Infinitas Bellum

A Robotech crossover novel in the Damned Saint saga

By I.D. Sanctatum

All references to Robotech, its characters, and story arc are © Harmony Gold, Inc., 1985 – Present date, unless sale of said items has occurred following this publication, in which case said items are © their current owners, Date of Sale – Present date. No money will be made from this publication.

Special Thanks:

To my friends Matthew McCaffrey and Sam Dorsey

for being my sounding boards during this whole process.

To Carl Macek

Who gave the world some of the best sci-fi I've seen since Star Wars.

To my old elementary school friends

Who helped me lay the groundwork for what would become Damned Saint

every recess and lunch.

Chapter 1

War. No matter how far you run, you can't escape it. It inexplicably follows humans everywhere they touch down, if it's not already waiting for them when they get there. Wars are started out of fear, hatred, anger, jealousy, or even just the sheer desire of one group to exert dominance over another. No matter the cause, the end result is almost always the same: thousands end up dead, thousands more wounded, handicapped, or incapacitated, and countless innocents have their lives turned upside down or simply pulled out from under them altogether. War has become the end-all, be-all solution for humans, if it doesn't take priority over diplomacy, compromise, and simple common courtesy in the process. It's our calling card and our legacy, the only sure thing in this life that isn't death and taxes, though war involves heavy usage of both. Travelling the stars, commanding the most powerful collection of weapons all of humanity has ever put together, has done little but reinforce my distaste for conflict. As Admiral of the Prime Dimension Fleet, my designation was to pursue the withdrawing Hades Alliance, humanity's first extra-species enemy since its rise to the top of Earth's evolutionary ladder, as it jumped from dimension to dimension, trying to re-strengthen its war-born empire to mount one final assault against Terra Prime, our Earth. This over-glorified game of cat and mouse has shown me that war doesn't end outside of earthspace. As much as I wouldn't like to admit it, it seems as though wherever sentience has taken root, war among its possessors is never more than a step behind. And, yet, here I was, a man who'd been waging wars, both private and interstellar, almost his entire life, now the poster child for gunboat diplomacy.

"Heh, ironic," I muttered.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" Katie asked.

"Eh, nothing," I returned, pulling myself out of my musings and sitting up in my chair.

You've hardly touched your steak," she observed, vaguely pointing her fork across the table at my still loaded plate, "What's bothering you?"

I turned and leaned my arm over the back of my chair, in an attempt to avoid the concern in her shimmering brown eyes. I looked out the window that dominated the starboard side of the small café we were in, watching the stars lazily drift by as the PDS Liberator, the Prime Dimensions Fleet's flagship and my command, clipped through the vacuum at its Point Nine-Five cruising speed. My eyes glanced at the area closer to the cruiser as I subconsciously counted the ships that maintained flanking speed with her. Fifty-four were visible from where I was seated, a small fraction of the massive escort fleet the Liberator carried with her throughout her voyage. My last census put the number of ships at well over seven hundred, an amount that snowballed as we moved from front to front, all of them supplied by planets and systems who felt indebted to us after removing the influence of the Hades Alliance from their shores. For the most powerful ship known to man, the Liberator did, in some ways, live up to her name.

"Just all this," I sighed, waving my hand across the window at everything beyond it, "I mean, not even two years ago—"

"Four months," Katie interrupted, "Remember, we're moving slower than Earth time."

"Fine, two years for us," I amended, "I was sitting in my apartment, working on my Masters, and for once being able to sit down at my desk without having to keep one eye on the door and the other on my proximity alarms. Now, I'm saddled with the lives of almost a million young men and women who have volunteered themselves for a war effort they know next to nothing about. It's like the Crusades all over again, except this time it's not Jerusalem everyone's after."

"But you're doing a good job," she consoled, "If you want to look at this from a statistics standpoint, this fleet has the highest success rate out of the whole Interdimensional Navy, not to mention the list of KIAs is shorter than anyone on both sides."

"The fact of the matter is there's still a list, though," I snapped. She flinched a little bit and I realized how harsh I was starting to sound. "Sorry. It's just that I want this all to be over with, probably more so than anyone here. And all the people who died are dead, ultimately, because of my decisions on how to handle things."

"You're being too hard on yourself," she said, brushing a lock of her brown hair out of her face, "Just because you're in charge doesn't make you responsible for everything that happens."

"Maybe, maybe not. Still doesn't change the fact that I still feel responsible," I told her. She just sighed and continued eating.

"I think you're just homesick," she said after a few minutes, "We have been away from Earth for a long time. As SecNav, you should be able to approve your own leave."

"Where am I going to go?" I asked, the air of self-pity still lingering in my voice, "I have no family. I was built molecule by molecule under a microscope and handed off to be raised by a pair of steriles. And even if they did want to see me, what with me spending four years randomly disappearing without notice and all, I'm not even sure if they're still alive. I haven't been able to get in touch with them since we graduated high school. For all I know they may've been casualties in the First Siege. Not to mention Earth is still in shambles and the UEC is too focused on the war effort to devote resources to an effective reconstruction project."

"I'll never understand politics," she commented, shaking her head.

"Yeah, neither will I," I agreed, "I mean, coordinating a war that's taking place beyond the reach of conventional space travel is difficult, I'll give them that. And trying to unite a race that has spent thousands of years fighting within itself for no good reason only compounds the problem. But with the mining colonies in the asteroid and Kuiper belts now fully operational and producing with efficiency far greater than projected, a reinvestment and reconstruction effort shouldn't be that hard to put together. Kappa Fleet is orchestrating one right now on Nari'ah, after that whole revolution debacle, and the planet is at least twice as big as Earth, and its people much more diverse, both in biology and ideology. What's more is the report I found on my desk yesterday morning said everything was going quite well."

"Yes, that is quite the mess we have to clean up there," she conceded.

"And if one small fleet can succeed with just the resources of one industrial planet to work with, why can't a whole government, with an entire system at their disposal, do the same?" I asked to no one in particular.

"Beats me," Katie answered. I groaned in response, but not at her. The United Earth Confederacy was, to put it civilly, abysmally inefficient. It had been formed out of the United Nations delegation in wake of the Hades Alliance's first attack on Earth, with the hopes of uniting humanity to defeat them. Thus far, they'd done little to complete the unity part. While every country was represented in the Council, large areas became skirmish fields between the UEC forces and anti-centralization rebels and isolationist malcontents. To make things even more difficult, almost all of the national representatives on the council were high-ranking military figures, such that only Tibet, Switzerland, Nepal, and not even half a dozen others, were represented by actual diplomats. This rather homogenous group, combined with the continuation of inter- and intra-planetary combat, made putting non-military measures through the council obscenely difficult. The reconstruction effort was just one of a number of important tasks within Sol that had been subverted by the Council's desire to smash the Alliance outright, as opposed to simply keeping it at bay until we had rebuilt our defenses on the homefront.

"The S-PAC won't hold them forever," I mumbled.

"S-PAC?" Katie inquired.

"The S-PAC. It's a Super Phased Array Cannon," I informed her, "With the combined firepower of all eight of the regular PACs on this ship and some more in change. After the militarization and expansion of what used to be the International Space Station, UEC command decided to make it a weapons platform as well as a military base and shipyard. Not too long after we departed, I was asked to approve research testing of a more powerful version of the PAC. The result was the S-PAC project, whose first prototype is now mounted on Naval Station Alpha, the old ISS."

"Interesting," she remarked absently, continuing to eat her salad without looking up.

"They think one big gun on an effectively immobile platform is enough to deter a Third Siege long enough for us to crush the Alliance," I scoffed, "They refuse to believe what I've written in my reports, that the Alliance could glass the planet in a matter of seconds if they felt like it, regardless of how much firepower we can pour into them."

"Will they ever learn?" she asked a lettuce leaf that she had speared on her fork.

"You tell me, oh divine one," I joked. She stabbed me lightly with the tines of her fork on my left forearm, which was still resting on the table.

"Oh, you know I can't do things like that," she responded indignantly.

"I know, I know. I'm just trying to keep the mood light, that's all," I assured her.

"Sure…" she countered with exaggerated skepticism. I was about to spout a witty comeback, but the ship's PA system toned and the voice of one of the bridge officers began broadcasting: "Attention: all Cycle Three pilots, please report to your posts for your shift. Repeat: all Cycle Three Pilots, you are to report to your posts." I slid my chair back and got up.

"Where are you going?" Katie asked.

"I signed myself on for this round," I told her casually. When I saw her eyes begin to cloud with worry, I continued, "Don't worry, it's just a recon flight. One hour and I'm back here. I'll be back, I promise. Feel free to order whatever you want. Tell the waiter to put it on my tab."

"Alright," she acknowledged resignedly, "I still don't understand why you do this."

"Neither do I," I told her jovially. And, with that, I made for the fighter hangar.

My fighter is kept in the starboard bow fighter bay, one of the twin "prongs" on the front of the Liberator, whose center-most sides serve as part of an aiming channel for the bow-mounted PAC. As such, it's one of the more dangerous duty stations, as the robust shielding and plating on the sides closest to the channel doesn't always hold up to repeated stress, and the eddy currents produced by the PAC's beam are enough to cause whole ships to explode at range. A failure in the shielding on the ship herself, and she might be torn in two. Not something pleasant to think about, so most of the crew stationed there try not to, unless they're ordering maintenance to do an inspection. I hurried down the aisles between the parked fighters, trying to locate where on the grid setup they crew had left mine. Seeing as it had been a good few weeks since I'd been on a hop, I guessed it had to be somewhere towards the back. I finally found it in block G-29, a tarp thrown over the top to protect it from falling debris or the occasional mishandled ladder. I whipped the tarp off to reveal the old warbird, its old silver-grey paint job glimmering in the fluorescent light.

The general body style reflected the shape of the F-14D Tomcat I had built her from. I had initially overhauled it so it could quickly convert from the beefy and robust Tomcat to a quicker and stealthier fighter similar to an F-22, using a series of specially-designed hydraulic systems and nanotech plating, so such a conversion could take place even in mid-flight. In addition to a VTOL system, thrust vectoring exhaust nozzles, and an ordinance-production capability, the reborn bird of prey was a fearsome platform that served me well both in my private war against Jack Baritoire, the man responsible for forcing me down the path of evolution I've walked since I was fifteen, and in the skies over Earth during the First Siege launched against the planet by the Hades Alliance. The transition from atmosphere to vacuum called for a new series of upgrades, however. I had to strip out the old combustion-driven jet engines and replace them with the anaerobic reactor system used in the other UEC-IN fighters, making performance and efficiency adjustments where needed, though. I also had to install a tracker-type interdimensional drive so the fighter could join in jumps conducted by the rest of the fleet. Additionally, upgraded the conventional weapons, such as the Vulcan rotary cannon, to energy-based substitutes more suitable for the emptiness of space. Lastly, I had to modify the airframe so the maneuvering thrusters that were to be installed all over the body of the aircraft wouldn't bend the wings beyond their stress limits and snap them like twigs. The result was a fighter that could perform equally well in space and in the atmosphere, but, without a lot of practice, couldn't be master of both.

I ran my hand over the nose cone and the cold metal bit at my fingertips. After a brief flash of nostalgia, I jumped to grab the rim of the cockpit and hoisted myself into the pilot's seat. I checked the seals on my olive drab flight suit as I fastened the restraints over my chest. The displays flashed to life as I tapped in my authentication code and the generators whined as they began supplying power to the auxiliary systems.

"Good afternoon, sir," a computerized voice said through the communication system speakers, "If there is such a thing as afternoon in space."

"Hey Marvin. Long time, no see." I responded as I pulled my flight helmet over my hair and adjusted the size. Marvin was the artificial intelligence I had created prior to the war. He served as logistics and technical support for me, even though the sarcastic nature he'd developed made it hard to separate genuine advice from passive-aggressive criticism.

"Yes indeed," the computer agreed, "Tell me, what exercise in fun have you planned for us today."

"Just a little recon duty," I told him, "One hour on station and we're relieved by Silver group."

"Why don't I believe you?" Marvin responded, with a very good sigh for something without lungs.

"Because you're a computer who spends his free time going over worst-case scenarios," I countered.

"You programmed me for logistics, not optimism. The two aren't mutually inclusive," he drawled.

"Nor are they mutually exclusive," I reminded him.

"You've receive clearance from air traffic control to taxi to the elevator and be lifted onto the flight deck," Marvin informed me, conveniently changing the subject. The credentials and information scrolled across the main screen on the multi-function display panel beneath the HUD.

"Roger, control," I said into the microphone inside my flight helmet.

I put my left hand on the throttle and eased it forward slightly, coaxing the twin engines to life. They emitted a whine that slowly grew into soft growl. I smiled approvingly as I once again felt the adrenaline rush that came with combat flying. The fighter began to roll itself forward, now under the power of the burning jets, and I used the foot pedals to steer it over to the elevator that would bring it up to the fight deck. When the elevator hissed to a halt, I continued to taxi the bird to towards the catapults that were installed to assist the take off of the dwindling number of other overhaul fighters that still filled some of the ranks in the Liberator's fighter squadrons. The flight deck was immaculately lit with hundreds of bright white glow panels, to facilitate in finding any small pieces of debris that might have fallen off during previous launches. At the end of the long white tunnel was the black emptiness of space, broken only by the occasional blue flicker from the magnetic field that covered the end of the flight deck and kept the whole area pressurized. I steered the fighter up to one of the catapult lanes and brought the nose wheel up to the shuttle, stopping when I heard the tow bar lock into place in front of the shuttle. Reflexively, I worked the stick, pedals, and airbrakes to check the control surfaces on the exterior of the plane. It was a largely useless gesture, as we were nowhere near any sort of atmosphere and aerodynamic control surfaces really served no purpose in airless void of space, but it was a habit I had developed and saw fit not to break. A couple green-suited members of the deck crew scuttled around beneath the nose of my fighter as they set the holdback onto the shuttle as well. I heard the hydraulic whir from the aft of the plane as the jet blast deflector slowly raised itself into position behind the glowing exhaust nozzles.

"Ranger One, this is air traffic control," the voice from the tower said, "You are cleared for takeoff on catapult four."

"Acknowledged, control," I responded.

The aircraft handling officer came out to the starboard side of my fighter where I could see him clearly from the cockpit. He held his right hand up, only his index and middle fingers extended, and spun it around in the air. I began working the throttle up in response to the signal, slowly increasing the fuel flow through the engines. The growl of the engines grew steadily into a howl as they were fed raw power from the reactor. I brought the engines up to full boar, the afterburner systems running a second power cycle through the engines alongside the standard one, producing massive amounts of additional thrust. I instinctively pressed down a bit harder on the foot pedals to make sure the wheel brakes stayed active and the fighter didn't try to roll down the deck while still locked onto the shuttle. Suddenly, the handling officer's head jerked to the left. He began rapidly slashing his arms outwards from his body, like a baseball umpire making the hand signal for "safe", and began running towards the aft of the plane. I slammed the throttle lever back down to idle, and the engine noise immediately rescinded.

I activated my comm, "What's going on down there, Commander?"

"Civilian on the deck, Admiral," the officer responded.

"What?" I shouted. I popped the canopy, undid my restraints, and stood on the seat to look behind the plane. Katie was struggling to break through a dozen deckhands who were trying to prevent her from coming any further up on deck. I vaulted out of the cockpit and onto the deck surface and ran over to the skirmish that was happening behind the jet blast deflector.

"Let me through, let me through," I said as I pushed my way between the deckhands. I looked at Katie and said, "What are you doing up here? The flight decks are off-limits for a reason. It's dangerous up here. One misstep, one stray motion, and the fighter's carrying you into space with it."

"I know," she replied somberly, "I just…I just wanted to see you off. I can't help but feel…that this won't be as easy as you made it sound."

"We're at war," I reminded her, "No plan ever survives contact with the enemy. "

"No, it's more than that," she continued, "I feel as though this will go very, very wrong."

I rested my hands on her shoulders and tried to reassure her, "When was the last time I didn't come back?"

"Never," she sighed, "But all your close calls more than qualify." She pulled my into a tight hug and buried her head into my chest. I put my right arm around her and ran my left hand through her hair slowly.

"I'll be back…I promise," I repeated softly. Gingerly, tentatively, she let me go, and I made back for the cockpit of my fighter. On the way, I told the handling officer, "Let her watch this one from the sideline."

"But sir, you just went over how dangerous it is," he protested.

"She'll behave herself," I said lightly.

"But sir—" the officer started.

"I don't want to make this a direct order," I growled over my shoulder.

"Yes sir," the officer said feebly, the rapid shift in tone catching him off guard.

I jumped back into the cockpit and one of the green-suited catapult crewmen climbed up the ladder after me.

"Good hunting, Admiral," he yelled over the growing engine noise.

"It's recon," I shouted back, sliding my helmet back on, "Let's hope I won't have to hunt anything." The crewman laughed and slammed the canopy shut.

The crew began running down their task order again, double-checking that nothing had been changed or broken during the interruption. The handling officer spun his hand above his head again and I re-engaged the afterburners. I fastened the old-style mask-and-air hose face piece of my helmet over my mouth and nose and flicked the polarized visor down over my eyes so my face was completely covered in an unidentifiable mask. I looked out of the starboard side of the canopy again to see if the handling officer was waiting on my signal. I looked past him at Katie, who was standing nervously off to the side of the deck. She met my gaze briefly and nodded, almost submissively. I looked back at the handling officer and gave him a thumbs-up as my ready signal. He motioned to the shooter in the catapult control pod set into the deck surface and I looked down the center of the HUD displayed on the front of the cockpit. There was a loud roar as the linear accelerator that made up the catapult received power via the electromagnetic rails set into the catapult groove, dragging the shuttle, and my fighter, with it all the way to the end of the flight deck. The force of the rapid acceleration pinned me to the back of my seat and made breathing an almost impossible task. Less than a second after the shooter pushed the launch button, I was being slung out of the bow of the Liberator and into the stillness of space.

"Clear of the cat," I reported, "You reading me, control?"

"Confirmed, Admiral. Please proceed to grid zero three one, zero one niner and link up with the rest of the recon group," the air traffic controller ordered.

"Roger, control," I acknowledged, kicking the throttle back into afterburner and powering my way over to my assigned coordinates. After about forty-five seconds, I saw the flicker of drive trails off in the distance. I switched my transmitter to the reconnaissance frequency and activated the microphone in my helmet. "Alright, boys, let's do this one quick and clean. I don't know about you, but I've got some personal business I'm putting on hold for this," I told the other pilots.

"Yes sir," they all responded enthusiastically.

I chuckled and started giving my orders, "Good to hear. All right, diamond formation on me. We're going counter-clockwise around the ship. Whoever gave you your briefing should have told you what points we need to check out. That makes the first objective the debris field at grid zero two five, one zero two. Stay with me and keep your sensors transmitting and your eyes open. We don't need anyone getting jumped out here." The other pilots gave various acknowledgements and the four of us set off for the debris field.

The approach was uneventful, and we able to high-tail it over to the debris field without any trouble.

"Preliminary sweep. What've you got, Four?" I asked. I looked back at the fighter behind me. The dome cover of its augmented primary sensor array swiveled back and forth slowly.

"Whole lotta nothin', sir," Its pilot reported.

"Anyone?" I continued.

"Negative," the pilot on my right said.

"I'm not getting anything sir," the pilot on my left started, "Wait a minute…there's some sort of interference. Huh?"

"What is it, Two?" I inquired urgently.

"It's gone now," he responded

"I don't like this, chief," number three responded.

"Neither do I," I concurred. I opened up a comm line back to the Liberator, "We got some temporary interference on our scopes on our first pass of the debris field. We're going around again to investigate."

"Roger that," the flight operations commander responded, "Keep us in the loop."

"You know it," I acknowledged, then continued to give orders to the other pilots, "Alright, we've been cleared to investigate. Approach with caution. We don't know what we're going to find in there."

"Affirmative," number three said as we flew towards the debris.

"It looks like the remains of a ship…" number four observed as we drew closer.

"Cut the chatter, Four," I snapped, "You can file all this in your report when we get back. For now, shut up so you don't give away our intentions." I took his silence as an acknowledgement.

"There it is again," number two remarked after about a minute.

"Alright, something funny's going on around here. Break formation, but stay with your wingmen. I want a narrow-band sweep of every rock, plate, and light switch you can find out here. And if something moves, you shoot, got it?" I ordered.

"Yes, sir," the other three responded. Two and four broke off to the left and three and I went right into the field. I flicked a few switches on the control console in front of me and switched on the sensor suite. A wireframe bird's-eye of the debris field appeared on the right-most screen of my MFD array. I touched the image with two fingers on my right hand and slid it to the larger main screen in the center, where detail was filled in over the simple outline.

"Marvin, start analyzing whatever comes in from the sensors. If something so much as looks sideways at us, I want to know about," I said to the computer as I tapped various buttons on the control panel. Text appeared all over the screen and with lines pointing to various parts of displayed data. Technical readouts, chemical composition, object names, and item age detailed each point of possible interest in the display. I sifted through the information and slowly began to piece together where the debris came from.

"Well, Four was right," I told Marvin, "This used to be a ship."

"Three to be exact," Marvin corrected, "Not counting the remains of various fighters. It appears as though an Alliance carrier ship was attacked by a pair of frigates of unidentified origin."

"Why only two frigates? More to the point, why only a carrier? Shouldn't it have been in convoy?" I wondered aloud.

"Well, some of the damage on the carrier fragments predates the most recent damage," Marvin pointed out, highlighting the areas he was referring to on the diagram, "The carrier may have been damaged in a previous engagement and attempted to escape for repairs. The two frigates, and possibly other ships, may have ambushed it on its way."

"Then what destroyed the frigates?" I asked, "One carrier wing wouldn't be enough to take down two frigates this size."

"Maybe it had reinforcements," Marvin pointed out.

"Then why wouldn't the reinforcements salvage whatever was left of the ship?" I argued.

"They may have been forced to retreat," the computer replied.

"Then why didn't the unknowns salvage the ship?" I pressed.

"It may not be their policy or priority right now," Marvin supplied.

"I hope you're right…" I muttered softly. I kept a silent eye on the sensor readout, cataloguing everything I saw. Whatever had happened to these ships, they went down hard. It was difficult to find an intact section of hull more than a hundred meters long, and rivets and bolts drifted lazily by like micro meteors. After about two minutes of investigation, we reached the center of the debris field. The area was largely empty, as much of the wreck seemed to have been drifting for a while. I maneuvered slowly around a jagged piece of reactor shielding that had broken free of the rest of the assembly.

"Well, one of these ships scored a direct hit on the carrier's reactor," I reported into the comm.

Number three pulled a hard turn and drifted around another plate before saying, "Yeah, they made one hell of a mess outta things. Hey, is that a fighter bay?"

"Where?" I asked.

"Two o'clock, about sixty meters out" he said. I looked to my right a little bit to see if I could spot what he was referring to. I directed the sensors at a large blocky piece of debris. The report came up on the screen and I read over the information.

"Indeed it is," I told him, "Let's swing around for a better look."

"Roger," number three replied. We closed in on the open side of the bay to inspect its contents and see if it could give us an indication as to what happened.

"Strange," Three said was we entered visual range, "Most of the fighters are still in their holding racks."

"Whatever happened here, this carrier was overwhelmed before it could finish scrambling its forces," I stated.

"No kidding," Three agreed.

"Let's keep moving. There's something big up ahead that might prove useful," I ordered, gesturing uselessly towards the space ahead of my fighter.

"Alrighty," number three acknowledged as he kicked in his boosters to form back up with me. As we moved closer, a certain familiarity began to form around the large unidentified object.

"That looks like an interdimensional drive!" Three noted loudly.

"Yes…the carrier's in fact. Strange. If the reactor was destroyed, how is drive still unscathed? It should've failed alongside the reactor. And catastrophically, I might add," I mused.

"I dunno, but it sure is weird," Three remarked, "Should we move in, chief?"

"Yes, but take it slow. It might just a time bomb waiting to go off. And I have no clue what happens when one of these machines goes," I told my wingman.

"And I'm in no mood to find out," he replied with a soft snort, "You set the pace, boss." I was about to continue giving orders, but I heard a soft "blip" come from the radar screen. I looked down and saw a red circle drifting slowly behind us.

"Spike on radar, air-to-air radar," I said into the comm. I reached up and adjusted one of the rear-view mirrors that were set up along the canopy frame above the HUD screen until I got a good look at whatever was appearing on my radar.

"Looks like that fighter bay wasn't so abandoned after all," I said smoothly as a small interceptor detached itself from its storage rack and turned to follow us.

"Should we blast him?" Three asked, the eagerness in his voice almost palpable.

I relayed orders to him, "Not yet. Let's let him get a little closer. Don't break formation or pace until I give the signal. When I do, we run a bracket on him, but just warning shots to spook him, got it?"

"Affirmative," he responded, a bit let down.

"Alright buddy, what do you want?" I asked softly to the air around me, staring intently at the enemy fighter in the mirror. The fighter began to slowly, almost innocently, pick up ground on us.

"Okay, on the count of three," I told my wingman.

"Right," he confirmed.

"One…" I said, putting my hand on the throttle lever, "Two…" I waited for the enemy to close within fifty meters, close enough where we could kick in our afterburners and be on top of him before he even knew what he started. Eighty meters. Seventy. Sixty-five.

"C'mon, just a little closer," I muttered, my fingers tightening around the throttle. Sixty meters. Fifty-eight. Fifty-five. Fifty-two.

"Three!" I shouted into my transmitter, and the two of us whipped around, engines roaring as they shot up through military power and into maximum overdrive. We closed the distance quickly, our secondary nose-mounted plasma cannons firing long green streaks in the direction of the enemy, bathing the area in emerald light. The quadruplet streams pulses slowly converged on the enemy fighter, ready, willing, and eager to put a line of two-inch holes into the light armor plating of the interceptor. Right as we were about fence our prey up against a fractured section of hull, a large explosion buffeted our fighters and threw off our aim.

"You okay over there, Three?" I asked into the open comm.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little…what did you atmosphere jockeys call it?"

"Turbulence," I supplied the word.

"Yeah, just some turbulence. What happened?" he asked. I adjusted my mirrors again to check. I'd expected to see the interdimensional drive in pieces where we'd left it, as the radar said that's where the explosion came from. I got what I expected on that account, but I was only partly right. Where a catastrophically destructive energy field should have been, there were instead dozens upon dozens of enemy fighters, weapons primed and bearing down on us for the kill.

"Shit, ambush!" I shouted, "Three, break right. Let's try to lose them in the debris."

"Roger," he said, and we both whipped our joysticks as far right as they would go and dove for the limited protection of the wreckage.

"Rangers Two and Four, this is Ranger One, requesting backup at the center of the debris field. We've got at least ninety bogies on our tails right now, and they don't look too happy to see us," I called into my microphone.

"No can do, Admiral," Two replied, "We've got about as many, if not more, in our area as well. We'll try to break away and regroup."

"Do what you can to get out of range," I ordered, "Use the debris to cover your escape, I'll call for some backup."

"Yes sir" Two said sharply.

I keyed in the frequency for fighter ops, "Command, this is Admiral Harrison. We've been ambushed at grid zero two five, one zero two. I need those Alert Five aircraft out here yesterday. We've counted in the realm of two hundred enemy fighters in the debris field. Number of enemy forces outside of the field is currently unknown. The bastards were waiting for us."

"Roger, Admiral," the man on the other end replied, "The carriers Judicator and Praetor are scrambling their forces now, over."

Several blue plasma rounds streaked dangerously close to my canopy, prompting me to say, "Now isn't soon enough, Colonel."

"Patience, sir. They'll be there," the colonel responded coolly.

"Hang tight, Ranger group," I told the other pilots, "Reinforcements are inbound. ETA three minutes."

"Affirmative," the three responded.

"Marvin, get this plane producing swarm missiles on the double," I ordered the computer.

"Right away, sir. Ordinance production is now underway. The first batch should be done in about forty seconds," the computer reported.

"Heaven knows I'm gonna need them," I replied, "How soon can you get the shield generator up and running?"

"Sir, combat conditions are hardly ideal for testing such a fickle piece of technology," Marvin informed me, "For all we know, while the shield might prevent enemy munitions from getting in, it might also keep your weapons from firing out."

"Well, if we get start getting deflections, that's what we have the automated repair unit for, right?" I said calmly.

"About that, sir," Marvin answered feebly, "In order to give the shield generator the energy it needs to function, I had to reroute the power around the ARU."

"Can't you run a bypass?" I asked.

"Not safely while in flight. I'd have to wait until we get back to the hangar if I want to avoid damaging the subsystem power relays. And there's no guarantee that the shield generator will function properly afterwards even if the bypass is successful," the computer informed me flatly.

"Well, this is just great," I growled, "Alright. As-is, what's the warm-up time for the shield projector?"

"Approximately four seconds before full integrity is achieved," Marvin returned.

"Duration?" I continued.

"Theoretically, there's no time limit," Marvin told me, "The only limiting factors are power flow, obviously, and the feedback mitigation module. If the module is overloaded, the shield will fail and remain inactive until the module resets itself."

"Which is how long?" I asked urgently.

"Between ten and ninety seconds, depending on the degree of the overload," he said.

I sighed and told him my plan, "Okay, here's what I need you to do. I want you to keep the shield up as best you can, but take it down when I fire and bring it back up when I'm done. Got it?"

"Understood, sir," Marvin acknowledged.

"Okay, Three, here's what's going to happen," I said to my wingman, my voice crisp with authority, "I've got a defensive advantage on these guys. If you can't get a shot on any of the bogies, get behind me and I'll cover you."

"I don't know what you think you have, but you're the boss, Boss," Three replied, a smile coming into his voice towards the end of the statement.

"Marvin, are those missiles done yet?" I asked, a bit firmer than necessary.

"They're already secured on the underwing hardpoints," the computer confirmed.

"Good. Switch over to targeting sensors. We're confirmed weapons free," I barked into the still-open comm line as the engagement clearance from flight ops scrolled across one of the MFDs in my cockpit.

"Yes sir!" number three acknowledged. I flicked the cover off the master arm switch and lifted the small toggle switch to "on". The heads-up display on the front of my canopy lit up as it changed from a simple sensor readout to a targeting display as all of the missiles slung under my fighter were primed and the safeties on the primary plasma cannons mounted above and slightly behind each of the engine intake cowlings were deactivated.

"Alright, we're going loud," I told Three, "Hold onto your guts—"

"So we can rip out theirs!" he finished sharply.

"Oorah!" I grunted. And, with that, we dove back into the fray.

As soon as we came out from behind the debris, the sky lit up with hundreds of incoming plasma bolts.

"Marvin, is that shield up yet?" I shouted.

"It's warming up now, sir," the computer told me. A small bird's-eye view of my fighter appeared in the lower right of my HUD, and a circle appeared around it and slowly increased in opacity. I looked back up at the incoming plasma. It was going to be a close call. If Marvin was wrong about how long the shield would take to reach full power, or if I couldn't avoid enough of the incoming fire…well, there are some people you absolutely have to keep your promises to. There was the brief twiddling of an alert that interrupted my contemplation. I looked back at the new icon on my HUD. The circle around the image of my fighter had grown almost completely opaque, and just in time, too. Almost immediately, another, much louder and more repetitive alarm began warbling to indicate that enemy fire had entered the danger zone and evasive action needed to be taken immediately. I set my jaw and held the fighter steady. The alarm warbled with increasing volume and speed as the enemy plasma bolts drew closer. I was vaguely aware of Marvin shouting some worried warnings and advice, but I didn't pay attention to any of it. I just focused on getting the fighter ready to power its way straight down out of the line of fire using the maneuvering thrusters on the dorsal side, even if it meant blowing them out, should the shield fail. As I started to run the bypass on the maneuvering thruster control, there was a bright flash outside the cockpit. I looked back up to see what had happened. There was a field of blue-green ripples floating in space six meters ahead of my fighter, obscuring my view of the enemy fire. The shield was holding, and remarkably well.

"We're in business," I told Three.

"I don't know what that is," he responded, "And, right now, I don't particularly care. As long as it covers our asses, I'm just fine." I chuckled in agreement and slid the weapon selection switch on my joystick to "dual", turned the fire mode dial to "salvo", and waited for my missiles to lock onto the nearest enemy. A small red diamond appeared on the HUD and slowly drifted towards one of the fighters. The diamond intersected with the fighter and a short series of beeps confirmed that a lock had been achieved. More diamonds jumped out of the first and moved towards fifteen other fighters. The targeting computer beeped again when the fifteen had been highlighted. I pulled the trigger. The shield indicator on the HUD disappeared and four missiles dropped off the underwing hardpoints, streaking off silently through the airless void to their targets. Once the missiles had cleared the gap between my fighter and where the shield was supposed to be, the whir of the shield projector warming up came back. I continued to watch the missiles as they pressed their charge forward. After they'd move within the area of my HUD, the projection superimposed green diamonds over them to mark their positions. As the time-to-target counter on the left-hand side ticked down to thirty seconds, sixteen green diamonds appeared where the four had been. Each of the missiles split into four smaller individually guided and powered warheads, all of which set off to set up the sixteen locked fighters. When the warheads drew close to their targets, the enemy formation broke up as they tried to avoid the incoming explosives. It was a wasted effort on the part of the sixteen that my targeting computer had designated as the warheads' prey. The warheads swiftly followed the fighters through turns and loops as the pilots tried to break the lock, but the warheads were far more maneuverable and kept pace with ease. After nine seconds, all sixteen pairs of green and red diamonds met up on my HUD and promptly disappeared.

"Alright, it looks likes I've kicked the hornets' nest," I drawled as I watched the enemy fighters dash around the debris field.

"Yeah, no shit Sherlock," Three shot back. I glanced out the right side of my canopy to see him chasing down an enemy heavy interceptor. The fighter was trailing flames behind it as Three scored hits on the life support systems.

"Good kill," I commended as the fighter broke up, some of the pieces still on fire.

"Not so bad yourself," he said as he pulled his fighter through a tight one-eighty turn to blast another fighter that had tried to catch him as he recovered from his victory.

I let another salvo of swarm missiles off the rails and replied, "Just keep your mouth shut and your eyes open or you're never going to keep these guys down." Sixteen more marks dropped off my radar screen as the missiles carried the fighters they represented into oblivion.

"Tell that to the bogey on your tail," Three countered. I looked over my shoulder to see what he was talking about. I banked left and relative down to temporarily throw the enemy combatant off his pursuit course and to buy myself some time to prepare myself for a dogfight. I tapped an image of the underside of my fighter on the ordinance selection MFD on the left side of the console, selecting the aspect-seeking missiles mounted on the wingtip hardpoints. I set the fire mode to "single" and turned back to re-engage the enemy fighter. I brought the nose of my fighter around to bear on my target. The low drone of a pre-lock tone filled the cockpit as the missile's seeker head began searching for the enemy. I watched a red circle trace its way across my HUD as the seeker began to finalize its lock and my finger slowly tightened around the trigger reflexively. A high-pitched series of beeps went off as the missile's guidance system latched onto the enemy fighter. I pulled the trigger on the back of my joystick and the missile jolted off its hardpoint to begin its hunt. I banked my fighter around to position my guns with a lead on my quarry. The electronic gunsight took in the target data from the radar and plotted the gunsight reticle on the HUD along the target's projected path. I lined up the circular velocity vector icon in the middle of my HUD with gunsight. When the two had joined, I pressed the thumb trigger on the head of my joystick and opened up with all four of my plasma cannons. The green pulses of energy streaked forward into the flight path of my opponent. He immediately went into a split-s reversal, inverting his fighter and pulling a hard turn before righting himself, to avoid this new threat and try to throw off my lead. The maneuver worked, mostly. While he accomplished breaking my gunsight lead, causing me to briefly spray plasma bolts into the empty area of space where he would have been had he stayed his course, it also placed him right into a conjunction path with the missile that was bearing down on him. The missile made contact right on the tip of the fighter's nose and flames spewed from the point of impact and the whole fighter fragmented from the force of the explosion.

"Uh-oh," Three said worriedly.

"What?" I inquired.

"I'm getting a huge number of inbound fighters on radar," he answered. I tapped the "zoom" button on the radar display set into the console, increasing the displayed radius to thirty kilometers. Dozens upon dozens of small white circles appeared on the right-hand side of the circle and slowly creeped toward the middle that represented my position.

"Marvin, inbounds. Identify: friend or foe," I told the computer.

"No need to be eloquent or anything," he sneered sarcastically.

"Just do it," I snapped as the white circles closed to within fifteen kilometers, "Or you might also end up floating out here, too."

"I'm already backed up on my main terminal back in your quarters aboard the Liberator," Marvin said offhandedly, "You on the other hand…"

"Shut up or so help me, I'll rip your relay right out of this fighter faster than you can say 'What did I do?'," I growled through gritted teeth.

"Honestly, sir," he chuckled, "Some days you are just too all-busi—." The comm speaker in my helmet beeped.

"Shut it," I cut him off, an order he thankfully obliged.

A new voice crackled over the radio, "Ranger group, this is Razor Lead. Heard you guys got yourselves into a jam and we're being scrambled to assist. Is there any truth to that?"

"Damn straight," I replied with a small smile, "Now, get your lethargic asses into this debris field on the double or I'm court-martialing the lot of you."

"Yes, sir," Razor Lead replied with an audible grin.

"Here comes the cavalry," I told Three.

"'Bout effing time," he sighed, "My missile banks are running dry."

"Razor Lead," I called over the comm channel, "You got a support ship somewhere in that mess you call a formation?"

"It's standing by on the edge of the debris field," he replied, smiling at the playful jab I'd made, "You need a reload?"

"Nah, this old bird's not compatible with any of the support craft," I told him, "Ranger Three needs some assistance, though."

"Roger, I'll send it his way. Tell him to get to cover," Razor Lead acknowledged.

"Ranger Three, Razor Lead is calling you a support ship. ETA forty seconds. Find some cover so you don't get blindsided while you're rearming," I ordered.

"Affirmative," he replied and dove for the safety of a curved hull fragment. An enemy fighter caught sight of Three's escape and immediately took off after him.

"Not today, my friend," I muttered as another of my aspect missiles began to lock onto Three's pursuer. The lock tone beeped again as the missile identified its target and I set it loose into space. The missile tracked effortlessly to the enemy fighter, whose pilot had apparently come down with a bad case of target affixation syndrome, as he neither broke pursuit nor dropped countermeasures to throw off the incoming explosive. The missile caught the fighter just aft of the cockpit and spilt the fighter in two. The destabilization and meltdown of the fighter's small reactor finished the job by splintering the whole craft into shrapnel.

The radar made a bleeping noise that caught my attention. I glanced down at the radar screen. From the mass of green circles that represented the approaching reinforcements came a series of green lines that slid forward towards the red circles that represented the enemy. Help had arrived. The red circles scattered as the green lines drew closer. After a few brief flurries of movement, the green lines had vanished, taking with them a good number of the red circles. Those that had survived the first barrage were faced with the combined firepower of two full carrier fighter wings that was now bearing down on them. Our tiny corner of space lit up as hundreds of fighters swirled around each other, streaks of plasma flying about between them like deadly micro-comets. I located a small scout fighter that looked like it was attempting to escape the debris field.

"We got a runner," I sighed, switching over to my plasma cannons. I opened the throttle and set off in pursuit. The scout fighter was lighter and faster than my fighter, so I gained ground slowly. When I'd finally gotten to within a hundred meters of the scout, I opened fire, the nose of my fighter flashing as it spewed superheated death towards my target. I slowly turned my fighter to close my aim and the plasma bolts inched closer to the enemy. Suddenly, a lock warning blared in the cockpit, jarring me back to my immediate surroundings. I glanced at the situational awareness lights on either side of the HUD. The orange "radar" light burned brightly, indicating that a radar-guided missile was tracking me. I pressed the button on the back of my joystick to release a packet of countermeasures and broke my pursuit of the scout. I rolled my fighter slightly to the left to make the missile and the pilot that fired it think I was attempting to turn in that direction. I went through with the turn for two or three degrees, long enough for the pilot to plan his attack along my projected path. Without warning, I snapped my joystick to the right and slammed the throttle levers as far forward as they would go. I pulled the fighter through a sharp rolling dive, a suicide maneuver in a gravitated area, but a common and highly effective evasive tactic in the weightlessness of space. Before the momentum of the dive had bled off, I pulled back swiftly on the joystick and slid the left rudder pedal forward, reversing the dive and skidding the tail of the fighter to the right, giving the impression of a left turn. I looked briefly back at the awareness lights to see that "radar" had gone out. The missile lock had been broken, I concluded, and it was time to start my counterattack. I rolled the fighter over to what would have been inverted relative to my enemy and screamed towards him.

As I approached, I watched the seeker reticle of a heat missile make its pentacle-shaped search path across my HUD. As it closed the upward leg of the star, the reticle passed over the enemy fighter and held fast. I waited for the high-pitched growl of the lock tone to fill the cockpit, but it never came. Instead, the warble of the immediate evasion alarm blared over the speakers. I instinctively put the fighter through another rolling dive, but it did me no good. The fighter shuddered as an explosion rocked the craft. The whole shield flickered briefly and faded, and shield indicator on my HUD flashed red, indicating the system had failed and was attempting to reset itself. Before I had time to recover, another explosion shook my fighter and threw it sideways into the remains of a barracks. The master caution alert sounded as I tried to regain my senses. I looked at the damage readout that came across the MFD.

"Boss, you alright?" Three asked.

"Fucker double-tapped me," I cursed.

"What?" Three questioned.

"I'm hit, but not bad. Primary engines are down and my hyperdrive is inoperable, but I still have auxiliary thrusters," I answered, looking at the damage report, "Sorry, kid, but it looks like I'm going to have to beat it."

"You'll never make it back under auxiliary sublight," he told me, "Not alone, anyway. I'll escort you."

I scrolled down the report a bit more and formulated a plan, "My tracker drive is still in working condition. I'll warp out to the nearest beacon then jump back to the Liberator. Hopefully I can arrive close enough to limp back into a hangar bay."

"Godspeed," Three replied, rocking his fighter back and forth as a visual salute before shooting off to dive back into the furball.

"I'a," I returned and opened up a comm line to a UEC ship the next dimension over, "Attention, EFS Osiris, this is Admiral Harrison of the Prime Dimension Fleet requesting a tracker jump beacon, over."

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line as they reviewed my credentials. "Roger, Admiral. We're setting the beacon now, identification frequency niner seven zero Charlie. You are cleared for arrival on your mark."

"Copy, Osiris," I replied, "Engaging jump now." I keyed the frequency the ship had given me into the jump computer and waited for confirmation that a connection had been achieved. When the computer had cleared the course, I pulled the throttle levers back to zero and double-checked that the engines had been shut down. When I'd finished rendering the fighter immobile, there was the hum of the interdimensional drive preparing for a jump. The hum crescendoed to a whir and a glow began to emanate from the center of my fighter. Tendrils of white energy snaked out of the drive and wrapped themselves firmly around the body of the fighter. There was a bright flash and I was thrown forward into my restraints as the fighter's speed dropped to absolute zero, the energy tendrils holding it fast as the time stream continued without it.

After the initial jolt had worn off, I shook my head to clear it and looked around. Interdimensional space was an endless pitch-black void, lacking even the ambient light of stars and nebulas that permeated real space. The darkness was suffocating, lending to it the sense of gnawing dread that comes with being unable to figure out where you are. To be lost in interdimensional space alone was practically a death sentence. Any sort of movement risked you being dropped back into real space, almost always in an unfamiliar location, away from anything that might hear your calls for help. We'd lost more than a few good men and women in jumps gone wrong. Less than one percent were ever recovered. Fewer still were actually alive when they were found. Moving through interdimensional space was as slow as it was dangerous. A jump that takes a minute in real time can last for weeks for whoever is part of it. The boredom and cabin fever that came from extensive periods of time in the same location were incredibly prevalent among crews, and pilots were even more prone to them, as their craft had little in the form of entertainment or general distraction from the perpetual waiting for the jump to end. I'd had numerous reports of ensigns not quite grasping the concept of staying put during a jump, almost always attached to a search and rescue approval form.

I took a deep breath, put my hands behind my head, and leaned back against my seat.

"Gonna be a long trip," I muttered softly as I glanced at the chronometer on my HUD. I locked the controls so I wouldn't accidently bump anything while I rested and closed my eyes.

I had only closed my eyes for what felt like five minutes when "bitchin' Betty", the audible alert voice I'd so far been unable to remove from the fighter's stock systems, began repeating "pull up" between three-note warbles. I bolted upright in my chair and immediately began scanning the area around me. All I could see in the light provided by the energy tendrils was empty blackness. I was still in the void. Why would I be getting a low altitude warning?

"Sir, there's a small object approaching from directly below us," Marvin stated, "It appears as though he's trying to ram us."

"What?" I asked, much louder than was necessary. A video of the area beneath my fighter appeared on the center MFD. In it was small, slight craft, about the size of a transport skiff, that I'd never seen before.

"I want to know what that is and I want to know now, Marvin," I commanded curtly.

"It's an unidentified model of fighter, but it bears Hades Alliance markings and colors," he reported.

"Point is it's moving in here and I need to know wh—" I was cut off by the sound of a collision alarm. In the time I'd spent bickering with Marvin, the enemy fighter had closed the already short distance to my fighter and an impact was now unavoidable.

"He's mad!" Marvin cried.

"Yeah, and he's going to win this one," I countered, "Hold onto something, this is going to be rough,"

"Need I remind you, sir, that I'm an intangible construct with no hands. I can't hold onto anything," the computer said.

"Shut up and—gah!" The enemy fighter impacted with a loud crash, and metal shrieked as our two craft scraped against each other. The master caution alarm went off again as I watched my left wing be sheared off like it was made of toothpicks. A red light flashed in the cockpit as the jump computer warned of motion and that re-entry into real space was immanent. I tried to push the auxiliary thrusters into action, to counteract the movement caused by the collision, but to no avail. There was a bright flash as the interdimensional drive released its hold on my fighter and I was dropped back into real space. The sudden acceleration back to relative zero, the stationary speed in a given dimension, tossed my destabilized fighter about like a child's toy. I threw the controls around wildly to settle it down. After a good few minutes of fighting the momentum of the fighter, I finally managed to get it under control again. I sighed and rubbed at my eyes wearily.

"Why is it always me?" I asked the air in the cockpit.

"Because you insist on taking inhuman risks to gain the respect of people who have already pledged their lives to your cause," Marvin commented, "At least that's part of it. I'm still working on the rest, but I'm sure Mistress Katherine has something to do with it."

"I wasn't asking you," I grumbled.

"Well, excuse me for trying to be helpful," Marvin snapped back, "Honestly, I just try to fulfill my directive and someone is always off about it for some reason. You humans fail to make sense to me."

I ignored him and looked around to get my bearings. Out of the left side of my canopy, I caught sight of a familiar blue-green orb.

"Marvin…where are we?" I asked slowly.

"My calculations put us…no…no that can't be right," the computer rambled.

"Marvin," I pressed sternly.

"It's Earth," he said surprised, "Or, an Earth anyway. It'll take a while for me to determine which dimension we're in."

"Well, let's find some landmarks, see if that'll speed things up. Can you get a reading on anything orbiting the planet?" I said.

"Aside from space junk, there appears to be a number of similarly-shaped objects. Probably space stations, given the size," the computer reported.

"The Naval Stations," I whispered, "Home. Marvin, chart a course for the surface."

"Sir, shouldn't we head to one of the stations for repairs first?" Marvin inquired.

"No, they won't have the replacement parts for this old heap," I told him, "No, we'll need to head to the manor. Get us to Backwoods."

"Setting course now," Marvin said cheerily. A picture of the Earth appeared on the center MFD and a curved line representing our trajectory was traced over it. "Say, when we get back, could you link me back up with my main hardware?"

"I'll have to if I'm going to get this thing fixed," I reminded him, "But we have to get there first."

"Wonderful," he said airily, "I'll assist with steering. We'll make atmospheric contact in approximately forty-five minutes."

"Right. Alright if I take a nap, then?" I yawned.

"Absolutely," Marvin replied, obviously overjoyed that he would be back on his primary console.

"Wake me when we start the descent," I mumbled as I closed my eyes and turned into a more comfortable position. Marvin said something in reply, but it was blocked out by the curtains of sleep.