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Billions of years before, a star much like the one humans called Sol had formed, nuclear fires igniting to warm a bevy of planets, asteroids, and comets orbiting its mass. Millions of years ago, the star, its fuel dwindling, had gone nova, hurling its outer layers into space and ravaging the worlds that had once orbited it. No longer a nuclear furnace, the star still glowed with bright white light created by the heat of its collapse into a sphere the size of a world like Earth. Over the course of another billion years, the star would expend that heat and gradually cool.
Humanity arrived, in ships that needed the mass of stars to create jump points allowing those ships to cross light years of distance in a few weeks. The star was given a name, Jatayu, but with only a few battered rocks still circling it, humans went onward to other stars that still warmed worlds where men and women could find new homes. Jatayu was nothing but a waypoint, a place the ships of humans had to go through to get to places they wanted to go.
But one day some humans came to stay. They brought a small outpost that they placed in orbit about the white dwarf star and claimed ownership of Jatayu.
Billions of years after its birth, war followed humanity to the small, bright star.
"Leaving jump space at Jatayu in five . . . four . . . three . . ."
Commodore Erik Hopkins, formerly of Earth Fleet, braced himself for the familiar disorientation and dizziness that accompanied a drop out of jump space. He wasn't otherwise worried. Freedom of Space Navigation Operation. There was a checklist for that, and every item had been checked off. The destroyer Claymore, originally known as the Garibaldi when she was part of Earth Fleet, was at Standard Alert Condition Two, just as mandated by the checklist. The freighter they were escorting would come out of jump space behind Claymore, and they would proceed through Jatayu Star System, breaking the unofficial blockade of Glenlyon Star System. It had all been planned out.
Scatha Star System had claimed control of Jatayu, a claim without legal merit but one that Scatha might try to enforce against any unescorted freighter. With other star systems within reach of Glenlyon either claimed or controlled by Scatha, or by its partners in strong-arming their neighbors, Apulu Star System and Turan Star System, trade between Glenlyon and the rest of human space had been choked off. Glenlyon faced the alternatives of either fighting or submission, but, unwilling to make that stark choice, had instead decided on trying to call what it hoped was a bluff by Scatha.
Which was where Claymore and Commodore Hopkins came in. He wasn't worried about the outcome. Earth Fleet had had a checklist for everything, and checklists for the checklists. That was how Earth Fleet got things done, and Commodore Hopkins had risen to rank by making sure he adhered to those checklists. There wasn't much left of Earth Fleet anymore, mainly the men and women still tasked with decommissioning the last remaining warships, archiving the remaining data and records, and preparing to turn out the last lights and lock the last doors. Hopkins himself, along with the great majority of the crew and the Claymore herself, had been declared surplus years ago and been forced to find new employment out among the new worlds being rapidly settled far from Earth. Glenlyon had been a decent place to work with, but Hopkins and most of the crew still thought of themselves as being from Earth rather than their new home, and Hopkins still ran everything by the rules that Earth Fleet had once lived by.
As the destroyer left jump the formless, bland gray of jump space vanished from the displays on Claymore's bridge, suddenly replaced by the familiar star-spangled black of normal space. One of those white dots was the star Jatayu itself, only a speck from the jump point five light hours away where Claymore had arrived. Velocity couldn't be measured in jump space, but back in normal space Claymore was only traveling at point zero two light speed, a crawl for a warship, because of the need to stay close to the plodding freighter she was escorting.
Dizzy from the drop out of jump space, Hopkins was still trying to focus on the display before his command seat when Claymore shuddered, then jolted as if a giant had slammed a hammer against her hull. Alarms blared throughout the ship.
"Situation!" ordered Captain Kanda Shade, commanding officer of the Claymore, as she also tried to shake off the disorientation.
"We're under attack!" the weapons watch officer reported. "Two opponents. Tentative ID-"
Claymore jerked again, hard. More alarms sounded.
"Shield failure amidships! Hull breaches in two compartments!"
Hopkins finally forced his eyes into focus, staring at his display. There were the two attackers, who must have been waiting at the jump exit for Claymore. And right behind Claymore was the freighter Bruce Monroe, having just left jump space as well.
"Attackers are a Sword Class destroyer and a Founders Class destroyer."
Hopkins opened his mouth to issue an order but hesitated.
The relevant checklists had automatically appeared on his display. When Attacked By Superior Numbers, the first item demanded "Accelerate at Full." But the list for Freedom of Navigation Operations had a block for "Maintain Close Escort of Freighter(s)." One list demanded that he order Claymore to accelerate at full, but the other demanded that he stay close to the Bruce Monroe.
Claymore jerked again.
"Another hit amidships! We've lost Particle Cannon One!"
"Shields at full!" Commander Shade ordered from her own checklist. "Main propulsion-" She paused, staring at her display where the other two checklists offered the same incompatible choices. "Commodore?"
Hopkins shook his head, wracked by indecision. "I don't- We can't-"
Two more jolts. "Main propulsion down by thirty percent! Shields have collapsed!"
The Commodore frowned at his display. Follow the checklists. He knew he had to follow the checklists. "We have to . . ." He looked helplessly at Shade. "Captain . . .? "
Shade shook her head, baffled. "We're supposed to . . ."
Claymore groaned and shook as more blows landed. The lights went out, replaced by the dimmer glow of emergency lanterns. "Grapeshot launchers disabled. Particle Cannon Two destroyed! Serious structural damage amidships!"
"Orders, sir?" another watch stander pleaded.
Shade tried to read through both checklists again.
A shudder ran through Claymore, followed by a deep boom that rattled through the ship as she broke in two.
Hopkins felt an overwhelming sense of relief as a new checklist appeared on the emergency display that had replaced his usual one. He knew what to do. It was right there, item one on the list. "Abandon ship!"
He was still running down Preparatory-to-Abandoning-Ship items on the list when a barrage of grapeshot struck and tore through the bridge of the wreck that had once been a destroyer.
Rob Geary, Senior Dock Officer for the orbital shipyard and station that was Glenlyon's main link with space, glared at the image of Council Member Leigh Camagan on his desk display. "The government really expects me to step up again?"
"Yes," she replied. "You came through for Glenlyon three years ago, Rob."
"What do they think I can do? Claymore was totally destroyed, I'm told, half her crew dead. I sent Hopkins a message before Claymore left, warning him that it had taken him so long to prepare for that mission that Scatha had to have plenty of advance warning. Everyone on this station seemed to know about it." Rob paused, miserable as he thought of the dead. "I wish either I'd been wrong, or Hopkins had listened. Why has Saber remained in orbit here?"
Camagan made a face. "Commander Teosig was ordered out but kept finding reasons to delay. He was fired this morning."
"He should have been fired at least a year ago! I had to work with that guy whenever Saber was in dock for refit. All he cared about was looking good to Commodore Hopkins, so he'd do his best to avoid actually doing anything that might mar his reputation. I told you all about that!"
"Yes, you did," Leigh Camagan agreed, exasperated. "And I told the rest of the council, who deferred to Commodore Hopkins, who as you say thought Commander Teosig was a perfect commanding officer. Why are you venting on me? Because I was chosen to ask you to return to service?"
Rob paused, angry with himself and with the universe. "I'm sorry. What is it the government wants me to do?" he asked again.
"Assume command of Saber and all fleet assets to defend Glenlyon."
"Saber is the only fleet asset left! Are they offering me a temporary, unofficial rank of lieutenant again?"
"Commander," Camagan replied. "Official rank of commander. And status as Commodore in charge of all fleet assets."
"They must really be scared."
"They are. Glenlyon is being choked to death by the grip that Scatha and Apulu and Turan have established over the trade routes out here. If we can't find a way to break through, Glenlyon will have no choice but to submit."
Camagan's glare wasn't aimed at Rob this time. "What they did at Hesta. A so-called trade office that effectively ended up controlling not just trade but also the government."
"We came out here to be free," Rob said, feeling bleak.
"A lot of people did. But it has become obvious that others came out here to start building empires."
"What about Mele Darcy?" He owed Mele that concern after what she had done three years ago to defeat Scatha on the ground.
"We need her, too. I pushed through a vote to finally create a small Marine force to assist the fleet. Mele Darcy is being offered command of that force. It's only a Marine captain's rank, but it's official."
"Who will the Marines work for?" Rob asked, remembering some stories he had heard about the ground forces commander.
"They'll work for you. They'll be part of the fleet. You'll be in charge of Mele Darcy. I'm not sure anyone else would take that particular job."
"I need to talk to Ninja before I agree to anything."
"Of course." Leigh Camagan sighed. "Give your wife Lyn my best."
"You know Lyn is fine with you calling her Ninja. All of her friends call her that."
"I imagine that Ninja won't be feeling too friendly toward me because of this. I hope she doesn't decide to hack all of my personal data."
The walk through the orbital station to his home was short, one of the perks of being Senior Dock Officer. Usually he was happy about that, but today Rob wished he had more time to think before reaching the door to his quarters. In addition to his own name a small sign advertised Ninja IT Consulting.
Ninja, as usual, was seated before several displays as she worked. "Hey," Rob said, sitting down beside her.
"Hey, yourself." Ninja gave him a sharp look. "Don't bother summarizing your talk with Camagan."
"You listened in?"
"When the governing council makes a high priority call to my husband, I think I deserve to know what's going on."
"That call was secure. Triple encrypted," Rob pointed out.
"Oh, Rob, how many times have we gone over the secure thing? It's a myth." Ninja looked away, as if focusing on one of the displays to the other side of her. "So, you're going."
"I said I needed to talk to you before I decided."
"Nice words. You and I both know what you want to do."
"What I think I have to do," Rob said. He looked toward the door to the second bedroom. "Is Little Ninja asleep?" Even though their toddler daughter's name was Dani, she'd refused to answer to anything but Little Ninja ever since Mele Darcy had called her that about six months ago.
"Yeah. What, are you feeling a bit guilty for abandoning your family?"
"No!" She turned a furious gaze on him, a dark memory vivid in her eyes. "I've never been able to forget how I felt when everyone thought you'd died on Squall. Do you know how that felt, Rob?"
"No," he admitted, unable to meet her eyes.
"So who'd tell Little Ninja if her daddy never comes home, huh? And her Aunt Mele if something happens to her? You know how much Little Ninja loves her Aunt Mele. But that'd be my job, too, wouldn't it? And our next project?" She tapped her abdomen, where the two months of pregnancy barely showed. "Who tells that kid he'll never see his father? Is that going to be my job, too?"
He knew what was driving her anger. She was afraid for him, afraid for what might happen to him and to her and their children. She needed to vent that fear, to let him know how it was affecting her. And she was doubtless also angry that fate had once more put them in a position where she had to nurse such fears.
And having let him know, she'd probably never bring it up again. Because she knew the pressure he was under, that he'd need her support, and that arguing with fate was worse than useless.
What right did he have to put her through that? Rob bit his lip, trying to come up with words, and finally looked up at her again. "Ninja, I'd decided I should go because you, and those kids, deserved a free world to live in. I really don't want to leave. If it would hurt you that much-"
"Oh, shut up, Rob! You and I both know you have to go! Because that's the idealistic idiot that I was stupid enough to fall in love with and marry! And our kids will probably inherit your sense of duty and idealism so someday I'll have to see them off on some harebrained noble missions, too! And it'll be your fault! But you had better come back again, do you hear me? You come back, or I swear I will tell these kids that you were a fool and they should never be anything like you!"
He looked at her helplessly. "What is it you want?"
Ninja shook her head. "You figure that out for yourself."
"Do you think I want to do this?" Rob demanded. "Leave you and Little Ninja? Go out there and . . . watch men and women die because of orders I gave? Do you think I want to do that again?"
She looked at him without saying anything for a few moments. "You say their names sometimes when you're asleep. Did you know that? The names of the ones who didn't come back. I hear you say those names, and I don't know what to do." She reached out and embraced him, her arms gripping him tightly. "And then I think of Kosatka, and how many people would have died there if you weren't such an idiot. And how you got most of the crew of Squall home when it seemed hopeless. And here at Glenlyon, where Scatha would probably have been running everything by now. People like you and Mele go out and do things like this because you think you have to, and people like me and Little Ninja just hope and pray you come back each time."