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BLACK SCIENCE FICTION


THE HARLEM

He pushed his sensors out, hoping for good news. The readouts said otherwise. The fate of a world and an intelligent species rested on one ship and one man.

"Ian MacDonald, Starship Harlem, to all Star Kings. I'm about to engage a MOTU battle group. Aid requested. Repeat: aid requested."

Nothing. He shook his head. The planet was naked, vulnerable—as the Earth had been a thousand years ago. Ten billion human beings, including his mother and father, had perished in seconds. No Star King who was in a position to, would let such slaughter take place again.

Born a thousand years after his parents died, he'd never known them. He knew of them and about them—all Star King ships carried records of Earth in the Yad Vashems and the genetic legacy of the human race in the Life Banks. They had been African-Americans and they had never met each other except in a test tube. How he would have liked to have known them.

He sighed, pushing the thought away. There were seven of the killers of Earth—a Planetburner and six escort ships. As they said in the old days, he was outnumbered and outgunned. Fortunately, not out-teched. His people no longer had to worry about that. Too many—including Marilyn—had made sure of that.

He warped to the observation deck, let that immense spread of stars surround him from the clear force bubble overhead to the reflections on the black mirrored plain of floor he stood on.

How different that sky was from that about the MOTU homespace. There, the suns had flickered out slowly or flared in brilliant novas long ago; the MOTU species was ten billion years old. His people had had to play a long hard game of catch-up. Someday, when they were strong enough, they would once again go to that citadel, would once again brave its awesome defenses—which had already claimed a generation of Star Kings. Someday, they would avenge the Earth.

But right now his concern was Bellerman's World. Uplifted from the Stone Age a hundred years ago, the species there could not as yet defend itself against MOTU tech. A tech ten billion years old.

That was his job.

"Hokey Joke—suggestions?"

The TEMS (Total Environmental and Mental Simulation) appeared in its holoimage of a grey-haired old man with a beard. It stood beside him, wearing, like him, a black warcloak which quivered and flared as programmed. "Yes—run like Hell."

Ian shook his head, his dreads shaking. "I don't need you to tell me that."

Hokey Joke smiled. "I know, but it is good advice. Outnumbered seven to one, the likelihood of help arriving in time being zero, the chances of a successful defense of the planet are 99.9999 against you."

"And the .0001?"

The TEMS made a pretense of studying the stars. Its eyes gleamed. "There are seven ships—only one is a Planetburner."

"Right!" Ian said. He strode back and forth as he thought. For ten billion years MOTUs had preemptively burned the planets of potential competitors. Only in the last few hundred years, with the growth of Star King strength, had they taken to escorting the Planetburners. He nodded to himself. It was the only chance. No matter how slim. He could not stand by and watch while a world and a people died. If only someone had been there to fight for the Earth.

He warped to the Yad Vashem. Every ship carried such a memorial to the ten billion of Earth that so that as long as a Star King ship existed, its mission would never be forgotten. He stood before the holoimage of the burned Earth, surrounded by the ever changing images of the long gone people of humanity's place of origin. For a moment he watched a little Chinese boy giggling, a freckled-faced Irish girl waving, an old black woman with tears in her eyes.

"We will avenge you," he said. "Whatever it takes, however long it takes." He nodded.

He called up the BHUD (Bridge Heads-Up Display). He was between the MOTUs and Bellerman's. Strategic and tactical option menus slid down. The Planetburner's primary was its only weapon. Other than that, it was not a threat to him. Designed and deployed in an era in which no intelligent species existed to oppose them, Planetburners carried no defenses.

MOTUs changed slowly and only when forced to. They'd created Planetburners to annihilate the already-defeated Krahzee (the MOTU equivalent of salting the land). But that warrior species was ten billion years dead. One would have thought the MOTUs would have updated the design. But no, they'd simply designed, built and deployed warships to protect them. Unfortunately, for him, the warships were well-designed.

Two years ago, after Marilyn's death, he enlarged and upgraded the Harlem with his brother Gordon's help—but not enough to fight six-seven MOTU warships alone.

He took a deep breath and let it out, remembering Marilyn's death, the failed experiment. He did not need to call up her holoimage to remind him of how she'd looked; he would remember the golden hair and blue eyes always. He missed the children they would have had. The Harlem had been designed to raise and educate a hundred children per the directives of the Proper Vengeance Plan. It would remain empty until he found someone to replace her. Another reason to hurt the MOTUs.

One way to fail would be to empty his missile racks and follow them in. The MOTUs would counter with their Anti-Missile Missiles and blow his out of space. Then they would do the same to the Harlem. And finally Bellerman's world. He shook his head in annoyance. Time was disappearing.

Then he had it. He looked at the TEMS. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You want me to do all your thinking?"

"It's why I put up with you."

"Don't do me any favors."

He put his missiles in place. Powered down, they were undetectable.

Finally, he'd done everything he could. He updated his Death Call, composed messages to his ship-parents, his ship-brothers and sisters and to his bio-brother Gordon. And last, he made one to Iana.

"Iana—Troublemaker—this is your Uncle Ian. If you receive this, it means I did not survive. I am engaging a MOTU battle-group." He took a deep breath. "If I fall, they will know they have been in a fight. I regret I wasn't there for your fourth birthday. And I regret I will not be there to see you grow up." He paused, his vision blurring. A thousand years of experiments had gone into producing his niece. The next generation of Star Kings, she would face beings as far beyond these MOTUs as Star Kings were beyond turtles crawling in the dust. They would have to find the others responsible for the Earth's death.

"I love you, Troublemaker," he concluded. "I love you, my brother," he said in his last word to Gordon. He half-sobbed; it was lonely having only two blood relatives in the whole universe. How alone Gordon would be if he lost his only biological brother. He finalized the messages; they would be sent with his Death Call if he fell.

He brought the Harlem into position. The MOTUs were aware now they were opposed. In the BHUD holodisplays the escorts moved forward, taking no chances with their charge. They would finish off the threat before allowing the Planetburner to move on Bellerman's World and exterminate another species as long ago they had almost done with the human race.

One last time he looked through the Harlem, at the labs with their experiments in progress, the Yad Vashem and its holoimage of the Earth, the manufacturing facilities, the smear drive, the antimatter containments of the power plant, the rows of artificial wombs in the Birth Room, his den with its shelves of books, reproductions of those written long ago on the Earth, the basketball courts, gyms, ballrooms, the Life Bank with future generations waiting to be born and the TEMS facility where the hardware of the most advanced computer ever created by man was housed.

He walked the hall lined with the pictures of his people's past: Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—after whom he had nicknamed Troublemaker, the 54th Massachusetts, Nat Turner, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Civil Rights Marchers, the Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th marching up Lenox Avenue after their return from France, the soaring red-tailed fighters of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black Panthers in berets and black leather jackets holding their rifles aloft.

And, more recently, he looked on the holos of the Shattered—first generation from the Earth, Jackson Davis—who died locating the MOTU cluster, and the one they called The Fanatic—who tried to avenge the Earth and led a generation of Star Kings to glory in the MOTU homespace two hundred years earlier.

Though the Harlem was alone here, she would not fight alone. Men and women of the distant and not so distant past would be with her in spirit. And finally, he called up Marilyn's holo and studied her. Then he kissed his fingers and held them out to her. He killed the holo. Time to fight.

The first batch of deployed missiles came on-line, accelerated. Immediately the escorts sensed them. Three of them moved out front, half the force deploying forward to meet the threat. Good. Star King ships were ultra-stealthed, so the holding back of half the escort was logical.

Just as they were about to engage the first missiles, the second group came alive—on the battle group's right flank. After some hesitation, two of the three remaining escorts moved to engage.

Ian waited ... waited ... waited.

The three which had moved out destroyed the first group of missiles and began to fall back. The two-ship group was about to engage the second batch of missiles.

"Showtime."

Matter kissed antimatter. The Harlem powered up and drove forward. Two versus one. As long as he stayed out of the Planetburner's sights, it was really one on one—until the other escorts rejoined the Planetburner.

He closed and launched most of his remaining missiles. They flashed away, eager to fulfill their destinies. It now became a duel of tech. The Planetburner did not run; the MOTU commander did not know what else was out there. The sole remaining protecting escort moved to intercept the Harlem. It launched its interceptor missiles.

As the Harlem's missiles began to juke and jinx, making the sharp-angled changes of direction characteristic of smear drive technology, the MOTU missiles shifted position to match them. ECMs fenced, each trying to throw the other off.

In the Bridge Heads-Up Display, the MOTU missiles flickered in and out of the simulation screens as they momentarily fooled the Harlem's missiles and were then reacquired.

The Planetburner was too big, too massive, not designed for stealth. The escort was better, but since it chose to stand between the big ship and the Harlem, there was no need to guess at its location. The Harlem's missiles homed in.

Under cover of the eruptions along the front of the missile engagement, he moved the Harlem, slipping laterally away from his old position. The escort's systems would work hard to track—and fail—as the intense nearby radiation bursts hindered detection on both sides.

He rounded the edge of the explosions, launched more missiles. Sent the Harlemin after them.

Behind, MOTU missiles came though the eruptions and, disoriented momentarily, searched for the Harlem. He could imagine their electronic brains asking themselves, 'Where is the Harlem?'

The ECMs of the Harlem and the Planetburner and the escort battled. He had the advantage. Star King ships, true to the thousand year code to disperse and survive, usually fought outnumbered. So every generation of starships was more powerful, more lethal than the one before. The Harlem, thanks to his brother Gordon and Marilyn, was fully representative of the latest state of the art.

He had the advantage in ECMs too because MOTUs, fearing TEMS, kept their computers restricted to sub-TEMS class.

And so it was the Harlem's missiles out-thought and outmaneuvered their way in and impacted the MOTU escort vessel. Space shook. The stark glare would have destroyed unprotected eyes, fried exposed flesh.

Too late the Planetburner decided to run. It called to its five remaining escorts, demanding help.

They'd destroyed the missiles deployed earlier, searched near space and made sure it was safe. Now all five were rushing back, no doubt hoping the Planetburner could hang on. He would have liked to have drawn it out longer, but now he needed them to chase him. The best way to do that was to take out the Planetburner.

And hope they would all seek to avenge it.

The smart thing would be for four to come back and one to go on to Bellerman's and destroy it and the so-vulnerable species there. While not designed specifically to destroy planets, their weapons were more than capable of doing so.

He bore in on the running, defenseless Planetburner, locked his in-close weapons on it; it was not a ship designed for maneuver or defense or battle. It was a ship designed to incinerate planets. He would save his remaining missiles for his last desperate battle with the five escorts.

His particle beams slashed the Planetburner, hit the containment. The ship starballed. The Harlem's shields maxed to screen him from radiation and debris.

He scanned the BHUD, pinpointed the escorts. They were too late, but still closing.

All of them.

Good.

And bad.

If he retreated, one might remain behind to finish Bellerman's world. If he moved laterally, they would deploy to intercept him and probably drop one back to take care of the planet. He had their full attention. Only one way to keep it.

"Harlem attacking!" he broadcast.

In the BHUD he directed the ship to full smear. The move took them by surprise. He was in and among them, filling space with his remaining ordnance, the Harlem zigging and zagging, juking and jinxing like a drunken gnat. One escort took four hits. The first three flared against its shields. The fourth darted through when the shield faltered for a heartbeat—and the escort novaed.

A spider web of death wreathed the Harlem. Belatedly MOTU missiles launched, caught up and paced her.

The tactical computers played the life-and-death version of the old game Battleship with the MOTU missiles. When it could, it wove patterns of slow light into which the MOTU missiles hurled themselves and detonated.

The Harlem shuddered, shook from the nearby explosions. Like a matador amidst a herd of bulls, she slipped, dipped, feinted and maneuvered her way out of imminent destruction. But there were too many.

One missile took her head on. The shield shed the destructive impact and the resultant radiation. Almost instantly two others struck. Both amidships.

The Harlem staggered. Schematics blinked for attention in the BHUD, innumerable sections flashed red. Inset screens showed fires raging, whole areas of the ship swept away, thick black gases vomiting forth.

Damage control and self-repair systems came on line. They suppressed the fires, patched shattered tanks and lines, cut away and jettisoned damaged sections which served as distraction as MOTU missiles eagerly homed in and detonated on them. Brightness flared around her.

She sidestepped another swarm of missiles. They immediately right-angled and came back. The close-in defenses filled the space about the Harlem with more walls of slow light. He could not survive much longer. The escorts were simply packing space with their missiles, trusting to luck and numbers instead of attempting to get a lock on the desperately maneuvering Harlem hiding behind her TEMS-level electronic stealth systems. He could dance and dodge. The only question, how much longer? And the answer to that was 'not very long.'

He accessed communications. "Harlem needs assistance."

Nothing.

One escort's detection systems looked around frantically. Where was the Harlem? Visual systems were of no use at speed near or greater than light. But it was a visual system that located it. Too late, it discovered the Harlem had maneuvered right up on it. Her close-in weapons systems again scored on a MOTU vessel. It became a nova.

He moved with the radiation—straight for another MOTU ship. While it was momentarily blind to protect its sensitive equipment and sensors from the shockwave of radiation, the Harlem's close-in weaponry savaged it. And again the Harlem rode the shockwave of destruction.

Only the next MOTU ship was ready and launched missile spread after missile spread, saturating the space where the Harlem was. But it was only jettisoned wreckage that took all those missile strikes.

The Harlem, her magazines almost depleted, came for the MOTU warship. The MOTU launched more missiles. The Harlem spun a wall of slow light and bled-off antimatter about her. Her almost-TEMS-level systems guided her through the storm of annihilation, through the blizzard of MOTU missiles determined to find her and take her out. In the radiation-rich environment the Harlem found the MOTU ship and sent one of her two last missiles in. One was all it took. The missiles struck the radiation shields and the resultant energy hammered through and blew the MOTU vessel apart.

The radiation now was intense. In the survival pod at the heart of the Harlem, a hundred yards of collapsed-lead shielding and electronic shields held Ian MacDonald safe. For now.

The Harlem rose out of the awesome magnificence of the ball of hellfire and radiation, systems questing for the final MOTU.

Found it.

The Harlem stood alone in the graveyard of drifting MOTU debris. Blast and energy had blown away her particle-beam weapons. Her magazines were empty. Shattered, ruined, the Harlem and the ship of the killers of Earth moved toward each other. Ian MacDonald prepared to die.

In the depths of space, matter kissed antimatter. Drives flared to life. Smear systems engaged. Missiles darted forward. The MOTU ship went to full smear—and departed.

The Harlem's remaining sensors checked the area. Space was clear. The two missiles he had deployed earlier came to rest flanking the ship which had given them birth.

The battle over, he let out his breath. He'd been holding it in the last seconds of the engagement. About him the Harlem was repairing herself.

He directed it toward Bellerman's world. Would the beings there ever know, ever fully comprehend how close they'd been to total annihilation? As the human race almost had been? He doubted it.

Through the Bridge Heads-Up Display, he looked out at the stars, at the galaxies, at the universe. Out there other MOTU battle groups searched for sentient species to kill. There would be more of these battles—until the Summoning and they attacked the MOTU homespace. As the Fanatic had two hundred years ago. It would come. Soon. He would be there. It was the destiny of his people. It was his destiny. They would avenge the Earth.

Victorious with this shield....

Or.

The Harlem left the battlefield behind.


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