Captain Jack Ellis stood at the hatch leading to the darkened, empty hangar deck and was overwhelmed by a feeling of deja vu. He thought that he had done it all before, and, of course he had. First in training, and then on active missions, and now, at the beginning of a combat patrol with the enemy ships out there, somewhere in the night.
Like most of his fellow pilots, both male and female, Ellis was young, just barely twenty-six. Unlike them, he was burly and tall, almost six three, which made it a tight squeeze into the cockpit. His hair, like that of his fellows, both male and female was cut short, only about half an inch long, which meant the helmet, with its electrodes, was a tighter, better fit. He didn’t like his hair cut so short, but longer hair sometimes interfered with the contacts, shorting them out in high stress situations when the perspiration soaked him and he needed the best the combat computers had to offer.
As he stood there, looking at the single and dual seat craft, the overhead lights suddenly brightened. Now, at the far end, tucked into a corner of the hangar bay near the main battle door, the lights of the control room came on. Behind the thick, debris resistant glass, were the men and women who would control the launch. They were all dressed in light gray coveralls and all wore tiny headsets with almost invisible thread microphones. They began to take their places behind the main consoles that held view screens and computer readouts, and sensor arrays.
A voice behind him asked, "You going in, or are you just part of the hatch?"
Ellis recognized the voice of Jim Jensen, a Navy pilot who Ellis didn’t like very much. Jensen had a bad attitude, thought that only the Navy knew how to operate in space, and often expressed his feelings that Air Force pilots should have stayed on Earth where they belonged. After all, there is no air in space.
He turned. As usual, Jensen’s gray Navy uniform was sweat stained under the arms. Jensen’s head glistened with sweat and his hair, short like everyone’s, was damp. He looked as if he had come from the shower and hadn’t bothered with a towel. Even the climate control on the ship couldn’t defeat Jensen’s perspiration.
"No," said Ellis. "I was just about to enter."
"Well, have at it, my man. There is fighting to be done today."
"You don’t have to sound so happy about it," said Ellis.
"Why not? This is what it is all about. This is what we’ve trained to do. This is why we joined up. I’m glad to get the opportunity. Finally."
Ellis shook his head in disbelief. Jensen sounded like the officers from the old Civil War. On for a promotion or a grave. On for a brevet or a coffin or on for the glory of the unit, at any cost. He had hoped that his generation was more enlightened than those of his great grandfather’s great grandfather. He hoped they had discovered that there rarely was glory in war, but the lesson had gone unlearned.
Before he was forced to reply, the other pilots swarmed onto the flight deck through a variety of hatches. He watched them move among the craft of dark composition materials, absorbing some of the sound they made.
Jensen slapped him on the shoulder and said, "This is it."
Ellis shrugged off Jensen’s hand and stepped forward, through the hatch. He walked across the hard metal of the flight deck and reached his fighter. It was a small ship, only about fifteen feet long, four or five feet wide, and made of a dark composition of carbon, plastic, and very little metal. There were no sharp angles on it to reflect radar, no shiny surfaces to pick up and reflect starlight, and baffles around the engine that dispersed the energy to reduce the heat signature, though in the cold of space, that was nearly impossible.
The canopy stood open so that he could climb in. His helmet was hung on the back of his seat. He grabbed it, fitted it to his head carefully, feeling the electrodes as they touched his scalp along the top and sides of his head.
Ellis put his foot up, into the small cutout on the side of the ship, and stepped up and in, onto the center of the cockpit seat. He then moved forward and sat down, struggling to push his body into position so that his feet were against the thruster pedals and his hands could reach the various electronic, radio, sensor and weapons controls. He wiggled a couple of times until the seat seemed to mold itself to his body and he was comfortable in his fighter.
The heads-up display, the HUD, setting directly in front of him, brightened, seeming to hang in midair. The holographic images were color-coded to show his own fleet and its swarm of tiny craft, and that of the enemy, still several hundred thousand miles away, but closing fast.
Ellis touched the trigger that would ignite the engine, but didn’t pull it. He moved his hand and allowed the canopy to close so that now he was encased in his ship, almost as if he was wearing it. He closed his eyes for a moment and leaned back, against the soft, yielding mass of the head rest and waited for the rally signal.
The lights on the hangar deck dimmed and then slowly turned to dark red. It changed the look of everything around him, making the other ships into dark gray lumps that seemed to have no shape or design. Tiny lights, red and green, flashed on as the ships began to start their engines. The main battle door shimmered and disappeared, revealing, beyond it, a sea of stars, and to the right, low, almost impossible to see, the crescent shape of Pluto and near it, Clarion. The other two, smaller moons were lost in the distance or the glow of the dwarf planet.
Ellis touched the switch for the flight command frequency. "Give me a quick commo check."
"Two," said Linda Schaffer, who was about the same age as Ellis, but had spent an extra year in civilian training so that she understood more about aeronautical and electrical engineering than he did, as it applied to space flight.
"Three." That was Jason Horn, a very young man who had finished flight training and had only just completed his combat check ride. He seemed immature and Ellis had to remind himself that Horn was only twenty-two.
"Four." Karen Davis who had been transferred over from another flight so that Ellis didn’t know her all that well. She was nearly as tall as he but was much thinner. She didn’t have to struggle so hard to fit into the fighter.
"Five." Tom Williams was the old man of the flight at twenty-eight. He had started out in a civilian college but then had decided that the military was for him and switched over losing a couple of years of credits. He was a small man with dark hair and large ears that stuck out like jug handles.
"Six," said Roger Douglas. He was an old pro of twenty-five who was given the last slot so that he could watch what the others were doing and offer them criticisms. No one liked him because he was too good at the job and let everyone know just how good he thought he was.
Ellis switched to the company frequency and said, "Raptor is ready."
With empty minutes to fill, Ellis closed his eyes and thought about the final briefing held late the night before. It had been a grim affair with the commanding general standing to one side of the podium as expert after expert had provided the bad news about the enemy. The normal joking disappeared as the facts and figures had been presented. The Denebians had them outclassed and outnumbered in every category. Their big fleet carriers were larger than those of Earth, carried more fighters or attack ships, and had better overall protection. They were almost impossibly difficult to detect in space because of their stealth capabilities. They were faster and better armed. Although, according to the experts, the enemy force wasn't absolutely overwhelming, it was close enough that no one in the human fleet was expected to survive to the end of the week. This included those who would not be taking a direct part in the fighting, but those who remained on the fleet carriers in various support capacities. Although no one said it, it was clear the brass hats were thinking in terms of a suicide mission that might dely the Denebian invasion long enough for the Earth to prepare a better defense.
Ellis, with the other flight commanders, sat around the huge table that looked to have been made of the finest mahogany and inlaid with dark marble. There had been a bottle of beer at each place, a PDA that no one was expected to use and roster of the replacement pilots available in case a flight commander was short a crew or two.
Over the center of the table, in a huge holographic display were pictures of the approaching enemy taken by remote controlled drones and tiny cameras scattered in their path as they approached the Solar System. It showed the enemy ships in a spherical formation that allowed them to create interlocking fields of fire and to protect one another during an attack. An assault on one ship would draw the fire of half a dozen others, reducing the chance of success for the attacker, not to mention the chance of survival.
At the center of the fleet, screened by smaller, dark ships that were probably little more than weapons platforms were the equivalent of the Earth’s fleet carriers. These were large, oval-shaped ships that could hold a hundred or two hundred of the smaller fighters used to break up the formations so that the destroyers or cruisers could get into attack the main body of the fleet. Ellis wasn’t so much intimidated by the size of the fleet carriers as he was by the number of ships in the formation. The foe had spent a great deal of economic wealth in creating the fleet and then sending it so far to attack Earth.
Once they had gotten a good look at the size of the enemy fleet, the leader of the free Earth had appeared in the holographic display. She stood about three feet tall, and was framed by the commanders of the Combined Headquarters and the Ground Assault Force. Her voice was high and annoying as she said, in her recorded, holographic message, "We are expecting great things from you all in the next few days. Never have so many owed so much to so few. Thank you."
She winked out of existence as Ellis identified the quote as a paraphrase of Winston Churchill made during War Two and said at the conclusion of a success rather than as a prelude to a failure.
The end of the briefing had been classic. The commanding general, his head bowed and his voice choked with emotion told them of the great defenses of history. The Spartans at Thermopylae, the Texicans at the Alamo, the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. All had been heroic holding actions that provided time for those at home to create an army or assemble reinforcements. What the general didn't mention was that the Spartans and Texicans had been massacred, and the 101st had been so badly mauled that they had operationally ceased to exist. Death was the reward for those who had been placed on the firing line.
As they had filed from the briefing theater, the general had reminded them that the contents of the briefing were highly classified. In the past Ellis had laughed at that. How would they tell the enemy even if they had wanted? But this time the general was telling them not to discuss it with the rest of the flight crews. This was a secret to be kept from their own people or the morale would plummet because it was clear that no one expected them to survive, let alone win.
Then, in another gesture of support, the general stood in the hatch and shook the hand of every one of the flight commanders as he or she left the conference room. That was almost as frightening as the facts given during the briefing.
The company radio crackled suddenly, breaking into his thoughts. "Let’s get ready to launch."
Near the main battle doors, the first flight lifted to about two feet above the deck and as one, slide forward. The lead ship jumped ahead, and disappeared out the battle door, the five other ships assigned to him, following. A second flight fell in behind the first.
Ellis said, "Raptors," and lifted his ship carefully. He slide toward the door without glancing at his display, knowing that his flight was behind him. As he crossed the threshold, he dived, relative to the big fleet carrier, and then broke down and to his right.
Spread out behind him, almost invisible to him, was the rest of the Earth Fleet. The ships had been called in from all parts of the galaxy, leaving human colonies on Tau Ceti, Epilson Eridani and Groombridge 1618 unprotected. Not that the fleets there had been particularly big to begin with or that they had been there for the protection of the colonists.
Around him, the other flights, made up of small craft, some that carried a single nuclear weapon, winked out as they turned off their lights and began masking their intentions. Stealth became the way to work as they searched for the enemy ships which would be surrounded by clouds of fighters.
They raced through space, the signals on the heads up becoming stronger. Ellis glanced out the cockpit window. His flight was still strung out behind him, right where it was supposed to be, just as it was displayed on the HUD.
"Check your heads up," said Schaffer in Number Two.
The Denebian fleet seemed to come apart at that moment. The huge, flashing red shapes of their fleet carriers fragmented as hundreds of smaller craft were launched. No where around him were the comforting orange of his fleet or yellow of the his fighter cover. He was facing the might of the Denebian invasion force, apparently alone.
As they closed on the enemy fleet, the Denebian fighters dived on them from above the plain of the ecliptic. Schaffer spun the control on her laser cannon, aligning her sights on the lead fighter. She keyed the mike. "Here they come."
Number Three, Jason Horn, echoed her words, "Here they come."
Ellis ignored them both, now concentrating on the gigantic enemy carrier in front of him. He scanned the heads up, checked the range and heard the warbling tone that told him his missiles had found a target, barely in range. To himself he kept repeating, "Keep them off me. Keep them off me."
"Let's hammer them," said Horn.
Almost everyone in space around him opened fire at the same instant, the beams flashing. An enemy fighter exploded into a short-lived ball of orange fire. The rest of the enemy swarmed around, firing rapidly, but failing to stop the attack.
"They're on us."
"I got one."
"Coming in from the twelve o'clock relative. Half dozen. Turning to engage."
"Negative," said Ellis. "Maintain unit integrity."
Ellis shifted slightly, pushed forward on the controls. Enemy fighters filled space around him, firing at his flight. Ellis shot back, launched an anti-ship missile and saw it spiral out of control.
"They're coming in from behind," said Schaffer. Her voice was high and tight.
Ellis ignored that too, twisting in the seat so that he could look behind him. The heads up was showing enemy all around. Bright spots sparkled and disappeared as individual ships were destroyed and pilots died.
The heads up was filled with enemy fighters. A half dozen of them swooped in. One of them disappeared suddenly, and then a second. Schaffer was using her laser cannon effectively, as were others in the flight. Space was filled with the bright beams as they danced around like the colored spray from a fire hose.
"We'll take the center carrier," said Ellis. "Concentrate on the center carrier."
Ellis touched the controls, spinning his ship on its axis so that he was now flying backwards. He used the thrusters, slowed the sudden retreat and then accelerated. One of the enemy fighters passed in front of him and Ellis snapped a shot at him. The beam sliced through the enemy ship like a knife taking the top off a soft boiled egg. There was a brilliant shimmer as the fuel exploded and the enemy was gone.
Spinning again, Ellis tried to find the remainder of his flight, but they were now scattered through space. The furball grew around the enemy as the ships engaged one another hiding the small, individual battles. The lights on the HUD were mixed. The pilots of the fighters and attack craft searched for one another as the Earth force tried to penetrate the Denebian outer defenses, taking the attack to them rather than waiting for it to near them.
Now the weapons on the Denebian carrier opened fire, the whole side seeming to erupt. Missiles and beams slashed through space. The Denebians were attempting to create a wall of hard radiation to kill Ellis' pilots and disrupt and detonate anything they tried to shoot through it.
The wave of radiation passed them but the shielding of the ships protected them. The Denebian fighters turned on them again. At the edge of his flight, two ships vanished in bright flashes of flame. A third was crippled, the ship dropping away from the flight, spinning wildly. Someone had squeezed a mike button and broadcast the scream until it was abruptly cut off. He thought it might have been Horn, but he didn’t know.
Now there was no chatter among the Earth ships. Each of the pilots was too busy trying to stay alive. Each engaged in tiny battles. Ellis felt his vision, and attention, narrow to a tunnel directly in front of him.
From far on the left appeared another flight. Space seemed to explode in that direction. A bright expanding cloud flared briefly and then disappeared. There was a single scream, like a war whoop, as the ships appeared, and then vanished in brilliant flashes of flame and light.
Ellis wasn't sure what happened. His attention was on the enemy ship directly in front of him. The sides of it were sparkling as it fired and took hits from beams and missiles. And then, suddenly, he was back in range, good, solid tones on all weapons. Ellis fired four nuclear tipped torpedoes, hesitated and then slavoed his missiles. As the weapons jumped clear, Ellis pushed forward on his control, looping down and away from the enemy.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash and knew that another friend had just died. Ignoring that, he spiraled down as one more of the ships with him exploded. He knew that many had died, he just didn't know it had been almost all of them.
Schaffer, watching the scene on her sensors, suddenly screamed, "We hit him. We hit him bad."
Ellis glanced at the heads up, changed channels and focused on the Denebian carrier ahead of him. Torpedoes somehow jinked their way through the enemy defenses, hit the front end and crushed the big hangar doors. One of the torpedoes flew through the wreckage there and exploded inside the giant ship. The carrier stopped for an instant, shook itself like an overweight, drunken dinosaur and then flew apart in a brilliant flash of bright red light and a spreading cloud of glowing, twinkling debris, bodies, and broken equipment.
"That's it," shouted Schaffer. "We got him."
But Ellis didn't feel the joy. He had realized that he was nearly alone. His flight was long gone. "Forget it, Linda," he said tiredly, ignoring standard radio procedure. "It doesn't matter now."
Denebian fighters swarmed around the fleet carrier wreckage like angry bees from a ruined hive. They were targeting everything larger than a snowball. They were going to destroy all the Earth Defense Force craft and kill every human they could find before attacking the rest of the Earth fleet.
Ellis kept his camouflage on flat black, and then turned off all the internal equipment that could radiate any type of signal. He cut the engines to reduce the infrared signature and to disrupt the ion trail. He let the ship drift away from the battle, masquerading as another dead hulk.
From nowhere Denebian fighters appeared, angling down toward him. It was obvious that he had been found, and he fired his engines, kicking the ship back, toward his own fleet and apparent safety.
A bright red laser beam flashed, hit the rear of his ship, and cut through the armor plating near the thrusters. It felt as if he had been hit with a brick thrown by a hurricane. Ellis was slammed against the seatbelt and shoulder harness in the sudden acceleration. Instinctively he grabbed at the instrument panel to brace himself.
Ellis scanned the instruments. A single warning light was blinking. He punched a button and the light winked out. All systems and weapons were still operational, but the ship was slowing rapidly. Forward momentum had been absorbed in the energy of the hit.
He drifted to a stop, momentarily dead in space. The Denebians, closed for the kill, buzzed him as if examining him, and then broke off the attack. They passed without firing again, leaving him alone, far below the plane of the ecliptic.
For a moment Ellis sat quietly, his eyes on the heads up. His flight now gone but Denebian fighters were everywhere. They were attacking the various flights from the Earth fleet. The small yellow lights were winking out rapidly. Much too rapidly. The enemy fleet dominated the heads up.
Adding power, Ellis began to limp away from the point of attack, lost in the confusion of the fight. Ellis dropped down, relative to his ship, away from the enemy and the plane of the ecliptic. He tried to understand what was happening behind him.
A Denebian caught him about a thousand klicks from the battle. He made one pass, firing rapidly, and then spun away. Ellis fought to control his ship. Something exploded behind him. He was slammed forward again as another explosion rocked the front of him. Something slashed into his shoulder and pain flared hot and bright. He tried to turn and was unable to do it. A red fog grew in front of his eyes and he could see nothing around him.
The heads up was blank. He didn't know where the enemy was or where safety was. He shoved the throttles and felt a rumbling behind him that was not quite right. His speed increased slightly and he turned, trying to find his way clear.
Outside, the battle seemed to have ended. Ellis didn't know what had happened. The heads up was blank. He was flying blind, moving away from the enemy. That was all he knew for sure.
Again he tried the flight frequency but there was no response. When he tried to twist in his seat, he thought he would pass out. He sat up straight, not moving, trying to find the fleet. He squeezed the mike button tightly, cracking it and then shattering it. He whispered into the radio but there was no answer.
Ellis was now afraid to move. The pain in his shoulder grew, burning hot and flaring brightly so that it affected his chest and upper body and made him dizzy. He wanted help, needed it badly, but couldn’t raise anyone on the radio. He wasn’t sure where he was, where the fleet was, or where the enemy was. He was disoriented, sick, and almost unable to think.
Then, as the ship rotated slowly, he spotted Pluto, now a giant glowing ball rising from the left. Without thinking, he touched a pedal, felt a slight vibration, and watched as the nose of his fighter came down, centering on Pluto. Without thinking about it, he leveled the ship, bottom toward the planet’s surface, and tried to enter orbit, flying almost as if he was in an airplane.
As he entered orbit, he flipped on the nav aids, but there was no response from them. He punched the emergency transmit button, hoping that its signal was strong enough to be detected. Hoping that there was a signal to be detected. Then on the horizon, he saw the bright lights of the human outpost. He pushed the nose of the ship toward it, cut the power and tried to drop the several thousand feet to the ground.
He saw the outpost rushing toward him but it looked unreal, ghostly and tinged with red. Suddenly it seemed he was standing in a deep cave staring up, into a cloudless bright sky that was slowly changing to overcast.
He lost sight of the outpost, of the lights and even Pluto. To him it was strange because they had been there only minutes before. He looked around wildly, or thought he did, but saw nothing. Now there was only blackness, but not of space because he could see no stars or planets, or even the enemy fleet.