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Prologue

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The missile salvo came screaming in from astern.

Counter-missiles took out eleven. The crippled starboard tethered decoy sucked two more off. The port decoy had been destroyed two salvos ago—or was it three? He couldn't remember, and there was no time to think about it as he snapped helm orders.

"Starboard ninety! Hard skew turn—get her nose up, Chief! Stand her on her toes!"

"Starboard ninety, rolling ship, aye!" Senior Chief Mangrum acknowledged, pulling the joystick hard back.

Defiant's bow pitched up. She writhed to starboard, clawing upward, trying to wrench her vulnerable port side away from the enemy, and the incoming missiles tracked viciously after her. The wounded light cruiser's point defense lasers swivelled, tracking with unpanicked electronic speed, spitting coherent light. Another missile shattered, then two more—a third. But the others were still coming.

"Valiant's lost her forward ring, Sir! She's—"

His head snapped around towards the visual display just as Defiant's sister ship took another complete missile broadside from the nearest Peep battlecruiser. The heavy laser heads detonated virtually simultaneously less than five thousand kilometers off Valiant's port bow. The deadly bomb-pumped lasers slashed out, stabbing through her fluctuating sidewall like white-hot needles through soft butter. Light armor shattered, impeller nodes flashed and exploded like prespace flashbulbs, atmosphere belched outward, and then the entire forward third of her hull shattered. It didn't explode, it simply . . . shattered. The brutally mutilated hull began to tumble madly, and then her fusion bottle failed and she did explode.

"Handley and Plasma Stream are crossing the Alpha wall, Sir!" Franklin shouted from Communications, and he knew he ought to feel something. Triumph, perhaps. But the fact that two ships of his convoy had escaped was cold and bitter ashes on his tongue. The other merchies hadn't, Valiant and Resolute had already died, and now it was Defiant's turn.

Point defense stopped one, final missile—then the other six detonated.

Defiant bucked and heaved indescribably. Damage alarms shrieked, and he felt the concussive shocks of failing structural members as the lasers' transfer energy blasted into her hull.

"Missile Seventeen, Nineteen, and Twenty destroyed! Alpha Fourteen, Beta Twenty-Nine and Thirty destroyed! Heavy damage, Frames Six-Niner-Seven aft! Point Defense Twenty-Five through Thirty destroyed! Magazine Four breached! Lasers Seventeen and Nineteen destroyed! Heavy casualties Engineering and—"

The frantic litany of his ship's horrendous wounds rolled on and on, but he had no time to listen to it. Other people would have to deal with that the best they could, and his universe narrowed to the helm and his tactical repeater plot.

"Prep and launch Mike-Lima decoys, all forward tubes! Roll port! Evasion pattern Uniform-X-ray!"

Senior Chief Mangrum did his best. Defiant twisted back around to her left, doubling back on her course, turning her bows towards the oncoming missile storm. The decoy drones—not Ghost Rider birds, because those were all gone; weaker and less sophisticated than the tethered system, but the best she had left—streaked out in front of her, spreading out, calling to the sensors of the missiles trying to kill her. He could smell smoke, the stench of burning insulation and circuitry—and flesh—and the back of his brain heard someone shrieking in agony over an open com circuit.

"Point defense fire plan Horatius!" he snapped, and what was left of his Tactical Department started throwing canisters of counter-missiles out of the bow tubes. The canisters were seldom used, especially by a ship as small as a light cruiser, but this was exactly the situation for which they were designed. Defiant had lost over half her counter-missile tubes. The canisters used standard missile tubes to put additional clusters of defensive birds into space, and despite her vicious damage, the ship still had three-quarters of her counter-missile uplinks, which gave her control channels to spare.

At least two-thirds of the incoming salvos lost track, twisting off into the depths of space after the decoy drones. More of them disappeared as the light cruiser's counter-missiles' impeller wedges swept a cone in front of her. Defiant's defensive fire bored a tunnel through the middle of the dense swarm of attacking missiles, and she roared down it, her surviving laser clusters in desperate continuous fire against the laser heads on her flanks. Bomb-pumped lasers lashed at her, but they wasted themselves on her impenetrable impeller wedge, for her hairpin turn had taken their onboard computers by surprise, and the surviving laser heads had no time to maneuver into firing positions.

And well they should have been surprised, a fragment of his brain thought grimly. His bleeding ship was headed directly into the teeth of the overwhelming enemy task force, now, not away, and the heavy spinal grasers of her forward chase armament locked onto a Mars-class heavy cruiser.

They opened fire. The range was long for any energy weapon, even the massive chasers, but the Peep had strayed ahead of her consorts and the more massive battlecruisers as she raced eagerly for the kill, and Defiant's gunnery had always been good. Her target staggered as the deadly blast of energy, dozens of times more powerful than even a ship of the wall's laser heads, sledgehammered into her. It was as if she had run into a rock in space. The chasers went to rapid, continuous fire, sucking every erg Engineering and their own capacitor rings could feed them. Audible warning alarms added their shrillness to the cacophony of damage signals, combat chatter, and beeping priority signals as the grasers overheated catastrophically, but there was no point cutting back, and he knew it.

So did the grasers' on-mount crews. They didn't even try to reduce power. They simply threw everything they had, for as long as they had it, and their target exploded into wreckage, shattering into jagged splinters, life pods, and vac-suited bodies. The tide of destruction swept aft, tearing her apart frame by frame, and then she vanished in a sun-bright fireball . . . two seconds before Chaser Two's abused circuitry exploded.

There was no time to feel exultation, or even grim satisfaction. The brief respite his desperate maneuver had won ended as the Peeps adjusted. The dead cruiser's squadron mates rolled, presenting their broadsides. They poured out fire in torrents, hurling their hate at their sister's killer. More missiles were shrieking in from every firing bearing, joining the holocaust of the Mars-class ships' fire, and there was no way to avoid them all. No more tricks. No more clever maneuvers.

There was only time to look at the plot, to see the incoming death sentence of his ship and all his people and to curse his own decision to fight. And then—

"Wake up, Aivars!"

His blue eyes snapped open, almost instantly. Almost . . . but not instantly enough to fool Sinead. He turned his head on the pillow, looking at her, his breathing almost normal, and she nestled against him. He felt her warmth, her softness, through the soft, silken fabric of her nightgown, and the short, feathery crop of dark red hair shifted on his shoulder—his right shoulder—like an equally silken kiss.

"It's over," she said softly, green eyes glinting like emeralds in the bedside light. She must've turned it on when she heard the nightmare, he thought.

"I know," he said, equally softly, and her mouth twisted in a sad, loving smile.

"Liar!" she whispered, reaching up, touching his neatly trimmed beard gently with a slender hand.

"No," he disagreed, feeling the sweat of remembered terror, remembered grief and guilt, cooling on his forehead. "It may not be as over as you'd like, Love. It's just as 'over' as it's going to get."

"Oh, Aivars!" She put her arms around him, laying her head across his chest, feeling the hard beat of his heart against her cheek, and tried not to weep. Tried not to show her fierce, bitter anger at the orders which were taking him away from her once more. Tried not to feel anger at the Admiralty for issuing them, or at him for accepting them.

"I love you very much, you know," she said quietly, not a trace of anger or resentment or fear in her voice.

"I know," he whispered, holding her tightly. "Believe me, I know."

"And I don't want you to go," she went on, closing her eyes. "You've done enough—more than enough. And I almost lost you once. I thought I had lost you, and the thought of losing you again, for good, terrifies me."

"I know," he whispered yet again, arms tightening about her with a welcome pain. But he didn't say "I won't go," and she fought down another spike of anger. Because he couldn't say it. He could never say it and be the man she loved. Hyacinth had wounded him in so many, many ways, yet the man she had always known was in there still. She knew it, and she clung to the knowledge, for it was her rock.

"I don't want you to go," she repeated, pressing her face into his chest. "Even though I know you have to. But you come back to me, Aivars Terekhov. You come back to me!" 

"I will," he promised, and felt a single, scalding tear on his chest. He hugged her more tightly still, and neither of them spoke again for a long, long time. There was no need, for in all the forty-three T-years of their marriage, he had never broken a promise to her. Nor would he break this one . . . if the choice was his.

 

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