Authors: Ken McConnell
As I turned hard I looked back over my shoulder and saw something exploding for a brief moment. I also saw more rounds heading at me. I pushed my fighter into a dive and attempted a barrel roll down to the deck.
“Splash a fiver!” Flame shouted over the comms.
“Flame, got one behind me again, where are you?”
There was a pause that seemed like freaking forever before she responded.
“I got him Rocket One. Just hold on,”
I saw rounds out my port side and felt something impacting my fighter. The Swift shook like it was coming apart but I continued a tight turn and tried to lessen my profile to make hitting me harder. Sirens started blaring in my cockpit alerting me to loss of engine pressure and all kinds of other bad things that I barely had time to decipher.
“Flame, I’m hit. Losing pressure.”
“Hold on boss, I’m in range. Taking my shot,” Flame said.
I tried kicking the Swift over in a sharp jink but it didn’t respond. I had lost lateral movement, my control stick loose. More rumbling shook my fighter and my hands moved to the ejection handles. That’s when I saw debris flying over my head and knew she had nailed her second Fiver of the day.
Flame’s Swift moved in beside me and I could see her waving at me with two fingers. I gave her a thumbs up and then refocused on my own bird’s condition.
“You’re pretty shot up Rocket One. You’re backside looks like scrambled eggs.”
I was leaking fuel like a sieve and my pressure was still dropping. I couldn’t turn right and I was unable to gain altitude.
We started back to base with Flame riding top cover for me.
“Lead Two, this is Rocket One, what’s your state?”
“They got Condor. I may have a probable. Coming up on your six, 60 to splash.”
I pounded my dash and swore at Condor’s death. It was a good fight and one that we appeared to have won, but I knew it came at a terrible price. Condor was well liked and one of our best pilots.
The flight back was uneventful until it came time for me to land. I had been losing speed and altitude the whole way back and by the time I could see the base ahead of me I was damn near skimming the waves. Emergency crews were scrambled but would probably have to bail me out of the water. I was not going to make the shore.
My big heavy fighter kissed the waves that had picked up in our absence. I heard something go bang behind me and then the engine quite all together. I set the fighter down with the nose up and managed to skip across the water like a stone until I hit the beach and came to a sudden halt that shook me hard in my harness.
I struggled to get out of my harness and pop the canopy open. I tripped over the side of the fuselage getting out and fell to soft sand below. Crawling fast to get away from the fighter I eventually pulled myself up and ran to the tree line. The ship didn’t explode but it was starting to burn. By the time the rescue crews arrived they were able to foam it down and keep it from being a total loss.
Medical personnel picked me up and handed me water as they checked me closely for injuries. I was fine. As we sped back to the flight line we picked up Flame and Karvuk. The ride back to Ops was quiet. We may have won the engagement but we had lost another good pilot.
We did our debriefing in my office and that’s when Katya told us who had shot down Condor. “It was the Red Ace. His Fiver was all blood red and shiny. He damn near got me too.”
I would have to wait and see the combat footage to verify that, but judging by Katya’s somber face, she was not kidding about it. I knew she wanted that ace dead more than anything else, and now more than ever.
“Okay, let’s not panic. We know they have a new fighter and we have a plan to take them on. The question I have for you is did you execute the new tactics?”
Katya nodded and so did Flame. I knew I followed the plan. I was still not entirely sure that Katya and Condor had.
“Flame and I had trouble with the plan. I wasn’t able to get my shot before they took off her wingtip. My systems were fine, I just wasn’t able to gain the angle I needed before the Fiver took his shots,” I said.
Flame managed a smirk and said, “A few more seconds and I would have been a lot brighter flame.”
Katya didn’t so much as grin at the joke. I stared at her a moment waiting for her to explain what happened to her and Condor. She finally spoke up.
“Condor was able to jink enough to buy me time to nail the one behind him, but seconds later his wingmen were able to get Condor. I only had a shot at the one on his tail. By the time I noticed the others it was too late.”
I suspected she had gotten distracted by something greater than just more bogeys.
“Is that when you noticed the Red Ace?”
She nodded, eyes down.
“He got Condor with one shot. One freaking shot!” Her voice had risen and the pain was clearly mixed with hatred.
I didn’t respond right away. She started to cry and shake for a moment. This brought Flame to tears for Condor’s death.
“We know they have maser cannons now and it only takes one shot to sink a Swift. We have to be aware of that from now on. No more careless cloud hopping up there. We have to fly tight and be on our game or we’ll all buy it.”
The crying subsided. It wasn’t really fair of me to try and ask them to forget our loss that soon after it happened so I dismissed them. Alone in my office I crossed off Condor’s name on the ready board and opened a dispatch to his surviving kin. He was married but had no kids.
I didn’t even know him well enough to know he was married
. I forced myself to write the death notice anyway. Doing my best to portray him as the excellent pilot he truly was.
After I hit send I sat back and wished I could drink myself drunk right there alone. But I didn’t have any booze in the office and it wouldn’t have solved anything or brought him back.
* * *
That evening the base was hit with a strike from the new Fivers. It was right before sunset and I could clearly see that one of the enemy fighters was red on top. He actually did a slow roll over the base before joining up with his mates and heading off into the darkness. Clearly he was sending me a message. It was everything I could do not to jump in the nearest Swift and head out after the bastard.
After the all clear was given I headed over to the hanger to talk with Chief about the condition of my Swift. His people had it propped up on blocks and were already trying to ascertain it’s airworthiness.
“Sorry Commander but this bird’s going to be out of commission for some time,” Chief said, clearly annoyed with my presence. I could take a hint and walked out to the flight line to look at Flame’s wingtip damage.
Her Swift was still flyable, though it lacked a starboard navigation light and any kind of shields. I knew from experience that damage like that would take a few days to repair and she could fly it again. As the sun sank on the horizon I noticed Katya’s Swift sitting snug in a berm not far away. I was curious what if any damage her bird had sustained.
I walked from one end of that fighter to the other, even stood up on the berm and looked around the top of it, but I saw no combat damage at all. A thought came to me as I walked back to my office.
Had she gotten spooked and never reengaged the enemy after Condor died? Also, why did they let her get away?
Something didn’t feel right about the whole engagement.
The flight data from the sortie was finally available and I watched the battle unfold on the main data screen in Ops. Nobody was around, and the Alert pilots were out by their birds.
I watched the icons representing both enemy and allied planes circle and dance around each other jockeying for a good shot. After Condor’s bird winked out, Karvuk’s icon rolled away and left the area. The Red Ace and his wingmen chased after her, as expected. Half his kills were taking out Alliance pilots who were fleeing from him.
But she did something completely unexpected after she went away from the island a few dozen klicks. She started to lose power and they gained on her almost instantly. The only way that would have happened was if she had cut her power. The three enemy Fivers surrounded Karvuk and they all flew straight and level for a while. Then all three enemy planes broke away and left her alone until she was able to meet up with Flame and I. They had let her get away. Nobody had fired a shot.
I skimmed through the data to double check it. No guns were fired, no cannons, nothing. It’s like they were escorting her back to us.
I sent Fleet more combat telemetry data and another request for action on how to engage the new enemy starfighter. I knew our messages were getting out, but for whatever reason I was only getting message received pings back. For the longest time I wondered if I should contact Admiral Ganner directly about it. It seemed like a bad idea to bother him though. I mean I’m sure he had bigger problems like running the war.
I refocused on the next mission and soon forgot about Fleet again. The new Fivers were based at that atoll, I wanted to return there with some heavy firepower and see if I could get as many of them on the ground as I could. It was not very chivalrous but this was war. If I could destroy the new fighter on the ground, that was less of them my pilots would have to face in the air.
I’d send a four ship sortie to the atoll at dusk and try to catch them bedding down for the night. Just to ensure surprise, I’d send a two ship sortie to the main Votainion base first to let them know we still cared. We’d come at the atoll from the opposite direction which meant that the four ship flight would leave first. I had them circle out far enough that enemy scanners would not pick them up until they were above the horizon.
Choosing pilots was next. I decided to let Choke lead the attack on the Fivers and had Karvuk be the lead of the diversion attack. I gave him Sweetness, Flame and Hilltop. I gave Karvuk Hank. Their diversion attack should be a milk run, so I gave her our least experienced pilot. Hank was a very conscientious pilot but he tended to fly too mechanically. Pairing him with Katya was a deliberate attempt to get him to lighten up a bit.
Choke’s flight lifted up about an hour before sunset. They carried drop tanks to get them the extended range they needed. I watched them head off into the setting sun from the Ops shack. Katya and Hank were out doing their pre-flight. I had told her he needed some extra hand holding so she was going over things pretty thoroughly. I hung around Ops until Bravo flight lifted off and then I headed over to Control to listen in to the fight. There was a warm breeze coming in off the ocean from the east and the salty air filled my lungs. Two enlisted guys manned Control and I could tell they were uncomfortable with my presence. I told them some jokes and got them to lighten up as we waited.
Karvuk’s flight started their attack runs on the main base and everything seemed to be going smoothly. There was no combat air patrol that night and they managed to destroy a few KiV-3’s on the ground.
Then Choke’s flight engaged. Screaming in low off the water line they fired incendiary rounds into the main earthen hanger on the atoll base. Multiple secondary explosions set the cave afire and actually cracked the entrance on one side. It would have sucked to be in that cave tonight. I joked that maybe we’d get lucky and kill the Red Ace in there, but neither controller seemed to find that amusing. They were hoping one of our ace pilots would get the kill in the air. Their admiration of daring starfighter pilots was typical of those who didn’t fly. In reality it was a deadly game that was rarely as daring as it sounded.
Karvuk and Hank started heading back to base with about three confirmed ground kills. Meanwhile, it sounded like Choke’s flight was wrapping up their attack and clearing out of enemy controlled airspace. That’s when we heard the startled voice come across the air to air channel.
“Victor, Victor, enemy fighters at 1500,” Flame shouted into her mic.
There were a few minutes of panicked chatter as nobody could make out the enemy fighters in the dark. Finally they went with scanners only and broke off to engage them. I pulled a data pad off the console and punched up an area map.
Where the hell had they come from this time?
The new tactics were not dependent on visual ID to work. Choke and Sweetness immediately tried to engage the enemy using the new tactics. But the fog of combat crept in early and before long it sounded like a free for all out there.
“Hilltop keep your bank I’m almost there.”
“Hurry Sweetness, he’s climbing up my ass and shooting!”
“Choke, I’m taking hits,” Flame said.
“I got him, I got him!”
The last call was Choke, I thought. But the voice sounded shrill in the excitement of combat.
“They got Sweetness, dammit.”
Then, someone said, “It was the Red Ace.”
I looked at both controllers and asked aloud how the hell anyone could tell the color of the KiV at night. More bursts of static over the comm followed by heavy breathing and soft swearing. Someone had a live mic. It overtook the frequency and made it impossible to hear anyone’s signal.
“I think that’s Choke. Can you squawk him on data?” I asked. The lead controller nodded and started working his instruments. Seconds later the mic cleared and the comm was eerily quiet.
What the hell was going on out there?
“Alpha Lead, Alpha Lead. This is Control. Say your status, over?”
Had they all been shot down? What the hell?
“Bravo Lead, this is Control. Say your status.”
Katya’s voice responded, “Control this is Karvuk. We’re heading in their direction.”
“Negative Karvuk, negative. Return to base, copy?”
I waited a beat and repeated. “Negative pursuit Karvuk. Return to base. How copy?”
“Copy, Control,” she responded.
I sat down at the comm seat and tried to regain my composure. My brow was sweating as I wiped it on my wet sleeve.
“Alpha Lead this is Control. How copy over?”
There was a long period of dead air before a weak signal came through.