Chapter 40: Plight of the Few

"Engage! Engage! Engage!"

Sawyer yelled out this command an instant after the computer alerted him that his mow's deflector was being overwhelmed by half a dozen particle beams. In that same instant, he triggered the deployment of countermeasures and dodged to the left and down. The mow automatically launched a spread of twelve warheads that detonated a half second after leaving the vessel. The resulting radiation produced a static shroud on the sensor screens of the UFP spacefighters. This provided a temporary hiding place for Sawyer's mow. In that same instance, he slipped his mow beneath the particle beams that were overloading its deflectors. In the next instant, he transitioned his mow into combat configuration with an outward flip of his right hand and began firing streams of projectiles at every UFP spacefighter within lethal range of him, one after the other. He did not have time to note the proficiency of his shooting. The targets were far too numerous to devote any time to a kill confirmation. This situation only allowed him to fire a brief volley at a target before moving on to the next.

"Spread out! Spread out!"

Sawyer and his wing of five had just started their engagement with the four hundred and fifty-seven spacefighters that were pursuing the Orion Basestar. As planned, they moved into the enemy formation along six different paths. Their railguns spewed out short bursts of projectiles at a different target on the average of one per second. The UFP spacefighters that were not in full retreat were always first on the list. It was understood by all six mow pilots that the casualties they inflicted upon the UFP in the initial part of this engagement was critical to the success of the mission. There was no time for communication between the mow pilots while they did this. Events were moving too quickly. They all knew what they had to do and how quickly it had to be done.

For Sawyer and the five members of his wing, this effort appeared to be going as planned. The abruptness of their attack at such close range had the occupants of the UFP spacefighters devoting all of their efforts to fleeing the lethal barrage that was spewing from the mows. All about the mows the UFP spacefighters had the back end of their spaceships turned towards them and their main thrusters were operating at full burn. The particle beam assaults from the UFP spacefighters came to a stop almost immediately. It was, for the moment, a one-sided battle.

It took little more than two minutes for the initial phase of this engagement to end. By this time, the swarm of UFP spacefighters were turning the nose of their spaceships back towards the six mows and using their primary thrusters to retard their fall away from the them. As this was happening, they began targeting their railguns at them. Without the sensor field of the Orion to aid them the mows could not see the whole battle space. Using their individual sensor fields, they were able to see beyond their lethal range by one-fourth. Much of what the UFP spacefighters were doing was happening just beyond this distance. The counterattack came in from all directions.

It took a dozen seconds for Sawyer and his wing to become nearly overwhelmed by the onslaught of projectiles that began streaking in from all directions. Within that time, they went from offensive to defensive. Evading the hailstorm of warheads was the only thing they had time to do. Their railguns went silent.

"Sawyer! It's getting hot in here."

"I'm getting squeezed hard."

"There's too many. I'm totally defensive."

Sawyer recognized the voices of Oscar and CC as the first and third speakers across this open channel. His mow's computer provided him with the means to note the general direction that the call was coming from. But without the Orion, he did not have the means to know more than that in short order. He was too busy twisting and turning, zigging and zagging to track any transmission to its point of origin. The number of UFP spacefighters within his field of view doubled over the next minute.

"I'm hit! I'm…"

The transmission from the mow pilot terminated in mid-sentence. Sawyer could tell from the tenor of the voice that the transmission did not come from CC or Oscar. Despite this recognition, he did not have the time to experience any relief from this. More than two-dozen UFP spacefighters were trying to kill him with their crisscrossing fire. The greatest asset in his defense at this moment was the fact that the transit time of their volleys were just under five seconds.

"Four more minutes," Sawyer yelled out to his wing.

The one thing that Sawyer was keeping an eye on, other than the enemy fighters around him, was the clock. He was under orders to keep this UFP force engaged with them for seven minutes. This was a time frame that terrified him given their mismatched numbers. But it was his fear of being seen running from it that held him to the fight.

In Sawyer's mind, the next four minutes seemed to slip by in slow motion. His attention to the job of surviving the battle made every action he took an event unto itself. Every volley that he evaded became a chapter in the story of this engagement. Despite this fixation, he followed the passage of time in seemingly one-second increments. When the last second of their seven-minute clock expired, Sawyer reacted.

"Break off! Break off! Break off!"

Sawyer needed to say no more than that to communicate to the wing that they needed to break away from this engagement. In that same instance, Sawyer transitioned out of combat mode with a wave of his arms in the form of an outside in U gesture. His mow, promptly, collapsed back into its seed shell shape. A second behind this Sawyer began steering his mow through the swarm of UFP spacefighters and towards the empty space beyond. This was not a straight path. The distance between Sawyer and the empty space was interspersed with enemy spacefighters and streams of projectiles streaking through the locations where his mow was expected to be in the next one to two seconds. Despite these dangers, the act of thrusting past these barrages and the vessels that launched them was a relief. It was no longer necessary for him to remain fixed in the midst of them. He was free to race away from the threats to his mow and his self.

It took near to a minute for Sawyer to negotiate his way out of the kill box he was in. The sight of the UFP spacefighters falling in line behind him was a comfort. His mow was faster than their spaceplanes. As he extended the distance between them, dodging their projectiles got easier. This was so because the UFP were, primarily, at his rear. He needed only to make minor up and down, left and right movements to slip between their volleys. The crisscrossing fire from all directions shortly became a thing of the past. Another two minutes later the UFP spacefighters discontinued their volleys. Sawyer was too far ahead and had too much time to nudge out of the way of these barrages. The best the UFP spacefighters could do was follow him.

"Who's there? Comeback!"

Sawyer yelled this question into an open radio transmission for his wing to hear. He had no way of knowing which among them had survived, if any. Normally his mow could discern their sensor fields, but they were too far apart for their fields to overlap. Because of this disconnection, Sawyer had to resort to a role call to determine who among his wing was still alive.

"Oscar here! I'm with you, Commander."

"Lieutenant Lazaro reporting."

Sawyer heard these two reports in rapid succession. Behind them, there was silence. Over the course of this quiet, he waited for the report that he most wanted to hear. At the end of his patience, he verbally reacted to its absence.

"CC?"

"I'm here! I'm here, Sawyer!" CC screamed back across the radio connection three seconds later. "I can't get away. I—I… They're all around me. I can't get out!"

CC was dancing about in her zero-gravity control cockpit with a skill that looked to be a mixture of gymnast and ballerina. Evasive maneuvers were her strength. In the arcade games, her ability to survive a conflict was rivaled by three others. Sawyer was one of the three. Where she fell short of Sawyer and Oscar was in her offensive skill. Her kill numbers were seldom the equal of Oscar's and even less so to Sawyer's. Despite this deficiency, she almost always stayed around long enough to outpoint the overwhelming majority of Physalia game players. But the contest she was in at this moment was not a game. The objective at this moment was to get away from the three-dozen enemy spacefighters that were all around her. And on average their number was increasing by one every fifteen seconds.

Sawyer was quick to shut down his main thruster and spin his mow about in the direction that her transmission came from. He opened a display window and began scanning a magnified image of that area of space. As he did this, he yelled encouragements to CC to hang on. He was ten seconds into this when a transmission from Oscar came into his mow.

"I see you, CC! I'm coming!"

The sensation of hope leaped up into Sawyer's thinking. Oscar's response made him believe that there was a chance for CC. Three seconds later he noted movement in the distant space. A large group of UFP spacefighters were making identical bends in their trajectories. It took Sawyer another two seconds to find the mow that they were pursuing. An instant behind this he began scanning the area of space that they were likely moving into. He began expanding and dropping away enlarged visages of the area, one after the other, in rapid succession. After five seconds of this, he came to a stop on an image that caught his attention. A swarm of UFP spacefighters appeared to be concentrating on something within their midst.

"I'm completely defensive, Oscar. Hurry!"

"I'm coming, CC! Just hang on, I'll be there in two minutes."

Sawyer could see that Oscar was telling the truth. It would take him two minutes. He could also tell that Oscar was far closer to CC than him. Nonetheless, he oriented his mow for the turn and fired his primary thruster at full blast. His pursuers adjusted their trajectory to intercept him.

Oscar's turn towards CC brought him well within the lethal range of his pursuers. For much of the first minute, he had to navigate through a gauntlet of fire from them. This he did with relative ease. When he was better than five seconds distant from their railgun projectiles, he straightened out his course, applied maximum thrust and the left the protection of the mow to his directed energy defense system. One minute later Oscar was in combat configuration and falling through a large section of CC's beleaguers.

"This way, CC," Oscar called out as he dealt out short volleys from his railguns at one target after another.

Oscar's mow popped up on CC's monitor a second before he began speaking these words. Their sensor fields had overlapped. Their computers were talking to each other. She was quick to take notice that the sector Oscar was falling through suddenly stopped firing at her. She also noted that two UFP spacefighters in this area winked red and then disappeared from her screen in rapid succession. CC had no doubt that this was the work of Oscar. The relief that Oscar's action provided enabled her to get a hit on one of the spacefighters in the opposite direction. The target continued to register on her monitor, but it clearly flashed red and did a sudden veer off its trajectory. Instinctively she began to favor the area that Oscar was in as her way out. She intermittently initiated short blasts of thrust in between ducking and dodging fire from UFP spacefighters in other areas. Gradually her momentum increased as her mow fell towards the opening.

"You're not going to make it," Oscar insisted at a shout.

"Yes, I will," CC countered with an inflection of defiance.

"No, you're not," Oscar argued back. "Not without my help."

"Don't you wait for me," CC yelled back.

"I've got you covered," Oscar returned with a cavalier flair.

"Don't do it, Oscar. I can make it."

"It's already done. Just keep coming."

Oscar's pass across CC's escape route was too fast to keep the UFP spacefighters there preoccupied for more than a minute. This was less time than CC needed to make an easy breakout. But this was the ideal pace for Oscar. It made him a difficult target for the UFP spacefighters in front of him and too distant for the space fighters behind. CC knew that he could not be of any further assistance to her without making a significant reduction in his rate of fall. This was a gamble she had seen Oscar take dozens of times in the arcade games, and often it played out to everyone's advantage. But this was not a game. CC feared to see him take this risk. This fear was doubly intense because she knew he would be doing it for her.

"I don't need your help!"

CC's claim was not false bravado. She knew that the risk of racing past the collection of spacefighters in front of her would be just as great as the one that Oscar was taking. But she had greater confidence in her ability to evade enemy fire than she had in his.

"It's already done. Come on, the door is open. Let's blow this solar system."

CC could see that Oscar's claim was true. In the area where he was located, the UFP spacefighters were all in disarray. He had clearly slowed to lengthen his period of passage. The UFP spacefighters around him were scurrying to get out from under his guns. A second after Oscar had spoken, a third UFP spacefighter disappeared off the screen. CC knew that there was no undoing what Oscar had done. She began to corkscrew her way around the fire coming from behind and the sides as she thrust into this area. When she reached the open space on the other side, CC chanced a look back towards Oscar.

"Oscar, get out of there!" CC screamed at him with an intonation of terror.

CC could see on her monitor that three separate swarms of UFP spacefighters were converging towards Oscar. The two groups along his flanks were the spacefighters that had been concentrating on her. Now that they had eluded Oscar's charge into their midst they were starting to focus their attentions on him. He was easily within lethal range of their railguns, and his greatly reduced speed made him a better target than CC. But these two groups were not the ones that CC was worried about the most.

The UFP spacefighters that Oscar had just punched his way into were just starting to build up momentum and task their vessels onto him. She knew that Oscar would outpace them in short order, assuming he managed to evade their fire. It was the group pursuing Oscar from behind that had CC worried. They were moving at twice his speed and closing on him fast. She knew that they would be a hard target for him, and he would be an easier one for them.

"I got this. Get out of here," Oscar yelled back across their sensor field connection.

CC knew that she could not get to Oscar quick enough to provide any assistance. Her fall had her on a vector that was greater than ninety degrees off from his. This hindrance notwithstanding, she felt compelled to stay in the vicinity. She had just begun the act of reorienting her mow for a thruster burn onto a new trajectory when Sawyer's sensor field linked up with hers.

"CC, are you okay?" Sawyer called out.

"I'm fine. But Oscar, he's in danger."

Sawyer's monitor lit up with all of CC's data the instant their sensor fields touched. This included the data that was being fed to her by Oscar's connection at the opposite side of her sensor sphere. It took Sawyer two seconds to assess the danger Oscar was in and to formulate a plan to help him out of it.

"I'll help Oscar," Sawyer advised. "You get out of here."

Sawyer could see that CC was in no position to be of much help to Oscar. This was all the excuse he needed to order her out of the area. His plan was to continue past her and attack the group of UFP spacefighters that were closing on Oscar from behind. He knew that he could bring fire to bear on them in a fraction of the time that it would take CC to turn about and do the same. This was true because his trajectory had him already falling in that general direction and at a very high speed.

"I'm not going without Oscar," CC countermanded.

Sawyer took a moment to consider a response to this.

"Hey, Sawyer," Oscar called out in this moment of silence. "Welcome to the party."

"Oscar," Sawyer bellowed with a quick turn of attention his way. "You need to get out of there. You've got a mess of trouble racing up your six."

"I see them," Oscar retorted with his usual cavalier manner. "So, are you going to help, or what?"

"I'll be there in twenty," Sawyer returned as he made a slight adjustment to his trajectory.

Oscar gave little thought to the perils of this situation or to any that he had been in before this. His mind did not dwell on the possibility of harm or death. For him, life was an adventure. He was generally too preoccupied with living the adventure to dwell on the perils. All concerns were pushed aside in favor of this fascination with life. This was his gift and his curse. It made him fearless, and it made him reckless. Winning was a fixation. Losing was not a consideration.

This was an easy mindset for Oscar to maintain at this moment. He had been in similar and worst situations in the Physalia Arcade Game. Eighty percent of the time he successfully maneuvered his way out. He was confident that he would do the same here, and Sawyer's twenty-second promise gave him reason to be even more so.

For the next ten seconds, Oscar dodged the fire coming from the spacefighters along his flanks with relative ease. He returned fire on numerous occasions. With short blasts of thrusts, he intermittently nudged his mow to an ever-greater speed down the trajectory he was on. Sawyer was ten-seconds out from assisting Oscar when the spacefighters behind him streaked into lethal range. As they began to fall past Oscar, the spacefighters shut down their engines and oriented the point of their spaceplanes and railguns at him. This took little more than a second. An instant behind this they began to fire. Three seconds later Oscar's situation went from manageable to intolerable.

"Hey Sawyer, it's getting a little thick in here," Oscar yelled out to his friend and wing commander.

"I'll be there in five," Sawyer yelled back. "Just hold on."

"Roger that," Oscar returned with jaunty delivery. "I'll be right… I'm hit! I'm hit!"

The tail end of Oscar's message resonated in Sawyer's cockpit with the strong intonation of alarm.

"I'm coming, Oscar! I'm coming!" Sawyer screamed back.

Before Sawyer could finish speaking, Oscar yelled out his final message.

"I'm hit again! Sawyer, I'm spinning…"

"Oscar!" Sawyer screamed at his monitor.

Sawyer watched as the avatar of Oscar's mow broke apart in his display. He could see avatars of the UFP spacefighters that were responsible for its destruction. A rage boiled up inside of him as he dealt with the reality that he had just lost his best friend. For several seconds, he could do nothing but stare at the location where Oscar's mow once was. He listened for a beacon to confirm that Oscar was still alive, but there was nothing but silence. Five seconds into this he awakened to the knowledge that he was charging into the midst of this battle zone. With no thought of what he was doing, Sawyer transitioned into combat mode and brought his guns up to the ready.

Sawyer was barely aware of his actions as he dove into the swarm of UFP spacefighters with both railguns spewing out repetitive volleys of projectiles in rapid succession. One UFP spacefighter after another came under the fire of his wrath. One, three, five UFP spacefighters disappeared under the weight of his volleys. Sawyer had no desire to leave the area. He danced his way through a torrent of crisscrossing return fire from UFP spacefighters. The high speed of his fall made him a hard target for the UFP spacefighters. It also made the UFP spacefighters too brief a target to fulfill his need for revenge. In his rage, Sawyer began to thrust against his direction of fall an instant after the last UFP spacefighter fell out of lethal range.

"Sawyer! Get out of there."

CC's strident call awakened Sawyer from an obsession to destroy all the UFP spacefighters that were contributors to Oscar's death. He noted that CC's sensor field was still interlinked with his and concluded that she had not left the vicinity. A renewed concern for her wellbeing caused him to shut down his thruster against his fall.

"Sawyer, come on. There's nothing you can do for Oscar now. Please."

CC's earnest call held Sawyer in check for two seconds. At the end of this time, he changed his mow back into its shell configuration and steered away from the conflict at maximum thrust. Because of their different locations and the nearby threats, he and CC were soon too far apart to communicate across overlapping sensor fields. After thirty seconds of silence, Sawyer called out across a radio transmission.

"Steer a course towards Proxima Centauri," Sawyer somberly commanded the remaining two members of his wing. "Form up with me at your earliest convenience."

Without the overlay of Orion's massive sensor field, the mows were hard pressed to pinpoint each other's location. The command and control systems aboard the basestar marked locations by reading the circumference of all sensor fields within its scope and pinpointing the source vessel at its center. The Orion enabled communications between the mows through the overlay of its massive sensor field. Digital communications reverberated the interconnecting fields. The Orion made the connection to all the mows in its sphere possible, and it communicated the relative locations of all vessels in the same manner. This method gave the mow computers far less work to do and a far more information to work with.

In this situation, minus the assist of the Orion, the mows were so far apart that their sensor fields did not overlap. Because of this disconnect, they were dependent upon radio transmissions to communicate. Without triangulation, this method of communication only provided a general direction of the transmitter. By sending all the mows on a trajectory towards Proxima Centauri, he hoped to separate CC and Lazaro out from the swarm of nearby UFP spacefighters and bring them together.

Sawyer was seven minutes into this effort when he took note of a transmission that was emanating from a widely divergent direction. He knew that it was not coming from the Orion because the data was in a code that was foreign to his computer. It took him no more than five seconds of thought to deduce that the UFP force had divided into two groups and that one of them was pursuing the Orion. Sawyer knew from the beginning that a division such as this was a very real possibility. But it was a complication that he had hoped to not have to contend with. Getting back aboard the Orion became a decidedly harder problem because of this division and far more likely not to happen at all.

An additional twenty-seven minutes had passed when Sawyer connected with the first member of his wing. Initially, he was alerted to CC's presence by a magnified visual of an object in the distance. The fact that it stood out as a solitary spacefighter gave him reason to believe it was one of his wing members. When their sensor fields overlapped a few minutes later his computer announced that it was a mow, and it belonged to Lieutenant Christine Chandler.

"Hey," CC greeted in a decidedly gloomy voice.

"Hey," Sawyer responded back in the same dismal tone. "You okay?"

"Yeah!"

Sawyer could think of nothing more to say beyond this, and CC was equally at a loss. They elected to say nothing more while their mows converged into a formation of two. Three minutes into this process Sawyer and CC took note of a solitary spacecraft falling ahead of a larger number of spacecrafts. The solitary spacecraft was moving at a speed that was twenty percent faster than the spacecrafts behind them. It took another thirty-nine minutes for Sawyer and CC to link up with Lazaro.

"Did you see Dixon and Pappas?" Sawyer queried behind their exchange of greetings.

"Dixon is gone," Lazaro reported with an articulation of sorrow in her voice. "I was hoping Pappas was with you."

Sawyer took a moment to digest this. CC filled in the silence with his take on their situation.

"I think this is it, Sawyer. I don't see anyone else coming. We have to catch up with the Orion."

"Chandler is right," Lazaro supported an instant behind. "We have to go."

Sawyer knew the truth of this before hearing it said. The weight of command held him back from saying it first. He dreaded the burden of being the one to decide to discontinue the wait for the last two members of this wing.

"Okay, let's do it," Sawyer instructed with feigned certitude.

With this order, Sawyer turned his wing towards the escape vector used by the Basestar Orion and began pursuit at maximum thrust.

In the original plan, Sawyer and his wing were to catch up with the Orion after it had reached its minimum time jump velocity or greater. The mows were expected to outpace the UFP spacefighters during this pursuit. At the speed that the Orion was traveling when the six mows were launched, it was calculated that the mows needed to engage with the pursuing UFP force for seven minutes. This disruption in the acceleration of the UFP force was expected to expand the speed differential between them and the basestar. It was calculated that the new differential would make it possible for the Orion to reach time jump velocity unmolested. But this plan was contingent upon all the UFP spacefighters remaining behind to deal with the mows for the whole of these seven minutes. It was calculated that a three-minute disruption in the UFP force's acceleration would still give the Orion a good chance to reach minimum time jump velocity, albeit with no time to spare. But in this scenario, it was considered impractical to attempt retrieving the mows. The risk to the basestar was too great.

All efforts to intercept the three remaining mows by the stray groups of UFP spacefighters fell short twenty minutes earlier. The mows were too fast. They streaked through the clutch of the UFP space force before it could close around them. Nonetheless, the pursuing UFP spacefighters followed Sawyer and his wing into this new trajectory. After a short time of doing so, they abandoned all thoughts of firing on the mows. The distance between them steadily widened despite their best effort to catch them. A few minutes after the three mows formed up their pursuers came together into a loose collection far behind them. For the first time, with the help of magnified optics, Sawyer could assess the size of this UFP group. Through this analysis, he estimated that half of the UFP force broke off and continued to pursue the Orion. What he did not know was when this had happened.

"Do you see that, Commander?" Lazaro yelled out through their sensor field connection. "There's got to be more than one-hundred UFP spacefighters missing."

"Yeah," Sawyer concurred solemnly. "They're probably somewhere between here and the Orion."

"That's why we're not dead," Lazaro asserted. "Half their number broke away from the fight."

"Do you think the Orion will wait for us?" CC questioned in a soft voice.

Sawyer had an answer for this, but he did not want to say it, especially not to CC.

"Those UFP spacefighters could be attacking the Orion right now," Lazaro suggested with a glum delivery. "He's not going to wait if the basestar is in jeopardy."

"You can't know that," Sawyer retorted with a quick response. "The hard part is over with. We have to keep working the plan."

"Oh man, get real!" Lazaro bellowed in response. "Work the plan? We're screwed. Admiral Sloan is going to take off for Proxima Centauri and he's not going to look back. We're expendable."

Sawyer noted the rage in Lazaro's voice and suspected it was driven by fear. It was a condition that he sympathized with, but the impression of being doomed was not something he wanted CC to feel.

"You volunteered for this, Lazaro," Sawyer admonished. "You've got no one to blame but yourself."

"Yeah, I did," Lazaro returned after a pause and with less of a temper. "But I didn't volunteer to listen to you sugar coat our situation."

"Sawyer is right," CC asserted hesitantly. "We can't worry about things that are ahead of what we have to do right now."

Lazaro had no response to this. He had spent his rant and was embarrassed for the act. Because of this, he could think of nothing else to say or do except follow Sawyer's lead. CC was equally amenable to this thinking. Over the next three minutes, they had nothing to say to each other. This all changed when a radio transmission came in from the Orion. The data embedded in the transmission communicated three pieces of information, Orion's relative location and its speed. This information continued to update as the transmission streamed in. Little more than a minute later the transmission stopped.

"They jumped! They left us!"

Lazaro's panicked outburst was the first response that passed between them after this data stream came to an end.

LINE BREAK

It took Gruenberg one-hundred and eighteen minutes at maximum thrust to stop the fall of his battle group in the wrong direction. At the end of this time, he gave Eckhart a questioning look before verbalizing what he was thinking.

"The primary thrusters have been burning for the most part of seventeen hours. If we keep pushing them like this, it won't be long before they start burning out."

"I thought these things had a twenty-hour burn life at maximum power," Eckhart argued back.

"That may be true straight out the factory floor," Gruenberg countered. "But most of these spacefighters are one-year-old. And we're pushing them to the far end of their capabilities."

"Then push them to the far end," Eckhart roared back. "I don't want any more mistakes."

Eckhart had reached the end of his patience with Gruenberg's tactical wisdom. Nothing played out according to his assurances, and he could see nothing left that to make up for the loss. The only thing that Eckhart had left was his need to hurt the last vestige of the starcorps. He was determined to have that, and he wanted to be there when it happened.

The last report that Eckhart received from Colonel Trujillo was five minutes earlier. In it, he reported how much further the remaining three starcorp spacefighters had moved away from his pursuit. He was also told that the pilots of these spacefighters had not responded to numerous petitions for their surrender. Eckhart requested these reports at five-minute intervals or when some significant change occurred. When the next report came in it was more of the same, with one addition.

"General, the starcorp spacefighters have situated themselves in a trajectory straight towards you."

Eckhart was initially taken aback by this report. His first thought was that the starcorp spacefighters were targeting his group. Two seconds later he dismissed this as an absurd thought. His battle group consisted of one-hundred and ten spacefighters. It made no sense for these three starcorp spacefighters to be on the offensive. His confusion came to an end when Gruenberg explained that they were following the path of the basestar.

"They're trying to get back to the warship," Eckhart comprehended out loud.

Two seconds behind this Gruenberg pointed out the finality of this situation for the benefit of those that may not have understood.

"They don't know that we're coming right at them. We've got them."

Wilkinson had a complete understanding of what was occurring. His mind went to work on tactics they could use to exploit this situation almost from the instant that he heard Trujillo's report. A second after Gruenberg's elucidation he announced his preliminary assessment of the starcorp spacefighter's situation.

"They're perfect targets."

"There's no need to kill them," Ronald Kaplan shouted out with a shocked expression. "They have nowhere to go. Eventually, they'll have to give up."

"They've already had their chance," Eckhart returned in a quick stern retort.

Ronald Kaplan was shocked by this response. But he knew better than to argue the point any further. Eckhart's rage was in full bloom and he would have little tolerance for a debate that conflicted with his wishes. This would only serve to stoke the fire.

"They may have information we can use," Peter Carr informed with a calm delivery.

"Everything that I wanted disappeared into nowhere," Eckhart rifled back towards his Minister of State with a glare.

All present took this last remark as a declaration that there would be no quarter given to the four starcorp pilots. Carr was surprised to hear this. Gruenberg took it in with a look of expectation. Wilkinson's face bordered on an expression of glee, and Ronald Kaplan digested it with a mixture of dismay and puzzlement.

Ronald's confusion was not with Eckhart's declaration. This entire situation seemed flawed to him in some way. His brain was locked in an effort to make sense of it.

"How long before lethal range?" Eckhart questioned Gruenberg in a commanding tone.

"Well," Gruenberg commenced after a second of thought. "Technically we're in lethal range night now."

This answer took everyone by surprise. It was generally understood that lethal range was any distance that could be traversed by a projectile in five seconds or less. The time stamp on the last transmission from Trujillo suggested that they were better than two hours away from that distance. The last calculation by the navigator put the time to intercept at One-hundred and fifty-nine minutes. The incongruity in these two statements had the minds of all present pondering what it was that they missed.

"Do you mind explaining that, General Gruenberg?" Eckhart questioned with a hint of exasperation.

Gruenberg responded to the query with his usual air of confidence.

"According to Colonel Trujillo's last report, the three starcorp spacefighters are operating with their sensor fields at little more than lethal range distance. They're putting the bulk of their power into their engines."

Gruenberg paused to give weight to that report, and then he continued to explain.

"They're falling away from Colonel Trujillo and his group," Gruenberg elucidated with emphasis. "But they're falling towards us."

All present listened to this explanation like students listening to a lecture from their teacher.

"If we discharged a fusillade right now the projectiles will travel from the perimeter of their sensor fields to the spacefighters inside of two seconds."

All present took a second to absorb and pondered this. Wilkinson beat the others to the obvious question.

"How do we target them?"

"We don't have to," Gruenberg snapped back with the answer. "Colonel Trujillo is doing that for us. We use the data from the sensor field that his group is projecting and triangulation to compute aim points."

Gruenberg paused again to see if everyone understood this. When he was convinced that they did he finished his lecture with a closing remark.

"They'll never see it coming."

Once again Gruenberg looked to see if all comprehended the mechanics of what he said. Three seconds later he was convinced that they did. He then looked to Eckhart for instructions. This he received two seconds later.

"Do it."

LINE BREAK

Colonel Trujillo and his battle group had spent the sixty minutes before this moment executing the instructions he received from General Gruenberg. This was easy enough to do but maintaining the posture that his commanding officer wanted was destined to become impossible over time. This fact was the result of the expanding distance between his group and the three starcorp spacefighters. To accomplish the task of maintaining a sensor field about the three starcorp spacefighters, he allocated the job to one spacefighter at a time. He instructed the remainder of the group to turn their sensor fields down to the minimum and their thrusters up to the maximum.

By allocating this task to one spacefighter, Trujillo was ensuring that the remainder of the group was moving at their best speeds. When the one spacefighter fell too far behind, Trujillo assigned another spacefighter to the task. This he had to do four times. Just before the implementation of this system, the group was a little more than twenty minutes away from losing sensor field contact with the three mows. This system extended this time to eighty minutes. They were twenty minutes away from the end time of this process when Trujillo's second in command vocalized his impatience.

"Do you think they're still making calculations?"

"I think the General wants to get as close as he can," Trujillo answered with a hint of uncertainty in his voice.

Trujillo's uncertainty was not the product of a disbelief in this process. The mechanics of what they were doing was tried and true. But it did have the distinction of never having been done at these extremes. The targets that they were lining up were moving at one-tenth the speed of light and accelerating. The travel time of any projectile fired at this moment would exceed ten minutes. Computing a precise line from weapon to target meant factoring in the lag time in radio communications between the targeting computers in Trujillo's battle group and Gruenberg's. Performing these calculations was not beyond the capabilities of their computers, but the error needed only to be tiny to cause them to miss.

"If he waits much longer, we won't be able to target them at all." Trujillo's second in command muttered with frustration.

"Relax, Lieutenant, the General knows what he's doing."

It was Trujillo's suspicion that General Gruenberg was waiting for the last possible moment to commence his fusillade. This would minimize the effect of any flaw in the angle. To keep the starcorp pilots in the dark about what was coming, he knew that Gruenberg's battle group had to commence firing before they were likely to see them via long range optics. Based on this thinking, he expected no more than ten minutes to pass before getting word that the fusillade had been discharged.

LINE BREAK

"What's going on?" Eckhart questioned Wilkinson in a commanding tone.

It was not what was being said or done that was confusing Eckhart. It was the intense concentration and the prolonged silence. The tension among the flight crew was so high that it made Eckhart hesitant to disrupt their concentration.

"They're waiting," Wilkinson reported almost at a whisper.

"I can see that," Eckhart grumbled back at near to a hushed voice. "But what are they waiting for?"

Eckhart's rebuke gave Wilkinson a start. In response, he turned his full attention to the Prime Minister before giving his answer.

"We want to get as close as we can. At this distance, a miscalculation of one-one/thousandth of one percent could send the entire fusillade hundreds of miles off course."

"So, when will we know for sure?" Eckhart challenged with a glare.

"When we hit the target," Wilkinson answered after a second of thought.

Gruenberg was paying no attention to this conversation. He was studying a tactical display with great intensity. The display was situated on the large monitor at the front of the capsule. On it was a graphic of the locations of all spaceships involved in this upcoming engagement. Speed and distances were constantly being adjusted to match the changes in each spaceship's disposition. The silence in the capsule held for another seven minutes. At the end of this time, Gruenberg looked to his weapons control officer and commanded a report with a word, "Lieutenant."

"I think we've got them, General," the Lieutenant barked out with a sharp delivery. "If they stay on this course, they're dead."

"Communications," Gruenberg called out with a look towards his communications officer. "Open a channel to the battle group."

The communications officer complied with this order behind a terse, "yes sir." As soon as this connection was made Gruenberg began to bark out orders to all spacefighters within his battle group.

"Shut down thrusters—now."

Gruenberg paused to see if all had complied with this order. When he saw that they had, he spoke again.

"Bring primary weapons up to full power and lock on to the aim point. Set primary for a thirty-second fusillade. I want a go transmission when ready."

The communications officer turned to Gruenberg one minute later and reported that all spacefighters were at the ready. Immediately behind this, Gruenberg turned to Eckhart and gave him a questioning look. Eckhart answered the question in a gruff voice.

"Do it!"

Gruenberg hesitated for just a moment. At the end of this, he transmitted a one-word order to all the spacefighters in his battle-group.

"Fire!"

The fusillade from the one-hundred and ten spacefighters in Gruenberg's battle-group spewed out in streams. From a distance, the tightly formed battle-group looked like a single vessel discharging a shower of electric sparks. Each spark appeared to wink out an instant after discharging into the black of space. This continued for exactly thirty seconds, and then it stopped.

"Eighteen minutes to target," the weapons control officer shouted out after the last projectile was fired.

"Send word to Colonel Trujillo," Gruenberg dictated to his communications officer. "Fusillade in route, disperse."

LINE BREAK

Sawyer, CC, and Lazaro were one-hundred and eight minutes into their flight from their pursuers when the sensor fields that enveloped them disappeared from their sensors. Sawyer had been watching the UFP spacefighters behind them with long range optics. By this means all that he could detect was glints of light against the black backdrop of space. He had no way of knowing how far away they were or how quickly they were moving away from them. His own sensor field was too shallow to envelop them. Because of this inability, he could only guess that they were expanding their distance at a rapid pace. The fact that they continued to envelop them for so long had him more than a little worried. CC had her concerns, as well.

"Sawyer?" CC called out across their overlapping sensor fields.

"Yeah?"

"I'm scared," CC advised with bated breath. "I think we should change our trajectory."

"We can't. They'll catch us if we turn."

This reply did nothing to relieve CC's fears. The black of space in front of her was far more frightening than the spacefighters behind.

"Chandler is right," Lazaro argued. "They're doing something."

"Look at the clock," Sawyer encouraged. "We have to keep going."

Lazaro took a moment to consider Sawyer's instruction. CC took advantage of it the silence to speak in a tearful voice.

"I don't want to die, Sawyer. I don't want to die out here."

"We're not going to die, CC," Sawyer returned with insistence in his tone. "I promise. We just have to keep going."

CC was still not relieved by this promise, but she was embarrassed by her performance. This motivated her to take a moment to reconstitute her resolve. At the end of this time, she spoke to Sawyer on a different subject.

"I love you, Sawyer."

"What?" Sawyer questioned back in a hurry and with a surprised inflection.

"I was always in love you, from the first moment I saw you. I hid it because I didn't want you to know. You don't have to love me back. I just wanted you to hear it in case I don't get a chance to say it later."

Sawyer did not know how to respond to this. He knew that he was attracted to CC and that his feelings for her exceeded what he felt for his other friends. But in his mind, he thought of himself as just a teenager. He was not sure if he should know how to be in love with a girl. In thinking about it at that moment, he believed it possible that his feelings for CC could be defined as love. But the thought of saying it did not feel right to him. It was too easy given their present situation. He feared that it would come across as insincere given the fact that they could both be killed within the next few minutes.

"Guys, we don't have time for this," Lazaro spoke up with an intonation of shock. "We need to do something. We've been on this line for too long."

"We stay the course," Sawyer insisted in a stern voice.

Lazaro's concern that the group of spacefighters behind had been targeting them for a second group ahead was shared by Sawyer. He had considered this possibility almost from the beginning, and his belief in it grew with every minute their pursuers manage to keep their sensor field around them. This belief was fueled by his understanding that these sensor fields were huge power drains. Given the amount of energy they had to be expending on them, their continued pursuit only made sense if they were providing directions for the second group that was somewhere in front of them. It was for this reason that Sawyer believed that they were thrusting into a kill box.

Despite this fear, Sawyer believed that they had to continue forward. He knew that they had no other choice. If they changed their direction, if they turned, if they ran, he knew that all would be lost no matter what they did.

"Sawyer!" CC yelled out with an inflection of terror. "They're turning."

Sawyer had already noted that their pursuers were altering their trajectory. Using long range optics, he could see the glint of light reflecting off the spacefighters behind them begin to move off on a new trajectory. He knew that this could only mean one of two things, they were giving up, or they were getting out of the way. Sawyer knew that the former was more wishful thinking than anything else.

"Sawyer!" CC cried out in a tearful voice.

"CC, look at the clock. Look at the clock," Sawyer implored in a hurry. "Just a little further."

"We're not going to make it," Lazaro implored with a hint of hysterics.

"Yes, we will," Sawyer contradicted with a sharp delivery.

Sawyer's major concern at this moment was for CC's state of mind. It hurt him to hear her so frightened. But in his mind, it was too late to do anything else. He knew they would lose their only chance at escape if they turned. By directing her thoughts towards their only option, it was his hope that he could divert her from the thinking that they were doomed.

The clock that Sawyer spoke of was a timer in the top left corner of his, CC's and Lazaro's, visor. As he spoke, it raced down to just under a minute before zero. CC's attention turned towards the timer the instant that Sawyer spoke of it. She watched it count down with a mixture of hope and fear in her expression. She knew that her salvation rested on what did or did not come to pass when the timer hit zero. She could think of nothing to say or do as she watch each second tick away. After a long wait, by CC's perception, the timer reached ten seconds, and then five, and then zero. Suddenly, an alarm blared as the digits 0:00 flickered off and on. CC's breathing stopped as she waited and waited. Two seconds, three seconds, four seconds went by with nothing happening other than the alert signaling all about her. Suddenly, the mixture of the alarm and the wait became more than she could bare, and she screamed out the one word that was fixed her mind.

"Sawyer!"

It was in this instant that a burst of energy registered on the monitor directly in her mow's line of fall. The sight of it shocked her into silence. At first her mow's computer registered it as an anomaly. Two seconds later it was marked with the tag "RG01UTC2182 Basestar Orion." It reappeared in the exact location where it disappeared from, and it was moving along the same trajectory and at the same velocity that it had been when it disappeared.

CC let out a gasp of relief.

LINE BREAK

"Somebody tell me something," Joshua yelled out to his crew.

The Command Capsule crew of the Orion Basestar appeared to be operating at a hectic pace. All inside were searching their monitors and adjusting the displays as quickly as they could. It took another few seconds of this before someone had a reply to Joshua.

"I found one—wait—no, three, I have three mows approaching from behind."

"Confirmed," a second crewman shouted out, "three mows coming up fast from the rear."

Joshua was shocked by these reports. He hesitated for a moment to assimilate the information. Three out of six, this news was a relief and disheartening. He expected worst and wished for more. He shortly recovered from his dismay and reasserted his authority with a loudly spoken command.

"Get them inside, now!"

Joshua's command had no visible effect on the level of activity in the Command Capsule. Everyone appeared to be intensely attentive to their duties. Even as he spoke the communications officer was in the process of establishing a radio link with the mows. A second crewman called out the suggestion that they should reduce velocity to speed up retrieval of the mows.

"Negative," Joshua countered in a sharp voice. "Maintain current velocity and trajectory. Open docking bay doors at the last moment."

Joshua had no idea where the UFP forces were or what they were doing. Because of this ignorance, he was reluctant to back off from their time jump velocity.

"Sir, should I extend our sensor field," another crewman questioned.

"Negative!" Joshua retorted without hesitation.

Shutting down the sensor field to make the second jump was an expenditure of time he did not want.

"How long before they're on board?" Joshua questioned his docking bay officer with a quick turn of his head in his direction.

"Three minutes, give or take thirty seconds," the docking officer reported with some apprehension.

Joshua gave no importance to this imprecise measure. He knew that an exact moment of docking was not possible. His reason for asking was to get a time frame for the recovery. An instant after hearing this report Joshua shouted out another order to his docking bay officer.

"As soon as they're across the threshold I want that door shut."

"Roger that, sir."

It took just under three minutes for the three mows to cross the threshold of Orion's docking bay. The doors were not fully open when they began to close. It took another thirty seconds for the mows to lock into the nearest docking station. The docking bay doors were sealed shut another eight seconds after that.

"Bay doors are sealed, Admiral," the docking bay officer shouted out the instant he saw it on his monitor. "Anti-gravity generator is powering up."

"Start making preparations for a time jump."

Joshua bellowed out this order an instant behind the report from the docking bay officer. Five seconds later a crewman reported that all segments of the basestar were reinforced with zero gravity fields.

"Initiate time jump, now!"

Three seconds later the Orion faded out of existence beneath an aura of white light that dissipated as it bloomed outwards. One-hundred and forty-four seconds later a hail of UFP warheads pierced through the space where it once was.

LINE BREAK

"General, incoming message from Colonel Trujillo."

"Put a video box on the main monitor," Gruenberg instructed with a mild look of surprise.

Gruenberg expected the fusillade to reach their targets in another three minutes. What Trujillo needed to report ahead of this time was a mystery to him. But he was curious to find out and elected to play the video message on a segment of the main screen at the front of the capsule.

"General Gruenberg, the starcorp warship, it's back. It just appeared from out of nowhere. It's falling on a line straight for you. The three spacefighters are closing on it fast. What are your orders?"

At the instant that Trujillo said the words, "the warship, it's back," all but one person in the cockpit perked up with looks of surprise. It was the one thing that none of them were expecting and only one of them understood. For Kaplan, this event immediately made sense to him. He knew what was happening, and he knew why and how. Two seconds after hearing this a mixed expression of surprise and relief spread across his face. Ronald Kaplan was less interest in seeing these two starcorp pilots get hurt than he was in this whole adventure.

"Order him to attack!" Eckhart screamed after a moment of stunned silence.

Gruenberg did nothing. His mind was still trying to make sense of this quandary. He was still pondering it three seconds later when Eckhart screamed at him again.

"Do something!"

"He can't," Wilkinson yelled out in defense of Gruenberg. "That fusillade is due to pass through there within the next five minutes."

This reply alerted Eckhart to the possibility that the basestar could become an unintended victim of this barrage.

"Will it hit them?" Eckhart questioned his Minister of Defense with a look of hopeful excitement.

"We'll know in six minutes," Gruenberg spoke up with a shake of his head and a look of dismay.

Gruenberg had no more to say behind this. He knew there was nothing to do but wait for the second report from Trujillo. This came less than a minute later.

"General Gruenberg, it's gone. The warship collected the three starcorp spacefighters and then it just vanished. It's gone."

Gruenberg had, by this time, figured out what had happened. But this knowledge did nothing to appease his feeling of frustration for having missed it beforehand. He said nothing as he rolled this failure around in his head and examined it from every angle. Eckhart's annoyance with this silence was quick to come, and he yelled out a question to anyone that could give him an answer.

"What the fuck just happened?"

In the absence of another taker, Ronald Kaplan rose to the task of providing an answer to the question.

"We flew right past them," Kaplan spoke with a chuckle and a shake of his head.

"What?" Eckhart challenged with a roar.

"We went right past them," Kaplan returned with a smile. "The starcorp warship, it didn't jump back in time. It jumped forward in time, and we flew past it—They're gone."

Eckhart took a moment to assimilate this before reacting to it with a one-word response delivered at a shout.

"Fuck!"

LINE BREAK

When the basestar commenced its time jump, the first thought of Sawyer, CC and Lazaro was to get to a space capsule as quick as possible. They did not know what to expect and a space capsule was the appropriate place to be during any launch. They had no time to rejoice over their survival or express their relief at seeing each other. After exiting their mows, they flew down the docking bay tunnels at their best speeds, one after the other. Lazaro arrived at the transport pod lobby first. CC and Sawyer came into the lobby two seconds later. It was only after seeing CC split off for a separate transport tube that Sawyer gave thought to keeping her by his side.

"No," Sawyer corrected after grabbing CC by the arm.

CC's feet jackknifed out ahead of her in response to Sawyer's grasp. Her inertia pulled Sawyer off his trajectory toward the closest transport tube. He reached up and grabbed a hand hold to stop his drift. As he did this, he pulled CC back towards him. She made no effort to fight this despite the look of surprise on her face. She reached up with her free hand and took hold of the arm that Sawyer was using to tether her. After a strong pull with his other arm, Sawyer threw the both of them towards the transport pod door that he was initially trying to get to. As soon as he touched the control panel to the transport tube the transport pod door opened. Sawyer gave CC a soft sling through the doorway. He followed her through a second behind. They were quick to position themselves in front of a seat so that the suction it produced could pull them into it. The door to the transport pod closed as soon as they were settled. The pod began to move an instant later.

Sawyer and CC were aboard the Basestar Orion and were in route to a space capsule. Lazaro had commandeered a separate transport pod and was on his way to his assigned space capsule. The Orion had jumped out of real space/time before the three of them had gotten out of their mows. CC had no idea why Sawyer had pulled her into his transport pod. Her space capsule was in a different location within the hub of the basestar. But she was not inclined to question his decision to pull her along with him. She was grateful for every second she got to spend with him. It was a relief for her to be in the same compartment with him and not partitioned by separate mows and empty space. Sawyer was equally pleased to have CC in his company. When the transport arrived at its destination Sawyer extended a hand towards her as he spoke.

"Come on."

CC took his hand and followed his lead. They floated out the open transport pod door and into the antechamber outside of Sawyer's space capsule. Hand in hand, they floated over to the hatch. Sawyer unlocked it by touching his com-link to the display pad beside the hatch. The red light that bordered the display pad turned green. Sawyer pulled open the hatch and sent CC into the capsule ahead of him. He pulled the hatch closed when he followed her inside.

Once inside the capsule, CC began the process of searching for an empty seat. There were several, but she was reluctant to take one before knowing where Sawyer's acceleration pod was. The eyes of everyone inside the capsule were on her as she hesitated there. Everyone inside knew that she and Sawyer were two of the six pilots that left the basestar several hours earlier. No one knew what to say or how to react. The event did not seem to warrant a celebration, but all were pleased to see them alive.

CC was still floating just inside the capsule when Sawyer finished reclosing the hatch. She turned back towards him to see what he wanted her to do. Their eyes focused in on each other for the first time since their arrival. Sawyer froze for a moment. His mind had not plotted out what he should do beyond this point. They floated there for half a dozen seconds and did nothing but look into eyes of the other. At the end of this time, Sawyer awakened from his trance and acted.

"Over here," Sawyer instructed as he reacquired CC's hand.

With CC in tow, Sawyer pushed off towards his acceleration pod. Everyone followed them with their eyes as they floated across the capsule. When he got to his acceleration pod, Sawyer climbed down into it with one hand while holding onto CC with the other. It took him three seconds to negotiate the maneuver. He ignored the seat restraints. When his lower body was inside the cubicle, he braced his feet and legs against the sides of the pod to anchor him inside. After this, he pulled CC into the cubicle with him. She followed his lead without complaint or surprise. She clasped her arms about Sawyer's torso as she settled into the space. Her head came to rest on his shoulder. With a press of a button, Sawyer extended the lid to the cubicle two-thirds of the way up. This prevented them from floating out of it. When all of this was done, Sawyer began to settle in for the journey to Proxima Centauri. He secured CC beneath his embrace, entangled a leg with hers, rested his cheek against the top of her head and sighed with relief that they were safe at last. Several seconds later he whispered the thought that bloomed up within his mind from out of nowhere.

"I love you."

CC reacted to his declaration by snuggling in a little tighter and closing her eyes.

The End