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Ghenji had run through the checklist, and waited in his needle, monitoring the operations net, with his armor tight and restrainers locked, as the Amaterasu began to spew forth the attack needles.

Kay-one, stand by for release.

Standing by, Sunbase control.

Launch one!

Kay-one is clear. Flight kay-two to position...

Before long, the four needles of Kama-four were in position in the mass-drivers.

Launch four!

The brutal jolt of acceleration pinned Ghenji and his armor into the needles couch as the Amaterasus mass drivers hurled the four needles of his flight downward toward the solar engineering facility orbiting the F2 star that the Mogulate was working to turn into a facsimile of a nova.

Kay-four, release on schedule.

Affirm, kay-four on line and alpha victor, Ghenji beamed back, concentrating on the mental display fed to him by the needle AI, showing his four needles on courseline aimed directly at the Mogulate installation. They were traveling energy-blanked, hurled out by the sun-like power of the Amaterasu. Without energy emissions the Mogulate EDIs would detect nothing until the needles were within enhanced visual range, and by then, effective reaction would be difficult. Not impossible, because nothing could conceal that a ship had entered the system and that it had released a single blast of energy. But the defenders could only estimate what sort of attack might be coming, on what vectors, and when. There was always the possibility that the launch blast had been a decoy, designed to lure defenders into position, wasting time and energy, and even putting them in the wrong location.

Even so, Ghenji kept checking the EDI and detectors for any signs of defender vessels.

Fourteen and a half minutes later, he had visual on the Mogulate installationas well as EDI on more than a dozen hot-scoutsthe high-powered and heavily-shielded Mogulate defenders. The Kama-four needles had certain advantagesfar higher down-system absolute velocity than the defenders could ever match, greater numbers, and, until they began to use their drives to maneuver, virtual invisibility. The disadvantages were that the defenders knew where the Kama needles had to go in order to plant their torps and that the defenders individually had greater fire-power.

Seconds later, his sensors could pick out a gap between two of the hot-scouts not linked by defense screens. Too obvious. He tweaked the drives and angled for a narrower space above and to the right of the central hexagonal energy net maintained by the Parthindian defenders.

Almost as soon as hed committed, he was through the gap and releasing his four torps. The rear screen display, only rear in the sense that his mind identified it as such, showed the fading energy flares that had been Republic attack needles. Initially, he could see that three of the four needles in his flight had survived the defense barrage.

Torp energy lines, seemingly from everywhere, converged on the hollowed-out nickel-iron asteroid that would have been one of two energy fulcrums used to change the stellar dynamics of the F2 sun that dominated one quadrant of his EDI. Then, the entire EDI screen flared, before blanking to avoid overloading both the nanotronics of the needle and the brain cells of the pilot.

Ghenji checked his departure vector against the projected track of the Amaterasu. If the giant needle-carrier followed the projected track...if...then he was home free.

That was all there was to it, in a sensean approach in which the less maneuvering required, the greater the possibility of success and survival; a window of between nanoseconds and seconds in which to launch torps; and the selection and execution of an escape vector that would take the pilot back to the needle-carrier that had launched him or her. In the end, nanoseconds were all that separated success and failure.

Kay-four lead, kay-four-delta...massive damage...vectoring on you, open slave link...

Within his armor, Ghenji winced, but immediately activated his slave acquisition system. Then he checked the inputs from the damaged needle. The drives had kicked the needle onto the departure vector before fusing, but outside of the separate slave transmitter, the delta needle was half-junk, and habitability was nil. He could only hope that Kashiwagis emergency life-suspension system had functioned as designed.

Ghenji used his steering drives to link with the damaged needle but, even hull-to-hull, could get no feedback.

Another seventeen minutes passed before Ghenji had lock-on with the Amaterasu.

Sunbase control, kay-four lead, approaching from your eight-seven, amber level.

Kay-four lead, interrogative status.

Kay-four lead and beta green, kay-four gamma strike at target. Kay-four delta on slave-link and tow. Status unknown.

Standing by for link-recovery for delta. Couplers ready. Suggest decel in ten.

Sunbase control, affirm decel in ten.

Operations control took Kashiwagis needle first, and then the two remaining Kama-four needles, with Ghenji last.

Before he powered down and left the cradle, he linked to ops. Interrogative status, kay-four delta.

Recovery successful, pilot in suspension.

Thank you, Sunbase ops.

He finished the shutdown checklist and then eased himself out of the restrainers and then out of the needle through the flexible umbilical tube.

Later, there would be a complete debrief, after operations correlated all the information, but, once he finished the post-flight and mech report, he checked the mission status. Out of sixty needles launched, seven had been lost, and four had returned with various stages of damage to the needles and their pilots. He noddedthe stats were close to operational norms.

He still had time before the flight leader debrief, and he needed to check on Lieutenant Kashiwagi. The lieutenant was one of his pilots. Tired as Ghenji was, he headed up to the medical section. As he neared the two technicians stationed at the master suspension consoles, he couldnt help but overhear the quiet words between them.

Snow-woman got him...but he should make it...bring em back from a block of ice...not medically possible...she can...

Snow-woman? Ghenji stepped forward. Can you tell me about Lieutenant Kashiwagi?

Ser! Both stiffened. Neither spoke for a moment.

Then one finally said, Dr. Yukionna could best tell you, and it will be a while.

Ill wait.

He stood there, pacing back and forth, for close to a stan before he saw a flash of short brilliant white hair.

Youre here because of one of your pilots? Rokujos words were barely a question.

Kashiwagi...Kama-four-delta. Will he make it?

She offered a faint smile. Its likely. He did suffer explosive decompression before life-suspension fully kicked in. Thats in addition to major organ failures. We dont have the facilities to rebuild him here, but theres a good chance that we can keep him alive in suspension until we return to Kunitsu...

Likely? That didnt sound good.

Most of those who are likely to survive do, and if they survive, the med-systems at Kunitsu orbit station can return almost all to full function.

That was the best Ghenji could hope for. He nodded.

Later? he asked.

It might be much later, but...yes. The quick smile that burst through the formal frosty exterior was gone almost as soon as it had appeared...but Ghenji had seen it.

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