Ghosts

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Chapter 24 – “The brightest flames burn the most”.

Ships lined up across the deep blackness, larger battleships swinging into an attacking formation, guided with military precision into a creation of greater destruction; synergy of the beasts greater once combined into a singular unit, a pack of wolves hunting its prey.
Smaller, faster vessels approached warily, held back seemingly on a leash, struggling to keep a pre-ordained distance from their supporting battleships. None of the ships, great or small feared the conflict that they approached.

The Dead warships closed the distance to the station, a grin on each pilot’s face, scars on each ship, battle-hardened, skirmish trained and devilish in mind-set. They had come for war.

To the rear of the approaching Dead division, more ships pounced out of the jumpgate. New paint recently dried, some would sceptically claim war-painted in a bright yellow and brown camouflage pattern, the new ships followed those Dead ships in front of them.

The ships were all the same version of five uniform styles, huge warships dominant, large and aggressive, guns built for long-term battles. It was clear from the ships’ paint scheme and newly-built status that these were not true Dead crafts.

The ships flowed through the jumpgate, one by one they came through, engulfed by a widening swarm of fighters, battleships and cruisers all loaded with ammo to fire.

Eventually the jumpgate became less active, and all movement into the system ceased. All together fifty yellow warships endangered the stars, looking like a sun, ablaze, a span of yellow flames ready to rush forward surrounded by older vessels.

Zylinski charged out of his office, responding to a call from the control room. Struggling for breath, he ignored the comments flowing around the room, his eyes staring straight out of the large window overlooking the depths of space.

Tactics formed in the mind of a strategist, denying the evidence to the contrary that the tactics could never beat the over-whelming numbers. A thought roared defiantly through the tactician’s tired, shell-shocked mind.

‘We just need to hold out until the other stations’ ships can arrive,’ the mind said aloud knowing that support was unlikely. A Commander knew that tactics are only as good as the morale of the fighters. The tactician spoke, just once in the next fifteen minutes. His words were bold, confident and angry.

‘We shall fight. Send out all of the pilots who are still on-board. Situate them at point-one-alpha, halfway between the base and the jumpgate the fools used. Evacuate all unnecessary ships out of the furthest gates to the Dead. Send two fighter ships per thirty civilian ships. We can’t spare more. I want everyone gone except military crew, or at least as many as we are allowed to shuttle away from here. We have approximately an hour before they are in range and can target the base, which they will. They did before.’ A rapt silence greeted him.

‘They will target the power plants, the satellites and communication relays. We are going to lose some or all of them before the fight is done. Plan now for it. All communication is to be sent immediately. Prepare who will do the running around the station if required. Have staff at relay points to minimise the delays.’ More fearful silence.

‘Send warning signal satellites through the gates and leave them gate-side to forewarn anyone wanting to come through to us unaware of the battle. They may try to scramble them so we need to make sure they don’t block our messages. Send a message with every civilian ship to pass to whatever bases or large ships they arrive at. We need as much help as possible.’ Without breaking conversation the man clicked a button and spoke into a microphone.

‘This station is now under military rule. The Dead or unknown crafts are approaching. All civilian ships are to take as many passengers as they can and evacuate the base for their own protection. This is not up for discussion.’ Zylinski starred straight out of the window at the amassed horde.

‘You will be informed of the two gates you can use. We cannot force you to use those gates however your life and the passengers’ lives may be forfeit if you do not do so. The Dead are not here for hostages. Stay as calm and rational as you can but move lightly and as fast as you can, you will get safely to the jumpgates.’ A deep breath filled Zylinski’s lungs.

‘The enemy are the military’s enemy and are only after the base. You will be safe as long as you leave in the next hour. Those who have space available for those without travel, offer that space for the honour of your own kind. No one leaving will be expecting to be hurt, only those that stay might. Do what is right. This message will repeat every two minutes. Stay calm, help those who need help or send them to a crew-member. We shall be everywhere ready to help. We will win this fight.’

The message left a minute of silence, the words taken in by all on board the station. Without warning an alarm kicked in, stopping only for the repeated words of the Commander.
The station’s normal hustle and bustle of people soon became a stampede of panicked souls all ready to evacuate. The Commander knew immediately that they would not all get off the station.

The dread soon spread down to the docking bays as civilian pilots stormed for the first available undocking time. It wasn’t long before fights ensued, soldiers with guns required to settle disputes of who was next to leave. Attacks on crew were regular and somewhat expected but ultimately doomed more souls to be left on-board.

Fighters poured out of the station destined for their agreed interception point. Once all were out, more docking bays were freed for the evacuating civilian ships to depart through. Once out into the cold of space, the civilians’ first glance was at the fleet advancing on them, their next was to the gates they wanted to flee to. Panic consumed them as fear and boosters pushed them away towards the gates.

Those lucky to leave early enough were saved from the fearsome war-cry of the Dead. The chant was heard by the rest, forcefully patched through the station’s base tannoy system by devious means.

‘We are Dead. We fear not our death,’ the high-pitched metallic voice echoed throughout the system.

‘How many fighters are out there?’ Commander Zylinski asked watching the fighters move into position through the station’s glass.

‘Not many. Most are on active duty elsewhere. We have thirty-five. Five battleships and ten heavy fighters. The rest are light fighters, some of which are out shepherding locals away from here. They will be back but we cannot say how long they will be away.’

‘The Dead are not after them. They are after the prize, Faith. The locals will be left to flee. Why risk a ship on them when the station is the target.’

‘We are outnumbered, but we do have the Station’s weaponry.’

‘We can only pray we have enough. Our fleet isn’t exactly top-of-the-range anymore. It’s not up-to-date weaponry neither. We have never needed it, nor been able to afford it. Pirates around here have been using older tech themselves.’

‘I bet the new ships aren’t…’

‘We can only pray they are.’ Zylinski looked solemn as he said the words.

‘They will be in range soon, Commander Zylinski.’

‘Tell the ships to hold fast. We wait until they fire. Let them breach the peace.’

‘Some of our ships are reporting that they are being targeted, Commander.’

‘Then we return the action. Fire once they do. We have no options anymore. They will wait until optimum firing range. We have several minutes before that happens.’

‘Some of their fighters are now firing. We are returning fire one by one, as we close on them.’

Zylinski glanced down at the control panel, showing the shield status of his fleet. He grimaced as he watched one of the shields drop, the colour changing from green to a dark red.

‘He’s too close to the fighters. They are taking us down one at a time. Tell him to fall back to within the repair support ship’s range. They can remote repair him as best they can.’

‘He’s not gonna make it, Commander. They’ve targeted his engines…’

Zylinski watched on as his fleet closed in on the Dead fighters. A glance down once more fore-warned him that it was too late to help the stricken light fighter. Eyes shut as a burst of orange popped, silently flashing brusquely outside the station.

“Thirty-four left,” conceded Zylinski gulping briefly.

’Order the ships to lure them to the agreed tactical points. Divide them up as best we can. Once there they will be in range of the long-distance cannons. Tell da Silva’s team to target the battleships. I want their missile hard-points melted down. Now! Don’t let them get in range of the station with missile bays full.

The orders were re-asserted outwards. The warring factions traded several ship losses each as the battle ensued before the target zones were reached. The station’s cannons propelled their ammunition with venom, tearing through the older Dead crafts. Struggling to escape several Dead ships imploded before a strategy change was implemented. Pulling back from the Faith Space Station and its weaponry, the Dead drifted out of reach baiting the Military Police away.

Zylinski shook his head. ‘What are they doing? Tell them that they need to not stray too far from the station. We can support them… We…’ The Commander stopped talking as he saw several more explosions pollute the space.

‘How many do we have left flying out there?’

‘Total of twenty five. We have lost five and we still have five light-fighters escorting the locals away, Sir.’

‘At this rate, when those five return they will be easy pickings for the Dead. How many Dead are left?’

‘Assuming the new ships are Dead, sixty-seven. Mostly the new ships. The old ones are Dead for sure. Most of them are going down fast, but the yellow ships are taking a beating and surviving.’

Under his breath, Zylinski swore softly, frustration over-whelming his emotions as the time went on.

The station cannons stood idle, steel constructs unmoving. As the Dead light fighter ships drew Zylinski’s pilots away from the station gradually and closer to the Dead battleships, the Dead tactics slowly working away, Faith’s station guns remained dormant awaiting a ship to come in range.

Furious, watching by as his wing commanders failed one by one to realise the danger, Zylinski grabbed a nearby communication microphone and ordered the pilots to fall back, weighing up the odds of losing some during the retreat process, or all of his fighters if they failed to draw the Dead within range of the cannons. He watched on as four more of his ships were caught by missiles blistered out of the yellow-tainted battleships, his pilots struggling to escape the explosions with their lives. The Dead normally merciless left the life-pods alone, concerned with defeating more of Zylinski’s forces.

‘The light fighters are shooting down the engines, and the battleships are barraging our hulls and shields with missiles and pulse fire. The light fighters are getting repaired remotely by the heavy fighters and a few battleships. The drone bays must already be emptied out,’ Zylinski declared aloud.

He waited for confirmation that his pilots were back in range.

‘Ignore the light fighters,’ he ordered defiantly.

‘But Sir, they are the ones in range of the pilots...’

‘Ignore the light fighters. That is an order. Let the cannons target them as best they can for now. Tell the teams to take out the repair drones. They are the new priority. Take them down and the light fighters will become an easier target.’ Zylinski spoke as he deliberated an action plan.

‘Prioritise the logistics ships and the repair ships and their drones. If the battleships fail to move closer, they will do limited damage, being out of optimum target range for the cruise missiles they have used. If they close in, we can put cannons on them and they will be too slow to avoid the damage. Let’s see how they adapt. Will they risk the swapping of fire? We’ll see. Do it now!’

The orders were relayed with immediacy and acted upon. Leaning over a control room operative’s shoulder, Zylinski clicked a few buttons and analysed the enemy drones.

‘They have a hundred and thirty three repair drones. It’s going to take forever killing them off. With the drones repairing the ships, it’s going to be even longer to win this war.’

‘Will our pilots, hold out?’

‘I don’t know. Some of them need to be repaired. Better tell any that are into structural damage to dock up. The Dead won’t track them back home due to the cannons. They should be ok to fall back home. Tell Lund to get the repair bays ready and to do the best in the fastest time. He will know what I mean. Get them back flying as fast as possible with the best repairs we can.’

‘Aye, aye Commander.’

‘I want one repaired and out flying and one then to be called back in, until I say otherwise. We may win this battle yet if we fight smart.’

Despite stating his sentence with great enthusiasm, the Commander knew the odds were dropping as each ship was lost. As the battlefield factions diminished in size, the targets became easier to call, and mistakes would be less. Zylinski gulped, nausea hitting him as the stress levels rose further.

The battle consumed Zylinski’s thoughts, draining him as he watched the shield levels of his pilots rise and fall, followed by a bleeding of the hulls as the shields dropped and steel was struck by venomous strikes.

‘Angelo da Silva has docked up, and wishes to speak with you, Sir. He is waiting outside, Commander.’

‘I will speak to him out there. Shout me if needed.’

The Commander roamed out of the control room that was currently guarded outside by two Police soldiers.

‘Angelo, walk with me.’

‘Commander, this is not going to be won. You do know that?’ Angelo da Silva warned, concerned by the battle. Out of listening of any personnel the men talked quietly.

‘I am aware of the odds, Angelo.’

‘I have seen battles like this, and they are always lost. I have no problem with dying. You know that. I’d rather die in battle than any other way. But, if you lose this battle…’

‘I lose the station. I know the risks, Angelo.’

‘So, what is plan B?’

‘We need a Hail Mary, Angelo.’

‘Yer? You know anyone that could help us? Everyone is out there dying. We need ships or for the Dead to get their tactics wrong,’ da Silva stated calmly.

‘If the drones can die off soon enough then maybe we win this one,’ the proud Commander proclaimed, but his doubt bled through to Angelo.

‘We are trying out there but the battleships won’t close in to Faith’s turret range. We are losing the numbers game. We are as good as them now that we have found the organisation. We are matching them ship loss for ship loss. The leadership is there. It’s the numbers that aren’t. The cannons will help.’

‘I’ve called out for re-enforcements from other stations but we can’t count on any arriving in time. Our carriers are out too far in the deep to return in time. We make do with what we have. If I have any other options, I’ll follow it. For now, I’ve done all I can. We fight for Faith, and we have to find a way within our means. If we lose, it’s because we had no more fight to give.’

The men stayed quiet for a minute, words lost within tired minds. Commander Zylinski shook his head and punched a nearby railing, sending the steel reverberating along the rail. He declared aloud a question that had been racking his thoughts since the battle had begun.

‘That Dead force is astonishing. Where have they got the numbers from?’

‘The shipyards? They must have completed earlier than expected. With a fresh paintjob?’ Angelo speculated.

‘I’m not so sure. We’ve monitored some of the shipyards, as we prepared to assault them, and we have not seen any movement, unless, I’ve not been notified, of course.’

‘They might have had more than just those shipyards?’

‘The Dead? How? Why?’

‘We now know why? Funded by illegal exploits, I assume.’

‘We don’t know why they want an army? To attack Faith? Why do they desire our space station? If they can build so many ships, they can build their own station? The Dead do not do politics. I am at my wit’s end here and all I can do is fight until I die. We need them drawn in for the guns to take a few out.’

‘I know, Commander. I have a few minutes before I have to get back out there. You need a Hail Mary. I’ll see what I can muster up in the docking bays.’

‘They’re empty, pretty much, and civilians cannot help, I can’t ask them to commit suicide.’

‘All we can do is try,’ Angelo da Silva smiled weakly before turning around and walking back down towards the docking bays, leaving the Commander to wander back into the anxious control room, feeling no better than he was before he left.

Entering his own personal ship, Angelo clicked keys on a console, bringing up his communication screen. He looked through a list of names and selected as many as he had time to select before a shout through the ship advised him the vessel was partly repaired and ready to re-enter space. He sighed, frantically sent a message to the contact list before dashing to the cockpit.

Lynette de Cesare looked out towards the battle ensuing outside the station. A ship exploded, short-timed and obtrusive to the eyes, demanding attention.

‘I cannot believe you decided to stay here, Lynette,’ Amir spoke with hurt anger in his eyes.

‘What’s more, I cannot believe I let you talk me into staying with you.’ The man’s voice sounded upset, concerned by what was happening outside.

Lynette de Cesare contemplated making a snap reply telling him that he didn’t have to stay, but decided to let it slide. Her own fear kept her quiet.

Turning her attention away from the battle, Lynette noticed a small child smelling a nearby ornamental flower bed.

Lynette ordered Amir, who was now acting as her cameraman, to record the scene. The girl, eight or nine years old, clutched a doll under her left arm as she reached down to the cluster of red and pink roses. With little worldly concern she pulled a pink rose out of the bed and sniffed it intently, smiling as she did so. Outside the glass panelling the battle raged on. Criss-cross laser fire, blue and white scorched across the bows of ships.

Tiny fingers held the rose with kindness and awe as the girl put the flower between her blonde hair just above her left ear. Pulling another flower out the flower bed she held it up to her nose to smell the red rose.

For a brief second the girl starred out at the chaos outside, for a moment taken in with the coloured laser fire. Outside a second ship, milled from different angles by turrets and missiles imploded, its colours bold and intense. Damage taken close to the Faith Space Station, the ship sent shrapnel outwards. A section of steel, seven foot by five foot drifted towards the station, edging towards the glass screen.

With stunned faces, already scared, the onlookers looked on. With boredom, the girl turned her attention back to the flower in her hand. Skipping around the room she started dancing around pulling the roses out a petal at a time, uncaring about the warzone outside, her smile showed no fear.

Within the station’s docking bay waiting room, the other faces starred uneasily at the incoming metalwork. The steel drifted slowly from right to left, slamming into the station’s own metal several yards from the glass panelling. The dull sound echoed within the room. The girl kept dancing, ignorant of the loud clang, lost in her own amusement.

Lynette checked with Amir if the camera had recorded the scene. Amir nodded confirmation. After the girl left the room, her hand grabbed by a nervous mother, dragging her away from the sight of battle, the reporter re-played the footage. The recording showed the metal drifting past, and the child dancing, unconcerned by the sins of others.

Amir looked at Lynette as she replayed it again and again.

‘If we live to tell the tale…’ Lynette spoke whilst pausing the video on a frame showing the girl’s uncaring smile, and broken space debris drifting behind her.

‘This is why we stayed behind.’

Outside the battle raged on. The warzone cluttered with debris, ships torn in two or three parts made movement difficult for survivors, darting in and around each other. Shields rose and dropped, sweat poured across faces as the stress showed its ugly face. Missiles spun and swerved around, targeted to their prey, who concentrated on their own prey, more aware of the danger of not shooting than being shot.

Angelo da Silva’s ship howled out of the docking bay, quick emergency repairs done, and his battle waiting once more. Words rung out in his head. His words first spoken just five minutes before followed by those of another.

“Is she ready?”

Peter Lund’s words worryingly echoed again and again in his head as he targeted a light fighter with haste.

“Barely, we did what we could. We stopped the bleeding. The rest is down to you.” Lund’s words stuck in his memory as the ship zig-zagged around debris.

With a fresh supply of missiles, and turrets that were now cooled down, his enemy would soon see the fury of his full range of firepower. Unable to use his smart-bomb he knew its power would only inflict damage with friendly-fire, despite the force it weld against multiple drones.

Da Silva’s target barrel-rolled sharply to the left as its shields wavered, avoiding the latter of Angelo’s laser fire. The shields dropped to half levels as the pulses hit and missed. Angelo swung his own craft violently to one side, shifting into the same flight-path as the Dead fighter.

Unable to avoid the superior piloting skills of da Silva, the ship was soon ripped into with laser fire; turrets blistering the metal work after missiles pummelled the shields into failure.

The Dead pilot knew he was imminently doomed. With malice, he moved his ship towards a nearby Military Police fighter fifty kilometres ahead. Unaware of the danger the Police vessel continued its own journey. Angelo saw the danger, attempting to communicate the threat to the pilot.

With limited success, his words fell off to silence as the two ships collided. The death of both pilots stung Angelo, fuelled by grief for the deceased soldier and angered by the evil of the Dead.

Sending his ship at the nearest Dead, he target-locked the ship before sending a flurry of missiles at the shields. The heavy fighter took longer to become endangered, but it was prey to being more sluggish, less-agile and harder to control, and Angelo’s skills soon drained the shields as his own rose back to full strength. Debris briefly obscured his vision, leaving the enemy to attempt to flee unsuccessfully.

With line of sight restored, Angelo shredded through the steel of the ship, disfiguring the metal into submission. Becoming twisted and wounded the ship soon started to buckle before exploding. Angelo, surprised to see an escape pod had ejected, targeted the pod, angrily ready to return the killer to his maker to avenge the fallen military pilot. He stopped.

The sight of a battleship in front of him, made him look at his ship’s radar and command screens. Realising he had drifted too far away from the station, he knew his journey would come to an end this day. Around him several battleships targeted him slowly, one by one, as their own prey died off leaving him next in line.

Angelo closed his eyes, before opening them again. The battleships took to hitting his ship with missiles. Da Silva attempted to flee, in between debris to take missiles out as he fled. Soon and with space in front of him now clear and empty of debris, Angelo closed his eyes once again, ship hurtling freely, waiting for death, before opening them slowly again. The sight awaiting him had changed.

Without warning the emergence of a ship through the nearest jumpgate brought turbulence to the already stressed populace. The behemoth loomed large thirty times the size of the closest battleship, dwarfed only in diameter to the Faith Space Station. The menace of the object sent shockwaves throughout the control centre and the pilot forces.

With no warning, nor communication, the ship crawled slowly closer, threateningly, towards the Faith Space Station.

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