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Journey's End

As the F Zero One had promised, the X-Bomber and the K'Lar exited the Thalian Zone without challenge and set course for the solar system. On board the X-Bomber, the crew made their way to the main briefing room. The Lieutenants had had full medicals following their ordeals and Shiro was no longer two-faced. He found that the F Zero One had explained what had happened to everyone else, sparing him the need to do so. There were still questions to be asked, and answered, however.

The four human members of the X-Bomber crew seated themselves at the table in the centre of the room, waiting for one of PPA's drones to join them. Barry was impatient. "Come on Professor. What's the story with the K'Lar? How'd you manage to get out here, and what're those weird fighters?"

Professor Hagen smiled indulgently. "Alright, Lieutenant. As I believe you know, as you were heading out of the solar system Mars was coming under attack from the ship we now know to be the K'Lar. She is, or rather was, the flagship of the Imperial fleet and is the only Imperial battlecruiser which carries the cloaking device which was causing us so much difficulty. She was being used as a test ship for the prototype device; the plans were destroyed with the Master's fortress." The Professor paused to drink some water before continuing.

"As we now know, the Heir needed to engineer a situation in which the X-Bomber would be lured to S'Kirina without the Dai-X, and without support. The K'Lar's attack on Mars was intended to either force the X-Bomber to confront it, or to strengthen your resolve to destroy the threat to F Zero One so that it could destroy the K'Lar. Given that the K'Lar could have cloaked at any moment, and the greater peril of the Master being set free, you opted to head out to the Thalian Zone."

"Commander Magellan made two mistakes at that time. Had he cloaked his vessel once you were out of sensor range, we might not be having this conversation. Instead, he pressed home his attack on the Mars outpost. His second mistake was understandable, and in keeping with the arrogance of the Imperial mindset. He assumed that he had technological superiority."

"General Kyle and I had realised, shortly after the F Zero One campaign, that the EDF had to be reinforced, and quickly. But our fighters have always proven to be no match for Imperial capital ships, even in great numbers. We lost dozens to Makara's ship and the Master's fortress. Clearly, mass producing X-Bomber in a short period of time was out of the question. We needed a compromise - a ship which could be built quickly, which in numbers would be capable of taking on an Alliance capital ship. An X Fighter."

Lee piped up. "So that's what the K'Lar's got on board? X Fighters? But, they seem to have Imperial power signatures?"

"Yes, Lieutenant. Right on both counts. You see, your Dai-X fighters were conceived as part of the X Project. As such, although extremely powerful, they are also extremely complex. I needed something as effective, but easier to produce. We were able to salvage several Imperial fighters following the F Zero One campaign, and had detailed scans of other Imperial technologies which the X-Bomber and Dai-X had encountered. The Imperial power plant was designed for mass production. So the X Fighters aboard the K'Lar are one part standard EDF fighter, one part Dai-X fighter and one part Imperial fighter. They are fast enough to take on Imperial fighters, tough enough to withstand an Imperial battlecruiser's point defence weapons and powerful enough to penetrate Imperial armour."

Barry interrupted. "If these new fighters are so great, why didn't they come into service sooner?"

"When the K'Lar's presence was first suspected, I met with General Kyle. We agreed that the X Fighters had to be held in reserve. To have revealed them by using them for regular patrols might have allowed the enemy to pick them off one by one, and would certainly have led to more aggressive attacks on manufacturing facilities. Remember, these were not combat-tested craft, Hercules. Indeed, it was fortunate, in a sense, that the K'Lar attacked Mars because the majority of the prototypes were based there. It allowed the X Fighters to swarm the K'Lar without having travelled a great distance."

The Professor paused, remembering the day of the attack. "Even with the X Fighters, we could not have destroyed the K'Lar. Not from the outside, anyway. However, the K'Lar was not at peak combat readiness, as you may have guessed. Its cloaking device and its prolonged campaign in the solar system had drained its resources. I believe its Commander attacked Mars out of frustration, more than anything else. In any case, with the X Fighters drawing its fire and inflicting some damage, we were able to emulate your final attack on Makara's ship. The K'Lar was in the martian atmosphere and less able to manoeuvre than it might have been in orbit. Several troop transports were able to fly directly into its launch bay, although many more were shot out of the sky. Working on plans drawn up from your own experiences, the attack squads were able to secure the bridge. Many of the crew were on damage control duties and were relatively easy to subdue. The Commander suicided before he could be captured."

Barry whistled. Lee shook his head in amazement. Shiro nodded quietly. "We brought the K'Lar down to Mars for repairs and some refitting, working round the clock. You had a good head start on us. Of course, where you had to find S'Kirina, we had Imperial navigational data aboard the K'Lar and the benefit of its cloaking device. While my technicians were working on the K'Lar, I was overseeing the repairs on the Dai-X fighters. As soon as the K'Lar was operational I had the X Fighters and Dai-X loaded; I actually completed the repairs to Dai-X en route. I had a feeling you'd need it, although even I hadn't predicted just what you'd be up against."

Shiro shook his head in disbelief. "But why come after us at all? We stole the X-Bomber, after all."

The Professor chuckled. "Well, I'm glad you found the theft convincing. General Kyle and I hoped you would, otherwise it might not have rung true to the Alliance."

"What?! General Kyle knew we were going to steal the X-Bomber - and he let you help us?!"

"You're forgetting Shiro - Lamia spoke to me too. I convinced the General that with the X Fighters functional we'd be able to hold out. But we also wanted to allow the Imperials to continue to believe that you were playing right into their hands. So General Kyle, myself and one other individual were running our own little conspiracy."

"One other, father?"

"Yes. Here he is now." PPA's drone swept into the room and landed at the head of the table.

Lee was confused. "I don't understand. How was PPA involved in all this?"

The drone spoke up. "You may recall your initial confrontation with the K'Lar in the Dai-X fighters. Lieutenant Shiro later voiced some concern about the Imperial tactics at the time. He quite logically reasoned that the aim of the attack was to disable the Dai-X fighters. However, that was in fact only a secondary goal. The primary goal was to infect Lieutenant Hagen with seed material for the creation of his symbiote."

Barry interrupted. "You want to try that again, in English?"

The drone rotated to face Hercules. "You will recall that all three of your craft were assaulted with homing torpedoes that detonated on proximity. The torpedoes pursued a selected craft from the point of their launch. BrainCom suffered a hull breach as a result of the detonation of the warhead pursuing it. The other craft, although also damaged, did not suffer hull breaches. This might have been mere chance. However, once joined with the X-Bomber I conducted intensive scans of the Dai-X craft as part of my tactical analysis of situation. I identified an anomaly on BrainCom's hull."

Shiro was beginning to understand why the symbiote had indicated that the Heir had gone to "great lengths" to bring him under his control. The K'Lar had been sent into the solar system purely to bring about his arrival within the Heir's sphere of influence. He listened as PPA continued.

"My readings indicated that, allowing for other damage sustained, BrainCom's mass was fractionally greater than it should have been. This indicated that a foreign substance had been introduced into BrainCom. Further detailed analysis revealed evidence of inert nanites around the hull breach. nanites are microscopic machines, capable of carrying out pre-programmed tasks. They are used with limited application on Earth. However, their composition indicated that these nanites were of Imperial origin."

Lee shivered. He didn't like the idea of microscopic Imperial war machines running around inside him...

"There was no trace of the nanites on the other craft. As they did not appear to be attacking BrainCom, I concluded that their target was Lieutenant Hagen. I notified Professor Hagen of my suspicion and was consequently brought into the "conspiracy" which he has already described to you. However, from that point on I was unable to detect further evidence of the nanites. It is now clear that the initial focus of my investigation was misguided. I had anticipated the presence of the nanites in Lieutenant Hagen's tissues - as per their use in terran science. It was not until Commander Magellan issued his ultimatum that it occurred to me to look elsewhere."

Barry suddenly caught on. "Right! The symbiotes! You couldn't grow one, you'd have to construct one - and Shiro walks around with raw materials on his head!"

"Colourful, but essentially correct, Lieutenant Hercules. Lieutenant Hagen's helmet provided an unexpected, and yet entirely obvious, hiding place for the inert nanites. As Lieutenant Hagen may already have guessed, the injection I gave him prior to our arrival at S'Kirina had nothing to do with enabling him to breath - although in a sense, it did preserve his ability to continue to do so."

Barry raised an eyebrow. "Was that an actual joke, PPA?!"

PPA did not rise to the bait. "What I administered was in fact a neural stimulant, which was intended to assist Lieutenant Hagen in fighting the influence of the emerging symbiote. I also made other preparations - including modifications to the X-Bomber's shuttlecraft. I reasoned that an EMP would disrupt the symbiote's functions and allow Lieutenant Hagen an opportunity to escape. I apologise for not being forthcoming with this information prior to this briefing. It was necessary to maintain secrecy in order to prevent the symbiote learning of my preparations."

Shiro nodded. "I understand PPA. You did very well. But if you had all these preparations in place, why was the Heir able to knock out Barry and Lee and shut you down?"

"I had no data on the extent of the Heir's powers - and I am as yet unable to determine how he was able to affect the Bomber in the way that he did. I had expected the symbiote to activate with you on board the ship with a view to sabotage. Had you then used the shuttlecraft to escape I could have activated the EMP when you reached your destination. I had not anticipated such a sudden and total loss of control. It was only when you were successful in activating your communicator that I was able to take the decision to activate the EMP and destroy the shuttlecraft. Given the situation it appeared necessary to take the most extreme course of action available to me."

Barry grinned. "So you took a chance, eh, PPA? Doesn't sound very logical to me!"

"If you are implying that I relied on "dumb luck", Lieutenant Hercules, I can assure you that the probability calculations which I used to come to my decision would have taken you several of your lifetimes to compute," retorted PPA.

The humans around the table burst into laughter as PPA's drone took off and flew out of the room. Shiro turned to his father. "So where do we go from here?"

"Well, I've got an entire Imperial battlecrusier to dissect when we get back. I'm sure General Kyle will have a few choice words to say about your actions, but in the circumstances, I think it's obvious that you acted in the best traditions of the EDF and Star Fleet Command. I imagine you'll be heavily involved with the testing of the new X Fighters over the next few months. With the Heir gone and the Imperial flagship under our control I don't think the Alliance will be trying anything in the near future. So we rest, rebuild, and plan for the future."

Lee grinned. "Well that's just great guys. Now can we eat? I'm starving!"

As the others left, laughing and joking, Shiro remained seated at the table. He stared out at the star field for several long moments before standing and catching up with the others. He recalled the words of the F Zero One; evil attracts evil. He was certain that he would be seeing the Thalian Zone again.


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Last updated 14 December 2013

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