Know your enemy. Learn his weaknesses. Use them to crush him.
Marine Laban Caccamo closed his eyes and fed a recorded image of his Navy opponent directly into his brain. As he stared at his adversary, he filled his mind with fantasies of victory.
Long ago, back when Hecht had been Caccamo’s best friend – before promotions had torn the super-diligent lance sergeant away – the two of them had fiercely competed for everything: girls, food, cards, Scendence, shooting, sprints, endurance contests, popularity, and test scores, anything at any time they could turn into a contest. And because they were buddies, who won and who lost was almost forgotten the moment the contest was over. Almost.
Until there came a time when Caccamo begun to notice that Hecht won more. Somewhere along the way, he discovered, Hecht had been marked out as someone to watch, while Caccamo had been reduced in everyone’s eyes to just Hecht’s friend.
It was just before they graduated to become cadets that Caccamo asked his best friend what had changed. Hecht had been ready with an explanation.
“Imagine you are victorious,” Hecht had said. “Imagine you are in the future remembering your success. The more vivid you make that dream, the more you win. It’s been working for me. Try it!”
But since they became cadets, Caccamo’s life had become one long blur of confusion. He had never tried out his friend’s advice until now.
Caccamo sat, with eyes closed, in the deserted wardroom that had been allocated to trainee Marine fliers, and stared at the image of his competitor, dreaming the sounds, and scents, and sights of victory. The problem was that his Navy opponent was certain of beating this Marine upstart. So certain, in fact, that even his recorded image stared right back into Caccamo’s soul and found it lacking. Frakk it! Even in Caccamo’s dreams this little guy was a hard bastard.
Finfth his name was, though Spacer Food Synthesizer was his official rank and name. When they first met, Hecht had laughed at Finfth’s crazy Navy name and puny Navy body, but not any more. The slender physique of the ship-rats was just an adaptation to life in zero-g, and their minds were as sharp and determined as any Marine’s.
Navy names, though… they were still crazy.
The bulkhead viewscreen blinked before displaying the real Finfth’s head.
“It’s time, Caccamo,” said Finfth in his sing-song voice, “You sure you’re up for this?”
“Stow the psych-talk, Finfth. Marine versus Navy. It’s not worthy of the word ‘contest’.”
Finfth laughed, the little donk. “Best of luck, Laban.”
Caccamo cut the link, and carried out a final check of his flight suit seals, before making his way to Hangar A in Beowulf’s upper hull.
Fifteen minutes later, Caccamo was in one of the two Stork-class shuttles, making his final pre-flight checks.
The rest of 1 Section was down on the flight deck, watching from inside the yellow safety box painted on the deck, where a stronger deck charge kept a tight grip of their boots. Even Hecht had taken time out of his schedule to watch. McEwan too. Major McEwan, as he was supposed to be now.
The officer would be hoping Caccamo didn’t let him down. It had been McEwan who had set up the Marine training program to fill some of the gaping holes in the ship’s roster. Caccamo couldn’t quite piece together how McEwan had transformed from an annoying little veck into their commanding officer. He sighed. Most of the past two years was difficult to remember. Drugs they said. He could believe that.
As soon as Caccamo signaled his flight checks were complete, Finfth’s face appeared on the comm screen.
“Don’t try to remember what I taught you,” said the Navy tech, who wasn’t even a trained pilot himself. “Don’t try to do anything. You have good flier’s instincts, Caccamo. Trust them. Good luck.”
May the best man win, thought Caccamo, but he killed the comm link without saying a word.
Then the mooring harness released and Caccamo flung his bird out into the void.
Three hundred meters above the hangar’s exterior opening, they broke: Caccamo to port, Finfth to starboard.
The contest was to demonstrate reaction speed and flight control, not realistic combat.
Caccamo peeled round and down Beowulf’s port beam in a 7g burn, enough acceleration to drive his testicles into the back of his skull, and the color from his vision.
Not realistic wasn’t the same as did not matter.
Auxiliary pumps in his body registered the overwhelming g-force, and added their pumping force to his natural vascular system. Color returned to the universe.
A quarter of the way down Beowulf’s beam, Caccamo slewed 100° to starboard, keeping full burn all the while. The result took his Stork out, away from the warship. As if running.
He was inviting Finfth to chase.
At this range in real space combat, turret-mounted directed energy beams would lock on and burn through defensive munitions and reflective coatings, unpeeling them layer by layer until reaching the hull armor. Then it would be seconds at most before annihilation.
For the weapons in this contest, a laser in the nose simulated a single spine-mounted railgun. Targeting assists and AI expert systems were turned off.
It was pilot versus pilot, almost one of the dogfights of primitive fixed wing airplanes. And like those dogfights, the winning position was to get on your opponent’s tail. Unlike those primitive aircraft, if you got on your opponent’s tail, they could swivel around and fire at you while traveling backward. But if you had already gotten in a good burst of fire first, it was a war of attrition you would always win.
That’s how Finfth had trained him. And he was counting on Finfth following his own advice.
Caccamo eased the burn to a more bearable level and spun about until his orientation was parallel to the Beowulf’s side, pointing down to its lower hull. Although he was pointing down, his vector was still pushing him out, away from the ship.
The tactical display flashed red… Finfth was raking him with fire! Caccamo glanced across at the operational status console, which showed the damage level creep up: 10%… 26%… 47%
He corkscrewed his bird around while maintaining constant direction of travel, but did nothing else, as if it was the only evasive maneuver this Marine rookie could remember under pressure.
Finfth showed no mercy, but the corkscrewing slowed the damage accumulation: 51%… 58% … 64%.
The incoming fire stopped.
While Caccamo had been vectoring away from Beowulf, Finfth had kept his shuttle close in, making a tight turn underneath the ship and immediately headed for Caccamo’s tail.
That was what Caccamo had hoped. Problem was, he hadn’t counted on Finfth’s fire being so damned accurate.
The ops status console flared again. 76% damage. 88%!
Defeat was looming and he hadn’t even let off a shot.
Caccamo rolled to present a side to his opponent with a little less armor damage, and then studied the tactical display to work out what the hell had just happened.
He’d expected Finfth to take his bait and vector straight for his tail. Instead, the Navy flier had taken a more diagonal and slower route to Caccamo’s rear, which meant he was able to concentrate fire for longer than Caccamo had calculated.
It was a tight spot. Caccamo got out of it the only way he knew how. He set a twelve second burst of 14g acceleration.
The moment he confirmed the maneuver, the breath was squeezed from Caccamo’s body. He tried to keep an eye on Finfth’s position, but his vision grayed out, nullifying the tactical display’s color indicators. Then his sight narrowed until it seemed he was looking through a gun barrel.
Then, with a final pop, the universe blanked altogether.
The burn ended, dumping Caccamo’s body into freefall, and his mind into a head-pounding approximation of consciousness. Caccamo span his shuttle about 180°. Now he was traveling backward at high speed, stretching out the distance between the two competing craft, but what mattered was where his nose pointed. And his Stork with its simulated spine-mounted railgun was aimed at Finfth, who was still concentrating on getting a turning vector, thinking that would get on Caccamo’s tail.
Caccamo pressed the firing stud and poured every bit of simulated firepower he had into Finfth’s starboard bow.
The simulation was accurate enough to make the flight cabin shake as Caccamo poured fire into his opponent. The Marine was a marksman with a carbine while jinking through the void in a battlesuit. By comparison, firing from a shuttle moving at a constant vector was child’s play.
Finfth gave up his maneuver, but not the contest. He swung his nose round to fire back. With Caccamo’s armor at 97% damage, one more hit and the Navy would have won.
Caccamo rammed his thumb even harder on the firing stud. “Come on!”
Finfth had almost turned.
The status console pinged a warning. “You can shut up,” Caccamo shouted, not willing to take his eyes off the targeting brackets on his tactical display. Nothing would distract him now.
Then the tactical display blanked momentarily, before returning with a view of space in which targeting mode had been deactivated. He could see Finfth heading for home, but Caccamo had no more weapons to fire upon him. To ram home the message, text began scrolling along the top of the display: COMBAT SIMULATION OVER.
After a long sigh that brought home how badly the hard gees had bruised his ribs, Caccamo glanced over at the status console. It was flashing green.
Green? That pinging noise he’d heard wasn’t meant as a warning. It was a notification that he had won.
It had been Marines versus Navy, and he’d beaten them at their own game. Caccamo allowed a little smile to greet his lips as he set his autopilot to return to Beowulf’s hangar.
Strangely enough, his weak smile was matched and more by Finfth, whose face reappeared on the comms screen.
“Well done, Caccamo. Very well done.”
Caccamo allowed a weak nod in response.
“How do you feel?” asked the Navy flier.
Caccamo closed his eyes and permitted the pain to wash over him. “Badly bruised. I think my lungs are bleeding. Eyes are probably red from all the burst blood vessels, and…” he winced… “I think I have deep cartilage strain in my limbs.” He tested his limb movement and had to bite down the yelps of pain. “I will need assistance to leave my flight seat.”
Finfth laughed. “You can be fixed easily enough. That wasn’t what I meant, though. How does it feel to win?”
They were strange these Navy people. Talking about feelings before reporting facts about fighting fitness. But… yes, winning felt very good indeed.
“Naturally, I’ve discussed your psych profile at length with Lance Sergeant Hecht,” said Finfth. “He is your section leader, after all. He told me you would be dreaming of victory. Did that visualization technique help?”
Caccamo laughed, which hurt like hell. “Visualization technique? I’m not like Hecht at all. I’m too simple for that kind of drent, it just gets in the way. Hit your opponent harder than they hit you. That’s my technique, because that’s what works for me.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Finfth, his voice now heavy with seriousness. “You’ll make a good flier. If the campaign on Tranquility goes well, before long you’ll be doing this for real.”
~* THE END *~
Marine Laban Caccamo, and his friends, allies, and foes will appear in ‘Renegade Legion’, the third book in the Human Legion series.
Text (c) 2015 by Tim C. Taylor. All rights reserved. Image (c) TsuneoMP / Shutterstock.com