Diaz sighed. After hours of manning an ion battery aboard the Vice, his arms tensed reluctantly at every movement. †His ship had been engaged in combat for the last fourteen hours.
"Attention crewmen: We will be entering a hotzone in ten minutes. Be on the lookout for enemy swarmers."
It was always the same message. †At first, the fighting had been very heavy and violent. †It had slowly tapered off during the past six hours, leading Diaz to believe that the overall battle was going well. †He snapped out of his daze as the comm addressed him.
"Starboard 4 ready" he chimed in, after the seven other gunners.
He felt his head spin, but came to realize that the ship was making a turn. †Earth came into view, reminding the young soldier of everything that was backing him. †After a bit of searching, Diaz stared at his hometown. †The small speckle of lights near a gulf on the North American continent seemed indifferent to the battle that had been raging on that day. †Diaz knew differently, though, and could feel the pride of his family flowing from his home town. †Strength returned to his arms.
"Diaz, you there?" said a voice, breaking into the silence.
"Yeah, Iím here," replied Diaz, trying not to sound exhausted, into his personal communicator.
"Itís me, Roberts," said the voice on the other end.
"I know. Youíre the only one who ever bothers me on this thing. †Should you really be making personal calls when weíre about to enter a hotzone?"
"I donít think command will mind. Weíre their lucky number 7!" replied Roberts, perhaps too loudly.
Diaz reflected for a moment. †After fourteen hours of battle, the Vice had not suffered a single blow. †Indeed, it had seemed that their call number, 7, had been lucky. †He thumbed the switch to reply, but noticed that Roberts had turned off his communicator. †He smirked at the thought of his friend yet again being reprimanded by a commanding officer.
His seat shuddered underneath him as the Vice rocketed to its rendezvous point. †A cloud of enemy ships devoured the Viceís position, letting loose a barrage of energy. †Letting out reluctant creaks and groans, the turret machinery followed Diazís movements, letting out blasts of energy at every pull of the trigger. †The ship lurched as it was hit again and again by enemy fire-- an unfamiliar feeling. †Had the other ships not arrived? †Something was not right.
Diaz started to panic. †Gunning down enemy fighters with increased fervor, the ensign felt a surge of victory as an orb of energy smashed into the tail end of one of his adversaries. †The crippled ship silently roared through the void to its doom, leaving a short trail of flames as its oxygen supply escaped into space.
Then, Diaz felt itóthe sudden, malicious death wish of the pilot. †Still trailing fire and smoke, the fighter took a sharp right turn, aiming straight for the fourth starboard battery. †Desperate, Diaz swiveled around, leaping out of his seat. †He could feel the heat of suicide bearing down on him, undeniable in its intent. †He stumbled in the short hallway leading to his freedom, jamming his shoulder into the wall and grimacing in pain. †Erupting through the hatch, Diaz pivoted on his heel and kicked it shut.
The hatch held its integrity, but could shield little of the deadly intent behind the blast.† Diaz was unconscious before he hit the ground.
*††††† *††††† *
"Come on, buddy, wake up," said Roberts, lightly hitting Diazís cheek with the back of his hand.
"W...Where am I?" asked Diaz.
Before his friend could answer, Diaz sat up. †He was on the bridge, seemingly along with half of the shipís crew. †Frustrated officers pounded their fists on viewscreens. †Shouts of obscenities told Diaz that frustrations were running high and something was horribly wrong. †The main viewscreen displayed Earth, showing that the Viceís position had been stalled facing its home planet.
"I dragged you up from the lower starboard walkway. †It looks like our ship has been hijacked electronically somehow," said Roberts, answering the obvious questions.
"Electronically hijacked?" asked Diaz, expecting no answer. †A dark, ominous feeling grew in the pit of his stomach.
A large, energy-based, fizzling sound emanated through the ship as the shields gave the last of their energy.
"This is it!" shouted a crewman.
Shuddering, the bridge rocked from side to side as the Vice was pelted with enemy fire.† The crew could only watch as the situation worsened. †An explosion rocked the ship, forcing the view of Earth to the right. †Diaz and Roberts braced themselves against the wall. †
A large, slow-flying missile flew past the ship, destined to burn up in Earthís atmosphere. †A missile of that size would have surely destroyed the ship. ††It was only a matter of time now.† Diaz stared at Earth, remembering his hometown, his friends, and his family.† Above all, he missed the gentle sensation of the warm sun on his body.
For one moment, almost infinitely short, he felt it again as the Vice ruptured into a fiery cataclysm, expanding into the great tomb of space.