Sailors and Satellites
The sharp snap like a bullet crack, the staccato flap of metal wings, and the fierce unflinching maw of the void, rushing, clawing, tearing, manifesting itself as pure fear, rearing up to take her.
With a harsh moaning wrench of steel, fire, white explosive fire, burst forth from the instrument panel in front of her, erupting, belching smoke and flame onto her suit as one-by-one, the stars began to fall around her as the universe began to spin. Red lights flashing as the agonizing wail of klaxon alarms smashed against her ears. Gritting her teeth and biting back fear, she gripped the control stick in her hands, spitting the words through clenched jaw and unflinching eyes: “aim for the ship, the ship is home, home is where I must go, aim for the ship.”
A sharp crack as shrapnel ricochetted off the starboard side of her ship, splintering the viewing glass in a frost of spidered cracks, and sending her already reeling ship into a spiral. Red sound and bright lights; fire and light, fire and light, and she choked to swallow the fear as sweat, tears, and blood clouded her vision.
“Aim for the ship, the ship is home, home is where I must go, aim for the ship”
Around her, the universe was on fire; metal hail like a tempestuous storm shattering the stars around her: fire and light, fire and light. A thousand explosions, flaring blinding light like a thousand suns around her, for a moment blotting out even the stars in their visceral and terrible glory. Death not hanging in the air, but rather in full gallop upon mount, sickle in hand, a red glint in its eye. Shrapnel exploding like stars, bright lights, a red sound; and she centered her sights on the landing bay, slamming the stick forward, accelerating hard, her body gripped by the seat. A wail, a whining of engine and thruster and the scream of wrenching metal, or possible her own voice as the white light explodes in symphony around her.
While we slept, new wonders fell among us like ink upon a whetted page; like snowflakes that we chased like children on a winters day.
While we slept, towers grew mighty, and the machinations of war burned fierce. Time itself was slowed, the grounded were given wings, and giants were felled as the weak stood and screamed “no, we will not lay down!”
We are but sailors and satellites in a sea of endless black, and while we slept the stars shone a little brighter to light our way home.
Ada touched her fingers to her lips before reaching up to lightly tap them against the words, familiar and etched into metal, standing above the door to the pilot briefing room as she entered. “We are but sailors and satellites” she silently mouthed, letting the words sink into her heart as she did every time, smiling to herself in knowing that every other fighter pilot aboard the Iliad, that day or any other in its history of battle, had and would forever do the same.
The words were flowery, poetic enough, and yet oddly cold in their finish; assured in their embrace of the inevitable in some regards, and unquestionably out-of-place with their coldly precise embrace of fate for being on board a Gallente vessel. Federation ships were usually far more prone to “live for the moment” and “Carpe Diem”-esque mottos, and yet she took a smug pride in her ship being different in that regard.
She found her seat amongst the other jockeys, nodding at familiar faces, just as the lights dimmed for the daily op-prep briefing. As the Sergeant began his presentation, she frowned at the staccato vibration under her seat. Glancing to her left and right, she spotted the source, and smirked; the new fly-boy, tapping his foot nervously against the floor, thumb picking out a sharp rapid beat on the desk in front of him. She shook her head and looked down at her own unmoving hands, her feet flat against the floor. Had she ever been that nervous?
Mother called her imprudent and impetuous; father called her bold. Hers had been a childhood of tattered dresses and bloody knees, chipped nails and stone-roughed feet. While her mother fussed and tsked, attempting to subdue her unruly red hair back into some semblance of order while chastising her for her unkempt and unlady-like manner, Father was smirking in corner, waiting for the opportune time to take her in his arms, tussle her hair with his rough hands and his whiskers, and hear about her adventures.
Temperance; one of the first things they teach you in flight school is to remember always that you are mortal. Being in the presence of demi-gods tended to give pilots a reckless abandonment of self-preservation, and although they looked for a certain level of thrill-seekers, the instructors at the Federation Naval Academy meant to drive out any inclination of self-sacrifice in their recruits. Survival of the main ship was everything, but everything about the survival of that ship depended on its fighter pilots. Quid pro quo. Be bold pilot, just don’t forget to live. Have the will to live.
With a small stutter, the Iliad exited warp like the soft moment of first lucid breath, the trail of dream still lingering on the eyes. Strapped into the cockpit of her Firblog, deeply embraced within the huge ship, she was surrounded by dark silence. She breathed, smoothly and evenly, flexing her hands across the controls of her ship, starring deep into the darkness and waiting. Like waking from a dream, her brain played out the line from her training years ago and she smirked.
And then with a glow, her chamber came alive, her helmet crackling with sudden activity as command patched through: all systems go. In spite of her cool smug exterior, she felt her blood-pressure rise, her pulse humming in her ears as her hands flitted across her controls. And then there was the countdown; her pulse hammering behind her eyes as she waited for the snap of thruster release that would fling her forth from the ship and send her hurling into the black.
Green light, a giant shove in the back that took the wind from her lungs, and she melted back into her seat as the tiny ship cracked like a bullet from a barrel, her peripheral vision blurring as her fighter blasted forth from the launch tube into space.
Like waking from a dream
Of course, in reality, it always felt like the opposite; leaving the comforts of waking life and plunging into the darkness of a nightmare. The first thing they teach you is that you will forget everything they teach you in that hellish first second of crazed terror and madly disorienting chaos, and they were never wrong.
Like waking from a dre-
Her vision normalized in a flash as she blasted forth into space, and she froze for a microsecond at the sheer breath of the destruction around her. Wreckage and destruction spread out across the span of kilometers in every direction. The fire was everywhere; belching forth from immense weaponry, leaping across the void of space, and smashing headlong against its target to consuming it with death and white light. Metal hail, the debris of hundred of ships and lost souls hammered her ship like a ferocious rain as her vision was consumed by a blind explosion to her left, the hull of an enormous Maelstrom-class Battleship crumbling in on itself and turning to liquid gold as the mammoth ship slowly folded in-half before violently cracking asunder.
Her pupils wide, her mouth grim, she wrested back control of her body and her ship as the voice of her wing commander cracked in her ear.
“GO! GO! GO!” She flung her ship forward, switching safeties off and weapons hot as her tactical overlay flashing priority primary target as one of the closer two Bhaalgorns looming high starboard from the Iliad.
Her squad jolted as one into action; sharp, precise, together, like a flock of birds seeking the comfort of a warmer climate. In controlled descent they charged, spitting hot death, live rounds exploding in orchestrated ballet across the armored hull of the Bhaalgorn. Adrenaline seized her as she banked her fighter violently to the right, twirling into a spin as she followed her squad leaders movements precisely. She recalled her father referring to pilot train as “ballet class”.
She followed the ship in front of her with balanced precision as they banked hard to come around for a second pass, her fingers twitching over the firing triggers. The Bhaalgorn was taking heavy fire from two Proteus cruisers and a Vindicator sitting nearly on top of it, punching out round after round of heavy-hitting close-range ammo into the deep armored sides of the ship.
The day would be theirs, she knew it. While seemingly matched at first, the two fleets, hers and the opposing one, were rendered unbalanced by the arrival of the Iliad, and they both knew it.
She grinned wickedly as her squad came around. It was they who would turn this battle, and she hammered her point home with the weapons release, pounding the hull of the Bhaalg with another scathingly destructive rip of blaster fire.
“With me!” her squad leader called, and they followed as one, soaring high and fast away from the ship as the hull cracked under the assault of their second run, fire and gas venting into the abyss as the massive holes in the structure crumbled into jagged cracks, and the Bhaalgorn blasted apart into fragments behind them. No time for celebration, they peeled right to focus fire on the secondary.
And then with an electric whisper, she felt it before she saw it, as was usually the case. The soft tickle of current traveled up her arms to run its fingers up her spine before the universe literally tore asunder a few kilometers in front of them in a hot flash of light. Shit.
“Cyno! Enemy cyno is lit!” someone snapped into the com line.
The second thing they teach you is that the tides of battle will change in the blink of an eye. She hated that lesson.
The light flashed blinding hot as they watched through squinted eyes as suddenly sensors picked up the new additions to the battle. Holy gods…
Before them now stood a full support fleet of Battleship-classed vessels at least 40-strong, and along with them three Naglfar Dreadnaughts, bristling with armaments and immediately going into siege mode. Then her blood ran cold; trap sprung. Four Heavy Interdictor-class Broadswords screamed across the battlefield from the ranks of the newly joined enemy, their target clear; the Iliad.
With sharp cracks and electric snaps, the space around the Nyx was suddenly peppered with warp disruption fields; her blood pounded heavy in her veins.
“Primary those Hictors, NOW!”; voices shouted into coms as her squadron arched across the void. Quid pro quo; the survival of the ship is everything. The cyno field flashed again as another wave of enemy ships, including four Archon Carriers breached into the fray. Her eyes went cold as she realized how massively outnumbered they now were.
To their right now, and slightly below them, they watched as their Vindicator crumpled under the weight of primary fire from the Battleship wing and enemy Carrier fighters. Altogether to quickly, the ship melted fissures burning hot heat as the vessel erupted into fire, searing her eyes. We’ve already lost this.
In slow motion, she watched the tides change before her, as the onslaught overpowered her fleet one-by-heart-wrenching-one. Defenses crumbled as the enemy surgically removed the support fleet from around the Nyx.
Orders came through her ear: all fleet to concentrate fire on the Broadswords as the Nyx attempted to align itself away from the fray. Her overview lit-up with one of the heavy ‘dictors as her squad concentrated fire along with the remainder of the fleet as it burned around her. Punching her accelerator, she gritted her teeth and opened fire as they buzzed the cruiser-sized ship.
They banked again to come around to focus on another of the ships holding her home hostage. Around her, her fleet crumbled, to her left a burning Megathron hull listed dangerously to its side, spewing forth fire and gas as it slowly lost control and careened bow-first into the second Mega to its right, smashing into the hull in a crunching of steel and a torrent of fire.
One of their Proteus cruisers, armor crumbling around it, was maintaining its withering fire on one of the Broadswords, pounding it with round after round as it itself slowly gave its life for the Nyx. Together, they turned to twisted metal and fire; she winced.
She looked across the carnage and the wreckage at the Iliad taking the brunt of the onslaught. A round fired from a 6x2500mm repeating artilery Dreadnaught weapon exits the massive, massive chamber in a belch of pure energy and white fire, similar in size to a the typical explosion radius of a Rifter frigate yielding to the cold embrace of defeat. The slug, weighing in at roughly 8 feet in diameter, travels its optimal range of 25 kilometers in the flit of an eye, and is capable of punching a hole the size of a typical planet-side home into the very structure of whatever stationary, or even moving, object is unlucky enough to get in its trajectory. The Iliad was taking it from all three Dreads.
A third one of the Broadswords was bleeding armor when the call came out: all fighters, return to the Iliad.
She banked hard, dodging shrapnel, the hard flash of laser fire and sonic blast of ammunition shells ripping at the space around her as she zeroed in on the Nyx.
“Aim for the ship, the ship is home, home is where I must go, aim for the ship”
“Aim for the ship, the ship is home, home is where I must go, aim for the-”
With a scream of metal, her ship rocked sideways as the artillery round exploded next to her, violently slamming her against her restraints, her helmet bouncing off the side panel. Her vision went white with light as alarms ripped through the cockpit of her ship as it careened wildly out of formation, fire and smoke pouring forth from the instruments in front of her. Blood, warm and metallic, tricked over her brow from the blow to her head above the temple, and stung her eyes and she fiercely gripped the controls.
She forced her jaw open, screaming now “aim for the ship, the ship is home, home is where I must go, aim for the ship”. She tried to catch her bearings, and could see it there off to one side, the Nyx with its yawning docking bay. Forty kilometers, tops; I can make forty kilometers.
The sharp crack of shrapnel, slamming into starboard side of her ship and splintering the viewing glass; her fighter went into a full-on barrel roll. Spinning, spiraling wide, she felt the fear and bile rising in her throat, her pulse hammering in her ears as she clawed to remain conscious against the crushing force of the Gs and the belching black smoke filling her cockpit.
Focus on the ship, focus on the ship!
She thought of skinned knees and torn dresses; her parents, smiling and playing with her hair. She felt her face crumble. The tears came, mixing with the acrid sweat and blood streaming down her face; fighting to see, fighting to make it. Her world in slow-motion, an explosion, like the blossom of a magnificent flower, off to her right; the streak of burning debris and bits of metal and twisted steel reeling past her cockpit spiraled like a flake of ash caught in the updraft of a flame.
First rule: we are mortal. Have the will to live.
I want to live.
She lit her afterburner, screaming, as her flaming ship, falling apart around her, rocketed through the the black, a shooting star, a burning ember across the fire and the the destruction and death. And then the Iliad was directly in front of her, quickly reaching out to her, the landing bay wide open as the giant Supercarrier rocked with the withering fire from the Dreadnaughts. She pulled back hard, pulling the controls with every fiber of her being as the dove down, spinning wildly into the landing bay.
With a bone-crushing crunch, she touched down, sideways, against the deck, bouncing hard amongst showers of torn metal and fire and ripped fuselage. With a tearing screech, her left wing sheered off against the floor as the ship spun wide, cock-pit down, smashing against the deck as it crashed violently through a parked cargo-loader in a shower of sparks to come to a crunching and sickening stop against the bulkhead wall.
Blackness; her vision completely clouded out, blood filling her helmet. Her hands in a death-vice grip on her controls.
A breath; a single breath left her trembling lips. Gods. She was alive. Dimly, she was aware of a crackling through her smashed helmet; her com-line. More static.
*Crssshh* *Crshhhhhhh* “support inb-” *crssshhhhhhh* “Enemy HIC down”.
She let out a sob, letting her hands drop from the control stick as she felt the hulking Nyx shudder beneath her, jump-drives spooling up. The support fleet had done it, sacrificed themselves for the Supercarrier. With a shuddering tremble, she felt the Iliad exit the destruction, and she wept as they left behind the death and fire and light of conflict; fire and light, fire and light.
We are but sailors and satellites.
She murmured the words as she watched the rescue crews dash towards her fighter through the smashed cockpit:
The stars shone a little brighter to light our way home.
This is my submission to the 8,000 suns category of the Pod and Planet fiction contest. Thanks for reading!