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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 25: Running Out Of Everything

    Just like the Temorran Kindred fighters less than two weeks earlier, the pirates gradually drew closer. It was just as frightening this time around. The circumstances were so similar Joseph was having deja vu. Once again he was sitting at the guns, waiting for an enemy of unknown strength to come close enough for him to shoot at.
    Once you thought your way past the similarities, this situation was actually worse. They’d known something about the other ships. The three pirate fighters didn’t look as powerful, but appearances could be deceiving. Neither Joseph nor the computer could identify them, so he had no real idea what they were capable of. They could easily turn out to be a fatal threat.
    “How long until they’re in firing range?” Tyrone asked.
    “I don’t know. I have no idea how far they can fire.” Joseph’s answer wasn’t satisfactory to either of them. Tyrone gave a resigned grunt, but offered no further comment.
    Joseph knew how far Garden Variety Animal’s guns could shoot, and right now he wished it was a larger distance. They would be close to entering the dwarf planet’s gravity well before he could fire with any reasonable expectation of hitting the pirates.
    Technically the potential flight distance of a projectile in space was unlimited, but practicality brought in other factors. One important one was how far the guns could be accurately aimed, and a smaller target was always harder to keep in the sights. Another was the travel time of their rounds. With enough time, the pilots could detect incoming fire and use lateral thrusters to avoid at least some of it. Tyrone would be using that same method.
    The distance to the dwarf planet dwindled, as did the gap between them and the fighters. It came as no surprise that the trio were faster. Fighters were individually weak due to their small size, but it gave them speed and maneuverability that larger ships just couldn’t match. It was what they relied on to stay alive, and it also helped a lot with pursuing other ships.
    The tactical system chirped at him as it detected incoming fire. Joseph held his breath, waiting for his first certain assessment of the ships. They were still too far back for him to hit reliably. If he had to start firing now he could, but the magazines might well go dry before he could shoot down all three.
    Fortunately the fighters’ guns were no more suited to the distance than theirs. Most of the fire just whisked past them, off to every side. Joseph sighed, holding his fire and waiting nervously. The tactical computer analyzed the pattern of the bullets it was detecting and gave a rough estimate of the fighters’ effective range; it was about the same as the Animal’s.
    “Should I be worried?” Tyrone barked. A few rounds were impacting on the shields, and he was too preoccupied to watch the whole tactical system.
    “Not yet. They aren’t close enough to hit us very much, most of the shots are going wide. I wouldn’t even try to dodge yet, just let them expend ammo.” It didn’t take long for the fighters to come to the same conclusion. They had been able to determine that the fighters’ weapons were gauss-type, so they would have a hard limit on their ammunition. After about thirty seconds of intermittent fire, the bullets stopped coming.
    “You were right. They didn’t get much for that.”
    “No.” Joseph looked at the indicator for shield strength and saw it had barely moved. “Unfortunately they’re only getting closer.”
    As Joseph expected, they were only a few minutes from orbit when the fighters drew close enough for him to fire on. The targeting computer had already been focused on the lead fighter. Joseph squeezed the trigger again and felt the comforting rumble of their cannons.
    Joseph’s plan was to start with several seconds of continuous fire at the leader, in the hope of taking one fighter out quickly. That plan went rapidly through  the airlock, as the ship darted out of the line of fire almost as soon as the first round landed. He’d been hoping for a slower reaction to his first shots, but the pilot was good and the little ships were even more nimble than he’d anticipated.
    Now that the fighters knew they were in range, they started doing some more shooting of their own. They still weren’t hitting all the time, but it was a vast improvement from before. With all three of them firing, they didn’t really need to hit every shot.
    “Start moving around, Tyrone,” Joseph directed. “They aren’t close enough for good accuracy, but they’re hitting often enough to matter.”
    “Roger that. We’re about two minutes from orbit, we can try a little harder to lose them once we’re there. Do you want me to head for the surface? I found a few spots where there are large enough formations for us to hide behind.”
    “Well...” Joseph trailed off and considered it while he fired off a few more bursts at the lead fighter. “We could use all the help we can get, but I’m not sure I want to go as far as a game of spaceflight hide and seek. Wouldn’t that throw off our arrival to support White Onyx Devastator anyway?”
    “It might, but we’d still be helping them by keeping the fighters busy. Also, I’d like to point out that we can’t help them at all if we get shot down.”
    “Good point. Let’s not do it right away, but keep an eye on any good places to hide down there. We might need to do that in the end, these guys are harder to zero in on than the Kindred fighters.”
    “Alright. The whole planet is riddled with overlapping impact craters in all different sizes, so there shouldn’t be any shortage of them.”
    The fighters continued to close with them. The trio just dumped fire at them at first, but their discipline improved quickly. Tyrone’s maneuvering forced them to fire in short, careful bursts when there was a clear shot. Garden Variety Animal was not a sluggish ship by any standard.
    Still, the combined fire of the three fighters began to tell on the freighter. Tyrone’s maneuvering kept the hits they took to a minimum, but their shields were still wearing away. The pirates were landing too many hits, and Joseph too few. He ground his teeth as the lead fighter dodged a burst completely, and sent another after it. They were good pilots, and that was not encouraging news for the two starmen.
    They finally caught a break as they entered the planet’s orbit, the fighters only thirty seconds behind them now. Joseph let off a burst that the lead fighter failed to anticipate. Ten or twelve rounds slammed into the fighter, the first few blasting away shields already weakened by intermittent hits. The rest, a mixture of explosive and plasma rounds, landed in the engines and the starboard fuselage. The chunks blasted out of the ship were visible on the targeting monitor, and both engines failed.
    No longer under thrust, the fighter quickly dropped behind the other two. As far as he could tell, it was completely crippled. If the pilot was still alive, he didn’t even bother to fire a parting salvo. Listing gently toward the planet on its starboard side, the ship faded from the display. 
    Joseph barely had time to celebrate that victory. The remaining fighters renewed their efforts to shoot down the freighter. The fighters were firing in longer bursts now. The planet’s gravity well had made it harder for them to aim, so they were trying to make up for the lost accuracy with volume. 
    Unfortunately it was working; Garden Variety Animal’s shield strength was more than half gone. Joseph had only seen it below half once before, and on that occasion they had to spend a week in port making repairs. The potential already existed for shots to slip through, and it was only getting worse.
    “I hate pirates,” Joseph spat. “Normal people would be discouraged when you shot down one of their buddies. These louts just try harder, because if they manage to survive and pull out a victory their share will be that much larger.”
    If Tyrone heard the complaint, he didn’t reply. Joseph wasn’t concerned either way, the point was to vent frustration. He vented some more by throwing another burst at one of the fighters, and was rewarded with a few noticeable hits.
    A few seconds after that, the other tactical monitor he had up filled with a blurry lump. Then it cut out and displayed “target lost.” Joseph only looked at it for a split second, already knowing what happened. They had gone too far around the planet to see the corvette and Bolinscar Red Comet. He hadn’t checked on them for quite a while now. He hoped they were still holding out.
    “We lost visual with the other ships,” Joseph yelled.
    “Thanks,” Tyrone acknowledged. “Knew it wouldn’t be much longer before that happened.”
    Joseph eyed the shield power indicator as he sent a few more bursts toward the fighters. It was dangerously low and he was starting to get nervous, but he was also close to taking out another fighter. He ought to tell Tyrone to make for the surface, but that would be just as limiting to their firing options as it would to the pirates’. If he could take out this fighter first, there would only be one to keep track of as they dodged through the rocks.
    Bullets continued to fly between the ships, and finally the shields of the second fighter collapsed. Most of that burst had missed, but there were still a few rounds left to tear through one of its engines. It fell behind quickly, and turned away from the fight to drive straight out of the planet’s gravity well.
    Almost at the same time Joseph landed those hits, a volley of bullets from the two fighters slipped through the Animal’s weakened shields. The explosive projectiles shook the ship, and damage reports popped up on several of his monitors. Red lights flashed on a few control panels. The shields weren’t actually down yet, but they were critically weak.
    “I’m heading for the surface,” Tyrone yelled from the pilot’s position. “We can’t keep taking this. The course change should give us a few seconds of peace while he tries to match us. If we don’t get some cover, we’re toast!”
    “Alright!” Joseph yelled back. He started lining up the last fighter, hoping the targeting computer could compensate for the course change.
    The fighter surged toward them after his friend was hit, using some extra power to get close enough to finish them off. Then it just sat there. It didn’t fire at all as the targeting computer locked on to it. 
    Joseph fired a burst at it, landing a few hits on its shields. Still it didn’t fire. Joseph eyed it in disbelief for a split second. Then it turned around, firing its engines to thrust away from them. Joseph realized it had happened so fast that Tyrone still hadn’t changed course.
    “Tyrone, don’t change course!” Joseph shouted, turning to face the windshield. 
    His partner’s hand hesitated over the controls as he looked up to check the tactical screen. The image monitoring the dogfight had been relegated to a corner. The screen was full of images from the planet’s surface, formations they could fly through to duck fire from the faster fighters. The navigation computer was diligently plotting possible courses through them.
    “He ran out of ammo,” Joseph crowed, pounding a triumphant fist on the gunner’s station and pointing out the right screen to his partner. It soon enlarged to a visible size, and with no other target in the window the camera had continued to zoom in on the fighter. It was still pointed directly away from them, running just as hard as it had been chasing a moment ago.
    Joseph considered firing a final burst at the fighter, but it was already too far away. Garden Variety Animal was fast, and the fighter was faster. The gap between them was growing at a huge pace, it wouldn’t be long before it was larger than when the chase had started. Two ships trying to run away from each other would succeed very quickly.
    “So he did. What do you know about that?”
    “They were through one firefight already,” Joseph said as he realized it himself. “If they were firing at the Comet the way they were firing at us at first, they were down a good piece of their ammo when we started. They didn’t bother to dock and reload, there was no need.”
    “All the better for us.” Tyrone stopped the navigation computer’s calculations and reset to their original course. “How much damage did we take?”
    They both turned back to the computers to review the reports. The armored hull had absorbed most of the damage, just as they’d told Allison during their last firefight. Several dorsal thrusters had been hit, and probably wouldn’t work. At least one had taken a direct hit from an explosive round; that one was in pieces. Another shell had smashed into a running light near the cargo bay and destroyed the circuit breaker underneath it, freezing shut one of the clamshell doors. Joseph looked for the next report, only to realize that was the last one.
    “Nuisance damage,” Tyrone shrugged as he finished reading.
    “Yeah. The thrusters will limit our maneuvering, but not enough to keep us from doing anything. We’ll want it all fixed, but none of it stops us from flying.”
    “I’m sure it’ll seem worse when we forget about that door and try to open it. For now it’s not a bad list. We should start getting ready for the last phase, and maybe call the Devastator. They’re less than an hour out now, and probably want an update.”

Published: June 24 2018

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