The Crucible

sci_fi2_by_0800

By: Dawniel Kupsch

Tiber System

Tiber Orbital Space

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

They harried the enemy in lightning quick sorties that would draw Vanduul fighters out of the pack, then pick off those too eager or too slow to return to the larger group. They sewed confusion into the large congregation of alien craft, breaking their concerted attacks on the troop carriers and battlecruisers of the Empire.

They worked together like a perfectly engineered machine- one always knowing what the other would do, the accompanying groups of volunteers from the Squadron brutally efficient at culling targets of opportunity.

Gunslinger and Capm worked together in what seemed explosive acts of god- the human gods of Old Earth; violent and staggering in reprisal and power. Nothing could touch them as they dove and strafed and spun in the clusters of enemy ships hovering like gnats over the blue-green planet. It was beautiful and breathtaking and deadly, and soon the enemy squadrons fell back to their own destroyers to regroup and gain the protection of the primary swarm. Many soldiers that would have otherwise perished won free of the falling warzone and made the jump to safer space.

Spirits that had fallen as comrades had died rallied in fierce joy as fighter pilots attached to the remaining Empire fleets recognized the legendary presence of the famous ‘Gunslinger’ amongst them, and their own efforts redoubled.

Xander bared his teeth at his partner on the comms display in a fierce grin. Another troop carrier shielding a Hospital ship won free as the Midnight Squadron flight and UEEAF wing closed behind them to fend off any thoughts of pursuit.  Frank spoke up on the personal frequency.

How about we take a break and let these boys and girls catch their breath, Capm?

Xander looked over his screens, studying the activity surrounding the planet. He registered that despite their heroic effort, the UEE was still taking a pounding, and their small corner of the battlefield was the only place to be seen where a relative calm was evident. He noticed a cluster of engagement several minutes away where a limping Corvette and a couple desperate fighters were struggling to break free of a pursuing group of Vanduul. He considered only for few seconds before responding.

“Negative Gunslinger- once more into the breach dear friend…then we head home. First round on you, of course,”Xander grinned.

He watched as his friend gave him a one finger salute, laughing as he switched to team comms and directed his wing to fall in for a final run.

 

* * *

Tiber System

Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space

Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

She pulled herself slowly along the exterior of the vessel, the mottled grey space excursion suit molded tightly to her body, the face shield dark and obscuring her features. Arriving at her shrouded vehicle, she slipped into the pod where it clung to the outside of the Midnight Squadron command ship. Even a discerning eye would have written the rounded lump off as a sensor modification- one of the advantages of targeting a group like Midnight Enterprises, where no ship profile resembled the factory specs, and most of the personnel would not have access to the particulars of how a ship was modded out. Hundreds of eyes had likely scanned over her pod, and none had seen anything amiss. The ship itself had simply accepted the pod as yet another specialized accessory thanks to a certain little program she had access to.

She paused for a moment after she was secured. Enforcer Richard von Blucher was more brutal and efficient than she had expected even for an individual trained by the Advocacy. He had forced her to alter her timeline considerably by apprehending her dupe so quickly. Of course it had worked out beautifully when Xander Morgan and Frank LeBlanc opted for an unscheduled excursion to the battlefront.  She smiled at the perfection of it as she entered the code to activate both packages, then disengaged after setting her nav computer to the rendezvous  point. She was confident her small pod would simply register as debris floating off into space from the warzone. Once far enough away from the ship sensors, the pod’s dampened propulsion system would set her course. She relaxed into her seat, a smile curving her lips.

***

On the flight deck, the security scanning crew was coming up empty. The signatures from the various types of armament made it impossible to identify any alien residue that would indicate sabotage to the ships within an immediate timeframe. Sifting through the billions of chemical particle layers would take time he just didn’t have right now. Of course he had no proof that anything further was amiss, yet his instincts were screaming at him that there was something to that brief flash of expression he had seen on the spy’s face.

There was no help for it. He was going to issue the priority mission cancellation code and have all fighters return from wherever Xander had taken them. It was better to be safe and arouse Xander’s ire than the alternative. As he turned to relay the order to Lothar, he found the Turk frowning slightly as he stared at his glas.

“What is it?”

Lothar glanced at his boss and stroked his beard. “Maybe nothing.  It’s just…well, there was a signal burst- it was tiny…barely detectable. In fact without your security protocols it would not have been detectable. At the same moment AI logged a sensor array went dead on the exterior of the ship with diagnostics stating it no longer existed- that it had never actually been there. It could be a glitch…coincidence…,” he conceded dubiously.

Jaeger scowled and snapped out an order. “Override executive orders via security prioritization and bring all fighters back NOW!” He was already running for his ship, bellowing for a security team to mount up. Lothar cursed as the recall failed to ping any Midnight Squadron command craft on the battlefield, and turned to sprint after his boss.

***

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Tiber System

Tiber Orbital Space

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

Pain.

He didn’t know how it was possible to continue breathing with this much pain stabbing into him. Yet he fought the oblivion of unconsciousness, as merciful as it would have been. He clung to the rage as waves of anguish and agony washed over him, clawing at the darkness that had become his world as he drifted in the cold, debris strewn space. He focused on one thought: Whoever had done this would pay.

He could hear his men dying as they threw themselves valiantly against the Vanduul while trying to save him, but all other communications chatter had gone dead the moment the small explosion had gone off. By some miracle, there had been no breach, but his controls had been reduced to slag and his fighter was floating space junk.

He cursed and wept at the brave sons of bitches shielding him from the Vanduul fighters, begging them to leave him, ordering them to fall back to the command ship. But no sound could reach them with his outgoing comms melted into slag. In some distant corner of his brain, he registered that it was a small mercy that he did not have to watch.  In a desperate measure, he had even attempted to eject in order to save his people the need to protect him. But even that mechanism had failed, leaving him entirely helpless in the prison of his fighter cockpit.

And so he sat and raged and wept and yelled in turn, his pain secondary to the images blasted into his memory as his best friend had died before his eyes.  Gunslinger had died the way he had lived; fighting to the last, the most heroic bastard he had ever known. Whatever insidious damage had been done to the ships of both flight leaders, Gunslinger had seen the effects first. He had been intentionally crippled though, where Xander’s ship seemed to have been rigged to explode. Whoever had concocted this death sentence had seemed intent on killing Gunslinger’s legend by simply handicapping him enough to be taken out by random, unremarkable contact; a move calculated to kill morale on the UEE armed forces side. He filed all of this away in his head even as he mentally watched it happen over and over.

The final look Frank had given him. The wistful smile. His gloved hand pressed to his cockpit window towards his friend as he directed his ship in front of Xander’s after his final words.

“Take care of my little girl.”

And then he was gone, his fighter taking the hit and knocked aside like a toy; a fiery comet descending to the roiling, war torn surface of the planet below. A heartbeat later the detonation took his sight and destroyed the interior of his fighter. A clinical part of his mind wondered at the delay, and considered the faulty result of the tampering done to his fighter. Intentional or accidental?

The smoke made it hard to breathe as the scrubbers in the fighter limped along attempting to recycle oxygen. He wondered if he would simply suffocate. He coughed, the spasm awakening a fresh onslaught of agony from his burns and acid seared face.

He was losing the struggle to remain aware, and then dimly he registered a shout on the short wave and a ragged chorus of cheers from far too few remaining voices. Cries of “Jaeger!” overrode the sounds of engagement and he was confused further; men cheering Jaeger? Was he delusional?

He felt a vibration and faintly heard the grate of metal. There was a terrible static on his comms and then the deep, intense voice of the Enforcer came through as if from a vast distance.

“Damn it Lothar, I’m right on top of him, get those comms open!”

The signal was lost then swung wide again, this time clear as a bell. “Lothbrok to Capm, can you hear me? Sir…. I have you… Xander…hang in there.

Vaguely Xander decided he was hallucinating…his Enforcer had never called him by his first name. He was far too regimented for such familiarity. And that gruffness in his voice sounded like concern. The sounds of fighting had died away and there was silence. He sighed and slipped into a deeper darkness that blessedly made the pain go away.