Infinity Afterglow / Episode 2: Star Battle

A human fighter pilot engaged in a star battle with an alien drone

An Epic Space Opera BY mark laporta

In this episode, a fighter pilot engages in a star battle, as part of a larget interstellar war. Infinity Afterglow is Book 3 of Mark Laporta’s acclaimed Against the Glare of Darkness trilogy. Read this new serialized space opera from the beginning,

“On your six!”

To the pilot of a silvery, needle-nosed Terran Protectorate fighter, the voice in her ear might as well have been an ice pick. A nearly spherical Quishik drone ship, bristling with spikes and closing in fast? That was the most precise definition of Hell she could imagine. As things stood, her death was imminent; the dark-red drone outmatched the fighter pilot for speed, maneuverability and fire power.

And that was saying something. As the pre-eminent space-faring power in the settled universe, the humans of the Terran Protectorate had been first out of the gate in the current era with the space-folding ships that made interstellar travel practical. With a two-century lead, they’d built a commercial, military and political empire that, until recently, had enabled them to bully their way to unquestioned dominance. Only the rise of Ungent’s people, the Grashardi, to new technological heights, had made the slightest dent in the Terran Protectorate’s supremacy.

The pilot’s one slim hope lay in the tactical summary she’d reviewed with her squadron leader, before zooming out of the Gabriel’s launch bay. According to her superiors, the deadly mutants had a vested interest in keeping her alive. Unless a Quishik fighter faced overwhelming force, it would first try to disable her ship and haul her in for feeding. Dead, she was useless to the mutants. Given that, and contrary to what usually counted as common sense, the best defense against any Quishik drone was a frontal assault.

If she could convince the drone that she was suicidal enough to ram it, the enemy ship would back off and give her space until, at longer range, her ship could be disabled with a surgical blast from a low-yield lase cannon. That would both keep her alive and prevent blowback damage to the drone. The trick was in the timing. If the drone could be lured into the right position, the pilot could pull a one-eighty and spin out into the asteroid belt that loomed a mere hundred kilometers to her left.

That way, she could take advantage of another piece of intel she’d picked up that morning. In the absence of their yet-to-be-completed spaceports, the Quishiks were reluctant to sacrifice more than a bare minimum of their drone force in each raid. With no manufacturing base, the mutants couldn’t afford to be profligate — and risk running a drone aground on an asteroid. For much the same reason, the Quishiks had concentrated their attacks on worlds with little or no space-based defenses.

“Try to make it work,” she whispered.

A series of feints and dodges began, as she dove at her opponent again and again. The zigzag pattern of her repeated assaults edged her ever-closer to the sheltering embrace of the asteroid belt. At last, the moment came. She initiated her one-eighty and entered the treacherous asteroid field, where the threat of collision raised every chestnut brown hair on the nape of her neck.

This was not the kind of duty that the pilot, Cricket Andersen, had initially signed up for when she joined the Terran Protectorate fleet three years earlier. She’d started her career as a navigator on the probe ship Mighty Fortress, under the command of the Protectorate’s first biomechanical Captain, Enos. It was Captain Enos who’d first detected an earlier Quishik outbreak, near the Fremdel event horizon. And it was on that mission that Cricket’s ill-fated romance with the biomechanoid had led to a total breakdown of his overly sensitive cerebral processor. His violent outbursts of jealous rage had led to his being relieved of duty and subject to reprogramming. In the aftermath, Cricket underwent psychological evaluation of her own and eventually earned her wings as a fighter pilot in the Protectorate fleet.

But the incident with Enos was preceded by her extraordinary adventure with Ungent Draaf under the surface of isolated planet Bledraun. There, with the aid of an ancient Ootray AI, she helped confine the Quishiks to a multidimensional prison from which they had recently escaped.

At a trim five-foot-eight, Cricket had barely made the height requirements to enter the Terran Protectorate fleet. Yet no one who’d seen her in battle had ever given that a second thought. It was hardly surprising. At times like these, her gray eyes blazed out over the bridge of her aquiline nose with fearsome intensity.

So far, she’d dodged the Quishik drone. Readouts across her control panel confirmed that the enemy ship had veered off. As the same readouts also confirmed the integrity of her fighter, she decided her best bet was to settle down on one of the larger rocks in the belt and get a breather. She threw the question of the most appropriate landing vector to her fighter’s AI. Within a minute, a set of coordinates blinked out at her in bright red numerals against a black background.

“Kinda far out, don’t ya think?” she muttered. Still, this was no time for second-guessing an ANN-Commission-approved intelligence. With tiny bursts of thruster power, she set herself on a winding path through a maze of asteroids large and small. Until, that is, looming up on her left, was a massive object the size of a small planet.

Balm of Gilead, what a monster, she thought. But, OK, why not?

The greater its mass, the easier to hide on it. The pilot’s fingers flew over the required command codes. After her narrow escape, the last thing she wanted was a misinterpreted voice command, or an unforeseen glitch in the nav-AI, to crash into the asteroid’s surface. Thankfully, her sleek fighter touched down flawlessly. All that remained was to wait for Command to track her signal and give her the all-clear — or give her a court-martial for fleeing a battle zone.

Better not to focus on the negative, she decided, not least because she might have been unlucky enough to find the one Quishik drone that broke protocol and chased after her. More to quell her butterfly stomach than for any allegiance to the Fleet Handbook, she had her AI make a routine sensor sweep. Who knew? Maybe she’d landed on a motherlode of precious minerals and rare metals — enough to make her richer than God when she returned home to….

“What?” she called out. She double-checked the readouts and … even though it made no sense … concluded that the asteroid she’d landed on was hollow. Stranger still, it generated sensor data more consistent with a Protectorate machine shop or spaceport. Her throat tightened at the thought that this might be the first of the Quishik spaceports to be completed.

Jacob’s Well! What if I landed right on top of them? her mind raced. No wonder that drone ship ditched me.

“Readings inconsistent with standard Quishik specifications,” said the fighter’s AI in answer to her question. Could this be an Ootray structure in disguise? The readouts left her hanging.

“Data indicates the content of this asteroid conforms to no previously encountered technology base,” said the AI.

“Previously encountered?” asked the pilot. “There’s no deep historical data?”

“Connection to data stores severed,” said the AI. “The Gabriel is out of range.”

The pilot let that last phrase hang in the air. Evidently, her escape plan had worked too well. The battle cruiser that had brought her to this remote sector had either defeated the Quishiks, dodged them or been destroyed. Though she had reason to hope she might still be rescued, it would be hours before she dared send out a distress beacon and it might be days before any ship could reach her.

“What’s it like in there?” she asked her AI.

“Life support is offline, though it may still be functional,” it told her. “Should I attempt to re-establish?”

“Thought you said the tech profile was … unknown.” said the pilot.

“True. But that does not make it essentially unknowable,” said the AI. “The facility’s base language appears to be a precursor of modern Skryntali. Extrapolating … If you wish, I can reinitialize life support.”

Though the AI assured the pilot that the interior of the asteroid could produce a breathable atmosphere, it advised her to remain in her pressure suit.

“The facility appears to be functioning normally,” said the AI. “And will be fully operational once I reinitialize its systems. It is, however, approximately five thousand cycles old. I cannot guarantee a malfunction may not occur. Shall I proceed?”

“What?” asked Cricket. “No security protocols to override?”

“None so far,” said the AI. “I suspect the Skryntali reasoned that the ships were sufficiently concealed and could defend themselves. Again, shall I proceed?”

“Yes,” said the pilot. “Then load yourself into an avatar and accompany me into the facility.” “As you wish, Lieutenant Andersen,” said the AI. “Initializing now.”

To be continued ….

^^^

A NEW EPISODE APPEARS EACH SCI-FI SATURDAY. Read Episode 3 now.

Read Ungent Draf’s earlier adventures in Mark Laporta’s novels Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. Mark Laporta is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.

Image by Kalyee Srithnam.

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