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At 27 pages, I'm pretty sure this is the longest entry the contest got <_< I'm also pretty sure it was the last, me being the procrastinator I am :D In fact, I wrote the final 15 pages the night before the deadline and then proofread the entire thing on the actual due date. The length and slowness in some parts is essentially due to this being my first actual, serious one-shot I've written and so I'm not really adapt at the quicker pacing that is generally required for them.
Anyways, enough babbling; enjoy the story.
Rating due to minor use of swearing and small scenes of violence.
Deep beneath the Earth’s surface, a dark tunnel stretched out endlessly. The sound of dripping water snaked out of cracks in the walls while rats and other vermin scurried about, and in the distance a deep rumbling began to be heard. Frightened, the rats scrambled for sanctuary in the small cracks, some not making it in time as a sleek object of silver and gray shot through the tunnel at unimaginable speeds.
Oblivious to the death of those rats that had not been able to escape in time, the passengers inside the high-speed subway train sat about minding their own business. Holographic screens projected from the ceiling of the car in front of some of the passengers, displaying the latest newspaper or select television programs. Other people had their own computers. Some of the computers had a physical base and fully tactile keyboard with either a glass-projection or holographic screen, while others were more compact with even the keyboard being a holographic projection within a collapsible metal frame.
Most of the passengers on the subway wore fancy suits, telling everyone that they were all business, and on those screens which didn’t have a privacy filter one could see the business reports they were reading or working on. A few older and younger people were riding the train as well, the younger ones occupying themselves with handheld video game devices or listening to music. One of the passengers, a young adult who looked around twenty-three, wasn’t doing much of anything, however, and was instead glancing from side to side, peering through the windows between cars and overlooking the other passengers in his own car.
There aren’t any here... There are never many on the subway, they tend not to need the assistance us humans do... Some can fly, swim, run far faster than even the best human marathon runner can; why would they need to take the subway, train, bus...anything? Sanctuary...one of the few places I can go to escape, but there is no guarantee. Sometimes they do come, and in those times it is almost blasphemous that one would invade what has become holy ground to me.
“We are approaching Union Station in Chicago, Illinois. If this is your destination, or if you are transferring to a local rail line, please prepare for departure now. As kinetic dampeners power down you may feel an increased deceleration force, so remain seated until we have come to a full stop.”
As the voice droned out through the subway, the man who had been looking around sighed. He stopped glancing about and closed his eyes as he felt the subway slow down, the kinetic dampeners that allowed the subway to move so fast and yet the passengers inside to not feel any excessive force powering down as well, the subway’s deceleration increasingly noticeable to the passengers. It took a few minutes for the subway to fully stop, but finally it slowed to a halt, the subway dropping down onto the single rail it floated along as the electromagnets that suspended it in the air powered down.
The man stood up and grabbed a suitcase off of an overhead rack, walking over to one of the doors along with a few other people. The doors slid open and people began to disembark from the subway, stepping down onto the platform. The platform was fairly busy, people waiting for this subway or another one on benches behind the gates that prevented people from boarding without a ticket. Walking over to one of the gates—a large arch of metal that could project a barrier to block or even fence people in if needed—the man walked through, pulling his suitcase alongside him.
Rather than going up the stairs or elevator to the main lobby as most of the other people who had disembarked with him did, he instead turned to a set of small stairs off to the side, lifting his suitcase up each step. At the top he emerged onto another subway platform, with the difference that this one was for the city’s local rail system. Also noticeably different was that the platform was a lot more barren than the last one; in fact, there was no one else on the platform at all. Walking over to one of the benches, the man sat down and waited again, staring towards the tunnel and the platform on the other side of the track.
Another sanctuary, and in its own way even more private than the subway. But here there is less guarantee that they will not show up, but so long as they simply don’t, it is nice. Quiet, peaceful. Lonely. Should that bother me? In my normal life I am anything but lonely, so I guess I should embrace the times when I can just sit on an empty platform like this, letting the atmosphere soak in and soothe my very essence, washing away my stress and pain and replacing it with an emptiness that I will soon forget after I leave again. But for these few minutes, these few, sacred minutes in which I can simply absorb that which is so alien to me, it is as if this is all I have ever known, and the world is truly at the peace I so desire.
A few minutes later a subway pulled through the tunnel, but not the one the man was waiting for. He watched as the doors opened and no one got off on his side, and in a few more minutes the doors closed again as if they had realized how pointless it was, and the subway slowly started down the rail again. As it disappeared into the tunnel, out of his view, the man raised his eyes as he noticed that on the other platform an elderly man had gotten off, struggling with a suitcase, one wheel of which seemed to be broken. Before he could reach the elevator, though, two figures suddenly stepped out of one of the dark corridors that led off to another platform.
The younger man’s eyes widened as he saw the figures, anger flooding him. How dare they invade his sanctuary, disrupting him from one of the few peaces he knew in life. They were not people, they weren’t even human, so how dare they intrude on him like this. At first he did nothing, only eyeing the two figures that had stepped out onto the opposite platform.
Both were the same; muscle-bound brutes who while humanoid in shape were anything but. Red stripes lined their flexing arms which they swayed back and forth as they approached the old man, as if to intimidate him. Their blue, unclothed skin rippled with the strength that lay underneath, and as the younger man identified what they were, a memory suddenly sprang to his mind.
It was several years ago, back when he had still been in grade school. One particular day he was out for recess, playing with his friends and showing off as usual when he noticed another boy who was all by himself. He recognized him from his class; he was a loner who kept to himself, studiously doing his work but refusing to socialize. What he did to keep himself occupied during recess was thus anyone’s guess, since he was rarely seen with the rest of the kids. Everyone noticed him that day, though.
The man, then a boy, was about to go over and ask the loner if he wanted to join him and his friends, but before he could do so, someone else got to him. Only again they weren’t human, but rather a humanoid figure not unlike the ones who were surrounding the old man in the current time. But in his memory, this one was smaller, younger, weaker. Although, still far stronger than any of the kids in the school.
“Hey hey, whatcha doin’?” the Machop asked the loner snidely, the translators that all humans were required to have implanted as a baby translating its normal speech into something that humans could understand.
“I...I... I’m just thinking about some math homework...” the boy nervously said, pointing to some calculations he had sketched in the dirt he was crouched over.
“Oh? Looks hard. Math’s never been my strong suit, I much prefer this.” Before anyone could do anything the Machop had suddenly shoved the boy’s head into the dirt, holding him down so that he couldn’t get up. All the while he laughed; an odd cackling that the translator was useless for.
Brutes, thieves, criminals, bullies... All of them. This isn’t their world, this is ours. We let them in, and they repay us by making life so much harder for many people. They shouldn’t be here, they should be out in the wilds with the rest of their kind, like it was in the old days. They aren’t civilized, and most certainly aren’t people, so what right do they have to exist in a society built by humans? The stories about how humans captured and used them for battle in the old days, that is how this world should be; that is where balance is, none of this coexistence crap.
The man stood up as the Machoke advanced on the old man, cornering him and demanding that he hand over everything he owned. The old man pleaded for help and looked over at the younger man, whose eyes narrowed as his blood further boiled.
They have no right to be here, not in this society, not in my sanctuary. All they do is bring ruin and despair, robbing everything that belongs to humans right out from under us.
Stepping down from his platform, the younger man crossed over to the other side, stepping back up and approaching the Machoke and their cornered prey. Sliding a hand underneath his brown leather jacket and white shirt he wore underneath, he unfastened the clasp on the holster he hid concealed inside the waistband of his jeans.
“Please, stop. Help...” the old man pleaded, looking between the two Machoke and the younger man.
Slowly the hand grabbed the grip of the pistol and pulled it out of its holster, sliding it out from underneath his shirt while at the same time he switched the safety off. The older man noticing the gun, he suddenly fell quiet. Lining up the sights with one of the Machoke whose backs were still turned to him, he rested his finger on the trigger lightly.
“Get the **** out of places you don’t belong,” he said quietly, before suddenly pulling the trigger.
The bullet shot out of the pistol, propelled by rails that lined the barrel. Electromagnetic force accelerated the chunk of metal to speeds that older guns which used explosive propulsion could never achieve, providing enough sheer impact force that the bullet was able to deeply penetrate even the Machoke’s tough flesh and muscles. The shot well placed, he fell down, blood surging out of the hole on his back. Coldly the man turned to the next one and shot him too, before he could even react.
Sliding the gun back into its holster, the younger man looked at the old man. “I am Ensign Zack Atwater of the United States Space Navy. Have a good day.”
Zack was called in to the local military base of course, detouring his trip to head to the complex on the fringes of the city. No one was angry, he just had to file a report. He had not killed the Machoke, missing their hearts by just inches. Law worked differently when it came to fights between humans and Pokémon due to the increased strength and powers of Pokémon, so that Zack had shot them wasn't a big deal; they knew there was no other way he could fight them, after all. To the higher-ups, Zack had shot the Machoke because he had to, because he had to stop them mugging the old man and couldn't prevent them using his own power. The shooting was inevitable, a normal occurrence. Later that day he walked out of the military base, no penalty for his behavior needed.
I wasn’t reprimanded beyond a basic warning, isn’t that funny. In the end, it was decided that I had no other choice, which I really didn't. I couldn’t fight a pair of Machoke with my bare hands, pulling my gun on them was my only option. Since I missed their hearts they lived, and all is well. But, was it intentional or not that my shots were non-fatal? From the military’s perspective they have no choice but to think that I had merely been aiming to incapacitate. Me? I doubt I’ll ever know.
It was almost night by the time Zack finally got to the house that had been destination before he was sidetracked. Standing on the front porch with his suitcase, he hesitated a moment before pressing the doorbell, the sound of it going off audible through the door. The sound of footsteps followed, and then the creaking of the door as it swung open.
“Hello, mother,” Zack grinned, saluting as the older woman appeared at the door. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Zack!” his mom exclaimed. “Oh, stop saluting, you’re embarrassing me. There’s no need for that when you’re home.”
Zack briskly dropped his hand to his side, lifting his suitcase up and through the door as his mother held it open. “Hey, you’re more important to me than any CO is. If I have to salute them, shouldn’t that mean I have to salute you?”
“Not in my house,” his mother shook her head as she took his jacket. “Why were you late?”
“I...had to visit the base to file a report,” Zack glanced away, hoping his mother wouldn’t press further.
Unfortunately, she did. “Let me see it,” she asked, nodding at the lump under the side of Zack’s shirt that was visible with his jacket off.
Grudgingly, Zack pulled the pistol out and handed it to his mom. Pressing a button on the rear of its grip activated a holographic display that showed how much ammo was left in the magazine; eighteen out of twenty.
She shook her head and held the pistol limply. “Who did you shoot? Why?”
Zack turned away and grabbed his right arm as he looked down. “They were mugging some old guy; I couldn’t let them get away with that. I just can’t hold my own in a fist fight; there was nothing else I could do.”
“Were they Pokémon?” his mother asked, knowing Zack all too well.
“...Yes,” he simply responded.
She sighed and shook her head again. “Would you have done the same if they were human? Would you still have shot them?”
His mother placed a hand on Zack’s shoulder, holding the pistol out and handing it back. “One day you’ll get over this, but, if before then this senseless prejudice results in the loss of life...”
“It won’t,” Zack assured her. “I just wanted to incapacitate them, that’s all.” He wasn’t sure if he believed it or not, nor if his mother did either; but, it was enough to get her off him for the time being at least.
“How long are you staying?” she asked as she hung Zack’s jacket in the coat closet.
Zack moved his suitcase against the stairs that led up to the second floor, to get them out of the way. “Three days, then I’m being sent to the Battlecarrier Andromeda for advanced training in zero-G combat. They’re heading to Theta Colony on patrol and I’ve been assigned to a trainee squadron of theirs.”
“You’re going off-world?” his mother looked a bit shocked, but pleased. “This is the first time, isn’t it? Why didn’t you tell us earlier?”
Zack shook his head. “I didn’t want you to worry. None of my experience in atmospheric flight will be of use out in space, and simulators can only do so much. It’s like I’m back to learning how to fly all over again, and I didn’t want you to have to go through that again.”
His mother smiled and wrapped her arms around Zack. “I won’t, I promise. I have confidence in you now, and am sure you’ll be safe no matter what happens.”
“Thanks...” Zack said, embracing his mother as well.
“We are on approach to the Lyndon B. Johnson mass driver complex. Airspace in a five mile radius of the complex has been cleared and preparations have already begun for launch. Command is pulling a tight schedule here so as soon as we land we’re heading for the shuttle. That means that if you need to take a leak you better go now or wait until we reach Orbital Station Sigma. Everyone understand?”
As the tall, neatly dressed man with a commanding voice walked through the aisle of the jet, the seated trainees together shouted confirmation of their preparedness. Their commanding officer reached the end of the aisle and turned back around again, the medals pinned to his breast reflecting the overhead lights. Slowly he nodded and walked out of the cabin, the low buzz of several overlapping whispers rising up into the air as everyone began talking quietly, forging friendships in the newly formed unit that would have to last them until the trainees all received their first assignments and individual pilots were sent off to every corner of the Earth and its colonies. Zack turned to his neighbor and struck up idle chat, not wanting to immediately set himself out as a loner. His mind was elsewhere, however, and inside he couldn’t stop feeling thrilled about his first off-world training mission. He hid the feeling from observers, though; he knew that setting himself up as the happy-go-lucky type wasn’t so great either, especially in the military.
I wish I didn’t have to worry so much about my appearances and how others perceive me. If I was in any other line of work, I likely wouldn’t have to hide my feelings so much, however in the military you can’t let yourself seem too odd; too abnormal. Conformity reigns in the military, where strength in a group rules over strength as an individual. If I were to act quiet and keep to myself, I’d be seen as lacking the ability to work strongly within a group. If I were to act too happy, I’d be seen as an idealist whose carelessness could get the entire group into trouble. And if I were to talk about why I’m so happy, I likely wouldn’t even be here for much longer.
Silence overcame the cabin as the jet began to slow down and descend, the voice over the intercom telling everyone what they already knew; to remain seated and calm. In a moment, all wireless devices and integrated cybernetic components that used wireless communications were shut off by a signal the jet sent out. The signal overrode all user commands and prevented reactivation until another signal upon landing, but that did not affect Zack; his personal cybernetic augmentations were extremely basic, no more than the military required him to have. He noticed a few people who seemed disturbed and glanced around worriedly, as if being cut off from the internet had been equal to the dismemberment of a limb. Taking mental note of those people who likely had extensive cybernetic augmentations, Zack leaned back as the jet descended to the ground.
On the ground, the trainees filed out of the jet so fast one would think they were practicing evacuation drills. It seemed as if the landing gear had barely touched the tarmac when the commanding officer began ordering people out row by row As they disembarked from the jet, the trainees lined up on the tarmac in neat rows as they waited for their commanding officer to give the next order. Zack stood still as a tree in the sweltering Texas heat, sweat dripping from his brow. Keeping himself from reaching up to wipe it off, he narrowed his eyes and waited while the rest of the unit lined up. At last everyone was out and the commanding officer nodded as he appraised the unit in full, this being his first time to see everyone lined up. Zack watched him as he walked between each row, appraising everyone with the scrutiny his position demanded. When he came to Zack, Zack made sure to stare straight ahead and stand as still as he could, avoiding eye contact. He definitely did not want to get off on a bad foot with his new commanding officer.
The commanding officer passed by Zack and continued down the row, snaking between them in silence. At last, only after he had examined every trainee personally, he walked back to the front of the group. “I am Colonel Everett. From this day onwards, all of you will be under my command. As you are all aware you have been assigned to one of the United State’s space vessels, the Andromeda. As a battlecarrier-class starship, the Andromeda houses five squadrons of twenty starfighters each in addition to her own personal armaments. All of you have been assigned to Andromeda's Epsilon Squadron to receive advanced training in the operation of the Vesper T-83 space-superiority starfighter. All of your training in atmospheric flight will mean nothing in the void of space, so be prepared to work hard to overcome the many challenging hurdles of zero gravity flight. Only the best of the best are chosen for service as a starfighter pilot, and I dearly hope that none of you will let down our expectations.”
After his little speech, Zack and the rest of the unit followed Colonel Everett to the main facility that housed the boarding station for the underground mass driver. Looking off in the distance, Zack could barely see the tip of the mass driver’s track bursting from the ground and curving up to point at the sky, several miles away. He had never taken a mass driver before; indeed he had never been to space at all; however, he remembered hearing that the mass driver shuttles used top of the line kinetic and gravitic dampeners. Due to them, you could barely feel that you were moving until you were high into the atmosphere, much less that you were flying up into the sky.
The unit bypassed the main waiting and boarding area for the shuttle completely, instead being led to a smaller and drearier room on the other side of the track. There was little in the room other than the door that led into it and the extending walkway that connected to the shuttle itself, not as if they had any time for sightseeing. Not pausing for even a moment, they were herded into the shuttle by attendants. The interior of the shuttle closely resembled the main passenger cabin of a normal plane or jet, with rows of cramped seats lined from wall to wall with only a small aisle down the middle. The primary difference, Zack noticed, was that there were no windows in the shuttle. One by one they sat down in their seats, a U-shaped harness swinging down and securing the person in. Finally they were all seated, with most people—Zack included—fidgeting around uncomfortable and trying to push their harnesses out ever slightly; however as soon as Colonel Everett stepped through the door and into the shuttle everyone immediately stopped moving and sat as still as they had stood outside when they had lined up.
Without saying a word he nodded and walked through the door at the front of the main cabin, an attendant closing the door in the side of the shuttle behind him. Zack heard a whir as the walkway retracted, and an intensifying hum as the electromagnetic propulsion systems powered up. Within the long tunnel that the aerodynamic, bullet-shaped shuttle sat in, vacuum pumps powered up and flushed out any air that may have leaked into the tunnel as best they could, creating a near-vacuum in the tunnel so as to reduce air resistance. Clamps that secured the shuttle to the tunnel walls disengaged, leaving the shuttle secured only to the large sled that rested atop the rails.
Zack narrowed his eyes as the shuttle began to accelerate. Slowly at first, but quickly ramping up to higher speeds. Just as in the train, the shuttle's kinetic dampeners alleviated most of the acceleration forces on the shuttle's occupants, but Zack could still feel it as they sped faster and faster down the several miles long track.
If they knew why I was happy... The reason why I'm so thrilled to go to space, beyond it simply being something I've always wanted to do... If they knew that my dislike of Pokémon would lead me so far as to go to the one place where there are virtually none of them, then I would surely not be here. While the military may look for certain aspects in potential recruits that I do have, showing an aversion, racism even, towards one group would not sit well with them. They knew that it could make them look bad, blemish the whole through a single, small, spoiled spot. I can't let them know... I can't let anyone, not a single person, know the true reason for my happiness. That so few Pokémon want to travel to space, that above even the subway or platform, space is truly the ultimate sanctuary I could ever find.
A roaring sound from the tunnel began to pick up as the shuttle sped up to several thousands of miles per hour, the imperfect vacuum creating drag on the shuttle that was now starting to become noticeable. The shuttle was almost at the end of the tunnel, however, and above ground sirens and flashing warning lights turned on, warning everyone in the vicinity that a shuttle was about to launch. The first of several air-tight doors on the tip of the carefully angeled, tube-like tunnel that protruded from below ground slowly began to open, the next in sequence following after the first had spread wide.
Lights in the shuttle cabin dimmed and holographic displays popped up, displaying a timer counting down from ten seconds. As Zack watched the numbers rapidly spin down he relaxed his muscles as best he could, ending his struggle with the harness.
And now... This will be the day.
The timer spun down to zero, the numbers flashing across the displays. The final door at the end of the mass driver's tube slid open, the shuttle passing through so carefully timed, barely an inch of space was left between it and the door as it passed.
...The day I'm free. The day I make my final escape, and enter my true sanctuary.
Small explosions on the rail-sled sounded as the clamps that had secured the shuttle to it released in an instant, aided by small explosive charges. Freed from its guide but with a massive amount of built-up momentum, the shuttle soared free of the mass driver, piercing through the sky as it shot towards the heavens, looking like a streak of dull gray to anyone who happened to see the launch. It took only a moment for the shuttle to reach out several miles into the sky, continuing to steadily rise at an angle. The people inside the shuttle continued to feel as if gravity was towards their feet as normal due to the shuttle's gravity dampeners, however both they and the kinetic dampeners were starting to weaken, resulting in a growing feeling of turbulence to the people inside.
Zack sat still during the progressively shakier flight flow, staying silent as with everyone else. A grin began to creep across his face as he closed his eyes and relaxed, letting the feeling of his ultimate escape soak through his entire body.
Today, I have won.
“This is the USS Battlecarrier Andromeda, requesting clearance for departure.”
High in the Earth's orbit, above its atmosphere and on the very fringes of its gravity field, a large, man-made object sat in a geostationary orbit with the Earth below. The object was dome-shaped, its flat bottom oriented towards the Earth. Attached to it's base in a triangular arrangement were three further domes, providing space for incoming shuttles and smaller spaceships to dock. Large thrusters were arranged around the bottom of the main dome, both pointing straight down and outwards at an angle. The station wasn't designed for actual flight though, the thrusters were only used to correct its orbit.
Attached to the top of the main dome another large object sat stationary. Long and sleekly designed, the starship Andromeda perched atop Orbital Station Sigma, connected by a tube to an airlock on its bottom. Its sharply angeled head, containing the ship's bridge, narrowed down to connect to the midsection of the ship. The rear of the ship's midsection widened out again, with seven powerful engines positioned on its rear. Connected on a downwards slant on each side of the rear of the Andromeda were two smaller engine pods, used to provide additional maneuverability to the large ship. Above the engine pods and slanted upwards were two stubby, sweptback wings, which combined with the pods gave the ship an X-shape when viewed from the front or rear. As the Andromeda began to leave, several smaller ships began to land in a long slit that ran along the Andromeda's midsection, running all the way through from one side to the other, the empty space occupying several decks. The slit, while tricky to land in for inexperienced pilots, was a convenient and spacious landing deck for the Andomeda's compliment of starfighters.
“Andromeda, this is Sigma flight control. Departure request cleared, retracting umbilical elevator.”
The tube that connected the Andromeda to the station began to retract, the connector that had secured it to the air lock spreading wide as it released its seal before it drew back. The tube began to slide down into the station, clearing away from the Andromeda. The connection between station and ship severed, the Andromeda's bottom airlock closed as it prepared to leave Earth's orbit.
Throughout the cramped, narrow halls of the Andromeda a female voice spoke out over the intercom, “This is your Captain Willow speaking. All hands, prepare to leave orbit and proceed to Colony Theta. To those who just came aboard, welcome to the Andromeda. I'd advise taking a seat and perhaps even strapping in; getting up to speed in a ship of this size is by no means gentle.”
Just moments after Willow finished speaking, the Andromeda began to drift away from the orbital station. Small thrusters positioned all over its surface began to fire, nudging it carefully away from the station and orienting the ship so it was pointed towards where the colony was, far away. The seven rear engines plus twin engine pods began to fire up, purple jets of plasma shooting out from the engines as it began to quickly move away from the Earth. Despite being in the very outer fringes of its orbit, the ship vibrated enough that those inside who had not listened to the captain found themselves careening about wildly in the weak gravity, desperately trying to regain control.
Before long the Andromeda managed to break away from the Earth completely, the vibrations settling down as the ship began to power through space, its nine engines moving it at a surprising pace. It only take a few minutes for the station they had left to shrink far enough into the distance that it was no longer discernible, the Earth itself a blob of indistinguishable blue, green, brown, and white. Inside the ship, Zack and the rest of his unit sat together in a room lined with barracks and storage lockers that, while large enough to hold the entire twenty person unit, was rather small compared to the ship as a whole. Some of them, such as Zack, had been smart enough to lay in their bed and secure the harness which prevented them from flying off in their sleep, while others had learned the hard way why the beds had harnesses in the first place.
As the ship's shaking calmed down, Zack undid his bed's harness and pulled himself up, using handlebars set into the walls and ceiling to orient himself to a standing position, considering the floor as being down. Others were fooling around and standing on the ceiling and walls, adapting to the lack of gravity. It was at that point that one of the doors into the room slid open and Colonel Everett walked in, giving an amused yet aggravated look to those who had been fooling around. “Line up!” he shouted, although everyone was scrambling to get into position even before he gave the order.
Zack and the rest of the unit rushed to form two lines on either side of the room, one facing the other. Actually staying still proved tricky, but eventually most people had stabilized themselves enough that they were relatively stationary. Colonel Everett strode down the aisle between the two lines in short, controlled hops once, before turning around at the end to address the first person in line, who just happened to be Zack. “What's your name, ensign?” Everett asked as he stared at Zack.
“Zachary Atwater, sir!” Zack yelled as if he was back in basic training.
“Atwater, huh? The one who had was called in to file a damages report just a few days before your assignment here?” Everett asked coldly.
Zack gulped, nervous. Damn it, of course he'd know... “Yes, sir,” Zack responded after a moment.
“Explain to me what it was you did, Atwater.” Everett's commanding voice made it clear that not answering wasn't an option.
“I pulled out my sidearm and shot two Machoke who were mugging an old man, sir.” It wasn't more than a few hours since the shuttle had docked with Orbital Station Sigma and the unit had boarded the Andromeda, and already Zack's mood was starting to reverse. In his joy, it hadn't crossed his mind that Everett would no doubt know of the incident just a few days earlier.
“As the report says, yes. However, why did you shoot them?” It was an odd question, but coming from Everett Zack knew he had to respond.
“Because in terms of physical strength I would have proved no match, sir. Using my sidearm I was able to put a quick, easy end to the situation before it could escalate further.” Zack skipped over how it had more-so been an impromptu decision, founded not on the basis of strength but rather on his own personal hatred.
Regardless, the answer seemed to please Everett. The Colonel nodded and smiled, turning around to face the whole unit again. “Ending a situation quick and easy, with surgical precision that strikes at the very heart of the enemy before the bulk of their force can respond: those are the ideals that you will embrace as a Vesper pilot. The Vesper is a highly agile craft outfitted with the most advanced multi-vector thrusters we have, and combined with its high-speed mode, twin railguns, and integral missile racks represent the height of the United State's advances in starfighter development”
Zack could barely hide his relief. He had been worried that Everett was going to call him out on his hatred, but instead it looked as if it had actually been a good thing, making him stand out in Everett's mind. But is that a good thing, standing out like that? Perhaps all would be easier for me if I just blended into the background...
Zack stood as still as he could in the zero gravity, split between his internal thoughts and listening to Colonel Everett preach on about the capabilities of the Vesper. They had been shepherded into their new barracks so fast that they had barely been able to catch a glimpse of the ship they were on; not that that was much different from anything that had happened during the last few hours, from the hurried departure of the mass driver shuttle, to the hastened and wholly unremarkable stop at Orbital Station Sigma. Zack wondered if this was indicative of his future life as a whole; tons of rushing here and there, with little time to stop and take in his surroundings.
“...And with that, consider yourselves dismissed,” Everett announced as he finished his spiel on the Vesper. “Go on, make yourselves at home and feel free to explore the ship; you're going to be staying here a while. Stay alert for the personal assignments that I'll be sending out in twenty, though.”
As Everett walked out through one of the sliding doors that led from the barrack out into the narrow hall, Zack conceded that perhaps this wasn't so much like basic training; indeed, Colonel Everett seemed to be getting less strict over time. Shrugging to himself, Zack picked up the bag he had tossed to the ground and which was now floating about his bed. He opened his assigned locker which was built into the wall, nodding to his bunkmate as he stuffed the bag inside the locker.
“Yo, I'm Andy. And I guess you're Zachary?” the bunkmate spoke as he put his own belongings away.
“Just Zack. But yeah, guess everyone knows that now. Not exactly sure if I like it, but eh...” Zack shrugged again.
“True, it's got to be awkward being called out like that. At least he was cool about it though, right? Hey, want to go check out this place? I don't want to be wandering around by myself.” Andy seemed friendly enough, and since Zack was going to be stuck with him for a while he figured it wouldn't hurt to make a friend.
“Sure; how about we try to find the cafeteria or something while we're at it.”
Andy laughed as the two of them pushed off the ground, drifting out the nearest exit “Hah, yeah! I'm starving, man! Haven't eaten anything since yesterday, and the mass driver... Oh boy, that thing certainly purged any food left in me. Guess that's why they said we couldn't eat anything before it today... Do you have any idea where it would be, though? I caught a glimpse of the ship while on the station and man, is it huge. Do you even know where we are?”
He talks way too much... Zack thought, but he knew that he had to get used to it. Turning to a computer console on the wall of the narrow corridor, he brought up a holographic map of the current section of the ship they were on. “This help?” He asked sarcastically.
“Oh man, good job. I think I like you, I just know we'll get along well!” Andy exclaimed as he examined the map.
Yeah, really well... I better get used to this... Life here won't be anything like it was on Earth...
Turning in the direction that the map indicated, Zack and Andy took off. Drifting through the metallic arteries of the Andromeda, Zack's journey into the true reason he had joined the military finally began. The weeks ahead would be hard for him, but through the struggles he adapted and grew. He hadn't just been assigned to the Andromeda to learn how to pilot the Vesper starfighter; that could have been done from an orbital station; rather, he was also expected to learn about the workings of military ships such as the Andromeda. He studied the mechanical and electrical workings of many of the ship's vital functions, learning how much of the ship worked as was expected in a future officer.
Continued in next post...
...Continued from previous post.
In two weeks the Andromeda had reached the colony, a sprawling station positioned next to a large chunk of rock on which several mining operations were carried out. The main core and habited part of the station was shaped like a ring, rotating about a central hub. The rotation of the ring gave the station a limited sort of artificial gravity, something which Zack found both awkward and relieving. He was stationed aboard the Andromeda, not the colony however, so his trips to the station were always too short for him to truly get used to the feel of gravity again. At about three weeks into his training he was finally starting to learn hands-on with the Vespers themselves, and wasn't too bad at it.
The Andromeda was cruising a good distance away from the colony as the trainees practiced basic manurers in the Vespers. The small starfighters buzzed about the Andromeda like a swarm of gnats, the trainees adapting well to the basics of flying the agile craft. The order was sent out for the trainees to come back to land, and the gnats began to navigate towards the slit through the Andromeda's midsection. Carefully, Zack pointed his Vesper's long body towards the slit, easing off on the throttle and rotating the maneuvering thrusters positioned at the very tips of the Vesper's angeled, sweptback wings so that they would apply a small amount of thrust opposite the twin plasma engines on the back of the Vesper. The starfighter began to slow as the landing deck of the Andromeda grew closer, strips of lights along its surface guiding pilots in. Rotating the wingtip thrusters upwards slightly, Zack's Vesper began to drift downwards, ensuring that he'd clear the top of the large landing deck. Still slowing down, he nimbly slipped into the Andromeda with plenty of space to spare overhead. Now drifting through the landing bay, Zack carefully adjusted he angle of the thrusters so that they'd slow his descent, lowing his landing gear and firing a series of fixed thrusters located beneath the fighter so that when it finally landed, it hit the deck lightly enough so that the landing gear's suspension could absorb the shock.
The Vesper was held to the deck magnetically for a moment, Zack relaxing after the training session. The Vesper suddenly began to move on its own, the controlled magnetic current through the floor of the landing bay shifting to create tracks along which the Vespers that had landed were pushed. As the Vesper moved, Zack hit a series of controls that closed the wingtip thrusters, rotating them back so that they lay flat along the back edge of the wings. The wings themselves then began to flip upwards, rotating upwards until they locked into straight vertical positions. In that time the Vesper had been moved onto a portion of the floor that had been striped yellow and black, just big enough for the Vesper with its wings folded. Recognizing that the wings had been flipped into their storage position, the floor began to drop as the Vesper, with Zack still inside, was carried to the hanger deck beneath. Stopping momentarily to close an airlock door above, the Vesper soon continued downwards again on the elevator, emerging into a large deck beneath the landing deck. Just as with the landing deck, the hanger deck stretched from one end of the ship to the other, although the middle was riddled with various rooms. Pulled along another magnetic track, the Vesper was carried off the elevator and navigated towards a storage area, Zack unsealing his cockpit canopy and sliding it forward as it came to a stop for inspection.
“Nice landing; you didn't even leave any dents on the deck.” A tall, blond haired man walked up to Zack as he climbed down a ladder that had been wheeled next to his Vesper. The man was dressed in the blue jumpsuit of a squadron leader, contrasting against Zack's own orange jumpsuit. A patch on his jumpsuit clearly identified his name, Lance Blake. “Can't say the same for some of the others, though...”
Zack shrugged. “Call it luck, I'm really no better than anyone else. I couldn't fight my way out of a paper bag yet in one of these.”
Lance smirked. “Hey, that's not a bad idea. Remind me to try it sometime.”
Zack laughed, feeling at ease with his squad's leader. He had been worried that the command would be too uptight, too harsh and unforgiving. Fortunately it proved to be just the opposite, everyone was willing to help the trainees out and becoming buddies with your commanders was expected. He had come to realize how tight the people aboard the ship got; when you were stuck on it for months at a time, making friends with even your superiors did a great deal for one's sanity.
I'm finally starting to feel like I can be myself... Back on Earth, I never felt like I could act free, as around every corner there'd be another Pokémon, and to prevent others from realizing my hate I had to keep my mouth shut, stay withdrawn... But here, there is no worry. I can be free, knowing that I'll never find anyone other than a human, and won't end up acting irrationally. This ship is so much more than a sanctuary where I can hide from my fears, it is a place where I can finally let myself go and be myself, rather than hide who I am.
Zack and Lance walked back to where the other trainees in the squad had lined up; magnets in their boots prevented them from drifting off freely, which would be catastrophic in the busy desk. Zack quickly took his position in the line as Lance began to go over the specifics of what he had seen, where some had done poorly or excelled, and how everyone could improve. Nothing was out of the ordinary at first, but over time Zack began to feel something in the air, a sense of unease. He noticed that some of the higher ranked officers had stopped what they had been doing, listening to something through their communication implants. After a moment even Lance quieted, his eyes widening. “Excuse me, something's come up...” he muttered as he turned and walked away, the eyepiece that sat sheathed in a holster over his ear flipping forward and over his left eye to display something that Zack couldn't make out from where he stood.
The trainees stood in muted silence, wondering what was going on. Before too long, however, a voice rang out through the ship's intercom, “All personnel, prepare for possible enemy contact. Three unidentified ships have entered the sector and are approaching our position. All alert pilots, prepare for imminent combat launch. Unidentified vessels will be within interception range in three minutes, all attempts at contact failing. This is not a drill; I repeat, this is not a drill.”
Immediately a frenzy burst out on the hanger deck. Some of the alert fighters were already in position at the front of their launch tubes, however others weren't ready yet due to having been moved to accommodate the trainee's launches. Mechanics rushed to move Vespers into position, pilots rushing out of one of the rec rooms and fastening on their helmets; their jumpsuits already on. Lance moved his squadron out of the way and sat them off to the side, telling them to stay put until he received further orders. Zack watched as pilots climbed into their Vespers, the fighters who were ready at the launch tubes sliding through the open airlock door as soon as the canopy had sealed. One by one the launch tube airlocks closed on both ends of the wide hanger as the Vespers and pilots moved into position, ready to intercept any possible attack.
Far forward in the ship, amid its large bridge, just as much frenzy as in the hanger was going on. In a chair above a circular pit lined with computers sat a woman with long blond hair and sharp eyes, appraising the information displayed on various holographic displays that her chair projected. Commanding her chair to move through a series of tracks in the ceiling, she hovered over a man sitting at a console below, “Any response yet?”
“None. The ships are completely unresponsive, they won't even receive our communications much less respond,” the officer reported.
“Then either their communications are down or they have no reason to listen to us. With three ships I doubt the first, so we must count on the second.” Again the captain moved her chair over to another station. “Have you been able to ID them?”
“Not very well. They are not broadcasting any identification codes, and the ships themselves are too distant to visually determine. We'll need to get closer for visual identification to be more reliable.”
Captain Willow nodded, sliding her chair back to the center of the room. “Open a channel to the colony,” she ordered.
A holographic display popped up to let her know that the communication channel was open, and quickly she explained the situation. “Three unidentified ships are approaching ours and we have reason to believe that they may be rebels. We are not sure of their intended target, but to be safe I request that you immediately vacate all civilians to ships and be prepared for immediate evacuation of the area.”
“We suspected as much when we picked up the ships for ourselves,” the governor of the colony said to Willow through the communication channel. “May you stay safe if this encounter comes to blows.”
“I won't let any rebels get the better of me...” Willow mumbled as the channel closed.
“Sir, we are within interception range!” one of the officers from below shouted.
“Launch the alert fighters! At the first sign of aggression they are to disable the enemy's shields and engines; complete destruction of the enemy ships is to be avoided if at all possible,” Willow commanded, satisfied as she noted on one of her displays that in the time it took for the ships to close range with each other, all the alert fighters had finished loading into the launch tubes.
As her command was relayed to the hanger deck, she watched as her display indicated the Vespers launching in pairs, one from each side of the ship at a time from the specialized launch tubes positioned below the landing deck on either side of the hanger. As each Vesper launched it quickly turned and shot forwards, towards the oncoming trio of vessels. The unidentified ships weren't as large as the Andromeda, but what they lacked in size they made up in numbers; a three on one engagement rarely resulted in the smaller force winning. Of course, Captain Willow knew that those statistics relied on the ships being equally matched. The Andromeda was a new and advanced starship; she doubted that rebels could muster anything comparable.
“All alert fighters are away and proceeding on intercept course with unidentified ships. We will be within estimated weapons range in twenty seconds,” an officer reported.
Willow noticed that the alert fighters were well within range of the unidentified ships yet hadn't been fired on, and for a moment she thought that perhaps the ships weren't rebels and were just damaged after all. In just twenty seconds, however, a series of long streaks of light shot out from the unidentified ships, the extremely fast moving projectiles impacting with the Andromeda's kinetic shielding, rocking the whole ship. The frenzy throughout the ship intensified as the lights automatically dimmed, red emergency lights coming on as power was diverted to the ship's shielding. “Enemy ships are firing at us with large caliber linear cannons! Shielding is holding, and no notable damage has developed yet!” was shouted from below.
Before Willow could even attend to the attacks on the Andromeda, another officer shouted, “Deployment of enemy fighters is confirmed! They are proceeding on an intercept course with the alert fighters! Numbers appear to be around sixty, with an estimated twenty fighters from each ship!”
“Enemy identification has been confirmed! Ravager-class cruisers; they're rebel ships!”
“All personnel to battle stations! I want our own cannons manned and firing on the enemy cruisers, but don't compromise shield integrity! Scramble two more squadrons to intercept the enemy fighters; don't let them get near us!” Willow yelled out, hands flying across her holographic displays as she worked at analyzing the situation.
“Roger! Proceeding to load Vesper Squadron Beta into launch tubes; first launch will be ready in two minutes!”
In the void of space, the battle had finally begun. The powerful yet slow firing linear cannons of the Ravager cruisers pierced towards the Andromeda at regular intervals, impacting with the Andromeda's shields as they worked at weakening it. Meanwhile the Andromeda's gun batteries had also begun to fire; a mixture of fast railguns and slow linear cannons similar to the enemy's returning the blows in kind. While the enemy's weapons were individually stronger than the Andromeda's, the larger ship had the advantage in terms of sheer numbers of weapons and variety between them. Single barreled Linear cannon turrets were mounted both dorsally and ventrally along the Andromeda, providing the main firing force against enemy ships at such a distance. As the cannons had to recharge between each shot, their rate of fire was less than the pivoting, double-barreled railguns mounted along all sides of the ship. As the railguns also had a shorter range, they weren't much help in directly attacking the enemy ships but rather in preventing any enemy fighters from getting closer.
While the larger ships fought each other, the friendly and enemy fighters engaged each other in a swarming cloud between them, each side trying to advance on the enemy's ship to assist in pinpoint disabling of specific systems. The Andromeda's alert squadron of twenty Vespers was drastically outmatched by the enemy's greater numbers, but before the fight could become too one-sided the next squadron of Vespers began to launch, fighters barreling out of the launch tubes and swerving about to face the main fight, rocketing in using high-speed mode before switching to the more agile combat mode to engage the enemy. The Andromeda's deployed fighter count doubled and with another squadron already loading into the launch tubes, Willow was relieved to see that it looked like they had the fight under control.
Indeed, the Andromeda's attacks on one of the enemy cruisers had managed to penetrate through its kinetic shielding, the gaping hole in its defenses proving a valuable opportunity. Willow immediately ordered for all cannons to concentrate fire on the disabled cruiser, and after only a few volleys of linear cannon fire it was evident that the ship couldn't take much more. A small group of three Vespers detached from the main fight and rocketed towards the damaged cruiser, missiles unfolding from where they were stored in the nose of the fighter. As the cruiser tried to flee from the battle, the Vespers launched their missiles at the ship's engines before breaking away again, pealing back to avoid incoming railgun fire from the closest of the remaining two cruisers. Out of the six missiles that had been launched, only two were able to be destroyed, the other four impacting with the damaged ship's engines and sparking a chain reaction, a large explosion blowing off the entire rear of the ship in a burst of fire, fueled by the oxygen and fuel that had been in the engines. Left to drift helplessly, Willow turned her focus back to disabling the remaining two cruisers and fending off their fighters from getting close to the Andromeda.
The third squadron of Vespers was deployed from the Andromeda as the first of the cruisers was disabled, the enemy ships now seeming to realize how outclassed they were. With the same number of friendly and enemy squadrons fighting now, the more agile and powerful Vespers were easily able to decrease the numbers of enemy fighters, to the point that half a squadron of Vespers could be spared to split off to attack the second cruiser. Under the combined power of the Andromeda's own weapons and the Vesper's accurate attacks against the weakest portion of the cruiser's shields, the second cruiser quickly fell much like the first one, Vespers launching their missiles at its engines as soon as its shields were gone in order to prevent it from escaping the scene.
With only one cruiser remaining and the enemy fighter count down to less than thirty, Willow felt confident that the little engagement could only end in their own overwhelming victory. With only five Vespers destroyed so far and all of the pilots safely ejected from their fighters and maneuvered to the fringes of the battle, the Andromeda hadn't had a single casualty yet.
Down in the chaotic hanger deck, Zack was fascinated as he watched the activity that was going into loading the fourth and final of the Andromeda's operable squadrons into the launch tubes in case Willow commanded they be launched . A team of mechanics was assigned to each fighter, examining it and making sure that it was ready to fly before it was even moved to the launch tube entrance. At the same time, other people in his unit were hovering over a holographic display on the wall, outputing various information about the state of the battle and the Andromeda itself, as well as images taken from cameras positioned over the ship's hull.
I'll be one of those pilots eventually, flying out to fight against the rebels, protecting Earth and its colonies... I suppose it's sort of ironic that I want to protect the Earth so much, when I don't even like most of the people on it. I suppose even I can shed my hate for the safety of the entire world, though.
By this point, Willow had all but confirmed their victory. The final cruiser was taking heavy damage, and it wouldn't be long before its shields failed completely. One by one the Vesper pilots were picking off enemy fighters, those few who managed to get close to the Andromeda being torn to shreds by railguns. Just as Willow began to relax, however, another ship appeared out of nowhere.
Willow's eyes snapped open wide as the fourth ship seemed to warp into view, space distorting around it as it appeared. Very few ships currently built were equipped with any kind of warp drive, and they were all militarily owned. Even the Andromeda, advanced as she was, had to rely on sublight cruising speeds. “Get me an ID on that ship, now!” Willow yelled.
“I've got nothing, sir! It's also not sending any identification codes, and its design is completely unlike anything stored in the computer!”
The new ship slowly approached the battle, its main body shaped like a long, pointed dagger with two wing-like protrusions sticking out from either side of what would be the blade. Upon zooming her visual image of the ship further in, she noticed that the four protrusions appeared to have some sort of weapons mounted on them, but their tapering barrel design was unlike anything she had seen before. Farther back along the ship a pair of slanted wings, each with two built-in engines making them functionally equivalent to the Andromeda's engine pods, were attached to the rear of the ship's main body. Between the wings and protruding up from the top of the rear of the ship was a rounded bulge, no doubt where its bridge was positioned. Overall the ship wasn't extremely impressive size-wise, being larger than the cruisers but still only about half the size of the Andromeda.
“All attempts to hail unknown ship are failing! Again, it won't receive our communications!”
Willow grimaced and narrowed her eyes. Dammit, is this the rebels still? Have they chosen us to test their new ship on? “Split off a contingent of Vespers to intercept the new ship! As soon as the final cruiser and enemy fighters are down, refocus our attack on the unknown!”
The new ship was still a ways off, so for the moment it wasn't of much concern to the immediate battle with the final cruiser and fighters. The cruiser, already heavily damaged before the new ship had appeared, quickly fell, its engines once again being disabled by the Vespers and leaving it drifting in space for pickup by military cleanup crews later. The enemy fighters also seemed to be trying to flee the battle, and interestingly Willow noticed that they seemed to be heading towards the new ship. So they are together...
“Sir, we have a visual on the ship's name!”
“Bring it up,” Willow commanded. Another holographic window opened, displaying a zoomed in image of the side of the new ship's hull. Etched into the dull gray steel was “CFS Avalon”
The Avalon, huh? Willow thought. But I don't recognize the prefix... If I'd hazard a guess, the FS likely stands for flagship, but who does it belong to?
Before she could think any more about the ship's name, the Avalon suddenly fired upon the Andromeda. It was still far out of the range of conventional linear cannons, however it quickly became apparent that its weapons were anything but conventional anyways. Sparks flew and sirens blared as the single shot cut through the Andromeda's kinetic shield like butter, impacting the side of her hull, the beam that the Avalon had fired searing through several decks and rooms for a full second before it shut off. Immediately bulkheads snapped closed to seal off the parts of the ship that had been exposed to space, the bridge dissolving into panic.
“Kinetic shields have failed! Enemy weapon appears to be energy based, with a range far longer than conventional kinetic weapons!”
“Activate the energy shields, divert all power to them!” Willow commanded, controlling her panic. The energy shields were never designed to protect against focused weapons-fire, but by providing them with as much power as the Andromeda could muster they could at least buy themselves some time.
“Energy shields are up! All systems deemed non-vital have been disabled and all power reserves have been routed to shields!”
“Energy buildup in Avalon detected! Weapons-fire is imminent!”
Almost as soon as it had been reported the Avalon fired again, but this time not at the Andromeda. Surprisingly, it began firing on the disabled cruisers, the drifting ships breaking up and exploding one by one as the ship that Willow had speculated had been their own ally finished them off. Meanwhile Willow ordered the Andromeda to put as much distance between them and the Avalon as possible, unsure of rather it would choose to attack them again. After the cruisers had each been destroyed, smaller energy weapons mounted along the tapered leading edge of the Avalon began firing on the enemy fighters that had been fleeing towards it, who had presumably been hoping they would be taken aboard, not destroyed. The Vesper squadrons began to return to the Andromeda, but before they could reach safety, panels on the top and bottom of the Avalon slid open and small, dart-like fighters swarmed out and converged on the Vespers.
“No heat signatures detected within Avalon's fighters, they're drones! Numbers are in the hundreds, all from one ship!”
“Scramble Delta and Epsilon Squadrons in emergency launches! I want every pilot we have out there, even if they've only had a single flight!” Willow yelled. The decision to launch even the trainees was tough to make, but with the numbers of drones the Avalon was launching and the energy-based weapons they were sure to be armed with, she knew that just four squadrons totaling eighty fighters wouldn't be enough to hold them off.
Receiving the order down in the hanger deck, Lance ran over to where the trainees were huddled about the various information displays. “All right, ensigns! Consider this a trial by fire, you're being launched to help fend off the drones this new ship is launching! I know none of you have any combat experience and I really don't want to have to do this, but I don't have a choice here. Just stick close to the Andromeda—although make sure you don't drift into her line or fire or shield—and pick off any drones that gets too close. Let the enemy come to you, do not go after them. Understand?”
There was an outcry of protest from the trainees, but Lance merely shook his head. “Look, the Captain herself ordered this, and in a way I do agree with her. Without Epsilon Squadron the Andromeda could only field eighty fighters and five of them were downed by enemy fighters in the first attack. We need all the numbers we can out there, so get moving! You all know how to fly, so you don't do too bad!”
As much as the trainees disliked the idea, they knew they had no choice. Grudgingly everyone snapped on their helmets and hurried to their Vespers, climbing into them as mechanics performed system checks. As Zack fell into his seat, he noticed the Vespers of Delta Squadron sliding into their launch tubes as they prepared to launch and tried to calm his nerves. He knew how to launch and land properly as well as the basics of flying, but more advanced tactics and actually attacking enemies was unknown to him yet. Settling into the cockpit, the harness flipped down over him and the canopy closed. To his left he lightly gripped the control for primary throttle, his thumb resting on a wheel at the end of the throttle control that adjusted the thruster throttle. On his right was the joystick that controlled the rotation of the thrusters and thus the direction of the ship, however due to the lack of drag in space, controlling the Vesper wasn't as simple as pushing the stick in the direction he wanted to turn. More importantly to him at the moment was the trigger positioned under his right index finger for firing the twin railguns mounted on either side of the fuselage, and the cover on the top of the joystick that hid the button for deploying missiles.
It's not that I don't want to fight, especially against lifeless drones, but am I really ready yet? I mean, I've fired a gun plenty of times, but never anything like in these fighters. Well, I guess I might as well get started now; I won't learn without practice. Yeah, that's what I'll call this, practice. These aren't drones out to kill us, no, they're just targets that I need to take down in order to get better.
Zack's Vesper suddenly began to move along its path, the magnetic track carrying it to the door of one of the launch tubes. Sliding into the ground the door opened up, allowing the Vesper to advanced into the tight, square tube that the Vesper would be launched from. The Vesper was carried to the end of the magnetic track, sitting at the rear of the launch tube as the airlock door closed behind it again. A voice then spoke into Zack's helmet, “Atwater, this is control requesting confirmation of flight status.”
Zack scanned over the various readouts on the panel between his legs. Everything looked normal, so he said back to flight control, “All systems are green. I am ready for launch.”
“Affirmative, standby for launch. Charging linear catapult.”
Zack gripped his controls more tightly as he heard the hum of the linear catapult that propelled the Vespers out of the launch tubes at high speeds. Various heads-up displays activated across the glass of his helmet's visor, displaying much of what the Vesper's console also showed but without the need to look down. As the hum of the catapult grew louder, the door at the end of the launch tube slid open, exposing the tube to space.
“Control here. Atwater, you have permission to launch. Prepare for launch in three...two...one...”
As soon as the voice counted all the way down, Zack was pushed back in his seat as the Vesper suddenly rocketed forwards, propelled solely by electromagnetic force. The force was so much that he felt the Vesper rise up slightly as it tried to perfectly suspend itself within the magnetic field. This lift cued Zack to retract the landing gear, which finished pulling up into the underside of the Vesper just as the fighter cleared the end of the tube, bursting out into space. For a moment Zack's Vesper drifted free without power, but before even a full second had passed he activated the control that flipped his wings down, spreading them at his sides. At the same time the maneuvering thrusters popped off from along the trailing edge of the wings, both primary engines and thrusters lighting up at once. Keeping the throttle low, Zack cleared the launch path of the Andromeda and rose up above the ship, turning about to come to face the swarm of drones that had descended upon the battlecarrier and its fighters.
The drones darted about, firing beams of energy from their pointed noses at both fighters and the Andromeda alike. Zack noticed that it didn't seem like they particularly favored any one target, rather just going after whatever was attacking them most. Fortunately, they didn't seem to be invincible, and the combined railguns of both Vespers and the Andromeda were gradually eating away at the sheer numbers of enemy drones. Zack noticed a drone heading his way and quickly banked off to the side, flipping around as he did so and orienting himself towards the drone. As the drone maneuvered to face him, he quickly lined it up in his sights and pulled down on the trigger. A steam of bullets fired from his twin railguns at a high rate, shredding through the lightly shielded and slower turning drone before it could even orient itself all the way. Relieved that the drones didn't seem to be that hard one on one, he moved closer to the hull of the Andromeda, ensuring that he kept a good distance above its shield. As he skimmed over the shield he took careful shots at any lone drones, even assisting some other trainees in his squadron when he came across them.
Feeling good with himself after destroying five drones, he moved farther away from the shield, quickly taking in the status of the fight. The Vespers were slowly but surely cutting down the numbers of drones, which had by now been reduced to around eighty of the original more than one-hundred fifty. All the while, off in the distance, the Avalon sat motionless as if observing the fight. Feeling confident, he powered closer to the main fight, opening fire on the nearest drone he saw. It seemed to be alone, but as soon as Zack shot at it he found himself surrounded by three more drones. “Crap!” He yelled, banking down and hurrying out of the mass of drones as fast as he could. Unfortunately they proved persistent and turned to give chase, firing off shots which Zack barely was able to avoid. Knowing that he needed to move faster, he flipped a switch to set the Vesper to high-speed mode. He could feel the wings sweep back and the thrusters lock out to the side with minimal rotation available, the engines powering up to their fullest. When in combat mode the engine's output was limited to prevent strain on the fighter due ot its high maneuverability, but when the Vesper limited its own agility, it was possible to ramp up the engines to full. Rocketing away from the fight, Zack saw in a rear-view display that the drones were starting to fall back since they couldn't keep up any longer. Before he could celebrate, though, one of the drones fired off another shot, grazing his left engine.
The engine instantly failed, the Vesper spinning out of control. Trying to remain calm while cursing to himself all the while, Zack cut power to the right engine, frantically moving the thrusters about to arrest his crazy spiral deeper into space. Gradually he managed to slow down and bring the fighter under control again, but without one of his engines he was a complete sitting duck. To make matters worse, he noticed the drones that had been chasing him approaching on his position. Using the minimal movement allowed by his still functioning thrusters, he adjusted his aim so that he was aiming straight into their midst. He was just about to pull the trigger, but suddenly someone yelled at him through his helmet.
“No, dun' shoot now! They 'ould destroy you from that range if they 'anted to, but they 'aven't yet!” the voice said. Zack didn't recognize them, and so assumed they had to be in one of the other four squadrons and not a trainee.
“Then why are they coming my way?” Zack asked back, hesitating on pulling the trigger.
“'Ow should I know? Maybe they want to probe or a'duct you. Whatever the 'ase, let me take 'are of 'em! Yeehaw, baby!”
Suddenly another Vesper shot out from behind Zack in high-speed mode, switching to combat mode in the same instant in which it fired off a round of missiles at the drones. The drones noticed the missiles and began to drift apart to let them pass, while at the same time the new Vesper broke away upwards before looping down again, firing not at the drones but the missiles as he came back down. Zack realized with surprise that he hadn't meant for the missiles to hit the drones at all, he had known they'd be able to avoid them. He just wanted to get the missiles in their midst before blowing them up himself. His shots right on target, the missiles exploded, taking out all three of the drones with them. Still dropping down, the Vesper burst through the cloud of smoke from the missiles before turning up again, flying next to Zack's fighter.
Zack looked over and tried to see the pilot through his canopy, but he was wearing a bulky and ungainly flight suit that made it impossible for Zack to make anything out. “'Ey there, 'ow you say I protect you? I was watchin' you earlier, you 'eren't so bad for a fresh 'un. Just got a little too 'aught up in the heat of battle, but 'ey, it 'appens to everyone sometime. I only 'xpect one thing out a this, deal?”
“Yeah, um, sure.” The pilot seemed friendly enough, but it had just become part of Zack's nature to be wary of people he didn't know acting overly friendly.
“I 'ant to get to know you, ya 'ear? Want to talk. Not too often fresh 'uns come 'board; I just wanna 'ear what's goin' on down on our big 'unk of rock.”
“I...guess. Sure, why not? I just want one more thing too, what's your name? I'm Zack, before you ask.” Zack decided to go with him, since he didn't really have any other choice. It wouldn't hurt to meet new people anyways.
“Name's Jet, least that's what people call me. Zack, huh? Like it, 'ool name. I'll 'eep a eye on you, 'kay? I 'ike you, dun' want you to die on me, ya know. Later!”
Jet's Vesper took off, rising up above Zack's. Zack watched as Jet followed a generally circular path around where he drifted motionless, shooting down any drones that came close. Occasionally a larger group would come, which Jet would distract and take out if he could, or stall until another Vesper passed by and assisted. All the while Zack sat motionless, hand away from the joystick so that he wouldn't shoot any drone; he definitely did not want to bring any down on himself when he couldn't even move.
I see, this is why I want to fight so badly. I want to protect the weak, those who can't protect themselves. Like I did back in the subway, where I saved that old man, and like Jet is. I want to be a beacon of hope against the many Pokémon who bully and abuse people, protecting their victims. That is why I am here and why space has always been my goal, not just to get away from Pokémon, but to protect, and be the hope of all the hopeless.
The battle raged on for about twenty more minutes after Zack was disabled. As Jet buzzed about him, he sat and watched the fight, making the best of his situation and observing how the evidently more experienced pilot flew, nimbly rolling out of the way of shots at the very last second, breaking off at insane angles that used not just the power of their thrusters and engines to move, but also made full use of the momentum they had to carry them through. The way the more experienced pilots flew looked almost as if they were ice-skating in three dimensions to Zack, sliding about so nimbly that they could fly right through a cluster of drones, cut their main engines, turn around with their thrusters, and then fire at them while gliding backwards before powering on their engines again and diving downwards.
The fewer drones there were left, the smarter they seemed to get, and Zack speculated that they might actually be learning the tricks and maneuvers the experienced pilots used. He knew it was possible to build AIs that could learn based off not only their own experience but other's too in a sort of shared consciousness, but he had never seen such a system implemented like this before. Could that be the true purpose of this skirmish, then? To train their collaborative AI at the expense of all that ended up destroyed? There was no way to know of course, and regardless all Zack could do was sit and watch. At last the number of drones had been reduced to only about ten, those ten fleeing back to the Avalon rather than wait to be destroyed. No one bothered to pursue them either, there was no reason too. Kill a pilot and the enemy lost all their experience, but a machine's experience didn't mean much, especially if they truly did share a distributed AI.
The Avalon turned around and began to fly away, the Andromeda giving pursuit. However, to shake the Andromeda off its tail, the Avalon fired off two shots of its energy weapons backwards at the Andromeda, the shots impacting with the energy shield and creating visible ripples throughout it, but fortunately the shield managed to hold. Zack wasn't sure that it would last much longer though, which meant it was all the better that the Avalon didn't seem to want to actually destroy the Andromeda, it just didn't want her following. Not like the Andromeda would be able to follow for long anyways, as as soon as it had picked up the last of the drones it warped off again, seeming to slip between the folds of space and out of existence just as quick as it had appeared.
Zack sighed as yells and shouts went out across the radios, filling his helmet with the sounds of victory. Not a true victory, but they had at least managed to protect themselves. There had been a cost, however; two or three pilots had been shot down, and Zack later found out that around twenty crew-members had died during the Avalon's initial attack, whether because of being hit directly by the beam or ending up flushed to space. As a recovery craft towed him into the landing deck, he nodded through his canopy to Jet, flying alongside him before breaking off to an empty elevator of his own. As Zack deployed his landing gear and folded up his wings the recovery craft set him down on the ground of the landing deck, the magnetic tracks taking over his movement.
As he was pulled onto the elevator and descended to the hanger deck, Zack was conflicted as to whether he should feel exhilarated for taking part in his first fight with very little experience, or aggravated for having been disabled so easily. As soon as he could he opened his canopy and took off his cockpit, rubbing his eyes before looking up and out at the hanger deck.
“Yo, Erik! 'Lad to see I did my part!”
Zack's eyes widened as he saw who he assumed was Jet, standing off to the side and walking along next to Zack's Vesper as it moved to a maintenance area to be repaired. “You...you're a...” he stuttered, unable to believe it.
“A Pokémon? A Floatzel? I 'et that a lot, the surprise 'ears off quickly.” Jet's oversized flight suit hung loosely over his furred body, a rubbery floatation tube wrapping around the back of his neck necessitating the bulky yet loose fitting when outside the cockpit flight suit. Zack know realized why the helmet he carried under a paw was oversized, it was needed to fit his snout in.
This isn't like the surprise of other's, this is like...betrayal... He saved me, he wants to be my friend, yet...he's a Pokémon? Why would he do this, want this? Why is he here, of all places? Gulping and controlling his wild emotions the best he could, Zack decided to just outright ask him. “Why are you here? I thought no Pokémon wanted to join the space navy, or be in space at all.”
“Hah, everyone ask me that at some point. You? Right away. See, I like that. 'Ell, I'm 'ere 'cause I want ta be, simple as that. There's nothin' sayin' Pokémon can't join the space navy, mos' just dun' want ta. Back on Earth, I grew tired of surfin' the waves, so I decided ''ey, why not surf the stars?' Pa said it was a stupid dream, that I 'ould ne'er make it, but 'ey, look at me now! Not jus' that, though. Me like to 'elp people, rescue them. Save the drownin'. No drownin' in space, not withou' death, but I can still rescue people like you.”
His dream was to come to the stars, just like me... I had thought my reason for coming here at first was to get away, but now I now see it's so much more than that. I want to protect people, just let Jet wants to save people...
Feeling uneasy, Zack slowly climbed out of his Vesper, walking over to Jet; he noticed that he was taller than the Floatzel by about six inches. Placing a shaking hand on Jet's shoulder, Zack tried to smile, his inner conflicts pulling the edges of his mouth every which way. “I...I think we need to talk. Later...”
As Zack slid down to the ground, Jet caught him and eased him down, grinning over him as Zack fainted. “Yah! 'Ey, after you wake, we talk. You tell me 'bout Earth, and anythin' else you want, 'kay?.”
The Andromeda had to return to Earth after the encounter with the Avalon. Command wanted to know everything that the Andromeda had learned about the new ship and its technologies, as well as review the various videos of the encounter. During that time all of the trainee's flight practice had to be put on hold which didn't bother anyone very much; the fight had been more than enough practice for most of them for a long while. Zack was also too busy to worry about practice, he had a friend to talk with.
Zack ended up telling Jet everything. He didn't know how the Floatzel would take it, but the surprise at seeing a Pokémon aboard the Andromeda had sent Zack over the edge. He no longer knew what to believe, and had to get it off his chest somehow. As soon as he woke up he told Jet about his hatred for Pokémon, how he had always viewed them as criminals trying to usurp humans and take their place, how he had shot those two Machoke not solely to save the old man, but also because he wanted them to feel pain. He told him of the incident in grade school he had seen with the Machop bullying the other kid, and how that may have been the root of his problem, or at least the spark that set off something he had always had. Surprisingly, Jet took it well.
“So you 'ate Pokémon? I dun' believe you. There's more; you just lyin' to yourself, sayin' you 'ate Pokémon so you dun' have ta face your real fear. I can see it in you, the waves of your soul in your eyes. You better than that,” Jet scoffed.
Zack remained still, holding a cup of water with both hands in his lap, drawing lines in the water droplets that covered its surface. Hiding something... But... “I don't remember anything...” he whispered. “I don't remember anything that happened when I was even younger. Nothing before that year when I saw the Machop bullying the kid. I thought it was just too long ago, too distant a memory, but...you think I'm hiding something there?”
“Could be. 'Ould be not. You have to fin' out you'self, sometime, some'ow. All I can say is that whatever happen', it's the source. It's the core, the ripple that started the wave. Only your waves, they be calmin' down. I see them. You see me and see I'm 'ike you. You 'ate me, so you 'ate you. But you dun' want to 'ate you, no one does. So you confuse', and now, you calm down. You reconsider, you rethink. You ask you'self why you can' like me, like you'self, and you answer, you dun' know why not.”
Zack lowered his eyes as he pressed his thumbs against the glass of the cup, as if trying to break it. What's wrong with me...? Dammit, he's right. I don't even know... I've always labeled Pokémon as being criminals, all of them, and ignored anything contrary. Now I can't ignore this... “But I don't want to admit I'm wrong...” Zack said quietly, continuing his thoughts verbally. “I don't want to just say that all this time, I've been wrong to think like I have been.”
“Listen', you dun' hate Pokémon, that fact. If you did, you 'ave shot me the momen' you lay eyes on me, like those Machoke, hah! You say you shot 'em outta hate, but no, you shot 'em to protect the old 'un. That it.”
After Zack didn't respond, Jet stood up from his chair and walked over next to Zack's bed, grabbing a hand in one of his paws. “Look, we be frien's, yah? I show you how you wrong, and fore'er we be friends. I got you back if you get shot again, and you got mine. Then when not shot, we can protec' and save people, yah?”
Zack closed his eyes, his fingers sliding down the sides of the glass. Slowly he opened his eyes again, and looked up at the expectant Floatzel hovering over him. “Yah,” he quietly said, mimicking Jet's broken English.
Jet burst out laughing, and roughly pulled Zack up. “Yah, you bet! You, me, we be one, friends! Two waves merge to make one stronger, that be us! You see, I show you!”
Zack couldn't help but smile slightly, and as he did so he could feel something seem to wash off him, as if he had finally been able to drop a weight he had been carrying for years. After going on for so long, hiding what I thought was myself from the world, I just end up now and see that I was wrong all along... I wasn't hiding anything from anyone but myself. I still may not know what happened so long ago to cause this in the first place, what planted the seed that grew so fast, but for now maybe I can be happy, and finally, really, be who I want to be.
Jet dragged Zack out of bed with surprising strength and pulled him out into the hall, dragging him along to who knows where. Going along with it, Zack stumbled after the Floatzel, feeling the weight of a thousand lies fall off behind him. He knew it wouldn't be as simple as that, and that he couldn't get completely over his hate just by having talked to Jet, but he knew he was on the path now. Jet had convinced him to see the truth, and now that he saw his hate for what it is, he could work on getting rid of it for good.
“Hey, Jet?” Zack hazarded, stopping in the middle of the hall and stepping off to the side.
“Huh?” Jet looked back curiously.
“When we get the time, promise to show me just how you pulled off some of those maneuvers you did, and maybe, just maybe, I won't put a bullet between your eyes,” Zack joked, grinning.
“Yah!” Jet exclaimed before taking off again, Zack running after.
End of Waves