The Next Best Thing to Heroes [The Cull Chronicles Book 1]
Click on image to enlarge.
by Daniel Devine
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Jason Cull is one of the best and the brightest that the human race has to offer. At least, that's what it tells him in all of the Academy's brochures. The Earth has been conquered by a technologically superior race called the Grath, and while the rest of humanity toils away their lives in dank factories building equipment for the alien war machine, Jason and a select few are training to help fight their masters' battles directly. The only problem is that among the world's finest, Jason seems decidedly average. Then, just as graduation and the trials of war grow near, Jason and his closest friends find themselves kidnapped by forces who have other plans. Thrown into the midst of a resistance movement that wants him to fight against the Grath instead of alongside them, Jason must prove himself all over again
eBook Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: April 2010
10 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [325 KB]
Reading time: 202-283 min.
Stars flickered gently against the darkness ahead. They twinkled, calm and soothing, like warm candlelight. I was not deceived. Space was a cold and merciless monster, desiring only to burst open your mortal shell and suck the life from within.
The sinister blood red planet looming below me seemed to underscore the point. The torrid pinkish clouds above its surface churning almost in perfect synchrony with my queasy stomach. Something bad was about to happen, I could feel it.
We were on a scouting mission, variable frequency recon cameras working double-time to memorize each and every inch we passed over. Intent on the view, I started slightly when Robert "Cavalier" Morrow's voice broke the uneasy silence.
"Pretty Boy, I read three bogies approaching from moon-side."
I zoomed in my right-hand view screen and confirmed that I saw the same. Damn it! I should've caught them as fast as he did. I picked a bad time to start daydreaming
The planet's lone moon was almost half an orbit away from us, and with my magnification goggles dialed up I could barely see its dark bluish edge just peeking around the lip of the planet. The three red blips on the screen were just within the outer range of our radar, but moving in fast at a speed of about 200 miles per second. Looks like they're already near full burn
"I see 'em Cav. Let's hold course until we've got a better idea what we're dealing with here. Don't want the natives to think we spook easy."
The newcomers came within 10,000 miles and my ship's cameras got a better look at them. The battle computer tagged them with 92% certainty as a trio of Scorpion-class fighters. The dots on the display morphed into ship icons, tiny blueprints sketched in painstaking detail.
"You seeing what I'm seeing, wing leader?" muttered Robbie.
"Yeah Cav, looks like we've got ourselves some bad guys. Fortunately, those Scorpions are fat old sows compared with our little honeys. Let's do a quick one-eighty and head back to the Bastion with the footage we've got. We ought to have time to shower and change into our pajamas before they meet us there."
"Funny, sir, that's just what I was thinking. Though, admittedly with a little less panache."
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Cavalier's maneuvering jets firing as he pulled around in a tight curve. I grabbed the stick and sketched a tighter loop that left me in front of him and slightly to his left. The inertial dampeners in my cabin hummed to life as they absorbed gee-forces that would have otherwise crushed me flat. They'd have a hell of a lot more work ahead of them. I pitched the throttle gradually up to a full 250 mps.
My screen showed the Scorpions adjusting their intercept course to compensate, but as I'd expected they were already moving at their top speed and soon began falling further and further behind.
I stared anxiously out at a vast star-lit blackness. There was a faint dusty brown smudge straight ahead that I thought might indicate the field of debris where the Bastion was parked, but I couldn't make it out clearly yet. It could have been my eyes playing tricks on me in their enthusiasm to get home, or maybe my windshield was just dirty.
The distance read-out on my computer screen showed the Scorpions now a comfortable 16,000 miles back. The debris had resolved itself into a tiny brown cloud.
We passed a minute in silence. 19,000 miles now, but hanging tough.
"Hey, Cav, don't you think it's a little weird they're still holding on our six? They must know by now they can't catch us, unless we run out of gas."
I could practically hear the shrug in Morrow's voice.
"They probably just want us to lead them back to the Bastion so something bigger can follow along behind and kick all our butts out of the system. If so, we'll be gone before it gets there."
Something drew my eyes to the right side of the canopy as he was speaking, but when I turned in that direction I found nothing out of the ordinary. I was just about to glance away, when there was a faint shimmer, reminiscent of the air over your barbecue at a hot summer's picnic.
There were fewer stars in that direction, so I had a hard time gauging the distance of whatever it was I was seeing. I tried to locate it on my instruments, but the wide-screen view was completely dead. I called up the highest magnification, still nothing. I scrolled around a bit trying to zero in on the right area... There
"Robbie, I'm reading something. It's faint but it's real. Could just be some kind of electromagnetic interference, but be prepared to bank 45 degrees to our left on my mark, just in case."
With the tap of a key, I transmitted him the coordinates of the disturbance. The signal showed up as sort of a fuzzy white static on the display, pulsing in and out every second. I noticed, rather unhappily, that it seemed to be getting larger and stronger each time it flared up.
"It looks almost like the pattern that you'd see seconds before the arrival of a ship traveling at FTL, doesn't it P.B.?"
I frowned down at my screen.
"It's already lasted too long, and who knows how long it was there before I noticed it. Besides it's already too big for that and it's getting bigger. I suggest we cut left now."
We adjusted our course, and I checked my view screen to see how our pet Scorpions had reacted to our movements, but by now they'd fallen back outside of radar range.
"Hmm," Morrow rumbled speculatively in my ear. "Now I'm reading some sort of huge energy discharge that I think is emanating from the planet. But hell, Pretty Boy, for us to detect it this far away it'd have to be the intensity of a major nuclear weapon strike."
Before my lips could even form a reply, there was a huge pulse of signal on my screen. The void directly in front of us burst into a blinding mesh apparently woven from dazzling, prismatic lightning. It stretched as far as I could see in every direction, all the colors of the rainbow crisscrossing in a beautiful chaotic fashion. And worse, it was right in front of us.
"Crap!" screamed Robbie and I in perfect unison.
The inertial dampeners wailed like a police siren, and I was grimly considering the likely consequences of hitting a brick wall at mach six, when I must have lost consciousness. I have no idea how long I lay there dazed before I came to. With deliberate effort, I gathered my thoughts, which had spilled out all over the inside of my skull. I shook my head in an attempt to clear my blurry vision.
"Robbie! You all right?"
"Ungh. Holy 'Encounter at Far Point', Batman!"
"Just count your blessings that we're still among the living. Let's see what needs fixing."
I ran a quick systems check on my left hand diagnostic panel and found surprisingly little damage. The only obvious problem was that the engines were reading as fully functional and set to full throttle, but my speed had dropped to 75 mps. That cast some serious doubts over the entire readout.
Our ships were still roughly on course and we had drifted quite a ways into what I was now thinking of as the lightning net- we were surrounded by it, but not even a third of the way to the other side. I cringed as my left wing came abreast of a yellowy bolt of lightning, but it simply passed through with no apparent resistance. Much like passing through a beam of light, Einstein. The net cast weirdly colored shadows, leaving my cockpit looking like the inside of an enthusiastically garish nightclub.
And, of course, the three Scorpion class fighters were back. They were a hair over 4,000 miles away moving to intercept at their suddenly superior full speed. By my hazy math, that gave us about half a minute to come up with a plan.
"Head straight for the Bastion, full out. They need to know that the enemy's developed this... thing."
"They'll be on us way before..."
"I'm intercepting. Go! There's no time!" I shut off my radio, figuring that otherwise he'd probably argue. I didn't like distractions.
I swung up and behind him in a big lollipop curve. The controls were a little sluggish, but otherwise the ship responded normally. I watched the enemy slow down as they approached the net, like a line of impatient drivers, slamming on the brakes when they saw a red light.
The sickle shaped Scorpions coasted smoothly into the net. Checking my read-out I saw that they were coming on at a steady 150 mps. Our speed had been our only advantage, but the net had destroyed it.
I initiated a bee-like dance in and out of the path of each of the three advancing ships. Every move I made was angled backwards. I wanted to stay in front of the approaching vessels as long as I could.
Morrow, thankfully, was following my orders for once and limping away from me as fast as his engines would allow. The Scorpions were better armed and better armored than I was. 'And now faster too!' I imagined a cheery commercial spokesman announcing inside my head. Still, I was damned if I wasn't going to shoot down any one of them that tried to get by me.
The Delphi Scorpion was an oafish crescent-shaped fighter, over-armored and bristling with guns. These three happened to be painted tackily in copper and bronze.
They were close now, real close. At full magnification I could make out the individual coat-of-arms each of the pilots had painted on their hull. Starburst on the left, Blobby-thing on the right, and Beastie-thing in the middle. My less imaginative Grath-built battle computer tagged them simply as A, B, and C.
I was surprised they hadn't fired yet. I had no intention of being so bashful.
I started out facing directly at the nose of the Scorpion in the center of their formation, but executed a tight barrel roll so that I ended up in front of the one on the left, upside-down. I squeezed the trigger of my rapid fire gauss rifles. Instantly, I felt a slight impact on each side of my cockpit, and jerked the stick to send myself hurtling madly back towards the right.
Only belatedly, as I heard the malfunction alarms, did I register that the enemy hadn't even returned fire. The moment's glance I could spare the diagnostics screen informed me that my shells had practically rolled out of my rifles at a leisurely pace of 10 miles per second, and I'd flown right into them.
Think idiot! This field slows things down. You're damned lucky those shots didn't have time to arm, or jam in the chamber and blow your wings off
That explained why no one was shooting at me.
So, you built a big expensive field generator that lets you catch up to me, but what do you do now
Two of the Scorpions were apparently not frightened off by my erratic flight pattern and continued to lumber right towards me. Blobby, the one originally on my right, was closest to Morrow's current position. He was bending down away from me and trying to scoot around my flank
I racked my brain for some clever way to blow myself up that would take them with me. The experience with my guns implied the net worked better on smaller objects than it did on bigger ones. If I tried to fire a missile, I'd almost certainly be able to crash into it, but the explosion wouldn't be large enough to get them all. Worse, Morrow was only now reaching the net's halfway point.
Maybe I can trick two into running into each other and somehow find a way catch up to and ram the third? Things aren't desperate when that seems like the best plan, are they
I figured they'd expect me to shift and try to head off the one going after Cavalier, but I don't enjoy doing what people expect, and under the circumstances I selfishly didn't think it was too much to let Robbie deal with one of them on his own. I reversed direction and spiraled aggressively in on Starburst. I figured Beastie had started in the middle, which meant he was probably the best pilot, and less likely to freak out.
Starburst showed an unfortunate amount of nerves, however, and we fought the game of chicken to a draw. My resolve broke when it occurred to me that one of the Scorpions might well be willing to sacrifice itself to take me out and give the other two ample time to finish off Morrow.
Starburst lost his courage at the same moment and dove in the opposite direction. As the enemy ship veered away something detached and hung suspended behind it. It looked to be a flat silver disk, several inches thick. I was already banking away to avoid the Scorpion, but my tail couldn't have missed it more than a few yards.
Mines! That must be their game. If I'd really been trying to ram him that one would have got me
Beastie had been watching our little battle of wills, and I when I came out of my turn he was directly in front of me. For an instant the Scorpion filled my canopy, a gaudy mass of bronze and copper, then it was gone and replaced by a wavy line of little silver disks, glistening prettily in the multi-colored lights. I cursed and jerked the stick back so hard I imagine I nearly snapped it off
There was the softest, gentlest tap on my wing, followed by the loudest noise I'd ever heard.
The explosion tore me in half.