I was born to do this, Matti thought. I want to do this forever.

“Optronics have acquired the targets . . . targets positively identified,” Jaska said, “and designated. Ready to engage.”

“Roger,” Matti said. “Weapons free.”

“Weapons free,” Jaska responded. “Cannons to auto, threat plot is green, no hostile activity. Dumb bastards have shut down.”

Dumb is right, Matti murmured under his breath, the adrenaline beginning to pump. They won’t know we’re here until it’s too late.

Bitsa closed in, the ground-attack lander moving so fast that the appalling noise from its two main engines was unable to keep up. Matti spotted the two orbital shuttles he and Jaska had come so far to destroy: two squat black shapes off to the left-hand side of the airstrip, rock steady in the lander’s holocam. An instant later, Bitsa’s quadruple 30-millimeter cannons opened up; the lander shuddered as hypervelocity shells ripped into the targets, the ground around them torn and blasted into clouds of dust and pulverized rock. Then they were past. Matti chopped the power and lifted the nose sharply to aerobrake Bitsa, stressing the foamalloy wings up into sharp curves as the lander’s speed bled off, wingtips stabbing back and up into a sky of palest blue. He banked the craft and let the speed decay to give the cannons time to finish the job, holding the turn until the two shuttles reappeared on the nose before steadying Bitsa for its second pass.

Cannon shells tore at the shuttles. Belatedly, one returned fire, but Bitsa’s armored hull shrugged off the pulsed lasers. Just as Matti began to wonder how much more damage the shuttles could absorb, first one and then the second erupted in brutal explosions that punched massive balls of pure energy into the air as their fusion plants lost containment, the shock waves tossing Bitsa into a violent, plunging roll to starboard that had Matti fighting for control.

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