Sleep came slowly and was filled with vague and disturbing dreams. Waking half an hour before the alarm, Reina showered quickly, preparing for the run to Valentine system. In the mess, she stopped to chat with the crew who were all laughing at Cookie’s silly puns. Still chuckling, she entered the pilot’s ready room.
Ladeaux and Ryo had not yet arrived, but then she was always first. Ryo’s involvement with Ramona Flores meant he was always the last to arrive. The door opened, and she looked up, smiling as Brandon Ladeaux crossed to his locker.
“Here we go again.” His weathered, but still handsome features smiled back. “I hope we don’t have to do anything too spectacular to get this pile of rocks to Valentine Station.” He saw her look. “Silly me. They’ll require spectacular measures, no matter what I wish. I’ve prepared accordingly.”
“Good,” she replied, fighting the feeling of finality, the fear it was the last time she’d see him. “Once we’re done rumbling with the Alzhaa, we should be well out of their space. Hopefully, they won’t follow us all the way to Valentine.” She finished closing her shipsuit and stamped her feet into her boots.
“If the Alzhaa strike the way they have up to now, they’ll expect the captain to stop running, to stand and fight. I wonder how adaptable they are. They’ve never shown any adaptability so far, but maybe they’re hiding it.” Brandon’s smile elevated him to handsome. He stood up, leaning against the wall, closing his shipsuit. “Are you in love with Cora?”
“Nope,” Reina’s laugh was unforced. “No chemistry in that way, right? Just a friendship between equals that was never meant to be anything more than it was. But now, I’m Captain Laine’s subordinate. I like her and respect her ability. She is a great leader and, believe me, I’ve worked with many who weren’t. She lacks experience in battle, but who’d have thought battle tactics would be required for captains of cargo ships? Besides, I wouldn’t jeopardize her career by taking advantage of our friendship if I did love her that way.”
“I’m proud of you.” Brandon pulled his boots on, stamping his feet down into them. “I like to think I would be able to be that noble.” He grinned at Reina, obviously liking what he saw. “I tend to take advantage of every situation that I can. Life is too short to let the good things pass you by. I’m not that decent a human being.”
“Yes, you are,” Reina grinned again, frankly admiring his charms. “You’re the most decent man I know. Not a real smart man since you’re still driving a sled, but quite decent!” They were still laughing when Ryo entered the ready room.
“Are you hoping for this to be over? I sure am.” Ryo bent over, burying his cheerful face in his locker, rooting around for something. Having apparently found what he was looking for, he dropped to the bench to begin suiting up. “So how are only three of us going to do a running firefight? When we practice in the simulator, we always start out as one of six.”
He had asked the question Reina had been asking herself all morning.
Ladeaux replied, “The formations are the same as when your sim squad gets whittled down to three. You’ll have your flight plans, well in advance, so you’ll know what formation.”
“I’ve always had a support role during our battle since the Captain conscripted me. La Fontaine, Morgan, and the others did all the dirty work. I’ve been training in the simulator for the last two weeks, but I have no idea what we’re getting into, how it differs from the sim. I was never in the service, right? I’m just a mech with a pilot’s ticket. I’ve seen the stuff you do, Jacobs, so you’ve got to be good enough. Same with you, Ladeaux. I’ve heard stories about you and seen the way you work too.”
“I’m still here.” Reina’s chuckle was wry. “I haven’t done an actual running firefight in years, though. Because of that, I too have spent time in the simulator these last few weeks. I’m going to do exactly what Ladeaux tells me to do. At this point, you just want to survive, and teamwork is the key to survival in this sort of a melee.”
Ladeaux said, “Don’t worry, Ryo. You have a finely tuned sense of survival. It won’t be much different than the simulator, which you’ve been acing. I set it up with every possible hindrance I could think of, so… but have you played Split Infinitum?”
Ryo turned red. “Um… yeah. I was quite the sim gamer, before Ramona. I guess I had too much free time.”
“The principal is the same, except when you lose… it’s more than merely game over. From what I could see, the game control panels are similar to these old gunsleds.”
“I did notice that. It’s probably why it’s been easier for me, both as a support sled in combat and in the simulator.”
Grinning at Ryo’s worried expression, Ladeaux walked over to his desk and sat. “With only three of us, we have to work together to make up in cleverness what we lack in strength, so I’ve come up with something new to spring on the enemy. We’re going to make them think they’ve taken the Saracen out.”
Ryo smiled nervously and glanced at Reina, who was curious to see what that plan would be.
Ladeaux inserted his notebook in the com-dock and flipped it on, paging back and forth until he stopped at a screen with diagrams. “So, this is my plan for dealing with the first wave.” He tapped the desk, and the holoscreen sprang up, fully lit, displaying the diagram from his notebook. “You’ll get phase two uploaded to your sled if this works. We shouldn’t need a phase three.” Ladeaux’s briefing lasted for fifteen minutes, then they went on out to the deck and the waiting gunsleds.
Promptly, one hour after the Saracen began the run, the first four Alzhaa cruisers showed up. They followed the usual pattern of assaulting the Saracen en masse. Ryo and Ladeaux converged on them from the ten and two o’clock positions, and Reina came up from under the Saracen at the six.
The first three cruisers were sitting ducks. The fourth was a little more work, but they too finally went down. “Looks like they’re running out of pilots too,” Ryo quipped. In a short time, the Alzhaa cruisers were debris, and the Saracen was still traveling as fast as she could.
“Four down, God knows how many to go,” Ladeaux’s voice crackled over the comsender. “Judging by how long it normally takes their ships to arrive, we should see the next action as we near the edge of Alzhaa space. That’s when the fun begins. Rest up while you can.”
“I don’t think they knew what to do, with us not stopping to fight like we usually do,” Reina commented. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe they aren’t as adaptable as they should be. So what about the plan for the next wave?”
“I’m loading it now,” Ladeaux’s voice was calm.
“Got it,” Reina looked at the diagram. “I can do this. You been reading old adventure novels again?”
Ladeaux laughed, as she hoped he would.
There would be absolutely no margin for error. If Reina was off by even a hair, the special delivery wouldn’t detonate the Alzhaa shipdrive. If she did manage to drop it on the sweet-spot, even running like hell might not save her. There was no time to calculate what would happen when they briefly turned the enemy ship into a mini-nova. The resulting wave could manifest as a disc or sphere. Either way, no matter how fast she ran, she would be caught in the backlash.
“Are you okay with it?” Ladeaux asked, concern coloring his voice.
“Well, someone’s gotta do it, and I’m the one with the experience and the death wish, so yeah,” Reina replied. Her tone was wry as she said, “I did promise to go easy on the fuelcels as much as possible though.”
“You’ve enough juice to do this and make your getaway. Either way, the fuelcel situation won’t matter after we’re done here,” replied Ladeaux. “If this works, you’ll be retired again. If not—still no worries, right? Even if you manage to deliver the goods, who knows what’s going to happen? There’s a first time for everything, and this is definitely a first.”
“Well, they won’t be expecting this.” Ryo’s muttered comment sounded worried. “Won’t they know the difference?”
“Don’t worry,” Reina replied. “Physics are physics. Some things are bound by certain laws whether you’re breathing methane or oxygen. If they choose to investigate, this battle will be long over, and little will remain for them to examine.”
Ladeaux’s voice sounded as sure and confident as ever. “Jacobs is right. The burst will happen in every spectrum, and should hide our movements for several days. If they don’t send a third group after us immediately, we’ll know we’ve been successful at concealing our escape. We’ll be long gone, and all they’ll have are unanswered questions. I think they will choose not to investigate.”
Two more hours had passed when four Alzhaa cruisers appeared. The three Mirandan gunsleds detached from trailing the Saracen, turned, and engaged the battle, leaving the Saracen to continue making a run for it.
Dropping into a wedge, the three sleds strafed the enemy bloc of cruisers with their lighter weight torpedoes, and then peeling apart from each other, they swung back. Ladeaux took out the rear cruiser using heavy armaments. Letting their shields pulse the debris away, Ryo took out the next one in line.
Immediately Ryo and Ladeaux made themselves into the visible targets, encouraging the two remaining cruisers to converge on them as they pretended to turn back toward Alzhaa space. The Mirandan defenders continued following the usual pattern they always had except for one thing: the Saracen continued fleeing toward Valentine at its top speed. Only the gunsleds were heading back to Alzhaa space.
Reina pulled back, arcing over the top of Ladeaux and Ryo. The three gunsleds formed a triangle, with Reina trailing. Suddenly, one of the Alzhaa began peeling away, apparently realizing the Saracen was getting away. Reina was on it, firing and dodging as her volley caught the enemy’s bridge, herding them back toward their companion. Just as Ladeaux had hoped, the other cruiser had caught on that the Saracen was still running and slowed down to turn back.
Reina rotated under and came up nearly on top of the stern of the fore cruiser and delivered her bundle dead center. The instant she launched the package, landing it squarely in the vent. Reina pulled up and fled in the opposite direction, heading at full throttle for Valentine.
Several seconds passed, and then the cruiser flared, shining too brilliantly for human eyes.
Bracing herself for the worst, Reina gritted her teeth. Her gunsled bucked and shuddered as the leading edge of the shockwave overtook her, but somehow her shields held together as, briefly, she rode the wave, gaining a little speed as it passed her. Relief nearly overwhelmed her. “Ladeaux! It worked. Good plan.” Tears of relief stung her eyes, and her headset crackled with hoots of joy as Ladeaux and Ryo celebrated her survival.
Her joy abruptly turned to disbelief. “No….” Reina groaned as the display showed the shockwave catching Ryo’s shields. She watched as, almost in slow motion, his shields buckled and failed under the onslaught. The pieces of Ryo’s gunsled joined the cloud of debris that rode the silent tsunami traveling back toward Alzhaa.
Ladeaux’s gunsled pulled into formation alongside her. With the destruction of the Alzhaa ship, the implants for head-to-head communication were working again, and she removed the headset with a small sense of relief. “I guess it’s just you and me, now.” Ladeaux’s mental voice didn’t betray his emotions, but Reina knew he felt the same sense of incredulity and depression she did. Her heart ached for Ryo and the loss of his future with Ramona Flores.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Reina and Ladeaux landed their gunsleds on the flight deck of the Saracen. In the captain’s ready room, there wasn’t much to say. “Thank you, both, for everything. You two need to get some rest. If anything comes up, I will let you know, but it looks like we’re home free now. We’ll be watching to be sure. In the meantime, Acting Science Officer Jacobs, you’re no longer flying. I’ll see you both tomorrow at the regular staff meeting, but you two are off until then.” It was a dismissal if ever Reina had heard one, but given Cora’s wounded pride, she’d expected it.
As they walked back to the pilots’ ready-room, Ladeaux flashed Reina the cheeky smile that captivated her. “How’s about we get together sometime and have a drink to Ryo and all the others who should be here but aren’t?”
Reina looked at him, standing there looking as sweaty and exhausted as she felt. “Let me get a shower, and I’ll see what Cookie’s got that’s fit to drink. Half an hour, in my quarters?”
Ladeaux’s eyes lit up. “I’ll be there.”
Reina smiled, feeling the weight she hadn’t realized she carried leaving her shoulders.
Valentine Run, Part Three, © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 All Rights Reserved
Valentine Run is 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