This short was something I put together on a whim while playing Halo (original).
This one is a transition from the original “big idea” I had way back in sixth grade or so that kick-started the timeline in my head. Attempted Book #1 had heavy elements of “Robotech” (watched it as a kid), “Independence Day”, and “Space: Above and Beyond”. Originally, Vedin and Menver were pure fantasy-element characters, but I didn’t have a good answer for why they were different and why they were on Earth, so I defaulted to a trope: aliens.
What do aliens have? Spaceships. Fantastic! Back then and to this day, I love great big space armada shootouts. Anyway, for background, this group called the Jortasha was nearly fully recovered from a civilization-debilitating genocide against the Torunthanes’ people and came to Earth to expand their resources. That was the event introducing Vedin and Menver to the Tuluhrai as alluded to in the beginning of Liberation. “SoulFighters” is a filler, occurring sometime after Vedin and Menver landed on Tuluhr but before Liberation starts. It still bothers me a lot these days how often I used two periods instead of a real ellipsis. Also, UNLIKE Liberation, this one story contains foul language – so if you don’t like that, this is the warning.
Recommended songs while reading this on your music provider of choice to understand the mode I was in:
Girls Against Boys – Park Avenue
Halo: Combat Evolved OST – Brothers in Arms (Start the song at the paragraph starting with simply “Earth.”, round about the last quarter of the story)
The year 2046 heralded Earth’s first major victory against an aggressive alien force. 2046 also showed Humanity that ancient myth and legend had a foundational truth, as Atlantis had risen and god-like beings emerged during the conflict. Confusion, hope, and a feeling, like a freezing of one’s lungs, settled over Mankind. Government-held knowledge of the alien Jortasha, gods among mortals, Atlantis rising.. what did it all mean? How much of man’s culture and religion was fairy-tale, and how much was blunt truth? Only two years of uninterrupted reparation and study had passed before the Jortasha returned to accomplish their unfinished goal. Two years after the war platform of Atlantis had been destroyed; two years since the gods were either slain, returned to hiding, or left with the Tuluhrians to seek their ancestors’ home.
Humanity had entered a new era of stultifying peace and technological advancement, and in unwilling tribute to the Jortasha Dominion, Earth gives resources, manpower, and factories to help their new masters’ war effort. At the end of a pseudo-diplomatic gunpoint, the few Human governments united and efficiently gained world peace.
Without being aware of it, Humanity greatly intrigued the advanced and highly mechanized Jortashan culture. Humanity – a species of sentience so much younger, so much more feral than the Jortasha. They soon became more than simply beneficial to the Jortasha. Finally, a species who’s life force was still so innocent, so full of hope and want of destiny.. they could harness a technology the Jortasha were incapable of fueling: the SoulDrive.
The year 2060. Below the polished surface of the oak desk, a light flashes on, brightening as the wood grain simultaneously fade away, revealing the Admiral’s command insignia. Audio only, and the noticeable Texan accent.
“Colonel Holtzoff, you’ve received the reports from the Designate, is that correct?”
“Good afternoon, sir. And yes, I have. I.. don’t know what to think of it.”
“Neither do I, Colonel. Whatever these Omegas are, they look to be en route toward our system, accordin’ to the Designate. It’s their enemies, which I’m guessin’ makes ‘em ours too. Heh, like we hadn’t had enough trouble from ET’s in our lifetime. Anyway, the Designate informs me that their main goal’s to cut off the supply route from Earth, either by blockade or outright destroyin’ our capabilities. This will obviously hurt the Jortasha, seein’ how we’re their newest and most productive acquisition.”
“Sir.. I apologize, I don’t mean to sound out of line, but what were to happen should we not support the Jortasha guard.. effectively enough insure victory over the Omegas?”
“Colonel.. I flew against the Jortasha. You know that. I feel as you do, but we can only deal with one devil at a time. Believe me, bein’ semi-autonomous under the Jortasha is favorable to what the Omegas’ll do. Pass word to your people. We’ll need all SoulFighters ready soon. Admiral out.”
A deep sigh from the exhausted man; Colonel George Holtzoff downloads the remaining intel files. His face eases into a cold gaze.
“Play video one, transfer to Holo.”
The Admiral’s insigna within the desk disappears, the oak grain returning to give the appearance of a solid surface. The Commander slides away from his desk just as a 30” hologram screen opens in front of him. The screen is a blank blue with white letters flashing in the bottom right, reading “Guardian X1”. The video begins to play.
An X-generation Jortasha Guardian mech appears to be firing from both shoulder-mounted batteries, all shots directed at a much larger approaching adversary. “It’s immense.” The beasts’s chest, by the Colonel’s estimates, stretches out as far as the elongated spines of the Guardian’s shoulders. Though the Guardian was hardy, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as this. The beast’s collar stood level with the Guardian’s forehead camera.
The view distortedly shifts upward: an indication that the Guardian was starting to take flight. Both arms rise into view; machine-gun furies of singular particle charges railing from its forearm guns. The camera darkens in order to compensate for the glare coming from the now four firing batteries. Each blow visibly connects and dissipates. The opposing mech, a misproportioned hulk of heavy, rusting armor, still marches forward, unmarred for the most part.
“Some sort of shielding system? But there’s no wave feedback..”
A thick yellow ion beam suddenly comes barreling towards the camera, below it, engulfs the bottom of the screen. The planet floor jets upward to meet the camera. A brown, three-fingered hand, flaking metallic shards, descends on the camera.
The blue screen returns. In the middle, white letters flashing: “Enemy heavy-assault mecha designated ‘Diablo’.”
Another video follows. “Colony 45 – Tertiary System”. A satellite feed showing a fleet of ships, no differentiation amongst them, all of them the same colors of disrepair as the Diablo. These are conical in overall form, holding perpendicularly in orientation to the colony planet’s surface. The upper portions of the ships are dome-shaped structures that the Colonel estimates take forty percent of apparent volume and height. Though smooth in their higher crests, these upper levels start to corner themselves off to create octagonal midsections. These then thin some more, deck by deck, revealing various rod-like protrusions and lights and (what Holtzoff assumed) launch bays of various sorts, to leave three spear-like appendages of varying length as the ventral points.
“Jesus.. look just like Atlantis did..”
The dozen ships begin to coalesce. The octagonal sides of their upper portions move. They continue closing in on each other, the bases of the domes now six-sided. The fleet is joining together, repositioning so that the dome of each interlocks and fits with its neighbor. The fleet is now a single entity looming over the colony. A dull gold throb now adds itself to the screen. Each ship’s spear points are tilting inward, as steadily the throbbing increases in speed and intensity. The build up continues, reaches a peak, the light’s pulses so fast his eyes register them as a steady stream. Then the burst. Blinding brightness engulfs all, the Colonel snaps his head away, throws his hand over his eyes, yelling, “Off! Computer, shut off the Holo!… Damnit..” He blinks, rubbing his eyes with the thumb of his left hand. An audio feed follows, to the Colonel’s surprise, independent of the video’s termination. The digitally cold voice of a Jortasha interpretation device crawls through the desk’s embedded speakers. It’s the Designate.
“That was the planetary bombardment of Colony 45, within the outer-reaches of our space. It was a shipyard providing border defense. Earth’s fate will be the same.”
Then a hiss, and silence.
The Colonel draws closer to his desk, rolls up the beige sleeves of his shirt and rests his elbows against oak. The idea, in his youth, of enslavement by the Jortasha was the most terrifying thing he ever tried to understand. As a child, extra-terrestrials were overused sci-fi figures, always the aggressor because they either wanted to planet or to harvest Americans. As a fighter pilot during the Great War, with the help of many bottles of liquor, he had come to grips with the idea that they were neither alone in the universe nor well-liked. And now, the possibility of either sudden extinction or the loss of an incalculable number of civilians by the whims of the Jortasha’s enemy had come. The Tuhulrians, as short-lived as their time was on Earth, were invaluable to driving off the Jortasha scout fleet. Neither of the Torunthane twins remained either.. though against the type of munitions the Omegas possessed, the Colonel didn’t think their powers would be of any help. They don’t even have that Tholikian survivor fleet either.
A quiet sigh escapes the Colonel’s lips, and he rests his head against folded arms. Five minutes of a blank mind would pass, instinctually trying to gut his fears before calling his squadron. His fighters were too young during the Great War to remember the details. Alexander and Gary both lost parents in the War, but none had shared the same experiences that he had: of the overwhelming impotence and hopelessness felt while watching a squadron of fighters get torn apart by a single Jortashan medium assault mech, the Sentry-5, or of the humility and fright that could swallow the will to fight knowing that the whole effort could’ve been smothered in a week without the interference of other advanced races. No, his squadron knew mostly the death outside the battle, and the aftermath.
Now they’re soldiers. Now is the time that the memories of what once happened will, and must, drive them toward victory. The SoulDrive technology needs their fury.
He reaches for a black switch next to the calendar on his desk.
“Yes, connect me with the barracks for the 58th Squadron. Thank you.”
The Colonel hears a double-tone from the speakers.
“To all pilots of the 58th, this is Colonel Holtzoff. Earlier today, confirmation of an unknown force of Omegas has come to my office, through the Admiral, from the Designate himself. It is now currently 1700 hours. There will be a mandatory meeting at 2000 hours. Any pilots found absent will receive punitive measures. I don’t believe I have to explain how important this is. Holtzoff out.”
Sunlight can barely peek through the cracks left by the navy blue blinds shut over the windows. His desk lamp casts a soft tangerine glow across the table.
“Computer, hand me technical data on orbital defense systems surrounding Earth and bring up all files sent by the Admiral in a ready-access listing.”
As the middle of his desk whitens and becomes clear to reveal the monitor again, the Colonels’ mind works miserably in trying to find a clear, cohesive way to present the situation, and its implications, to a band of men and women who’d never fought a single engagement outside of mere practice drills.
“Karen, do you still dream?”
“Do you still dream the same way I do?”
“.. Alex, we can’t, and you know why. Just get over it.”
“I know.. but what if we got out of this program? Transferred over to the research division and test pilot whatever new mechs the Jortasha have for us? Or enlist in the space exploration field of the UCGE?”
She rolled over in her bunk and peered down to the bed below, looking Alex in the eyes. “No. You’d never forgive yourself for leaving your SoulFighter behind. And I don’t chase after taken men.”
“What? The Fighter? Deanna doesn’t count!”
She rolls back over to continue reading her book. “I don’t chase after men who name their craft something sexy like Deanna either.”
In the moment of silence between the two, a distinctive click and shuffle is heard outside the door. It opens a crack, grunts heard on the outside, and the two look over to the commotion.
“Hey, think that’s Gary?”
The dark lit room of four bunks and hardly much else is punched alive with light, a silhouetted figure in the middle of the doorway with a suitcase in each hand and a duffle strap clenched between teeth. Growling, he spits the bag down to the floor and heaves the two suitcases over to the corner he had designated his own. Black flight-suit, a red lens capped over his left eye, a madman’s grin, and black hair slicked back into spikes.
And Karen speaks. “So, Gary, how was the special ops training?”
“Yea, Gary. Nice.. that an IR scanner?”
“Damn straight it is, kids. And training was invigorating.” He walks over to the unoccupied bunk beds and hops onto the top one, sitting on its edge to face them. “Not as rigorous as I’d hoped. Nero was there though. Trading shots with him was a shitloada fun.”
“Whoa! The Nero? As in the pilot of the original Guardian? Great War hero Nero?”
“Oh yea Alex. One and the same! I tell ya, cryo works wonders on a person. That man oughta be looking into a good retirement plan right now, but he doesn’t look too much older ‘an you. Punches like three of you even. And I’m not gonna describe what a cyborg’s prosthetic kick can feel like.”
“Gary, I really don’t care to know. When do you go back?”
“Not anytime soon, Kare. You guys oughta check your messages more often.” With that, Gary hops off the bed and reaches for his duffle, opening it.
“Why? What’s up?”
“Listen. Computer! Squadron 58, alpha flight, new message playback only, authorization Grayson 0-71.”
A two-toned confirmation beeps, followed by the scratchy, yet slow-sounding speech of the Colonel.
“To all pilots of the 58th, this is Colonel Holtzoff. Earlier today, confirmation of an unknown force of Omegas has come to my office-“
“Computer, end playback!.. Oh sweet Jesus..”
“Yup, you heard him right. Meeting’s in forty-five, so you both better start getting ready. No more time for hotshot messing around. Time for the SoulFighters to be put through the fire.”
“Gary, really, I wish you wouldn’t put it like that.. rather not think of fire right now.”
Alex sits up and buries his face in his hands, his dogtags lightly rapping against each other, providing the only sound in the room. ‘So much for the future,’ he thinks. Technically, he is the best pilot in the 58th: the SoulFighter feeds off emotion, fluctuating its output and generation according to the willful need of the pilot. Alex was always a man whose success was driven by fear: fear of humiliation, fear of being looked down upon, the fear of being nothing. His SoulFighter was able to draw on that fear, outputting almost panicked agility and speed during mock combat. And Alex was always afraid; his SoulFighter always at maximal output. It was natural that his ceaseless fear would allow him to be so good.
Alex stands, moves by Gary to reach the closet and pulls out a navy blue flight suit. While he dresses, Karen hops down from her bunk. On the nightstand is the black hairband she reaches for, tying her mahogany locks back into a ponytail. She sighs and heads for the door, pausing only to tell Alex and Gary that she’ll meet them there, that she wanted to watch something in the rec room before the meeting.
She loved Alex. Or loves. Or never did and never will, it was difficult for her to say. In the cockpit, he is an amazing fighter. She liked that at first, how he seemed to be in charge, had everything under control. The squadron’s most promising cadet, back then. Over time, she learned that his level-headedness was hardly what it appeared to be, and it was that much harder to respect Alex with the illusion of his confidence gone. The disappointment was hard to deal with. They had dated as best they could while enlisted. Business always came first in the format of flying simulations or reading up on whatever tech manual she could get her hands on. She had wanted to be the best, but the idea stopped mattering to her. It was hard to cope with the fact that her SoulFighter has always responded erratically to her: either acceleration was sluggish or its firing rate was choppy, and other times she was nearing the fastest known speed achievable by the SoulFighter engine. Karen knows that it’s somehow her fault, but her frustration only takes away from her performance. All she can ever do to keep an optimal consistency is to be nothing and hold the rear. If she can’t take the vanguard of the squadron, at least, she figures, she can clean up until her time comes.
As she walks toward the rec room, she feels suddenly alone. No chatter of personnel; the incandescence filling the undecorated hallways makes them feel only wider, emptier. Even colder. Karen decides to head toward the briefing room instead. She didn’t really want to watch the news anyway.
Meanwhile, Gary unpacks his duffle bag, everything already neatly folded within, consuming less time for him. He also hopes to catch Sameer before leaving to hear whatever updates the Colonel might have. Gary and Sameer, the Twin Devils of the 58th, a notoriety Gary enjoys. He and Sameer first ran into each other during a drill back in their cadet days: epsilon flight vs. delta. Gary was in epsilon, Sameer in delta. Epsilon was supposed to defend a simulated Jortash frigate while delta engaged in order to clear the way for incoming bombers. While most of epsilon kept close to the cruiser, Gary flew out to meet delta flight as soon as they were within his sensor range. They weren’t allowed to even look at SoulFighters in those days; they were flying mock SEF-2 Fighters, which were made relics during the War. Sameer had taken it upon himself to destroy Gary after epsilon’s ace shot down three of Sameer’s five wingmen. The fight continued even after delta was shot down by epsilon, after even the bombers were sent in just to allow epsilon more flight time while Gary and Sameer dueled. It was the longest one-on-one duel recorded in the simulators. They both used the same tactics: head on charges, cannons blazing, lung-collapsing hard maneuvers, plenty of missiles. It ended only when they both ran out of fuel. Gary remembers the simulation ending before he could eject – he wanted to see if he could make it a fist-fight.
He’d stepped out of Simulator 5, walked across to the opposing Simulator 6 and hammered on its door. Sameer, sweat beaded on his forehead, snarled at seeing Gary. Gary grabbed him by the collar of his suit and yelled up to the observation room: “You will make him my wingman!”
And good God, did Gary feel sorry for any squadron that faced them now. Those SoulFighters are the demonic forces of hell’s fury in their hands. Neither he or Sameer had the steady shot or reflexes as Alex, but, as Sameer is fond of saying, “Put something large and heavily armed in our way, we bring you back its head.”
Fifteen minutes before he becomes officially late. ‘Maybe,’ he thinks to himself, ‘I’ll see that asshole there.’
2000 hours. A 15’x6’ Holo screen casts a white glow against the faces of the assembled 58th. There’s a lot of uncomfortable shifting in seats, quiet, nervous whispers cast through the dark room. Alpha flight sits in front. Gary and Sameer, silent, Karen and Alex, exchanging intentionally unnoticed glances. On the Holo is the rotating crest of the 58th: a SEF-1 fighter flying up the length, its exhaust forming a blade, and white stars littered against black wings that made the background.
Precisely on time, the Colonel walks in, saluting, and calls for an “At ease” before the pilots could properly address him.
“Alright. Good evening, pilots. Where to begin.. I trust all of you here understand what may occur in the next few days.” He steps off the dais and moves toward a black steel podium, and swallowing back despair from reaching his face, calls, “Computer, open briefing video clip one and forward to edited scene. Colonel George Holtzoff, authorize.” The seven foot emblem of the 58th disappears. In its place is a still photo from the Guardian X1’s recording from the battle. It shows the Diablo, right foot forward, caught in its march. The still has been edited – glare reduced from the camera’s proximity to the flashes of gunfire – and alongside the Diablo are figures lined up over its head and by its side. Mass, width, height, location of gunports. Its legs appear to be too short to make it a fast-moving mech; its arms larger overall. Two long, curved points curl forward form the beast’s snouted head: it looks like the minotaur of old, returned for vengeance.
“This mech that you are all viewing was encountered on Colony 45 of the Jortasha outer tertiary system. As you know, Jortasha progress across space created an infolding that excluded us until fourteen years ago. Recently, a previously unknown group of Omegas has assaulted the Jortashan out-borders relentlessly. Their progress trajectories pin-pointed Earth as an eventual battlefield. Only now has the Designate started making this known to us, our assumption being he probably didn’t want it to seem that they don’t have total control. Computer, recent video feed two, play.”
Three ships, intricately designed layers, from what looked like a large metallic dome descending to a fine set of three points.
‘Whatever all that mess is at about mid decks, I can’t tell for the life of me,’ passes through Alex’s head.
“These are Omega capital ships. From all the data the Designate has passed down that’s actually made it to my office, what you see is their only class of capital ship. These are highly generalized ships, but effective in battle. It’s obviously not of any familiar, contemporary configuration we’ve seen. Their dimensions should appear soon on the scr-.. good. Note that individual mass is equal to three Jortashan destroyers. Its firepower is, by our estimates, equal to five Jortashan cruisers, or, again, three destroyers, though I speak of its main cannon only. Anti-fighter cannons line its perimeter, and around its lower midsection and base of the upper dome are a series of ion cannons with an output capable of carving the moon. Our intelligence, reviewing war documents from the Designate, informs us that blockading Earth is their likeliest goal. As Earth still has plenty resources, they would find it beneficial in not ruining the planet. But, similar colonies have been bombarded from orbit, and that is the situation we are planning for.”
The Holo changes scenes again. It’s Pluto. Three Omega warships pass by it.
“And now to get to the meat of it. Three of their ships will be reaching the asteroid belt by 0600 at their current rate. They’re trying, we believe, to move slowly enough so as not to tip off planetary-bound satellites and other remote sensors we have placed out there. When they arrived in the outer reaches of the system, they didn’t realize the Jortasha had all areas of likely jump travel placed under watch. Now the Jortasha can only deploy two destroyer-class ships and two frigates..” As his voice trails off with the word ‘frigates’, the room volume of muttering and angry whispers rises. He runs the back of his hand against his brow and continues, “I know.. I know. The government has authorized the relaunch of the UCGE Avatar and Torun’s Hammer. While they are attempting to hold off the Omegas just outside of Mars’ orbit, you, delta, omega flights, will be required to provide cover for the 77th’s bomber runs. Alpha and beta, you two will keep whatever small-arms craft the Omegas have off our ships. Especially the Avatar and the Hammer. Those two serviced us in the War. If either goes down, I’ll be the one to remove your wings.” The Colonel pauses to shoot a glance towards Alex. “Epsilon and gamma will defend these..”
An orbital picture of Earth appears, then zooms in on a floating crystalline shard of glaring Jortashan metalwork. Four prongs jut forth from its sharp corners, they erupt a point of light on each, the bands of light thicken and combine, creating a shield.
“We don’t have enough anti-shield missiles for everyone. Those engaging the capital ships will be provided with them. Those who aren’t will guard these emitters. Each provides an effective range of 100km3, jamming all Omega shielding systems. If any transport ships, fighters, bombers, anything not Jortasha or Human comes near Earth, these jammers will lock out their shields, and you will shoot them down. There’s enough to provide full coverage around the planet.
Also, for all the 58th, we’ve been given some new toys to defend our homes with. The SoulFighter mark II. Don’t worry, the controls are the same, it will fly the same. Your current Drives are being installed in the new Fighters as we speak, so there’s no need to align yourselves with new Drives. Some modifications are being done to the Drives to both quicken information flux from you to it and to translate that information into a wider array of responses from the Fighter. Apparently the Jortasha received some Tuluhrian help in retractable armor and conformational change technologies, as well as shielding systems. I can’t give you the details on the way or what about that. If the tech is beyond the Designate, it’s beyond me. Whatever the case, it will give you all an edge you never dreamed of. Flight preparation begins at 0330. I suggest you all get some sleep as soon as you can. Any questions?”
“Sir!” Four rows back, a young lieutenant raises his hand.
“Yes, Lt. Gorsky?”
“Sir, why don’t the Jortasha send their shield killers or whatever out with them? Why keep them on Earth? Won’t all our resources be better used if we let them get within orbit, then let the defense forces attack?”
“Good questions. For one, the jammers are not mobile. They require a gravity field to maintain position. This war hasn’t lasted too long, and this is a new science for them. We’re lucky to have them really. And about luring them here.. if the Omegas truly are operating on a scorched earth-.. well, you see what I’m getting at. Any further questions?”
“In that case, you’ll all find further updates loaded on your computers, flight and battle data will be available in the cockpits of your fighters. Alpha, beta, delta, and omega, report to hanger 5 at 0330. Epsilon, gamma, same time, hangar 6. Dismissed.”
Back in their quarters, the members of alpha flight lie in their beds, unable to sleep. Sameer stares at the depression made by Gary’s body in the metal mesh of the upper bunk, while Gary idly punches at the ceiling above him. Alex has a leg crossed over the other, believing that there’s no use in trying to be comfortable – sleep won’t come. Karen is still, on her side, nose six inches away from the dark gray wall her eyes can’t tear away from. The faint glow of the halogen night-lamp seems as bright as the sun, but lacking its comfort, warmth and cheer. Alex is amazed that even the gung-ho Gary has nothing to say. He’s usually rabid right before takeoff and an unstoppable 210lbs of energy the night before. Sameer was always quiet. He wouldn’t get fired up until the other flight fired its first shot at him. It is far too quiet in room 207. So quiet it swallows Alex’s thoughts, drowning his stream of consciousness into a whirlpool of nothing.
Gary is out of bed and dressed, his helmet tucked under his left arm. He jolts Sameer awake with a boot shove in the pilot’s ribs. He does the same to Alex, steps aside so Alex could get out. He’s much more gentle with Karen.
“Guys, move it! We gotta make it to the hanger in twenty-five now! Get your gear on and haul ass already! I’m not waiting on all you ‘fore I can get my hands on the Mark-II! Let’s go!”
“Unh.. alright.. Gary, shush. We’re moving already..”
Three navy-blue suited pilots and the black-bearing one in the lead are seen sprinting towards hangar 5. From the second floor of the barracks, it is roughly a forty-five-minute walk. Alpha flight intends to make it in a twelve-minute run. And they do. Beta, delta, and omega are there ahead of alpha, all standing at attention before the Colonel. Slowly, the Colonel paces before them, studying the faces of his pilots. Nervous, calm, afraid, exhausted, infuriated, combinations of them all. He doesn’t like what he sees, but there’s no time to make any reassignments. There’s no time to prepare.
‘Goddamn Jortash.. had to withhold everything until the last minute.’
George Holtzoff takes his hat off, rubs the greasy bridge of his nose, then clears his throat.
“Pilots, you are the best. There is no question about it. The 58th Squadron has been the vanguard of every major air and space battle since the UCGE’s formation. None of you would be hearing this if I, the Admiral-in-Chief, and your predecessors didn’t think you could uphold this great reputation. Billions of lives will be held in the balance of your actions today. You’ve been given the best training the UCGE has to offer, to hone your incredible skills and further unlock your potential. You now also have the best fighters in invention. You can’t fail, and you won’t. Just don’t hold back.
Now.. the computers in your fighters have the latest information on these Omegas. If you lock onto a craft, just yell ‘identify’, and it’ll tell you what you’re firing at, including known weaponry and weaknesses.” He creases a brow with a momentary halt to think. “..And there’s nothing else I can tell you. The Jortasha task force is in orbit. The Avatar left last night to reach position. Coordinates to reach the Jortasha cap ships are already loaded in your computers as well. All fighters will jump towards position using the Jortasha ships’ wake. Torun’s Hammer will also be joining you. Good luck, and get out there. Bring me back a souvenir.”
The Colonel raises his right palm up to them. “For the love of Earth.”
The pilots do the same, rejoining in unison, “For the love of Earth!”
Alpha then Beta, then Gamma and Omega all rush into the hangar. The high-arched ceiling and rows of angelic white lights reveal twenty-two fighter craft; two rows, angled towards the main doors, parallel perfectly to each other, eleven on each side.
“Sameer, would you look at ‘em..”
Sleek, silver craft. Alex moves to the front of his and stares up at the long body of his new mate. The nose is like the edge of a razor blade, increasing in height until it reaches the windshield. Its sides round off by that point, the girth increasing to its max at the fighter’s belly. Gradual, deepening indentations line the nose before touching the wings. There they disappear within the body. Large, swept-forward crescent wings. Solid and thick waning moons align vertically where wing and body meet. Faint lines of doors can be seen on the front face of them both. Soon those doors would open up to reveal primary and secondary weapons, missile banks being the ones closer to the middle of the craft, guns on the outer portions of the blood-letting moons. The tail dwindles to a fine point, much like the craft’s beginning. No visible exhaust. The bulk of its body, and wings, and whatever joins them, looked solid, whole, from afar. Up close, miniscule traces and overlaps can be seen. Alex wonders at that, as well as about the fine spires found on dorsal and ventral sides of the wing tips, nose, and tail. He moves around to its side, and the cockpit opens for him. The sound of gas escaping catches his ears, then a ladder appears below, allowing him to climb in.
“Greetings, Lieutenant Velasquez. Please connect to SoulDrive.”
He leans back and feels the familiar cold, numb feeling entering the base of his skull. The SoulDrive is connected.
“Computer, systems check. Comm check. Karen? Sameer, Gary? Do you all read me?”
“Gamma leader, Beta leader, Omega leader. Do you read me, over?”
“Yes Alpha leader, loud and clear.”
“So does Beta.”
“Got it. Computer, switch to alpha only. You guys ready?”
“Goddamnit Alex! Let’s kill already!”
“Uh.. kay.. computer, to all flights. We’re ready. Beta, Omega, we’re taking off.”
Alex closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. If he can trust his body’s personal sensor net, then his intestines seem to be shrinking. He feels the SoulDrive behind him waking to his worry. It floods the cockpit with a green light. Alex’s foot reaches the throttle, pushes, taxis, lifts off without the slightest nudge against the hull. Twenty-one SoulFighters follow behind him.
“The acceleration’s amazing! Smoother ‘an a baby’s ass!”
“I hear that, Gary.”
“Karen, how’s yours holding?
“Like a dream.”
Atmosphere peels off their windshields; lungs struggle against gravity as it tries to tug them back down. It’s exhilarating. Sameer and Gary pull up alongside Alex, both their cockpits cast in a bright red. Glancing to his right, Alex sees Gary pointing to something, past the haze of the last bits of Earth’s breath. Enormous, white steel, appearing as though it was made to set air speed records rather than act as a ship of war. It’s the sharply angled and fragile form of Torun’s Hammer. Alex stares at it, jaw slightly agape as he’d never seen it before. Its speedboat hull was lined with pock marks and scars – gunports and hull patches. Its pyramidal wings project far behind and slightly away from thicker, taller triangular pieces: the two adjoining structures connecting ship to wing, the structures that contain its main cannons. The deadly main cannons. Rumor had it that Vedin burned the port cannon out in his assault against the Jortasha dreadnought. Alex’s mind is caught in its magnificence. He can’t look away from it until something collides with the belly of his fighter.
“What the hell? Computer, what was that?”
“SoulFighter-03, pilot Lieutenant Gary Grayson.”
“Comm, Alpha! Gary, what the hell was that?”
“Waking you up, bud. You’re straying off course. Down twelve degrees, port fifteen.. the Jortasha are waiting for us. Looks like.. shit. They’re opening the gate, let’s burn!”
“Damnit.. Karen, Sameer?” Two craft dart past him, from both sides, another from below. “Got it..” Ashamed, he increases speed to 500 m/s, the SoulDrive shifting to a violet glow.
They reassemble a hundred meters from the lead destroys and proceed into the swirling chaos of the jumpgate. Gary waves to his reflection in the mirrored surface of the Jortasha battleship. Beta flight is assembled behind them, while above, in front, and below is a swarm of Jortasha medium assault mecha, the Sentries. More effective in space than in air and the staple unit of the Jortasha military, these machines were the ones most encountered in the Great War. Basic humanoid shape, an intimidating masked head, four wings to their powerful propulsion system, and four plasma guns, each of which could, and had, destroy, and had, a SEF-2 Fighter in a single hit. One or two were seen routinely on the base, but this many made all the pilots of alpha flight uneasier than they needed to be.
Overriding their comm. systems comes a thundering electronic voice. “All human warriors. This is the Designate. Match Pukta’s speed and course. Do not stray. We will not retrieve you from other-space.”
A click, and Alex regains control over his radio. “Guess that’s that. Do as the man says. Thing. Whatever. Out.”
The lead destroyer, Pukta, plows forward into the gold-swirling gate. Lightning reaches out for the Pukta, but does not harm it. Alpha marches ahead, rushing from Earth’s orbital to Mars’ track. Static fingers grasp the SoulFighters and drag them into the gate’s mouth.
A momentary blindness after emerging, Alex blinks repeatedly, curses from under his breath. Karen suddenly shrieks over the radio, “Alex, move it! Now!”
“Goddamnit..” He kicks the throttle and checks the mirror just as a smoking shell of a mech obliterates itself on the hull of the Pukta. “Alpha! Scramble and engage!”
The SoulDrive throbs red. He was almost killed because he didn’t polarize the windshield before entering the gate. ‘Idiot.’ He climbs, banks left, frowns and locks onto an enemy craft. Another voice on the comm. Gary.
“Fuckin’ things look just like the fighters found on Torun’s Hammer! But – shit! They’re made of scrap, but damn they’re strong!”
“I know Gary, just gun ‘em down.” He pulls the trigger, two sets of twin-barrelled guns lighting up the target’s shields, surrounding it in orange ripples.
They look too much like their older SoulFighters – their design was based on the Torun Hammer craft as well. Old Jortasha tech.
“Computer, engage shields!” Everything outside the cockpit tints red. An Omega dives between him and his target, Alex looks up, banks right, out of a pursuing mech’s path. Reengages lock, fires twin rockets, continues on the trigger.
“Good job. Now help me.”
“Lookin’ for ya, Karen.”
Sensors had her on the other side of the Pukta. It was turning to train all guns on the Omega cap ships. “Karen girl, best get out of there fast! Designate’s going to start lighting your side up!” He dives, firing on an Omega as it crosses his path; swoops left and fires an anti-shield missile, a pair of rockets, lets an incoming mech finish it off. He’s at the Pukta’s belly. Karen’s dogging a fighter, has one on her. Another comes in firing.
Alex targets the first of the assailants, yelling, pulling both triggers, all four gun sets blazing, lighting the cockpit crimson through the shield’s tint. Her aft shields flash.
“Redirect shield energy to front panels!” Alex rams into the second hunter, staring at its pilot: wet, orange skin, yellow, hating eyes. There’s no time to sit and analyze. Eight barrels of Jortashan gunnery incinerate him.
“Karen, let’s get out of here. The Omegas are scrambling toward the Hammer.”
By the Avatar, two SoulFighters scream past its starboard, weaving in and out of each other’s paths, in an unrelenting stream of reddish plasma fire. A large crab-shaped ship explodes before them. Behind, the gray-steeled hull of the Avatar bleeds smoke and fire. Its main gun slowly turrets from side-to-side, cleaving an ion beam into the shields of an Omega cap ship, designated Omega 3 – Carthage. Its aft cannons rotate endless anti-bomber fire. Jortasha Sentries, some escorting, some outright carrying, guide its escape pods toward the rear scout frigate.
Gary spies an Omega fighter chip off the leg of a mech. Two powerless pods are tucked beneath its arms.
“Oh no, fuck you.. you’re not killin’ ‘em that way!”
Gary’s is the first. The SoulDrive feels his anger, the light emanating darkens, becomes black. All eight barrels stop firing singularity charges – they become beam weaponry. His aim is unwavering, the beams drill through the craft’s shields, splice the engines in half, send the target hurtling away in a fireball.
More bombers engage the Avatar. A dozen. Gary pulls the fighter about, zooms in on the targets with the holo-HUD, fires more. The eight beams scatter across four different targets, but their shields still hold.
“Goddamnit, I need more power!” The SoulDrive hums. “The Avatar ain’t goin’ down! Not in this pussy-fest!” The eight beams dim, stop while the Fighter’s HUD diagram shifts gun placements, and reappear as four. His controls are cast in purples by the immense blasts. They meet their targets and suck away the bombers’ shields. A four-winged, armored fighter dives between them, explosions sounding just as it crosses paths with Gary.
“Shit! Sameer, you copy?”
“I’m pissed! I found the speed enhancers!”
Gary can say nothing. If he lets the rush fall, feels any relief, he’ll lose this power. Six bombers left. Pulling right, he throttles past the bombers, and reaching a kilometer ahead of them, jams the Fighter into a painful stop to about face. Sameer’s approaching from below.
“Sameer, watch the crossfire!”
Hammering on the triggers, the resultant force jolts Gary and shoves the Fighter backwards. He reaches for his secondaries. Each ion beam’s boring on a bomber. The crab-like craft spindle their legs, coalescing energies from each foot to counter-attack with ion missiles. Gary laughs and jams the secondary triggers six times each, a flurry of a dozen rockets slamming into bombers. More explosions. Sameer apexes, swoops back down in a spectacle of speed and firepower; his craft flies through a cloud of debris. Three bombers now. Gary kicks forward as Sameer pulls in behind the bomber group. The Omegas have taken a linear formation, one craft to take all forward fire, one to take all from the rear, one to reach the objective. Deciding to oblige their plan, Gary trains the four cannons on the lead bomber and fires, the Fighter taking another jolt from the sudden output. Two chain-guns of yellow charges erupt and spill against the shields of SoulFighter-03. Gary’s eyes twitch to the HUD, just long enough to check the shield gauge. Rolling the corners of his mouth, he yields from the offensive, rolling his thumbs to hold down on a button inconspicuously placed just on the inside of the primaries’ triggers.
“Computer, redirect unneeded power to front shields, do not interrupt weapons’ charge.”
Thumb off, forefinger on trigger, and his craft rocks with the energy unleashed. Ion cleavers ignore the lead bomber’s remaining shields, bursting through them, and burrow through it to collide with the central bomber of the group, just as a warning flashes on the Fighter’s HUD.
“Sameer! How’re you working your target, why is it not down yet!?” Said while Grayson re-selects anti-shield missiles.
“Its shields are down.. hold..” Gary watches his HUD intently while setting the Fighter into reverse. Three missiles on the sensors, marked green. Gary pulls the secondary trigger twice. Two more missiles on the board. Five greens closing in on a pair of reds, collisions, and one bomber left. The last one in the group climbs, taking one of Gary’s missiles in the belly, while the bomber’s rear turrets drop the other. The HUD finally clears his primary weapons as cooled to operable levels; immediately he brings the four cannons to bear. Like a train, the beams crash into the Omega shielding and shove it away. SoulFighter-03’s pilot can see the wave feedback tighten around the starboard side, witnesses a cluster of four gray pods fire from the slightly upturned belly, blinks as the pods race past his nose.
“Fuck! Sameer, get those torpedoes!”
Gary pulls back on the throttle and banks to the right, his port guns turning in order to keep pressure on the bomber. Its explosion gets no attention from Gary, his eyes narrowed, waiting for the sensors to grab lock.
Sameer sweats. “Faster.. c’mon..” He thinks of his cousin, who last he heard was a mechanic on board the Avatar. The SoulDrive responds. His speed increases, but the targeting system can’t lock. The Avatar is turning, its exhaust rattling his craft’s frame. The torpedoes are almost on it.
Gary reconfigures his primaries to the eight smaller beams of before, firing them in unison in trajectories the computer deems likeliest to intercept the torpedoes. Tapping the zoom function on the holo-HUD to close in on a single torpedo and growls, “The things can move! Comm! Sameer! Make your computer read the torp’s every movement and make continual updates on trajectory positions NOW! No more time!” Zooming in another 5x magnification, Gary brings his guns to bear on the torpedo and fires several short bursts all about it, forcing it to a pause, long enough for him to destroy it. His fire pans to the right, to the next torpedo, encircling beams and closing in on it: another torpedo down.
Sameer does just as Gary says, and SoulFighter-04 sprays the torpedoes’ pathways with a volley of singularity charges. Sameer can see a charge hit and reflect off a torpedo, but it’s followed by another forty, perhaps a dozen being the number that destroy the target. Just one more, and it’s no more than a hundred meters short of the Avatar. He is but one hundred meters behind his target. The SoulFighter mark I needed something close to one-hundred fifty meters to come to a complete stop from his present velocity. His fingers tremble as he licks his lips, a taste of salt entering his mouth; his face always did manage to sweat a lot under pressure. Two yellow squares circle around the Avatar’s icon on the HUD’s mini-map. His tension snaps and he yells, both hands on both sets of triggers, and rains particle charges in a tight-scattered array before pulling back to avoid crashing into the warship. A white flash and wave of debris catches his belly while mid-bank, one hand clicking the throttle to full reverse, the other about to snap his steering.
Over the comm. is Gary’s voice, quiet and awed, a perfect tone to match SoulFighter-04’s slow tap against the Avatar’s hull.
“You blew up a J-mech and its explosion took the torpedo. How the hell did you decide on that in so little time..?”
“I did?” The cockpit’s interior drops from its previous throbbing orange to a quiet, deep blue, and Sameer pulls away from the UCGE battleship to return to formation with 03, who had already put two kilometers’ distance between it and the Avatar. “I was really aim-“
“One sec..” Another red triangle on Sameer’s HUD disappears. “Yeah Sameer, good job.”
“Uh, yeah, thanks..” As Sameer opens his mouth to switch comm. channels, a siren blares in and out of his helmet, half a wail only. A large orange beam, as thick twenty mechs, with enough intensity to flash heat warnings in their cockpits, separates the Twin Devils from the Avatar.
The Devils pull another kilometer away from the Avatar at top speed and watch. The blast’s heat trail points it as coming from the Carthage. It destroyed the UCGE flagship’s main cannon and eviscerated all mid-sections, leaving the ship loosely held together by the sides of its outer hull.
Click. “This is – -tain Lam – erti of the Avatar. A– -nits clear th-…. Now!”
Sameer, Gary, and a host of Jortasha mech, flee. The Avatar evacuates one last dropship before the engines begin exploding. All forward guns and missile banks still fire. The Carthage’s shields buckle just as the Avatar’s forward sections are consumed by flame. A huge, soundless explosion, a shockwave that brushes aside the fleeing craft like leaves in a fall day. Shrapnel, hull, beds, littered remains scatter by, piercing through mecha, bouncing off Omega shielding, raining on the two drifting SoulFighters.
“She.. didn’t stand a goddamn chance..”
Radio silence. Sameer’s shields flash as more remains collide. His hands are folded and motionless in his lap.
“Think we can take it?”
“…we’ll bring back someone’s fucking head.”
And hell’s wrath charges toward Omega 3.
Omega 1, the Pompeii, showers the Pukta with cannon fire, singularity charges erupting small craters and tearing holes in the destroyer’s hull. Its paneled shielding system powers up with a few flashes and activates, saving the ship from the Avatar’s fate, but the combined ion lances of the Pompeii and Berlin visibly drain the defensive systems, the lights of its shark fin command tower dimming and shutting off with the attack. At least it maintained enough power to withstand twice the damage that destroyed the Avatar. The Designate calls for the Pukta to face the Pompeii head on, while the other destroyer, Zhizhak, provides a covering volley to allow the Pukta time to charge its main guns. Pukta maneuvers behind; the Jortashan frigates take to the front with Zhizhak, all batteries firing what they can. The space between the two forces is lit with an endless back and forth of blood colored explosive charges and the countering orange beams streaking gashes across Jortashan armor.
The robotic drones of the Jortasha are the only ones daring to fight in the crossfire; the escorting SoulFighters slow down and are ordered to return to Torun’s Hammer and maintain four hundred meters minimal distance. It appears that the three Omega warships are holding back, as are the Jortasha.
Alex aligns behind Karen; both eye their sensors. No incoming craft whatsoever. The Hammer’s captain broods on the UCGE Naval frequency, “All Jortasha sensors show that the Omega squadrons are positioned behind their mother ships. SoulFighter and Nex-Gen pilots are advised that the big boys might be getting in a slugfest. Do keep your hands on the steering wheel and your eyes on the road.”
Heading a diamond formation with two Nex-Gen pilots, Alex and Karen cut their engines and hold position four hundred meters above the Hammer’s command bridge.
“Karen, look at the Pukta. Remember seeing that on the news?”
“Yeah.. blew apart Atlantis that way. Hold on, look at your mirrors, Torun’s Hammer is opening up its cannons too.”
The cruiser-sized panels covering the Pukta’s midsection open. A frigate, forward gunports opening and firing, rises over the bitter Zhizhak to pull some of the fire away. Pukta splits down the its lateral seam. It halves itself. It does so again down its spine. What was a solid-hulled ship, mirrored silver and shaped like a deadly flower’s bud unfurls itself. Its central core lights, spins. Red plumes of smoky energy build up within the large crystal housing the ship’s power source. The unfurled petals gleam. The four separated points of its prow brighten; static, lightning jumps from one to the next, connecting them. A bolt adjoins the concentration from the prow to the now blinding core. Alex and Karen polarize their windshields, switch to the fighter’s camera to watch.
The Hammer’s captain takes control of all UCGE channels again: “Nex-Gen flight Beta, pull away from the Pukta’s starboard and reposition to the Hammer’s stern! Now!”
Alex and Karen see the Zhizhak turn its flank away from the Pompeii and wingmen, its forward armaments shooting fighter-sized charges in clockwise moving circles from starboard to port and back. While Zhizhak turns, its engines discharge a single thrust wave, lowering it relative to the rest of its fleet. The Pukta, in turn, rises, aims at the Pompeii, the central of the Omega capital ships. The crystal structure of its core jars itself to a stop. The energy caught within its motion shoots down to the prow, along the potential created, through the discharge of the four bow tips, and fires toward the Pompeii. The eight petal-pieces, each lined with a crystal latticework of capacitors, unleash distinct walls of ionized energy surrounding the tail of the central beam: any Jortasha destroyer’s final, incapacitating move. The full spread collides with the Pompeii in seconds. Its shields absorb the initial blast of the core beam; the eight pillars slap against it, override its defenses, the trail of the core blast bursts through and engulfs the Pompeii’s mid decks. The Pompeii vomits fire and debris towards Mars. Its axis tilts relative to the other two, the Carthage ejecting small craft toward the Pompeii while also maneuvering to avoid collision.
Zhizhak crosses Pukta’s bow, sends another volley towards Pompeii. The charges impact and tear plating clean off the Omega’s frame, blowing out the remaining middle hull to cut the ship in half. The interdicting frigate passes below Zhizhak, its starboard batteries sounding off in alternating columns aimed at the dome of the upper decks: its command center. Torun’s Hammer, the rear-guard of the battle group, reaches over the Jortashan destroyers, its dual main guns open, jaws of a predator, fire, two focused blasts of sapphire ion waveforms closing in on the Pompeii but meeting the intercepting Berlin instead. The Hammer’s attack is absorbed, and the Berlin, angered, charges up all mid-deck orbital assault plasma drivers. Though, behind, the Pompeii succumbs to internal explosions and the infinite vacuum, the contents of its dome being poured out into space from its shattered bottom.
The Carthage, its shields still down from the Avatar’s final blows, will not hesitate. Lights ebb into brightness. The Carthage tilts its lower decks, the main gun tangentially aligning with the Jortashan group’s position.
SoulFighter-01 shows a highly accelerating rise in the Berlin’s temperature, mid-sections, and his hands grip the controls, gloves squeaking from traction.
The attack comes faster than he can react. Three blasts, power readings of each one above and beyond the Hammer’s known total output. His flight, Karen and the Nex-Gen’s, pull up and away from the battle group, Alex pivoting his SoulFighter to witness the series of attacks puncture the hull of the frigate and drive right through it to proceed toward the Zhizhak, chipping portions from its belly. Zhizhak and Pukta gracefully pull away from the frigate as the Hammer engages rear thrusters, the acceleration lag slowing it down. Five Sentry wings are dispatched to attack the Berlin; two are seen flying toward the frigate, but halt in robotic unison to the Designate’s command. A jumpgate opens to embrace the frigate. Pods and escape craft peel from the four rear hangar doors as their mother-ship accelerates into the void, pieces of outer hull flaking off and being sucked in.
The Zhizhak powers up its defensive fields and reasserts its port flank against the Berlin. Eighty percent of the way through the gate, the frigate’s internal skeleton finally relents, and it explodes, the gate crashing in and consuming its majority, leaving only parts of the rear hangars and engines to float the solar system.
Gary and Sameer, Fighters on minimal energy and powered down to base level, allow themselves to drift closer to the Omega warships. They can feel the temperature in their cockpits rising with the quiet buildup of energy in the Carthage, can see its hull starting to glow from the heat. Gary thumbs an orange button on the sensors’ master control panel and whispers, “Computer, send video and sensor data to Torun’s Hammer.. this won’t be pretty.” And though his thoughts lie on the Berlin and Carthage, his eyes watch the flight paths of the Sentry wings, and wonders. They are almost within an effective fighting range but no counter-squads are being sent to meet them. ‘This is messed up’
The Berlin fires again. Two beams, of the same that destroyed the Avatar, larger than the cannon-type that took the frigate, spear their way into the other scout frigate: its hulls flexes inward, holds for half a second, implode. The pummeled Zhizhak, unharmed Hammer, and the limping Pukta are what remain.
All Jortashan mecha return to formations and dive for the Berlin. They’re within fighting range. Gary flips a series of switches to shut off battery power to sensors, life support, then reaches up to the overhead control panel and re-engages the SoulDrive. SoulFighter-03’s cockpit returns to life with a silver glow, its engines humming loudly, and, as Gary waves Sameer to go, charges to join the hunt. Zhizhak opens its main hangar to unload Guardians, further Sentries, sleek, needle shaped boarding craft, and AI controlled bomb units. Torun’s Hammer launches all fighters: SEF-2’s, Nex-Gen’s, and even the re-staffed Mark I SoulFighters. The Earthen ship has its main gun charged and repositioning for a clean shot. Pukta is retreating. Zhizhak has all starboard guns active, unyielding and overheating.
Gary and Sameer hit the afterburners to join the incoming wings, turning parallel to follow the same approach vector, staying perpendicular to the Berlin’s central axis. Gary shakes his head, words seething from beneath his breath, the veins of his arms enlarging, eyes twitching, “Half of our capital ship support has been destroyed, the Omegas big guns had been holding back the whole time. You killed the Avatar.. my family was the Avatar! You won’t take me, no, you can’t take me, you’re too weak.. why not just try an’ burn me! You can’t burn me up!”
SoulFighter-03’s primary weapons tuck back into the body of the wing attachments, a series of control switches and gauges rearranging on the holo-HUD. Panels slide out from the wing bottoms, turn in, and, once meeting the body, stretch by producing alternating slats that crawl as far as midway past the canopy. Meanwhile the wing tips have been contracting, allowing for an overall reduction in available vulnerabilities and increasing armor along the vitals. A shudder of rage passes through the node connecting Gary to the SoulDrive. Immediately his primaries re-emerge, mimics now of Tuluhrai pulse cannons.
SoulFighter-04 is unrecognizable. The sleek-shaped beauty met in the day’s beginning is hidden beneath a light-absorbing hull, silver as light reflects from it, maroon when seen at any angle besides dead-on. Its wings have thickened, canopy fully encased in sharp-angled plates, missile banks prominently open and displayed, and finally, its gunports tilted inward to give a tightened shot when not engaged with multiple targets.
A voice on the comm. snares Gary’s attention. “Gary, Sameer! Diamond-staggered formation now! Rejoin battlegroup 4! We’ve got orders to destroy the Berlin now! Zhizhak and Hammer can’t hold off both at once!”
“You do what you got to, I’m after the Carthage!”
Sameer’s voice then follows:
“Grayson, stop shitting around, let’s go!”
Gary nods and swallows back the last trickle of spit he had. He hits the throttle and breaks off from the third Sentry wing to reach the Carthage. Sameer follows suit, taking the lead, noting a squad of four Omega fighters incoming. It’s their interceptor class: shielded, toughed armor on nose and belly, three gun turrets. Sameer allows their lead fighter to bounce a few shots off his forward defenses. He laughs wildly and holds down on both triggers; a condenser array emerges between both above and below gunports, which rotate and fire into it. The charges collect into the funnel-shaped device, hold, then accelerate through a magnetic tube. Results come immediately. Two golden ramrods utterly consume and destroy the lead and rear fighters, and their energy continues onward to burn a portion of Omega-3’s outer hull. To Sameer’s left, Gary drops low and climbs to attack the third fighter’s underside, but its pilot matches Gary’s move, both spearing their noses into each other. Forty meters, twenty, and ten: SoulFighter-03 rolls out of the way, redirects missile banks to the rear and fires a series of anti-shield and Plasma-Burn missiles, sending the fighter to an inescapable end. Coming out of the roll, his primaries lock onto the other fighter, as do Sameer’s, and they cross-fire through its shields and send it careening in a fireball back at the ship that launched it. With a nod to himself, Gary switches channels to SoulFighter-01.
“Focus on the main gun of the Carthage!”
“What!? Why? Orders are to strike the Berlin! Its power grid had to pull energy from shields to power those guns, it’s weakened!”
“Look, soon as Carthage fired to destroy Avatar, its shields were blown out, and the other two could’ve destroyed these scouts at any time with that sorta armament but didn’t ‘til Pompeii was nailed – it’s a weakness! There’s no other reason for ‘em to have held back this long! Scan Carthage already, they’re getting desperate to end this!”
His eyes narrow in suspicion, but Gary usually knows what he’s talking about. Alex drops his eyes to his HUD and orders it to scan the Carthage for structural weakpoints. None detected. But lower deck temperatures are incredibly higher than those of all above decks. Maybe Gary has something. Gary found it. Alex, flight leader, did not. SoulFighter’s 03 and 04 are changed even, while his own, 01, remains still barely altered from its base state. The corners of his eyes tighten more, and his front molars pain under his jaw’s pressure. A fist crashes into the right panel, the “all channels” button hit.
“All UCGE fighters! This is Captain Alexander Velazquez of the 58th SoulFighter Squadron! Disregard the Berlin and let the destroyers handle it! We have to take down the Carthage NOW!”
Alex feels fire. The calm after the Pompeii’s destruction was too unnerving, then the sudden destruction of the frigates – he feels toyed with. He angers.
“Guys, check your life span..”
Armored slats slide over the top of the windshield, video feeds projecting on their insides from behind the HUD, simulating an unobstructed view. He checks his sensors again to see who and how many fighters joined him. Two Nex-Gen squadrons and a flight of SEF-2’s. And Karen has grouped with Beta flight. It seems as though all other SoulFighter flights are maintaining the Designate’s orders.
“Goddamnit Karen! Join up with Alpha, that’s an order! Gary, you and Sameer join up on my flanks, wall formation, break only when under fire! Computer, redirect All Comm command to include only Torun’s Hammer, Nex-Gen squadrons 221st and 405th, SoulFighter Alpha flight, and SEF-2 flight Epsilon. Ok, All Comm. All Carthage bound craft, hold fire until primaries are within their maximum damage range. Our target’s the lower decks, uploading priority list to your computers now. And someone bring over a goddamn torpedo boat!”
SoulFighter-01’s missile bank doors slide open, the whole of the weapons’ storage area turning on its connections between wing and body, anti-shield missiles dropping into the storage chamber and being replaced by a mixture of Plasma-Burn missiles and Light Fission-tipped warheads. He calls to the computer “Lock onto nearest prioritized target!” Crosshairs appear on the holoHUD and grab onto a protruding, oval pipe, closed off at its end, the computer audibly classifying it as a hangar bay. With a gleam in his eye and a sneer on his face, Alex pulls down on a trigger. But just as he fires an LF-missile toward at the bay, forty red triangles appear on the bottom left corner of the HUD, apparently launched from Carthage’s far side. Half that amount would be a force more than enough to snuff his strike support. “On the bright side,” Alex whispers over a sweaty breath, “one hangar is down at least.”
Screeching past, the Twin Devils punch ahead of Alex to slide into a climb, their lower gun-mounts leaving trails of scarred armor and ash along the Carthage’s side. Alex’s reflex is to follow, to throw repeated punches into a metal wall. But that won’t do. The heat signature is too strong, too telling; he knows it’s a weapon, and a weapon being aimed for the battle group. The antennae at the bottom must be destroyed, “It’s.. just.. like.. Atlantis..”
Another pair of LF missiles reload, the familiar click and audible bell sound indicating that the secondaries are armed and ready. He pulls his attention away from the antennae quivering in their low-deck attachment and watches the Carthage. The Fighter computer pipes in, “Target ship has reestablished power linkups to anti-fighter armament. Energy signatures detected. Emergency maneuvering suggested.”
No time to worry about that. Alex reaches to a right-side panel, a touch-sensitive figure of his SoulFighter in its center, hits a button marked “S” on its upper half, and rapidly touches both the belly and nose of the SoulFighter. His eyes wring themselves shut for a second, inducing a slight pain, but refocusing him; his heart races, lungs pumping rapid and shallow, his hands feeling unbelievably sweaty inside the gloves.
Sensors show that SoulFighters 03 and 04 have engaged the Omega flights, and the red dots are falling. Though, so have all but one of the SEF-2 fighters. They’re buying him this one chance. His eyes close again and reopen, brow settling down to drag the normally goofing face into an assassin’s gleam. The SoulFighter responds to his commands by reasserting its axis to line with the Carthage’s vertical and with a subsequent, sudden hard boost. Alex races along the hull of the Carthage, slaloming among the varied antennae, rusting, useless rods and torn planking, while the holoHUD’s counter ticks down the number of meters until its within the blast radius of its own LF missiles.
“Warning: Energy dissipation from target may damage or destroy this unit. Other measures are advised.”
Four Omega fighters are on the approach. Interceptors again. “Come on computer, fuse with me.. I need everything you can give me..” Missile lock. And fire. He fires, pulling back on both triggers, a deuce of LF missiles on their mark to cover 100 meters distance to destroy the base of Omega-3’s main cannon. As soon as they’ve launched out from the Fighter’s missile banks, Alex pulls hard on the controls and jams his foot down, angles to the left, engages the afterburners.
“Come on.. come on.. Carthage, time to check your lifespan!”
His Fighter takes a ratcheting uppercut from below. The lower shield plate of SoulFighter-01 takes a 90% depreciative hit, dimming the lights of the cockpit and throwing the craft itself into a daunted tailspin; Alex kicks the power pedal to the side and digs his heel into the throttle, hoping the slow down will give him a moment to regain control.
“Total shield integrity at 60%.” Another blast collides with the port shield plate and the video feed along that side of the canopy shakes uncontrollably. He’s finally redirected his Fighter to face the Carthage again. Its main cannon is intact, its weapon systems online. There are a number of cannons firing right at him. The Fighter’s alarm sounds off, his eyes catching in the mock-rearview mirror a barrage of maroon singularity charges aimed for the Carthage, with his Fighter in the middle. A brilliant white flash washes out all details of the cockpit’s insides, a spark, a tangible pain passes into the base of Alex’s head, jolts him in his seat and lets him scream and punch against the bullet-proof interior of the canopy. All before things go black for him.
“My idea of fun!” Yelled over the Alpha-only channel by Gary while passing through the rubble of another interceptor downed.
“Karen? What is it? I’m busy!” Another series of hits from the Carthage’s mini-turrets sprays across his front shields. Distracted, he brings the Fighter about and crosses paths with one of the few splinter group Nex-Gen craft left. A flight of interceptors, eight of them, come baring down his right wing’s axis, lighting that flank up with every connecting shot of plasma to Jortash-Tuhlur hybridized defense field.
“Alex looks like he’s going to dock with the Pukta, what happened to him?”
“Don’t know, why don’t you go find out! BUSY!” Another hit slams his left shoulder against the cockpit, forcing a pained grunt out of him. He pivots about and fires another pair of gold lancer beams, destroying another pair of Interceptors. He hadn’t seen Sameer in a while, but he’s still listed on the sensors. Sensors. The bottom of the HUD had been flashing something, but he hadn’t been paying any attention, not until now. The heat build-up.
An explosion from below knocks his fighter’s tail upward and over, his video feed showing his attacker for a circling second. A glimpse of active gun-muzzles prepares him for the stream of fire being unloaded on the canopy shields. Down to 35%, 30%; he rights the craft about and retaliates with the last anti-shield missile in inventory and a pair of Plasma-Burns. Gary turns the Fighter about and doesn’t wait to see if the Interceptor’s been nixed or not. The heat build-up. In the swarm of the Omegas, he’d forgotten about it. “Goddamnit, Alex was on that!” He flies along the length of the Carthage, setting missile lock of his final missile, an LF, on the source of the emission. The base plate, probably connecting the conducting antennae to probably a heaviest-duty capacitor, is the target.
A flight of Interceptors follows him, raining his path plasma beams and charges, waving trails of orange shot crossing his nose with every weave and bob he puts the Fighter into. He can deal with finding out what sewer-hole looking openings were gun ports and which ones were for exhaust; he can deal with avoiding the active, attacking gun ports. Having to coordinate this with the avoidance of the Zhizhak’s incoming volley was getting to the limits of Gary’s patience. With 300 meters distance between himself and his target, he fires the LF missile and pulls away to realign his craft with the Pukta in order to dock and rearm, but gets caught in the Interceptors’ line of fire. Their hits set him off course and drain away his upper shield plate. A solid beam cleaves against the armored slats protecting the canopy. Looking up, he sees a searing red scar on a slat’s inside. Wild and unbelieving, a grin crosses his face.
But not before his eyes see the LF missile explode against what had to be an independent, close-circuited shield system guarding the conductance antennae. His eye twitches and his hands grasp his triggers. The golden beams again shudder the frame of SoulFighter-03 and stab deeply into the shields. SoulFighter-03 blares an alarm into his headset: primary weapons are overheating. His target’s defenses still do not yield. A Carthaginian gun port opens up beneath him and fires a concussive blast clear into his belly, shoving 03’s tail into a flip and sending its weapons’ fire to knife a path along the capital ship’s hull.
“Warning: Target vessel is in the process of firing its main cannon. Estimated strength relative to Tischtk-class Jortasha destroyer main gun is 6.34 times greater. Warning: SoulFighter shielding system compromised. Advise evacuation of volatile zone until recharge is complete.”
Gary screams and pulls the triggers again, chokes them, shakes them with his entire body, and the Fighter responds to his emotions: it shunts power from all systems to the primary weapons, stores it, the lights of the cockpit dimming to nothing. All alarms quiet down. One blast fires from SoulFighter-03, a column of energy, unfocused and raw, maroon and gold chaotically twisted together.
This final attack consumes the nose of the Fighter and stampedes like a rabid horde toward the Carthage.
A similar discharge, fifty-fold greater in girth, tears through space to incinerate all within or near its path, its target the Jortasha battle group.
SoulFighter-II Epsilon flight, which had been attacking the Berlin from its side closest to the Carthage, was immediately downed having tried to lure interceptors further from Berlin to allow room for the torpedo-boats. Temperature control couldn’t compensate for the sudden heat exchange created by the attack.
Though swift, the Hammer couldn’t entirely escape the reach of the Carthaginian last offensive, due to its pinned position between Pukta and Zhizhak. Starboard wing is destroyed, main cannon inoperable. Zhizhak’s bare stern and bow are mottled, orbs of now quickly solidifying metal floating about them. The ninety percent of the destroyer caught in the blast is vaporized.
On all channels the Hammer’s captain yells, “All pilots, repeat all pilots, disengage from targets and return immediately to base! SoulFighters equipped with jump drives, head straight for Earth! Others ride the Pukta’s wake or hurry the hell up and dock with the Hammer! Be warned, we’re not gonna wait around to get hit by another one of those!”
In the chaos of fleeing, Sameer doesn’t notice the chain reaction of explosions occurring at Gary’s targeted point, nor does it really matter to him that he notice: 03 is unresponsive to any hails, and with time ticking and three Omegas on his tail, he’s going to grab Gary and get the hell out.
Earth. As Karen’s nose slips through the gate to re-enter regular space, she’s greeted by a sight unseen when she left; the entire host of the UCGE’s Air-Space Defense Force is in orbit and positioned at their return points. Earth itself is covered in a gray haze: the shield-nullifiers. Two orbital platforms and an uncountable number of allied green blips appear on her sensors, each a defense satellite. Behind her a few small gates open to bring the beaten and bloodied members of Beta flight through. Then a larger one. The Pukta barrels through with its rear guns still firing into the hole; the ship is much more worse off than when she last saw it. Its formerly-gleaming hull is beyond battered; the parts of it still intact are charred, though its outer armor layers are blasted through. Its command deck, the cowed predator’s fin on top, is destroyed. Unfortunately, the Designate’s translator can still be heard, “Human fighters, the enemy will arrive in three seconds. Ready yourselves.”
Then the Hammer pulls through. Its forward sections had been scarred, three craters rent through the hull. Alpha SoulFighters 01, 03, and 04 reappear on her sensors – conditions unknown.
As do a number of reds. The Berlin has reappeared, phasing in from nothingness behind the Hammer, its guns already firing on the cripple UCGE ship. A signal comes in from another Alpha Fighter: “Karen! They’re releasing dropships, Earthbound! Take them out!”
It was Sameer. Targeting data is relayed to her computer on who to strike. Locking in target type, she lets the computer track and tail. At the same time she boosts her rear shields, no sooner than the Berlin starts raining fire in her direction. UCGE Shinsengumi defense satellites of the African continental grid power up and fire ion beams in her direction, at the Berlin behind. Clouds of guided-rockets follow, each clumsily avoiding her, her sensors showing thousands of them being released in the first wave.
“Warning: UCGE bases on the African and European continents are now firing Anti-Orbital Ballistic Missile batteries and the Columnar Cannon Defense System. Caution suggested.”
There was no lying there. A clustered group of twenty Atlantis-V high-ballistics pass overhead, each armed with the impact power of a nuclear warhead. Shaking her head, she shifts her foot down and pulls her Fighter up to speed, 1000 m/s to catch up with the dropships. An in-HUD video window shows a close-up of her targets, of SEF-2 flights being picked off by the dropships’ escorts. The dropships themselves are gunning a hole through the Shinsengumi defense net, the thickened-rusting armor absolutely unfazed by their human-made ion weaponry.
“Warning: Targets have reached the edge of orbital anti-shield net’s maximum efficiency. Enemy shield systems re-engaging.”
A shockwave from far behind adds to her thrust; an Atlantis-V had been detonated before reaching the Berlin. The dropships are almost within attack range; herself in theirs, realized as three energy shells erupt on her front shielding. Damage is minimal, just needs to have some power from the flanks redirected to the forward. Three of the Omega escorts leave their formation to turn and meet her head on. Just as they do a flight of Nex-Gen fighters sweep across her nose, dropping missiles and laser fire in their passage, effectively taking the escorts attention away. Targeting systems are locked on the uppermost of the three vertical exhaust points for the rear dropship’s engines. “If it’s damned shield generators weren’t so strong, that junkyard rust heap would fall apart after a good shot..”
She triggers a short volley of singularity charges and follows with an AS missile, delay three seconds and a Plasma Burn. And her target’s shields hold, which stuns her given the strong impact of the Plasma Burn. She fires two more AS missiles and scans for integrity. One of the front escorts breaks off to engage her.
“Computer, link up with estimated best Shinsengumi satellites and coordinate offense on incoming Omega designate Scrap.”
“Link up established. Redirecting local Shinsengumi weapon systems.”
She targets the escort and covers its incoming path with a shower of charges. Like a puddle in a torrential storm, disruption waves pound and ripple across its shields from her offensive; from seven different points, the familiar bright red ion beams close in and nail the Omega. Sensors showing its defenses dropping quickly, she fires another AS missile, effectively destroying its shields, then a Plasma Burn missile for the kill.
Undistracted now, she returns to the dropship. The frame of her Fighter takes a violent depreciation in velocity as it comes in contact with the outer layers of the Earth’s gases. Streaks of flame lick and stride across her canopy, forcing a hiss of gas as the Fighter’s cooling system activates.
The dropship, rattling in its path through the atmosphere, starts to undergo a change; she can see the sides of its heavily-tiled hull growing wider.
No, not wider. The hull is opening up.
She empties her Anti-Shield missiles. Sensors show that they have finally dropped. The last missile crashes harmlessly against the hull. Plasma Burns, now. Four of them empty from their tubes and fly. The dropship’s sides have stopped, and something ejects; she can’t see it, but the SoulFighter’s HUD indicates that a new target has entered zone. A fireball bursts from the dropship, pitching its nose forward and down to throw the whole craft into an uncontrolled somersault. Fire and smoke peel from it, pieces of its armored exterior flaking away and showering her line of sight, preventing her from seeing what it is the thing had launched.
“Computer identify new object on scanners!”
“Current Jortasha data details new target as Junikof planetary bombardment torpedo. Projected trajectory of Junikof torpedo will leave impact at UCGE North America headquarters.”
As soon as her mind was able to process what that meant, the SoulFighter’s insides turned to a violent display of colors, a flowing back-and-forth across the visible spectrum. Her mind is in a scatter; secondaries are spent, she can’t see it, it’s a torpedo aimed at the base, she can’t feel her hands, are they on the triggers?
“Warning: Columnar Cannon attack vectors are within this unit’s flight path.”
Fingers on the triggers, she starts to fire. The SoulFighter’s nose dips a few degrees. Huge mistake. The atmosphere catches the shift in her aerodynamics, grabs the nose and flings it downward just as a CCD ion blast catches her port wing, putting SoulFighter-02 into an uncontained somersault to accompany its previous prey.
Which is when Alex’s voice strangles its way through the speaker of her headset: “Ka—n, respond! This is S—-ighter zero o–. –gage reverse thrus-ers and —er already!”
And a mirror-framed savior, sleek as an angel, wings bright and embracing, appears over her, holding itself in grace and elegance belying the tense precision that its pilot exerts. If he were to let go of either of his flight controls, he could spiral and obliterate; all other actions of SoulFighter-01 are relegated to voice command and the computer’s calculations.
“Computer, activate both tether guns and fire at SoulFighter-02 when best operative attachment is possible, then engage all reverse thrusters to slow descent, refine movements to keep Fighter in a landing trajectory.”
His right eye twitched. It was all up to the computer now. Alex watches SoulFighter-02 roll continuously with a tilting, clockwise arc. Its main body reflects sunlight in strobe-like flashes.
Fisht-fisht. Two spear-heads rocket from SoulFighter-01’s belly and connect with Karen’s fighter, precisely along the central line between the two dorsal gun banks. Her spin eats away the spare cable, pulls the lines taut, and yanks at Alex’s craft. Winches within the Fighter spend the appropriate power between cables to resist her spin. Line impact feels greater than it should: the computer activates the nose’s reverse thrusters and the anti-gravity generators beneath the cockpit, pulling the craft’s forward parts against the tug of Karen’s fall. SoulFighter-01 flares harder on its thrusters, power from shields and weapons being removed to all engine components, pulling itself perpendicular to her descent vector.
“Alex, let go of me and hit the torpedo!”
Blue flames erupt harder from all belly thrusters of 01, more power being driven through the port burners, both craft slowing down and dodging a ruby colored blast from one member of the Columnar Cannon Defense. From an appropriate camera feed, Alex can see exactly what she’s talking about: a fifty-foot cylinder is falling fast toward Earth. Energy readings from it indicate that it too is shielded. His eyes catch something else:
SoulFighter-04 races past the two others of Alpha flight, absolutely unconcerned with their doings.
His weapon systems are nearly burned out. Everything was going wrong. He had to find out the hard way that the shield-killers had a graded potency range, not absolute. And now this. No one destroys the Base.
But just as he gets the torpedo in sight and fires a whining burst of interrupted energy beams, he notices small, translucent eruptions ahead but with nothing for them to have erupted on. Yet there’s no enemy fire, only raining debris.
An explosion. An enormous explosion rattles Sameer’s teeth, his hands, feeding the controls a jerky back-and-forth that is responded to faithfully. The shockwave catches him at the right angle and slaps his Fighter back into the stratosphere. Gold-wash appears at a range of 250 meters. The SoulFighter’s computer immediately recognizes what the energy signature is and automatically engages an emergency all reverse like its brother 01. Through a video feed Sameer watches tidal waves of gold spread across an oblong sphere, shaping out its surface and size.
Sameer depresses power from rear belly thrusters to the nose, pivots the Fighter about and guns for an exit from the highest points of Earth’s sky, screaming into his mic for Karen and Alex to turn and get the hell out. At full-speed, afterburners engaged, it doesn’t take long for the three of Alpha flight to flee the fading traces of Earth’s outer spheres. Shinsengumi satellites were firing specks of barely visible beams at swarms of Omega fighters; another vessel was appearing through a gate – a gleaming shark, of the build and size of four Puktas lined bow to stern, with two sets of the death-petals. It is both magnificent and terrifying, a hope and a doom to the Human warriors: the Jortashan’s last word on the matter.
It is greeted by two more Omega capital ships that have seamlessly warped their way in, both identical to the Berlin as the Berlin’s mates were. Both of these new combatants fire all mid-deck anti-capital class cannonry at the newly arrived Jortashsa dreadnought. Scores of Sentries, Omega fighters, and UCGE Naval pilots are incinerated directly or indirectly by the combined offensive; the dreadnought’s glassy forward shields absorb what they can’t deflect away.
As a hundred plus of UECG and allied fighters disappear from sensors that Sameer’s ship, the one he detected, reveals itself to the playing field.
Set between the Jortasha dreadnought and the two new Omega warships, with the Berlin set at a tangential point perpendicular to the line of spacecraft, thrones a golden-hulled mammoth. Intricately curved lines and throbbing lights adorn its inner body, as though the Aztec artisans of old fashioned a space mothership.
None in Alpha could understand its size. It was shorter in length than the Jortashan vessel, but far more massive. A divine impressiveness. Three connected outer hulls surrounded the jeweled main body; they’re smooth, polished, unblemished and beautiful.
A voice – a human voice – a familiar voice, resounds over the radio. All radios. Pipes into a translated feed to the Designate on board the Pukta, translated to the arrived Viceroy aboard the dreadnought, and even to the Omegas.
Alex looks to his holoHUD, the scrolling images of various allied forces having come to a stop. The picture panel goes black, then white, black again. Then a face appears. Sheet-white, a red tattoo, like a claw, over the right eye. Black hair slicked back to reveal a widow’s peak. Eyes.. glowing, lit by their own source, trails of pluming amber emanate. Velvet red cloth peaks over armored shoulders.
“Citizens of Earth, Jortashan overseers, Tholik-Etorn Alliance commanders. I represent the Tuluhrai Command. Rank, Seventh Huroon, name, Vedin Torunthane. I have been granted authority to keep a thousand year promise, and to uphold the previous interdiction of Tuluhr into the matters of Humans, my people. While I understand and appreciate this conflict, I cannot allow you to involve my home planet. Viceroy, our Great Empress regrets this intrusion and apparent defiance of our treaty with your dominion. Though I see mostly Etorn here, I demand that all Tholik-Etorn Alliance commanders relay this message to the Tholikian High Leader Shetun Churat: I remember when we fought together those fourteen years ago. You understood my position on Earth’s independence then, you should understand now. In plotting the assault on Earth, you had to know well that I would resist any designs to endanger the planet. Unfortunately, the news of its enslavement came only recently, or else I would have prevented this whole scenario years ago. Though I do thank you for attempting to keep the conflict away from my home.”
Alex watches as Vedin, the man who swiped the original Guardian from the UCGE North American headquarters, turns his head to speak to an unknown figure. He looks so different now. Is it a Tuluhrian? A faint memory of a tall-legged warrior spearing a Pacifier Jortasha mecha echoes in his mind. Vedin returns his gaze to the camera.
A fleet of twenty destroyers, cruisers, and frigates decloak and surround the original half dozen ships. All of them of the same stern construction as Vedin’s vessel, and, bold in their own right, hardly a sight in design or mass compared to their lord craft.
“You can see that the resources are here at hand to force the position. I need not remind either side of Tuluhrai naval superiority. Earth’s independence is renewed. Any non-Human craft that takes any aggressive movements will be destroyed. The conflict between Jortasha and the Allied forces will remove itself from this solar system immediately. Collect all personnel and equipment and vacate this system. Progress is being monitored. Il Huroon, out.”
The members of Alpha flight pull into a line formation and headed toward the closest orbital platform, the Athens Space Station. SoulDrives quiet to minimal operative power in reflex to their pilots meek shock. The Pukta continues leaking fumes into space while its remaining Sentries and Guardians reassemble in tight rows twenty across and twenty deep. Alex, Karen, and Sameer, despite sitting in cockpits crafted partially by the Tuluhrai, can hardly believe the circumstances. Vedin returned. The old god returned, bearing freedom.
Karen weeps, as does Alex. Sameer’s stomach pains him, he feels ready to throw up. His voice trembles in and out of silence, “Computer.. can.. can you find.. for.. me.. the, um, status of.. SoulFighter-03.. Alpha flight?”
“SoulFighter-03 is on board Torun’s Hammer.”
“How.. how about its pilot?”
“Lieutenant Gary Grayson is awaiting clearance to board Orbital Platform Sparta for medical attention. All extra-planetary travel is suspended until further notice.”
Alex flips down his flight helmet’s visor and stares with tearing, unblinking eyes at the Athens, built of the same blocky, old-style navy gray metal as the Avatar. It looks so endearingly primitive; an over-wide aircraft carrier in space. Its tower control informs him that Alpha flight is not yet allowed to dock. The flashing red lights set at the four corners of its third hangar bay are inviting; the white painted arrows illuminated with a flood light look ridiculous pointing inward at the doors’ separation point. Its missile turrets appear to have shut down. All around them, the Shinsengumi satellites are disarming. Thousands of twinkling red lights snuffing themselves out, row by row across his home’s surface.
“Yes.. Alex?” Seconds pass by in silence, the auto-navigator of their Fighters putting them in a formation with the Athens, a three ship row holding 100m away from hangar bay one. “Alex?”
“.. think you can still dream?”
She opens her mouth for a moment and closes it, nipping the tip of her tongue. To her right is SoulFighter-01, the once immaculate craft refolding its wings to normal state in halting motions. The canopy looks burned, ash marks, carved trenches and holes marring its whole port flank. Her eyes move then the behemoth, Vedin’s ship, and its accompanying fleet. The sun caressed their hulls lovingly, not glinting off the polished frames in blinding reflections, but washing over the Tuluhrai fleet like a gentle breeze. The ships themselves seemed to be absorbing some of the graceful light, pulling more of an ethereal glow to the patterned inner parts. She smiles to herself, her brows lifting lightly, and her mouth opens again.
“I think I can, Alex. Dreaming won’t be so hard anymore.”
The year 2061. Vedin and his guardian fleet have left after a month’s orbital vigilance since forcing the Jortasha war out of Humanity’s hands. Earth returns to domestic matters. This is when Humanity begins to finally learn of itself, of others, finally free. The SoulFighters remain as the premier hand of the UCGE to police an increasingly chaotic world and to watch the borders of Earth’s space. One year after the possibility of perpetual freedom opened, Humanity seeks and digs to uncover the truths of how its history has been shaped, its place in the galaxy. One year after the aliens’ departures, Humanity confronts the gifts, and nightmares, left behind