“I don’t care who they are,” Angel shouted. “Just shoot the bastards! They didn’t let us out to talk.”
Maniac rolled up the throttle and banked sharply to port, wheeling over the Tiger Claw and slashing straight for a squadron of sixteen weird-looking fighters about the size of his Rapier. “Computer? Can you ID targets yet?”
“Negative. There are no targets in designated Sphere of Operations.”
“You piece of shit. I’m looking at ‘em right now!”
“No targets in designated Sphere of Operations. Would you like to try another sweep?”
“Shut up.” He scowled at the blank radar scope, then eyed the oncoming squadron and heaved a shivery sigh.
With cone-like fuselages that flapped in the nonexistent breeze and radiated ever-changing shades of blue, the fighters seemed more like creatures than machines, and Maniac wondered if maybe they were. He tensed as the squadron suddenly dispersed, as though they were parts of a single entity.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he mumbled and slid the Heads Up Viewer over his eye. The smart-targeting system’s green reticle would not appear because there were, of course, no designated targets in the zone. “Weps manual!” he cried, then backhanded the viewer away.
The Tempest computer’s failure to ID the targets meant that any fighter could play pin the missile on the Maniac. The trick now would be to keep turning, climbing, diving. Holding any one position for more than a few seconds would prove lethal.
Angel’s fighter arrowed across his field of view, her neutron cannon’s rotary barrel spinning wildly and rolling out a lightning-licked carpet beneath her target. She couldn’t get a bead on the bastard. Maniac watched her for a few more seconds, then slid down his visor and picked out a fighter at his two o’clock low. He jerked the stick right, lit the burners, and scaled an invisible incline, piloting the fighter as though it were a nuclear-powered amusement park ride screaming toward a meltdown. He guided the crosshairs over the ship and cut free his first salvo of neutron fire while snapping off a pair of Friend or Foe missiles. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
The neutron fire needled ineffectually along the fighter’s hull, rounds plunging out of sight and wreaking about as much havoc as an old man hurling birdseed. As the two missiles homed in, twin globules erupted from the fighter’s nose and swallowed both rockets sans explosions or traces of debris. The missiles were just gone. Out of there.
Realizing that he had held the same vector for too long, Maniac broke into a ninety degree climb relative to the squadron. He glanced at the scope and spotted Angel’s fighter, about a half K below. “Commander, you copy?”
“Here, Lieutenant. Just picked out two more of those warships coming around Netheryana.”
“The fighters have engaged. Why haven’t the cap ships targeted the Claw? We got like, what? Ten in the sphere now?”
“At least. And look--the Claw’s opening up on them. Dammit. Those ships are just neutralizing our fire.”
Maniac throttled up and mapped out another roller coaster course, occasionally glimpsing the strike carrier as her eight turreted lasers struck up wasted conversations with the enemy. The destroyers Mitchell Hammock and Oregon fared no better. Enemy fighters swarmed both capital ships, allowing laser and missile fire to travel no more than a few meters before each fighter lifted a spumous blue wall that absorbed the ordnance. One squadron began strafing the destroyers’ turrets with their lethal globules, and like Maniac’s missiles, the turrets simply vaporized. Maniac figured that within a few minutes both destroyers would be neutered. The Claw’s roar might take a little longer to stifle, but she would fall. The numbers painted picture. The numbers didn’t lie.
Blair, you asshole. Could use you now. You had to go AWOL, you sick bastard. When are you going to learn?
Turning his thoughts to more immediate help, Maniac dialed up Zarya’s frequency. “Hey, it’s your community convict, set free to kick ass before the cell door slams on his.”
Static filtered through the channel.
“Zarya, you copy?”
He abruptly lost his breath as he brought up the widest image possible on his radar scope. About a dozen Rapiers still operated within the zone, but blips summarily winked out.
“Zarya, you copy?”
Five blips. Four. Three. Two. Last one.
“Forget it, Lieutenant. Second Squadron is long gone,” Angel said, appearing on his Visual Display Unit. “And so are the others.”
He punched the scope. “No. Bullshit. This is... no.”
“We’re it, Lieutenant. Me and you.”
“And we’re gonna die,” he shouted, grinding his teeth.
“I ain’t a coward. But I ain’t stupid. Let’s jump.”
“Can’t. They’ve blockaded the jump point and set up strategic defense positions over Triune. They’re protecting the enclave.”
“Protecting it? I figured these bastards for Kilrathi sympathizers.”
“No. They’re Pilgrims or at least aliens who sympathize with them.”
“Know what?” he cried, his gaze traveling frantically from port to starboard to overhead. “I don’t give a shit who they are. They killed Zarya. They killed Second squadron. They killed everybody.”
“You want payback? Won’t happen. News flash: we return to base, we’ll die with everyone left on the Claw. If we stay out here, we’ll eventually get picked off by these fighters.”
“We ain’t going back. And we ain’t staying here. You see that big one at one-one-five by two-three-eight? Probably a flagship.”
“Got it,” she said, understanding. “Form on my wing. We go together.”
Maniac wrapped himself in a cloak of G forces as he plunged toward her position. He hazarded a look over his shoulder. “Shit!”
So many fighters now tore into Maniac’s wash that if stars lay beyond them, their presence was a matter of faith.
His thumb glided over the control stick to a button just below the secondary weapons trigger. He squeezed three times, dumping off a trio of irregularly shaped spheres that some weapons engineer had dubbed Porcupine mines.
Something flashed at his shoulders. He glanced back. The mines were gone. The bows of a half-dozen fighters opened like the maws of great white sharks, a heartbeat shy of chomping.
“Todd,” Angel shouted. “They got me boxed in. I can’t tell if they got a lock, but I think they’re--”
The VDU washed with static. He checked the scope. Her dot had vanished. He squinted ahead, saw only a horde of fighters climbing away in unison. Beyond them, the cap ship light show had ceased. The Mitchell Hammock, the Oregon, and the Tiger Claw now orbited within nets of fighters. Maniac brought up the general frequency and listened to Captain Gerald’s voice crackle through the comm:
“...I repeat, this Captain Paul Gerald of the Confederation strike carrier Tiger Claw. We request an audience with you to discuss the terms of our surrender.”
“No,” Maniac whispered. “Bad dream.”
Something delivered a wrecking ball’s blow to his Rapier, threw him hard against harness. He chanced a look back--
Blue. Nothing but. And where was his body? He couldn’t feel a damned thing.
“Still no response to our hails,” said Comm officer Wilks.
“Well keep hailing,” Bellegarde shot back, then dragged an arm across his forehead, wiping off the sweat.
For nearly an hour since the missile launch, Bellegarde had stood on the Concordia’s bridge and had watched the Pilgrim fleet lumber into the McDaniel system like a great Roman army stretching off into the darkness. Full flush scrambles had been ordered, and every fighter and bomber in their arsenal now engaged the enemy. Even Commander Obutu and Lieutenant Blair had ventured into the fray. Those two had attempted to launch without permission but had been caught. Still, they had convinced Bellegarde that maybe they could persuade the fleet to stand down since they were Pilgrims themselves. With nothing to lose, Bellegarde had permitted them to launch. Thirty minutes had passed. Still no word from them.
“Sir? Pilgrim fighters continue to reinforce their positions around the civilian flotilla,” Radar Officer Abrams reported. “They’ve just added another seventy-five to that force. I count four hundred and forty-one warships in polar positions. Fighters launching now. Count is telescopic and imprecise, but I estimate over one thousand fighters in the AO. Number is still increasing.”
“Commodore,” the XO called gravely.
Bellegarde faced the man, who now stood at the port observation station. Behind him, hundreds of fierce dogfights embroidered the stars. “Report.”
The XO’s gaze lowered to the deck. “They’ve already cut our force in half. Tactical analysis indicates that we can hold out for another two, maybe three hours.”
“Report on enemy losses.”
After exchanging a look with Radar Officer Abrams, the XO pursed his lips, swallowed, then turned back to face the viewport. “None, sir.”
“What do you mean none?” Bellegarde shouted.
“No damage to enemy craft, sir. Our weapons have had no effect. Antimatter rounds weakened some of the warships and drew fire, but the enemy has increased shield strength. Point defense systems are keeping the fighters at bay, but our squadrons report neutron and missile fire ineffective. Targeting systems ineffective. Pilots fully manually, with no warning of enemy locks.”
“Sir? Contact entering the system,” Abrams warned. “Designate Victor Five Nine, military personnel carrier. ETA: oh-three-one-eight hours.”
“That’ll be the admiral. Direct one of our telescopic imagers to those coordinates and report.”
“Aye-aye, sir. Coordinates transferred. Directing imager.” Abrams glanced at his screen and frowned. “Sir, if Five Nine continues on her vector, she’ll be intercepted a battle group en route to the jump point.”
“Mr. Wilks? Can we get a link?”
“Attempting to establish, sir. Patching through to your viewer.”
Bellegarde climbed back into his command chair and swiveled the monitor toward him. An image of the transport’s pilot finally materialized. “Captain Dylla here, Commodore. We’re en route with Admiral Tolwyn. What can I do for you?”
“Turn around and jump the hell out of there.”
“Captain, you’re heading straight for a Pilgrim battle group.”
“Excuse me, sir, but did you say Pilgrim?”
Bellegarde opened his mouth, then he spotted Tolwyn muscling his way into the cockpit and leaning over the pilot’s shoulder. “Hello, sir.”
“Richard. Report on planetary bombing.”
“We launched, but our torpedoes were taken out by an invading Pilgrim fleet. I don’t know if Aristee is a part of this, but Commander Obutu and Lieutenant Blair of the Tiger Claw came to warn us of the attack. They claim this fleet belongs to the original Pilgrims who vanished in the Sirius system three hundred years ago.”
“Ridiculous. Aristee probably enlisted the aide of an alien force. What’s your status?”
“Uploading tactical report now. We can hold out for another three hours at best.”
“Get the battle group out of there. Best speed for the jump point.”
“As I informed the captain, there’s a battle group standing between us and the point. Those ships are headed your way.”
Tolwyn glanced off camera. “Our scope’s clear, Richard.”
“You’ll pick them up with telescopic imagers. You’re on an intercept course. Suggest you divert back for the jump point.”
“And abandon my ship and the rest of the fleet?” Tolwyn dropped a palm on the pilot’s shoulder. “Captain Dylla, stealth mode, low emissions. See if you can take us around that battle group. We’re just one ship. Maybe they won’t waste their time.”
Bellegarde shook his head vigorously. “Sir, may I--”
“Sorry, Richard. Back to your duties. Protect the Concordia and her battle group at all costs. If you can’t head back to the jump point, then set course for the shipping lane. We’ll catch up with you. Go now. Tolwyn out.”
The Pilgrim fighters could have easily blown Obutu and Blair out of the sky but instead maintained escort positions and fired warning shots. Exploiting the fact that these jocks obviously wanted them alive, Blair had twice gone into the continuum and had tried to contact anyone aboard any ship. But, as Karista had noted earlier, he could not penetrate a single vessel. He reached out to her in sickbay, and she has insisted that he keep trying.NEXT
“Lieutenant? I won’t watch any more die,” Obutu said. “Right now, my Pilgrim blood doesn’t mean a damned thing. I know what side I’m on. It’s time to get in the fight.”
“Thought we came out here to stop this.”
“You’ve failed to make contact. Or they’re just not listening. We’re wasting time.”
Blair focused his attention on the nearest Pilgrim warship, a tremendous craft over three times the length of the Tiger Claw and resembling a submerged cetacean whose skin writhed as it swam through space. “Just give me a few more minutes.”
“Mr. Blair. Form on my wing.”
“Give me one more shot at that warship. I’m not asking for much.”
“Yes, you are. Check your scope. Our numbers are dwindling by the second. Form on my wing.”
Swearing to himself, Blair swooped down sixty-degrees toward Obutu’s position. Knowing he would hold that course for a few seconds before coming up behind the XO, he slipped out of himself and shot back toward the warship--
To smack head-on into an invisible and impenetrable shield.
We have to stop this. You can’t kill anymore. No one wants this.
“Blair! You’re coming up too hard on me,” Obutu hollered.
It took a mere second for Blair to return to the cockpit and assess the situation. As the proximity alarm wailed of the obvious, he tugged the control yoke toward his chest, but not before a murderous bang resounded and the belly of his Rapier dragged sickeningly across Obutu’s starboard thruster and tail wing. The left VDU flashed a damage report even as three of his missiles were blown from their mounts. Portside hydraulic pressure fell to fifty-two percent as the port thruster flamed out. The stars spun as the loss of power kicked him into a corkscrew. He fired maneuvering jets to compensate for the loss, but it took a dozen dizzying seconds for the fighter to level off.
He remembered to breathe as he looked askance, spotting Obutu’s Rapier at his three o’clock low. “Down three Dumb-fires and a thruster. She won’t re-ignite. But I’m not out of it yet, sir.”
“We haven’t been in it,” Obutu corrected. “And since you’re incapable of forming on my wing, I’ll form on yours. Standby.”
Blair sighed over the barb, then checked the scope, observing Obutu’s progress. Within ten seconds, the XO had climbed into view on Blair’s portside.
“You’re venting CZ ninety,” Obutu said. “See if you can re-route.”
After ordering the computer to perform a full diagnostic and re-route any leaking lines, Blair skimmed a schematic of the thruster on his VDU. The image zoomed in on the leaking line. RE-ROUTE IN PROGRESS flashed along the bottom of the display.
“Third Squadron from the Carraway is taking heavy losses, Lieutenant. Let’s help ‘em out.”
Issuing a half-hearted “aye-aye, sir,” Blair dropped in behind Obutu’s fighter as the XO cut himself a long, lazy arc toward a furball that would freeze the marrow of most Confederation pilots. So many enemy fighters intersected the sphere that you could probably fire blindly and strike a few--that is, if you could even find an entrance to the labyrinth. Trouble was, finding that entrance resulted in collisions that killed more Confed jocks than did enemy fire.
“Sir? I think your Pilgrim blood means a whole lot now,” Blair said as they reached the fringe of the battle. Without their perfect senses of navigation, they would quickly wind up with others.
“Break and attack!” Obutu ordered.
The remaining thruster rumbled as Blair lit the burner, rolled the Rapier onto its port wing, then felt his way into the furball to pick up a half dozen fighters surfing their own breaker. Five of the gleaming craft suddenly peeled off, leaving a single fighter in Blair’s sights. He glanced back to watch the others sail far behind him, guessing that they would return to watch him chase the carrot.
Ignoring the bait, Blair went ballistic for one, two, three seconds, then rolled back himself to target one of the five just now pulling out of a bank. The primary weapons trigger felt taut, ready, and he jammed it down to draw a dotted tow line of neutron fire between himself and the quavering bandit.
But the damned line held for no more than a blink before the fighter rolled onto its back and plummeted.
Out of the corner of his eye, Blair caught the other four fighters knifing toward him from his four o’clock high. He rolled the throttle back, fired retroes, and yanked himself into a sit-‘n’-spin, with his neutron cannon booming like a jackhammer as the fighters rolled into his cone fire. Six or seven rounds caught the fighters squarely in their pointed bows. He cocked his head. No effect.
He lit the pipe. Blasted out of the spin. Called upon every standard evasive maneuver he had been taught. He calculated a new heading along an intersecting plain to starboard, turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees off that heading, then doubled back toward an open cove in the furball, praying that he would lose his pursuers.
Nope. They mirrored his movements as though they had read his mind. Maybe they had...
Cursing his own pulse, he tried forty-five degree maneuvers, your standard zigzag, and that only gave the sixth fighter time to fall in with the others. He streaked to starboard, braked, then feinted to port a moment before corkscrewing down, down, down, and away.
Until now Blair had resisted the temptation to call to Obutu, but enemy gang-bangs had the effect of tempering one’s ego. “Little help, Commander.”
Checked the scope.
The panic came on suddenly and threatened to turn his thoughts to liquid, his muscles to putty. He called out to his pursuers, told them that he was half Pilgrim, but as Obutu had said, they weren’t listening.
Reflected light from McDaniel’s World hiked across Blair’s canopy as he vectored toward the planet. The aura lured him closer, and he wondered if it wouldn’t be better to simply close his eyes and fly into her atmosphere. Maybe someone on the planet would see and remember the blazing ribbon of his death.
Suicide? Screw that. These people might be Pilgrims, but they don’t give a shit about me now. He thought of something Paladin had once said to Maniac: “You’re a Confederation fighter pilot and that’s what you do and that’s what’s in your blood.”
Blair braked hard, slammed the stick toward his chest, and flipped the Rapier onto its back.
Now inverted relative to his pursuers, he resolved to empty his neutron cannon, to drain his laser batteries, to launch every missile. He squeezed the primary and secondary triggers. The Rapier quaked as rockets ripped from their mounts and razored off. Crimson laser bolts spat from wing-mounted cannons and lacerated the vac.
“Christopher,” Merlin cried from a seat atop the left VDU. “It’s time to go home.”
“Yes, it is.”
Undaunted by Blair’s fire, the six fighters charged toward him, their bows swelling into wine-dark throats suddenly lit as globules jetted from them. A latticework of blue lightening expanded before Blair’s Rapier.
Merlin stood, his eyes glowing. “Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore.” He raised his hands as the blue enveloped him, enveloped everything.