If nothing else, a millennium of fighting the Dark Empire has taught the Galactic Federation a trick or two. One of those things is folding. It is one of the few technologies the Gaffed have manage to steal from the Dark Empire.
Folding is just as the name describes. It is folding space and time to make traveling the vast distance between two points faster. Well, almost instantaneous, Lucas interjected into his own thoughts. A common theory among Galactic Federation member systems is, that is why the Hoard seemed to appear out of nowhere. They folded themselves from whatever dark corner of the universe they came from into this galaxy.
Lucas refocuses on the Spiep instructor lecturing the class. The Spiep’s name is Tabspo, and is currently on a personal diatribe about his belief that the Dark Empire may be from a different dimension.
“Therefore, even though we captured their fold technology, figured out how to use it, and put it to use, we are not utilizing it to its fullest extent.” Tabspo says, pitching his deep baritone voice for emphasis.
The voice does not match the species, Lucas decides. Spieps’ are tall gangly humanoid creatures with ashen skin. Their faces offer the two eyes, one nose, and mouth layout humans have, but the eyes are small, with horizontal lids, broad triangular noses, and a lipless mouth. Tabspo is leaning, head angled in thought, his weight supported on his right arm. A three-fingered hand wrapped about the back of the high lecture chair.
“It takes a tremendous amount of power to fold time and space, which is why your fighters can only do it for a few seconds at a time.” Tabspo stands erect, and starts pacing.
“Battle cruises and such, well they can span the galaxy, but recharging the fold capacitors takes a long time. Your fighters…well, they just do not have the same capability. Folding space and time with such small crafts is for strategic advantage, or to escape a dire situation.
“The downside to folding is it greatly diminishes performance while the fusion plant rebuilds to operational levels.”
Tabspo stops pacing and faces the class, “That is what you are here to learn. When to use folding, and when it is best not too.
“Aside from putting yourself at a performance disadvantage, there are dangers involved with folding. The most prevalent of those dangers is exiting a fold into solid matter.” Tabspo pauses for affect, and scanned the alien faces sitting before him.
“If you exit a fold into solid matter, such as, an asteroid, planetary body, or another spacecraft, your life will end in a dramatic fashion.
“The good news is, you won’t feel a thing. Unfortunately, we will not be able to scrape up enough of you to ship home to your parents.”
Tabspo’s last statement irritates Lucas. Based on what they have learned to date about the secrecy of the Terran Defense Force, its technology, and mission, there will be no pine boxes sent home to grieving parents. No matter how much they scrape out of a shattered space fighter. Lucas avoids the topic whenever it rears its ugly head, but for a moment, he wonders; How will they explain missing children? Lucas looks over at the pretty brunette sitting next to him. She flashes him a quick smile, which he returns before facing forward again. Her name is Lesli. He has talked to her a few times, and she seems real nice. Comes from a broken family, but it does not seem to bother her. Apparently, she has a good head on her shoulders.
Yet, what if the Dark Empire atomizes her? What happens to her remains? Well, Lucas corrects himself, what happens to her memory. There will be no remains. Will the Galactic Federation forever leave her family guessing?
Lucas felt a shiver run down his spine, and dismisses the line of thought, refocusing on Tabspo’s lecture.
“…your ships computer will track all possible fold courses, and give you a visual indication whether it is safe or not. However, what it will not do is keep you from activating a fold. It is a combat maneuver. Something the designers of the ship and tactics feel should be available to use at the pilot’s discretion.
“It is my job to teach you said discretion.”
Full size holographic representations enveloped the students within the classroom. The appearance of the contact simulators is no surprise. To date, it was a common method of familiarizing students with newly introduced aspects of the T-350 Avian.
“In the lower right hand corner of your display console, you will notice a simple scope.” Tabspo continues after confirming everyone’s holographic display is active.
Lucas knew instantly what Tabspo was talking about. It was a part of his scan, but only because he wondered what it represented. It was on his list of things to ask Fartan about. At least that was before he was struggling to stay in training while dealing with the crap at home.
“Well, now I know,” Lucas mumbles to himself.
“This scope will tell you when it is safe to fold. We designed it with your traditional human color coding in mind,” Tabspo continues to lecture. As he spoke, the scope responds to his words. “Green obviously means go, yellow, use caution. I suggest extreme caution. And red, well it means you’re dead.
“The scopes hue is founded on the calculations your ships computer is constantly making based on your speed, direction, possible course changes, and where a fold will take you at that very instant.”
“That is a ton of variables Tabspo,” one of Lucas more math orientated classmates offer.
“That is correct Michael, but not in the realm of infinite. Your ships trajectory can only change so much at any given moment. Especially when you take into consideration your species limited tolerance for g-loads.
“As I was saying…you have come this far because you can fly the T-350 competently enough to survive most combat engagements. At least that is what the simulator shows. Part of that competency is based on your scanning abilities. You are learning that you do not have time to think, you must always be several steps ahead of your ship, and your enemy.
“Know what that scope says before you activate the fold function.” Tabspo pitches his voice for emphasis.
“…and how do we do that?” Amanda, one of Lucas more talkative classmates ask.
“I was getting to that,” Tabspo replies, clearly irritated.
“Place your left hand on the throttle control.”
Everyone looked down to their left at the nano-generated representation of the throttle and fire control for the Avian T-350. Most wrapped their hand around the aluminum hued control and waited for Tabspo to continue.
“Good, now slide your thumb down the right side of the weapons select knob.”
Lucas looked down at the throttle control. It protruded from the left console about five inches. The shaft was thick, and built to take a beating as pilots slammed the throttle forward and backward against its stops. As best Lucas could surmise, rare was the occasion when he nudged the throttle when flying combat maneuvers. The t-handle of the control was a wide oval shape that fit nicely into the palm of his hand. Along its front edge was a collection of indented pressure sensitive buttons that allowed the pilot to select what weapons to bring to bear.
“Under the right side of the weapons select knob, down by the shaft is a single button.”
Lucas ran his thumb down the smooth oblong side of the weapons select knob and followed it to the underside.
“It is not easy to reach, or activate. We did that on purpose.”
Lucas practiced tapping it in an upward motion with his left thumb. Finally, he thought, they designed something in this spacecraft for a left-handed pilot.
“We did not want it to far away. It needs to be as ready as the fire control system, but not something you can tap accidently.”
Lucas found his thumb warming up to the motion. Then went through the motions of performing a few combat maneuvers, testing whether he can accidently hit the button. After several attempts, he decided the placement of the button was good engineering.
“For the remainder of this period you will practice matching the condition of the scope with activating the fold function of your ship.
“Once you’re done here, report to the flight deck for live fold training.”
Lucas heard another voice his thoughts with a weak whoop, whoop, signifying excitement for live space flight. He also thought he detected the underlying hint of fear in his classmates voice he himself felt.
“Nothing like killing yourself.” Lucas said under his breath as he setup for a practice combat maneuver, already trying to figure out where the fold will be useful.
* * * * *
Lucas and his classmates launch as three flights of six. For the first half of live fold training, Lucas was flying as Amanda’s wingman. One of the things they learned in the classroom practice was, as wingman, combat linked to the lead ship, if the two ships are in tight formation, both ships folded together. For Lucas, this idea did not sit well. He did not mind being wingman, and often took pride in sticking with his lead like stink on shit. Yet, this folding at someone else behest, not really his cup of tea.
Folding in the classroom was a nonevent. You tapped the button, and the simulation simply went black. Doing the same in a real fighter ship was another thing entirely. The first-time Amanda folded, Lucas thought his little piece of the universe ceased to exist.
The blackness was so complete, the cold so bone penetrating icy: it was nothing personified. Even though the first fold lasted only seconds, for Lucas, he was certain reality was never going to return. He felt every heartbeat counting off seconds that never seemed to end. Then poof, he was back in space, his ship around him, the thrum of the crafts engines vibrating through his being…normal.
After that first fold, he decided he was going to suggest to Fartan that they build in some sort of signal so the wingman knows when a fold is about to occur. As he thought about it, he realized it would need to read the lead pilots mind, but he did not like reality just winking out of existence without warning.
After the third fold, he started to relax and gave up trying to anticipate when Amanda was going to activate the fold function. The complete emptiness of the fold still haunted him, and he wondered if it was less haunting when he was in control.
His time as wingman was winding down, and Amanda was working more on practicing maneuvers than folds. As a result, Lucas himself was starting to get more into perfecting his skills as a wingman. Today was not his first flight with Amanda, so he knew she was a skilled pilot. However, this was his first time flying as her wingman, and matching her maneuvers was putting his skills to the test.
“She is good.” Lucas noted more than once after pulling out a particularly complicated maneuver.
He was settling into thinking this was some of the most exciting flying he’s done since climbing into the real T-350 when he noticed the fold scope glow amber, then nothing.
In the seconds Lucas’s ship was in the nothingness of a fold, fear welled up within him to near panic levels. Was the scope starting to tint red? What did Angela’s scope show? What is on the other side? Nausea gripped his innards, his heart raced, and sweat chilled against his skin as Lucas endured the longest three seconds of his life.
Is this how it ends, nothing before finality?
When a brilliant filed of stars replaced the emptiness before him, his hands ached from the death grip with which he squeezed the stick and throttle. He could not remember the stars twinkling with such intensity. Then off his starboard side, a growing orange ball of fire enveloped Amanda’s ship and the early concussion waves buffeted his own ship.
Lucas’s mind registered Amanda’s fate even as he struggled for his own life. Amanda folded into something solid. Matter meeting matter. Pieces of her ship along with whatever she collided started to pelt his ship. For a moment, his shielding held off the expanding ball of energy before collapsing, leaving him exposed to what followed.
Constant drilling kicked in, without a though he checked his suits pressure levels while he prayed nothing penetrated his ship’s hull. His T-350 violently yawed to port, and pitched nose up. He heard and felt pieces of Amanda’s fighter impacting his ships underside. Violently a large chunk of his flights leads ship impacted the right side of his ship tearing off his weapons pod. He watched helplessly as it sailed off into space trailing sparks and what looked like vital pieces of his dying ship.
Glancing down at his console offered Lucas a dire account. Nearly the whole thing flashed red, and more systems failed as he watched. He knew what he needed to do, and reached down between his legs and gripped the ejection handle with both hands.
Lucas paused and wondered if Amanda had time to know what was happening. Or did she go from the cold nothingness of the fold, to just nothing. For the first time in a long time. Lucas hoped there was a life after this one, because Amanda’s ended before it really started.
He pulled the handle with all his strength. In response, he felt and heard the rockets fire, then all sound cease as the vacuum of space envelopes him. He could not help but groan as his spine compressed, his vision tunneling, and all his innards pressing towards his seat.
This is way worse than training, Lucas thought as his pilot’s seat rocketed away from his doomed space craft.
Lucas notice orange and red light blossom along the lower edge of his face plate, the telltale sign that his ship exploded. I liked that ship, he thought as the crushing g-forces released their hold on him for a few seconds before the retro rockets fired, pushing him almost as violently against his shoulder straps. Without them, he would sail helplessly off into deep space.
Those rockets soon cut out, and Lucas floated, breathing hard against the exertions of the last forty-five seconds. It was not long before his classmates located him, and a few of them parked their space fighters within a couple hundred yards of him.
“You okay Lucas,” he heard Michael say.
“I will live,” he responded, then asked a question he already knew the answer to, “what about Amanda. Did she eject.”
Silence followed, then in his helmet, he heard the distinct screech of his flight instructors lisp. “There was not time, she was dead before she realized she was in real space.”
Lucas killed his comms, felt the burn behind his eyes, and took in a shuddering breath. Fury replaced sorrow as he realized the Dark Empire claimed its first victim. A part of him wanted to vent his fury, smash his fist into something, thrash about like a lunatic, but he suppressed such impulses knowing it would send him tumbling through space.
“Every one of them I take Amanda will be on your behalf,” Lucas growled into his faceplate, “I will pay them back.”