Chapter 3

Sleek and deadly, the three four-ship flights of LF Gungnir aerofighters rocketed down from the heavens, their initial spread of missiles swatting eight SAPs out of the air like flies. Another three SAPs fell prey to more missiles before a pilot from 3 Platoon connected with her proton beam cannon, gutting a Gungnir's starboard engine. The aircraft spun wildly before cartwheeling into the ground. The hover tanks, no longer under the heavy ESDF aerial barrage, surged forward once more.

"All units, this is Mauler," came the tense voice of the Lieutenant, "I want Predator and Striker lances to engage the aerofighters while the rest of us break off and continue hitting the tanks. We'll see you on the ground when this is over." Lord willing, Nat finished for him, under his breath. The odds weren't impossible, but they certainly weren't in the defenders' favour.

He keyed his headset. "Predator Lance, we have our orders. Two elements as before, combat spread."

He flicked his sensors to active mode, allowing the powerful radar to sweep for a couple of seconds to give him a more complete picture of what lay ahead, then switched back to passive. The targeting computer beeped, having detected a flight of four Gungnirs almost directly ahead of it. Nat opened the comm channel. "Contact bearing 330, 15 miles, flight of four, angels 16. Looks like they're coming in for a hit and run."

"We can't have that, now, can we?" quipped Daniel Jennings.

"Certainly not," replied Nat. "We'll try a bracket - you and Raven go left, we will come in from the high right". The bracket was a classic intercept manoeuvre, calling for the two offensive pairs to split up in an attempt to attack the target from two sides. Nat increased power slightly and pulled into a shallow climb, angling right. Rebekah Bancroft followed suit, staying in formation.

"Contact bearing 040, 10 miles, angels 16. We have them on passive sensors," called Dan. "They're offsetting towards us. We're hot, Hawk. Breaking left." The flight of Gungnirs had turned towards Dan and Annebel which made them "hot", the element in a position to be targeted by the enemy. Hmm, Nat thought to himself, what was it Von Moltke said? "No plan survives contact with the enemy". Well, we have certainly proved that one here.

"Roger," he replied, "hang in there, we are on their six." He and Rebekah apparently hadn't been detected, or were being ignored as they swung round, and they made good use of the opportunity, swooping in on the Gungnirs. Their barely visible pulsed proton beams lanced out, spearing two of the aerofighters mid-fuselage. There was a series of flashes as the beams did their deadly work, punching through the composite skin of the aircraft and on into their internal fuel tanks. Thousands of pounds of fuel instantly detonated, obliterating the two unfortunate Gungnirs. The remaining element of aerofighters immediately executed a split S, rolling inverted and diving away. "Kestrel, cross turn," ordered Nat, and rolled into a tight right-hand turn. Rebekah rolled left, sliding into formation again once they had reversed their direction as Nat notified Dan. "Falcon, form on us, bearing 090, angels 15."

Moments later the four SAPs were heading back towards the solar farm complex. Nat repeated the active-passive cycle with his sensors, searching for the two Gungnirs that had escaped them. Come on, come on... he thought to himself anxiously as he gazed at the sensor display. There. They would have to split up. There were likely other Gungnirs about, and it was foolhardy to commit all four of the lance to the engagement. He opened the comm channel, then hesitated as doubt nagged at his mind. Was he right? What if... Then he remembered Rebekah's earlier words. You don't need to worry yourself about "what if this" and "what if that". Just trust Him... Nat cleared his throat, and spoke strongly. "Falcon, they are on the deck, bearing 115, 11 miles. They appear to be heading for our guys down there who are still mixing it up with the tanks. You and Raven take them, Kestrel and I will keep lookout for any other fighters."

"Roger, Hawk," said Dan and peeled away, Annebel matching his manoeuvre.

- - - - 0 - - - -

Daniel Jennings' targeting computer picked out the two Gungnirs at maximum sensor range, drawing a target box on the Head-Up Display and displaying distance and current airspeed information for the closest contact on the left-hand MFD. He eased into a shallow dive, his hybrid ground-skimmer/aerofighter building up speed quickly. A minute later the two enemy aerofighters suddenly split up, one pulling into a sharp climbing right turn, the other breaking left and staying low. "Raven, attack the low Gungnir," ordered Dan. "We have to split up; we can't afford to leave one to make a run on the rest of the platoon." The response was immediate and he made his own turn, firewalling the throttle and pulling hard on his flightstick to point the SAP's nose towards his target.

Dan's flight vector took him inside the bandit's turn, closing the distance rapidly. The enemy aerofighter responded by tightening its turn further in an attempt to make him overshoot. Sensing the danger, Dan eased off his angle of bank and pulled up slightly, barrel rolling away from the direction of turn. As the SAP rolled through inverted he hauled back on the flightstick, feeding in rudder to bring the nose down and slide in behind his target, which promptly began to jink. He waited patiently for the right moment as the V-tail of the Gungnir danced in his sights. With the advent of beam weaponry pilots no longer had to lead a target, aiming slightly ahead to compensate for the time an aircraft's bullets took to reach the enemy. Instead the protons, travelling at close to the speed of light, connected virtually instantaneously, essentially "freezing" the target in the HUD; if the enemy was in the crosshairs when the beam cannon fired, the pilot was guaranteed to hit it. That moment came when the Gungnir paused briefly between jinks, floating stationary for a bare half-second in Dan's gunsight. He mashed the trigger, the beam unleashing a torrent of energy on the base of the aerofighter's V-tail. Suddenly stripped of its rudder authority, the Gungnir slewed sideways and nosed into an uncontrollable dive. Somehow the pilot managed to wrestle the aircraft level and eject, rocketing away on a plume of fire. Dan relaxed slightly in his cockpit as the rush of adrenalin from the chase ebbed away. He glanced at his sensor display to find Annebel and wondered how his wingmate was faring.

Annebel Ingham was in trouble. Upon acknowledging Dan's order she had followed the low enemy aerofighter, cutting across its left turn. Without the luxury of a missile she had to get in close to use her beam cannon which meant that she had to sacrifice much of her initial height advantage, converting it to speed and gaining quickly on the Gungnir. Too quickly. Belatedly she had chopped her throttle but had still overshot her opponent, unable to match its rate of turn. The Gungnir had snapped into a reversal, Annebel countering with one of her own. Now, as the two aerofighters continued the scissors, she realised to her alarm that she was losing the turning battle and sliding ahead of her opponent. If they kept this up much longer she would end up square in the enemy's gunsight, a sitting duck. Annebel waited for the moment her SAP was pointing away from the other aerofighter and levelled her wings, slamming the throttle against its stop and nosing downwards in order to build up speed as quickly as possible. Already low, she strove even lower, hoping her reduced altitude would confuse the sensors on the enemy Gungnir. Where is Dan? she thought apprehensively, running her eyes over the sensor display. She was in no position to fight down here. Applying pressure on her flightstick, Annebel eased into a climbing turn.

Meanwhile, Nat and Rebekah had increased altitude and orbited the battlefield. There were still several Gungnirs in the air and they wanted to be in a good position to intercept them. Looking out through his cockpit canopy Nat could see billions of stars shining crystal clear in the dark expanse of space. It all looked so peaceful, so beautiful; it was incongruous to think that men and women were dying below them. More would die before the sun rose.

Rebekah Bancroft saw the pinprick of light flare into life out of the corner of her eye. It took a moment for her brain to register what it was, but then she kicked her rudder hard and rammed the flightstick over, whipping the SAP into a vicious right turn while simultaneously yelling into the intercom.

"Break right!"

As the shout suddenly filled his headset Nat's training kicked into play and without conscious thought he snapped his aerofighter over, his body tensing against the powerful G-forces threatening to crush him. Flame blossomed into the night as the missile lost its target and detonated harmlessly.

"Heat-seeker," he said, unnecessarily. It was a rather obvious observation, given the circumstances. The dangerous missiles were entirely passive, homing in on infrared radiation given out by aircraft and emitting no signals by which a missile lock could be detected.

Having rolled upright Nat and Rebekah were now pointing directly at the enemy element of Gungnirs, which had attacked from their four o'clock position. In the time it took to complete their turn their opponents closed to within 1.5 miles, a distance covered in just a few seconds. There was barely time to react; each pilot attempted a snapshot as they passed each other, but to no avail. As the SAPs blew through the enemy formation Rebekah and Nat hauled their aircraft into a tight left-hander, craning their necks in an attempt to keep track of the enemy and set up for an attack. They continued the turn, their sensors registering the Gungnirs as they slid into the enemy's rear left quadrant. Almost immediately the two contacts separated.

"They're splitting up," said Rebekah.

Daniel Jennings had located his wingmate on his sensor display and was flying an intercept course at full military power, anxious to join up again. A pair of aircraft working together were both more flexible and had a greater offensive capability than two solo pilots. They could protect each other and perform coordinated attacks, "sandwiching" the enemy between them. Right now it was the mutual protection he was seeking. He felt vulnerable without Annebel's constant presence at his wingtip.

Flying alone in such dangerous airspace made Annebel nervous. She bit her lower lip unconsciously while waiting for Dan to join her, all too aware that the Gungnir she had avoided earlier was still out there somewhere. Gazing out through the green glow of the HUD, she tried to visually locate in the darkness the speck that the targeting computer identified as Dan's SAP. She frowned, her eyes widening in alarm.

When Annebel's warning rang out over the intercom Dan reacted instantly, rolling inverted and pulling hard into a half loop. Red coherent light blazed through the space his SAP had just vacated. The enemy Gungnir rolled and dived to follow him. "Raven," he called, urgently, "I'm going to try to drag this guy to you. Slip in behind and nail him."

"Affirmative," came the reply, the tightness in Annebel's voice betraying her apprehension. Dan felt a pang of concern for his wingmate, who sounded much less than her usually confident self. C'mon girl, you can do it, he whispered under his breath as he pulled into another turn. He glanced at his sensor display, noting Annebel's location and mentally plotting a flight path for himself which would place her in a good position to drop in behind his opponent.

Annebel felt sick. Somewhere in the midst of her fight with the Gungnir, perhaps when she had found herself drifting ahead in the scissors, she had lost confidence in her ability as a pilot. She had made a mistake, coming in on the attack too quickly. It was a mistake which had cost her the initial advantage and had left her on the defensive. Now Dan was essentially asking her to make the same manoeuvre as before, diving on the enemy from behind. Only this time, if she didn't get it right Dan would probably be shot down or worse. She shivered, selecting her target and setting up for the attack only half consciously while the rest of her mind battled with her self-doubt. Memories of numerous SAP race victories during training returned, taunting her with recollections of her boldness and supreme ability. Dear Jesus, she prayed desperately, please help me not mess this up. Dan is counting on me. Taking a deep breath, Annebel banked her SAP and started her attack run, the airspeed indicator winding up rapidly.

The enemy aerofighter was dangerously close now, and Dan began to jink wildly to throw off his opponent's aim. He reflected on his earlier encounter with the other Gungnir, when the roles had been reversed, and knew that he had to keep the SAP moving. A moment's hesitation and he would be toast. He had to believe that Annebel would be there in time. Dan glanced at his sensor display, seeing the blip designating Annebel's SAP moving towards his aircraft. Just a few more seconds.

Like bolts from the heavens Annebel's twin proton beams smashed into the Gungnir, obliterating the cockpit and chopping off the aerofighter's slender nose. A second blast from the cannon half a second later caught the remains of the aircraft mid-fuselage. Fuel spewed into the atmosphere, the resulting explosion lighting up the predawn darkness. Dan straightened his SAP and keyed his headset, the edges of his mouth curling upwards in a half smile.

"Good shot, Raven. Form on me, let's see if we can find the others."

- - - - 0 - - - -

Had he been looking to his left at the time, Nat would have seen the explosion in the distance as Annebel wiped out her target. His mind, however, was focused on an altogether more pressing issue: how to make a killing shot on his own opponent. He sat behind the Gungnir, following the pilot's every move and waiting for the moment the aerofighter slid into his gunsight. It tightened its turn, nosing down into a spiralling dive which he copied. A few more moments and this will be over, he thought to himself as he prepared to pull the trigger.

Then he realised he had made a fatal error. The enemy pilot had throttled back, reducing airspeed and flattening the spiral dive. As he drifted forward the Gungnir did a hard rolling reversal and pulled up with Nat's SAP square in its sights. His missile lock warning blared. Nat immediately stamped on the rudder and shoved the flightstick forward and right in a desperate attempt to avoid the missile, the jink probably saving his life. At such short range the missile was unable to compensate for the abrupt manoeuvre and missed a direct hit. Sensing his aircraft nearby, the proximity fuse in the warhead detonated, spraying shrapnel in a wide arc. Fragments of metal hammered into his aerofighter's left wing, shredding vital flight surfaces. The end of the road had come for the SAP, which rumbled and shook violently, punctured wing panels beginning to peel away in the slipstream.

For the second time that day, Nat ejected.

"Hawk's down." Rebekah Bancroft's voice cut across the intercom, charged with emotion. She had destroyed her own target with ease.

"Did he get out?" asked Annebel, fearing the worst.

"Yeah, I watched him eject."

Dan broke in before Annebel could reply. "That's a relief. Look, I hate to remind you both, but that Gungnir may still be gunning for us. Kestrel, turn to heading 165, angels 18. We'll join with you shortly."

"Roger."

They found their target a few minutes later, several miles away and 5000 feet lower. Dan mentally ran through their options. They obviously hadn't been detected, the aerofighter continuing its course towards the solar farm complex. He could easily make the attack, swooping in from above and behind and leaving the others up high to engage the Gungnir if it somehow evaded him. The enemy pilot wouldn't have a chance, not against three of them. But then Dan realised he had had enough of the fighting. The tension and effort of the last few hours had left him exhausted, both mentally and physically. Now he just wanted to land, find Nat, and rest. He opened a comm channel and broadcast "in the clear", without encryption and on a frequency anyone within range could receive.

"Pilot of Lunar Front Gungnir heading 150, this is Falcon of the Earth-Space Defence Force. You are outnumbered and outgunned. Too many have already given their lives today in this pointless war; no one else needs to die. We offer you terms of surrender. Turn to heading 260 and descend to 5000 feet. We will escort you to our base of operations, where you will hand over your aircraft. You will be treated well, with all the rights afforded a prisoner of war."

The response was immediate, the voice harsh and guttural. "Never. I will never surrender to the unclean."

"Don't be a fool, pilot," snapped Dan, "you cannot escape us. Think! You are alone. We have already taken down your wingmates. Maintain your course and you will be shot down. Do you really want to die?" There was no reply.

"Falcon, target is increasing speed, dropping through angels 11," warned Rebekah.

"Yeah. Follow me down to 14,000 and hold. Contact Mauler, let them know there's a bandit inbound. Oh, and remind them not to shoot at me." An edge came into Dan's voice. "It's time to end this."

- - - - 0 - - - -

The mood on base was a strange mixture of jubilation and sadness. They had successfully destroyed the attacking LF force, but the cost had been severe. Everyone had lost friends and colleagues. They knew that they weren't the only ones to suffer loss. The same story was being repeated in many places around the globe as the LF continued its offensive. For now, however, they were happy to rejoice in this small victory.

Nat sat on the rocky ground with his lancemates a stone's throw from the barracks, their backs against a large boulder. They gazed out into the distance in companionable silence, watching the rising sun chase away the darkness. Nat turned, hearing footsteps coming towards them. It was Mauler, the Lieutenant from 3 Platoon. He and his friends began to get up, but he waved them back down. He extended his hand, shaking Nat's vigorously.

"I wanted to thank you personally, Hawk. You did a fine job out there, son." He corrected himself. "You all did a fine job. May I join you for a moment?"

"Sure," Nat replied, beckoning for the lieutenant to sit down. For a moment Mauler was silent, drinking in the beauty of the sunrise. Then he turned to Dan. "The brass have taken notice of you, Falcon, and how you acted after assuming leadership when Hawk was shot down."

Nat glanced at Dan, who was looking distinctly uncomfortable with the praise. "I was just doing my duty," he mumbled.

Smiling, Mauler continued. "They want to promote you. Striker Lance needs a new leader after Blade was injured during ejection. If you want it, the position is yours. Most lances will have to be rearranged in the wake of our losses. There will be several available who are suitable to take your place in Predator Lance." Seeing Dan look doubtfully at his friends the Lieutenant said hurriedly, "You don't need to tell me right now, but let me know as soon as you come to a decision, okay?" With that he got to his feet, brushed himself off, and strode away.

Annebel punched Dan playfully on the shoulder. "So," she asked, "are you going to take the position?" There was a long silence as he stared at the ground, idly winding a strand of desert grass around his finger. He looked up with a sigh.

"I honestly don't know," he confessed. "These past few days have been crazy. Officially, we haven't even finished basic training, and now they want me to command a lance!" Dan shook his head, still surprised by the news. "I need to pray about it. It's too big a decision to make just like that. Besides, I kind of like being part of Predator lance."

"Well, for what it's worth," said Rebekah, "we would miss you. But we are behind you whatever you do." She looked around at Annebel and Nat. "Right, guys?"

Nat nodded in agreement. "Absolutely."

They were given the rest of the day off, but told to stay within the base "just in case" the LF made another attack. Exhausted as they were, that was fine with them. Nat lay in his bunk, his body crying out for rest, but sleep eluded him. Images crashed through his mind as he replayed the night's events, mentally critiquing his actions as lance leader. The engagements with the LF aerofighters particularly troubled him. Life was so fragile; they had made several mistakes, one of which had almost got him killed. Their first taste of combat had almost been their last, for some of them at least. What dangers would the next time hold? Would he make the right decisions, or would he send his friends to their deaths? He tossed and turned, trying to relax.

Then, in the midst of the turmoil, a line of thought broke through like a ray of sunshine on a stormy day. It was by the grace of God that Predator lance had come through its baptism of fire unscathed, and it would be by the grace of God that they survived this war. And even if they didn't, they had a far greater existence awaiting them, a hope more sure and certain than anything this world could offer. As Nat reflected on that thought his heart swelled with gratitude towards God and he began to pray. Slowly his restless mind began to settle and he slipped into a deep sleep, secure in the knowledge that his destiny and the destiny of those under his command were safe in the hands of One far greater than he.

A/N Well, that's it. Turns out it was mostly the beginning that I didn't like; the rest is pretty much identical. I hope you enjoyed reading the story as much as I enjoyed writing it. I'm likely to be writing at least one more story in this universe I've created, so if you would like to read more then please add me to your alert list! Regards, KimHua