Three pressure suited men waited in the briefing room. Seats were available, but they all chose to stand, despite the apparent burden of their pressure suit life support packs. Their suits and accouterments were a study in dull grey, where less expensive work suits would have gleamed with polished metal. The bleak color scheme seemed to go well with the drab institutional pastels and cheap looking furniture of the room. The men waited silently, passing the time by studying datapad displays.
The single door of the room slid open, and two more men joined the waiting pilots. One was a young man also garbed in vacuum gear. The older man wore the shipboard uniform of a Federation Colonel. The young pilot had a fresh scrubbed, dedicated look that contrasted with the air of resigned boredom carried by the other three.
The colonel spoke. "Gentlemen, I see you've read the mission briefing."
The original three inhabitants of the room simply nodded. But the man who had accompanied the colonel said, "Yes, sir. But it seems incomplete. And my sim time..."
Two of the pilots exchanged sour glances as the colonel cut in, "No, that 's about it." he addressed the others. "This is Pilot Second Rodgers. He'll be taking the third slot today. Pilot Gregor is... has become unavailable." He shook his head slightly. "Rodgers volunteered to make the move to drop fighters."
One of the pilots asked, "Colonel, did Gregor..."
The officer cut him off. "Gregor is unavailable. Rodgers is permanently assigned to the team."
Again Rodgers spoke up, "Sir, about this briefing. I don't seem to have received any of the callsign or frequency data. Just the basic trajectory schematic. And I was only assigned the day before yesterday; I've only had an hour in the simulator, and that was..." He paused for a moment. "That was really stripped down and didn't follow any of the usual protocols."
The Colonel snorted, "That is the briefing, son. We don't use any EM comm. Once you drop, you're silent running until mission completion. You maintain complete silence. Live longer that way." The other three pilots quietly nodded. The officer continued, "Son, don't sweat the sim time. What you see is what you get. It's easy. You already have the basic piloting skills necessary, and coordination is better done in advance than out there where they can hear you."
The pilot who had spoken before said, "Kid, the birds don't even have radios."
"But for contingencies..." "Contingency plan is this: if you can't make it to the target, you set a vector at it anyway; then dump your load. At least the payload gets there." He smiled glumly. Another pilot laughed quietly.
"But what about..."
"But nothing, kiddo. They dump us out of c-drive at eighty thousand kilometers per hour. We get a few k more from an expendable booster. Beyond that, you're ballistic; with just enough delta vee to dodge and keep the Corpies guessing where you're at. And maybe to make your recovery ballistic." He smiled humorlessly. "Stealth is everything. If you survive the dive, the carrier drops out of drive and picks you up later." He looked to the Colonel. "Are we really getting this hard up?"
The Colonel merely shrugged.
"Well, kid," the pilot continued. "Forget any dreams of glory. It doesn't work that way." He lifted his helmet from the conference table and moved to the door. The other two followed him. He looked to the new team member and said, "But if you're into boredom and adrenaline, come on."
The colonel waved him on. He scrambled to join the others.
Several hours and a couple of light-years later, the Federation carrier dropped out of drive, accompanied by the the electromagnetic pulse of c field inefficiencies expressed as wideband RF noise, with a dash of Cherenkov radiation for flavor. With its main engine still firing, the spindly collection of girders and modules reoriented itself on the distant world. When its closing velocity relative to the planet reached eighty thousand kilometers per hour, it shed four dark objects. Its cargo dispensed, the starship reactivated the drive field generator and faded into fast mode.
Immediately, the four detached craft executed attitude changes and lit off booster engines. They shot off at ninety degree angles to their original course at a full ten standard gravities. Several seconds later seconds the boosters died and were released. The four craft vanished into the deep.
A few hundred thousand kilometers away, in orbit around the targeted world, alarms were screaming. In Combat Control a sensor operator announced, "EMP detected! Just over a light second out."
The Tactical Officer broke off his talk with the junior officer strapped down beside him and called, "Get me an ID on that!"
"Working," the operator replied. He rapped away at a keyboard. The alarms went silent.
Across the aisle, another operator spoke. "I show engine lights! Four. Chemical rockets... I make it ten g's." His display flickered and changed. "Lights out! I've lost them."
The Tactical Officer hit a button. "Command. Tactics here."
The Commander's voice answered on the intercom, "Go ahead, Vic."
"Snipe hunt, boss," the major informed his commander. "Somebody just dropped at least four bogies into the system about three hundred thousand klicks out." He snapped his fingers and pointed at the first operator. "Time?"
The sensor jock said, "Doppler says about eighty kiloklicks. Call it intersection in four hours."
The officer spoke to the intercom again. "Three hours to combat. About four to orbital contact." He looked at a screen of his own. "Recommend you launch interceptors now. Kinetic countermeasures in two hours."
"Very good," the captain replied. "Find them for me, Vic. I'm staying on the bridge for now." The speaker clicked and went silent.
"Major?" The young lieutenant spoke. "What's happening?"
Major Victor Landry looked at the new officer and smiled. "What's happening is a snipe hunt, Tom. A good day for your training; you'll get to see it all." He shrugged. "Assuming we live."
"Sir?" Lieutenant Kinney inquired dubiously.
"Lecture mode," mumbled one of the sensor techs. Landry looked at him and grinned.
"I am supposed to be playing at teacher today, Joe," he pointed out. The technician laughed, and continued working. The officer turned his attention back to the younger man, and began fulfilling the tech's prophecy. "Welcome to orbital ops, Tom. The Feds have just..." He paused, and looked back to the sensor man. "That is verified as a Fed signature on the burst?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. I got a gamma reading off their engine, too. Looks like a Valkyrie IV dropship. Could be as many as six bogies in town."
Landry frowned. "Not good,"He mutter, then returned his attention to Kinney. "The Feds just dropped some fighters on us. We saw four. But Joe says that carrier could have had six. We have to find them."
Kinney looked puzzled. "Shouldn't that be simple enough? If their engines aren't firing now, they're purely ballistic. We can just look along the current path, can't we?"
"I wish," the older officer replied. "Problem is, they may not be ballistic. Probably aren't. And those are some seriously stealthed birds." They heard a distant thump as the launch bays released two interceptors.
The Major turned to the operator. "Track our birds on the same schematic, Joe."
"Yes, sir. Hunters One and Two boosting at ten g's; scheduled for thirty seconds of burn. Should make combat range with the bogies in about three and a half hours."
Three hundred thousand kilometers away, Rodgers sat in Nightstalker 3 and reflected on the post-emergence boost and swore. He had not experienced ten gravities since flight school. The shuttles of his previous assignment did not have that sort of performance. No wonder they let me volunteer. 10 g's probably scares off most folks. Next he considered the fact that he was now in hostile territory. Unfriendly people were liable to shoot at him if he failed to keep his head down. He began to appreciate the value of stealth and silence on a more personal level. Being one of four men against hundreds, he definitely liked being effectively invisible, and wanted to stay that way.
His ugly spacecraft was certainly designed for the job. Intended strictly for vacuum operations, it was a slim mass of angular facets done over in deep black velvet. Its structure was almost entirely composed of lightweight composites and polymers, and upholstered in fuzzy black carbon fibers. It was virtually invisible to both radar and the naked eye. Even its main engine was a nonmetallic ceramic; a block of perforated glass that mixed the hypergolic components of the chemical fuel. Unfortunately, Rodgers thought it also felt distinctly flimsy and... expendable. He tried not to think about that part.
Better to concentrate on other matters. He turned his thoughts to fuel and motor. He had been ballistic since the initial drop boost. Currently, his vector was very nearly that of the carrier; eighty kiloklicks towards the planet with a mere 3600 kilometers per hour radial velocity. If the booster burn had been spotted, they knew where he was. He mentally flipped a coin and picked a new vector. He wiggled his joystick and the fighter altered yaw and pitch then lit off his motor. At the pilot's back, the hypergolic mix gave him a 1 g kick for a few seconds. The exhaust flare was largely masked by a surrounding light baffle. An observer would have to be nearly behind him to see the flare. Around the edge of the baffle, small gas jets vented. Wheee!" Maybe this could be fun.
In the orbiter's tac shack, Kinney was still asking questions, something of which the major approved. "How much help can stealth be?" the young man asked. "We know exactly where they're coming from, we know their closing velocity."
Landry shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The first thing the bogies did on emergence was boost. Ten g's for what...?" He waved at Joe.
"Anywhere from eight to twelve seconds, Major. I'm using ten for my initial estimates," the tech supplied.
"Sheesh." Landry fingered his datapad, and called up a miniature of the tactical display. "Okay, kid. here's some projections. Assuming they make no further course adjustments, this is what we have." He pointed. " They're three hundred-twenty thousand klicks out. Closing at eighty thousand. Based on the observed burn, they've got an additional... thirty-six hundred KPH at some angles to the original vector. Now assume they're equidistant, and... Ta Da!" He pointed to a number on the display. "By the time they reach us, they could describe a plane of better than two billion square kilometers area." He shook his head.
Kinney studied the screen and frowned "I see. That's a frea.. huge area to search. And I thought scouting as a groundpounder was bad." He considered. "And they aren't going to be in that plane either, are they?" he asked.
"I sure wouldn't be," Landry answered. "I'd use up a bit of delta vee to change my forward velocity, plus or minus. So now we have a volume to search."
"And they're stealthed, so the radar signature is..."
The major cut him off. "You might as well consider the signature to be non-existent. "There's no more metal on a drop fighter than a carbonaceous chondrite."
"Then how do we find them?" the lieutenant protested.
"The hard way. Infrared observation, mostly. We'll look for occulted stars, too. And we will use radar; nothing's completely invisible to RF."
"Yeah, right," came from one of the sensor operators. "You might as well hope to catch an engine flare."
"Which we'll look for, too," Landry pointed out.
Rodgers listened to the silence. It was one of the good parts of flying a stealth strike, he decided. No radio chatter. No noise. No suggestions from the brass. He checked his clock and decided it was time to make his first drop. He called up course display, using inertial data. He matched that with a magnified visual of the planet. He tapped his pad and put the computer to work figuring the vectors for the drop. The comp blinked the numbers at him, and he approved them. Again, the craft pivoted and the main engine fired. In an effort to minimize the IR signature of the burn, the computer injected cold nitrogen gas into the escaping exhaust, dropping the temperature. The pilot heard a thunk as a shotgun canister was ejected. Taking manual, he manipulated the joystick. The fighter drifted from the canister's course. Behind him, the canister discharged, spraying a cone of ceramic shot towards the targets in orbit.
Landry's head spun towards the sensor suite. "Engine flare?" he demanded.
"No, sir. One flash. I'd guess a kinetic discharge."
Kinney spoke up again. "What's that mean?" he asked Landry.
"It means the bogies have started their actual attack. The flash was the dispersal of a kinetic weapon. Someone just dropped a load of marbles on us."
Kinney frowned. "But at that range, won't any shot have spread out too much to do damage by the time it gets here?"
"At a closing velocity of 80 thousand klicks, it only takes one hit." Landry cursed. "By dropping now, he's ensured that we have a larger danger zone to deal with. Unless we break orbit, we're less likely to reach a safe area."
Kinney objected. "But we can't leave orbit. The ground troops are depending on us for high ground support. The Feds would mow right over `em."
"That's right," the Major agreed. "That's what makes this interesting."
"Jeez, I feel like I'm back with my old ground squad. It's like being pinned down by a sniper."
"Yep, that's one reason we call it a snipe hunt."
Landry smiled evilly. "The other is that we're hunting invisible birds that may not be there." He chuckled. "Ever go camping with the scouts as a kid?"
Nearly three hours into the mission, Rodgers had decided that the quiet was less of a benefit, and more of a curse. No idle chatter with other pilots to pass the time. No radio advisories to tell him what the Corporate fleet was doing. Had they already located him? Were they just waiting for him to get closer for an easier kill? Or maybe he was still safe. He really wished he could ask someone what the devil was happening. Which only reminded him that his only transmitter was the retrieval beacon, which could only be triggered manually and was timelocked; no recovery signal until well after the active mission could only be over. Which, in turn made him wonder about retrieving an invisible ship. Again he though about how... cheap and expendable his craft looked.
"Damn, boy. Don't spook yourself." He laughed nervously and got busy again. He told his computer to run another optical scan of the space ahead of him. The electronic brain polled the hull camera array for images, and began processing. A light flashed on the screen. Rodgers examined the display and cursed. Interceptor. And it must have seen me. It's headed straight in. He released a loose load of ceramic shot. He pivoted his fighter and fired his drive to avoid the incoming kinetic weapon which the distant fighter must have released by now.
"IR trace, Major!" Joe called from his scanner position. "Looks like an engine flare."
"Don't lose it! I want to know where he is all the time." Landry turned to the other operator. "Can we hit him with a laser yet?"
The tech replied, "No, sir. He's still about 80 thousand kilometers out. But I've got a look at his flight path and I can put some gravel in his way." He watched trajectory traces, then smiled. "But Hunter One can zap him in about fifteen minutes." He turned to Landry. "Shall I loose the hounds?"
"Do it," Landry directed.
"Hunter One, Tactical," the operator spoke into his headset. "Relaying IR data on target. Course data: plus two seven oh by neg one five. Burn two seconds at three g's. Scan on your own, and burn him at will." He listened. "Thanks, One. Good hunting." He turned back to Landry. "On the way. Bogie left his engine on too long; Hunter One already has the trace, too."
"Lights! Engine lights!," the other sensor tech called out. "One... two... three... Three lights. Doppler says red shifted straight in. Decelerating!"
Landry was ready. "Put Hunter Two on his best target, max acceleration!" He paused. "Give me two salvoes each on the remaining two targets- rail launched AS missiles, eight per salvo."
Joe primed the launcher as his partner directed the interceptor.
Kinney watched the action from his out of the way seat. He felt a small shudder, and placed his hand flat on a console. More vibration: recoil from the electromagnetic launcher firing the high speed anti-ship missiles. He looked at the tactical display. Thirty-two thin lines stretched out from the orbiting craft, reaching for the incoming fighters. They must be making at least 50 g's, he thought. The lines twisted as the missiles homed on the enemy.
"Oh my gods!" Rodgers exclaimed, as he watched his enhanced visual display. Dozens of tiny sparks of light were racing at each other. Three were obviously the other Nightstalkers; only a few thousand kilometers away. They were executing evasive burns. The computer screen showed that all three were dropping kinetic loads; possibly even their x-ray bombs. "Fight `em," he spoke into the silence. "Don't let freaking Corpies get ya." Then he remembered his own problems; the Corporate interceptor after him had vanished. Had he destroyed it with the shot he dropped? He had seen no destructive flash. "Screw it," he decided. "I'm dropping the load and getting out of here." Rodgers called up a flight profile, and set vectors for the orbiting enemy spacecraft.
Joe called again. "Engine thermal! Vectored right at us. Mike, where the fricking hell is One? Get him on that SOB!" he called to the other tech.
"On it." Mike replied. He keyed his headset. "One, Tactics. Target is ten kay out at oh one two by..." He paused to listen. "Well, burn him, dammit!"
On the tactical schematic an IR trace appeared, connecting the interceptor and the bogie. The bogie flared bright in the heat spectrum. Kinney asked Landry, "Is a laser supposed to show up on our IR scan?"
Landry swore, realizing what the younger man had seen. He keyed his own headset. "Hunter One! Execute burn! 90 degrees, max accel! Now! You have incoming..."
Too late. The field of marbles dropped by the bogie and illuminated by One's laser reached the interceptor. Again, the IR scan flared. The craft faded from the radar display.
Mike reported, "Hunter One is dead, sir. Hunter Two reports his bogie is splashed." Everyone in Tactical looked to the main tactical display. The vector lines for the destroyed craft had faded, leaving Hunter Two and the remaining two Federation fighters. Suddenly a light flashed, bright in both visible and IR spectrums. Hunter Two flared and faded.
"What was that!" Kinney cried out.
The sensor tech swore, then answered, "X-ray bomb, Lieutenant. X-ray laser; pocket nuke pumps up a bundle of polymer rods." He swore. "Feddies love `em because they're cheap and effective. One big, overpowered laser with simple passive IR targeting," Joe explained. "Bogie drops it tumbling. If it happens to point at an IR source, it detonates."
Landry broke in, "Later, Sergeant. We still have two bogies. Status?"
"Probable missile intercepts in... thirty seconds," he replied, staring at his display. "There'll be some attrition from kinetic contacts."
"Huh?" from Kinney.
Landry explained. "By now, those drop fighters have released their payloads- all that shot coming in at a high enough relative velocity to be a real problem, now. The missiles have to go through the shot area." Even as he spoke, missile traces vanished from the display. They had died in the invisible mine field that was closing on the orbiting craft. The bogies engine lights faded.
"Sensors, are those bogies dead?" Landry asked.
"No, sir. Their engines just extinguished. Don't know if they've run out of fuel, or are hoping to confuse the missiles. Likely bo..."
Two globes of light lit the screen missiles reached the bogies.
"Two definite kills, Major."
"Too late, I'm afraid." the officer observed.
Kinney looked puzzled. "But didn't we win?" he asked.
Landry looked disgusted and cursed. "No. Winning would have been splashing the bastards before they dumped their loads." He pointed at the screen which showed only the dying IR glow from the deaths. "There's at least four fighters' worth of gravel falling on our orbit. We can't see it, but it's there. " He pressed his intercom button. "Tactical to Command."
"Command here, Vic," the ship commander responded. "Time to go?"
"I'm afraid so, sir. Sorry," Landry replied.
"All right," came the Commander's voice. "Get everyone buttoned up. I'll advise dirtside Command. You figure we can dodge around the satellite, and drop right back in?"
Landry considered the tactical screen. "That should be more than enough. Neighborhood should be cleaned up inside two hours."
"Thanks." The intercom clicked off.
"Major?" Kinney spoke.
"Are we just leaving? Our guys below are outnumbered. Without orbital interdiction..." His voice trailed off.
"That's why they call it losing, Lieutenant."
Rodgers faded back into fuzzy light. And a dull throbbing pain. A voice shrieked quietly.
"Awake now, Pilot?"
Rodgers closed his eyes and shook his head. The motion stimulated more pain, and nausea. " I'm supposed to be dead," he mumbled through dry, cracked lips. His voice cracked as well.
"Nonsense," the voice responded. Rodgers realized it was the colonel. "Granted; oxygen deprivation is uncomfortable. And it does seem that you got a bit banged up when your propellant tanks blew out. And you apparently took a dose of x-rays, too. But you'll be back in the cockpit in no time."
"Again? But the team..."
"Not to worry, Number One," the colonel said encouragingly. "We'll find you new wingmen. Someone's always looking for glory, eh?" He smiled.
Rodgers moaned, then, "But we lost..."
"Lost?" the colonel said, slightly puzzled. "Lost what? The Corporate ship was forced to break orbit; we recovered your craft on close to the expected ballistic. Looks like a win to me." He eyed the young pilot appraisingly. "So, how do you like drop fighters? Easy work, eh?"
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