Earth, centre of the Commonwealth.

January 2268.

After centuries of maltreatment, the Earth was finally starting to give up. The atmosphere was now maintained by a number of orbiting environmental drones, but all they seemed to do was lend the planet an artificial quality. Little had come of the wonders technology promised to bring: people will still starving, or dying en masse from incurable disease and, up in the stars, war was being waged. It had been nicknamed the Infinity War, or the I-War for short, due to its duration of over a century. Still, after all this time, there seemed to be no end in sight, as the Commonwealth and its huge naval fleet fought against the guerrilla tactics of the Independence Movement.

Standing under the heavy grey clouds, Captain William de Retz stared out across the still waters of Scapa Flow. He often came here to think, but had no idea what the attraction was. Perhaps it was the still, quiet atmosphere that emanated from the shallow waters, the rusting hulks of old battleships lying for eternity on the sea bed. Today he had come here because he desperately needed the peacefulness offered by the area. Having sat through three days of talks chaired by the odious but very dangerous President King and featuring the higher echelons of the admiralty, none of whom seemed to know anything about what was really happening out there, he now had to ferry one of the trumped-up buffoons halfway across the Commonwealth. The wind whipped around him, his black hair blowing and the chest-flap on his dark-blue naval uniform billowing gently. As the wind increased its efforts, the commlink unit at his side bleeped: an indication of an incoming transmission. De Retz grabbed the hand held unit and touched a pad on the front; a flickering, holographic image of Commander Breem appeared. A thin smile played across his black face.

"Good afternoon, Captain," the executive officer's voice sounded over the crackling comm-line. "Just thought I'd better let you know: the ship's ready to go."

"Nice work," said de Retz. He sighed softly. "I suppose I'm done down here, anyhow. Get Saltlake to send a shuttle down to my co-ordinates, would you? I'm sort of in the wilderness at the moment."

"Sure thing," said Breem. "I'll see you later, sir."

"Indeed." De Retz cut the comm-link. He sighed once more, deeper this time, and gazed out across the waters once more.

***

The huge black midsection of Saltlake Base, the massive orbital spacedock orbiting the Earth, rotated slowly. Amidst the vast array of commercial and naval shipping, one Corvette sat stationary, attached to one of Saltlake's spider-leg docking piers. As the light from the Sun gleamed across its elliptical metallic hull, its name and designation were revealed: Eclipse, CNV-492. It was one of the latest revisions to the Dreadnaught-class, a design that had proven its worth for over twenty years, and was now one of the most popular in the fleet.

On the Eclipse's bridge, Breem was making the final preparations for launch, assisted by the helmsman, Simon Bleak. Bleak was a young man, relatively inexperienced, having only been serving on the ship for about two months. As usual, the bridge was filled with the noise of the various computer systems and the deep, rhythmic humming of the engines.

"Tobias?" Bleak asked the executive officer. "Any idea what our mission is going to be?"

Breem glanced up from the weapons console where he could usually be found. "The captain didn't look too pleased about it when I spoke to him, so my guess is that we won't like it." He grinned. "You looking for some action?"

Bleak met the exec's smile. "Well, we have just spent the last three weeks mapping stars. That's not exactly what I signed up for."

Breem's smile faded somewhat: "Let me tell you something about action: it's all very well yearning for battle, but every time you're out there, every time you're facing death head on, you'll be begging for these quiet times. There's nothing that makes you appreciate life more than the notion that, in a split-second, it might all be over."

The atmosphere became tense, and silence descended on the bridge, save the familiar sounds of the ship. This was broken when the onboard computer, in its impersonal, expressionless female tones announced: "A boarding request is coming from the upper docking collar, currently connected to Saltlake Base pier seven."

"Identify," Breem ordered.

"The request originates from Captain William de Retz, Commonwealth Navy serial number CNS-8697—"

"Allow." Breem cut the computer off.

The sound of the docking airlock opening and then closing again resounded throughout the ship.

Breem snorted suddenly, and glanced back at Bleak. "Ignore me. I've been flying around the galaxy for years now. I'm getting tired."

"Oh, come on, Tobias," Bleak laughed, "you're not that old. How many years have you been in the navy? Ten? Fifteen?"

"Twenty-six," Breem answered. "Twenty-six years and I've never been promoted past commander. When I was your age I dreamt I'd be commanding a whole fleet of ships by now."

The large metal bridge door opened up, and Captain de Retz walked in. He strode quietly over to his command chair in the centre of the bridge as the door slid shut.

"Commander Breem, Ensign Bleak, I've got some bad news for you. Gather 'round and watch." He inserted a small data slug into the command console. "Computer, play mission briefing from time index zero."

The console screen changed from the ship's forward view to the familiar 3D wireframe format of most briefing videos. The blue-outlined representation of the Eclipse was prominent on the screen, and the voice of Fleet Admiral Hanson, Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth Navy started up in the background:

"Captain, as you are no doubt aware, the Commonwealth continues in its attempts between the Independence Movement and ourselves. To this end, a meeting has been set up in neutral territory in the Midway system. Our representative at this meeting will be Admiral Talon, and it is your mission to ferry him to his destination. You will rendezvous with his flagship, the Destroyer Oxford, who will transfer him to you. This should be a fairly routine mission, Captain, but as ever, be vigilant. Hanson out."

The briefing video ended with the wireframe Eclipse coming out of capsule space at the Midway La Grange point.

Breem raised an eyebrow. He knew all too well his captain's opinions on the admiralty. This wasn't going to be the most light-hearted of assignments.

"Sounds like… 'fun', sir," he said.

"Doesn't it just?" De Retz replied. He cleared his throat. "Our condition? Are we ready for launch?"

"Aye, sir," said Bleak, promptly. "All systems are at one hundred percent, and reports ready, sir."

"And we've got the new weapons systems up and running," Breem said. "We've even managed to fix that squeak on your chair."

"Good," de Retz forced a rather half-hearted smile. He leaned back in his seat. "To your stations, then."

Breem sat down in his seat at the weapons console on the left-hand side of the bridge, and Bleak hurriedly climbed into his high seat in front of the ship's main view window.

"Prepare for launch," said the Captain.

"All decks report ready," Breem said.

"Thrusters are ready," said Bleak. "LDS drive available at your convenience, sir."

"Ensign, clear us for launch."

Bleak tapped at the nav console and opened up a comms link with the station. "This is Eclipse, CNV-492, to Saltlake space traffic control. We're requesting clearance for launch."

"Eclipse, this is Saltlake STC, clearance granted," the reply came over the bridge's speakers.

"Release docking clamps and move us away from the station at 1 klick per second."

"Docking clamps released," reported Bleak. "All controls at our command. Engaging thrusters."

The thrum of the engines changed pitch slightly as the Corvette crept slowly forwards.

"We're now clear of the station," said Breem after a moment.

"Right," said de Retz. "I've laid the location of the Oxford in as a way point, Mr Bleak. Take us into LDS and plot a course and speed that'll get us there in forty minutes. No need to rush and besides, I could do with a shave."

"Aye, sir. Initiating LDS drive."

The engine noise grew to a shrill whistle before dropping sharply. Moving faster every second, the Eclipse cut through the fabric of space as its linear displacement field single-handedly destroyed the laws of physics. The ship was, for an instant, bathed in a flash of green light, before it sped forwards into infinity.

*** Lieutenant Gabriel slammed her fists down on a flickering control panel. The Eclipse was one of the first Corvettes to be built with an engineering section, the large amounts of radiation shielding required being better suited to larger ships.

Developments in shield technology had, however, made them now feasible on mid-size craft. Unfortunately, as the Dreadnaught-class Corvette had never been designed with such things in mind, the engineering section of the Eclipse and those of her sister ships in the NSO-929-f design series were something of a hit and miss affair. Consoles had a worrying habit of shorting out at the most inopportune moments, and at least three conduits had already been fried thanks to the random power surges.

"Damn this thing!" she exclaimed. "First of all the energy flow is jammed, so I fix that; then the compression buggers fail, so I fix them. Now the tactile response sensors have given up the ghost. Why do I bother?"

The other figures in the cramped engineering section offered no answer, which only served to infuriate Gabriel further.

"Where's Fernandez?" she demanded. "I asked him to give me a hand with this thing." "He went down to the computer core, ma'am," replied Ensign Talmer from her current position over at the energy distribution monitor.

"Oh, yeah, I remember. He said he was going to carry out a maintenance check on some of the system pathways. There shouldn't be anything wrong with them, but still. Mind you," she added, as the console beneath her fists blacked out altogether, "I wouldn't be surprised if the entire ship fell apart."

***

The Oxford hung motionless in space, it's graceful curves fading into the inky blackness. Nearby there was a sudden blur and a green flash as the Eclipse burst out of LDS and slowed to a crawl.

"This is the Eclipse calling the Oxford," Ensign Bleak signaled over the inter-ship commlink. "We're hear to pick up Admiral Talon."

"This is Talon," a gruff voice replied over the bridge's audio unit. "You're late, Eclipse."

"My apologies, Admiral," Captain de Retz lied, "but we've having some problems with our systems. Everything seems fine now, though."

"Never mind," the Admiral dismissed. "Dock to the lower UDC. I shall expect a greeting party at your side of the airlock in precisely three minutes. Oxford out."

De Retz leaned back in his seat and sighed. This was going to be a long trip.

*** The airlock hissed open and Talon, an imposing figure dressed in his full admiral regalia and with a decidedly grim face, stepped out. De Retz and Breem were waiting for him.

"Admiral Talon, I'm Captain William de Retz and this is my first officer, Commander Breem." The second-in-command nodded accordingly. "Welcome aboard the Eclipse."

"Enough of the meaningless platitudes, Captain de Retz, we don't have the time. It is imperative that I reach the Midway system as soon as possible, and your late arrival didn't exactly facilitate this."

"Rest assured, Admiral, we shall reach Midway in record—" De Retz was interrupted by a call from the bridge over the ship's intercom.

"Captain, this is Bleak," came the voice.

"De Retz here; go ahead, Ensign."

"We've picked up two ships on the long-range sensors: Indie PatComs on an attack vector."

De Retz's eyes lit up. Perhaps this mission wasn't going to be quite so routine after all.

"Red alert," he announced. "All hands to battle stations. Mr Bleak, signal the Oxford and tell them to get the hell out of here – we'll handle this."

As the Captain stormed off down the main access corridor, closely followed by Commander Breem and Admiral Talon, the red alert klaxons sounded throughout the ship and the flashing red lights down the corridor lit up. The sound of the ship's docking clamps being released could also be heard.

The bridge airlock, normally locked during red alert situations, opened obediently as the Captain placed his hand on the electronic palm sensor at the side. He headed towards his seat and promptly sat down. Talon hovered behind him.

"Report, Mr Bleak," ordered Breem as he sat down at the weapons console.

"We've undocked from the Oxford and she's headed off into LDS," replied the ensign. "The Indie ships are fifty klicks away and closing."

"Admiral," said de Retz without turning around, "you might want to go to the quarters we prepared for you. Things could get pretty hot up here."

"No thank you, captain," replied the admiral. "I will, however, take the engineering console. Where is your chief engineer?"

"Be my guest and," said de Retz, "Lieutenant Gabriel is down in our engineering section."

Breem glanced over from his station. "The Indies are now within thirty klicks."

"Better try the diplomatic approach first. Computer," the captain raised his voice, "open a channel to the enemy ships."

"Channel open," came the stilted response.

"Indie ships, this is Captain William de Retz of the Commonwealth Naval vessel Eclipse. You are in violation of Commonwealth space; I order you to withdraw immediately, or will have to use force."

There was a pause of a few seconds before Bleak said: "No response, sir."

"Now there's a surprise," de Retz muttered under his breath. "So much for diplomacy. Accelerate to attack speed. Target the first PatCom with missiles – full spread."

"Targeted," said Breem.

"Prepare to fire on my mark."

"19 klicks," said Bleak.

"Nearly…" said de Retz.

"17."

"Just a bit more."

"16."

"Just a bit…"

"15."

"Now!"

A spread of four missiles erupted, one after the other, from the ship's port magazine and each impacted on the first PatCom. It lurched sideways from the blow.

"Status of the Indie?" asked de Retz.

"Reading severe damage to its weapons systems and waste heat array. She's retreating, Captain," said Breem.

"Target the cannons on the other ship's reactor," said de Retz. "If you can't disable his engines, make sure it blows."

"Aye — Sir," Breem sounded puzzled, "the other Indie ship is transmitting some sort of message. It's binary, I can't get a—"

An explosion deep within the bowels of the ship caused it to pitch violently. De Retz fell from his seat as the bridge lights blacked out and the consoles flickered off. Suddenly the hum of the engines once again escalated in pitch to a shriek as the Eclipse went into LDS.

"What the hell was that?" de Retz demanded.

"Unknown, Captain," said Bleak. "All the nav consoles are out, but whatever it was seems to have put us in LDS!"

"I'm bringing the emergency lights on," said the Admiral, who was still seated at the engineering console. The dull red lights flickered on.

"Computer?" said de Retz. There was no response. "Computer?" Again, nothing.

"Damn." He wrenched his hand held commlink unit from his side and activated. A holographic image of Lieutenant Gabriel appeared. "Miss Gabriel – comm systems on the ship are down, I'm having to use the hand held."

"Nice to see you too, sir," Gabriel smiled.

"What's going on? All the consoles are down on the bridge and we're stuck in LDS. And what the hell was that explosion?"

"Haven't the faintest, captain. The computer seems to have gone off-line/ We've lost all control to navigation, weapons, engineering, communications: everything. I'm beginning to wish we had a back-up computer, but of course, nobody thought about that when they designed this rust heap."

De Retz managed a slight smirk. "Can you fix it?"

"I think so. I'll have to reinitialize the computer core, but that shouldn't be a problem. I'll get right on it."

"Good work. De Retz out."

***

In actual fact, the journey down to the computer core, located in the exact middle of the ship, was not as easy as Gabriel had expected. Like almost everything else, the lifts were out and the engineer had thus been forced to crawl through meters of cramped access tunnel. Her long, dark brown hair, tied up in a tight bun, was filled with the dust that, according to the ship's technical manuals, shouldn't have been there. Gabriel had learnt from experience that the maintenance systems were only a slightly preferable alternative to dusting the whole ship down with a rag.

Now, only a few meters from the core, Gabriel noticed something strange: a thin, smoky stench filled the low, narrow tunnel. As she got closer, the acrid smell grew stronger. Then she noticed why: the metal door to the core had been blown clean off from the inside. She reached to her side and grabbed her commlink, scraping her hand on the hard metal floor in the process.

"Gabriel to Captain," she hissed into the hand held unit.

"De Retz here," came the reply, and a holographic image of the captain appeared from the top of the commlink. "Go ahead, Miss Gabriel."

"Looks like that explosion took place in the core room. The door's been ripped right off."

"Sounds bad. Any chance of bringing it back on-line?"

"Hang on, I'm going inside now."

The thick, cylindrical computer core stood in the centre of the room, its numerous displays and lights now dark. The surrounding walls were covered with scorch marks and, where an access panel had once been situated, there was simply a large hole. The burnt-out shell of a corpse lay next to it.

"Oh, shit."

"What is it?" de Retz's voice came over the commlink.

"It's Fernandez," Gabriel replied, softly. "At least, I think it's him. He must have been standing next to the access panel when whatever it was blew."

"Dead?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Damn." He paused for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "What blew?"

Gabriel knelt down gingerly next to the remains of Fernandez and peered through the hole that had been blown in the wall. "Looks like one of the power conduits. Must have suffered some kind of surge. That doesn't explain why the core has gone down, though, or why we're locked in LDS."

"How is the core?"

"Erm…" Gabriel to the huge metal cylinder that filled the middle of the room. "Well, it doesn't look too badly damaged. Perhaps the power-surge just knocked it off balance, although I don't see how. I can probably reinitialize it – one minute."

She pulled a panel from the core and tapped away for a moment at the controls inside. There was a low hum, and the display panels suddenly burst into life. The lights in the room came on just as quickly.

"How's that, Captain?"

"Wonderful," said de Retz. "All systems appear to be back on-line. Well done."

"Just glad to be of service, sir. I'll just tidy up in here and then I'll get back to engineering."

*** "Captain," Ensign Bleak turned around in his seat. "The nav console has come back on-line, but she still isn't answering to commands. We're still locked on our present course!"

"What?" de Retz demanded. "An explanation, anybody?"

"Your sheer incompetence perhaps, Captain?" Admiral Talon sneered. "If you had destroyed those Indie pirates as fast as possible, we wouldn't be in this mess."

The bridge was silent for a moment. Breem and Bleak were spectators to the unheard battle of wills between the two senior officers. After what seemed like an age of silence, de Retz shattered the ice:

"Quite correct, Admiral," he said, barely concealing his contempt. "Next time I really must try harder. Still, I wasn't really looking for someone to blame, but thank you for pointing that out to me." He paused momentarily. "Computer, given our present course, what is our destination and ETA?"

The computer chirped its response: "With current course and velocity, this vessel will impact with the asteroid Theta M-113 in eighteen minutes and forty-three seconds." "Oh, shit," muttered Breem, echoing the feelings of them all.

***

The automated scout ship Tug of War, covered in the distinctive lurid graffiti of all Indie ships, received the signal it had been waiting for and, with the familiar green flash, went into LDS.

***

Gabriel rushed back into the cramped engineering section and found the place in absolute chaos. The red alert lights continued to flash; they were designed to induce a sense of urgency, but all they did was give people a headache. Crew members rushed to and fro, and consoles bleeped and flashed up various status reports. The news of the imminent impact had spread quickly throughout the ship (Gabriel herself had heard it en route back to engineering), and now everyone was trying their damnedest to solve the matter.

"Any idea at all what's happening?" Gabriel asked, as she made her way towards the main console, a large wall monitor with several attached keypads.

"None whatsoever," Ensign Talmer replied, looking up at her senior officer. "The entire nav subsystem is locked out. It's like the main computer is totally failing to acknowledge its existence. There's no way we can get through to it."

Gabriel's shoulders slumped resignedly. Turning towards her console, she entered several sequences of key presses, each one bringing up a different but equally obstructive error message.

"What's wrong with this damned thing?" she exclaimed. "Computer, any chance you can run a full diagnostic of the nav subsystem before we plummet head-first into the asteroid?"

"Negative," the computer replied without emotion.

"Then I guess I'll have to do it myself."

***

Captain de Retz, Commander Breem and Ensign Bleak sat around the circular metal table in the briefing room. Admiral Talon stood staring, in the absence of a porthole, at a wall console that displayed the ship's forward view. De Retz stood and bent down slightly, pressing his hands firmly onto the tabletop.

"Let's run through our current situation, then, and let's be quick about this. Commander?"

Breem spoke up: "I FTLed a distress signal. The nearest Commonwealth vessel is the OverDark, but she won't be able to reach us for about thirty minutes."

"Any response from HQ?" de Retz asked.

"No, but I'm sure they'll hold a nice service for us," Breem quipped. "After all the times I've saved his neck, I think Admiral Brett owes me a wreath."

De Retz smiled. "You'll be lucky. He owes me so many drinks I've lost count. Mr Bleak?"

"Still no response from the helm, sir," the ensign replied.

"Perhaps we should start to think about leaving the ship behind," said de Retz, solemnly.

"Unfortunately, we can't," said Bleak. "The command module or the accommodation shuttles can't be separated because they're controlled by the navigation subsystems, and they're locked out, sir."

"Overrides?"

"They won't work either, sir."

"Damn." De Retz sighed. "How about weapons? Can we blast this asteroid apart?"

"Already thought about it," said Breem. "Weapon control is perfect, sir, there's nothing wrong with that. However, the asteroid's simply too big. We could throw our entire load of missiles at it and let loose with the cannon from point-blank range for an hour or more and we still wouldn't make a dent."

De Retz stood up and straightened his uniform. "Well we can't just sit here and do nothing—"

A bleep from the comm system interrupted him. Talon's head snapped around.

"Bridge to Captain de Retz."

De Retz opened his mouth to speak, but Talon beat him to it: "This is Admiral Talon. What is the problem?"

"Erm…" came the slightly stuttered reply. "Admiral, sir, long-range sensors have picked up a new contact – looks like some sort of small scout ship."

"Indie?" asked the Admiral.

"Possibly, sir. It's too far away at the moment to get an accurate reading, but it is on an intercept course."

"Then we're on our way." The Admiral strode out of the briefing room and into the adjoining main access corridor that led to the bridge.

"Are admirals born that way or is it something they develop over time?" asked Breem.

"I think you'll find, Mr Breem," said de Retz as he made to leave, "that admirals aren't born. They're bred in some sort of radioactive goo and have a genetically engineered attitude problem."

As he followed his superior officers out of the door, Ensign Bleak wondered to himself how they could keep so calm and continue joking in a crisis. Although he hadn't mentioned it to anyone, the butterflies in Bleak's stomach were producing more than their fair share of nausea, as the ship edged ever closer to the asteroid.

***

The Tug of War made another slight automated course correction to avoid a piece of floating space debris, as it continued on its journey. Its target now on its sensors, the scout ship slowed slightly and made its approach.

***

Gabriel bent over the console and gazed down at another screen of figures that looked almost identical to the previous one.

"Well, nav pathway 237 is clear." She tapped the console. "As is 238." Again, she pressed the screen. "And 23— hang on a moment, what's that? Computer, give me a schematic of nav pathway 239, subsection six." The computer responded.

"Well now," a smile crept over her face, "what do we have here?"

***

"Warning," announced the computer on the bridge. "At present course and velocity, impact with asteroid Theta M-113 will occur in ten minutes."

Admiral Talon burst onto the bridge, followed moments later by de Retz, Breem and Bleak. The latter quickly regained his seat at the helm, useless as it was at present, and Breem relieved the officer on duty at the weapons console.

"How far away is the contact?" the Admiral demanded.

"About 42 klicks and closing fast," said Breem. "She'll be in scanning range within twenty seconds."

There was a bleep at the command console, indicating an incoming message.

"De Retz here."

The face of Lieutenant Gabriel popped up on the command screen. "Sir, I think I know what's wrong: I've detected an anomalous program in the nav subsystem."

"An anomalous program?" de Retz inquired.

"A virus," Gabriel explained.

"Thirty klicks," Breem announced. Admiral Talon listened with interest. "Now within scanning range: contact confirmed as Indie. No life signs."

"A virus?" de Retz asked his chief engineer. "I thought all ships were protected against them?"

"They are," said Gabriel. "The ship's communication filters should prevent any potentially malicious program from entering the systems. However, it looks like someone purposefully let it get inside. When the Indies transmitted that binary message, someone let in onboard."

Behind de Retz's eyes there flickered a bright, red spark of anger. "A traitor," he said quietly. "Who?"

"Whoever was using the engineering console on the bridge at the time of the attack. No other place has the authority, not even my console in engineering."

De Retz paused for a moment. "Okay, I'll handle it. Can you remedy the virus?"

"I think so. The hardest part was finding the thing in the first place: it did a very good job of hiding itself. I'll give it a go."

"Good, we have less than ten minutes before we're all pate. De Retz out." At the press of a button, Gabriel's face disappeared from the command console.

"Fifteen klicks and closing," said Breem.

De Retz turned towards Admiral Talon, who had seemingly not overhead his conversation with the chief engineer. Talon simply stood staring out of the view window, as if waiting for something.

In an instant, de Retz leapt from his seat, grabbed Talon by his collar and slammed him up against the wall of the bridge.

"Captain!" Talon's eyes were filled with a mixture of wild anger and panic. "This is an outrage!"

"Outrage?" de Retz boomed. "I'll tell you what's outrageous: you come aboard my ship, kill one of my men, jeopardize the lives of my entire crew and betray everything you stood for. If it weren't for the uniform I wear and the principles behind it that you have such a blatant disregard for, I would kill you right here and now!"

Talon sneered. "Such an eloquent speech, Captain de Retz, but all, I fear, in vain." And with that, he was enveloped in a dull yellow glow momentarily, before disappearing into thin air.

De Retz suddenly found himself clutching at nothingness. He was stunned for a few seconds, before he realized what had occurred: "Matter transferral! The bastard, he used matter transferral! Breem, where the hell has he got to? I hope the bloody thing's spread his atoms across the cosmos."

"I'm now reading a life sign on the Indie scout ship," said Breem. "Must be him. The ship is preparing to go to LDS."

"Lock the cannons on him and fire! I want that ship destroyed!"

"Too late, sir, he's gone."

"Damn!" De Retz smashed his fist down on one of the bridge consoles.

"Captain," Bleak's voice was low and quiet. De Retz turned his head and saw what the young ensign was so concerned by: the huge hulk of Theta M-113 was now being registered by the nav console's heads-up display, an indicator of the ship's imminent collision.

"Don't worry, ensign," said the Captain, "I'm sure Miss Gabriel has everything under control." Suddenly the whine of the ship's engines lowered several octaves, as the Eclipse dropped out of LDS. "Ah," de Retz smiled, "just on cue."

"Helm systems back on-line," announced Bleak, sounding more than a trifle relieved. "Taking us off collision course."

"Bridge to engineering," said de Retz, the computer automatically opening a comm-channel. "Good work, Miss Gabriel, remind me to put you in for a raise."

"Thanks, sir," came Gabriel's reply, "maybe I can get that ranch I've always dreamed of."

"Not that much of a raise, Miss Gabriel. I don't want to lose you just yet."

***

Commonwealth Naval Vessel Eclipse, CNV-492.
Captain's Log: 20th January 2268.

The Eclipse has rendezvoused with the OverDark and extensive repairs to the ship's computer core and other system that were damaged in our recent 'mission'. Lieutenant Gabriel informs me that we'll be back up to one-hundred percent in a day or so.
It seems that all of this was an exaggerated effort by Talon to defect to the Indies. Even the mission briefing was an elaborate forgery: there never was a peace conference in the Midway system. Talon would have let us crash into Theta M-113, and everyone would just have assumed he had died along with the rest of us. It makes me wonder just how many other would-be defectors there are within the upper echelons of the Commonwealth, or how many spies we have in our midst.
After we've finished repairs we'll plot a course back to Earth. It's a captain's duty to report the death of my crew to their loved ones, and it's something I've always preferred to do in person: even a video message seems somehow impersonal. Thanks to Talon, a good officer, Fernandez, is dead. I vow that somehow, some day I will avenge his death.
Captain William de Retz, commanding officer: Eclipse (CNV-492).

The End.

 

Part II

1