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No Tau pilot liked the moment of mating with his craft. It was a little too much like death—a high price to pay for the enhanced life of flight.

Kor'ui Fio'vash M'yen, lately christened Y'eldi, felt the rush of pain as his tall body assimilated the nano-processors from the flight implant in his upper heart. He lost awareness of the half-dec in which his frame settled into his acceleration couch and the lock down pads settled onto him, conforming to his elongated musculature. Even as his body was submerged in the cryo-fluid that filled his cockpit, the molecular machines raced through his veins, setting up fluid control networks in his arteries, building tiny pumping stations through his limbs, linking his involuntary control centers to his enhanced neural pathways through the AI in his helmet. It hurt. It always hurt, it hurt everywhere at once, with a level of pain that could not be changed by drugs or other nanos. It was the Ga’an Mal’caor. The Price of Flight.

Time returned to something like a normal flow as his ejection cradle gave a minute lurch to indicate that it was free of the gantry and moving toward his attack craft. His enhanced awareness felt blinded; he was deep in sensory deprivation, a blind thing moving under the will of another, separated from his nestling brothers and sisters, his ship, his conscious life. A cocoon rather than a butterfly. This hurt more than the physiological effects of the tiny machines.

The motion of the cradle stopped smoothly. His enhanced inner ears felt the minute adjustments as the cradle moved in three-dimensional space, swung off the gantry track and moved along the Y-axis under his back. Even now, blind and cocooned, M'yen could sense his location in the ship, even in the solar system from references that were dated only by his last use of eyes, ears, and electronic enhancement.

Click.

With that one vibration of finality, the cradle integrated with its partner, Kor’Anuk JL 878. Senses leapt into M'yen's brain; the attack craft became his body, its passive systems instantly integrating with his neural pathways through the helmet and the AI so that he could see the launch path as a hard-edged tube of reflected energy leading to a pinpoint of emptiness that marked deep space. Even while his brain assimilated that data, another compartment ran the auspicious 627 pre-flight checks required for launch, pronounced the craft good, noted that JL 878 still had an 'at tolerance' hydraulics bleed in the starboard horizontal flight surface, pushed a maintenance note through the AI to the Fio Caste maintenance network, and watched his place in the launch event move up from ninth to fourth.

A third compartment in his brain reviewed the mission planning software through the tactical action subroutine of the ship's own AI and locked down the encrypted data link for the forward air controller over the battlefield on the planet, which he could already sense as an enormous EM source and a gravitational tug on the negative X and Y axis. Second to launch. His AI pushed the engines from standby to full power as the craft the Gue’la called Barracuda slipped out of its docking cradle and locked onto the launch bar that would carry it to the gauss catapult. Once again, one of his compartments ran the 627 pre-flight checks.

878 is go for launch he thought through the helmet.

Good hunting, 878. His ship, Indignant Virtue, could communicate with all of them simultaneously.

Clang. In the tube. Locked and loaded. The whole craft shuddered like a predator ready to spring.

Launch. The launch tube, which had seemed so long through his senses just a raik’an before, vanished in one algorithm of extended acceleration that took less than a heartbeat. He was off, his speed already matched for orbital insertion. In his sensory awareness, hundreds of objects, signatures, and reflections registered in the space around him; thousands more on the planet below. His senses and the AI worked together to fix and register every emission, every reflection, every indication. Hostile? Friendly? Dangerous? Prioritize.

M'yen saw himself at the center of an expanding bubble of contacts. The bubble grew at the rate his sensors could reach out or calculate emission time, reflection return; as the bubble grew, the information on its leading edge changed character to indicate his fourth dimension sense; time. The outer edge of perception was aged by micro-raik’an. Even the AI struggled to make predictions on data more than a few raik’an old. Information reached his sensors which was compared to known data from the Indignant Virtue; there was a Mal'caor cruiser, her tattered light sails twisting, leaving the system through the warp point at .5 c with a relativistic blur and a note that the information of her emissions, while new to his ESM, was five days old, her distance creating a relativistic error on his targeting computer. Yet even while his senses perceived all this, most of it was categorized and placed in low priority buffers, waiting until his orders might change. His priority was a tiny circle on the world down the Y-axis, where the AI began to map the individual transmissions of vehicles and weapons systems in a grid smaller than one great buttress of the ruin of a Gue'la Hive City. His awareness and the detail in his virtual EM spectrum universe began to tunnel remorselessly towards his target even as his navigation subroutines and the AI behind him turned the craft. Secundus, on Hibernia. His sacred eighth combat mission in hell.

Here we go, thought M'yen.

Yup, replied his AI.

M’yen watched an Imperial Lightning, currently an ally, plow a furrow along one of the rubble strewn streets, its engine nacelles blazing at full power micro-decs after her armoured nose had vanished in a primary explosion. The Gue’la built tough craft. He communicated the need to record the death of the Imperial fighter for intelligence analysis to the AI and scanned his instruments while the missile launcher responded to the call of a ground markerlight somewhere behind him on the X-axis. He confirmed another request for launch and his AI fired a flare pod in response to predicted anti-air activity from a pre-identified location ahead—M’yen responded and pulled his nose up in a near vertical climb. Somewhere below him, a heat seeking missile detonated harmlessly, confused by his flare and the column of white-hot atmosphere he had left behind. He rolled the Barracuda through the vertical and back to the horizontal so that the whole of the battle was spread below him like a carpet, his own head ‘down’ to the pull of gravity, a great inconvenience to a gue’la pilot and none at all to his own enhanced blood feed. The little nano-bots moved his blood. He concentrated on the vast spectrum of information available, and soared. The gray-pink enemy column had stopped, two palls of smoke lifting from the wrecks. In his information cocoon, their obscenity, their warp-tainted savagery, was invisible. They were merely a line of targets marked by priority with two increment enhancers indicating kills.

The spaceport was a single sheet of fire, with an overlay of cadre communications and electronic markers that told him at a glance that his Shas cousins had held the first attack without much loss. He reduced speed, the AI keeping his near-stall stable as he watched the action through the craft’s sensors. Friendly air markers on the high Y-axis showed him that the Orcas were finally coming to drop. He marked the zone hot, picked up a request from the Aun Tess’en herself, and headed back along his former X axis, engines screaming, to respond. M’yen pulled his craft around in a long, flat bank, adding power to maintain altitude through the high G turn. Again he could feel the nano machines in his blood vessels pushing the cells through his heart and lungs to maintain his brain as the lithe craft swept around. Even in the cushioned gel of his acceleration couch, his body became an immovable object, but his brain continued to direct the flight through his implants. The weight on his chest and back began to ease as he leveled, but that happened below his liminal level. His whole mind was given over to the battle below, his metal and plastic ‘body’ using every sense in the EM spectrum to reach out and caress the emissions that unfolded below his wings. Despite two coded calls for his assistance, he was having difficulty detecting the source of opposition, and in a moment his craft would be past the battlefield and well out over the river.

He directed the AI to play back the last two calls for missile support and provide cached feed on the targets. He overlaid the results in a micro raik’an, placing them on his wide spectrum perception of the battlefield. One no longer had a signal, a large pink vehicle with a smoking hole where the computer told him its engine compartment was housed. The second correlated to a big fighting machine, a walker, which stood at the top of the cliffs overlooking the water, surrounded by Kroot auxiliaries. The location was close enough to the original distress call to make it the target within 92% probability. But his geometry was already wrong, his vehicle no longer positioned to fire, and again he added power and turned, a short S clearing turn because habit had taught him that he should never make a single turn without confirmation on visual that there were no enemy craft in his rear quarter. The size of his engines made sensory observation to the rear impossible.

At the apogee of his second turn, he detected a missile launch from a hostile emission source down the Y-axis and slightly above him. His turns had robbed him of the velocity to respond quickly, and he was perilously close to stall speed even for his flightworthy craft. He instructed the AI to fire his decoy launchers and he pulled up, showing his opponent the blazing heat of his engines and hiding the decoys for a moment. Then he rotated his craft in both axes, felt the shudder as his craft threatened to stall at the low energy point and willed the engines to provide the minute extra thrust that would complete his loop and put his nose on his opponent, whose missiles had grown confused by the sudden appearance of four diverging white-hot energy sources and detonated harmlessly just raik’an short of their target.

He was around, the engines raising his velocity every raik’or. His opponent, too sure of a clean kill, had turned away and was now side-on at the limit of firing range, but M’yen was a patient hunter and he waited as the other craft realized its mistake and sought refuge in a turn. M’yen now had the advantage. His AI told him that the craft was a Kais’Gue’la ‘pirate’ fighter, one of the few he had observed, with superb maneuver envelope, very fast. M’yen thought it might be unstable at low speeds, given the barbed look of the wings. The AI also claimed it had limited long-range weapons. Already the enemy craft was turning hard, looking to procure a firing solution for his short-range systems. M’yen, slightly behind and below, cut his power and turned across his opponent’s wake turbulence and used it for a little extra lift, turning a side slip into a short climb. His opponent obliged him, pulling to the left, expecting to out-turn him and switch roles, and M’yen fired his right side burst cannon, a wild deflection shot fired on Caste instinct because the firing solution was beyond the AI.

Computers can’t do everything.

Immediately, his opponent flipped away, turning his left climb into the first leg of an S evasion turn. Again M’yen dropped his power and fell back, pleased to his instinctual core to see a smudge of black smoke left by his enemy. Now he was well behind, the enemy lower than he but with more velocity, making a third turn and seeking a head-on merge. M’yen added power, shooting across his opponents rear arc in a moment too short to fire. Again the nimble enemy out-turned him, his fourth turn at low altitude. Again M’yen cut his power, losing altitude, confident that his all lift airframe would outperform the ragged dagger of his opponent at low speeds. He pulled the nose around in a high G maneuver flat on the X axis, his speed again so low that he was near his stall speed, and the enemy pilot made his second mistake, pushing his more nimble craft in a tighter turn. M’yen watched his opponents plane give a minute shake, like a puzzled Kroot hound, and the nose came up suddenly as the enemy pilot fought to prevent a spin.

M’yen’s avian predator hindbrain flooded his system with the taste of the kill.

In terms of relative motion, the last attempt of the enemy pilot presented his plane topside on at a near perfect angle with almost no relative deflection. M’yen fired his ion cannon and had the satisfaction of watching his opponent’s craft vanish in a single roar of promethium and charged particles.

The engagement had taken him back over the spaceport, where he assumed the enemy pilot had intended to attack the dropships that even now were delivering their last payloads. He gave his craft power and made a wide, comfortable turn, his expanded sensors querying satellites placed in orbit a dec before, looking for other hostile emissions from potential adversaries while he simultaneously tracked the enemy walking machine, now hull up on his radar horizon, still engaged with friendly forces. In terms of stress, the last hunt had taken decs—but his real-time counter told him that the entire engagement had lasted a raik’or.

He checked the sky and settled on the walking machine as his next prey. He placed his targeting pip on the machine’s exhaust stack and began his run, elation adding stimulations to the powerful mix his bloodstream already carried. Native caution made him check the satellites again—nothing. A clear run.

Low on fuel, though. And none of the Orcas had been tasked as tankers. He was on his own, with a long climb up the gravity well and almost nothing to spare. This would be his last run. He took his time, watching as the ion cannon cycled through its post firing diagnostic and repowered from his engines. Firing the cannon cost him climbing power; it was not a weapon he preferred to use in a merge. When it’s status light glowed a pleasant amber, he moved the pip on the target fractionally lower and handed the target to the AI, who fired three shots from the cannon in quick succession.

-- Nice shot --, M’yen thought to his AI.

-- All in a day’s work. Hey, good piece of work on the pirate. --

-- We done with the mutual admiration society? --

-- (AI mirth equivalent). You are go for orbit. --

The barracuda’s engines went to burner, consuming the fuel at an enormous rate, and M’yen rode his chariot of fire back to the heavens.

Tessen 12:45, 13 February 2008 (UTC)

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