Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | Australian Category
Story by Willem Neill
H minus 2h
They were going to die; every single one of them.
Saunders’s mind had rattled with the thought for the past two nights, since the Defence Ministry proposed the idea to Cabinet. She supposed it was no surprise that their decision, delivered in the heat of the moment as emotions swelled high, was nothing short of full scale retaliation. Those were the words Cabinet had used, though Saunders found it preposterous.
Retaliation? Against what?
Since the ships first arrived, slithering out of the inky nothing of space, they had done naught but drift toward Khalgar. Of course, there was no denying that they were heading straight toward the colony, but the unknown fleet's intentions could hardly be considered hostile. The sudden arrival caused something of a panic and Saunders remembered a number of operations staff spitting coffee on the space station's pristine computers. She had laughed at the time and thinking of it now still caused the edges of her mouth to sharpen into a smirk.
Some were calling it an alien invasion, others claimed it may be a diplomatic envoy, maybe even some kind of science expedition. Whatever it was, Cabinet was not taking any chances and the fruits of their impetuous governance now had Saunders upon the bridge, watching her personnel go about contingency plans that until recently were all but conceptual. Then again, everything Cabinet and particularly the Defence Ministry, had done lately might be considered shooting from the hip.
How long has it been since we lost contact with earth now? 3, maybe 4 years?
Saunders had to admit she wasn't envious towards Cabinet's predicament. How do you maintain order and control within a colony that finds out it's now isolated? Cut off.
Certainly not by ordering ill-considered assaults against an unknown force, that's for sure!
But there was nothing for it now. She had her orders, as did the wing, the squadrons and the flights. Saunders thought she should be at least a little impressed about the results of PROJECT Thermopylae – the Space Command's immense network of interconnected space stations. Seeing each of the fifteen immense stations churn out their respective fleets and power up their shields was nothing short of a spectacle. Yet, even as the squadrons mobilised their fighters, their destroyers and their frigates in the shadow of the approaching, unidentified fleet, she kept coming back to that thought. Then she realised it was an instinct.
They were all going to die.
H minus 1h 50m
"Ma'am," came a voice, breaking through her thoughts. "The fighters are assembled and await your arrival." Saunders turned and nodded.
"Thank you, Kel. How are we sitting with the rest of the wing?"
"The last two frigates are conducting their pre-flight checks – think it might be Wing Commander O'Reilly's lot – but our teams are ready and in place."
She smiled at that. Kel was one of the best executives she ever had. He could read her well, right down to the smallest detail. No intentions were missed and her squadron was well drilled as a result. Everyone and everything was at the right place, at the right time always.
Everyone except me it now seems. Guess you might call that delaying the inevitable.
"Very good then." She sighed. "Good work as always, Kel. I hope you know that you have made me proud – all of you, that is, not just the HQ. It's been a pleasure to lead you."
Kel furrowed his brows, puzzled. "Ma'am?" he began, then realisation swept his features. "Ah, I see. Still haven't changed your mind on the outcome, hey?" He stepped forward to stand next to her, both now watching the last few technicians conducting the pre-flight checks on the fighters, thumbs up all around.
"Would you say that I have always been honest with you, Kel? Did everything I could to not treat you like mushrooms?"
Kel grinned, shaking his head. "You mean kept in the dark and fed crap? You always liked that saying," he chuckled. "No, ma'am. You're as straight an edge as they come. We all respect you for that."
Saunders nodded, happy he made her point. "Then you can't expect me to start lying to you now, captain. It wouldn't be right. I don't have to tell the troops that, but you can be sure that I'll tell you the whole bloody lot."
"Wars start for any number of reasons, we know that. How many have we seen in our time, hey? At least a dozen between us. And what were they over? Land, food, ambition, the occasional one in defence against good old tyranny and oppression. Back on Earth, they may have been more deadly, but at least they made some kind of sense." The she pointed toward the hangar doors, toward the great expanse beyond. "What the hell do you think this one is about then? First contact with what could be intelligent, extraterrestrial life and the first order of business by our government – no, our race – is to blow them out of the sky? Christ, the number of commanders who have even fought in space can be counted on my hands. Who knows what experience these… things might have over us."
Saunders didn't expect Kel to answer, but he was certainly considering a response as his muscles tightened around his face.
"Did you get a chance to see your daughter before we came up?" he asked, catching Saunders off guard.
"I, uh. Yes. Yes, I saw her just before she left for the Outer Rims. Strange to think it might be the last time we see each other."
Kel looked up with a mischievous expression. "Might, hey? So you're not entirely a pessimist after all."
Saunders shrugged. "Despite what you might think, I haven't entirely discounted the possibility of us all surviving this malarkey." It was a half–truth, after all, the she nodded back at Kel. "What about you? Get to see the kids?"
"Aye. Jake and Tess are with my sister in Saekina...." he trailed off, mumbling something, but Saunders didn't catch it.
She hummed her understanding. "So, just like that, hey?"
Kel sniffed hard and cleared his throat. "Guess so. Just, you know, thought it'd be a little more than that; seeing your family for the last time and all."
Saunders did know, but there wasn't a whole lot she could add anyway. Farewelling loved ones was always an unpleasant experience, even with the technology they had today, so there was no reason to enhance the discomfort. So, Saunders did what she did best and turned the conversation back to business.
"Well. To the fighters, then?" she suggest, already turning.
"Aye, ma'am," replied Kel. "To the fighters."
H minus 1hr
Saunders was never one for speeches. She loved to talk, no denying that, but when it came to addressing the troops, she'd rather say what she had to and get on with the job. Now, the times had changed. When Saunders looked out to her squadron, the look on each face told her they were not ignorant to the folly of this task; they were smart, after all. So they needed the encouragement and Saunders hoped she did her best to provide it.
Godspeed, she had concluded, though it felt that God had departed this world a long time ago.
The ladder leading to the fighter stung her hand with a sharp cold. It was a nice contrast to the fire flaring within her gut, but it did nothing to null the feeling. Saunders looked over to see Kel saying a last few words of his own, giving each pilot a handshake or slap on the shoulder. She almost felt bad for imparting her negative thoughts onto him, which certainly wouldn't help in the battle to come.
But such is the price for damn honesty and stubbornness.
The truth was, she didn't really believe the outcome would be so dire and might have even harboured some hope for a quick and victorious end. But when you have flown as many combat sorties as Wing Commander Elisabeth Saunders, each with their own level of unknown, you come to learn that it's sometimes better to keep your expectations low and your hopes quiet; at least that way you might come out pleasantly surprised. With little else to go by, she figured this would be one of those times.
Before entering the cockpit, she caught the last few technicians going over her platform. Being this close to launch, they would have been the gunnies. One of them patted a pair of large missiles fixed under the right wing and gave a thumbs up to the other. The latter technician nodded his reply and saw Saunders looking at them. He held his hand up and ran over.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he called out, stopping at the foot of the ladder. Before Saunders could reply, the Gunnery Chief held up a tablet to her. "Almost forgot to get you to sign for the fighter," he said, then shrugged. "Apologies, ma'am, but still have to follow procedures."
Saunders waved him off. "No, chief, it's alright." She took the tablet, drew her signature with the stylus and handed it back.
"No problems with any of the other fighters?" she added.
The chief shook his head. "No ma'am, they're good to go. Yours is the last to be loaded, as per your orders."
"Good," she replied. "Then I'll see you on the other side, chief."
He nodded. "With luck, ma'am. Good hunting."
Just like that, the papers were signed, the aircraft was ready and the last conversation Saunders thought she might ever have was over. With one last gaze across the flight deck – one of many nestled within the gigantic star cruiser – she saw her pilots were ready and waiting. Saunders ran her squadron the same way her grandfather did with his Low Orbit Shock Troopers – making sure the troops had the best gear, the best assurance and the best example to follow as they propelled into combat. The only difference here was her team were in fighters and not drop pods. Ensuring the troops were good to go first meant they could launch and defend themselves if there was a surprise attack. But when her force were the aggressors, Saunders made sure her craft was always the first to launch, headlong into the fight. She had to admit there was a shortage of bravado proceeding this mission, but her unease would do little to dissuade her from tradition; and there was nothing entirely wrong with a bit of headstrong decision making in a dogfight.
Her eyes landed on Kel, a few fighters behind and he gave Saunders the thumbs up and a smile. She grinned and nodded in kind. Even in a tight spot, Kel was always in good spirits. His face disappeared into his helmet and he entered the cockpit, the aircraft closing up. As the hydraulics whined and clunked to a halt, Saunders donned her own gear. For what it was worth, she hoped Kel might survive; seemed he had better reasons to live than she did these days. Of course, Saunders wanted all her pilots to survive, but this was not to be.
It never was.
She made sure to impress the image of Kel's fighter in her mind, to keep an eye out for it after the battle. It was not easy to forget of course. Along the fuselage was the standard assortment of personal details – rank, name, squadron – but beneath it was another name; his call sign Helios. It was not standard procedure to customise one's craft in such a way, but Saunders made an effort to allow her pilots the freedom to do so. After all, they were the best. Not only that, to earn such a title is to be battle tested, resilient and masters of aerial combat; it was as much an incentive as it was a rite of passage. If you could get a call sign, chances were you'd stick around a lot longer than someone without. Sure, it might have created a divide among the pilots, but what did it matter? You needed to be the best to win at the end of the day, and if by giving her pilots the chance of parading a title like that, then so be it.
Saunders looked down at her own branding – Wing Commander Elisabeth Saunders, Archangel. She wondered if it would mean much at all in the coming battle. If all the pilots, and the fighters, and the cruisers, frigates and battle stations – everything – was destroyed, there wasn't much else that could defend Khalgar. Everyone knew in this age of warfare, they who ruled the sky would rule the world. Land battles amount to nothing in the way wars were fought now. She'd seen conflicts fought against the best soldiers and weapons an army could have; foes who won on the ground every time. But when a fleet of destroyers drifted into low orbit, blasted that ground and turned it to glass, it reminded everyone of how futile such efforts could be, however valiant they were.
Will the same happen here if we fail?
The first siren to jump had sounded and Saunders ceased her thinking. Climbing into the cockpit, she got as comfortable as she could, trying to keep her heart rate down. She closed her eyes as the hatch came down, sealing her inside this weapon of war.
We will find out soon enough.
H minus 15min
It was all she could do to not remove her helmet as she tried to keep her stomach from erupting out of her mouth. Jumps had never bothered Saunders in the past but this, along with a lot of others things, was different this time.
Her frigate carrier departed the station and joined the rest of the fleet. Once in place, the fleet commander ordered the preparations to jump, and then the jump itself. Though the destination was closer than their usual deployments, the journey had dragged and Saunders had to endure the weight of high speed travel and trepidation all in one. It was no wonder she could hardly breathe. The crackling radio brought her back.
"All squadrons, this is Sunray," it spouted. "Confirm when your formations are in place. Be advised, H minus 15, over."
Saunders waited for the preceding units to respond.
"Sunray, Orca–1, we are set, over."
"Sunray, Orca–2, in place, over."
Saunders clicked her transmitter to life. "Sunray, Orca–3, ready, over."
When the other units made the call, the radio continued. "All squadrons, Sunray. Upon confirming positive engagement, you are to move to assist RKSC Achilles in disruption of hostile command ship. You do not need to wait for my order, confirm, over."
The chorus sounded again as each commander gave affirmation. Sunray seemed nervous, Saunders reckoned, and wanted as little friction as possible.
Seems even the higher ups have some doubts. Why now, isn't that a surprise....
Then a great crack broke the eerie silence of the void. Such was the noise, Saunders thought it might tear the sky right open. A white light burned in the endless black, forcing Saunders to shut her eyes in a vain attempt to shield them, and her flight instruments buzzed, crackled and flickered. But less than a moment passed and it was over, the silence resuming. Saunders refocused as the noise dissipated and took a deep breath. Before them now were ships. The unknown, hostile, alien ships, each one coloured so dark they would have been invisible against the void, were it not for the great spires of glowing green lining the extremities. In fact, they did not look so different from the ships Saunders saw in her own fleet. They were well within range – at least that of the KRSC ships – but they did not fire.
The radios and helmet communications unit sprang to life, emitting a screeching wave of white noise, deep booms and another sound that made Saunders think of the whales said to have once inhabited Earth. She didn't notice at the time, however, as she pounded her helmet to stop the incessant noise from bursting her ear drums. It was so loud.
Then, there was silence again, save for the ringing in her ears.
She could hear a voice, off in the distance, though she knew not where. It took her a moment to realise it was Sunray again. He was panicked, and Saunders her three words.
"No, no, no!"
In the seconds that followed, Saunders saw all the heavens set ablaze with the fires of a desperate, chaotic battle.
H plus 10mins
The engagement had fallen apart. This was no mere skirmish or even a pitched battle. To Saunders's dreaded realisation, she was right and the mission had descended into an unrelenting slaughter for her comrades. After the strange anomaly that overcame their communications equipment, the KRSC Athenian's crew must have panicked and they fired pre-emptively at the foreign ships.
The payload of the massive cruiser erupted in that unusual, muffled roar that could only be heard in the void of space and the missiles flew toward their target with an uncanny accuracy. It was for naught however, and the armament was repelled by some form of anti-projectile defence system. Flashes of blue light pulsed around the alien vessel, and one by one, the missiles were destroyed. It seemed like an eternity before Saunders and her squadron were given the order to engage, despite the fact that Sunray said that such an order would not be necessary. The way things were going, it didn't seem orders were necessary at all anymore. The Khalgarin fleets had fallen out of formation, quickly turning into a free–for–all, with frigates and fighters dotting the sky so much they resembled the stars themselves.
Saunders managed to keep her squadron – or what remained of them – together, flying attack runs against the enormous ships; but she had not seen any sign of Kel's fighter for some time. Her small aircraft managed to get inside the defence systems of the enemy, or at least she hoped, and her flight began bombarding the target as best they could. Even with the powerful weaponry her pilots carried, the attacks runs hardly made a dint. They might as well have those shield barriers that were so popular in the space stories of old, though everyone knew to power such a system was nigh impossible.
A fire burst into her view, and the distant crunch of a fighter crept to her ears. She spared a glance to her left.
Another one. Dammit!
They were dropping like flies, even the frigates and cruisers seemed to be melting away. The Achilles had been torn to shreds moments after her unit took flight from their own cruiser, the Heracles, which soon met a similar fate as a great beam tore the carrier in two.
There is no going back for any of us. Guess I don't have to worry about being careful then.
A shockwave rippled through the space before her and she gasped when the Athenian erupted into blue flame and white light, leaving her disoriented for a moment. When she came to, all that was left of the cruiser was only debris. Had she not seen the destruction, she might have taken it for no more than space rock.
There was chatter on the radio, trying to press into her head, but Saunders ignored it. There was no point to it now.
All that matters is taking out as many of these things as possible. Khalgar. It will be –
She snapped back to the battle and avoided a chunk of debris, spiralling around the object by the skin of her teeth. She couldn't afford to lapse. Not now. She checked what payloads remained.
Two photons, four clusters and one Excalibur.
As she looked up, there was a mighty moan that scythed through the void, like the breath of a groaning giant, and Saunders gawped. A ship, still larger than any of the ones that first arrived, floated into view. It looked almost like a squid, but moving in reverse, its’ would–be tentacles leading whilst the head followed, a wake of strange green gas pouring around the flanks. Even as she watched it, Saunders couldn't comprehend its size. An incandescent glow emitted from within its great belly and it looked as if the tentacles would soon part.
To Saunders astonishment, and horror, they did.
The ship was not just a ship at all, but a gargantuan canon – some kind of super weapon that required no ship to be mounted upon. It didn't stop to be pestered by the meagre happenings around it, knocking aside friend and foe alike, leaving ships drifting like flotsam in a swamp. It was set on something.
Its’ target. It means to fire upon Khalgar.
It suddenly didn't matter what happened after the fleets were destroyed; whether the enemy would press on to Khalgar or not. If this machine was allowed to survive, then any victory here today was meaningless.
All except one thing.
Saunders gritted teeth and clenched her stomach as she accelerated toward the mighty ship, her fighter creaking with the effort. She tottered on the very limits of both body and machine now, but she had to do something.
I have to try.
The canon within the squid–like ship roared and shone with the colour of death and it seemed to almost challenge Saunders to enter. To answer the beckoning of her people's doom. Oh and how she would.
In the shade of the great metallic tentacles, with the green of this alien god threatening to blind her, she could think of only two things.
Veronica, my sweet. I have always loved you and could not be more proud. May you survive to avenge us. To remember me.
She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the memories wash over her. The cool, salty trickle of tears rubbed her cheeks.
Remember us, my child. I love you.
That left Saunders with only the other thought to enter her mind. The last thought she ever had. The thought to pull the trigger.
H plus 20mins
The explosion decimated everything.
No one had felt it, almost no one knew it even happened, their bodies turned to dust before they even saw the green light and orange flames. Only Saunders knew what had happened and she too was now no more than ash.
Yet, for all her final efforts, she had failed and would never even know.
The great weapon had served its purpose and its judgement flew across the void to collide with Kalghar. There, thousands of leagues away, the planet obliterated in less time required to take a breath; an forgotten memory of the universe, the cries of its people softer than echoes.
Though not all was lost. For floating in the darkness, amid the asteroids, there survived a single console; a remnant of an alien vessel. In the few minutes before its power was lost, the flashed a message on the screen. No native of Khalgar could read it, but to the aliens, it was all too clear.
Cease your approach, for no harm do we impart upon your people. We come with a warning. A warning from a people already fallen to the ravenous maw that pursues us.
A great force approaches and only with allies can it be destroyed.
Do not engage, we beseech you.
But if you must, know that we must purge you, for good of the greater fight; for the good of those others whom may yet weather the storm.
Do not engage, we beseech you.
For the greatest of all our foes will soon arrive.