Jack sat back in his chair, holding his cards and looking at the others at the table.  With James giving him a reference as “an old buddy” it had been easy to get into Barlon Industries, and Jack knew how to make a past.  Barlon’s cybersniffers never found a thing, except for a few carefully planted things to make them certain they’d found all of his dirty secrets.  The frequent trips to the Bouncing Bunnies Bar out on New Mars for instance.  And the subscription to Jiggly under an assumed name that is wife also wasn’t supposed to know about.  Confident that they could hold that and the other “interesting” activities over his head if he got out of line, they’d brought him in with big smiles.

Crocodile smiles Jack was sure, but smiles nonetheless.  It was important to be friendly with your new employees after all.  The last two weeks had gone by quickly, with the “brush up” training they’d been sure to run him through so he wouldn’t hit the wrong button and fire a missile into the flight bay before launching.  Never mind that missiles couldn’t be fired until the ship was launched.  One of those safety things.  Unless you knew the override codes.  Jack always liked to come prepared.  And then of course there’d been the first run out to New Mars where he met his new squadron mates.  He hadn’t expected to actually like them, but had found his new favorite past time.  Old favorite past time.  Whatever.

“Too rich for me,” Jack muttered as he laid his hand face down on the table and scowled.  He already had a nice pile of coins and it wouldn’t do to win every hand.  He liked winning enough that he could make money, but not so much that no one would ever want to play with him again after all.  He wanted to have something to do other than reading a book during his down time, and playing with his squadron mates allowed him to size them up to see what he could expect from them.

Wheezy for instance was a short little guy with a wheezing cough that never liked to take risks.  Bruiser was a dumb hulking brute that laughed too loud, joked too loud, and could barely fit into the cockpit of a fighter.  And nobody had yet hazarded a guess about how he’d learned to fly.  All seven pilots at the table had their own call signs based on their actions or styles and by common consent on this ship they were assigned by the other pilots.  Jack had been called Lucky from the moment he walked onto the Barlon Industries spaceport with Vanessa’s arm running through his two weeks ago.  The fact that he’d instantly taken command of one of the worst squadrons he’d ever seen to lead them in a string of wins against three full raider squadrons on their first run, and his work at the poker table had done nothing to hurt that name.

“I’ll see your five and bid five,” Money said firmly and put ten coins on the pile in the middle of the table.

“Wanna lose more huh?” Pincher laughed as he dropped ten coins down and smiled at Mask, a woman with the best poker face most people ever saw.

An alarm wailed and everybody looked at the table for a moment before jumping out of their chairs.  By common consent, the pile stayed where it was but their own money flew off the desk into money pouches in the instant before they ran for their lockers.  They arrived within seconds of each other and stripped down to their skivvies before pulling their flight suits out.

Jack had to fight to stop himself from looking at Mask’s and Cat’s well formed frames and put one leg into his flight suit.  The sound of a shoe bouncing off Bruiser’s face told him that Bruiser hadn’t fought the urge well enough.  His other leg shot into the suit and he stuffed his arms in as well before sealing the suit up to his neck.  Then he pulled the helmet out of his locker and shot out of the locker room into the hanger.

Footsteps he recognized as Cat’s followed close behind as they shot towards their fighters, century old Peloran four-engine fighters nearly identical to the combat section of his hyperboat, except that his fighter was fully upgraded with modern military technologies.  These fighters wouldn’t stand a chance against his ship, or any proper military vessel in Pryde Rock.  Of course, the Corporations didn’t fight the military.  “Good luck,” she noted with a chuckle as he reached his own fighter while she was climbing up hers.  He took a quick glance as she poured into her cockpit with all the grace of her namesake, long blonde hair flowing after her, and started clambering up his own ladder with considerably less grace.

“I make my own,” he called back as her cockpit began to close down around her.  “So how about I pass some on to you?” he finished with a wink and she smiled back.

“You don’t have that much luck,” she yelled back and her cockpit closed with a clang.  Five seconds later, his followed suit and he turned to see the last of his squadron mates, Bruiser as usual, working his way up the protesting ladder into his own fighter.  Then Cat’s hovered up off its landing gear and moved towards one of the launching runs as Jack pulled his helmet on, making the data connections he needed.  He pulled his fighter off the deck and moved towards the number two run and they saluted before the gravity boosters shot them out of the freighter at maximum speed.

As usual, they were the first two out and Cat formed on Jack’s port wing as he pulled around and waited for his sensor screen to clear.  Then he had it.  Seven fighters coming in fast on an intercept course.  Small raider squadrons like this were a common sight on the New Mars trade run.  The Corporations were more than willing to steal from their competitors, and each of them operated their own privateer squadrons as one front of the pseudo-war they’d fought against each other for a century.  Piracy was a common problem in the Pryde Rock system, at least when it came to Corporation freighters.  The Pryde Rock Defense Forces tended to get annoyed when distress signals started going off in their home star system though.  Like the distress signals on civilian passenger liners for instance.  No one would ever forget what happened to Transtellar Communications after one of its privateer squadrons accidentally targeted one of those.  The last he’d heard, the place their headquarters had been was still too hot to allow for rebuilding.  Like there was anything left of that Corporation to rebuild.

“Form on me,” Jack ordered as he turned the fighter again to stay on course with the freighter while the rest of the squadron exited one at a time.

“Any time, Lucky,” Cat called back and Jack smiled as their fighters flew over the Barlon Industries logo painted on the freighter.

“Forming up,” Mask noted in her usual monotone.

One by one, all six fighters came in, Bruiser as usual being the last and they waited as the fighters continued to close.  Three light seconds.  “Prepare to break and attack by wings,” Jack ordered firmly.  Two light seconds.  “I’ll stay with Wing One.”

“Glad to have you on my back,” Cat called out.  One light second.

“Break,” Jack ordered and the seven-ship wedge split into two groups as the freighter’s point defense opened up, firing through the spot the fighters had just held.  Caught flat footed, one of the incoming raiders disappeared as several missiles exploded in front of it, and then the defenders were on the rest of the raiders like flies on feces.  The first raid of their second run was officially on.

Jack lined up his fighter and the twin graviton cannons in his fuselage fired a long shot that savaged his target’s shields, before he pulled around to follow Wing One as Cat got on course to deal with a two-ship group of fighters.  One of the fighters exploded and Jack saw another coming around to hit them in the flank.  He couldn’t turn the fighter fast enough to hit them with his graviton cannons, but he swung his head around to put his eyes on the fighter, feeling the chin turret spin around to follow and let fly with a series of flechette streams and laser pulses that impacted all over its shield grid.

The fighter pulled away and he smiled as the second of Cat’s targets fell.  Then Bruiser’s fighter fell off Mask’s wing as one of his gravitic engines blew off and Jack turned.  “Wing One, watch my back, I’m helping Bruiser,” he ordered and Cat’s wing spun to follow him.

“Roger that, Lucky,” Cat transmitted back and Jack flinched as his shields flickered under the fire of another raider.  Three chin turrets ripped into the raider and he pulled away, shields flickering, as Jack lined up on his new target.  Both graviton cannons powered up and fired a tunnel of focused gravity each at the raider trying to vape Bruiser.  Both shots impacted and he smiled as the raider’s shields collapsed before switching to his chin turret while the graviton cannons cooled down.  They spat lasers and flechettes and the raider tried to pull away as his fighter ripped apart around him, but it was far too late.

Pieces of it flew apart as it died and Jack saw another point defense battery blast a raider into ruin.  Then he looked around for another target and realized there was nothing else out there.  “All fighters, give me a status report,” he ordered and the reports began coming in, one at a time in order from highest rank to lowest.  Bruiser was last.  And the worst off with only two engines firing.

“Mask and Wheezy, lock on and give him a boost for the freighter,” Jack ordered and they acknowledged his command before pulling up on either side of the fighter.  They locked wings with their disabled companion and then slowly thrust forward, pulling it along with them to the freighter so it could tractor Bruiser in.

Then it was time for the rest of the squadron to land, one at a time.  A quick shower to wash off the sweat of battle and five minutes later the squadron mates were back to doing more important things.

“I’ll see this ten and raise you ten,” Cat purred as she held her cards and looked at Money to see what he would do.

“Fold,” he finally growled.  “This just isn’t my day.”

“It never is,” Jack muttered as he leaned back in his chair loosely, glancing around at his squadron mates again with a concern his casual posture didn’t show.  He hadn’t expected to actually start liking them.  Hopefully that wouldn’t come back to bite him.