by Michael J. Shuler Sr.
I stood at attention. From the corner of my eyes I studied the room before me. It was filled with shiny stuff, Chrome, gold, glass, and a black floor which seemed as deep as space itself. A shapely, slender blonde woman stood next to me, rod stiff and shaking slightly. Her breathing was ragged in her nervousness. Before me was a middle aged man with no hair on the top of his head and a slight bulge in the middle. Behind his huge genuine imitation wood desk stood two flags, that of Earth and the proud flag of the Hell Fighters, a golden eagle standing on the Earth.
Awed and stunned by my surroundings, and the thinly veiled antagonism in Commander Lebert’s voice, I swallowed several times before I could answer.
“Lieutenant Anthony L. Rice, USC, 157 . . . ”
“I just asked your name, Lieutenant, not your life’s story.” The commander looked at his two newest replacements with a disapproving scowl.
“And you?” the commander switched his gaze to the woman beside me. I had only met her on the trip out, which was short considering that all but a few hours were spent in stasis. The commander’s question somehow managed to sound like an accusation. I decided that the commander was an expert at belittling people.
“Samp, sir, Lieutenant Marty E. Samp.”
“I wouldn’t be too proud of it, Lieutenant, I gave Spaccom very specific instructions concerning the posting of females to my outfit. Don’t grow attached to this place.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem sir,” she said unemotionally.
“What’s that supposed to mean!” he jumped to his feet and leaned close until his sweating face and bent nose were inches from hers. I involuntarily moved a step closer, as if to come to her aid. The commander saw the move and smiled in a twisted, perverted way. I turned my eyes straight forward, swallowing my anger. This was all new to me, most people liked me once they knew me. I had no enemies that I knew of and I got along well with everyone, mainly because of my sense of humor. But I knew I would never get along with the commander, and since assignments to Bristol Ready Base were four years long, I knew it would be four of the hardest years of my life. The commander had taken command six months ago, so he would be there for most of my tour. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.
“I assign trash to Lieutenant Commander Temple,” he said with some relish. “Report ASAP!” his shout was unnecessary and I knew it was meant to rattle us.
Samp began to turn away, but when she saw me standing fast, she jerked back to attention. The commander glared at her, then studied me with shrewd, malicious eyes.
“Dismissed,” he finally said with a twist of his lips. We saluted and turned to go.
“I hope you like Black Wing,” his snide comment followed us to the door.
“Screw you,” I said under my breath.
“What?” his roar rattled the lamp on his desk.
“Shrewd view,” I lied, herding Samp before me.
“Thanks,” Samp said as we stepped through the door and it slid shut behind us, “I almost blew it. He was waiting for an excuse to burn us. Leaving without his permission would have done it.”
“I’ve dealt with his kind before, my father . . . ” she waited for more, but I kept the rest of my thoughts to myself.
“What do you think his problem is?” she asked with a shudder as we rounded the corner and started down the ramp to the next level.
“I think he’s taken inter-service rivalry to a new low. The United Space Corps and the Hell Fighters never did get along well. It’s been that way for a thousand years, since our predecessors, the navy, and theirs, the marines, used to sail on wooden ships. The marines were on board to shoot any shanghaied sailors who tried to escape. He seems to be keeping up the old tradition.”
“Tony, what’s Black Wing?” she turned and stopped as she looked at me.
“The garbage detail, the black sheep. If there is a dangerous mission, such as scouting inside enemy territory, or defusing a live torpedo, Black Wing gets it. One good thing, most of Black Wing is made up of USC, so we won’t be alone.”
“How does he get away with it?” she growled.
“Results. When you get results, you can do anything . . . within reason.”
“You seem to know a lot about what’s going on.”
“Yeah,” I said absently, not ready to tell her or anyone that my father was an admiral at Spaccom. “I’m third generation USC.”
The Black Wing logo was proudly displayed on the door leading to level 13. It was a black falcon with a broken ship in its claws, it’s head slightly raised and tongue extended in a defiant scream.
“Home,” Samp said with a nervous laugh.
“Chill out, walk in there like you own the place. They sense fear.”
“Really?” her eyes widened as she studied my face. She saw that I was fooling and gave a slight smile as we arrived at the door and it sprang open. We were looking down on a harshly lit hangar bay. It was filled with nineteen neatly parked fighters and a dozen crews scrambling around, working to make them ready. We made our way down the ramp and I looked across the bay at the office area.
“Looks deserted,” I observed then surveyed the fighters. I almost stopped when I saw what we would be flying.
“They’re antiques,” Marty said in horror. “Five Midi’s, two Lexington class, there’s even an Exitor. That’s not a fighter, is it?”
“They used to be, but this is the first I’ve ever seen being used as anything but a trainer. It was once state of the art, the workhorse of the fleet. Low maintenance, low technology, packs a wallop. It was patterned after the warthogs of the 20th century. We could do worse.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” a voice said behind us. I turned and saw a tall blonde man with Lieutenant Commander clusters on his fatigues.
“Don’t tell me, you are Lieutenant Commander Temple, and that’s my plane?” I asked with a half smile.
“Bingo,” he stepped forward with a smile and extended his hand. I was ready to salute, but corrected myself quickly and took his hand. It was greasy.
I looked down at my hand and he looked apologetic and wiped his hand on his fatigues before shaking hands with Marty.
“You too, Lieutenant,” he said to Marty, “it’s a two-man ship and the only one available.”
“Yes sir,” she said, only slightly horrified.
“I’m glad to see they finally sent us a woman,” he added.
“I’m the only one?”
“No, but you’re the only pilot. The commander has a thing . . . well, never mind. It’s good to see you both. We need six more just like you and a half dozen more ships.”
“Are all the squadrons short-handed?” I asked as he herded us toward his office.
“Not hardly, THEY never leave the hangar. They don’t want their nice NEW ships to get all banged up and dirty. That’s what they’ve got us for,” he didn’t try to hide the contempt in his voice.
“How can you put up with it?” Marty asked angrily.
“Because I take orders, lieutenant,” he chastised her gently, “and . . . ” he trailed off, smiling.
“And?” I prompted.
“Too many eyes and ears around,” he pointed at the ceiling and spoke in a companionable tone, but placed his finger to his lips. It left a black smudge, but we didn’t mention it.
“Check in here,” he waved at an ID station. I placed my hand over the palm plate and waited for the green light, then put my eye on the retinal scanner. When it bleeped, I stepped back and Marty followed my example. I was used to station security, when I was young I couldn’t even get in the commissary without going through an ID station.
“Great, you’re both who you are supposed to be,” he said happily and ushered us back out of the office. “Only a damned fool would be out here if they didn’t have to be,” he added and palmed his door locked as we stepped out.
“What’s this war all about, sir?” Marty asked as we made our way through the cluttered walkway. It was strewn with tools, tool boxes, and greasy engine parts.
“Beats’ me, lieutenant. But it’s a bloody one. In the past three months we’ve lost six ships. I believe that two pilots were captured, but there’s not a damned thing we can do about it. Nobody knows who the enemy is, where they are, or why they suddenly decided to kill us.”
“It was totally unprovoked?” I asked skeptically.
He gave me a critical look, then shrugged.
“We don’t even know that. Maybe somebody does, but if so they’re not cluing me in. FRITZ, KNOCK OFF FOR THE NIGHT!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. A rating in blue coveralls waved and all worked stopped . . .
Everyone seemed to suddenly notice Marty and they stared as she walked past. I saw her turn red and smiled tauntingly.
“They don’t look like they’ve seen a woman before,” Marty growled.
“Oh they have, but the others are all up in PR,” he said with a frown.
I didn’t know if Marty realized that PR stood for pleasure and relaxation, or what kind of women worked there. I had sat in on a lot of poker games and discussions when I grew up, so I was well aware of it.
“How far do Commander Lebert’s eyes and ears extend?” I asked hesitantly, noticing that we were approaching the recreation and living areas.
“Once we pass through those doors ahead, the area is clean. But be careful who you talk too. Most of us have figured out who wears two faces around here, but you never know.”
“There,” he said as we passed through the open door into the recreation area, “we’re clear of his sensors. Fritz came up with a jamming device that works on almost anything. A larger version has been installed in all our fighters.”
“You two,” he stopped, choosing his words carefully, “have come at a most opportune time. Spaccom has decided to break up the squadron and send one wing down for permanent assignment on Blanco Angeles, ever heard of it?”
I nodded. Marty shook her head. Temple gave me a peculiar look, knowing that Blanco Angeles was a highly classified secret. He had automatically expected us to say no, as all the others had.
“Blanco Angeles is the Hawaii of the 25th century. It was recently colonized by countries from the Pacific rim. Lebert figured on leading the Red Wing down, they’re his trained pets, if you know what I mean. I pulled a few strings and . . . well, I contacted my ex-wife who is a big shot in Spaccom and we should get orders in the next few hours. If all goes well, we will have our own command on Blanco Angeles by the end of the week. That means we will have our own command, our own supplies, and soon our own brand-new fighters. How’s that for an assignment?”
Marty was enthusiastic. I bit my lip to keep from blurting out that he was mistaken. I had used my father’s terminal, and his security clearance to read up on everything concerning Bristol Ready Station before I stepped onto the transport, and I knew that my father had personally vetoed the orders for Commander Temple and reissued orders for the Hell Fighters to take the assignment. Supposedly, father did not trust the station in the hands of Hell Fighters and if he must lose one base or the other, he decided it was better to sacrifice Blanco Angeles. I felt like a traitor for not telling Temple what I knew, but if I did I would have no chance on the station afterwards. It gave me one more reason to detest my father. I had no doubt that he knew about my new assignment, and that was the real reason he vetoed the orders.
With a heavy heart I took the bunk that was offered to me and while laying on my bunk thinking, with my hands behind my head, my duffle bags arrived, rolling out of the slot on the wall and across the floor to stop at the head of my bed. I glanced down and sprang off the bunk, kneeling over my bags. There was a large greasy spot on the side of each bag. When I opened each, I found that my fears were justified. Somebody had filled each bag to the bursting point with a lube gun. It was a long night.
Three days of refresher training followed quickly. They were intensive and brutal. On the forth days we left on patrol with the rest of the squadron. I liked the old Exitor, it handled well and was made to take a lot of punishment and still complete its mission. Marty rode beside me as copilot and gunner. We promised to switch places on the next patrol.
“We are approaching sector 38,” Temple’s voice came through the overhead speakers in the cabin. “Keep your eye’s open guys. Rice and Samp, remember that your area is the two o’clock position. If anything comes out of that sector and eats us for breakfast, it your ba . . . hinds that I’ll have in a vice.”
“Yes sir,” we said in unison.
“My bags were disgusting,” Marty said after a few minutes of silence.
“I wish,” she wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“Don’t take it personally, it a long-standing tradition,” I tried to make myself believe my own words. I made a visual check of my gauges and indicator lights, punching the reset button when a red light came on, a heat warning on the port engine. It went out and stayed out so either the engine was fine, or I had punched the button too hard.
“Do you think things will change now that Lebert went to Blanco Angeles?” she asked hopefully.
“He’s still in charge of the station. As long as he is, nothing will change. If he’s not physically there, one of his flunkies will be. The only thing which can change that is his death, which will put Temple in command . . . and don’t even think of it,” I added, knowing the trend of her thoughts. They would have been the same as mine, of course.
“Tony, what’s that,” she suddenly pointed to her right. I glanced up, then squinted, trying to focus on the darkness blotting an ever increasing area of stars. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it. I turned the Exitor away.
“Don’t know. Rice to Temple, something’s coming out of our sector. Can’t make it out, sir.”
“Pang, can you make it out?” Temple asked. I knew Pang was behind and slightly to the starboard, probably two hundred miles behind us.
“Nothing, sir, just darkness. Could be a large asteroid, but it looks too . . . HOLY SHIT, break off, it’s coming . . . ”
His transmission suddenly quit. Marty swung around to look and gasped as the darkness took the form of a spinning asteroid or small moon, and it was about to hit us.
“Tony!” she screamed. I had seen it too and slapped my hand down on the boosters, while turning hard to port. The engines suddenly roared. The gravity compensators began to scream, trying to compensate for the tremendous gee forces being applied to the ship.
We just cleared the edge of the asteroid when it shot past us.
“All hands, asteroid heading toward the center of the formation. Everybody get out of there. It’s traveling at several thousand miles per hour!” I shouted, trying to regain my composure. We heard shouts and terrified screams, some suddenly cut of as Lieutenant Pang’s transmission had. We knew Pang was gone. We didn’t know who else.
I quickly turned the Exitor around to give assistance to damaged ships. But there was no helping those who had been in its path. Only three of the twenty ships still remained, other than our own. Since the wing leader normally brought up the rear of the formation, Temple was one of those who survived. He was swearing soundly and continuously. I knew he was feeling horror at the loss of his squadron, most of whom had been his friends. Father always said, never make friends because you might lose them. I began to wonder if he was right.
I should have known that the asteroid had been electronically shielded or we would have seen it on our scanners, but I didn’t make the connection until too late. A laser bolt flashed by our port side. I sat watching for a moment, wondering where a laser blast had come from. Samp recognized it for what it was.
“Ships coming in from the asteroid’s shadow!” she screamed and her hands took control of the Exitor. Two shots from particle beam weapons crossed just beyond us, coming in from different angles. A blast shook the Exitor and we started a slow spin. Marty hurried to correct it, but I reached out and slapped her hand away. Another blast shook the Exitor, but a particle beam weapon was designed to destroy people, not equipment. Our ship was burned and looked destroyed, but in actually there was little damage, at least I hoped there was. My monitors were flashing red all across the board. I had faith in the Exitor, I had heard stories of the punishment they could take and still fight.
I switched frequencies to one known to be above the enemy’s frequency band. I was hoping they had not stolen or salvaged one of our radios.
“Bristol and Blanco bases, Scramble, Scramble, Scramble. One meteor weapon and an enemy fleet approaching from sector . . . ”
The Exitor rocked again and my readings told me we were no longer sending.
“Radio down, computer control down, long range navigation is down,” Marty said in a tight voice. “Don’t you think we should do something?”
“If we face them, we have no chance at all,” I said and she opened her mouth to object. I held up my hand to stop her.
“But, if we let them pass and target the weaker aft sections of each ship, we could inflict major damage.”
She closed her mouth and nodded slowly, watching the last ship pass and begin receding, in pursuit of the other three fighters from our squadron.
“Ok, let’s take her in,” I said and my hands flew over the controls. The Exitor surged forward. Marty readied the weapons. I fiddled with the manual controls to get used to them again. I hadn’t used manual control since the boring exercises in the academy. It came back to me quickly, and I was glad. The three rear ships were slowing, preparing to turn and fight.
Marty’s hand flicked switches across the board and her fingers tightened on the control stick. Three quick blasts hit each ship, beginning with the one on the left and ending on the right. Two began spinning out of control, one came on and began firing.
Marty gripped the stick repeatedly and six blasts rocked the incoming ship. It flared into a brilliant nova-like explosion. Several more ships turned to fight.
“I believe this is our last dance, sweetheart,” I mumbled as I put the ship into an erratic approach, making it harder to target.
“Don’t call me sweetheart unless you mean it, Rice.”
I watched the contents of our torpedo bay drop and blossom into life, one at a time. The flare of their engines as they passed the forward screen briefly blinded us. Marty kept targeting ships with our lasers as fast as she could grip the control stick. I watched the charge reading slowly drop.
I kept evading the incoming shots and torpedoes, making it harder for Marty to hit the enemy, but so far impossible for the enemy to hit us. She knew it was necessary and didn’t complain when her aim was thrown off. She was a good pilot.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the fight going on with the rest of the enemy fleet and some of our boys. It looked like a real party. The laser reading just reached the critical point when the automatic safeguards shut them down.
“You’re out of power,” I said grimly as I watched three ships approach. In knew our time was up. I used evasive maneuvers, but the ships closed in quickly. They were much newer than our Exitor. As I twisted and swerved each shot the ships grew close enough to make missing an impossibility. Three rapid shots rocked the ship and our engines went down. I could see a white haze spreading to our AFT, I knew it was the last of our fuel.
“Well, it’s been a short, interesting tour,” I said as I sat back and waited for the last volley which I knew would come shortly. “Its times like these when I wish smoking was still legal. I could imagine myself facing the end while calmly lighting a nice big cigar. I think that would be very poetic.”
“I’m glad I pulled you,” she said grimly, watching the enemy ships close. She didn’t realize that she was tidying up, turning off useless switches, closing panels loosened in the fight. It wouldn’t matter in a moment. Nothing would.
“Yeah, I could have done worse too,” I said shortly, trying not to hold my breath while keeping my eyes on the slowing ships. I used attitude control to turn the Exitor to face the approaching ships. This was not a show of defiance, the front of a ship was less vulnerable than the rear, not that it would matter in the long run. Marty suddenly stiffened and gasped.
“Message coming in on my weapon’s console,” she said in surprise. “They must be using our scanners to transmit a message.”
I pulled my own weapon’s console closer and read the screen as each word appeared slowly, almost painfully.
“Male and female life forms in the old human ship . . . ” the word ship blinked for several seconds while we waited.
“Your human bible has a saying similar to our prophets which state, “if thine eyes offend the, pluck them out.”
“I wonder where they got a copy of the bible,” I whispered from the side of my mouth while staring unblinkingly at the screen.
“We value our fellow beings and abhor war. To end this war we are removing the item of contention in the hope that future peace negotiations can begin. We are inviting representatives from your race to meet us at these coordinates in five of your units of measurement called days. Your attendance is also requested. We feel that diplomats speak the words we wish to hear, while warriors speak their minds.”
“He obviously doesn’t understand our chain of command,” Marty whispered.
“A life pod is being dropped from my ship. Our sensing devices tell us you have a functioning tractor beam. Use it to carefully retrieve your lost comrades.”
“I don’t think they’re going to kills us,” Marty said in surprise.
“Look, there’s the pod,” I pointed at the silver egg which floated down and away from the center ship. “Is he right, do we have tractor beam control?”
“I’ll find out,” she said, chewing the corner of her mouth as she took the control stick, activated the tractor beam and aimed it at the pod. It floated effortlessly toward us. At some point while we watched the pod nearing, the ships had vanished. I looked around in surprise, then glanced at my screen to see three human ships floating helpless, about five hundred miles away. The aliens were gone.
“I’ll be damned,” I said in wonder. “We’re going to live through this after all.”
“Shhhhh!” she hissed as she concentrated on the pod. “Swing the ship so the pod enters the hangar bay,” she said quietly, concentrating on the pod. I knew she was performing a tricky maneuver. If she used too much power the pod would smash into the ship and break open. Too little would allow the pod to slip away. It was like trying to get a ring to the center of a long pole, while holding the end and raising or lowering it.
She finally relaxed and shut off the beam. “It’s drifting just right,” she sighed. “It’s all yours.”
I cut the gravity to the hangar bay and watched the pod enter. When it was near the center of the bay, I gently increased the gravity until the pod grounded with a metallic clang. When the doors closed, I turned on the oxygen and left my seat, with Marty right beside me. We arrived at the hangar bay airlock and found it cycling. I looked at Marty uncomfortably and looked around for a weapon. I settled for a large wrench, resting in its clamps by the door.
The airlock opened and two men stepped out.
“Lieutenants Rice and Samp?” the first man stepped out with a smile and extended his hand. I guiltily slid the wrench over on an I-beam beside me and took the hand.
“Lieutenant’s Wicket and Cain. I’m Cain.”
“The missing pilots!” Marty said breathlessly.
“The very same,” Cain nodded with a grin. “Wait until I tell you what we’ve seen.”
“You’ve seen the aliens?” Marty asked anxiously.
“The butterfly people?” Wicket asked. “Yeah, we’ve seen them. Believe me, I’m not very proud to be a human right now. We blew it.”
“What did they mean, the item of contention?” I asked.
“If you will turn the ship to face Blanco Angeles, you will see,” Wicket said stiffly.
“Oh no,” Marty hurried to the controls.
She switched to the port forward camera just as the meteor collided with Blanco Angeles. There was a bright light, then molten rock exploded into space in every direction. Blanco Angeles suddenly became a new asteroid belt.
“All of those people,” Marty moaned in horror.
“It could have been worse. They could have reached Earth as easily as Blanco Angeles. They literally live what the bible, and their prophets teach. An eye for an eye, if thine eyes offend thee, the whole thing. During this war we have killed seventeen hundred and twelve of their people. When you minus our casualties and with the new influx of people to Blanco Angeles, they saw what they have been waiting for. The total population of Blanco Angeles was equal to their losses. An eye for an eye,” Lieutenant Wicket said sadly with a shrug.
“The sudden influx they noticed was Commander Lebert and his Red Wing,” I said, trying to keep my face neutral. “He was assigned to the planet three days ago.”
“Really?” Wicket said with a straight face. He didn’t appear to be broken up about it.
“Well we’ve all been invited to the peace talks,” Cain said suddenly.
“We can’t get there if we don’t get this rust bucket moving. Anybody got a tool box?”.
Published by alien-technology.com
Independent publisher of science fiction stories.