: Scraps of Honour

"War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want."
General William Tecumseh Sherman


Briefing Room, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
0503 Hours, 19 February 2681 (2681.050)

"Everyone here?" Colonel Jack "Samurai" Tanagawa asked as he stood at the briefing room's lectern. "If not then it's their problem, so let's get started." A few chuckles sounded throughout the room but the grey-haired Wing Commander couldn't pick out who was laughing. That wasn't really surprising as the Sicily's briefing room was packed to capacity, holding the flight crews of the entire air wing. "All right, the situation is as follows," Samurai began once the background chatter died down. "The orbit of Nifelheim I is broken up by small fields of asteroids and other orbital debris. They're not consistent enough to be classed as an asteroid belt because there's a lot of empty space between them, but they provide plenty of cover for ambushing units, especially this close to the system primary. Just over ninety minutes ago that was pointed out to us when one of our SWACS shuttles and its escorting flight were jumped by approximately thirty Nephilim fighters. The SWACS managed to send us a burst transmission of its data before it was destroyed along with its escorting fighters." A low murmur swept the room before subsiding. "Two Orca-class destroyers and five Barracuda corvettes were within the range of the SWACS' sensors but there was no sign of any other capships in support range. It looks as though this is a small scouting group - in other words, a target." The Wing Commander gave a predatory smile as he activated the holodisplay.

"Our first objective is to destroy the enemy's fighter force," Tanagawa continued. "Strike Group One, consisting of the Gunslingers from the Arnhem as well as the Scrappers and the Mustangs, will proceed on a three-navpoint route before reaching the search area where the attack took place. Once you locate the Nephilim engage the fighters on CAP." As the Sicily's Wing Commander spoke the holodisplay showed three blue triangles following a circuitous route before encountering a number of red triangles. Two of the blue triangles promptly broke off and moved towards two larger red triangles. "As soon as they can, the torpedo-capable craft attached to the Mustangs and the Scrappers will attempt to gain a torpedo lock on either of the Orcas, preferably both. Destroying or even damaging them isn't necessary."

"Then why are we attacking them, Colonel?" one of the assembled pilots piped up.

"The Nephilim have a new trick in their playbook," Samurai explained. "They sprung it on the TCS Yorktown in Nephele and almost wiped her out. Basically they have a group of capships with a fighter screen, like we see here. The tricky part is that the fighters are from their carrier while the destroyers keep their fighters in their launch bays. It's only when we commit our fighters to battle that they launch -- in this case it could mean as many as forty extra fighters, but we don't think so."

"Why not?" Lt. Colonel Gil "Wolfen" Franklin, commander of the Timber Wolves, inquired. His squadron was the only one of the Sicily's units not involved in the main strike group but with resources as tight as they were he doubted that his squadron would be left sitting on the sidelines.

"Some of the fighters that destroyed Goldeneye and the flight from the Necromancers were Squids," Samurai told him. "They're short-range interceptors not suitable for patrol or escort work, so we figure that they were launched from the Orcas. There should be a maximum of sixty fighters in this group."

"Which is still enough to inflict heavy casualties on Strike Group One," Lt. Colonel Matthew "Mako" Forrester pointed out sharply. Like the rest of his squadron, the leader of the Mustangs held no official rank in the armed forces of the Union of Border Worlds. Instead his rank was a brevet one, as was often provided to members of the Tanfen Airwing Security Corps when they worked with Border Worlds troops. While TASC and the UBW had worked together before they had never worked this closely. But the goal of avoiding mutual annihilation can make even the most disparate groups into allies.

"And that's why we're not doing a conventional strike," Samurai told him. "As soon as the Orcas launch their fighters Strike Force One breaks off and heads for Nav Point 5." As he spoke a nav point appeared on the holodisplay, surrounded by yellow flecks. The three blue triangles headed towards the nav point, closely followed by the red triangles. "And that's where Strike Group Two enters the picture. Strike Group Two consists of the Timber Wolves, as well as the Spartans from the Iwo Jima." The Spartans were the Iwo Jima's squadron of Bearcat interceptors, and coupled with the Timber Wolves' Thunderbolts would be a formidable force. Whether they would be enough to handle the remaining Nephilim fighters after Group One had dealt with them was the question. "Finally, once the enemy fighters are eliminated both strike groups will return to the Nephilim capships and eliminate them." As he spoke two more blue triangles appeared in the asteroid field, the red triangles representing the pursuing fighters vanished as the blue triangles appeared. Finally the blue triangles backtracked to the large red triangles representing the alien capships before blipping them out and heading for home. The lights came back up as the holodisplay faded and the wing commander looked around at the assembled pilots and gunners. "Any questions?"

"If we're going after capships, does that mean the Berserkers will be part of this mission?" Major Jack "Diamond" DeVille asked, his arms folded over his chest.

Samurai shook his head. "They'll be on Alert-5 ready and waiting if you need them. But we're really planning on the Marauders' torpedoes being sufficient to take down the destroyers. The corvettes don't have phase shielding, so normal guns and missiles should be enough. We're trying to save the Berserkers for the Hydra and the Leviathan, but they'll be ready if you need them. The other squadrons -- the Frostreavers, the Necromancers, plus the Dambusters and the Ace of Spades off the Iwo Jima will be held back for fleet defense."

"Okay, now let's discuss the details..."


Flight Deck, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
0538 Hours, 19 February 2681

"So everyone knows what to do?" Lt. Colonel Paul "Onslaught" Onslow asked his squadron. Heads nodded agreement and acknowledgement of his words. "Good. Just remember that we've got to do this by the numbers. This is going to be the biggest battle most of you have been in, and we've got other squadrons -- almost half the taskforce's fighters -- working with and relying on us. So we've all got to stick to our part of the plan -- when the call comes over the comms for us to run for it, we run. I don't want anybody going on a vengeance kick for the Necromancers who were killed." He looked intently at Draco and Grimlock as he spoke the last sentence. Both young men were serving in the Necromancers before being seconded to the Scrappers, and the pilots who had been slain in the Nephilim ambush had been mentors and friends. Mutely the two young men nodded. "All right," the Scrappers' leader instructed them. "Get to your planes. I'll see you outside. Good luck." With those final words the Scrappers split up, joining the pilots and crews that were already heading for their fighters.

Draco grabbed Grimlock's arm as the pair passed behind a Bearcat being prepped for launch by a swarm of groundcrew. A curious glance from his wingman made him jerk his head to the side, and the two headed over to the side of the launch bay out of the way of the ordies and other groundcrew prepping the fighter. "Look, Tony," the Slavic pilot told his friend. "This is the biggest furball we've ever been in. It's gonna be rough."

"I've got your back, buddy," Grimlock reassured Draco. "No need to worry on that score."

"Yes and no," Draco admitted. "I'm not the one I'm worried about, man. It's you." The blond man gave him a quizzical look so he continued his explanation. "Tony, in that furball in Seggalion you were almost shot down covering my ass because I was too hooked on scoring kills. I got sloppy because I knew you had my back. I never stopped to think that I had a responsibility to watch your back, just like you were watching mine. I saw just how torn up your fighter was, and I realized how easily you could have ended up dead." He stopped speaking for a moment, his dark eyes troubled as he looked for the right words to tell his friend. "What I'm trying to say is that if you get into trouble out there, let me know, okay? I don't want you ending up dead because I boresighted on a Bug fighter and you threw yourself between an ImRec and me while I took the shot. Promise me that, okay?"

"I promise," Grimlock told him, surprised at his reckless friend's intensity. Dragan Emerson was impetuous and self-centered -- not greedy or selfish in a bad way, but he tended to think of himself first -- and this concern about his well-being had caught the fair-haired pilot by surprise. "Now, Colonel Onslow told us not to go on a vengeance trip for Boomer and the others to make sure we didn't bite off more than we could chew. So let's stick to the mission profile and not get killed, all right?"

"Sounds good to me," Draco agreed. A hungry smile spread across his saturnine features. "But we're going to get payback on this mission anyway, right? It may not be us pulling the trigger on those crusty little bastards but they're gonna die anyway. And he didn't say we couldn't enjoy it."

"True," Grimlock agreed before clapping his hand on Draco's shoulder. "Now let's go. See you in space, Draco."


Gunslinger One
Deep Space near Navpoint 4, Nifelheim System
0628 Hours, 19 February 2681

"Bogies up ahead," came the terse announcement over the comm channel. "Multiple fighters, range eighty seven thousand klicks, bearing zero-one-niner by zero-two-three. Not showing any modes or codes."

Major Gwen "Warhawk" Porter frowned at the report. Strike Group One had entered the search area near Navpoint 4 about fifteen minutes ago, so the fighters they had just encountered could easily be Nephilim. On the other hand Task Force Bravo was operating independently in this part of the Nifelheim system, and the memory of the friendly fire incident when the Confed and Border Worlds reserves had first met up was still strong in everyone's minds. Nobody wanted to risk another "blue-on-blue" incident, so simply opening fire at long range against unidentified targets was out of the question. That meant that someone would have to go out and make a positive ID on the incoming contacts before the Border Worlders could open fire. "Gunsmoke, Rattler, move on ahead and see if you can get some information on our guests," she ordered crisply.

"We're on it, Lead," Captain Cody "Gunsmoke" Vaughn drawled enthusiastically. With those words a pair of Excaliburs raced away from the formation on full afterburner.  Warhawk watched them go and hoped she hadn't just sent two of her men to their deaths. Worry gnawed at her guts as time ticked by, the formation closing in on the unknown contacts. Both groups were coming directly at each other on a head-to-head pass, obviously having seen each other. Finally Warhawk's sensor screen showed the two Border Worlds fighters racing back towards their compatriots, prompting the Gunslingers' commander to breathe a sigh of relief. "Gunslinger Lead, this is Gunslinger Five," Vaughn reported. "Contacts are hostile, approximately thirty of them, mainly Mantas and Morays but a few Stingrays as well."

"Copy that," Warhawk acknowledged curtly. All right, people here's how we do this." she told the rest of Strike Group One. "We go for long-range missile engagement first, two volleys. Fighters then move in and mix it up with the Nephilim while the strike elements punch through the merge and go for the capships." A feral grin formed on her face as the targeting brackets on her Excalibur's HUD closed around a hapless Manta. "Fox One!"


Scrapper Five
Nav Point 4, Nifelheim System
0634 Hours, 19 February 2681

Captain Kristy "Stardust" Joyce jinked her Marauder left as a blast of green plasma tore through the space where the fighter had just been. The attack fighter blazed past the Manta that had just attacked her, which suddenly slewed around in a flat turn in an effort to hook in behind its target. Unfortunately for the Nephilim fighter, a pair of Border Worlds Excaliburs opened fire on it with their tachyon guns as it was still reefing itself through the turn. Shields flaring green fire from the punishment they were taking, the alien fighter broke off its attack in favor of defending itself. As the pair of Excaliburs continued savaging the Manta with their guns, Stardust glanced over her shoulder to see if there were any other uninvited guests following her. Much to her relief the only fighters in her vicinity were the other Marauders.

"Heads up," Mako snapped sharply. "Looks like the corvettes are forming up to screen the Orcas." A glance at the sensor display told Stardust that the Tanfen squadron leader was correct. The Barracudas had formed up line abreast to face the incoming bombers about fifteen thousand klicks ahead of the two Nephilim destroyers. The strawberry-blonde pilot nodded to herself in understanding. The dozen bombers would be able to get past the line of Barracudas without too many problems but the corvettes' guns would weaken their shields and damage armor. And that softens us up for the fighters on those destroyers as well as the defense turrets, Stardust thought grimly. And when we go to break off we have to run this gauntlet again. This could get really ugly.

"Form up, line astern!" Mako ordered. "Mustangs first, then Scrappers. We strafe the third corvette from the left as we go past. Nobody goes back for another pass, no matter what." As Mako issued his orders the Marauders shifted and maneuvered so that they formed a single long line aimed like a spear at the heart of the alien fleet.

After a few moments the Nephilim destroyers came into sight, resembling some sort of twisted obscene crustacean swimming through the sea of space. Stardust felt the hair on the back of her neck rise as she caught a glimpse of the grotesque vessels, their unnatural appearance sending a chill through her. As usual Lieutenant Alex 'Storm' Morgan was the first one to make an irreverent comment in the face of danger. "I wouldn't call those ships ugly," he noted dryly over the comm channel. "They definitely qualify as fugly!"

"Fugly?" Delilah 'Tiger' Tarrant, one of the Tanfen Marauder pilots asked as she abruptly jinked her fighter to dodge a maser cannon bolt.

"Yeah. Fucking ugly!"

"Someone definitely hit them with the ugly stick," Danica "Dancer" Owens observed as the maser fire from the Barracudas began to intensify around the human fighters. "Hell, someone dropped the whole ugly tree on them!"

"Secure that chatter now!" Mako snarled as the Marauders began to jink and weave even as they tried to retain their formation. Bolts of sickly green energy from the Barracudas' maser cannons seared through the formation, most passing through the blackness of space but some struck home, impacting with fighters' shields in flashes of pale blue light.

Stardust gritted her teeth as a maser cannon blast tore into her Marauder's forward shields, knocking them down by a third. Hastily resetting her fighter's shields so that all the recharge power was redirected to the forward shields, the Scrappers' medic threw her Marauder into a series of evasive breaks to dodge the incoming fire. Punching the afterburners the Border Worlds pilot sent her fighter racing back towards its place in the line. As she did so she watched the Marauders ahead of her own tearing into one of the fishlike corvettes with mass driver and meson cannon fire as they roared past it heading towards the pair of Orcas. Hastily Stardust locked her targeting system on to the corvette her comrades were attacking, and smiled triumphantly as the display showed that its shields were down and it was taking core damage. The ITTS suddenly lit up on her HUD and she pulled the trigger, sending fire from her own guns into the reeling craft. Chunks of disturbingly organic-looking tissue blew away from the alien vessel and the fishlike ship seemed to convulse in agony as the last of the Marauders hurtled past. "Come on, come on!" Stardust muttered from between clenched teeth. "Give us a present - blow up, damn you!" But a quick glance at the targeting display showed that, while the corvette's core damage was well into the red, it was still alive and kicking. The strawberry blonde pilot let out a snort of disappointment before looking at the Orca ahead of her.

"Scrappers, take the Orca on the left. Mustangs, we've got the one on the right," Mako ordered crisply. The dozen Marauders split into two groups of six, one heading towards each destroyer. The Nephilim capital ships were already turning away, their engines blazing as the human craft closed in for the kill.

Torpedo brackets suddenly flashed up on the HUD of Stardust's fighter and began to close around the alien destroyer she had targeted, then they abruptly froze. A scowl spread over the medic's pretty face as she double-checked the Marauder's targeting computer. The diagnostics showed it to be working fine but it stubbornly refused to even start to lock a torpedo onto the Nephilim capship. "What the hell is your problem?" she muttered to herself.

Apparently Stardust wasn't the only Scrapper to have problems locking onto the Orca. "Goddammit, why can't we lock our torpedoes onto that damn thing?" Storm raged.

"Because of the double shielding the briefings told us about," Major Sandra 'Riot' Lynch cut in. "Remember we've got to knock out the external shield generators before we can start locking torps on to the subsections of our target." Unlike the human and Kilrathi warships with which the Scrappers were familiar, the warships of these new alien invaders had a second layer of phase shielding around vital points such as the engines and bridge. Maintained by externally mounted shield generators, the second layer of shielding prevented torpedoes from locking onto the shields around the ship itself.

"Oh," Storm said quietly in an abashed tone of voice. That feature of the Nephilim warships had been covered by the briefings, but years of experience had taught the Scrappers that simply waiting for a lock was enough to punch a torpedo through any capship's shielding. A couple of briefings couldn't override years of combat-trained reflexes after all. If Stardust weren't busy flying she would have smacked herself in the head from frustration as Riot pointed out the mistake that she and Storm had made. It was a simple one to make, but that was no excuse.

"Bloodhawk, Dancer, take out the shield generators but watch out for fighters," Riot ordered tersely as they closed in on the Nephilim destroyer. "Stardust, Storm, lock onto the engines as soon as the shield generators are gone. Zealot, you and I do the same for the bridge -- "

"Bandits!" Dancer suddenly interrupted. "Fighters launching from the Orca, and they look like Squids!"

"Confirmed," Stardust replied curtly after a quick glance at her targeting display. A number of red dots representing Nephilim fighters had popped into existence on her sensor screen, centered around the destroyer the Scrappers had targeted. A few seconds later she caught sight of more red dots appearing around the other Orca. "Looks like the other one's launched her brood too," she reported.

"Understood," Mako answered. "Marauders, break back the way we came. We've done our job." With those words the attack fighters broke off and set course back towards the rest of Strike Group One, the interceptors launched from the Nephilim destroyers in hot pursuit. Afterburners blazed like stars in the black void as the dozen Marauders raced back in the direction of theirapproach.

"Scrappers form on me!" Riot suddenly ordered. "We can finish off that damaged Barracuda -- "

"No!" Mako snapped. "We have to minimize the damage to our fighters -- "

"And we do that by busting a hole in their defense line!" Riot shot back. "We take out the damaged corvette and we're home free!" The six Marauders flown by the Scrappers promptly opened fire on the Nephilim corvette, mass driver rounds and meson bolts tearing into the alien ship's hull. Seconds later the Barracuda's shields collapsed and the Border Worlders' fire began to savage the corvette's already-mangled armor and tear into the vessel's vulnerable interior. Then the Tanfen Marauders swooped in and added their own fire to that of the Scrappers, and suddenly the alien warship erupted in a shockingly violent explosion.

"Hooyah!" someone -- to her dying day, Stardust never knew who it was -- yelled exultantly over the comm net as the Barracuda vanished in a boil of pale green light. Even as the fighters broke through the gap in the corvette screen, emerald bolts of energy zipped around them as the remaining Nephilim vessels tried to gain revenge for their dead comrade. Most of the maser cannon fire went through empty space but a number of them impacted with the fleeing Marauders. Shields flared with light, armor melted and sheared away in chunks, and one of the Marauders began streaming some sort of liquid, which instantly crystallised in the icy chill of deep space. The Border Worlds craft scattered and fled, racing past the furball between the Nephilim fighters and the Excaliburs, Bearcats and Intruders that made up the rest of Strike Group One.

"Warhawk, this is Mako," the Mustangs' leader reported. "All Marauders are clear of the strike zone."

"Copy that, Mako," Warhawk answered. "Strike Group One, initiate Alpha Five! Say again, initiate Alpha Five!" she demanded over the comm net even as she jinked her Excalibur sharply to avoid a volley of plasma gunfire from a combined trio of Stingrays. Autosliding as she snapped the heavy fighter's nose around to bear on her attackers (or should that be attacker? she wondered for a moment) the Gunslingers' leader squeezed off a burst of fire from her tachyon cannons. The combined fighter's shields collapsed under the sudden attack, splitting into its component Stingrays even as a Spiculum image-recognition missile launched from one of the Excalibur's hardpoints and slammed into a now-separate Stingray, blowing it to pieces. As the other two Nephilim fighters dodged and weaved, the Gunslingers' leader took a moment to glance at her sensor screen, double-checking that the rest of Strike Group One was obeying orders. Sure enough, the Scrappers' Intruders had broken away from the confused melee with the Nephilim fighters and were heading towards Nav Point Five, leaving room for the Marauders to fall in behind them while the Excaliburs and Bearcats held off the alien fighters. A quick glance at the sensor screen informed the Gunslingers' leader that most of the attack fighters were closing in fast on the Intruders, according to plan.

Most, but not all.

Two of the Marauders were trailing well behind the rest of their group. From a distance one appeared undamaged but the other one was streaming fluid that crystallized almost instantly in the deadly chill of hard vacuum. "Mako, be advised that you've got two birds lagging back," Warhawk warned the leader of the Marauder group. "Tell them to haul ass or they'll be left behind."

"I wish it was that simple, Gunslinger One," the voice of Lieutenant Takiro "Tanto" Muramasa crackled over the comm channel. "This is Mustang Five. Reactor temps well into the yellow and still climbing, plus I'm getting warning lights about the starboard engine's status."

"Mustang Five, this is Mustang Six," Lieutenant Phil "Brumby" Hurst cut in. "You're trailing some sort of liquid, probably reactor coolant or AB fuel."

"No kidding Six," Tanto shot back. "I've got to reduce power to the engines and see if that takes some of the pressure off the reactor and the damaged engine." An uneasy note entered the Tanfen pilot's voice. "That's going to drop my max speed down to nine hundred KPS, maybe eight-fifty, even on full burners."

Warhawk grimaced. That speed would leave Tanto vulnerable to the pursuing Squids, especially if he was left behind on his own. Abandoning the Marauder was a virtual death sentence for its two-man crew. But if she chose to hold back the entire strike group to match Mustang Five's reduced speed, that risked losses that Task Force Jasmine simply couldn't afford this early in the battle.

The burdens of command, Warhawk mused absently. Should she -- could she -- risk heavier casualties, and possibly the survival of the nation she had sworn to protect, in order to save two men? After a few moments she came to her decision. "Mustang Six, return to formation," she ordered. "Mustang Five, follow at your best speed. We'll support you for as long as we're within range." Even as Strike Group One's leader spoke she knew it was a lie, and she felt dirty for saying it. At their current speed the Squids would catch up with the lamed Marauder in ninety seconds, and with Tanto's fighter maintaining nine hundred KPS while the rest of the strike group kept moving at twelve hundred KPS, the damaged Marauder would be twenty-seven thousand klicks behind the rest of the formation when the Nephilim finally caught up. It only took a few seconds for the rest of the pilots to run the figures through their heads and come up with the same results. Not all of them agreed with Major Porter's decision, however.

"The hell with that!" Brumby protested. "We can't just abandon -- "

"We don't have a choice!" Warhawk yelled angrily. "This isn't some pirate skirmish that we can win right now at one shot! We need to conserve our resources for the future battles against the Nephilim -"

"Would you be saying the same thing if it was you lagging behind with fucked-up engines?" Brumby demanded harshly. Although he was a brave and competent pilot, Phil Hurst was as stubborn, aggressive and cantankerous as the breed of Australian wild horse whose name he used as a callsign, and he had about as much tact - in other words, almost none.

"Absolutely," Warhawk replied flatly, ignoring the insubordinate sarcasm in the Tanfen pilot's voice. She understood the sentiments behind Brumby's angry words all too well - the idea of abandoning a pilot under her command to the not-so-tender mercies of the Nephilim was about as palatable to her as eating broken glass. But if she was to protect the rest of the strike group that was exactly what she'd have to do.

"Strike Leader, this is Mustang Five," Tanto cut in before Brumby could answer. "Wilco. Brumby, join up with the others. I'll follow as I can."

For a few moments silence reigned over the comm channel. Then Brumby finally spoke. "All right," he muttered in reluctant acknowledgement. Tantos reference to Major Portman as Strike Leader instead of Gunslinger One had subtly emphasised to his wingman that, like it or not, Warhawk was in command. "But don't take too long to get back to the barn," the tactless Tanfen pilot told his wingleader. "We won't hold the beer for you forever, you know."

"Got it. But don't rush too much to get a hold of it, okay?" Tanto replied dryly.

"Understood. See you on the Sicily when you get back," Brumby acknowledged. Everyone listening in on the conversation knew it for an indirect goodbye -- the chances of Takiro Muramasa surviving through the day were about the same as that of a snowball in a volcano's caldera. Brumby's Marauder accelerated towards the rest of Strike Group One, leaving Tanto's craft trailing forlornly behind.

Warhawk forced herself to watch as the damaged Marauder receded into the distance. She knew she'd done the right thing by the rest of the Mustangs as well as the Scrappers and Gunslingers, but that knowledge didn't make her feel any less like a murderer as the pursuing Squids closed in on Tanto's lamed fighter.


Mustang Five
Deep Space, Nifelheim system
0645 Hours, 19 February 2681

Takiro Muramasa watched the red blips on his radar crawl closer and closer even as he tried to coax more speed from his fighter's damaged engine. The Squids were closing in on him at several hundred klicks per second but the corporate pilot could see that the Nephilim fighters weren't really trying. Although their cruciform wings were folded by their sides the alien craft were closing in at well under their top speed of twenty-four hundred KPS. And that led to one inescapable conclusion -- the Nephilim were toying with him. There were stories going through the grapevine of how the Nephilim loved to play with their prey before killing it, and tales of how the aliens had tortured prisoners recovered from the wreck of the Bunker Hill only made things worse. Silently Tanto vowed that if he ejected and a Nephilim fighter began recovering his pod, he'd blow his brains out with his sidearm rather than be taken alive.

"They're coming into missile range," Corporal Mark Kunigi, Tanto's gunner, reported tersely. "Things are going to get interesting pretty soon." Of course, in the Chinese culture, which suffused the Tanfen Corporation, 'interesting' was more often considered a curse than an expression of approval, as in the Chinese curse 'May you live in interesting times.'

Muramasa merely grunted in reply, his eyes fixed on the engine and reactor temperature readouts on his HUD. The reactor temperature was well into the yellow but the engine's temperature had started to edge into the red zone. If it keeps going up then we're dead, he thought. A sudden snort of bitter laughter welled up in his chest. Hell, we're dead anyway! There's no way we're going to be able to hold out for long enough to reach Strike Group Two --

"Incoming!" Kunigi barked as yellow blips suddenly appeared on the radar, symbolizing missiles racing from the alien fighters towards the fleeing Marauder. The gunner stared at the screen in disbelief as the three yellow dots suddenly split into nine. "Tiu! They're firing MIRVs!" he exclaimed as he brought the rear turret's Stormfire cannon to bear on the incoming missiles. Lining the reticle up on a set of yellow brackets highlighting one of the incoming missiles on his HUD Kunigi pulled the trigger, sending a hail of small-caliber high-velocity rounds towards the self-propelled projectile. Even as Tanto punched out decoys and slammed the Marauder into a hard evasive break his gunner kept firing, detonating his target and hurriedly switching to the next one. Kunigi managed to intercept that missile as well, and four of the IFF missiles were distracted by the attack fighter's wild evasive maneuvers and the stream of decoys it released. That left three, which slammed into the Marauder's starboard flank one after the other. The first one weakened the shields but didn't entirely knock them down. It took the second missile to accomplish that, as well as tear away most of the side armor. It was the third missile that did the real damage. The shockwave from the explosion spalled through the remnants of the foamed-alloy armor, shook the overheating starboard engine in its mountings like a rat in a terrier's jaws, and tore the main fuel line loose. Liquid hydrogen spewed into the engine's red-hot innards and promptly ignited. The cool blue fire the engine emitted was abruptly replaced by an ugly orange inferno.

Tanto swore viciously as his hands flew over the controls, shutting off the fuel supply to the burning engine before shutting down the engine itself. The Tanfen pilot felt his heart sink towards his boots as he glanced at the temperature gauges. Even with the starboard engine shut down and the fire suddenly snuffed from lack of fuel and oxygen, its current temperature was far too high to be restarted unless he wanted it to melt down into a slagged lump of durasteel.

"What the hell's going on?" Kunigi demanded. The gunner was unaware of the damage to the fighter's engine but he'd been able to feel the Marauder suddenly slow down. The sudden shock from the missile impacts had been more hints that things were very quickly going pear-shaped.

"The right engine's totally fragged," Tanto admitted. "Those missiles caused a fuel leak into the engine that set it on fire. Looks like we've only got one engine left." Even as the pilot surveyed the HUD, it showed the Marauder's speed spiraling down past six hundred fifty KPS and still dropping. Now there was definitely no way they could outrun their pursuers.

There was silence from the gunner's cockpit for a few seconds. "We're screwed, aren't we?" Kunigi asked somberly.

"Like the joygirls and joyboys in the Strip when the troops rotate back from Meiwan," Tanto agreed in a bitter voice. "I'm sorry, Mark," he finally mumbled.

"Don't be. Let's just make sure that we take enough of these things with us to Hell to give us a decent escort," the gunner replied grimly. "At least we can buy our comrades some time to get clear of these damn roaches." 

"Agreed." Tanto hauled the Marauder into a hard turn to the right, reversing his course and heading straight back into the swarm of Nephilim fighters. Locking onto the nearest Squid, the Tanfen pilot launched both his Pilum IFF missiles and followed them in, going head-to-head with the pursuing interceptor. Disruptor cannon fire flared against the Marauder's forward shields but Tanto fired back, stripping the Nephilim fighter's shields away with a volley of mass driver fire. An instant later the pair of Pilums smashed head-on into the shieldless Squid, blasting it to pieces in a flash of sickly green light. Another pair of Squids bored in on the battered Marauder, wing-mounted cannons flashing as the Tanfen fighter lurched into another evasive turn. The Marauder's shields flashed and finally collapsed under the weight of enemy fire as Tanto dropped a pair of decoys in response to the shrilling of the RHAWS, distracting the IFF missile from its target long enough for him to line up on the other Squid. The quad wing-mounted mass drivers spat a torrent of metal bolts as the targeting reticle lined up with the dot of the ITTS. Simultaneously the alien fighter fired back, green blasts of energy shearing deep into the Marauder's unshielded armor and body.

The Tanfen pilot let out a yell of surprise as the mass drivers built into the port wing suddenly stopped firing. A quick glance to the left showed Tanto that the entire port wing had been reduced to mangled wreckage. While that didn't affect the Marauder's maneuverability in space it did cut the heavy fighter's firepower by half. Gotta get the shields back up! the TASC flier thought frantically. Reaching down to the control console he pressed a couple of buttons, reallocating power from some of the fighter's non-vital systems to the shield generator. As he worked Tanto pulled back on the control column, trying to get the Marauder to climb away from the dogfight in an effort to buy time for the shields to come back up. But that was the same idea that the Nephilim interceptor that he'd just shot at had. The problem was that neither of the two craft had moved laterally, so although they were climbing away from the other Nephilim fighters they were still on a collision course.

They collided head-on at a combined speed of nearly two thousand klicks per second. The Squid's shields were down to one-third their normal strength and the Marauder's might have stopped a housefly if it wasn't too determined. Neither of the shields were enough to dissipate the force of the collision, and the two fighters vanished in an explosion before either of the pilots could react.


Gunslinger One
Near Navpoint 5, Nifelheim System
0648 Hours, 19 February 2681

Warhawk closed her eyes in pain as Mustang Five's signal faded from her Excalibur's sensor screen. The fact that Takiro Muramasa had fulfilled his mission by slowing down the swarm of Nephilim fighters pursuing Strike Group One didn't make his death any easier to bear. She had issued the orders that had led to his death, knowing that he would almost certainly die, and that was something Gwen Porter would have to deal with on her own.

But that was a job for later.

Focus, she told herself harshly. Focus on the mission and on making sure that none of them go the way Mustang Five did. Opening her eyes the Gunslingers' leader looked back towards the oncoming pack of Squids. That wasn't too hard considering that the surviving Gunslingers, as well as the Mustangs' Bearcats, were facing the enemy yet keeping the same vector as the rest of the strike group due to their autoslide capabilities. Fire-control radars tracked the incoming Squids as they closed in, and while Warhawk knew that the first volley of missiles from her squadron would be ragged and haphazard, it would accomplish her immediate objective. Any kills scored by the missiles would be a bonus, but her main goal was to buy time to rendezvous with Strike Group Two.

The lock tone suddenly sounded and Warhawk pulled the trigger, sending a Spiculum image-recognition missile towards her target. A quick glance around showed smoke trails from missiles launched by the rest of the Excaliburs and Bearcats, and two of them -- one from another Gunslinger Excalibur while the other was from a Tanfen Bearcat -- closed in on her target while the rest raced towards four more Squids like hungry sharks pursuing fat whales. The alien fighters twisted and turned in an effort to dodge the missiles, and while some of them succeeded some didn't.

Warhawk's expression of satisfaction was too faint and brief for it to be called a smile. And that's just the start of the payback for Mustang Five, she thought viciously as two of the Squids exploded, leaving only fireballs to momentarily mark the sites of their deaths. Glancing at her nav display the stocky pilot thought,
Almost there. Won't be long now...