The deck of the Scipio was filled with ranks of men and women. Each formation consisted of crews from the carrier group, all coming together to christen the newly formed unit.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Today we become brothers and sisters. Today, the First Carrier Battle Group is baptized. The Scipio, flagship of the battle group is joined by the cruisers Vivid and Tireless, the destroyers Janus and Nomad, the frigates Matchless, Oracle and Prospero, the support craft starfarers Firm and Quest and the mercy ship Grace. Together, our combined force will be unmatched in the outer regions of the Empire, where our presence will dissuade violence and promote solidarity for the Empire.”
The captains of the ships now forming up with the Scipio stood next to the podium where the Admiral spoke. Each of them bearing smiles of confidence and pride.
Epi looked down the ranks from the corner of his eye, trying to stay as still as possible while doing so. The number of people on the deck was astonishing. He wondered if there had ever been this many people on the Scipio's flight deck at any given moment in the history of the craft. The Admiral saluting caught his eye and he returned his attention to the front. The parade was to continue for some time, so he shook his toes in his boots and prepared to stand still for at least two hours.
In the space beyond the threshold of the Scipio's deck, two Hornets blurred past.
“There they are.” said Calel, banking into the formation of ships. His wingman, Madman, was formed on his wing so closely that his canopy was only a few meters from Calel's Hornet.
Madman, keyed his mic. “Pretty impressive, isn't it?”
“That is an understatement.” Calel said as their hornets dove between the Starfarers Quest and Firm, to pull up and underneath the Destroyer Vivid that flanked the formation.
“There hasn't been a battle group this size since the Tevarin war.”
“I wouldn't believe that Madman, I'm sure there's been others since then. You're talking four hundred years.”
“Well, either way Calel, you can't say you've seen one in your lifetime.”
Calel sighed. “You're right, I can't.”
The two hornets banked to the front of the formation and continued onward to their rendezvous with the Vanguard Hornets ahead of the battle group.
Thousands of light years away, Subtext wished he could wipe the sweat beading on his forehead as he drifted through the debris of Pistol's hornet. He'd found the remnants of the cockpit and removed the control card for life support. It too was damaged, but he had no other choice but to try the swap. Before him, he could see the charred streaks on his Hornet as he fell toward it in the weightlessness of space; having pushed off of the wrecked nose of Pistols' cockpit.
He collided with his canopy, his hands sliding against the windscreen, scraping off some of the frozen blood that flew out into space like fractured ruby. Frantically, he searched for a handhold and found it, stopping him from bouncing off the Hornet to be thrown into space to drift aimlessly forever.
A light blinked in his helmet, alerting him that his carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high, that the re-breather was at the limits of its efficiency. He silenced it, for the umpteenth time. Re-adjusting himself below the nose of the Hornet, he opened the port and installed the less damaged card. A light flickered, and suddenly the array of light emitting diodes denoting power transfer lit up. He was too exhausted to smile, but quickly maneuvered to the cockpit and sealed the hatch. He pumped the main breaker and activated it. The lights in the cockpit came to life. Quickly, he plugged his hose into the air source and felt his helmet cool from the breeze.
The air tasted strange, but each breath felt like ecstasy. He smiled and began to laugh. Against all odds, he'd survived.
His helmet beeped, and he looked to the instrument panel. His passive sensors were online and a ship came up on the scope. His smile faded and he straightened himself in the seat; fastening his restraints and turning on all other functioning systems.
Main engines were down but some maneuvering thrusters were active. If he had to, he could maneuver slightly, but there was no chance of a dogfight ending in success.
The radio crackled.
Subtext was silent.
“I seee youu.”
A laser flash erupted from the darkness and tore through the debris field, sending molten pieces of metal spinning in all directions.
“Come out and play Navy man.”
With his hand on the throttle, Subtext waited for an opportunity.
“Come on, make this at least a little fun.”
Another blast tore through the debris field. A large chunk of Pistol's ship came hurtling toward his damaged Hornet.
Subtext hit the controls and performed a calculated burn to put him in the same spin and velocity as the debris. The Hornet's damaged systems couldn't respond as quickly as he needed them to, and he collided with the piece of metal, falling with it out of the debris field and toward the planet.
“Where'd you go?” came the voice on the radio. “Clever little bugger aren't you?”
The debris was between Subtext and the ship, he'd drifted to such a distance away from it that even though it was smaller than the Hornet, he was effectively hidden in its sensor shadow.
“Ah, I think I found you!”
Subtext watched another laser flare drill through the debris field. “Missed me,” he thought to himself as he continued toward the planet. His systems read the gravitational gradient increasing. He tapped a key on one of the multi-function displays until his orbital vector was drawn on the screen. The time to periapsis was too long, the ship would figure it out by the time he reached the upper atmosphere.
“No, not there, how about here?” came the voice over the com.
The debris he'd been hiding behind flared red and came charging toward him to collide in a reverberating clang. The Hornet spun and rolled into a fiercely uncontrolled fall toward the planet. Subtext put his hand out against the canopy, holding himself as the forces of gravity caused by the spin pulled at his every fiber.
“There you are!” came the voice. “Looks like I'll have to catch up with you planetside, if you survive re-entry that is.”
Subtext pulled the stick and fired maneuvering thrusters, fighting against the forces until finally the Hornet slowed to a gentle roll. Sucking in air, he looked above and through the canopy to see the planet racing toward him. He rolled the Hornet over and began burning retrograde with the thrusters, attempting to slow his descent. Eventually, the velocity vector on his heads up display rose until his angle of descent was not completely suicidal. His fingers went to work on plotting a re-entry vector to a safe landing zone. “I was never good at re-entry.” He said over the mic. “So maybe we won't be seeing each other again.”
“Oh, don't be such a defeatist.”
Subtext clenched his teeth as he entered atmosphere and the ship began to shake violently. “Go to hell.”
The voice laughed. “I'll see you there!”