Chapter Six

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"Leander is pulling alongside to help take off passengers," Ortiz told the others over the unit channel. "She's extending a flex-dock to the forward starboard side airlock. The XO says to direct all survivors there. Our cutter will stay near the aft airlock to take off any stragglers. Two destroyers are coming in to dock on the port side." The ships were taking a horrible risk conducting a rescue in the middle of a battle, but if they didn't, most of the passengers would be doomed. The cutters would never be able to ferry off the survivors before the starliner's hull gave out.

"It's nice when we get good news," Davis said in a cheery voice that was in stark contrast to the dire situation. "That doesn't happen very often."

"Hold up," Ortiz ordered, ignoring him. Turning around, she looked over the chain of terrified passengers they'd picked up as they'd made their way forward. Doing a quick count, she came up with nearly a hundred. The last time she'd looked, only two dozen had been trailing after them. She'd let them come along, unsure of where to send them until she'd received confirmation that Leander was coming alongside. "Walker, I want you to take your squad and escort these people to the airlock and get them aboard the ship. Gather up everyone else you can along the way, but don't stop and don't slow down. I don't think we're going to have a lot of time."

As if to punctuate her concern, a deep boom rang through the ship and the deck under their feet shuddered.

"Look!" Eustus, who was peering out one of the many viewports along the side, pointed. Somewhere aft a bulkhead had given way and a fountain of debris and passengers, their arms waving and legs kicking frantically, spewed into space.

"Walker," Ortiz ordered, "move!"

"Aye, lieutenant." Turning around, she bellowed over her PA system to the passengers. "We're heading to the forward starboard side airlock. Let's go!" Turning back to Ortiz, she said, "Good luck."

Ortiz nodded. "You, too. Now get your ass out of here."

The other squads stood aside as Walker and her Marines shepherded the passengers to the nearest stairway that led down to the deck where the airlocks were located.

"The rest of you," Stalin ordered, annoyed at the distraction, "move out. We have enemies to kill."

***

Reza sparred with Sai-Kel to grant her the honor of individual combat. She was a spirited fighter and a good sword mistress, and he could not bring himself to take her life. He recalled the brief and bloody battle he had fought against his sisters on the bridge on Rutan right after he had been banished from the Empire. It had been nothing more than slaughter, and brought the Empress no more glory than if they had stepped into the sea and drowned. What honor would the death of Sai-Kel bring, facing a priest in single combat? She might revel in such an ending, but it brought him only sadness. She deserved better. They all did.

She attacked again, thrusting her sword at his midsection. He deflected it, then stepped back.

"Kazh," he said, and she instantly stopped her attack.

Sheathing her sword, she stood tall and bowed her head. "I have disappointed you, my priest," she said in a voice laden with misery.

"Far from it, warrior. You honor the Empress and your sisters. But none of us — least of all myself — honor or bring glory to Her through meaningless sacrifice." Reza's eyes swept the ranks that now stood many deep around him and Sai-Kel. With his second sight he knew that nearly all the warriors on the ship were now gathered here, and those few who weren't were on their way. Without having to fight, the Marines would be able to get the passengers off unmolested, and Reza would buy them the time they needed. "If we are to cross swords," he went on, "then let us make it a worthy challenge." With his blade he pointed to the next nine senior-most warriors, as determined by the pendants they wore below their collars. "Ten shall face me. Those who fall will be taken from the field and replaced with the next most senior warriors. And should I fall..." He looked at Sai-Kel, who reluctantly met his eyes and nodded.

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