By Leo/GaiaGear


Karen's Last Game
by Nathan J. Kailhofer


"Collin 3, this is Control. Come to a heading of 113 Mark 217 and prepare for Engagement."

"Roger," I reply, executing the turn. "Now on-course. How many bogies, Control?"

"Scope reads 27, Collin 3."

The thought boggles my mind. "Uh, Control, that's a lot. How many support craft are on the way?"

There is a long pause. "None, Collin 3. Good hunting. Control out."

I swallow hard. I always thought it would be a long time before my One Way Trip. I mean, I'm still young. Sure, I'm an ace, but I was hoping to do twenty more missions before I pulled a Suicide Hop.

In just two weeks I'd have been thirteen.

OK. Twenty-seven is possible -- and if not, it won't matter. If I don't get them, someone else will. I'll get them, though. Believe me, I know how to play this game!

I'll kill them long before they even get a chance to get near me. They're so stupid! They attack in regular formations and use predictable tactics every time! Cripes, they don't even fly as well as the videogame bad guys I used to fly against as a kid. And now, with this neat fighter they gave me, it's all so real! This is the best game I've ever played! Yeah, I'll get 'em. Yeah.

I wish Janet was still flying with me. She was so fast! Nothing could beat her. She... went away. She reached her Time and was transferred to the Pens. She was so scared at the idea!

I wasn't supposed to do this, but I have a friend in Personnel who looked up her record for me. She got Tommy Johnson! He's such a loser! Too bad for Janet.

The long-range scope is flashing. That means that the bogies are just entering detection range. I have ten minutes before they pick me up on their monitors. They'll form up in L-13 formation and accelerate to attack speed as soon as they detect me.

I'll counter their L-13 with the Lone Wolf tactic Janet figured out over Titan. It ought to handle about ten of them. After that, I'll have to play it by ear.

I'm spending the intervening time checking over the specifications of their fighters. The Titan fighters are wedge-like, almost diamond-shaped, both in length and height. The ships taper to a point at the front. They have two protruding laser cannons at the far edges. They use no other weaponry, but those lasers are particularly effective. They more than make up for the fact that they can only go Factor 7. The Atmospheric/Space fighter that I'm flying can go Factor 10, but my fighter is a newer design.

On top of that is the fact that the Titans have been preparing for war longer than we have. They have more ships and more pilots, albeit they aren't as good as ours.

I never learned why the Titans declared war on Earth. They started out as simple miners on Titan, but they wanted independence as their population grew. The Earth Empire sent a Troop Ship full of Space Marines from the Moon to teach them a lesson, but when they landed the Titans were waiting for them. They hid in frozen gas flows, pools of liquid hydrogen, or whatever they could. They ambushed the marines everywhere they went, exposing the marines as they captured them.

Boy, I wouldn't want my suit opened in a hostile environment like Titan! That would be... bad.

I wonder if that hurts much.

Well, they seized the Ship and all the weaponry. The Ship is now their control center. The last I'd heard it was seen somewhere in low orbit near Saturn, but that was six months ago.

The Titans landed on Europa and made a treaty with the sulfur miners there. They pooled their resources and started making ready for war.

That was twenty years ago. We've had seven battles since then. I was in the last three. I would have been in more, but it takes too long to go through space and the others happened before I was born.

They've detected me. Half of them shifted to L-13, as I predicted. The other half are hanging behind the others in a new formation. The Flight Computer classified it as a Halifax 8.

That really means nothing to me, other than that I have my work cut out for me. I guess I'll just have to use every weapon that I've got.

I've got a lot of them. The weaponry I have includes the Zenerian Pulse Laser System (Z.P.L.S. or "Zipples" as it's called) made by Xenophobe Inc. They worked for long range, so this was good. (Range in space is variable, as light beams can go near infinite distances if unaffected by strong solar wind or gravitational attraction. However, space is big and we've never run into one of our own laser beams, so far.)

Next, in response to the reflection defense to the Zipples, is the E.C. ("Easy"), or Energy Cannon System, which has a much more limited range, as the energy bolts dissipate after about ten miles.

The next item of weaponry I have at my disposal is the Mk 20 1-inch machine gun, which is to be used in ranges under ten miles.

Following this is the Everstrike Systems' See 'Em/Kill 'Em (S.E.K.E.) Missile Guidance System that controls the three types of missiles my fighter carries. I carry four Homing Radar-Guided "Goblin" missiles, which have an effective range of 2,000 km in space. (They fly under constant drive provided by its rocket engine. This is necessary to constantly correct for change in vectors to the targets. After the fuel is expended the rocket keeps going until it runs into something.) For intermediate ranges, that is, 750-1500 km, I rely on my six Medium Light Guided "Grabber" missiles. These are guided by locking onto a light signature of a target. (Everything reflects light in its own special way, and the missile will head at only its planned target's signature.) For ranges under 750 km I use the S.L.G., or Short Light Guided, known as the "Galahad" missile. I have eight of these.

The last piece of weaponry that I have is my Cluster Bomb. This is a multiple warhead nuclear device attached to the bottom of my bird. The main 1-megaton warhead remains strapped to my ship when the device is deployed. The eight 50-kiloton MERVs that come with it fly under rocket control to a far enough distance away and explode along with the 1 meg, simultaneously. When they go off -- wow! It's a good thing that Control has direct command of the nukes. When I was a helper at Control I could never deploy the nukes effectively...

"Collin 3," the radio chirps. "Come in please. This is Control."

"This is Collin 3, over."

"Our scope reads you at 30 minutes to target. You are ordered to accelerate to emergency speed, constant maximum burn."

"Uh, control... I won't have the fuel to return at that rate. I'll be a sitting duck!"

"That was an order, Collin 3."

"That's a stupid order! You're going to sacrifice my mission! You're going to make me lose!"

"An order is an order, Collin 3. Now, do as I say!"

"Aw, Mom! You're screwing this game up!"

They never should have made Mom Controller. She's not smart. She never played this game when she was young.

"If you don't do as I say, I will override your controls from here."

"So what?"

"If you keep disobeying you'll never reach the next level of command. You'll never be allowed to play the game again. What will your father say to that?"

Dad is a commander in the Drop Marines. He's mopping up resistance on Io right now, but if he finds out. . . Dad spanks hard.

"OK, Mom. But you'd better tell Fighter Recovery to fly a shuttle to coordinates 000279 by 197468. I think I can make it there after I waste these guys."

I accelerate as Mom ordered, engaging my defensive systems. It automatically begins to jam their radar and releases several light beacons. The beacons imitate my light signature, confusing any incoming missiles. The scope doesn't read any, but that isn't all that unusual.

"Collin 3, this is Control. Come in please."

Mom sounds worried. I wonder why.

"This is Collin 3. What's wrong, Mom?"

There was a long pause. "Karen, dear..."

"Yeah, Mom?"

"I'm going to deploy your MERVs now."

"You're not going to let me fight them, are you?"

"Of course I am, dear. It's just a precaution. I do it with all the girls when they fly The Hop. I won't detonate if you get them."

They say Mom is really good with her nukes. I hope so.


"Yeah, Mom?"

"Come back to me."

"Well, of course I will. Don't be silly. I'm the best Daughter of the Skies there is. You know I beat out all of the other girls at the Academy to be top of my flight class!"

Mom never wanted me to be a Daughter of the Skies. She wants me to stay on the Warship where it's safer, but I think even she knows that I have to do this. I've scored highly on my dexterity and intelligence tests since I was three. Besides, there's no way that the daughter of the Controller and the biggest hero of the Drop Marines isn't going to be noticed by the Youth Examiners.

"I want you to come back anyway. You know, Jack Allen's mother tells me that he's interested in you."

"Jack Allen! He doesn't fly!"

"Of course he doesn't. But he's joining the Marines next term."

Boys don't fly! Mom just doesn't get that! They can't handle as much gravitational force and their reflexes aren't as fast. That's why they make boys Grunts in the Marines and we girls get to fly.

Mom is lucky. Dad could fly. He was taught before the new regulations went into effect. He was an ace, too. Jack Allen is never going to turn out like Dad.

I'm cutting out the engines for a moment. Once they've stopped, I'm going to turn the ship so that I'm flying sideways. Then I'll fire the Goblins. That way, they'll travel a long distance to the side before they can target on the enemy. They'll have a better chance of striking at their sides that way.

They're getting close, so I'll have to turn back and fire all of the Grabbers right afterward. If I'm lucky they won't target me and blast me with those darn lasers.

It's a good thing that I'm lucky. And if I'm not, Mom's got the MERVs. We're going to win this round.

"Talk to me Collin 3," Mom orders.

"I'm here."

"Give me a play-by-play."

"Roger. Beginning my attack."

I push the stick forward, putting my ship into a steep dive. The decoys respond in turn, veering off in different directions. The Titans are surprised, and they break formation. I knew that they would.

"Four of them, closing on you, above and to the right."

"I saw 'em, Mom. Relax."

I pull the stick up and to the right, sharply, while leaning heavily on the rudder pedal. This turns my nose up while I'm still descending. I zealously squeeze the trigger. The Easy rips through their ships, scoring three kills and one disable.

Laser beams sear around my ship from behind.

"One on your tail! Scissor!"

I wish Mom would stop telling me how to fly. They expect you to Scissor! I chop power, begin a left-aileron roll, and fire braking thrusters. He shoots past me, so I accelerate and complete the roll, winding up right behind him. I launch a Galahad, and he bugs out, trying to shake it. He won't. They never do.

"Decoy 1 destroyed! Watch yourself!"

I see four of them closing on Decoy 3. I gauge their trajectory and fire off a thousand-round burst with the Mk 20. The rounds should hit in about 45 seconds.

"Control, talk to me! Give me some distance and vectors!"

There is no reply.

"Control, reply!"

Mom wasn't talking. I wondered what she was up to.

I just took a minor hit on my port-side wing. The damage is moderate, as I've already drained that fuel tank. I got him, though.

You know, twenty-seven is an awful lot. I've killed twelve, but I can't get past that Halifax 8 configuration! Every time I try, they fire at me. I've got four tight on my rear, and I can't shake them!

I push the throttle ahead a couple of clicks and watch the radar. No, it isn't working. Those Titans are going too fast.

OK, I can play that game, too. I turn the ship and head at maximum burn at them. I figure if they are going Factor 7 and I'm doing Factor 10, then we're closing at Factor 17. At Factor 17 there has to be a big chance of one of us missing.

Here we go. Those fighters are the four orange dots I can see out of the canopy.

What if they hit? I'd blow up, of course. But, would I die?

What is death? I don't know. All I know is that when someone dies, they stop playing the game. You lose.

I hate losing.

Those dots are big now. I hope they miss.

I don't want to play this game any more. I want to go back to the Warship and talk to Janet. I'd even go out with Jack Allen. He's not that bad-looking, even for a boy.

I try to turn, but my controls are locked.

"Mom! What are you doing?!"

"Karen, I'm going to detonate as soon as you're close enough to them."

"At least wait until I'm past these fighters! You'd never get them all otherwise! I can take them if I get past these inbounds!"

There is another pause.

"OK, Karen. We'll do it your way, dear."

You know, I don't think I like my mother any more.

My God! They're close!


Ow. Ow. Ow.

One of them hit. My canopy is in tatters and the fighter is a mess. A piece of the wing ripped through the cockpit and hit me in the leg. I managed to pull it out and slap a patch on my suit so I wouldn't decompress, but I think I'm bleeding a lot.

Nothing works in this mess of a fighter I'm riding in, and it's tumbling end for end. I take that back. I can see the countdown timer on the Cluster Bomb. It's going to blow up in about ten minutes.

I guess I lose.

You know what's funny?

I looked out the window and saw that fighter I disabled. It's drifting about a hundred feet from me. We're on about the same course.

I've never seen the inside of a Titan fighter. I'd like to see that.

I'm going to go look at that fighter.

I climb out of the remains and throw a magnetic grapple to the other ship. It attaches and I start to pull myself over.

Halfway there, I begin to think about the Bomb. I bet it makes an impressive noise in an atmosphere. When it goes off here in space, it won't make a single sound. It will be totally silent. It will be a silent sound.

I wish it would make a noise. I know that I'm going out with a blaze of glory, but I wish that I was going with a bang!

I'm on the wing of the other ship. I can see into the cockpit. The pilot is still in it. The pilot moves!

I crouch down and check to see if he has a weapon. He doesn't, at least one that I can see. I search until I find the canopy release. It opens and a frightened pair of eyes look up at me. The enemy pilot is trapped in the seat; his harness won't open. I climb into the cockpit and touch my helmet to my enemy's.

"Are you OK?" I ask.

"Yes," comes the scared reply.

"What's your name?"


"Mine's Karen. Hi."

My enemy is just a girl! They told us the enemy pilots were the salt of Titan. They told us they were child-molesting old men!

I bet they told Mary the same things. I bet she's just like me. The adults lied to all of us like they always do.

"How old are you?" I ask.

"Eleven. How old are you?"


"Mary, would you like to be my friend?"

Game Over



Story © 2004 by Nathan J. Kailhofer

Illustration © 2004 by Leo Lin/Gaia-Gear

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