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Location: G03 - New California. Tags: Spaceship. Previous chapters can be accessed from the AG player list here. Chapter 20: White Hawk. Racing through neutral territory high above the once secure planet of New California, two ‘White Hawk’ class defenders sped towards the approaching enemy. The MANTIS heavy fighter had been picked up early, dispatched shortly after an unidentified vessel had begun descending through the buffer between Octan and the ominously growing MANTIS presence. There was every chance it was a ruse: sending out an unmarked vessel to justify launching fighters. Without an immediate response, the enemy vessel would be in attack range of essential supply ships before they could do anything about it. Not on my watch. Thought Lynton Bryss, a wing commander in the Orbital Response Unit assigned to New California. His chain of command had launched him as an immediate precaution: MANTIS had overstepped the mark coming here, they were all over The Quarrel but while their advance had reached around to Kaalin, New California and Fractor V had stood as worlds on the edge of the abyss where the pure order of Octan had stood firm... They didn’t come here. Perhaps they didn’t need to, perhaps they didn’t dare... This is our world. “MANTIS vessel.” He said into the A-Comm. “You are in violation of Octan-controlled space. Return to your carrier or you may be fired upon...” Lynton let the threat hang, knowing full well the MANTIS ship wouldn’t back off so easily. He observed the MANTIS ship’s descending trajectory and adjusted his course. “Vex.” He said into his A-Comm on the encoded connection to his wingman. “We’re going to push out high and come down behind him. It’ll be easier to see a black MANTIS ship against the planet.” “Copy that.” Vex Obryn replied. Vashin watched the two Octan ships arc upwards towards space. In his head, he plotted out their likely intentions. Let me follow this decoy while you come up behind me. He wasn’t going to be fooled so easily. Maybe the unidentified ship wasn’t Octan but either way, following it was looking like a bad decision. “Octan vessels.” He announced over the A-Comm. “You are entering MANTIS controlled space. We are conducting protective operations. Return to your fleet and you will not be fired upon. You will not be given a second warning.” With every moment that the Octan ships remained on course his heart beat a little faster than the moment before. There had been battles before and he’d flown in them but things had changed. Fierce battles had given way to uneasy truces. You no longed launched with the clear instruction to engage and destroy. Now it was more like chess, or poker. He was closing on the unidentified ship but it was descending fast, he’d need it to hit atmo and slow in the air for him to get close enough to identify it. Behind him, the two Octan fighters were on a course directly in his trail. He’d be able to keep ahead of them until he hit atmo and then the same would happen, just with him the prey. If he was going to do something it had to be now. Whatever this vessel was, chasing it could cost him his life... He flipped his Wraith Interceptor around and engaged full throttle, arresting his descent. Octan would be on him in moments all the same, but now they’d be in space... and in his sights. “We’re gaining fast.” Vex announced. “Weapons live.” Lynton commanded. They both removed the safety mechanisms on their gunships’ rapid-fire plasma cannons and missile launchers. “Remember, we don’t fire first...” He added, trying to calm the growing tension in the tendons of his hands. “... Unless we have to.” The afterthought was born from fear. How close could you get to a MANTIS craft before they opened fire? Too close and you wouldn’t get a chance to fire back. Could he risk that? His finger lingered gently across the trigger. He breathed deeply and opened the A-Comm one more time. “MANTIS vessel.” He said into it. “This is your final warning...” The Octan ships were in range. The Wraith’s weapon system indicated missile-lock but Vashin knew better that to use them. Missiles were slower than plasma bolts and the distance was still great enough that the Octan ships would have plenty of time to use countermeasures. Just a little longer. He thought, waiting tensely for them to get close enough for a decent plasma shot. He felt sweat form on his brow... This is happening. The hand had been called... Time to show your cards. “MANTIS vessel.” The voice of one of the Octan pilots came over the A-Comm. “This is your final warning...” Now. Green bolts flashed past the canopy of Lynton’s gunship. His finger instinctively squeezed the trigger and both White Hawks were spraying the space before them with a volley of light plasma fire. They both manoeuvred, trying to roll away slightly while keeping a weapons lock. The space between the opposing ships had become a stream of red and green fire. An alarm sounded... Missile alert! All the plasma fire prevented the scanners from clearly seeing exactly where it was or where it was going. Both Octan pilots immediately rolled out of the column of crossfire. Lynton felt his heart pound against the front of his chest as he entered a high-G turn. “I’m hit!” he heard over the A-Comm. Vex! He looked to his scanner. Was his wingman down? The blip was still there and so was the... Behind him. Having hit Vex, the MANTIS ship must have pursued him. His mind raced. He rolled his craft 180 degrees and turned his attempt to pull up into a steep dive. Vashin pursued the undamaged Octan ship with vicious grit, his eyes narrow, waiting for the moment. He had hit one of them as they tried to peel away from the path of his missile, angling his Wraith Interceptor to follow the trajectory of one of them. Once he saw the flames, he spun his ship all the way round and accelerated towards the remaining vessel. He hadn’t destroyed the first one but with an engine ablaze, it was unlikely to trouble him soon and so he pursued the remaining threat. He bore down fast, the interceptor’s engines doing their job. The missile lock indicator beeped; he pushed the thumb button without hesitation. The Octan ship had turned into a dive with a hard barrel roll. Trying to out manoeuvre me. He thought. The missile curved gently down towards the gunship. Vashin took a chance and kept his altitude, turning only towards the inclination of the barrel roll. The Missile alarm blared out and an impact countdown appeared on his H.U.D. He rapidly considered his options, flicked a switch on his left joystick to launch countermeasures. A spray of bright white flares shot from the rear of Lynton’s gunship, spreading across the space behind him. The countdown continued. His navigation screen showed the missile approaching. Damn it! He realised. The barrel roll sent the flares in wide arc too far from the missiles long wide approach. None were close enough to draw it in. Unlike his MANTIS counterpart, the White Hawk wasn’t built to sit and take hits while it returns fire: spinning around to try and shoot the missile would leave him unable to control his trajectory and vulnerable. His ship was designed to be manoeuvrable, evading fire and hunting for an opening of its own. He twisted hi right flight stick the other way, halting the barrel roll. The White Hawk climbing back into space. He saw the first flash of bright green plasma shoot past him; he did not see the second as it hit his starboard engine unit and sent his ship into an uncontrollable tumble. The alarms rang, outside the window, the black of space and bright sandy orange of the planet spun rapidly in constantly changing direction. Heat, smoke... Fire! It was getting hard to breath. Was it smoke? or panic... The controls wouldn’t respond. The atmospheric alarm sounded: I’m entering the atmosphere! Everything started to go bright, he couldn’t see. Can’t eject now. He realised. He stopped fighting the controls and struggled to engage his suit’s emergency air supply. He forgot about the ship he was in, and the planet he was falling towards. He forgot about Vex and the fleet... He thought about home. The Wife that would be sent the automated message, the child that there would be no easy way to explain it to. He thought about the credits the corporation would give them, that sum that was buried somewhere in the terms and conditions... How much was it? He tried to think... It had seemed like such a large amount at the time... But now... He thought of his Wife one last time as the hull of his ship breached and what was left exploded into a rainfall of flame and wreckage. Note to judges: The MANTIS vessel has been judged previously. Thanks for reading. All comments welcome.