[Shattered Skies Project] No Captain Can Do Wrong…
20/04/2011 in Original
Republican Warship Cavanta Bay
Type 3600 Frigate
Complement 358 officers and ratings
Four junior ratings almost flung themselves to either side of the dark, metallic passageway, still taking the time to stand to attention as Commander Marcus van der Mar paced urgently towards the Ops Room. The On Watch Principle Warfare Officer had ordered the ship to Action Stations – as Commanding Officer of the Cavanta Bay, van der Mar knew of no scheduled exercise or drills, which meant that Lieutenant Commander Ulrich and his team had found something potentially dangerous.
The Ops Room was a flurry of activity as van der Mar entered, ducking his head underneath the narrow opening of the airlock. The green lights of a dozen consoles flickered with inputs, causing shadows to dance along the dull metal walls behind their users. Ulrich sat at the On Watch PWO console, his fingers dancing across his input board as he scanned through a dozen different surveillance input modes on his main display monitor. Along the bulkhead to his left sat four compilators; ratings trained to collate, filter and interpret the various raw data feeds from the ship’s myriad of surveillance and detection devices. To the right were stationed the weapons control terminals; half a dozen stations from which the ship’s offensive capability could be managed.
“Sir,” Ulrich nodded, standing up as van der Mar walked over to him, “we’ve got two contacts on the sub-space scope, the other side of Beahdorah Prime.”
“Alliance subs?” van der Mar asked, swinging down into the CO’s command chair.
The Alliance, one of four human factions to have originated on earth, were particularly adept at using sub-space attack vessels for hit and run raids.
“Too big,” Ulrich replied, “far too big. We’re monitoring, but we’ve only got a forty per cent resolution at this range. The crafts’ dimensions don’t match anything on record. It’s definitely something new.”
“What sort of dimensions are we talking about?” van der Mar asked, sliding his own input board across his lap as a further six sailors arrived at the Ops Room main airlock to bolster the Duty Watch compliment.
“About twice the size of a dreadnaught, sir,” Ulrich replied hesitantly.
Van der Mar let out a breath. Twice the size of a Republican dreadnaught? Van der Mar had joined the Republican Navy straight from school at the tender age of eighteen, and in his sixteen years of service he had never encountered anything close to that size. Whatever was arriving through sub space on the other side of the planet the Cavanta Bay was orbiting was nearly two miles long. The two new arrivals were the largest ships ever detected. Van der Mar swore under his breath.
“Commander!” Petty Officer Rodriguez shouted across from the sub space picture compilator’s station, “a third vessel is appearing in sub space! It has the same dimensions and signature as the other two!”
Whatever the Alliance Navy was up to, whatever strategic value they had assigned to this remote planet on the very fringes of Republican space, the RWS Cavanta Bay had to do all it could to stop them. Van der Mar opened a comm. channel to the bridge of his warship.
“Officer of the Watch, this is the Captain,” Van der Mar called.
“Officer of the Watch,” Lieutenant Paget replied, her voice slightly distorted through the speaker on the internal comms box fitted into the arm of van der Mar’s chair.
The Commander allowed himself a smile: Paget was one of his most promising young officers, selected for training as a Navigation Officer at the end of this tour, she stood out from her peers at this early stage of her career. She was a good Officer of the Watch to have running the bridge team for a potential crisis. Still, Lieutenant Commander Goldstein, the ship’s Executive Officer, should be on his way up to the bridge to take charge during Action Stations.
“Officer of the Watch, get me one hundred klicks above Beahdorah Prime’s north pole, best speed. Get us in a position where you can get the most distortion off the sun’s radiation to give us a little bit of stealth.”
“Aye, sir,” Paget replied calmly.
“Holmes!” Van der Mar shouted across the room to his communications Yeoman, “get me a channel through to Sector Command. We need to alert every Republican ship in range that we’ve got a situation developing.”
Naval Sector Command HQ
“Excuse me, sir?”
Vice Admiral Peter Klause looked up from behind his view screen. Rays of morning sun forced their way through the gaps in the blinds over the windows, painting clinically precise stripes of light across the tanned wood of his vast desk. Lieutenant Felton stood at the door to his spacious, modern office on the top floor of the tall HQ building. Felton was tall, dark haired and beautiful, everything that an Admiral’s aide should be. His friends all had beautiful aides. It was fashionable.
“Yes, Rebecca?” Klause raised his brow, resting a thin finger on his narrow chin.
“Commodore Hullit has requested your presence in the Operations Room, sir,” Felton said seriously, “we’ve received communications from the Cavanta Bay. The Commodore says it’s urgent, sir.”
Klause nodded, dragging his thin frame up from behind his desk and following his aide out of his office. Whatever the problem was, Klause was in no doubt that the Cavanta Bay would be able to deal with it. He had promoted Marcus van der Mar himself and had supreme confidence in the man. Van der Mar would have made Captain by now and might even have a carrier or dreadnaught to play with instead of a little frigate, had he not wasted his time by prioritising his family life over the needs of the Service. Klause shook his head as the elevator doors closed in front of him. Too many promising officers wasted by demanding wives and children.
The doors opened again after a brief pause, admitting Klause into the tall ceilinged, sprawling Operations Room, home to fifty on duty personnel who sat at terminals around a huge, three dimensional projection of Sector 12, giving a digital display of every planet, trade route and military asset in the sector. Off on the very western fringe, the RWS Cavanta Bay orbited the remote planet of Beahdorah Prime, her ship’s company completely unaware of the significance of the planet they guarded.
“Admiral, sir,” Commodore Hullit almost broke into a jog as he moved his heavy frame over to Klause, beads of perspiration glistening on his balding scalp, “we have a situation at Beahdorah Prime. Three warships larger than anything we’ve got have just dropped out of sub space. They’ve engaged the Cavanta Bay.”
His temper flaring, Klause moved closer to the main projection.
“Zoom in!” he snapped to whoever was listening, “let me see what’s going on!”
The display cursor moved over Beahdorah Prime, zooming in half a dozen times before the planet dominated the entire projection. Three warships whose signatures were larger than anything the Admiral had ever seen dominated the far side of the planet, moving in fast towards the Republican world. A fraction of their size on the display, Commander van der Mar’s Cavanta Bay moved valiantly towards them, closing the gap between his frigate and the trio of gargantuan ships.
“Get me comms with the Cavanta Bay!” Klause shouted, knowing full well the implications of losing the planet to the Alliance.
“Audio only, Admiral,” a female voice replied from one of the communications terminals to Klause’s right, “channel is open.”
“Warship Cavanta Bay, this is Sector HQ,” Klause said urgently, his hands clasped behind his back as he paced back and forth in front of the display.
He could hear shouting in the background as a garbled message began to filter through the Ops Room’s loud speakers. Emergency klaxons blared through the transmission, threatening to make any further audio signal completely incomprehensible.
“HQ, this is Cavanta Bay…” a young voice replied after a considerable lag typical of long range transmissions.
“Cavanta Bay, this is Vice Admiral Klause,” Klause bellowed, “get me your Commanding Officer!”
“HQ, Cavanta Bay, request you authenticate, Sierra Papa Three Four…”
Before Klause’s temper allowed him to explode into a torrent of abuse against the young rating at the other end of the transmission for wasting his time with procedure, a familiar voice cut in over the network.
“HQ, this is Commander van der Mar.”
“Marcus!” Klause exhaled in relief, “what the hell is happening?”
“Three warships came out of subspace in our vicinity,” van der Mar replied, his voice tense, “I don’t know how the hell they did it, but they were using sub-light drives and travelling in sub-space simultaneously. We moved to intercept and came under fire almost immediately. They’re using energy weapons like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The signature was like the old laser weapons we abandoned twenty years ago, but these things actually work at range! First shot cut straight through our shields and took out my bridge.”
Klause clenched his fists as he listened to the warship’s commander. Sub-space drives were used by small, stealthy attack ships to stalk merchant convoys before making an attack. The technology utilised to make a ship actually hang in limbo, almost undetectable between two parallel universes could only be used on small ships. Yet, here was a fleet of three warships bigger than anything the Republic had, not only using sub-space drives but also travelling on sub-light drives: huge engines used to propel ships on long range navigation at speeds just below the speed of light. This technology combined was decades ahead of anything he Republic had. And then there was the energy weapons.
“Launch your shuttle!” Klause commanded, “I need a visual feed on these bastards!”
“Shuttle was launched six minutes ago, sir,” van der Mar replied, “we’ll get you that visual feed as soon as they’re in range. We’ll be in weapons range shortly.”
“Good! Good!” Klause snarled, “hit them with everything you’ve got!”
“Sir!” a Chief Petty Officer at the nearest surveillance console shouted across to the Admiral, “the lead ship, sir! It’s entered the upper atmosphere!”
“Fucking hell!” Klause growled, “they’re landing an invasion force. Get me comms with our closest carrier!”
Still pacing, Klause watched as the display of the Cavanta Bay registered another hit, showing hull breaches across three decks, midships port side. Almost immediately, the main turrets of the Republican frigate opened fire, backed up with a salvo of anti-ship missiles. All weapons were targeted on the lead enemy warship which had just entered Beahdorah Prime’s atmosphere.
“Admiral!” Commander van der Mar’s voice came through the speakers, “We’ve scored hits on the lead vessel. It shot our missiles out of space at close range, every one of them. But our main shells cut through its defences like paper. Scans show we’ve cracked open their hull and their breaking off their attack.”
“Good job, Marcus,” Klause finally sank down into his chair, “how’s the Cavanta Bay holding out?”
“Hull breaches on five decks, three major fires, all contained. We’ve got thirty eight dead and twenty five wounded. Shields are gone, but we’ve got main propulsion intact and main armament. Hang on… feed is coming through from the shuttle. Patching it through.”
After another frustrating delay, a sketchy, jumping camera feed appeared on the main display. The entire room fell silent. Three huge warships sat off the planet’s atmosphere, unlike anything Klause had seen. Whereas Republican warships were dark, angular, ugly and intimidating, these were sleek, pale white, beautiful ships bristling with comms aerials and weapons which were still somehow aesthetically perfect. Each ship was formed around a long, delicate conical hull with two smooth blisters running along the flanks and a series of bubble like turrets and superstructures along the top. They were not Alliance warships. They were something the Republic had never encountered before.
“They’re launching fighters,” van der Mar reported.
As if in confirmation, the valiant little shuttle’s screen suddenly cut out as the vulnerable craft was shot down. Klause let out a breath.
“Ok, you’ve done enough. Cavanta Bay, get the hell out of there. Get clear.”
“Understood, sir,” van der Mar replied.
“Admiral!” the surveillance Chief Petty Officer called for his attention again, “the second warship is entering the atmosphere.”
Klause jumped to his feet again. Craning his neck to look up at the display, he observed the warship’s trajectory. It was heading straight for Saspenta, the second largest city on the planet. Saspenta housed secrets in vaults deep beneath the city that only a few high ranking officers were even aware of. Secrets that could undermine the security of the entire Republic. Commodore Hullit exchanged a worried look with Klause. The Admiral nodded to the closest communicator to put him back in touch with van der Mar.
Klause quickly thought through his options. Allowing any enemy access to the facility beneath that city was simply unthinkable. He could try to send a signal to the facility, tell them to seal themselves in until further notice. Worst case, he could even order the facility to self destruct. No, there was another plan. Something he would one day have to account for, but a plan which, to Klause, was not as horrific as perhaps it should have been, once he gave the command aloud.
“Warship Cavanta Bay,” Klause said with a heavy heart, “initiate Plan Shattered Skies on your second hostile. How copied?”
“What?” Hullit exploded, “you can’t…”
“HQ, this is Cavanta Bay, say again?” van der Mar asked incredulously.
“Initiate Plan Shattered Skies,” Klause repeated, “immediately.”
“A nuclear strike!” Hullit shouted, “over a populated city?”
“One more word out of you and I’ll have you removed from your position!” Klause yelled, “stand down, Commodore!”
“Initiating Plan Shattered Skies,” van der Mar exhaled sorrowfully, “launching salvo in ten seconds.”
“Admiral!” The comms Chief tentatively turned to face Klause, “I’ve got comms with the closest carrier. RWS Indomitable, she’s eight hours away on convoy escort duty.”
“Good, good!” Klause nodded, “break off from the convoy! Tell Indom to leave a couple of frigates with the the convoy and make best speed for the Cavanta Bay. Marcus, help is on the way, get the hell out of there. Get clear.”
“Copied,” van der Mar replied, “nuclear strike initiated. Breaking off the action.”
Embarked Carrier Wing Main Briefing Room
Republican Warship Indomitable
Citadel Class Fleet Carrier
Complement 5622 officers and ratings
Commander Sergei Denisov glanced down at his fashionable, archaic aircrew wrist watch and then at the four aviators who waited on the front row of seats in the darkened briefing room. Everybody who needed to be there was present, but there was no point in briefing earlier than the promulgated timing. Standards were important to Denisov, and he did not like things rushed. Strictly on time would do nicely.
The Indomitable had altered course and was now making best speed towards Beahdorah Prime, together with a battle cruiser and six destroyers. As Commander (Air), or “Wings” as the position was colloquially known, Denisov was in charge of all airborne and spaceborne aviation onboard the carrier, answerable only to the Captain. He glanced down at the four squadron Commanding officers who sat in front of him. For the job in hand, Denisov wished he had more than a mere four squadrons embarked. The carrier could deal with more than twice that amount.
The most senior squadron boss was Lieutenant Commander Hans Dressel. A broad man with thick, silver hair, Dressel had joined the navy at 16 as a mechanical engineer; three years later he was selected for aircrewman training and sent to torpedo bombers as a turret gunner. Five years after that he was commissioned as an officer and became an observer, swiftly becoming promoted and selected for command of the 237th (Torpedo Bomber) squadron.
Next to him sat Lieutenant Commander Richard Ryan, a slightly short and slightly bulbous pilot with wavy, dark hair and an optimistic attitude. Ryan had been an ageing lieutenant on 265 Squadron back when Denisov had been in command, giving them a good couple of years of history together. Seemingly one to cruise through life, Ryan had only been promoted to Lieutenant Commander at the age of 40, and was now commanding officer of the 262nd (Dive Bomber) squadron purely by virtue of being one of the most senior bomber pilots in the navy, not through any particular ability to command.
Sat front and centre, uniform and hair immaculate, was Lieutenant Commander Henry Kowalaski. Tall, thin, serious, and ruthless in his pursuit of promotion, Kowalaski was an officer of very great professional ability and very little interpersonal skills. Already pushing for a PWO job on his next tour to give him experience in the Ops Room of a warship, he was now an observer and commander of the 408th (Surveillance) squadron.
Sat at the far end of the row was the youngest of the squadron bosses, Lieutenant Commander Elle Lacroix. With blue eyes and short, blonde hair she possessed an incomparable beauty which the navy had exploited by using her as a recruitment poster girl – literally. But just as the navy exploited her looks, so did she – a squadron boss at the age of 27, she had allegedly slept with at least one officer on her promotion board and several senior officers since to further her career. She commanded the 101st (Fighter) squadron.
“The time is Zero Nine Hundred local,” Denisov stood up straight behind the lecturn to the left of the display screen, “let’s get started. The Indom and escorts have been diverted away from Convoy Golf Four Niner to head for Beahdorah Prime. Three warships on unknown origin have appeared in orbit and engaged the Cavanta Bay. The Cavanta Bay has succeeded in damaging one enemy warship, but has had to retreat with significant damage of her own. Of the remaining two ships, one entered the atmosphere over the city of Saspenta. The enemy warship decimated the entire city with nuclear weapons, civilian casualties are in their millions. Ground based defense were able to destroy this warship.”
“They nuked a city?” Dressel exclaimed, “an Alliance warship massacring civilians? That’s not like them.”
“They’re not Alliance,” Denisov said, “as I said, unknown origin. We don’t know who they are or where they’ve come from. The third ship has subsequently made planet fall and deployed ground forces. Initial reports are unconfirmed, but we’re looking at least Brigade sized with armour and air support.”
“Any information on these warships, sir?” Kowalaski asked, “anything from sensors?”
“Better than that, Henry,” Denisov replied, “the Cavanta Bay’s shuttle managed to get visual and send us some pictures. Unfortunately they put a fighter patrol up and we lost the shuttle.”
Knowing full well that in a community as comparatively small as naval aviation, at least one of the four officers in front of him would have known at least one of the shuttle’s crew, Denisov quickly brought up the footage of the huge, sleek, beautiful warships.”
“Bloody hell!” Dressel’s eyes widened, “they’re twice the size of a Fleet Carrier!”
“Approximately, yes,” Denisov confirmed, “they possess sub-space drives compatible with sub-light drives and energy weapons with a range and punch far superior to our own guns.”
“No way the Alliance could muster those things out of thin air,” Kowalaski scratched his jaw calmly, “we’ve encountered something entirely new.”
“So how are we supposed to go head to head with two ships twice our size?” Ryan exclaimed, “we’ve only got four squadrons and these bastards have come fully prepped for a fight!”
“They’re not carriers,” Kowalaski said calmly, “look, they have main turret armaments, vents for sub-light drives, we already know they’re here to deploy troops. Yes, they are very large warships but they’re cramming so much inside that their simply is not enough room left for anything more than a couple of squadrons.”
“Assuming they’re all the same,” Dressel grumbled, “only one warship has deployed troops, the other could be a slightly different design. That could be the one with twenty squadrons onboard.”
“Either way, we’re moving to engage,” Denisov held both hands up to silence his squadron commanders, “first priority is to get on scene and provide cover for Cavanta Bay. Then we need to get surveillance up and see what else we can find. Henry, get your guys ready for data gathering on the two remaining warships. Hans, Ryan, our strike priority is enemy ground forces, not the warships. Get your guys and girls ready for atmospheric ground strike sorties. Lacroix, the Cavanta Bay needs fighter cover as soon as we’re in area. Do you think you can at least get a couple of your fighter heroes to turn up on time for that?”
“Yes, sir,” Lacroix replied quietly.
“That’s all, then,” Denisov said, switching off the briefing screen, “let’s get to work.”
Black Flight pair
101st (Fighter) Squadron
2 x Astravia Fireflash FA1 Air/Space Supremacy Fighters
“Echo Three Alpha, this is Black One, just getting visual with you now.”
Rolling his aching neck against the seal of his uncomfortable, matt black space suit, Acting Lieutenant Alec Griffiths settled back into the seat of his Fireflash fighter, glancing across at his formation leader who drifted slightly ahead of him and to his left. The pair of fighters had launched from Indomitable just over an hour ago to search for the damaged frigate RWS Cavanta Bay; in the lead fighter, Lieutenant Paulo Cavouri had now called that he was visual with the battered warship. The Fireflash fighter was a slender, elegant machine built around two powerful engines and a large tail fin, with thin, gracefully curved wings hiding a small number of internal weapons stations.
“Black One, this is Echo Three Alpha,” the fighter controller onboard the Cavanta Bay replied to Cavouri, “good to see you, we now have you both visual. You are cleared to close and take position in circuits to port.”
“Black One, cleared to close,” Cavouri confirmed that he understood the instruction, “taking position in the port circuit.”
Griffiths followed his flight leader towards the dark speck which was now just about visual to the naked human eye against the speckled, twinkling backdrop of black void. His fighter’s targetting computer had projected a green square around the Cavanta Bay on his canopy to help guide him; the fact that the square was green showed that at least Cavanta Bay’s IFF was undamaged – his fighter recognised the warship as friendly. He hoped the same could be said of the frigates automated defense target recognition system.
Yawning, Griffiths nudged his control column a little to the right and throttled up, powering slightly forwards to keep up with Cavouri’s Fireflash. The wounded frigate grew in its green square on Griffith’s canopy. The range counter reduced on the text next to the square. As early as half a kilometre, Griffiths could make out the horrific damage which had wracked the warship – its silhouette was barely recognisable as a Type 3600 Frigate.
“Fucking hell,” Cavouri murmured on the squadron discreet frequency, “would you look at that?”
“Poor bastards,” Griffiths replied, staring at the warship as the two fighters drifted past her port bow.
A significant portion of the port aft quarter of the ship was gone. Completely torn off. The bridge was just about intact, but all blast shields, air locks and view ports were blown out. The helm, comms station, look out positions and Officer of the Watch station were all empty, just a ghostly ship drifting through space with seemingly nobody onboard to steer her. She was of course being controlled from the back up position in the Ops Room, but it was the first warship Griffiths had ever seen without some human activity visible from a low flypast.
Then again, Griffiths was no veteran of spaceborne combat. Propelled into the war with the Alliance straight out of training, Griffiths’ baptism of fire was in a couple of isolated patrols in space before he was dragged into months of atmospheric combat in the skies above Riviera Prime, he had survived long enough to watch his peers fall in flames around him, and a new procession of freshly qualified pilots arrive and disappear. In only six months front line service, he was now an Acting Lieutenant, held a Certificate of Competency authorising him to lead flights of his own and, these days seemingly meaningless, had seven confirmed kills painted underneath his cockpit.
Up ahead of him, Cavouri banked around and settled into the circuit – an oval pattern flown to the side of the warship to keep them in visual range. Cavouri was the squadron’s Training Officer – a Qualified Flying Instructor in charge of periodic checks and tests for the pilots and maintaining flying standards, he was next down in the pecking order from the Senior Pilot. Cavouri was a thrusting career officer whose thin frame and prominent features gave him the unfortunate nickname of “Ferret.”
“Black Flight, this is Echo Three Alpha,” the fighter controller’s voice brought Griffiths back to reality from what felt like a full five minutes of day dreaming, “Sliders inbound from three five zero mark four five, strength two. Intercept, over.”
“Black Flight, copied,” Cavouri replied, his engines flaring up to full power ahead of Griffiths as his Fireflash turned away from the frigate. His pulse quickening, Griffiths followed. Sliders – the brevity codeword for unidentified small craft – could realistically only mean one thing. They were too far out of anybody’s way for merchant traffic or pirates, so whatever was moving in towards the Cavanta Bay was the same thing that did the damage in the first place.
Griffiths’ targeting computer chirped as the Cavanta Bay’s Ops Room transmitted surveillance gathered data directly from their own scanners, and two white squares appeared on the canopy. Griffiths clicked a switch on top of his control column and selected missiles, holding off locking his targets up just in case they were not hostile, just in case his actions might provoke a fight that could be avoided. Not that Griffiths wanted to avoid a fight, he just did not want to risk taking any flak from his superiors.
“Black Two, this is Black One,” Cavouri transmitted, “we’ll go in loose echelon starboard and visually ID these guys, don’t lock them up.”
“Black Two copies,” Griffiths replied, easing slightly back and right to take his position off Cavouri’s right wing in echelon starboard formation.
Griffiths’ earphones hissed as the Cavanta Bay’s fighter controller send a transmission out on all communications frequencies.
“Unidentified spacecraft at position seven eight five two, three niner three, this is the Republican Warship Cavanta Bay. You are approaching my ten kilometre exclusion zone. If you enter this zone I am authorised to use deadly force. Alter your course to port and squawk six thousand for identification.”
A shrill tone sounded in Griffiths’ ears and a light on his central warning panel alerted him to the fact that he had been locked up by a fire control scanner.
“Blacks! Break! Break!” Cavouri shouted.
Griffiths hauled his control column to the right and then back into his gut, rolling his fighter’s wings through ninety degrees before yanking its nose up to break smartly away from his formation leader. Both Republican fighter split apart from each other as a salvo of blue green energy beams, long and thin like ragged bolts of lightning, swept through space in the spot they had occupied only a second before.
The tone in Griffiths’ ears phased in and out as his Fireflash’s defensive aid suite struggled to break the lock on the fighter. He reversed the turn and powered up, following the green arrow on his canopy which guided him back to his formation leader.
“Black Flight, this is Echo Three Alpha, sliders are confirmed as hostile, you are clear engage,” the fighter controller announced excitedly.
“Yeah, cheers, pal,” Griffiths muttered to himself, closing the gap with Cavouri to return to his position in formation.
“Black Two, get back on my tail,” Cavouri ordered, obviously not happy to let his protective wingman off his leash.
“With you,” Griffiths replied, his breathing returning to normal as he locked up the closer of the two red squares on his canopy.
The enemy craft was locked without so much as a struggle from any defensive aids it had installed. A steady tone announced that his missiles were ready to fire.
“Blacks, engage,” Cavouri said calmly
Griffiths thumbed his fire button.
His missile pods slid smoothly down from their wing housings and fired off one from each side. The four missiles from the two Fireflashes streaked out ahead, arcing gracefully up towards the aggressors. Griffiths’ grim smile faded as, within only a hundred metres of their target, all four missiles detonated harmlessly in quick succession.
“Stay on my tail, loose line astern,” Cavouri commanded, “I’m closing with the leader.”
Griffiths slotted in protectively behind Cavouri, ready to open fire on either enemy craft which might threaten his formation leader. The Fireflash’s own scanners had picked up the targets now, giving a visual display, course and speed on his left hand display unit.
The enemy craft, clearly a fighter, was a thing of beauty. The Fireflash, graceful in its aerodynamic lines, had been described as a modern day Spitfire, but next to this alien craft if looked clumsy and awkward. The alien fighter had a sleek fuselage with three wings arcing out to form a triangle behind it, two of which carried engines in pods at the tips, the upper wing looked to house some sort of weapon or defensive pod. There was not a straight edge anywhere on the beautiful, white fighter, only smooth lines and feminine curves.
Another salvo of laser fire swept out from the leader, forcing Cavouri to jink from left to right. They were close now, close enough to see with the human eye. Griffiths cast a wary glance at the second alien fighter, wondering what his tactics would be. He had broken away from his leader and was now powering away on a parallel course, perhaps lining up for a flank attack. It was a good opportunity for Black Flight to gang up on and bully the lone leader whilst they had a brief opening.
Cavouri peeled away and dived down at the alien fighter, forcing the white craft to break off and turn away.
“Firing!” Cavouri announced as two missiles shot away from beneath his wings.
Two thin bolts of dark blue energy spat out of the alien fighter’s third wing pod and pierced the missiles, detonating them. Cavouri charged aggressively down on the enemy fighter. The alien suddenly pulled up and throttled back, rolling over to allow Cavouri to overshoot and pop out in front of him.
“Black One! Break left!” Griffiths shouted.
Cavouri responded immediately, narrowly avoiding a salvo of laser fire from the alien fighter. Griffiths glanced down at his scanner and saw the second fighter was now bearing down on his flank. His defensive aids chirped annoyingly again as the second alien lined up to fire. Seizing his moment, Griffiths pushed open his throttle and charged down onto the lead alien. As if replaying a standard manoeuvre, the alien fighter repeated exactly the same evasive turn, pulling up and rolling over. Griffiths followed suit, closing his throttle and firing his retro jets to decelerate, turning gracefully in a spiral locked with the alien fighter. At a range of some ten metres, Griffiths craned his head to look up at the fighter which rolled above him. The alien craft was back to back with him, and its own pilot looked down from his canopy and made eye contact with Griffiths.
For what seemed like an age, the moment was frozen in time for Griffiths as he became the first human being to ever lay eyes on an alien piloting a space going craft. Clothed in a sky blue flying suit, the alien looked more human than many species Griffiths had seen. A little taller and a little thinner than a human being, with vivid orange skin and smooth, graceful features, a shock of black hair fell in braids from the pilot’s head, some sort of ceremonial feathers intertwined with his braids and falling around his slender neck. With facial expressions that could have been human, the alien stared in disbelief and amazement at Griffiths, his small mouth open and his dark eyes wide.
Snarling, Griffiths came to his senses, stood his Fireflash on its tail and fired off a burst from his chain gun. With projectiles faster than any missile, shells spat out of his fighter’s nose and straight into the alien fighter, raking the rear of its fuselage and tearing the graceful craft in half. A fraction of a second later it exploded, a brief flash of orange as its air and fuel were swallowed up by the void of space before it become nothing more than a peaceful field of floating debris. The second alien fighter reversed course and throttled up to full speed, running away from the two Fireflashes. Griffiths turned onto its tail and pushed his throttle open, settling back into his seat and gritting his teeth.
“Black Two, Black One,” Cavouri called, “good effort mate. Get back on my tail.”
“I’ve got him!” Griffiths replied angrily, “I’ve got the fucker!”
“That’s enough, Black Two,” Cavouri ordered, “let’s quit while we’re ahead. Back on station.”
Taking a deep breath, Griffiths turned back towards the Cavanta Bay, watching the alien fighter flee back in the direction it had arrived from.
“Tell all your friends about me, dickhead,” Griffiths exhaled.
Naval Sector Command HQ
It had been a long day. The twin suns were just disappearing below the eastern horizon, painting the darkening sky in shades of pink and leaving dark silhouettes of skyscrapers jutted along horizon, stabbing aggressively up towards the heavens. Vice Admiral Klause groaned and rubbed his brow before wordlessly accepting a cup of coffee from one of the communications ratings. He briefly toyed with the idea of undoing his top button and loosening his black tie, but decided against it. His men and women were looking to him for leadership and guidance, and now was not the time to let standards drop. He would lead in the finest traditions of the Service: standing bolt upright and displaying impeccable standards of dress and bearing.
The door to the Ops Room opened, admitting three men in olive green uniforms. Klause smiled and walked out to meet them.
“Jerry,” he exteneded his hand to the shortest of the three army officers, “glad you made it here so quickly.”
“Peter,” Major General Jerry Holden shook his hand firmly, “I hear we’ve something of a situation. Colonel Stuart and Major Dior here have briefed me in the shuttle on the way over. Anymore developments?”
“A few,” Klause said, turning around to lead the three army officers back to the main display screen in the centre of the room, “Cavanta Bay is limping back to our fleet at the moment. We’ve managed to sneak one of our sub-space boats into the vicinity; she’s remained undetected so far. Unfortunately the enemy have moved a further five warships into the area, but at least these are much smaller, FF/DD sized.”
“FF/DD, sir?” the tall, blonde Major queried.
“Frigate or destroyer,” Klause explained, “anyhow, we’ve got one enemy capital ship that’s made landfall and disgorged God knows how many troops. I’ve got a second sub-space boat moving into the area with marine Special Forces. We can get them on the planet’s deck by tomorrow night to give us some proper intel on what’s going on. Other than that, I’ve got marines embarking in assault ships embarking at Gegoria’s Prize, so I won’t have them in the area for another four days and they’re only at Regiment strength. What can you offer me, Jerry?”
“We can do a little better than that,” the General said with a wry smile, “I’ve got two Brigades, one of mechanised infantry, one of heavy armour. I’ve also got three squadrons of Hellhound ground attack jets. They’re only two days away. What I need from you is a fleet to actually get them there.”
“Of course,” Klause nodded, “that’s our top priority. You have access to anything at my disposal. I’ve already had a chat with Commodore Hullit about what we can free up, he’ll give you the details. We’ve hired a number of large cargo vessels and tankers, best we could do at such short notice. You’re people will have a proper naval escort, of course.”
General Holden held up his hand to refuse a cup of coffee from a young junior rating before pacing over to the display screen, his brow furrowing in concentration. He clasped his hands behind his back and bobbed up and down on his tip toes.
“Until get boots on the ground, we haven’t got a fucking clue what we’re up against.”
“Our SF lot will sort that out for you,” Klause offered encouragingly.
“About that, sir,” the broad, greying Colonel who had entered the room with Holden cleared his throat, “I’ve got army Special Forces only two days away, at Delve III. We can…”
“My marines will be there quicker, Colonel,” Klause said sternly, “now is not the time for inter service rivalry. Now, what we…”
Klause was cut off as Lieutenant Felton, his beautiful aide, rushed over with a datapad and a barely suppressed grin. She stood formally in front of him and offered the datapad.
“Sir, news from Indomitable.”
Klause took the datapad and quickly read the top page. A craggy smile broke out across his hawkish features.
“Sir?” the broad Colonel enquired.
“Cavanta Bay was attacked by two enemy fighters,” Klause grinned, “two of Indomitable’s fighters were flying escort. They engaged them and shot one down, sent the other one packing.”
“One fighter, sir?” the blonde Major frowned, “is one fighter destroyed really such a cause for merriment?”
Klause raised his brow and nodded, beaming.
“It’s bloody good news, Major! Jerry? I know our warships and orbital defences have taken one hell of a beating in the past day, and the bad guy’s technology seems far superior to ours, but I can promise you one thing. Our fighters are better than theirs. You’re boys will have air superiority above them as soon as their boots hit the ground.”
2 Deck, Starboard Main Passageway
Commander Denisov loved being in space, but today his mind was not on the job. Considering the gravity of the situation, it was also not a good day to be absent minded. Denisov paced along the familiar passageway, past the Emergency Breathing Masks at X-Ray hatch, the Portable Fire Extinguishers at Tango Hatch, barely registering the familiar sights and smells of a warship in space. Today was Denisov’s son’s fifth birthday, and all he could think of was his wife, God knew how many light years away, celebrating the day with some new man she had hinted at. Of course, he wanted Kara to be happy, it had been nearly three years since their divorce, but it did not make today any easier for him.
Lieutenant Commander Lacroix was waiting for him by the ECW Main Briefing Room. A little shorter than average, the young squadron commander looked up at Densiov and nodded curtly, no emotion showing through her flawless features.
“Commander,” Lacroix said, “the squadron are assembled in the crew room, as ordered.”
Denisov noticed the Lacroix wore her black uniform skirt shorter than regulations allowed, and doubled the transgression by wearing a pair of immaculate, highly polished leather flying boots with her daily working uniform. Whether it was a fashion statement or a reminder to the ship’s company than she was aircrew and therefore thought herself a cut above the rest, Densiov did not know or care about. He did not like Lacroix at all, but her choice of dress probably had a positive effect on the morale of every male crew member so he let it slip.
“After you,” he said sternly, gesturing for Lacroix to lead him to the crew room.
Morale was evidently already high on 101 squadron. Denisov could hear the laughter from half way down the passageway. He tapped Lacroix on the shoulder to stop her from entering the room and bringing an end to the banter, curious to know what was so hilarious. A voice he knew from past deployments was “mid dit” – in the middle of a story.
“So there I was, in this hotel room,” Cavouri explained to the rest of the squadron, “naked except for a woolly hat and pink wellington boots, when my grandma walks in. And there’s another man’s spaff everywhere…”
Her face reddening, Lacroix barged past Denisov and stood by the entrance to the crew room.
“Commander Flying!” she announced loudly.
The seven assembled pilots fell silent immediately and stood to attention.
“Alright, relax,” Denisov said as he suppressed a smile.
An ex dive bomber pilot, Denisov was well aware of the sordid banter that circulated the male dominated squadrons of the Naval Air Arm, and fighter pilots were perhaps the worst of the lot.
“Ferret,” Denisov nodded to Cavouri, addressing him by the nickname he knew the man still hated after nearly ten years, “good to see you again.”
“Sir,” Cavouri nodded with a similarly suppressed grin, clearly well aware that Densiov had overheard the end of his tale.
Densiov glanced around the cramped crew room. He recognised Lieutenant Andres Vazquez, the squadron Senior Pilot, or “Splot” – Vazquez was a clichéd tall, dark and ruggedly handsome officer in his late twenties, with unpredictable mood swings varying between over relaxed and extroverted through to sudden dark and brooding sulks. Nicknamed ‘Smiler’ due to his default facial expression which made him look more depressed than he actually was, Vazquez was one of the top scoring fighter aces in the navy.
A stern looking young woman with boyish, dark hair sat on the edge of one sofa, her arms folded. She wore the olive green of the Army Air and Space Corps, identifying her as Captain Val Cortez, a Hellhound pilot on exchange with the navy. The other four were generic white, male junior officers who Denisov had never cast eyes on before.
“I just wanted to swing by and congratulate you gents on a fine effort earlier on. The Cavanta Bay is safely on the other side of our Task Force and will be alongside for repairs in three days. Ferret, I hear you led the flight that looked after her? Did you get the kill?”
“No, sir,” Cavouri nodded to one of the four generic junior pilots, “that was Griff.”
A young, baby faced Lieutenant looked up at Denisov with dull eyes. Lieutenant Griffiths. Denisov had heard the name but never met him. A veteran of the Riviera Prime campaign, Griffiths would have been the most experienced pilot on a more junior squadron. The ship’s chaplain had approached Denisov a week ago with concerns for Griffiths. He was showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, being held back from fights in the Wardroom and phasing in and out of conversations mid sentence. One look at the boy’s dead eyes confirmed it for Denisov. In peacetime he would have sent Griffiths home for leave and counselling. Right now, a trigger happy veteran was exactly what he needed.
“Griff, I’ve heard of you,” Denisov paced over to shake his hand firmly, “Vice Admiral Klause contacted the Captain personally to send his thanks. I’m sure the Captain will want to speak to you himself as soon as he has a moment. How did you find them? Are they any good?”
“They’re good, sir,” Griffiths nodded, followed by an awkward pause as he searched for more words, “but not that good. As long as we keep our guard up, we’ll be alright.”
“What about their kit?” Denisov asked, “I saw your footage, looks like their defensive aids are pretty impressive.”
“They’re picking our missiles off with ease,” Cavouri said, “Griff got one with guns. We’re not sure if it was the close range or the projectile speed of our chain gun that did it. I think it’s the gun, I fired off a second salvo of missiles from much closer and they were no good, either.”
“That ties in with what the Int boys think,” Denisov replied, “Cavanta Bay’s missiles were all defeated in her attack on the enemy capital ships, but her guns worked just fine. Rail guns. That seems to be the only edge we have at the moment. Look, good work again, guys. We’ll have our orders through soon, looks like we can expect a flypro full of ground attack sorties so be ready for that. That’s all. Good work, keep it up.”
Gold Flight pair
101st (Fighter) Squadron
2 x Astravia Fireflash FA1 Air/Space Supremacy Fighters
Happy to be back in the cockpit, Griffiths stretched and flexed his fingers before returning them to the control column and throttle of his fighter as it bucked and buffeted, trembling and rocking as it entered the planet’s atmosphere. The pair of Republican fighters had been tasked to escort one of the cumbersome Oracle surveillance craft as it began to compile a picture of what was actually happening on Beahdorah Prime ’s surface. That had meant undertaking a particularly long transit around the back of the planet before stealthily picking their way through the few, scattered warships which the still unnamed enemy force had set out in isolated patrols.
The huge, flattened surveillance bubble bolted ungracefully on the Oracle’s back could gather data from a low orbit, but the closer in they managed to sneak, the more comprehensive and more useful the data would be. Similar operations were happening simultaneously in two other areas of the planet, with further pairs of Fireflashes escorting the vulnerable surveillance ships.
“Gold Flight, this is Scope Five Five,” one of the two observers in the back of the Oracle transmitted enthusiastically; “we’re now in range of the main ground force and are carrying out passive surveillance.”
“Scope, Gold One, copied,” Lacroix replied from the lead fighter.
Passive – the Oracle was employing techniques which, whilst less effective, would in theory be untraceable and leave them undetected by the enemy force. Minutes dragged by. Griffiths Looked across at the parabolic horizon which curved over his canopy, his fighter still high enough to see the darkness of space but also a dozen distinct shades of purple-red ahead of him as the atmosphere divided itself into its different layers.
The two Fireflashes stayed ahead of the Oracle, ready to pounce on any incoming threat. The three Republican craft moved slowly on, the Oracle still absorbing data from high level with the phased plasma array working silently within the disc above its fuselage.
“Golds, this is Scope,” a different voice now spoke from the surveillance craft, “inbound sliders from three-two-zero, two hundred kilometres, strength three.”
“Roger, Scope,” Lacroix answered, “knock it off there. Head for home.”
Griffiths followed his leader as she banked around and climbed, turning her back on the inbound enemy fighters and throttling up to keep a good distance. The heavy Oracle followed suit, dragging itself through a wide turn before increasing speed to power up through the atmosphere. Griffiths resented the move. It was only three enemy fighters. He had found the last two to be easy enough, and was confident that with Lacroix, being a 15 kill ace herself, the enemy craft would not be a problem.
“Enemy craft now at one hundred and eighty klicks,” the Oracle observer transmitted, concern creeping into his voice, “they’re closing the gap.”
“Scope Five Five, this is Gold One,” Lacroix called, “can you make it out of the atmosphere and increase speed before the sliders are in weapons range?”
“Gold One, affirm,” the observer replied after a pause, “we’re activating counter measures, it should confuse their scanners once they’re within one hundred klicks.”
Griffiths let out a frustrated sigh. That meant the Oracle could extend the gap again before it came under threat and escape without a fight. It made his job as escort somewhat pointless. Griffiths ran out of patience. He snap rolled his Fireflash into a steep turn and hauled the agile fighter back around to head straight for the alien interceptors.
“Gold Two, this is Gold One, back on my wing!” Lacroix snapped.
“Gold One, Gold Two, negative,” Griffiths replied, “they’re closing too fast. We need to engage.”
“Gold Two, knock it off and return to station,” Lacroix replied, her voice assertive.
Griffiths powered up. He saw Lacroix’s fighter on his own scanner as it broke away from the Oracle and followed him.
“Scope Five Five, this is Gold Flight, return to base, we’ll hold them off,” Lacroix commanded.
Griffith’s Fireflash began to buffet again as it re-entered the atmosphere. He selected missiles, knowing full well that they were largely ineffective but happy to give the enemy pilots something to think about as the range closed. Less than eighty klicks now, he had good definition on his own scanners. Two of the alien fighters remained in formation as they closed whilst the third broke away to the south. It was a similar tactic to that employed first time he had flown against them. He watched on his scanned as Lacroix struggled to try to overtake him and take her place at the head of the pair.
“Gold One, slot in behind me in echelon port,” Griffiths transmitted.
Lacroix complied but did not transmit to him. He knew he would be in a world of trouble when he got back. Best he racked up a couple of confirmed kills to make it all worthwhile and reduce the severity of the reprimand. Three red squares followed his targets around on his canopy. He banked to the left and followed the pair, allowing the third fighter to slip off to his right. They were just about visual now.
“Gold Two, engaging,” Griffiths called, firing off a spread of four missiles against the lead enemy fighter.
The two alien fighters did not even bother to deviate course as their counter measures blasted Griffiths’ missiles out of the skies. Pushing his fighter’s nose forwards, Griffiths dived down on the approaching fighters to attack head on.
“Break it off!” Lacroix ordered, “come in from the side!”
Griffiths gritted his teeth, selected his gun and centred his sights on the approaching fighters. The range counter reduced rapidly. Griffiths opened fire. Simultaneously, bursts of blue green laser fire darted from the wings of the two enemy fighters. A laser bolt lanced through Griffiths’ right wing.
The curved horizon suddenly flipped up to the left as his fighter deviated violently from its flight path, his central warning panel lighting up with a dozen cautions and the whole cockpit vibrating and rattling. Swearing aloud, Griffiths dragged his controls back central and throttled back, struggling to force his Fireflash back under control to give him a chance to diagnose the damage. A quick glance to his right showed a gaping, ragged hole through the centre of the wing, which now vibrated threateningly, looking as though it might detach at any point.
Up to the left, Griffiths saw Lacroix’s fighter break away and climb to distance itself from the threat of the two fighters, cool, calm, professional, no cowboy head on passes or glamorous dogfighting. She peeled back around and literally fell on the two alien fighters, darting through them. Her chain gun blew one enemy fighter apart before she powered away and climbed again.
Griffiths shook his head. He had acted like an idiot, ignoring Lacroix’s commands and trying to do his own thing. Lacroix was a better pilot than he could ever be, infinitely more experienced and she was his Commanding Officer. Most importantly, she was his friend. His distressed mind gnawing over guilt and regret, his shaking hands still struggling to control his wounded fighter as his eyes tried in vain to focus on the blurry indications across his instrument panel, Griffiths did not even see the third alien fighter that had broken away as it curved back around and blew his Fireflash apart with an accurate burst of laser pulses.
Scope Five Seven
408th (Surveillance) Squadron
Easterra Oracle Mk6A Surveillance and Control Craft
Crew: 1 x pilot, 2 x observers
Sub Lieutenant Giles Monniger let out a sigh, unfortunately clearly audible over the comm. system as he saw Gold Two’s blip disappear from his screen. One of the fighters from the 101st was gone. The engagement, on the other side of the planet, de-escalated to nothing within seconds as the remaining Fireflash escorted Scope Five Five away from the battlespace, whilst the two surviving alien fighters broke off the pursuit. That at least was some good news; his friends in Scope Five Five would make it back to the carrier safely.
Monniger sat at the right hand of two huge terminals built into the rear cabin of the Oracle, next to the craft’s other observer, Lieutenant Commander Kowalaski – the squadron Commanding Officer. Kowalaski, as Mission Commander, manned the Lead Terminal which used about ninety percent of the Oracle’s synthetic phased array scanner to comb the planet’s surface, simultaneously painting a three dimensional picture of every last building, vehicle, even person whilst also absorbing all information from the RF spectrum; communications, enemy surveillance, active force defense, every last bit of data which could be used against the enemy. That left Monniger with ten percent of the scanner’s capacity to carry out one simple task; threat warning. Monniger’s job was to scan the skies and space for incoming fighters and, if necessary, vector the two Fireflashes which escorted them onto the incoming enemy.
Kowalaski’s fingers danced over the input terminal with the dexterity of a concert pianist, rapidly and efficiently grouping and compartmentalising data into manageable bundles before securely transmitting it back to the Indomitable for instant analysis by the intelligence boys and girls.
“One of Oracle Five Five’s escorts was just shot down,” Monniger said quietly, “Gold Two.”
Kowalaski grumbled an acknowledgement under his breath but did not even pause with his task.
“Any chance he ejected?” asked Lieutenant Ed Voase, the sole pilot of the craft bundled up in the lonely cockpit at the front of the Oracle.
“I don’t know at this range,” Monniger replied, “maybe.”
He glanced out of his window at the pair of Fireflashes which hung off the Oracle’s right wing. The lead pilot was a rodent faced man named Cavouri, the squadron’s Training Officer. His wingman was Sub Lieutenant Joe Brock, a comparatively junior pilot who had been blooded in combat against the Alliance in the last few weeks of the Riviera Prime campaign. Monniger remembered Brock being a couple of terms ahead of him during officer training, but only really knew him from propping up the bar since embarking on Indomitable.
A contact appeared on Monniger’s screen, bringing his attention back to the task in hand. With only one week’s experience out of training, Monniger was junior but not too junior to realise that he needed to collate what data he could before blurting out a contact report to the rest of his crew.
Refining his sensor sweep to a narrow angle scan to interrogate the contact, he compressed the pulses emitting from the scanner to increase his accuracy at range. Six separate contacts, similar sizes to his Oracle, flying towards him at over two thousands knots. That was all he needed to know.
“Sliders, strength six, inbound from two four zero mark five!” Monniger reported.
Calm, unphased, Kowalaski slowed his input rate and glanced across at his subordinate’s screen.
“They’ll be on us fairly quickly,” the tall observer grimaced, “time for us to leave. Get counter measures up and running. Ed? Head for home.”
Monniger nodded as Voase dragged the cumbersome surveillance craft around a steep turn to head back for the carrier as Kowalaski transmitted the incoming enemy fighters to their escorting Fireflashes. Monniger knew the drill; wait until the enemy raid was within one hundred kilometres and then, when the scanner strength was entering its optimum range for counter measures, deploy a false return which would make them all but invisible on the enemy’s scanners. Monniger paused. He had an idea. At this range, there was something else he could try. Quickly calculating the enemies pulse width and band width he deduced what he could about the capabilities of the alien scanners. His fingers plodding deliberately at his input terminal, he transmitted a stream of false data. A few seconds later, the enemy fighters turned sharply to the right. Monniger smiled broadly.
“Boss!” he beamed enthusiastically, “I’ve spoofed them! I’ve sent false returns showing us as closing with them to engage! They’ve fallen for it!”
His eyes wide, Kowalaski leaned over to stare at Monniger’s screen.
“What the hell are you two up to?” Voase asked from the cockpit, “are we getting swatted or not?”
“Just shut up and drive the bus home,” Kowalaski mumbled, pressing a series of buttons which dragged all on Monniger’s data onto his lead screen and gave him control of threat detection.
“Watch this, Giles,” the experienced observer said calmly to Monniger, “I might include this on one of your progress tests. This is how we used to spoof the old Alliance KW-80s when I was on Oracle mark threes. It would appear that our enemy’s Electronic Warfare is rather more primitive than ours.”
Using a combination of selections and menus Monniger never even knew existed, Kowalaski painted a fake squadron of twelve Republican fighters on the screen and sent them roaring towards the alien fighters. His thin lips cracked into a smile as the alien fighters quickly turned tail and fled.
“Marvellous,” Kowalaski said, “let’s get home. Naval Command will want to know about this.”
Naval Sector Command HQ
Klause practically jumped in his seat, his sore eyes suddenly opening as he looked around the Ops Room. The lighting was perpetually dimmed, unlike a warship where the lights would vary around a 24 hour cycle to give the crew a regular day to set their body clock to. Here, buried behind blast doors, Klause realised that he could have been asleep for five seconds or five hours. He glanced down at his watch and let out an exasperated sigh. He had drifted off for less than a minute. He looked up at the voice which had stirred him.
Still resplendent after over 24 hours in the Ops Room, Lieutenant Felton stood to his left, her top button and tie still in place, her heavy black jacket not even hung on the back of a chair. The Ops Room was now manned by its third watch of sailors since the incident started and Klause was in pieces, yet his aide looked ready to march on ceremonial divisions.
“Sir?” Felton repeated, “perhaps it’s time for you to get some sleep? The human brain doesn’t operate at its best when…”
“No, no,” Klause held a hand up to silence her and then stretched his wear y muscles, “let’s see this thing through to a logical pause in the proceedings. Besides, you seem to be doing fine.”
“I’ve had some sleep, sir,” Felton said, almost guiltily, “I’ve taken two four-hour breaks.”
“Good, good,” Klause yawned again, “be a good girl and pop to the Naafi, would you? Go and get me a packet of those little pills full of caffeine and chemicals which put your eyes out on stalks.”
Felton smiled uncomfortably and nodded before turning to head towards the blast door. Klause grinned lecherously to himself as he watched her walk off before dragging himself out of his chair and pacing over to the comms hub. A stocky, bearded Warrant Officer named Tautenitz nodded formally as he approached.
“Update me on the latest,” Klause forced a tired smile.
“Sir,” Tautenitz nodded again, “Indomitable’s Oracles have managed to get spaceborne and conduct a sweep of the planet. During that, one of them was able to establish comms with ground forces and act as a relay back to us. I’m afraid it’s rather grim, sir. What remains of the planetary defense garrison estimates an enemy strength of over ten thousand infantry, complete with battle tanks and limited air support. They’re also getting further air cover from the second enemy capital ship in the vicinity. The garrison have tried to evacuate civilians and lead them away from main residential areas, but with their current numbers and geographical position, it is proving impossible. What’s left of our forces is spilt into small groups and are acting as guerrillas against the aliens rather than a structured force.”
“What is left?” Klause asked, “how many soldiers do we have on the ground? Who’s in command?”
“Lieutenant Green is the highest ranking officer we have comms with,” Tautenitz winced, “he believes he has perhaps two hundred combat fit troops remaining, mostly scattered across the planet in five to ten man groups.”
“When did this come through?” Klause felt his temper flaring, “why wasn’t I informed?”
“The garrison are army and I’ve been here to deal with this side of things, Admiral,” replied Major General Holden from the other side of a comm. terminal.
“Of course,” Klause replied, knowing from firsthand experience how important it was for a naval officer not to dabble in army matters, “anything else of note?”
“Something for the Int boys,” Holden said, walking over to hand a piece of paper across to Klause, “here’s what our bad guys look like. It would appear that your marine Special Forces made it down without incident.”
Klause looked down at the leaf of paper. A surprisingly clear photograph, obviously taken from behind the cover of a partially destroyed building, showed the rubbled and ruined streets of a city on Beahdorah Prime. A line of civilians, their hands held high in surrender, were marched in single file through the collapsed masonry and burning vehicles. Stood over them, some seven feet in height, was a gracefully thin figure in cream-white armour. The armour was thicker than anything human soldiers wore but still curved with great aesthetic beauty, complete with ostentatious red stripes along the limbs rather than any attempt at camouflage. The alien carried a long barrelled weapon, a laser rifle of some description according to the accompanying text. The alien soldier wore no head gear or helmet; his head was almost human but with smoother, elongated features. His dark hair fell down in a series of braids and pig tails, each decorated with a series of brightly coloured feathers.
“Cocky looking bastard, isn’t he?” Holden sneered, “one of your snipers took his head off a couple of seconds after this picture was taken.”
Klause barked out a laugh as he handed the sheet back to Holden.
“It still doesn’t change the fact that with two hundred men on the ground, we’ve lost the entire planet. And if we don’t take it back, you know what the only alternative is.”
Klause nodded grimly, the smile fading from his lips. More nuclear weapons would have to be deployed. There could be no risk of the invading force finding out what was going on beneath the surface of that planet.
“Our main force is still three days away from being able to even attempt planet fall,” Klause mused out loud, “so that’s all the time we have to make that area as secure as possible for the assault.”
“As much as I’d love your flyboys to bomb the shit out of their ground forces, I think the main threat is coming from that alien capital ship still buzzing around the planet and the air cover its providing to their ground forces,” Holden added.
“Agreed,” Klause replied, “I think it’s time we had a proper pop at these bastards. Mister Tautentiz? What’s the force composition of Indomitable’s Embarked Carrier Wing?”
“One squadron each of fighters, dive bombers, torpedo bombers and surveillance, sir.”
“Which dive bomber squadron?” he asked.
“262nd, sir, under Lieutenant Commander Ryan.”
Klause smiled grimly. His niece was a new pilot on that squadron. Klause had had a major argument with her father last time they met when he had made a joke about the pretty girl needing some front line experience, as having a couple of sailors run her through and break her heart would toughen her up and make a fine officer out of her. Her father had not seen the funny side.
“Sir?” Felton appeared back at Klause’s side.
He turned to face her. She handed him a datapad with some stimulant pills discreetly balanced on top.
“This just came through from the Senior Intelligence Officer aboard Indomitable. It’s the first wave of analysis from the Oracle missions. “
Klause took the datapad and immediately jumped to the concluding comments section. Finally, some good news. He took his pills and passed the datapad across to Holden.
“Look at this, Jerry. Their EW is a pile of shit. The Oracle boys were able to jam them with one flight and spoof them with another. They may have lasers, armour, and the ability to shoot down missiles but their scanners are from the stone age. We can use this, Jerry, we can bloody well use this! Rebecca, send my personal congratulations to those Oracle boys and girls. We didn’t lose any, did we?”
“No, sir,” Felton replied, “we did lose one fighter from the 101st.”
“101st?” Holden’s ears pricked up, “not their CO, I hope? She’s that hot blonde who caused all of the fuss over the recruitment posters. She’s fucking gorgeous.”
Klause laughed in agreement, noticing Felton’s discomfort at the sexist remarks with added amusement.
“We’re not going to win this campaign with fighters,” Klause shrugged, “we can afford to lose a few of those. Send my regards to the Oracle boys and tell them to get back up there and keep the stream of intel alive. Mister Tautenitz? Get me some tech geeks in here. I want a plan to bomb the shit out of their other cap ship.”
Some type of instrumental, smooth vintage jazz played quietly from the speakers behind the bar as Elle Lacroix watched her glass being refilled with fruit juice, wishing it was a sauvignon blanc from her parents’ vineyard. Anything a little stronger would have helped to dull the sickness she felt from losing another friend. Lacroix had no interest whatsoever in music, but right now the generic jazz certainly beat silence. Sat alone at the bar, she smiled to the steward as he passed over her drink before leaning back on the bar and surveying the rest of the room. As always, aircrew dominated. The room was split into several circular seating areas, or gulches, where de facto segregation nearly always divided men and women into cliques built around squadrons or branches.
A few of the ship’s company officers occupied the nearest gulch, one of them flicking through news reports on the table’s media screen whilst another four compared stories of horror and bullying from watch on the carrier’s bridge. The second gulch occupied nearly the entire surveillance squadron, a dozen of them piled into the confined area whilst loudly jeering and laughing hysterically over a dice based drinking game which they still managed to play even though alcoholic drinks were under lock and key now they were engaged on operations. The Oracle boys and girls had had a good day. Half a dozen of the bomber boys from the two squadrons sat suspiciously around the third gulch, their eyes darting from woman to woman in the bar as they exchanged sniggering remarks under their breath like scheming school boys. Lacroix noticed with some satisfaction but little surprise that she had more attention from them than the other girls in the room.
At the far gulch sat Vazquez, her Senior Pilot, Cavouri, the Training Officer, and Brock, one of her newer boys. Lacroix noticed that a pretty girl from the dive bomber squadron had latched onto them and now sat opposite Vazquez, her body language a curious mixture of innocent and predatory. Lacroix narrowed her eyes possessively, but looked up again as her two newest pilots; Holland and Crowley entered the Wardroom bar. From her arsenal of smiles she selected a smirk which could easily be misinterpreted as flirtatious but not obvious enough to be incriminating before turning back to lean over the bar. She almost kicked herself when she realised what she was doing – leading men on merely for self gratifying attention was something she had vowed to stop doing; the last time she had done so had nearly ended in disaster.
A young pilot who joined her squadron clearly had a thing for her, which she happily led on until, on a squadron outing to a night club, a drunken kiss on a crowded dance floor had appeared out of nowhere. Lacroix had been sober enough to stop things before they went much further, but standing a sheepish and hung over Sub Lieutenant in front of her desk the next morning had been uncomfortable, and it had been her who ended up apologising. That Sub Lieutenant was Griffiths, the man who had been blown into a million pieces when flying on her wing earlier that day. That, coupled with a letter from her ex-husband saying that he was now engaged to the woman he had been cheating on her with had made this day pretty much the worst Lacroix could remember. She looked up at her reflection in the mirrored panelling behind the bar. With a failed marriage, a bad reputation, another dead friend and no significant period of rest or leave in the last year she felt far too exhausted and inexperienced to lead a fighter squadron at the comparatively tender age of 27.
Lacroix looked over her shoulder.
Commander Denisov forced a smile as he stood behind her. Lacroix suppressed a groan and turned around on her bar stool to face him. She knew Denisov did not like her. Six months ago, at the height of her career obsession, it would have bothered her. Now all she wanted to do was chase the dive bomber girl away from her boys and try to get an early night.
“Sir,” Lacroix said evenly.
“You alright?” Densiov said awkwardly after a brief pause.
Lacroix shrugged and raised an eyebrow with a slight sneer, as if to query his line of questioning.
“About losing Griff,” Denisov explained.
“He was a confounded idiot who disobeyed commands and brought it on himself, but that never makes losing somebody any easier. Does it?”
Denisov shook his head and dragged a bar stool across to sit next to Lacroix. She found herself instinctively turning away from him irritably and crossing her legs.
“I heard you had a chat with your squadron,” Denisov continued.
The moment she had landed, Lacroix had called her squadron into one of the briefing rooms. She played her flight recorder on the main screen, showing her pilots first hand exactly what had happened and how Griffiths had been killed. She followed up with an explosive ten minute bollocking, shouting a warning at the consequences of arrogance, underestimating the enemy and above all, disobeying orders and ignoring well established and proven tactics and procedures.
“Every pilot under my command falls into one of two categories,” Lacroix said sternly, “rookies with vital parts of their training cut out to rush them to plug gaps in the front line, or good, experienced pilots who are so fatigued that they are ticking time bombs. Griff didn’t have to die today. This was supposed to be an easy convoy escort where he could get his breath back for a few weeks.”
Denisov’s response was cut off as a roar of laughter broke out from the Oracle gulch, followed by the assembled pilots and observers breaking out into a chanted tune accompanied by a few seconds of chair dancing.
“Nobody could have seen this coming,” Denisov said, “nobody could have predicted a planetary invasion by an alien race with advanced technology. Besides, we’ll have reinforcements in a couple of days. That should take the pressure off us a bit.”
Lacroix turned to face him, looking up through the carefully sculpted blonde fringe that fell past her eyes and raising her brow accusingly at the obvious mistruth from the Commander. As if looking for an excuse to change the subject, Denisov reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.
“I know this isn’t the best time, but this arrived when you were flying,” he said as he handed the sheet across.
Lacroix looked at the paper, a print off from an intersystem signalling terminal. It had been sent from The Admiralty on Earth.
“A medal,” she sighed, “for what, precisely?”
“Their Lordships think you did a fantastic job during the Riviera Prime campaign. I’ve looked over the statistics. I’d heard it was a hell of a fight, but I didn’t realise how bad it was. I didn’t know your squadron was right in the middle of it. I agree with them. I think the Republican Flying Cross is the least they can send to show their gratitude.”
Of course she deserved it. She was in the top ten highest scoring fighter pilots in the Republic. She had flown more operational sorties on that campaign than any other pilot in her Wing.
“That almost sounded like an apology, sir,” Lacroix said, “for judging me just on my reputation outside of the cockpit and treating me like the leper of your four squadron bosses.”
“It is an apology,” Denisov admitted quietly as more laughter and singing erupted from the Oracle gulch.
“Accepted,” Lacroix smiled, “but now’s not the time for ceremonies and shinny medals. I’d rather we dealt with this after the assault on the enemy capital ship. I presume that’s what’s coming next, sir?”
The look Denisov gave her confirmed her suspicions. He ordered a drink from the steward behind the bar before standing up and resting a paternal hand on Lacroix’s shoulder.
“Go and get some sleep, Elle.”
Lacroix nodded, finished her drink and then stood up. She flashed a grateful smile to Denisov before pacing over to the far gulch, throwing a subtly provocative swing into her hips as she passed the other occupants of the bar, dragging their eyes after her.
“…and the funny thing is,” Cavouri grinned, hugely animated as he finished off his story, unaware of Lacroix’s approach, “it wasn’t even my hamster!”
Lacroix stared daggers briefly at the dive bomber girl sat with her boys before folding her arms and shooting a piercing gaze at Vazquez.
“Senior Pilot,” she hissed aggressively, “a word, please. My office.”
She turned her back without waiting for him and paced out of the bar. The two of them were doing an awfully good job of convincing the world that they hated each other, and probably both needed a distraction from the pain of losing another good friend.
Embarked Carrier Wing Main Briefing Room
It had been obvious from the early wake up for every member of all four squadrons that today was a big day. After an early breakfast, all aircrew of the Embarked Carrier Wing were summoned to the Main Briefing Room, where they sat in order of seniority; the squadron commanders on the front row, the Senior Pilots and Senior Observers behind, followed by the officers of the pilot and observer cadres, leaving the back rows for the non commissioned aircrewmen of the 237th (Torpedo Bomber) squadron. As a pre-Certificate of Competency qualified pilot, Sub Lieutenant Kayley Sena sat on the last row of officers with similarly junior pilots and observers. The rows of black overall-clad crews were broken only by the two army exchange officers who wore olive green.
Commander Denisov walked around to stand behind the wooden lectern at the front of the briefing room, the lights dimming slightly and the main projector counting down to precisely 0700 so that everybody assembled could synchronise watches. Sena found Denisov to be quite an intimidating character; then again, she found anybody and everybody senior to her to be intimidating. Whenever her squadron was disembarked she still found herself instinctively saluting lieutenants. If anything, it should have been the exact opposite for her, having an uncle who was a Vice Admiral up at Sector HQ somewhere. Then again, she had only met him half a dozen times in her entire life, but that still left her worrying and fretting over whether he was keeping an eye on her, pulling strings behind the scenes to overrule anything she failed and keep her in the navy. What if she really was no good at what she did? What if it was just the fact that her uncle was calling in favours was all that kept her flying?
“Ladies, gents,” Denisov began as soon as clock hit the hour, “my apologies for the early morning shake. Today we’re going to take out an enemy capital ship.”
Densiov paused to allow the murmurs of concern and excitement to die down before continuing.
“Our Intel guys have had a few breakthroughs, thanks to Henry’s Oracle boys and girls, but today we’ll get to use that in anger and do some damage. By ‘we’ I of course mean most of you, particularly the men and women of 237 and 262.”
That was her – Sena. Her first combat mission. What a way to lose the proverbial cherry. There was no cheering or whooping after Denisov’s words, that sort of nonsense was for the movies. Only a professional silence greeting the Commander as he continued. Sena leaned forwards, her stylus eagerly hovering over her datapad.
“Launch time will be 0830,” Densiov said, “Elle, you and 101 will be first up. Sweep ahead of the main group as they are launching and forming up into Flights. Your job will be to stop any of those bastards coming through before we’re ready.”
Elle Lacroix was something of a role model for Sena. A top scoring fighter pilot selected for early command, the only living human to have shot down an alien fighter, she radiated a constant air of confidence and deadly professionalism. That, and all of the guys on her squadron were always talking about trying to bed her. Not that Sena had ever exchanged words with her, Lacroix cut a terrifying figure for a short blonde in her late twenties.
“Henry, your boys will be up next,” Denisov continued, “the Oracles of 408 will get clear of the task force and move on ahead, alone. For those of you who haven’t heard, the aliens – what are we calling them now?”
“Albert,” offered Lieutenant Commander Kowalaski from the front row, “Albert the Alien. Makes him sound friendlier.”
That at least managed a few laughs before Denisov carried on.
“For those of you who haven’t heard, Albert isn’t too hot on Electronic Warfare. His scanners use old technology, and we’ve found it easy to use stealth and, more importantly, to spoof him into thinking we’re in places that we’re not, and in numbers that we don’t have. To that end, the four Oracles of 408 will split up and approach the enemy task force individually, using counter measures to paint a fake attack force of some eighty spacecraft heading for the atmosphere of Beahdorah Prime. If we can convince Albert that we’re having a pop at the landed cap ship and its ground forces, we’ll divert every fighter they’ve got out of our way.”
Sena did not envy the Oracle crews. Nicknamed ‘The Freak Show’ due to the unnaturally high percentage of alcoholics, sexual deviants and socially awkward wierdos which permeated their ranks, the Oracles operated hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, with no escort, for hours at a time. If everything went wrong for Sena, at least her bomber was bristling with guns and bombs – the Oracle carried no weaponry save the crews’ sidearms. No wonder they were always so loud in the bar. Giles Monniger, a short, pleasant boy and the newest of the Oracle observers sat next to Sena, concentration and apprehension showing on his face in equal measures.
“Once their fighter cover is out of the way,” Denisov carried on, “you’ll have a clear run at their cap ship. Obviously we can’t rely on that but we’re confident that Albert’s fighters will be well out of the way. If not, that’s where Elle and 101 come in. I know you’ve only got 7 fighters against estimates of Albert having at least thirty, but with the jamming and spoofing provided by the Oracles, 101 will be able to break up the enemy fighter force and keep them busy long enough for the bombers to get through.”
Sena glanced down her row at Hal Holland and Duncan Crowley – both were as inexperienced as she would be flying Fireflash fighters in their first ever fight today. Both looked less than convinced by Denisov’s confidence.
“Either way,” Denisov said, “237 and 262 will get through to the alien capital ship. This is where our next ace up the sleeve comes in.”
A three dimensional image of the huge, sleek enemy capital ship was projected at the front of the room, slowly rotating through its vertical axis.
“The cap ship is three thousand and fifty metres long, and widest about midway between midships and the stern, measuring four hundred and thirty metres across. Most importantly on the initial attack, its shield generators are here, just aft of the bridge. In our first encounters with Albert, our ships tore through their shields as if they weren’t even there. The Int geeks think that the aliens are so dependent on laser weapons that they’ve dismissed conventional bullets, bombs and missiles as something from the Stone Age, which is why their shields weren’t calibrated to stop shells. It’s safe to assume they’ve learnt their lesson now, and the shields will be up and running. Hans, you and 237 are to take down the shields on the first wave of the attack. I know your obvious concern – Albert’s counter measures seem able to blast any missiles or torpedoes we have out of space as soon as they are close enough. Don’t worry, the Intel geeks have found a way around that. The enemy missile defense system works on predicting the flight path of incoming threats. Obviously our missiles have always been geared to fly at a speed so fast it would not give the Alliance time for counter measures, but this isn’t working here. Instead, your torpedoes have been re-programmed to fly in on completely random flight paths, ducking and diving all over the place. They’ll lose their speed, but it won’t matter. It’ll confuse the enemy defences to the point of being useless, and you’ll be able to knock down their shields and then get in and blow up the generators before they can repair themselves.”
“They can still shoot us on the attack run, sir,” Lieutenant Commander Dressel said seriously, “what range do their self defense lasers shoot out to?”
“Their fighters have a defensive bubble of a hundred metres based on 101’s engagements,” Denisov replied, “according to the Int geeks, if we cross reference their counter measures pod to the size of the scanners on the cap ship, you’ll be under fire from any point within two to three kilometres. That, and the cap ship now has two destroyer sized vessels in escorts, who will be similarly armed.”
The buzz of worried conversation which was generated from the last comment quickly spiralled out of control. Sena felt a sickness claw at her gut. They were expected to go in against a wave of automated defences which would be active from maybe two miles out. Dive bombers were meant to be used against precision targets on the ground or to cripple lightly defended enemy merchant shipping – using dive bombers against carriers and battleships was a thing of the past, considered far too dangerous with modern defensive systems.
“Alright, alright!” Denisov held his hand up, “nobody said today was going to be a piece of piss! Yes, we are expecting losses on this raid. But if you cupcakes want to stop and think of the losses planet side, the losses sustained by the defence garrison and civilian population, maybe your day won’t seem so bleak after all. Plus, you’ve got support, which I’ll get onto. Back to business – 237: you take the shields down and keep them down. Once they’re down, get in amongst it and use your guns to strafe targets of opportunity along the outer hull. If you can take out any defense turrets then great, but don’t go making bloody martyrs out of yourselves. 262 – here’s where you come in. Once 237 have done their job, you guys move in and take out these targets – the engines, bridge and hangar in that order of priority. If we can stop this thing from moving at the very least it will be easy pickings by the time we’ve got a dreadnaught in the area. Also, we’ve got two submersibles in the area, RWS Dynamic and RWS Dangerous – if you get the shields down they’ll be able to jump out of subspace and throw their torpedoes in for good measure. 101 – stand by to engage any interceptors that come your way, and once the shields are down you too are to close in and cause some mayhem for the defences. I’m afraid your missiles aren’t quite up to the job of being reprogrammed for a flight path random enough to get past the defences so you’ll have to sit the first wave out and wait for the shields to come down.”
“That’s a shame,” Cavouri remarked dryly from a few rows in front of Sena.
“That’s the plan,” Denisov concluded, “let’s have a look at detailed timings before we split for individual squadron briefings.”
2 Deck Hangar
The hangar was a hive of activity, but far from chaos. Ground crews fuelled spacecraft in order of launch, deck handlers moved each craft from space to space like pieces in a seemingly impossible puzzle, pilots conducted walkarounds of their craft, checking every system thoroughly. Denisov knew that technically his place should be in ‘Flyco’ – the nerve centre of air/space launches and recoveries, but he trusted his similarly qualified deputy to carry out the job so that he could be there personally to see his crews off as their spacecraft were hauled onto the elevators to take them up to the flight deck.
Denisov’s ear piece buzzed as pilots began to check in with Flyco; the first Fireflash was already on its way up to the flight deck for launch. Two ratings from the photography department scuttled around the hangar, taking footage of the preparations for the historic raid. Denisov smiled and shook his head as he saw Sub Lieutenant Brock wink and give thumbs up as he walked to his fighter, an unnecessary pistol strapped to his thigh and machete sewn to his survival aids jacket. A pale faced young torpedo bomber observer who Denisov did not know leaned for support against his spacecraft, taking deep breathes as if to summon up the courage to clamber up into his cockpit and face the enemy. The thunderous roar of fighter engines echoed above Denisov’s head as the first fighter powered up for launch.
“Flyco, Gold One, five minutes,” Lacroix called from the fighter’s cockpit, letting Flyco know that she was completing her final checks.
“Flyco, roger,” the response crackled in Denisov’s earpiece as he made his way over to the dive bomber boys, watching as Gold Two, Captain Val Cortez, had her fighter dragged onto the aft elevator.
“Hello, Richard,” Denisov smiled to Lieutenant Commander Ryan as he approached the lead Annihilator dive bomber.
The portly pilot returned the smile as he pulled his gauntlets on.
“Hello, Wings,” he smiled, “wish you were in on this one?”
Denisov let out a sigh and ran a hand affectionately over the dive bomber’s pointed nose. He noticed the humorous nose art of Ryan’s spacecraft – a grinning shark brandishing old fashioned revolvers from his fins. It was up to each squadron commander whether their crews would be allowed nose art – of Indomitable’s four squadrons, only the dive bombers had the decorated craft; gun toting cartoon characters, voluptuous, semi naked young women, patriotic flags and emblems. Denisov let out a sigh. It was only seven months since he had last flown, but accepting the promotion and the job which came with it had meant turning his back on the cockpit, possibly forever. He felt like a coward for sending dozens of his own branch, his own people on such a task. But he also felt envious, like he was missing out on something special, something historic.
“Yeah,” he replied, half to himself, “yeah, I wish I was in on this one. Your boys and girls all set?”
Ryan nodded as he clambered up the side of the aircraft and lowered himself clumsily into his cockpit, accepting his seat harnesses from the maintainer who perched on the root of his wing to assist him. The noise above them doubled as the second Fireflash powered up, ready for launch.
“Golds One and Two, Flyco, ship steady on course two eight zero mark one five, cleared to launch.”
“Flyco, Golds, cleared to launch,” Lacroix’s repetition of the clearance crackled through Denisov’s earpiece.
Any conversation in the hangar was made impossible as the two powerful fighters throttled up to full power before hurtling along the flight deck above. The tumultuous noise from the two fighters became silent in a heartbeat as the two passed through Indomitable’s defensive shields, out into space where the absence of any atmosphere prevented any noise from reaching the carrier. The next fighter was lifted to the flight deck.
“Flyco, Oracle Five Six,” a surly voice crackled, “we’ve got a duff igniter, number one engine’s not going to start. Request grubber sup.”
“Oracle Five Six, roger,” Flyco replied, “mechanical supervisor on the way out to you.”
Denisov swore under his breath. Spacecraft were breaking already. His experience of ‘minor’ problems like failed igniters was that a five minute fix quickly became a three hour fix, and as the entire Embarked Carrier Wing was being launched, there were no spare spacecraft. Still, no point in wading in yet. Nobody wanted Wings breathing down their neck when they had a problem to solve. Denisov looked back up at his old colleague again. Ryan’s face had paled, like the young observer by the torpedo bomber. The ageing pilot pulled his helmet on and fastened up his chin strap before noticing Denisov was looking at him. He forced a smile.
“Give ‘em a shit day, Rick,” Denisov called up.
“Fighting 262nd,” Ryan replied, his voice shaky.
Pretending not to notice, Denisov grinned encouragingly up at him before turning to walk over to the torpedo bomber crews. The next fighter in line for launch powered up its engines and called five minutes’ readiness.
Scope Five Seven
408th (Surveillance) Squadron
Easterra Oracle Mk6A Surveillance and Control Craft
Sub Lieutenant Giles Monniger could tell that his commanding officer was still angry about losing an Oracle to unserviceabilites before even getting off the deck. That still left three of the squadron’s craft up and doing their job, and 408 were not the only squadron to have mechanical breakdowns before launching – one of 237 squadron’s Spacestrike torpedo bombers had a hot start on deck which wrote an entire engine off. Still, Lieutenant Commander Kowalaski’s lean face was twisted in anger as he quickly set about setting up the Oracle’s scanners to generate a false raid to fool Albert into thinking a huge raid was heading planet side.
“Same deal as before,” Kowalaski said to Monniger, “you take early warning. Remember, you’re looking after the whole strike force now, not just us and an escort. Stay on the ball, Giles.”
“Yes, sir,” Monniger replied, concentrating on every last return on his screen as he set his part of the scanner array up to comb the very fringes of its detection range.
The strike package had formed up now; Gold and Black flights seven Fireflash fighters swept ahead in loose formation, the three Oracles had scattered in a loose triangle around the package to provide early warning and jamming, whilst the seven Spacestrike and eight Annihilator bombers moved up behind the fighter screen. It would still take some time before they were in position to try to draw the alien fighters out of the capital ship and down to the planet, safely out of the way.
Half an hour passed, the only words exchanged were between Monniger and Voase, the pilot, to check on fuel consumption and to send an encrypted ‘operations normal’ call back to Indomitable. Then, out of nowhere, Monniger saw the first flecks of raw scanner returns a good five hundred klicks ahead. He checked his pulse compression, checked the Doppler returns for feedback on speed and checked the synthetic aperture returns to see if a visual picture was coming through. It was worse than he feared.
“Boss, I’ve got an enemy raid ahead, zero one zero mark zero five, four hundred and ninety kilometres, strength twenty plus,” Monniger reported.
Kowalaski leaned over to look at his screen and swore.
“The bastards have had the same idea we’ve had,” Kowalaski grimaced, “Giles, pass everything we’ve got straight back to Indom’s Ops Room, I’m going to try to seduce that raid away from mum.”
“Already passed on, sir,” Monniger said as the squadron CO frantically set up the fake raid of squadrons of non-existent fighters and bombers diving down into the Beahdorah Prime’s atmosphere. The fake contacts showed up on Monniger’s scanner. He hoped and prayed a similar picture would appear on the enemy sensors. Seconds ticked slowly by.
“They’re not buying it,” Kowalaski whispered.
“Gold Flight, Black Flight,” the secure comm. link burst into life as the Ops Room of Indomitable transmitted instructions to the strike force, “this is Hotel India Five, hostiles, twenty plus, zero one zero mark zero five, four hundred and eighty klicks. Engage, over.”
Monniger’s eyes widened. The only seven fighters in the force had just been ordered to abandon the bombers and rush headlong at over forty alien craft.
“Gold Flight, copied,” Lacroix replied, leading her seven Fireflashes away.
Monniger watched his screen in alarm as their escort peeled off and powered up, accelerating away from the vulnerable bombers and surveillance craft. Kowalaski reached up to his comm. box and selected the squadron discreet frequency to contact the other two Oracles.
“Guys, this is Scope Five Seven, listen in,” he said seriously, “Albert’s launched a major raid against mum. Mum has already vectored the fighters to intercept and my spoof has failed. Here’s the new plan. Scope Five Four, you stay with the bombers and do everything you can to hide their signature. Keep them invisible and off the enemy scanners, how copied?”
“Scope Five Four copies,” the reply came back, “we’ll stay with the bombers.”
“Scope Five Eight,” Kowalaski continued, “go in with the fighters. Those poor sods are seven versus twenty. Do everything you can to keep them hidden so they can get the drop on those bastards and even the odds a bit in the first pass. We’ll be right behind you.”
“Got it, Boss, stick with 101 and provide scanner cover to the fighters,” the Senior Observer called from the third Oracle.
Monniger turned to face his CO.
“What’s our plan, sir?” he asked tentatively.
“We’re going to position ourselves midway between the carrier and the enemy strike force,” Kowalaski said, “and we’re going to use every last drop of power we’ve got to hide mum and project a fake carrier for those bastards to go looking for.”
101st (Fighter) Squadron
4 x Astravia Fireflash FA1 Air/Space Supremacy Fighters
The disadvantages of having their speed and manoeuvrability massively hampered were more than paid off by the advantages provided by the lumbering Oracle surveillance craft which followed the seven fighters at distance. The enemy strike force was close now, not far from visual range as the seven Republican fighters moved around the right flank of the enemy force, staying underneath their bellies so as to stay clear of the enemy craft’s sight as well as scanners when they turned in to attack.
The Oracle’s service was threefold – its scanners provided a much longer range than those of the Fireflashes, which was beamed directly to the Visual Display Units in the fighters’ cockpits. Their presence was entirely shielded from the enemies’ scanners by the counter measures deployed from the surveillance craft. Finally, their synthetic aperture feature painted the enemy craft with radiation, giving an actual three dimensional picture of the aliens’ ships directly to friendly forces. To Lieutenant Andres Vazquez in the cockpit of Black One, this was the most interesting service if not the most useful.
“Looks like we’ve got a new enemy craft,” he transmitted on the squadron discreet frequency, “look at the return on those nine at the back. I reckon they’re bombers.”
“Gold One concurs,” Lacroix replied formally, “Black Flight, follow us in. We’ll go for the bombers on the first pass, you engage the fighters.”
“Black One, copied,” Vazquez replied.
That made sense – Vazquez’s Flight not only had one more fighter, it also had three seasoned pilots whereas Lacroix had one wingman with a ground attack background and another who had never flown in combat before. Then again, this was also Black Two’s first ever fight.
“Black Two, this is Black One,” Vazquez called, “you take lead, I’m on your wing. I’ll talk you into the first pass.”
“Black Two, copied,” Crowley replied nervously.
Crowley’s fighter powered up a little and overtook Vazquez’, leaving him to position protectively off the junior pilot’s right wing. A metallic glint up in Vazquez’s two o’clock high showed that now, amidst the mass of red boxes which trundled across his canopy, the enemy fighters and bombers were now visible to the human eye. Vazquez followed Crowley as the young pilot led Black Flight in pursuit of Lacroix’s Gold Flight, the entire squadron wheeling around to come in below and behind the enemy craft as their valiant Oracle followed behind. Vazquez picked out an alien fighter that had a little more space to manoeuvre around it, painted the target up on his Visual Display Unit and transmitted the details to Crowley.
“Black Two, that’s your target,” Vazquez called, “engage on my command.”
Gold Flight broke off to the left and angled to attack the bombers as Black Flight picked up speed, rapidly closing the gap from below like four sharks swimming up on their unsuspecting prey. The swarm of targets drew near, close enough now to make out stripes and insignia on individual fighters.
“Golds engaging in three…two…one…now, now,” Lacroix ordered.
Bright flashes to the left of Vazquez’s peripheral vision indicated Gold Flight cutting through the enemy bombers.
“Black Two, engage!” Vazquez ordered Crowley as he yawed his own fighter to the right, snapping off an accurate burst of fire which tore an enemy fighter apart before he jinked back on course to follow his wingman through the sea of enemy craft. Black Flight darted up and through the massed enemy formation, their chain guns firing off short bursts of fire as they swept directly up and away from the alien craft as they scattered in every direction.
“Blacks, break by pairs!” Vazquez ordered, “Duncan, get back down and amongst them! I’ve got your back!”
The hum of his engines almost serene compared to their angry roar when in atmospheric flight, his unsteady breathing into his mask echoing in his ears, Vazquez followed Crowley around in a tight turn and dived back down into the fray, surprised at the new pilot’s speed and aggression. He noticed on his Visual Display Unit that they had accounted for six enemy craft on the first pass – not bad, but that still left a further sixteen against their seven. Even with the Oracle blinding their scanner signature to the enemy, they could not hope to survive a protracted dogfight. They needed to score hits and get out.
Their little part of space swarming with cream white enemies, Vazquez followed Crowley as he latched onto an enemy fighter who had been forced into straight and level flight by two wingmen who moved in towards each other in a blind panic. Crowley sent a long stream of fire after his closest target, first knocking chunks of debris from the fighter’s elegant tail before correcting his aim and blowing his target in two, scoring his second kill of the engagement. He throttled back and latched onto another target. He was too keen, too fixated.
“Black Two, break right,” Vazquez ordered, breathing in relief as his protégé immediately obeyed and climbed away from the fight.
Glancing over both shoulders, Vazquez followed Crowley up and around as he picked his way through the swarm of fighters, bombers and debris. The battlespace was beginning to stabilise – the alien swarm had been split into three or four smaller groups, one of which had already broken off the engagement and was fleeing for home. A core of four bombers carried on undeterred towards their target, half a dozen fighters milling around them protectively. The rest of the dogfight was still relative chaos – a Fireflash followed a damaged bomber down through the pack, gun blazing, two alien fighters ganged up on an isolated Republican fighter as it tried to turn inside them both.
“Golds, back on my wing!” Lacroix shouted.
Vazquez winced and let out a gasp as he saw laser fire cut through the isolated Fireflash on the other side of the dogfight, blowing it apart. He saw Cavouri and Brock peel off and head for the main force of bombers as one of Lacroix’s wingmen reformed beside her.
“Blacks, reform,” Lacroix ordered, “stick together and concentrate on the enemy group I’ve targeted.”
Vazquez looked down at his Visual Display Unit – Lacroix had highlighted an isolated group of enemy fighters. He agreed with the course of action; as sorry as he felt for the crew of the Indom if any of the bombers made it through, he was not willing to die by pushing ludicrous odds in a hopeless fight. He was surprised to see Lacroix make the call – six months ago he figured she would have gladly sacrificed herself and every pilot she had for the glory of the Republic and a nice, posthumous medal. No, they had already done their part by charging into an enemy formation over three times their size, best to stick to the stragglers now rather than pushing their luck.
“Keep it going, Duncan, back in,” Vazquez urged.
Obediently, Crowley rolled over and dived back down to acquire another target. Immediately, two alien fighters zoomed up and turned hard, latching onto his tail. Vazquez sent an accurate burst of rounds tearing through the cockpit of the first fighter before he broke off and opened up on the second as it quickly snapped away. Rounds from his chain gun tore through the second fighter’s wing but he did not wait around to see if it was terminal – his job was to protect his wingman. Vazquez broke off the pursuit and neatly latched back onto Crowley’s tail.
262nd (Dive Bomber) Squadron
4 x DefCorp ASBR Annihilator Mk2s
“The shields are down!” an excited observer from one of the torpedo bombers shouted as the bulbous bombers scattered, banking hard and accelerating away from the gargantuan alien capital ship as its defensive armament filled the black void of space with line after line of deadly laser fire.
Two smaller but no less aesthetically perfect alien ships, each the size of a Republican destroyer, flanked the massive capital ship and added their own considerable weight of defensive fire to the area, making the bomb run a gauntlet of destructive laser beams. A sickening hand clawing at her gut, Sub Lieutenant Kayley Sena swallowed and tried to control her breathing. As the most junior pilot in the squadron she was flying as Blue Two; second bomber to the squadron CO.
“That’s our cue,” Lieutenant Commander Ryan called from the lead Annihilator, “Blue Flight on me, Orange Flight follow us down.”
Her hand shaking, Sena opened the throttle and powered up the huge engine which formed the rear half of the fuselage, the nimble dive bomber suddenly seeming more difficult to control than it ever had before as she followed Ryan’s spacecraft in a dive down towards the capital ship.
“It’s all going well so far, ma’am,” Chief Petty Officer Kokai’s grizzled voice said calmly through the intercom, “keep calm.”
Sena looked over her shoulder but only saw the rim of Kokai’s flying helmet from around the edges of her armoured seat as the veteran aircrewman swung his gun turret around to bring his armament into play. At the far side of the trio of enemy ships, two hazy shapes suddenly appeared in space, solidifying to form the stubby, ugly shapes of Republican subspace boats. The two vessels simultaneously fired spreads of half a dozen torpedoes each before disappearing as quickly as they had appeared. That would at least keep Albert busier for the dive bombers’ first run.
The lines of laser fire swept around, slowly at first, and then were suddenly ripping through space around her, cutting through the gaps in her squadron’s loose formation. She thought she might even have let out a brief scream of fright when the first bolt shot over her canopy, and she realised that there were beings on that ship, looking at her bomber and trying to kill her. For a brief moment she decided that enough was enough and she had made a horrible mistake with this entire chapter of her life, causing her to drag her controls to the left and break off her run. Chastising herself for her moment of cowardice, Sena gritted her teeth and reversed the turn, using the momentum to alter her initial course change into a series of evasive jinks and turns.
The eight bombers drifted further apart to allow them to manoeuvre, twisting and banking erratically to throw off the enemy gunners as the huge target ship loomed forward to fill Sena’s entire field of view. A swathe of laser fire suddenly cut through Ryan’s dive bomber and Sena froze in horror as she saw her Commanding Officer’s craft explode in the briefest of fireballs as the void of space swallowed up the mixture of fuel and air from the craft until all that remained was a field of debris, pattering off Sena’s canopy.
“Keep moving, ma’am,” Kokai advised, his voice as steady as a rock, “don’t make it easy for them.”
Snapping out of her daze, Sena tightened her grip on the controls and piloted her dive bomber back into its random pattern of evasive climbs, banks and dives. The range counter to the target chirped as she hit the one thousand metre mark. Flicking her thumb over the targeting computer selector on her control column, she initiated a scan sweep of the capital ship’s hull in her immediate flight path. Almost immediately, eight viable targets on the alien ship’s hull flashed up as red squares on her canopy.
“Target two,” Kokai said, “emissions tie in with targeting scanners. That’ll take the heat off everyone.”
“Got it,” Sena stammered, powering up the dive bomber’s tractor beam.
The Annihilator’s nose hummed as the powerful tractor beam’s generator span up, whilst simultaneously a handful of jinking torpedoes from the subspace boats penetrated the automated defences. A series of explosions blossomed out of the far side of the capital ship’s hull, spewing debris out into space. A laser bolt flashed past Sena’s canopy so close that she thought she felt the heat from it against her cheek as the tractor beam and targeting computer married up. There was a constant tone in her ear, and then her Annihilator suddenly lurched out of her control for a second and screamed straight for the target, the tractor beam trying to pull a multi thousand tonne craft out of space but only succeeding in dragging the protesting dive bomber down towards the scanner array on the rear of its upper hull.
Dragging her control column left and right, Sena hauled the bucking Annihilator against the pull of the tractor beam, yawing her craft slightly out of its flight path to throw off the enemy guns as she lined up to fire off her bombs.
“Six hundred metres,” Kokai warned.
In accordance with a standard attack pattern, Sena centralised her controls and allowed the dive bomber to line up perfectly on the tractor beam. A second, higher tone informed her that her bombs had a target lock. She pulled the trigger on her control column, and in an instant her first salvo of bombs were fired off their rails at twice the speed of sound. The scanner array disappeared behind a staccato yellow fireball and a gaping hole appeared in the target vessel’s hull. Gritting her teeth angrily, Sena switched to her rail gun and held down the trigger, sending a long stream of high velocity rounds smashing through the wound in the capital ship’s side.
“Break tractor lock! Break the lock!” Kokai shouted.
Her eyes widening, Sena disarmed the tractor beam and hauled her control column back into her stomach, pulling her dive bomber’s nose up and away from the capital ship. Only just in time, she climbed up and away from the colossal warship before her inattention would have allowed her tractor beam to pull her directly into her own target. As if to prove the point, she saw one of her squadron mates fall foul to the same target fixation and plough headlong into the side of the alien warship, disappearing in a mushroom cloud of smoke, gases and debris.
Kokai span his turret around and opened fire, his four rail guns screaming in a deafening high pitch as he send hundreds of rounds tearing along the deck of the enemy ship. Sena banked hard to the right, flying parallel to the warship’s deck only metres above it to allow her gunner’s rounds to wreak havoc along a kilometre of its length before she pulled up into a smart climb. A dive bomber from Orange Flight cut across her nose, a salvo of laser fire smashed into its wing and sent the craft spinning down towards the deck. A moment later the cockpit detached as the crew ejected, safe for a brief second at the escape pod was blasted clear of the doomed bomber before another wave of laser fire cut through the pod and tore it open.
Opening the throttle fully, Sena increased the distance from her stricken target and selected her second salvo of bombs, ready for another run as she watched the warship over her shoulder, the exhilaration of the bomb run being replaced with the now familiar grasp of fear in her gut.
“This is Blue Two,” Kokai transmitted to the rest of the squadron, “we’ve taken the rear targeting scanners down. Looks like the target ship’s rear guns are now being fired manually. Recommend we conduct further attacks from astern.”
The two subspace boats appeared again, this time from directly ahead of the capital ship before unleashing a second spread of torpedoes. Before they could disappear, a massive surge of power built up from the belly of the alien ship and spewed out in one concentrated beam, punching through the shields and hull of RWS Dynamic and destroying her in one shot. A second later, a burst of laser fire from one of the alien destroyers smashed through the cockpit of Blue Two.
Her whole body freezing, Sena was yanked off the controls and out of her seat, held only in place by painful straps which cut into her shoulders and thighs as the air inside her cockpit was sucked out of a ragged hole burnt through the top of her canopy. Yelling, struggling to grab at her controls, Sena was numbly aware of a jet of white foam which sprayed out of her right wing root, instantly solidifying over the hole in her cockpit and equalising the pressure. She fell back into her seat, the mad egress of air now replaced with shrill warning tones from the instrument panel of her damaged bomber.
Fly the damn thing first in any emergency – she recovered the controls and threw the Annihilator into a tight turn away from the threat, throttling up again to try to find a quieter patch of space to get her bomber into a safer flight configuration and deal with the emergency. The automated systems had at least repaired the hole in the canopy, but the inside of the cockpit was still freezing as atmospheric control struggled to restore heat and air. Her mask pumped 100% oxygen into her mouth as her eyes absorbed all of the warnings in her cockpit.
“Ma’am!” Kokai shouted, “Kayley! You ok?”
It was only then that she felt an incredible pain in her left side and let out an agonised scream as she looked down and saw her own blood spattered all over the side of the cockpit. Her whole body shaking as she plunged into shock, Sena inexplicably found that her first irrational reaction was to tear off her oxygen mask and close her eyes, leaning her head back and trying to breath the cockpit’s artificial atmosphere. She felt drowsy and a little warmer.
“Kayley! Get your mask back on! Get your fucking mask on, now!”
Sena returned her mask and felt her breathing begin to stabilise, but the pain was flaring up in her side again. She reached for the first aid pouch on her survival aids jacket and pulled out a simple field dressing, the same as bandages used by service men and women for hundreds of years. Packing it against the wound, she tried as best she could to stem the flow of blood and tighten the dressing in place.
“Ma’am, we’ve got cockpit atmosphere back,” Kokai reported calmly, “I’ve lost power to the turret and we’ve lost secondary hydraulics. Are you ready to go through emergency drills?”
“Kayley! Are you fit to fly this damn airplane!”
“Yes… yes!” Sena replied, “speed’s good, on a safe course, primary hydraulics good pressure, secondary are isolated. We’re… we’re good.”
“Ok,” Kokai said, “you ready for further actions? We need to get this cab home.”
“No,” Sena shook her head, “no! We’ve still got half of our bombs. Get me another target, we’re going back in.”
“Are you fit to…”
“Chief! Find me another fucking target!” Sena hissed, holding onto her wounded side as she banked back around to point her dive bomber’s nose at the alien capital ship, her eyes watering with pain and anger.
101st (Fighter) Squadron
4 x Astravia Fireflash FA1 Air/Space Supremacy Fighters
“Shit, I’ve taken fire!” Cavouri yelled as he pulled up away from the blazing target on his nose, “ejecting!”
Vazquez saw gases surge from the nose of Cavouri’s fighter and then the entire cockpit blast clear, spinning and somersaulting in the decimated Fireflash’s wake as it tumbled through empty space behind. The spacecraft which had downed him slowed suddenly, retro jets firing through its nose as it turned hard to bank back around and back towards Cavouri’s escape pod.
“No you fucking don’t!” Vazquez growled, breaking off from covering Crowley’s wing and diving down towards the smooth, white enemy fighter.
Rushing down from ahead and above the alien fighter, Vazquez saw the pilot’s unmistakable intentions as he lined up to fire on the escape pod. Vazquez fired off two missiles, sending them hurtling towards his target. The alien fighter broke away and pulled into a steep, evasive turn, the counter measure pod on his tail firing off two laser pulses which lanced through the missiles, detonating them harmlessly. The evasive turn allowed Vazquez to latch onto the enemy fighter’s tail, following him in the turn until he was sure of his shot. He fired off a burst from his chain gun, the accurate fire tearing through the alien’s tail and ripping the fighter into a dozen ragged parts which were left twirling through space. Throttling back, Vazquez reversed the turn and quickly looked for Crowley.
Crowley was tucked into Vazquez’s wing, following him loyally. Vazquez smiled, the lad showed promise.
“Black Two, Black Four, on me,” he ordered Crowley and Brock as he straightened his wings, looking down at his scanner to assess the battlespace.
Three alien fighters had formed up and were now fleeing rapidly back towards their capital ship. Cavouri’s pod was transmitting its distress beacon. Gold Flight were nowhere to be seen.
“Scope Five Eight, this is Black One,” Vazquez transmitted, prioritising the tasks he had ahead of him, “you still with us?”
“Black One, Scope Five Eight,” the reply sounded a little distorted, “we’re in your five o’clock, at seventy kilometres. Sorry, couldn’t keep up.”
“Scope, no problem,” Vazquez said, turning through a gentle circle and keeping his eyes peeled in case the enemy fighters plucked up the courage to return to the fight, “we’ve got one pilot banged out, we’re holding at his position, you good for pick up?”
“Scope Five Eight, affirm,” the Oracle observer responded, “we’re on our way.”
Vazquez drifted in closer to Cavouri’s escape pod, straining his eyes for movement within. A gloved hand appeared against the canopy, holding two fingers up offensively at Vazquez as he swooped past. Smiling, he climbed away again.
“Blacks, you taken any damage?” he transmitted on squadron discreet frequency.
“Black Two, took a bit of debris through my right wing,” Crowley replied, “nothing major, she’s holding up fine.”
“Black Four, all fine here,” Brock called in, his voice animated and excitable, “I’m low on chain gun rounds.”
“Copied,” Vazquez answered, watching the Oracle close in on their position to recover Cavouri’s pod with their tractor beam.
He switched his scanner from fast target scan back to picking up a feed from the Oracle’s superior surveillance set up. The formation of four alien bombers and their escort was well clear now, but was heading off at a tangent away from Indomitable and her escorts, off into deep space. Aside from a few isolated stragglers, all he could see was the two surviving Fireflashes of Gold Flight heading off towards the enemy capital ship and the flurry of activity around her. He checked Gold Flight’s individual transponder codes – Lacroix and Cortez. That meant that it was Hal Holland he had seen shot down and killed in the opening wave of the fight.
“Black Flight, Black One,” Vazquez exhaled, “good job, guys. Black Two, wait here for Scope to get the pod it tow, then escort them back home to mum. Black Four, stay with me, echelon starboard.”
“Black Two, copied,” Crowley replied.
The young pilot seemed relieved at the command to go back home with the Oracle. Crowley had done exceptionally well for his first fight, so Vazquez saw no point in pushing the lad’s luck any further, especially not with a damaged fighter. Turning to nod to Brock as his fighter appeared off Vazquez’s right wing, he led his pair back up in pursuit of Gold Flight and the remainder of the strike package.
262nd (Dive Bomber) Squadron
2 x DefCorp ASBR Annihilator Mk2s
Turning tightly above the crippled capital ship, Sena breathed a momentary sigh of relief as a flight of four torpedo bombers swept low across the deck, attracting the majority of defensive fire from the enemy vessel. Taking advantage of the brief lull she flipped her dive bomber over onto its back and pulled the nose through, lining up for the stricken aft section of the huge warship. Cracks had appeared up and down its hull, fires gushed out of the port midships as its atmosphere leaked into space, feeding air to the raging inferno.
“Target acquired,” Kokai called, “get underneath it and we can get to the fuel tanks.”
“Are you sure?” Sena queried, opening her throttle fully to scream down directly at the capital ship, raking its decks with a long burst from her rail gun.
“No, I’m not sure,” Kokai said, feeding target information to her canopy display, “but if this ship is built like anything else I’ve seen, I’d…”
The chief aircrewman was cut off as the defensive laser turrets reacquired the dive bomber and Sena flung it into a series of violent evasive manoeuvres. She piloted the agile craft down low over the deck, giving the enemy gunners only a fleeting opportunity to fire as she weaved between smooth bumps and protrusions on the upper deck, following the almost feminine curves around to fly down the side of the ship and across its belly before breaking away to set up for her attack run.
“Blue Two, this is Blue Four,” called Pascal, the only other survivor of the flight, “copied your target details, we’re following you in.”
“Blue Two copies,” Sena replied, yawing her Annihilator around its tail to point directly back at the alien warship.
She locked on the tractor beam, felt the violent pull as it found its target and then began the long series of uncomfortable defensive turns, dragging the bomber from side to side against the heave of the tractor beam.
“Six hundred metres,” Kokai called.
Sena centralised the controls, waited for the tone to warn her of a good target lock, and fired off the last of her bombs before breaking the tractor beam lock and pulling away from the enemy ship.
Over her shoulder she saw Blue Four running in from a tighter angle. Her own bombs detonated spectacularly and for a second it seemed as though the entire ship would break it two. She saw Blue Four climb away from the warship, laser fire blasting angrily around it as it fled from the angry hornet’s nest of alien gunners. Pascal’s bombs shot straight into the ragged hole left by Sena’s second attack.
Then, in the briefest of moments, all of space was replaced with a blinding light, Sena’s bomber was thrown angrily through the void by a shockwave unlike anything she had ever seen, and her entire surroundings consisted only of a sea of ragged, metallic debris. Chunks of metal and alloy, larger than small warships, were propelled twirling through space, smaller particles of debris pattered and banged against the wings and fuselage of her bomber as Sena realised they had succeeded in their task. The enemy capital ship had been destroyed.
Dragging his headset from his ears, Commander Denisov let out a long breath and stood up, stretching out his back as he looked out of the thick layers of aluminium silicate glass, down from the carrier’s island superstructure at the rear of the vessel and across the long, sweeping flight deck. He waited in FlyCo, a small room on the port side of the island, with his deputy and two communications ratings, all gathered around a small planning table and several banks of short ranged communicators for controlling the spacecraft once they were within visual range of the carrier. The painful process of sitting, helpless, listening to his bombers being swatted like flies as they attacked the alien capital ship was wearing him down, grinding away at his resolve as blips on the scanner screen, relayed from the Oracles, faded to nothingness to signify another two or three brave men and women lost.
Denisov dragged his weary feet to the forward end of FlyCo, glancing around the corner of the open door to the large, open bridge where the Officer of the Watch and Navigating Officer stood silently by the port side windows, waiting with their bridge team for orders to bring the carrier back around to accept recovering fighters and bombers. So far nothing had come home. Denisov’s attention was brought back to his little FlyCo empire as heavy footsteps echoed from the passageway a deck below. Captain Stuart Gallagher appeared at the door to FlyCo, his normally optimistic features now grim and dark. The tall, silver haired officer looked across to Denisov.
“CO!” Denisov called, bringing the occupants of FlyCo to attention.
Gallagher dismissed the formalities with a simple wave of the hand.
“What’s going on, Wings?” he asked.
“The bombers are still hitting the enemy cap ship, sir,” Denisov replied to the ship’s commanding officer, “they’ve taken out shield generators and propulsion. The torpedo bombers are doing their best to draw enemy fire, so far they’ve taken a hit or two but are all still operational. Most of the damage has been done by the dive bombers from 262, but they’ve taken a beating. They’ve lost four bombers, including the CO. We’ve also lost two fighters in breaking up the incoming raid, but one has managed to eject. What was left of the enemy raid was seduced away by the CO of 408 in Oracle Five Seven. They managed to decoy the last remnants of the alien raid well away from us into the middle of nowhere, but I’m afraid they were caught up by enemy fighters doing the job. We lost contact a minute ago, no ejection pod.”
“Right,” Gallagher nodded, “right. I don’t know if you heard the news. We lost one of the boats – Dynamic was lost with all hands. Until we get more warships in the area, I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do. I’m thinking of recalling all our spacecraft, Wings. What do you think?”
Denisov paused to think through his options. The bomber boys and girls would easily have expended every bomb and torpedo by now, the Oracle CO and his crew had removed the last threat to the carrier, the fighters were scattered all over space between their carrier and the enemy capital ship. There was not much left to do other than get as many crews home alive as possible. Denisov looked up at his captain and nodded. Before Gallagher could speak, one of Denisov’s communications ratings suddenly became animated, pressing one ear piece to the side of his head and frantically scribbling down a message with his other hand. His eyes wide in excitement, he dashed across to Gallagher and handed him the piece of paper. The veteran officer read it, smiled, and handed it to Denisov before grabbing FlyCo’s ship’s broadcast microphone.
“D’ye hear there, this is the Captain,” Gallagher transmitted to the entire crew of the Indomitable via a hundred loud speakers across a dozen decks, “I have just received a message from the CO of 237 squadron. The enemy capital ship has been destroyed. That is all.”
Denisov could not help but suppress a smile. An excited but professionally subdued ripple of conversation briefly broke out on the bridge. Down below, a victorious roar accompanied by excided whistles echoed through the heart of the ship. The whole thing came as such an anti-climax to Denisov; it was so artificial, they were so far removed in a silent, peaceful carrier drifting through space, miles away from the action. No colossal explosions, no gargantuan invading vessel torn apart before their very eyes. Just a simple message handed across on a piece of paper. Gallagher’s stern expression half returned to its normal, more amiable look.
“Good job, Wings. Let’s get our boys and girls back home.”
262nd (Dive Bomber) Squadron
DefCorp ASBR Annihilator Mk2
The dive bomber was in a bad way. After the second attack run they had taken another burst of fire from one of the escorting destroyers, the ensuing damage adding to the plethora of failed systems. The engine was rough running, coughing and spluttering as the temperature and pressure readings fluctuated erratically. The secondary hydraulics were long gone, all communications bar the intercom had failed; by some miracle, Kokai had managed to divert power back to his gun turret, but his scanner guidance had failed, leaving him with an antiquated and near useless manually aimed gun turret. Having somehow been broken away from the main group, Sena had attempted to pilot her damaged craft back to the carrier, skirting the edge of an asteroid field to help avoid enemy detection. The long flight back had been in near silence, with Kokai’s voice growing weaker and weaker as the intercom failed to cut out. Either that, or it was Sena’s light-headedness and lapsing concentration from her loss of blood.
“You still there, Kayley?”
Kokai’s voice seemed weaker than ever.
“Yeah… yeah, I’m here,” Sena answered, shaking her head quickly to try to clear her vision.
The long flight and the silence gave her too long to reflect, too long to think of the friends she had lost in the raid, the fact that already, at the age of 23, the amount of blood she had lost from the wound to her side meant that there was a good chance these were the last minutes of her life. She at least had to make it back to the carrier, or close enough before she died. Her parents needed a body to bury.
“Break right! Break right!”
Her eyes opening wide, Sena moved her control column right, adding a healthy dose of foot pedal to kick the Annihilator around into a maximum rate evasive turn. Although damaged, the nimble bomber responded wonderfully, turning on its wingtip to head directly into the asteroid field as a burst of laser fire darted through the space they had previously occupied. Opening the throttle, Sena prayed that her protesting engine would hold out as she jinked and dived through the dusty, brown asteroids, wincing as the four rail guns in the rear turret screamed their high pitched whine behind her head.
“Enemy fighter, on his own, six o’clock high,” Kokai reported, firing off another burst from his guns.
How could it have crept up behind them? It did not matter now; Sena had to try to fly far enough into the asteroid field to scare the fighter off her tail. It was their only chance.
“Break left!” Kokai shouted.
Sena turned sharply left, throwing the dive bomber into a series of s-turns as she weaved and threaded through the dense field of rocky debris. Then, as quickly as she had entered the asteroid field, it ended abruptly. She was in open, empty space against an undamaged enemy fighter. They were dead.
“Kayley!” Kokai yelled, the veteran aircrewman’s calm composure finally crumbling as he came to the same conclusion that she did.
Then, for seemingly no reason, the enemy fighter appeared in Sena’s peripheral vision, accelerating harshly past her left wing and diving away as its tail mounted defensive lasers picked off a pair of missiles which descended rapidly down from above it. Out of nowhere, a Fireflash fighter cut up from beneath her nose like a knife, its rail gun blazing. The enemy fighter was blown apart.
It took several seconds for the realisation to hit home that they had survived. Her breathing heavy, Sena watched as the Fireflash banked gracefully around to formate off her left wing, a second Republican fighter appearing behind it. The Fireflash had also sustained damage; a near miss had melted away a group of panels on the right hand side of the fighter’s nose, exposing a series of fizzing and sparking cables. The pilot looked across at Sena as the Fireflash drifted closer.
Sena tapped her ear and signalled thumbs down to the fighter pilot, signifying that she had lost external communications. Sena could just about make out the brown leather flying jacket the pilot wore over her space suit – it was Lacroix, the CO of 101. She pointed at Sena and waved her hand between thumbs up and thumbs down. Sena raised her shaking left hand and replied with thumbs up, letting Lacroix know that all was as ok as it could be. Lacroix nodded and pointed ahead and to the left, signalling to Sena the direction of the carrier, in case she had also lost her nav computer. Sena nodded and sank back into her seat as the two fighters protectively shepherded her home.
“Good job, ma’am,” Kokai croaked quietly.
Sena was not sure if that was directed at her or Lacroix, but felt her vision blurring again as her shivering limbs struggled to turn her bomber back towards Indomitable.
The fourth torpedo bomber came to a halt on the flight deck, its nose lurching forward for a second with the momentum of the tonnes of spacecraft behind it. Following the directions of a space-suited deck handler who marshalled the bomber with illuminated wands, the pilot taxied his craft onto the forward deck lift. He looked up at the FlyCo window as he passed and bouncing up and down on his seat in excitement, shaking two clenched fists to either side of his head. Denisov knew that his first thought should have been to reprimand the pilot for taking his hands off the controls whilst his bomber still had power to the engines, but given the severity of the action they had just been involved in, he let it go. The sound of footsteps leading up to FlyCo made Denisov turn and watch the hatchway expectantly, wondering if the Captain would return to check on how many crews they had recovered safely.
The tall, thin, sharp featured Training Officer of 101 Squadron appeared at the top of the ladder before he stooped to enter the compartment.
“Hello, sir,” Cavouri said wearily, “you sent for me?”
The fighter pilot still wore his dull, black space suit and survival aids jacket. He had been the only pilot who had survived ejection during the raid, having had his pod safely towed back from an Oracle surveillance craft.
“Hello, Paulo,” Denisov shook Cavouri’s hand firmly, “glad you’re back in one piece. How was it?”
“Bit of a surprise, sir, the enemy raid,” Cavouri replied, “I don’t suppose there was any way of predicting that. I’m surprised none of them got through, there were over twenty of the buggers and we could only do so much to break them up with seven of us.”
“Henry Kowalaski and his crew led them away with some fancy scanner manipulation in their Oracle,” Denisov smiled grimly, “they took the hit for us, unfortunately. The other two Oracles made it back, though, and the last of 237’s torpedo bombers has just landed on. Entire squadron back with only some light damage on two or three cabs.”
“Any more of my squadron back yet?” Cavouri asked.
“Just you and Black Two,” Denisov replied, “although the Oracle boys say they still had four transponder contacts for Fireflashes when they landed on, so it was only you and one other fighter we lost. Who was it?”
“Hal Holland,” Cavouri replied, “one of our two new boys.”
Before Denisov could respond, one of his communications ratings leaned over from his terminal in the corner of the claustrophobic room and made eye contact to attract his attention. Denisov smiled an apology to Cavouri and nodded to the junior rating.
“Ops Room reports three more friendlies inbound, sir,” the communications rating said, “Gold One and Gold Three are escorting Blue Two back.”
“Good,” Denisov smiled genuinely.
He was happy to hear that Lacroix had survived the attack. He had already lost two of his four squadron commanders in the raid, he did not want to lose another. More so, he was delighted to hear Blue Two was coming back to the carrier; that was the first dive bomber to make it home.
“Sir,” the comms rating called for his attention again, “Gold One reports light damage to herself and Gold Three. She’s asked for a priority landing for Blue Two, negative comms, rough running engine, injured crew onboard.”
Denisov nodded before resting a hand on the shoulder of his second rating.
“Shiner, get in touch with sickbay. Get a medical team at the hangar, ready to accept two casualties. Good job, Paulo, you go get yourself cleaned up.”
Cavouri nodded and turned to leave. Denisov retrieved his headset, giving a thumbs up to his assistants to signify he was happy taking control of operations from FlyCo. A little unconventional, but he wanted to talk to his flyers personally.
262nd (Dive Bomber) Squadron
DefCorp ASBR Annihilator Mk2
Her head nodding forwards, her eyelids unbearably heavy, Sena turned her bomber around the base leg of the circuit to line up on finals for the flight deck of Indomitable. The two Fireflashes had backed off now, giving her plenty of space to bring her Annihilator down on deck. She turned and looked over her shoulder; Kokai was slumped forwards against his seat harnesses, his chin touching his chest. Whether he was unconscious or dead Sena did not know – she should have realised sooner that his weak voice was due to injury, not a failing intercom.
The familiar tunnel of blue squares projected onto her canopy guided her down on the correct path towards deck, bold text written irregularly atop some squares to remind her to lower her gear and hook and set correct power settings for the engine. The gear and hook came down, at least, but the engine was on its last legs and the final approach projection on her screen flickered and died momentarily every few seconds. She had no talk down from FlyCo, little visual aids on her canopy and no signs of life from her aircrewman. The cockpit had never seemed lonelier.
The path down to the flight deck was now just a blur of shapes and colours, her eyes were too weary to focus and give her any definition. She could see perhaps a centimetre of her own blood swilling around the foot well of the cockpit; her two field dressings could only stem the blood flow so much, and it had been over six months since her first aid training, a mere day in duration.
Sera did not remember slumping forwards against her harnesses, her hands slipping off the controls, but found herself nudging the dive bomber’s nose down at the carrier’s stern. She dragged the control column, now unbearably heavy, back into a gentle climb and drifted slowly across the aft end of the flight deck. Throttling back, she almost allowed herself a slight smile of relief. The Annihilator drifted down towards the arrestor wires. She exhaled, her eyes drifted shut, and her world faded to black again. Sena only regained consciousness again for a brief moment of horrific pain as a fireball rushed through the cockpit, mere moments after her dive bomber nosed over and smashed itself apart across the flight deck.
Two Days Later
Naval Sector Command HQ
The plot looked so much more complicated than it had when the campaign had begun; front lines advanced and retreated across three different continents over the surface of Beahdorah Prime, now that Republican army units were on the ground. Naval units patrolled space above, clashing with their opposite numbers with growing regularity now that alien reinforcements had arrived in the form of a further two capital ships – now designated D1 Dreadnaughts by Republican intelligence – plus an armada of smaller, supporting vessels. The Republican navy had achieved air superiority over the planet’s surface; the luxury of air cover this afforded the ground forces was just about turning the tide, as alien infantry and armour support were superior to human forces, having that same edge that their large naval vessels had in space.
Vice Admiral Klause looked impatiently into his mug of coffee, waiting for the dark liquid to cool sufficiently to allow him to drink it. He would not slurp it if it was too hot. He hated slurpers. The rapid counter attack he had hoped to re-take the planet with had ground to a halt now that the aliens had reinforced their positions. The Republican advance had slowed, but by and large the fighting was still producing results in their favour. It had the potential to be a lengthy campaign, but Klause was confident of victory. Not like the poor bastards in the Alliance; the aliens had simultaneously attacked the Republic’s human enemies in greater force, so much so that the Alliance had called for a ceasefire with the Republic to deal with “Albert” themselves.
Pacing back and forth in front of the main projection screen, Klause watched as a strike force of dive bombers and their escort was launched from the RWS Indefatigable. He smiled grimly. The dive bombers reminded him of his niece. Young Kayley had showered the family in glory with a medal from her exploits against the alien dreadnaught a couple of days before; from her family’s point of view it was devastating that the medal was posthumous, but Klause felt it added an almost operatic grandeur to the whole affair. He had never really known the girl as she grew up, but he felt a whole lot closer to her now, prouder than he had ever felt when she was alive. He certainly spoke of her a lot more to his peers in the Wardroom.
Klause swore as he spilt some coffee across his hand as he turned to face Felton.
“Sorry, sir,” his pretty aide said without conveying any feeling of remorse, “you have a visitor.”
Klause’s eyes opened in surprise as his gaze fell on Commander Marcus van der Mar, the captain of the RWS Cavanta Bay. The tall man smiled as the Klause paced over to meet him. The Admiral smiled and held out a hand.
“Marcus! How the devil are you?”
His smile faded immediately as he saw van der Mar’s uniform sleeve was empty. The amputee’s smile turned into a polite laugh as Klause withdrew his own hand.
“Remarkably well, sir, all things considered,” van der Mar said, “please don’t worry about that. You’re not the first. Besides, I’m getting a new arm grafted on next week.”
“Glad to hear it,” Klause said genuinely, “although it is a good look for a frigate captain. A touch of Nelson about it. You’ll get a medal, of course. I’ll see to that. That seems to be one of the few good things which has come out of this bloody invasion. Lots more medals.”
Van der Mar shrugged, half turning to glance up at the projection screen.
“Can I get you a coffee?” Klause asked the tall officer, nodding to Felton to let her know it would technically be her providing any hot beverage.
“No, I’m fine thank you, sir,” van der Mar said, “I’m just passing through. I had a hold over between flights here for a few hours, so thought I’d drop by to say thank you.”
“Thank me for what?” Klause asked suspiciously.
Van der Mar paused, looking down to inspect his highly polished toe caps for a second before meeting Klause’s gaze again. He smiled again, placing his one arm behind his back.
“Dartmouth,” van der Mar began, “I’m afraid you were only a lowly Lieutenant Commander back then, sir, when you were on the instructional staff. I was an officer cadet in my first term.”
“I remember,” Klause nodded, recalling the job, but certainly not any individual officer cadets he taught.
“Trafalgar, you were teaching us about Nelson’s faith in his captains. When Albert arrived at Beahdorah Prime I didn’t have a bloody clue what to do. For some reason, I remembered your lecture, and I remembered what Nelson told his captains to do on the eve of the battle, in case they were cut off or could not see his signals.”
Klause beamed broadly. It was not just the flattery his old student had sent his way, but also the thought that here, in modern warfare against alien races in deep space, naval officers were still taking advice from the heroes of old.
“No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy,” Klause quoted the greatest naval commander of all time.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” van der Mar said, “just get close to the bastards and give them hell.”
Klause nodded. It had been the right thing to do.
“But I wanted to ask,” van der Mar continued, “I had to know. I lost a lot of good men and women, I think we all proved our bravery and dedication to duty. Why were we ordered to fire nuclear weapons into a densely populated area of human civilians?”
Klause froze in place. He had completely forgotten. One day, he supposed, one day probably not too far away, he would have to justify that decision to some very important people. Those at terminals close enough to overhear the conversation between the two officers were listening in, some not subtly enough. Klause wanted to shout and scream, to tear a strip of the insolent frigate commander for forcing him into this uncomfortable position. But it would not do, to lose his composure in front of the ratings. He sniffed uncomfortably, tugged at his tight collar and then slurped at his coffee. He did not owe any answers to a mere commander.
“That’s all, van der Mar,” he said seriously, “Felton will show you out.”
Klause expected anger. He expected disappointment. There were several reactions he was prepared for from his subordinate, but not the look van der Mar gave him.
“Yes, sir,” the frigate commander said, staring at Klause pitifully before turning to leave the Ops Room.