Authors: Thorarinn Gunnarsson
By Thorarinn Gunnarsson
were the Starwolves. Hunters of the Stars. Warriors of the Endless Night.
were bred for war, designed to function at ease under the deadly conditions of
high speeds and sharp, crushing turns demanded in spaceflight. No living being
could compete with them in battle. Not even the most complex computer guidance
system could out-fly them. Created to serve as simple machines of war, they
would in time evolve into the greatest and most noble of races, most deadly of
enemies but truest of friends, champions of justice but cold and merciless
eighteen centuries before Velmeran, Commander of the legendary carrier Methryn,
insisted that he and his people were not machines and brought the ancient war
of the Starwolves to an end, matters were very different indeed. The Starwolves
were smaller, weaker and less clever than they would become, never thinking to
question the single purpose of existence which they had been designed to fulfill.
They fought their battles in blind faith, failing to consider the greater
strategies that would have ended that unending war.
a greater menace came from beyond unknown stars, destroying all things for the
sake of destruction alone, giving battle without any greater purpose than to
seek out and ravage all civilized life. And so it was that the Starwolves were
called upon to defend the very enemy they had been created to destroy. But how
they would respond, and just how much their own will could influence the
instincts that had been programmed into their very nature, were matters
impossible to predict. ...
convoy began dropping out of starflight, each ship a minute behind the one
before it. Mostly they were medium bulk freighters, small enough to be quick
and agile but large enough to be useful, although every fifth ship was a
powerful Union battleship or heavy carrier. Each ship coasted for a few minutes
after emerging to carry itself clear of the area of emergence, before braking
with forward engines just in time to join up with the main convoy, drifting
deeper into the system that was its destination. Twenty-seven had already gone
sub-light and eight more would join up with the group in the next few minutes.
If all went well, they would all settle into orbit within six hours, making a
less tempting target for the Starwolves.
Fleet Command had some odd and rather ineffectual notions about the true
definition of subtlety. The transport of millions of tons of chemical explosive
ordinance could have been done more quietly by moving a ship or two at a time;
a convoy under military protection only called attention to itself, no matter
how quietly and quickly it tried to move. And if the Starwolves discovered the
convoy, three battleships and two carriers could hardly offer even the
curious state of war had existed between the Starwolves and the Union for over
thirty thousand years, sometimes in active and merciless hostility, and
sometimes in a tense truce that might exist for centuries. The Starwolves were
self-appointed protectors. As long as the Sectors and their vast trade
monopolies dealt fairly and peacefully with the lesser colonies, the
independents and the few aliens within the space they controlled, then the Starwolves
were willing enough to keep the truce. But the Sector families and their
monopolies existed for the sake of greed; they preferred to take what they did
not own, destroy the competition offered by the independents, and the
Starwolves were always swift to punish tyranny. No one knew what motivated the
Starwolves, except perhaps some instinct for altruism that had been programmed
that was the whole point; the Starwolves were an artificial race, created for
the purpose of fighting the Union. Although vaguely human in appearance, they
had been bred by complex genetic engineering methods, for quickness, endurance
and tremendous strength, to make them perfectly suited for the crushing
accelerations of space-flight. The Union could not begin to match the
technology of their immense carriers and nimble black fighters. Or even if they
had, the Union still possessed no pilot capable of flying against a Starwolf
nor even of surviving the deadly conditions aboard such a ship. Indeed the
Starwolves would have won their war long ago, except that the Union was able to
resist them by size and numbers alone. The Starwolves were thought to have only
eighteen ships, with perhaps ten packs of fighters aboard each. With its
limitless resources, the Union could afford to lose a small fleet more easily
than the Starwolves could lose a single fighter.
that was never to suggest that the Union accepted such losses, not when its
ultimate goal was to defeat the Starwolves either by slow, steady attrition or
an overwhelming cascade of resources. There seemed to be some small hope in
that scheme, for the Starwolves were inexplicably unwilling to be ruthless.
They might prey upon shipping, or make occasional strikes at important military
targets, but they would not take the war into the Union itself, and destroy its
ability to make war by removing its means to renew its lost resources.
the loss of several million tons of explosives, or even the ships that carried
it, was hardly a matter of great concern in the larger scheme of things . . .
except, of course, to the crews of those ships. If the Starwolves did find
them, the escort of three battleships and two carriers would have been futile,
even laughable. Starwolves seemed to have an uncanny way of knowing in advance
things that the Union tried to keep secret. They were too clever to fool, too
swift to evade and too powerful to fight.
thoughts had been very much on the mind of Captain Janus Tarrel every moment of
the journey. Hers was the ultimate responsibility, not just as captain of her
own battleship, the Carthaginian, but as executive commander of the entire
convoy. The official position at that moment was that a state of moderate
tension existed between the Union and the Starwolves, which was to say that
certain greedy Sectors had been trying to expand at the expense of the colonies
and the Starwolves had responded predictably. That response had so far taken
the form of a general, unpredictable attack on military and company shipping, a
tactic designed to defeat the Union’s ability to take a hostile stance. The
Starwolves would not hesitate to utterly destroy this convoy with its cargo of
explosives destined to subdue unruly colonies.
ships are down from starflight,” the surveillance officer reported. “The convoy
will be firming up within five minutes.” “What surveillance contacts do you
have?” Captain Tarrel asked, knowing that she would have been told of anything
new or unusual as a matter of normal procedure.
contacts running in system, all identified commercial ships on the established
shipping lanes. No contacts at all within two point seven light hours.”
Tarrel found that less reassuring than she had wished. She would have felt
better if she could rely upon having any warning, but the Starwolves had a
habit of dropping out of starflight right on top of their prey. They possessed
accurate achronic scanners that could see across whole light years without a
time delay. Her own scanners had an increasing lag that made them worthless
past a few light hours, and were almost blind to a ship still in starflight.
to destination?” she asked.
hours, forty-seven minutes,” the helm officer responded, channeling the
navigational grid to the main viewscreen.
the first officer, walked quietly over to join her at the central station where
they could see the viewscreen clearly. “Do you wish to increase our speed and
shook her head impatiently. “This many large engines flaring in such tight
formation would shout our presence to Starwolf scanners three sectors over. It
would be better for us to just coast in.”
there any reason to be nervous?”
beyond the obvious,” she said. “For all the good that we can do, they might
just as well not include a military escort. I suppose that it gives the
freighters some time to scatter while the Starwolves take us apart.”
flash of light flickered across the viewscreen, and several seconds later a
concussion like distant thunder rolled along the length of the ship like a
wave. The members of the bridge crew paused for a moment at their stations,
waiting until they were certain that it was not themselves that had been hit.
Captain Tarrel just waited, knowing that the surveillance officer was already
consulting his scanners, although one thing was immediately clear. One of the
freighters, and her cargo of perhaps a million tons of deadly ordnance, had
was Velvet Queen by process of elimination,” surveillance reported after a
moment. “She had been running six kilometers left and slightly down from our
position. Scanners record very little debris of any size, so she must have been
largely vaporized by the blast.”
contacts?” Tarrel demanded.
contacts before, after or during the explosion. No drive emissions. No weapons
paths. I see no indication yet that Velvet Queen was destroyed by external
you rule out the possibility of attack?”
no means. I simply have no evidence of attack at this time.”
nodded. “Try to obtain confirmation of that from the other ships in the fleet.
And get visual identification of as many ships as possible on the various
were tense moments, hardly less frightening than being under open attack.
Tarrel had to make some very quick decisions about the safety of her convoy,
and she did not yet know for certain that they had indeed come under fire.
Accidents did happen. Velvet Queen had been carrying nearly two hundred
thousand orbit-to-surface guided bombs of five tons each, all in unpressurized
cargo bays open to various forms of radiation and extremes of temperature. At
the same time, that was hardly a fragile cargo. Those bombs had been designed
to penetrate planetary atmospheres without projected shielding, just their own
tough ceramic shells. With no other supporting information, the only way that
Captain Tarrel had of judging whether or not they were under attack was to wait
and see. She stood in the center of the bridge, glancing about at the
viewscreens of various sizes that now showed different sections of the fleet.
time, she happened to be looking right at one of the bulk freighters as
electrical discharges rippled over its hull hardly a second before the vast
ship disappeared in a brilliant flash.
the convoy!” she ordered without hesitation. Starwolves could chase down only
so many targets at a time. “Group the military vessels with carriers in the
center. Stand by at red alert.”
as before,” the surveillance officer reported. “No contacts. No evidence of physical
or energy-based weapons being fired. No drive emissions. This time I did record
a sudden flare of energy from the ship itself, as if it was being destroyed
the Starwolves have any weapons like that?” Tarrel asked.
that I know of.”
there any way you know of that Starwolves could attack a ship without showing
would have to be firing from very low starflight speeds, but still fast enough
to evade our scanners. Even at that, they would have to deliver one shot from
extremely close range, less than two hundred meters. Not even Starwolves are
that precise. ”
had to agree. The situation seemed completely hopeless. They could not fight an
enemy they could not even see, and grouping the fighting ships had not diverted
the attack to themselves. She weighed her options very quickly and decided upon
the only scheme that might save at least a portion of the convoy. Bulk
freighters continued to explode all about them, at widely separate locations
about the dispersing fleet as if the enemy was all about them . . . or perhaps
standing off at a great distance and taking shots. Perhaps the Starwolves had
invented a weapon which was undetectable in its deployment, and useful from
such a distance that the attacking ship was not required to reveal itself.
the convoy into starflight as quickly as they can get there,” she directed.
“Any destination that lies in their path. Signal our sister ships to stand by
to run at any moment. We’ll be going as soon as the convoy looks safe.”
are we doing?” her first officer asked. “Can’t we fight?”
you have any constructive ideas on how to fight this, you tell me,” she said.
“About all we can do for those freighters is to sit close and try to draw the