The fight was hard. Sakrine now had a new cut crossing his face, while Kona’s shield has been broken in half. The initial intention was to put up an honourable duel, but it had degenerated in a brutal fight with no exceptions of moves and incorrectness. A fight for survival. Both the contenders were agile and strong, and none of them was going to surrender. The crowd was silent. Usually, during a duel, the spectators were doing everything except for remaining silent. They cheered, booed, roared their approval or unhappiness for the hits. But now… the clangour of the swords could be heard clearly from everywhere in the Arena. Even the most thug warriors were now completely absorbed by the grim show in front of them.
Sakrine jumped a cleft with a small lava river in his bottom, landed on a big rock and stopped with his shield the sharp-edged stones that Kona threw against him. He took advantage of this to launch his spear, that hit Kona in his left shoulder. With a grunt, the former Emperor removed the weapon from him without a moan, and launched it back. Sakrine fell on the ground just in time to miss the spear, that embed in a rock behind him. He then ran towards Kona, the sword ready to hit. The two started a deathly dance, hitting the enemy and deviating hacks with the grace of a butterfly. Only that butterflies don’t kill each other.
They withdraw for a moment. But it was enough. Sakrine slipped over a blood spot and fell in the cleft. He could see the lava quickly nearing…
“Ready for the first volley.”
The two fleets were nearing. Amanda was frenetically giving the final adjustments to the battle plan. The first volley was always the most critical moment of the combat. A wrong opening manoeuvre , and dozens of ships could be vaporized in a matter of seconds.
“Not yet… not yet… not yet… NOW!”
At her order, hundreds of quantum torpedoes started their course against the nearing Imperial fleet, returned by Drengin phasors and disruptors strips.
In both groups ships started to explode as torpedo passed the weak anti-missile defences and multiple laser hits overloaded shields, making them falling.
“Losses in the enemy fleet are quantified around 34%, 29% in our ranks, Great Admiral… Launching fighters now.”
Like in a prefixed ritual, both fleets launched their smaller crafts, that started battling in the no one’s territory between the two groups, while support ships tried to help them with long-range weapons.
“To all ships, start now attack phase 3.”
The gargantuan army of warships broke the already known ritual, moving towards the enemy. The Drengin were first puzzled by the sudden Terran change in their usual battle plans. But when their ships began to be destroyed, they started counterattacking with a fervour that soon became desperation as the Coalition pushed them backwards, towards the planed that they should defend.
When the Drengin commander realized that his fleet was falling, he ordered to use every measure to keep the Alliance out of Drengi. Dominator corvettes, usually useless, began to ram in the warships.
When the battleship TAS Procyon exploded with a corvette inside the command bridge, Amanda realized that, after all, if the Drengin were ready to immolate themselves to protect their homeland, the battle would be much more bloody than she had expected. Even if the Drengin Emperor was battling on the surface to defend his rights. Or was exactly for that? Nevertheless, it was time for extreme measures.
… and suddenly the lava river became a swamp. The Arena mechanism has activated again and has changed the environment, exactly as he has been projected to do, to complicate the fight. The lava plain left place to a marsh.
Sakrine landed with a loud splash in the dirty water. Ignoring the pain produced from the contact of the open wounds with the liquid, he looked for Kona. The Emperor was awkward in a small reed. The Overlord quietly approached his enemy, hidden and ready to attack. A single hit, and everything is finished.
He ran against his enemy, the sword ready to hit…
Dreghal woke up, without opening his eyes. As he had been instructed to do at the Academy, he tried to explore the place where he was without drawing too much attention. He was rudely interrupted.
“We aren’t at the War Academy, Sub-group Lord. These tricks are out of place.”
A Korath was in front of the bed where he was. The place could had been a sickbay, but something told him that it wasn’t. Maybe the blood spots on the walls?
“Where I am?”
“This is not important. I make the questions, you answer. Clear?”
“Where I am?”
The Korath hit him, breaking his nose. Dreghal didn’t give a whimper.
“What are the data that your ship was carting about?”
“You can hit me all the day. I won’t answer your questions.”
Maybe he could have been more intimidating if his voice hadn’t been so nasal.
“If this is what you want…”
The Korath took a syringe with an colourless liquid in it. Before Dreghal could do anything, his jailer emptied it in his arm. A few seconds later, his mind started flying away from his body…
When he woke up again, he could confusedly see the Korath confabulating with a Kriath, assumably the ship’s captain, according to his uniform. When they saw that he was awake, they stopped speaking.
“Where I am?” he asked defiantly again.
“Aboard the K.S.V. Sphyran, Sub-group Lord. I am Ship Lord Khare.”
“K.S.V.? Since when the Kriath have a separate fleet?”
“From now. The Empire has fallen. We gained independence.”
“No… this can’t be…”
“Yes… it can.”
He turned on a small screen, and images of a military news report appeared, showing the death of Lord Kona and the Caretaker that was crowning Sakrine I’Aghol as his successor.
“As you can see, the Empire is gone, and now people that have betrayed the loyalty bounds are now commanding. You have to help us… the data about the Terror Star project. How can we read them? If we don’t, the traitors will do so… we don’t have too much time.”
Dreghal couldn’t tell why, but he was sure that that was the truth. He started speaking, while the Ship Lord took notes.
Khare and the Korath were outside the sickbay door. Dreghal had been drugged again.
“Yes. I told you that with that special compound, you can made the prisoners think anything. Kona dead, c’mon! Now, my reward…”
“Yes… here it is.”
A laser shot, and the Korath was dead.
“The data are incoming.”
Eleyes looked the screen, where lines and lines of the strange Drengin letters were slowly appearing.
“So, this is the lethal Terror Star project.” Azamar commented “It’s fantastic… In comparison, a Black Hole Eruptor is a toy.”
“They still haven’t found a solution for the requested energy output problem.” Eleys objected.
“Yes, but I have compared my suppositions with the Shivan Keeper of the Knowledge, and he has half an idea about the synchronization of the black matter’s fluctuation in the ionized corridor when the alpha waves hit the quantum…”
“Less technobabble, more facts.” she ordered.
“…a way to solve the problem.”
“Excellent. Transmit the data to our allies… as always.”
What went wrong? Sakrine couldn’t tell. The fact was that a moment before he was ready to kill his enemy, and the following moment was laying on the ground, with Kona’s sword in his chest. The pain was unimaginable, and it wasn’t only physical. The consciousness that he had failed was overwhelming. He has failed to give freedom to his race… he has condemned them to defeat. It was something he couldn’t allow.
Kona was turned towards the Caretaker, that now was slowly going down the stairs to check his victory. So he didn’t notice Sakrine until he grabbed him and pushed his face in the water. It’s incredible how much strength can have a dying body. Kona slowly drown, despite all his efforts to free himself from the deathly embrace. The two contenders died together. When Sakrine looked the crowd before exhaling his last breath, he found the answer that he had been looking for so long. Yes. I have done the right thing.
The Arbiter looked shocked along with ninety thousand Drengin the scene that he had in front of him. Never, as far as a Drengin can remember, both the opponents had died in a bloodbath. He looked for the Arbiters, to have an advice. The seven warriors gathered in the Throne room to find a solution.
“This situation is… so incredible! I can’t believe that…”
“Thanks, Heterya, but I think that we all agree on the uniqueness of this situation. What I would like to hear is a solution…” Hath’ar angrily said.
“Well, I think that you should take the government. Only momentarily, of course, until the I’Aghols have elected another Emperor.”
“Yes, I think that this is the best option we have.”
Hath’ar looked carefully each one of the Arbiters. Take the command of the Empire… and in such a dangerous period… try to make decisions for the good of all the Drengin, decisions that maybe they won’t accept… but he has been chosen for this.
“Agreed. Let’s inform the people.”
As he stood up, a soldier ran in the room.
“Caretaker… we’ve a problem in orbit. The Terrans…”
“Don’t be silly, Drengin. You are close to defeat. Resistance is futile.”
The Borg phrase fit perfectly with this situation, Amanda thought.
“Maybe it is, but as far as I’m alive, you won’t put your inferior foot on our homeworld!”
“Drengin, I have three heavy cruisers that have broke your blockade and are ready to bomb the planet. Are you sure that…”
“Thank you, Sarhan. Now I take the command.” A third voice interrupted the discussion.
“Who are you?”
“I am Hath’ar I’Aghol, leader of the Ghal Clan and Caretaker of the Empire.”
“Good. As I was saying to your… admiral before, I offer you to surrender without excessive unfavourable conditions.”
“I won’t surrender. My race won’t surrender! We still have more fleets than you have. We will…”
“I have ships equipped with nuclear weapons ready to bomb the planet! Are you sure that you want to condemn sixteen billion innocents? I don’t ask too much. The Coalition doesn’t ask too much. We want only peace. You have the power, and the freedom, to make this decision. I know that a Caretaker has the same powers of an Emperor during a bloodbath, and that his decisions can’t be annulled too easily. You can be remembered as the warrior that put an end to this awful conflict, the warrior that prevented a massacre, the warrior that saved his race. I ask only this to you.”
Hath’ar looked the human. Suddenly all his warrior aggressiveness disappeared. Her eyes were so deeply asking the… but he had to…
He bent his head.
“Kona is dead, and so Sakrine. I am in power, for now. And I think… I think that you are right. This war has lasted too much. Too much blood has been poured. I propose to sign a ceasefire with immediate effect. We’ll discuss later the conditions for a peace treaty.”
“Thank you. Oh, thanks!”
The Caretaker looked again the human on the screen. Her eyes were slowly filling with tears, he noticed before the channel was cut.
The declaration caught everyone off of guard.
On Altaria, Eleys and Azamar looked shocked the screen as a special report of the GNN informed the galaxy of what was going on.
“… we still don’t know what pushed the Empire to do such a radical move… Their forces are retreating from all the non-Imperial territories to the old ante bellum borders… Sources from the Terran Ministry of Defence say that Emperor Kona is dead, but this still has to be confirmed. A spokesman of the Geneva Capitol has informed few minutes ago that President Bradley will do a not programmed Speech to the Alliance tomorrow at 9:00. Now I leave the line to our special correspondent from Arcea… What do the Arceans say about this, Jeff?”
Eleys looked the Archiater with the same expression if she had just been run over by an HGV. “Peace…”
“It seems so, sir.”
Then Eleys recovered from the shock. She literally jumped on Azamar, embracing and kissing him.
“Please… Milady… conduct!”
“It… It’s over… It’s over!”
Azamar managed to fudge from her hold.
“Everything we have done in seven years… It worked… we are free.”
She looked far different now. In her eyes there was the ancient hope, the ancient determination. Seven years of pain and sacrifices were now ended. Now, the Altarians can rise their heads again towards the stars, looking for their destiny. A better one.
On Earth, Alan Bradley was being submerged from data reports. An army of secretaries, generals, admirals and senators were going backwards and forwards from his office in the AC4. No one had a clear idea of what was going on. There were the optimistic, the pessimistic and the undecided, and all of them were convinced that their opinion was the right one. In the past few hours, Alan tried to make order in the immense Allied chain command, deleting planned incursions and assuring that no stupid officers were going to blow up the armistice, stopping only to drink some cups of coffee.
“An so? Have you…”
“Please, Mr President. It would be much better if you don’t interrupt us every three minutes to know if we have established the connection.”
“I have to talk with Great Admiral Alighieri! The hell has broken out, and we still don’t know exactly what’s happening! I need…”
“Maybe here we are” a technician interrupted him.
Amanda’s figure materialized on the holo projector.
“I want an immediate report.”
“Yes, sir. The Empire has acknowledged to an armistice. Their ships are retreating…”
She spent a good twenty minutes talking without interruptions.
“How did you do it?”
“Well… improvisation, commander.”
“You have disobeyed to your orders.” Alan said severely.
Amanda looked him as if he was crazy. “But…”
“I’m joking, Admiral. Joking.”
“Mh-mh. It’s not funny, sir.”
“Now, secure the perimeter. Once you’ve done this, you have to receive other three or four medals… together with a promotion.”
“I’d refuse that…”
“Don’t be silly. You’ve practically ended this war on your own. You can’t accept only an Order of the Alliance. This one is your sixth, right?”
“Seventh. But sir, I think that this would be an insult to all our soldiers. I haven’t won the war alone. It’s -mostly- thanks to them. And however, the war isn’t finished. We still have…”
“…bureaucratic formalities to do. Amanda, that’s not a problem, considering that the only thing that has remained intact on Earth in these seven years is our diplomatic service. I expect the beginning of the negotiations in less than a week.”
“It would be fantastic. Peace…”
“Yes, Amanda. Peace.”
Aboard the Hammerhead, things were a little more complex. They were fighting a small Drengin fleet near Grathis with a Shivan battlegroup when the armistice was declared. Unfortunately, the Drengin commander didn’t seemed so happy to end the war with a disengagement and a retreat. So, for them the Imperial forces were still the Enemy.
“Turn! 180 degrees! Complete rotation! Ready to invert engine power!”
“Watch out that corvette!”
“Qin, maybe it’s better if…”
“CAN I DO MY JOB?”
The four silenced.
“Thanks. I’m enough…“ He threw the incursor in a perfect loop “…under pressure.”
“When this will be finished, pilot, we are going to revise the manual, chapter 3.”
“Ranks and promotions?”
“Exactly. However… WATCH OUT!“
The Hammerhead passed miraculously intact between two colliding ships.
“… I’d like to be alive to do this.”
“I’m doing the best I can, sir!”
“I know, but…” this time the Hammerhead avoided a Photon torpedo “… sometimes I wonder if you want to kill us all.”
“He’s dodging most of the hits, sir!” Renee intervened.
“Yes, but another loop like the last one, and I’ll be ready for the anticipated retirement…”
“Like if someone can force you to leave this banger…”
“Exactly. You’d never leave us.” Dimitri said.
“Don’t bee too sure, lieutenant. Now that there is – should be…” he corrected, as a disruptor shot hit the small ship and threw it away, while Qin furiously fought to retake control of the Hammerhead. “…peace, I think that no one can stop me from using that three months of unused licence that I have. Maybe in an exotic location like Toria – I’ve heard that the Torians make miracles with their thermal baths.”
“I doubt that you’ll be satisfied with a calm pension… BAD-MANNERED!” Renee shouted to a Dominator corvette that rudely interrupted their discussion when it started firing at the Hammerhead. The ship was destroyed a few seconds later by a Shivan Dragon fighter.
“I was saying… yes, I doubt that you’ll be satisfied with a simple pension.”
“Maybe you’re right… I’ll simply wait for another call. The galaxy isn’t a calm place. There will always be another war to fight. But we’re talking only about me. What about you?”
“I think I’ll come back to Earth and go back to my studies in Oxford. I was graduating in Xeno Engineering.” Qin said. “And Dimitri, if I’m not wrong, was a technician for Rainbow Designs.”
“Yes. I was. Maybe I’ll resume my old job… But I still have to decide.”
“And you, Dave? What will you do?”
“Well… I was planning to remain in the military. I’d like to be part of the crew of a bigger warship… maybe the Galatea.”
“Great Admiral Alighieri personal flagship? You’re ambitious.”
“I know. But… I’ve always wanted to be on a major warship, not only an incursor.”
“But why is she using a Mercury class cruiser now?”
“Because of its speed. But I think that once her small operation is completed, she will use again the Galatea.”
“And you, Renee?”
“I’d like to reopen my old commercial activity… I used to work in a small fashion boutique on Poseidon. Maybe it’s still there.”
“Why have you left it?”
“The Drengin were arriving… I volunteered to keep them away from the planet. I know, it’s strange to pass from a fashion boutique to a radar screen, but I wanted to do something…” She checked the display “That seems to be the flagship, sir. Lots of communications in and out.”
“Qin, Dimitri, ready for a volley.”
The Hammerhead passed the burning wreck of a Shivan frigate, and started firing with its venerably singularity driver. The results were quickly seen: the bridge of the ship exploded, while the Terran incursor agilely dodged the laser shots of the rapid-fire anti-fighter turrets.
“The Drengin seem confused. They aren’t receiving orders anymore.”
“Good. This will make things easier.”
It made. The Shivans quickly surrounded the Drengin formations, and destroyed them one by one.
“Final score: Coalition 1, Drengin Empire 0, and for today it’s all, folks!” Dmitri announced.
“Qin, set a course for Varna Station. I think that we can say the war is finally over.”
Aboard the Behemoth, now safely docked with Melpomenes Station near Mars, the new was welcomed with a general ovation. Everyone around Sira, the crew seemed to have suddenly gone mad. Someone was kissing, someone was singing, someone was simply crying. The Altarian shook amused her head. The humans could became completely crazy, she noted smiling. When she saw Winston and Thorin happily dancing, the human on a table to compensate his shortness compared to the Drath, she couldn’t hold any longer her laugh. In response, the two brought her in their crazy can-can. Then someone appeared with cakes and drinks, and a party was rapidly organized on the command bridge.
When Sira managed to escape from the collective madness, she went in her room. She saw that on the computer there was a message from the Ministry of Defence. I can read it later, she thought. Peace. I can’t believe it. Everything that we have done in years… It’s all finished. But there was something… strange. She still felt a little… worried? The sensation of an imminent danger?
She shook her head. It’s only tiredness. And the consciousness that there had been so many deaths… I’d like to have done something more…Even if I have avenged my family, I could have done more.
She laid on her bed. After a few minutes, she was sleeping deeply, knowing that tomorrow the galaxy would have been a much better place. And that was also thanks to her.
And so, this is the end. From his admiral ship, Hath’ar was now looking the Terran homeworld. She was amazed from the sight of blue oceans that had hardly any match from other planets in the universe. In a few hours he and the leaders of the Coalition would have signed an official peace treaty. The ad interim Emperor knew that he would have needed all his ability to fight with the human diplomats. He was determined to assure to the Empire honourable terms, but that would have been hard. But after all, the Drengin military was still the most powerful. Not that a fleet could do something against a nuclear missile. The Terrans have used all that museum pieces to incinerate the Drengin top fleets. He sighed.
Dharna I’Aghol informed him that it was time. He sighed again, then he moved to fight the hardest battle.
The official peace treaty was signed three weeks later, after a long struggle in the Terran city of Orleans. After all, Hath’ar managed to effectively conclude honourably the conflict. The Drengin had to give all the conquered worlds to their old owners, among with some border planets, ships and an economical compensation, mainly given to the Varden Council, and to recognize the political autonomy of the Kriath Clan. But they conserved their rights over the original core of the Empire.
After a series of signings, hand shakings, speeches and various diplomatic formalities, the delegations concluded their work, and left the planet. Two weeks of national holidays were declared on Earth, and slowly everything returned to the before-war routine.
Alan could only smile as the newspapers started declaring all the good things that he had done during the conflict, and how he has managed to brilliantly conclude the fights, while only a month before they were saying that it was all his fault.
“In a few years, it will be everything like before.” Amanda said from her chair in the Presidential Office, in Geneva, while Bradley was looking the fireworks that were shining on the lake. The night was peaceful, and the Terrans were still celebrating.
“Yes. But first we have a last problem to solve.”
“Your promotion, Great Admiral. Or should I say now Grand Fleet Admiral?”
Oh, no, she thought.
A last effort. Then I'll can buy that nice house near lake Michigan. Aaron entered in the dark Imperial Room for what he hoped to be the last time. The usual bow, the usual diplomatic formalities, then he started the formal speech. But Avatar didn’t look happier for the end of the war. Not at all. Despite this made him suspicious, Aaron continued.
“My purpose for my visit, Avatar, is to establish some solid bases for further relations with your Empire and to open formal relations with the others… political entities. Now that the peace is finally…”
Avatar opened silently his claws, in the Shivan way of laughing.
“No, Terran. There won’t be peace. Not yet.”
Aaron froze in fear.
“Are you threatening…”
“It’s not me, human. It’s them.”
“Yes, ambassador. They… are coming.”
The end… and the beginning.