DISCLAIMER: It was in Part One. In short, I'm only borrowing the basic premise and a few of the characters, and I had no intention of claiming they were mine. {Brackets} indicate radio conversation or Tannoy announcements.


Outside Fighter Direction Room One, HMS Defender
1819Z, 7 December

Rose wove her way through the organised insanity in the corridors, the announcement over the speakers merely confirming what she already knew. {"Hands to action stations. Hands to action stations. Set Damage Control State One Condition Zulu. Set Damage Control State One Condition Zulu."}

No 'this is an exercise' advisory. Well, if it *had* been an exercise, the timing would be kind of insensitive to our hosts, she thought dryly, evading a damage-control rating who was scrambling for her post (fresh from the shower, if her generally damp condition was any indication). But what the *hell* kind of alert could be for real inside the UEF's most secure anchorage?

Ducking inside the door to FDR-1, she dropped into her accustomed seat and snatched up her headset, ignoring the familiar twinge halfway down her back. Why the Silis had decided to mess with her spinal cord as a torture, she didn't know or much care, but the myelin damage had been so extensive that she'd ended up with neural shunts at six points in her spinal column. Since her immune system denied her the ability to use prosthetics to their fullest extent, even walking took concentration, and she was permanently barred from frontline service. Thankfully, she still had the full use of her arms, voice and brain, which meant that she could still use her experience and training to be truly lethal in the positions of fighter controller and wing commander.

One of her assistants activated the holotable, and Rose automatically brought up her bank of screens, calling up the status display on Jewel Wing's five flights on the leftmost; all thirty call-signs were amber, indicating non-readiness. "All right, people, let's be about it."

"Blade Wing status coming up, boss," Flight Sergeant Harriet Parker supplied, shooting a second list of call-signs for the ship's other embarked fighter unit to Rose's rightmost screen.

"Very well; everyone watch your flights." Her five deputy controllers obeyed, each switching their displays and attention to the individual fighter-flight they were responsible for. Three more non-coms bustled about, updating the holotable as new information was fed to it and them by the Operations Room. Blue and green diamonds sparkled all through the holoprojection, marking friendly warships and aircraft, but what drew everyone's attention was the single red diamond glaring from its depths. Ops' annotations marked it as a Flea warship, class unknown... but its position and visible motion were enough to chill the blood. It was already within theoretical missile *and* torpedo range of a half a dozen UEF vessels, including the battlecruiser HMS Prince of Wales... and the carrier HMS Invincible, lying completely helpless in a repair slip.

C'mon, you jokers, pull finger! Rose urged her pilots silently, switching her headset to the wing common frequency. It took a great deal of practice to isolate any given voice from amid the chatter, but many of these voices were as familiar as her own by now.

{"Sapphires, check in as ready,"} Ghost ordered calmly as 'Sapphire Lead' flashed from amber to green. Rose stifled her smile. Her former wingmate had seemed as green as grass when he and Wedge had joined the squadron fresh from Transition only six months before the shooting had started, but he'd learned fast in the last year and a half. Of course, it's been 'learn or die', so it's not like he had much choice....

{"Sapphire Five, all systems green."} As both Ghost and Rose had expected, Rebel was ready to go. Though he'd been a software-writing geek at the outbreak of war, Flight Sergeant Jim Blake had been among the first men recalled to the colours right after the DRAGONFIRE fiasco. With a full 'peacetime' tour in an AeroComm squadron and a year's flying in a full-scale war, he knew his way around the cockpit by now, though that wasn't his primary role. He'd been NZSAS before he'd tried flying, and the two deadliest things you could put in his hands were his full-auto SPAS-12 shotgun or his portable computer.

{"Sapphire Three is good to go."} Master Sergeant Angelique 'Minty' DeLaCroix was only marginally less experienced, having been a front-line Security Battalion trooper, then a K-9 handler with the SB's élite Rapid Intervention Cadre, before going through Transition. She wasn't an overly large woman, but that was an asset in her ground speciality: she was the Squadron's tunnel-rat.

{"Sapphire Two, ready to fly."} Flying Officer Campbell 'Harley' Schultz had been working off his indenture-price at an orbital shipyard when the shooting started, and he'd jumped at the chance to join up. He'd reached the squadron as a replacement pilot just after Ixion, and he claimed that combat flying was a lot safer than his previous job. Rose wasn't sure how much of a joke that was.

{"Sapphire Four, standing by."} That was one of the bograts, an F/O called Johansen; Rose couldn't remember the girl's first name off-hand, and wondered if she'd have to check her file when she ended up writing that letter to her parents.

{"Sapphire Six, systems nominal."} That was the section's other newbie, F/O Brian 'Frosty' Hikurangi.

{"Keystone, this is Sapphire Lead with five, ready for takeoff."}

"Acknowledged, Sapphire Lead." Rose tapped a couple of keys to pull up the loadout on Sapphire Flight's Hurricanes. AIM-217H 'Viper' SRMs on each wingtip-rail. Rapier-Kilo medium-range missiles in each intake-nacelle. One Viper and one Rapier on the outboard starboard pylon; three Thunderbolt anti-tank missiles on the outboard port pylon. External tanks on the centreline and each inboard station. Three MRMs, three SRMs, three shell-crackers, and 175% internal fuel: ready for almost everything.

{"Keystone, this is Ruby Lead with five, ready to taxi."} Wedge's voice was level, but then it always was; for all her Irish blood, the blonde was as steady as one could ask.

{"Diamond Flight of six is good to go,"} Ebony reported. Technically, 74 Squadron were reservists, supposedly aged and infirm pilots in aged and infirm aircraft. Whoever had said that of them had obviously never heard the old saying about age and treachery, because Rose had come to rely on the RAF pilots as she would on her own AeroComms. She switched her display to the Spitfires' loadout, and her lips thinned. Fuel tanks on the centreline and wing stations; nacelle Rapier-Ks and wingtip Vipers. Only their guns have a prayer of penetrating a warship's armour. Looks like they're on backup detail.

{"Jade Flight standing by,"} Padre chimed in. Again the Kiwi officer shifted her display, but this news was even worse; the Marines' Hammerheads were still in their ferry configuration, loaded with centreline fuel-tanks and armed only with their cannon and two triplets of Spartan MRMs. Once they burn through those, they'll have to reload with Rapiers and Vipers.... she noted absently.

{"Spade Six with five, ready for launch,"} purred another familiar voice, and despite herself Rose went cold. That supercilious sneer was unmistakeable.

"I copy, *Topaz Lead*," she said, deliberately reminding her old nemesis of the call-sign she'd been assigned. "Stand by."

Operations Room, HMS Prince of Wales
1825Z, 7 December

"How the *blazes* did he get inside the cordons?" Captain Sarah Kiszely was leaning over the chief sensor-technician, her face professionally blank under the red combat-lighting. Three separate shells of picket-ships, a network of mass-anomaly and RF sensor satellites I could walk on, *plus* all the fighter and small-craft traffic out there, and no-one saw a thing? Christ, who *is* this sneaker-captain, Günther bloody Prien?

The sensor-chief shook his head. "My money says he cut his reactor-demands to bare-minimum life-support and drifted in unpowered, ma'am, but we'll never know. All that matters now is that he's here, and he's got a clear shot at Repair-Slips Ninety-Eight to One-Oh-Two."

Kiszely's blood chilled. HMS Invincible was in RS101, less than two weeks from recommissioning after getting shot to shreds over Demios. Where the Christ are the Fleas getting their intelligence?

The petty-officer tapped a spot on the passive EM waterfall-display. "There. There's no magnetic-bottle EM signature, so it's a fission-plant vessel: classify contact India-Zero-One as Echo-class enemy sneakship, ma'am, probable Sierra-131 frigate."

"Jesus H. Christ," Kiszely muttered sickly, looking up at her First Officer, Commander George Leath. The Sierra-131 frigates tipped the scales at a shade over eighty-six kilotons, barely large enough to deserve the title of 'warship', but they mounted enough rocket-torpedo tubes to saturate even the defences of a Royal-class battlecruiser like Prince of Wales - and Invincible's defence-grid was off-line.

Leath read her mind. "Helmsman, best speed, put us between Invincible and the contact. Flight, launch both STPCs, they're to prosecute the contact to their best ability. Point-defences, be ready to go full-automatic."

Even as he spoke, the passive EM-sensor board lit up like a premature Christmas tree with the unmistakable signatures of magnetic launch-coils discharging. "Launch transient - *torpedo torpedo torpedo*, Blue Forty! Multiple torpedoes launched - negative bearing-rate, that is *zero* bearing rate!"

They're coming right at us. "How many, Chief?" Kiszely's eyes went to the main holo-table, where the integrated battle-picture being fed to and from the entire battlegroup was shown. Even as she watched, a series of red chevrons started marching across the display from the red diamond of the Flea sneak-ship towards the centre - *her ship*.

"Classify first salvo as six Type-33s, estimated time to impact fifty-six seconds. Second salvo, five Type-50s, ETI sixty seconds."

"A full spread from his bow tubes." Leath made a wry face. "If I didn't know he was shooting at Invincible, I'd be flattered."

Son of a - "Look at the geometry, George: we're nowhere near blocking position yet. We *are* his target." Though why he's shooting at three hundred and fifty kilotons of fully-operational battlecruiser when he's got seven hundred kilotons of battle-carrier sitting there completely defenceless, I don't know.

"How nice to be appreciated," he murmured.

"Communication from Defender, ma'am!" a rating called from across Ops.

Kiszely nodded. "PWO, air-defence batteries are released fore and aft, fire at will. Point-defences to fully-automatic: if it's not wearing a 'friendly' IFF code, blow it to hell. ECM, go active: I don't think it'll do much good, but every little bit helps. Put Defender through to my headset, Henderson."

"Aye, ma'am."

A moment later, Rear Admiral Juliana Cartwright's raspy voice came to her ears. {"Sarah, I'm sending two sections of fighters after that little cockroach. I don't think they'll arrive in time to help you, though."}

"I didn't imagine they could. The geometry's all wrong for anyone else to help us with their point defences, either. This fellow's good."


"I've sent both STPCs to localise and prosecute, but with the way S-131s are stealthed.... Make sure this bastard doesn't get another chance to prove how good he is, Julie."

{"*Damned* right,"} Task Group 413.3 snarled. {"God bless, Sarah."}

"Thank you, ma'am." Kiszely cut the circuit, then, moving with the deliberate air of a woman who knew her fate was sealed, crossed to her command chair and locked herself into the shock frame. Leath did likewise.

The sensor-chief fine-tuned his controls. "India Zero-One is coming about, engine-emissions coming up - he's running for it."

"First rule of raiding: get in, hit hard, and get the hell out," Leath muttered, a shade bitterly.

"Launch transient - torpedo torpedo torpedo, Blue Forty. Multiple torpedoes launched, high bearing rate."

"He's flushed his aft tubes at Invincible," the Principal Warfare Officer opined, even before the new bat-wings appeared on the holotable.

"Looks that way, sir. Type-33 ETI, now twenty-five seconds."

"Evasive manoeuvres?" Leath suggested.

Kiszley grimaced. "We're barely making steerage - it wouldn't make any difference."

"Shall I counter-fire, ma'am?" the rating at the torpedo station asked.

"Inside our own anchorage? We'd be more likely to kill one of our own." As they were no doubt counting on. Oh, whoever planned this one was *very* clever, indeed....

"Point defences engaging now!" PWO called.

Kiszely and Leath exchanged a look. They knew how hopeless it was: the battlecruiser's anti-aircraft systems and point-defences might be among the densest and most advanced ever deployed by a Commonwealth nation, but the inbound torpedoes were too close, too smart, and just too damn' many.

It was a battle fought on a computer display, antiseptic in its automation, horrible in its implications, all the more dreadful for the absence of smoke and thunder in Ops. Six burning red arrows labeled "T33" encroached on the green sphere of Prince at the centre of the holotable display, trailing thin red lines to mark their courses; five more, larger "T50" arrows were at their heels. Smaller green half-circles streaked out to meet them, leaving their own trails and bearing the legend "PDM", each representing a Rapier point-defence missile. A green symbol met a red one head-on, and both vanished instantly. Bare seconds later, a matching fate for another green/red meeting - but then the red symbols were inside the Rapiers' range-safety limits.

Kiszely watched as the remaining four batwing symbols closed on her ship at breakneck speed; she'd done all she could, except - She took a deep breath and switched to the ship-wide circuit. "All hands: brace, brace, brace," she said deliberately, then killed her pick-up and took a firm grip on her command-chair's arm-rests. "George."

"Yes, Sarah?" Leath asked, his voice just as soft as his Captain's. Neither looked away from the holotable.

"I'm sorry."

A third torpedo was seduced by a decoy and detonated harmlessly three kilometres from Prince of Wales. Two more were vapourised by streams of laser-fire from the battlecruiser's twin-barrel 30MW point-defence mounts... but *four* torpedoes had gotten through the ADMs.

Prince of Wales took the first hit just as the last Hurricane of Ruby Flight cleared the launch-doors. The Type-33 was notoriously light-hitting - an apparent design sacrifice for sophisticated electronics and high speed - but the first warhead smashed a missile launcher and a CIWS laser-turret, leaving a critical gap for the Type-50s to rush through... and they carried capital-ship-grade warheads.

The surviving four Type-50s ripped Prince's entire starboard side open in four eye-searing blasts, and one immolated her forward magazines. A horrific sequence of secondary explosions broke the battlecruiser's back and compromised reactor containment; two-thirds of the fifteen-hundred-strong crew were killed in a matter of seconds, either by the explosions and related traumas, flash-fires, or simple decompression when their survival suits failed or were damaged. Many of the rest would die of massive radiation poisoning within the next twenty-four hours. Less than a hundred people would survive the destruction of the Royal-class battlecruiser HMS Prince of Wales, and not one of those people would leave a regeneration cradle before 2066.

Captain Sarah Kiszely and Commander George Leath died knowing that they'd done everything they possibly could to save their ship and their crew... and it still hadn't been enough.

Sapphire Flight
1831Z, 7 December

Ghost's lips whitened as he watched the fragments of Prince tumble and spark. The battlecruiser had been a constant companion over the past two months, and though he didn't personally know anyone aboard, the ship itself was a comrade, a friend, the loss a near-physical blow.

Distant flash-streaks told him of counter-missile fire among the repair slips, but that wasn't his concern. All that mattered at the moment was the mission: kill that 'Cuda. You sneak in here, kill my comrades, and think you're gonna pull a stunt like that and get away clean? Like Chucky said to our Transition class, not in *this* lifetime. "All Sapphires, this is Lead; time to go plink at a tin can. Element leaders, triple trick on my or-"

{"Screw that!"} Frosty's Hurricane rolled up on one wingtip, swung out of formation, and bored straight in at the barracuda-shaped frigate at full afterburner.

{"Brian, for God's sake!"} Johansen cried, heading after her fellow bograt.

"Sapphire Four, Sapphire Six, get back in formation!" Ghost snapped. He could understand their lust for vengeance - hell, he shared it - but fighter attacks against eighty-six thousand tons of warship required co-ordinated section tactics and precise timing, not full-frontal bayonet charges. "Pull in, goddamnit!"

{"Sapphire Six, get back on my wing *now*! That's an *ORDER*, boy!"} Rebel snarled.

{"Last time I checked, non-coms couldn't *give* orders to officers."} Frosty's voice was derisive and taut with strain, backgrounded as it was by the be-be-beep of his threat-receiver. 15mm and 7.9mm plasma-fire, looking like harmless orange dots and streams of green dashes from that distance, started to stream out towards the two onrushing fighters, which began radical jukes and rolls and evasive tricks of all kinds.

{"Ghost -!"} Minty started.

"It's too late," Sapphire Lead said, his voice soft as he watched helplessly. "They're committed now."

It was a brief but almost beautiful thing to watch. The two delta-winged fighters wove their way through streams of point-defence fire, jinking up, down, left, right, never in a pattern, never holding a course for more than three seconds. After an eternal seventeen seconds of lethal fireworks, they reached attack range. Frosty fired his Thunderbolts at deliberate three-second intervals. One was quasi-accidentally crisped by a burst of flak. Another got through to wreck the S-131's bow 15mm mount. The third smashed the port 7.9mm CIWS station. {"It's all yours, Ch-!"}

Flying Officer Brian Hikurangi died on his first combat sortie before his brain could tell him what was happening.

The S-131 frigate design carried only one 'heavy' gun, a single-barrel 250MW pulse-laser cannon mounted above and behind the bow 15mm. It wasn't really meant for anti-fighter work, but Frosty's break to disengage put him right in its sights. A single red beam slashed through the centre of the delta-winged Hurricane, incinerating the entire spaceframe in an eyeblink.

Johansen let out a berserker howl and ripple-fired her missiles two seconds after her friend died. One speared the bulb-like turret that had killed him, immolating it in a puffing blast. Both of the others punched into the 'Cuda's bow, penetrating the port torpedo-room and detonating amongst crewmembers working frantically to reload their tubes.

Ghost's lips pulled back from his teeth in a wolfish snarl as the S-131's forward half was engulfed in a fireball, the explosion almost as spectacular as Prince's had been and infinitely more gratifying. "You gotta love payback, don't'cha?" he observed, not knowing or caring if his mike was hot.

{"You know it,"} somebody muttered. It sounded like Minty.

A second, larger explosion erupted at the frigate's amidships, the reactor detonation blasting the 'Cuda's remains into very tiny pieces and scattering them to the far corners of the universe.

{"Good kill, good kill!"} crowed a British voice. One of Prince's STPCs chopped thrust and swung up next to Johansen's fighter, the pilot raising her visor and giving the bograt a thumbs-up. {"That's the way to treat them, m'girl!"}

"Sapphire Four, pull in," Ghost ordered, his voice colder than vacuum.

Back in FDR-1, Rose was numbly contemplating the wing's callsign list - and the single red callsign among all the green ones. She could barely remember the young man's face. When she spoke, her voice reflected a sudden fatigue that went all the way down to her soul. "Sapphire Flight, Ruby Flight, this is Keystone: return to base."

Ghost's office, off Jewel Wing ready room, HMS Defender
1956Z, December 7

Charlie Johansen stood very straight and kept her eyes on the bulkhead as Ghost moved around her to take his seat. The debriefing she'd just participated in - survived - had been scathing of her behaviour, and the voices of the senior pilots... just the *memory* of their chill made her shiver to herself.

Nor did it help that she knew exactly who Ghost was: New Zealand's second-highest-scoring ace, and its only Victoria Cross winner for air combat. She could quote the citation from memory...

... his supply of air-to-surface missiles depleted, Flight Lieutenant Devlin then shut down his electronic countermeasures suite and climbed clear of the masking effect of the terrain, deliberately exposing himself to the enemy's ground fire with complete disregard for his own safety, diverting the enemy's attention long enough for Squadron Leader Martinelli to successfully complete her bombing run. In the process of this distraction, his aircraft was struck by more than two hundred rounds of small-arms and medium-calibre AA fire and at least one missile, and Devlin himself was wounded in the left shoulder and twice in the right leg.
When Martinelli's aircraft was brought down by a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun less than a minute after bomb release, despite the damage to his aircraft, his wounds, and a critical shortage of fuel, Flight Lieutenant Devlin loitered over her crash site, repeatedly strafing enemy personnel who were closing on Martinelli's position. Even when he exhausted his ammunition, it was only on Martinelli's direct order that he finally returned to base.

In short, the man was a national fucking hero - and her *personal* hero - and she'd pissed him off. This is *not* going to be fun.

Ghost's eyes were twin chips of smoked ice as they raked her up and down. Johansen was only a whisper above the 1.60m height-minimum for pilots, and he'd bet a bottle of Glenfiddich Ancient Reserve that she didn't mass more than fifty kilos soaking wet. Her café-au-lait skin and black hair were unneeded proof of her Maori descent, though the green eyes locked on his wall showed that she'd come by her Nordic name honestly. She stood at rigid attention, like him still dressed in her flight-suit but with her pilot's navy-blue beret perfectly placed on her head, not even visibly breathing. He said nothing for a long moment, taking the girl's measure... then stood again, unsnapped his holster, produced his sidearm, and offered it to her butt-first.

Charlie blinked at him. "Sir?"

"You seem to want to attempt suicide, Flying Officer - so here's your chance," he said quietly, in a voice as hard as diamond, as precise as laser-surgery, and cold enough to flay the skin right off her body. "One bullet: quick, clean, simple - and a hell of a lot cheaper to replace than the pilots or aircraft your recklessness could have cost us."

"Sir, I -"

"Be silent." He didn't raise his voice in the least, and that was somehow more terrifying than a thousand screams. "You disobeyed my *direct* order to return to formation, for which I should put you on a charge. However, Flying Officer Hikurangi paid the price for that same transgression, which should made the point far more vividly than any court-proceeding ever could."

The young woman wavered, caught between blanching in shock and flushing in hatred. Brian Hikurangi had been the first person to befriend her at Basic, her longest-term friend in the Service, and about the *only* friend she'd had here. Do you even know that, you cold-blooded sonofabitch? Or do you just not care?

"The last time someone broke away from this squadron to go glory-hunting, we suffered two-thirds casualties. I will *not* let it happen again, understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

"You were put on Flight Sergeant Blake's wing because he's been doing this since before you discovered the opposite sex. Rebel knows everything they taught you at Basic, *and* everything they *didn't* teach you, and he is your only chance of living long enough to learn the difference between training and combat. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

"In the meantime, Johansen, under the circumstances I'd imagine the convoy won't be departing Groombridge for an additional day or so, which is why, at eleven-hundred hours tomorrow, you will conduct a squadron briefing on the *correct* manner in which a section of Hurricanes should attack a Sierra-131 sneak-frigate with Thunderbolt missiles. Hikurangi's memorial service will be at twelve-hundred, so it had better not take too long. Dismissed."

"Aye, sir!" Charlie barked, snapping off a salute and turning on her heel.

She'd just placed her hand on the door-handle when Ghost spoke again. "And be advised, Flying Officer: if you get it wrong, your only hope of rescue would be prayer... and I don't believe in God."

When the door had closed behind Johansen - and if the kid's bristling at his manner had been any indication, she had enough spine to make a first-class trooper with the right guidance - Ghost slammed his Glock-31 back into its holster with a sigh and half-sagged into his chair, tugging a pad of paper and his pen to him. I might as well get this over with now and get a head start on the night's gloom, he snorted to himself, uncapping his pen.

Before he began writing, he looked to the small photo-folder atop his desk, wondering what they would think of him now. The left picture was a public-affairs group portrait of 487 Squadron at the end of Pacific Star '63, barely two months before the shooting started. The only family I could ever count on, and where are they now? Two-thirds of them dead in half an hour because McIntyre couldn't keep it in her pants. The right picture was more recent, another group-portrait, this one of a knot of USMC trainees that he and 487's survivors had played Aggressor against during flight-training late in '63. One of them in particular drew his attention, a dark-haired woman with a wicked glint to her eyes and a crooked grin. He'd never claimed to be the easiest man to get to know, and he'd neither expected, nor really wanted, to make a friend among the Marines he'd helped train; that he had was as much a surprise to him as it was to everyone else. Here's to you, kid, he sighed again, and turned his head back to Hikurangi's personnel file and the letter he'd set himself to write.

'Commander's privilege', they call it. That it was Hikurangi's own intemperate action that had killed him was immaterial. He'd been under Ghost's command, and thus the responsibility for his death - as for so many others - lay squarely with Section Captain Michael Neil Devlin. Some bloody privilege. And to think: for *this* I wanted be an officer. Why the hell would anyone *want* this kind of job? he wondered.

He already knew the answer, of course... but that didn't take the weight off his soul.

To be continued....

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