The hairs on the back of my neck straightened, and my knuckles turned white as I gripped the weapon controls. The timer reached zero, and after a second the Code-Alpha signal went dead. The hologram fizzled out, and for a single moment no one breathed. Joëlle and I peeled our eyes and scanned the stars beyond. Our grid of ships waited with backs turned to Earth, waiting, waiting...
Then they came.
On all sides of the planet a swarm of valicorr starfighters warped into view. Yellow glows appeared from their energy weapons, and like a flash flood the space around us was hit with wave after wave of dazzling laser bolts.
“This is it!” I cried, leaning forward. It was impossible to tell how many ships there were, but they were closing in fast.
“Get ready!” I could barely see Joëlle’s face from behind the visor of her helmet. She shoved the throttle forward, and the hum of the engine grew louder, rising in pitch. I couldn’t feel any motion, but I saw us accelerate to a blistering speed. The Firebrand felt smooth as butter.
Three valicorr fighters streaked toward us, weapons blazing. I glanced at the targeting computer in front of me, adjusted the cannons, and pulled back on the trigger until it clicked.
Blue pellets of energy fired from each gun, barrelling into one of the fighters and exploding in violent flames. We soared through the debris and clear to the other side of the enemy lines.
“Woo!” Adrenaline surged through me as I cheered, lifting my fist to the air.
Joëlle slammed the controls to the side, spinning us around as we drifted away from the planet. The battle came into view just ahead of our windshield. Every ship was in motion, every weapon trying to find a clear shot. Grey TAU cruisers turned slowly, unleashing volleys of fire upon the valicorr ships. But some were too slow, exploding in streaks of flame as Duhrnan’s army strafed past, shedding their own torrent of lasers. Interspersed between these moments of chaos, I caught sight of the white carriers of Astraloth closing in on their attackers. Red spears of energy shot out in rhythmic bursts, piercing through the swarm of wasps. Between it all, skyther and TAU fighters wove together in a dizzying motion, hunting the valicorr fighters with a bold vengeance.
Ships were being lost on both sides, but...
“It looks like we’re winning!” I said, nearly jumping from my seat.
“Stay focused!” Joëlle yelled, and swerved to avoid a valicorr fighter who broke off to attack us. I jolted into action and fired back, destroying the ship in an instant.
Joëlle activated the Firebrand’s cloaking device. Our weapons couldn’t fire while the cloak was active, but our signals were no longer traceable.
“The Shade Beam hasn’t arrived yet,” said Joëlle, glancing my way from beneath her helmet. “Until it does we need to stay clear from the worst of the battle. Once it arrives, we fly straight to it and wait for its cannon to open, just like the other bombers.”
“And then launch the missile before it gets a chance to disintegrate Earth,” I said, breathing deeply. “I’ve got my eye on the scanner...”
At least twenty valicorr battleships, each the size of a Titan-class cruiser, exited slipspace in a cluster not far from the Firebrand, headed for Earth. Then a moment later, a massive cone-shaped vessel appeared between them.
My adrenaline spiked. “The Shade Beam!” I cried.
“I see it!”
The engines whined as we flew like a dart to the cluster of enemy ships, and our target. The Shade Beam loomed with a palpable malice, and I imagined a beating heart at its center with bolts of red lightning arcing out in the dark chasm where it resided. A twisted, malevolent life force within a monstrosity of metal. A true weapon with no compassion- only the cold calculations of destruction.
The fleet admiral’s voice came through the ship’s communicator, commanding all vessels to converge in front of the Shade Beam. Everyone, humans and skythers alike, pushed their engines to the limit.
I tightened my grip on the controls as the Shade Beam grew larger in my view, and we came closer to the beetle-like warships that surrounded it. I watched in horror as the battleships unleashed their fury, breaking through the first wave of our defences with ease.
I clenched my jaw. “Has the Shade Beam begun its firing process yet?” I asked, as we flew closer.
“Not yet,” Joëlle replied. “The cannon is still shielded. We need to get closer first, anyway.”
Then I heard faint voices in Joëlle’s headset. She turned to me, eyes wide.
“I’m getting reports that Duhrnan is leading the attack in some sort of elite starfighter.” She looked out the windshield into the fray. “Look!”
She pointed in front of the Shade Beam, and I could see several Titan-class cruisers and skyther warships forming a shield in front of the weapon. They were taking heavy fire from the Shade Beam’s escorts. Earth’s defenders continued to rally around the weapon, pulling out from other sides of the planet, but so did the valicorr. The entire battle was converging on this one point, and the space between ships was shrinking, making maneuvering difficult.
Then I saw what Joëlle was pointing at. A deep purple ship, as large as three regular starfighters, hovering around a TAU cruiser. Red lightning lashed out from its underside, slowly slicing the cruiser apart.
“It must be another loro ship,” I said.
Joëlle eyed the destruction Duhrnan’s fighter was causing, then exhaled shortly. “It’s not our mission to take him out. We need to be ready for the Shade Beam when it opens its maw.”
Then I felt my blood freeze over. He wasn’t just tearing apart any ship. His red beam had just cut the word KRONOS in half, sending a chunk of the hull to drift through space.
I pointed at the half-destroyed Titan-class cruiser. “Joëlle! He’s attacking the Kronos! We have to stop him!”
She hesitated. Then she furrowed her brow. “No, Osax! The Shade Beam is our priority!”
“Fiona’s still aboard!” I yelled. “She’ll die!” I looked at the scanner, my body tensing. “The other bombers are en route. We have a cloaking device. We can fly in close and surprise him!” Not Fiona, I thought. Please, not her too!
Joëlle checked her scanner as explosions around us lit the cockpit’s interior. “There are fifteen bombers in position already...” I glanced at the computer. Three of the twenty-four bomber’s readings had already changed to “NO SIGNAL” in red text.
I stared into her eyes. “Please, Joëlle. We can turn around if the other bombers get damaged.”
She scrunched up her face. Then she breathed out, and changed course. She locked eyes with me, and smirked wildly. “Alright. Time to stop that monster, once and for all.”
I felt my blood ignite.
Undetected, we swerved by ships, energy bolts, and explosions. We approached the Kronos, which had just lost another large section of its hull that had been haphazardly sliced off by Duhrnan’s purple fighter. He was dismantling the Kronos almost single-handedly.
His ship was wide and thin like a crescent blade, with a black windshield in front, and four jagged prongs that shot out the back. From its underside, red light arced toward the Kronos, and where it hit the grey TAU hull splintered and depressurized. A squadron of black valicorr fighters circled Duhrnan’s ship, blasting the Kronos’ gun turrets and any TAU or skyther ships that flew close to him. Any of them, except for us.
“When I deactivate the cloaking device, the weapons system will regain power,” said Joëlle. She shot me a fiery look. “That’s when you shoot him, got it?”
“Got it.” I said, eyes narrowing on my target.
Duhrnan’s ship flew up towards the bridge, completely unaware of us hovering behind him. The Shade Beam was slowly encroaching behind us, as well as a flock of valicorr fighters and battleships. But my mind was only on Duhrnan.
He closed the distance toward the wide window of the Kronos’ bridge, clearly savouring each moment. That’s where Fiona would be! I thought. I flashed Joëlle a look, and she nodded.
“Now!” She said, disabling the cloaking device.
I leaned forward in my seat, pulling the trigger tight until my fingers hurt. My eyes were glued to Duhrnan’s ship, intense rage burning in my chest and arms. The underside of his vehicle began to glow red. Then the Firebrand roared, and blue bolts of light exploded on his hull. Smouldering, it spun out of control, bouncing harmlessly against the hull of the Kronos and spinning out of sight, into the chaos that surrounded us.
I shouted in triumph. Joëlle cheered. We were close enough to what remained of the Kronos that I could see people standing in the bridge through the window. They were staring at us in shock and wonder.
Joëlle and I were riding the highs of adrenaline, grinning. I tapped my holo-gauntlet, calling the admiral.
“Fiona! Are you alright?” I asked.
I caught sight of a figure in a black, grey and blue uniform in the window, holding an active holo-gauntlet to her mouth. Fiona’s voice came through my gauntlet. “Half the ship is gone, but what remains is holding, for the moment. And I see we have you to thank for it!” I lifted my ears. She continued, “Now, reactivate your cloak and go! Stop the Shade Beam!”
Then the Firebrand shook and groaned. Lights flickered, and I could hear something sparking. We spun out of control. Something had hit us from above.
“Dammit!” Joëlle reactivated the cloaking device, and took us away from the Kronos. We were floating in the middle of the chaos, between the shield of cruisers and the Shade Beam. We were surrounded by dogfighting fighters, but with the cloaking device active again we were as safe as we could be.
A gentle alarm beeped at us, and Joëlle opened up a holographic display of the Firebrand. The image of the ship spun slowly. I scanned for anything indicating damage or malfunction. The clamps holding the E-missile on top of the Firebrand’s exterior were blinking red.
I looked at the weapons console. The missile’s guidance system seemed unaffected, but the computer was telling me that the firing mechanism was jammed.
“Joëlle, the missile was hit. The clamps- The firing mechanism is melted shut!”
Joëlle swore, then tried to calm herself. “Well, look on the bright side... At least the explosive casing wasn’t damaged, or we would be vapour by now.”
I put my head in my hands and began rubbing my temples furiously. “I guess there’s nothing we can do...”
She opened up her scanner. “Every one of the remaining bombers is in position. We just have to leave it up to them.”
“Alright,” I said, lowering my hands and gazing out at the battle beyond. Joëlle turned the ship so we faced the Shade Beam and its entourage of warships. I took in a slow breath, calming myself. “At least we were able to save part of the Kronos.”
Then the valicorr warships let loose a volley of energy bolts, and ships began to splinter with energy all around us.
I had to shield my eyes as blue flames erupted in massive spheres of light, coming from tiny TAU starfighters scattered about in front of the Shade Beam. The windshield was hit with a spray of silver particles and dust from the vaporized vehicles, which slid over the window like flecks of sand in the wind. I leaned over, gazing at the computer screen. One by one, the bomber’s signals flickered to red, until every single ship displayed the same thing, and I felt a chill roll over my body.
We were the only ones left.
I looked up at the Shade Beam. It was moving straight toward us, its cannon aimed directly for the Earth which waited behind us. I knew what was at stake. My eyes fell to the weapons console, warning me of the jammed missile. I knew I needed to get it free before the Shade Beam fired. We were Earth’s last hope. I clutched at my chest, and stared at the weapon before me. I stood up from my seat, compelled by a power seemingly beyond me to rise up against the darkness.
I reached my hand out to Joëlle. “Give me your molecular sword.”
Joëlle spun to face me. “What? Osax, what are you doing?”
“Take us in close,” I said, eyes narrowing. “I’m going to cut the missile free. Keep in contact via comms.”
“Wait! Uh- Okay!” Joëlle quickly reached to her belt. She held her sword, and hesitated, looking me in the eye. “Don’t lose this-”
“Why would I?” I replied.
She raised an eyebrow. “Osax, please. I’ve given you weapons before. How many guns and swords have you dropped or lost in the past few weeks? Have you managed to hold onto a single one?”
“No. You always end up losing them.” She smirked.
Hurriedly, I glanced to the battle outside, then back to her. “Whatever! We don’t have time Joëlle.” Then I added, “I won’t lose it!”
She winked, and tossed me her deactivated molecular sword. Then she turned her attention back to the controls, and I slipped out of the room, the door hissing shut behind me.
I ran through the Firebrand to my quarters and lunged for the bedside table, gripping the sword. The loro nano-suit was right where I’d left it, and I strapped it to my wrist as quickly as possible. Glad I didn’t send you away for research just yet, I thought. It flashed brightly as it scanned my body, and silvery liquid nanites began to slip over my arm and chest.
“How do you plan-”
“The loro nano-suit,” I said. “I’m going to use the escape hatch to get on top of the ship, and pry the missile free manually.” I sped through the Firebrand, and found my way to the escape hatch airlock. The door shut behind me, and as the nano-suit sealed itself over my face and ears, muffling the hum of the ship, I started the depressurization sequence.
“You- Osax...” Joëlle’s voice trailed off in my earpiece.
“...I believe in you.”
I crawled, clawing my way onto the top of the Firebrand, and the hatch shut closed behind me. My hands quivered, grasping at nothing on the surface of the ship. The balls of my feet magnetized to the surface. Lights and explosions flickered in the sleek reflections of the hull inches away from my shielded face. I could only hear my breath, painfully loud in my ears.
Slowly I rose, pushing myself to my feet. I stood isolated on the hull. Behind me was the Earth, and countless TAU and skyther ships. Around me, the battle raged on in densely clustered struggles. And in front of me, the Shade Beam’s flat face watched me with amusement. I stared at the cannon’s barrel at its center. Slowly, unmistakably, the covering of the cannon began to open until I could see straight down the weapons shaft, to a dimly glowing orb in the center of the ship.
“Osax! The Shade Beam!”
“I know,” I said quietly. I didn’t have much time.
A ship exploded right next to the Firebrand as I stepped toward the E-missile, and the Firebrand swerved. I knelt down next to the missile and began to assess the damage. There were two metal clamps holding the missile in place, each one a solid arm that contracted around the bomb and held it to the Firebrand. I just needed to cut them free.
I held my arm up, and activated Joëlle’s molecular sword. Metal plates shifted into place. Sunlight reflected off the silver blade, and I knelt down.
My heart was beating quickly. I tried to shut out blinking lights in the space surrounding me. I trained my eyes on the bomb, and with a shaking hand I move the blade to the base of one of the clamps.
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath until the chunk of cut metal drifted harmlessly away from the bomb. My hands were shaking.
One down, one to go.
I glanced up at the Shade Beam. It was almost upon us. I felt my gaze being sucked down its throat to the core, whose light had flared up now. We were caught in a ray of light that glowed in the dust and debris of countless shattered starships; a spotlight shone straight from the Shade Beam’s cannon. A blackness began to mix into the orb of light at the cannon’s core, like ink in a glass of water. Somehow I knew when the light faded the Shade Beam would fire, and all would be lost.
“Osax?” Joëlle’s voice came through my earpiece.
“Almost got it,” I said, straining as I bent over the rocket, reaching for the final clamp. I aimed my sword down toward it...
My visor lit up with the explosion of a ship in front of us. A chunk of engine debris careened toward the Firebrand, and Joëlle took us into a spin. We missed the debris, but I lurched forward and sparks flew in front of my eyes.
When the Firebrand levelled out, I looked down at the missile. It had a keypad and computer panel attached to its side for calibrating the guidance system. Sparks flitted out from the incision I had accidentally made straight across it. The tiny computer screen cracked and flickered, struggling to show me its plain message. My heart leapt to my throat.
GUIDANCE ERROR!!! GUIDANCE ERROR!!!
“Osax?! What happened to the E-missile!?”
I swallowed hard. “I may have just cut through the guidance system...”
“What?!” Joëlle panted. “Then we need to get out of here-”
“No!” I yelled, clenching my fists until they hurt. I knelt down and wrapped one arm around the missile, bracing it against the Firebrand’s hull as I cut the final restraint free. The metal piece drifted up weightlessly, and I pushed it so it floated away out of my face, leaning on the missile. “I need to fire it manually.”
“Osax, are you out of your mind?!”
“It’s the only option!” I shouted.
I glanced at Joëlle’s sword in my hand. Sorry! I thought. Then I let go of the sword and clung to the Firebrand with all my strength, holding the sparking missile wrapped under one arm. Sweat trickled down my forehead, and I gazed ahead at the maw of the Shade Beam. The core was fading, vibrating with a dark energy. My visor flickered with the lights around me. I glanced back at the blue and green planet one last time. “How do I manually start the missile’s engine?!”
“Then can you launch it?”
“Ignition should be linked to the Firebrand still-”
“Then do it when I say so!”
“But you’ll get burned by the rocket-”
“This suit survived atmospheric entry!” I shouted. “If we don’t try, we’re dead anyway!”
“Okay!” she said, her voice wavering. “Tell me when to fire!”
I leaned over, placing my eye just behind the edge of the missile. I could feel the blood pumping through my veins. With both hands I angled the rocket carefully, lining it up so it faced straight down the barrel of the Shade Beam. The core was almost entirely dark now, with only a faint trickle of light coming through. I knew I only had seconds to fire.
I opened my mouth to tell Joëlle I was ready.
Suddenly, a smoking purple vessel swooped down directly in front of us, obscuring my shot. It was Duhrnan’s fighter. He had tracked us down, despite us being cloaked, and his ship glowed with a crackling red light...
Then the Firebrand bared its teeth and blue energy crunched into his vessel. The purple starfighter cracked into chunks of smouldering debris which shot out in every direction, and a luminous energy cloud bristled in its place for a moment. The path cleared just enough, and aiming through the wreckage I realigned my shot. I gently held the missile in place against the Firebrand. There was no more time.
“Do it, Joëlle!”
I was blinded by light. I braced myself as the rocket flew from my fingertips and blasted back against me. Then it was gone, flying toward the Shade Beam’s great chasm.
I was transfixed. Time stopped. The world fell away, and all I could see was the glow of the E-missile soaring towards the shaft of the Shade Beam. It cleared the opening. I strained to see if it would impact against the edges of the shaft...
It found its mark.
The core lit up like a star, and I had to shield my eyes. I could see the weapon begin to disintegrate as waves of its own energy seeped to its edges. Then it all turned to light and heat. The Shade Beam burned itself up in the blink of an eye.
It was done.
The Firebrand soared through the debris of Duhrnan’s ship, and I exhaled a sigh of relief. When I tried to inhale, the wind was knocked out of me. Something from Duhrnan’s ship crashed into my chest and threw me off the Firebrand, and I was now tumbling helplessly through space. I looked down; something held onto my leg.
Fear gripped me. Duhrnan, in his own nano-suit, pulled me down with all four of his arms so our masked faces were level. I struggled in his grasp, heart beating quickly.
I flailed my arms at him, battering his head with my fists, but he grabbed my wrists with his two lower arms and forced them away. Our eyes met. He was frenzied. He was screaming silently in his helmet, baring his teeth. My ears were constrained in my helmet, but the muscles involuntarily shot back. We were falling through space.
He held me tight with three arms, and bashed my helmet with his fourth. Again and again, he smashed against the translucent nanite visor. Stars and explosions spun around us. I wriggled and kicked at him with my legs. My head began to throb with pain, and crimson droplets of blood began to weightlessly float inside my helmet; I wasn’t sure where I was bleeding.
Then he punched my helmet, and my ears screeched with the whistling of air escaping my suit. I gasped, peering through the crack in my visor. The nanites struggled to repair the breach, and Duhrnan reeled back for another swing.
My head jerked back and I shut my eyes. My skull reverberated as Duhrnan jammed his fingers through the crack in my visor, and pulled. He tore half of my visor off. Air was sucked from my helmet.
I knew I only had a short time to live without a suit, but if Duhrnan kept hold of me, there was no chance I would survive. My fingers curled around his hand, reaching for his wrist...
I pressed hard on the buttons of his nano-suit until it started to liquefy. Panicking, Duhrnan let go of me, and reached for his wrist. Without thinking, I planted both of my feet against his body and pushed off, sending us drifting in opposite directions. I watched him flailing helplessly as he tumbled away into the darkness.
I raised my hands to my broken mask and shut my eyes, trying to cover the hole. The suit had lost a fair amount of mass, and was struggling to repair itself. My breathing was strained, and frantic. I wasn’t getting enough air, and my face was beginning to freeze. I was dying.
But we had won. The timer was gone. Earth was saved. The Shade Beam was destroyed. I peered out from behind my hands, and watched the valicorr ships being overwhelmed, one by one. The warm glow of the sun against the remaining fleet, against the blue planet. The stars, welcoming me home. Sleep now, they whispered to me. Return to us, and sleep.