Episode 224: The Battle Begins

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“She’s bluffing,” said Samara, strolling into the command deck as though she owned the place. The only external hint that she was on high alert was the pistol in her right hand, currently pointed at the floor. Maccabee was sure that the safety on that weapon was deactivated, however, just as it was on his. Until they’d searched Infinite Justice from stem to stern, in every cubby hole and hidden compartment, and flushed out any possible stowaways, he—and Samara, and every other member of Hornet’s crew—would stay alert and watchful. And keep their guns close at hand.

“It’s no bluff, captain,” said the officer Josephine had left behind. “I’ve been in communication with the Commodore throughout your assault. She has already taken the necessary steps.”

“Get him out of here,” snarled Samara, stepping forward and yanking the man away from Maccabee, then shoving him towards Russ. “Put him with the other prisoners, and make sure that they’re well guarded. I want people inside with them, at all times. No talking, no moving, nothing. Anyone who steps out of line, you shoot.”

“Crystal,” said Russ, snapping a salute to Samara. Then he shot Maccabee a wry grin, motioned for one of his team to grab the officer, and headed out of the command center. Maccabee noticed that Aldu, Zakes and Kano were at the hatchway now, waiting uncertainly.

“Aldu!” he called to her. The tall woman jogged towards him. “Send someone to take care of Terrance. Then get yourself back here.” He paused for a second, accessing his com implant and calling Pinzon, requesting reinforcements. “Chief Pinzon’s on her way. When she arrives, you’re relieved, but until then, you’re my security here, clear?”

“Clear, cap,” Aldu replied. She jogged back to the hatchway, sent Zakes running, then put Kano behind the remains of the barricade, while she stood in the hatchway and covered the approach. Maccabee knew that that corridor was the only way in.

“Now,” he said, turning to Samara. “What makes you so damn sure that Josephine is bluffing?”

“First, she’s can’t be sure it’s you,” said Samara, brushing past him and sitting down in the command chair. “Second, even if it is you, where’s Hornet? This is still her ship, Maccabee, she won’t want to give it up.”

“If she doesn’t do anything,” he pointed out, “she will be giving it up.”

“I didn’t say she wouldn’t do anything,” Samara said. She touched a few controls on the chair. “I’ve got command override. I’m not seeing anything out of the ordinary. No way for her to blow up the ship.”

“Maybe it’s a back door,” said Maccabee, sitting at the engineering station. “I’ve got several on Hornet.” He accessed his com again. “Ashburn? What’s your status?”

“I’ve got local control of all the reactors, captain,” she said, sounding tired. “I’ve separated the system from the control interlinks, and my team’s working on isolating any other connections.”

“Do you see any way to start a catastrophic failure from outside the ship?” Maccabee asked. “Like a self-destruct?”

“Negative, captain,” she answered. “If there was anything like that, I’d know it.”

“Understood,” he said. “Keep working.”

Alger came into the command center, still hefting a blaster rifle across his broad, armor-plated chest. “All the fun over?” he asked.

“Not quite,” answered Samara. “Maccabee, the whole command system is shut down. Everything.” She grimaced. “It’s going to take a while to get through this encryption.”

“Alger,” said Maccabee. “Get Sabli down here, and Nahal.” The other man nodded and turned to go. “Better get Japra, too, she’s good with this kind of thing.”

“Sorry, cap,” said Alger, turning around with a pained expression on his face. “Japra’s dead. Took a round to the chest.” The big man’s face fell and he looked down at the big gun in his hands. “It was quick.”

“Fine,” said Maccabee. “Try Ahanda instead.” Alger nodded, turned, and left.

“Fine?” asked Samara.

“I’m a little pressed for time,” Maccabee said. “Perhaps you noticed.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to be an ass about it,” she said pointedly.

Maccabee didn’t answer that, just turned back to the station console where he sat and started trying to bypass the lockouts the previous crew had left behind. Josephine might be alone on the planet, but he refused to believe that she was powerless. She would have a backup plan. She always did.

Simon was grinning from ear to ear. There was no way to know for sure that it was Maccabee and Hornet that had orchestrated that beautiful attack, but he really didn’t care. Whoever was responsible had done a fine job, and he was certain, somehow, that they’d succeeded. Infinite Justice was no longer the Commodore’s ship. She, instead, if Parthenon’s communication intercepts were to be trusted, was stuck now on the planet below. Maybe not a fitting death, but Simon was pretty sure Maccabee wouldn’t leave it at that. Not when he found out about Yakazuma.

Anderson, however, was not grinning.

“This ain’t what I had in mind,” he muttered. “Not at all.”

“The Commodore’s out of the way,” said Simon. “Her ship’s in good hands. What’s the trouble, Boss?”

“This ain’t what I had in mind,” Anderson repeated. “I want that ship good and gone, not still around for someone else to play with.”

“If that is Maccabee,” said Simon, “and I’m sure it is, he’ll reboard Hornet, and scuttle that piece of crap out there. I’m sure that’s what he intends. This way, he doesn’t have to fight her ship-to-ship.”

“A reasonable explanation, Mister Tamil,” said Anderson. “I don’t buy it, however, no matter how you try to sell it.”


“There’s something else going on here.” Anderson pointed out the broad, curving windows. “If that’s your captain—and I’ll tell you, I’m guessing you’re right—then where’s his ship? Why’s she not coming out, now that the other’s in his hands?” He shook his head. “No, something’s not right about this. I can feel it.”

Simon bit back the retort that was on the tip of his tongue: If you’re so damned unhappy, why didn’t you do the job yourself? This was not the time to anger the Boss. He was close to Maccabee, within hailing distance. He could bide his time, get back on board Hornet, start trying to forget about this whole thing. Of course, he’d never be able to do that. But he could try. He’d already decided that alcohol would play a large role.

“Sir!” said one of the crewmen from the deck below them. Simon perked up. Perhaps this was an incoming signal from Maccabee?

“What?” asked Anderson, clearly not happy with having his dark thoughts interrupted.

“Sir, I’ve got multiple launches from the surface.” The crewman glanced up at them. “Small craft, but heavier than shuttles. The computer’s still chewing on them.”

“How many?” asked Outo.

“Ten, sir,” replied the crewman. “No, twelve. Two more just launched.” He paused. “Computer’s saying they’re gunboats, sir. No FTL capability, but heavily armed.”

“Looks like the Commodore’s got some tricks up her sleeve,” said Anderson with a slow smile. “Interesting.”

“You think she’s going to let you just sit here?” asked Simon. “Those ships are coming after Parthenon too.”

“Let them come,” said Anderson. “Let them come.”

“Main drive controls restored, captain,” said Tara Nahal in her smooth, steely baritone. “I’m routing them to your station now.”

“We’re not moving without some sort of sensors,” said Samara. It wasn’t a question.

“Agreed,” replied Maccabee. “Any luck, Ahanda?”

The crewman looked around, a worried frown on his face. “Captain,” he said, “these encryptions aren’t the problem. I think there may be some serious sensor damage, sir, probably form the energy beam damage. There’s a hole through the main avionics bay big enough to drive a hovercar through. She’s got backups, but they’re marginal.”

“Probably why their response to our attack was so slow,” muttered Samara.

“But you’ve decrypted what’s available?” pressed Maccabee.

“Yes, sir,” replied Ahanda. “Limited close range sensors are now at your disposal.”

“Good,” said Maccabee, leaning back in his chair. “Let’s see what’s out there. Main holo.”

The tank at the front of the deck—small, but big enough for an auxiliary command center—came to life, and started to plot signals. The first was the planet, far to big and massive to miss. Then the still-unidentified ship that had originally attacked Infinite Justice, which was holding in a distant orbit, but keeping close tabs on the action, not allowing Justice’s quicker orbit to take her out of immediate view. Then, more signals started appearing, coming up from the other side of the planet, where Village A was now rotating well away from them. These new signals were moving quickly, too fast to be shuttles, but the computer couldn’t yet identify them. Maccabee felt his stomach drop.

“What the hell are those?” Samara asked. “Ahanda?”

“On it,” said the crewman, diving at his station like he intended to rip answers from it if he had to destroy the thing in the process.

“Sabli?” said Maccabee, not taking his eyes from the holo.

“Yes, captain?” said the woman who was sitting at the station towards the back of the command center.

“Any word on those weapons, Abena?”

“You’ll be the first to know, captain,” replied Sabli in a tone that indicated that making her talk wasn’t getting the job done.

“Captain!” said Alger from a spare station. The Scot wasn’t about to break any encryptions, but he was monitoring communications, which were being routed through the shuttles and to their individual com implants. “I’ve got a bloody signal from Sel!”

“Route it to me,” ordered Maccabee. What the hell was Sel thinking? He knew he was to keep Hornet quiet and hidden, no matter what.

“Captain, this is Sel,” said that familiar, calm voice in Maccabee’s head. “I know I’m violating your orders, sir, and I accept full responsibility.” There was no point in replying; Hornet was nearly three light-minutes distant. This was a message, not a conversation. “However, I have monitored the launch of twelve gunships from the planet, sir, all of class B armaments, according to the ship’s battle computer. As you well know, sir, those ships will each pack a serious punch. Even if you’ve managed to get control of Infinite Justice, she’s sustained damage, and I imagine her crew left her systems in a sorry state. And there’s the stranger. . . .” Sel trailed off. “Sorry, captain. See you shortly.”

“Ahanda,” said Maccabee, swiveling his chair, “can you spot Hornet?”

Hornet?” replied the crewman. “No, sir, I. . . . Wait, there she is, captain! She’s pulling maximum acceleration! Headed right for us.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Maccabee, that sick feeling in his stomach growing, “those vessels headed this way are gunboats. Class B.” Everyone looked up at that news, except for Sabli. “That means that each of them is now a match for what’s left of Hornet’s arms, if not her armor. And this ship is only half functional.” He smiled. “I’ll leave it to you to piece together the details.”

Turning the chair, he looked towards Nahal. “Take us out of orbit, maximum acceleration!”

“Aye!” barked Nahal, her fingers flying over the controls. Maccabee couldn’t feel a thing, but he knew that Infinite Justice would be surging forwards.

“Sel should follow,” remarked Samara, watching the holo display and the quickly-changing navigational plot.

“Sir,” said Ahanda, “that merchie is moving to intercept us. I can’t tell if he’s powering weapons, but I’d bet on it, the way he’s running to cut us off.”

“Shit,” spat Samara. “Who the fuck is that?”

“We’ll find out,” growled Maccabee. “Nahal, keep us clear of that ship. Alger, patch me through to that bastard.”

“Incoming com pick, captain,” reported a crewman. Simon was trying to think of something, anything, to do. As soon as Infinite Justice had started accelerating, Anderson had given the order to intercept her and destroy her. With Hornet streaking in from the nearest moon, there was no doubt that Maccabee was the one behind the capture of the other ship. And now the Boss was planning her destruction, along with the deaths of all the friends Simon had left in the galaxy.

“On,” growled Outo, fully engrossed by his maneuvers. Infinite Justice was still the faster ship, but he had her boxed in, assuming he used the proximity of the planet to his advantage. No doubt he was also keeping a careful eye on the approaching gunships, all of which were just as fast as Parthenon, maybe a bit faster.

Maccabee’s face appeared on the holo, five meters high and scowling. “Unidentified vessel, this is Captain Maccabee of the ship Wasp. State your intentions immediately.”

Simon felt his heart beat faster. Why’d Maccabee have to chose the name of a ship that had already died under his command? Was this some sort of signal? But, of course, Maccabee had no way to know that Simon was on board Parthenon.

“Put me on,” said Anderson. “Tight focus.” He glanced up at Simon, and there was no hint of humor in his face. “If you show up on that screen, you’re dead. I’ll do it right here, in front of your captain.”

Simon just nodded, not trusting himself to open his mouth. Stepping back from Anderson’s command chair, he glanced over the edge of the platform. It was at least a three meter drop to the lower level, and Outo and at least two others down there were armed. Shit.

Wasp, or Infinite Justice or whatever you want to call yourself,” began Anderson, “This is Parthenon. It is our intention to destroy you. I will, however, allow you to surrender and evacuate your ship on those pretty shuttles you’ve got over there. No harm done. I’m an easy-going kind of guy. You’ve got ten seconds to comply. Thank you kindly.”

Anderson killed the feed and looked over at Simon again. “Let’s see how your boy wants to play it, shall we, Mister Tamil?” He grinned. “For my part, I hope he runs.”

“Who is he?” asked Maccabee.

“It doesn’t matter,” answered Samara, her voice somehow reminiscent of the sound of a bullet sliding into the breach of a pistol. “He shot at Josephine. She’s going to take him out just as well as us, maybe even with more prejudice.” She looked at Maccabee. “If we can keep him between us and those gunships, that fat scow will soak up their guns, take a few of ‘em with her. Maybe enough.”

“Nahal?” asked Maccabee, turning his chair.

“He’s got us boxed in, captain, but I think I can clear the planet on this course,” she answered, throwing a schematic on the main holo. A bright red line curved sharply back around from their current course, dove right in towards the planet and then shot across the upper atmosphere and out the other side. “But the gunships will be close by.”

“They’ve got Hornet to worry about too,” said Alger.

“Go, Nahal,” ordered Maccabee. The real-time navigation display immediately showed Wasp’s vector shifting. Maccabee didn’t have time to think about why he’d grabbed that name out of the air. It would probably turn out to be appropriate, given the likely life-expectancy of this ship.

Parthenon is altering course to pursue,” reported Ahanda. “I think Nahal is right; we should clear on this course, and we’ve got speed on her.”

“Not on those gunships, though,” Samara pointed out. “Four are breaking off.”

Maccabee looked. She was right, of course. While eight of the gunships were continuing to accelerate along Parthenon’s wake, taking a sharper turn to gain ground on Wasp, four were pulling an even tighter turn to swing around the other side of the planet. The ship’s A.I. was already plotting most likely course information, showing an intercept on the other side of the planet, where the gunships would cut off Wasp from any hope of retreat.

“How long to intercept?” Maccabee asked.

“One hundred and fifteen seconds,” reported Ahanda. Wasp was still accelerating full out, and the distances involved were not very large.

Maccabee turned to Abena Sabli. “Get me weapons in one minute, Sabli.” She didn’t even bother to respond. Glancing back at Samara, he tied into the link to engineering. “Ashburn, how’s our FTL looking?”

“Sir, batteries are still charging,” she answered, voice tight. “We’ve got about forty minutes until a minimum jump.”

“This’ll be over by then,” Maccabee said, more to himself than to her.

“Well, then we’ll be ready to go when it is,” Ashburn answered, deliberately avoiding his meaning. “Anything else? Sir?”

“No,” he said, killing the connection.

“Sir!” barked Ahanda. “Parthenon is charging weapons! I think she’s going to fire on us!”

“Who else would she fire on?” asked Samara.

“Target all enemy vessels!” barked Anderson. “I want a gun trained on every fucking thing that flies out here.”

“That’s ten targets, Boss,” said Outo, though he already sounded resigned to loosing the argument.

“Do it!” Anderson repeated. “Start shooting, Outo, or by God I’ll come down there and do it myself!”

“All targets locked!” reported the crewman at the weapons station. “Firing sequence is now locked to navigational controls. Ready at your command, captain!”

“Very well,” said Outo. “Commence firing.”

There was nothing to see, of course, as invisible beam weapons stabbed out into the night and particle cannons roared to life somewhere along Parthenon’s outer hull. But the effect of targeting vessels on such divergent bearings meant that the ship had to corkscrew wildly through space, and the brown and grey disk of the planet suddenly started to twist seemingly at random, while the starfield left streaks of light across Simon’s retinas. He watched for only a moment, then closed his eyes.

“Enhance starfield display!” barked Outo, sounding suddenly ill. Simon waited a moment, then opened his eyes again. As it had done during the earlier, short firefight, the surrounding holo display once again mimicked the outside view, this time stabilizing it to a single point of view.

“What’s happening?” asked Anderson, his voice thick with anticipation. “What are we hitting?”

“Evasive!” shouted Maccabee a moment before Parthenon opened fire. Nahal whipped the ship through a series of manual maneuvers, since the battle A.I. was still offline, but there was hardly a need. At this range, targeting was nearly impossible, and the first volley from the other ship went wide to port. Nahal rolled Wasp over and slid a bit further from the rapidly approaching planet, then flinched as the hull rattled with the sound of particle cannon fire.

“Hits astern, captain,” reported Samara, her voice calm. This was hardly the first ship-to-ship battle she’d been in. “Minimal bleed through the particle shielding.”

“Any result on the gunships?” he asked.

“Hard to tell at this range,” reported Ahanda. “None of them are slowing yet.”

“He’s pissing his pants,” sneered Alger. “Bloody idiot’s filling the sky with lead and hoping something hits.”

“Fifty seconds until intercept,” reported Samara, glancing at the navigational plot. “We’ll be clear of the planet and in weapons range in fifteen seconds.”

Silence suddenly fell in the command center. Only the sound of Sabli’s fingers flying across her control panel, and of Nahal sending the ship through another looping evasive course, could be heard. Another impact shook the ship, but the sound was barely noticeable here, far in the bow. Ten seconds until weapons range. Maccabee glanced at Samara. She shrugged.

“Prepare for incoming fire from the gunships,” said Maccabee, mostly meaning for Nahal to ready herself for even more convoluted evasions. Wasp was about to be caught in a crossfire.

“Five seconds,” said Samara.

“Sir,” said Ahanda. “Hornet is incoming behind those gunships.” Maccabee glanced at the navigational display, and saw he was right. She was only about a million klicks out, already inside long weapons range. “She’s firing!”

“Mark,” said Samara. Immediately, the gunships opened fire, using the heavy beam weapons in their spinal mounts, each one carrying two or three of the things, all of them aiming at Wasp. Four shots connected in the first volley, three of them glancing off the particle shielding, their energy attenuated by the high-energy field. The fourth cleaved right through, plowing into Wasp amid-ships.

Sirens howled through the command center, and the ship lurched sideways alarmingly. “Hull breach!” shouted Alger. “Section . . . bloody fucking hell, I don’t know what fucking section it is!” He pounded his fist on the console. “Mid-ships, captain!”

“Got it,” said Maccabee, trying to keep his voice calm. A second volley roared in, but Nahal was on to the gunships now, and Wasp rolled easily out of the way. Parthenon was falling back, now, and her shots were more wild, less dangerous than the little ships that were right next to Wasp, less than two hundred thousand kilometers and coming in closer with each second.

A second volley connected with Wasp, three shots penetrating to the hull, but doing less damage this time, burning through armor, wiping away a handful of weapons bays. Infinite Justice had been equipped with enough guns for a ship twice her size, however useless they were to Maccabee at the moment, so he hardly cared about that loss. He was busy watching the navigational display, trying to look for a way out. Hornet was diving in from above the system’s equatorial plane, her few guns blazing, and one of the gunships was losing acceleration now, falling behind the other three. Suddenly, two others turned and started decelerating towards Hornet, and Maccabee watched the silent display in horror as they pounded fire into his old ship.

There was no immediate sign of damage, which made sense. Of all the ships out here, Hornet was best equipped to handle incoming fire. Her advantage wouldn’t last long, however. A quick glance at the displays showed Maccabee that Parthenon was taking hits now, too, as the eight gunships coming up from behind swarmed around her. Without weapons, he could do nothing but watch. As Wasp streaked further out into deep space, further away from the planet, he was losing whatever tactical advantage he might hope to salvage through maneuver alone. And Sel and Hornet were falling behind, left in the maelstrom of fire from those gunships.

Typing in a quick series of calculations, Maccabee sent a new course over to Nahal. “Course change!” he barked. “Alger,” he continued, as Nahal brought Wasp around without a second thought or question. “I want the best lock on the nearest gunships that you can give me. I don’t care which ones, as long as they’re close. As soon as Sabli has weapons free, I want those ships gone. Clear?”

“Aye, lad,” growled Alger, an ugly smile on his face.

“What’s your plan, Maccabee?” asked Samara as she watched Wasp swing around and bear back for the planet. “We won’t last too long against those gunships, not without weapons.”

“We’ll have weapons soon,” said Maccabee, wanting to believe himself. “I’ve got a hunch, Samara. I don’t know why, but I’m going to play on it.”

“Incoming!” shouted Ahanda, and a moment later, Wasp bucked again as heavy beam fire impacted her bow. Maccabee winced as a nearby shot shattered the corridor bulkhead. He heard someone out there scream, then the sound of depressurization alarms.

“Get inside!” he roared, leaping to his feet and running for the pressure hatch that was already closing. In the corridor, Aldu was trapped under a piece of ceramasteel, pinning her legs against the bulkhead. Her hand was stretched out towards Maccabee. The pressure hatch slammed shut a moment later, and Maccabee fetched up against the hard, unyielding surface of the hatch, bounced off, and skidded into Alger. The big Scot caught him and steadied him.

“Damn you for this,” breathed Maccabee, his voice barely audible even to himself.

“Coming up on atmosphere, captain,” said Nahal, her voice deliberately even, consciously without emotion. For all Maccabee knew, Aldu had been her friend. He knew what he had to do, and he moved quickly back to his seat.

“All hands,” he said, tying into the com. Could Aldu still hear him? “Brace for atmosphere in . . . thirty seconds.”

“Three gunships are following, sir,” reported Ahanda. Wasp rocked again as more fire hit her, astern this time. Maccabee looked at the navigational plot. Hornet was locked in combat with four of the gunships, and there was no way she was giving better than she was taking now. Parthenon was not far away, maneuvering drunkenly in high orbit, trying to throw off the much faster gunships, and failing miserably. What she was managing, however, was some offensive fire. One gunship was nothing more than a wreck in space, and another was limping back towards the planet. That wouldn’t last much longer.

“Gunships are backing off, captain,” said Ahanda, sounding surprised. “They’re breaking off pursuit, captain. Wait, no, they’re heading for higher orbit and accelerating at maximum.”

“Nahal,” said Maccabee, his heart beating a bit faster, “increase to a hundred and twenty.”



Nahal complied, and pushed Wasp’s inertial drive past its safety margins by twenty percent. That was a huge overage, far higher than Maccabee had ever risked before, but he needed speed right now, and lots of it. A moment later, Wasp hit the upper atmosphere of the planet, skimmed off it for a moment, then slammed down hard against it. Alarms started sounding, but the ship wasn’t dropping any lower. Nahal was bringing them along a course that could, conservatively, be called sub-orbital. Mostly, it was suicidal. Wasp orbited the Ngrono’s World at three hundred kilometers a second, igniting a firestorm in the atmosphere that blossomed behind her like the biggest fireworks display ever conceived.

“What in the name of the gods is she doing?” breathed Anderson, nearly incredulous at what they were all watching. Wasp was disappearing around the other side of Ngrono’s World, leaving devastation behind her. If Simon had felt inclined to answer Anderson’s question, he would have told him only that Maccabee was doing what was necessary.

Parthenon heaved again as more heavy lasers smashed into her hull. The bridge had ascended into the main body of the ship once more, but around him, Simon could see the battle progressing. Missiles streaked out from the big ship’s tubes, but they were too slow, the gunships too distant. The Commodore had learned her lesson: she was staying away and stinging the raging bull to death.

Captain Outo knew it. His face was beet red, either with anger or with fear, Simon didn’t know which. The big captain moved from station to station with a speed that belied his big frame, keeping a personal eye on the battle and on his people. A third gunship had just been knocked out of the action by Parthenon’s long-range beam weapons, but she wasn’t built for a toe-to-toe fight; she was a Q-ship, a raider that could take out enemies far her better by surprise. But no one was surprised anymore.

“Boss!” called Outo. “Just lost another sector! At this rate, we won’t be able to shoot back!”

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Outo!” roared Anderson. He was starting to lose it, if, Simon reflected, he’d ever had it to begin with. Parthenon rocked under them again. The three meter fall was looking more and more doable.

“Boss!” shouted Outo. “She’s dying! This isn’t worth it!”

Anderson went suddenly cold. He pushed up and stood from his chair as the hull rocked again. Shaking slightly, his hand went to the chair’s arm and pulled a railpistol from a small compartment there. “Are you standing against me?” the Boss asked in a quiet voice. Despite the raging firefight, the bridge was quiet, nestled deep inside Parthenon’s behemoth hull. No one could fail to hear Anderson’s words.

“The bastards are as good as gone, Boss,” said Outo, yanking his emotions into check. He knew he was on dangerous ground. Simon stepped to the other side of Anderson’s platform and crouched, reaching with one hand to grab the lip of the rail-less, floating deck. “No need for us to go with them.”

“I’ll decide that,” hissed Anderson.

“If that’s the way it’s gotta be,” said Outo. Simon saw something in his eyes, glanced down behind him, saw the crewman taking a bead on Anderson.

In those thirty seconds, no one had watched the battle outside, leaving Parthenon’s A.I. to handle things, which meant that a split-second shrill alarm was all the warning they had before a full volley from a passing gunship slammed into Parthenon’s hull, drilling deep into her beating heart. One beam tore the center out of the number three reactor. Automatic systems had just enough time to shut down the fusion chain before the remaining bits and pieces of the ring went on a cascade overload, but the resultant hydrogen explosion ripped through two, four-meter-thick bulkheads designed to resist just such an event—one slightly smaller, admittedly—and crumpled reactor four. More automatics shut down number four, cutting off the matter flow before the main blast was even over, but the damage was done. A sound like a hammer on the biggest gong ever conceived in the universe crashed through the ship’s interior, and half the bridge shut down in a bright flash.

Simon was dropping the moment he heard the alarm, swinging once, twice, then across to the narrow catwalk where the crewmen were trying to figure out what just happened. Then the blast wave hit, and everyone dropped to their knees, but Simon was expecting, hoping for, something just like that, and he was moving before anyone else, reaching the crewman with the drawn pistol, wrenching it from the man’s hand, and shooting Anderson in the same motion. The shot was wide, hitting the Boss in the shoulder, but that was, in a way, the perfect result. Anderson screamed and opened fire with his own pistol, which was set to fully automatic fire. Railpistol rounds hosed down Outo and half the command crew, throwing them to the floor like ragdolls.

Simon was already moving, running for the exit hatch, the pistol clenched in his fist. He heard Anderson scream of rage as the idiot started to realize what was happening, then slammed his hand down on the emergency hatch override, and tumbled into the corridor beyond just as the Boss whirled around and started shooting his way. Railpistol rounds ricocheted down the corridor around him, but Simon kept running. As long as he wasn’t hit, he was going to keep on running. For now.

It was a pity that there was no sound in space, because the noise that Wasp would have made as she exited low orbit at nearly five hundred kilometers per second would have put the biggest nuclear blast to shame. The upper atmosphere tugged at her hull, but her straining inertial drive would not be denied, and she blew through the thinning air, leaving spinning wisps of flame in her wake, ionized plasma fueled by the heat of her passage, by the glowing ball of brilliant, white light that her overheated shielding had become. Like a second star, Wasp streaked out into the heart of the orbital firefight, heading right for Parthenon, right for the tangle of gunships that had surrounded the wounded freighter.

“Sabli!” roared Maccabee, shouting to be heard over the various alarms that were ringing on the command deck, as the ship fought to stay alive.

“Nahal, cut to regular power, now!” barked Samara, looking up from one of her engineering readouts. There was no thought in Maccabee’s mind of countermanding that order, and Wasp’s reckless acceleration slowed.

“Full reverse,” he ordered. “I want to be in the thick of things.”

Nahal complied, and now the ship started to lose velocity as she poured all her acceleration into slowing their headlong run around the planet. Parthenon was drawing rapidly closer, though she was still pulling for the wormhole limit. Not at maximum acceleration, though.

“She’s badly damaged, captain,” said Ahanda, glancing away from his various readouts. “They’re tearing her apart.”

“Incoming!” warned Alger, who was monitoring the same information as Ahanda, updating his firing solutions. Laser fire and heavier beam weapons tore into Wasp’s flank as another unanswered volley crashed into her armor. Already weakened from its torturous passage through the atmosphere, the little ship’s shielding buckled, giving way in three places. Beam energy hammered down on the tired armor, blowing two more holes in the hull and rocking the ship and her occupants back and forth violently. Maccabee grabbed wildly at the arm of his chair, hauled himself back in, and looked over his shoulder at Abena Sabli.

“We’re right in the middle of it!” shouted Alger, and another volley slammed home, two shots penetrating to the hull, one into the ship’s interior spaces.

Maccabee didn’t take his eyes off Sabli, and he noticed immediately when her hands stopped moving and her eyes widened just a fraction. She was through. She had to be. Even as she was looking up and opening her mouth, Maccabee stabbed his finger down on the fire control button that glared red on his console.

“Weapons free!” Sabli shouted. “Weapons free!”

But Wasp was already responding to Alger’s continuously updated firing schematic, spinning wildly on her axis, her gun ports snapping open, lasers powering up, particle cannons cycling to maximum fire. Like a lotus blossom opening in the spring, the dead hull suddenly came to life. Certainly, a good forty percent of her weapons were shot away, or damaged beyond the safety margins the A.I. considered necessary. But that left armaments still nearly the equal of Hornet’s, had Maccabee’s ship been fully armed. As it was, the balance of power in orbit shifted suddenly and dramatically.

Two gunships blew up before the others even realized that the little ship they’d been hammering to a lump of molten metal was alive again. The rest scattered, jerking their courses away from Wasp, rotating their least-damaged sides to meet her onslaught. Alger had done well, however, and every ship was targeted by at least one broadside in the first ten seconds of combat. Then, Wasp roared out of easy weapons range, and her guns fell silent again, for the moment.

“Bring us around,” growled Maccabee. Then, looking over his shoulder at Sabli again, he said, “You have a hefty bonus on the way, Abena.”

“I’ll take continued life, for now, captain,” she replied, her voice drained.

Wasp turned in a tight circle and headed back into the fray, her teeth bared.