Authors: Ken McConnell
I sat there alone for a while, trying to drown my anxieties about the next day and finally decided I was tired enough to sleep. It was a short walk back to my shack where I climbed under the netting and fell onto my lumpy cot. I don’t remember falling asleep. You gotta love cheap beer.
Remote bases usually had a much leaner structure than regular fleet squadrons. They used to be called Combined Squadrons but lately Fighter Command has taken to just calling them Fighter Bases. There was an overall Base Commander and only a Fighter Squadron Commander under that. Operations and Security personnel all fell under the Base Commander’s direct control and anything to do with supporting the flight line was under the Fighter Squadron Commander’s control.
It was customary to meet with the Base Commander when you took over command of a squadron. Before the war there was a bunch of pomp and ceremony accompanying any change of command but all that had slowly gone away under the pressures of being at war. Now it was just an informal meet and greet, often over a meal. Base Commanders typically outranked Fighter Squadron Commanders for all things not directly associated with carrying out the greater mission. I usually got along fine with my base commander but I can’t say as if the feeling was always mutual. That was probably due to the fact that they wound up doing what I needed more than the other way around.
I knocked on the wooden door with two sharp raps and heard a terse “Enter.” from inside. I wore a clean, light gray flight suit with my hair tied in a regulation tail. Always put your best foot forward when meeting with your superior officer.
I walked up to his desk and saluted, “Commander Ardel, reporting for duty, sir.”
He was eating his breakfast on a tray from the mess tent. It looked like powdered eggs and some kind of dehydrated meat. I was going to miss Fleet life.
“At ease, have a seat. I’ve got a tray coming for you, hope you like powdered eggs and gutter rat,” he said with a return salute that was more of a wave. Looking at him closely for the first time, I saw that he was middle aged, slightly balding with a quarter inch cut to his salt and pepper hair. He was well tanned like nearly everyone on this base and he wore a faded, standard camouflaged combat uniform. Typical planet side attire for the Fleet.
“My stomach is pretty adaptable, sir.”
He looked at me with his fork full of egg for a moment and then stuck it in his mouth. An aide came in and set a tray in front of me with the exact same eggs and meat. He then poured me a coffee and left. I tackled the coffee first. My eyes were still droopy from lack of sleep the night before.
“Your record is pretty impressive, Ardel. Former Ranger, attack squadron lead, flight commander. Quite the fast burner to command.”
I hated it when people reminded me of my accomplishments. It was like they were rubbing my nose in it. I knew what I did and I was damn proud of it.
Commander Brinkman finished his meat and sat back in his chair to chew. I got the distinct feeling he was looking me over like a piece of meat. I continued eating as quickly as I could stomach it.
“We’re a pretty small unit here, Commander. Some things are not as regulation as up in the Fleet. That’s on purpose. These people have to be here for a long time and they have to live with each other in tight quarters and in abject fear for their lives on a daily basis. Try and remember that as you reorganize your squadron.”
I nodded and muttered another “Yes, sir”. Looking up when he paused I could see that he was somber about something.
“Your predecessor and five other pilots were all killed in action together. Since then morale around here has been in the dumps. The ground troops look up to you fliers. They expect you to protect the base as well as dishing it out to the enemy. When the flying squadron can’t do that it causes everyone to be on edge and that means I have more disciplinary problems.”
I listened intently and could see the pain in his tired gray eyes. “I sure hope you can turn this squadron around, because I don't’ know how much longer these people can last like this.”
I wiped my mouth with a napkin and cleared my throat.
“Trust me sir, I’ll get us back on top around here in short order.” I did my best to exude confidence in my words. He seemed cautiously pleased as he stood up and walked to the nearest window. The morning sortie was starting to launch. He watched them until they were out of sight and then turned to look back at me.
“Good luck, Commander. Dismissed.”
* * *
I spent the rest of the day in my office, working on a training schedule and getting to know my pilots by face and name. It was about an even mix of male and female pilots. Only a handful had been stationed at another planet side base, most came from billets on starships. The more experienced pilots were the flight commanders and leads. Pretty standard stuff and I didn't see any need to change things.
After the last scheduled flight of the day I wandered over to the gym shack to get back into my workout routine and see if I could chat up some of my pilots.
By this time I had already introduced myself as the new commander and told them that I wanted to observe operations for a few days before making any changes. Told them I’d be flying with each of them and assessing their skills. That never goes over well, so already I was someone they didn’t know whether they liked or trusted, hence the off duty socializing. I needed to get them to see me as a person, not just their boss. I changed into my tank top and shorts and walked along the base perimeter to the gym tent.
The gym was not the high-tech, cold and music filled rooms found on starships. It was a sweltering pit of iron pumping, stinky humans stretching muscles the old fashioned way. Which was good, it allowed me to get my workout and chat between sets with the other pilots. Since there was only the one gym tent, pilots had their allotted time on the metal and then they had to give way to the maintenance and security folks.
There were usually a dozen or so pilots working out at the same time. The tent just kept the sun off the equipment and relied on ocean breezes to cool it off. It was the closest area to the beach, probably to take slim advantage of the wind coming off the ocean.
I stood looking out over the clear blue shallows off shore, counting my reps and noticing the physical shape of the pilots. Most pilots were thin and had just enough muscles to counter the strains of gravity forced on them by extreme combat maneuvers. So there were no knuckle dragging brutes in the group but some were a bit too thin and a few actually had guts like you would see on a civilian. I'd have to change that. I took mental notes on who looked like they were keeping in shape and who looked like they were just going through the motions. Even my presence didn’t stop the later from slacking in their workouts.
“Commander, are you going up with us tomorrow?” asked a wiry looking young man with next to no hair. It was Hilltop, as I recalled from my notes.
“Yes, but you’ll still be the flight leader. I’ll be your wingman.”
He smiled as if that were so unusual as to be amusing. “Ha, try and keep up,” he said.
I nodded and switched arms with my dumbbell.
“Don’t worry boss, Hilltop flies like he doesn’t know what an altimeter is,” a female pilot said from beside us. She was pressing more than Hilltop even weighed by my estimation. Her call sign was Sweetness.
“How’d you get Hilltop?” I asked, referring to his call sign.
His smile drifted away and he mumbled something as he returned to the weight rack. I looked down at Sweetness and she set her bar on her belly to rest. “He came out of a split-S and ran into a hill on one of the flatter islands. Just kissed the top of it, the highest part of the sand bar.”
I tried not to chuckle and looked back out to the water line.
“What’s your call sign ma’am?” Sweetness asked.
“Rocket One, Lieutenant,” I said. That was the most common call sign for a squadron commander. I wasn’t ready to let on what they really called me. Not yet anyway.
I looked back down at her and watched her go through another set. Putting down my dumbbell I spotted her when she was done, taking her bar and setting it down in the sand without killing my back.
“How’d you get Sweetness?”
She sat up and I could see her abs glistening with sweat, she was definitely one fit woman. “I like sweets,” she said, shrugging.
I shook my head and took my dumbbell back to the rack. You’d never guess that by looking at her.
“How much can you bench Commander?” asked a round faced man whom I had just read about that afternoon. His name was Toren Hazzard, and his call sign was Choke.
“Enough. I don’t get into lifting competitions. If you want to beat me, you have to do it in the sky.”
He backed off and whistled. “Game on, Rocket One. Game on.”
I liked his attitude and I knew he’d take me up on a challenge like that. We’ll see just how good he is tomorrow.
On the way back from the gym tent I ran into Katya, who was wearing her modified flight suit minus any flight gear.
“Hey boss, you mind having diner with some of us tonight? Kind of a get to know you deal with the flight leaders.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
“Great, Ops shack after you grab a tray. See you then.”
She trudged off across the sand heading out the way I had come. I swung by the showers and cleaned up before heading back to my hut for a few minutes of downtime before diner. I wound up taking a look at the floor fan to see if I could get it going again. It was rusted out from the sea spray and had a worn wire. I’d need a few simple tools but it was at least fixable. The orderly had dropped off a case of water for me while I was out and I took out a bottle and downed it without even thinking.
The red sun was starting to get low on the horizon and it cast long shadows across the base. I couldn’t help wondering how awesome this planet would be as a resort. Maybe after the war, if the Alliance managed to maintain control of it.
I guess that would by my job now wouldn’t it?
* * *
The flight leads were Katya, Choke and Skip. They had all three beat me back to Ops with their meals. I sat down at the planning table with them and started eating. The meal was some kind of bird with gray vegetables and a weak sauce. The others had no problem eating it but I pushed it around my plate for a while trying to gain the courage to put it in my mouth.
“We were wondering what changes you’d be making, Commander. Regarding the flight leads,” Skip asked. It was clear they were all wanting to keep their assignments.
“Depends. After I go up with each of your flights, we’re going to start learning my system. Whoever learns the new system the best will be my leads.”
A few of them rolled their eyes and looked down at their plates. Pilots hated learning new systems and these kids were no different. But it was clear to me that their system was only one of many things that needed to change around here.
“Look, this unit has the worst combat record in the Fleet. You guys go on daily missions and come back empty handed, sometimes never even engaging the enemy. When you do get in a furball, you wind up losing half your ships to the enemy. That’s unacceptable. We need to change all that and it won’t come easy.”
I clearly had their attention now. I took a bite of the horrible food and chewed it while I waited for someone to reply. It was Choke.
“The enemy has the advantage here Commander. They outnumber us three to one and their KiVs are better than our birds. It’s hard to engage them with those odds.”
“Bull shit! That’s what I call a target rich environment. You three should all be multiple aces by now. Under my new system, you will be.”
I could see the doubt on their faces. It was like telling a sports team with a losing record that they could turn their season around and start winning again after suffering multiple losing seasons. When a unit has been down long enough, the individuals start to lose confidence in the unit and themselves.
“What are you going to change Commander, because that’s a pretty bold statement,” Katya asked.
“Everything,” I said.
They all looked at me like I had just promised something impossible or that I was some kind of mental patient.
“Starting with flying basics and moving on to formations and tactics. We’re going to make some noise on this beach ball planet and the enemy’s not going to know what the hell hit them.”
A few eyebrows lifted and I could see Choke starting to get an excited glint in his blue eyes. The others were slower to react so I continued.
“The Swift is big and heavy. Normally it’s crazy to engage a KiV in lateral turns or to climb with it. They’re just going to fly you into the drink if you let them. You have to make the enemy fight on your conditions. You have to use the strengths of your own fighter and impose your will on them,” I said.
Katya shook her head. “How do we do that with these jugs,” she said, motioning towards the flight line.
I stood up and moved to the board. Picking up a marker I started drawing a standard three ship formation using triangles. “First of all you can’t use standard Fleet formations. This ain’t deep space, this is near one g atmo. We need to adapt our methods to the environment we’re in. From now on we’ll fly in pairs. A lead and a wingman. We only care about engaging one KiV at a time and always in pairs.” I erased the third triangle.
Skip raised his hand. “Go,” I said.
“So how’s that work then? I mean, I don’t get how you can be more efficient with only two ships.”
“Good question. This only works if you have the advantage in altitude. I don’t care if we have to start in the black and work our way down, we will always have the advantage if we have the high ground to start the fight. The Swift is a damn brick. The only thing it excels at is falling out of the sky, am I right?”
Everyone laughed and agreed with that statement.
“So use that to your advantage. If you start high then you have to come down on them and while you’re falling like a rock, they can only go side to side to evade you. They can’t climb fast enough to get behind you and you can always out maneuver them left and right as long as you have your height.” I used my hands to simulate the possible outcomes with my right hand high and left low. I could see their faces lighting up it was beginning to sink in.