: “ Scraps of Honour ”
PART 13 OF 15 : RED SKY AT MORNING ( 1 / 2 )

"Red sky at night, sailor's delight,
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning."
- 16th century nautical saying



Flight Deck, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
2232 Hours, 16 February 2681 (2681.047)

“Scramble! Scramble! All fighters up!” The urgency in the words blaring over the BWS Sicily’s PA was obvious to anyone, but the word ‘scramble’ has always held a special urgency to fighter pilots. It meant ‘get into your plane and in the air right-frigging-now!’ Everything else was secondary to that one imperative.

The seeming chaos on the little carrier’s flight deck only added to the impression of frantic haste. However it was as deceptive as a chameleon’s color - true, the deck echoed with the roar of engines and the thrum of gravitic motors as pilots and groundcrew frantically sprinted to and fro. But it was a routine rehearsed dozens of times and every person knew exactly where they were to go and what they had to do.

Less than two minutes after the scramble sounded a pair of Bearcat interceptors raced off the deck, their drives flaring blue against the blackness of space. Thirty seconds later another pair of Bearcats were in position on the catapults, the Jet Blast Deflectors raised into position behind them. The catapult officer, nicknamed the "shooter," held his lightwand up as the fighters’ engines raced at full power, held firmly in place by the catapults’ electromagnetic fields. And then the lightwand swept down, the catapults hurled the fighters forward and both Bearcats rocketed off the end of the flight deck like the proverbial bats out of hell.

Pretty good for a unit that wasn’t even on Alert-Five, Lt Colonel Paul Onslow thought as he ran over to his Intruder fighter. Even better considering they’re a corporate unit, not a regular one. The rampant stallion’s head logo of the Tanfen Corporation’s Airwing Security Corps was blazoned proudly on the wings and fuselage of the last pair of Bearcats being towed to the catapults, as well as on the six Marauder fighter-bombers even now being loaded with ordnance. Just the Marauders to go once the last pair of Cats launch, and then it’s our turn.

“What’s the score, Andy?” the leader of the Scrappers asked his chief technician as he placed his foot on the lowest rung of the ladder resting against his fighter. Master Sergeant Andy Foster shook his head as he finished attaching a power cable to the gun pod on the fighter's left wing.

"No idea, Onslaught," the scrawny crew chief replied, too busy keeping a watchful eye on a pair of red-shirted ordnancemen uploading missiles to the F/A-43 to look at his friend. It was an unofficial rule of the Scrappers, as well as many other squadrons, that a pilot in the cockpit or with his hands on the plane was only addressed by his callsign or rank. His head suddenly snapped up and he looked towards the end of the flight deck. “Shuttle coming in. Must be important, they’ve delayed the launch cycle to let it land.”

Onslow scrambled up the ladder and hastily slid into the cockpit, locking the safety harness around his torso as he commenced the fighter's start-up procedures. Only then did he look up at the flight deck and incoming shuttle. The boxy little ship flared at the very last instant before landing, snapping its nose up to kill momentum before slamming down onto its assigned landing space with enough force to make the watching militia colonel wince. Pilot must be either in a real hurry or a gung-ho lunatic, he thought as the HUD came on line, displaying the status reports for the various systems on his Intruder. Even as Onslow checked the energy levels for his guns, the status of the eight Spiculum missiles in his fighter’s ordnance bays and the mass of other data vital to his war machine’s functions, he kept a curious eye on the shuttle.

The militia pilot's eyebrows shot up in surprise as the ramp came down and a number of men and women in navy-blue Border Worlds jumpsuits piled out, sprinting to grab their flight gear even as the shuttle moved to its maintenance bay. What the hell -- oh, they must be our people who were on R&R aboard Avernus Station, he thought. An instant later his suspicions were confirmed as he recognized the lanky tow-headed figure of Anthony Grimm among the group hurrying to pick up their flight gear. But what could be so important as to haul back everyone from Avernus this quickly? Probably the same thing that’s important enough to make us do a magnum-launch hot scramble with zero notice. But what the hell is it? Onslow wondered as the last pair of Tanfen Bearcats roared off the deck and two Marauders were guided to take their places. A quick check of his systems revealed that his fighter was ready to fly. Now all he had to do was check on the other members of the squadron. "Scrapper Lead, two turning and ready for takeoff. Scrappers, call it off," he ordered over the comm.

"Scrapper Two, two turning and ready for takeoff," Jack "Diamond" DeVille reported crisply. One by one the other pilots of the 349th reported in.

“Scrapper Eleven, two turning and ready for takeoff,” Dragan "Draco" Emerson announced just as the last two Tanfen Marauders were being spotted on the Sicily’s catapults. There was a long silence after he reported in.

“Scrapper Twelve, check in,” Onslaught ordered as the TASC fighter-bombers raced off the flight deck. A plane handler beckoned him forward and he deftly guided his Intruder to take the place of one of the attack fighters that had just launched. A quick glance confirmed that Jack DeVille was in position just off his left wingtip, even as the catapult’s magnetic fields locked both Intruders in a grip stronger than the hardest alloy.

“Scrapper Twelve checking in, commencing engine start,” Anthony Grimm blurted breathlessly. Onslaught would have asked the kid about his slow response but his entire attention was focused on the catapult officer’s lightwand - a catapult launch was no place for inattention. An instant later the wand flashed down and the catapult hurled him forward. Once he was clear of the Sicily he guided his fighter into a gentle turn to the right to clear the escort carrier’s path. Engine flameouts still occurred in the 27th century, and the Scrappers’ leader certainly didn’t want to be in the way of several thousand tons of capship moving a hundred klicks per second if it happened to him. He’d seen it happen during the First Kilrathi War and the Black Lance crisis, and in every case there hadn’t been enough left of the pilot to fit in a matchbox. Finally he straightened out, a quick glance confirming that Diamond was still on his wing.

“Scrapper Twelve, two turning and ready for takeoff!”

“Copy that, Twelve. Now what the hell kept you?” Onslaught growled.

“Gimme a break, Lead. I was on R&R aboard Avernus when the scramble call came in, and it took me time to suit up,” Grimm protested. “We didn’t even know it was a scramble call until we docked at the Arnhem. All we knew was that our beepers had gone off and we had to get back to our ships ASAP.”

“Wait a minute. Twelve, your shuttle stopped at the Arnhem first?” Danica "Dancer" Owens asked.

“That’s right, Four. We were told Border Worlds pilots only were to board the shuttle, then she dropped us off at our carriers,” Grimm confirmed even as Bloodhawk and Dancer’s Marauders were slung into space. “There were other shuttles launching as fast as they could when we got to the launch bay.”

“Were they recalling Confed pilots as well, Twelve?” Sandra ‘Riot’ Lynch enquired, her curiosity obviously aroused. Onslaught couldn’t blame her - scramble drills usually only included the pilots aboard the carrier at the time. Pilots weren’t recalled from R&R just for practice runs. Something big was up.

“Nine, they were recalling everyone,” the young blond pilot told his flight commander. “The Valeria’s Wing Commander and the CO of Reaper Squadron were there tonight and they got recalled too. I saw confees boarding another shuttle while we were boarding ours, and our pilot told us he could spot fighters being scrambled from the D’Arby and the Iwo Jima. Okinawa wasn’t on his scope at the time, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that her birds are scrambling too. Hell, I’d bet every carrier in the fleet’s launching every fighter they've got right now.”

“Okay, Twelve, you’re forgiven,” Onslaught cut in as Bloodhawk and Dancer formed up on him. “Everyone, let’s just concentrate on getting launched as quick as we can. We can figure out what’s going on once we’re back in the barn.”


Briefing Room, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
0227 Hours, 17 February 2681 (2681.048)

“All right, people, I’ve got the answers you wanted,” Paul Onslow told his pilots. Some, like John Hawke and Kristy Joyce, radiated calm while some, like Dragan Emerson and Todd McLaughlin, crackled with tension and irritability. The scarred colonel knew that it was more the suddenness of the scramble than any fatigue from the three hours they had been flying which had them out of sorts. "I don't think you'll like them, but I've got them." He looked around, making sure he had his fellow pilots' undivided attention.

"Shortly after 2200 Hours last night Admiral Hanton received a data download from a flight of recon Excaliburs in the Ymir System. Based on that data she ordered every ship in the Combined Fleet and reserves to go to battle stations and launch every fighter they had. She also ordered Battle Group Valkyrie to proceed to the Ymir jump point and launch a half dozen jump-capable recon drones to confirm the report she received. It's confirmed, all right," the Scrappers' leader concluded heavily.

"That's great. Now what the hell is this information that's got you so spooked?" Alex Morgan asked impatiently. The briefing room became even more quiet at his question, silence broken only by the sound of breathing and the occasional squeak of a chair as someone shifted their weight.

"They found a second Nephilim fleet in Ymir," Onslow replied flatly. The quiet of the briefing room dropped away to absolute stunned silence, unbroken by any noise. The silence was so intense that for an instant the militia colonel wondered if he had been struck deaf, but the looks of horrified disbelief on the faces of his pilots quickly gave way to a babble of exclamations and questions. For almost a full minute he stood silently at the podium, waiting until the rest of the squadron had overcome their shock and quieted down. "The fleet in Ymir consists of four Leviathan-class supercarriers, a Tiamat-class dreadnought, a dozen Hydra-class cruisers and three or four dozen Orca-class destroyers. The real icing on this little brass cupcake is something that Confed calls a Kraken-class ship killer. The Combined Fleet hasn't faced one of these yet, but it's supposed to be scarier than the entire Nephilim fleet in Loki," the Scrappers' leader concluded grimly, once the barrage of questions had died down.

Dani Owens raised her hand. "What's the skinny on the Kraken, boss? Why's everyone crapping themselves more than usual about this one ship?" Ever since she had confronted Gorthaur on the flight deck of the Sicily a couple of days ago, the strikingly beautiful platinum blonde had been a lot more confident and assertive. It was as though she had confronted the demons of her past that day, as in a sense she had, and her fellow pilots were still getting used to her more relaxed manner.

Onslow looked Dani straight in the eyes. "When the Midway first ran into the Nephilim some of her marines managed to recover the ship's logs of a dead Fralthi II. That cruiser and two others ran into a Kraken, and were wiped out by one shot from its main gun."


"Fortunately," the Border Worlds colonel continued, "that fleet isn't our concern. The Combined Fleet will be facing off against them, while we - that is, the whole of Task Force Jasmine - get to dance with the Nephilim jumping in from Loki. They have one Leviathan, two Hydras, a dozen Orcas and half a dozen Barracuda corvettes. Total fighter strength is estimated at six hundred, give or take."

"Jesus!" Dragan Emerson yelped. "That leaves us outnumbered, what, three to one? We're screwed!"

“Aw, where’s your sense of adventure?” Todd McLaughlin asked, giving the Slavic pilot a friendly punch to the shoulder that threw him forward in his seat. “Besides, we faced twice those odds in Seggalion!”  However Dragan seemed determined to stay in his funk.

“We had backup then. Now we’re going to live and die on our own,” the black-haired rookie stated flatly, and the humour melted from McLaughlin’s face like ice in a flamethrower’s blast. Despite his exuberant good cheer it was obvious that the big ginger-haired Cabrean had been badly shaken by his leader’s words.

"Three to one odds is pretty good odds for Border Worlders in fleet battles, anyway," Jack DeVille grinned, running his fingers through his thick blond hair. "If you want long odds check the records for the Battle of Cynium. Besides we’re facing two-point-five to one. We've got two hundred and forty-four fighters, six escort carriers, two Tallahassee-class heavy cruisers, two Kurasawa-class light cruisers, one Sheffield-class destroyer and five Caernaven-class frigates, so we're not as outmatched as you think."

“And just to make sure we’re all up to speed on our dogfighting skills, each reserve squadron is scheduled for training against a Combined Fleet squadron,” Onslow advised. “Hopefully we can learn some tricks from the guys who’ve been kicking Nephilim ass for the last two weeks.”

"Lets hope that it’s enough," Vincent Tsu growled.


Galley, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
0613 Hours, 17 February 2681 (2681.048)

"I can't believe we drew the Reapers as our sparring partners," Alex Morgan commented as he poured himself yet another cup of coffee. The ex-privateer's capacity for caffeine was legendary among his fellow Scrappers, and it was becoming common knowledge aboard the Sicily. "High command must think that we're pretty good if we get to spar with the best squadron in Battle Group Valkyrie."

"Or it could just be a case of our number being drawn out of the hat at the right time," Kristy Joyce replied before finishing her last mouthful of bacon. "I wonder who -- " The strawberry-blond Scrapper suddenly yelped and jumped in her seat as Brin Hoffman sat down next to her. “Jesus, Brin, don’t even think of pinching me on the ass again!” she exploded, loud enough for everyone in the mess hall to hear. A number of the spacers and crewmen in the chow line and at the tables turned to face the direction of the outcry and a few let out catcalls or applause. Kristy blushed almost as red as her hair even as she flipped them the finger.

Brin Hoffman grinned unrepentantly. The blond Tanfen pilot was built like the proverbial brick sanitation block with blond hair past his shoulders, broad open features, blue eyes, and a ready smile. If it wasn’t for the slight slant of his eyes he could easily have passed for a native of Scandinavia. The TASC flier seemed open and guileless, and he had made no effort whatsoever to hide his attraction to Kristy Joyce. “Hey, I just put my hand on the chair as I sat down. It must have slipped,” he protested far too innocently to be believed. “Accidents happen.”

“Yeah, as your jaw should remember,” Kristy shot back. It was hard to stay mad at the muscular corporate pilot, despite the fact that less than two weeks ago he’d been involved in a brawl where one of his squadronmates attempted to kill Jack DeVille. Hoffman had lost one of his teeth to Vincent Tsu’s boot but it seemed he held no grudge against the Scrappers. “I know how status-conscious you Tanfen people are, and I wonder if your hand would have ‘accidentally’ slipped if I’d been a noble lady or something,” the Scrappers’ medic scowled.

“You a lady of noble birth?” Danica Owens asked incredulously. “Christ, Kristy, you’re one of the most forthright and capable people I know. Not like those wussy play-pretties you read about in the old historical records.”

"Watch it," Hoffman warned. 

"I may not be born from some noble family," Kristy admitted, "but I can claim to be a member of an order of knighthood. How many of you can claim that?"

"What?" Tony Carruthers exclaimed from his seat next to Dani. Nobody knew whether or not the two pilots were sleeping together, nor did they consider it any of their business despite Carruthers' reputation as a lecher. As far as her fellow pilots knew Dani hadn't slept with another man - or woman for that matter - since she had been freed from a pirate band three years ago, so they were naturally concerned. They had made it clear just how protective of the platinum blonde they were, and had left things at that. "You mean to tell me you're a bloody knight?" the Englishman asked incredulously. Kristy inclined her head in acknowledgement before looking at her watch.

"We've got forty-five minutes before we're due to launch for our session with the Reapers, so I guess we've got time for a little history lesson," she commented. Reaching into one of her flightsuit's numerous pockets she withdrew a laminated card and tossed it to the blond Tanfen pilot sitting next to her. "You know what this is?"

Brin hastily swallowed his mouthful of instant ramen noodles (Tanfen-packaged, of course) and picked up the little piece of plastic. Glancing at it he tossed it quickly back to her. "Sure, it's your membership card for the St. John Ambulance Association. They're the volunteers that provide first aid at public events like sports matches, parades, concerts and all that sort of stuff."

"Oh, those guys," Carruthers piped up. "I saw them at a lot of the soccer matches I went to when I was growing up back on Earth. But I never really thought of them as knights like the tales of King Arthur or that." He grinned sardonically. "Although I remember one match in Manchester where fans and players alike were running around with bits of durasteel rebar like berserk axemen out of the Middle Ages."

"Well, being berserk axemen wasn't really our style," Kristy admitted. "We were usually stitching them and the results of their mad rampages back together." She stretched and looked around at the expressions of incomprehension on the faces of everyone else at the table. "About fifteen hundred years ago a group of monks set up a hospital in Jerusalem to care for sick pilgrims during the Christian Crusades. Within fifteen years they were officially recognized by the Catholic Church as the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Ever since their founding they have pioneered research into infectious diseases, ophthalmology and care of the mentally ill -"

"Does that include fighter pilots?" McLaughlin joked, having apparently recovered his sense of humor since the briefing. Kristy rolled her emerald-green eyes in exasperation.

“Todd, the Hospitallers started out in the twelfth century. Fighter aircraft didn’t exist before the twentieth century. Now for once try to use your brain for something besides supporting that lovely red hair of yours,” the medic replied archly before turning back to Brin. “Anyway in 1877 the Knighthood formed the St John Ambulance Association to teach first aid and publish teaching material to instruct people in how to perform first aid. So this," she proclaimed as she looked Brin in the eyes, tapping her Association card with a fingernail, "is the proof that I'm a member of a knighthood over fifteen hundred years old. If that's not nobility, I don't know what is."

"Yeah, but it's not like it means anything," Alex Morgan chuckled. "I mean, it's not like you can chop off the head of anyone who doesn't show you proper respect, like the Japanese samurai of a thousand years ago could. There's no legal privileges or rights for knights under the constitution of the Union of Border Worlds, so what’s the big deal?”

“Prestige,” Brin Hoffman cut in even as the red-haired medic opened her mouth to answer. “I don’t know about the Union, but within the Corporation Kristy’s membership in the knighthood would gain her quite a bit of respect.” The big pilot settled back in his chair as the Scrappers gave him looks of stunned bemusement. “The Tanfen Corporation was formed by the merger of a number of large companies from the Far East region of Earth. A lot of old attitudes from that area still carry over in the way the Corporation does business today, and one of those attitudes is that a person is often judged by the group they belong to as well as by their individual deeds. If Kristy was to apply for a medical job with Tanfen, then her membership would certainly help her chances.”

“You’re kidding!” Kristy blurted, shock written on her pretty face. Brin shook his head decisively.

“I’m serious,” he insisted. “You’re a member of an organization that, from what you’ve told me, has pioneered medical practices and research for a millennium and a half. That would give you one hell of an edge over other applicants. I’ve seen pilots get into TASC solely on the basis of past service in a Household Guard unit or their noble ancestry.” He cocked his head as he looked at the Scrappers’ medic again. “Just out of curiosity, what medical qualifications do you have?”

“Full MD, doctorate of flight surgery, paramedic’s license and a lot of practical experience,” Kristy replied, obviously stunned by the Tanfen pilot’s news. “Look, I’m happy where I am so I’m not interested in being talent-scouted, okay? Besides, I don’t like being stuck in a hospital. I like being out on the edge where real things happen.”

“Fair enough,” Brin agreed, an appraising gleam in his eyes. “Just out of curiosity, why did a fully-qualified doctor become a combat pilot?”

“She didn’t. I was just a paramedic when the destroyer Halloran showed up in Orestes, my home system,” Kristy admitted. “That was in 2673. She needed some extra personnel after a punch-up with a Confed task force, so I volunteered for medical duty.” She shrugged. “What the hell -- I always learned better by doing than reading. That’s why I became an EMT instead of a doctor. Anyway, two months after we left Orestes the ship’s doc wound up sucking vacuum after a torpedo hit. I had to step in as MO for the rest of the cruise.” A contemplative frown spread across her face. “Not a fun job. I got pretty depressed at treating the wounded and conducting autopsies on the dead, so I needed something to let off steam in what little free time I had." Kristy looked up at Brin, ignoring her fellow Border Worlders for the moment. "You can't shoot back at radiation when some engineer dies from a reactor coolant leak, or make empty space pay when a crewman dies from a torn vac suit. When I was working on someone in or, or giving first aid as part of damage control, at least I was doing something! But the worst part was the empty times in between, when I thought back on those I couldn't save and wondered what else I could have done. And I got so sick of being helpless I had to lash out at someone or something. So I wound up practicing in the fighter sim pods -- at least in those I could shoot back at someone and pretend I made a difference," the strawberry-blonde medic concluded bitterly. "It was either that or go postal. Anyway, with the crisis with Confed finished I was looking forward to mustering out and going back to the rescue crew on Orestes V, but the captain had other ideas. He called me into his office and told me he'd checked my record 'cause he was going to put me up for a commendation, and he'd found out about the number of hours I'd spent in the sim pods. Turns out I had more sim time than most of the pilots who flew off our flight deck -- hardly surprising considering the DESRONs got the dregs of the flight schools. The competent pilots went to the carriers, the average and marginal ones went to the cruisers and planetary defense groups, and the ones who barely knew how to hold a HOTAS were shipped out to destroyers."

“That’s a pretty harsh assessment,” the Tanfen flier said cautiously. Kristy gave him an angry glare.

“It was a pretty harsh situation,” she said unflinchingly. “So was the situation in the Border Worlds after the crisis. Harsh enough for a paramedic with some sim sessions to be accepted into flight school. I kept up my medical studies and by the time I graduated I had the qualifications to be a flight surgeon. After a year with a planetary defense squadron on my homeworld high command tapped me for double duty with the Scrappers, as the squadron medical officer as well as a combat pilot.”

Brin leaned forward, anger flaring in his azure eyes. “That’s bloody stupid!” he sputtered furiously. “It’s not enough that they expect you to do two jobs at once, but if you get wounded in combat there’s nobody to take care of you!”

The Border Worlds medic shrugged. “What the hell, it keeps me busy,” she joked. Kristy’s face then assumed a thoughtful expression. “If one of the other Scrappers got hurt I’d rather be able to do something about it. Being forced to stand by and watch is the worst thing that could happen to me. I just can’t stand being helpless,” she admitted.


Deep Space, Nifelheim System
0703 Hours, 17 Feb 2681 (2681.048)

The scowl on Paul Onslow’s face looked as if it had been engraved in stone. The exercise was due to start with a series of one-on-one duels, and his squadron had twelve fighters as opposed to the Reapers' eighteen. This meant that half the Scrappers would have to fight two duels instead of one before the squadrons progressed to two-on-one, two-on-two and four-on-four dogfights before the whole exercise culminated in a full-scale melee between the two squadrons. And this meant that when the final free-for-all came around half the Scrappers would be fatigued from doing more turning and burning than their opponents.

Onslaught shook his head abruptly. Concentrate! You’re about to go into a fight and you’ll need all your wits about you, he admonished himself as he focused on the HUD and controls of his fighter. With a deep breath the militia colonel centered himself, preparing for the coming combat and ‘getting into the zone’ before opening his comm channel. “Reaper One, this is Scrapper One. Ready to dance?”

“Let’s dance, Scrapper Lead,” Lieutenant Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes, leader of the Reapers, replied coolly. Her Retaliator flipped lengthwise, autosliding to point its nose at Onslaught’s Intruder even as she called, “Fight’s on!”  A torrent of tachyon bolts erupted from the Retaliator’s forward guns towards the militia fighter, only to miss as Onslaught deftly guided it into a snap roll. The energy blasts were dialed down to training levels so any hits couldn’t damage the valuable aircraft. All they could damage was the pilots’ egos.

As he snapped the Intruder’s nose up and hurriedly locked a Spiculum missile onto the Space Force fighter, Onslaught quickly reflected on what he remembered of the Retaliator. Entering service less than a year ago it was the Union of Border Worlds’ ultimate war machine, reverse-engineered from the Dragon superfighter used by the Black Lance. Packing four tachyon guns, two reaper cannons, a pair of Stormfire guns and up to eighteen missiles the Retaliator was one of the most heavily armed fighters in known space. With agility and speed to match the Excalibur which won the First Kilrathi War it was a truly deadly fighter, and far superior to his own Intruder. All of which meant that Onslaught was in deep trouble.

What the hell, the militia colonel thought as he thumbed off the virtual missile at his opponent, if you’re not badly overmatched then you’re not really flying for the Border Worlds. His only real advantage was a slight edge in maneuverability, which meant he’d have to get into a close-range hard-turning dogfight. The problem was surviving long enough to get into a knife-fight.

Mirage’s Retaliator pulled up in a booster climb, punching out decoys as it fell away in a half-roll. Screaming around in an incredibly tight turn, shields flaring blue under a barrage of energy blasts, the two-seat fighter shuddered as Onslaught pounded it with gunfire. The Retaliator autoslid to bring the Intruder into its sights and poured a volley of tachyon gun fire into its shields as it raced past and reared up into a booster climb. The twin-seat fighter hit the afterburners and raced after its more agile opponent. The two fighters were quickly caught in a climbing scissors, each one striving for the killing shot.

Onslaught abruptly yanked the throttle back, snapping the Intruder to a dead stop in less than a second as he whipped his fighter's nose around. Jamming the throttles forward he dropped into position on Mirage's tail, poured a long burst of gunfire into her aft shields - and promptly found out the hard way just why it's not a good idea to dogtail a Retaliator.

Unlike almost every other space-superiority fighter, the Retaliator mounted guns in an aft turret. The turret’s twin reaper cannons spat bursts of violet energy that pounded the Intruder’s forward shields even as Mirage jinked the larger fighter. “Sonofabitch!!” Onslaught snarled as he snap-rolled his Intruder, dodging most of the incoming fire even as he emptied his guns’ capacitors at the Retaliator. Many of his shots struck their target but most missed, due to the defensive flying that had given Mirage her callsign. And then the Retaliator abruptly flipped over on its back, leaving the Militia colonel looking down the barrels of half a dozen guns.

Onslaught rammed the throttle to the stops and hit the afterburners, hoping to blast past his adversary before she could fire. It was a desperate tactic but it was the one that was most likely to work. Unfortunately Mirage was ready for it and poured a torrent of fire from the quad tachyon guns into the Intruder's forward shields. Already weakened by the intense barrage of the reaper cannons, the shields collapsed and the fighter's computer started registering damage to the forward armor even as a pair of green dots flickered into existence on the HUD. The leader of the Scrappers thumbed off a pair of virtual missiles of his own even as he broke right, punching out decoys as fast as he could. His efforts were useless, however, with the virtual missiles fired by Mirage homing in on his fighter as relentlessly as bloodhounds on a scent. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Mirage's fighter also spinning in evasive maneuvers. And then an insistent chiming rang from his fighter's computer and he cursed sulfurously. Finally he keyed his comm. "Knock it off, Reaper Lead. Good kill," he reported grimly as he steadied his Intruder. I should have been better than this! I have to be better than this! the scarred veteran of twenty years of war told himself harshly. I owe it to my people.

"Copy that, Scrapper Lead," Chrys Rhodes replied. "That was a good fight." Too good. What the hell is a pilot that good doing in the Militia, even if he is a squadron leader? she wondered. The Reapers' commanding officer had no prejudice against the Militia and those who served in it -  she'd been a Militia officer during the First Kilrathi War and the Black Lance affair -- but she made no bones about the fact that she thought the best pilots should go to the Space Force, which received the best equipment. And she had no doubt that Paul Onslow was good enough to serve in the Border Worlds Space Force. After all, in a design ten years older than her own, he'd given her a tougher fight than half her fellow Reapers. "All right. Reaper Two, you're up."