Magnet lacuna short stor.., p.1

Magnet (Lacuna Short Stories), page 1

 

Magnet (Lacuna Short Stories)
 


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Magnet (Lacuna Short Stories)


  Magnet

  A Short Story set in the Lacunaverse

  "20% of aircraft ejections result in the pilot sustaining career-ending injuries, such as death."

  - Anonymous

  Toralii Mining Colony

  Near the TFR Sydney

  During the events of Lacuna: The Sands of Karathi

  I heard the splintering of glass reverberate around the cockpit of my strike craft as the Toralii energy pulse I had somewhat unsuccessfully tried to dodge ended its journey through space and blew right through my ship. Instantly the inside of the canopy turned crimson, my blood splattering against my Heads-Up Display as the decompression alarm sounded. Air hissed out the hole, sucking the blood splatter towards it and out into the void like some bloody flower blooming right all over my cockpit.

  My wound didn’t hurt, but I knew this was bad. I hadn’t seen this much blood since the accident.

  It’s the year 2037. My name’s Mike Williams, but everyone calls me Magnet. I’m an Australian Air/Space Force pilot and I fly the SSF-01 Wasp. It’s a zippy little space fighter that looks something like a F-4 Phantom with stubby little wings, wings which really just serve as mounts for the reaction control system and as hardpoints to mount missiles. Wings in space don’t do anything much, although their weight does steady the craft a little bit, and the reaction control system that allows us to do fine maneuvering requires them.

  They call me Magnet because it’s short for Chick Magnet, which is good old-fashioned military humour at its finest. At age fifteen, my face picked a fight with the propeller of my family's boat, on a shoal near Broome, off Western Australia. The boat drifted onto a sandbar and I got out to push, but slipped and fell, cutting my face up real good.

  I don’t really remember much of what happened after that, but my dad said the coast guard flew out a helicopter to pick me up. He’d never seen so much blood before and he was certain I wouldn’t make it.

  Turns out not only did I pull through, I managed to keep both my eyes too. The same couldn’t really be said for most of the rest of my face, though, no matter how many times the plastic surgeons tried to repair it. I always looked like I had some kind of fake featureless mask over my “real” face, and even the extensive surgeries couldn’t eradicate the half-dozen or so slashes going right from my jawline to my temple.

  It was kind of ironic that Halloween was the only time I wasn’t scary. When I felt normal, when I felt like I fit in. I’d just grin and say it was a really good mask... imported from America, or something like that. Some people didn’t buy it but overall it worked pretty good.

  I got through high school with a mixture of dogged determination and the charity of my teachers, then enrolled in the Air Force. I’d always wanted to fly and – let’s face it – being model was now a little bit out of the realm of even extreme possibilities. I got to fly and life was good.

  In 2029 life got interesting. I’d been serving with the Australian Air Force for a number of years as a pilot, when an alien species called the Toralii showed up. It turns out that a few places on Earth – Sydney, Tehran, Beijing – were developing some kind of teleportation device... a jump drive that could transport a spaceship around. It was going to change everything.

  Well, it also turns out that the technology is inherently dangerous and the Toralii have some way of detecting it. They obliterated the three cities, transmitted a warning in Chinese, then vanished.

  Humanity had two choices. Be little bitches and give up all hope of having this technology, or build it anyway and fight for our right to use it.

  The major world powers formed a task force to deal with this problem... Task Force Resolution. They built three ships, naming them after the three cities that were destroyed. The Australians crewed the Sydney, the Iranians got the Tehran and the Chinese manned the Beijing.

  Although it was the second ship off the line, in the beginning the Beijing saw the majority of the action, including the first real confrontation with the Toralii. It was in that confrontation that we learned – against conventional thought at the time – that the Toralii used little fighters as companions to their larger ships in space battles.

  Military intelligence thought that strike craft would be too slow and too weak to hurt the larger ships but, shock horror, military intelligence got it wrong. The unexpected and effective presence of those little birds, pecking away at the Beijing’s hull, convinced the task force that we should have them too.

  A space craft was hurriedly designed and built, while tryouts were held amongst the world’s best air forces... with the Israelis eventually claiming the prize. The Iranians protested, of course, and insisted on providing their own pilots. The Australians went with the Israelis, but wanted to have at least one of their own pilots on the Sydney just to maintain an Australian presence.

  They picked me. Lord knows why.

  I was ecstatic at the time, but as I watched drops of my blood float up and get sucked out the giant hole in my canopy, and as my strike craft slowly tumbled end over end and drifted away from the battle, I began to see the events that had taken me to this point in a slightly less than positive light.

  We’d been given the task of assaulting a mining colony. It was thought that there might be humans held prisoner there – the Tehran had gone missing and there was a good chance the Toralii were using its crew as slave labour – and it was thought that the colony would be unprepared and lightly defended.

  The Sydney’s Broadsword gunships had been picking up a handful of prisoners, while the rest of us took defensive fire from the colony. It was random and light until the Toralii launched strike craft from the surface and, I had to tell you, then I was pretty excited. The Sydney had seen combat before I’d been transferred to her, but this was the first time I was going head to head with the Toralii myself.

  I still kinda hoped it wouldn’t be my last.

  I reached up and fumbled for the distress signaller, flicking it on. The red light in the corner of the cockpit which indicated duress lit up just like it was supposed to. Too brightly, actually, much lighter than the rest of my instruments. I frowned. What the hell was the designer thinking, putting in a bulb so bright... as if the pilot wasn’t already aware he was royally fucked.

  The moment the Sydney had appeared in the Lagrange point near the Toralii mining colony and we’d shot out from her launch tubes like little darts, banking and turning down towards the colony, holding off until our our short range radars lit up and we saw the hostile ships coming to meet us.

  Fortunately, we had the element of surprise. I got an early lock, letting off two missiles the moment I had good tone. We always fired two at once... they called it ‘ripple fire’. The reason why we did this was, well, they called them miss-iles, not hit-iles, and for the cost of an extra missile we’d want to make sure we hit our target.

  Both missiles went straight in, striking the centre of the Toralii bird in quick succession, causing the ship to burst into a bright pinprick of light against the backdrop of space. A pretty good showing for my first day out. Then, well, the anti-fighter fire started up again, stronger this time, and... well, that’s about where we came in.

  Eject, Eject, Eject flashed the HUD, the wail of alarms drowning out the hiss of escaping air, but I knew better than that. With this much blood my suit had to have been holed, too... so I’d be a gonner minutes after I bailed out. The ship had a much greater supply of oxygen than my piddly little suit and I was losing so much every kilo mattered; the only thing to do was to sit with it, try to get back to the Sydney if I could and go down fighting if I couldn’t.

  “Come on you bastard,” I growled, struggling for a moment with the control column. Moving in three dimen
sion was different than flying in an atmosphere; you could stop, move backwards, fly up or down... so I had more control surfaces to play with than atmospheric fighters had. All that experience I’d gained in atmospheric FA-18’s was little help at this juncture.

  Somehow, the fighter responded to my touch and levelled out. I realized that, in my struggle, the cord leading from my headset to the instrument dashboard had come loose. With bloody hands I reached up and plugged it back in.

  “-agnet, I say again, eject. You’re leaking atmosphere.”

  “Sydney, this is Vulture – we’ve lost Magnet, can’t raise him on comms. Initiate SAR, he’s drifted well outside of the combat zone so should be retrievable.”

  I reached out and touched the talk key on my radio. “Calm the fuck down, I’m here,” I grunted into the microphone, levelling my wings level to the Sydney’s orientation.

  Shaba’s voice laughed into my headset. Shaba, better known as Lieutenant Rachel Kollek, was the pilot of our Search and Rescue Broadsword Piggyback. Shaba was Hebrew for Ghost and she’d named her Search and Rescue Broadsword herself.

  Piggyback... because it saved your bacon.

  “Magnet, this is Piggyback. Request update on SAR mission. How you holding up there, hot stuff?”

  I craned my head, trying to see where I’d been wounded. I could still feel no pain although blood continued to trickle into my cockpit. “Update as follows; I fucking ate a round, there’s blood all over the cockpit... but I feel fine.”

  The mirth faded from Shaba’s voice. “Is your suit breached?”

  “Are you fucking high? I said there’s blood, there’s a hole somewhere. I’m guessing it hit me in the chest since I can’t feel it anywhere. Could be in my abdomen, though, or my leg... or the arse.”

  Shot in the arse. If I didn’t die, I’d be a laughing stock for the rest of my flying days. Might even earn myself a new nickname.

  “You know protocol. Sit tight, we’re coming to get you. Piggyback is away.”

  I swore. The last thing I needed was search and rescue coming to cart my sorry arse away on my very first entanglement in space... I’d probably never live it down.

  I swung my nose back towards the action. Toralii fighters and Wasps darted around each-other in an entirely disorganized fashion, with the much larger Broadswords weighing in with their autocannon turrets; I flicked through the radio channels, listening into their combat chatter. As I watched, three of the Toralii strike fighters – we called them ‘Badgers’ because they were squat and fat but packed a hell of a fight and were as tough as nails – broke off from the main engagement and headed my way.

  A voice crackled in my headset. “Magnet, Piggyback. We spot three bandits coming in at your twelve o’clock high – you see ‘em?”

  I still had six missiles left. I flicked my targeting radar on, but the display glass was cracked and broken. Swearing, I used my HUD to bring up my guns, but the console just kept flashing Eject, Eject, Eject. I risked a glance down to my instruments – it looked as though the Toralii fire had damaged the autoloader.

  “Damn straight I see the bastards, not that I can do shit about it. My weapons are down.”

  It was time to call for help... but of a different kind. I changed channels. “Sydney, this is Magnet. Request fire mission, grid six alpha-romeo. Three bandits, dispersion four hundred metres.”

  There was the briefest of pauses then my headset crackled. “Magnet, Sydney; confirmed. Fire mission, grid six alpha-romeo. We are initiating medium range bombardment of those coordinates, explosive anti-fighter shells, firing for effect.”

  “Confirm that, Sydney. Bring the rain.”

  I held the nose of my Wasp straight, watching the three dots that represented the Toralii fighters draw close. A quick glance up saw twinkling of the Sydney’s autocannons – the ship’s anti-fighter close range punch – open up. Just behind those winking little flashes I could see the faint point of light that was Piggyback racing towards me.

  The first hint I got that something was wrong was when one of the Sydney’s high explosive shells soared right past me and exploded. Nowhere near the Toralii, and everywhere right near my little fighter.

  “Sydney! God fucking damnit, you’re firing into the wrong grid! Cease fire, cease fire!”

  I jammed the throttle as far open as I could. The reactionless drive that powered the ship – a strange technological marvel that allowed us to generate gravity waves – whined as it started again, my fighter jerking forward and down, diving out of the effect of my own ship’s barrage. Shrapnel pinged off my hull like summer rain.

  “Magnet, Sydney... uhh, say again.”

  I gripped the talk key so hard I thought I’d break it. Shells continued to burst silently all around me, little mushrooms of fire in space, blasting waves of shrapnel in every direction.

  “You mother fuckers are shooting at me! Cease mother-fucking-fire!”

  I kicked out with my left foot, jamming the ship into a wild twist, barely avoiding an incoming projectile that burst just to my starboard side. This whole section of space – almost a full cubic kilometre – was being bombarded by my own ship and I had nowhere to go.

  Slowly, the fire petered off. “Apologies, Magnet – an error occurred passing the coordinates from communications to fire control. These things happen.”

  These things happen? I felt like reaching out through the vast gulf of space and throttling the man. Before I could unleash an entirely inappropriate stream of comments through my radio, however, the three Toralii warbirds descended on me like hawks to an exposed mouse.

  “Piggyback? If you’re out there, I could use some help right about, oh, ten seconds ago!”

  I kicked out my right foot this time, grunting as my tiny ship lurched in the opposite direction, barely avoiding a spray of fire from the Toralii fighters. They overshot, zooming past me silently like owls on the hunt, and I pulled back the handle that governed the speed of the reactionless drive, jamming the fighter into reverse.

  Which caused a low groan to reverberate throughout the ship as the engine spluttered, jerked twice, then died.

  Well, shit.

  “Piggyback, this is Magnet – my reactionless drive is out. I’m dead in space.” Pardon the pun, I silently added, instantly regretting saying what I’d said. In the game of space combat words like that had a tendency to come back with an ironic bite.

  I twisted in my seat, glancing over my shoulder. I could see the light of the system’s star reflect off the canopy of the three Toralii fighters as they turned towards me, bearing down towards me to deliver the coup de grace.

  I was presented with an interesting but morbid choice. To be blown to atoms by remaining where I was, or to eject and be asphyxiated in space. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it and, in a strange way, the training hammered into me by endless repetition took over. Training which gave very clear guidelines on when to egress and how to decide when to do so. I knew that the number one reason for ejection failure was hesitation. Pilots who were unwilling to accept that they’d lost and believing, hopelessly, that they could turn the tide if they just stayed on a little bit longer.

  But there were no second places in space combat. First prize was a relaxing flight home for tea and medals, where your nation’s leaders would pin a shiny metal cross on your chest on national television and people would call you a hero for the rest of your life.

  Second prize was also a cross... but a stone one, placed at the head of your grave.

  I waited until I saw the flashes of the Toralii’s energy weapons firing then I reached between my legs and yanked the ejection handle.

  * * *

  Ejection is a very strange feeling, especially in zero gravity. The Martin-Baker Mk. 19B ejection seat functions in two stages. The goal of the first stage is to remove the canopy. To effect this, tiny rockets mounted under the cockpit glass blast the whole thing free in one piece, with the forward thrusters blasting it up and away from the pilot. Al
l the air in the cockpit gets sucked out in one big woomph which generally takes any kind of debris or loose items with it.

  I remember viewing the whole first stage in slow motion. I saw the sparks as the rockets blew off the canopy, then I saw a few things – a stray coin, a condom wrapper, the business card of that fine hooker I met in Brisbane and tiny, perfectly spherical droplets of blood – all get blown out of the canopy as the atmosphere vacated it.

  The second stage, which occurs milliseconds after the first, is the part which saves your life. Because there’s no atmosphere anymore there’s no sound at all except the faint hiss of air inside your suit. Heavy-duty rockets ignite under your seat, hurtling you out of your cockpit. Little cables attached to each one of your limbs pull taut, jamming your arms in against your chest, your legs in against the seat and your head against the back of the chair; this stops your limbs flailing around helplessly as you’re blasted into space.

  I knew it from my training, but this part I don’t remember so well. Perhaps it was the wound, or my brain suddenly having fourteen times Earth’s gravity exerted on it, but I don’t remember much except a crushing force jamming me down into the seat, blasting me out into space. Since I had very few points of reference amongst the unmoving stars, aside from the pressure cramming me back into my seat I really had no sense of motion once I was clear of my stricken craft.

  Then the doomed wreckage of my ship blew up below me as the Toralii energy blasts struck the fuel and ammunition reserves. The shockwave followed in my wake, almost dissipating when it caught up to the back of my seat... but it was enough to shake and rattle the chair, twisting it completely around right as the rockets died.

  Carried by its inertia the chair spun, now, rotating on its horizontal axis. Without friction it continued to turn, the stars slowly tumbling by. I caught flashes of weapons fire, and saw through my limited perspective the Broadsword Piggyback fly into the fray, all of its cannons ablaze as it tried to fight off my attackers so it could save my sorry arse.

 
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