Cova cast about himself. Where were they? They went into this hangar, he was sure of it. Empty shuttle, empty escort, empty shuttle, another empty shuttle, empty-

"Psst! Cova!"

He spun, spying Naeva hanging out the side of a TP. "Over here." Cova did as suggested, and saw her a little clearer in the gloom for being close. "You made it, then?"

"No, I died. I'm just a ghost, and-"

"Oh, shut up; Trent's getting the ship prepped. Come in, we'll-"

"NAEVA." Alkad's voice boomed in the hangar, over the drumming of the rain on the roof and the bass rolling of thunder.

Naeva stared at Cova. "You didn't kill him?"

"Apparently not," he replied, dripping with sarcasm. "Seriously, you try killing him... Move, let me in. Or we're both dead."

She disappeared into the hatch, and Cova hurriedly stepped through and cycled the airlock. "Trent! Get the shields up."

"I'm working on it," came the muffled reply from the cockpit.

"TRENT." Cova started. Alkad's voice was astonishingly loud in this insulated space. In fact, he was surprised he could hear it at all. He turned to look at the door, the little viewport set into the metal at eye-height. Alkad's face glared angrily back. "COVA."

"Trent, shields...!" Cova warned.

"THAT. IS THE ORDER. IN WHICH. YOU ARE GOING. TO DIE."

"Got it!" There was a brief crackle of static electricity as the energy barrier ionised the wet air, and Alkad took half a step backward as the field pushed him away from the vessel. Cova jogged up to the flight deck. "Now would be a good time to leave," he recommended.

There was a thud that reverberated through the hull. "What was that?" Naeva asked, a frown of confusion on her face.

--

The turret warmed, glowing orange, yellow, white, and finally searing blue as Castro dove towards it. Not good. Not good. Not good not good not good. She pirouhetted aside as it fired, and watched the energy bolt slam into an enemy destroyer, pounding its shields.

Her shield monitors blared as she took a hit from a trio of fighters. "Warning: shields at ten percent."

"Oh, feth off... MacKinnan!"

"On it, Boss."

She barrelled to port, dropped a few of her dwindling supply of missiles and corkscrewed to draw a bead on the foe on the left. MacKinnan nailed the right one as it overshot them. The missiles struck the middle one, atomising it.

"Fleet, Elite Two," she called. "Status on friendly fighter forces?"

There was a long pause. Castro was on the verge of repeating her request when her comm crackled into life. "Elite Two, Fleet. Interceptor squadrons at roughly 75, interdictor squadrons at roughly 60, gunship squadrons at fewer than 40."

"Possibility of refuel, rearm and recharge?"

"Negative, Elite Two. You stay in the black. Fleet, out."

Well, that was just fantastic. She cried out in surprise as a thick orange beam sliced past her ship, causing spots to explode across her vision. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear it. "Stupid, purple, fething fethers..." She regained her full powers of vision in time to see the tail end of the beam impact an Argon destroyer, finally overloading its port shields and gouging into the port forward quarter of the ship. It began to list.

"Mayday, mayday! ANS Tryphon suffering massive damage! Fires uncontrollable... Secondary explosions nearing the main missile magazine. Fleet, we need to pull out, and we need support."

Castro overheard no reply.

"Fleet!"

--

"Dexter, where the merry hell is that trader?"

"Not a clue, sir. He hasn't been responding to my hails. He could be anywhere in the Universe."

"Weapons," Duvall looked across to the other side of the bridge. "Are the supplies we requested absolutely essential?"

"If you're asking if we can do without them, sir, then yes, I believe we can. Most of the gun batteries are at full strength, and the missile magazine is well enough stocked to last a good quazura or so's sustained fire."

"Fine. Clarke, status on the battle, then the storm planetside."

"The Tryphon has suffered a critical hit and is attempting to withdraw. I can't give you a reasonable estimate on the fightercraft battle, I don't have the resolution at this range. All the enemy capital craft are still active, though. Reading some fluctuations in the shield matrices of a couple of the ships, they could be on the point of collapse. I'm not sure."

"And the storm?"

"Abating - but still too thick to see or hear through. I'll keep you informed."

"Please do," Duvall shifted in his chair, uncomfortable. He wasn't used to being out of contact with his exec. Trent had been a friend and ally for a very long time - Duvall had signed him on barely a wozura after the man had achieved the rank of 'commander' on an independent TL. The transition from that to a military vessel hadn't been too difficult.

Although, Duvall had had his suspicions about Trent - and the rest of the crew, to some degree - since he'd got back from the Department's holding cell. There was just something... strange about them. He'd figure it out later.

In the meantime, he'd keep an eye on them, and wait for Trent.

--

The ship rumbled, then steadied to a background hum as the main plasma toroid warmed. There was a brief shudder as the main engines ignited.

"Got it!" Trent punched the air as the panel in front of him illuminated fully. "Okay... out of the hangar now..."

The TP edged forward, towards the open hangar doors. Alkad was nowhere to be seen. As the nose of the ship entered the outside storm, the cockpit windows were immediately drenched and blurred by the heavy rain. An alarm klaxon rang through the cockpit.

"Ship under attack."

"It's Alkad... that damn autocannon. The shields are taking it."

The transport hummed forward, its main engines ticking over, to the launch pad. Alkad pounded the shields all the way, heedless of the rain, and the lightning grounding through the buildings and conductor rods around him. He roared in fury, screaming at the shuttle to come back.

It lifted slowly, almost nonchalantly, as if it were ignoring him deliberately, then the main engines ignitied and it boosted into orbit. As the shuttle cleared the cloud cover, their sensors regained their proper resolution.

"By the High Towers of Terra... I think we'd be better off downstairs," Naeva said.

"What is it?" Trent asked, concentrating on his instruments.

"Look up, you numbnut."

He looked up.

He looked back at his console.

He double-took, and looked back ahead of the ship. There was a brilliant cloud of light in the far distance, far outside Argon Prime's orbit around its parent star. "Is that what I think it is?"

"The Argon Navy is engaging those purple ships you told me so much about. And some big ones you didn't."

"Feth. Naeva, find the Myrmidon. We need to get over there."

"Got it. But there's some kind of power surge in this shuttle... I don't know what's causing it."

The consoles in the cockpit flickered and sparked, then died. The engines sputtered and failed, quiet descending over the vessel as its generators whined down. Even the polarising filters over the cockpit viewport crystal ceased to function. The three squinted in the suddenly harsh light from the star and the battle in the distance.

Naeva poked and prodded at her console. "I still have sensors, for some reason... the Myrmidon has seen us and is changing course to intercept. Whoa... there's a massive ship... huge energy spike... what-"

Naeva chose a very bad time to look up. Trent was still looking down, trying to get the ship to start working again, and Cova had gone back aft to see what he could do manually. At that moment, the huge new ship fired an orange beam as thick as the shuttle and brighter than the system's sun. The light, unfiltered by the cockpit windows, seared her retinas, blinding her. She screamed and covered her eyes, thrashing around in her seat.

"I can't see! I can't see! I CAN'T SEE!"

Trent blinked, clearning the lines across his vision. "Naeva! Naeva, it's okay... it's okay, I'm right here. We're gonna get you to the Myrmidon and they're gonna fix it, it's gonna be okay..."

It wasn't. The beam had struck one of Argon Prime's moons. The uneven, massive heating had shattered the crust, melted the mantle, and forced the core to explode. The moon broke up into several million fragments, all on a decaying orbit. They would strike the planet over a period of a wozura, two or three tazuras from now.

--

"One mizura twenty to intercept, sir."

"Clarke, what happened?"

"Minor EMP pulse ran through the shuttle. The sensor suite survived due to the fact that it has to filter EM noise all the time, but the rest of the ship is without power."

"No," Duvall sighed. "The giant orange beam."

"Right, sorry, sir. It hit the innermost moon, which subsequently shattered. There is no immediate danger to the planet, only the smallest fragments were pushed in the direction of it, they'll burn up on re-entry; the rest is still in orbit. But they won't stay there, they're curving down towards the planet. Two tazuras, four at the outside, before it's rendered uninhabitable."

Duvall absorbed this for a while.

"Sir," called the Ops man. "TP on final approach. Our computers are guiding it in, its astrogation processors are shot."

--

Trent slapped the airlock controls. "Medical assistance! There's a casualty in the shuttle! Now!"

"Aye, sir."

A guerney escorted by two medicos appeared from the nearest aid station, and dashed over to the shuttle.

"Cova," Trent called, "you're coming with me. The captain will need to know what Alkad has done. Goodness only knows what the mercenaries will do now..."

"Sure. You don't want me to go with Naeva, make sure she's alright?"

Naeva, strapped to the stretcher and screaming, was ferried past by the paramedics. "No," he replied. "She's in good enough hands."

"Sir," one of the medics shouted from across the docking hall. "We'll keep her in the aid station here, it's well enough equipped."

Trent nodded and led the way to the nearest pellerator. Inside, he motioned Cova to a seat. "Bridge."

As the capsule moved off, Cova leaned forward. "Why do you need me there, to talk to the captain?"

"I'm not convinced he trusts me. Ever since he was incarcerated by the Department-"

"The who?"

"Under the Director-"

"Alkad mentioned him."

"What?"

"The Director. He said he knew where his family was. So he was working for Duvall while it was convenient, but the Director overrode any authority Duvall had over him."

"This is why I needed you there," Trent said with a wry smile.

The computer's voice sounded over the cabin speakers. "Bridge."

They stepped out, behind a blast door leading to the bridge proper. Trent keyed the actuator code, and the doors hissed apart. "Commander Trent, reporting for duty, sir."

"Good to see you back. What took you so long? And where is Alkad?" Duvall asked from his seat.

"Those two answers are related, sir. Alkad is no longer part of this crew. He killed his second when we landed, and then tried to kill Naeva and myself. He works for the Director. The capital has been taken over by terrorists; they wiped out an entire battalion of the Marines."

"That's it in a nutshell?"

"Yes, sir. Naeva is currently in one of the aft aid stations, she was blinded by the beam that destroyed the moon."

"Helmsman, bring me that battle with all possible haste. All hands, general quarters. Raise shields and charge weapons. Full combat readiness; evacuate and decompress all unessential compartments."

A ragged chorus of 'Aye, sir,'s was followed by blips and confirmatory tones from the various consoles on the bridge.

"Trent," Duvall said quietly, leaning over towards his exec, "What really happened down there? Alkad's crazy, sure, but he wouldn't turn like that. He was too well paid."

"The Director knows where his family is, apparently."

"He told me when he signed on that his family were killed in the Xenon war."

"I don't know, sir. Only what I've been told."

"By him?" Duvall jerked his head towards Cova, who was holding onto a grabhoop set into the bulkhead and looking out of place. "A planethugger policeman?"

"He helped saved my life, sir. I'm inclined to trust him."

"Hm." Duvall straightened, but didn't look convinced. "Helm, how long until battle insertion?"

"Half a quazura or so, sir. The overall drift of the engagement is taking it further towards the edge of the system."

"Plot a parabola upwards relative to the ecliptic. I want to be able to dive through the enemy formation, see if we can't scatter them for the Navy boys."

There was a brief pause. "Parabolic curve plotted, aye."

"Weapons, order all gunnery crews to perform final checks and drills."

"Gunnery acknowledges."

"Helm," Duvall said, looping his feet through graphoops in the deck and standing, "Engage."

--

"Shields, failing."

"MacKinnan!" Castro screamed. "Get these motherfething hullhumping purple bastards off me now!"

"I'm workin' on it, Boss! Just-"

A blast rocked the fighter's stern, sending it into a messy spin.

"Shields, offline."

"MacKinnan."

"Engines, offline."

"MacKinnan?"

"Secondary plasma torus, offline."

"MacKinnan, are you there?"

"Weapons control, offline."

"MacKinnan goddamnit, answer me!"

"Life support, failing."

"Damnit... Fleet, Castro. I need retrieval."

"Main power, failing."

"Fleet?"

"Communications suite, offline."