< Sacred Spear
Sacred Spear

by

John M. Cowan




The number two alert clanged urgently throughout the ship, inexplicably reminding David Stone of a half-remembered tune that he couldn't name. Something jazzy, probably late 21st century, but he couldn't chase it from his head. He tapped his control pad in irritation. I don't need any distractions right now.

"Two Apellian raiders firing on the supply carrier Burnett," said Nita Byrd, his executive officer, and she magnified screen one as Stone nodded. The Burnett's hull was already scarred and scorched. She was sluggishly trying to evade the Apellian's missiles, and firing some of her own, but the raiders clearly had the advantage.

"What's our range, helm?" Stone asked

"Seventy thousand and closing, sir," replied Belario. She was a quick, angular black woman whose fingers seemed able to set courses without conscious direction from her brain.

"Comm, signal the Apellians. They've got ten seconds to cease their attack or we'll fire."

"Aye, sir, signaling." Comm officer Atkins keyed the message. "Doubt if they'll listen, sir." His pudgy face looked impatient for action.

"Probably not." But he had to give them a chance to surrender, didn't he? "Weapons deck, target missiles and prepare to fire on my command."

"Targeting, sir." Weapons officer Kelsey's voice was cool and professional, as always.

Stone glanced around the compact command bridge. He'd been given command of the Veil two months previously and sent immediately to patrol the border sectors of space light-years away from the colony worlds. This was the first time his small ship had come close to actual combat. He wasn't going to take any chances.

What was that song? He wanted to shake it from his head.

He felt Byrd's eyes on him. An intense, experienced officer with short yellow hair and a sharp voice, she'd served as exec under the Veil's previous captain. Why she hadn't been given command was a question he hadn't asked. She'd kept her resentment silent, but it wasn't invisible.

Three two "Weapons deck, fire at will."

He saw multiple darts of light streak across the bottom of screen one. It's started, he thought.

"Burnett reports loss of primary power, sir," said Atkins. "Their life support is close to failure."

"Increase speed." He saw Byrd nod impatiently at the command, and realized he should have given the order sooner. He switch his gaze to the tactical display on screen two, that showed the raiders circling the Burnett with the Veil coming in from mark four descending. They'd reach optimal firing range in about twenty seconds; the smaller Apellian ships would have a harder time targeting the Veil from that distance, which meant --

"Apellian battle cruiser approaching at fifteen lps," Byrd called out. "Range thirty thousand. We are being targeted!"

It filled screen four, a massive craft with a deadly configuration. A cruiser like that would carry four times the number of missiles the Veil had, along with more powerful energy weapons for close-up fighting.

I'm not even afraid, he thought, but his first impulse was to forget the Burnett, turn about and fire every missile the Veil had directly on the cruiser. Destroy it. Wipe it out before it could get him. "Deploy decoys!" he snapped, his voice booming louder than he'd intended. "Helm, increase speed to twelve. Weapons deck, continue firing on raiders."

Twelve was the Veil's maximum speed. The battle cruiser would overtake them in less than three minutes, but if the decoys bought them a few seconds -- "Helm, adjust course to swing around the raiders' position. We'll make it harder for the cruiser to target us -- "

"Sir, the raiders are breaking off their attack." Byrd's voice was urgent. "They're running."

They were zipping away, leaving the Burnett to drift limply in space. Leaving him alone with the cruiser.

Damn. His plan was dead already, unless he used the Burnett as his shield now. Even if he was willing to do that, the cruiser could blast through the Burnett and destroy them both anyway. His only chance at saving it --

"Helm, steer a course wide of the Burnett." Maybe he could draw the Apellians clear. "Weapons deck, target the battle cruiser at our stern and fire at will." Then what? The cruiser would destroy the Veil and head back to mop up the Burnett. But what the hell else could he do?

The tactical display showed the Veil angling away from the Burnett, the cruiser continuing its course at a speed that made Stone feel like a rabbit scurrying desperately from a hawk. Missiles soared from the Veil, only to explode harmlessly against the cruiser's own decoys. The cruiser ignored them.

"No return fire, sir." Byrd sounded worried.

"Good," Stone said, his eyes locked on the tactical screen. "Maybe -- " He stopped.

Damn it! The cruiser wasn't coming after the Veil. It was plunging steadily forward on its course -- toward the Burnett.

"Sir, they're firing on the Burnett," Byrd reported.

He could see. The cruiser's missiles flew like deadly bees, stinging the Burnett over and over again.

"Should we reverse course, sir?" asked Belario

They could come around, counterattack. And be destroyed themselves.

He forced his mouth to open. Yes, he told himself. Say yes. But then the image of the Burnett on screen one imploded in a swirl of plasma and charred matter.

"No," he said. "Take us out of their tracking range. Cancel number two alert."

For a moment the bridge, the Veil, the universe around him was dead silent, and he heard only the faint hum of the nameless tune haunting his brain. He could feel Byrd's burning eyes, and she wasn't even looking in Stone's direction.

"Aye, sir." Belario's fingers slapped her keyboard.

"Shall I prepare a report, sir?" Byrd's tone was full of formal respect, but icy.

He shook his head. "No. No. I'll file the report, thank you."

"As you wish, Lieutenant."

***

He'd dreamed of defending the colonies in a ship under his command since the age of nine. He remembered vividly the day his older brother had been assigned to the Shadow, and the final long argument with father. Daniel had stormed from the house in his uniform, lifted off planet on his ship the following day, and never returned from the Bellona campaign. When father spoke of Daniel after that, it was to order David never to follow his footsteps to the stars.

So, of course, David had enlisted on his eighteenth birthday. Six years later he'd achieved his dream: command of his own ship. A patrol craft, crew of twenty -- not exactly commodore of the colony fleet, but he'd been confident something like that would come, in time.

Until today.

He stared at the text of his report, the words swimming in his tired eyes. Every decision seemed correct, but every command had been a mistake. The Veil couldn't possibly have rescued the Burnett, couldn't have taken on the cruiser, would have wasted the lives of its crew if he hadn't withdrawn -- and yet he'd failed. In his first battle action, he'd barely fought before running away. And beneath his shame and anger he felt the most damning emotion of all.

Relief.

He was still alive. Still breathing the Veil's recycled air, still pumping blood with a living heart, still holding a future in his mind.

Even if he had no idea what he was going to do the next time he stepped out onto the bridge.

With a silent curse, he encoded the report, uploaded it to the Veil's log, and keyed in a transmit order. Atkins would detach a courier pod toward the colonies, and in a few days the incident would be part of his permanent record.

He stood, stretched his tense shoulders, and returned to the bridge.

Byrd shifted from his chair to her station automatically. "Status, Nita?"

"Quiet, sir." She took her station without any additional comment.

Very quiet. The motors hummed steadily, the computers buzzed softly, but no one spoke. No one looked at him.

A surge of anger ran through him. Did they think he was happy about the Burnett's destruction? But he forced himself to stay calm. Fight the real enemy, he told himself.

"Byrd, what do we know about the Apellian cruiser?"

She peered at her computer screen, still keeping her eyes away from his. "Standard attack cruiser, sir. Heavily armed and heavily armored. Fast on a direct course, but not as maneuverable in a tight spot. No ID."

Bigger, tougher, faster than the Veil. "All right. The Burnett was probably coming from Epsilon Station. Plot a direct course from her last position back toward Epsilon. Maybe we'll run across the raiders again."

"Aye, sir," said Belario.

"Byrd, send me the data we recorded on that cruiser." He flipped up his personal computer screen. "I was weapons deck officer on the Osiris. I might notice something we can use."

"Sharing data, sir."

Not a spare syllable. Maybe their attitude would shake itself out in a few hours -- or days. Maybe not, but a temper tantrum right now would only alienate everyone further. He sat back and began studying the cruiser data.

***

The Apellian conflict was over twenty years old. Hundreds of humans and Apellians had been killed in an endless series of violent skirmishes across the stars. Home worlds were too heavily defended for any overwhelming assault, so battles were limited to colony worlds and disputed star systems. Stone had studied the history of the conflict in school, but while the details were tangled, the roots of it were simple: the first encounters between the two races had been unbelievably violent. Negotiations turned into explosive clashes. Now, until one side was defeated or destroyed, they fought across the galaxy interminably.

That was life for everyone on the Veil.

"Lieutenant -- three Apellian vessels on the outer edge of our sensor range." Byrd's voice was restrained but her face showed excitement. "Screen two tactical. Size and configuration match the two raiders. No trace of the cruiser."

Stone sat forward. "All right. Helm, speed at twelve. Direct intercept. Weapons deck -- target missiles. Fire at range eighty thousand, or farther if you can, on your best judgment. Comm, sound full alert."

The blare of the alert signal sang through the ship. Stone tapped his foot anxiously on the deck. All they needed to do was get a few good missiles off, and the Burnett would be at least partially avenged. As well as his own conscience. He frowned at the thought. A good leader didn't base decisions on his or her personal interests. But it would feel good to send a positive report back home.

"Weapons deck here, Lieutenant. Missiles away."

Highlighted crimson trails showed their paths. The raider trio began defensive reactions. They were fast, matching the Veil's maneuverability. The battle would be over, one way or another, fairly quickly.

"They're launching missiles, sir." Byrd's face tightened. "Deploying decoys."

"Helm, attack pattern five-one, but use your judgment."

"Aye, sir."

"Our missiles are closing," said Byrd.

Stone nodded. Two crimson trails converged on one green Apellian icon. The trails vanished, and the icon turned red, indicating a hit. The raider stopped moving.

"Automated distress calls from the raider," said Atkins. "They're disabled."

Stone grinned.

The two remaining ships wove their way around the first missile waves. Their own missiles rolled inexorably forward. Decoys detonated a handful; others were scattered by the Veil's targeting jammers; defensive lasers blew away those that closed in within a hundred kilometers.

The weapons deck launched more missiles; the raiders responded. The three ships dodged and jabbed at each other on the tactical display, fighting to maintain the optimum distance and angles that would keep them within firing range but not too near each other.

Stone's head felt the familiar intense sensation of full mental engagement as he monitored the tactical display, asking for information and giving orders. It was like a direct connection to the ship and his officers, and it was exhilarating despite the ever-present fear. One Apellian missile skimmed the hull and detonated just a few yards off to the stern, pelting the Veil with fragments. A laser shattered another incoming missile, the view from screen one bathing the bridge in a momentary glare of orange energy.

"Damage to radiation shield," Byrd reported.

"Weapons deck, what's our armaments status?" He didn't want the Veil to run low on destructive power.

"We're at sixty percent of our full load, sir. I've been using nukes, but we're heavy with energy weapons."

"We need to finish this." Getting tied up in a fight too long meant wasting fuel, and time. "Prepare a full spread of -- "

The Apellian missile came from nowhere, through the decoys and around the laser defenses. It slammed the Veil's hull and exploded in a crackling ball of plasma that sent a shudder throughout the ship.

"Direct hit! Deck three, section six," Byrd shouted. "Hull breach." Belario fought her instruments for attitude control; Stone heard cursing from the weapons deck. Something cold and heavy sank inside the pit of his stomach.

The raiders circled at a safe distance. Stone stared at the tactical screen, wanting to scream at them, hurl something, spit. But he felt suddenly paralyzed and helpless in his chair. His second battle. Don't let them finish us off like this.

"Hull breach contained," Byrd snapped. She wanted orders from him. Decisions. Command.

Before he could speak they all saw the two raiders take action. One broke off, racing away, as if giving up. The other launched itself straight at the Veil, as if intent on a suicidal rush of destruction. Missiles streamed from the ship. On screen one they looked only centimeters from Stone's throat.

"Helm, full evasive!" he ordered. "Withdraw at full speed! Weapons deck, defensive targeting! Fire at will!"

Belario responded with automatic obedience. The Veil's controls responded more sluggishly, but the ship still had speed and power. Stone felt the push of acceleration and heard the rising hum of the strained engines, and watched the raider and its missiles shrink on screen one as the gap between the two ships grew wider on the tactical display.

He took a deep breath, relief filling his body along with the oxygen. They were going to make it. The raider was falling behind. They were safe --

"Sir! The Apellian cruiser is on intercept toward us!" Byrd stabbed at her controls. "Range fifty thousand!"

Like a grizzly bear rearing on its hind legs, the cruiser burst onto screen three. Its thrusters blurred with power as it raced toward the Veil from behind. Stone felt his face grow cold as he stared at the image.

Where the hell did it come from? Yelling angry questions at Byrd wouldn't help the situation, but he couldn't hold back a furious glare. He saw her eyes flicker but she ignored him as she monitored the ship's systems, looking for any kind of edge they could use against the enemy ship.

Belario swung the ship in a rapid dodging pattern, trying to take advantage of the Veil's maneuvering skills. On the tactical the raider gave chase as well. It didn't have the cruiser's speed, but it was closer. It approached from a wide angle to the cruiser, and if the Veil didn't evade one the other would have a clear field of fire. Stone bitterly wished he'd held his position and kept up the attack. The Veil would have made a more difficult target --

Byrd recognized the chance before Stone could give the order. "Helm, bring us about on an intercept for that raider!" she said.

Belario obeyed instantly. The tactical display shimmered as positions whirled. In a moment the raider lay straight ahead of the Veil, and the cruiser was slowly turning to follow them.

"Get around him!" Stone ordered. "Get him between us!"

Belario nodded tensely. Missiles from the cruiser sailed past as the Veil spun around and slipped behind the raider, using it to block the cruiser from getting a clear shot for the moment. The raider twisted and thrust forward, trying desperately to slip out of the way. Missiles from the Veil swarmed the space around it, but whether the weapons deck was targeting the raider or the big cruiser Stone couldn't be sure. At this range the weaponry team couldn't provide pinpoint accuracy -- they were just throwing everything they had into the vacuum, hoping something connected.

Something did. Stone was never sure which ship's missiles hit what, but suddenly the raider lurched wildly to one side, with plasma belching from its hull. The plasma spark another detonation from a nearby missile, launching a chain reaction that the cruiser couldn't pull away from. It stormed through a fiery cloud of explosions, but its maneuvering was wobbly and uncertain as it emerged.

This was their last chance. "Belario, full evasive! Top speed! Run like hell!"

Belario hit the keys hard enough to snap them off. On screen one the raider spun helplessly, venting atmosphere and more plasma from a second breach.

The cruiser struggled for attitude control. Then Stone felt the Veil's drives kick into high thrust. The tactical image flickered from all the incoming data, then stabilized to show the Veil hurtling at top speed away from the fatally-wounded raider as the cruiser floundered without a firm heading.

"Helm, what's our status?" Stone asked.

"We're clear of the cruiser's range, sir. If we keep this speed and they don't recover, we'll lose them in four minutes."

"Good." He sagged in his chair, feeling the sweat beneath his clothes and the exhaustion in his nerves. "Keep running."

"Aye, sir." Her voice was hoarse. "Running at twelve point five."

He leaned back for a deep, grateful breath of stale ship's air. Byrd's eyes met his as he exhaled.

Angry eyes.

What was her problem? They'd destroyed two Apellian raiders, damaged a cruiser, and they were alive. Alive. What more did she want? "Something wrong Byrd?" he asked.
She kept her eyes locked with his for a moment, then shook her head. "Not at all, Lieutenant."

***

Hours passed. Stone left Byrd with the bridge to walk through the ship, talking to the crew, checking on damage and morale. He stopped in his quarters for a fresh shirt. He needed a shower, but that might lead to a nap in his exhaustion, so he ordered up some coffee and carried the mug back up to the bridge.

"Sir, I've got a positive ID on the Apellian cruiser." Atkins pointed toward Stone's control. "It's all right there."

Stone smiled. "Give me the short version, why don't you?" He watched Atkins brighten proudly.

"The name translates to something like Sacred Spear. It was part of the attack on Phadreus colony, and took some damage there. It's been modified from the original design, and it isn't as effective as any of their up-to-date cruisers. Which is probably why it's out here in the border sectors."

Stone accessed Atkins' data. "Good work. Send it all down to the weapons deck."

Atkins nodded eagerly. Byrd grinned and gave him a pat on the shoulder.

"Belario, what's out ETA to Epsilon station?"

"Two days at present speed, sir."

Two days. He wanted to go faster, to get back as soon as possible for repairs. But there was no point in pushing the engines as long as they stayed clear of the cruiser. The Sacred Spear. "Steady as she goes, then."

The silence that answered him was almost palpable. He felt as if everyone's eyes were burning into him, but no one let a glance fall in his direction.

Did they want to meet the cruiser again?

Stone stood. "I'll be studying the data in my office," he said, the statement more abrupt than he'd intended. "Byrd, you have the conn."

"I have the conn," she responded automatically. Still avoiding his eyes.

His eyes and mind refused to focus on Atkins' information on the Sacred Spear. From day one, academy training had emphasized the ability to concentrate on the task at hand, shutting out all other distractions -- like the tune running through his head during the first encounter with the cruiser. But in OCS one instructor had taught that some distractions demanded attention. Push them away, and they push back harder. Maybe this was one.

With a frown, he quit the file and accessed the Veil's service logs. Perhaps learning something about her history would tell him what the crew expected from him.

***

"Lieutenant?" Byrd spoke through the intercom with no expression in her voice. "Otombu has the conn, sir. I am off duty."

"All right -- no, wait. Come to my office." He rubbed his eyes. What time was it?

The door opened. "Reporting as ordered, sir."

"Sit down, Nita." He watched closely as she perched herself on the edge of the other chair. Her face was flat, her eyes carefully neutral. She breathed slowly and deliberately, with an enforced calmness.

"I've been reviewing the Veil's record." He gestured toward his computer monitor. "You've had a busy couple of years on patrol out here."

"Lieutenant Lee was very -- aggressive. Sir."

Aggressive. Yes, that was it. "I can see. You managed to destroy more than twenty Apellian ships of one size or another, and seized more than a dozen."

She nodded proudly. "We had assistance from other patrol craft, of course, but -- yes sir. We had a good run with Lee."

"Casualties, of course." He glanced at an image on his screen -- one of the crew members the Veil had lost in action. "I was at the academy with Ron Dennie. The service lost a good man in that action of yours."

She blinked. "War has risks, sir."

"And victory has a cost."

She said nothing.

He crossed his arms and stared at her. "Something on your mind, Byrd?"

She sighed, as if the question exasperated her. "May I speak off the record, Lieutenant?"

"Sure."

Byrd leaned forward to take advantage of the moment before he could change his mind. "Sir, are we going to spend the rest of this tour running from Apellian ships?"

"We didn't exactly run from three raiders yesterday. I -- we didn't run from the Burnett's distress signal."

"We're running from that cruiser, sir. The Sacred Spear." She looked as if she wanted to wash her mouth out from saying the name.

"That cruiser has four time the mass and firepower that the Veil does. And we are damaged."

"The Veil is not a ship that likes to run away from action, sir. These people aren't here to become cowards."

The word hung in the air. Just as she seemed that she might be starting to regret it, Stone spoke. "Are you calling me a coward, Nita?"

She shook her head, angry with herself. "No, sir."

But you've been thinking it? Stone knew he had.

"Why aren't you in command of the Veil?" he asked.

She blinked, surprised by the change of subject. "I -- I don't know, Lieutenant. I submitted a request."

He knew the drill. Paperwork -- and laying your ego on the line. Waiting for the rod, and trying to hide your feelings when the word was no. He nodded sympathetically. "And Command, in its unquestioned wisdom, named me instead."

Byrd said nothing.

What was she thinking? He'd never know. But Command had picked him and not Byrd, and they both had to live with that.

Time to say something, he thought. "Your points are well taken, Byrd. But I'm just not going to push this ship into an action we can't win, not without some clear purpose to it. We're going in to Epsilon for repairs, and I hope we don't find the Sacred Spear waiting for us anywhere." He couldn't think of one thing more to say. "Dismissed."

She gave a curt nod as she stood. "Sir."

He'd hoped to clear the atmosphere between them a little, but Byrd could be damned hard to read when she didn't want to share her feelings. At least she didn't seem to have held anything back. He'd observed that she didn't seem to have any hidden agendas. When she spoke her mind, she let everything out. But that hadn't happened. Did I do any good?
He went back to the cruiser data. Now his mind felt clear, at least. Maybe he could find something useful, just in case he didn't get his wish.

***

"That's it, sir." Byrd activated the tactical display on screen two. "Sacred Spear on intercept at range ninety thousand." Her eyes narrowed as the Apellian battle cruiser loomed on screen one.

Damn. They were less than twelve hours from Epsilon. His nerves were raw from coffee and lack of sleep. "Evasive maneuvers, helm. Full speed."

"Evasive maneuvers aye, sir," Belario responded crisply. She'd already prepared a series of maneuver strategies.

Stone keyed the weapons deck. "Weapons deck, are you tracking the cruiser?"

"We've got him on distant targeting, sir."

"Stand by on decoys. Let him get as close as you can before you open fire. Are your people clear on that schematic we looked at?"

"I've got it locked in, sir. Just give me the range."

Studying the images they'd captured during the cruiser's two actions against the Veil, Stone had noticed a detail: They'd modified one of their waste elimination shafts to vent excess radiant plasma from their engines.

A missile in that shaft could disrupt the plasma flow and send the energy back up into the cruiser's engines, possibly causing an overload. But the Veil would have to be closer than Stone wanted to get, and luckier than he felt.

"The Apellian is in pursuit," said Byrd.

"Time to intercept?"

"Optimum missile range in five minutes."

Fortunately the cruiser's effective missile range was roughly the same as the Veil's. The Apellians couldn't sit back and pummel Stone's ship from safety. "Give us everything you've got, Helm."

Byrd, watching screen one from the corner of her eyes as she monitored her instruments, surprised him with a slight nod of agreement. Maybe she'd lost her eagerness to die bravely in battle.

"Incoming missiles, Lieutenant!" Her call came quicker than he'd hoped for. Stone blinked at the clock on his control pad and took a deep breath, feeling oddly detached from the prospect of imminent destruction. His throat felt tense as he keyed the weapons deck.

"Weapons deck, deploy your decoys and fire at will." His own voice sounded distant.

"Weapons deck, firing."

Stone sat back to watch the tactical display. The Sacred Spear was closing in, but Belario was taking advantage of the Veil's lighter mass to stay at the far edge of the Apellian's range. He wished for an asteroid, a comet, another ship -- something to use for a moment's safety. But out in open space, they were alone and exposed.

Light flared against the Apellian's flank. "The enemy has taken a hit," reported Atkins. "Damage to secondary thruster units."

The deck rocked under Stone's heel.

"Damage to weapons deck! Battery two is offline -- we have live missiles -- damn it, open that release -- "

The ship suddenly seemed to spin sideways in a dizzying whirl. He grabbed his chair, fighting the panic that swirled through his chest. In a moment the universe skidded to an uncertain halt, and he gulped a quick breath to force his brain to start working again.

"Status!" he shouted hoarsely. The number one alarm began howling.

"Explosion in missile battery two," Byrd reported, her voice shaking. "Hull integrity is secure."

"Weapons deck, report!" Stone called.

"Sir, we had a live missile in the chute when control went down. We had to eject it manually, but it detonated just outside the hull." The voice paused. "We've got injured here, sir."

"Medic to battery two, on the double!" Byrd ordered.

The deck beneath their feet trembled. "Primary attitude control is down!" Belario said. "Switching to backup systems!"

"Damn!" Standing, Stone glared at the menacing image of the Sacred Spear in screen one. The tactical display showed it closing on the Veil as Belario struggled to regain maneuverability. If the weapons deck couldn't recover -- "Weapons deck, what's your status?" Stone demanded.

"Sir, we've lost battery two, and half of battery three looks fused. Battery is operational, but tracking software is down -- "

"Carry on!" He shook his head in frustration, letting anger mask his fear. Without speed and maneuvering ability, the weapons deck was all the Veil had to depend on.

"Byrd!" He turned toward the lift. "I'm going down to the weapons deck! You have the conn! Do whatever you can to get us away from that ship!"

She looked startled, even as she automatically responded, "I have the conn." For the first time Stone saw nervousness in her face. He wondered what she could see in his.

The weapons deck stretched the full length of the Veil's hull, a long dark corridor with missile banks on either side. It smelled of smoldering fire, crackling ozone, and cold sweat. Stone saw hastily-erected shielding covering two missile bays, and heard only anxious, strained breathing from the weapons crew as they struggled to do their jobs at the remaining weapons batteries.

"Kelsey!" Stone stepped quickly across the deck, his feet slipping on -- blood? Or insulating fluid. "What's working here?"

Kelsey, a black man whose head came close to scraping the ceiling, looked at Stone with an impatient curse in his eyes. "Sir, we have four fully operating missile bays on port, and two running on manual controls only at starboard. Targeting systems are online, thank god, but we're down to about twenty percent of our missile load, and our energy weapons are charged at 80 percent because -- "

"Forget them." Energy weapons wouldn't stop a cruiser like the Sacred Spear. "Forget the manual controls, too. Use the port batteries and keep firing." He slapped his hand across a comm pad. "Bridge! Starboard missile bays are out! Orient course to keep the cruiser in our port firing field!" He turned to look for a tactical display.

The Sacred Spear was approaching, but it had slowed its speed. Caution? Picking a target for the final blow? No one quite knew how the Apellians decided on an attack strategy. But it gave the Veil at least one more chance to hit them.

"Firing missiles," Kelsey announced in a quiet, tense voice. Stone tried to watch both screens simultaneously. Missiles like gray darts flitted from the Spear on the visual display just an instant before the Veil's missiles made contact.

Bursts of light flared across the cruiser's hull. Most flickered out in an instant; one grew, spreading in a jagged circle for a full second before winking out. Stone heard a rowdy cheer from the missile crew.

Shut up, he thought savagely, bracing himself for the coming impact. The Sacred Spear's missile hit a second later.

The shock wasn't as severe as he'd expected. The weapons deck shuddered, then stopped. Before he could draw a breath of relief, though, an explosion rocked the Veil and threw him across the deck. His head slammed into the edge of a hatch, and for a moment he thought the Veil was erupting into a ball of plasma and melting steel. When his vision cleared he wondered whether that wouldn't happen in a few moments anyway.

Screams and gas poured from the direction of the port missile batteries. One crew member crawled across the deck holding her burned head as if afraid her raw scalp might slide off. Another slumped next to her, breathing in deep gasps that stopped abruptly as Stone watched.

He lurched around unsteadily, found the comm pad by instinct, and hammered it with his fist. "Damage to weapons deck! Medic to weapons deck, now!"

Kelsey staggered out of the darkness, a gash across his forehead. Stone grabbed his arm. "Is anything left? Do we have weapons?"

"I don't " Blood dripped into his eye. He wiped it, and stared at his hand. "No. They hit the battery full on. Bringing it back up -- " He shook his head. "It'd take hours."

Then we're dead. Stone managed not to say it out loud, but with a feeling of dread he turned his eyes to the tactical display.

He'd expected the cruiser to close the distance between them. Instead the Sacred Spear had dropped its speed even further. "Bridge! What's with the Apellian? Report!"

"Damage to its thruster control, Lieutenant!" Byrd sounded overjoyed. "That last salvo did it!"

"It almost did us, too." He leaned forward, switching to the visual display. The cruiser seemed to drift on its heading as it pushed forward, pulling in one direction, then correcting its path with a compensating blast from the thrusters that still worked. Its advantage in speed was gone.

"I've got us on an evasive course, top speed," Byrd said. "We're at the edge of his missile range right now. All we have to do is reach Epsilon perimeter."

Run away,
Stone thought. How do you like it now?

The cruiser doggedly surged forward through space. Stone let Kelsey trudge across the deck to help the medics while he expanded the tactical display.

They could maintain their speed and distance and just barely get close enough to Epsilon to signal for assistance. But if the cruiser managed to repair its thrusters, or hit the Veil with a lucky shot, or if something happened to the overstressed engines or the navigational systems, or if another raider showed up --

"Kelsey." Stone turned. "Kelsey!"

Kelsey looked ready to drop flat on the deck. "Sir?"

"We need to get those starboard batteries ready to fire!"

His eyes widened, but he seemed to lack the energy to hesitate. "Aye, sir." He swung around and lurched toward the remaining missile bay.

"Bridge! Helm, change course to take us in missile range of the cruiser." He paused for a deep breath, ignoring the desperate pounding inside his ribs. "Confirm."

Belario's response was slow. "Orders confirmed, sir."

"Sir, this is Byrd. The cruiser is still armed, sir. Closing on her in our current condition is a risk. For the record, sir."

He stifled the bitter laugh rising from his throat. Finally they'd reached common ground. "The Veil is not a ship that likes to run away from action, Nita. Let's do this."

Her voice was was grim. "As you say, sir."

Stone raced to Kelsey's side at the starboard battery. "How are we coming, Kelsey?"

"One missile loaded and armed." The cut of his forehead had started to coagulate, but sweat dripped from his temples. "Give me two minutes and I'll have the other bay ready."

"Do it." They probably wouldn't be able to get more than one missile away, but a little insurance couldn't hurt.

Stone brought up the cruiser's schematic on the targeting software. "Manual control" didn't mean physically handling the missiles; but each one had to be loaded, targeted, and launched by individual command. Programming a wide spread was virtually impossible in a combat situation, even if the Veil had more than two operational missile bays to work with. All they needed was one direct hit, but one shot was likely all the Veil would get.

He entered target coordinates and checked the range while Kelsey worked at the other missile bay. Belario had followed orders, and the Veil was now well within optimal firing range, on a course that veered about to bewilder any tracking systems as much as possible. The cruiser hurled itself eagerly toward them, just like the spear its name symbolized.

No more time to waste. "Firing missile," Stone said, and punched the control. He felt the missile slide down the chute and launch itself into space.

"Damn!" Kelsey spit on the deck in frustration. "This tube's warped or something. I can't get this."

"Let's load another one in here." Stone tore his eyes from the Sacred Spear's rapidly-growing image. He didn't want the Apellian ship to be the last sight in his eyes. "Get some decoys out."

"Decoys away, aye." Kelsey reached for a control next to the launch mechanism, lost his balance, and toppled to the deck.

"Medic!" Stone slapped at the decoy release as Kelsey rolled over, his eyes blank. "Medic, goddamnit, get over here!"

"Got him, sir." A medic sank to the deck and began inserting an IV tube into Kelsey's arm. Blinking sweat from his eyes, Stone got to his feet.

"Bridge, report!" His eyes sought the missile monitor. His shot was still on course, flaming toward the cruiser despite defensive decoys and Apellian jamming efforts. "Come on, come on," he muttered.

"Incoming fire is light," Byrd replied. "It looks like some of their weapons systems were knocked offline as well as ours. Do we have anything left?"

"Just energy weapons." Useless at this range even if they could stop the Sacred Spear. "Continue evasive maneuvers and withdraw from missile range." Make up your mind, he thought to himself.

The Apellian cruiser's path was unsteady, but it refused to flinch. Stone felt a strange, detached sensation of calm settle over him. One way or the other, the action would be decided soon. Everyone had done their best. Except me, he thought. Maybe. He'd know in a moment.

"Come on," he urged the missile. "Come on."

The medic stood up. Stone looked down at Kelsey. Sightless eyes stared up from a frozen face.

"Sorry, sir," she told Stone.

The missile monitor blinked once. The screen went black, then displayed the words TARGET IMPACT.

On the view screen the Sacred Spear began spilling uncontrolled plasma from the modified vent, plasma that ate through the hull around it like a hungry rat. The cruiser wobbled on its course, swerving wildly in one direction and then another.

"Major damage to Apellian cruiser," Byrd announced. "The Sacred Spear has broken off pursuit. They've lost guidance systems and attitude control. It's no longer a threat."

Stone swallowed. He'd expected relief, even joy. But he felt empty. Empty and tired.

"Let's put some distance between us just for good measure," he said. "Continue our course toward Epsilon. I'll be right up.""

"Resuming Epsilon Station course, aye," Belario said.

Stone crouched, gently placed his thumbs on Kelsey's eyelids, and slowly pulled them down. "You did good, Kelsey," he whispered.

He forced himself to stand, straightened his vest, and made his way toward the lift.

***

"I have the conn," he said quietly as he entered the bridge. "Status?"

Byrd replied from her station: "Bridge functions are operational, engines functioning within normal parameters, ships system running normally. The weapons deck -- "

"I know about the weapons deck," he snapped. "Casualties?"

She sighed. "Four dead, three seriously injured."

"Have medical alert me when I can see them. Helm, arrival at Epsilon Station?"

"Ten hours, forty-one minutes, sir." Belario sounded relieved.

Stone folded his arms. Safety. For a few days, until they repaired the damaged weapons systems and sent them back out on patrol again.

Suddenly he couldn't wait.

THE END



Bio: John Cowan edits newsletters on leadership and business management, and has written articles on speechwriting, public speaking, communication, technology, and dozens of other topics he can't think of right now. He lives in Chicago with his lovely wife, their son, and an extremely large cat named Climber.

E-mail: JCowan@ragan.com

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