Authors: Ken McConnell
Kew had a handful of tactical satellites with limited real-time data and no support staff with access to deep scans.
Did I mention that I missed the Fleet? Never thought I’d say that
. Who could have imagined that I would actually prefer being in a metal can instead on a planet? Well, that’s not exactly true, I much preferred being on a planet, even if it was hot and humid and the food was barely edible. But man, what I’d give for a decent Combat Information Center with good intelligence.
The second mission was further from home and more aggressive. The target this time was a scanning post on top of a volcano near the planet’s equator. The largest island chain was occupied by the Votainions and they had eyes atop the volcano that alerted them to our presence. If we were ever going to have success against the enemy, we needed him to be blinded pretty good. Taking out this post would see to it that he would never know when we were coming. Of course anything we took out would eventually be replaced, just not very quickly on this remote planet.
It would be an air to ground attack by Choke’s flight. Katya’s flight would provide air cover for the operation and handle any KiVs sent up to dissuade us. I was assured by everyone that Katya’s flight would have its hands full. There were two good sized enemy squadrons based at that end of the island chain.
Katya’s flight would come in high and draw off the fighters and then Choke’s birds would sweep in low off the water and take out the objective. There was about a ten minute window between their attacks. In the event that Choke’s planes failed to get the target on their first pass, Katya’s planes were to make one pass as they headed out for home. Nobody was to linger in the area and mix it up with the KiVs: Get in and get out. The simpler your war plan, the less chance of it falling apart when it meets the enemy.
I took my position on the flight line at control and watched the Swifts take off. They were possibly the loudest damn fighters in the inventory. Spending the last few years of the war in space, I was not used to hearing starfighter engines. Someone noticed my exposed ears and handed me hearing protection. I thanked them.
The flight was to maintain comm silence until they engaged the enemy, so the first hour of the mission was quiet, too damn quiet for me. I kept imagining all kinds of things happening that would either scrub the mission or result in more lost fighters. One of the controllers tapped my shoulder and pointed to something in the air at about ten o’clock to the north. He handed me his pair of spotter glasses.
I looked to the area where he pointed and saw several ships coming in with a standard V formation. But they didn’t look like KiVs. As they lumbered closer I realized they were birds. Not your average sized sea gull either, these beasties had a wingspan greater than a starfighter.
“What the hell are those?” I asked.
“Kellers, ma’am. We call them dragons but they aren’t really reptiles, just big freaking birds. In the summer months they migrate from the northern latitudes to the equatorial region. Feed on small fish mostly,” the controller said. His name was Torin and he took back his glass to watch them himself.
“Do they bother the Swifts at all?”
He shook his head as he watched them. Eventually they flew right over the island, casting shadows across the flight line.
The Kellers were white on the bottom and sea gray on top, just like the camouflage on the Swifts and to some extent on the KiVs. Torin informed me that both sides modeled their camo patterns on the Kellers of Kew.
Static from the comms interrupted our bird watching.
“Alpha Lead, we have company folks. Victor, Victor. Six contacts coming up, we’re engaging.”
No word from Choke, Bravo Lead. Presumably he was focusing on taking out the scanner post. Minutes ticked away like hours. Finally Choke’s deeper voice boomed over the comm.
“Bravo Lead, target destroyed. Say your state?”
“Bravo dash two, state, two plus six zero to splash.”
“Bravo three, state, two plus six zero to splash.”
“Bravo four, state, two plus six zero to splash.”
I exhaled in relief. Nobody was damaged and they were all coming home with sixty minutes of fuel remaining. My attention switched to Katya’s flight. As if on cue they started chattering about their furball.
“Katya, come around to my three, I got him,” said her wingman.
A few unnerving seconds passed in which I traded worried glances with Sergeant Torin.
“Alpha Dash Two, splash one.”
“Nice job Two. Alpha Flight form up and head home,” Katya’s voice said.
A few minutes later they all reported in their state and again, nobody had any problems that would prevent them from returning successfully. I left the control shack and headed back to Ops. I had to make sure the second mission of the day was ready to go. Telemetry from the first mission would be streaming in as they headed back to base. My mission planning software would update in real time and I monitored it to make sure the second mission had what it needed.
* * *
The second mission would take full advantage of the destroyed scanning post and hit the main air base on the island with an intensive air to ground assault. As far back as basic officers school we are told to use the equipment we had in the most efficient manner when planning offensive missions. If your best planes were ground pounders, then plan accordingly. In this case, the Swifts were much better at hitting ground based targets then mixing it up with KiVs in a furball. The fact that the previous commander had used it as a fighter and not an attack weapon was probably more a product of his ego and Fleet mentality than anything. It simply wasn’t sexy hitting ground targets. Fleet pilots were air to air or air to space fighters, not ground pounders.
I never thought of trying to kill anyone as being sexy. It was a horrific crime outside of war. The only thing that made it tolerable for me was the fact that we were at war. I never let the desire to win blind me to what I was actually doing. Killing. Sure they were not the same as me, they were not even human, but they were living beings. Had we not been at war, I would have treated them with the utmost respect that any sentient life commanded.
Of course I didn’t start the war thinking like that. After Hap was killed before my eyes I became blinded by revenge and hatred for the enemy. My first several years in the military were spent trying to avenge her death by killing as many Votainions as I could. I was ruthless and I was deadly. Sometimes I went too far and crossed over the line to murdering them. But I had to live with my mistakes and that turned out to be more than I could handle. As a result I suffered nightmares that robbed me of sleep and tormented my days.
Mental disabilities would ground a pilot faster than she could check her six. So I kept my pain inside and never reported it. I’m quite certain that one day I won’t be able to deal with that anguish in a proper manner and it will be the end of me. But until then, I will carry on alone in my struggle to maintain my sanity. It helps to occupy myself with positions of leadership. Being in command forces me to think of others instead of myself. This keeps my own demons at bay and focuses me. Otherwise I’d be sitting in a mental hospital right now. Or worse.
After the first mission landed and the pilots were debriefed I gathered in Ops with the second mission’s pilots and started their briefing. It was not as long as the first one, everyone in the single flight would be hitting ground targets and then turning tail for home. If we were successful, the enemy would be on edge and wondering when the next attack would come and that would cause them to increase patrols to defend themselves. This is what I wanted. More opportunities to take them down in their own backyard instead of fighting them in our yard.
I lead the second attack with Sweetness as my wingman. She was just as aggressive in the air as she was in the weight room. By the time our flight was finished the enemy base looked like it was completely on fire. We destroyed hangers, fuel dumps and about half a dozen KiVs on the ground. According to our Intel, not all the KiVs were at the base, which meant they were airborne and probably looking for us.
Sure enough, as we headed back home and regained our altitude we encountered them coming at us.
There were six of them and only four of us. We didn’t have the element of surprise because it looked like they were expecting us judging by their aggressive stance. We were engaging before anyone could get set. Sweetness stayed on my wing as I engaged the first set of three enemy fighters. They immediately tried to turn with us but we didn’t play their game, we played
game and tore through them with guns blazing. In a matter of seconds I had downed two of them and Sweetness bagged the third while protecting my tail. Comm chatter informed me that the second element of our flight was also successful in splashing one before the remaining two turned tail for home. We formed back up and continued home ourselves. Our fuel was getting low but we would make it back before going dry.
After our debriefing in Ops we all headed to chow. Conversations were animated with hand gestures and much enthusiasm. It was like a proper fighter squadron after a successful day of missions. I sat away from the others and just watched them all carrying on with such gleeful energy. There was a sense of accomplishment and pride in their abilities and it showed. Even the ground crews were more talkative, bragging about how their birds performed or how they had survived punishing anti-aircraft fire and still brought their pilots home.
Commander Brinkman sat down next to me with his tray. I didn’t hear anyone call the room to attention and he motioned for me not to. He smelled of bitter cologne and tobacco as he glanced at me with gentle gray eyes.
“Thanks,” he said, motioning to the room with a hand gesture.
“You’ve turned this unit around in a week. I’ve never seen them this excited before.”
I tried to repress a smile but failed.
“It’s what happens when you get their confidence back, sir. The hard part is going to be maintaining it going forward,” I said.
He looked around the room with a the pride of a commanding officer. “Somehow I don’t think you will have any trouble with that, Devon.”
I wasn’t surprised he used my first name, but it was unusual. Probably second nature for him as much as for everyone else here. I decided to take advantage of the situation and ask him for something in return.
“Sir, the pilots are going to have a call sign naming ceremony tonight. Things could get out of hand a bit. I wanted to let you know ahead of time so your security forces were aware of it.”
He looked back and me and his smile faded away. I thought he was going to nix it right then and there.
“Whatever you need to do to keep this going, do it. I have a high degree of tolerance for my people’s indiscretions when they perform their jobs this well. Just keep it confined to the hooch shack and don’t let anyone get hurt.”
His face loosened into a knowing grin.
I smiled and then said, “Yes, sir.”
Call sign naming ceremonies go way, way back. They can get pretty out of hand if left unsupervised. I gathered the flight leads in my office and lectured them on what I would allow and what I would not. Drinking till drunk, encouraged. Becoming a belligerent drunk, discouraged. Group consensus in naming, encouraged. Inappropriate names, discouraged. Leaving the hooch to wander drunkenly across the base and disturbing the peace, discouraged. Keeping the party confined and not requiring security personnel to settle disputes, encouraged. I finished by holding them personally responsible for anything that happens during the festivities. If anyone winds up in the brig or hurt, they won’t be flying anytime soon and their personnel records will reflect. I felt like the biggest bitch of the universe, but I knew they understood where I was coming from.
There were three pilots in need of a call sign and they had begun their bribery period early in the week. Newbie pilots to a flying squadron typically didn’t keep their old call signs but instead would be given a new one by their leads or myself. Your call sign usually came from some incident, either good or bad that happened to you in your first several weeks with the squadron. Pilots wore their acquired call signs on their flight suits instead of their real names. Everyone called them by the call sign and never by their names. If you came with your prior call sign on your uniform, that was considered bad form and you would be ridiculed for it. Not many pilots made that mistake especially if they saw someone else in the unit do it. Nobody wants the humiliation.
You could petition to keep your former call sign, but most opted to get a new one, especially if their old one was bad. Bribes were the traditional way to keep your old call sign and to make sure you got a good new one. Usually bribes were in the form of alcohol or food that was rationed, like chocolate or anything that tasted better than what the chow hut served. Personally, I preferred booze. However, if the food item was interesting enough, I could be swayed by it.
So far I’d received plenty of beer offerings and at least one good whiskey bottle. This was most promising. The savvy pilot would purchase enough bribery materials to ship with him to a new base. Most forgot about it and wound up scrambling to make offers with what was at hand, already behind the curve.
Naming parties were the highlight of your social calendar no matter where you were serving. The more remote the assignment, the crazier they got. Considering where I was, I fully anticipated security police intervention, puking, broken furniture and probably a few unintended sexual encounters. It was pretty much expected, if not condoned. But if I didn’t spell out what I expected in terms of behavior, things would easily escalate past even these.
Pilots started filling the hootch shack a few hours after dark. It was another balmy night in paradise and few of them wore unmodified flight suits. Sweaty skin and alcohol was not a good mix, especially amongst horny young pilots. I wondered how many of them would be hooking up with people they might not have looked sideways at when sober.