Authors: Ken McConnell
The humidity hit me first, then the heat, and finally the salty sea breeze. By the time the bright sunlight spilled in through the stern hatch of the shuttle, I was already dripping with sweat and ready for a cool drink. Kew was primarily a water planet, over ninety percent of its surface was one deep ocean. The largest land masses were islands, none of which big enough to warrant much in way of wildlife. It was a different story beneath the cold, deep waters. The planet boasted the largest biodiversity of any known world under its salty waves.
I wasn’t the only passenger on this resupply mission. There were a couple of green enlisted kids strapped into the jump seats. One of them had tossed his lunch and the smell quickly found my nose as I unbuckled my harness and got up. My flight suit was already wet with perspiration and beginning to get itchy. The loadmaster got up and immediately started bitching about the mess all over his nice clean deck.
I made my way out into the blazing sun, hoping to find an air conditioned building or some drinking water. Instead, I was greeted by a woman wearing a tan flight suit that had the arms and legs cut off and the zipper down to her waist. Not exactly a regulation uniform, even on a backwater planet's tropical island. She smelled of suntan lotion and had an even tan to go with it. She handed me a bottle of cold water and took my flight bag.
“I hope you don’t hate water, ma'am, you’re expected to drink one of these every hour,” she said. Her eyes were dark and her hair a sun streaked light brown.
“Thanks. Where’s yours?” I asked.
“I have a problem following rules,” she said matter-of-fact.
I thought. “I see.”
She started walking across the sand strewn flight line to the nearest row of bamboo shacks that I took for offices. Everyone else I saw was dressed in some form of modified military garb, none of them close to being regulation. Nearly all had great tans and gloomy expressions. They might have been stationed in paradise, but this was the most remote base in the Alliance and very active with enemy contacts.
“Name’s Katya, you must be our new CO,” she said as we strode over the hot sands.
“Commander Devon Ardel,” I offered.
“Welcome to the armpit of the war, Commander. We’ll get you signed in and then I’ll show you to your shack. I’m assuming you pissed off someone real good to land you here.”
I managed a thin smile. “Something like that.”
Katya opened the door for me and I stepped inside out of the sweltering sunlight. A young soldier sat behind a bamboo desk who didn’t come to attention when he saw me. He just put down his feet slowly and stood up as if he was upset at having to do his job.
Katya said something to the man that made him look at me and frown, then she turned around and came back to me and we headed out the door again. Usually you had to sign in to a new duty station but apparently Katya’s talk with the orderly was enough here. Back out in the heat I struggled to keep up with her in the sand. My bottle of water was empty by the time we made it to what qualified as base housing: More bamboo and wood hutches with wooden sidewalks between them. They had thatch weave walls and dry grass roofs just like something you’d see on a resort planet.
Inside they were nothing at all like a resort. Bug netting over a bunk, a chair and desk all made out of wood and open windows. An old floor fan stood in the corner with layers of dust on it’s blades.
“Welcome to paradise,” Katya said, setting my bag on the thin mattress of the bed. I’ve been to some pretty remote places before and for me, this was like coming home.
* * *
Katya took me to the Operations shack next. It was built from wood and looked like it had all the modern amenities until you walked through the wooden plank door. My face was slapped with a welcome blast of cool air. The lights were out, near as I could tell, and two pilots were laying across chairs near the head of the room where briefings usually took place. There were outdated Alliance recruiting posters on the walls and a tilted frame of my mother’s stern, presidential face.
“Are these pilots on alert?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am. We had quite a send off party last night for Lieutenant Commander Hays.”
Katya walked me over to the CO’s office and opened the door unannounced. A young man was stuffing desk items into a duffel bag. He looked up with bloodshot eyes and a relieved smile as he shouldered the bag and came around to shake my hand. He was the interim commander.
“Hays, this is Commander Ardel she’s...,” Katya said.
“My replacement. Glad you made it Commander, the squadron’s all yours. I’m out of here,” he said as he brushed past me on his way out the door. His breath smelled like cheap liquor.
Katya just shrugged and shook her head. “He’s leaving on the shuttle that brought you here. If you want to stop it we can hit the tower next.”
I shook my head. “If he’s in that big of a hurry to leave, I don’t want to keep him.”
I looked around the sparse office that would be my administrative home for the next year. There was a desk, a terminal and a breakdown of the personnel in each flight on dry erase boards. A narrow combat window looked out onto the flight line where the Swifts were parked.
Katya hovered around like she was waiting for something.
“Lieutenant, I’m going to need the personnel records of all the pilots we have and the ones expected in the next few weeks. After I go through them I’ll be meeting with the flight commanders to discuss any changes. Until then, I would just like to observe how things are currently done around here.”
Katya’s deep brown eyes seemed to avoid direct contact with me.
“Something on your mind?” I asked. She shook her head.
“Okay, please call the room to attention when I enter from now on,” I said, motioning to the door.
She hustled through the door, stood at attention and hollered as loud as her husky voice could manage.
The two sleeping pilots didn’t even stir. I walked down the middle of the room and proceeded to tip over their chairs and dump them onto the wooden floor. Both men got up groggy, saw my rank and came to attention. Their flight suits had the sleeves and pants cut off just like Katya’s and their g-suits were strapped on over bare arms and legs. Who knows when their breathers were last checked, they looked in need of repair.
“What’s your name, starman?” I asked the first man.
He looked at me like I was asking him a difficult question or something.
“I, uh. Lieutenant Petra, sir.” He winced as he realized his mistake.
“You’ll address me as either Commander or ma'am, understand?”
I moved on to the next man, who looked like he had just come out of pilot training, he had to be twenty. More like a teenager than a fighter pilot.
“What’s your name Lieutenant?”
I looked into his blue eyes and watched him try to focus forward and not look back at me. He managed to do it just fine, he
fresh out of training.
“You men are on alert, correct?”
Petra nodded, looking at me, while Reeves sounded off. “Yes, ma’am!”
“From now on I want alert crews no further than ten feet from their birds. Now get the hell out of here and stay ready. We’re at war, in case you people forgot.”
Both men scrambled out the door to get away from me. I started picking up the chairs that I had tipped over, Katya joined me.
“I want some kind of alert tent set up to keep people out of the sun. Make sure it’s well stocked with water.”
When we finished straightening the chairs I looked around the room and found the sortie board. There was only one flight scheduled for today and it didn’t start for another hour. Show time for the briefing was just ten minutes prior to step time. A proper briefing took close to thirty minutes and that’s if nothing unusual was planned.
It looked like they had two flights of at least eight elements.
“How many operational birds do we have here anyway?”
Katya counted to herself, eyes wandering around, head nodding. “Twelve are operational, three are battle damaged and we have two hangar queens, ma’am.”
“Let’s go have a look,” I said.
* * *
A clearing had been made on the island big enough to land a squadron full of fighters and a few transient shuttles. About a third of it was occupied by Swift starfighters baking under the hot tropical sun. A few maintenance trucks were out and about, and one tanker truck was parked across the tarmac refueling a Swift.
The Swift was a straight wing version of the famous Vickers Victory fighter used by the fleet. The flat wings served it better in planetary atmospheres and were easier to touch down on rough surfaces.
All of the starfighters were spaced in a haphazard manner not at all up to Fleet specifications. My mental checklist of things to change was growing. The two alert pilots were still walking out to the far side of the flight line to their birds. They were not in a hurry and both of them sat down under the wings of their Swifts when they reached them. I couldn’t blame them for that. But I did wonder just how ready they were to fight.
Katya had run off to get the alert pilots water and presumably talk to someone about getting a shade tent for them. I walked over to the largest building on the base used to house broken birds. The hanger was a prefab unit with a curved roof and could hold about three ships comfortably. At least a dozen people saw me or passed me without so much as a salute. This was expected at front line units, as enemy snipers would usually take out anyone appearing to be in charge.
What concerned me the most was just how beat down and depressed everyone looked. Sure the conditions were less than ideal, but I didn’t see anything to warrant such hopelessness. The base alarm system went off, a long, warbling siren followed by a mechanical voice that said, “Approaching enemy aircraft. Take cover immediately.”
Katya ran back to me with a couple of cold water bottles. She pointed to a slot trench near the hangar and we dove for cover into the hot sand pit. You could hear the approaching thunder of Votainion KiVs over the warbling siren.
Several explosions erupted from the flight line as the ground shook from the concussion waves. I peeked over the top of the trench to see a tanker truck explode, taking out the fighter it was refueling. The alert birds were still on the ground as the first wave of enemy fighters passed over head, wing tip cannons blazing. Smoke from the burning wreckage prevented me from seeing the alert birds. One rose up and rocketed across the base as the enemy fighters swooped in again for another pass.
Katya got up and started running for the nearest Swift. I tripped her before she cleared the trench. She looked back at me angrily. “Let me go, dammit!”
I held onto her boot as best I could. “You’ll get killed. Get back in here, that’s an order.”
She reluctantly crawled back into the trench as more explosions rocked the base. We watched the KiV’s reform and head off to sea before we ventured out of the trench. Katya ran out to the Alert area and saw the smoking remains of the Swift that hadn’t gotten airborne. She watched the fires burn for a moment and then tore off down the line to her fighter. A few other pilots emerged from their huts and headed for their birds. I was impressed with her will to fight.