Chapter 14 - Wraith
The approaching craft were just RPVs imitating the aliens, but pilots feared the Blue Horde more than any other Slave race. Just the reminder of her real battles against these products of Enemy genetic engineering gave her jitters.
"And a faint double echo. Could be a Wraith. One-Eighty."
She confirmed the signal ghost she'd missed the first time. The big lunk had eagle's eyes to notice it at such a distance. "We can't meet head-on. With a Wraith in tow, they could be carrying flypaper."
Flypaper meant a capture field. That insidious Enemy weapon had almost finished off the 77th, a few months previous. She knew it couldn't be a coincidence. The Gr'ts'ck had adopted a key piece of her recent waking nightmare. It was a psychological broadside aimed directly at her.
"I don't like getting played," she muttered to herself, fighting back the terrifying memories. She had to keep her head in the present.
"One-Seventy. You think the Gr'ts'ck can simulate the field?"
The Gr'ts'ck RPVs could sim practical aspects of flying such as how various aliens piloted and maneuvered. They could hook into the systems that Human techs used to sim weapons, while still bringing their own tech to the table. But she did not know how they would model the dreaded field using those. Unlike most Enemy weapon systems, the Allies didn't know how capture fields worked. The aliens wouldn't have the actual technology at their disposal.
"It's more prudent to assume they can," she ruled. "They had some reason to include a Wraith. At One-Fifty, go outside and wide, high-gee. I'm going to go play me some chicken."
"We're splitting up?"
"Standard procedure for capture fields, Vampire." She added a little Texas swagger to her usually mild drawl to hide her own jumpy nerves. "Imagine a big net dragging behind the Wraith, and then stay out of its way. Avoid meeting head-on or you'll run right into it on the fly-by"
With the word fly-by, she triggered her compensation matrix. A trillion beams shot through her and the surrounding air, enmeshing the cockpit and everything within it. Her muscles and organs became solid and unmoving, her senses blank. It braced her cells from within against lethal gee forces. It would have killed her, but the matrix also acted in place of blood, to keep her cells functioning.
So she remained aware and alive. The artificial sights and sounds feeding in from the Banshee's sensory suite became her only world. The direct fly-by-nerveware control of her ship was her only motion. Her Banshee blazed through the Lunar sky riding a jet in high-gee mode that would have crushed an uncompensated Human.
Two Blue craft separated from their partners and angled toward her as she turned closer to the Lunar surface. Biology allowed Humans to fly harder and faster than most Allies or Slaves using the Ai'iin compensation. But nerve-ware was less nimble than plain old hands, eyes and ears and in a high-speed dogfight, the Blues could outmaneuver her. Their artificial constitutions could function at the same drastic gee forces without technological aids.
For biology to favor her, she needed to make them fight her fight. She needed a slower, tighter match, where her quicker human reflexes would come into play. Her two new playmates wanted to sucker her into the higher speed contest.
Still compensated, she flipped her ship over, blasting backward and downward. Her speed slowed and she angled inward toward the other three Horde. She had put herself between them, and no doubt they thought she'd gone insane. With luck, they wouldn't know she flew an attacker version. As her missiles armed, Poe's Banshee began its own high-gee sprint to the other side of the enemy.
She cut high-gee mode, dropped compensation and waited. Her brain needed an agonizing two seconds to regain control of its once-more living body.
Her voice and lungs not yet recovered, she could only talk through computer synthesis or text. Text took far too long during a dogfight.
"You're on the Wraith!" she ordered in synthetic voice, praying her words didn't come out as an unintelligible squawk. She fired off a volley of four missiles as the horde craft took their first shots at her.
"******" came a blast of synthetic nonsense from Poe. She turned, trying to line up on one of the scouts. Missiles began to detonate around her.
"Say again!" she barked, finally able to talk.
The first shots kicked her opponents around, but they all survived. She ordered the next volley to arm, jinking hard and aligning her craft to be at the right place once they came online.
Time slowed down, and for a puzzling second the screen seemed to blank, as did the imagery coming through her nerve-ware. Her brain lagged, unable to quite grasp the change.
All her opponents had disappeared from her screens, but she could see one of the Gr'ts'ck RPVs out her canopy. It was flying between her and the Lunar surface. She pondered the contradiction with abstract concern, unable to put her finger on why it bothered her.
Odd that it was coming closer, she mused. One rarely got the opportunity to see the opponent with the naked eye. Usually dogfights happened at distance that required magnification or sensors to see the opponent. Large ships, yes, but not small craft no bigger than her Banshee. In visual contact, it didn't look like a Blue, of course. The Gr'ts'ck RPV was a smaller cousin to the same hulls as Luna Moths, a sort of triangular pancake shape...
In the next heartbeat, three events blasted away the fog of the last few seconds like a gale-force wind. First, Poe's Banshee came sliding through her field of vision, between her and the RPV. Second, her nerve-ware data feed and her instrument board both flashed back to life. Or rather, it seemed they'd been on all along and she'd failed to take notice. And third, the score alarm buzzed, declaring a fatal blow on Poe. She now faced the Enemy alone...
As conscious thought took firmer hold and she regained command of her ship, she realized she'd been in a daze. The Gr'ts'ck Sensitives! They found some way to simulate a Wraith mind attack!
In a flash, she took in the screens and her nerve-ware data and spotted the wreckage of two eliminated foes. One of them was the RPV that had fascinated her. The remaining Blues must have thought she was either still dazed, or out of missiles, as they were still approaching. They were now near enough that she could tell they had no capture field after all. By her count, they should also be out of missiles. They were getting into range for their secondary weapons.
Just as the enemy guns began pulsing, she throttled down her main jet. Spinning her Banshee, she fired the weapons that had stood ready since before her mind went blank. At this distance, the aliens stood no chance of dodging. Her shield alarms screamed as generators neared failure point under the hail of incoming fire. The four Blues took direct hits and splashed over her screens as spreading debris plumes before her shield could fail.
Dead or not, many chunks of alien craft would still be incoming and her shields still carried an overload of absorbed energy. In RL, the Gr'ts'ck RPVs were sneaking away, but the simulated wreckage would erase her survival bonus if it struck.
Prodding her throttled-down jet back up, she spun for a retro burn and dropped toward the surface below. The sensor traces passed overhead as she fell.
"Simulation terminated," Base Comm declared once she was out of danger. "Return to base."
She willed the shakes from her voice. "Seven-Seven-Four, Aye."
Once on a safe path homeward, she allowed herself to analyze the events. I killed four, Vampire killed two. My four were all Horde and we had five to begin with. That means one of his kills was the Wraith.
She listened to the announcement that her survival bonus plus their kills outscored their counterparts from the 105th. She received vectors homeward and acknowledged them, then studied the battle on sensor replay.
The puzzle pieces fell together. Poe had chucked his safety right out the window to kill the RPV paralleling her. She recovered right after he shot it, so that had been their Wraith. A missile on Poe's tail got him immediately after, because he'd been too busy protecting her to evade it. He must have known it had locked on, but he stuck to his plan and stayed on the Wraith while the weapon flew up his tailpipe.
Beyond that, one glaring fact stood out. Vampire, a rookie, had tallied the Wraith before she did.
One almighty powerful Gr'ts'ck Sensitive must have been simulating the Wraith. It cut through the Banshee's shields and dulled her mind before she recognized the attack and defended against it. Few real Wraiths could have managed it so fast. The Gr'ts'ck couldn't have been working from the Base below; it must have flown as a passenger in the 'Wraith' RPV. Yet Vampire flew into closer range of it than she did, and that monster Sensitive couldn't defend itself against him...
Did that make Poe one of those rarest of beings, a Human Sensitive? No mention of such appeared anywhere in his personnel folder. Only a handful with mental powers of useful strength had ever turned up, but could there be any other explanation?
Then her puzzlement faded and galling anger took hold, as she realized he'd also thrown his life away once again.
Why? One of us was going to 'die' either way! Vampire! You idiot!