Stars flickered gently against the darkness ahead. They twinkled, calm and soothing, like warm candlelight. I was not deceived. Space was a cold and merciless monster, desiring only to burst open your mortal shell and suck the life from within.
The sinister blood red planet looming below me seemed to underscore the point. The torrid pinkish clouds above its surface churning almost in perfect synchrony with my queasy stomach. Something bad was about to happen, I could feel it.
We were on a scouting mission, variable frequency recon cameras working double-time to memorize each and every inch we passed over. Intent on the view, I started slightly when Robert "Cavalier" Morrow's voice broke the uneasy silence.
"Pretty Boy, I read three bogies approaching from moon-side."
I zoomed in my right-hand view screen and confirmed that I saw the same. Damn it! I should've caught them as fast as he did. I picked a bad time to start daydreaming.
The planet's lone moon was almost half an orbit away from us, and with my magnification goggles dialed up I could barely see its dark bluish edge just peeking around the lip of the planet. The three red blips on the screen were just within the outer range of our radar, but moving in fast at a speed of about 200 miles per second. Looks like they're already near full burn.
"I see 'em Cav. Let's hold course until we've got a better idea what we're dealing with here. Don't want the natives to think we spook easy."
The newcomers came within 10,000 miles and my ship's cameras got a better look at them. The battle computer tagged them with 92% certainty as a trio of Scorpion-class fighters. The dots on the display morphed into ship icons, tiny blueprints sketched in painstaking detail.
"You seeing what I'm seeing, wing leader?" muttered Robbie.
"Yeah Cav, looks like we've got ourselves some bad guys. Fortunately, those Scorpions are fat old sows compared with our little honeys. Let's do a quick one-eighty and head back to the Bastion with the footage we've got. We ought to have time to shower and change into our pajamas before they meet us there."
"Funny, sir, that's just what I was thinking. Though, admittedly with a little less panache."
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Cavalier's maneuvering jets firing as he pulled around in a tight curve. I grabbed the stick and sketched a tighter loop that left me in front of him and slightly to his left. The inertial dampeners in my cabin hummed to life as they absorbed gee-forces that would have otherwise crushed me flat. They'd have a hell of a lot more work ahead of them. I pitched the throttle gradually up to a full 250 mps.
My screen showed the Scorpions adjusting their intercept course to compensate, but as I'd expected they were already moving at their top speed and soon began falling further and further behind.
I stared anxiously out at a vast star-lit blackness. There was a faint dusty brown smudge straight ahead that I thought might indicate the field of debris where the Bastion was parked, but I couldn't make it out clearly yet. It could have been my eyes playing tricks on me in their enthusiasm to get home, or maybe my windshield was just dirty.
The distance read-out on my computer screen showed the Scorpions now a comfortable 16,000 miles back. The debris had resolved itself into a tiny brown cloud.
We passed a minute in silence. 19,000 miles now, but hanging tough.
"Hey, Cav, don't you think it's a little weird they're still holding on our six? They must know by now they can't catch us, unless we run out of gas."
I could practically hear the shrug in Morrow's voice.
"They probably just want us to lead them back to the Bastion so something bigger can follow along behind and kick all our butts out of the system. If so, we'll be gone before it gets there."
Something drew my eyes to the right side of the canopy as he was speaking, but when I turned in that direction I found nothing out of the ordinary. I was just about to glance away, when there was a faint shimmer, reminiscent of the air over your barbecue at a hot summer's picnic.
There were fewer stars in that direction, so I had a hard time gauging the distance of whatever it was I was seeing. I tried to locate it on my instruments, but the wide-screen view was completely dead. I called up the highest magnification, still nothing. I scrolled around a bit trying to zero in on the right area... There!
"Robbie, I'm reading something. It's faint but it's real. Could just be some kind of electromagnetic interference, but be prepared to bank 45 degrees to our left on my mark, just in case."
With the tap of a key, I transmitted him the coordinates of the disturbance. The signal showed up as sort of a fuzzy white static on the display, pulsing in and out every second. I noticed, rather unhappily, that it seemed to be getting larger and stronger each time it flared up.
"It looks almost like the pattern that you'd see seconds before the arrival of a ship traveling at FTL, doesn't it P.B.?"
I frowned down at my screen.
"It's already lasted too long, and who knows how long it was there before I noticed it. Besides it's already too big for that and it's getting bigger. I suggest we cut left now."
We adjusted our course, and I checked my view screen to see how our pet Scorpions had reacted to our movements, but by now they'd fallen back outside of radar range.
"Hmm," Morrow rumbled speculatively in my ear. "Now I'm reading some sort of huge energy discharge that I think is emanating from the planet. But hell, Pretty Boy, for us to detect it this far away it'd have to be the intensity of a major nuclear weapon strike."
Before my lips could even form a reply, there was a huge pulse of signal on my screen. The void directly in front of us burst into a blinding mesh apparently woven from dazzling, prismatic lightning. It stretched as far as I could see in every direction, all the colors of the rainbow crisscrossing in a beautiful chaotic fashion. And worse, it was right in front of us.
"Crap!" screamed Robbie and I in perfect unison.
The inertial dampeners wailed like a police siren, and I was grimly considering the likely consequences of hitting a brick wall at mach six, when I must have lost consciousness. I have no idea how long I lay there dazed before I came to. With deliberate effort, I gathered my thoughts, which had spilled out all over the inside of my skull. I shook my head in an attempt to clear my blurry vision.
"Robbie! You all right?"
"Ungh. Holy 'Encounter at Far Point', Batman!"
"Just count your blessings that we're still among the living. Let's see what needs fixing."
I ran a quick systems check on my left hand diagnostic panel and found surprisingly little damage. The only obvious problem was that the engines were reading as fully functional and set to full throttle, but my speed had dropped to 75 mps. That cast some serious doubts over the entire readout.
Our ships were still roughly on course and we had drifted quite a ways into what I was now thinking of as the lightning net - we were surrounded by it, but not even a third of the way to the other side. I cringed as my left wing came abreast of a yellowy bolt of lightning, but it simply passed through with no apparent resistance. Much like passing through a beam of light, Einstein. The net cast weirdly colored shadows, leaving my cockpit looking like the inside of an enthusiastically garish nightclub.
And, of course, the three Scorpion class fighters were back. They were a hair over 4,000 miles away moving to intercept at their suddenly superior full speed. By my hazy math, that gave us about half a minute to come up with a plan.
"Head straight for the Bastion, full out. They need to know that the enemy's developed this... thing."
"They'll be on us way before..."
"I'm intercepting. Go! There's no time!" I shut off my radio, figuring that otherwise he'd probably argue. I didn't like distractions.
I swung up and behind him in a big lollipop curve. The controls were a little sluggish, but otherwise the ship responded normally. I watched the enemy slow down as they approached the net, like a line of impatient drivers, slamming on the brakes when they saw a red light.
The sickle shaped Scorpions coasted smoothly into the net. Checking my read-out I saw that they were coming on at a steady 150 mps. Our speed had been our only advantage, but the net had destroyed it.
I initiated a bee-like dance in and out of the path of each of the three advancing ships. Every move I made was angled backwards. I wanted to stay in front of the approaching vessels as long as I could.
Morrow, thankfully, was following my orders for once and limping away from me as fast as his engines would allow. The Scorpions were better armed and better armored than I was. 'And now faster too!' I imagined a cheery commercial spokesman announcing inside my head. Still, I was damned if I wasn't going to shoot down any one of them that tried to get by me.
The Delphi Scorpion was an oafish crescent-shaped fighter, over-armored and bristling with guns. These three happened to be painted tackily in copper and bronze.
They were close now, real close. At full magnification I could make out the individual coat-of-arms each of the pilots had painted on their hull. Starburst on the left, Blobby-thing on the right, and Beastie-thing in the middle. My less imaginative Grath-built battle computer tagged them simply as A, B, and C.
I was surprised they hadn't fired yet. I had no intention of being so bashful.
I started out facing directly at the nose of the Scorpion in the center of their formation, but executed a tight barrel roll so that I ended up in front of the one on the left, upside-down. I squeezed the trigger of my rapid fire gauss rifles. Instantly, I felt a slight impact on each side of my cockpit, and jerked the stick to send myself hurtling madly back towards the right.
Only belatedly, as I heard the malfunction alarms, did I register that the enemy hadn't even returned fire. The moment's glance I could spare the diagnostics screen informed me that my shells had practically rolled out of my rifles at a leisurely pace of 10 miles per second, and I'd flown right into them.
Think idiot! This field slows things down. You're damned lucky those shots didn't have time to arm, or jam in the chamber and blow your wings off.
That explained why no one was shooting at me.
So, you built a big expensive field generator that lets you catch up to me, but what do you do now?
Two of the Scorpions were apparently not frightened off by my erratic flight pattern and continued to lumber right towards me. Blobby, the one originally on my right, was closest to Morrow's current position. He was bending down away from me and trying to scoot around my flank.
I racked my brain for some clever way to blow myself up that would take them with me. The experience with my guns implied the net worked better on smaller objects than it did on bigger ones. If I tried to fire a missile, I'd almost certainly be able to crash into it, but the explosion wouldn't be large enough to get them all. Worse, Morrow was only now reaching the net's halfway point.
Maybe I can trick two into running into each other and somehow find a way catch up to and ram the third? Things aren't desperate when that seems like the best plan, are they?
I figured they'd expect me to shift and try to head off the one going after Cavalier, but I don't enjoy doing what people expect, and under the circumstances I selfishly didn't think it was too much to let Robbie deal with one of them on his own. I reversed direction and spiraled aggressively in on Starburst. I figured Beastie had started in the middle, which meant he was probably the best pilot, and less likely to freak out.
Starburst showed an unfortunate amount of nerves, however, and we fought the game of chicken to a draw. My resolve broke when it occurred to me that one of the Scorpions might well be willing to sacrifice itself to take me out and give the other two ample time to finish off Morrow.
Starburst lost his courage at the same moment and dove in the opposite direction. As the enemy ship veered away something detached and hung suspended behind it. It looked to be a flat silver disk, several inches thick. I was already banking away to avoid the Scorpion, but my tail couldn't have missed it more than a few yards.
Mines! That must be their game. If I'd really been trying to ram him that one would have got me.
Beastie had been watching our little battle of wills, and I when I came out of my turn he was directly in front of me. For an instant the Scorpion filled my canopy, a gaudy mass of bronze and copper, then it was gone and replaced by a wavy line of little silver disks, glistening prettily in the multi-colored lights. I cursed and jerked the stick back so hard I imagine I nearly snapped it off
There was the softest, gentlest tap on my wing, followed by the loudest noise I'd ever heard.
The explosion tore me in half.
Dying in the Academy's flight simulators hurt. The instructors claimed that this was simple negative conditioning against getting yourself killed. Didn't want cadets going off to war with the problematic notion that they were all immortals. We'd jump into our ships on that first mission waving away our comrades concerns, "Bah, don't worry about me. I've been shot down dozens of times in class, it didn't even make me late for gym." A vocal minority, however, expressed the belief that the Grath simply liked sadistically torturing us humans.
I undid my buckles and dragged my aching frame out of the pilot's seat, feeling like I barely had the strength to remove my goggles and helmet. The hatch to my simulator hissed open, and I climbed out and lowered myself gently to the ground, wincing as my legs took my full weight. I had to grab the side of the simulator to keep from stumbling.
The training room was tiny and fairly spartan. Faint florescent light illuminated floors of dark gray tile offset by walls painted in a lighter shade of gray. Other than the simulators themselves, which were giant black metal cocoons set in a nest of coiling black wires (the Grath seemed big on black for some reason, but then they did run the whole Academy sort of like a huge Henry Ford pilot manufacturing plant), there was barely enough room for a small bench and the computer monitors opposite it. These were currently displaying Morrow's progress.
The lone door, which exited to the classroom, would be locked. Some Grath psychological mumbo-jumbo about sitting in silence to reflect upon your failure while your teammate tried to save your academic ass.
I hadn't failed to meet a mission objective in months, and it stung.
I had wobbled about halfway across the floor towards the monitors when Robbie's hatch popped open. Well, that didn't take long. He staggered out and fixed me with a sickly smile.
"We messed that one up good, didn't we boss?"
"I've come out of finals feeling I'd done better," I admitted.
The room lights brightened, and there was a buzz from the intercom.
"Cadets Cull and Morrow, report to the Flight Tactics Lecture Hall for grading. Now."
The door hummed and the lock clicked open.
"It's the only door, where else were we gonna go?"
Morrow shook his head sullenly in reply, pulling open the door in silence. I had led him to defeat and he apparently didn't have the most patience for my antics at the moment. That seemed more than forgivable. I'm lucky he doesn't punch me in the face before the instructor can get in here. It wouldn't be the first time that happened in this place. I fell into step behind him as we marched down the aisle between the seats towards the stage and podium at the front of the room. Like lambs to the slaughter. My stomach gurgled audibly. Finals always made me nervous and impending criticism even more so.
Instructor Ta'Losh (a horrid Americanization of a name that sounded something more like a cough followed by two mandible clicks, but which was probably as close as we were going to get) was suspended above us with his legs entwined around iron bars protruding from the ceiling for just that purpose. He let go and thudded down onto the stage floor as we approached, landing directly behind the podium. Though they preferred coiling around things when left to themselves, the Grath seemed to consider it proper etiquette to stand on their feet while they were talking to you.
Like all of his race Ta'Losh resembled nothing so much as a giant, plump, and furry spider. He was a dark purplish black in color, but other instructors tended towards white, silver, grey, or even a poisonous looking sort of forest green. A Grath had ten legs, each ending in a claw-like, three-fingered hand, but their bodies were basically just big round balls. One large eye, no pupils or anything, only a patch of glossy membrane like a giant fly's wing. One could almost mistake it for an embarrassing bald spot in their fur, if one didn't know better. Three large yellow mandibles arched out from a mouth directly below the eye. These teeth were as big and solid as an elephant's tusks, but serrated and crueler-looking. That was about it. The Grath possessed no other discernible structures like a neck or a head.
Notably, Graths had no nose. This was very lucky for them, since as the old joke goes, they smelled terrible. That was primarily because they breathed sulfur. I hadn't yet figured out if the problem was the seal on their respirators or if their bodies exuded some sulfurous by-product as a waste. Maybe it was both. Whatever breathing apparatus served their purposes was nestled away beneath their fur, so their respirators simply looked like metal belts worn a couple feet below their mouths, with some gas tanks connected to the back. Connected to the front of the belt, one on either side of the mouth, was a little pair of speakers.
The Grath had studied the Earth for decades before making contact, and while their linguists had managed to mostly decode all of our major languages, they were unable to construct the appropriate sounds themselves. In response to his clicks and belches, Ta'Losh's speakers emitted a voice that always reminded me more than a little bit of John Cleese from Monty Python.
"I must say, I expected better out of you two. Not your best work."
Four front limbs wagged at us, remonstrating.
Robbie and I hung our heads and looked at each other guiltily, but neither of us could think of an appropriate reply. We made no excuses.
"Before I commence with grading, there is an extra credit question."
That was unexpected. Robbie raised his eyebrows and I saw a glimmer of hope return to his features.
"Detail any implausibilities that you encountered during your flight simulation."
Like I said, the Grath linguists had mostly decoded English. Now, if only I could decode their version of it. I was tempted to point out that this was a command and not a question, but I didn't think Ta'Losh would be in the mood for a grammar lesson.
I think I'd do a lot better in the Academy if I knew what I was actually being asked half the time. 'Detail any implausibilities.' Sheesh.
Robbie, on the other hand, looked like he'd been waiting for exactly that order. He cleared his throat, and nervously adjusted the watch on his left arm before replying.
"The energy field used to delay our fighters struck me as improperly placed."
Ta'Losh's legs twisted about one another, and he rotated his bulk to fix Morrow within his gaze.
"Well, the field was used to keep us from escaping the planet, and while there would be some uses for such a thing - stopping smugglers for example - the real point in developing that technology would be to stop any approaching fleets on the way in. That way you could engage and destroy enemy ships before they got within range of your planet based structures."
Morrow stopped to take a breath, and I figured it was time to jump in and try to steal some credit for myself.
"And you'd think that anyone smart enough to develop such a defensive weapon would be smart enough to have observation outposts with a fully manned guard right along each edge of the field. They'd want to know the moment anything got close to it from either side, and to have ships positioned right there to pick off the disoriented pilots when they first crashed into the field. Housing your forces all the way back at the moon base is insane from a military standpoint, why give us extra time to break through the field before you get there?"
Ta'Losh looked from one of us to the other, bobbing up and down on his legs - the Grath equivalent of a nod.
"That will be sufficient. We allowed this situation to exist in the simulation because we wished to rate your performance during the inbound flight and reconnaissance portion of the mission - a routine situation, as well as during the ambush on the return trip - an unexpected, stressful situation."
"Excuse me, instructor."
"Yes Cadet Morrow?"
"I simply wondered if the Delphi or the Bettarians are known to possess such a field generator?"
Ta'Losh's membranous eye stretched wider, the small wrinkles in it straightening momentarily.
"No such technology is known to exist, but a pilot must always be ready for anything. Are there any further questions?"
I shook my head. "I have none at this time, sir."
Robbie muttered his agreement.
"In that case, I shall proceed. Your planetary approach followed proper procedure and your performance of orbital reconnaissance was entirely sufficient. You detected the presence of the enemy promptly and responded appropriately to their appearance."
So much for the highlights. Then it all went completely and utterly to hell, boys.
"You detected the defense field in approximately an average amount of time, compared to your classmates, but this is not entirely unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, you failed to treat it as a potential threat immediately and made insufficient course corrections to avoid it."
And I've got a whopping headache to prove it.
"Admittedly, this was difficult as the final field size was much larger than your equipment would have predicted, which will be taken into account."
"Once caught within the ambush, you reacted quickly and decisively, for which you would be applauded - if your incorrect judgments had not left you completely overmatched and unable to obtain your separate and individual goals. Recall that dividing your wing should only ever be used as a last resort. The final result of your actions was the total failure of your mission. Both of your vessels were destroyed, along with your persons and the vital reconnaissance pertaining to planetary layout and the defense field's performance that you had obtained."
I've always hated being told I'm the one who screwed up, even when it's true, and at this point my anger got the best of me. So, I said screw the 'no excuses' policy.
"I'm sorry instructor, but what would have been the proper way to deal with that situation? We were outnumbered by a faster foe, who was able to neutralize our weapons with a technology that doesn't even exist."
Ta'Losh rotated towards me with grave slowness and fixed me with his fleshy stare. He hissed loudly and maliciously, a noise his speakers didn't translate. There was the briefest twitch of his legs, then he was vaulting over the podium towards me. He landed on the floor of the lecture hall besides me with a thump that made the ground tremble. I had leapt backwards about a yard before I got a hold of myself and straightened my posture. The translated voice coming from his speakers remained calm and perfectly cultured, but the coughs and clicks creating it sounded harsher and coarser than usual.
"Well, Mr. Cull." A leg stabbed out accusatorily in my direction. "This mission has already been performed successfully by a number of your more attentive peers."
Even the translator seemed to put a light emphasis on the word 'attentive'.
"The most frequent response was to exit the field back towards the planet and then attempt to circumnavigate it. While feasible, this strategy was made difficult by the arrival of the three enemy fighters at the moment the pilots sought to egress, approaching at a much greater velocity. Often the pilots were shot down before they regained maximum speed and were able flee. However, Cadets Redman, Balroy, and Tompkins and their wingmen have managed to make this strategy work."
He paused and for a moment I thought he was done humbling me, but after a moment of dramatic gravity he pointed a second hand at me and continued.
"Cadets Warring and Utube engaged in a hit and run battle with Delphi fighters after fleeing the defense field. They destroyed them completely and then crossed straight through the field before reinforcements could arrive. They barely maintained enough fuel to make the return trip to the Bastion, but were successful none the less."
A third leg raised itself in my direction.
"And finally, Cadet Oberman and his wingman Konishi escaped the field, evaded the oncoming Scorpions, and returned to orbit around the planet. From this range they easily located the field generators from their energy signatures, and destroyed them with missiles before returning home quite triumphant."
Charles Oberman was without a doubt the brightest and the best of this year's class at the Academy. Sometimes, I hated him with all my heart. The only part of that golden boy's test results that surprised me was the fact that he hadn't managed to single-handedly topple the corrupt planetary government at some point in the middle.
"In the future, I would advise you to become better informed before raising criticisms of your instructors. If you have no further outbursts for me to hear, Mr. Cull, we are finished."
He waited a moment to see if we raised any other protests, then added, "You both receive Cs for your performance on the Flight Tactics final. Take some heart in the fact that both your quarterly test and weekly simulation mission scores have been well above average. I anticipate you will be receiving Bs overall." The instructor waved a leg dismissively, then sprung back to his roost on the ceiling above.
As soon as we had stepped out into the hallway, I turned to Robbie and grimaced.
"Man, I'm so sorry about... everything back there. I feel like I almost got us both flunked."
Robbie eyed me steadily.
"I think you almost did," he said. His tone was a tad icy, but then he shrugged and chuckled. You could almost physically see him shake off his anger. "Ah, we can't win 'em all, wingleader. Besides, a B ain't so bad. I've had worse things on my report card."
He was lying, actually. I knew it for a fact. Robert Morrow was much more the goody-two-shoes, teacher's pet type than I was. He'd never scored lower than a B in anything. Still, I wasn't about to call him on it at this point.
"You got anything else on your schedule today?"
"Just a pile of Alien Anatomy notes to study that's nearly as tall as I am."
"You want to hit the cafeteria? The least I could do after irreparably damaging your military academic record is buy you some lunch, and perhaps a drink so we can toast our glorious deaths."
"Not so glorious this time, Pretty Boy," he said, but he was smiling when he did.
We made our way down the corridor together.