This story also serves as a preview of my upcoming mecha/Mil-SF series Combat Frame XSeed.
Lt. Malleck came over the escort team’s dedicated channel, announcing that he was in position and that his assigned area of space was clear.
“Delta Zero-Two in position,” Kob informed his squad leader. He scanned the empty star field above the red-brown arc of Andalus and added, “All clear.” Additional members of the escort team called in similar reports.
Only Kob’s helmet-amplified breathing spoiled the silence. The stars filling his screen beckoned him to join them. Knowing that some of them were dead, but that their lingering light would conceal that fact for eons, gave him comfort.
“Sierra Zero-Seven departing main hangar,” the shuttle pilot announced over the flight control channel. Hovering in formation hard off the Newcastle’s starboard bow, Kob had a clear view of the shuttle’s elongated hexagon hull exiting the hangar. He thought of a projectile leaving the barrel of a rail gun in super slow motion.
Kob pulled up Sierra Seven’s flight plan, double-checked his orders, and sighed. The shuttle was destined for Andalus’ surface, where it would deliver long-overdue mail and supplies to the isolated colonists. Meanwhile, Kob’s Defender would stay parked beside the Newcastle.
I should’ve joined the UCAF, Kob thought. If he were an airman, he could pilot one of the Emancipators assigned to escort the shuttle. Not that he wanted to visit Andalus. But piloting a combat frame during reentry would at least let him flex his muscles. He hadn’t faced a challenge since his last simulator run two days before.
“Echo Zero-Four to Control,” a nervous male voice said over the comm, “I’ve got a heat shield failure. Please advise.”
Kob zoomed in on the shuttle and its four escorts. He didn’t need the figures that popped up to tell him they’d passed the point of no return. One of the slender grey Emancipators lagged behind, fighting a doomed battle against gravity.
“Echo Zero-Four,” the flight controller said with subdued urgency, “return to base.”
The Emancipator pilot’s rapid breathing betrayed his imminent lapse into panic. “Negative! Unable to reverse course.”
“Sierra Zero-Seven,” the flight controller said after a conspicuous pause. “Jettison your payload and prepare to take on Echo Zero-Four.”
“This is Lieutenant Junior Grade Kobus Agur calling Sierra Zero-Seven,” Kob transmitted to the group. “Belay that order. I’ll pull Echo Zero-Four out of the fire.”
“Negative, Agur,” said Malleck. “You are not cleared to break formation.”
Kob ran the numbers and quoted Malleck the solution. “The only way to bail out Echo Four without scrapping the mission is for a carrier escort to intercept at an angle to the gravity well. I’m the closest to his position, which gives me the best chance of success.”
“Two combat frames is a steep price for a load of care packages and tractor parts,” Malleck said. “Not to mention how much the UCP sank into pilot training.”
“Standing by to jettison cargo,” said the shuttle pilot.
Kob’s hand tensed on the throttle. He watched the Emancipator receding toward the rust-colored sphere. Another few seconds, and the window would close forever.
“If I’m wrong, you can bill me,” said Kob. He set the Emancipator in his sights and opened the throttle.
The massive carrier shrank in his rearview monitor as Kob rocketed toward Andalus. In its reentry configuration, the imperiled combat frame resembled the hybrid offspring of a fighter craft and a piece of construction equipment. It was angling toward the shuttle, but its odds of docking before burning up in the atmosphere stood just above zero and threatened to plunge lower every moment.
Kob squelched Malleck’s blustering and focused on lining up his approach. Gravitational forces arm-wrestled him for the stick as he fought to align his flight path with the Emancipator.
“Just try to stabilize your descent,” Kob told the Emancipator’s pilot. “I’m on approach from your eight o’clock.”
Kob’s monitor chimed contentedly as the blue line projected on his screen intersected the Emancipator’s red line. A visceral thrill like no simulation could evoke burned the moment into his mind. “Echo Zero-Four,” said Kob, “I’m locked on for intercept. Brace for impact and prepare to fire thrusters on my mark.”
“I copy, Delta Zero-Two,” the Emancipator’s pilot replied, his voice shaken yet relieved. “Thanks for the assist.”
Kob fixed his eyes on the target, which continued its descent halfway between him and the shuttle. He reduced speed and spread the Defender’s limbs.
A green flash that burned a pink afterimage into Kob’s vision preceded the chirping of his proximity alarm and the shuttle’s detonation by a split second. Expanding clouds of burning gas ruptured the hexagonal hull and sent debris ranging from microscopic particles to house-sized chunks spraying outward.
Kob’s thoughts had no time to coalesce before the shrapnel cloud absorbed the three adjacent Emancipators. Three new explosions continued the chaotic chain reaction.
Swarms of white-hot debris screamed past on all sides. The last Emancipator—the one that Kob had risked his life and honor to save—took the brunt of the barrage. The shockwave slammed Echo Zero-Four’s perforated fuselage into the Defender and flung Kob back and forth in a Newtonian tug of war.
Unearthly stillness followed. Only Kob’s racing heartbeat marked the passage of time.
“Echo Zero-Four!” Kob belted into his helmet mic. “Do you copy?”
No one answered. Kob ordered his Defender to turn the damaged Emancipator. Though only one arm heeded his command, it sufficed to show him the jagged hole where Echo Zero-Four’s cockpit had been.
Kob regained enough sense to open the comm channels he’d blocked. A chorus of hysterical chatter clouded his aching head. Kob’s eyes darted to the rearview monitor. His cracked visor split the image into dual views of hell.
The Newcastle’s oblong hull seemed to be coated with tarnished copper scales. The sickly green patina writhed like the flesh of a loathsome aquatic parasite.
The chill that gripped Kob’s insides seemed at odds with the sweat that streaked his face. Through his fractured visor, he watched the corroded scales resolve into hundreds of crystalline machines that resembled nothing so much as squat four-legged crabs. Each mechanized crustacean measured thirty meters across, and the whole mass of them were busily eating away at the carrier like scavengers consuming a whale carcass.
Ynzu, Kob recalled by rote, Nidulans-class.
A green swarm orbited the carrier like toxic spores. A plaintive chirp and a red strobe on Kob’s screen warned him that something in the cloud had locked onto him.
Muscle memory developed by hours in the simulator prompted Kob to bring his Defender about and reach for the linear rifle racked on its back. An error message reminded him that the arm he’d chosen for the task was offline as a green beast made of synthetic diamond burst from the cloud on a collision course with his combat frame.
The Defender’s functioning hand drew its close-combat weapon an instant before the charging crab made contact. A clawed arm lashed out, seeking to trap Kob’s combat frame in a crushing embrace against the Nidulans’ larger hull.
A transparent column of violet-tinted plasma emerged from the rectangular hilt in the Defender’s good hand. Kob swung reflexively. The magnetically stabilized plasma blade strove against the ions sheathing the Nidulans’ claw with a fusillade of brilliant sparks. The sheath parted and plasma bit into the pincer’s main joint. The crab’s arm recoiled, its claw maimed.
But another diamond claw clamped down on the Defender’s right leg. Kob fired all thrusters on full reverse. The Defender lurched backward, shearing its leg off above the knee and slamming into the wrecked Emancipator.
A turret mounted above the Nidulans’ claw discharged a bolt of emerald light that reduced the Defender’s remaining leg to slag. Kob frantically aimed his thruster nozzles downward, and a second bolt lanced through the space where his combat frame had been. The Emancipator erupted in a shower of molten metal.
Warning klaxons shrieked. The burning pain in Kob’s chest alerted him to the fact that he’d been holding his breath. He sucked down a lungful of moist air and checked his screen. The crab hovered below him for a moment before launching itself upward, claws poised to rend his combat frame in two.
The enemy’s slight delay allowed Kob to drop the plasma blade and somehow draw his linear rifle from the opposite side. At his command the Defender pressed and held the trigger, spraying a hypersonic stream of tungsten at the ascending enemy.
The slugs punched a constellation of burning holes in the Nidulans’ diamond carapace. Its limbs curled like those of dead vermin, but the pitiless laws of physics maintained the lifeless crab’s trajectory. The collision snapped Kob’s head backward.
Read more in Strange Matter, available now for Kindle!
And look for Combat Frame XSeed, coming soon! #AGundamForUs
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