Once again, Mask and Cat had nixed the plan for strip poker, and the guys had groused and groaned but accepted it reluctantly.  Considering how badly the girls’ moneybags had fared, that particular version of poker would have been highly entertaining this time too.  Jack looked at a full house and slid his chips forward, ready to nab another hand when the alarm went off.  Seven sets of eyes glanced around the table at each other, and then the cards dropped face down on the table and they stuffed their chips in moneybags before running back towards the dressing room.

“So much for a quiet run,” Jack muttered as he stripped to his boxers and pulled his flight suit out of his locker.  Then he smiled as he heard a shoe bouncing off Vihon’s nose before he pulled his flight suit on, one leg at a time and stuffed his arms in.  He grabbed his helmet, slammed the locker closed, and ran into the hanger as he finished zipping the suit up, hearing Vihon cursing loudly in the background.  A minute later he was in space and watching the enemy raiders close on the freighter.

“What do you think, Cat?” he asked over a private frequency.

“They don’t look special from this range but they outnumber us two-to-one,” she muttered back.  “Who’s rear yah gonna watch?  Mine or Faces?”

“A question for the ages,” Jack noted with a smile in his voice, and Cat laughed as the rest of squadron slowly formed around them.  “I’m a bit worried though about all these raids.  It feels like things are heating up out here again.”

“I know what you mean,” Cat responded in a worried tone.  “It just feels…dangerous out here.  More than normal.”

“Exactly,” Jack whispered.  “I think the Corporate Cold War is getting is getting warmer.  Just what I needed right now.”

“Don’t worry, sir,” Cat noted in a serious tone of voice.  “We won’t be going anywhere soon,” she added.  “Wouldn’t want you facing this alone after all,” she finished and he smiled as he remembered her promise from before.

“Thanks,” he whispered, an odd bit of relief flowing through him.  “That means a lot,” he added and then switched over to a public channel.  “So how you doing, Eyes?” he asked, using Vihon’s call sign.

“I am lucky my nose is not broken,” Vihon returned in a pained voice as he formed up behind Face, taking Bruiser’s old place.

“Serves yah right you peeping tom,” Cat called back on the same channel as the raiders closed on them all.

“If you see dividers in there, I will be happy to avoid this situation in the future,” Vihon transmitted as Jack smiled, keeping an eye on the sensor contacts.  Almost time.

“Just keep your eyes to yourself and you’ll be safe.”

“Easier said than done,” Vihon responded.  “You are….” His voice trailed off and Jack’s smile grew larger.  They were all transmitting in the clear, and the attackers should be listening, thinking they were coming in on a squadron that hated each other.  Expecting a cakewalk.

“You should feel lucky,” Pincher cried out from Cat’s wing.  “They shattered both my hands as a lesson.”

“You were a special case,” Cat noted in a nasty voice.  “You didn’t just look.”

“Now, people!” Jack shouted out on the command frequency, breaking into the shouting he really hoped the raiders were listening in on.  As one, the squadron split into two wings of three and the freighter opened up with its point defense batteries as Jack pulled in behind Face’s wing.  It was time to knock out some raiders.

The point defense network opened up, catching the raiders flat footed by the odd tactic, and smashed them hard before they split up by squadrons to deal with the defenders.  Jack muttered in annoyance as he locked onto one of them, firing solidly with his flechettes and laser pulses into its weakened shields, wishing these raiders would just stop trying to take out his people.

Then Jack felt his own fighter shake around him as a fighter hit him from behind.  The shields flickered as they absorbed the fire coming in on him and he twisted the stick to the right, spinning his fighter around to face the enemy on his rear.  The gravity generators around his fighter kept the waves of gravity pushing him away from his target and he smiled as his targeting sensors locked on.

Shooting through the drive waves wasn’t very easy so few people tried it, making it a very good tactic to use from time to time as the surprise value tended to be worth the drop in accuracy.  He led the target a bit as the computers tended to misjudge while firing through the waves from time to time, and hit the trigger, letting the twin gravitic cannons in his fuselage power up to send beams of gravity twisting through the waves towards the enemy on the other side.  Then his turret sent a series of flechettes and laser pulses through the chaotic mess of what had been a clean drive wave.

He felt the acceleration capability of his fighter drop for a moment as the raider’s drives broke away from the main fuselage, turning as they went.  Then he realized the power lines to one were still attached and winced as gravity waves powerful enough to move a fighter at 30 psl whipped through that same fighter.  One second it was there, the next second the fighter was in thousands of pieces as its gravitic displacement evened out.

He brought his fighter back around and took in the rest of the battle, noticing three raiders strafing the freighter as its engines poured flames, trying to make it a harder target.  Like a reaction drive on a freighter could do anything to make it a harder target for a fighter with a gravitic drive.  Then his eyes went to the status display of Cat’s wing and saw her shield levels dropping.  He noted her position and growled as he realized he was too far away now to do anything and her wing had been separated from her.  “Eyes.  Cat’s in trouble.  Break off Mask’s wing and give her some support.  I’ll cover Mask,” he finished and began shooting towards the wing in question as they tried to nail three enemies on their own.

“Roger that, Lucky,” Vihon returned and split off Mask’s fighter, his own weapons flaring at maximum fire rate as he slammed the two fighters targeting Cat with all his weapons.  Jack closed on Mask’s position, his own turret firing at maximum rate on the fighter on her tail as he watched Vihon maneuver his fighter around and nodded slowly.  So he had been better than the file said.  Good.

“Mask, make it quick!” Jack ordered as he thumbed his gravitic cannons to nail his target and then smiled as she smashed one of her own targets.  Flechettes and laser pulses filled near space as he came around and finished locking onto her wing in time to help nail another enemy before checking to make sure Cat was fine.

Then he winced as Wheezy’s shields took a hit and turned to look at the attacker, his turret swinging around to follow his gaze, and fired at it.  His thumb jammed down on the gravitic trigger, joining the wing and erasing a raider in front of them from existence, then Mask brought the wing around hard to deal with their new tormentors.  Wheezy’s upper-right engine flashed red on Jack’s squadron display panel, noting one quarter of his acceleration ability was gone, and finally two more raiders were down as gravitic sheers, flechettes, and laser pulses filled space.

Another glance at the panel showed every fighter with heavy shield damage, and a couple with more than that, before he looked at the freighter’s display.  “Mask, we need to scratch our transport’s back!” he shouted and she turned to charge the transport, all raiders between them and those strafing the transport now dead.

The transport itself fired madly with its own point defense batteries, trying for a lucky shot as the three fighters sent gravitic beams into its shields again and again.

“How yah feeling, Cat?” Jack asked as they approached firing range.  All he needed was a few more seconds, but he needed to hear it from her.  The sensors and situation relays only told him so much.

“A bit too warm for my tastes but it’s cooling down,” she muttered shakily.  So she knew how close she’d gotten to losing it all.  “I think we’ve got them on the run, though.”

“You’re right,” Jack responded as he watched the three strafing fighters turn and run at maximum speed.  She seemed to be at least trying to cope.  “Ok people, line up on the freighter and let’s see what happens.  We aren’t landing until they’re off the sensors.”

“Hey, Eyes,” Cat transmitted as the fighters turned to come around on the freighter.  “Thanks for scratching my back.  Feel free to do it anytime you want.”  Jack smiled at the silence coming out of Vihon’s fighter and leaned back to listen to the baiting.

“Hey what about me?” Pincher piped up as Wheezy started laughing in the way that had gotten him his call sign.





The next day, the freighter finally landed on New Mars and began unloading.  “Remember, this is Mjölnir-Boeing turf,” the freighter commander reminded Jack and the rest of his squadron as they walked down the ramp to get something better to drink than the stuff on the ship.  “Be careful.  I don’t want to have to get a replacement out here.”

“Neither do I.  We’ll be careful,” Jack responded casually as he ambled off the ramp and onto the red pavement.  He’d been to New Mars many times in the past, and he’d never seen any other color outside than red.  He’d heard that was why it been named New Mars, but doubted those who’d first colonized it had ever believed the red dust could turn everything red.  Even ships left New Mars with a reddish tinge, and you could often see which ones took frequent trips there.  After a while, they gave up on washing the junk off and just let it collect.  It wasn’t like it corroded anything after all.

He frowned as each step kicked up a cloud, covering his black shoes with red dust.  He hated New Mars.  Nothing good ever came from New Mars.

“Watch your backs,” he muttered as they left the spaceport and walked down the street towards the first bar they could find.  The first thing he noticed as they entered was color.  Lots of it.  Bright colors, dark colors, more colors than he remembered ever seeing in his life.  Except for red of course.  Marsies saw enough of red outside that they didn’t want to see more of it inside.  A jazz band played a good number in the corner as they found a table and sat down.  A waitress came over to get their orders as they listened to the band.

“Nice place,” Cat whispered and Jack scowled in response.

“Better than some places I guess,” he finally muttered and she snickered.

The waitress came back and put their drinks on the table.  Each of the seven pilots grabbed a glass and she left as quickly as she’d come, dodging between tables with all the grace practice and years of work gave her.

“Good job out there, Eyes,” Jack muttered as he raised his own glass high and the others echoed his motion before following him in a drink.

“I’ll say,” Cat whispered gratefully after lowering her glass again, her voice still a bit shaky.  Jack doubted anyone else would notice, but he’d come to know her well in the last few weeks and he could tell.  He was sure Vihon could as well.  “I thought my goose was cooked for a second,” she added and Jack’s gaze slipped over to Vihon to see how he would respond.

“It was my pleasure,” Vihon answered with a smile before taking a sip of his drink and Jack felt himself relax.  Either Vihon had missed it or had decided not to bring attention to it.  Good.  “So, who pays the next round?” he asked and the others groaned as he pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket, while running his intense gaze across them.

The door to the bar opened and Jack’s eyes narrowed as he watched several people walk in with the look of enforcers.  It wasn’t in their clothes, but he knew what enforcers looked like.  How they walked.  How the talked to each other.  How they laughed.  Especially Mjölnir-Boeing enforcers.  Vihon followed his gaze and frowned, putting his cards back in his pocket.  The enforcers’ gazes panned the bar as if they were looking for someone and both of them thought they knew who it was.  Conditions with Mjölnir-Boeing, the only remaining friendly Corporation, and the local Barlon reps had begun to sour on New Mars in the last few days.  The enforcers finally noticed the pilots and one of them walked over to the table to frown down at them.

“That’s my table,” he note simply and Jack and Vihon exchanged a quick look, then turned to look at the barkeep.  He didn’t look happy about the situation, but nodded quickly.  That could have been because of another enforcer looking at him closely of course.  Jack shrugged and nodded at the other pilots before standing up slowly.

“I’m sorry.  We’ll try another one,” he noted in a relaxing voice, not wanting to start a fight if he didn’t have to.

“You’ve already rented it,” the man responded with a nasty looking smile.  “I need payment for it.”  The other pilots started to shift around but Jack brought his hand up to stop them, then reached for his wallet, mentally going through a quick threat assessment.

“How much?”

“You don’t have enough money,” the enforcer smiled and then turned to look at Cat, his eyes visibly taking in all her gentle curves.  “But I’m sure she could make up for that.”

“Not gonna happen,” Jack muttered grimly, noting the nervous twitch of her cheek with the hope that no one else did, and pulled several bills out of his wallet to put them on the table.  “Let’s go,” he ordered and took a step forward only to find an enforcer stepping into his way.

“I see I didn’t make myself clear,” the first enforcer said with a smile as his subordinate put his hand on Jack’s chest.  “You don’t have enough money.”

“Take it,” Jack whispered with a relaxed smile as his arms hung limply at his sides.  “It’s all you’re gonna get.”

“Boys,” the first enforcer responded instantly.  “Let’s get our payment.”  And with that, the entire group of enforcers moved forward, making for the group of pilots, smiles covering their faces as they looked forward to the coming fight, and most likely the fun they planned on having afterwards.

Jack didn’t look at any of the pilots, knowing that to look was to telegraph his actions to the enforcers.  Instead he simply moved, his knee coming up into the closest enforcer’s manhood, as Vihon moved with him towards another enforcer.  Jack’s fist came up into his target’s jaw as he doubled over in pain.  A step back and a kick sent the enforcer flying to the other side of the bar, keening in pain and laying in a fetal position with his hands covering his manhood.  Or what was left of it.

Beside him, Vihon smashed another enforcer and Jack got to work.  A punch came in from the side and he leaned back to avoid it, watching it pass by his nose.  Jack’s hand went up to grab the enforcer’s wrist, then his other hand shot up to smash in the elbow, bending the arm backwards and shattering the elbow.  The enforcer screamed in pain as Jack dodged a punch from another enforcer.  His foot snapped out, shattering a knee, and he stepped back to avoid a kick that his grandchildren would have felt.  If he could have even had them after that one.  He heard the sound of steel sliding on steel behind him and spun, bringing his foot up and then down across another enforcer’s face, shattering his nose.  Jack grabbed the man’s falling knife out of the air and spun around again to slash another enforcer’s tendon as he moved to kick Vihon in the back.

Stepping across the bloodstained floor carefully, he dodged another hasty punch and shattered the arm it came in on, before coming to the first enforcer.  The leader swung at him, but Jack stepped around the punch and jammed the knife in the man’s spine.  The enforcer dropped like a rag doll, the knife still in his back, and Jack turned to the rest of the enforcers as they nursed shattered limbs.  Two of them lay by the booth where Cat wielded a shattered glass and Jack smiled in approval.  She looked a little shaken again, but she smiled at him fiercely, exhilaration rushing through her.  The other patrons were still reacting to the realization that a fight was starting by the time Jack finished looking at the defeated Mjölnir-Boeing enforcers.

“Next time I give you a chance to avoid a fight, I’d suggest taking it,” he muttered casually and nodded towards his pilots.  It was time to go while the going was good and before more enforcers showed up.  The Mjölnir-Boeing enforcers hated being beaten.  They took the hint and stood up quickly, walking towards the door with Vihon and Jack following to watch their backs.  “Keep the money,” Jack told the barkeep as the door shut behind him and the pilots walked back towards the spaceport swiftly.

“I’ve never seen moves like that,” Cat finally whispered and Jack nodded slowly.

“I thought I knew you,” Vihon added and Jack nodded again as he stepped around a trashcan on the sidewalk.

“You look familiar,” Jack whispered.

“You do not,” Vihon responded and turned to glance at the other pilots listening earnestly as they followed.  “But I have only known one person who fights like you.  I thought he was dead.”

“He is,” Jack muttered quietly.  “I learned a lot from him.”

“I see,” Vihon whispered back as they turned the corner back into the spaceport.  “If you see him, tell him I waited for him to return for a long time.”

“Like I said, he’s dead,” Jack muttered as he tried to keep his breath from catching.  Tried and failed.  “But I’ll tell him the next time I see him.”

“Thank you.”

“One question,” Jack commented and looked at Vihon long enough to get a nod.  “When did you stop waiting?”

“I did not.”  Jack blinked involuntarily at the admission and let out a long breath as he tried to maintain his composure.  Tried and failed.

“I see,” Jack muttered slowly, his breath catching in his throat, and looked down at the red dust covering his shoes.  He hated New Mars.  Nothing good ever came from New Mars.  Especially Shane.  “I’ll tell him the next time I see him.”