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“Or wanted,” Sho-saGensei Terasu of the Seventh Sword of Light added venomously.

The two officers rarely agreed on anything except their dislike of Minobu.

“We are almost in range of the planetary defense, Tetsuhara,” Terasu continued. “Shouldn't you be in your crash couch? I've been given to understand that it's much safer there.”

“I believe you are correct,” Minobu said, his deliberate ambiguity lost on the hardheaded Sworder.

“Then you had best get along,” Hawken said, stepping so close to Minobu that the scabbard of the black Sworder's katanaalmost struck him in the crotch.

Terasu barked a laugh as Minobu twisted to avoid the contact, then stomped on down the corridor after his companion.

Minobu watched their backs, shaking his head. The code of bushidoembraced a diversity of adherents. Some might even consider those two to be exemplary samurai. De wa,he thought. A man had to mind his own honor.


Baton Territory , Quentin IV

Draconis March, Federated Suns

13 June 3023


Hamilton Atwyl never remembered hitting the ground.

When he opened his eyes, the Dragoon Lieutenant was lying on his back, looking up at the sky. A cool breeze blew over his face. The rich smell of loam and humus almost covered the harsher stink of burning oil, plastic, and blood.

“Gianni, he's awake!”

Atwyl winced at the shout. The tensed muscles sent pain shooting through his head, closing down his vision to a pinpoint. The vibration of footfalls approaching at a run sent another wave of pain through his head. This one rippled through his back as well. The pleasant warmth of the sun disappeared as the remaining pilots of Blue Flight crowded around him.

Something pricked his arm, then Gianni Bredel's voice cut through the haze. “You O.K.? We thought you'd taken up farming when your Luciferplowed in.”

“So did I.” Atwyl's voice scratched out of a throat raw from breathing the superheated air in his Lucifer'scockpit. “Guess Colonel Carmody will have my rank disk for that stunt.”

“Damn fool stunt,” Bredel chided, “but impressive, Ham. Your cockpit recorder must've been working overtime on the last pass at the 'Mech. Too bad your heroism will go unrewarded.”

Atwyl didn't understand what his wingman was talking about. Damn, but his brain was foggy. Bredel caught his confusion.

“The black box is dead,” he explained, caressing the holstered laser pistol at his side. “There's no record of your suicide charge, and”—he winked at Gordon and Hall—”we'll never tell.”

The other pilots nodded, grins brightening their faces.

Now Atwyl understood. His flight members had pulled the black box and destroyed it. With the box gone, so was the record of his lapse in command judgement. Carmody would never know. Blue Flight was rewarding the protective loyalty Atwyl had shown for those under his command. To them, such loyalty was much more important than some brass-trimmed Colonel's idea of professional detachment. Atwyl didn't even feel the pain his answering smile cost him.

The beeping of the communicator in Bredel's fighter interrupted them. Bredel heaved up and ran to answer it. Hall and Gordon were discussing something, but Atwyl couldn't focus on their words. Their voices faded from his awareness. His brain felt sodden. Finally, he decided that they must have given him a painkiller.

When Bredel returned from his Lucifer,he was carrying a rucksack. He stopped and spoke quietly with Hall and Gordon before bending next to Atwyl. “That was the man upstairs. He says it's time for Phase Two. And since we are so nicely situated here, he wants Blue Flight as part of the air cover for the Pathfinders.”

Atwyl tried to get up, but Bredel was ready for that and held him down. “Blue Flight don't mean you this time, boss man. Your ship's a mess, and so are you. You're sitting out this part of the party.”

Ignoring his protests, the pilots lifted Atwyl and got him onto a makeshift stretcher. They carried him up a slope and into the shade of the nearby forest. As careful as they were, the unavoidable jolting sent pain through the drug's shield of isolation. Bredel took care to prop him up while the others cut saplings and brush to build a blind. Hall spread a thermal blanket over the framework before covering it with brush. When satisfied that Atwyl was as well-concealed as possible, Bredel handed him a Binox image intensifier.

“Now, your majesty, you have a front row seat for the festivities. And your own private sound system.” He patted the comm unit lying next to Atwyl. The wingman's smile dropped a little. “Stay put, Ham. We'll be back for you as soon as we can.” Then he was up and calling for Hall and Gordon to get to their fighters. Feeling a detachment that he knew was chemically induced, Atwyl watched them trot down the slope to the waiting fighters.

A roaring in his ears brought him back from the dreamy fog into which he had begun to slip. He looked out to where the fighters of Blue Flight had been. They were gone. The noise, however, was still there. When shaking his head didn't stop the sound, he looked up for its source. Two Aero-Space Fighters with Dragoon markings shot out over his head. They screamed toward Batan and the spaceport at its edge. Behind them came a bulky Leopard CVDropShip, whose insignia showed it to be Colonel Carmody's flagship. Around the ship swarmed a dozen or more fighters, and he thought he saw the remnants of Blue Flight among them. As he watched, the small craft spread out in front of the big DropShip. Like the first pair of fighters, this flight dropped to the deck as they blasted toward the spaceport. Like Blue Flight before them, they were trying to come in under the port's defenses.

To Atwyl's blurred vision, the attempt at tactical surprise seemed to be working. Port defenses were slow and uncoordinated in response to the closing enemy. The Dragoon aerospace forces opened up on the spaceport as soon as they had range. The usual assortment of missiles and rainbow of energy weapon beams bombarded the defenses of the port. Despite the seeming chaos, Atwyl thought he could see the raiders concentrating on gun emplacements and avoiding the landing surfaces and port facilities. He fumbled for the image intensifier.

Just as he reached it, a wedge of three spacecraft cleared the trees. They followed in the path of the earlier ships. At first, Atwyl feared that they were Davion forces intent on smashing the Dragoons, but the grinning wolf's-head that adorned each tail fin told him otherwise.

The LeopardClass DropShip in the first flight could carry AeroSpace Fighters. Its complement of six were, no doubt, part of the swarm that accompanied it. The new arrivals were also LeopardClass, but were the more common design for carrying BattleMechs. Each ship could carry a full lance of four giant battle machines, as well as two AeroSpace Fighters. Atwyl guessed that the fighters from these ships were operating in the advance wave.

When the second flight was halfway between the forest and the port, another four DropShips rocketed down the path. These, too, carried the Dragoon wolf's-head, but they were a different type. They were FuryClass troop ships, each able to carry a company of troops and eight support vehicles.

Atwyl switched the comm unit to scan so that it would pick up the Dragoon battle frequencies. Then he focused the Binox on the port in time to catch the finish of the first flight's run. Several of the Dragoon craft were engaged with some atmospheric fighters that the Davion command had managed to get into the air. Atwyl wondered whether they were brave or stupid for pitting mere atmospheric fighters against the Dragoon aerospace craft. The transatmospheric ships were so superior that the outcome of the fight was a foregone conclusion.