“Patrol 3597, reporting Sweep 3. No hostiles. Area clear.” The voice of his wingmate crackled in like a noisy insect. He pressed the confirmation button.
Pilot Alan Vuong stared at his chronometer as his patrol shift neared its end. Hours of nothingness had begun to gnaw at him and he was looking forward to some drinks at the starbase. Sure, the drinks had been ‘liberated’ from a Kenzenken cargo ship, but rules were flexible in the time right after a war. He listened to the low hum of the ship’s electronics as he dialed down the accelerator.
The Hawking-class vessel seated up to three crew members and measured almost fifty meters on its primary axis. The fusion drive took up most of its mass and provided the power and acceleration that made the ship a formidable combatant. Situated near the drive was a gravity generator that prevented the human occupants from becoming clouds of blood once they entered combat maneuvers. It bristled with a handful of missile banks and particle turrets, enough to make a small difference in battle. From the outside, the space and atmosphere-capable star craft looked like two arrowheads stacked on top of each other. It was akin to the fighter craft of old Earth air forces, but still a unique beast. Once, early pioneers used this class for deep space exploration, but the war forced it into its current role. If its namesake was still alive, he would have deeply disapproved, but the current generation was too young to understand or to care.
The wingman called in again. “If they came, how do you think they’d come in? I’ve been itching to try these new Serenity missiles. I bet we’d hit them before their IFFs even registered.”
“Not in the mood, Alpha Two,” he muttered. He preferred torture to discussing the finer points of extremely fast space weapons over the next hour.
The pilot felt the pull of g-forces on him as the ship glided through space. Possible ship trajectories played out in his mind, both above, below, and beside him. A simple pull of the throttle or the input of a command allowed him total control of the ship’s movement, like the dolphins that once swam in Earth’s oceans. Alan didn’t know much about dolphins, but their descriptions in ancient textbooks enamored him as a child. The inside of the ship felt calm and peaceful, barring the rhythmic humming and computer tones. He imagined what would happen if the Kenzenkens ambushed them and if they would have time to feel the violent and sudden impact of a hypervelocity missile.
The pilot’s gland adapted his body to the outside forces imposing themselves upon him. The medical techs implanted it next to his adrenal glands before his first space flight in a Republic vessel. When his body detected the changes in gravity and pressure, the gland secreted steroids and hormones that prevented him from blacking out. He could also will it to produce the substances without any external stimulus. If he wanted to, he could generate enough hormones to blank out his own emotions, although the medical staff cautioned that excessive manual regulation of the gland could produce unwanted side effects. He agreed. Tempting as it was, he felt uncomfortable pushing against the boundaries of human biology.
The blue and white glow of the ship’s viewscreen lit the otherwise dim interior. The light reflected off his helmet as he stared at various results from the ship’s long-range sensors. He brought a hand up and inputted some commands to the computer. No, he shouldn’t do this, he thought. He needed to focus on the mission. The urge was too strong. He accessed his personal archives. A woman’s face appeared, green-eyed with long, dark hair. Her nose leaned slightly upwards, reminding him of ancient paintings he watched in a recent holo. The mouth parted in a slight smile, warm and apprehensive at the same time. He tapped a button and it switched to a man’s face, itself green-eyed, dark-haired, and with the same expression. The man and woman were so similar that they could have been twins. He cycled back and forth between the screens, staring into those eyes. He knew he was searching for something, but he knew not what. He imagined her scent, like a forest after a light shower. He imagined his scent. Both the same, yet there was a vague difference he could not describe. He longed to feel them again, to engulf himself in those senses again.
“Buddy. You awake over there?” The comm chirp from his wingmate shook him out of his reverie. Alan gave a prayer of thanks to the wing commander for not making this guy his co-pilot. Few people liked to be crammed into a tiny ship, so Command became more lenient as the war neared its end and allowed the crew to fly them individually. Alan blinked as he wracked his mind for the other pilot’s identity. He thrummed his fingers on the throttle. It had to be Johnson or something or the other.
He closed the screens and pressed the speaker button. He decided that brooding would lead nowhere. “Affirmative, Alpha Two. This whole lot of nothing is making me write novels in my head.”
“Well, I wouldn’t get wrapped up in your imagination too much. You might run into a comet, and I would not want that. Typing the report would be horrendous.”
Alan nodded. The war had only been over for 6 months. He barely understood why the conflict even started in the first place. A dust-up over some far off colony turned into a major conflagration. The name of the settlement didn’t matter; it was a struggle between two competing visions of the galaxy. Two competing visions he could not comprehend. Not for the first time, he wondered why he joined. Visions of glory and conquest weren’t in his head. He cared little about ideologies grasping at hearts and minds. The Republic was as remote to him as the Coalition. No, he did it out of duty to some self-proclaimed protector of his home colony, but he only followed duty because the alternative was life without meaning. He had no other skills besides piloting. He joined too late to participate in any of the major operations as the war winded down, but did remember the few terrifying and exhilarating small-scale furballs.
Still, the threat waited out there. There had been reports from the front of kamikaze transports used to attack Republic starbases. Detonating a ship’s fusion engine was a foolhardy, but effective tactic. Of course, the Kenzenken government categorically denied any involvement in these attacks. They blamed pirates or rogue elements still clinging to the war. For some people, these things never ended. Maybe someday he could participate in any of the mop-up operations.
“Roger that. Let’s finish this.”
A sharp pip from his helmet’s heads-up display caught his attention. It indicated that the ship sensors had detected an object in the realspace net. It headed towards their location.
“Alpha Two, do you read this? Looks like something’s coming from the Neutral Zone.”
“Affirmative, Alpha One, let’s check it out.”
Both ships oriented themselves toward the target. Green blasts of fire erupted in the exhaust from their fusion engines. Alan felt the slightest hint of the g-forces exerting themselves from the ship, offset by the internal gravity generator. Thank God we didn’t live in the early space exploration days, he thought.
As they approached the object, the ship’s computer identified it as a Kenzenken transport. On the tactical display, the icon representing the transport immediately turned yellow, indicating a potential hostile. Alan tried to remember the briefings. Kenzenken transports, resembling large flying bricks, mainly carried supplies or large numbers of people. Light armaments adorned their hulls. They also did not go outside their territory on a whim. Its purpose couldn’t be good. He switched on his communications panel.
“Unidentified ship. We are Earth Republic vessels enroute to your position. Your position and heading indicates that you have violated the Neutral Zone treaty. Please identify yourselves.” His heart beat a little faster. This situation could go pear-shaped very quickly. Stories of Kenzenken war craft chasing down and vaporizing disabled Republic ships filled his mind. They wouldn’t dare attack, he thought. This scenario differed too much from the kamikaze attacks. Moreover, there was no point in using transports for direct action. Yet, here it flew, a potential threat right in front of him.
The seconds passed by, almost agonizing in their slowness. None of the external cameras provided a visual on the ship; it was still hundreds of thousands of kilometers from his current position. Of course, this was space. It was difficult, even for the most advanced camera systems, to see things at such vast distances. If he had to fire his weapons in anger, only the onboard computer would detect any reaction. It was clinical, in a way, and you could easily forget those humans in the rust buckets so far away.
Again, he waited. He thought about what his wingman was feeling. During maneuvers, the guy played the cool top gun type, always bragging about his mettle under fire. A narcissist. He found it almost endearing, except for the fact that two former wingmates with the exact same attitude were now space dust. He switched communications.
“Alpha Two. They’re not responding. I may have to fire a warning shot. Don’t do anything without my command.” His suit glove rubbed against his hand as he took it off the comms button.
The comms screen chirped: “Acknowledged, Alpha One, I’ll wait on your signal.” Alan exhaled in relief. He targeted the transport again and opened comms.
“Kenzenken transport. This is your final warning. If you do not respond, I will be forced to disable you.” He wondered if his weapons would be up to the job. ‘Zenk vessels were known for their sturdiness. Take out all its armor and its skeleton would still keep on going.
Finally, a response came from the intruder. On the screen appeared a green-eyed man. Alan’s blood froze. “Hello, old friend,” replied the image. Mihael… No, Michael Irwin. From the Academy. It had been three years since he disappeared. This reappearance stymied Alan. The computer chimed and identified the ship as the Inari, a Kenzenken transport reportedly still in service in the far side of their space. His face twitched.
“Inari. State your purpose.” He kept his voice calm.
Static came through the comms and the image blurred. Alan could barely hear the reply. “Alan, I know that this is sudden, but listen to me. I’m carrying these refugees into Republic space. You have to let us through. You’re in grave danger. You and everyone else. Let us go through and I’ll tell you everything!”
He held his fingers over the trigger, rubbing it in rhythm with the pounding of his heartbeat. This had to be some sort of trick.
“Inari. Negative, I cannot do that. You are violating the treaty of Yukaze-New Boston. Turn around, or I will disable your ship and take you and all passengers to the nearest starbase for processing,” he said. And deportation, he thought. He wrinkled his brow. If Michael had returned, it had to be for a good reason. He had to have known that flying in would be foolhardy. The Republic had protested the terrorist attacks with strict sanctions and border controls. The current Kenzenken government complied, much to the uproar of millions of their citizens. Alan also couldn’t help but think there was an ulterior motive. No one expected the war to last so long and to be so bloody. And certainly no one wanted a million starving civilians dumped on an already overcrowded colony.
“Alan.” Michael’s eyes stared straight into his own. “Be reasonable. It’s me! Look, I can’t talk openly over comm channels. It’s too dangerous. Just let us go. When I finish unloading these refugees… We’ll meet, you and I, away from prying ears.” When Alan didn’t reply, his voice took on a sharper tone. “I’m going in, whether you want to or not. If you do anything to us, know that you’ll be committing a war crime.”
This was suicide! Alan willed calming transmitters into his bloodstream. He thought through the conversation. Whatever Michael was doing, he believed in it. That was just part of his nature, if that really was the guy. He couldn’t let them through. Not after the floating bodies around Cygnus station. And if this was a trick…
“Alpha One.” The comm panel picked up the voice of Alpha Two. “This guy’s nuts. We’re going to have to do something, or we’re going to end up in a shitstorm.” He thought he could hear some fear in his wingmate’s voice.
“Michael.” He looked at the comm image. “I’ll only warn you one more time. If you continue on your course, I’ll be forced to disable you. Stand down. We’ll take you into custody and let the authorities handle the refugees.”
Michael’s eyes flashed. There was a long pause. Finally, he spoke. “Alan, did you not listen to me? We can’t trust either the Republic or the Kenzenkens. Don’t be an idiot, or I’ll—” The screen went blank.
That idiot! What did he think he was doing? Alan shouted into the comm. “Inari! Inari! Please respond!” No response came. The computer showed the unchanging flight trajectory of the transport. Alan’s hand gripped the throttle, a thumb over the beam activation trigger. His eyes flittered back and forth between the display screen and the trigger. It had to be a trick. Through some improbable odds, a spy had taken his history with Michael and now the enemy was using his grief for their own advantage. No, he resolved, do what the initial contact training told you. Protect yourself first. If you must fight, fire to disable. He paused, wondering if he was making the right decision. He pushed his thumb in.
Almost invisible light particles emerged from the weapon turrets embedded in his craft. The particles moved at just below lightspeed; the computer showed their path as just a few meters above the bow of the Inari. The ship kept moving. He pressed the fire button again. Again, the particle beams fired past the transport and again there was no response. No communications, no change in course. Alan closed his eyes and took a breath. He opened them again and set the targeting computer to the Inari’s engines. Disabling those would be enough to stop Michael’s foolish course. His computer also indicated that Alpha Two was targeting the ship. Ten seconds went by. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. The Inari moved a few pixels on his status screen. He fired again.
The beams impacted the dorsal back structure of the Inari, punching a hole through layers of steel andigniting it into green-hot metal. The computer indicated small explosions rocking the vessel. The blue fires from the transport’s twin engines went out. A status screen told him that the ship was disabled and now drifting. He hoped no one had been hurt. At a high enough setting, the particle beams were strong enough to vaporize planetoids. Alan inputted a command to scan the vessel for damage
“Alpha One. Ship is disabled. I have relayed a message to Command to send rescue ships,” Alpha Two said in an even voice. He wondered if the man wasn’t the annoying asshole he thought he was. Well, good, that went well. He still couldn’t fathom what Michael was thinking, however. Surely he must have been drunk or deluded or something.
The computer beeped again. He glanced at the status screen. From the ship’s scan of the Inari he saw a surge of energy erupt from the engine area like flames licking a wounded animal. Crap! He thought. This wasn’t supposed to happen! The computer indicated further deterioration on the refugee ship. He frantically switched on comms.
“Inari! Inari! Tell me your status!” He almost screamed the last sentence. The indicator on the screen flashed again. Reactor meltdown. The icon representing the ship disappeared from his screen. In his mind’s eye, he saw a bright flash of light and the ship breaking apart. He scanned again. Now the computer indicated fast-moving debris from Inari’s current position. It was gone. His vision blurred as his head sunk back into the seat. He put his hand on the screen, trying to will the pieces of the ship back together. His vision dimmed. The last thing he saw was Michael’s head on his lap as they lay under a willow tree.