I’d like to apologize for today’s Fiction being a little late. We were supposed to have a story by Props today, but due to an emergency, he wasn’t able to finish it. Luckily, Michael Shean stepped in and created the awesome piece below!
The Al Yasmeen was more beautiful in her death throes than Marian had ever seen her in life. Space was terrible that way. Flames of red and silver danced across the ruptured hull of the frigate as it rolled in space, gravity gone, drives shattered by the swarm of torpedoes that had struck its rear quarter seconds before. What turrets remained still spewed death from their guns, but resistance was feeble; the fallen Idris merely postponed the inevitable, swiping at her killers with a single claw while holding in her guts. It would not be long now.
Marian and her fellows had belonged to the Eridani Shields, a mercenary unit. A few days ago, Captain Merces, skipper of the Al Yasmeen and commander of their outfit, pulled up stakes from Bremen where they had been coining a mint escorting bulk haulers full of small ships and agri-products out to the frontier systems. No explanation offered or given – anyone who wanted to go left without acrimony, their contracts paid in full. It made zero sense to the rank and file, but Marian and the bulk of the outfit put their faith in the Captain and went with them to…wherever this was, a dead sector of space through a jump point that Marian was fairly certain didn’t exist on any map. The unit – four bulk haulers full of personnel and supplies, a swarm of lesser ships and fighters, and the Al Yasmeen – and were on their way to a plotted muster point, a dead rock in the middle of nowhere where the Captain promised that he would explain the sudden evacuation. They never made it, of course. There were already knives in space, ready to cut them to pieces.
They came down on the Shields with IFF beacons silenced while they were still taking formation at the jump point: two black Retaliators, escorted by six Hornet Ghosts, swooped down on the lot of them like angry raptors, firing a cloud of torpedoes that found their marks almost before anyone could get a shot off; the transports and their charges were reduced to clouds of fire in an instant, and the Hornets homed in on the smaller ships with punishing fury. Marian and her commander, flying escort for the flagship, were caught in the opening salvo as well; Marian’s Super Hornet survived the blast from a torpedo strike that landed on the Al Yasmeen’s aft quarter. Her flight commander and squadron-mate did not.
<Jesus,> muttered her RIO, a man named Bryan Halster – he was new, but he was mustard, and she was very glad to have him. <It’s like they knew we were coming.>
Marian gripped the stick tightly and banked away from the ship that had hosted her for six years. She had other things to worry about now, like getting out of the area while she still could. <All remaining allied ships,> she barked over the link, <This is Scythe Beta, assuming command. Call in!> Though their attackers were jamming the local Spectrum and comms channels, the EWAR crew on the Al Yasmeen were still trying their best to push back – the ship might be mute, but it could at least free up channels between the surviving ships. As the senior officer flying in the field and with the flagship’s comms blasted, it was up to her to try and get what was left of them together and out safe.
<Stranger, reporting in! Missiles dry, but we are otherwise armed and functional!> Marian had a flash of Steve Riley and Connie Mgumbe in their matte black Cutlass, blasting away somewhere beyond the Al Yasmeen; the fallen Idris spewed flames and superheated gas like celebration fireworks, but had not yet gone down. In the guttering holographic sphere of the radar display, Marian saw its green marker, moving amongst the several angry red bandit markers that still swarmed them all. Added to this, more voices – Tiger and Puma, a matched pair of Gladius fighters, a trio of Mustang Deltas called the Sisters, and the very angry Walkure that was the sole survivor of their Legionnaire contingent. Most were intact and with most of their ordnance, a condition owing to the suddenness of the attack.
Of all of them, Marian was the most grateful for Walkure. Though it was a humble Aurora, its pilot was the angriest and most savage ace that the Shields had. Debra Tanner kept the ship out of spite, though she had been offered Hornets on more than one occasion – and had the kill markers to justify her stubbornness. <Walkure here,> she roared over the link, the lisp from her cleft palate doing nothing to mute the fury in her voice. <Guns charged, missiles full. They took out my whole wing – I’m going to kill them all!>
<Form up with the Sisters and distract those fighters,> Marian said. <Sisters, Walkure has command. Tiger, Puma, you’re with me. We need to try and drive off those fighters and cover any escape pods. Stranger, get the hell away from the battle and get ready to collect survivors. Confirm!> There was a chorus of acknowledgement, stabbed through with digital snow, and they set about their work. It was an ugly mix, and she had no idea if any of them were getting out alive, but any room doubt was pushed out of her along with the air in her chest as she found herself suddenly executing a hasty break as fire came down from above. Energy splashed off her shields as she found herself pursued by a pair of slate gray Hornets; the Ghosts’ wings were ablaze with the backsplash from their repeaters, the laser cannons giving them a hellish red glow as they scissored in on her from above and below. Marian gunned the engine, and the ship’s ball turret discouraged pursuit as she strained to get out of the line of fire.
It wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if Halster wasn’t such a damned good shot; even under fire and at top speed, he was able to strip the front shields from the descending Ghost, and through her radar display she witnessed it break sharply from the furious counterattack. <Eat that, you bastard cowards,> Halster roared as Marian rolled the ship and he directed his fire toward the lower fighter; the wingleader was a better pilot, though, and dodged the twin sprays of light while countering with his own guns. Scythe Alpha’s airframe shuddered as its starboard shields withered and a few hits found their mark – the armor held, however, and its attacker erupted into flames as a pair of missiles slammed into the Ghost’s aft quarter.
<Sorry to make you wait,> called Tiger’s pilot over the link; the Gladius and its wingmate soared past, harpies with canard wings, and settled on either side of Marian’s ship as she brought it round. In the distance, Al Yasmeen shuddered from another torpedo hit. Like parasites fleeing a dying host, the frigate’s hull had begun to spew a stream of escape pods – but as the capsules rocketed away, the unmarked Hornets descended upon them. One after another, they began to tear away under merciless cannon fire.
<Those fuckers,> Halster hissed, but Marian was already on it.
<All ships,> she called, <Converge on the enemy and protect those pods! Kill everyone you can to drive them off if you have to, but the escape pods must get away!>
On any other day, it would be a suicide charge – but today, for some reason, the gods of war were with the poor remnants of the Eridani Shields. Marian pushed the throttle to maximum and kicked in the boosters, but she wasn’t nearly as fast as her wingmates; they broke and surged ahead, picking two targets and executing a rolling scissors maneuver that allowed them to shred the predatory Ghosts with missiles and cannon fire. Marian caught up with them as the Ghosts broke from their victims and sheared the aft end off another with a sustained blast from all guns.
The Sisters arrived in a cloud of rockets, punishing everything that dared grow close – which, it must be said, might have been the escape pods as well were they not accurate with their fire. The trio of dark green Mustangs came in at a vector that set them above the pods’ plane of escape, however, and the dumbfire warheads pounded the stealth ships. Their fusilade was short-lived, however, as the Ghosts managed to break and come back around; though they were more heavily armored than the standard model, the ships were still incredibly light; the heavy repeaters on the Ghosts tore two of them open as if they were plastic models, sending ships and pilots scattering in different directions. The last of the Sisters took a missile at nearly point-blank range, instantly converting both ship and pilot into a spray of burning wreckage. At such close range, Marian had to bank hard just to keep from being struck by an errant engine spar.
And then, suddenly, Walkure was amongst them and all hell broke loose. Marian’s radar suddenly registered a new blip as the sensors picked up the tiny Legionnaire, whose lethal combination of laser repeaters and mass drivers raked open the already beleaguered fighters. Halster let out a cry of mingled triumph and confusion as the little ship shredded through two of the enemy, pivoting at near zero velocity and picking off each one with the kind of surgical precision that Marian at once had witnessed and yet still never believed – the ugly, angled ship boosted through and past the remnants as she tore apart the last Ghost with another concentrated burst of fire. <And your mother too!> Tanner shouted over the link, speeding on the dead to a certain rest in Hell.
And then, only the bombers remained – black shadows who were speeding toward the jump point, backlit by the raging bonfire that the Al Yasmeen had become. Somewhere in the dark, their hulls stretched as spacetime was rent open, far too distant for the Shields to catch up to them. They jumped, as unknown in passing as they were in arrival, and suddenly there were only the dead and refugees amongst them.
<Confirm hostile exit jump,> the pilot of the Stranger said in low and angry tones. <We’re coming in to collect survivors.>
In the distance, the frigate drifted, slowly eaten from within by the divine fire of war.
“I can’t believe you saved us all, Lieutenant.” It was the deck officer who said it, a small man named Marty Talbot. Marian wished that she could have claimed credit, but she didn’t argue. There was no time for that now.
Inside the cold heart of the rock at which they had intended to meet, the somber few that remained of the Eridani Shields stood assembled within the airtight bunkers that were intended to be their refuge. Of the officers that crewed her, only half remained. Captain Merces, the XO, the command staff on the bridge – all of them had been killed when the first torpedoes struck the ship. It burned for another ninety minutes, long enough for the remaining pods to be captured and hauled in, before its failing reactors finally went critical and the whole ship went up in a conflagration that Marian knew too well. Now she stood, along with a handful of the surviving command staff of the Al Yasmeen, and addressed the survivors.
“We don’t know who they were, or why they hit us,” Marian said to the clustered few, now perched in chairs or on armored crates of ammunition, “All that information died with the bridge crew and the computer core of the Al Yasmeen. What we have left…well, is what you see around us.” It was meager pickings indeed; the ‘bunker’ was just a storehouse of war materiel that the Captain had long ago established, connected to a small hangar system. Small enough that they couldn’t even land all the ships at once, and had to stow the Stranger magna-clamped elsewhere on the rock. “But we survive. And…well, I’ve never been one for speeches, so I’m just going to say it. Anyone who wants to go, they can go. I don’t know how much money we have left, but once we figure that out we’ll pay you. Otherwise, we find out who hit us and we take revenge. We build up first, of course, but then…yeah.”
Marian was surprised at just how hard her voice had become, cold and solid with a rage she did not yet feel. It would come, though. It would burn just as the Al Yasmeen did. Its fire had infected her, the same fire that burned in every set of eyes that looked back at her as she surveyed the crowd. She knew in that instant that there would be no worry about cut contracts. They were all bound by the inexorable chains of blood and loss, the kind that would not be cut by the fear of death or love of money. Whoever had killed their fellows, they had made zealots of all who survived.
Al Yasmeen meant ‘jasmine flower’ in one of the old Earth languages. Arabic. Let them have a pyre of flowers, then, Marian thought, feeling the cold heat of the frigate’s death in her eyes, her heart, her soul. We will throw their bodies on the fire, and then there will be nothing left of them. Not even their memory will survive.
She had never been religious until that moment – but now, a spark of spiritualism ignited deep inside of her, the oldest and most primordial of all the human religions. Hatred and revenge, the god-and-goddess pair that humans worshipped before anything else, made their temple inside of her. Harper Marian, formerly Lieutenant of the Eridani Shields and now leader of something very different, would lead the faithful to their work.