Front Lines

Getting cold sweats again... I need my fix... Where are you Plywood? Please say you are going to post again.
Sorry for the lengthy wait. Truth be told though I’ve had a lot of unpleasant things to deal with this summer, not particularly small things either. I won’t elaborate but instead, to make amends for yet another late chapter I shall reveal some vague secrets about what’s in store in the chapters to come. Don’t read these if you don’t wish to.

• The introduction of two new characters.
• The introduction of a character from one of the Wing Commander Games.
• A curious incident involving a ferret and the loss of someone’s left ear. (I kid you not).

Chapter 36

When the Wall Fell

Torrent’s Perspective

“Relax Holly, we’ve been in tighter spots then this before right?”
“I know,” Came the despondent response from the Lieutenant sitting a few meters away near a parked Grikath, “Doesn’t mean I have to feel any better about this one though.”

His friend raised his arms to the ceiling dramatically.
“Christ man, I don’t get you. We’ve all done the lament before the dawn routine and its grown old. Yes, we may die. Big deal, get over it.”

I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow as I listened to these words. Finding pilots who were unafraid of death because they didn’t think it would ever happen to them was common enough, though finding someone who genuinely didn’t care about whether they lived or not was something much rarer, and in retrospect Its likely that those weren’t the man’s true feelings.
“Easy for you to say Nate, unfortunately most of us aren’t as far gone as you yet.”
“Sucks to be you then.”
“Yeah, I guess it does. It must be nice not to have any worries or anything to fight for.”

The briefest hint of an irate twitch passed over Nate’s face, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared and he replaced it with the careless grin that he’d been wearing before.
“Ah don’t give me that Hol. I’m just saying that when you think about it there’s not a great deal to worry about. I mean…”
“I’ve heard this speech.”
“…I mean if I get torched out there, then I get to die safe in the knowledge that I went out with dignity or honour or some such. I’ve only got a handful of seconds of the void or the flames consuming my devilishly handsome self to worry about. After that it’s all gone, the war, the angst, the snoring. I reappear in another life as some kind of lusty millionaire long after the war’s over and spend my days complaining about the lack of excitement in my life to my seventeen concubines.”

Despite her best efforts, Holly’s despondence shattered and for a few seconds she laughed. Nate sat back on his hands and grinned in short lived triumph.
“You’ve got it all planned out haven’t you?”
“Yep. And if we survive, which we will by the way for I have foreseen it, then there’ll be alcohol and frivolity aplenty upon our return. Who knows, I might even hit it off with that cute Asian female that’s staring at us.” He turned to face me and shrugged his shoulders. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or get angry so I just turned my head away.

A few minutes later everyone started to stand up. I wasn’t sure why at first but doing likewise seemed like a good idea. I turned to where everyone seemed to be facing and noticed that the ship’s Wing Commander, (noticeable by the elaborate flight suit) entered the deck. We saluted as the Kilrathi commander hastily made his way to his fighter. When he reached it he turned to face us.

“I shall keep this brief.” He said, his voice was impatient and the helmet in his paws twitched as if in protest for not being on his head. He wanted to be out there fighting. “Sivar tests us this day. There is a force of traitors approaching our colony as you well know. A force of those who have betrayed the true heart of a Kilrathi that beats in the people of Ghorah Khar. Remain vigilant and fight with skill and honour. Do this and we shall send to Sivar a gift of dishonourable slaves in the Afterworld.”

An enthusiastic roar from Kilrathi and humans alike was his response. I staid silent. I’d heard such a speech before. It was almost identical and it had been said by the Commander of the KIS Vorghath to his Bridge crew moments before the Hermes attacked. My right arm started to shake, followed by my left. I quickly focused on breathing steadily and pictured the burning Ralatha that I’d destroyed only a few hours ago and the shakes receded, a bit.

“To battle fellow warriors.” Said the Kilrathi Commander. Bows and salutes answered him and then the pilots were moving towards their ships. Instead of the deck crew rolling step ladders up to the fighters, the pilots had to take their own flimsy looking ladder from the side of the deck and make their own way inside. These were then kicked carelessly to the deck.

The incoming Imperial ships had launched a first wave to inflict some damage on us before the main assault began, these were about twenty minutes away. This was more then enough time for us to head out and get in formation but in the eyes of no shortage of the pilots that had been assembled on the flight deck, I could see that they wanted, or perhaps needed to be out in space, ready and waiting to meet the Empire head on. At least half of the Carnthranizdolles’ pilots were fighting for their home world, I could only imagine how that must have felt, but I could tell that sitting on the deck and waiting for the enemy was not what they wanted to be doing.

It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing either. As I lowered myself into the cockpit of the Thunderbolt I felt something which I’d really only felt once before when I awoke in the Infirmary of the Hermes after the battle at Brimstone. It was the sensation of being home when you were certain you’d never see it again. Though in reality it had only been about a week, it felt like a lifetime since I’d last sat in a Confederation fighter. Being back filled me with a sense of belonging and even a sense of power that I could only hope I’d get to enjoy another day.

Interestingly however, the fact that the Hermes had triumphed despite being outnumbered and outgunned didn’t give me any confidence that this battle could turn out the same way. But somehow that didn’t matter to me as much this time.

Twenty Minutes Later

There were no bombers in the enemy first wave, it was a mixture of fourth generation Dralthi and Sartha. The Dralthi were targeting us while the Sartha targeted the turrets on the cruisers.

I let loose a volley into a wing of three Sartha that were closing in on the Caledonia and the portside wingman promptly broke in half. These older Kilrathi fighters were like cabbages when a Thunderbolt’s weapons crashed down on them. That wasn’t to say they weren’t nimble however. Hitting them was normally next to impossible. These Sartha were aiming at stationary turrets however, meaning that they had to fly reasonably straight which in turn meant that they were easier to kill. The cruisers were taking out as many as we were.

I swung my ship around to face the Dralthi that had appeared on my tactical display. It was in a wing of two that were landing shot after shot on a Jalkehi. A Hellcat was taking the occasional pot shot at the wingman but these shots were few and far between. He was afraid of hitting his comrade, and as a result his target saw little reason to worry about him.

That was at least until the Hellcat’s pilot saw fit to send a missile up his tailpipe. The Dralthi spun away, its exhaust venting flames. The Hellcat chased after it, the pilot firing a little more frequently now. I closed on the second Dralthi which released a missile of its own. The warhead struck the Jalkehi and a lot of debris from the fighter’s rear section fell away.

I didn’t have time for anything else, so I prepped an Imrec and fired. The image in my targeting computer turned a bright shade of yellow and a wave of gunfire soon started flying in my direction from the doubtlessly pissed off Kilrathi pilot I’d just attacked.

I returned fire, and with his shields and hull already weakened it was a short fire fight. With my forward shield barely dropping below 40% the ship in front of me ceased to be.
“What’s your status?” I asked the damaged Jalkehi.
“Utter shit.” Came the response from the (I was surprised to see) human pilot. “My engines are fried and this piece of shit cat box is falling apart on me. I’m going to have to eject.”


I closed the com and started searching for my next target.

Abruptly my com screen filled with static. Presumably a pilot with a damaged com system was attempting to broadcast their epitaph. I didn’t know if it was from a friendly or a hostile ship. I hated it when this happened.
“Mayday! Mayday! This is the TCS Caledonia. Our reactor has been hit. Two Dralthi had torpedoes. We are going do…”

An all too familiar white flash engulfed the space around me and abruptly our already bleak chances of survival took a spectacular nose dive. I sat motionless for a few moments, disbelieving partly at the loss of one of our cruisers to a wing of Dralthi, and partly at how the same Kilrathi who we’d been cursing as woefully inept earlier had just suckered us with this deception.
“You fools!” Howled the commander of the Carnthranizdolles over the com, “Ghorah Khar will burn because of your ineptitude!”

I dragged myself out of my stunned stupor and found vengeance in the form of a Sartha. The ship was coming straight at me from behind, unloading shot after shot into my rear shields. Its course was perfectly straight however, and a few shots from my rear turret clawed through it’s considerably weaker shields. The fighter began to drift harmlessly after a lucky shot took out the cockpit. I think it was later finished off by a Gratha.
“Attention all ships!” Bellowed First Fang Kulron Nar Eloy “Focus your fire on all remaining Dralthi. We must not allow the Carnthranizdolles to fall.”

He didn’t need to tell us twice. At least two Dralthi were incinerated in the next two minutes. The larger-then-usual explosion from one suggesting that there was indeed a torpedo onboard.

The enemy fighters were beginning to wear a bit thin. Most of them had fallen to our superior numbers and firepower already, but their mission had certainly been a success and the honored dead who had sent a Confederation capitol ship to the grave would surely be hailed as heroes gone to Sivar.

I shot yet another Sartha off the back of another Thunderbolt which moments later eliminated the last Dralthi in the Kilrathi’s first wave. The last three enemy stragglers turned tail and fled back towards their carrier where another fifty odd undamaged fighters crewed by eager enemy pilots waited to tear us to pieces. There were only twenty one of our own fighters left in a workable condition. The others having been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. As Fool might say, we were screwed.

After a few moments of inactivity in which we all just stared at the twisted heap of metal which used to be the TCS Caledonia, the Carnthranizdolles’ commander appeared once more on the com. He seemed marginally calmer now.
“Attention fighters. We have perhaps two eights of minutes to rearm a number of fighters. Landing instructions will be transmitted to…”

A short burst of static and the next thing we knew Commander Cunningham’s face had replaced the Kilrathi Commander’s. He did not look pleased.
“Attention all ships, this is Ghorah Khar C&C. Report back to the colony for repairs and rearming. We’re switching to plan B, but we don’t have a lot of time to prepare. Move quickly people.”

Plan B? What the hell was that? From Cunningham’s tone during the briefing he gave me it seemed that this was our best and more importantly last chance to save the colony. The small sliver of hope that had all but died with the Caledonia rekindled slightly with this news, though I had no idea what this new plan was, and when I found out then I wished with an almost fanatical fervor that it hadn’t come to such measures.

The Carnthranizdolles was not a particularly fast ship, it was taking it a long while to turn around. Even when it did it would still not be able to outrun the hordes of bombers and fighters that had now stopped waiting and were making their way towards us. After a few minutes it began to look doubtful that we’d get to try this plan B at all.

Then we all heard something that we didn’t want to. The Kilrathi CO appeared on our screens again.
“Attention pilots, we cannot keep up with you. The enemy will reach us before we can reach the colony. I do not know what Cunningham has planned, but I do know that this may be our only chance to save Ghorah Khar. I order you all to proceed at best possible speed back to the colony. Furthermore, I order you to succeed next time. Do not fail me again.”

His face vanished and the Carnthranizdolles came to a complete stop. Some fighters took off immediately towards the colony, others stayed by the cruiser for a long time before they were finally able to peel themselves away. I sympathized, being ordered to leave your ship and crew to be annihilated was not easily obeyed.

As the Imperial fighters closed on the solitary cruiser, I watched the battle unfold on my nav map. A few enemy fighters vanished under the fire of the Carnthranizdolles’ turrets, but without fighter cover the Fraltha was as good as defenseless. A few thin lines which represented torpedoes shot out from Paktahn icons and began to close in. One was shot down by flak fire, but the other three detonated on the cruiser’s starboard broadside. After a few seconds a second white flash shone behind me, and then all that stood between Ghorah Khar and annihilation were a handful of battered fighters.

At least I wished that’s how it was. I wished that there was something that we could have done on our own but the reality was far more terrible.

To be continued
Sorry to hear that you had such troubles... Thanks again for posting. I love this story, and check everyday for your updates.... Thanks again man, great add on.
Hello all, sorry again for the delay, truth be told I’m having a bit of trouble getting inspired to write this story recently, no matter what new ideas I come up with everything I write feels kind of repetitive. ‘Get up, fly, kill, fly some more, land, curse generally shitty state of the universe and go to sleep.’ I’ll have to work on this.

But anyway, thanks as always to all reading and commenting fellows.

(P.S. It occurs to me that I’ve royally screwed up the chapter numbers, I’m pretty sure this is actually chapter 35 though, even though the last one said 36.)

Chapter 35: Insult

Beowulf’s perspective

“Here’s to Lizard. 23 kills to his name, snoring like a beast from Hell’s nethers and a ghastly singing voice. He’ll be missed.”
“To Lizard.” We said in unison, then threw back a shot of the bottle of whiskey that Lizard kept under his bed with a note attached which specifically stated that all the Avenger’s pilots empty the bottle on the event of his death. Unfortunately the Captain had only allowed this on the condition that we all take an alcohol suppressant injection first. We were still on alert after all, and it looked like that was where we’d stay for a good long while.

An uneasy silence followed, this was our third lost comrade in the space of a week. Kilrathi raids were becoming increasingly commonplace in Gemini. Lesser clans and privateer groups mostly as this sector remained too insignificant for the Empire to commit significant forces, but hunting packs could still strike at convoys, destroy our fighters and launch bombardment missiles at our colonies. Confederation citizens were dying in the hundreds.

We had done more then our fair share of our own killing. In the last three months the Avenger had destroyed three enemy destroyers, five Khamekhs and almost a hundred fighters. Our forces in this sector were too small however, and there were far too many gaps the Kilrathi could slip through.

The Kilrathi it seemed, were focused on seizing the Sutur system, their attacks on our blockade point near that system had almost doubled. The Winterrowd and the Avenger were keeping them at bay, but the scramble alarm sounded four times daily on average, and with each battle, some of us died. Our supply of weapons and spare parts was running thin with re-supply convoys coming under almost constant attack by pirates and retros, and on top of everything, morale was paper thin. Everywhere we looked there were Confederation soldiers and citizens being buried under an almost endless sea of Kilrathi.

There were a fair few of us pilots left, and the bottle didn’t last long. Conversation broke out in sporadic bursts between a few groups of people but for the most part we all remained silent. There wasn’t much to be said that wouldn’t lead back to the generally shitty situation we were all in.

After a few seconds of staring blankly at the barrack’s door, I made my way to the window and started staring blankly at the stars. The dark side of a planet was visible in the distance, identifiable by the thin ring of light that surrounded it, the only other sight was the destroyer Mjolnir, which hung above the Avenger.
“Hello Hrothark.” Lancer said, appearing at my right, “looking for gold?”

I stayed silent, hoping he’d get the message that I’d rather be left to myself right now.
“Mr. Beowulf,” He said undeterred, “Mamma tells me you’re quite the oddity, a virgin at your age?”
“That wasn’t funny the last time you said it either.” I said.
“You have no one to blame but yourself.”

I turned to glare at him, on the surface you could think that the atmosphere of mourning was lost on this guy. He was one of those types who look like they don’t have a care in the world. Sometimes though something would slip, a twitch of the face, a pause in conversation or something which to the trained eye could show you that underneath all his jibes and apparent frivolity, the war had left its mark on him too.

I thought I saw that now, there was something in the shape of his default grin that looked ‘off’, like he needed extra effort to keep it in place.
“Is there something you wanted?”
“Just the usual, an end to the war, a blond eighteen year old virgin chained to my bedposts in a luxurious mountain hideaway somewhere where the gravity won’t crush you under the weight of your own hair.” (Whenever the opportunity arose, he would always find someway to complain about his former posting at a civilian research outpost on Port Headland’s High-G night planet.)

I nodded uninterestedly.
“Also it would be nice to have at least one day when the scramble alarm didn’t go off.” He glared expectantly at the speaker above the lift door. Seconds passed and nothing happened.
“I said it would be nice to go through one day without having the scramble alarm go off.” He said louder, though not loud enough for any of the other pilots to hear. Again, seconds passed and no demented shrill from the alarm disturbed our peace.
“Well how about that?” Lancer said in almost genuine surprise. He laughed and I managed a distant snigger.

Minutes ticked by slowly, the chef had made a batch of my favorite stew which contained things which were probably more metal then meat but anyway, eating was a labored process as it always was for me when I was depressed. Every spoonful clung to my mouth like I was eating glue.
“I got a letter from home,” Came a muffled utterance through a mouthful of food, it sounded more like Ah goh a lettwer fwoh hown.
“Rachael says hi.”

Instinctively my face twitched as a familiar uncomfortable feeling struck. No offense to Rachael, that’s just the way I was.
“Ah stony silence from the silent warrior, unwilling to let his heart be burdened by female companionship, how noble. I’ll tell her you miss her.”
“Will you shut up?”
“Ah come on cat-man, don’t give me that. I’m doing this for your own good. Besides she’s in Gateway man. Long distance right? None of those nasty, sticky matters of the flesh that you despise so much. Sounds perfect for you if you ask me.”

To clear up any confusion that my first name and ‘cat-man’ (as Lancer insists on calling me) might give, I am in fact human. My name is Hrothark Nar Ghorah Khar. My mother was Kilrathi. She was the only parent I’ve ever known, my biological parents are as big a mystery to me as how Lancer can snore so loudly as he does.

I knew I shouldn’t have gone with him on shore leave. On the Avenger, people understand me and don’t expect me to act just like them. On Ghorah Khar the citizens, be they human or Kilrathi can recognize the traits of one species or the other in me and do not view me as some kind of freak of nature. On Gateway however, I was surrounded by people I could never relate to. These were people who did not know the hunt, did not know battle and lived for something I still know not what. I know this is a fault in perception. My upbringing was unique and as a result so is my perception of things. I can’t expect such creatures as the Gatewayians to trouble themselves trying to accommodate this or even understand me, more then anything I wanted to be left alone by those I did not know, for the most part I was.

At first I did not have much of a problem, I found a firing range, (great fun), and pilot’s bar where I could spend a good deal of my time among fellow warriors, though most looked at me like some kind of freak. The real problem however was when I accompanied Lancer, or Steve if you prefer, to an evening meal at his house. It was there I met Rachael, his seventeen year old sister. (At the time, this was about three years ago now). I have absolutely no idea why, but there was something about my character that caused her to lust after me. Perhaps it was a naïve image of a warrior that some cublings, both human and Kilrathi admire. Or perhaps it was, as Lancer calls it, my lone wolf personae. Either way I ended up getting called back to his house for more occasions on her insistence. Walking the fine line between not causing her undeserved insult and at the same time keeping her off of me was far harder then many of the battles I have fought in my career. Anyway, this isn’t the main point of the story and if it’s all the same to you I’d really rather not talk about this any more. Besides…
“Attention, all Wolf pack and Dragon fire pilots report to the briefing room in ten minutes. Repeat, all Wolf pack and Dragon fire pilots report to the briefing room in ten minutes.”
Lancer sighed heavily and extended his middle finger at the loudspeaker.
“Sod’s law,” He said, “It’s not a scramble alarm, but it’s just as bad. Fate’s being subtle today.”
“At least we get to finish eating this time.” I said, remembering one too many days when I’d had to abandon half my lunch. How was it that the enemy always knew when we were eating?

We tipped the rest of the stew down our throats, got up and made our way to the lift.

Nine Minutes Later

“Pipe the chatter boys and girls, it’s time to earn our pay.”
“What pay?” Lancer whispered.

I watched intently as the map screen came to life. I instnantly made out the symbols representing the Avenger, the Winterrowd, and two planets. I could also see what looked like four Confederation transports. Soon Colonel Cole started speaking again.
“As you know, our re-supply convoys have come under considerable harassment from Kilrathi and pirate forces. This has started to take its toll on our ability to mount an effective defense in this system. If things keep going as they have been, the Kilrathi are walk straight through us and straight to Perry.”

This was the fact that so many of us had been trying not to think about. The Kilrathi attacks demanded enough attention when we were trying to sleep, but the idea of garden variety pirates being our downfall, hell that was just plain embarrassing.

Sorry, I rant easily.
“To ensure the safety of this convoy we’ll be strengthening the standard escort. As you’ve probably guessed that means each and every fighter from your two squadrons.

An uneasy murmur passed through the room. If the Kilrathi came in and attacked when the ship’s supply of Hellcats and Arrows were off babysitting cargo ships then in all likelihood, things would get unpleasant very quickly.
“I know it’s risky, but we don’t have much choice. The pirate presence in this system has almost doubled in the last week. If we don’t get these supplies then this system will fall. The Winterrowd will just have to take care of us for a while.” He paused for a moment. At this point we all found ourselves appreciating our supply shortage problem all the more.
“Let’s get to the specific assignments. Alpha wing will meet up with transport Alpha 3-1-1. The wing will consist off…

Three Hours Later

We passed by two separate debris clouds en-route to the transport. One was the remnants of a battle between pirate and militia forces, the other seemed to be a battle between Kilrathi and Retros. Kind of a cheery image when you think of our enemies blasting themselves to bits. Regrettably there was no shortage of debris from Confederation ships that the recovery units hadn’t picked up yet.

We were an hour away from the transport. At the moment it was flying with only two Militia Gladii which, if I’m brutally honest, was like flying with a couple of bicycles for fighter cover. Hopefully our eight ships would prove to be a little more of a deterrent to potential attackers.

Most of our wing was asleep, waiting for an ear piercing shrill to rouse them at the first sign of a Kilrathi or pirate vessel. I guess it must be nice to have the luxury of slumbering through the monotonous moments of piloting, alas I had been taught the importance of alertness in such situations well and by now it was instinctive. I could not sleep in one of these things even if it was parked.

Unfortunately the relaxed mood caused by the three hours of inactivity was not to last. It was about this time that the cry of-
“Mayday! Mayday! This is the independent cargo vessel Michigan. We are under attack and require immediate assistance, repeat this is the cargo vessel Michigan, we are under attack and need help!”
“We read you Michigan, how many attackers are we talking about and what’s your location?”
“We’re transmitting now. There’s three retros after us, Stilettos.”
“Understood, I’m sending help your way, try and hold them off until we get there.”
“Hurry!” With that the channel cut out.
“Right, Beowulf, Gremlin and Lancer, check it out. I’m transmitting nav co-ordinates.”
“Understood sir.” Yawned Gremlin, having just woken up it seemed, “Ok guys, let’s make this quick.”

I afterburned into formation with Gremlin’s Hellcat and we were soon moving towards the transport. It didn’t look like it was too far away, but they were in the middle of an asteroid field, kind of a strange place for a transport to go, I could only assume they were trying to lose their pursuers.

Twelve minutes later

“I’ve got nothing boss,” Lancer said, “No freighter, no fighters.”
“No debris.” I added.
“Maybe we’re too late.” I added, “Any sign of engine emissions? Maybe they already made off with the freighter.”
“I can’t tell sir, then again the asteroids might be covering them up. They’re pretty hard to see at the best of times.”
“True enough,” Gremlin said, “Keep scanning, we’ll stick around for a few minutes and see if anything turns up, if not we’ll head back.”

Whilst Lancer checked sensor readings, I made a slow trip around some of the more tightly clustered asteroids, trying to see if I could spot anything small that might not show up on sensors.

“Wait a minute,” Lancer said after a minute or two, “I’m picking up something, looks like Stilettos, maybe four of them.
“Ok people, get ready to engage but wait for my signal, these could be militia.”
“Make that eight Stilettos, 20km out and heading this way. Holy shit, they’re coming at us from all sides.”
“It’s a trap,” obviously “Break and attack.”
“It never fails,” Chortled a voice belonging to some woman with an unimaginative skull and crossbones on her flight helmet, “That Michigan stunt always works on wannabe hero idiots.”
“Why Beowulf, I think the nasty pirate wench has insulted us.” Lancer said, interrupting the transmission, “Call her something back.”
“I’m feeling generous today so I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. Now stay calm boys, we only want your fighters. Disconnect your self destruct systems and eject, and we’ll leave you in peace.”

I had a missile lock on her fighter, God knows how much I wanted to shut her up with the help of an Imrec. I forced the anger down and focused as best as I could on my duty, trying to ignore the jibes. We were outnumbered, that was true and the Stiletto in the hands of experienced pilots could fly circles around Hellcats. However, we had the stronger vessels as well as re-enforcements not too far away. It has to be said though, the odds still looked very much against us.

So did we give up our fighters?

Did we fuck.

To be continued
You may feel that your writing is just Get up, fly, kill, fly some more, land, curse generally shitty state of the universe and go to sleep.’ But man to tell you the truth it is much more. Please don't give up writing this great story, well at least till it is the end, and then please start another one. Your dang good at it.
Evening all, sorry for the delay, though if I’m honest I don’t think time it was as long as it normally is. Anyway, thanks again to all reviewers and readers. Just to clear up any confusion, I’m not planning on abandoning the story, I have every intention of finishing the pesky thing even if it takes me another 90 odd chapters, which it may very well do. 36 chapters in and the Victory’s only in the Lucanda system at this point. Aaanyway…

Chapter 36: Pest Control

Lancer’s perspective

The pirate didn’t move an inch as the Imrec missile closed in on his craft, granted there wasn’t too great a distance between our ships, but he, or she, should have been able to manage some sort of evasive manoeuvre or jettison a decoy or something before his ship was consumed by the fiery darkness of doom.

I managed to tear away a fair bit of the forward armour on a second Stiletto before it got out of my way. I was beginning to feel my uneasiness subside, if these two were any indication then this would last two minutes.
“You’ll pay for this you fuc…” This cheery epitaph you’ll be pleased to hear came from none other then the pirate’s wingleader. The same recidivist squad bitch that tried to get us to jump ship earlier. I was later to discover that Beowulf had shoved a missile of his own smack bang into her engines.

My target was trying to come around and charge at me at maximum velocity. The Stiletto, for all its other failings was a quick beast and the pirate probably thought to wear me down with a few runs at me or maybe a missile or two. What had apparently slipped his or her mind however was that we were in fact in an asteroid field. Whoops, smack bang into a pretty smallish lump of rock actually, if his frontal armour was still intact he might have survived the impact.

Not wanting to yield our successive killing streak just yet, I fired off a heat-seeker at a Stiletto that was trying unsuccessfully to stay on Gremlin’s tail. It looked like they were firing off shots just for the hell of it. The only thing they hit were innocent rocks. Unlike the first guy, this one noticed the missile. The antique chaff pod he jettisoned though was no match for the superior, present day guidance system on even the second most simple of beasts, the heat seeker. His ship abruptly disappeared under a curtain of flames and then the good Captain Gremlin was left to destroy a fourth Stiletto in peace.

To my surprise, it seemed the rest of the pirates had some brains after all, with half their wing obliterated in half a minute (God we’re good, I’ll strangle any man who says otherwise,) anyway, the rest of them decided that sticking around was not a good idea.
“Nice work guys,” Gremlin said, “Form up and let’s get going, we’ve wasted enough time for one outing.”
“Oh come on sir, tell me you don’t want to finish them off.”
“Course I do,” Came the straightforward response to Beowulf’s question, “But we’re needed elsewhere.”

I sighed and re-entered formation with Gremlin’s fighter. We started moving, but I soon noticed that we weren’t heading back to the convoy.
“Listen up guys,” He said, reappearing on the com-screen, a blinking light beneath the monitor informing me that this was a secure channel. “With any luck those pirates think we’re heading back to the convoy. I’ve signalled the Avenger and called for backup fighters and bombers to be placed on standby alert. Hopefully these guys will lead us straight to their base of operations, assuming they don’t crash first. Maintain radio silence.”

Now that’s more like it, a chance to nip this pirate problem in the bud, or one of them anyway. I always love a good strike mission, these stealth runs however tended to be a bit cumbersome and long winded, and more often then not you didn’t find anything.

An hour later

In their defence, they had gone to a dummy nav point before altering course and heading home. Not that it would do them much good though.

I’d been expecting a disused mining station or a decommissioned destroyer. I was half right, it was in fact two destroyers, and it looked like they’d both been decommissioned with the help of a torpedo or two. One was an Exeter, the other was a Ralatha. Both were joined by a series of tunnels and it looked like they’d carved a docking bay into the bow of the Ralatha and a second one stood where the Exeter’s engines should have been. Pretty clever design really.
“Oh boy,” Gremlin said, still on a secure channel and at a suitably far distance from the base. “Would you look at that? Hang tight boys, I’m calling for backup, when they arrive we move in.”

Truth be told I was a little surprised that either the Avenger or the Winterrowd had agreed to ready fighters to send our way in the first place. For all our talk of dwindling supplies and essential convoys, our first and foremost focus was on the possibility of Kilrathi attack. Their raids came more often then not, and no matter how many of them we took out, they always had reinforcements. Our own reinforcement requests to HQ, according to rumour, were typically answered with something along the lines of ‘We don’t have anything, quit pestering us.’ But that’s another story.

We waited with all non-essential systems powered down. There were at least twenty fighters in the air, at first I thought they were expecting us, but a barely remembered lecture from some briefing or other given to 2nd year cadets talked about how pirates were more often then not under no illusions of immortality. To ensure the survival of the hive or den or whatever, they overburdened themselves with ships and pilots. These twits had more ships then they had room in their docking bays, as such they had to keep some in the air at all times. Handy in some respects considering they didn’t have to scramble fighters in case of an attack, less handy in others because of fuel consumption and pilot fatigue. If I was right I’d say that some of these fighters doubled up as cabins, and sleeping in a fighter is not really something you want to make a habit of.

I guess it should have been relieving in a way, the more fighters here meant the less fighters pestering our transports. Of course this was just the one gang, who knew what was happening with the others. We hadn’t received any distress calls, but that didn’t mean much.
You worry too much That’s what my Dad would probably say, We’re all gonna die son, not much that can top that, so stop worrying. A morbid man if ever there was one, but he was probably right, worrying wouldn’t serve any useful purpose, nor would it change anything. What could I do instead? I mused on the subject for a few moments and realised that the answer was in fact, nothing.

Forty Six Minutes Later

Two Thunderbolts, two hellcats and four arrows, those were our re-enforcements. It has to be said, it didn’t make for the most reassuring of strike teams. If we were up against a halfway decent Kilrathi target then I’d presumably have voided my bowels by now. We were outmatched about two to one, and that was without any more Stilettos or Talons coming out of their flight deck. Perhaps our earlier performance should have convinced me that things weren’t necessarily as unpleasant as they were starting to seem, but these pestiferous pre-flight jitters are about as easy to get rid of as Oxford spine-weevils.

“Alright people,” Came an impatient voice over the com, “Let’s make this quick. Avenger pilots, I’m Major Hurley from the Winterrowd, I’ll be assuming control of this wing. I want everyone to move in, pick a pirate and send a missile through his teeth. Hit them hard and fast, try to keep them scared and unfocused. Thunderbolts, aim for the docking bays. Everyone got it? Good, now let’s get going.”

And got going we did do. I hit my afterburners, prepped an Imrec missile, targeted a Talon, heard a few cries of ‘Oh Christ!’ and something about ‘Blue bellies’ from a few of the pirate fighters, sniggered some and fired as soon as I heard the chime.
“Fewest kills buys the next round as soon as we can drink again.” Beowulf said hurriedly before closing the channel. Interestingly, this part of our job seemed to be the only time he seemed genuinely cheery. I guess that’s what a Kilrathi upbringing does to you.

From what I saw, he launched at least three different missiles at three different targets. I decided to keep mine in the event I needed them in close quarts combat. Beowulf was a fearless soul though, more then once he’d made the cryptic comment that missiles ‘simply weren’t good enough’.

Anyway, enough about him. Most of the pirate forces moved to intercept the larger Confederate force which was coming at them from the opposite direction, four Talons were heading in our direction, three of which as I mentioned were promptly dispatched by Beowulf’s missiles. The other one was quickly taken out by Gremlin when it attempted to turn tale and run towards his surviving comrades.

“Major,” said some Winterrowd pilot or other, “I’m reading fighters launching.”
“Stick with it people,” Hurley replied, “Thunderbolts, get those torpedoes launched.”

I closed in on a Talon which looked like it was trying to find a target of its own. I cut through the shields easily enough and then I guess I scored a lucky hit because the next thing I knew I was flying through a fiery debris cloud where the Talon had been. I called up another target and in doing so discovered, or perhaps rediscovered that there were still no shortage of the things in the air.

A momentary shudder and a flash of blue from behind me, and then another. Someone who was by the looks of things an incredibly bad marksman was shooting at me. I pulled up, almost flying straight into yet another Talon as I did so, and lost my attacker in a mess of fighters and gunshots.
“Steve,” Beowulf said over the radio with an eerie calm considering we were in the midst of a battle, “Lock onto my fighter and follow me to the base, I want to try something.”
“This isn’t a good time buddy, I’m…”
“Just do it,” He said, transferring his fighter’s tactical information to my ship as he spoke, “This might be fun.”

He closed the channel and, figuring he’d only start bitching if I didn’t play along, I followed him. It soon became obvious that he was heading towards the pirate base.

Two talons which were pursuing a single Arrow were passing by in the distance, my and Beowulf both swerved to intervene, and intervene we did, though awkwardly we both ended up firing at the same fighter, his wingman broke off the chase when he saw his buddy go up in flames. Considering he didn’t take any pot shots at us I’m guessing he wasn’t too concerned about it.
“So what’s the…” I paused as my ship shuddered under sudden deceleration and downward strafe. This was a trick I’d picked up from Beowulf, he’d picked it up from someone who could possibly be called his father, though you’d probably receive a long, piercing glare if Beowulf ever heard you call him that.

Anyway, the trick worked, the Stiletto passed gracefully overhead and was promptly incinerated by a heat seeker. I never normally got this many kills on any sortie, abundance of targets or otherwise. This among other things reinforced my belief that we were shooting at en-barrelled ducks.
“So what’s the plan?” I repeated.
“The Thunderbolts are concentrating on the docking bays, but with fighters still launching and Talons pestering them, it’ll be a while before they can get a clean shot. We can throw a wrench into the pirate’s launch though if we take out their command centre.”
“Which we can do easily because that base is a couple of derelict shit holes with extra bits.”

I’m kind of surprised Hurley hadn’t thought of that. Maybe he figured it was unnecessary. In any case, I think some of the pirates figured out what we were up to, four red dots were moving our way, I think these were guys who’d just launched. Pretty soon my ‘lock’ alarm was sounding, I had to jettison a lot of decoys before it finally cut out, and even then two of the three missiles fired at me passed unnervingly close to my cockpit.

Beowulf took out one of the fighters, a Talon, with a few good hits from his cannons. I saw the enemy fighter explode in the corner of my eye as I pulled my ship around to face the Stiletto that had just passed me. I fired too early and my first shots went far too wide, my next volley however removed the pirate’s rear shields and I think caused some engine damage. The pilot decided not to head back my way.

Beowulf was busy ripping apart a third fighter while the other one was making a run at me. My dorsal shields took a bit of damage, but not enough to show up on my left hand monitor. I was about to turn and engage this fighter when I noticed a thin trail of smoke slam into it, in other words, I thought as the pirate expired, a missile.
“Looks like you guys had the same idea we did.” Said an unfamiliar female voice belonging to a Winterrowd Arrow pilot, one of a wing of two it seemed, “You were heading to the command centre right?”
“We were indeed milady,” I replied, “Care to join us?”
“No but you can follow our engine exhaust and watch professions at work if you’d like burn-out boy.”

Burn-out was a term we'd been hearing more often then we should lately. It was something of a stereotype for pilots assigned to ancient Ranger class carriers. In the eyes of some we were second rate pilots. Just goes to show that some people are peerless morons.

Anyhoo, I bit back a snarl of sorts, a bad habit I’d kind of picked up from Beowulf. (Yes the man actually growls). Anyway, I know I shouldn’t take things like this too seriously but what can I say? I guess I’m just too sensitive.
“You hear that buddy?” I asked Beowulf, though considering he was charging towards the command centre as quickly as I was I’d guess that he had.
“Yes,” He responded, “Let’s show these pampered fleet carrier whelps where to shove it shall we?”
“We shall.” I responded.

The Arrow as you know is a faster ship then the Hellcat, and they already had something of a lead on us. I checked the radar and it didn’t look like there were any more enemy fighters around, in fact it looked like their numbers were beginning to get a bit thin.
“Torpedo away.” Uttered one of the Thunderbolt pilots over the com.
“So much for our idea.” I said to Beowulf over the com, “Let’s get clear.”

We were getting pretty close to the base, almost within flak turret range I’d guess, assuming that thing had any turrets. Still, we weren’t nearly close enough to have to worry about getting caught in any large, torpedo related explosions.
“Damn it,” The bothersome Arrow wench chortled over the com, “We’ll feed your egos another time.”
“Yeah,” uttered her wingman, “What she sa…”

An explosion cut off the man’s transmission. Instinctively I checked the radar for any fighters which might have gotten a missile in but found nothing. It must have been down to flak fire.
“Ranger?” Came a worried cry from his wing leader “Ranger!?”
“I’m alright,” Came the reply from Ranger, much to all our relief, “Flak hit took out my ship but I got out in time.”
“Thank God.” Knife (according to her flight helmet) said.
“Hold that thought,” Beowulf said, “Your ejection pod is too close to the base, if…”

As he spoke, the first torpedo detonated in the Ralatha’s launch bay. One large explosion gave way to another large explosion and the before long the nose cone of the former destroyer was no more.
“Second torpedo away,” The second Thunderbolt pilot said, “Get clear people, I’m reading what looks like fuel canisters near the launch bay. This blast’s gonna be big.”

Oh shit.
“Just how close is he?” I asked.
“Too close,” Came the grim response.

Oh shit.
“I think I have an idea,” Beowulf said, for one sounding kind of rattled. “I’m going to get him.”
“What, you don’t have a tractor beam, how are you…?”
“Just trust me.” I hate it when he says that, but not as much as I hate myself when I reply with:
“I’m on your wing.”
“No, keep clear, no offence Steve but I don’t need you for this.”
“Right, I’m on your wing.”

He shook his head and his face vanished from the screen, only to reappear a few seconds later when he opened a com to the pod.
“Ranger, listen closely. We need to do this quickly. I want you to disconnect yourself from your chair, hold your breath and get ready to leap for my cockpit.”
“What are you nuts?” Came the understandable response, “That’s insane, that’s fucking suicide is what it is.”
“Either do it or stay there and get caught in the blast, your choice.”
“Impact in ten seconds.” I said.
“Last chance Ranger, you do this now or I turn round.”

We both came to a stop near his fighter. Beowulf’s cockpit opened steadily. The pirate base suddenly looked a lot bigger.
“Six seconds.”
“Ok,” Ranger said with a voice that sounded anything but happy, “Standby.”

He started fumbling with his safety harness.
“Four, Three, Two”
“Here goes nothing.”

To be continued
Awsome addition yet again... Thanks for not giving up on this. just keep 'em comming cause I really want to read what happens.
Great writing. Your able to build up your stories with tension and suspense in a way that makes me want to not stop reading. That is the sign of a good story, great imagination and skillful writing.

Keep it up!
This really is awesome work. With printing costs being what they are, the above mentioned novel is probably out of the question, but it would sure come in handy to be able to take Front Lines with me - I might actually be able to catch up on reading it.
Sorry for the wait, again, this chapter took me a long time to get finished, nothing looked right. Oh well, thanks again to all reviewers and readers.

Chapter 37: Line in The Sand

Z’ratmak’s Perspective

Sivar, Lord of the hunt, Lord of war, Lord of the Kilrathi. Hear us your sons on this day of destiny."
“Hear us!” The rest of us, even some humans, replied as one.
We offer our claws to you Lord Sivar, so we may cut down your enemies. We offer the blood of those who are soon to die to sate your thirst. We give you our souls, should you see fit for death to claim us this day.”
“We offer ourselves to you, Lord Sivar!”
Grant us victory this day Lord Sivar. Stand with your chosen on the battlefield. May your strength fill our hearts and may our enemies cower before your righteous rage.”
“Grant us victory Lord Sivar, your servants and your sons.”
Praise be to Sivar!”
“Sivar be praised!”

The priestess slowly stepped down from the makeshift pedestal that had been erected for her use. she looked to be an ancient creature, perhaps with not too many years of life left in her. On that day however she stood over the warriors of Ghorah Khar with her head and tail raised proudly. Whether it was our destiny to die this day or drive the enemy from our soil, she smiled on us, finding no fault in our souls or in our honour. That was comforting, if a high priestess of Sivar could find no fault with us, then it was all the more likely Sivar himself would feel the same way.

Some terran marines were offering prayers to their own Gods, I never really found out what manner of beings terrans offer their blood and soul to on the eve of battle. It’s a puzzling thought, terrans are not a warrior race by design, rather the tapestry of fate has woven the warrior’s spirit into their race. But what of their Gods? Did they design their children to be weak? Or is this all some elaborate test? Perhaps their current appearance is a curse for the misdeeds of their ancestors, if they prove themselves worthy then perhaps terrans will one day be blessed with fur and claws.

But that has little to do with me, as a Kilrathi my focus is on my own Gods, and with the prayers completed, there was nothing to do but sit around the makeshift trench and wait for the cry of ‘charge’.

They knew we were here of course, and unless they were fools which considering some of their earlier blunders they may very well have been, they knew what we were going to do. In orbit a desperate battle for air supremacy was unfolding. Our space forces remained outnumbered, but be that as it may Confederation forces typically fight against the odds and as often as not emerge victorious. My point is that the battle could unfold in favour of either side.

My h’rai were safe, they were locked away with the other civilians in the safety of an underground bunker. I had not seen them for one single day and may very well never see them again, but strangely the knowledge that they were out of the firing line was a great comfort to me. I had spent so much of the battle worrying about whether they would so much as make it to cover. The fact that they had, somehow, gave me hope that maybe they’d outlive the red day that was upon us.

I spared one final thought for each of them, and another for my home. I tried to remember the shining city it had been rather then the smouldering husk it had been reduced to, but it was easier said then done. It did not matter though, for as I told you, the buildings could be rebuilt, and the dead were about to be avenged. Maybe.

Ryuku once told me that to pilots, enemy troop transports held the same appeal as something called a birthday cake. They were under gunned canisters containing one thousand defenceless enemy marines to be slaughtered. How they crammed so many into such a small space was a mystery to me, but those were the facts. For us though, with no fighter cover and only four hundred soldiers, (many of whom were not marines but civilian volunteers). The turrets on those transports could cause us no end of problems if we were unlucky.

The plan was simple, we wait for the enemy to reach the opportune altitude, then charge. Take out the turrets, insert explosives with the Kilrathi marines still inside and unprepared, then move in and slaughter them all.

In orbit, the remainder of our forces were attempting to outflank the enemy carrier. I believe they were coming in from a far angle and attempting to get behind it. This was risky as the enemy could reach Ghorah Khar before our forces reached them and they could do untold damage before our ships could intervene. Once they were committed to a ground attack however, the carrier would be helpless, and without their home base the fighters would be doomed. The only way for them to assure a complete victory was to turn and fight. But with no fighter cover to speak of on the planet, they saw no reason not to send in their ground forces.

These were indeed desperate times.
“All warriors stand ready. We attack shortly.”

I pushed myself upwards and made a final check of my weapons, one standard issue Confederation field rifle with an extended grip for Kilrathi use, and three fission grenades.

Three waves of terrans were to speed ahead of us in ground assault vehicles. For one thing these vessels were designed for terrans, for another they could not run so fast as the rest of us and would be of little use on foot. Their job would be to target the turrets and try to take them out before they turned on us. All the while we would be advancing, we had to move quickly otherwise the enemy may deploy their troops.

“Humans,” Shouted Colonel Glar’tak “advance!”
“Charge!” Shouted one boisterous terran marine as the three assault vehicles shot off into the distance. It didn’t take long for the deafening howl of turret fire to start tearing through the air.
“Second wave, advance!”

Twenty Seconds Later

Momentary flashes of red and deafening shrills from the transports laser turrets were fast puncturing the ground beneath the assault vehicles. This was making it all the more difficult for them to get any clean, close shots, although they seemed to be favouring a greater distance for their attacks.

For the moment it didn’t seem to matter as all their shots accomplished were unimpressive dents in the hulls. This didn’t inspire much confidence. Nevertheless we charged onwards, weapons at our sides. We were fanning out into two separate groups and trying as much as was possible to increase the distance between ourselves. It seemed likely that the enemy would soon turn their turrets on us if the terrans could not destroy them quickly enough.

I did not initially notice it, but it was around this time that the first wave’s assault succeeded in disabling one of the turrets. It was also at this time however that the first enemy shots rained down upon us. One brief explosion not seven meters from me, and at least five of our warriors ceased to be. Blood and charred flesh from those who were not instantly incinerated was cast into the air. A second later and another explosion, this time from behind me. There was screaming this time.
“Break to the sides!” Screamed one unseen Kilrathi, “Spread out, don’t give them a clear shot!”

I tried to oblige but there were soldiers blocking my left and right, all charging directly towards the port-hand transport. I was about to barge through the one on my left but then I noticed the turret’s fire moving away from us. It seemed that most Kilrathi had moved to the right and the biggest cluster of targets remained there.

A series of three short bursts on one turret’s surface preceded a cessation of fire from one of the enemy weapons. I snarled momentarily in triumph, only to have the feeling ‘crap out on me’ as Fool might say, when I was forced to duck to avoid the debris cast up from another blast that had claimed the lives of the seven or so warriors in front of me. Another soldier stumbled into the small pit created by the laser impact. I found myself running over him and the next thing I knew there was no one standing between me and the transport I was advancing towards. I was getting close and the troop carrier was looming all the more with each step I took towards it. One of its turrets was still operational and though I was still too far away to see it, I knew, I knew that it was following my progress. To my sides my comrades were still advancing, though they had now separated themselves from me by about two eights of metres. Two Kilrathi were trailing behind me, the third seemed to be facing difficulties in extracting himself from the shallow pit. The fool.

The enemy gunner apparently decided that there were worthier targets then me, and a concentrated arc of laser blasts soon cut its way across our lines. Some of these shots were rushed and impacted in the strike force’s wake, others took out eights of warriors in less then a second. Yet still we moved closer, and two of the three assault vehicles were still intact.

The transports were almost at ground level now, if we delayed even for an instant then we could soon find ourselves dealing with hordes of Kilrathi troops pouring out of both craft, although if we could get close enough quickly enough, we could pin them down inside their vessel and set explosives on the hull. It was all down to time, and the workings of fate.

Twenty seconds later

The enemy didn’t wait until touchdown before deploying their troops. Imperial marines leapt from the transports in groups of fours and fives, they were met with laser fire but we were still not close enough to target properly. Several enemy soldiers went down under the sheer volume of blasts. Those that survived however were able to return fire, and with so many of us advancing ever closer, an unsuccessful shot was not an easy feat.

I fired blindly at the vague hints of enemy troops before me, I was tempted to fire at the one remaining turret that had returned its attention to the one remaining assault vehicle simply because I felt I might have a greater chance of hitting the target. I despise firing foolishly, but for now there didn’t seem to be much choice.

In the distance I saw a bright flash which preceded a short torrent of soil and fire. That was all I could make out of the destruction of another assault vehicle and its crew. The sole remaining one was making another un at the turret, but as always, targeting with the attached cannon when in motion with any degree of accuracy on so small a target was anything but easy. One shot after another impacted on the hull to the sides of the turret. These vehicles were not designed for precision strikes. They were designed to create diversions, to perform reconnaissance tasks, and to speedily move marine units. What we needed were rocket launchers with armour piercing ammunition. Again however, in a group this large, it would be impossible to aim the weapons while in motion, and the risk of an explosion among our own number was too great.

Yet more enemy troops were piling out of the transports. The main hatch on the portside transport was beginning to open now. Soon Imperial troops would be deployed dozens at a time. The transport still hadn’t landed, I wondered whether they were going to hover above ground and let their entire compliment of warriors leap out. Kilrathi could happily endure a ten metre descent at least, fifteen in all likelihood.

I had been trying to find a suitable pace which would not tire me too quickly when I reached the transports and found myself in battle. It seemed that this was now a luxury I couldn’t afford.

Two Minutes Later

I slammed the butt of my rifle into the armoured chest of the enemy, he stumbled slightly, then fell to the floor under the impact of a second blow. I raised my weapon and fired before he could recover himself. Fortunately the rifles are designed to be impact resistant for this very reason.

Perhaps a hundred Imperial troops had reached the surface by the time we reached our targets. They were only descending from the one transport. The sole remaining assault vehicle was still harassing the other one, and if they could get a few goods shots through an open hatch then the enemy would be slaughtered. That transport’s turret however was herding them, and keeping them from providing assistance to us.

I found another target charging at me, his weapon was raised but it looked like he wished to beat me to death with it. I could almost understand, we are hunters, and we live by our claws, not our technology. Each and every one of us wanted to tear into the flesh of our enemy with fang and claw, we wanted to fight unburdened by our protective armour, but that simply could not be, as my unfortunate attacker discovered when I raised my weapon and shot him.

No sooner had he fallen then a swift kick in the right leg forced me into a crouching position. I saw a flash of red, the markings of imperial battle armour. I tried to swing my weapon around but a blow to my head sent me falling backwards. I looked up and with my helmet filtering out the obscurities that the sudden rainfall would have otherwise provided, I saw an enemy, his face hidden behind the mask of his own helmet, standing over me with his rifle pointed at my chest. And then he died, someone had targeted him and shot him. Laser fire was passing back and forth between both sides and warriors were falling in groups of fours and fives, on both sides. This looked set to be a battle of attrition, and as you’ve been told, there were more of them. To state the insufferably obvious, this was not looking good.

To be Continued