The Fall of Terra #13: Last Patrol


December 29th, 3899ad.

It was the last patrol before they were due to head back to Eagle Station.

A squadron of cadets close to graduating to full pilots and joining Starfighter Command proper.  Their squadron commander, their instructor, was hanging back, letting them take command of the patrol and keeping out of the way.

“Alright, people,” he announced over the comms, “This is our no return point.  Bring us about and head to Eagle Station.”

The cadets pulled around in loose combat formation, forming a giant diamond shape, their Wolverine trainer-pattern starfighters speeding a little too fast.

“Stop showing off,” he ordered.

They cut their speed, but only marginally.

His sensors, more powerful than his students, picked up something that made him frown.  The students were clearly unaware.  But even his sensors couldn’t identify the problem.  There was something there, moving towards them, but the sensors were having trouble locking onto anything.  He couldn’t even form a silhouette from the results.

There were smaller shapes moving as well.

The students, led by one of their own for the patrol, continued on, but his attention was on the shapes moving towards them.  The smaller ones were almost on them.

The students finally noticed them.

“All, this is Lead,” the leading student called over the comms.  “Marks coming in at our aft, full sublight.  Sensors can’t lock on fully.  All flights, turn and investigate.”

The instructor’s comm board lit up, a private channel from the student in question.

“Sir, is this part of the test?”

“No,” he replied as cautiously as he could.  “This is something else.”

“That’s not helpful, sir.”

“It’s not meant to be, Lead.  Get your comms specialist to start broadcasting back to Eagle Station immediately.  Report on what’s happening, and what we are doing.  Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”  There was a hint of fear in the student’s voice.  Had he let his own voice slip, worrying the student?

“Stick to your training, Cadet, and you’ll be fine.”

The student ordered the others into a wide formation, separating the four-craft flights out  so they were spread thin, but if anything happened, they were still within range to assist.  It was good spacing, both for the cadets themselves and the orders given to them.  These would all be great pilots.

The smaller objects on the sensors resolved themselves.

The instructor swore as the small asteroids appeared as if from nowhere.  Two of the students’ Wolverines were torn apart in seconds, each rock the size of a man’s head.  They obliterated the unshielded craft, not even allowing them to scream.

How had they come so close without being seen, or detected?

The students panicked as more tore through them.  Hull plating was shattered, and three more fighters exploded as their fuel lines were ruptured and engines smashed to overload.  One cadet even lost a wing as a larger rock ripped it clean off, sending the fighter spinning away; he managed to recover, however, three seconds before he accidentally wandered in front of another cadet, and the two smashed together.  Their craft span, ejecting loose parts, the cadets knocked unconscious by the hit and subsequent sudden gee-forces.  The two were locked, jagged hull plating catching and twisting them into the path of a larger asteroid that obliterated both.

The survivors’ flying was incredible, however, as they danced around the rocks that threatened to end them.  They would go far if they escaped this madness.

He himself found it difficult going, his heavier craft, loaded with more tech than the cadets’, slightly more sluggish.  But he survived.

The rocks past them by, and they were through into empty space.

But the bigger readings were still there.

“What the hell was that?” demanded one of the cadets.

“Stay calm,” he ordered sternly.  This was no time for student intervention.  This was a crisis.  If his fears were true, it was a crisis of epic proportions.  Now that they were closer, the big reading had a visual element.

He swallowed his fear, ignoring his hand shaking on the control stick.

“All, this is Instructor One, return to base.  We need to get back ahead of those rocks.  Comms Specialist Agra, get on the long-range and start broadcasting our position and what has just happened.”

“Sir, I have already tried.  I can’t contact Terra, Eagle Station, nobody but within our squadron.”

“Were you hit, Cadet?”

“Yes, sir, but the equipment is reading fine.  It reads like we’re being jammed.”

“From where?”

He could almost hear a whimper.  “From the large reading coming towards us.”

“A ship?” the cadets’ own leader suggested.

“An asteroid,” the instructor stated.  “All of you head for home.  That’s an order.”  He pulled his own craft around, noting the way the left wing wobbled.  They were in space; there was no atmosphere to make that happen.  His hand shook again, this time not going away.  He shut his eyes, calming his racing heart.  “Don’t go back for anyone.  If somebody falls behind, you leave them.  Getting the word to the homeworld is more important than any one of our lives.

“What about you, sir?”

His readings were red-lining.  His engines had been hit without him realising.  They were failing one at a time.  His power core was bleeding energy at a fast rate.

“My ship doesn’t have enough power to get back.”

The others didn’t answer.

His ship went dark without warning.

He looked around and saw that two of the others were as well.  But there were still engines glowing ahead of him.  That was good.  But how did he go dark so quickly?  There was literally no power for anything.

“Dampening field,” he murmured, knowing he couldn’t contact anyone.  When he looked up, he saw that one of the cadets’ craft had twisted in its unpowered momentum.  The cadet was terrified, pounding on the canopy of his cockpit, screaming and looking at something behind the instructor.  He unclipped himself, floating a little in the zero-gravity.

The massive asteroid smashed his craft to pieces before he could see it.

 

*           *           *

 

Comms Specialist Agra was in a state of near-panic.

She was hyperventilating.

She had managed to send a message out towards Eagle Station, but her power cut out before she could confirm that anybody had received it.  Everybody else had lost power and fallen behind.  She was alone.

She had seconds to scream in fear before the asteroid caught up with her too.

 

*           *           *

 

Eagle Station.

Vice Marshal Briggen stormed into the operations centre.

People were panicking.

Somebody had broadcast across several military channels, a cadet by the name of Agra.  The transmission was being replayed as he entered the circular operations centre.

“This is Pilot-Cadet Agra of 212 Training Squadron.  I am the last survivor, and I’m transmitting a warning.  A massive asteroid is headed for Terra itself, preceded by a swarm of smaller rocks.  We couldn’t detect it until it was too late, a dampening field preventing us from contacting headquarters immediately.  I am right at the range of the field, but I don’t have long.  Please, tell my family-”

The transmission cut out, and started playing again.

“Turn that thing off!” he bellowed.  “Who’s got a track on this thing?  Is this cadet for real, or is it a prank?”

Somebody with initiative had already tried.

And succeeded.

Or failed, depending on how one looked at it.

The picture appeared on the main monitor.

An asteroid, just as massive as the late Agra had died to warn them about.

Briggen looked at the screen with horror.

“Somebody get Navy Headquarters on the line.  RIGHT NOW!”

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