I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get a new chapter up, unfortunately, what with A2 exams, gardening, forgetfulness and the recent purchase of X2 the threat, my enthusiasm for writing has suffered recently. I'll work on that.
Thanks again to all readers and commenters.
Chapter 12: Final hour
How is it that a bed barely that’s as wide as I am can feel empty?
Well, I guess I know how. It wasn’t just that it felt empty either, it felt stiff and itchy; it seemed to be willing to feel like anything which would make my getting to sleep that much harder.
I learned long ago that if I can’t get to sleep, I shouldn’t try to force it, which typically only leads to energy being wasted in frustration and shuffling. Whenever I get stuck with sleepless nights, I often laid back, gazed at the ghastly ceiling of my cabin and listened to the slow, steady breathing of Razor who would be sprawled across my chest.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option today. She was attending a last minute briefing regarding potential strategies and enemy threat assessments from Trent or at least something like that. She’d be heading down to the planet shortly afterwards. A great fucking time he picked for it. God knows I needed her tonight. God knows we needed each other that night.
Distantly, my mind wandered back to a short lived shore leave in Gateway, where I wasted one too many hours watching the film version of the TCS Tarawa’s mission to Kilrah.
After seeing this monstrosity, I found it a little hard to believe that it was based on true events. The mission it seemed was a sub plot. Half the film involved two actors, I forget the names, and I won’t insult the real people they portrayed by writing their names in the same paragraph, feasting off of each other.
I do have a point to make with this, trust me.
One scene in particular was of a reasonably emotional, ‘night before the dawn’ scene which had an elderly woman in the row behind me wailing into her handkerchief. Basically you saw the teary last moments of the couple, each realising that they’d probably be dead and that their short time together was rapidly coming to a close. (Which of course was promptly followed by the two making the most of their remaining time in the time honoured tradition of cinema.)
At the time I counted this as just another perversion of the truth brought about by blinkered film companies. Another in a large collection of turds dropped by the media that concealed the truth about the war.
Not long after that, me and Razor hooked up, shortly before the Kilrathi started making their presence felt in the Vega sector. On the night before a large strike on an enemy carrier group, (including a (at the time) new Bhantkara class fleet carrier,) we found ourselves in a similar situation to the one I viewed with contempt on a cinema screen. None of us were sure whether the mission would be a success or not, the only thing we were certain of was that a great many of us would die.
I was certain that one of us wouldn’t survive. It seemed fitting for a cruel and merciless universe that allowed the Kilrathi to exist and commit the atrocities they rejoiced in.
We spent the night before the battle together, each quietly cursing at the generally shitty state of the universe and trying to hold back tears for the other’s impending demise. (And we did a few other things which I’m sure you can figure out for yourselves.)
In retrospect, what I experienced wasn’t too different from what I saw on screen, and probably not too different from what the two pilots on the Tarawa, and God only knows how many others have gone through.
Then, as a strange twist of fate, we both survived. The carrier group, although not destroyed took enough dents to keep them out of the game for a while, not that it did much good seeing as the Kilrathi just sent another two in its place.
In war, you soon come to realise that any day could be your last. You get used to that, and slowly but steadily, the influence it has on your sleeping patterns begins to seep away.
With some missions though, its not a matter of ‘could’, it’s a matter of ‘will’. With some missions, you know you’re going to die. All the small chances of survival, assurances of your commanding officer and inspired tactics you’ve learned before don’t do a thing to ease your peace of mind. All you can feel is an unwavering certainty that your life is coming to an end, as well as the regret that comes with it. Regret that your loved ones will die too, or that you’ll never see them again. Regret that you joined the sodding military in the first place. Regret that you never used a witty comeback that occurred to you in high school half an hour after it was too late.
Its some ways it’s a lot harder when you go through this with someone else, in more ways though its easier, or at least shorter. You’re so desperate to cling to what time you have left that time flies away at an unfair speed. Alone, it trudges along like a Centaurian mud pig with two broken legs.
For the umpteenth time, I rolled onto my chest and tried to get comfortable on the uncomfortable mattress. Sleeping on the floor was beginning to seem strangely appealing, simply because it didn’t look itchy.
I pushed the idea aside, deciding that fighting the Kilrathi with numerous muscle cramps wouldn’t add to my slim chances of survival.
I twisted back onto my back. Grasping the pillow in both hands, I hurled it as hard as I could against the far wall. It struck with wall silently and vanished behind the end of the bed. I felt marginally better for it.
People can’t fly Carl. I’d have thought you’d know that already.
I’m not sure why these wise words from Mrs. Portman, one of the teachers from my old high school should have found its way into my head. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to indulge in the memory. A welcome diversion, despite the fact that at the time it was a humiliating experience.
When I was six, I found myself watching a centuries old film on some historical nostalgia channel or something. I’m not sure nostalgia’s the right word, anyway, basically the film involved some strange man with some ridiculous costume flying and performing all manner of supernatural spectacles. My six year old self saw this, felt a stab of envy and thought, Hey, me too!
The next day I climbed to the top of the primary school’s climbing frame, extended one of my arms in some presumably heroic stance and promptly buggered over head first into the mud.
The children around me all laughed their heads off and I was quick to receive a scolding from Mrs. Portman, who just happened to be the closest teacher at the time. I think she was most annoyed at the fact I’d stained my uniform more then anything. The fact that I’d given myself a nose bleed as a result didn’t seem to bother her.
Two days later, another kid called Harvey Cromwell was caught trying to dig for gold in the school’s garden. Fifteen Chrysanthemums died in this attack, another four were wounded. This gave the children something else to focus on and the jibes and insults after my would-be flight came to an end.
I guess it could be argued that people can fly, with the aid of such things as Thunderbolts, Arrows and the antique propeller driven contraptions you see at air shows.
“I guess I showed her.” I said to myself before a second or two’s snickering. It wasn’t that funny, but my current state of mind wasn’t as stable as it should be and a lot of things were starting to seem funny.
Forty two minutes later
Minutes ticked away and I lay back, recalling what sunlight felt like, trying to reassure myself that H’varkann class dreadnoughts weren’t really that big.
When the door to my cabin hissed open it took me a second to realise what was happening. For an instant I thought it was just the sound of one of the pipes overhead carrying all manners of waste to the recycling sections.
Then realisation set in, with shock and a sudden surge of energy coursing through my veins I shot upwards into a seating position to see Razor standing in the doorframe.
For a minute I was torn between sudden joy and surprise, I hadn’t expected to see her at all.
Then as she moved through the door and towards the bed, her hands already undoing the buttons on her uniform, I abruptly stopped caring about why she was here.
Two minutes later
My body jerked violently and it took me a few seconds to realise where I was. I looked around, I was still in my cabin, it was dark, cold, silent, and empty.
As realisation set in, I forced my head back into the mattress and sighed heavily.
It was a fucking dream.
I almost laughed. It seemed I had managed to fall asleep after all, for all of four minutes, more or less.
This new discovery seemed to open the door for everything I’d been trying to shut out tonight. The pain about losing Razor, who I know was still very much alive and still on the same ship as me. Not that I expected to see her again, to me, she was lost. On top of this there were also the others, Scar, Adish, Fool, Torrent, and a whole host of other men and women onboard this ship and our surviving escorts who I imagined would soon have their atoms scattered all over the system.
Finally there was the growing, nagging feeling in my gut about the declining state of the war. But for this at least I felt as if I wouldn’t have to worry about it for long.
In a sudden fit of anger I pushed myself out of bed and launched my fist against the nearest wall. A loud ‘clang’ and four aching fingers were the result of this. I didn’t really feel any better for it.
A few seconds later a second, louder ‘clang’ sounded. Presumably I’d just woken someone up, either that or they wished to start some sort of bizarre dialogue.
I picked the scattered pieces of my uniform up from under my bunk. (Razor had drummed this habit on me after she’d stepped on a pair of used underwear that had been left on the deck after a night spent together. She’d also thumped me in the ribs for it.)
I wasn’t going to stay here, I figured a brisk walk or a very early breakfast might distract me. Besides, if I stayed here I was likely to think too hard about the shitty state of everything, get angry and break something. Probably my fingers.
“Attention!” Boomed the ship’s internal com system at a volume loud enough to wake sleeping pilots. “All Death Shadow, Adjudicator and Swift Blade pilots are to report to the briefing room immediately.”
First of all, I would like to state that I DO NOT read fan fiction. I feel it is amaturish at best and usually contains no real originality at all.
That being said, your "Front Lines" is one of the best pieces of Military Science Fiction I've ever read.
Most fan fic writers would be too tempted to just write about a bunch of ships shooting at each other. You have resisted this and given us great, complex characters! and in the end, that's what is interesting...
Thanks again to all readers and to Kilrah and Paragon for commenting. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed thus far. Considering I’m hoping to get a few stories of this genre published in later life it was very reassuring, and encouraging to see the words ‘That being said, your "Front Lines" is one of the best pieces of Military Science Fiction I've ever read.’ Thanks.
P.S. sorry it’s taken me a while to update. This chapter is longer then most and it took me a while to get done.
Chapter 13: Beheading a Hydra
“Leaving safety to the sane, we go to squash more feline brain...”
The woefully off key singing ringed out over the radio of all fifteen of our ships for the third time. The song, ‘Ballard of idiots’, had first come to the Hermes after one of the Death’s Shadow pilots heard it sung by a group of drunken marines whilst on shore leave on Kyoto depot. Now it was a favourite among pilots hoping to pass away the time or halt their thought processes whilst in flight.
A lot of us were singing, the rest of us, myself included remained silent, preferring to retain our dignity for what little it was worth or simply just lost in our own feelings of impending doom.
The ironic thing is, this wasn’t even the hard part. All we had to do was take out one Fralthi 2 class cruiser which had, kind of surprisingly, taken the bait we’d left in the form of a drone which was placed at a comfortable distance from the H’varkann, which at this time was making its way towards Brimstone 2.
The drone was generating a sufficiently large electromagnetic signature which from a distance would make it look very much like a Savannah class destroyer. By the time the Kilrathi realised they’d been duped, they would have us to contend with. Hardly an encouraging thought.
I read somewhere that the Fralthi 2’s were a pound for pound match with our own Tallahassee cruisers. Considering the colossal size and daunting appearance of these Kilrathi cruisers you soon arrive at the conclusion that this is bullshit. Then again, that’s the way with a lot of Kilrathi vessels. They always build bigger then we do, and they always build ships that look like they could happily slice through ours just by ramming them with their claw like bows. You can read as many status reports proclaiming evenly matched designs or even terran design superiority, but that’s not what you’re focusing on when you see a blade like Kilrathi fighter charging towards you.
This marked my sixth time as turret fodder during an offensive raid, and for the sixth time I was certain I was going to die. It comes with being the pilot of a light fighter and it’s a feeling I’ve learned to ignore. Well, it’s a feeling I’ve learned I should ignore; actually doing so is next to impossible.
Mine and the other Arrows’ jobs were to fly in, smash a few turrets, and open a gap in the flak fire for the Longbows to send torpedoes through. Alongside that we also had the now somewhat harder job, thanks to Fire Wings depleted numbers, of providing fighter cover.
There’d probably be Dralthi escorts, maybe Vaktoths.
In two other distant sections of the Brimstone system, other wings were striking other targets which we could only hope had, surprisingly, also been duped by the decoys. It was entirely possible that the Cats knew what was coming and had bolstered their fighter defences to prepare for our coming.
Or maybe they were just blinded by lust for blood, instantly pouncing upon anything with a confederation signature. Either was possible, and with all the trickery I’d seen the Kilrathi employ during my career, the later option seemed doubtful at best.
Still, you never know.
The other targets were a second Fralthi cruiser and a Bhantkara class carrier. God knows why the beasts felt the need for extra deck space when they had a H’varkann. Nevertheless, assuming I went well, a dead Kilrathi carrier was better then a live one.
I spat out something that, given suitable encouragement, might have developed into a scornful laugh.
The H’varkann, the Kilrathi battering ram and black cloud that had been hanging over all our heads ever since it arrived. When Colonel Trent had given his moving mission briefing, my fears, and I assume those of many others, changed from fear of not being able to pull out in time to fear of dying alongside the entire carrier group on some fool’s charge into the demon’s jaws.
Fine choices aren’t they? Retreat and die at some later date, probably by the same Kilrathi ship we’d be running from or stay and die a pointless death swatting feebly at some impregnable flying fortress.
Or, destroy it and become heroes.
Think of it, the Hermes would rise among such renowned names as Tarawa, Tiger’s Claw, Concordia, the Gwenhyver, ok bad example, but you get my point. If we took this beast out, we’d all become legends, tales of our deeds would be told in academy lecture halls to legions of bored cadets who probably would have heard the story three times over already.
As much as I tired, I couldn’t make the thought especially encouraging, for every train of thought that trailed off from the main idea, I found myself making scathing, sarcastic comments about it. Maybe I was a puritan at heart, shying away from earthly comforts such as ego fantasies.
Another thing which made the thought process increasingly unappealing was the fact that the Tarawa, the Tiger’s Claw, the Concordia and yes, even the Gwenhyver, (again it’s a bad example but never mind,) had all been destroyed or beaten beyond recognition, not a particularly encouraging trend. Also, acclaim and admiration wouldn’t change anything, except maybe that I’d throw up a little more then usual. We’d still be in the war, and we’d still eventually die. Probably.
“Be silent!” The voice of Lieutenant Colonel Kenji Matsumoto cut through the would be ‘Beta wing choir’ like a knife, and a deathly silence ensued.
“I’m reading Kilrathi contacts, two of them, Darkets, looks like a patrol. Arrows, engage and destroy.”
I accelerated to full throttle before activating my afterburners, above me, I noticed the pointed bow of another arrow, to my port side I saw another. There were four of us in total, the fourth presumably rested somewhere behind me. Looks like I had point, by all of four metres.
I readied an Image recognition missile and locked onto the closest Darket. We had to end this quickly, if the Kilrathi cruiser got word of our coming things could become a lot more difficult for us.
They were closing quickly, I had the distinct impression that we were dealing with rookies eager for blood and not caring too much about greater numbers. I knew a few terran pilots who were like that in their early days. Not many of them were still alive. I wondered briefly, whether they’d picked up the rest of the squadron behind us.
My question was soon answered when one of them performed a hasty 180 degree turn. Maybe I hadn’t given them enough credit.
“Missile away.” Shouted the man on my left, “Looking good, come on…”
A few moments later, I was treated to the sight of an exploding Darket twenty kilometres away from me.
“I’ve got the other one,” I said hastily, not wanting to waste any more fuel then was necessary, they’d need it when we got to the cruiser, “Skull, follow me in. If something goes wrong, finish him.”
Her voice was unwavering. This was as surprising as it was encouraging. The last time I flew with her, Skull was a shrieking wreck who escaped death by the skin of her teeth. Surviving battles with the Kilrathi usually help to steady nerves and break rookies out of their training wheels.
Ejecting on the other hand typically has the opposite effect. Waiting in the coldness of space with death creeping ever closer as your oxygen supply deteriorates, then of course there’s no guarantee you’ll be picked up by a friendly SAR shuttle, assuming you got picked up at all. It’s a unnerving experience to say the least, I’d been through it twice myself and hadn’t stopped shaking for a long while both times.
Her encounter with the vacuum fields of the Brimstone system after I’d ordered her to eject seemed to have strengthened her, maybe it had made the fact that worrying about death would only kill you quicker sink in, maybe she was angry about it. Either way, she seemed the better off for it.
The Darket made an abrupt U-turn and the next thing I knew my ‘lock’ light was illuminated, accompanied by the low pitched whine of the alarm.
I tilted my ship upwards slightly and dropped a decoy. The alarm’s whine came to an abrupt halt, only to start up again two seconds later.
It took me another two decoys and a lot of afterburning to evade this missile. By the time it exploded, Skull was already engaging the Darket. She’d moved in close, apparently not wanting to waste any missiles on a measly light fighter.
Fair enough under normal circumstances, however time was a luxury we didn’t have. The Hermes was already on route to intercept the H’varkann, we had to get this mission finished ASAP, then get home, refuel, rearm, repent our sins and get back into space.
I fired off a heat seeker as soon as I was in range of the Darket, which was already taking hits on its ventral shields made a hasty charge downwards, maybe hoping to position Skull between the missile and itself, maybe not.
The one decoy it dropped was contemptuously ignored and the missile soon buried itself in the engines of the Kilrathi fighter, sending it into an uncontrollable spin.
Debris and flames were left in the wake of the fighter as it tore itself apart. After a second or two a Kilrathi face appeared on my com screen, I half expected to hear a pained curse or two from the dying pilot as I’d heard more times then I can remember.
Instead he uttered a single word, I’m not quite sure what it is and I have no idea what it means, it was something like Hathar, or Hassa. I don’t know what it means. He sounded quite sad as he said it.
I didn’t dwell on the thought; I just got back into formation. There was work to be done.
Forty five minutes later
The trouble with these things is that it takes more then one torpedo to destroy them. Adish tells me it normally takes 3 or 4, if you’re lucky. That was one reason we couldn’t simply target the engines where there was minimal flak cover. These weren’t like the Cap ships of old with massive exhaust ports just begging to have a warhead or two sent up them. The engines of today were designed to counter this threat; visually they simply resembled glowing lights on the back of ships, and it was considerably harder to destroy ships just by targeting them. We could probably disable the cruiser by targeting its engines, but that wasn’t why we were here. Frankly, the command staff of the Hermes weren’t any more optimistic about our chances then the pilots. They wanted as much damage done to the Kilrathi as possible before the battle took place. Every little helps I guess.
Having said that, the same isn’t true of modern day fighters. The exhaust ports were what I was aiming for on the Dralthi in front of me. The Dralthi’s pilot was, by the looks of things, targeting the same area on a Hellcat.
I’d already wasted one heat seeker in a failed shot on the Kilrathi ship, I didn’t want to spend a second one on the same fighter if I could avoid it. There were more fighters here then we’d expected. They must have gotten extra escorts from the H’varkann before they left to investigate the ‘Savannah’.
When I noticed a hit on the Dralthi’s target that tore scorched armour from the wings I realised I had no choice, if I didn’t launch another missile soon then the Hellcat may very well die before him.
I set loose an Imrec missile which fared better then its predecessor. There was a large explosion which was more the engines detonating then the missile. The Dralthi was split in two.
The targeting computer instantly locked onto the closest enemy fighter, a Paktahn. By the looks of things somebody else had already taken a few pot shots at this thing. Its port and forward shields were gone and the forward hull showed signs of damage.
I found I had to switch targets however after my rear shields started taking hits.
In my rear view display I noticed a second Dralthi was now taking pot shots at me. Fortunately most of his shots were flying gracefully overhead, but I didn’t expect that to last.
I strafed to the left momentarily and then came to a dead stop, the Kilrathi also stopped, no doubt he’d seen this before. The end result was that he still had me in his sights and it was all I could do to power up my engines and try and evade his fire. You can’t afford to take a great many hits in an Arrow, playing chicken with anything stronger then a Darket was something reserved only for aces and idiots.
“Die you worthless scum!” Screamed the pilot behind me. His voice was filled with raw, seemingly unfocused rage, although why he should be so angry was somewhat confusing, his side wasn’t too badly beaten in this battle, (neither was ours), I hadn’t given him too much grief and I hadn’t evaded him long enough to get all too frustrated, even by Kilrathi standards.
This might help me.
“Patience fluffy,” I uttered amicably over the com at the furry demon that was trying to kill me, “Patience, this job requires patience and a cool head. If you’re that quick to anger then try picturing happy things like toy mice and haddock.”
His response was a maniacal hiss. I don’t think he was even paying attention to me, it was probably just the fact that I was talking to him that had pissed him off.
Another round of Kilrathi gunfire passed into and then over my rear shields. This wasn’t too much to worry about at the moment, this guy was a good pilot I’ll give him that, but his marksmanship was appalling.
Ahead of me, a Darket was busy trying to evade the rear turret of thunderbolt which at the same time was ripping apart a second Darket with its forward guns. An idea, one which I was very pessimistic about, sprung to mind. It seemed to be the only choice I had, I couldn’t get behind this guy, and given enough time he’d probably finish me off.
I hit my afterburners and charged directly at the first Darket, the Dralthi followed me, as I was hoping. It was a little surprising that he hadn’t fired a missile off, maybe it was a matter of pride, missiles made life easy, maybe he felt he had to kill me with cannons to make the kill a worthy demonstration of skill.
Maybe he felt I wasn’t an important enough target.
Either way, this was a good thing.
The words ‘It’s engaged’ and a green crosshair appeared on my HUD, I ignored them. I continued to close the distance between me and the Darket. It didn’t look like he’d noticed me.
Less the a kilometre from him, I cut my engines and swung my ship around his, stopping in time to place his ship, more or less, between me and the Dralthi. I unloaded a number of shots onto the Darket’s shields as I did so. Needless to say he noticed me then.
He accelerated slightly, I managed, barely, to keep him between me and the Dralthi with the help of a few crude Shelton’s slides.
Fortunately, the Dralthi’s pilot didn’t seem to want to fire on his one of his own. (I doubt he would have hit him anyway.) He veered upwards and sped away, probably trying to line up for another run at me.
A few well timed mass driver shots smashed through the now weakened shields of the Darket I’d been shooting at. The pilot wisely ejected as his ship began to break apart around him.
I hit my afterburners and sped towards the Dralthi. Selecting a second Imrec missile from my ever diminishing supply, I lined the target up in the centre of my view screen and waited for the tone to sound.
I got in closer then is advised before firing, I didn’t want to give him the chance to evade the missile. Like his comrade he didn’t seem to know I was behind him.
With 3 kilometres between us, I released the missile. Just as he came to a complete stop.
I pulled up, hard. Avoiding a serious collision by the skin of my teeth. My shields collided with his, but the impact was too short lasting to cause any worthwhile damage.
This was something you had to watch out for with the Cats, as often as not they’d stop dead in front of you and let you slam into them. It was a glorious death after all, and they took a hairless one with them.
This one had taken no one with him, and he’d also taken a missile up the arse.
The hissing, snarling beast appeared on my com screen once again. Flames were now engulfing his face. Looks like I’d done more damage then I’d expected. After a pained snarl he said,
“I will not die before you, hairless…”
That was as far as he got.
“We’re beginning to thin out their fighter cover.” Snapped Colonel Matsumoto suddenly. His voice always sounded angry. He reminded me of my old High school history teacher, there was a man who would gut you as soon as look at you.
“Arrows,” he continued, “And Hellcats, head for the port side of the cruiser and destroy as many turrets in that section as you can. We’ll provide you with cover.”
One Arrow pilot died before we even got into firing range of the cruiser, one of the two Hellcat pilots was also forced to eject. I never did find out what happened to her.
I strafed, veered, dived, climbed and did all manner of tricks to try and avoid the bright yellow and red streaks hurtling towards me. Maybe I should have come in from behind, but there were at least two Vaktoths lurking there, it really wasn’t much safer.
I picked a turret, a small looking laser turret on the underside of the hull which would doubtlessly prove difficult to hit. When my onboard computer informed me I was close enough, I steadied my craft into an unwavering approach and fired.
When the Kilrathi gunners started landing hits on my forward shields I pulled away. I wasn’t that surprised when I found that the turret appeared unscathed, I hadn’t been able to fire for very long and the aiming had been rushed.
I retreated until my shields were back up to two bars on the display before turning back around and lining my ship up for another run.
I was able to fire for longer this time, a lot of the turrets were focusing on the second Hellcat. After what felt like a very long while, a small, almost invisible explosion told me that I had put one hostile gun turret out of commission.
“One down,” I shouted, “On the port wing, ventral side.” It wasn’t really a ‘wing’ in the traditional sense but I wasn’t sure what to call it.
“Another down.” Skull said shortly afterwards, making no attempt to hide the jubilation in her voice, “Dorsal side, port wing.”
“Crap! I’m getting smashed up pretty bad here, I have to pull back.”
“I tried to figure out who that voice belonged to. It was difficult to place faces on the com screen to faces on the radar in the heat of battle however.
As it turned out, it belonged to the Hellcat pilot. I was about to offer cover fire for his retreat when his face found itself on the com screen once again.
"Shit, I’ve got a fighter on my tail. I need help here!”
“Stay calm pilot, Findley and myself are on our way, try and…”
In the top left corner of my line of vision I saw the Hellcat erupt into a fiery debris cloud. I’m guessing Kenji saw it too. The Vaktoth that had destroyed it instantly came under fire from two Thunderbolts. After a sudden flash of shock and anger, I swung my ship around, and picked out another turret.
I’d wanted to blast the Vaktoth apart, we all did. That wouldn’t help anyone though. We had to take this cruiser down, otherwise everyone who’d died would have died for nothing.
It occurred to me briefly that I didn’t know any of their names.
This latest run started off promisingly, The turret was directly in line with my targeting crosshair and there wasn’t too much flak fire. But I got too confident. I flew straight for far too long, as a result some patient Kilrathi manning an antimatter turret put an expert shot tearing effortlessly through my forward shields and armour, and sending circuitry and internal wiring drifting out into space.
My ship broke out into a spin that it took me a long while to pull myself out of. Ironically that spin saved my life. Without it the gunner would have undoubtedly finished me off with the follow up shots. As it was, h didn’t see to be able to land a hit on me.
I sped away from the cruiser and called up the damage control display. My guns were history, and my communications had suffered over 60% damage.
“I’ve suffered severe damage,” I told Kenji with a calmness in my voice that I did not feel, “My cannons are gone.”
Kenji uttered a quiet curse in Japanese before speaking to the rest of the wing.
“We have no time left. Arrows, provide fighter cover. Thunderbolts; begin bombing run, focus your fire on the port side.”
I had four missiles left. I figured I might as well put them to use.
There were seven remaining hostile fighters, one Darket, two Dralthi and four Vaktoths. Though part of me wanted to take out the easier targets, I knew it was the Vaktoths I had to focus my fire on.
A deeply unpleasant noise which came from somewhere behind me as soon as I activated my afterburners encouraged me to slow to cruise speed in order to get a missile ok. My damage control system wasn’t registering any problems with the afterburners, but I didn’t want to take any chances with a tank still half full of highly combustible fuel. I wasn’t too far out of missile range anyway.
With the sounding of the lock light, I fired one heat seeker and one Imrec at the closest Vaktoth. The pilot released decoys but seemed to be worrying more about the Thunderbolts then about his own safety. That’s admirable I suppose.
Both of the missiles hit their target, however they didn’t seem to cause any problems for the pilot, save for some light engine damage.
I was about to fire a second Imrec when I noticed that his wingman was now flying towards me.
This was bad enough in a fully operational ship.
I launched the Imrec at the incoming Vaktoth and sped away in the opposite direction, risking the hiss that now accompanied the afterburners.
My ‘lock’ light and alarm sprang into life. I pulled to the right and jettisoned two decoys, none of which seemed to have any effect. My last three fared better, the alarm died abruptly, but there was nothing to stop him trying again, and with no decoys things just became a lot harder.
I pulled my ship around to face the oncoming hostile, figuring it’d be safer if I could get behind him.
On my way in I noticed that his starboard wing had taken damage. He was also turning away. It looked like something else had taken his attention. And whatever it was soon took his life.
The wing broke off and the fighter degenerated into a spin. My initial reaction was to after burn closer and unload as many gunshots into it as possible, and then I remembered I had no guns.
Fortunately it didn’t much matter, the rest of the Vaktoth went up a few seconds later.
Not long afterwards, skull’s face appeared on the com screen. To say she looked pleased would be an understatement.
“Now we’ve even.” Her face disappeared from the screen, only to reappear two seconds later, “Sir.” She added more seriously.
I almost laughed. Kenji’s face soon caught my attention however.
“Torpedoes away, all ships retreat to a safe distance.”
I found the cruiser on the radar and then moved away in the opposite direction. I wasn’t too hopeful that these torpedoes make it; we hadn’t taken out nearly enough turrets.
“Shit!” Screamed one of the thunderbolt pilots, “They’ve taken out one of the torpedoes.”
That didn’t reassure me much.
For a while the battle seemed to stop. A few of the Kilrathi were trying to shoot down or collide with the torpedoes, others were sitting and waiting. As were we.
When all three of the remaining yellow dots on my radar vanished, I couldn’t tell whether they’d hit the target or whether they’d been destroyed. For a while nothing seemed to happen.
I switched through the targets on the display, looking to see if the cruiser had been hit when I saw a massive explosion shatter the port wing. A second erupted a few seconds later on the bow.
The third explosion, I could only assume came from the reactor, reduced the Fralthi to a lifeless hulk of charred metal.
We cheered momentarily; using an open channel to make sure the surviving Kilrathi heard us. I think even Kenji joined in.
“Remain vigilant. We still have Kilrathi to deal with here. Captain Petrova (me), fall back to the Hermes, Lieutenant Black, go with him.”
“Sir I can still…”
“You heard my orders!” Shouted Kenji with increased ferocity in his voice. The man had no tolerance for disobedience. I’d discovered this myself on one occasion. “Your ship has taken damage and we do not require your presence. Withdraw!”
I could understand how she felt, but at the time I was just happy to be away from the battle. I had full confidence in my comrades and I didn’t expect to stay alive if I stayed here.
Five hours later
Colonel Kenji and the others met up with us on the way back. Skull’s engines had taken damage and we’d been crawling back at a Longbow’s speed.
With the Fralthi dead, my thoughts had reverted to the assorted scenarios they’d been running through involving the upcoming battle with the H’varkann. They were less daunting now. What with the actual battle being only a handful of hours away.
Jake Coben’s face appeared on the com screen when we arrived back at the Hermes.
“Good work everyone,” He looked like he’d just been told he was due to be executed in the morning, “You did great work out there, but I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”
He paused and sighed heavily, I had a pretty good idea what was coming and I instantly started hoping that I was wrong.
“Alpha wing was also successful, however, Gamma wing is long overdue, and according to our scans their target is still intact. At this point we’re assuming that there are no survivors.”
For a few seconds I just stared at Coben’s face, my mind abruptly turned to ash. After his words finally sunk in it felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse.
Be forewarned, this chapter is very unpleasant and not for the faint of heart or stomach.
Chapter 14: Lion’s Den
In retrospect, maybe I should have died.
I must have said that to myself a hundred times in that room. It some miniscule segment of humour that reassured an even smaller part f my brain that this wasn’t really happening.
You know, they actually told us to die in the academy. I could still hear the words of Captain Haley Bauer, speaking. Don’t jump if you’re anywhere near a Kilrathi cap ship. Trust me on that, the cats won’t think twice about using you for target practice. If you’re lucky. The Kilrathi have no code of conduct for the treatment of prisoners, to them we’re a lesser species, a waste of skin. Prisoners are just a convenient source of labour, a scratching post or a main course. Mark my words, you’re better off dead then in the Cat’s claws.
Captain Bauer wasn’t a pilot. All she knew was what she’d read in Intel reports. In short, she didn’t know a fucking thing. She didn’t know how it felt when yours was one of three remaining ships out of an original wing of 17. She didn’t know what it felt like to have four enemy fighters firing at you at once. She didn’t know how it felt to be so close to death that the only thing you could think of was how to survive.
And I very much doubt she knew what a ‘light spear’ felt like.
My legs felt weak with the three searing stab wounds they’d endured. Every time
I failed to be forthcoming with an answer, the interrogator stabbed me. It felt, well, amazingly enough it felt like getting stabbed with a boiling hot spear.
So far he’d asked me three questions.
For a while after he’d retracted the spear, he just stared at me. I imagine there was a look of sick pleasure on his face. I didn’t much want to find out, besides, lifting my head took more effort then I was willing to give.
So instead I watched as blood trickled slowly from the torn flesh in my legs, staining my flight suit and running down onto my boots. Uttering whatever nonsense my terrified mind could come up with.
There wasn’t too much blood; the heat seemed to weld shut the wounds, at least slightly. I’m no doctor; I’m not sure what was happening. I just knew that there wasn’t as much blood as I’d expect.
When he used the spear on me the first time; well, it was worse the first time. I’ll say that much. Each time he used it, I found it more bearable to look at.
I don’t especially want to be telling you any of this. I heard it helps, maybe it will.
“I will ask you again human,” Roared a voice from above me, “Why does your carrier group approach the Vorghath? Even you must know you have no hope in a battle. What cowardly trick have they planned?”
For as long as I felt was safe I ignored him. When I finally opened my mouth, the first things to leave it were pained coughs. Breathing was hard enough in that fucking room. The hot, clammy air seemed to lodge itself at the back of my throat rather then go into my lungs. It took a lot of energy to breathe, and I wasn’t sure it was worth trying.
I instantly switched my focus to the Kilrathi’s question. I wasn’t ready to indulge that other train of thought yet.
“Listen, I’m just a first lieutenant, they don’t tell us anything.” I stopped, took in a few more difficult lungfulls of clammy air and dreamt up a few more lines of deception, “I go where I’m told and I shoot at what I’m told. I don’t have enough seniority to be let in on the grand plans.”
My eyes sprang to the spear, all that mattered in that moment was whether he was going to use it.
Again, for a long while, or what seemed like a long while nothing happened. I’m guessing the furball was trying to decide if I was telling the truth of not. Maybe I was more convincing then I thought.
Maybe it wasn’t too implausible, from what I understood, the Kilrathi didn’t place a great deal of importance on mere minions. They were just tools, tools that could be replaced if need be. Their earlier suicide attack on the Hermes proved…
Don’t think of the Hermes.
I quickly changed my train of thought before anything I couldn’t let myself see sprung up. I wasn’t quick enough. Unbidden, an image of Fool’s spontaneous jig on a table in the rec room several months ago when a bagpipe solo was playing quietly in the background sprang to mind.
As if on cue, tears emerged behind my eyelids. I blinked heavily, forcing them to stay where they were. I wouldn’t give this furry shit ball the satisfaction of seeing me cry.
Fool was gone, The Hermes was gone, everything I remembered, everything I had done belonged to a woman who had died a few hours earlier when a Kilrathi tractor beam impacted with her ejection seat. I was dead, and all I needed was to wait this out and then, one way or another, I would make it official. I had no intention of becoming a slave, to do so would be a betrayal of the Confederation and a life worse then death. I don’t expect it would take too much to get one of the guards at a POW camp to kill me. From the way Cobra made it sound when she was still onboard the… Anyway, they kill POWs simply to relieve boredom.
I couldn’t do anything now. My legs were two dead weights, my arms were chained to the ceiling and the thing in front of me seemed in no great hurry to kill me.
I switched my attention back to the spear; it was still sitting motionless in the Cat’s hand. Glowing dully to indicate it was activated. I stared at it for a few more seconds before he spoke again.
“Do they tell you terran?” It was hard to make out anything this guy was saying, his words were virtually indistinguishable from growls, “That your kind is losing this war? On all sides we see nothing but scarred apes running from our glorious hunters.”
I said nothing.
“Are you typical of terrans ape? Are all the pilots of your species pitiful cowards who would sooner leap from a doomed fighter then accept your death with honour, as a warrior should? I seem to always be called to interrogate some…”
It was about at this point when I realised that silence was a form of subservience, as much as I didn’t want a fourth stab wound, and as much as tempting it was to push myself as far into my mind as I could and shut out the world around me, a stronger part of me screamed, Keep fighting, you’re a warrior, no matter what this piece of shit says, prove that, now.
I drew a few ragged breaths and lifted my head slightly. I still couldn’t meet his eyes, but that was mainly because they were so high up. It was painful enough just keeping my head upright.
“Do you want to know what I’ve seen out there?” I croaked.
He remained silent. The spear still didn’t move.
“You can talk all you want about your glorious hunters, but I’ve seen no shortage of your kind ejecting when things get too hot. I’ve seen them retreat too, resort to the same cowardly strikes you curse at us for. You’re nothing but a bunch of honourless hypocrites, and you know? When it comes to combat, out there in space, you’re just like us.”
A low growl came from above, and the spear twitched in the Cat’s hand. He didn’t use it though, and I wasn’t finished. Anger was fuelling my vocal cords.
“Your fucking Empire is a disease.” I was starting to sound more coherent now, “You strike out at whatever you see to fulfil your collective bloodthirsty wet dream. Tell me, what perverted view of honour justifies genocide, murdering civilians, this?”
If Z’ratmak were in this position, God forbid, he’d probably say the exact same thing. He’d often tell me and anyone who’d listen about how he was one of the few ‘true Kilrathi’ left. He was one who still upheld the old values of honour that his race once embraced, but which had been abandoned as time went on. He was as disgusted with the atrocities committed by his empire as most humans were.
At this point, at far as I was concerned, he wasn’t Kilrathi, he was something far better.
The growl grew louder. My eyes forced themselves closed and I waited for the searing hiss of the spear impacting on my skin.
But it didn’t happen.
After my mind worked through the panic and realised this, my eyes slowly crept open.
The spear had stopped glowing; it hung in the Cat’s hand, pointing at the floor. I swatted aside a brief splinter of hope; I couldn’t let that affect me now. He’d probably just grown tired of it after all; maybe he wanted to use his claws now.
I forced my head up a few more centimetres, only to be met with a sharp pain in my neck that sent it falling back to its resting position and my line of vision back to the smooth floor.
“It is not our race who has misinterpreted honour.” He replied, “It is our destiny, gifted to us by Sivar to rule the stars, it is our rightful place. If your race wished to avoid our wrath, and this war that you have not the stomach for, then you should have stayed in your rightful place, the trees of your home world.”
He started laughing then. It was a ghastly sound; he sounded more like he was choking.
I forced a smile and brought my head up again to make sure he saw it.
“If we don’t destroy you,” I said slowly “Then another species will. Sooner or later the Empire will fall. Every empire dies, there are no exceptions.”
“Only the weak die.” He responded confidently.
“You consider humanity to be weak, correct?”
“Humans are a weak, clawless species.” This proud assertion was accompanied by a triumphant sounding purr.
“And yet we’re still alive. This war has gone on for decades, try as you might, you can’t defeat us. What does that prove? Except that you’re incompetent maybe? Inept?”
The spear fell to the floor with a loud ‘clank’. The two feline legs I could see before me began to walk towards me. I tried to step back and my legs promptly gave out from under me, the chains kept me upright, (almost pulling my arms off in the process.)
Two hands closed around my lower arms and pulled me up into a standing position. Once the Kilrathi was satisfied that I wasn’t going to fall over, he released his vice like grip, and rested one claw on the side of my head.
“Do you think I have not heard these words before human?” His voice was almost soft, “I have heard these meaningless insults and proclamations from countless shamed prisoners clinging to meaningless defiance. Your opinions are unimportant, as are your threats. I believe you know how poorly your race fares in this war. I believe you know how close defeat is, and I believe you know why your carrier advances on our command ship. So I will ask you once more, why does it challenge a ship which will swat it aside with ease?”
Abruptly, what pride and anger I’d been able to scrounge from the argument died, and the grim reality returned. As did a number of mental images that I didn’t want to see. Try as I might I couldn’t banish thoughts of home, the Hermes, any of it.
Was there a way I could turn this situation to my advantage? Could I mislead them with some convincing piece of misinformation? Make the Hermes’ job easier. Maybe if I…
He pushed the claw into my head as I was in mid thought.
At first I didn’t feel anything. All I could focus on was the sickening sound of my skin being torn. Bile started to rise in my throat.
Maybe I could use that. I thought distantly.
He started to drag the claw down the side of my face; I could feel it scraping against my skull as well as ripping through the flesh.
I could keep myself from screaming, barely, but I couldn’t stop the many pained whimpers that came one after the other as the claw traced its way down my face. Tears began to push their way free from behind my clenched eyelids, mingling with the blood that was appearing in the wake of the claw.
There was a sharp hiss on the far side of the small room. With the sound, he hastily pulled the claw from me. From what I could feel he’d cut a swath from the end of my forehead to the side of my mouth. I could feel air hovering into and around the wound. The blood poured down the side of my head, some of it crept into my mouth.
A series of short, quiet growls sounded above me. They sounded different from the one’s I’d heard before. It took me a few seconds for my seemingly shocked brain to register the presence of a second Kilrathi in the room. He didn’t seem to be paying me any heed, thankfully.
After the two had exchanged a few words in Kilrathi, the newcomer turned and left the room. I groaned as the door slid shut behind him. Leaving my interrogator behind to carry out his duties with undivided attention.
“It seems you are fortunate terran. It seems that additional prey is required on the newly retaken leisure planet in this sector. (I’d later find out he meant the jungle world in the Gimlie system.) You are to receive medical treatment and be taken there to be hunted down by whichever Kilrathi noble wishes to dispose of you.” He paused, I’m guessing it was for dramatic effect, “But before that, you are to witness to the destruction of your carrier, and your base on the second planet.”
This time, I didn’t fight the small stab of hope. It wasn’t much, but maybe, just maybe, I’d get to watch as the Hermes obliterated the H’varkann. When compared to that, death in the jungle didn’t seem as bad.
But nothing was guaranteed, I might end up watching the Hermes die. Along with Fool, Adish, everyone.
From that point on, I closed my eyes and tried very hard not to think.
Thanks again to all readers and commenters, in response to Kilrah’s comment, I had thought about making an audio book for this story, complete with sound effects, music, dramatic voices and so forth, unfortunately that’s going to be very difficult to pull off at the moment. Animations and movies I cannot do I’m afraid. If someone else wants to do either of these for this then be my guest.
Anyway, enough of that. After much dawdling, the TCS Hermes is at last to do battle with the KIS Vorghath.
Chapter 15: Goliath, part one.
“Alright people, this is it.”
For once, Trent sounded as nervous as the rest of us felt. The fact that he’d be personally leading this assault probably had something to do with that. Not that the Hermes would be much safer.
On the mission map there was a not particularly comforting picture of the Hermes carrier group in sketchy blue outlines; advancing towards a colossal outline of the H’varkann and its still plentiful escorts.
Two Kamrani corvettes, several troop transports and a Bhantkara class fleet carrier comprised the remainder of the Kilrathi assault force. On their own, they wouldn’t have been a match for us, with the titanic Kilrathi super weapon in their presence, we were woefully outgunned and outnumbered in terms of fighters. The 17 ships we lost on the botched attack on the Bhantkara had put us in an even worse position then we’d originally been in.
I bristled involuntarily at the thought and tried to push an unwelcome memory of Torrent’s smiling face after her first kill from my head.
She’s gone, I whispered to myself, and you’re probably going to join her before too long, so don’t worry about it.
It was that, the realisation that death was just a fire fight away, that kept me together. If death was so far away, what was the point in spending what little time I had left mourning the loss of one who had been spared the hell the rest of us were going through as we waited for the metaphorical cry of ‘charge’ to be shouted.
Besides, I wanted a shot at that carrier. No matter what happened, I wouldn’t die without sending my ship’s torpedo up its arse. I’m sure Salamander and certainly Adish felt the same way, between us, we might just take it out.
Of course when this scenario played out in my head there was an overly convenient lack of flak fire and hostile fighters. In reality we’d probably be slaughtered before we got a good look at it.
“I want all Thunderbolts and remaining Hellcats to stick close to the Kilrathi launch bays, if you can fill it will enough fire, we might just stop any unfriendlies leaving the deck.” He cleared his throat, “All ships remember that the flak fire will be weakest at the bow of the ship, stay there if you can. Arrows will provide cover and take out a few turrets if at all possible. It will also be your job to try and cover the missiles as best as you can as they approach the target.
“This ‘fire in the hole’ idea only stands so long as the Cats are still in there.” Trent continued, “If too many get out, abandon the plan and engage them.”
“What about the rest of us sir?” Someone asked.
“I was getting to that Lieutenant.” Trent replied, “Longbows will be separated into three wings, these wings will engage either a corvette or the enemy carrier. If we take that out its one less flight deck the hairballs will be able to use against us.”
He then began to read off names and my mind instantly returned to its wanderings.
I briefly regretted not finishing the goodbye letter to my parents. I’d tried for hours to come up with something suitably moving yet positive, and failed miserably. Everything I wrote sounded like an elaborate way of saying ‘Sorry but I’m going to get shot to bits tomorrow. Goodbye.’
It seemed I couldn’t keep my own resentment out of my letters.
I didn’t resent my parents, or Trent or HQ or anything like that. This resentment stemmed from an average, healthy loathing for the universe. I’d carried it around with me since I’d first signed up. I often used to think that I should rightfully be spending my time in a largely unexciting job, getting drunk at every opportunity, wake up twice a week to find I’d slept naked in a tree and doing all other sorts of insane things befitting of a callsign that by all rights I shouldn’t have to have. Basically I, and for that matter all of us should have been living and enjoying our lives, not fighting in a desperate war for the survival of my species. As childish and insufferable as this is going to sound, it wasn’t fair.
Its kind of strange in a way. I blamed fate for this, not the Kilrathi, even though it was them who’d started the whole thing.
“…Everyone clear?” A round of ‘yes sirs’ from Adjudicator squadron was Trent’s reply.
“Alright, then listen up all of you.” He cleared his throat again. “I know you’re scared, we all are. Anyone who isn’t is a fool. This won’t be a repeat of what happened to the Quinson carrier group, because this time we know what we’re doing. We will destroy this thing, and then we’ll drive these fucking hairy shitballs from this system.”
Nervous cheering, from all of us. I was trying to force conviction, optimism or anything that could be helpful into it, and I met with some success, but there was no quelling the fear, or the feeling that I was going to die. Those wouldn’t go until I found myself out there, fighting for my life.
“The Confederation needs a victory here people,” Trent continued, “We can’t keep going the way we have been. If we take out this thing, there’s no reason why other carriers can’t do the same. The odds will be evened up, and our side will get a morale boost that is long overdue.”
He was never normally that frank with us. The only explanation I could find for this change was desperation.
“I don’t care how this looks to you. This is not impossible, and our chances of success are bigger then you probably believe. I don’t want one man or woman here going into battle believing for one second that they’re going to die. We’re going to win this, just as we’re going to win the war.”
There you go, a spectacular return to form. But you know what, in that moment I believed him. It was a strange feeling, as if all things rational had been stripped away and I could do, be or believe whatever the hell I wanted.
It didn’t last.
After a few more seconds in which nervous murmurs, (although I could swear there was a general hint of reluctant optimism among them) filled the room.
“Alright then,” Trent said, “Squadrons dismissed, let’s get suited up.”
Getting out of the briefing room, with all four squadrons crowded into it was a long and awkward process, and things were little better in when we were getting suited up.
Three hours later
I won’t bore you with how the hours leading up to the battle passed, I think I’ve done that already anyway. Pretty standard stuff, saying silent goodbyes to those we left behind, half hearted conversation over the radio in which a crude victory celebration was planned, we all sang a truly horrible rendition of happy birthday to Captain Courtney Lamont’s son at her request, and sent a recording of it to the Hermes to be transferred at the next mail drop. Standard stuff.
The dreadnought looked massive in the view screen before we were even close to firing range. Any moment I expected to see a hailstorm of gunshots bearing down on us.
“Steady people,” Trent said coolly over the radio, “Wait for my signal.”
With some effort, I tore my gaze away from the HUD and focused on my weapons display. I activated all my cannons and readied an Image recognition missile. My radar didn’t show any red contacts yet, but it was just a matter of time.
“Fool.” Trent said over the radio unexpectedly, “Say something to them, see if you can’t get under their skin a little.”
“Um, sir I don’t think…”
My objections were trampled down by several more pilots, including Salamander encouraging me to think of something. I couldn’t in good conscience refuse. Besides, it was an order, not a request.
It was about then that I made a solemn promise to myself never to say anything again to a Kilrathi over the radio if I survived this mission. This reputation was more trouble then it was worth sometimes. Everyone expects so much of you.
In the end only one thing came to mind.
“Awake!” I screamed at the top of my lungs in my best elderly, female crone’s voice, “Awake ye furry devils, for the righteous hammer of the large one shall strike ye down where ye sit and defecate in your own trousers ye filthy little shits.”
I followed this up with some hysterical laughter, (not entirely forced), which sounded a lot like an ion cannon.
The trick with Kilrathi is to say stuff that they won’t understand and will waste time trying to figure out, (which happens more often then not if you say it with enough flare in your voice), but at the same time, its always best if you can make sure that they know they’ve been insulted at the same time, but gibberish on its own can be enough.
It seemed to work, no sooner were the words out then I, and presumably everyone else found a snarling Kilrathi face on our com screen. It wasn’t wearing a helmet. My guess was that it was the C.O of the H’varkann. For a while I thought it was Prince Thrakhath, as it turns out, I wasn’t. After a token growl, he started to speak,
“Fools, can you not see what you face, is your kind so desperate that it wastes its ships and soldiers in pointless attacks on the vastly superior ships of the Emp…”
There was a moment of static and then Trent’s voice cut in.
“I think we’ve heard enough. All ships, break and attack, remember your objectives. For the Confederation and humanity!”
I hit my afterburners and accelerated towards the Kilrathi dreadnought before me.
I didn’t initially notice the return of the Kilrathi face on my com screen. I only know what he said next because it was recorded in our black boxes.
“Very well apes, come forth and meet your death. Maybe some of you shall meet your end as warriors.”
Five minutes later
“Thizzle once wizzle a mizzle frizzle Lizzle.”
Unfortunately the Vaktoth in front of me wasn’t paying much attention to the gibberish I was spouting. Taunts weren’t really a wise course of action here, but they made me feel better, helped me concentrate.
I was firing continually, the shots that landed preceded another four that didn’t. I was wearing down his shields but not by much. I didn’t want to launch a missile yet. I thought I could get away without for now. Save them for when I needed them.
What the hell are you talking about? I asked myself, We need one now!”
I fired an Imrec which tore through the Vaktoth’s damaged shields and caused it to veer off course slightly, thereby allowing the Arrow it was firing on to vanish from its sights.
My rear shields were taking hits, behind me it looked like three Dralthi had come to the aid of the Vaktoth; someone was shooting at one of them, a Hellcat I think.
I pulled up hastily and had to quickly pull back down again to stop myself from smashing into a Longbow. There were too many of us out here.
I reduced my speed as much as I thought I could get away with and unloaded a new volley into a Darket that had crept into my sights as it tried, with limited success, to pick off a second Longbow.
The streaks of light from my turrets sailed majestically through the distance and ripped a neat slice of the hull off of the dorsal side of the Darket. My follow up volley obliterated him.
“Score one for the home team!” I said to one of the Dralthi that had reappeared behind me. He didn’t reply.
My rear turret was working all the while, firing shot after shot into the forward shields of my pursuers. I didn’t have room to after burn, there didn’t seem to be any way around this except through these Dralthi.
The ‘fire in the hole’ plan as Trent had called it was abandoned as soon as we noticed the fifty odd fighters in our radar. They’d known we were coming. Maybe they had a cloaked Strakha lurking near us; maybe they had a secret spy base in system, who knows. We’d only known about them thanks to a Scout corvette, the TCS Wanderer, which Commodore Ammadon had requested from HQ after our tracking stations were destroyed. We were lucky that one had been so close; it was operating in the Gateway system before it got redirected here.
“Oh my God! I'm…”
That was the fourth such epitaph I’d heard in this battle.
“They’re launching bombers!” Shouted Colonel Trent over the radio, his cockpit was shaking all the while we could see him. “All Death’s Shadow pilots who can do so, take them out.”
I guess that meant me.
The Dralthi were still trailing me, except that now there were three of them. God only knows where the forth one went.
With all the enemy ships flying around at one, it took me a while to find a Paktahn. Once I did, I found the things were a fair distance from the Hermes. Normally this would be a good thing, unfortunately in this case it meant we’d just have to stay out here longer, with all manner of unfriendly ships shooting us to hell. Also it meant we couldn’t rely on friendly flak fire, at least not for a while.
I risked a short leap to 1000kps in a patch of space that seemed reasonably clear. I came to an abrupt stop when I noticed anther Thunderbolt coming straight at me.
I swerved to the right, thankfully he swerved in the opposite direction. I sighed a heavy sigh of relief, reduced my speed and found my target again.
I didn’t fire off a missile straight away, I wanted to get as close as I could without them seeing me.
I was dealing with a wing of four Paktahn, there were probably four or five more wings, at least, behind them. If not then there would be soon. The furthermost bomber on the right was taking fire from two Arrows, the two on the left were leaving mines in their wake, probably trying to discourage pursuers. Luckily for me, I was coming in from the side.
At 5000km, I sent two Imrec missiles and a stream of gunfire into the exposed flank of the closest bomber. He made an effort to pull away, and might have done so if it wasn’t for the two missiles which passed through the space where my targets shields had once been without obstruction and ripped the Cat bomber apart.
No sooner had I targeted a second then I found the Dralthi unloading shots into my rear shields once more.
I’d had enough of this.
I came to a complete stop and executed a 180 degree turn. Thunderbolts were built for endurance, my shields port shields held up pretty well as I turned, my forward shields held long enough for me to take aim and fire.
The lead Dralthi pulled up after the first of my shots started ripping his shields away. I stayed with him, these bastards had been snapping at my heels for long enough, now it was my turn.
After about a minute of him skilfully evading my fire and me narrowly managing to stay with him, (this guy redefined the term ‘slippery bastard’.) I noticed one of his wingmen reappearing behind me in the rear view display.
My rear turret sprung to life, but so far that hadn’t proved to be a popular deterrent.
I released a decoy. Sometimes, and especially in situations such as these, the cats will mistake them for mines and peel away.
It worked this time, but it wasn’t long before he reappeared again, and I was still no closer to destroying his wing leader.
Like a giant claw, the bow of the H’varkann appeared in my HUD, the Dralthi seemed to be flying towards it, probably hoping to get me in range of one of its turrets.
I tried very hard to focus on my job, and a few hits to my rear shields helped me do just that.
Grasping the throttle in one hand, I came to a complete stop.
The second Dralthi sailed over me gracefully, and then turned 180 degrees the same way I had earlier. I thought he was going to fire the same way I had as well, instead, he began to accelerate towards me.
As my brain realised that he intended to ram me, I noticed my hand was absently working the missile controls, almost instinctively, I released one Imrec and pulled up hard.
The Dralthi was in the earliest stages of becoming a fireball when it vanished from my screen. The flaming wreckage collided with my forward and ventral shields, reducing them both to single digit percentages.
There was no sign of the other one, or his other two wingmen for that matter.
It was about this point when Jake Coben’s face appeared on the com screen. I doubted this was going to be good news.
“The Archangel has taken a torpedo hit,” He said nervously, “She needs to fall back. We need every last one of those bombers gone guys, we can’t lose many more ships.”
No sooner had his face vanished then another took his place, it looked familiar but I couldn’t place it.”
“My hull is…”
Her words degenerated to a scream as flames engulfed her. It took a long time for the com screen to cut out.
I forced myself to turn my attention away from the dead pilot’s last scream. If I didn’t focus, I would be next.
I switched through more targets, searching for more bombers. I had no idea how many there still were, but I assumed it would be a large number, between them, I couldn’t imagine the H’varkann or the Bhantkara had a shortage.
After a few moments of this, something appeared on my targeting display that didn’t look like what I normally saw in its place. I had just enough time to read the word ‘Deathfang’ above he image of a Vaktoth before the two Dralthi re-appeared behind me and fired.
Thanks again to all readers and commenters, and thanks to whoever it was who put the notice about Front lines on the daily wcnews bulletin. That was a surprising thing to see to say the least.
Chapter 16: Goliath, part two
We lost two men before we even got in line for a run at the carrier.
2nd Lieutenant Les Morrison was taken out by one too many lucky hits from a Paktahn, and a Vaktoth had taken out 1st Lieutenant Leonid ‘Scorpion’ Banks in a mutually fatal collision.
There were supposed to be three Thunderbolts providing us with cover, but with the amount of ships swarming around us, carrying out this task, presumably, was like trying to stop a snowball hitting an elderly person in the middle of a crowded street by chasing it with a paper bag.
Of course the sheer number of engagements and obstacles around us also provided some much needed cover.
I fired off a few shots at one of a wing of three passing Darkets that were firing on two Hellcats, his port side took a serious hit, but he managed to stay with his wingmen. I think my rear turret fired a few shots at him, but once he was out of sight my attention hastily switched to the Carrier that was now appearing in front of me.
Most of it was hidden behind one of the claw like segments of the H’varkann’s bow. I briefly felt yet another sense of sudden terror at the sheer size of the ship we were planning to destroy before my rear shields started taking hits.
“Taking evasive manoeuvres.” I snapped to the remaining four ships in the wing, led by major Tieschowitz.
“All ships assume loose formation. Keep flying towards the carrier and launch your torpedoes, no matter what else happens.” Tieschowitz uttered after a few moments, the sound of his voice was bizarrely reassuring. Maybe it was because he’d been in command when we had to run from the dreadnought we were now trying to kill. Maybe his leading us back to safety caused some part of my head to consider this man an asset to my continued survival. Maybe he just had a reassuring voice, it doesn’t really matter.
We were still a fair distance from the carrier, and getting within torpedo range required that we expose ourselves to an unnerving percentage of the H’varkann’s broadside.
At this thought, I remembered Mongoose’s scream as fire from the turrets we were now presenting ourselves to reduced her bomber to a cloud of debris in a matter of seconds.
They’d pay for that too. I told myself. In fact that the words ‘They’d pay’ were pretty much the only thing I’d thought since I received news about Torrent.
I’d lost people I’d known before. People I’d laughed with, flown with dozens of times before, gotten drunk with, and considered friends. But, callous though this will sound, I’d never lost anyone who I’d miss. Specifically people who I’d miss for more then two nights after they’d died and for a few minutes when their names slipped out in conversation. I’d never truly lost a friend before.
What I felt now, in retrospect, is almost a little frightening. I wasn’t consumed with rage and a thirst for vengeance that drowned out everything else, although there was no denying it was there, hiding underneath everything else. I was still afraid of dying, and I still wanted to survive, but these were, well, I guess the best way to describe these is that they were secondary objectives. The only thing that mattered to me was taking out that carrier. The ship which, either through flak fire or one of its fighters had killed Torrent. I hadn’t a clue which fighter had taken her out, if any, and I couldn’t go searching for them, or hope to have much success engaging them, hence the target of my revenge had to be that carrier. If it went down, then I would be ok, and it would be ok if I died because I’d have completed my task.
Outside of the context of an obstacle, the H’varkann no longer mattered to me.
It may interest you to know that about half of our Longbows had been sent to try and damage the H’varkann’s launch deck. The hope was to punch enough craters in it to render it unusable. Judging by the swarms of fighters exiting the enemy flight deck, they weren’t meeting with much success.
Whatever was shooting at my rear shields abruptly stopped. I never saw what it was, but if I had to guess, based on the rate my shields were fading. It was a Dralthi. It might have been an laser turret for all I knew, but whatever it was had stopped firing.
No sooner had I noticed this then I found myself pulling upwards to avoid an Arrow. When I pulled back down to line myself up with the carrier, I found a stream of gunfire, this time from a Paktahn coming at me.
Whereas a brief surge of fear would have preceded my hand moving to the missile controls, this time it was a surge of anger that caused me to send two friend or foe missiles down the Kilrathi’s throat. I didn’t care that this was an enemy looking to kill me; all I saw was something in the way.
The Paktahn’s forward shields collapsed with the missile hits. Almost as if on cue, the green crosshair signalling my passing into firing range appeared on the HUD. As I fired I felt some of my control go with the plasma and neutron blasts. The gunshots brought my rage to the surface, I almost started screaming as I fired; and I kept firing even after my ship passed through the exploding cloud of debris that had once been a Kilrathi bomber.
To my surprise, it seemed that Tieschowitz had witnessed this.
“Stay calm Haajanen. Focus on your objective, don’t lose your head.”
In spite of everything, I actually managed to feel a twinge of embarrassment. I rebuked myself for it and searched for more Paktahns, but it looked like they’d all flown passed us. No doubt they were heading for the Hermes, or one of her escorts.
I couldn’t see the Hermes in my rear view display; they must have still been a long way from their target.
I almost started giggling. The thought of that massive monstrosity as a target had assumed a whole new level of absurdity now that we were here trying to destroy it. Don’t lose your head Tieschowitz’s voice repeated in my mind. We have a job to do.
We were approaching the edge of the main battle, ships started to vanish behind us and dogfights were becoming more sporadic. I noticed two Thunderbolts ripping apart a Sorthak not far from us, it vanished from sight before they destroyed it, but it was a nice thing to see.
“Incoming flak fire at seven O’clock.” Tieschowitz snapped. I began dodging shots probably before the Kilrathi had noticed me. I didn’t want to make this easy for them.
At least one pilot didn’t have this foresight. 2nd Lieutenant Brenda Garcia. Her face soon appeared on the com screen once the flak fire started coming at us.
“I’m hit. I’ve lost flight control, I can’t keep her stea…”
“Pilot, eject!” Tieschowitz shouted.
She did eject, and she got clear of her fighter before it exploded. Then, some time later, some fucking Kilrathi gunner decided to use her for target practice. There was nothing left of her.
And then there were three of us.
The Bhantkara was in plain sight now. But it was still a long way out. Flak fire from the H’varkann seemed to increase with each passing second. A string of four red dots also told me of a new wing of fighters that had launched from the carrier and now stood between us and them.