Authors: Ken McConnell
“Our birds are not going to fare well against masers. I expect it would take just one shot with those to bring down a Swift. Not good odds.”
I agreed with his assessment.
Not good at all.
“Chief, what do we have that can stop a maser round?”
He looked back at the hangar and wiped his chin stubble with a rough hand.
“Weight’s the big issue. I can bolt some armor plates over the tanks, but it’s gonna cost you in terms of speed and agility. Nothing we have can stop them, but we can make it harder to hit the tanks.”
I shook my head. “I need speed more than I need armor.”
He looked back at me and frowned. “Afraid I can’t make these crates go any faster.”
I smiled weakly. Then I remembered what I wanted to ask him.
“Hey, I’ve been studying the combat footage and I want to get your opinion on something I’ve found.”
“My office has a node we can use,” he said, moving off in the direction of his office.
Inside his tiny office he cleared some technical manuals off his screens and handed the controls over to me. I called up the 3D model I had created and turned on his projector. It fluttered into existence between us about twice the size of the one in my office. Mechanics had bigger viewers for viewing their Technical Orders.
Chief Hawkins studied the enemy ship carefully and then whistled.
“Damn, she’s a beauty.”
“They do have a certain lethal look about them I’ll give them that. What caught my attention were these panels on the back of the wings. Sometimes they glow in combat and it seems to alter their flight path. I think they are boosters of some sort that are used to push the ship around in a tighter turn. My pilots are finding it hard to stay behind them.”
Chief nodded slowly. “Yup, that’s a vectored thrust deal, kind of like the old fighter jets used to have back in the day.”
I flipped the model around to show the bottom, pointing to the boxes behind the maser cannons.
“What do you make of these?” I asked.
He leaned in closer to study them. The detail was even less clear at this expanded resolution.
“Huh. No idea.”
I must have sighed out loud and he heard me. He backed away shaking his head.
“It’s okay. I was wondering if they could be related to the back panels in some way.”
Chief scratched his chin again and moved to the window that faced the hangar. There were several grease monkeys pulling the flap off of Katya’s wounded bird.
“You know what we need,” he said.
He turned around and motioned to the 3D model, “We need to capture one of those birds. If you could get me one, I could tear it apart and figure out what makes it tick.”
“Yeah, right. And I could fly the bastard and learn its exact capabilities.”
We both stared at each other in silence for a moment before the reality of that plan sank in. Then we had a good laugh. There was no way I’d get lucky enough to capture an enemy fighter. No. Way.
* * *
Later that evening I had to get away from the office to think. I put on some shorts and went for a walk on the beach. It was a few hours after dark and the water’s edge was sparkling with beautiful bioluminescent plankton. The blue and white balls of light lapped up against the beach like drowned fireflies. I hadn’t walked for more than a few klicks when I came upon another wanderer. It was Katya. As our paths came together she stopped and looked as if she wanted to talk. She was wearing her usual modified flight suit sans any boots.
“Fancy meeting you here,” I said.
“Have you gotten word from Fleet yet on how to handle the Fiver?” she asked.
The other pilots had unofficially taken to calling it a Fiver based on the obvious numerical succession of the KiV series. There was already an established KiV-4 but as yet, no KiV-5.
“Nope. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to figure out how to bring one down. So far I’m not having any luck.”
She looked out at the dark waves rolling in.
“I think I know how to handle them. I’ve been reviewing our engagements and I’ve noticed something about them.”
I motioned for her to have a seat up on the dry sand with me. As we made ourselves comfortable in the sand she spilled her guts.
“Every time I turn with one it’s pretty much like turning with a Swift or even a Victory fighter. But right when I line up my shot and begin to fire, it angles away from me just enough to make my shots miss and the next thing I know, it’s behind me.”
I nodded and said, “That’s the vectored thrust it’s getting from secondary burners on the trailing edge of the wing. I’ve already looked at that. The trouble is, how do you counter that and still stay in the fight?”
She looked back at me and smiled in that mischievous manner she sometimes had.
“If you know that’s going to happen every time, you simply aim ahead of it. Anticipate their move and they should fly right into your rounds.”
I shook my head. It couldn’t be that easy.
“No listen, when I was going for the Fiver on Double’s tail, I overshot it by quite a bit and it ran right into my fire. At the time I thought it was a lucky shot, but now that I’ve looked at it a million times I realize it’s the only way to get one.”
She brought her hands up to simulate attacking the Fiver.
“Lead your shots right when it starts to kick out and you should nail it every time.”
I looked back at the glowing plankton swirling around in the tide.
“I suppose we could make it procedure to jink when your wingman instructs you, but that puts the lead fighter in a bad position. Like a sitting duck.”
“There’s that,” she said with a heavy sigh.
“We can’t out run them, we can’t turn with them and we have to lead our shots. Nothing comes easy anymore.”
I sat back and looked up at the starry sky. K2, the smaller moon of Kew was high in the sky and a rusty red color. Full of iron ores and probably a future mining target by the mineral companies.
“There’s one more advantage they have,” I said.
Katya fell back into the sand. “What’s that?”
“They have two huge maser cannons under their noses. We have no shielding that can deflect them. Basically one shot and you’re dead.”
Katya swore something I couldn’t hear and threw up her hands in defeat.
“Take a look at the ass end of your fighter. You took a shot right through your starboard flap, like a hot knife through butter. Missed your tanks by centimeters.”
She looked over at me and raised herself up on her elbow.
“I’ve always been pretty lucky like that.”
I looked back to the stars. “Well, we can’t all be that lucky.”
I decided to lead the first mission using the new tactics that Katya and I had talked about. After a longer than usual briefing in which she and I went over the logic behind the maneuver and how best to execute it, you could see the doubt on everyone’s faces. I did my best to keep a confident attitude but no sane pilot could miss how dangerous the tactics were.
Katya would be Second Lead, her wingman Condor. My wingman would be one of the FNG’s, Kelli. I picked her after seeing how everyone reacted to the new tactics. If anyone seemed hesitant, I didn’t want them along this time. I could see nothing but eager anticipation in Flame’s eyes so she was an easy pick.
Heading out to the flight line at just after sunrise the air was still and the waves offshore were glassy. My Swift was sitting on its skids with several ground crew pulling external power and refueling lines from underneath it. My crew chief was a young kid whom I recognized from the transport that brought me to Kew. He was not the one who puked, thankfully. He handed me the checklist on his reader for my approval. There were so many check points on a modern starfighter I had to trust him that he’d checked them all before flight. The best I could do was walk around and observe for myself the condition of the fighter.
I took the reader and did my walk around as he climbed up on the fuselage to get the cockpit ready. I always started at the nose and walked counter clockwise around the bird, running my hands over the leading edge, checking for any signs of leaks or obvious damage. I virtually never found anything but if I didn’t at least look, I’d feel like it was my fault for not seeing the obvious while still on the ground. All pilots did some version of a walk around no matter what they flew. It was tradition and, to be honest, a bit of self-reassurance.
Seeing nothing out of the ordinary I came back around under the nose and signed off on the preflight. As I climbed up the ladder on the side I handed him back his reader. He noted my approval and pocketed the reader.
I swung my legs over the cockpit side and eased down in the seat. The Swift cockpit was larger than most starfighters with plenty of elbow room. The crew chief helped me into the harness and made sure they were tight before handing me my helmet. Once you were strapped in you had to have someone help you hook up your oxygen and communication lines. He patted the top of my helmet and gave me a thumbs up, indicating everything was secured and he was getting clear.
I proceeded to run through my checklist as fresh air came through my mask. It was always cool and smelled like rubber and sweat, no matter how well it was cleaned. All the preflight instrument checks went without a hitch. I waited patiently for the crew chief's signal to light the main engine. Finally he wound his right hand around in a tight circle and I lit the fire. Swifts were the largest starfighters in the inventory. The model I was flying was an E which meant it had an extended area behind the cockpit that added about a meter to the length. Combined with the swept back, flat wings it made this starfighter the largest bird in the Alliance Fleet inventory. But I liked the added length because it made the fighter more stable in the air and gave me extra rounds for my cannons and better avionics. It was worth the price in weight and lack of speed.
As the engine idled and pressure stabilized I worked the controls using the two handed joystick. Again, everything worked as expected. She was ready to launch.
I signaled ready to the crew chief and he moved back into his launching position.
The other pilots began to check in with their call signs and status.
“Condor, good to go.”
“Control this is Rocket One, ready for launch.”
I waited for the others to respond and they did, one after another until we had a go for all four fighters.
“Rocket One, Control. No winds, altimeter 224. No weather from here to target. Clear for direct launch. Happy hunting.”
“Roger Control. Thanks.”
I signaled launch to my chief and pulled back on the stick. The fighter lifted up slowly at first and gradually increased as the nose rose up. I retracted the landing skids and rocketed away in the direction of our target, the main Votainion base we had named Blue Base One.
The flight was uneventful. I kept going over the new maneuvers in my mind to pass the time. As we got closer, our flight split up and Karvuk and Condor swept around high to approach from a different direction than Flame and I. I was the lead attacker and also the lure to get the enemy to engage me first. Sure enough the base scrambled fighters on our approach. By the time we were within visual range of the island they had six fighters heading our way. Initial scans showed them all to be KiV-3s. That was a bit of a relief.
“This is Rocket One, tally ho!”
Flame slid over farther from me and I moved out slightly ahead with her coming in tighter behind me. Our weapons had a slightly longer reach than the KiVs so I opened fire before them, focusing my wing guns on the lead fighter. It only took a few shots to obliterate his shields. My second burst sliced off his starboard wing and the fighter dove in a flaming spiral into the ocean. By then the others had opened fire and we had to pull up to gain some altitude.
With Flame on my tail for cover, I proceeded to dispatch two more KiVs before they started to edge back to the island. It was typical for them to return to base after losing two or more in a fray. But I wasn’t interested in chasing them. I kept sweeping my scanners wide to try and pick up an approaching flight of Fivers.
“Rocket One, Karvuk. Victor, Victor, incoming Fiver’s at One eight.”
I switched to intercom to speak to Flame.
“Let’s go help her, I’m disengaging from these cowards.”
“Roger that, Lead,” Flame agreed.
We rose up to where Karvuk and Condor were pressing their attack. Condor had moved ahead and veered off to be the lure. Three Fivers took the bait and followed him. Three others started after Karvuk until we came up on their horizon. Then they opted to come after us.
I quickly lost track of what was happening with Karvuk and Condor as I had my hands full trying to engage my own party. Flame edged over and ahead of me banking hard to lure away the Fivers. It worked. They all three followed her and I was able to get behind them. That’s when things started to fall apart for us.
The lead Fiver got off a few shots at Flame, hitting her port wingtip. I could see the metal shards flying as I bored down on them. On my word she jinked to the left and I led the closest fighter to her. Several quick bursts hit the enemy fighter just after it kicked over. The other fighters flying just above and behind their leader broke away to get behind me. I could see their vectored thrusters lighting and knew I was going to be on my own.
Flame was circling the other direction though and would soon have my six.
Damn those things could turn tight!
It was one thing to watch them on film and quite another to see it happening before you and to know that your life was possibly seconds from ending at their hand. I was sweating in my oxygen mask and breathing heavy from a high G turn as I saw the first rounds missing off my starboard flank.
. I had to jink and hope that Flame was in a position to take a shot.
Just after pulling my strained fighter over I heard her over the comm.
“Die bastard, die!”