“Incoming ships,” Kain reported.

Mr. Kenji glanced at his display screen. “No company transponders.”

“That means they’re pirates, right?” Kei asked, looking nervously to the old man.

Mr. Kenji nodded.

“We should launch the fighters, then, shouldn’t we?” Kei wished that Mr. Kenji had taken the captaincy when he offered it. The old man had insisted that the owner of the ship should be the captain, but at least he had agreed to come on as the executive officer and keep Kei from getting himself killed on his first mission.

“We have been paid to protect the convoy,” Mr. Kenji said, a humorous note in his voice.

Kei grabbed the radio and tried to sound confident. “Ryans, Smithson, we have incoming bogeys. Launch when ready and move to defensive positions. Our primary goal is the safety of the convoy. The Cassandra will provide supporting fire if they have any ships.” All in all, he thought it came out pretty good, except when his voice cracked in the middle of it.

“Mauler launched,” Ryans voice crackled over the com, even as the ship rocked slightly.

“Fighter-One launched,” Smithson said a moment later, her voice stiff and formal.

“Launches confirmed,” Kain replied. She banked the ship to hover near the starboard flank of the convoy.

“Focus optical scanners on Fighter-One’s IFF and put it up on the main screen,” Kei said. While this was their first real combat, Kei had seen enough of Ryan’s fighting in the circuit to know that trying to sync the scanners to the Gladius would only make him nauseous.

Fighter-One appeared on the screen, looking like it was right in front of the Cassandra. Paige Smithson flew an APA Ramrod, a hard-working, reliable mech. It was favored by most armies for mechanized infantry. It was heavily armored with a stocky build that let it move across most terrains with little difficulty. Not that terrain was a problem in space battle, Kei reminded himself.

In contrast, Michael “The Maul” Ryans’ mech, which allegedly had at least started as a Jetfire Omega, was bright and flashy, and not really all that practical outside tournament fighting. It had all its sensors mounted on its head, for crying out loud. It was fast, Kei admitted, and the long arms and legs gave it high mobility in the hands of a talented pilot.

“Hey, Paigey,” Ryans called out over the comm. “Bet I can take down more of them than you.”

“This is a defensive mission,” she snapped, her voice dripped irritation, like it did every time Ryans called her ‘Paigey.’

“You know what they say about the best defense.” The Mauler shot forward into the vid-screen.

“I think there’s also a saying about bringing a sword to a gun-fight.”

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Kei said.

“I’m sure Ryans and Smithson will at least buy us enough time to get the convoy out of the pirates’ territory,” Mr. Kenji said with a completely straight face. Kei had known Mr. Kenji for most of his life, and he still couldn’t tell when the old man was joking or not.

“Ryans,” Kei said over the comm, his voice coming out whinier than he intended. “Could you at least pepper them while you’re closing to melee range?”

“I wanted to give them a fighting chance,” Ryans laughed, “but you’re the boss.”

“If the Cassandra takes any damage because of you ego,” Kain said, “I’ll beat some humility into you.”

“Bogeys spotted,” Smithson reported. “I count eighteen mechs. Four Ramrods. The rest are Sunbursts. Looks like they launched from a Lancer.”

“What are Sunbursts like?” Kei asked his pilot.

“Budget mech,” Kain said with distaste. “Take a Ramrod, strip half the sensors, replace the armor with tin, and give it an engine that can’t even make sublight-2. It’s cheap, and ugly as sin.”

Flashes of light flicked from the Mauler as it closed with the enemy robots, and some of the Sunbursts were already drifting out of formation, their thrusters dead. The others returned fire, but Ryans’ erratic flying made him difficult to hit. He closed on one of the Ramrods and brought his mech’s thirty-five-ton mace crashing into its side.

Kei’s stomach quavered as he saw the bursts of air hissing out of the damaged cockpit. Maybe the pilot had a space-suit on. Probably not.

One of the Sunbursts approached him, and he didn’t even bother with the mace. He grabbed the mech’s shoulder and ripped one of the thrusters off before kicking the robot away. It tumbled through space for a moment before it tried to return to the battle. The pilot couldn’t seem to compensate for the missing thruster, though, and ended up spinning uncontrolled to the side.

The remaining Ramrods formed around him, while the Sunbursts disengaged, moving towards Smithson.

“Hardly seems fair,” Kain said, smirking. “It was over as soon as they let him get in range.”

Mr. Kenji shook his head. “The Sunbursts aren’t a problem, but the other three Ramrods will keep him busy while the Lancer gets a missile lock on him.”

“What?” Kei almost screamed, before turning to Kain. “Fire on the Lancer!”

“Can’t at this range,” Kain said. “If he’d stayed near the convoy…” he let the sentence hang.

“Ryans, disengage!” There was no response. “Disengage!”

Mr. Kenji hit a few keys on his console. “No good, they’re jamming him. He can’t hear us.”

“Target the Sunbursts,” Smithson called out.

“I’ll never hit them,” Kain said. “The Cassandra’s not built for anti-fighter combat, that’s why we have you two. Can’t you take them out?”

“Yeah, but not in time. Give them something to worry about other than me so I can line up a shot on that Lancer.”

“Do it,” Kei said.

The ship hummed for a moment before two beams of plasma shot forward at a significant fraction of light speed. The pilots of the Sunbursts pulled away out of instinct and Smithson took off towards the Lancer, her thrusters blazing.

A burst of inspiration struck Kei. “Mr. Kenji, send schematics on the Lancer to Fighter-One. Smithson, aim for the missile bays. If he’s lining up a shot, they’re open.”

“Yes, sir,” Smithson said. She raised her mech’s arm and the large-barreled rifle that sat on it. There was a burst from the end of the gun, and a moment later, the The front of the Lancer burst open in a bright flash.

The remaining Starbursts scattered, moving away from the Cassandra and the convoy. The two remaining Ramrods broke off and followed them.

“I won the bet,” Ryans said. “Four Starbursts and two Ramrods.”

“Frigates count for five, Ryans,” Smithson replied. “Add in the three Starbursts I took down, and I think you’ll find I won.”

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