"Hostile fighters, dead ahead!"

Maurin Landar, second-year cadet in the Imperial Naval Academy on Hullis IV, stiffened in his chair. According to the briefing they'd been given, they weren't supposed to encounter any enemies for another five minutes. Meaning the instructors were screwing with them again. Meaning pretty much anything could happen, and knowing Colonel Vallens, whatever happened would be the most disastrous thing possible.

Well, Maurin thought to himself, To be fair, we haven't had to deal with the spontaneous annihilation of every inhabited planet yet, but I wouldn't put it past Vallens.

Sarin Calahan, wing leader for the exercise, spoke again. "Landar, Brightman, take point and assess hostile armaments."

In other words, Maurin and his wingmate for the excersize, Geoff Brightman, would play target practice for the enemy so the rest of the squad knew what they were getting into. Fun. "Acknowledged, lead. Geoff, loosen formation. Let's not make this too easy for them."

"Roger that," Geoff's voice came back. Maurin re-activated his rear engines, accelerating past the rest of the squad while Geoff drifted to the side before duplicating the manuever.

Maurin waited a few seconds, then stopped thrusting. He and Geoff were now moving much faster than the main body of the squadron. Maurin watched the numbers on his range to target indicator rapidly drop. Once they were at about twice their maximum range, he began thrusting perpendicular to his line of flight, calculating firing solutions on the closest fighters. Geoff went the opposite direction, also calculating firing solutions. As the range indicator hit maximum firing range, the hostile fighters scattered, thrusting in all different directions. Maurin shrugged. It hadn't been unexpected, but it did make his firing solutions worthless... if he used his forward plasma cannons. His firing solutions would work fine if he fired some area-of-effect weapons. "Launching Gumdrops."

Two VX-7 Incapacitance Devices, nicknamed "Goodnight Gumdrops" by the pilots that used them, flew forward out of his fighter. Goodnight Gumdrops were powerful electronics warfare devices. Any active electronic device not surrounded by heavy shielding (very heavy, of the type only practical on capital-class ships) in the blast range would burn out, utterly incapacitating modern fightercraft. The only real defense a pilot had was to shut down his entire system just before detonation. It was tricky. Too long before detonation and the pilot would simply not detonate it, instead taking advantage of his opponent's temporary inability to maneuver to blast him out of the sky (and just detonate it if they tried to power up). Too shortly before detonation and not everything would shut off, and the Gumdrop would fry vital components. It was joked that pilots always had one hand on the stick, one hand on the control panel, and one hand on the shutoff switch.

The hostile fighters immediately stopped maneuvering as the pilots inside (or the AI pretending to be pilots, depending on how the instructors wanted to play this) focused all their attention on the suddenly-important VX-7s. Maurin and Geoff took advantage of this distraction to fire their plasma cannons at the fighters closest to their positions. Two of their enemies exploded before the rest got their priorities straight and re-initiated evasive maneuvers.

Then the Gumdrops were in position, and Maurin, after quickly checking his sensor board to see if any of the enemy pilots had foolishly shut down early, detonated them. A second later, most of the enemy fighters began maneuvering again, having shut down and restarted properly. Two, however, had failed to shut down in time and were now drifting. "I've got the drifters," came Geoff's voice, so Maurin turned towards the nearest active fighter. "Roger that."

At this range, the targeting computer was able to positively identify it as a Moth, a light Earth Empire scout ship. While no Earth Empire fighter was really a one-to-one match with a Volitanian fighter in a dogfight, the Moth wasn't even a one-to-one match with any other Earth Empire fighter. Fragile and lightly armed, the Moth had only two things going for it; it was dirt cheap, and it accelerated quickly. This made it an ideal disposable scout. Squadrons of Moths were sent out like this to find hostile forces and report back. When the numbers were on their side (in other words, if they outnumbered the enemy three-to-one), standard Earth Empire doctrine dictated they engage and eliminate the enemy before reporting back. As Maurin and Geoff were outnumbered four-to-one (now that four of the enemy fighters had been destroyed or disabled), they were attacking.

Maurin winced as incoming projectile weapons grazed his fighter's shields. The Moth also used projectile weapons instead of energy weapons, sacrificing combat endurance (which it didn't have anyway) for cost-effectiveness. Unfortunately for Maurin, their squadron was flying Phoenix-class fighters, with shields optimized for dissipating energy blasts, making them less effective at deflecting projectile weapons. Just one more little way for Vallens to stack the odds against us.

The sudden hailstorm of projectiles made acquiring firing solutions a bit harder, but Maurin managed to avoid losing shield integrity while taking down another Moth. Geoff, now directly across the enemy formation from Maurin, had destroyed the two drifters and caused some damage to one of the active Moths. The enemy streams of fire began moving dangerously close to Maurin, so he made his evasive maneuvers much more frantic at the loss of his ability to accurately target the enemy. He took this time to notify the rest of the squad. "Lead, hostile force is made up entirely of Moths. Original formation had a full squad of twelve, but we've knocked that down to seven. We've lost the initiative, however, and could use some backup."

"Copy that, Landar. Increasing speed and commencing sniper support."

The rest of the squadron would now be kicking in their main engines and firing their plasma cannons in sniper mode. The energy blasts would move faster, but fire much slower, perfect for long-range support. Aided by the targetting data from Maurin and Geoff's fighters, they'd even get a remote possibility of a hit.

"Maurin, I'm going to hit them with my Gumdrops. Prepare to shut down on my mark."

Maurin grimaced. At this range, they'd have no choice but to shut down their own fighters to avoid being disabled by their own weapons. Unfortunately, the Volitanian Empire's fighters had more advanced computers than their Earth Empire counterparts... meaning they took a bit longer to shut off and boot up again. Meaning if Geoff's timing was off, Maurin would end up drifting and disabled.

Maurin crossed his fingers and placed one hand on the emergency shutdown switch.


The Moths behind Maurin were closing in, so he flew into a sideways spiral and fired back into their formation as a round of sniper fire from the rest of the squadron boxed it in.


He ceased spiralling when the Moths scattered, diving after one and firing once, twice into its engines, detonating them.


Maurin made one last thrust to throw off pursuit and prayed.


He slammed down the switch and waited with apprehension as every display suddenly went dark. He was supposed to wait five seconds, but with his chrono off he had to count in his head, and it seemed to last an eternity. Finally, he flipped the switch back up and watched his fighter quickly boot up. As soon as his thrusters came online, he began evasive maneuvering again. Then his comm system re-activated and he quickly transmitted something. "Geoff, you there?"

"Glad to see you're all right, Maurin. See any of the Moths still active?"

Maurin looked at his now-reactivated sensor screen and whistled. "I do believe we got a clean sweep."

"You're kidding."

"None of the moths are showing any signs of power, and they're all on ballistic courses."

Maurin heard nothing for a moment and guessed Geoff had turned off his comm unit for a moment so his whoops of victory wouldn't deafen anyone. "Maurin, let's clean 'em up."

Calahan's voice came across, and he appeared unable to completely contain his excitement. "Landar, Brightman, excellent work. Finish them off and rejoin the formation."

Maurin and Geoff spent another minute or two chasing down the dead Moths and blasting them out of space, then coordinated an interception with the rest of the squadron. At the end of it, the whole squadron looked just like it had a few minutes earlier, with just a bit more minor blast scoring on two of its fighters as the only testimony that the squadron of Moths had ever existed.

Or hadn't, as it were, Maurin thought to himself with a chuckle.

* * *

Morvis Hanarock was not happy.

To be fair, she didn't have a whole lot to be happy about. Her ship had just been shot to pieces, another ship full of her friends had been blown to smithereens, and fully half of her crew was out of commission, but she generally was only in a full-blown sour mood on very rare occasions.

It seemed that this was one of those occasions.

"... and damnit, Admiral, they shouldn't have even gotten half as close as they did!"

Admiral Redfield sighed. He knew that Captain Hanarock was simply venting, but having someone yell at him for twenty minutes over something that wasn't even remotely his fault was beginning to wear thin on his patience.

"I agree wholeheartedly, Captain. Admiral Molkev also agrees completely. He's busy yelling at CentInt over the affair as we speak."

That last statement was technically a lie (he'd yelled at them much earlier), but he figured it was close enough to the truth.

Hanarock was still breathing hard from having yelled so much, but drew herself up. "You're right. I apologize."

Redfield shook his head. "No need to apologize." He'd yelled at superior officers over how fucked up things were on several occasions himself.

Hanarock straightened into a more military pose. "Thank you for allowing me to vent, sir."

"You're welcome. Dismissed."

With a salute, she was gone. Redfield sighed. He'd have to see if Molkev was having any luck getting CentInt to step things up.

Which reminded him of something else he was supposed to be doing. He touched a button on his desk. "Contact Captain Fenway, I have a special assignment for her."

* * *

Doran was still shaking slightly. It was a little much to take, all at once, and he was producing far too much adrenaline.

He knew this fact because his eyeballs now had a heads-up display, and this display seemed to think his excessive adrenaline production was worthy of his attention.

With a shudder, he dismissed the notification and called up the list of things the techs had thought he should "get a hang of" before they pulled him into the testing chamber. Personally, he thought it was far too quickly after the operation for him to be experimenting with his nanite-net (a far easier thing to call it than "Nanotech-based Reaction-assistance Agent-enhancement Something-or-other", Doran didn't really have a good memory for needlessly-complicated titles). His opinion, however, didn't seem to matter more than the sense of extreme urgency surrounding the whole affair.

It started with, "Item 1: Get a hang of menu navigation." Well, check that off. He'd had to learn that quickly just to shut up a whole stream of annoying notifications. As the rest of the list looked to be largely the same variety of "Figure out how to perform simple task A", with the unstated warning that it would probably be used for hideously complex tasks B, C, and D, with the rest of the alphabet joining the party whenever the techs thought he was ready, he closed the list and decided to try and sleep, because that warning about his adrenaline levels did worry him a little bit.

Sleep, however, was not for him. Right as he laid his head on the pillow, a lab tech opened the door. "Agent Llek?"

"Yes?" he moaned.

"They want you in the testing chamber, now."

With a dejected sigh, Doran sat up and followed the flunky through the door.

* * *

"Good run, Landar."

Maurin's expression didn't change. Vallens was no doubt about to drop the metaphorical hammer on his ego.

"However..." here it came, "...your handling of the Moth situation was a little unorthodox."

Maurin blinked, uncomprehending. His handling of the _Moths_? When the main action was some twenty minutes _after_ that minor skirmish? That minor skirmish in which he took only glancing blows to his shields? _That_ situation? "Sir?"

Colonel Vallens tapped away at his hand computer. Whether he was actually recalling notes or simply stalling for time was anybody's guess. "Your initial maneuvers were well done. Taking out two Moths with primaries and two more with the VX-7's was very good. However, you only called for sniper support after that initial scuffle."

Maurin blinked. Where was Vallens going with this? "Yes, sir."

"Why didn't you have Cadet Calahan perform sniper support as soon as you saw that there were, in fact, twelve physical opponents, and not sensor ghosts from EW drones?"

Maurin resisted the urge to groan. Trust Vallens to jump on the slightest breach of protocol. "I wished to identify what type of enemy we were going up against first, sir."

Vallens raised an eyebrow. "You called for sniper support against Moths, Landar. The smallest, most maneuverable fighters the Earth Empire has at its disposal. Are you saying you wouldn't have called for sniper support against Falcons? Or Raptors?"

Maurin winced. Oops, didn't think of that. "No, sir."

Vallens sighed. "Landar, when you're going to call in sniper support regardless of the enemy you come across, you need to do it as early as possible to ensure that it has some time to have any effect whatsoever. Understand?"

"Yes, sir."

Vallens saluted. "Good run otherwise, Cadet."

Maurin returned the salute. "Thank you, sir."

Vallens then turned his attention to the rest of the class. "In the main engagement, the rest of you all handled yourselves pretty good. Some of you handled yourselves okay. Okay, however, is not good enough. Okay gets you or your wingmates killed. Felix, that goes especially for you."

Victor Felix's expression was gloomy. Not only had his wingmate been "killed" while he had been out of formation, but he'd gotten his own virtual fighter blown up a few seconds later.

"Class dismissed." Vallens sat back down behind his desk, where he would no doubt be programming an even more devious scenario for their next class. "And don't forget to practice! It becomes obvious that you haven't when you get blown out of the sky!"

Geoff caught up with Maurin in the hallway. "You made the same mistake last class, too."

Maurin scowled. "It's silly. It's not like sniper support is needed against Moths anyway. I just called for it to give us one more advantage, out of a very long list."

Geoff shrugged. "You didn't know they were Moths." Before Maurin could reply, he continued. "You may have guessed, but you didn't know. You suspected they were Moths because throwing a squadron of Moths at a pair of Phoenix fighters is a very Vallens thing to do. But you didn't know, and that was his point."

Maurin sighed. "What you're saying is that Vallens thinks I'm cocky, and you agree."

"He knows perfectly well that you perform very highly in tactical situations of all varieties, and that instructors inform you of this on a regular basis. He doesn't want it going to your head."

"Yeah, well, I know all about the dangers of an overactive ego."

Geoff shrugged. "Sounds fairly egotistical to me."

Maurin grinned at that. "Come on, we've got Falwell next. Time to perform dastardly maneuvers and outwit out foes."

"Yeah, I see you've got your ego firmly in check, there."

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