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Surgeon Lieutenant Montoya didn't even look up as the sickbay hatch hissed open yet again. Three crewmen stumbled through it, white-faced and pale and carrying another survivor from Fusion One. They fought to protect their moaning burden from bumps or jars, but the sudden, wrenching impact of a second hit threw them off balance just as they entered sick bay. They staggered against a bulkhead, and the woman they carried shrieked in agony as her shattered legs took the shock.

Montoya looked up at that. His face was blank of all expression, driven into non-feeling by the horror about him, and his eyes were flat as they darted to the injured woman. Her scream died into a sobbing gasp of hurt, and he grunted as he identified her condition as one which was not immediately life-threatening. He lowered his head once more, flipping it to drop his magnifiers back down off his forehead as his wet, scarlet-gloved hands moved in the shattered wreckage which had once been a power room tech's torso.

A harried sick berth attendant—the only one he could spare from emergency surgery to triage the wounded—hurried over to the newcomers, and Montoya's hands flew as he fought to save the fading life before him.

He failed.

The flat, harsh buzz of the monitors told its tale, and he stepped back from the corpse, already stripping off his gloves to re-glove for the next. A fresh, limp body was lifted into position, a woman who'd lost one arm already and was about to lose another, and Montoya moved like a machine as he jammed his hands into the fresh gloves and bent over the table once more. He leaned forward into its sterile field with a face of stone . . . and the hatch hissed open behind him yet again.


"Not there—here!" Dominica Santos snapped. "Get your ass over here and heave, goddamn it!"

Huge, blue-white sparks spat and glared about her, silent in the vacuum of the shattered drive compartment, and Boatswain MacBride grabbed one of her suited repair party and literally dragged the man into position.

"Get your back into it, Porter!" the bosun snarled at the electronicist, and stepped up close beside him.

There was neither time nor space for them to reach into the conduit with tools, and the two of them wrapped their gauntleted hands about the half-molten, fire-fountaining cable run. Bright, savage discharges rippled up their arms and haloed their shoulders, and the harsh, straining grunt of their effort echoed over Santos's suit com. One end of the cable harness ripped loose, the sparks died, and Santos stepped in with a laser cutter. She stood ankle-deep in burned out circuit boards and bits of bulkhead blown away by battle damage or chopped frantically aside by her damage control party. Wreckage slid and shifted about her feet, and she gasped in triumph as she got the cutter in and slashed away the end of the damaged cable.

MacBride and Porter staggered backward, crashing into the compartment's rear bulkhead, and the engineer waved savagely at the work party behind her.

"Get that replacement cable in here now. Move, damn you!"

Johan Coglin flinched involuntarily as yet another of Fearless's missiles punched through Jamal's defenses. It detonated, and the deadly rapiers of its clustered lasers clawed at his ship. One of them hit, punching through the radiation shielding inside the wedge as if it were tissue paper, and a fresh boil of atmosphere gushed from Sirius's side.

"Heavy casualties in after control!" a voice shouted. "We've lost Damage Control Three, Sir!"

Coglin spat a curse and glared at his tactical display. Damn it, what was keeping that fucking ship alive?! He'd hit her at least twice, possibly three times, and she was still back there—lamed, perhaps, out-gunned and out-massed and bleeding air, but there, and she was still hitting him. Her salvos were far smaller than his, yet she was getting almost as many hits in as he was, for her missiles were incredibly hard targets for point defense. The Manticoran Navy's electronic missile penetration-aids were at least as much better than estimated as their defensive ECM was. He knew that, and it made him feel absolutely no better about his damage and casualties. He jerked around toward Jamal with fiery eyes and opened his mouth—then froze as one of the tactical officer's warheads detonated less than a thousand kilometers from Fearless's prow.


The universe went mad. Stilettos of X-ray radiation stabbed deep into Fearless's lightly-armored hull, breaching compartments, killing her people, clawing and rending at her bulkheads and frame members. And then, a sliver of a second later, the light cruiser smashed into the blast front of the warhead itself.

It was below her as she drove forward, not the direct frontal collision from which nothing could have saved her, but a savage eruption of plasma spumed up beneath her belly through the vacuum of space. Generators howled in protest as the massive shock front of radiation and particles smashed at her shielding like a flail, but they held—barely—and Fearless heaved like a goaded horse as she shot the rapids of destruction.

Dominica Santos screamed as she was hurled from her feet. She wasn't alone, and her com was a cacophony of other screams and cries as her work party was hurled about the compartment like so many discarded dolls. The concussion slammed her into and through a half-fused bank of circuit-breakers, scattering it in an explosion of debris. She bounced back, arms windmilling in a wild clutch for any anchorage, and a terrible, bubbling shriek filled her ears. She caught the heat-slagged edge where cutters had slashed away a buckled access panel, jerking her body to a brutal halt, and swallowed vomit as she saw electronicist 2/c Porter clawing at the spearlike hull fragment projecting from the belly of his suit. The wreckage thrust out from the bulkhead behind him, impaling him, and he writhed upon that dreadful spike like a soul in hell while his scream went on and on and on, even as blood and internal organs began to bubble and boil from the wound. Globules of blood and more horrible things sprayed out into the vacuum, and then, mercifully, the 'tronicist's ghastly sounds sobbed into silence and his arms went slack. He hung on the wreckage, the inside of his helmet opaque with the blood that had sprayed from his mouth and nostrils, and Santos stared at him, petrified by shock and nausea, unable to make herself look away.

"Come on, you people!" Sally MacBride's voice cracked like a whip. "Move your asses—now!"

Dominica Santos dragged herself up out of her pit of horror and stumbled back towards the gutted drive circuits.


Honor clutched at her command chair, head snapping savagely back despite her shock frame as Fearless leapt about her. Fresh damage signals shrilled, and she shook her head, fighting off the blurred vision and confusion of concussion.

She made herself look at her battle board. At least a dozen compartments were open to space now, and Lieutenant Webster smashed both fists against his own console.

"Direct hit on the com section, Ma'am," he reported in a voice of raw, dull anguish. He turned to look at her, his face shocked and white, and tears gleamed in his eyes. "It's gone. Dear God, half my people went with it, too."

"Understood, Lieutenant." The sound of her own voice startled her. It was too calm, too detached. She was murdering her own ship by matching it against Sirius. She knew she was . . . just as she knew she wouldn't—couldn't—break off. She wanted to say something else, to share Webster's pain and loss, but the words wouldn't come, and she turned back towards Cardones just as he punched his firing key again.

A missile spat from Fearless, but only one, and a warning buzzer snarled. Cardones jerked at the sound and hit a system-test button. Then his shoulders clenched, and he turned towards his captain.

"Missile One is down, Ma'am. We're down to one tube."

Honor stabbed her intercom key. "Damage Control, this is the captain. What's the status of Missile One?" she snapped.

"Sorry, Ma'am." Lieutenant Manning's voice was slurred and indistinct. "Two of my people are dead down here. We've got damage reports from all over the ship, and—" The acting damage control officer paused, and his voice strengthened as he dragged himself back together. "Sorry. What did you say, Ma'am?"

"Missile One. What's the status of Missile One?"

"Gone, Ma'am. We've got a four-meter hole in the starboard bow. The whole compartment's gone—and its crew."

"Understood." Honor released her key and looked back at Cardones. "Continue the engagement with Missile Two, Guns," she said.

* * *

"That last one must have hurt her bad, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Jamal said, and Coglin grinned back at him in triumph. The range was down to under six million kilometers, and the vaporized alloy and atmosphere streaming back from Fearless's bow was plain on their sensors. More than that, the cruiser was firing only single-missile salvos. Now if only—

Sirius shuddered as another Manticoran missile detonated just astern of her, and crimson damage signals flashed on Coglin's panel.

"Spinal Four gone, Sir!" someone reported. "We've lost the secondary fire control sensors, too. Primaries unaffected."

Coglin spat out a savage curse. "Hit that fucker again, Jamal!" he snarled.


Dominica Santos waved MacBride aside and slammed the last replacement box into place. The green ready light glowed, and she switched back to Central Damage Control's net.

"We're back up, Al!" she snapped.

"Understood, Ma'am. I'm initiating circuit tes—"

"Fuck that!" Santos barked. "There's no time for tests. Just tell the Captain we're in and give these impellers juice now!"

Honor's eyes blazed like hot, brown steel as Fearless's acceleration surged suddenly back up. The maimed cruiser gathered herself, driving forward, and she sensed her ship's determination like her own. Numbers flickered upward on her maneuvering plot, and her lips drew back in a hungry snarl as Killian read them off.

"Five hundred . . . five-zero-three . . . five-zero-six . . . five-zero-eight gravities, Captain!" the helmsman announced. "Steady at five-zero-eight."

"Excellent, Chief Killian! Go to Delta-Niner-Six."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Going to Delta-Niner-Six."

"Their acceleration's coming back up, Captain," Jamal reported tensely. "It doesn't seem—No, Sir, it's definitely not going all the way back up. It's leveling off."

"What is it?" Coglin snapped.

"I make it approximately five-oh-eight gees, Sir. Call it five KPS squared. And she's starting to make some real evasion maneuvers."

"Shit!" Coglin caught himself before he punched the arm of his chair again, then glared at the weaving, dodging dot on his display. Goddamn it to hell, what did it take to stop that ship?!

* * *

Lieutenant Commander Santos headed aft, running back towards Central Damage Control. She didn't know what else had happened while she was up forward, but she knew it had been bad, and—

A fresh, brutal blow threw her from her feet, and she skidded down the passageway on her belly.

The warhead detonated at fifteen hundred kilometers, and twenty-five separate beams of energy stabbed out from its heart.

Two of them hit Fearless.

One struck almost amidships, ripping inward through half a dozen compartments. Nineteen men and women in its path died instantly as it gutted forward life support, slashed through the forward crew mess, and reduced two of the cruiser's port energy torpedo launchers to wreckage, but it didn't stop there. It sliced deep, just missing the combat information center, and ripped its ghastly way clear to the bridge itself.

Plating shattered, and Honor slammed her helmet shut as air screamed out through the gaping hole. Her suit whuffed tight, protecting her against vacuum, but some of her people were less lucky. Lieutenant Panowski never even had time to scream; the hit blasted huge chunks of bulkhead into splinters, and a flying axe of steel decapitated him in a fountain of gore, then carried on to smash his entire panel to spark-spewing ruin. Two of his yeomen died almost as quickly, and Chief Braun had been out of his chair, unprotected by his shock frame. He flew through the thinning air and slammed into a bulkhead, stunned and unable to move. He died in a flood of aspirated blood before anyone could reach him to close his helmet for him.

Mercedes Brigham's suit was daubed and streaked with scarlet where Panowski's blood had sprayed across her. She'd been looking at the astrogator when he died, and more of his blood dripped down her face where it had splashed before she closed her own helmet. She couldn't even wipe it, and she spat to clear it from her mouth as she brought her own computers on line to replace Panowski's.

Honor swept her gaze about the bridge. Sparks and smoke streamed up into the near vacuum as Panowski's splintered command station consumed itself, and her mouth tightened as she saw the way Webster clutched at his chest through his suit. The com officer hunched forward in his chair, his face gray, and blood bubbled at his nostrils.

"Damage control to the bridge! Corpsman to the bridge!" she barked, and made herself look away from her injured officer.


The second beam hit further forward, and Lieutenant Allen Manning stared at his console in horror as a lurid light began to flash. He unlocked his shock frame and shoved a corpse which once had been a friend from the chair beside him to clear an emergency panel, and his hands darted across it.

Nothing happened. The light continued to flash, and a harsh, ominous audio signal joined it. He hammered an alternate command sequence into the console, then tried still a third, and the light only flashed brighter still.

"Commander Santos!" he gasped into his intercom. There was no answer. "Commander Santos, this is Manning! Please respond!"

"W-what is it, Allen?" The senior engineer sounded shaken and woozy, but Manning almost wept when he heard her voice.

"Fusion One, Ma'am! The mag bottle's fluctuating and I can't shut down from here—something's cut the circuits!"

"Oh, Jesus!" Santos's voice was no longer blurred. It was sharp and frightened. "I'm on my way. Get forward and join me!"

"But, Commander, I can't leave Cen—"

"Goddamn it, Allen, move! Put Stevens on it!"

"I can't, Ma'am," Manning said wildly, then clutched at his self-control. "Stevens is dead, and Rierson can't leave Fusion Two. I'm all alone—there's no one left to take over down here!"

"Then tell the Skipper to fucking well get you someone," Santos snarled. "I need you up there right goddamned now!"

"Yes, Ma'am!"


Honor paled as Manning's frantic message registered. Fearless could move and fight on a single reactor. She only had two for the security of redundancy, and that was also why they were at opposite ends of the hull, but if that mag bottle went down—

"Understood, Manning. Go. I'll get somebody down there to replace you."

Manning didn't waste time replying, and she raised her head to scan her bridge, trying to think who she could send. There was only one choice, she realized with a sudden, icy calm.

"Mr. McKeon!"

"Yes, Skipper?" He made it a question, but she saw in his eyes that he already knew.

"You're the only one I've got with the experience for it. Slave your ECM panel to my remotes and get down there."

He wanted to argue, to protest. She read it in his face, but he didn't.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." He unlocked his shock frame and dashed for the lift, and Honor ran a quick check of the ECM. She was down to her last two decoys, but the programs McKeon had set up seemed to be working well. She started to key in a modification, then stopped as Cardones spoke without looking away from his console.

"Skipper, we're down to twelve birds for Missile Two, and I'm out of laser heads."

"What about Missile One's magazine?"

"Twenty-three rounds left, including eleven laser heads, but the transfer tube's been breached."

"Engage with standard nukes," she told him, and plugged her suit com into the damage control net.

"Bosun, this is the Captain. Where are you?"

"Just finishing a bulkhead patch at frame forty, Ma'am," MacBride replied instantly.

"Take a work party and get forward. I need you to shift missiles from Missile One to Missile Two and the transfer tube is down. Move the laser heads first."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I'm on it," MacBride said flatly.

"Thank you, Bosun," Honor said, and MacBride's eyebrows rose. She hadn't even protested the impossibility of the assignment, for she was beyond protest. She was a professional, and she knew survival was no longer a realistic option. Yet the Captain's voice had been almost absently courteous despite the the stress she had to be feeling.

The bosun drew a deep breath and glared at the people around her. "You heard the Old Lady!" she barked. "Harkness, Lowell—get me a dozen Mark Nine counter-grav collars. Yountz, I need drag lines. Find me a spool of number two wire and a cutter. Jeffries, you and Mathison get forward and check the tractor grab in Passage Nineteen. I want to know if—"

She went on spitting orders, goading her subordinates into action, and far behind her on Fearless's bridge, Honor Harrington returned her attention to her ECM just as a fresh salvo of missiles came streaking in.

Johan Coglin peered at his display in disbelief. He'd pounded Fearless for almost thirty minutes, hit her at least half a dozen times, and she was still after him. Not only after him, but already making up the velocity advantage she'd lost while her forward impellers were down! Goddamn it, why couldn't Harrington just leave him the hell alone? All he wanted was to get out of here and tell the task force not to come!

Another missile exploded just short of the ship, and he winced as the huge fireball blossomed astern. They must be out of laser heads. That had been a standard megaton-range warhead, and that could be very, very bad news. The standard nukes weren't stand-off weapons; they had to get in much closer to inflict damage, which gave the laser clusters more time to kill them, but a near-miss from one of those monsters could wreak untold havoc.

Sweat beaded his forehead, and he wiped at it irritably. His ship was far more powerful than Harrington's. He'd reduced her cruiser to a wreck—she had to be some kind of wizard just to hold it together, much less go on shooting at him! He longed to turn on her, finish her off, and get the hell away to safety, but all the old arguments against a close-range action remained.

Or did they?

He cocked his head, eyes narrowed as he rubbed his chin in speculation. She was still on his tail, yes, but she was firing only single missiles at a time, even if she was firing at shorter intervals, and the fact that she was using standard nukes was a clear sign her forward magazines were running low. Which didn't make any sense at all. A Courageous-class ship had a seven-tube broadside, for God's sake, and her overtake velocity was over eleven hundred KPS. Why wasn't she veering to bring those tubes to bear? She could zig-zag back and forth across his stern pouring in broadsides as she crossed, and hit him with more missiles than he was firing at her, damn it!

Unless . . . Unless he'd hurt her even worse than he knew? Maybe that was why she was still charging straight up his wake. Could his hits have gone in further aft than he'd thought? Been spread over a wider area and wrecked her broadside armament or fire control? It was a possibility. Perhaps even a probability, given the way her forward fire had dropped. If she hadn't lost most of her broadside firepower, then she damned well ought to be using it instead of lunging doggedly forward through his missiles like a punch-drunk fighter while he pounded her!

And if that was true, then he might—

Sirius heaved like a shipwrecked galleon.

* * *

"Yes!" Rafael Cardones screamed, and Honor felt her own heart leap as the savage boil of light erupted just off the Q-ship's starboard quarter.

"Heavy damage aft. Fourteen dead in Missile Two-Five. No contact at all with Two-Four or Two-Six. Sir, we've lost a beta node; our acceleration is dropping."

Lieutenant Commander Jamal was white-faced, his voice flat with a strained, unnatural calm, and Coglin stared at him in disbelief. Half their after launchers gone to a single hit? Harrington wasn't a wizard—she was a goddamned demon!

The two ships raced onward, ripping at one another with thermonuclear fire, shedding debris, streaming atmosphere like trails of blood. The big freighter began to twist and writhe in ever more violent evasion as her tiny, battered foe clung stubbornly to her heels. Sirius was reduced to three-missile salvos, and Fearless was overhauling more and more quickly.

Lieutenant Montoya made himself stand back, shutting his ears to the groans and sobs about him while his sick berth attendants cut Lieutenant Webster out of his suit. He couldn't look at the mass of wounded. The hatch was locked open, and burned and broken bodies spilled out of his cramped sickbay's bunks. They were lying in the passages now, covering the decks, and more and more of them were unprotected even by the transparent tents of emergency environmental slips. His mind shuddered away from the thought of what would happen if sickbay lost pressure now, and he stepped closer to the table as Webster's suit was stripped away. One of his assistants ran a sterilizer/depilator over the lieutenant's chest while the other looked up from her monitors to meet Montoya's eyes.

"Not good, Sir. We've got at least two ribs in his left lung. It's completely collapsed, and it looks like we may have splinter damage to his heart, too."

Montoya nodded grimly and reached for a scalpel.


"All right—heave!"

Sally MacBride bent her own back to the struggle, and the seventy-ton missile floated across the passage. The overhead tractor rails were out, and the passage was open to space. Her vac-suited people grunted and strained, manhandling the ten-meter-long projectile, leaning their weight desperately against it to point it down the shaft to Missile Two's magazine. The counter-grav collars reduced its weight to zero, but they couldn't do anything about momentum and inertia.

MacBride's own feet scrabbled against the deck as she leaned back against the drag wire, hauling the nose around by pure, brute force while Horace Harkness threw himself against it from the other side, and the long, lethal shape began to pivot toward her.

Another savage concussion shook the ship, smashing the boat bay to wreckage, and the missile twisted like a malevolent beast. It broke away from its handlers, swinging like a huge, enraged tusk, and MacBride hurled herself desperately to one side.

She almost got clear. Almost. Seventy tons of mass slammed into her, crushing her right thigh and pelvis against the bulkhead like a sledgehammer on an anvil, and she shrieked her agony into her com as the missile rolled and ground against her.

Then Harkness was there. He stood on the missile, shoulders braced against the bulkhead, heels jammed hard into a recessed service panel, and his explosive grunt of strain could be heard even through MacBride's screams. Veins stood out like cables on his temples as his back straightened with a lunging, convulsive snap, forcing the floating missile off her, and the bosun fell to the deck in a broken, moaning heap.

Her work party rushed forward, bending over her, and Harkness punched and slapped them away.

"Get back on those frigging drag lines!" the petty officer snarled. "We need this bird moved!"

The ratings staggered back, clutched numbly at wires, and heaved, and Harkness himself crouched over the bosun. Her face was white, her cheekbones standing out like knobs of ivory, but her eyes were open and her teeth were locked in a rictus of agony against her screams. He pressed her med panel, flooding her system with painkillers, and she shuddered in relief while blood ran down her chin where her teeth had bitten through her lip. He patted her shoulder awkwardly.

"Corpsman to Missile Two!" he grated, and blinked away furious tears even as he hurled himself back into the battle with the missile.

Dominica Santos skidded to a halt just inside the forward reactor compartment, and her eyes widened. The damage that had cut Damage Central's links to Fusion One was appallingly evident. A jagged, meter-wide rent had been slashed through the primary control systems from a hit on the far side of the hull, ripping the compartment's inboard bulkhead like a saw-toothed knife. Only one of her power gang was still alive, and she was trapped. The woman's hands thrust weakly at the buckled frame member pinning her to the deck, and her helmeted head rolled towards Santos.

"How bad are you hurt, Earnhardt?" Santos was already reaching for the backup computers as she spoke.

"I'm not hurt at all, damn it!" Earnhardt snapped. She sounded far more angry than afraid. "I just can't get out from under this thing!"

"Well, sit tight, and I'll do what I can in a minute," Santos said absently, her gloved fingers already feeding commands into the computers. "I've got other things on my mind right now."

"Fucking A," Earnhardt agreed hoarsely, and Santos managed a strained grin.

It vanished an instant later as scarlet damage codes flashed before her. Her face tightened. Whatever had ripped through the primary systems must have sent a power surge through the backups. Half her command files were scrambled or completely wiped.

Someone stepped up beside her, and she turned her head. It was Manning. Her assistant stared at her display and pursed his lips in silent dismay.

"Jesus, Commander! What do we do now?"

Santos grunted a smothered curse and slapped another switch. Nothing happened, and she darted a frightened glance at the reactor itself. She knew it had to be her imagination, but she almost believed she could feel the containment field pulsing.

"We've lost most of the bottle software—I don't know how it's holding together now," she said rapidly, already ripping off access panels. "And we've lost all the hydrogen feed files. The bastard's running away on us."

Manning nodded silently, jerking off other panels at her side.

"If the plasma hits overload levels with an unstable bottle—" Santos broke off and flung herself on her belly, peering into the guts of the console, and grunted.

"We've got maybe five minutes before this thing blows, and I don't dare screw around with the mag governors."

"Cut the feed?" Manning said tautly.

"All we can do, but I'm going to have to cross-wire the damned thing by hand. I lost my cutter when we took this hit. Get me another, and hunt up four—no, five—alpha-seven jump harnesses. Fast!"

"Yes, Ma'am." Manning leapt away, and Santos turned her head without rising. Her eyes rested for just a moment on a big, red switch on the bulkhead beside her, and then she jerked them away.

"Bridge, Missile Two." The voice on the intercom was harsh with exhaustion. "We've got two laser heads shifted. They're numbers five and six on your feed queue. I'm working on shifting number three now."

"Missile Two, this is the Captain. Where's the bosun?" Honor asked quickly.

"On her way to sickbay, Skipper. This is Harkness. I guess I'm in charge now."

"Understood. Get that third missile shifted as quickly as possible, PO."

"We're on it, Ma'am."

Even as Honor spoke, Cardones's hands flashed across his console, reprioritizing his loading schedule. Fifteen seconds later, a fresh laser warhead went scorching out of his single remaining tube.

Sirius's bridge was a tiny pocket of hell. Smoke billowed, circuit boards popped and sizzled and spat actinic fury, and Johan Coglin retched as the smoke from burning insulation filled his lungs. He heard Jamal's agonized, hacking coughs as he fought to retain tactical control, and someone was screaming in pain.

"We've lost—lost—" Jamal broke off in another tortured spasm of coughing, then slammed his helmet. Coglin followed his example, rasping for breath as his suit scrubbers attacked the sinus-tearing smoke, and Jamal's voice came over his com.

"We've lost another beta node, Sir. And—" Coglin peered through the smoke, watching the tactical officer work on his console. Then Jamal cursed. "Point defense is hurt bad, Captain. I've lost four laser clusters and half my phased radar array."

Coglin swore viciously. With two beta nodes gone, his maximum acceleration was going to be reduced by over nine percent—he'd be lucky to pull three hundred and eighty gees. He still had his alpha nodes, which meant he still had Warshawski capability, but how long was that going to last? Especially with half his last-ditch laser clusters gone?

"Missile fire control?" he demanded harshly.

"Still functional. And my ECM suite's still up—for what it's worth," Jamal added bitterly.


"Coming up on one-point-five million kilometers, Sir."

Coglin nodded to himself, his eyes bitter. With the open front of Fearless's wedge toward him and no sidewalls to interdict, effective laser range was right on a million kilometers, but he'd lost one of his own spinal lasers, and the back of his wedge was as open as the front of the cruiser's. If Fearless got into energy range. . . .

Energy range, hell! His point defense was down to less than half efficiency! If Harrington realized it, turned and hit him with a multiple-missile salvo—

He bit off another curse. This couldn't be happening to him! It wasn't possible for a single, over-aged, under-sized light cruiser to do this to him!


"I think he's in trouble, Guns," Honor said, staring at the readouts from her ECM suite's passive sensors. "I think you just took out most of his missile tracking capability."

"I hope so, Skipper," Cardones said hoarsely, "because I'm down to just three more birds, and—"


"Got it!" Santos shouted as she bridged the last circuit and started to slide out from under the console. Now all she had to do was cut the fuel feed and—

Fearless twisted and leapt. The savage motion picked the engineer up and smashed her down. The side of her helmet crashed against the deck, and she grunted in shock, stunned for just an instant.

It was an instant she didn't have. She blinked back into focus, and her mouth went desert dry. She couldn't hear the alarm in Fusion One's vacuum, but she could see the numbers flashing blood-red on the panel. The mag bottle was going, counting down with lightning speed, and there was no longer time to kill the plasma flow.

She rolled across the deck, trying not to think, knowing what she had to do, and drove her hand toward the scarlet bulkhead switch.

"Jesus Christ, we got her!" Jamal screamed. "We nailed the bitch!"

* * *

The emergency jettisoning charges hurled the entire side of Fusion One out into space a microsecond before the ejection charges blew the reactor after it. There had to be a delay, be it ever so tiny, lest a faltering mag bottle be smashed against an intact bulkhead and liberate its plasma inside the ship. But small as that delay was, it was almost too long.

Dominica Santos, Allen Manning, and Angela Earnhardt died instantly. The dying containment field failed completely just as the reactor housing blew through the opening, and the terrible fury of a star's heart erupted back into the compartment as well as out. Fusion One vanished, along with seven hundred square meters of Fearless's outer hull, Missile Two, Laser Three, Point Defense One, Rad Shield One, all of her forward fire control sensors, and her forward port sidewall generators, and forty-two of Fearless's surviving crewmen died with them. A streamer of pure energy gushed out of the dreadful wound, and the light cruiser heaved bodily up to starboard in maddened response.


Honor clung to her command chair, and her ship's agony whiplashed through her own flesh. Her ECM panel went down. The main tactical display locked as the forward sensors died. Chief Killian's shock frame broke, and the coxswain flew forward over his console. He thudded into a bulkhead and slid limply down it, and every damage sensor in the ship seemed to blaze in scarlet fury before her eyes.

She slammed the release on her own shock frame and lunged towards the helm.


"Look at that, Sir!" Jamal exulted.

"I see it." Coglin fought his own exultation, but it was hard. Fearless staggered sideways and her fire died suddenly. He didn't know exactly what Jamal had hit, but whatever it was had gutted the cruiser at last.

Yet she wasn't dead. Her wedge was weakened and fluttering, but it was still up, and even as he watched someone was bringing her back under command. He stared at the crippled cruiser, and something hot and primitive boiled deep within him. He could run now. But Fearless was still alive. Not only alive, but battered into a bloody, broken wreck. If he left her behind, the Royal Manticoran Navy would have far more than instrument data to prove Sirius had been armed.

He sensed the danger of his own emotions and tried to fight his way through them. What had happened out here was an act of war—there were no two ways to look at that—and Haven had fired the first shot. But no one knew that except Sirius and Fearless, and Fearless was helpless behind him.

And dead men, he thought, told no tales.

He told himself he had to consider all the options, had to evaluate and decide coldly and calmly, and he knew it was a lie. He'd suffered too much at that ship's hands to think calmly.

"Bring us about, Mr. Jamal," he said harshly.


" . . . nothing left at all in the port broadside," Alistair McKeon's hoarse voice reported from Central Damage Control, "and the port sidewall's down clear back to Frame Two Hundred. We've lost an energy torpedo and Number Two Laser out of the starboard broadside, but at least the starboard sidewall is still up."

"And the drive?" Honor demanded.

"Still up, but not for long, Ma'am. The entire port impeller ring's unbalanced forward. I don't think I can hold it another fifteen minutes."

Honor stared around her bridge, seeing the exhaustion, tasting the fear. Her ship was dying about her, and it was her fault. She'd brought them all to this by refusing to break off, by not being smarter and quicker.

"Sirius is turning, Skipper." Rafael Cardones sat awkwardly hunched to one side, favoring obviously broken ribs, but he was still watching what was left of his sensor readouts. "She's coming back at us!"

Honor's eyes whipped down to the helmsman's maneuvering display in front of her. It wasn't as detailed as a proper tactical display, but it was still live, and she saw the angry red dot of the Q-ship swinging to decelerate savagely towards her. Coglin was coming back to make certain.

"Skipper, if you bring us hard to port, I can get off a few shots from our starboard missile tube," Cardones said urgently, but Honor shook her head.


"But, Skipper—!"

"We're not going to do a thing, Rafe," she said flatly. Cardones whipped around to stare at her in disbelief, and she smiled at him, her eyes like brown flint. "Not a thing except let her close . . . and bring up the grav lance," she said very, very softly.

* * *

Johan Coglin listened to the thunder of his pulse as his ship braked with all her power. Fearless limped slowly and painfully to port, turning her starboard side toward him, but her acceleration was a crawl. Even with Sirius's node damage, it would take her less than five minutes to reach pointblank range.

Jamal sat stiff and silent at Tactical, poised over his missile defense panel. A small sigh of relief had escaped him as Sirius's turn brought his undamaged forward sensors to bear, but he obviously dreaded what Fearless's broadside might do to him.

Only it wasn't doing a thing, and Coglin felt a bubble of vengeful laughter tearing at the back of his throat. He'd been right! The cruiser's armament must have been gutted—no captain would pass up the opportunity to fire his full broadside down the throat of a wide open impeller wedge!

He completed his turn, swinging the vulnerable front of his wedge away from Fearless, closing at an oblique angle and presenting his port broadside to her. The range fell with flashing speed, and his smile was ugly.


"Range five hundred thousand," Cardones said tautly. "Closing at three-three-nine-two KPS."

Honor nodded and eased the helm another degree to port. Her crippled ship turned like a dying shark, and Sirius plunged towards her.

"Four-eight-five thousand." Cardones's voice was harsh. "Four-seven-five. Four-six-zero. Four-four-five. Rate of closure now four-zero-two-one KPS. Time to energy range one-one-point-nine seconds. Time to grav lance eight-two-point-six-five seconds."

"Stand by grav lance." Honor's voice was quiet, and her mind raced. Would he come all the way in? Or would he stand off? He had less than a minute and a half to make his mind up, and if no fire came at him. . . .

She sat very still at the helm, gloved right hand poised lightly on the stick, and watched the range fall.


"Give her a broadside at four hundred thousand," Coglin said softly. "Let's see how she likes that."

"Four-zero-zero thous—"

Even as Cardones spoke, Honor whipped Fearless up on her side.

* * *


Coglin slammed a fist into his chair arm as the limping cruiser spun suddenly. Damn it, didn't Harrington know when it was over?! She was done. All she could do was stretch out the agony, but she didn't seem to know it, and her turn presented her impenetrable belly stress band even as he fired, as if she'd read his mind. He'd more than half expected it, but that didn't make him any happier to see it.


Sirius's side flashed with the fury of a Fleet battlecruiser, and Honor had cut her maneuver just a fraction of a second too late. Fearless's belly bands came up in time to intercept the missiles, but two of the lasers got through. The sidewall bent and attenuated them, but not enough, and the cruiser lurched as they ripped deep into her hull and smashed her single, unfired missile tube and two of her energy torpedoes.

Yet she survived . . . and so did her grav lance.

"All right, goddamn it," Coglin snarled. "Take us in, Jamal!"

"Aye, aye, Sir."

Honor watched the chronometer tick down, and her mind was cold and clear, accepting no possibility of failure. The sensors she had left couldn't track Sirius clearly through her belly stress band, and her current vector gave the Q-ship four options: retreat and break off the engagement, roll up on her own side relative to Fearless and shoot "down" through the starboard sidewall as she overflew the cruiser, cross her bow, or cross her stern. She might do any of them, but Honor was betting her ship—and her life—that Coglin would cross her bows. It was the classic maneuver, the one any naval officer instinctively sought—and he knew her forward armament had been destroyed.

But if he was going to do that, then he ought to be coming into position . . . just . . . about . . . now!

She slammed the helm over, wrenching her ship still further round to port and rolling to swing the broadside she'd denied Sirius back towards her with blinding speed.

Lieutenant Commander Jamal blinked. It was only for an instant, only the briefest hesitation. There was no logical reason for Fearless to suddenly swing back, and for no more than a heartbeat, he couldn't quite believe she had.

And in that heartbeat, Rafael Cardones targeted his grav lance and fired.

Sirius staggered. Captain Coglin jerked upright in his chair, his eyes wide, face shocked in disbelief as his sidewall went down, and then Fearless's four surviving energy torpedo launchers went to rapid, continuous fire.

The armed merchant raider Sirius disappeared forever in a devastating boil of light and fury.


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