A nameless sector. A nameless world. The only sign of life out here are the jump beacons built by the Empire a century ago. Those beacons are now in Jericho hands, and without them nothing larger than a fighter would dare to risk the belt.
19:32 relative. Dreadnought Akrimael fired up her warp gate nexus and catapulted half a dozen Dogs into the fringes of the belt. We were already there; we’d been here for days, sleeping.
21:57 relative. The mercenaries met the locals. Jericho pilots in bone-grey starships came screaming out of the black, shields up and engines hot. They called themselves “The Unburied”. We knew of them; a mercenary company from way back. Cold, ruthless, efficient; the kind of scum you never want to cross vectors with. They rolled in and went hot, pulping the vanguard in a storm of laser beams and plasma fire. Those poor Dogs got whipped pretty bad and turned to run, but there was nowhere for them to go. I guess we could have saved them. At the least we could have tried, but why should we? We weren’t being paid to do that. No, those Dogs served their purpose; they lit up the enemy and showed us their numbers. That was all they had to do.
I saw Berren do a fly-by of my position. Almost missed it, I’m ashamed to admit. I was dozing, drifting in and out of consciousness. Can’t exactly blame me; I’d been sat in this space suit for days, drugged and dormant, waiting to come alive again.
My arms were like lead as I punched the activation button and brought the reactor back online. The whole Hercules began to vibrate as the old ticker began to turn over, cooking hydrogen into plasma to feed the power demands of the waking Fighter. Off to my left three other ships much like my own began their own activation process. Behind us, woken first, a Harpy began to shudder free of the frost mooring it to the asteroid. Berren’s Dvergr was joined by his sister, Leys. Seven ships, left cold in the asteroids so Jericho patrols wouldn’t catch us. None had; the Unburied sure as hell didn’t.
I found a mark and gave a fleeting glance to my HUD’s clock. 22:13 relative. Fitting. “I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.” Damn right I am, and I intended to prove it.
I came up hard on the rear quarter of the Jericho fighter and put the hammer down. She was busy hunting the last of the Dogs, weapons hot and shields full forward. She never knew I was there. The ship took a hit just below her main engine and cartwheeled, shedding hull-alloys as my railguns raked her aft to prow. As the tumbled she began to break apart. No explosions, no shockwaves, no pyrotechnics; she just broke in half down the middle and floated apart. Quiet, quick, efficient. one-nil to the Giants.
I’m guessing that tipped the Unbound off that we were active. Jäger in his Harpy got the next kill, reducing an Axe to dust in a single shot from his ship’s main gun. Berren and Leys swooped around one of the larger asteroids off to relative-starboard and found themselves a bigger fighter to play with. Not sure what it was, but it’s plasma cannons were big enough to light up the void for kilometres around. I left my fellow Fighters to play as they liked and rolled in, setting a vector for this unseen heavy-hitter. I came onto its flank and got a good look. Wish I hadn’t - Katana, high-spec fighter and pride of the Bosko family. Unexpected. This was a complication we hadn’t factored in.
I picked a vector and lit up with the railguns. I could hardly see what I was shooting at beneath the blue-white flare of shields taking hits. It wasn’t just his shields either; the Unburied turned on me and returned fire with laser cannons. One hit and my shields were in tatters. We were outclassed and we knew it. I threw a missile his way out of spite and rolled away, hoping our brother and sister recon team could handle themselves.
As luck would have it, my new vector found me a beacon. There was an Unburied Dagger lurking there but I had the drop on him. I hit the Overdrive and let fly, knowing that time was of the essence. The Interceptor bugged out, his shields re-aligned to absorb the brunt of my fire and saving his life. I knew what he was trying to do, but even forewarned I couldn’t do much. Alarms began to sound as a disruption pulse hit my ship and knocked my targeting computer out. The HUD went haywire and all I could do was attempt an emergency restart and pray - and pray I did - that I could get guns back before the Dagger came back around.
Intertia kept me turning prow-dorsal. I saw the Jericho Interceptor vanish behind a smaller asteroid for a moment, lining up another attack. Seconds later he was there, right in front of me with weapons armed and aiming. The system kicked back in at that very moment and I didn’t waste any time in opening up. It was gun vs gun, shield vs shield, hull vs hull; no dodging, no trickery, just raw head-on power to see who would live to kill again. Dagger boy blinked. Both our shields were gone, but his plasma cannons weren’t optimised to melt the heat-resistant ceramics of my Hercules. Railguns, on the other hand, are a fine way to punch big holes in almost anything. Especially my railguns; I invested well in my weapons. The mark went keelward, seeking to dip down behind a larger asteroid and shield himself from fire. I wasn’t having that; a parting shot popped the hull open on his left flank and shredded his attitude thrusters. Unable to steer, the Dagger tumbled headlong into the asteroid and blew apart upon its surface. I doubted there’d even be anything left to salvage.
It was a little victory, but a good one. Two kills to my name and an unattended beacon. I took the opportunity to begin uploading the re-calibration program; a tidy little piece of coding that would send an encrypted signal to the waiting Empire fleet that they could jump safely, and the co-ordinates of where to aim for. Sly little sods that the Unburied were, they’d rigged the beacon with false co-ordinates; a less attentive operator might have missed that, and killed an entire fleet on behalf of the enemy.
Done and dusted, all we had to do was leave. Problem was, that Katana had other plans. She caught me cold just as I had done to the Dagger; the first I knew of her was my shields going down and the mother-of-all bangs from somewhere behind me. I saw a big chunk of fuselage spinning through space past my cockpit, and knew with deathly certainty that it had come from me. Alarms shrieked, warning lights blinked, and the HUD went to hell as static overshock knocked out all the systems. The sheer kinetic trauma of the hit set me adrift, and I rolled naturally to see my prey. This wasn’t like the Dagger; this time I couldn’t light up and hope for the kill. The Katana had knocked out every system I had, and she was coming for the kill.
My life flashed before my eyes. I remember those long seconds of the killer’s approach clear as day. They stretched out into hours, and it seemed that I could make out every little detail of the vessel. I could see the scorched panels where the Dvergr’s had scored some lucky plasma hits; the imperfect shading where newly painted panels sat next to old, weather-worn sections of hull. I could see their zombie-head logo and make out every fleck of rotting flesh and the ridges of each individual worm crawling in the cadavar’s brain matter. I could see the pilot, face invisible behind his suit, and his dull-orange HUD reflected off his opaque visor. I could read his power display information, missiles remaining, status of the emergency shield capacitors and engine outputs. I saw it all as clear as if it were on my own HUD.
And then I saw him die. Jäger hit him out of nowhere and burned away the last of his shields. Then in came Leys, her Dvergr sporting a dozen holes but her guns still firing on full. Venk and Carro’s cobalt-blue hulls appeared above me in formation, unleashing paired beams of laser fire that glowed white hot as they overcharged the reaction chambers. Hit from four sides at once, even the Katana couldn’t handle us. She buckled under the strain and her reactor overloaded, causing her to swell up from the inside and burst apart into a thousand little pieces of white-hot metal. To me it happened in slow motion; The wings parted, spraying out molten globules of liquefied titanium as they went. The engine nacelles rocketed backward, corkscrewing off and leaving golden contrails to mark their passage. The pilot didn’t even know what hit him; he was still staring at me, utterly focused, as the roaring blue-white fires enveloped him, reaching around his pilots chair to embrace him as their own. For a brief instant, just before the shockwave blew out the canopy and the full-force of the explosion obliterated everything, I actually saw his face. His visor shattered as the flames took it and beneath I saw, for the merest of heartbeats, a Human pilot’s face, the skin burned away to reveal the muscle and bone beneath. It looked remarkably like the logo on his hull; I’m sure he’d have approved of that.
00:43 relative. The Empire ships have arrived and are preparing for the next stage of their offensive. I don’t know what that is. I don’t care. Everything’s dead but the life support, but I won’t die out here. My friends are dragging me home; I have no idea how Jäger can fly a Frigate in a belt this tight, but he does it with style. We should be meeting with the carrier in about an hour. Then the Empire will pay us our dues, plus a bounty for the kills, and we can make ready for the next mission. There’s a lot to do before then, but that’s for another time. For now I’m going to sleep. We all can.