STARDANCER
Copyrightę2003 by Ed Howdershelt
ISBN 1-932693-16-5

Chapter One

    T'Mar was at his desk in the Consulate dispensary, handling what was left of a day's worth of filework, when the 'call waiting' block began to blink in blue in the lower right corner of his vid screen.
    Blinking red would have indicated an emergency; an injury or an illness. Blue was for intraoffice communications. It was probably just more of the bureaucratic garbage he'd encountered since taking the Consulate job.
    T'Mar sighed and let it blink as he finished cataloging the last few emigrant examination forms, then tapped the blinking block with a forefinger.
    "Yes?"
    The face on the screen was that of L'Nis, secretary to the Consul, herself. Her expression as she turned to face the vid screen made T'Mar wonder what he'd done.
    "Your presence is required in the Consul's office," she said. "Immediately."
    No greeting and no good-bye. She simply clicked off.
    T'Mar sat gazing thoughtfully at the screen for a moment. Was he in trouble of some sort? He couldn't imagine what he might have done to deserve so terse a summons. He'd only been on the planet for two weeks. Less, really. Twelve days.
    He mentally reviewed his work. Except for a few departees that he'd flagged as questionable and marked for further examinations, things had been rather routine.
    Certainly, it would have meant that a few people would have to delay their travel plans for a few days, but it was his job to screen Eiranian travelers, and because he was the new guy, he'd gone strictly by the book all the way.
    Maybe one of those travelers had friends in high places and had bitched about being delayed. Was he about to become a diplomatic sacrifice, fired for having done his job too well?
    There was an air of tense confusion in the hallways. As he passed one office, someone asked what was going on. He shook his head, shrugged, and kept walking.
    The Consul's huge office was packed with people when he arrived and squeezed into the room. When the big doors shut, Consul L'Tan stood up and one of her aides called the room to attention.
    She was a tall, solid-looking, reasonably attractive woman in her mid-forties, and her commanding demeanor was almost tangible. She had short hair and a jacket and skirt ensemble that could have been a uniform if it had only been the right color.
    Lady L'Tan was an appointee from one of the outworlds, he remembered. Retired military. Probably just putting in a few more years of government service to enhance her pension. Not retired long enough to know how to relate very well to civilian employees, in his opinion.
    More than one staffer had filed a grievance against her during her few months as Consul, and he suspected that each grievance was at least nominally deserved. He also expected that nothing short of a criminal offense would oust her. She had friends in very high places or she wouldn't be in the Consulate's big chair at all.
    After a moment of waiting for the assembly to finish quieting down, the Consul said, "Quiet!" and slammed a palm flat on her desk.
    Her palm made a sound like a shot and her voice was one that had trained combat troops. The room immediately fell silent.
    "I have some bad news, people. I've been quietly informed that we may - that's may - find ourselves in the midst of a religious revolution within two days. In case some of you are wondering, this situation is not my fault."
    She grinned wryly for a moment as the polite laughter subsided.
    "Evacuation preparations begin tonight. Families first, then personnel. By the book all the way. I want everybody inside the compound and ready to go by dawn. Some of you are military reservists and you may be active duty again by tomorrow, so get your affairs in order, just in case. That's it. Everyone not a department head may now go back to work and wait for orders. It's business as usual until I receive confirmation. By the way, no one is to leave the compound without permission or to mention anything about this to anyone who is not of this Consulate's people."
    T'Mar knew that Eirania had been a marginally civilized colony world for over two hundred cycles, supplying mostly a single energy-rich ore to the rest of the Confederated Worlds, and that the current regime had a penchant for modernization.
    He had also known of the local religiously oriented revolutionary movement, but no one had thought it to be capable of much more than acts of terrorism and rhetoric-laden anti-everything speeches.
    Without a family to consider and with no other instructions, T'Mar joined many others in the Consulate's dining hall to wait for further word. He found the atmosphere anxious and stifling, so he retired to his room to pack.
    T'Mar was awakened well before dawn by the fire alarm and someone running down the hall, beating on doors. He quickly dressed and grabbed his two bags and joined the throng in the hallway.
    Before he could reach the stairwell, a military guard there shouted, "There's no fire! No fire! We're evacuating the building! Use the elevators!"
    He could hear - and feel - explosions occurring elsewhere within the building as he trotted along the hallway with a small group of fellow evacuees.
    T'Mar turned with the others and headed back down the hallway. At the elevators there were other military guards who were separating people from their luggage.
    "One bag!" someone shouted. "Damn it, you people had the lecture and you know better! One bag! Essentials only! Hurry up!"
    T'Mar asked one of them what was going on as he shuffled a few things of supreme importance to him into one bag. The soldier had no time to talk. He was having to prod some people into cooperating with the 'one bag' requirement.
    The Captain yelled, "When an elevator arrives, you're either ready or you aren't. If you're not, all of your luggage stays here when you go."
    At the other end of the long hallway, an object thrown from the stairwell bounced off a wall and rattlingly rolled across the floor a short distance toward them.
    The soldier at the stairwell shouted, "Grenade! Grenade! Get down!" then he jumped down the stairs. Rifle fire and a scream, then silence, came from the stairwell.
    T'Mar dropped flat, then kicked the backs of the nearby legs of a woman who simply stood staring at the grenade. She managed to catch herself to a degree when she fell, but she fell pretty hard, anyway.
    The grenade was nearly fifty feet away. It exploded with a deafening 'bang', and some of those who'd been too slow to duck were hit by shrapnel.
    Two of the military people at the outskirts of the small crowd quickly piled up some luggage for cover and aimed their weapons down the hallway. They were quickly joined by the other two and T'Mar and some of the others also piled up luggage to form a low wall.
    The first Eiranians who appeared were mowed down, but others quickly replaced them. Screaming and firing at the group of escapees, the Eiranians flooded the other end of the hallway and then began the long run to reach their quarry.
    Although dozens fell to fire from the Captain's guard team, dozens more hurdled the bodies of the fallen and rushed forward. Another grenade landed near T'Mar.
    He side-arm threw it back at the attackers, and it sailed over the heads of those in front to detonate somewhere in the midst of the horde. Those injured or stunned were shoved aside or trampled by others who rushed forward.
    The gunfire was savagely intense for a few moments. Anyone foolish enough to even raise their heads too high above the luggage-revetment were cut down almost instantly.
    The luggage-wall didn't fare well against the gunfire. One of the soldiers soundlessly fell away from his firing position; some of his head was gone. The other soldiers continued firing rapidly at the onrushing horde as one of the Consulate employees pulled the body away and took his place at the barrier.
    The Eiranians were having to climb over their fallen comrades in order to continue their attack. This made those who did so easy targets, but there were so many of them that the Consulate guards were running low on ammunition.
    T'Mar opened the belt pouches of the dead guard and handed one of the four magazines he found to each of the men at the luggage wall, then went back to trying to help the wounded.
    The elevator on the left chimed and its doors opened. Those who could do so scrambled to get into it. Many were cut down by gunfire, but several made it inside.
    A fallen man's leg kept the doors from closing, and someone in the elevator tried to shove the body back out, but new holes appeared on the doors and the body, and the man fell away from his efforts.
    Apparently one or more of the attackers decided to focus his fire on the open elevator. The opening and closing doors were speckled with holes from top to bottom and there was silence in the elevator.
    One of the women on the floor near T'Mar had been hit in the arm. T'Mar pulled her with him as he crawled toward the other elevator doors. When that elevator arrived, he shoved her inside as soon as the doors opened, tossed his bag into the doorway to keep it open, and looked for others to pull into the elevator.
    Another woman was pulling a man toward the doors and T'Mar crawled to help them, risking a quick look at the situation beyond the luggage wall. A grenade slammed into his chest and bounced to the floor a few feet away.
    The Guard Captain dove to grab it and tossed it back at the onrushing horde, but his action cost him dearly. Several rounds struck his chest and head and he fell back to lie still.
    The grenade went off just down the hall, killing and wounding untold numbers of the advancing revolutionaries, but it also ripped a large gap in far end of the luggage wall.
    Neither of the soldiers at the wall was firing and the remaining soldier was screaming about his eyes as he tried to sit up. He was flayed by incoming fire.
    T'Mar slithered backwards into the elevator as rounds dug up the floor in front of his face, then tried to see if he could reach the woman. She lay staring and still, so he looked for anyone else nearby.
    A man who seemed otherwise unable to move reached with his good arm for one of the rifles and shoved it into the elevator with a grin that might have been no more than a rictus of agony at the effort.
    "That's...my...wife in there. Help her...?"
    T'Mar nodded and pulled the rifle completely into the elevator.
    Another grenade landed, and the man reached for it and struggled to tumble it back over what was left of the luggage wall. T'Mar frantically yanked his bag out of the elevator's doorway and hunkered against a sidewall as the doors closed.
    The doors had closed and the elevator had begun its descent when an explosion buckled the tops of the doors inward. The elevator halted with a grinding jerk, then something near the top of the doorway loudly ripped free and descent continued.
    The woman in the elevator made a small gasping sound, then toppled slowly to her right and lay still. T'Mar hurried to her and found that she'd been hit in the back, as well. Of the fifty or so people who had been massed to escape, he alone had survived.
    He didn't know where he was going, other than down, and he didn't know what sort of reception awaited him when the elevator stopped. T'Mar picked up the rifle and dropped the magazine out. He could see that it contained at least four rounds.
    T'Mar slapped the magazine back into the rifle and propped it on top of his bag to aim it at the door from a prone position.

Chapter Two

    When the elevator stopped, the doors had trouble opening, but they slid back enough that he was able to shove his bag into the gap. As he scooted forward to reposition his rifle's muzzle slightly beyond the doors, he quickly scanned outside to see where he was and who might be waiting for him.
    He saw nothing in the poorly lighted area beyond the door. No one. Easing forward a bit, he peered as far as he dared to each side. He was in the lowest level of the Consulate; the vehicle storage area.
    When he continued to see and hear nothing, he eased the bag forward and slid himself through the doors behind it. The doors immediately closed and the elevator began moving upward. Nowhere to retreat.
    T'Mar cautiously stood up, looked around again, then picked up his bag and headed toward the line of flitters. He knew how to operate one of the big, boxy vehicles well enough to at least get the hell away from the building. The problem would be getting it out of the building.
    The big door at the surface end of the ramp was closed, of course. Whether it would require human operation or not he didn't know. Ordinarily an incoming or outgoing flitter would identify itself and that would be enough, but with all the...
    A harsh whisper came from his left.
    "Stop right there. Put the rifle down. Set it on your bag."
    T'Mar froze. As the adrenalin pumped hard through him, he considered...
    "Don't," said the voice. "I can take your head off at this range."
    A woman? He glanced left and saw her shadowy outline where she aimed at him over the cowling of a flitter, not fifty feet away. It was a shot that he felt he could have made easily, and he hadn't touched a rifle in two years. She'd have to be a very poor shot to miss.
    "You're with the Consulate," he said. "So am I."
    T'Mar lowered the rifle on his bag, then stood back up. The woman stepped from the shadows and approached him cautiously to within ten feet or so. She wore a military dress uniform and had Captain's bars on her collar and an energy rifle in her hands that was aimed at him. Except for the E-rifle, he noted, she was rather attractive.
    "Name?" she asked.
    "T'Mar-Sen. I work here. Emigrations and dispensary."
    "Prove it. One hand only. The other stays up."
    T'mar reached into his shirt pocket carefully for his Consulate ID tag and held it out to her.
    "On the floor. Slide it over here."
    He did so, kneeling to slide the tag to her. She stopped it with her foot. After kneeling to pick it up and checking his picture with his face, she slid it back to him and stood up, still covering him.
    "How'd you get your hands on a guard's rifle?"
    He told her in fair detail what had happened on the fourth floor. She nodded, gazed at him silently for another couple of moments, then let the muzzle of her rifle drop.
    She said, "They jammed all communications and flooded the place with troops. That report sounded military. What rank were you and what did you do?"
    "Sergeant-6. Medic, gunner, clerk, and ambulance driver. Who are you?"
    "Captain L'Sil. Communications. What's left in that rifle?"
    "Four rounds. Maybe five."
    "We only carry those indoors. I have two of these E-rifles. The other one's in that flitter behind me. Can you pilot a flitter?"
    "Yes."
    "Good. You take one and I'll take one and maybe one of us will get to the docks."
    T'Mar pointed at the garage entrance. The big blast doors were shut.
    "What about those doors?"
    "Blast doors are made to keep things out. If they won't open automatically, we'll send one of the flitters at them at full speed. They'll open."
    She was about to say more, but a sound at the other end of the garage made her almost dive back behind a flitter. T'Mar grabbed his bag and rifle and followed her as quickly as possible.
    They watched anxiously as someone emerged from the doorway, keeping low, and scooted behind a pillar. Seconds later, the figure quietly ran to the shelter of another pillar. After a short time, the figure moved to the next pillar in line.
    Both T'Mar and L'Sil silently kept their rifles aimed at the figure as it grew closer.
    "T'Mar," whispered L'Sil, "I've got him. You cover the door. Where there's one, there may be more. Hold your fire for the moment. They've rushed groups into everywhere else. These may be some of our people."
    He nodded and covered the door. Sure enough, another dark figure slipped to the first pillar, then to the second, as the first figure continued forward. As the figure advanced again, he saw that she was a woman and tapped L'Sil's shoulder.
    "The revolutionaries are religious fanatics. They don't have any female troops."
    "I know," said L'Sil. She raised her voice slightly and said, "Hold it right there, please. Identify yourselves."
    There was silence for a moment, then a soft chuckle.
    "Please? You first," said the woman. "Who are you?"
    "Captain L'Sil, Lady L'Tan. I recognize your voice."
    "Then show yourself. Please."
    L'Sil stepped out from behind the flitter, her rifle at port arms. From behind the pillar stepped the imposingly tall form of Lady L'Tan, Head of the Consulate. Her rifle was not at port arms until after she'd taken a good look at L'Sil.
    "Good to see you, Captain. Who's your friend?"
    T'mar said, "T'Mar-Sen, ma'am. I work in your dispensary."
    L'Sil said, "He's ex-military, ma'am. Medic and gunner."
    "Nobody's ex-military today, Captain. Glad you're both here. We'll need fifteen flitters linked to convoy. I have a hundred and fifty or so passengers with me."
    She turned and waved behind her, then said, "Corporal L'Kes, bring them down here. Hurry."
    The other figure stepped from behind her pillar and said, "Yes, ma'am," then headed back to the stairwell.
    L'Sil said, "A hundred and fifty? That'll take at least twenty flitters, ma'am."
    "Most of them are women and children, Captain. There'd have been more, but the bastards tossed grenades into the auditorium. Enough talk. Get the flitters linked and ready to go while we bring them down here."
    L'Sil ran from flitter to flitter, keying them in sequence and accepting default convoy parameters. The flitters lifted, one by one, and lined up behind each other.
    Moments later, the garage was filled with running children, herded along by their mothers and teachers, and half a dozen wounded men and women.
    L'Tan said, "Everybody get on a flitter, sit down, and shut up! T'Mar! L'Sil! Put as many as possible on the flitters and start in the middle of the line. The two flitters on each end stay empty, and the third one from the front is my command flitter. At least one adult in each flitter. T'Mar and L'Sil, you're flying with me."
    T'Mar yelled acknowledgment and waved, then set about packing people tightly into each flitter. L'Sil finished starting flitters and came back to help. As soon as everybody was aboard, L'Tan stepped over to start a non-convoy flitter and aimed it at the doors, then jumped aboard the command flitter with T'Mar and L'Sil.
    L'Tan pointed at the lone flitter and yelled, "Everybody! We'll follow that flit out of here and head to the docks to board the Alliance. We should be in the air less than five minutes."
    L'Tan stabbed the remote activation pad and the lone flitter headed past them for the blast doors under full power. She counted to two, then stabbed the pad again. Children and some of the adults screamed as the entire convoy launched forward and gathered speed as it streamed toward the tiny-seeming blast doors.
    The first flitter slammed into the doors like a huge fist, jettisoning its engine module on impact and crumpling into a wad of metal as it shoved the left door completely out of its track and twisted the right door backward in a severe lean toward the outside.
    The right door might have continued to lean if it had been blown inward, but there was nothing to brace it, and it fell flat only a split second before the lead flitter of the convoy passed over it.
    Surprisingly, there was only sporadic fire from the ground as the convoy arched upward at half the speed of sound. L'Tan had expected much worse, and had expected to see other flitters above the Consulate to prevent flying escapes.
    There were only three such flitters, and they were caught completely off-guard, losing valuable seconds as they maneuvered to chase the convoy.
    L'Tan grinned at T'Mar and L'Sil.
    "They thought they had the place bottled up and might have to chase down a couple of stragglers. Those are civilian flitters. They can't catch us, but knock 'em down anyway."
    As L'Sil and T'Mar picked off the pilots of the Eiranian flitters, L'Tan tapped on her pad and one flitter from each end of the convoy unlinked to take up positions perhaps a mile to each side of the convoy.
    T'Mar said, "The Alliance is probably under attack, too. What's she going to think of our convoy? We can't call them, L'Tan."
    L'Tan picked up her rifle and set it to lowest power and widest dispersal.
    "I can flash a distress code at them with this. Their Tactical people will see it on their boards. Have I missed anything?"
    T'Mar shook his head. L'Sil said, "I hope not."
    As they approached the half-mile wide ball that was the Alliance, they could see that she was, indeed, under attack. L'Tan set the convoy to circle at a distance and began flashing code with her rifle. After two orbits, she set the rifle down.
    "They want to take the Alliance in one piece, but I think they're getting worried," she said, pointing at the flit's screen. "Three more flitters are inbound at thirty miles. Two armored vehicles are approaching from the city. Watch this."
    She detailed one the side-following flitters to strike the armored vehicles. As it descended in a rather flat trajectory, it took a punishing amount of fire from below, but since its trajectory had already been set and its engines turned off, the armored vehicles might as well have been shooting at a huge falling rock.
    The flitter - hampered not at all by ground fire - impacted on the lead armored vehicle at nearly twice the speed of sound. One gigantic blast and then a smaller one from the second armored vehicle obliterated the immediate area and deeply cratered the road to the docks.

Chapter Three

    L'Tan seemed to come to a decision as she gazed at the sensor screen.
    "You two get everybody aboard the Alliance. I'll try to squash some of this ground fire, then see about the incoming flitters. I don't think they'll come into range of the Alliance's guns, but it's hard to be sure with religious crazies. As soon as all of our flitters are empty, send them up to me."
    She brought the remaining side-following flitter to within a few inches of their convoy flitter, slowed all the flitters considerably, and fought the slipstream as she carefully stepped across the small gap.
    Tapping her pad, L'Tan took control of the lead and tail empty flitters and made them form up on hers, then turned control of the convoy over to L'Sil. With a wave, she aimed her four flitters at the scene below.
    Two men entrenched with a heavy E-rifle behind some machinery looked up in time to see their doom approaching. L'Tan let the other flitters fly over the building as she took her own into the narrow chasm between the building and the machinery without slowing down in the least.
    The two men tried to bring their gun around to aim at her, but it was far too late for that. The nose and fuselage of L'Tan's flitter literally flattened the two revolutionaries against the machinery and the ground. The broad trail of sparks that had followed her through the narrow passage was only briefly interrupted.
    "She's crazy!" said L'Sil. "It's a wonder she has any flitter left. Why the hell didn't she use one of the empty ones for that maneuver?"
    T'Mar quietly said, "She needed the personal touch. They've really pissed her off this morning."
    L'Sil looked at him oddly, then turned to watch L'Tan.
    T'Mar said nothing else as he watched L'Tan climb out of her attack.
    L'Tan banked to aim at another pair of attackers, but they'd seen what had happened to her first targets. When the nose of her flitter came at them, they dropped their weapons and fled.
    Using the other flitters as cover around her, L'Tan stopped long enough to hop down and grab their rifles, then nosed back into the sky. She quickly programmed one flitter to remain between her and the incoming flitters and the other two to stay between her and the ground forces, then began picking off the attackers by leaning out and firing down at them between the flitters below her.
    Many of the attackers tried to knock her out of the sky, but many fled, as well. L'Tan kept firing until one rifle was exhausted, then she threw it at a pair of the men below. One of the men had the misfortune to be where the rifle landed.
    As L'Tan held most of the attackers' attention, L'Sil guided the convoy in close to the Alliance and ordered everyone into the big ship as several lower ports opened for them. Using the flitters as cover, they raced toward the open portals.
    T'Mar stayed aboard the command flitter and fired back until nothing happened when he tapped the trigger button. He quickly threw the rifle away and picked up L'Sil's rifle, risking a glance at her progress toward the ship.
    Four of the adults had been hit, as well as several of the children. However good a plan, there were just too many people running for the ship, and some were bound to fall prey to the beams lancing toward them from the docks.
    L'Sil scrambled among the runners to see if any of the wounded were still alive. Only one child still lived; a boy had been hit in the leg. She grabbed his arm and hoisted him up to keep him moving toward the ship, but the boy soon collapsed.
    T'Mar fired a few more times at a couple of carelessly exposed targets, set the flitters for a ten-second delay before lifting, then jumped off and ran to help L'Sil haul the boy to the Alliance. He grabbed the boy's other arm as he passed them and the two of them literally dragged the small boy aboard the ship at a dead run.
    T'Mar didn't know the rank of the man who met them in the bay, but the man turned to a wall intercom and calmly said, "The children are aboard. Close all ports. All batteries open fire. Clean the area. Repeat: Clean the area."
    The lighter guns of the Alliance had only been fighting a holding action in order to allow time for Consulate personnel to find a way to safety. The daylight outside the viewports suddenly became about ten times brighter as the great ship's big batteries opened up at the dock and surrounding hostiles at point-blank range.
    The guns fired for only a few moments, then were still. T'Mar watched the vid screen on the wall clear and refocus itself. For thousands of paces around the ship, T'Mar saw nothing taller than a few inches. Concrete and steel structures were gone, and what hadn't vaporized had melted and run like hot wax.
    A huge chunk of the sea wall that had sheltered revolutionaries from Alliance's smaller weapons' fire was missing altogether, along with the revolutionaries that had been hunkered behind it. A thousand feet or so of the raised-platform docking station had disappeared in all directions in the holocaust.
    There was hardly any debris; energy weapons tend to leave little behind. The officer patted the bulkhead and softly said, "Thank you, ma'am," then he walked over to L'Sil.
    "Any more flitters coming in, Captain? Is the flitter pilot coming back down here or is he thinking of saving us all by himself?"
    L'Sil said, "The pilot is Lady L'Tan. She's in one of the flitters that flew our defense and she told us to send the flitters up to her when they were empty. I don't know what she's doing now."
    The guy's eyes widened momentarily, then he rushed to the intercom and said, "Captain! I think Stardancer is in one of the flitters upstairs!"
    "Stardancer? But she's... Are you sure?!"
    "Sure enough, sir. The name's right. Communications are still jammed. We can't tell her to get back down here."
    "Damn. Secure the bay and get back to the bridge."
    "But, sir..."
    "Move it! Tac says there's a shielded nuke on the way. We're clearing port now."
    T'Mar saw the ground move away and realized that 'clearing port' meant to lift off. A shielded nuke? That meant that the energy weapons of the Alliance wouldn't be able to touch it until it was too damned close.
    L'Sil ran to catch the officer and grabbed his shirt as she screamed at him.
    "You can't leave her out there!"
    The officer said, "I can't do anything about it, either. Let go of me, Captain."
    An amplified voice filled the hall and the docking bay.
    "All hands, brace for impact in two minutes, forty seconds."
    The officer said, "Get your people flat on the deck and find something to hang onto. I have to go now."
    He ungently disconnected her hands from his shirt and stepped into one of the lifts, then was gone. L'Sil ran back to the horde of children in the bay.
    "Down! Flat! Everybody down now!"
    L'Tan saw the incoming object on her flitter's screen and realized what it had to be. The flitters above were maintaining their distance from the Alliance; if they'd had any ideas about closing in, they'd have lost them instantly when the big guns wiped the oceanfront clean for nearly a mile in all directions.
    L'Tan brought up the nav computer screen and tapped out a request for coordinates for interceptions according to data available, which was still sketchy at best.
    After programming her flitters and sending them on their way, she headed in exactly the opposite direction at maximum speed. There would be a nuclear explosion, whether one of her flitters blew the nuke or the nuke hit the Alliance. She didn't truly expect to outrun the blast, but it seemed worth a try.
    On the bridge of the Alliance, Captain T'Var said, "Tac, send our heaviest probe at the missile. Set it to self-destruct one mile from target."
    "Yes, sir. It may not be enough to breach the shield, sir."
    "I know. Will you have time to load and launch a second probe?"
    "No, sir. I'll barely have time to get this one out there."
    A moment later, the Tac commander said, "Captain, Stardancer just sent a dozen flitters at the nuke and turned tail. She and the others are going better than Mach 4 in both directions."
    "Thank you, Commander. She's one step ahead of us."
    "Probe launched, Captain."
    The Captain turned to his helm officer and said, "Follow her. Put the Alliance between her and the nuke and get us in close to her as fast as possible. I know what she's doing."
    The Ensign set the course as ordered, then asked, "Pardon, Captain, but what can a bunch of flitters do? That nuke is going to swat them out of the way and keep coming at us. They won't even slow it down, sir."
    "Those are military flitters, Ensign. Civilian flits can't even do Mach 2, and they don't have a destruct code to keep them out of enemy hands. What's more, their engines are designed to haul tons, not just instrument packages. Her flitters have a chance against that nuke's shield. Now, you just get us in so tight she can kiss our hull. Let me worry about the other stuff and keep trying to contact her. Maybe when we're closer we can cut through the jamming."
    "Yes, sir."
    The Ensign had the Alliance within ten feet of L'Tan's flitter when the string of flitters well behind them began exploding, one after the other, as their small fusion engines went critical. The seventh one caught the incoming missile and the probe in its explosion.
    The probe simply disappeared in the flitter explosion. The missile's shields glowed with resistance, then collapsed, which triggered its own explosion.
    L'Tan had turned her flitter nose-up and plastered it to the leading surface of the Alliance, then turned its fields up to maximum opacity.
    She then flattened her seat and watched her screen as her string of flitters began detonating in the path of the oncoming missile.
    Flitters eight, nine, ten, and eleven exploded in the path of the much larger nuclear blast that instantly expanded around them and annihilated numbers twelve and thirteen before those flitters could self-destruct.
    Maybe the smaller blasts of the others even served to slightly blunt the devastating force that overtook the Alliance and the flitter she was trying to protect.
    "Stardancer, Stardancer, respond, please. Stardan..."
    "I hear you, Alliance. Stop yelling. Call me later if we have one."
    The sky brightened beyond the display capabilities of L'Tan's vid screen and she imagined that she could see it happen around the flitter, as well, although she knew that was virtually impossible through her protective field.
    Seconds later the shockwave that was transmitted through the Alliance's hull kicked the flitter off the hull in a high arc. It was all the flitter's automatic systems could do to cushion the blow enough to keep her passenger alive as the flitter tried to regain control and slow down.
    One by one those systems burned out, sacrificing themselves for their pilot, until all that was left was the tiny reserve system intended for basic life support.
    As the flitter fell from the sky, the reserve computer came on-line, saw that controlled flight was beyond hope, and estimated when to deploy the remaining power in a field effect, opting to simply try to cushion the impact of landing.

Chapter Four

    The Alliance had been above fifty thousand feet and climbing fast when the nuke exploded. The massive ship was knocked back down to ten thousand feet in the blink of an eye.
    Her power, previously altogether engaged in lifting, automatically rerouted itself to the gargantuan task of engaging a protective field throughout the ship's interior to safeguard her crew.
    As the stasis effect faded, the helmsman snapped to and scanned his board, noting that all engines were into the danger zone as the ship struggled to save itself and its crew.
    "Nine thousand feet, sir. We're still going down. Eight thousand. Seven. Six. Five thousand feet. Sir, she's lifting again! Six thousand. Seven. Eight."
    The Ensign checked his boards again and said, "Captain, the flitter is gone!"
    "Worry about us first, Ensign. In thirty years of service, I've never heard a ship ring like a bell before. Damage report?"
    "None of the sensors on the nuke side are working at all, sir. We won't know until we can go out there. Internal sensors are reading dangerously high levels of radiation three decks deep on that side. Sixty-one dead or missing in quadrant three so far..."
    "Ensign! I can't use that right now. Can we stay in the air? What else is coming at us? Give me the other stuff when we've got time for it."
    "Yes, sir. Engines are undamaged. Clear skies. No other launches detected."
    "Fine! Now, where's Stardancer?"
    "Twenty-eight miles ahead at fifty thousand and falling, sir."
    "Get us there now, Ensign."
    "Anticipated, Captain. We're at our best possible atmospheric speed now, sir."
    "Get us there in ten seconds, Ensign. Get us under her."
    The Ensign paled slightly and turned to look at his Captain.
    "Ten seconds?! Inside an atmosphere? That's against..."
    The Captain drew his sidearm, pointed it at the helmsman, and said, "I won't tell you again, Ensign. Under her, right now."
    Six seconds later the Captain said, "Good. Excellent. Extend a field through the ship's axis and let her down easy on the hull."
    He tapped the Q2 button on his console.
    "Two! Get topside quick for a flitter pilot. She just saved our lives. Let me know as soon as she's inside. We're going up from here."
    "I'm already on it, sir. I saw what you were doing and opened bay two. I'll have the flitter inside in a few seconds."
    T'Var said, "Good job, Two," and tapped his console again.
    "Sickbay, get a crash team to quad bay two. Expect high radiation levels. If that pilot dies, you may as well jump off while you're up there and save me some trouble."
    "Yes, sir. Leaving now. Tac said that Stardancer was here."
    "You heard right. We're probably alive because of her."
    He punched sickbay and the bridge recorder off at the same time and turned back to face the helmsman.
    "That's how it works, Ensign. I say it and you do it. If you ever question me during combat again, I'll shoot you and run your board myself until your replacement arrives. Do you understand me?"
    The Ensign said, "Yes, sir."
    "What's a Captain's first duty, son?"
    "I... ah... The ship, sir?"
    "That's right. It's the same as yours, Ensign. The ship. I'm not going to order you to do something that can't be fixed later. I'm also not going to mention our little incident in the log unless you make me."
    "Sir?"
    "You may think that you may want to mention what just happened between us when we get clear of all this. If you do, your career will be over. Nobody will want a rat on their deck and I'll damned well make a new career of ending your career if you threaten mine. That's as simple as it gets, Ensign. What's your answer?"
    The Ensign looked at the Tac officer, who simply stared back at him with a stone face. No sympathy there. He looked back at the Captain.
    "I don't think I'll be talking about it, sir."
    "Good. Ensign, those rules about atmospheric speeds were written six decades ago to prevent a ship's externals from being ripped off at high speeds. We'd just lost any externals to the nuke, and I flatly didn't care if other bits of us fell off. The people below are dead; they were killed by their own damned nuke."
    The Captain gazed steadily at the Ensign as he punched the bridge recorder button again and said, "... And damn it, I wish they'd put this recorder button on the side, or somedamnwhere completely away from all the others. Thanks for noticing that the light was off, Ensign. They ought to move that, too, maybe - oh, let's see, now - how about to where the guy who sits in the damned chair can see it, too? Wouldn't that be a great idea?"
    "Uh... Yes, sir. I guess so, sir."
    "Damned right. Damn all half-assed dimwit designers who don't have to live with their screwups. Check the regs later and see if there's any reason we can't redesign this console a little. The next guy can get his own damned chair."
    "Uh, yes, sir," said the Ensign, smiling broadly. "First chance I get, sir."
    "Good, son. Real good. Now get us into high orbit and contact HQ."
    L'Tan woke the first time in a darkened room. The smell told her she was in a medical facility, but she had no idea whose facility.
    Oh, well, I'm alive. That's a plus.
    Ancillary medications helped her go back to sleep.
    The room was still darkened the second time she woke, but she had an urge that couldn't be ignored. After discovering to her horror that her legs didn't seem to work, she groped painfully for a light on the stand by the bed.
    She tried to draw a breath to yell for help, but that proved to be a mistake. A pain lanced through her back and into her chest that left her gasping tearfully.
    Finding no light and no way to call for assistance, she simply started pushing things off the table every fifteen seconds or so. The water pitcher hit hard enough to make some noise and bounced satisfactorily. She was about to push the table, itself, over when the door opened and a nurse poked her head in cautiously.
    She turned on the lights and said, "There's a call button clipped to your pillow."
    "Didn't find it," croaked L'Tan. "Help me up. I need to use the bathroom."
    "No," said the nurse, approaching the bed. "Stay put and I'll get you a bedpan."
    "I don't want to use a pan."
    The nurse started to lift the sheet to place the bedpan. L'Tan swatted at it.
    "I told you I don't want to use a damned pan."
    "And I told you that you aren't getting out of bed. Now let me do my job before you have wet sheets."
    The two women glared at each other for a couple of moments, but L'Tan's urge grew implacable, so she gave in to the nurse.
    A few minutes later, feeling vastly relieved, L'Tan said, "Sorry I gave you a hard time. If I couldn't see my legs, I couldn't be sure I had any. Half the reason I wanted to get up was to prove to myself that I'm not crippled."
    "I've seen it before. Let me see if I can find a doctor, now that you're awake."
    The nurse marched out in that quick-step style that all nurses seem to adopt sooner or later. A couple of minutes passed before a man walked into the room.
    Smiling broadly, he said, "Well, hello," - he consulted his chart, then continued unctuously - "Patient 491586. I'm your doctor. How are we this evening?"
    "We're in a lot of pain, our doctor thinks our name is a number, and we can't get out of bed. Evening?"
    "Evening. Your second evening with us, in fact. We feel rather privileged to have you aboard, Lady L'Tan."
    "Well, good for you. Why don't my legs work?"
    The doctor pulled the only chair in the room next to the bed and sat down.
    "You have a bruise about the size and shape of a flitter seat on your back. Your spine was stretched, strained, and battered senseless, but nothing's broken. We think that your numbness is probably only temporary."
    L'Tan held back tears and croaked, "Probably? Wonderful. Anything else?"
    The doctor took her hand, kissed the back of it, and said, "Yes, ma'am. Quite a lot, really. You saved everyone aboard, and we're profoundly grateful to you."
    L'Tan just stared at him, her tears momentarily forgotten. No one but foppish dignitaries had kissed her hand for more than a decade. This man looked as if he didn't make such gestures casually.
    "Uh... Well, you're welcome. Would it be possible to see the Captain?"
    The doctor grinned hugely.
    "The Captain has been hounding me day and night to be told the moment you wake up. I could probably have him here in five minutes or less, but maybe you'd like a few minutes to freshen up first? I'll send in the nurse to help."
    He almost dashed out of the room.
    'Help?' wondered L'Tan. 'What kind of help..?'
    She found out what kind of help. It quickly became a major, painful effort simply to lift her arms above her chest repeatedly. The nurse helped her brush her teeth and comb her hair, then asked if she'd like a touch of makeup. L'Tan laughed aloud at that.
    "This isn't a date. Let's skip the makeup."
    "In that case, I think you're ready to meet the Captain. Do you need the pan again, or anything like that?"
    "No, thanks. Captains aren't that scary to me. I'm ready. Bring him in."
    The nurse left and moments later a balding, middle-aged man whose face looked a bit older than his years walked in. He strode to the bed, his hand extended to her, and she tried to conceal the ache in her arm when she took it.
    "Hello, Stardancer. We thought we'd seen the last of you when you took that desk job. Thanks for saving my ship, by the way."
    "Oh, you're quite welcome, T'Var. Did I really save the Alliance, or would you have managed without me?"
    T'Var shook his head and grinned.
    "Our own best hope was an exploding probe, so skip the modesty, please. We're battered and burned, but still flying, L'Tan. Quad three is beyond salvage. It's radioactive scrap. My Tac man thinks that the extra twenty miles you gave us made all the difference, so I hope you're ready for some adulation later."
    "Not really. It hurts to even shake hands with someone. Maybe much later. Where are we?"
    Captain T'Var turned the chair slightly and sat down tiredly.
    "We're in high orbit around Eirania. They've made a few efforts to hit us, but the Alliance can handle whatever other primitive crap they can toss up here. Shield generators are heavy gadgets; they can't put a shielded missile all the way up here that we can't easily avoid. HQ told us to stay put for now, but didn't say why. No ships are to leave Eirania. They're being sanctioned."
    "They could field other ships for station duty and they know you took heavy damage, so there must be another reason we're still here, T'Var."
    "I'm sure there is, but they didn't mention it."
    "Speculate for me. What do you think would make them keep you here?"
    "One thing, obviously; we're able to keep any ships from leaving, but none have tried to leave. Not even the commercial ones."
    L'Tan considered matters for a moment.
    "Do you have any Eiranians on board? Any at all?"
    "None. The last one left the Alliance an hour before all hell broke loose. He was that brother-in-law to their Defense Minister."
    "Did any of them leave anything behind? Have you searched their quarters thoroughly?"
    "No. They were quartered in quad three, and three took all the radiation and damage from the nuke. If they left anything in there, it's cooked by now. What are you getting at, L'Tan?"
    L'Tan debated whether to tell him what she knew, then decided that he was the man on the spot and deserved to know as much as reasonably possible.
    "The Eiranians are suspected of developing new pathogens, T'Var. The kinds used in germ warfare. That's one of the reasons I was assigned to the Consulate. We were trying to find out if the suspicions had any merit."
    The Captain sat very still for a moment. "And..?"
    "A few of our people came up with a few things, but nothing solid."
    T'Var frowned as he added things up.
    "That makes it sound as if HQ is keeping us here to see if we're infected. We're as quarantined as the planet."
    "Probably. It would make sense to do that, wouldn't it? Telling you about a plague on an open comm channel could start a panic, and you have to assume that no comm channel is truly secure. Have you contacted anyone other than HQ?"
    Captain T'Var stood up and reached to touch her hand again.
    "No, but I'm about to. Is there anything you need, L'Tan? Anything I can send down here? Anyone you want to talk to?"
    "Nothing I can think of at the moment, T'Var. I'd like to see the two who flew with me, though. T'Mar and L'Sil."
    "I'll have them delivered shortly, Stardancer. Thank you for everything."
    She smiled at him and he left for the bridge at a brisk pace. Soon afterwards, she heard the ship-wide intercom.
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