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The author of the Sparrowhawk'sdestruction emerged from the shadow of the downed DropShip. It was a RiflemanBattleMech. The wing antenna of the Garret D2-j targeting system was rotating as the machine's torso swiveled to bring the paired autocannon that made up each of its arms to bear on a new target.

Atwyl felt paralyzed, stunned by the sudden loss of his pilot. His hands were rigid on the Lucifer'scontrols, but the other members of Blue Flight went into action. Beta Lance split and began jinking to throw off the enemy machine's tracking. Morris threw her Sparrowhawkinto a steep climb, thereby avoiding the lethal streams of coherent light and armor-piercing shells that filled the air where her fighter would have been. Even Bredel was reacting. He launched a flight of missiles that impacted far short of the DropShip. The Luciferswere still too far away to do any damage, but Bredel's attack had roused Atwyl from his shock at the loss of Reischaur. He took command again.

“Overthrust, Gi! We've got to get in there.” Atwyl's voice was shrill with emotion. He had lost one man. He didn't want to lose any more.

“Roger.” As always in battle, Bredel's voice was emotionless. “I'll take the 'Mech.”

“No! He's mine. Strafe the DropShip.” Atwyl wanted the killer for himself. He knew that wasn't a professional reaction, but he didn't care. Arming his missiles, he threw his craft into an evasive roll. Ground and sky flashed alternately across his cockpit. Once, he glimpsed Bredel's Luciferin the midst of a similar maneuver.

Before they could close to firing range, Atwyl caught a flash of sunlight on metal high above the fields. A check of his IFF scanners revealed it to be Morris's SPR-H5 diving down on the crash site.

“No, T.J.! Abort!” Atwyl's fear for the young pilot came through in his strained voice. The small fighter was too light to go against a BattleMech that excelled at antiaircraft work.

No reply came from the AeroSpace Fighter weaving a crazy corkscrew path as it dove. All four of its lasers were blazing. Some of the beams caught the Riflemanand sent chunks of blistered armor spraying from its torso. The 'Mech's own fire cast a deadly net around the fighter, but the small ship darted like the winged predator of its name. A burst of fire from the Sparrowhawkcaught one of the twin guns on the 'Mech's right arm, shearing it clean away. Then the fighter cut sideways and roared over the field, miraculously untouched by the Rifleman'sweapon fire. Now shielded from the 'Mech by the bulk of the DropShip, T.J. sped her craft toward the onrushing Lucifers.Atwyl shook his head in amazement at this virtuoso display.

“Not to worry, boss man.” T.J.'s voice was clear, though the words were slightly spaced as she caught her breath. “Those tin men are too slow to catch this—”

T.J.'s comment was cut off as missiles arcing up from a concealed position struck her fighter. One hit her port wing. Its explosive warhead and the speed at which she was traveling were enough to rip the wing away from the body of the craft. As the Sparrowhawkbegan to roll, the turbulence tore more pieces from the stricken craft. Trailing flames, it dropped lower. Morris's screams lasted until the fighter plowed into the ground and exploded.

With those screams echoing in his ears, Atwyl hit the firing stud. All of his forward-mounted lasers raked the ground at the point where he had seen the killer missiles rise. Clouds of steam rose as kilojoules of energy flash-heated the ground, then flame erupted as the launcher's ammunition exploded. The infantry team who had fired the SRMs ceased to exist. A savage smile split Atwyl's face. It vanished just as suddenly when his Luciferrocked under autocannon fire from the Rifleman,which had now cleared the side of the DropShip.

A swift shift of thrust vectors let him sideslip the fighter away from the 'Mech's searing energy beams and pounding shells. Banking the Luciferaround, he came in from the other side of the DropShip.

The Riflemanwas waiting for him, its remaining three guns brought to bear on the Dragoon fighter. Atwyl, lost in his fury, bore straight in. His craft's armor was vaporized by the hellish energy of the 'Mech's lasers and the pounding of its autocannon shells. He didn't care. Flight after flight of missiles roared out from the Holly LRM launcher beneath his cockpit. His aim was poor, and most of the shots went wild, streaking past the BattleMech or striking the ground beside it. Some burrowed into the heavy plating of the crashed DropShip to send scraps pattering harmlessly against the 'Mech and the scorched dirt around it. Some few others found their target, repaying the BattleMech some of the punishment it was dishing out.

Atwyl's lips were skinned back, baring his clenched teeth. Sweat rolled down his face, puddling under his eyes and blurring his vision.

The shutdown alarm shrilled, warning of heat burden above acceptable limits. His hand stabbed out to hit the override, silencing it. Another stab launched the last of the Holly's ammo.

The Riflemanloomed larger and larger. Atwyl cursed the heat, then loosed all of his lasers. Red fire lanced out.

As fissures opened in the 'Mech's armor, a small explosion came from within the machine, followed by a string of larger ones. The BattleMech rocked and toppled backward as its torso ripped open. The Luciferscreamed through the fireball where the Riflemanhad stood.

Now Atwyl had to pay the cost. The heat burden had risen too high for the fighter's cooling unit to handle. The automatic cutoff had shut down the fighter's reactor. The ship was going down, and him with it. To correct a flaw in the LCF-R15's design, the engineers had created a new one. The fighter had no emergency ejection system.

Fighting the sluggish controls, Atwyl thought that it was lousy to die now after he had wasted the 'Mech. Struggling with controls, he thought that the Lucifer'snose did finally come up, a little. Enough?



He was glad he was in a ship that had at least minimal atmospheric streamlining. Some AeroSpace Fighters relied almost exclusively on their engines for lift. Lift that the Luciferwould need. To avoid crashing...



DropShip Starblade, Approaching Quentin IV

Draconis March, Federated Suns

13 June 3023


Nine days ago, the Kurita DropShip Starbladehad uncoupled from its interstellar transport to begin its flight from the jump point into the system. Behind it, the JumpShip had settled in to await its return, unfurling the kilometer-wide jumpsail to collect the solar energy needed to recharge the hyperdrives.

Now, hours from reaching his destination, Minobu Tetsuhara contemplated the main viewscreen on the bridge of the Starblade.The magnified image showed the fourth planet in the Quentin system. The terminator bisected the principal continent of Aja, and in the darkened portion of the sphere, twinkling lights outlined the land mass and its smaller companion, Aja Minor. Lights marked the major population centers as well. Even in the midst of a major raid, there was no blackout for cities that did not fear attack. Their lights shone forth, callous as the stars in the greater darkness of space.

He shifted his gaze from the planet and sought out the glimmer of Nirasaki. Mere days ago, the JumpShip Okomaruhad transferred from there to the Quentin system, crossing the gulf instantaneously by virtue of its Kearny-Fuchida hyperdrive. It would be years before the light Nirasaki emitted that day would reach Quentin. By then, Minobu would be elsewhere, his current business long concluded. Yet light from Nirasaki was here today, light from years gone by. The past mingling with the present.