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Once more, Flight Captain Ghenji Yamato waited in his needle, monitoring the net. Within his armor, he felt hot and clammy, yet cold and chill. Why? What had happened to the warrior-monk?

Kay-four, stand by for release.

Standing by, Sunbase control, he pulsed back.

Launch four!

The sudden acceleration slammed Ghenji and his armor into the needles couch as the Amaterasus mass drivers hurled his needle out and away. He and the remaining two needles of his flight slashed upward at an angle toward the second component of the Mogulate solar engineering facility. Ghenji checked vectors and relative speeds. Sunbase control, affirm, kay-four on-line.

He forced himself to concentrate on the mental display, while he kept checking the EDI and detectors for the first signs of the Parthindian defenders. Less than twelve minutes later, he had both visual and full EDI on the Mogulate defensesand he didnt like what he saw. There were close to forty hot-scouts comprising a defense net with four energy-screen hexagons, and all were lined up almost perfectly to block the Amaterasus needles.

He mentally checked the options, scanned the offshoots, and pulsed to his flight, Kay-four, course change follows...Execute...NOW!

The two quick heading changes would do nothing to the flights projected target release point, but they would change the angle of penetration of the defense screenenough, Ghenji hoped, to allow a successful torp release. He wasnt so sure about whether they could correct enough afterwards, assuming they did penetrate, to regain a departure vector that would allow successful recovery.

There were no real gaps in the defense screens, not given the speeds and vectors involved, and Ghenji angled his needle toward the lowest energy concentration level in the screens with the least course deviation possible. Then, just in the nanosecond when the needle impacted the screens, the system shifted all power to ablation and defense.

The needle was through the Mogulate defenses, and nothing lay between it and the second hollowed-out asteroid.

Ghenji released all four torps.

In his mental display, ahead of him, his screens showed far fewer energy lines impacting the Parthindian installation than during the first mission and, behind him, far greater numbers of energy flares that had once been Republic attack needles.

At that instant, the EDI screen blanked in overload protection. Nearly simultaneously, the needle bucked and shudderedand the diversion screens crumbled. That was trouble. At the velocities his needle carried, anything at all that struck the needle could now turn it into a mass of scrap composite and metal.

A second shudder rattled the needle, and Ghenji couldnt help but wince as fire shot through his back and down both legs. Then...he felt nothing below his waist. Nothing, not heat or chill.

Ignoring what he couldnt do anything about, Ghenji forced himself to study the needles diagnostics. The shield generators had already gone red. The converter blinked amber, then red, and stored power reserves running down, barely enough for a return to the Amaterasu on residual velocity.

He funneled almost all the remaining power into the steering drives, trying to get the needle back at least close to the departure vector for rendezvous with the Amaterasu. If he didnt get close enough, then injuries and habitability didnt matter.

The fading screens did show him that the mission had been successfulwhere the second installation had been was a rapidly expanding mass of energy and mass. Then, needle system after system began to shut down.

Ghenji quickly cross-checked his departure vector against the projected track of the Amaterasu. Close...but was it close enough?

There were no other needles from flight four that had made it through, and the close-screens didnt show any needle nearby enough to slave to. On his courseline and velocity, ETA with the Amaterasu was a good forty-three minutes away. And something like forty would be without power.

He triggered a burst comm. Sunbase control, kay-four lead, all systems red, on track for pick up. ETA plus forty-three. Will activate beacon. Mission accomplished.

Within less than five minutes, he could feel the chill beginning to creep above his waist, a sure sign of far greater damage to his needle and armorand himselfthan hed realized. He hated the idea, but there was no help for it. He triggered the emergency suspension system.

As the cold rose around him, the shakes and shivers began, if only in his upper body, and he could not move. Somewhere in the mist beyond, there was the face of a woman with flowing white hair and skin as white as porcelain, and lips like cherries appeared above him.

Speak of this to no one else, and you will be spared eternal winter, she said, and bestowed a chilling kiss upon himand the ice encased him with whiteness.

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