6: First Rule of Engagement (2/3)

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March 24, 2180 (New Era Calendar)/
Antilla System, Patriot Battle Cruiser Joker's Wild, Arveria Aerospace

Seven craft rested on landing struts deep within the heart of the Patriot Battle Cruiser -- Six state-of-the-art MiroChan Systems IT-15E Interceptors and one tandem-cargo bay equipped Horizon-class freighter.

From the cockpit at the head of the formation, the one-eyed mercenary known only as Black Jack watched the battle around Arveria unfold from a top down, bird's eye view on his Interceptor's sensor board. He pressed a cold, metal cylinder against his neck and there was a hiss as it bit into his neck. His eye rolled into the back of his head and a blanket of chemically induced calm covered him.

Black Jack exhaled, pushing a deep, satisfied breath from his lungs. "Insertion team, you ready to move?"

A motley response of grunts and affirms came back.

"I'll take that as a yes. Don't screw this up. Stenbach is paying us a lot of money. Mjolnir Team, the boat is ours. We make sure it gets to where it's going."

He didn't hear the response from his men. Something else grabbed his attention. A group of red dots had broken through a swarm of blue dots that represented the Patriot fighter contingent. Not seconds later, the deck beneath him rocked and rumbled.

A patch over his left eye, his right eye narrowed. Black Jack keyed his comm.

"That's the signal boys. Let's get paid. And remember: Antreya is mine."

On that command, the seven craft lifted from the deck and blasted from the low-lit hangar bay. Their destination? The Alliance Research Station Skyline.

-    -    -

March 24, 2180 (New Era Calendar)/
Antilla System, Arveria Aerospace

"Their shields are down! Pour it on!"

Gonzo's aft camera showed Defiant Squadron's salvo hit dead on. Green lightning coursed over the enemy Battle Cruiser and then cascaded with a flash before dissipating completely. Kyra Smalls' voice pierced the comm net. 

"Neg that, Lead! We've got new enemy contacts on the scope!"

There was no hiding the alarm Gonzo felt. Instinctively, he glanced at his radar and saw seven contacts blasting away from the doomed Joker's Wild.

"Son of a bitch," Gonzo muttered, half out of shock, half out of respect. Every minute this battle dragged on, the chances of winning it grew slimmer and slimmer. Not that Gonzo ever bet the odds, but even a man whose entire career, one defined by snatching impossible victory from defeat, had to admit that the house always won, eventually.

Eventually was slowly turning into today.

Defiant Squadron's assault on Joker's Wild ate up their entire payload of ACPs. That left them with only laser cannons. While more than ideal for combat against small fighters, the wingtip guns didn't pack enough of a punch to make a dent on that Horizon-class freighter on fast approach with Skyline.

Suddenly, his early warning system trilled an alert.

Like that, the enemy was all over them. The main group of Patriot Fighters numbering close to three full squadrons had finally caught up to Defiant Squadron. They swarmed about and space all around Gonzo's squadron went to deadly in a hurry. Kyra's voice came back over the tactical net. "We can handle these guys, Lead! You've got to stop that freighter or it's game over for all of us."

Gonzo wanted to argue. He couldn't, though -- she was right. Three squadrons, for a unit already exhausted from the harrowing fight, was a tall order. He didn't want to leave them. But dammit, she was right.

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