April 4, 2435 Advanced Era (AE), five Terran years ago
Lieutenant Radford eased the throttle on his fighter. A month on patrol without a single contact, not even a scavenger, left him weary and exhausted.
These patrols are pointless, Radford thought. There’s nothing out here. Then his battle computer came alive. It beeped twice and inexplicably went silent. Radford scanned his targeting grid and saw only friendlies. Maybe it was a glitch in the computer. A faint signal appeared, accompanied by another beep, but just as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.
“Damn thing.” Radford beat his fist on the console, and the blip reappeared. This time it remained for a few seconds and then faded. He scanned outside his canopy, but he could only see Collins’ fighter. He activated his comm. “Cannon, you see anything?”
“Negative, Raptor. Vacuum’s clear as a starry night in Alabama.”
“My battle computer’s giving me some strange readings. First it picks up a bogie, and then it’s gone.”
“Well, I’m not reading anything on my end. You know how these things are.”
Yeah, Radford knew how they were. Each new upgrade promised to be better, faster, and grittier than the last. Trouble was, the software usually took about six months to catch up. Still, all this silence made him nervous.
“Keep your eyes open, Cannon.”
“Will do, Raptor, but this ride promises to be as quiet as all the—” A bolt of white light lashed through the darkness and gutted Collins’ fighter. The little fighter separated in two for just a moment before the engine went critical and detonated in a brilliant cloud of flame.
The emptiness of space suddenly teemed with a flotilla of ships, their sleek design eluding all Radford’s efforts to identify them. His targeting console stayed silent. Radford broke right to avoid a collision, and a white beam of light shot past the underside of his fighter.
“Holy-” he shouted into the comm. “They’re all around us.”
“Raptor, this is Roach. Who’s all around you?”
Radford’s heart pounded. The sweat from his palms made the stick feel slippery beneath his grasp. He could barely make out the black silhouette of the sleek ship’s design.
“Fighters … hundreds of them.”
“Negative, Raptor,” Roach replied. “I’ve got nothing on my con.” Radford barreled through the nearest cluster, hoping to force them to stand down or risk shooting their own.
“Forget the con, open your eyes.”
“I’m telling you, I don’t see anything.”
“Damn it, Roach! Wake up!” There was a brief moment of static. Radford was too busy to keep up his end of the conversation.
“Wait a minute. I think I see them, but there’s only two. You sure those readings are—” The comm went silent. Radford looked out of his canopy and watched Roach’s ship separate and explode in a flash.
“Omega One, this is Joker.” Nelson’s voice came online. “We’re under fire. I repeat, we’re under fire.”
No shit. Welcome to the party.
“Roach is down.” Radford continued to dance among the enemy ships. They held their fire, but he knew it wouldn’t last long. Soon they would find a way to isolate him, and then …
“This is Justice. All Omega patrols, re-form on me.” Captain Pierce’s voice brought a refreshing stillness to Radford’s nerves. “Prepare to engage!”
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