Thanks to all readers and to everyone who has reviewed. Sorry again for the wait.
Chapter 37: Demons
I skulked about my Phantom restlessly, examining the new missiles that the base's crew had installed earlier in the afternoon. I had no reason to doubt their competence but nor did I blindly trust in it. Everything seemed satisfactory, though the sight of a missile sitting peaceably in Skadi's arms looked wrong to say the least, much like the rest of this tedious scene.
Her proud red and white markings were a stark contrast to the colours of the Confederation. She looked as impatient as I felt. We both longed to sink our fangs into furry flesh once more. This system was ready to overflow with the enemy, and we along with our fellow warriors would fill the empty void of space with their atomised remains.
First things first however, the insufferable 'night before the dawn' routine. For most this was a time of reflection and regret or of last touches of the skin of their, (to coin a suitable Kilrathi phrase) lair mates. It was a time where they waited to die with wet eyes and a red nose. That was true for some. There's nothing wrong with this, no one with an ounce of worthwhile soul in their bodies wants to die, and there's certainly nothing wrong with last minute pleasures of the flesh. I try to judge my fellow flyers only by how well and how vigorously they fight, for that is the true test of a human, standing in an airless realm of death and lunging forth at your enemy with nothing but the one truth guiding your hands. You, or him.
I circled my ship twice more before bidding her goodnight, foolish sentiment I know, but it is difficult to think of her as just a pile of mettle and circuits. To me she was both my trusted steed and closest confidant in one, she rode with me to every battle, shared in every kill. Together we were one whole, apart we were incomplete, both unable to fight and kill. There was only one way to displace ill timed bloodlust.
I left the hanger and made my way back through the dimly lit corridors of this freakish gulag wherein the misfortunate mined for tungsten each and every day. Just the thought of such an existence was painful. How did these people endure such monotony? Bah, such is a question for philosophers, and theirs is as necessary a job as any.
After two wrong turns and a circular course which almost led me back to Skadi, I eventually managed to find my way to the cabin that I'd been assigned during my short stay here. Zhi lay inside on the foul looking mattress, starting intently at whatever wonders she could find on the ceiling. This was no place for the Blood Lords.
"Couldn't sleep?" She said as the door hissed shut behind me.
"I can never sleep." I replied, "You know that."
She twisted onto her side, bringing her bare pale skin to bare, as it were. That was a sight I never tired of seeing. I could feel my lust for battle subsiding as the blood filtered downwards out of my head to where it was now needed.
"Things are looking up for the Confederation in this system." She said cheerfully as I removed my shirt and cast it on a nearby chair, "Word on the news is that Fighters from the Winterrowd and the Avenger put a base full of pirate vermin to the torch."
"Good." I muttered, "We don't need such filth interfering when the main event unfurls."
She answered with a short lived snigger, "You think they'd interfere?"
"No, no of course not. The cowards would sit in the shadows and watch as the Confederation and the Kilrathi tear away at each other, then swoop in to salvage the scrap mettle."
"But now one of their holes has been fumigated, the others should keep out of the way, for now."
"For long enough," I answered, flinging my trousers aside.
I moved to the bed and closed my arms around Zhi's chest. We kissed, and then gently(ish), she pushed herself away from me.
"Let's not rush." She said, sadistically running a hand over my penis as she stepped away. This is one of the many reasons we gave her the call sign 'Tormenter'.
"What else is there to do?" I said, calmly as my heated blood would allow.
"Patience," She said, pulling a half finished bottle of Sukar'Mayar from her pack and setting it on the filthy mattress, this I remember was salvaged from a Kilrathi transport we had destroyed some months back. One cargo container had been salvaged and the merchant's guild had gifted it to us as part of our pay. We had little use for the three hundred imperial marine helmets but it seemed the ship's captain was smuggling contraband alcohol to wherever the transport was en-route to. That's my theory anyway.
"Let's not rush when we have so long left to wait."
I sat myself on the bed and took the bottle with a quivering hand. The hot liquid burned as it fell through my throat, thankfully there was none of the subsequent queasiness that had plagued me throughout my academy days. At long last I had gotten over that.
I handed the bottle to Zhi and she downed her own mouthful, parting with a pained gasp afterwards. This was strong stuff indeed.
"Do you think Loki's right?"
"If they're expecting a big enough Kilrathi push then they probably won't want to leave their soldiers here to get slaughtered."
"And leave Perry's backside open to Kilrathi invasion?" Zhi sniggered at my words and I soon realised I that should have chosen them more carefully.
"My point is," I continued, "That the Confederation's back is all but against the wall here. They can't afford to run now. They must fight and drive the enemy back if they are to hold this sector. Better here then in Perry, on the doorstep of their own headquarters."
"Perhaps," She replied, the bottle hovering nervously under her chin, "But maybe if they pull back they have more time to call in more ships, form a proper line for a proper last stand."
"No one wants a last stand. The Confederation's had too many of them already. Besides, you've seen plenty of blue shirts over the last few days. After the glorious victory in Brimstone the people are keen to kill once more. The Kilrathi will meet with a force starved for vengeance and victory, mark my words."
"Some are, but others are battle weary and/or afraid of dying."
"Gargh, hopeless. Why can't such people see that the war is not to be shied away from?"
"You know how it is," She sighed, passing the bottle to me, "'Don't look for souls…"
"…In every soldier.' I know. All we can do is kill what Kilrathi we see, and claim more burning husks for the trophy pit."
I call it the trophy pit, it was actually Dante's cargo bay. Filled almost to the brim with bits of toasted ships, monuments to the successes of the Blood Lords. In any case, the evening trudged on at the same snail's pace that suits it best. Zhi and I downed the bottle and soon returned to indulging in a far more productive way to spend our time. I would be more then happy to go into details, but this insufferable proof reader we hired complains about time allowances and word limits, and he winced more then once at the mention of some uh, suitable phrases that I came out with during the deed. Overall however he believes that tales of our battles would be more suitable for the overall story. He's probably right, but I don't much like having to cut my own story into segments.
The Following Afternoon
I gave my briefing in space, it works better that way, my soldiers don't twitch quite so much with impatience. I tried to sound as inspiring as ever but it was a little difficult with the unease in my stomach that the anti-hangover sludge had left in its wake.
"Hear me my Blood Lords, we go to strike a blow against the Kilrathi. A Confederation recon wing operating behind enemy lines discovered two enemy destroyers en-route to this system. They come here to assail the Winterrowd and the Avenger and cull the ranks of our blue suited brothers in preparation for their main assault. They are due to arrive in another hour, we shall move past the jump point and obliterate them before they arrive in-system."
There were five of us, two Gladii (Dante and Abbadon), one Phantom (me), one Rapier II (Zhi) and one Centurion (Loki).
"Our official orders are to do sufficient damage so that the enemy is forced to pull back for repairs." An unfriendly hiss answered this, "But I will be most displeased if one Kilrathi escapes our torrent of devastation with so much a whisker intact. We shall kill them all, as always."
Our ships had been upgraded over time, our armour, shields and weapons meant we could go head to head with the most modern enemy fighters. It also meant that we were all outfitted with jump drives. Zhi's Rapier looked somewhat odd sporting the cumbersome contraption halfway outside of her hull, but it was a small sacrifice when hunts such as this were the result."
"Any idea of enemy escorts Commander?" Abbadon said, a quiet eagerness in his voice. He was the newest warrior to join the ranks of the Blood Lords and he was eager it seemed to both prove and humble himself before us. In other words he didn't want to look like a boastful tit before he had any right to do so. I suppose that was admirable, but at the same time I wished he'd hurry up and grow out of it, we were meant to be stand proudly in the face of the enemy and certain of, if not victory, then a good end. There were times I wondered whether he'd be better suited for life in the Confederation Space Forces.
"At least ten Dralthi, probably more." I replied, "We should strike quickly, before these flies have time to swarm us. As always Dante and Abbadon, I want you to focus all your fire on the destroyers, if they fall then the Kilrathi will be stripped of their courage. Even if they win they lose when they reveal to their commander that they let two Imperial capitol ships get gutted by some lowly human mercenaries."
"As always sir." Loki said.
"Understood Commander." Abbadon added.
Time ticked by as slowly as it had the previous evening, but eventually we reached the jump point, the Winterrowd queried us of course and eventually let us pass through the jump point when I'd managed to convince them that we weren't retros or pirates. (Security it seems is only vigilant when it isn't needed.) With this done, we made our way to what was once Blockade Point Charlie. Formerly Confederate held territory, and so would it be again when it was ultimately swept clean of the furry menace.
It's always fun progressing through a jump point in a fighter. The swirling, impossibly bright vortex outstretches itself around you and at any moment looks set to collapse in on your craft, devouring both you and it. It's that kind of sight that can knock any unhelpful fears out of your head and replace them with the practical concern of potential death. It focuses you in other words.
The destroyers were nowhere to be seen when we made it through, nor was anything else. We remained alert for a few minutes on the off chance that some Strakha were waiting to pounce on recon wings, but the more time passed the less likely it seemed that anything was going to happen.
We were all of seven minutes ahead of schedule. Nevertheless I would still have expected to see the oncoming destroyers on radar. Perhaps they had been delayed or redirected. I was going to be very unhappy if we were denied our sport today. I had not waited all that time in a dreary, cold rock just to let my blood freeze further out here amongst the void.
"I've got something." Loki said, his were the most advanced sensors, it's not surprising ours were still blank. "Can't tell what it is yet, it's reading as a large electromagnetic distortion, probably a number of ships flying close together. It's pretty big sir."
"Ok then," I said, "Let's move towards it and see if this is indeed our quarry, if not we'll probably have to kill it anyway."
We started forward, it didn't take long for Loki's face to reappear.
"Yes! It's them Commander, two Kilrathi light destroyers confirmed. No intel on the escorts yet."
"Ok then, hold here for a moment, let them get a look at us. Let them see a rag tag group of ineffectual looking terrans blocking their path and grow overconfident as a result."
"Give us a speech sir." Loki said.
"Yes, give us a speech." Zhi echoed.
This lot were always pestering me for rousing speeches. It helped before battle as often as not but every so often I was getting requests for speeches whilst sitting on the toilet seat.
"Very well," I said with a sigh before clearing my throat, "Before us my friends lies meat, furry meat with no purpose but to die by our hands. This is our hunt, and they shall be swept away like all who have come before them. We shall return in triumph to a hero's welcome aboard the Winterrowd, and our ferocity and our valour shall inspire their warriors when the next wave of Kilrathi come through the jump point to their own demise. Today we shall snatch victory from their burning throats. To them we are nothing but apes, nothing but food or slaves or target practice, but never has one of their kind destroyed the spirit of the Blood Lords, never has one of our number died without honour, or disgraced themselves through retreat. We are the masters of this field of death, and they are no match for us."
"Whoo!" Loki chortled with far more sincerity then might come across on the page.
"That's the spirit." Dante echoed, "Hear and learn Abbadon."
"Enough." I said, the enemy ships appearing on my radar now, two destroyers, ten Dralthi and two Sorthaks. They could prove troublesome.
"What is this?" Said a Kilrathi voice, rudely interrupting my counting, "Is this what the apes have sent to guard the jump point? I should not be surprised, your species proves it's pathetic nature time and again with each battle."
"Laugh while you can you furry prey beast." (Call them prey, it's far more insulting then you'd believe without seeing it first hand, "Today you are nothing but trophies for the Blood Lord's mantelpiece."
"A human with spirit?" Uttered a second voice, "I thought those were just legend, still, let's see how quickly your foolish bravado fails you when our shots rain through your hull, clawless whelp."
"Enough talking." I could feel the saliva rising in my throat, I could taste the blood that was awaiting us, "Forward my friends, show them your steel as it rips the flesh from their bones."
I came to full throttle and waited as the Kilrathi afterburned towards me, they were wasting fuel, one point to us. It didn't take too long for the gap to close, maybe a minute or two. When it did, I raced full speed at two Dralthi that were advancing on my position. The first one unloaded a dumb fire straight at my teeth, I pulled up and parted with a few shots, a lucky hit detonated the missile, concealing me for a few seconds and giving me enough time to come about and fire at the first Kilrathi that had lost sight of me. His shields buckled and he pulled away, but he wasn't getting away from me that easily, I hit my afterburners and put myself right up against his engine exhaust, no room to evade my fire, no chance to dead stop and allow for a suitably powerful collision. He pulled upwards eventually, but by then I had already taken out his rear shields. Armour tore away from his engines and scraped against Skadi's cockpit. Flames soon started seeping out of his exhaust and it was then that I allowed the gap to widen, a few more shots and then I watched as my first kill of the day unfolded before me.
No time to cheer, another Kilrathi was on my tail and unloading shots into my rear shields, the action dictated itself, I turned about, transferred all energy to my forward shields and charged straight at him. He bounced off my front shields and was pushed sufficiently backwards onto his tail. I fired, he fled to try and set himself up for another attack run. A third Dralthi started firing into my weakened port side, I rolled left and it soon became apparent that I'd have to resort to using a missile or two earlier then I'd hoped.
I turned to face the newcomer and launched a hasty dumbfire at his face, not to sound immodest but my aim is good, even under fire. The missile impacted on his front shields, ripping them away like wrapping paper. My follow up salvo split the beast in twain.
I turned about and flung myself at another two Dralthi that were coming at me, they seemed to be ignoring the Gladii for the moment, our mad antics had thus far outshone their own and this was aggravating more then one imperial flying type it seemed.
I heard nothing from any of the others, but that's how I wanted it. No one needed to hear cries of 'I've got one' or 'Aarrrrgh!' When they're fighting for their own life. If you're in trouble then fine, call for assistance, but otherwise keep your mind on your own killing.
To that end, I launched my remaining dumb fire at a Sorthak whilst it was in mid turn, I afterburned after the missile and unloaded a few cannon shots into the weakened hull it had impacted upon, managing to snap off one of its wings. I'm not sure how badly it damaged the fighter, but defacing it like that would certainly draw more attention towards me. Good, the more there were shooting at me, the less our bombers had to worry about until they were rid of their torpedoes and free to do their own fighter to fighter fighting.
You know, all any of us really had to do was survive, and to do that, all we had to do was kill everyone else. There are some who call us insane for this very reason. Cynics.
To be continued