“Damage-Report.” Manta’s calm voice ordered over our group-channel and I quickly checked that my Starfigther hadn’t been hit. My instruments showed all green, so I reported that back, while listening to Wildcat and Wolverine do the same. It was mostly formality, giving the group-leader a secondary input and possibly a small window in their pilots mind, the primary reporting was made by our computers over a direct link. While the link wasn’t perfect and could be jammed in some cases, reporting in using normal communication simply took too long in the heat of battle.
“Twitch, with me, Wildcat, Wolverine, the two of you stick together. We’ll check the wrecked pirate Starfighter for life-signs.” Manta ordered after making sure that the combat near the Merathorn was over and the pirate-missiles destroyed. On the other hand, the fight near the pirate-freighter hadn’t even started, Groups 1 and 2 still hunting after the freighter. I looked over the stellar cartography for the system and made a rough calculation of their ability to reach hyperspace and concluded that it would be close whether they would manage to catch the freighter or not. On the other hand, one of the fighters that had attacked the Merathorn had, somehow, managed to come out damaged but alive and was currently running as fast as it could after strafing the freighter we had rescued.
“Yes, Sir.” I responded to his ordered, starting towards the area where the first clash between our Starfighters and the pirates had occurred. We would start from there and check whatever sensor-ghosts we could find, simply to make sure there weren’t any marooned pirates around. It was something no spacer wanted to imagine, sitting in a spacecraft, slowly waiting for the oxygen to run out, unable to call for help or do anything but wait for death. Back in the days of Earth, there had been a first rule of the ocean, to safe shipwrecked mariners, no matter what country they belonged to. The sentiment had survived into space, leaving another spacer to die simply wasn’t done. Even if they were pirates and might just face the death-penalty, depending on their files and the damage their attack had caused but they wouldn’t just suffocate in space.
As we moved towards the search-area, the Merathorn’s shuttle was heading in the same direction, towards Carmine 5 and 6. Carmine 6 had been damaged to the point that her Starfighter just wasn’t able to fly, needing the shuttle to rescue her. Carmine 5, her wingman, had stuck with her, making sure that she wasn’t lost in the darkness of space.
We quickly reached the area and started to search, checking the surrounding void with our sensors and letting the computers run recognition-programs. As there was little input needed from me, I pulled up the information from Groups 1 and 2 who had caught up with the freighter about a hundred thousand kilometers away. Sadly, the actual fight was a disappointment, the freighter had used the plasma-cannons installed at her rear to lay down a barrage, managing to keep the Starfighters from coming directly after her.
Instead, Commodore Ming had ordered an englobement, attacking from all directions at the same time, forcing the two cannons to focus on one wing-pair each which would allow the third to tear into the freighter and disable or destroy it. There was another call for surrender that was ignored and they had split up, taking up positions. But then, just before the groups were ready to move in and destroy the target, the freighter managed to get enough distance between itself and the various gravity-wells in the system to jump into hyperspace without breaking apart.
A reaction from the recognition-program needed my attention, so I pushed the failure to destroy the freighter from my mind, focusing on my own job. A quick mental command sent the data to Manta and, after getting confirmation from him, I started towards the area, flying without a wingman in what felt like an eternity. But right now, the name of the game was cover area and if there was someone marooned out here, nobody thought that they would be willing to doom themselves to get some cheap revenge. In addition, I would be flying at slow speeds, meaning that dodging random space rocks would be relatively easy, my sensors able to pick them out long before they would be a problem.
Following the vector away from the former battlefield, I kept myself focused on the sensors of my Starfighter, trying to find what was giving me the strange readings. I had to fly a few minutes, the wrecked Starfighters had continued on the vector they had been on, possibly turning into a stellar object that orbited the primary. It depended on their exact vector and speed, maybe they would head out into interstellar space, never to be seen again.
At the same time, I partially listened to the overall tactical channel, hearing that Group 4 was deployed to guard the rescued freighter, a ship with the appropriate name Lucky Break, while Groups 1 and 2 would return to the Merathorn for a short pit-stop, before they would go back out to guard the area. It seemed like the Lucky Break had taken quite the heavy hit from the single Starfighter that had strafed it while escaping. The Merathorn would remain in the area while they dealt with the necessary repairs and Captain Burris wanted a permanent fighter-screen in place.
Focusing back on the readings, I realised that I was close enough for my optical sensors to pick up what I had been hunting and took a look, only to realise that there was nobody to rescue here. A plasma-bolt had ripped into the Starfighter, a do-it-yourself conversion of an earlier model used by the Federation, some sixty years out of date and it had been an excellent shot. Or a lucky shot. The Starfighters cockpit had been directly hit, the plasma-bolt burning through the armour and flooding the interior with energy, melting the flesh from the pilots bones as they were reduced to ash. In a way, it was a good way to go, death would be so swift that I doubted one had time to even realise one was dying.
It was only after I kept staring at the wreckage for a minute or two that I realised who had shot the fighter down. It was the fighter I had hit during the short and vicious engagement, meaning that the pilot, now turned to ashes floating through the void with their destroyed Starfighter, had been killed by me.
“Found a mostly intact Starfighter, cockpit has been hit, pilot is undoubtedly dead. Should I tag the Starfighter for potential salvage?” I asked back to Manta, not sure what the official directive was. We had been taught that enemy Starfighters were to be salvaged whenever possible, so the spooks could get a good look at them but this wasn’t really an enemy, it had been a Federation Starfighter that, somehow, had found its way into pirate hands. But maybe there was a directive that said we should salvage it in a hope to trace back how that had happened.
“Take your time, get a little distance and blow up the antimatter-cell. We don’t want debris to float around the hyperspace-routes.” Manta answered after a moment. It was a simple answer and one that I could easily accomplish.
Now that the enemy Starfighter wasn’t moving, hitting it would be easy. First, I took a bit of time, my sensors working overtime to perfectly pinpoint the Starfighters antimatter cell, a miniature version of the antimatter reactor that kept modern spacecrafts flying and locked onto it. Then, I nudged my own Starfighter to its maximum effective weapon-range and slowly let out a soft sigh before triggering my cannons and turning the wreck into a short flare, signifying a return to the void. Yes, maybe that kind of death wasn’t all too bad, there even had been fireworks for their funeral.
Shaking the strange, slightly melancholy feeling I was having off, I started back towards the original engagement-area, constantly scanning the space around me. Maybe I would stumble upon a second wreck, even using just the sensors of my Starfighter and not the information gathered by the much better sensors of the Merathorn. I would be glad if I didn’t, finding another floating grave wasn’t high on the list of things I wanted but I would do my duty.
On my return-trip, I listened to the Merathorn’s shuttle and the rendezvous it had with Carmine 6, driving home the point that it had been a fight, a battle. Two sides, trying to kill each other. And, in her case, they had almost succeeded, her Starfighter sounded as if it was in dire need of some bay-time. Hopefully, the technicians on the Merathorn would be able to fix it, otherwise Carmine Squadron would be down one fighter.
But luckily, that was not something I had to worry about.