Chapter 28
ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 15 May 123
Time: UST 0812

They were ten minutes from engagement range with the mutinous Command Battle Group Five. Now was not the time to be dealing with a mutiny of their own.
Major Knox figured there would be some trouble when they were told what happened to the nine crewmembers who were arrested back in March. Admittedly, the story they were told sounded fishy, but it was galling to see some people take the word of MCN over that of their own chain of command. Apparently voicing doubt alone was not enough for some people.
The mutineers numbered some two or three hundred. A couple agents afloat and some MAs were holding the brig, the Engine Room was compromised by the Electrical Officer, the armories of Decks 6 and 7 were occupied by a mix of Army and Marine mutineers, as was the Deck 6 motor pool.
The motor pool was the Major's first concern because that was where all their MediSuits were housed. The armories were a concern too, of course, but he could only be in one place and this was where he chose to be.
It was not much of a surprise that the so-called 'New Third' led the Marine opposition. Especially after the altercation on Phobos with First Platoon. Of course the issue of Gunnery Sergeant Grisson was divisive, but for it to be used as justification for mutiny... There was more to it, no doubt about it, and that might be what saved them.
First things first, though. All MediSuits were equipped with an override for emergency situations. If the MediSuits in the motor pool could be neutralized, the mutineers would have a lot less leverage and once the MediSuits were back under their control, the mutineers holding the armories would pose far less of a threat.
Of course, just doing that would be far too easy. Whoever was pulling the strings behind the scenes--likely the same people responsible for handing the Ticonderoga over to the Shellies--were both well-prepared and well-equipped. Some sort of jammer was set up in the motor pool and it was strong enough to block the override signal. Major Knox had been playing for time while the EW techs did their magic, but he could not stall any longer.
"What's the situation?" he asked the senior tech.
"No change, sir," the tech replied. "ECM, ECCM or however many Cs you want to stick in there, we can't get through their jamming with this equipment. Whatever they've got, it's not like anything I've ever seen before."
"Any solutions?" the Major asked.
"Something that sophisticated is probably vulnerable to EMPs. I imagine it was smuggled aboard in pieces and it'd be too unwieldy to have it properly hardened. If you could set off some pulse grenades, it might be enough to bring down the jammer and get the override signal through."
"I'm sure you've heard that they have our armory at moment," the Major replied. "The greenbacks' one too. Grenades aren't exactly standard issue for squids and Airheads."
Captain Zinczneko, the S-4 Officer, must have been within earshot, because he stepped in and said, "I don't know for sure, sir, but they might at least have a crate of grenades in the Deck 3 armory. It may only be the 137s, though."
"It's worth looking into," Major Knox said. He then opened a channel to the bridge and said, "Skipper, this is Knox. The EW boys aren't getting through. They said pulse grenades might work once we breach. If there are any in the armories still under our control, we could use 'em. Over."
"Knox, this is Frazier," the Commodore replied. "I'll give Paulus a ring. Stand by. Out."
A few minutes passed before Commodore Frazier called back.
"Knox, this is Frazier. Some MAs are heading your way with the Two-Oh-Sixes you asked for. You have my authorization to proceed as you see fit. Acknowledge. Over."
"Copy that, Skipper," Major Knox replied.
"Try not to make it too messy. Frazier, out."
For all his experience, Major Knox's guts were churning. There was no clean way to end this and the Commodore knew it. Major Knox had every confidence in the talent and training of his Marines and that was exactly why it would be so difficult to take them down. Even if he could succeed in knocking out the jammer and overriding the MediSuits, there would still be others armed and waiting.
It was not long before the two MAs showed up carrying the crate of pulse grenades. They were promptly escorted to the Major's position.
Once they had set down the crate, the senior of the two said, "Here you are, sir, one crate of 25 HG206 pulse grenades." He then pulled out a DataPad and extended it to the Major, saying, "I'm going to need you to sign for them, sir."
"Sure thing," the Major said, taking the stylus and scribbling his signature, then sealing it with his thumbprint. As he was handing it back, he said, "I don't imagine the mutineers holding the armories are keeping accountability like this."
The MA only stared at him blankly, clearly not getting the joke.
"Never mind," he said. "Good work. Carry on."
The MAs withdrew, leaving the Major with his staff. Captain Moranda, the S-2 Officer, was the first one to speak up.
"The pulse grenades have an effective radius of 15 meters. We don't know where the jammer is located, so that means we need to set off at least four to ensure total coverage of the motor pool. That's bound to prove easier said than done while under fire."
They had already discussed the likely situation inside in the event of an incursion. There would be virtually zero cover for them while the mutineers would no doubt be using the available vehicles to fortify their position. With the freight lifts down to the ordnance stores locked down, there were only three points of ingress. The main entrance would have the highest concentration of fire, but the side entrances surely had coverage as well. If they went in, it would be a bloody turkey shoot.
"Sir, we have to act soon," Major Dhillon, his XO, said. "We can't afford to wait around like this much longer."
Why not give diplomacy one last chance?
Connecting to the intercom in the motor pool, Major Knox said, "Cravitz, this is your final warning. I'm ordering you and your men to stand down."
"Fuck you, sir," Lieutenant Cravitz snapped back. "Fuck you and all you mutinous bastards. I'm not going down for you and your Shelly bitch!"
It was a testament to the self-control expected of an officer that Major Knox did not give Lieutenant Cravitz an intemperate response, though no small number of profanity-laden options presented themselves to him. No, stooping to his level would only make things worse. He had to bite his tongue and exhaust the diplomatic route before resorting to more drastic measures.
"The only mutineers here are you and your men," Major Knox said. "Now stand down while you can still get off with some brig time."
It was the last time the Major would extend the olive branch to Lieutenant Cranitz and the men following him. His response was predictable.
"We're the ones with the weapons and the gear," Cranitz boasted, "so I'd like to see you try to stop us."
Someone snatched the receiver from the Major's hand. By the time he turned to see it was Gunnery Sergeant Grisson, she was already on the line, saying, "Lieutenant Cranitz, it's me, the Shelly bitch. I'm the one you want and you're gonna get me. I'm comin' in."
Grisson dropped the receiver, not waiting for Lieutenant Cranitz's reply, cracked open the crate and pulled out two pulse grenades. There were a number of shouts and threats, but she ignored all of them. Only when the Major spoke up did she show any sign of noticing the world around her.
"Exactly what in the hell do you think you're doing, Gunny?"
"I'm making an opening, sir. I'm the reason this has happened, or at least I'm being used as the excuse for it. This is the least I can do."
"Gunny, I can't let you do that."
Grisson stopped at the main entrance, gripping the two pulse grenades. She did not look back as she said, "If you want to stop me, sir, you're going to have to shoot me."
As much as he thought what she was trying to do was suicidal and that getting herself killed was exactly what she meant to do, the Major could not bring himself to stop her. Instead he motioned for everyone to get in position. If she was going to take this risk, he was going to make it count.
The door opened and a Tejon was parked right there to block the way. This did not deter Grisson in the slightest. Putting the grenades in the cargo pockets of her trousers, she braced herself and began to push on the side of the Tejon.
"Gunny, that thing is 19 tonnes," the Major said. "It'd take ten men in MediSuits to move it."
If the repulsors were active and the stabilizers disabled, a single average person could move it around with ease, but Cranitz's men had almost certain sabotaged the repulsors to make it a more effective barricade.
Grisson's exoskeleton could not possibly be able to move more than a single tonne, but she stubbornly tried to move the Tejon all the same.
Her platoon leader Lieutenant Dixon approached her and said, "Gunny, that's enough. I don't know what you're trying to prove, but there's got to be another way."
Another way. Why did he not think of it sooner? The Major quickly went back to contact the bridge and said, "Skipper, this is Knox. Disengage artificial gravity on Deck 6. I repeat, disengage artificial gravity on Deck 6. Over."
"Knox, this is Frazier. You sure about that?"
"Yes, sir."
"Copy that. Disengaging artificial gravity. Frazier, out."
Major Knox then shouted to his assembled Marines, "Get ready to get a lot lighter, boys and girls! Remember your micro-G maneuvers! Secure anything that's loose!"
As soon as they heard the graviton generator shutting down, microgravity started to take effect. Anything that was not bolted down began to float and that include the Tejon blocking the door. Grisson wasted no time. Grabbing the upper doorsill, she planted both feet on the Tejon and pushed. The unmovable barricade was now a 19-tonne metal brick headed straight for the mutineers' fortified position.
Grisson then pushed herself down the deck, where she propelled herself up to the overhead and sprang forward to land on the Tejon and ride it into the line of fire.
"Pulse out!" she shouted as she threw her grenades.
Once the pulse grenades went off, Major Knox quickly turned to the EW tech and shouted, "Try the override!"
He desperately hoped the jammer was in the range of Grisson's two pulse grenades and he was rewarded when the tech said, "Command override is successful, sir. The MediSuits are bricked."
"Now lock down their weapons."
"But, sir, I don't which is which."
"I don't care. Lock down everything in range. We'll take 'em hand-to-hand!"
"Aye-aye, sir. Sending lockdown signal."
With their MediSuits and small arms rendered inoperable, the mutineers had little means to do much damage. They were taken surprise by the artificial gravity being disabled, but there was about a dozen still able to put up a fight and after a brief, awkward micro-G brawl, they were subdued.
Only three of the thirty-eight mutineers were killed in the exchange, twelve wounded on their side and eight among the Major's men. It could have been far worse.
Among the wounded was Gunnery Sergeant Grisson. Diving right into the middle of a hornet's nest like that, it was little surprise, but she gave as good as she got. Though she was pretty banged up, Major Knox knew better than to try to sideline her. She was getting her cheek stitched up by a Corpsman when he approached. If there was not a needle and thread going through her face at the time, she would have sprang to attention for him. Instead, a simple, "Sir," had to suffice.
"Gunny, I don't know if I should throw you in the brig or put you in for a medal," he said. "I guess since they've got mutineers holding the brig, I'll just have to go with the medal."
Without moving her face too much, Grisson replied, "I know what I did was irresponsible, sir, but I would rather risk myself than anyone else."
She valued herself too lightly, but there was nothing to be done about that.
"We'll talk about this later, Gunny," he said. "Right now we've got an armory to take back."
"Yes, sir."

* * *

Location: Near the ESS Iberia, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 15 May 123
Time: UST 0935

With dozens of warships and hundreds of superlights gearing up for a fight, two solitary human figures drifting in the vast darkness of space did not exactly draw much attention. Once the shooting started, this sort of maneuver would be definite suicide and even now in the tense moments before any fire was being exchanged, the probability of survival was dismal at best. A minor shift in vector and velocity of the target would spell almost certain death. Fortunately, the target was making a show of force, which meant flying straight and true for all its theatrical worth.
It took precise calculations to match the relative speeds for contact or else the two intruders would be smashed to bits before their mission could truly begin. The two insignificant specks were as good as invisible when they touched down on the massive hull of the ship.
An Imperium-class flagship like the Iberia was over a kilometer long with twelve decks and 9200 crewmembers. There was a lot of ground to cover and a lot of variables to consider, but the two infiltrators were experts. If anyone could succeed in their mission, it was them.
Moving along the side of the hull, they stopped at an escape pod and pulled out cutters to open up a hole just big enough for them to enter. They left their booster packs behind. This was a one-way trip, after all, and there was no room for dead weight.
One of them was careful to hold the piece of the hull they cut out and once they were inside the pod, one went to work welding the hole shut while the other pried open the bulkhead panel near the door and began to work on the wires inside. Escape pods were not designed to be opened from the inside, but with the right know-how it could be done. No one would want to do this normally, but this was a rare exception to the rule.
By the time the welding was done, the door to the pod was successfully hacked. That still left the door to the ship, which was much more difficult to override and for good reason. There was no proper airlock between the hull of the ship and the escape pod. If there was any depressurization, shutters on either side of the door were supposed to automatically seal it. If there was any flaw in the welding job, it would be problematic to say the least.
There was no time to waste being delicate. They quickly went to work cutting open the door. Because the ship's artificial gravity was in effect inside the pod, the hole had to be larger than the one they used to slip in. Once the hole was opened up, the shutters deployed, but the two infiltrators acted quickly, drawing out telescopic bars to stop the shutters. The bars could only hold up for a couple seconds. The infiltrators turned on their optic camouflage and ducked in through the hole. Once they were clear, the bar holding the inner shutter was snatched away before it could break or snap loose and draw any more unwanted attention. As it stood, they had five to ten minutes at best.
They quickly made their way to the berthing spaces and started with the officers' quarters. The first target was a four-man room. A quick hack disabled the door lock and opened the door. The three Marines inside sprang to their feet. The two infiltrators deactivated their optic camouflage. With their full-body black suits, however, this gesture did little to humanize them. At most, it let the Marines know one of the infiltrators was male and the other female.
"Captain Merkovic, Captain Nwala, Lieutenant Lian," the male infiltrator said to the Marines, "I have one question for you. Are you still loyal to the Union?"
Captain Merkovic, the most senior of the three, squared off against the infiltrator. It was subtle, but he was not entirely steady on his feet.
"I don't know who you are," Merkovic said, "but if you think you can threaten us to turn traitor, you've got another thing coming."
"Good," the male infiltrator said. "That's what I want to hear. Are you ready to help retake this boat?"
"How do you plan on doing that?" Merkovic asked. "You have weapons for us?"
"People first, weapons second."
"You realize they've got armed patrols, right?"
"I never said there wasn't any risk. We hit fast, we hit hard and we should minimize our losses."
Captain Merkovic looked to the other two Marines and then back to the infiltrator and said, "We've been in here five days with only an MRE between us. I can't imagine anyone else has been fed any better. We're going to have a hard standing up to armed Marines in peak condition."
"You boys are Marines, aren't you? Act like it."
The challenge to their pride worked like a charm. They were not going to make any more excuses, but they were still reasonably wary of the two infiltrators.
"How can we know you're not one of them?" Lieutenant Lian asked.
The male infiltrator responded by drawing his sidearm, flipping it and extending the grip to Merkovic.
"Take it," he said.
Merkovic did so, though no less warily, his eyes darting between the two infiltrators. The male infiltrator took hold of Merkovic's wrist and pressed the barrel of the sidearm against his forehead.
"If you don't think I'm on the level," he said, "shoot me."
Appalled at the gesture, Merkovic wrenched his hand away and asked the infiltrator, "Who are you?"
The infiltrator removed his mask to expose his face.
"Call me Zhao," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do. You ready to go?"

* * *

Date: Fri 15 May 123
Time: UST 1021

The combined attack and electronic warfare assets of the battle group accounted for some twenty squadrons. This was the first time they all flew together like this. Even during major engagements like Operation Heaven's Door and the Battle of Mars, no more than three squadrons would be tasked with a single objective. There was less raw firepower to bring to bear, but also meant that they did not risk losing everything in a single sweep.
The mission was simple. Clear out the Empyrean fleet's drone support to leave their warships vulnerable to attack. So long as the well-practiced technique of jamming the drones' coordination with each other still worked, it should not be much of a problem. The fact that the EW squadrons were having to protect twice as many fighters as they did during Operation Heaven's Door made it a little dicey, but they would get through it. They had to.
They were only a few minutes from engagement range, but the Empyrean fleet had not yet made any move to attack. This was quite unlike their usual pattern.
"Something's not right," Major Zapata said. "I'm only reading the hostile warships."
He was only putting into words what Matt saw for himself. What were they up to? There was no benefit holding the drones to the last minute. It was not going to be a surprise and there was a risk their ships would take fire before the drones could be launched to intercept it.
"Where're all the damn Impy drones?" Lieutenant Gascon, one of the new pilots in Delta Flight, asked.
"Can the chatter," Sean said. "We'll be up to our asses in that scrap metal shit soon enough."
Abruptly, Colonel Duvalier, the Operations Group commander who volunteered to fill an empty cockpit and lead the attack, came on the line and said, "Attention, all units, this is Sokol Three. Abort mission. I repeat, abort mission."
This got an immediate response from General Pfeiffer, who was overseeing the operation back on the Ticonderoga.
"Sokol Three, this is Phoenix One. Why are you calling for a mission abort?"
"Because, Phoenix One," Colonel Duvalier replied, "the pursuit of this mission constitutes an unlawful order. You are a traitor and so is Mfume, Frazier and anyone who follows them. All units, anyone who proceeds with the mission as ordered will be charged as mutineers."
Matt felt a chill run down his spine. Although he had not seen anyone who seemed to buy into the stories in his own unit, of course there were people who did and the fact that one of them was as highly placed as Duvalier, who not doubt volunteered for the mission just to set up this very confrontation, could easily spell the death of them all. If the Empyreans decided to attack while command and control was in disarray, it would be a massacre.
Apparently Commodore Frazier was listening in, because he came on the line next and said, "All units, disregard Sokol Three. You have been given lawful orders directly from the Chairwoman herself. Sokol Three, you will power down all systems and surrender at once or you will be regarded as a hostile. Acknowledge."
Completely unfazed by the threat, Colonel Duvalier replied calmly, "On the contrary, it's Blau One and Madcap Five that will be powering down. My loyal comrades will soon have the Ticonderoga under control."
The Commodore laughed at this and said, "If you mean your fellow mutineers, you've got another thing coming, asshole. They've all been taken down. All units, don't fall for his bullshit. He's the real traitor and now he's shown his true colors."
So far, no one was making a move one way or another. Though it seemed like the Colonel was losing ground, he still worked to bring people over to his side.
"If this were truly the enemy, why haven't the Empyrean ships deployed their drones yet? They're deep cover Union operatives. This whole thing has been staged to expose traitors in the ranks like Commodore Frazier."
"You lying son of a bitch!" the Commodore snapped. "Don't listen to him, people! We've got him in a corner and he's trying to take you down with him!"
Angry outbursts like that were not likely to win the Commodore too many people who were on the fence. They were teetering on the edge of a knife and Colonel Duvalier pushed forward to the moment of truth.
"Anyone who's still loyal, form on me and be counted."
It was too dangerous for his pilots to be formed up with him, so Matt told them, "Rittern, I want you to break off from me. I don't want anyone getting caught in the crossfire."
"Fuck that, Blau One," Sean said. "Whose side d'ya think we're on?"
While the pledge of solidarity was encouraging, it did not change the danger to them, but before Matt could tell them again to break off, another pilot came on the line, Colonel Goldberg of the 766th.
"Where the hell're you going, Silver Four? Get back in formation!"
Silver Four was not the only one to form up on Colonel Duvalier's wing, but there were not many others, a fact Commodore Frazier instantly seized upon.
"I'm only seein' six birds with you, Sokol Three," he said. "You're not gettin' away with this. Surrender now before I blast your ass out of the sky."
General Pfeiffer chimed in as well, saying, "Sokol Three, your little gambit has failed. Surrender."
Colonel Duvalier then did something unexpected. He had been so calm and collected before, but now he was reduced to making a strange animalistic growl. It was one thing to compare his situation to that of a cornered animal, but he was not supposed to sound the part. It was entirely possible that the failure of his plan caused him to snap, which made him all the more dangerous.
Matt was just about to advise everyone to get some distance from the Colonel and those with him when a warning light flashed and he lost signal on one of his pilots.
"Blau Five is down!" a voice cried.
It was Olivares, another of the new pilots. With Lieutenant Roberts gone, there were only three pilots in Charlie Flight. Captain Jiang was gone, leaving Lieutenant Byron as the only other one left. Byron and Olivares broke from formation, but it quickly became clear that they were not flying together as a panicked Olivares hastily said, "Blau One-Five is hostile! I repeat, Blau One-Five is hostile!"
Major Zapata beat Matt to the punch, shouting, "Break, break, break! Evasive maneuvers!"
"I'm takin' fire! Somebody help!"
"We got ya, kid!" Sean said. "Come on, boyos!"
Delta Flight broke off to pursue, but it was already too late.
"We lost Blau One-Six!"
"Goddammit!" Sean roared. "Byron, you sonuvabitch! I'm comin' for your ass!"
Matt was about to tell Sean get a hold of himself before he let the blood go to his head and did something stupid, but then the radar screen lit up like Christmas.
"Incoming contacts! It's the Impies!"
"All units, proceed with mission!" General Pfeiffer shouted. "I repeat, proceed with mission!"
With Sean and the rest of Delta already pursuing Byron and with Duvalier in Roberts' bird, it was clear what Matt needed to do.
"Phoenix One, this is Blau One. Leave the turncoats to us."
"Acknowledged, Blau One."
Matt then told his pilots, "Alright, Rittern, stay focused. I've marked the signals of the of the birds flying with Sokol Three. Take them one at a time. Try to just disable them, but don't take any stupid risks."
"You heard the man, Delta!" Sean said, sounding like he had gotten control over himself.
The odds were fourteen Rittern against the eight birds on Colonel Duvalier's side. Four Hornets, two Kodachi and two Bayonets. Depending on the skill of the pilots, this could either be quick and bloodless or a drawn-out messy slog.
The eight mutineers did not coordinate very well. Duvalier and Byron went their separate ways, leaving the others scrambling to come up with some kind of plan. This was where a unified squadron had the advantage.
"Blau Two, with me," Matt said. "We'll go for Sokol Three. Delta, stay on Blau One-Five. Alpha, Bravo, take the rest."
"Copy, Blau One," Major Zapata replied, followed by similar affirmations from the three flight leaders.
Matt wondered if splitting up like this was actually part of the plan, but even if it was, numerical superiority was still in the Rittern's favor. Matt had never seen Colonel Duvalier in action before, but he was good. There was something a little erratic about how he flew, though, something oddly familiar to it.
Matt and Major Zapata peppered Duvalier's six with some pulse fire, but he spun around sharply, firing all his weapons at once.
"Break! Break!" Matt shouted.
Matt and Major Zapata split in opposite directions, giving Duvalier the opportunity to pursue Zapata alone. That was what he was going for, to separate out the weaker flier. Zapata was good of course, just not as good.
"I could use some backup here, Blau One," Zapata said. "Fucker's right on my ass. Can't shake him."
Zapata was thankfully staying cool under pressure. It would likely make the difference between life and death.
"I'll be right there, Blau Two," Matt said. "Increase power to your rear shield and lead him on. I'll take care of the rest."
"Copy that, Blau One."
Matt set himself up on an attack vector, using both his laser arrays and pulse cannons to soften up Duvalier's rear shields. He had them down to about 30% when Duvalier broke off, diving down, then making a hairpin turn back up to come up under Zapata. Even with the G-diffusers, a maneuver like that should have made any ordinary person black out.
"Shit! I just lost my ventral shield!"
One more hit and Zapata was finished. Matt hastily fired off a missile. It detonated on Duvalier's shields, but the blast was enough to knock him off course give Zapata the chance to get clear and form back up on Matt's wing.
While they were setting up an attack vector, a new voice came on the radio.
"Blau One, it's me."
It was Lieutenant Wallace. Clearly the call had nothing to do with his billet as squadron communications officer. He was contacting Matt for a different reason.
"Having some trouble out there, aren't you? Well, there's a reason for it. Sokol Three and Blau One-Five are Berserkers. This'll go quicker if you and your old wingmate take them out. Fight fire with fire. I'm giving you her frequency now."
Colonel Duvalier and Lieutenant Byron were Berserkers? That begged about as many questions as it answered. He did not like the thought of pitting Lydia against them, but as a fellow Berserker, she was perhaps one of the best equipped for the job. Better equipped than anyone else in his squadron, at least.
"Blau Two," Matt said, "break off and take the lead with Alpha and Bravo."
"What are you talking about, Blau One?" Zapata asked. "You can't take this guy alone."
"Your belly's wide open. One more hit and you're done. Get Delta to form back up too. Leave Sokol Three and Blau One-Five to me. You're in command for now. Do you copy?"
"I copy that, Blau One," Zapata replied, showing more than a little reluctance. "Attention, all Rittern. Attention, all Rittern. This is Blau Two. As per Blau One's orders, I am temporarily assuming command. Delta, break off pursuit of Blau One-Five and form up with Alpha and Bravo."
Sean then hailed Matt on a private channel and asked him, "Cav, what's goin' on?"
"I'm going to draw off Sokol Three and Blau One-Five," Matt replied.
"Let me back ya up, man."
"I need you to stay with your flight. Keep them together. Bring them back home."
Sean was silent for a moment, but then replied, "Copy that, Blau One."
"Thank you, Kodiak. Blau One, out."
The Rittern would be safe enough in the hands of Major Zapata, Sean and the other flight leaders. Matt could now turn his attention to Lydia. Plugging in her frequency, he tried hailing her on a private channel.
"Nyx, do you copy? This is Cav."
"Yeah, yeah," she replied, "I heard it all from Johnny Cool-shades."
"You up for this?"
He was expecting her usual bravado, but instead she sounded uncharacteristically unsure of herself.
"Cav, I... I dunno, man... The thing... The berserk thing... I don't feel it. It only ever worked around Shellies. Even if we were on the other side fightin' Shellies, I... I jus' dunno..."
This was not like her, but then, there was a lot about he behavior lately that was unusual for her.
"Calm down, Nyx," he told her. "You've got this. You don't need any Berserk Syndrome to fly. We can take these two down before they hurt anyone else."
"Alright, Cav. Forming on your wing."
As Lydia was forming on Matt's wing, so did Byron join up with Duvalier. Because they were both flying Hornets from his squadron, Matt had complete scan data on both their birds.
"Okay, Nyx, they've both taken some damage, but don't get careless. Let's take them down one at a time."
"Copy that."
Lydia's answer did not have much confidence to it. This worried Matt all the more. This was the worst possible time for her to start doubting herself.
Hoping to goad her a little, Matt said, "Come on, Nyx, you don't want to be outflown be a couple Airheads, do you?"
"Heh... Can't have that, now can we? I'll be alright, Cav. We got this."
That was sounding a little more like the Lydia he knew.
"Let's wax some tails."
"I'm on it."
The two off them lined up the attack vector. Byron and Duvalier were flying suspiciously straight, but maybe Matt and Lydia could do some damage before they sprang whatever trick they had in mind.
"Here we go, Nyx. Left to right."
With their combined firepower, they were able to take out Byron's rear shield rather quickly, but as soon as they did, both he and Duvalier spun around and opened fire, rolling in a wide arc around them.
"Fuck! We gotta break!"
"No, Nyx, wait!"
Lydia pulled up sharply, drawing off Duvalier. Matt wanted to pursue, but he had to deal with Byron first. Focusing power to his front shield, he turned to face Bryon's Hornet and went into a roll to match him. For a couple intense second, the two Hornets were like a couple whirling dervishes in a duel to the death, but Matt was not going to wait to see whose shield would hold out longer. He fired off a missile, the blast knocking Byron out of his roll, exposing his Hornet's vulnerable tail. A couple particle blasts to the engine was all it took. The reactor did not go critical, though. Instead the Hornet just broke apart. One down.
As soon as Matt turned his attention back to Lydia, he caught the flash of an explosion.
"Nailed 'im!" Lydia beamed. "Sokol Three is down! Hell, I didn't even smash up my bird this time."
Matt breathed a sigh of relief and silent prayer of thanks to God for delivering her. She managed to pull through after all.
"Good work, Nyx," he said. "Let's get you back to your squadron. We've still got a lot of work to do. Watch your six, though. There may still be other turncoats mixed in with the friendlies."
"Thanks, Cav," Lydia said. "Thanks for bein' on my wing."
"Anytime, Nyx."