Chapter 18

Whatever Terra-Captain Dannet had expected to find when the Lexington emerged from the point locus, Tully didn’t think it was five Ekhat warships. Adrenaline exploded through his veins as an apparently unruffled Dannet ordered Navigation to plan a withdrawal back into the star’s photosphere, then directed Spines C through E to fire as soon as they acquired targets.

Tully darted into the lift, glancing one last time over his shoulder at Caitlin Kralik. She had hastily surrendered her seat to the working bridge crew the second the situation made itself clear, and was now standing beside a support column. Her hands were clenched, her eyes trained on the terrible sight on the viewscreen. The doors closed and the lift raced downwards, leaving his stomach several levels behind.

His unit was already in action by the time he reached his post in Spine C. They were loading sabot rounds into the huge guns, as they had diligently practiced, and setting targets with the fire control radar. They’d already started firing. The boom of the great cannons was deafening in the confined space. He grabbed a set of noise dampening headphones from the rack by the bulkhead hatch, then turned on his mike. “Report!”

“We’re concentrating fire on the two closest hostiles, sir,” Caewithe Miller’s voice came over the headphones. “Do you have additional orders?”

“No. Carry on.” He slid into the seat before the central monitoring station and strapped himself in. There were no visible fumes, but there was still an oily reek in the air, even with the air conditioners working full bore.

On the screen, one of the Ekhat ships seemed to vibrate as it took one hit after another. Tully knew what was happening aboard that enemy ship. Even the big sabot rounds fired by a 500mm gun weren’t massive enough to actually jolt the Ekhat vessel. Instead, they’d be punching through the hull and turning the interior into a fiery charnelhouse. The jittery motion of the enemy vessel was actually a byproduct of internal explosions, as the many flammable substances aboard the enemy ship ignited.

The Ekhat were firing back with laser weapons, but seemed to be retreating. Then Tully realized it was actually the Lexington retreating — deeper into the photosphere, where the enemy’s lasers would be almost completely ineffective. For all her aloofness, that Dannet was a clever rascal. He’d never thought to be grateful for a sly Narvo, but he surely was today.

Two of the Ekhat ships accelerated after them, growing noticeably larger in the viewer again. “What are they trying to do?” he muttered, calculating vector assessments as the massive guns boomed and boomed.

“Stand down!” a voice came over the command channel from the bridge. “Lexington is maneuvering to come about. Spine C’s vector will be marginal.”

“Cease fire!” Tully said and the guns on their deck fell silent. Sweat rolled down his neck and soaked into his collar, so that he was both hot and chilled. He could feel vibration relayed throughout the ship, though, as another weapons deck took up the firing pattern as they now had more effective trajectories. Probably Spines E or G, or both.

Over at Gun Eleven, Mallu pulled off his ear-protectors. The Jao’s dark-bay body was still, frozen in a posture that Tully felt he ought to recognize, but didn’t. His thoughts were chasing one another around in edgy circles and his bones still rang from cannon fire. He removed his own headset, unbuckled the safety harness, and trotted over to the Krant-Captain.

“I do not understand,” he said to the Jao, who had logged far more space combat than anyone on his team. “Why are they following us into the star? Our kinetic weapons will still be effective at that depth, but their lasers won’t work inside the photosphere.”

“They will try to force us too deep,” Mallu said, “hoping that we will be swept down into the supergranular cells where the pressure and temperature is too high to withstand.”

“Oh.” Tully remembered reading the accounts of Terra’s famous Battle of the Framepoint. Several of Earth’s cobbled-together ships had been lost that way. He swore under his breath, making Mallu give him a sharp look. He didn’t care. This was utterly bat-crazy, traveling through suns and then fighting battles on the naked edge of destruction.

“Spines B, D, F, and H, stand down,” Dannet’s voice said over the P.A. “We have reentered the photosphere. Spines A, C, E, and G, fire when you have acquired targets.”

Mallu put his headgear back on and Tully followed suit. The gun teams resumed their positions. Lieutenant Miller was trotting down the line, overseeing the work.

The great cannons started firing again. By then, Tully had returned to his supervisory station, wishing he were down in one of the magazines, loading and loading, doing something physical and useful. He felt like a blasted fifth wheel up here, keeping an eye on the process when everyone else was doing all the work. And, face it, he longed to have an active hand in blowing those Ekhat bastards into atoms. He flat wanted to kill something!

He dropped into his seat, refastened the harness, and studied the screen. The two Ekhat ships were still closing. Fire control on all weapons decks that could be brought to bear was concentrating now on the closest. The awkward looking vessel took hit after hit, and he saw explosions around the periphery. Shapes were blown out of the ship by venting gas. Some of them looked like bodies, though the carcasses were much smaller than the Ekhat he remembered from that harrowing expedition two years ago. But it was hard to tell, because they were incinerated so quickly. They’d re-entered the photosphere and nothing material was going to survive outside of a ship’s shielding for more than a few seconds. Soon enough, as they plunged deeper into the star, that would become milliseconds.

Not only were the great guns doing their job, but the Ekhat were obviously having trouble realizing their effectiveness and adjusting tactics to compensate. Then the targeted ship suddenly disintegrated. Its structural integrity had become too compromised by the accumulated effect of the sabot rounds. Hundreds of them would have smashed into the vessel by now.

Once a ship started to give way inside a star’s photosphere, the end was astonishingly quick. The star’s own nuclear fury completed the destruction in what seemed like no more than an eyeblink.

Cheers went up all along the firing line. Human cheers, not Jao. The Jao weren’t given to useless demonstrations of emotion.

“Stay focused, people!” Tully called at them. “Target that second ship! We’re not done yet by a long shot!”

The second ship rushed toward them.


This was supposed to be a diplomatic mission, Caitlin kept telling herself over and over as the Lexington’s bridge seethed with action. And, if things had gone according to Ronz’s plan, she would have known what to do. She, who had never even fired a Terran handgun, had no place in this harried battle. No doubt, Terra-Captain Dannet would prefer her to leave, thereby eliminating a potential distraction. But Caitlin could not bring herself to bury her head in her snug cabin while the ship’s crew fought to survive.

That would seem cowardly, she thought, and she was not only her father’s daughter, but Ed’s wife. She could not behave like a scared little mouse during this crisis and then expect to maintain the crew’s respect afterward, not to mention her own.

A human male called for Dannet and the Terra-Captain moved rapidly to his station. Unlike a human commander, who’d most likely have remained in his own seat during the action, Dannet had been moving around the bridge constantly. But then, human officers had to pay a lot more attention to the needs of morale than Jao did. They needed to project the appearance of stolid unconcern for their own safety, where the Jao simply took that for granted.

The boldly striped Narvo face studied the screen, then Dannet keyed on her mike, broadcasting to the entire ship. “The lead vessel has been destroyed,” she said, as casually as if she were discussing the balance of salts in a pool. “Focus fire now on the next-in-line.”

The human members of the bridge crew cheered and Dannet’s body lines went to pure annoyance. She was still relatively new to Terra, and not very familiar with the habits of humans.

For different reasons, Caitlin also thought that exuberance was out of place. Certainly premature. There were still at least four more Ekhat ships out there, just waiting for Lexington to make a mistake. And this was an untried ship, she thought, blood pounding in her ears, and, for the most part, a green crew. They were bound to make mistakes. That was part of the learning process.

She realized with a start that her own lines and angles had gone to repressed-dread, which any Jao on the bridge could read. With an effort, she composed herself and assumed a credible, if shaky, version of determined-confidence. And, as she had found down through the years, her feelings shifted somewhat toward what her body was trying to say. She felt less frightened, more able to cope.

The Ekhat ship charging after them was no longer firing. That was good, she told herself, wasn’t it? None of the Jao crewmen watching the viewscreen seemed to think so, though. Their lines had gone mostly to alarm.

It was rushing toward them very fast, the image growing and growing. If it didn’t look out, it was going to —

With a shock, Caitlin understood. “My God. It’s going to ram us,” she said under her breath.

“All decks, lock down!” Dannet ordered over the P.A. Her ears had gone to concern, an indication of her abstraction.

The nearest Jao bridge officer glanced up at Caitlin. “Find a seat and strap in,” he said, his eyes ablaze with green. “That location is not optimum for your safety.”

Her face heated. She was just standing there, waiting for instruction, for someone else to save the day, like a two-year-old who’d escaped from the nursery and was wandering in traffic. All around the multilevel bridge, voices rose and fell, relaying readings, recommending adjustments, and she understood none of it. She felt so damned useless!

Spotting an empty station, she moved into the seat, which was oversized for human dimensions in order to accommodate Jao members of the crew. Her hands shook a little as she buckled the safety harness around her waist and across her shoulders. In the viewscreen, the image of the Ekhat ship grew until all she could see was the infamous characteristic inverted tetrahedron. Her heart raced and she felt the sickening zing of adrenaline in her veins. If the Ekhat ship was trying to ram them, then Lexington should retreat, shouldn’t it?

The rest of the bridge crew had taken similar precautions. “Gun mounts retracted and locked on all spines,” a human woman said off to Caitlin’s left.

“Prepare for ramming,” Dannet said.

“Maneuvering,” a Jao said on the far side of the bridge. Amber lights played across his muzzle.

Dannet watched the central viewscreen and the on-coming Ekhat vessel with a hint of gleeful-anticipation in the line of her spine and the cant of her whiskers. Was the former Narvo insane? Caitlin wondered suddenly. Her predecessor, Oppuk, certainly had been. Or had Narvo sent her to the new taif with secret instructions to scuttle the Lexington at the first opportunity? The ship would never return and all across the galaxy Jao would say it was the human crew’s fault.