I’ve piloted fighters before as they’re being refueled in the midst of combat. You’re a sitting duck, parked for precious minutes next to a tanker that is, in reality, nothing more than a metal ball of combustion ready to go off. No matter how intense the fighting gets, you’re paralyzed as your fuel gauge slowly fills. Your bird needs fuel. It is the one constant of combat.
It is the helplessness that hurts the most.
On the hull of the Orbital Supermax I was finding out the true meaning of the term “sitting duck.” We weren’t just refueling a fighter. We were siphoning fuel from one of the station’s positioning thrusters and using it to fill two fighters and the tanker that Herschel Konicek had flown around the hull from Cargo Hold C. And instead of a regular enemy, we were hiding from the Nova Dogs, a pack of pirates, headed by Captain Martin Kilkenny, a cannibal who’d threatened to eat every prisoner on the Supermax.
We’d filled the fighters first and Wes Morgan had taken the Hornet on a wide sweep in the hopes of distracting the Nova Dogs from our refueling operation. I sat in the Cutlass. It had been a long time since I’d flown one, but it was coming back to me. Thrust, attitude, firing controls. Check.
“One bogie, 12 o’clock low,” said Konicek from the tanker. I looked to my twelve o’clock and then down. Through pure bad luck, a single Nova Dog fighter had somehow gotten a profile on us, even though we were against the station wall.
“I’ve got him,” I said as I powered up the fighter. A pre-flight menu popped onto the HUD, but I motioned past it and guided the Cutlass away from the station.
“I need about twenty minutes,” said Konicek over the radio. I sighed. Might as well ask for a day. I didn’t think we had either.
The Nova Dog didn’t seem especially concerned as I guided my ship towards him and a hail came through the comm. After Day 3 of their siege I could imagine them being confused at the appearance of an unidentified fighter. The Flight Deck had been destroyed, and with it both of the Station’s active fighters. They had no idea we’d managed to repair two mothballed fighters that had been put in storage longer than I had been on station.
I wasn’t going to give him a chance to raise the alarm.
I quickly shifted my shields forward and gunned it at maximum thrust. Inertia pushed me back in my seat with enough force that my vision darkened at the edges. As soon as I heard the chirp of my scan on the Nova Dog, I squeezed my trigger. Several bursts flashed out across the void, provoking small explosions on the enemy’s wing and hull. The second burst hit in a bright shimmer. He’d been rationing power, but now he raised his shields. His thrusters flared and he dove down towards the station, looking for cover.
I jinked left, spinning my craft to pursue him and kept the heat up. Bolts of energy smashed into his shields. He barrel rolled around an antenna, narrowly avoiding it and it came up fast in my vision. I pulled the trigger, severing the antenna. My shields bloomed a sickly blue color as the metal flew up and bounced roughly past me. By the time I’d cleared it, nearly fifty percent of the power of my geriatric craft was gone, just like that.
We were close to the hull now, so close that I could see the tiny squares of light that were the station’s viewports flying past. I hit my thrusters, launching myself away from the station and then coming in again hard. Instinctively, my opponent veered and his shields scraped OSP-4, flaring brightly for a few seconds before collapsing. My next shot turned him into a ball of fire that winked out almost as quickly as it appeared.
I reduced thrust and came in close to the station. I was momentarily alone, but my radio still hissed with organized static that almost sounded like words. Curious, I changed the band and caught the sounds of a firefight. Screams were punctuated by the rapid tap of projectile weapons. The Nova Dogs were attacking someone on the station nearby and they were getting hell for their trouble.
I couldn’t imagine who could possibly offer that level of resistance after three days of siege. The remaining guards were dead while anyone who could had fled in escape pods and been gunned down by the pirates. Suddenly my heart dropped. There was in fact one group that was still armed and organized. After all, they’d stolen our guns.
I tapped on the comm while maneuvering the fighter as close to the station as I dared, using increasing and decreasing bouts of static to triangulate her position. I say “her,” for although the group I was tracking was no doubt the Tevarin, I was in fact trying to locate their solitary guest. Cayla Wyrick. My therapist.
At an angle, I saw one of the station viewports flashing irregularly. I wasn’t reading any oxygen, which meant this area had already been holed. Whoever they were, they were fighting in spacesuits.
I risked a transmission. “Cayla?”
The sounds of battle barely ebbed, but I thought I might have heard her voice in the far distance. That hope, although probably a trick of the imagination, was good enough for me. I feathered the controls and turned the nose of the fighter towards the station. I was so close now that I could see the battle raging through the viewports. One side wore irregular spacesuits, smeared with tar-like paint. The other, the red and blue of station staff. But they weren’t station staff. They were the Tevarin.
“Dear Yusaf Asari,” I called over the radio. “I suggest you pull your men back. Love, The Kid Who Wouldn’t Shut Up.”
Against all odds, I saw one of the men in the red spacesuits press his hand to his helmet, where his ear would be, and then look out the viewport right at me. It must have been a heck of a sight. A massive Cutlass, positioning jets firing sporadically all over the hull, not more than a couple of meters outside the window. He turned and waved his men back. I let myself drift to the left. My targeting computer wouldn’t recognize ‘Human,’ so I lined up on the black striped spacesuits by hand and pulled the trigger.
The first blast turned the hull white hot and the second splashed globs of molten metal into the crowd of pirates. It took them several seconds to identify the source of this new attack, and by that time I’d blown a huge hole in the hull and mowed down nearly half their number. Some returned fire with sporadic bursts of small arms fire that were absorbed harmlessly by my shields. I kicked my positioning thrusts, turning the fighter slightly and continued the barrage of fire. It wasn’t long before they were running for their lives and the Tevarin were pumping their fists in the air.
But I wasn’t done. I cut the shields and then feathered the control stick, turning the fighter around. Using only maneuvering thrusters, I guided the fighter through the hole I’d made in the hull. Collision klaxons began to blare in my ears and I kept my eyes glued to the tiny readout, usually used during landing, which showed where my ship was in relation to the deck. Soon, I was inside the station, hovering in the middle of the bay where the battle between the Tevarin and the pirates had just abruptly ended.
The nose of my fighter was incredibly hard to keep in position, but I bobbed it up and aimed my weapons at Yusaf Asari and the rest of the red spacesuits.
“You know what I want, Asari,” I said over the radio. The Tevarin had lowered their fists in confusion. Some had raised their rifles, but others knew the futility of that gesture and looked to their leader. I nosed the fighter towards him. “I told you before that I wasn’t going to leave without her.”
Long moments went by.
I began to sweat. The Tevarin weren’t pirates. They might have committed minor crimes, but everyone knew that they’d been sent to OSP-4 instead of local prisons because they were the wrong species. Asari knew that I wasn’t going to gun them down. But maybe he appreciated the risk I’d taken. He was, after all, a Tevarin who’d been arrested for speaking out for his people. I was speaking out for mine.
“Wes Morgan is a man who needs an incentive to keep his promises,” said Asari at last. “But you, however, have shown that you keep your promises, even at great cost to yourself. With you, I need no hostage. Take her, and keep your promise.”
A small figure in a red spacesuit broke away from the Tevarin and crossed the distance between us at a run. I popped the cargo door and she scrambled up into the hold. She took the navigator’s seat and I re-pressurized the hold so that she could remove her helmet.
Moments later I felt her hand on my shoulder. “I knew you’d come back for me.”
For some reason I found I couldn’t speak. I swallowed and took a deep breath, then reached up and squeezed her hand. “Okay,” I said, after I’d allowed myself a minute. “Hang on. It’s a bit of a tight squeeze.”
I tapped the controls and heard the hiss of maneuvering thrusters through the hull as the fighter slowly began to drift sideways.
“Avery,” said Cayla. Her voice tight, as if she was struggling to sound calm.
I felt the hull lurch and damage indicators began to flash. I jerked the controls back, trying to compensate for the sudden movement, but it was too late. We’d drifted forward. One of the turret guns had caught on the hull and bent wildly. Sparks bled from the damaged joint between fighter and weapon as it gave and then gave further before it snapped and twirled away from us.
“The Nova Dogs are back and they’ve got some kind of shoulder-mounted weapon,’ said Cayla. “They’re going to fire again.”
We hadn’t yet cleared the hull and there was no room to dodge. I straight-armed one of the cockpit struts and jammed my back into the seat and held on tight as we took the hit. The blast spun us around and out of the hole in the station. I ignored everything else and punched the shields, and then guided us back into the void.
I surveyed the damage as OSP-4 receded behind us. The hull was scarred and pockmarked in two different locations and the engine had suffered some minor, cosmetic damage. The missing gun was the most alarming thing. It was one of a pair of neutron guns that were linked together in the turret and I was afraid to fire the remaining weapon for fear of a short or electrical malfunction. I would have to rely on the wing-mounted cannon and the laser repeater mounted in the nose.
The radio chirped beside me. It was Morgan.
Cayla heard it too. “Don’t answer that.”
I looked up. My hand hovered over the radio. “Why?”
“There’s something you should know.”