Fanfiction: Exile's Return I

I decided that since it’s nanowrimo, I’m going to try to finish the first book this month. Don’t hold me to that, though you all should know better by now. :stuck_out_tongue: If not, I’ll still have made significant progress to that point.


Chapter Twelve: So Others May Live

ISABELLA

Six-thirty in the morning, not many were awake. She left his room in a hurry to get into hers before being noticed. She didn’t know if anyone would pay attention, and it wasn’t against any rule officially, but the thought made her uncomfortable anyway. It helped that they were neighbours. There was only one person in the hall, a maintenance worker. Quickly, she rushed over to her door and went inside hoping he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. She had his smell and needed to get clean. As the hot water sprayed down at her, she thought back to what happened.

They wandered around the ship until finding a dark room with a window along the wall. They assumed it was an unused lobby in an unoccupied part of the ship. A conversation for maybe an hour happened between them about their lives on Kharak, their hobbies, generally trying to know each other more. She was still under the effects of the ritualistic herbs smoked at the ceremony, her people’s custom. The conversation became intimate, which was her doing.

They sat on the floor staring out the window. “See, thing is, I know I’m attractive. I’m the adorable girl who’s also willing to get dirty with the boys. It would he hard if I couldn’t keep up, but I can, and I’m usually better than them. Fixing machines, setting up the temp mud huts, hunting, you name it.”

“And I’m sure you’ve abused that fact, right?” he said.

“Oh, plenty. Once years ago, I got this kid from another convoy we met with to follow me around to do my chores for an entire week. Then his convoy left. Yeah, I was a bit of a manipulative kid.”

“And that’s changed?”

“I think so,” she said. “Leaving my clan was hard for me, I was twelve. Manaani tend to be mature for their age because of the lifestyle, but even then it wasn’t easy.”

“I don’t think adorable is the word I’d use.”

“Oh no?”

“Nah, you’ve been an annoying pain since I met you, literally four days ago.”

“It’ll grow on you, you’ll see. I’m still pretty though, won’t you admit?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re not wrong about that. Keep in mind, I was in a relationship until, well, you know.”

She knew. They became silent, and she decided to give him a hug, leaning her head on his shoulder. It took him a few seconds, then he put his arm around her too.

“You don’t need to comfort me about my dead girlfriend, you know.”

“No, but I still want to,” she leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Cute girl gives you a kiss, what’re you gonna do about it?” she joked poking his sides.

“See? Annoying!” he laughed. They held each other’s gaze, and she then couldn’t tell if she was still high or if it was her emotions. They kissed, finally, and it went on from there.

“Wait, did he kiss me, or did I kiss him?” she asked herself washing the soap from her hair.

They went back to his room and continued on his bed. It was very late and she was tired. “You can stay if you want,” he said. She wanted to, and so she did. Nothing more happened between them than they’d already done. He said it was hard to be alone. She knew what he meant, and it’s mostly why she stayed, despite thinking it wasn’t the best idea.

“In my defence, forehead kisses are my weakness. Well, it’s too late now,” she said turning off the water. She’d made it no secret about being attracted to him, but his reasons for sleeping with her were possibly mixed up with him missing his Valerie. She shook that thought, thinking it needless jealousy. She felt guilty not being more sensitive to his loss and decided to give him space if he needed it. He’d felt the most loss in this; that didn’t mean she’d go too easy on him but it did mean she’d be considerate and not an ■■■■■■. Not too often, anyway.

After getting dressed, her thoughts centred on more important matters, like how she would be helping with the first training session. Were it a week ago, she would have felt unworthy of the responsibility. Now, she felt she did qualify, almost dying does that to a person. But she was also a lot younger than most pilots, and it would be difficult getting them to listen to her. She decided that was Mark’s job to help with.


Mark and her left the group in the mess hall after lunch to meet their trainees. Neither mentioned the night before and Mark didn’t look uncomfortable during the elevator ride. She decided she was overthinking it. It was time to be professional anyway, it was sure to come up when appropriate.

There were a couple dozen in the hangar, the same one that only last night was crowded for the funeral service. “Maintenance sure works quick,” she said. They stopped in front of them. There were many in attendance they hadn’t seen yet. Then again they hadn’t met very many of the others, as they’ve arrived at the hangar late each time.

“Sorry if we’re a bit behind, lunch was more important,” Mark joked. Some laughed but most kept serious. “Those of you laughing failed my first test, but it’s mostly to see if this group as a whole feels up to the challenge. Now, we don’t have time to go through all of basic training unless most of you’ve never been in a fighter before.” Apparently most have flown before but none have been in combat. As Mark spoke she looked at each of them taking mental notes. None much older than twenty, still to her annoyance all older than she was. Then to her surprise, she spotted the same maintenance worker from the morning hiding in the back row. “I’d like to have my partner speak about how she felt during her first battle.” All eyes shifted to her. She didn’t know what to say.

“Like, how it felt, or how I’d describe it?” She wasn’t shy but she didn’t expect him to put her on the spot like that.

“Anything, just tell 'em about it. It’s still fresh in your mind is why I’m asking,” he said. It made sense.

“It started as a nervous confusion. Then there were enemies, aliens. They came at us in clusters. I was afraid. It’s not like me to admit fear but it was terrifying. There were several times I only lived because of a chance maneuver to the side, or turning at the exact right time. You can’t plan for that. You guess at it and predict when they’re gonna fire, timing it. Those were just pirates, unorganized, clumsy pirates.”

He continued: “Being out there is a rush of anxiety and fear if you’re not used to it. My job is to make sure you stay alive by giving you some advice over the next few days on how to deal with that rush so you can focus in battle. I want you all to get into groups by rank. Six over to my right and unranked over to my left, and those ranks in between can sort yourselves out. you have twenty seconds.” They both set timers.

“So, what’s the point of this?” she whispered to him.

“Response time and communication,” he said. It made sense. When the timer ran out, he told everyone to stop moving. He pointed to one person standing alone. “What rank are you?” he asked.

“F-four,” he said nervous.

“Rank fours, where are you?” he asked. They raised their hands, he was in between threes and unranked. “You’re dead, by the way. In fact, any of you who didn’t get into position in under ten to fifteen seconds are dead. Communication is vital. Listen to the chatter, pick out what you need to hear, and help out by saying stuff. If you’re quietly talking to only whoever’s closest to you, nobody will hear from the other side of the room to know, or more so, if you don’t talk to your squad mates, one of you might have someone being tailed. You’re far more likely to survive if teammates notice and help out. Might not even know they’re being tailed. We’ll try this again. Twenty seconds, sort yourselves by age, youngest to my right and oldest to my left.”

They set timers, and watched what looked like a mess of running and shouting numbers. Once their timers beeped, he again told them to stop moving. This time, there were no other lone pilots. Actually there was one. “Age?” she asked.

“Fourteen,” he said.

“Any other fourteens here?” he asked. Silence. “Well, looks like you’re not the youngest pilot after all,” he said.

“Ha, ha. I bet you those three beside him are sixteen, how about it, guys?”

“Yes ma’am”

“Second youngest isn’t much better,” she said.

“Now then, all rank sixes take three steps forward,” he said. People from a variety of age groups marched to a stop, which surprised her. “How old are you?” he asked the oldest of them.

“Twenty three,” he said.

“And you?”

“Seventeen,” he answered.

“Now, rank fours do the same.”

“Twenty four,” one said.

“Sixteen,” said the other.

“The point of what he’s gettin’ at, is that age isn’t a criteria for skill,” she said. “You see people older with less skill than you and you see people younger with more skill than you. I would know. Fifteen and rank six, possibly up for promotion, or so I’ve been told. So get that out of your minds as it’s useless when it comes down to how likely you are to survive outside the ship.”

“Well put,” Mark said. “Now, we’re gonna put you all in a cockpit and see how you do. I requested ten interceptors, they gave us all fifteen. Find a ship, get in. Isabella and I will come by to assess how you’re doing.”

“Skipping all the theory, sir?” one asked.

“Duh, how’s knowing theoretical info gonna save you against aliens trying to kill you?” she answered. “This isn’t a classroom. If we decide you’re not cut out, you’re out and won’t be flying until you pass. We’d also be a lot more comfortable relying on you guys if you know how to make your ship work the way it was designed to.”

He nodded, and went along with the rest to find a ship. Mark started on the far left of the group and she started on the opposite end.

The first she came to was an older woman, maybe mid-twenties, who was pushing a few buttons, then in frustration hit the dash and palmed her eyes. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

“I can’t get it to start,” she threw back. It’s been a rough time for everyone, it wasn’t taken personally.

“Safety breakers. You won’t get ignition if they’re closed.”

Understanding her error, she managed to get it working, and exhaled the pent up emotions.

“Have you been in fighters before?” she asked. “Helps to know your background.”

“Yeah, I’ve flown before. The systems look similar, but some I’m not sure what they’re for.”

“Extra engine controls given it’s fusion torch technology, not exactly what you’re used to. Don’t worry about 'em right now. The sensory inputs are straightforward enough.”

Tara Bendal, was her name. Her house was a vassal of the Manaan. Rank five, age twenty three. There’s that Manaani ageing that’s familiar to her. The desert hadn’t been kind to this one, as her mother would say.

One by one, she talked to them, showed them how things worked if they didn’t know and marked off those she thought needed proper training, and those who she felt could be pushed into their quick three day program to get them battle-ready. Tara made the cut, as did three of the next ones. Then, she was caught off guard by having to assess the maintenance worker.

“Eric Ga—Manaan,” he stuttered. She sized him up, curious. Dark skin, and the pale brown eyes she’d seen on them throughout her childhood.

“Gaalsien or not, I am Manaan. I hold no aggression for the old clan. Now, let’s see what you’re able to do with this thing.”

He nodded, and turned on the engine. “The basic layout is the same as the latest generation superiority fighters, and there’s the added inertial dampening controls and engine systems. Those look like current redirects like on the drill dowsers used where I grew up.” He knew his stuff, at least.

“Can you fly?”

“I’ve only flown in atmosphere, and it was only once. I mostly drove the jets to the hangar and refuelled them, then brought them back out for launch,” he said.

“No flight experience, huh? Ever been in a simulator?” she asked. “I assume you’re unranked?”

“Never even seen a simulator, as you can imagine given my heritage. I did manage to take off, maneuver through, and land in a sandstorm, though.”

“I’ve heard of the Gaalsien moving their crafts when visibility was low to hide their numbers, quite smart. Reckless, but ingenious,” Mark said walking over with his arms crossed. “What brings you here?”

“To the ship or the training?” he asked, it was clear Mark made him uneasy.

“Why you’re on the ship doesn’t matter now, cause the ship’s all there is. I’m more interested in why you want to risk your life to defend people who would otherwise judge you, and tread you like crap.”

“Honestly, I feel I need to do whatever it takes to ensure our people’s survival. I’m one man, but I’ve been around fighters my entire life. I know how they work, I know how they feel when they’re getting too banged up, or when they’re at their limits. If I can help out, I will. I don’t really give a damn what they think of my kiith.” Mark was wide eyed at this answer.

“Well, Isel, I think you’ve found your fellow wingman,” he said.

“Seriously?” she said. “I didn’t think you could choose.”

Eric stepped out of the ship. He was a half-foot taller than Mark was, but had no substance to him, quite lanky. “I’m honoured you think so,” he said. “But why?”

“I have a feeling about it,” he said. The knowing look the two shared reassured her that this Gaalsien was up to the challenge.

“Welcome to the Red Squad,” she said punching his shoulder. “Hope you’re up for it. Cause if you screw up and we all die, I’ll kill you.”

The three of them shared a giggle at her joke, but they still had more pilots to assess. She overheard them talk as she walked off.

“I grew up in Saju-ka,” Eric said.

“Isn’t that—”

“Yeah. Listen, I heard your speech last night. Whatever grudges I may hold towards your father don’t extend to you. Just don’t try to get me to sympathize for him.”

“Fair enough.”

Saju-ka… It meant many things to many people. When spoken, the air becomes heavy and somber. The single greatest travesty against the Gaalsien people. An estimated five thousand buried alive, and thousands of years of history erased. What remains of the Gaalsi traditions and texts slithered their way into Manaan convoys and various Sjet databases over time. Some scholars grew mad with wonder at what was lost in its libraries after the attack. Even though many of the Gaalsien joined her caravan, she had never met anyone from the great temple.

They continued assessing the pilots, the next rotation of fifteen was all they could get through. After gathered again on the deck, Mark said some things about it, and asked thirteen of them to step forward. These would be the first to get the fast training they had planned. The rest would have their chance, he promised them of that.

He had a way of getting the full attention of everyone in the room. Maybe they respected him, maybe it was his status. She couldn’t tell. Either way, it made him a leader to them. She saw it in their gaze as he continued through the lesson, and wrapped it up.

Afterwards in the elevator, she mentioned it to him. “You think so?”

“They listen to you, they respect you, they even like you; unlike Leo.” They exchanged a laugh.

“For the record, I don’t regret last night,” he said. She nodded. “It’s nice to finally be accepting that this is real and not some nightmare I can’t wake from.” She gave him a kiss before the door opened and left to finish reading a bundle of pages she’d found that morning in the lobby. She had no idea who it was, it was simply signed E.G. but much of what she had read sounded very familiar to her.

As for Mark, she was uncertain what to think about it at that point. She decided to go with whatever happens, and worry about it when there was time to worry. Live life day by day, the Manaan way.

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Reading through the first couple chapters today… I could nitpick potential lore issues if you like, but only if. Otherwise my comments are that you’re capturing an interesting pre-mothership-launch atmosphere, but the standard names kind of take me out of it. Even Karan’s name has a twist to it’s spelling, at least compared to the form I’m familiar with, ‘Mark Soban’ just feels out of place in homeworld to me.

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Feel free. Most of the pre-launch lore is tentative on what Blackbird desides to do with Shipbreakers, honestly. As for names, I personally get annoyed the other way around as it’s essentially dumb names for the sake of dumb scifi names. Ugh and don’t get me started on the double vowels.

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To me, a setting like Kharak or homeworld in general does and should feel like a foreign culture, that’s part of the fun, and unfamiliar names are important to maintaining that experience. Double vowels and all. But different strokes I suppose.

Nitpicks/discussion points begin!

The one that stood out the most to me is the presence of mr Gaalsien, and the way people reacted to him. Welcoming him is fine, but the H&TB(Historical and Technical Briefing, HW1’s manual) describes Gaalsien(at least ones public about that allegiance) as entirely absent from civilized society. Meeting one in person would be a huge shock then, possibly a world-news-worthy event even.

The other big one is the idea of the Soban-sa being descended from Soban the Red. The Soban section of the H&TB states that any child born to a Soban is left with another Kiith, or their parents leave Soban. While it’s certainly possible that a Sa’s child would join Soban on their own after reaching adulthood, it strikes me as unlikely that the position would still be in the bloodline that far down the line. Then again, you do mention “The Soban place little importance to lineage,” and there’s room in those intervening generations for a more complex story than what first comes to mind.

Another thought, one I’ve grappled with myself in writing about Kharakid people, is that it rings false to me to have everyone have their Kiith allegiance as their last name. This is an issue that would take some extra worldbuilding to address, and is one that I’ve not really resolved to my satisfaction, but it could go something like ‘I’m John Smith of Sjet’, keeping a lineage name in there. Those in the head family might drop the lineage name, since they don’t need it. Hell, Soban might all drop it, since taking the red is abandoning your past to begin with.

And finally, regarding Shipbreakers, don’t sweat it. In my opinion, people should keep on making things in the version of the setting they like. The people responsible for writing the parts of the story I love aren’t part of the Blackbird team, so I’d put my money on maintaining my own personal discontinuity policy once it comes out.

I never got the impression Gaalsien were rare, just at the time didn’t agree with any of the mission planned. I have extremists continuing sabotage attempts up to launch. May need to reread my copy though, been a while. Of course, this means him being the last one left is him abandoning the ideology and attempting to distance himself from that whole conflict more than any specific rarity. I originally had him met with much more animosity by people, idk if i’ll keep that going once people start to find out he’s a Gaalsein. Right now it’s Iabella and Mark who know, Jay being the exception as he doesn’t have a prejudice thought in him. I haven’t written him in much. Gonna get back on that.

Even if the Soban do not specifically care about lineage, those who are part of the lineage probably would take pride in it. Not to say they would ALL have taken the red, but it can be assumed periodically members would. Markus wasn’t even the Sa for very long, but having proven himself in his lifetime, was seen in high regard by many. Celebrity victory, happens in real life politics too.

Last names. Sparki and I have discussed this before, and I mostly agree. But the major kiith have many vassal kiith too, which essentially makes it the same. Bringing more of that in soon (as to not have like 5 Nabaali in a row)

Here’s the specific passage I’m getting Gaalsien rarity from:

this punishment had very little effect on the Gaalsien, as they slipped away into the wastes during that terrible night, abandoning the progress they saw as a decadence that would eventually bring
down the wrath of God.

Since then, Kiith Gaalsien has wandered the great central deserts, surviving by the skills and rituals they held so dear. Occasionally they will make themselves known by raiding scientific communities or stations in the wastes and leaving massive theological documents proclaiming how close we are to
the end. Military expeditions to track them down once and for all have always failed, and a certain mythology has grown up around them – as if there is a nagging suspicion in the minds of modern Khiraki that the only way Kiith Gaalsien could have survived is if they really did have the grace of Sajuuk. Some say that they have even found His lost city under the sands, and Sajuka once again echoes with mumbled prayers, and offerings made in the darkness.

Certain acts of sabotage during the construction of the Mothership seemed to be Gaalsien-inspired, and it’s likely that even today there are families secretly aligned with the ancient religious kiith.

The Soban elaboration certainly makes sense to me, it’s similar to what I was talking myself around to as I was writing my last post :smile:

Vassal kiith are an intersting situation. I imagine depending on the exact terms of the relationship members of the vassal might have the option of describing themselves as a part of either their immediate Kiith or of the ultimate ‘liege’ kiith. It could be come quite a complex cultural element if taken far enough.

Ah, right. I do mention Saju-ka. One of Eric’s chapters describes… something fanon that happened and made tensions heightened between the remaining members and the rest of the ‘civilized world’. Cause there’s like, nothing said about Kharak’s situation immediately preceding launch, but snippets of history here and there.

I like to try to stick to canon in this, It also helps to actually have canon to stick to. So When Shipbreakers comes out a few things may change in the early chapters, but overall the story takes place on the journey. So that’s the real canon I care about. The rest is just fun extras.

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Things get pretty ugly in this one, bit of a heads up.


Chapter Thirteen: House of Wolves
TRISTEN

“I hope it’s enough. There’s not much to go around and getting even this much was hard,” she said. She decided that morning in the mess hall to steal some food for the old man. She also brought him a couple changes of clothes from the market. At least she got to keep her salary with her current no-fly position. “You could also use a shower, no offence.”

“Could I ever,” he said.

“How’s the vision?” she asked. The interrogation methods of the empire were barbaric, but the physical effects wore off over time.

“Better, but still not quite there. I can make out your short blonde hair, but still can’t make details of your pretty face.” He tried his best to bring a smile to her face when she would visit. “And as for the food, it’s not like I need much. I don’t exactly have anywhere to move around.” He had a point. There was barely headspace to stand straight.

She enjoyed spending time here talking with him, hearing about all the wonders of the world her people have destroyed. It reminded her of when her grandfather would visit from Kilendel and told her tales of Old Taiidan. It felt like a lifetime ago.

“So, you say you actually come from Hiigara? It’s hard to believe,” he said.

“Why so?”

“The word itself has been reduced to legends and fables over the millennia. You have to understand, our people have spent nearly a century moving towards understanding our origins without much progress. Our colony ship took sixty years to finish, and we had no way to know if it would even find anything when it got there. It was our last effort to save ourselves; Kharak was dying. Fast.”

“I see,” she said. Of course, it wasn’t dying as fast as her people managed to kill it. It still sickened her what happened. The ship shuddered and she stumbled into the wall. “Jeez, those missiles really screwed us up.”

“What is that anyway? Did we stop or something?”

“Every ten hours or so the hyperdrive needs to cool off and recharge. The rumbling is new, but don’t worry too much. The ship should stay in one piece.”

“Well. That’s reassuring, where’s it going?”

“I’m not quite sure, really, probably an asteroid field to restock our resources and start on major repairs. After that, who knows?”

“A planet, I’d hope. I don’t think it’s wise to keep hiding forever.”

“Doubtful. I haven’t been on a planet since I took off from home. That was five years ago.”

“Tells me much, the planets probably have different orbits.”

“Right,” she said. It didn’t even occur to her, but it made sense that this would be the case. She knew Kharak’s star, LM-27, was both older than Hiigara’s sun, and hotter.

Her fascination with astronomy went back to childhood. She once heard Old Taiidan had a year exactly as long as Hiigara’s and a star exactly the same type and age, something agreed to be almost impossible to be natural. She would have went on to become an astrohistorian were it not for the high restrictions on information under the Immortal Emperor and his predecessors.

In fact, her decision to continue into military was based off the potential of continuing on into that later on as it would open up more doors. However, she instead discovered she was a talented interceptor pilot, and not much has changed over the years because of this. She secretly hoped, despite her resentment about it, that being taken out of active duty would be a good thing. Time would tell.

She didn’t stay too long with him; she had other things to do. Mostly tasks she’d neglected for the past couple days. Her room was mid-sized having paid for a better one over the years. She still had her flight suit piled in a corner, where it would stay until she finally did a load of laundry. Another thing she’d decided to forget about.

At her desk, she grabbed her tablet and opened up the file, reading aloud. “Pilot profiles, huh.” It was a list of the Gladiator’s pilots and how they compare to each other. Her name was still in there, second in response time and third in leadership qualities. there were thirty-eight. Not quite a full load outfit, but approaching there. They had lost eleven in their last mission, just over a squadron and a half’s worth.

Her job was to sign off on squadron reassignments and provide her input on what she thought the choices should be, the best reassignment plan would get chosen, and from what she was aware, there were only two other people making these plans.

It could be seen by some that she was given a promotion, but she and the other pilots didn’t see it that way. It was essentially a no-confidence decision to get her out of the field to not risk her betraying the fleet and therefore her family for the past five years. It hurt, but she understood that it wasn’t something she had a say in, so taking this position was better than nothing.

She noted that she thought it better that Jake be the new leader of her old squadron instead of Derek, even though Derek’s leadership qualities was three points above Jake’s. Jake, however, had a much faster response time and accuracy, which she thought made up for it. She also knew them both, and knew the other wingmen respected Jake’s say more than Derek’s, which she added as well. The new replacement was unfamiliar to her, but the chart said her accuracy was about the same as Derek’s, and her personality profile didn’t seem bothersome. She knew better than to trust numbers alone when judging someone’s ability, something the higher-ups did all the time without thinking twice.

Her own profile, for example, put her as highly confrontational, when personally she knew that was from disagreeing with orders that she felt unnecessary or dumb. She would also often correct people, not always in the nicest ways either. And yet, all this, and she is among the top five pilots in her division. Something even the captain won’t dispute.

Hers wasn’t the only squadron getting reassignments, though. They’d lost eleven fighters in total, across multiple squadrons. Each average squadron has seven ships assigned to it. Some were easy assignments. One squadron had three remaining units, and they would add them to a squad who had lost three instead, deciding which squadron would remain the leader based on skill level. Another squad lost their leader and one prime wingman, so the other units were separated into filling the remaining squadron holes. They now had five full squadrons and three others to form a new one.

As with what happened to her, replacements would need to be put into each skilled squadron as one of the final four of the squad wing. Meaning, one member of these four of each other squad needed to be swapped out. Since her former squad had a replacement already, it was exempted. She put the four taken out into a new squad as the final wing of the new seventh squadron, and judged which of them merited a promotion to prime wing. She then looked through all the other squads’ prime wing members and determined based on the last mission’s statistics who merited promotion to squadron leader. Three candidates stuck out, Derek, which was a surprise, and Sonya, a member of Squad Three. They met before but weren’t acquainted, despite the abhorrently low male to female ratio, which apparently wasn’t surprising armada-wide. The last, Holland, was a member of Squad One, he had been offered promotion before but denied it, stating his squad worked best as one unit and didn’t want to leave it. Sadly, this wasn’t the place for feelings. He was clearly best suited to lead, and Sonya was too, and her squad already lost their leader, so it was exempt once again until next reassessment. The two of them became the new leaders of their respective squadrons.

Squad Six had three remaining pilots, two of which were promoted from final wing to prime wing, and got three new recruits, and Sonya as their leader, having shown to help out new recruits more often than the other candidate. Squad Seven had four trained pilots, two of which are now prime wing, and two new recruits, with Holland as their leader. She wrote up a three page report on her thought process on it to attach to her edited data sheet, signed her name, and submit it for review.

Her mailbox hadn’t been checked in a week, and decided to catch up on anything she’d missed. Urgent notices were sent to her watch, but these were rare. She decided the hard work was over, and laid on her bed with the tablet to get away from the desk. She didn’t see anything new or important, mostly it was junk mail. Advertisements, not that she had use for them so far out in the periphery.

Jake left a message that simply read “Hope you’re alright, see you soon!” to keep up appearances, since their mailboxes were monitored but the ship’s cameras were rarely working being decades old. That was her first bit of freedom, as she’d discovered, but also the reason she had much fear the first few years aboard. First off, the Empire couldn’t monitor her every move as they did on Hiigara, so she could finally have privacy. However, it also meant nobody else on the ship was monitored either, and these were a rough bunch, and she was a young, pretty girl of fifteen on a primarily middle-aged male crewed carrier built thirty years ago as part of a hundred and forty such vessels to serve his majesty, the Immortal Emperor.

She got many looks the first day aboard, and after the first week it became apparent the halls would not be safe to wanter after shift change. Not unless she toughened up, anyway. The ship had a gym, and the outermost corridor could be used as a track. She wasn’t the only one doing this, which is where her and Jake first met. They’d been track buddies for months before either actually spoke. They’d seen each other at pilot briefings too, but it didn’t surprise her, it was an imperial carrier, after all. A hundred and fifteen of the three hundred or so crew were pilots, either corvette or fighter. Minimum crew redundancy of fifty percent was mandatory across the Empire.

The first attempt happened one year after her arrival on the ship, just after her third combat with a resisting world. A man no taller than her caught her off-guard.

“Out late, are we? Say, you wouldn’t happen to be one o’ those little minxes would ya?” He held onto her wrist tight. The term referred to the few females who sell their bodies on the ship. She hadn’t known much of it, only being sixteen at the time, only haven explored that bodily activity the weekend prior to leaving, with her former romantic partner who she had to break ties with.

“No, I’m just coming back from a workout, can’t you smell?”

“All I’m smelling is perfume from a late night wanderer,” he said pulling her closer. Luckily, she wasn’t unprepared for the encounter, and head butted him in the nose and stepped on his toes, and punching as hard as she could with her free hand to try and wind him. He let go, and she ran off.

She didn’t yet know of the maintenance corridors she’d later put to heavy use, instead she ran to her room and took a bath, not knowing what else to do but concentrate on what happened. She thought it best she remembered the details before reporting it, so her case was stronger against him. Lucky for her, he’d idiotically filed a violence complaint against her. He was sentenced to maintenance service for three months, the standard punishment.

The second attempt was only a couple months later, but this time she was genuinely afraid. He was a very built man, as well as tall. “Forget whatever man you’re off to tonight, minx, you’re mine.” He surprised her as she was passing a hallway.

“Get away! I’m no minx, you creep! I’m not even an adult yet.”

“Doesn’t matter to me, a pretty girl wandering around at night; you’re all fair game in my eyes. Not like you’d be the first.”

“You’re disgusting,” she shouted before he pulled her closer to him. She resisted, but he had more than twice her strength. One hand squeezed her throat after she tried to scream, and the other made its way to her left thigh.

“Hey!” came a shout from down the hall.

“Yeah, what of it, boy,” the man said. He continued, and she was crying at that point, either from him squeezing her throat to the point she could barely breathe, or her fear over what she knew was about to happen.

Suddenly, he let go and she dropped to the floor. The person who shouted was familiar, her track partner, Jake. He stayed longer than her that day and must have only now been on his way back. She looked around but the man was gone, and her rescuer helped her to her feet as she regained focus. “Wha—”

“My uncle’s chief of security. Nobody messes with me here,” he said. “So I guess nobody messes with you now, either.” He helped her to the trauma centre, and they both described the man. She was checked out by the doctor on duty and had minor bruising from strangulation, but would recover physically in a matter of days. He recommended she take an emotional evaluation, but she passed on it. She didn’t feel it would develop into something severe, which ultimately it didn’t, after her face was out there on the fleet news broadcast when the man was sentenced. Three months didn’t feel like enough this time, but it was standard. He was soon transferred out to another fleet, though, when other people reported issues with him. After he was off-ship for a few weeks, a ■■■■ victim who remained anonymous came forward and he was discharged and tried. Some satisfaction came of that, but she still felt more at ease when Jake walked back to the barracks with her.

“I don’t always need you to come with me, you know,” she told him one day.

“Oh no?” he said joking. “Who would run to your aid were a big scary man attack you?”

“Don’t be an ■■■■■■,” she said. “It was once, and the first time I beat the guy up. I could probably beat you up too, shrimp.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.”

“Prove it!”

“Pilot boxing, this weekend. We’re doing this. Can’t back out now, pretty boy.” And sure enough, she beat him senseless. Senseless in the sense that he was ridiculous for not forfeiting before a knockout. The ref tried reasoning with him, but he refused. Some stupid idea about Traditionalist honour, where he wouldn’t back down until defeated. It wasn’t even the right interpretation, as his uncle later told him, having watched the fight. So she gave him a knockout blow to avoid having to further embarrass him. “It was for your own good,” she later told him.

Weekend pilot boxing was the ship’s pastime, and became one she participated in frequently, both to make a title for herself and to help Jake get less sexist haggling from the other guys their age. At some point, over half of them had been “beaten by a girl”, as they’d say. She rose in boxing rank at roughly a similar rate she rose in pilot rankings, as a matter of fact. Her rematch with Jake went pretty similar to the first time, but this time he accepted defeat instead of being an idiot.

Once she got her position as leader of Squad Four, she requested Jake to be put in her squadron upon promotion, which of course, he was. Generally pilots who do well get what they ask if it’s not too inconvenient, since they’re the ones who know who they work well together with and who they don’t. And swapping someone into another squad is much easier than attitude adjusting if it’s only a problem between two people.

Now, she wasn’t a pilot anymore. Not officially, at least. Assessments would happen at the next spaceport or planet, and depending on her attitude then, she could be given an ok to fly, or she could be removed from the fleet entirely and sent home as a temporary leave, which didn’t sound so bad to her either considering how long it had been.

A news headline caught her eye: “Rebel Fleet Clashes with Empire after Controversial LM-27 Bombing” She immediately clicked on the link to watch the broadcast.

"LM-27 is an F-class star far in the outer-rim, beyond the Great Wastelands. The rebel fleet has claimed without evidence that the planet orbiting that was used in the test was in fact populated. The Emperor confirmed the incident as a test of a new weapon being developed called an Atmospheric Deprivation Device.

"The lead researchers of the project claimed that the planet was nearing the end of its lifespan, and claimed that any life remaining would be simplistic in nature, limited to plant species or possibly small animals, but nothing complex had been detected by scanners prior to testing. It had been looked at as one potential candidate among many, and was chosen due to its remote location as well as the age of the star in question. The advisory stated that any life on the surface would be doomed to a slow extinction over the next thousand years as the star heated up and pushed the ring of viability further outward in the system. The same process will happen to Hiigara’s own sun, but not for another million or so years.

“The rebellion’s unsubstantiated claims have been refuted, and once the fleet sent out returns to Hiigara, they will corroborate the story. Until then, we have our Emperor’s word against rebel claims.”

She dropped the tablet onto the sheets in awe, unable to process how they planned to keep everyone in the fleet from speaking about the atrocities that happened on their return, and a thought disturbed her.

There was no return plan.

3 Likes

My best friend and former roommate decided to drop out and move back home… His depression, falling grades, and the stress of being in first year a city 500km from home got to him. It came as a complete out of nowhere surprise to me, and I’m not in an ideal state of mind at the moment. I probably won’t be getting a chapter out this weekend. I hope you’ll all understand. I’m not saying I’m stopping from getting this thing to 50k this month, I just need a bit of time.

3 Likes

Sorry for what happened. I understand of course…

thanks

No problem… Hope they get over it soon.

Chapter Fourteen: Another Brick in the Wall

ERIC

The third day’s gathering had changed from the previous ones. There were significantly less people there, and there was no need to meet up in the hangar bay. Instead, a room was booked for the couple hours it would take. He took a seat in the second row; it seemed he was one of the first ones there.

“Rumours are going around that there’s a Gaalsien onboard,” he overheard from behind.

“So I’ve read,” another replied.

“Is it any good?”

“Yeah, actually. I don’t know what it’s supposed to be, exactly. Stories, probably old ones.”

“Can the Gaalsien be trusted, do you think?”

“Don’t ask me, man, I just do what I’m told and hope things don’t get any worse than they already are.”

“I hear you there.”

Eric had done more writing, and he overheard conversations about the short bit he had distributed. It came as a surprise, really. He also figured people wanted a distraction, and any would do. He just so happened to provide one at the right time.

Isabella Manaan entered the room and set up at the front. She was shuffling through several pages, seeming lost. She yawned, and sat down to read for the next ten minutes until more filled the room. “Mark’s gonna be skipping out today, asked me to cover for him. Not much to do anyway, I have your squadron assignments and results from the short test you all took yesterday. Good to get that out of the way quickly.”

His desk’s screen got a ping and he checked his results. Impressed with it, he felt more confident about this whim to join the pilots. He was assigned to Mark’s squadron, only under his first name which came as a relief. There was another Manaan, Carol, and Henry Kaalel.

“Carol, Eric, and Henry are with Mark and I in Red Squad. Jerry’s in charge of Blue Squad, Farida’s heading Green Squad.”

The file had the lists. He knew none of them, but he knew Jeroll Sjet was a renowned pilot, As for Farida Manaan, she was from a southern tribe who often traded with the Paktu over the sea by airplane.

“Three interceptor squadrons. All but three Arrows were scrapped because of how ineffective they were in combat. Good for running away, but we won’t be doing that, now will we? So, What I’d like you all to do for the next twenty minutes is to group up and talk amongst yourselves.”

He got up and walked to the front. “Name’s Eric, hello,” he said to Carol and Henry.

“Not to be rude, but isn’t it kind of against the unofficial code to fraternize with fellow pilots, for obvious emotional implications?” asked Carol.

“It is, but there aren’t that many of us left. It worked on Kharak where we were pawns to be replaced at need, but now we’re the primary line of defence. Those onboard rely on us to protect them, however we can.”

Eric nodded. “Feel like filling us in to why Mark’s not here?”

“Personal troubles, he’ll get over it. This week’s been hard on all of us.”

“Inspiring confidence already,” he said.

“We’re only kushan,” Henry added.

“Besides, there’s not much that I actually have to do today,” she added. “You have your squads, you’re among the fifteen picked so far, meaning you’re either the most qualified, or the quickest learners. Leonard’s looking into any former pilots among Mothership crew members, but it will take time. We don’t have time.”

“Not to mention Khar-Selim and the loss that went with it,” Henry said. The majority of the police force and military officers were onboard the support vessel in a joint exercise between the Sjet, Soban, and Nabaal. The crew would have to work to establish the viability of long-term space travel and the effects of this on physical and mental health. While there were military personnel onboard, it was nowhere near the amount that would have otherwise been present would everything had gone as planned. If a riot broke out now, it was unlikely there were enough officers to stop it. The fate of their people truly was up to each and every one of those remaining.

“Say we did have the support vessel’s crew, what effect would that have had on pilot support?” Carol asked.

Henry answered: “Not much, honestly. From what I’ve gathered, it had no pilots onboard, because there wasn’t a hangar to launch fighters, so why bother with one? Scaffold had most of our pilots and a significant number of officers still onboard. Most essential crews transferred over before initial launch, but as there was no guarantee the jump would succeed, not everyone was put onboard right away. I mean, the main sunlights aren’t even online, for Sajuuk’s sake. The ship can jump but it can’t walk, and who knows what other systems are in need of a tune up after the few jumps we’ve made already.”

“You sure know a lot about this,” Isabella said.

“My cousin and sister are scientists onboard,” he said. “Research never interested me. Science is cool, but math isn’t my thing. Besides, we’ve got enough Sjet onboard to handle it.”

“I’ve always wondered if Karan can actually feel the ship, you know? Or if she’s listening to everyone onboard. I wonder what it’s like to her.”

“That part I couldn’t tell you, only she would know.”

They talked about where they were from, stories of their past, and Eric simply listened. He hadn’t a thing to share with these people, or he felt there was no way he could. Isabella noticed and gave him a look, but didn’t ask him to share.

It was Carol who asked him first. “So Eric, what did you do before all this?”

“Well, I’m the garbage man, if you want it simple. I get access to more floors of the ship than most, but trust me, there’s nothing interesting on those floors. Mainly it’s so nobody breaks anything important that they’re not trained to operate.”

“No, I mean before that, before Mothership.”

“Scaffold is where I’ve lived for the past couple years, didn’t do much there either, it’s really kinda boring, if I’m being honest,” he said. “And before that’s more of the same.” He didn’t feel up to sharing that he’d move and refuel fighter jets for terrorist organizations.

He took his seat after the twenty minutes were up, and the Manaan girl continued with her lecture plan. She went over some basics, projected a cockpit in the middle of the room and made sure they knew at least the important components, then worked up to more complicated controls. She explained them more based on how many could answer her, adding in comments as to whether or not it was important to remember or not. Most weren’t, but often some were. Engine controls, for example, were abundant. The torch drive that the small fighters used was experimental. If they didn’t understand specific warning lights, their ships could explode. Nine emitters functioning in parallel of three per fuel line. If an emitter got too much energy, it could burn out. If it didn’t get enough, it meant a possible buildup inside the ship, and it could blow up. He grasped the basic concept of it all, it wasn’t as simple as jet fuel.

Some systems, like sensors, weren’t that important to keep a constant eye on, because if one interceptor’s sensors were busted it would still receive information from its neighbours at short range. Generally the ship is designed to tell its pilot when something is wrong, it was only up to understanding what the warnings meant. As in when to cut out a fuel line and slow down, or when to perform emergency burns to vent out excess buildup in the lines.

“You’re a meat bag strapped to a fusion reactor and a real big gun. Your ship is pressurized and has life support but your helmet and suit work as failsafes, therefore, not a primary system. Engines, weapons, and inertial dampeners. Everyone’s gonna want or need to make those sharp maneuvers that, were it in an atmosphere, would rip your craft and yourself to pieces. The dampeners keep you—the meat bag—from becoming a pile of mush.”

She went on with a brief description of the software on the ship and how to modify the HUD to their preference, and concluded with that. “We drop out of hyperspace in two days, be prepared. We’ll be in the hangar again tomorrow and the day after to familiarize you with your ships.” He got up after most had left, but she stopped him. “Eric, wait up.”

The room emptied, and she shut the door. Going back to her bag, she took out a booklet. “This is you, isn’t it?” She handed him a copy of his first print out. He had distributed a few dozen more copies around after the first run.

“Do you know of any other Gaalsien onboard, because I don’t.”

“It’s good. Great, actually.”

“I have a vivid memory,” he said.

“I’ve kept a few old tales of my own, if you were interested. Nothing special, only short ones I liked enough to note down.”

“Yeah, actually.” Smiling, he asked her if she could send it to him as soon as she could.

“Let’s go get 'em then. You know where I live. Also, you saw nothing that day, clear?”

He shrugged. “It’s not my business or my interest who’s involved with who.”

“We’re not—I mean, it’s complicated.”

“Still don’t care,” he said.

They left the room heading to an elevator. Two floors after they got on, to their surprise, Jasiid found them. “Well this is strange,” he said. “What’s going on, Izzy!” he said giving her a hug broken by her pushing him away annoyed.

“Hi there, Jay. How’ve you been holding up, clearly no different than the usual,” she said.

“Well, I try not to feel down. Doesn’t help me or anyone around me, so why bother? Besides, I’ve had nothing for a long time I still have more now than I did before, so I guess I have nothing to be grieving over.” He admired his high spirit. He hadn’t seen him since their run-in.

“Eric, was it? How’d you go about meeting this short bundle of crazy?”

“Uh, I’m in training to be a pilot in her squadron,” he said confused. He was unaware the two knew each other, but he wasn’t paying attention to begin with either.

“He’s Mark’s second wingman. Just finished up a meeting with the pilots for the three squads that we have so far,” she said.

“Huh, well, congratulations! I’ve got my own ship. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this, but I’m a pilot on a Porter. It’s a sturdy box of a craft, that’s for sure. Listen, I’d love to stay and hang out, but I’m on my way to meet up with my engineer, Bradley. Nice guy, should meet him sometime. I’ll see you around,” he said getting off.

“Where’d you—”

“On Scaffold before boarding. Barely know him, he seems rather upbeat.”

“He’s also made it his job to out-annoy me. So far, he’s winning.”

They didn’t spend long in her room; she got what she needed and followed him.

“Mark’s been in a rough mood today, best not to wake him up.”

He opened the door, and immediately was hit with the smell of printer ink, having been printing out more copies. “I really should start printing out download cards instead,” he said. She nodded, taking a seat at his desk. It took her only a few seconds to copy over the file. “Technological convenience. It’s still fascinating to me, but that’s probably from growing up in a desert. Very low-tech.”

“Hey, don’t forget where I’m from, you know. None of this crap works out in the sand seas. Dirt and dust would get into everything eventually. Most of the broken tech we’d auction off to scrappers when we went north.”

“Hot sand to cold steel. I’m still not used to the shift,” he admitted. The internal climate was regulated far cooler than he was used to.

“I wish I could find a way to turn my floor into a heated sandbox. I think I’ll petition for it.”

He opened up the file once she gave up the chair. She took a bundle of pages to read on his bed as he worked. It was fascinating, a few of the stories were almost identical to ones he’d heard before. “I can use this,” he said more to himself than to her. “So familiar.”

“We occasionally picked up a few Gaalsien over the years. They came and went, brought with them stories and wisdom. You know, the old types who never shut up about their past. Most never paid attention to them, but once you did, man did you learn.” Lost in thought, she seemed to daydream of it. “What’s the one thing you would want to have from Kharak?”

He started, but stopped to think about it. “The contents of Saju-Ka’s library before it was destroyed, I’d even settle for excavated scraps, really.”

“I met an old woman once, said she had been there. Didn’t believe her though, the place is a legend.”

“Believe it. It was my home for thirteen years. Thousands died, including my parents.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be, it was ages ago. It’s Mark I’d have a problem with, if anyone. I don’t, of course, but his father…”

“I’ve heard Gaalsien talk about him many times before.”

“I think the figure thrown around is fifteen thousand. He’s responsible for fifteen thousand Gaalsien deaths. It’s hard to forgive that, no matter what your clan allegiance is like.” She nodded.

“Mark’s not his father,” she said.

“I know that, it’s just not that easy to move past, but I’ll get there. I respect him a great deal based on what I’ve heard since this all began.”

It was a quiet afternoon for them, she read silently as he continued to write. And whether he wanted one or not, he had a friend now.

2 Likes

I’m working on another one today, and as a bonus, here’s the tentative new cover. Unsure if I like the old one’s background more, and currently don’t have a high resolution screen to take good shots with. I’m probably going to try and figure out how to export the actual backdrops if it’s even possible, since I know the game can run theoretically at up to 6k.

3 Likes

Ooh, I like that! :wink:

I promise to get something out this weekend. It’s been a while for several reasons. School mainly, but also not wanting to do anything over the holidays but be with my aging dog and family. I’m going to add some more to Eric’s first two chapters to reflect the new game coming out. I’m also ever approaching the Great Wastelands arc, which has plenty of in depth look at the Taiidan side of things as well as the Kushan. Been a hell of a year, lol.

2 Likes

cough cough You know the drill. University takes my life and soul away.


Chapter Fifteen: Start With Today

ISABELLA

Her alarm rang for the third time before she decided to join the land of the conscious. She decided the snooze button wasn’t much help to her morning routine. Showers helped more, and decided to go for an extra long one to set her thoughts in order. “One week,” she said to herself. Seven days ago, Mothership launched. Seven days ago, she almost died to an unknown alien race in the outer Kharak System. Seven days ago, her entire life changed as did that of everyone else on the ship. It took some time but it finally started feeling like reality to her. Accepting what had happened was not easy for anyone onboard; that became more evident as the days passed.

She knocked on Mark’s door twice before walking in. It wasn’t locked. She figured fair game. “Hey, wakey, wakey sunshine!” He didn’t respond. He hadn’t been doing well emotionally, and asked her to handle the lecture from the day before. She wanted to, so he got no complaints from her. However, today was different. She smacked his face which woke him up immediately. “Got ■■■■ to do today, remember?” His response was an incomprehensible grumble, but better than nothing. He got out of bed and made his way to the bathroom without saying a word to her. “I’ll be in the mess hall,” she said. “You’re welcome!”

She remembered the last time she closed his door. Three days had passed and the two of them hadn’t talked about it. Exploring her sexuality meant little more than recreation, but he was not Manaan. She wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about what happened. Dwelling on it would get her nowhere, so with a sigh she left. Things would sort themselves out one way or another as they tend to.

She ran into Jasiid on her way. She saw him from down the hall, and he waved her over. He woke up at reasonable hours like her and it wasn’t the first time they had breakfast together that week. “Two days in a row? Small world.”

“A whole two kilometres tall, go figure!”

He ignored the sarcasm. “So, what’s up today?”

“Back to the hangar for us, last day inside. Tomorrow’s all outside.”

“Oh yeah, we drop out, right?”

“Yup! Can’t wait, personally. It’ll give me something to do.” Time spent idly meant time to think, and thinking was something she would rather not do.

“Think they’re all ready?”

“Sure, I mean it’s not like they’re complete incompetents after all. Most of the others who tested out the scouts are there, a few others who’ve had minimal microgravity flight experience, all that. Leo’s hopefully gonna find an actual trainer at some point.”

Once they sat down with their food, Mark walked in. “Morning,” he said passing by to get something to eat.

“Is he alright?” Jasiid asked.

“Not sure,” she said. “He will be, at least I hope so.” She watched him until he made his way over to them, taking a seat next to Jasiid. “Nice of you to show up.”

“I did get a wake up call, didn’t I?”

The three of them sat in silence. Jasiid started recounting a story of their time together in flight academy, but she was only half paying attention to it. Mark smiled, remembering the past they’d shared. It hit her just then that she was alone, they all were. They were alone together, but she had nobody from before. No family, no former friends, no one who even knew of her. All of them gone. She suddenly understood how Mark felt. Even he had somebody, though.

“Hey, Izzy, you awake in there?” asked Jasiid.

“Huh? Yeah, just spaced out for a bit.” She chased the thoughts away. It was best to let go of what was already lost.


Mark, Eric and her exit the elevator to the service hangar floor. Leonard was already there along with several of the other pilots. The schedule for today was to run simulations on how the five squadron pilots work with each other. Five interceptors were lined up on the deck. The squadrons would go one after the other.

“Nervous?” Mark asked.

“A bit, but where would the fun be otherwise?”

“I for one am not looking forward to this,” Eric said.

“You’ll do fine,” she said. “It’s not like replacing any of us is an option at this point. Do as bad as you want.”

They joined the other pilots and Leonard addressed them once everyone was present. “You fifteen pilots are the first line of defence to our people. Not all of you are qualified for the task, granted, but I trust that after today we will know for sure whether or not you’re all ready. The five interceptors are locked in simulation mode, and we will be providing battle scenarios for you and will track your responses. Red Squad, you’re up first.”

The rest of the pilots looked at him, and he nodded. It was clear who they saw as their leader and who they saw as their boss. She of all people knew the difference between the two.

They each got into their ships and started them up. She knew the controls like second nature. Despite being in simulation mode, the sounds and vibrations mimicked the real thing.

“Red Leader signing on,” Mark said.

“Red Two here,” she said. Eric, Carol and Henry sounded off their designations too. Her screen pinged to let her know Mark decided to set to a delta formation in defensive tactics. She shifted back, and doing so the screen showed his ship to the front-left of her. Even their ship’s display was hacked to give them a show.

“So, any idea what’s going to happen?” Eric asked.

Mark answered: “None, sorry. They didn’t tell me, so just go with it.”

They idled around for a while, long enough for her to get bored and slump back into her chair. She assumed it was to let them habituate. She wanted to complain, but held it in as it was time to act the part.

“Contacts closing in with Mothership,” Intel said. She immediately pulled her self up to the controls ready to act.

“Ship markings appear to be Taiidan, we’re clear to engage.” She followed his lead, the other three did the same. The first pass got them two enemy ships.

“I’m hit!” Eric said. The sim was advanced, it even faked enemy fire hitting the hull.

“Prepare for second pass. Fire on their middle ranks, try to break up the formation.” She got one of them and rolled down out of the line of fire. Carol followed her move saving her ship. They formed back up after the pass. On the HUD she could see Eric’s ship had taken the most damage so far and hull integrity was at half.

“We’ve got a tail,” Henry said.

“Evasive!” Mark called out.

“Maneuver four-five-oh?” Carol called out.

“Rodger,” said Mark.

Henry and Carol cut back and fired on the follower, taking him out.

“Above!” she called out. A second squadron came in from above them. They pulled up, avoiding enemy fire in the process.

Eric said, “Docking with repair corvette, I’ve taken too many hits.”

“Rodger that, let’s circle and keep guard in the meantime.” The enemies were cutting them a break it seemed, since they didn’t attack while this went down.

“Mothership taking enemy fire,” Command’s voice called out.

“■■■■!” They sped off and fired on the assailants, drawing their attention away. The dogfight continued on for a half hour. They all had to take turns docking with a repair ship. A support frigate was available to them, and it saved them after a real bad pass that left them all critically damaged.

“Two squads coming up from behind, evasive again and split. I’ll go up, you and Carol try to drop down and meet up behind them.” She saw what he was getting at, and followed along. She pulled down as he went the opposite way, and Carol followed her. The others followed Mark, and it worked. Meeting up behind them, they opened fire. Despite this, however, they weren’t out of it yet.

“Third squadron behind us! How many are there?” Henry said before his ship took too much damage. They pulled hard to the right, but couldn’t shake them. The other two squadrons had come back around, and Carol was next to go, followed by Mark.

“■■■■, ■■■■, ■■■■! Split up and head back to the support frigate,” she told Eric. This worked for the time being, but they didn’t last much longer. They were two against a dozen, and went down one by one but not without taking out a couple in the meantime. Upon her ship blowing up, she palmed her face with both hands taking off her helmet and opening up the hatch. The hangar’s teal light reminded her that it was bound to end one way or another.

“Hey,” she called over after powering down, “you all alright?”

“Could have gone worse,” Eric said.

Mark said, “Good fight, team.”

They were met with applause after stepping out onto the hangar deck. “Impressive work, Red Squad. No spoiling it for the rest, they have no idea what they’re in for. Come with me,” Leonard said to them. Green Squad was up next. They walked away from the others to discuss. “To be honest, I didn’t expect you all to last half as long so good work. Eric performed a lot better than we anticipated based on his lack of experience.”

“I’m calling it luck, mostly.”

“Don’t be modest, now. You kept up easily enough. Even gave you a false engine alarm. Good work checking the fuel line pressure. Carol and Henry performed marginally above what we anticipated too, all good to see. Mark, no surprise with these results. Still caught you off-guard at the end though.”

“Yes, well in a real battle we would have allies to support us. Can’t take on three enemy squadrons with five ships no matter how good you are.”

“Fair enough. It was designed to be unfair anyway. As for you, Isabella, work on controlling your emotions in combat. Blood pressure readings weren’t ideal, but other than that, same goes for your performance.”

“In her defence, sir, her last experience was quite traumatic. Cut her some slack, she still outlasted me.” He ignored the comment and signalled them to return to the group. He had the next simulation to conduct.

Mark and her waited a few moments. “Thanks,” she said.

“What kind of squad leader would I be if I didn’t stick up for my wingmen?”

“I should still up my medication dosage. I felt…”

He nodded.


She lay beside him considering whether or not to leave or stay the night again. He pulled his fingers through her sweaty hair. “What are we doing?” she said. “Honestly. Is it right? Technically you’re not my superior, so there’s no problems there, but still.”

“So you regret it then?”

“No, not exactly.”

“Then I don’t see the problem.”

“And during the act, are you thinking of her?” He pulled his hand away. “Because if so, then I’d like to remind you I’m not her, and it’s not fair to me if you are.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing, if you want to be honest about it. I really don’t. Yes, the love of my life died only a week ago along with over three hundred and eighty million others. It still hardly feels real sometimes, but I know it is, and I know she’s never coming back. I’m not pretending you’re her, Isel. I’ll admit it, this isn’t the smartest decision I’ve made, but I never said I was always smart.” He grabbed her hand.

“Yeah, we’re pretty stupid aren’t we?” she said. “I lost everyone too, you know. Whether I gave up my Kharak life or not, I still lost them.”

“I know. We’ll see how this plays out. Deal?”

“Deal.” She nestled against him and made up her mind.


Chapter Sixteen: Bright Lights

MARK

Ending off the first week of their trip, it was the day they would exit hyperspace. He noticed how slow time passed for him now as opposed to before any of the chaos. A week on the outskirts of Tiir went by like a breeze. With all that’s been flashing through his mind now, he hardly ever had a moment to relax and enjoy what he could out of his time. Isabella provided some much needed temporary relief, but he knew she was mostly having fun. It wasn’t serious.

Often he thought back to Valerie but doing so was usually followed by an eruption into sobbing and tears and an afternoon locked away in his room answering to no one. He had Isabella teach one of the lessons for him on such a day. He could still imagine her voice, he could still picture her face. Her soft brown hair, her hazel irises rimmed with green. Nothing could bring her back, he knew this. He felt guilty of being unfaithful, but the girl he loved was no longer alive. He tried hard not to think of things that have passed but grief was a natural response to loss, and hard to control. His father must have known this feeling for a long time. He began to understand him more now than ever.

He wanted him around. If he’d joined the fighter testing with him like he was asked, he would be among the survivors. It was not profitable to think in what-ifs, he knew that. He felt unworthy to take on this role he’d begun filling, having been given Squad Leader status before the others only because he was unfortunate enough to be outside the ship when the Raiders ambushed. He’d learned much from his father, but he still felt as though his father could do better. He wanted him here, to talk to, to ask how to proceed, seek advice, have a drink with, the reasons he missed Markus the Great went on. Being honest with himself, he wanted his father back. He wanted his father’s support and his love. Therefore, thinking of him proved unprofitable as well thus continuing the cycle.

He took a shower to clear his mind and focus. There were more pressing matters. The pilots he’d been training, for instance. A few picked up quick, others not so much. He wanted to see what Eric could do, him having no official ranking position. They took the fighter over to the Capital bay and turned on the lights. There was room enough for a fighter to maneuver around. He did well, scoring higher in some areas than rank fives and some sixes, but still ranking lower in others like pitch control. His aim was adequate, and his reflexes were sharp. The group of his new friends set up a paintball gun to show how well he dodged and only a few hit. At the end of two days, he signed him on as his second wingman. Isel gave him an over the top annoying hug to congratulate him, as is her usual style.

Today was the day they would prove themselves, should anything go wrong. With this mission’s track record, he was sure something would. Anything could happen now.


Leo was going to give them a speech. All combat ready pilots gathered in an auditorium just before Mothership was to exit hyperspace within the hour. They were already in their flight suits. Mark looked around at the other squad leaders: Jeroll Sjet of Blue Squad, Reina Manaan of Green Squad, and Kyle LiirHra of Orange Squad. Their uniforms were only slightly different from one another. All three of them had more combat experience and were older than himself, however, none questioned when he was offered the role of Red Leader; he proved himself against the invaders. According to rumour, there was a ranking up awaiting him once the chaos died down. Too little time for formalities that first week.

“You fifteen pilots are our front line of defence. This role is a great honour in my opinion. Supporting you are five Hammers and four Mercy docks,” he began. They all knew the codenames for unit classes at this point, a Hammer was a heavy corvette like the ones that came to his aid in the previous battle and a Mercy was a repair corvette—a small support craft designed to dock one fighter at a time and repair larger craft. “Three enemy ships have been captured from the Cryo Tray assault and have been put back in service with a new paint job. The nerds say we can build our own frigate-class vessels now, so some will be joining you out there to lend a hand if need be. This ship,” he said activating a holo for us to see, “is a support frigate. We call her the Matriarch. Docks ten at a time, crew compliment is about three-dozen. These ships are your best friends. Stay within range of one and you’ll live to fight another day.”

He marvelled at the design. Five dock pads on each side along the main body and corvette dock arms on the bottom, a shielding hull extension over topside, a single gun under the bow’s nose, and had an improved repair beam several times better than the Mercy. The bridge was aft-ward on top of the main body, and the engine was a single vertical row of fusion torches. He had to admit, the Nabaali knew what they were doing when designing it.

“We’re not expecting to run into any trouble with this resourcing stop, but we really don’t have a clue what to expect. Be on guard out there, and good luck.” This concluded the meeting.

Mark looked back to his squad members who were getting out of their seats and it finally sunk in. He was in command of these four, he would likely lead them into danger and they would follow. He would be responsible for anything that happens to them, and it was frightening to consider. Isabella and Carol were laughing over something between them, Eric sat scribbling into a notepad and Henry was staring in wonder at the holo of the Matriarch still present above them. These people depended on him outside in the vacuum of interstellar space, and he hoped not to fail them.

“Hey, what’s up with that stare?” Jeroll asked tapping his shoulder.

“Lost in thought is all,” he said. “Never been in command of anyone.”

“Don’t sweat it. They already respect you, so the hard part’s over with. Trust me, I’ve seen how your makeshift training lessons went. The younger one in particular seems to admire you.”

“Izzy’s a little on the crazy side, but she’s effective. I’ve seen her against the Raiders and was impressed to find out it was the first time she’d been in combat.”

“What of the other one there,” he said pointing to Eric. “Awful quiet, any particular reason you chose him?”

“Gut feeling. He’s not been officially trained as a pilot but he’s been in combat, and he knows the inside of a strike fighter better than I do, probably.” He would keep Eric’s heritage secret for now, it was the courteous thing to do. Many would find it suspicious for a Gaalsi to be onboard. Despite the conflict with the defunct Northern Coalition long over with, many kiith still harbour ill sentiment towards his people, almost as much so as the treacherous Siidim.

Both were barred from having members selected for colonization heightening tensions with the Siidim towards the end of the construction process. Siidim-sa had to be removed from the Daiamid meeting upon hearing the decision, outraged and yelling slurs to the other Sas present, calling them all gritiidim. It had only been twenty years since their exile had been deemed over and right back to their callous ways they went. Whenever Eric decided to reveal his kiith affiliation with others was up to him alone.

The Mothership dropped out of hyperspace.

Jeroll joined the rest of Blue Squad and left for the hangar. Isabella was waiting on me now, and I joined her and the others as we too headed to the hangar. This time, the hangar was in full production mode, meaning the fighters were up in their storage racks and the artificial gravity was at a minimum. They magnetized their boots upon stepping out onto the hangar floor.

All walls of the hangar had a gravitational attraction to facilitate operations inside. All his time so far had been spent in the supply bay which only has an attraction on the base, mimicking a floor. Now, in the open bay expanding for over half a kilometre towards the bottom-end, all walls were also floors. Fighters were stored in their racks along the top of the hangar while corvettes were stored along the aft wall. Or floor. It confused him to think about. And lastly, all the way towards the bottom wall of the hangar was fabrication. He saw the outline of a frigate already under construction.

He climbed into his ship, the same fighter he used before, and turned on the engine. When the light turned green, it was his turn to launch. He throttled up and sailed down the teal-lit bay, pulling up and out the hangar door into the black void. He moved his ship over to the line of other interceptors assuming parade formation. His HUD had already been calibrated for the other ships, displaying their squad colour and number in it, leaders having a star. He performed system checks out of habit while waiting for the hangar to empty out.

“It’s so dark,” Isel said over the comm.

“Closest star is half a light-years away, so yeah, it would be,” Henry said.

“Then what’s the story behind this asteroid cluster?” Carol said.

“I looked it up earlier,” he replied. “Some ejected debris from a planet forming system nearby. There’s likely to be more, that’s why the Sjet are searching in case we need to stop somewhere again.”

“Interesting,” Eric said.

He noticed ahead of them the resource collectors already heading off to do their work escorted by two light corvettes each. Cavaliers were considered useless for actual combat scenarios. They have one gun turret, don’t have the armour of other corvettes, and are much slower than fighters despite being barely larger than one. Instead they’ve been delegated to escort duty for resource operations.

A larger ship finished exiting the capital bay and was now following the collectors. The HUD revealed it to be the mobile refinery. Mostly crewed by Somtaaw, it would act as the resource controller and flagship for mining operations. It had six fighter docking pads and two corvette arms to help support its escorts. He knew very little about the Somtaaw, but knew that they were in control of resourcing operations and processing as well as being the most independent of any clan in the fleet.

Not much time passed before the alert light flashed on his dash. “Long range sensors indicate a mothership-class mass signature. It’s closing in fast,” said Leonard. The words took time to register in his mind, then he felt what he’d describe as a combination of anticipation and concern rush through him.

“Stay calm,” he said over Red Squad’s private channel.

A yellow doorway cut through the fabric of space ahead. He’d expected possibly the Taiidan fleet, or even the pirates from the outer Kharak system. It was neither. A large vessel tan in colour exit through the doorway. The designed looked like none they’d encountered before. It turned to face the Mothership, revealing it to be a U shape with a bright city of yellow lights covering its interior. He was in awe by the sight, and assumed the others were as well by the silence over the radio bands. Were they friend or foe? How did they find them? They were not attacking, therefore no attack order was given by Command.

“Full combat alert, standby for contact.” The squads broke into their separate delta formations but remained passive. A standard procedure, one of the few he had covered in his brief training sessions.

He looked back to the hangar and saw the ambassador craft launch. It was a modified unarmed heavy corvette.

“Ambassador away,” Karan’s voice echoed over the speakers. Her voice had a calming charm to it, unlike Leonard’s.

“Trajectory locked in, hailing signal open on all channels.” The ambassador ship moved closer to the odd alien ship keeping a safe speed and breaking occasionally to ensure the other ship that it would not collide. “Entering magnetic field now. Almost there…” It was now within the narrow trench lit up by the city lights. “Fleet, we’ve lost guidance and are being drawn in. There’s a lot of lights… uh… there seems to be some kind of activity inside, I can see—” his signal cut out. He and the rest of the fleet waited patiently, unknowing, unsure.

A short moment later a signal was received from the alien ship itself. “We are the Bentusi and welcome you among space-fairing cultures. The Unbound. The outer-rim trade routes were established in the First Time by our ancestors. The resources you gather are of value to the Bentusi Exchange. They will serve as an acceptable medium for trade.” He stared blankly ahead, his mouth hanging open a little, unsure how to process the situation. “It has been our custom to equip our partners with an exchange unit. It has therefore been provided to your ambassador as a gesture of good will.” The craft now launched from the alien vessel.

“Fleet, this is the ambassador. We are clear of the Bentusi vessel, all systems are green. Harbour control has released guidance and the exchange unit is secure. Receiving crews, prep the quarantine chamber.”

“Roger that, quarantine chambers standing by.”

As they waited for more information, he sat in his seat wondering how vast the galaxy must be. How many factions were there to consider other than the ones they’ve met? How many were hostile, and how many of them would they encounter?

“Bentusi trade link established,” Karan’s voice said breaking the silence.

“Turanic Raiders, servants of the Taiidan are arriving. They must not learn of our contact. We must depart. All that moves is easily heard in the void. We will listen for you. Farewell.” As sudden as was their arrival, just so could be said for their departure. They vanished into the yellow doorway.

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Chapter Seventeen: The Great Wastelands

ERIC

The comms were dead for ten minutes other than Karan and the Bentusi; the ambassador hauled a resource container behind it back to the alien ship and returned. Eric didn’t know what they had obtained from them, but imagined whatever it was to have great power. They left in a door of yellow much the same as their own hyperspace window.

Being told of the Turanic Raiders’ imminent arrival, all squadrons were ordered over to defend the resourcing operation several kilometres away. A few probes sped by ahead of them. Watching, he noticed how much their surroundings had changed. No longer could Kharak’s sun be distinguished in the sky, and the galactic band was the only light from outside his canopy.

“Keep a clear mind and remember what you’ve been told in training,” Mark said. “Fear will kill you as will hesitation. That isn’t to say you’re immune to either, but keep it in mind and you’ll have better chance to control yourself in the heat of things.” It was as much reassuring he was going to get that day.

They circled the Redemption-class refinery ship a handful of times before the first red blip was spotted on their sensors manager screen. The formations tightened up, and the one was followed by a dozen more once they came into sensors range.

“There they are,” Isabela said, “topside.”

He saw. The probes detailed them out to be the same pirate ships he saw the pilots fighting in the outer Kharak system. He was only an observer then, and they were unprepared. This time, however, the fleet was ready for battle and he would take part. All aboard the colony ship had witnessed the death of family and kin. Fuelled by anger. Anyone in their path would suffer the fate of Kharak.

“Follow Green Squad close, we’re gonna back them up and give ‘em time to move in for a second run,” Mark said and he followed. It happened quick. The run before theirs had damaged the enemy ships and Red Squad, his squad, came in to rain more fire on them and knock a few off from the main cluster. Green Squad made their second pass and finished off the group that broke away. The other squads came in to take aim from below at the remaining stragglers.

“More incoming,” Reina Manaan warned before two more waves appeared on sensors. These backed by five missile corvettes.

“They sure don’t seem to be making this easy for us,” Isabella said. “Five Brigands, we’ll have to let the assault frigates deal with those, we wouldn’t hit ‘em hard enough to have an effect.”

“Agreed,” Mark said. “Did they ever put a codename to them? I didn’t catch one.”

“Kudaark,” Jeroll S’jet says as his squad passes by.

Eric said, “I can kinda see it.” Kuudarks were small burrowing animals with tough claws and a spine along its nose. The frigate had some physical similarities in the hull shape, its guns imitating the claws and the spire at the bow reminded him of how they tested the temperature above ground with their nose hairs.

Heavy corvettes singled Red Squad to mind their path, and let their rounds go taking out a few of the Bandits incoming. His squad’s next pass spit more at them, Blue Squad coming in from above to follow up on their run.

He hadn’t felt like this in a long time. In fact, only once before was he ever in combat and it was as auxiliary pilot on an old Bokiir unit. The bomber was nearly a century old at the time but still held its own in battle. That was more passive. This was something new. The rush of adrenaline, the powerful feeling of being in control of an autogun that could fire thousands of rounds a minute into the enemy. His blood was pumping, and he felt focused on the fight. He didn’t feel the slightest bit afraid. Maybe it was his upbringing, the countless months servicing fighters for his kiith before defecting to the Manaan. He keeps up with the squad’s movements as if it were natural to him.

The lack of atmosphere to bank in made space combat awkward for trained pilots. The maneuvering jets in front shot hard to one side flipping the ship around. Eric took to it almost as well as Mark and Isabella did, as he didn’t have any previous training to unlearn.

“Reinforcements are on their way.” Three of their own frigates were inbound from Mothership, a Matriarch and two other shorter ones he assumed were their equivalent of assault frigates.

The tree Kuudarks fired from below but kept in tight guard around the resource controller. The collectors were escorted by two light corvettes each. Their guns did little damage but enough to dissuade any lone enemy fighters from taking shots at the defenceless Providence-class as they went about their duties.

A slug from a Hammer knocked one of the missile corvettes into an asteroid and it blew up on impact. “That was comical,” the pilot said.

Before he could react Mark yelled into the squad channel: “Henry, evasive maneuvers! Drop back and take ‘em out!” He and Isabella cut their engines and thrust the forward jets and let the enemy fighters pass by as instructed, one of the few tactics they managed to cover. Mark and Carol stayed in formation drawing their attention. They opened fire on the ones still tailing Henry and one exploded. He didn’t evade the debris fast enough and flew through, hearing everything that hit his ship as if it were the loudest noise in the universe. They kept firing taking out another, but it was too late, Henry’s ship took too much damage and the fuel cells were punctured.

“■■■■!” she said taking out a third. She swore a few more times, defeated and restraining anger. Eric barely knew him, but it still had an effect. He kept in control and the two of them moved back into formation.

Out of the confusion following their lost squad member, a missile slammed into the back of Red Leader. “I’m hit! How bad does it look?”

“Well, it doesn’t look good,” he answered.

“It did a number, you’re leaking fuel meaning a cell is punctured,” Isabella said. The two assault frigates passed by overhead giving surprising fire. Though they drifted away from the battlefield, it wasn’t an ideal location to be stranded.

“Both rear cameras are out, I’m powering down and calling a salvager. The rest of you dock for repairs and fuel.”

“I don’t think we should leave you,” Isabella said.

“I’ll look like debris on their scanners, and from the sound of things in here the ship looks the part too.”

Reluctantly, they agreed and the three of them headed to the resource controller to dock. It was farther away from the fight, and a squad was already coming in to dock with the Matriarch. He sat there lost in thought as they closed in on their destination. “I think it’s just dawned on me,” he said in a private channel to Isabella.

“What has?” she said.

“That this is a war we’re in. I mean, I know it should be obvious, right, but I guess it took me being out here doing something about it to… feel it.”

Silence for a few seconds, then she said: “I know. We did all we could,” referring to their lost squad mate.

“I know. Is it weird that I’m not afraid?”

“A little,” inferring that she was feeling the pressure of the fight a lot more than he was, but kept her cool for the sake of him and Carol. He admired that.

“It’s okay to be afraid. I’ve seen a lot worse than this.”

“I’m sure you have.”

The calm silence continued until they docked, an understanding between them now. Isabella assumed command of Red Squad and two more fighters joined them as Red Four and Red Five. Both of Sobani. They headed out to rejoin the continuing fight; it appeared there was no end to the ships the Turanic could throw at them but they held their own. The enemy had more ships but they had more skill. Considering most of them were new to piloting space fighters, that was saying something profound about the logistics of this pirate fleet. There was hope.

Due to the approaching carrier, the collectors had moved to the bottom half of the resource vein and the controller’s escorts joined the Kushan assault frigates in broad formation to lend firepower to the fight. Half a dozen heavy corvettes passed by in X formation, their passes slower but far deadlier than those of interceptor squadrons and their armour able to take the extra hits. Two of the other interceptor squadrons were missing members as well, some more than one. The Matriarch threw green repair material onto damaged frigates, the ships’ nano-repair systems to reform it into hull plating. A scout was returning from their search with intel on the enemy carrier’s guards and was at full burst speeding above the battlefield hoping no enemies would pay attention to it, but none would be able to catch it at that speed anyway.

Green Squad was undocking from the support frigate and returning to the fight. Isabella signalled Green Leader to follow her pass. She agreed. Backed by nine other fighter pilots, the manaani’s leading abilities shined. In the moment, nobody knew her to be a sixteen-year-old foul-mouthed desert rat, but as the person leading them into the fight. He took note of this, and would be sure to mention it to her after the battle.

Seven enemy ships, ten of them. Both headed straight for one another. The targets came in weapons range and he unloaded into them, additional power shunted to weapons. He took a few hits but was otherwise unscathed. Two members of Green Squad were not as well-off, having been picked off by a lucky shot and another having one enemy fighter—possibly unintentionally—slam into them. Neither pilot would survive the collision by the look of the wreckage.

Green Leader spoke next: “Rest of Green Squad, join in with Red in a Claw formation and prepare for another pass!” They listened and took the upper half of the claw, only one fighter shy for the full formation. Isabella took the central-back leader position and he fell to her lower left. Green Leader would be directly above him. Red Four was in front and below him, Carol to his right. They flipped around in unison and prepared for their second pass. He could see Blue Squad taking serious hits from three Brigadier missiles and saw some Bandits take out a heavy corvette. The Kuudarks shot out plasma bombs from their nose cannons into the missile corvettes ending their firing cycle midway through in a puff of light followed by brief flames and ending in smoke and debris. One of the chunks was the cockpit section, and he wondered to himself if those inside would have survived the ship’s death only to float around and wait for their end. He showed them mercy by letting off a dozen rounds into the darkened canopy before nudging himself back in formation in time to open fire on their next pass.

Their next victims were a couple corvettes that intel couldn’t quite figure out the purpose of and simply labelled them Thief-class. His wingman found out what those guns did. After being hit with a round, it blew up on impact causing the hull to tear open spinning the ship out of control. The pilot ejected before the ship turned into a ball of flame. The rest of them focused their fire on the ships and avoiding taking fire from them. Both fell to their gunfire but not without Green Leader taking a hit from one of those exploding rounds. Damage was not fatal. After the pass she took the remainder of her squad back to the Matriarch for repairs.

Isabella called a salvage corvette to move towards Red Four’s location and pick him up. Another duty designated to Porters when not chasing after salvage prey. They were en route to the Matriarch when Fleet Intelligence gave them a confusing transmission.


Chapter Eighteen: The Fate of Kharak

MARK

He made the call, sent his coordinates and powered down. He could see the others speeding away from the battle to the resource controller. From his standpoint the fight looked to be in their favour. More waves kept coming but were held off successfully for now.

Servants of the Taiidan, he recalled. They were responsible for what happened to his home. What purpose could they have? Who were they, these Taiidan? He couldn’t understand senseless slaughter on that scale. Surely, he thought, they had some kind of reason. He needed there to be one. If they had a reason he had something to fight against; he could make an enemy out of them. He could comfort himself with them being evil and knowing why so many people had to die.

Valerie came to mind without notice. “She’s really gone,” he said to himself. He had been with her for only three years, but three was enough to know he loved her. He was about to agree on moving in with her and leave his small desert home, his solitude in the sand, for the comfortable city life of Tiir. He had actively avoided letting thoughts of her come to mind because of his inability to accept or even acknowledge her loss. Dizziness overcame him having again accepted it and upon seeing the chaos unfold. A casualty of a war he knew nothing about and felt he couldn’t do anything to stop.

The eerie silence of space crept up to him in his distracted remembrance. All around ships were exploding in flashes of light and smoke, bullets flew by like rain, and everything was in constant motion. No sound; one of the most noticeable of differences from dogfights he was used to. The occasional light tick from small pieces of debris hitting his ship were heard, but otherwise it was entirely silent save the sound of his breathing. A maddening, deafening silence. Knowing how far from Kharak they had gone and knowing how much farther than that there was ahead, he felt laughably small compared to everything else.

He relaxed back into the seat. He’d lost a wingman. He trained Henry along with the others the best he could but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t blame himself for it, they did all they could. Henry’s family was on Kharak, so there were no others to mourn him. A sad thought but it was better than his family waking up on Hiigara to find out he wasn’t among them.

He was the same. No one was left in his life from before.

It took ten minutes until he saw a Porter to his right turn clamps facing the cockpit. He waved to them and saw a silhouette wave back. He felt the ship jerk slightly and noticed they were moving. Once in the clear he powered on communications. “Thanks for the lift,” he said.

“Not a problem. Not much a salvager can do against fighters. Makes us feel a little useless.”

“Right now, I know the feeling.” They had a laugh at that. He checked how the fight was going. They had the upper hand now; there were far fewer enemy ships than friendlies. The carrier now showed itself on the scanners and it was huge. They’d nicknamed it Rancor after an extinct beast of unimaginable strength and hideous appearance that lived in caves near mountain ranges.

“Isel,” he said over comms.

“Yeah?” she responded after short delay.

“Status update.”

“Only cleanup left here,” she said. “Intel shows we have a few ion frigates ready to go and are bearing down on the enemy carrier. Four salvagers are coming up the rear to capture its escorts and disable them.”

“Smart plan,” he said wondering if Jay was among them.

“See you soon.” The porter was making its docking approach on the Mothership as she said this.

He was part of his life from before, but they’d gone years without knowing one another. He decided he’d settle their old dispute and try and get back to how things were between them before. He barely remembered what it was he got angry about.

Once safely on the bay floor he was taken aback by the damage. The hull split every couple feet and the back end was a mess of charred wiring and melted or warped steel. “How am I alive?” he said to himself. Looking down the hangar towards frigate construction, he saw another Matriarch nearing completion and a familiar face among those standing off to the side. He disengaged the magnetism on his boots and floated over to the group standing nearby awaiting their new ship.

“John! I imagine this one’s yours?”

“Right you are,” he said. “I call her the Ifriit-Gar, after two greats of the Nabaal.”

“Aye, heard stories of both. I’ll be seeing you out on the battlefield, then.”

“Give my regards to the others, will you? I’ll be launching on her as soon as she’s done, probably won’t see them for a long time. Support frigates can go the longest without resupply, at least three months. Five if we stretch it out with rationing.”

“Will do,” he said. They shook hands, but before they could continue their conversation, the PA system turned on.

“There are several Turanic Raider capital ships emerging from hyperspace around the Mothership,” Fleet Intelligence said. A screen nearby displayed them on a sensors manager. Six more ships like the ones escorting the Raider carrier.

“Looks like they’re not done yet,” he said. His ship was a smouldering wreckage off in a corner of the hangar, its fate to be decided on when there was time to do so. “I would love to see you off, but as my ship is trashed, I’m headed up to Strike Command to help out however I can from there.” He nodded, and Mark jogged over to the nearest elevator and changed out of his flight suit, leaving it in a bin to be washed and delivered to him later.

Luckily, everyone was busy frantically running about to get where they needed to be and didn’t notice the disheveled pilot in civilian clothing making his way to the bridge as fast he could. It took about fifteen minutes total from the hangar to Strike Command despite distance travelled being something like a few hundred meters. Elevator stops, lines of confused people frightened by Intel’s announcement, random disorder and chaos, the list went on. He glanced at a few screens on his way and they depicted the enemy ships firing blue beams into Mothership’s side, it must be that ion cannon technology the Bentusi gave them, but he wasn’t too knowledgeable in any of that.

He saluted the man at the door to the command centre and stepped into the red backlit cavern with a waist-height sensors manager holotable at its centre. Leonard was at the table with a handful of others thinking up battle strategies smoking a cigar to help concentrate.

“Red Leader on deck,” he alerted stepping towards the table when Leonard nodded to him.

“Saw you get busted up out there, sure you should be running around this soon?”

“I’m fine, I’d rather make myself useful to those who still have ships that’ll move.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Ships that’ll move without exploding, anyway. What’s going on, anyhow?”

“See for yourself, enemy ion array frigates came out of hyperspace right on us to our aft, port, and starboard. Only one ship on the two sides so we’re sending in Porters to catch them before they do too much damage. We’re recalling the support frigates and repair ‘vettes to mitigate the damage while we figure out what to do about those aft three. It seems their beams are focused using the panel arrays instead of how the Bentusi tech describes, meaning if we disable the arrays somehow they won’t do as much damage. We turned around our Firelances—ion frigates—on a closing vector with those since they’re closest. We’d recall the assault frigates too but they’re busy putting a beating on that swarm of strike craft. I’d rather not leave our pilots out to hang, I feel guilty as it is recalling the Matriarch out there. Damn this.”

“I assume we don’t have enough Porters to go grab the remaining three?”

“Nah, only got nine so far. Four are moving in to take out the carrier’s guards and one is already most of the way picking up a round of ejected. Even if we did manage to quickly capture the two frigates near us there’d still be one able to lance off the Porters as they brought them in.”

He sat on that thought, watching the battle unfold in front of him. “Those panels, they’re reflective? How are they working, exactly?”

“Hell if I know,” he said.

“Well, if the reason they’re folded in to begin with is to protect the inner surface, say we send a squad over to pot shot the hell out of the panels, too maneuverable for them to lock on.”

“Think you’re onto something with that one, if that’s really how they work.”

“Patch me to my squad, They’re docked with the Matriarch right now and closest to get the job done. Someone off to his right handed him a headset.

“Red Leader joining from Strike Command. We have a vandalism job for you Red Two, if you’re interested that is.” He heard a few snickers behind him at that.

“Oh boy, is it my birthday? What’s the target?” Isel said.

“The three far frigates currently giving our rear a pounding. It’s a guess, but I think if you rain some hail on those panels it should cut their firepower.”

“Got it, coach. We’re nearly done here, but either way we’re being towed along. Is the damage that bad?”

“It’s pretty bad, yeah. Ripped holes through the outer hull layers, ignited some of the hydrogen RU stores. We’ve put a nice note in for the Somtaaw to move that ■■■■ where it won’t explode from now on but it’s mostly some lucky aiming on their part.

“Yeah, that’s pretty bad.”

“She wasn’t designed against weapons of this class.”

“Fair point. Alright, gas tanks full, Red Squad follow me!”

He handed the headset back to whoever gave it to him, looked down to the table and saw the four fighters leave the dock and speed straight for the enemy frigates.

“She’s a fine pilot, that one.” A compliment from the Strike Commander carried weight. “She’ll be promoted along with you and a handful of others for their service in these past days.” He’d heard rumours of rank promotions to be announced so it didn’t come as a surprise to him to hear it. His attention was mainly focused on his squadron.

“Cross your fingers that I’m right,” he said. A few silent seconds went by, Leo shifted to the main battle now being won as the Rancor’s escorts were captured and in tow. One of the Porters was lanced off by the carrier’s ion cannons, but the salvager who was picking up pilots got the last one and moved in to grab hold. He worried it was Jay’s until he heard him over the chatter to his left. He was capturing the frigate on Mothership’s starboard.

“Red Squad reporting completion of task,” someone said.

“And?” Leonard asked.

A pause.

“Enemy ion weapons at sixty percent previous damage output.”

Leonard gives him a wink, he’ll be the talk of many after that fluke of an idea.

“Enemy carrier baring down on Mothership, frontal ions pointed at the bridge. Firing range in one minute.”

“Keep Firelances headed to their current targets, order all assault frigates and corvettes to ignore the fighters and open fire on that carrier! Tell our fighters out there to clean up and come on home.”

“Aye, sir!”

The room continued to move around him, his task done. He was now merely an observer to how the end of the fight will play out. As the enemy carrier opened fire with its ion cannons, a captured enemy frigate left the hangar bay and extended its foils and take aim on its former flagship.

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Since Relicnews is closing, I’m going to mirror the original draft here in epub and PDF format.

I would also like to update you all as to what I’ve been doing for the past, what, year? I’m nearing 50k words edited on an original scifi novel currently going by the title Wormspace. The first part of that (chapters 1-5) can be found on my website. That isn’t to say this will never be completed, but I chose to prioritize. I’ll come back to these characters eventually. I like them too much now not to.

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