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The Sisters

Posted by SouthPaw, Jan 18 2014, 12:00 PM in FanFic

The Sisters

III


Galway Stevens knew that he was born for this. He wouldn't have been anywhere else in the Belt but buckled into his turret, on this ship, right now.

In the compartments behind the reinforced bulkhead of his ball turret he could hear the banging and crashing of the rest of the crew clearing the ship for action. The card table and chairs in the wardroom had to be overturned, the galley would be cleared, bunks and living quarters would be sealed and even the heads had to have the water tanks vacuum-locked down. Dinner plates, complete with half-eaten meals, were swept into a locker and hands of playing cards lay scattered across the floor where the crew had dropped them. Galway heard the heavy scrapping of a full ammunition canister being dragged across the grating of the magazine and manhandled into position above the automatic lift that would drop the canister into position where it could feed shells into his Skycap cannonā€™s breech. Soon the powder monkeys would beat on the hatch to his turret, signalling that the canister was in position and that he should activate the vacuum hopper that would transfer the first shells into the weapon.

The tiny tannoy of the ships internal com system squealed with feedback, then broadcast the Captain's voice, heavy with crackled distortion.
"All hands report as cleared for action."¯ He commanded. The ship's stations reported back in quick, well-rehearsed time.
"Main deck cleared."¯
"Engine room secured."
"Magazine, online sir."
"Sensors up and nominal, fire control live."¯
"Lower turret, aye."¯ That was Galway's counterpart in the ship's lower ball turret, Hyatt. A good guy, Hyatt was reliable but he showed no flair in the ball. He didn't have the instinct that Galway possessed and relied too much on the lead indicator that was provided by the ship's on-board fire control system. Still, he kept his head when things got hairy and you couldn't ask for more than that. The last thing you needed was a jumpy turret gunner.

Galway placed his feet on the omni-directional turret rudder plate and pressed left. With a hum of electro-motors the entire ball turret unit traversed left, swinging Galway with it. His gunner's seat was fixed to the ball and rotated him with it, keeping Galway aligned with the control console and the barrel of the Skycap that jutted out into space. With a smooth movement he slid the rudder plate towards him and the turret swung vertically up, tipping him upside down as the barrel described a 180 degree arc from the port side of the ship to the starboard. As he dangled upside down Galway heard banging on his turret hatch; the powder monkeys had charged his magazine. In response he flipped the vacuum hopper control to the active position. A loud series of rattles and clunks sounded behind the bulkhead and Galway watched as a row of lights on his display turned from red to green. When he was happy that everything was in order, his turret had full power and that his Skycap was loaded he hit the com button.
"Upper ball; locked, loaded and swingin' free."¯ He called cheerily, completing the series of responses informing the Captain that the ship was ready for combat.

"Good job boys, Keymer reports in position. Be sharp while we wait."¯ The tannoy crackled the Captain's words once more and then fell silent.

Galway swung the turret, taking in the scene before him. Lying to the ship's starboard side was a massive asteroid, beyond which was the aleph through which hostiles were expected. Four clicks away, lurking out of view of the aleph behind a similarly large rock was the Keymer. Galway smiled at the sight of her, Keymer and Tregenza were sister ships and, though they were not sleek or lovely, their brutal lines conveyed the functionality and sense of purpose that all Belters vessels possessed.

The sister ships had been built at the same yard by the same men and - supposedly - to the same design, but only someone who had been onboard both ships would ever know that. Externally they looked markedly different. Though they shared basic dimensions, equipment and weaponry, the uncertainty and random nature of raw materials available for ship construction in the Belt meant that Keymer and Tregenza looked anything but sisters. Tregenza was the younger of the two, commissioned a year after the Keymer, she benefited from tighter lines and was less bulky externally. Galway always boasted that she was the more beautiful, and few impartial observers could disagree although it was a beauty that only Belters would recognise. Keymer on the other hand benefited from having been constructed earlier, when good quality and better refined materials were not so scarce. Though Keymer looked a little bulkier on the outside, and her lines a touch more blocky, her crew argued that the better quality of her metal made her the better bet in a brawl.

The two corvettes may not have had the poise of beauty of some of their rivals from the fleets of other human factions, but they more than made up for appearances when it came to doing their job of killing small craft. A combination of speed and firepower made the ships lethal to all but the most well-coordinated of assaults by fighter or interceptor ships. In the past six months both Keymer and Tregenza had proven themselves, excelling as convoy escort, miner defence and base protection. Their crews were both well-trained, battle hardened and acknowledged amongst the free ports as the best in the Belt. Keymer and Tregenza had over sixty confirmed kills between them and were the perfect tools to accomplish the task that they had been entrusted.

Galway knew very little about their mission; only that the Captain had seemed worried when he had briefed them all two nights ago. Scanners, the Tregenza's coms man, had told them all in hushed tones about the priority message that had come in marked for the Captain's eyes only. He swore that it had come from Scholes himself. Who knew? But it didn't take a genius to figure out that all of this had something to do with the reports over the Datanet of the massacre at Tau 6.

The outpost at Tau 6 had been reported as destroyed by unidentified attackers a week previously. It had been constructed as a staging post for expansion and Belter colonisation into a deserted and uncontested area of the belt. There was no He3 in Tau 6, nor any of the charted sectors out there so the plan had been to put domestic outposts out of harm's way. Thousands of families had been uprooted and moved away from the fighting at the front line sectors contested with the Corporation and the space regularly patrolled by the Iron Coalition. All had flocked to the Outpost at Tau 6 where they had gathered food and fuel for the push out into the wilderness.

Estimates varied, but figures on the Datanet suggested that upwards of 25,000 brave Belter pioneers had been at Tau 6. Civilians. Men, women and children looking for a better life amongst the barren rocks where no-one would bother them.

Until of course, somebody had. Who, or what, had perpetrated the massacre wasn't known. There was talk was of a secret IC or BIOS weapons development facility, some murmurings about collusion and warnings of an attack delivered to the Belters from deep space by a Gigacorp spy. Some voices swore that they had intercepted garbled transmissions out in the void that hissed and whined with static. Others claimed to have stumbled upon vast vessels and that Tau 6 had been the site of the first meeting with a vengeful alien race that was sworn to eradicate humanity. It was all the usual Datanet scuttle-butt.

Whatever it was, Galway knew two things. First, the aleph that lay concealed from his view by a large rock led directly to Tau 6. Second, with both the Tregenza and the Keymer pulled off vital miner protection duty, something was going to be coming out of that aleph and Galway knew an ambush when he saw one. Perhaps the Captain had been given a better idea of what had happened at Tau 6. If knowledge of what was on the other side had caused even the Captain's face to turn pale, then Galway hoped to hell that his Skycap would be enough.

His thoughts were washed away by a chorus of chimes from the fire control system and his sensor display lit up with contacts streaming from the aleph to Tau 6. He was thankful that Belter scouts had seeded the sector with probes, enabling Tregenza's systems to detect contacts even when they were behind by the large rocks that hid her. He span his turret so that he could see the two nan-equipped scouts that waited astern of Tregenza and waggled the barrel of the Skycap in thanks and warning. One of them performed a lazy barrel-roll reply.

"Brave little bastards."¯ Galway said out loud as the tannoy system blared again.

"All hands, hostiles incoming, go to it boys. Fire control is live, gunners engage at will and may the Raven watch us all."¯ Galway smiled, the Captain liked to be dramatic before the shooting started and drunk soon after it stopped.

Galway's fire control display still showed the contacts as unidentified, but more and more were appearing at the aleph, so many that the icons on the display began to overlap, obscuring each other as they moved across the sector in two distinct groups. One seemed larger than the others, but Galway could not be sure. If the Captain didn't act quickly, the hostiles would be too far across the aleph for the two corvettes to interdict them. Sure enough Tregenza coughed as her engines fired up, the ship trembling with vibration as the Captain eased her slowly out from behind the rock and into sight of the fleet of hostiles.

Galway immediately rotated his ball turret to face the closest group of hostiles and saw... nothing. Sensors said they were there but all he could see was the darkness of space. He flipped the optical zoom control to max and scanned the area. There! and again, vague swirling shapes - mottled in patches - flipped and danced over each other. Galway blinked hard and looked again. They looked like some find of fighter, but no design he had ever seen. They were sleek and thin, reminding him of curved blades slicing through the sector.

The Tregenza was out into open space now and on an intercept course for the lead group of hostile contacts, the two nan-scouts trailing a short distance behind. Across the sector Keymer had followed suit and the sisters closed the pincers of the ambush with total surprise. Galway checked his fire control display, the icons representing the hostile fighters in the lead group of contacts began to separate. The Keymer was marginally closer and the fighters had seen her first as she closed to firing range. Galway watched as the fighters span with incredible agility and coordination, speeding towards the Keymer, pin-prick lights of their boosters making individual ships easy to pick out as they flew directly away from the unseen Tregenza.

Galway swore, he could count nearly thirty sets of boosters visible. Keymer would have little chance against an onslaught by that many opponents. Even her experienced gunners could not hope to overcome the so many enemies before they breached the corvette's shields and cracked open her hull. Galway estimated that Tregenza would not even be within weapons range of the fleeing fighters in time to save her sister. He checked his fire control computer. The nearest hostile target was over 3k away from Tregenza, and the gap was opening all the time. Despite the strange fighters being well out of range of his Skycap he acted instinctively and released the safety before squeezing the trigger, firing a three-round burst.

The shells hurtled across the sector before detonating harmlessly at their maximum range, well behind the swarm of hostile fighters.
"Galway, hold your fire! We are well out of range!"¯ Hyatt in the lower turret shouted over the ships com system. But Galway had realised that if Keymer was to have any chance then something had to be done to split the hostile fighters up. He hoped that firing his weapon would attract some attention.

Sure enough, half of the twinkling booster lights died in unison. The fighters swung around to face the Tregenza as she continued to bear down upon them. Galway smiled but could not subdue the knot of apprehension that grew in his stomach. By splitting the group he had given Keymer a chance, but he had also brought half of the enemies down upon Tregenza. Fifteen plus fighters was still a lot to handle and the odds were that neither sister would get out this confrontation intact.
"Good job boy!"¯ bellowed the Captain over the tannoy. "Now make those alien bastards fear the Belt and all those who fly free!"¯ Aliens? Galway had no time to consider the outburst as a chime from his fire control indicated a target had entered extreme range. He swivelled the turret, bringing the Skycap to bear, then squeezed the trigger.

* * *

The fighters swarmed around Tregenza like flies on a carcass. Sweat poured from Galway's brow as he swung the ball turret, desperately trying to track the agile attackers as they made swooping passes on the corvette, their triple gun mounts spewing tracer. He had lost track of time, though it could only have been a matter of minutes since he had first opened fire. He had lost track of the number of enemies that had engaged the Tregenza, and how many he had dispatched. All that mattered was the swirling mass of targets and the stream of shells he was sending towards them. His situational awareness had gone and he was completely focused on swinging the ball turret and staying alive. Tregenza's shield had gone, the hull had been severely damaged and Galway was vaguely aware of the smell of smoke and the crashing sounds and desperate cries of Tregenza's damage control party on the other side of the bulkhead. At these close quarters, the hunter missiles and mini autocannons operated by the Captain were of limited use as the corvette could not manoeuvre fast enough to keep the weapons to bear on a target. Up-close and dirty like this, it was Hyatt and Galway's job to engage targets.

"Get them off me!"¯ The cry came from the single nan-scout that remained, his partner having been destroyed in the first pass. Hyatt had been providing him cover, taking out enemies that attacked the nan whilst Galway engaged more distant hostiles that were targeting Tregenza directly. But now Hyatt had stopped firing, and the last nan was in trouble.
"Hyatt? You out of ammo?"¯ Galway called over the com system, he had not heard Hyatt call the powder monkeys for a reload. There was no answer from the bottom turret.
"Come topside little buddy."¯ Galway watched the bulky scout flip around from the under side of Tregenza where Hyatt had been covering him, Belter scouts were sturdy and build for speed not agility but the pilot handled the little ship deftly. A stream of tracer followed the scout, clipping his boosters and shearing off a chunk of metal. Galway switched targets and trained his Skycap perpendicular to the hull, at the source of the tracer projectiles. A dark shape flashed past the hull and Galway pulled the trigger instinctively, nailing the fighter with a shell straight through the central cockpit dome. The fighter span out of control into space but Galway had little time to cheer as the next hostile swept in.

Galway had to feverishly switch targets, trying to keep the nan alive as it patched up Tregenza's battered hull, whilst fending off the remaining fighters from doing more damage. Abruptly, the fighter he was tracking broke off, and attempted to flee. Galway led him slightly and fired. The proximity-fused shells from his Skycap burst around the ship, splinters of metal ripping into it causing it to break apart violently. Galway began to scan for the next target then paused. His fire control indicated the closest target to be two clicks away. The system must have taken a hit and was malfunctioning; he swung the ball turret to perform a visual scan for targets and saw that the space around Tregenza was clear. He had done it.

Across the sector the Keymer battled on, Galway could see the triple streams of tracer and the puffs of Skycap rounds detonating. He willed the Tregenza to gain speed and bring his gun into range so he could help clear those fighters off her. But Tregenza veered away from the embattled Keymer and her attackers moving instead towards the second group of hostiles that bore down on the aleph out of the sector and into Belter space.

"Captain, the Keymer sir!"¯ Galway asked over the com system
"We can't help her boy, that big bastard is a bomber and he looks to have plenty of scouts. Reckon he's the one that hit Tau 6 and he goes no further!"¯ The Captain replied. "brace yourself lad, the AC's are jammed and I'm out of hunters. I don't think Hyatt is still with us. You need to take the scouts then finish the bomber."
Galway scanned his fire control display and his heart sank.
"Negative sir. I have less than a third of a rack of ammo."¯ There was silence before Galway felt the Tregenza alter her course slightly. Across the sector a blinding flash engulfed the Keymer and swallowed her attackers, the corvette was blown apart by the force of an internal explosion sending a cloud of debris pirouetting across space.
"...sir?"¯ Galway waited for orders. "Captain!"
The silence was finally broken by the Captain, his voice tinged with sadness.
"We will ram her boy. That will drop the bombers shields and put a fair dent in it I'd say. We will knock it clear of those scouts for a few seconds. You put the last of your rounds into it and finish the bastard before those scouts can recover."
"Yes...Yes sir"¯ Galway took a deep breath and, leaning forward he switched off the fire control system in front of him. Without the light of its display, his turret fell dark and he watched as the ominous shape of the bomber grew larger and larger in his gunsight. It would be quite a piece of flying if the Captain could manage to ram the bomber from this oblique angle before it got the aleph. It would be more amazing if Galway could do enough damage to it to kill it with his remaining ammo before the scouts could recover.

Still, he thought as the gap between the two vessels closed at an alarming rate, miracles do happen.


Green Crescent Rising

Posted by SouthPaw, Jan 28 2010, 12:59 AM in FanFic

RO Khalid Akram bent and adjusted the placement of the final prayer mat, nudging it slightly so that it was in perfect alignment with the others.

The morning’s flight would be returning soon and he needed the temple to be ready for his flock. Since his squadron had been given Seek and Destroy orders the flights had been seeing ever more frenzied action and the pilots were being pushed hard. Past the breaking point of some.

There was no guarantee of how many of the faithful would return this morning, but just as Allah was eternally great and merciful, his servant Imam Khalid would always lay out the full compliment of prayer mats in hope. Indeed, as Religious Officer for the squadron, the provision and restoration of hope was Akram’s job. He who is without hope is lost, both to mankind and Allah.

Akram glanced at the Time/Space readout on the wall of the temple. It was fed directly from the station’s atomic clock and was accurate to less than a billionth of a second. He had only a few moments before morning prayers and sung the call to prayer softly as he prostrated himself on a prayer mat. His forebears would be pleased that even here, in places and surroundings that they could never have imagined he was continuing the long history of there being a muezzin in the Akram family.

The green arrow on the Time/Space readout pointed resolutely in the direction of Mecca, and Akram smiled to himself as he always did. Despite the obliteration of Mecca along with the rest of Earth, religion demanded a higher purpose than mere reality. Faith dictated that his prayers be issued in the direction of Mecca and the Time/Space readout calculated that in four dimensions - taking into account the orbit of distant planetary bodies, the refraction of light flowing through nebulae and even the rotation of the station’s core to simulate gravity. The read-out was testament to man’s ingenuity, his mastery of science and his need for more than science could offer.

As Akram gave thanks in prayer, he prepared himself for his sermon to come. Religious Officers were a crucial component to any combat squadron. Though since the destruction of Earth they were in such short supply that now only one officer was attributed to each formation. Drawn from any of the major human faiths, the RO was responsible for the spiritual guidance of his flock no matter what background they came from. Imam Khalid Akram’s congregation contained fellow Muslims, in addition to Hindus, Roman Catholics, New Baptists, Jews, Sikhs and several Buddhists. At least it had yesterday, he would have to wait and see who Allah had claimed this morning. Then there were those who did not declare their beliefs – if they even held any. Akram loved them all equally. In the 22nd century man could not afford the luxury of additional hatred and division he had suffered for the preceding millennia.

In his days at the RO Academy, Akram had mused in several theses about the colossal irony surrounding the position held by all of humanity’s religions regarding the progression of man toward the stars. The first men assumed that the heavens lay directly above the blue sky of Earth. When that boundary was conquered, the next men declared that Allah dwelt between the stars. When man bested space flight, and mastered interstellar travel they decided that Deus Ex Machina; our creator lay outside of the boundaries of the universe. Finally, man settled on the realisation that far from striding the stars, Allah was present in and around each of us occupying the last great unknown space - the uncertainty between atoms. Of course, the one thing that generations of holy men from all faiths had agreed on was that man was paramount. God had created us in his own image and that there therefore could not be intelligence higher, or even on a par with our own.

The irony? Well of course when that view was proven false during our early encounters with the Rixians, it was beyond ironic that the ‘aliens’ held faith so strong that they made even humanity’s most devout zealots pale into insignificance. The testing of our faith with a challenge presented by an alien race more pious than humanity proved that Allah has a sense of humour, if nothing else…

Of course, the Rixians were not the problem at the moment. No, the current enemy was a Godless one indeed. The lizard men worshiped only one thing – strength. They sought only to train, demonstrate and prove their strength above all things. This mindset drove them into seemingly endless conflict. Conflict with each other or with us, it didn’t seem to matter, so long as there was a foe against which they could flex their muscles they seemed happy.

The Dreghklar Empire - a somewhat whimsical and incorrect name for such a loose collection of warring clans, family groups and entities. The term Empire implies Emperor – a single figure holding power. Whilst this was true of the Dreg, the Emperor was in practice merely the Warlord of the most powerful clan at any one time. Such was the ferocity of the species it was expected of other Warlords to challenge the Emperor to mortal combat in order to prove the worth of themselves and the strength of their followers. Such is the life of the Emperor bloody and brief.

Akram remembered the briefing the squadron had been given before deploying into this sector. The xenobiologists believed that a minor Dreg clan had moved into adjacent space – forced out of the central Dreg systems by larger and more powerful groups within the Empire. This apparently weak and minor force was now actively seeking to prove itself by conducting raids into human space. This was the typical pattern. By engaging in conflict the clan would attract many young and disinherited Dreg warriors who were looking for a means to sate the addiction to battle than ran in their veins. If, Akram mused, the lizards even had veins...

The Dreg raids so far had seemed designed to draw out combat forces to meet them. They had not attacked civilian populations, nor economic infrastructure with any great force. More they had tended to appear, harry some outpost or trading installation waiting for the armed response to arrive. Once combat vessels were in their vicinity the Dreg transformed into fearsome opponents. They tore into the squadron’s ships with a fury that had taken aback even veteran pilots. Despite the Dreg clan being one of the smaller and weaker units within the Empire, they had proven themselves more than a match for the squadron in the skirmishes to date. Morale had dipped to something of a low, and Akram had heard whispers amongst the pilots questioning whether the Dreg could be beaten. They were just too fast, hit too hard and seemed to engage in combat with scant regard for their own losses.

Countering this sentiment with the strength and love of Allah was RO Akram’s job. But when he had seen gun camera footage of the previous day’s combat space patrol, he too had experienced doubts. Doubts about how and why Allah can have created creatures so deadly, so threatening to humanity that some even believed that they lay at the heart of the mystery surrounding the destruction of Earth.

It was, he considered, part of some great test. A test of the enduring strength of faith, and a test of mankind’s will not just to survive, but to succeed.

The chime of the Time/Space readout snapped Akram out of his philosophical wanderings and brought him back to reality in the steel-walled temple. The patrol was overdue. In Akram’s experience this was not a good sign. There was nothing that the military mind clung to with quite so much fervour as routine. The routine of the pilots in his flock was to dock, debrief then head to the temple for solace whilst their less spiritual colleagues headed to the mess bar for solace of a different kind.

Today the flight was late. That invariably meant trouble – a longer debriefing, or unexpected trouble out on patrol. In the good times the pilots would be delayed in arguments in the Ops Room over gun camera footage and claiming kills. In the bad times there would be endless hours spent recounting losses, confirmed eject pod locations and known casualties. The officers would be filing reports of condolence for the next of kin.

Recent experience told Akram that this was probably one of the bad times.

Sure enough, there was the tell-tale sound of flight boots on decking ringing outside the temple. Akram glanced at the Time/Space. Over an hour late. This was not good. The bulkhead door hissed open, and figures in flight suits entered the temple and began the process of removing their footwear.

“Welcome my children...” Akram’s greeting caught in his throat. The doorway was empty and only three pilots had entered the temple and were now tugging listlessly at their boots. His flock was regularly over ten strong. The squadron had lost pilots before, but this looked like seventy percent losses... And those were just amongst the faithful...

He didn’t have to ask. The three pilots each sank to their knees on the prayer mat they considered their own. Each one looked more haggard than the last; drenched in sweat, cut and bruised from sudden manoeuvring and abrasion from flight restraint harnesses. Akram noticed that the pilots had each placed their flight helmet in front of them, visor facing outward.

The ready position.

Pilots on standby to scramble were prohibited by regulations from being more than two metres from their helmet at any time. That couldn’t be right, this flight had just returned from operations, they would be excused scramble duty for at least 12 hours.

The eyes of the three pilots told the story. Cold and dead, their gaze was sightless. Uncomprehending. These eyes, Akram knew, were firmly fixed on the afterlife. The emptiness of the temple was emphasised by the empty prayer mats between the three pilots who had made it back. The clicking of Akram’s prayer beads echoed slightly in the silence.

Akram considered his flock. Hayden, the strong shouldered Neo Presbyterian who only a week ago bragged about being able to benchpress any other member of the flight. Pollock, Orthodox Jew, who always took such care in the cleanliness of her appearance was now smeared in grease and her flight suit torn. Dhoni, Hindu, life and soul of the party who struggled to make it through a sermon without cracking a joke and was now silent.

Akram let his prayer beads clatter to the deck in front of him and he rose from his knees. He reached into his personal locker that was recessed into the wall of the temple and withdrew his flight suit and flight helmet. It had been a long time since he had used either, but he was qualified on all small ships. Slowly and deliberately he stepped into the flight suit, tightening the compression straps and fastening the front up to the throat. When he was fully buttoned up, Akram knelt back on the mat, and carefully placed his flight helmet in front of him, the visor and thin green crescent symbol of islam that he had emblazoned on the brow facing out.

The ready position.

A flesh of recognition danced across the faces of the three pilots. Pollack even managed a shallow nod, a lank curl of her usually glistening hair falling across her face.

Akram began his sermon, all the while knowing what must happen. Sure enough, he was only part way into his second passage from the Qur’an when the station’s alarm rang. General quarters. All able bodied pilots were urgently required to scramble. The station itself would be under attack.

Akram rose in unison with his depleated flock, who were all pulling on their flight boots and tightening each other’s compression straps by simple act of muscle memory. None of them said a word, uttered any exclaim or showed the least bit of surprise.

With his prayer beads in one hand, and his flight helmet in the other, Akram led the three pilots from the temple and towards the flight deck. As they jogged, RO Khalid Akram found himself singing the muezzin’s song, the call to prayer, and he knew that sometimes souls could not be saved by words alone. Today, Allah’s will would be done through his actions.


Primetime

Posted by SouthPaw, May 29 2009, 10:54 AM in FanFic

Primetime




Miles C. Acanthophis glanced to his right into the area of space he expected his wingman to occupy. Instead of the sharp outline of a stealth fighter, he saw only the all too familiar flashes that denoted the light from distant stars refracting from the energy dampening field of his active cloak.

“It’s quiet.” He heard the wingman say over the commlink. Nice and clear, no static. Acanthophis couldn’t remember the guy’s name, but it really did not seem to matter at this juncture.

“Yeah… Too quiet.” Acanthophis replied. Having waited a few seconds, he leant forward and very purposefully pushed two buttons and flipped a switch on the left panel of his HUD. Almost immediately lights flashed and loud pinging noises filled the cockpit.

“Uh oh… Looks like we have company!” Acanthophis said smiling broadly, his white teeth glinting in the light of the various agitated displays in front of him. Off to his right he caught a glimpse of his wingman’s ship moving up to its position. Late to his mark, thought Acanthophis. Sloppy.

“I have two, no wait… Three interceptor class craft on my scanner.” The wingman said, just the right hint of worry in his voice.

Acanthophis looked down deliberately at his own scanner, three small triangles were arranged in a neat echelon and heading straight towards them.

“Ok, lock and load. Let’s show these guys how we take care of business.” Acanthophis announced.

“Roger, moving to engage…” his wingman replied.

Acanthophis looked at his scanner for a second time. Right on cue the three triangles representing the hostile interceptors broke into six smaller triangles. They must have been flying in close formation – fooling the scanner suites aboard the Stealth Fighters.

The maths had been simple, with three versus two, the Stealth Fighters had a good chance of winning the fight by using their hunter missiles at long range without even being seen. But now the odds had swung dramatically against them, Acanthophis realised that he and his wingman were not carrying enough missiles to take out all six interceptors and that they would have to get the job done with their anti-utility guns as well.

“Easy-up there buddy, we need to play this clever.” Acanthophis called, but another long stare at his instrument panel revealed that his wingman had both his shield and his missiles loaded.
“Drop your shields…” He muttered.
“Oh God! They see me… They see me… Tell Maria I lov…” Static crackled in Acanthophis’ helmet. Maria, he remembered, was his wingman’s girlfriend whom he had met briefly the preceding evening. He had thought at the time it was a little pointless, contrived even.

Acanthophis leant forward and plucked a faded photo of a man in a pilot’s flight suit, carrying a visored helmet under one arm whilst leaning nonchalantly with the other against a stealth fighter tethered in a docking bay. Acanthophis crumpled the photo in his gloved fist, paused for a moment before speaking, his voice heavy with emotion.
“I’ll make them pay Carter… Don’t worry buddy, I’ll make them all pay.”

Just as he finished speaking, the space outside Acanthophis’ cockpit seemed to rend itself asunder, becoming pixelated in appearance and torn in great ragged strips.

“CUT!” A voice rang out.

Acanthophis sighed. The cockpit access latches on his Stealth Fighter clicked and hissed free and the hardened canopy swung upwards above him. The top of a small ladder appeared at the edge of his cockpit and after a few seconds the balding head of the technician bobbed into view. Acanthophis was soon unclipped from the flight harness and the complicated sound recording equipment that had to be carefully hidden from the cameras mounted around the ship.

“Miles, darling…” The director called from the set floor below the stationary stealth fighter simulator. “Your wingman, your best buddy remember?, his name is Canton sweetie, not Carter…”

“Hey! Hey! Back the $#@! up here… Don’t lay this cap-crash of a project at my airlock now!” Acanthophis exploded, standing up in his cockpit and gesticulating out across the set – he was blinded by the lights and so swung his arms menacingly in the vague direction of the director’s voice.

“The guy’s a $#@!ing amateur! Late to his mark, and he delivers his lines line a metal foot locker…”

“Now, Miles, let’s all calm down and go again shall we?” The director adopted what he hoped was a soothing tone of voice.

“No, I will not $#@!ing calm down. I am not even $#@!ing angry yet! And another thing… Who wrote this dialogue? ‘We’ve got company’? It’s absolute garbage…”

“Okay people, let’s take a break for lunch shall we? Two hours…” The director clapped his hands twice.

Acanthophis swung his legs out of the cockpit and slid down the ladder, his pristine flight boots hitting the set floor with a thump. Out of the glare of the lights he could see the full scene of the rapidly emptying studio; all of the camera and lighting gantries were depressed to ground level, their operators having made a beeline for the canteen. Around the walls of the cramped area hung the blue drape flexible screen that projected the computer generated effects of space and battle, making the walls and floor appear to vanish.

Acanthophis smiled, one of the few upsides to the job was that the set crew regularly succumbed to motion sickness and vertigo when the drape was active. The human brain doesn’t cope very well with walking on invisible floors and operating invisible equipment whilst seemingly being in the middle of a dogfight. Seeing the discomfort of others was one of the few things that kept Miles C. Acanthophis going from day to day.

“Miles baby… You look like you could do with a little break.” The director laid an arm across his shoulders. “Why don’t you take a little R&R?” Miles started to protest that he felt fine.

“No, no, no, don’t you worry about a thing. We can re-order the shoot and get some of the exposition and external cuts done for the next day.” The director cut Acanthophis short.

“Besides… Command has requested that you glad-hand a couple of bases out on the line. You know, keep morale up amongst our gallant boys and girls eh?”

“Oh $#@!…” Miles exclaimed.

“That’s the spirit! Your fans love you!” The director said over his shoulder as he scurried off into the darkness of the set.

“You are Box Office baby! Primetime!”

The director left Acanthophis standing alone, the heat of the lighting causing beads of perspiration to emerge on his brow. At least that is what he muttered at the young stage hand that deferentially offered a towel as he stormed off in the direction of his changing room.

*

Acanthophis hated troop transports. They stank of sweat, fuel and gun grease. He sat perched on the edge of his bucket seat, his back arched forward in the vain hope that he could avoid getting anything on his suit.

There were only two things he hated more than troop transports, and they are far-flung outposts with no bar, restaurant, laundry service or guarantee of safety and the dirty, uncouth and foul-mouthed pilots who lived in them.

His “fans”... They made him want to retch. They were all idiot nobodies who slogged it out in the middle of nowhere and who wouldn’t know a synth-gin martini from a dented mug of booster coolant. If he had his way, he would never be in the same sector as most of the low-brow jocks that cheered and whooped their way through his vids, let alone actually meeting them and shaking their hands.

Unfortunately for Acanthophis, he didn’t have his way. The studio was an adjunct of the Corporation’s Department of Information, giving them editorial control over the content. It was a running joke whispered under the breath of the set crew that Gigacorp had never lost a skirmish… on TV…

Worse from Acanthophis’ point of view, was that all aspiring actors had in their contract that they were to receive a Gigacorp military rank. It was purely nominal for ninety percent of an actor’s life, promotion was based on their box office and approval ratings. Unfortunately, the rank meant that for the other 10% of an actor’s life they were the property of Gigacorp military.

In practice this usually meant morale-raising exercises; opening stations, giving out gongs at a medal ceremony, being filmed stony-faced whilst comforting widows and so on.

So it was that Miles C. Acanthophis found himself at the mercy of his three most hated things – in a troop transport, en route to a remote front line outpost full of pilots.

Happily, these visits usually consisted of nothing more than shaking a few hands, choking down a tray of filth in the mess hall, then it was Foxtrot Oscar back to civilisation.

Sadly for Acanthophis, this time things were a little different.

*

…The guy who took on the notorious Dead End Gang in his scout, the pilot who soloed a Rixian cruiser, he’s the one, the only… Miles Acanthophis!” The voice on the tannoy was drowned out by the sound of gloved hands beating together and the rhythmic ringing of flight boots on the deck grating. There were whistles and yells from the assembled pilots, flight techs and other assorted personnel who were gathered in the hangar which had been jury-rigged as an auditorium.

Acanthophis flung the grubby rag that hung as a makeshift curtain aside and strode out onto the stage. He was in his element here whilst playing the role of the great hero. He slapped shoulders and grasped hands as he toured around the front row, his face split in two by a tremendous smile.

“Here he is folks, what a guy!” The station’s Executive Officer greeted him loudly above the din, grasping Acanthophis firmly in a handshake and drawing him in close, he whispered “this is a Godsend, we have been really up against it here for the past couple of weeks. These guys were about ready to break, they are not made of as stern stuff as you are!”

Oh God, thought Miles, another one! He met so many people who thought that the vids he shot were factual reporting of his superhuman exploits. He had lost the will to keep explaining that he was an actor – even what an actor was – years ago. If the retards felt better believing that he was the most godlike pilot who ever lived, well so $#@!ing what?

“Yeah… yeah… It can get pretty rough…” Acanthophis murmured.

“You’re goddamn right…” The Executive Officer replied “…we have had miner raiders up our ass 24/7 for I don’t know how long… Lost some pretty good scout pilots too. They are all starting to question why we don’t mine at some other goddamn Outpost, you know?”

“Yeah…” Acanthophis had no idea, but kept the smile fixed to his face and took the hand mic from the officer and turned to face the room.

“Hi, how you doing? It’s great to be here…” Miles lied above raucous applause “…Thanks… Thank you all very much… No, seriously… You guys are the best outfit in the Corporation…”

Just like a comfortable shirt, Acanthophis slipped into the guise of his screen persona. He started working through his repertoire of anecdotes – mostly hashed together from scenes and plotlines in his vids, he worked the room with the same tired lines he always used at these occasions. When he was younger, Acanthophis had made an effort to alter his material regularly in case it got stale visiting the same Outposts over and over. These days he realised that the pilot ‘turnover’ was so high that he could come back next week and no one would remain to remember a word.

He had moved through his first set of anecdotes and was just about to move into some lurid tales of the leading ladies he had enjoyed when the air in the hanger was split by a piercing siren.

“What the hell is that?” Acanthophis tried to shout above the siren. He had been aboard enough frontline stations to recognise the siren used to launch the alert squadron. This was not the same noise at all, and the deck lights were dimming in unison with the whoops.

“That is general quarters!” The Executive Officer shouted back.

“Oh yeah… Acanthophis mumbled…” General quarters. He struggled to remember exactly what that meant. One look at the chaos descending on the Outpost’s flight deck should have told him that it was not good.

The Executive Officer was listening intently to a commlink welded to the bulkhead. His face was white and there where beads of sweat on his brow as he spoke into the unit. After a few moments, he replaced the commlink and shouted over the siren.

“Contact! Major contact! Scramble everything! Everyone up and out! Out!”

Acanthophis grabbed the man’s arm as he walked past. “More miner raiders?” he hissed.

“Hell no, son. This is a big old bomber and it is coming right at us.” Miles felt the blood rush from his head to his feet. A bomber… coming here… to kill him!

“We’ve got to get out… We’ve all got to get out of here!” He shouted at the Executive Officer. “We will all be killed…”

“That’s the spirit son! One of the boys will show you to a spare bird.” With that the officer was gone. Acanthophis ran through the crowded deck, barging techs and pilots aside in a state of panic. He frantically searched for the troop transport pilot who had brought him aboard – maybe there was still time to get out of this place before…

All across the deck ships were taking to the air and nudging towards the exit port - a motley mix of scouts, patrollers and a fighter or two was moving to defend the Outpost.

Too late, thought Acanthophis. He might only play at being a space ace, but he knew that launching to defend against a bomber when it was in the same sector was a world of late. Once the bomber was in range it was all over, the Corporation didn’t exactly spend a fortune on armour plating for its Outposts.

Acanthophis was halted in his frantic search by a baby-faced flight tech who saluted stiffly and ushered him towards a scout.

“Here sir! She is ready to roll… we only had time to strap on some dumbs and load one pack of prox…” There was a hint of desperation in the young tech’s voice “but… you’ve been through much worse… right sir?” The young man was obviously seeking for confirmation that Miles would ride to save the day in this worthless piece of @#(! scout.

Acanthophis only stared at him whilst he weighed his options. The scout was under-armed and had paper-thin hull. But unlike the troop transport it was at least armed. He snatched a flight helmet from the tech and leapt up the ladder into the cockpit. Before he had time to fully strap himself in, the scout was in a hover and responding to deck thrusters.

*

“Oh my God…”

It wasn’t like the vids.

Acanthophis stared at the battle to save the station that was unfolding in front of him. There was debris littered across the sector from a dozen destroyed ships that ranged from burnt and twisted metal to fuel and ammo racks. Here and there an escape pod hung in space, those that were not moving had been – Acanthophis knew – penetrated by something, lethally for the pilot inside.

Fully three kilometres away, Acanthophis saw the bomber and the trail of nanite equipped scouts that escorted it. It was bearing down on the Outpost with arrow-like certainty. A handful of friendly ships buzzed around it like flies, trying to pick off the nans before the bomber itself could be stopped. They were plainly fighting a losing battle as the bomber’s turrets worked together to destroy the defenders one by one.

Acanthophis snapped out of his horror, and took hold of the scout’s control column. His inertia was carrying him straight at the bomber. In a few seconds he would be in range of the turrets and they would tear through his shield and hull as if it were smoke. Seconds after that the bomber would be in range of the station and everyone on board it would be dead.

He knew what he should do. He had, after all stopped an entire bomb run in his second vid Prox Prince. If he maxed out the throttle and flew right at the bomber, he could drop his pack of prox mines in its path. If he hit it with both of his dumbfires as well, there was a chance that the bomber and the nans would not see the mines until it was too late. If they all plowed through the prox full speed it would finish them all.

The station would be saved. Miles would be a hero for real…

Acanthophis’ gloved hand flirted with the throttle for a split second before a tiny blinking light caught his eye. It was the ripchord emitter. There was a small rip receiver within its range.

Two more friendlies from the Outpost flew past Acanthophis and hurled themselves at the bomber in the face of its turrets.

“Suicide.” Thought Acanthophis. This was crazy, everyone should just get the hell out of here… He flinched, then pushed the ripchord. The power dropped out of the scout’s engines and it began to gently roll in space.

“They have enough to save this base without me…” Acanthophis told himself as the first anti-base missile dropped from the bomber and accelerated past his cockpit.

“I am too important to the Corporation to die out here like this!” He said aloud in answer to a challenge that had not been made. Arguing with the ghosts-to-be on the Outpost.

The second missile left the bomber and tore through the Outpost’s hull just as the glittering sparks of the scout’s ripchord engine enveloped Acanthophis’ ship.


God's Children

Posted by SouthPaw, Nov 17 2008, 12:24 PM in FanFic

God's Children


I knew you would ask what kind of bar it was so let’s get that out of the way up front.

The place was called Titty Baby and it was just like every other deadbeat booze-hole in the belt. The main body of the place was makeshift; a disused super cargo container bolted to a ‘roid, the caked-on filth and rust the only balwark between you and oblivion – and I’m not talking about the booster fuel they serve you behind the bar. The neon ad-sign over the docking bay was faulty and blinked spasmodically in stark warning, there were disruptor burns along the ship clamps and docking cranes.

You’re thinking it sounds romantic aren’t you? Just another little corner of freedom offering comfort for the heroes prospecting on the rim of humanity?

Bull@#(!.

I’ll tell you what kind of place it was; I had to step over the body of a guy who was slumped in the doorway, draped in a pool of blood over the bulkhead with a knife in his ribs. Half of the clientele in the place rented their company by the quarter hour and the other half were buying.

Just another Belter’s bar.

Now we are clear on the details you think are important, let’s get into what the rest of our race needs to know: What I was doing there.

It was the culmination of over two year’s work, and proper old-school investigative work at that. I had been through the official accounts, conducted dozens of interviews with faceless officials from one department or another. I even got into some of the lower level bureaucrats at Gigacorp, and believe me they earned their reputation – costing me a small fortune in bribes! All of that got me nowhere – just denials, rebuttals and thinly-veiled threats. So as you know, six months ago I headed out into the Belt to sift through the swirling mass of rumour that drifts around out here like so much space dust.

You probably don’t know this, but out in the Belt a few brave souls have established a form of communications network called the Datanet. I advise you not to try and gain access or even try any research on the subject via your personal console as you will soon get a visit from the authorities. This Datanet is basically a messaging service that allows pilots to share information, gossip, insults, business opportunities and every flavour of trouble in-between. There is no regulation and no guarantee of journalistic standards. Half of the content on Datanet is exaggerated and the other half a flat-out lie, the product of the malicious, the vengeful or the deranged.

For six months I waded through this morass of tittle-tattle, tracing down the slightest hint about the incident or the history behind it. Often I would find that the people responsible for posting intriguing messages were dead or missing. Life is hard out there and you are as likely to die in a bar brawl over the spillage of dregs of stale beer as you are in a dogfight between the stars. For six months I found that when I got in-front of posters who boasted about being in-the-know it turned out that they were all talk - either repeating what they had heard second or third-hand or engaged on flights of fancy.

That is, of course, until I came across the name RedStar. I had heard it once or twice in passing and not made any connection; people saying that they knew someone who knew someone who knew something.

Then came the post on the Datanet.

In response to a bragging claim about the incident was the 11 word response from user name RedStar:
“I was there. You have no idea. Pray you never know.”

I won’t bore you with the details but I tracked down RedStar, and after a long and involved exchange of guarantees and assurances about my credentials we arranged to meet. He informed me he was ready to tell all, get it off his chest he said.

He didn’t show and I was furious.

It later transpired that RedStar – Oleg Bachinski to give him his real name – had been testing me; staking out the meet to see if I was alone, if I was talking into my lapel or if there was a squad of IC heavies at the table behind me. I suppose that I must have passed the test because two weeks later, RedStar contacted me for another meet, this time at the Titty Baby bar out in The Belt, and this time he would actually be there.

I had gone to all this trouble, taken two years of my life and thousands of my own credits, to track down the man who turned out to be the last surviving member of the IC Intel team to breach what the files refer to as Outpost 817. Of course, the files would call it that if you could find any mention of the Outpost, the mission, the team that went in there and what it was they found. All traces have been removed or re-classified.

After talking to Oleg Bachinski (formerly PFC-I Oleg Bachinski) I now know why.

This is his story:

*

When we popped the hull and boarded the station, the first thing to hit you was the smell… It was, you know, clean. I mean, nothing in particular but the air in there just smelled pure somehow. There was no backwash from carbon scrubbers, no fuel or coolant that had leaked into the aeration ducts, no stink of boiled-out protein from the mess hall, no reek of a bunk room full of pilots’ pressure suits. Nothing. Let me tell you, after five minutes all we could smell was each other, and having been jammed in that transport for two days, we were no bed of roses.

Yeah, I know it doesn’t sound much but, you know, it really shows how they think. The smallest details, the tiniest imperfections they have ironed out. It was the first thing we mentioned in the debrief of the few we found alive. They kind of sneered at us as if we were unclean. That’s it, that is exactly how they saw us; unclean.

You know I have seen some crazy @#(!. My team and I cleared out this one refinery deep in the Belt, it was full of He3 prospectors whose claim turned out to be a bust. They had saved a few credits on the installation of their hydroponics and life support rad insulation, so when the rock they were sitting on turned out to be full of fluridium those rays went straight through the hull and fried their brains. They all went bat@#(! and started killing and eating each other, they even decorated the walls with skin from the corpses. When we finally busted in there they didn’t shoot at us, but came trying to club at us with some poor guy’s legs. Yeah, that was pretty crazy, but nothing like what we found on the last gig.

The whole interior of 817 was white. Smooth, white burnished metal. And spotless, not a fleck of dust or smear of grease anywhere. It was like some super exclusive medical facility that you imagine the Gigacorp top execs have their toenails clipped at. Man, how prophetic that thought turned out to be…

Deep in the station, behind double bulkhead doors that we had to blast – our crypto kit couldn’t handle it – we found the chamber. The entry point was a gantry that led up and down, the height of the chamber was around 30 metres – Half the full height of the Outpost – and you could immediately see why. Running from the decking to the ceiling was a cluster of tanks, plexiglass canisters that must have held hundreds of thousands of cubic litres of a thick viscous fluid, each one maybe four metres across.

What we found in them. Well…

If you are going to understand what we found there, you have to know how it all started. Of course, all of this can be denied but that doesn’t make is any less true. Back in the old days of Gigacorp, Emmet Longstreet realised that his rope was rapidly running out.

You don’t get to the top of a business like that without a healthy dose of paranoia. Pretty much everyone below you is waiting for the slip-up, the chance they need to stab you in the back and take it for themselves. Oh they will play nicely at board meetings and say ‘yes sir, great idea sir’ but when your numbers come in light everyone of them would step over their own grandmother to be the first to sink the knife between your shoulder blades.

So Longstreet stayed in the job as long as he did by seeing problems coming and fixing them first. What finally did for him was when his paranoia became unhealthy. He started seeing coups and conspiracies where there were none. The bigwigs at the Corporation all accept that if they are plotting and get busted, then what happens is what they have coming. That’s the risk you take, that’s the game. But when the guy at the top starts whacking loyal execs on unfounded whims… Well, you fast run out of loyal execs. A self-fulfilling prophesy, you know?

Longstreet got so bad that he started to see spooks around every corner. Eventually he holed himself up in his personal station. Alone. He felt he couldn’t trust any of the Corporation close protection teams. They were supposed to be his Praetorian Guard, but he read his ancient history and he knew how that often turned out. There was no way of telling who had which guards in their pocket, so he chose to trust no-one in the short term whilst taking measures into his own hands.

Have you heard of the Alexander Project? No? Well not many living souls have. We found the Alexander datafiles held in hard storage in a room on the Outpost 817 when we finally cracked the console encryption. The room was, well sort of like a shrine to Longstreet with icons of him around the walls and rows of benches like pews. The files on Alexander were embedded on a central plinth like a sacred text. Just another entry in the list of creepy @#(! we walked into.

The files detailed that Alexander was Longstreet’s grand plan. His own protection, the future of Gigacorp and the salvation of a mankind without a home all rolled into one. He pumped billions of credits of his own money into Alexander without the knowledge of the wider Giga exec team, and little by little it all began to pay off.

What was Alexander? Eugenics. Go look it up.

Longstreet was a perfectionist and a great believer in the un-tapped potential of the human form. He felt that all that was needed was the power of science to give Mother Nature a little evolutionary boost. His teams of scientists created strings of altered DNA, exacerbating traits such as mental and physical performance. The DNA was tweaked them to hone the abilities of the host.

And that last part is crucial. You can’t just grow a human being from a few strands of DNA coding stored in a datafile. No. You need to graft it into a living host. Breed it into them with a scalpel rather than sperm and egg. So the Alexander team needed living human hosts if Longstreet’s dream was to become a reality.

The first few hosts were volunteers from amongst the Alexander team. They were keen to push the boundaries of science and receive the benefits of enhanced abilities. The results were beyond disappointing. All of the first ones died. But not before suffering excruciating pain and endless waking visions or nightmares that had them scream themselves mute. Madness took most, suicide the rest.

Understandably, the list of willing volunteers dried up quickly. Longstreet also could not afford have any more of the finest minds on Alexander lost to its early failures. The solution was simple. They just took people and performed the tests on them. The majority were promising kids out of the Giga Academy, grafted and enhanced against their will for the good of the Corporation.

It’s sickening.

The families were told of accidents, or unexpected combat losses.

After many unsuccessful attempts, the Alexander team finally got it right. A batch of subjects lived through the pain and displayed incredible results. The improved strength and reflexes shown by the subjects were expected, but what was not was the degree of mental improvement. Kids who had been unqualified before the graft actually outperformed the Alexander scientists - after only a few weeks grounding in genetics and physiology!

They called these first surviving subjects Generation 1, or GEN1, and together with the Alexander team they helped to create more generations, each one improved on the last.

Well, who knows how or why, but the Alexander Project ran out of control. The subjects broke out into space and hid themselves and their work. They began to prey on passers by for anything they could not scavenge and were desperate to continue their work to perfect human genetic code. Of course, this included taking subjects for more of their work. Alexander became an almost religious crusade on the part of the Generations, and each successive GEN seems to have warped the ideals further into the realm of evangelical science and reverence for Longstreet.

So you see, when we made it into that tank room we didn’t understand what we had found. We assumed that the things floating in those tanks must have been victims of some form of accident and that this was a kind of medical facility.

The poor souls - what was left of them - suspended four levels high in those tanks were the product of twisted science and ideals that strive to take man where it should not go. I still see them when I close my eyes, and they won’t let me sleep.

Why am I hiding?

Well, you should know. How many members of the original Intel team that breached 817 have you found?

None.

I am the last one. When they find me, the truth of what they have done will be swallowed up forever.

*

And there you have it. Of course the Corporation knows all of this and is desperate to avoid the embarrassment. But worse than that, the Iron Coalition knows too.

After their team cracked Outpost 817 they took a high-level decision to locate pockets of the Alexander subjects and keep them under surveillance. If the BIOS - as the IC refers to them - are able to create super-human warriors then that is technology that IC needs and wants to control. So the BIOS are tolerated by the great protectors of humanity providing they don’t grow too strong, or take too many vital transports!

All the while Gigacorp is trying to clean its tracks by silencing anyone who knows about Alexander.

If I had know this before I walked into that bar, believe me I never would have gone to that meeting but what is done is done. We all have to answer for our crimes sooner or later.

It happened when we were about to say our farewells in the docking bay. A tall lean guy in flight-tech overalls sauntered out from behind a Mk I Scout carrying a rusty toolbox. I didn’t even notice him and continued to shake RedStar’s hand goodbye, but RedStar noticed the tech and he knew. I saw it in his eyes, for a split second he knew alright.

He tried to drop my hand and run – I don’t know where to but I guess it was instinct. The flight tech was just two meters away when the pistol appeared in his hand. He shot RedStar once in the chest and he slumped to the deck. The tech stood over him and calmly shot him twice in the head.

I won’t lie. I thought it was all over for me too. I just closed my eyes and waited for the tech to finish the job.

When I opened them he stood smiling at me.
“My name is Riverkin and you have nothing to fear from me today. You are not on the list… yet.. And I don’t get paid for someone not on the list.

If what he told you brings you to the attention of certain people then your name might find its way onto the list. If that happens then you and I will meet again. Briefly.”

Then he was gone. Of course I made inquiries, but the implication was pretty clear. If I went public with what I knew about Alexander or what was found on Outpost 817 then I would meet the same fate as poor Oleg Bachinski. So here it is, the moral dilemma that every crusading journalist and investigator prays they never run in to. Is the story bigger than me? Is knowing that mankind has perpetrated such crimes worth more to the people than my life is to me?

I decided to transcribe all of this and send it to you in case anything should happen to me. For forcing this upon you I am truly sorry. If you feel that you can not take the risks that I have then destroy this message, forget you ever read it and for the love of God don’t breathe a word of it to anyone.

I appreciate that I have left you with a heavy burden but I know that in the end you will do the right thing.

Yours,

David.


Forlorn Hope

Posted by SouthPaw, Aug 27 2008, 09:52 AM in FanFic

Forlorn Hope


Jimmy Two Feathers shifted uneasily in the dock, trying to relieve the ache at the base of his spine caused by standing rigidly for over an hour. The sluice grating beneath his feet felt sticky on the soles of his flight boots, a fact which – he reasoned darkly - was probably explained by the outcome of the morning’s cases. Jimmy’s hands were manacled at the wrist and held into a rostrum at the front of the dock. His fingers were forced into stiff metal gauntlets inside the rostrum, through which his punishment would be administered. Though Jimmy prided himself on his nerve, his palms were more than a little sweaty.

Looking around, Lieutenant Two Feathers realised that the courtroom was packed. The galleries held a mixed crowd consisting of a few of the guys from his unit, and a handful the usual ghouls who turned up to watch these proceedings like they were some sort of entertainment vid-feed. Up towards the back, almost hidden by stiffs in weathered uniforms and jocks in sweat-stained flight suits, was a small group of civvies that Jimmy thought he recognised from old photos in Hoi’s locker.

A klaxon sounded, issuing a series of low whoops that bounced around the bulkheads of the courtroom and silenced the low murmur from the crammed galleries. The bailiff hauled himself to his feet. He was a short, fat and balding little captain, who was squeezed into a black uniform of the Justice Corps that might have fitted him twenty years ago when he was first commissioned and still cared. He cleared his throat and bellowed “Order in the court! All rise!”

The Court Martial panel swept into the courtroom; three men who would determine the outcome of the case and whether Jimmy Two Feathers left the courtroom alive, or if he would be dragged dead from the dock and his body ejected from the airlock behind the black curtains at the rear of the room. Jimmy knew, or knew-of, all three men on the panel; Admirals Hughes and Fouché of the Justice Corps had to his certain knowledge despatched more that three squadrons-worth of pilots between them (and if you believed the rumours it was many more).

The last member of the panel was Rear Admiral Rajesh “Tiger” Uthan - representing the operational arm of the Coalition. Uthan’s purpose was to bring some understanding of combat to the career judiciary who sat alongside him. The Tiger had led a near suicidal defence of the colony at Aegis IX, during which he had refused surrender terms on four separate occasions. From an original garrison of fifty men, The Tiger brought five out alive with him when they were finally relieved. Survivors told tales of how Uthan had personally shot two of his own pilots who refused to fly when their nerves had failed in the face of overwhelming odds. Jimmy realised that he would not get much sympathy out of this guy.

The panel took their seats and the gallery sat with them. Admiral Hughes tapped at the small display on the bench in front of him and began to recite aloud in a disinterested monotone.
“Lieutenant James Two Feathers, you stand before this court today accused of insubordination and cowardice in the face of the enemy.”
Jimmy bristled. The two charges against him carried very different sentences; Being convicted of insubordination by refusing to carry out orders, or wilfully acting in a way that contradicts an order, carried a mandatory death sentence. The Coalition simply could not condone its pilots ignoring or subverting the order of their commanders, no matter the reason. They were trained to obey without question and the price for failing to do so was steep to deter any deviation from a tactical commander’s plans.

On the other hand, cowardice was deemed to be a fault of the constitution or psyche of a pilot, being convicted of cowardice lead to dishonourable discharge from the service and a prison sentence. Despite cowardice being the lesser charge, it riled Jimmy Two Feathers more to be accused of it. For more than three millennia his ancestors had been warriors. They had fought fiercely to protect the honour and land of their tribe, their nation, their country and now their species. Never had anyone considered the line of warriors that ran in his blood to be cowards, and it would be a disgrace in the eyes of the spirits and his forefathers to have this stain upon their name.

“According to the Articles of War” Hughes continued “you are to be tried by this court and, if found guilty, justice will be seen to be done.” You mean that these gauntlets will pass a lethal current into by body and I’ll fry right in front of you, thought Jimmy.
“Do you understand the nature of the charges before you Lieutenant Two Feathers?”
“I do sir.” Jimmy replied.
“…and their severity?” Admiral Fouché shot back at him.
“I do sir.”
“How do you plead?” Hughes enquired.
“Not guilty sir.” Hughes sat back in his seat, a slight smile upon his face. Uthan raised an eyebrow in silent query.
“Well then gentlemen, to the facts of the case.” Fouché concluded.

*

“And so, in full knowledge of the order you had received from Commander Ini, and being cogniscent of the pre-flight briefing that imparted upon you the severity of your mission, you abandoned the constructor piloted by Flight Sergeant Hoi.” Admiral Hughes had an almost lecturing tone in his voice.
“Yes sir, my sensors detected an enemy mining group four kilometres away and I boosted to…”
“You abandoned your post. You disobeyed the direct order of your commander to protect that constructor, and you left that vital ship and its brave pilot to die.”
“There were nans sir, three nans and another fig…”
“SILENCE Two Feathers! This court does not care for your excuses!” Fouché bellowed.
“The miner, it died?” Uthan was quiet, his tone was measured.
“Yes sir. I ran out of ammo after taking out its escort and had to finish the miner with rams.”
“Showing flagrant disregard for the integrity of your expensive Mk II issue fighter…” Fouché muttered.
“The facts of the case are clear. We are ready to pronounce.” Admiral Hughes silenced the exchange. The three judges leant forward and voted by tapping the panels set into the desk in front of them.

Jimmy held his breath. Both charges needed a majority verdict.

The Bailiff rose and held the printout in his leather-gloved hand. He turned to the gallery and began to read.
“Of the lesser charge of cowardice in the face the enemy, this court finds the defendant… Not Guilty.” Jimmy let out an audible exhalation and noticed Uthan smiling at him.
“Of the greater charge of insubordination, this court finds the defendant… Guilty!”
There was a murmur in the gallery, and Jimmy thought he heard cheering… “Under the provision of the Articles of War, the penalty for insubordination is death. Lieutenant Two Feathers, you are to be punished for your crime in the presence of your peers and justice will be seen to be done.”
Jimmy waited for the end, the electric death that would shoot through the gloves and into his body.
“You are relieved of your rank, and your service record will bear witness to your crime…”

The Bailiff’s speech was cut off by three rhythmical bangs that reverberated around the courtroom. Up in the gallery a heavy-set man with close-cropped steel grey hair rose to his feet and stared down at the panel of judges. Jimmy saw a gnarled wooden staff in the man’s hand… Wood! Where did this guy get actual wood? The stranger wore a jet black uniform with no lapels, no insignia and no indication of rank.

The court was silent, the judges looked up at the gallery, staring to see who dared to interrupt their proceedings. Jimmy thought that the judges’ faced show signs of recognising the man, Uthan was even smiling a little.
“In accordance with the power granted to me by the Commanders in Chief.” The man spoke, dominating the court room “And under the provisions of the Articles of War…”
“Wolfe…” Admiral Fouché tried to interrupt.
“I claim this man on behalf of the Forlorn Hope!” The man shouted over the top of Fouché.
“Bravo Wolfe!” Uthan clapped, seemingly pleased with this interruption.
Admiral Hughes sighed loudly before banging his gavel on the desk before him.
“So be it. This man will be transferred to 247 Penal Wing from this date until such a time as his sentence is served through death, or the recovery of his honour. This court fully expects the former.” Hughes completed the proceedings with words that made Jimmy almost feint with relief.
“Take him down!”

*

The next time Jimmy Two Feathers saw Wolfe, he was not so sure that he welcomed dodging death back in the courtroom. The man greeted his arrival in the docking bay of a decrepit outpost by unlocking his manacles and leading him through to the quarters.
“Welcome to the 247th Fighter Wing son. They call us the Forlorn Hope and we are the maddest, the baddest, the most worthless pieces of @#(! in the whole goddamn Coalition.”
“Err, Thank you sir…”
“Don’t call me sir son, ain’t none of us here got our ranks no more. You all are just meat for the grinder and I’m the guy that gets to kick your behind out the airlock in a box when we are done with you.”
“Sir? Err, Wolfe?” Jimmy corrected himself.
“See, you are here cos I seen something in you in that courtroom. I don’t like to waste good skills boy, and you got some skills. What you ain’t got is the brains to follow orders but that don’t matter round here.” Wolfe laughed deeply.
“And you Wolfe? What did you do to get here?”
“I like you boy, you got stones. Still if you want to live long enough in here to get killed out there, don’t ask nobody what they done to get here… Now, here’s your billet. Two last things for you to know; One, life expectancy in the Forlorn Hope is about two an’ a half hours flight time so don’t get too settled in. Second, don’t you trust nobody in that room, you ain’t got no friends here boy…”

The pair turned the corner and stepped over the bulkhead into a typical Coalition fighter jocks billet; two rows of bunks ran down the bulkheads of a long room. What wasn’t typical was the reception they got.
“Officer on Deck!” Wolfe shouted.
“Get $#@!ed!” came a call from a bunk a few rows back. There was a series of hissing and cat-calls. Someone even through a screwed-up pair of issue flight-shorts at them, they bounced off Jimmy’s chest and landed on the deck at his feet.
Wolfe laughed at Jimmy’s face. These were not warriors, thought Jimmy, these were little more than animals.
“Don’t mind these boys son, they just a little bit lacking in manners…” He turned and walked out of the billet, leaving Jimmy to get acquainted with his new squad mates.

*

“So here’s the rules freshmeat…” Wolfe stood on an upturned crate in the main hangar, his wooden staff smacking in and out of the palm of his hand. He was addressing a group of assembled pilots new to the Forlorn Hope including Jimmy Two Feathers. “You all are mine until you die, or do something so goddamn stupid-brave they pardon your ass and send you back to your units to die with a rank on your shoulder!” Some of the pilots laughed.
“Look around you.” Wolfe continued “these @#(!-buckets are everyone else’s cast-offs. Pick yourself out something you want to fly, make it space-worthy and do it in the next 16 hours. You fly tomorrow, and no, we ain’t got no flight techs… If you think it is broke, fix it your goddamn self!”
“I’m gonna pick myself something with a sweet little ripchord on it boss…” A pilot joked at the back of the crowd.
“That’s funny Caruthers…” Responded Wolfe “Cos the one piece of kit that we sure-as-@#(! make sure is working is the detonation charge under every pilot seat. If you vanish off my command screen without my say-so your ass gets warmed up by a Type 15 plasma charge…”

*

Jimmy looked hard at the two fighters side-by-side in the bay. They were a Mk I in pretty good shape and a Mk II that looked like it had been on the receiving end of a lot of action. He thought that the Mk I was probably a surplus frame from a squadron that had been upgraded to the newer Mk II, it looked as if it would need minimal work, and that nothing crucial would crap out on him in combat.

The Mk II however was beaten up pretty bad, the bodywork had numerous penetration holes that looked like they were mini gun calibre, there was burn damage on the rear alignment fins, corrosion along the port missile launcher joint and, if he didn’t know better, Jimmy would swear that the sticky smear across the right hand side of the cockpit was the fighter’s previous owner.

Jimmy mused on his choice. The Mk I wouldn’t implode from the pressures of space, which Mk II looked likely to do, however underneath the damage and burnt paint the Mk II was the more capable machine. It offered higher top speed, greater missile capacity and an improved systems package that reduced signature. It was the smart choice and, Jimmy reflected as he dragged a large box of tools over to the Mk II, Mama Two-Feathers didn’t raise no stupid children.

*

The aleph was about 3k in front of the Forlorn Hope, Jimmy would have loved to know the distance a little more precisely but his targeting computer had failed as soon as they had ripped into the sector. The starboard nacelle of his Mk II fighter was making a near-terminal rattle and Jimmy feared that if he put his foot on the booster it might shake itself off entirely. Still, he contemplated as they cruised in ragged formation up to the hole, he had three clips of ammo and a full rack of dumbs – no fighter pilot could ever ask for more.

Jimmy didn’t want to die, but better to go out like this than filling his dress uniform pants on the floor of a packed courtroom. His people were warriors, and if this mission was the one that claimed him then he would at least be able to look his ancestors in the eye when their spirits met.

The pre-flight briefing had been the most chaotic that Jimmy had ever experienced. The forlorn Hope vets, those who had survived their first flight, weren’t even taking notes on their thigh comps. When Jimmy had asked, they told him it was a waste of time. The kind of @#(! they would be flying into didn’t respect no theatre SITREP, tactical briefing, or OODs. No sir, they had muttered, if the Big Black wants to take you then this mission is all the chance she will ever need. Still, Jimmy believed that knowledge was power and so he tried to listen to Wolfe as he laid out the objectives, and the wider operation, even if it was pretty simple.

The booing, catcalls and general lack of discipline had made it hard to concentrate but the essence of the Forlorn Hope’s mission was to ride shotgun for a small force of capships who were tasked with clearing out a hostile sector. Capships, Wolfe had helpfully pointed out, were big and noisy and the enemy was certain to see them coming from a way out. There would therefore be a nice reception planned for them on the other side of the aleph which, Wolfe smiled, was where Jimmy and his new squad mates came in. They were to bust threw the aleph and disrupt whatever ambush lay on the other side.
“So they waste all their prox and ammo greasing us eh Wolfe?” A pilot had called from the back of the briefing room.
“Exactly.” Wolfe had replied deadpan.

With the aleph barely a click in front of the dented nose of his Mk II, Jimmy felt a sense of calm and certainty flood through him. Fear, he reasoned, was born out of the unknown. He knew that this aleph would be camped with everything the enemy could muster so it would not come as a surprise. He knew that he was flying a piece-of-@#(! reject so he didn’t even bother with the instrument checks. He knew that his only chance to redeem his reputation was to let go any inhibitions and fly like the evil spirit he knew he could.

“Good morning boys…” Wolfe’s voice filled Jimmy’s helmet. “…and what a beautiful day for glory!” Jimmy rolled his fighter into alignment with those around him and flipped the arm switch on his twin-rack of dumbs. “The big-birds are incoming to your destination, e.t.a. 30 seconds. You will breach on my mark…” Wolfe meant that the fighters were to enter the aleph together when the capships were in the sector and close to the aleph.

Jimmy’s sensors pinged, multiple contacts entered the sector behind the motley group of Forlorn Hope craft. Capships and escorts lumbered into alignment and then accelerated towards the aleph.

“Ok gentlemen, you will breach and engage hostiles on my mark…” In Jimmy’s experience pilots were reticent to be the first through the aleph, but in reality he felt that being first gave you the advantage – a split second of surprise and the chance of no prox. Once the defenders knew you were coming, you were certain to catch some serious @#(!.
“…mark. Good hunting.”

While the pilots around him pushed their throttles up slowly and inched toward the rotating vortex, Jimmy stamped on his boost and kicked his fighter straight into the hole, yelling the war cry of his ancestors as his battered fighter was pulled into the aleph’s embrace.


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