Authors: Ken McConnell
In return for their loyalty and hard work, I made sure Supply kept the liquor stocked and that once a week we celebrated our successes with a Roll Call. Roll Calls were another long time tradition amongst fighter pilots. At the end of the week we would get together and celebrate the week’s victories with drink, food and story. They were like call sign naming ceremonies but less crazy and more reflective.
As a part of my Roll Calls I always included someone from the Maintenance Squadron to recognize their contributions to our fighting record. We wouldn’t be the aces we were without their efforts to keep our birds in the air. Sometimes we came back with our steeds all shot to hell and inevitably, twenty four hours later the same birds would be back in service, ready for action again. How they managed to do that was always a mystery to me and my pilots. As much as I tried to understand their profession, it was often times a complete mystery to me. But then, I reckon that punching holes in the sky was equally mysterious to them.
The Maintenance Squadron Commander was Major Chip Thorn. A maintainer his entire career, he was well versed in the needs of his people. He and I didn’t get along too good on most occasions and I never understood why. Perhaps it was due to the remoteness of Kew and how hard it was to get supplies or perhaps he just had it in for pilots in general, but I never could get him to agree to come to our Roll Calls. So I stopped trying and instead invited his Chief.
Now, Chief Chet Hawkins was a man I could respect and we got along famously. Especially if I managed to sneak him a bottle of his favorite whiskey every once and a while. I never got any static from him about how impossible it was to repair our Swifts. Whenever our pilots mistreated his birds he would always be direct with me and I’d solve the issue on my side. We got to know each other quite well over drinks at the hooch. We both liked to unwind after a long day by swapping stories about the kids under our command. I thought fighter pilots were hard to manage but he had incredible patience to deal with his enlisted kids. Truth be told they were all like his family to him. His real family was grown up and moved away and it was just him and his wife Claire back at the homestead on Selene.
He didn’t talk much about himself and neither did I, but I could tell he missed her and his home. He owned a ranch with a few hundred head of cattle and a good bit of land out west. Listening to him talk about ranch life reminded me of my days on Ocherva where most of the population were ranchers. Something about people who make their living off the land, makes them more grounded than those who don’t. I suppose as someone who makes her living flying around in air and space, I yearned to be more grounded.
Late one afternoon between sorties I was sitting under a palm tree overlooking the only beach where we were allowed to swim. I was wearing as little clothing as possible, having just taken a dip in the warm waves. A wrap around my waist and a simple tank top sufficed for my afternoon break. I had plenty of water nearby and drank my required amount, but mostly I was just listening to the waves crash and watching the palm fronds waving in the breeze.
“Is this spot taken or may I join you?”
I looked up to see Chief Hawkins standing over me. He was wearing his work clothes, drenched in oil and sweat and carrying his own water.
I sat up and pulled my wrap down to ensure I had enough coverage to be decent.
“Pull up a patch of sand, Chief,” I said.
He plopped down beside me in the shade and took a long drink from his water bottle. It looked to me like he wanted to talk about something but wasn’t sure how to breach it.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
He stared out at the waves and sighed.
“My rotation’s about up. Be going back to Selene soon.”
He didn’t seem too enthused about it. Not like a normal person would be. Hell, if I were a month short I’d be hard pressed to concentrate on anything.
He continued to stare at the beach and remained silent. I decided not to press him and did the same. Finally, after a few more minutes of silence he spoke.
“The boys at Ops have been hearing rumors that the Red Ace is back on station.”
I didn’t expect that. I waited for him to continue.
“Mainly a bunch of scattered Intel about a new shipment of KiVs from the homeland. Sounds like they are just replacing the ones you guys have been taking out. But every time the enemy even so much as farts our Intel guys get all jittery. You weren’t here the last time the Blue Bastard was flying, but it was not fun. I lost almost as many people to his attacks as we lost pilots. Probably more.”
I took it all in and acted like he was just talking about home or something. I refused to be intimidated by enemy movements or legends.
“I know you’re not the type of person to be intimidated by the enemy, but I’m here to tell you that you should be.”
He looked right at me and his eyes bored into my soul. I felt a chill even though the temperature was in the nineties.
“Look, Chief. My folks can handle one hot-shot enemy pilot. We’re better trained and better equipped now than we’ve ever been. If the Red Ace is back, bring him on. My people can take him out.”
He shook his head in resignation and took another drink of his water.
“I wish I had your confidence, ma'am.”
I stood up and brushed the sand off my legs. The afternoon sortie would be returning soon and I had to get back and change. I offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet. Still holding his rough textured hand in mine I looked up into his gray eyes.
“You just keep those birds flying and we’ll protect the base. Okay?”
He gradually let out a grin and shook his head as he let go of my hand and we walked back to the main base. As we came along the edge of the tarmac on the wooden sidewalk I could see several Swift's approaching from the sea. One of them was trailing smoke. I glanced at Chief who grunted and trotted off towards the maintenance hangar.
The base alarm went off indicating possible air raid. I started to jog to the Ops shack as I saw the alert pilots scrambling. Inside Ops Karvuk was standing before the alert board, listening to air traffic control. She motioned for me to come over and pointed at the board.
“Bravo Flight returning all shot up. Lost two with a third coming in on fire.”
“Who’d we lose?” I asked.
“Unknown, I think it’s Stoker on fire,” Karvuk guessed.
I rushed into my office and quickly threw on my flight suit. Karvuk shouted so I could hear. “It’s Hilltop on fire, we lost Stoker and Skip!”
I swore as I zipped up and headed back outside to watch the approach. Karvuk joined me, shielding her eyes with her hand.
Hilltop’s Swift was charred on one side with multiple holes in the fuselage and wing. It came in low and feathered back for a hard touch down that snapped one of his skids. The heavy starfighter hit the tarmac and the landing struts crushed under the weight. Rescue crews directed foam on the fire as his canopy was blown off. In seconds they had him out of the cockpit and dragged away from the burning wreck. Sweetness circled wide and came down closer to the flight line. She pushed up her canopy and scrambled to the tarmac just as two enemy KiV’s buzzed the base.
Everyone dove for cover except for me. I stood there staring at the enemy fighters as they thundered over my head.
Those were not KiVs
. In seconds the Alert birds attacked on the far side of our island. You could hear the sounds of screaming Swift engines and the pulsing throb of KiVs.
Except those were not KiVs. What the hell were they?
I hadn’t gotten a good enough look at them to know for sure but I didn’t see any openings in their wings. All KiVs had cutout areas in their wings. But those dark fighters had no cut outs. The comms back in the Ops shack were blaring with pilots screaming at each other. Karvuk and I went back inside to listen to what was happening.
The Alert pilots were trying to attack as they were trained but the enemy fighters were getting behind them somehow. Sweetness burst into the room out of breath and sweating.
“Commander,” she said, catching her breath.
“Those things are new. Not threes. Something else.”
Seconds later we heard a boom from the far side of the island. Then we heard the report.
“Alert Two down, repeat Alert Two down.”
There was a long deadly silence and then another burst of static followed by, “Alert One, enemy retreating. No joy.”
I looked at Sweetness. She shook her head. “They were not Three’s! They could out climb us and outgun us,” she said. I could see the terror in her eyes.
“Okay, it’s over. Settle down and get some water. Karvuk, get an AIRCAP up and report back before engaging anything,” I said. Karvuk took off towards the pilot barracks.
I went back outside and headed over to the EMS shack that served as our only hospital. Hilltop was being tended to on a bed near the entrance. His arm and right leg were burned pretty badly but he was conscious.
I tried to stay out of the Doctor’s way but I had to know what he had encountered.
“What were they?” I asked.
Hilltop winced from the pain as they treated his burns. “They were airborne before we attacked. Never saw them until they hit us. They looked like KiVs, but they weren’t. Faster and more heavily armed. They took out Skip and Stoker before we could even engage. Sweetness and I bailed on them and high tailed it home. Those sons of bitches caught up to us and nearly finished me off. Sweetness distracted them by getting them to follow her. I don’t think she ever got a shot off at them.”
“How many of them were there?” I pressed.
“Two. Just two, dammit!”
I tried to calm him down and told him to rest and recover. As I was leaving he hollered out to me. “Commander. One of them new fighters was all red.”
I swallowed hard and left. The last thing I needed now was fear overcoming my pilots.
* * *
I spent the rest of the day in my office, pouring over the gun camera footage of the new Votainion fighter and all the tactical data from the flight computers of Hilltop and Sweetness. The computers pieced together the battle as best they could and filled in any details missed with logical extrapolation. No matter how you looked at it, we got our asses kicked and kicked hard. Not only did we lose three pilots in one fight, we lost all the battle hardened confidence I had worked so hard to instill in my pilots. With this Red Ace back in business, we were back to square one in more ways than one.
Images of the new fighter were intriguing. Under any other circumstance, I’d be chomping at the bit to get into a fight with one. But now was not the time for single combat heroics. Now was the time to learn all that I could about this new weapon in order to come up with some kind of attack plan to counter it. In the past month of combat, we had taken over the skies of Kew from the Votainions. I’m not going to brag about total air superiority, but we had that and more. We chose when and where to attack the enemy and we did so with such lethality it had begun to wear them down and make them think twice about engaging us. More often than not, we’d scare them away or shoot them down before they could run. Now the tables were turned. Now we were the ones on the run and they had the advantage.
The new fighter was impressive. I got that same sick feeling I had when I first battled the KiV in the skies over Ocherva. It was fast, dangerous looking and had insane maneuverability. I contacted Fleet Intel about the fighter and didn’t get a reply. I thought for sure a new enemy fighter would get their attention. But after several hours passed and I got no orders from them, I decided it was up to me to make a field decision on how to engage it.
I unzipped my flight suit and tied the arms around my waist. I still wore the tank top from my beach visit earlier in the day. Now long into the night, I hadn’t even had time to think about changing. A three dimensional facsimile of the fighter was projected in the air in front of me. I toyed with it using a finger to spin it around and examine its shape.
It had a long, pointed nose on a cylindrical body with a single exhaust port, just like every other KiV. But that’s where the similarities ended. The wings were more compact and thicker than a KiV-3. It also had more weapons. Two outside cannons seemed to be about the same as a Three but it also had a pair of smaller guns about mid wing and a larger, more deadly pair of canons tucked under the nose, just like our Swifts had. There was no cut out in the thicker wings and they had the same shape as a Swift’s wing, now that I looked at it again. It’s almost as if the Blueskins were copying our fighter design. Why would they do that? I’ve always considered their hardware superior to ours. It made no sense that they would try and copy our inferior designs.
Unless they thought the Swift was a better design because of our newly improved kill ratio. I thought about that for a while. We’d only been really effective for a couple of months. That wasn’t long enough to design a new KiV and field it. This fighter had been in the works for a while and for whatever reason, they had decided to deploy it here instead of in space. Perhaps it was tailored to fight in atmo and not the void. That was a more likely scenario.
In any case, we were going to have to find a way to defeat it on our own. Fleet had completely ignored my combat report. A knock on my door snapped me out of my thoughts.
“Enter,” I said.
Karvuk entered carrying a bottle of wine in her arms like a baby. She sat down opposite me and opened the bottle with her teeth. She offered it to me and I accepted. I took a long drink and handed it back to her. It was a cheap red wine of some unknown label.
She took a swig from it and handed it back.
“Freaking Blueskins. I hate the bastards,” she said, breaking the silence.
I raised the bottle to second her sentiment and then took another long drink.
“Commander, I volunteer to go after them tomorrow. I want to be Lead for the first mission.”
I sat back and held onto the bottle. “Why?”