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Two gunships sped through open space in staggered formation. Each craft had three soldiers: the pilot, fire control, and tactical. These two gunships were Cedar-class, and were slightly battered from their encounters with hostile Insubordinate vessels.

Inside the Ferrberre, Lieutenant Captain Hothray struggled with the gunship's manuevering thrusters, two of which were damaged by kinetic weapons fire. The remaining three had to fight the occasional and involuntary spurt the two damaged thrusters would give off. "Ferrberre to Nethst, do you copy?"

"Nethst. We copy you," came the reply.

"Tactical detects incoming solar wind of high intensity. Recommending reduction in velocity."

There wasn't much of a pause. "Copy that. Affirmative. Reduce speed to two KPS."

"Acknowledged. Reducing speed to two kilometers per second. Ferrberre out." Hothray switched to internal comms. "Garlov, you'd better be right about that solar wind. This delay will cut into my R&R."

Garlov, whose station was beside the pilot's, didn't wait to respond. "There's a good reason why I am tactical and you the stick-master, Cap." The tactical soldier didn't bother to use formal titles during internal comm time. That's probably what made him so likeable.

Northchild, on the other hand, was the other end of the spectrum. Maybe it was because she was a gunner, or maybe it was because she never seemed to know anyone long enough to get fully acquianted with them before they died. Nerri Northchild had went through more guncrews than anyone Hothray knew. How she was still breathing and in one piece was a mystery. To call it luck would be superstitious; to call it divine intervention would be putting yourself in with the Insubordinates. Its just the way it was, he guessed.

Hothray couldn't help but wonder how his gunner was doing. Her station was above and behind him, so he never made eye contact. One always knew she was present, though. "Comrade Northchild, status report," he ordered, glancing over at Garlov. The "sensor" glanced back haphazardly.

"Kinetic weapons at one hundred percent functionality; ammunition is at thirty two percent. Energy weapons powered down. Three missiles still onboard, ready to be---"

"How about Northchild?" Hothray interjected.

"At one hundred percent functionality, sir."

The gunship supervisor shook his head. Even though his implants prevented him from feeling much of anything, he knew he would have been feeling something close to irritation, but without the aggressive edge. Try as he might to get some humanness out of his gunner, it never happened. She was born to be a non-artificial artificial intelligence.

The Ferrberre began to move erratically. Hothray looked over at Garlov, only to see the man already staring at him with a slight grin. Hothray smiled and shook his head, turning his attention back to the front. One learned how to express emotion even if they couldn't feel it. "The Chernobyl should be just beyond the Nymon Cloud. I suggest we just go through it instead of---"

Before he could finish his sentence, a bright flash and then a streak of light caught his attention, along with Garlov's and probably Northchild's. The Nethst had launched a missile.

"Ferrberre to Nethst, cease fire and inform!" Hothray blurted into his comm piece.

"This is Nethst! Fire unintentional! Systems malfunction!"

A high pitched alarm sounded off just before Garlov said with an urgent tone, "Terminal sit!" A terminal situation was not something Hothray wanted to hear this late into the mission. "Missile lock on our vector!"

Hothray's mind was unhindered by emotion, but his brain still retained the reflexes of emotion which he had experienced up until he joined the Fifth Kingdom Stellar Navy. As with almost every stellar navy soldier in all ten Kingdoms, he involuntarily used a tone of voice that his brain thought would be used if he were to feel. The event of the 2-megaton Mertis missile locking onto their vector would have certainly brought on an intense emotional reaction, but Hothray felt no such thing, and neither did his guncrew.

Before he even replied to Garlov's warning, fire control was already covering their vector with kinetic gunfire, as was Nethst's fire controller. The Mertis missile had turned around and was already heading towards them, its mini particle drive propulsion system glowing brightly at its tail. It was unlikely that neither fire controller would be able to destroy the nuke with their kinetic guns, and a countermissile would set off the incoming missile. If their countermissile would catch the incoming nuke at all, the explosion proximity would destroy both gunships. The Mertis was a highly advanced thermonuclear smartmissile, and had fire-evasion capability.

As the fire controllers spun their guns, the smartmissile zig zagged fiercly, avoiding collision with any of the projectiles hurled by the Ferrberre's and Nethst's gauss-assisted rotary kinetic guns. Hothray wanted to give orders, but there were none that he could give. Fire control was doing the best she could, and tactical was attempting to jam the missile's tracking sensors. They had two seconds till impact. The Nethst had already veered off, and the nuke had acquired a permanent lock onto the Ferrberre. The Nethst's fire controller was still attempting to nail the missile. Both gunships had already deployed decoys, but the Mertis wouldn't fall for it.

Well, thought Hothray, I don't think Northchild will survive this one. That was his last 2-second thought before the nuke traveling at Vega 3 closed the gap and...

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