professional space dogfighters must deal with a hotshot outsider
|[auth note: this is Subspace game fiction]
Zero Starflare was among the applicants for the contest hosted by Revenant Squadron. Unfortunately for Zero, the 34th Annual Lamer Dogfight required all participants to be sponsored by an organization to pay the entry fee. Despite being the starting captain on his flagball team, no corporation would entrust an expensive Weasel-class trainer ship to a non-military-trained pilot.
"Nik's got some new moves," commented a technician in the observation tower. He glanced to where Squadron Commander Tom 'Red-T' Redman stood squinting out the viewport. "He just took out Baron," continued the younger man. Some numbers changed on one of the computer screens which served as an electronic scorekeeper.
In the sky above dueled two dozen ships specially modified for atmospheric maneuvering. Contact lasers were absorbed by soak shields, which reported damage to the observation tower. Occasionally the tower sent kill determinations to the ships. Dead ships released a trail of black smoke as they autopiloted below the 3-kilometer hard deck. There were a lot of black trails in the sky.
The last two pilots dueled fiercely. Surprisingly, the top duelist 'Slayer' was the one to lose. The winning ship accelerated towards ground level at a maddening speed.
"What is Nikuja doing?" wondered aloud the technician. The ship levelled out at only 300 meters. It raced by the tower doing combat rolls and igniting its burners once per revolution. "He's flashing us!"
"That is not Nik," Red-T announced. "Send a security detail to the landing pad." The commander was obviously displeased, but his orders were delivered calmly.
Red-T marched heavily into the detention center. Safely behind the forcefield of holding cell #2 was a grinning Zero. Well, he won't be happy for long, determined Red-T. Behind him, Slayer followed with a scowl on his face. "Good game, sir!" beamed the foolish young pilot.
"Zero Starflare," intoned Red-T, "you have been disqualified from this competition as an illegal entrant. First place goes to my first officer Slayer, now three-time champion. You will remain in detention here until regional authorities come to arrest you. We do not take lightly theft of a starship." Despite his even voice, Red-T's words seemed full of menace. He looked as if he might say more, but instead he did an about-face and left the room.
Zero's grin changed to outrage as he yelled about how unfair the situation was. Slayer stood impassively letting him vent. It took a half-hour of ignoring threats and curses before Slayer could finally explain things to the quieted prisoner. "Son, no one cares that you are some stud hero on your local flagging team. You assaulted an officer of a military unit - he required two stitches for his head injury, by the way. You hijacked a government warcraft - weapon-disabled but potentially deadly nevertheless. And finally you violated safe flight protocol with your flashing stunt. You landed that craft on fumes. Your entire flagging team doesn't earn in a year enough to buy one of these modified Weasel trainers. You showed first-rate stupidity with your actions today, and we have no sympathy for you. I advise you to call your lawyer first thing, when the marshals come for you."
Some spark remained in the young pilot, though. "I owned you all out there," he backlashed.
Slayer stepped forward to the very edge of the forcefield. "Son, you didn't even own your ship out there. You have fancy hotdog moves that keep you in good stead for flagball games. Unfortunately for you, the entertainment industry is a far cry from professional piloting. You showed some skill, but you were wrong."
Zero had nothing more to say. Disagreement radiated from his eyes, and disappointment permeated his sagging posture. But he was powerless if his piloting performance failed to persuade these by-the-book military pukes.
Slayer entered Red-T's ready room. He noticed immediately the smashed aquarium. Lying dead on the floor was the commander's pet Aquamonkey, a non-sentient fish from one of the rimworlds. He hadn't realized the commander was so upset over the hijacking of a trainer ship.
Red-T's eyebrows unfurled as he studied his best officer. "We have bigger problems, Slayer. Phase Omega outpost was overrun just five minutes ago. We received only two burst communication macros: Incoming! and 100+."
Slayer's professionalism failed him. His usually sober face melted into fear. "Sir, do we -?"
"Yes, we scramble," answered Red-T. "It's probably that darn Genocide fundamentalist group stationed twelve parsecs from Phase Omega. They just signed the blasted treaty last week, and we had to withdraw our capital ship as a sign of good faith. We're hosed here. But we have a job to do."
"Suxor," agreed Slayer. This would be a doomed mission, then. Revenant Squadron was barely more than a detachment these days. At best they could rally two dozen fighters. "Twenty against over a hundred. Long odds. How fast can we get the Big Buk here?"
The commander shook his head. "Our cap ship put into port for shield upgrade. Now, there's no time to waste. I want all ships launched in fifteen minutes."
Normally he would have saluted and left, but the sight of the dead Aquamonkey on the floor reminded Slayer of something. "One last thing, sir. Deadfish is down with severe stomach cramps. Ate some bad sushi. I'll need a replacement pilot."
"Eh? We don't have replacement pilots. We weren't scheduled to be reinforced for another terran month."
"There is the hijacker in detention, commander. Deadfish's ship is a Weasel class with twin lazguns. Technically he knows the controls."
Red-T gave Slayer the hard stare. "I thought you didn't like this guy."
"I don't, sir. That flagger punk is just a show-off who wants to be elite. But he had some skill, and if nothing else, he might help out a little. It's a one-way trip anyway, commander."
"I don't like it," conceded Red-T, "but it's your call. Now get your people out of here. You have fourteen minutes to launch."
Zero strapped himself into his newly-assigned Weasel. He could scarcely believe his luck, that he could be needed in an emergency. Still, all his enthusiasm was suppressed. Rationally he remembered Slayer's warning: Don't come if you aren't prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. It was a motto of the Revenant Squadron, but something in the way he said it made Zero certain that this was not a mission they thought they could win.
The inter-ship radio squawked, and the commander's voice floated between the ears of all the pilots: "Okay folks, you launch in T minus sixty seconds. Our mission is to intercept the enemy force which overran Phase Omega outpost. You must stall this invasion force before they can sweep through our guard sector. I have summoned aid from our neighbor outposts, but it will be at least thirty minutes before Zeta and Gold squadrons can back you up. As soon as you reach space, all ships are to use rockets to maximize engagement distance. Good luck. Red-T out."
Slayer's voice followed with additional instructions. Each pilot knew that by using up their rockets just to get to the battle, they couldn't escape the fight to safety. So it really was to be a suicide mission after all. Someone whispered a quote just before the radio silence order: "The one hope of the doomed is not to pray for survival."
Red-T watched the blue flame trails burn themselves out in the space overhead. All subspace communications were down from Phase Omega outpost, and his squadron would maintain radio silence so that the enemy couldn't easily trace a path to this base. Red-T sat heavily in a cushioned chair. He was in limbo. He wondered if he would ever hear from his squaddies again.
Zeta and Gold Squadrons made cursory reports a half hour later as they raced to the battle. Following them was the Armored Corps on loan from Mirror Droid base. Those ships have the new Local Anti-Grav upgrade, thought Red-T. LAG Shielding is gonna be the new wave in fighter technology. And a whole corps of them. At least the base is saved.
It was a hollow victory, though. Red-T knew that his sector was secure, since Genocidian ships hadn't yet rained destruction down on this planet. But the cost of that was the sacrifice of his entire defense force. They must have managed to delay the incoming enemies at a safe distance away.
Sure enough, a Zeta scout arrived two hours later with battle reports. The burst report Miew made through subspace channels was maddeningly predictable: "Revenant Squadron almost completely obliterated; Gold and Zeta Squadrons sustained light damage during a holding action; arrival of Armored Corps on flank resulted in total rout of enemy Genocide fleet."
Two ships returned to the orbiting repair station. Slayer had managed to stay alive, and he towed Ummagumma's ship back to dock. Umma's engines had been completely shut down with only life-support functioning.
Slayer saluted. This was not a report one could make over the radio. Red-T bade him to sit, and he did. While they observed all the military traditions, they were close friends and shared the same losses. "Twenty-two ships lost, Red-T. Or twenty-three, considering Umma's boat doesn't have enough juice to run a toaster oven. Revenant Squadron doesn't exist right now."
Red-T ran his fingers through his greying hair and nodded helplessly. "And the hot dog?"
"Zero fought like a demon. I admit I feared he might try to warp out, but he was everything I could have hoped for. You saw his moves earlier." Slayer couldn't think of how to properly describe the guy's heroics. "He lasted a good while." It seemed a pathetic thing to say, but in a grim sense it was a compliment.
Red-T saw the battle replaying in Slayer's eyes. He wouldn't learn the whole story until the computer on Slayer's ship uploaded its data, but Red-T knew that Zero had pulled his weight. "Revenant Squadron is being officially deactivated from border patrol. Gold is taking over our sector. We are reassigned to training near the Mirror Droid base. And we can't get fighters from the other border bases. New pilots for the new LAG Shield technology, that sort of thing. But Revenant Squadron will be back to the frontline in a couple years."
Slayer glanced up with an idea. "Perhaps we could expand our recruitment policies. Maybe some of those jocks from the frontier flagball leagues. I think they've earned at least a chance."
Red-T nodded, "Yah."