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“I will wear the bars of a Chu-sa”Minobu stated in confirmation.

Fuhito laughed. “You have been setting me up. This is wonderful news. A promotion and a position involving such a large force. In spite of all your moping, you have been restored to favor. The lord has remembered your loyalty and set you on the path. A command of real warriors is sure to follow.”

“Perhaps you are right, little brother.”

“Have you told Father?” Fuhito's voice was suddenly restrained. “No.”

“Surely he will relent and see you now.”

“I don't think so.”

“Then you won't even try?”

“No. You are not to speak of it, either,” Minobu warned. “You are stubborn.”

“So is he.”

An awkward silence fell between the brothers. “I must go now,” Fuhito said finally. “There's much to be done before leaving. Perhaps we can have a final lesson in the Katana Katin, say, three days?”

“That would be fine.”

Minobu watched him go. As the younger man passed out of sight beyond the carefully tended cryptomeria trees, Minobu turned and entered the house. He crossed the room to a tall chest. From the top drawer, he took a case and a ComStar communique envelope. The envelope contained his orders in the form of a shuga-to-hama,a letter of joyous celebration, duly stamped and sealed by the Bureau of Substitution. He did not need to reread the words to remember that the date for his departure was in two days. Minobu knew that Fuhito would wait for their last lesson together to try again to convince him to speak to Father. Since that lesson was not to be, Minobu would be gone before their father even learned of this assignment, which would offend the old man's sense of propriety and confirm his low opinion of his eldest son's worth.

Minobu moved to his work area and knelt by his pots.

Laying the orders on the floor, he opened the small box that had accompanied them. On the velveteen lining lay twin rank insignia, the double bars of a Chu-sa.He pulled one from its backing, and it came out with no resistance. Using a work knife, he chipped the thin green metal plating that covered it. The bars were of cheap materials and had nothing to hold them in place, which told him that the promotion was only for show and not intended to be permanent. The new assignment was certainly a calculated maneuver on someone's part. How had he so offended House Kurita that his punishment should go on and on and his requests to atone be refused?

Minobu replaced the bars in the box. He got up and returned to the chest. Opening a panel, he activated the compad hidden within and entered a requisition for a senior Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery officer's uniform and rank insignia, both to be paid for at his own expense. He had no doubt that the request would be honored; the DCMS lacked for little in material things. Minobu walked to the outer doorway. Before he closed the sliding panel to the veranda, he looked out. The flowers in bloom held out the promise of the coming heat of summer, and the late afternoon sunlight colored the clear skies. On the horizon, however, beyond the head of the Panther,Minobu could see the racing dark clouds of a gathering storm.

2

Bantan Airspace, Quentin IV

Draconis March, Federated Suns

13 June 3023

 

The primal violence of the planetary storm was a threat even to so tough a craft as Lieutenant Hamilton Atwyl's Lucifer.The AeroSpace Fighter bucked and pitched as it plowed through the turbulence of howling winds. The storm was bad enough without having to worry about the enemy DropShip out there, somewhere. That huge spacecraft would be less disturbed by the winds and pressure shifts that buffeted his own sixty-five-ton LCF-R15.

The Davion DropShip that he was chasing had broken away from the fight in the orbital space above Quentin IV. Atwyl's Blue Right had been detailed to hunt it down. Even damaged, a UnionClass DropShip was still a threat.

Days ago, the JumpShips of Wolf's Dragoons had flickered into existence at the system's nadir jump point. They had come for their first mission in the employ of the Draconis Combine, a raid on the Davion planet of Quentin IV. Officially, they had been in House Kurita's employ for three months, time spent crossing the volume of space from the realm of their former employer, House Steiner, to their new employer's border with the Federated Suns of House Davion.

When the Dragoon JumpShips had unleashed their cargo of DropShips for the in-system trip to Quentin, the Davion ship had abandoned its own course toward the jump point and had fled from them. Flight Colonel Jason Carmody had suggested that it could be carrying cargo that might prove troublesome. It had also been close enough to get good data on the strength of the forces the Dragoons had brought to the Quentin system, something Colonel Wolf did not want revealed so soon. Carmody had advocated the immediate destruction of the Davion ship, and Colonel Wolf had agreed. Carmody's AeroSpace forces had mounted a pursuit, but the DropShip's Captain had been skillful enough to elude their fighters in deep space. Reaching Quentin IV, the DropShip had joined the hastily organized defense that the Federated Suns had mustered to oppose the sudden Dragoon raid.

When a DropShip had pulled away from the battle and headed planetside, the main battle computer aboard Wolf's OverlordClass DropShip, the Chieftain,had identified it as the one that had run from the raiders earlier. The orbital fight was still undecided, and all Carmody could spare was the hastily organized Blue Flight. Lieutenant Atwyl's aerolance of two Lucifersand two aerolances of SPR-H5 Sparrowhawkshad orders to chase it down.

Against an intact UnionClass DropShip, they would not have had a chance, but Colonel Carmody had informed him that the six AeroSpace Fighters would be sufficient for a ship estimated to be seriously damaged. Carmody had not counted on the severe storm that caused the flight to lose track of its quarry.

With the way the Luciferwas being tossed about now, Atwyl was glad he was not in a Sparrowhawk.The thought of that tiny, thirty-ton ship that was little more than a cockpit strapped to an engine reminded him to check the formation. This was his first mission as a flight commander, and he was still getting used to having to worry about more than just himself and his wingman.

Atwyl's radar screen was fuzzed with junk readings, but showed several intermittent blips that should be the rest of his flight. His visual scan of the airspace outside his cockpit only picked out AeroPilot Gianni Bredel in the other Lucifer,glued to his left wing tip as usual. Raising power to punch through the interference, he called over the channel reserved for Blue Flight, “Let's close it up a little, children. There's a big, bad DropShip out there. Crippled or not, it can swat a Sparrowhawkout of the sky. I don't want anyone finding it by himself.”

He received acknowledgement from Gordon, Hall, and Reischaur, but not from Morris. Shifting more power to the comm circuit, he tried again. “T.J., you out there, girl?”

“Sure am, boss man. What you want?” The words were distorted and barely audible, but T.J.'s jaunty tone came through. Hamilton was surprised at the relief he felt. AeroPilot T.J. Morris had just graduated from the Dragoon AeroSpace pilot program and was on her first mission. Her high scores and outstanding simulator performances did not keep him from worrying about her, however. Enthusiasm and training often counted for little in the field, especially with conditions as bad as they were now.

“Close up with Reischaur and the rest of the flight. Can't have you taking down that DropShip all by yourself, hotshot.”