PHASE II : THE TYR ARC ( 19 of 28 )

: “ Gejagter unter Jägern ("THE HUNTED AMONG THE HUNTERS")


HG Depot-A18/ Fraled Consortium Base
Landing Bay
04 Feb 2681 (2681.035)
About 0800 Hours local time

"Is that an Archer in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"

Kyra still had that insufferable grin on her face as she shouldered her rifle and turned towards her troops, yelling at them to fall in. The other Union Marines also looked like they were enjoying Max's situation a little too much. The Loyalist Marines took their status as Tanfen's elite a little too seriously. "Welcome to the Big Leagues," the look on the Border Worlders' faces seemed to say.

Richard simply looked bemused at the whole spectacle as he helped both Max and Celes up by proffering a hand each and simply jerking them up with one pull. With great formality, he genuflected before Max.

"Milord Maximilian, the depot is yours."

He gave a grim nod that left the rest unspoken. The Blood Vendetta against the Fraled Consortium was paid, in full. They would never harm the Corp, or the Families again, and TISD could hunt the rest of the scum down, wherever they were hidden within the Union legal system. The Union could take about "fair trials" and "due process" all it wanted, but it would not take much to persuade juries that the pirates' sentences would best be served in the underworld with the Lord of the Dead, Yen Lo Wang. The public always reacted to images of atrocities with a violent backlash.

Max gave Richard a nod in return. He called for a commtech on one of the assault shuttles. "Inform our captains that they may begin transfer of the fuel and oxy stores now." The tech saluted before disappearing up the ramp, into the small cockpit to relay to the Tanfen freighter captains that they had permission to dock. Richard then snapped off a salute before turning back to overseeing the capture of intelligence and booty, since the depot had been taken ahead of schedule.

"Lieutenant Kaslowski? Kyra?" called Max.

"Yes?" she said expectantly, her arms akimbo and her rifle slung on her shoulder.

Behind her, a Union Marine dragged the corpse of the hapless sniper away, or at least, the upper torso. The interesting characteristic of energy discharge armament was that it cauterized the wound at the same time it punched through armour like tinfoil. It certainly saved on cleanup.

Max held out his hand. "You saved my life. Thank you, Lieutenant."

He paused, as if weighing his next statement before he shook his head, as if saying "I have to do it, regardless." He looked at Kyra. "I owe you an honor debt." The way he said the last part carried a deeper implication than for a simple IOU.

"An honor debt?"

Max nodded. "I will honor one favor that you choose, at any time, should you wish it. The only proviso is that it does not go against the Families or Tanfen. Beyond that, anything, is yours."

Kyra laughed and shook his hand with a tight, manlike grasp of his palm. Her hand was warm to the touch, and lined with calluses from a soldier's craft. It bore the characteristic sharp scar of long time users of T-A101 assault rifles, the de facto Union Marine rifle of choice (Though the Corp was loath to admit it, they had never been able to fix the reload macro switch on the rifle, resulting in the hammer striking the flesh between the thumb and second finger if the firer went on full auto and switched to another clip).

"No need to thank me, Max. I can't get this bunch of guys to even acknowledge I'm their boss without saving their sorry asses a few times over as it is. I'll keep in mind what you said though. Is there anything else?"

"The captains have said the process will take about half an hour. I'll continue stabilizing the wounded here. Shouldn't you do a final check of the base to make sure we've cleaned it out?"

"Already being done, Max. Lieutenant Richard has his team searching through the lower part of the complex one more time. Mine are going through the upper levels. I'll inform you when we're done."

With that, she turned around before yelling at a bunch of Union Marines to form up and proceed after another Union squad that had been sent deep into the complex to search for survivors, if there were any left. From the way the Marines had rooted out every form of resistance in the complex, survivors would be few and far between, unless they were more freed captives.

Max, meanwhile, continued administering first aid to those around him. He first turned to Celes. "Are you all right?"

Celes nodded. "I'm fine, milord." She had checked herself when she got up. She was still functional. Other than the wound to her pride, that is, judging by the blush on her cheeks.

He gave a nod of thanks at Celes, before turning back to his work. Though praise was proper, Chinese tradition dictated that praise was not to be publicized to all and sundry, not when it was also part of duty. He would have to thank her personally later.

Richard stood before a pile of gathered pirate weapons, stacked in a heap next to the shuttles. He had fought for almost a decade and a half in service to the Family, going from hotspot to hotspot, always defending the Family Name, and bringing to bear the righteous edge of vengeance upon his patron's sworn enemies. In that time, he had seen hundreds of weapons, of all types and makings. Everything ranging from a Kilrathi Drakhai fractal knife (the accursed thing was almost as sharp as his reg blade, but it was so oddly balanced that it was very difficult to wield) to the rare Andorra Fusion Laser rifle (no matter how hard the Corp and Tan had tried, they simply weren't able to acquire a working prototype of the weapon), which was only used by their Kriegsmarine Stormtrooper regiments.

To that end, his knowledge of weapons was encyclopedic. With one glance, he had already catalogued almost every weapon in the pile. Most of them seemed to be stolen arms, or acquired on the black market. It was easy enough to do after all; it was an open secret that lower powered weapons, like the M-58A1, could be acquired on the black market - one only had to find a vendor, and match the asking price. Richard counted at least four or five of that make in the pile, all of them in fair condition. The weapon could take a bashing and remain functional, which was why it was popular with Confed.

A few guns seemed to be Homeguard issue, including a few combat shotguns and an MLS-101 support weapon. The usual weaponry for pirate rabble. Richard started to turn away from the pile before something caught his eye. Poking just from under a pile of standard Gauss rifles was a odd looking gun, metal grey with red markings. He pushed aside the metallic pile, and took out the weapon. It seemed to be a Gauss rifle of some sort, judging from the ammo clip, but its longer and thicker barrel, along with its bigger capacitator, distinguished it from any other Gauss rifle he knew.

He ejected the clip and took a look at a round. Unlike a conventional gauss round, this was large; almost twice as big as a standard round, with a DU tip. Definitely more than overkill for a soft target - this ordnance was meant to punch through military grade armor with ease, though at the cost of a recoil that would wreak havoc on the marksman's arm. Richard looked at the butt, and at the red markings. A Greek Alpha and Omega, along with the sign for infinity, with a scratched off serial number, though an X was still barely visible. If he remembered right, it seemed to denote that the weapon was of limited issue or experimental, but he had never seen something like this before.

"Strange" Richard muttered to himself before hauling the rifle back up to the shuttles. He would have to access Tanfennet to find out just who manufactured this weapon. Pirates shouldn't even be able to acquire something like this, regardless of black market contacts. This weapon was too powerful, too rare. It had not been manufactured by Tanfen, of that he was sure. The Family always allowed their Honor Guards to field test the latest armaments off their production lines. Always. While it was perfectly possible that the pirates had looted a ship carrying prototypes, a tingling sensation in his spine told him that this was too easy an explanation.

A Homeguard pilot, one of the four reserve pilots carried along with the strike team, then approached Richard and saluted. "Sir, we've gone over the pirates' fighters, and most of them are in fair shape. So far, we've been able to salvage two Razors, a T-Bolt with no payload and a dinged up Ferret III. We did find something funny though, sir."


The pilot shook his head. "Well, it could be just nothing sir, but these fighters... even though they looked dinged up on the outside, their system checks run at about 90 percent. You'd only get that kind of maintenance on a capship or current spec facility." He gestured around. "This dump hardly qualifies, sir."

Richard nodded. These space jocks were even more paranoid than he was. He was more concerned at just what the hell were pirate scum doing with an experimental weapon that could, for all he knew, have been hoisted off an Andorran R&D lab. It was, after all, possible that the pirates had done their repairs and maintenance elsewhere. Such scum were always careful of their few fighters, sometimes extremely so.

"It's probably nothing, pilot." I hope, he added silently. "Our transports and shuttles have space to piggy back about three fighters to make up for losses during the evac. Your orders?"

He didn't know much about fighters, short of the fact that they made excellent air support when a bunch of Sekuritat Cadre were screaming down your position. "Go ask Lord Maximilian."

The pilot saluted and left Richard. A quick discussion with Max resulted in the pilots ferrying off and loading the Razors and the Ferret onto one of the super freighters, flying each one out separately. The T-Bolt was a little too big for to be piggy backed, and would instead be attached to one of the shuttles with docking clamps.

Even as it happened, the cleanup detail was in full swing. Tanfen and Union fallen were even now being carried back by graveyard details, and then lined up solemnly, in a row with their blood spattered shrouds beside each assault shuttle's loading ramp. There was no distinction between Loyalist and Unioner in death. The only difference was that beside each Loyalist Marine lay his or her reg blade, either placed in their cold hands, or if that was not possible, beside the bodies. As with per Marine saying, the fallen Unioners were laid with their rifles, even in death.

The price paid was high in anyone's book. To retake the depot, six Loyalist Marines had fallen in battle, and eight fellow Loyalists had been wounded. The Union had lost eight of their brethren, but had only three wounded, one of them seriously. The liberated captives themselves numbered some forty people of all ages. Very few were Tanfenners. The rest were prisoners taken from free traders and colony raids. Max continued to administer first aid, while Celes and his bodyguard detail followed him.

The few paramedics in the Union and Loyalist retinue were likewise attending to the wounded, attempting to stabilize them and offer aid and succor. The meager provisions onboard the assault shuttles were being distributed while a coil heater was salvaged to function as a makeshift kettle. A Union medic poured in water rations to heat tea for the former captives. Blankets were being distributed around, with priority to children and the aged first, before the former prisoners were given a medical check up and then transferred aboard the shuttles.

In the background, over the hum of machinery, the dull roar of ship engines idling and the shouting and oaths as sergeants urged their men onward, was the sound of pain. All forms of it. From the shrieking of the horribly mutilated as they screeched for an end, to the pain to the dull moaning of the wounded as they writhed about waiting for medical attention, and the faint murmur of those dosed with painkillers that could barely keep up with the agony they were feeling.

This happened after every battle. Sometimes, to Max, this was the most disheartening sight of all. It was all well and good to charge gloriously into battle to fight, kill and die in the name of the Families and the Corp, but he always thought of what would happen to the wounded, the dying, and to those who were orphaned or widowed. The ones that had to clean up afterward had the worst time of it. Violent means ultimately solved any conflict, but it had to be the last possible option. His Family believed in that. But sometimes, it was necessary, for pride and for honor. Yes, honor.

Always pride and honor, irrespective of Family. It ruled Chinese society, and through that, almost all of the Corp. Others would not understand. He gave a sympathetic smile as he tightened a bandage on an injured Marine's arm.


Meanwhile, Outside The Base

Outside, in a ponderous dance, the three super-freighters, each of them capable of carrying kilo-tons of fuel, gently fired their maneuvering thrusters. Like gigantic whales, they each slowly turned in the void to end up parallel to a jagged metallic outcropping jutting out from the asteroid base. From the outside, the base looked old, even ancient.

Bits of its internal hull, and its now ruined command center poked out from its rock face. The refueling point on the asteroid was painted in dull ship grey, with barely legibly scrawled symbols and letters denoting which port was used for what. There were twelve such ports, a pair each of fuel and oxygen for up to six ships to dock in. As the super-freighters neared, they paused and stopped. EVA suited crewers came out of the freighters to assist in connecting the massive conduits to transfer the fuel and oxygen. With a massive click, each conduit clamped onto each super freighter. With hand signals, the crewers confirmed that each line was locked in, and open.

Afterwards, a Union Marine in the command center tapped in the command to open the lines. Almost slowly, the fuel lines heated up. Sluggish at first, the fuel dripped in a mere trickle into the massive holds of the ships, before the heaters that lined the conduit surged up to full strength, allowing the frigid river of fuel to turn into a torrent. With the force of a gigantic jet of water, hundreds of liters of fuel poured into each freighter's hold.

Meanwhile, compressed into near liquid form, oxygen flowed forth. Each freighter's cargo tanks could hold several million liters; they were meant to supply entire worlds with a monthly supply of essentials. This was nothing. Nothing, that is, except to the thousands of innocents who depended on these stores of fuel and oxygen for their survival.


Meanwhile, Lower Levels
HG Depot-A18 / Fraled Consortium Base

Somewhere, deep in the depot, a man stirred in his sleep. He had overheard the sounds of fighting and violence, as the Loyalists performed their final check of the complex, rooting out the last few survivors. The sounds were a music he savored, but unfortunately, it was being played in the wrong place. He rose from his cot, and concentrated. At once, he gave a violent hiss of hatred. There were only one of the many military groups in the universe that would shout battle cries like that. The hated Family Tan's Loyalist Marines.

And... what was that? In the distance, he heard the faint report of a weapon only the Border Worlds Union Marine Corps would use-a T-A101 combat shotgun. The man stood up in the darkness of the room, his height almost making him hunch in the confines of the virtual broom closet he lived in on the depot. The man revealed himself to be massively tall, but very thin. As if someone built him from the ground up and decided to add on flesh as an afterthought.

There was a reason he had chosen this room, after Porhen offered to "sponsor" the pirates' anti-Corp activities. It kept him well away from the base's vital areas, and well away from any attack. Unfortunately, it had also kept him unaware of the attack until now. The man could see well enough in the dark, but he stepped into the small pool of light offered by an atmosphere integrity display to gaze upon his features in the small mirror next to it.

Skin was pulled tightly over the man's features, making him look like a death's head. Rope-liked muscles lined his thin frame, looking like stuffing on a monstrously mutated scarecrow of a man. It was an understatement to say that the pirates were more terrified of him than of reprisal by the Family Tan. Though he was the de facto leader of the pirate band, with his forceful retirement of the previous one, they were still rabble, expendable in any case.

With an insane grin, he muttered, "So, the Tan's puppets have come to play." He knelt, looking like a fearful scarecrow in the dark.

The man reached under the cot to grab an elaborately carved reg blade, old and notched. His first victim's weapon, it was a fine memento. In fact, the owner's Loyalist head was back on Porhenia in his private collection.

"Time... to die." He smiled before opening the door.

Outside, one of the few survivors of his pirate rabble was turning hysterical. The man was practically babbling and holding his arm like a frightened child. He assessed the situation. If the Union and their Loyalist puppets were this deep in the base, the command center would surely have fallen. But how could they have found out this base? No matter. He knew the Loyalists well enough that they would leave little survivors to those owing them a Blood Vendetta. It was imperative he get himself off this dying rock, and to safety. The pirates had outlived their usefulness. Porhen had lost an expendable resource, but there would be more where they came from.

The man turned to look down, at the pirate. The man was howling piteously for him to save him, and his band. His wailing was so loud that he would be risking Loyalists coming this way. Like a viper, the pirate leader struck. His right hand shot out, and before his stunned subordinate could resist, the pirate dangled in his merciless grip. Cartilage crackled, then the thin man dropped his prey with a contemptuous hiss.

And not too soon. He heard the sound of men and women approaching. Were it not for his enhanced hearing, he would not have heard the stealthy advance of the Loyalist hunter killer team that approached his position. With an idle reach for the piping above, he levered himself up towards the ceiling before kicking in a ventilator duct and then hauling himself in. Like a wolf, he watched the Loyalist squad pass by before he nodded and began crawling, recalling the way the way to the landing bay as he went.

Soon, he reached the landing bay, and peered out from a grate. With consummate skill, he managed to use the shadows of the bay to move near a loading ramp. Like a wraith, his gaunt form flitted from shadow to shadow. When everyone's attention was turned, focused on the job of getting the wounded ready to move, he dashed up the ramp, without even a sound. He recognized the shuttle layout; most combat ships relied on a standardized ergonomic design for maximum cost effectiveness.

With deliberation, he raised himself up, into the vast network of ducting that kept a ship alive. Just to make sure, he avoided a motion detector placed nearby. Knowing Union equipment, their False Alarm Rate would be especially high. He would probably be mistaken as a pest, and a dangerous one he was. Still, it was best to take no chances. There were no security cameras, which was a bonus. Combat ships often didn't carry them, especially not for internal corridors, to save tax money.

One thing he didn't count on was how tight the shuttle's ducts were. He tried wedging himself in, but failed. His shoulder was jutting out. Without missing a beat, he reached out and twisted. There was a sickening crack as he dislocated his own shoulder to wedge himself into the duct. With a savage grin, he succeeded. One adroit flip with his right hand and the duct cover was back in place. Settling himself into a relatively inconspicuous position, he lay back, and waited, and watched.


Landing Bay
About 0830 Hours

Soon, the ship captains reported that their holds were full, and Kyra and Richard said that the base had been swept clean of all hostiles and prisoners. It was time to leave. Only Max and Richard stood in the now silent bay, still lined with blood and the corpses of the pirate dead. All of their fallen and wounded had been taken aboard already, as well as the freed prisoners and those pirates the Unioners had captured. They stood before the loading ramp of one of the assault shuttles. The growing din of the pilots gunning the engines signified their urgency to leave the place.

"What do we do with the depot, Max?" asked Richard. Though it was entirely possible to destroy the depot, and it was strategically wise to deny its use to some other rabble that would simply find it and use it, it would take up valuable time.

Max shook his head. "We leave it. We don't have time. This place has survived for decades, biding its time. A few more years will not matter."

Richard shrugged. "You're the boss, milord. Your call."

The shuttle doors closed and heat eddies emanated from each assault shuttle's thrusters as they turned ponderously around, and about, before tearing through the magnetic shield, burning for open space.

Onboard, someone grinned. Though it was discomforting, having his tall frame hunched in the small maintenance ducts aboard the shuttle, he paid it no mind. There would be time to repay the hated Tanfenners in blood. But for now, he would have to bide his time.


Deep Space, Tyr System
On The Way Back To The Fleet

Outside, the flight formed up, with the two assault shuttles riding tandem while the super freighters positioned themselves in a triangle, with the T-Bolts on loose escort. On board one of the assault shuttles, Max sat on the small bridge, still in his armor, his support weapon on the deck beside his seat. One of the freighter captains hailed him.

"Milord, we are ready to go now."

"All units, proceed, as planned." He keyed in the fleet wide intercom. "Good work, all of you."

There was a collective cheer from the Marines and freed prisoners. Beside him, Kyra grinned. "I actually figured that this whole thing would never even get off the ground. Looks like I was wrong, Max."

Max simply smiled, as he watched the drive trails of the freighters light up brightly like comets, before moving forward into the darkness. The T-Bolt flight stayed protectively on the flanks.

Richard clapped his shoulder. "Your first mission in the Family's name has succeeded quite well, milord. I'm impressed."

"But what of the fallen? And the wounded?"

Richard shook his head. "That is to be expected in any battle. You Gans never did find the clash of steel to be music anyway. Death is inevitable, the only questions are how and when. You know our ways - death in battle is the most glorious way to die. But more importantly, our honor is avenged."

Max stayed silent. This was a Tan affair, and it remained to them to complete it. He was here on behalf of the Corporation as a whole, not as a representative of the Family Gan. He knew well enough the differing viewpoints of the three Families. It would be folly to let an outsider know of it. They would not understand.

Kyra certainly didn't. She shook her head vehemently. "No. Dying in a fight is not the best way to go, and nor is honour alone worth dying for. Life's much too precious for that."

"Oh? And what, Lieutenant, do you think is the best way to go?" Richard asked, a challenge in his tone. "What way could be better than glorious battle?"

"I can think of several," Kyra shot back. "Most of them involve old age, a bed, and a kid young enough to be my grandson." Both Richard and Max burst out laughing at that, and Celes smiled politely.

"So, you like younger men, Lieutenant? Maybe milord Maximillian here has a chance, after all," Richard said, grinning as Max shot him a dirty look.

"Oh, he's just my type. Handsome, rich, and barely legal. You are legal, right, Max?" Kyra said with a grin, calmly raising an eyebrow as she caught dirty looks from Max, and strangely enough, from Celes as well. That girl really needs a humour transplant, Kyra thought. Either that or a good lay.

As for Max, he was a nice enough kid, but he probably wasn't used to people treating him with anything other than the utmost respect. Besides, Richard's words and Max's reaction had both left Kyra with the uneasy feeling that Max just might have developed a crush on her. That would never work out, but ragging him about it was likely to leave him hurt, humiliated and angry. That was the last thing she wanted, both because it would compromise the mission and because she genuinely liked Max. Best not to push the joke any further, Kyra thought.

"No one in our fleet wants to die, Max. Despite what they say about crazy Border Worlders," she said more seriously, returning the conversation to its original topic. "But if we do, it'll be for a cause worth worth dying for, not for pretty words like pride and honour. It'll be for the safety of the Union, and for the survival of the human race."

Richard and Max stayed silent as they both simply affirmed what they both knew in their hearts. Tanfen's cause their own survival, not that of humanity. Kyra's words highlighted the gulf between Tanfen and the Border Worlders. The Border Worlders were a strange people. On the one hand, they were both practical and pragmatic, sometimes even ruthless, willing to do whatever it took to get the job done. On the other hand, they saw the universe in a strangely idealistic way, willing to put everything on the line for a cause they believed in. Tanfen was the opposite. They lived daily by codes of honour and pride and saving face, things which to a Border Worlder were just pretty words. And yet, Tanfen saw the universe in starkly realistic terms, in terms of profit and loss, of us and them.

Max wondered if he would ever be able to understand someone like Kyra, or if the culture gap was just too deep and too wide to be bridged. Tanfen and the military were working under different sets of priorities. Their purposes simply coincided at this time, nothing more.

Max though, had his doubts regarding Lord John's views as to local operations. However, now was not the time to voice them. Not in the presence of someone not belonging the the Family. They had the fuel and oxygen, and if everything went according to plan, they would be out of this system in a couple more days. After dropping off the refugees off in Masa, they would report to Tanfen Kohlingen to await orders from the Board.


Deep Space, Tyr System
About 0940 Hours

Just after the convoy passed one of the jump points along their route, their luck took a turn for the worse. Blazing out of the jump point like a bat out of hell came a Caernaven-class frigate. Latched onto it like Remoras were four Demon-class fighters. What soured things even more was the symbol of a bleeding tulip on the sides of each of those fighters, as well as on the frigate. This was not a good day. The pirates added two and two together and decided that wiping the task force from the face of the galaxy would be a wise choice. The Demons detached themselves from the frigate, before closing rapidly, their afterburners blazing in the night.

Cursing, Max hailed the T-Bolt flight leader by slamming his fist down on the comm button.

"Tango leader, you must protect the freighters at all costs!" Each of those things was a moving explosion waiting to happen. The volatile mix of fuel and oxygen in each one assured that if one went, everything nearby would go along with it. The pirates would be too vengeful to care about that, though. 

"Understood, Lukaris leader. We are engaging the enemy now."

Kyra tapped Max's shoulder. "Shouldn't we use the burst signal now to call for reinforcements?"

Max shook his head. "I think our T-Bolts can handle this. We have to save our other assets for a real threat." Admiral Hanton had stressed that the fleet was stretched thin as it was, trying to protect Tyr itself, protect the transports, and keep the Nephilim entertained all at the same

Kyra gave a look that said "I hope you're right," before she begun ordering her men to man the few turrets available on board the shuttle.

The T-Bolt flight leader nodded. "Alright boys, Tangos two and three, stay with me. The rest, close escort. Protect the freighters like our paychecks."

There was a collective derisive snort of wry amusement before each of the pilots acknowledged their orders. The fighters split up, half of them remaining with the super freighters, the rest accelerating ahead to engage the enemy. Their engine glows burned bright in the night as they headed for the no man's land between the capships to head off the enemy attack force.

Before the Demons could close the range, the T-Bolts, still in their tight echelon formation, let loose a volley of IFF warheads. They were taking no chances. Homeguard doctrine stated that "When in doubt-go for overkill." The Demons returned the favor, sending forth a volley of IRs and dumbfires. Both sides desperately fired chaff and decoys as they closed the distance. Both were going too fast to dodge. Like knights in a melee, both pirates and Tanfenners were playing a high tech game of chicken.

In a split second, multiple warheads from both sides slammed into the opposition. Like a death blossom, the warheads exploded in an eerie spectacle of light, debris and kinetic energy as warhead shrapnel slammed into armoured hulls. Emerging from the firestorm came forth the two remaining Demons, both of them scorched and blackened. The other two had been wiped out from the opening missile volley. One of the survivors seemed to founder and lurch as it tried to make best speed with a damaged engine.

One Thunderbolt took two hits on its fore shields, making them flare, before buckling as its shield generator system failed. As the pilot tried desperately to bank and avoid the rest of the warheads, an IR missile accelerated in for the kill, It slammed right into the port fuel tank, turning the fighter into a blazing fireball. There wasn't even time for the pilot to scream.

The remaining T-Bolts finished their missile run, and then turned back, prepared to close in for the dogfight. The outcome was predictable, though the cost was heavy. Before the two Demons went down, another T-Bolt sustained a barrage of mass driver hits, enough to ruin the power plant and cripple the fighter severely.

Tango Leader detailed off a T-Bolt from the escort flight to assist with the frigate. Even now, the frigate was ignoring the T-Bolts, blazing for the convoy, with its laser batteries forming a lethal wall of shot that the fighters had trouble going through. One tried for a torpedo lock, and for his trouble sustained a hit that took out a photon gun.

The T-Bolts, unable to use their torps, did the next best thing. Keying their dumbfires together for a volley shot, they accelerated in, jinking madly while their engine plumes shone like miniature suns from the sustained burn. At point blank range, each T-Bolt let off its remaining dumb fires. The first pair of DFs splashed on the frigate's shields. Bright static discharge flared as each missile hit. The shields held briefly, before flaring, and failing with a final wail.

The remaining warheads just raced ahead, and slammed right into the frigate's starboard side. Like white hot poker rods, the warheads tore the armor of the ship apart, exposing the frigate to vacuum. The thin superstructure of the frigate seemed to give an audible groan of strain before tearing apart at the keel. The ship had lost structural integrity. Escaping air and fuel rushed out of the pirate frigate. The last T-Bolt in the formation set it alight with a strafing barrage of its guns before pulling straight up. The gunfire lighted up the frigate, turning it into an exploding fireball of metal, flesh and spent oxygen.

Tired, but triumphant, Tango leader raised Max. With the characteristically cool drawl of a pilot, he noted, "All targets destroyed. Mission accomplished, Lukaris leader."

Max turned around to Kyra, beginning to say. "See, no prob..." until he saw the look on her face. It took a lot to scare a Marine, and yet her face was as white as a sheet. He turned to look back at the screen.

Racing towards them, like the proverbial armies of hell, came what he had never seen before, nor would want to see again. Organic-looking fighters, close to twenty of them, hurtled straight towards the convoy. They could only be one thing. They were the Nephilim, and they were coming to play. The buggers must have been attracted by the fighting, God only knew how.

Max swallowed hard when looking at the Nephilim vessels. Their bulbous forms seemed to negotiate the merciless void of space with the grace of mythical sea monsters mentioned only in legends of old. Every battle that the Homeguard entered with the alien enemy, they had lost. And lost bad. TISD had not come up with much recon data on any of these alien units, simply because any ship or probe they had sent out to get a close look at the aliens had not come back.

The odds were not good. The task force only had five T-Bolts left, one of which was almost ruined and simply floating around because its owner was ornery enough not to abandon it. Even adding the salvaged pirate fighters from the depot meant only a meager increase of firepower. The Razors and Ferret would not be able to contribute much, except to buy time.

"Oh, shit," Kyra said. It seemed appropriate.

"We're screwed, aren't we?"

"Like a whore in a Confed base on payday."

Max didn't answer Kyra, but instead leaped from his seat, running at full tilt, past the startled Marines, into the main hold of the shuttle. Raising his fist, he brought it down with all his might, breaking the plate glass before slamming the button. Like a loudspeaker, the distress call would sound all its way back to the main fleet, pulsing, rippling through space at a speed faster than light. Of course, it would also announce their location to anyone this side of Sol. No use worrying about it now - the aliens were here anyway. He ran back to the bridge.

"Tango leader! Can you hold on for another ten minutes?"

"Well, we'll just have to try, won't we?" Tango Leader shot back, the sarcasm obvious.

He switched off the comm, muttering under his breath. "Milord, I can't even get my damned oxy recycler working, but we'll try. We're sure as hell not going to die for lack of trying."

And try they would, because if they died now, the only chance of survival that thousands of innocent civilians had would die with them.

With that, he switched the comm back on, and relayed the orders to his pilots. "This is it, boys. Do or die. We've got to protect those whales until the cavalry gets here - in ten minutes. You've got to hold them back that long. Break up the first wave before they can close in on us."

"We should launch our reserves, milord," added Celes quietly.

Max nodded grimly. "All reserves, to your fighters, reinforce Tango Leader."

There was a chorus of ayes, before the Razors and the Ferret III, each attached to a freighter, detached themselves and launched into the fray.

Tango leader was in bad shape, and his flight had already expended most of their payload with the fight pirates. Tango Two was dead, which meant that the aliens outnumbered them better than two to one. The splotches of crimson seemed to drown out his radar display, highlighting his faceplate in red.

He queried a quick diagnostic. His front shield was still down, and his armor severely damaged. It would have to be do or die this time. TISD had confirmed that the alien craft outperformed any Corp fighter, but the lighter Nephilim fighters were probably undergunned when compared to his heavier craft. That was something, at least.

Tango leader required the HUD to highlight, or at least give a preliminary ID on each of the alien ships, most of which seemed to fall into two main types. One of them was sleek, with a fish-tail aft section and two pod-like arrays that jutted forth from both sides of the prow; this appeared to be the aliens' standard-issue fighter. According the data the Border Worlders had given them, this fighter was called a Moray. The other class was larger, flat, and reminded him a sea predator - the Manta. According to preliminary reports, this was a capable fighter-bomber. The group was led by a ship that resembled a Manta, but its aft section, which resembled a vertical fin, distinguished it from the more common craft. A Devil Ray.

No man, no possible known species could come up with such monstrosities. They all seemed to be taken from a gauche painting of Hell, full of brilliant, psychedelic tones, and mauve fuchsia colors that took on a hellish light as they fired their weapons.

Ten minutes.

It was difficult not to feel fear. And feel it they all did. He turned around and saw the Razors and Ferret entering the fray. Good, at least some backup. These were all the reinforcements he was going to get, though.

The remaining salvaged T-Bolt still lay attached to one of the assault shuttles. Lord Maximilian's. It was no use anyway. The reserve pilot for the shuttle had broken his arm and leg in the assault, when the landing jarred him out of his seat. Even if he could fly the thing, he would be helpless. There was no way he could operate the weapons and fly the fighter with two broken limbs. They might have been able to get around that by slaving all weapons to the tailgunner's console, but no one on board had the skill to do that.

Nine minutes.

As both fighter groups accelerated towards each other, both begun targeting each others' heavies. The HG had to keep them away from perceived torp range of the freighters at any cost. Missiles blazed in from both sides, as they begun the dance of death. This time, the lives of thousands hinged on those freighters surviving. The HG knew that, and were grimly determined to sell their lives dearly.

With a combined full gun volley, four of the T-Bolts managed to box in and skewer the leader ship. Devil Rays were tough, but the fighter hadn't been built yet that could survive long against the brutal hitting power of a Thunderbolt, let alone four of them. The alien fighter spun briefly, then exploded, showering the space around it with wreckage. One of the T-Bolts did a victory roll through the wreckage.

"Hahah! Splashed the bogie lead... what the HELL?"

Small devices accelerated away from the dead craft. Missiles, which had somehow survived the explosion of their parent craft. It did not take them long to reach his ship. The pilot's screams were cut short when one of the warheads detonated directly over his cockpit, frying him instantly. Meanwhile, the other fighters continued their deadly dance.

Eight minutes left.

The leader was down, but its brethren itched for human blood. Their guns blew away one of the Thunderbolts and the Ferret, crippling two other fighters.

Seven minutes.

They were dying out there. All of them.

Max did not want to watch helplessly and watch his men go out to die. He had not come here just to watch his people go down dying like dogs to the aliens while he sat here. Not while he could help it. He rounded up the reserve pilot, the only one on board the shuttle. He was hurt, badly, but there was no choice.

"Pilot, can you fly a T-Bolt now?"

The man winced, "I'll try, milord. But I can't handle gunnery - my right arm's busted, and I can't work fire control with one hand."

Max nodded. "I will."

"But, milord?" came the collective cry of concern from Richard, and the pilot. Keiko Gan would have their collective heads should he ever get stiffed due to bravado. The Gans frowned on a glorious death in battle, and preferred dying in other, less painful ways. That principle did not extend to those who lost their progeny, though.

Max raised one finger at them, telling them to stay quiet. "I will not argue with you all now. Can any of you handle the fire control systems gunnery in that pirate Bolt?"

Richard shook his head. He was a Marine, not a pilot. He wouldn't know where to begin. The pilot shrugged. He could, but his arm was broken. Max had served with the Walking Steel as a combat engineer. He had working knowledge of technology, and had some exposure to gunnery. Of course, that wasn't the same as taking a fighter into combat.

Max turned to follow the pilot. Richard still protested and grabbed his arm. "Max, you are not Christopher Blair. Face it, you're Walking Steel, not a trained gunner." He tried hard put it matter-of-factly.

"But I -" he tried to protest.

"Engineer training and a gunnery course does not qualify you, milord. It would like putting someone who's only flown a simulator into a Vampire cockpit. I will not let you place your life at risk like this."

"Milord, your safety!" The pilot added, making one last try.

Max suddenly boiled over. He turned around, fast enough to cause the decking underneath to squeal, and pointed at Richard, even though the soldier was almost half a foot taller than his master.

"To HELL with this 'milord' crap! I, as your goddamn LORD, order you to stand down. It is MY wish, and MY responsibility to defend my people. I will not stand here, and see my men die without me beside them, understand!" Spent, he stopped, breathing heavily.

Everyone stood looking at the both of them.

Richard stood back, both shocked and impressed. The boy finally understood responsibility. It was not his place to naysay him now. He nodded grimly. "Then Kuan Yin be with you, milord." He turned to the pilot. "You will take care of him like your own mother. Understood, pilot?"

The pilot looked back tiredly, though defiantly and nodded. He wasn't going to take any shit from anyone, even if that someone was a six and a half foot tall Loyalist Marine armed with a gigantic razor sharp can opener.

"Your ride awaits, milord, I'll go prep the fighter. You know where the gunnery seat is?"

Max nodded, before heading off to the shuttle's lockers near the docking clamps to grab a flight suit and helmet.

Kyra looked down from the gunnery stairwell and raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Max silently thanked her for not trying to stop him, and for not saying "I told you so." If he had called the reserves in earlier... but it was too late for all that now.

He called up to her. "Can you move the shuttles and form a barrier between the freighters and those bugs?"

She yelled back over the din. "No problem."

She paused, as if thinking of something to say. "Good luck, kid. You realize Admiral Hanton will crucify me if I let Lord Tan's nephew get killed, right?"

Max gave a grin. That was the closest the Marine would come to saying she was worried about him. Her concern was touching, even if the "big sister" routine was wearing a bit thin. "Keep the ship safe while I'm gone."


Pirated T-Bolt Fighter

Max had strapped into a spare flight suit, bereft of insignia, and squirmed into a battered helmet. He sealed the suit and then stepped into the rear gunnery seat of the T-Bolt. He had some idea how to start up the weaponry, but the pilot had to walk him through it. Meanwhile, T-Bolt sprang to life. The engines seemed to roar, eager to launch into the fray. It detached itself from the shuttle, as the shuttle itself sped towards its twin to form a barrier against the alien assault wedge.

Five minutes.

"Ready to dance, milord?" asked the pilot, wincing as he tried flying with one arm.

Max toggled the gunnery controls and adjusted his helmet. "Ready to fill my dancecard, pilot."

The pilot said nothing, and instead kicked in his afterburners to enter the fray. And not too soon. The feeble defensive barrier was about to break. One of the Razors flared brightly before it slammed into one of the alien fighter-bombers in a kamikaze maneuver. Though the pilot ejected, one of the alien ships seemed to deliberately veer right for the pilot, beheading him as he spun helplessly in his seat by clipping his head off with a wing tip. The unknown pilot never even had time to scream. The Homeguard were going to break, and they were dying like flies.

Four minutes.

The two remaining T-Bolts maneuvered desperately, fighting for every inch of space they gave, all the while inching closer and closer towards the helpless freighters. Though several of the aliens Mantas were down, there were more than enough to sink the entire convoy. Tango leader finally saw the lone T-Bolt detach itself from the assault shuttle to join the fray. That pilot had balls, to fight and fly like that, with a broken arm. Too bad no one was going to hear about this.

Three minutes.

In that time, the HG fighters fought a mad minute, splashing down three of the light fighters and one Manta, before losing the last Razor and another Bolt. They fell back, again, back towards the assault shuttles. Like hornets, the leading alien fighters streamed in.

Almost immediately, the combined armament of both assault shuttles kicked in. Stormfire shells and laser bolts streamed out like a deadly light show, impaling two of the alien fighters immediately. One T-Bolt was too slow, though, and was torn apart by a pair of Mantas.

Two minutes.

"Semper Fi, Marines! Kill them all!" roared Kyra as she took over from a fallen crewer, killed when an alien bolt pierced the turret, and kept firing the guns. She had to pull his decompressed corpse out of the way, and continue his work. She did not notice his corpse fall below, only to be sliced in half by security blast doors attempting to stop the decompression of the shuttle. It was fortunate she was still in her armored suit. The bugs would ice the shuttle long before her air supply ran out.

Though she could not hear the freed captives, they were wailing in terror at the spectacle appearing before them. Blasts and missile hits rocked the shuttles like tidal waves, causing children to clutch their mothers in fear and grown men to quail. The fact that they had been freed from pirates' grasp only to die in this attack was just one bitter irony among many.

"A month's pay for every of the buggers shot down, boys!" Kyra yelled over the comm, urging on her troops. She was sure as hell not going down without a fight. Marines never did. Life was precious, and it was worth fighting for. Even when the battle was hopeless, the Marines would fight to the end.

And the battle was hopeless. She could see their fighters being hacked down, and the shuttles would be next. She swung the turret around, tracking another fighter. At the same time, a quiet voice in the back of her head was re-evaluating her opinion of Max as just a kid, coming to the same conclusion that Richard had reached moments earlier. Max had taken responsibility for his people, knowing the consequences of his actions and still accepting them. Those were the very qualities that separated an adult from a brash youngster. She just wished that he hadn't grown up just in time to die.

One Minute

Max gave a roar of fury as he let the rear mass driver chatter out a staccato beat. He could almost feel the recoil as he sprayed a stream of slugs at an enemy fighters that was attempting to ram the closest of the freighters. The first burst severed one of its weapons pods, causing it to skip like a skipping stone over the freighter's massive hull. The second burst made it skew clear of the freighter, turning end over end like a tortoise before one last burst skewered it, causing organic fluid and effluent to bubble forth from its torn carcass. The sleek fighter was dead.

But suddenly, a shadow crossed the cockpit. One of the alien Mantas had taken a bead at them. The pilot was trying to dodge, but the T-Bolt had not earned the name of the lead sled for nothing. The enemy ship was in a high twelve position, with the Bolt beneath it like a perfect schematic. The best place for a cockpit shot. Its multiple cannons seemed to glow as it anticipated the kill. Max could feel nothing. Nothing except the sound of battle and the roar of weaponry. His mother's Tan blood called out to him, urging him on to glorious battle. Until he saw the shadow. At that, he could only feel the urge to hammer the bomber before he went down, screaming at the top of his voice. It was not possible, the angle was too high. It was too late. He was going to die.

Zero hour!

Whiteness filled his vision. Suddenly, he was able to see his surroundings again. Overhead, the alien fighter floated in a ruined heap. How'd that happen? Suddenly, the answer came roaring past him. A Panther fighter, with the symbol of a 19th century rifleman standing triumphant atop a battle scorched hill painted on its nose, and underneath the words "TCS Bunker Hill."

The reinforcements had arrived!

The Panther banked left as it loosed forth advanced IR missiles, tearing into the remaining alien enemy. Fighter after fighter tore into the battle, all bearing the colors of the Bunker Hill's Panther squadron.

"The cavalry's here, boys and girls. Sorry about the wait. Alpha, take the Morays. Bravo, Mantas. Kill them all!"

Max's adrenaline supercharged system gave out. He leaned back in the seat, and took a deep breath. The battle was wasn't over, but his battle was.

Soon, the last Alien fighter flared, twitched and died like a withered bug. Each ship in the convoy resumed the trip back to the fleet in silence. The battle, small as it had been, had been as important as any fought in this system. The people of Tyr now had a chance. There was no time to collect the fallen, no time to know just who sacrificed themselves to protect the freighters. As his fighter docked with the shuttle, Max gave a grim salute, acknowledging the memory of those who had fallen.

Elsewhere, far away, a woman with purple haired locks nodded as she flipped the last card on the table. Strength. The card showed a lion, and a woman leading it. Both were strong of character, not just in physical power. What had happened scant moments ago was important in more ways than one.

She uttered to herself, "And so, it begins."

An unseen breeze caused a candle flame to flicker to one side, igniting another that had been unlit.

One more light against the darkness. One more step on the road to victory.