CHAPTER 17: LAST LINE OF DEFENSE
Baker and Jaeger ran into the hangar where their ships were parked, quickly donning their flight suits and helmets as the Valbarans made their way over to their camouflaged lander. By the time the two humans were climbing into their cockpits and running their engine checks, the Valbaran spaceplane was already taxiing towards the runway.
Jaeger taxied outside, his HUD flashing as it showed him the system status. The Beewolf hadn’t been refueled, but they had more than enough gas to get into orbit and to do a little fighting before they had to land again. The vectoring nozzle on the main engine flexed and twisted, thrusters rotating and belching blue flame, the ailerons moving like the vessel was stretching after a long nap. Jaeger turned his visor towards the sky, the cameras mounted all around the hull allowing him to see through it, and he watched as his ship’s computer began to track friendlies. He could see the Rorke and some of her torpedo boats, the callsigns of dozens of fighter craft and dropships twinkling to life on his display. It was a madhouse up there.
He took off in VTOL, Baker rising into the sky alongside him, his landing gear retracting with a clunk. Unlike the Valbaran landers, the Beewolfs didn’t need to use a runway. They hovered nearby, waiting as the lander began to accelerate down the asphalt track, its stubby wings catching the air and generating enough lift to get it off the ground.
Their engines flared as they began to climb, Baker and Jaeger taking up position to either side of the lander as they tailed it into the sky. They rose through the cloud layer, flames beginning to lick at Jaeger’s canopy, the blue sky growing darker as they ascended towards space.
“Comms check,” he said, “you guys picking me up?”
“Loud and clear,” Baker replied.
“We hear you,” Maza added.
As the stars began to twinkle, the battle raging above came into view. The white rings of the planetary defense platforms trailed off into the distance in both directions, circling the equator of the planet like a giant pearl necklace, their laser batteries firing at the smaller vessels that were swarming them. The sky was packed with ships, dozens of icons appearing on Jaeger’s HUD as the computer tried to track them all.
Beewolfs darted back and forth as they danced with Betelgeusian attack craft, popping flares as they dodged missiles and volleys of plasma, their angular hulls only visible when they caught the light of the star due to their stealth coating. Valbaran fighters strafed the enemy with concentrated laser fire as they flew in tight formation, coordinating to melt through the carapaces of the Bug ships, the long hulls and rotating toruses of their carriers illuminated by laser batteries as they supported their squadrons.
Torpedo frigates hung in the darkness, seeming to stand still in comparison to the more agile craft, the massive ships engaging the larger Bug vessels. Jaeger watched as a torpedo slammed into one of the smaller Betelgeusian carriers, identical to the one that he had encountered in the Oort cloud, tearing its lobster-like hull open with a burst of orange flame and sending it drifting towards the planet’s gravity well. More of those Bug carriers were attacking the nearby defense platforms, using their enormous claws to rend metal, tearing the rings of the stations apart like giant can openers.
The CIWS frigates and the Valbaran carriers were attempting to defend them, lines of tracer fire and laser beams spraying in all directions, their cannons tracking nearby fighters and intercepting plasma torpedoes. It seemed as if a few of the stations had been equipped with railguns, but not nearly as many as Campbell had intended, the majority of the batteries were still firing green laser beams.
Penguin gunships, so named for the shapes of their bulbous hulls and their stubby wings, strafed Bug carriers with their nose cannons. They peppered their armored carapaces with molten holes as more Bug fighters emerged from the pustules along their backs like flies burrowing their way out of a corpse. Valbaran landers and UNN dropships flew to and fro, carrying personnel and supplies to where they were needed, dropping troops directly onto the hulls of the defense platforms to repel boarders. There were firefights happening on the rotating rings themselves, Coalition soldiers and Valbarans with magnetic boots engaging Drones on the outer hull, fighting their own private wars. At maximum magnification, Jaeger could just make them out. Figures the size of ants exchanged fire, the dead Bugs losing their purchase and drifting into the void.
Trails from torpedoes, bright pulses of laser fire, and streams of tracer rounds lit up the night. The glowing hulls of wrecked ships floated aimlessly amidst spreading clouds of slagged metal.
“It’s a madhouse up here,” Baker said over the comms, “where’s the Rorke?”
Jaeger looked in the direction of the North pole, magnifying the image with his visor. After a moment of searching, he found her. She was belly-up relative to the battle, the dozens of railguns on flexible arms that were mounted along her underside tracking targets independently, turning the vessel into a mobile weapons platform. There was a steady stream of smaller craft heading to and from her hangars for resupply and refueling, the shimmering force fields shining blue against her ocean-grey hull. The carrier was a fair distance away, maintaining position so that the crew could coordinate with the defense platforms and carriers around the planet no doubt.
It seemed as if the hive fleet had decided to throw all of its forces at one small section of the equatorial defense array, attempting to brute force its way through. There were two hive ships, massive, nearly Rorke-sized vessels that played a similar role in the Bug armada. One of them was hovering some distance above them, raining down drop pods on the cities below, too small and too fast for the Valbaran stations to track them. The second seemed to be moving off towards the Rorke, flanked by a swarm of Bug torpedo boats and fighters. The hive ships almost looked like giant shrimps to Jaeger, massive sheets of metal plating like a suit of armor covering their hulls as an added layer of protection on top of their bony carapaces, dozens of spindly legs protruding from beneath the overlapping plates of the shell which allowed the things to land on the surface of a planet and disgorge their ground forces. There were no windows or viewports visible, the vessels were covered in biological eyes that served as cameras for the pilots. There were clusters of sensors and long antennae protruding from their bulbous hulls in every direction.
“Looks like that hive ship is going straight for the Rorke,” Jaeger warned. “I’m trying to patch through to fleetcom, but there’s so much chatter. We need to find out where they want us.”
“Heads up!” Baker shouted, pulling up sharply as a CIWS frigate rose in front of them like a whale breaching the surface of the ocean. Jaeger cursed, pulling back on his stick, his suit tightening around his legs to prevent all of his blood from pooling in his feet as the G-forces tore at him. The frigate’s grey, blocky hull shot past beneath him, point defense turrets swiveling to track the cockroach-like fighters that were chasing it. Bursts of green plasma reflected off their colorful, iridescent hulls, their jointed legs tucked beneath their bodies. They darted and weaved, the frigate rolling on its axis and spraying cannon fire as the pilot maneuvered, plowing through a field of slagged debris and scattering it as it burned away.
“Watch your fucking proximity sensors,” Baker barked, “it’s a fucking free for all.”
Fleet engagements usually happened at longer ranges than this, Baker was right, this wasn’t so much a space battle as a brawl. Collisions with other ships and debris would be as much a danger as the enemy.
“My God, look,” Jaeger gasped. One of the defense platforms some distance below them was being set upon by a Bug carrier, the behemoth using its crab-like claws to tear it apart. The spinning centrifuge that was situated on the interior of the torus-shaped structure came to a jarring halt as one of the claws closed around it, cutting through the ring like a pair of scissors, the nearby laser batteries turning their beams towards the creature in an attempt to ward it off. A nearby CIWS frigate joined the fight, the carrier’s carapace melting under the heat, railguns and cannons blowing chunks of meat and metal out of its segmented body. The thrusters along its flanks faltered, the green methane flames that they spewed sputtering out, but the damage had already been done.
The defense platform broke apart, its structural integrity compromised, one of the claws of the carrier still grasping the section of ring as it drifted out of its orbit. The two remained locked together, a cloud of debris and crystallized bodily fluids spreading as the wreckage began to tumble, a solitary fighter emerging from one of the fleshy sheaths to escape its doomed host.
“Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, please respond.”
Finally, the voice of a fleetcom operator came through in Jaeger’s earpiece.
“This is Bullseye, receiving you loud and clear, command.”
“Nice of you to join us. Your objective is to protect the Valbaran defense platforms. Intercept incoming fighters, and prevent Bug dropships from depositing their troops on the hull. How copy?”
“Copy that, fleetcom, we’re on it.” He switched channels back to local, banking off towards the nearest station. “You get that, Baker?”
“Got it,” he replied, “I’m on your nine o’clock.”
“We can’t let them take down another station,” she spat, “we’re following you in.”
“Do you have any weapons on that thing?” he asked, looking to his right as the lander took up formation beside him. As he watched, a panel on the near side of the vessel slid back like the door of a minivan, exposing a Valbaran in a space suit. She was holding what looked like a laser battery mounted on a flexible arm, thick cables trailing inside the vessel and out of view to link it to the power system, her body secured in a harness.
“We’ve got one of these,” she said, Coza’s voice coming through on the comms. Of course it was Coza…
“Alright, me and Baker and going to go after the fighters, you’d probably do better to support the troops fighting on the hull. Give them some ground support. Er…space support. Whatever, just shoot Bugs. We’ll escort you until you’re in range.”
“Got it,” Maza said, the lander peeling off and dropping down towards one of the white rings. As the station grew larger, one of the Bug fighters that was hovering around it spotted them, changing course and rising towards the lander on a plume of green fire. Jaeger deployed his railgun, the hatch on the hull of his Beewolf opening and the weapon extending, swiveling to aim at the incoming threat as a targeting reticle appeared on his HUD. His missiles went hot, and the port that concealed his twenty-five-millimeter cannon popped open, his systems locking onto the Bug ship.
The railgun led the target, the ship’s computer calculating its trajectory, the magnetic coils glowing as it accelerated carefully-aimed slugs the size of beer bottles. The first two missed, but the third hit it right in the head, or perhaps it would be better described as the cockpit. Either way, the slug drilled into its hull right between its shimmering, compound eyes. Jaeger watched through his magnified visor as it seemed to lose engine control, and was sent spinning off into the void.
Several more of its fellows rose to meet them, each one reflecting the harsh, unfiltered sunlight in a different hue. There was a Bug carrier nearby, more of them emerging from the fleshy hangars along its lobster tail, tucking their legs beneath their armored bodies and pivoting to intercept the Beewolfs as their host made for the platform.
“Hit ’em with the missiles!” Baker said. Jaeger locked onto several targets, thumbing the release, the tubes detaching from beneath his wings. They floated, inert for a moment, and then their guidance systems came to life. Their engines flared, leaving streaks of chemical residue behind them as they sped towards the fighters.
The Bugs loosed a volley of torpedoes, and when the two clouds of projectiles crossed one another, a few of them exploded. Balls of expanding plasma and orange plumes of fire forced Jaeger’s visor to darken to protect his eyes, his computer warning him that he was being locked. He broke formation, releasing a pattern of bright flares as the Bug torpedoes emerged from the cloud, the organic sensors on their stubby noses tracking him.
Many of them veered off course to follow the decoys, others tailing him, Jaeger’s peripheral vision narrowing as he pulled off high-G maneuvers. Several of their own missiles found their marks, thinning the numbers of the Bug squadron, shattered carapace and molten metal carried by momentum as their ruined bodies tumbled through the blackness.
Maza’s lander had neared the surface of the defense platform, Coza firing the door gun at the Bugs that were crawling across its white surface below. There were UNN Marines and Valbaran commandos defending the airlocks, preventing the Drones from overrunning the station, using the large communications arrays and other unidentifiable machinery that jutted from the hull for cover.
They were mostly standing on the outer ring, where the laser batteries and the small number of grafted railguns were mounted, the inner ring spinning like a centrifuge to make up for the lack of artificial gravity generators. It must be fucking with their heads, space combat could be so bizarre compared to fighting on the ground. The only horizon was the curving hull of the station, there was no atmospheric haze, and so objects were as clearly visible at ten feet away as a thousand. The soldiers walked slowly, ensuring that their magnetic boots had enough purchase lest they float away. In zero-G, once your feet left the deck, you were fucked. You could slowly run out of oxygen and suffocate a mere arm’s length from safety, because there was no medium to push back against or swim through in order to cover the distance.
The Bugs, on the other hand, used their clawed limbs to cling to the metal precariously. They swarmed towards the defenders with reckless abandon, those that lost their purchase and tumbled into space seeming to be considered acceptable losses. Bolts of plasma reflected on the hull as they exchanged fire with the Marines, Valbaran laser beams cutting them down in swathes, the railguns invisible at such great distance save for the enemies that they felled. The Bug assault seemed desperate, even for Betelgeusians. The fleet must be on its last legs, running out of resources and perhaps literally starving.
As Jaeger tailed a Bug fighter, his cannon chewing into it and sending it tumbling, he glanced over at the Rorke. The hive ship was bearing down on it, recognizing the UNN carrier as the linchpin of the planet’s defense, no doubt. The carrier’s array of railguns were hammering it, an unimaginable quantity of firepower brought to bear, the massive slugs digging craters in the vessel’s armor like asteroids. Torpedo tubes along its hull opened to release their payloads, and the point defense systems painted bright trails across the velvet blackness. It wasn’t enough, however. The hive ships were designed to take punishment, and as he watched, its complement of Bug torpedo ships released the projectiles that were clutched in their spindly legs. A cloud of glowing green points sped towards the Rorke, the railguns switching targets and the surrounding CIWS frigates intercepting the missiles with streams of tracer fire.
They weren’t able to intercept all of them, some of the torpedoes making it through. The carrier was usually defended by far more of the frigates, but so many of them were spread out in their defense of the platforms. Green balls of expanding plasma melted sections of the Rorke’s hull, one of the frigates taking one directly in its center of mass, its engines losing power as it began to drift towards the atmosphere of the planet. There were small bursts of flame as escape pods jettisoned, the vessel was dead in the water, an ugly tear along its hull spewing coolant like blood. It looked like the nuclear generator had taken a hit, and Jaeger hoped that the wreck wouldn’t end up landing in a Valbaran ocean or a nature preserve.
He could see the way that the superheated gas had slagged molten holes in the Rorke, exposing some of the interior decks to space. She was injured, but not crippled, her railguns continuing to pulverize the hive ship as it came into plasma cannon range and began to fire.
A volley of UNN torpedoes took out a few of the Bug support vessels, splashing against the side of the hive ship’s bony carapace, some of its massive segmented legs breaking off and parts of its metal armor melting under the heat. Jaeger turned his head to see that two torpedo frigates had changed their course, slowly accelerating as they burned towards the Rorke. Hatches on their hulls opened to release massive missiles the size of ICBMs, rising on plumes of flame before pivoting towards their targets and speeding away.
The fighters that were following the hive ship changed course, as did many of the torpedo ships, heading towards the two incoming frigates. A formation of Beewolfs raced past the larger vessels, off to intercept the attackers.
Jaeger wanted to go help, but something popped up on his HUD, a red dot making for Maza’s lander. He scarcely had a second to catch his breath, grimacing as he pulled off a tight course correction and throttled up, heading the Bug fighter off. It was entirely focused on the defense platform, and he took it out easily, railgun slugs punching smoldering holes in it. As it trailed fluid and fell towards the station, the droplets of ichor and chemical fuel freezing into a shining cloud, one of the lasers turned on it and melted it with a flickering strobe of green light. The lasers were actually very effective at warding off the fighters at close range, it was the clawed carriers that were the biggest threat.
As he swooped closer to the surface of the station, he could make out a pack of Borealan shock troopers, their massive, bayoneted rifles shouldered as they led a charge against an incoming swarm of Bugs. They dove into the fray, their six-foot railguns powerful enough to blow fist-sized holes in the carapaces of the Drones, shattered bodies floating off into the air. One of them was taken out by a hulking Warrior, the armored creature using its claws to dismember the alien. The monsters were eight or nine feet tall and built like organic tanks, their bodies shielded by thick, layered shells that ran down their backs to give them the appearance of a bipedal lobster or an isopod. They sported four crab-like claws that could tear through the hull of a tank like it was paper.
Another Borealan was thrown flailing from the hull while its pack surrounded the Warrior and harried it with blows. Hopefully, they would be picked up when the battle was over, assuming that they didn’t crash into a ship or a piece of scrap.
Jaeger climbed, the massive station shrinking to the size of a cartwheel in seconds, Baker taking up formation beside him.
“The Rorke is taking a lot of fire,” he said over the comms channel, his voice crackling with static. “If the carrier goes down, then we’re fucked.”
Jaeger scoped in on the vessel, the hive ship was right on top of it now, firing broadsides of plasma at it. The Rorke was still belly-up, the railguns digging into the attacker’s hull. Fighters from both sides swarmed, a fireworks display of point defense and flak flashing brightly. It seemed like the UNN torpedo frigates had taken out most of their Bug equivalents, there was a veritable graveyard of burning husks floating nearby, the two vessels now turning their formidable firepower on the hive ship. The nearby defense platforms and Valbaran carriers were now directing their lasers and what railguns they could muster towards the hive ship too, the sheer volume of fire was starting to break through the organic vessel’s defenses.
Jaeger cheered as a massive explosion suddenly ripped through the hive ship, something in the aft section had ignited, the shrimp-like tail breaking clean off. It was more a wound than anything resembling damage to a ship, its metallic skeleton exposed, its living flesh charred and blackened. It spewed what must be millions of gallons of fluid, some of which was clearly chemical fuel due to the way that it was burning, smaller explosions making the remainder of its bulbous body shudder.
The Rorke had prevailed, the hive ship’s cannons ceasing their bombardment and its rows of methane thrusters going dark. It keeled over onto its side, Valbara’s gravity well seizing it, pulling it down towards the surface. Its segmented legs flailed, almost as if it was in actual pain, smaller wounds all over its hull spewing flames and shooting jets of gas.
“Fuck yeah!” Baker shouted, “look at that thing burn!”
Maza’s voice came through on the radio too, along with what sounded like her flock hollering loudly in the background.
“The enemy vessel is crippled! The battle turns in our favor!”
“Hang on,” Jaeger replied warily, “where’s the second hive ship? If it decides to engage the Rorke, I don’t know if she can take it.”
The carrier was damaged, not severely, but enough that going a second round with another hive ship was a very bad idea. It didn’t look like any of her critical systems had gone down. She had engine power, and her guns were still firing, turning their barrels towards the remaining Bug armada. Her hull was pockmarked with plasma burns, and there were several places where torpedoes had burned through several layers of armor, however. She would need weeks in drydock to recover. He could already make out dropships assessing the damage with their floodlights.
“There!” Baker said, “ninety degrees low!”
The second hive ship wasn’t engaging the Rorke at all, it was making straight for the breach in the defense grid where one of the platforms had been brought down. The lasers from the adjacent stations held on it, the nearby CWIS boats and the Valbaran vessels adding their firepower to the bombardment and melting through the layers of metal plating, but it wasn’t enough to stop it. The torpedo frigates had been duped, they had burned away to defend the Rorke. Now they launched more of their torpedoes at the second hive ship, but their reserves must be running low, and there was no way that they could deliver enough ordnance to cripple the target in time. The Rorke was too far away, and the CWIS vessels couldn’t do much to penetrate its thick carapace.
“If that ship makes landfall, it’s going to deliver a whole army of Bugs to the surface,” Jaeger warned. “There could be a hundred thousand Drones on that thing.”
“It’s headed straight for Yilgarn!” Maza added, “we have to stop it!”
“How?” Baker asked, “we don’t have enough firepower to bring that thing down.”
As they watched, the hive ship turned belly-down, flames beginning to scorch its underside as it entered the atmosphere. Jaeger was already at full throttle, pinned against his seat as he chased after it. He didn’t even have a plan yet, he didn’t know what he was going to do, but he had to figure out something. He wracked his brain, with mere seconds to come up with a strategy. What did he know about hive ships, what resources were at his disposal?
They used highly reactive methane as chemical fuel, they were coated in layers of armor so thick that no weapon in his arsenal would have any hope of penetrating it. There was no bridge in the traditional sense, and the pilot was housed deep inside the ship. They had to have a weak point, something that he could use…
“The thrusters!” Jaeger yelled.
“What are you talking about?” Baker asked. His Beewolf was a short distance behind Jaeger’s, he didn’t know what the plan was either, but he wasn’t about to leave his wingman to fend for himself. They were smaller and more agile than the hive ship, and the atmosphere was slowing it, letting them catch up.
“The thrusters along its flanks, the green flames,” Jaeger explained. “That’s how it’s slowing itself, it’s angling the thrusters down towards the planet to shed velocity.”
“So, if we take out enough of those thrusters, it’s going to fall like a fucking rock. We don’t need to destroy the ship, we can let gravity do it for us.”
“It’s already in the atmosphere,” Baker replied. “Do you really think that we can get close enough to it, and stay stable enough for the railguns to target the thrusters, and also keep ourselves from burnin’ up? You can’t do maneuvers during reentry, you’ll tumble, and then you’ll go up like a Roman candle. There’s no algorithm for targetin’ the thrusters either, we’d have to do it manually.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Fuck!” Baker cursed. “Alright, you take the left flank, and I’ll take the right. If hell has a fuckin’ bar, then you’re buyin’ for the rest of eternity you crazy bastard.”
“Jaeger!” Maza’s voice came in over his comms, she sounded distraught. “You can’t! It’s too dangerous!”
“We have to,” he replied solemnly, “there’s no other way.”
“But you said that you’d stay with us. We’ve only just…”
“We can do this,” he said, trying to sound confident. “If that hive ship touches down, then everything is over, I can’t let that happen. Even if…if this goes badly…know that I don’t have any regrets,” he said as his nose began to glow orange, flames licking at his canopy as the hive ship ballooned in his field of view. “After last night, this was all worth it. Meeting you and the others was worth it.”
He couldn’t hear her reply, her voice was choked off by interference as his airframe was buffeted by the winds. Baker was still close enough to get through to him, his short range comms fizzing and crackling to the extent that Jaeger could only just make him out.
“Great, I’m gonna die with a hangover. Try not to live up to your namesake, Bullseye, and if you die, tell Boomer that he still owes me that twenty creds.”
“See you on the other side, Baker.”
The two fighters veered off as the hive ship rose up between them like a mountain. It was massive, Jaeger had never seen one up close before, the friction that it was generating was creating a firestorm that made his visor darken to shield his eyes. He too was burning, he had to keep his nose angled down, or he might lose stability and start to tumble. If that happened, then his fighter would burn up and explode before he could so much as hit the ejector button. Not that he could eject at this altitude anyway.
He maneuvered as close as he could get, his computer beeping a warning as his hull temperature spiked. A tremor rocked his ship as he extended his airbrakes, alternating between pulsing his main engine and trying to slow his rapid descent, his flight stick vibrating in his hand as he struggled to keep his fighter on course. He deactivated the safety limiters with a voice command and retracted his radiators so that the heat didn’t melt them right off. He could no longer rely on the computer to provide flight assistance, it wasn’t designed for this. This was not how reentry was supposed to go, he was prolonging his exposure to the incredible heat and friction, he had to get this done as soon as possible.
Jaeger turned his head, his visor doing its best to filter out the orange glow of the flames, the hive ship beside him taking up his entire field of view. It was like diving next to a blue whale, how could something of this scale be alive?
There. He could see the thrusters that were spaced out along its flank, fleshy, flexible tubes that were belching jets of green fire. They were as much appendages as engines, able to flex and point in any direction, laid out in a vague S-shape along the hull. The thing’s massive legs were tucked beneath its body, protecting its belly from the heat.
He could no longer communicate with Baker over the short-range radio, not with this Kraken between them. He would have to trust that his friend would come through.
Keeping one hand on the flight stick, he took manual control of the railgun with the other, his thumb finding the small joystick on his control panel. It required a finesse that was hard to muster while his vessel was shaking apart, and he had to keep his Beewolf’s nose at about a two hundred degree angle relative to the surface of the planet. If he exposed the weapon to the heat of reentry, the mechanical arm would melt away in an instant, it was only designed to be used in a vacuum. Right now, the hull of his ship was the only thing protecting it.
The crosshair moved on his visor, and he tried to keep his head steady, even as the turbulence jostled him in his seat. It was like trying to thread a needle during an earthquake.
When the targeting reticle passed over one of the thrusters, he pulled the trigger, the railgun firing in burst mode in an attempt to make up for any inaccuracy. There was a flare of green fire, one of the thrusters erupting, popping like a blister and trailing chemical fuel that ignited into a burning stream. He had hit it! It had worked! The thrusters were volatile as all hell, they must be working overtime in an attempt to slow the hive ship’s descent.
One down, about nine more to go. As he moved the reticle over to the next target, his vessel lurched, the hull temperature warning blaring in his ear. He turned it off with a voice command as he fought against the stick, his vessel threatening to level out and send him into a flat spin. As he returned his thumb to the targeting joystick, he reminded himself that he didn’t need to destroy all of the thrusters, just enough that the Bug vessel couldn’t slow itself sufficiently. If the hive ship was aware that it was being attacked, it was too large and too cumbersome to take any kind of evasive maneuvers.
He didn’t have long, he had to get this done quickly. The railgun loosed another burst, Jaeger cursing as he missed, his frustration almost as difficult to manage as his rate of descent. He tried again, breathing deeply in an effort to calm his nerves as he aimed at the next thruster. Every instinct in his body, all of his training was screaming at him to pull away, every neuron in his brain knew how bad of an idea this was.
The next burst hit its mark, another engine exploding into a ball of green fire. This time, the hive ship seemed to shudder, was he hurting it?
He hit another, then another, at this rate his callsign was going to take on an entirely new meaning. As he took out more of the thrusters, and presumably Baker did the same on the other side, the hive ship began to fall faster. He had to gun his engine, further increasing his temperature to dangerous levels just to match speed with the thing. Soon, it would be falling too fast for him to keep up with it. It must weigh tens of thousands of tons, and its terminal velocity would be many times that of his own. The Beewolf was being pushed to its theoretical limits, the airframe shaking and the stealth coating starting to melt away to expose the naked hull material beneath.
Two more thrusters down, and the vessel began to veer off-course, turning slightly as it lost more and more control over its descent. He hit a couple more as fast as he could, the railgun barking as it tore through flesh and metal, burning fuel spewing from the wounds. It was pulling away from him now, he could barely keep up with it, the mammoth vessel falling in earnest. His instincts screamed for him to break off and recover before his hull melted around him, but he dove after it. He had to take out as many as he could, what if the difference between sending the hive ship cratering into the ground, and having it make a crash landing was one or two thrusters? He couldn’t stop now, the fate of the planet might rest in his hands.
G-forces pinned him against his seat, too many alarms flashing on his HUD to keep track of. All he needed to know was that he was seconds away from burning up. He pushed on all the same, the hive ship was nearly through the upper atmosphere.
To his right, he saw a ball of flame rise and break away. His first assumption was that the ship was starting to come apart, but his HUD tracked it, tagging it with Baker’s callsign. It seemed that his wingman was calling it a day.
Jaeger engaged his afterburner, if he could just get one more thruster…
He maintained speed with the hive ship, but it was falling so fast, the ground below growing more detailed as they entered the lower atmosphere. This was his last chance, after this, he would have done all that he could. His crosshair moved over one of the few remaining thrusters, and he took the shot, the nozzle erupting into a stream of emerald fire.
Jaeger hit his airbrakes, turning away from the doomed ship as it plummeted towards the surface of Valbara like an asteroid, and then his Beewolf shook. He looked over his shoulder as one of his airbrakes broke clean off, the view spotty and pixelated due to how many of his external cameras had melted. He lost an aileron on his right wing, then one of his tail fins began to disintegrate, the fighter falling into a flat spin as it came apart. He had pushed his luck, the ship couldn’t handle what he had put it through, and now he was paying the price.
Trying to regain control was futile, the airframe was compromised, and he was traveling too quickly to risk ejecting. If he ejected now, the force of the air on his exposed body would tear him apart, ripping off his limbs like a ragdoll. He had to wait it out. The friction was still causing flames to tear at his canopy, pieces of his fighter breaking off and slagging, his suit constricting around him in an attempt to trap blood in his brain to keep him from losing consciousness.
He burst through the cloud layer, his lack of aerodynamics due to the damage to the airframe actually slowing him somewhat. What was left of the computer’s sensors showed him his rate of descent on his HUD, most of the icons displaying error messages. Black smoke trailed behind him as more pieces were torn from his ship by the buffeting wind. He was going to be torn apart at this rate, or his fuel tank would rupture, and he would explode before he even hit the ground. He had to get out of this cockpit, but he was still going at near supersonic speeds. The longer he waited, the higher a chance he would have of surviving the initial ejection, but it also exposed him to more danger from the Beewolf breaking up.
Jaeger blocked everything else out besides the airspeed gauge on his HUD, his gloved hand hovering over the ejection button on his panel. Twelve hundred kilometers per hour, nine hundred, eight hundred…
An entire wing tore away from the fuselage, the Beewolf tumbling, and Jaeger hammered the button.
The canopy was ripped away as if a disembodied hand had reached down to snatch it, then the rockets beneath his ejector seat ignited, sending him shooting clear of the wreckage. The tearing winds hit him like a fist, Jaeger bellowing in pain inside his helmet as the world spun around him. He was still too high for his chute to deploy, the only sounds that he could hear were his own labored breathing and the rushing air, his visor now dark as it had been disconnected from the Beewolf’s onboard computer.
He caught scant glimpses of the fighter as he spun, the wreckage losing more parts as it fell. The leaking fuel from the torn wing ignited, and what was left of his ship broke apart in a shower of debris, flaming scrap raining down towards the green fields far below.
After falling for another twenty seconds or so, his chute opened, Jaeger lurching and gritting his teeth against the pain as he was jostled in his seat. Everything hurt, he couldn’t gauge the damage, he couldn’t even feel his extremities right now in order to test if they were still attached to him. He just tried to focus on breathing.
As he slowly descended towards the ground, he looked down to see the wreck of the hive ship. Elation cut through his fog of pain, they had done it! It looked as if someone had upended a giant bucket full of chum and scrap metal across the plains, the main body of the vessel had carved a massive crater in the ground, and its innards were smeared across the landscape. He could make out the reinforced metal skeleton, which was still mostly intact, chunks of flesh and unidentifiable synthetic components hanging from it. Some of the massive, armored pieces of the carapace were still leaning against it from the front, while the rest had been scattered. Green flames burned where the chemical fuel had spilled, black smoke belching from some of the larger chunks. It looked as much like smoldering roadkill as it did a crash site. There was no way enough of the Bugs had survived to pose any kind of threat.
Jaeger was coming down close to the wreck, he could see Yilgarn’s pristine, white walls a few miles away. As he neared the ground, mercifully clear of any of the larger fires, his seat deployed a small yellow raft that was designed both to cushion his landing and to prevent him from sinking in water. He touched down, the impact making him wince, and he unfastened his safety harness. As he rose from his seat, he was relieved to see that he could still walk. His injuries weren’t so bad as to incapacitate him. He flipped up his visor, the smell of charred flesh wafting on the air, and then he climbed down onto the grass. He had never been more happy to feel solid ground beneath his boots.
He stooped to retrieve a bullpup XMR from its place in the housing of his ejector seat, checking the magazine and the battery. It was a survival weapon, intended to protect pilots who landed in hostile territory. It only held sixteen rounds, and there was no scope on it, but it was better than using his fists.
There was a patch of forest not too far away, and so he began to limp towards it, appraising the mess around him. The landscape was barely recognizable, the main body of the hive ship rising up like a new mountain maybe a quarter mile away, pieces of meat and metal strewn all over the place. He navigated around a hunk of sickly looking flesh, what looked like they might be optical cables protruding from it, keeping an eye out for survivors. The Bugs were hardy, and it was entirely possible that a few might have survived the crash.
He glimpsed a glimmer of orange, aiming his weapon at a prone Drone. It was unmoving, its carapace cracked and one of its arms missing. There were a few more bodies nearby, draped over the fragments of their vessel. The hive ship would have been packed to bursting with Bugs, full of soldiers preparing for the ground invasion.
A short distance away he came across a different caste, its red shell shining like a ruby under the Valbaran sun. It looked like a Replete, the bulbous, transparent sack of fluid on the lower abdomen that they used to store food for the other Bugs had been ripped open.
Movement caught his eye, and he pointed his carbine at a pile of wreckage, watching as a Drone pulled itself free. It was almost torn in half, dragging itself along with its four arms, but it raised a plasma pistol at him despite its injuries. A crack rang out as he shot it in the thorax, the alien going limp. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a Drone at all, but a male. It still had the guards on its back that protected its gossamer wings. This must have been the Queen’s hive ship, there was no other reason for winged males to be present.
He continued on towards the safety of the trees, pushing through the pain as he limped along. He was having trouble breathing, and there was a stinging sensation in his chest, one of his lungs might have collapsed.
As he crossed the open field, leaving the majority of the wrecked hive ship behind him, he heard a noise like rending metal. He turned, looking back, the sound was coming from some kind of fleshy pod amidst the wreckage. It was large, maybe fifteen feet around, vaguely sphere-shaped and coated in layers of carapace and metal. Some kind of internal organ, maybe?
An arm broke through its surface, far longer than that of any Bug that he had ever seen. Its shell was an iridescent purple, catching the light as the three fingers twitched. A second arm emerged, there was a creature trapped inside the ball, and it was clawing its way out. Jaeger made for the forest as fast as his injured limbs could carry him, but it was too far away. The fleshy sphere tore open like a giant egg, and out stepped something huge.
It had the same body plan as a Drone, the same segmented limbs and armored thorax, but it must have been twelve feet tall at least. It had massive, reinforced thighs to carry its weight, its upper pair of arms longer than a man was tall. Its neck was long and near as thick as its torso in order to support an enormous skull, like some kind of regal headdress, the ridged structure larger than the hood of a car. It was flared into a rough triangle, the creature’s face at the nearest point, and the tips of the crown tapering into rounded bulbs. Extending from the forehead was a horn more ornate and elaborate than those of the Drones. It must have been at least three or four feet tall on its own, branching out like an antler from a moose or a stag. This one wasn’t wearing a helmet, and it stared at him with large, expressive eyes. He saw intelligence, recognition, and fury.
The Queen freed herself from what must have been her chamber as he scrambled for safety, the alien stumbling through the wreckage on her powerful legs as she gave chase, her insect mouthparts grinding as she chittered and hissed. She was stopped abruptly, lurching as if something was pulling at the back of her head. Jaeger saw that she was still connected to her pod by some kind of fleshy cable that trailed behind her, like a thick length of glistening intestine. She reached behind her crown with one of her long arms and tore it free, clear fluid splashing on the charred grass as the organic cable fell to the ground. Now unleashed, she continued her pursuit, clambering over what remained of her flagship as she fixed her eyes on him.
Her invasion was thwarted, her victory had been denied, but a little personal revenge was still within her grasp.
He realized that he wasn’t going to make it to the forest before she got to him, steeling himself as he turned and shouldered his rifle, firing at her. The slugs punched through her purple carapace, leaving small holes that leaked pus-colored ichor, Jaeger squeezing the trigger until his magazine was empty. If the slugs hurt her, she didn’t show it, ignoring the cluster of wounds on her torso as she barreled towards him with rage in her blue eyes.
As she came within a hundred feet of him, a sound rang out, a low-frequency pulse that made Jaeger’s blood run cold. It came again, reverberating through his bones, he could feel it vibrating up his very spine. It was like a musical sting, like whale song, and it filled him with a primal dread that surpassed even his fear of the Queen.
She stopped in her tracks, turning her massive head as she searched for the sound’s source. By the time she noticed the Teth’rak that was charging towards her, Jaeger had dropped his rifle and was already running, trying to ignore the pain in his legs as he made for cover. He looked back to see the giant animal rounding another far-off patch of forest, covering the distance alarming quickly on its three-toed feet, its coat of orange feathers raising like the hackles of an angry wolf to display the red coloration beneath. It opened its massive jaws, exposing its serrated teeth, releasing another heart-stopping call.
The Queen turned to meet it, extending her four arms as if she meant to wrestle it to the ground, but the speeding monster rammed into her like a feathery freight train. She might be large, but her size and more importantly her weight paled in comparison to that of Valbara’s apex predator.
It used its head like a battering ram, smashing into her thorax and sending her crashing to the ground, momentum carrying it forward as it skidded to a halt. She dug furrows into the earth where she fell, screeching as she tried to ward it off with vicious strikes from her long limbs, but she couldn’t free herself. One of its legs was pinning her, its weight cracking her shell and its claws leaving deep welts in the glossy material. The Teth’rak opened its powerful jaws, its pearly teeth flashing as it brought its head down and closed its mouth around her upper body, encompassing it almost entirely. Jaeger was able to hear the snapping sound even from a distance as the pressure splintered her shell as though it was no more durable than a walnut, her natural armor counting for naught as the Teth’rak crushed her like a hydraulic press.
Her eyes widened as the realization of what was happening hit her, her long fingers clawing at its feathers, and her mandibles waving as the beast began to shake her like a dog with a chew toy. The leg that it was standing on tore off at the hip joint as it pulled, so monstrously strong that even the Betelgeusian Queen came apart like pulled pork in its maw. It was impervious to the blows that she was raining down on its head, her struggling futile. It released her for a moment as she tried to shield herself with her arms, pulling back before lunging again, getting a better grip with its foot-long teeth. It sounded almost like wood splintering as it pulverized her exoskeleton to get at the meat within, the feathers on its patterned face matted with her bodily fluids as she finally went limp.
By the time Jaeger dove into the cover of the trees and turned to look back, the Teth’rak had already dismembered her. He watched as it tugged violently to tear off one of her segmented arms like a restaurant-goer pulling the leg off a crab, shaking the limb back and forth. It apparently found her distasteful, releasing the limb and reaching down to bite her motionless body a few more times for good measure.
With the Queen dead, it didn’t matter how many Bug ships and soldiers were left, the hive had been sterilized. They could no longer replenish their numbers, and they couldn’t found a colony. Their invasion had been thwarted.
The Teth’rak lifted its head into the air, the ornate plumes that ran down its back raising like the feathers of a peacock as it shook the ground with a triumphant pulse, standing atop the ruined body of the Queen. Jaeger slipped deeper into the forest, leaving the grisly sight behind as he vanished into the shadows.
Jaeger stumbled through the trees, trying to stay downwind of the Teth’rak. He hadn’t seen head nor tail of it since the encounter at the crash site, it probably had more important things to do right now than chase tiny humans around. He was following the wall as best he could while keeping to the patches of dense forest. He knew that there were four gates, one for each cardinal direction, but he had no idea where he was relative to them. The wall was circular, so logic dictated that if he kept walking, he’d come across one eventually. He wasn’t sure what he’d do next, maybe knock?
His injuries were flaring up, and so he leaned against a nearby tree trunk, struggling to catch his breath. There was definitely something wrong with his lungs, it felt like he couldn’t get a full gulp of air. One of his legs was stiff and growing less responsive the longer he walked, and his back was killing him. If he didn’t find one of the gates pretty soon, he might not make it out. There was a beacon in his flight suit, but he didn’t know if it was active or if it too had taken damage during his risky ejection. Help might come for him, or it might not…
He sat down amidst the purple ferns, taking a moment to collect himself. He looked up through the alien canopy, slivers of blue just visible between the strangely-colored leaves. Even with the battle raging above, and the devastation that had rained down on the countryside, it all still looked so pristine, untouched. The lizard-birds hopped between the branches as if this was any other day, chirping and whistling as they looked down at him warily with their large eyes, flowers and palm fronds blowing in the breeze.
His brain was still processing what had happened, it felt as if only seconds had passed since he had been in space. He and Baker had taken down a hive ship on their own, making impossible shots at impossible speeds, and in an impossible situation, sending it crashing to the ground. The Queen was dead, killed by the planet itself, almost as if Valbara had sent its own champion to punish the invader. The Rorke was still spaceworthy, and without reinforcements, the Bugs attacking Yilgarn would be routed. Baker had made it out, Maza and her flock had been safe last he had seen.
Jaeger wanted to get up, he wanted to keep walking, but he was feeling light-headed. He clutched at his chest, leaning against the tree as he tried to stand up. There was a stab of pain in his back, and he slid back down again, his breathing growing shallower.
Nah, he didn’t feel like moving anymore. This was alright. It was okay. His job was done, everyone was safe…
“Bullseye,” he wheezed, chuckling to himself as he pointed his finger at the sky like a gun. The hive ship…that kill had been for Boomer. It was revenge, it had made things right. He felt his heart beginning to beat more slowly, the corners of his vision darkening. It wasn’t such a bad place to check out. There was a breeze, pretty flowers, the sounds of nature all around him…
Sudden movement caught his eye, the flashing of colorful feathers. He turned his head to look, but his vision began to grow hazy. It was a Valbaran with a laser rifle, wearing green and purple camo, reaching down to lift him up. More of them emerged from the undergrowth, helping him to his feet and supporting his weight.
“You are safe now,” one of them said, flipping up her opaque visor. “My name is Cuetz’xauh’qui, you pulled me from the jaws of the Teth’rak. Now I repay my debt. Come.”
He stumbled along, one of the little aliens supporting him under each arm.
“How did you find me?” he gasped.
“Your suit beacon,” she explained. “Try not to speak, you are injured.”
“The Queen is dead,” he said, ignoring the advice even as his lungs burned.
“I know, we saw it from an observation tower. The attackers in space are in disarray, they have lost coordination, acting independently of one another. Some have fled deeper into the system, others are being cut down by the defense stations and the remaining allied ships. The battle for Val’ba’ra is all but over.”
“And the city?”
“Without support from their fleet, the forces that made it to the ground are being scattered. There are still some of them fighting in Yilgarn, but they cannot prevail. Unlike those in space, they seem unaware that their flagship has been destroyed, and so they fight on. Reports of the same are coming in from the neighboring cities.”
“Good,” Jaeger mumbled, “good…”
“Lieutenant Jaeger?” Cuetz asked, alarmed as he began to lose consciousness. She gestured to her flock as he slumped in their arms, his vision going dark.