The Xortaag fleet attacked three days later.
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.
What is the point of building the most advanced weapons in the galaxy if the people using them are so damned incompetent?
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.
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