LOD:Chapters 16-20

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Somewhere in the Kuub

Hadeishi sat in deep gloom, only the barest slivers of light shining on the pipes overhead. One boot was edged against the fuel valve at the top of an enormous tank of reaction mass, the other tucked under him as a makeshift seat. De Molay, tucked into the hammock again, was only a hand-span away, almost invisible in the darkness. The string net was suspended from a series of overhead pipes. Below them, intermittent sounds echoed up from the engineering spaces as two Khaid engineers banged around, trying to decipher the Wilful’s control systems. Hadeishi had put the rest of their supplies – everything he could gather up in the time allowed – in another bag, which also hung from a lanyard.

A burst of harsh chatter rose up to them, and the entire ship shuddered with a sharp, reverberating clang-clang-clang. De Molay shifted, and Mitsuharu heard her whisper: “We’ve separated.”

He nodded, judging the sounds the same way. Their suspicions were confirmed a few moments later when the entire ship shivered awake and the pumps attached to the fuel tanks hummed into action. We’re on maneuvering drive, Mitsuharu thought.

His fingertips reached out, confirmed the location of the machete, and then he leaned close enough to the freighter captain to feel her faint, thready breath on the side of his face. They are preparing to take us into hyperspace.”

Hadeishi twisted around, putting his back to her and held up a comp he’d appropriated from one of the equipment lockers. The tiny screen displayed a telemetry feed relayed from the navigational system. The whole Khaid fleet was in motion.

“So many ships,” whispered De Molay, “That doesn’t seem like a raiding party…”

Mitsuharu shook his head. “This is a fleet. The first I’ve ever seen – or heard – of the Khaid assembling. Something – larger – is underway.”

On the display, Khaiden icons shook out into new positions.

“That is an odd formation,” De Molay wheezed, trying to find a comfortable position. The hammock swayed a little.

“They’re preparing for a hot combat jump,” Hadeishi replied softly, feeling a trickle of adrenaline start up in his heart. Old familiar feelings – one’s he’d thought lost, now welcome in their return – flooded him, watching the alien ships form up. “Heavies pentahedral at the core, lights orbiting at the edge of their combat interlink range. But… what is there to attack out here? No planets, no systems… not so much as a mining enclave in range.”

De Molay snorted softly. She had recovered some color. “The hidden places are always busy, Nisei. There is an Imperial research station. Five or six light years from here, I would venture. A secret… but not well kept, as we see.”

He looked over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised. “You were bound there yourself?”

“The Wilful? Not directly.” She tapped him gently on the shoulder with gnarled fingertips. “Your destination, Captain Hadeishi, is a little grander… one of our sister ships should have been waiting for us at that moon. I wonder if they suffered our fate, only earlier. Unless they were delayed and have yet to reach rendezvous.”

Mitsuharu breathed deeply, calming a sudden burst of outrage. So – I’ve been deceived and carted about like a sack of meal! Hmmm… but who would want me out in this desolation?

“Ah, see? The Khaid fleet is underway.” De Molay’s voice was a bare whisper.

Indeed, the enemy was rippling out of sight into hyperspace.

“Three waves. Then us.” In this soup, Hadeishi thought, they’ll be on top of the station without the slightest warning.

He thumbed through a series of other views, tapping each ship’s system in turn. The hyperspace coil reported coordinates for transit had been locked in and the freighter was quickly approaching gradient. Mitsuharu’s eyes narrowed, but a quick flip back to the navigation feed confirmed what he’d expected – hoped! – when he’d seen the Khaid combat pattern.

We’re plotted for a different vector. For some frontier depot with a prize crew aboard. Useless in a fight, but too valuable for these scavengers to leave behind. Excellent.

He thumbed a set of commands into the hand comp, one ear listening to the banter of the Khaid technicians below them at the main engineering panel. A red glyph began to flash on the little display and he covered the icon with his thumb, ready to press.

The hyperspace coil buried two decks below keened awake. His thumb mashed down – the glyph deformed – then disappeared. The ship spun up to gradient and then – with a shudder and a queasy slide – the Wilful was away as well, racing forward at transluminal speeds.

Vector confirmed, he thought, smiling to himself.

De Molay looked up at him questioningly. “What have you done?” she mouthed.

“A detour,” he whispered. “’When one door shuts, another opens.’”

Aboard the Can

Kikan-shi Helsdon, formerly Engineer Second on the IMN DD-217 Calexico, squinted against the glare of a pair of work lights to see if he could help the shipnet specialist crammed down in the cramped bottom of a holotank housing. “Do we need to run in more power?”

The specialist coughed, his face spotted with flecks of data crystal interface cable. The sound echoed tinnily in the confined space. “Modelers always need more power, Engineer. And memory. And room. And… how long before somebody comes down here wanting to see a life-size model of the whole damned kuub?”

The other Mirror technicians in the upper chamber laughed. They were busy laying down conduit and hooking up racks of portable computation engines into the shipnet. The whine of cutting saws echoed from the outer corridor, along with the pang-pang-pang of a nailgun tacking up temporary wall sections.

Helsdon tried to grin. “Maybe we should have looked around when we appropriated this threatwell tank. Who knows what else Logistics threw in when they loaded up?”

“I could use less chatter in here,” one of the other techs muttered, “and more computational help. The volume of this flux data is unbelievable. We’re saturating the storage interface!”

“One moment,” Helsdon replied, wiping his hands clean. “Got a place for me to work?” He crossed to a computer station jammed in next to the pair of double-doors leading into the chamber and took a handheld v-pane unit from the Mirror technician.

The sandy-haired engineer had barely sat down on the floor – no chairs were available – and started to drill down into the configuration of the interfaces when three figures appeared, their imposing bulk blocking the entire doorway. They said nothing, but every technician in the room, including Helsdon, turned instinctively towards them.

The Imperial Jaguar-Knights entered silently, their armor etched with dozens of black spots overlaid on a mosaic of pale blue and yellow lines. Their helmets, the visors currently opaque, rippled with stylized black and white feathers. Though entirely functional, the Ocelototec Mark Sixteen articulated combat suit contained a simple stealthing technology which allowed the wearer to adjust the surface patterning at will. At the moment, all three Jaguar Knights had their distinctive regimental colors and emblems dialed down – but Helsdon had seen them on military parade in Tenochtitlán itself – and knew they could, with the addition of brilliantly feathered nanomechanical cloaks, shine like the sun itself.

The officer – there were no obvious markings on his armor to indicate this, but Helsdon had a sense of the Knight from the way he carried himself – surveyed the room. The Jaguar’s gaze settled on the engineer, which made Malcolm swallow nervously. Not good, someone has realized I’m the ‘survivor’.

“The Prince Imperial will speak with you,” the officer declared, his voice underlain by a vocoder-generated growl.

A firm grip helped him to his feet and down the hall. I guess consent isn’t required. Wisely Helsdon made no protest, simply following along where directed. Any instinct to resist had been suppressed by his tremendous weariness. A tube-car put him and his escort at the main shuttle bay, which had previously been the Calexico’s cargo loading hangar. A mint-new shuttle was standing by, hull glittering with protostellar debris. He got a good look at the crest above the hatchway as he was hustled inside. The Imperial household! They did mean “the Prince.” Saint Ebba the Younger, preserve from the attention of On High.

The shuttle drifted into a boat-bay on the side of the Tlemitl which could have swallowed the Calexico whole. The descent of the passenger boat to the landing stage seemed almost ludicrous to Helsdon as he watched acres of freshly constructed pressure wall roll past the porthole. Even the seats on the shuttle were so new they squeaked. Professional curiosity drove him to eyeball the curve of the air intakes, and peer out at the flaps and lifting surfaces on the shuttle wing.

Two versions up, at least, from the last of these Tegus models I worked on.

Inside the super-dreadnaught, he was struck by the emptiness of the passages. An SDN usually carried an enormous complement; freighting a fleet command staff, whole embassies, trade delegations and a full regiment of Marines. But here – as he and his escorts zipped along on a g-sled – most of the offices, or spaces for shops, were empty.

Only a combat crew aboard, he guessed. At one point they passed a pair of technicians rooting around in a series of access panels in an adjacent hallway. Still doing the fit and finish work. So this heavyweight has been rushed into service.

The sled passed through two checkpoints – both manned by more Jaguar Knights – and finally they found themselves in a tenanted precinct. Officers, technicians and staff orderlies filled the passages, each moving with the kind of swift direction which implied a task of tremendous importance.

They dismounted in a double-height corridor lined with enormous mural-sized v-panes.

On the left side, as Helsdon hurried past, two towering volcanoes – the doomed lovers Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl – loomed over a vast, bowl-like city drowned in night. But so great was the glow of lights and fires and refineries in the valley that it seemed filled with rivers of molten gold. Beyond the dim outline of the two peaks, the night sky was split by the blazing white-hot descent of an enormous meteor which would in just moments smash into the plain of Tlaxcallan a hundred kilometers to the east. The streaking fire-trails of thousands of anti-ballistic missiles – launched by the Méxica in a vain hope to destroy the incoming weapon – were frail in comparison.

That Blow – and even Helsdon, raised on a colony world far from the Center knew the story, which was a foundation stone of Imperial mythology – would shatter the neighboring province, triggering massive earthquakes which would level most of Imperial Tenochtitlán, and inspire a new ice age due to the dust thrown into the upper atmosphere. But all of this would not fatally wound the Empire and, indeed, the Méxica reaction to the attack would carry their armies victoriously to every corner of the globe.

Curiously, Helsdon could not – in his half-addled state – recall the name of the adversary who had struck the Blow. Must have been one of the European powers – was it Denmark? I cannot remember.

To the right, the mural panels were dark, showing only intermittent static and a wandering glyph indicating the v-server attached to them had suffered some kind of file corruption problem.

At the end of the hall, a massive, blocky stone gate stood closed. Each door post was formed in the shape of a jaguar standing on its hind legs, paws raised, talons unsheathed. The lintel was formed of a line of squared-off skulls, deep-set eye sockets filled with shadow. As the Engineer approached, one of the jaguar heads swiveled towards him – and even after serving in the Fleet for nearly ten years, the sight still raised the hackles on the back of his next – and the feline eyes burned a deep, lambent yellow for a moment. Both Knights paused, and their firm grip on Helsdon’s shoulders held him in place while they were scanned. Then the gate swung open, stone valves grinding ominously. The Ocelotl officer stepped inside, muttered something and then gestured for Helsdon to enter.

The engineer presumed such quarters would be filled with every kind of luxury. But instead, he found himself facing a slim, dark-haired, copper-skinned young man with perfectly regular features, in a room stacked with shipping crates and a series of oddly-decorated free-standing screens. The young man was sitting on the edge of a table heaped with a fortune in papers and real books. On him, Fleet dress whites seemed more than a uniform, they seemed to glow under the strip lights in the ceiling and the contrast with his dark skin was very striking. In full court regalia, an Imperial Prince would be almost invisible under the weight of a massive, jeweled feather-cloak and pendants and torques of gold.

But here, in this jumbled room, he exuded an effortless, almost irresistible authority. Only one dissonance caught at Malcolm’s attention.

He seems… anachronistic. Helsdon thought. Where are all of his electronics? The Prince did not wear a medband or comm bracelet, or even an earbug. There was a velour-skinned sofa, but no chairs and no bed. A strange, not-entirely-unpleasant odor of musk and tobacco hung in the air. The engineer was frankly puzzled when he knelt before the Prince. As he did, he noticed the Jaguars had remained outside, leaving him – apparently – alone with the young man. He was no expert on court ritual and etiquette, but it seemed rash to let one slightly-deranged Fleet kika-no within arm’s reach of the Emperor’s son. But he must be well armed of himself. Aren’t the Imperial Family supposed to be super-human?

Tlatocapilli – great lord, son of the Light of the World – how may I—”

“Get up,” Xochitl snapped irritably. “Tell us – tell me – what you saw and how you survived.”

Helsdon breathed in deeply. This isn’t the real thing, it’s only a story about what happened to another person. Just another debriefing. Nothing can reach me here.

Light of Heaven, I was going EVA to repair a thermocouple relay,” he began.

He related the momentary glimpse of the ‘blurred thread’ which cut Calexico in half, leading to so many deaths, and then the long desperate struggle to stay alive in the wreck of the destroyer. Eventually – and by this time his voice was hoarse – another Imperial Scout ship had arrived and recovered him.

When Helsdon finished, he found himself rubbing his hands on his trousers. Why do they sweat so much? Then he stood in the awkward silence, trying to focus on the Prince. The room had darkened into night cycle as he’d talked, and now Xochitl was only a vague shape, his light-colored mantle a lesser shadow in the gloom.

“Thank you, Engineer Second.” Xochitl stood up slowly.

Wish I could see his face better. Didn’t he believe me?

Xochitl spoke to the air: “Kikan-shi Helsdon is ready to return to the research station.”

Helsdon’s mind – which seemed oddly fogged – cleared at the thought of returning to work. Now there it is again. A sound like a tubercular breathing; such sharp, short gasps. Where is it coming from?

But then the Jaguars entered and escorted him, gently this time, away.

In the darkness, when the door had closed, Xochitl threw himself down on the sofa and passed his hand over a side-lamp. A dull, orange-tinted glow sprang up and the Prince raised an eyebrow questioningly at the largest of the screens at the back of the room. A pair of lambent, angular eyes gleamed back at him.

“Satisfactory, Esteemed?” Xochitl strove to put the proper deference into his voice, but knew in his heart there was only truculence and barely suppressed anger in the words. “Or shall I interview another?”

The Naniwa

The lift dinged politely and a battle-steel hatch cycled open, revealing the semi-circle of Command. Koshō stepped onto the bridge feeling tense and unsettled. She rolled a heavy, Fleet-style data crystal between her fingers, her expression distant. Hadeishi was close in her thoughts, but not as she often heard his voice; relating advice or giving orders in the midst of battle – but rather with new appreciation for the compromises he had made while commanding the Cornuelle.

“Transferring ship authority, Chu-sa.” Oc Chac said, switching the command codes from his console to hers.

“Accepted, Sho-sa,” she replied absently, settling into her shockchair. Susan held up the crystal again and it gleamed with the reflection of dozens of v-displays circling the deck. She had never felt comfortable with the kinds of company Hadeishi had kept, or the odd side diversions he would turn the light cruiser too. Many of those excursions – too many, really – had been at the behest of shadowy figures like Green Hummingbird, who was now sitting in a cabin on deck six, using her water for a shower and eating food from her dispenser system.

I forced the terms of the trade, so why do I feel I’m the one carrying home a koku of grass seed?

Sho-sa?” She beckoned the XO over. “Load this into the navigation system, but do not replicate the data onto the squadron ‘net.”

Hai, kyo!Oc Chac took the crystal gingerly, but then he stopped, trying to formulate a properly deferential question.

“It is a copy of the Korkunov telemetry, Sho-sa. Recovered from a message drone launched by the Calexico only moments before she was destroyed.” Susan raised a warning hand as the Mayan’s face twitched with surprise. “We are lucky to have the data, but do not question how the goat got into the garden.”

Oc Chac nodded slowly, and then ventured to say: “Kyo, an access request has been received from a group of visitors on six – with your chop, Chu-sa. Should it be approved?”

Susan nodded, though a nagging feeling of being cheated remained.

Doggedly, Oc Chac pressed on: “Kyo… this ship we captured, the Moulins, her crew is to be kept in the brig, secured? But not the, ah, guests in the cabin on six?”

“Even so, Sho-sa.”

Hai, kyo! I’ll have this data loaded immediately.”

“Excellent. Run it as an overlay in the well. I want to see a comparison with the plot provided by the Mirror scientists.”

Then she leaned back in her chair, fist pressed to her chin. We’ll have a better picture of this Barrier, but I’m going against the spirit of the operational orders in taking a nauallis aboard in the midst of a Mirror black-op. The Chu-sa never seemed to mind, she thought, feeling a pang at the memory of Hadeishi sitting forlorn and directionless in the fumeiyo-ie on Toroson. Then her expression hardened. And so my sensei lost his ship and nearly his entire crew. And now we are forever apart.

Oc Chac returned from one of the operations consoles, hands clasped behind his back.

“New orders have come from squadron, Chu-sa. The Tlemitl has taken over battle-cast control.”

Koshō lifted one eyebrow. “The whole matrix? Squadron-level targeting and countermeasures? Did this come from Chu-sho Xocoyotl or from the Prince?”

“Everything, kyo, is now routing through the Firearrow. The Tokiwa is lead for the battle-cruiser squadron, but the Flag has switched ships. Prince Xochitl has also ordered all probes presently monitoring the Pinhole to be withdrawn.”

Susan tapped her fingers lightly on the armrest. “And the scientists?”

“Ordered back aboard their transports, kyo. All technical personnel have been transferred to the Tlemitl. The Can is being abandoned.”

“The Prince is certainly decisive!” He is cutting the Mirror out of the picture. That will be his father’s direction. So – is this a Fleet operation now? Or are Hummingbird and Xochitl actually acting in concert?

Oc Chac suppressed a scowl at her sarcasm – one which Koshō was too distracted to notice, or comment upon – and returned to his station. The Chu-sa remained in her seat, her expression distant, ignoring the comings and goings of Command, old memories unspooling in her mind’s eye.

The Naniwa pressed on, following her patrol pattern, wake surging bright with particle decay.

Down on deck six, in an officer’s cabin with two bunks, a shower, proper desks and a real closet Gretchen threw down her duffle bag and kicked off her boots. “By the Risen Christ, Hummingbird, do you think they have fresh hot water? That would be a relief after bathing in recycled spit for a week…” She sorted out her field comp and notebooks from the backpack, including a little Hesht figurine that Magdalena had given her in parting. Grrault is the god of travelers, bachelors and the unlucky, so keep him close and remember to give him bits of meat or bone from time to time, Magdalena had said in complete seriousness. See this cavity? Place the sacrifice within and after a moment or two, watch the color of his eyes. Amber means the meat is poisoned, red means it is safe to eat. Then the Hesht had paused, snout wrinkling up. Safe for a Hesht to eat, of course. For a cub like you with only one stomach… perhaps not. But still, he’s sure to bring good luck.

Parker had laughed, pressing his favorite multitool into her hands and giving her an awkward hug. If you need a ride, he said, sniffling, you just comm, right?

Hummingbird did not reply, and when Anderssen turned around she whistled in appreciation.

The nauallis had unlocked both of his travelling bags. One of them had unfolded cleverly into an entire desktop-style comp station with three large v-displays and two stylus pads. The other bag was packed tight with equipment boxes of all kinds. Hummingbird had already appropriated one of the desks and was plugging in cables as fast as he could.

After watching for a moment, Gretchen dove in beside him and started unpacking comm relays and other devices from the second bag. Hummingbird, obviously in a tearing hurry, flashed her a warning look – to which Anderssen gave a smirk in return, saying: “Don’t give me that sour face, Crow, I know which end is which.”

“Very well. Find a set of modules marked with double bands of green – they can be assembled into a t-relay station. It would speed things up tremendously if you could get that operational.” He seemed dubious, but gestured for her to proceed before turning back to completing his system setup.

Gretchen smiled to herself and began rooting through the bag, looking for the doubled green bands. Almost immediately, she ran across a brick-like object wrapped in – of all unlikely things – a parchment envelope.

“Well now,” she said to herself, running a finger across the smooth material. “What is this? A book?”

The envelope was held closed by a silver clasp ornamented with a well-worn device. Peering closer and turning the envelope to throw the sigil into relief, she made out the stylized figures of two men – were they in armor? They seemed to be sporting pointed helmets – riding on a single horse.

I’ve seen this sigil before, she thought, slipping a fingertip under the clasp and opening the envelope.

A heavy metal block – corroded bronze or brass at first glance – slipped out into her hands. As soon as the device touched bare skin, Gretchen felt there was a fundamental imbalance in the mechanism. Attempting to resolve this, she switched the block around and found one end was fitted with a strip of Imperial-standard interface ports. “A comp,” she said aloud, though not meaning to. “It feels so old…”

Puzzled, she ran her fingertips across the corroded surface, but no rust or scale came away. Instead, Anderssen realized that the surface was quite smooth, but had been mottled by tremendous heat at some time in the past. This isn’t right, she felt and tugged at the interface strip until it came away. Better. She sat down on her bunk and opened her backpack, pulling out her trusty old octopus and jacking the multilead into her own comp. Then, humming softly to herself, she began testing the tiny pits revealed by the removal of the interface strip.

After an hour, Gretchen realized she was thirsty and looked up to see that Hummingbird had quietly completed the assembly of his comp station, including the t-relay, and was running well over a hundred v-panes, all showing a wide range of data and visualizations.

“Who made this, Crow? This little comp I’ve got here?”

Hummingbird did not turn, but shrugged his wiry old shoulders. “It came to me in trade, Anderssen-tzin. I did not think it wise to show while we remained on the Moulins.”

Gretchen snorted. “You didn’t trust Captain Locke and his devout crew?”

“Not at all.” The old nauallis rubbed the back of his head. “Their beliefs are genuine, but while I have some standing among them, I am not one of them, if you follow my meaning. They agreed to help us come this far, but we will need a better conveyance to move forward. To reach the device.”

“Hmm.” Gretchen turned the bronze block over in her hands. It was quite dense for its size. The interface strip was reattached and reconfigured. She reached for her portable input panel and v-display. “You don’t know where this came from?”

“I know who gave it to me,” he answered, in a very dry tone. “But before that? I could not say.”

“And what did you trade for it?” Anderssen regretted asking the question immediately, realizing she did not want to know the answer. He might trade anything, for anything, she thought, feeling a cool chill trip across her shoulders.

“Services rendered, Anderssen-tzin. By another, not by you – or I – if you are concerned.”

“Well,” Gretchen said, distracted, “then let me see…”

She powered up her input devices, socketed them into the interface strip, and settled back to see what presented itself. Almost immediately a node appeared in her little local network, right alongside the little blue birds representing her field comp and hand comp. Time to negotiate, Anderssen thought, initiating conversational algorithm.

Three hours later, Hummingbird was sitting cross-legged on his bunk, his stylus clicking irregularly on the control surface, when a double-chime sounded from one of the v-panes open before him. A thin line of bloody spots ran along his left arm, where he’d been pricking himself with a maguey spine as he worked. Thoughtfully he nodded, closing a series of other windows and expanding the one demanding attention.

Squadron ‘cast access achieved,” he said softly, scarred hand flexing. “Protocols are open with all ships save the Tlemitl.”

Gretchen had been following along with her own systems, which seemed positively paltry in comparison to what the nauallis had brought into play. Still, their activities and agents were now able to move where they willed throughout the battlecast network. Only the flagship remained isolated, but Anderssen had the impression the dreadnaught’s shipnet was an order of magnitude beyond that of the smaller ships, including the Naniwa.

Hummingbird bit at his thumb, eyes narrowed. “Who came with the Prince?” He mused. “What resources does he have to hand…”

The nauallis fell silent then, his attention wholly focused on defeating the protections girding the Tlemitl. Anderssen lost interest in his struggle. The question of the mysterious weapon and the barrier it had drawn across this whole section of space was far more intriguing. She had never had an opportunity to investigate an artifact of such colossal scale before. No way I’m passing this up, Gretchen thought gleefully and rubbed her hands together briskly in anticipation. Her initial forays into the resources available through the ’cast network had already discovered a whole series of robotic probes deployed along the ‘frontier’ of the hidden weapon, probes which had been under the control of the Mirror scientists working on the Can, but now they were drifting aimlessly, having been abandoned at the Prince’s direction.

Come here my pretties, she thought, grinning. Watching Hummingbird at work had revealed his outgoing stellarcast transmissions were masquerading as authorized ‘net access from the Naniwa. The probes were happy to recognize her request as official and socket into her network. After handshaking, they began unspooling an enormous volume of data back to her little set of comps. Almost immediately, she received warning errors from the data interfaces. Frowning, she eyed Hummingbird’s constellation of devices but decided it would be unwise to steal storage from him. What about the local shipnet, maybe I can hijack someone’s… Hold up, what’s this?

A new icon had appeared on her main v-display; one showing a glyph indicating it ‘belonged’ to her set of resources. There was no description and only a generic symbol with the identifier 333 attached. Curious, Anderssen queried the storage available and then sat back in surprise when the node responded with a long string of nines. That is… a hell lot of crystal lattice, she thought, impressed. Is this the public storage cloud on the Naniwa? No, it would have a serial number and description and all sorts of wonky detail…

Now concerned, she flipped from the logical view she’d been operating through to a physical resource diagram and then stared over at the corroded bronze block. “You?” She said aloud, startled. The protocol mapping algorithm had apparently completed, determining that the device did have storage available and there was some kind of pathway to allow access.

Gretchen’s first instinct was to yank out the octopus and sever the connection. But then, when her fingers touched the cable, her eyes drifted back to the long string of nines and all of the raw storage they represented. I could build a nice dataset with all of those probes feeding in… I wonder how fast it can process?

A little guiltily she glanced over at Hummingbird, who seemed entirely oblivious to her activities. His face seemed remote and unapproachable and the click-click-click of his stylus was swift and sure, the patter of hail on a tin roof in a high country storm.

One step at a time, she decided, and reconfigured the octopus to allow only one way communication. At least, she thought, I can store all of the data right now, then disconnect from the probes before someone notices I’ve hijacked them. That would be prudent.

Five minutes later the first of the probes was unspooling its history log across the ‘net and into the bronze block at a very reasonable speed. Watching the performance metrics built into her comp, Anderssen realized after about ten minutes that the limiting factor on the transfer was the octopus itself, which had not been designed for moving such enormous volumes of data.

I’m going to short the poor thing out. What else do I have available…

Her stylus tapped through a series of panes, looking for alternate methods of transfer and on the fourth one she paused, eyebrow rising, to see that node 333 had registered twenty-seven wireless access ports, all open and unsecured. I wonder… will stellarcast let me multichannel onto this device? Gretchen poked around some more, cursing at the arcane interface for the shipnet, until she figured out how to assign the data feeds from the sixty-plus probes across all the available access ports. Then she tapped a ‘Go’ icon and sat back.

All of the probe data was loaded nine minutes later.

Anderssen blinked, smoothed back her straight blonde hair and got up to get a kaffe.

Well, well, well, she mused, pouring instacream into the black liquid. Now how to model all this and find the keyhole I need, or the shape of this… or, or… Gretchen hissed in frustration. When she held a physical object in her hands – potsherds, a broken mechanism, a bone – something would usually suggest itself to her, some clue or guide to its proper purpose. But in the comp system? There was a disconnect between the object – or truly the data trying to describe the object – and her ability to grasp its totality.

I can’t go EVA and touch the damned thing. She felt daunted. I have to figure this one out the old way.

Across the room, Hummingbird stirred, his eyes focusing on her as though from a great distance. “How very interesting,” he said. “It would seem the Prince has arrived with no Judge or Mirror oversight. No Seeking Eye commissars, no political officers.”

Gretchen gave him a look over the rim of her kaffe cup. “A Prince of the realm, riding the finest steed in the land, with not the slightest restraint on his activities? What a marvelous adventure for him!”

“For all of us, I fear,” Hummingbird muttered, producing a small paper wrapper from his mantle. He withdrew two small white tablets and placed one of them under his tongue. “Curious – there is only a skeleton crew aboard the Tlemitl. Barely enough men to operate her.”

“That many fewer to share the loot.” Anderssen sat back down, scratching her ear, attention already sliding away into this new puzzle.

“Abominations!” Hummingbird exclaimed in outrage as he peered at one of the v-panes. “I’m bumped out.”

“Oh, you’ll get back in, eventually,” Gretchen assured him. “You are a nauallis, after all.”

Anderssen…” Hummingbird finally looked at her directly and the shock of meeting his dark eyes drew her full attention. “Have you considered what it means to encounter, to experience a First Sun device?”

Gretchen laughed bitterly. “You mean, will fame and fortune go to my head? Isn’t your whole purpose to make sure that no one realizes such a thing has even been encountered? There’s no fortune there, for me, and certainly no fame.”

The old man shook his head slowly. “Such things are only the shell, only the surface of the matter.” He pointed with his chin and Anderssen looked down, surprised to find the corroded bronze block in her hands.

“Your ability to use such things imperils your very humanity. You must tread very softly.”

“This? This is just a computer – one of the tools at our command. Do you think using tools threatens anyone’s humanity?”

He nodded. “The men who devised the first rifle, or machine-gun, or thermonuclear bomb let go of something innate in themselves. Then those who used them left all pretense of humanity behind. How –” He paused, searching for the right words. “—how can even a warrior countenance the death of an enemy he has not faced, met eye to eye, and traded blows with in the circle? Anything else is murder. I would say that a murderer has abandoned the common thread which ties us all together.”

Anderssen squinted, wondering if the Crow was mocking her, then shook her head. “None of those atrocities were initiated by the tools – the rifle, the machine-gun, the bomb only had the misfortune to fall into the hands of men who had already decided upon atrocity.”

Then she set the block down, picked up her stylus and returned to her work.

Hummingbird became quite still, seeing that the European woman had turned her back on him. He watched her intently for nearly thirty minutes, but Gretchen’s attention was wholly devoted to building a new analysis model. Apparently satisfied by what he’d seen, the old Crow returned to his own efforts, and the hours passed by in quiet save for the clicking of their styluses on the control surfaces.

At length, Hummingbird pushed away from his comp – breathed out a deep, long sigh -- and stared for a moment at the pale blue wall behind his still oblivious companion. “The dreadnaught’s shipnet is using an unknown encryption and security system. Not only is it unfamiliar to my tools, but it seems impervious to investigation.”

Gretchen made no sign she had heard. Hummingbird scratched the back of his head and surveyed the rest of their cabin. Conversationally, he said: “There are the afterimages of cranes in flight, etched into this ceiling. A former tenant must have needed at least the illusion of the homeworld to ease his mind.”

Still Anderssen ignored him. The nauallis grimaced and rose himself, swaying a little. After two cups of thickly sugared kaffe he found steadier footing. Then he sat down on the edge of his bunk and unwrapped a threesquare. Even when he’d finished, the Swedish woman was still hard at work.

Experimentally, he said: “The Tlemitl is one of the Emperor’s personal ships – long rumored but never proven. Never have I encountered an Imperial system which could resist my overrides. Always before, the Judges have contrived to know what transpired in Imperial Space. Things are now afoot to which we are not privy. Shall even the Judges shine dim beside the Tlaltecutli, the Lord of the Earth? Surely the human race would be at insupportable risk if we cannot penetrate new secrets as they arise! We must get inside this mystery box that is the Firearrow.

“In a minute,” Anderssen mumbled.

“Of course,” he said, watching her with a sort of cool detachment.

At much the same time, his comp constellation completed the process of dumping a set of infiltrators into the Naniwa’s communications network, allowing Hummingbird to open a tachyon relay channel without anyone on the bridge being the wiser. A short, discrete burst of data was dispatched out into the wasteland of the kuub. A bit later, the reply filtered back to Hummingbird’s console.

Excellent, he thought, setting a timer to run. Seventeen hours and counting.

On the command deck, another watch came on duty and Sho-sa Oc Chac was once more at his console, monitoring the efforts of the rest of the bridge crew and ancillary departments. Given his background, the Mayan was paying close attention to the efforts of the Zosen still rounding out a few tail-end projects. When Chu-i Pucatli suddenly tilted his head and stared at the status board in puzzlement, he was up out of his seat and beside the Comms station before the sub-lieutenant could sound an alarm.

Sho-sa, we’ve lost sync with Tlemitl’s battlecast,” Pucatli reported, not too surprised to find Oc Chac at his shoulder.

“Have we moved out of range?” Oc Chac asked, reaching over the younger man’s shoulder to key up a diagnostic subsystem. “Is there some kind of heavy debris concentration between us at the squadron?”

Kyo, we’re on a return leg of the patrol pattern – distance is closing with the Can and squadron center-point. But the dust – it’s very heavy.” Pucatli slid part of the navigational display into view on his console. “I’ve been seeing irregular gravitational interference with comm, but we’ve rotated through this sector at least once before and did not lose sync.”

“Mark the area. And see if there’s anything on our new map of the Korkunov route that could explain the blackout. Perhaps we can avoid it the next time around.”

Oc Chac frowned at the console for a moment longer, watching the diagnostic run.

Chu-i, if anything flags red on that scan – you let me know immediately.”

The Wilful

In Hyperspace

De Molay was lying in her hammock over the reaction mass tank, eyes closed, listening to the gurgling and chuckling of the pipes winding over and around her, when Hadeishi emerged from the darkness, his face blackened with grease. “Here,” he said, parting her thin fingers and pressing the slim metallic shape of the Webley Bulldog into her hands. “I will return in a little while, but anything may happen between now and then.”

She opened one eye, and then the other, seeing the Nisei had acquired a serrated-blade knife about twenty centimeters long to go with his machete. The machete was now enclosed in a crude, hand-made scabbard and strapped to his chest at an angle. The knife fit into his belt. She made a face, eyebrows beetling up. “You will need to be quick,” she whispered. “Do you hear that whine building in the hypercoil? We’re losing gradient fast, we’ll drop back to realspace soon. And when we do, even these lax fools will realize something is amiss.”

“I know.” Hadeishi held up his hand-comp, which was still relaying the nav system telemetry. “About thirty minutes and we’ll drop out. I plan to be back before then.”

He bowed in parting, and then climbed silently down to the engineering compartment. By his count there were two Khaiden loose in the down below decks, and both of them had left their duty stations to do … something. So he padded quietly from room to room, working his way around the huge bulk of the maneuver drives. Approaching the access way leading to the hyperspace coil generator he heard the sound of boots on the decking and flattened against the wall.

A Khaid engineer ambled out of the side passage, helmet back, nosily crunching on a heavy, bone-like ration bar. The alien’s jagged, double-hinged teeth were making quick work of the clay-like brick.

Mitsuharu’s arm snapped out, the serrated blade spearing up into the underside of Khaid’s jaw. The creature goggled at him, huge eyes rolling in different directions, and the Nisei lunged, getting an arm under the shoulder joint. The alien was very heavy – massing nearly twice his own weight -- and Hadeishi grunted with pain as he eased the corpse to the g-decking. Mindful of leaving a trail, he dragged the body into hypercontrol, wrapped the corpse in a plastic sheet from his other leg pocket and then wiped off his hands and forearms, which had been spattered with cloying blue-black blood.

Then he continued on, trying to move a little faster. The down below had never seemed so large before, but now the number of rooms seemed infinite. Finally, having almost completed a circuit of the entire ship, he approached an alcove which served as a crude reference library – there were shelves of data crystals, a comp station and portable readers hung on the walls. Nearly twenty-five minutes had passed and his chrono was showing time winding down at a swift pace.

But light flickered on the wall of the alcove and there was a singular musk in the air. Reading up on the new ship, is he? A Khaid seeking to better himself, how excellent.

Hadeishi crept to a point where he could see the elbow and shoulder of the engineer, who was sitting on the bench in the alcove, thumbing through a series of technical manuals. Laudatory, Mitsuharu thought, feeling a pang. I’ve had ensigns who refused to do so much…

At that instant, the ship began to slide gradient and the transit alarm blared. Startled by the unexpected noise, the engineer looked up in time to catch sight of Hadeishi rushing out of the dimness. The Khaid’s first impulse was to drag out his comm – a hand-held unit instead of the usual Imperial wristband – and sound an alarm. In the heartbeat between impulse and action, Mitsuharu hewed down with the machete, the full strength of his shoulders behind the blow, catching the Khaid’s raised hand on the wrist. There was a jarring crack and the joint split, along with the z-suit ring.

Howling in pain, the Khaid leapt back, crashing into the shelves. Books and data crystals flew in all directions, rolling wildly on the floor. Hadeishi crabbed in, hacking with the long flat blade and the edge bit into the engineer’s other arm, drawing a deep wound. Blood slicked the floor, making his footing treacherous. The Khaid sounded a deep coughing howl and scrabbled for some weapon – a knife, a gun – nothing came immediately to hand.

Mitsuharu kicked the engineer’s knee, making the creature topple over, and then stepped in hacking down. Now the blade fell true and the Khaid’s head lolled to the side, half severed. Hadeishi grimaced, feeling his limbs burn with exertion, and then felt enormous exhaustion wash over him.

The books are ruined, his father’s voice echoed in memory. What a pity.

Hadeishi staggered into the engineering compartment, the tool belts from both dead engineers looped over his shoulder. He was surprised – but pleased – to see that De Molay had dragged herself down to the still-working console and was trying to secure control of ship’s systems.

“You’ve access to environmental, kyo? Good. Pump one percent cee-oh to Command and the shuttle bay.” Mitsuharu gasped, feeling winded. “Secure air in engineering and let’s get you into a z-suit.”

De Molay clung grimly to the console with both hands. “They’ll be in the corridors, too.”

Struggling with the stylus, the Wilful’s captain tapped open a new series of v-panes – from cameras Hadeishi had never been able to reach with his own access. The old woman leaned her head over, wheezing: “I can see another figure in the mess as well. Everything else looks clear for the moment.”

“Good,” Hadeishi took a deep breath and set down the extra tools. “Don’t lock the areas where the gas is released. Let them believe free movement is possible.” He stood at her shoulder, watching the suddenly-superior v-pane displays with envy. “And where was all of this when I was cleaning the bilges?”

“That one knows there’s a problem,” De Molay observed softly, a blood-caked hand tapping the feed from the bridge. A Khaid under officer stood uncertainly at the captain’s station, rubbing his eyes. “He could signal for help if the comm system has been recoded since they came aboard.”

Hadeishi shrugged. “I struck down one reviewing our technical manuals – but how far they’ve gotten beyond the nav system—”

The crewman sat down in the captain’s chair, looked around in apparent puzzlement, and then suddenly pitched forward. The sound of his fall was audible in the camera pickup, and was more than enough to draw the attention of three more Khaid who had been working at consoles on the far side of the small bridge. These turned, then one of them pointed at an environmental display flashing a warning.

De Molay shook her head. “They see the air warning lights. How quickly will they be overcome?”

Mitsuharu looked thoughtful. “Not long, but it may be enough to cause us mischief. I will stand watch at the lift between decks.”

After a swift review of the weapons to hand – his machete and knife were now supplemented by another Khaid shipgun – the Nisei slipped out of engineering. As the hatch closed behind him, De Molay ventured a crooked little smile, saying: “I’ll let you know if anyone resists taking a very long nap.”

At the Pinhole

Sitting in the junior officer’s mess aboard the Tlemitl, Engineer Second Helsdon was acquainting himself with a fresh-baked chicken pie and a jug of Ceylon black tea. The Jaguar Knights who had dragged him before the Prince had no interest in escorting him all the way back to the Can – so they’d jobbed him off on Logistics to ferry over to the research station when convenient. This left the sandy-haired engineer at loose ends for six or seven hours, so cooling his heels in the well-appointed mess seemed the perfect answer.

But scuttlebutt from the ensigns slouching at the next table indicated the Can itself was being abandoned, with the Mirror scientists returning to their transports. Which left Helsdon with nowhere to go, but for the moment he wasn’t too concerned about finding a bunk – the chicken pie was excellent and he guessed the engineers aboard the Tlemitl would look out for their own in a pinch. He’d hot-bunked himself, more than once, when a fellow mechanic needed a place to sleep and hadn’t found an official posting yet.

A steward passed by, and Helsdon flagged her down. “Could I get another cuppa, please?”

She was pouring; the tea shedding curlicues of steam, when an alarm klaxon sounded. The noise was harsh, shocking to the ear and unmistakable.

“All hands to battle stations,” boomed the overhead, “all hands to battle stations

The decking itself suddenly shivered; every cup, saucer and pot rattling on all of the mess tables. Aft of the cafeteria, in the engine ring, the superdreadnaught’s maneuver engines were flash-heating to full combat power. Everyone was already up, on their feet, sealing the regulation shipsuit under their uniforms and scrambling towards the emergency lockers for helmets.

Helsdon seized hold of the edge of the table, stuffed the rest of the pie into his mouth, and then sealed his helmet. He, unlike many of the others present, was still wearing a proper z-suit and carried his full EVA helmet slung over his back on a lanyard. Surviving in the wreck of the Calexico had made him intimately familiar with every piece of survival gear Fleet provided.

“Incoming hostiles at all points,” bellowed the overhead. “missile impacts expected in one minute, one minute. Brace for hull rupture, all hands secure compartments and brace for zero-g.”

Oh Lord of my Sainted Fathers, Helsdon bolted for the nearest damage control station. Work to do, I have work to do. I need to do my work. He chanted as he ran, fearing he’d freeze up if he faltered for even an instant.

Koshō stiffened in her shockchair as the executive threatwell displayed by her console filled with a swarm of angry red icons, each circumscribed by rapidly-mutating glyphs. The ship’s threat assessment AI triggered, sounding alarms the length of the Naniwa.

Battle stations!” Koshō barked, feeling the shockchair fold around her automatically. A helmet was already lowering over her head and she reflexively tucked her hair in. Combat readiness subsystems were kicking in at every station, discarding the patrol-specific displays and replacing them with battle configurations. The lights shaded to red, and behind her the main hatchway sealed itself. Her eyes flicked across the storm of data flowing into the main threatwell. “We are under attack by a Khaid fleet – repeat, we are under attack by a Khaid fleet.”

The Khaiden armada – or nearly so, given the usual size of their raiding squadrons – had dropped gradient directly on top of the Imperial ships loitering around the Can. The Naniwa’s sensor suite was already flooded with the fury of beam weapons igniting, and the threatwell was filled with swarm after swarm of missiles and bomb-pods spewing into the void.

Koshō spared an instant to thank Hachiman they were in motion, and a fair distance from the rest of the squadron.

Message drone away,” Oc Chac barked reflexively. “Transit to hyper in one hundred thirty-six seconds.”

Susan’s habitual calm turned icy and everything around her narrowed down to the storm unfolding in the threatwell. She could feel Oc Chac’s attention on her, hot and wavering, an unsteady flame. The other officers were still scrambling to bring deflectors up, or confirm gun crews and missile teams were standing by. Pucatli at comm was speaking rapidly into his throatmike, confirming readiness of the interior compartments and sections.

Koshō caught the Mayan’s eyes. “Sho-sa, this is a brawl for dreadnaughts. I’ll handle maneuver, combat targeting and tactics; you keep us able to move, fight and react. Do you understand? We’re going to get hit hard, and you’re going to have to put us right with all speed.”

Oc Chac stared back at her for a second, almost paralyzed with panic, and then nodded sharply. “Hai, Chu-sa, hai!”

Pilot, full ahead,” Koshō grated, seeing Naniwa’s velocity climb. They had not, luckily, been at full stop when the attack began. The initial confusion around the Can had started to stabilize and she could see every Imperial ship was trying to get underway. They’ve jumped in ‘orumchek’ formation, she realized, watching the spider web attack pattern of the Khaid ships unfold. And they’ve caught almost all of us at zero-v, pants down, finger up the nose.

Weapons, all launch racks deploy, give me every sprint missile we can throw, configure for independent terminal tracking.” The stylus slashed through her copy of the threatwell, describing a second ‘shell’ of target areas around the periphery of the combat area. “Pilot, full combat power, angle for thirty-two degrees off axis. Take us hard up along the Barrier line. Transit deflectors at maximum power.”

The Naniwa surged ahead, engines flaring sun-bright, warning lights flashing in every compartment as the crew raced to battle stations. Susan ran through a brief internal checklist, confirming all drives were showing green, no bay doors were open to space, and internal battle compartments were sealing. Already the ship shook with the vibration of the ammunition Backbone shuttling fresh shipkillers to the primary hull, while the missile racks rolled out from the hull.

Chu-sa, targeting solutions are locked,” Konev seemed absurdly happy. “Hardpoints are clear to launch.”

Weapons, fire.” Koshō felt a sharp bolt of elation as dozens of missile tracks sprang into view on the threatwell, spiraling out from the Naniwa, which was now accelerating hard. Holloway was sparing nothing to hit the mark she’d set for him.

Kyo, salvo one away,” Konev reported, voice tight with adrenaline and fear. “Cycling launchers.”

In the center of the spider web, caught at a dead stop, battle-shields offline, the surface of the Tlemitl rippled with white-hot explosions. Khaid particle-beam weapons savaged the enormous hull, chewing away at a shipskin four times the thickness of the armor encasing the Naniwa. Clouds of shipkillers rained in, flooding the point-defense network with a constant stabbing barrage of detonations. Behind them, bomb-pods stuttered, unspooling long chains of thermonuclear-pumped laser emitters. Despite being caught unawares, the Tlemitl’s on-duty gun crews were already in action – city-block-long emitter nacelles swiveled, flaring with the sidescatter radiation from beam weapons igniting. Missile launch rails were cycling as fast as their hardware allowed, disgorging heavy shipkillers in bursts.

In Flag Command on the superdreadnaught, Prince Xochitl – who had been caught by the attack in transit to a meeting with the senior Mirror scientists and their political officers – staggered as a pair of shipkillers detonated against the Tlemitl’s hull. The internal g-field was fluctuating and even his coppery skin was noticeably pale as he dropped into a shockchair at the Admiral’s console. His Jaguars had been carrying the components for a full EVA suit with them, and now the Prince was locked down and encased in full armor.

The Tlemitl’s captain, Ikaru Yoemon, was in Main Command, fifty decks and half the length of the ship away, which left the Prince with whichever duty officers were within reach of FlagCom when the first alarms sounded. Despite being short-handed, Xochitl tapped into the battlecast directly and immediately upon establishing comm lock, the Flag threatwell sprang to life, showing the whole chaotic scene in vibrant detail.

The Fiske and Eldredge were already shattered hulks, spewing wreckage and burning with radiation fires on all decks. Two of the heavy cruisers, the Axe and the Mace, were expanding spheres of ionized metal and plasma – containment lost on their reactors, weapons cooking off in a ripple of secondary explosions. By tremendous luck, the fleet tender Hanuman had been at the periphery of the attack area and was now only minutes from making gradient to hyperspace.

The battle cruiser Naniwa, which had just rotated out on a patrol sweep, was also out of the immediate melee.

Though his first instinct was to comm Thai-sa Yoemon for ship’s status, Xochitl knew the captain was fully occupied with damage control and fighting his ship. Instead he confirmed the status of the other ships in the squadron and added himself to the ‘cast command channel. Immediately the chatter of six or seven commanders flowed through his earbug, including the harsh bark of Chu-sho Xocoyotl on the Tokiwa.

Battle shields coming on-line now,” Yoemon reported on a channel specific to the Tlemitl.

The overhead lights in Flag Command flickered and the constant shattering vibration of bomb-pod impacts and particle beam detonations ceased. In the threatwell, the Firearrow’s glyph changed and Xochitl knew that outside – in the maelstrom of radiation, spinning debris and streaking missiles – a wavering, rainbow-hued globe had sprung up around his ship. Within the second, one of the v-panes on his threatwell display was strobing, showing impact rates on the various shield cells managed by the massive Tototl-Aerospatiale generators embedded beneath the shipskin.

One corner of the threatwell spiked as an irregular sphere of plasma suddenly occluded the Can.

So much for the Mirror’s sensor platform, Xochitl thought, shunting the flood of data flowing over him to his exocortex. Battlecast is up and synchronized… Xocoyotl had better get – ah, good, here they come.

The secondary beam weapons on the Tlemitl were now firing in staccato, sweeping the area ahead of the massive ship free of bomb-pods and penetrators. The Khaid were fond of strewing clouds of one-off mines when they engaged the enemy, then working to drive their prey into the shoals which resulted.

Four Khaiden battleships – Xochitl had never encountered the class before and his exocortex could find no references to them in the Fleet briefings and intelligence estimates – were now closing on the dreadnaught, seeking to bring particle weapons to bear behind three speeding waves of shipkillers.

An answering salvo of penetrators was already belching from the Tlemitl. Xochitl fought down a fierce desire to override Yoemon and take direct command of the dreadnaught, but the Thai-sa was doing an able job. Initial damage was already being attacked by engineering damage control parties. Shields were up, the ship was building velocity and the Tokiwa and Asama were closing vector with all speed.

We need to get point-defense interlock engaged. The Prince scowled, watching the intercept projections update in his ‘well. The Khaid were forming up, their main body of battleships – falling somewhere in size and throw-weight between the Tlemitl and her battle cruisers – screened from immediate attack by this lead group of four.

The two Imperial battle-cruisers swung in moments later, having reached interlock range on point-defense. Both were spewing ECM pods and the new remote point-defense platforms as fast as their launchers could recycle.

“Combat interlock confirmed,” Thai-sa Yoemon and Chu-so Xocoyotl’s voices overlapped in each ear. The Prince had already seen his secondary status displays shade green. The Tlemitl’s spoofer pods now began to flood nearspace with a hurricane of false data. Subsystems on all three ships had been drinking in the Khaid ECM signatures for almost ten minutes now, and with interlock allowing each ship to differentiate their counter-measures, the attacking ships were suddenly moving in an electronic fog.

« Now? » Suggested his exocortex. « Battlecast synch time is within parameters to implement override. »

Xochitl shook his head, though no one else could see, or hear, the exo. “No, not yet. The commanders of the other ships haven’t been briefed—” Even Yoemon, who had seen the new control overrides in action during trials, wasn’t ready to let the Tlemitl fight herself. Well, under my direction, thought the Prince.

« Our direction », countered his exo. « We are one ».

“—they’ll panic.”

The interior airlock opening onto boat bay nine wheezed, locking motor complaining as it attempted to seal the hatch. A fallen stanchion twisted with a squeal, crushed by the door, but refused to break free. Helsdon, face streaming with sweat, looped a magnetic block ring around the twisted battle-steel – snugged it tight and stepped back. Behind him, a good dozen cooks, stewards, stray officers and off-duty ratings leaned into the rope, hauling for all they were worth.

Someone shouted “Heave!” and the stanchion squealed, trying to slide free of the hatch. At the airlock controls, the Engineer Second wrenched aside the panel covering with a pry bar and shorted the mechanism. The hatch tried to cycle open and the stanchion popped loose. Almost immediately the environmental circuits triggered an alarm – the boat bay had lost its exterior doors and was open to the void – and only the inner airlock hatch, luckily still intact, prevented the entire corridor from venting into space.

Helsdon had his hand-comp clipped in and now he thumbed a counter-override, letting the little unit drop into a blindingly-fast response cycle as the hatch requested permission to close, was told no, then requested it again… the damage control party dragged the stanchion free with a grinding scrape.

The Engineer Second unclipped the comp – the hatch ground closed, spitting out metal shavings – and he pitched the plastic control cover away.

“Let’s go,” he broadcast, drawing everyone’s attention. “There’s a hull puncture two halls leeward and we’re venting atmosphere. We’ve got an emergency repair closet there and one on the way, so get ready to carry what we’ll need.”

Their faces were blank with incomprehension, or stiff with incipient fear, but Helsdon pushed them along – using the pry bar if necessary. If they stopped, he would stop, and then he knew he’d break down. The specter of another endless time trapped in a broken, disabled ship, waiting for the cold or hunger or radiation to take him was ever-present.

The Naniwa under combat acceleration as bursts of nuclear and antimatter explosions are filtered and reflected through the clouds of gas and dust within the Kuub nebula.

The Naniwa sped towards rendezvous with the flagship, steadily building velocity. In Koshō’s mind, the invisible, undetectable Barrier seemed only a hands-breadth from her flank. All sections had finally reported in, ready for battle. Damage control crews were standing by, the launchers had recycled, and transit deflectors were at full strength. In her executive ‘well, she could see that the Tlemitl had brought the new battle-shields on line and Susan was pained by jealousy. Curse the Prince, he has all the new toys… while we fight with flint and wicker!

Koshō stiffened, agonized to see the Falchion – hammered by dozens of bomb-pods – shiver and begin to break apart. A cloud of evac capsules spewed away from the mortally wounded cruiser, but Susan knew her commander would not be aboard one of them.

Muldoon. May Mor-Ríoghain convey you to the West with all good speed.

The battle cruiser held fire, munitions racks rolled out with the full weight of her shipkillers and suppression pods ready to launch. Seconds ticked past, and then—

Chu-sa, transit spike!” Holloway’s voice was flat and sharp. “Multiple spikes! Incoming transit across the board – estimating thirty contacts inbound.”

“Launchers ready for salvo two, kyo,” Konev barked, running through his readiness checklist one more time.

A wide arc of space shimmered, twisting aside as dozens more Khaiden ships – a swarm of destroyers, light cruisers, fleet tenders and assault boats – dropped out of hyperspace. Susan grinned mirthlessly. Months spent far beyond the rim of Imperial space, hunting the Khaid and Megair and being hunted in return, had gained her a hard-won familiarity with their tactics.

The Naniwa sprint missiles already launched into the void were now within seconds of a sudden new array of targets. The deadly little weapons sprang awake, autonomic targeting systems fixing on the fresh signatures of Khaiden ships, and blasted forward, exhausting the last of their fuel.

Two Khaiden destroyers staggered as the Imperial missiles streaked past their point-defense and antimatter charges detonated against shipskin. Startlingly violet blossoms of plasma erupted from their engine arrays. An assault boat tore in half. Missiles raced through the Khaiden formation, causing panic. Ships corkscrewed away wildly amid a wave of secondary explosions. A wedge of destroyers rotated towards the Naniwa, beam weapons stabbing at her through the incandescent murk.

Weapons, fire salvo two.”

The battle-cruiser shuddered as every launch rail and missile rack triggered simultaneously.

The Tlemitl and her two consorts lunged toward the Barrier at maximum acceleration, clawing for room to maneuver. In FlagCom, Xochitl let the threatwell feed wash over him, his attention fixed on the maneuvering of the Khaid main elements. The arrival of their support ships had been expected, though he was surprised to see such numbers. Exo displayed comparisons of numbers of ships, types and throw-weight between this battle and more recent encounters with the Khaid raiders.

A proper fleet, the Prince observed, almost impressed. On our model; with supply ships, a repair tender, lighter elements, some kind of troop transports…

Swiftly approaching the danger zone marked out on the threatwell in strobing crimson, Thai-sa Yoemon’s voice cut sharply across the chatter on the command ‘cast. “Prepare to change vector, rotating aspect… now.”

Xochitl’s eyes slid to the display showing g-integrity deck by deck on the massive ship. Time to put everything to the test.

The constant rumble transmitted through the hull – despite a brand-new dampening system – from the maneuver drives ceased abruptly. The Tlemitl rotated aspect on tertiary thrusters. The status displays started to wink amber and yellow – one red spot flared up as a compartment lost its g-decking – and then the Firearrow was pointed on a new heading. The exchange of missile clouds and beam weapons had continued unabated throughout the evolution and the Prince was pleased to see his gun crews had kept targeting lock on the lead Khaid battleships. Battlecast was still in sync, though hostile ECM was now starting to interfere, forcing a faster encryption cycle rate.

Main drives at full,” Yoemon snapped and the rumbling vibration kicked in again. Now three compartments flared red and Xochitl cursed, knowing any man in those areas was probably dead or seriously wounded, given the acceleration they were pulling. Still, the dreadnaught had successfully swerved away from the Barrier, the Asama keeping pace off her port. The Tokiwa, however, had failed to change vector with them. Xocoyotl’s battle cruiser had rotated to reverse aspect, but now she was forced to a full-burn to avoid colliding with the invisible weapon.

The fire from all four Khaid battleships retargeted on the Tokiwa as she slipped out of the point-defense envelope maintained by the Tlemitl and Asama. Hundreds of shipkillers rained in, saturating the battle cruiser’s lighter point-defense network. Dozens of explosions rippled the length of her hull, stressing shipskin beyond its capacity. A bright pinpoint seared through the plasma clouds as a penetrator pierced containment on the antimatter reactor. Then everything – the Tokiwa, the debris clouds spilling from her flanks, the corona of bomb-pod lasers igniting – was washed away by a pure white flare.

«IMN BC-261 lost with all hands», Xochitl’s exo commented, spooling off a log entry.

Battlecast resynced,” Yoemon’s voice was harsh and flat. The Tlemitl was now turning, still building velocity, with the Asama running in tight, well inside the fire control envelope of the dreadnaught’s point-defense batteries. With the four Khaid heavies drawn off by killing the battle cruiser, the two Imperial ships accelerated into the flank of the opposing fleet. Four Khaid cruisers swung towards them, but now the full throw-weight of the Tlemitl and Asama could focus on the approaching ships.

A storm of sprint missiles and particle beams stabbed out, while the spoofer pods flooded Khaid targeting control with thousands of phantom contacts. The first three cruisers shattered, shipskin ravaged by particle beams, missile racks torn away, and then each hull punched in by a pair of shipkillers – big Tessen-class multiphase penetrators.

«Resource utilization is higher than recommended per target», exo commented, but the Prince shook his head. “The weapons officer is showing admirable restraint, given his desire to be sure of the mark. Yoemon has noticed we’ve no resupply now that the Hanuman has fled. Very wise.”

‘Cast relay beeped cheerfully, showing a fresh Imperial fire-snake glyph boosting towards the protective shell of the Tlemitl’s point-defense.

«IMN CA-1042 Gladius has synched to battlecast», exo announced. «All other cruisers have been lost.»

Her field of view filled with an intricate schematic of potential Barrier threads, racing ship glyphs and the still-present necklace of science probes arrayed beyond the radiation cloud which had been the Can, Gretchen tried to concentrate on the results from her models. The first pass she’d taken had been discarded and while searching for more computational resources Anderssen had found – to her wary delight – that node 333 also boasted well over nineteen thousand processing nodes. Many of them were inactive, or inaccessible to her, but enough remained to offload model calculations for three alternate schemas.

The constant fluctuations in the g-decking field made her work very difficult and Gretchen had resorted to taping down the comps and her other gear.

Crow, we’d better get tied down, this is getting rough.”

The old Méxica did not bother to look over his shoulder. His displays had reconfigured again and the Swedish woman frowned, not recognizing any of the interfaces he was now navigating. Somehow it seemed freshly-minted and new, though still recognizably Méxica in origin. “Hummingbird, are we going to get out of this?”

“I have,” he said in a musing voice, “a great faith in Chu-sa Koshō’s ability to survive.”

Then everything lurched violently and Gretchen lost her seat, flying into the nearest wall with a bone-jarring crunch. Hummingbird’s consoles tore free of the tape, one of them shattering against the wall beside her. Despite this, his attention remained fixed on flipping through the Tlemitl’s internal systems as fast as possible.

Holy Blessed Mary, Bride of Jesus, that hurts!” Anderssen slid to the floor as the g-decking reasserted itself, landing painfully. “Crow!

Six decks away, Koshō watched calmly as the Naniwa’s abrupt course change sent the battle cruiser careening into a pack of six oncoming Khaiden destroyers. The battle cruiser’s deflectors rippled with millions of tiny impacts as irradiated dust and battle-debris hammered at the electromagnetic veil. Missiles punched straight through, while particle beam traces speared past as the Khaid gunners lost lock on the elusive Imperial ship. In turn, she was designating priority in her ‘well, the stylus stabbing like a dagger into the heart of the enemy.

Weapons, target number four, give me a tight grouping!”

The Naniwa shuddered as the starboard missile launchers went to rapid-fire, spitting a cloud of smaller interceptors around a single big Tessen shipkiller. The destroyers had broken ranks, each burning maneuver mass to break away from the oncoming Imperial. The Naniwa’s beam nacelles strobed, capacitors discharging with a high, shrieking whine that carried through the shipframe like the lament of the damned. Secondary launchers spat out a handful of spoofer pods. Target five flared with a brilliant violet-hued detonation and the ensigns on the lower tier of Command shouted, “Seikou!

Susan nodded to Konev, whose beam gunners had gotten in a choice hit.

To starboard, target four had gone into a corkscrew pattern, trying to shake the outbound munitions package – but the interceptors fragmented on final approach, separating into dozens of smaller missiles, each radiating as hot as the parent chassis. Point-defense lasers and ballistic munitions tore through them, causing a sparking cascade of smaller explosions. Serenely, the Tessen sailed through the weak ECM spewing from the destroyer’s emitters and slammed into the smaller ship’s hull at a hundred g. At the instant before impact, the multiphase warhead ignited, spearing a needle-sized plasma jet into the Khaiden shipskin.

A seven-meter wide hole blew through the side of the destroyer before the Tessen blew up inside the hull proper. The destroyer convulsed, filling with superheated plasma, and then shattered into a cloud of molten debris.

The other Khaid lightweights scattered, dumping a cloud of missiles and bomb-pods behind them.

Koshō nodded thoughtfully, then tapped an execute glyph Pucatli had prepped for her.

Each of the fleeing destroyers had acquired a spoofer pod running passive when the Naniwa had interpenetrated the formation. Now they each lit off with the battle cruiser’s signature and sped off, keeping pace with the Khaid ships, each now followed by a swiftly-closing pack of missiles.

Pilot, vector to join the Flag,” Koshō snapped, letting her attention return to the larger battle. “Get us into their envelope and synched up on point-defense.”

She did not have time to give even the brief parting Muldoon had received for Tloc, his holds full of chocolatl, or even the lamentable Chu-sho Xocoyotl.

« Enemy battlecast pattern is adapting », exo announced.

Prince Xochitl has sunk back in his chair, expression thunderous as he realized how heavily the odds had turned against him. The Tlemitl outweighed any single enemy ship by three or six to one, but now his battle-group was stripped down to only two supporting cruisers and even the two Scout frigates had disappeared.

As he watched, the Khaid battleships coalesced – showing admirable skill, one part of his mind commented – into a tight pack. Now they veered towards the Tlemitl, their point-defense overlapping, with a stormfront of shipkillers, penetrator and bomb-pods hurtling towards the Imperial ships. Behind their munitions screen, the heavy beam weapons on the Khaiden battlewagons were sparking, searching for a weakness in the battle-shields surrounding the Firearrow.

The shield-generator status display was a patchwork of green, amber and red. Some of the nodes had already failed, having shorted on backfeed from the shields themselves, or failing under the massive stress. Xochitl’s teeth bared, gleaming white and sharp, and he cursed the pochtecas who had sold his father such junk.

« Projected failure rate of the shield nodes, from field trials, is almost thirty percent. Current failure rate is thirty-four percent. »

“Unacceptable.” Xochitl straightened in his chair, attention drawn to the emergence of a second pack of Khaiden heavies which had been screened from the Tlemitl’s sensors by the oncoming wave of attackers. This formation was accelerating off at an angle and redeploying on the move, smoothly shifting from their initial wedge into an unfolding ‘flower-box’.

« Secondary elements are targeting the Gladius », exo reported, and the threatwell shifted, focusing in on the heavy cruiser which was trying to match course with the Tlemitl and Asama. « Missile storm intercept in sixteen seconds. »

The particle beam nacelles covering that quadrant of the envelope began igniting. Yoemon’s gunnery team had reached the same conclusion. Khaid shipkillers began to wink out, obliterated by anion impacts. The Gladius point-defense guns were spinning hot, filling the intervening space with ballistic rounds, and her short-range launchers were discharging as fast as the robotic loaders could clear the launch rails. Better than half of the incoming missiles were obliterated, but the remainder detonated in a staggered wave of plasma flares, washing from one end of the ship to the other.

Xochitl jerked back, his face dark, ruddy bronze as the heavy cruiser’s glyph vanished from the threatwell plot.

« Three friendly effectives remain », exo stated, highlighting the glyphs of the dreadnaught and two remaining battle cruisers. « Hostile numbers are now sixteen combatants, twelve non-combatants. Point-defense network is sub-optimal, ECM cloud is sub-optimal, launcher recycle time is sub-optimal, munitions expenditure – all weapon systems – is excessive, and maneuver drive efficiency is— »

“Enough!” Xochitl felt hot inside his armor and now he heard the whine of the air circulation system trying to shed waste heat like the buzz of a thousand mosquitoes. “Enough.”

His head was throbbing violently and he groped for the medband override.

The Naniwa’s hull shook with repeated explosions as a wave of sprint missiles and penetrators crashed through her point-defense. In Command, Oc Chac was speaking rapidly into his throatmike, his status displays a sea of red and amber indicators. Koshō snarled, seeing three Khaid light cruisers and a pair of destroyers interpose themselves between her and the Tlemitl. The enemy ships were formed up tight, and their point-defense interlock had stopped the last salvo of shipkillers Konev and his gunners had spun into them.

Pilot, time to ‘cast interlock with the Flag?”

“Too long, kyo.” Holloway looked up, wild eyed, and shook his head. “We’d have to bull right through them to reach interlock range.”

“Understood, Thai-i.” Susan’s attention snapped back to the threatwell, where a second pack of Khaid lightweights was barreling in on her flank, trying to get into the shadow of her drive plume. We need to shed some of these dogs, she thought, juggling distance, velocity and time in a heartbeat. Her stylus slashed through the executive ‘well at her console.

Pilot, new heading. Don’t spare the horses.”

Naniwa responded, still agile despite the burning craters littering her hull and the cloud of vented atmosphere, splintered radiating fins and other flotsam she was shedding. The battle cruiser shifted course, angling away from the Tlemitl and Asama, which were at the center of their own hot, constantly-strobing cloud of detonations, and headed dead-on to the Barrier coordinates loaded into Susan’s threatwell.

“Course correction burn complete, kyo,” Holloway reported. “Nine hostiles now in pursuit.”

“Incoming spread – one hundred six contacts,” Konev barked. “Point-defense engaging.”

Susan hissed, feeling her ship’s pain deep down in her gut. “Sho-sa, prepare to roll mines.”

Oc Chac nodded, attention wrenched away from damage control. He stared at her blankly for a heartbeat, then caught himself and nodded abruptly. “Hai, Chu-sa! Preparing to roll mines.”

Gretchen picked herself up warily and groped from bunk to desk. Gravity wobbled again, the ship groaning around them, but this time she was ready and held on. Hummingbird had wedged himself into a corner of the room, a comp still in his hand – face tight with some tremendous effort of concentration – and she saw his fingers were a blur on the interfaces. All of his equipment, even scattered under the bunks, was still in operation. Gritting her teeth against a series of bad bruises, Anderssen found her own field comp and flipped it open. Her models were still running, and now they had resolved themselves down to only two alternatives.

“Where are we, Crow?” she gasped, fumbling at the control pad. “We’ve got to get all of this gear secured before we lose g-deck integrity entirely.”

All of her equipment shoveled into the backpack without a problem. A roll of stickytape secured the pack to the bunk, which was in turn welded to the wall of the cabin. Her hand-comp stayed with her, though its interface was tiny in comparison to the bigger units. Hummingbird’s setup was harder to deal with, particularly when her shoulders were itching at the prospect of the next abrupt maneuver. But in a few moments, all of it was stowed save the t-relay which was a Yule tree of status lights. Grasping the main unit, she cast around for something to secure the device to.

“Leave be!” Hummingbird spared a dark, furious glance for her. “I’ve almost broken into the Khaid battlecast and we’ll need that to survive the next hour. Pin it to the floor, if you must, but don’t move it or disassemble the mechanism.”

You’ll sing a different tune, carrion bird, if this thing cracks you in the head…

She strapped it down as best she could, feeling the metal radiating hot enough to scorch her fingertips. Then Anderssen crawled back to the other corner, wedged herself into place, and thumbed up the display on her hand-comp. Plot position, she ordered the little machine. On the sidebar, Gretchen was heartened to see that node 333 was still in synch and processing data at a blistering rate. Excellent, but—

Her latest modeling pass had discarded the data pre-processed by the Mirror scientists and culled from the Korkunov’s initial telemetry. Something nagged at her, saying it was too old to be accurate. Instead, drawing on the sheer processing power and storage offered by node 333, she’d asked the comps to sweep through the most basic data flowing back from the Imperial science probes and break it down, looking for gravitational anomalies at a sub-Planck scale. The descriptions of the damage inflicted on the Calexico hinted at a mechanism capable of dissecting battlesteel, which implied the weapon was able to break down the interlocking matrix of the armor without diffusing its impact energy across the enormous, mutually supporting weave of the material.

Her comps now revealed a new ‘map’ of the surrounding space, one far different in detail than the Imperial data they’d received –or stolen. Anderssen cursed, her body jolted with fear. Tearing free of the restraints, she was at Hummingbird’s side in the blink of an eye. She seized hold of the old man’s ear, drawing a bright crimson pinpoint of blood with the corner of one nail.

Crow! Come back to me. Captain Koshō is trying to use the Barrier as a weapon, and the Imperial data we have is no good for this sector. Break me into the command circuit, right now!”

Rack eight away,” Oc Chac announced, as a fresh cluster of plasma mine icons popped up on the threatwell. “We’re done, kyo.” The Mayan looked back at Susan, his chiseled face questioning.

“Not enough,” the Nisei woman said, watching the last of her area denial munitions spin away behind the Naniwa. The battle cruiser was pushing hard at maximum-v for the level of particulates in this area of space, and there were still nine Khaiden cruisers and destroyers racing after her. “Weapons, start dumping delayed-fuse bomb-pods into our wake. I want them on a timer and dark until they tick over on intercept.”

Then she swiveled around, considering the threatwell. Naniwa was now closing fast on the forbidden area indicated by the Mirror scientists. Stabbing flares started to pop up behind them, catching one of the Khaiden cruisers with a direct hit. The enemy ship staggered, losing way, and then plowed through three more plasma mines. Atmosphere began to vent from dozens of punctures, but the other Khaid ships dodged past, their captains and crews alert enough to realize the danger and begin laying down a sweeping pattern of computer-controlled ballistic rounds.

Pilot, prepare to rotate ship,” Koshō announced, glaring at Holloway. “Rotate in one minute, sixteen—”

Stop, you’ve got to stop!

She jerked, hearing an unfamiliar voice shouting in her earbug.

“Belay that order,” Susan snarled, “who is this?”

Gretchen Anderssen, Captain Koshō. Your charts are out of date – I’m updating your display – now!

Jigoku-e ochiro!” The Chu-sa’s shouted curse startled everyone on the bridge, and Oc Chac turned to stare at her in surprise. Susan’s complexion shaded almost porcelain. The threatwell display mutated wildly, the Mirror coordinates for the invisible Barrier wiped away and replaced by a series of veil-like patterns, overlapping on one another and filled with pockets and eddies.

“Forty seconds to intersection, kyo,” Holloway yelped, his console throwing a dozen alarms.

Pilot, hard over!” Koshō snarled, punching the collision alarm glyph on her console. Then her stylus stabbed out, marking a new course in the ‘well.

“Thirty-nine seconds!”

Naniwa groaned from stem to stern, engines cutting out as the ship rotated, and then flaring as they slewed around into a new heading. Shedding velocity to make the turn, the battle cruiser was suddenly seconds ‘behind’ where the constant stream of Khaiden missiles expected her to be. Penetrators rained onto her newly exposed ‘roof’, their onboard comps triggering detonation. Hammerblows boomed across the shipskin, shredding tiles and overloading the thermocouples. Radiating fins splintered all across the Naniwa’s hull. Secondary plasma charges pierced the shipskin itself, blowing enormous gaps through to the secondary hull. Behind the plasma charge, the penetrator rounds themselves collided with the inner armor at tremendous speed. The triple-layer of armor mesh convulsed, trying to shed impact energy across the whole shipframe, but dozens of tiny ruptures punched through, spewing thermonuclear plasma into two compartments just fore of Engineering. Atmosphere vented, blowing out a chaff-cloud of debris.

“Multiple punctures,” Oc Chac bawled, “we’ve lost environment on decks nineteen and twenty. Four compartments compromised. I have a radiation fire in compartment eighty-one.”

Sho-sa, get your teams in,” Susan barked, “Pilot – get me some headway!”

Her engines intact, the Naniwa accelerated away on a sharply different vector. Koshō held her breath, watching her ship veer hideously close to the shimmering veils plotted on her ‘well.

In their cabin on six, Gretchen and Hummingbird were torn through their restraints and slammed hard against the wall. Gravity fluctuated violently for a microsecond and the comps ripped free as well, smashing into the walls, displays splintering into ruin. Bloody, one arm stabbing with terrible, blinding pain, Gretchen found herself pinned against the ceiling. Alarm claxons screamed and the bitter smell of burning insulation flooded the air. Crushed by a giant hand, Anderssen struggled to breathe. “Crow! Crow!”

Hummingbird was pinned as well, though his head lolled limply to one side.

Four hundred thousand kilometers behind the Naniwa, the pack of Khaiden ships reacted as well, shedding velocity to make an equally abrupt course change. Three of them managed this quite smartly, matching the battle cruiser’s relative angle. They continued to spit missiles at the Imperial ship, though their rate of fire slacked off sharply. The other five also made the turn, but too slowly. Their icons interpenetrated with the first of the veils plotted on Susan’s display and abruptly winked out.

“Score on goal,” Koshō breathed, only too aware of how close she’d come to blundering into the same fate. “Pilot, get me a new intercept to the Tlemitl!

Aboard the Firearrow, Xochitl grimaced as one of his Jaguar’s cut away the mangled wreckage of his shockchair. Flag Command was filled with smoke and guttering flames from a shipkiller impact which had torn through the secondary hull. Able to move once more, the Prince crawled free, shaking off bits of burning metal and fabric. Two of his bodyguards were down, along with most of the junior officers and ratings who had been at their stations.

“Raise damage control,” Xochitl ordered his exo. “Cuauhhuehueh Koris, status of the rest of your squad?”

“Only us in comm contact, Tlatocapilli.” The Jaguar Knight shook his head slowly. “I’m not getting a response from Command either.”

« Thai-sa Yoemon is dead », reported the exo. « Autonomic systems report that Main Command has lost environmental control due to a penetrator hit. No life signs remain in the compartment. »

Mains are down,” the Prince said aloud, replying to Koris. “Find me the secondary and let’s get moving.”

The intership comm channel was fuzzing with static, making even short-range conversations impossible. “Exo, what is this?”

« A Khaid disruptor bug has entered the ship via a penetrator. Internal communications on the regular channels will be impossible until the module is located and destroyed or damage control reroutes around the infection. »

“Find me a clear channel, then.”

The Jaguars were already moving, hustling the Prince out into the corridor. The hatchway tried to close behind them and stuck, flat streamers of black smoke oozing along the roof. A fire suppression system kicked in, flooding the hallway with foam. Xochitl wiped his faceplate clear and jogged on. The assistive mechanisms in his suit would let him run a long way without tiring.

Four decks away, Engineer Second Helsdon and two of his crew slipped pry bars behind the cover of a section of shattered comm conduit and wrenched hard. The cover tore away, revealing six meters of shredded, blackened crystal. Freezing wind, howling down the passageway from some hull rupture, pummeled their z-suits, laying down frost on every surface. Malcolm jammed a cutting tool behind the junction at his end of the conduit and popped the interface free – off to his right, the other two men were doing the same.

“Clear!” Two Jun-i hustled up, bearing a length of replacement crystal. They shoved the new conduit into place and Helsdon locked down his end, a hand-comp tucked into his elbow. A moment later, with diagnostic leads attached, he had a string of green lights on the status display. The circuit came back up with a few hiccups. “Done here,” he shouted. They’d manually switched to a little-used comm channel when the main network went down, but there was still interference. “On to the next.”

“Doubt if we have all the holes patched, Engineer.” One of the warrant officers remarked with a strained laugh.

“Yeah, only ten or twenty to go,” someone else’s voice came through the suit-to-suit line. “What now?”

“Wait one.” Helsdon grunted with exhaustion, thumbing through a succession of panes on his hand comp, the team crowded around him, faces expectant for the next task.

The battlesteel hatchway to Secondary Command cycled open and Xochitl and his Jaguars crowded in. The Sho-sa who had found himself commanding the dreadnaught when primary Command and Flag had gone off-line jerked around, his face ashy.

Tlatocapilli, I’m glad to see you! We’ve—”

“Out of the chair,” the Méxica lord seized the lieutenant commander by the arm and dragged him away from the command console. “You’re XO now – get me damage control back on line and report munitions inventory!”

The main threatwell was still functioning as Xochitl settled into the shockchair, taking stock of the situation. He’d been out of contact for nearly thirty minutes, but his exo jacked in to the main boards and the Prince saw the gun decks were still in operation, hammering away at the swarm of Khaiden battleships pacing the dreadnaught. The new battle-shields wavered in and out of existence, flaring bright with missile impacts.

« Forty percent coverage remaining », exo reported. « Launchers are at sixty percent, though four port-side are jammed. »

The Asama had fallen away behind, crippled and shuddering from secondary explosions deep in her core, crew bailing out in a cluster of shuttles and evac-capsules.

Xochitl waved his hand and the threatwell reconfigured; the myriad points of Imperial distress beacons vanished, leaving only the combatants.

“Lord Prince,” The Sho-sa ventured. “We have stowage to take them aboard—”

“Leave them,” Xochitl growled, his command console flickering with alternate course plots at a blinding rate. At main navigation, the Thai-i sitting at the station had drawn back, finding his v-panes and control displays no longer responding to his touch. Suddenly the alternates dropped away and the Prince nodded to himself. “New course by my mark, full power. We need breathing room!”

Engines thundering, the decking vibrating with a deep basso roar, Tlemitl charged away from the wrecked Asama, all surviving launchers and gun nacelles concentrated on two Khaid heavy cruisers which had drawn the unlucky course to stand in the Prince’s way. Both broke off, trying to change vector as multiple shipkillers slammed into their deflectors, breaking through to sear armor and shatter their engine rings. Undaunted, the Firearrow accelerated towards the Pinhole.

Three-quarters of a million kilometers behind the swirling firefight around the dreadnaught, Koshō grasped the Prince’s intent immediately. The Naniwa was already accelerating to join him, having shrugged aside the last of the lighter ships, but now the Khaid battleships had reformed, relocking their point-defense and fire control. Swift as harriers, they came hard on the chase and stood directly between the battle cruiser and the flagship. Thoughtful, Susan tapped up the channel to deck six.

Anderssen-sana, can you get me better telemetry?”

There was no response, only intermittent static and then a ‘cabin inhabitants are unavailable at this time’ message generated by shipboard comm. Face tight with dismay, Koshō switched channels.

Damage Control, Medical. Get teams to cabin nine on deck six, immediately!”

In the ‘well, her course and that of the Tlemitl were fast converging on the outer edge of the debris field from the Can. Beyond the wrecked station loomed the invisible passage of the Pinhole, though now Susan realized that even if the Scouts had found an opening – there was no surety it led anywhere save into a veil of threads which would gut her ship like a teppan-chef.

Comm, any response from the Flag?”

The comm officer shook her head, eyes huge. “Nothing, Chu-sa. She’s still moving and fighting, but I’ve no response from any shipside system, not even on identicast.”

Does he even see we’re here? Koshō discarded the thought. “Chu-i, you find me someone to talk to. If anyone can circumvent the Khaid jamming, the interference from the dust cloud and the radiation blaze from so many wrecked ships, you can.”

Hai, Chu-sa, hai!

Then she turned to Holloway and Oc Chac, who were heads down over the navigational console.

Sho-sa, can we get a reading on that Barrier? Anything?”

The Mayan shook his head. “Sensors show a clear field, save for the omnipresent dust. Only empty space beckons beyond the shattered dead.”

“Not good enough.” Susan tapped her fingers rapidly on the edge of her shockchair. “Get me an update from the medical team on six. Now.”

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