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Authors: Eric Thomson

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BOOK: No Honor in Death
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A stupid waste, he thought, disgusted.  His regiment had trained hard.  His soldiers expected to die on the field of battle on some human world, fighting human marines.  Now, they would all die in a flash, killed by a stupid missile, and the honor of leading Imperial forces in the upcoming operation would go to others.  The
Ashari
  Regiment would no longer exist to claim its share of glory.

Strangely, he felt no fear.  Just a lassitude, a fatalism in the face of certain death.  Terror at a fate one could not change was for weaklings and humans.  Except that the humans on the raiding frigate were anything but weak.

Another missile disappeared and a small part of him began to hope for survival.  No sentient being wished to die, not even Shreharis raised from birth to consider death for the Empire a noble and honorable end.  Behind Oragit, his staff stood still, as if rooted to the spot, watching the same screen and, he hoped, thinking the same thoughts.  Oragit turned around and looked at each of his officers in turn, nodding his farewell.  He did not see the third missile blink out in a brief burst, nor did he see the last one strike the
Mentara
's shields with all the force of its five megaton nuclear warhead.

Within a fraction of a second, the force field protecting the troopship fought the released energy and lost.  The port shield collapsed, letting the residual force of the explosion splash the unarmoured hull.  With all its industrial strength geared to produce fighting ships, the Empire chose to commandeer civilian vessels for its troop transport tasks instead of building their own, and they sadly lacked the integral hard protection of the former.  Sub-Commander Pagrat, master of the
Mentara
briefly cursed his superiors for their stupidity as the flash of the nuclear detonation blinded him and his men.  He had little time to think of anything else.

The entire port side of the
Mentara
buckled and burst open at the seams, exposing its many decks.  Atmosphere, subjected to the eternal cold of space, crystallized in an expanding cloud, while living bodies burst under the sudden decompression.  Over half of Oragit's men died in the first five seconds, including himself and his staff.  The rest died when the troopship's ruined systems failed spectacularly, breaking apart the already torn wreck.

 

On the
Ptar Vanak
Sub-Commander Reyvtal, freed of his responsibility for the
Mentara
shut out the horror of over twelve-hundred useless, honorless deaths and turned all his rage towards the oncoming frigate.  The helmsman had completed his turn and the corvette now faced the enemy head-on.  All available energy was concentrated on the bow shield, to the point of dropping the side and aft screen sections.  At least, if the missiles broke through, the force field's remaining sphere would not redirect the energy of the blast onto the hull.

One of the missiles, its homing system obviously defective, veered off to lose itself in interstellar space.  A lucky gunner got the second, and then the third.  Reyvtal wanted to crow with pleasure, for now he stood a fighting chance, the better to hold the humans' attention while his colleague and Brakal approached to deal this raider a death blow.

He ordered a shut-down of all tracking systems and visual pickups.  Just in time, as it turned out.  The corvette shuddered under the detonation of the warhead, but the reinforced bow shield held, barely.  Reyvtal counted to five.  Then, "All systems on, redistribute shield energy to normal configuration."

The first of the frigate's salvoes were on their way.

 

The loud, blood-thirsty cheers at the destruction of the troopship faded under Siobhan's sharp orders.  Ahead, the corvette had taken up her challenge and appeared intent on evening the score.  When the single surviving missile exploded on its bow, Siobhan was in position and ready to follow-up with her two-punch routine.

"Fire as you bear, Mister Devall.  His shields won't hold for long."

"Incoming,"  Chief Penzara warned, moments after the Gunnery Officer loosed his first salvo.

"For what we are about to receive,"  the Cox'n intoned with mock sombreness, "may the Lord make us truly thankful."

"I'd rather thank him for what the enemy is about to receive, Mister Guthren," Siobhan replied.  "Change course to mark one-four-oh and increase speed to full.  We'll pass beneath him.  Continue firing, Mister Devall.  I expect his shields to die by the time we rake his belly.  Then it'll simply be a matter of slicing him open."

The
Stingray
shuddered with the
Ptar Vanak
's full broadside as energies clashed on the frigate's shield barrier.  Shimmering green flickered visibly while the feedback whined audibly over the bridge's speakers.

"Holding," Pushkin reported, "but weakened.  We can take several more before it gets critical."

"Shit!"

"What is it, Chief?"  Siobhan's head snapped around.

"The Gorgon-class is coming up fast.  Still FTL but we'll have her on our backs within minutes."

"Okay, we've been blown.  Let's finish this one fast before we get buggered.  Mister Devall, drop two mines with proximity fuses now, while we're still on his opposing vector."

"Mines?"

"Do it," Dunmoore snapped irritably.

The Gunnery Officer shrugged and ordered the automatic mine dispenser to eject two small proximity mines.  Using them in a running battle was damned unusual.  Most ships carried them to use as nuisance weapons along known star lanes, or in orbit around interdicted planets.  But shooting them across an enemy's bow?

The two opposing warships neared each other at high speed, firing almost continuously, and the small mines, barely two metres across, escaped the Shrehari's notice entirely.  When the
Stingray
was ten kilometres away, the mines' on-board computers armed themselves and began seeking for a target.

Sub-Commander Reyvtal and his ship fought courageously until the very end.  The corvette and the
Stingray
passed each other at point blank range, with the frigate raking the other ship from below.  This close, the contest became utterly unfair for the weaker Shrehari ship.  Its design was more suited to peace-time anti-piracy than a head-on fight with a human frigate.  His shields failed with a jarring flash of green and the
Stingray
's gunners began tearing up his grey underside with concentrated bursts of plasma.  Then, as fast as they'd come together, the ships separated.  Devall kept firing with all guns that could bear directly aft.

Less than two minutes after the nuclear missile exploded against her bow shield, the now unprotected and badly mauled
Ptar Vanak
came within range of the smart mines, still ignorant of their existence.  Reyvtal was too busy planning his next and probably suicidal run at the frigate to think of such an underhanded trick.  But the mines' on-board computers calculated the corvette's expected course and, as one, fired their small attitudinal jets.  Unshielded ship and nuclear mines intersected at a given point in space.

The mines exploded two hundred metres from the still intact bow of the corvette.  For a fraction of a second, the ship's forward movement was checked by the force of the simultaneous blasts.  On the
Stingray
's automatic battle recorder, played in slow motion, it later appeared as if the corvette had hit an invisible wall.  Then, it utterly disintegrated.

Reyvtal's last feeling in this life was one of complete surprise.

 

"The Gorgon's emerged one  hundred-thousand kays of our port quarter, sir. And the last Gecko-class is also on his way."  Chief Penzara couldn't repress a note of worry in his tone.  The
Stingray
hadn't come out of her fight with the Gecko-class totally unharmed and two enemy ships at once could be too much.

"He's hailing us, sir."  Kowalski was astonished beyond anything she'd experienced in her short career.

"Brakal."  The word came out as a whisper.  It could only be him.  No other Shrehari had his gall or his cunning.  She raised her hand, palm outwards.  "No reply.  Mister Shara, put a schematic of Cimmeria on screen, with current planetary positions."

Pushkin gasped, divining her intentions.  "Shouldn't we run for the border now, Captain.  We've four kills.  Surely that's enough."

Siobhan shook her head, lips compressed in a thin line.  "That's Brakal out there.  He'll cut us off for sure because he expects us to head back towards the line.  Remember, always do the unexpected."

"But the in-system assault force -"

"Is somewhere else, or it would be within range by now."  Siobhan's eyes locked with Pushkin's.  Her cold determination silenced him, while at the same time, it gave rise to a new and more chilling suspicion.  With Brakal's arrival, it had become personal for the Captain.

"We'll get home, have no fear, Mister Pushkin.  I have the measure of this one," she said in a tone low enough to reach his ears only.

"System on screen."

Siobhan broke eye contact, her mind shifting back into the calculating gambler's mode that had brought her so far.  "Mister Shara, make a course for the sixth planet, have us emerge as close as possible consistent with emergency safety rules.  We're going to hide in his magnetic field."

"The Shrehari is hailing again, sir.  He identifies himself as Commander Brakal of the
Tol Vakash
."

Siobhan flashed an I-told-you-so smile at Pushkin.  "Mister Kowalski, pass my compliments to Commander Brakal and tell him Captain Dunmoore is too busy right now to renew the acquaintance.  I prefer to wait until it's time to discuss his surrender.  Guns, time to firing range?"

"Thirty seconds."

"Course laid in, sir."

"Guns, the moment he's in range, loose off a general salvo.  Cox'n stand-by to jump on my order."

 

"She said
what
?"  Brakal roared with laughter at Dunmoore's impudence.  "Oh this will be interesting.  I had not hoped for a rematch so soon.  Gun Master, prepare to open fire.  Navigator, she will no doubt attempt to flee back towards her lines.  Four kills in one stalk is enough glory for anyone.  Be prepared to pursue.  Oh, and Jhar, tell the convoy commander to take himself and his ships away from here.  This is now my fight and I do not wish to see any transports come to harm under the cross-fire."

"In range,
kha
," the Gun Master barked.  Then, "She fires!"

"By all means, return the courtesy, Urag."  Brakal sounded as if this were merely a sports match between competing ship's companies.

 

"We hit him,"  Devall exulted.  "His shields just took a beating."

"Still holding though," Penzara's gloomier voice cut off the less experienced Lieutenant.  "He's replying."

Moments later, the
Stingray
shook under the force of a full burst, and Siobhan's memories of her last encounter with the
Tol Vakash
returned in full force, momentarily overwhelming her reckless determination.  "Stand-by to jump.  One last salvo, Mister Devall."

"Number six shield has collapsed, sir," Pushkin announced.  Lights flickered as the ship groaned in pain at the direct strikes.  "Port power coupling is down.  Rerouting through the secondary.  We have casualties."

"Guns, fire!  Cox'n, engage."

 

"Quick, plot her course," Brakal shouted over the din of the
Stingray
's parting salvo as it broke through the defensive energy field and licked the armoured hull, leaving black marks around ragged shot holes.  "And prepare to pursue."

Tense moments passed.  Jhar busied himself with the job of clearing up the damage.

"Course plotted,
kha
."  The Navigator sounded uncertain.

Brakal frowned.  "On screen."  Had he been human, the Commander would have done a double-take.  As it was, Jhar noticed his surprise clearly enough.  "Commander?"

"The hell-bitch is headed for Cimmeria!  What unbelievable gall.  She is not content with four victories and wants more.  Or,"  his eyes took on a calculating look, "she seeks to draw me into a trap of her own devising."

"Revenge?"

"Oh yes, Jhar, she would be the kind to seek it.  But one who is fixed on vengeance often fails to think clearly.  Inform the master of the convoy that I now take command and that we will proceed under my sailing orders."

Jhar complied.  "He refuses,
kha
.  Apparently, he does not recognize your authority."

"Inform him he is under arrest and order his second to take charge of his ship.  Advise every ship master in the convoy that I will kill anyone who refuses my orders.  This is no longer a game.  We will sail with the convoy and make sure Dunmoore's plans fail."

TWENTY-ONE

"Sir, I must advise you I do not agree with your plan of action."

Siobhan sat back, fatigue lining her face.  Pushkin stood formally in front of the desk, body stiff, hands joined in the small of the back.  Devall had the con and she'd stood the crew down for another dearly needed rest period.  All of the crew, that is, but the two unfortunate gunners who'd died in Brakal's last salvo

Dunmoore studied her First Officer's closed expression.  If only she had a plan of action he could disagree with.  Once more, she had acted on instinct, without quite thinking through or rationalizing her decisions.  But the reason for her orders, now that she had time to think beyond the immediate, came easily enough.  Whether they would satisfy the cautious First Officer, she didn't know.

"Brakal has an edge on us.  He hasn't pushed his drives as we have.  That means if we had tried an end-run for home, he would have overtaken us.  There's nowhere to hide between here and there.  Going to silent running when he has your course plotted doesn't quite make it.  The Cimmeria system however, has some very good hiding spots, where we can lay low for a long time before they find us.  I've operated here before."

"So the Cox'n told me.  But Brakal will know where we're headed," Pushkin protested.

"Obviously.  Brakal is anything but stupid."  Siobhan rubbed her eyes, willing her First Officer to understand.  "He'll also know we can hide with ease whereas he'd have a hell of a time finding us.  My guess is failing a clear fix on us, he'll stick with the convoy until they slip into orbit under the station's heavy guns.  That gives us our window of opportunity to slip away and shake off any pursuit."

Pushkin looked skeptical.  With reason.  Siobhan sighed.  "Okay, Gregor  I admit that if I get an opening to kick Brakal's ass or kill another transport, I'll take it.  That's our job in this war.  Find and destroy the enemy."

"And get your revenge on Brakal for the
Victoria Regina
."  It wasn't a question, but a flat statement.

"Dammit, Gregor, that was unfair.  And insubordinate."  Siobhan stood up and turned away to study the holoprint behind her desk.  It was a reproduction of an eighteenth century painting depicting a naval battle at a place called Kamperdown.  From the looks of it, those sailing ship captains would have had little doubts about the right course of action.  Close with the enemy and destroy him.  Who won at Kamperdown?  Siobhan couldn't remember ever hearing the battle mentioned in her history classes back at the Academy.

In what she hoped was a gentle tone, she asked,  "Has Helen Forenza really taken all the fire out of your belly?  This is war, man.  And Brakal is the most dangerous player on the other team.  Yes I want to take him out, and yes I'd like to avenge the crew he killed on my old ship, but first and foremost,  it's my duty to eliminate the one man who is finding a way out of this stalemate for his side."  She fell silent for several heartbeats and turned back to look at Pushkin.

"Okay," she admitted,  "so those thoughts, those rationalizations are a bit mixed-up in my mind right now, but I know what I'm doing is right.  We'll never make it home unless we get Brakal off our tail.  This guy is good, very good.  He took out a freaking battleship!  If I let him, he'll simply swallow up this old Type 203 frigate for lunch."

"But he's got his weaknesses, Gregor," she continued through a clenched jaw, "and if someone had answered our distress calls, the
Victoria Regina
would have won, Brakal would have been defeated.  Two hundred men and women might not have died and we wouldn't be in this damned pickle right now."

Suddenly, the First Officer looked away, shame transforming his face.  "I wanted to," he finally said after a long pause, his voice a mere whisper.  "But Forenza wouldn't hear of it."

Shocked by the unexpected admission, Siobhan's next words died before they passed her lips.  She wanted to question him, satisfy her burning curiosity but the intercom interrupted her.

"Dunmoore."

"Second Officer  here, sir.  I think you should come down to the brig.  Major Cayne wishes to speak with you."

Siobhan glanced at Pushkin in surprise.  "On my way, Mister Drex.  Dunmoore, out.  Gregor, brief the senior officers on my reasons for heading to Cimmeria, please. It may help alleviate their fears about my sanity." 
Or it may confirm that I'm stark raving mad.
  She smiled wearily at him and walked out of the ready room, wondering what the SSB officer wanted.

She made her way through the ship, returning the smiling salutes of passing crewmembers.  Whatever doubts Pushkin may have, it did not appear the crew shared them.  They seemed proud of their accomplishments and were ready for more.  The hatch to the security division opened obediently at her approach and she walked in.

Lieutenant Drex sat behind his desk.  He did not rise at her approach but instead touched a control panel.  The door closed behind Siobhan and locked with an audible snick.  She looked at Drex curiously, suddenly sensing that something was very wrong.  The Second Officer was alone in a room that should have contained at least a pair of bosun's mates on duty.

"You said Cayne wished to speak with me."

He glanced at her with his hard, lifeless eyes and nodded.  At his touch, a cell door opened.  Siobhan took a step forward and saw Major Cayne's lifeless body sprawled on the metal deck in a pool of blood.  She turned around to face Drex, incomprehension and anger twisting her face, and found herself looking into the barrel of a heavy, service-issue blaster.

"What the hell is the meaning of this, Mister Drex?"  She snarled.

"Drop your weapon on the floor, please sir, and no sudden movements."  Drex's voice was flat, toneless, like that of a man in a trance.  Siobhan made no move to comply.  "I can make this very painful for you, Captain.  Please drop your gun."

The dead look in his eyes slowly faded as she tried to stare him down, replaced by the frightening spark of a madman.  Siobhan repressed a shiver.  And Pushkin thought
she
was crazy.  He couldn't simply be planning to kill her just like that, could he?

"What's this about, Drex?"

"The gun, Captain."

"Very well."  Slowly, Siobhan reached down into the holster and pulled out the blaster with her forefinger and thumb, and carefully deposited it at her feet.

"Kick it over."  Keeping his weapon aimed steadily at her, Drex squatted to pick the Captain's weapon up and shoved it in his trousers' cargo pocket..  "Into the cell, Captain.  Move."

"Why kill Cayne?"

Drex stared at her in silence for a few moments, his head cocked to one side like a bird.  A very insane bird, Siobhan thought flippantly.  This guy was one hundred percent nuts.

"It's like this, you see, Captain."  Drex smiled bleakly.  "Major Cayne wanted to speak with you.  I let you in her cell, and when my back was turned, she jumped you, took your blaster and killed you, before I could react.  I then shot her."

"That's bloody insane, Drex," Siobhan exploded.  "Who the hell's going to believe it?"

The man shrugged, as if he didn't care.  Which he didn't.  "What people believe is immaterial.  The fact that Cayne was SSB will make the story believable.  If need be, I too shall die before anyone can find proof of the truth.  Then, no one can do her harm."

Siobhan frowned, several pieces of the
Stingray
's puzzle falling into place.  But she did not yet see the outline of a picture.  "Why these murders, Drex?"

"To protect her!"  He was becoming agitated.  "Protect her from zealous nobodies like you. If you had left well enough alone, and concentrated on running this ship, none of this would have happened."

"If I'm to die, Mister Drex, shouldn't I at least know why?"  Her voice was soft, soothing, belying the fear that wormed through her gut.

Unexpectedly, he laughed.  "Just like in bad novels, Captain?  The villain reveals all to his victim, then finds the tables turned and is condemned out of his own mouth.  No.  Get into the cell."

Siobhan didn't move, her mind clicking pieces together at the speed of light.  If only she could figure out the identity of the woman he was protecting, then maybe she'd understand, and maybe she'd find a way out of his awful, deadly mess.  It couldn't be Forenza.  Helen was unable to command such loyalty in anyone.  Those who followed her did so out of fear or greed.  Then it hit her.  Of course.  "It's a shame that a mustang with your abilities resorts to murder.  It would surely pain the Captain who made you an officer.  Who was it again?  Ah yes, the skipper of the
Baikal
.  Captain -"  She frowned, and then stabbed in the dark.  "Kaleri, wasn't it?"

"Damn you for a snoop, Dunmoore,"  he shouted.  "I won't let you bring her down with your meddling."

Shit!
  She nearly hit herself.
He's the other one who read my private log entry.
  "You have Mister Pushkin's access code, don't you?"  His eyes registered surprise, but he didn't deny her accusation.  "You read my personal logs and found out that I suspected Kaleri of being involved in some unsavory business with Forenza.  And now you're trying to cover for her out of some misguided loyalty.  It won't work, Drex.  Too many people know things, or suspect.  If I die here, the chain of investigation is going is sure as hell going to end in Kaleri's lap anyways.  Think about it."

Drex smiled cruelly.  "I don't think so.  This ship may well not make it back home, Captain.  And then who is left to tell?  I don't mind dying for her, not after what she did for me."

He's nuts, absolutely and utterly crazy.
  "You made Hartalas sabotage the controllers, so we'd be a sitting duck for the enemy.  And then killed him to cover up your tracks."  The Second Officer still didn't deny her words.  "What did you have on him to make the man sabotage his own ship?"

Drex smiled chillingly.  "When you're in charge of security on a starship, Captain, you find out many things.  Hartalas was indiscreet and lived with a bad conscience.  Mind you, he did not suffer.  I simply snapped his neck before tossing him down the tube."

"So that's two murders you own up to.  How about Vasser and Melchor?"

"Not my work.  Ask the bitch in there."  He waved his gun at the open cell.  "Or rather ask her superiors.  For my money, she did it herself, with Forenza's connivance.  The SSB sent her on board to watch over their investment, and considered Forenza a bad risk to leave unsupervised."

"So what's Admiral Kaleri's role in this?"

Drex tsked, a mysterious grin narrowing his eyes.  "Ah, Captain, remember what I said.  I have already told you too much."  The grin vanished.  "Now get into the cell.  I can shoot you where you stand, but it will be just that much messier."

"How'd you expect to keep the
Stingray
from returning home?"  Siobhan was desperate to keep him talking.

"With you gone, Captain, I do not think this ship stands a chance against a foe like Brakal. 
Mister
Pushkin cannot hack this kind of work, you know.  And if by miracle, he pulls it off, there are other ways."

I wouldn't write Pushkin off yet, if I were you, crazy man,
Siobhan thought, casting around for another line of conversation that would prolong her life.  Drex was becoming edgy.  A small tic started pulling at his left cheek.

"Did Forenza know you were keeping an eye on her for Admiral Kaleri?"  Siobhan was careful to use Kaleri's rank.  No telling how his insane loyalty would make him react to the slightest sign of disrespect.

"Oh yes."  Drex clearly relished the memory of his position vis-à-vis Forenza.  "The Admiral did not trust Forenza one bit, and made sure she knew it.  Forenza was merely a tool for the Admiral.  She would never had condescended to call that useless and depraved bitch a friend." Genuine loathing twisted his face.

Interesting.  So Kaleri gave Helen her command for a distinct purpose, because the good Admiral knew Forenza's vices and had a way of controlling her through them.  But why?
  "I suppose Forenza made some profit out of the venture?"

Drex laughed.  "Yes, she profited from the power and prestige of commanding a starship and the knowledge that she would not be court-martialed for her behavior.  I suppose she made some financial gain on the side too.  Commander Forenza is a very stupid woman."

Siobhan snorted.  "Don't I know it.  That must have been one hell of a business proposition to make the Admiral take Forenza on as a frigate captain."

"Ah no, Captain Dunmoore, you will not get anything more out of me, though I must admire your interrogation skills.  You would have made a perfect security officer."

She shrugged. 
Keep him talking
.  "I took counter-intelligence training as a young officer, if you must know."

Drex's face lit up with alarm at her statement.  "So that's why Admiral Nagira kept this ship's company together even though Admiral Kaleri wanted to disperse it, now that - never mind. You," he pointed accusingly at her, "were sent on board to gather evidence by Fleet Security."  He looked distinctly worried now.  Siobhan, after a moment's surprise, pressed her unexpected advantage.

"I wasn't kidding when I said you could kill me without stopping the investigation.  Now you know why," she bluffed, hoping to gain some advantage over him. 
Could the bastard be right?  Nagira can be a real sneaky prick when his dander's up.
  "Black marketeering with naval supplies in wartime is a hanging offence, Drex.  You didn't think Security wouldn't tumble to Admiral Kaleri's little scam, did you?"

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