Authors: Ken McConnell
In no time five Swifts were rising up and heading out across the ocean after the enemy fighters. I caught a ride over to the tower to listen to the fight. The tower was a short, glass windowed portable shack that was packed full of comm gear. Two people inside communicated with both ground crews and flight crews while tracking all aerial targets.
“How far out are the KiVs?” I asked the sergeant running the scanner.
“Too far to catch, Commander.”
“Alright, bring them back. We got a mess to clean back here.”
“Control to Chase, return to base. Repeat, return to base. Targets are too far out of range.”
There was a long pause before Chase answered and when she did I could tell it was Katya. “Chase, roger. Returning to base.” Her voice sounded defeated. I hung around until both Swifts had returned then I joined the pilots on the flight line.
Smoke was still rising from the damaged buildings and planes but fire crews were beginning to get things under control. Katya jumped out of her Swift and pounded her fist hard against the metal of the fuselage.
“Dammit, we need more warning of an attack. Those sorry ass scanners never see the KiVs until they start blowing things up,” she said.
The other pilots were congregating around Katya as I arrived.
“Who’d we lose?” a female pilot asked.
“They got Petra before he could get off the ground.”
Several of them swore out of anger and disgust.
“That was an impressive response though. Great job getting airborne that fast,” I offered. Everyone looked at me. Katya pointed to me and said, “This is our new boss, Commander Ardel.”
The pilots shook my hand and greeted me with glum faces. I realized now where some of the defeated spirit was coming from. These people had lost their will to win. They were being killed at an alarming rate and didn’t have much hope to turn that around. This is why I was here. This was my mission on Kew, to turn this unit around and get them back to being a productive fighter squadron. I certainly had my job cut out for me.
Before any pilot can go up on a mission, we have to have a check ride in the bird we'll be flying. I’ve got hundreds of hours in Vickers starfighters, but only a few in the Swift. So I was looking forward to seeing what this veteran fighter could do. Katya assigned Lieutenant Shed Rooney to do my check ride. His call sign was Skip because of an episode when he first arrived on station in which he skipped his Swift across the upper sky like a rock on water. At least that’s what he told me. I found out later it was because he skipped across the waves in an impromptu ditching. I tend to believe the later story, knowing how most pilots earn their call signs.
Skip was clean cut, handsome in a youthful way and very sure of himself in any situation, again, perfect qualities for a fighter pilot. He showed up for our sortie wearing an unmodified flight suit. Something about his professionalism and the way he carried out the simplest of preflight tasks told me he was not about to bend the rules.
The Swift was a single seat fighter and the layout of the controls was pretty much the same as the Victory fighter. The cockpit was larger with more shoulder room and she was packed with more electronic gear than her sister ship. Both had the rather limited, framed-in canopy but the Swift had more monitors on the dash to let you see your six.
“Ready to go, Commander?” Skip asked. He had finished his own walk around and was hanging on the side of my cockpit.
“Let’s do this,” I replied. His smile was infectious as he shut my canopy and pounded on it in crew chief fashion. He flashed me a thumbs up and jogged over to his bird.
I turned on the only power plant and listened to it spin up. It sounded throatier than the Victory fighter’s engine due to the increased size. Unfortunately, that also came with added weight making the Swift the heaviest Alliance starfighter.
I followed Skip’s lead until we were a few miles north of the island chain that housed our base. Out over the blue, we gained altitude and leveled off around thirty thousand feet. My Swift was handling well and all systems were nominal. This surprised me considering what I had seen of the base so far.
“Okay Commander, we’re going to run through some basic moves. Try and keep up with me,” Skip said over the comm. It was obvious he didn’t know who he was flying with.
Skip did a shallow left turn and then promptly dove for the deck. Diving was something the Swift excelled at, heavy as she was. I rolled over and pushed my controls forward as we dove nearly straight down.
Skip’s fighter started pulling up after our altitude bled away to less than a thousand meters. He then started yanking and banking in a series of maneuvers designed to shake someone off your tail. It was all pretty standard stuff and he executed them to perfection. Nothing wrong with his technical flying. That had me thinking there must be another reason this unit was doing so poorly. Maybe the enemy was adapting to standard Alliance practices and it was time to mix things up. My thoughts were interrupted as Skip’s fighter broke hard right and a second Swift came at me with practice guns blazing. Each fighter had the ability to switch to empty bore, electronics only simulated guns. It was how we practiced dog fighting against each other. My forward shields were nearly depleted before I managed to barrel roll away from the attacker. I wound up kissing the waves inverted for a while before rolling over and banking hard in a full afterburner climb.
I heard Skip’s voice over the comm, “Holy shit Commander, that was incredible!”
Checking my short range scanners I saw the third Swift preparing to dive on me from behind the sun. This pilot was not playing by the book.
Let’s see what they can do then.
I kept my stern shields facing the incoming aggressor and went into a modified version of my personal evasion maneuver. Modified because I normally used it in space and there were some aspects that didn’t translate to the gravity of a planet.
The new fighter stuck to my six like a magnet.
. I sustained several hits on my port wing as I tried to shake it. Finally I cut power and banked hard to try and get it to pass me by. Normally that wouldn’t work, but I also released some hydrazine into the sky that crystallized in the thin air and looked for all the world like I was actually hit or at least suffering from some kind of damage.
It must of caused the pursuing pilot a moment of pause because I was able to get behind it and engage again. Seconds later I heard the kill siren in my helmet and knew that I had won the battle.
The beaten Swift pulled up beside me and I could see the gray wolf’s head on it’s fuselage. It was Katya.
“Nice moves, boss,” she said over the comm link. I could hear the respect in her tone.
Skip’s fighter slid into formation off of Katya’s wing as we headed back to base.
“You have to teach us those crazy counters, Commander. That was some amazing flying back there,” Skip said.
“You bet,” I said.
* * *
Later that day I started going over the service records and mission stats for the squadron. It was not a pleasant task. Katya’s initial comment about who I angered to get sent here was not far off the mark. Many of the pilots assigned to the 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron were misfits and screw ups. They were either working off debt or they were so incompetent that their previous commanders had found the need to get rid of them.
Two of them were facing court martial for disciplinary issues and another fifteen were rated poorly in proficiency training. It was no wonder the unit had such a poor combat record, half of them were slackers and the other half were criminals. Maybe I was missing something.
I went back over each person’s record more closely a second time. That’s when I started to notice a trend. Nearly all of the pilots assigned here had been outstanding recruits but were sidelined by a series of unfortunate incidents that seemed to cause them to lose faith in their own abilities. Either they were traumatized by some combat experience or got into trouble trying to avoid flying combat missions. All of them had decent records at the Academy and were near the top of their classes in flying aptitude. Trouble seemed to start after they got into theater and started flying against the real enemy. This was not uncommon for a small percentage of the pilot community, what was uncommon was how many cases like this there were in one squadron.
The previous commander was an outstanding leader and a hardened veteran from what I could tell. He started to turn around the squadron’s combat record until he and about five other pilots were all killed during a single engagement with the enemy. His replacement obviously didn't want the job and couldn't wait to leave.
There were obscure mentions of an enemy ace that had come onto the scene about that time and as a result, many pilots had refused to fly against him. Not hard to imagine when one in every three Alliance pilots who engaged the enemy didn’t come back.
I poked around the squadron databases for Intel on this enemy ace and couldn’t come up with anything useful. They called him various names including; the Red Ace, Blue Bastard and Kron. His KiV-3 was reportedly painted all red so everyone knew who he was. I dug through gun camera footage and was able to find only one short clip of the red KiV diving away out of sight. I paused it and tried to zoom in on the fighter to see if it was anything other than a standard enemy fighter. It was silhouetted against the blue sky but didn’t have any modifications that I could tell. He was probably just a damn good pilot.
I got up and took my empty water bottle out into the briefing room to refill it. Several pilots were standing at the sortie board talking quietly amongst themselves. They saw me, but didn’t engage. I filled my bottle and went back into my office without a word.
Outside I could hear several fighters landing from the afternoon mission. Checking the computer I saw that they hadn’t encountered any enemy and everyone returned safely. That figures. When most of them were too scared to fight, it stood to reason that there were next to no contacts on routine missions. That was about to change, but first I needed to get these kids their confidence back and that was going to take some remedial training. Soon basic flight training would begin and I would be the instructor.
* * *
That evening I slept very little. It was hard to get comfortable in the heat and humidity of Kew. I finally slipped out of my bunk and headed over to the hooch tent. To my surprise there were a few patrons nursing drinks at the bamboo shack. I was wearing just a tank top and shorts and feeling under-dressed but the other patrons were wearing that or less. There were two women sitting on the porch sharing a bottle and one older man at the bar. I sat down beside him and ordered a beer on tap. My taste for hard liquor had waned in recent years to the point of being non-existent.
He looked up from his own nearly depleted mug and surveyed me with eyes that seemed world weary. His short cropped hair was stiff and gray and his tan t-shirt was wet with sweat and dirty with grease. He wore tattered combat pants and black boots.
“Don’t recall seeing you around here before. Name’s Chet,” he said as he extended a big hand. His voice was raspy but not harsh, it kind of reminded me of my father.
“Devon,” I said, shaking his hand.
His eyebrow lifted and he looked at me closer. It was difficult to deduce much about me other than my looks. His hand was dirty with grease, but that never bothered me.
“Sorry about the grease,” Chet apologized.
“No worries, I had some trouble getting to sleep so thought I’d come down for a drink.”
He grunted and shook his head. “I remember my first night here. Damn, seems like so long ago now. I laid awake all night swatting bugs and rolling around in my wet bunk,” he laughed to himself.
The bartender pushed a drink in front of me and copped a long look at my breasts. He was a young kid probably hard up for new tail on such a small base. I handed him my ID tag and he retracted his eye balls back into his head after he saw my rank.
“Does it ever cool off around here?” I asked Chet.
“Sometimes, when a summer typhoon blows through. But that doesn’t happen too often.”
I shook my head and took a long drink. The beer was warm and bitter. A cheap domestic brand probably out of date by the time it arrived planetside.
I turned around on the wooden stool and leaned back on the bar, hoping to catch a breeze coming across the flight line from the beach. Instead I just managed to swat a few more mosquitos on my leg and arm.
“The bugs don’t carry any known diseases, but they are annoying,” the man said. He pushed his empty mug across the bar and backed off his stool.
“Get you another Chief?” the bartender asked.
“Nope, I’ve had my fill.” He turned to look me in the eye and tilted his floppy sun hat.
“Pleasure to meet you Devon, I’m sure I’ll see you around. It’s a small island.”
“Likewise,” was all I could say before he was headed out the open door with a slight lean into night. I took my drink and walked back out to where the women were drinking and talking quietly. They clammed up and I could tell they were looking me over and trying to decide if I was worth getting to know.
“Good evening ladies. May I join you?”
The dark haired one shook her head and the blonde just stared at me with big eyes. Enlisted, no doubt. I sat down on a wooden chair beside the blonde and looked off across the flight line.
“You’re the new Fighter Squadron Commander aren’t you,” the blonde asked.
I took a drink and winked back at her. “Yeah, but don’t hold it against me.”
She smiled and took a nudge on her shoulder from the brunette as they stood up.
“We have to turn in, ma’am,” she said as she shoved the blonde woman away. I waved goodbye and looked back out towards the ocean. It was clear they were uncomfortable talking to a higher ranking officer. I got that. They were probably maintenance crew judging from the grime under their short, broken nails.