“No….” Feeling almost as if she were dreaming, Reina Jacobs watched as Baker deliberately intercepted the enemy’s volley meant for the Saracen, inserting his sled in the path of the enemy’s bombardments. The rainbow sparkles as his sled disintegrated mesmerized her for a moment.
Reina was perfectly lined up for what had to be done but was too close to do it safely.
Whatever safely meant any more.
Hopefully, her shields could take what she planned, or she’d be joining Baker. Gauging the charge left in her fuelcels, she closed on the enemy’s stern. They’d proven unable to see sleds as small as hers coming in so close to their cruisers, one of the few advantages the Mirandan fighters had. The little shimmy as her shields brushed theirs had surprised her. Hopefully, if they felt it, the Alzhaa would assume it was debris from Baker’s sled.
Now traveling as fast as her sled would go, Reina was directly behind the Alzhaa ship, on their tail and closing. As soon as she was lined up, she pressed the firing button, launching her torpedo into the odd-shaped opening that seemed to be a vent of some kind for the craft’s propulsion system.
She was too close behind them and traveling too fast, with nowhere to escape. The enemy boat fragmented around her, and she put everything she had into driving through the debris. A sudden, loud clanking noise and a slight shudder of the craft indicated something had gotten through the shields, which flared as most of the bits of flotsam and jetsam that had once comprised a fully crewed Alzhaa cruiser pulsed away from her now partially crippled bird.
The gunsleds were normally quiet, with little ambient sounds to speak of, so noise of any kind when you were in space was bad. A red light appeared on the holodash of the console and Reina noticed it was growing warm in the cockpit. The tang of ozone flavored the air being vented into her suit. The air cleared, and the red light stopped flashing as the backup system came online.
She was alive and would make it back to the Saracen, which surprised her. The chatter on the comsender continued, pilots verifying positions, and Ladeaux answering, “meet at the rendezvous,” and then “Damn, Jacobs… good one.”
“Yeah. Made it, alright. I got winged though. It took out my ventilator, but the backup is still functioning.”
Something about the Alzhaa ships inhibited their implants, making normal head-to-head communications impossible, so Baker and Ladeaux had cobbled together old-time communication gear, which worked well enough over short distances. The headsets with an earpiece and a small microphone were awkward, and you had to listen hard sometimes, to discern who was speaking.
Sitting in the pilot’s bucket, Reina usually felt nothing. Other than the brush with the underbelly of the Alzhaa cruiser and the impact of the debris, the ride had been as smooth as if she’d been sitting in her berth.
Her headset made a hissing noise, followed by the voice of the Captain, Cora Laine. She rattled off an unintelligible string of epithets, the gist of which meant the Saracen was still waiting for Reina.
“Gunsled 12 returning to base,” Reina responded. “La Fontaine… did she make it back?”
“Yes.” Cora sounded angry. “Your concern is duly noted, Jacobs. My ready room—immediately upon your return.”
“Aye, Captain.” As she prepared to return to the Saracen, she listened to the chatter, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she heard La Fontaine had arrived back but was not expected to survive her injuries.
Her headset crackled again, this time with the voice of Lt. Ryo. “Baker… La Fontaine… they got Morgan too. We’re in trouble now.”
As if they hadn’t been in trouble all along. The pilots had just spent twenty-two hours periodically fighting off suicidal Alzhaa with no progress, but at least the Saracen had not been forced to retreat this time. Still, they hung there, staring at the edge of safety, regularly being hammered to death.
The Alzhaa cruisers were much larger than the little Mirandan gunsleds, more like giant in-system liners. Their cruisers were all-out war machines with highly advanced armaments the Mirandans didn’t have, but they were lumbering space-tubs compared to the nimble little gunsled.
The advantage the Alzhaa had was in their superior armaments. Compared to a Mirandan torpedo, their magnetic-field bombards were ship destroyers. The little Mirandan gunsled made up for that lack with speed, maneuverability, and human adaptability. The Alzhaa never altered their strategy no matter what, so the Mirandan defenders had capitalized on those advantages as much as they could. Nevertheless, the Alzhaa weaponry was gradually whittling them away.
Reina maneuvered her gunsled into the open slot on the Saracen’s maintenance deck and ran through the shutdown protocol. She could see so far only she, Ladeaux, and Ryo had made it back in one piece and that worried her because as far as she knew, she was the last to return. Ladeaux is back, she thought with a peculiar sense of relief. She felt more than just professional admiration when she thought about Ladeaux.
God help them if Ladeaux failed to return from one of these little jaunts because he was the only person left that the captain would listen to. She desperately didn’t want to think about the others who didn’t make it. Nine pilots left this place this morning. Now we’re down to three.
The canopy snapped open, and she disconnected from lifesup. Reina stood reeling with exhaustion as the mechs swarmed the gunsled, shouting instructions and opening up the guts of the beast before she was even fully out of it. She took a moment to pull herself together before she jumped down, thanking the men and women who tended her gunsled. Forcing herself to appear confident and full of energy, she walked to the lift, the image of the iconic sled-jock.
What the crew saw and admired was the retired colonel, full of life and, despite the fact she was worth six of anyone else, forced into an early retirement over an artificial leg.
Maintaining the image was as much for the crew, who desperately needed to see it, as it was for her own vanity. “No one wants to see a tired, bitter, old woman” was her motto, and after a lifetime of habit, she never appeared anywhere public without her veneer of pleasant self-assurance. She refused, however, to answer to Colonel, preferring to live in the present. Reina was now a leading researcher and professor and proud of what she’d accomplished over the last ten years of immersing herself in her chosen field of plant biosymetry, a branch of terraforming.
She was amazed how quickly those ten years had washed away over the last weeks with her abrupt return to active duty, washed away as if they had never been. She’d fallen into the role of sled-jockey as if she’d never fallen out of it.
Her boot heels rang on the metal deck as she headed toward the captain’s ready room. Pasting a smile on her face, she entered the room fully prepared to be dressed down and not feeling at all humble or contrite.
The captain sat surrounded by holoscreens, bloodshot eyes absorbing everything, fingers flying over the holoboard while snapping instructions. Her headset lay on the desk, as with the Alzhaa interference no longer in play, normal communications had resumed. She paused, turning her face to the door as Reina entered the room.
Loosening the collar of her shipsuit, Reina sprawled in the lone chair without being asked.
“What was that all about, Jacobs?” Cora’s harsh voice grated. “Just what the hell were you doing there in the first place? Your instructions were to clear the space and return to the Saracen.”
Reina was tired and didn’t give a damn about the niceties but they had to be maintained or all her work trying to impress the importance of the separation of rank upon her friend would be wasted. “Captain, I had no intention of disobeying your instructions. However, after the enemy took out Baker and La Fontaine, I was the only one positioned to run interference for you. Please, re-run your holos, sir, and watch the remaining cruiser.”
Cora murmured “Replay trace 67329aR,” and the holos sprang to life between the captain and Reina.
Standing, Reina pointed as she spoke. “As you can see here and here, Baker and Lafontaine’s joint attack crippled the remaining Alzhaa cruiser. Still, the enemy ship was running on momentum and travelling fast. Your ass was in their sights, and they weren’t going to let you go. Their captain made the only decision possible, at least the one I would have made, and used whatever power was available to gain even more speed.
“By my calculations, they were out of those magnetic-field bombards they use so well. From my vantage point, I could see the enemy setting up to ram you. I knew what had to be done. Where would you be now if I had stuck to the plan? I can assure you this ship was not built to stand up to those sorts of negotiations. If they’d managed to blow their drive on impact, even the mighty Saracen would have disintegrated. An asteroid-barge is a tough pile of rocks, but in the face of that kind of detonation—no. You and your crew would be nothing but dust and sparkly shit.”
Captain Laine glared at her but said nothing.
A wave of exhaustion caught Reina by surprise, and sitting, she leaned her elbows on the desk, resting her head in her shaking hands. She looked at Cora through her fingers, seeing her angry and uncertain of what to say. Aware of what she must look like, with her iron-gray hair plastered to her skull with sweat, Reina suppressed a sigh. Looking like a tired old woman wasn’t a confidence-inspiring way to appear if she wanted to sway the Captain.
Still, Reina had to tell Cora the truth, to try to get her to see reason. “You’re a good captain, but the Saracen is a cargo ship. You’ve never dealt with this kind of situation before. We’re losing this fight because we’re playing their game.” She was so tired she could barely control the trembling. She was running on adrenaline these days, but what choice did the pilots have? “You’ve got to make a run for it, Cora. It’s your only hope. I think we can cover you so you can get to Valentine safe-zone if you will just commit to running as hard and fast as the Saracen will go and letting us do what we do. Let Ladeaux draft you a plan since you doubt me, but please take my advice on this.”
Cora bristled, hearing only the implication she might be incompetent. Despite her indignation, she poured a synthjuice and handed it to Reina. “I expect compliance, even from you. You bloody well better follow orders like any other sled-jock, or you’ll sit it out in your freaking quarters.” She looked at Reina, shaking her head. “Get some rack time now, or I’ll have you confined to sickbay until you do. The doctor has a prescription for you, so stop by sickbay and pick it up. Then go to your quarters and swallow it like a good girl. Do you understand?”
Reina looked at the juice and then knocked it back. Her gaze met the captain’s, and she nodded. “Aye, sir. I do need the rack time. But I’m not a marine anymore—that part of my life is long over. I’m tired and re-tired, you know? And now that La Fontaine and Baker are out of it, we’re in a bit of a pickle. For my team, we had it set up so they did the dirty work. The other teams are also decimated—I counted only two other flyable ships besides mine in the hanger.”
Captain Laine sighed. “I hear what you’re telling me, Professor Jacobs. Ladeaux told me the same thing. Now get out of here and get some rack time.”
Valentine Run, Part One, © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 All Rights Reserved – Dedicated to my parents who loved nothing more than a good space opera, in memory of those hours we spent gathered around the flickering light of the TV, watching the original Star Trek.
Cover Art © Innovari | Dreamstime.com – Space Cruiser Spaceship Photo