The two ships of the Challenge stalked each other like flying predators, each determined to possess this territory as their own. They hid in amongst the broken pieces of a dead planet that had exploded millennia ago. It was a graveyard of odd items, including the burnt out husks of abandoned ships destroyed during the alien invasion. There were denser areas of debris, like a swarm of intergalactic garbage, dangerous if you didn't have a good pilot with sharp eyes and ever-quicker reflexes. Pieces of old ships and machinery of a once thriving civilization still carried charges and heat signatures, confusing any scanner readings. With the interference, long-range communications was sporadic. The ships were truly on their own.
Weapons had been disabled and special low yield ones installed. Additional hull sensors approximated real damage when weapons hits were registered, artificially disabling ship systems. The fight between the opponents was to be non-lethal but any mistakes in manoeuvring amongst the wrecks of forgotten humanity could prove fatal.
Vila’s neck was craned towards the screen. His hand gripped his glass tightly and he unconsciously swerved along with the movements of the ship on the screen.
So far, neither side had gained the advantage. Jernis kept up constant attacks but Kirsten managed to avoid most of them. Her ship had only fired a few, almost tentative shots. At first, she seemed more interested in running and avoiding trouble but soon it became apparent that Jernis was becoming increasingly frustrated by his inability to beat her. In his experience, when your enemy ran, it was because they were defeated or it was a trap. But Kirsten was doing neither. She was taunting him. Jernis wasn't used to an opponent who ran as a form of offence.
“Oh…don’t do that!” Vila nearly spilled his drink.
The women’s ship had entered one of the large clouds of debris. It stretched the area of several Earth moons and obscured them from normal vision.
Argus said, “That should be thick enough in there to confuse scanners.”
Avon had pulled up a chair and was sitting next to Cally. “Their scanners will be blind as well.”
“They’ll have to rely on their eyes then.”
Vila had a bad feeling. He had visions of another time when he’d been dragged through a dangerous meteor storm over his protests. They’d barely escaped with their lives. But at least the objects in this debris field weren’t hurtling towards them at missile-like speeds.
They saw Senator Jernis’s ship swing around and increase to maximum speed.
Sester was still unusually quiet but his fingers played along the top edge of the couch.
Argus said, “He’s going to try to intercept them on the other side.”
Avon made some calculations on his datapad. “According to my estimates, at the increased speed, he should be well into his reserves by the time he reaches the other side.
Vila asked, “That soon?”
A smile touched Argus’s lips. “She let him use up his power.”
Avon did a few more calculations. “Yes…but the women will also require additional power to get through that concentration of debris.”
Argus said, “They would have to increase shield strength.”
Vila asked, “So it depends on who has more power once they reach the other side?”
When Avon seemed too preoccupied to answer, Argus asked, “Well?”
“They should have more than enough.”
Vila said admiringly, “Oh, that's good.”
Avon said, “Barring any unforeseen circumstances…”
Vila grimaced, “I wish you hadn’t said that.”
Argus suddenly popped up out of his seat and stared hard at the screen. Half a dozen ships had appeared and were headed towards the Challenge field. He raced to his flight station. “Zen, engines to maximum. Navigation and battle computers online.” Avon and Vila were a step behind to theirs.
“Plot course to intercept Jernis’s ship. Standard by twelve. Now.”
The ship pulsed with silent energy as it reached full power. The main viewscreen still showed the Challenge broadcast. The ships were surrounding Jernis.
Vila asked, "How do we know they're hostile?"
The ships began firing.
Jernis’s ship flared as the blasts hit his shields. Avon was checking readings at his station.
“Avon, at maximum speed, how long?”
"Twenty two minutes.”
Vila said nervously, “I hope they can hang on.”
Avon said, “It would be safer for the women to stay in the debris field until we arrive.”
Cally tried to sit up but her wound was still tender and she had to lie back down. "What about the other ship?"
Avon kept an eye on her movements. "What about them?"
"They need help too."
With icy logic, Avon said, "By the time we get there, they'll most likely be destroyed."
Argus said, "Zen, what is the maximum speed of this ship, beyond the safety measures?"
Avon turned to him. "You're not serious?"
"I don't see that we have any choice."
"Yes, we do. We will arrive in time to save the women."
Zen responded, "The highest speed possible at maximum design tolerance levels is standard by fifteen."
Avon said, "That will require manual override of the fail-safes. There will be no margin for error and the engines may suffer a catastrophic meltdown."
Vila looked pained. "Who thinks that's a bad idea?" He lifted his hand.
Argus was itching to go. In space combat, every delay could have deadly consequences. But he could not risk the life of his crew either. "Avon, you monitor ship's status. If the she looks like she can't handle it, we'll drop back to twelve. Alright?"
Given a choice, Avon agreed. "Alright."
"Disable the fail-safes."
Avon headed for the engine room.
Argus asked, "Any other objections?"
Sester still said nothing but there was a faint look of expectation in his eyes.
All of the women looked apprehensively at the screen as dozens of pieces of space debris passed inches from their hull. They were travelling along the inner edge of this concentration of wreckage rather than through it to the other side. The plan was to come up behind the other ship, when they least expected and hit them with a full spread of photon blasts before they could bring their shields up.
Some of the women from the other Challenge groups were also present. They all wanted to be at the final contest.
Alara asked nervously, "When can we get out of here?" Something that looked like a large piece of machinery, half the size of their ship, had passed too close for comfort.
Kirsten looked down at her flight panel. "This should be long enough. They should be on their way. Adair, ease us out of here."
The ship moved towards a less cluttered section of debris. Everyone held their breaths as they neared the edge. Would their opponent be waiting for them?
Sentha leaned forward, her eyes squinting as she caught sight of a shape, "There's a ship out there!"
They all leaned towards the screen in alarm, fear touching their faces. Kirsten shouted, "Slow to a third impulse!"
"They're waiting for us?" asked Alara.
Sentha turned to face their leader. "They must know we're here."
Kirsten tried to check her scanners but they were still obscured by the mass of debris. Had she guessed wrong about her father? Had he done the unexpected?
For some reason, Sester's words came to her. When the time comes, I want you to think very carefully about what you're going to do.
What does that mean?
A fleeting grin lightened a face that seemed to have forgotten how to smile. For once, I have you confused?
Don't get used to it.
He leaned forward and brushed her lips lightly with his. Remember what I said when the time comes.
Kirsten thought carefully. They still had the ship. It was undamaged and their energy banks should be comparable to her father's ship. It was still an even fight. This was no time to give up. She may have been wrong about this strategy but all of the other ones had worked so far.
Adair asked, "What are we going to do now?"
Kirsten's voice was strong. "Nothing's changed. We still have a fight to win. Adair, on my command, head straight for them. Maximum speed. Charon, full spread on the photons the moment we clear the edge. Concentrate power on forward shields. Ready?"
There was a chorus of replies. "Ready."
"On my mark. Three, two, one….mark!"
The ship jumped forward.
The ship cleared the dense field and everyone was prepared to come out fighting …except suddenly they were facing two unknown ships. Collective eyes widened in shock. A short distance off, they could see Senator Jernis's ship surrounded, its hull had been breached in several places and fire could be seen through emergency containment fields.
Kirsten shouted, "Full shields!" Someone hit several buttons on her control panel.
Alara's forehead wrinkled. "The markings…those are Thyssen Alliance ships." The Thyssens were mortal enemies of the Chandaran Alliance. Although, as almost every alliance in that corner of the Sector were enemies of each other, this wasn't surprising. And they all shot first and couldn't be bothered to ask questions.
The women waited but nothing happened.
Sentha asked in mystification, "What are they waiting for? Why aren't they firing at us?"
Despite the shock, Kirsten forced herself to remain calm. There wasn't time to think about why this was happening. All that was important was that these were enemy ships, though their own ship didn't seem to be in any immediate danger.
Why aren't they firing at us? It's almost as if…. They know our weapons are disabled? But her father's ship was too. Unless they were going to take care of them one at a time, which seemed a waste if neither of them had functional weapons. Or her father may have provoked them in some way. That would be just like him. Her ship might not be in danger but her father clearly was.
Jernis's ship fired two plasma bolts at its attackers.
Sentha asked suspiciously, "I thought they weren't supposed to have weapons?"
Kirsten said, "They didn't remove them. They just locked the command codes out."
Alara said, "Then someone must have given them the code."
"Or they bypassed it." Kirsten wished they had enough skill to do that for their ship. Having someone like Avon around would have been very useful.
Sentha said, "That explains why they're not bothering with us yet. We're no threat to them."
Alara was still troubled. "That doesn't mean they won't be after us once they destroy the other ship."
Kirsten was looking at her father's ship worriedly. It didn't look like it would last long under the bombardment. Her father was going to die if he didn't get help.
Why should she care that her father was going to be destroyed? Didn't he deserve it? Hadn't he made her life miserable? Didn't he treat her as little more than property? Inferior in every way? Most of the men of the Challenge weren't much better. Except maybe Brady. He seemed a decent sort, for a Chandaran male. She would feel sorry if he died. But why did she also feel…
When the time comes, I want you to think very carefully about what you're going to do.
Think carefully. Suddenly Kirsten knew that she couldn't let her father die. No matter what he was or what he had done to her in the past, she couldn't let him face these overwhelming odds alone. She might hate him, she might want to leave and never see him again, but she could not sit by and let these people kill him.
Kirsten's eyes swept across the flight deck. The women were anxious and afraid. This wasn't just a contest anymore; there was a real chance of dying. "I…don't know how the rest of you feel, but that's my father out there." She still couldn't believe she was saying this. "No matter how he's treated me, I can't let him die. But I can't save him without your help. I know what I'm asking…I know it's going to be dangerous but..."
Sentha said, "Are you crazy? After what they've done to us? Why should we risk our lives for them? I say, we go back into the debris field and wait it out. Help must be coming soon."
Alara said, "Brady's on that ship. I…don't want him to die. Even if we don’t want to save any of the others, we should save him. He's a good man."
Sentha said, "But it's dangerous and we don't even have weapons. What can we do? You're just going to get us killed."
Kirsten's mind was working even faster as she pursed her lips. "We only have to hold out until help comes." She looked down at the chronometer reading on her panel. "Assuming the attack started shortly after we went into the field…then the ships should be here in another nine minutes."
"That's a big assuming," said Sentha.
"We can still see my father's ship. That means that they must have been attacked right after we entered the field."
"Or your father was waiting for us."
"It doesn't matter which. Our shields are fully functional. We should be able to hold out."
Sentha said sceptically, "Yeah, but how long?"
Kirsten said, "The men think that we're nothing. Not even capable of honour and courage. They think we know nothing about nobility and strength of character. They think that without them, we'll fall apart and can't even take care of ourselves. We've been showing them how wrong they are. But there is one thing we haven't shown them yet."
Vila said in astonishment, "What's she doing?" The women's ship had moved between the main attacking force and the men's ship.
Sester finally spoke, "She's using her ship as a physical shield. They're going to protect the Senator's ship until we can get there."
When the time comes…There was a faintly pleased look on his face but his head was turned so that the others couldn’t see it. Everyone was performing exactly as he had calculated they would.
Argus said, "Zen, time to intercept?"
"Six minutes thirty-two seconds."
"Avon, how are we doing on the engines?"
"Stress levels increasing."
"Is it still within tolerance?"
Though he didn't show it, Avon had been increasingly concerned. They were skirting too close to the maximum the ship could withstand before stress fractures began to appear in the engine casing. They should drop speed now before they reached that point. He glanced at the screen and the desperate situation. The women were making a stand of courage for people who considered them inferior and treated them as little more than property; tools to be used for someone else's agenda. There was a slight grimace on his face. "For now."
Senator Jernis appeared on the women's viewscreen. Emergency lights from his ship flickered in shadows across his face. A bleeding wound on his shoulder looked painful. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Get out of here!" Behind him was smoke and flashes of a ship slowly falling apart.
Kirsten said, "We're here to help, father."
"I don't need your help!"
"It's a good thing for you that I'm not listening to you anymore then."
Plasma bolts hit the women's ship. Everyone grabbed onto something.
Jernis saw this and said, "Your ship is useless. Get out of the way before you get yourselves killed!"
"That's the idea, father. We're going to stand between you and the Thyssens until help arrives. Try to move behind us to the debris field."
"Who do you think I am? I'm not about to hide behind...." A bolt hit Jernis's ship, cutting off their comm connection. A part of the weapons array broke off from his ship and drifted away. More bolts rocked Kirsten's ship.
One of the women reported, "We're down to thirty-percent on forward shields."
"Re-route all non-essential power to shields."
They all looked at each other. This was not covered in their training. Avon's simulators had given them the essentials on handling a ship but nothing that required understanding of how the ship worked.
Kirsten asked, "Computer, can you re-route all non-essential power to forward shields?"
The male computer voice responded, "Yes."
"Then do it."
There was a look of relief on the women's faces.
Sentha had been looking at the screen with a scowl on her face. "They're not moving."
Kirsten shook her head at her father's decision. "He's too proud."
Sentha said with disgust, "And stupid."
Alara said sadly, "They're going to be killed."
Sentha said, "And take us with them if we try to help them."
Kirsten asked, "Leeta, how are the shields?"
"Forward is back up to sixty percent."
"Not good but better than thirty."
Alara asked nervously, "Do you think we'll be able to hold out and save the your father?"
"I hope so." Kirsten was getting anxious at the non-appearance of help. It seemed like a long time had passed but her panel told her that it had only been a couple of minutes since they had used themselves as a shield for her father's ship.
Senator Jernis appeared on the screen again. The jagged metal edge of a ceiling panel hung down near where he was standing. There were scratches on his cheek. "Why are you doing this?"
Kirsten said, "Someone has to give me my freedom."
"You don't need me alive to do that and don't think that you're going to get away that easily."
"You're right, I don't. Now shut up and let me save you." Kirsten broke off the connection. More plasma bolts hit them hard, sending women flying. One of the panels sparked and exploded.
Shields were almost gone on the women's ship. Fires raged inside their engine nacelles. Senator Jernis's ship was starting to break up but because of the women's protection, all of his crew had managed to get to life pods.
Just when it seemed that all hope was lost, the Justice swept in like the ancient cavalry, with neutron blasters blazing. It was an inspiring sight on all vid-screens within broadcast range.
The crew made short work of the enemy, disabling most of them and destroying one. The few that could still move, limped away at sub-light speed. It was over in a matter of minutes, leaving nothing but clean up for the Chandaran ships that arrived late on the scene.
Enterprising merchants were already planning detailed replicas of the Justice and the two Challenge ships; both before and after versions, complete with simulated fires and detachable life pods.
Sester was still unusually silent. The final step in his plan was still to materialize. A great deal had been accomplished and Kirsten and the women had performed exceedingly well, but Sester was not satisfied yet. One more thing needed to happen.
Reya was waiting for the women as they came off the transport shuttles, some on foot, others on automated medical stretchers. The normally cold woman was full of warmth as she greeted each one personally, extending her congratulations and pride to all of them and making sure that they were being taken care of.
Kirsten and her father came down the ramp. His face was pale and he lay covered in blood while Kirsten followed beside him.
Jernis opened his eyes and saw her looking down at him. Kirsten didn't know what to expect. Would he be the father she always knew or had this experienced changed him?
His voice conveyed very little emotion. "You stayed?"
"I couldn't very well save you if I left," she said quietly.
He stared at her for a moment, his eyes reflecting a confusing mixture of uncertain hostility, disbelief at what had happened and hesitant gratitude. "You would have made a good son."
"I make a good daughter, father."
Hard tension tightened Jernis's jaw. He was the kind of man who was too stubborn and proud to change even against the face of overwhelming evidence. "I will never see things your way."
"I know that, father."
For good or bad, Jernis was a true Chandaran; he was moved by displays of courage and nobility. Even from his own daughter. "You have won your freedom."
"What about the others?"
"I will keep my promise. I will make sure that they will be allowed to go free."
"Thank you, father."
"If you leave, you will no longer be my daughter."
"Father…" This was the final break and unexpectedly, Kirsten had pangs of regret. Not because she would miss the life here but because Jernis was the only family she had known. He may have been the source of her greatest miseries but he had taken care of her all of her life, at least in the only manner he was capable of towards her. "I understand, Senator."