Authors: Ken McConnell
“Freaking payback, that’s why.”
I narrowed my eyes and twitched.
That wasn’t it.
“That’s not why. It’s something else isn’t it?” I countered.
She stared back at me with a blank look that soon gave way to biting her lower lip.
“I want that Blue Bastard. Always have.”
She looked back at me with disgust. As if I should already know the answer to my question.
“Because he’s the best they have on this puddle. Because if I bag his ass I can write my orders out of this hell hole and back to the Fleet.”
Ah, so that was it. She’s trying to get out of there. Now I get her.
“You think Fleet will give a shit if that pilot is shot down? Some enemy ace on Kew has been shot down. Didn’t you ever wonder what he was doing here if he was really all that good?”
She stammered a bit and then resignedly said, “Shit.”
I handed her back the bottle. It really wasn’t that big of a deal killing an ace on a backwater world that nobody cared about.
She took a long drink and curled her dark brow in thought.
“What if this theater is nothing but a training ground and he is the head instructor?”
I stared at her doubtfully.
“He’s a good pilot, Devon. I’ve tangled with him twice and he always dictated the fight. I couldn’t get one shot against him. Now that he’s got some kind of fancy new fighter, he’s going to be that much harder to nail.”
I still wasn’t convinced and shook my head slowly.
She leaned in over the table and lowered her voice. Her black eyes impenetrable.
“I’m going to kill that bastard before I leave this planet. Or die trying.”
She stood up and turned to leave.
“Lieutenant. You’d better not take your shot. Because if you do, I’ll see to it that you never fly again.”
She paused for a moment and then left, slamming the wooden door behind her.
I took another sip from the bottle and sighed. I still hadn’t lost my touch with people.
Before heading back to my quarters I wrote three dispatches to the families of the pilots I lost. I let them know how brave their sons were and how sorry I was for their loss. It was the worst part of being in command. I’d been fortunate up until now at having had to write only one such letter for Phoenix. As I sent the dispatches I wondered how many more I would be sending in the days to come.
The morning mission was not intended to be a revenge killing, but I knew that’s what was on everyone’s mind, especially Katya’s. I let her lead to test her ability to control herself. If she went solo trying to get the Red Ace, it would be her last flight. I was reasonably sure she would stick to the mission plan. I kept the mission simple and instructed everyone to keep their eyes open and look for any weakness they could find in the new enemy fighters.
As for tactics, I told them to fly like they do when they go against each other in training. Assume the new fighter handles similar to their own fighters only better. The new fighter appeared to have a tighter turn radius and was faster, they needed to compensate for that fact when they tangled with them.
I could see in their eyes that they were scared again. As much as everyone was out for blood, they also looked as if I were sending them off to slaughter. Any of them could close their canopies for the final time. I wanted to go with them but I couldn’t risk my own life and leave the unit leaderless.
My preflight speech was more of a pep rally than instructional. I needed to make sure they didn’t come apart up there at the first taste of combat. They had to maintain the fierceness that had made them so good these past few months. As I watched them gather their gear and head to the flight line, I wondered how many would come back. I hadn’t even considered that before now.
Karvuk and Sweetness would be the leads, with Condor and Double as their wingmen. I hesitated to send up Sweetness again so soon, but she was our most experienced pilot against the new fighters. I felt they had a better chance with her along. She seemed up to the task and even eager to get back in the fray. That was a hopeful sign.
All the off duty pilots gathered in Ops to listen to the mission on the comms. I stayed in my office until they reached the enemy airbase, occupying myself with trying to figure out new tactics. Nothing was coming to me.
I checked my messages hoping for guidance from Fleet. There was only a message received notice, no official response. I contacted the base Comm Squadron and asked if there were any issues receiving messages from Fleet. They assured me that the communications lanes were open.
A knock at my door was Hank.
“Ma’am, they’re almost to their target now.”
I nodded and got up to join everyone in the main room.
The fighter telemetry was displayed on the main viewer as blue icons representing the Alpha Flight. There were no red icons on the map, but that wasn’t unusual and was mainly due to our poor scanner data of the planet.
They buzzed the airbase low, searching for parked enemy aircraft and only found a dozen or so KiV-3’s parked in their revetments. A second pass brought ground to air fire from the base defenses and made their attack more difficult. Karvuk and Condor circled higher up, waiting to be pounced on by fighters on patrol. But they encountered nobody. After several passes and at least six fighters confirmed destroyed on the ground they formed up and headed for home.
“Control, Alpha Lead. No joy on the new fighters,” Katya’s voice sounded defeated.
“Copy, Alpha Lead.”
I went to the paper map that was pinned to another wall and ran my fingers over the island chain where they had just been. There were no other bases within reach to house the new fighters.
Where the hell had they come from
I opened up my sweep to a few more hundred klicks and found another, smaller atoll. The islands were uninhabited and barely above sea level. I moved to the main screen and pushed around menus until I opened the latest images we had of the atoll. There were about seven smaller islands and two larger ones. I zeroed in on the larger ones. One of them had what looked like a natural cave entrance that was large enough to store fighters.
I grabbed the mic. “Alpha Lead, this is Rocket One. Change course heading 270. I want you to do a pass on the Ring Atoll. Copy?”
There was a pause as she no doubt was searching her navicomputer for the coordinates.
“Alpha Lead, Rocket One. Wilco.”
Seconds later they were all on course for the atoll, climbing to combat altitude. Everyone sat on the edge of their seats or stood leaning into the comm system to listen. Minutes ticked by as we waited for Karvuk to report in what they saw. As the icons got closer to the atoll the comm lines crackled.
“Holy shit, we kicked the hornet’s nest!”
“Tally ho!” said Sweetness.
New icons emerged as the combat computer was updated with current telemetry from the Swifts. Three, then six and finally nine enemy fighters poured out of the cave from the main island. It seemingly took them mere seconds to gain altitude and meet Alpha Flight. Alpha were outnumbered and they had lost the element of surprise.
“Alpha Lead, break off and disengage. Copy?” I said into the mic.
A burst of static was the only reply. Followed by excited chatter from Condor, Double and Karvuk. It sounded like they were able to gang up on the first wave of fighters and were close to splashing one. Seconds ticked by again. An eternity.
Finally. “I got one! Splash one of those bastards,” Condor said.
A cheer broke out from the other pilots and was quickly quieted when more chatter crackled over the speaker.
“Double, break right and come up. I’ve got your six,” Karvuk said.
“Negative Lead, I’m losing pressure and speed.”
“Double pull up and stall it, I got him.”
One of the blue icons winked off, followed by another red icon. Nobody cheered that time.
“Sweetness, I can’t get around him. Where are you?” said Double.
“Other side, back at you.”
Another red icon winked off.
“This is Lead, break off. Repeat, disengage. We’re out numbered up here.”
“Copy Lead,” said Sweetness.
“On your wing Lead,” said Condor.
“Control this is Alpha Lead. State twenty to splash. Lost Double.”
“Alpha Lead, Control. Enemy status?”
“They are breaking off too. Looks like they’re heading back to the main base,” Karvuk said. You could hear the defeat in her voice, or was it disappointment?
I walked over to the status board and crossed off Double’s name. Then I went back to my room. The other pilots spoke in hushed tones about losing Double. I couldn't face them right now.
* * *
After the debriefing I sat in my office alone again. Still pondering what to do tactically. Sure, I had correctly guessed their hidden base, and our pilots had gotten their first kills, but I was still looking for the edge we needed against the new enemy fighter. The pilots were beginning to call it a Fiver, for KiV-5. But there was still no word from Fleet about what to call it or even an acknowledgment that we were fighting something new.
My door swung open unannounced and the Base Commander walked it. I stood at attention and saluted. He returned my salute and put me at ease. I remained standing.
“Ardel, what the hell’s going on up there? We’ve lost four birds in the span of two days. Now my base is on constant alert for retaliation bombing.”
“Sir, we’ve encountered a new enemy fighter. It’s not like the regular KiVs we’ve been battling before. It’s faster, more maneuverable and it’s killing my people. I’ve got no guidance from Fleet on this. I’m having to work out tactics alone here. It’s going to take some time to figure out how to counter this.”
“We don’t have time, Commander. We don't have great reserves of pilots or support crews. It takes Fleet about four months to replace KIAs and even longer to give us new birds.”
I interrupted him. “I know that, sir.”
He stuck out his jaw and looked down at me from his bird-like nose.
“You better get this figured out fast, or I’m going to be camping out in your office demanding status reports. Understand?”
He glared at me and turned to leave. Stopping at the door he looked back and said, “Get with Chief Hawkins, he has something he wants to show you. It might help you figure out something.” His voice was still commanding, but less harsh.
“Aye, sir,” I said.
After he left I collapsed back into my chair and looked over at the updated 3D model of the new enemy fighter. Katya and Sweetness had gotten some good images of the fighter and the new model showed much more detail. I moved it closer and turned it over several times. There were two square protrusions from the back of the wing root, flanking the single engine. Sometimes they glowed but most of the time they were the same color as the rest of the ship, a dark sea gray.
What were they for and what did they do?
I picked up my display pad and ran the gun camera video from today’s sortie. There was a moment right before Katya’s victim was destroyed when one of those panels had glowed. I backed up the footage and slowed it down. Ran it forward and backwards several times. The forward path of the fighter was altered after the panel flashed.
What the hell was happening?
I went back to my 3D image and turned it around again, focusing on the trailing edge of the wing. It was angled forward unlike the trailing edge of a Three. In fact the angle was pretty noticeable now that I focuses on it.
Why? Why would the engineers angle the wing forward but only in the back?
The end result was less wingspan near the tip of the wing. Probably had to do with reducing the weight.
Spinning the 3D image around to view the bottom, I focused on the new, under fuselage canons. They were mounted at the wing root and had a box terminating the barrels. Details were unclear for the bottom in general. But when I traced a line from the end of the canons to the trailing edge I found those odd square panels that faced backwards. I wondered if they were related.
Times like this I wished that I had better technical knowledge of airframe design. Then I remembered who had that kind of expertise - Chief Hawkins.
* * *
The maintenance hangar was bustling with activity when I walked into the main bay. There were three Swifts parked inside under various stages of repair and inspection. Starfighters were sent to Phase One inspections every one hundred combat hours and after every mission were sent to the hangar for repairs as needed. Katya’s light colored bird was having repairs made to the damage on it’s port wing. I walked up to it and ran my fingers over the holes created by the new enemy fighter’s guns.
They were larger than usual and she was lucky that only one had found purchase in the tip of her wing and missed a fuel tank or anything too vital. Well, except for one of her wing guns that had to be removed and replaced.
“Welcome to my home, Commander,” Chief Hawkins said in his deep, fatherly voice.
“The CC told me you wanted to chat about something?” I asked.
He led me over to the back end of Katya’s fighter and motioned to the huge hole in the trailing edge where the flaps attached. You could see the top of the hangar rafters through it, it was so large.
“What the hell made that?”
“Those new fighters are packing some big heat. She was lucky it missed the controls and the coolant tanks. I imagine she had to set her down a bit harder without a second barn door to slow it down.”
I examined the damage a bit closer. The metal was melted smooth like the barrel of a projectile weapon. I’d never seen anything like it before. Usually the aluminum and composite material of a fighter was jagged and torn from combat rounds.
“That smooth, melted hole can only mean one thing. They’re using maser cannons now. We don’t have anything that can stop that. Our shields are only good for standard rounds and heaters.”
I looked back at him and noticed the concern in his eyes. He took me away from his troops into an area behind some ground equipment.