Trace scanned the controls trying to hide how much he was impressed. Rotational control thrusters, multi-vector tactile control sticks, holographic heads-up display, is that an overburn supercharger? Nice. There were a few controls he didn’t recognise though; like the arcane oscillator, his grandfather’s old dropship hadn’t had one of those, neither did any of Dorga’s shuttles. Still, the layout was identical just as he said it would be; he could do this.
Grasping the twin control sticks, Trace felt the ship respond to his command. Compared to a jumpcraft or one of Dorga’s shuttles, the Chimera was a lumbering giant. Looking at the readouts though, he could tell that the Chimera was faster in straight-line flight.
“Stop drooling over the controls and get with it!” Korodo’s voice focused his attention back on Dorga’s shuttles. Remembering how his grandfather had shown him, Trace jabbed at the holographic controls and brought up the ship’s external cameras. A series of windows appeared in the HUD showing the video feeds from the cameras and giving Trace the ability to view what was happening around the ship.
“Where are they?” Korodo said as he cycled through the various sensor systems at his station. “They’re not showing up on the sensors.”
“I know; they’re Guild shuttles, they’ve all got stealth mesh on their outer hulls.” Glancing at the various camera views, he spotted three shuttles. They may be masked on radar, but they couldn’t hide from the visual cameras without major technological and magical assistance. “Got ‘em, seven o’clock high, four o’clock low and six o’clock level. Each of ‘em are armed with twin laser cannons and four externally mounted missiles, radar guided. Top combat speed 22 thousand kph, but they don’t have starcasters. We can outrun them on our main engines, but on combat drives they’re faster and more manoeuvrable than us.” Trace knew they couldn’t switch to their main engines whilst they were still engaged; their manoeuvrability would drop drastically and they would be sitting duck for the shuttles who would have a clear shot at them for a least a minute. If they tried to take evasive action while accelerating, the immense stresses involved in the violent manoeuvres would tear the Chimera apart. “They’ve got no shields, and their polymeric armour plating is weak around the thrusters.”
“And how do you know all that?” Korodo asked, slightly impressed that the boy could rattle off such information so calmly in the middle of combat.
Trace glanced over his shoulder at the half-dragon and smiled. “Heh, you forgotten who I used to work for?”
“Okay, since you’re the expert at this, what do you suggest?”
Trace was thrown for a second, expecting to detect a hint of sarcasm in what Korodo had said; but there wasn’t any. Was that actually a compliment from the noble? “Erm ... give me a second. This isn’t like getting away from police jumpers, it ‘aint as if I can dodge between skyscrapers and loose ‘em in the sprawl.” Glancing at the camera feeds, he saw one of the shuttles dart forward, aiming a strafing run at the Chimera’s side.
Korodo nodded and pulled on a headset. “Bolts, what’s the status of the starcaster?”
The soulmech braced himself against an overhead beam as the ship rocked. He was in the small engineering compartment at the rear of the ship. On either side of the cramped room lay the ship’s main engines. Although currently idling, the hum from the giant electromagnetic coils around their particle impulse chambers created a charged atmosphere, the air smelling of ionised oxygen molecules.
“Bolts, what’s the status of the starcaster?” Korodo’s voice crackled over the intercom. The engineer glanced over at the transparent crystal sphere nearly a metre across at the back of the room. Smaller, fist-sized hexagonal crystals orbited it, sparks of magical energy drifting from them and into the central crystal.
Bolts activated his internal transceiver and connected to the ship’s internal communication network. “It’s going to take some time,” he said looking at the holographic readouts encircling the starcaster, “when main power was shut down, the caster dumped its charge. It’ll be a few minutes before the mana levels are restored.”
“Is there any way you can speed it up?” The ship shook as another round of laser fire struck the ship and alarms starting to wail.
“I’ll try,” Bolts said, “even if I have to shovel mana into the caster myself.”
Tsukiko stumbled as the ship rocked, almost dropping the dermal regenerator she had been using. Barak caught her as she stumbled, catching her with his arm. “Careful Suki,” he said playfully, “I’ve got enough battle scars as it is without a new one on my forehead.”
“Pity,” Tsukiko said as she passed the regenerator over the orc’s head wound, knitting the flesh back together, “I like some of those scars.”
A particularly violent jolt shook the ship; the two of them felt the ship shudder as it sustained a direct hit. The deck plates beneath their feet transmitted the vibration of something exploding elsewhere in the ship and alarms started to sound. “Alert, hull breach in port cargo bay. Decompression contained.”
Barak sat up. “Please tell me we didn’t leave Korodo in charge of the ship?” The orc swung his legs of the side of the medical bed. “And don’t give any me any of that ‘you need rest’ doctor-speak.” He said when he saw the look that Tsukiko was giving him as he clipped his sidearm holster to his belt.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Tsukiko said handing him his pistol, “but I need to give you something first.” She reached forward as Barak looked up and kissed him.
“Echo two,” the shuttle pilot said into his headset, “swing around and attack the left flank. Echo three drop back and execute a flip six three in case the Chimera gets past echo two.” Dorga watched the man at work, manoeuvring the various shuttles around in an effort to engage the rapidly evading ship. Grinding his teeth in anger, he recognised the flying style of Chimera’s pilot. Although it appeared wild, chaotic and undisciplined, it was anything but random. He should know; he had watched as the young boy had developed his piloting skills over the years.
Earlier, Dorga had told Trace that the boy had been born to be a thief; that it came to him naturally. However, the guildmaster knew that he had been lying when he had said this. Trace may have been a good thief, but he was a better pilot. It was in his blood; this was what he had been born to do.
As the alarms rang, Trace scanned the video feeds, committing the position and flight path of each shuttle to memory. “Hang on,” he said over his shoulder, “this might get ... a little rough.” He jammed the left control stick forward and pulled the right stick all the way back. In response, the starboard engines went into full reverse as the port engine went to full thrust; the Chimera began to swing around. At the same time, Trace rotated the control sticks within their gyroscopic mounts, triggering the rotational control thrusters. The Chimera twisted and turned, rotating in all three dimensions and scattering the three shuttles, its superstructure groaning in protest over the violent stresses.
Korodo gripped tightly onto the armrests of his seat, thrown about by the rapid and wild manoeuvres. The gravity field generated by the starcaster could barely keep up. The half-dragon could only watch as young boy in the pilot’s seat threw his ship through a series of seemingly random manoeuvres. Earlier, he had accused Trace of being reckless and insane. But watching him now, he had to admit that he had been wrong. In the reflection in the glass, Korodo could see the determined expression on the boy’s face, the depth of his concentration visible in the motion of his eyes and the set of his shoulders as he gripped the controls, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.
Trace’s eyes flicked from the video feeds to the various system readouts to the view outside the cockpit window, all in rapid succession. Taking in all the information and processing it rapidly, he integrated all of it into a series of quick-fire manoeuvres. He wasn’t even consciously aware of what he was doing, barely even aware of the presence of Korodo. Trace was “in the zone,” a place he always went to in these situations, a place where all conscious consideration was replaced by acting on pure instinct and adrenaline. However, this time was different; this time he wasn’t trying to evade police jumpers who just wanted to stop and arrest him. This time people were actively trying to kill. His heart was thundering in his chest.
Jerking on the control sticks, Trace fired the RCS thrusters and halted the Chimera’s movements, its bow pointing directly at one of the guild shuttles. A single tone sounded and a flashing targeting box appeared over the shuttle in the HUD, the ship’s forward cannons had locked on using the visual cameras for targeting.
Trace hesitated; he knew that the shuttle in his sights was the one that Dorga was on, the one containing his father. There was no way he could possibly have known this, each of the shuttles was identical, but it was as if he could feel Dorga’s presence aboard it. His thumbs hovered over the firing switches on the control sticks. With just a push of a button, he could fire the cannons and destroy the shuttle. They were locked on, at this range there was no way that he would miss, no way that the shuttle would survive. All he had to do was push the switch.
“FIRE!” Korodo yelled from behind him, seeing the same targeting information as Trace.
The sweat dribbled from Trace’s brow, his knuckles white from his grip on the sticks. Even after everything that Dorga had done to him, the things that he had forced him to do over the years, the hatred he felt for the man, he hesitated.
Closing his eyes, he remembered the piercing sound of the alarm as the airlock on his family’s colony was breeched; watching from the balcony of the main house where he had been playing as men poured into the grounds of the compound, gunning down everyone they came across; men, women, children, it didn’t seem to make any difference to them. There was an acrid smell of gunfire in the air and the dull thumps of subsonic ammunition designed not to pierce the colony’s dome seemed to be everywhere. There was a crack and a white streak of tracer fire as a spray of gunfire lanced up from the men towards the balcony. Something warm and wet splattered across the side of his face, followed by the thud of something hitting the floor. Turning around he saw his cousin Carric lying on the floor, blood pooling around his bullet-mangled head. Killed instantly by the burst, he hadn’t even had time to scream as the bullets tore through his face, spraying his blood on to Trace; they had been best friends, the same age, sharing the same birthday, they had done everything together. He just stood there, staring at the body in shock, even as the men began storming the house. His mother came onto the balcony, scooping him up and carrying him into the house, holding him tightly. She tried to shield him from seeing the bodies, but there were too many of them. Cut off from garage and small hanger, they were forced to retreat to the bedrooms. She made him hide under his bed, telling him to be quiet and that it would be all right. Although he was scared, he nodded and tried to smile bravely. If she told him that he would be safe and that the bad men wouldn’t find him, then that’s what would happen; she wouldn’t lie to him. There were gunshots from outside his room and he heard voices, his mother and another man. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. They were speaking in the human language Common, but he only spoke Elven, the language of his mother and her family. She was begging with the man, pleading with him. There was a single gunshot; he didn’t hear his mother speak again. The door opened; from underneath the bed he saw his mother’s dead body lying on the other side of the doorway. A man walked into the bedroom and knelt by the side of the bed. The human looked under the bed and saw him cowering in the shadows. His mother’s blood was still on the man’s face, a face he would grow to hate over the next ten years; a gloved and bloody hand reached towards him as the man smiled cruelly.
“What are you waiting for?” Korodo yelled out, his voice breaking Trace out of the flashback. “Fire the cannons!”
Trace’s eyes snapped open and he retightened his grip on the controls. Screaming a wordless cry of rage and long suppressed grief, he jammed his thumbs onto the firing switches and opened fire.
Red warning lights flashed, a shrill alarm filled the shuttle. “Lock on warning!” The pilot yelled, “we’re being targeted!”
Dorga stumbled as the pilot rolled the ship to the side. “Evade, get us out of here!”
The railgun rounds from the Chimera’s forward guns tore into the shuttle, the hyper-accelerated metal slugs vaporising on impact and obliterating the target. Trace didn’t turn away as the shuttle’s power cells detonated, the flames of the explosion reflected in his tear-streaked eyes. Hull fragments scattered away from the explosion, pattering like hailstones on the hull of the Chimera. The other two shuttles peeled away to regroup.
Korodo leaned over and slapped him on the shoulder. “Great shot kid, you got them!”
Trace swallowed. “Yeah ... I ... I got him, them.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes.
The half-dragon heard the shakiness in the boy’s voice and saw the glisten of moisture on the boy’s arm, where he’d wiped his eyes. It was at that moment that Korodo realised who might have been onboard that shuttle. “Are you okay?” He asked carefully.
There was a pause before Trace responded, his voice still a little unsteady. “I ... I’m ...” Before he could finish the cockpit door and Barak walked in, stopping when he saw the boy sitting in the pilot’s seat.
“Okay,” the orc said scratching his head, “can someone explain why the kid’s sitting at the controls?”
“There’s still two of them out there,” Trace said quietly, focusing on the video feeds and the controls. The other two shuttles had fallen back but hadn’t left completely. Trace had a feeling that they were going to retreat to missile range and attempt to destroy the Chimera while staying out of range of the ships guns.
Korodo turned around and fixed the orc with a firm look. “Barak, can you take the other station and man the guns.” His eyes were saying “drop the subject and leave the kid to get on with his job.” The orc shrugged and sat down, fastening his safety harness.
Trace sat at the flight controls, staring rigidly forward and ignored the two men behind him as he piloted the ship.
“Bring us around to heading one eight zero mark six,” Barak said diverting weapons control to his station. “Did you hear me kid?” He added when Trace didn’t answer.
“I heard you,” Trace muttered, “and my name’s Trace, not kid.” Cutting the engines, he used the RCS thrusters to swing the ship around before reengaging the engines to reverse their heading. The two surviving shuttles had regrouped and were charging towards them. Another tone sounded, this time accompanied by a warning message.
“Alert, missile lock.”
Both of the shuttles fired their entire missile complement and eight missiles began to streak their way towards the Chimera. The missiles shot away from the two shuttles, scattering in all directions before arcing around to attack the Chimera from multiple directions. “Not good,” Trace said, twisting the control sticks and sending the ship into a barrel roll. Barak set the railguns to rapid-fire mode, targeting the heat blooms caused by the missile’s rocket engines. A barrage of hypervelocity slugs struck out at the missiles as the guns automatically tracked the incoming targets. First one, then two missiles were shredded by the guns. One after another, the missiles were intercepted and destroyed.
As the Chimera was buffeted by the exploding missiles, Trace struggled with the controls trying to keep the ship clear of the detonations. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flare of rocket exhaust as missile broke through the railgun barrage. “Hang on!” He yelled yanking desperately at the controls in an attempt to twist the ship out of the way but it was too late, the missile was already locked on and struck the rear of the ship. It penetrated the hull punching through the metal and ceramic hull plating into the launch bay before detonating. The blast shook the ship, destroying the small shuttle in the launch bay, rupturing fuel and power lines and triggering secondary explosions.
Alarms screamed and the ship rocked violently. Only their safety harnesses kept Korodo and Barak in their seats as the ship was thrown to the side by the force of the explosion, the extreme g-forces created completely overwhelming the starcaster’s ability to compensate. “Shiv!” cursed the orc when the ship stopped spinning as the RCS thrusters automatically stabilised the ship, “weapons control is out, the combat drives are offline, we’ve got a decompression in the launch bay and the damage control system is down.”
“My board’s down too,” Korodo added, readjusting his headset. “Bolts, Suki, you two okay?” He received affirmatives from both of them, although the engineer had some strong words in regards to Korodo’s flying skills. The half-dragon smiled as Bolts continued his tirade, wondering what the soulmech would say when he found out that Korodo hadn’t been at the controls. “Kid, what about you?” When there was no immediate answer, he turned around in his seat and looked over at Trace.
The boy was slumped over the controls, lying bodily on top of them with his upper body resting at an uncomfortable angle against the cockpit window. His was face covered in blood, streaming from a gash on the side of his head; the hair around the wound matted with blood. On the glass of the cockpit window was a bloody mark where his head had struck it violently. The safety harness, which Trace had forgotten to fasten, dangled uselessly at the side of the seat.
“Suki, get up here now!” Korodo said into his headset as he slapped the release button on his harness. He jumped out of his seat and reached over to Trace, pulling him gently back into his seat. The boy was unconscious and the head wound probably looked worse than it actually was. Still, he was bleeding quite heavily. Korodo tore of the sleeve of his shirt and pressed the material against Trace’s wound in an attempt to stem the bleeding, checking the video feeds. The two remaining shuttles were circling around for another attack run. This time, with the Chimera a sitting duck, it would be a killing blow. “Bolts, we could really do with that starcaster right now!”
“Field strength is at 87 percent,” Bolts said of the internal comms, his voice crackling over the bad connection, “and the mana flow is at six point two gans per second. That’s as good as we’re going to get until I make some repairs.”
“It’ll have to do,” Barak said, “punch it!”
Korodo leaned over the pilot controls, accessing the starcaster controls and programming the jump. There was no time to select a destination, all he could do was programme a blind jump and hope they didn’t emerge inside a planet or sun. Setting the starcaster for a 2 light year jump, he uttered a small prayer to the gods and pressed the jump button.
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