The sound of dying.
The quiet violence of death in space.
"Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say," the young cadet mentioned just before he took a sip of the hot liquid in his cup.
I paused to think for a minute, to allow time to let what he'd said to percolate in my mind.
The steam rose from my own cup to dissipate into the swath of stars shimmering in the cold dark sky above us.
"The brain is a funny thing," I replied, "it has no problem filling in the gaps that your other senses feed you at times. When you hear a person scream that you can not see, your brain will attempt to construct and show you that person doing the screaming.
Take that distant war cruiser that breaks apart with bright angry blasts of reds and yellows as it violently shakes the craft that you're in after the missiles hit their target. The brain creates a synthesis of explosive noise in your head, to help you make sense of what is happening around you.
You watch as people ejected by the explosions kick and claw at the empty space around them like drowning sailors. Their screams are silent but not in your head. The screams in your head only subside when the flailing arms and legs slow to a stop. This you will find out in time, when you face your first firefight."
I turned from staring at the liquid in my mug towards him before continuing, "I hope that you won't have to witness those who have fought to survive circumstances like that. Their purple twisted faces as they float past the front visor of your craft. Their lungs starved of oxygen to scream anymore, cut off in midstream. Your ears may not have heard the anguish, but your eyes will give you plenty to remember it by."
The young cadet stared at the portable radiator glowing in ambient colors as it warmed our bodies, deep in thought as he contemplated what I had just told him.
"How much longer will this war go on?" He eventually inquired.
"Fifteen years has been a long time I'll admit. But there doesn't seem to be any respite from it on the near horizon." I answered.
"I was only ten years old when it first broke out." He replied, "I've known war longer than peace."
I felt sympathy for my young comrade, from what I knew he had lost his father not long after the conflicts began. I took him under my wing after he joined the space force air corps when he among many others transferred from the ground infantry troops to help us make up for the massive losses that we had incurred from the enemy's advanced tactical skills and better technology. We have since learned from our misguided failures and shortcomings how to reduce the chances of that happening again.
He stood up and swung his head back as he emptied the remains of his cup down his throat. "I think I'll go get some rest while we still have a chance." He said as he turned to head towards our carrier craft which was hidden due to a mirror-like reflective coating that made it almost invisible amidst this moon's desert shadows.
"Yeah, I'll be along in a minute," I told him as I rolled the rest of the liquid around in my cup before swigging it down. Switching the radiator off I grabbed its handle and brought it with me. I then placed it onto the ground beside the door to our craft before heading over to a small rock outcrop to relieve my bladder.
Our mission on this trip is as a merchant vehicle transporting much-needed specialized parts to an aircraft manufacturing plant based on the outskirts of a sector under our control. Its location is secret but far enough away from civilians, in case it gets discovered by an enemy who would use every device in its arsenal to destroy it including everything around it.
Unfortunately for us, a cooling unit in our own aircraft started to malfunction causing us to find somewhere safe to land so that we could address the problem. We have since managed to patch it up enough to hopefully continue our journey.
"Hey Skip! There's a warning coming in over the sensors. Twelve unidentified craft are heading in our direction."
"What's their predicted trajectory?" I asked as I climbed aboard our craft and closed the hatch behind me.
"At this stage, their predicted trajectory shows them passing us by at least two thousand kilometers."
"That's close enough for them to pick us up on their scanners. Place our craft on minimum life support, so as not to attract attention from our power residues."
"Shut the heat off as well?" He asked.
"Yes, crack open the emergency suits to keep us warm and the thermal blankets just in case. It's too late for us to try and make a run for it. We'll just have to stay hidden and wait it out."
"Shall we set up a remote scanning station? Just until we figure out whose side these crafts come from?"
"Yes, I'll do it. You stay here with the craft."
"I can do it if you prefer Skipper?"
"No, you still have a long life ahead of you, let's keep it that way."
I grabbed the equipment that I would need to track these vehicles. I then headed out into the dark night with only my helmet lights to point the way. After partly bouncing and walking for about an hour or more I set the equipment up on a pile of desert-weathered rocks. I choose this spot because there was a small canyon between the rocky piles that might offer me some protection if our presence on this barren and desolate moon gets discovered.
The idea is to distract our presence as far away from our craft as possible. A strategy that we in the air corps had learned the hard way. Scanners have their own power supplies for this very reason.
I reported my situation back to the young cadet at the allotted time that we agreed upon. We are trained to report to each other in short bursts at irregular intervals because regular intervals would give away that the signals may have come from an intelligent source and cause suspicion.
The sensors showed the unknown vehicles to have originated from hostile forces. Which I put in my last encrypted report back to our craft. He replied with a quick electronic 'pip' which told me things were okay on his side.
I sent out another survey beam from our scanner which caused my anxiety to climb as the readings came back with the news that our twelve mystery vehicles' new predicted trajectory was pointed straight towards us.
I put the scanner into automatic operation and made the decision to distance myself from it in case that is what the twelve space vehicles had come to investigate or maybe to destroy.
I eventually made it back to our craft.
"I think they have honed onto our scanner signal and will be here in a matter of hours," I told my young co-pilot.
"What do you suggest we do?" He asked.
"Make as much noise as we can," I replied.
He shot me an inquisitive look.
"What do you mean?"
"How many scanners do we have on board?"
"Other than the one built into this ship, you took the only other one that we have, with you?"
"Wasn't there a consignment of scanners among our cargo?"
"Hang on Skip, I'll pull the inventory records up."
After swiping through the onboard computer he answered, "Yes you are correct. According to this, we have two hundred units on board."
"We won't need that many."
"What are you going to do?"
"Create our own little squadron."
As we unpacked using the loading vehicles to help speed up the setting up of the scanners in rows out on the desert floor. My young co-pilot soon started to understand the subterfuge that we were laying out.
Once we had fifty or so scanners laid out and timed to start operating within the hour, we also laid out containers of explosives bound for the missile production processes. These were going to add to the subterfuge to give the impression of fighter crafts loaded with ammunition when fired upon.
After we had completed our task we fired our own craft up and flew low towards the far side of this moon that we had found ourselves on.
"Set her down over there in that open sea Evan." I instructed my young companion. Our merchant craft sunk down below the waves of greenish blue microscopic soup that provided this moon with an atmosphere of oxygen. Then we sat and waited with our eyes glued to the onboard computer screen.
"Here they come." Evan mentioned.
The scanners also came with inbuilt cameras which showed the enemy vehicles firing everything they have into this perceived fighter squadron. Explosions blasted a thick fog of dust and sand into the air that covered the ground below them. The enemy craft kept up its firing into the ground covering dust.
"They are too busy making sure that none of our phantom fighters take off. Let's go Evan get us into orbit. We'll wait for them to finish unloading their weapons and see how well they go against the weaponry onboard a merchant craft once they have emptied their guns into that desert floor."
A few minutes later...
"We have reached orbital height Skipper. Shall I release a cloud of magnetic mines? No matter how fast they think they can move in those fighter crafts. They'll have a lot of trouble trying to out fly a device that has attached itself to them."
I gave Evan the okay to release the mines then sent him up to man the overhead guns. The rest of the ship's guns I set on automatic which means they start firing on anything that comes within range, staying locked on until the target is either out of range or ceases to exist.
"Here they come, Skipper. Hip, hip hooray!" Firing his weapon on the word hooray.
Almost instantly one fighter craft exploded setting off some of the magnetic mines which then caused the explosion of another enemy craft. This tore the wing off a third craft that came spinning towards us right into the range of our automatic guns.
I pushed our vehicle to stay within range of the others who were trying to make a run for it. The magnetic mines went off disposing of at least three more fighters.
"Stay on them Skipper! They may be able to out run our ship but not our bullets." Evan called as another two disappeared from the sensor screen.
I couldn't help grinning as I realised that our ruse worked out far better than I had expected. In their arrogance they seemed to have used all their ammunition up and depended solely on their speed and flying skill to try to outwit anything else that they might encounter.
My past years as a fighter pilot helped to make sure that I stuck on these enemy crafts like a cat on a mouse. Evans skill as an ex gunner for the ground forces picked them off no matter how much they twisted and turned.
"Keep it up cadet. You have just earned yourself a seat in a fighter craft when we get through this."
That seemed to boost Evan's motivation, as craft after craft exploded leaving their pieces in our wake. Until there was only one left, the last of twelve fighter pilots. The squadron leader, the cream of the crop that we had just mown down.
Then the warning lights inside the cockpit went crazy. Alarms blared the control panel kept repeating "Warning engine over heat. Warning engine over heat. Warning..." I slammed the button acknowledging the warning. The light in the cabin remained on red alert followed by silence, the engines had cut out, as well as the automated guns.
We were still moving very fast in a forward direction but without any steering. The next thing I noticed, far in the distance the squadron leader had banked his craft into a loop and was now coming back straight at us.
Evan's voice broke through the eerie quietness that pervaded my surroundings. "Skip, I think this one is looking to do a kamikaze on us."
"We are without power cadet. Our future is now in your hands."
"You can count on me, Skipper."
It had been a long time since I felt so much hope in someone that I wanted to hug them. These are the kinds of people that make you so glad that they are on your side that you want to give them a medal there and then.
I could see the line of bullets leaving our overhead gun as Evan did his best to hit his target. I could also see the squadron leader dodge left, then right, twist his craft around the line of fiery death flying towards him. It was as though he was playing with Evan. As he drew closer doubt over the skills of the cadet manning the overhead gun started to creep in.
"Come on Evan, hit him." I found myself saying under my breath as I watched the fighter craft draw closer. I could begin to see the pilot, the look of determination filled with anger carved into his face.
I gritted my teeth waiting for the inevitable collision as my mind started to automatically count down. Time slowed and every detail stood out. Other than the continuous chatter of the overhead gun, I could hear the hiss of blood in my eardrums on its way to my brain. The pulse in my neck keeping time with the heart pounding in my chest.
I watched as this pilot's look of anger turned into a mask of sheer fear, his eyes widened until both his iris became surrounded by two perfect circles of white. His mouth fallen open to a noiseless scream, as a plume of fiery death spread over his craft sending millions of pieces flying in all directions.
Evan's bullets had hit their mark causing this craft to explode just in front of us. Instinctively I raised my arm to protect myself as the remains of the pilot and small shards of his craft splattered against the front visor of our craft. I stood staring as my brain registered what had just happened.
The lives of all my past comrades who had been mercilessly wiped out by such a powerful enemy felt avenged by what I had just seen. The deep appreciation and relief that I was still here, when just mere seconds ago it seemed inevitable that I would be joining them.
"You okay Skipper? I think that was the last of them. Tricky beggar, he was too."
"Yes, Evan I'm okay. Actually, I'm more than okay. Thank you, son. You pulled us through."
When he climbed back down from his post I offered him my hand. When he reached out to shake it I pulled him towards me and squeezed him in a hug. "You are going to be a great asset to the air corps and a tribute to your father's memory."
"Thank you, Skipper." He said as he stood before me at attention.
We then sat down in our seats to figure out how to get our ship running again. I glanced at him.
"You were right."
"What about? He asked.
I threw him a grin.
"Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space."
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