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“Roger, boss man.”

Atwyl looked for the closing fighters. Off to the right, he could see the shapes of Beta Lance's craft break through the clouds. The bright yellow paint jobs of both fighters made them easily visible against the storm clouds. The dark, anodized metal sheaths of the Martell lasers that jutted forward on either side of the fuselage gave a Sparrowhawkthe profile of a winged bullet. It took a lightning flash to reveal the dark wolf's-head against a red circle that decorated the tall, vertical stabilizer rising behind the cockpit of each ship.

Unable to see the fighters of Gamma Lance, Atwyl switched his communicator over to the band he shared with his wingman.

“Yo, Gianni. I don't have a visual on our little Gamma birdies in this soup. My scanners show them off to the left, I think. Can't be sure what's a real echo and what's a ghost. This storm has really screwed things up. Hope it's as bad for the groundpounders holding this rock.”

“I'll give it a look-see, Ham.” The speaker crackled and popped in accompaniment to his wingman's voice, which was calm and steady as ever. It took more than a bumpy ride in a wild storm and playing hide and seek with a hostile DropShip to fluster Aerospace Pilot Gianni Bredel.

“Not too far, Gianni. Don't want to lose you in this murk, too.” Atwyl watched as the other ship vectored thrust and shot away from his side. In the patched and cross-wired technology of the Successor States, things had a too-common tendency to break down. Even in the long-ago era of the Star League, Lucifershad been notorious for the fragility of their communication and sensor systems. Fearing that the recent communication problems might be due to more than the storm's interference, Atwyl didn't want his wingman out of sight.

“You and me both, boss man,” said Bredel, but the rest of his words were drowned in a burst of static. Atwyl fretted while the other Lucifermoved out 200 meters, then pulled up even with him. As it did so, Atwyl's visual angle changed, making it seem as though he were being paced by a flying skeleton. The other Lucifer'swings, both the canards under the cockpit and the main vee, had disappeared against the midnight blue of the ship's color scheme. The dark fighter's shape blended with the stormy sky, leaving only the white bars and shapes of highlighted panels and structural elements.

“Got 'em, Ham.” Bredel's call snapped Atwyl from his musings. “Safe and sound.”

“Roger, Gianni.” Switching over to the flight frequency, he said, “All right, children. Let's keep it this way if we can.” Resolving to hold his own attention on the job at hand, Atwyl returned to watching his sensor sweeps.

Minutes crawled by while the tempest tossed the flight's fighters about. Twice, Atwyl had to call for the young pilots to quit grousing about the rough ride and keep the comm frequency clear. During a brief lull in the storm, AeroPilot Friedrich Reischaur was the first to pick up the DropShip's readings. “Big mark on MAD sensor, Lieutenant,” he reported.

“I've got it, too, Friedrich,” Atwyl said. The Lucifier'sbigger computer had been even quicker at registering the target, but he revealed little of his excitement in finding the quarry. “Reading matches the Davion DropShip, and comp places it on the surface just shy of the Batan spaceport. If that's our baby, she'll be an easy target as long as we keep clear of the port's guns.”

Atwyl punched in some numbers and waited for the fighter's battle computer to confirm his estimated flight plan. When it did, he laid out his plan to the flight. “We're going to go down on the deck and come in low. That should put us under the spaceport defenses. Comp says there's a forest that will screen us most of the way to the DropShip. Beta and Gamma, when we're down, stretch out your lead on us. I want you in fast with your eyes open for hostiles. Recon only on the first run. Bredel and I will come in hard and rip up the sucker after you give us the all-clear. After we've softened it up, it's an open turkey shoot. Questions?” Morris's channel lit up.

“What's a turkey, boss man?”

Atwyl laughed. Intentionally or not, T.J. had broken the tension that had been rising in him since he'd first caught the readings on the DropShip. He hoped her words had loosened up the others, too. “Never mind, T.J. What it means is that after Bredel and I hit the ship on our first pass, you guys can make your own attack runs.”

“Roger, boss man. You crack the shell, and we take the turkey.” That got laughter from Bredel and Hall. Atwyl quieted them down.

“Let's all go down together. Make it a six-eight degree glide slope down to three-zero meters off the deck. Then open throttles and go in. Got it?” Five voices chorused acknowledgement, while Atwyl keyed the final figures into his battle computer. It set up a countdown timer in the left corner of his head-up display.

“O.K. Recorders on. Three. Two. One. Punch it!”

Acceleration pushed Atwyl back into his flight couch. A small whine came from behind him as the pressure equalizer cut in. The system was supposed to infate bladders in his flight suit to prevent blood from pooling in his limbs under the weight of the tremendous gee forces of dives and highspeed maneuvers. If he lost power in the system, he could black out and lose control. Though the equalizer was noisy, it did seem to be working.

A sudden drumming announced the end of the clouds as waves of rain hit the hurtling ship. The water sheeted over the canopy, leaving everything gray and dim beyond it. Ahead of him, Atwyl could see the flames of the Sparrow-hawk'safterburners as the fighters leveled out and accelerated. Easing back on the control stick, he came out of the dive smoothly. Checking on Bredel, he saw his wingman following cleanly behind. Ahead, the lights of the smaller fighters' engines winked out as they reached attack speed. He vectored all thrust aft to bring his own ship up to speed.

The Dragoon fighters broke through the front of the thunderstorms. Under the clearer sky, the open, rolling hills of the countryside were visible around them. The roads Atwyl could see were deserted. In places, he spotted the rubble of towns and industrial complexes, highwater marks of the Succession Wars battles that had swept over this planet time and again. Right on schedule, the forest loomed ahead, in trees rising to almost a hundred meters high. The fighters roared up and over the forest.

When they reached the edge of the woods nearest Batan, a path of newly broken trees appeared. It was as though a giant, flaming hand had swept across them, splintering and burning them despite their sodden condition. As the last trees fell away, the cause became apparent.

Half-sunk in the fields outside the city was the immense sphere of the Davion DropShip. The pilot must had been making for the spaceport when disaster struck. The ship had gone down, skimming the trees and plowing into the open fields west of the city. Seven kilometers short of its goal, the DropShip had foundered.

A huge hole gaped on the upper surface, the edges blackened and warped outward. Debris was strewn in a trail from the forest's edge to the crash site. High on the elevated side, one of the great unloading doors was open to the sky, its protective armor crumpled and torn. Across one edge, limp as an unconscious man, was the shape of a BattleMech. The giant machine seemed small against the bulk of the transport spacecraft. Even as Atwyl registered the carnage, the Sparrowhawkswere zooming over the wreckage, two on either side of the ship.

Just then, a startling twin flash of laser pulses split the sky, followed by the stuttering light of tracer fire from autocannons. The lead fighter of the left-hand pair crossed the streaks of light and disintegrated in a ball of fire. No sound reached Atwyl over the roar of his own engines. Reischaur was gone.