McKinley’s Viper spiraled out of sight in flames. The poor boy probably hadn’t imagined himself coming up against the galaxy’s deadliest fighter pilot on his maiden mission. I watched his space fighter disappear in thick black clouds over SH-1, rage and guilt competing to see which one could bite off a bigger chunk of my soul.
One more person I’d failed.
My fighter was hit a few times. A number of warning systems were flashing furious red lights, and my Viper reacted more slowly to the stick movements. The space fighter’s computer engaged multiple damage control and repair systems. Still, I had to fight my equipment just to stay in the battle. I put both my hands on the stick, trying to steady it and get my space fighter under control.
I thought I faintly smelled smoke, even though I was wearing my oxygen mask.
This can’t possibly be good!
And if Maada were in any real danger, all those Deathbringers around us wouldn’t stay there and watch.
Josef said, “Boss, I—”
I never found out what he wanted to say. His Viper exploded with such force that the shockwave shook me inside my cockpit. The silver space fighter was completely obliterated. Maada must have hit her engine.
Up to this moment, I still had hope, just a tiny snowflake against the warm summer wind. With Josef gone, utter, profound despair washed over me, hurting so badly I felt what was in my veins now wasn’t blood but molten lava.
Josef had two beautiful little children whose pictures he used to show us any chance he got. But I had more important things to worry about than my old friend and his now-orphaned kids. We were all doomed. It was like our last battle all over again. They had two space fighters for every one of ours, and I had already lost more than a third of the Vipers under my command. Our pilots hadn’t died cheaply. The enemy had lost at least one space fighter for every one of ours, but when the enemy fleet has twice as many ships as you, inflicting one-on-one casualties doesn’t win the battle.
Terror came on the heel of hopelessness and made me shudder inside my temperature-controlled flight suit. Terror of failure. Terror of losing the battle. Terror of being singlehandedly responsible for the death of every man, woman, and child on the planet.
Sweat drenched my skin, and I found it difficult to breathe.
Our only way out of this was to break the Xortaags’ resistance by killing Maada. Talk about doing the impossible. The guy was invincible. There was a reason he was a living legend in the galaxy. Tarq once had told me parents all across the known universe scared their children by telling them if they didn’t behave Maada would take them. I’d wondered if he was serious but didn’t wonder anymore.
Here I was again on the verge of certain death, and my brain kept itself busy by pulling up nonsensical memories. It had to be some sort of defense mechanism to distract me from thinking about my impending demise. Anything not to face the truth.
Venom chose this moment to stick his ugly nose out. “Let me get this straight: As the commander of the fleet, you led your forces to three battles and got everyone killed in two of those. Well done! You make General Custer look good.”
Bugger off, you useless parasite!
If I were going down, taking humanity down with me, I’d go down fighting. I raised my chin and kept trying to lock on Maada’s Deathbringer. Grinding my teeth so hard the sour taste of blood filled my mouth, I made my Tango Uniform Viper twist and dodge wildly, barely escaping death every second.
What do we say to the Lord of Death? Not fucking today!
“Syrio Forel and his wooden sword would’ve had the same chance of survival against Maada as you do,” said Venom, “especially in a damaged Viper, with no missiles left.”
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