.
The admiral froze, then he spun on his heels, ran to the ship’s captain and started arguing with him.
Barook said, “It is safe to say you have made a lot of new enemies today.”
With Varina gone, and their extinction in sight, that did not sound like such a big deal right now .
“I am the commander of Special Operations Force. Making enemies is literally in my job description,” Tarq answered.
“Not to mention your affinity for playing practical jokes on highly influential people,” said Barook. “You remember what you did to that poor admiral a while ago, don’t you?”
Tarq chuckled bitterly. “You honestly think I remember everyone I have ever played a prank on?”
Tarq looked around the bridge. All other officers were glued to their various screens, watching what was happening in disbelief. He knew they were all thinking the same thing he was: Their catastrophic failure here probably meant the end of their species in the very near future. Unless they—more specifically Tarq himself, since he was the Akakies’ chief strategist—came up with a brilliant plan and did it fast, they were about to suffer the same dreadful fate as the other races who had been in the Xortaags’ way: enslavement for a few generations, followed by a comprehensive genocide, leaving every man, woman and youngling dead.
Tarq silently vowed, not if I have anything to do with it.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish