A/N: For those couple of you who are probably here only to see when the next chapter of Lesser Evils will be out…no worries, I'm still working on that almost as we speak, haha. In the meantime, I will continue my horrible misuse of Blizz's intellectual properties in between gleefully 4-gate-ing my friends and family. The "Supernova" mission just seemed like too perfect an opportunity for an "Enemy Mine" type plot (my absolute favorite flavor of instant-drama-in-a-can!) to pass up.
The first inkling Captain Melissa "Stubs" Rhodes had that this day was about to go very sour was the metallic chime in her ear.
"Aw, hell," she muttered, eyes flicking to the icon in the corner of her banshee's HUD – blinking an ominous red now – that monitored her cloaking device's power level. Ten minute warning…they'd already obliterated the air defenses of this particular Tal'darim outpost, but, like most banshee pilots, Stubs always got a little jumpy in plain sight.
"Getting low on juice here, sir," she said, punching in the com signal for Banner, her squadron leader. She knew he could see the state of her batteries – as well as those of the rest of their squad mates – on his own display, but a little pointed "reminding" never hurt.
"I know, Stubs, trust me," he replied. "Fritzy's been bitching for ten minutes now."
She snorted. Fritzy hoarded his power supply in much the same way as the Kel-Morian Combine hoarded mineral rights. He'd even – unbeknownst to Swann, who probably would've stuffed him headfirst into one of his own lift turbines – hooked up an extra generator he'd filched from a busted wraith to his cloaking rig as a backup. The additional weight threw off the handling of his ship and the power load blew out his capacitors more often than not, but he claimed it made him feel "safer." Safer. Right.
"Just gotta clean up what's left on the ground and we're out," Banner continued. "We already cleared out the big guns."
As if to underscore his words, the two vikings escorting them darted across Stubs' line of sight, soaring over the battlefield unmolested by stalker or photon cannon fire.
She gave a mental shrug. "You're the boss." With her visor down, the cockpit of her banshee was as invisible to her as it was to the zealots still scurrying across the ground, replaced with a high-res image of the terrain around them provided by the sensors studding her hull. It was night – the next sunrise meant death on this world – but the virtual battlefield she watched was as bright as noon.
She seemed to be floating over a browning jungle broken by alien ruins and strange clusters of giant crystals. Mist rose from the muddy remnants of streams in pearly scarves, and flocks of birds – or whatever passed for them on this planet – rose in startled puffs from the trees. Under other circumstances, she might've found the landscape fascinating, but at the moment Stubs was more concerned with the bright red reticles bracketing the bits her targeting computer had identified as in need of leveling.
She dipped low over the blasted-out husk of a photon cannon, loosing a barrage of cluster rockets at a group of zealots crouched in the lee of a crystalline pylon. The zealots tried to scatter – she was only mildly surprised when two managed to escape, the things were really damnably quick – as the pylon burst in a satisfying flare of blue energy.
The simplified green outline of another cloaked banshee – easily identifiable as Fritzy's by the way it seemed to wallow in the air – tracked across her HUD as she soared upwards again.
"Mengsk's wrinkly balls, Fritzy, that thing flies like you stuck wings on a pig."
Used to ribbing from the rest of his squad, Fritzy sounded only amiably annoyed. "Uh-huh, just keep talking. We'll see who's laughing when you're flying naked in five."
"Naked" was common parlance among wraith and banshee pilots for flying with cloaks deactivated. The term had been in use for almost as long as the technology itself, but the innuendo never got old. "Believe me, you ever see me naked the last thing you'll be doing is laughing," she said, grinning as she gunned for a sentry darting between stands of trees.
Fritzy snickered. "Oooh, baby, show me your exhaust ports!"
They'd been speaking on the general com, so this comment elicited whoops and hoots of laughter from the others listening in.
"You are all idiots," Dancer, the fourth and final banshee pilot, pronounced good-naturedly. "Er, 'cept you, commander."
"Thanks for the endorsement, Dance."
Stubs banked her ship, taking a long lazy lap around the battlefield and scanning for any Tal'darim they may have missed. Smoke rose from one corner of the clearing they'd leveled, signaling the beginnings of a forest fire, but since this entire planet would be crisped into atoms by its own bursting sun soon, she couldn't muster much concern in response to it.
"Looks clear to me," she said.
"Clear," Dancer agreed.
"Alright folks, form up on me," Banner said, banking neatly and turning his own ship towards base. "Time to go – whoa, hold on, hostiles inbound!"
Stubs' own display lit up with red as he gave the warning. One reticle, two, three, four – she cursed as she recognized the sleek silhouettes of a flight of protoss phoenixes, her obscenities becoming more creative as she noted her cloak's power meter counting down from a minute.
The grim voice of Fingers, captain of their viking escort, came over the general com. "Break off, banshee leader, we will engage."
Stubs swore again. Normally they could've all run – phoenixes couldn't match the big thrusters on the vikings and would never have known the slower banshees were even there – but with their power banks about to run dry, the vikings had no choice. Banshee fighters lacked anti-air capabilities; they needed every second they could get to flee out of sensor range before their cloaks gave out.
"You heard the man," Banner said tersely. "Scatter!"
Stubs picked a random direction and dialed her engines to max thrust, knowing the others were doing the same around her. Her eyes flicked rapidly between her power meter and the sensor feed showing the two vikings angling in for the attack as she murmured encouragement under her breath. "Come on, come on..." She'd flown a lot of missions with viking pilots, but the helplessness she felt watching her escorts dogfight while she turned tail and fled never seemed to fade much. She was sure they felt the same circling out of range while their banshee charges busted up photon cannons, but at least the vikings had the option of landing to assist if things got too hot.
Forty-eight seconds, forty-seven, forty-six…
The phoenixes spotted the attack and immediately drifted into a looser formation, trying to minimize the area effect of the terrans' ripwave missiles. Raynor's Raiders had fought these Tal'darim before, and protoss were, apparently, inconveniently fast learners.
Forty, thirty-nine, thirty-eight…
The vikings fired their first salvos just as the phoenixes' ion blasters lit up with blue. The protoss formation split, two veering upwards in impossibly sharp ascent and two nosing down to strike at the vikings' bellies, but it didn't help the lead ascending phoenix, which burst into orange flame as both salvos slammed into its rear.
The vikings banked hard right, dodging the ripwave effect of their own missiles.
Stubs cursed. Both terran ships were charred and pitted from ion strikes, and one of Finger's engines spat black smoke. A lone phoenix peeled off to chase him, the other two tailing the less-damaged ship.
Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven…
The intact viking jinked right and veered left, loosing a salvo at the phoenix chasing Fingers before darting back away from its own pursuit. Not fast enough – spindly beams of light arced from the two phoenixes, looking too delicate to possibly be responsible for the molten lines of metal left in their wake.
Stubs winced, a sick feeling growing her stomach as she watched the viking's wing actually shear off, sending the craft into a violent tailspin that ended in the trees.
Eighteen, seventeen, sixteen…
Fingers yanked his craft into a screeching ascent, climbing almost straight upwards as though he meant to reach space. The lone phoenix still pursued, splitting the clouds of smoke emitted by the damaged viking and slowly gaining. Gaining. It shouldn't have been. That stupid engine…
Stubs swallowed and tasted something bitter, knowing there was only one way this could end and wanting to look away but resolved not to. She owed him that much.
Just before the phoenix closed to firing range, Fingers cut his main engines. Stubs watched in a combination of shock, admiration and horror as he spun his ship's nose towards the ground and restarted his thrusters.
The phoenix's pilot, evidently assuming that the damaged ship had simply stalled and eager to make the kill, had continued to close and didn't recognize the maneuver until too late. With inhuman swiftness, at the last moment it tried to twist aside, but the point-blank volley of ripwave missiles took it in the belly.
Both ships vanished in a ball of orange flame.
Stubs had stopped believing in any kind of god a long time ago, but she muttered a prayer anyway.
Three, two, one…
A cool feminine voice sounded in her ears. "Warning. Power levels critical. Cloaking field disengaged."
Stubs sucked in a breath and held it. She was not out of sensor range – if she could see the phoenixes then they could see her – but she was skimming as low as she dared above the treetops and the atmosphere was full of radiation from the impending supernova. Maybe…
Two other banshees flickered from virtual green outlines to real visuals as their power banks depleted.
Wait, only two?
She punched Fritzy's com channel. "You son of a bitch," she said, half-wry half-envious.
"Yeah," he said a little sheepishly. A heavy pause followed. "You were right, though," he said finally. "I'm not laughing."
She snorted, trying to sound more confident about this than she felt. "Yeah, well, just don't drink all the chief's whiskey before I get back."
It was a weak kind of joke, but she could hear his attempted grin in his voice. "No promises, Stubs, so you better be quick. See you back at base!"
"Bastard," she said to no one as the channel closed.
Her targeting computer picked out the three other banshees and two phoenixes in red and green brackets on her HUD. Neither had turned to pursue her, and she dared hope that maybe this time she'd be the lucky one.
The maddeningly calm voice of her shipboard AI put an end to that. "Warning. Targeting sensor sweep detected. Source: protoss phoenix-class air superiority fighter. Distance: fifteen kilometers and closing."
Stubs groaned. She was already cruising at maximum velocity and there was little else she could do until the phoenix got close enough to maneuver around. She didn't have to flee forever; just until her batteries built up enough charge for a few minutes of cloaking. Then the hostile ship would lose her and she could circle back around for home. It would be a near thing, though. That phoenix was faster than her – much faster, a banshee could barely triple the Korhal sound barrier and a phoenix could easily reach escape velocity on most habitable worlds – and it would take fifteen to twenty minutes for her generator to pump out enough charge.
She noted that the last remaining phoenix had headed after Dancer and silently wished the other woman luck.
Turning back to her display and switching to an orbital map, she searched for the most likely-looking terrain to run towards. Her banshee's one advantage over the phoenix was its maneuverability; her ship had been designed for urban combat, and its narrow profile and ability to lift off vertically meant she'd do better than the phoenix in confined spaces. A canyon maybe, or…ah-hah!
Her map showed a field of those strange crystals not too far from her current position, and they were huge. Half a kilometer high, some of them, tilted into a dizzying latticework of gaps and tunnels. Her banshee might navigate it, but the phoenix would dash itself to pieces almost instantly if it tried to follow.
Stubs adjusted her course and grinned a rather savage grin that turned into a grimace halfway through. Two men had died to give her this chance. She'd do her best to make it worth it.
The phoenix fired a barrage from its ion blasters just as her banshee darted between the first of the gleaming spars and into the crystalline forest. The protoss was slightly out of range, though, and streams of charged particles scattered harmlessly from her hull as she cut her speed and banked hard to slip between a pair of giant azure crystals.
For one wild moment she thought the phoenix was actually going to follow – instead of veering off it continued to race straight for her – but at the last possible second it pulled into a spiraling turn tighter and more graceful than anything she'd seen any terran fixed-wing craft do, and Stubs felt a flash of pure professional admiration. The things she'd do with a ship like that. Say what you would about protoss; their toys were nice.
She'd slowed to half speed once she'd entered the crystals, and even that seemed more than fast enough in this place. Most of the flawless blue and green spars jutted upwards from the ground, but they did it at haphazard angles, and every now and then where they crossed a new crystal grew downwards from the join. Stubs wasn't sure if they were more brittle than her paristeel hull and wasn't interested in finding out.
Her HUD showed the phoenix keeping pace above her, but it couldn't get close enough to the needle-sharp jumble of crystals to shoot. Satisfaction filled her at the sight. She could cruise around until her batteries were topped up and then light out for home without worry.
Taking advantage of the brief reprieve, she really studied her surroundings for the first time. Stubs had visited a lot of strange worlds since she signed up with the rebellion, but usually the parts she got to see were either on fire or about to be. The forest of crystals was by far the prettiest alien thing she'd ever flown through, even in simulations, and she thought it was a pity she'd never see it beneath the sun. Starlight flashed and glittered from the many facets around her, and even in the false day of her HUD their color was deeper and purer than any jewel she'd ever known. She imagined that being here with the sun shining through would be like flying inside a gigantic prismatic cathedral. It was a shame she'd never know. At daybreak this place would vaporize with everything else on this side of the planet.
She kept an eye on her power indicator as she cruised, dipping low into the dim crevices between shafts and skimming as close to the crystals' bases as she dared, still wary of the phoenix circling vulture-like overhead. She only needed a few minutes more…
Movement on her HUD caught her eye and she punched her turbines into full reverse on instinct, just missing the giant shard of crystal that tumbled down almost on top of her.
Stubs swore. A quick zoom revealed the molten edges of the stump it had fallen from. That hadn't been a natural collapse; the damned protoss was trying to crush her!
She accelerated as much as she dared, swerving erratically in and out around the angular spars. Gleaming chunks of crystal ricocheted from the intact shafts around her and shattered, sending fragments pinging off her hull. If one of those big hunks fell on her, she'd be finished. She needed to find a way out, now. Her cloaking array hadn't regenerated as much power as she'd like, but she'd rather be running again than impaled on some huge alien crystal, however beautiful.
A jagged circle of open sky appeared around a twist in the vein she followed. Bright daggers of crystal bristled above and below her, threatening to slice her hull open like a packet of MREs, but the shards plummeting to ground around her tapered off and she dared to let out a breath. Had the phoenix lost her?
Her gaze flicked to the red reticle hovering over the mouth of the gap and her eyes narrowed. Not a chance. That bastard knew exactly where she was, and knew he had her, too. There wasn't enough room for her to come about, and if she tried to reverse he'd simply bring that section of the lattice down instead.
She drew a slow thoughtful hiss through her teeth, considering.
He wanted her to come out, then that's exactly what she'd do.
Barreling through the prism-studded tunnel at a constant three-quarters speed, she knew the phoenix was tracking her, gauging the moment she'd fly beneath its artificial rockslide.
Which was why, when she was midway to open air she pulled up her cloak and threw her turbines into full reverse.
"Cloaking field activated."
The kinetic foam of her harness absorbed most of the crushing deceleration, but she could still feel the weight of it in her chest as her banshee stopped in an almost dead hover. Though her thickly-shielded hull blotted out the characteristic scream of the ship's engines, she was sure they were shrieking now.
"Come on, you smart son of a bitch, do the math," she muttered, nudging her ship cautiously down the tunnel. She'd always heard that the protoss were both clever and supremely arrogant, and today she hoped it was true.
With a rumble she could feel through her seat, the entire mouth of the opening sheared away in a glittering mass, blue ion beams flickering through the crystal in a deadly light show – no doubt at exactly the same moment she would've passed under it had she kept her constant velocity.
With an exultant whoop she punched her engines to max and shot through the gap in the wake of the collapse, hurtling through the cloud of shimmering dust into free air.
She found herself soaring above a completely coverless plain, but it didn't matter. She was out and cloaked and her power banks were a quarter full and all was right with this nasty doomed pit of a world. She watched as the phoenix swooped around the pile of crystals it'd shattered (looking for bits of smashed banshee, no doubt), and she waved a rude gesture at its image in her reticle.
Laughing crazily, a little in relief but mostly in the raw electric exhilaration of having won (and this was why she flew, despite the danger and everything else), she'd just begun to work out how best she could tell this story in the mess when her entire cockpit went dark.
Her heart lurched into her throat as her banshee plummeted twenty meters before her HUD flickered back and her engines shrieked to life.
"What. The. Hell," she demanded, leveling out her flight as her turbines stabilized.
Her first suspicion was the phoenix, but her HUD pegged its height at several meters lower than it had been before the power surge, and she realized it had been affected too. Actually, the protoss craft was very low to the ground indeed, and she felt a vindictive surge of disappointment that it hadn't crashed. Oh, well. At least it didn't seem to have spotted her in the moment her cloak was down.
That outage had felt like an EMP of some kind, but the effects were far too short and she didn't see any other ships in the area. This was a dead world anyway; no one claimed it but Raynor's Raiders and the Tal'darim, and neither of those factions would've attacked both her craft and the phoenix. Maybe it wasn't truly an assault? This world's sun was about to explode, after all, and dying stars were associated with phenomena weirder than this.
Stubs gave a mental shrug. Well, she thought she could live with the mystery. No damage seemed to have been done to her cloaking array or to her engines, so she pushed her turbines to max and pointed her nose towards base.
No sooner had she done it than her cockpit went black again.
She cursed in the dark, fingers finding overrides and manual resets with practiced ease, but nothing worked and her ship plunged down like the inert hunk of metal it was.
She'd never managed to regain her lost altitude after the first blackout, and she was still wondering if that was a blessing or curse when the ground rose up and clouted her.