Point of No ReturnMoon Base was not alone in its detection of X-Bomber's surprise launch. On the boundary of the asteroid belt a very different battlecruiser noted the increased communication noise from the Moon and risked an active scan of the surrounding area. An observer might have noticed a few small pieces of debris radically alter course as they ricocheted off something that wasn't there. The K'Lar held its position a moment longer and then broke away from the asteroid belt, heading for the inner solar system.
Meanwhile, the lieutenants on board X-Bomber acclimatised themselves to their old ship. Despite his initial enthusiasm for the idea, Hercules was finding the idea of an integrated PPA a little difficult to come to terms with as elements of control which would have been his were now under PPA's control. That said, several of the weapons systems had been upgraded as part of the ship's overhaul so he couldn't really complain.
Shiro sat in Dr Benn's position, plotting an escape course which would avoid Star Fleet's forces in the area - such as they were. He wondered, for the hundredth time, whether they were doing the right thing. The ship they'd commandeered was, quite simply, Earth's best hope for beating off an Alliance attack. What right did they have to take it out of the solar system, let alone risk it in an all out confrontration with the Alliance at the heart of their own Empire?
All the new systems had Lee worried. With this much automation on board, he hoped someone had remembered that human pilots needed to eat... Suddenly an urgent and persistent alert from his radar station broke through his hunger pangs.
"Guys, I have something. Small craft, just came into range. It's turning away from us, looks like it's running."
"PPA, identify friend or foe. Pursuit course," ordered Shiro.
"Might be one of ours, checking us out," suggested Hercules.
"Negative lieutenant. Profile and power output matches standard Alliance fighter," replied PPA.
Shiro was quiet for a moment. A single fighter, out here in no man's land. Running away... "PPA, new course, port 45 degrees, negative 45 degrees inclination. Full quantum speed, all power to shields."
The three pilots felt the acceleration as PPA adopted the new course and heading. Just as Hercules was about to question why Shiro had ordered the course change Lee looked up from his scanner, confused.
"The fighter... it's... vanished."
"No," said Shiro, "it's just gone home."
Shiro's instincts were correct. As the Bomber veered away from the point where it would have overtaken the fighter an all too familiar distortion effect became visible in space off their starboard bow as the K'Lar decloaked having retrieved its scout ship. Hercules had the Bomber's weapon systems on line before it had finished decloaking and was ready to fire. Shiro held his hand up with an open fist - no action. Hercules' eyes belied his frustration but he held fire. Then he frowned. They hadn't been fired upon. What...?
"Communication coming in Shiro."
"On screen Lee."
On the bridge of the K'Lar Commander Magellan faced the monitor as it resolved to show the bridge of the X-Bomber and its crew. It was as the Heir had foretold. "Hear me, crew of the X-Bomber. You know what this ship is capable of. Your Dai-X lies crippled, your comrades are ashes. You will surrender your ship to us now. If you do not, when we next emerge from darkness it will be to wipe out all life on your precious Earth." He gestured the communications link shut and ordered the ship's power diverted back to the cloak. "Resume course for Mars..."
Shiro watched impassively as the battlecruiser vanished from their sight and their scanners. This was all wrong. Everything about this Imperial campaign was wrong. If they wanted the X-Bomber, why hadn't they just assaulted Moon Base and captured it? Their cloaking device would have allowed them to launch a surprise attack whenever they chose to. Were they so concerned about the threat posed by the Dai-X that they'd lured it into an ambush first, hoping to take the base without a fight? Had the sudden appearance of the X-Bomber taken them by surprise before they could launch their final assault?
Lee spoke up. "I don't get it you guys. Why haven't they just attacked Earth anyway?"
Hercules responded. "They had to decloak last time they fired on us, Lee. I don't think they'd have enough power in reserve to try and take on Earth and the X-Bomber at the same time; but now the Dai-X is down. They know the X-Bomber can only be in one place at a time, and they could do a lot of damage if we guessed wrong about where they were going to strike..."
"Well, whoever that new Alliance Commander is, he's a lot smarter than Makara was. He had us chasing all over the solar system before luring us into that ambush," replied Lee. "We didn't even see it coming."
Shiro finally interjected. "They're not after the X-Bomber. They didn't fire a single shot at us - that's not the way the Alliance operates. No, if they were really out to conquer the Earth they'd have engaged us, not given us an ultimatum declaring what their primary target was. We know the Imperial Master is still a threat, and there's something more behind all this. That Commander may be good, but we all know how the Alliance operates. They don't sneak around solar systems harassing shipping lanes. Think about it. Everything lead to getting us into that ambush and crippling Dai-X."
Hercules cut in. "Isn't that stretching it a bit Shiro? I mean, we're still here - why let us get back to Moon Base if they wanted Dai-X out of the picture?"
"Perhaps because they knew we'd do this if we couldn't use Dai-X. With X-Bomber stationed at Moon Base it'd be able to react quickly, even if still needing repairs, to an Alliance attack on the Earth. Now we've lost the option of having Dai-X operating independently of the Bomber, and we've taken the Bomber out of Earth's orbit."
Hercules was silent.
"But I still don't buy it, Hercules. That Commander has to know that we're out to stop the Master. Otherwise why draw us into a confrontation now? He could keep us tied up here in the solar system chasing down every reported appearance of an Alliance ship between Earth and Pluto. He's lost a lot of his fleet over the past few months and his ship's been running cloaked for most of that time. There's no way he's got the resources to mount a major campaign." Shiro paused. He looked at the faces of the others.
"If the Imperial Master breaks free of F Zero One, our solar system, and more, will be destroyed. If we leave our solar system now, it may be destroyed. This is a hard choice, but it's got to be made. F Zero One - Lamia - is counting on us."
Hercules looked down. Lee frowned. They remembered the vision that had come to them, the feeling of harmony and calm that had come with it. The Imperial Master was the absolute antipathy of that feeling. Hercules finally broke the silence. "Alright, Shiro. Let's take the fight to them. Earth's tough. It'll survive until we can help out F Zero One."
"OK, Shiro. Let's go, before I change my mind again."
Shiro nodded, smiling grimly. "PPA, resume previous heading. Full quantum speed until we're clear of the solar system, then put everything you've got into propulsion and get us to the Thalian Zone."
On the K'Lar the Bomber's course change was noted with interest. The Termoid navigator spoke up. "Commander, the X-Bomber has resumed its course for the Thalian Zone. Should we intercept?"
"No. Let us test their resolve. Prepare all ships for an assault on Mars. I grow weary of these clandestine assaults. Drop the cloak and transfer all power to our weapons systems. It is time the humans appreciated the full power of this battlecruiser."
Shiro was thinking about the ambush again when Lee reported that the K'Lar had decloaked in Mars space and was on an insertion course into Mars orbit. Fighters were launching from Mars in response, but the tone of his voice made it clear what he thought their chances were. PPA reported that the ship was ready for hyperspeed, the course for the Thalian Zone locked in. Shiro hesitated for a moment before giving the order to break out of the solar system. The others did not contradict him. He left the bridge shortly afterwards with one of PPA's drones following behind, as the Bomber streaked away from the planet of war.
in the spirit realm the f zero one is unaware of the X-Bomber crew's progress, as the imperial master's energies lash out once more. the f zero one withstands the onslaught, but with every assault the master comes closer to disrupting the trinity and it can no longer risk retaliating against his attacks. there is no time for communication with the physical realm now; the f zero one must focus all its energies on containing the master. yet some element of it still whispers hurry, shiro, hurry...
Last updated 14 December 2013