Beep. Beep. Beeeeep.
The duty officer on the flight deck of the Unsinkable, an FTL-capable supercarrier, took the call.
“Sorry, Sarge, we cannot launch a routine medevac after dark. Call back at first light.”
Colm Mackenzie, having opened one eye without being fully aware of it, went back to sleep. Curled on a storage chest in the ready room, he dreamed of the Free Church Manse. The derelict property overlooked Staffin Bay on the Isle of Skye. It was a short walk down to the stony shore.
Beep. Beep. Beeeeep.
“Sorry, Sarge. We cannot fly a priority medevac at this time. Call back at dawn.”
Colm walked the coast road out from Portree. The miles flew by under his dream-sneakers. He hurried through the windbreak of pines around the Free Church Manse, clutching his brand-new deed of ownership … and stopped short at the sight of a moving van parked outside. Windows open, decorators carrying out rotten skirting boards and a rusted hot water boiler. Children’s voices carried on the wind like the cries of seagulls. With the inevitability of dream logic, someone had beat him to it, bought the manse before he could. Happened every goddamn time.
Beep. Beep. Beeeeep.
“OK, Sarge. You got it.” The duty officer raised his voice. “Emergency medevac! Man your spacecraft!”
Colm uncurled, the dream dissolving into the funk of overheated circuit boards and stale sweat. He sat up in 0.5 gees of artificial gravity. His co-pilot and gunner sprinted out to the flight deck to initiate systems checks. Colm shook out his leathers, which he had been sleeping on, stuck one leg in, and hopped over to the duty officer while wriggling his other leg into the EVA-rated flight suit. “How bad is it?”
While the duty officer briefed him, the globe of Upsilon Andromedae d2, projected on the end wall, spun to display a blood-red electronic pushpin. The medevac request had come from the moon’s smaller archipelago, on the Upsandra d-facing side. This was going to be hairy. When you deorbited at night, you plunged through belts of intense radiation accumulated during the day, as the moon’s magnetosphere interacted with the more powerful magnetic field of the gas giant it orbited.
“Two platoons pinned down, taking heavy fire. Captain Best in command. Could be a triple call scenario,” Colm said to his co-pilot and gunner as he climbed into the cockpit of the gunship. Triple calls happened frequently: a field sergeant would keep upgrading the severity of his medevac request until he got to yes. So they were going to be flying into a hot LZ to evacuate a Marine who mightn’t even be wounded, might just have decided he was fucked if he’d fight another step. That happened frequently, too.
Colm was on his second enlistment. Four more months until he got rotated back to support duties. 28 months until he was his own man again. Would the Free Church Manse still be waiting for him? Who knows? He had given up hope of surviving that long. All he could do was be vigilant and do his job to the best of his abilities.
The launch platform rotated, pivoting the gunship to face the outer wall of the flight deck. Half a kilometer long, the cavernous deck held a sparse handful of gunships and larger dropships. All the rest were down on the surface of Upsandra d2, or had already been lost. The flight deck was in hard vacuum. Rampies in hi-viz skinsuits swarmed around the other craft, repairing and refueling them. They all retreated to the safety zones on the launch platforms when the deck lighting dipped from blazing white to ominous red. “Ready,” Colm said. He flexed his toes, ensuring the landing gear of his gunship gripped the platform securely.
“Warpig Ten, you are cleared for launch.” Warpig One through Warpig Nine were no more. Eleven and Twelve were out there somewhere. Like Colm, they were being slotted in any old place to fill holes in coverage. The colonel in command of the carrier’s air support division was fondly known as the Rat—he chewed through ships and crews like they were made of cardboard.
“Roger that, Zero,” Colm said. “Launching on my mark …” He inventoried his bodily sensations one last time. Everything checked out. Co-pilot Holmundsen and gunner Smythe were strapped into their respective couches, faces invisible behind their visors. “Mark.” He pulled the launch trigger.
Power flooded into the rail launcher under the platform. Like a tiny maglev train, the platform zoomed towards the wall, carrying the gunship with it. Hydraulic doors gaped ahead. At the end of the rail, an elastomer catapult snapped the platform back—this part was fully automated—and hurled the gunship into space.
The little ship fell away from the Unsinkable like a bottle chucked out the window of a 3-kilometer skyscraper. The Unsinkable might be one of Earth’s largest and most capable capital ships, but like all spacecraft designed never to land, it was an unaerodynamic mess to look at, solar panels and zero-gravity field generators and other bits and bobs sticking out all over its length. The gunship was a thing of beauty in contrast. It at least had wings. Colm used to fly commuter jets in his former life, and he still maintained the Cessna Mustang was the most beautiful aircraft ever built.
At the recommended minimum separation distance of 5 klicks, he opened the throttle. A mixture of water and xenon plasma gouted out of the aft engine bells. The gunship heeled over and dived towards Upsandra d2.
The Earth-sized moon orbited Upsandra d, a gas giant ten times as massive as Jupiter. Vivid sapphire and turquoise bands striped the giant’s waning crescent.
Upsandra, a bright G-type star, flared at the top of Upsandra d’s limb, then slid behind it.
The gunship fell into night.
“I see lightning, I see lightning,” chanted Megumi Smythe in a little-girl singsong.
“This better be a real emergency,” Erik Holmundsen said grimly.
Upsandra d2’s atmosphere sprouted a tail of particles ionized by magnetic field interactions. Charge built up during the day. At ‘sunset’—the moment when the shadow of the gas giant crawled over the moon—it reached spitting point. Electrostatic discharges fanned from the poles like sheet lightning. The fireworks obscured the geography of scattered islands below, and the remaining lights of human colonization.
“Cross your fingers,” Colm said. He flipped the ship—a sensation like somersaulting—and dived into the storm.
99 times out of a hundred, you’d be fine.
The other time, you’d be Warpig Two, who got struck by a discharge. All systems DOA. Went into a tumble and burned up on re-entry.
Colm’s luck held. They got through the electric storm A-OK.
So now they only had a couple million hostile Ghosts to contend with.
The night was looking up.
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