Bugger this for a game of soldiers, Sarge thought when the Action Station alarm shook him awake.
He was still half asleep as he ran down the ill-lit corridor of the Havana in his underwear. Emerging from each side were other near-naked pilots, all running in the same direction. He passed under a glowing sign that read “Hanger 3: Dragon Flight”.
McCaffrey ran up alongside. “What’s going on, Sarge? Another sim?”
“We’ll get briefed in our boats,” Sarge said.
McCaffrey slowed his pace. “Sarge?”
“Why are our bunks so far from the hangers?”
Sarge swung a lazy open palm at the back of McCaffrey’s head. He ducked it easily and increased his pace.
Sarge dug deeper to catch up.
McCaffrey reached the lockers first. Sarge reached out to grab the back of McCaffrey’s vest. The Havana shook and made him stumble. A loud groan shook the super-structure.
“What the hell?” McCaffrey said.
Unmistakable. “We’re under attack,” Sarge said. “Get into your flight gear!”
The other pilots within earshot redoubled their efforts and rushed to their lockers.
Sarge shrugged into his flight suit as he moved into the hanger proper and jogged towards his boat: a sharp-nosed machine designed for dealing death. It bristled with antennas, missiles and arc-gun mountings. It crouched on the floor of the hanger, patient but eager. To Sarge, it looked much more like a dragon than did the stencilled insignia on the side of the armour plated hull. Sarge touched his wrist and the canopy lifted to reveal the high-g acceleration couch inside. He backed into the couch and felt it pull him into the cockpit as it flowed over and around his limbs and head. The umbilici locked themselves into his wet-ware sockets. He completed the pre-flight checks at the speed of thought. All nominal, all green, a full complement of missiles and a full charge in the arc-gun batteries.
“Confirm status, Dragon Leader.”
“Plugged and prepped, Control,” Sarge said.
“Roger that, Dragon Leader. We are under attack from fifty Solyan fighters. That’s five zero. We have yet to locate their launch platform.”
Outnumbered two and a half to one. “Copy that.” Sarge reviewed the telemetry on McCaffrey, Cowell, Martin and Le Guin. All green. “Dragon Flight ready for launch, Control.”
“Roger that, Dragon Flight. You have the tubes.”
Sarge switched channel to talk to his Flight. “No sim. Solyan attack. Fifty bogies. Immediate evasive dispersal.” The couch hardened so that it felt as if his feet rested on pedal thrusters and his hand on a cyclic. He visualised the launch code and his boat shot down the launch tube. He felt the couch react around him to compensate for the g-force. And then he was out into hard vacuum.
Dozens of threat indicators appeared in his hudar. Audio warnings whined.
Sarge pushed forward, then back on the cyclic, thrusting hard with his feet. The bastards had mined the launch tubes.
Arcs of white-hot energy pulsed past his boat. The hudar compensated by going dark. Threat indicators glowed red.
“Jesus Christ, Sarge!” Was that McCaffrey or Le Guin?
Arcs flew in all directions: the Havana’s defence cannons lit up the enemy as the Solyans dived and fired at the Havana. Sarge saw what they were doing.
“Shield generator defence. Tight vee on me.” He pressed a rally point ping that appeared on Dragon Flight’s hudars.
“Into the thick of it,” Cowell said. “Just the way, uh-huh, uh-huh—”
“—you like it,” McCaffrey sang.
“What’s that noise?” Martin said.
“I thought you liked my singing?”
Sarge let them banter. It settled them. He led them five hundred meters out to the rally point. They formed into a tight ‘V’ formation, with Sarge at the point. They heeled hard left and arrowed straight for the concentration of Solyan fighters buzzing the Havana’s shield generators. Wolf, Eagle and Tiger flights had launched. Tiger had lost Ferrell to the mines.
“Interlinked targeting. Pick your target and fire at will.” Sarge switched comms to Wolf Flight. “Wolf Leader, Dragon Leader. Flanking cover.”
“Right behind you, Sarge,” Wolf Leader said.
Targeting and threat indicators lit Sarge’s hudar up like a Christmas tree. He was probably the only one on the Havana that knew what a Christmas tree looked like. Most of the pilots had been born and raised on the **warship. Sarge had been planetside before the Migration and had decorated several wooden Christmas trees at year’s end. He selected a free target and switched to missiles. Targeting said two seconds. Sarge fired after one. He selected another and fired again. And again. He had one missile left. He switched to arc-guns. The rest of Dragon Flight followed his lead: three of them fired three missiles, each one at an individual target. Martin, as usual, fired two. He liked to play it safe. Threat display showed fourteen fire-and-forget Sliver missiles homing on fourteen Solyan fighters.
On Sarge’s port side, Tiger Flight loosed three salvos of Slivers each. Without Ferrell, they fired twelve. Eagle Flight covered Tiger’s flank just as the Wolves covered the Dragons. All by the tactical book. All perfectly executed. Every pilot had line-of-sight on the enemy. Sarge felt a surge of pride.
Twenty Solyan fighters broke from the shield generator attack and drove, in a chaotic formation, straight toward the defenders.
Sarge switched to the common band. “Arc curtain, fire!” Each boat held three arc-gun mounts. Three arcs per mount per second flew out towards the incoming enemy.
The Solyans flew straight towards the defenders and took no evasive action. Seven of them that were targeted by Sliver missiles vaporised in flashes of greens, yellows and blues. The rest flew into the wall of defensive fire. The Solyan’s shields flashed hot as they tried to dissipate the energy, but soon became overwhelmed and failed. The approaching Solyan fighters exploded one-by-one in neon pink blossoms of destruction. Sarge’s instruments reported his forward shields had sustained two hits but had reacted appropriately and had now re-achieved equilibrium. Eight Solyan craft that had been engaged in the attack on the Havana’s shield generators died as Sliver missiles punched through their hulls and exploded. Debris spun out in all directions, trailing sparks and expelling gasses. Searing blinks of explosive energy filled Sarge’s hudar.
The eleven remaining Sliver missiles failed to find their targets.
Sarge tutted. Not bad. Could have been worse.
The defenders closed the distance to the main swarm of attackers. Sarge spoke again into the common band: “Dogfight split. Now. Now. Now.”
The four Flights that had laid down their barrage of arcs in tight formation now split into nineteen individual targets. Each continued to blaze arcs as they came.
The Havana’s defence batteries had inflicted nine Solyan casualties. They ceased their firing as Sarge and the Flights plunged into the melee.
The odds had evened out. Nineteen defenders. Twenty-three attackers. It was a miracle that they’d only lost one so far. In a dogfight, you needed luck and skill in equal measure. This was where things got sketchy.
Sarge hoped that all the sims had tipped the luck in their favour. His hudar was impossible to read: the icons, threat indicators and overlaid vectors were a mess of contradictory information. Even with the wet-ware umbilici, it was all too much to process. Skill and luck would have to suffice. Sarge let his thoughts drift away, as he ignored the hudar. His whole being focused on staying alive, to kill before being killed.
Luck would have to take care of itself.
He targeted the nearest Solyan from the crowd that wasn’t already interlink targeted by someone else, moved the cyclic and pressed the pedal thrusters in a complicated pattern to draw the Solyan ever closer into the middle of his sights. Arcs raced to the target. The Solyan threw his craft violently around, trying to evade. Sarge followed each jink of movement and rained arcs onto its shield. Eventually, the shield failed and arc-sparks flew from the enemy’s hull. The Solyan spun fast to offer different hull plates to the onslaught, randomly thrusting in random directions. The Solyan’s engine glowed red. Sarge focused his fire there and watched as two arcs flew into the exhaust. The Solyan exploded in a searing firework display. Sarge’s hudar went dark.
He felt to joy, no exaltation. Another death. He scanned his hudar for a new target.
The Dragon pilots gibbered away to each other in his comms.
They stayed alive in their way: he in his.
The hudar showed another target, and Sarge course corrected to intercept. The Solyan saw him coming, even through the chaos, and pointed his craft at Sarge. They hurtled toward each other, both firing continuously. Sarge fed power to his forward shields. If he broke off, he would expose his unshielded flanks and die. The shield dissipated energy and smeared it across Sarge’s field-of-view so that his eyes were effectively useless. He fed all power to the forward shields and kept his finger pressed on the trigger. He felt a bump and a rattle as he flew through the debris field of the murdered Solyan.
Sarge checked his instruments, equalised power to all shield quadrants. He scanned ahead and saw that Le Guin had a bogey on his six. Sarge pulled the cyclic hard right and stamped both feet on the thrusters.
“Break left, Le Guin, break left.”
Even through the madness, Le Guin heard him. His boat rotated and thrust to his left. The Solyan moved with him. Straight into Sarge’s crosshair. Sarge opened fire with all three arc-guns. The Solyan died in under a second.
“Thanks Sarge,” Le Guin said, and was already manoeuvring to engage another bogey.
Sarge heard and felt more clangs and thuds as scorched and twisted debris bounced off the outer armour-plated hull of the boat: shields were only proof against energy weapons. Space around the Havana was now littered with the detritus of battle. Sarge ignored the sounds, closed on another enemy. Opened fire. Another killed.
There was a thud near his feet, near the nose of the boat. An amber telltale lit up on his hudar: the forward antenna had lost 73% efficiency. Sarge glanced down and could see an impaled humanoid hand, devoid of any suit or glove, on the antenna. It had three fingers and a thumb. The fingers were long and thin, but it was unmistakable as a hand. A Solyan hand. After all these years, he had never seen the enemy, or any part of them, not with his own eyes, at least.
The amputation had been clean, there was no ragged or hanging flesh, and no blood leaked from the flash-frozen limb. He couldn’t take his eyes off it. One of the long fingers seemed to point at him. You killed me, it said.
“You or me,” Sarge said.
“Sarge! Twelve o’clock high!” a voice cried in his ear. McCaffrey? “Sarge!”
The boat rocked hard and Sarge thrown to the side. The couch hardened around him to compensate. There was a sizzle, and Sarge smelled burned components. The hudar faded to nothing. Comms were down. His boat tumbled away from the still raging fire-fight. He glanced out of the cockpit window at the alien hand that had somehow remained attached to the antenna. Its finger pointed at him. A life for a life. You kill me; I kill you.
Sarge looked up and saw the red glow of a Solyan fighter exhaust. It swung around for the kill.
His luck had finally run out.
The engine’s glow faded. The Solyan was nothing but a dark shape against a dark background.
Sarge thought he’d be more frantic, more scared. Instead, he glanced down at the hand, which held no more accusation, no more admonition. It seemed to beckon, welcoming. Sarge smiled.
Something bright streaked towards him. With no hudar, the flash of light blinded him as the arc hit his defenceless boat.
Sarge opened his eyes.
It was way too bright. Why wasn’t the hudar compensating for the glare?
He closed his eyes. Realised he wasn’t in his boat or in the acceleration couch. He opened his eyes to slits. All light. It hurt his head. In fact, he felt pain everywhere. Particularly in his legs and left arm: they itched and throbbed.
An oval blurry object entered his field-of-view. It had a dark patch at the top and a horizontal lighter patch near the bottom. His brain could still do some basic pattern recognition: it was a smiling face.
“Hey Sarge,” McCaffrey said. “Thought we’d lost you there for a sec.”
Sarge’s mouth was dry. It was too much effort to speak. Too much effort to breathe. His legs and arm were agony.
“Just wanted to make sure you were okay,” McCaffrey said. He cleared his throat. His eyes drifted down the bed and he pulled them back up to Sarge’s face. “Glad you made it.”
Sarge’s vision began to clear. Detail filled in from the edges of things. McCaffrey’s eyes were full of tears and his expression was full of something else.
“Don’t pity me, pilot,” Sarge whispered.
“Yes, sir!” McCaffrey stood to attention, saluted and marched, stiff legged, out of the room. Sarge heard McCaffrey’s footsteps fade away.
Sarge gritted his teeth, lifted his head, ignored the pain. He had to see. The way McCaffrey had looked made him want to see. Made him need to see.
There was nothing left below the waist. Nothing. Cut in half, his abdomen sheared neatly in two, like an incompetent stage magician had sawed him in half. He was probably the only one on board who knew what a stage magician was. He lifted his left arm to wipe his tears. But his left hand and forearm were gone.
Perhaps his hand and the Solyan’s had become joined and floated off together into the void. Were they holding on to each other as they tumbled? Maybe. Maybe they were.
Bugger that for a game of soldiers, Sarge thought, and let his stump fall back to his side.