The ship tore through banks of cloud leaving wisps spinning in wide vortices behind it. Ilya looked on from a flak turret. He watched the shadow of the craft growing and falling away over the corrugated layer of strata and tried to ignore the drone of the man behind him.
"Hey kid," Ilya rolled his eyes and turned his head as far as the straps would allow.
"What." Why did he have to share the compact space that was the flak battery with this irritating braggart?
"You ever killed anyone?" It was a challenge. The fat fool obviously hadn't, in his mind, expressed his apparent superiority enough. Ilya never prided himself at judging people. The single bar on the man's shoulder had initially earned Ilya's respect. The lines and scar on his face gave the impression he was wise and experienced. That didn't last long.
"No," Ilya replied tonelessly, "It's my first flight, I'm a conscript" as the soldier knew fine well, Ilya had told him at least five times.
The man chuckled, seemed like he got a kick out of making Ilya repeat his inferiority.
"Reckon you've the guts?"
The man scoffed.
"You better, or these pirates'll gut you 'fore you can cry for your mummy," Ilya turned back to gaze at the beautiful view of a sunset at cloud level. If only it wasn't so cold, he thought.
Apparently all pirates preferred to torture rather than kill, especially the low ranks and conscripts. This bunch were, of course, the worst of them all. They'd raided or destroyed five airships in two days, looting and killing without mercy. Of course, they'd just love to pause a moment to do something unmentionable to an inexperienced conscript.
He's just trying to scare me, Ilya thought. Pirates might be evil but they were still people. No half-normal person would do any of the horrible things the soldier had described in detail. Ilya remember the tales of pirates he had heard as a kid. Rougish swashbucklers, thrill-seeking. Not monsters. They were of course just childish tales, but the jolly pirates in the old picturebooks seemed more credible than what this greasy excuse for an soldierdescribed them as.
The cry of a siren cut across the man's next boast. Enemy in sight. Battle stations.
Adrenaline burst into Ilya's blood. He pulled a lever and brought the 17mm cannon as far forward as he could. He saw smoke sullying the dusk colours of the cloud. At first he thought it was exhaust smoke, but as the ship flew into the cloud bank he could see an orange glow below him. As the craft emerged, Ilya saw with horror a civilian transport falling and burning, gaps in the hull spewed forth smoke, fumes and flame. As it fell, parts of it broke up. A cabin came loose, Ilya thought he saw tiny figures spill from it.
He closed his eyes.
"Better get used to it lad. You better be ready to do the same to them, 'cause they'll do it to us, quick as anything."
Ilya swore under his breath. That man was really getting on his nerves. He opened his eyes.
The Pirate craft was about a kilometer away. An ugly grey hulk with bulbous vacuum pods, scabby armour and perforated with cannon emplacements. As he watched it draw closer, he saw it slow and turn to engage them. Blank terror rose inside him. Cannonfire tore out across the clouds, explosive shells raced toward Ilya. He panicked and opened fire, his little black puffs of flak were lost among thousands of other explosions.
"The vanes!" the soldier roared. Ilya took a second to understand. He trained the gun on the steering vanes, but the craft was shaking violently. Shrapnel scored Ilya's turret. The glass smashed.
The pirate craft came belting towards them. To Ilya's horror he realised the protrusion on the front of it was a gigantic ram. The combined momentum of the two ships would destroy the army ship, not equipped for direct collision.
Ilya felt the two airships come together, the straps dug into him and his stomach lurched. Titanic forced yanked his seat from its fittings. Metal screamed and buckled. Ilya and the remains of his little turret were flung into space. Blinded by smoke and blood from a gash across his forehead, Ilya had only just enough time to scream before he was thrown onto the hull of the pirate craft, still strapped in to what was left of his seat. He slid down between a vane and a cannon emplacement, and into unconciousness.