Authors: Ken McConnell
Katya stood up and looked at me suspiciously. “Have you looked at her telemetry yet?”
I shook my head. It was crazy busy and I had another batch of FNGs coming in soon and had to deal with the deaths of three pilots.
Katya took my arm and walked me out away from the others where the heat of the bonfire was not felt. We were just a few steps from the glowing tide pools.
“We need to confirm Choke’s death. He might have survived. He could be on that atoll, maybe even a prisoner.”
“The Vots don’t take prisoners. If they found him, they would have executed him.”
She looked away and balled her fists in anger. I half expected her to come after me.
“I don’t think he’s gone. I want to find him,” she said.
“Look, after Roll Call we’ll go examine the data. But I’m pretty sure he’s gone Katya. The sooner you accept that the better,” I was cut off by a hard slap to my face.
I instinctively came back with an uppercut to her ribs and the next thing I knew people were pulling us apart from each other. She got me real good, I could feel the sting on my face. But I shook off the pilots holding me and started back to the fire. Katya was right behind me, but I could tell she wasn’t coming after me to fight. She was following me back to Ops. I told Hank to carry on without us.
Once inside my office I turned around and cold cocked her to the floor. My fist stung as I hovered over her.
“Don’t ever hit me again, bitch, or I’ll send your ass home.”
She rubbed her jaw and looked up at me impressed with my strength.
“Shit, woman. Where’d you learn to hit like that?”
I lowered a hand to help her up. “In the Rangers.”
Katya let me pull her up and then walked away from me, rubbing her face and spitting blood onto my floor. Finally she collapsed in a seat in front of my desk. I tossed her a water bottle and we both swished the water around in our mouths and spit it out on the wooden floor.
I started calling up Flame’s combat data and turned on the three dimensional display to project the battle between us. We watched the fight play out in blue and red icons. The Votainion Fivers were so damn quick and they came out of nowhere.
True to Flame’s words, Choke’s fighter veered away from hers and went low. The sole Votainion survivor started after him. After a few standard avoidance maneuvers it appeared that Choke’s fighter went down on the atoll near the shallow water’s edge. It was not definitive proof of his demise, but I could see the hope flicker and die on Katya’s face.
The Red Ace reacquired Flame’s fighter and cruised beside it for a while. We looked at each other through the wavering holographic display. Katya’s dark eyes reflected the blue and red icon’s light as she stared. Damned if the Red Ace didn’t lift her wingtip and buy her extra altitude. Then his fighter dove away and headed out of range of her scanners. The replay ended and we both stared at each other, Katya still rubbing her jaw.
“I don’t understand why he helped her. There’s no tactical advantage in it. Of course there wasn't when he helped me back either,” Katya said.
“Maybe he likes her.”
Katya looked incredulous at me.
“Look what she’s got painted on the side of her bird. A woman’s face with long, flowing red hair that turns into fire. The guy’s got a thing for redheads,” I said.
Katya flipped her water bottle at me and got me all wet. I did not retaliate.
“That’s messed up. I think he just wanted her to get back so we would know what happened. He wants us to be scared of him.”
She was smarter than she looked sometimes.
“Well, I’d say he was getting what he wants then.”
Katya stood up suddenly and shook her bottle at me like a finger.
“I’m not scared of him, I want to go after him. Let’s organize a strike team and take care of this bastard once and for all.”
I was already planning such a mission. I still hadn’t heard from Fleet about how to proceed with the new fighter, but this idiot was bad for my unit’s morale and his kill ratio was going up not down. The only way to keep our attrition down was to take him out.
“I agree. I’ve already started an operation plan to go after him.”
She wasn’t expecting that, and I had caught her off guard. Again. She leaned in closer to me like she wanted to share a secret.
“Let’s hear it boss.”
I stood up and started to walk around the room. Picking up a stick with a tactical model of a KiV on the end I flew it around, breaking left and right in exaggerated turns.
“We know the new fighter can out turn us, so we have to avoid that. We also know his maser cannons can ruin our day faster than we can shoot at him. He’s aggressive, never hesitates to attack. Quick on the trigger. We need to anticipate his moves. Get into position before he figures out what we’re doing.”
Katya nodded and said, “Agreed, how do we do that?”
“We have to swarm on him. Cut him off from his wingmen and overwhelm him with firepower. It will take six or more fighters, all going after him at once. We need to force him into a meat grinder and tear him apart.”
Katya’s face was suddenly beaming with joy. She slapped the table top and shouted.
I sat back down behind my desk and sighed.
“Let’s go up tomorrow, they won’t suspect anything, it’s been almost a week,” Katya said.
I sat back in my chair the springs buckling.
“Can’t. I’ve got another batch of FNG’s coming in and I have to replace Choke as Bravo lead.”
“You be Alpha and I’ll fly Bravo Lead. We’re gonna need all the remaining pilots though, to really put this guy through the wringer.”
She was really dead set on getting this guy, but I also knew she was still grieving Choke’s loss. I didn’t know how involved she had been with him, but it would take more than a few days to get over all the losses we incurred this week. Including Choke.
“Look, I’m sorry about what I inferred between you and Choke. It’s none of my business what you guys had, but it becomes my business when it affects the mission. Let’s stand down for a few more days, and work on this mission plan. Give us all some time to mourn.”
She sat back and silently crushed her empty water bottle under my desk out of sight. I could hear the bottle crinkling.
“We fooled around quite a bit, but we weren’t serious. How can you be in a war zone?”
I agreed, but didn’t say anything. She eventually pulled herself up and left my office without saying anything. I’ve been in her place before. Lost my husband to pirates and my lover to the damn Vots. I knew she needed some alone time to work through her grief. Unfortunately, I needed her to help train the FNGs.
* * *
I met the FNGs on the flight line with a box of water. They looked a bit different than your typical Academy graduates. Older and somehow less wide-eyed. In all the commotion after Roll Call last night I had forgotten to read their service records.
“Welcome to Kew, I’m Rocket One,” I said to them all in the shade of the shuttle’s wing.
“It’s an honor to meet you Commander Ardel,” said a man whose ID tag read Taren Ajai.
“Likewise, Commander,” said a woman named Kit Karter.
It seemed they all knew who I was by sight, as my tag only had my call sign on it. I shook their hands politely. No saluting in a combat zone for obvious reasons.
“I’m afraid I haven’t had time to look you folks up yet, where are you all from?”
ma’am,” said Karter. She was a blonde with short hair.
S. S. Tarna
, name’s Tibbs,” said the other woman. She was short with bobbed black hair. I sensed Fleet fashion had passed us by, not unusual for remote assignments like Kew.
S. S. Mulgrave
,” said Lieutenant Ajai. He was tall and lean with skin as dark as space.
“I’m also from the
,” said Lieutenant Gleeson. He was the youngest and like Ajai had short cropped, high and tight hair, only his was sandy colored.
We stood there for a moment and drank the water after I told them it was required.
“You guys all look like you want to be here or something,” I observed. They were all wearing regulation flight suits and seemed to glance around eagerly.
“Yes, ma’am. We want to start bagging some KiV-5’s.” Karter said.
They seemed to notice my quizzical look and Lieutenant Ajai spoke up.
“The new Votainion ship you guys are fighting. This is the hottest assignment in Fleet for the chance to take on the new starfighter.”
the hottest place Fleet can send you,” I said, moving towards Ops. “So what do you guys know about the Fiver?”
That’s when they informed me that they were all aces back in their old units and they were given top priority in coming here so they could learn to kill the new fighter. By the time we got into Ops I was feeling like the last one to know anything in the Fleet. Apparently Fleet knew all about the new KiV-5 and they wanted to get their best pilots trained in the tactics we were developing. I had to laugh at that one. The tactics
were developing. It explained why they never gave me any directions on how to fight them. Fleet didn’t know either.
Apparently the 389th had gotten a reputation out in the Fleet as being a squadron of aces. There were more of us with five or more kills than any other unit in the Fleet. I found that astonishing but all the new guys confirmed it.
“Commander, the Vots even have a name for the 389th,” said Ajai.
I looked at him dumbfounded.
“They call your unit Devon’s Blade,” he said.
The others all nodded enthusiastically. Then they proceeded to inform me that due to the adoration the enemy had for using their falchion, they were saying my pilots were the sharpest, most deadly pilots in the war. The fact that the enemy even knew my name was enough to make me question the whole thing. But they were quite convinced the reports from Intel were true.
I shook my head.
“Ever since the new fighter arrived, we’ve only shot down a few of them. So my ‘Blade’ isn’t so sharp right now. The Fiver, as we call it, will eat you whole and spit out your bones. She’s fast, highly maneuverable and carries deadly maser cannons that will punch your ticket with one shot.”
I could see the enthusiasm coming down a notch on their faces.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news folks, but you just got yourselves into a giant shit sandwich. Hope you’re hungry. Our attrition rate right now is such that we’ve lost four pilots just this week. Most of you will probably be dead by next week.”
I let that sink in for a moment.
“Oh, and if you have any ideas on how to improve our situation, do speak up. Because as of right now, we have no idea how to beat the Fiver.”
I left them in the capable hands of Hank to take them over to Squadron and get signed in, while I went back into my office. As I worked on the mission plan to trap the Red Ace, I started to see why he might have helped Flame and Katya. He was showing respect for our pilots, despite having the upper hand now. Something told me getting this guy was not going to be easy. A part of me wanted to meet him and the other part of me wanted to kill him.
I called Katya and Double into my office the next morning, before the first mission briefing. I made them both Leads for all future missions. Double looked like he was going to pass out or something. I told him to relax and just do as he was trained. He was one of the oldest pilots left in the bunch and I had complete trust in his ability to get the job done. He stiffened up after that and seemed more confident as I told them about the FNG’s.
“All of them could easily be my Leads, but they don’t know anything about this base and how we fly. Double, I’m putting you in charge of Kindergarten. Get those pilots up to speed on our tactics, including the newest ones against the Fivers. I want them ready to go on missions in twenty-four hours.”
He swallowed hard and said, “Yes, ma’am.”
I turned my attention to Katya next.
“Karvuk, you’re going to be Lead One. While he’s training the new guys, I want you to keep harassing the main enemy airfield. If you get in a fight with the new Fivers, abort and head for home. I don’t want any heroics. If anything, I want to present the appearance that we are too scared to fight them head on. Let them stew on that for a while.”
She narrowed her eyes and nodded, but I could tell she didn’t approve of running from a fight.
“Look, if we can make them think we don’t want to fight, maybe they will start to let their guard down. That’s where I want them for when we finally do go after Red. I want them, and especially him, taken aback.”
She started to get the picture I was drawing.
“Roger that,” she said.
I sat back down behind my desk and dismissed them.
* * *
As expected, after a few missions of avoiding the new fighter, the Votainions started getting punchy and the air raids picked up noticeably. I had some of the fighters dispersed into the jungle where they couldn’t easily be seen from the air. Chief Hawkins even had his folks build some fake fighters out of wood to use as decoys in the berms. It actually worked the first few times. They bombed the shit out of those fake Swifts.
Then one day they ignored them and took their vengeance out on the buildings. Many of us lost our huts and the main hangar was blown up along with two more Swifts.
Point taken, bastards.
Alert pilots took off for every raid, but didn’t engage the enemy unless they were flying KiV-3’s. The one raid when they did fly the older models, we shot them all down. I believe several of the FNG’s racked up some kills on that raid. They left us alone for a few days after that.
Chief Hawkins moved his maintenance troops deeper into the woods and made do as best they could while a new hangar was constructed. The base Commander stormed into my office one afternoon and demanded that my pilots engage the Fivers. His people were getting blown up way more than he could handle. It just so happened that was the day Fleet finally responded to my request.
Their suggestion, and by suggestion I mean direct orders for me, were to not engage the new enemy fighters at all. I showed Brinkman the orders and he left in a huff. He never bothered me about defending the air raids again.