How long had it been since the Battle of Ontregos? How long since those dark days when the Raid pushed into the Imperial systems, driving a wedge through Precursor space to come within spitting distance of Sentinel-17 itself? It felt like a lifetime. How strange a feeling it was to be nostalgic for the days when all a man had to worry about was the impending wrath of a bunch of augmented technophiles with itchy trigger fingers.
Drifting cold in a cluster of dead Jericho fighters, Cadet Joanna ‘Pup’ Lawsley shivered in her seat and tried to will away the numbness in her fingertips. The only thing she wanted to do more than power up the drives was to sleep, but she knew that to do either would kill her. The latter was death by hypothermia; the former was murder by Biomorph.
It was barely a thousand metres away. It seemed to be a fusion of two or more ships, one of which had likely been a Tiger. The black metal of the composite hull rippled with strange energies, and periodically a bolt of green light would trace a vein like pattern across its flank. It was moving slowly, like a shark sniffing the water for blood. Lawsley had encountered it during a shakedown flight and had come to the Ontregos Graveyard hoping to shake it, but alas the Biomorph refused to be shook. Powering down and playing possum had been a last, desperate resort that had bought her time, sort of, but now she was out of options and in desperate need of a plan.
While most of Lawlsey was busy thinking about how she was about to die, other parts of her were working hard. The animal part of her, the part that saw thought as an inconvenient hurdle between now and victory was hard at work. The animal saw something and caught it, dragged it up to the higher thought processes and howled for attention. There was a navigation beacon eight thousand metres to aft. If it could be powered up, a signal could be sent out. If a signal could be sent, reinforcements could be summoned and the Biomorph could be dispatched.
It would kill me long before I got there, the part that was Joanna protested.
We would die fighting, the animal replied, and that is a good way to die.
The internal dialog would have continued had the Biomorph not turned directly toward Lawsley and swept its sensor probe over her. There was a brief, discordant blurt of sound from her earpiece, and then the Biomorph continued to turn and began to search the next drift of dead ships.
When she remembered how to breathe, Lawsley became aware that there was at least a tiny source of warmth in the cockpit now. That helped resolve her inner conflict. If she was going to die pissing herself in terror, she was at least going to be holding down the trigger when she did.
The Neutron’s reactor pulsed into life. Engines spooled up. Thrust nozzles twitched and weapon mountings swiveled as the ship shook off the cold numbness of sleep and roused itself for battle. The HUD flickered into life, shifting quickly from the OS logo to an angry red diamond of a confirmed hostile contact. Joanna manually punched inputs into the command console, blew out the forward maintenance hatch and violated numerous safety regulations to give herself a sharp boost of rearward inertia. Her ship pivoted around to point straight at the distant beacon, and by the time the Biomorph had any clue she was alive the interceptor was halfway to its goal.
The nav beacon was long dead. Badly damaged by weapons fire and debris impacts, its internal power systems had long since given out. Core systems were ticking over just enough to allow a digital link. With one eye on the radar and another on the reactor output, Lawsley approved a remote power leech and began charging the beacon. At 70% the internal mainframe made contact with her. By 80% so did the Biomorph.
“Mayday! Mayday! WPK-41 inty in distress! I’ve got a Bio on my xxxx and need immediate assistance! Any pilot in range please respond!”
Bolts of plasma shrieked past as she pulled a high-G turn to try and shake her pursuer. The alien ship may have looked like something Frankenstein would have built had he been an engineer and not a body snatcher, but it was fast as hell and more than capable of keeping pace with her. Lawsley could just about out-turn it, but the moment she moved away from the beacon it would stop transmitting her distress signal, and that would be the end of her.
One more turn made spots appear in her vision. She passed the beacon so close the proximity alarm went off. As she pulled yet another brutal maneuver a volley of plasma smashed into the beacon and the power link went out.
“xxxx!” she screamed, watching in terror as the beacon’s power reading tumbled back to zero and stayed there. There was no help coming now.
More out of spite than any belief it would be useful, Lawsley unleashed a burst of laser fire across the Biomorph’s underbelly as she fired the afterburner and ran for the nearest debris field. Pieces of Phobos fighters pinged off her shield as she entered the gravity well of a large asteroid where dozens of Imperial Army craft had come to rest. A quick jink and a long burn to starboard brought her to the next rock that was almost entirely occupied by Raid craft. It was strange, she mused as white-hot death pummeled her shields to critical levels, how even in death the soldiers seemed to be marshaling themselves. The Wolfpack flew for the Empire now, but they had been born of Jericho. When the Biomorph killed her, which side would claim her corpse?
She decided not to find out. As her shields died she dropped close to the rock and let a burned out Templar take the kill shot in her stead. Forward scans pinged a second beacon ten thousand ahead of her. It was a Jericho model, still powered but apparently set adrift by some unknown catastrophe. It was ten clicks of empty space, the perfect killing ground for the Biomorph. The alternative was to stay in cover, stay with the wrecks, and perhaps play dead once more.
She remembered the cold and its siren song of eternal sleep, and a sudden spike of rage made her run for the objective. Biomorphs were notoriously resistant to electronic warfare, but she dropped a pulse mine on the off change and was astonished to see it worked. For a few seconds the Biomorph lost all attitude control and slammed headlong into the nose cone of a Machete. The alien was back in action almost immediately, but Lawsley had escaped its weapons. She had time to recharge the shields, send a second signal, and plan her next move.
The wandering beacon didn’t like interfacing with an Imperial ship, much less one designed for electronic warfare, but the firewall was old and key systems had failed and by the time the Biomorph rejoined the battle Lawsley had not only resent her distress, she’d set it to auto-repeat. A duo of rockets knocked the wind out of the monstrous ship just long enough to give her a head start to a shattered Dreadnought that had plowed into the heart of a rock cluster. It had been so badly damaged by the conflict she had no idea which side it had been on. What astonished her further was how nobody had seen fit to salvage her.
Slowly, carefully, Lawsley worked her way through the splintered skeleton of the dreadnought. The hull around her shook with plasma impacts, which ended with a much more alarming vibration as the Biomorph impacted, having failed to curb its speed. The rudimentary atmosphere that somehow endured carried distorted and chilling sounds as her hunter pin-balled its way through the narrow passages. Her vessel nimbly dropped through a cavernous wound and into the spinal access shaft, which became blocked just shy of the main docking bay but, care of yet more battle damage, an alternative route allowed her back out into open space.
“-r? WPK-14 if you’re hearing this-”
“I am! I am!” she shrieked, exploding into a sudden fit of laughter. “WPK-14 receiving! I’m by a big dead ship and the Biomorph is inside it! I don’t know where I am for sure but-”
“Calm your tits, I’ve got you! Look up!” She did, and there was a Styx. It was emerald green with pink tiger stripes and despite that it was the most beautiful ship Lawsley had ever seen. A Valor with the StarMed cross and heraldry appeared not far behind, and that was followed by a trio of fighters all sporting matching colours and corporate logos.
“This is Black Flag. Been looking for you for hours, Pup! Your instructor’s been worried!”
“Sorry about that,” she answered sheepishly.
“First thing you’ve got to learn, Pup, is that you stay with your squad no matter what. I’m flying the ambulance. Get on my six and follow my lead.”
She did as ordered. The Biomorph found its way free of the wreck as she fell in line behind the Valor, and together the ad-hoc wing unleashed an alpha strike that smashed it back into its component craft, and then obliterated those craft, leaving nothing to salvage but dust.
“Lucky for you we were nearby,” Black Flag said conversationally as the wing moved back on course. “A malfunctioning nav beacon hurled a cargo transport off course and we’d been hired to watch the repairs. Not glorious I know, but someone’s got to babysit the supply lines. We had to chase off a pair of pirates about an hour ago, but other than that we’ve been twiddling our thumbs. To be honest, I was glad of your distraction.”
“So should I report back to base?”
Black Flag laughed at the suggestion. "Hell no! What did I tell you before? You stay with us until the job’s done. We all go back to base together, and you can go do your own thing when we’re clear of trouble. You got into this mess by…"
“Say again, Black Flag?”
The words sent shivers down her spine. She saw an Eagle running flat out toward them, and she switched over to the wing’s channel in time to catch a panicked cry about mercenaries incoming. Twelve ships of various sizes and classes, all flying with FoF transponders disabled and no official identifiers.
“Pirates?” she asked the group.
“Maybe pirates, maybe mercenaries. Plenty of people would like to see these transports go missing.”
“Doesn’t matter who they are,” Black Flag cut in. “Did you warn them to back off?”
“Yeah, and they ain’t listening!”
“Then we kill them.” To Lawson’s surprise, it was her who’d spoken.
“Damn right we do! Wolfpack, you guys go watch the repair crews. Vipers, flank toward those rocks. The rest of you, follow me! We’ll push straight in and bowl their vanguard over!”
For the first time in almost two years, Ontregos Graveyard echoed with the sounds of battle. It would be the first of many as successive waves of private groups, corporations and mercenary squadrons sought to obtain control of the newly reactivated nav beacons and assert control over transit through the region. Salvage teams and scavengers would clash over the debris, seeking the choicest morsels to pick at. Mining conglomerates would spark small wars over the tiny fragments of iridium found in the heart of a single asteroid on the fringe of the system, while zealots of Jericho would unleash a holy war to retake the remains of their lost brothers.
But all of that took place long after Lawson’s victory over the Biomorph and the mercenary squadron. For her, Ontregos Graveyard was nothing more than a memory of her first true taste of battle, and of a victory that she would savour for the rest of her life.