Flight of the Fireblade
A 20K story by NoPoet (under 1100 words inc title)
In a universe so big no megaship could ever cross it, there was at least one galaxy where everyone needed to find the smallest place to hide.
Yuri Aksakov was squeezed into the cockpit of a fighter in a tunnel inside an asteroid. The tunnel had been bored by some unimaginable space-worm in aeons past. Luckily, it hadn't left any spawn.
"I know you're there," the alien said across the vox. It was male, though with eldar, there wasn't much to choose between the genders. "I can smell your soul, little rabbit."
Yuri didn't answer. He missed the cultural reference because he wasn't from Earth.
The auspex showed nothing outside his hidey-hole but a chain of floating rocks. No sign of the eldar, or Yuri's wingmen, if any had survived. No sign of the XMS Destiny.
"You can't hide, human. I will claim you."
Sod off, was Yuri's mental reply.
He wasn't a man given to claustrophobia, that would be a ridiculous trait in any spacer, let alone a fighter pilot... but Yuri was burly enough, the Fireblade prototype cramped enough, to make him feel like someone at Solar Command was playing a joke that had backfired. Badly.
The Viper hadn't shown up on auspex until it started obliterating Fireblades. It must be wearing a scramble-cloak like eldar starships. Then it killed the target drones the Fireblade pilots had been chasing, outdated Saxon and Saracen fighters. Yuri had survived through luck and skill. First, his trimantium-armoured craft had the new integrity field technology built in. Second, he'd wrestled the Fireblade into its hiding place in a single loop-the-loop, or the Yuri Surprise as other pilots called the manoeuvre when he'd used it against them in flight school.
Killing a squadron of Terran pilots hadn't entirely been a show of skill from the eldar. His Viper was well out of a Fireblade's league. Demoralising, since the Fireblade was the Navy's newest generation of fighter, but Yuri already knew his ship was far tougher than his rival's Viper. One good hit would do the bastard, then Yuri could go home, assuming someone found him within his remaining three hours of oxygen.
Yuri was not a man who surrendered to fear... but the muscles of his arms trembled from his wrestle with the fighter's controls. He was soaked with sweat. His breathing had only just returned to normal. His heart was a primal drum, banging loud enough to hear across the void.
"Aksakov to alpha flight," Yuri said. "Aksakov to Destiny. Anyone. Please respond."
The vox channels were silent.
"I can hear you, even louder than the music of the spheres," the eldar said.
"The music of my arse," Yuri said. "I'm going to kill you, you white-haired freak." He hadn't seen the alien pilot, nor met an eldar, but he'd learned from documentaries they all had the same hairdo.
Giving his position away no longer seemed to matter. If they'd been able to take out a Conisbrough-class heavy cruiser, he might as well give up, but he'd love to put a plasma bolt into the alien's face before saying goodnight. He gunned the engine, feeling the fighter's realdrive thrumming through the hull. The plasma blastgun, a prototype, was fully charged. He still had four missiles left. Not much, even against a single eldar.
Yuri guided his fighter out of the tunnel. The starfield was peppered with asteroids. Someone had nuked a planet millions of years ago. He was in a world's graveyard, soon to join its ghosts. It only took a moment to assess his escape route. Yuri slammed the fighter into full thrust. The Fireblade was an Alert Defence Variant, a specialised interceptor. It was fast and light.
A distortion blast shattered the entire asteroid behind him.
"Quick little human in his toy boat," taunted the eldar.
"Show yourself and I'll fire a toy missile up your arse," said Yuri.
"What a waste, to become a pilot when you should have been a poet."
Yuri recoiled as a blade shot in front of him on a diagonal trajectory. It caught the system's sun, but the glare filter of Yuri's screen allowed him to make out red blade-edges and the squared snake symbol of the Saim-Hann.
"Oh God, not those bastards," Yuri muttered with great distaste. He swung the Fireblade ADV into a tight, banking turn it wasn't built for. There was no sign of the alien on his auspex, so it must have pulled a turn at ridiculous G, bearing in mind the asteroid field's pull. Their ships couldn't be that frail.
"I see your toy boat takes half a sector to turn around," said the eldar. "Should we swap ships, to make the contest more even?"
"We need to update our codices," said Yuri. He armed a Blitzen missile. "'The eldar prolong the kill by offering crap insults.'"
He launched the Blitzen towards distant stars, then banked left and pulsed plasma shots through the asteroid field. This fooled the eldar, who immediately made a move, thinking his location was compromised.
Fireblade and Viper jousted between fragments of a dead world, plasma impacting against rock, distortion beams splitting stone more efficiently than a Terran mining laser. Explosions threw fist-chunks of stone which hit the Fireblade like bullets. They could not penetrate the ADV's armour.
Yuri hoped his Fireblade's intelligence was recording all this, in case their black box was ever recovered.
He knew the eldar was toying with him as he threw the Fireblade around an asteroid. His auspex caught the Viper at last. It was right behind him - and closing. The usual Yuri Surprise couldn't save him now.
"Fireblade," he said. "Disable all safeties on the plasma gun."
The ADV's intelligence displayed confirmation, understanding. Yuri held his finger on the plasma blastgun's trigger. He could feel heat transmitted into the cabin as his blastgun overcharged.
"I will remember this hunt for millennia," the eldar said. "You were almost worthy, poor dead thing."
The Fireblade squawked a warning. Weapons lock. The eldar had him dead.
Yuri applied starboard thrusters. His Fireblade whipped around. There was a moment as the two fighters faced each other. The eldar pilot was going to climb. Yuri released the trigger.
A storm of nuclear energy caught the Viper and destroyed it.
Yuri wasn't able to celebrate.
The Fireblade's weapon reactor overloaded as it fired. Yuri Aksakov was immolated within two beats of a primal drum. He would never know of his victory, or whether the Terran Navy ever found his black box.
The sledge looked sized for one of Santa's elves. It was made of shiny red plastic. There were no engines or weapons.
"Perfect?" Calgar snorted. "You couldn't fit Kevin McCallister in that! How are four of us going to get in?"
"You didn't give me enough points to buy anything proper. I had to get what I could afford."
"You fething wally, it isn't even blue." Calgar inspected the tag which was still attached. "Fun for children aged two to six."
"Milo does have a point, my Lord," said Dick. "When I suggested that we're meant to be the most balanced Chapter and should allocate our spending for all contingencies, you said – and I quote – 'If I want to hear the raving of a leftist commie, I'll watch BBC News'."