revised: Aug 2, 2001
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A small blue energy vortex formed near the third planet in the still space of the Lydine system. The long cylindrical form of the UESF Granville exited vortex as its jump-engines shut down.
"Status," ordered the Captain as the displays revealed the brown and blue planet below.
"Scans clear, Sir. No contacts present," reported the tactical station.
"Excellent," commented the Captain. "Drop a PSP when we enter orbit."
"Yes, sir," responded a mission specialist as he readied a planetary survey probe for launch. A few minutes later the Granville entered orbit. "PSP away, sir."
"People, this is exactly what we've been looking for," exclaimed the captain. His stern face showing excitement as he reviewed the PSP data. "This planet could give us just the foothold we need towards ending this war with the Roqs."
The bridge crew began cheering and congratulating one another. Their joy was short-lived as the tactical officer interrupted them with a frantic shout. "Captain, we have a contact emerging from the spinward side of Lydine 3."
"Battle stations!" ordered the captain, knowing the contact could only be the enemy. "Drop a sensor buoy and get that planet between us and them."
"Aye, buoy away."
The bridge was silent. Everyone braced against the acceleration as the Granville sped away from the enemy around the planet. Relay's were dropped to maintain the tightbeam laser communications with the buoy as it transmitted images and data back to the Granville. The tactical station reviewed the data for any sign that the enemy had detected them.
The captain waited until the planet eclipsed the view of the stars and the location of the enemy. "Tactical, report."
"Ship appears to be one of their light scout class. Buoy is detecting two additional targets emerging; they're heavy fighter escorts."
"Did they detect us?" asked the Captain, his voice barely able to mask his worry.
"There have been no active scans from the targets. No alterations in their course."
The captain weighed their options thoughtfully. "Plot a course to bring us up behind them," the captain ordered. "Best speed. Launch interceptors when in range with orders to engage at will."
* * * * *
Maddox ran down the corridor to the flight deck as battle stations sounded throughout the ship. He gritted his teeth as he thought about how the other pilots following behind him reminded him of puppies. In his past life before the war Maddox had worked as an aerospace engineer. Now, he was a veteran to a bunch of rookie pilots who had never seen combat. At the age of 30 he was nearly twice their age and had been one of very few pilots to survive battle with the Roqs.
He hated how they looked up to him for guidance, how to beat the Roqs and come back. He knew it was just a matter of luck that he had always come back, but it didn't help to ease the feeling of responsibility he had for them.
Maddox remembered the day he sat watching the news network. The war had started as most wars do, with a single act of aggression. In this case it had been the destruction of the UESF Gersham.
The Gersham was an unarmed, explorer-class ship sent into deep space for peaceful exploration. The news broadcasted only a few garbled fragments of its final message that made it back to relay station on the outside of the solar system. There were only a few excited words about sighting alien vessels, and the final fragment of a panic-stricken voice, "They're firing."
Nothing was known about the invading force. Scout ships were sent into enemy space. Their language remained a mystery, making communication seem impossible, though it was agreed upon that the enemy called itself the Roquesh. From the scouts' surveys, it was determined the Roquesh held a large portion of space that Earth had had begun venturing into. It could only be assumed that they didn't like humans nosing around their space.
The war had been progressing slow and bloody for the last 7 years. It had also left many of the military confused. The Roquesh had superior beam weapons and were certainly capable of breaking through the UESF lines. Yet the Roquesh never pressed forward. Colonies were left unharmed even after their security forces were destroyed. For the most part it seemed that being a colonist was relatively safe, Though United Earth Space Forces pilots had a short life expectancy once engaging in combat on the front lines. Many didn't survive their first battle.
Maddox had never expected to be training kids to fly ships he had once helped design. Most of the time it seemed as if he were training them to die. Yet he always returned from the battles. He tried to believed his intimate knowledge of the ships gave him an edgehe knew exactly how far he could push the envelopebut, it didn't help to alleviate the responsibility he felt for the men and women whom he had see die around him.
Maddox climbed into the cockpit of his ship and strapped himself in.
Mallory, his gunner, hopped in behind him. "Time to nuke some Roqs!"
"Bring them home safe," Maddox said softly to any god that might have given a damn and had been listening. As soon as the cockpit sealed, the ship moved into the vacuum breech. Maddox hit the launch control and was thrown back in his seat by the acceleration as his ship was catapulted into space.
Three other fighters fell into formation with his own as they headed to intercept the Roq scout and its escort. Within ten minutes the Roq ships were in sight.
Maddox watched as the Roq maintained their course. Combat with them always puzzled himthey always seemed to wait until that last second before engaging. It was not a sound battle tactic to let your enemy get close enough and fire first. It reminded him that they were alien and unpredictable.
"Let's take out the warbirds first," Maddox said into his mic. "Shadow-three and four, take the planet-side bird. Shadow-two, you're with me on the other."
The other ships acknowledged and began targeting the enemy ships.
"Weapons lock," Mallory said as the ships transmitted telemetry between their targeting computers.
"Torpedoes away!" Maddox ordered, each ship responding by sending its compliment of torpedoes towards the Roqs.
The instant the torpedoes were away, the Roq warbirds broke formation, banking and heading straight for Maddox's squadron. Beams stabbed out at the incoming torpedoes, destroying most of them before they armed or were close enough that the fission warheads were in effective range.
One of the warbirds took a direct hit from a torpedo and disappeared in a blinding fireball. The other quickly avenged it by expertly taking out the pair of attacking UESF interceptors with well placed shots.
Maddox banked away and began to jink to avoid the Roq energy weapons. He knew the Roq ships had more powerful beamcannons and could easily outrun his own fighter. His only hope was to rely on the superior agility of his ship to avoid the Roqs' attacks and get into position to return fire.
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The Granville continued its acceleration around Lydine 3. The captain watched the battle through the passive scanner buoy it had dropped before going into hiding.
They emerged toward the rear of the conflict ready to support the UESF fighters engaged in close combat with the Roq ships. The scout had reversed it's heading to assist its escort, traveling back towards the Granville.
"Captain! She's bringing her nose to bear!"
The captain gave his final order. "Torpedoes, fire all tubes! Recall the interceptors."
Exhaust plumes blossomed along the sides of the Granville as the small missiles headed outward before curving rapidly toward the enemy.
The Roq vessel fired its main gun the instant it was aligned with the Granville. The single beam sliced through the void, catching the Granville head-on. A moment later the beam exited the rear of the cruiser just before the engine core ruptured. The explosion tore the back half of the ship away and followed back through the hole punched by the Roq beamcannon. The Granville immediately vomited fire and drive plasma from its launch bays as it died.
Even as explosions continued rippling through its hull, the Granville had already avenged itself. It's torpedoes streaked towards the Roq ship to deliver a final lethal blow. The glare of detonating fission weapons illuminated the dark side of the planet below.
Maddox found himself in darkness as the cockpit and his visor went black to protect him from the flash. He glanced at the LIDAR, which showed the drifting remains of the other UESF fighters and one of the Roq warbirds.
"He's getting behind us!" Maddox's attempt to warn the other ship was in vain. Before his wingman could react the Roq's beam cannons punched easily through the fuselage and walked up along its length. The ship erupted in a fireball
"Shit!" Mallory yelled in reaction to the explosion. His vision cleared as he looked rearward. "He's on our six," he shouted in panic as the Roq opened fire. "Dropping a mine. Mine away."
"No!" Maddox screamed through the mic. "Were too close."
Maddox maneuvered hard attempting to shake the Roq off his tail while pushing the engines to redline, accelerating to put as much distance as possible between them and the mine. There was flash as one of the beams struck the cockpit, then a sudden pressure followed by an instant transition to vacuum. Maddox could feel his suit balloon in the absence of cockpit pressure, the sudden stiffness hindering his attempts to control the ship. He swore under his breath as all his displays went red and alarms sounded through his helmet.
A second flash flooded the cockpit from behind as the proximity mine detonated somewhere behind them. Maddox felt the blast shake the ship as he fought for control.
"Mallory, what's the damage?" he yelled a bit frantically as he tried to assess the displays while stabilizing the ship's attitude.
When Mallory didn't answer, Maddox twisted in his seat to look over his shoulder. He found himself staring into space through the vaporized half of the cockpit. He fought the urge to wretch as he noticed the remaining lower half of Mallory still strapped in the seat. Maddox returned his attention to stabilizing the ship.
He had seen the Granville burning but knew there was no chance of him making it back to it even if anyone might have been alive. He had no other place to go besides the planet below him.
He set a reentry course as best he could. His finger hovered over the key to initiate an emergency landing, knowing that once he pressed it there was no turning back. He said a quick prayer and pressed the button.
Maddox felt the ship lurch forward as the explosive bolts separated the aft section from the main fuselage. With the drive section and fuel tanks gone, the once powerful ship was left with a mere liftingbody design to bring it down safely through the planets gravity.
The cabin temperature quickly became unbearable as flames from reentry entered through the missing section of cockpit where Mallory sat. Maddox hoped that the bottom of the vehicle was intact; any flaw would mean a fiery death as the ship disintegrated in the atmosphere. He felt himself wanting to pass out as his suit failed to insulate him from the heat.
Maddox felt dizzy as she ship rocked and pitched in the atmosphere. Fire sensors started to sound. The last thing he remembered before passing out was the surge of white fire-suppressant foam that flooded the cockpit.
He woke up and found himself in a sea of white. Everything was quiet; he knew he was either dead or that the automated systems had continued to function and brought him down in once piece. He reached blindly through the foam for the controls and opened the hatch. He dropped down onto the ground, a cascade of foam following him. He wiped and shook the foam from his suit and helmet. When his visor was clear enough he looked around the crash site.
He was amazed that he had survived, even more so when he looked beyond the front of the fuselage. He realized that if the ship had traveled another 200 meters, he would have been embedded in side of the facing cliff.
Maddox began inventorying the survival supplies as he pulled cases from their various compartments marked for oxygen, food, water, communications, and shelter.
He had enough bottled oxygen for a day but the oxygen extraction equipment was gone. Thankfully the atmosphere was breathable, though less than Earth-norm. He would have to watch how he exerted himself but it could be done. It would be like working in high altitude and he did have the bottled air to give him a boost.
Water and food were good for the moment. A weeks worth of water was ready for consumption and the condensation and purification equipment could produce more. There were two cases of standard ration bars, enough for two months. He could stretch it to four or five if he kept activity light and didn't mind a little malnutrition. Given that Lydine 3 wasn't in the main routes, he knew he might need to do that.
The distress beacon was intact, though it's power supply would only last month. The reserve power cells were gonelost in the crash. They would have been nice to use with the portable shelter too. Now he would have to rely on the solar panels for his primary power. Some were badly cracked, though possibly repairable.
Maddox looked back towards the ship; there was one more thing to remove. He found a small shovel amongst the supplies and proceeded to dig a shallow grave in the rocky ground. He found himself getting winded in the thin atmosphere and closed his visor before turning on his oxygen. He finished digging and went to the ship to remove Mallory's remains.
Maddox fought the urge to wretch as he pulled the blackened half-torso from the cockpit, the stump burned from the energy weapon and cooked by the heat of reentry. He replaced the soil on top and covered the grave with some larger stones. He offered no prayers, only a moment of silence before a brief request to be forgiven for his failure.
He stood and looked around the area for a spot to set up the shelter. There was a suitable location tucked back beneath a rocky overhang that offered protection from the wind. It also had a good view of the crash site that would allow him to see any rescuers.
He pulled the shelter pack over and activated it. Polymers mixed forming an expanding foam that flowed through and filled the mylar casing before hardening into its final shape. In less than five minutes it had unfolded and inflated to act as a minimally comfortable quarters for four.
He peeked inside and was impressed that the shelter had produced its own furnishings. There were ledges or benches formed along the wall that could be used to sit or sleep. Some of the niches appeared to have been designed for some of the other survival equipment. There was a large basin that could hold nearly fifty gallons of water near what looked like the appropriate place for the water extractor.
Maddox staked the tie-down points to make sure his finished shelter remained in place. He moved his supplies inside and set up the water extraction equipment. He hoped there was enough humidity in the air for the extractor to work, at least until he could find a source of water to feed it for purification.
He looked up toward the summit of the small mountain. He wasn't sure how much daylight he had remaining to climb nearly two thousand feet to set up the distress beacon. He decided to take a quick survey the immediate area around his campsite before nightfall and tackle placing the beacon tomorrow.
The next day, Maddox woke to a distant rumbling. He left the shelter and looked up into the sky. He saw the huge fireball making its way through the upper atmosphere. The orbit of the Granville's blown-out hull had finally decayed, bringing it within the grip of the planet's atmosphere.
He gathered up the distress beacon along with one of the undamaged solar panels and set off for the summit. During his climb he spotted various small lizard like creatures and what he assumed were small mammals. Maddox considered that his first sign of good luck, thinking that if he could catch them, they might supplement his food supply and allow him to stretch his rations further.
He reached the peak a little over two hours later. He made good time, but he had overexerted himself. He held a mask to his face and breathed some of the bottled oxygen to try lessening his fatigue. After he felt better he started on setting up the beacon, making sure the unit and solar panel were securely anchored. He checked the power output and confirmed the beacon was active. With any luck a UESF scout would pick it up.
Before heading back down to his camp, he took a moment to look out over the surrounding area. There wasn't much to look at, mostly shades of reds and browns with very little green. He couldn't see anything that looked like a large body of water. Clouds in the sky were a welcome sighta light rain would be perfect for increasing his water supply.
A metallic reflection caught his attention. He couldn't clearly identify what it was, but he knew it was not something natural. Perhaps someone from the Granville had made it to an escape pod. There was also the possibility it was merely wreckage, or worse, Roq survivors. He took a bearing from his campsite to the wreckage and started his climb back down. Tomorrow he would look for other survivors.
Maddox returned to his camp and sat in front of a small fire as the sun began to set. He thought about his friends back on the ship as he chewed slowly on a ration bar. Over four hundred men and women were stationed on the Granville, now they were all gone. He tossed the wrapper into the fire, watching the plastic shrink before catching fire. His eyes followed the ash, caught in a thermal, floating upward into the sky. He hoped they managed to take out a few of the Roq with them.
Later that evening his hopes were realized as another fireball traveled across the night sky. The only thing it could have been was remains of the Roq scout.
"Burn, you bastards. Burn!" Maddox cheered into the dark night sky before heading off into his shelter for the night.
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