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BRANT EMERSON floated in the dark, attached by a tether to his fighter, Banshee III. He had been working for hours with an arc welder just aft of the command module and needed a break. His gaze followed the path his ship was on, down the gravity well to its bottom, Jupiter, thousands of kilometers away and, at his velocity, all too close.

Behind the reflective shield of his visor, a wisp of dark brown hair was out of place and channeling sweat from his brow to the corner of one eye. His sharply chiseled features, a pleasingly odd mixture of Celt and Cherokee, scowled in irritation as he adjusted the temperature setting on his suit.’

His helmet com crackled with static. Must be one of the crew trying to reach him suit-to-suit. Bright move. He wondered how long it would take whoever it was to remember the level of radiation out here and try ship com.

Emerson had shipped into this war from Earth, where he had taken his military training, like the rest of his crew. Unlike them, he was a rockrat brat, born on the rickety station that miners had pieced together near Ceres. Jupiter was part of his backyard, and he was more familiar than they with its environs, one of the most notable elements of which was its magnetosphere.

A gigantic planet-wide ocean of liquid metallic hydrogen thousands and thousands of kilometers deep gave Jupiter a magnetic field far stronger than anything else in the solar system except Sol itself. And Sol’s winds fed it continuously with a plasma of particles streaming in at over five hundred kilometers per second. The bow front, where those winds broke against the magnetosphere, was a particularly pleasant region—the magnetosheath, where solar-driven particles released their energy and drove the plasma to temperatures twenty times hotter than the sun.

Instinctively, Emerson plotted the sunward side of Jupiter. Good. It was hours away, and he would be done long before he had to worry about the solar wind kicking up and pulsing the sheath back his direction.

He knew he was more paranoid than his earth-born crew about exposure to various forms of radiation, but no one in his right mind went EVA in the Jovian gravity well if he could avoid it. The lecture that covered it in basic was optimistic, stressing innovations in suit-shielding. But that was mudside PR, government hype. And everyone with sense knew it. New suits might help, but things like that still came from the lowest bidder—good ol’ guvment issue. Little enough to pit against the maelstrom of Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

Even inside the sheath it was no picnic. Not much of the solar wind broke through to the magnetosphere but it was enough, combined with junk spewed up from Io, to create radiation belts up to a million times more intense than anything near-earth orbiters had to face from the Van Allen Belts.

On Earth there were sayings about people too stupid to come in out of the rain. In space there were similar sayings, but the rain was far more deadly. And it was always raining. Near Jupiter it was worse.

Still, a little shower of highly charged particles wasn’t going to worry him much at this point, as long as it didn’t knock out the com or interior temperature controls on his suit. He had a job to do, his duty, and he was going to see it through.

That had always been part of his problem. Maybe he was too competent. He was a natural pilot, and he almost always outscored everyone else on any test, any subject. They kept moving him up the ladder, putting him in charge. He never had time to make any friends along the way. He was always “new meat.” He had been alone so long. He would have given a lot for just one friend right now.

His helmet com crackled again, reminding him of the three lives tucked safely inside beneath him: his crew, his responsibility. He looked back the way they had come, back toward the battle and their base ship, the carrier Triumphant, though he knew there was nothing to see from this distance. They could have been friends. Almost were, until that last moment.

* * *

“Babydoll? This is Papa.” Varick’s voice had crackled through the helmets of sixteen fighter crews making up Babydoll Wing. “The cat’s outta the bag. Time to secure and heat ’em up.”

Emerson gave the interior of Banshee III a quick once-over and scanned his boards as he flipped the prelims. His copilot, Williams, was checking the secondaries. Williams, short and solid, didn’t actually look like a bulldog, but his tenacity and temperament invited the comparison. He had a take-charge attitude and the abilities to go with it. There was intelligence in those sharp blue eyes and a force of personality that lent him a stature that belied his lack of height. A top pilot in his own right and unquestioned leader of the crew, despite Emerson’s superior rank, he was Emerson’s greatest asset in battle—with the second highest kill tally in the wing—but his most devoted adversary off duty.

It was nothing personal. Emerson knew that. He was just new and in Williams’s way. To Emerson it was a familiar scenario, the story of his life. But that was no consolation. It made his loneliness and isolation an the harder to bear, especially since at his last posting-a backwater job with a small fighter squadron escorting tankers to orbital factories near earth-he had just started to make a few friends, fit in, have someone he could talk to. But duty had called, as it always did, and taken all that away.

He had been too efficient for his own good in defending the tankers, and when Triumphant had needed an ace pilot to fill a sensitive slot in its top fighter wing, the computers at HQ had selected him to receive the honor.

Behind him, Thompson and Prock were at their stations manning rear armament and going through their own checks. Thompson was tall, lean, and handsome with a caustic wit and a calm self-assurance that’ some might take as arrogance. Emerson had been around him enough to know, however, that he was merely pragmatic and honest about his competence. Prock, the country boy from Oklahoma who had started out to be a Baptist minister, was no less competent but far more quiet and unassuming. Emerson hoped for a chance to get to know them better, but so far they had sided with Williams in shutting him out.

Banshee hummed as she came up to power. There was the usual friendly banter among the crew as they anticipated the coming action, and as usual, it excluded him. They never crossed the line into actual insubordination, although they came close. That would be a win for him, in their minds, and they would not stand for that. Or maybe on some level they had developed a kind of grudging respect for him. He was never sure. But the tension was always there, every look, every verbal exchange bringing home the same message: outsider, stranger, failure. You are not welcome here.

He had thought of transferring to another ship but there were no openings, and besides, that was the coward’s way out. Too easy. No, he would just have to keep trying, be the best pilot he knew how to be for them. They would open up eventually. Maybe the coming action would draw them all a bit closer.

The whole wing had drifted to these coordinates the day before and lain in wait, cold as so much flotsam, for just this moment. Information wrung from a captured Fed fighter crew had led Triumphant to figure it could intersect the Fed carrier Perez to the northeast and bring the battle right over Babydoll’s head. And it had worked, in a way.

Triumphant had caught Perez loafing and had the advantage of surprise and speed as it came in blasting, launching four wings of fighters to keep the Perez fighters bottled up inside while Triumphant slashed by and banked for another run.

It was daring tactics, some would say desperate, to risk a carrier in close-up maneuvers with another base ship like that, but Triumphant’s commander was counting on its unexpectedness to carry the day. If it all worked according to plan, they could take out or capture Perez with all its chicks on hoard, and Babydoll could come in for mop-up detail. If not, Babydoll was the commander’s ace in the hole.

Unfortunately, the info from the captured Feds had left out one prime detail: Perez was not traveling alone. It was in tandem with another carrier, the Bolivar. And when Triumphant let loose its fighters against the Perez, Bolivar was free to send out its fighter wings. That set up a mad scramble as Triumphant’s ships swarmed the Perez, trying to inflict as much damage as possible before Bolivar’s fighters could launch and close.

Emerson and the rest of Babydoll Wing sat in their cold ships watching it all on screen. “Get ready, guys,” Williams called on intra-ship com. “The Feds are almost on ’em, and they’ll be splitting out to bring ’em our way any minute.”

“Not just yet they won’t,” muttered Emerson.

Williams gave him a look of scathing derision and glanced back to share his amusement with his buddies. All three had crewed Banshee III for a year with its former pilot, Bob Varick, before he had been moved up to fill a slot in Gravedigger as wing leader. They had been a tight clique. They didn’t see it as fair that Varick had been moved up without them, and it was insult to injury when, instead of Williams moving up to pilot Banshee as expected, Emerson had been dumped on them. He might have been a hot pilot way off in the backwater, but he was green as far as they were concerned; and his being a “nice guy” and all didn’t cut squat with them. Just his being there was a slap in their face.

“Right, Emerson,” snarled Williams. “Are you crazy? Wouldn’t you bug out with fifty jillion Feddies fixin’ to fry your tail?”

Emerson chose to ignore the sarcasm and looked over to Williams, guard down intentionally to convey a willingness for friendship. “Yeah, but they’re between the Perez and the Fed fighters,” he said, as if that should explain it.

“So?” smiled Thompson.

“So?” sighed Emerson. “So if I were commander, I’d keep our boys and girls in there a while. We’re already hurting Perez, and she doesn’t dare open a launch bay for fear we’ll throw something inside that’ll take out a bunch of fighters in a chain reaction that’d blowout a good portion of her shell. We stand to lose a few ships, but the incoming Feds will have to be real choosey on their targets ‘cause if they miss us they’re apt to hit Perez. That should give our guys the time and edge to thin out Bolivar’s flyers quite a bit before we have to disengage.”

“Yeah,” sneered Williams, “and then our guys’d be all cut up, and Perez opens up with four fresh wings. Those are our people out there dying.” Williams shook his head. “You’re cold, man.”

Emerson was getting fed up with their attitude. Didn’t he have a right to an opinion? Couldn’t they at least once consider something he said instead of attacking it? He didn’t figure it would do any good to antagonize them further, so he just stared at the screen and thought to himself, it’s a cold situation out there no matter what, Williams. You’d rather run now and face full, fresh complements from both carriers at the same time? Care to figure up the body count on that?

They sat in silence, watching the scene unfold on the screen exactly as Emerson had called it. The commander on Triumphant kept his flyers in so close to Perez that its gunners had a hard time tracking them, whereas to them Perez was a wide-open target. A few were lost in the initial attack from Bolivar’s fighters, but Perez took a lot of fire from them, too, so the Feds did become more cautious and the Northern Hemisphere forces were more than able to hold their own. It was bloody. All- in all, both sides had lost nearly half their ships by the time Bolivar itself moved up and Triumphant’s fighters peeled off for home.

With the advent of the second Fed carrier, Triumphant had scrapped its plan for a second run at Perez and had stationed itself above and past Babydoli Wing to bring the retreat right over their heads. They waited until their sister ships and the remnants of the pursuing Bolivar wings had gone over. Bolivar itself was hanging close to the damaged Perez, and Perez was spitting out fighters as fast as it could. To their credit, they kept their cool and circled Perez to form up properly before heading after the Triumphant. When they finally came it was in a square, two wings in front, two wings following close behind.

It was about then that Varick had given the call to “heat ’em up.” And before the Feds had time to react to the sudden appearance of Babydoll’s heat signatures, the wing was headed up full throttle toward the underbellies of the Perez wings.

Varick was good. He had timed it right. The Feds, still a long way from Triumphant, were in tight formation and had their instruments trained dead ahead on the only action they were aware of. The confusion of dealing with the damage back at the Fed carriers must have helped out, because there was never any evidence of warning from the carriers to their fighters that they were under attack from below.

“Babydoll on the call. Split and fire. Split and fire. Mark! Give ’em all you got!” Varick called the play like a quarterback. And Babydoll’s diamond formation split like a starburst into sub-wings, four groups of four, each headed for one of the Fed wings, each dead-on with all forward ports blazing.

Banshee III was flying right side of its own little diamond formation, with Criptkicker, their sub-wing leader, to the fore, Bad Mac to the left, and The Valkyrie bringing up the rear. At the last possible instant, on a word from Criptkicker, they veered off into a loop that would take them back down to form up with the rest of Babydoll. As they did, the rear gunners opened up to give the Feds a parting present. The G-forces were tremendous. It was the kind of crazy, gutsy stunt that only Babydoll Wing could do really well. Emerson doubted that even Varick had been sure of this can until the last second, when he had seen that the timing was right and the tight Fed formation was going to hold for them. But it had been quick, smooth, and deadly. Their last sight of the Feds as they went into their loop had been a real reward for all their long hours of waiting: all four Fed wings engulfed in fiery chaos as damaged ships were rammed by those behind them in a devastating chain reaction.

Then Criptkicker became a ball of flame and shrapnel. Emerson and the others avoided most of it, but a good-sized piece of Criptkicker’s shell gouged into Bad Mac.

Emerson, now the sub-wing leader, boosted to form the head of a triangle with his remaining ships and contacted Bad Mac’s pilot, “Jackson, this is Emerson. What’s the damage?”

There was a pause. Then, “It’s a r-r-real mess in here. A strut holed us like a bullet. In one side and out the other. Went right through O’Riley. Missed Graham but nicked her suit, so we lost her to vacuum. Nelson and I are on suit air, and he’s pretty shaken up. Me too. I keep fading in and out.” Another pause. “I don’t think we’re gonna make it.”

“Jackson, listen. You’re still on course, still in formation. You’re doing fine.”

“Luck and instinct.”

“How’re your boards?”

“A lot of red lights. Some secondaries are working. Most of the ones I really need are. But Nelson’s out cold now and I’m not much better. I can run, but I can’t shoot too. Not much. I’ve got no rear shooters. I’d better sit this out.”

Williams reached over and gripped Emerson’s arm. Gave him a look. Emerson read it and understood. Bev Jackson and he spent their off-duty time together. They were close. She was hurt. He wanted her back. Not in some stinking Fed cell.

Emerson gave Williams a nod. “Jackson? You stay with us. That’s an order! You just follow me and The Valkyrie will guard your tail. Right, Kees?”

“You got it, Brant. Jackson, honey, you just trust your backside to ol’ Kees.” That was Kees van Derventer in The Valkyrie.

“Okay, guys. Get me home and the drinks are on me.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Williams traded Emerson a look of gratitude and patted him on the shoulder. Emerson had a warm glow inside. Maybe he had just made a friend.

While all that had been going on on their way back down to reform, another channel on Emerson’s com had been buzzing with Varick filling in the sub-wing leaders with rapid-fire updates. “Form up Big D on meet; V45N line 240E to base, okay Babydoll? We lost two. Texas Miss cut too close and caught scrap. Criptkicker caught a snake on the rollover. Anybody else elected?”

Emerson spoke up, a sub-wing leader now, and entitled. “Bad Mac tagged scrap but can fly. Only Jackson is functional, but we will cover for her.”

“Thanks, Banshee. Anyone else? Okay. Watch your screens. We scratched about twenty-eight from the race, but the rest got through and are on their own loop back to us.”

I know all that from my screen, thought Emerson.

“What you can’t see on your screen, unless you are on broad range, is that Bolivar’s fighters are on their way back too. They either got a recall or had second thoughts about taking on our forces near Triumphant.

Emerson switched to broad scan.

By then Babydoll had reformed and found itself at a strength of fourteen, with two enemy carriers behind them, nearly sixty Fed fighters between them and home base, and no element of surprise left.

“Where the deuce is the rest of our team?” asked Williams.

Emerson had been wondering the same thing. So had all of Babydoll. He broadened scan again. There they were, only thirty-two of them, just crossing back over Triumphant in pursuit of the Bolivar fighters. They must have overshot Triumphant in an attempt to get Bolivar’s forces to follow them to its far side for some reason—probably some little trap Triumphant’s commander was waiting to spring—and then been surprised when Bolivar’s ships pulled up short. Caught unawares, it had taken them this long to shed velocity and angle back. They were going to be too late. Babydoll was in the meat-grinder.

By now the rest of Babydoll had figured that out too. “Well, the cat’s really out of the bag now.” That was Davenport from Dirtbag on all-channels.

“You said it, Dav,” replied Varick. “Okay, everybody, listen up. If we are ever going to make it back to base we have to make it through to our people. We can shotgun it, try a tight formation, or split to subwings. Any preferences?”

Emerson was shocked. No wing leader, especially Varick, would ask for advice on a call like that unless he had given up—or was treating it as a courtesy, akin to a last request.

“I call shotgun. Every man for himself.” Davenport again.

“Shotgun,” was the terse reply from Deitrick in Leaping Eyegouger, another sub-wing leader.

Except for Varick, that left Emerson. “Splitting to sub-wings’ll give us our best chance. But you guys do what you want. Van Derventer and I have to stay with Jackson even if you call shotgun.”

“I agree with Banshee,” said Varick, “and I’ll make my vote count twice, so we go with the split. Tight pattern’d just get us enveloped. Man for man’d get us picked off piecemeal. We go in Big D, tight diamond, right down their throats. On the mark, we starburst left, right, over, and under. Eyegouger? Trade rear guard with Banshee III. That’ll give Bad Mac the most cover ‘til the split.”

“Good,” said Deitrick. “I want a front-row seat for this anyway.”

They were already in Big D formation and on course. As they closed, Varick gave the call to fire at will. Babydoll opened up, and so did the Feds. Fireball, the ship to Varick’s left, lived up to its name and came apart in shards, but it had been flying slightly above the pattern, so they were spared any chain reaction from that. Long Arm was not so lucky. Davenport’s Dirtbag took a snake right in front of it, and the two collided. But Babydoll was taking its toll of Feds as well. Instead of firing dead ahead, they had first fired on the enemy’s flanks, left and right, and caught a few napping. Then they turned their attention to the center.

When they were so close they could have read the markings on the Fed ships, Varick called, “Mark!” And the split was on.

The Feds had learned their lesson for the day about flying close formations so they had spread out, wide and deep, giving Babydoll a horrible gauntlet of fire to thread.

As rear guard on the split, it was Banshee Ill’s job to break low and under the enemy formation, but it was so deeply spread that she was still threading through them as she angled down, fighting to break out below.

They were taking hits as often as they were avoiding them. Boards were smoking and flashing red. Secondaries began to wink out. The Bad Mac overshot them on a climb back up through the thick of the enemy pack. The Valkyrie was still on her tail.

Williams, who couldn’t look any more panicked as he frantically manned his failing forward armament, did. And Emerson was already angling back up toward her as he hit the ship-to-ship. “Jackson! What’s going on?” The Feds had their EM jams going, so it took him several tries to reach her.

Finally, her static-filled reply came back, weakened with more than the jams, “Lost something, Banshee. Can’t dive or go left. Have to—Oops! Almost caught one. Have to climb. Nelson’s dead. Tell Kees to join up with you. Tell Mark . . . I love him.”

Williams was firing like a man possessed, every shot counting, ripping his way through the Feds. Tears streamed down his cheeks, but he kept his focus locked desperately upon the screen. Emerson heard his moaned “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!’ rise to a maddened scream.

“Stay with her, Kees,” Emerson called. “We’re on our way.”

Emerson flew like Williams fired: possessed. He slammed in full power and shot so fast down a corridor between two Feds that they couldn’t train on him, but Williams raked them. Then he hit the attitude jets and angled up, actually clipping the antenna on another Fed as he flashed by.

Valkyrie had moved up and was riding just above Bad Mac by the time Banshee III came in below her, taking a hit that would have been hers.

“Banshee, you idiot!” It was Varick, off to the left and above them, still with the remaining two ships of his sub-wing. They had broken out above the main body of the enemy pack, and Emerson’s sub-wing was not too far from doing the same. From Varick’s point of view, it looked as though Emerson had chosen their course, taking the crippled Bad Mac through the grinder with him. “Send her up to me!” Varick called. And then on all-channels, “Jackson, leave that fool and make your way to us. We’ll cover you.”

“Stay put!” Emerson called.

“Banshee, I gave an order!”

Just then Kees and The Valkyrie fireballed and were gone. Banshee III moved up in front of Bad Mac, but their course, while taking them up, was angling away from Varick.

“Banshee, execute that order!”

“Do it!” yelled Williams, and he spared one hand from the firing controls to slam back at Emerson for emphasis. Before he could get it back to the board a missile snaked past, just missing them. But it blew Bad Mac to atoms.

Williams sat frozen. Emerson slapped control of forward-screen arms to Prock and yelled for him to take over. They were almost out and could see their reinforcements streaking in behind the few Fed fighters still in their way, but in that maze of fire it was too late. Numbing concussion rocked Banshee III, and she spun away into the darkness.

* * *

When Emerson came to, the ship was in a slow tumble and had been holed in too many places for them to patch. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, and their suits had held, but the bad news made them wish they hadn’t.

The main boards were out. Most secondaries had failed. Some battery power was left, but its duration was suspect. A cobbled-together secondary nay computer told them that they had been out a long time. The battle had been long ago and far, far away, along with anyone who might have been looking for them, assuming anyone on their side had survived to make the attempt. They had traveled from just outside Ganymede’s gravity well to near Europa’s orbit and were picking up considerable velocity from Jupiter’s pull.

Major propulsion systems were fritzed, so there was no way to shed velocity. They were on a one-way ride to Jupiter, the hard way.

Communications were a problem. Their tumble kept placing their ship between the antennae and what they were aiming at, until Prock jury-rigged a couple of attitude jets and smoothed it out. Even then their failing batteries could barely cut through the chatter of the magnetosphere, but a chance encounter with a passing Jovian weather satellite enabled them to boost signal and patch through briefly to Yoshitsune station on Europa.

The news, while it lasted, was still bad. If they could hold orbit around Jupiter for a while at Europa’s distance out, Europa would swing around enough for a Northern Hemisphere tanker, currently groundside at the station, to launch, slingshot around Europa, and attempt to pick them up. Other than that they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, at the wrong speed. No one else, civilian or military, would be able to reach them before they spiraled in toward temperatures of fifty thousand degrees Fahrenheit and pressures of over three million atmospheres.

Just before communications had faded, Emerson had told Yoshitsune to launch that tanker and come get them. Thompson had just shaken his head and said sadly, “It’s not going to work, Emerson. We have enough reserve air to last that long, but we’ll be well past Europa’s orbit by the time they show up. We’ve got no power. We’re fried.”

It was the most anyone had said to him since they had come to. Williams was not speaking to him at all, and mostly had sat in silent gloom while he and the others had mechanically gone about trying to rectify their situation. Now it looked as though the other two were ready to join him, sit down and wait for oblivion. Emerson was just about out of patience with the lot of them.

“We’ve got meth, don’t we?” he asked.

Prock looked up. “Yeah, the fight didn’t last that long. We still have a couple of full tanks of methane.”

“And a lot of good they are, too,” reminded Thompson. “The propulsion secondaries are out and no way to fix them. I tried.”

“That’s true,” Emerson said, brightening with an idea, “but maybe if we—”

“Can it, Emerson!” Williams shouted, breaking his long silence. “Give it a rest. Your boy-scout optimism is making me sick. You’re not the den leader here anymore. Death has a way of evening out rank, and I don’t expect to be having to answer to command after today, so I’ll be hanged if I’m going to die listening to puke from you about how we’re still going to make it.” He glanced around at Thompson and Prock for support. “We are going to die, Emerson. And it’s your fault. You got Jackson killed—and now us, too.”

Emerson was stunned. “Jackson killed? I was trying to save her. Risked all our necks to do it.”

“Then why didn’t you acknowledge Varick and send her to him when you had the chance?”

“Simple. Varick had been up from us but to the left. Jackson couldn’t go left. And besides, things were happening pretty fast. While Varick was calling us, most of the Fed ships between us and our reinforcements were rising to engage Varick’s sub-wing, leaving us what I hoped would be a comparatively free corridor of movement. Even if I could have taken her Varick’s way, it would have been into heavier fire.”

Williams seemed to crumble as he relived those final moments, but he was unrelenting. “You could have acknowledged and executed the order as best you could. Varick would have moved right to cover us.”

Emerson was mystified. “That is just what I did, stayed with Jackson, climbing up and right.”

Williams’s fury with him was unabated. “No it wasn’t!” he screamed. “You never acknowledged the order!”

Emerson was confused. Had he acknowledged the order? Maybe not. Things had been happening so fast that there had been no time for long explanations. But he couldn’t imagine why such a minor detail should matter. Then he saw it the way Williams must be seeing it.

Williams had been frantic to save Jackson. Varick had offered help. Varick was the best wing leader, and Williams’s friend. Williams wanted that help, but couldn’t deal directly with Varick to get it because the “new meat” kid was sitting in the pilot seat that should have gone to Williams. All Williams could do was keep firing, keep the Feds at bay, and listen. He’d kept waiting for the acknowledgment from Emerson that would bring Varick in on the problem, but it never came. In frustration, he had moved his hand from his controls to hit Emerson.

If he had kept both hands on the boards could he have intercepted that missile, or maybe kept the ship that fired it busy until they were past? There was no knowing, but the thought was a torture to Williams. He blamed himself for not blocking the shot that took Jackson out, but he blamed Emerson for making him miss that one all-important target and for all that had followed after that.

Emerson looked at Thompson and Prock. They would not meet his gaze. They might not blame him as Williams did, but sides had been drawn and it was obvious that their loyalties would not be with him.

* * *

As he clung to the hull of Banshee Ill, Emerson put the finishing touches to his handiwork. They were now inside the orbit of Europa but not, he prayed, too far in for this to work. If his calculations were right, he should still be within his window of opportunity, but it would be close. It had taken him more time than he would have liked.

Thompson and Prock had finally listened to his plan and, more to pass the time than anything else, agreed to help him. Williams had lapsed back into silence and would not be budged.

Emerson hated what had happened. He would have given a lot to settle their differences. After so many years of constantly being the odd man out, it was all he really wanted. In all honesty, he did not feel at fault for what had happened. But there had been that one small error, one tiny omission of duty. And now Williams would never forget or forgive.

So what he thought didn’t matter. It was done, and he had failed. Failed, as a person, to win their respect. Perhaps even failed his duty.

If he sat back and did nothing, that would be how it would end for him, in failure at every level. That prospect was growing more and more imminent as Jupiter pulled them faster with each passing second. And more and more hateful to him. He could face death. Compared to his loneliness, oblivion might even be a welcome release. But not like this. Not as a failure after a lifetime of struggle to rise from being a miner’s kid in the boonies to ace pilot in the top fighter wing in the Jovian system. Not while there was a single card left for him to play.

Emerson figured he had at least that one card. It might not be much, but at this point they all didn’t have a thing to lose by trying it. It wouldn’t salvage things between him and the crew, but his personal life had been a failure as far back as he could remember, and he was used to that. His duty was something else. He had never before failed in that.

Williams might not acknowledge it but Emerson was still pilot, still responsible for the lives of his crew, and he would do what he could to bring them home safe and sound. If he could manage only that much, it would be enough.

They didn’t think much of his plan, but he knew it would work. To get back to Europa’s orbit and be in place to meet the tanker, they needed to accelerate. They couldn’t use their fuel the standard way, but he calculated that the force of an explosion of their remaining tanks would give the command cabin, if separated sufficiently from the rest of the ship, adequate boost to make it. The computer had agreed.

It helped that the rear of the cabin had been designed with shielding to protect the crew from the explosion of their fuel supply, should it take a hit in battle. All that remained was to separate the command module enough from ‘the ship that it would easily tear loose, use the attitude jets again to get it properly aligned, re-rig a detonator from one of the shells, rig that to the methane tanks, and figure how to set the thing off. The latter had proved to be more of a problem than any of them had counted on, but time was running out, so Emerson had insisted on leaving them to puzzle out a solution while he got the mechanics in place.

Everything was ready now. He floated in place, still holding a plate from the hull that he had had to remove to set the detonator against the fuel tanks. He took a last look at Jupiter and sailed the plate out toward it. An offering, part of his ship, his command: all that he had left. Let Jupiter be satisfied with that if it was hungry. He had other plans for the Banshee and crew, and this time he would not fail. He’d get the job done right, come hell or high water.

He switched on com. “Everybody strapped in in there?”

“Yeah,” Prock’s voice crackled in his ear, “but we still haven’t figured any way to set off the detonator. Come up with any bright ideas yourself? We’re cutting it close on time.”

Emerson smiled to himself. What’s the matter, boys? Starting to think this might work? “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I have. Hang on. I’ll be right in and show you.”

“Leave it to the boy scout,” grumbled Williams.

Emerson sighed and thumbed a remote he had brought with him. He looked down at the detonator. The thing had been designed to be armed by a signal in the ship’s firing sequence, but no signal would detonate it. That had been their problem in using it. It required impact.

“What’s going on out there?” ‘Williams called. “The forward cannon just cycled over. What are you doing?”

“Nothing much, Williams. Just my job. You guys sit back and relax. I’ll be right in.” He raised a wrench over the detonator. “Williams? I . . . never mind.”

They blacked out from G-force as the blast sent them hurtling back up the gravity well to an orbit somewhere near Europa.

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