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HOLDING THE LINE CHAPTER 121: THE TIGER HUNT, PART 6- A DEN OF DEATH

Written by Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung

"Make strategic plans for encircled terrain." - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

"The easy way is always mined." - From Murphy's Laws of Combat

=======================================
Bridge, BWS Freedom
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
2247 Hours, 13 Feb 2681 (2681.044)
=======================================

Jolt paused at the entrance to the bridge, reconsidering what she was about to do. Their squadron had just been turned upside down, and just a day ago, Phalanx had relinquished command of the Harbingers, and given it over to Owl. It wasn't official, there was no paperwork to indicate it, but it was fact.

Was it wise to bring this to the captain? After all, perhaps the situation was best left as an internal one, kept within the squadron. Then again...this was wartime. If they were at peacetime, it would never have even occurred to Jolt to tell the skipper, or anybody else, for that matter. She would've just hoped that the situation would fix itself somehow. But this wasn't a time to fool around. This was a serious matter, and it could have serious consequences.

She finally decided that the captain had a right to know. She stepped past the marines and through the door as it slid open.

Commander Chelsea did not notice the Harbinger pilot as she entered, still encased in flight gear. He was busy looking over the comm officer's shoulder, pointing at the display. The helmsman and also stood beside Chelsea.

"We're maintaining distance from the other two carriers, a minimum of 1 million klicks separation. Now, we need to keep in touch with them via a constant laser link, but that means there'll be a roughly 3 second time delay. With all the interference from the debris field, a careless slip and we could lose contact. See this? You can pick up and analyze the path of a laser ray using this." Chelsea worked several controls on the console. He was trying his best to pass on his previous experience as a comm officer to his comm officer.

He turned to the helmsman. "Now, I want you to coordinate together, okay? If the beam slips off, you two will have to work together. You can get a rough bearing on the Valeria and the Littenia, using the RPA, and use our laser comms to sweep the general direction... if the other carrier receives your beam, they can transmit back along a reciprocal bearing. And then you..." He wiggled a finger at his helmsman, "If necessary, you'll have to steer the ship clear so that there's no debris obstructing LOS to the other carriers. Got it?"

"Got it."

"Yes, sir."

"Good-" Chelsea turned around too quickly and smashed into Jolt. She stepped back quickly and mumbled an apology. Chelsea tilted his head to glance at her squadron insignia and callsign.

"Jolt... what are you doing here?"

"I... need to talk to you about something. It involves... my squadron."

Chelsea waited, one fist on his hip as he leaned into the wall with one arm against it.

Jolt indicated the rest of the bridge crew with a look, and Chelsea understood the suggestion, pulling himself upright.

"Follow me." The Freedom's commanding officer led the way to his office. They reached it and the door shut behind them. "Alright, tell me what's going on."

"Phalanx quit."

Chelsea looked up sharply, questions he wanted to ask frozen and unable to make it past his jaw.

Jolt continued, "He gave up command of the squadron. He... Owl... it was because of..." She looked down and shook her head. "Lemme try to start this again. The other pilots didn't think Phalanx was doing good, so they got together and a bunch of them decided that one of us oughta replace him. They got Owl to do it, and then yesterday, during a meeting, the others got Phalanx to give up command, and give it over to Owl. That's basically how it stands now."

It was a while before Chelsea spoke again. "What do you think should be done? You've seen things first hand."

"There's not much I can do."

"That's because you don't have the authority. But I have the authority to do something. It's just that I'm really not sure what I should do, because I don't know if I have all the facts straight. But you know what's going on. What do you think should be done?"

"I'm not sure, either. It's just that... I thought you should know."

"Well... thank you for bringing this to me." His gaze became distant. "Phalanx..."

Had it all finally gotten to be too much for the guy? Chelsea remembered watching him nearly go to pieces during the Bush. And he'd seen Phalanx's records before... the shit that he'd been through... it wasn't something that a person could go through and expect to come out completely mentally intact.

"Sir?"

"Hmm? Uh... Jolt, is the entire squadron really against him?"

"Uh... no, not all of us. Maybe two or three of us are really opposed to him being in command, but most of us... just don't know. Hell, even Owl doesn't seem too sure of this."

"Uh huh. You sure you don't have any ideas what to do?"

"If Phalanx really doesn't want the job, then it would be no use pushing him back into command. But if he still wants it... but maybe Owl really is a better choice to lead. I don't know..."

"I need to talk to him. Again, thanks for bringing this to me. Really."

"You needed to know."

Chelsea nodded, "I'll have to think about this... I should talk to Phalanx. You're dismissed."

=======================================
Phalanx's Quarters, BWS Freedom
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
2308 Hours, 13 Feb 2681 (2681.044)
=======================================

The door chimed for the third time, and finally, Phalanx couldn't ignore it.

"What the hell is it now?" He asked quietly.

"It's Command... it's Chelsea."

Phalanx sat up. "Come in."

Chelsea stepped in gingerly, not knowing what to expect. A part of him anticipated seeing crazed scribblings on the wall, like in horror-vids. Luckily, that wasn't the case. The room was dark, but that was because Phalanx had been trying to sleep. A small desk was piled with papers, messy and disorganized, but that wasn't such a big deal. The rest of the room looked neat enough. But then he finally took a look at Phalanx, and was perturbed, to say the least.

"Hey. How's it going?"

The ex-leader of the Harbingers rubbed his nose. "Okay."

"Doesn't look like it. You look like shit. You wanna tell me what's going on?"

With that, Phalanx realized that Chelsea knew.

"Not much more to tell. Whatever you've heard is probably right."

Chelsea stepped closer, the door shutting behind him. "I still want to hear it from your side."

"I.... I shouldn't be in command anymore."

"That's what the other pilots think. What do you think?"

"Hell, what does it matter? Makes no difference. If the others don't have faith in me, I can't lead them, so then I still shouldn't be in command."

"Are they right? Is their lack of trust justified?"

"Probably."

"And why do you say that?"

"Because!" Phalanx snarled. "Because I'm failing them. Just like I've failed before! I'm gonna get them killed..."

The Freedom's CO was silent for a moment. He moved slowly over to the desk, pulled out the chair, and sat down.

"Phalanx, it is the enemy that gets your pilots killed. Not you."

"No, you're wrong. I am responsible for my pilots."

"Yes you are. And I've never seen you to be anything other than competent."

"Oh, bullshit! You call a guy who's gotten 3 different squadrons killed, 'competent'?"

"If it was outside of that guy's control? If he did things right and his squadron still got blown away? Yeah, I would. Phalanx, this is war, and things aren't always in your control. You can't help it. Pilots... people... under your command will die, and sometimes, there's nothing you can do about it. Sometimes, you have to... sacrifice those under your command."

"Maybe I should sacrifice myself instead of my pilots."

Chelsea straightened up cautiously in his seat, considering his next words. So that was it, he thought. Guilt over having survived. Maybe there was more to it than that, but that had to be a major part of it.

"You are not a coward. I've seen you try hard to keep your fliers alive. But you can't blame yourself just because Death picks the others instead of you."

"Maybe it's just the other pilots paying up for me, because I cheated Death."

"Well... remember the Coward of K'tithrak Mang? That's how Blair was once known. Everyone believed that he'd run away when his carrier needed him. Well you've never run away from Death. You, and other pilots, have faced him many times before, and you're going to have to face him many times more in the coming days. The only difference between you, and the pilots who've died beside you, is the fact that you survived your encounters with Death. You've never run away." Chelsea reached over and grabbed a stack of the paper work and waved it in front of Phalanx. "You'd only be running away, abandoning your carrier, if you give up command now."

"Or I'd be doing us all a favor."

"Goddamn it, Phalanx!" Chelsea threw the stack of papers to the floor. "Am I getting through to you? Yes, you've watched squadron after squadron go down in flames beneath you... but because of that, you've got a shitload of experience and information to use, and to share with your pilots now. If you don't use it, if you don't take what you've learned and apply it now, then you'll have failed to get an education from all of those pilots who've have died." Chelsea nearly jumped out of the chair. "You think... that you can sit by on the sidelines, and then you won't be truly responsible for any pilots that die. That if they die, you weren't in command, so it ain't your fault. That this time, it'll be on Owl's shoulders. It doesn't work like that. You can't abandon responsibility."

"But the other pilots won't follow me..."

"Some of them feel that way. Not all of them. Most are unsure."

"How do you know that?"

"One of your pilots brought this to my attention. Look, if you can show them that you know what you're doing, they'll follow you. I know you can do a fine job. The only question is, do you want the job back?"

He thought about it. Not really, no, he didn't want the job back. But Chelsea was right about how you couldn't shrug off responsibility. And perhaps he could learn from the mistakes of the past, and do a better job than any of his other pilots. He terribly did not want the job. But this wasn't about what he wanted. It was about what he should do, about duty. Right?

"No, I don't really want it back. But...."

"Then there's really no point, is there? If that's not what you want, Phalanx, then you tell me. What do you want?"

"Peace."

"And how can we attain that peace? Even peace needs an arsenal. Otherwise, sometimes 'peace' is just another word for 'surrender'. And if we surrender... there goes all our hopes, and freedoms, and dreams. We... are that arsenal."

"But I'm tired of-"

"You can't be so selfish as to want peace just for yourself, and refuse to take up the burden of this fight. You have to fight. The only question is, from what position will you fight? The answer should be obvious. You should fight from the position where you can contribute the most. And that position is at the head of the Harbingers."

"How can you be sure?"

Chelsea stood up and moved toward the door. "I can't be, seeing as how you're not sure of yourself. But that's a question you'll have to find the answer to."

=======================================
Pilot's Briefing Room
0320 Hours 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)
=======================================

Phalanx arrived ten minutes earlier than he had to, to give himself time to collect his thoughts. He paced back and forth in front of the podium while time ticked away, waiting for the others to show up. Almost certainly, the moment that Breach or Mouse walked in, they'd challenge his right to be in front of the room, at the podium. Phalanx wished there was some other way he could find the answer to the question Chelsea had asked. Part of him had wished that Chelsea would be here to speak up on his behalf, but that would not solve anything. If the captain vouched for him, the others would think that Phalanx had gone to seek support. No, he had to do this on his own.

Owl was the first one in the room, a compad in one hand, and a binder tucked under the other arm, ready to assume command and brief the squadron. He was surprised, then, to see Phalanx up at the podium.

Owl stopped. "What are you doing?"

"I'll tell you when the others get here."

"But what are you..."

Phalanx cut him off with a look. Owl kept silent and waited. It didn't take long before the others had gathered. When Breach and Mouse both came in at the same time, though, they immediately appraised the situation with suspicion, but neither of them said a thing, yet.

"Okay, the others are here." Owl turned to Phalanx. "Again, what are you doing?"

"Changing my mind."

"You want to take charge again?" Owl moved and took the step leading up to the podium, to stand level with Phalanx. "Why?"

"I don't want to take charge... but if I'm the best person for the job, I have to do it. The only thing is, I need to know if I am the best person for the job."

"How are you going to know?"

"It's between you and me, right? We get in the simulator, and go at it."

Mouse's head jerked up at that, "We don't have time..." he began, and he looked like he was going to continue his protest. But who could argue against the validity of the decision rendered by a simulator battle? Whoever won was the better flier, and that would make their position legitimate.

"It'll only be a few minutes." Owl countered.

Phalanx went on, "Whoever wins, takes over, agreed? If you win, you won't hear a word of complaint from me, and you'll have my whole-hearted support. If you lose..."

Owl nodded, "If I lost, I would support you. No resentment."

He turned to the others. "Well? Will you all recognize it?"

No one objected. "Let's do it then."

=======================================
Simulator Pods
0334 Hours
=======================================

He wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel. The motivation for him to win this duel just wasn't there. He couldn't work up the right emotional state; he just didn't want that badly to nail Owl. The whole thing seemed cliched, but what other options were there? How else to decide the question of leadership? But still... a part of him considered deliberately losing.

"No, I can't do that," He whispered to himself. "I'd be cheating myself, and the others. I have to do my best. But whatever happens, happens. We'll see how it goes."

He finished inputting the final settings, and indicated his readiness to proceed. The screens lit up inside the pod. Phalanx gripped the controls, feeling a calm acceptance of whatever would come. He activated the comm system.

"Hello Owl. You know, it's funny. A decision as important as this one is going to be decided in this place, and this place doesn't even really exist, except as information and electrical pulses inside the computer. And yet... this is going to have an impact on the real world. Starts to make you wonder about whether or not life really is just a dream."

Owl laughed, a pleasant sound. "I've thought of the same thing myself. But I think the world we're in is real enough. You don't feel pain in dreams, after all."

"I don't know about that, Owl." Phalanx answered, a bitterness in his tone. "You haven't had the dreams I've had. The nightmares. Even when I'm awake. There is pain."

"The future is always born in pain."

"What?" Phalanx was a bit startled. "Where...?"

"Babylon 5."

"I know that story, too."

"Then you should also know about the rebirth ceremony. The Parliament of Dreams."

"Dreams. Pain. Being reborn. I suppose being reborn does hurt. But..."

"...'that there can always be new beginnings. Even for people like us'."

Phalanx nodded. "We'll see how this goes. Good luck."

"Good luck to you, too."

=======================================
Bridge
0336 Hours
=======================================

The Freedom's captain rapped his fingers on his armrest, looking anxious. Finally, he turned to his second in command. "Take the bridge for a moment. I'm gonna go check on something. Alert me if anything happens."

"Aye, sir."

=======================================
Simulator Pods
0339 Hours
=======================================

"I knew it," Chelsea stepped in through the door in the middle of the contest. The dozen pilots gathered to watch didn't even notice him walk in. Several screens displayed multiple views, inside the cockpits and outside.

The two were really going at it now. Move and countermove, missile and decoy, guns and shields. Neither pilot made any serious errors, certainly not mistakes that were big enough to be decisive. It was still amazing to Chelsea to watch how quickly they made decisions and performed maneuvers with lightning quick reflexes, even though he'd seen fighter combat many times before. He recognized some of the moves, and he could tell that, despite making good choices, Phalanx was being a bit sloppy with his execution. Owl was nearly letter-perfect.

Thrust and drift combined into a graceful afterburner slide. Owl slashed at Phalanx, expecting him to make the conservative defensive move as usual, and accelerate forward. Instead, he braked hard and spun in. Owl over rotated and fired at the empty space where Phalanx should've been. He tried to spin back, but it wasn't quite fast enough. Phalanx got his nose around faster and got the first blow, his Bearcat doing a sit-and-spin. Owl got his fighter around and returned fire, but he'd been hit first already, which meant he would've lost in a slugging match. He spun away and began a burnout.

It was a deception. As soon as the brief spurt of afterburners carried him past Phalanx and out of the cone of fire, he immediately went into a fishhook spinning opposite of Phalanx. He didn't make him bite on it, though, and Phalanx saw it coming and got a rough position behind him. Both of them went into a series of weaving maneuvers, wrestling with each other, as Owl tried to keep Phalanx from getting directly on his six.

Chelsea could almost sense Phalanx gaining confidence. His moves became more precise, with crisp turns and efficient control over his speed and acceleration. Owl kept moving, not giving up, but his turns and rolls were a bit off each time, giving up ground, and Phalanx slowly zeroed in.

Owl suddenly kicked his fighter into an autoslide in desperation. Phalanx hammered him with guns, but as Owl rotated around, the shots splashed on the rear, flank, and finally the forward shields. The shields were nearly dropped, but all of them hung on, and Phalanx's tachyon cannons sputtered as they ran out of energy. Flying backward, Owl opened up with fresh guns right into Phalanx's face.

Unfortunately for Owl, Phalanx had had all the time in the world to get a missile lock while he was spinning in place. An all-aspect Image Recognition missile dropped from its hardpoint and sprinted right for Owl. He released the autoslide and tried to twist away, but his inertia betrayed him and the missile exploded on the belly of his Bearcat, nearly flipping it over.

Chelsea could recognize it when a fight was over. He was already clapping before the final guns stream struck down Owl's digital Bearcat.

Mouse and Breach glared at Owl as if they'd been betrayed. Owl climbed out and immediately congratulated Phalanx, who expressed thanks without words, but Mouse stepped in and pointed an accusing finger at Owl.

"You let him win, didn't you?"

Owl smiled. "No, he beat me. He beat me fair and square."

"No, you... this can't be right. He got lucky, that's all."

"Mouse," Jolt cut in, in that sudden way characteristic of her callsign. "You agreed to recognize the results."

"Yeah, but damn it... I say it was luck. They should go 'best out of three' or something."

"No," Owl put a hand on Mouse's shoulder, restraining him. "He's the better pilot. He only got better and better as the match went on. If we went at it again, I'd lose even quicker."

Mouse swept the hand away. "I'm not accepting this."

"Then what would make you accept it?" Phalanx asked. Even if there was a single pilot who didn't believe in him, this wouldn't work out. He couldn't just tell Mouse that it was too bad, and then ignore the problem.

Mouse looked as if he was going to suggest a rematch, but he must have thought that Owl might lose on purpose anyway. He looked around to the other pilots, trying to find one that would fly against Phalanx.

"You'll have to beat me." He finally said.

"Okay." Phalanx settled himself back into the pod. For the first time in a long time, he felt sure of himself again. He'd thought that he had lost the edge it took to win, but the only thing that had been holding him back was himself. "Best out of three?"

=======================================
Pilot's Briefing Room
0353 Hours
=======================================

Amazing how quickly things could change. But, the universe didn't wait on people, so you had to run with it and keep up, or get left behind. Phalanx's head was still spinning from all the recent events, and he gripped the podium, staring at the mic and rubbing his hands.

Yup, this was no dream, this was real.

He swallowed, and then began. "We've got a mission to fly," he said simply. "I had taken myself out of this before, so I didn't prepare for this briefing. But Owl did, so he's going to brief us."

After relinquishing the podium, Phalanx stood to the side, and Owl opened up his binder, taking out a disk and placing it inside a slot in the podium. A screen behind and to his right lit up with the data on their mission.

"The Nephilim are going to be coming for us soon. So, we're going to lay a welcome mat at their feet. The Predators, in their Avengers, are going to be equipped with radio-activated mines. These mines remain passive, inactive, and drift along with all the other crap out there. They should float by unnoticed by the Nephilim. Now, these bombers are very vulnerable, so they'll need to be protected. We've got to keep them safe as they lay their mines."

Owl clicked a key, and the presentation played out another sequence.

"Since coming into this debris field, we've located a few features. Some of the chunks are pretty big, and represent areas that the Nephilim must go around. Their capships are very impressive, but even they can't simply ram their way through rocks the size of mountain ranges. So, not only are their fighters limited to these avenues of approach, but so are their big ships."

The image rotated to show the multitude of paths running through the debris field.

"They've actually got quite a few paths they can take, and these paths merge at certain points and can be very large. We don't have the resources to mine up every single pathway. But we can mine up the narrowest points. We'll mine up only what's necessary. That way, we're making the most efficient use of the mines, and we can lay much denser mine fields."

The display blinked again, and then plotted out several green points, with lines connecting them in sequence.

"Fortunately for us fighter pilots, we aren't so limited by the particularly dense regions of debris... it's possible for us to maneuver through these areas where capships can't move through. Unfortunately, we can't exploit our maneuverability. The bombers we're protecting aren't nearly as nimble or small, and we can't risk getting them destroyed. So rather than zip from nav point to nav point in a straight line, we have to snake our way around on these pathways. That means we'll be out there for a long time, and that increases the chances of running into enemy fighters. On a long mission like this, your attention tends to wander, but we've got to keep our guard up on this one."

With one last click, the final animation sequence played out. A cluster of Avengers followed the navigation path, with a flock of Bearcats surrounding them.

"I have decided to provide close cover for the escort run. We'll stick close to the bombers, keep our sensors on full active, and the instant we spot a threat, we intercept it before it can harm the bombers."

There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Owl ejected the disk and stepped aside.

"That's it, I'm done. Any questions?"

Nothing but the droning of air scrubbers. Owl stepped down, joined the others, waited for him to give the order.

Phalanx nodded, "Let's go."

============================================
Harbinger Lead
Nav Alpha, third leg, Loki VI Debris Field
0421 Hours 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)
=============================================

"I don't like this," Phalanx whispered to himself. The debris field was still fairly dense, and the sensors were receiving all kinds of echoes from the rocks and the field of free floating particles, obscuring their readings. If they ran into any enemies, it was almost certain that they would be nearly right on top of their foes before they knew it... a surprise for both sides.

He nudged his Bearcat to the right, gliding gently around a rock, and several fist-sized chunks impacted against his shields, draining them slightly. As their flight of fighters drifted past it, the area ahead of them appeared and revealed a region rather sparse of the debris.

"Predator Lead to Harbingers, we're in position."

"Roger that. Harbingers, this is Lead. Spread out in a perimeter."

Apparently, the bomber pilots didn't want to hang around any longer than they had to, either. The Avengers, encumbered by a larger-than-normal number of warheads, moved even more sluggishly than usual, but the pilots managed to get their mines laid quickly. Clearly, they had taken even a simple mine-laying mission seriously. It was obvious they had practiced.

Despite his anxiety, the rest of the mission was smooth, and they never heard from a single Nephilim. They turned for home 40 minutes later when they were finished, and were just 25,000 klicks away, when a light lit up on Phalanx's console. Incoming comm from the Freedom.

"Yeah, what is it?"

"We've got contact with a group of Nephilim, 12 contacts. Our scouts haven't made out what type yet, but from their speed and agility, they're guessing it to be their light fighters."

"And you want us to intercept?"

The comm tech nodded, "Yeah. Uploading coordinates to you now."

"Intercept and destroy, affirmative." He opened up a channel to his pilots and to the Predators. "We're done with this mission, but there's a dozen Nephilim nosing around. I guess they think life is too long, eh? Predators, you're almost home, you should be clear from here on out, alright?"

"Yeah. Thanks for the cover, Harbingers."

"You're welcome. Okay, Harbingers, with me."

Finally freed from protecting the plodding bombers, the Bearcats tore from them and screamed through the rocks at high speed, free to sprint through the void with the grace that they were fully capable of all this time, but hadn't been able to exercise.

Within the few minutes that lapsed as they traveled, Phalanx was already trying to formulate a plan. He remembered one thing he'd read before... never reveal your true form and intentions to the enemy. If you remain formless, the enemy can't fathom your strengths and weaknesses.

"There they are!"

"Contact, relative bearing 065 z-plus 18."

Phalanx's eyes flicked to his radar display. Amidst all the other sensor echoes, a red smudge appeared briefly, and then flickered out of existence again.

"I see it... or rather, I saw it. Hold position here." Phalanx throttled down. "Anyone else spot it?"

"No, all this damn shit floating around..." Mouse muttered.

"Nope."

"...is seriously fucking annoying."

"Sorry."

The Harbingers maneuvered behind a large mass and lingered there.

"Okay, okay, fine. It doesn't matter. I'm pretty sure that was them. Did you get a range before we lost contact?"

"Yeah, about 16,000 klicks." Jolt replied.

"Damn, that's close. They're probably headed this way..." Phalanx hit on an idea as he spotted another large mass of debris nearby. "Alright, everybody except Alpha flight go passive. Minimize your emissions as much as you can, and hold here. Alpha flight, with me. Full weapons, sensors, jammers, the works. Let's go!"

Hitting the afterburners for a brief burst, he popped out from behind cover, dashing for the next piece of cover, and autoslid. Sure enough, a group of Nephilim fighters were crossing through a relatively open area right for their position. 8 Morays and 4 Stingrays. With Mouse, Ghoul, and Thrush right behind, they all opened up at long range with missile salvoes. The Nephilim instantly returned fire.

"Follow me!" Phalanx released autoslide and wrenched his fighter into full afterburner, the missiles intended for him lost lock as he maneuvered behind a rock, and impacted against it. The three pilots with him came to a swift halt behind cover as well.

"Alright, Alpha flight, stay here, and keep your weapons active and ready."

Phalanx rotated his fighter towards the rest of the squadron, still hidden behind the first pile of debris. "Beta flight. Beta flight, look at me... get over to that..." He wiggled his Bearcat in the general direction, indicating that they should move further back. "And stay in front of it. Stay low and stay hidden from them as you make your way over!"

Phalanx thrust clear of cover again, and this time, didn't even bother to shoot at the enemy. With the rest of his pilots forming a lethal triangle, he wanted to herd the enemy into the right spot...

The Nephilim, in their typical undisciplined fashion, were all eager for a kill and over half of them unloaded on him.

"Alpha, Beta, hit 'em now. Concentrate fire." Phalanx twisted his fighter through a corkscrew with 7 missiles on his tail. With a calm and detachment he hadn't felt in years, he calmly positioned his fighter, used his vector and inertia, and released decoys in a tight, controlled pattern. His Bearcat slewed to the left as he released countermeasures, and then he spun and accelerated away. Sure, there were a lot of missiles headed his way, but none of the missiles had been launched with an optimum opportunity. The missiles scattered and veered off into the cloud of decoys.

With the Nephilim's internal missile racks still loading another warhead in, his pilots popped out and flailed the enemy. Alpha flight targeted a Moray, and Beta flight targeted a Stingray. Both enemy fighters rushed headlong into a deadly volley, and broke apart, giving off a spray of organic matter.

"Get back to cover!"

Phalanx wheeled his fighter around to see his pilots comply, and the Nephilim, thinking they knew where the human pilots had positioned themselves, rushed around the debris that the Harbingers had been using for cover. They split up, half of them attacking Alpha flight, the other half attacking Beta. What they didn't count on was Delta flight.

"Delta flight..."

Before he'd even finished, Jolt already had her pilots powering up. Together, Backwash, Fortune, Grizzly, and Gorge went to full active sensors, locked on to the sixes of the Nephilim fighters going after Beta flight, and promptly wasted 2 of them, and left 2 more damaged. Alpha flight tangled with the other group and they were holding their own.

Phalanx rushed back in to join the slaughter. The right-hand group of enemy fighters were quickly smashed between Delta and Beta flight, leaving just one of them left.

"Everyone else, help out Alpha flight."

All the rest of the pilots peeled away to engage. The Moray that they had ignored now turned and got on Jolt's tail.

No problem there. The Moray also ignored Phalanx, and he came behind in behind it. He held fire until he had a solid lock, and then he opened up with everything he had all at once. It didn't even have a chance.

After that, it became 14 on 4, and with those kinds of odds, the remaining Nephilim fighters were run down and destroyed.

"Yeah.... FUCK yeah. HELL FUCKING YES!!" Phalanx could barely contain the joy he felt. But the joy hardened into anger, and as he viewed the shattered husks of the Nephilim fighters, he felt a kind of satisfaction. And then he couldn't contain his tears. "Hell fucking yes, you bastards...."

"Damn..." Owl breathed. "Nice. We controlled that fight right from the beginning."

"Phalanx!" Mouse yelled out.

"What."

"Phalanx... you know, there were times when I wondered if there was more life in a simulator AI than you."

Mouse laughed, a sound that must have contributed to the moniker other pilots had given to him. "That was sweet, man."

"Thanks."

He whirled through the rocks in a victory roll. Not in joy, but with a ferocity to it. Mouse had been right just a moment ago. There was a time when there was more life in a rock than there was life within him. But not anymore.

FINIS


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