Best Laid Plans
The Skyreign shot through the atmosphere like a bullet shot through an apple. No part of their arrival was subtle. Not nearly as subtle as the invisible Dragonfly that followed her.
As Darrick planed the ship out, about ten thousand metres above the ground, the solar sails spread wide open, partitions swinging out like switchblades.
The night was young.
<See Nywan yet?> asked Rose, <I’m still readjusting sensors.>
“Three hundred kilometres away on heading zero-three-zero,” Darrick replied, “just follow us. I see it just fine.”
<Alright, hun. Still think you’re plugging stupid for showing up early, Laura.>
“It worked,” said Laura who shrugged to herself, “I followed my intuitions, and it worked.”
<Do me a favour and tell me the next time you get a hunch, got it?>
Laura nodded, “Alright. Sorry we worried you.”
“I wasn’t worried for a second,” Olsein grumbled, “but I think Savvy crapped himself again when we went to leap.”
“That’s getting older than you,” Savath retorted.
“What’s our current speed?” Laura said, clearing her throat.
“Mach eight,” said Darrick, “smoothest this ship has ever run. Those engineers worked miracles into a half an hour.”
Laura nodded, crossing her arms as she looked past the ship’s bow, “So, we have the Bentorii, whose signal we need to flood. We have the Behraanese, whose ships we need to sink.”
<I’ll handle the Behraanese,> said Rose confidently, <that fleet in orbit was just a warmup. My weapons are so hot they could ignite this thick air!>
“Just don’t get ignited yourself,” Laura said, sitting back in her chair, “fine. Go have fun. Do what dragonflies do best. Freak the hell out of everyone.”
<And you do what you do best,> Rose replied, <make a lot of noise.>
Laura held her tongue, blushing as her eyes squinted at the near-invisible shape of the Dragonfly as it sped forth. It left behind numerous sonic booms as it veered to the left and flew just past Nywan.
Nywan, which, by then, was in plain view, featuring the Behraan-on-Nywan battle in the air just past the last tower.
“Get me Winnibahn,” Laura commanded, crossing her legs.
Darrick nodded, opening the channel.
<Agents,> Winnibahn replied, <nice to see you’re still alive, because we’re having a hard time over here!>
“This is Captain Vinfield,” Laura announced, “we’re approaching at Mach eight. We heard you had a demon problem?”
<Captain!?> Winnibahn talked to herself, <what the fuck is Janeth on!?>
“The Terraniia,” Laura replied, ignoring the crass remark, “we found it. It leaped automatically to the sixth planet. Behraan attacked it right away so we came back.”
<By Kabaiila,> Winnibahn talked among her crew again, <you found it? What’s it like?>
“She,” Laura corrected, “She is eight kilometres from end to end, and comes with two million people, two thousand ships or so from fighters to battleships, a seed bank and complete self-sufficiency. What more could Behraan want?”
<So,> Winnibahn hummed audibly, <you found the sacred vessel. Within it, an army. But weren’t you supposed to bring that ship here?>
“Behraan is keeping them tied up,” Laura replied, “they in turn are keeping Behraan tied up, at least most of them.”
“Not one of those ships could spare the time, huh?”
“Actually,” Laura smirked, “just one did. A Dragonfly.”
<A dra--did I hear that right?> Winnibahn could be heard telling her officers to scan widely everywhere. Then she sighed and spoke up again, <And it’s flying for us? A Dragonfly? Not one of those fucking imitations, right Laura?>
“We’ll find out soon, won’t we.”
A moment of pause.
<Kay, that’s enough news flash,> Winnibahn said firmly, <she made you Captain by rank. Fine. I can see it. Fucking crazy giving the rank to a kid, but then, Ritana was just a kid. Okay. How the hell are you going to help us?>
“Do you know how good an amplifier Noregite is?” Laura asked.
“Neither do I,” Laura continued, “but Darrick knows. And we have a working jammer. We’re going to get in there and overpower the fifty-five kilohertz bandwidth.”
<Great,> said Winnibahn sarcastically, <then they’ll attack anything at random. What about Behraan’s goons?>
“Leave that to our friend, in the Dragonfly,” Laura said reassuringly, “she’ll help with the cleanup.”
<I heard you were made Captain,> said the voice of Haren, <The Queen makes no decision lightly. You would not have received such rank without her utmost praise and value and respect of you. Diinshtago, sister!>
<Bryesco here,> said the third General, <we could really use the help, Captain Vinfield! You have our thanks for any support you can give us.>
“We’ll do what we can,” Laura replied.
“Getting close,” Darrick said, “five minutes.”
“Take us in low,” Laura ordered, “we’ll take Benny from above and below. Use the towers for cover.”
“Right,” Darrick pushed the yoke forward and did the same with the throttle, the engines roaring wildly as the Skyreign shuddered in making Mach nine, then ten, then eleven. Ten thousand metres of altitude became eight. Six. Four. Two.
Darrick levelled out at just two thousand metres altitude, the whole world underneath them rushing by as a blur of sand, with the occasional downed ship appearing for a fraction of a second in their view.
“Sensor range just dropped,” said Darrick, “must have something to do with altitude.”
“Generals, I’ll see you soon,” Laura said aloud, “don’t die without us.”
<Tell that to Ritana,> said Winnibahn, <killed by the Imperator himself. He’s down there, Laura, so dammit, be careful!>
Laura gasped at the thought, then composed herself, “will do.”
The channel was then cut before Darrick could do so himself.
“Elsie, get ready,” said Laura quietly, as Darrick slowed the vessel to just under Mach one, “Olsein, Savath, get ready.”
“Multiple targets,” Darrick warned, “twelve frigates, eighty fighters, all of which Behraanese, but the signatures don’t match up. Something doesn’t make sense.”
“Captured,” said Olsein, “Benny never built a ship in their lives.”
“Feeding the data to your consoles,” said Darrick, “it’s weird. I expect at least a shudder from the ship slow-flying. Nothing.”
“Rose said it right, once,” Elsie said from beside him, “the Skyreign runs better when beat around a little.”
“Targeting the closest frigate,” said Darrick, “range: six kilometres. In range of cannons in ten seconds.”
“Hold,” Laura commanded.
Elsie swivelled all of the cannons forward, locking in upon the unsuspecting vessel.
“Hold!” Laura repeated, even as the frigate was in range.
All four pairs of hands eagerly trembled over the triggers.
“Almost!” Laura shouted.
Darrick noted the frigate was just two kilometres away, and a collision was just seconds away.
The window where he could pull away became smaller, smaller, smaller....
“Fire at will!” Laura exclaimed.
Then, and only then, did the Skyreign tremble, just a little, as the four larger cannons spewed heftier charges of energy at the frigate, tearing gaping holes into it. The smaller turrets that Olsein and Savath fired were significantly less impressive, but just as satisfying. Finally, two torpedoes streaked out from their recessed banks and bit into the already-cratered broadside, exploding so violently that very little of the frigate made it to the ground.
The Skyreign, moving far too fast and being far too close to manoeuvre sharply, simply flew through the explosion, carrying some of the fire in her wake.
“That got their attention!” said Darrick, “incoming!”
“Woah,” Olsein said quietly, “I have never seen a ship bigger than a fighter pull that off before.”
“Olsein! Savath! Focus on ground targets. Help out our soldiers!” Laura commanded.
“I’ll ease off the engines so they can get clear shots,” said Darrick, “feeding infravision to their turrets now.”
“Pretty colours,” Savath said as he swivelled his turret toward some unsuspecting Bentorii on the ground below, which lit up on his crosshairs as a rainbow shaped as a humanoid. He fired just a few shots, and gunned the one target down.
“How much time until we can make a signal burst?” asked Laura quickly, talking over the gunfire.
“Two minutes,” said Darrick, “already on it. I hope the modifications hold up, because we’re about to get shaken up really good. Ten fighters have targeted us. They can’t get a lock yet though.”
“Lose them!” Laura commanded.
Darrick responded by banking hard to the left and pulling up hard on the yoke, forcing the Skyreign to drift around a massive solar tower, and just narrowly avoid the barrage of plasmar fire. The lifters crackled as they laboured to push back against the air, until finally only the engines had to provide the load.
“Got them!” Elsie made the four cannons swivel, unable to reach the fighters just behind them, but having no problem with the ones to their aft-port and aft-starboard arcs. Just one shot from one cannon did the job for one fighter. Four fighters flew no more.
“Did you ever,” said Darrick, “those cannons are evil.”
“Get them out of our blind spot, Darrick,” Laura commanded, standing up, “never mind. Savath, grab a stern gun.”
“Yeah, sure!” Savath stepped away from the starboard turret and ran back to the stern one.
Passing scraper after scraper, Darrick then braked hard with the lifters, eased off the engines, then let the ship drop about ten metres. The swarm of fighters flew past them, giving Elsie a chance to bring the four slower turrets back to the forward firing arc and clean up the skies ahead and above. Hot shrapnel showered the field with a few glancing the shell, bouncing off harmlessly to the sides.
“Don’t you just love the way those cannons howl!?” Olsein yelled as he pecked off more soldiers on the ground.
“How long?” Laura asked quickly.
“Fifty-five seconds?” Darrick said as he powered the engines, tucking in the solar sails.
<Vinfield!> Winnibahn shouted through the intercom, her signal getting weaker and choppier, <we’re in over our heads up here! We lost our port nacelle. Shields are out. We have to pull back! The Behraanese didn’t send rookies our way. These ones are professionals! They must really want this planet!>
“We’ll let them have it,” said Laura over the cannonfire of the deck guns, “Bentorii are coming back in numbers in a few hours. We don’t want to be here when they arrive!”
Silence on the line.
<I suppose we don’t,> Winnibahn replied at last with just a hint of despair, <Where will we go?>
“Theyradaas,” answered Laura.
A moment of silence.
<We had a thought it might come to this,> Win continued, <This is our home. But our home is not worth our lives. We’ll come back.>
Laura was silent.
<Holy hell,> said Winnibahn in surprise, <I don’t believe it. There’s that damn Dragonfly! It—it just appeared out of nowhere!>
Visibly, a large ball of fire expanded in the distance. Then another. Another still.
<It’s tearing them apart!> Winnibahn said vengefully, <Once you’ve flooded the signal, get over here as fast as you can! Haren and Bryesco have already assured they have a plan for what comes next.>
“Stay afloat,” Laura said, “we’ll see you soon.”
“And,” Darrick’s finger hovered over the button to start the signal, pressing it slowly, “now.”
With that, he pressed the button with all due deliberation and a face filled with glee.
“Now, what?” Laura crossed her arms.
“Something’s not right,” Darrick muttered.
“No shit,” Savath added candidly.
"Skyreign to fleet, we have a problem,” Laura spoke aloud.
Nothing more than white noise.
"Skyreign to fleet, come in!”
Darrick scanned over his consoles, then looked back to Laura, “We’re being jammed.”
“Can you get a source?” Laura leaned forward in her chair.
Darrick nodded slowly, “the jammer is on board. Detecting it in the transponder stack, in the E-bridge. I don’t know how we never noticed it!”
Laura knew, then and there, the implications. Someone had to have gotten aboard and planted it. Or, perhaps, the jamming capability was somehow built into the Behraanese transponder the whole time, only to be utilized on a whim. Not an uncommon tactic for the Navy to have used.
“Leave it to me,” she stood suddenly and hustled towards the stairs, pistol in hand.
As Laura descended, she could hear the numerous cannons pounding away.
For a fraction of a moment, she could imagine the gunners frantically swivelling and swatting fighters, tearing up frigates.
For a fraction of a moment, she could imagine Darrick multitasking between a desperate attempt to override the on-board jammer, and keeping the ship out of harm’s way while also setting the gunners up for the best coverage arc.
A fraction of a moment was all Laura could afford, as she pressed cautiously down the hall to the E-bridge.
The bridge appeared unmanned, as it should have been. Nothing appeared out of place. For a moment, she wondered why the crew didn’t use this perfectly good bridge more often, only to remind herself that the view, and the situational awareness, was by and large superior on the top deck.
With that, Laura found the transponder stack. Even though she wasn’t the pilot Rose or Darrick were, she was still herself a pilot with a civilian-level license, and knew all about transponders. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Skyreign was a civilian spacecraft.
She knew how to turn it off--that was the easy part.
The hard part was to try to find the Behraanese, hard-wired one behind the forward Ophelian one. Harder still, to find the jammer that was likely nestled within or next to it.
Quickly, she realized that there were clear signs of recent prying: the cutting of wires; the scraping of paint on the panels inside and out; missing screws and damaged seals.
That concluded to her that the jammer was new. Very new.
But she was no Ejjar. No Rose. Disabling the jammer could have taken her hours, if she was successful at all.
At least, if she disabled it their way.
Pistol still in hand, she armed it, stood back and aimed at the transponder stack.
“Can’t let you do that,” said a low-voiced, quiet male--he must have been right behind her.
And she knew, without looking, that he had a weapon trained on her back.