A pilot flies a desperate mission to defeat a mysterious alien race
|Roar lay flat on his back on the cold metal floor of the drone ship and stretched his legs. His straggly hair fell over his face. In that position, he could close his eyes and imagine himself far away, and he didn't feel so cramped. He dreamed of the sunny leafy beaches of Eridani he had once visited, and wondered if he would ever see them again.
How many days had it been? he thought. They must be approaching the planet soon. He didn't dare check with the computer. The slow progress infuriated him. His week-old beard growth itched.
He buzzed Maria over the radio. She didn't respond. Must be asleep.
The last time he checked the computer had been two meals ago. Five days before then they had left the transport ship. The freighter had launched its load of ten thousand drones, then shot away into hyperspace. The pilot needn't have hurried.
Their destination, a muddy grey world, floated under twin bright blue suns. It had been under observation for nearly thirty years. It had a thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide and at first nobody suspected that life could exist there. It shouldn't, but somehow it did.
Roar had watched videos of the creatures – large white crystalline arachnids that stepped carefully across the surface. The pictures of them had been taken from space, and magnified thousands of time, giving them a shadowy, out of focus appearance, like an ancient film. The creatures consisted of a single round body segment and eight legs. They moved in an unnatural manner. Nobody knew how they came to live on that dead world.
They appeared intelligent and dwelt in underground lairs dug into the planet. Their front claws could hold tools. Their technology must have been advanced for them to survive without any obvious source of oxygen or water, but they didn't give out any radio signals and nobody had seen their spaceships, if they had any. Possibly they originated somewhere else, possibly not. Even the scientists knew little.
One video showed a spider swallowing a humanoid whole. People speculated about what it could mean, or if the shadowy image even showed a humanoid at all. Many believed the spiders farmed animals for food and this had been one of the unfortunate livestock. Public hostility towards the strange creatures only increased after that.
High Command had decided that after two decades of failing to communicate they needed a more direct approach. They sent a team of scientists to land on the world. Somehow they crash landed without sending a signal. Soon after that the observation stations fell silent.
In response, High Command ordered their largest battleship, the Andromeda, to teach the aliens a lesson. A two thousand-strong crew served on board that great hulk. They should have been able to tackle any threat.
The Andromeda exploded within a minute of landing on the planet and High Command declared war. Some foolish scientists claimed that the spiders were only defending themselves and should be left alone, but High Command knew better. The spiders were now an enemy to be defeated, and any knowledge or technology that could be learned from them would have to wait until after their destruction.
High Command believed a drone fleet would have a better chance at defeating the aliens. Battleships were lumbering giants, built for prestige more than for combat. A few powerful well-aimed shots could disable one. In comparison, a swarm of drones had greater resilience and manoeuvrability.
High Command had decided the drones needed human pilots. Artificial intelligence could guide them, but in combat simulations a human would almost always perform better. The fleet would be a long way from help, and there would be no support.
Roar knew he had agreed to what was almost a suicide mission. He had accepted it with the promise of enough money to live well for a lifetime, and all he had to do was survive. No more enduring the overcrowded blocks of Colony 74. He had plans to end his days in a beach hut, some future lover by his side.
He sought glory too. He imagined walking into a favourite drinking den in the metal cellars of the old colony, head held high. I killed hundreds of those bloody spiders, he dreamed of saying to a cheering crowd.
Funnily enough, Colony 74 had recently suffered an infestation of spiders, brought on board by a freighter from Earth. Twice the exterminators eradicated them but each time they clung on, hiding in the crevices between the walls and underneath the floors of the creaky satellite. Eventually the colony manager decided to leave the spiders alone. They weren't harmful, just a nuisance. Roar hoped the fleet would have more luck destroying the spiders on the planet below.
A light flashed on his computer and Roar sat up. He peered out the window. The planet had grown in size rapidly since he last looked. Sunlight barely brightened its gloomy greyish-red surface. The time had come.
He checked the status of his thousand ships. All reported no faults. Along the line, nine other pilots had their own fleets. Roar knew half of them well. Maria was an old friend, and Hicks a new one. They were both crazy – practically a requirement for the mission.
“Prepare for attack,” barked Commander Hitoshi over the radio. “Line up, and good luck.” The Commander sat in a frigate thirty million clicks away and monitored the situation. If all the pilots died it would take three minutes for him to realise, so he wouldn't be much use. Still, it comforted Roar to know that somebody would be able to report back what happened.
He formed his drones into ten lines, in a V-shape, as he had practised countless times. He could see Maria doing the same to his left.
“I'm going in,” said a voice. From the edge of the line, the man called Arrow began a diving run. His squadron swooped into the atmosphere.
Each drone wielded two gun turrets on its pointed front, and fusion thrusters on all sides. In zero gravity they could easily move in any direction in synchronised patterns. Once they entered a planet's atmosphere, two short wings unfolded and they had to rely on their aerodynamic shape to generate lift. In that mode they could only fly forwards and turn slowly, but their strength was in numbers.
Arrow's ships fell steeply and soon passed out of sight.
Another swarm followed Arrow, then another. Soon Maria sent her drones after them.
A voice came over the radio. "I shot two spiders!" shouted Arrow. Roar bellowed back at him.
“Good luck,” said Roar over a closed channel to Maria. “Tell me if you see anything.”
“If there's any spiders left alive, I'll kill them myself,” she slurred. She sounded like she had been drinking.
Roar began to descend with his squadron. He yelled a battlecry, though nobody could hear.
Thin wispy clouds flew by like a breath on a cold day. The sky faded from black to a deep blue.
Below him the reddish surface approached, barren, rocky, flat and almost featureless. Ahead rose a tall sandy brown tower. Another loomed in the distance. He hadn't seen those structures in any pictures of the planet.
In the distance Maria's swarm shot wildly at the ground. She said nothing. Maybe she's too busy to speak, thought Roar. Or too drunk.
He decided to fly to the right of her to avoid friendly fire, and he targeted the nearest tower a few clicks away.
His squadron swept forwards in formation over the surface. He could almost be guiding a flock of birds. Birds eat spiders, he thought, then he recalled hearing about one type of spider that ate birds.
He could see that the tower stood a hundred metres tall, climbing to a thin spire at the top. Small bumps projected out from its sides. The tower's purpose became clear when projectiles shot out of it and knocked down three of his drones. Four. Five. He ordered his entire swarm to attack it from a wide angle.
Their bullets made no impact as they struck the tower. The fleet whooshed by. His ship swept by last of all and he didn't spot any damage. He considered turning the swarm around for another run but it would take too long, so he searched for another target further ahead. Must keep moving.
He sent a message to Maria. “Any luck against the towers?” he asked. No response.
At the next tower, he decided to fly a single drone directly at what could be a doorway at the base, while the rest of his fleet – now down to under nine hundred and fifty – shot at the narrowest part of the stem.
Bullets drove into the tall thin structure second after second, and his sacrificed drone briefly burst into a flash of light and metal as it hammered the tower. Soon a breach opened up, and the top half began to topple.
“I got one!” he shouted. He felt exhilarated. He buzzed Maria again, without success.
Further ahead a group of spiders sat on the ground, apparently asleep. He strafed them with his squadron as he flew by.
“Die!“ he yelled. A spider collapsed in a shower of bullets and lay shattered on the ground.
He laughed aloud and looked around for a new target.
Something clattered into his ship and he started to spin wildly. He grabbed the console and tried to steady the ship into a controlled landing. Damn! I must focus.
He didn't have far to fall and soon felt the thump of his ship striking the ground. He skidded sideways over the desert plain not far from where the spiders sat, until a hole appeared in front of him and the ship dropped in. He flipped upside down. The computer flickered and died.
Oh shit! He knew his chances of escaping the planet alive were remote, but he was armed and unhurt. The AI would take over the swarm. He hoped they had learnt something from the brief attack run.
Roar secured his helmet and stepped outside, gun at the ready. He wanted to look one of these damned creatures in the eyes before he died.
Daylight illuminated the cavern from a round entrance above. Artificial lights glowed on the walls. He heard muffled banging noises down a flat slope. A single spider stood there, its top half opened up. A small humanoid creature clambered out and jumped to the ground. It spotted him.
The spiders are the vehicles, he gasped. Of course! How stupid were we to think they were alive!
The humanoid wore a colourful red and yellow suit that covered its whole body. It stood half as high as Roar, and in its hand it held something. Some kind of weapon. He gazed at the two round black eyes through its mask and a face that looked almost familiar. Then he remembered they were at war.
Roar shot first. A blast of metal whizzed towards the alien and through its torso, causing it to stumble.
The alien lifted its arm and fired back a blue stream of lightning.
The shot paralysed Roar. His muscles and joints froze. His body slumped to the ground and he struggled to breathe.
The effects wore off a little, and he reached out his empty hand to the dying alien across from him. The only living being to keep him company in the end was the enemy pilot.
It gazed back at him. For its final gesture, it raised an open five-fingered hand in apparent greeting.