1191 years ago, Tau Ceti-7, near Core Replicator RV/9217
The ship was waiting for her in the auxiliary hangar. Commander Hopps hurried between the lines of empty clamps, heart beating in her throat. There had been a last-minute vacancy on the roster, the hare who was supposed to fly the ship was in the med bay for the rest of the week and now she suddenly found herself on rotation, helping to cover the retreat this morning shift.
Like most combat vessels of the Sol Defense Force, this one had no cockpit. A pilot strapped themself into the exoskeleton, clamps snapped around their wrists and ankles, establishing an interface between the ship and the pilot. She moved her arm carefully, saw the ship react around her; but she also felt it, as the sensors were now linked directly into her own nervous system. It took new pilots a few weeks to get used to this aspect, but it took a lot out of them as well. Hopps had enough training to qualify for combat, but she was far from specialized on it. She was here only because someone else tripped and broke a leg this morning.
They never had enough mammals. The only reason why you put a mammal not augmented for fighter combat on a mission like this was desperation. Hopps’ didn’t question the orders, she was thankful that she was able to do something to help. Even if the orders were to distract and disengage.
Her ship was good for that job. It was small (barely seven times her size) and lean, without any space beyond the essentials: power, twenty-four thrusters, and weaponry. She could only pilot it because she had at least similar enhancements to the fighter pilots, namely those that allowed a mammal to survive hard vacuum. If you could get over the fact that reaction time and a tiny shield were the only things between you and enemy fire, these scout craft were a solid choice. The weak armaments, however, made it clear that they weren’t exactly meant for front-line combat; which was exactly what she was about to join.
She started the engines and let the carrier take her outside. Her skin prickled as the warm air of the hangar was replaced with vacuum. The heads-up-display displayed a vector to the rendezvous with the rest of her squad.
An hour later the retreat they were to cover was hanging by a mere thread. Hopps mind felt frayed despite her being awake for only four hours.
Fleet command in this sector was as good as doomed, they all knew it – even those who boasted otherwise. But they still had to draw the enemy away from here as well and that was more important than even their own survival. Hopps didn’t know the larger picture beyond that fact, nor did she care. She had known this from the get-go this might be her last mission. Nonetheless was she glad she might at least help, one last time, not await the end in one of the carriers, relegated to support duties because they never had enough ships. This must have been her lucky day, if you could call it that, that they had one rabbit sized ship more than they had combat-ready pilots. Her own enhancements were for strength and resilience, and while she had the training, she had no disillusions that she could hold her own against her trained colleagues.
It might not make a difference either way as these combat encounters were highly asymmetric in nature. Their enemy was relying on swarm tactics and formation, guided by a single mind, while they had slightly superior technology, but oh so few mammals. Chaos and unpredictability were often their best advantage against this foe.
Chaos, however, was said to be a fickle mistress.
Warning sirens blared in her head the instant something hit her left stabilizer. She didn’t even have the shooter on her screen, it must have been a shot aimed at someone else; a one-in-billion chance but it might just have sealed her fate. When you lost control of your ship, it was impossible to steer with purpose, you were reduced to random-walk. Hopps worked the thrusters individually trying to be as unpredictable a target as possible. Terrified she was, but if in her last moments she could cause a bit more distraction for the enemy then she’d be damned if she did anything less! It took all her training to stop the ship from going into too fast of a spin. The hologram in front of her was already rotating too fast to make out where the enemy drones were in relation to her, but it flashed with every close call she somehow managed to evade.
Until suddenly, a green light came up again, indicating that re-calibration was complete and she ship had balanced out the steering over the other thrusters. She switched back to normal steering mode, stopped the spin, and accelerated. A full wing of drones was on her tail and she did what was hammered into her in briefing. Disengage.
With a bit of distance and a breather gained she glanced at the larger situation map and found herself in a peculiar position. She decided to radio it in. “Hopps to fire control.”
“Listening,” an operator responded.
“I have a regained control, but am stranded behind their net. I’m moving to draw off a wing at least.”
“Roger that, try heading towards ten-seventy, presence appears to be weakest there. You might just link up with us again if you can get back to cruising speed.”
Before she could acknowledge, something else in the three-dimensional radar image in front of her caught her attention and she said: “Negative, fire control. There’s a gap in the enemy’s net between me and the factory. I’m going to try and board it.”
“Hopps, your orders are to disengage!” the operator insisted.
“…and distract. This is a chance for one big distraction and I’m taking it.”
“Hopps,” came another voice. It was the general’s, he must have been within earshot.
Hopps cringed slightly, knowing she was in for a chewing out by the old tiger. “Sir?”
“I’m ordering you back. We can’t afford to lose more ships today or we’ll have trouble making it out of the sector, maybe even out of this system.”
“Sorry, sir, now I know I have to try this.” She had found a purpose again. One that wasn’t just filling in for someone else, but something she was made for. She wasn’t going to let this chance slip by, no matter how slim it was. “You said it yourself, we might not live to see another cycle in any case.”
The deep voice huffed. He could either disable her ship, leaving her at the mercy of the enemy, or allow her to see this through. It was but a flicker of hope, but at least it was that. “Try to find us afterwards.”
She didn’t give herself any illusions that it’d come to that. Still, it felt good not to plan for failure. “Affirmative.” The comms clicked off and she couldn’t help but reminisce a few moments about her friends and family. Ben, the cheerful cheetah from the 37th, Jimmy, her on-and-off dalliance, though they were both married to the job, and her family, who’d shared the fate of the Gaia-One. Maybe she’d see them again soon.
The maw of the Factory loomed in front of her, a circular hangar with a diameter of eight kilometers. Several wings had noticed her now and were rushing to intercept. They knew as well as her that they wouldn’t be fast enough. Not before she’d make it inside.
She hoped that maybe the machines knew fear after all.