Static echoed through the comms for a second as interference scrambled the signal. McKeen toggled his mic, making sure it wasn't an electrical fault. A voice crackled unintelligibly into his ear. He caught movement from his periphery which made every muscle in his body instinctively flex in preparation for g's. He sucked in a deep breath and pulled the control stick to the right, lighting up port thrusters simultaneously as he evaded a blast of laser fire. Another set of voices crackled over the comms, but McKeen couldn't make out any words. He sighed, coming to the realization that his communications array was simulating damage. Outside his canopy, the stars were ablaze; the battle raging intensely in all directions.
Hotrod lined up another Hornet, drifting in behind it as it chased his wingman. “Don't worry Sophine, I'll have him off your back in a second.”
“I'm not -” she sucked in a gulp of air and squeezed every muscle in her body as she barrel rolled around a blast of laser fire. “- worried.” finishing her sentence with labored exhalation.
“Just a second, almost got him.” Hotrod was locking up the target, feigning a missile attack. When his target began to peel away in a full burn, he fired a burst from his cannons that sliced through the thin shields who's energy had been spent to dodge a missile that never left his rack. “Another one bites the dust.” He said smiling as he pulled up into an arching roll to bring him back toward the center of the furball. “Who's next?” He said, looking into the cloud of ships that were swirling in the melee, laser light flashing out in every direction. A bolt whizzed past his canopy, causing him to squint from the brightness of it as he rolled his wing down to evade. “You just volunteered.” A flick of his thumb put the attacker as his main target and he began his approach.
Subtext translated upward, his ventral thrusters burning at maximum; warning lights in the cockpit assaulting his eyes with red pulsing flashes. “I know, I know you piece of shit I don't need you to remind me.” He said to the Hornet. “Just shut up.” With that, his hand stabbed out at the anunciator panel, canceling the warning that was triggered by his overheating engines. His crosshairs slid past his target and as they swayed into the lead he squeezed the trigger. The arcs reached through space and collided with his target's shields which lit up and fizzled out. “Oh I've got you now.” He trained the marker on his target, jinking and rolling to keep him in sight as the computer locked a firing solution. The moment it cleared, he fired. A simulated missile dropped from the rack and raced toward the Hornet, but as his mouth salivated with the taste of victory, the Hornet popped countermeasures and he watched his missile veer off into nothingness. “You've got to be fucking kidding me!” As if to salt the wound, a blast of laser fire peppered the targets hull and he watched his prize be taken. The pilot who'd stolen it was one of the security squadron fighters who'd come along for the ride at McKeen's behest. Subtext shook his head in frustration before being forced to dodge a few laser blasts.
Again, Sophine plunged her craft toward the planet, a reference she was using as “down” in the disorienting void of space. She shot a glance behind her left shoulder, then behind her right, searching frantically for the Hornet on her tail.
Meanwhile, Almitt watched the ball turret rolling in its joint and shifted left, then right to avoid being spotted as he chased close behind his target. He watched the hornet pull up and quickly pitched to compensate, sacrificing proximity for a firing solution. His cannons lit the sky and each bolt absorbed into the shields.
The vibrations shook her confidence and she watched the energy drain from her shields. Sophine cursed and killed her main engine, yawing to meet her pursuer face to face. Her eyes widened, there was no hornet behind her.
Almitt had seen the target swaying left. He sucked in some air, clenched his core and punched the throttle forward, all while transferring energy from weapons to thrusters. He shut down main thrust, coasting with the added momentum as he slid beneath the target who now looked at the empty space he had just recently occupied.
The vibrations came from below, they were weak and Sophine knew her quarry had sacrificed a lot of energy to hide below her. She feigned to pitch down and then twisted in a rodeo maneuver to meet the bastard at last. He was so close, she was concerned their noses would collide. Her eyes were wide when the locking alarm blared in her ears. She fired, but nothing happened, her vessel had already been deactivated by a simulated missile.
Almitt waved to his victim who was now giving him the finger. “You did good kid, you really did.” He said to himself, translating upward to get back into the fight.
On the other side of the melee, Drenix barrel rolled over a de-activated Hornet, evading the laser blasts from two pursuing craft. He pitched up and yawed left, fired port thrusters and then lit up his afterburners; all to whirl around to the underbellies of his pursuing crafts. “Amateurs.” He whispered, firing a volley into one of them to watch its shields fizzle out while his computer locked missiles. He fired one, then waited for the countermeasures. The second they defeated his first missile he launched two more. They both spiraled through space, chasing his unlucky prey through evasive maneuvers before simulating two fiery explosions and sending the craft hurtling onward as a derelict. “Child's play. You're next.” He said to the second pursuer, now having become the hunted. It was then that the M50 blindsided him. A spray of laser fire ate his shields away and he switched targets, his head darting form one side to the other to see where the damn thing had gone.
Cardboard rolled his M50 over and came around a second time, firing into the Hornet as its turret shifted from side to side, searching for him. “Too slow.” He said, soon after keying his mic. “Flash, come finish this guy off while I keep him busy.”
“Roger.” Flash dropped his current target as another Wolf Hornet picked up the chase. “Where you at? Nevermind, I see you now.” Before him, he watched Cardboard's M50 pitching and rolling as laser fire hissed past his little ship.
“Hurry up, this guy isn't bad.”
Flash laughed. “I see that.” He lined up a shot and fired. The target's shields flickered and collapsed. “Wow you already did a number on him, that was one blast.”
“Yeah, he was pre-occupied, much like you are now. Get him already before he -”
The comms went silent.
Flash looked out into space with a comic wide eyed glare. “Oh? Guess I wasn't fast enough.” He said, firing a full volley to see each round impact against the unshielded hull of the target Hornet. It drifted silently into space, right next to a disabled M50. Flash laughed as he flew past Cardboard, waving at him through the canopy. He banked slowly to look at what was left. Two gladiators flying in a tight formation remained unchallenged, the bombardiers obviously having considerable turret skill. Flash sighed, “Well I'm not taking them alone.” He keyed his mic. “Any callsign Wolf, this is Greyhound Alpha One, come in over.”
“This is Shepherd Delta one.”
Flash furrowed his brow. “I asked for Wolf callsigns.”
“It's Epi, I'm attached to the Wolf callsign for the war games, did you forget?”
“I guess you're not memorable.”
Epi formed on Flash's wing. “Where to?”
“Well, let's try to take out those Gladiators.”
Flash peered left and looked at Epi through the canopy of the Hornet. “How 'bout you go first and I catch up.”
Epi sighed. “Alright, don't miss all the fun now.” Epi throttled forward and began contemplating an angle of attack. He dropped his nose and gained some distance, relying on the fact that they were distracted, chasing one of the Wolf Hornets. “Alright, I'm coming in. Back me up.” Epi pulled his nose up and hit the after burners. He fired a full volley and then passed between the narrow gap that separated the two Gladiators. Their turrets switched from their target and began firing at him as he raced away. He pulled his Hornet into a wide arc, increasing speed to make him harder to hit. As the two craft came back into view, their laser bolts flashed across his bow, missing by mere millimeters. Suddenly they stopped firing and changed direction. Their bolts came back to life again, chasing the M50 who'd just took his own run. It was his turn again and so Epi dove in, firing a full volley on the same Gladiator, and again passing by them in a blinding flash.
On the third pass, Flash watched Epi take out the shields on one of the Gladiators.
Gryphon spat curses into the visor of his helmet. “Come on Stinson, get a hold of this guy.”
“Gryphon.” Songbird's voice came over comms.
The voice that had become increasingly annoying for Gryphon as they struggled to stay afloat, two bombers in the middle of a fighter brawl. “What?”
“I just lost my turret.”
Gryphon sighed. “Get in front of me, I'll try to cover you.”
Songbird complied and began firing afterburners when the M50 that had been harassing them for the past ten minutes rushed past once again, this time having fired a volley of simulated missiles. They impacted and left the Gladiator drifting freely in space.
Gryphon gritted his teeth. The Hornet he'd been chasing for the past half hour was getting away, and he'd only been able to tag it twice, one hit having splashed right on the nose, probably taking out his comms array. Somehow, beyond all reasonable probability, the pilot had been able to successfully evade the concentrated fire of two Gladiators, while simultaneously taking out at least three Hornets and severely damaging another two. Gryphon was going to take out this Hornet.
Stinson keyed in. “Gryphon, the Hornet's coming around. I'll take a few potshots and then traverse over the front deck. If you pitch down, you should see the M50 coming up for another pass, we can hit him with everything, your class one cannons and my turret all at once.”
Gryphon was silent, and angry. Why hadn't he thought of that? He swallowed his pride. “Good idea Stinson.” He swallowed again, much harder this time. “Tell … tell me when to move.”
The hornet zipped past them and the hum of the turret wheeling around dominated the hull. “Pitch now Chase!”
Gryphon pushed down on the control stick and the Gladiator dove downward. To his surprise, the M50 was exactly where Stinson had predicted. It was so dead on in his crosshairs that he almost forgot to pull the trigger, but was reminded when Stinson's turret lit up.
Flash saw it coming when the Gladiator dipped toward him. He sighed. “Well Epi, it was a good run.” The laser fire washed over his shield but for a second before it popped like a birthday balloon. He drifted past the Gladiator, disabled.
Epi locked on to the Gladiator and fired his final missile, firing every weapon he had at the same time. Her shields went down. “Finally, I've got you.” He was about to squeeze the trigger when the lights in his cockpit went dark. “You've got to be kidding me. Where the hell did that come from?” As if to answer, a Hornet translated up directly in front of him, not but two feet separated their noses. The pilot waved. “Mittens.” he said, reading the callsign stenciled near the canopy. “Bastard.”
When Almitt turned around, the Gladiator he was purportedly saving was also drifting. A Hornet glided lazily over it. “Huh.” He moved his frequencies to an open channel. “I give up.”
McKeen heard a garbled static over his comms. He looked over his scopes and saw that they were the only two craft left enabled. “My comms are down.” he replied, with little hope of being heard.
A screeched voice crackled over Almitt's comms. “You're broken and unreadable.” Almitt responded. The Hornet rolled his wings. “Oh.” He caught on and flew closer.
The last enemy hornet formed up next to McKeen and he saw Almitt sitting smugly. “You little bastard. I figured you'd be the last man standing.” He looked around his cockpit for a way to signal him and pulled a large Glas from a padded holder. Flicking through the option he started up a paint application and scribbled with his finger.
Almitt watched, confusedly as McKeen's face was lit up by some unseen light source. Before he could figure it out, a Glas was put up to his canopy with the words “Joust?” on it. He threw his head back, laughing. “Sure old man. Sounds like fun.” he nodded and put up his hand, all fingers extended.
“Five kilometers. Alright.” McKeen threw him a thumbs up and pulled his Hornet away, flying for only a few short seconds before turning around. Almitt had made the proper distance between the two of them. The rules were simple. Full burn with all power to engines. Lock and fire missiles as soon as possible. Five kilometers was one of the shortest distances available considering that at full speed the targeting computers could take just as long to lock on as it would take for the gap between the fighters to disappear. McKeen flicked the safety off his missiles and had his thumb hovering over the targeting key.
Almitt waited, barely able to see McKeen's Hornet. The lock warning siren erupted in his cockpit followed almost immediately with his hand jamming the throttle into afterburner.
The two Hornets raced toward each other as the beep of their locking computers steadily increased in speed, simultaneously with the warning sirens. The vibrations in their hulls nearly as distracting as the overtemp warning lights that blared at them from the annunciator panel.
Finally, a solid tone rang out and without missing a beat, they both fired their missiles.
As timid as ever, Lieutenant Shoffer raised his hand. “Ma'am? Um … Ma'am?”
Major Jasper smiled, almost embarrassed. “Yes Reg?”
Reginald Shoffer continued. “Well, there's. Something's wrong.”
“What's wrong?” She asked, walking to the traffic control station.
“They're all gone.”
“What?” Lillian asked, staring at the scope herself. “Huh, so they are.” She turned to an intercom on the bulkhead nearby. “Captain, could you come down to Traffic, I've got something interesting for you.”
Moments later Captain Anderson came down the stairs, followed by Williams and Marmossa.
“What is it?” He asked, sincerely curious.
“They're all disabled.” She said, directing him to the screen. “Not a single fighter is still active.”
Anderson's brow furrowed. “What about the bombers?”
“Two are disabled, somewhere within this mass here.” Said Reg, his hand shaking as he pointed, “The other two are on their final approach to the Scipio, they completed their run on the surface.”
Anderson smiled. “Very well. Re-initiate the others and have them come on. Training will continue tomorrow.
“Yes sir.” replied the Major.
A few hundred kilometers away an M50 drifted silently through space. Cardboard was chewing on a chocolate bar he'd brought along for the ride. He looked out through the canopy and saw a thunderstorm raging on the dark side of Terra. “Well, I suppose it isn't the worst birthday I've ever had.” He took another bite out of the chocolate bar, the closest thing to a cake he could manage in the M50 without making a dreadful mess.