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“Twitch, make sure that your weapons are in wargame-mode and your transponder is set to the correct frequency.” Manta advised me over our two-person channel. I mentally cursed, only now realising that I failed to check before, quickly operating the computer to look at the settings he had mentioned. The transponder was on the correct frequency but it had a secondary frequency, that would squak all over the wargame, marking me for everyone with an indicator saying ‘target’. Another test, literally broadcasting my blunder to everyone in the area. It made me wonder what I would find in the settings for the weapons, I doubted they were in normal mode, that would be going too far, even for a prank.

And I was proven right. The weapons were not in normal mode but they were also not in wargame-mode. They were in a special test-mode, essentially, every time I would have tried to use my weapons, it would have caused my Starfighter to register damage as if hit, reducing its capabilities according to the wargame-rules. With a sigh, I set it to the right settings, mentally thanking Manta for the advise, wondering why he had given it. Maybe he just didn’t like losing.

“Carmine Squadron, form up around me. The rules have been changed on us, the Merathorn is considered destroyed for the purpose of this wargame.” Commodore Ming’s voice spoke over the squadron-channel.

A quick check of my instruments and the clock told me that we had managed to beat the original objective of getting everyone out of the Merathorn within the allotted ten minutes. That included Carmine 18, Cadet Trezt, for which I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure what would have happened if he had failed but I wouldn’t put it past the scary Commodore or the fleet to spread the punishment to the other cadets, especially to me, as the only other starfighter-cadet. They liked to do things like that, giving punishments to the entire class or squadron, claiming it was building team spirit. I had never seen a team spirit when we had been assigned to scrub toilets but maybe I just hadn’t looked hard enough.

Sticking to Manta, with Wildcat and Wolverine essentially covering us as a wingman would, we were forming up on group one, creating a familiar formation. Group one was in the lead, with group two below and shifted to the right of them, relative to the system’s ecliptic and our flight-vector, we were above and beyond group one, shifted to the left and group three was in a similar position relative to group 2, which brought them behind group one. If we had to spread out, due to heavy fire, it gave group one the option to shift right, group two would go down, we would go up and group could shift left. It was the formation we had been using as the standard in the Academy and I was well used to it. But I also knew that Manta, Wildcat and Wolverine had drilled into me that using standard formations with predictable tactics was a good way to get killed.

“Always assume that the other side has read the same textbook you have.” It was one pearl of wisdom they had demonstrated to me the evening before, between blowing me out of the simulated sky. Somehow, I doubted that they were using the textbook formation, which made me vigilant for sudden surprises.

 

A quick glance to my sensors caused me to frown a little, as I realised that there was something that wasn’t as I had expected. I had been almost certain that Cadet Trezt hadn’t been able to give his Starfighter the walk-around so he wouldn’t have seen the radar-reflector that had been affixed to my Starfighter. Unless it had been something placed only on my Starfighter, there should be a major signal from the reflector.

Again, I took a quick glance into the settings and had to look deeper to find that, yes, there was a change in settings that kept a specific set of signals and radar-readouts from being displayed to me. How many more tests were there and, more importantly, how many had I missed this far?

With the settings set back to standard, I got the reflection from Carmine 18 displayed but also more distant returns, two of which were in the direction we were heading in.

“Accelerate to Half Speed.” Carmine 1 ordered over the Squadron-channel and I increased acceleration to keep glued to Mantis’ wing. Half Speed was, as the name said, half of the rated speed of a Spacecraft. The rated speed wasn’t actually the maximum speed a craft could achieve, it was merely the speed a craft could sustain safely and depended on the sensor-suite of its shields. The problem with high speed in space was an entirely different one compared to the problems with high speed I had been operating under on my air-bike, back home on my father’s farm. With the bike, the top-speed was a function of acceleration and air-resistance, one pushing me forward, the other slowing me down. The faster I went, the higher the air-resistance I had to overcome until an equilibrium was reached. In space, there obviously was no air-resistance, so you could accelerate until you ran your energy-storage dry or you ran into trouble with relativity at significant percentages of the speed of light.

In reality, the problems got serious a lot earlier, and that was where the rated speed came in. Space was, contrary to what we could see from the ground, not as empty as one would think. In fact, it was downright crowded out here, especially in systems that had been fought over in the past, with remnants of those battles still orbiting the star. But even without such old reminders of past battles, there was junk in star-systems, remnants of the formation of the star and its planets, meteoroids and asteroids, some the size of a grain of dust, others almost as large as my Starfighter, drifting through stellar space, just waiting for someone to go too fast for their sensors to pick them up in time to dodge.

With that in mind, smart people at Starfleet-Command had decided on a rated speed for every Spacecraft in the inventory and we were supposed to not go past it. Obviously, if necessary, the rated speed went out of the window and only acceleration counted, but during a wargame, nobody would ignore safety regulations.

 

“Spread, formation C-12, at Red-9.” Carmine 1 ordered over the squadron-channel and I had no idea what any of those meant. I was reasonably sure that it was another test, oh joy, and I was about to fail it. Unless I managed to pass.

Knowing that my job was to stick in wing-position, I focused most of my attention on the signals I was getting from Manta, while letting the rest of the information coming from the Starfighter’s computer trickle into my awareness but not to my attention. It was a trick I had learned and trained, to keep my attention focused on a single set of information while being aware of my surroundings. It only worked in the Starfighter, at least so far, with its computer and my headware helping, but for now, that was more than enough.

Sure enough, shortly before we were in range of the enemy starfighters and the cruiser covering them from behind, Manta’s starfighter shot down, crossing through the gap between wing one and four, with me staying with him. Around me, the squadron was moving in what could only be described as a chaotic bloom, while every electronic counter-system was filling the void around us with noise. I activated mine a little too late, but I activated them, while keeping in formation with Manta and making sure that I wasn’t flying into anyone or anything.

The complicated split-maneuver only took moments, the chaos we were creating total but there was purpose in that chaos, as I learned when Manta switched twisted his fighter and switched vectors again. Where before, we had faced the overlapping fields of fire, ready to tear into our formation, we were now facing a squadron split into groups, forced to cover their cruiser. And it was hunting time.

“Twitch, you still with me?” Manta asked and, by now, I could hear the grin in his voice.

“Sticking to your wing, Manta.” I replied, even if I had to take a quick breath, just then realising that I had forgotten to breathe in the chaotic, difficult flying before.That was a mistake I wouldn’t make again.

“Let’s bag us some kills.” Manta ordered and let his Starfighter dive right into the thick of it, with me, sticking to him and making sure that nobody managed to sneak up on him.

It was chaos. It was glorious.

It was what I had been born to do.

 

Jinking and juking, I followed Manta through the chaotic melee, triggering my plasma-cannons purely on reflex and training, my mind too occupied with making sure that i wasn’t leaving my wingman or flying into something but something seemed to work.

I couldn’t have explained how we got there but some twenty seconds after we had delved into the mess, we were on the other side, my computer informing me that I had administratively damaged two enemy starfighters but taken some damage on my own and had reduced maneuverability.

“Manta, I was hit on the right wing, reduced maneuverability and potentially malfunctioning plasma-cannon.” I reported over the group-channel, once I had a moment to take another breath.

“Twitch, stick with Wildcat. Wolverine and I will go back in, you stick back and keep your torpedos for the cruiser.” Manta ordered and a quick glance told me that Wildcat’s fighter had taken damage as well, albeit less than mine. We weren’t out of the fight per-se but trying to get back in would just get us killed. We were more useful for the squadron by hanging back and, hopefully, add our torpedos to a salvo against the opposing cruiser, which we’d only crack with a group-attack or an insane dose of luck. One was reliable, the other, not so much.

“Twitch, I’ve got your wing.” Wildcat told me, after we had quickly set up a channel for the two of us. She stuck to my damaged right side and I kept us at distance from the fighting but close enough to quickly reinforce the squadron, if necessary. I wasn’t sure if it actually would be necessary, the Carmine Squadron had, as Commodore Ming had ordered, slaughtered the opposing squadron, suffering only two losses, one of which had been Carmine 19, the other Carmine 14, while taking down ten opposing Starfighters and damaging the rest of them, despite them having a cruiser that supported them.

As we were watching, the number of destroyed enemy starfighters climbed to fourteen and, over the Squadron-channel, Carmine 1 ordered a combined strike against the cruiser. Eleven Carmine-Fighters moved into range like dancers moving to an unheard beat, triggering our administrative anti-matter torpedos on a countdown from Carmine-1, sending theoretical death towards our enemy. With twenty-two torpedos, coming from various vectors, the cruiser had no chance, turning into a administrative cloud of overheated plasma and shrapnell.

We had won. Now, we just had to get home without running into anything and I’d be happy.

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Tsaimath

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