Authors: Ken McConnell
I called all the pilots into Ops after he stormed out of my office and informed them of the new orders from Fleet. Needless to say, they were not happy with the news.
“How the hell can we fight this war if we can’t go after them?” Katya asked.
I could tell she was on the verge of melting down over this no-fly crap. She was not alone. All of them wanted to go after the new fighters in a bad way.
“My plan to get the Red Ace is complete. I was going to make it operational tomorrow but this puts the brakes on it. I can’t disobey direct orders from Fleet,” I said.
“Did they give a reason for ordering us not to engage it?” Ajai asked.
I grimly shook my head.
“They don’t need a reason, them damn keyboard punchers. What the hell do they know about fighting KiVs?” Karter said. Everyone patted her on the back and agreed with her.
“Did you ever think that maybe Intel knows something we don’t about them?” I countered.
Everyone waved me off and continued to harass Fleet for being a bunch of desk flying cowards. Typical pilot bravado.
“Alright, at ease, people. Those are my orders. Carry on with avoiding the Fivers and splash all the Threes you can. Until further notice.”
I walked back into my office and shut the door. The griping and moaning continued for quite some time before people started getting back to their jobs. I knew someone would defy the order sooner or later, I just didn’t know who it would be. I spoke with the base security officer and told him I might need support in grounding a few pilots in the days to come. He thanked me for the heads up.
My money was on Katya but I knew she had to get at least five other dumb shits to follow her before she could do anything. I thought about who would be most influenced by her and realized practically all the pilots adored her as much as they had Choke. She was a pilot’s pilot. Cocky and boastful but always able to defend her position with phenomenal skills.
A knock at my door broke my train of thought.
“Enter,” I said, loud enough to hear on the other side.
Flame walked in unassisted and stood before my desk. She raised her hand to salute and said, “Lieutenant Kelli reporting for duty, ma’am.”
I noticed her slight limp but she didn’t waver while standing at attention. I returned her salute and told her to stand at ease. She relaxed a bit, hands behind her back.
“Are you telling me the Flight Surgeon signed off on this?”
She looked down at me, her expression serious. “No ma’am.”
“Then what the hell are you doing in here? I can’t approve you for flight until he does.”
“Ma’am, permission to speak freely?”
She looked me in the eye and lowered her voice. “You know they’re going to attack the Red Ace, even though you’ve forbidden it, right?”
I nodded slowly.
“Put me back in service and I’ll be your snitch.”
I didn’t expect that from her. She’d been pretty tight with Choke and Katya before her injury, but now she was essentially blackmailing me to let her fly again. As wrong as it was, I respected her for it. I stood up and stared right back at her for a moment. She didn’t waver or appear to have second thoughts.
“Okay, Flame. You can fly. But tell me something?”
She tilted her head ever so slightly in response.
“Why would you turn against Katya like this? If she finds out what you’re doing it won’t end well for either of you.”
Flame swallowed hard and her bottom lip finally started to quiver a bit.
I lifted an eyebrow at that.
“She thinks I’m a coward for not engaging. She blames me for Choke’s death.”
Interesting. I didn’t see that one coming at all.
“Flame, I watched your battle telemetry and so did she. Neither one of us saw you do anything wrong on that mission. If she’s blaming you for Choke’s death, she’s dead wrong.”
Flame didn’t respond. She just looked away with a pissed as hell look in her eyes.
“Do I have your word that you can fly?”
“Alright. You're my spy. Tell me when she’s going after the Red Ace.”
Flame saluted and left my office with only a slight limp.
The next day we got a few new fighters in to replace the ones we lost. Two Swifts and two Trogens. They must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel to get us something that still flew. The Trogens were actually better suited to atmosphere’s like Kew, but they were older than the Swifts and handled completely different. I went out to inspect them and found Chief Hawkins doing the same.
“Why’d they send us these junkers, Commander?” he asked.
“Don’t know. I’ll take whatever they give me though and be thankful for them.”
He nodded his head, “I hear you, ma’am.”
I walked around one of the Trogens and rubbed the white skin along the thin wing. Chief would have his people paint them in the multitone Kew scheme known as K4. Up on the tall vertical tail fin it had the markings of a squadron based on a starship carrier. I remembered well the unit insignia of the Wicked Warriors on the
. I probably even flew this very one, though the id number didn’t ring a bell.
It was pretty well wrung out and really could use new paint. The Trogen had a barrel shaped fuselage just like all Alliance starfighters but instead of slotted intake in the wings it had narrow, long wings that ended in vertical winglets. The tail fin was nearly as long as a wing and usually carried shield generators at the top with unit colors as stripes under the tip. This one had the familiar yellow tail and an old fashioned hatchet icon. The nose of the Turgan Trogen ended in a snub and the narrow windscreen tilted down making it look like it was always frowning. Trogens were still in the inventory, but they were rapidly being phased out by better fighters like the Vickers Victory and the Vickers Swift.
As I looked at the old bird a thought occurred to me. Nobody had flown one of these against the new Votainion fighter yet. If we were the only theater in the war to fight the KiV-5 then this is probably why Fleet sent us these Trogens. It made sense. The Fiver was probably designed to take on the very latest in Alliance fighters and might have a weakness when pitted against the Trogen.
Trogens usually had excellent turning radius in atmospheric flight and were even a touch faster than a Swift in level flight due to the larger Radion engine. I immediately started thinking about how to take on the Fivers with this wonderful old lady. Too bad I only had two of them.
“Chief, how soon can you get these Trogens flight ready?”
He came over, looking up at the tail of the one I was standing next to.
“A few days. I don’t have enough paint to cover them both in K4, so we’ll have to just do the top. That’s at least a day’s worth of work. Then it all depends on what kind of shape they are on the inside, so to speak.”
“So at least two days, possibly three?”
He nodded, eyeing me suspiciously.
“You think these old gals can take on those Fivers?”
I grinned and shook my head. “Maybe. We’re going to find out.”
He started to say something and then thought better of it and turned around to get back to whatever he was doing when I bothered him. I knew what he was going to say though: Fleet told us to avoid the Fivers. But why else would they have sent me these Trogens if they didn’t expect me to use them?
* * *
Back in my office at Ops I sketched out an operational plan that took advantage of the newly acquired Trogens. They would be the perfect bait to lure in the Red Ace and his flight of Fivers. Who could resist splashing a few older fighters? Meanwhile the Trogens would simply run full power into the trap and let the entire squadron blast away at the Fivers. It might work, but it meant that two pilots would have to be the bait and everyone else would have to be in top form and stick to the game plan.
I wasn’t so sure I could count on my people sticking to the game plan. Especially Katya. She could easily go solo on me and wreak whatever chances we had, trying to bag the ace herself. I needed her to stay with the program on this one. I also needed her to get the hell off of Flame’s ass. I called her into my office to tell her how I wanted to use the Trogens.
She came in wearing her cut off flight suit and a floppy hat that reminded me of the kind I used to wear as a Ranger.
“What’s up boss,” she said, nonchalantly as she plopped down in the chair opposite my desk.
“I know what you’re planning.”
She looked around innocently.
“You and the other leads are going after the Red Ace soon.”
Her demeanor turned sour and she shook her head slowly.
“Who ratted us out? Flame?”
“Nobody ratted you out. I’m not stupid. I know you want that guy more than anything else and I know the entire squadron wants to fight the Fivers. Eventually you’ll decide enough is enough and there won’t be much I can do to stop you. Until you get back.
you come back.”
She slammed her palm down on the chair’s armrest.
“Come on Commander! If you were in my place you’d be hard pressed not to disobey a no-fight order too.”
“Probably. But this isn’t about me, it’s about you. It’s about how you handle yourself under pressure. It’s about how you chose to lead your fellow pilots. Do you see that at all?”
She flashed me an ugly face and looked away. Up until that point it
been all about her. I could tell she hadn’t even thought about her fellow pilots or what was best for the squadron. She looked back at me with those deep set dark eyes of hers.
“You’re grooming me for command, aren’t you?”
I nodded slowly.
She swore and stood up to pace around the room. I let her pace while I called up the operation plan on the 3D projector.
“Did you see the new birds we got in today?” I asked.
She shook her head and went to the window to look out at the flight line.
“Trogens? What the hell do they expect us to do with those crates?”
I motioned for her to come back to my desk.
“I’m not sure, but I figured out a way we can use them against the Fivers.”
That got her attention. She came back over and sat down, looking intently at red and blue icons floating in mid air. I changed two of the ships to green, indicating the Trogens. Tiny, wire meshed pictures of the Swifts and Trogens replaced the icons.
“The Trogens are more maneuverable than the Swifts. They’re also faster. I say we use them as bait in our plan. Get the Fivers to come up and chase them into our trap. The Trogens will be able to turn away from a Fiver fast enough to hopefully avoid getting nailed. At the same time, the meat grinder will be in full force on the Fivers and they won’t have time to react.”
The animated battle plan played out between us as the three Fivers get overwhelmed by a dozen Swifts. It looked good in the simulation. Perhaps a bit too good. But we were desperate for a win and desperation trumps common sense sometimes.
“That could work. Who do we have who’s current in the Trogen?”
“Two of the FNG’s, Karter and Ajai both transferred from Trogen squadrons in the fleet.”
The simulation ended and I turned off the projector. We had lost four Swifts and one Trogen but all three Fivers had been defeated. I ran this simulation dozens of times and we managed to come up on top every time. It was just a matter of how many pilots we lost trying. The average was five which was not as bad as it sounded. They were considered decent odds by Fleet standards.
“I thought we were still under no-fly orders. When did you want to try this mission? Or are we just going to sit on it,” Katya asked.
“For now, we train, we fly regular air to sand missions and we wait. I’m sending this OPLAN to Fleet for approval. Could be a few days, could be a few weeks. What I need from you is trigger discipline. Keep the other leads in line and be patient. If you try this without my approval, I’ll court martial everyone involved.”
“You can’t do that, you’d be putting this base at risk of being overrun.”
She looked at me with scrunched brow and a frown. But I could tell she had already made up her mind to do it.
“If we do this and get the Red Ace, I don’t think Fleet will nail us for it. I think they’ll pin medals to our chests and promote us all off this saltwater puddle.”
I shrugged. “You willing to make that bet?”
She lowered her eyes and slowly shook her head giving every outward sign that she was not so willing. But I knew it was a ruse. She was going to try it, eventually. I know I would have done it. Without hesitation. Youth and vengeance are a deadly combination. Especially in a fighter pilot. We’re taught all through our training that we own the sky. That we’re the best of the best. That cocky attitude keeps us willingly going up day after day on missions that could kill us just so we could add another red V to the side of our fighters. Get enough of those tallies and you’re an Ace. Keep getting them and you’re more than an ace, you’re a double or triple ace.
In Katya’s case, she was after someone in particular, someone who had killed her friends and at the same time, represented the best the enemy could send her way. That was just too much for her to walk away from. She was drawn to the duel like a star crossed ancient warrior. She would rather die than not have tried to shoot him down. I know how she felt. I too was in a similar position for years.
But that kind of relentless, singular obsession was not healthy and it led you down dark paths where healthy psyches should not venture. I was still dealing with the demons of my vengeance and I didn’t want her to suffer the same fate.
Four days later Katya made good on her promise to go after the Red Ace. But my internal trip wire failed to alert me to it.
The skies were cloudy and gray when the first sorties took off heading for a small island just off the main Votainion controlled chain. Eight Swifts lead by Karvuk and Double took off and quickly disappeared into the low ceiling. I was in my office, going over the after action reports from the Trogen test flights. Chief Hawkins had managed to get them both airworthy and ready for combat in record time and the check rides were glitch free, for the most part. His people had managed to spray the top sides of them with dark gray paint that resembled what the Swifts wore, their bottoms still flat white and dirty from space duty.