I threw aside all caution, brought up the shields at max output, switched all scanners to active and put the ship on a speed course into orbit and interface. At half light speed, I was only five seconds away from the planet. I approached slightly slower, lest I splatter myself all over the place I intended to save.
Over my seat was the weapons panel. My fingers touched keys firmly, drawing blood-red light from each as safeties were disengaged and capacitors charged.
Earth grew rapidly to full blue glory in my windscreen. Threat receivers cried out, warning me that numerous scanners were tracking me. I ignored them. The atmosphere reached out to embrace me. Ionized air burned across the shields as the Mach meter read "80", much too fast. I was a falling star, falling back home, my ship a burning symbol of vengeance across the sky.
The green and brown outline of a familiar land mass swelled before me. My targeting scanner beams illuminated the Kai Numan ship. It hovered not far from the fort. Target recognition identified it as a wingship or PARWIG, a power augmented ram wing-in-ground effect craft, part airplane, and part battleship. It usually relied upon thrust directed beneath its huge wings for low speed lift. Now, it meandered about on massive amounts of bleed lift thrust, directing its weapons on the fort. That would be my initial target, the thrust vector node. A single missile into that critical vent would destroy its hover ability. It would drop the ship from the sky like a stone!.
The wingship was already within weapon range of the fort. Sharp lines of energy spat from its batteries, ripping great burning holes in the earth that was suddenly so precious to me again.
My old friend Dave was there and later related to me how helpless he had felt at that moment. After a bout of bloody fighting, they had actually beaten the Kai Numan on the ground. Now he and his heroic band had fallen back to the fort, only to be decimated from the air. War from the air was total war, he had reflected grimly, with no quarter given by hulking machines. Our adolescent reveries about being snug and secure in the dank old tunnels seemed a cruel joke. Seizing a fifty-caliber machine gun, he continued to hurl his defiance at those demons from the blackness.
The Starhawk's scanner beams had intimately explored the contours of the wingship's hull like curious fingers. They noted and recognized its configuration from files Paddy had loaded on Kai Numan fighting vehicles. They pinpointed the location of the thrust vector node beneath the smooth metal skin. A diamond-shaped red designator lit up over it on the HUD, along with the entreaty to "FIRE". I did so, the squeeze of the trigger sending a tingle of energy through my hand as my retaliation shot forth. I watched the missile track perfectly, disappearing in an ugly orange blotch on the left side of the enemy ship. I liked the way that blotch ate away at the other ship, consuming its metal skin and innards like some terrible virus. I visited more such depredations upon the alien vessel and the Starhawk lived up to her name. My death-dealing bird of prey from the cold void above screeched madly at her victim, talons of righteous fire from her guns tearing the Kai Numan's hull. More smudges of fiery orange and smears of vile black marred its symmetry. The thrust vector node was gone, obliterated, and the ship was falling from the sky. But I remained unrelenting. I fired over and over, viciously tearing apart the wingship and all it represented, my weapons releasing my pent up frustration. I distantly heard myself screaming curses at the top of my lungs.
I fired into the ship until I realized it had hit the ground. It crashed into the marsh on the east bank of the river. I finally eased off when its weapons magazine exploded. The shock wave from the blast was oddly beautiful as it rippled outward in a perfect circle over the muddy river water.
Sweat poured off of me. My matted hair stuck to my head and pulse thudded in my ears. My baptism of fire may have lacked eye-to-eye gladiatorial satisfaction but it would have to suffice.
I turned my attention to matters on the ground. I circled the fort, surveying the damage and the changes. Large sections of ground were carved into neat parallel brown lines where we had once played Frisbee and drank too much beer. Spots of green dotted these lines. Tomatoes, no doubt. Onions, cucumbers, potatoes. Some patches were now scorched black. Terrified cattle stared up at me from the muddy confines of a crudely fenced off area. More than few dead ones were evident, ripped apart by plasma.
Then I saw faces among the trees and encroaching weeds. Wary, frightened expressions sought to know who I was. Friend or foe?
There was not much left of the stadium. But the field was clear enough. I gently brought the ship to hover over it. I saw a few brave souls venture forth from the battered fortifications as I did. By the time the Starhawk’s wheels had touched ground and her massive bulk settled onto her shock struts, a crowd had gathered. Dave was at the forefront.
He’s alive! I threw off my harness and leapt aft to the stairs.
I perched on the boarding stairs and waited impatiently as they descended. Dark titanium bulkheads gave way to green and the smell of damp, warm grass. I was home. For reasons I can’t explain, I knelt and kissed the overgrown turf.
I heard a murmur from the crowd.
“Hey, that’s a man!”
“He’s one of us!”
“Who is he?”
Dave recognized me instantly. “You son of a bitch!” I heard him mutter hoarsely. He trotted weakly toward me, his face gaunter and more thickly bearded than I had ever seen. His expression was relieved, happy and astounded all at once. Then he did something unusual. He hugged me.
“Brother, I thought you were dead!” He looked up at the ship, shaking his head. “You made it back! Damn, that guy wasn’t shitting us!” He turned wearily to the crowd. “Hey, it’s Josh!!”
Those who knew me flowed forward amid a chorus of welcomes. Mrs. Celino, my former English teacher. Mr. Breny, who owned the discount store, and his son Frank, who was a few years older than me. Marc Conway, one of the maintenance hands with Shell. Carrie DeJean, a girl from my graduation class. And several others. But where was…
“Hey, Jenn was in the message!” I said to Dave, “Where…?
He stood aside and she was there, suddenly. I forgot everyone else. It is nearly impossible to put into words how the sight of the woman he loves impacts a man. She shone in my sight. Her presence reached out and grabbed my heart. Every nerve ending in me lit up in response.
But the Jennifer who had left Satsuma Grove was obviously not the same person as the one who stood before me now. Upon her departure, she had been her usual self. Quiet, unassuming, pleasant, and usually modest. I say usually for she had at times surprised me on weekends. Like the time she had dropped her shorts on Tiger Point to reveal a black thong bikini that displayed her curvaceous rear to excellent effect. Or the time on a hot day on the riverbank that she had casually raised her shirt, revealing the she was braless, and fanned herself with it, laughing all the while.
The woman who stood before me now was physically the same woman. The shape of her face, her nose, her lips. All those more or less permanent features were familiar. But the differences were plain. Her sprayed, blow-dried and teased mass of blond hair was now straight and greasy. Her skin was pale. But her eyes were the most unmistakable transformation. Those bright, lively blue gems were now tired, hungry, no-nonsense stones with wrinkles growing around them. Her dirty jeans were looser and her well-worn black button front shirt was mostly open from a lack of buttons. She had it tied tight against her breasts. Her nipples stood out behind the threadbare material.
Those same nipples rubbed against my chest as the moment melted those hardened eyes. She flung her arms around me.
She sobbed, burying her head in my chest and not speaking. Then she looked me in the eyes, tried to say something and then cried harder and held me tighter.
“I didn’t think you’d come back!” she finally managed to sob.
It was suddenly good to be home, for one of the few times in my life.
Supper was good. Rabbit fricassee’, the gravy made from flour obtained from ground up acorns and cattail roots. Mashed potatoes with more gravy. Fried speckled trout. Tomato and cucumber salad. The fort’s menu told me that some of our notions of survival here had been borne out. Everything was locally produced. Even the seasonings were wild onions and peppers grown in the fort. Rice was in short supply so it was a sparse meal by usual coonass standards. I, of course, opened the Starhawk’s galley to add to the selection and we turned out a rather nice banquet.
I had also broken out the ship’s medical stores in the wake of the battle. We had patched wounds, eased pain and fought infection throughout the afternoon. We were all tired and ready for a good hot meal.
I had been uneasy the whole time. For hours after the crash of the wingship, I had looked to the sky uneasily, waiting for the Kai Numan response. Dave assured me none would be forthcoming. It seemed to be their way. They rarely went charging in to investigate such a loss. It had happened before, he said.
Our banquet table had been a display table for the Orange Festival back when things were normal. Someone had sewn several bed sheets together to drape over its rough plywood edges. Folding metal chairs, lawn chairs and salvaged dinette chairs made up the seating. The people around me were thin, dirty and clothed in rags. And yet there were smiles among them.
Did I feel guilty? I had avoided all this. And had I stayed, I might have even prevented it. But that was foolish, I knew. One ship against an armada was not a good bet.
I was suddenly reminded of the story of HMS Revenge. Commanded by Sir Richard Grenville, she had stood her ground against fifty-three Spanish warships. She sank three and inflicted damage on all the rest The Spanish had a thousand casualties that day.
Before she finally surrendered!
Suicide may have been bold and romantic but failed as a strategy most of the time. And yet here I was. What was I thinking?
Jennifer sat by my side, her face a more invigorating sight than the Starhawk or my paradise planet. She touched my hand silently. She had not said much since we had met again. I silently wondered what aspects of her personality had changed with the years. And how the changes in my own might clash with them.
With the main course waning, I posed a question. “So where hell is Sandrake?”
Dave shrugged. “All he would say was that he had to try to go back. It was hard to understand him.”
Go back? To Tyruus? So he was probably in prison by now. What did he hope to accomplish there?
“He told us who the Kai Numan were, gave us what information he had that might help us. He didn’t know why they were here on Earth though. He seemed surprised by it.”
“And he put us in touch with you.” Jenn added.
“How’d he know where to find me?”
“He didn’t.” Dave replied. “He said the drone or whatever it was would send out a signal that your ship would recognize. And that your ship would respond and guide it in.”
He had not told me about that. So he could track me down at will. He and I would need to talk later.
As the table was cleared, Dave related what he knew and guessed about the invaders. The first units to land were not so much an invasion force. It seemed they were an armed commercial exploitation force. And on the surface, they had not fared well at the hands of the human race. Apparently, our world was a violent place by any standards the Kai Numan knew. Despite their overwhelming material and technological resources, their ground units had suffered massive casualties. Were it not for their ships, they might have been soundly defeated. Dave guessed it was the result of poor leadership and unimaginative tactics. That seemed to fit what I already learned. But there was something else.
Dave dug a scrap of paper out of the pocket of his worn out shirt. “Here’s what it looks like.” It was a map of North America, a page torn from an atlas, marked in red in several spots. “I made this from short wave radio reports. That little receiver I got still works pretty good. The lower frequencies seem to be the only thing they don’t interfere with. Everything else they jam.”
I looked the map over. The Kai Numan apparently had a strong presence in Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Mexico, the East Coast and the South. “What about these other areas? No word?”
“No, plenty of word. I hear from them all the time. After destroying places like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Billings, the aliens moved out of those areas. Arizona, Nevada and Montana don’t seem to interest them much. They completely ignored northern Canada and most of Brazil it seems. Australia too. Aside from leveling cities and infrastructure, they don’t show their face much in those places.”
What did that mean? My chin rested in the palm of my hand as I stared at nothing. What was it about those places that made them so unattractive to a massive force of invading extraterrestrials? “You’d think they’d like those places. They’ve been visiting them for years!”
My humor seemed to work. “Maybe all the UFO nuts are their allies!” Dave chuckled.
The laughter was good. The people of Satsuma Grove may have been eccentric in their own right but they were still kicking after it all.
“Arizona and Nevada are mostly desert.” I mused. “Montana’s remote and sparsely populated…”
“Same goes for Brazil and Australia.”
Wait a minute! “They’ve only established themselves in resource rich areas!”
“They didn’t come here just to wipe us out. That’s not their strategy. They’re here to exploit the planet for its resources!”
Dave’s expression became dour as that explanation sunk in. “They’re raping the Earth. Literally!”
I nodded. “And they’re not wasting time or effort in places with little return. Hmph! They’re staying close to the honey pot!”
“And locally we don’t pose enough of a threat to their operations for them to hurry down and wipe us out. They want to keep to their schedule.”
“So what can we do?”
I sat back, frowning. “Roll over, play dead and hope they leave soon.”
Dave shook his head. “I don’t think we can do that.”
“I been talking to this guy in Tombstone in the radio. He says he’s a meteorologist and he’s been taking air samples since they arrived. If they really are tearing up the Earth for resources, they’re not being very neat about it. He said that radiation levels in the atmosphere are rising, along with concentrations of dust contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals. Basically, pollution is speeding up fast! And I heard him talk to other people who agree with him!”
So now we had an environmental nightmare in addition to war. Great. So, this compels me to take action, right?
I almost suggested to Dave that we talk it over later in private. Then I would take him and Jennifer and the three of us would un-ass this planet right quick! A look down the table dispelled that notion. The dirty faces of children clustered about their suddenly hopeful adults were glued on me. But what could we do?
What, indeed. The hours that followed were steeped in strategic discussions. Most of the suggestions were impractical but there were kernels of wisdom here and there. I made notes, intending to combine them with the Tyreyth intel and hope that after quiet consideration, something presented itself
Dave and I walked out along the old battlements later that night. There was still whiskey to be had and we both needed to unwind. We remembered our imaginary battles against the Russians fought from these very walls on similar inebriated nights. He asked about the Starhawk and we ended up down on the field, just in being in awe of it.
“I still can’t believe it. I mean, it’s just a sketch, a fantasy! How can it be sitting here… on the football field?”
“Objective generation manufacture.”
“What the fuck is that?”
“Literally building something from scratch.” I explained further and he finally nodded.
As the last shot was poured and we sadly contemplated the empty bottle, Dave’s face lost its cheerful aspect. “I wish you had been here, man.”
“Shit, don’t be sorry! I’d have hauled ass too if I’d have had the chance.”
He could never know how much I wished that I had not. I could never explain it in enough detail.
“It was hell. I tell you… I was scared shitless!” He dropped to the ground, resting his elbows on his knees. “You remember Bobby?”
“Yeah, ol’ Bob. He was killed today.” Dave took a deep breath that made him shudder and told me about the battle earlier that day.
The Kai Numan had learned their lesson about air assaults. Their pilots were not used to hot LZs, it seemed, and had suffered grave losses using that tactic. The attack was a purely infantry action. After engaging the forward sentry posts on the highway, they had gathered just over the levee, marshaling their units.
Dave had been nervous, somewhere deep inside. But he had never let it show. "Above all," he had emphasized to his men, "remember what I told you." What he had learned only from books.
The fighters, mostly men who had worked for him, had taken to their positions, heavily fortified earthworks for machine gun nests and rifle pits. He had held the heavier weapons back first, a surprise he had in store. The Kai Numan had no doubt assumed that they were assured of success. They were facing a numerically inferior foe who were armed with the most rudimentary weapons and possessed no artificial combat intelligence units or sensors to provide them with data. Still, there were basic tactics to be followed. Doctrine said to suppress a strongpoint first with what heavy weapons were on hand.
And so it was. The infantry units had moved upward, crossing the wet slope in their flexible armor, escorting the crew-served missile launchers to the top of the levee.
Dave had seen it and had found himself gripping his sword, an imitation Japanese katana he had ordered from one of our favorite catalogs. "Here they come!"
And come they did. The battle had opened as a missile slammed into the earthworks fronting the walls of the fort, ripping a deep, black-soil crater. Nearly everyone hunkered down in their positions, only designated men exposing themselves enough to respond feebly with rifle fire. They even scored on their enemy, two alien troopers falling as high velocity steel core projectiles found the kinks in their armor. The defenders had long since known that the Kai Numan’s energy shields only worked against energy weapons.
Still, the missiles came, and tore greater holes in the earthworks and wounding men. Dave had made his way down the lines, stealing glances over the carved up battlements. He reassured men huddled pitifully behind earth and masonry and prayed that his strategy might give their enemies pause. Another heavy volley ripped across the line and he had seen a familiar form lying crumpled against a damp, moss-stained brick wall ahead of him. His chest had tightened up and for a brief eternity, he had seen him in better days, the gregarious, popular fellow that everybody liked. He ran to his side. “Bobby?!”
There had been too much blood on his dark jacket. He looked horribly out of place there, slumped on that old fortification. We had played there as boys, innocently restaging wars of old. He had tried to smile but the expression seemed to incite coughing. “Damn. I didn’t… think there’d be this much blood!” His voice gurgled in a gasp of pain.
“Hang on, buddy!” Dave had dug frantically in his pocket for a dressing but Bobby was gone before he found it.
Another shot had ripped opened the fort’s inner wall behind him, a shower of shattered masonry splashing into the slime-coated moat. He had barely noticed it. “It was just too… stupid for him to die there!” he told me.
“Their shots are ripping right through everything!!” Another man had hollered at him. “What’re we gonna do??”
He had pushed myself away from Bobby’s fallen body. Our friend was dead.
“What had he done to deserve that?”
I could give my old friend no answer.
“I told ‘em, ‘Stick to the plan, dammit’! They looked at me… What choice was there?! We die fighting or we die on our knees?!”
Dave had been shell-shocked by this time. The constant thump of exploding ordnance was dulling his mind. It was like being drunk. Rage and fear made him invincible.
He had rallied his own missileers. Terrified men with light anti-tank weapons scavenged from wrecked military convoys shakily rose up to firing positions. The outmoded M-72s had long since been modified from their previous role and featured fragmentation warheads in place of anti-armor rounds. The missileers went for the their counterparts with good accuracy. One, two, three launchers were hit.
The Kai Numan had regrouped. Their assault was not working out. It was time to move in on foot. The troopers had formed up for the charge, their weapons held ready for "walking fire". They advanced on foot, hoping that the constant stream of plasma would preclude most return fire.
Again the pitiful humans had huddled, offering little obvious resistance, as the armored alien warriors advanced. A few took direct hits from 5.56 and 7.62-millimeter rounds and kept coming. A few fell.
Dave had been muttering to himself, intently focused on the high grass that fringed a clogged drainage ditch about thirty yards from the earthworks. "A little bit closer..." In his hand he cradled a hellbox, a hand operated detonator. “A little closer, you motherfuckers!”
The staggered line of warriors reached the grass.
"Now!" He screamed, fiercely cranking the handle. The device sent out an electrical impulse to the row of Claymore mines hidden in the weeds.
The Kai Numan sensors had missed the mines. They were getting too many metallic signatures off of beer cans strewn about deliberately. Filters had overlooked the more menacing shapes. The exploding clouds of ball bearings ripped into the warrior’s visors and joints. Blood and screams were added to the carnage as two platoons were wiped out instantly. The blast force threw the whole line back in disarray.
Within the earthworks, the humans had taken rapid advantage of the situation. They rose up, all of them, and sent forth a storm of copper-jacketed lead into their hated foes. Each man and woman aimed for the helmet visors, arm and leg joints, and any point where the armor was weaker. Interference fields generated by the suits to disrupt electromagnetic weaponry such as lasers were useless against solid projectiles. Salvaged machine guns chattered madly from the defender’s positions, mowing through the enemy ranks with a great ferocity. Then, more mines were set off.
Dave had seen it coming. He counted the motionless forms of the slain and maimed aliens on the grass. He watched their remaining comrades falter and retreat. Some mad impulse had welled up within him. He had stood, his sword clanking at his side, his battered submachine gun in hand. His friends saw it. They were amazed as he bolted from the fortifications, screaming like a madman. And they followed.
It had been the alien’s turn to cringe. These humans, mad, wild barbarians that they were, were out for blood. Many warriors threw down their weapons and ran as fast as their boots would carry them for the imagined safety on the other side of the levee. A hideous death awaited those who did not make it.
Dave had seen the one he wanted. It was that pompous, swaggering scarecrow of an officer he had observed on his recon missions into town. The one who casually ordered "disruptive” civilians executed. The one who had taken a liking to the "primitive females". He ran toward him faster than he had ever run, oblivious of everything else.
The officer had to have been in shock. It was unlikely he had never seen anything similar in his entire military career. These humans did not fight. They simply went berserk! They threw themselves upon their adversaries like a swarm of insects, as if only by the instinct of bloodlust. He had been rooted to the spot as his attack had fallen apart and his men had fled before the bullets, knives and bare hands of the humans. Then a terrifying sight had loomed before him. A lone human charged him. In one hand he held a projectile weapon, which blazed with igniting chemical compounds as it spat those bullets. To his right, his sergeant fell, his armor riddled at the neck and blood stained.
The human's other hand brandished an ancient edged weapon, a long gleaming blade held high to strike. He simply had stared at it, dumbstruck.. Then the blade flashed toward his head and he screamed.
Dave had watched his enemy fall, head and body bouncing insanely like pieces of a broken mannequin down the grassy levee slope. Like something that had never been alive. In one moment, he felt elated. His enemy was dead. He had successfully avenged his friends and neighbors. He had put forth the ultimate effort for his home. The next moment he was disgusted that he had to stoop to the level of his hated foe.
The surviving Kai Numan had seen it too and it had obviously terrified them. They knew no initiative, no self-determination in battle. Without an officer or sergeant, they were purposeless. They fled.
Dave was spent by the time he finished his tale. He whispered something incoherent and passed out. My poor old friend. If only I had been here… But then if I had been, there would be no chance at all now. As I gently took the empty bottle from his fingers, Jennifer walked up. Fanning herself in the heat, she smiled weakly in his direction.
“God bless him.”
She put a hand on his shoulder and looked up at me. “Want to go for walk?”
I still held the empty bottle dumbly. Oops. I had almost forgotten about that.
“I think I’d rather sit.” I said plainly
“Okay, we’ll sit.” She seemed not to notice the bottle. But her voice was oddly cold. Her eyes now mostly avoided mine as she sat. “So what have you been doing the last… fifteen years? Besides, riding off in your starship.”
“Not much really.” I shrugged. “Workin’ and livin’. Things haven’t picked up until recently.”
“Helluva situation for a reunion, ain’t it?”
“Yeah.” Her voice almost cracked and I stared at her, waiting. “I was only down to visit my mom and then, boom.”
“I don’t know.” Her eyes fell on the bottle. “Looks like you’ve forgotten some things over the years.”
“I just got older.” I countered.
Her voice was almost smug “So you think…”
“Don’t get self-righteous on me.” This argument had been brewing within me for too long. “After all the support and love I gave you… you didn’t even have the common decency to say good-bye. You just disappeared.”
“I was still afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid you might turn into… my father. I… thought I should find someone with more going for him. Less reason to climb into a bottle, I guess.”
I was aghast. I just stared at her. She was someone I thought I had known intimately at one time. Apparently, I had not known her nearly as well as she had me. She had me figured out… and just abandoned me to my fate without saying why or trying to help. Why had she bothered with me in the first place? I remembered that look she had given me in Danny’s that night. Now it made sense. “Well, thanks a lot.”
Her expression was suddenly anxious. “I was wrong.”
“No, actually, you were right.”
Now she stared at me, as if she had always hoped that she might be wrong.
“Yeah,” I went on, “I was messed up for a while a couple years ago. You know, drinkin’ you off my mind and all that!”
The atmosphere cooled for several silent minutes, neither us knowing how to untangle our feelings.
“So, I married him,” she finally went on, plowing past the matter, “then I had a miscarriage. He blamed me for not taking better care of myself and things… snowballed from there. He finally found someone else. So… here I am.”
I was still not impressed. Someone with more going for him, huh? “Here you are.” I did not know what else to do or say, whether to be angry with myself or her or both.
Now she stared at me as if she did not know me. Obviously, she had expected her story to melt my heart. Good thing stone doesn’t melt easily. “You’re harder than you used to be.” She noted.
“Life does that.” My voice was glacial.
I got up and went back in the ship. She did not follow.
I did not sleep well at all. The words “someone with more going for them” gnawed at me. Then when I finally stopped trying to go back to sleep, I wanted to kick myself.
In the cockpit, I brought up the operating page for the objective generation manufacturer. Under “File”, I clicked “Open”. It was rather polite of Sandrake, I thought, to make the ship’s computers a familiar format.
What a dummy I was. There was a list of hundreds of items, ordinary and not so ordinary, whose profiles were already on the hard drives. With a single command, I could start cranking them out.
Well, first on the list, obviously…
An hour later, I looked out the cockpit windows to see Dave’s hung over expression trying to light up. I had produced a pair of two hundred kilowatt generator sets and all the associated equipment and wiring for giving the fort electricity. There was also a new sewage plant and a new domestic water pump, both complete with piping. To alleviate any difficulty in installing all this, there were two diesel-powered backhoes and a wide assortment of tools. I produced another hover tractor as well.
And to defend this little outpost, there was now an array of high-energy laser anti-ship batteries surrounding the fort, as well as surface-to-air missiles and a network of shield generators.
I was through playing around.
Dave staggered into the cockpit as several boxes of clothing, towels and blankets appeared just in front of the nose.
“How are you doing that?” he muttered.
“I told you last night. Same way this ship was built. Conversion of matter and energy. Kinda like pouring it into a mold and having it come up completed. The wonder of computers, you know.”
“No, I don’t. Got any Motrin?”
I reached into my pocket and came up with a bottle of blue gelcaps. “Better than Motrin. Works faster.”
I smiled and entered another command. A crate of soap and deodorant appeared next to a water heater.
Dave felt better within five minutes. Within twelve hours, we had the damp tunnels of Fort Jackson air conditioned and brilliantly lit. There were clean toilets, showers and sinks and every man, woman and child was clean for the first time in months and wore new clothes. The Starhawk’s computers were tied in to the new defensive batteries and shields. Her sensors tirelessly watched the skies and her threat receivers steadily compiled new data on the activities of the Kai Numan.
Unfortunately, I was still pissed. Every time I saw Jennifer that day, my anger rose again. Who the hell was she anyway to look down on me? I had just saved her pretty little ass. I understood her reasoning, for sure. But circumstances were a bit different these days. I was also highly offended that she would compare me to her father.
As I watched the sun disappear behind the levee, my urge to do something else to work off my anger rose again. I went back to the ship and consulted the new data on the fleet occupation force.
There were only five battlecarriers here in Earth orbit, supporting the surface operations. Surface forces numbered a thousand wingships, with their embarked fighting vehicles, and five million troops. How the hell would I…
How, indeed! I did not need to eliminate every last warrior and his armored vehicle. I needed to cut off their support. Destroy or cripple those dreadnoughts. Or at least make then think twice about what they were doing.
I looked out at the fort, thinking about the people in there. My fellow humans, my neighbors in my ravaged hometown. Most of whom I had ignored up until now. Suddenly, the cause of their deliverance from alien exploitation presented itself as something to do with my rejected, dejected old hide. And what did the town look like anyway? I had forgotten about that. Without a word, I left the ship and took one of the hover tractors.
Beyond the levee, I saw more neglect then anything. The Kai Numan had left some of their craft behind when they fled. They lay mired impotently in the mud. Up the highway, weeds were encroaching everywhere. There were some burned out cars, a few smashed houses and mobile homes. The business district was a battle-scarred ghost town. My trailer still stood, albeit behind waist high weeds. I avoided it for now. At my parents’ home I stopped. It was a burned out shell.
I was in shock as I stepped off the tractor in front of the snarl of charred wood where I had grown up. Every little nuance of the place, every memory I held dear seemed to claw at me abruptly, screaming out for vengeance. Had my parents died here? Dave had told me that he did not know what became of them. Too many people were just missing. Too many people I knew!
I stumbled into the wreckage, seeing bits of things that I recognized. One of my father’s boots, a shelf from the big bookcase, a piece of the old lamp from the living room. I stopped in the kitchen. I could suddenly see it intact, my mother standing by the table, the aroma of her cornbread dressing on Thanksgiving filling my nostrils. Pieces of her china were strewn about, each fragment a bloody cry for retribution. I opened my mouth but could make no sound.
Within ten minutes, I was airborne, pointing the ship’s nose at the nearest battlecarrier.
The coming of high technology and its inevitable military applications had evened the odds between large warships and small combatants on Earth. That went all the way back to when Egyptian patrol boats had sunk the Israeli destroyer Eilat with the first modern anti-ship missiles.
Mass still had its advantages in space, according to Tyreyth doctrine. But small vessels could adapt quicker to the rapid configuration changes that the evolving battlefield environments required. They could utilize their ample random access memory to generate new tactics without the defense burden of a mile long hull. And they could carry weapons powerful enough to inflict grievous, if not fatal, damage on a capital ship.
As for the odds, I figured they were about even. These ships were not on the front line. Their crews might be lax in this occupation support role. They might be bored and behind in their drills. There was no intelligence report that suggested that the Kai Numan were so fanatically dedicated to duty as to be tactically omniscient. In fact, if they had been so successful up in their conquests up to this point, they might very well believe themselves invincible.
It was simple math at first, at least for the CPUs. Time on target at high delta vee was taken into consideration. The output of the battlecarrier’s shields was… well, the shields were not up because the ship was orbiting in supposedly secure area. The first torpedo would go to the hull frame five hundred feet forward of the fantail, the supposed weak spot.
The Starhawk carried heavy torpedoes for anti-ship work. They were outwardly little different from their undersea ancestors. Twenty-five inches in diameter and fifteen feet in length, their warheads were thermonuclear with a selectable yield between .25 and 1.2 kilotons. Most of that energy was normally used up on a target’s shields and armor. They were basically, of course, Tyreyth weapons in a more Earthlike shape. They homed in using several guidance options. In this case, optical seemed the best bet. I laid the targeting box on the defective hull section.
My approach was fast and straight in. Warning tones went off as they acquired me. But it was too late. The numbers on the HUD told the tale. I found myself whispering under my breath, mouthing phrases I had heard and read. “Snap shot…angle on the bow two hundred…torpedo away!”
Apparently, the Tyreyth intel was accurate. The aft section of the ship blew apart like something you’d see at a New Year’s fireworks display. Molten metal, twisted pieces of hull plating and internal framing members rode the boiling white fireball outward. Flying chunks of debris destroyed the ship’s sensor arrays. Its stingray-shape looked as though something had bitten a large chunk out of its ass.
Another torpedo followed, this one aimed amidships. The hull seemed to flex at both ends from the force of the expanding ball of plasma and I guessed that I had broken her back.
Close. She broke in two, wallowing amid a cloud of vapor and debris. The torsion induced by the loss of her stabilizers reduced both pieces to scrap. She was history.
There was no time to lose. The next battlecarrier would be alerted now. They would know to look for me. I headed down, skimming the atmosphere as I crossed the South Pole.
The next ship was alerted and her shields were up. This time, I used two torpedoes, their yield selection and detonation rate set to throw enough plasma at the shielding to overcome its peak load. They impacted in rapid succession against the aft segment. It had the predicted effect. The hull fractured, snapped like a pane of glass. This compromised the shielding continuity. Two more torpedoes flew home, ripping her further. One main powerplant failed spectacularly, the blast blowing off her broad port wing.
The Kai Numan reacted admirably. Threat receivers picked up active scanner beams sweeping me and sensors showed a quartet of small craft heading my way. I accelerated. It was a strangely passive motion. The stars did not leap toward me. My only immediate reference for my delta vee was the Earth’s curving movement below me and the swelling shape of the third battlecarrier.
The range to the four attackers held steady and then opened. I was faster than they were. They could not intercept me before I attacked the third ship. They fired missiles, though, which my aft guns dealt with long before they came near me. Countermeasures automatically kicked in. Ionized chaff and decoys were ejected from the Starhawk’s tail and the CPUs transmitted false images of my ship to any active scanner in the vicinity.
I don’t remember any warning of the shot. I was too close for that. All I remember is a flash of light that almost overloaded my optic nerves. The cockpit windows reacted just in time, their liquid crystal matrix deflecting most of the flash. Still, I was dazed. I had had been hit dead on by one of the battlecarrier’s defensive batteries. More lines of plasma were all around me. I was immediately gratified that my ship had survived and furious with myself for flying straight and level. I jinked about madly, countermeasures still blossoming out around me. Then I remembered that my torpedoes were already locked on. I fired them and commenced evasive maneuvers.
Both torps ran perfectly. The enemy’s defenses were getting better. One of them was shot down just short of the target. The other rode the shock wave of its companion’s death straight through the storm of plasma. The stern buckled though the shields remained up.
The Tactical display suddenly prompted me. The sensors had analyzed the battlecarrier’s shielding and found a fluctuation. A precisely targeted torpedo could break through without detonating.
COMMAND AND CONTROL MODULE
STARBOARD POWERPLANT HOUSING
STARBOARD ANTI-MATTER CONTAINMENT VESSEL
Containment vessel! If that was wide open…
I targeted the warship’s anti-deuterium bunkerage and selected a torpedo equipped with a penetrator charge. The charge would rupture the thicker armor plate around the containment vessel before the main warhead went off. I let it loose, just as the threat receivers found another flight of small craft closing on me.
It turned out to be a good choice. The torpedo slipped through and chaos erupted in the void. Matter and anti-matter annihilated each other in something akin to a star gone supernova. The radiance of the blast swept around my ship, followed moments later by the slightest tremble. Good thing there are fewer molecules and other particles in space. Otherwise, they would have been compressed by the blast into a shock wave that might have finished me off. Radiation alerts sounded briefly but the shielding held.
My assessments of the Kai Numan seemed to be accurate thus far. The attacking small craft never got within visual range. They broke and ran, as the third battlecarrier’s particulate remains spread across space.
I was on top of the world. King Kong! Shit hot!
Then the sensors sounded an alert. More targets. A lot of them. Apparently, one of the two remaining battlecarriers had a commander with some balls. Or maybe he was just in contact with his admiral or whatever the Kai Numan called their flag officers. Whatever the case, there were suddenly two dozen more small craft bearing down on me. Hard on their heels was their mother ship. The other battlecarrier was responding as well.
Two choices. Engage or run. I could outrun the smaller ships but the battlecarriers’ raw power made them overwhelming in a flat out race. But I would only have to face them and not their attack craft. I accelerated to full reaction drive power, half light speed, and put the moon between them and me. Problem now was that I had no shot. I could waste a lot of torpedoes on their forward shield segments for little gain. And they could wear me down with their superior firepower.
I was already losing the race. They were nearly… Launch warning! Torpedoes were inbound at me! I pitched my nose up ninety degrees, ejecting countermeasures. Decoys emitting energy of various type and wavelength spewed out in my wake. Then I yawed ninety degrees and ran like hell. Four torpedoes were after me. One chased a decoy and exploded. Another went after a decoy, got lost and spiraled out toward the sun. The last two stayed glued on my tail.
I decided to try a little relativity here. What would happen if…? I started making some calculations, begging the CPUs for help as I did. As it turned out, if I came to a complete stop, the torps would lose my actual position for .15 seconds. Fifteen hundredths of a second. What could I do in fifteen hundredths of a second? If I let them in closer, they might overshoot me, aiming for the last position they had on me. If they caught up with me in less than fifteen hundredths of a second. That would mean they would have to be within about twelve thousand miles. That seemed like a long way but we were all moving very damned fast. With the inertial dampening field working at full bore, I opened the forward plasma vents, broke left hard and prayed.
I never saw them, save for lines on the display as they shot past. I flinched as the guns simultaneously fired on auto, picking off the lost torps before they could reacquire me.
Now, in my haste to deal with one threat, I had forgotten the other. Dead in space, the battlecarriers were upon me in no time. The windscreen went opaque and stayed that way.
I slammed my throttles forward as the threat receivers screamed their warning. It got hot fast as residual heat leaked through the shielding. That was not good. Structural integrity warnings sounded as the kinetic energy of the plasma beams pounded the ship. They always said there was no sound in space. But there was in the cockpit. It reminded me of true accounts of depth charge attacks, like being inside an oil drum while someone beat on it with a hammer.
I had one card left to play. I set all my remaining torpedoes to autonomous attack mode, released them and prayed again. This worked too. The pounding abated and the range opened up. I did not wait around to assess the damage to the enemy. I pointed the ship back toward Earth and ordered the CPUs to do a two second burst above the ecliptic to get us clear. I was warned again of the danger, warned of the increased stress on the already strained hull structure.
“Goddammit, don’t argue with me! Do it!”
Apparently, profanity worked better than sarcasm. The stars quickly melted into liquid light and the ship groaned around me. I waited for something to give, to find myself blown out into space. Then the stars returned.
Despite her damage, the Starhawk did not rattle or buck during re-entry and landing, like in the movies. The digital flight control system kept everything smooth. The only indications I had were the warnings on the systems and hull menus. I did not really look closely at them until I was firmly back on the ground. As the townspeople came out toward the ship, I read the information off the screens. And my heart sank.
STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY COMPROMISED. COMBAT LOADS NOT RECOMMENDED. AERODYNAMIC LOADS MINIMUM.
SHIELDING EFFICIENCY: 49%
OVERHEAT DAMAGE TO ARRAYS; PHASE DAMAGE TO GRAVITY STATORS: OVERHEAT DAMAGE TO ROTOR BEARINGS. CONTINUITY LESS THAN OPTIMUM. COMBAT LOADS NOT RECOMMENDED.
OVERHEAT DAMAGE TO AFT SENSOR ARRAYS AND SEEKERS…
It went on in greater detail. Most of the damage was actually repairable with Earth methods. Unfortunately, we lacked the high tech facilities of an aerospace manufacturer here. It was possible to fabricate some of the equipment needed with the objective generation manufacturer. But that had been damaged too. Some of its memory chips were fried, leaving it with reduced capabilities. Available RAM was down by thirty percent and many of its files were lost, including the ones for the shield gravity generators.
Okay, so maybe I couldn’t save the world. Maybe I had let my emotions get the better of me. I went off half-cocked with no plan and not enough intelligence on the situation.
Dave seemed to sense this as he joined me in the cockpit.
“Smells like something’s burning.” He commented.
I shrugged. “Well, I got at least three of them, anyway.”
“Three more wingships?”
“No, three battlecarriers. Then the other two kicked my ass.”
Dave’s jaw dropped. “Three battlecarriers!?”
“How the hell did you manage that?!”
“Well, I took ‘em by surprise. I… here, look.” I accessed the combat record, all video and sensor data for my brief fight, and brought it up on the monitor.
Dave was incredulous. I was still depressed. Three out of one hundred fifty was a pretty poor showing in my book..
Dave suddenly grabbed my right hand and began shaking it furiously. “Hot damn, dickhead! Do you realize you just outperformed every military force on Earth? They never even scratched one of those big fuckers! They couldn’t even reach ‘em! You are the man, bubba!”
* * *
My best friend and my fellow residents of Satsuma Grove somehow turned my disaster into a spectacular victory. They threw a party. People drank and danced and shook my poor hand until it was limp. But I could still see it in some future book on the matter. Right next to the Battle of Jutland. The Germans had sunk more ships than the British but they lost anyway. Josh LaSalle, amateur pilot, destroyed three out of five battlecarriers but his poor situational awareness led to his getting his ship pounded nearly to pieces and an ignominious retreat.
I went along with the celebration though. The folks here were genuinely happy. How long had it been since they had felt that way? My deeds, however questionable, had cheered them up. I supposed that that was good and decided to leave any further study to naval analysts of the future. If there was a future.
Somewhere amid the simple revelry, Jennifer appeared before me. I was sitting on a dirty plastic lawn chair near the old Rodman cannon and she just stood there, several feet away, pleading with her eyes. I still had no idea what to say or do anymore, cursing myself for my emotional confusion. I sighed and nodded to her and she walked over.
Her face turned to heartbreak as she approached. “I’m so sorry, Josh.” Her voice was an instant weep. “You were right! I was stupid! But… I was just so damned scared as time went by…and I’m just as scared now.” She nearly broke down. “I was afraid to come back down here. Not of you but of all the bad memories I put away. I thought I had a new life. And then…” She turned away a moment, rubbing her damp cheek. “Please… don’t get yourself killed.”
Well I’ll be damned! Her voice finally healed that little wound in my psyche.
“It’s okay.” I said simply.
She sobbed her apology onto my shoulder for several minutes. After that, we became inseparable again. It was as if the last fifteen years of doubt were sliced out of the time line and matters stitched together to their former state. It felt good. Very good.
“Well,” she said, wiping at her face, “now my gentleman will get his chance to save the world. With his lady at his side.”
“I’d rather you be somewhere safe.” Like back on 89 Tauri-4, tucked away in a massive fortress.
“I’m staying with you.” She stated flatly. “If we’re gonna die, we die together.”
Hearing her say that made me think seriously about dying for the first time since all this had started. Sure, I’d had moments of terror taking on the battlecarriers. But events were simply moving too fast at the time to ponder it. Now, I knew it was time to start praying again. I had a great deal to repent of before I was actually prepared to go out in a blaze of glory.
Some time later, as the sun retreated below the levee, Dave came over and looked at me gravely. “So now that we’ve made everyone happy, what the real story? No shit.”
I sighed. “If I push her any harder in the condition she’s in, she’ll blow apart.” Okay, so I stole Scotty’s line but it was true.
“Can we fix her?”
“Humph. Can you weld titanium?”
“If you can make a welding machine.”
“Can you replace a rotor bearing?”
"Phase damage to a stator?"
“In a directed gravity shielding system?”
He thought that over. “Won’t make me sterile, will it?”
“In that case, I’ll take a crack at it.”
He would too, I knew.
I took my own air samples later that night. Apparently, the guy in Arizona was right. The results were disturbing.
BREAKDOWN OF ATMOSPHERIC GASES (PROPORTIONS BY VOLUME):
NITROGEN - 74%
OXYGEN - 20%
ARGON - 0.8 %
CARBON DIOXIDE - 0.10%
OTHER GASES (INCLUDING POLLUTANTS) - 0.11%
OXYGEN LEVELS FALLING!
* * *
WATER VAPOR: 3.6% by volume
* * *
DETECTED PARTICULATE MATTER IN SUSPENSION INCLUDES FOLLOWING CONTAMINANTS:
RADOIACTIVE DUST (INCLUDES RADON, URANIUM, STRONTIUM 90)
There seemed little doubt that the Earth would be uninhabitable by the time these bastards were done.
Maybe there was something else I could do. Even if the ship could not go into combat again, maybe…
I called up the gun camera recordings from my battle and starting editing them together. Then I consulted the computer on communication options.
“How can I… Look, what I need to do is find the remaining military forces of Earth. Can we… locate any transmissions they might be making and get a fix on their locations?”
SELECT VOICE ANALYSIS OR KNOWN MILITARY FREQUENCIES OR BOTH.
RUNNING NECESSARY PROGRAMS…
FREQUENCIES SCANNED (MHz): 29.00, 29.70, 30.01, 33.00, 38.00, 42.00, 148.250, 148.155, 148.290, 150.750, 163.668, 163.658, 225.000, and 400.000
ANALYSIS KEYS: SHORT SENTENCE STRUCTURE, VOICE STRESS, AGE, AND MILITARY-RELATED TERMINOLOGY.
ENCRYPTION KEYS: ALL KNOWN MILITARY ALGORITHIMS
The CPU did its work quickly and silently as ever.
EIGHT SIGNALS FIT SELECTED CRITERIA:
BEARING 027 TRUE; MATCH 89%
BEARING 033 TRUE; MATCH 85%
BEARING 320 TRUE; MATCH 82%…
I settled for the top three. And I found military installations down each of those bearings. Naval Station Keflavik in Iceland, RAF Mildenhall in Great Britain and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Malmstrom in particular caught my attention. It was listed, somewhat enigmatically, I thought, as the home of the 341st Space Wing. I thought that odd since I knew the Air Force did not have any manned military spacecraft. Or did they? A deeper check of military reference files revealed a less inscrutable but still ominous explanation. The 341st was an ICBM wing. That was odd too, I thought. Wouldn’t an ICBM base have been a primary target during the invasion? Maybe it was. Or maybe ICBMs, with their relatively simple guidance systems and predictable trajectory were simply no threat to the Kai Numan.
“Okay, what kind of transmitters are they using?”
LOW FREQUENCY SHORTWAVE ONLY. ALL OTHERS JAMMED.
So how the hell would I get a video signal to them? “Can we get a video signal through the jamming, say regular television?”
YES. SOME DATA WILL BE LOST BUT APPROXIMATELY 79% OF TRANSMISSION WILL REACH THE FURTHEST STATION.
“Record a message for repeating transmission on the frequencies those three bases are using!”
“To anyone at Keflavik, Mildenhall or Malmstrom.” I decided to leave out any reference to anything military besides the names of the places. “Please turn on any television monitor you have and select channel three. A video transmission will be beamed to you within two hours. Please acknowledge on this frequency.”
Two hours later, I had received three curious replies. I hoped that they were genuine and not from some joker who just happened to be listening somewhere. One said, “Sure. Got MTV?” The other said, “What’s behind door number three?” If these were genuine, I could only presume this was both humor and a way of replying that the Kai Numan would not catch on to. The third reply said simply, “Keep off this frequency.”
I sent my video as three powerful directional signals down the individual bearings. The best way to describe my message was this: We have another chance! Maybe it would rally these men and women, give them an incentive to try again. Tell them that the Kai Numan were not invincible gods come down from Mount Olympus to torture mankind for their amusement. A detailed statement of the invaders’ vulnerabilities accompanied the images.
Would it work? Could they finish what I started so recklessly? Might a lone F-15E be able to put a precision-guided weapon into a wingship’s thrust node? Now that its pilot knew what to aim for. Would heavy losses on the surface discourage the Kai Numan as I had hoped? Would I learn the answers to these questions before I died?
Beyond trying to repair the ship, there was nothing else to do but wait. I wandered down to the galley and found some pretzels to munch on. Then I went below and checked on Jennifer. She was asleep in my stateroom, the sheets barely covering her slender body. Her face was serene and her eyelids trembled slightly. I wished all her dreams to be pleasant ones.
* * *
The message I composed went something like this: It started, dramatically, with a shot of the first battlecarrier I had nailed as it blew apart. A computer-generated narration explained the circumstances. Then there was data on the Kai Numan and the Tyreyth, presented with high quality graphics and simple text. I threw in video images of Paddy and his ship and detailed three-views of the Starhawk. The explanation of its origin, I decided, could wait until later. I also put in the footage from the Kai Numan’s documentary and included the results of atmospheric samples.
I was loath to put in any kind of personal message. I was still nobody to the rest of the world. If the Kai Numan came back anytime soon, I would die as such. Besides, what could I have said that would have any impact on people would had had to watch their world nearly destroyed despite their best efforts? What words could I come up with to inspire men and women who had watched their comrades die in vain? I decided to let the images of what I, with the help of Sandrake and Paddy, had accomplished so far speak for themselves.
* * *
Dave was crawling around between the pressure hull and the outer hull. I could hear him thumping around with the portable imaging ultrasound scanner checking weld seams in the airframe. Every so often he would stop. Then the noise of his grinder and the gas tungsten-arc welder could be heard as he laid a bead of new metal on a damaged joint.
I took the pretzels and two bottles of water and went to join him. There was a crawlspace aft of the midships weapon mounts and I wormed my way into it with my goods. Past the water storage tanks was the gravity center. Here, the gravity generators were arrayed in three toroidial housings.
“How we looking?” I called to Dave. He was still just forward of me, working his way past the ball turrets.
“Not as bad as you might’ve thought really. Whatever software you got in this thing must only give the worst-case scenario. I’ve seen nastier damage.”
“Yeah, but production platforms and supply boats don’t have to handle the kind of loads this thing was designed for.”
“True.” He nodded.
“Want some water?”
“Hell yes.” He made his way between structural members and conduits until he was leaning against the cool metal of the upper water tank.
I handed him a bottle and turned to toward the doughnut-shaped generator housings. There was an access panel right in front of my face and I felt a screwdriver handle tapping me on the shoulder.
“Might as well take a look at this thing.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
The panel screws came out easily. The generators themselves sat on a rail inside the twelve-inch diameter housing, which allowed each to be accessed by simply rotating the entire assembly. The first damaged generator module unplugged with no trouble but it was heavy. The two of us strained our lower backs trying not to drop the thing.
“Son of a bitch, that’s a heavy bastard!”
“Dense material. All part of the system.”
The gravity stator presented new challenges.
“Christ, I’ve never seen a stator like this before!” Dave muttered. The dull gray metal blocks were thicker and more intricately machined than any similar pieces from Earth.
“What do you think?”
“Can’t you just crank out a new one?”
I shook my head. “Most of the files were lost on it.”
“Well, I suppose I could build them back up and machine 'em right. You know the tolerances?”
“Yeah, they’re still here.”
“Okay. So the next question is, what welding process can we use on something this dense?”
“You tell me!”
“Can we make an ultrasonic welder?”
I consulted the palm display, which had not left my side in days. We were in luck. The data for the welding apparatus was still in the files. I showed it to him.
“How does this one work?” I asked.
“Pressure and vibration.” Dave explained, lighting a cigarette. “Activates the metal atoms and joins them together without melting the stock. They call it cold welding. Only problem is, this kind of welding’s usually only done on flat surfaces, joining two pieces.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean there’s no rods or wire involved. We’d need a pieces of metal similar in shape to join to the inserts. Hey, can we feed new specs to your machine? Create a new file?
“Then we can fabricate some new stock!”
“Great. Let’s do it.”
It was a fascinating process to watch and be a part of. It took a couple of hours for the best milling machine we could make to fashion the rebuilt inserts properly. In the end, they were as good as Earth know-how could get them. When we got to the cockpit to run a diagnostic, however, there was something else of immediate concern. There was a message from one of the bases!
“We got one!!”
“A message from one of the bases. Malmstrom!”
“Where’s Malmstrom at?”
“Montana. Used to be where the 341st Space Wing was located. It’s an ICBM base.”
“Now wait a minute. You can’t tell me that the Kai Numan didn’t blow every Space Command installation clean off the map with their first strike. Its gotta be a trick!”
“Why? The base might have been hit already. Or ignored. You think the Kai Numan can’t shoot down an ICBM easy enough? Besides, the base itself isn’t where the missiles are. They’re spread out across the countryside. The base is just the command center. Without any assets, what threat is it to them?”
“I don’t know.”
The message was from the commanding officer of the 12th Strategic Missile Squadron. He did not give his name but it seemed that he was impressed with my presentation. In simple sentences, he asked to speak with me and specified the frequency. I grabbed a headset and selected the short-wave band.
I took a deep breath. “Malmstrom commanding officer, this is commanding officer, Starhawk transmitting on 29.7 megahertz. Over.”
Static was the only reply. I waited about five minutes before trying again. Still nothing. Then I heard it, faintly.
“Commanding officer of Starhawk, this commanding officer, 12th Strategic Missile Squadron. Read you five by five, over.”
“JACKPOT!!” I had to shout. Okay, Josh, get a grip! You ain’t won yet!
Dave was whooping and hollering as well and it took me a minute to calm him down.
“Require authentication of your identity.” The voice continued. “Repeat the following phrase for voice stress analysis: Take me out to the ball game. Over.”
“Oh, we’ll go you one better than that, man!” I said without keying up. I pulled off the headset and held it up. “Start singing, dickhead!” I hit the transmit key:
“Take me out to the baaall game.
Take me out to the shooow!
Buy me some peanuts and Craaacker Jack…”
We either sounded very welcome to those people listening or like complete idiots. It must have been the former judging by the reply.
“Copy you five by five, Starhawk. Malmstrom sends one big ‘hello and hot damn’ to you. Over.”
* * *
This was the rundown. Malmstrom had only helicopters and ground forces. Elements of the 35th Infantry Division and the 66th Combat Aviation Brigade had made it there after the fighting died down. It seemed that there were no serviceable fighter aircraft left in the continental United States but they had been in contact with Mildenhall and Keflavik. A few Navy squadrons, what was left of Carrier Air Wing 17, had sought refuge in Iceland after their ship, the USS George Washington, was sunk. Meanwhile, three Air Force fighter squadrons and one tanker squadron were in England.
Apparently, these soldiers had not sitting on their hands all this time. They had kept track of the Kai Numan’s movements as best they could and even formulated new battle plans in the event that some event might tip the scales more in their favor. My ship and I were apparently that occurrence.
The primary target was to be the exploitation operations in the northeast corner of North America. There, the Kai Numan were crudely removing coal, natural gas, titanium and graphite from the United States. Across the border to the north, they were taking uranium, platinum, copper, lead and zinc from Canada’s soil. They were also harvesting a different resource that we in the fort had had no inkling of as yet.
“People.” I told Dave.
“In addition to raping the Earth, they’re after humans too. Nobody knows why yet but there have apparently been kidnapping people by the thousands, maybe tens of thousands. The East Coast is a good place for it with its population. The Air Force guys say they’ve gotten reports of entire neighborhoods scooped up overnight and whole towns disappearing.”
“Maybe that explains why so many people are gone from here. We thought they had been killed but… we never saw.”
“Maybe.” Maybe my parents might still be alive somewhere. Would that be better or worse? Thoughts of what the Kai Numan might do with them sent a frigid blast down my back. There had been nothing in the Tyreyth data about slave labor or concentration camps. Jesus…
One thing I was sure of. Once the attack began and the Kai Numan identified my ship, they would descend upon Fort Jackson like a pack of rabid dogs. And with the OGM damaged, the best I could do to bolster the defenses already in place was to manufacture more powerpacks and missile reloads. Still, the Tactical Situation Study gave the fort only a forty-nine percent chance of successfully resisting a determined attack. Based on Kai Numan dispositions, they could throw up to twenty wingships and their troop complements against the old installation if they so chose. A group that size would inevitably wear down the defensive batteries already in place. With this in mind, I gave a distress beacon to Dave. Clipped to his shirt, it would monitor his vitals and automatically transmit a warning signal to me anywhere in a ten million mile radius should they fluctuate or stop.
“Alternately, it can be triggered by hand should it not come to that.” I told him as we stood in the center of the fort, before the old elevating gun mounts.
“That’s comforting.” Dave said dryly.
“Josh,” Jennifer walked up from the direction of the main entrance. “The others… they want to you to say something before you go. Give a speech.”
Who, me? The town enigma? I looked over her shoulder with curiosity and more than little trepidation.
The townspeople were indeed filling up the parade ground, many of them looking in my direction. I groaned inwardly. Here again, what the hell could I say? I had bugged out. I was gallivanting across the galaxy happy as a clam while they were in Hell.
Jennifer obviously read the play of emotions on my face. “It wasn’t your fault these assholes decided to fuck our planet over.”
Her language got my attention.
“Don’t feel so sorry for things that you paralyze yourself. They need you now. They need to hear from you. You’re… you’re their new champion.”
Leave it to the woman I loved to make me feel ten feet tall. I kissed her.
Feeling a hundred eyes on my back, I walked up the steps to the old elevating gun mount. It had served as a stage for bands at the Orange Festival in years past. Now it was a different kind of stage.
Oh, man, Josh! What are you doing here?
I was not alone up there for long. Dave and Jenn joined me and we looked out over the gathering crowd. They all knew now what was about to happen. The aliens were likely coming again and this time, they would be serious about crushing this place and all in it. Where to start…?
When I figured most of them were present, I began: “A long time ago, a man was born in a little town called Bethlehem. He was sent here to save us from ourselves. Two hundred thirty years ago, a group of men of a more human nature created a new nation to free us from tyranny. Today, we have to do battle to free ourselves from something unlike anything we’ve ever known before. Most of us here are descendants of fighting peoples. Our ancestors always had to struggle just to live each day. God’s been good to us up till now. But the time’s here to fight again. I guess the only other thing I can say would be to offer a quotation: ‘And though I walk through the valley in the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil. For thou art with me, with thy rod and thy staff which comfort me’.”
As I spoke, the psalm was repeated among the crowd.
“Amen!” The word was shouted and murmured, all heartfelt.
I was forced to work my way through the crowd afterwards, shaking hands, getting hugs and kisses. Amid the pleasant commotion, I ran into a familiar face.
Eric Lewis stuck out his hand. “Good speech, Josh.”
It had been twenty years since I had last seen him, working as a deckhand on a tug. I hesitated a moment, old feelings stirring. But his expression persuaded me to accept the handshake. That once infuriating countenance was softer and careworn, his voice slow and firm. A moment later, I perceived one reason why that was so. He hoisted up a child with his free arm.
“This is my son, Jimmy. I hope we can set this world right again…for his sake.”
“We’re gonna give it all we got, Eric.”
“Yeah, that’s all we can do. Good luck.”
“You too. Good to see you again.”
The first phase of the operation was for me to get to Iceland in order to escort the fighters to the target. And to accomplish that, I would have to fly low and fast. Very fast. That meant I would leave both a large heat signature and sound trace for the bad guys to home in on. The safest flight path was over water. This would avoid the Kai Numan units busy on shore with their mining and kidnapping activity. And for once, early autumn weather patterns over the Atlantic Ocean were just what I needed.
Two hundred miles east of Florida was a hurricane. It would have been called Erika had the National Hurricane Center not been destroyed. Further north was a dying tropical depression, racing away from the coast with the prevailing winds. And right here near home was another depression, meandering about the gulf and growing slowly. For once, these potential killers seemed to be on our side. They would cloak most of my flight beneath their deadly beautiful white cloud layers.
Jennifer steadfastly refused to stay behind. She strapped herself into the co-pilot’s seat and gave a look of grim determination. I realized there was something I forgot to ask her. “Do you know what happened to your family?”
She sighed. “Mom was home. I don’t where she is. Aunt Lynn was in Lafayette before it all started. Dad… Dave said he was killed in the first attack.”
I swallowed and looked out the windscreen. “I’m sorry.”
“Its okay. I guess he’s finally free of it all now.”
I reached for her hand and she squeezed it tightly. “You ready?”
* * *
The trip was both tense and stirring. Penetrating the eye of the hurricane was a sight I would never forget. The “stadium effect” of the swirling clouds was breathtaking in its deadly grandeur. I felt as though we were in some immense gladiatorial arena, the forces of darkness lurking in the wings, ready to tear us apart. Beyond the worst cloud cover, the ocean was a bleak blue-gray wasteland.
Flotsam on all kinds rode the waves. Pieces of shattered fishing boats, empty rafts, drums, pallets and crates. There were bodies as well here and there and masses of dead fish. Strange colors permeated the water in several areas.
Iceland looked incredibly bleak as well, just as I had pictured it. But I knew that was normal. It was rugged, volcanic and there was not a tree in sight. But it did contain one beautiful spectacle. A wide expanse of concrete covered with warplanes. F-14s, F-18s, F-16s and F-15s.
Keflavik had no search radar operating but they no doubt had good lookouts because a few smaller portable missile guidance radars were on and tracking me. As I got closer, I could see that infrared guided missiles both on vehicles and men’s shoulders backed these radars up. Nearer still, I began to see the troops manning these weapons stare in wonder as they beheld the Starhawk. I flew as well as I knew how, made a measured circle of the base on vectored thrust, allowed them a thorough look. Then I brought the ship to a halt and hovered a few moments before leisurely settling onto the runway. I hoped it had looked good.
Several vehicles quickly surrounded us with their weapons trained on the ship. Fifty caliber machine guns and forty-millimeter grenade launchers had no chance of penetrating even the windscreen but they did not know that. Besides, we were on their side. Jenn asked me if they knew this.
“Well, if they didn’t at least suspect it, they’d already be shooting.” I told her.
An officer disembarked from his Humvee. He was thin, pale and wore no hat on his balding head. I could see his Air Combat Command insignia on his sleeve and a brigadier general’s single star on his flightsuit shoulder.
“Is he the one in charge?” Jenn asked
“Your guess is as good as mine at this point.”
I put on my portable headset and grabbed the palm display. Then I initiated full security lockouts until such time as we were back aboard and voice recognition was confirmed.
The wind coming up the boarding stairs made me glad that we had outfitted ourselves in insulated flight suits and jackets. Summer just below the Arctic Circle was a far cry from that at home. I decided that this was a hell of a way to get to see the world.
The Air Force general slowly approached. His gaze constantly darted up at the ship as if he thought it might bite him. I reminded myself that despite all my adventures of late, I was still a civilian and suppressed the urge to salute the man. When he saluted me, though, I thought it only polite to return it. If a man like Bill Clinton could become commander-in-chief and receive salutes from braver and better men than him, this awkward moment was nothing!
“Brigadier General Calvin Fulton, acting commander of the Eight Air Force. Or what’s left of it.”
No shit. A one star over an entire Air Force command. Matters were more serious than I had thought. “Captain Joshua Collins, captain of the starship Starhawk.” That sounded funny in light of the gravity of the situation. “And my first officer, Miss Blair.”
Jenn’s eyes twinkled at her sudden field commission.
“Navy?” he asked.
“Civilian, actually, sir. It’s a long story.”
“I can imagine. You did say ‘starship’?”
“Yes sir.” I replied with no small amount of pride.
“Well, in light of recent events, I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me. Sure doesn’t look like I ever pictured one to look. How did you come into possession of it?”
“Do you have somewhere where we can get out of this wind?”
“Of course. C’mon.”
Behind us, the ship obediently sealed up.
I have no explanation why I immediately started to lie. As General Fulton had just said, in light of recent events, nothing should have seemed too odd. But somehow, my true story about overgrown teenage fantasies suddenly fulfilled because some alien entrepreneur had singled me out of 6 billion people seemed inappropriate. And I knew that I had left enough details out of my makeshift documentary to make it work. Jenn went quietly along with it and kept a straight face.
The ready room of the 57th Fighter Squadron was our setting. Over coffee, which I had only recently acquired a taste for, I started. “It’s apparently a bigger galaxy then we thought, sir. The Kai Numan’s activities have attracted other races here. War profiteers and other people like that. A group of them landed down around New Orleans, where we’re from. They called themselves the Mandar and they were interested in buying vegetables, fruit and seafood, exotic stuff to sell back home, and offered to hire some of us to help them. We went along with them, kinda sold ourselves into slavery, because we needed medical supplies that they got from the Kai Numan. Then another…extraterrestrial landed. He was called Sandrake and he was from someplace called Tyruus. He was a... spaceship salesman, for lack of a better term. He offered to intervene on our behalf with the Kai Numan, bring in his nation’s forces to kick them out. He said he would help us get away from the Mandar if I agreed to go into partnership with him to gain exclusive sales contracts for some of his equipment after the hostilities were over here on Earth. Well, I agreed. He gave us a ship as an advance on our agreement and here we are.”
General Fulton seemed a bit skeptical. “What about this… other planet you visited?”
Oops. “Well, sir, at first we thought to… run away. Once we had learned how to… navigate the ship, we just wanted to find some place else to live”
“Then we felt guilty,” Jenn put in, looking down appropriately, “We had to come back and... do something! We couldn’t take it.”
This seemed to satisfy Fulton. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve wanted to crawl under a bed a few times myself since this started. Any man here who says he wasn’t scared is a damned liar.” He looked up at his executive officer, who nodded agreement.
“Well, we made it back and contacted Sandrake again.” I continued. “He said the same thing you did, sir, and that his offer was still open.
“And these Tyruus forces…they’re on their way?”
“That I don’t know. I lost contact with Sandrake after my ship was damaged. I don’t what became of him.”
“You engaged those battlecarriers alone?” The executive officer, a small dark-haired man, asked. “With no support?”
“I know. Not very smart. But then I’m not a professional warrior, sir. Just a pissed off human being who wanted to do something.”
“Understandable.” General Fulton said. “How did you learn to pilot this ship? I mean, understand Sandrake… or whatever’s language?”
“Sandrake's people have been observing us for some time and learned our languages. Working together, we translated the controls’ labels... and the rest is history.”
“Handy fellow to have around. I hope I get to meet him. But let’s get down to the nitty gritty, son. Can you escort my fighters safely to their targets?”
“And you can provide precise target data for our weapons?”
“Absolutely. What’s more, I can provide effective jamming and other countermeasures.”
“What about the battlecarriers?” The XO asked. “What are those monster’s weaknesses?”
“A structural fault induced by a drive field error.”
“A what error?”
“Stress from g-forces, basically. Faster than light propulsion utilizes directed gravity. But if that gravity isn’t directed properly, it can overload a ship’s frame. In this case, when the hull buckles, the continuity of their shields is broken and they’re wide open.”
“And how do you get the hull to buckle?”
“Overload the shield directly over the stressed frame.”
“Okay.” The general sipped his coffee pensively. “And how do we drop those smaller ships that fly in the atmosphere?”
“Take out the thrust node. Without it to direct bleed thrust, they fall from the sky.”
“Hard to hit?”
“Not particularly. If you target three or four Mavericks at once at the section of hull over it, the armor won’t hold.”
“Three or four at once?” The XO frowned. “Look, we don’t have the stocks of weapons that we used to.”
“In that case, let me show you something else Sandrake sold me.”
It took much more CPU memory to produce the advanced weapons for the fort than would be needed to manufacture AGM-65 Maverick anti-armor missiles. Thus, I was able to merrily crank out about a hundred or so on the first try. Needless to say, the pilots were impressed. More impressed than they were with Jennifer.
“Hey, can that thing make a good pepperoni pizza with onions?” one of them asked.
“Stay here.” I told him. I returned from the galley with plastic crate filled with frozen pizzas and two twelve packs of Coors Light.
“Hot damn, boys! It’s Christmas!” the same pilot whooped.
“Now as soon as I finish making your missiles, we’ll make some more goodies.”
Fulton and his XO could only look at each other in bewilderment.
Twelve hours later, we were airborne. We flew east, toward Greenland, where we could mask ourselves by flying low along its jagged, glacial coast. The first target was across the Labrador Sea, a wingship staging area near Goose Bay. We would strike at dusk.
Our task, mine and Jennifer’s, for the mission was not attack. This time, that was up to the professionals, whom I suspected did not entirely trust us yet at any rate. I could not fault them for that. Anyway, we rode shotgun for the KC-135R tankers that would refuel the fighters both for the attack run and on their way home. It was an unglamorous but vital role. As the tanker pilots had enlightened me before takeoff, “Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas!”
With the refineries and oil fields in ruins, every drop of fuel was precious. Not a single tanker could be lost and I was determined to see that none were. I could not repress a twinge of sadness, though, as I watched the strike aircraft wing south on the final leg of the mission. Hopefully, I had done enough to equip them with advanced jamming pods and ionized decoy dispensers. Shields would have been better but there was simply no room on the fighters for the complex apparatus. I could also continue to transmit false signals to further confuse the Kai Numan. Still, I found myself praying to Saint Michael the Archangel, begging him to go with them and keep them from harm. My heart ached as I maintained a high cover orbit off the Greenland Coast.
Two F-14D Tomcats were left behind with us. They rode our left wing, maintaining a combat spread. It was a matter of opinion as to who was in charge of whom. One of the twenty-something Navy lieutenants kept calling me ‘sir’ and asked how I wanted them positioned. I, on the other hand, sought their opinion on the disposition of the tankers. I decided that it would likely end up every man for himself in the confusion should we be attacked.
“Sir, just how fast is that ship of yours?” The one who called me “sir” asked. His name was Tommy Ford. His call sign, “Chevy”, reflected typical fighter pilot wit.
“You ever watch Star Trek?” I replied.
“Well, there you have it. Warp speed.”
“What’s that in knots, sir?” Chevy persisted.
“About a billion.”
“Wow.” Jennifer muttered.
Chevy’s radar intercept officer, the guy who sat behind him in the two-seat fighter, whistled at that. “That’s hauling ass, sir.”
“You got it, lieutenant.”
Then I got a warning tone that canceled the pleasant reverie.
Jenn saw my face lose all expression. “What’s that?” she inquired.
“Threat warning.” I replied tonelessly
I saw her shiver.
They were coming. The software had already identified them. They were the same broad-winged fighters I had slipped past out near Saturn. Tyreyth files identified them as Da Kain-type strike fighters. Da Kain, apparently, was the name of a bird of prey on the Kai Numan home planet.
Splendid. We think alike!
Somehow, they looked more ominous against a blue sky than they had in space.
“Patcher Seven-Two, this is Starhawk.” I hollered out to the lead KC-135. “Bandits, bearing two-six-two! Recommend you commence evasive action. Victory One-Zero-Seven and -Eight, stay with the tankers. I am engaging bandits. Out.”
Chevy said nothing, just clicked his transmit button twice in response, as he and his wingman interposed themselves between the tankers and the aliens.
“Hang on, baby!”
Jenn gripped her armrests. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Keep your eyes open. Scan the sky and don’t be afraid to sing out if you think I missed something.”
It was not hard. With my jammers and false image transmitters going full bore, the Kai Numan fighters had no idea who or what we were. Thus, they were not very alert. I used passive sensors only, locked in on them and opened fire. Two of them went down immediately. Then my targeting software burped and the system reset.
“Shit!” The third fighter did not run, its icon on the display flashing red. He had firewalled his engines and was on us in a heartbeat. He made a visual ID pass and then came back shooting.
This time, the Starhawk trembled at the first hit. Readouts wavered as the shields struggled to build back up after each impact. The ship gave back as good as it received. The dorsal turret and the tail guns made a sufficient impression on the Kai Numan pilot that he broke off and went for easier prey. The KC-135s were running for the coast but were hopelessly vulnerable. I switched my guns to manual and threw myself in pursuit.
Below us, Chevy reacted. Victory One-Zero-Seven kicked in its burners and screamed upward to challenge the Kai Numan fighter. I heard him call “Fox one!” and saw a smoke trail arc up from him. The radar-guided AIM-120 missile only seemed to irritate the alien pilot. Maybe that had been Chevy’s plan. The Da Kain broke off from the tankers, made a swift, perfect loop and dropped in behind the now diving Tomcat.
“There it is!” Jenn cried. “Whatever it is!”
“I see him!”
In the process of chasing the Tomcat, the alien pilot forgot about me. Me, Josh LaSalle, who used to daydream about being an ace fighter pilot.
Oh, big mistake there, ugly!
I zoom climbed, the horizon vanishing and clouds rolling madly across the windscreen. At the top of the climb, I rolled inverted and latched onto the Da Kain’s six. A red outlined designator box that now followed him across my HUD framed him neatly. The smaller target acquisition box drifted into the designator and the entreaty "FIRE" flashed at me, accompanied by a steady electronic tone. The hard plastic of the yoke creaked under the sudden fierce grip of my trigger finger. Plasma lashed forth, glaringly bright in the darkening sky, shattering the alien fighter in a brilliant puff. The fiery cloud expanded over a large radius.
“Got that son of bitch! Splash one!” I exulted, much to the young lieutenant’s relief.
“YEAH!!” Jenn hollered, hugging me.
“Hang on, baby, stay put!”
“Thanks, skipper.” Chevy said. “I thought he had me.”
“They’re strong but not very bright.” He called me ‘skipper’?
“Not bad, hotshot!” Jenn said shakily, her smile brighter than the fire of the guns.
Then the radios came alive.
“Starhawk, Starhawk, this is Dragon Eight-One!” That was Fulton’s XO, Colonel Scalia, flying an 86th Tactical Fighter Wing F-16C Falcon. “Bandits on our ass, comin’ hard. Need assistance, over!”
“One-Zero-Seven, take over!” I called to Chevy.
“Dragon Eight-One, Starhawk’s enroute… ETA, fourteen seconds!” I looked over at my lovely co-pilot. “Are we having fun yet?”
“Oh, yeah!” she hooted, her voice no longer trembling. Then she let out a yell, like she was back home rooting for the New Orleans Saints. The woman never ceased to amaze me.
I found the incoming fighters and their pursuers with sensors. I slammed the throttles forward and switched the guns back to auto. Here comes the cavalry, such as it is! Hey…why not? In the music files, I found the old cavalry charge bugle call and put it out over the airwaves. What the hell!!
There were quite a few more fighters this time, at least four squadrons. Only sheer surprise had allowed any of our aircraft to escape. Scalia and his pilots had a good head start but they were losing ground fast. I flashed by over their heads, weapons already blazing at the enemy. Bright yellow flashes in the sky ahead told me my aim was true. The kill count on the tactical situation display was ticking higher. Only problem was that the number of targets grew even faster. The sky ahead was alive with them, like a pestilence.
“I think we pissed ‘em off!” The only good part seemed to be that they were reacting to us rather than vice versa. I remembered reading somewhere that that was indicator that your strategy was working. Yeah, right! Several hits rocked the ship and the shields were already strained. Our repairs were not holding up well. At least I might be able to slow them down enough for the others to escape. Then I realized we were surrounded. Through every maneuver, the cloud of enemy fighters remained clustered around us. The guns were going nonstop, hammering at the Da Kains. Still they came.
Cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them, cannon in front of them…
Another warning tone added its noise to the chaos. New contacts were coming up hard from the south. They seemed to form another layer around us suddenly.
Looks like this is the end! Jenn grabbed my hand. It was slick with sweat. Our eyes locked for a brief instant, all we felt passing invisibly between us. And then after what felt like forever, I realized that the new contacts were attacking the original group!
“What the hell…?” It was becoming plainer on the display as the identified Kai Numan craft began disappearing. Had Scalia and the others come back to die with us? Couldn't be...
“What?” Jenn demanded.
“We got company!”
“Oh God, not more?”
“I don’t know!”
The sky cleared swiftly, leaving only fading patches and streamers of oily smoke. Then, one of the newcomers was alongside of us and there seemed to be no Kai Numan craft left. The other ship was a sleek all-wing design with upturned wingtips and a clean profile. It looked familiar somehow…
“Tyreyth fighters! What the hell did they come from?!”
“Tyreyth?” Jenn blurted. “The good guys?”
“Hell, yes, baby!”
The real cavalry was here now! Boy, I bet those ugly bastards are really pissed now! Or pissing their pants! I could not resist doing a slow victory roll. “YEEEHAAA!!!”
“Starhawk, this is Escort Eight. Are you reading me?”
Now, I knew that voice! “Paddy! What the hell are you doing in a fighter?”
“They called up the reserves, my friend. You should be flattered!”
“Brother, I am. But aren’t y’all breaking your own laws?”
“This mission is not public knowledge. It is not even openly discussed among my leaders.”
“Hmmm. Sounds like you guys like to trust but cut the cards.”
“Something like that, my friend. Stay with me, I’ll be your escort.”
“Roger that, ol’ buddy…” I had forgotten something. “Paddy, the fort! Can you send…”
“Already done, my friend. Sandrake led a substantial force to your home to secure it.”
“So I take it he’s not in jail?”
“Jail? Oh, detention, yes. I mean, no! No, he is as free as ever.”
“Complex one. You are familiar with the term…umm, concealed maneuvers?”
Concealed…? “You mean covert operations?”
“Yes, yes! This is a covert operation!”
How the hell did one bring enough force to take on a hundred fifty warships and keep it covert? I began to wonder at the actual size of these alien political entities and their definitions of big and small. Something else was nagging me…
The hostages!! “Paddy, they’ve got some of our people! They’ve been kidnapping them, holding them somewhere! We gotta find ‘em!”
“Kidnapping, you say? Nevaat!!” It sounded like quite an expletive. “Those smaativos are at it again!” His next words were in his own language and they sounded hard. Another voice answered him, a deeper growl biting out even harsher syllables. They snapped back and forth for several seconds before Paddy switched back to English.
“Josh, follow me into orbit. Don’t worry about your warplanes. Our fighters will escort them home.”
“Roger that. Dragon Eight-One, this is Starhawk!”
“Starhawk, Dragon Eight-One, go!”
“Eight-One, have you rendezvoused with your new escort?”
“Uh… Affirmative. I take it these are the good guys?”
“Roger that. They’ll take you home. I’ve got to check on some other things.”
“Understood. What about search and rescue? Several of my guys punched out. They won’t last long in that cold water.”
I’d almost forgotten. “Roger, Eight-One. I’ll take care of it!” I looked over at Paddy. “Escort Eight, you up to a little rescue work?”
“I cannot pick up survivors with this ship, Josh.”
“I’ll handle the pick ups. You just ride shotgun.”
I switched over to the designated rescue frequency. “Any downed aircrews, this is Starhawk, please respond, over.”
I heard a voice. “Dragon Eight-Seven reads you, over.”
“Is that him?” Jenn pointed to the display. The software had automatically plotted and put up his position.
“Affirmative. Dragon Eight-Seven, I have you ten miles south of my position. Hang on!”
It was a tricky matter. I had to vector the widely spaced lift jets outboard, keeping the hot exhaust streams away from the raft. Magnetic fields confined the plasma to precise flows, eliminating any wash.
There was a winch bolted to the overhead in the airlock. It had two fiber optic cameras, which allowed remote operation from the cockpit. One looked down from the winch mount while the other was attached to the block of the rescue hook.
It was not as delicate as I had feared. The autoflight software had a rescue mode that actually talked me through it with prompts on the video display from the cameras. I eyeballed the image, read the words and tried to relax on the controls.
FORWARD…LEFT…HOLD YOUR HOVER…CABLE DESCENDING…FIFTY FEET FROM SURVIVOR…THIRTY FEET FROM SURVIVOR…
Whoever Dragon Eight-Seven was, he was not the least bit intimidated by the Starhawk. He grabbed the rescue sling as a wave tossed his raft upward.
HOLD YOUR HOVER… FIFTY FEET FROM THE HATCH…THIRTY FEET…SURVIVOR ABOARD.
“Welcome aboard, Dragon Eight-Seven.” I said over the intercom. “Take the spiral stairs to the upper deck and join us in the cockpit.” I turned to Jenn. “Go grab him a blanket from the lockers on the lower deck!”
“Aye-aye, sir.” She replied brightly, kissing me as she left.
A few minutes later, a shivering, wide-eyed man in his early forties followed her into the cockpit. I met his weary gaze.
“Major Ted Sheehy.” He introduced himself with a wheeze.
“Welcome aboard, sir.” I replied. “Captain Josh LaSalle. Please have a seat.”
He did so, taking the flight engineer’s station behind me. “Nice bird you got here.”
“Thank you, sir!”
* * *
We picked up four more downed pilots before a larger Tyreyth ship arrived to take over the rescue duty. Scalia had refueled and joined them, refusing to return to Keflavik before his men were accounted for. Then we fell in behind Paddy’s fighter and out of curiosity, I looked it up in the files. It was called a Vikirah Mark II. The vikirah, the file read, was a venomous flying reptile from Tyruus. Pretty cool.
Upon achieving orbit, I saw some flashing and sparkling high above the curve of the planet. As we drew nearer, I saw that it came from the remains of the battlecarrier that had almost done me in. I flipped the burning hulk off and moved on.
Over the communications net, I heard Paddy talking again to his harsh-voiced superior. Then he called me to come up on the net.
“Josh, listen to me. The Kai Numan once practiced slavery during the war with my world. Thousands of my people are still missing from that episode… including my shemotras. My grandparents.”
“Jesus.” Jenn breathed.
God. He had never let on before. Maybe that was what he was holding back when we met.
“I…we cannot let this happen again. As you may have guessed, we are a small unit compared to the Kai Numan’s fleet occupation force. Our intelligence analysts think they have located the command ship, where the slaves are likely to be held. We need every ship we can get. Will you join us?”
I ignored the damage to my ship. My own parents and a lot of other people might be out there praying for rescue. I looked at Jenn. Her eyes blazed.
“What do say, Number One?”
“I say let’s kick their ugly asses!” Jenn fairly snarled.
“This is your show, Captain. We’re just along for the ride.” Sheehy grinned. “But I would have to agree with your XO. Get some!” The rest of the damp, shivering aviators agreed wholeheartedly.
I keyed my mike. “Try and stop us, ol’ buddy!!”
“Good. Who’s that with you?”
“A few wet pilots and Jennifer. Remember the fine babe in the message ball?”
She giggled and poked me in the ribs hard.
“Babe?” Paddy hesitated. “Oh, your girlfriend! She came with you?”
“Couldn’t stop her!”
“Humph. Cananopia is much the same. Were she not taking care of her mother, she would be here as well. Very well, my friend. Give my best to your fellow pilots and let’s finish this business, shall we?”
The command ship was out near Mars. Appropriate that the planet named for the Roman god of war would be the backdrop for this fight.
It was grim all the way in. Paddy called the tactic the Spear. All of our ships joined up in an elongated three-dimensional diamond formation. Then we went in straight and fast, shooting our way through the escorts and giving them no time to engage us. Kai Numan inertia dampening technology, Paddy had grunted over the com, was not quite as good as Tyreyth. This left them unable to turn sharply enough at high speed to effectively pursue after their initial pass. I wished I had known that during my earlier engagements. It might have made things different.
Flashes of plasma and bursts of expanding hot gases enveloped us as my guns again pounded away on full auto. I could have sworn that heard debris from destroyed Kai Numan ships clanging off the hull. Maybe I did. The shields had grown porous but were still filtering out the worst of it, somehow. I guessed that the Starhawk probably looked like Paddy’s Vikirah, a scorched and smoldering streak of rage across the cold black void.
Behind us was the leading Tyreyth capital ship. I had gotten a good look at it before we started our run. It was a battleship in every sense of the word. An armored juggernaut sleek as a barracuda and mean enough to scare the Devil himself. I would only find out later that the ship’s name, Anfirik, was a Tyreyth religious term, loosely translating to archangel.
The command battlecarrier fought doggedly but surprisingly, it fought alone. None of the other ships joined in. They held their positions throughout the system, watching and waiting. The battle between the Anfirik and its counterpart was single combat. The outcome of the entire war hinged on this titanic struggle.
The Kai Numan must have caught on to our tactics. The battlecarrier maneuvered frantically, keeping its vulnerable stern masked from the Tyreyth dreadnought’s target illuminators. For several minutes, it seemed an even fight. Then my receivers picked up a powerful repeating signal from the Anfirik. It was a machine language command code, the CPUs informed me. A Kai Numan code! Then the sensors picked up fluctuations from the battlecarrier’s shields. They were flickering on and off. The Tyreyth must have obtained some of the Kai Numan’s command codes. They were transmitting a constant reset signal to the battlecarrier’s shielding system!
The Anfirik suddenly let loose a salvo of torpedoes. Most found their way through the flickering shields. I did not even have time to scream out a warning about the captives supposedly onboard. But the ship did not disintegrate under the onslaught. The torpedoes obviously did not have large warheads. They precisely sought out the plasma burn chambers on the battlecarrier’s engines. The huge warship’s exhausts winked out and she was powerless. Paddy later told me that it was part of his superior’s strategy. Surrender by a major military unit would do far greater harm to the Kai Numan’s leadership structure than destruction. The fact that slaves might be held aboard was a fringe benefit.
Wallowing drunkenly, its aft hull sections blackened, the Tak Kai-class ship finally surrendered. And a mass exodus began. First the nearby ships pulled out. Then my sensors told the tale. Gravity signatures were disappearing from the system. One by one, the remaining battlecarriers went supralight and were gone.
“They have to regroup now,” Paddy said, “and fight over who gets to be their new warlord.”
“And then they’ll be back.” I said.
“You may count on that.”
We landed aboard the Anfirik right behind the shuttle carrying the defeated Kai Numan fleet admiral, warlord or whatever he called himself. There was an impressive assemblage of manpower in the huge flight bay. Neat ranks of armor-clad troops brandished slick black plasma rifles. Smartly uniformed officers cut impressive figures as they awaited the conquered servant of a depraved realm.
After he bowed to Jennifer, Paddy motioned us over to the assembled Tyreyth officers. One of them was looking in our direction with some degree of annoyance on his face. We hurried forward and Paddy gestured for us to stand next to him, on his left while he stood to the left of the tall, imperious-looking officer.
The opposing Kai Numan officer appeared at the shuttle hatch along with two subordinates. Their fiery skin tones were darker than the younger warriors who had died at Fort Jackson and their tattoos much less extensive. Frigid silence greeted them. They stepped down and walked briskly toward their Tyreyth counterparts. Surprisingly, I recognized one of them. The grizzled Citiac Lor, the one dissenting voice on their staff during the planning stage of the invasion He saw me staring and I hardened my gaze upon him. His eyes sought out the deck. He almost looked ashamed.
The play of emotions on Paddy’s superior’s face told me something had confused him. I assumed it was the poised demeanor of his opponent. The enemy officer held his head high, his eyes bright. Defeated warlords were not supposed to be so lively.
Paddy translated their brief exchange for me:
Tyreyth: “We meet again, General. Under circumstances no better than the last time!”
Kai Numan: “But no more, Admiral. I have had enough of this idiocy.” He presented his ceremonial dagger. “If my masters wish to continue this insane policy, they will do so without me. I am tired!”
Tyreyth: “As are we all.”
The Tyreyth officer looked down on Paddy, Jenn and I. We stood straighter. He spoke but Paddy did not translate. Instead, a grin crept over his features.
“Josh, Jennifer, may present Bradella…uh, I mean, Admiral Horatus Padagama Mellor. My father and commander in chief of the Fifth Singular Maneuvers Group. Our version, basically, of your Special Operations Command.”
Huh? “Your father?”
“Yes.” Paddy’s grin turned sheepish.
Those motives I had held suspect when I first met both Sandrake and him were suddenly clarified. “He sent you to spy on Sandrake.”
“Not exactly. I was more of a go-between, since the law forbids my father to openly engage in external trade or relations. Our purpose, ostensibly, was to interdict the Kai Numan on a covert level. And provide any available aid to their potential targets. Our intelligence showed that they were targeting Earth but that no operations were immediately pending. We were wrong. Sandrake really was my teacher, by the way. And that’s where it did all start.”
“And Sandrake giving me the Starhawk?”
“It was an experimental contact plan… how would you say it? An ‘off-the-wall’ concept. It was conceived years ago by an eccentric consulting firm of alien contact ‘experts’. Originally, we were to give someone on Earth one of our ships, allow them to evaluate it and for your government to utilize both the technology and cultural data it contained to begin to start Earth on the ladder to the current galactic standards. The OGM was not part of the scenario to begin with but Sandrake’s enthusiasm convinced some in our government to modify the plan to include it. And as I said, we failed to predict the Kai Numan would move into your system at this early a time. The scenario he chose originally predicted that your people would have time to adapt the technology provided in the Starhawk and mass produce it.”
“But I ran off with it.”
“Totally unforeseen. And no fault of yours. In your situation, I would likely have done the same. Sandrake is still a little too idealistic at times, despite his…undercover government work. And a later analysis of your bureaucracy showed it probably would not have helped matters should your leaders have known about the ship. Perhaps we can… arrange a cover for you as well, tell your government we recruited you or something.”
I awkwardly explained we had already started to weave our own tangled web of deception.
“Fine. We’ll go with that. It makes sense. You found files on the Mandar, eh? Actually, I’m surprised that they are not here. They will do anything to…make a buck, as you say.”
Paddy’s father looked down on Jenn and I and smiled for the first time.
“You are… brave.” He touched my shoulder and bowed to Jenn.
“Thank you, sir.” Paddy whispered a phrase in my ear. “Uh… mayra appata.”
“Kaan fal!” Which meant, “well deserved”.
Well, when history sweeps toward you, just go with flow. Somebody will figure out the whole truth when you are long dead and write a book about it. Enjoy the moment.
Paddy and I cut the ceremony short with a request to board the Kai Numan command ship. There was some debate among the senior officers about the wisdom of such a move. Apparently, surrender among the Kai Numan did not always mean that every soldier immediately laid down his weapons. I, however, made it plain that if I had to fight my way into that damned ship alone, I would! Bradella Mellor read my emotional state and consented, sending two platoons of his best special warfare troops with us.
Landing on the battlecarrier was uneventful but I made sure I did it with flair. The Starhawk came too fast, causing the remaining deck personnel to scurry for safety. I tapped my retros repeatedly, filling the huge chamber with the angry thunder of venting plasma. Then my wheels touched the deck, rubber screeching horribly. Right behind these awful noises came the Tyreyth spec ops troops, pouring from their transport like a hungry pack of wolves. Brandishing a fully charged AW-96, I joined them.
Several junior officers and noncoms immediately surrendered to us. Enlisted personnel, obviously little better than slaves themselves, led us to the holds where the captives were.
The holds were just that. Huge, foul-smelling open spaces with creaking temporary decks stacked like dry boat storage sheds. They were teeming with sick and underfed humans. Paddy was so disgusted and angry that he turned upon a sneering Kai Numan sentry at the hatch and beat him senseless.
Several grim hours of wading through the massed, pitiful humanity followed, with the Tyreyth medics doing what they could and demanding more help from the flagship over their com units. It was a dismal march amid suffering on a scale no one should ever see but ultimately, I found my parents. They were alive, though ill and filthy. The reunion was quite a moment. I had never seen either of them cry so much. And I shed a tear or two. Eventually, we also found Jennifer’s mom and a couple dozen others from Satsuma Grove. Somewhere in the searching, I took up my rifle and screamed that I would kill every last Kai Numan on that ship for this vile circumstance. Paddy had gotten control of himself and managed to rein me in as well.
Other slaves were not as lucky. The Kai Numan had committed mental, sexual and physical atrocities on many. The fortunate ones died. The rest could only be left to the care of clergy and volunteers.
Back on Earth, Kai Numan soldiers left behind were relieved to be captured by the Tyreyth. The alternative was a gruesome lynching by enraged humans. It was
extraordinary to see white and black Southerners alike in a mob beating an alien trooper to death with two-by-fours and bare fists. Quite a few of them were killed in this manner or executed by Earth’s military forces. The Uniform Code of Military Justice, it seemed, had deferred to older martial regulations. Like the Navy’s Rocks and Shoals. Under it, the Kai Numan were treated as pirates had once been, hostes humani generi, Latin for “enemies of the human race”. I thought that fitting. I even saw one alien warrior hanging by the neck from the mast of a battered Cyclone-class patrol boat. Eventually, vestiges of former governments intervened and whisked the remaining prisoners off for interrogation.
I decided the rest of the world would have to lick its own wounds. I had found a new appreciation for my town and its people. It was not Thornton Wilder’s ideal place but it was home. And I was needed there. I hung on to the Starhawk, though. There was no certainty left in the universe for mankind. And I knew that the civilization that rose from the ashes of our old world would be a very different and very unpredictable place.
Jennifer and I were married, finally. But not before we gave her father a proper burial and she said her goodbyes. Bobby Lahaye rests not far from him in Our Lady of Good Harbor cemetery. Dave and his wife are still together and much happier. Paddy left the university to work for his father in naval intelligence. General Fulton was made the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the government and the military rebuilt. Scalia became Air Force Chief of Staff.
Chevy remained a fighter pilot, with a promotion to lieutenant commander and a Silver Star for gallantry. And Sandrake successfully marketed his OGM on Earth. What with all the factories leveled, it seemed like a good investment. And his refreshing combination of idealism and capitalism brought a stimulating new business sense to the remaining entrepreneurs and manufacturers of Earth. Civilization was being revived at a dizzying pace.
I bought some stock in his company and did pretty well with it. Yes, I know I don’t seem like the type to be wise with his money. But even an old lone wolf like me can adapt. Now, I’m going to invest my capital in a small fleet of ships for prospecting asteroids. The worldwide reconstruction had created a growing market for new sources of vital ores. After that, I’ll put away a little more cash and then its back to 89 Tauri-4 to retire! Then my lady and I can do all the woolgathering we want!