PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 28 of 44 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 5 OF 15 : LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE

 


BWS Sicily
Seggalion System, Union of Border Worlds
February 9th, 2681 (2681.40) 1129 hours

The two fighters were poised at the mouth of the carrier's bay, seeming to tremble with anticipation as their engines screamed at full military power. A catapult officer knelt at the side of the runway just short of the atmosphere retaining field with his arm held vertically. He swept it down as though hurling a spear into the vacuum and the two fighters lit their afterburners, hurled into the endless night of space by the ship's catapults.

Kristy "Stardust" Joyce let out a yell of excitement as her Marauder heavy attack fighter left the Sicily's launch bay. The Colonel had been right, she thought. There was nothing quite like a cat launch. She swung the fighter into a turn to the right and watched the fighter of her wingman, Alex "Storm" Morgan, follow her as she formed up with the Marauders which had already launched. "Scrapper Five, good shot!" she announced. She throttled back to 300 KPS with the others as they waited for the other Marauders to be launched and catch up.

The sleek Marauder handled like a dream compared to the lumbering Vindicator she had flown when the Scrappers were first assigned to the Sicily, nearly as agile as an Excalibur. Add in four rapid-fire mass drivers, two meson guns and eight missiles and you had a fighter that left the 'Vin for dead. The two torpedoes and cloaking device were just icing on the cake.

The grin of exhilaration left Kristy's face as her thoughts turned back to the reason for the flight. Originally scheduled for a training mission, the Border Worlds and Tanfen Corporation pilots were flying support for a rescue mission flown by their squadronmates. And this was their first true flight in their new craft. They had all undergone an incredibly rushed sim course but there was nothing which could match the realism of actually flying.

Kristy watched the other Marauders launch and join the formation as the chill in her stomach grew. The convoy's last transmission had been a call for help against a fighter attack, garbled by electronic interference. It is not the Nephilim, she told herself sternly. They couldn't have come so far so fast. But whoever the attackers were, half of Kristy's squadronmates were heading out right now to face off against them.

 

Deep Space, Seggalion System
February 9th, 2681 (2681.04) 1136 Hours

"Contacts, contacts, contacts," Lieutenant Anthony "Grimlock" Grimm chanted as the red dots appeared on his sensor screen. "I have multiple targets on my scope." This was Grimm's first combat mission outside of the Academy sims and his guts were churning like a washing machine on overdrive from the tension.

"Confirmed," Lt Colonel Paul "Onslaught" Onslow calmly replied. He switched frequencies on his comm unit to open a channel to the Sicily and hoped it could punch through the jamming. "Sicily, this is Intruder Lead, approximately two-zero bogeys sighted at Nav 2, we're checking them out."

"Roger that, Onslaught. Will advise Hellcat Wing; their ETA is three mikes," the flight controller on the carrier advised.

"Acknowledged. Intruder Lead out." Onslaught switched his comm back to the tac net. "Okay, people, I need data on the bogeys ASAP. What have you got for me?"

"Mostly older Confed types, but there's at least two Banshees there," Major Vincent "Harbinger" Tsu replied. "So far I've IDed Thunderbolts, Arrows, and a Centurion."

"There's at least two Razors out there as well," cut in Lieutenant Dragan "Draco" Emerson, "'cause they're part of the group heading to intercept us." Onslow glanced sharply at his radar display and pressed the "Identify Nearest Enemy" button on his HOTAS. Sure enough, it locked onto a Razor light fighter fifteen thousand klicks away and heading straight for him.

Okay, this could get a little rough, Onslaught thought grimly. "Backup's three minutes away, Scrappers. Let's just keep the bad guys busy until -- "

"Spike! They're locking on!" yelled Major Jack "Diamond" DeVille even as Onslaught's missile warning system began screaming its electronic warning.

"Break and attack!" Onslaught snapped as he wrestled his Intruder fighter into an evasive barrel roll. "Concentrate on the light fighters and on staying alive, people." Suiting his actions to words he ejected four decoys and locked a Spiculum Image-Recognition missile onto the Razor. "Open wide," he growled at the pirate as he pressed the firing button. The missile leapt from the Intruder's wing and slammed into the pirate fighter, ripping it apart in a burst of flame.

"Boss, I can't dodge this missile. You want to lend a hand?" Diamond rasped. Even through the distortion of the comm Onslaught could hear an emotion rarely present in his XO's voice - fear. He looked over at DeVille's fighter and watched curiously as it spun through a series of evasive maneuvers.

"You tried decoys?" he asked even as he headed for his wingman. He'd seen none of the clouds of lights typical of modern decoys near the dodging fighter.

"Yeah, but the launcher's gone tits-up. Shows green on my board but it ain't doing jack," Diamond replied tensely, unaware of his atrocious pun. "Where's that help I asked for?"

"Booster climb on my mark," Onslaught ordered, trying to keep the sudden ice in his guts under control. He watched intently, searching the vacuum for... there! He caught sight of the missile's engine and brought his guns to bear. "Two... one... mark!" he called , then watching Jack's fighter obediently pull up on full burners. Onslaught pulled the trigger and let a long burst of gunfire slash out, clipping the edge of Diamond's shields for an instant before blasting the missile apart.

"Thanks, Onslaught," Diamond said as he formed up on his leader's wing. Just the thought of flying a combat mission unable to use decoys was terrifying. If one of the techs has gooned up I'll fucking rip them in half, he thought viciously. "We've got bandits inbound -- "

"HOOYAH! Scratch one bad guy!" Draco screamed exultantly over the squadron's comm net. Onslaught winced at the newbie's volume but didn't blame the kid. The first time any pilot scored a real kill was an incredible thrill, an intense realization that all the training and discipline had paid off. The smart ones came down from the adrenaline high quickly, realized just how easy it was to be killed instead of the killer and learned to work as part of a team. Some of those who didn't were still good pilots -- the name Todd Marshall kept popping up for some reason - but as far as Onslaught was concerned, pilots who flew using their adrenal glands instead of their brains were as dangerous to those around them as raw antimatter.

"Watch the comm discipline, Draco," he ordered even as he hit the "Identify Nearest Enemy" button again, targeting an Arrow trying for a missile lock on Harbinger. He rolled in behind it and emptied his capacitors into its aft shields, watching as Diamond ripped into the light fighter's rear armor with his own savage volley of gunfire.

The missile warning system shrieked suddenly and Onslaught instinctively lit the burners and corkscrewed left, dropping more decoys to confuse the pursuing missiles. He glanced at his radar screen and swore savagely under his breath. When the six Intruders had arrived at the convoy's location an equal number of pirate fighters had engaged them to act as a screen for their fellows. Now, with half of the screening group shot down, the rest of the pirates were coming to join the party.

"I'm gonna be visiting vacuum before long with all those missiles heading our way," Diamond remarked, and Onslaught silently acknowledged the truth of Jack's comment. Unable to use decoys Jack's only defense would be to dodge, and he couldn't do that forever. "There's one way around the problem," DeVille offered. For a second the Colonel tried to figure out what his second-in-command was talking about. Then it hit him like a gunshot.

"You're crazy!" he barked. "Got another option? You need me here and we don't have time to discuss it! The only way to avoid being missiled to death is to get into a knife fight ASAP!" If the Border Worlders managed to get into a close range furball with the pirates. then massed missile fire wouldn't cut them down like grain before an agroharvester -- they hoped.

"Let's do it!" Onslaught snarled. He swung his fighter around to face the oncoming enemy and raced towards them on full burners, guns blazing.

 

Scrapper Twelve
Deep Space, Seggalion System
Approximately the same time...

"Grimlock, cover my six!"

"I'm on it!" Anthony Grimm yelled, following his wingleader into the mle. He looked around frantically at the HUD data, his controls and the surrounding area trying to keep track of the chaotic situation. Draco was racing after an old Rapier, blazing away with particle and meson gunfire as the pirate frantically tried to evade. Its shields flashed blue as the Intruder's fire kept chewing into its shields despite its dodging.

"You're all mine!" Emerson crowed triumphantly. "Quit squirming -- holy shit! Grimlock, get this asshole off me!" he screamed as energy blasts smashed into his own shields. He yanked his fighter into a hard right turn and hit his afterburners in an attempt to escape the Crossbow light bomber hurling gunfire at him.

"Got it. Hold on..." Grimlock murmured as he lined up on the bomber, ignoring the neutron gun fire from its aft turret. Can't break away; Dragan's depending on me... He pulled the trigger and raked it with gunfire, weakening but not breaching its shields as his own fighter rocked from impacts. Slamming the afterburners into full thrust he screamed into a barrel roll, avoiding the turret fire. But he was still taking hits...

Grimm glanced over his shoulder and spotted a Hellcat directly behind him, framed by the Intruder's twin tails. It had a perfect zero-angle shot at him. Got to ignore it for the moment. Never abandon your wingman, that's the first thing they taught us at Academy. I'm not gonna run! He lined up behind the Crossbow, shunted extra power to his shields and armed a pair of missiles. The lock tone sounding a few seconds later was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. "Die you bastard," he hissed and pressed the missile launch button twice. The Crossbow immediately hurled itself into evasive maneuvers and spat a stream of decoys, sending one of the missiles careening into the void. The other one slammed into the pirate's remaining shields and a cloud of sparks from its engine showed that the bomber itself had been hurt.

But the Crossbow wasn't the only fighter taking damage. The Hellcat's fire had finally worn down the last of Grimlock's shields and was ripping into his armor. Damage graphics flashed on his HUD as the rookie pilot desperately tried to dodge. They'll think I can't cut it but, God, I don't want to die! he thought frantically. "Someone help me! This guy's all over me!" he begged as he slammed the afterburners wide open and jinked frantically.

"Gimme a minute, I'm still tied up with this Rapier," Draco snapped. "C'mon, c'mon..." he breathed as he fired again at the agile pirate craft. "Dammit!" he cursed as his target dodged his fire.

We're outnumbered more than three to one, Grimlock thought desperately as he guided his fighter into a split-S in an attempt to throw off his pursuer. If we don't get some help we're all dead.

 

Mustang Three
Deep Space, Seggalion System
February 9, 2681 (2681.040) 1138 Hours

"Tiu!" rasped Major Emma "Pegasus" Wright as her flight of six Hellcats raced towards the convoy. "Hellcat Wing, go to full burners, now!" she barked and the fighters accelerated to their top speed of 1,200 KPS. Wright studied the data on her HUD and shook her head in astonishment. She'd fought pirates many times before but never this many at one time - her radar showed over thirty hostile contacts. And somewhere in the middle of the melee were the six Intruders flown by the 349th. "We've got to get the Scrappers out of there," she ordered briskly as her fighter's computer began sorting through the multitude of targets.

"Why?" Lieutenant Errol "Foxbat" Chandler harshly asked. Wright remembered that he'd reported for duty with some savage bruises when they'd been assigned to the Border Worlds task force. No doubt they'd been inflicted by the members of the 349th in the bar brawl the night before the assignment and his hate was still fresh, even though his colleagues had started the fight.

"Because I said so," the Tanfen flight commander ordered coldly. "Do you like the idea of facing this many pirates on your own once the Scrappers are down, Foxbat?" she asked. Silence answered her. "I thought not."

"Pegasus, this is Volt," Lieutenant Courtney Tseng announced. "I've got six or seven shuttles heading directly for the transports. The jamming seems to be centered on them and the 'sports are under attack by four or five enemy fighters. Who do we attack first?"

"The main force," Wright replied crisply. "We'd have to go through them anyway. Help out those two Intruders nearest to us and we'll take it from there. Break and attack!"

 

Scrapper Twelve
Deep Space, Seggalion System
February 9, 2681 (2681.040) 1139 Hours

Grimlock guided his fighter down to the left in an evasive corkscrew then snapped the nose up towards the Crossbow chasing Draco, who was still pursuing the same Rapier. It seemed like a macabre game of tag which would only end in death. And end in death... it did.

Draco fired a short burst of gunfire at the Rapier. Grimm didn't see whether or not it did any damage or whether it just spooked the pilot. Whatever the result the Rapier pulled an Immelman turn and screamed in at its attacker just as the Border Worlds pilot fired a single Spiculum ImRec missile at it. The oncoming missile must have fascinated the pirate - he watched it for the rest of his life. All two-point-seven seconds of it.

Emerson let out a whoop of triumph as his target disintegrated, then cursed as the Crossbow tailing him opened fire. "Clear my six, dammit," he pleaded as he punched the burners to break clear. Grimm obligingly locked a pair of missiles onto the light bomber and fired, causing it to go into a spin and spew decoys. One of the missiles smashed into the pirate but the other one spiraled off into the endless night. The softspoken Border Worlder armed his last two missiles and started locking onto the bomber again when four missiles slammed into it, blowing it apart.

Grimm hurriedly looked around for the Hellcat which had been on his tail almost since the fight began. He saw his tormentor blaze past on full afterburners ejecting enough decoys to fool a single missile. But that still left three to finish the job. The medium fighter erupted into a fireball. What the hell? he thought even as the sky around himself and Draco seemed to fill with Hellcats. He banked sharply to the right and swung into position behind one, a perfect low-angle shot - and caught sight of the Pegasus symbol of the Tanfen Airwing Security Corps on its wing.

"Scrappers this is Hellcat Lead, what's your status?" he heard over his comm unit even as he breathed a sigh of relief. The backup had finally arrived.

"I'll need a new paint job. Those scum die for that," Draco announced happily. "Nice timing, 'Cats!"

"Thanks for the compliments but we aren't out of the woods yet," one of the Tanfenners replied quickly. "More bad guys inbound."

Grimm checked the damage and armor displays on his HUD and winced. The Intruder's rear armor was gone as was half the armor on the left side. The afterburners were only functioning at forty percent of capacity, the engine itself had taken some damage and the graphic of his fighter's core was shown in a sickly yellow. Autorepair systems could restore the burners and engine to full function given time, but time was a very rare commodity in the middle of a furball like this one. He keyed his comm. "Scrapper Twelve here, I've got some damage but I'm sticking around." What other choice do I have? Anthony brought up the nearest target and his heart sank. It was a HF-66 Thunderbolt heavy fighter, much more heavily armed and armored than the medium Intruders and Hellcats trying to stop it. Hurriedly scanning through the oncoming pirates the rookie pilot felt a chunk of ice the size of Circe's polar cap settle in his guts. There were at least a dozen medium and heavy fighters heading towards the two Border Worlders and six Tanfenners.

 

Deep Space, Seggalion System
February 9, 2681 (2681.040) 1142 Hours

"Goddammit!" Diamond hissed as a burst of tachyon fire screamed past his fighter. "That was too bloody close!" He keyed his comm. "Onslaught, I've got a big bad nasty on my ass. I'm totally defensive and I need help right now!"

"Roger. Keep him busy... there! I'm on my way," Onslaught announced as he guided his Intruder through the fireball which a second ago had been a pirate Hellcat fighter. His eyes locked onto his wingman's fighter then followed the line of gunfire back to the attacker. A vicious curse escaped his lips. "Break right when I give the word, Diamond," the scar-faced Colonel growled as he hit the afterburners to close in on his friend. He checked his guns' power levels, took a deep breath and locked onto the pirate. "Ready, ready, break!"

DeVille's Intruder screamed into a tight skid to the right even as the pirate poured another burst of gunfire into its fading shields, shredding the twin tail fins and scorching the thrusters. Sparks poured from the left engine and the Border Worlds fighter slowed perceptibly even as the raider broke off in the face of Onslaught's savage barrage. Jack looked over his shoulder to see his commander firing his last two missiles at the furiously dodging enemy fighter. He turned back to the fray and whispered an oath of his own. No wonder he was tearing me to pieces with one volley!

The pirate was flying an Excalibur! An Excalibur flown by any half-decent pilot could tear an Intruder to shreds - it was faster, more heavily shielded and carried a much heavier armament than the Border Worlds fighter. And this pilot was more than merely half-decent, he was damn good. But so were Paul Onslow and Jack DeVille, and they'd flown together for years. Their teamwork had been honed in battle to the point where they knew each other's moves on a near-instinctive level. Maybe, just maybe, it would be enough.

"Watch your back, motherfucker!" Jack yelled as he poured a burst of gunfire into the heavy fighter's weakened rear shields. The Excalibur spun to face the way from which it had come and hurled energy back at his damaged fighter. Diamond jammed the stick forward and to the right, stamping on the left rudder pedal as he did so, and his fighter skidded crazily. He couldn't shoot with any accuracy with the reckless maneuver, but the pirate wouldn't have much of a chance of hitting him either. "Try taking the blindfold off before pulling the trigger," he taunted.

"Die by my hands, weakling," the pirate snarled back as he afterburned towards Diamond. Then he went into an evasive barrel roll as Onslaught opened up from behind him, spraying the Excalibur's shields with a long burst of gunfire. The pirate dropped a pair of IFF missiles which locked onto Diamond's battered fighter.

"Oh, shit! Onslaught, can you do the honors?" DeVille asked as he sent the Intruder into a series of evasive maneuvers. IFFs were among the least damaging missiles in use but with his depleted shields and structural damage he couldn't afford to be hit by a single one. He frantically pressed the decoy launch button but it didn't work any better than the previous times.

"Again? Well, I suppose so," the Scrappers' CO replied even as he lined up on the missiles and obliterated them with a long burst of particle gun fire. "That's another one you owe me." His head snapped around to track the Excalibur and found it racing away at maximum speed, heading towards the other Scrappers who had regrouped with the Tanfen reinforcements. Dammit, he'll tear them apart, Onslaught thought, but there were too many more raiders heading for him to try to stop the Excalibur. He keyed his comm. "Scrappers, Mustangs, be advised there's an enemy Excalibur heading straight for you. It's probably their leader so watch yourselves. If anyone can leech or capture him we might be able to get some answers out of him."

"Answers? First we've got to frigging survive!" Draco snapped. Onslaught gritted his teeth in anger even as he dodged the fire from a pirate Morningstar. There was such a thing as being too much of a smartass even in the Border Worlds and Emerson was heading that way really fast. The problem was that in this case he was right.

 

Scrapper Twelve
Deep Space, Seggalion System
February 9, 2681 (2681.040) 1145 Hours

Grimlock focused his fire on the enemy Excalibur, catching it in a pincer with two of the three remaining Mustang Hellcats. The pirate's shields flared and armor tore away but the fighter still retained enough control to face one of the corporate pilots and savage his fighter with tachyon and reaper cannon fire. The TASC flyer let out a yelp of fear and jinked away sharply, letting the raider leader slide into position directly behind him. The Border Worlder turned to follow the pirate but fire from a Thunderbolt tailing him seared his aft shields, forcing him to break away in a hurry.

"Grimlock? You okay?" Todd "Cateran" McLaughlin asked, concern evident in his voice.

"For the moment," Grimm replied, voice cracking with tension and fear. "When's the backup due?" He had no missiles and few decoys left, was almost out of afterburner fuel and his armor was more reminiscent of a sieve than a protective shell. Fear clenched his guts into a ball as he sent his mangled fighter skimming along the hull of one of the convoy's transports, hoping that the Confed ship's turrets would distract his pursuer enough to give him a moment to restore his shield and gun energy. A shrieking howl in his headphones made him jump in his seat and almost send his fighter smashing into the 'sport. What the -

The flash of the pursuing Thunderbolt exploding lit up his cockpit.

The young novice pilot hurriedly looked at his radar. His eyes bulged in disbelief as another seven red dots vanished almost simultaneously, their explosions lighting up the void. "My God, what the hell just happened to them?" he breathed in shock, barely noticing he was broadcasting over the comm net.

"We happened to them," a cold voice replied. It took a few seconds for Grimm to identify the voice as that of Lt Colonel Matthew "Mako" Forrester, the commander of the Mustangs. The reinforcements had finally arrived. As if to confirm this two Marauder heavy fighters raced past in hot pursuit of a pirate Centurion.

"Where the hell have you lot been, delivering pizza?" Cateran demanded. "We've been dying out here!" Grimm thought that last crack was a bit unfair. While all the fighters had been damaged to some extent only three of the Hellcats had been shot down, and all three pilots had ejected safely. But he couldn't blame the Cabrean pilot for letting off some stress. Now that the fighting was over with most of the pirates trying to flee he was trembling with reaction and fear.

"How'd you know? We even had to go back for the garlic bread," Alex "Storm" Morgan quipped.

 

Scrapper Ten
Deep Space, Seggalion System
February 9, 2681 (2681.040) 1143 Hours

Danica "Dancer" Owens chuckled at Alex's joke even as she slid her Marauder neatly into position behind the pirate fighter. She fired a long burst from the quad mass drivers and twin meson guns causing the Centurion's shields to flare in a series of blue flashes but remain intact. Her wingleader, John "Bloodhawk" Hawke, added his gunfire to her own, finally collapsing the pirate's shields. Mass driver rounds punched into the rear turret, killing the gunner instantly. The pilot pulled the fighter into a booster climb and Dancer gained a clear view of the marking on the right wing - a pallid hand with its palm out and fingers aligned.

The image had haunted her nightmares ever since she had entered the Academy. She had thought those who had borne that symbol had been wiped from the galaxy but here it was before her, on a pirate craft trying to kill her. Her hands froze on the controls as the Centurion went into a loop and swung into position behind her. Dancer's blood seemed to turn to ice in her veins and a faint whimper escaped her lips. No! Not again! she screamed silently in her mind.

"Dancer! Dive!" Bloodhawk ordered even as the pirate craft began spitting fire. She pushed the stick forward and slammed the throttle wide open, sending her fighter dodging beneath the raider's particle gun blasts. You're in a fighter just like this psycho is, she told herself, and you've got better training. Start using it! You aren't helpless like when you first met them! Fight back, damn you!

"I'm not afraid," she whispered to herself as she guided the Marauder through an evasive turn. The Centurion kept firing energy blasts at her even as Bloodhawk savaged the raider with more mass driver fire. She took a deep breath and pushed her fear to the back of her mind, trying to summon the calm she'd been taught at the Academy.

Instead, pure red rage and hate rose up in her heart. "DIE, YOU MURDERING BASTARDS!!" Dancer screamed at the raiders and hurled her Marauder into an Immelman turn to face her pursuer. She pulled the trigger savagely, blasting the mangled fighter to pieces and pressed the "Identify Closest Enemy" button. The Marauder's computer locked onto a Thunderbolt heading straight for her. "Not in this lifetime, scum," she snarled and sprayed the heavy fighter with gunfire even as it opened fire. For two seconds the two fighters raced towards each other, lines of fire linking them, then they broke away. Dancer's shields were paper thin after the fusillade but the Thunderbolt was far worse off. As soon as he passed Dancer he was faced with Bloodhawk's deadly accurate fire. With no shields, almost no forward armor, no energy in his gun capacitors and no way of avoiding the incoming fire the only thing the pirate could do was die. He did so in a spectacular explosion.

Bloodhawk's victorious smile faded in an instant. He'd noted the markings on both the Centurion and the Thunderbolt and knew which pirate band they belonged to. Supposedly they had been annihilated three years ago in one of the biggest anti-piracy operations the Border Worlds had mounted. Looks like it wasn't big enough, he thought grimly. He keyed his comm even as his eyes tracked Dancer's fighter. "All Scrappers and Mustangs, be advised our opponents are using planes with White Hand markings. Say again, we're up against White Hand flyers." There was dead silence on the comm channel for several seconds before the storm of protest erupted.

"That's gotta be bullshit!"

"We wiped the floor with the bastards during Uruk-hai!"

"Maybe it's just some guys trying to take advantage of their rep. Paint on the markings to spook their targets into surrendering..."

Bloodhawk ignored them. He'd just reported the facts as he'd seen them and, to be honest, he didn't really care if his opponents were White Hand pirates or not. They were still trying to kill him and his colleagues no matter who they worked for. He guided the Marauder into a gentle climb towards Dancer, who was busy destroying a Razor with a Javelin heat-seeker. "Dancer, give me a status report," he ordered brusquely, the ice-eyed Border Worlder's succinct manner hiding deep concern. He'd never seen his wingman so angry or reckless before.

"I'm fine," she growled. Her sapphire eyes locked onto an Excalibur trading fire with a pair of Intruders. She altered course to intercept the fighter, double-checking her weaponry.

"All Scrappers and Mustangs, there's an Excalibur around here. I want it alive!" Onslaught ordered. "It's gotta be their boss and I want him alive for interrogation. Intruders, when you find him leech the crap out of him!"

Sorry, skipper, but he's not getting off that lightly, Dancer thought vengefully as the missile targeting brackets closed around the Excalibur like a constrictor's coils. Her shields were almost back to full strength and she felt confident in her ability to go one-on-one with the pirate if she had to. With her thumb poised over the missile firing key Danica Owens allowed herself a smile of triumph, savoring the kill of someone who most definitely deserved to die. Then a large dark shape slid between herself and her target, blocking her shot. She swore viciously and sideslipped to gain a clear angle but the dark shape stayed in front of her. Her eyes widened as she recognized it.

Bloodhawk's Marauder.

"Bloodhawk, get clear! I've got a good lock!" she yelled.

"Knock it off," Hawke snapped. His Marauder stayed in front of his wingman's craft as if they were in a coordinated aerobatics display instead of a dogfight. "Onslaught's got him leeched. He's dead in space."

"He'll just be dead in a minute," Dancer muttered halfheartedly. The targeting box around the raider was gray instead of bright red, indicating that the Intruders' guns had knocked out its power reserves. For a couple of seconds her thumb rested on the missile firing key then with a curse the platinum-blonde pilot pressed the "Identify Nearest Enemy" button. She wanted that pirate dead but she wouldn't stoop to the level of murdering a helpless opponent trapped in a powerless craft.

The heavy fighter's targeting system locked onto a Banshee light fighter racing across Dancer's line of sight at full afterburner. For a second Owens dropped her gaze to check that her IFF interrogator was functioning properly and the Banshee slipped past. She cursed and turned to follow the pirate and his wingman.

"Where the hell these scum are in such a hurry to get to?" Bloodhawk asked as he angled his Marauder for a clear shot.

"No idea," Dancer replied as she glanced at her radar, trying to figure out a way to cut off the two fleeing raiders. Now why the hell are they slowing down? she wondered as they cut their burners. She didn't have long to wait.

"Attention, Border Worlds fighters," a harsh voice grated over the Guard frequency. "You've won. You get to keep the cargo. Our shuttles will get our leader and we'll withdraw from this system. Deal?"

"No deal," Dancer grated. "You psychos have nothing we want." She aimed her guns at the nearest raider and waited for the ITTS to show a clear aiming point. An idle part of her mind took note of the closing speed and range between the two fighters. Why the hell aren't they moving? she wondered. The Banshees were almost broadside-on, presenting an almost perfect shot...

"Bloodhawk, Dancer! Knock it off, knock it off now!" Sandra "Riot" Lynch screamed suddenly over the comm. The two Border Worlders chopped the throttle immediately, bringing their fighters to a quick halt. "They do have something we want," their flight leader explained at a more moderate volume.

A chuckle cold enough to have crawled from an ancient crypt echoed over the open frequency, sending ice down Dani's spine. "You're quick on the uptake, Border Worlder," the pirate commented. His voice sharpened abruptly. "Now clear the way so the Dol Guldur can pick up our boss or your buddies get vaped!"

What the hell? Dancer thought incredulously as she studied her radar. There's only two of them! We can take them!

But then the answer leaped out at her. The two red dots representing the White Hand fighters were dead center on her screen, and slightly to the right were a widely spaced trio of purple dots - the ejection pods of the Tanfen pilots who'd punched out during the dogfight. The pods were tough enough to withstand the shock of ejection but didn't have a hope against even the relatively weak armament of a light fighter. The helpless pilots were hostages for the rest of the Border Worlds force's acquiescence to the pirates' demands.

 

Scrapper One
Deep Space, Seggalion System
February 9, 2681 (2681.040) 1147 Hours

Paul Onslow watched the countdown on his HUD's chronometer and cursed as time slowly ticked away. The Tanfen pilots stuck in their pods had loudly proclaimed their willingness to risk death if that was the price to pay for destroying the last two pirates. The Scrappers' CO had very firmly squashed any ideas the other Tanfenners had of risking their comrades' lives. The Scrappers made a point of looking after each other and, even though they'd risk death if that was what it took to get the job done, wouldn't put each other at risk to clean up minor details on a mission which was effectively completed.

Especially when Onslaught had a plan to finish the last two enemy fighters off with little risk.

The countdown on his HUD reached zero and he double-checked his radar. The shuttle Dol Guldur was 2,500 klicks away from the White Hand Leader's Excalibur and heading straight for it. The moment of decision had arrived. Paul Onslow took a deep breath and activated his lasercomm. "Mako, this is Onslaught. Do it."

"Acknowledged," the TASC Colonel replied crisply. He then switched his own lasercomm to link to two of his subordinates. "Tiger, Brumby - kill that shuttle now!"

Two Marauders took aim at the pirate shuttle. With the electronic interference from the jamming shuttles missiles would take too long to lock and be too likely to miss once they did. So the Tanfen pilots each launched a pair of Javelin heat-seekers at the shuttle with the targeting systems disabled. The missiles raced straight ahead, trailing smoke and flame. Three of the missiles slammed straight into the Dol Guldur, shattering her hull instantly. Her crew and passengers died without even knowing they were under attack.

For a few seconds there was dead silence. "What the hell are you doing?" one of the Banshee pilots shrieked in disbelief as the fireball that had been the Dol Guldur faded.

"Taking you psychos down," Harbinger replied icily as the Border World and Tanfen fighters began closing in on the pirates like a pack of sharks. "You don't deserve to live," he grated even as several of the Scrappers and Mustangs opened fire on the pirate Banshees.

"If we die, so do your comrades!" The two pirates lined up on the nearest ejected Tanfen pilot and fired, vengefully determined to take at least one enemy with them to the grave. Red bolts spat from their lasers, streaking for the pod...

And vanished in flashes of blue as they slammed into shields. Onslaught grinned savagely even as he raced towards the raiders, imagining the looks of shock on their faces as Storm and Stardust decloaked their Marauders in front of the helpless pods. By the time the Scrappers' leader was within gun range of the Banshees, the pirates no longer existed.

"Looks like all the bad guys are down, boss," Storm reported dryly to Onslaught. "Our Tanfen buddies have the shuttles under their guns and the Necromancers are on the way to cover the convoy. We're clear to RTB."

"Got it. Scrappers, Mustangs - let's pull it together. I want those shuttles covered very bloody closely... we'll let Commodore Johnson figure out what he wants done with them. I'll call for a SAR shuttle to pick up the Excal." He issued his orders quickly, not letting the fatigue in his muscles or the questions in his mind leak into his voice. The fatigue was normal for anyone who had survived a drawn-out furball like this one, but the fight had raised a multitude of questions.

As if the Nephilim weren't bad enough...

 

CONT...