Birds of Prey: Chapter 1

Artwork by Oouna:


The alarm blared, the sound of boots hammering on the deck joining the siren as the hangar bay was filled with a rush of activity. The running figures and idle spacecraft were illuminated by flashing, orange warning lighting, instructions coming through on loudspeakers and radios as the personnel hurried to their positions.

Jaeger was already wearing his helmet, double-checking the seals on his flight suit as he made his way towards his plane, listening to the chatter in his ear.

“…heat signatures in the Oort cloud, nothing showing up on radar, but there’s a lot of interference from small bodies and debris…”

Just like with every long-range patrol, or ‘Bug hunts‘ as they were colloquially known, the UNN Rorke had been drifting along the edge of Coalition space and scanning for Betelgeusian activity for weeks now with no contacts. Jaeger was itching to get back into the cockpit, to stretch his wings in the black void of space. Being cooped up inside the jump carrier was nearly enough to drive him crazy.

His chest swelled with excitement as he arrived beside his ship, its angular, black chassis making it look like it had been chiseled from a block of solid onyx. The airframe was designed for the lowest possible radar cross-section, the swept wings, dual tail fins and the pointed nose betraying the vessel’s atmospheric flight capabilities. It was an FS-26 Beewolf spaceplane, a short-range fighter that could operate both in deep space and in the atmosphere of a planet when necessary. Looking closely, one could make out the innumerable nozzles and thrusters that were spaced out all along the hull, used to orient it in a vacuum where its aerodynamic design counted for naught.

He stepped out of the way as a Krell lumbered past him, the gigantic reptile carrying a missile in its muscular arms as if the nine foot, two hundred pound projectile weighed no more than a pool noodle. The alien looked to be about fifteen feet from nose to tail, eight feet tall due to its hunched, bipedal posture. Its back was covered in scales and armored scutes like a crocodile, spinach green in color, and it was wearing a yellow poncho that identified it as a member of the engineering crew.

Artwork by Rube:

Jaeger watched the alien as it leaned under the craft’s delta wing and began to affix the missile to a vacant hardpoint. When it was done, it stepped out from beneath the plane, its long tail dragging along the deck.

“We good to go, buddy?” Jaeger asked. The Krell turned its alligator-like snout in his direction, then curled its many-fingered hand into a fist, giving him a thumbs-up. The Krell lacked the vocal apparatus to reproduce human speech, but they understood the language well enough. They were just one of the many alien races that served alongside humanity in the multi-species Coalition.

Even as he climbed up to the cockpit, Jaeger could hear the other pilots spooling up their engines and running thruster diagnostics. The deck crew moved off as the vessels prepared to launch, Jaeger sliding into his seat and hitting the button that would close the transparent canopy. The cockpit was high on the nose of the craft, which provided excellent visibility, and he watched the yellow-clad figures retreat to safety as his suit jacked into the plane’s internal systems.

The full-faced visor on his helmet slid down, sealing over his head with a hiss, the heads-up display overlaying his field of view with ghostly green graphics and information as it flickered to life. External cameras mounted all around the vessel streamed a video feed to his helmet, the latency low enough that it allowed him to see through the chassis in real time, giving him an unobstructed view in every direction. If an enemy craft were below, or even directly behind him, this system would allow him to view it as if he was looking through glass.

The helmet was designed both to feed him system information and targeting data, as well as to protect him from the certain death of decompression if his vessel should lose pressure. He felt cool air across his face as the oxygen supply turned on, his flight suit shifting like it was a living thing, flexing and tightening around his limbs. It could contract to restrict blood flow to his extremities during the extreme-G maneuvers that space combat often required, preventing him from blacking out, at least to a point.

As soon as his gloved hands found the joystick, he felt like he was home, hitting switches on the control panel and booting up the various systems. The vessel seemed to wake up, its thrusters swiveling and shooting puffs of gas as the flight computer ran diagnostics, the rudders and ailerons tilting. The main engine of the craft stretched like a limb, the vectoring nozzle expanding and contracting, Jaeger feeling a rumble beneath his feet as it spooled up. The data readout on his HUD showed that all systems were green, weapons operational, propulsion gas canisters and chemical fuel tanks full.

Before him was the hangar’s shimmering force field, a flimsy energy barrier that would keep the atmosphere in, while allowing solid objects to pass. Beyond it was the velvet blackness of space, dotted with twinkling stars, the void calling to him. He listened intently to his radio as he secured his straps, waiting for the order to launch. They had been on standby for so long that he felt like he might explode if he didn’t get out there in the next couple of minutes.

“Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, feeding coordinates to your flight computers. Your orders are to follow the patrol route and investigate the anomalous heat signatures.”

That was Jaeger’s plane, and ‘Scorch‘ had been assigned as his wingman, excellent. The callsigns that the pilots used might sound aggrandizing to the uninitiated, but they were more often than not assigned as a reference to some monumental fuckup or as a squadron in-joke. Richard ‘Scorch‘ Baker had earned his callsign when he had failed to retract his radiators during reentry while training at the academy, causing them to melt and overheat his engines. Fortunately, he had been able to glide to safety. Jaeger’s callsign was ‘Bullseye‘, a reference to him accidentally firing an extremely expensive missile into deep space during a combat exercise.

He looked around, noticing that two other fighters were starting to taxi into position as well, waiting for their turn to launch. They must have been ordered to patrol along a slightly different route to cover more ground. It looked like Boomer and Scratcher. Boomer hadn’t figured out that breaking the sound barrier while doing a low flyby over a populated area was a bad idea, and Scratcher had been caught sharing a bed with a Borealan recruit within his first week on the job.

Jaeger lined up his plane ready for takeoff, using his helmet to look through the floor of his cockpit to make sure that he was properly aligned with the markings on the deck as Scorch taxied up beside him. He looked over his shoulder, watching as a metal panel rose from the deck of the hangar on a pneumatic piston, the angled square of blackened metal designed to deflect and absorb the heat from the engine during takeoff so that it didn’t cook the vessels directly behind it. As large as the hangar was, there were still dozens of fighters and dropships crammed into the space.

Unlike in the atmosphere of a planet, there was no need to gain a great deal of speed in order to generate lift. One needed only to escape the artificial gravity field of the carrier and then they were in open space, where only short bursts from the engines and thrusters were necessary to maneuver. Extended burns were usually a very bad idea, because the more momentum that was generated, the more thrust would have to be applied in the opposite direction to slow down again. Space flight had almost nothing in common with atmospheric flight, there was no banking to turn, there was no danger of stalling. The aircraft could move in any direction, and at any speed in a three-dimensional space, the only limiting factor being fuel consumption and the G-forces applied to the pilot.

Some argued that fighters flown remotely would be better suited to the task, able to execute maneuvers that would turn an organic occupant to jelly. But due to the massive distances involved where space combat was concerned, the only way to ensure a low enough latency connection for that to be viable was by laser transmission, which could be obstructed by objects and hazards. You couldn’t send a laser signal to a vessel that was on the other side of a planet, for example, not without satellites already in place to bounce the beam. Automated drones were a possibility, but so far the only species that had developed advanced enough computing technology to achieve that were the Brokers, and they weren’t too keen on sharing it. At least for the foreseeable future, Jaeger wouldn’t be out of a job.

The indicator on his HUD turned from red to green, signifying that he was clear to launch. Wasting no time, he gave the throttle a short squeeze, orange flames splashing against the panel behind him as the acceleration pinned him to his seat. In a flash, the brightly lit interior of the bay was replaced with the darkness of space, only the relatively thin barrier of his canopy protecting him from the freezing cold and the deadly radiation. Space looked so serene and pristine, but it was actually swarming with charged particles that would turn his chromosomes into Swiss cheese, along with dust and debris that could hit with the force of a bullet. The spacecraft were made of stern stuff, but every spacefarer feared the day that the cruel hand of fate might send an errant micrometeorite hurtling towards his head.

He rotated the fighter on its axis and retracted his landing gear, angling the nose towards the vast field of ice and rock in the distance. To his right, he could see the jump carrier and its trailing support vessels, torpedo boats and CIWS frigates floating along in a lazy formation like a pod of dolphins surfing the bow wave of a ship. Only the largest vessels in the Navy were big enough to house the nuclear reactors that were needed to power the jump drives, the smaller vessels had to be towed in their slipstream. The carrier was already dwindling to the size of a toy, the ocean-grey hull shaped vaguely like a giant snub-nosed bullet, with recesses along its length for docking dropships and other craft when the hangars were full. Its belly and flanks bristled with weaponry. There were lines of closed hatches that housed torpedo bays, long railguns on flexible arms, and point defense turrets jutting from its bulbous hull. A carrier could both defend itself and deal an incredible amount of damage to anything that was unwise enough to get into range.

Artwork by Rube:

A burst of flame drew his eye, and he made out Scorch leaving the hangar, using the telescope function on his visor to zoom in on the fighter as it drifted towards him. He heard crackling static in his earpiece, and then mission control came through.

“We’ve got some weird heat signatures showing up on the thermal scans, could be recent collisions between large bodies, but it’s not likely. Radar won’t be of much use out there, there’s a lot of shit floating around, so keep your eyes peeled. Remember, don’t engage unless necessary, this is a recon mission.”

“Copy that, mission control,” he replied. “We’ll just do a little sight-seeing.”

Scorch moved into formation, the black fighter barely visible against the backdrop of space, but Jaeger’s flight computer tagged the location of all friendly vessels in the immediate area and displayed them on his HUD.

“Finally, an excuse to get out of that sardine can,” he heard his friend grumble over the back radio.

“I hear that, Baker. Watch your ass out there. They have us going pretty deep into the asteroid field, and I don’t want to have to engrave ‘killed by a rock‘ on your tombstone.”

Jaeger watched as two more fighters left the hangar, setting off on a different route, their afterburners flaring for a second or two before they coasted off into the blackness. Hanging in front of him was a giant wall of tumbling ice and rock that seemed to extend infinitely in every direction. Oort clouds were truly massive spheres of rock, ice, and debris that orbited a star at the extreme limits of its gravitational pull. Their boundaries were fuzzy at best, and the fleet was currently suitably far enough away that the danger of impacts was minimized. Bugs loved asteroid fields, they infested them like cockroaches, using the natural cover that they provided to launch attacks on planets further inside the system. Heat signatures this far out probably meant that Bugs were setting up shop here, likely scouts for a hive ship that was hidden somewhere in the cloud. The system was unmapped, but anything that the Bugs could use as a staging point to push further into Coalition space had to be checked out and cleared.

“Let’s give it a three-second burn on my mark,” Jaeger said, “three…two…one…hit the gas.”

The two vessels accelerated in unison, the G-forces pressing Jaeger into his seat. After three seconds, the acceleration ceased, the fighters letting the momentum carry them forward. There was no air resistance in space, nothing to slow them down. If an object started to move, then it wouldn’t stop until force was applied, or it encountered an obstacle. It was even possible to gain or lose momentum without wasting fuel by using gravitational assists, although they were currently too far out from the solar system to have to contend with planets.

The cloud looked like dust from this distance, but when he enhanced the image with his visor, Jaeger could see the individual rocks and balls of ice as they tumbled lazily through space. Some of them were barely larger than his own fighter, and some were the size of a mountain. It was so hard to judge distance and scale in space without using instruments, and the field of asteroids was dark, the system’s sun too far away to provide much illumination at all. It was little more than a pinpoint in the distance, barely distinguishable from stars that were a thousand light years away.

The two fighters slowed their approach with bursts of gas from their forward thrusters as the asteroids ballooned in their field of view, becoming alarmingly large. Jaeger could see small fragments and particles of dust impacting on his canopy and making his hull shake. The vessels were designed to endure the rigors of combat, and so it wasn’t too concerning, but they still needed to be careful and stay alert. It wouldn’t do to get pancaked between two drifting hunks of rock the size of houses.

There was no clear limit to the asteroid field, but Jaeger was soon surrounded by larger rocks, his visor’s optics doing their best to brighten the darkness and his flight computer tracking the nearby objects so as to warn him of any impending collisions.

“Radar is useless in here,” Baker muttered, “it’s like tryin’ to find a needle in a haystack.”

“You’d know all about haystacks, you hick,” Jaeger replied. Baker had a thick Southern accent, and everyone gave him shit for it.

“Switchin’ to thermal,” Baker said, “not seeing anything…I really don’t want to move deeper. It ain’t a good idea if you ask me.”

“Well they didn’t ask you, it’s an order,” Jaeger said as he used his thrusters to inch forward. “Stay on my six and keep an eye out for movement, you know how sneaky these Bugs can be.”

“Considerin’ I got more confirmed kills than you, ‘Bullseye‘, I sure do.”

Jaeger kept one eye on his sensors as they moved deeper into the cloud, following the route that had been planned out by command. The problem with fighting Bugs was that no two colonies were ever alike. Sure, they shared certain basic tenets and design principles, but the rate at which they adapted to their new environments and their willingness to mutate their own bodies meant that you could never accurately predict what you’d be facing off against. Fortunately, their violent xenophobia extended to their own kind too, different colonies never cooperated or shared tactical information between one another. It was a good job too, or the UNN would never be able to win the arms race that would ensue.

“Hang on,” Baker said, “I got somethin’ on the scope. It’s a heat source, three o’clock high, hard to gauge the distance in this soup.”

“I got it,” Jaeger replied, his HUD showing a red blip amongst the ghostly green outlines of the nearby asteroids. “It’s faint, might be a critter trying to mask its engine signature.” He switched radio channels and put a call through to the Rorke. “This is Bullseye, we’ve picked up a heat signature, requesting instructions.”

Mission control came through with a hiss of static, the woman’s voice crackling in his earpiece.

“Roger that, Bullseye, marking your location. Your orders are to proceed and investigate.”

“That’s a solid copy mission control, proceeding deeper…”

He flipped to the back channel again, relaying the instructions to Baker.

“Control says we should check it out.”

“Fuck. Oh well, ladies first.”

Jaeger took point and drifted towards the faint heat source, maneuvering around obstacles with short bursts from his thrusters, the signal growing steadily weaker. He was almost certain by now that it was a cooling engine. Something had probably moved shortly before their arrival, and the heat that it had generated was slowly dissipating into space.

“I got a bad feeling about this,” he said, “weapons going hot.”

He flipped up the guard on his joystick that covered one of the fire buttons, and he felt a tremor run through the hull as a hatch on the back of the fighter opened up like a trap door. As well as long-range missiles and affixed cannons that could be used both in atmosphere and in space, there was also another weapon mounted on the FS-26 that could only be used in a vacuum. A large, belt-fed railgun extended from the hull on a flexible arm, making it look like the head of a stork. It was invaluable in a close quarters dogfight, able to pivot and track independently of the fighter. A targeting reticle appeared on Jaeger’s HUD as the weapon came online. It was primarily computer controlled, but UNN regulations required a human to pull the trigger…or at least a sapient creature.

As they neared the source of the signature and came upon a large asteroid, their railguns turning this way and that like curious geese as they scanned for targets, the blip on the radar completely vanished.

“Heads up,” Baker muttered, “it’s gone dark.”

“Be ready, it was around this asteroid somewhere…”

They drifted slowly around the large, irregular hunk of rock, the scanners highlighting every contour on its pockmarked surface with a green wireframe. It was like orbiting a very small moon.

“Picking up traces of methane,” Baker said, “something was definitely here. I’m gonna call it in.”

“Contact! Contact!”

Something that looked like a cross between a gigantic roach and a shrimp climbed out of one of the many impact craters on several pairs of jointed legs. It was huge, at least as large as their fighters if not slightly larger, its segmented body encased within an iridescent shell that glittered in shades of blue and green. Its back was covered in ablative plates that looked like a suit of medieval armor, clearly artificial in nature, probably bolted onto its living body after the thing had matured.

The Betelgeusians used a combination of organic and artificial technology, and even their spaceships were living entities. There was no doubt a Bug pilot encased somewhere inside, its lanky body hooked directly into the craft’s nervous system, surrounded on all sides by exposed meat as it drove the thing around like a puppet. Rather than viewports or a canopy, the craft had dozens of glistening, compound eyes that served as cameras for the occupant.

Artwork by Gungulon:

This one wasn’t flying, it was walking along the surface of the asteroid, perhaps using modified landing gear as actual legs. There was a puff of dust, and a flare of green flame as the thing lifted off, tucking its many limbs beneath its body and pivoting to face its adversaries.

Its reaction speed was so quick that by the time the railguns began to fire, there were already bolts of crackling plasma hurtling towards the fighters. Beneath what could only be described as the bulbous head of the Bug ship were housed twin plasma cannons, lighting up its grotesque eyes and its jutting sensory antennae with flashes of green light as they unloaded at the enemy.

Jaeger took evasive action, the computer keeping the railgun locked onto the target even as his vessel rolled and tilted, the barrel as steady as a gyroscope. Keeping track of the different in-picture displays and camera views while the world spun around him would have been horribly disorienting, but this was what the pilots had trained for, frantic zero-G combat was their domain.

His vessel rocked as one of the high-velocity, magnetically-contained balls of green plasma splashed against his wing, arcing across its surface like electricity as the fighter’s armor did its best to dissipate the heat and energy over a larger area. Still, the intensely hot plasma burned an ugly, black smear on the wing like someone had taken a giant cutting torch to it, the ferrite stealth coating slagging and melting away.

The barrel of the railgun rocked on its arm with every shot, rings of electromagnets sending tungsten slugs the size of beer bottles hurtling towards the target at a significant percentage of light speed. They were dumb-rounds, nothing more than pieces of shaped metal, but they impacted the asteroid like tiny meteors and blasted basketball-sized craters in the rock as they transferred their kinetic energy.

Everything was spinning. His fighter was spinning, the target was spinning, the asteroids around them were spinning. Jaeger’s only point of reference was the indicator on his HUD that let him know which direction was up.

Contrary to popular belief, there was such a thing as up and down in space. The Galaxy was a flat disk with a swollen core, kind of like a celestial fried egg, except a hundred thousand light-years across. One’s position could be calculated relative to it by mapping the visible stars, ensuring that UNN ships didn’t end up at wildly different inclinations when they arrived in the same spot.

The thrusters flared as he righted himself, and he watched as Baker loosed one of his missiles, the projectile shooting puffs of gas from nozzles on its nose and tail to orient itself as it arced towards its target. The battle was close range, but in space, even close meant miles apart. The Bug ship moved to take evasive action, but it had taken some railgun hits, leaking what looked like pus or ichor from jagged tears in its hull as the jets of green flame down its right flank flickered.

There was a flash of light, and then all that was left of the Bug ship was a cloud of expanding debris, Jaeger zooming in on the fragments of torn flesh and bent metal as they flew apart. It looked like a smear on a windshield.

“Splash one,” he heard Baker shout over the radio. “Looks like another notch on my belt, Bullseye. Are you even trying?”

He sounded out of breath, as was Jaeger. They were both rattled by the sudden appearance of this new enemy, but a little humor helped diffuse the tension.

“Control this is Bullseye,” Jaeger said over the comms, “confirmed one bogey down. Kill goes to Scorch, as per usual. Where there’s one Bug, more are never far, so I’d bet my wings that we’ve got more of them incoming. Please advise.”

“Head back to the fleet, Bullseye. Redirecting Boomer and Scratcher to assist.”

He spun his fighter, aiming the nose back towards the edge of the asteroid field, preparing to gun the engine.

“Let’s get out of here, Baker. Make sure your flight assist is on, I don’t want to be here any longer than necessary.”

“Just like a game of billiards,” Baker chuckled, “except the goal is ‘not‘ to hit the other balls…”

Jaeger typed in a few commands on a touch screen that was mounted on his console, then watched as the flight computer calculated the most efficient path through the asteroids ahead of him, appearing on his HUD as a wireframe tube that snaked between the obstacles. He gripped the joysticks in his hands, his finger hovering over the throttle, excitement welling in his chest.

“I’m keyed in,” Baker said. “This flight path is going to keep shifting, nothing in this cloud of shit is stationary.”

“Wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.”

Jaeger gave the throttle a short squeeze, his engine flaring as it propelled him forwards, crushing him into his padded seat. The computer couldn’t fly the plane for him, but it could make small corrections and assist him with short bursts from the thrusters, the massive asteroids racing past as he accelerated. When he had gained enough speed, he coasted, using his thrusters to pitch and yaw, quick burns from the main engine helping him to change direction. It was like threading a needle in zero-G. He not only had to account for the usual pitch, roll, and yaw that one would have to contend with during atmospheric flight, but also lateral movements that were only possible in space.

He arced around the obstacles, his engine flashing almost imperceptibly, nozzles all over the chassis of the fighter blowing puffs of gas into space to keep him steady and to prevent him from drifting with minute corrections. A warning light flared on his HUD, and the computer highlighted an incoming piece of debris in red, along with its trajectory. Jaeger rolled the fighter with only seconds to spare, the chunk of rock zipping past his wing like a bullet, so close that he swore he could almost reach out and touch it.

The flight path was constantly shifting to account for the movements of the drifting asteroids, and it suddenly flickered as the computer tried to calculate a new route, a rock the size of a battleship blocking his way as it drifted into his path. It bumped a smaller rock out of its way like a celestial game of curling, the asteroid tumbling end over end as it headed straight for him. Jaeger wasted no time, pivoting so that his nose was facing directly upwards, watching the incoming obstacle through the cameras mounted on the underside of his fighter as he put his belly towards it. He gunned the engine, the vessel rising out of the asteroid’s path, barreling through his exhaust trail like a rolling boulder.

Acting quickly, Jaeger engaged his forward thrusters. He shed his upward momentum and righted himself, even as the laws of physics carried him forwards. The flight path twitched for a moment and then became solid again, directing him through a narrow gap between two large bodies. He didn’t have time to question it, trusting the computer’s cold logic to see him through as he angled his nose towards the target, another controlled burn from his main engine sending him careening onwards.

“Contacts on our six,” he heard Baker shout, his voice strained as he endured the wild acceleration.

Jaeger cursed, setting his railgun to point behind the fighter, an overlay showing the view from its camera in the corner of his visor. Multitasking was one thing, but maneuvering a craft traveling at a thousand knots through an asteroid field while also trying to shoot behind you was quite another.

He could make out Baker’s fighter, tagged with his callsign as it followed behind, its flight computer sending it along a slightly different route. Behind it were three contacts, outlined in red as they burned towards the pair. More Bug ships, probably drawn by the carcass of their dead comrade. Their engines flared with green flame as they dodged and weaved through the debris, their compound eyes fixed on their prey.

One of them launched a torpedo that had been clasped in its legs, the grotesque limbs unfurling as the metallic tube rocketed towards Baker. He popped his flares, panels on the tail of his fighter opening like airbrakes to release a stream of decoys, bright balls of light trailing smoke behind them as they made a pattern that looked like the wings of an angel.

The torpedo veered towards them, then exploded into a bright ball of green light, the plasma contained within slagging the asteroids around it as it spread outwards in a crackling sphere. Baker stayed ahead of the energy wave, and the three Bug vessels appeared behind him as the cloud dissipated, the blast actually clearing the way for them.

One of them loosed a burst of plasma fire, trailing through space like tracer rounds, missing him by a hair as he evaded it.

“God damn it,” Jaeger muttered under his breath. If he left Baker to fend for himself, he’d be toast. “Computer, safety off,” he said as he gripped the sticks and steeled himself for a high-G maneuver. A warning symbol flashed, confirming that the safety limits had been bypassed and that the fighter could now make maneuvers in excess of ten Gs. If he wasn’t careful, he might black out, sending his craft smashing into an asteroid. If he lost control, the stresses could even liquefy his innards.

“Hang on buddy, I’m coming for you,” he announced as he yanked the stick and hit the throttle. His fighter flipped upside-down on its axis, facing backwards towards the incoming Bug ships, the engine making the hull shake as he shed velocity. He was pressed deep into his seat, darkness eating at the corners of his vision. His suit tightened around his legs like a tourniquet, forcing more blood to his head to keep him conscious. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, the icon on his HUD flashing orange and then red as it counted up. Six Gs, seven, eight, nine…

Finally, his vision began to clear, the pain in his chest abating as he focused his attention on the enemy fighters. He was now pointed directly at them, gaining speed as he roared towards them. The railgun tracked the targets, the reticle leading them as it calculated their positions. Jaeger squeezed the trigger, the weapon spewing tungsten slugs at the formation of fighters. He engaged his internal cannon too, a hatch to the left of his cockpit popping open, the twenty-five-millimeter gatling gun spooling for a second before it began to fire. It didn’t have the velocity of a railgun, and it used conventional ammunition, but if he managed to land a hit, then it would do the job just as well. It sent an almost unbroken line of orange trails streaming towards the targets, more intended to scatter them than to actually disable them.

The Bugs broke their formation, shooting off in different directions as Jaeger dodged past a stray chunk of rock that had been displaced by the torpedo. His railgun tracked the nearest target, pivoting on its flexible arm to stay locked on, the Bug vessel shuddering as it took some hits. The high-velocity slugs tore straight through it like a hot knife through butter, the craft faltering and starting to drift as it lost control, crashing into a nearby asteroid and exploding into a flash of plasma and methane propellant.

One of them stayed on Baker, the second attempting to evade. Jaeger braced himself for another maneuver, a combination of his main engine and the thrusters on the underside of his fighter simulating banking as he turned, the Gs pressing down on him like there was an elephant standing on his shoulders. He tried to get a missile lock on the fleeing Bug ship, the railgun taking pot shots as it dodged and weaved through the asteroids. The computer finally managed to get a solid lock, and he thumbed the release, a missile flaring as it launched from beneath his wing and sped off into the distance.

It shadowed the escaping Bug, even as the giant insect rolled and twisted between the chunks of ice and rock, slowly gaining ground on the larger and less agile target. Once it was in range, the warhead exploded, sending out a spray of deadly shrapnel that eviscerated the Betelgeusian ship. It lost power, drifting away into the asteroid field as its engines sputtered and flickered, bodily fluids trailing behind it as they leaked from its perforated hull.

“Could use a little help here,” he heard Baker say through gritted teeth, he sounded like he was in trouble.

Jaeger endured another tight turn, coming back around to target the remaining craft. It was still on Baker’s tail, harrying him with volleys of plasma as the pair weaved between the asteroids, coming in and out of view. Baker’s railgun was firing behind him, aiming between the fighter’s twin tail fins. He scored a hit, Jaeger watching as the impact rocked the Bug vessel, ichor trailing from the wound. Still, the Bug pursued him relentlessly, Jaeger beginning to doubt that he could get into range of it in time to save his friend.

Just then, a twinkling beam of neon-green light appeared to spear the Bug ship. It was barely visible, ephemeral, glittering against the darkness of space. The metal armor of the organic craft melted like it was being burned by a cutting torch, glowing with heat as the sparkling beam seemed to sear through it. The beam held on the Bug ship until it penetrated deep enough to hit something flammable, the target exploding into a bright ball of fire, and then vanished as quickly as it had come.

Baker was clear, speeding away, and Jaeger scrutinized his display as he scanned the darkness for the source of the light. That had looked like someone flashing a laser pointer, could it be some kind of laser weapon? No ship in the fleet used such a device to his knowledge, their range made them useless at the distances that UNN ships usually engaged at. They would also scatter in an atmosphere, severely diminishing their lethality beyond a few feet.

“Thanks for watching my back there, Bullseye, that was a hell of a shot.”

“That wasn’t me,” he replied, turning about and making for the edge of the asteroid field. As curious as he was, he didn’t want to be sitting around scanning when more Bugs showed up.

“If it wasn’t you, then who was it?”

“I don’t know, it looked like some kind of laser.”

The radar was next to useless, it was impossible to distinguish ships from random pieces of rock. But if something had been firing off lasers, then it should show up on the thermal scans. He kept an eye on the display as he maneuvered between the asteroids, hoping that he could find something before he went out of range. There! A heat signature, the red blip appearing on his HUD. He turned his head and zoomed in on the area of space. He couldn’t see anything, just blackness.

As he stared, there was a flurry of colored lights. They flashed in a wave, blues and purples moving from left to right like a neon sign outside a nightclub. It illuminated something metallic, a ship maybe, but it was so far away and so faint that he couldn’t get a good idea of its size or shape.

“What the hell is…”

He couldn’t keep his eyes on it, he had to focus on the asteroids that were currently flying at his face. Hoping that the mysterious weapon didn’t start firing at him too, he followed Baker to the edge of the Oort cloud. When they were clear of the asteroids, the reinforcements appeared, joining them in formation as they made their way back to the Rorke.

“You guys took your sweet time,” Baker complained, “you missed the fight.”

“Don’t tell me that Bullseye actually hit something,” one of the other pilots said, it sounded like Boomer.

“He saved my ass is what he did.”

“This time I’m only about seventy-five percent responsible for saving Baker’s ass,” Jaeger replied. “There was something out there, something I’ve never seen before.”

“What are you talking about?” Boomer asked. “Some kind of new Bug design?”

“Well, that too, yeah. But there was a ship out there, colorful, I don’t know how to describe it. Something fired a laser weapon that destroyed the last Bug ship that was tailing Scorch, melted through it like a blowtorch. I saw the beam hold on it for a few seconds, and then it vanished. I picked up a thermal, but all I could see were these weird, flashing lights.”

“Who uses laser weapons?” Scratcher asked skeptically.

“Nobody that I know of,” Jaeger replied. “Maybe UNNI is testing something new out here?”

“The Ninnies?” Baker added, “no way. If anything, a laser weapon sounds like a downgrade over what we already use.”

“Maybe they found a new way to focus the lens or something?” Boomer suggested, but he didn’t sound very convinced.

“When we get back to the carrier, I’ll see if my cameras picked anything up,” Jaeger said. “If I saw it, then something must have shown up on the video feed.”

Next Chapter