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fiction by Christopher T. Shields

 

 

"Don't let the sand get in your eyes." -Excerpt from the Diary of Garth Abdul Nyrei

 

Epsilon Satius, Epsilon Indi, Binary star system, Class III

28.7 Light Years Rimward of Sol, Bearing Anti-spin
Rim of the Known, Border to Outlaw Colonies

 

The Nimians, as history will one day show, were fighting the Mu Mula Du'Moab, a religious fanatic and madman who had incited a whole segment of his planet's population to his non-secular beliefs. The Nimians were one race, humans who had long ago settled the harsh desert planet. Now, the entire population was split into two great warring factions. The Mu Mula Du'Moab and his followers had waged a holy war against the Nimians that had been going on for decades now with no clear end in sight.

The Mu Mula Du'Moab ... A Terran educated social religious sociopath using the native religion to further his own megalomaniac ends. A lot of people took what the charismatic religious leader said very seriously. In fact, he had desecrated the sacred religious book of the Nimians and that was grounds for a holy war. The Nimians and the followers of the Du'Moab shared the same religion basically, but Du'Moab just saw things differently, claiming that he was enlightened. The Du'Moab had an fanatical grip on the major petroleum holdings of the Nimian desert, the major standing water areas, and he had his more than fanatical followers, who saw him as both a prophet and a wise man, in his hand.

Actually, when the Du'Moab had said that there needed to be 'less government in church and more church in government,' the various press and intelligence services took him to be dropping tidbits of wisdom. Mu Du'Moab had also quoted that a 'man who does not pray is not a praying man.' Tidbits of wisdom which were just the babbling of a moron. Religious fanaticism, the rest of the galaxy was seeing Mu'Hadib as he really was, a power hungry religious dictator. A chamber servant who rose through the church by any means necessary. That didn't stop the holy war and it didn't stop entrepreneurs from making a good amount of money on the Outer Rim with much needed skills for hire.

Du'Moab believed in only one commodity, and that was water. On a desert planet where water was rarer than scarce, the Du'Moab believed that water was the shield with which he would cloak and protect his followers. Thousands of soldiers were anointed by having the Du'Moab place his hand in a sacred chalice of water and draw the holy symbol on the forehead of each member of his army.

The rights of initiation into the spreading cult.

It was an honor.

Sometimes, he just threw water out into the massed crowd and those that got wet were believed to be impervious to the Nimians and their off world acquired weaponry. The heavy talk was helped a lot by the fact that most of the regulars in the Du'Moab army were addicted to the weed they burned as incense during their prayers and church services. Fanatical religious drug addicts waging war, all led by a madman with delusions of grandeur and serious insecurities.

The Nimians believed in the power of the protective water to a certain degree, so much so that the less than tactically and strategically planned fanatical charges of the Du'Moab's legions had been almost successful in winning the entire holy war in the first few weeks. Nimia was on the verge of defeat when a Nimian Administrator of War or Defense, it wasn't said exactly which and history may never truly know, decided upon a bold course of action. He presented his plan before the Nimian Military Council, stating that since certain members and factions of the Nimian Army believed in Du'Moab and his sacred water, that these units were suffering morale problems in combat. He also pointed out that the straight forward fanaticism and savage brutality of the Du'Moab forces could not be equally met with the current army and the amount of demoralization that was present. The only intelligent solution left to the Nimians would be to hire off world mercenaries, which was a brilliant move on the Nimian's part.

The holy water protected the fanatics from the superstitious Nimians but it wouldn't protect the fanatics from the highly skilled mercenaries, or the infidels. Mercenaries, it was reasoned, and rightly so, would just see the fanatical charges of the followers of Mu Mula Du'Moab as so many choice grouped targets. It just went to show that you couldn't have everything. Just because a man prayed, it didn't mean that he prayed to the same deity that you did. Invulnerability to one man or weapon doesn't mean invulnerability to all men and all weapons.

Apparently there were loopholes even in religion.

The Du'Moab's troops learned that the hard way the first three months that the various mercenary companies made planet fall. The mercenaries didn't give a second thought about water and the Nimian hocus pocus religion. Money talked louder than even the Du'Moab. Anyone could be killed for the right amount of money and the Nimians were paying very well. In fact, much of their defense and army budget was taken from the cowardly army and applied to mercenary operations.

Even a man of god.

So the Nimians sent emissaries out to the fringe colonies. These emissaries were empowered to act in good faith with the backing of the Nimian nation to hire trained independent mercenaries to fight their holy war for them. At the current contract price, the call to arms on Epsilon Satius was one that carried far across the Outer Rim, well into the Outlaw Colonies, and even to the battle torn nations of Earth.

One set of ears that heard the call was Aberenth Rogers. Old "Jolly" Rogers, and her band of mercenary close air support and strike pilots. Based on Calimus, Beta Centauri, the emissary of the Nimian government found Aberenth's price at first to be somewhat extreme. Upon seeking guidance from his government, he was granted full authorization to hire "Jolly" Rogers and her crew. Rogers' reputation was known, even out on the Rim.

Three days after the contract was signed, Aberenth Rogers' outfitted her spinjumper and her mercenaries with supplies that they would need for a protracted campaign on the other end of the Known. Two advanced teams boarded a pair of her fast spinnerscouts and jumped the next day. It was the advanced team’s responsibility to mark all orbital defenses and to get a lay for the system. "Jolly" Rogers did not like surprises, especially when she dropped out of a spinjump.

A week of tying up loose ends, loading supplies, taking on new equipment and hardware, and prepping her ship, "Jolly" Rogers was ready for her next big adventure.

Her spinjumper, Scyllia, a reconverted post-war auxiliary strike carrier bought for scrap and effectively rebuilt from the keel up, lifted from Calimus on harsh blue plasma, and proceeded to spinjump to Epsilon Satius in the Epsilon Indi system. They left a single star behind to warm their adopted home. They would drop into a holy war fought on a blasted world who's surface was a stark white blazing desert heated under relentless glare of two hot white stars.

Even given the extent of the time compression of the Wvortyen Schumacher generators, the spinjump took six and a half weeks to cross the Known.


Twelve minutes post spinout, the automated main batteries of Aberenth Rogers' spinjumper flared to life. Aimed by information fed to them from the data gathered by the two advanced scouts, the high energy projectors made short work of any orbital defenses that the Du'Moab could throw up at her, including two somewhat aging but nonetheless deadly multi-stage surface to space shipbreakers. The Scyllia deployed its own close in support ships, breaking off from the main ship like so many parasites to form a defensive net around the mothership. Her escorts guided her through the wreckage of the remains of the Du'Moab and Nimian orbital defense fleets. This was a surface war now, and Aberenth Rogers was ready to get planetside and set up shop. She had a lot to do and a limited time to accomplish it.

Fifteen minutes post spinout, her tac satellite launchers were firing off their packages. Automated self preservation capable tactical information satellites that would take up geo-sync orbit and relay vital information to her and her troops. She watched from the bridge as the thirty-five tac sats began to maneuver to their final positions, a dance that would take another thirty minutes to reach completeness. She smiled. There was money on the table, and she liked the look of it. To her, they were beautiful, glittering in the light of the system’s twin suns like jewels spread across a black velvet cloth. Soon, their onboard subroutines and independent Ais would be feeding tactical and strategic data to her mobile Ais that would be housed in her operations bases. The satellites would adopt low key patterns in the debris, clinging and masquerading as other pieces of space debris. Detecting them would be difficult, maybe even impossible for the Du’Moab and his technology. If that little maniac wanted to blind Rogers, he’d have to sweep the entire orbit belt, and by the time that task was accomplished, he would be long dead from natural age.

Twenty-five minutes post spinout, her pilots were hot, sliding into the cockpits of their Mas Soldats. Cargo lighters, drop ships, troop carriers, and atmo-fighters dropped from the belly of Rodger's spinjumper. The advanced atmo fighters, vulnerable in space, but equally deadly in an atmosphere, made quick work of any opposition in the upper atmosphere, then proceeded to clear out any hostile air or ground units in "Jolly" Rodger's chosen theater of operations.

The com circuits were crowded with the heavy traffic of Rodger’s arrival operations. She smiled. She had a good crew. The Nimians were in for a hard ass kicking that they would long remember. Maybe they would even make a legend of Rogers and her crew of mercenaries. Something to scare the children three generations from now with. She smiled again and shook her long red hair out, glancing at the monitors with a maniacal grin that was of her own making. She keyed in several targets manually, just for the thrill of it, and watched as her orders were obeyed and within seconds, the targets on the ground ceased to exist. Such power, she thought, and grinned even more.

She folded her hands and rested her chin on them. Oh, yes, she thought. The Nimians were about to get their asses handed to them on a platter, courtesy of Aberenth Rogers and company. And then, when word of her success spread to the Lesser Colonies, well, she might just go and pick one of them as a prize and make her base there for a while.

She was a business woman, not a pirate. But the term was very hazy, and often ill-defined. If anyone had a problem with it, no one spoke up.


The plans for her arrival had been based upon concise knowledge provided by the Nimians; topographical maps, enemy strength numbers, and a host of other data that she had requested that the Nimians could provide but didn't understand the tactical or strategic ramifications of. All subsequently verified by long range recon carried out by her two scout teams. The lighters landed with no opposition and began to set up forward air bases for extended operations of the Mas Soldats. Troopships, deployed to escort the lighters, touched down only long enough to disembark their power infantry and lightly armored fast attack vehicles. Engineering crawlers quickly prepared positions and revetments for the troops, who would protect and provide overwatch for the construction phase that was to come. Once deployed, the troopships took off and began to loiter on station, free of their cargo, they were light, nimble, and packed more than enough air to air and air to surface firepower to deal with any early attacks on Rogers' advanced bases.

The Mas Soldats were VTOL capable. Rogers had picked areas of hard rock plateaus to house their operations. While the air fields and bases were being built, she rotated her flights with air to air refueling and steep climbs back into low orbit to relieve the pilots on station. The Scyllia served as a base of operations, hanging in orbit, out of reach of all of the Du’Moab’s offensive power. What must he have thought, gazing up from the balcony of his concubine domes, what must he have thought to have a enemy so far up, that only his god could reach out and smite them…

Within three days, "Jolly" Rodger's mechanized ground troops had cleared out a wide area of operations and allowed her engineers to set up shop. Five advanced Du'Moab special forces teams had found out the hard way not to try to infiltrate her operations. Seismic and acoustic intelligence sensors marked any intrusion into her territory. Her own troops, all seasoned veterans of many actions, quickly dealt with any enemy movements. Those Du’Moab units that made it past her vast array of anti-personnel mines, mechanical AP HK units, and a host of other stuff that was borderline banned from ‘fair’ use in combat.

Dealt with harshly and finally for Rogers had no time to be bothered. Her orders were clear, respected, and obeyed. Rogers didn't take prisoners unless she needed information, and right now, she knew everything that she needed to. Prisoners were a burden on her systems, and she had to devote personnel to look after them, maintain security around them, feed them, etc. Dead people didn't need doctors, food, shelter, or clothing. Dead people were so much more convenient in a theater of operations. Her reasoning was that the desert carrion eaters needed food as well. If the Du'Moab was going to send people her way, well, she would just forward them to the carrion eaters after her troops finished with them.

Four days after spinjumping into the system, using state of the art pre-fab building materials and modular construction, Aberenth ""Jolly"" Rogers had set up her new home on Epsilon Satius. It was fully operational by the time that "Jolly" Rogers made planetfall. Defended by several static and mobile SPAD units, as well as surface to air, surface to surface, and anti-missile missile batteries, each base was heavily defended not only against air but also against ground assaults. Prepared revetments housed the Mas Soldats. Armored fighting vehicles, modified and prepared for the desert terrain, also enjoyed the protection of revetments and pre-fab hull down position fortifications. The troops had set up their own underground barracks, and used moisture evaporators to bring them the comforts of showers, cold drinking water, and air conditioned quarters. An array of fusion dug tunnels connected the revetments, so that troops and personnel could be moved underground, safely, and out of the deadly heat above.

Each person was issued a modified form fitting cool suit to wear under their fatigues. Powered by solar cells and body movement, it would keep a person cool all day long, and run off of stored energy in the liquid batteries during the night time hours. Water came from personal filtering evaporator units good for a liter of water every hour, maintained at a chilly temp. Soldiers and pilots carried two, the rest of the base, with it's cheap evaporators located in nearly every building, and a two hundred kiloliter tank below ground, could make do with just a single personal unit.

Small arms of personal choice were carried at all times, more out of habit and professionalism than out of any real need.


As soon as Aberenth Rogers set up shop, she started to remove any threats to her flyers in her theater of operations. Her orbital inserted intelligence satellites provided her with superior tactical and strategic look down advantages. Six hours after the intelligence sats overhead came on-line, and the AI’s below were linked up, Rogers had found all of the Du'Moab's emplaced triple A assets. Assets that he had bought surplus from several Terran factions including the Socialist Combine and the Eastern Alliance.

Not cutting edge military hardware, but deadly nonetheless in the hands of trained users.

No. It was the self propelled and the heavy static emplaced surface to air munitions, all of those had been prime targets upon planetfall. Rodger's satellites had identified all surface to air threats and the database was constantly updated, being fed real time to any pilot in the air via satellite uplink. Courses around threats, threat reduction, and threat warning all happened in real time. Once the heavy, immobile stuff was mapped out, plans were made to eradicate it. Within three days of around the clock air to ground sorties, Rogers had eliminated all of the Du'Moab's heavy surface to air capacity in her theater of operations with zero losses to her own wings. Anything new that the Du'Moab could move in by road was eliminated as soon as it was detected, often in transport, before it was ever set up. The burning wrecks of armored and air defense units littered the desert for 300km around Aberenth Rodger's bases.

But the Du'Moab did not take kindly to infidels trespassing on what he considered to be holy ground, let alone brewing up his forces. Reserve forces were pooled to make an example of this infidel witch and her followers. Spare units and recently rebuilt units were called up, and a massive armed force began to close on the two new bases that "Jolly" Rogers had just established.

Her satellites told her that much.

She continued with her removal of all triple A capable artillery in the area. She had a responsibility to keep her flyers safe. After all, you could always replace equipment, but good help was hard to find. Especially this far out on the Rim.


Within the next three days, all medium and high threat emplaced, self propelled, and static emplacements were also smoking charred craters on the desert surface. Rogers' satellites detected the triple pronged ground and air assault, combined arms, against her two bases. She responded with her own forces. The initial mass charges of the Du'Moab followers against the two newly constructed Aberenth Rodger's airfields were met with response from the sky. Her ground troops were deployed around the perimeter of the bases. Light and medium armor, three generations ahead of what the Du'Moab were fielding, were dug into revetments and prepared positions. Her soldiers waited in their bunkers, behind crew served support weapons arranged in optimum killing zones.

Behind the main gates and along the only real paths into her bases, Rogers had parked SPAD self propelled area defense units. Normally used to protect large armor columns from fast moving homing armor breakers, launched explosives, and other things that could crack armor, the rapid fire capacity of the SPADs would be more than enough to break up any massed charges of fanatics. Of course, you were not supposed to use a SPAD against soft targets such as humans, but Rogers figured no one was going to be left alive to file a complaint with the powers that be if the waves of fanatics made it to the base perimeters. The SPADs would break any massed charge like a scythe through wheat.


What was supposed to have been a show of superior force to wash away the mercenary forces turned into one of the most embarrassing defeats in the war for the Du'Moab. Rogers herself lead a flight of Mas Soldats, armed with auxiliary gun packs, cluster bomblets, anti-personnel and flechette ripple fire rocket packs, and fuel air explosives against an estimated 4500 Du'Moab Regulars who found themselves suddenly caught out in the open on flat sand and facing an enemy loaded to deal with massed charges with no where to hide and grouped for easy kills. The sand flowed red that day, such was the carnage.

The Du'Moab Regulars were supported in turn by an estimated 350 Du'Moab armored units consisting of sand tired fast attack buggies, reapers, APCs, IFVs, MBTs, light tanks, and a few barrage howitzers and their ammo crawlers. These were met by a strike wing commanded by Garth Abdul Nyrei. Thirty Mas Soldats, armed with armor piercing cannon pods, armor piercing incendiary rounds in their main guns, fire and forget semi-sentient armor busters, cluster bomblet munitions, and air to ground hand off armor breakers, managed to completely neutralize any armored ground threat within four hours. The vehicles never made it closer to the base than the horizon, twelve klicks away.

What was left moving was mopped up by her own ground forces, which didn't suffer any casualties that day. Such was the ferocity of the air to ground attack, that most of the time, Rogers' own troops were busy gathering trophies to decorate the bases with. An occasional short firefight often occurred, but it was horribly one sided and over very shortly with the inevitable outcome of being in "Jolly" Rogers' troops favor.

The Du'Moab charges and the triple pronged attack was turned back within hours. The plumes of black smoke from smashed vehicles could be seen clearly all day long against the horizon. The fires of the burning vehicles and the occasional tracer of HyVeloc ammunition burning off lit the night sky.

Several Mas Soldats suffered small and medium arms fire damage, one returned with half a wing missing, but none were lost, and if Rogers paid for the best pilots she could afford, her tech and mech crews were of the same or better caliber. Her orbital manufacturies were running constantly processing battlefield salvage and cranking out parts on request.

All of the damaged Mas Soldats were air worthy the very next day, even the one missing part of it's wing.

Aberenth "Jolly" Rogers broke out her best bottle of Earth Scotch to share it among the wing commanders that evening.


A entourage of visiting Nimian Army officials were very impressed at the layout of the base, at the quality of the impromptu dinner and frenzy of the celebration held that night out in the open runway. One of Rodger's trans-atmo orbit capable cargo lighters had brought them in safely from the Nimian capital city of Hashad, flying supersonic NOE, escorted in turn by four fully loaded air to air optioned Mas Soldats. It was the best flight the officials had ever been on. "Jolly" Rogers knew how to entertain first class flyers. The NAOs marveled at the carnage on the desert floor below them. Some of the wrecks were still glowing from the super heated metal armor and the extreme temperatures that the warheads of the hand off armor busters could generate. Such was Aberenth Rodger's operations against the Du'Moab, that no serious counterattack could be staged against the mercenary air bases for three days after the celebration had ended.

To say that the NAOs were impressed goes without question. Aberenth Rogers, if she did just one thing, she ran a tight, efficient ship. It was a costly ship, but compared to what the NAOs saw on their way in to the inspection of the mercenary base, it was a bargain!

And "Jolly" Rogers got to keep any battlefield salvage. What wasn't useable went into the Scyllia’s smelters and was recycled into raw materials. Her bases grew larger, deeper, she brought in more flyers, hired on new pilots.

It looked like "Jolly" Rogers was on Epsilon Satius to stay.


Garth Abdul Nyrei was a mercenary pilot, flying for Aberenth Rogers and her mercenary company. He and others like him who could sell their special talents to the highest bidder were earning their wages the only way that they knew how to. Aberenth drove a hard bargain, she knew what her people were capable of and she always got the fat contracts. It was all business.

And business was good.

Garth's account could get grossly fat very quickly on this ticket.

The hot desert wind blew across the fuselage and whipped around the swept forward powered canards of the pair of C-34b V/TOL Mas Soldats, gliding along the angled composite fiber and alloy computer controlled super unstable airframes. Unstable because they were digital fly by light designs, controlled through fiber optic relays with a myriad of dedicated microprocessors that kept the airframe rigid and in-tact at all speeds, changing the parameters of the airframe to match given conditions of flight. The air frame, without the computer control, would disintegrate within seconds at these speeds, literally becoming a rapidly decelerating cloud of debris. The two craft supercruised above the Great Saramian desert eight and a half kilometers below, a wasteland of stark white sand, exposed rock outcroppings, the occasional black spot where the remains of an armored vehicle lay, and nothing else. Maintaining a true air speed of three and a half times the speed of sound, driven by a supportive sheathe of anti-gravity and without the use of the chemical fuel hungry afterburners, the Mas Soldats were gone before anyone on the ground could look up at the artificial thunder, or before anything that the Du'Moab's troops could bring to bear that wasn't emplaced could be brought against them.

The visibility was excellent, clear to the horizon in all directions with the assistance of the microprocessor controlled liquid optics. OTVH over the visible horizon with the aid of satellite imagery and real time uplink to Aberenth's birdies circling overhead. The two sleek atmo-jet fighters raced through the hot sky, their waspish fuselages heated by both the friction of the air and the twin stars; a small yellow star and a larger blue star, which bathed the desert air in their shared heat. The lack of moisture made their contrails almost non-existent.

Their pilots reclined in the advanced cockpits, strapped into form fitting high-G acceleration couches, web harness with powered retractors securing them from random movement. Each pilot's emotions were hidden behind recycling life support helmets and dark masks, their bodies sheathed in padded and drab fully sealed high G suits that were environmentally controlled, cushioned in a environmentally controlled ballistic gelatin filled cavity within the fuselage. The viscous, mucus-like material would protect the pilots from harsh effects of thrust and maneuvering, at the same time transforming each pilot and cockpit into a technological imitation of a mother's womb. There was no canopy, each Mas Soldat cockpit was completely sealed in a sheath of hybrid evolved pseudo chitin armor with a limited regenerative ability. A special pod would eject the entire cockpit and pilot in the event of catastrophic hardware failure or combat damage, relying on micro pulsed anti-grav drivers, and four parachutes to bring the pilot to safety.

Digital windows were available to the pilot, called up at whim, which could show various readouts, visual views, direct communication windows with real time video to wingmen and ground stations, all projected in either the pilot's helmet or directly into the ballistic gelatin where the pilot could view the windows. The graphical user interface was fully customizable, the pilot could open as many windows as needed and arrange them in any manner required, even stacking them. Simple verbal commands could activate macros which opened up custom window setups or arrangements.

Garth called up a sensor fed real time digital window (SFRTDW), watching the amber edged visual appear in the gelatin in front of him and slightly to the left. He moved his hand, enlarging the visual to fill his field of vision. Sunlight reflecting off tinted scanner / flat camera bed and off the body of the fuselage. Around the multitude of switches and banks of constantly changing readouts there was the high illumination of hooded crystal displays and computer screens giving graphic electronic views of the air ahead and the desert below, translating information gathered by the sensor and scanner suites in the airframe into data for the pilot to interpret and use. The interior of the pilot's womb glowed with the light that only science could provide.

An artificial womb, it's operation was to keep its occupant alive long enough to kill others.

The sound of powerful forced harps-head jet turbine engines and the accompanying throb of the anti-grav generators reverberated through the fuselage and the gelatin, the thirty six hundred plus degree flow wash temp of the engines made the Mas Soldats a shimmer in the ether of their passing. There was the sound of the desert wind passing along the air frame, along with the squawk of the comm and the other beep and chirp sounds of the constantly vigilant electronics. Behind them, the air molecules clapped back together in their passing, creating a boom of artificially created thunder.

Lieutenant Commander Garth Abdul Nyrei relaxed as much as he could in the cramped cockpit of the lead Mas Soldat, daring to loosen up his seat straps just a bit. It had been a long day so far for Garth. A rough takeoff and three flying hours later he and his wingman Souli Smiler had completed their sortie which consisted of taking out a large catalytic carbon refinery three hundred and sixty-five klicks deep in Du'Moab territory while doing away with most of the military supply convoy that was also there resupplying.

The Mas Soldat felt lithe and nimble with its wing and center load points now empty of their air to ground ordinance. Gone were the two sixteen round Nenji 88mm air to ground scatterpack rocket bomblet pods that had occupied the near fuselage wing sling points, and the weight of the twenty, five hundred kilo dedicated glide smart bombs that had been carried on the wing mounted multiple ejector racks. There was no aerodynamic drag and after ejection, the hard points had simply retracted back into the body, folding flat for increased aerodynamics. The air passed cleanly over the empty ejector racks and hardpoints now. He pressed a key and the now empty hardpoints recessed themselves into the body of the fuselage. The co-efficient of drag improved on his monitors.

The cockpit still felt cramped, the crash harness was too tight and the air flowing through the life support system tasted stale and dry, but a job was a job. He'd get the ground crew to change out the filters in the system and to filter the gelatin. His comm channel blinked twice and squawked. Garth kicked down the peg near his left boot, slipping the comlink to active state.

"Acknowledge. Mystic Lead here."

"Mystic, this is Tranda. Scanners are painting three contacts. Two fifty kilometers bearing one niner five for nine at angels two zero and climbing."

Garth acknowledged the call and tapped his threat scope to life. The small readout screen lit up in luminescent green and red with a variety of tactical readings and other information on the three intruders. A smile appeared on his face, hidden from view by the heavy smoke tinted visor and the ominous life supporting mask and gear that kept him alive in such a harsh environment.

"Tranda, this is Mystic. We're painting three contacts at two four four klicks and closing. Closure is one nine eight oh klicks. Visibility is good. Are you expecting any company?"

"Negative, Mystic. They're in your vector now. Only traffic is a very friendly tanker bearing four niner five for two eight oh klicks, at angels four oh. Possible targets are three unidentifieds. Call is yours. Close and eyeball then make your play. Over."

"Copy, Tranda. Mystic has seen the cards. We'll play the deck this round. All ante up. Over."

There was a loud attention grabbing beep from the scanner. The Sara Nimian had brought an unexpected challenge from its vast tracks of wastes and dunes. Garth wished to hell he had some tactical drones but there was nothing like that in the arsenal of either side in this war. They were lucky to get these thirty year old birds ...

Damn, he thought. We really don't have the fuel for this kind of dance. He and 'Bone had just jettisoned their external drop tanks and were on internals now. A prolonged mach plus plus dogfight could bleed the internals dry and he had no intention of walking home.

The advanced virtual array all aspect doppler echo sensors had detected the presence of three other air mobile targets in the near vicinity, rising fast out of Du'Moab held territory to intercept the two Nimian aircraft, closing rapidly from behind and to port. Garth turned his head and called up a external view on a new SFRTDW. He opened another SFRTDW comm window to 'Bone. The amber outlined window appeared in the gelatin, floating to his left and slightly above his shoulder. He turned and looked at the digital real time video image of the other Mas Soldat not fifty meters to port at station keeping. The image of Smiler appeared in the window. Garth raised his gloved fist at the digitally projected window, producing three fingers and then pointing downward and then jerking his thumb backwards.

The image of the other pilot nodded, a rather obvious motion in the fluid bath, and the comm window faded slightly, being reduced to background processing but remaining open for instant communication. Together the two fighters slowly banked and lost altitude, falling in a graceful controlled roll to arc back around to meet their adversaries on the way up. It was classic textbook maneuvers. The Mas Soldats were gaining an energy advantage against their aggressors while the aggressors were losing energy climbing to meet the Mas Soldats. As the Mas Soldats performed the aerial ballet, a new sensor tone sounded. The Mas Soldats were flying in Nimian controlled air space now. Garth and his wingman had crossed the border.

The Mas Soldats would be defending Nimian air space now. The onboard whirred and the battlelog searched through a possible of three thousand nine hundred and sixty four atmospheric aircraft and near space designs known to be existing in the settled worlds according to exhaust heat emission, electronic signals, variable wavelength, madar reflection emissions, and other parameters. A second later, a top down view, a side view, a rear view, and a front on view appeared in green vector graphics on a SFRTDW to his left. Garth nodded. The scanner painted the three fast rising contacts as Avery T-62c Tiges. A complete schematic and listing of performance and payload appeared on a side screen indicating in red where the Tige was superior to the Mas Soldat and in green where the opposite was true. It was old news to Garth and his wingman.

Tiges.

The old kind, for the only nation on Epsilon that still used the old Tige was the Mu Mala Du'Moab. That wasn't to say that the T-62c Tige wasn't a good fighter, it was just not as good as the Sero C-34b Mas Soldats that the decidedly wealthier Nimian Republic could afford to equip its hired mercenaries with. Still, the Avery Tige had been the one plane that hadn't had to be adjusted to meet the harsh environment of Nimia. The Mas Soldat's had spent the better part of a week just getting tuned for desert operations.

Scanners determined the payloads of the opposing fighters and a TAC display lit up in the cockpit of the Nimian fighters. Garth eyed the display next to his left knee and keyed in the comm located in his mask by again down clicking his boot.

"'Bone, I read three contacts at angels three zero. Closure now supersonic at 2200 knots and steady. IFF negative for friendly. Copy." Nyrei said, checking his readouts, but trusting his instincts and his experience.

The aircraft closed to seventy klicks, head on with each side well beyond the speed of sound. The few sparse clouds above the Nimian dessert whipped past the Mas Soldats in their passage.

There was static on the other end of the com.

"Copy that, Mystic Lead. Three confirmed contacts show as Du'Moabian Tiges."

"Rodge that. Let's help them meet their pagan god. Follow me down and stay tight but watch your fuel and your reserves. I don't feel like hitting the 'chutes and walking today."

"Copy that, Mystic. Mystic Two is port, behind, and below for four twenty mikes. Thanai sokin tulah." 'boner replied.

Thanai sokin tulah, Garth thought to himself. It was a local saying that translated into 'don't let the sand get in your eyes.'

The two Mas Soldats made a graceful bank and began a long arcing power dive as the range between the five fighters decreased with each heartbeat. The scanners continued to monitor the enemy as the sensors counted off the range. Two carbon fiber and alloy darts falling toward the ground as three carbon fiber and alloy darts rocketed upwards to intercept them.

There was a second of hesitation by both sides and then the sonic booms were reverberating through the fuselages and fluid baths of all five aircraft as they passed each other in mid-air and pulled into position. Garth craned his neck and called up an aft view SFRTDW, a cool wisp of air from his life support tingling his skin as he watched the receding Tiges beginning to turn.

The dogfight had begun.

"That was close. I verify three Tiges, Leverage type, Du'Moabs." Smiler's voice came through the helmet comm port.

"Wonder if they're regulars or if they just got their heads wet?" Nyrei asked.

"They act like wet boys. Probably looking for whoever brewed up their convoy and refinery and all they had to send up against us were children. Let's see if we can scare them." Smiler said simply. "They may just bug and save us some sweat, munitions and fuel."

"Affirm. Watch your fuel. Watch your fuel." Garth replied as he jockeyed his fighter back. A starboard SFRTDW showed Smiler's fighter bank sharply away, afterburners briefly engaging to gain a energy advantage over his chosen target.

The Tiges were circling back, each breaking and choosing their targets. Garth watched as he faced a Du'Moab Tige head on.

[CONTACT: HOSTILE.]

[CLOSURE SUPERSONIC AT 2250 KPH CALIBRATED AIR SPEED.]

[RANGE 5.433 KILOMETERS: CLOSING.]

[ADVISE ARMING WEAPONS SYSTEMS]

[ ADVISE ENABLING DEFENSIVE COUNTERMEASURE SYSTEMS.]

 

The onboard spat out the data on one of the CRTs and a gentle computerized neutered voice accompanied the printed text into the headphones of the decorated carbon fiber flight helmet.

[BALLISTIC WARNING! HIGH VELOCITY SHELLS APPROACHING! BREAK RIGHT! ]

Garth jinked the stick hard right and the gelatin became thicker as it absorbed the G forces. His tactical SFRTDW showed crimson and cyan tracers filling the air where his plane had been a second ago. A head-on gun run? Gutsy, thought Garth. A few seconds later, the Tige blasted past him, shaking his fighter and he banked to the left to escape the jet wash, pulling around hard as the Tige maneuvered. The loss of flow to his intakes was taken into consideration by his onboard, alternate intakes breathed open, the engines never missed a RPM. The Tige wasn't as maneuverable as the Mas Soldat and Garth used his advantage.

His feet shoved the second pair of floor pedals all the way to the metal as he hit the 2-D vectoring nozzles and sent the Mas Soldat upwards on downwards thrust. The internal fuselage mounted Kad'Nev anti-grav generators kicked in and the Mas Soldat began to perform in the manner that its' reputation demanded. He vectored the nozzles and threw the Mas Soldat sideways as the Tige over flew. His pressure suit inflated with a hiss as the digital numerals on the G-Meter climbed into the red. The ballistic gelatin around him seemed to waver and went thick again, easing back to semi-liquid state as the G forces decreased. He continued to keep the Mas Soldat in a maximum rate climb turn. The force of gravity still managed to pull at him, narrowing his vision despite the G nulling effects of the gelatin. Cool air through the life support system, fed to him by sensors in his suit and helmet, brought his senses back to sharpness. Digitally projected lines and data danced across his HUD. He let off some of the back

pressure on the stick and was once again able to focus.

"I've got two Tiges on me." Smiler's voice said over the comm.

"I picked up the other one. Lets see what they've thrown at us this time." Garth advised as he maneuvered around and climbed in behind the Tige.

"Regulars or recruits?" 'Bone asked.

"Hard to tell. Always difficult going up against soldiers."

The Mas Soldat and the Tige maneuvered, suddenly, the Tige broke right, its multiple speed brakes flaring in a artificial imitation of a flower spreading its petals. Garth adjusted but the Tige had gained the upper edge, and was behind him in firing position again. He mentally upgraded the enemy pilot from green to regular and jerked the stick hard, engaging the throttle but the

Tige stayed with him.

He cursed.

"Mine looks regular. Got some experience too." Garth said to Smiler. The onboard screecher sounded with a shrill piercing siren. The sound that meant that the Tige was trying to lock onto the Mas Soldat with targeting radar and fire control equipment.

"Mystic, you have a contact circling around. Advise."

Garth checked his SFRTVWs and the aft view screens of the dash. He saw the Tige maneuvering for a firing position. The sun appeared in the rearview, blinding him temporarily before the computer adjusted the input from the video image. He blinked hard and slapped the throttle forward three notches to full military power and the joystick back, still blinking, trying to clear his vision.

That had been stupid of him.

The Tige pilot was good, sun to his target's back. The Mas Soldat climbed and the Tige followed.

"Where did he come from?" Garth shouted to no one in particular.

[BALLISTIC WARNING. INCOMING SHELLS. TRACKING MULTIPLE SIGNALS.]

[BREAK LEFT AND UP TO AVOID CATASTROPHIC CONTACT.]

The sensors had detected the Tige's internal cannon firing and had estimated shell velocity, flight vector, and effective countermeasure of dodging into a different flight path from the arc of cannon shells that were traveling in excess of ten times the speed of sound. The HUD instantly corrected, showing green vector traces and lines and Garth shoved the stick hard again while dumping thrust aft, reacting on instinct and impulse. He had learned long ago how to fly by impulse. If you stopped to read the displays and listen to the warnings, you were dead. You mentally and physically reacted from experience. You heard the warnings and saw the text only after you had already completed the maneuver that the onboard was trying to tell you to do.

That's what made Garth a professional.

He rolled inverted and pulled downwards, shoving the throttle all the way forward to the first set of stops, and then one stop further, engaging the afterburners as his vision narrowed into the dark pipe that was the beginning of a blackout. The ballistic gelatin went thick and his movements through it slowed. The hydraulic and myomer assisted controls increased their feedback to maintain a constant reference at all speeds and G-loads. Cyan tracers leapt past him in slow motion, filling the air where he and his plane had been a second ago. The tracers of cannon fire crept toward him and then fell away rapidly, curving away beneath the aircraft in a display that sang beauty to the naive eyes and screamed death to the soul that understood. Tracers burning up at the end of their wild trajectories, the sheathing melting away at ten times the speed of sound.

An optical illusion, but one that was familiar in combat. Garth pulled the throttle back, the Mas Soldat shuddered as the engines powered down to full output once again. Somewhere in the fuselage ahead of him, slightly behind him, and in the aft fuselage, hydraulics and servos whined as the powered canards were instantly aligned for the new velocity. The computer automatically trimmed the fuselage in order to take advantage of the performance envelope of the Mas Soldat at any velocity.

Garth glanced at his threat board and realized that he was still unconsciously trying to scrunch his shoulders up into his helmet and that his rear was trying to bite huge chunks out of his seat. An unconscious move, spawned by the high gravity. Scrunching didn't really do anything, but it made him feel as if he WAS doing something.

The alarm sensor whined that the Tige achieved radar lock on. Radar? The CRT confirmed old style radar echoes. The plane behind him must be an antique, left over from the first settlers. He hit the ECM and gave the Tige's tracking system something else to think about, like fifteen multiple echoes of his plane and a lot of white noise projected across every electromagnetic spectrum that the Tige was capable of scanning and some that it simply couldn't.

"Damn. He's still locked on. See if you can't shake him, Smiler."

"Rodge that. My two aren't much fun anyway. Got a bunch of amateurs this time."

"Trade you. I've got a real live one!"

The other Mas Soldat, closing in from behind lined up on the Tige and in turn locked its own weapons on the enemy aircraft. The Tige never wavered as the enemy pilot, equally garbed (if not as adequately) in flight gear as his two adversary Nimian pilots, and strapped inside a fairly Spartan and unsophisticated cockpit, armed his missiles with the flick of a gloved hand.

Death meant nothing to a fanatic. Death to a Du'Moabian follower in the line of service to Du'Moab meant everlasting life in their version of heaven. The pilot had nothing to lose.

Garth turned around in his seat, checking his aft SFRTDW. His scanners warned of the air to air missile arming and he shoved the throttle all the way forward again, past the full throttle mark and up into the military afterburner indention as he threw the stick forward and to the hard left. His vision blurred. The Mas Soldat bucked hard and flipped, falling like a stone as the twin forced harps-head turbojet engines screamed, RPM climbing as the Mas

Soldat belched a string of Mach diamonds behind it, glistening in the bright desert sky.

There was a scream from his detectors as a small dot appeared on the display, moving away from the Tige and toward the Mas Soldat at just over Mach 2 plus. The detector identified the missile as a Prad Type II fifth generation second stage boosted advanced terminal guidance missile. An antique firing state of the art weapons? Where did they get hardware like that? It had to be the last option on the Prad Type II arming menu that allowed it to be selected as radar designated. Garth hit a switch on the left console and behind him, the fuselage of the Mas Soldat, a passive sensor measured the radar emissions of the homing missile, loaded a unformatted block of alloy, and then precisely cut the block into 1mm thick strips that were identical in length to the radar pulses. A automatic dispenser spat out a small gray blotch which disintegrated into a hundred pre-determined cut length strips of alloy and metal, each strip being tossed about by the jet stream behind the fighter.

Chaff.

Chaff that would further confuse any missile the Tige might launch. Garth worked the stick again, dancing across the sky.

The enemy missile readout showed it closing on the chaff. The missile locked on and went active terminal guidance. The first stage of the missile fell away and the second stage went hypersonic in the space of less than two seconds, boosted to three times its previous speed in an insane dash towards what it considered a 'kill' situation. A proximity fused warhead detonated when the Prad Type II was well in the cloud of chaff, blossoming in a orange and black fireball and expanding shock wave in the air. Spinning impact explosive rods, fragments, and the burning residue of HE began to fall to the ground so far below.

There was a whine from the detector indicating that radar lock had been lost . At the last second, the air to air warning became quiet. Cannon, thought Garth, he's going for his guns again. A different radar threat tone sounded in his helmet.

[RADAR DETECTED. TRACKING. ADVISE CAUTION.]

Old style radar directed gunsights? These things were antiques. Garth pulled hard left and pushed forward, following the mass tracking of the scanner and the vector pattern the computer spat out. The Tige followed, filling the air where the Mas Soldat had been a scant second before with crimson tracer rounds from its twin 22mm onboard oil cooled chain driven automatic cannons.

Cheap chain driven action operated weapons. They couldn't fire quick enough to hit the Mas Soldat at the speed Garth was maneuvering. Also, the predictors of the Mas Soldat were keeping the plane on a course that kept it a full second and a half ahead and out of any fire pattern that the Tige could lay down. The Tige pilot was just wasting ammo, filling the empty sky with explastic tipped rounds and cyan tracers.

Garth fought to keep his orientation. He keyed in the automatic navicom and the plane's powerful gyroscope oriented the displays and gave him a new correct bearing. He ignored the outside scenery which was now deceptive in his current position of inverse falling and relied on the digitally projected course markers on the HUD.

"I think they're really mad this time. Lets bury these waterheads nose first into the sand."

"Affirm. Dust the Tiges." Smiler replied, pulling the heavy stick back.

That was all. Now, both mercenary pilots grew quiet. They each knew their jobs. There was work to be done.

The Tige followed, as best as it could, hanging tight, filling the air where the Mas Soldat had just been with high velocity cannon shells, and then trying to get into a better firing position. Cyan tracers leapt past the Mas Soldat, falling gracefully away as Garth held the stick and felt the G force start to crush him, the gelatin went thick again, easing the crushing force. He threw the stick hard right and up. The Mas Soldat responded with avian-like grace, rolling and climbing inverted, looping and then dropping down behind the Tige.

Garth brought his weapons display on-line, powering up. A computer display of cannon rounds, and an assortment of air to air missiles. He selected [MISSILE] and saw the HUD wink into combat mode. He dropped the throttle back from afterburner to FULL throttle and followed the Tige.

The bogie was climbing in a seven G vertical spiral, going ballistic on full throttle. The sun glistened off alloy wingtips. It's multiple engine nozzle was spitting a blow torch tongue. Garth quietly watched the Avery McDonnal T-62c Tige climb as his HUD cycled and whirred electronically, trying to grab a lock on to the bogie over two and a half kilometers in front of his own C-34b Mas Soldat as the speed once again became relative. The historical gunsight automatically predicting where the cannon shells would be two seconds into the future. Ballistics and logistics automatically figured into the position of the reticule thanks to a ballistic computer slaved to a maser rangefinder. The sight was better than the old style radar

directed gun sights used on the Tiges.

"Want to play with me, then you have to play my game ..."

Garth whispered.

"Mystic Leader ... got the other two hostiles up at angels two five. I can't shake them and this is getting old. Over." "Affirm. Copy." Garth fought at the turbulence from the Mas Soldat as it ripped through the sky at over Mach 3 and still accelerated in a vertical climb. He keyed the comm as the HUD circled and buzzed, its intricate targeting meters and clocking rangers trying to grasp the fleeing fighter in their electrical grip.

[TARGETING] the onboard spat out.

The anti-grav generators whined in their mounts, being pushed to their limits.

Targeting reticules and symbols spun crazily on the HUD and then finally all the geometric reticules managed to collide over the image of the Tige, locked together, forming a solid target reticule.

[TARGET LOCK ACHIEVED] The system spat a crosshair and a confirmation both visual and audible that the scanners had achieved the target lock that Garth was trying for.

[TARGET LOCK ACHIEVED] Garth was fighting the stick and easing the throttle back, inching the Mas Soldat into position, jinking in for a gun kill.

"A few extra kills won't hurt our pay vouchers either." he muttered too low for the audio link to pick up and register it as an active communiqué.

"Azh tena durz nema hols ithar!" the enemy pilot screamed out in his native tongue and sent his Tige into a steep spiraling power dive.

Garth smiled. He realized that the Tige's pilot couldn't have been much older than early teens or puberty. Damn fanatics. He remembered how the positions had been reversed just a few seconds ago. The pilot may have been a fanatic, but he was a well trained fanatic.

"And a pleasant day to you too, you little towel headed son of a bitch. See how you like this." The Mas Soldat and the Tige leveled off, performed an aerial ballet of maneuvers, twisting, spiraling, rolling, each trying to throw off the other and gain the upper hand. Garth countered each of the Tiges hasty maneuvers and in turn, managed to get within a kilometer and a half distance. He eased the throttle back and then forward, raising the nose of the fighter and then lowering it, jinking the fighter into terminal gun range.

His gloved hand flipped the ordinance arming switch from [MISSILE] to [SAFETY] and then over to [CANNON]. He flipped a switch on his joystick labeled [CANNON ENABLE], and a special arming switch that flipped over, a long nipple on the arming switch extended down into a hole in the joystick, actually pressing the fire button. A tell-tale on the dash lit up with |GUN | LIVE | ROUNDS: 900. The HUD changed status, still retaining the lock-on, but compensating for the target's maneuvering now.

"Azh tena doma da sura mada dun supa desola ..." the enemy pilot shouted as he turned his fighter in a steep starboard roll.

Garth followed easily, gaining speed and pulling tighter to the point that the Mas Soldat shuddered, the V-MAX light on the dash lit up, warning him that he was pushing the fighter beyond its maximum rated airframe speed. He ignored the warning and pushed the throttle engaging the afterburners, pushing his plane to the very edge of its envelope, augmenting his thrust with the use of the afterburners to seventy five percent over what it would be at one hundred percent RPM and full throttle.

He felt the fighter shudder and he muttered a small prayer, actually just a verse was all that he could remember, as he felt the pressure of gravity fighting against him. He wasn't worried about the other two Tiges, Smiler would take care of them or keep them busy. No, his only concern was in front of him. Almost two klicks up and climbing.

He felt the blood rush to his legs as his G suit pumped up. The hydraulic forced ramps in the engine intakes clanged as they vectored to suck air to the waiting hungry harps-heads. He pulled the stick hard and saw the Du'Moab fighter pass slowly in front of him and to port, he himself passing beyond the enemy fighter.

The engines shuddered, groaned, and shut down, Garth cursed. He was out of fuel. He checked the gauge and saw it teeter in the red, he threw the throttle back and hit the speed brakes as his hand tightened on the firing button on the joystick. The engines sputtered, coughed, and re-lit.

Garth sighed. Feed was always a problem in a high G turn, especially with the Mas Soldat. Design problem. One of few. The Mas Soldat slowed in its wild careening across the sky and the Tige, oblivious to the tactic, continued in its evasive turn. Its evasive turn brought it right across the digitally projected gunsights of the Mas Soldat. The HUD whirred and spat out projectile trajectories that coincided and intercepted the Tige exactly in the middle.

"Dura jaba dosa neeb, du chaka!" the Mu Du'Moab pilot screamed.

"Yeah, well, can't see that happening today ..." Garth said.

"Dura neba jojoabba desau!" the Du'Moab pilot screamed, the Tige trying to escape from the scanner locked gunsights.

"Check your six, jojoabba! I'm in the saddle." Garth said as he squeezed the red firing button.

The HUD blinked as crosshairs and various data and ranging figures leapt onto the SFRTVWs and directly onto the HUD linked helmet sighter system Garth used. He had the Tige in perfect firing position and the airframe bucked hard as the internal cannon growled to life. The internal 30mm cannon's six barrels spun to a blur as it spat a stream of hyper velocity high explosive shells. The weapon didn't make much noise, the rounds were fired too fast for individual detonations to be heard. The cannon didn't roar, it burped. One long exaggerated mechanical burp. Gray smoke spewed from out of the shielded cannon exhaust toward the rear of the fuselage to be lost in the wash of the jet stream. Tracers lanced down and connected with the Tige along the tail and upper centerline of the fuselage. Multiple explosions tore apart the Tige's air frame in ugly blossoms of orange, red and black.

The Du'Moab fighter buckled, shook, rolled inverted and began to fall from the sky, stricken, trailing thick black smoke from the fuselage housing of the shredded port engine. Pieces of the fighter fell gently away, cascading downwards as Garth nudged the stick and followed the stricken fighter down, lining up once again for a final killing shot.

The Tige was losing fuel, a long wisp of ghost gray vapor trailed out of the fuselage and the upper surface of the Tige was shredded by the passage of the hyper velocity high explosive cannon rounds. The TAC readout displayed a ninety-eight percent non-air-worthy rating on the target, but Garth always made sure. The sound of the enemy pilot grew frantic, cursing the Nimian hired pilot and his family but never once pleading for mercy. There was a second when the Du'Moabian started to pray frantically. Garth smiled.

"Du Ha'Dib! Ah dun Du Ha'Dib ..." the comm crackled.

"Like I said, Du'Machee, I just can't see it happening today. Pray a little harder in your next life." The Tige was spiraling, trailing smoke and debris but still trying to stay aloft on the limited power of a single engine. The cannon shells had shredded the internal compressors and fan blades of the second engine, necessitating a shutdown. Garth lined up easily, plummeting after the crippled plane, and gently squeezed the trigger. Cobalt blue tracer leapt from the gun as the weapon spat a long burp. An empty ammunition cassette was abruptly ejected away from the fuselage by the gun as another locked into place. Seven more cassettes left, Garth counted from the CRT ordinance display.

The burst of fifty 30mm rounds walked along the spine of the Tige at an angle, passing across the still operational engine, over wing surfaces and finally over the cockpit and nose of the Tige. The Du'Moab fighter flared crimson in another three dozen places. The second engine disintegrated under the impact of eight hyper velocity high explosive cannon shells. The fragments from the compressor fan housing ripped through the interior of the Tige, cutting fuel lines and slashing control equipment.

Two rounds entered into the cockpit of the Tige, passing through the pilot. The pilot, not being hard enough to detonate the impact fuses of the thirty mike mike explastic tipped rounds, simply gave up large pieces of his body to the velocity of the rounds as they entered the cockpit, passed through him, smashing controls, electronics, and exited the cockpit. Garth watched as a spray of ballistic gelatin spewed from the fractured cockpit, only to be whipped into mist at the velocity it suffered upon hitting the air.

One of the hyper velocity rounds had started to tumble in its flight and plowed right through the internal fuel tanks of the Tige, rupturing them and igniting them on its way out of the fuselage. The whole plane seemed to disintegrate. Pieces of various sizes cascaded and cartwheeled through the air, enveloped in sticky flames as the wreckage rained down on the desert. Garth pulled his jet into a sharp bank to escape a similar fate by flying through the jagged flaming debris that had suddenly filled the air in front of him. The engines whined as he fed power to the turbines, sharply banking away and gaining altitude. Wisps of gray spewed from his wingtips.

He looked and checked the scanner. No sign of silk. Not that there would be, he had seen the cockpit hits. He pushed the stick around, vectoring off in that direction as he searched his display. The whole ballet had taken ten seconds.

"Boner, this is Mystic. Dust one. Repeat, dust one. How's business up on your end. You still in the air?" "Dust one confirmed, Mystic. Business is fine. Traffic is hell."

Nyrei replied. "Mystic is hypersonic, ETA five seconds. Give me a pulse. Still got two left, will assist." "Pulse activated. Check your T-board. Negatory! Watch for the burn, Mystic. Recount hostiles. Over."

Garth knew Smiler could handle his own and he wasn’t going to let Garth take one of his kills! They had been on-planet for six months now, and Garth wouldn't have any other wingman. Garth keyed up the threat board, saw the tell-tale pulse of Smiler's Mas Soldat, and he saw the scanner blink at the two confirmed hostiles represented by dots that were remaining in the contested airspace. One of the dots blinked yellow, red, white, and faded. A second later, Garth saw a contrail of fiery debris and thick black smoke arcing haphazardly toward the desert four and a half klicks below.

"Dust two, Mystic. Want the last one?" 'Bone asked as

Garth joined up at wing position.

"Negatory, honor's yours." Nyrei replied. "I've got my quota for the week. Tighten it up and lets go home. I'm getting leg cramps. Besides, it's your turn to buy drinks, dust this loser and we'll use the bonus for a night on the town when we get back." "Now your talking! Affirm, watch for smoke."

He smiled behind the heavy mask, his body feeling the after surge of adrenaline that came from facing a challenging opponent and he felt good. He turned the joystick a little to each side, wiggling the fighter and he felt better. Still closing in for support for Smiler, he checked his SFRTDW TAC display.

"Dur nera jabba ju ju suda nah!" the radio crackled.

"Oh, shut the hell up. Say, jo jabba ju ju suda nah! Nah!" Smiler countered, shouting.

His foul command of the local language had amazed even Garth. Garth laughed a little, and pulled the Mas Soldat up as he caught a glimpse of Smiler's fighter chasing the Tige in a hard right bank, right across the nose of Garth's Mas Soldat and not two klicks in front. The Tige swung back and then to port, right across Smiler's gunsights.

Amateur.

There was a flash of an under-wing munition launch. A slim dart ignited and left a white contrail behind as it tore after the Tige, arcing downward, chasing the enemy plane. Achieving Mach 6+, the Tleldyne Type F air to air missile packed a deadly warhead, a high explosive large continuous-rod with both proximity and infra-red fusing and secondary proximity detonated explosive bomblets.

Attaining over six times the speed of sound at burnout, the AAM managed to impact the center of the Tige just as the pilot was banking and diving. The Du'Moab pilots frantic maneuvering and chanting was suddenly replaced with static as a stark white shock ring expanded in the clear air and smoking pieces of the Tige plummeted four klicks to the ground below, trailing long contrails and black wispy tails of smoke. Smiler flew through the smoke, arcing back toward Garth.

A few seconds later, the second Mas Soldat easily pulled back into position with Garth's fighter. Garth called up a SFRTDW to the second Mas Soldat and Garth saw Smiler give the thumbs up sign that he had learned from Garth. Garth returned the sign as they both 'buddy checked' their fighters over for combat damage and then returned the gestures yet once again.

"Dust three, Mystic Leader. Repeat. Dust three. Scopes clean for five by nine. Angels clear."

"Rodge that. Tranda base, this is Mystic flight taking names and claiming kills. Three Du'Moab Tiges in contested airspace. No silk and we're sucking vapor. What's the local on the flying bladder? Copy."

"Affirmative, Mystic flight. Three Tiges noted. Tanker at angels four five, holding at nine by five at seven point two eight. Good hunting this day. Stay on station until advised. Re-arm at Nuerda, bearing six by eight for nine five. Call sign is Tarandesha. Tanker call is Nem Tehesha. Confirm?"

Garth nodded.

"Rodge, Tranda base, Mystic will rendezvous, refuel, rearm, and stay on station. Call sign is Tarandesha, Nem Tehesha. The day and the glory are ours. Mystic Over."

Garth keyed the comm off and set the navi computer to rendezvous with the flying tanker and then locked Smiler's fighter to his navi computer. Fully synchronized, the two Mas Soldats gently banked to the starboard and climbed to meet the friendly tanker that was maintaining an orbit of the area, protected by two other Mas Soldats orbiting with the tanker. Garth flicked the corner of his mouth slightly up in what amounted to a smile for him as he tried to relax again not for the last time this day.

He wished they would relieve him and 'Bone soon. He was getting thirsty. His hand started to shake again. He got the shakes shortly after any fight. It was his body's way of telling him that he hadn't lost the edge. The cold air made the sweat on his upper lip and nose almost welcome as he took a long pull off of the water nipple in his helmet. There must be a leaking seal on his helmet, he could smell the ballistic gel, that sickly sweet smell that he hated.

He thought back, three Tiges brought this weeks total to eight. That made a hefty bonus from his employers. Being a mercenary pilot may not be the most secure job in the world, but it sure did pay if you worked for the right people. Garth wasn't much of a church going man, especially when fanaticism was the way of mass. Nope, a few fanatics killed and a few credits more earned never hurt anybody. He stared down at the stark desert below him displayed in all its splendor on the SFRTDW.

"Hey, 'Boner? You buying tonight?"

"Da Massai. That I am."

Suddenly, Garth was very thirsty. He needed a good drink, and not just cool water. He glanced out of the SFRTDW at the white desert several kilometers below.

After this tour, who knew. Maybe he would opt for something closer Core ward, maybe even something near Terra itself. Mercenaries were in high demand on the Outlaw Colonies and with the recent coup on Earth, well, anyone who knew which end of a weapon was which was in high demand and it was a rich market. He really felt that he needed a change of scenery.

"Don't let the sand get in your eyes." he muttered low enough for the vocals not to pick up.

Damn sand got into everything, even your long range plans.

 

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