Klingseis Chapter Fourteen
Space may seem beautiful when you’re learning about it as a child, but when you’re submerged in it, completely surrounded by the sterile darkness, it can be terrifying. From the vantage point of a normal ship you don’t see many stars or gorgeous nebulae to keep the eyes busy. Just the complete blackness of a never-ending abyss. My only comforts are the generated display on my console and knowing the rest of Laramie is flying off my port side.
My pilots already have their orders. Griffon squadron will escort any civilian ships escaping Portway Station. Pride and Vega Squadrons are hunkered down around the station, the first line of defense in case any more Ralgoth ships enter the system from our blind side. I’m leading Laramie and the heavy bombers in Hades directly towards the enemy vessel.
“Dragon, this is Reaper. Richter, is sitting this one out. You’ll be on my wing. Form up.” The sound of my voice is significantly muffled by the air regulator connected to my mask. I give it a few tugs to rearrange it on my face.
“Laramie, the rest of you stay glued to your wingman, Attack Protocol Gamma.” I’m certain my breathing is coming across as hurried over the comm.The first few minutes of being in the cockpit always fill me with anxiety. Moving my head around is hampered by my helmet. I can’t grip the flight stick as well as I’d like through my gloves. My faceplate is transparent, but even that seems like an additional barrier between me and my ship. I shake off the feeling, knowing that it will all feel natural again soon.
“The Ralgoth ship may not look like much, but she’s not going to be easy to take down. Keep an eye out for her turrets. They’re not too fast, but if you get hit, there’ll be nothing left to put in your coffin.”
My pilots already know this and have heard me say it countless times before in our simulation flights. We’re conditioned to treat our training like a real fight and our fights like training. We are always methodical and consistent so that it matters on a day like this.
“Laramie, our job will be to take out these turrets so that the bombers can bring the thunder. The Ironsides will be sending an AGM any second. If it doesn’t destroy the frigate, Hades will concentrate fire on the hole it punches. If not, we all hammer the engines to cut off this bitch’s legs. Then it’s the Ironsides’ responsibility.”
A symphony of “Rogers” signals back through the comm. I see Dragon form up off my port side. Dragon is the callsign for Ensign Tricia Velasquez, Richter’s wingman. She has no real flair with the stick, but she’s a steady and reliable pilot. I paired her and Richter together to offset each others’ weaknesses. So far, it’s been a good fit. I’m not nearly the pilot Richter is, but hopefully we’ll be efficient today.
“Dragon, we’ll escort Jupiter. I’ll fly ahead and clear out as many turrets as I can. Stay tight behind me and clean up what I miss.”
Our callsigns aren’t simply to facilitate communication, they become our new identities. Inside this cockpit, I am no longer Alicia Klingseis, no longer my mother’s daughter. I am the compilation of years of training and perfected skill, I am a pilot in the UPE. I am Reaper.
A message from the Ironsides breaks through the traffic, “Laramie, Hades, watch your six. AGM away.” I notice a new figure on the battle map in the lower right corner of my display. The Ironsides has indeed fired, the AGM being represented as a purple blip on the screen. It quickly overtakes our position and splits into much smaller fragments.
No turning back now.
“Hades, you are on deck. Full burn to the enemy frigate. Once the AGM has made contact, open fire on what’s left. No need to conserve ammo, unleash everything you have on that ship.”
The AGM condenses back to a single point on my map and makes contact with the Ralgoth ship. A blinding eruption illuminates the darkness of my cockpit. I zoom my display in to get a closer look. When the chaos evaporates, I can see the detonation from the Ironsides’ new prized weapon generated an exceptional amount of debris now orbiting the frigate. Not enough to kill her, though. The enemy vessel charges forward like a wounded animal bleeding into the vacuum of space.
Ahead of me, Jupiter’s engines turn from a dark red to a light blue as he begins to accelerate. Inside the flight deck, even with proper hearing protection, a full burn from those engines is loud enough to deafen you for life. Yet out here, nothing. I hit my thrusters a little harder to pull slightly ahead of him to clear a path.
“Ironsides, this is Reaper. Impact on enemy ship confirmed. Unclear on damage, standing by for orders.”
“Roger, Reaper,” Richards signals back. “Go to work. Keep on them until you’re shooting at empty space.”
“Well Dragon, let’s earn our pay for the day. Jupiter prepare to release your payload once we take out the Ralgoth’s defenses.”
Dragon double clicks her comm to signal an affirmative as we simultaneously start firing on the Ralgoth’s turrets. So far, the Ralgoth ship hasn’t responded to our attacks. They don’t seem to be concerned with our presence at all. I make three full passes on the ship, taking out every external turret I can find. Dragon is right on my tail, cleaning up the scraps, probably a little too close for error on either of our parts.
The barrels of our guns turn red-hot as we unleash round after round. Even the coldness of space isn’t enough to wick away the heat fast enough. The enemy’s turrets fracture and evaporate in the barrage. A thrill runs through me every time I destroy one, but so far it’s more like an amatuer target practice simulation than an actual battle.
What are these bastards waiting for?
“Reaper, this is Jupiter. We’re ready to drop our payload, you and Dragon steer clear.”
“Negative, Jupiter. We still have some work to do on these guns.”
“LT, we need to drop the Molotov ASAP. The Ralgoth ship is increasing velocity. If we wait any longer the Ironsides could get caught in the wake.”
Shit. I should have noticed that the Ralgoth ship changed velocity. This is what they always warned us about at Officer Candidate School. Don’t let tactics overwhelm strategy.
“Dragon, pull out and form up on Jupiter, now! You are green, Jupiter. I’ll circle around and start working on her engines. Laramie, pull back and hold off at ten klicks off her starboard bow.”
Damn. Jupiter was right. The Ralgoth ship is speeding up. They must be getting ready to ram the Ironsides.
A lone missile drops from the bottom of Jupiter, and heads true toward the enemy vessel. If I didn’t know the Molotov was capable of obliterating a small asteroid, it would appear as innocuous as any three-meter wide piece of debris floating in space.
From a safe distance behind the ship, I watch as the glow of the Ralgoth’s primary engine turns white-hot, signaling their increasing velocity. One engine. The Ralgoth frigate is designed like a massive missile. A missile on a collision course with the Ironsides.
The payload from Jupiter finds its way to the open wound provided by the AGM. It’s hard to tell what happens first: the brilliant detonation from the bomber’s demolition, or the hellish carnage unleashed by the retaliation.
A saffron glow flickers from the Ralgoth ship as a barrage of ammunition streams toward Jupiter’s location. I watch as the hull of the bomber gets painted a collage of red and purple, then erupts in a small explosion.
“Damn it! Evasive movements. Move it people! These bastard’s weapons have some range.”
I didn’t know Jupiter very well, but he was a good pilot. He deserved better than to be the first causality in this war.
“Hades, your bombers can’t evade these turrets. If you’re ready to send in more bombs, do it now, and then get the hell out of here.”
I realize my orders were futile as I watch the other four blue blips on my HUD representing the heavy bombers blink out almost simultaneously. Those bombers should have been safe, the remaining turrets never should have been able to reach that far. They were sitting ducks once they came online. I try to shake off the thought and do as much damage control as I can for the fight at hand.
“Pride and Vega, full burn in and come join the fight. This bastard is focused on the Ironsides, you’re not going to do any good sitting on your hands babysitting the station.”
A round of excitement bursts through my headset as the fighters acknowledge the order and express their desire to hurt the enemy. Some of the phrases are more colorful than others.
“Dragon. I’m going to keep focusing on the hull breach. If we are going to do any damage this is going to be it.”
My plan seems coherent enough. Focus on the wound and keep firing. But I know the fight is futile. A single fighter has no chance to do what an AMG and Molotov failed to accomplish. The Ralgoth frigate must have some additional shielding inside. But what choice do I have? I fly in close to the aggressor’s port side, pulling hard on my gun trigger, daring the barrels to melt into an unusable mess. In between flashes from my own guns, I catch a quick glimpse of what looks like another layer of armor behind the hole we’ve made in the frigate.
We haven’t even punched through to her guts.
Dragon’s bird becomes visible as she glides above and in front of me to add to the fight. I strafe side to side, but she seems to be sitting still, too occupied to cover her own ass.
“Dragon, what did I say about those evasive measures? You are way too easy of a target right now.”
“Roger that, Reaper.” Her acknowledgment of my orders isn’t changing her flying. She remains locked on her target, gun barrel pointed directly ahead. She never has been that good at multitasking.
“Dragon, I said move your fucking…” Before I can finish, her fighter erupts in a ball of ignited atmosphere.
“Shit, Dragon!” My mind is split into two halves. The first is screaming, mourning the loss of my pilot. The other, the primal instinct for survival, takes over the joystick and forces me to peel hard right. I barrel roll through the enemy’s barrage of gunfire. A few rounds scrape the hull, but I manage to make my way to safety.
“Laramie, Pride, Vega, get clear and check in!”
A series of updates cuts through the comm, but nothing I want to hear.
“We’re down four pilots, we’re getting eaten alive out here!”
“I’m almost out of…..AGHHHHHH.”
“I’m bailing out!”
Each scream from a dying or ejecting pilot feels like a dull spike being driven into my skull. I still haven’t released my trigger, but I slowly become aware of the flashing red light on my HUD.
I have nothing left to contribute. I contemplate flying my bird into the Ralgoth ship, but leaving my pilots without a commander would just make things worse. Some of Laramie manage to make their way through the fight and find a position near me.
“Richards, this is Klingseis. We just had our asses handed to us. I’m currently out of ammo. I’m down to twenty…make that nineteen fighters from Laramie, Pride, and Vega combined…The first and second lines are gone. I don’t think we can stop her. She’s all yours now.”
Instead of Richards, I hear Prendable’s voice coming through my com.
“Lieutenant, you’ve done all you can. Get your people out of there, go help protect Portway with the rest of your fighters. We’ll take it from here.”
I feel tears of anger running down my cheeks as I swallow back the bile building in the back of my throat.
“All pilots……this is Reaper. Pull back and head toward open space. If you have any ammo left, go fill in with Griffon and escort the civilians out of here. We’re through.”
I kill my engines, and watch the rest of the battle unfold in the new tranquility of my cockpit. I change my viewscreen from a direct image of the space outside the ship to a magnified view of the enemy ship.
Richards has left the comm open from the bridge and I can hear snippets of orders to bring the new tachyon cannons online. A quick surge of hope runs through me as I watch chunks fly off the front of the Ralgoth frigate, in what looks like an avalanche of melted metal peel from her nose. After just a few seconds of the subatomic onslaught from the cannons, the ship breaks apart. I instinctively scream in celebration, but that quickly turns into a horrified gasp as I understand why I saw another layer of hull behind the initial damage. Two smaller ships, perfectly cylindrical, were concealed within the frigate. One is still accelerating directly for the Ironsides, but the other veers off toward Portway Station.
My gods, what have I done? All those people have nothing between them and hell.
I feel a noose tightening around my neck as I’m forced to reflect on what transpired, what I could have done differently. If I hadn’t grounded one of my best pilots, maybe Ritcher could have pulled something out of his ass, something I overlooked. If I hadn’t underestimated the range of the Ralgoth’s turrets, Jupiter and the rest of Hades could have been saved. Ritcher would still have his wingman. Even if I had done everything the same but hadn’t called Pride and Vega into the fight, they would have been there to help protect Portway.
I’m trapped in a nightmare, paralyzed, unable to prevent the carnage in front of me. There is no explosion when the Ralgoth frigate crashes into the Ironsides, instead she merely pierces the underbelly of the ship like a spear. The two vessels become conjoined, melded together into one monstrosity. The impact forces the entangled vessels into an uncontrolled spin, small amounts of debris orbiting like satellites.
The bones in my left wrist shatter when I strike the console in front of me. I scream, not from the pain, but from my complete failure.
My comm picks up chatter from the Ironsides. A general distress call is going out to the Hycain base two systems over. The Ralgoths have boarded the ship. They are invading my home, killing my friends. I can’t even imagine what will happen on Portway once they make it there.
All I can do is float in the blackness, as useless as the dead around me.