Chapter Seven

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After what seemed like an agonizingly long time, Ortiz and her Marines managed to herd the hundreds of civilians to the airlock deck. The greatest challenge then was to keep them from stampeding to get aboard Leander.

"What are we going to do with them all?" Walker asked as she met up with Ortiz beside the entrance to the airlock. Eustus, Davis, and Stalin were with her, while the other Marines kept the passengers from getting out of hand.

Ortiz shook her head. "Does the captain have any idea how many he can take aboard?"

"I haven't heard anything from the bridge, but they're still taking people on."

Walker scowled. "I'm not sure where we're supposed to fit."

"We're probably going to have to hitch a ride on one of the other ships," Ortiz said with a sigh.

Castle, who stood nearby shepherding passengers into the airlock, turned and gave her a pained expression. "Aww, man."

"Hope you locked up all your loot," Ortiz told him with a grin. "I wouldn't want to think about all these civvies pawing through your porn stash."

"If someone so much as touches—"

He was cut off by shouts and screams as a huge chunk of wreckage tumbled into sight through the viewports, arcing over the upper hull of the Venetian Star to crash into Leander just aft of the bridge, breaking the ship's back. More wreckage, ranging in size from golf balls to battle tanks, slammed into the corvette, piercing her hull and venting dozens of compartments to space.

Frozen with horror, Ortiz watched as her ship, her home, bent and twisted like a toy being torn apart in the hands of an invisible giant. Plumes of air streamed from rents in the hull, carrying crewmen, civilians, and everything else that wasn't fastened down, into vacuum. Titanic electrical discharges arced from the engineering spaces, momentarily joining the fore and aft sections of the ship with cyan fire as Leander continued to break apart, incinerating anything that got in the way. An explosion erupted from the torpedo room as one or more of the torpedoes ruptured in their launch tubes, blasting the forward section of the ship away from the stricken liner and taking the flex-dock, which was packed with screaming passengers, along with it.

The passengers still in line to get aboard recoiled to the inboard side of the passageway as those trapped on the stretching flex-dock whirled around and tried to retreat back to the Venetian Star.

"Close the airlock," Ortiz heard herself say, unable to believe that the words were coming from her own lips. Her heart was a block of ice, hammering in her chest.

"Lieutenant," someone cried, "we can't!"

The dock continued to stretch and stretch as the forward section of the corvette moved away, and Ortiz could hear the groan of metal at the outer door of the airlock, which was full of panicking people trying to get back aboard the liner.

She raised her voice, both on the radio and on the PA system above the cacophony of terrified screams. "Close the airlock!"

As the other Marines stood, frozen by the horror of what they'd been ordered to do, Stalin went to Castle and took his rifle. Then the big NCO stepped forward to the inner door of the airlock, brutally shouldering aside the passengers in his way. Bringing up the assault rifle, he fired point blank into the mass of passengers trying to push their way back aboard. Men, women, and children died under the withering fire of his weapon as he emptied his entire magazine, a full hundred rounds, into them, and his expression registered no more emotion than if he had been shooting targets on the firing range. Then, kicking the bodies that were lying in the doorway clear, ignoring the pleas of the passengers who were still trapped in the flex-dock and the wreckage of the Leander, he strode through the blood pooling on the deck and hit the control to close the inner airlock door.

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