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A firm hand pinned Kirsten’s wrist. Then a loud pop put an end to the noise. A residual ring remained but lacked the electronic quality of the prior torment.

Vince groaned. “Everyone all right? Report in.”

“I hereby move for no more of that,” Janice said through the implant comm.

As loud as her voice came through, she might as well have stood in the room using a public address system set to full gain. Kirsten clenched her eyes closed and gritted her teeth as the others also checked in.

Sora’s smooth-scaled hand touched her cheek. “The voice system malfunctions. Kirsten hurts.”

Footsteps approached on the deck plates from where Vince had been. “I’m coming.”

Kirsten forced her eyes open. The blurred, doubled image took a moment to straighten out. “I’m fine.”

Sora’s tan and yellow frill flipped up. “You are not. You hurt. I fly. You rest.”

She blinked hard and rubbed her forehead. “You calculate. I fly. You can’t do both, not with these odds and when that squadron arrives, you’ll need to plot two courses to get us to a safe place to make the transfer.”

Sora’s eyes narrowed.

She locked gazes with her friend for many seconds before his crest flattened out. He gave her a single blink and returned to his post. She looked back at Vince.

Vince turned her chair to face him. His pale blue eyes seemed to look through her. “There’s perseverance and there’s foolhardiness.”

She nodded and regretted the motion. “I know the difference.”

“Someone get this crate moving. They’ll be in missile range in ten seconds,” Peter said.

Kirsten turned back to the controls. “I’ve got it.”

Vince gave her shoulder a pat then returned to his chair.

Trusting the stabilizers, Kirsten rolled the ship up on its port wing then turned the nose down into a dive. After rolling one hundred eighty degrees, she leveled out again and headed for the incoming Samurai.

“We’re going head to head with three squads of heavies and two capital ships?” Derek asked.

Did you not hire me for my combat experience? “We can’t outrun them without hyper-jumping out of here. The Samurai have comparable thrust and less mass. We have to make their superior numbers work against them.”

“You’re paying her to fly. Don’t second guess her now,” Peter said.

If Derek gave a response, she didn’t hear it. A missile lock indicator flared on the panel in front of her. The radar showed twelve missiles headed in from the nearest six mechs.

They were following true to form. As predictable as the League was, they should’ve been easier to defeat, but with the resources at the League’s command, the Coalition was often smacking ants coming out of the hill one at a time.

“Peter, how many of those missiles can you hit?” Kirsten asked.

“For certain, none. Our system can’t get a lock on anything that small, and I’m not one for trusting chance. I’ll see what I can do. God willing, I’ll pop a couple before you have to dodge.”

Tracers lit the black backdrop from both sides of Gyrfalcon, sweeping toward the leading edge of the 

small fire plumes. A moment later a spectacular flare reported the port gunner’s success. Derek got nothing but space.

Kirsten hauled the nose upward and climbed above the plane of the missiles. About half turned to follow, and the rest zoomed past them.

The lump of ice in her gut doubled in size. “Mass trackers.”

The missile that had blown her Pulsar had been a mass tracker, too. She could have dropped a few flares to distract heat-seekers, but the newest sort of mass tracker missiles wouldn’t be thrown off the scent by chaff, and this scout didn’t have the most recent military counter-measures.

Kirsten clenched her jaw and aimed Gyrfalcon for a loose spot in the midst of the approaching mechs. She’d have to give the missiles a new, high-mass target. Pushing the throttle to full power, she decreased the rate the missiles gained on her.

Tracers lit the space between Gyrfalcon and the Samurai as railgun slugs sped at them in triplets from the infantry’s knuckle-mounted guns. Kirsten stayed her course long enough for the two turret gunners to return fire then throttled down to effect an S-shaped dive and escape the plane of fire. A pair of explosions flared as packed uranium rounds blasted through the diminishing swarm of missiles. What remained of the salvo stayed on her tail.

Once the volley of slugs had passed and a new set headed to intercept her course, Kirsten stole a glance at the radar. The missiles were closing. Would she have time? “Sora?”

“Yes, yes. I see your plan. I wish you to avoid their evil eyes, but if our speed is good, we pass through the mechs first. No more turning back on our course.”

“Understood.” Kirsten read the shield strength in her peripheral vision. “Janice, increase the forward shield’s maximum by twenty-five percent.”

“I don’t know if I can squeak that much without decreasing the rear shield.”

Kirsten winced when the engineer’s voice came too loudly through the implant. “Do it. The threat from the front is going to get much more severe than anything from behind.”


The shield power numbers on Kirsten’s board changed to reflect the adjustment.

Tracers lanced through space from the two turret gunners.

“Where are those fighters?” Kirsten muttered.

The far side of the collapsing sphere was coming into range of the backside of the two capital ships. They wouldn’t be an immediate threat. She’d have a brief respite after passing the front of the mech shell before she came in range of the back.

Directly ahead, one of the mechs exploded. Moments later, a second one went the way of the first.

“Yes!” Derek yelled.

Kirsten gritted her teeth against his excitement and evaded another set of inbound tracers. Reflected light showed another missile getting blasted to bits.

Sora pointed. “Eyes!”

Kirsten focused on the nearest of the Samurai and saw some of the eyes glowing red. Now the real flying would begin. Kirsten fired the landing thrusters and hopped Gyrfalcon forward and vertically.

“Derek, aim for the units shooting lasers.” Peter’s voice drilled through her head. “They can’t have as much going to shields.”

The forward shield lit up with an impact. Kirsten shoved the stick forward and left, shifting the damaging rays off to the starboard shield. She straightened out into a new vector. The forward shield lit up again.

The readout showed the front arc at sixty percent and the starboard at ninety-two. The port shield dropped to eighty percent as the forward increased to the same. Janice’s doing.

“Missiles hit in ten seconds,” Sora said.

There was something comforting about the lack of panic in his voice. By his estimation, they weren’t in any danger, at least from the missiles.

“Acknowledged.” She aimed the Gyrfalcon through

the nearest collection of enemy infantry.

The front shield blazed with hits. Kirsten watched the readout drop then balance out with all the others before hitting zero. The radar showed them zipping through the enemy line. Gyrfalcon bucked with nearby explosions. A second before the radar went to static, two of the Samurai vanished from the scope while two others sported the deep red of critical damage. All the missiles vanished. 

The system started to reboot.

The Malik class cruiser loomed ahead. Kirsten turned Gyrfalcon to follow along the edge of the cruiser’s shield. Peter and Derek opened fire on the larger ship, lighting up the enemy’s shield with hits from the slug-throwers.

They’d need a lot more than the firepower of two railguns to break that shield, but the typical League gunner on the capital ships relied too much on wetware sensory enhancements and not enough on the old-fashioned methods. Blinding them with their own shields would hold them off while Gyrfalcon’s shields re-energized.

The capital ship’s automatic close-in weapon systems fired unaimed shots, but most zinged past Gyrfalcon. The few that did impact the shields did no appreciable damage.

A blue, amorphous blob appeared at the far, left edge of the viewscreen.

“There’s our rendezvous,” Vincent said.

“Not necessarily. It’d be just like Arlo to bring in reinforcements.” Peter’s deep voice through the implant made Kirsten wince.

“Against little ol’ us?” Janice’s shrill voice wasn’t any better.

Kirsten shook her head to clear it. “We’ve whittled their force down by nearly half a squadron in one pass while taking no appreciable damage.”

As they approached the aft end of the cruiser, Kirsten followed the bulk up and around. Any inbound missiles from the nearest edge of the closing sphere would lock on the cruiser instead of the scout.

The blue blob in the distance gave way to reveal a full squadron of Pulsar class Coalition light fighters.

The ship’s comm buzzed.

Gyrfalcon, Slicer of Nova Squadron. Break off and join us where we can offer some cover.”

Vincent acknowledged as Kirsten complied with the request. On the radar, the Pulsars engaged the intervening mechs.

God, please protect them from harm. “You guys be careful out there.”

“Readjust the shields to the rear?” Janice asked.

“Negative. Biggest threat is still ahead of us.” Peter’s voice boomed. “The capital ship can’t open fire with the main guns without endangering their own.”

Kirsten eyeballed a course through the gap her former companions created and continuously accelerated to close the distance. “Sora, get the course correction ready for them so we can transmit short range as we pass.”

“The mechs won’t pick it up?” Derek asked.

Kirsten cast a quick look back at the starboard turret hatch. “Yeah, but they’re not hyperspace capable without a relay bot to open the portal and guide them.”

She checked the radar to make sure there were none of the cross-shaped hyperspace relay robots nearby. Gyrfalcon’s identification software found only Samurai and Pulsars.

“Right, right. And by the time they return to their hangar, we’ll be gone from here and the exchange site,” Derek said.

Ahead, two Samurai flared and vanished.

The missile lock indicator lit up. Kirsten looked at the radar. Mechs they’d passed came into missile range from behind.

Kirsten blew out a breath and glanced back at Sora. “Incoming.”

Sora gave a human shrug. “We and our friends all leave long before.”

She watched the range counter approach optimal distance for the short-range comm then nodded to Sora.

Sora jabbed a button on his keyboard. “I transmit the Pulsar course.”

They zipped through the gap, rocking violently as another Samurai blew apart. The radar became a static festival and rebooted.

“Course received. You first, Gyrfalcon. We’ll be right behind you,” Richie said.

As soon as Kirsten received the new course, she wheeled around onto the initial vector then engaged the hyperdrive. Nothing happened.