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The following is the electronic Advanced Reader Copy originally sent to my Beta Readers in December. Take a look, and if it interests you, the final version is available for purchase now.


The Shang are a truly determined enemy. I think I’ve said something like that before. But it is a point that must be repeated if we are to remember it. Because forgetting it would be disastrous for all of us. They will hunt us until we force them to see that we will cost them more than they think they can gain. They are rational in their own way, you know. The trick is teaching them that we are a tougher nut to crack than they thought we were. The harder trick is cracking them back. The toughest trick is making them realize they’ve been cracked.



Malcolm snapped his five-point harness together to hold him securely and the canopy slid back to seal him away from the rest of the universe. The Blackhawk began to rise and Dawn’s action figure-sized hologram sat down atop the main console in her customary position. The canopy flashed once and the displays began populating it with information as landscape fell away beneath them.

Then their fighter pulled up onto its tail and the main fusion torch drives came to life with a dull roar. They rocketed up into the pale blue sky on tongues of bright blue flames and Malcolm felt the gravity push him into the back of his seat even as the compensators bled off the worst of it. The sky quickly faded to a star-filled blackness, and they accelerated up towards where Wolfenheim held position in the lower orbitals.

They passed the first of the hibernation pods ejecting from the increasingly skeletal ex-starship, and Malcolm tracked their descent towards the new colony. It would take time for all of the pods to leave Wolfenheim and land at the colony site.

They wouldn’t have that time if he didn’t buy it for them.

Malcolm grasped the controls and swept them around the colonization ship to face towards Normandy and the Shang.

Dawn nodded towards one of the displays.

Malcolm shifted to see Olivia’s disapproving face on it and tried not to look like a rebellious little boy.

“Director?” The single word came infused with a thousand meanings that Olivia managed to convey with amazing skill. Disbelief that he could be stupid enough to do what it looked like he was doing. Disappointment in the fact that he was stupid enough to try it after all. Hope that she could dissuade him before it was too late. Doubt that he would be that easy to divert.

“Captain,” Malcolm said as if this were the most natural thing in the world.

Olivia pursed her lips at him with a look that schoolteachers spent years perfecting for use against their most troublesome charges. “Might I ask what you’re doing up here?”

“I’m defending my colony.”

Olivia sighed. “With all due respect, Director, you’re of more use on the ground right now.”

“With all due respect, Captain, the people I hired will run it better than I ever could.” Malcolm corrected. “I’m here to make certain they get that chance.”

“You’re wrong, Director,” Olivia said with a shake of her head. “But I don’t have time to argue with you, so just hold position behind Normandy.”


Her eyes widened in surprise and snapped back to his.

“We’ve done our jobs. We’re done. Complete. Finis. We’ve gotten Wolfenheim here. Now we need to buy her the time she needs to get the colonists down safely. This isn’t our job, now. It’s our life. Every single one of us in these big bad warships and fabulous fighters are expendable. Those colonists are not.”

Olivia let out a long breath as she considered his statement. Then she sighed.

“We haven’t finished rebuilding all of our sensor nodes, and we’ve still got half a dozen power runs that aren’t running power. Most of our backups are working, but I can’t tell you how valuable more eyes in tight formation with us will be. So I’m trusting you to watch my rear while I shoot the bad guys for you.”

Malcolm frowned but couldn’t think of a suitable argument against her request. It made sense, even if it made him feel like he was letting others do more dangerous jobs while he hid around flagship.

“Besides, Caroline’s going to catch us sooner or later, and I don’t want to explain to her that I let you die,” Olivia said with malice aforethought. “We need you to keep her from shooting us on sight.”

Malcolm’s frown deepened at her dirty pool. It wasn’t fair of her to bring it up like that. But he couldn’t fault her on that logic either.

Olivia smiled at the acknowledgement that she was right. “So why don’t you just be a good boy and watch my rear for any nasty surprises the Shang have for us?”

Malcolm couldn’t argue with a single word she said. Well, there was the part where she asked him to be a good boy. He couldn’t let that go without an answering riposte.

“I’ll watch your rear any time you want,” Malcolm said with a wicked wink.

Olivia shook her head. And if she said “Men,” it was soft enough that he could pretend he hadn’t heard it.

He chuckled and slotted his fighter into position behind and above Normandy’s bulk before returning to scanning the displays.

One display flashed for his attention and he focused on it to see a dozen Blackhawks peeling off Normandy’s Combat Air Patrol. Space Patrol? Star Patrol? Whatever it was the navy types called it now. The dozen drones took up formation around his fighter and each one blinked on the display as Dawn successfully brought them under her control.

Malcolm looked up to her holoform atop the main console with approval.

“I love having a whole posse of my own,” she said with a pleased smile.

“Me too,” he answered and flexed his fingers in preparation for the battle to come.

Another display flashed and he checked it to see Erik Torson’s flagship and a stream of escorts accelerating towards them at maximum power. They crossed the Red Line denoting the closest anyone could approach in hyperspace as he watched and Malcolm smiled. Mister Smith hadn’t wasted any time raising a decent jamming wall that should keep the enemy playing honest. Then he saw the twenty Shang ships following the Aesiran across the line while spitting missiles after the fleeing ships.

Malcolm glanced towards Dawn and she nodded in understanding.

“Erik?” Malcolm began in a quizzical tone. “Where’s your convoy?”

Silence answered him for a few seconds until Erik’s smiling face appeared on another display.

“Safe and hiding,” the massive Aesiran said in a thoroughly pleased tone.

“How are you?”

Not hiding,” Erik said with a laugh.

“Giving them a nice big target to pursue?”

“Exactly.” Erik frowned and looked away from Malcolm for a moment. “Though they sent a few more after me than I planned on.”

“I was thinking the same thing.” Malcolm looked around and smiled. “If you pull them in a bit closer I think we can help scrape them off of you.”

“Not that we need the help, you understand?” Erik asked.

“Of course not,” Malcolm answered gregariously. “Just being neighborly over here.”

“Good neighbors are hard to come by,” Erik said.

A display blinked for attention and Malcolm watched the nine Aesiran ships begin laying on more acceleration. Time to intercept blinked on the edge of the display and Malcolm nodded in approval.

The Aesiran had enough of a lead on the Shang that they could reach Normandy, come about to match vectors, and even decelerate down to Normandy’s velocity before the Shang caught up. That would make it nine Aesiran warships and nine Earthbuilt warships upgraded to Peloran tech assembled in a single battle formation.

And then there were the Smiths and their capable little fighters that would sow chaos of their own.

Malcolm nodded again. He would put that force up against twenty Shang destroyers any day of the week.

Another display blinked for his attention and Malcolm brought his head around to see hyperspace open once more in a series of staccato multi-colored explosions. Two. Four. Ten. Twenty ruptures opened and closed and data codes filled the display as it verified what more was coming for them.

Malcolm let out a long breath.

Twenty Shang destroyers moved out of the fluctuating area of space to link up with the first twenty, and Malcolm knew this was not going to be nearly as easy as he’d hoped.

“Well,” Erik said with immense calm. “We won’t have any problems finding people to shoot at.”

“We are moving to meet you,” Olivia broke into the conversation with matching calm. “Don’t worry.”

“What do I have to worry about?” Erik asked with false bravado. “There’s only forty screaming Shang starships on my heals. I laugh in their general direction.”

Olivia smiled at him. “Just as long as you keep running my way.”

“Of course,” Erik said. He snorted then. “I’m a brave and fearless warrior, not a stupid one.”

“Of course you are,” Olivia whispered and gave him an approving look.

Yet another display flashed for Malcolm’s attention and he turned to see Dawn looking at him with a meaningful expression.

“We’ve been analyzing these ships since they first started arriving,” Dawn said. “Their emissions match the two destroyer squadrons we left at Arnami Prime.”

Malcolm blinked in surprise. “They’ve been following us all this way?”

Dawn raised on eyebrow at him.

Malcolm hung his head. It was one of the more unnecessary comments he’d made in the last few minutes. Of course they would have followed if they’d managed to stay close enough to track his people into hyperspace. And if he was being honest with himself, a Class One Colonization Ship like Wolfenheim was a large target to track. But they hadn’t picked up any sign of being tracked. He’d hoped they’d managed to lose any pursuit. Now he know that was a forlorn hope.

Then the second part of her observation kicked in.

“They only had two squadrons near us when we ran,” Malcolm whispered. “And there’s nothing wrong with Wolfenheim’s engines. They may not have been able to slow down to pick up reinforcements along the way.”

Dawn gave him an approving smile. “Exactly.”

“Did you hear that?” Malcolm asked and turned his attention back to the displays showing Erik and Olivia.

“I did,” Olivia said. “That is hopeful.”

Erik gave her a disbelieving look. “So now the fact that we may only be facing forty Shang destroyers is hopeful news?”

“Not exactly hopeful,” another voice said and John Smith’s face appeared on another display. His eyes carried far more experience with death and destruction than his cherubic young face should have held. Then the old man in the young body laughed. “But certainly comforting.”

Erik aimed a disbelieving look at the fighter pilot as the sensor display showed the Aesiran fleet approaching the end of their run. They would need to come about and start slowing down very soon if they planned on linking up with Normandy before the Shang hit them.

“You take your comfort in strange places, Mister Smith” Erik said.

“You have no idea, Mister Torson,” Smith answered. Then he pulled his teeth back into an expression a shark would be jealous of. “But they are about to find out exactly how bad a mistake they made in following us.”

A trio of massive fusion engines lit off nearby and Malcolm turned to the left to see Surprise accelerating away. She’d abandoned her cargo pods in low orbit, leaving her hundred-meter forward wedge mostly alone with the massive engine section designed to drive up to five cargo modules. It made her look like some kind of hot rod dragster hitting the gas and roaring away.

But there was something new about her lines and Malcolm smiled.

Mister Smith had been a busy little beaver since Arnami Prime, and he’d had a fair bit of a smashed up Shang destroyer to be busy with. Yes, much of its structure had been torn down to repair the other ships of their squadron, but nobody had wanted to burn up the weapons. And so Mister Smith had taken those weapons, along with just a little bit of the Shang destroyer’s hull, and built a small weapons pod that now rested between the engines and the main wedge.

It carried ten Shang missile launchers and numerous smaller point defense laser and missile clusters. Adding those to the main heavy gravitic cannon in her nose, and the numerous point defense clusters her main hull carried, Surprise was very possibly the most dangerous warship currently in the system. Normandy certainly carried more weapons, but Malcolm had a feeling that she was about to be awful jealous of what that other little warship was going to do in the next few minutes.

“This is Captain John Smith of Phantom Squadron,” Smith transmitted on all channels. “Marine Fighter Attack Wing One Twelve, The Cowboys. This colony is under my protection. Leave immediately or be destroyed. This is your first, last, and only warning.”

“Do you think your Cowboy knows something we don’t?” Erik asked in a whisper.

“I sure hope so,” Malcolm answered with a smile.

No Shang answered this time. Considering the last commander who answered him had died seconds later after Murphy’s squadron cut the heart out of their formation, that was probably smart of them.

“Mister Smith?” Malcolm asked with a raised eyebrow.

John Smith shook his head in answer.

“I see,” Malcolm said in disappointment. “A bluff.”

“We can’t run this time,” Smith returned with a grim look. “We have to hold the line, whatever the cost. And I will use every weapon I have to do that. Even a bluff.”

Erik nodded in approval. “It is an honor to fight with you.”

Malcolm smiled. “Yes, it is.”

“Cut the chatter, boys,” Olivia said in a far more serious tone. “They aren’t running.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Smith said and the sensor display showed his formation accelerating away from the main fleet to flank the enemy.

The Aesiran fleet swung around in a long arcing curve as Erik smiled. “We will have your flank, my lady.”

Malcolm smiled and placed his hands on the Blackhawk’s controls, mentally preparing himself to become one with his fighter once more. “And I’ll watch your rear.”

Olivia rolled her eyes. And if she said “Men,” it was quiet enough he could pretend not to have heard.

Then it was time to turn his head to the right and watch the gleaming Aesiran ships slide to a relative stop next to him. Psychedelic rainbow hues flowed from their multi-angular hulls with a hypnotic beauty that set them apart from the Peloran, Arnam, or Shang ships he’d seen. They were truly alien in a way that pulled the eyes over them, and it was difficult to think of them as warships.

But point defense satellites hovered around them like tiny flees, strobing death and destruction towards the incoming Shang missiles. Lasers lashed out from the hull to destroy missiles the satellites missed, and energy shields swept across any surviving missiles that came too close for comfort, smashing them away with contemptuous ease.

It was an amazing sight.

“We are here,” Erik announced in a formal tone. “What next?”

“Now we kill them,” Mister Smith returned with a grim look. “Pardon me, but I have some customers to serve.”

His communication cut out and Surprise and his Avengers pulled further away from the combined force.

“That is an elegantly simple plan,” Erik said into the silence. Then he frowned. “Though it lacks some specifics.”

Olivia smiled at him. “Don’t worry. I and your captains have been coming up with those specifics.”

Erik looked away from his pickup for a moment, chuckled, and turned back. “I see you are ahead of me.”

“Professionals,” Malcolm said with a smile. “It’s why we hire them.”

“Indeed,” Erik returned. “Proceed as you are.”

“Thank you,” Olivia said. Then she turned away as another Shang missile salvo erupted.

The displays blinked to show one hundred missiles streaking away from the Shang fleet. Then they multiplied to two hundred. Three hundred. Finally four hundred missiles filled space and accelerated towards the defenders.

Malcolm swallowed and a chill ran down his spine. Even after Surprise’s upgrade, the total number of missiles his fleet could answer with was forty two.

They were outgunned ten to one in a long range duel. It was sobering to realize just how much the Shang outclassed all of their offensive capabilities in a missile duel.

Which was why they weren’t going to engage the Shang in a missile duel.

“All units,” Olivia began to order and movement plans flickered into being on Malcolm’s displays. “Close the range and engage the enemy.”

Hundreds of blue fusion flares ignited at her command and the fleet accelerated towards the approaching Shang destroyers without warning. The Aesiran flares appeared far whiter than the Earthbuilt ships, and they didn’t have the telltale look of fusion fire. Whatever they used was a far cleaner burn, and Malcolm wondered if it was even a fire to begin with.

It looked almost like it could be an energy field.

He watched the Aesiran slide effortlessly into Olivia’s formation on those energy field drives. Then more defense satellites spewed out of their flanks and moved to cover the entire formation like tiny guardian angels as the fleet charged the oncoming Shang destroyers.

The Shang missile salvo burned in and Malcolm felt his Blackhawk vibrate as countermissiles erupted from his missile racks to meet them. More countermissiles streaked out from the other fighters and starships, and decoys and jammers flared in the heavens. Lasers lashed out to burn any missile they could find, and Aesiran defense satellites smashed more aside with their energy shields.

They destroyed hundreds of Shang missiles in the mere seconds it took for them to travel between the two fleets.

But the Shang had sent four hundred missiles on their way, and no point defense network of a fleet that small could stop all of them.

The survivors of that massive salvo met the wall of Terran and Aesiran frigates first. The Shang didn’t want to shoot those tiniest of starships. They didn’t carry enough weaponry to threaten any Shang warship, but they weren’t designed to threaten starships anyways. Every spare meter of their hulls sported sensors and point defense turrets designed to stop enemy missile swarms, and those inner defenses filled space with lasers beams, and shorter ranged countermissiles as the Shang missiles crossed their wall while seeking the larger and more powerful ships behind them.

Six Shang missiles somehow decided to swoop down on Cochrane at the last instant and they tore through her final defense zone in a split second. Her last ditch defenses picked off three of them in that moment, but three missiles made it through everything the frigate had. They smashed into her and she staggered to the side like a kicked puppy as she belched air, fire, and debris into cold space.

Ten more missiles streaked in on Philadelphia and Rouen as they held Normandy’s flanks. The destroyers’ last ditch defenses sent three more into oblivion, and several Aesiran energy shields smashed three more into metallic dust. But everything they had simply wasn’t enough. Both destroyers rocked as the surviving missiles tore at their flanks, but they held their position with a dogged determination.

Then nearly ten percent of the massive volley found their primary target with painful accuracy. Normandy’s last ditch point defenses, Aesiran defense satellites, and more energy shields than he could count clawed twenty of them out of space before they entered their terminal run. Fully ten of them died on Normandy’s deflection grids. But the remaining ten shot through the weakened grids and tore at Normandy herself with horrible accuracy.

The light carrier bucked as her starboard hangar pod came apart without warning and spewed air and debris all over space.

Malcolm’s eyes went wide as the wreckage spread out behind her and he pulled his throttle to the side. Thrusters flared and his Blackhawk accelerated away from the spewing traffic hazard before any of it could hit him. His other fighters echoed his action, but one of them spun out of control as a launch bay hatch blotted one of its engines away in an instant.

“Mother of God,” Malcolm whispered and his heart hammered in his chest. “That was too close.”

“All ships, return fire!” Olivia shouted over the sound of alarms in her background.

A salvo of forty two capital missiles erupted from Normandy and her escorting destroyers and streaked towards the Shang on blue fusion fires. Then a single gravitic cannon opened up and connected Normandy’s nose with a Shang destroyer for an instant. A gravitic cannon designed to stab into the heart of enemy battleships pierced the destroyer’s deflection grid and crushed the warship in an instant.

Malcolm saw the Aesiran destroyers glow as energy crackled from the tips of the many spires surrounding their central core. The energy coalesced around the central spire and then lashed out to connect them with Shang ships in the distance. Armor and structure exploded from their targets as Erik’s command ship joined the assault with a larger energy or gravity beam that simply wiped its target away.

Malcolm shook his head in amazement as his Blackhawk’s capacitors emptied themselves into the gravitic cannon in her nose. Lights dimmed around him and gravitic vortexes from all of his fighters shot out towards a single Shang destroyer. Ten of the cannons hit their target and tore at the deflection grid that was proof against any other assault.

The warship’s gravity generators were far more powerful than any fighter could match, but he had a squadron of Blackhawks, and their attacks drilled down to mere centimeters. The gravitic beams cut through the destroyer’s grid, dictating their will to the universe for a mere second, and tore into armor, and sucked internal air and structure into space. Atmosphere boiled, flames erupted, and the beams bored further into the destroyer’s inner core, pinpricks of destruction that penetrated bulkheads, computer systems, and living beings.

The wounded destroyer twisted away, trying to escape his fighter squadron, and the vortexes ripped through the maneuvering target. The cannons shut down, their capacitors drained, and the destroyer accelerated away, ten horrible claw marks riven deep into the hull, deflection grid rippling like a lake hit by rocks. Then it exploded as its missile bunkers cooked off in an orgy of self-immolation.

“Yippie ki-yay!” Malcolm shouted in exaltation.

Another display flashed for is attention and Malcolm focused on it to see Smith’s ship and fighters slash in from flank and penetrate the Shang formation like a phalanx of sharks. Surprise crushed one destroyer with a sustained gravitic blast, and then her missiles slashed in from point blank range to hammer another destroyer into wreckage. The Avengers joined the assault with thirty-nine gravitic cannons and almost thirty impacted two Shang destroyers with enough firepower to injure cruisers.

What they did to the destroyers was catastrophic. Deflection grids collapsed, armor buckled, atmosphere boiled into space, and explosions rocked the saucer-shaped ships from one side to the other as they tried to maintain formation with their sister ships.

“That’s six of them dead, and eleven damaged,” Dawn said from her perch atop his console. Her voice betrayed her complete and utter approval of that result. “They won’t forget that anytime soon.”

Malcolm nodded in agreement. Six dead enemy destroyers for the cost of one damaged frigate and what amounted to minor damage to Normandy and her destroyers was an insanely impressive return on investment in his opinion. Surely even the Shang wouldn’t keep fighting after being on the wrong end of a loss ratio that heavy.

The Shang fleet twisted to the side as if on queue and began accelerating away from Wolfenheim’s defenders without even bothering to turn. One instant they were on course for planetary orbit, and the next they moved back out towards the edge of the gravitic jamming that kept them in normalspace.

“They’re running!” Malcolm exclaimed in triumph.

“Don’t get cocky,” John Smith ordered as his ships spun around to aim their weapons at the Shang again. “They’re still shooting at us.”

Malcolm turned back to watch something like three hundred missiles launch into space as they opened range again. They streaked in and Malcolm’s fighter vibrated again to the pattern of launching countermissiles to hunt the ship killers. Every ship and fighter in the fleet echoed that response, and a solid wave of point defenses savaged the incoming swarm again.

Only thirty missiles made it through all of those defenses this time, but they focused their fire on the eight remaining frigates holding the forward wall. Four of them lost lock and sought out the largest target they could find. They smashed into an Aesiran destroyer and tore through its combination of shields and deflection grids. Malcolm winced as it leapt like a scalded cat, spinning out of formation and shedding pieces of armor and structure as it went.

The frigates were not so lucky. No less than three missiles found each of them, and one unlucky frigate became the center of attention for a full six missiles. Gravitic energies tore and ripped at the frigates as they held their defensive wall to the very last second. And then all eight of them winked out of the displays as they fell out of the fleet’s defensive formation.

Malcolm looked through the canopy and it faithfully zoomed in to show him the ruin of their wall spreading out and fading away. Some of the ships still lived in some manner, though he wondered if they would ever fly again. Others were simply gone with dispersing wreckage the only evidence that they’d ever existed.

Malcolm’s jaw gaped at the enormity of the damage done to his fleet in so few seconds. His entire screen was gone in a single instant. There was no way they could survive another salvo like that.

“Stay on target,” John Smith ordered as Surprise lashed out at the retreating enemy.

“Roger that,” Malcolm said. Another fleeing target flashed on his display and their recharged gravitic cannons struck out once more.

The Shang fleet writhed under the return assault of gravitic cannons, missiles, and lasers built to burn capital ships and Malcolm watched icon after icon blink off the sensor display. Ten disappeared in all, a full quarter of the Shang fleet, and Malcolm smiled. Six others joined their sisters in orange or angry red to denote heavy damage, and Malcolm rethought his momentary doubts.

Maybe they could hold the Shang after all.

The Shang crossed beyond the Red Line denoting the edge of gravitic interference and seemed to pause for as second. Hyperspace opened around them and the ships faded out of normalspace. Then the displays lit up with the existence of another two hundred missiles shooting in towards the defense fleet.

“They’re targeting Erik!” Dawn shouted as the Blackhawk vibrated around them with countermissile launches.

“I see that!” Malcolm returned as the displays marked the missiles’ inexorable approach.

Normandy’s interposing!” Dawn shouted.

Malcolm turned to see the carrier spinning on her beam to turn her port side to the approaching missile swarm as she swung in front of the Aesiran command ship.

“Ah, hell,” Malcolm muttered and slammed his throttle forward.

“What are we doing?” Dawn asked as they accelerated past the carrier.

“Giving those missiles something else to shoot at,” Malcolm said and relaxed back into his seat.

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Dawn asked with crossed arms and a raised eyebrow.

“No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t,” Malcolm said in response as they plowed into space before the wounded starships. Then he shook his head. “But I’ve lost enough people today.”

Dawn nodded and smiled at that. “Glad to see we’re on the same page.”

A display blinked to show him Jackie White’s Blackhawks moving into position beside him and Malcolm smiled. Then Jones and Anderson joined them and a veritable wall of Blackhawk starfighters held the line.

The Shang missiles were going to have to work for this.

Decoys and jammers shot out from the fighter squadrons, and scores of missiles lost target lock. Laser cannons and countermissiles shot out towards the missiles that fought through the electronic warfare, and scores more died. Normandy added her own fire to the defense, as did Erik’s command ship and every other surviving ship in their formation. Lasers, missiles, and energy shields destroyed scores more, but the fleet’s point defenses had been too badly damaged to stop everything the Shang sent their way.

Malcolm held his hands on the controls as the surviving missiles came in for the kill. His left hand rested on the throttle controlling movement in every direction, his right hand holding the stick directing orientation. It was deceptively simple and complex at the same time, especially for someone who’d never played fighter sims in his life. But training turned it into instinct. He no longer thought about moving. He just moved.

Malcolm felt danger coming, and he went elsewhere. He moved the throttle to the left without taking time to form a coherent thought on the matter. He simply wanted to be elsewhere, and the better part of a dozen fighters accelerated with him as the missiles entered their final attack run.

Several fighters moved between him and the missiles in the last instant. One lost an engine and fell out of formation as a missile exploded near it. Another came apart and her engines exploded out in every direction to a different missile. And a third fighter simply disappeared as it rammed a missile aimed directly at him.

Several more missiles shot past Malcolm on their way to the depths of space, but nearly a quarter of the missile salvo broke past everything he and the fleet could do. Nearly twenty missiles streaked in towards Normandy and impacted on the previously-damaged port hangar bay she’d interposed. The gravitic missiles twisted and tore the hangar bay off the starship and sent its remains careening into the void in a fan of wreckage.

But most of the surviving missiles flew over or under the carrier and arced around to attack Erik’s command ship. Defense satellites and energy shields moved to meet them in orgies of mutual destruction that stopped nearly half of them in the last instant. But almost twenty missiles pushed through every active defense the Aesiran ship had. They tore its deflection grids apart and the starship reeled to the side as it shed entire sections of the smaller spires that ringed the central tower like shattering glass.

“Well, that hurt,” Erik said through the sound of shrill alarms in his background.

“Tell me about it,” Olivia returned with a wry smile. “I don’t have a carrier anymore.”

Malcolm spun his fighter to get a good look at the former carrier.

Normandy’s hangar pods were simply gone, and the clawmarks of gravitic whips had left the wing-like structure that had connected them to the main fuselage in tattered ruins. Even the main fuselage sported clawmarks and one or two of her missile launchers were simply gone. At least her engines remained mostly intact, and most of her other weapons could still fire from the look of things. But there was no doubt that the most powerful warship he’d brought out of Alpha Centauri had been horribly mangled.

“We can still beat them if they come back,” John Smith said as his formation began making its way back to the rest of the fleet.

“But can we survive beating them if they come back?” Malcolm asked with a pointed look at the other fighter pilot.

John Smith gave him a wry look. “Does it matter?”

“It matters to me!” Malcolm retorted.

Then hyperspace opened and forty Shang warships faded back into the system.

Malcolm’s displays flickered as his sensors recognized twenty of them as the destroyers they’d just faced. Though four of the most heavily damaged ones hadn’t returned. That was good news, of a kind. Far worse news was the twenty much larger ships accompanying them, and Malcolm’s heart dropped.

“Well, that’s going to hurt,” Malcolm said with a sigh.

“I don’t recognize those ships,” Olivia said, but her voice was tinged with more interest than a feeling of incoming doom. “What are they?”

“Those are Shang raiders,” Erik answered. “They specialize in looting battlefields and planets after their destroyer escorts deal with any pesky resistance like us.”

“What kind of weapons do they carry?” Olivia asked.

“Pretty light weapons for something their size,” Erik returned. Then he gave her a shrug that spoke volumes. “But considering the damage we’ve taken so far, they’re not light enough for our purposes.”

“So we can not win this fight,” Olivia said as the Shang began to advance on the planet again.

“We shall die together today,” Erik said. “I can think of worse things in life.”

“You are a strange man.” Olivia shook her head but a smile colored her face.

“Just think how strange I’ll be once you get to know me,” Erik returned with an answering smile.

“In all the time we have?” Olivia asked.

Malcolm looked towards Dawn and they shared a smile of their own. At least he could say he would be with friends at the end.

“Don’t knock it,” Erik said. “We’re talking about the rest of our lives.”

Olivia’s smile softened and she nodded in acceptance. “I guess we are at that.”

Malcolm ran his hand over the communications display and it flashed to confirm he was transmitting to all ships and fighters. The Shang continued to accelerate towards their standard missile engagement range and he smiled at the camera.

“Ladies. Gentlemen. And whatever it is the rest of you are.” He flexed his fingers and prepared to face the enemy one more time with a smile on his face. “It has been an honor and a pleasure.”