Authors: Patrick J. Loller
Forged by Battle
by Patrick J Loller
You probably wouldn’t have read it anyway.
War is hell.
Soldiers become monsters, fighting to survive, but my brother was always the exception...
Vincent crumpled up the letter and swept his arm across the desk. The eulogy, his father's knife, and a stack of dog-eared books went with it.
"How the hell am I supposed to write this?"
He glared down at the balled-up melodrama.
He was the writer. All I do is fight.
After years in training, submerged in the propaganda of valor and heroism, Vincent Barkhorn had finally been exposed to the ugly reality of combat. Nothing could have prepared him.
He had joined wanting it. Longing for it, even. Afraid the war would end before he had a chance to make his mark. His fears were unfounded.
Months of steady fighting on the front lines caused unseen scars, which wore down the edges of his mind, and as he sat in the quiet of his cabin, he found the peace unbearable.
He had tried to start the letter at least fifty times since he received the news. First his father, now Derek. His mother needed to know.
At least I won't be writing the next one,
he thought with a twinge of discomfort. How would his mother cope without any of them? How did countless grieving mothers?
"I should be asleep." He spoke aloud to break up the quiet, his voice echoing in the dark room.
A whimper came in response. He glanced over his shoulder at Rover, his German Shepard, who was sitting at the end of his bed.
"Off the bed," he ordered, but without force.
As Rover slinked down to the floor, Vincent stared around the rough log walls, trying to stop his circuitous thoughts. It had barely been a month, but it was tearing him apart. The front lines he could handle, the fighting he could handle—when the violence and fear were lost in the thrill. It was the silence he couldn't stomach. The aftermath.
Sighing, he stood and kicked the chair back beneath the desk. He moved over the bed and fell back in a heap. Any sleep would come accompanied by the same vaping nightmare. It was always the same, and probably would be, as long as the war continued.
"Damn you both." Vincent felt a tingle at his elbow, and looked down at Rover's muzzle pressed into him. Ears pressed flat, fur bristled, the dog whined low. Vincent sighed again. "Fine."
The dog wasted no time climbing back up beside him. A breeze rolled in from the open window, and Vincent closed his eyes. Maybe tonight he would break the cycle.
Thunder boomed in the distance. Vincent twitched in the haze of half sleep. The crack and rumble came again, close enough to shake through the room. Lighting flashed on its heels, late to accompany its brethren, except the flash was red, and it did not come from beyond the window.
Vincent gave a weary groan as the warning lights illuminated the room. His eyes snapped open as klaxons blared from unseen speakers. He sat up, kicking the sheets away from him as he did.
"Computer, disengage holographic model 'Dad's cabin,'" he ordered, springing to his feet. He stumbled as he struggled to pull his wits about him.
A chime sounded and the scenery around him began to fade away. The log walls became flat steel bulkheads, the dresser a metal footlocker. The thunder outside still shook the walls, but it was no act of nature; his ship was taking fire. The window shimmered and the curtains disappeared entirely, with only ventilation slits where the view had been. The serenity of the spacious cabin he had spent so many summers at with his father faded too. The war had found them.
"AMI status report." He stripped off his sweat-stained shirt and kicked off his shorts. The only door into his closet-sized cabin slid open.
His “artificial military intelligence,” the organic computer nestled in his brain, sounded off:
As AMI reported, status updates flashed through Vincent's mind, his mental chip changing incoming data into memories. The Separatist carrier group had jumped in system, and without even an attempt at hailing, had opened fire
What in the void are they thinking?
We have a ceasefire
. His ship was only this far out in fringe space to scout a colony planet distress beacon, not to provoke the Separatist Fleet. There hadn't even been open conflict between the Joint Fleet and the Separatists since the Multi-Verse War had started. Even the tsars recognized the need for an alliance after what happened to Earth.
and her escorts had been in orbit for a scant twelve hours, attempting to assist the colonists planet side with the raging fires and their evacuation.
How did they even know we were here?
Vincent shook his head as he stepped into his ready room. He wasn't military intelligence, and it didn't matter why; he just needed to get to his fighter. He held his hands out away from his sides and keyed a mental command. Rover stopped short as a translucent shield closed around Vincent. The flashing light shifted from red to amber and a screen of blue beams slid over his skin.
The cobwebs that stubbornly lingered in his head broke apart as the details downloaded into his thoughts. Fear, guilt, and unbridled excitement tore through him with the wave of adrenaline. His hands shook, though he didn't know from which emotion.
As the laser sensors danced over him, he checked the AMI reports of his squadron's progress. Ten others were standing in tubes identical to his. One was missing, and Vincent made a mental note to reprimand Tanker
when they returned. It was the third time that week he'd been late, and this time wasn't a drill. Vincent had no room for sloth in his squadron.
He broke off his mental checklist as a panel in the wall opened to show a read-out of his biorhythms. The feeds checked out: His vitals were stable and his brain waves optimal, His AMI confirmed he was all green across the board: <
He broadcast out across the biometric network connecting him to the other pilots’ AMIs, and his thoughts appeared in their minds, as well as the minds of the medics who monitored his squadron. The rest of his pilots chimed off in sequence after him.
The laser grid clicked off, and small ports around the room irised open. Vincent squeezed his eyes shut with a grimace and a deep breath.
A thick, purplish-black slime sprayed from the ports, sticking to him and congealing on his flesh. As the material coated him he became unrecognizable, a human-sized mass of goo. The deck beneath him crackled as an electrical current discharged, and the suit snapped taught across his body. Vincent made sure his fingers were spread to prevent them from sticking together.
When it squeezed to a skin-tight layer, a metal arm with a shield-shaped plate descended to cover his face. It pushed into the suit, then retracted, leaving a gap in the material where his eyes, nose, and mouth remained exposed.
Vincent looked the nano-suit over, searching for any tears or blemishes. He ran his fingers over the edges of his face to ensure a tight seal. Finding nothing wrong, he reached behind himself and pulled the chest rig and helmet from the now open compartment. Drawing the chest rig over his shoulders, he pressed it into the pliable material, and lights blinked on as wires spread out from the rig and down his arms and legs.
The nano-suit tightened around him in an upward cascade from his feet as it ran through diagnostics. Vincent stood as still as possible until it finished. Then the room's lights flashed green, and the shield to his cabin slid down. His dog entered the tube, Vincent's knife stuck to the tip of its snout. Vincent reached over and grabbed it, slipped it in into a special pocket he had added to the chest rig, then released a long-held breath.
The whole process took only two minutes, but reaching his fighter always felt like an eternity. His stomach flipped as the lift flew down its track to the hangar.
As the tube descended, the dog shuddered and distorted just as the cabin hologram had done. Beneath the animal disguise was a battered droid. Its general shape was that of a tortoise; six triple-jointed legs extended from a bulbous shell frame. A tail arched over the body like a scorpion, though in place of a stinger was a rotating assortment of tools. The two forward-most limbs extended slightly farther from the front, and were currently supporting two clamps. There was a series of sensor probes and lenses between the arms. The entire machine was covered in various scorch marks, scratches, dings, and dents, but its movements were quick and precise.
"Robotic Omni-Environmental Vehicular Emergency Repair Unit operational and awaiting commands," a robotic voice intoned from a speaker on its chassis. Vincent rolled his eyes. Eventually he would find and delete that obnoxious start-up program.
"I prefer your other look better," Vincent said. The robot didn't respond. Vincent had managed that much.
The lift slowed and then stopped, its doors opening with another clang. Before Vincent, the hangar stretched out to the left and right as far as he could see, the floor curving up and away. The entire hanger was a giant wheel, and he was standing at the ‘bottom’. The wheel’s rotation created almost earth like gravity.
With the looming battle, the hangar was all controlled chaos. Orange-suited personnel scrambled between the berthed fighters as they finished last-minute checks, pulled fuel lines, and prepared for emergency launches. The mechanics on Vincent's ship were finishing their work as he stepped out of the lift.
His Chimera class fighter sat in her launcher, refractive armor gleaming in the artificial lights. Similar in shape to pre-contact atmospheric jets, it had a thin body tapering down to a blunt nose. The cockpit sat in the center where the two bulky rotating wings jutted from the frame. Between each wing and the chassis thrummed a massive engine, which sent vibrations through the deck. Behind the cockpit, three smaller engines sat in standby.
The mechanics had installed the heavy payload package onto the fighter, the bulky frame adding armor and shields to the normally agile craft. On each wing was the insignia of the Grim Reaper
Squadron: a shadowed figure wrapped in a star field cloak..
Sprinting up to his fighter, Vincent glanced left and right, and his other pilots paced him to their respective ships. To him it was like looking through a fun house, as each pilot was further along the ring, and looked as though they were running on the gently curving walls.
Vincent grabbed a ladder hooked onto the side of his cockpit and scrambled up it and into the seat. As he sat, the consoles around him fired up in response, sending a myriad of data flashing across his vision and through his mental chip as they powered on. He settled into the adaptive cushions and took a deep breath of the sharp metallic air tinged with musky fuel.
Vincent disregarded the traditional mental commands, choosing to let his hands do the work punching in the start-up sequence. While he worked, Rover skittered up the side of the ship. The bot made a full round over the fighter as it fired through a list of inspection points, then came to a meter-wide divot behind the cockpit, where it seated itself. Once sealed in, Rover lay flush with the hull.
"Reaper Actual. By the numbers, dial it in," Vincent called over his com, again favoring speech over mental communication. His pilots were quick to respond.
The life support system clicked on, filling the cabin with chilled air.
Lights dimmed, the consoles illuminating Vincent's face.
Joysticks extended from beneath the console into Vincent's waiting hands.
Vincent tapped his foot against the rudders and checked the maneuvering thrusters rotating along the ship’s hull.
The ship rotated nose down, lifted by its docking clamps, as the floor beneath irised open.
Lights flashed across the hangar, warning the techs to move away.
There was a pause.
Reaper Nine, Tanker, standing by.>
Vincent shook his head, pushing the distraction from his mind.
Vincent keyed in the code for takeoff.
The ship shuddered as the launcher primed.
"All pilots green and go. Move for the tubes," Vincent ordered.
Another touch of a button and his ship was lowered down, nose first, between the doors set in the floor. The clamps moved with him, rotating along at a ninety-degree angle, clearing the doors behind and allowing them to close. Vincent sat in darkness as the atmosphere was cycled from the room, then the doors beyond opened and the interior of the armored shell of the hangar became visible. Like a gyroscope sized for titans, five concentric rings spun round, all encased within the safety of the spherical outer hull. Each ring was spaced like the slices of an orange, so that the outgoing ships could launch simultaneously.