Chapter 1: The Victor's Shame
The calm before the storm. That’s what Captain Belcheck called it; the peaceful moments that occurred as two vessels soundlessly drifted around each other, waiting for the long cannons to come into range. Halson watched the enemy Cray elegantly glide around a large nimbus clouds. They were close enough to see the crew, scurrying around the rigging like tiny ants among the fragmented steel plates. It was a rather common rule to never start firing until you could tell what your enemy was wearing. Captain Belcheck rarely followed the rules though.
Two of the port sniper cannons were being loaded and trained on the enemy, leading them a good half mile. If the Cray’s Captain were a sound leader, they would have no trouble avoiding them. Halson began oiling his own gun; a rotating Sabre that he had come to handle with the speed and efficiency of a veteran officer. He looked to the helm, seeing the Captain’s thick grey beard billowing in the wind like his own personal color guard. His face was stern and never left the enemy Cray.
Halson’s own ship, a third module Combat Falcon, was at least twice as large as the enemy’s ship, with three times as many guns. In a fair fight, the Falcon would blow almost any fighter vessel to bits in a matter of moments, but the Malshic Crays didn’t fight fair. They were notorious acrobats, being known to maneuver at odd angles, catch the wind and turnabout in mere seconds. There were even tales of them dropping below the Cloud Sea, and surfacing on the other side of a vessel with terrifying speed. Halson didn’t know if any of the stories were true. He’d only attacked Crays at night, when their agility lost out to the unmatched stealth and firepower of a Falcon . This day was different, however. The enemy had appeared from nowhere, dropping out of a heavy cloud bank like a rat darting from its hole. They made no move to engage, and yet stayed eerily close to firing distance. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t going to end well.
“Charge the Pulse!” the Captain called, his eyes still fixed on the Cray. “I want two bursts, short, but strong. Get me in range for the Cherry Pickers.” The crew jumped to their work, and before long, two more cannons, shorter in length but easier to load, were wheeled up to the port side. The Cherry Pickers were standard on most vessels, even on cargo barges. The Captain jumped from his perch to land on the deck. His tall stature and rough skin spoke of a life time of standing in the wind and heavy rain. A long scar ran from his right eye, across his nose and ending just above his lip. It left him looking cruel, and heartless, but there was no debating that the stern man had a wealth of knowledge about the air. If he was lucky, Halson would learn a quarter of what the man knew, and it would still be enough to gain supremacy over the other cadets.
The Captain looked at Halson, nodding with his customary disdainful scowl. “Let’s hope you can hit more than just those weather balloons with that thing, private,” he said, walking passed him to inspect the baring on the snipers. “Now listen boys,” he called. Everyone stopped what they were doing to look up at him. “On my three count, I want the snipers to fire. On six, give me the Pulse. After that, have a little fun.” The men cheered, hoisting their picks and slings skyward. Halson made the sounds, but felt none of the mirth. He loaded an ammo chain into the Sabre’s mechanism and primed it. The Captain returned to the helm, looking over his shoulder one last time, and began to count.
“One,” the snipers hammered out the last few wind headings, a few of the surrounding crew members already began to cover their ears. “Two,” a mechanic flipped a large metal leaver, priming the Pulse generator. Halson felt his hair stand on end. The air felt thick full of unutilized power. “Three!” The deafening roar of the sniper cannons blocked out any noise. The shells fired out like dragon’s breath, incinerating clouds as they punched through the air. The whole ship rocked as they fired, making the crew grab any support they could find. The shells were flying fast, yet still not half way there. Halson’s hearing came back just in time to hear the Captain cry out, “six!” The Pulse Generator discharged in a flurry of sparks and ungrounded electrical waves. The ship lurched forward, causing the entire crew to hit the deck. The second pulse fired, and Halson swore that they had closed the distance to the Cray by half. A further call wasn’t necessary. The enemy was close enough to distinguish their dirty brown coats and black trousers. He could see the frantic steering of the helmsman as he tried to reposition their ship. Everyone opened fire.
In the confusion, it was hard to make sense of anything. Halson watched with careful precision, knowing that this battle could very well teach him a lesson that would be valuable in the future. His hands held down the triggers, spraying round after round at the enemy Cray. One of the sniper shells went wide, disappearing into the endless blue sky. The other round hit its mark, slamming against the hull with a devastating impact. Halson tried to keep his firing aimed at the gap that was formed in the steel plating, only straying wide to focus on a fleeing crew member here and there. The Cherry Pickers did their duty well, punching holes in the enemy hull every few seconds. The Cray tried to fight back, firing a few heavy shells, but they hadn’t expected a pulse engine, so the shots were poorly aimed and flew wide.
The skirmish lasted less than a minute. The Cray smoked and belched fire from the ruined hull. Halson’s Sabre cleaned up the remaining crew, hitting the far off bodies with an explosive impact. His gut began to twist as he saw the result of a round dismembering a man who attempted to crawl overboard. Fighting in the day was different than in night. He could see every burst of blood, every limb being tore from its socket. He wanted to stop, but knew that ending the assault early would result in harsh punishment. A man in a rough leather coat raised his hands, perhaps calling for surrender. Halson aimed, and tore him from the world.
The Captain lifted a hand and every crew member halted. Halson dropped the Sabre, letting the smoking barrel drift downward to rest in its cage. The enemy ship drifted downward slowly. Perhaps the Lift Engine was still trying to stabilize the vessel. The Captain lifted a finger, and a sniper fired one last round at the bow of the Cray. It hit with an explosive detonation. As if dropped by the hands of god, the ship plummeted down into the dark Cloud Sea. Captain Belcheck stepped down from his perch, scowling to anyone he saw. As he passed Halson, he patted him firmly on the back, and headed below deck. Halson fell back in his seat, sighing heavily.
The calm before the storm. That’s what the Captain called the peaceful moment that happened as two vessels soundlessly drifted around each other. “What was this moment called?” Halson wondered, glancing at the hole that the falling vessel had just made in the dark clouds. A soft boom sounded, marking the Cray’s final resting place beneath the ocean of grey. “The victor’s shame,” he said, tasting the bitter words as they rolled off his tongue. He smiled sadly, staring up at the rolling wisps of clouds far above. “Yeah, that’ll work.”
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