Seeing Shadows

There were few sounds more distressing to a USF pilot than silence. Silence meant that your vessel’s sensors weren’t detecting anything of note in the immediate system. It meant that the fleet’s lieutenant captain wasn’t issuing you any new directives. And in space, it could also mean that you were being shot at, you didn’t know from where, how badly, or when exactly you were about to be swiftly liquidated by a hail of gunfire. 

At this range it would be at most seconds before the shots reached them depending on the nature of the unknown vessel’s weaponry. Tania called out emergency measures, Anderson assessed their tactical options. Chase took a step towards the hangar window, studying the enemy Centurion. Black and unmarked. Likely privateers, marauders, or some kind of special forces unit. Its thrusters were a cool shade of sapphire, indicating that the vessel had been idle for a while. Another barrage of gunfire flickered brightly against its hull. The muzzle flashes were surprisingly small given the vessel’s immense size. Their pattern also seemed random, not matching any weapon schematics he had ever seen before - 

“Captain?” called Chase. Tania and Anderson both turned. “Hail them.”

“What?” said Anderson sharply. 

“They aren’t firing at us,” Chase said. “They don’t even know we’re here.”

Anderson followed Chase’s gaze through the hangar window. Four long seconds passed, then another barrage of gunfire illuminated the Centurion. “Those flashes are from fighters,” explained Chase. “ They’re here for the same reason we are.”

Behind them, Tania was already hailing the vessel, her hand pressed to her ear. Everyone’s attention turned to her. “USF Triton to unidentified Centurion, please confirm your current directive,” she said. 

A pause. No one blinked.

She lowered her hand and said aloud, “They’re from Nexus. They say they’re skirmishing their fighters.”

Relief engulfed the hangar, although it was quickly eclipsed by a new wave of concern. What was a Nexun vessel doing in the Ascent Cluster? Nexus was normally reclusive, seldom straying from its own systems. It was not in their character to perform training exercises at a neutral site so close to a USF Citadel. A nagging feeling overtook Chase, like he was in the eye of a storm but hadn’t realized yet. Something wasn’t right.

Tania and Anderson spoke in hushed tones while communing with the vessel. Chase faced away, though he felt their gaze moving on and off him. Eventually they dispersed, Tania heading toward the bridge and Anderson toward him.

“Nexus wants an exhibition,” Anderson said to Chase. “Our finest fighter against theirs.”

“Fine. I’ll make it quick,” said Chase.

“Keep a steady head, cadet,” said Anderson. “I don’t trust them.”


Chase milked the throttle of his Interceptor as he cleared the Triton’s hangar and rushed into the void of space. Light was minimal. The nearest star was a red dwarf a little over three AU away. He wasn’t nervous, though the absurdity of flying toward a possibly hostile Centurion in a fighter weighed on him.

“Rules are simple,” said Tania over comms. “Training rounds only. First to three confirmed hits wins.”

“Three confirmed hits to win,” repeated Chase.

“Make short work of them and return to base, Cadet,” she said. “Please be careful.”

“Wilco, sir. Over and out,” he said.

The reaver (USF shorthand for an enemy vessel) appeared on his sensors, a lone blip protruding from the hulking Centurion behind it. It was Nexun built - a little larger and more durable than Chase’s Interceptor, but less nimble and lacking in firepower from what he could discern. In a real dogfight against a talented pilot, Chase might have felt outmatched, but the greater durability offered no advantage in a skirmish. 

Chase closed his eyes a moment, gathering himself. 

He jerked his throttle upwards while twisting his thrusters. Though it was silent and his eyes were closed, he knew the reaver had fired as soon as it detected his brief idleness. His Interceptor pulled above the rain of training rounds and into a barrel roll. Chase wrenched his stick to his left and pulled into a drift. In a matter of seconds he would be above the reaver, prepared to deliver a riposte. 

The reaver abandoned its offensive and fell back. Too late. A costly decision which gave Chase the initiative. He darted after the reaver. It was fast, but he was faster. Chase closed in, preparing to fire three quick shots to end the engagement.

The Nexun Centurion suddenly fired its thrusters, their bright glow blinding Chase. He kept his concentration on the enemy fighter, but the thrusters did their job in compromising his vision and scrambling his primary sensors. He lost track of the reaver as it disappeared into the shadow of the massive, unmoving, vessel. He closed his eyes and followed.

Silence. Darkness. Chase was flying on intuition and the minimal readings from his fighter’s emergency feed now. The Nexun pilot was prepared for this. Chase straightened his trajectory to feign blindness, baiting them.

The temptation to open his eyes crept through Chase, though he knew his vision was only a distraction. This gambit depended on his opponent pressing their advantage, he couldn’t deviate from it now. His emergency feed pinged him, warning him of an unknown object approaching from behind at a low angle. Wait. Wait. The reaver pulled closer. Chase accelerated, pretending he was trying to get to the far side of the Centurion to regain his vision. The reaver was almost on him. Now.

Chase’s primary sensors finished their reboot and came back online. He inverted and hit the throttle, pulling his fighter over one hundred and eighty-degrees so that it was now square with the reaver. 

His plan had been to score three hits before the reaver realized what had happened. To Chase’s surprise, the reaver veered hard to its port and out of his line of fire. Chase forced the issue and matched their maneuver to once again put the two fighters on a collision course. The reaver pilot made their last mistake: they panicked. 

The Nexun fighter barely had the handling for their first evasion, and their stabilizing thrusters gave out altogether after the second. The reaver pulled into an uncontrolled tailspin, drifting toward the Nexun Centurion. Chase hit the throttle and followed. He fired off three quick shots which connected with the reaver’s hull, and only then moved to assist. 

He connected to their comms, “You alright?” 

No response. The reaver sat idle. Chase opened his eyes and exhaled. He could hardly see the dark outline of the reaver in front of him. They had been an excellent opponent, and Chase felt compelled to see them to safety not just out of protocol, but an earned respect. 

Suddenly the reaver jumped to life, firing its thrusters and darting away, vanishing once again into the darkness. Chase pulled up Tania and Anderson on his comms.

“Cadet, you-” began Anderson.

“Mission accomplished, sir,” said Chase.

“Get back here now,” he shouted, urgency in his voice.

Chase throttled his Interceptor, racing alongside the hull of the Nexun Centurion. “On my way. Over and ou-” said Chase.

“Five more fighters just deployed from the Nexun Centurion. They’re headed your way.”

A wave of fervor overtook Chase, somewhere between excitement and apprehension. It had been years since he had last felt genuinely threatened. It was invigorating.

“A few more and we may have an even fight,” said Chase.

“Reinforcements are on the way,” said Anderson. “The situation’s changed. Get back here now.”

Clearing the far side of the Centurion, the light of the nearby red dwarf washed over him. The five Nexun reavers appeared on his sensors, quickly approaching from his starboard.

“Yes sir,” said Chase. “Just have to take out these reavers first.”

“Cadet Chase, this is the last-”

“Give me a raincheck on those reinforcements, would you Captain?” said Chase, speaking over Anderson whose stern tone shifted into yelling. “Cadet Chase, over and out.”

Chase disconnected and blocked the channel. He was outnumbered, but not outmatched. He could do this. 

He inverted his Interceptor again, this time switching his fighter into reverse, propelling him backwards. Chase unleashed a hail of gunfire in the direction of the Nexun fighters. The five reavers evaded neatly in separate directions, moving to flank him. He inverted again to angle his fighter forwards, then pushed the throttle.

Chase flew toward the USF Triton. If they could fight dirty, so could he. Chase pulled back on the stick to bring his flight path parallel to the Triton’s hull. The reavers followed, falling for his trap. The Triton’s shields would block their fire but not his. It would be a shooting gallery.

Gunfire flashed from the five fighters.

As he had anticipated, the Triton’s shields stopped their barrage. But it also revealed something he hadn’t anticipated: they weren’t using training rounds like the first reaver had. 

The Triton’s shields halted their shots with condensed bursts of gravitational energy, more than would have been required had they been using training rounds. This wasn’t a skirmish. It was a battle.

Chase’s mind raced, his brow furrowing at his lack of options. It was one thing to bring a knife to a gunfight, it was another not to bring anything at all. He was outnumbered and outgunned now. But still not outmatched.

Chase needed more information. He contacted Mila on his comms. She answered almost immediately.

“What is it, are you alright?” she asked.

“I need you to pull up any schematics we have on Nexun fighters,” he said.

“Nexun... What, why?” 

Chase’s sensors blared loudly as a shot nearly clipped his cockpit. He dove under the USF Triton, temporarily losing the reavers. “I made some friends in the Ascent Cluster,” said Chase, keeping the strain from his voice. 

“Oh no,” said Mila. A short pause followed as she searched for schematics. “I found diagrams for an Nexun Y-7 Shadow Fighter from 2132. What do you need?”

“A way to disable it,” said Chase, pulling out of a barrel roll. “Erm, with only training rounds,” he amended.

“Oh no, oh no,” he heard Mila say under her breath. “Hold on.”

Chase was running out of options. The reavers were adapting to his tactics. Their firing patterns became predictive of his previous evasive actions, forcing him to improvise again. Talented as Chase was, there was a finite number of maneuvers an Interceptor could perform. Chase pulled away from the Triton and accelerated into open space, creating distance between him and his pursuers. 

“I don’t know, Chase. These things are tough,” said Mila. 

“Give me something. Anything,” said Chase, desperation lacing his voice.

“Um, um…” said Mila. “Their primary sensors are clustered near the front of the canopy. That’s strange. Training rounds might be able to disrupt it-”

“Roger that,” said Chase. “Standby.”

He inverted his fighter again and fired another barrage of training rounds at the five reavers. They dispersed in a similar manner as before. Chase identified the slowest of the reavers and maxed his speed toward it. 

It would be eight seconds at most before the remaining Nexun fighters were on him. This would be his only window. Unleashing the rest of his stockpiled training rounds, Chase pelted the slow reaver, painting the front of its canopy a neon blue. Six seconds.

“Come on, come on,” Chase muttered under his breath. The reaver looked unhindered by his antics, and Chase’s heart sank. Four seconds. Chase held his breath. 

The slow reaver straightened its trajectory as it began emergency diagnostics. Chase had hoped it would stall entirely, but this would have to do. He pulled his fighter parallel to the reaver, their canopies facing each other. He closed the gap between them as far as he could without risking a collision. They were only a half-dozen meters away from each other now.

He exhaled and ran his fingers across Victory’s engraved name for the last time. “See you on the far side,” he said. One second.

Chase ejected from his Interceptor. 

Victory accelerated into the distance, following a pre-programmed path to lure the other reavers away. They took the bait, all four Nexun fighters zipping past him, following his now desolate Interceptor. A more disciplined pilot may have detected his ejection, but his close proximity to the slow reaver had disguised his ploy enough to fool the other Nexun fighters.

His momentum from the ejection carried him directly to the hull of the slow reaver. Chase collided with its hull hard, his nanites struggling to keep his bones intact under his flight suit. He dug his fingers into the hull to keep himself anchored, his free hand scrambling for a release switch for the canopy. Normally canopies can’t be opened without atmospheric pressure, but in a diagnostic cycle it was vulnerable to a manual override. He found the switch and flipped it. The canopy cracked at the seams, then came off as one piece, a quick burst of air from the cabin launching it into empty space behind him. 

Inside was a black-clad Nexun pilot, an opaque helmet obscuring what Chase assumed was a very surprised face. Chase moved to throw them from the vessel, but to his surprise they opted to eject instead, and were shot from the fighter by a pneumatic release. Chase watched them go, his thermal imaging sketching out their small, spinning silhouette. 

Chase strapped himself into the co-pilot’s seat and ran his fingers over the controls like a pianist preparing for a sonata. Had he not been recovering from the impact he would have divined the fighter’s controls in less than a second. But given he had been in intense combat for nearly twenty minutes now, it took him slightly over two seconds. He made a mental note to work on that.

In the distance he saw the last flickers of an explosion as the other reavers destroyed Victory. Chase accelerated towards them. By now the ejected pilot would have warned them of Chase’s hijacking, robbing him of any element of surprise, though he didn’t need it. In an armed fighter, even without a protective canopy, Chase had the upper hand.

He pushed his Y-7 Shadow to its limits, charging his attackers recklessly. Their formation was shaky, now sans one of their members and facing an opponent with teeth. They were almost too easy to tear apart. 

Chase feigned an attack at the reaver on his port side, which then pulled into a panicked barrel roll as Chase careened back the opposite way, gunning down the two reavers on his starboard while strafing. Both lost power and went limp. He’d come back for them later.

Chase realized someone was shouting at him, and had been for a while. “Alex, Alex! Don’t kill them!” he heard Mila yelling over his comms. “Alex, respond!”

She must have discerned what he was about to do. “Why no-” began Chase sharply, and then stopped. He relaxed his tone. “Why not?”

“Thank goodness, oh, Alex,” said Mila, breathing a sigh of relief. “You won, it’s over. Killing them won’t do anything but start a war with Nexus.”

Chase grimaced. He was angry. None of this was fair, but she was right. He disconnected the channel and set off after the last reavers. They were the last two he would show mercy.

The two reavers were in full retreat to their Centurion, making no apparent effort to rescue their downed allies. He didn’t have to kill them to win. But disabling them was still important. He had to send a message. Chase gripped the throttle, and prepared to finish them.

“Chase,” a soft, but deep voice said in his ear. “We’re here. You can stop.”

Chase recognized the voice immediately, but did a double take despite himself. It was Admiral Diaz. 

Behind him, two USF Centurions flashed into view, dropping out of Godspeed on either side of the Triton. Chase turned his comms back on. 

“Yes, sir,” he replied quietly.

The channel disconnected and silence engulfed Chase. He closed his eyes, and for the first time, Chase wondered if this is what distress felt like.

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