Drevin blew out his breath, leaning back in his command chair and gazing into the tactical display. Over to the side, Vree announced the all-clear on the short-range plot, the snow leopard’s voice weary and ragged.

And well it might be. This was the fifth time in as many hours that they’d been stumbled upon by a Sakkarn patrol – and the third time in the last single hour. They were getting closer, their patrols thicker, their response times shorter. There was only so much the Red Valour and her remaining fighters could do to avoid a full-on clash.

But for so long as they could do so, that was what they would do. Again the instructions went out for a gentle course change. The last five times they’d done it, they’d gone in a different direction from the initial strong burn, sometimes a little bit different, sometimes greatly so; this time, the planned change was in the same direction.

At least they’d kept this up for longer than they’d dared hope. There were only two hours left on the minimum-response-time estimate, now.

But that was an optimistic estimate, and they couldn’t hope to last through a two-hour engagement even then. So for now, they kept to low-emissions adjustments wherever possible.

So close they’d come… but the Sakkarn were too near, now. They were running out of time, and unlike the enemy, they didn’t have numbers to spare on these little skirmishes.

On Drevin’s other side, Mavon Kurin at Nav and Comm suddenly swore. “Sir, you’ll want to see this,” he reported, touching controls in quick succession. “The commsat at Seth VI L3 just received a message for general broadcast in-system, in a code that’s been retired for over a century, on a band that hasn’t even been used since the Containment Wars.”

Drevin sat bolt upright. “I’m no historian, but isn’t that the last time the Sakkarn fought the Empire?”

“Spot on,” his exec, vulpine Terrell Josefson, put in.

Mav added, “It’s text only – I’ve got it decrypted and waiting for you.”

Drevin called up his Comm display and read. The shorthand took a bit of effort to figure out, and his mind was so full of distractions that focusing that effort was hard, so it took him some time. Presently, though, he started swearing under his breath.

ATTN EMPIRE CMDR: REQ ASYLUM. CMDR ANGERED BY CONTINUED RESISTANCE, INTENDS ATROCITY WHEN/IF VICTORIOUS, BOMBARD LOCAL IV AND ORBIT, TAKE HEAD OF CAPT SOLDIER AS TROPHY. HAVE INTEL RE: REINF INBOUND ETA 1.9 D LOCAL IV, CAPT EMPIRE SOLDIER FOR GOOD FAITH. REQ RENDEZVOUS, BOARDING FOR HANDOVER.

The timing of that code’s age was certainly not accidental if the sender of that message was who it seemed to be.

“Captive soldier?” Drevin read out loud. “But we recovered all our ejected pilots.”

“So we did,” Jo confirmed. “The ones we brought with us, and the in-system pilots.”

“So this seems awfully suspicious,” the ferret noted. “Rico, if I give you some text, can you beam it to the satellite on a secure tightbeam to pulse out on the original frequency? And have any more messages received on that band be sent secure to us.”

“I can’t be sure someone’s not snooping between here and there,” the mouse warned, “but I’ll keep it on an updated code and at least not sent through the whole system. Whenever you’re ready.”

“Might as well keep everyone here in the loop,” said Drevin, and switched that portion of his display to the main viewscreen before he started on his response.

NEGATIVE. ALL BEACONS RETRIEVED, ALL OTHER PILOTS FATES CONFIRMED BY SAR. WILL NOT RISK REVEALING LOCATION OR ALLOWING BOARDERS.

“You wouldn’t be putting it up for us all to see if you thought that was going to be the end of it,” Vree observed.

Drevin sighed, shaking his head. “I can’t ignore the chance that they snatched someone from some other system and brought them along. If there’s a chance to save the life of one of our own, and we can do it with reasonable confidence of not putting ourselves at greater risk than we are already, I have to at least consider it. So we’ll see what we get back, if anything.”

Everyone went about their duties from there. Damage control reports trickled in, many of them somewhat distressing, but overall the Red Valour was holding together for the moment. Minutes went by.

Then Mav frowned at his console. “Another message on the same band, Commander,” the skunk announced, and after a few moments of decoding it joined the first pair on the screen.

POD BREACHED. NO BEACON ACT. SOLDIER INJURED ON HEAD, UPR BODY, EXPOSED TO VOID BEFORE ADDL LIFE SUP MEASURES DEPLOYED. IF INTERP OF READOUTS CORRECT, SOLDIER UNCONSCIOUS BUT STABLE, BUT LIFE SUP FAIL IMMINENT. INITIAL PLAN – ESCAPE SYS ON LOW POWER, HEAD TO FORTIFIED SYS – UNSUITABLE. REQ PROMPT HANDOVER.

Drevin stiffened, biting his lip. “That’s… a bit more credible,” he whispered. “There’s some we didn’t find bodies for, just evidence that the pods were destroyed. If one of those had beacon damage and lost pieces, but didn’t lose its emergency containment…”

“There’s a chance,” Jo finished. “A long shot of amazing proportions, but there is a chance that it could happen that way.”

“So what next?” wondered Rico at the gunnery station.

The ferret drew a deep breath, for courage. “Next, we see if this mystery correspondent’s information could possibly mesh with our own records.”

MUST CONFIRM SERIAL NUMBER ON LIFE SUPPORT CONTROL MODULE BEFORE FURTHER ARRANGEMENTS.

If that came back as one of their believed-dead…

Tense minutes later, they received a reply – an alphanumeric string, with notes in a few places about damage rendering the number illegible. Out of nineteen characters, four were missing.

The other fifteen, in that sequence, matched up with exactly one life-support module. It had been installed on the pilot’s seat of a Condor fast-attack bomber, which in turn had been assigned to the flight commander of the local garrison. The bomber and all hands had been recorded as lost in the wake of the first frantic engagement, now several days past.

Search-and-rescue crews had recovered the bodies of the copilot and the tail gunner. Of the pilot, one Flint Farsey, they had recovered only his helmet, with traces of burnt tissue.

Drevin stared at that record for several long moments. Then, deliberately to the point of sounding wooden even to himself, he said, “Lieutenant Commander Josefson, I need a secondary opinion to reopen this file.”

Jo opened his mouth, but after one look at Drevin he just shut it again, left his station, and leaned over the arm of Drevin’s chair, bringing his face in range of the pickup for an iris scan, indicating his confirmation that details in the already-sealed record were in error.

It was not a large change. One character was all that needed changing – one digit of the pilot’s status code, and even that resulted in only one letter different in the displayed status. And yet that one character changed everything. Where the projector had shown a cool, clinical “KIA,” now there was the much more dubious – and accordingly, ever so slightly hopeful – “MIA.”

Drevin saved the file, this time as still active, and banished it and the weasel’s face from the display. With his faceplate in place, he couldn’t wipe his eyes; all he could do was blink repeatedly until the blur over his vision was cleared away.

“We have a rendezvous to set up,” he announced. “Suggestions?”

Vree poked at his tactical plot. The main display brought up a larger rendition of it, showing the points he was highlighting. “If we’re to have any chance of pulling this off, we need to be as close to arriving reinforcements as we can be. That’s the VIII-L4 node, not far from here. If our informant is anywhere close to there, we should be able to burn in on full power, make a pickup, and go into full evasive-defensive posture around the node before the main Sakkarn force engages us. If not, we’ll have to improvise – make a high-speed pickup, get that pod to Medical for top-up and maintenance, and continue this same dance we’ve been doing – only with less of a lead.”

“So it depends on where this contact is. Right.” That was something he could work to find out.

Hopefully.

CONFIRMED. SAT IS RELAYING ALL INC TRANSMISSIONS ON THIS FREQ VIA SECURE CHANNEL. STATE INTENTIONS FOR RENDEZVOUS.

Time passed, silent save for the faint hiss of the air filters.

INTEND TO APPROACH TRANSIT NOTE IN ORBIT VIII, DOCK AT SPEED. SUBSEQ RECCOMMEND EVADE WARRIORS, ESCAPE SYS.

“That’s the same node,” Drevin noted; there were no others in that orbit that it could be. “Mav, how long would a minimum-time approach take, relative to the day on Seth IV?”

The skunk did some figuring, then came up with a number. “Point eight hours ship time,” he supplied as a translation.

Which would still leave them with an hour to kill until they could hope for backup. Damn. All the same, Drevin relayed that information, adjusting it for the midpoint of their as-yet-steady transmission lag and saying as much. Their mystery contact was apparently closer to the node, supplying a significantly lesser time, and stated intent to make for velocity-matched intercept as soon as they could see the SLA force.

One more exchange determined that whatever their contact was flying, it was comparable to a Shrike superiority fighter. Small enough to fit in one of their repair bays.

It would take a miracle to pull this off. But it would take a miracle to survive this anyway. What was one more? They were all but doomed anyway – this way they could at least give one more officer a chance, however slim, to get out of this alive. And it beat mousing around the system some more and waiting for the Sakkarn to pounce them in force.

“All right, people. Go to battle stations – this thing is on. I want the doctor waiting at Repair Gamma, with our marines on security detail and DamCon Bravo’s best life-support tech ready to render any needed technical assistance. DamCon Alpha will carry on as normal.”

Klaxons broke the tense stillness of the bridge. Voices spoke into pickups, relaying orders and supplying their reasons in stark, straightforward detail. Even as Drevin fired off one last message confirming the plan, the Red Valour and her sparse assortment of accompanying fighters broke into motion.

Their contact turned out to be almost directly between them and the node, albeit drifting away; a small vessel, apparently an infantry dropship, spun about and started burning towards their course. Mav confirmed the pilot’s intercept course was good, and the SLA fighters shifted their formation forward, making ready to cover the additional ship.

“What are the lifesigns on that thing looking like?” Drevin asked Vree. If this was all an elaborate trap, the marines would need to be ready for it.

“Hard to tell now – its particle shielding ramped up when it started accelerating,” Vree reported. “If it drops shields to let our tractors take hold, I’ll know more. But from what I got when it was just turning about, and judging by it not showing up before then despite being close, I don’t think their life support can be running too hot.”

“And the Sakkarn have a hotter atmosphere than we do,” Rico added. “If they were keeping an entire drop bay full of that much hot air, it should have been more obvious than it would be for one of ours, at least.”

“Right.” Drevin keyed his comm to the officer in charge of their squad of marines. “Lieutenant Elgen, we don’t know how many bodies are actually on that thing. There’s only supposed to be one under his own power,” their final exchanges had at least determined that much, “so if more than one comes out, engage at discretion. If there’s only one, though, keep weapons ready but engage only in cases of clear and present threat. He doesn’t have much reason to trust us either, so he might come out armed – “ well, it might have been a she; that detail hadn’t ever come up – “but unless there’s a weapons discharge or a credible attempt to attack, that should not be taken as a hostile act. Treat this one with the full courtesies of a POW unless you’re given clear reasons to the contrary, clear?”

“Clear, Commander,” a gruff feminine voice replied.

“The fleet’s mobilizing,” Vree warned. “Their screening elements are staying close – apparently they don’t want to risk more interceptors getting shot down. We should reach the node and still have about ten minutes before they’re in powered engagement range. Another thirteen for close fighting, nineteen if they slow to engage.”

“On the plot,” Drevin instructed, turning his gaze to observe the different roles of this little drama playing out their parts.

Without needing to go via a distant satellite, there was almost no comm lag when Drevin instructed the Sakkarn dropship to lower shields and prepare to be tractored aboard. The smaller ship’s geometry shifted slightly – adopting a landing configuration, apparently – and then the shielding dropped to a bare minimum of particle screening; not the high-powered mass deflectors that it had been running up to that point.

“I’m not reading any unusual point sources aboard,” Vree reported as the tractors tugged the dropship toward the bay. “If there are extra guests aboard, they should be soft targets, with just basic, mostly-passive life support gear; no powered armour. The cargo bay’s cold and empty but for a single point source consistent with an Imperial Forces life-support module, though I’ll grant that’s what I was hoping to see.”

“Your precision and honesty are noted for the record,” Drevin replied formally. “If this turns out to be a trap and we get through it anyway, I’ll note that you allowed for the possibility.”

“Please, ancestors, let it not be a trap,” said Serani Talos at the logistics station.

The ermine was echoing what they all felt, most likely.

In truth, the boarding was surprisingly smooth. The dropship touched deck, the outer doors closed, and the visitor’s ramp was dropping before the stars were quite out of sight. The marines reported a single Sakkarn figure, towing a bulky float-pallet; the tech confirmed it as a life-support pod, and after a hurried inspection pronounced it clear of traps.

It was indeed Flint Farsey within, the medic confirmed. “He’s seriously injured and the emergency wrap induced a coma, but he’s in no immediate danger of worsening. The pod’s reservoirs were mostly wrecked when he ejected; with replacements, the pod will keep for days more, but if we don’t wake him up at least briefly within five hours, the risk of permanent brain damage from the process starts to go up a lot.”

“If we get through the next two hours,” Drevin replied, “we’ll rethink what to do with him. Meanwhile, just make sure he’s stable and get ready for business – things may get very messy here within a half hour or so.”

Five minutes later, they took up positions around the node and prepared for combat. The Sakkarn slowed somewhat – not for a zero-speed intercept, but they could sweep past the SLA force and come back towards them without ever leaving powered missile range. The first launches came hurtling forward; with the interceptors linking their sensors into an array, there was enough time at this range for missile defence to blast each warhead before it got close enough to be a threat. The same happened with the second and third volleys.

The fourth was not so kind. Two cluster missiles slipped past the defensive fire and split up. The first splashed against the Red Valour’s shields, depleting them an alarming amount; the other tagged one of the screening fighter wings. Two Shrikes spun out of formation and broke apart. One of them spit out a live distress beacon; the other, just bright sparks.

Two fighters gone, and another pilot dead. Damn it, they hadn’t even had a chance to shoot back yet…

Well, they’d have to change that. “How’s your solution looking, Rico?”

“Ten seconds until I can fire with any confidence of effect,” the mouse reported.

“Do when you can. Meanwhile,” he turned to Vree, “I want the fighters to spread out and go full evasive. Rico, missiles at your discretion – this is probably the last chance we’ll have to use them, so don’t be stingy – but keep all our cannon fire devoted to point defence except in case of clear opportunity shots on something big enough to matter.”

The deck vibrated as the first wave of missiles left their tubes.

The SLA forces weren’t at their best, suffering from fatigue and demoralization, but the Sakkarn had been up just as long, searching hard to find them, and now were making some rash choices. Four fighters and a light corvette broke apart under the defenders’ attacks of opportunity; then three wings swept around and tore a frigate apart with a surge of focused fire and a quick volley of missiles.

Then a blast of plasma knocked through the Red Valour’s shields. The hull buckled, armour plates splintering and flying off, and fire klaxons sounded. Two decks failed to engage fire suppression, and had to be sealed off and ventilated to kill the flames. Meanwhile, another SLA fighter and its pilot were ripped to pieces by the turrets on the Sakkarn cruiser.

Suddenly Mav swore, a sound of amazement and, somehow, hope. “A beacon on the node just went live! Sakkarn point defence splashed it before it could send a full message, but it sent Navy codes and stated the INS Steadfast Vanguard is inbound. That’s about all I got before static.

“Steadfast Vanguard,” Drevin repeated, racking his fatigue-fogged brain. “I don’t remember a ship of that name, and I don’t pay that little attention to the Navy.”

Jo nodded agreement. “I’m guessing it’s new or small,” he hazarded.

“I sure hope it’s not small,” Drevin said with a wince. “Vree, how’s that cruiser looking?”

“Doubtless their local command ship now, and they aren’t taking chances with this one,” the snow leopard sighed, shaking his head. “Screened pretty heavily. I’m trying to assign targets to disrupt that screen, but we don’t have the resources to force it open.”

“Mav, do you have any idea how close the Steadfast Vanguard actually is?”

“Afraid not, sir,” the skunk sighed. “Until it lit up, even our sensors couldn’t spot it. No way of knowing if it just popped out of underspace.”

“Probably did,” Jo pointed out. “Still an hour on the clock. We made good time doing that pickup on the fly, but right now that’s not exactly helping us.”

“At least we got into position in good order,” Vree countered, to which the fox just nodded.

The next wave came, and this time fighters swept in to engage one another in a deadly ballet. Ten Sakkarn ships dropped off the plot for every Authority fighter, but they had so many more to throw in; the fire just kept pouring on, even as the SLA numbers dwindled.

Jo winced as another friendly interceptor vanished from the plot. “That cruiser’s guns are just too good.”

“Then it needs to go,” Drevin declared, sitting up. “Rico, warm up the accelerator.”

Talos blinked, looking over his shoulder. “Sir, the spine can’t take that kind of force in its current state.”

“What if we cease manoeuvres and direct shields inward to reinforce it?” Drevin suggested.

The ermine frowned, looked over his displays, then hesitantly nodded. “It will be chancy, but it might work.”

“Then let’s make it happen. Vree, get us a solution with the last laser head in mind. I want to have a high relative velocity when we cut thrust.” The cat nodded almost absently, tracing arcs on his plot, trying a few possibilities.

Once he’d decided on an approach, the Red Valour swung about, burning hard. A pair of Sakkarn bombers bobbed up, trying to take advantage of the motion to find a new angle. The fighter screen swooped in and tore one apart; the frigate’s own guns blasted the other into shards in an instant.

“Incoming,” Vree warned, sounding a collision warning throughout the ship as another swarm of missiles kept in.

The screening was as good as ever, but there were just so many warheads this time; one after another pounded against the wounded frigate’s shields. Suddenly there was a burst of light and fury on the bridge, the whole ship rocking with the force of the blast.

Mav screamed as a fragment of hull plating sliced into his leg. Terrel Josefson didn’t have the time to do that.

“Medic to the bridge!” Drevin snarled into his comm, seizing control of the helm. “Vree, take Comm! Talos, report!”

“The ventral cable run is almost completely fused forward of ring three,” the ermine panted, tearing his gaze away from the metal spike that had lodged in his chair not a finger’s breadth from his shoulder. “Systems have rerouted and the dorsal is holding the strain. Both runs are intact as far as the accelerator’s concerned. No casualties elsewhere on ship and no further systems compromised. DamCon Bravo is en route.”

Good man, cutting to the most immediate concern. “Then we’d better make good on this. Rico, give me the accelerator.”

“Solution’s locked in and ready for you, sir,” the mouse reported. “Shields will boost integrity as the power drain from the engines drops to give room to do so.”

Of them all, Drevin was the only other person who had significant time at the helm of anything larger than a bomber. Most of that was in a corvette, but he had enough hours there and enough simulator time on the Red Valour herself that it all stood him in good stead, weaving the battered ship right into an arc on the enemy cruiser’s flank that was almost bare of fighters.

As the frigate swung into position, Drevin cut the engines. In the space of a breath, the gravity shields reported full focus along the ship’s own spine and the firing solution went green. He didn’t even remember squeezing the trigger; it all happened so quickly, so naturally.

The missile had been designed to ravage battlecruisers, and the smaller cruiser hadn’t seen it coming. The bomb-pumped lasers lanced from close range, blasted apart plating and hull, and pierced right into its core. In two seconds of fury, hundreds of enemy combatants aboard the cruiser and five too-close fighters abruptly ceased to be.

“Oh, hells,” Vree hissed in the aftermath. “That got their attention.”

Though they’d just lost their local command ship – again – the Sakkarn fighters and frigates didn’t need higher orders to focus their fire on what had just proved itself to be the biggest threat around. Two light cruisers sent massive swarms of missiles towards the straining Red Valour, and wave after wave of gunfire pounded her shields, peppering the hull. For the moment the armour held, but it was already worn thin, and what was left was starting to buckle. The wounded ship twisted in a valiant attempt to escape their wrath, but by the time she pulled free, fire alarms were sounding throughout the ship.

And there were still forty minutes on the clock.

Drevin sighed, shaking his head. They’d given it their all, and maybe their black box would survive as testament to that; but in the end, the enemy force was just too big, too strong. Rico bought them an amazing amount of time, careful mid-space detonations of frigate-killing missiles bringing the incoming warheads down to a manageable number, and they continued on for the moment; but their luck had to be wearing thin.

The medic arrived with a corpsman, hustling the wounded skunk off the bridge, finally falling into blessed unconsciousness with the aid of painkillers and sedatives. There was nothing to be done for Drevin’s former exec but take the distressing presence of his body away.

As the last corpsman departed, Drevin drew a deep breath, looking from one officer to another. Solemn gazes answered him. This was it; they all knew it. It was all over for them but the formalities of their execution.

He turned the comm onto general broadcast.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “we have fought against impossible odds these past few days, and achieved success beyond hope. We have stalled the enemy forces this long, and hopefully, they won’t have time now to do serious harm to the populace of this system beyond what they’ve done and will do to us. I want you all to know, it’s been an honour serving with you all…”

His final address was interrupted when Vree slammed back in his seat. “By every kind god in the stars!” he swore, twisting around to stare wide-eyed at Drevin, his face alight with sudden hope. “Massive underspace surge – dreadnaught class at least – something’s coming through!”

For a few moments, Drevin couldn’t find a single word to say.

Then stubborn resolve drove him into motion again, and he turned back to his pickup. “We’re not done yet, people. Hold on for a few minutes more, and we might see the end of this yet! Targe clear!”

The enemy couldn’t fail to notice the imminent arrival of something very big. They pressed the attack with reckless abandon, determined to inflict what harm they could before the reckoning came. Waves of missiles tore through the SLA formation, a few knocking away fighters, the bulk pressing for the battered frigate. Damage warnings lit up all over; then, at the tail end of the barrage, the shields flickered and died, the ship vibrating with the resonant booms of both reactor cores venting in emergency shutdown.

Two more swarms of missiles streaked towards the defenseless vessel, fighters streaming in their wake.

Then the impossible happened.

Space tore apart, a massive body inserting itself into the normal flow of spacetime. An entire wave of missiles, streaking right across the node, slammed into the expanding bubble of distortion and detonated, taking three wings of fighters with them and having as much impact on whatever was within as a sneeze in a wet paper bag.

But that still left one more volley screaming towards the Red Valour, murder on every electronic mind.

“Six seconds to impact,” Vree croaked.

“Sound collision,” Drevin barked, planting himself squarely in his chair.

“Five,” the leopard counted. “Four. Three. Two.”

And then a flurry of soft beeps sounded, cutting off the trailing word “one” as, one by one, the red threat indicators blinked green and vanished.

Silence reigned for several seconds before the leopard managed to conclude, “All threats intercepted.” On the tactical plot, a half-dozen fresh interceptors took up flanking positions; in their wake, a dozen and a half slower defence fighters slid into place as well, bristling with guns – tiny, but very fast, well-suited to taking down missiles.

“Merciful Father, to you I give thanks,” Rico murmured under his breath. Unbidden, Vree reached over to silence the collision klaxons.

“Reading battleship-class separations from the Steadfast Vanguard,” Vree reported, awe softening his voice. “The Undaunted, the Courageous, the Imperial…” His breath caught, head tilting slightly. “Message for you, Commander, from the INS Calamity.”

Drevin might not have heard of the Steadfast Vanguard, but the other four were all storied names. He swallowed, accepting the comm.

A neatly-groomed, stern-faced wolverine appeared before him, snapping a salute even as her image clarified. “Commander Targe,” she greeted. “This is Captain Khaele Makrynn, commanding the Calamity. We are ordered to see you safely to a gantry and waiting medical teams on the Vanguard, and all our point defence is dedicated to this duty. Admiral Saurok Ferron wishes to meet you and extend her personal thanks for what you have done here while the rest of our force mops up for you.”

Talos whistled softly. “One of the Emperor’s Own,” he whispered.

Drevin slumped in his seat, suddenly feeling very stiff and very, very tired. “Captain,” he replied, belatedly returning the wolverine’s salute, “that is the best news I’ve heard in weeks. Thank you for the timely assistance.”

“Glad to offer it, Commander. You’ve been through several different hells here, I can see that – I only wish we could have been here sooner.”

Drevin spared a glance at the clock, still showing thirty minutes before what he’d thought was an optimistic guess. “You got here faster than any of us hoped, Captain.”

“Even so. Stand by for tractor lock, Commander. We’ll get you taken care of.” Makrynn’s voice softened as she went on, “I’ve got three sons and five grandchildren down there, Targe. In addition to the Admiral’s, I would like to add my personal thanks for what you’ve done here. Makrynn out.” One final salute, and her image faded into static and vanished.

As outside gravity exerted itself on the broken frigate, Drevin closed his eyes at last, letting out a long sigh of relief. At long last and exceeding all hope, it was over. It was all over but the formalities.