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“It was a bad day at Haven, Thirty-seven quotes Seth Ryan saying, ‘I woke up with a feeling something terrible was going to happen today. I had this same feeling the day krigs ate my little brother.’ ”

- Excerpt from: Ocher Rangers, An Oral History, by Sten Neg

 

Chapter 2

 

The shiny silver wings of the nimble Scramblers flashed with reflections from Ocherva’s twin suns as they broke free of the moon’s atmosphere and flitted into the blackness of space. At full throttle it didn’t take long for them to get within scanner range of the incoming objects.

Hap brought her scanner to bear on the target while keeping an eye on the coolant warning light. She reached up quicker than normal, her arm lighter in the reduced gravity of space, and tapped the indicator with a gloved finger. It went out. Maybe it was just a loose connection on the light. She returned her attention to flying and tried to forget it.

Devon’s fighter hung off Hap’s starboard wing, floating there like it wasn’t moving at all. Speed was hard to judge in space. Even though their Scramblers were screaming along at breakneck speed, it looked as if they were hanging from invisible strings from the ceiling of a kid’s room.

“Whoever he is, he’s coming at us like a demon,” Devon said in Hap’s ear piece.

Hap was about to say something when a green blur shot between them. “What the hell was that?”

“Break right Hap. Control, it just blew past us. We’re turning to pursue.”

“Copy Devil One.”

Both Scramblers slew hard and came about to catch up with the intruding ship. As Hap leveled out the coolant indicator came back on again. She was quicker to tap it this time, but it stayed on. Damn. The turn put her Scrambler slightly behind Devon’s. Hap could see the orange glow of her partner’s engine and the blue emissions coming from whatever it was they were chasing. They had lost some momentum in the turn but were quickly gaining on it.

“What do you think it is, some kind of rogue pirate ship?” Hap asked.

“It looked military to me.”

Hap tried to recall what she had seen as the ship blew past them. A flat winged, dark green colored ship with a cylindrical fuselage. There was a splash of yellow along the leading edge of the wing. Come to think of it, it did remind her of an old-time war plane.

The intruding ship was heading straight for Ocherva.

The ship-to-ship intercom crackled on and startled Hap. “…ignals jammed… can’t reach Control.”

“Me either. What now?” Hap asked.

Hap noticed movement from Devon’s canopy. She was signaling to charge weapons. Hap nodded and did so without delay. Within seconds the tracking computer had the blue flame of the intruder locked in with a firing solution.

She glanced out the canopy again and felt relieved that Devon was back in her element. Making snap decisions and flying by the seat of her pants. Any trace of nerves from facing the unknown were swiftly set aside by her confidence in Devon’s leadership. No matter what happened, Devon would keep them safe.

The thin purple line of Ocherva’s atmosphere shined with the brilliance of the largest sun as they dove into the moon’s shadow. The rogue ship’s single engine radiated from white to blue. It was mesmerizing. Beautiful. Hap blinked and snapped her eyes down to her instruments before she could fall into a trance staring at the blue flame.

Events seemed to move faster as they began to enter the thin upper atmosphere of Ocherva. Hap’s sense of speed increased the lower they flew. Devon’s Scrambler edged closer to the blue flame. Hap could hear her broadcasting a warning on all emergency channels and in all known Federation languages. It was having no effect on the rogue ship’s steady course.

Devon backed away and came along side Hap’s Scrambler as all three ships kissed the thin air along the boundary of space. She held up her left hand and pushed an imaginary firing button. Her own thumb slid off the safety and hovered over the trigger on her control stick.

It was standard Ranger procedure to fire a warning shot across the bow of any ship not responding to communications. Devon was in a position to fire the shot and it was Hap’s job to contain the perpetrator and discourage any evasive maneuvers.

A flash of muzzle light from under Devon’s Scrambler sent several explosive rounds across the intruding ship’s bow. The ship’s blue engine winked off and it skidded sideways and then completely turned around to face them. It happened so fast, Hap didn’t have time to counter the move. The last thing she saw was the expanding, concentric circles of light coming from the ship’s weapons.

* * *

Devon flipped her Scrambler over and dove away from the green ship as soon as it rotated. Sometimes she acted on instinct more than reason. Gravity pushed her head back and crushed her body into the thinly padded seat of the Scrambler until she leveled out again.

The explosion of Hap’s Scrambler lit up her cockpit and blinded her for an instant. Putting her hand up to shade her eyes from the flash, she wound up pressing it against the cold glass canopy, trying in vain to reach her friend.

Hap’s Scrambler split open like a seed pod and shattered into a million tiny fragments. In seconds there was nothing left of it. Or her. Devon was frozen in a moment of time that did more than take her breath away, it sent her soul into a deep, dark place. She closed her eyes and swore on the memory of her best friend.

Her gloved fingers began to get warm against the cockpit glass as the friction of the upper atmosphere started scorching the nose of her Scrambler. The flames of glowing plasma outside became bright enough and hot enough to make her pull her hand away. An alarm sounded in her cockpit that forced her to open her eyes. Her Scrambler was stalling out in the thin air and falling like a rock.

She grasped the control yoke and gently pulled the tiny fighter into a less severe angle. The ship that had killed Hap was nowhere to be seen. A blip on her short range set gave her swelling anger a focus point. She put her Scrambler on an intercept course and wiped tears from her clouded eyes. The emotion of the moment overtook her and she cried out unrestrained. Her best friend was gone. It was too much to keep inside.

As her Scrambler pulled closer to the green ship, her tears slowly subsided, replaced by anger and thoughts of revenge. There was nothing to stop her from destroying this ship; no laws, no self-restraint, and no Hap to pull her back from the precipice and keep her from killing. She charged her primary guns and locked them on the blue flame ahead of her. Sniffing back the last of her tears, she focused on the electronic cross hairs of the weapon system.

They were dozens of kilometers high and falling on the dark side of the moon. In a few minutes the glare of the system’s primary star would make it hard to see the target. She had to fire now. The targeting reticule glowed red and she pulled the trigger. Multiple rounds exploded from the tubes underneath her and trailed smoke into her glowing target.

The green ship juked from side to side and managed to avoid the incendiary rounds. She was ready to barrel roll away from it again if it made any lateral moves, like it did to Hap. But it kept on course, no doubt scanning the moon.

Angry that her shots had missed, Devon slammed her throttle forward and tried a different spread pattern. This time several rounds impacted the ship and exploded against an invisible shield of some kind. As the rounds went off, she could see a panel of light absorb the energy briefly before disappearing again. The ship had some kind of magnetic or plasma shielding that was impervious to her ammo.

Devon swore again. Both planes were losing altitude fast as they sped across the terminator into daylight.

The ship began to slow down enough for Devon to maneuver her Scrambler alongside of it. The cylindrical fuselage ended in a conical shape that was black and impenetrable. There were markings on the side that reminded her again of the war planes from antiquity. This ship was obviously a military fighter.

She flipped off the unseen pilot with her middle finger and edged her wing closer to it. The dark green fighter moved away from her like the opposing poles of bar magnets. She studied the lines of the fighter, trying to spot a weakness that she could exploit. It’s course was so steady, she wondered if it were a drone being controlled remotely or perhaps by some alien artificial intelligence.

The secondary sun broke through thin cirrus clouds and back-lit the black nose of the fighter. She could just make out the rounded head of the occupant. Whoever was piloting the ship at least had a head about the same size as a human. Devon pulled up the nose of her Scrambler and rolled over the top of the fighter to look at it upside down. There were two rectangle cut outs in the squared off main wing. It reminded her of the number eight. She started calling it an Eight-fighter in her head. Each wing was tipped with a long, thin barrel that housed the energy weapons it had used on Hap’s Scrambler.

Completing her roll under the Eight-fighter, she could find no obvious weakness. She knew it was letting her study it and she was in turn doing the same for its occupant. Two knights of the sky, sizing each other up before attacking again. Devon dropped back and pulled away from the Eight-fighter, putting some thin air between them.

She tried to contact Control again and was greeted by static. The Eight-fighter altered course and dove. Devon followed, keeping some distance between them while she formulated a plan of attack. The main star of the system was behind her now, giving her a tactical advantage. That is if the pilot of the Eight-fighter relied more on visual cues than collision detection systems.

She charged her main guns again and skidded sideways enough to spit a few dozen rounds into her opponent. The Eight-fighter took evasive action a bit late and several rounds impacted across the trailing edge of the starboard wing. Small pieces broke away and the ship trailed smoke for a few seconds.

“You’re mine, buddy. Mine!”

The Eight-fighter turned away from her keeping its rear shielding facing her guns. Devon got some altitude and dove on it again, never letting it fully get away from her. She squeezed off some more rounds missing wide as the green fighter turned back at her.

Faced with an attack from the Eight-fighter, Devon maneuvered away from it just as it released a volley of energy bolts directly at her. The Scrambler jolted violently as parts of the port wing tore off. Alarms started ringing in her cockpit as her Scrambler alerted her to the damage. Most of the wing was blown away and a chunk of her vertical fin to boot. She wrestled with the controls to get the wounded fighter stabilized. Her lateral movements were restricted forcing her to compensate with retros.

As the Eight-fighter came about and tried to get behind her, she realized it could out maneuver her for as long as it wanted. Her ship was severely hit and could no longer joust with the more agile green fighter. She was going to have to even the odds.

Devon throttled back and allowed the alien fighter to gain on her. As the distance between them closed, she flung her ship around and opened fire. Let’s see how you like a dose of your own medicine.

Her explosive rounds impacted the front of the Eight-fighter and were absorbed by the forward shields. She swore again, diving out of reach of the Eight-fighter’s guns.

Both fighters were considerably lower, streaking over the rocky mountains and crevices of the moon’s equator. It was a back and forth, hunter and prey sprint that tested the skills of both pilots. Devon knew they were edging closer to Haven, home of her Stellar Ranger group. She had tried numerous times to reach Control but her signal could not get through the jamming noise coming from the Eight-fighter.

* * *

Aven was tracking the battle’s progress on his perimeter scanners. A crowd of concerned onlookers had gathered at Control to watch the progress of the fight. The identification signal coming from Devon’s ship was being jammed. They couldn’t tell who was piloting the surviving Scrambler. Somehow they all knew it was not Hap.

She was a great pilot, but she was no Devon Ardel. Still, everyone loved Hap and it showed by the long faces and sad eyes.

“They’re coming right at us,” Aven said.

Everyone pushed for the door and filed out into the bright sunny street, their heads up and hands over their eyes. Seth began to hear the fighters first, a growing rumble with two distinctly different sounds. One was higher pitched and pulsing and the other was a steady roar of a Ranger Scrambler.

Seth stood firmly with his feet shoulder length apart. His raised hand held a partially chewed bird leg and his other hand held a mug of beer. He had come out of the tavern with his lunch when Aven alerted everyone to the engagement.

Both fighters streaked over head in a low pass that caused everyone to cover their ears. Seth caught the markings on the damaged Scrambler. “Hap’s been killed, that’s Devon’s Scrambler.”

Another Ranger lowered his hand and swore. “Whoever that guy is, he’s going to regret that.”

Seth managed a grim smile on his whiskered face. Everyone knew it was a death sentence to kill a Stellar Ranger. But only those who served with Devon knew how close she had been to Hap. They all knew how loyal their leader was and how deadly she could be when properly motivated. The pitched battle taking place in the pink skies of Ocherva could only lead to one conclusion. The pilot of the green fighter would soon be dead.

The crowd of Rangers and citizens that had gathered in the main street of Haven were transfixed by the battle and only just seemed to realize it was going to end above them. A few of them started backing under the cover of nearby buildings as Devon’s Scrambler got closer. Seth stood his ground alone in the center of the dirt street.

* * *

Devon’s Scrambler was running low on fuel and several warning lights were blinking across her dashboard. Her arms ached from yanking on the controls and her body weary from banking hard in violent maneuvers. It’s time to end this.

She turned hard in a steep bank and came around again to face off with the Eight-fighter. They lined up in a head-on engagement, each ship careening toward the other as fast as they could. Traveling nap-of-the-earth, their engines blowing sand and dust into huge fantails behind them.

Devon had little left to fight with and even less to live for. With Hap dead and her Scrambler out of ammo, her options were limited. As the two fighters closed in on each other, neither one wavered or gave any indication of changing course.

Time seemed to slow down for Devon. She countered every move of her opponent – unseen behind his shiny black cockpit. In the final seconds before the fighters collided, she made the decision to live. Using her ship as a knife, she dropped her port wing and clipped the Eight-fighter at the root of its starboard wing. The two ships ripped each other apart meters above main street. Metal grinding through metal was the last sound she heard before punching out.

The Eight-fighter pilot chose to ride his fighter into the ground. It burrowed into the smaller sand dunes just outside of town. Devon’s Scrambler fell in pieces from the sky like metal rain. The largest was her engine and it exploded upon impact with an old lerra barn at the opposite edge of town.

Devon’s head bled profusely, cut by the canopy in the violent ejection. Her chute unfurled after the booster rockets spit her seat higher into the burning skies. Even with the rocket assist, she hit the desert floor hard and toppled over in a cloud of sand just few meters from the half buried, smoking fuselage of the Eight-fighter. She pulled off her helmet and tossed it aside letting her short blonde hair blow astray in the desert wind.

Pulling her blaster, she tried to stand but fell back down on her knees, dizzy from the short thrill ride. There was movement from the crashed green fighter. She watched with blurred eyes as the black canopy was pushed open and a dark dressed humanoid climbed out. Devon tried to focus on the figure as she pulled herself up again. Slower this time.

He was wearing a respirator and helmet that masked his face. His form suggested a human. Stouter than the average male but similar in shape and body mass. She charged the blaster and pointed it at the pilot.

“Freeze! You’re under arrest for the murder of a Stellar Ranger,” she said, her voice cracking. Blood from the gash on her head dripped down into her eyes and she wiped it away thinking it was sweat.

The Eight-fighter pilot turned in her direction as if responding to a strange noise. He unbuckled the straps that held on his mask. It fell to the side, revealing a pale bluish face with a black goatee. Devon felt a wave of relief, he was obviously human. Not some bizarre alien species as she had once thought. The figure pulled up the dark sun shield to reveal the top half of his face.

Devon stared at the face of Hap’s killer. A heartless man with deep set eyes and a heavy brow ridge. His deathly skin color made her skin crawl. She kept edging forward across the ocher sand, her blaster pointing at his chest. He seemed just as curious by her looks as she was by his. His stare shot through her, like a hunter’s focused bead. She could see that his right eye was a pale gray color with a jagged scar above it; a more vicious warrior she had never seen.

She was so entranced by his exotic looks, she didn’t see him going for a weapon until he fired on her. Her thigh exploded in pain, knocking her down and forcing her to cry out. Sharp needles jabbed her leg, radiating out from the impact and paralyzing her entire right side. She got herself upright, leaning heavily on her other side and squeezed off several shots at the pilot. She managed to wing him in the arm and knock the weapon from his hands. Her other shots were short and burned some ocha weeds beside him.

He fell forward into the loose sand, fumbling for his gun. But it had slid down the dune and was too far out of reach. Devon ignored the vice that her leg felt as if it were in, and focused instead on dragging herself closer to her target.

For the first time she noticed a growing sound from above. Another green fighter descended on them. It was longer than the first one but still had the rectangular cut outs in its wings. Blowing sand kicked up around her as she raised her blaster to fire on it. Her shots were easily absorbed by the fighter’s rear shielding. The blowing sand forced her to turn her head as the second fighter hovered between her and the pilot.

The blue faced man climbed aboard the second fighter and stood up behind the fuselage. A canopy popped open and he stepped into it with one leg. Still standing he peered over the wing tip and down at Devon struggling in the sand below.

She raised her blaster again but did not fire. The two exchanged looks for what seemed like forever to Devon. The man put his good arm to his chest and then thrust it outward in her direction. Screw you too! She fired at him again, but the wing tip of the fighter pulled up and deflected her shots. Tiny pieces of metal sprayed outward. The blue-skinned man slid into the back seat and the canopy closed. She screamed at the ship as it rose into the sky. Falling to her back she looked up at it. She continued to fire at it until it was long gone. Finally she dropped her arm and holstered her weapon.

Anger propelled her forward. She pulled herself up the slippery sand dune to where the second Eight-fighter had come to rest. Half buried in the warm sand was the pilot’s pistol. It was black and smaller then her blaster. She hefted it as it was heavier than it looked. Sliding her hand the length, it was cool to the touch. Without thinking, she slid the gun into her jacket pocket for later inspection.

The other Rangers were fast approaching in an aircar. Devon fell back against the dune and waited for them. The radiating pain in her leg matched her heart beat. Tears began to stream down her cheeks again, or was it blood? She couldn’t tell and didn’t care. She had let Hap’s killer get away.  That hurt more than the physical wounds she had received.

_________________

Author’s Comments:

The death of Hap is the defining moment in the story for Devon. Revenge becomes her motivation and is the theme of this book. I really like the action in this chapter and the duel above the desert town’s street with all its Western overtones. The events that will happen on Ocherva in this novel, affect Devon and others on into the next two novels. As for the planet itself, it comes back in Starveyors and continues to play an important roll in the saga.

We also meet the villain in this chapter. Its always good when you can have your hero and villain meet early in the story. Exactly why a Votainion Chief Architect is flying a fighter out ahead of his armada, is beside the point. LOL! Actually, I was hoping it would show that the Votainions were a bit wilder at this time than in later eras.

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