: “ Scraps of Honour ”
PART 14 OF 15 : THE MATADOR  ( 2 / 3 )


Bridge, TMMS Argent Wind
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
1549 Hours, 18th February 2681 (2681.049)

“What’s our status, Captain?” the elegantly dressed former Loyalist Marine demanded. The ship’s captain glanced away from the flickering tactical display to the chief bodyguard for the two VIPs with whose care he had been entrusted.

“We’re still screwed, Major,” Captain Yang Fei-hung replied curtly. “Structural integrity’s down to forty percent, one of the laser turrets and our missile launcher are destroyed, long-range scanners are offline and the engines are only giving half their normal thrust. In addition we’ve lost one of our Hellcats, and the other two are pretty chopped up.”

Pamela Yee merely nodded in reply. As a former Captain in the Tanfen Corporation’s Walking Steel Regiment (hence her being addressed as Major -- there is only ever one captain aboard a ship, and that is the person in charge. Consequently any officer with the rank of Captain is referred to by the rank above them) death was no stranger to her and it held no fear. However as the head lady-in-waiting and chief bodyguard to her two young charges she had responsibility for their safety. As the unofficial motto of the Steel proclaimed, "Death is acceptable. Failure is not." But failure was what she was looking at right now. At least if they were pirates we could count on them boarding, and then we could give them such a fight as they would remember for the rest of their lives! But these aliens seem to be only interested in tormenting us before they move in for the kill! “Captain, what do you suggest? The safety of the ladies is paramount.”

Yang grimaced as the converted frigate shuddered again. “From all accounts these Nephilim are absolutely ruthless. Even if they do take prisoners I doubt they would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions,” the Argent Wind’s captain advised grimly. “Our best hope is to try and hold out until reinforce-“ His voice was suddenly cut off as an intercom speaker flickered to life.

“Captain, we’re losing coolant from the number two reactor! Looks like one of the main pipes has burst! We need any engineering-qualified personnel you can spare!”

“Get some people from Morishi’s detail, Mister Carmody. They should be finished fixing those conduits on the starboard side,” Yang demanded.

“Afraid not, sir,” Carmody replied in an urgent voice. “They’ve still got three more to go before we’re back at full capacity. I’ve grabbed the maintenance crew from the missile launcher to fix the coolant pipe, but we need an officer to coordinate their efforts.”

“Understood,” the Captain replied heavily. He looked like a wizened gnome, bowed down by the weight of responsibility for his ship and all those on her, as he looked around the bridge. They are all my responsibility, he thought. And then his eyes lit up. “Mister Jensen, you have some engineering training, don’t you?”

“Enough to run a damage control crew, sir,” the Comms Officer replied, already rising from his chair. “I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one left who can.” 

“But we need a comms officer if we’re to continue calling for assistance,” Yee protested. 

“I can handle that.” 

All eyes turned to the two beautiful redhaired girls standing behind the former Loyalist Marine. They stared back unflinchingly, identical except for the color of their eyes.  

“Lady Amber, I must protest! You know nothing about operating a ship’s communication system or military codes -- “ 

“You are wrong,” Amber Gan replied coolly. “In my Communications Studies course we received training on the same type of communication systems that are mounted on capital ships. It was only rudimentary training,” she admitted, “but it should be enough to continue sending a distress signal.” 

“Milady, it is not your place -- “ Captain Yang interrupted. 

“My place is to serve the Corporation,” the amber-eyed noblewoman replied with an unaccustomed note of steel in her voice. “It is not my place to be kept sheltered like a doll on a pedestal while others are fighting for their lives! Captain, you need Mister Jensen for damage control and you need someone to handle communications. If there is any reason aside from my bloodline that I cannot perform as communications officer, please let me know.” Her eyes locked with the captain’s dark ones in a struggle of wills. Amber Gan was usually more submissive than her twin sister, but this time she wasn’t giving an inch. 

“Mister Jensen,” Yang finally said after a few moments, never breaking eye contact with Amber for a moment, ”take command of the damage control detail conducting repairs on number two reactor’s coolant pipe. Coordinate with Mister Carmody. Miss Gan, take over the comms console and continue sending a distress signal. I don’t know who’ll respond, but anyone would be better than our current guests.”  

“Yes sir!” Amber exclaimed enthusiastically, rushing to the comms seat almost before Jensen had vacated it. By referring to her as "Miss Gan" rather than "Lady Amber" he had emphasized that her social rank didn’t matter to him as long as she was serving as one of his bridge officers. And that was fine by her. 

“Lady Sapphire,” the Argent Wind’s captain continued, “I was told that you have medical training, and Doctor Santini could use an assistant down in the sickbay. It may be presumptuous of me to ask, but we have a number of injured -- “ 

“Of course, Captain,” the other noblewoman replied graciously. Identical to her twin sister except for the color of her eyes, Sapphire Gan liked being bound by the obligations of her rank even less than her sister did. “I’d be happy to help out any way I could.” 

“Excellent!” Yang beamed. “Major Yee, would you please escort Lady Sapphire to the sickbay?” 

For a moment Pamela Yee fumed. She was not a mere lackey and neither were the two girls in her charge, despite the way the ship’s captain was acting. But aboard any ship under way the captain was absolute master. As she turned to lead Sapphire towards the Argent Wind’s sickbay a realization came to her. Lady Amber is on the bridge, which is one of the safest areas aboard this ship. And the sickbay is only ten meters from a lifepod, should the worst come to pass. Why, that sly old devil planned this! 

The last thing the former Loyalist Marine heard as she left the bridge with the elder of the Gan twins was Amber’s clear voice as she spoke into the comm system. “Attention any nearby ships. This is Tanfen merchant flight…


Deep Space, Nifelheim System
1551 Hours, 18th February

“… Tanfen merchant flight Foxtrot Foxtrot Tango Seven-One-Three Victor, requesting assistance. We are under attack by at least a dozen fighters, and have sustained extensive damage. Repeat, we urgently request assistance.”

“Seven-One-Three Victor, this is Delta Lead,” Onslaught replied, carefully watching the afterburner fuel gauge on his Intruder’s HUD. “We’re eighty-five thousand klicks from your position, ETA seventy seconds. Hang in there, we’ll bail you out.” 

“We’ll try, Delta Lead. All we can do is our best,” the merchant vessel’s comm operator answered, fear clouding her voice.  

Jack ‘Diamond’ DeVille’s ears perked up - the voice was certainly not the masculine one that had addressed them when they had first responded to the distress call, but it was somehow familiar to him. Back in the Lennox system the Scrappers had flown literally hundreds of sorties as the local Customs Service, and the charming blond major had spoken with countless pilots, privateers and comm officers in the course of those duties. But something in that voice reminded him more of silk sheets and murmured endearments than businesslike chatter over a vidscreen. 

Where have I heard that voice before? the roguish pilot wondered as he checked his sensors, hoping to get an idea of just how many enemies he would face. It was a vain hope as the Intruder he flew carried the shortest ranged sensor suite of any modern fighter, a side effect of the designer’s intention to make it as cheap as possible. He opened a comm channel to the SWACS shuttle vectoring himself and Onslaught towards the besieged ship. “Catseye this is Delta Two. Request sitrep for Seven-One-Three’s location,” he asked. Hopefully one of the sensor operators aboard Catseye could give him more information about the warzone he was heading into. 

“Two, we’re not getting much,” the sensor op told him apologetically. “The merchie’s long-range sensors are down so they can’t cross-deck their take to us. The Bugs have the usual jamming effect up which is making things kinda fuzzy for us, but we can see at least fourteen bad guys. Looks like two friendlies in there with the merchie but that’s all we’ve got.” 

“Copy, Catseye. Thanks,” Diamond acknowledged before shutting down the link. The situation could certainly have been better, but he’d faced much worse by the colonel’s side. And all he could do was his best. 

All we can do is our best. 

“Oh dear sweet mother of God!” he rasped as he snapped upright in his seat. Now he knew where he’d heard that voice before! You had enough hints to get it right, the freewheeling major scolded himself as he opened the comm link. Victor at the end of the flight number is phonetic for V, which Tanfen uses to designate a flight carrying VIPs. And it’s not like it’s been that long since you’ve heard her voice… “Amber! Amber Gan, is that you?” he demanded in a shaking voice.  

“Who is this?” The answering voice was feminine, tense and sexy. To the second-in-command of the Scrappers it was also definitely familiar. “Jack? Jack, is that you?” she asked suddenly, hope flooding into her voice.  

“It’s me,” Diamond admitted. “We’re less than a minute away. Hold it together and we’ll bail you out,” he told her in a soothing voice. “Now tell me how many there are.” Unconsciously the blond Scrapper was rocking back and forth in his seat with impatience, almost as if he was urging his fighter to greater speed.  

“There’s at least a dozen swarming us,” Amber reported, hastily checking her console. “I can’t get much more precise data - the long range sensors are down and the close range array’s damaged as well,” she told the Border Worlds pilot in an apologetic tone. Her voice suddenly sharpened. “Stand by,” she urged them before switching comm channels. A few seconds later she spoke again, a tone of numb shock in her voice. “Jack, we’ve just lost one of our covering fighters. There’s only one left and he… he can’t hold out for long.” 

“Dammit, Amber, don’t freak out on me now,” Jack urged. Poor kid’s going into shock. This is her first time in a battle, and she’s not even trained for it. Why the hell is she here in the first place? he raged mentally. The first blips were coming into view on his HUD, and they were almost all red. “We’re almost there -“ 

“Jack, we’re in trouble! There’s three bombers locking torpedoes onto us! We need help!” Amber exclaimed, fear obvious now in her voice. I’m not ready for this, she thought wildly, on the edge of panic. I can’t handle this, we’re going to die here, Kuan Yin help me! I don’t want to die!  

“Amber, tell me where they are!” Diamond urged. Nephilim fighters were all over the sensor screen on his HUD but, unlike the combat computers in the most modern Confed fighters, it couldn’t project the target of each individual fighter. “I need to know which ones to kill so I can save you!” 

His words snapped the Tanfen princess out of her fear and she hastily scanned her console’s readouts. “Ahhh… three fighters bearing one-one-four by zero-six-five relative to our position, range fifteen thousand klicks. They’re heading straight for us, speed four hundred KPS,” she reported, looking around for the button that would send data from the frigate’s remaining sensors directly to Jack’s Intruder. Where is it, where is it, where is it?  

“Got ‘em on screen,” Diamond reported. The range and bearing that Amber had given him pointed to a trio of blips above and slightly behind the Argent Wind’s starboard beam. Fortunately that was the same side from which the Scrappers were approaching, so the attackers weren’t too far away… 

“Break. Two, this is One. We have company,” Onslaught reported crisply. “Two Morays eleven o’clock low, coming at us head-to-head. Range nine thousand klicks,” the leader of the Scrappers warned as he locked a missile onto the leftmost one. Here’s where we see how good you crusty little bastards really are…. 

“Lead, we blow right through them,” Diamond said in an unyielding voice. “We don’t have time and the transport doesn’t have time. We need to get the bombers off them ASAP. Nothing else matters,” he concluded harshly. 

Onslaught’s eyebrows rose. Man, he sounds serious, he though. Serious and seriously obsessed. “Got it. Fox One!” with those words he fired off a Spiculum ImRec missile at the Moray and sideslipped to avoid its wingman. Diamond didn’t bother with evasive maneuvers, instead just keeping the afterburners lit and staying on course for the trio of Manta bombers. Onslaught’s target veered away, unloading decoys as fast as it could even as the other Moray opened fire. Green beams of energy sliced through the blackness of space, barely missing Onslaught’s Intruder. Switching the ITTS to lock onto his attacker the Scrappers’ leader spun his fighter’s nose to bring his guns to bear. Fish in a barrel, he thought grimly as he pulled the trigger. The two Nephilim showed no sign of any wingman-wingleader tactics at all. Neither of them had even tried to cover the other. Let’s hope they stay dumb for the rest of their lives, the militia flier thought as bolts from his meson and particle guns caused the alien fighter’s shields to flare a sickly green. Unfortunately I don’t have time to finish what we’ve started here. A quick glance at the HUD confirmed that Diamond had stayed dead on course for the Mantas locking their torpedoes onto the converted frigate, and if Onslaught continued to engage the Morays the two Border Worlders would drift too far apart to support each other. And when that happens we’re both dead

“Fox One!” Diamond exclaimed as a Spiculum dropped from his fighter’s missile bay and raced towards the nearest Manta. The alien fighter-bomber promptly veered away, leaving bright clouds of decoys behind it, causing the missile to lose lock. However it had done its job, forcing the Manta to break too hard to maintain its torpedo lock on the frigate. The red-streaked alien craft spun to face Diamond and sprayed gobs of green plasma at his fighter. The Intruder barrel-rolled to avoid the incoming fire, spitting a pair of missiles at the other two Mantas who immediately began dodging and twisting. That’s done, Jack thought with satisfaction even as the first Manta latched onto his tail. The Nephilim craft opened fire and green plasma tore into his fighter’s aft shields, weakening them to dangerously low levels. Diamond swore and reefed the Intruder into a vertical bank to the right. Here’s hoping he doesn’t crash into me… 

The alien pilot didn’t. The Border Worlder’s sudden stop had caught it by surprise, forcing it out in front of him. Instead of trying to cut its speed and get back behind him the Manta hit the afterburners in an effort to extend and reopen the range. Diamond jammed the throttle open just as Onslaught thundered past him in hot pursuit of the Manta, sending blasts of gunfire into its rear shields and armor. As Diamond’s fighter picked up speed yet another fighter raced past, a Moray furiously blazing away at Onslaught with its maser cannons. We’re forming a bloody daisy chain, the blond second-in-command of the Scrappers thought wryly as he slipped onto the Moray’s six and opened up with full guns. The Moray convulsed like a scalded cat and twisted to the right before snapping back to the left in an effort to follow Onslaught, but Diamond was waiting for him to do precisely that. He tracked the blasts from his particle and meson guns up and down his adversary’s spine, making its shields flare a sickly green as the shots tore into it. Chunks of the alien fighter’s armor spalled away into the void under the relentless bombardment, and its maneuvers became even more desperate as it sought to escape. But Jack DeVille would not be denied. “Not today, roach,” he growled as he selected a missile for the coup de grace. As he waited for lock he savaged the Moray with another burst of fire, watching as it suddenly began tumbling through the void end over end. Small explosions bloomed from its fuselage before the whole thing vanished in an explosion violent enough to rattle the Intruder. 

“Diamond this is Onslaught. What’s your status?” 

“I’m fine, boss. Five by five,” Diamond reported. “How about you?” 

“Wait one,” the Scrappers’ leader gritted from between clenched teeth. “Got him!” he exulted a moment later. Sure enough the Manta erupted in a ball of flame. “Now all we have -“ 

“Mayday, mayday! This is Crimson Two, under heavy attack from Nephilim fighters! All my ordnance is gone and I’ve got major core damage. I need help!” 

“Where are you, Crimson Two?” Onslaught demanded, eyes scanning his HUD for any trace of the distress call’s origin. There were only three blips displayed with the cool blue of friendly forces - the Intruders flown by Diamond and himself, and the converted frigate they were trying to protect. So who’s calling us? the leader of the Scrappers wondered even as a blue dot flickered to life for the moment before fading out.  

“Two hundred… starboard of the Argent Wind,” came the static-muffled reply. Despite the electronic interference Onslaught could make out the all too familiar tones of fear in the other pilot’s voice. “There’s… firing on me. Delta Lead, I need…“ The message faded but the veteran of twenty years of war had managed to spot where the transmission had come from. The pilot issuing the distress call had to be flying a plane with a badly damaged comm transmitter, which also explained why the IFF blip was fading in and out. The IFF transceiver was linked to a fighter’s comm system, and if one was damaged then so would the other. 

“Stay on my wing Diamond,” Onslaught ordered, pulling back on the HOTAS and adjusting his fighter’s course to intercept the pilot calling for help. Jamming the throttles to the stops and hitting the afterburners the two Border Worlds fighters quickly closed in on their beleaguered colleague.  

Their scanners showed the story soon enough. Four Morays and a Manta were making sport of an old Hellcat in Tanfen Corporation livery frantically trying to avoid their fire. Green beams lit the blackness of space as the battle-scarred corporate fighter spun and wove, trailing sparks as it dodged. The Hellcat hadn’t been considered very maneuverable even when it had been in frontline service in the First Kilrathi War and that had been a dozen years ago. The Nephilim fighters were even more agile than the Kilrathi fighters of that era, so the Hellcat would have been totally outclassed even if it had been undamaged. Diamond gritted his teeth as he realized that the Nephilim fighters weren’t really trying to destroy the Tanfen craft -- they were just tormenting it like a cat playing with a mouse before it made the kill. Those sadistic goddamned maggots! the blond pilot silently raged. “Onslaught, we’ve gotta get in there!” he demanded.  

“Hold your fire!” Onslaught shot back in a harsh voice. “These little bastards are focused on playing with their prey. Let’s get as close as we can before we cut loose.” The veteran warrior’s voice chilled to the temperature of the void outside his canopy. “I don’t want even one of these scum getting away.” 

“Roger that,” Diamond acknowledged grimly, locking his targeting computer onto one of the Morays. Not long now, little bug, he thought as the distance to the gaggle of Nephilim fighters rapidly shrank. Another blaze of green light flared among the tumbling fighters but the blue blip that showed Crimson Two’s position remained on the Intruder’s radar. He’s not dead yet. Hang in there, buddy, the cavalry’s almost there, Jack thought hopefully as he watched the Hellcat’s desperate plight with a sort of horrified fascination. Dogfights were nothing new to the blond pilot and being in one was only a little frightening - anyone who says they’re not frightened even a tiny bit in a life-or-death situation is either a liar or a lunatic - but this was something different. The sheer malice of the Nephilim in their deliberate torment of their prey was nothing short of pure evil. Jack gritted his teeth in anger as he watched, and then he heard two of the most welcome words he’d ever heard in his life.

“Fox One!” 

A pair of missiles dropped from the ordnance bays of Onslaught’s Intruder, blazing a two-tracked arcing trail towards the Manta. Diamond promptly thumbed off a Spiculum of his own at the Moray he had targeted, following it around as it dropped decoys and broke left. “Crimson Two, get outta there now!” he yelled over the comm as he punched a short burst of gunfire into his target’s flank. The alien fighter rolled ninety degrees to the left and broke right, climbing above the Border Worlds fighter pursuing it. But that maneuvers wasn’t enough to dodge the missile Diamond had fired, which slammed into the Moray’s underside like a runaway freight train. The Nephilim fighter cartwheeled out of control, trailing green sparks and fluids, before a savage burst of particle beam fire from Diamond’s guns delivered the deathblow.  


Jack’s head snapped around, looking for the source of the sudden transmission. A sudden explosion lit the darkness of space and the handsome second-in-command of the Scrappers cursed violently. The voice hadn’t been Onslaught’s and the explosion had been too small to be the transport being destroyed, which only left the unfortunate Hellcat pilot. Sure enough, a quick glance at the radar showed a purple dot instead of the blue one that had represented the last Tanfen fighter. “Amber, this is Jack,” he barked into the radio, ignoring all comm procedures. “Your pilot’s EVA and I’ve got a good track on his pod. Get someone on your ship to tag him with a tractor beam ASAP.” 

“We’re on it,” the noblewoman assured him. “We take care of our own.”  

Diamond half-smiled at the Tanfen mantra she had quoted. Despite the frequent tension between the Union of Border Worlds and the Tanfen Corporation that was one concept that they agreed on. His eyes narrowed as he glanced back at his Intruder’s HUD, pressing the ‘Identify Nearest Enemy’ button on his HOTAS. The radar locked onto a Moray racing towards the converted Caernaven, its maser cannons spitting lines of green energy. The Border Worlds pilot wrenched the HOTAS to the left, sideslipping his Intruder into position behind the Nephilim fighter and opening fire. A long burst of gunfire chewed away at the Moray’s aft shields, bursts of sickly green illuminating the blackness of the void. Diamond grimaced in concentration as the Moray cut loose again, tightening his aim on the enemy craft just as his RHAWS began screaming. Hastily he jinked to the left and fired off a pair of decoys, craning his head to look over his shoulder. A pair of Morays sprayed emerald streaks of energy towards him, forcing him into an evasive barrel roll. The blond pilot chopped the throttle and hurled his Intruder into a vertical bank to reverse on his adversaries when a wail of chilling fear sounded in his headphones, only to be cut off by the sudden hiss of static. 

“You murdering cocksucker!” 

Many people thought that Paul Onslow was casual and laid back due to the amiable exterior he presented to the world, and most of the time they were right. But there were boundaries beyond which he could not be pushed and things he would not tolerate, and when those buttons were pushed his temper was fearsome indeed. And whoever had provoked him into that outburst would find that out the hard way. 

Onslaught opened fire on the Moray from thirty-five hundred klicks out, and most of the energy blasts hit their target broadside on. The Nephilim fighter spun to face its attacker and lit its afterburners, cutting loose with its own maser cannons. Instead of trying to evade the incoming gunfire Onslaught held his course, his finger tight on the trigger as his lips peeled back from his teeth is a snarl of absolute fury. Neither of the fighters tried to dodge as they raced towards each other, their shields flaring green and blue under the barrage of fire. It wasn’t a battle with tactics or evasion, attempting to dodge each other’s fire - it was as suicidal and reckless as submachine guns at ten paces. But neither of them flinched, only breaking away at the last instant as they raced past each other. The Border Worlds craft was trailing shards of armor like shedding skin but the Moray suddenly erupted in a fireball. The Scrappers’ leader nodded in grim triumph even as he checked his fighter’s status. Shields are coming back up but I’ve lost half my front armor. Some damage to the sensors, but the auto-repair systems should handle that given time. Of course I have to get that time somehow… 

As if the scarred pilot’s thoughts had brought his concerns to life, streaks of green fire raced past his cockpit. An instant later an explosion sounded behind his fighter even as he racked it around in an Immelmann turn. The other two Morays which had latched onto his tail broke away, splitting to left and right even as another Intruder settled into position on his wing. “Thanks, Diamond,” he murmured into the comm.  

“No sweat, boss,” Diamond replied. “Only problem is I’m winchester,” the blond pilot noted. "Winchester" was a pilot’s term that dated back to before the days of spaceflight, and it meant the same thing in the twentieth century as it did in the twenty-seventh. It meant the pilot was out of missiles, and in a battle with the odds that the two Scrappers faced it meant that Diamond was at a major disadvantage. Of course, we’re Border Worlders. We’re used to fighting at a disadvantage! “Who did that Bug do to set you off like that?” the Scrappers’ second in command asked his superior curiously. “You went completely ballistic. What gives?” 

Onslaught’s lips narrowed to a thin line as he remembered just what the alien fighter had done, even as he focused on the pair of Morays coming in from ahead. “He killed that poor bastard in the ejection pod. Did it deliberately,” he finally muttered as he looked around. The veteran of twenty years of war had lost friends the same way to the Kilrathi, and shooting down ejection pods had been one of the most cowardly practices he had ever witnessed. But the Kilrathi had only done it in the last few months of the war when things had turned even more brutal than usual in a war. With the Nephilim it appeared to be business as usual. 

“Goddamned scum,” Diamond cursed even as he studied his radar screen. “Boss there’s at least four coming in from above us. Looks like they’re finally taking us seriously.” 

“Plus there’s three more coming in from three o’clock low,” Onslaught confirmed as he locked a missile onto a Moray coming at him head to head. Even if we can’t take them all we’ll take out as many as we can! he thought grimly as the targeting brackets locked around his target. A shrieking howl filled his headphones suddenly, causing him to wince. What the hell is that? Some sort of ECM or interference? he wondered before the pair of Morays in front of him suddenly blew up. But I didn’t fire --

And then Bloodhawk and Dancer’s Marauders dived through the rapidly expanding fireballs where the Morays had been, their guns spitting death at the three Nephilim craft approaching Onslaught and Diamond from the low right. The Morays scattered like geese who had spotted falcons stooping upon them, each one hitting its afterburners and rocketing away in a different direction to avoid their attackers.  

“Nice timing,” Onslaught grunted as he wrenched back on the HOTAS to send his Intruder climbing into the heart of the pack of Morays above him. Punching the afterburners the militia colonel blazed through the rough formation, disrupting and scattering them even as they were altering their course to pursue Bloodhawk and Dancer. Chopping the throttle he then reversed his course, falling into position directly behind the nearest Nephilim fighter for a perfect zero-angle shot. Lining up carefully on the Moray he emptied his guns’ capacitors into the alien fighter’s shields and armor before delivering the coup de grace with a missile straight up its tailpipe. The Moray tumbled chaotically through space before erupting in a flare of green light.  

“Thanks boss,” Danica "Dancer" Owens replied, grunting against the G-forces exerted on her slender body by the maneuvers she was forcing her Marauder through. The effort paid off as she cut the corner on her prey. A taut grin crossed her face as the ITTS pipper rose to meet her gunsight and she squeezed the trigger, sending mass driver rounds and meson blaster bolts into the Moray even as she twitched the control column forward. As she had anticipated the alien fighter dived away, only to have Dancer's stream of gunfire follow its course and continue its rapid-fire hammering against shields and armor. Chunks of chitinous hull sprayed away as the Moray twisted like a fish on a line, firing off an IFF missile in desperation even as a plume of green energy flared out from its aft section. The platinum blonde Border Worlder ignored the insistent sounding of her fighter’s RHAWS, staying focused on her target and chopping away at it with controlled bursts from her guns. Abruptly the Moray spun out as its reactor went critical, exploding in a green-white blast. But the alien pilot had the last laugh, the IFF missile he had launched looping around to home in on his killer. Yellow brackets flashed up on the Marauder’s HUD to highlight it and Dancer jerked on the HOTAS in an attempt to dodge it. But the missile was too fast and agile, slamming into the fighter’s forward shields and detonating.  

“Jesus Christ that was too goddamn close!” the beautiful Scrapper gasped in a rapid-fire babble, shaking from the adrenaline rush of her brush with death. You got cocky and you boresighted on the bad guy, she scolded herself. Get it together! What would John say if he knew? “Lisa, any trade on our rear?” 

“Bad guy coming in from seven o’clock high,” Corporal Lisa Kirenkova, Dani Owens’ gunner, confirmed. “Looks like a Moray - ah, forget it,” she grumbled, a healthy dose of irritation in her voice. “Bloodhawk vaped him. Our tail’s clear.” 

“Copy that,” Dancer replied, amusement at her gunner’s disappointment welling in her heart. Kirenkova had stated many times that a bomber as cumbersome as the Vindicators the Scrapers had flown before their current deployment aboard the Sicily needed a good gunner just to survive, and had been proud of her skills. Now in the agile Marauder she felt as superfluous as an outboard motor on a dune buggy. Dani disagreed - as far as she was concerned, an extra set of eyes watching your rear for bad guys was always reassuring. “Dancer here. Anyone need a hand?” she broadcast to her fellow Scrappers. 

“Negati -- “ 

“Delta Flight we need help now!!” Amber Gan’s panic-stricken voice cut over the comm channels. “There’s two fighters eleven thousand klicks out scanning us with localized tracking systems -- they’re locking torpedoes onto us!” 

“Diamond has a tally on them,” Jack DeVille’s voice announced. The Scrappers’ second in command fired a last volley of gunfire at the Moray he was pursuing along the Argent Wind’s flank before he rolled out and locked onto one of the pair of Mantas boring in towards the freighter. He slammed the afterburners open, desperate to close on the Nephilim bombers as quickly as he could - the further away from the Tanfen vessel he could keep them, the more time he could buy for his friends to intervene. Which was exactly what the Nephilim didn’t want. 

Jack’s eyes widened as a pair of yellow dots suddenly popped into existence on his HUD. He didn’t need Amber’s frightened voice to tell him what they were. The lack of any warning from his RHAWS told him all that he needed to know -- the projectiles weren’t locking on to him, which left only one conclusion. The Mantas had launched their torpedoes at the Argent Wind, and at a closing speed of over two thousand klicks a second that gave him less than five seconds to destroy them both. 

Clenching his fist the militia pilot sent a spray of high-energy gunfire at the oncoming ordnance and twitched the HOTAS back and forth to scatter his shots, hoping against hope that some of them would strike home. Streaks of red raced past his Intruder from behind as the converted frigate’s sole remaining laser turret opened fire, also trying to shoot down the torpedoes. One of the torpedoes suddenly exploded, making Diamond blink in surprise. Talk about lucky! he thought in bemusement as he guided his fighter’s nose on target with the other oncoming weapon. His blue eyes narrowed in concentration -- by some one-in-a-million fluke he was directly between the damn thing and its target!  

“Jack, get out of the way!” Amber pleaded. “We can shoot it down once you’re clear!” 

“No way,” Diamond replied huskily. “It’ll go through me before it hits you. This way you’re safe, Amber. I’m staying.” The Intruder’s gun pods were still spitting charged particles and mesons at the oncoming torpedo but the pilot knew it would take a miracle to score a hit on a target that small in the few seconds left before impact. But there’s only one of me and there’s at least a hundred people on that transport, including Amber and Sapphire. Not much of a choice really. For an instant the blond major remembered the innocent laughter of the two girls he cared so much for, and how much they’d enjoyed his company in downtown Haratos City’s shopping district the day they’d met. 

And then Jack DeVille’s world vanished in a burst of white light.