The formation spread out, waiting for the enemy to enter weapons range.
“Here they come,” said Jon “Darwin” Low, one of the two ex Marines in Delta flight; the other being Jim “Ender” Black who was formed on his wing.
Ender clenched his teeth. “Ready up.”
Snow looked out of his M50's canopy to his wingman. “Hey Cardboard.”
“Do you want to go back for help or stay and fight?”
Cardboard mulled it over in his head for all but a second. “Nah, I want to stick around. If it gets hairy I'll break off and ask for support from the strike group. We aren't that far out of comms range anyway.”
Snow nodded, “Alright, sounds like a plan. Drenix ol' buddy. I'll wing with you as a meat shield if you'd like.”
“Meat shields are always welcome Snow, get your ass over here.”
Almitt keyed his mic, “Cardboard.”
“Stay on the outskirts, if you need to break off I don't want you to have to go through the furball, understood?”
Almitt took a deep breath. “Okay, break formation, watch your fire and good hunting.”
The ships broke up, weaving out and pulling the enemy into separate directions.
Da Vinci got on the comms. “Ender, Darwin, stay close. We're going to concentrate on the Freelancers.”
“Ender, go wide and come in at a steep angle of attack from above. Darwin and I will flare them out and get their nuts in a vice.”
“Roger that.” Ender's Hornet broke away from the small formation, seeming almost as if he were running from the fight.
“Darwin, start harassing as soon as he's in range.”
“I'll just start now.”
Da Vinci looked at his scope and shrugged, “Sure, why not?” Both Hornets began firing, their bolts going wide and far, but a few coming almost right on target as they closed in on the Freelancers.
“Watch the thrusters when we get close, you can usually tell when they're going to change vector.” Da Vinci said, firing another series of blasts.
Meanwhile, Snow had gotten into the face of one of the Marauders, teasing it as the old ship tried desperately to get a lock.
“Nope.” Snow said, banking hard left to hear his warning change as the Marauder lost the lock. “Try again.” The alarm kicked in again and Snow once more pulled hard, climbed above the Marauder and escaped the lock. “Hey what're you waiting for? This guy's got total tunnel vision, take him out!” Snow looked over his shoulder out the canopy and saw Drenix's Hornet swoop in.
“Got him locked up.” Drenix fired. Two missiles slithered out from his racks as the Marauder pulled a hard bank.
Cardboard flipped a hundred and eighty degrees and dropped low with Dorsal thrusters, following the Marauder as it evaded Drenix. He fired a series of shots alongside Snow that got soaked up in the shields just before the first missiles hit. The Marauder was thrown off course, spiraling toward debris as the second missile followed him in. The ensuing explosion spread the debris field as chunks of the Marauder and the station blew outward into the surrounding space.
“High five.” Snow had rolled his M50 over Drenix's cockpit and was looking down at him, his hand extended.
“High five.” Drenix replied, extending his hand up into the canopy.
Snow got distracted and rolled out of the horseplay and in to a proper formation. “Whoa, we've got a Cutlass on our ass.”
The Freelancer fired through the furball, narrowly missing Ismaly, Almitt and Mathew's tight formation as they pursued the Cutlass that was after Teacher.
From above, Ender dove past it, four missiles launching from his bay at the last possible minute.
A series of explosions rocked the dorsal shields of the Freelancer, weakening them enough to let a single missile cut through and hit home, disabling it and sending it adrift. The focus turned to the second freelancer.
Mathew had pulled back to engage the third Cutlass that had come up behind their formation. He was in the middle of an S turn, firing short bursts to drain his shields, when a dark shadow cut across his cockpit. He checked his scopes and his eyes widened. His head snapped up and he looked out through the canopy. There it was, a long dark wing, bristling with turrets. “Retaliator!”
Snow jumped on the comms “Cardboard, get a move on.”
“Already on it,” he said; having balanced the M50 for maximum engine output as he raced toward the Scipio.
“Don't let that thing get close” Da Vinci said, firing another set of missiles to the Freelancer before breaking engagement. “We can't stay and fight, the tables just turned.”
Almitt keyed in, “I agree, but we can't just turn tail either, they'll cut us down.”
Ismally lobbed another volley of laser fire into the Marauder that had been chased into her sights by Mathew. “You're so damn lucky I don't have missiles left,” she said, trailing the Marauder with practiced ease. A flash crossed her bow, then two more, and then a dozen. The Retaliator had dropped into range and its turrets lit up like fireworks. Ismaly clenched her teeth, squeezed hard and pulled the stick. Her Hornet rolled and evaded a second volley from the Retaliator, but put the Marauder on her tail. “I'm pulling out to the far side, can someone support?”
Teacher dropped his target and banked toward Ismaly, “I'm on it, locking him up now.”
Ismaly looked back, and the Marauder was stubbornly continuing to tail her. He'd dropped countermeasures, but Teacher continued to search for the lock.
“Got him again, firing now.” A missiles dropped from his Hornet and raced across the expanse, colliding with the shields and doing minimal damage. “Fuck, fine eat cannon,” teacher said, pulling the trigger to let loose a burst of laser fire.
“He's locking me up Teacher, get him off my ass!”
Teacher came in close, cutting the corner on a tight bank and opened fire again. He heard his lock warning go off, not having noticed the Cutlass that had swept up behind him. The Retaliator's turrets also got into range and suddenly he found himself in a world of trouble.
The lock chirped, transforming to the missile warning as Ismaly's heart nearly stopped. She sucked in air, squeezed every muscle and transferred all power to dorsal thrusters, dropping the ship down before quickly recalibrating and pulling into a helix spin. The missile tried to keep up but couldn't make the steep bank that her engine spun at as she spiraled downward; it speared past her, less than a meter from her canopy.
“We need to get the hell out of here people, start pulling them our way,” Drenix said as he circled the edge of the furball. “Mathew, you've got the Freelancer on you.”
“I see 'em.” He pulled up, went straight for the Retaliator and rolled past a volley of turret fire that smashed into the Freelancer in pursuit. One of the bolts blew out the cockpit, leaving a gaping hole bordered by molten metal as the Freelancer spun violently upward.
The Retaliator didn't evade fast enough, and the Freelancer exploded in a massive fireball against its shields.
Almitt saw the smoke from the Freelancer spread out over the furball. “That's exactly what we needed, suck back now while we have a smoke screen. Push to bearing six three two zero and form up tight.”
The ten hornets and Snow acknowledged. The ships dove, banked and rolled from different positions in the firefight until suddenly they were in a mass, in egress from the enemy who hadn't quite understood what just happened.
“Everyone okay?” Almitt asked.
“I've got some pretty bad damage,” Mag answered.
“Me too,” said Ismaly as she looked out of her canopy to see the laser burns on her nose and wing.
“We're all here, that's what's important.”
Almitt took a deep breath and looked behind them. They were not in pursuit. “We broke clean.”
“This place needs a nuke,” said Ender.
Almitt nodded. “That's exactly what I'm going to suggest. We can bring a flight of bombers in here and just blow that whole derelict station to hell.”
Da Vinci agreed, “I don't think there's a better idea. Don't get me wrong, I like a good fight, but that was about to turn into a massacre.”
Almitt double checked and triple checked. He could almost not believe that they had not lost a pilot.
The rest of the flight back was quiet, their bodies sore and their minds crashing from the adrenaline withdrawal. Almitt and Ismaly were sent in first while Mathew sat six hundred meters off the Scipio's aft bay door with his Flight until Da Vinci's had landed.
On the flight deck, they were greeted with applause. Some of the other pilots had gotten ice cold juice and water bottles to throw up to their returning brothers and sister as they got up out of their cockpits; drenched in sweat.
In the change room, the boys had recalled the dogfight with excitement, using their hands to mimic the maneuvers they'd pulled off and the kills they had racked up. Almitt was late to the party, having taken extra time to fill out the flight report, pointing out the valiant efforts of his wingmen. The others had showered and were on their way out the door when he'd arrived.
“Thanks for the save there Mittens,” Said Drenix, patting Almitt on the shoulder as he walked by. “We're all going to sleep well tonight.”
Almitt nodded, “That's for sure.” He sat down, listening to the door behind him slide shut, an echo followed by awkward silence; all but for the low rumble of the Scipio's power plant and the hiss of the shower stalls going through their self-sterilizing sequence. He took in a deep breath and felt pain in his side. Taking the zipper in between thumb and forefinger, he unfastened the liner of his suit, slipping out of its sweat soaked grip. The door behind him hissed and he sighed, he was more interested in being alone at the moment. “Forget something?” He asked, turning to look over his shoulder. He stood, caught completely by surprise. “Ismaly?”
She walked up to him, unzipped the liner of her suit and pulled it off her naked body. Her hands pushed against his chest and they both stumbled into the back of the room until she turned him and pushed him into a shower stall. Leaning over, she reached past his waist and pulled the valve.
Hot water sprayed onto his back as she wrapped her hand around the nape of his neck and pulled his head down. Her tongue slid into his mouth. He pulled away, “What're you doing?”
“Shut up,” She pulled him in and kissed him again.
That same creature that had crawled into his mind on the flight deck before the mission once again corrupted his consciousness. He took her by the waist and picked her up as she wrapped her legs around his torso. Her back slapped against the shower wall and she moaned, but not from the cold of the aluminum at her back. They locked into each other and time lost meaning. Neither of them remembered how long the water had been tepid. At some point, they found themselves sitting, squeezed closely together on the shower stall floor, lukewarm water getting colder as it washed over their overheated bodies.
Almitt looked into her eyes, pushed a strand of wet hair from her face and slowly leaned in to kiss her. When he pulled away once again, he sighed. “I think I love you.”
Ismaly rose abruptly, forcefully pushing him so hard he slammed his head against the wall with a resounding thud. “No you don't.”
With that, Almitt watched dumbfound, as she turned and walked out of the stall without another word. He sat, the cold water now painfully freezing; but not nearly as painful as the wound in his heart.