Five ships hung in space, seemingly immobile against the vastness of space. They hung together in a tight formation, a cradle of life in the emptiness of space.

"I can't believe we're herding whales," Dante whined over the comm.

"Can it, Eight."

Mikael's Blackfire squadron floated in a rough diamond around the five ships, a protective escort for the nearly defenseless support vessels.

"You're second in command of Aerospace, and we get stuck babysitting?" Dante continued, his voice taking on a theatrical tone.

"Dante," Mikael groaned, exasperated, "you like to eat, don't you?"

"One of the few things that I enjoy that I can get away with anymore,"

"Invert and look to port."

Craning his neck, he could see Dante's Banshee spin on its axis, his belly rotating from facing the ships to facing the stars. From his new position, Mikael knew Dante could see the Demeter and Ceres, the two ships housing the foodstuffs and medicine to keep the expedition in fighting shape.

"Good point, boss," Dante replied, and wagged his wings.

Mikael's comm popped, and the group coordinator aboard the Argo joined the conversation.

"Blackfire group, Talon reports hostile contact, ground forces at 1724 and fleet at 1726. Be advised."

"Affirmative," Mikael responded.

The group Blackfire was protecting was well away from the main engagement, orbiting the planet at a distance just beyond the second moon. Through the telescopes on the larger ships, Mikael knew they could see and report on the battlefield, but out here they were really on their own.

Combat in space had no real front lines or flanks, its vastness and three dimensions made it nearly impossible to keep non-combatants behind friendly lines, out of harms way. Thus, most navies placed their support vessels far away, using distance as a deterrent instead of friendly units. There were little groups like this one spread out in various orbits, both friendly and hostile, all intending to do little more than wait out the fight and provide aid during the aftermath.

"Keep your eyes open, Argo. Call out anything you see, better safe than sorry."

"Yes, Commander."

There was a pause, and Control got off the line.

"I think she has the hots for you, Haz."

"Atarah, we're not discussing this now."

"She totally does. She's always on Control when you're operating with the Argo."

"She's a cutie too, Boss," Dante added, "I met her in a bar on leave a few weeks back. A nice, quiet girl. Just your type."

Chuckles over the comm burned his cheeks, though he suspected they were right.

"Blushing, Commander?" Atarah taunted.

Damn, he hated it when they got like this.

"Hey Haz?" Lydia Motta's voice over their squadron frequency interrupted the squadron's speculation. To their credit, they all quieted down, sensing business was about to begin.

"Yes, Marshall?"

"Just thought I'd let you know, about two dozen fighters just booked from the grid here and appear to be on a rendezvous course with a few picket ships."

"And?"

"And we have reason to suspect they might be raiders."

Raiding the enemy's support vessels while the main fleet was engaged in combat wasn't a new tactic, but it was one that had never been truly accepted. Although it was underhanded, it served to either completely eliminate the opposition's most vital ships, or it divided the enemy fleet into two smaller sections, making them easier to deal with.

"Argo?"

"We're looking. All 'scopes are active."

"Thank you, Lydia. Argo, let me know when the telescopes find anything. I want numbers and composition."

"Yes, Commander."

"Blackfires, call off readiness and prepare yourselves. One is go."

"Two is go," Diana said immediately.

"Three is go," Gabriel repeated.

"Four here. I'm still getting a negative reading on my port intake scoop."

"Visual check, Seth?"

"I already did, Haz," Gabriel responded, "nothing showing outside. Might be internal damage."

"Alright Seth, just stay away from atmosphere until you get it solved," Mikael decided.

"Shouldn't be an issue out here, Haz."

"Brigit?"

"Here Haz, everything in the green."

"Six, everything is nominal," Lloyd reported.

"Seven, everything's fine," Atarah said.

"Eight here, ready to dance," Dante's voice sounded merry even through the distortion.

"Ok, we're to keep whatever they send at us off of the ships. What's the best way to do that?" Mikael posed.

"Hand," Dante and Lloyd said simultaneously.

"Lloyd."

"Keep them at a distance."

"Dante?"

"He stole mine."

"Commander?"

"Go ahead, Argo."

"We've sighted the hostiles, sir."

"Whereabouts?"

"Thirty-seven degrees downbow, Argo's orientation.

Mikael oriented himself to the Argo, and then dipped his nose. Without the magnification of the telescopes on the Argo and the other larger ships, he could only make out the occasional dot or flash as sunlight caught steel and reflected back to him.

"Numerous smaller vessels accompanying three larger ones. Details in one moment. Stand by."

"Gabriel, analysis?"

Gabriel, who served two years ago on a joint strike mission against criminal shipping, took a moment, then replied.

"One of two possible situations, sir. Either way, we have three cutters, armed with something that can take out capital ships, and a bunch of fighters for cover. I can tell you which one it'll be when we know the makeup."

"Commander?"

"Go ahead, control," Mikael said, moving his hand to rub his temples and encountering his helmet.

"Three vessels confirmed. They are fourty-seven meters in length, with an external aft thruster, and what appears to be a quench gun barrel running the length of the keel. Control surfaces and secondary weapons indistinguishable at this distance. Fighters appear to be slims, and numbers are consistent with what left the battlefield a few minutes ago. Heading zero point zero seven, ETA five minutes."

"Gabriel, suggestions?"

"We draw a line in the sand."