Out of the Darkness — Act III

orphan-squadronIn Act II, exiled Able Sequoia and Jig Cypress agreed to a tentative truce in order to carry out a dangerous reconnaissance mission in the asteroid belt near their prison planet of Rendios. But for Jig, the danger is not enemy Vortani fighters lurking amid the asteroids — it is Able, the man he believes allowed his entire squadron to be annihilated by his misplaced devotion to nonviolence in wartime. Would Sequoia’s ethics put their lives at risk?

The two stubby blockade runners skimmed their way through the asteroid belt at the outer edge of the Rendios system, their low-reflectivity, dark-gray paint schemes blending against the jagged hunks of rock through which they flew. The two ships flew side-by-side, with Able Sequoia, the flight leader, on the left and Jig Cypress, once his squadron-mate, covering the right. They maneuvered almost as one toward the next large asteroid in their search sector.

Sequoia punched a button on the console above his head. “Scanning the surface now,” he said, his voice thinned by the helmet microphone, as he turned his attention to the screen in front of him. “Looks like natural radiation only. No artificial signatures.” He watched intently as the monitor displayed the results of the slow sweep by the sensor pallet. “Some mid-range residuals, but they look too erratic to be manmade. What do you see?”

“Same,” replied Cypress.

“You forget how to talk over there?” Sequoia asked, glancing out the window at his wingman. “You haven’t said a word with more than one syllable since we left orbit. And we’ve looked at, what, twenty asteroids so far.”

“Yup.”

“Nothing to say to me, is that it?”

“Right.”

“That’s fine. I’ll do all the talking. Have to do something to stay awake out here. Or maybe you’d rather hear me sing.”

Cypress rolled his eyes in exasperation, but remained silent.

Sequoia listened to the hiss of background static for a moment. “I know what you all think about me, but you have it wrong, you know.”

Cypress punched a set of coordinates into his flight computer, determined not to be drawn into a conversation with the man he had shunned years earlier.

“What happened on Shalamand, none of you people can understand.”

“That’s because everyone who was there is dead, thanks to you,” Cypress blurted out.

“Aha, he does know how to speak after all,” Sequoia jibed, smiling tightly. “Well, I didn’t die there. And neither did Colonel Brookbine.” The smile faded, and with it his voice. “But Forshana did.”

“Who?”

“When the advance fleet arrived at Shalamand, my squadron was billeted on an island in the Correm territory. Colonel Brookbine sent me to meet with the local Correm leaders to requisition supplies. The leaders asked Forshana to work with us.”

Sequoia adjusted his ship’s sensor settings. “The entire Correm culture was founded on the principles of nonviolence. For thousands of years, they lived in peace with each other. With the other nations on Shalamand too. Not that they didn’t suffer for it. Most of the other Shalamandi were warlike and sometimes they crossed through Correm to get to each other. But no matter how much the Correm lost, they didn’t fight back. The other nations couldn’t understand. They would demand that the Correm surrender. But the Correm would tell them, We can’t surrender because we’re not fighting you.” Sequoia chuckled ruefully and shook his head. “The way they see it, they never lost.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Forshana taught me their history,” Sequoia replied. “I asked her to teach me. Between missions, after debriefings, any chance I had. I wanted to learn everything I could about them.”

Cypress was unmoved. “Scanner sweep completed. Readings unchanged.”

“By the time our fleet arrived, the Vortani had already been raiding their planet for months. But even with thousands of people being slaughtered in space raids, they still chose the way of peace. For a squadron full of genetically programmed warriors, it just did not compute, you know what I mean?”

Cypress looked at his monitor panel. “Next asteroid is at two-seven by one-one-four, range three hundred. Set course.” He punched the figures into the navigation console and his ship began to arc down and to the right.

Sequoia entered the coordinates in his own navigation console and his ship followed Cypress’ lead. “I asked Forshana to explain it to me. I wanted to see if I could understand. It’s like the instructions say, get to know the locals, right? So we talked. A lot. And it did something to me. I got what she was saying. I began to understand that there could be another way to relate besides conflict.”

“You’re programmed to fight. We all are. It’s our whole purpose.”

Sequoia nodded. “That’s what I told her. But she just refused to believe that that’s all I was capable of ever being.”

“So what, you fell in love?” Cypress said mockingly. Such a thing was simply beyond their programming.

“Or the closest I could come to it. We decided to commit.”

“Commit?”

“That’s what the Correm call marriage.”

“Married? You?” Cypress glanced at his monitor. “Coming up on the next asteroid in ten. Stand by to commence scanning.”

Sequoia punched in a command sequence. “In order to commit, I had to be accepted by the Correm first. And that meant taking the vows of nonviolence. I studied their precepts for months. Forshana was my guide.”

“And what happened?”

Suddenly, Sequoia’s monitor began flashing red. His brow furrowed as he studied the screen. “Sensors are picking up artificial signals from the asteroid.”

“Confirmed,” replied Cypress. “Level four and stable.”

Sequoia punched several buttons in the panel above his head. “Triangulating. Tie in sensors.”

In his ship, Cypress punched the same sequence. “Tied in. Getting a fix.” The two pilots watched their monitors as yellow lines spread out and crossed, intersecting at a point near the top of their screens. “Three-three-two.”

Both men looked out their cockpit windows at the designated point on the pale-gray asteroid passing slowly above them.

“Nothing,” said Cypress. His hyper-sensitive eyesight detected nothing but a pitted, rocky surface.

“Must be buried,” Sequoia replied. “Radiation signal’s getting stronger. I think . . . ”

A piercing alarm sounded in both men’s helmets. “Incoming fire,” shouted Sequoia. “Break!” The ships split to the right and left as three bolts of high-energy plasma sizzled through the space they had just occupied.

Both men’s genetic programming kicked in automatically in response to the threat. The acuity of their senses increased by several orders of magnitude, and time seemed to slow down.

“Sourcing!” called Cypress as he turned a dial on his target screen. “I track it one-eight-three astern.”

“On it,” Sequoia responded, rolling his ship hard to the right, his head swiveling in search of the source of the plasma missiles. “Got him!” He spotted a dark shadow skimming above the surface of the asteroid. “Single-seat Targon, looks like he’s coming around for another shot. Two-one-five.”

Cypress turned to look in the direction that Sequoia had called. “I have it,” he said, instantly assessing the course and range. “He’s mine.” He banked his ship toward the enemy fighter. After the initial break, Cypress’ ship had ended up being the closer of the two runners, allowing him to slip in behind the fighter and give chase. “Energizing weapons.” He flipped two switches; two green lights confirmed his twin Mark 9 blast cannons were armed and ready.

Cypress expertly jinked his ship into firing position. An illuminated target reticle appeared on the cockpit window in front of him, tracking the small dart-shaped fighter with its yellow crosshairs. A few moments later, a short three-tone beep sounded. “Locked and tracking.” At the right moment, Cypress squeezed the trigger on his ship’s control column and the cannons squirted a barrage of supercharged particles at the target. The blast shredded one of the fighter’s wings, and it spun out of control into the asteroid.

“Smash one!” Cypress exulted.

Good kill! Sequoia wanted to shout, but he fought the urge back down. “Confirmed,” is all he said. From his vantage point, Sequoia could see Cypress’ blockade runner skimming low over the surface of the asteroid, passing the debris field of the crashed adversary. Suddenly, to his left, he glimpsed a fast-moving low shadow sliding through a lava channel parallel to Cypress’ track.

“Targon below and behind you!” called Sequoia. “Break high!”

Cypress pulled back on the stick and gunned his throttle, pointing the blockade runner away from the surface of the asteroid.

Sequoia watched as the Vortani fighter slid out of his camouflaging trench to give chase. This pilot was smart. Unlike the other fighter, which had exposed its position right away, this one had used the terrain to mask its approach, letting its partner lure Cypress down to where it could line up behind him undetected. But because Sequoia had the superior combat instincts of an Able, he was able to sense the adversary was there before he actually saw it.

“He’s good,” said Cypress, his voice strained under the high-G loads of his combat maneuvers. The Vortani was sticking to him like a shadow — a shadow that was gradually getting closer, its plasma bolts slicing past Cypress’ wildly gyrating ship.

“I’m on him,” Sequoia called as he dove down to pursue the pair. He firewalled his throttles, the four propulsors screaming at full combat power. Instinctively, he threw the cannon arming switches and got two green lights. The target reticle began sweeping across his canopy, hunting for a lock on the Vortani fighter as it slewed across his line of sight. He turned to follow, gradually closing the gap.

“Are you locked?” Cypress grunted as he threw his ship around the sky, trying to shake his adversary’s deadly grip.

As he steered his blockade runner to place the yellow crosshairs on target, Sequoia suddenly felt a cold sweat trickle down the back of his neck. There was a living, sentient creature at the other end of those crosshairs. With just the touch of a trigger, Sequoia could end that life. Every finely programmed instinct in his body was demanding of him that he pull that trigger. His entire existence came down to that one simple action.

A three-tone beep signaled that his cannons had acquired the target.

All he could see was Forshana’s smiling face, hear her soothing voice. Nonviolence doesn’t mean that you don’t want to kill.

“Sequoia! Are you locked?

It means that you choose not to.

A salvo from the Vortani ship connected with a propulsor on Cypress’ ship, turning the engine into a stream of orange fire. Cypress shouted in pain; his helmet sensors connected him to the ship’s systems as if they were symbiotic living creatures.

“I’m hit!” Cypress shouted. “Fire, Able! Fire!

# # #

Stay tuned for Act IV of Orphan Squadron: Out of the Darkness, right after these messages!

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