November 2nd 2012
Forty percent shields. Four of his monitors had cut off. Only two missiles left in the right wing pod. Guns and fuel were doing okay. That was the good news. The bad news? Cal Mason couldn’t keep hammering at Black Talon for much longer.
Penny and the others were still tangling with the rest of the raiding party. The skies were a mess of dissipating contrails and columns of smoke from the burning wreckage below. Cal had to keep his focus. He knew the tables could turn at any moment.
Black Talon cut left, hard. Cal stayed on him. He fired a burst but Black Talon pirouetted around the shots like it was nothing. Cal saw where he was headed. The last Anvil was at distance, pounding arty at a Raider.
Black Talon was heading right for the web of exploding shells.
Aboard the Gemini, Admiral Showalter was trapped between the Vanduul flagship and Yar’s gravitational pull. The massive carrier couldn’t sustain either assault for much longer. He just stared at the mapsphere, studying every position, waiting for a play to present itself. The Vanduul ship was slightly elevated above their starboard side. They were angling to hit them with their big guns. The planet was just below their port horizon.
“Sir. We can’t stay here.” The deck-pilot shouted. Showalter ignored him, his mind churning on something resembling a plan.
“Sir!” He shouted again. Showalter turned, it could work.
“Cut suspensor thrusters three through nine. Drop eight, ten, and twelve by sixty percent.”
“But sir, that’ll drop us –“
“Toward the planet, right. Here’s what I want you to do and I’m only going to say this once.” Everyone listened. From the look on their faces, they thought the old man had finally lost it.
The main guns on the Vanduul flagship started heating up. Energy coalesced at the tip of the barrels, pulling elements from the atmosphere. Suddenly the Gemini pitched down toward the planet, port side thrusters flashed, forcing the massive ship into a turn. It skirted along the edge of the atmosphere, using the gravity to slingshot it around, until its port side stopped directly underneath the Vanduul ship.
The Gemini unleashed every weapon it could into the weak underbelly. Vanduul shields flared up, trying to divert all the attacks but it just couldn’t. Energy blasts punched through the hull followed by AP rockets. For the first time, the Vanduul were getting a serious hurt put on them.
Back on Yar, Cal was now dodging arty rounds. Heller, the Anvil Pilot, was trying to lead Black Talon but the Vanduul was proving as adept at dodging indirect fire as he was at direct.
Penny fell in behind Cal. It was becoming obvious that even though the Vanduul was on the defensive, he was dictating the fight. That was going to change. They were going to hit Black Talon together.
“You ready, Penny?”
“Let’s dust this guy.” Cal grinned.
Somehow Black Talon knew. The second Penny and Cal separated into attack position, panels ejected on the Black Talon revealing six hidden thrusters. He flashed them to spin completely around in breakneck speed and rocket toward them. Cal weaved to avoid the same wing attack that sliced Poll in two. Black Talon kicked its afterburners and shot toward the horizon, rejoining that second wing of Vanduul Scythes and Crawlers, the ones who bee-lined for the old settlement, and disappeared up into the atmosphere.
Penny and the remaining wing went after them. Cal didn’t. Something was gnawing at him. He changed course and headed for the buildings.
The Vanduul flagship was limping away. The Gemini had turned the tide and put some serious holes in it but it couldn’t catch up. Showalter’s daring maneuvering had locked the Gemini in the gravitational hold. Like a rover in the mud, it was doing all it could to try and break free, Showalter could see the Raiders emerge from Yar and disappear into the multiple landing bays. The flagship’s massive engines churned up and took off.
Back on the surface, Cal climbed down the ladder. He flipped the safety off his sidearm as he approached the building. A sign out front was caked with the red dust that was always swirling through the air. Cal wiped off the top layer. This was some kind of geological research station.
He pushed the swinging door open. A couple shafts of light filtered through the dust from holes in the ceiling but it was dark otherwise. The red dust was everywhere. But as much as Cal hated the stuff, it was doing him a huge favor right now. It was showing him footprints and, even better, the outlines of what was missing.
Cal swept through the facility. It looked like they took four machines, around four meters high by a couple wide. He took some pics of the scene with his visor then focusing on the machines that the missing ones were near. Everything that he was learning just fed that knot in his stomach. This wasn’t a raid. This was a heist. What were the machines? What could this Vanduul clan possibly use outdated tech for? What were they up to?
Penny chased Black Talon and the rest as far as she could. The second they broke out of atmo, the flagship unleashed a spray of cover fire. Looks like Grandpa gave them a punishing though. Hopefully they’ll think twice about hitting this system anytime soon.
“Alright, pilots. Back home.” The wing peeled away from pursuit and headed back to the Gemini, which had stabilized but still working its way free of the pull. Penny looked over the remnants of her wing. She ran down the list of the pilots who wouldn’t be reporting. Where was…
“Hey Penny. The Vanduuls still in the system?”
“Barely. They’re eighty-sixing at a clip.”
“Something’s not right, Penny. This wasn’t a raid.”
“What are you talking about Cal?”
“I need a favor.”
“I never like sentences that start out that way.”
“I need you to cover for me with Grandpa.”
“You gotta be joking, Cal.”
“I’ll check in when I have more. There’s something else going on here, Penny.”
Silence for a few moments.
“You know, Cal, one of these days I’m going to collect on all these favors.”
On the bridge of the Gemini, Admiral Showalter watched Penny and the other pilots return, a lot fewer than he would have liked. Then he saw Cal’s ship bust free from Yar. He was headed after the Vanduul flagship.
“Cal, you stupid son of a-“