She bites into the black of space like a set of tires on asphalt, pulling enough Gs in the break to make a flyboy swallow his tongue and a hull to snap like kindling, but not this flyboy and not this old girl. I give her the goods before the turn is through and she gives me a shiver and a moan to let me know I’m riding her just a little too hard, and I back off and let her breathe, for a blink, and bury it even harder.
She explodes forward into the onslaught, engines blazing hot enough to scorch the stars, her shape a soot black sliver in a flaming iris, a tiger’s eye, a beast bent on blood, coming impossibly fast. We turn their pursuit into a game of chicken, and the cowards show their underbellies, fan out and scatter before I can get a lock on all of them. I light up five before the leader and remaining three bolt into the million-kilometer stretch of fresh, writhing wreckage.
I find them hiding, making like scrap, spinning in slow pirouettes among a cluster of fragments of their fallen. I unload, turning their mirrored hulls into bursts of diamonds glinting wildly in the light of the nearby moon. One of the slithering freaks ejects in a cylindrical craft that isn’t much bigger than its body. I ease my baby in close, close enough to where I can see into its portal, see the terror burn in the trio of fist-sized eyes within the broad, concave shovel head, skin pockmarked and colored lifeless, the grey on grey of a gummed-up city sidewalk.
I’m supposed to let them go once they’ve bailed. They don’t shoot ours and we don’t shoot theirs, that’s what the wing commanders say. But the unwritten code between us knights of the ether didn’t stop them — or us — from dealing death from orbit and setting whole hemispheres aflame.
My honor’s all ash, lit up and snuffed out with the cries of my wife and child as their world roasted around them. My mercy atrophied, withered as this tired flesh that’s long since made this hull its home. What strength remains is in my hands, to pull and push, to bank and weave, to thrust my baby forward fast, and squeeze her triggers until my fingers scream.
I fire when my girl registers the energy signature of its distress signal, and keep firing long after there’s any need, incinerating twisted hunks of broken ship beyond my target.
The base ship jumps in too late to play savior. I see it even though I shouldn’t. It appears as a stretch of space, the smooth, obsidian surface mirroring the emptiness and stars around it. But I see it, and my girl’s sensors wail, and I know she sees it too.
Before they even know I’m there, before they can launch a single fighter, I’m on them, right on them, barreling bow to stern, unloading every bit of hurt my baby can dish out, our hulls so close I start to sweat in the heat of my own path of destruction. I reach the end in a second and a half, pull her up, whip her back around, and howl madly at the jagged, hundred-foot-wide wound spanning all twenty kilometers of the massive ship’s hide, glowing blood red and white hot, spewing molten debris and mangled vessels and maimed tentacled bodies that tumble, twist, spin, collide and shatter like glass.
But it’s not dead yet.
I take her in for another pass, picking off the point defense turrets spinning frantically, randomly, blindly spitting brilliant lances in every direction, the desperate yet still deadly teeth of a wounded, cornered animal.
My baby shudders.
For a second I think they got lucky, but she doesn’t register a hit. I ask her what’s wrong, baby, tell me what’s wrong, and she blinks and beeps and whines and says we’re out of time.
Is it you or me, I ask, and it’s you and me, she answers, and tells me what we’ve known since our forces signed the armistice, and we set out on our own. We’ve been out here too long, the two of us, she says, my lungs as parched for oxygen as her power cells for fuel.
Her lights begin to flicker and dim, gauges and heads up displays winking off one by one as she closes her eyes for the last time and the darkness enfolds me.
She is crying now, her tears washing over me, drenching me in a mist of fuel and coolant, fire and ice. And I know if she could she’d hold me close to the guttering warmth of her heart.
I try to keep her with me, hammering my fists into her console, screaming into her sensors. I tell her she can’t leave, that there’d be more ships on the way, that we’ve only just begun. But she’s nothing left to give.
Silent we drift, mere shades now above the fiery void as it widens and intensifies, spreads in crimson cracks and tendrils over the reflected universe bending in the blistering hull. The image blurs and fades, the vision dims, but I feel it still, can feel my baby feels it still, the rush, the surge, the godlike thrill of cracking open the gates of hell.
Jeff Samson makes a living as a copywriter with an ad agency in NYC. He brews Irish stout when he’s not writing science fiction, and often drinks it when he is. His previous work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and no cats.