I recently found this Star Saga short story about a starfighter pilot with a passion for Opera in my file system. So here it is for your enjoyment. It’s set in the middle of the Great War, during the Starstrikers Era.
OPUSCULE OVER CHOJ’II
by Ken McConnell
I always listen to opera when I’m in a dogfight; a loud singer and a full orchestra are best. Bonus points for being in some snooty, high-minded language so that I don’t know what the hell they are saying. I just like the sound of it as I blast away. One, two, three, pull the trigger and pop, go the blue devils.
Stupid Vots have no clue how to fly. They always arrive in the same formations, zipping along like robots or something. Sometimes you can get the first one and the second one just flies right into your gun sights without even trying to evade. Too easy. Skipper says they’re just well disciplined. I say they’re idiots.
I transferred to this unit for some action, I had no idea it would be this freaking easy. Sure we get to fight, but what’s the point when the enemy refuses to fight back? I just don’t understand the mentality of those guys. I mean how can they blindly fly into the enemy’s fire without even trying to engage us? I put in for another transfer, but I won’t get it.
Choj’ii is a simmering jungle world along the so-called Neutral Zone. I’d never even heard of it before arriving here a few months ago. The planet is smaller than Selene but covered in thick clouds that constantly dump rain with high salinity. It’s like ocean water rain and it rusts out metal faster than any place I’ve ever been too. When I stepped off the transport the humidity hit me like a liquid wall. Now I can’t get the salty smell of my own sweat mixed with the rain out of my nostrils.
Our birds are tired old Spieron starfighters painted a motley patchwork of gray, green and brown. Most of the paint has worn off or been replaced with the dirty orange color of rust. Even though half the metals used in the fighter are exotic composites, unaffected by the moisture, the parts that are metal have to be constantly re-fabricated. Replacing high tech starfighter parts here in the middle of nowhere is not an easy task. Our maintenance troops are miracle workers for keeping these ships combat ready day in and day out. I suppose they have plenty of justification for ensuring we fly, given the never-ending stream of enemy attacks that occur here.
I got my first confirmed kill the day I arrived here. To say this was a target rich environment for fighting would be an understatement. Every day the enemy attacked us in some manner. Either they were harassing us with their Triak fighters or their ground troops were attempting to overrun our aerodrome carved out of the jungle floor here in this otherwise tranquil valley. Some days we’re attacked both ways. Those are the days I really hate. When they pin us down to the ground with gunfire and strafing runs I always feel so powerless. Just as soon as I’m able to get airborne and return the favor to them, I feel more at ease.
On my last mission I decided to let the others enjoy my music. It was a stupid idea, but I was bored. I waited until we had lined up on the enemy and then I sat on my mic and cranked up the opera. A wailing woman sang at the top of her lungs while I squeezed the trigger and splashed another couple blue skins into the forest canopy. I released the mic and rolled over to see the last Triak pancake into a bog not far from our firebase. A quick pass overhead confirmed that it was largely undamaged. A kernel of an idea came to me as I started my climb back up to join the rest of the flight.
“Bagger Four, this Control. Who the hell had the open mic up there?”
Shit. I was in trouble now. Everyone in the flight knew I loved to fly with music. I slid in beside my wingman and glanced over my port wing at him. He was shaking his head, but I could see he was smiling. Clearly someone else enjoyed the concert.
“Control this is Bagger Four, that was a comm failure. Repeat, comm failure. We’ll get it taken care of,” Skipper said.
His two-man, staggered formation slid in on the other side of me. I could see him looking down at me because his ragged green Spieron had rotated enough to let him look right into my cockpit.
“Do that again, Hot Shot and I’ll ground you,” he said, pointing right at me with his gloved finger.
He was on a direct ship-to-ship line when he said that. I waved him a salute. I couldn’t see his expression behind his mask as he pulled up level, but I could just picture it. Skipper had fair skin and when he got pissed, it went from white to rose to bright red. I’d reckon that merited a shiny red face.
After we landed he caught up with me on the tarmac and gave me an ear full. I think I learned some new words; too bad they were in Calondrian or wherever the hell place he’s from. He regained his composure and took a breath to calm himself. His red face softened.
“Bye the way, that music was about my ancestors repelling a blue skin attack,” he said. There was a slight twinge of his eye as if he were telling me that he secretly approved of the selection.
I nodded respectably and watched him move on with the others.
“Hey Maestro, gonna have to red line your bird for a few days,” my mechanic said.
Normally that would have gotten me all upset. A day without a sortie on this mud ball was like a day in hell. But I had something planned to keep me occupied.
“That’s okay,” I said.
He looked at me as if I were sick or something.
“Sarge, you busy?”
He wiped sweat from his brow and gave me a blank stare. Then he said, “Naw, just fixing your kite man, no big deal.”
Sarcasm was an art form here.
“I need you to get a ride from motor pool and help me find a Triak that crashed nearby.”
He shook his head like I were talking gibberish. “What the hell for? You gonna start flying their birds now?”
He sat down on the nose of my Spieron, his legs hanging limp over the side. I moved up closer and looked around to make sure none of his mechanics would overhear us.
“I want to pull the comm system out of it. It’s mostly intact over in that bog west of base.”
He got this big old smile on his dirty face and held up his hands. “No way, man. I ain’t gonna get my ass shot off on some clandestine joyride to the bog. Count me out.”
“I’ll pay you,” I said.
He eye-balled me real hard. Payment was almost never in monetary units around here. It was always in trade of something valuable; something hard to get.
Sarge winced, skepticism written all over his face.
“Where the hell are you gonna get real chocolate on this mud ball?”
When I found out I was being sent to the farthest edge of the war’s front lines, I went out and purchased a special humidity proof box and filled it with the finest chocolate bars I could afford. Mamma didn’t raise an idiot.
I took Sarge back to my bunkhouse and produced one of my premium, gold wrapped chocolate bars. I could see his eyes gloss over and knew that his mouth was watering at the sight of something so sweet and delicious. “I’ll get that armored carrier,” he said.
* * *
Sarge managed to snag us a pretty decent troop carrier and I pulled some strings over at Ops to get us permission to leave the base. After my little musical stunt that was no small feat in and of itself. I had to sacrifice extra rations for that one and a favor to be named later.
We suited up in body armor and combat helmets and left the relative safety of the base for the wilds of the Choj’ii bogs. It was still early in the day and the heat and humidity hadn’t had a chance to make the place utterly unbearable yet. I let Sarge drive while I did my best to navigate us to the area where I recalled seeing the Triak fighter go down. A rain squall blew through, as we tore out over the flat bog in the armored troop carrier. We were completely soaked in the salty rain by the time I spotted the metallic form sticking up out of the water and waving reeds. The troop carrier hovered up beside the crash site, making the green water ripple underneath it.
Sarge locked down the controls, grabbed his tool bag and sat on the side of the carrier’s low bed. He made no effort to leave the carrier.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Lots of unfriendly’s in this bog,” he said, pointing to the area around the half submerged starfighter.
I took out my side arm and charged it. “I’ll spot you Sarge,” I said.
He looked at me sideways and said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Do you even know where the comm gear is located in one of those things?”
Sarge shrugged, “Can’t be too hard to find.”
He jumped off into the ankle deep water above the top of the flat fighter. The canopy had been blown off leaving a hole where the pilot would have been. I was relieved that it appeared he had bailed out. It made digging around in the cockpit easier. Sarge sat down in the raked back seat and looked around.
“This is kinda cool. Never thought I’d sit in one of these babies,” he said.
“Just find the transmitter. We don’t have much time to play out here.”
Sarge took out his plasma cutter and went to work. I kept an eye out for any enemy troops who might have been out for a swim. There was nobody stupid enough to be out here but us. Sarge got out of the cockpit and started walking around on top of the Triak. There were several holes in the main fuselage where my shots had torn into it. Sarge felt around for something and then was able to pop open an access hatch. He reluctantly stuck his hand down into the murky, water logged compartment and came up with a metal box covered in cryptic Votainion writing. He held it up over his head in victory.
A shot rang out and Sarge dropped the device as he ducked for cover back inside the cockpit. The metal box skidded along the top of the fighter and over the edge with a splash. Shit. I frantically looked around for the location of the shooter. It was difficult to see in the brilliant sunshine.
“Who the hell’s shooting at us?” Sarge hollered.
“I can’t make them out!”
Sarge cursed his hopeless addiction to fine chocolate.
“It can’t be a sniper or we’d both be dead by now,” he said. Another shot rang out as the carrier took one for the home team and lost a brake light.
“It must be the damned pilot,” Sarge said. I could hear the course irritation in his voice.
“Agreed, what do we do now?”
“Use the damn cannon to take him out!”
I looked up at the maser canon mounted to a pylon on the back of the carrier’s bed. It was a fine looking killing machine, but as foreign to me as the enemy fighter below.
“I have no idea how to use that thing!”
I could hear Sarge swearing again and mumbling something about always having to clean up after stupid fly-boys. He leaped back onto the carrier, causing it to rock until he dragged himself over the edge of the bed. Lying beside me he gave me a dirty look and then pulled himself up behind the canon. There were two more shots from the pilot that missed anything important, but gave the Sarge an idea where to shoot. Several loud burst from the canon later and the shooting stopped.
Sarge took off his helmet and tossed it to the deck beside me. He motioned for me to get up.
“It ain’t complicated sir, just point and shoot. Now cover me while I fish the damn comm box out of the drink.”
It took him several attempts to dive down into the shallow, murky water to find the silver box and retrieve it. The green mossy gunk that covered the bog was all over his wet uniform and his hair when he climbed back aboard the carrier.
“This will cost you an extra bar of chocolate,” he mumbled as he engaged the controls.
I nodded. Not wanting to argue with that.
* * *
On the way back to base, Sarge told me about a kid who worked over in the Comm Squadron who knew how to hot wire Votainion electronics. His name was Lattva and he didn’t look any older than my little brother who’s still in secondary school. Lattva wore goggles that were magnifying glasses and he spent all of his time in the shop, piecing together electronics that had been rendered inoperable by the salty rain.
Sarge set the Votainion transmitter box down hard on Lattva’s desk, making the kid jump.
“Can you wire this piece of junk into a Spieron’s comm system?”
The kid pulled back his goggles and stared at the metal box. It was still wet and left a puddle on the anti-static mat. He gave Sarge a look over and virtually ignored me.
“Depends, what’s in it for me?”
Sarge tapped me on the chest, “Hotshot here has chocolate. Not the standard issue cheap shit either, but expensive, dark chocolate from Selene.”
Lattva whistled and shook his head. “Gonna cost you at least four bars of chocolate. This is a non-trivial patch job. I’m gonna have to make a power converter. Reroute the input lines. Are you going to be transmitting or only receiving?”
“Just transmitting. But if you can do both, that’d be great,” I said.
The kid shook his head again and started examining the box. “It’ll cost you more, this thing’s gonna have to be dried out before I can even look at it.”
“How soon can you get it working?” I asked.
Lattva shrugged and said, “Maybe a week. Providing I have the time.”
I pulled out two gold foil wrapped chocolate bars and set them in front of the silver box.
“Here’s a down payment. You get me this working by next week and I’ll give you four more just like it.”
Lattva looked up at me with his beady blue eyes and then nodded slowly.
“Got yourself a deal, sir.”
* * *
That kid was worth every bar of chocolate I parted with. He had it all wired up and Sarge even got it mounted below my throttles on the right side of the cockpit wall. There was an old fashioned switch that activated the enemy comm box. I could send music from my starfighter’s system into all the enemy channels that were built into the box. It was not encrypted though. Hence the kill switch to prevent the enemy from gaining access to my comm channels while I was broadcasting on theirs.
The two of them finished the project on the last night of my bet. But I didn’t get the chance to use it until two days later when we were finally scrambled for a sortie.
The Vots came in through the valley just like they always did, trying to catch us by surprise. It never worked. We were always ready for them and no amount of jamming or speed could help them.
I waited until my wingman and I were dialed into the first squad of Triaks before I turned on my music. I was close enough to see the confused head of the Votainion pilot looking around and tapping at his helmet right before I opened up with my canons. I believe the last thing he heard was the “Fugue of the Fallen”, how appropriate.
We bagged five Triaks on that sortie and then three more the next day. I kept what I was doing a secret. I didn’t need to lose any rank over what was surely paramount to gross insubordination. This went on for several weeks. Every time I went into a furball, my music blared across the enemy’s comm channels. It never occurred to me that someone might have been noticing my antics. I was having so much fun; I could have cared less anyway.
Then one afternoon a buddy of mine from Ops, Trev Lanter, came by my bunk and dropped a hint that the enemy was becoming frustrated by music that was over whelming their comm channels. He wondered if I had anything to do with it. I told him no. But I pumped him for more information.
“What are they saying about it? The music, I mean.”
“They’re bringing in some fresh pilots from the front, specifically to take care of the problem. I’ve never seen them this perplexed about something so trivial. But I guess their fighter command is pretty pissed,” Trev said.
“Whoever this guy is, I’d like to meet him. I wish I’d thought of it.”
Trev looked at me kind of suspiciously and said, “It’s you isn’t it. You can tell me man, I won’t turn you in.”
I waved him off with a smile and a fake laugh. He didn’t look very convinced.
* * *
A week later we were scrambled and told to get into the black. Scanners had picked up a new flight of enemy contacts coming in from deep space. We spend so much time down in the air, I’d forgotten how quiet space was. Control guided us into range and then told us to engage.
They were lighting up our scanners like fireworks but I never actually saw them until they were in visual range. I could tell by their heat signatures that they were not Triak fighters. These boys were flying KIV-9s, also known as Terror Divers. The Niners, that’s what we pilots called them, were smaller and more agile than the Triaks. Niners had long canons that extended from their engine nacelles and were twice as big as anything else in the war.
They opened up with those mighty canons from beyond visual range and managed to wax one of our guys. His Spieron erupted in a ball of plasma and debris. A lucky shot on their part, but it was the first combat loss in a long time on our side. That only seemed to anger our pilots.
I switched on my music and entered the fray.
The first target I engaged was an easy kill, my wingman hollered “Weak!” over the ship-to-ship line. I thought he was referring to my shooting skills.
“Not much Terror in these guys is there?”
“Hey, I’ve picked up a single ship on my tale,” my wingman exclaimed.
I put my fighter into a rakish slew and came around guns blazing. The Niner cracked open and blew apart as my wingman tried to follow me around. I waited for him to catch up to me and saw that four other Niners were coming at us. That was pretty aggressive for blue skins. Usually they stayed together and didn’t get all uppity on us. These guys were like a pissed off ball of flying insects after someone kicked over their hive.
Space was full of Niners before I could even understand what was happening. Then I saw him. He was moving along the outer perimeter of the fight, like some big cat stalking a herd. His Niner wasn’t the usual gray color. It was painted royal blue, like the sun-darkened skin of a Votainion.
I wanted to go after him. I motioned for my wingman to follow but he broke off to remain in the fight with the others. I took the bait and headed straight for the blue colored Niner. He was the most notorious enemy ace in the war. The Allies called him Blue Niner. I couldn’t believe my luck that he was out here in the sticks of the war, where I could take a shot at him.
He kept lurking in a straight course even as I bore down on him locking my targeting computer. I could hear the calls for help of some of my mates, but the music was reaching a crescendo and I had to get me some of that Blue Niner.
I cut loose my canons a little ahead of him, hoping I’d get lucky and he’d turn into them. But luck was not to be on my side. The Blue Niner flipped over his fighter and gunned it away at a completely different plane. I zipped right over the top of where he had been, looking like a complete rookie pilot. That’s when my ship was pounced on by four other Niners. Sometimes I think the human mind was just not cut out for three dimensions, at least when it came to fighting in space, where there was no up or down.
I rolled my fighter over and attempted to take out one of my attackers as I charged after the Blue Niner. I think I lost some wingtip in that exchange, but otherwise my fighter was undamaged. I realigned myself to chase after the Blue Niner and opened up the throttles. My little starfighter sprinted after the more compact enemy fighter with the bright blue paint scheme.
As I followed him down closer to low orbit around Choj’ii, I realized that we were both alone and very far from the still raging battle. I was hanging with one of the greatest enemy aces and I believed I could actually take him. Hubris is not one of my greatest strengths.
I watched the blue starfighter weave around in the thin, upper air of the planet and wondered what the hell he was up to. Was he trying to get me into the oxygen, ’cause that would favor my Spieron. Or was he just taking me out of the fight and leading me into some kind of trap? As we sped along kissing air, I was beginning to think the later might have been true.
Finally he began to pull up and I made my intent to kill him known. I fired off a few bursts of my canons to get his attention. He sped up, if that were even possible and then tried to get around on me. The KIV-9 has a much tighter turning radius in atmosphere than a Spieron, but in space, they are about even. As he came around I got the distinct feeling he was about to finish me off. I saw the flash of his canons in slow motion; white, spreading plumes followed by red flashes that signified my eventual demise.
My starfighter rocked as his shots pummeled me. Warning lights and buzzers went off as my fighter tried to warn me how severe the damage was. I barrel rolled the Spieron into a dive to get away and wound up slamming into a force field like a brick wall. All my forward velocity was quickly reduced to nothing causing my body to slam into the safety harness and my neck to whip back and forth. I almost passed out right there. By the time I realized what was happening, all the electrical systems were dead. The music stopped.
I noticed the shadow of a large Votainion ship moving in above me. I was being captured! I couldn’t believe it. I just sat there, dumbfounded by what was happening. Suddenly my comm system came back on and a stern male voice boomed in my earphones.
“Prepare to be boarded,” it said in Alliance standard with a decidedly Votainion accent.
I knew that wasn’t something I was interested in because Votainions didn’t take prisoners. So I started looking for a way out. My brain was slow to react. I couldn’t hear anyone on my regular comm channels. Looking up I could see the dark gray insides of whatever starship was abducting me. It forced me to think faster.
My weapons systems, life support and avionics were all shut down. The only thing that seemed to be working was the comm. I was able to access my musical collection and seriously started to think about putting on a death march or something equally dramatic. I mean hell, I was a dead man sitting.
Maybe it was my youthful naivety or maybe it was pure gall, but I was not ready to lie down and die. There had to be something I could do to get out of this.
The tractor beam pulled my tiny fighter up into what looked like a recovery bay in some kind of light cruiser. There was not much room inside like there would have been with bigger warship. I ignored what was going on outside my fighter and started flipping switches like a mad man. Nothing was working.
Then I remembered the kill switch for the blue-skin’s comm box. That kid had told me that it would safely cut it off the fighter’s comm lines. I threw the switch and nothing seemed to happen. At least I wouldn’t have to hear that bastard giving me directions. Then something odd happened. The fighter’s electrics came back on. I didn’t understand why but I went with it. I could access key systems that had gone dead. Unfortunately, the weapons systems were still mute.
A desperate plan formed in my head and I started configuring my flight computer. The ship didn’t have a floor to whatever compartment they brought me into. I could still see space and the upper atmosphere of Choj’ii underneath me. There were several mechanical gripping arms that began extending in my direction to hold my fighter inside the bay. I had to act before they reached my fighter.
I activated the maneuvering thrusters and rolled the fighter until I was upside down in the bay. The tractor beam still held me in its tight grip, but now I could twist around in any axis. I started jerking the controls around in random ways as I tried to pull away from the tractor beam. I wasn’t going anywhere, but I probably looked like a mad man to my captors.
Finally the thrusters burned out on me and I stopped in the inverted position. There was only one way out of this and I didn’t like it. But sometimes in life you have to roll the dice and take your chances. I punched out.
* * *
Tractor beams are not designed to work on small objects. My ejection seat pushed me well clear of the warship’s hull. I screamed for joy and put out my hand to wave an obscene gesture at them as I rocketed away. After the seat had spent its fuel I was cruising pretty fast towards the upper atmosphere of Choj’ii. I rode that seat for a long time, never looking back at the enemy warship. The whole time I was thinking to myself, I did it! I actually got away from them. I was free of those blue-skinned bastards.
I sailed on to an inevitable death by fiery reentry. My suit had enough power and air for an hour’s time and then I would either suffocate or burn up. I made a silent vow with myself that if I were to somehow survive this fall, I would never taunt my enemy again. This whole thing started with my arrogance and now it was going to end with my thinking that I actually had a chance to survive re-entry.
The view of the lower atmosphere of Choj’ii was beautiful, so many vibrant greens, blues and whites. I watched mesmerized by it until I realized that I was not burning up. I was falling, to be sure, but I was not flaming out. There had been successful re-entry attempts by individuals from this distance before. The shallow dive had slowed my descent up until now. My speed increased until I was quickly falling faster than the speed of sound, a human rocket heading down instead of up.
Time seemed to slow for me, but the ground was reaching out to smack me like an offended woman. In minutes I was falling into the upper atmosphere, my space suit shedding ice crystals like snow.
I rolled over on my back and watched the sky above me go from black with brilliant points of light to dark blue velvet, to finally a deep blue color with wisps of clouds. I was now inside the cushion of air that protected the planet Choj’ii. More importantly, I was not being followed. I rolled back over and watched the ground continue to pull at me with unrelenting force.
I couldn’t believe I was not dead yet. By all rights, I should be a brilliant flare by now. But I wasn’t. I lived, while still falling like a rock from heaven.
I passed over an ocean; I think it was the Chen’ii Sea. Storm clouds taller than the tallest buildings loomed under and before me like great, ephemeral canyons of blue and white. As I fell, I passed into a large storm that obscured the ground. My body shook and trembled as the turbulent air buffeted my descent.
I looked around me and realized that I was falling through the down draft of the storm along with millions of tiny ice balls. Hail. The ground was coming in faster by the second. I checked my altimeter in the instruments on my wrist control and realized that I was nearing the time to pull my parachute.
I flexed my body and pulled the cord just as I popped out from under the massive storm cell. The force pulled me back up violently and I nearly passed out. That would have been easy, and I wouldn’t have had to feel the pain of a landing.
The next thing I remember seeing as I hung from my cords was the green, flat ground reaching up to snatch me from the living.
When I came too, I was lying on my back underwater. Swamp reeds were blowing above me outside the water. Everything was green and dark blue. I felt as if I were in some strange, lethargic dream. In my dream a man whom I recognized but could not name reached into my watery world and pulled me up. He was so familiar to me. But my mind was running at half speed. I started to slip into the warm, fuzzy world of sleep when my helmet was cracked open and gently pulled off.
The air was hot and humid and smelled of a fresh, salt rain. It was heavenly.
“You’re supposed to come back in your bird, Maestro,” said the man with the familiar face.
He set me up in the flat bed of an armored carrier. There were others in the carrier. Their faces were familiar too, but I could not recall their names.
“I, I’m alive,” I said more to myself than anyone staring at me intently.
“You are one lucky son-of-a-bitch,” the man said. Then I knew who he was. Sarge.
I had fallen in the same bog where the enemy fighter that we had taken the comm system from had crashed. How appropriate.