Airwar

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AIRWAR

On their second day of patrol one of the Ginas and Debby were about five thousand miles from the radio observatory operated by ONE at the second Earth-Moon Lagrange point, with their red and gray square Sandwich fighters linked together by a long thin cable so they could talk without revealing their presence by radio.

They provided security for the observatory and were stationed aboard it with two other Femina Caelestis members, but what they really did was provide early warning against the same sort of raid Robyn and Lilith did seven years prior to this, when they stole a Bot from General Materials at Mercury.

Gina and Debby wore helmets with their name on them, primarily to keep their long hair from floating into their eyes, but the helmets also held their earpieces and microphones and kept them from bumping their head if they took a surprise hit. Other than that, they wore no pressure suits, but instead they sported comfortable red and gray cotton uniforms with a female Venus symbol sewn over the left breast.

Behind their seat in the angular flight-deck (Femina Caelestis insisted on not calling it a cockpit) was a tunnel providing access to the main subsystems of the fighter, and it was long enough to stretch out in and go to sleep.

Deb? Gina said tentatively. Deb, I know it's not your watch yet but I have a contact.

Deb stirred awake at the sound of Gina's voice. She floated all the way forward, placed her seat in the upright locked position, and put her helmet on. Okay, I'm awake, Gina, what do you got?

Search radar, in band seven, off our starboard beam and down a little bit in Z.

Debby booted up her Electronic Surveillance Measures system. All I see is the telescope at one seven five, and you at zero eight zero.

Wait a few seconds. It's a long-range radar so the pulses are spaced far apart.

Presently a diamond symbol was displayed on Debby's screen, captioned with the small amount of information her instruments had gleaned so far.

Debby said, Okay, now I got the enemy symbol on ESM. I'm slewing my telescope over to have a look-see.

On the stubby cylindrical post that attached the top solar panel to the rest of her fighter the telescope spun over to the right on the lower gimbals while Debby's primary weapons, the twin lasers, remained locked straight ahead. Soon Debby saw on her screen a distant winged brown bulb trailing glowing smoke against a hailstorm of stars. She said, Now I see him!

Deb, I want you to move off about a hundred miles to get a good baseline so we can triangulate and get a range.

Okay, breaking the wire, talk to you when I get back.

Their contact was the spacecraft carrier Trespasser of the Empire of Belial, and no less a personage than the Emperor himself, Patriarch Azibeel Gerash, was aboard that ship, together with hyz son Thammuz, a dirk of sixteen years who had not yet made hyz first personal combat to formally enter the forces of Belial.

On Gorpai it was not widely advertised that Azibeel was literally possessed by Belial, just like every Gerash patriarch before hym had been possessed, beginning in ancient times when Binah perfected the art of possession.

If this was more generally known on Gorpai, then few would seek to become Patriarch, for it was an unavoidable fact of Binah's possession process that the memories and personality of the host were always diminished in strength to 29 percent of the original, while the parasite's personality was reduced to 71 percent by strength, thus forming a new individual whose component personalities were mixed in those proportions. The will of the hybrid, then, reflected that of the parasite by a ratio of about five to two.

But this sword cut two ways. Belial's original personality had, like Gina's, been diluted to such a degree over so many generations that hy now bore almost no resemblance to the living sun who had been the original elohim.

And hyz ego was thoroughly involved with life in a hybrid form with the nephilim, and the power over others which attended it, such that hyz operations as a living star were relegated to an unconscious and autonomic role.

In a very real sense, the Belial the other elohim knew died long ago. Still, the current Belial-Azibeel entity had sufficient survival instinct that hy remained unwilling, as always, to permit Binah and the three other local elohim to make two-way contact with the community of elohim at large. For that would bring a swift death sentence on his head from those other elohim. Belial's ancient and ongoing violation of the other elohim, their freedom and dignity as gods, merited death no matter what micro-fraction of the original Belial remained to taint the current one.

Binah considered the barrier erected by Belial to be a challenge. He had been gnawing at the problem for centuries and had powerful allies in the other elohim trapped behind Belial's barrier: El Shaddai, god of human men, Bat-El, god of human women, and Chokhmah, god of nephilim yen.

The purpose underlying most of human history itself was in service to Binah's quest, though few humans understood they had been enlisted from old.

Belial called humans collectively the Other and he feared them. Their offspring race the nephilim, both yen and yeng, he kept under his lash on Gorpai.

The other four elohim called humans and nephilim the Partners and knew their fate was bound up with the living stars. But there were trillions of other elohim across the universe who didn't yet know Binah and the others existed, let alone that humans existed.

Of them Belial said nothing to the elohim community, nor did Binah's father Mastema speak of them, for he was also complicit in this sin. Mastema fled in fear when El Shaddai first discovered the early clans of humans thriving on Earth.

Emperor Azibeel brought hyz son Thammuz on hyz campaign in preparation for that day when hy would make his kill according to the law of Belial, obtain hyz two wives, and become fully a yang. But hyz role for now seemed to consist merely of watching hyz father and staying out of the way.

Sire, we have something, Admiral Belphegor called, and the Emperor drifted over to hym in the large but cluttered space of the Combat Engagement Center, or CEC.

Their human host Kirill Egorov was also present in CEC, for combat operations were about to commence, and he joined them as well. When Azibeel, Thammuz and Kirill all hovered in freefall nearby over his shoulder the Admiral said, Sire, we assumed Tracks 4022 and 4023 were just boulders, but now Track 4022 is showing independent movement.

We've been detected. The Emperor pointed at the Admiral's screen. Commence electronic countermeasures against lunar communications and send everything in this octant against the hostile tracks. They must not escape.

While the attack on Gina and Debby got underway, a number of specially con- figured and previously deployed Imperial bombers assailed the Moon with such a heavy bombardment of broadband radio and neutrino noise such that no broadcasts from space above the farside could be discerned at all. But Gina and Debby were still above this electroweak storm and knew nothing of it.

What the...? Sorry to break radio silence, Gina but I just took a hit.

Are you all right? They were broadcasting in the clear to avoid the small delays involved with encryption, but that hardly seemed to matter now.

A big ragged smoking bite was taken out of Debby's solar panel, and debris glittered around her like so many twinkling golden stars. My top panel is fucked. Just one second...

Debby swung her twin laser mount to bear on the offender, an insect-like dark brown Imperial fighter. After few rounds expended on target she was rewarded with a satisfying hot ball of expanding gas where the fighter and its two pilots used to be. First blood went to Debby. Oh yeah! Now I'm okay!

It was two hundred miles away but Gina saw the bright explosion of the enemy fighter with her own eyes as a little puff ball. Nice shot. Then Gina tried to raise her people on the Moon to report the attack, but no one answered, which was strange.

For what it's worth, Debby said, sending raw data over to Gina, here's my angle on the intruder.

Gina played around with Debby's numbers for a bit. Damn, that thing is twelve hundred feet long! It must be one of the Emperor's fleet carriers come out to play.

The wings threw me for a loop, Debby admitted. I thought it was just a bomber or something. But I have more bad news, Gina. There's a whole swarm of Imperial bugs between here and the Moon, fighters and shuttle-bombers all.

Get back here with me so I can cover you!

Too late. I'm gonna punch a hole for you right through the bastards. Look how tight they're bunched up, the morons. Honestly, doesn't the Empire know anything?

Uplink your memories to me as long as you can, Gina said.

See you in the next life! And that, for Femina Caelestis, was not a matter of faith or an idle hope. But the jamming made it problematic for both of them.

Gina and Debby had run into Squadron 21 from the Trespasser, about a dozen two-yeng fighters like the one that assaulted Debby plus a handful of larger five-yeng bombers with their articulated insect heads that could send a flat, powerful lase in any direction.

Admiral Belphegor ordered all of them to hold station about a thousand miles nearer to the Moon than the radio observatory to block any escape to there.

Debby came into range and Admiral Belphegor ordered Squadron 21 to fire at will. Deb was killed instantly, but Gina safely obtained the entire stream of bits which represented her final memories.

Debby's ship broke up under the withering Imperial firepower, but included in the debris was one fully armed nuclear Brushfire-C missile. When the pile of expanding garbage that was the corpse of Debby's ship passed her attackers, at exactly that instant, the Brushfire detonated, destroying most of the planes, disabling all of the others, and clearing a neat hole for Gina to escape through.

When the spherical fireball had grown to fill half of the sky and dimmed to invisibility Gina dared to look again, and in her telescope she saw the ellipsoid of the enemy carrier looming ever closer. There was a second capital ship following as well, also sporting wings. This was the Imperial destroyer Punisher, escorting the carrier.

As she neared the Moon Gina found herself entering the various cones of Imperial jamming and she understood why she had been unable to warn Fortuna of their danger. When she got very close she put her laser on low power and locked onto a solar panel in the city's roof to talk through the radio noise by modulating the light. Fortuna, this is Gina flying Illustrious. I've been in a scrap, and Debby is gone. Prepare to receive me.

It was a long shot but they must have heard her. Hunky probably thought of this trick too, at the same time. A docking port slid open and Gina entered a hollow space in the two-story ceiling structure that covered the entire city.

Under withering anti-aircraft fire from the city the two Imperial fighters in the van of the pursuit veered off and returned to Trespasser.

Fortuna had been built using an economical cut and cover technique of tunnel construction, and most of the materials for Fortuna had been manufactured from local resources, but it was still an expensive property.

Gina climbed backwards out of the rear hatch of her fighter, near the twin nozzles, marked with blue arrows and EGRESS in bold letters. Already her ship was being topped off with more water for the macros.

What hornet's nest did you stumble into? asked Dory in her new body with a red mop-top hairdo as Gina got out. Hunky was also on the Moon, quickly preparing the defense.

It's the Empire boys, Dory, Gina said when she let her shiny black hair fly free of her helmet, and there was a hint of joy on her face when she said that. She wanted it to happen. Gina had drilled endlessly for this day, and couldn't wait to roll out everything Femina Caelestis had laid away in preparation for it. They've finally come out in force, breaking the agreement between the gods. So Dory, it looks like we've got to show them a little deterrent of our own.

Actually it's going to be a lot of deterrent, Dory said with a grin of her own, even with Bravo out of the picture for now.

At the precise moment when Bravo was storming the beach south of Suez City, three hundred and eight Russian troops aboard fourteen Empire of Belial shuttles approached the Moon in their great gamble to win the macro sweepstakes and and the chance to break the Femina Caelestis monopoly forever.

The curious timing of their attack was by design, of course. Emperor Azibeel knew he would have absolutely no chance of victory if he had to face Lilith, who seemed to be exactly like Kandiel in a second life as a human. So knowing Lilith's priorities, he arranged for the Egyptians to stir the Levantine shit pot one more time as a distraction, to their own everlasting regret.

The invasion force was launched from the Imperial carrier Trespasser, together with a mix of thirty fighters and bombers to provide air cover, as it was still called even in the vacuum of space. Additional muscle was provided by the guns and missiles of the destroyer Punisher.

Then the Trespasser hung back about a hundred thousand miles from the Moon, with another third of her fighters and bombers circling on CSP, or Combat Space Patrol, and the final third still aboard the carrier in reserve.

The Punisher and Azibeel's invasion force whipped around the other side of the Moon from Robyn's city of Fortuna and entered orbit. In defense, all Hunky could do at that point was transmit the signal to arm hundreds of space mines which had orbited the moon like silent, tireless sentries for many years.

Mines were a dangerous nuisance but they were not really considered a game-changer. Admiral Belphegor, who had already transferred hyz flag to the Punisher, considered them to be good target practice for hyz gunners when- ever one popped up from behind the limb of the moon.

Femina Caelestis space mines were officially referred to as Semi-Maneuverable Anti-Spy Satellite satellites (SMASSS). None had nuclear warheads, but macro warheads were nasty enough. Mines were generally easy to avoid, being in orbit where they marched to the precise laws of physics and gravity and their positions were known to all parties at all times, but Femina Caelestis mines had primitive AI and they also had thrusters to maneuver.

When the mines saw the enemy ships they made small alterations in their orbits with puffs of propellant gas. Each Imperial ship immediately noticed the discrepancy on radar and changed their own course to swing clear.

After a few near-misses, the fleet began constantly doing random course changes to avoid becoming more predictable to the mines than the mines were to them. It took one more orbit around the moon before the orbital pattern of the mines could be crafted by their internal artificial intelligences, working as a team, into a concentrated phalanx.

The invaders were gathered close in to the Moon. They were a loose cluster of ships less than fifty miles in altitude, but the sharply bending lunar horizon was still distant enough to allow time for emergency evasive action when hundreds of the space mines popped up over the lunar limb in a gigantic surprise.

Evasion began immediately but many of the devices had actually repositioned themselves to take advantage of the most likely evasion plans. The mines were thinking ahead.

A last ditch laser barrage defense was turned against the rapidly closing mines but there were simply too many of them and some of the invaders were too slow and clumsy to get out of the way. The shuttles Conqueror and Brutalizer actually collided, crippling each other for the remainder of the battle.

Six nephilim officers from both ships salvaged what they could of the fiasco, jettisoning themselves in their command sections and making their way down to the prearranged rendezvous point on the surface of the Moon. But the forty-four angry Russian troops left behind would continue to flounder in orbit until Femina Caelestis captured them a week later.

Fourteen of the other transport ships successfully evaded the mine attack. But the shuttle Harasser was not so lucky and seemed to walk right into them. The artificially intelligent mines were ecstatic that they could finally fulfill their intended purpose and explode. Harasser was struck by the cresting wave of mines and all twenty-five nephilim soldiers aboard her died. Hunky had definitely grabbed Azibeel's attention now. So much for the cakewalk hy had in mind.

Next Femina Caelestis unleashed hundreds of surface-to-space missiles from hidden batteries all over the Moon. Half of these missiles were not armed with explosives. Instead they were tasked to haul up inflatable mylar balloons, long strips of chaff, aluminum foil, dummy warheads and canisters of infrared-emitting aerosols.

In the middle of all this pure trash the real live Brushfire missiles in- side the threat cloud were completely hidden by an opaque white smear on radar, made even worse by the Imperial's own jamming from a higher orbit which backlit the whole mess.

When Admiral Belphegor realized this and ordered everyone to switch to visual acquisition on telescopes hyz list of potential threats was ten times larger than the number of real threats, thanks to Femina Caelestis deployment of decoy inflatable missiles. By the time Belphegor figured that out the real Brushfire missiles were already on terminal cruise, aided by targeting using passive and active sensors scattered in odd corners all over the surface of the Moon.

Odd that these formidable preparations on the part of Femina Caelestis seemed to slip the Emperor's mind when hy planned hyz raid.

Belphegor tried jamming the Brushfires. Hy tried substituting the real ra- dar reflection of Punisher with an electronic impostor and then moving that impostor blip off to a new course hoping the missiles would follow. And it did seem to work. Many of the Brushfire rounds did go off course.

Then the Imperial fighters protecting Punisher (and Punisher herself) started taking potshots at the rest of the incoming missiles with thumping 80 kilowatt laser firepower, two rounds per second per turret.

With all these defensive efforts at a peak the big wave broke and sprinkled only a relative handful of Brushfire missiles through to hit the shuttles Degrader and Immolator, which were destroyed in spectacular, silent explosions with all hands aboard.

Punisher escaped damage for the time being, but the fireworks show was just getting started.

Seven Femina Caelestis Sandwich fighter pilots leaped into the lunar sky from the roof of Fortuna to enter the fray. Gina established good old- fashioned encrypted radio contact on a UHF frequency. This is Valorous, radio check, over.

They reported in by rank. Ash-blonde Stephanie leveled out her fighter and said, Valorous, this is Dragonfly, roger, over.

Red-headed Amanda checked in saying, Valorous, this is Ardent, roger, over.

When it was her turn pretty dark-haired Cherie said, Valorous, this is Star Cobra, roger, over.

Blonde pixie Suzanne set her fighter busy doing a Built-In-Test and piped up saying, Valorous, this is Lancer, roger, over.

Shaven-headed Tori got her buggy transmitter working just in time and said, Valorous, this is Tornado, roger, over.

Dark-haired, slender little Maryanne looked through her canopy at Gina's fighter nearby and chimed in, Valorous, this is Talon, roger, over.

Pink Wings this is Valorous, roger, close it up tight ladies. I want visual contact with all of you. Valorous, out.

From the first day these women joined her team, Gina made them drill. And drill. Gina drilled because she wanted no hesitancy to remain. Combat must be learned in the muscles. It should be a dance. Second nature. There should be no transition from training to the real thing, and the real thing had finally come.

The Punisher was easily identified. Each enemy ship had a radar with unique "fingerprints", which were certain defects in the transmitter. These defects, which were little dips on the tops of the pulses, or slightly ringing pulses, lent an electronic personality to the signal going out.

Stephanie said, This is Dragonfly, I have identified the destroyer, track one zero niner.

Soon after the seven fighters had all gathered close together Gina barked her orders. So let's get them interested in us. Spread to every corner of the sky. Then make your runs. Sting 'em with random attacks. No pattern! Set your Multiblip Repeater to attack formation Delta.

The Multiblip Repeater was a jamming device unlike any other. Most jammers filled the enemy's radar picture with clouds of static. But the Multiblip Repeater simulated the echoes of real contacts. So mixed in with the real blips of Gina's randomly flying fighters were the false blips of a dozen ghost ships in a precise "V" attack profile. This was Attack Formation Delta.

Belphegor directed hyz arsenal toward the juicy targets of all those blips lined up in a straight "V". Hy instructed the ships under hyz command to ignore the other blips, the randomly moving blips, as silly attempts to jam.

The Multiblip Repeater was even more clever. It deleted contacts one by one as the invaders thought they scored "hits." Not until Gina's people actually passed to within visual range did the Admiral realize hy had been tricked. By then it was too late. The first pass had to count. Gina's people made sure to hit all the good stuff, the missile racks and most of the gun mounts.

Most importantly, Gina passed close enough to Punisher to record the neutrino signature from the main macro installed aboard. She squirted this information off to the Grid so Hunky could cross it to a known macro, because Gina suspected the Empire had done a switcheroo.

The Punisher reached out and slapped Maryanne as she passed by, crippling her ship with close-in laser fire. I'm hit! she screamed as her fighter spun wildly out of the zone of combat. Eventually her nerves settled down and she was able to bring her ship under semi-control.

This is Talon, she said when the immediate crisis had passed. I'm alright.

Can you make it back to the city? Gina asked her.

I don't know. I'm going to set down on the surface until I can check out the extent of my damage.

If it's bad, Maryanne, don't try to limp back into the battle.

Roger, out. Maryanne didn't know it yet, but the battle of Luna was over for her. The damage was far worse than she realized, and when she suited up and went over the exterior of her ship she would marvel that she made it down to the ground in one piece.

Hunky called Gina back and told her the macro installed in the destroyer Punisher was actually licensed to the destroyer Occupier, so Gina's hunch was right. Hunky said, I'm officially decertifying both macros right now for breach of contract. We can't do anything about the macro that's supposed to be in Punisher right now, but here's the code to take off-line the macro that is supposed to be in Occupier.

And that, of course, would leave Punisher dead in space.

At the same time Maryanne sustained her disabling hit, Amanda and Suzanne's blows combined to score a fatal hit on the Repressor. It fell like a stone to the surface of the Moon and impacted, killing all twenty-five men aboard. Then the six remaining Femina Caelestis fighters headed back out and regrouped, tearing a path away to free space.

Gina had set out to interest the destroyer in her tiny force. Punisher was definitely interested now. With the little dignity it had left the wounded warship and her retinue of fighters, bombers, and shuttles turned to stately pursue their attackers.

Gina said, Execute Formation Delta. Scramble your repeaters. Everyone expertly complied. Now it was the actual fighters which were in a precise V pattern and the false electronic blips which were moving randomly.

Admiral Belphegor had picked up on things right away. Now hy scoffed at the primitive attempt to fool hyz radar with a V of dots all lined up with (it was obvious now) machine precision. Not the rough formations to be expected from inexperienced human women pretending to be combat star pilots. This time hy directed hyz missile and gun-fire to the randomly moving contacts.

It's electronic warfare, Gina said to herself when she watched her deception work. She was in a rhythm with the other five gals. They all functioned as one unit, and they were all having enormous fun.

Gina allowed the burning destroyer to pass into the zone of space defined by her and the five planes under her command. There, Gina transmitted a neutrino code that could not be blocked. The signal immediately deactivated the macro aboard Punisher, and the ship died before their eyes.

And so for the first time ever, Femina Caelestis had pulled the trigger on a weapon they always held in reserve from the time Jerry Shy Bear first invented the macro, a weapon Femina Caelestis was only suspected to have before this day.

The next time Astrodyne units ran into the imperial destroyer Occupier in the Belt, that ship's power plant would be taken out of service in the same unceremonious way.

Unable to move, the cornered Punisher slowly withered away under Femina Caelestis's continuing attack. The Admiral's smooth brown winged ellipsoid was on fire and had giant ragged bites taken out of it. Parts of the hull had been exposed to vacuum, sucking some unstrapped personnel into space.

Command shifted to a secondary bridge deeper within the highly compartmentalized interior where pressurized and undamaged workspaces were still to be found, but it was a fool's errand. Punisher could no longer run nor see nor fight. There remained only vengeance.

In her death throes Punisher, true to her name, lashed out with a blind Bulldog missile which found its way to Femina Caelestis fighter Star Cobra. Impact. The dense knot of water held in a phantom quantum state inside her fighter went up all at once, creating a vast white explosion completely out of proportion to the fighter's tiny size, much as a macro-bomb punched well above its weight.

Poor Cherie! Suzanne cried, breaking radio discipline in her grief, which was the unbidden response of her heart, even when her head knew Cherie would live again.

Gina smiled through her own tears. This never was about us trying to live as long as we can, she said. Don't you see? Avoiding death never was the glue that bound us together.

Suzanne nodded to herself. No, that glue is love!

When the overlapping glowing swirls of water vapor from Cherie's demise grew and faded to invisibility all eyes turned to the final doom of the imperial destroyer. None of the 280 officers and crewyeng of Punisher survived the final blow, a ship-to-ship Brushfire-B missile fired by Gina through a gap in the hull with a five hundred pound macro warhead, blowing the ship into bright glowing embers which scattered to every corner of the sky.

So ended Admiral Belphegor, victor of countless campaigns in the Eggbeater at Alpha Centauri, at the hands of five human females pretending (as the Admiral supposed) to be star pilots.

After only a few moments of shaking themselves and checking for broken bones the troop transports and their escorting wings turned and lumbered hell-for-leather after the FC fighters to avenge the Punisher.

Gradually the battle became strung out on a line only fifty thousand feet above the Moon, making a beeline for the city of Fortuna.

There's gotta be an idiot in charge, Gina told her girls over the channel. This is too easy. No way would a worthy foe just walk into our triple A over the city.

The line of Pink and Blue beads lengthened and thinned out. Blue forces slowly found themselves isolated with small enemies on two sides. The five gnats became four. In the slug-match that ensued Tori aboard Femina Caelestis Sandwich Fighter Tornado suffered a disabling hit. It wasn't as serious as the damage to Talon, but she had to withdraw from the battle and return to Fortuna.

Still, Azibeel was strung out along one vulnerable line. Configured this way, one-dimensionally, each ship could assist only it's two immediate neighbors. Meanwhile, the entire formation passed directly over Fortuna City, which attacked the enemy ships from below using its heavy defensive lasers with impunity. Azibeel dared not return fire because his objective was somewhere inside Fortuna and he needed the city intact.

This was a classic textbook case of what not to do, studied by naval historians for centuries, from the time of wooden sailing ships right through the era of steel battleships in the first and second world wars. Azibeel had allowed Femina Caelestis to cross his T. And what made it even more unforgivable was that it was a stationary city bristling with cannon (and not a line of maneuvering warships) that did the crossing.

In a storm of fire, the invasion fleet broke formation, went into complete disarray, and individually set course to get to the Moon's surface as quickly as possible.

All of the enemy ships took damage, but the Subjugator was crippled by a particularly well-paced shot from the city and her descent turned into a free-fall as she spiraled down to the ground. All hands aboard died in the crash.

Hunky noted this sparrowfall from the War Room in the heart of the city and said, I get the impression they came out here with their second-best football team and expected to go up against nothing but cheerleaders.

At her side Dory chuckled and said in reply, I'm thinking it's the cute little Girl Guard uniforms fooled 'em.

So only nine Imperial troop transport shuttles successfully landed in the predesignated place, a small valley in the Taurus-Littrow highlands about ten miles from Fortuna.

Very close by was the actual landing spot of the historic 1972 Apollo 17 expedition, the sixth and final moon landing of the legendary 20th Century. Gina came in low over them and scored a direct hit on the troopship Oppressor before they could debark, killing or seriously wounding sixteen of the Russians aboard.

Emperor Azibeel saw this and hyz anger, already smoldering from the loss of Punisher, burned white hot. When Gina came around again for another pass, this time with her surviving girls in formation behind her, Azibeel prepared to let Gina have it with a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile (although the Moon had no air, so a different name for hyz weapon would have been more appropriate).

With effortlessness derived from countless opportunities affording hym experience, Azibeel shouldered hyz rocket canister and took meticulous aim while the rest of hyz people dove for cover. From Gina a laser touched the ground at Azibeel's feet, visible only as a glowing cloud of dust. Azibeel took aim and fired, unperturbed and undeterred by Gina's attack. The passive, IR-homing, radar-silent SAM found its way unerringly toward the intense heat of Gina's underthrusters.

Two objects crossed in the black lunar sky: Azibeel's missile and Gina's spacecraft. The intervening factor was a hot puff ball at the point of closest approach only three feet away from Gina's wildly evading fighter.

I'm hit!

Gina's fighter tumbled in a flat spin to the ground like a tile thrown out a window. Gina was gone, but her final memories were transmitted to Fortuna safely intact. The sudden loss of their leader frightened the remaining three star pilots off and the air campaign was largely over. Now the surviving Imperial shuttles could unload Egorov's people and supplies unmolested.

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