“Hang on.” Ryder gripped the controls tightly.

“I’m buckled in,” said Orlov.

“I said hang on.” Ryder forced the plane into a tight dive. The attacking fighters, caught by surprise, could only scatter in order to avoid the oncoming Revolutionary Guard aircraft. Several couldn’t make it, and the Dalien D-270 rattled with the impact of parts thrown free by their fiery collisions.

As Ryder steered the aircraft down below the clouds, a tableaux of aerial carnage opened up before him. Most of the air force had gone over to the Revolutionary Guard en masse, and they were out in force, bearing blood-red roundels painted over the former royal insignia. The opposing force of Imperial craft were resplendent in their own livery of the black Imperial arrow over a blue circle, but the pilots didn’t have the same wartime experience that the Guard craft did. Explosions bloomed like spring poppies as they engaged each other, numbers on the one side and skill on the other.

The path to the island seemed clear for a moment before an Imperial zeppelin suddenly burst through low-hanging clouds immediately below the D-270. Ryder pulled on the stick until Orlov could hear the metal groaning in protest, pulling the craft level with the zeppelin’s dorsal surface so narrowly that the low-hanging fuel probe was torn off. The crew of the helium-filled monstrosity were wide-eyed as the craft passed their heavy machine gun turrets, and several turned to engage Ryder’s Dalien as it passed.

But the swarms of incendiary bullets tearing into the craft from the Guard were a far grater concern, and the flammable doped canvas began to catch fire and break up even as Ryder flew above it. He pitched forward once again just before the nose dropped and the craft fell out of the sky. For a moment, it looked as if he and Orlov were about to collide with an attacking Guard fighter, but it bloomed into a crimson flower just beneath them, the victorious Imperial plane buzzing them at close range.

“I-” Orlov tried to say.

Hold on!” Ryder growled.

They were low enough now that the anti-aircraft fire rising up from the Imperial fleet was a major concern, as were the streams of tracers issuing from Revolutionary Guard fortifications on the island. Ryder corkscrewed the plane down to wavetop height, breaking up a formation of Guard torpedo bombers making a run at an Imperial cruiser. They sputtered impotently with their defensive guns as they wheeled away, but the cruiser opened fire anyway, with a distinct lack of gratitude. The Guard planes attacking it were swatted down all around the Dalien, but Orlov saw something in the water out his window that make him shriek anew.

“Torpedoes!”

Ryder pitched the plane up and over the cruiser seconds before the Guards’ silver fish connected, blitzing through the fireball that rose as the ship broke in half and sank.

Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on.” Orlov realized, once he had half a second’s consideration, that Ryder wasn’t talking to him anymore. No, the words were meant for the island, and the princess.

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