Five minutes of space separated me from the interceptor squadron. My life flashed before my eyes, but I blinked it away. I didn’t want to watch the re-run. Instead, I gazed at the growing silver ring where death waited, captivated by the idea this might be the final stroke.
If I died, the Hezo Collective Prosperity Sphere was finished. Tai Di would never permit this sort of idiocy again. Against the oppressive acceleration, the corners of my mouth twisted into a grin. It was perfect. My place in history would be secured.
I was the last dogfighter.
The first dogfight took place in 1913, during the Mexican Revolution. The planes were Curtiss and Christofferson Pushers, only slightly advanced from the Wright Flyer 1 which first took wing at Kitty Hawk ten years before. Two airborne idiots took pot shots at each other with revolvers; both missed.
A year later, the first dogfighting ‘victory’ was claimed during the first week of World War I. A Russian pilot named Pyotr Nesterov rammed his Morane Parasol into a hapless Austrian Albatros, killing both men.
The tragi-comedy had escalated ever since. The bloody space battles at the Eye of Dagon and Da Jiao are barely skirmishes compared to the vast wars of our forefathers. Greatest of them was Blazar, the final confrontation between the sundered UNESECA navies.
Two implacable armadas clashed, furious as colliding galaxies. For eleven apocalyptic months, the two sides tore themselves apart until the very fabric of spacetime frayed. Five million ships thrown into the fire as fast as either side could build them.
Arietis Alpha and Beta are gone now, swallowed by a ceaseless interstellar storm. Nothing that flies in ever returns. Astronomers created a new designation for Ares-type nebulae: those born of war. They weren’t fools, they knew there would be others.
If only I could have been there! If I could somehow slip past this squadron and complete the mission, I would be reborn as a spirit of war. I’d spend eternity drifting across the greatest battlefields of all time, drinking in the suffering of the ages. I could go questing into pre-history, seeking the root of all evil. A million years ago, some dark-eyed xiong, hefting a sharpened stone in his simian hand.
Of all the forbidden subjects, history was my favorite. I wanted to know it all, everything the Hezo had erased. Most of all, I wanted to see the first of my kind, the pilots. Those madmen who took to the skies and fought a world war in the days where we had just one world to lose. The Great War!
The lessons we learned in those first, fumbling dogfights are still being recited centuries later. Every combat pilot carries their legacy, pieces of shrapnel lodged too deep to ever work their way out. I was a fitting end to the saga. A fool, tilting at a star. The utter quixotry! I barked a mad laugh into the compression fluid, for me alone.
My trenchant abandon was short-lived. The sun loomed ever larger in my canopy. Interceptors glittered in wait, positioned around the ring like shark teeth.
Desperation tightened in my throat. There must be some way to survive! Surely there was some angle I had missed, some tactic I hadn’t considered. I couldn’t slow down enough to activate my stealth field, I would burn up. The destroyer at my back was closing in. I closed my eyes, praying for a sign from God, Tai Di, anyone. No one answered. I felt hollow. Old memories kept springing up, trying to break through my drug-fueled fixation. The silver ring of death became the iris of a cold gray eye.
Tsuros! That great human furnace, blazing with animus the moment he saw me. Somehow, he knew all along I was the one. The other inmates were only props, cast aside the instant their use was through. I was his tool, a lance hurled at the eye of God. The idea left me twisting with want. I wanted to be used. I wanted to be expended.
Three minutes to impact, three minutes to certain death. I shut my eyes and let my mind run wild.
My very first day in the Xeros program, Sergeant Tsuros hit me with an ancient piece of air combat doctrine called the Dicta Boelcke. I mean that literally. He crumpled up the sheet of paper and bounced it off my forehead. Like a fool, I darted a hand out and caught it before it hit the ground.
It was our first day on the station. None of us knew any better, no one had even been culled yet. A few dopes even laughed. Not me. From the first moment, I knew Tsuros was the dangerous one, the viper among the garters. His expression grew dark. A storm was coming.
The violence was swift and thorough. I remember lying on the deck, bleeding with the other recruits. There must have been cries of pain all around me, but all I could hear was boots. Tsuros stomped over and hoisted me up by my collar. He dangled me from one hand without effort, as if we were in zero-G. The wad of paper was still clutched in my hand.
“Nice catch, Traitor. Memorize those by 0400 tomorrow. Fuck up and it’s double.”
He discarded me like a piece of trash. I remember wondering when we’d be taken for medical treatment. Hah!
When I could move again, I tried to memorize the sheet, but the numbers swam on the page. Trying to read felt like putting weight on a broken ankle. I had a serious concussion. But I had no choice but to try anyway. Another beating would kill me. All night long, I mouthed the words while the other inmates twisted and groaned in their bunks.
The handwritten page was a set of eight rules, entitled Dicta Boelcke. Since the era of biplanes, combat pilots have studied them. When 0400 arrived, I could barely stand up. I recited the eight dicta word for word. Tsuros glared at me, making a tchip of annoyance with the side of his mouth.
He’d been hoping I would fuck up, and I had disappointed him. My reward was a slap across the mouth, hard enough to turn my head. It confused me, not because I expected anything else, but because I found I was disappointed, too.
I had a lot to learn about myself. The moment burned into me, along with the dicta. I can never forget.
I blinked back to the controls. Sixty seconds to intercept. I had no plan. I realized I was breaking all eight dicta. I was outnumbered and outgunned, flying straight into the sun. My squadron was gone, there was no line of retreat. Sixty seconds to contact. There was only one question left: How did I want to die?