Clouds Last Run
“De opresso Letum, to free from death.”
Hunter watched the mighty Gudersnipe carrier Ruben James surrender itself to the heavens in a burning inferno against the hull of the Ogre. The Kamians had fought hard, but his unit had fought harder.
In the end the Gudersnipers just wanted it more. The Ogre had spat over two hundred fighters from its launch bays, while the Ruben James carried only four wings of eight fighters each.
Worse: the Kamian Troll fighters had the Gudersnipe Interceptor Harpy out-classed and out-gunned. The interceptors were designed for versatility and fleet-guard defense, while the Troll was a sheer attack vessel. The Kamian Yowai ships didn’t make it any easier, biological weapons designed to wipe out planets. Wraithguard wasn’t an important planet as far as Gudersnipe was concerned; but there were six billion people living on the surface.
That was enough reason for Hunter to fight to the death.
They had fought so hard, and had gotten so far. Over a hundred kills but the Yowais had escaped with two groups of fighter escorts. One had taken only fifteen or sixteen fighters and fled into deep space; the other survivors of the Ogre had set a course for Wraithguard with the Yowai. Hunter was the most senior officer left, though he hadn’t been commander on this mission. The flag would have passed to him anyway, but the troops followed him regardless of his stripes.
Now was the time to decide. He had nineteen ships left counting the Saratoga, all in good order and more or less half-armed. The Kamians had split their forces; he and his wing had no choice but to do the same.
It wasn’t hard to decide, really. Send a few ships after the small group and take most of his unit after the larger one. The Interceptors had no long-range communication abilities, so whoever he sent would be on their own. Gudersnipe had a small base and GATE facility on Wraithguard, but it had only planetary forces, and the planet itself had no defensive fleet. That meant it was up to Hunter’s remaining squadron to take them out. At least if they could get both tenders, the planetary forces could handle the fighters before they could kill too many civilians. Either way people would die, their job was to keep that number as far down as they could.
“Hunter,” Cloud signaled over the COM. “My wing is ready to pursue the smaller group, if you think—”
“They’re heading into deep space,” Hunter interrupted. “Your life support won’t last forever.”
“If you give us the order, we will go.”
Hunter considered Cloud’s words. He knew it, and Cloud knew it. People were going to die, and the Gudersnipe soldiers were ready to do whatever they had to protect them. Hunter didn’t like giving deadly orders, but he had no other choice. In this moment, it was Do or die.
“Chase them into the night,” Hunter ordered. “Gung Ho.”
“Aye sir,” Cloud replied confidently.
“Cloud,” Hunter said before killing the frequency. “Godspeed.”
* * *
Captain Cloud Jones rousted himself from where he slept on the console for the last time, and groggily rubbed sleep from his eyes. After he was sure he was awake as he would get without more sleep, he pulled his helmet back on and let the surge of electric senses flood into his mind. Gudersnipe had used this kind of interface with its fighters for a long time. It fed mostly radar data and flight information into his head, to give him fewer things to need to focus on in a dogfight. He reflected momentarily that it was kind of like a simplified version of the Kiyoku system they’d been working on back at Gudersnipe. He quickly pushed those thoughts aside however, and forced himself to focus on the task at hand.
It was time.
“This is going to be a bad day,” he mumbled as he began a final systems check.
He had departed the wreck of Ruben James and the Kamian Ogre with five wingmen, chasing after one of two Kamian Yowai bio-weapon ships that had escaped the fray. It had been a cold-blooded order, but he and his men understood. They had been ordered to pursue the Yowai into deep space, knowing full well that it would have to turn around before its life support failed if the Kamians aboard wanted to hit Wraithguard.
He had started with five wingmen, but he only had three left. The Kamians had sent three Trolls back during the long chase and managed to kill off two of his comrades. His ship and a few others had taken heavy damage as well.
And now the Kamians had turned.
A weeklong stern chase through deep space, no support ships, and the constant threat of annihilation every second. When the Kamians had sent back the fighters to surprise Clouds’ wing it had very nearly devastated them. He had been asleep then too, and it was his slow reaction that had killed his copilot. That was probably the worst part, if his inadequacy had been the death of him then he wouldn’t have cared, but instead it killed his close friend Rayne. Her body now hung limp in her battle harness, never to move again.
He felt bad, he’d let her die. But it wasn’t the end, Gudersnipe’s own rescue-return system would bring her back. That was how the school managed things, with the Rescue Return. It used Gudersnipe GATE technology to pull a student’s consciousness out of their body at the instant of death, and transfer it into a cloned body back on campus. Cloud had rescue-returned a few times, it wasn’t an experience he relished. You did have to die in order to use it, and the school made it very painful—both physically and mentally. They didn’t want students thinking themselves invincible.
It wasn’t something Cloud wanted to put anyone under his command through, least of all Rayne. He never wanted anyone to have to die for him.
Damaged as it was, his interceptor carried the last ship-killing weapon of the wing. One five hundred megaton multi-spatial bomb designed to rend asunder a capital ship the size of the Ogre. It seemed almost a shame to waste it on a pitiful Yowai, but they were fighting to protect an earth that had no means to defend itself.
Earth, it was an interesting concept. This particular earth was known to its inhabitants as Wraithguard. But Wraithguard was still earth, like any other planet that supported life. Earth was anywhere solid you could stand and breath air, anywhere you were safe from the thousands of ways to die in space. There were equally as many ways to die on earth, but Cloud defiantly felt a lot safer standing in a field of daisies than he did in space.
They had decided days ago when everyone was still thinking with clearer heads what they would do when the Kamians turned around. With the three Trolls they had killed in the chase they would be facing a full frontal assault from no less than thirteen Kamian ships. That would mean they were outnumbered three to one, plus the Yowai.
They would pull into a very tight formation, Cloud at the center, and dig a hole through the Kamian line with their power guns. When they broke the line he would shoot through and move in to point blank on the Yowai and hit the bastards with that all-powerful ship-killing bomb.
Thirteen red diamonds on the radar screen.
Thirteen red diamonds in a line in front of a big red triangle. That was how it looked on his radar screen; that was what he and his three wingmen faced. Thirteen red diamonds.
Deep in the back of his mind the superstitious number thirteen crept out and roared like a mouse in a bullhorn. He knew he had nothing to fear, he knew that this day thirteen would only be an unlucky number for soldiers of Kami. In his heart of hearts he knew that the Kamians would be blasted to pieces and his squad would be victorious, though there was almost no chance of surviving the battle.
“Attention all units,” Cloud called through the COM. “Pull into the Ice Hammer formation and get ready. It ends here.”
The four ships pulled into a formation so close that their drive fields were brushing against each other. As soon as the Kami came into range their power guns started to blaze, striking at anything close enough to hit.
As they roared closer, the Kamian Trolls began to accelerate to greet them. The Trolls were no doubt expecting them to break formation and start a general melee when they reached the lines, but that was not what Cloud and his squadron had planned.
The only reason his three wingmen would break formation was if they had to ram a Troll to keep it from taking out his missile-bearing ship. Interceptor power guns had a distinct range advantage over the Trolls disrupter-style weapons, but the Kamians had more stopping power. Pound for pound the Kamians could do more damage, the Gudersnipers were out-numbered and out-gunned, and they had just given up their range advantage.
Now all they had was speed.
The Kamian line erupted as the Trolls fired back. Cloud held firm as his wingmen took hits. While they had been spreading out their fire and trying to make it look like they meant to break up when they got closer, he had been concentrating every single shot on the ship directly ahead of him.
As the formation moved in to point blank Cloud fired his two remaining light missiles and blasted into oblivion the Troll that blocked his path. As they crossed the Kamian line his wingmen finally broke formation and executed hundred and eighty degree turns in order to guard him from the rear. Even as they prepared to sacrifice themselves the dark hulk of the Yowai rose up before Cloud.
He dodged four Kamian missiles as his Interceptor moved into close range. He smiled as he armed his last missile; the five hundred-megaton multi-spatial, and moved in closer for the kill.
It was time to die, and Cloud knew it.
He didn’t care now; death would end the hell in which he’d been living. For the last week, his reality had been hell, trapped in the cramped cockpit, half that time with the dead body of his best friend. His reality was twisted, sick, and terrifying.
He liked science fiction movies and books. They had a romantic and oftentimes optimistic view of space and war. It wasn’t really like that, but still the fiction was nice.
As he flew towards the Kamian Yowai harsh reality began to slip away. There was no need for it now, and so he let it die. The grim darkness of space vanished, to be replaced by the sleek gray walls of the Death Star.
His Interceptor became an Xwing fighter and he was no longer Cloud Jones. He was Luke Skywalker, and the Kamians were Darth Vader. He urged his interceptor even faster down the long trench as he approached the target point.
The weapon ripped away from the damaged interceptor and Cloud pulled off from the attack. The Yowai erupted in flames as the five hundred-mega ton bomb blasted it out of existence.
Cloud had no more wingmen. He was all alone with still ten Trolls; his comrades had only managed to destroy three.
But it mattered not, now. His wingmen were out of the way, he didn’t have to worry about them, didn’t have to concern himself with their safety as he had for the past seven days. The Yowai was gone; he didn’t have to worry about it and its planet-killing weapons either. Even his copilot was dead; all he had left was himself, and his interceptor.
Every pilot forged a special bond with his weapon.
Cloud knew his was deeper than everyone else; it had been his grandfather who designed and hand-built the first prototypes of the Interceptor class of fighter.
Jones Munitions, that was the company his grandfather had started. In an era where the rules of combat were changing, the man had found himself on the cutting edge. He’d really just been in the right place at the right time, but Jones Munitions had won the contract to build Gudersnipe’s new defensive fighter.
His grandfather’s vision of the Interceptor had been a simple mass-produced ship, and was so effective that it became extensively used by Gudersnipe. He had never placed much stock in them before; but now he had done it; he had saved a heavily populated world with his Interceptor fighter.
The powerful blast chased him from the Yowai wreck. He didn’t care, his interceptor was flying apart at the seems, any further damage was hardly an issue.
His sensors were blacking in and out, but he could still see little bits and pieces of his enemy.
He had nothing left to fight for.
The Trolls were too deep in space now to reach Wraithguard or the other wing. The earth was safe from everything and there was now only him, and his last interceptor.
Cloud fired his power guns at the limit of their range, sniping at the Trolls with an almost euphoric laughter. His sensors kept blacking out and the constant shift of the neural link was starting to fry his brain.
Logic and reason disappeared like the fireball of the Yowai. Adrenaline and intuition like a sixth sense were all that guided his guns.
Miraculously a Troll exploded, the guns having somehow passed its shields.
Another Troll blew up. Cloud drove his interceptor in close, sticking hard, some divine force seemingly warding off the slings and arrows of the Trolls.
It was said that only after you’ve lost everything are you free to do anything.
“Come on you bastards…” Cloud hissed through clenched teeth. “We’ve all got nothing to lose. Feel free to tag along—”
He sent two more Trolls straight to hell with his power guns. He was really on his game now, normally they would have overwhelmed him with their numbers but today for some reason everything was tilted. He was kicking Kamian ass and the Trolls were too slow to escape him.
“—On my journey into darkness!” he screamed as another Troll went up in a fireball.
There were only a few more left, but he felt he could take them. He had never imagined an Interceptor could take so much strain. Nearly every one of his status lights was red, but he ignored them. He didn’t care now, all that mattered was killing a few last Trolls before it all ended.
The gravitational compensators were failing, and he was beginning to feel the strain of the unbearable speeds he was traveling at. He let his body go slack, die, concentrating every fiber of his mind on controlling the ship.
“You’ve killed every last one of my ship mates!” he screamed. “Every single one! All I know, all I am! You’ve taken it from me!
“This is all I have left you god-damned demons! My regret, my anger, my hatred—and all of my sorrow!”
The engines failed as his Interceptor zipped past the last Troll, the power guns scoring a critical hit just as they sputtered and refused to fire again.
The Troll exploded, but he was the last one. Cloud’s fighter lay crippled in space, Cloud himself too badly injured even to move. But he had done it—he had killed all ten Trolls and their Yowai.
Cloud mustered enough strength to pull his helmet off and then hung in the zero gravity of space, staring out at the stars. His helmet was cracked and useless, and a faint hissing sound told him he was slowly losing cabin pressure. His eyebrows fluttered and a small smile spread across his face. The nightmare was finally over.
Somehow he had never wanted to die in battle, never wanted to end in a fire ball like so many of his comrades-in-arms. This was exactly how he’d wanted to die—safe in his Interceptor, in space, after a battle. But not so quickly that it was over before he could even think. Slowly, so he had the time to reflect, to think about all he’d done, maybe write down few final words.
Of course there was no one to read them—not now. His friends were all dead—who was left?
Hunter! Of course! Hunter was still alive. Even a thousand Trolls couldn’t kill him. And Hunter would be proud of him, his bold strategy and decisive attacks. He felt like a little boy running home to tell his father about a child’s game. Hunter had to know that he didn’t have to worry about the Yowai anymore.
He checked his readouts, the few panels that were still functioning in the drifting fighter showed mostly red lights, but he found the communications system still functional. There was hardly any power left, some break in the reserve lines was bleeding it away into space but there was enough left to send one message—if he acted fast.
The Interceptor carried no standard long-range communication system. There was no need in a ship designed never to stray far from its carrier. It did have something, a sub system of the standard communicator, a system that allowed him to record a message and send it through sub-space. It was slow, but it would reach its destination in time. There was no hurry now.
Cloud set up the COM link and did his best to compose himself. He knew he must be a mess, but this was hardly the time for vanity.
Still, he took a moment to wipe away as much of the blood as best he could and then faced the point on the control panel where he knew the tiny camera was imbedded, hoping it still worked.
“This is Cloud, Wing Commander,” he said slowly. He hadn’t realized how hard it was going to be to speak, but he pressed on. “The Yowai is dead, blew those Kamians to hell with a multi-S—and all their fighters. I shot down ten of them myself, I know the others are dead—” he covered his mouth to cough, and his hand came away bloody—“I’m hurt, but I’ll manage. These Trolls don’t know who they’re screwing with—just wait’ll I get another Interceptor, I’m gonna send all their friends to join them down in hell—Captain, the men fought well. You’d be proud of us all.”
Cloud raised his hand and saluted the camera. “I don’t know when I’m gonna get to take you up on that drink though. Losing power—Wing Commander Cloud, signing off.”
Cloud slumped to the side, his vision went black. With blood dripping form his shaking fingers he managed to hit the send button before he blacked out for the very last time, gently humming an old war song.