“Bogey on my six! I can’t shake ’em! I can’t–” and then a burst of static and then nothing.
Jingo screwed her eyes shut. Anger washed over her. Guilt. Fear. Despair. Just for a second, she let herself feel these things. It was a second too long, she knew. The men and women and beings under her command looked to her for leadership and inspiration, and she couldn’t let them down by being anything less than deliberate and precise and brilliant.
“Stay the course, Phantoms,” she said. “We’ve got a job to do, and we’re not going to let these brainless robots keep us from doing it.”
“Roger that, Phantom-Leader!” Cries of assent rang across the comms. Their voices were strong, all of them. They’d lost a quarter of their number so far, an unthinkable figure for the Phantom Squadron, but they weren’t giving in to despair in the face of overwhelming odds.
She’d never been prouder.
Ahead of her, one of the psi-drones burst into a flash of light and a crackle of purple psionic energy. All around it, the auto-drones that it had been controlling suddenly stopped mid-maneuver and continued along whatever their last path had been, so many puppets with their strings cut. Her skills had been honed to the point of effortless instinct over years of active duty, and once she was behind the controls of a barely had to think about what she was doing.
She was faster than the drones, but only barely. She imagined what they’d be like with better programming, with stronger psykers, with psykers with better pilot training. There were a million parts in this insane scheme the Annexers had cooked up. A million failure points. But the damn thing wasn’t failing. And if any of those parts improved, it might honestly be more than the People’s Army could hope to answer.
A fleet of mass-produced attack drones remotely controlled by psychic pilots. A base that could spew the things out as fast as they could be destroyed. Planet crackers that could strip mine entire worlds for the resources to build them. It had to stop here.
There was a flash of light. The Tiger shook violently. She’d taken a direct hit, but the shields had held.
Her fingers swept across the controls, moving like machines in their own right. Sudden deceleration. Five targets sped into her sights. Auto-lock on the psi-drone. Fire and watch the show.
As she passed through the explosion, Jingo’s eyes drifted down towards Anomgen Base, towards the hole that Max Blaston’s boarding pod had torn in the massive structure of the thing. “This is Phantom-14!” the comms spat. “I’ve taken heavy damage. I’ve got to retreat!”
“Go,” she replied. “Get to safety. You’re no good to anyone dead.”
“Roger, that! I’m sorry, Jamizon!”
She didn’t respond. She shut her eyes one more time and said a silent prayer. By the quintessence, hurry up, Max. I don’t know how much longer we can last out here.