Chapter 1: The Mission
"In the light of darkness, silence is King." It was an odd statement Dr. Gideon, Roy's first-year philosophy professor, had once said in class to give his students something to ponder over a long weekend. The silver-haired professor loved to challenge his fresh-faced "Yearlings," as he would call them, with an obscure philosophy quote, and then scold them on how poorly educated they were when they couldn't explain the quote properly on Monday morning. That particular quote was something Roy never took too seriously as a nineteen-year-old cadet, yet the words echoed in his ears some twenty years later as he sat in his dark and quiet cockpit waiting to ambush the enemy armada.
The year was 2319. The war with the Serken was finally turning to the favor of the Allied worlds for the first time in over a decade. Lt. Commander Roy O'Hara sat in the cockpit of his wildcat fighter, which was tethered to a no-name asteroid not much bigger than the ship itself. Closing his eyes, he focused on quieting his breathing as the very sound of it roared in his ears in the absence of any other sound. His squad of seventeen men in seventeen fighters was all around him, each tethered to their own rock waiting for the command to go, but he couldn't see any of them. They had powered down everything, but their passive sensors. The asteroid belt was so dense with rocks and dust that no starlight was visible. It gave the unsettling sensation of being buried alive. With the lives of nearly twenty men in his hands he wished he could at least make visual contact. Yet he had suggested the location himself for that very reason. If he could not see his own men from just a few meters away neither would the enemy, and that was worth a few hours in the dark. The isolation was amplified by the orders for radio silence. Even a secure scrambled radio signal could alert the enemy to their location. Add to that, the fact that the fighters were too small for gravity units, gave one the sensation of floating in black water. Some might have found the experience relaxing, but not Roy. To him, the whole thing was rather agonizing, but all he could do was sit and wait. In some ways, the lack of any audible sound was worse than the darkness.
"At least a sound in the dark confirms that you are still amongst the living," Roy thought to himself.
23:18 was the time displayed on the luminescent dial from Roy's watch that he peeked at from under his suit cuff. "The enemy's late," he whispered to himself, for no other reason than just to hear a human voice for a moment. The wait was frustrating for Roy and his pilots, but not surprising. They expected a large fleet and large fleets could often be slowed down by any number of things, the bigger the fleet, the longer the delay. Seven hours was a long time to be alone with one's own thoughts in the absolute stillness of space.
Most young pilots think the scariest things about combat is the fight, but it doesn't take them long to learn their real enemies are their own inner demons. The mind wasn't designed to exist in a vacuum. In the absence of any light or sound, it will create its own sounds and images, even to the point of hallucinations. Roy had seen it all too often before. The toughest, hardest men you would ever meet, suddenly consumed by images in their head created by the memories of the violence they had witnessed and the whispers of friends who had died. "Void Fatigue" was what the doctors had been calling it, but to the pilots, it was simply "cracking up."
Roy had learned a long time ago how not to allow that to happen, so he made a habit of reading philosophy books before a mission to give himself something to ponder. A philosophical puzzle or mindbender was a good way to keep himself occupied before the action started, but he hadn't had a chance to do that this time. Searching his memories, he came across, "In the light of darkness, silence is King." Probably not the best one to distract himself from his situation, but once he dredged it up from his memories, he couldn't help but think of it. It was like the elephant in the room. Part of it he understood and part of it he didn't. "In the light of darkness," was a concept he could accept because darkness is simply the absence of light that you can see, but everything is still there. The second half "Silence is King," did not sit well with him. It seemed to imply that silence can control you. To him, it meant if you gave into the silence, you would be giving into your fear, and that was something that he could not agree with in any way.
Roy's attention was suddenly brought back to reality as the sensor screen in the middle of his console snapped on. Quickly he pulled off his glove from his right hand and wiped his eyes, which had dried a bit in the sterile air of the cockpit. A small icon indicated a ship coming into sensor range, just one at first, then two, then six, nine and then finally twelve, just as expected. After a moment the computer started identifying the ships, two Carriers, four Destroyers, five Battle Cruisers and a Super Destroyer. Roy tightened his gut to keep a rein on his nerves. That was their target, the enemy's new Super Destroyer.
"Damn, that's a beast," Roy said, as the outline of it dwarfed the others on the screen. They had been told it was large, but he was shocked by the extreme size. It was four times larger than a standard Destroyer and ten times more deadly. Its primary weapon was a colossal laser cannon with a range twice as far as anything the Allied forces had and powerful enough to cripple any ship with a single shot. But just like Goliath to David, its greatest weakness was its size. The giant's best speed was only a fraction of most Destroyers, and its primary weapon could only fire straight ahead. That meant that the enemy literally had to point the ship directly at the target. But it was the Super Destroyer's defensive weapons that Roy had to deal with at that moment. It was equipped with over a hundred defensive laser cannons all around it, but because it uses most of its energy to power its primary weapon the defensive ones became nearly useless during the charge cycle. The team of experts in Intelligence had concluded that it would take at least 80 minutes for the enemy to charge the weapon and once charged it would have to be fired because the massive amount of energy could not be stored within the weapon for more than a couple of minutes. That was why it would have to travel with an escort fleet. Making a quick calculation, Roy confirmed that at their current speed the enemy would be within range of their target in forty minutes. He had made a habit of double checking everything he could on the fly because the info they had to work with was not always the most reliable. Military Intelligence was something of a mixed blessing for the Allied Forces. It was comprised mostly of technical, tactical, and theoretical experts. There were some spies and codebreakers on their payroll, but most of the intelligence they worked with came from deep space probes, long-range telescopes, and an occasional captured enemy ship. Therefore, most of the data they came up with was less fact and more speculation. Roy had to concede from the looks of the massive killer ship that their guess was right on the money.
Roy's job was to have his squadron wait for the enemy fleet to pass and then, like a swarm of wasps, attack them from behind. Not to destroy the enemy, but to force them to slow down and engage in a battle. That would give the fleet of Allied Destroyers, Carriers and Cruisers a chance to approach from either flank and to take down the monster. Leading the fleet was the T.S.S. Phoenix, the oldest and largest Carrier in the fleet. It was Roy's base ship, and he would have never agreed to participate in the operation if anyone other than his Captain, Capt. Roche was leading the fleet. He had served under Roche for years and could think of no one else who had the cunning or grit to pull off such a risky venture. The fleet was lying in wait behind a gas giant. They would strike as soon as the fighter slowed down the enemy armada.
With a handheld light, Roy flashed a signal at Juan, his second in command, who was in his own fighter about ten meters away, three short flashes. It meant that they were to go as planned on his signal. Juan turned his beacon light towards the next closest fighter and relayed the signal. Roy could see the faint flashes of light as the message was passed down the line of fighters. He then kept a close watch on his monitor as the enemy fleet passed by them. There were at least 100 kilometers between them and the enemy, but that Super Destroyer was so big, it seemed a lot closer. Like a great blue whale passing over the tiniest of fish, it appeared to have no end; as it finally passed Roy silently counted down from thirty. They needed enough distance to get up to attack speed, but not too much as that would give the enemy time to react. Roy figured about thirty seconds should be about right.
"Three...Two...One..." he turned on his communicator. "Go! Go! Go!" Roy shouted into the radio. Eighteen fighters fired up their engines and released their tethers. Quickly Roy took the lead, with his wingman on his port side and the rest of the squad following in a two-row attack line. They quickly cleared the asteroids and hit full throttle, descending down upon the foe.
As planned the enemy was caught off guard and seemingly unprepared as there was no cannon fire at the attacking squadron.
"Looks like we caught them with their pants down boys," Roy said over the radio. "Light her up!"
Roy led his squad right up the spine of the beast, firing a barrage of lasers at the ship hoping to take out some of its defensive guns. The flash of their cannons and the impact of the lasers lit up the space around them like an exploding star.
Shouts of glee could be heard over the open comm line, "Yeah! Look at that bastard burn!", "Woo, she's an inferno now!"
"Button it!" Roy ordered. "We still have more work to do. Line up for another run."
On the approach to the front of the enemy's Super Destroyer, Roy and Juan locked their two large missiles on the bridge and fired. They then pulled up quickly to avoid being caught in the blast. The bridge of any ship was the most heavily reinforced part of it, their four missiles wouldn't do the job, but the missiles from each fighter in the squadron would. Roy watched as he came about and each fighter fired on the bridge of the monster ship. Something was wrong. Knocking out a bridge doesn't destroy a ship, but it would always cause a loss of control. The decompression and the loss of navigational systems would cause a ship to pitch; yet he did not see any change in speed, direction or power. No ship no matter how monstrous could withstand such an assault without so much as a twitch. Roy ordered his computer to do a full scan of the Super Destroyer. Deep scans could take up to twenty seconds, an eternity in the middle of a battle, but he had to see what was going on. He kept his bird moving at full speed but circled to keep the scan on range.
With three quick beeps, the computer reported the completion of the scan and put up the data. The monster ship was actually an empty hull being towed by the other ships with magnetic tethers.
"Oh my God, it's a trap," Roy said as he realized what they had walked into. As he was about to report the deception to his command ship the computer alerted him that the enemies Carriers were launching fighters, but not the interceptors that he would have expected in the middle of an attack. They were launching Cobras; heavy attack fighters that could fire over a dozen heavy fusion missiles in the blink of an eye. Cobras were crewed by three, a pilot, turret gunner and a missile gunner. To say that they're bad news was an understatement. Cobras moved quickly, which made them hard to take down and could launch all of their missiles in under twenty seconds. All they had to do was get close enough to their target. He would never forget the day he saw one of them take out an entire Battleship; it was during his first deployment as a fighter pilot. The enemy broke through their defensive line with just one of those killers, and it hit its target with so many missiles there wasn't enough left to even recognize the battleship as once having been a ship. He learned all he needed to know about his enemy that day. They were savage beast that had no heart, no soul and needed to be destroyed at all cost.
Roy boosted the power to his com-signal to make sure he was heard loud and clear by the entire fleet. "Command! It was a trick! Enemy Carriers are launching multiple squadrons of Cobras! Repeat, they are launching Cobras!" He then switched his radio to his squad's channel. "Juan, take Bravo flight and engage the Cobras that came out of the first enemy Carrier. I'll take Alpha and go after the other four."
The squadron split in two with half following Juan and the other following Roy. Catching up to the Cobras was easy; avoiding the fire from their turret gun, a large, rapid-fire dual-laser cannon that could fire in practically any direction, was the hard part. Smitty, who was just off Roy's left wing took a direct hit and was able to eject before his fighter exploded. Hackett, who was on Roy's right, took a hit directly in the cockpit and never had a chance. Roy was aware of the men he was losing, but he couldn't waiver from his duty. Saving the injured and mourning the dead comes after the fight. If those enemy fighters reached the fleet a lot more of his friends would die. His missiles would have been able to lock onto the fighters and take them out with just one hit, but they had all been used on the fake Super Destroyer. That was clearly part of the enemy plan. Roy and his squad would have to rely entirely on their laser cannons, which would require several direct hits just to take one of them out. Roy waited until he got close enough to guaranty a direct hit because with a limited amount of power to his lasers he needed to make every shot count. He could hear his own breathing getting heavy on his headset as his heart pounded so hard it was if it wanted to leave his chest. The cold sweat under his gloves started to cramp his hands, and his brow began to perspire, yet his voice stayed firm and true as he called out orders to his team. "Baker, on your six! Pull hard right. Bass, cover Anderson's left flank!"
He would never let them see that he got just as scared as they did in the heat of battle. The audible target lock went from a fast chirp as it was tracking the target, to a loud straight tone as it locked on the enemy. He fired and held the trigger as he descended on the Cobra. After over a dozen direct hits, the enemy fighter broke apart as he flew by them. His men had two other Cobras on the run, but the fourth was still on its way towards the fleet. Roy hit his thrusters and quickly chased after it. Franklin was just behind him as his wingman.
"You still with me Franklin?" Roy called out over the radio.
"Yes, Sir," Franklin answered.
"Good, stay tight on my five. This is going to get hairy."
The two of them burned their engines as hot as they could to chase down the Cobra, as it peppered them with a barrage of laser blast. They avoided most, but each took some hits. Roy's shields held, but Franklin lost his and took a direct hit to his engines. In a flash of fuel and gasses, his ship broke apart. He was able to eject his cockpit but was out of the fight.
Roy glanced down at his computer screen for just a moment to see Franklin's transponder signal flashing green indicating he was still alive and then quickly turned his attention back to the enemy to continue the chase. He went into a roll as they fired at him, avoiding most of the laser blast, with just a few grazing shots on his wings. Not waiting for the target lock, he shot from the hip and took out one of the two enemy engines and their turret gun. The enemy Cobra quickly lost speed, and Roy flew past it. As he came about for a second attack, his computer reported that the Cobra was firing up its quantum speed generator. Roy was all too familiar with that particular tactic. The enemy would jump to faster-than-light speed like they were retreating, then turn around and jump right back into the battle to make a suicide run at their target. He ordered the computer to put a tracker on the enemy fighter just as it jumped into quantum speed. Roy warmed up his QSG as the computer tracked the enemy. After a few moments, the computer reported that the enemy ship came out of light speed in an unexplored solar system two parsecs away. With a couple of taps on his navigation screen, he locked in the coordinates.
"Computer, confirm there are no obstructions in the programmed path and engage QSG."
"Quantum speed requires completion of systems checks," The computer coldly reminded.
"No time. Override and engage."
On board, the Phoenix, Lt. Kelly was monitoring Roy from the Flight Operations and Analysis center. Each and every pilot was monitored by someone in the O&A to guaranty that no one was ever lost or left behind. They were like mother hens to their pilots, from making sure the air in the cockpit stayed a breathable mix, to keeping a location on them for search and rescue when they had to eject. Kelly had been his O&A officer for a number of years and knew when to stay quiet and when to take over. The moment Roy started to warm up his QSG, she knew something was wrong.
"Commander O'Hara," she said over the radio to him. "Why are you powering up your QSG?"
"Cutting the head off before the snake can strike."
"No time to explain. I'll fill out a full report when I get back."
Lt. Kelly realized he was going to jump out of sensor range to go after the Cobra, a dangerous venture as well as a violation of regulations. Even though her rank was below his, her duties required her to take over if the pilot ever placed himself in any danger. "Commander! You are ordered to power down your QSG and return to base!"
Roy didn't respond. If he didn't act quickly, the enemy Cobra could double back on the Phoenix and kill them all.
The computer indicated that they were ready to jump. "QSG will engage in five, four, three, two, one."
Roy tightened his gut to keep himself from blacking out under the sudden acceleration. The stars turned into a dim blur. His flight suit had gravity generators woven into them to counteract some of it, but it couldn't take it all. He closed his eyes rather than watching the swirling starlight, as that could only cause disorientation. Trusting his other senses, he listened to the sensor chirps of the computer and felt the vibrations of the hull, assuring him that he was flying straight and true.
"Breaking thrusters firing." the computer voice announced. Roy found himself in a binary star system with a variety of planets. The closest was a blue and green planet with three moons and a ring made up of rocks. His instruments filled with static and confused readings as he had jumped into an area dense in plasma energy. But he didn't need his equipment to find the enemy as the Cobra was dead ahead and venting fuel. It turned to face him as he charged full speed at them. With their laser cannon destroyed they could only fire a number of their missiles at Roy in a desperate attempt to stop him, yet missiles are unable to lock onto an object moving at such high speed. With a hard roll to the starboard, Roy avoided the missiles, arced back to the port, locked onto his target and opened fire. Taking several direct hits, the enemy fighter lost control. With gasses escaping from a number of cracks and the nearby planet's gravity pulling at it, the small ship tumbled into the atmosphere. Roy intended to watch the ship go down to make sure it was no longer a threat, but suddenly an alarm went off. The missiles that he had avoided had turned back and locked on him.
"Damn it! Computer fire countermeasures!"
"Countermeasures unavailable due to damage to the hull," the computer replied.
Quickly he dove the fighter into a cluster of floating rocks that were between the planet and one of its large moons. The hunter missiles were close behind and closing fast. The equipment in Roy's cockpit went nuts as the electrical energy around the ship was overloading all of the systems. He was flying on his wits alone and praying he could outsmart four smart missiles. Roy Aimed his ship towards a kilometer wide rock he threw his throttle down, diving at it at full speed. Then at just the last moment, he jerked the stick back, darting away. Two of the four missiles impacted on the rock sending plumes of smoke and dust into space, followed by bolts of plasma, it was like stirring up a thunderstorm, as more explosions and plasma bolts followed. The other two missiles were still in pursuit. Repeating the tactic, Roy flew around two large rocks that were about to collide with each other. One of the missiles hit a rock, and the other was struck by a massive blue electric discharge between two rocks. His fighter shook violently as the dust and debris impacted the hull under the concussive force of the explosions, but it was over. The enemy had been downed.
With the danger behind him, Roy reduced his engines and took a moment to catch his breath. Letting go of the stick, he let the ship drift as he pulled off his gloves and massaged his cramping fingers. It was then that he realized that his hands were shaking. "Now I remember why I hate roller coasters," he commented to himself. The sensors were still a jumble due to the electrical interference from the moons and rock, but with a few adjustments to his scanners, he could see no sign of the enemy and was convinced that they had most likely burned up in the planet's atmosphere.
"Computer, plot a course back to the fleet."
"Unable to comply," the computer answered, "Sensors are not able to get a star fix. Move ship away from lunar debris field and then repeat request." Until that moment Roy hadn't realized that all the rocks around him were the remains of a moon that had been shattered into a billion pieces. He wondered for a moment what kind of force could destroy an entire moon and yet leave the planet and its other moons intact. An intriguing mystery, but not one he had time to explore. Bringing his engines up to cruising speed, he started to head out, away from the planet. As the little ship climbed away and the star system came into view, he got a chance to take a moment to appreciate the vast beauty of it all on his sensor display; from orange and yellow gas giants, red and brown planetoids, some with rings and some without, and a number of green and blue planets not too dissimilar from Earth. They all had various moons, rings, and rocks that all had an odd blue light that flashed around them, occasionally jumping like lightning between stones and moons.
Then, without warning, an electric discharge from out of the rock field hit his ship, knocking out half of his systems, including his primary engine. His gut tightened again as he experienced the worst thing every pilot fears, total loss of flight controls. The impact sent his ship into a tumble, and he found himself falling into the planet's atmosphere, out of control and out of luck.