they can.” He thought it better not to mention that the other side had a longer reach, however.
He had Five and Six, the brothers, drop far back to field any enemies that might break through. The two remaining elements spread out as much as they could without risking separation. Their sensors and those of the approaching ships identified one another, and complex countermeasures and distortion systems switched on. Han knew this engagement would be conducted on visual ranging; all the complicated sensor-warfare apparatus tended to cancel out, no longer to be trusted.
Short-range screens painted four blips. “Go to Heads-Up Displays,” Han ordered, and they all cut in their holographics. Transparent projections of their instrumentation hung before them in the canopy bubbles, freeing them of the need to divert their eyes and attention from the task of flying in order to take a reading.
“Here they come!” someone shouted. “At one-zero-slash-two-five!”
The enemy ships were IRD models all right, with bulbous fuselages and the distinctive engine package that characterized that latest military design. They were IRD prototypes. As Han watched, the raiders broke formation into two elements of two ships each in perfect precision.
“Elements break!” he called. “Take ’em!” He led his wing man off to starboard to face that brace of IRDs as Jessa and her humanoid wing man banked to port.
The net came alive with cries of warning. The Espo flyers had disdained evasionary tactics, coming head-on, meaning they were out to put some blood on the walls. Their orders, Han thought, must’ve been to hit the outlaw-techs as hard as they could.
The IRDs began firing from extreme range with yellow-green flashes of the energy cannon in their chin pods. Deflector shields were up. Han ground his teeth, his hand tight on the stick, disciplining himself not to fire until it could do some good. He fought the urge to rubberneck and see how his other element was doing; each two-ship pair was on its own for the moment. He could only hope everybody would hold together, because the pilot who became a straggler in a row like this seldom came out of it.
Han and the opposing wing leader squared off and bore in on each other. Their wing men, keeping out of the way, were too busy holding position and adapting to their leaders’ actions to do any shooting.
The IRD’s beams began to make hits, rocking the smaller Headhunter. Han came within range and still held his fire; he had a feeling about this one. The IRD pilot might not even be sure about the old Z-95’s reach, but Han suspected he knew what the man would do as soon as he returned fire. Riding the jolting Headhunter through the hail of incoming shots, he bided his time and hoped his shields would hold.
He played it for as long as he dared, only a matter of an extra moment or two, but precious time and vital distance. He let one quick burst go. As he’d suspected, the enemy never intended to face off to the very end. The IRD rolled onto its back, still firing, and Han had the snap shot he’d hoped for. But the IRD fighter was into his gunsight ring and out again like a wraith, so although he scored, Han knew he hadn’t done it any damage. The Authority ships were even faster than he’d thought.
Then all bets were off because, despite everything taught in classrooms, the IRDs split up, the wing man peeling away in an abrupt bank. Han’s wing man went after him, exclaiming excitedly, “I’m on him!” Han hollered for him to come back and not throw away the security of a two-ship element.
The IRD leader swept by underneath Han. He knew what that meant, too; the enemy was almost certain to split-S, loop under, and try for a tail position—the kill position. What Han should have done with the slower Headhunter was to firewall the throttle and go for clear space until he knew what was what. But the interchange of chatter between Jessa and her wing mate told him that the other