Dan took his hands off the stick, wiggled them, and put them back. He tried to swallow but there was no saliva. The thorny angles of the generation ship glittering below, the sweep of the planet on one side and its misty rings on the other, all vanished as his vision focused in on the ships ahead. They had shrunk small now that they were facing head on, and somehow it felt that the wedge of the sidewinder was staring straight at him. Dan’s fingers twitched on the joystick, making minute adjustments to line up the crosshairs.
‘You take the sidewinder, I’ll take the eagle,’ said Doc.
Dan slammed his fingers down on the triggers. His ship thrummed and slowed for a moment as streams of slugs gattled from the multicannon at his target, glowing white with heat. Was he hitting? Flashes of light disturbed his vision, streaks of white linking to the other ship and great splashes of blue energy washing over his forward shield. His eyes flicked sideways.
Jesus! Two-thirds shield gone!
He jerked the stick sideways and hit the “boost” button. The acceleration slammed him back into his seat; he’d been hunching forward over the controls. He pushed the scontrol left and right, twisting the yoke, hauling it forwards and backwards, taking evasive manouvres. The muscles in his neck tensed and strained as the weight of his helmet tried to slam his head about, even though the inertial gel was taking most of the strain. The schematic of his ship registered another hit. He reached out for the power control. More power to shields, or more to engines? How had this happened? Where was the enemy?
The radar showed it as a red triangle, a stalk denoting elevation. On the target display, it was now facing away, but turning towards him. Dan rolled his ship around; now the pirate was below him and he pushed the stick forward, diving towards it. Blood rushed upwards and the lining of his helmet inflated to press on his head. It felt as if his eyeballs were trying to bulge up like balloons. How much negative g could you pull before you had a red-out? He’d done this plenty of times in training, but now it felt worse.
He saw the enemy but it was twisting sideways, and vanished out of his crosshairs. Dan rolled again and this time he climbed towards it; now the blood was draining from his head and he wanted it back. The gel constricted his legs and his lower body but he squashed the momentary feeling of panic, tensed his muscles and kept breathing from his diaphragm. The wide wedge of the sidewinder flew across his vision again, but this time he pushed the stick forward and kept it ahead. It swelled suddenly; he was going to hit it! He yanked back the throttle, jinked right and then left, only now it was powering away from him and climbing. Dan wrestled with the controls and squeezed the triggers again. Shot flew all over space except where the target was. It still had more than half its shields, he couldn’t let that go, he had hardly any! Throttle up, down... now the superior manouverability of his fighter would tell. The pirate might have won the initial joust, it wouldn’t win the mêlée. The enemy pilot made a mistake and flew straight away from Dan for the moment. He centred the crosshairs... but no bullets were flying. RELOADING, said the weapon status tags. Dan roared. Doc was saying something on the comms, but that didn’t matter. The guns clicked back to “ready” and he started spraying fire. The sidewinder had managed to turn and face him, and as its own shields flared and flickered under Dan’s barrage, its lasers began to pulse again.
Another stripe of dots met the sidewinder from above, and its shields fizzled out of existence. Sparks flew from its hull as high-velocity rounds ate into the metal. The sidewinder hit its own boost, soaring away on a trail of luminous plasma.
‘I said I’d got mine,’ said Doc. ‘You do know you’re growling to yourself, don’t you?’
Not that it mattered. Dan pulled the eagle round, throttle down as he turned then up as he started facing towards his foe. He was doing this, it was working! It wasn’t getting away from HIM! He reached for the boost button again--
Another line of magnetically accelerated iron struck the sidewinder, punching through its rear bulkhead. It started tumbling, its flight control lost, then blew apart as its reactor went critical. Doc had killed HIS target! HIS! For a moment, Dan nearly turned the ship on his friend, then he gulped.
‘Not bad for first combat,’ said Doc calmly. ‘Training is your friend, watch out for the anger. Why, I bet you never even noticed my guy shooting you.’
Dan looked at his shield indicator. It was nearly gone, the faintest blue tinge around the hull schematic. Suddenly, he felt cold.
‘The cobra’s run off. Put power to shields and head back to the bow at half speed while they charge. Things aren’t going badly there.’
Dan pulled his ship around and into formation with Doc, who he couldn’t help notice had nearly full shields.
Up ahead, a drifting skeleton of metal was all that remained of one of the adders. The other was twisting desperately under the combined fire of Booster and Polo, but it was Arjanna and the python which immediately drew the eye.
Her viper was dancing a similar kind of dance as it had with Thurden’s ship, only many times faster and infinately more deadly. Most pilots used “flight assist” mode all the time, having their ship’s computer fire thrusters so that it moved more like an aeroplane in atmosphere. In space, where you could otherwise find yourself flying backwards or sideways rather than the way you were facing, most people could get horribly confused otherwise, or fail to ever correct a spin. Military pilots were better trained and tended to deactivate it for combat manouvres; Dan realised with a stab of shame that he hadn’t touched his once in the fight, nor used any thrust beyond adjusting the throttle.
Arjanna, though, had complete mastery of her ship’s movement. It spun then stopped dead, shot forwards while twisting sideways to fire, slid around the python’s flank to attack its belly, then as the large ship started rolling to bring the guns on its upper deck to bear, her viper boosted back around the other flank, dropping back towards the stern as it did so. All the time her lasers burned every instant she was facing it, and every few seconds a pair of cannon-shells exploded against its shields. She seemed to be leading the python into making every move she wanted.
But she was still one small fighter against a giant, and it was a giant with turret guns. No matter how good she was, she could not avoid all the sprays of laser and lead it sent in her direction. Her shields were nearly half gone, although so were those of her target.
The other adder turned into a ball of fire. ‘Moving to assist!’ called Booster.
‘No, I’ve got it right where I want it!’ said Arjanna. ‘His afterburn capacitor should be recharged by now, let’s make him use it...’
She accelerated before the python’s bow. Its engines flared and the big ship moved with surprising speed, accelerating after its tormentor. Its main guns flared, nearly striking the viper as it spiraled towards the generation ship.
The generation ship...
The python was roaring straight into the range of its gun batteries. The laser arrays opened up. One blast caught Arjanna a glancing blow, but most were focusing on the larger, slower, easier target. The python’s shields sputtered and went out. It turned over to try to bring its weapons to bear on the new threat; Arjanna flipped her viper and flew back to shelter behind it. The arrow of her ship pointed straight into the python’s belly; a long burn of laser and two cannon volleys slammed straight into its powerplant then she turned and boosted away, the thrust from her ship knocking the python off balance further. Gobbets of molten metal streamed from its hull on both sides; it turned over again and tried to escape, but more turrets were locking on. The python spewed fire, swelled, and burst. A second later its reactor detonated; there was more liquid debris than solid scattering across space.
‘Target fixation!’ said Arjanna. ‘Even experienced pilots can lose track of where they are in a fight. I believe I heard Doc telling you that earlier, Dan?’
‘Wow... I mean roger!’ said Dan.
‘Speaking of which, look behind us,’ said Doc.
Dan checked his radar. There were... three, no, five new ships there. Another new contact appeared; a ship had appeared in the other direction as well, before the bow. How many had Booster and Polo seen on the way in? Another newcomer...
‘Must be all the system’s pirates, joining together...’ said Arjanna.
‘No you’re not staying to fight them!’ snapped Booster.
‘Both our ways out are blocked off!’ said Polo. It sounded like she was trying to keep panic out of her voice.
‘We need options,’ said Arjanna. Was it Dan’s imagination, or did she actually sound a little rattled? ‘Masslock on this thing is about six kilometres, we could get that easily off its flank and jump to the ring system.’
‘You’ve forgetten the enormous relative velocity!’ said Doc. ‘No modern ship travels at this sublight speed. We’d hit the mass concentration of the rings and the deceleration would tear us apart!’
‘Then we turn off the velocity compensators,’ said Arjanna.
‘Are you mad!?’ yelled Booster. ‘We’d be hitting an asteroid field at... God knows what speed!’
‘We’d have a better chance than staying here, much as it pains me to say it,’ said Arjanna. ‘Don’t worry, the ring’s not as solid as it looks.’
‘She’s right, it’s our best chance!’ said Doc. ‘I’ll tell you where to find the override. Follow me. And if you get a chance, say a prayer.’
Off for a week, unlikely to be more updates during that time