A Joy Ride
by Michael Priv
           “You lucky bum! A courier mission. A joy-ride is what it is.”
          Officer on Duty slapped me on the back, grinning. “Have a successful mission.”
          He waved off my salute. “Dismissed!”
          My attempt at a crisp heel-snap and about-face was hampered somewhat by the bulky space suit and boots.
          The mission was to deliver the communications pouch from the Base to the Imperial Space Defense Headquarters on Zacharius, an enormous space battle station. I had no idea, of course, what I was carrying—they never tell you anything. Could’ve been just a birthday present for the General’s old lady, for all I knew. A rather relaxing mission—about three weeks to get there, a week of R&R at Zacharius, three weeks back, catch up on some sleep and lots of movies and porn on my virt—a virtual reality device, more real than life sometimes, if you wanted it to be.       
          Zacharius, a colossal structure, was built in space and never landed anywhere because it wouldn’t take off. Zacharius houses a full Deep Space Destroyer Division, a Marine Division, a special Zacharius Base Crew Division and all kinds of added troops, Command Support staff and general staff, families, about 300,000 people in all. The Lower Quarters, deep in the bowels, had restaurants, bars, bordellos, hookers at every corner and on call and the wildest virt joints—all for enlisted personnel and non-military support crews.
          I was looking forward to some R&R, especially to getting laid and having some good food on Zacharius. At our base on Xenon we enjoyed a perpetual Condition Two schedule: eight hours on, eight hours stand-by, eight hours off, no days off.   
XM-501 Bobcat was my favorite one-man fighter ship—powerful, offered relatively decent living quarters and, most importantly, it was equipped with a synchronized pair of particle beam guns. A particle beam gun is essentially just a directional energy flow weapon. Regular DEF guns emit a tight flow of neutrons, protons or electrons at the speed of light. A particle beam weapon is different in that an extremely brief counter-flow is introduced into the energy flow every one-ten-millionth of a second. These counter-flows create tiny ridges of energy that behave like, and in fact are, matter. So this gun, in fact, emits a stream of tiny particles at nearly the speed of light, ten million per second. With my two guns I could obliterate a target the size of, let’s say, a large building faster than you could say “Holy crap!”
          About five days into it I ran into an enemy Cobra, a destroyer-class patrol vessel with a crew of sixteen and enough firepower to take out a planet. Well, okay, maybe a small planet, a very small planet, maybe a moon or something. As soon as my early warning system started bleating, I sent a message to the Base asking for help. The reply I received did not bring me any happiness. The bastards replied that their hands were too full for a rescue mission right that minute, maybe later. I was instructed to commence procedure 11-18, “Evade and Escape”. Thanks, morons!
The enemy Captain raised me on the close-range commlink speaking in broken Standard, his cold unfriendly eyes under bushy eyebrows large on my screen.
          “Bobcat Pilot, Cobra 287 Captain speaking. Respond.”
          “What do you want, Cobra 287?” I replied, scowling impatiently, as if I had more important things to do.
“Bobcat Pilot, prepare for boarding. You are to surrender the delivery pouch and submit yourself to the standard POW protocol.”
          They know about the pouch. Damn! I long suspected that our base was infiltrated. So could I be a decoy then? A red herring? An attempt to flash them out? If so, I was doomed.
          The standard POW treatment per the Rules of Engagement was unacceptable to me. Any captured enemy combatant automatically received a ten-year hard labor sentence to be served at their Emperor’s discretion. Basically an Emperor’s slave working the mines, mopping up radiation spills—things like that. No, thanks. I made a really lousy slave. I knew that by experience and really did not want to go there. I responded with the only swear phrase I remembered in Cipilu. I was told it had something to do with sodomizing their particularly repulsive local lizard. The commlink went dead. I thought I did all right—never liked officers anyway, particularly enemy officers.      
          The Cobra stayed on my tail. I was way off course now, leading them away from Zacharius per the Standard Operating Procedure. As if they didn’t know the location of the Headquarters already! And as if Zacharius couldn’t defend itself against a thousand destroyers! I just could not shake them off. They gained enough on me to use their guns every once in a while just to keep me on my toes. I had to have my force screen on most of the time, which drained too much power. I couldn’t keep this up much longer.
          My scanners indicated a presence of a large mass less than half a million miles away, as the proverbial crow flies. The mass was much larger than a spaceship but much smaller than a planet. Must be an asteroid. I locked my Bobcat on course and keyed in the orbiting commands. With the engine shut down, I directed all energy to my force screens—a prudent decision in the face of the enemy’s now incessant shooting.
          My strategy was simple, even dull, but it was the best I could think of. I would get within a couple of hundred miles from the asteroid, into its gravitational field, and maneuver the Bobcat to stay on that orbit going around the asteroid. At my relative speed, the maneuver would strain the ship and create a significant g-force for me to grapple with. That was fine. According to my computer, we could take it. The idea was, obviously, that the much heavier Cobra would not be able to make the turn at this speed. It would shoot off at a tangent and then double back, allowing me to gain sufficient distance to get away. Nothing very original, really, textbook stuff. They were staying on my tail so they must have taken the bait.
          The dicey point was right at the moment of the turn. In order to make such a turn and stay on my orbit, I would have to re-direct all power to the side thrusters and brakes momentarily. No more force screen, no defense. Thus the pivotal point of the entire strategy was the notion that in order to make the turn, Cobra, being larger and heavier, would have to re-direct the power from their guns to their thrusters a bit earlier so they’d finally stop shooting at me right before I lost the protective screen. And then they wouldn’t be able to make the turn and shoot off into space at a tangent. I sure hoped they were that dumb.
          It turned out they weren’t. They were simply not planning to make the turn at all. They just waited for me to drop my defenses and scorched my behind but good! The jolt was so violent, it knocked me out for a minute. The blast must have been carefully measured not to destroy my Bobcat but just get it to crash on the asteroid so they’d be able to do their tangential detour, come back and retrieve the pouch.        
          The computer gave Bobcat enough of a thrust and direction right before they fry my Bobcat. Without the power plant I would never get out of here alive now, the party was over. Of course, my beacon kept transmitting my position to the Base. They might eventually send a search mission this way to retrieve the bag I am carrying, if nothing else. How long would that take? I could probably go for four or five days longer with the oxygen I got. I could still walk out of here if the Base sent somebody after me as soon as their equipment indicated that I went off course. Or if I could take over the Cobra and live on their life support. If...    
          How important for the Base was the retrieval of the pouch I was carrying? Was I the red herring? I did the unthinkable—I broke the seal and opened the pouch.
          Horseshit! I took a deep breath, held it for a few moments and exhaled slowly. I must calm down and think. 
          Meanwhile my Bobcat kept turning into the orbit. I added as much side thrust as I can manually, taking my g-force punishment with a great deal of exhilaration, actually. There is no hope to walk away from this alive now but I sure enjoy the feel of my Bobcat in motion!
          I go out of Cobra’s range immediately as I start turning. They burn my butt in a fraction of a second that I am in their range with defenses down. The destroyer’s Captain starts a turning maneuver of his own, not intending, of course, to make the full turn. He overshoots the asteroid but it doesn’t do me any good now.  
          I hit the stark surface of the asteroid, mottled with craters, very hard considering the relatively small size of the asteroid. Must be mostly metallic and rotating pretty damn fast for that much gravity. My harnesses and anti-grav seat protected me well enough. I check the hardware. The main computer is fried, the power is down, life support system is gone. But the guns show six percent capacity and the gunnery computer comes on line with its usual energetic little chime. There is nothing left to do except wait… for what? For suffocation—as inevitable as snow in the winter where I grew up.
          Not sure how long I sit there in the darkness thinking. Some hours, I guess. I finally see Cobra coming back for me. They really want the empty pouch, the idiots. Cobra, sleek and deadly, touches down, dislodging a torrent of debris, no more than half a mile away. All my electronics are off, even the guns, to show dead on their power scanners. Of course their force screens are also off—can’t have them on when on the ground. I see a boarding party disembark, five suited up figures on stark background, hand-held weapons on the ready. They assemble by the air lock around their sergeant doing a low-grav walk checklist—my best guess. What should I do? Repel borders? Surrender? Give them the empty pouch “Hey, losers, here, knock yourselves out”? No. I keep the pledges I give. Things are better that way in the long run. Time to kill and then time to die. In that order.
          I flip the guns computer on, key in the command codes. In one well-practiced, fluid motion I turn and push in the vector knob, setting and locking the mid-ship target quickly, and then erupt with my six percent. The salvo literally rips Cobra in half. Nobody inside could have survived the blast. The air lock area is partially vaporized along with the boarding party.   
          I disconnect from all my on-board systems slowly and climb out of my Bobcat wreckage. Hey, why hurry? I take a leisurely stroll to the pile of junk that up to very recently had been Cobra, the Destroyer, with sixteen breathing and thinking beings on board. Oh, right, I forgot. They were not really people, they were the enemy, the much hated and despised Cipili, very-very different from us. Totally different. Nothing in common. According to our Propaganda Officer, their Emperor was even worse than our own perverted imbecile in many ways. Poor buggers.    
          Along the way I see a few random body parts—all that’s left of the boarding party. Particle beam weapons can definitely rearrange body parts. I examine the twisted hardware of the Cobra wreckage with about a dozen decimated bodies inside. Which one of the charred corpses is the Captain? I’d need dental records to figure that out—if I knew how to use them. Cobra’s life support system is a no-go. The Destroyer is dead just like its crew. Just like my Bobcat. Just like me. I walk outside and sit down on a rock next to the enemy ship I managed to destroy (huray!), taking in the stark beauty of Space, waiting to suffocate.
          Death sucks.

                                                                                                                                                                                    © 2012 Michael Priv. All Rights Reserved.