Dark Omega

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Chapter 6 HELLO, OLD FRIEND

“Comms check,” Wing Commander Ajax Shiloh, 134th ‘Black Death’ Interceptor Wing, Coalition Space Navy, barked into his pickup. His throat was raw, his mouth bone dry, and his voice sounded false in his own ears. I know that feeling well enough. Hello, fear. Can’t say I’ve missed you.

For a fighter pilot, the fear was a constant companion—there were few occupations more hazardous. Barring an early death, which was all too common, you either learned to live with the beast gnawing in your guts or you cracked. Cracking was the end of the line, as surely as death in combat: there was only one penalty for cowardice under the Seven Golden Roses of the Coalition, and it involved a shooting squad—or a spacewalk without a suit. The recruitment officer promised glory, and here I sit, nearly shitting myself for the hundredth time.

The crew was buttoned up in their spacesuits. With the ship readied for combat, its compartments were emptied of air to prevent uncontrolled decompression and reduce the risk of fire. Shiloh gulped down some water from the dispenser tube mounted inside his flight helmet. He glanced down at his secondary multi-display: verification messages started coming in almost immediately, but it took all of twenty-eight seconds for every ship of his four squadrons to call in. Too long. Too long by far.

The Black Death had been one of the Coalition’s elite space interceptor wings, going toe-to-toe with the best pilots the Union had to offer. But that was a thing of the past. Too many veteran crews had gone to Elysium or been reassigned to other units as part of the Archon’s military buildup. Even Shiloh’s flight leaders were inexperienced. Only the squadron chiefs could be called veterans. Perhaps I should just be glad the formation is at full strength.

Unlike many other fighter wings, Wing Commander Shiloh did have his full complement of eight and forty lethal VDR-17 Voidraptor Fleet Interceptors, arranged into four squadrons of three four-ship flights each. Maybe that’s what constitutes an elite formation these days: having all your ships.

“Elite my ass,” he said out loud.

“Sir?” Weapon Systems Officer Anaximander—Axe among his friends—replied and turned his head to look at his superior. Shiloh wondered as he had so many times before, how a man as darkly handsome as Anaximander had ended up in such a dangerous line of work. He looked a lot more like a statue of one of the Pantheon’s gods than the fleet noncom he was. On the other hand, Axe was the finest co-pilot Shiloh had ever had the pleasure of flying alongside. He seemed completely unaffected by the prospect of a sudden, violent death lurking just around the corner. Maybe Anaximander had, unlike his superior, found the place in life the gods had intended for him.

“Nothing, Axe. Eyes peeled, we are approaching Protasian orbit.” Shiloh didn’t want his growing unease to show. He was a leader, and if the men sensed weakness, they would quickly lose heart.

From his position on the right flank, the Wing Commander watched as the Coalition’s flagship approached Protasia, pushing through a debris field left by an earlier battle between the CSN vanguard and Protasia’s orbital defense grid. It was a Thor-class battleship, one of the most powerful ships in the Archon’s arsenal. The sight of the massive vessel still awed Shiloh, even though he had seen it a hundred times before. So like an arrow, pointed straight at the heart of the enemy.

“All fighters, watch for mines and drone-turrets,” he said over the command net. His commander’s brief had—very briefly—mentioned the possibility of enemy minefields and automated defenses. In Shiloh’s opinion, Navy planners never gave the enemy due credit, so that brief mention represented a real danger to his fighters.

The flagship, le Coeur Furieux—the Furious Heart—was screened by six lethal battlecruisers, two Syndicate Orions with snub noses and flaring compensator wings, and four Coalition-produced Suffrens, their signature missile pods extended, making them look like giant space squids.

“Sir, shouldn’t there be more escorts?” Navigator Kassie Jubal chimed in over the intercom. The navigator’s position was in the same compartment as the pilot and co-pilot, but to the rear and right of Shiloh’s seat, obscured by a rack of multi-displays stacked floor to roof.

“No,” the wing commander replied. “It’s just us. The brass has lost too many destroyers already. The vanguard was nearly wiped out—we’re flying through them right now. The rest of the tin cans are running ragged to compensate. And the frigates are too big, too lightly armored, and too damn valuable to run the debris fields.”

“Contact!” called Axe, interrupting his superior. “Enemy vessels, coming over the horizon, low orbit and climbing.”

“Keep at it, Chief,” Shiloh replied in what he hoped was his calmest voice, “let me know when you have classes and numbers.” He willed his comms unit—like all crew members, Shiloh had a neural link to the ship, letting him operate critical subsystems with a thought—to switch to the command channel. “All fighters stand by for tactical update.” Shiloh flipped the mental switch back and continued in the same calm voice over the intercom. “And that is why the 134th is here today, Jubal. To do what the fleet escorts should be doing. We’re small enough to run the gauntlet—and expendable enough to risk. But if the enemy comes our way, we’ll show him we can bite.”

“I count maybe three cruisers,” the WSO said, “plus thirty to forty escort vessels. Unknown number of strike craft.”

“That’s not good enough, Axe, give me some real numbers,” Shiloh snapped. That’s an entire armada. We’re dead. The fear was back, boring into his guts. You’re never far away, old friend.

“No can do. Enemy ships are spewing interference—damned powerful jammers. Scanners are trying to compensate, but I can’t get a good fix. Sorry, Sir.”

Even as Shiloh and Axe spoke, their onboard legate was transmitting tactical data back to the flagship. The Collegium-trained telepath was barely rated above the Kappa limit, unable to astrally project over interstellar distances, but still capable of instantaneous, highly secure intrasystem communication. Even a low-grade legate like that was a hugely valuable asset—only wing commanders, flotilla leaders, and capital ships had one aboard—as the lightspeed lag could cripple a fleet that had to rely on conventional comms only.

Seconds later, their orders came down through the astral link: move to intercept. Like lambs to the slaughter, we go. It won’t be long now, my friend.

“Wing Commander to all craft: move to engage. I repeat, move to engage.” Shiloh didn’t bother looking at the verification signals, just pushed the throttle open, flipped down the gold-coated visor of his flight helmet, and sat back to watch death come for him.

------

Wing Commander Shiloh pushed the primary firing stud. Banks of pulse cannon spat invisible death at the enemy fighter. The pilot, warned by his sensor systems, tried to break Shiloh’s targeting lock, but to no avail. The smaller Protasian craft had only just begun to turn when the mass of incoming energy overwhelmed its screens and stabbed into the poorly armored ship. Its structural integrity compromised, the fighter came apart, no longer able to withstand a hundred and fifty gees of acceleration.

“Nine down,” Anaximander cut in, his voice free of anxiety.

Ajax Shiloh felt strangely calm himself. I should be dead by now, carried by Anubis to Hades. We all should. Instead, they had miraculously survived the initial closing engagement. The thirty-odd Protasian warships, most of them the size of destroyers or smaller, with a trio of light cruisers thrown into the mix, had refrained from shooting at his interceptors. Instead, they had run at flank speed, with protective screens at maximum, towards the Coalition battlecruisers.

Had those ships decided to take the fight to the Coalition attack craft, the Black Death would have been wiped out of existence. Of that, Shiloh was absolutely sure. It wasn’t a question of skill or courage, just mathematics.

Shiloh could understand the enemy’s need to close quickly, to bring his lighter, shorter-ranged weapons to bear against the big Coalition warships. Attack craft like the Voidraptor did precisely the same thing when they ran the gauntlet against capital ships. But there was still something about the situation that troubled him. Something is off, but damn if I know what. Not that I’m complaining.

The swarms of ground-based starfighters accompanying the enemy ships had no qualms about firing on his squadrons, however. As soon as they came within range, they had unleashed a hailstorm of seekers at Shiloh’s larger interceptors. The missiles had been fast, difficult to evade, and exceptionally hard-hitting. Black Death had lost six Voidraptors in that first exchange, with only three enemy fighters put out of commission. That initial loss ratio had been disheartening, especially since the enemy greatly outnumbered them.

Once they closed, however, the equation shifted in the Coalition’s favor. The enemy fighters were fast, agile, and adequately screened, but overall they compared poorly to Shiloh’s own interceptors. They could not withstand the damage a Voidraptor could dish out. And with their missile pods flushed in the opening salvo, they had lost the means to quickly kill their more heavily protected opponents. On top of that, the enemy had even less experience than his own men, making rookie mistakes that cost lives.

Now, for every Voidraptor that went down, at least three, probably closer to five, enemy fighters followed it into the black abyss. Much better than Shiloh had believed possible scant minutes ago. He cursed silently to himself. The Black Death of old would have walked all over this enemy and lived to tell the tale. With these greenhorns, however, the outcome was in doubt. He had lost nearly half his interceptors already, and they were still tangling with swarms of enemies.

“Incoming, two-ship, two o’clock high,” Navigator Jubal’s voice cut through the silence inside Shiloh’s flight helmet.

“Roger, two-ship, two o’clock high,” Shiloh replied and reflexively turned his interceptor into the attack. Years of training and countless battles had taught him never to hesitate—and when in doubt, act aggressively.

Black One responded swiftly, starting to come to its new heading without delay. For a forty-meter craft, weighing a good thousand tonnes fully loaded, it was surprisingly maneuverable thanks to the techno-magic of inertial dampening and acceleration compensation. The two enemy craft came straight at him, guns blazing. Shiloh adjusted his vector to throw the enemy’s aim, seesawing around this axis to prevent them from lining up a killing shot. What fire landed on his fighter was scattered and ineffectual, easily deflected by the invisible screens that were his Voidraptor’s first line of defense.

Black One’s capacitor banks were still charging, so Shiloh wouldn’t be able to kill with pulse cannon alone. “Gunny, ready on my mark,” he barked.

This was the cue for Gunnery Sergeant Tessa Halcyon, the fourth member of his flight crew, to ready the chin-mounted turret of multi-barrelled twin-linked coilguns for manual operation.

Shiloh put Reaper One into a lazy, slewing barrel roll that gave him a firing solution on the two enemy fighters, without becoming dead in the space in return.

Coming straight at one another like this meant the distance closed very quickly. Shiloh only managed one short pulse cannon burst against either target. Not enough to kill them, but sufficient to strip away their screens.

“Mark,” Shiloh shouted over the intercom. Gunny Halcyon pushed the firing stud and thousands of coilgun shells shot into space. Aimed and accurate fire with the gatlings was impossible at these speeds, but that wasn’t the point. Only volume of fire mattered: at pistol-shot range, with that many projectiles, there was simply no way the enemy fighters could avoid getting hit. Without their screens and closing at extreme velocity, the armor-piercing coilgun rounds effortlessly punched through the lightly armored hulls.

Shiloh checked the rear scope. There was no need to come about to fire any follow-up shots. Both enemy ships were gutted. Within seconds both fighters were blown apart by secondary explosions as ammo stores and fuel reserves ignited.

It could have been you, a voice in Shiloh’s head tried to tell him. He swallowed hard, trying not to vomit inside his helmet.

“Eleven down,” Axe said, oblivious to his superior’s inner plight.

------

Shiloh could see the Coeur Furieux closing to support the battlecruiser screen with its stupendous firepower. He watched the spinal mount firing, a shaft of energy, brighter than a thousand stars, slashing through the void, searching for its prey. The beam briefly intersected a Protasian light cruiser racing towards the Coalition squadron. There was a flash of light, and then the Protasian vessel was gone. Gods have mercy on their souls.

The battlecruisers started firing, the Suffrens flushing pod after pod, sending hundreds of capital ship missiles towards the closing enemy. At the same time, the Orions darted forward, their rapid-fire railgun turrets filling the void with thousands of kinetic killers. More Protasian ships died, but they kept coming. They still didn’t fire back, just raced forward at flank speed, screens at maximum load.

It is as if they have planned this maneuver all along. Something is wrong. Very wrong.

“Get me a priority astral connection to the flagship. Quickly.”

“Aye, aye, skipper,” Axe said.

The Coalition flagship had noticed the enemy’s odd behavior. It began a hard turn to port and started retasking its guns, while the Orions moved to physically block the enemy advance. It took a while for orders to take effect, allowing the swarm smaller enemy ships to close the gap. The Heart finally opened up, destroying first one enemy ship, and then two more in quick succession, as more particle cannons and railgun turrets were brought to bear, and gunners adjusted their tracking solutions.

Come on, come on, come on. “The legate confirms: you have a line to the flagship.”

“Furious Heart, this is Black Actual,” Shiloh shouted with great urgency into his pickup, “The enemy is about to ram you. I say again: the enemy is about to ram you.”

But it was too late: the final four Protasian fireships slammed into the side of the metal leviathan, burrowing deep into its flanks, triggering a cascade of unbelievably powerful explosions. The glare was such that Shiloh involuntarily raised a hand to shield his eyes. When next he looked, the Coeur had been reduced from a proud Coalition battleship to a piece of twisted, glowing metal.

May the Gods of the Pantheon have mercy on your souls. May they have mercy on all of us.

------

The legate wouldn’t stop screaming. He had been telepathically linked to someone aboard the Furious Heart when it blew up, and his mind had broken as a result.

“Sir?” Axe shouted over the screams, pointing at the cover of the purge button.

“Execute,” Shiloh said and gave him the thumbs up, in case the weapons officer didn’t hear.

Anaximander flipped the cover and slammed his palm down on the red button. The legate’s protective cocoon was violently ejected from Black One. The plasma charge went off the instant it had cleared the hull, vaporizing its occupant. The screaming stopped.

Shiloh could hear his own labored breathing and the loud thumping of his heart. That was close, his inner voice told him. “Too flaming close,” he mumbled in reply.

Two frantic heartbeats later, a soft voice cut through the silence. “All systems register as operational, Wing Commander. The ship is safe.”

Tekton, Black One’s systems engineer, rarely spoke over the intercom. Most of the time, he communicated by sending data packets over the neural network. During missions, he was jacked into his command console, deep inside the interceptor’s bowels. When off-duty, he kept to himself and his own kin.

The systems engineer was as much part of the ship as he was the crew. The devastation caused by the Titanomachy had led to a ban on self-aware artificial intelligence. Instead, the Voidraptor had to rely on ‘dumb’ systems and a human crew, linked together with a Technomancer serving as the data hub. Without him, the Voidraptor could still function, but each crewmember and sub-system would be an isolated component, rather than an integrated whole.

In Shiloh’s opinion, blaming the machines hadn’t helped much. It was humans who had built the hyper-intelligent star leviathans, war titans, and drone troops to begin with. Weapons meant to protect the people of the Dominion. It was humans who had turned the machines against other humans. Now the killer machines were gone—if you didn’t count the Warmonger clans—and humans were still butchering each other just fine.

“Coming up on the minefields, Sir,” Jubal chimed in, her voice calm and professional, despite the strain they all were under.

Shiloh’s helmet display lit up with a hundred new threats. He hit two mental filter switches to keep the sensory input manageable. “Key the Long Toms to main,” he told his WSO.

Unlike the short-ranged pulse cannon, the particle blasters— affectionately called Long Toms by the deck crews—had the range and pinpoint accuracy needed to sweep mines.

Anaximander responded quickly, pushing a series of physical switches to rearrange the interceptor’s weapons. “Long Toms to main, aye-aye, skipper.”

There is fatigue in his voice. Are the others as weary as I am? Shiloh’s own nerves were frayed, and he felt utterly worn out.

“Gunny? You all right down there,” Shiloh spoke into his headpiece. Like the legate and the technomancer, Halcyon had her own crew station, separate from the central cockpit shared by the commander, weapons officer, and navigator.

“Yeah, guess so,” the reply came, haltingly. “I was just thinking about the flagship, that’s all.” Halcyon’s voice was thick with worry.

The Navy is looking for scapegoats even now. She is the youngest of us, a career non-com with an excellent service record. It was hugely unfair, but Shiloh knew that the Black Death’s crews would take some of the blame. He, most of all, but none of his men and women would be safe. She has the most to lose, and the best chance of getting off with only a black mark.

“We all mourn the loss of the Furieux. I expect high command is furious.”

The joke was terrible, but it had the desired effect: the intercom crackled with laughter. Even Tekton joined in. His laughter was surprisingly human for a technomancer. Shiloh realized he had never heard the man laugh before, not once in the five years they had spent together.

If I, against all probability, live through this mess, I’ll make a point of getting to know him better. And ditto for whatever new legate is handed down to me—if I’m ever trusted with a new one. Probably not.

“Listen, guys,” Shiloh said when the laughter had stilled, “there is no going back for us now. The flagship was blown up on our watch. Heads must roll. It’s the way this galaxy ticks. Best case: we get court-martialled and spend the rest of our lives in a prison colony. Worst case: summary execution by firing squad—or spacewalking.”

“How about let’s not go back then,” Axe said, his voice filled with anger and resentment both. “Thor is my witness: when I die, it will be in battle, not up against a wall.”

“Yeah, let’s don’t,” Navigator Jubal said. “Let’s show those stuck-up bastards how the Black Death does war. Death to the enemies of the greatest Archon of them all,” she more or less shouted over the intercom.

You’re just as scared as the rest of us. She’s just a better actor.

“I concur,” Tekton’s voice came over the intercom. “Logic dictates that we fight until we are destroyed—or the enemy has been utterly annihilated. If we do this, then we might still be salvaged.” There was a brief pause before he came back on. “I have spoken with the ship’s umbra—it is shamed by the loss of the Furieux, same as we, and will support the commander’s decision to fight on.”

That evoked another bout of laughter from the human crew. Shiloh didn’t join in. He was pretty sure it hadn’t been a joke. Like all technomancers, Tekton believed that machines, advanced machines anyway, had spirits. Machine souls, if you would. It was not a view supported by the Conclave, and thus not readily accepted by the masses. Shiloh wasn’t sure what to believe. Black One wasn’t alive or anything. But sometimes, just sometimes, he could feel a kind of connection to the metal beast. A bond more profound than his neural link could explain.

The laughter died down and was replaced with silence. Only Halcyon hadn’t spoken her mind. Not that she could in any way overrule Shiloh’s decisions, but the wing commander still wanted her support.

Another silent minute went by. Shiloh was about to speak when Halcyon finally replied. “I was just thinking. We’ve lost the flagship, but the space battle is won.”

Shiloh found himself nodding inside his helmet. It was true, the battle was won. It would drag on for some time, but the enemy was running out of ships, whereas the Coalition had plenty of reserves.

“We should do something for the grunts,” the Gunny continued, “they are the ones who will be doing the killing and dying from now on. I say we find us some transports, stick with them—all the way down.”

“You’re right, Gunny,” Shiloh replied. “We’re space grunts. So let’s do something for the dirt grunts.” There was a general murmur of agreement over the intercom. “Jubal, get me a working channel to the rest of the wing, I have orders to give.”

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