Episode 226: Fire Above Angstrom

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“This is Simon,” said a voice that Maccabee had never expected to hear again. There was no video signal. “Repeat, this is Simon Tamil. Maccabee, if you can hear this, captain, I need your help. I’m on a shuttle, but this ship is coming apart around me, and there’s no slipstream drive on this thing, not even a short-range job.”

“Samara!” barked Maccabee, not even considering for a moment. His people came first. Especially now.

“Already on it,” she replied, and Maccabee watched as Wasp turned yet again, swinging sharply onto a new course and pouring on her full acceleration for the wreck of the Parthenon.

Maccabee started a recording for transmission, his heart racing, his fingers shaking. How the hell had Simon and Yakazuma gotten on board that ship? How were they even within a thousand lightyears of here? Why had Simon said nothing about Yakazuma?

“Simon, this is Maccabee,” he said, starting the recording. “I read you, loud and clear. We’re on our way.” He glanced at the holo display. “Estimate twenty minutes to your location. It’s damn good to hear from you!”

Sending the signal, Maccabee watched impatiently as the computer plotted estimated transmission time. Seconds passed, and then Parthenon’s icon flashed again, indicating the signal had reached its destination. Another minute slowly ticked by. Then another flash: incoming signal.

“Good to hear you too, cap,” said Simon, and he sounded relieved; relieved and anxious. Well, that was to be expected, and. . . .

“Incoming signal from the planet, captain,” said Ahanda, his voice grim. “Voice only.”

Maccabee took a deep breath. Simon was still talking. “I have a lot to tell you. Not all of it good. Maybe it should wait until I’m on board, captain, but. . . .” Maccabee suddenly knew what was coming, felt his breath come in short little gasps, felt his head spinning. “I. . . .” said Simon. “Amathea’s dead, captain. I. . . . I have her body with me. I’m sorry.” There was another long pause. Then, Simon said, “It was her, captain. The Commodore. Josephine. Or one of her people, I don’t know. What does it matter? All that matters is that she’s dead.”

As he spoke, it sounded like Simon had died as well, and Maccabee knew what he felt, knew it deep inside as the same pain made him close his eyes. He hated himself for feeling it, for feeling this much pain for a woman he’d only just started to really know, when a friend he’d known for ten years and more lay dead just two meters behind him.

“Play Josephine’s message,” he whispered. Ahanda had no trouble hearing him. The command deck was deadly silent.

“Maccabee,” Josephine said, her voice neutral, as though she were trying hard to keep her emotions in check. “Maccabee. I’m glad you’re still alive.” She fell silent, but the signal was still there. Maccabee could hear the background noise. “I knew you wouldn’t understand, Mac. I tried to tell myself otherwise, but I knew it, deep down. You think I’m a pirate. I suppose by some definitions I am, but I don’t think that way. That ship you’re on; I named her Infinite Justice for a reason. I’m not doing this for money, or for the thrill, Maccabee. I’m making the universe a better place.”

He heard the excitement in her voice, the sound of a believer, a true believer. “You know what the problem is with the Outer Systems, Maccabee? They’re chaotic. There’s no order, no rhythm, no authority. Chaos. You think I’m just working for one company? You think I’m not working for the PARC itself? I am the PARC, Mac, what the PARC thinks and wants. I don’t know who led you here, but I tell you now, you’ve only scratched the surface. I’m not alone Maccabee. How do you think I got all these ships? I don’t even raid freighters!” She scoffed. “I get paid to do what I do, Maccabee. I get supplied to do what I do.”

Her voice trailed off, and Maccabee realized he was crying. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe he was mourning the death of a friend. Her body still lived, but the Jo he’d known was no longer inside it.

“This is the new order, Maccabee,” she continued. “Democracy was a good experiment. It worked for a long time, but space is too big for ideas like that. There’s too much risk, too many rogue elements. You can see that. Think of those pirates, what they did to you, to your family. What they’ve done to millions of people over the centuries. You think I’m one of them? How can you say that! I’m fighting them, just as you are. Only I’m doing it right, Mac. I’m doing it right. When we’re done, there won’t be any more of these rogue worlds, these hideouts. There will be order.”

“Christ,” muttered Samara. “Is she ever going to shut up?”

“Captain,” said Ahanda, “I’m monitoring another launch from the planet.”

“You mentioned the universe, Mac, when you called to tell me you wanted to kill me,” Josephine continued. “You talked like it was something . . . something with a will.”

“Two ships, captain!” said Ahanda. “Gunship signatures!”

“You were wrong about that, Maccabee,” said Josephine. “The universe is just empty space. What’s in it is what you make of it.”

“Correction.” Ahanda sounded sick. “Four ships.”

“I’m going to help make the universe into something new, Maccabee.” Josephine sounded suddenly more like her old self. Maybe more tired. Maccabee still didn’t understand. “I’m going to make it a better place, Mac. I’m just sorry that you can’t be a part of it.”

That was the end of the signal. “How long until intercept with Parthenon?” asked Maccabee, his voice low and tight. His throat felt dry, raw. Tears were drying on his cheeks, making his skin tingle.

“Still twelve minutes,” said Samara.

“And how long until the gunships catch us?”

“Assuming we stop to pick up Simon, eighteen minutes,” reported Samara. “Give or take.” Maccabee glanced back at her and she shared another smile with him. “Of course, they’ll be inside weapons range five minutes sooner.”

“Giving us a one minute window,” Maccabee said. Samara nodded.

Maccabee turned and looked back at the holo in front of him. The five gunships would make hash of Wasp, tear her apart, within five minutes of first shots fired. That was his best guess. That meant he had to get out, use the one advantage that Wasp still had. Or he hoped she still had. But he wasn’t going to run.

“Ashburn,” he said, opening a com link. “Status on the wormholer?”

“Kellerman Drive is fully operational, captain,” said Ashburn, sounding as drained as Maccabee felt. “I took the liberty of testing the grav projectors: we’re at optimal. Someone built this little ship to take a beating. Batteries are recharged and ready, down to ninety percent capacity, but I can still give you a good two lights.”

“Prepare for jump, then,” he ordered. “Estimate . . . eleven minutes.”

“Crystal, captain,” she said, breaking the connection.

Looking back at Samara, Maccabee said, “Calculate jump for Angstrom, as close as you can get us to the planet.”

“That’s at the edge of the jump envelope,” Samara said, sounding uncertain for the first time.

“But still inside it,” replied Maccabee. “Do it.”

She said nothing, just looked at him for a moment, then nodded and bent to the task. Maccabee opened the general com channel and said, “Attention all hands. This is the captain speaking.” As if they didn’t know his voice. “We are about to pick up two members of our crew, and then jump out of system.” He imagined that he could feel the relief that rippled through the ship. “I expect we will be followed. That is my plan. Now, hopefully one of you is standing close by to Mister Hulegu. Please put him on the line.”

Maccabee cut the signal and waited. There was a good chance, of course, that Hulegu had died in the fighting, but the man was his only hope of victory now. A moment later, he heard the familiar voice in his ear. “This is Arturo, captain. What’s your plan?”

“Mister Hulegu,” said Maccabee, “I’m planning on jumping to Angstrom. When we get there, I will need you to signal your forces.”

“It would be my pleasure to assist you, captain,” said Hulegu, sounded pleased indeed. “Thank you.”

“I’m not doing it just for you, Hulegu,” said Maccabee.

“I know, captain, but why you are doing it matters less to me than that you are doing it.” Maccabee could almost see Hulegu’s smile. “You are doing it, and it is the right thing to do. Thank you.”

“I know it is,” said Maccabee. Then he killed that circuit as well, and started another recording. It was time to lay the trap.

“Josephine, this is Maccabee.” He smiled up at the video sensor. May as well lay it on thick. “In . . . eight minutes, I’m going to be jumping out of here. Now, I’m guessing you’re on one of those fancy gunships, because that seems like the kind of thing you’d do, and because you didn’t send any video on that message you sent me. So, you know that you won’t catch me before I jump. And you know that those gunships don’t have a Kellerman Drive, no way to come after me at all. So, I guess this is goodbye.” He let his smile fade, let a little of what he was feeling come through and show on his face. “I’ll miss the chance for us to kill each other. Maybe we can reschedule. I’m heading for Angstrom, to finish up some business.”

Maccabee stopped the recording and sent the signal back at the gunships, wide field transmission, just to make sure that Josephine would hear it. The transmission delay would be short. He linked quickly in to Sel’s com. “Sel, did you leave Hornet as I asked?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Sel immediately. “She’s wide open.”

“And her Kellerman Drive was still functional?”

“I think so, captain,” said Sel, sounding somewhat distressed. “I didn’t think to check at the time.”

“That’s OK, Sel. Don’t worry about it.” Maccabee smiled, though he felt no joy, no humor. Only pain.

“What are you doing, Maccabee?” asked Samara, her voice low.

“The only thing left for me to do,” he answered.

Five minutes later, they were stopped over the spinning, gutted wreck of Parthenon, watching as Simon’s little cargo shuttle drove painfully slowly across the gap and entered Wasp’s bay. As soon as she was aboard and the status light on the bay doors lit up green, Maccabee shouted, “Go!” and Wasp shot forwards again.

“Ready for jump, captain,” said Samara. She sounded unhappy. Maccabee had told her his plan. She didn’t like it. Neither did he.

“Wait,” he ordered, holding up a hand.

As soon as his message had reached Josephine, she’d done the only thing she could do, exactly what he’d expected her to do: she’d swung her gunships around and gone to maximum emergency acceleration towards Hornet. The gunships were fast, but they still had five minutes of closing time. Maccabee was playing a dangerous game, now. If he waited too long, he’d look too interested, too much like he wanted to make sure she took Hornet. If he left now, he’d arrive too soon, and the plan would fail. Once she was on board, Maccabee estimated it would take Jo five minutes to take control of his ship and calculate the jump to Angstrom. She’s dock the gunships against the hull, so they’d slide through the wormhole with Hornet. She wasn’t about to let him go, not now. Not when she was so close.

That was the problem with fanatics: they were just too damned dedicated.

“We should go,” said Samara. “She’ll be suspicious.”

“You’re right,” said Maccabee. He had to stall for more time. Thinking quickly, he started another recording. “Jo, Jo, Jo. You think I’d leave Hornet wide open for you, just let you waltz on board? I don’t relish watching my ship destroyed, but . . . it would seem wrong, somehow, for me to jump away, not to see her end. Sorry Jo.”

He sent the signal. “Not very convincing,” muttered Samara.

“Only because you’ve spent the last five years with me,” said Maccabee. “She hasn’t seen me in twenty. Besides, all we need is an excuse to stay in system a moment longer.”

“Captain,” said Russ. “Cap, I’m on my way to the bridge. I’ve got Doc Monteux with me, and Mister Tamil. He insisted, sir. And a medic.”

“You’ll be welcome, Russ,” replied Maccabee. The thought of the rescue team just made him think of Alger again, though, just brought more pain. And his chest was burning now, like his insides were on fire. Something serious. There was nothing to do about it right now.

Josephine made her rendezvous, and Maccabee watched on the holo as the various dots representing his ship and hers merged together and blended into one signal: the gunships were docking, just as he’d predicted. Then, he was distracted as the emergency escape hatch popped open with a CLANG! and Russ crawled out of the narrow crawl space, followed by Simon, then Lillie, then the medic, John Belghazi, a tall man of mixed descent and beautiful, olive skin.

“Lillie,” he said, pointing over his shoulder, “please see to Abena.” He could tell from her face that she knew he was hurt, but she didn’t protest. Her face and clothes were smeared with blood, none of it her own, he was sure. Her eyes . . . her eyes were haunted. “Russ, Simon.” Maccabee twisted and pointed at the pile of wreckage where Alger had been. “Please dig through there for Mister Brelloc. I don’t. . . .” His voice caught in his throat as he saw their faces go slack with shock and heard Lillie’s sharp gasp behind him. “I don’t like the thought of him under there. Please.”

Simon recovered first. “Of course,” he said, because what else was there to say? He grabbed Russ by the arm and dragged the other man to the pile. Maccabee forced himself to look away, to return to his controls. Josephine had been on Hornet for two minutes already. It was time to go.

“Samara,” he said.

“On it,” she replied immediately. The jump siren rang loud and clear through Wasp. “All hands prepare for jump!” She looked at Maccabee.

“Do it.”

Samara touched a control at her station and Wasp disappeared into a wormhole.

And fell out the other side, still traveling at a thousand kilometers per second, half a million kilometers from Angstrom.

Maccabee hardly noticed the quickly-fading torment of the wormhole transition, his chest hurt so badly. He found himself leaning over, clutching at his side, the pain tearing him apart. A hand touched his shoulder and he looked up at the worried face of Lillie Monteux. She was already scanning him with a small, hand-held diagnosis box, her frown deepening with every moment.

“How bad is it?” he asked her.

“You’ll live,” she replied. Someone—presumable Belghazi—handed her a nanite pack, and she pressed it against Maccabee’s neck and activated the charge. He felt almost nothing as the nanites swarmed into his system, but within moments the pain was diminishing, his neural pathways being massaged to block the signals from his broken body. He sighed, leaned back in the chair and nodded.

“Thanks, Lillie.”

“Don’t mention—”

“He’s alive!” shouted Simon. Maccabee spun so quickly, he knew he should have felt a shock of pain, but the nanites wouldn’t allow it. Who knew what damage he was doing? Monteux was already scrambling towards where Simon knelt, Belghazi on her heels. Maccabee’s heart beat faster.

“Lillie?” he asked, as the doctor got there and knelt. From where he sat, Maccabee couldn’t see Alger’s prone form, but he knew it would be bad, no matter what.

“He’s alive,” she confirmed, her voice hard, and Maccabee knew she was blocking out everything but the job at hand. She injected Alger with a different kind of nanite pack, something more powerful that would shut down everything but his most vital functions, concentrate blood flow to the brain, stabilize his neuronal pathways, repair damage that had already taken place. “Barely.” Monteux looked up at her captain. “We need to get him out of here.”

“Maccabee,” said Samara in a low, urgent voice. “We are in serious trouble.”

Despite his need to help Alger, Maccabee turned around. The holo ahead of him was alive with signals, dozens of them, all glowing a bright, ugly red, all of them big. Fleet ships. An assault force. The time had already come, then.

Outside Wasp, still four hundred thousand kilometers away, the sky was filled with warships. Ten of them were ships of the line, eight fourth rates and two third rates, none of them less than a million tons, the third rates well over five million tons apiece. They were all dwarfed by the assault carriers below them, however. Each long, cylindrical vessel massed close to ten million tons, and there were four of them, their sides already open, disgorging landing shuttles nearly as big as Wasp herself, each one packed with ground troops, or tanks and other vehicles. Beside them, smaller and faster, ground-assault shuttles and fighters raced back and forth. The blazing trails of vessels entering Angstrom’s atmosphere crisscrossed the planet’s skies, and the bright flashes and expanding mushroom clouds of nuclear detonations on the surface were clearly visible in an enhanced, real-time camera image.

“Shit,” muttered Maccabee. He got on the com again. “Hulegu, the assault is underway. We are in some serious trouble, unless you can do something in the next thirty seconds or so.”

“Destroyers heading out way, captain,” said Ahanda, the awesome spectacle of a full-scale fleet assault focusing his attention on his duties like no stimulant could ever have done. “Two of them. Intercept in two minutes. We’re already in weapons range.”

Maccabee didn’t need to be told that. “Samara,” he said, “start deceleration; give me about a kilometer per second when we hit orbit.” He glanced at her. “We’re going to need some time to think.”

“We’re not going to reach orbit, Maccabee,” she said, obeying his order nevertheless. “You realize that.”

“Contact!” shouted Ahanda. “It’s Hornet, sir! Dead astern and right on our tail. Gunships are separating from her main hull, starting to accelerate.”

“Signal from the destroyers,” said Samara.

“Put it on.”

“Unidentified vessel in quadrant four-six-one, come to course two-two-eight, mark zero-zero-eight, absolute, and cease all acceleration.” The destroyer didn’t bother with a visual signal, just a stern voice that demanded to be obeyed. Anyone who failed to listen to that voice was going to end up as vapor orbiting a distant sun. “Prepare to be boarded. Failure to comply with these directives will result in immediate and terminal action.”

“That’s it,” said Samara. “Shall I?”

“Hulegu,” called Maccabee over the com net. He had about ten seconds, he guessed, before the destroyers opened fire. Maybe less. “Now would be a really good time.”

“Signal’s already sent, captain,” said Hulegu, sounding particularly satisfied. “As soon as we entered real space.”

“Thank you.” Maccabee stabbed the com control and started transmitting on wide-band frequencies, all channels. “Mayday! Mayday! This is the merchant cruiser Wasp! We have a pirate vessel in pursuit, repeat, a pirate vessel! She is launching gunships! We’ve sustained heavy damage! Anyone out there, please respond! Mayday! Mayday! I am declaring an official emergency!” He stopped the recording and set the message to repeat indefinitely. “That ought to get someone’s attention.”

“And buy us time until . . . whatever it is happens?” asked Samara.


“We need to get the hell out of here,” said Simon, stepping up to the front of the control deck. “Sir, I saw the front of this ship when I came across from Parthenon; she’s barely holding together. The hull could go at any moment, forward of the third section or so. We need to get back to the main control deck.” He frowned. “I don’t know if Alger can make the trip.”

“He can,” said Monteux, speaking from Alger’s side, certainly not about to leave him just to chat. “If he has to, he’ll be moved.”

“The main deck is still locked out,” said Samara. “Someone has to stay here. I nominate me.”

“Simon, get the rest of them out, now,” said Maccabee. He was keeping one eye on the fleet, and the oncoming destroyers. One of them was peeling off to head towards Hornet and the gunships, and so far they had not fired, though he’d ignored their command. Wasp was heading directly for Angstrom, diving in as though she meant to pierce right through the heart of the fleet. “I’ll stay with Samara.”

“Not happening, captain,” said Simon flatly. “Let me pilot this heap. Samara can take the guns.”

“If we survive this, we won’t need the guns,” growled Maccabee, but he knew a losing battle when he saw it. “Ahanda, Lillie, get out, now. Take Alger and Sabli. You too, Belghazi. If you can, get that bridge operational.”

“I’ll get it done, captain,” said Ahanda, sounding a little relieved that he could help and be someplace less dangerous.

The others started moving without any second guesses. Monteux helped steady Sabli, who’d obviously lost a lot of blood, while Ahanda and Belghazi hefted Alger between them and made for the emergency hatch. Maccabee watched them only for as long as it took him to convince himself that they were doing as he asked. Then, he turned back to the holo.

“This won’t last long,” said Samara from Ahanda’s old position, where she’d already routed weapons control. Simon was quickly familiarizing himself with the controls, but they were hardly anything he’d not seen before. “We need a bigger diversion.”

“We’ll get one in a minute, if what Hulegu said is true,” replied Maccabee.

“Big fucking if,” said Samara.

“Who’s Hulegu?” asked Simon.

Maccabee was about to reply, when it happened. The holo was still showing him the grim, real-time video image of the assault landing, and so he wasn’t immediately aware that anything was going on, but Samara’s gasped, “Good Christ!” caught his attention quickly enough.

Angstrom, it appeared, was not as toothless as the fleet units had assumed. Satellites hidden among the countless orbiting pieces of junk that surrounded any developed world suddenly sprang to life, each of them carrying a reactor and a half dozen capital ship beam weapons. Alone, that would have made each satellite little more than a stinging insect, easily swatted. But there were an unholy swarm of the things, hundreds of them, surrounding the fleet on all sides, and they opened fire simultaneously, concentrating their fire on the ships closest to their orbital level. That happened to be the assault carriers.

Maccabee flinched as one of the ten million ton ships blew apart in the first second of combat, a lucky shot penetrating to its core and sending one of its reactors into critical overload. Dozens of smaller ships were engulfed in the blast, and the shockwave hammered the nearest carrier with enough force to knock it out of orbit. The massive ship tilted sickeningly, and one of its long, tapered ends hit atmosphere, dragging a flaming path through the sky. Two destroyers blew up in that first volley as well, and blasts hammered home against the flanks of the capital ships, but those ships of the line were too heavily armored to be that easily dispatched.

Their gun ports were open, their gunners standing by. In the third second of the combat, the ships of the line returned fire, and the effect was devastating. Dozens of the attack satellites were wiped away in the first volleys. And then, the whole thing disintegrated into a melee. The ships of the line broke ranks, started accelerating, trying to make themselves harder targets to hit, looking desperately for the satellites, each of which was nearly invisible when it wasn’t firing. Whole sections of this hidden grid shut down, responding to some command or automated system, and new sections came alive as the capital ships moved away from the initial trap.

Maccabee watched as the destroyers sent to intercept Wasp and Hornet turned around as fast as they could and shot back towards the battle zone. Then, he noticed that he was getting damned close to that zone himself. He checked quickly to ensure that his mayday was still broadcasting, and prayed that Hulegu had thought to notify his comrades just what ship he was flying on. And then, it got even crazier.

Satellites started blowing up, and not because they were being shot at. These were simply floating warheads, and each one was at least a gigaton or more. The wounded carrier, still trying to free its dragging tail from the atmosphere, was hit dead on by one blast, and that was enough to break its back. The two pieces twisted apart, wreckage and worse spilling out of the wound, the lower section collapsing into the atmosphere and starting to accelerate, fires lighting all along the hull, the upper section spinning out of control, slamming into the side of a passing fourth rate, the capital ship still not clear of the fight.

This was knife fighting, close range combat like nothing Maccabee had seen before. He was used to split-second engagements at speeds that defied comprehension, ships firing at targets so distant they could never be seen. The trap the revolutionaries had set was perfect, taking advantage of the fleet units’ complacency to exploit what was otherwise a tactical nightmare. After all, the rebels didn’t have ships of their own. The fleet, had it known, could have simply stood off and sent in nukes from a million klicks out, two million, any distance at all. But now, they were fully embroiled. The capital ships weren’t in any real danger, though, thought Maccabee. Not unless there was more to this.

Then, the missiles started flying. Ground-based, the missiles shot upwards, targeting the landing ships that were already on their way down. The larger transports had hardly a chance, ducking and dodging wildly, and then seeming almost surprised—if a ship can look surprised—when the missiles tracked right into them. Maccabee watched two on the holo, hit almost simultaneously. One simply disappeared in fire, but the other one was dealt only a glancing blow. It veered sharply left as its outboard port engine was destroyed, clipped a smaller attack shuttle and then spiraled downwards, fire spewing from its wounded flank. The shuttle careered through the air, righted itself for a moment, then exploded. All around, more of the same was happening, so fast and furious that Maccabee couldn’t even follow it.

Wasp suddenly shook with the impact of weapons fire, and Maccabee shot a look at Samara. “It’s the goddamned bitch!” she shouted at him. “Two of her gunships are right on us!”

Maccabee snapped out of his awed passivity, cursing himself for losing track of Josephine. She’d obviously not forgotten what was happening. He glanced at the tactical display, seeing through the mess of ships around them that Josephine was, indeed, right behind Wasp. Hornet was coming in slower, no doubt on a ballistic course now, without power or guidance, but floating right into the thick of the combat. Maccabee had no time to spare her a thought, however. The other three gunships were nowhere to be seen, and perhaps had already been hit by someone.

Wasp was now entering the combat zone, and Simon’s arms tensed as he weaved through the melee, ducking under cannon fire and laser blasts. Even if the revolutionaries were avoiding Wasp, the fleet units had no such compunction, but for the moment she was being ignored. Simon missed a ship of the line by mere kilometers, and ducked still lower, heading for the lowest orbit, where the assault carriers were desperately trying to collect their units, to provide a safe haven for the virtually unarmored drop ships. These were still dying in droves as missiles swarmed upwards and lasers blasted from the sky and bombs went off, filling space with a horrible fireworks display.

“Target the gunships and fire,” ordered Maccabee. There was no point in trying to run any further. Outside of this melee, the gunships might have the advantage; in it, they, like Wasp, were at the mercy of chance. Maccabee liked his odds at that moment.

“Aye, captain,” said Samara was a fierce grin. Once again, Wasp brought her weapons online, her battle computer calculating power loads, remaining batteries, ammunition stores and feed lines, plotting optimum solutions, and giving Samara a handful of best-case options. For her part, Samara tweaked what the computers gave her, adding a few embellishments from long experience. Then, the cannons and lasers roared to life once more. Maccabee imagined he could feel the ship shudder slightly with each volley.

The first salvos wiped out two landing craft, and Samara winced. “Shit!”

“That’s a bad idea!” said Simon, wrenching the ship into a sharp turn and diving under another ship of the line. The warships were starting to notice Wasp and Josephine’s gunships now, and a half-hearted volley came towards Maccabee’s ship, falling well astern, but sending a chill up his spine. If those ships of the line decided to take him out, it wouldn’t be a difficult task.

The capital ships were drawing back now, though, climbing up out of orbit, followed by the slower assault carriers. Whatever small craft left behind were going to have to fend for themselves, apparently. Simon used the opportunity to dive in towards Angstrom’s upper atmosphere, skim across the thin air, then rocket straight back up, spinning Wasp on her axis while the gunships followed too slowly, opening themselves up to Samara’s fire. Two raking broadsides slammed into the lead gunship, and it faltered, swinging to the side for a moment before straightening on course again.

Maccabee was watching his own life and death struggle with only one eye, however; the other was fixed on those ships of the line, only two of them even showing signs of serious damage. They would soon be outside the range of the attacking satellites, and once they were, the end would be sudden and quick. Maybe the resistance movement hadn’t been so smart about their plan after all.

“Cap,” said Simon suddenly, his voice hushed. “Hornet.”

Maccabee turned sharply to look, wishing that he could stop himself but knowing that he had to see it. There, on the holo screen, in vivid, enhanced color real-time display, his old ship was soaring right into the battle zone. The ships of the line had withdrawn, but the space above Angstrom was still filled with fire and metal, a whorl of death spinning in silence. The first volley hit Hornet head on, but only a light blow. Her course shifted slightly, and Maccabee saw the flare of her shielding. Then one of the satellites targeted her with a pair of heavy lasers. Armor and hull buckled, and the high-resolution image showed air and debris spilling out into vacuum. Another laser, then another slammed home, and Hornet started to spin, twisting sickeningly around her main axis, completely out of control but unwilling to lay down and die.

Maccabee and the others sat in funereal silence, watching a friend die. Hornet was neither firing nor attempting to evade, and targeting systems discarded her as unworthy of limited resources. No more shots came her way, but it was too late for a ballistic course to a silent, remote memorial in deep space. Maccabee was glad of that, in a way. His ship deserved better, and now she was going to get a fiery send-off. She hit atmosphere bow-first, and the forward third of the ship crumpled from the impact. This was no controlled reentry. Fire burst to life around the hull, and debris exploded from her forward section. Hornet plowed onwards.

The image grew grainier as Maccabee’s ship fell deeper into the atmosphere, and the rotation of the planet took her out of view. The last they saw of Hornet, she was spinning down at the tip of a column of flame twenty kilometers long. Then, she disappeared out of view.

“What a waste,” said Samara.

“She served her purpose,” replied Maccabee. He felt like a new hole had been torn in his belly, matching the ones that Yakazuma and Ming had left there.

“Sir,” said a voice in his head. Ahanda, calling from the bridge. “We’ve got a problem, sir. The structural integrity of the forward hull is failing, captain. Stress readings in the third section are climbing to critical levels. I’m already showing a drop in interior pressure.”

Another laser smacked home into Wasp’s flank, and Maccabee felt the ship around him, really felt her shudder and twist. He took a deep breath and let it out. The ship was dying around him. He could feel it. She’d give a lot more before the end, but there was no stopping that, not now. Another hit. Alarms rang through the command deck, very loud for a moment, until Simon killed them with an angry flick of his hand.

“Understood, Ahanda,” said Maccabee. “Keep working.”

“Clear, captain.”

“You heard that?” Maccabee asked, looking at Samara. She nodded, not taking her eyes from her station. “What do you say?”

“Are you kidding?” she asked. She stabbed a finger down on her controls and sent a perfectly timed broadside flying across empty space. The damaged gunship was out of position, but it moved just as she had predicted, right into the path of her fire. Two lasers penetrated deep into the little warship’s hull, and then five thousand particle cannon rounds followed up the holes in her shields, plowing into her vitals, grinding through bulkheads and reinforced ceramasteel.

The gunship disappeared in a white-hot fireball, close enough that Wasp shuddered. “Gotcha!” crowed Samara, slamming a palm on her console. “I’m here to win this fucking thing, Maccabee,” she said, turning to her captain.

“Damn straight,” said Simon, though he didn’t take his eyes from his controls. “Uh, we may have another problem, however.”

Maccabee looked back at the screen and his jaw dropped. More ships were coming in. Their drives were lighting up only a hundred thousand klicks from the Fleet units, appearing out of nowhere. There was only one way they could have managed that. Maccabee had done the same, once, in the space over Makassar. Any question whether these might have been more Fleet ships, supporting the attack, was quickly put to rest as the new arrivals immediately opened fire with all guns, and the skies were filled with death in an instant.

“Jesus!” shouted Simon as one of the fourth rates blew up, its hull the target of no less than four battleships’ fire. They were battleships, Maccabee realized, old designs, not able to stand against ships of the line in a fair fight. But this wasn’t fair. The Fleet ships were battered, stunned by their defeat in orbit. They’d thought they were retreating to safety, and suddenly, the empty space around them had grown teeth. Ten, then twenty battleships appeared from nothing, and the battle was truly joined.

“They’re driving them back in towards the satellites,” said Samara, her voice hushed. Had she seen anything like this in the war? Maccabee doubted it. There hadn’t been a battle of this magnitude in a hundred years, not in this part of space. The first battleship died, disintegrating under the withering fire of one of the third rates, but another fourth rate was burning, now, crippled, limping away. Maccabee was impressed by the discipline of whoever was commanding those battleships. They ignored all but one of the enemy, training their massed fire on a single target, blasting it apart, then moving to the next one. It was the only way they’d ever manage to win, but Maccabee still wasn’t sure of the outcome of this fight. Not unless the capital ships came back in range of the satellite weapons.

“The last gunship’s still on us, captain,” said Simon. “I can’t shake her.”

“It’s gotta be her,” said Samara. “Otherwise. . . .”

Maccabee nodded. The pursuit would break off if Josephine was dead. This was the moment for the decision. “Target her and fire,” he ordered, his voice remarkably calm.

“Already done,” whispered Samara. Shots lanced out at the gunship, but this one was piloted by a better person, or a better A.I., and it ducked away from that volley. “Shit,” muttered Samara under her breath. Her fingers were flying, her eyes locked on the displays in front of her. Maccabee forced himself to take a breath. This was the end. The moment he’d been waiting for. More than anything, he wanted it to be over.

There was no warning, of course. One moment, Wasp was speeding along, fully under Simon’s expert control, spinning and twisting and turning, avoiding incoming fire, dodging debris and other ships, all the while looking for the opening that would end Josephine’s life. And then, a stray volley from one of the massive warships hammering each other less than a quarter million kilometers away caught Wasp in its path. Only a small fraction of the particle cannon rounds impacted against her stern, but each one was big enough to be a killing blow, and together, the rounds were more than Wasp’s tired hull could stand.

The ship whipped around sideways, throwing Maccabee out of his chair again, and the lights died, didn’t flicker or fade, just went out completely, plunging them into darkness. Everything was dead. The slipstream was collapsed, and the ship was tumbling out of control; Maccabee could feel it, even over the mitigating effects of the gravity plating.

“What the fuck happened!” shouted Samara.

“Status!” barked Maccabee over the com, tasting defeat in his mouth. “Anyone out there have power?”

“Ashburn here,” said the engineer, her voice strained beyond the breaking point. “Reactor three is gone, captain, just . . . gone. I had to eject one. We are on battery power only. Minimal control. I . . . I don’t have anyone left, Maccabee.” She was crying. He could hear it. “Damn. Fuck!”

“I need power, Tangria,” he said, forcing himself to sound calm, in control, though that was so far from the truth there wasn’t a hope that he’d fool her. “You’ve got to get me something.”

“There’s nothing left,” she said. Then she took a deep breath, and something like steel returned to her voice. “Fuck this bitch, captain. I’m . . . I can get you . . . something. Shit.”

“Do what you can.” He tapped into the main com again. “Anyone else out there?”

“Captain, this is Ahanda.” The man sounded afraid, for the first time in this battle. Maccabee felt his chest flutter. “I still have power in the bridge, and limited control. Sir, we are heading for the planet; our course is too tight to evade. Estimate atmospheric entry in three minutes.”

“Damn,” muttered Maccabee.