tagSci-Fi & FantasyBirds of Prey - Hetero Edition

Birds of Prey - Hetero Edition


Author's note: this story has been re-edited to bring it up to my current standards as part of an effort to make Ebooks. It features improved editing, grammar, punctuation, and also includes rewrites and expanded scenes where necessary. Please see my bio for more information.


The alarm blared, the sound of boots hammering on the deck joining the siren as the hangar bay was filled with a rush of activity. The running figures and idle spacecraft were illuminated by flashing, orange warning lighting, instructions coming through on loudspeakers and radios as the personnel hurried to their positions.

Jaeger was already wearing his helmet, double-checking the seals on his flight suit as he made his way towards his plane, listening to the chatter in his ear.

"...heat signatures in the Oort cloud, nothing showing up on radar, but there's a lot of interference from small bodies and debris..."

Just like with every long-range patrol, or Bug hunts as they were colloquially known, the UNN Rorke had been drifting along the edge of Coalition space and scanning for Betelgeusian activity for weeks now with no contacts. Jaeger was itching to get back into the cockpit, to stretch his wings in the black void of space. Being cooped up inside the jump carrier was nearly enough to drive him crazy.

His chest swelled with excitement as he arrived beside his ship, its angular, black chassis making it look like it had been chiseled from a block of solid onyx. The airframe was designed for the lowest possible radar cross-section, the swept wings, dual tail fins and the pointed nose betraying the vessel's atmospheric flight capabilities. It was an FS-26 Beewolf spaceplane, a short-range fighter that could operate both in deep space and in the atmosphere of a planet when necessary. Looking closely, one could make out the innumerable nozzles and thrusters that were spaced out all along the hull, used to orient it in a vacuum where its aerodynamic design counted for naught.

He stepped out of the way as a Krell lumbered past him, the gigantic reptile carrying a missile in its muscular arms as if the nine foot, two hundred pound projectile weighed no more than a pool noodle. The alien looked to be about fifteen feet from nose to tail, eight feet tall due to its hunched, bipedal posture. Its back was covered in scales and armored scutes like a crocodile, spinach green in color, and it was wearing a yellow poncho that identified it as a member of the engineering crew.

Jaeger watched the alien as it leaned under the craft's delta wing and began to affix the missile to a vacant hardpoint. When it was done, it stepped out from beneath the plane, its long tail dragging along the deck.

"We good to go, buddy?" Jaeger asked. The Krell turned its alligator-like snout in his direction, then curled its many-fingered hand into a fist, giving him a thumbs-up. The Krell lacked the vocal apparatus to reproduce human speech, but they understood the language well enough. They were just one of the many alien races that served alongside humanity in the multi-species Coalition.

Even as he climbed up to the cockpit, Jaeger could hear the other pilots spooling up their engines and running thruster diagnostics. The deck crew moved off as the vessels prepared to launch, Jaeger sliding into his seat and hitting the button that would close the transparent canopy. The cockpit was high on the nose of the craft, which provided excellent visibility, and he watched the yellow-clad figures retreat to safety as his suit jacked into the plane's internal systems.

The full-faced visor on his helmet slid down, sealing over his head with a hiss, the heads-up display overlaying his field of view with ghostly green graphics and information as it flickered to life. External cameras mounted all around the vessel streamed a video feed to his helmet, the latency low enough that it allowed him to see through the chassis in real time, giving him an unobstructed view in every direction. If an enemy craft were below, or even directly behind him, this system would allow him to view it as if he was looking through glass.

The helmet was designed both to feed him system information and targeting data, as well as to protect him from the certain death of decompression if his vessel should lose pressure. He felt cool air across his face as the oxygen supply turned on, his flight suit shifting like it was a living thing, flexing and tightening around his limbs. It could contract to restrict blood flow to his extremities during the extreme-G maneuvers that space combat often required, preventing him from blacking out, at least to a point.

As soon as his gloved hands found the joystick, he felt like he was home, hitting switches on the control panel and booting up the various systems. The vessel seemed to wake up, its thrusters swiveling and shooting puffs of gas as the flight computer ran diagnostics, the rudders and ailerons tilting. The main engine of the craft stretched like a limb, the vectoring nozzle expanding and contracting, Jaeger feeling a rumble beneath his feet as it spooled up. The data readout on his HUD showed that all systems were green, weapons operational, propulsion gas canisters and chemical fuel tanks full.

Before him was the hangar's shimmering force field, a flimsy energy barrier that would keep the atmosphere in, while allowing solid objects to pass. Beyond it was the velvet blackness of space, dotted with twinkling stars, the void calling to him. He listened intently to his radio as he secured his straps, waiting for the order to launch. They had been on standby for so long that he felt like he might explode if he didn't get out there in the next couple of minutes.

"Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, feeding coordinates to your flight computers. Your orders are to follow the patrol route and investigate the anomalous heat signatures."

That was Jaeger's plane, and Scorch had been assigned as his wingman, excellent. The callsigns that the pilots used might sound aggrandizing to the uninitiated, but they were more often than not assigned as a reference to some monumental fuckup or as a squadron in-joke. Richard Scorch Baker had earned his callsign when he had failed to retract his radiators during reentry while training at the academy, causing them to melt and overheat his engines. Fortunately, he had been able to glide to safety. Jaeger's callsign was Bullseye, a reference to him accidentally firing an extremely expensive missile into deep space during a combat exercise.

He looked around, noticing that two other fighters were starting to taxi into position as well, waiting for their turn to launch. They must have been ordered to patrol along a slightly different route to cover more ground. It looked like Boomer and Scratcher. Boomer hadn't figured out that breaking the sound barrier while doing a low flyby over a populated area was a bad idea, and Scratcher had been caught sharing a bed with a Borealan recruit within his first week on the job.

Jaeger lined up his plane ready for takeoff, using his helmet to look through the floor of his cockpit to make sure that he was properly aligned with the markings on the deck as Scorch taxied up beside him. He looked over his shoulder, watching as a metal panel rose from the deck of the hangar on a pneumatic piston, the angled square of blackened metal designed to deflect and absorb the heat from the engine during takeoff so that it didn't cook the vessels directly behind it. As large as the hangar was, there were still dozens of fighters and dropships crammed into the space.

Unlike in the atmosphere of a planet, there was no need to gain a great deal of speed in order to generate lift. One needed only to escape the artificial gravity field of the carrier and then they were in open space, where only short bursts from the engines and thrusters were necessary to maneuver. Extended burns were usually a very bad idea, because the more momentum that was generated, the more thrust would have to be applied in the opposite direction to slow down again. Space flight had almost nothing in common with atmospheric flight, there was no banking to turn, there was no danger of stalling. The aircraft could move in any direction, and at any speed in a three-dimensional space, the only limiting factor being fuel consumption and the G-forces applied to the pilot.

Some argued that fighters flown remotely would be better suited to the task, able to execute maneuvers that would turn an organic occupant to jelly. But due to the massive distances involved where space combat was concerned, the only way to ensure a low enough latency connection for that to be viable was by laser transmission, which could be obstructed by objects and hazards. You couldn't send a laser signal to a vessel that was on the other side of a planet, for example, not without satellites already in place to bounce the beam. Automated drones were a possibility, but so far the only species that had developed advanced enough computing technology to achieve that were the Brokers, and they weren't too keen on sharing it. At least for the foreseeable future, Jaeger wouldn't be out of a job.

The indicator on his HUD turned from red to green, signifying that he was clear to launch. Wasting no time, he gave the throttle a short squeeze, orange flames splashing against the panel behind him as the acceleration pinned him to his seat. In a flash, the brightly lit interior of the bay was replaced with the darkness of space, only the relatively thin barrier of his canopy protecting him from the freezing cold and the deadly radiation. Space looked so serene and pristine, but it was actually swarming with charged particles that would turn his chromosomes into Swiss cheese, along with dust and debris that could hit with the force of a bullet. The spacecraft were made of stern stuff, but every spacefarer feared the day that the cruel hand of fate might send an errant micrometeorite hurtling towards his head.

He rotated the fighter on its axis and retracted his landing gear, angling the nose towards the vast field of ice and rock in the distance. To his right, he could see the jump carrier and its trailing support vessels, torpedo boats and CIWS frigates floating along in a lazy formation like a pod of dolphins surfing the bow wave of a ship. Only the largest vessels in the Navy were big enough to house the nuclear reactors that were needed to power the jump drives, the smaller vessels had to be towed in their slipstream. The carrier was already dwindling to the size of a toy, the ocean-grey hull shaped vaguely like a giant snub-nosed bullet, with recesses along its length for docking dropships and other craft when the hangars were full. Its belly and flanks bristled with weaponry. There were lines of closed hatches that housed torpedo bays, long railguns on flexible arms, and point defense turrets jutting from its bulbous hull. A carrier could both defend itself and deal an incredible amount of damage to anything that was unwise enough to get into range.

A burst of flame drew his eye, and he made out Scorch leaving the hangar, using the telescope function on his visor to zoom in on the fighter as it drifted towards him. He heard crackling static in his earpiece, and then mission control came through.

"We've got some weird heat signatures showing up on the thermal scans, could be recent collisions between large bodies, but it's not likely. Radar won't be of much use out there, there's a lot of shit floating around, so keep your eyes peeled. Remember, don't engage unless necessary, this is a recon mission."

"Copy that, mission control," he replied. "We'll just do a little sight-seeing."

Scorch moved into formation, the black fighter barely visible against the backdrop of space, but Jaeger's flight computer tagged the location of all friendly vessels in the immediate area and displayed them on his HUD.

"Finally, an excuse to get out of that sardine can," he heard his friend grumble over the back radio.

"I hear that, Baker. Watch your ass out there. They have us going pretty deep into the asteroid field, and I don't want to have to engrave killed by a rock on your tombstone."

Jaeger watched as two more fighters left the hangar, setting off on a different route, their afterburners flaring for a second or two before they coasted off into the blackness. Hanging in front of him was a giant wall of tumbling ice and rock that seemed to extend infinitely in every direction. Oort clouds were truly massive spheres of rock, ice, and debris that orbited a star at the extreme limits of its gravitational pull. Their boundaries were fuzzy at best, and the fleet was currently suitably far enough away that the danger of impacts was minimized. Bugs loved asteroid fields, they infested them like cockroaches, using the natural cover that they provided to launch attacks on planets further inside the system. Heat signatures this far out probably meant that Bugs were setting up shop here, likely scouts for a hive ship that was hidden somewhere in the cloud. The system was unmapped, but anything that the Bugs could use as a staging point to push further into Coalition space had to be checked out and cleared.

"Let's give it a three-second burn on my mark," Jaeger said, "three...two...one...hit the gas."

The two vessels accelerated in unison, the G-forces pressing Jaeger into his seat. After three seconds, the acceleration ceased, the fighters letting the momentum carry them forward. There was no air resistance in space, nothing to slow them down. If an object started to move, then it wouldn't stop until force was applied, or it encountered an obstacle. It was even possible to gain or lose momentum without wasting fuel by using gravitational assists, although they were currently too far out from the solar system to have to contend with planets.

The cloud looked like dust from this distance, but when he enhanced the image with his visor, Jaeger could see the individual rocks and balls of ice as they tumbled lazily through space. Some of them were barely larger than his own fighter, and some were the size of a mountain. It was so hard to judge distance and scale in space without using instruments, and the field of asteroids was dark, the system's sun too far away to provide much illumination at all. It was little more than a pinpoint in the distance, barely distinguishable from stars that were a thousand light years away.

The two fighters slowed their approach with bursts of gas from their forward thrusters as the asteroids ballooned in their field of view, becoming alarmingly large. Jaeger could see small fragments and particles of dust impacting on his canopy and making his hull shake. The vessels were designed to endure the rigors of combat, and so it wasn't too concerning, but they still needed to be careful and stay alert. It wouldn't do to get pancaked between two drifting hunks of rock the size of houses.

There was no clear limit to the asteroid field, but Jaeger was soon surrounded by larger rocks, his visor's optics doing their best to brighten the darkness and his flight computer tracking the nearby objects so as to warn him of any impending collisions.

"Radar is useless in here," Baker muttered, "it's like tryin' to find a needle in a haystack."

"You'd know all about haystacks, you hick," Jaeger replied. Baker had a thick Southern accent, and everyone gave him shit for it.

"Switchin' to thermal," Baker said, "not seeing anything...I really don't want to move deeper. It ain't a good idea if you ask me."

"Well they didn't ask you, it's an order," Jaeger said as he used his thrusters to inch forward. "Stay on my six and keep an eye out for movement, you know how sneaky these Bugs can be."

"Considerin' I got more confirmed kills than you, Bullseye, I sure do."

Jaeger kept one eye on his sensors as they moved deeper into the cloud, following the route that had been planned out by command. The problem with fighting Bugs was that no two colonies were ever alike. Sure, they shared certain basic tenets and design principles, but the rate at which they adapted to their new environments and their willingness to mutate their own bodies meant that you could never accurately predict what you'd be facing off against. Fortunately, their violent xenophobia extended to their own kind too, different colonies never cooperated or shared tactical information between one another. It was a good job too, or the UNN would never be able to win the arms race that would ensue.

"Hang on," Baker said, "I got somethin' on the scope. It's a heat source, three o'clock high, hard to gauge the distance in this soup."

"I got it," Jaeger replied, his HUD showing a red blip amongst the ghostly green outlines of the nearby asteroids. "It's faint, might be a critter trying to mask its engine signature." He switched radio channels and put a call through to the Rorke. "This is Bullseye, we've picked up a heat signature, requesting instructions."

Mission control came through with a hiss of static, the woman's voice crackling in his earpiece.

"Roger that, Bullseye, marking your location. Your orders are to proceed and investigate."

"That's a solid copy mission control, proceeding deeper..."

He flipped to the back channel again, relaying the instructions to Baker.

"Control says we should check it out."

"Fuck. Oh well, ladies first."

Jaeger took point and drifted towards the faint heat source, maneuvering around obstacles with short bursts from his thrusters, the signal growing steadily weaker. He was almost certain by now that it was a cooling engine. Something had probably moved shortly before their arrival, and the heat that it had generated was slowly dissipating into space.

"I got a bad feeling about this," he said, "weapons going hot."

He flipped up the guard on his joystick that covered one of the fire buttons, and he felt a tremor run through the hull as a hatch on the back of the fighter opened up like a trap door. As well as long-range missiles and affixed cannons that could be used both in atmosphere and in space, there was also another weapon mounted on the FS-26 that could only be used in a vacuum. A large, belt-fed railgun extended from the hull on a flexible arm, making it look like the head of a stork. It was invaluable in a close quarters dogfight, able to pivot and track independently of the fighter. A targeting reticle appeared on Jaeger's HUD as the weapon came online. It was primarily computer controlled, but UNN regulations required a human to pull the trigger...or at least a sapient creature.

As they neared the source of the signature and came upon a large asteroid, their railguns turning this way and that like curious geese as they scanned for targets, the blip on the radar completely vanished.

"Heads up," Baker muttered, "it's gone dark."

"Be ready, it was around this asteroid somewhere..."

They drifted slowly around the large, irregular hunk of rock, the scanners highlighting every contour on its pockmarked surface with a green wireframe. It was like orbiting a very small moon.

"Picking up traces of methane," Baker said, "something was definitely here. I'm gonna call it in."

"Contact! Contact!"

Something that looked like a cross between a gigantic roach and a shrimp climbed out of one of the many impact craters on several pairs of jointed legs. It was huge, at least as large as their fighters if not slightly larger, its segmented body encased within an iridescent shell that glittered in shades of blue and green. Its back was covered in ablative plates that looked like a suit of medieval armor, clearly artificial in nature, probably bolted onto its living body after the thing had matured.

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bySnekguy© 38 comments/ 27902 views/ 116 favorites

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