Lieutenant Raymond “Iceman” Heermann mumbled some curse words under his breath as he placed his helmet on and sealed it tight. Sean was sure he mentioned something about toy guns while he loaded the rounds into the dispenser intake. Jaime walked over to Heermann and shook her head at him.
“Sir, I know McArthur’s orders supercede mine, but, you don’t have to do this.”
“You damned right I don’t… I don’t like killing eighteen year old girls.”
“It’s just simunitions. I’m worried about her hurting you though. Her file is –,” Jaime was interrupted by Iceman as he patted her shoulder.
“How old am I?” Iceman asked.
“I have no idea.”
“I’ll give you a hint, I’ve re-upped out of boredom. Not more than a full lifetime but I can tell you that it’s enough to have survived more fights, in more wars than this entire crew put together. You say she had forty confirmed in nine battles?”
“I was painting more stamps in six battles at sixteen than there was bulkhead for real-estate. She just gave me operational intel over cake, which is what this will be, sir…”
“You weren’t even at the dinner! You were interrogating Youta!” Jaime shook her head in confusion. At which point, Iceman reached into his flight bag and handed her a rolled up computer-sheet.
“Who do you think gave Andrea the sheet to record the god damned footage of dinner?”
Jaime’s jaw dropped at that moment and her eyes widened while she held Andrea’s data-sheet in her hand; it was still looping the recording. He leaned over and pointed at the paper after climbing the side of his fighter.
“Hey,” Iceman held his hand open. “Throw me what’s rolled up in that thing, would you?” Jaime unrolled the paper and found a few wrapped pieces of Andrea’s gum. “I told her to loan me some, I’ll pay her back later…”
Iceman opened his helmet as the canopy closed. He popped in the gum and reclamped the visor. Meanwhile, Sean flagged him from his left side as a traditional formality from the time when Fighters actually needed to taxi toward a catapult. His ears popped as both the inner canopy and his suit fought for equilibrium. He chewed the gum faster and it helped. Iceman saluted his crew before traveling slowly out of the airlock forcefield to not cause a wake on the generator and eased out away from the ship before kicking in the thrusters. He activated his lidar systems and saw only two blips other than the rings of a nearby gas giant. It was going to be a game of hide and go seek if she went out toward the billions of rocks that comprised that ring; otherwise, there was a clear field of view out in the open between the rings and the two ships. The third blip came into his sensors from the Jackhammer and closed in fast. She was out in the open.
“Expected me in the rocks hm?” Her voice was happy and cheerful.
“What’s your callsign, girl?” Iceman asked while closing the distance with his own thrusters.
It was painful to watch the numbers close so quickly as they advanced. He couldn’t even see her fighter she was so far away. He reached forward when she got close enough for mock missiles and he fired a spread while magnifying his lidar to see her movement on the screen. She would easily evade the missiles but he wanted to see which direction she tended to toward in a fight. Sure enough, she evaded, and it was to his left. Bright flashes of light appeared as she ejected plasma to confuse the missiles.
“Tic,” she responded.
She flew past him too fast for mock plasma guns or projectiles. He pulled back hard but she fired her forward thrusters and released her atmosphere drag chute in front of him while unloading more plasma flares. The chute lit up like a halogen light and he had to look away as the plastic melted around the front of his craft. He closed his eyes tightly and was suddenly jolted to the left in his seat. A searing hot heat threatened to set his flight suit on fire as he yelled in pain. He pushed the stick forward and performed a three g negative thrust to pull away from the cone of her exhaust.
“I heard about your red-out problem… It would be your only way to keep from popping your top — to pop your top! Hehehe…”
Iceman looked up. His eyes were red from the negative G load on his body without enough time to recover from last time. He tested his guns and they still fired simulaid. The screen on his fighter blinked with several malfunctions, however. The ship wasn’t airworthy in an atmosphere anymore, the flight surfaces were ruined on his left side, and he quickly pulled his pistol and fired a hole into his canopy to relieve the interior pressure and avoid a front-load shatter.
While he was doing all this, she rolled her fighter behind his and began firing her glowing simulaid pellets. Iceman was in real pain and she had almost killed him. He wasn’t prepared to use his whole craft as a weapon. The drag chute had burned quickly when it his wings, and her directed thrust into his canopy caused structural integrity issues. It was only his suit that kept him alive now and he was concerned about the burned areas around his shoulder that were now only paper thin and expanded with air pressure. Even his gum was on the inside of his helmet now and he regretted having ever put it in his mouth. This may have been a simulated fight but he never expected her brutal melee.
“If I win, I’m changing your callsign to Bitch…” Iceman said. He rolled away to avoid more shots. His right eye hurt from the electromagnetic radiation burn left by her engine, and the red-out that caused a massive headache.
“Yutomaky, Doctor Riley to Lieutenant Heermann. You’ve suffered second degree burns and a blunt-force traumatic event. We need to terminate the fight.”
“It’s not a fight without pain, doctor. Get off Comm’s.” Iceman growled as he kicked his throttle to full but activated his ventral thrusters. He avoided a hail of simulated ammo all at once and tucked himself in behind the mercenary fighter. It was one of his favorite maneuvers because no pilot is ever ready for it up close. She, however, knew how to counter the move by incrementally pulling herself away from his center of flight and decreasing distance with her own ventral thrusters to tighten the spiral.
Iceman watched as her fighter moved further, and further away from his guns with each subsequent pull. He grunted and gasped as the cintriphical limits of his fighters damaged airframe pulled away from the body of his craft — first the ailerons, then, one of the empty plasma missile racks. He felt creeks riding up his arm as he held onto the stick in vain to get her back into the center of his sights.
“Damn bitch…” Iceman grunted.
“Getting tired?” The girl replied from her fighter.
“Pissed off…” Iceman stated. The canopy began to crack over his head. A blade of transparent metal peeled down toward his face as the high g-load threatened to pull the entire canopy down over his head; no matter how badly he wanted to do the death-spiral with Eulalia, he had to relax the stick. He pulled in toward the Yutomaky while switching to another channel.
“Iceman to Reece… I want Jaime’s fighter on the line. I’m going to do a switch off.”
“That contradicts the rules of the battle. It’s ship on ship,” Sean replied. “Are you okay?”
“Alright… Screw it. This fights getting dirty…”
He flipped back to the other channel while swinging toward the rings of the gas giant to catch up with the quickly fleeting dot that was about to use the massive field of rocks and ice as her personal hiding place. He found himself surrounded by the warm yellow glow of a gas giant. Shadows danced around his cockpit as he searched for anything unnaturally moving amongst the endless field of beautiful chunks around him.
“Took you long enough… We’re fighting for my freedom. Did you think I was going to like, just use the pellets. My future career rides on this. I’m going to win, I’m going to land on that deck, and get my life back…”
She wanted to talk, but Iceman was just using it to judge how strong the signal was, and from what direction. He ran a signal strength analyzer to track the general direction of her transmissions and turned toward. A larger shadow loomed overhead, it was the Barrow; no doubt Weir’s ship was keeping an eye on everything from above the rings and relaying it to both the Yutomaky and the Jackhammer. He remembered Weir transferring aboard the Yutomaky for a better view, so he was aware that it was someone else piloting and commanding the ship for now, which made Iceman feel a little safer.
“Nobody wins against me,” Iceman said.
“Sure they do…”
That last transmission was all he needed. He pulled around a large rock and began firing. What he saw was another large rock in front of him but no fighter. The signal direction changed the moment he heard giggling. She was using her long range antenna to bounce the frequency off a really large rock. Meanwhile, she had left the rings and ran full speed for the Yutomaky and the Jackhammer. Iceman brought his craft to full power. He knew she wouldn’t expect him to catch up with her so quickly.
He fired again and she rolled to the left instead of the right. This wasn’t what Iceman expected, but he knew to keep his distance this time so that she wouldn’t pull him back into the spiral maneuver again. He needed to overtake her fast in order to execute his plans.
“Where are you going?” He fired some more shots as the Yutomaky got larger and larger in front of him. He brought his craft to full again and pushed the throttle further into Military Max. He overshot her and put himself directly in front of her guns. He hoped that he would have time to pull it off before she pulled the trigger as he knelt down and tapped the computer activation on his Multi Function Display.
The canopy of his fighter ejected. He heard a quick scream over the radios followed by the telltale thud of a hunk of transparent armor hitting her craft. He turned in his seat to see that he had taken off the aerial vertical stabilizer and missed her by mere inches. The next thing he saw was a barrage of glowing pellets. He pulled out of the way just in time for the pellets to miss him and ricochet off the hull of the Yutomaky.
“You tried to kill me you jerk!”
“All out works both ways!” Iceman yelled in his helmet. It felt odd for him to fly through space in a convertible but as long as he wasn’t flying through an asteroid field or back into that field of rocks that made up the local gas giant they had flown out for, he knew he would be okay. He pulled back hard as she sent another barrage toward him. The computer warning systems were rerouted to his helmet after the initial fight.
“It’s okay to try and roast me alive but I can’t try and hit you with seventeen pounds of solid metal?”
“Okay, so… We’re even…” The girl, sounding a bit winded, continued. “I’m still behind you though thanks to that move.”
“I got to hand it to you,” Iceman said as he went inverted relative to the Yutomaky and pulled his fighter alongside its hull at high G. “I’ve never had an opponent like you.”
He pushed his breaking thrusters in and she flew right over his head. He fired a volley toward her but she took a hard right. She released an a hydrogen fuel cell on the pass after lining up with the Yutomaky’s right vertical stabilizer as she pulled down toward the cargo bay. The stabilizer lit up momentarily as the tail of the Yutomaky’s only damage was the giant scorch mark but it once again blinded him. Iceman avoided hitting the stabilizer head on by only a few feet.
Iceman admired her skill of using the environment to combat her enemies. He pulled around to the underside of the Yutomaky just as he watched the EM Shielding tremble with recent wake.
Oh no you didn’t… Iceman thought as he flew forward. Just as he entered the cargo bay, he saw another ripple in the shuttle bay’s EM Shield. He followed her through but realized that she doubled back and got behind him just as he was leaving. She fired her entire load of simulaid ammo at the EM Shield just as Iceman made contact. The ripple was significant enough to impact his fighter so harshly that he was torn from the cockpit and the rest of his fighter cracked from the right to the left.
Everyone watching from the shuttle bay ducked for cover as Eulalia flattened her craft out and sunk straight into the EM Field at too high a speed. She ejected into the bay. The computer calculated the force needed to cancel the lateral movement toward the shields and she blacked out just before bouncing off the deck. Showers of debris rained down on everyone just as the SAR craft activated.
On the flight deck of the Yutomaky, personnel rushed to put out fires as the SAR craft returned with Iceman onboard. Weir helped Eulalia up while Jessica attended to her wounds. As the SAR craft landed, Iceman limped out while holding his arm. His face was red and he pulled his sidearm.
“Oh shit…” Weir said.
Jaime, held Iceman back while Eulalia giggled at him.
“Contract deal… Remember? No collateral mattered as discussed.”
“It was a tie!” Iceman said. “You don’t draw a CAT on Tic Tac Toe and declare yourself a winner.” He pulled himself away from Jaime and dropped his half melted helmet to the ground.
“I don’t think this ship can handle a rematch!” Weir yelled at Iceman. “Look around!” Weir stated. “You are two of our most skilled pilots… In fact, two of THE most skilled pilots I’ve ever seen. And that was by far the most amazing skill I’ve ever seen from two people in space…” Weir wiped some of the white android blood from his face and walked to the center of the bay. “You did this shit with unarmed fighters… I can’t even pull that off.”
“It’s going to take me a week to get all this squared away,” Sean said as he sat down with a Morley attending to a cut above his right eye.
Claxons were wailing, the crackling of smoldering deck fires and the smell of burnt fuel permeated the air. He sighed and pointed toward the SAR craft. “Come on… Nobody won this match… But you can’t be here.”
Eulalia woke up a day later onboard the Barrow. She had an IV tube in her arm and one of Jessica’s crewmen were attending to her in the medical bay. She was sore all over and could barely walk. As she pulled the tube out of her vein, she let a nurse place a bandaid on her arm while she read a plastic sheet on her bed that turned black when she put her hands on it.
You didn’t win, you didn’t lose…
The duel would still be in effect but we cannot trust you with a fighter anymore due to the damage you caused. Next offer:
An honorable discharge in exchange for exile. You leave with the Yutomaky but you don’t come back. You cannot be allowed to go home; not with equal skills as Raymond Heermann… The alternative is now more severe than a transfer to the nearest starbase. You were underestimated. It’s not always good to be the best.
When we return to come home, and the war is no over, you’ll still face that inevitability.
- Never go into a fighter bay or a shuttle bay without a reason — Ever.
- Your books are limited to fiction. No studying.
- No Guns.
- No communications.
- No Fighting
- No demands
Failure to adhere to any of these rules is death.
She didn’t know who wrote this but it seemed as if the rules were already in effect. She slouched down on the bed and began to cry. She knew these rules didn’t come from McArthur and she wondered what his take on her actions would or will be. She was cocky enough to arrange an agreement about the potential of physical damage but part of her wondered if he would make another exception. Even she didn’t realize how much damage her actions actually caused until the damage was done. She felt like she rear-ended someone’s hovercraft back home and now had to wait on insurance adjustments. Only, here was no insurance out here in space.
There was the familiar, loud thud of a shuttle with an impatient pilot landing in the Barrow’s hangar. No doubt McArthur come to congratulate her and eat crow, she thought to herself with a satisfied smile. Her smile faded when she heard Commander Weir shouting with some other man she hadn’t been introduced before, and faded further at the sound of heavy boots outside her door. Then silence.
The door opened. There was a marine in ship-gray BDUs with patches that weren’t from the Yutomaky, and colonel’s silver eagle on his collar. With him, from what little she could see through the tight doorway, was probably an entire squad of marine special forces soldiers. She just knew this wasn’t a welcoming committee, and she felt betrayed.
“I had a deal with McArthur!” she shouted.
“My orders supercede any deals,” he said coldly. “Up on your feet, let’s go.”
“Let me get dressed first,” she said. “Give a woman some dignity.”
He stepped back and two marines in full combat armor picked her up by her arms and yanked her out of the bed. Her kicks and punches and attempts to break free were met only with raw power behind cold alloy metal, and after a few minutes of making a mess of the room she was hogtied in restraints and carried off like an animal, screaming all the way to the hangar. Weir followed closely behind, feeling equally betrayed and running through ideas.
“This is bullshit,” he said as they dumped her on the seat rack in their assault transport.
“I’ll make a note of your opinion in the after-action,” the colonel said dismissively. He stood at the top of the ramp gripping an overhead handhold. “Carry on.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Weir said as the ramp closed. He picked up an empty box and threw it at the transport as it lifted off. He yelled at the shrinking ship.
“Wes,” he said into his wrist comm. “What the fuck? You said if she won she could go.”
There was a bit of silence. “I told all of you at dinner exactly what would happen,” he said. “I gave her a chance to pack her things, steal a shuttle, and make a run for it, or at the very least die doing what she loves. I can’t help it if nobody can read between the lines. Station 77 ETA is 17 hours, then we’re on our own.”
Weir gave another yell and kicked the wall hard enough to knock off a service panel.
Station 77 was a sprawling skeleton of open dry docks in far orbit of a dying star. The central part of the station was a fat disk set atop a tall cylindrical station core, with mission pods added to it over its lifetime. Spread all around it and arranged neatly in rows and columns on a single plane were hundreds of derelict warships of the United Spaceforce, the allied military arm of Sol system and its many colonies. From a distance it looked like a planetary ring system.
The three heavy cruisers their convoy was to refuel were already waiting in dry docks with docking arms and fueling lines attached. For the convoy it was a matter of slipping into adjacent docks and offloading their anti-matter. The station crew wasted no time in getting it done.
The Barrow was a write-off as far as its original owners, Farlight Expeditions, was concerned. All of the damage was covered under their insurance policy. Farlight made arrangements to sell the Barrow to Advanced Tactical Freight at wholesale scrap value. With a new war offering profitable opportunities, ATF would likely convert the Barrow into a convoy escort like the Jackhammer. For Weir, the Barrow was already the past. He was more than happy to walk off the ship and go back aboard the Yutomaky. The sour ending of Eulalia made him wish for being a test-pilot again, where the worst he saw of anyone was a fight in the barracks over a prank too far.
McArthur sent a crew-wide notice that there was to be a mandatory meeting on the flight deck at 0900. Weir heard rumors spreading that the mission was being cancelled and they were being recalled to join the war. Some of the officers came to him directly to ask what the meeting was about. He didn’t know what to say, so he told them “I don’t know what the captain’s up to, but I know he’s not going back.”
The crew was all present when McArthur stomped onto the deck and climbed onto the wing of a fighter so everyone could see him. All the senior officers were in the front row of the group. A lot of the crew was out of uniform or dirty from their shift work.
McArthur held his hands behind his back and cleared his throat. “You all know that Olympia and its allies have formed the Federation of Colonies and declared war on the United Sol government. That means the United Spaceforce, that means Ops Fleet, that means us.
“What you don’t know, and is still classified, but it’s only a matter of time before someone in the signals and communications department opens their fat mouth and lets the cat out of the bag…”
There was a wave of tension in the crew, expecting revelation of a recall order.
“The Earth SAAD array is down. Not just the Yutomaky’s, everyone of them. The fleet has been completely unable to contact anyone in Sol since fifteen minutes before the declaration of war. Those that don’t know, the Earth SAAD arrays are in a bunker a mile under the Alps with the highest level of security. Without them, the entire fleet is back to FTL burst comms and relay stations. Those stations have also come under attack. Task Force 17 is en-route to Earth with a communications ship to find out what happened and restore the network.”
There were now murmurs and whispers among the crew. Weir didn’t pay much attention, as he was dwelling on seeing Eulalia carried off like a sack of mail.
“The Yutomaky’s orders stand. Only two people in the entire fleet have the authority to change our orders. Among our orders are to prevent this ship falling into enemy hands at all costs. The best way to accomplish this is to continue outbound to uninhabited and unexplored space. However…”
The captain let a dramatic pause hang.
“I know some of you have family in Sol. Most of you are veterans of the last war. A lot of you I’m assuming are patriots. This will be the last spaceforce facility we will see. If any of you want to go home, or transfer to another ship to join the war this is your chance.”
Another silence. Weir hadn’t planned or intended to say anything. It just came out. “Fuck Earth!” he said and stormed off the flight deck. Iceman walked off the flight deck as well without saying anything. A few other crew filed off.
“The cruiser squadron is leaving to join the fleet in 48 hours. The Yutomaky will be leaving for parts unknown in 48 hours. You all have 48 hours shore-leave. That’s an order. Think about your future. You have 48 hours to tell me if you are staying or leaving. That’s all. Dismissed.”
McArthur jumped off the wing of the fighter and left the flight deck. The crew started to disburse or gather into groups and talk.