Red flashed across his HUD, alarms buzzing around him, filling his Needle fighter with klaxon. For a moment, he didn’t believe what his screens were telling him, until the craft rotated on its own, automatically dodging incoming ordnance.
There she was, the Santiago, an España-class Battleship and the pride of the Earth fleet, splitting in two along her central axis, trails of wreckage flying outward from the terrible wound. Fire burned out along the jets of escaped atmosphere, a roiling storm in zero-g. It was unlike anything Nelson had ever seen.
The aft half of the battleship belched one final salvo of railgun fire, and then the entire craft blew up in spectacular fashion.
Nelson’s HUD blocked out the worst of it, dimming to near-opaque, for containment failure could blind a man. By the time the protective layer cleared, space was filled with radioactive wreckage streaming from the nuclear epicenter.
God… we’re so fucked.
Shocked chatter broke the comm channels. “Break, break, make for planetside.” Nelson didn’t recognize the voice, which meant it had to be a militiaman.
Commander Beagle, Nelson’s own CO, cut into the line, anger and despair evident in his broken voice. “Negative, get back into position, Epsilon. Cover the evac shuttles. I will shoot the first fighter that flees myself.” Beagle no doubt never expected to command a fleet, but with the death of the Admiral aboard Santiago, there was no one else left.
“Fuck you, EarthGov,” came the swift reply as the militia fighters broke formation, scattering toward the planet. Nelson shook his head. Those on the planet wouldn’t survive much longer than the rest of the fleet, he knew. Whether or not Beagle intended to fire on the fleeing fighters soon became a moot point as waves of enemy fighters streamed in through the hole in the defense screen. They vectored toward Santiago‘s few remaining escorts, helplessly exposed without their fighter cover. Without Santiago‘s protective screen and heavy firepower, the battle had gone from merely hopeless to utterly suicidal.
Nelson kicked in the burners and made for the nearest cruiser, already bleeding a trail of atmosphere in its wake. The Phage were faster, but his railguns were still able to lock one of them. He thumbed the trigger and his Needle’s guns blew apart an enemy fighter.
That has to be at least a dozen, today. I’d be an ace, if I had any chance of living through this shit.
His satisfaction was short-lived. A terrible screech echoed into his comms before cutting out suddenly. The cruiser’s running lights flickered and died, and the hull split apart as railgun rounds tore through her like a hot knife through butter. Clouds of atmosphere vanished in the depths, streaming through dozens of holes large enough to fly a fighter through. Fortunately for him, its reactor must have shutdown in time, for the vessel broke apart relatively peacefully, its remains continuing along its previous ballistic trajectory.
Beagle’s own Atlantic slotted in against the Phage line, but Nelson knew she wouldn’t last long there. Heavy railgun salvos traded between the Phage line and Atlantic as the remaining Needle fighters died in tiny pinprick flashes all around her. Multiple Phage battleships closed in on the hapless heavy cruiser.
God knows, I never expected to survive this war. But it would have been nice to live a little longer, at least.
“Delta two, your squadron is to…”
Nelson blinked in surprise. “Sir, there is no squadron. It’s just me.” The words were spoken mechanically, for his mind couldn’t contemplate what they truly meant.
“Acknowledged, Delta two.”
Missile alarms interrupted his thoughts and he cursed. “Fuck fuck fuck…”
I have no chaff, no flares remaining. Nothing… except the the dead cruiser.
Nelson dove his Needle through the wreckage of the broken cruiser, using the armored bulk as cover, narrowly avoiding the incoming ordnance. More Phage fighters coasted into range and he fired off his last own remaining missiles.
They would probably get picked off, he knew, for Phage point-defense was terrifyingly accurate, but they would buy him precious time.
Fuel warning lights blinked on his HUD, but he paid them no mind, for he would be dead long before that became a real concern. All that remained to him was bringing as many enemies into the fires of the Deep as he could manage. Railguns spit fire into the darkness again, to targets he couldn’t see, but which his HUD told him were there, occupied with his missile attack. More kills registered on the display, but they didn’t bring him the satisfaction he craved.
“Delta two, target at your discretion, do what you can.” The orders, such as they were, finally came in. Despair tainted the flight officer’s voice. Things must not be going any better on Beagle’s cruiser.
“Acknowledged.” Nelson didn’t bother to report that he would probably run out of fuel soon. It didn’t matter anyway. His railgun belched again, and a Phage fighter vanished into the maelstrom. He ducked quickly back into the wreckage that sheltered him.
The Phage must have finally tired of his hit-and-run antics, for several of them vectored in on the cruiser wreckage. Tracer rounds flickered in the blackness as his computer attempted to avoid them. No human had reflexes fast enough to dodge railguns, but the computer could generally do it, for awhile at least. He was a passenger, now, at the mercy of automated defenses.
Warning symbols flashed on his HUD, and he knew he was dead. He reached blindly for the eject lever as his Needle fell apart around him.
He had just enough time to see the Atlantic going up before the merciful blackness descended.
Am I dead?
It was certainly the normal cliche, but it quickly became apparent to Nelson that he was, in fact, still breathing and very much alive.