Dancing with Lightning (A Chuck Wending Challenge)

Posted: January 22, 2015 in Fiction, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , ,

This week’s Chuck Wendig Challenge was X Meets Y, and my task was to mash up Top Gun and Star Wars. Not in a parody, or pastiche kind of way, but taking elements from both to create something new. I can see this being a terrible b-movie playing at 2:00 am on some cable station. But maybe that’s just me.

 

“Sable Two, I can’t shake this tango.” I heard the panic creeping into my voice. On my console, lights blinked their warnings, and the onboard computer was steadily pinging distress into my ear. I couldn’t pick up the exact coordinates, however. Electronic countermeasures were too advanced for that, but the light show dancing around me was all the evidence I needed that I was in the shit.

“Easy Sable One, I see him.”

“Well if you see him, get him off of me.”

Glancing outside my cockpit, I caught the silver streak of my wingman against the backdrop of the orbital view of Draxus XI as he used the orbital spin to slingshot past. The vacuum of space didn’t carry the sound of his plasma cannon firing, but I caught part of the glare as the bolt ripped through the solid fuel engine of the snub fighter, a microflash before it snuffed out.

“Thanks, Sable Two, I think that- Wait. More tangoes. Coming up out of the atmosphere.”  I glanced down at my console. “Tracking active signatures. Six. Confirm six tangoes. Aerie, confirm permission to withdraw.” This was supposed to a be a scouting operation. Swing by the planet, check out the responses, and head back. We weren’t equipped for a prolong dogfight, and even if our fighters were more advanced, I wasn’t sure about three to one odds.

“Negative, Sable One.” The rest of the transmission was lost in a hiss of static, credit to the active jamming of the incoming interceptors.

“You copy that, Sable Two? Line up on my wing. Let’s see what we can do.”

The inertial dampeners in the cockpit kicked in as I dipped into the atmosphere, warning lights blazing as the heat shielding took a beating. There was no way the two of us could take out six snub fighters in a fair fight, so we had to make it a bit less fair.

“Incoming missiles,” Sable Two responded.

“Deploying countermeasures.” I punched a button and a number of decoys dumped from my fighter designed to fool radar, electronic tracking, radiation tracking, wire guided and optical guided missiles. “See if you can get through to the Aerie.”

“Not happening, Sable One. Too much atmospheric interference at this range, even without them actively jamming us. Remember the briefing?”

“Yeah.” I dipped further into the atmo. Draxus XI was known for its intense upper atmosphere conditions, and by intense they meant electrical storms. Even at the altitude we were currently, it was resembling something a lot like pea soup. Pea soup with intermittent lightning crackling along the outside of my hull. The downside to all of this was I lost track of the enemy fighters. I couldn’t get a visual bearing on them at all, and my electronic warfare suite would have been more useful as a paperweight.

“With me Sable Two?”

“Still here, Sable One. What’s the play?”

“Follow my lead.”

I pulled back on the stick, angling back out of the atmosphere. I hadn’t lost enough momentum braking yet, and was able to slingshot back out again with little difficulty.

As soon as I did, the whole cockpit went dark.

“Dammit!” I hit the release on my restraints and popped the hatch on the cockpit. “What went wrong?” I clambered out of the flight simulator, struggling with the bulky flight suit the instructors required us to wear, even if we weren’t out in vacuum.

“You popped out of atmosphere,” Bergild, one of the instructors replied. Her bald head gleamed in the brilliant lights of the Observatory. “Protocol dictated that you stay within atmosphere until you could verify you were no longer being pursued. The enemy fighters split their formation. Three followed you into atmo, while three maintained a higher elevation and were able to pick you off as soon as they gained visibility.

“They couldn’t have know where we were! We were blind in there between the countermeasures and the environmental conditions.”

“Are you accusing the simulation of cheating?” Bergild asked, one eyebrow arching up to where her hairline would have been.

I felt my teeth pressing together. “No.”

She smiled, but there was nothing warm about it. “You should.” She stepped closer to me, pressing a finger into my chest, and staring down at me. Bergild was a Granthian, one of those aliens that kind of look human, but most assuredly aren’t. In her case, the big difference was the scales, the fangs, and the two extra digits on each hand. She also stood at good half meter taller than me, and I’m not what you would consider short. “The simulation always cheats. You know why don’t you?”

“Because the enemy cheats?”

She smiled, giving me a close up look at her fangs. “It seems you are paying at least a small amount of attention in your classes.”

“So what should we have done differently?” a voice asked from behind me. That would be Preston Larkin, Sable Two. A good pilot, but he liked to take unnecessary risks. At least in my estimation.

“Ahh, Mr. Larkin. So nice of you to join us. Tell me, why were you out of position, thereby allowing an enemy fighter to gain Sable One’s six?”

“I thought I spotted an item of interest and moved in closer to investigate. Isn’t that the whole point of a scouting run?”

Bergild shook her head. “Not the correct answer. You were supposed to be covering your wingman. Instead you hared off, leaving your lead vulnerable. That might be forgivable in situations where communications and sensors are optimal, but, as your briefing stated, these were far from optimal conditions.

“As for your question, you should have stayed in atmo until the rest of the fighter wing arrived. Alternatively, and the better option, would have been to avoid going into atmo entirely, instead making a hard burn up and away from the incoming fighters. You could have used the orbital rotation to increase distance while maintaining visuals. Diving down into the soup of Draxus XI was perhaps one of the worse options you could have chosen and makes me wonder if you paid any attention in your briefing at all.”

“Now. You are dismissed to quarters. I highly recommend reading through the briefing material again, and telling me what you could have done differently.”

*****

“Can you believe this bullshit?” Larkin threw the tablet on my desk. Six months after training school, and we’d been assigned to the same carrier. The people in charge decided that the two of us deserved each other, seeing as how we’d gone through Advanced Flight School together.

“Believe what?” I put aside my own display and took a look at his. The name at the top was all too familiar. “Draxus XI? I thought that was just a training scenario?”

“Yeah well, evidently its more than just a training scenario. I got word they are putting us in harm’s way.”

“Scouting mission?” I tapped a few icons on the briefing, pulling up the mission specifications. A two flight team to go in an reconnoiter. The simulation I’d been put through had been true to life it seemed. Draxus XI was a mess of electromagnetic activity that would play havoc with communications and sensors.

Larkin nodded. “Seems there’s a rebel cell located somewhere in there. Command thinks they’ve got an aquatic base set up, and want somebody to go in and stir the hornets’ nest.”

I nodded, continuing to call up details. “This isn’t a scouting run. Look, the briefing states the carrier group will be here.” I tapped a few icons, pulling up a map of the system. “If this was a simple scouting run, they wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it, but they are planning to be in this moon’s shadow. And, we are being issued Zsn-7s. Those are interceptors, not scouts.”

“You think we’re being set up?” Larkin sat down on my bed.

“No idea. I don’t think so, though.”

“So why the misinformation?”

I shrugged. “Maybe they’re worried about spies. I hear the rebels go in for that cloak and dagger nonsense. From the looks of it, we drop into atmo, unleash a minute of hell, and get out to see what follows us.”

“You know how terrible of an idea this sounds, right?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, maybe, but then they did go to the trouble of making sure we got the best possible training, right? Might as well get their money’s worth.”

Larkin shook his head and stood up. “Hope you’re right, otherwise there’s not going to be enough of us to put into a bucket.”

I laughed and turned back to the briefing. “Come on, the rebels get us, there won’t even be that much. We’ll burn up in the atmo first.”

Larkin paused at my door and gave a rueful chuckle. “You always did know how to make me feel better about a mission.”

*****

“Aerie, this is Sable One. Beginning approach to target. Going to radio silence.”

“Copy, Sable One. Good hunting out there.”

We came up out of the dark side of Draxus XI, its sun blaring at us through the vacuum. True to the briefing, we weren’t picking up anything on our scanners worth mentioning, and the electronic activity below us was making it hard for me to communicate with Larkin over in Sable Two.

“I’m guessing you’ve got a plan?” Larkin asked.

“Drop back three klicks and follow me in. I’m going to see if I can draw them out, show us where the base is. Once I do, you go in, blast them back to using stone tools. Got it?”

“Have I mentioned how much I don’t like your plans?”

“At least twice today. Cut the radio chatter, we’re going in.”

I angled my fighter into a steep angle of attack, confident the advanced heat shields would be able to take the stress. My already erratic sensors went to static, and if anyone was trying to hail me I couldn’t hear them. Below me, lightning danced among the clouds, arcing toward me with fingers of electric blue. I could feel the inertial dampeners kick in, felt the sudden weight of gravity pulling me down toward the surface.

I eased up on my angle, pulled up advanced optics. I still couldn’t see through the magenta clouds, but I kept my eyes open for any breaks. Taking a chance, I dropped another ten thousand feet and found myself below the cloud cover. The electric storm lit up the surface below, revealing a turbulent ocean and not much else. The periodic flashes of light didn’t give me much to work with, and I was beginning to wonder if the intel Command had was accurate when I caught sight of something. It didn’t look like much, but then I hardly expected a secret rebel base to be heavily advertised.

About five klicks out my radar started pinging at me, picking p multiple active radar sequences. I dropped my ship lower, skimming along the surface, and hoping they didn’t get a lock. I wasn’t crushed though, as it meant there was someone down here, and I was guessing they didn’t want company. Unfortunately, they decided I was unwelcome, as evidenced by the multiple missile launches headed my way.

I gave myself a silent five count before breaking away hard and up, climbing away from the missiles. Optical radar was picking up additional tangoes headed my way. The downside was the missiles could move a lot faster than I could. My fighter, however, had an array of decoys, flares, radio beacons and chaff, all designed to fool, mislead, and bamboozle the tiny electronic brains piloting them.

I hazarded a glance back, and out of the corner of my cockpit I saw the silver streak of Sable Two against the cerulean waves, followed a moment later by the tremendous detonation of the bunker buster bomb he was carrying. I broke from the climb and banked sharply back toward the incoming fighters, triggering the missiles as I came at them.

“Sable Two, this is Sable One. Detonation confirmed visually. Breaking to meet tangoes.”

“Copy, Sable One.”

A few of the tangoes broke formation to engage Larkin, and I used that to my advantage. The elevation I had gained on them, let me drop down, catching them with a steady plasma stream, reducing their crafts to melted slag impacting among the waves. I came in on Sable Two’s side and let the remaining tangoes enjoy our afterburners as we clawed for orbit.

“Sable One, remember the simulation?”

“I remember Sable Two.”

“Oh good. If this doesn’t work, I’m going to be pissed.”

As we broke free from the atmosphere, multiple friendlies pinged on my radar. The rebels didn’t know what hit them.

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