Band of Brothers: Chapter Nine- - First Impressions...


My, my... These chapters are getting longer and longer. While Chapter One was merely 20 pages in length, this one is about 60.

Anyway, I think this chapter is better than Chapter Eight. Still, this isn't all that great.

Hmmm... maybe I'm being too hard on myself. After all, how many other people my age can keep a coherent story going for this long, eh?

Anyway, here it is...


Chapter Nine: First Impressions

Dyson System
Enigma Sector
Roddenberry Quadrant

It appeared, at first glance, to be a normal plane of space; dark, speckled with the white light of the stars. But one could not rely on first impressions alone. The area around this space, which moments before had seemed like any other, writhed as powerful cosmic forces tore it asunder. Hues of deep blue and indigo danced across the void in brilliant tendrils of light, focusing on a single point in the center. From that point emerged the TCS Antietam, its jump drive glowing fiercely as focused antigraviton particles bombarded the heavens. As the Confederation carrier leapt the void and arrived in the Dyson System, the jump gate spiraled shut and all seemed to have returned to normal, the space no longer a violent maelstrom of power.
The Antietam’s Akwende drive cooled down and four F-54C Epees, under the command of Captain Justin “MadDog” Overstreet, launched, pulling into escort position. Justin squinted against the bright glare of the quasar in the distance. Moments after the carrier had arrived in-system, the jump gate irised open yet again and a new ship appeared, an arrowhead-shaped vessel with verdant hull plates and a heavy array of big guns along its forward deck. The TCS Horatio Nelson was a Waterloo-class cruiser that had been in its fair-share of skirmishes. Its skipper, Commander Yancy “Big Yank” Harcourt, was a thirty-year veteran of the game, barrel-chested and stubborn as a mule. But he could get the job done. His victories at Brack and Roaz were legendary. If it weren’t for his frequent drinking binges, he’d have been a rear admiral by now.
The Nelson pulled into position alongside the Antietam, announcing that everything was A-okay and they were ready to make way for Dyson Station in the center of the system. Justin listened to the radio chatter between Captains Ruth and Harcourt patiently, his dark eyes flickering down toward his radar display. He could’ve sworn he’d seen something pop up on the scope when he had launched, but it had been gone just as soon. What the hell had that blip been? he wondered nervously. When the exchange between the two captains was through, he keyed the radio to the carrier and said, “Nest, this is Baby Bird reporting, over.”
“ Roger that, Baby Bird,” came the voice of Comm Officer Garner. “What’ve you got, Overstreet?”
Studying the radar screen yet again, Justin replied, “Well, nothing yet, Zach. But… I swear we have Kilrathi out here. Has Dyson Station noticed any enemy activity in this system?”
A moment later, Lieutenant Garner responded, “ Roger that, MadDog. Although, Commodore Brand states the Kilrathi are concentrating on the far side of the system. Nothing’s been reported in this neck of the woods, Echo Leader.”
Justin looked around the emptiness of space. Where are you? he wondered. You’re out there…I can feel it, but… where? “I wouldn’t rule it out, Antietam. Keep your eyes peeled.”
“Roger that, Baby Bird. Antietam out.”
“Echo One out,” Justin said and sighed. He keyed the general frequency for Echo Wing. “ Did you guys hear that? Pay attention, guys. I have a gut feeling there’s something out there.”
He could picture Pete Decker shrug as he said, “ A couple of gremlins in your radar, Justin. Forget it. The Kilrathi wouldn’t be stupid enough to send troops out past Dyson Station. Commodore Brand would’ve fried them as soon as they appeared on his scopes!”
“ Just keep a lookout, Babyface. And that goes for all of you, Echo Wing.”
“Affirmative on that, wing commander,” Ted Butler said.
“ Da,” was Boyar’s brusque reply.
The Antietam, her fighter escorts, and the Nelson continued on course, their destination Dyson Station. Admiral Halsey had ordered them there after the business in the Langston System for further orders from Commodore Francis Brand, who was in charge of the Confed forces in the Dyson, Card, and Vonnegut Systems. Apparently, there were some Kilrathi goons lurking on the edge of the system, its eyes on Dyson Station. The Antietam was here to make sure the Cats looked elsewhere. Preferably into our guns, Justin thought with a tight grin.
His radio crackled as Pete Decker’s voice came over. “ Hey, Justin, I just got some news the other day.”
“Oh yeah?” Justin asked, not sure what his friend was getting at.
“My kid sister, Penny, just joined up with the Navy. Engineer’s Assistant, TCS McAuliffe. She’s a real whiz with ship engines, man, it’s no wonder she signed up.” He chuckled, but there was really no humor behind it, as if Pete was forcing himself to stay in good humor. “ I… I told her not to go, to stay home, but… She’s a patriot, that one! I just hope she’s okay, ‘Dog. I… I hope she’s okay.”
Justin sighed. He knew Pete and his sister were close, and that now, with her on the front line, they might never see each other again. He felt the same way when he thought about Jeremy. “ She’ll be fine, Pete,” he said, not sure if he really believed his own words. “ I’m sure she will. Hey, maybe my kid brother and your kid sister will meet up out there.”
Pete laughed genuinely now, a wide grin spreading across his face beneath his flight helmet. “Wouldn’t that be something, man?” he said. “It seems they’re all joining up these days. A draft wouldn’t do no good; there’d be no one left to draft, ‘cause they’d all be military!” Suddenly, something beeped on Justin’s console and Decker said, all business now, “Just picked something up on my screen, Captain. I think it’s…wait, it’s gone! It vanished!”
“ Got it. Grikath heavy fighters. An entire squadron of ‘em,” Lobo said.
Justin swore under his breath. Sure enough, an entire swarm of new red blips were appearing across his screen. “ Damn, they must’ve used the radiation in the quasar to mask their approach. They just slipped past Dyson Station to our position. Sneaky bastards!”
“Do we engage, Captain?” Gorbunov asked, and Justin knew he was just itching for a fight.
Echo Leader stared at his scope, watching as the Kilrathi fighters came closer and closer to the Antietam. There should have been patrols from Dyson Station around that quasar! They should’ve spotted the Grikaths and reported to the carrier. Justin made sure to report this to Colonel Drake, who would then speak to Commodore Brand about the proper use of Dyson’s fighters. Finally, Justin snapped, “ Roger that. Echo Wing, break formation and open fire.” He quickly switched radio frequencies. “ Antietam, we got bogies. Figured they must’ve shielded themselves with that quasar. It’s an entire squadron out there; we’ll need backup.”
“ We’re launching fighters now, MadDog. Stand by,” Xavier Tesh replied.
A moment later, the Nelson’s comm officer, a young man named O’Grady, announced, “Major Magnus’ squadron is launching.”
Tempted to crane his neck around and see if the Antietam planes had launched, Justin forced himself to keep his eyes forward, watching as the Grikaths loomed in the viewscreen. Neutron fire blossomed before Justin’s Epee as the lead Grikath opened up with his guns. His front shields took the brunt of the attack before MadDog pushed the stick forward, launching his fighter into a dive that took him underneath the frenzied Kilrathi squadron. Boyar, Pete, and Butler had already peeled off, and Justin began to feel the old instinct rising within him yet again. It was as if the guns triggers were an extension of his arm and all he had to do was flex a muscle and the Kilrathi fighter would be no more.
The flight of Grikaths he had dived under flashed past him and Justin hit rudder and pulled the stick to port, tilting up one wing before zipping back toward his opponents and opening fire. Particle cannon fire impacted against the front shields of a Grikath, overloading them and leaving the heavy fighter vulnerable. The crippled Cat’s wingmen pounded Justin’s port and starboard shields, but they held firm. Justin fired off a dumb-fire and banked to port, watching in delight as the Grikath split apart, taking one of his wingman with him. He was facing the Cat’s last remaining wingman now, who was fumed by his lord’s demise. “ I shall gut you, human!” a chilling, gravelly voice announced.
“Bite it, catface!” Justin retorted, settling the targeting reticule over the Grikath’s from on his HUD and pressing down on the triggers. The Cat took a few hits and peeled off, Justin hot on his tail. A new blossom of azure blips began to dot the radar screen as the Battling Bastards and Gray Ghosts launched from the Antietam and appeared on the scene. The area around the two Confed ships was crisscrossed by energy weapons and snaking missiles as the battle between the human pilots and the Kilrathi squadron heated up. In all of the sudden confusion, Justin had lost his target.
“Mayday! Horatio Nelson taking fire! We require assistance!” a startled Terran voice yelled and Justin looked down at his VDU to see the green, grainy image of O’Grady.
Justin keyed his comm unit, tuning into Echo Wing’s frequency. “ You heard the man, boyos. Let’s get our asses over to that cruiser.” His wing acknowledged the order with affirmatives and the four fighters turned toward the Nelson, which was being swarmed by Grikaths. Decker immediately launched a heat-seeker and took out one of the attackers. “Good shooting, Decker!” Justin cheered, dropping the reticule over a bogey and sweeping his thumb over the trigger. The shots went wide and the annoyed bomber turned away from the cruiser and toward him instead. “That’s right,” Justin whispered, keeping his finger hovering over the missile trigger. “Just come closer, my friend. Yes…” His Epee began to shudder as the Grikath hurled neutronic fire in his direction. “Now!” he yelled to no one in particular, launching the Dart and clearing the blast zone. A wing sheared off from the Grikath and the fighter itself tumbled end over end until it smashed against one of its fellows in a dazzling display.
The Nelson’s shields flared as a Kilrathi torpedo impacted against its flank. A split second later, the cruiser’s guns turrets began to flare to life, destroying three Kilrathi fighters in a matter of a few seconds. The Nelson’s gunnery officers cheered across the main frequency and Justin couldn’t help but smile.
The grin soon faded as he realized that the laser blasts from the ship’s flak cannons were striking dangerously close to his fighter. “Shit!” he swore, dodging through the flak and nearly slamming into a Kilrathi fighter. The Grikath barrel-rolled out of the way and Justin could’ve sworn he saw the pilot shaking his fist at him, as if to say, “How dare you violate my space, ape?” He wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.
More explosions blossomed around him and he realized that some of them were Terrans. Purple blips appeared across the board: ejected Confed pilots. If the Kilrathi were especially trigger-happy today, then those eject pods could be sitting ducks! Well, no time to think about that now, he realized, just as an enemy fighter appeared on his six, guns opening up. Justin dodged the fire, weaving left and right. The Cat launched an FF at him, a missile that he narrowly avoided before it exploded a few meters away. The Epee bucked and listed to port as the Grikath nailed its aft quarter. His VDU showed heavy damaged to the rear shields, but it did not appear critical at the moment. A few more strong hits, though, and it would be a very different story.
“ Hey, I need assistance! Anyone out there that can give me a hand?” he hollered into the general frequency, continuing to weave left and right as his rear shields were slowly being eaten away. He pulled his fighter into a high-g turn to port, nearly inverted, trying to dodge the heavy fighter. As the enemy bogey turned toward him, Justin nudged reverse thrust and came in on the Cat’s left flank. He ripped across its port shields with particle fire and soon succeeded in punching into armor before the Grikath banked sharply, its speed bleeding off. Justin rammed the throttle forward and followed in behind the Cat, dropping his reticule in on its engines. He received lock tone from his ship’s AI and let fly with a heat-seeker, which tore the Kilrathi fighter apart, hurling smoldering debris against Justin’s forward shields.
He noticed that the amount of Kilrathi fighters out there had been depleted significantly with the arrival of Major Gavin “Bolt” Magnus’s squadron from over on the Horatio Nelson. Gavin and he had attended the Academy together, serving on the TCS Endurance during flight school. Justin was only slightly jealous that Gavin was in charge of a cruiser’s entire fighter complement, while he was not even a major. “Bolt, long time, no see!” he called.
A Rapier flashed past him, a rakish lightning bolt painted across the fuselage. Magnus, always the hot dog, pulled into a neat little corkscrew, inverted, and dove down on a Grikath, guns blazing. The Grikath disintegrated and the Rapier looped back toward Justin, seeming as if it would collide with the Epee for the briefest of seconds. “Well, damn me! It’s my old friend MadDog,” Bolt said with a grin. “Fancy meeting you out here in the middle of a dogfight! How’s it hanging?”
Justin was maneuvering between too charred enemy husks, lining up on a fighter that had veered in toward the Nelson’s hangar deck. It looked like he was going for a torpedo lock. If it reached its target, the Waterloo would take damage, and Justin would be damned if he let that happen. “Just peachy, you old son of a bitch. How’d you get this job?” he asked through clenched teeth, nudging afterburners to catch up with the Grikath.
“My uncle’s a General, in case you didn’t know,” Gavin replied haughtily.
“Nepotism at its finest,” the leader of Echo Wing replied, deadpan. He had heard the story before; soldiers getting special treatment because a relative was a bigwig with the Fleet. He would not go and dispute the fact that Magnus was a great pilot, but he wondered how much of his command he had actually earned. But, he could think of that some other time. “Stay frosty, Magnus.”
He was closing in on the Grikath as it dodged the cruiser’s flak fire. Somehow, it had slipped past the Terran fighters, but Natalie Maximus was sidling up to the bastard, almost in range to open fire. “Sparkler, on me,” he snapped and her Rapier moved onto his wing. If a flyer as green as Lieutenant Maximus tried to take on a Kilrathi pilot filled with skabak, the will to die for the glory of Sivar, she’d be creamed. She needed assistance, and Justin was there to provide it. “Damn, this guy’s good. He’s getting close, all right.”
“I’ve got lock. Firing!”
“Sparkler, hold fire- -” he began, but Natalie had already acted. He watched as a Javelin missile snaked out from her medium fighter, heading right for the Grikath’s tail pipe. The Cat blew chaff and maneuvered just slightly so as to turn his thruster cones away from Sparkler’s missile. The heat-seeker went straight through the chaff and impacted against the Nelson’s shields. “Dammit, Maximus!” he snapped.
The girl’s voice came over the comm, shaky and scared. “I’m sorry, Captain. I thought it would go through!”
“Back off, Lieutenant. I’m going in.” He hated snapping at his pilots, but they had to learn to follow directions. If overconfident newbies like Sparkler, who hadn’t a kill to her name yet, started to follow their own rules, then good people would get hurt.
The Grikath was going in on full ‘burners, washing Justin’s forward shields in thruster fire. His shields were being depleted rapidly; aft was pretty much nil and fore didn’t seem too hot, either. As he thought this, another Cat fighter swooped overhead. Shit, Justin thought. “Give me some help!” he shouted.
“I’m on my way, chief,” Dragon responded and Justin saw a blue blip representing his Rapier move in on the Grikath. Meanwhile, Captain Overstreet still had his own enemy to deal with. The Kilrathi fighter was too close now. Ten more seconds, the Nelson would be a goner, despite the valiant efforts of its gunnery crew. Justin wasn’t going to let that happen, however. His rear shields dead and neutron fire eating into aft armor, Justin armed and fired his final missile, following it up with a volley of particle shots. The Cat let loose a cloud of decoys yet again, but the heat-seeker ignored it and went straight through, blowing apart the Grikath in a billowing mushroom of fire.
Justin skimmed the surface of the Nelson, checking for any damage, but was pleased to find none. As he passed over the cruiser’s bridge and waggled his wings in a sort of salute, the Grikath that had been on his tale came careening toward the Antietam’s escort. Justin did not think that this fighter was in the mood for a kamikaze strike, but that the continued bombardment from Dragon’s guns were causing his fighter to become out of control. Lieutenant Yan launched a missile and the Grikath pulled into an evasive, barely turning to port to avoid slamming into the Terran ship. Still, its right wing skidded across the Nelson’s shields and the Grikath bounced out of control… right into Justin’s guns. He opened fire with a salvo from his particle cannons, tearing the Cat to shreds.
“Nice job, Dragon,” Justin said with a sigh. He looked down at his radar screen. The mass of red blips had died down and only a few were left, running for the safety of the quasar. Colonel Drake came over the comm, ordering a flight from Major Tomura’s squadron to hunt down the stragglers and take them out. “Echo Wing, form up,” he snapped and a few moments later, Pete and Lobo pulled up onto his wing. A moment after that Boyar flew into position, a wing snapped off and a long gash across the side of his Epee. “Gorbunov, what the hell happened to you?”
“I got distracted and one of the Nelson’s flak cannons tore the wing off, allowing one of them Cat bastards to lob a missile at me,” the hotheaded Russian replied, sounding embarrassed.
Overstreet groaned. “Dammit, Lieutenant, that flying style of yours is going to get you killed one of these days!” he snapped, menace in his voice. “You always have to watch what’s going on around you, not just on what you want to concentrate on. You read me?”
“Da, Captain,” was the glum reply.
Before him, the flights were landing one by one. Major Noble’s Alpha Wing had already landed and Bravo Wing was asking for landing clearance. Justin looked around. Space was littered with bodies and debris. SAR shuttles from the Antietam and Nelson had already launched, tractoring in the unlucky pilots who had ejected. There did not seem to be any Terran casualties, though, and that was a relief. The Flight Wing didn’t need any more death. There had been far too much of that; first there had been Tucker, then Gnome, and… Major Edison. But he pushed that thought out of his mind. It was time to land.
Lieutenant Garner gave him clearance and he followed the landing officer’s instructions as the ACLS took hold and guided him down to the deck. When his fighter had touched down and Rachel’s people began to swarm all over it, he quickly hopped to the deck, handing Petty Officer Coriolis his helmet as he did so. All around him, the flight deck was in the bustle that usually accompanied a landing. Fighter crews in their multi-hued shirts dashed across the bay, checking and rechecking the fighters as they were powered down and moved into their appropriate service areas. Some fighters looked like hell; others looked like one could eat off them. The SAR shuttles landed next, disgorging a few pilots who looked rather dazed and confused. Some had never ejected before, and the experience had only served to remind them of their own mortality.
Justin sighed, moving toward the ready room to remove his flight suit. While he was doing this task, Lieutenant Maximus trudged in, a large bruise over her forehead. “Sparkler!” he snapped, startling her just slightly. She saluted, but did not say anything. “What you did out there today, Lieutenant…”
“ I’m sorry, Captain,” she admitted glumly, sounding almost like a scared child. “I thought I could get that Cat bastard, sir; I had no idea he would pull away like that.”
The squadron’s new X.O. shrugged. “ Look, I know we all make mistakes. Lord knows I’ve made my fair share these last few weeks. But you have to follow orders, no matter what. Even if you know for a fact that you can nail a bogey. If your C.O. calls a retreat, then, by God, you retreat. Hell, if your C.O. tells you to take a bath in ship fuel and dance the funky chicken, then that’s what you’ll do. It sounds crazy, but that’s the way it is in this man’s Space Force. You read me, 2nd Lieutenant Maximus?”
“Yes, sir, loud and clear. I just wanted to score at least one kill!”
Justin could sympathize with her almost. When he had been a second looie on the old Robert E. Lee, it had taken him two months before he had scored his first kill. Not unusual for a green pilot, but frustrating as hell. When you were out here in this hell that was war, you wanted to do your part, and that meant killing as many of them before they killed you. That’s all Natalie wanted, to prove herself in this chaos. He clapped her on her shoulder and said with a wry grin, “ After debriefing, take a breather. Grab a drink, get some shuteye. We all deserve it, God knows that.”
Natalie returned his smile and he realized why all the male pilots would swoon over her. Ryan Yan surely was a lucky son of a bitch. “ Yes, sir,” she said, saluting again and retreating to find her locker. Justin chuckled to himself. Yes, Dragon was a lucky man, indeed.

Petty Officer Kevin Murphy sat behind the helm of the TCS Antietam. He was a young man, not yet twenty, but he was a wizard with a starship. The Confederation carrier’s massive Gilgamesh engines thrummed as Murphy maneuvered her closer to the bulk of Dyson Station, its radius a whopping 1,200 meters. To the Antietam’s helmsman, the space station looked like a giant umbrella. “Dyson Station, everything’s looking just great out here,” he said into the comm, a grin on his boyish features.
“ Glad to hear it, Antietam,” the voice of Dyson’s comm officer replied.
“ Moving into defensive position, Dyson. We’ve got your back.”
Through the bridge viewports, the verdant hull armor of the station was clearly visible as the carrier and her cruiser escort maneuvered within a few hundred meters of her. Almost immediately, an airlock door on Dyson Station slid silently open and several space-suited figures drifted out, pushing along a few dozen crates. The Antietam had been dangerously under-supplied ever since they had left the Heinlein System. The crates contained rations, fuel, spare parts, weapon systems, extra uniforms, and the like.
Captain Donald Ruth waited until the exchange was complete, then relinquished the conn to the Officer of the Day, Lieutenant Henri Le Beau. He retreated to the solitude of his wardroom, sat behind his massive oak desk, and punched in the private code of Commodore Francis Brand, Commanding Officer of Dyson Station. A few moments later, the system connected and a gaunt, almost skeletal man appeared on the screen. As commander of all forces in the Dyson, Card, and Vonnegut Systems, the stress had gotten to the man. His blond hair had gone almost gray and he had dark circles under his eyes. On close examination, Donald caught dirt under the commodore’s fingernails, and ashes from cigarettes on his white uniform shirt. “Francis,” he said by way of greeting.
Brand nodded back. “ Donald. It’s been a long time, Captain,” he said. “I hope the supplies we’re sending over will be adequate.”
“Yes, they will be, Commodore. So… how are you?” He hated the small talk, but they had known each a long time, so it seemed appropriate.
Francis scratched his balding pate and sighed. “Well, I can say I’ve been a hell of a lot better before, Donald. Things are looking grim. Intel’s spotted some weird Cat installation in Card, as well as reports of heavy Cat ships moving in toward Vonnegut. Why? I have no clue. Vonnegut’s a freaking farm planet, with no military value. Sometimes I wonder what the hell goes on in the minds of those furry bastards.”
“You’ll send in forces to Vonnegut, of course?”
Looking weary, Brand nodded. “Of course. I mean, what else can I do? But my task force has its hands tied down; there’s just no way I can divert the forces to Vonnegut any time soon. Admiral Halsey’s shot down any and all requests I’ve sent in for more manpower. Besides, the Cats aren’t the ones I’m really worried about.”
“There’s a heavy civilian population on Vonnegut 2. Like I said before, it’s mostly farms. Colonists of Russian descent. They stick real close to traditions. Onion domes and babushkas and all that. I’ll have to send some leathernecks down to the surface to get those people out of there before the shit hits the fan.”
Donald was again glad that the only forces he had to worry about were the ones aboard his ship. Flag officers had it just too damned rough. I’d rather be blown out the airlock than given a star on my shoulder! he thought. But, that was not what he needed to talk about. “Francis,” he began slowly, “ there’s something I need to speak to you about.”
“Shoot,” Brand said.
“The Antietam and the Nelson were attacked as soon as we jumped in-system. Captain Harcourt took some damage, but, luckily, we made it out of the scrap.” Well, he thought grimly, most of us, at any rate. They had lost 1st Lieutenant Danielle Montgomery, a pilot in Major Nomura’s Fighting Tigers. Her Rapier had crashed on the flight deck due to battle damage, crushing her. Just another casualty in this damn war. “That attack could’ve been prevented, Francis, if you had just stationed some of your fighters near that quasar!”
There was a bit of an edge to Donald’s voice as he said this. Commodore Brand seemed taken aback for a moment, but soon regained his composure. “Captain Ruth, I’m sorry, but we had our own troubles to deal with. Those Cats at the other side of the system have been a real bitch lately.”
“Yes, I understand that, Commodore,” Ruth replied bitterly, again thinking of that dead pilot. “But the fact remains. You knew that quasar could’ve been used to mask the Kilrathi’s approach, and yet you had ordered no patrols stationed there. That’s damn sloppy work, sir, and it won’t look good on your record!”
The C.O. of Dyson Station was shocked. No one talked to him like that on a regular basis. “Donald… we’re old friends!” he gasped.
“Yes, we are. But we’re still officers in the Terran Confederation Navy, and our jobs take precedence over our friendship. I lost a good pilot out there today because of your mistake. I don’t want to have to lose another one.” He paused, remembering to whom he was speaking. “Sir,” he added hastily.
Francis lowered his head for a moment, wringing his pale hands. After a moment, to Captain Ruth’s surprise, a small grin crept across his skeletal features. “Always the stickler, eh, Donald? Okay. I stand reprimanded, Captain. I’ll have Commander Jeffries send out a wing of Ferrets to that quasar immediately to guard the jump point. Happy?”
He ignored the mocking tone in his friend’s voice. “Yes, sir. Oh, another thing, Commodore?”
“Anything, old friend.”
“I’m low on personnel, particularly pilots,” he said. “We haven’t had replacement staff since we arrived in the Heinlein System five weeks ago. Our casualty rates have sky-rocketed, what with our doomed mission in Trk’Harna.” Again he thought of Korag, the valiant old Kilrathi renegade. He was dead now, along with so many other brave, noble warriors. Don’t think about that now, he scolded himself. Business first. “I was wondering if you could spare a few pilots, sir?”
Commodore Brand turned away from the camera for a moment to read over a report and finally nodded. “Of course, Donald. I’ve seen to it personally. A shuttle will arrive as soon as the orders are given out.”
“Thank you. We’ll need those people, Commodore.” He forced a cheery grin. “Now… you said you had a problem with the Kilrathi in this system?”

Captain Justin Overstreet passed through the halls of the TCS Antietam, his eyes seeing, but not really focusing on, his surroundings. Everywhere he walked, junior lieutenants that he once could call by first name and share a beer with in the rec room stared at him wide-eyed and snapped a salute. He couldn’t even talk to half the squadron now! All this, he thought with a frown, because of an extra bar on my collar! He was second-in-charge of the VF-104 these days, something he was not too sure he could handle. Captain Napier had more experience than Justin did, but Major Noble had been adamant that the woman he loved not be in such a position. A few days ago, John had even pulled him aside to say that he was thinking about pulling Mallory off the roster to keep her out of harm’s way. Justin had been appropriately cautious, but made it clear that that was not a good idea.
He half-heartedly returned the salute of an engineering lieutenant and continued toward the squadron ready room, where the Battling Bastards’ three new pilots were waiting. Cougar had been busy with paperwork after the battle by the jump point and so had charged Justin with meeting the new fish that had just arrived from Dyson Station. He had not been so sure about bringing Home Corps pilots onto a carrier, but their records seemed to indicate their piloting abilities above average, so Justin wasn’t entirely nervous. If they could hold their own in a dogfight, that was enough for him at the moment.
Justin passed the rec room, where the holovid was playing a recent TCN news broadcast. It spoke of the failed rebellion in the Trk’Harna System, a tragedy just declassified to the public. The pilot felt a pang of sadness. Before the Antietam had arrived in that system a few weeks ago, Justin had never thought a Kilrathi could actually have feelings or a heart. But he had fought alongside those rebels, had watched as they gave their all for a cause not even shared by the majority of their people. All Korag and his fellows had wanted to was to live free, away from the oppressive boot of Kilrah. And now they were dead. They never really had a chance, Justin thought sadly. But there were rumors that several more Kilrathi systems were thinking about defecting to the Confederation. N’Tanya was high on the list. There was still hope…
Hope… Justin did not know how long humanity could cling to hope. It had been one crushing defeat after another for the Confederation ever since the Vega Campaign. The Kilrathi were gaining more and more footholds in Terran space. It was only a matter of time before they found the anomaly in the Enigma Sector which allowed for several systems to be crossed in one jump. When that happened, the Terran colonies would be no more and Earth itself would be threatened. But we cannot let that happen, Justin thought. No matter how futile it may seem, we have to fight. We have to stop the Emperor and his diabolical forces. Whatever the cost… He thought again of Major Edison. It seemed as if he had been gone for ages, but in reality it had only been a couple weeks. Word would’ve gotten to his family on Arcturus VI now. He idly fingered the locket, wondering how young Christopher would take it. He would be growing up without a father now. And there would be a burning hatred within the boy for the Kilrathi, something that could well consume him, destroying his very soul.
Taking the lift down to the flight level, Justin forced himself to divert his thoughts from the depressing nature they had taken. He wondered why he couldn’t keep in good spirits like Luke Frost or Pete Decker. Why must I dwell on the most morbid things? The new pilots would need to see a man in charge of himself, someone who had his emotions under control. It would do them no good to see their new squadron X.O. breaking down in the middle of the rec room.
Straightening his uniform jacket, Captain Overstreet stepped off the lift and crossed into the VF-104’s ready room. “Attention!” a voice snapped and Justin assumed it was from one of the new pilots. Dammit, he thought, what I wouldn’t give to be a second looie again. To just fly and fight, without having to worry about those under me.
“At ease, for Christ’s sake. At ease,” he snapped as he approached the trio of officers standing along the rear wall of the chamber. “I am Captain Overstreet, Executive Officer of the VF-104 ‘Battling Bastards’, your new assignment. Major Noble is in charge, but his hands are tied at the moment, and so I’ll be giving you the once over this time out. Got me? Good.” He glanced at his PDA. “2nd Lieutenant Alfred Curry.”
A young man with slicked black hair and a thin mustache snapped off a lazy salute and smiled. “The one and only, sir,” he said in a cheery voice, his British accent giving him a certain charm. “Oh, call me Joker. It’s a moniker that’s stuck with me ever since flight school on Sirius, Captain. Although I don’t know why I was stuck with the name. I’m a rather straight-laced fellow. Why, I’ve never committed a misdeed in all my twenty-three years, sir! Well…” Curry paused, rubbing at the strip of hair over his lip. “Well, there was that time on Centauri 3. You see, there was this gorgeous barmaid- -”
Justin held up a hand to quiet the verbose young man. “Very well, Lieutenant Curry. Thank you. Your file here says you’ve scored seven kills, with one ace to your name. Very impressive. If you keep up that record, you’ll do just fine here.” He moved on before Joker could respond, reading the next name from his list. “2nd Lieutenant Magda Schlieffen.”
A petite young woman, who was at least a head shorter than he was, saluted. Magda looked at him a certain way, Justin realized, a way he couldn’t quite place. It unsettled him just slightly. “I fly under the call sign of Diamond, Herr Captain. My flight instructor gave it to me at Sirius. He told me I was both hard and beautiful. He was very flattering. Flattery will get a person very far with me, Captain.” She paused, a devilish glint in her blue eyes. “Very far, Captain.”
Oh, so that was the look, Justin suddenly realized. He felt himself blush. She obviously had a thing for him, and MadDog was definitely tempted by the pretty German pilot, but realized that even the conversation he was having with her now was altogether inappropriate. He hastily cleared his throat and said, “Ah, very good, Lieutenant. Your, ah, file here says you’ve fragged two Kilrathi.” Before she could notice the increasing rosy hue to his cheeks, the squadron exec continued. “2nd Lieutenant Mustafa Kemal.”
A young, swarthy pilot nodded. Just that. No snapping to attention. No “Sir!” Justin had to admire that. It told him the young Turkish pilot had himself under control, that he was not concerned with a superior officer hovering over his shoulder every ten seconds. That told Justin that Kemal had initiative, that he wouldn’t worry about the approval of a wing commander before making a decision in the heat of a dogfight. Justin had seen too many pilots lose their lives when they took the crucial time necessary to submit to a superior. Calmly, the Lieutenant said, “It is a pleasure to be here, Captain. I look forward to flying on your wing.” His voice was that of a highly educated aristocrat. It shocked Justin for a moment. You didn’t get to hear King’s English frequently in this man’s Space Force.
“Very well, Lieutenant. I believe you’ll do okay here on the Antietam,” Justin said with a friendly smile, trying to put the new recruits at ease. “Let’s see… Your file here says you’ve bagged yourself three Kilrathi- -”
“Four, sir,” Kemal interrupted.
Justin looked up sharply from his computer slate, puzzled. “Pardon, Lieutenant?”
“Just that, Captain Overstreet. The record says I’ve shot down three Kilrathi. I’ve achieved four kills, sir. They’re stenciled on my Rapier which currently rests on the flight deck, if you’d care to take a look.”
Justin narrowed his brow at Mustafa. “Well, Commander Jeffries seems to be under the impression that you’ve only three to your name. Why would Jeffries be mistaken?” he asked skeptically, trying to keep Kemal on his toes.
“Sir, I am quite unaware of his reasoning behind the blunder, but I assure you, I have four kills to my name.” There was just the slightest edge to his voice as he said this.
Joker Curry leaned in close to his flight mate, whispering, “Hey, Sultan, drop it, all right? It ain’t worth it!?”
“No,” Mustafa whispered back. “I will not have my honor besmirched by that bloody mistake on that file!”
Stifling his grin, Justin raised an eyebrow and said, “Now, is this a private conversation, pilots, or do you wish to fill me in?”
“Sir, Commander Harold Jeffries is not a… let us say a reliable source of information,” Kemal replied, perhaps a tad hesitantly. “It is well-known by all personnel who served on Dyson Station that Jeffries was wont to retreat to his quarters with a bottle of brandy and a young female ensign or two. I believe my former wing commander was quite distracted when he wrote that report.”
“That’s quite a charge to make against a superior officer, Lieutenant Kemal. You understand this, I assume?” Justin grinned and glanced at Diamond and Joker. “Can you two testify to this allegation against Commander Jeffries?” The two pilots murmured something. His grin grew larger. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that. Do you mind repeating that more… clearly?”
“He’s, uh, right, Captain,” Alfred Curry said nervously.
“Right. Well, then, Lieutenant Kemal, you’ve made four Kilrathi kills. I’ll be sure to fix that in the file.” Justin tapped at the computer slate, but did not really change a thing. It would do Sultan well to have his boots actually touch the deck for a change. “There, that’s better.” Kemal seemed to visibly relax. Justin howled inwardly with laughter. He addressed all three pilots now when he spoke again. “Major Noble will wish to speak with you as soon as possible. An ensign will come to get you at the appropriate time. If that’s all…?” There were no questions. “Very well. Dismissed.” They snapped to attention and saluted and Justin grudgingly returned it. Maybe Cougar was used to the gesture from every junior lieutenant, but Justin wasn’t. It had been hard enough to accept salutes from enlisted grunts, but now this!
With a sigh and a shake of his head, Justin turned away.

Justin landed his Ferret and popped the canopy, careful to shut down all systems before he did so. The tractor dragged his P-64 into its appropriate service area, Rachel giving thumbs up when all was secure. Justin hopped out of the cockpit, his legs aching. He had just flown three back-to-back patrols out there, having gathered enough evidence to garner the situation out there. The Kilrathi presence in the Dyson System was light enough, but could prove a challenge for the Flight Wing if they were put into the position to both defend the space station and destroy the cap ships.
“Great flying, skipper,” Rachel greeted and Justin merely waved in reply. He could almost feel the scowl his crew chief was giving him, but he didn’t really care right now. He was bone tired and a few cold ones in the rec room sounded pretty damn good right now. In the ready room, he quickly peeled out of his flight suit and reported to Major Noble for debriefing.
“So… you encountered Kilrathi ships out there today, Captain?” he asked.
Justin nodded. “Yes, sir. My patrol wing ran into a pair of Krants out there. I killed the first one, but his wingman went running scared right after. I think it’s safe to say there’s a cap ship in this system, sir.”
“What do you reckon, Overstreet?”
He thought for a moment before responding. “Ralari, most likely, sir. A newer ship wouldn’t be carrying Krants, sir.”
“How do you figure it’s a destroyer, and not an older-model Snakier, then?”
“Well… If there was a carrier out there, Major, Dyson Station would’ve been dust long ago,” he replied finally. “So, I believe we’re facing a Ralari in this system.”
Noble nodded thoughtfully, his left hand lingering over his polished desktop. He looked up sharply, his dark eyes bright. “Let’s hope you’re right, Captain. A carrier would spell our doom here. Thank you, Captain, that’ll be all for now. The Colonel says we’ll have some down time before we send out the strike against those Cats. Dismissed.”
Justin saluted and quickly spun on his heal, exiting Major Noble’s spacious office. It used to be Doug’s office. He could still see where they had removed the tag from the door. He shook his head to clear the dark thought and continued toward the rec room. The place was abuzz today, the new pilots from Dyson Station getting acquainted with their surroundings. He noticed Magda Schlieffen seated by the holovid, flashing him a small grin. Nodding in reply, he continued toward the bar.
“Ah, Captain Overstreet. ‘Tis nice to see ya again. Business wouldn’t be the same without ya, lad,” Joe said as he approached. A large grin spread across his freckled face.
“Hey, Joe. It’s good to see you, too. This is the first time I’ve come in here to relax for… oh, for a while,” he said. “It’d be even nicer if we didn’t have the Cats right around the corner, if you know what I mean.”
Flannery shrugged. “Of course. We could all use a little shore leave. Our stay in Lucas was so short that last time, no one was allowed off ship. A damn shame too, Justin me boy, ‘cause we’ll fall apart if we don’t get a break soon. And I’d like to restock me liquor stores. Those don’t come with the standard supply shipments, you know.” He and Justin shared in a bitter laugh for a moment. “Anyway, speaking of the hooch, what’ll ye be having, Captain?”
Justin looked at the list. “Manchester Rum, please.”
“Ah, fine choice, lad. I picked that up from a friend of mine the last time I visited Earth,” Joe replied, turning around to rummage underneath the bar. “Gallagher told me that he had had it imported from Gemini Sector itself. Fine stuff, this is.” He returned with the stylized bottle and poured a shot for Justin. MadDog accepted the drink with a grin and sipped at it. Joe had been right. Manchester produced some damn fine rum!
Joe served another pilot and leaned against the bar. “So, I’ve seen some of the new pilots around, lad? How are they?”
“Hmm? Oh. They’re, um, okay, I suppose. The three assigned to my squadron are a tad… rambunctious, I should say, but they’ll do fine,” Justin replied. He frowned. “I suppose discipline was a tad lax on Dyson, if what I hear about Commander Jeffries holds any truth.”
“What are ye talking ‘bout, Justin?” Joe asked, eyes glistening with mischief.
Justin finished his rum, flashing a smile at the Irish bartender. “Privileged information, Joe,” he said. “You gotta be part of the chain of command if you want to find that out.”
Feigning indignation, Flannery placed his hands on his hips and scowled. “Now look here, young lad, I was a decorated officer well before you were out of grammar school! I’ve the Gold Star to me name! Now if any information is privileged information, I damn well deserve to know!”
Justin laughed, sliding a Confederation bank note across the bar to Joe. As he did so, the P.A. system exploded with Colonel Drake’s voice, “All pilots report to the Briefing Room! Repeat: All pilots report to the briefing room!”
“Well, Joe, that’s my cue.” He got up to follow the crush of pilots exiting the rec room, but paused halfway to the door, turning around and grinning. “Hey, remind me to tell you about Jeffries one of these days. Ciao.”
Joe thumped the bar with a heavy fist. “Come back here, you little whippersnapper!” he shouted to the young Captain’s back. “I have the right to know!”
“Just remember, Joe,” Justin called from the corridor. “You don’t!”
The heavy door to the rec room closed on Joe’s protests. Shaking his head in mirth, Justin followed his fellow pilots down the corridor. He noticed Diamond brushing against him just slightly, but he did not think it was entirely by accident. Jeez, he thought, I wouldn’t want to have to report her to Major Noble. I mean, in any other situation her advances would’ve been more than welcome, but I’m a superior officer! Pete Decker, standing nearby, laughed at his friend’s apparent discomfiture over Lieutenant Schlieffen’s “accident.”
“Well, well, ‘Dog, you’re quite the ladies’ man, aren’t you?” Decker asked with a raised eyebrow. He playfully elbowed Justin in the ribs.
He groaned inwardly, reaching out and clutching Pete by the elbow. “Stow it, Lieutenant. Diamond’ll have to be set straight. We’re still in the military, for Christ’s sake! There’s still such a thing as protocol. I hope you’ll remember that, too, Lieutenant Decker.”
Pete tapped his brow in a mock salute. “Roger wilco, Captain, sir!” he snapped, a large grin spreading across his stubbly face.
Justin groaned and moved away from Babyface, walking the rest of the distance to the briefing room in silence. At least Pete Decker’s attitude toward him had not changed. He entered the large chamber and took his place in the front row. Froggie Duchamp had once sat in the seat next to him, but the Kilrathi had had other plans, unfortunately. In a matter of moments, the entire Flight Wing had gathered in the briefing room and Colonel Drake was striding toward the podium, holding up a hand to place the pilots at ease.
When the room had quieted down, the red-haired Wing Commander began to speak. “Ladies and gentlemen, each of you encountered Kilrathi ships in this system on your patrols today. The Cats are prepping for some sort of strike against the space station. Their attack on the Antietam at the jump point was perhaps a prelude to this attack. Our SWACS patrols have just reported in and, well, it seems we finally know what we’re facing out there.”
He nodded toward Lieutenant Garner and the young communications officer tapped at his console and the holoscreen behind Drake lit up with softly glowing figures. Justin recognized a wire-grid schematic of an old-style Kilrathi destroyer. Drake said, “It looks to me like the Cats have sent a Ralari-class destroyer into this system to strike against Dyson Station. A Kamekh corvette is escort, as well as a squadron of Krants. SWACS have placed the destroyer group here- -” and a point on the navmap behind Drake lit up- -“at the jump point leading into the Gerrold System.”
“Then what the hell are we waiting for?” a voice boomed from the back of the room and it took Justin a moment to recognize Boyar. “If we have the position of the bastards, let’s go out there and kick some furry ass!” Several pilots cheered in agreement with the Russian.
Casper Drake held up a hand to quiet the rowdy group of pilots. “I’ve spoken with both Captain Ruth and Commodore Brand and we’re all in agreement that a delayed strike against these Kilrathi ships would be prudent.”
“Prudent, hell, sir!” Nikita roared back. “We’ve waited too long already. I for one am sick of our constant patrols! Let’s get out there now and kill the sons of bitches, goddammit!”
Drake, in a rare display of anger, pounded the lectern with the palm of his hand. His face reddening, he snapped, “That is quite enough, Lieutenant Gorbunov! One more word out of you and I’ll have you removed from this briefing room! Do I make myself clear, mister?” Boyar mumbled something. “What was that, Lieutenant? I didn’t quite hear you!”
“Yes, sir!” the Russian hissed icily.
“Now, if we can continue this briefing uninterrupted…?” When no one spoke, Drake made an effort to calm himself and said, “Long range sensors indicate that the Kilrathi have been on the move since our last SWACS patrol, probably to throw off detection by us. By our best estimates, the Ralari has moved to place the Dyson asteroid belt between them and us. They’ll expect us to cut through this belt; the Cats aren’t dumb, just evil. Those Krants will be on us faster than a tachyon if we take that route.”
“What about skirting around the belt, come in on their starboard flank?” Mallory Napier asked from the back row.
Drake shook his head. “Well, that’s we thought next, but soon ruled it out. The problem is that quasar. Now, granted it could be screwing with the Cats’ radar the same way it was doing with us, but it would be doing the same thing to our bombers, leaving us deaf, dumb, and blind in this system. I won’t let you boys and girls going into the fray like that. Maybe the Kilrathi are crazy enough to do that to their pilots, but Confed doesn’t operate like that!”
“So, what are we going to do, sir? We can’t just stand across from each other with our hands on the butt of our revolvers like it’s the OK Corral,” Garry North put in. “And pretty soon, the enemy will be gunning for the station herself. If we sit back and wait until they come to us, we’ll be putting Dyson in jeopardy.”
Luke Frost raised a hand to speak. “Yes, but if Commander Jeffries launches fighters quick enough, he could tie up those Krants so we could go in and blow up that cap ship!”
“Not if what I heard about Jeffries is true,” Spyder mumbled and Justin shot a sharp look at Lieutenant Bowen. So he had heard about Jeffries inadequacies too? Sultan would certainly be getting an earful later on, he thought.
As the pilots began to talk among themselves concerning this cryptic revelation, Colonel Drake slammed his hand on the podium again, obviously trying to control the anger flaring up in him. “That’s enough, all of you! Lieutenant Bowen, there will be no more of this, do you hear me? Any problems with Jeffries will be dealt with by Commodore Brand.” He ran a hand through his thick red hair. “Lieutenant Frost, your plan is feasible, I’ll grant you that, but Dyson Station is undermanned now that the transfer of forces between her and the Antietam is complete. The Krants would overwhelm any fighters Jeffries sends out, and I’d have no choice but to bring you guys back to give them a hand, which would force us to abandon the bombing run on that Ralari.
“However, Captain Ruth and I have developed a plan of attack which Commodore Brand has agreed to,” Drake continued. The screen behind him changed, showing several blue dots launch from the station and a swarm of red dots from among the asteroids moving to intercept them. “What you’re seeing here is a simulation by Tactical Officer Manson, which shows several ‘dummy’ pods being launched by Dyson Station.”
“‘Dummy’ pods…?” Joker said skeptically.
“Little more than a couple decoys which simulate the Antietam’s and Dyson’s IFF transponders. Now, according to Chiefs Holland and Hornby, this should fool the Kilrathi if the Antietam herself should disable its own transponders. The Cats, we’re hoping, will notice on their radar screens that we’ve suddenly changed position and will respond appropriately, moving to intercept these ‘dummies’ and therefore bringing themselves out in the open. For when the Cats do arrive on the scene, they’ll not find the ship nor the station, but a full attack wing of Broadsword bombers. We’ll launch our torpedoes as soon as we have lock, then pull back, drawing the remaining Krants here- -” a grid lit up on the mapscreen “- - where the Antietam will be waiting with batteries charged and a flight of Epees under Captain North.”
Winter snorted in derision. “Oh, so I don’t get to share in the fun, do I?”
Drake smiled. “Don’t worry, Garry, you’ll have you’re fair share of the action by the time this is all over.” The Antietam’s Wing Commander quickly went over the details of the dummy pods. They were standard decoys, but outfitted by Bob Holland and Max Hornby to utterly scramble the Cats’ communications systems to confuse both radar and visual identifications systems. As a result, the Ralari would be seeing the Antietam when it wasn’t really there. Justin could have cared less about the technical aspect of it. After all, that was not his job. His job was to blow the things up after the techies had gone to work.
“So, that’s it then?” Boyar asked hotly, his hands almost twitching in anger.
Justin shot a look at the pilot. “Sit down and shut up, Lieutenant,” he hissed.
But Boyar wasn’t listening; not to Justin and definitely not to reason. With a sigh, MadDog sat back, prepared to watch the fur fly. “We’re just going to sneak around and lure the bastards to us? Why can’t Confed ever just attack the sons of bitches! Why all this duplicitous bullshit? Let’s go out there and kill them! Let’s do it!”
“Someone get this idiot out of here!” Drake roared before Boyar had even finished speaking. “I’ve had it, Gorbunov, you’re grounded!” Lieutenant McGraff, one of the Colonel’s aides, already had Nikita by the elbow and was pulling him from the briefing room. Boyar was furious, his shouts of wrath and protest echoing from down the corridor.
Justin lowered his head, his cheeks burning red. So much for his command abilities. He couldn’t even keep one rowdy pilot under control! What would happen when he got a squadron command of his own? If he got a squadron command, he told himself.
“Now, if we can put this unpleasantness behind us?” Drake said, his anger still very evident as he spoke. “Dyson is prepping the dummies now and will launch them in twenty-minutes. You have fifteen minutes before you are to launch, so I suggest you meet with your respective squadron commanders to get specifics on the attack. So… if there are no questions? Dismissed.”
The pilots of the Flight Wing stood and made way for the exits. Justin was still furious over Boyar’s immature antics in the briefing room. He would talk with Cougar as soon as he could as to Gorbunov’s future in the Wing. He needed discipline, that much was certain. But would the Russian hothead ever become the model officer? Justin didn’t think so. He was just carrying way too much baggage around with him. The Cats had killed his parents right in front of him and he had spent time in a Kilrathi prison camp, for God’s sake! That would have turned anyone into the sort of person Boyar was.
Still, Justin did not believe the Space Force was the place for him. If it hadn’t been for that friend of Boyar’s father, he never would have been accepted to the Academy anyway. His holding a commission was a mistake, simple as that. There was no denying he wasn’t a damn good pilot when he wanted to be, but the military was just way too constrictive for Nik. If he knew what was good for him, Lieutenant Gorbunov would resign his commission and sign on with the militia, where the discipline was far more lax than in the Regulars.
He wouldn’t do that, though, no matter how many times he had threatened to. The militia did not see the action that the Regular Space Force did; they were just too far away from the front line. Unless he was court-martialed, Boyar would remain on the Antietam, still flying like a maniac in the hopes of killing just one more bogey in the name of his family.
Justin was walking down the hall, feeling gloomy, when Lieutenant McGraff, blood pouring from his nose limped down the hall, his dark eyes wide. “Phil, what the hell happened?” Captain Overstreet asked, rushing forward to support the man.
McGraff held out a hand to steady himself against the wall, waving off Justin’s help. “He… hit me!” he gasped, somewhat in shock.
“Who? Gorbunov?” Justin asked, dreading the answer.
McGraff nodded. “Yeah. I was escorting him down to the barracks, when he just punched me right in the face! He took off after that.”
“Shit! Where did he go?” Phil didn’t respond, but instead slumped against the wall, his face pale. “Come on, man!” Justin urged, shaking him by his shoulders. “Is it possible he was heading toward the flight deck?” McGraff nodded before he fell down to the floor on his butt. “Goddammit!” He spotted Sam Mulligan and beckoned her over. “Sam, get Phil to Sickbay and tell Drake to scramble the Wing!”
“What?” Captain Ruth’s aide asked, bewildered. “Where are you going?”
He was already halfway down the corridor when he turned around and said, “Just do as I say, Yeoman! That’s an order!” He turned and raced toward the flight deck before she had a chance to respond.
Dammit, I should have expected this! he thought viciously. Boyar was going to get himself killed! He just hoped he reached the flight deck in time to stop him. But he was too late. As the airlock leading into the bay became visible around a corner, the roar of fighter engines boomed and Justin clearly saw Nik’s Sabre shoot down the launch bay and pull out into space. “Shit! Shit!” he roared, racing out onto the flight deck.
Xavier Tesh, the Flight Boss, burst into the corridor, rubbing a hand through his graying blond hair. “Cap’n, what’s going on!? Are we launching! I didn’t even hear from Gorbunov before he went shooting down the launch bay!”
“Get back to your post, Boss. It’s an emergency!” Justin yelled, running by.
Carl Jung, Boyar’s crew chief, was nearby and Justin grabbed the man and shook him by his shoulders fiercely. “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded of the noncom.
Jung stared at him with wide eyes. “Lieutenant Gorbunov told me the Wing was on full alert. He said he had to get airborne.”
“And did you bother to check his orders with Colonel Drake?” Jung hesitated, then shook his head. “Christ! I’ll have your stripes for this, Petty Officer Jung!” Justin whirled, disgusted, from the man, leaving Jung to stare after him with wide eyes. MadDog raced across the flight deck, finally spotting Rachel. “Chief!” he barked. “I need my fighter! Is it prepped?”
The blond petty officer shook her head. “No, sir. Not yet. Chief Holland told us you boys weren’t launching for another fifteen minutes,” she stammered, confused for a moment.
“There’s been a change of plans, Chief. I need a fighter. Now!” he snapped, putting as much authority in his voice as he could muster. Boyar was God only knew how far out into that asteroid belt now, and he had to get out there and stop him before he endangered the entire ship.
Rachel checked her computer slate before responding. “Sir, the only fighter we have up and ready right now is Lieutenant Yan’s.”
“Excellent,” he said, making a beeline toward Dragon’s waiting Sabre. He ignored Rachel’s startled protests and quickly slipped into a flight suit. Grabbing his helmet, he raced toward the fighter’s ladder, shoving anyone who didn’t get out of his way fast enough.
“Sir, what the fuck are you doing, may I ask?” a red-faced crew chief barked, clambering up the ladder and shoving his sweating face into Justin’s.
“Look, if you don’t get the hell off this ladder and clear me for launch, then we can kiss our attack on the Cats good-bye and the Kilrathi’ll be swarming this boat and making prisoners of anybody they can find,” the pilot hissed between clenched teeth.
“And that includes pushy enlisted grunts who don’t know how the chain of command works!”
The petty officer drew back a moment, then pressed forth yet again, shoving a finger in Justin’s face. “Look, young sir, you may be an officer, all holier-than-thou with your fancy-pants commission and Academy ring, but when you come storming down here, hopping into a fighter that’s not even your own and telling me to fuck off, I can get a little testy. This Sabre here is my property, you got that? I’m the plane captain, and now I’m telling you to fuck off.”
Justin opened his mouth to respond to the foul-mouthed crewman, but the grizzled man continued. “And I’m sick to death of your so-called ‘chain-of-command’, which makes seasoned veterans like me play slave to the master played by you young hotshots. I’ll tell you one more time before I get the MPs down here: Get the hell out of my Sabre!”
Justin shook his head in dismissal, reaching forward and prepping the Sabre for pre-launch. The heavy fighter’s engines whined to life and the cockpit began to come alive with the ship’s systems. The petty officer, furious and still bent on his little tirade, leaned forward in an attempt to knock Justin’s hands away from the controls and power the Sabre down. The pilot grabbed the man’s wrists and pushed him away. Yan’s crew chief lost his balance on the ladder and fell down hard to the deck, cursing loudly and profanely at his misfortune.
“I’ll have your commission on a platter, you bastard!” the man yelled, racing for a deck phone, probably to call the MPs (although Justin figured they were already on their way down to the flight deck).
Justin grinned down at him while he settled his helmet on his head and sealed his flight suit. “Hey, thanks for the warning,” he told him. “And, by the way, you don’t the chain of command? Then get the hell out of Confed and enlist with the Landreich, moron.” The cockpit sealed and the roar of the engines reached a stentorian crescendo, drowning out the profane little man’s protests.
By this time, the flight deck was in utter confusion. Several other pilots had raced down to the deck in full gear to see what the sudden tumult was about. Enlisted men and women raced about, some prepping planes, others demanding to know what was going on. While this happened, Justin keyed into the Flight Control Center. “Boss, clear me,” he said hastily, continuing to flick switches on the Sabre’s console.
A bewildered Tesh appeared green and grainy on the comm VDU, his dark eyes wide. “Jesus Christ, Captain, first Boyar and now you! Drake’ll have you skinned alive! Hell, no, I won’t clear you. Get out of that fighter!”
“Goddammit, Xav, Boyar’s gonna get us all killed! I have to stop him,” Justin pleaded, pounding a gloved hand on the console in anger and frustration. “If I could, I’d clear this with Drake, but there’s no time! You have to clear me!”
Tesh rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath before facing the camera and saying, “Fine! All right? Fine! I’ve just put my head on the chopping block for you, Justin. I hope you’re happy!”
“I am, Tesh! Thanks,” he muttered, taking a firm grip on the Sabre’s joystick and laying his other hand on the throttle. Deck hands rushed to get out of the way as Overstreet slammed the throttle forward and rocketed out of the hangar, knocking over a tool cart as he did so. The walls of the flight deck rushed past him as he neared the airlock leading into open space. Finally, he broke through the force field, breaking to starboard as soon as he cleared the deck. He engaged afterburners, his drives glowing white hot as the asteroid belt loomed before him. Soon, the Antietam and Dyson Station were pinpoints of light behind him.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Justin muttered, trying to spot Boyar’s Sabre in the jumble of rocks and ice. Suddenly, his console beeped and a blue blip appeared on his radar screen. Justin quickly checked the target. Sure enough, it was Nikita Gorbunov. He adjusted his heading, dodged a sizeable chunk of icy rock, and blazed toward the rebellious pilot.
Suddenly, his radio crackled and a voice came over the comm. “MadDog, what the hell are you doing, get back to the carrier!” Colonel Drake yelled, static blurring his voice.
“Sorry, sir, but Boyar’s blown his top,” Justin said. “I would’ve cleared it with you, but you would’ve wanted to get the entire Wing ready before anyone launched. There wasn’t enough time for that!”
“Yeoman Mulligan said Boyar… attacked Phil McGrath!”
Justin sighed. “Yeah. Look, I’ve got him on my scopes. I can’t turn back now.”
“Are you nuts, Captain?!” Drake said, worry in his voice. “The Antietam’s sensors detect a swarm of Krants just waiting to pounce on you in that asteroid field. You’ll be killed! And in the off chance that you do make it past those Krants, the Ralari or the Kamekh is sure to fry you! Return to base, Echo One! That’s an order!”
“No can do, sir.”
“I’ll court-martial you,” Drake warned, but he did not sound too sincere.
Justin allowed himself a tight grin behind his helmet. “No you won’t, sir,” he stated smugly. “Look, all I’m gonna do is find Boyar and track him down. I won’t get myself or the Antietam into any unwarranted peril.”
Drake hesitated before replying. “Okay. Go and get that hothead back. But be careful doing it. If you get into a hot situation you can’t handle, radio back to the carrier and we’ll send assistance. Clear?”
“As a bell, Colonel.”
“Good. Antietam out.”
Justin keyed the radio off and glanced at a point of light which was slowly but surely forming into Boyar’s Sabre on his HUD. The Russian was going at full ‘burner, barely dodging the asteroids. One, he noticed, even skimmed his shields before bouncing off into space. Justin tuned into Nikita’s frequency. “Boyar, what the hell are you doing?” he yelled, diving then sharply veering to the right to avoid a rock the size an elephant.
Boyar’s visage came over the VDU, his eyes wide and bloodshot. He appeared like a caged animal wanting to lash out with tooth and claw, but unable to do so. Justin feared that he’d even attack him and he’d be forced to shoot him down. “Back off, pretty boy! I don’t need you in this!”
“Stop talking crazy, Nik! Turn around and go home!” Justin retorted, coming up alongside Boyar’s fighter. “You’re endangering yourself and the Antietam. Look, right now, I honestly don’t give a damn if you crash and burn, but I’ll be damned if you put the ship in danger! I’ll shoot you down if you don’t turn back in ten seconds, Lieutenant!”
Boyar snorted derisively. “Then you’re no better than those Mandarin scum, Justin. Those Cats need to pay! They need to burn, pal, not be tiptoed around! I’m goddamned sick and tired of Confed’s worthlessness! We’ve spent ten years trying to take Enigma, and what has it cost us? The Fleet’s finest ship and billions of Terran lives! Excuse me for wanting to actually fight the Kilrathi!” With that, he cut the comm link.
Swearing under his breath, Justin reestablished the link. “Look, the stress has been getting to you, Nik! So what? It’s been getting to all of us. Some of us have rather strange ways of dealing with it. Spyder broods. Frosty gambles. Hell, Joker and Sultan spread wild rumors about superior officers. And Diamond… Well, let’s not discuss Diamond right now. I’m just saying, Nik, that there’re ways to deal with this besides going all gung-ho and risking everything the Antietam has fought and suffered for in this war. Turn back now and return to base with me, man. There’s too much still to fight for to blow it all on this insane endeavor. I tell you this as your wing commander… and as you’re friend. Please… turn back.”
There was a long silence on the comm, before Boyar spoke, but his voice was hesitant, unsure. “I… I can’t, Justin. If I don’t do this… whatever’s inside of me will eat away at my soul until there’s nothing left and I shrivel up and die. Well, no thanks. I’d rather die in combat, taking a few of those furry sons of bitches with me. So long, friend!”
“Dammit!” Justin yelled and Boyar once again killed the comm link. Justin did not bother to reestablish it, knowing too well that any attempt to talk some sense into Gorbunov was futile. Instead, he eased up on the throttle, settling in behind Boyar’s Sabre, and dropped the targeting reticule over the ship’s form on his HUD. He activated particle cannons and, closing his eyes, pressed down on the trigger. A splatter of gunfire raked Boyar’s rear shields.
“Don’t do this, Justin! Just go back and let me do this!”
Justin didn’t respond, but instead opened fire again. Boyar pulled sharply to starboard to avoid the hail of energy, slamming into a small asteroid as he did so. Boyar’s shields flared blue and his Sabre tumbled for a moment before he regained control. Justin quickly glanced down at his VDU, seeing that Nikita’s port and dorsal shields were null and a wing had been broken clean off. “Boyar, report!” Justin snapped.
“I’m holding steady, no thanks to you!” Nik hissed back icily.
“Look, I’m sorry, I don’t want to do this,” Justin said, his voice cracking as he spoke. “But I will shoot you down, Lieutenant, if you don’t turn back now!”
Nikita growled something in Russian before saying, “I’m sure you’d love to see me flamed, wouldn’t you, Captain?” He spoke the rank as if it were a swear word. Suddenly, something beeped on the Sabre’s console and a swarm of red blips were now visible. “Shit! Krants, ten o’clock!” Boyar stated, his voice suddenly cold and all business.
“I see them,” Justin said. “Can we put this crap aside for a moment to deal with these furballs?”
“I can if you can,” Boyar replied, his Sabre increasing speed and veering toward the oncoming Krants. Justin could see the Krants in the distance, seven of them, all gleaming golden armor. He did not know how he and Gorbunov, his Sabre already heavily damaged from the impact with the asteroid, could survive a tangle with the flight of enemy medium fighters. But, damn, me, Justin thought, we’ll try. If only to get the hell out of here and back to the ship!
“Boyar,” Justin said, “decrease speed and wait for me. We’ll take ‘em on together.”
“Roger that,” Boyar replied and Justin was actually pleasantly surprised that the hothead would obey the order. He feared he would have to go after him and the Krants both! “Decreasing speed.” Suddenly, something flared on Justin’s console. “Dammit!” Gorbunov yelled. “The Cats are opening fire! Front shields gone!”
“Hang on, Nik! I’m on my way!” He peered through the tangle of asteroids beyond his fighter, at the Kilrathi ships circling Boyar’s damaged Sabre like vultures in the desert. Laser blasts impacted against Gorbunov’s dwindling port and starboard shields. On minimal thrust Boyar was trying to limp back to Justin’s position in the hope that Overstreet’s relatively undamaged Sabre would provide adequate defense against the Krants. Justin was pushing his afterburners into the red zone, bleeding fuel rapidly. It was only a matter of time before the only thing powering his ship would be fumes! “Boyar, give me a full damage report!”
“Transmitting data!” Boyar responded and a moment later Justin found himself staring at the grim report. Lieutenant Gorbunov’s front and dorsal shields were gone. Aft was at 21% with ventral at 6%. Port and starboard were holding relatively firm at 61% and 37% respectively. Boyar’s weapons systems were down to 73% and thrust was at 15% and taking a nosedive swiftly. “Shit, they’re tearing me apart!” Boyar gasped.
“Stay calm, Nik. I’m radioing back to the carrier for assistance.” Justin quickly switched frequencies back to the Antietam. Lieutenant Garner’s verdant visage appeared on the left VDU. “Zach, we’ve ran into some heavy opposition here! Get down to Colonel Drake and tell him to launch now!”
“Roger, sir. Stand by…” the carrier’s Communications Officer said.
By this time, the Krants were well within range of Justin’s guns. “Boyar, on my mark, break left and dive!” he warned, switching to mass drivers, which would give him far more accuracy at medium range, and positioning his thumb over the trigger. “Mark!” he barked at last, and Boyar did as he was ordered, pulling sharply to port and getting his nose well below the range of Justin’s guns as MadDog took aim at the nearest of the Krants and opened fire. The driver rounds blasted out with their typical stentorian roar, slamming full force into the cockpit of the Kilrathi. The six other Krants peeled away as their wingmate’s ship was torn apart and scattered throughout the asteroid belt in a million smoldering fragments.
“Boyar, take my wing!” Justin snapped and a moment later Nik’s battered Sabre limped onto his starboard wing. A heavy stream of ionized particles leaked from within the Russian’s ship and the shields continued to sizzle as their power was drained. “You think you can’t handle these guys, or do you want to stick around and give me a hand until the rest of the boys get here?”
Justin could just picture Boyar’s rakish grin as he said, “What do you think?”
The surviving Krants had made a complete circle around the two Terrans and were coming back around for another pass. Justin broke away from Nik’s wing, pulling up and over an asteroid, and dropping his targeting reticule on a Krant’s image on his HUD. Justin came up behind the Kilrathi, opening fire. The mass driver bolts went wide as the Cat pulled sharply to port, kicking in reverse thrusters and rudder to come up on Justin’s left flank. He rolled to starboard, but the Kilrathi stayed with him, opening up with his lasers. Justin’s rear shields flared as he came out of his roll. The Cat was still looming behind him, wing-mounted laser cannons flashing red. Justin shifted shield power to his aft quarter, looped into an Immelman.
The Cat broke to starboard as Justin opened up with mass drivers and particle fire. A flurry of bolts raked the Krant’s left wing, eating through its shields and tearing a large black gash into the medium fighter.
“Echo One, come in,” a voice said and it took Justin a moment to recognize Colonel Drake on the comm.
“Yeah?” Justin said, lifting up on his port wing and skimming around a large asteroid which seemed stationary compared to his swiftly moving Sabre.
“What’s your status?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Uh… no damage to speak of, sir. Boyar’s riddled with damage, though, Colonel,” Justin responded, coming around the asteroid and dropping in behind the Krant, which began evasive maneuvers to throw the Terran off. “But forget about him going back to the Antietam for repairs, Colonel. We’re in the middle of a big nasty furball right now, and we wouldn’t want to rob Lieutenant Gorbunov of his fun.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
Drake seemed to ignore the acerbic remarks, instead saying, “Roger that. Make sure that idiot doesn’t get himself killed. I want him in one piece when I testify at his court-martial! Look, we’re prepping the wing now, but I don’t know how soon we can get out there. We have a glitch in one of the launch tubes, but Chief Holland says he’ll have it fixed in no time. Can you handle the Krants until then?”
Justin bit his tongue in a nervous gesture he had had since childhood. “I don’t know, Colonel. But we’ll certainly try. We already have one down.” A red blip suddenly disappeared from the radar screen and Boyar whooped in triumph. “Make that two.”
“Very well, Captain. We’ll be out there as soon as we can. Drake out.”
“Roger that, sir. Overstreet out.” He clicked the radio off and turned his attention back to the Krant. He increased his speed just slightly to close the gap between him and his target. A light suddenly began to flash on his console. Low fuel! “Damn,” Justin whispered. He followed the Krant through the asteroid belt, sporadically firing his guns. The mass driver rounds scored hits upon the Kilrathi several times, but just as many went wide.
Justin called up an ImRec, gaining lock after a time frame of merely one second. He fired the missile off, pulling to port to avoid the blast as the Krant vanished in a cloud of metal and gases. “Three down,” he whispered.
“Die, human scum!” a hideously feral voice roared mere seconds before another Kilrathi fighter dove down upon him, lashing his rear shields with laser blasts. Justin avoided the gunfire by diving sharply and pulling into a corkscrew which brought him underneath a rather large asteroid and into the open. The Kilrathi was not so lucky, however. So intent on his prey was he that he had failed to notice the massive rock looming in the distance and he slammed straight into the ‘roid, spiraling off the top and directly into Justin’s gun sights. Dropping the reticule, he opened up with particle cannons and obliterated the enemy fighter.
“Justin, I’m getting something new on my screen,” Boyar announced, cutting into a Krant and flying victoriously (and somewhat foolishly) through the debris cloud.
MadDog glanced down and, sure enough, a pair of gold-yellow blips was appearing on the scope. “Damn!” he hissed, calling up an ID for the ships on his right VDU. “Looks like that Ralari and its Kamekh escort are coming to see what the fuss is all about!”
“All right, some real targets!” Boyar said, grinning.
“No!” Justin snapped back. “Not at all right! Those cap ships will annihilate us, for God’s sake! And we still have two more Krants to take care of! Christ! Where’s the damned Wing? We need the support!”
“I’m going after the destroyer! Engaging!” Boyar said, as if he had been oblivious to everything Justin had just said.
“Negative on that, Lieutenant! Call off your attack run! You’ll be killed!”
“Sorry, your transmission is breaking up. I did not copy.”
“You know damned well what I just said, Lieutenant! Get back here!”
But it was no use. Boyar’s Sabre had already accelerated toward the Kilrathi destroyer which was visible through the asteroids. The Kamekh corvette was right behind it. Justin sighed and hit afterburners, calling up his missiles for a full salvo. Hopefully, it would hurt the Ralari enough so Justin could convince Nik to call off his idiotic attack on the destroyer.
“No humans will be left alive when I am through!” The surviving pair of Krants was right behind Justin, their wing-mounted laser cannons spitting crimson death. His Sabre shuddered as his rear shields were cut down to 32%. And then there was still the fuel problem. Already his afterburners had cut out and his ship was decelerating rapidly. Rerouting all shield power to his aft quarter, Justin pulled to starboard, cutting around an asteroid, which one of the Cats plowed full force into. “Well, one-to-one odds. That ain’t too bad,” he whispered.
Justin came around the asteroid to see the Ralari looming in the distance, Boyar’s Sabre tiny next to it. Flak fire blazed around the damaged Terran craft, but miraculously never hit it. “Thank God for small favors,” he said. “If only he could do one more!” The remaining Krant had come around the asteroid as well, pouring intense laser fire into the Sabre’s rear. Aft systems showed in the red: critical! Lasers sliced through the shields like a knife through butter, eating into armor. An FF missile detached itself from the Krant’s wing. It cut through space toward him, like a snake after a mouse.
Justin blew chaff, but the missile plowed through the decoys, intent on taking him out. Sealing his flight helmet, he reached down between his legs for the ejection bar, but suddenly a flurry of particle beams lashed out, detonating the FF a mere few hundred klicks from his Sabre. “What the hell…?” He craned his neck to see one of the one most beautiful sights he had ever seen. Sunlight splashing upon their wings, an array of Epees and Broadswords came out of autopilot. A pair of the light fighters had broken off, launching missiles at the Krant and taking out the missile before it could destroy Justin.
“Ah ha!” Justin cheered as the Broadswords flashed past his almost stationary heavy fighter. “I owe you guys a whole goddamned keg of beer when we get back to the Antietam!”
“Never fear, the cavalry has arrived,” Garry North, piloting the Epee that had taken out the Friend-or-Foe missile, hooted. “Oh, and nice job you did to Dragon’s ship.”
Justin laughed genuinely with his friend. He had almost completely forgotten that he had been piloting someone else’s fighter. He owed a major apology to Lieutenant Yan. And, come to think of it, Lieutenant Yan’s foul-mouthed crew chief as well.
But the trouble was far from over. The Broadswords had already blasted past Boyar’s crippled Sabre, dodging the flak and antimatter guns, and launching their Lance torpedoes. Justin watched the warheads’ course as they snaked through the asteroids and plowed into the starboard flank of the Ralari destroyer. A ripple spread out across the golden armor of the Kilrathi ship, radiating outward as several explosions rocked the ship. The Terran bombers had already pulled out and were heading back the way they had come when the Ralari disappeared in one blinding flash. Cheering echoed across the radio, but Justin noticed that the Kamekh had indeed survived the destruction of the destroyer, emerging from the debris cloud, damaged but alive.
A flurry of flak blasted outward from the diminutive Kilrathi capital ship, catching Garry North’s wingman and tearing apart his fighter. The pilot had ejected, but his Epee was wasted. Justin suddenly realized that his missiles were still set for simultaneous launch. Bringing his Sabre to its full thrust capacity (which wasn’t much at this point), Justin flew within range of the corvette, got lock, and slammed his thumbs down hard on the joystick trigger. Seven missiles.--three ImRecs, two FFs, and a pair of DumbFires--detached from his Sabre, speeding toward the Kamekh on separate trails of exhaust. Justin lowered his helmet visor as a blinding white light filled his cockpit. When it dissipated, the Kamekh was no more than a blackened husk slowly falling to pieces among the asteroids.
“Great shot, Captain!” Cougar cheered over the comm.
Accolades for his single-handed destruction of the already crippled corvette filled his helmet radio, but Justin, modest as ever, waved away the praise. Others had done far more outstanding things (Venice in 2654 sprung to mind!) than he.
“Die, fucker!!!!”
Justin was startled by the high-pitched expletive and the sudden flash behind his cockpit. “Shit!” he roared, grabbing hold of the joystick and flinging it sharply to the right. His Sabre dropped into a dive which took him under the large asteroid that the Krant had impacted against only moments before. There was another Sabre directly above him, opening sudden fire with alarming alacrity. Mass driver rounds tore into his F-57’s aft quarter, shredding armor and causing several sirens to blare within his cockpit. A thick white smoke seeped into the chamber, blinding Justin momentarily before the interior fans kicked on.
“That was my kill! That was my revenge you just took from me, you son of a bitch!” the voice yelled again. There was no mistaking Boyar Gorbunov’s thick accent.
More gunfire raked Justin’s tail, slowly tearing his ship apart. The left engine had been blown clear off and now his fighter, already out of fuel, was nearly dead in the water, so to speak. “Boyar, cut it out now!” Justin hissed between clenched teeth, his head throbbing with the warning siren blaring within the cockpit.
“Die!!” was Nik’s only response.
“Lieutenant Gorbunov, I strongly advise that you cease this course of action immediately!” Cougar’s authoritative voice barked as his Broadsword came swooping in, firing heavy mass driver rounds into Boyar’s fighter. Justin looked down at his VDU. Boyar’s weapons and propulsion systems were finally dead and his Sabre was drifting… toward the massive asteroid the Krant had exploded against!
“Major, Boyar’s ship is about to smash against that rock,” Justin said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. Boyar had just tried to kill him, for God’s sake! And for what? Killing the Kilrathi? It was absolute idiocy! He would stand for no more. Boyar would face the consequences when they returned to the Antietam.
“Gorbunov, eject now if you want to live, but right now I really don’t care,” Major Noble said coldly as Boyar’s Sabre fell closer to the rock.
“Da,” Nik replied, his thick voice equally cold. Justin craned his neck around and watched as a small dot exploded from the Sabre’s cockpit: Boyar’s eject pod. A moment later, the fighter itself slammed into the large asteroid, shattering into a thousand pieces amongst a cloud of metal and gases. “Someone come to pick me up,” Boyar said, sounding much like a pouting five-year old who could not get a much desired toy.
“I got him,” Justin snapped almost immediately, his voice quavering.
“You sure, Captain Overstreet? My screen reads your Sabre as nearly as trashed as Boyar’s,” Cougar said.
“Yeah,” Justin said, “I suppose you’re right. I’ll need someone to pick me up, too.”
“Eject and I’ll have Lieutenant Decker tractor you back to the ship.”
“Sir, isn’t there some way to salvage the Sabre?”
John grinned behind his helmet. “That’s an order, Captain,” he said good-naturedly, like a father reprimanding a teenage son. “I don’t care about the fighter— hell, that’s Drake’s job, right? —but we can’t afford to lose another good pilot. So eject now, pilot. Babyface will get you home safely.”
Justin sighed. The Sabre was pretty much beyond repair. I guess it serves me right, he thought, going up against an entire flight of Kilrathi like that! “Yes, sir,” he whispered, reaching down for the ejection cord.

Pete Decker watched the carrier swell in his HUD, a glittering white jewel of a ship amidst the blackness and infinity of space. He truly enjoyed serving on the Antietam, flying the most advance craft humanity had to offer off her deck. And he loved blasting apart Kilrathi ships for the sake of the Terran Confederation. It was the greatest feeling any one person could have, flying free, just you alone in the cockpit with the Cat fighter right in your gunsights. It was the ultimate rush for an adrenaline junky like Peter Robin Christopher Decker III. God, he thought as he was cleared for final approach by the Flight Boss, how I hate that name!
“You doing all right down there, ‘Dog?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Just land this goddamned bucket, Pete, or I’ll put you up on official reprimand for wasting a superior officer’s time!” came Justin Overstreet’s answer, and he sounded as if he meant it!
Pete swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. Justin rarely ever got angry with him, but ever since he had become Executive Officer of the Battling Bastards, the stress had been really getting to him. “Yeah… sorry, sir,” Pete stammered, lowering his landing gear and touching down softly on the Antietam’s deck. When the deck tractor had snagged onto the nose bar of his heavily armed A-17D Broadsword bomber and dragged it into its appropriate service area, he powered down all systems, unsnapped himself from his restraint harness, and slipped out of the cockpit. He handed his elaborately painted helmet to his crew chief and went around to the side of the bomber, where two deck hands were already pulling Justin out of the hold.
“Where is he?” Overstreet was growling, shoving away the enlisted men as they tried to give him a hand down the ladder. “Where the hell is that maniac?”
“Who?” Pete asked lamely. “Nik? Oh, Cougar brought him in. He should be landing in a second or two. Hey, man, why don’t I take you down to Sickbay? It looks like you got a couple scratches or two. Doctor Fletcher can easily take care of—”
But Justin wasn’t listening. With a growl of anger, he shoved past Pete and stormed down the deck, receiving a chewing out by Bob Holland as he did so. “Justin!” Pete called, racing after him. “Dude, don’t blow your top, all right? Nik’s a just a little messed up. I mean, his folks were torn to pieces right there in front of him when he was just a kid! Hell, if any one of us had gone through what Nik’s been through, we’d be a little wacko, too. So take it easy on him, ‘kay?”
Justin stopped in mid-stride, turning around and leveling his stare coldly on Pete’s round, boyish face. “’… a little wacko…’ A little? If you think that, you’re about as crazy as he is!” He whirled angrily away, muttering under his breath as he walked away, “’A little?’ Christ!”
By the time Decker had followed Justin to Cougar’s Broadsword, a sizeable throng of pilots had gathered around in a loose semicircle to see what was about to go down. Pete didn’t think they’d go away disappointed. Justin Overstreet was a pretty tame guy, but when his temper came to the surface, it was with a capital F.
As Justin walked past, one of the new pilots, Lieutenant Curry, grabbed his elbow and, leaning in close, whispered, “Say, so much for first impressions, eh, Cap’n?”
“Go to hell, Lieutenant,” MadDog growled, grabbing Joker by the front of his flight suit and shoving him backward a few paces. “I’ll deal with this my self. I don’t need an audience!”
Curry straightened his flight suit and said in an aside to Sultan, “Bloody temperamental chap, wouldn’t you say, Mustafa?”
Justin pretended not to hear the young pilot. He knew he had a temper, although it rarely showed. But when someone went way out line, as Boyar clearly had, he had absolutely no patience for it.
Cougar had already dropped from the Broadsword’s cockpit and was handing his helmet to his crew chief when Justin approached. “Ah, Captain. Glad to see you’re doing well. I’ll want an after-action report as soon as—”
Justin rudely brushed past his Commanding Officer, shoving aside the deck hands that were opening the hatch on John’s bomber. Bounding forward, he released the locks and shoved the hatch aside, reaching in and finding Boyar already halfway out of the ejection pod. He clutched Gorbunov’s shirtfront and hurled him bodily from the hold, spilling him a few meters from the heavy bomber.
“Captain!” Major Noble scolded, holding up a hand, but Justin had already launched a vicious kick to Boyar’s ribs and was reaching into his flight suit for the grip of his C-244 pistol. Although he rarely used it (the Kilrathi raid on the Antietam a few weeks back an obvious exception) it was required for all shipboard personnel in the Confed. “Put the gun away, Captain Overstreet! The MPs will be down here shortly!”
Justin chambered a round and loomed over Boyar like a dark god ready to unleash his wrath upon a mere mortal. Gorbunov, sprawled upon the deck with blood leaking from his nose, looked up with wide eyes at the immensely black barrel of the pistol directly above him. Justin hoped Boyar was frightened! “I ought to kill you right here in front of all these people, you miserable son of a bitch! Do you realize what the hell you were trying to do out there? Why, you’re no better than those Mandarin trash that you supposedly hate.”
“Go ahead,” Boyar hissed. “Do it if that’ll make you feel better. But you’ll be committing murder. Cold blooded murder and you know it.”
“Shut up!” Justin yelled, lashing out with his foot again. Boyar rolled into a fetal position and coughed up blood. For a moment, Justin almost felt bad for doing it, but then he remembered that barely a half-hour ago, this writhing, wretched man had tried to flame him out there!
Cougar placed a heavy hand on Justin’s shoulder. “He’s right, Captain. Give me the gun.”
“I can’t sir,” Justin said, his voice weak. “He’s a rebel, plain and simple. We’d all be a lot better off he were killed right here. By me.”
“That’s not your call, Captain. Give me the gun. That is an order,” John replied, putting as much force into his voice as he could muster. It did the trick, Pete supposed, for Justin lowered his head, slid the safety on, and handed the C-244 over to Major Noble. John tucked the pistol into the waistband of his pants and attempted to steer MadDog from the quivering form of Nikita Gorbunov on the deck.
Justin shrugged off Noble’s hand. His voice hoarse, he said, “Nikita, we’ll all get our chance for revenge. Even you. But that does not excuse your actions here today. If it were up to me, you’d never fly a fighter again. But, as Major Noble said, your fate is not my call. I just hope Confed’s smart enough and sends you back to the gutter from whence you came.” Disgusted, Justin whirled away and stood with his head lowered near the entrance to the Flight Control Center.
Pete broke away from the crowd of onlookers and rushed to his friend’s side. “Man, that was intense. You okay?”
Leaning his head against the cool metal wall, Justin managed a wry grin. He shook his head and replied, “No, Pete Decker, I am not. I… I was about ready to pump a round into him. Thank God for Cougar or else… or else I’d be the one facing a trial, not Boyar.”
“Captain.” Justin turned around to see Colonel Drake and a squad of four Marines under Lieutenant Kellogg march down the steps. Brian led the grunts over to John’s bomber where they lifted Boyar to his feet and hauled him off to the brig. “I need to talk to you,” Drake said. He shot a glance at Pete Decker. “Alone, preferably.”
Pete got the hint and, nodding, backed away, saying over his shoulder. “Justin, I’ll catch you later in the Rec Room for that keg of beer you promised us.” Flashing a grin, he ducked into the Ready Room.
“You wanted to talk to me, sir?” Justin asked.
“Yes…” Drake lowered his head. “You disobeyed me when I told you to come back to the Antietam, you know. I can’t have that sort of blatant disregard for authority in my command, son.” Drake spoke gently, as if a father lecturing to his son, but there was a sharpness there which startled Justin.
“Sorry, sir,” Justin replied softly. “I just had to stop Boyar before… before he endangered the entire ship.”
Drake noticed the hesitation. “You lie, son. And I know it. You weren’t so worried about the carrier being in peril… as you were about Boyar being in peril.”
“Sir?” Justin was genuinely surprised at the Wing Commander’s deduction.
“Boyar’s your friend, much as you seem to hate him right now for what he just did out in that asteroid belt. But he’s also part of Echo Wing, your responsibility. You felt a need to bring him back to the ship because of this, neglecting your own safety.” Justin started to speak, but Drake held up a hand and continued. “And I applaud you for that. Your risked your own well-being and your very life for a comrade-in-arms. Hell, I’ve known generals that wouldn’t even do that. You did well, son. I’m damn proud of you.”
Justin smiled, feeling warm inside. “Is this off the record, sir?”
Drake shared in his good humor, allowing himself a rare laugh. “Yes. This is most definitely off the record. If the rest of the ship ever found out I’m giving little personal pep talks, then I’d lose my reputation as the stern, veteran Wing Commander.” He paused, his smile fading from his face. “But, if you want something for the record, here goes: Captain Justin Overstreet, you are hereby officially reprimanded for disobeying a direct order from a superior officer. This will appear on your record, yadda, yadda, yadda… Now, report to Sickbay. And that is an order, Captain.”
Justin touched his forehead in a salute and ascended the steps to the Flight Control Center. He briefly thanked Xavier Tesh and also apologized for putting him on the spot earlier. “No problem, Cap’n. Ruth says he’ll let it slide just this once,” was Tesh’s sardonic reply.
Well, it seemed no one was holding any grudges against Justin for his commandeering of Yan’s Sabre. Except Nik that is, he thought ruefully. Suddenly, another thought came to him. And perhaps Dragon’s crew chief as well.

If I'm locked on, there's no such thing as evasive action!
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Uh... I am? Cool.

If I'm locked on, there's no such thing as evasive action!
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Yeah, he's right.

Keep going and you may end up as a writer someday, if you want, that is.

[This message has been edited by klaus (edited November 01, 2000).]
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Right. This will probably take even longer...

1. *His victories at Brack and Roaz were legendary.* - There ya go... something to make up books about
. Hmm... but you'd better change the locations, because those systems would have never even seen a single furball. You know, you could throw in some Vega sector locations every once in a while.
2. *TCS Horatio Nelson* - Good idea for a name, but you can't use it
. Waterloo class are named after battles. Now, if it was a Gilgamesh class destroyer, it could be Nelson (or even Rommel
). Trouble is, I think there already was a Trafalgar in WC Academy, so you'll have to look for something else. Need ideas?

3. *Roger that, MadDog.* - Umm... don't you mean, "that's a negative, MadDog"?
4. *Dyson, Card, and Vonnegut Systems.* - Vonnegut and Card? This had better be good
5. *His front shields took the brunt of the attack before MadDog pushed the stick forward,* - Against neutron guns? I hope you're not forgetting that this is an Epee you're talking about.
6. *Purple blips appeared across the board:* - Yellow. Purple in WCP, yellow in WC2.
7. *His VDU showed heavy damaged to the rear shields, but it did not appear critical at the moment.* - Then I guess his computer systems took a hit...

8. *“Dammit, Maximus!” he snapped.* - No need to overreact... the Javelin couldn't even pierce the phase shields. I think the stress is getting to Justin
9. *His rear shields dead and neutron fire eating into aft armor, Justin armed and fired his final missile, following it up with a volley of particle shots.* - Didn't he just yell at her for doing the same thing?
10. *“Gorbunov, what the hell happened to you?”* - I was hit by a stray laser blast... don't take much more, in an Epee
11. *he snapped, menace in his voice.* - Yep, definitely stress.
12. *“I thought I could get that Cat bastard, sir; I had no idea he would pull away like that.”* - Besides, I was certain this was WC2, and missiles couldn't pierce phase shields.
13. *If your C.O. calls a retreat, then, by God, you retreat.* - Oh, that's why he yelled at her. How odd of him.
14. *The Confederation carrier’s massive Gilgamesh engines thrummed* - Me kill you...
15. *Almost immediately, an airlock door on Dyson Station slid silently open and several space-suited figures drifted out, pushing along a few dozen crates. The Antietam had been dangerously under-supplied ever since they had left the Heinlein System. The crates contained rations, fuel, spare parts, weapon systems, extra uniforms, and the like.* - What the?
You know, carriers are perfectly capable of docking with space stations, and even if there's no time for it, shuttles are used. They wouldn't resort to spacewalks unless the circumstances were extremely, extremely dire.
16. *Henri Le Beau* - Heeheeheee... Henri the beautiful?
Oh, the poor guy. To be stuck with a name like that. Where'd you get it from, anyway?
17. *caught dirt under the commodore’s fingernails* - Hmm, now how did that get there?
18. *Colonists of Russian descent. They stick real close to traditions. Onion domes and babushkas and all that.* - I guess the Russians must have had a cultural revival sometime between now and the 27th century.
19. *stared at him wide-eyed and snapped a salute.* - Hmm, I don't recall anybody treating Blair like that. Well, I guess the Antietam crew is too well trained.
20. *Justin had been appropriately cautious, but made it clear that that was not a good idea.* - Just cautious? He should have torn the major to shreds... verbally, of course.
21. *N’Tanya was high on the list. There was still hope…* - Tsk tsk, somebody's leaking secrets
. What worries me is that if the Antietam crew knows, a stray Mandarin might have found out too.
22. *It had been one crushing defeat after another for the Confederation ever since the Vega Campaign.* - No it wasn't. The Kilrathi were slowly gaining the upper hand in Enigma, but the keyword is "slowly". There were no crushing defeats as such.
23. *It was only a matter of time before they found the anomaly in the Enigma Sector which allowed for several systems to be crossed in one jump.* - Err... they already did, remember?
You sent them off to... that place, whatever it was called.
24. *He hastily cleared his throat and said,* - I guess her looks must have made an impression after all, if he didn't chew her out on the spot.
25. *Mustafa Kemal* - Now that name sounds mighty familiar
. But it's usually followed by Ataturk, is it not?
26. *He could almost feel the scowl his crew chief was giving him, but he didn’t really care right now.* - 'At's the way to treat her
. Always wished I could do that in WC3, or WCP.
27. *Ralari, most likely, sir. A newer ship wouldn’t be carrying Krants, sir.”* - Ralari? They don't carry anything. Surely you mean a Fralthi class cruiser?
28. *Snakier* - Snakeir.
29. *communications systems to confuse both radar and visual identifications systems.* - Errm... radar, yes. Visual id? That would be too close to cloaking - if Confed could do that, then Blair wouldn't be in Caernarvon.
30. *We have a glitch in one of the launch tubes, but Chief Holland says he’ll have it fixed in no time.* - Launch tubes? You mean, those things that Justin didn't use while taking off? Make up your mind

All in all, a bit overdone again, but not bad. I can't help wondering though, who's more insane - Justin or Nikita? I get the feeling that Justin won't be X.O. for much longer...
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1. Okay.
2. Oh, you just make it so difficult at times.
Why would I have to think of something else if I changed the ship to a Gilgamesh?
3. No, they know there're Cats in the system, they just didn't detect any in the vicinity of the Antietam.
4. Right, right.
5. The Epee's not that bad, is it?
6. Yellow, check.
8. Yeah, probably.

12. Still, I don't think we want pilots lobbing missiles at friendly cap ships even if there's no damage to speak of.

13. Yeah, seems to me Justin's on a little power trip there.

14. Me run away...
15. Point taken.
16. Heh, that's what it means? Eh, I don't take French, I take Latin. Anyway, I got the name while X-Men was on in the background while I was writing this. Gambit's brother's name or something was Henri Le Beau.
17. I dunno, maybe he has taken a visit to a planet nearby or something.
18. And why not?
19. Some of the stuff we see in WC would never happen in the real military. (ie. Vaquero saluting Blair sitting down) Both my parents were in the military and they've told me as much.
21. Cool it, it's just a rumor.
22. Okay, instead of "crushing defeat" what about just regular old "defeat."
23. Huh? Are you talking 'bout Pournelle or Tingvallir?
24. Of course...
25. Yes, it does, but my character's not a leader of the Turks, so I chose to leave it out.

26. Didn't we all?

27. On a closer inspection of my copy of Claw Marks... Okay, I'll change that.
28. Ye gads, I always get that wrong!

29. Well, I wasn't talking 'bout anything close range, but I guess at long range it only would mess with their radar. I'll just get rid of the visual identification blurb. Simple as that.
30. Yeah, sorry. Maybe I'll have something obstructing the flight deck or something like that.

Justin's just a little stressed over his brother and Doug and Nikita and all the other things going on in his life. But I'm sure he'll pull through. We'll just have to wait and see...

If I'm locked on, there's no such thing as evasive action!
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2. That's my job
. But what I meant was that you wouldn't have to think of a new name if you changed it to Gilgamesh. But, since you can't change it to Gilgamesh without wiping out its fighter compliment, you're just going to have to change the name
5. Haven't you played WC2? It takes roughly four shots from a (single) particle cannon to wipe out its shields and do significant damage to the armour. Three neutron guns will rip the Epee to shreds in no time... and come to think of it, Justin should ground himself for going head-on in a light fighter
12. Ah, but if the shields can absorb the damage anyway, then you can use them to your advantage. The Grikath might have missed the missile, but he might have still caught some of the blast.
Not that it matters anyway, since Justin would have yelled at her for it one way or another
14. Yeah, you do that. Or at least stop using Gilgamesh engines.
16. Damn you, human! Why don't they have X-Men on tv here?
18. Oh, I'm just commenting, that's all
19. Wartime regs - lax.
23. Tingvallir.
25. Incidentally, Mustafa means "Chosen One".
28. I know
29. Oh, that's all right then.
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It's so much easier writing a story set in my own universe (speaking of which I really want to get started on"Wildfire...")!

2. Hmmm... What could I name the Nelson? Battles... battles... (Note to self: Keep away from Civil War names in order to keep Quarto happy...) I could use Pharsalus, but I have plans for that in a future story... Any suggestions?
5. Er... yes and no. I have an old copy of WC2 that barely works and so is a little screwy. Flying with a keyboard (with no sound to boot) gets really annoying and/or boring, so I use cheats (gasp!) and just speed through the missions.
12. Okay, you seem to know what you're talking about in battle scenes, so I'll take your word for it.
14. I'll stop. I promise.

16. I dunno. Sad thing is, it's not on anymore here in the States on national TV. At least not at a time when I'm watching TV.
19. I don't buy that...
23. Hey, you suggested it.

25. Really? I was not aware of that...
29. Cool.

Oh, I got another to ask. It's about Chapter Eight, but I'll just go ahead and ask it here.

Quarto, you told me to change Pournelle to Zelanzny, but then you made a remark about whether it should be Zelazny. What is it? Taking into account the names of some of the sysems (Bradbury [I'm assuming that's Ray], Harrison [Harry?], and McAffrey [Anne?]), Zelazny (Roger) would make sense. Okay, I'm rambling, so what's the answer?

If I'm locked on, there's no such thing as evasive action!
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Yeah... I heard somebody once say that people who write in existing universes are just taking the easy path... poor fool

2. Hmm... well, yeah
. How about Kokoda? The Kokoda Trail, in case you are unfamiliar with it, was one of the most significant battles of the Pacific campaign. It was here that the Aussies stopped the Japanese advance. I know TCS Kokoda might sound a tad odd, but I'd be much obliged
However, that's a land battle. If you want a naval battle... well, I don't know many of them. I guess there's always Guadalcanal, but <shrug>.
5. Ah yes, your famous "most of my WC games are stuffed up" troubles
12. Not really, but I have been studying WC2 for a while now
19. Didn't think you would
. But think about it... are you really gonna call someone "sir", and salute him on every step, if you could both die on your next mission? I believe Angel did that in WC1... but that was before Bossman died.
23. Yes, I know
. I'm just pointing out that the Kilrathi already have demonstrated the strategic value of Enigma.
29. There are many things you're not aware of
. Seriously, the neat thing about Arabic names is that almost all of them have meaning. The few names which appear to have no meaning are usually very old (and therefore, their meaning, like with European names, has been forgotten).
Thus, Arabic names can be quite convenient at times. You can choose a name which actually reflects the character or his actions. In one of my stories, I had a character named Fahd (Lynx). When the reader was first introduced to him, he was just preparing to jump off a tree to kill the soldier below

As for Zelanzny/Zelazny, that's what I meant. The system was obviously named after Roger Zelazny, but they misspelt it on the map
. Thus, I'm not quite sure which it should be - that is, whether you should correct the spelling, or stick with the erroneous spelling on the map because it is official. Of course, whichever you do will be fine, since it makes no real difference
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However said that is a jackass. Writing in an existing fictional universe is hella hard! Like in my non-WC stories, I can say President Mason was once a decorated Admiral in the war against the Deneb Coalition, but if I try to do that in WC (ie. make some obscure referrance to the past whenever I feel like it), I'd be lynched!

2. I don't know much about this Kokoda, but if I can find any information on it, I'd possible use. Well...There was another Roman battle I was thinking of earlier but forgot. I remember now... Actium. There's also another possibility.
5. It's true, goddammit!
Only my KS WC1 that came with PCGamer works at 100%. WC2 and Priv have no sound or joystick control, P2 won't save for some reason, WC3 is just... eh, I don't wanna go into it, and Prophecy is just totally screwed up. I haven't tried Academy yet, though, but I'm sure something will be wrong with that, too.
19. Yeah, I would. Especially if I were a nugget. Hell, even in peacetime a pilot could bite the big one on a mission. A bird or something might get sucked into the engines or crash into the cockpit and bludgeon the pilot!

23. Ah, check.

29. Well, obviously. Pobody's nerfect. Hey, but I did answer a question correctly about Ataturk on Jeopardy! today. Most names have meaning actually. e.g. Mine's an English name and it means "West field."

No, it doesn't make a difference, but I'll go with Zelazny.

If I'm locked on, there's no such thing as evasive action!
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Aye, you probably would

Oh... which reminds me. How would you like to help me out a bit with UE? I'm not quite sure just yet what I would get you to write, though. And of course, I'm sure you realise how much I would torture you with suggestions and changes

2. Well, I don't know where you might find more info about it, so in a nutshell (and keep in mind, I'm not too sure about this stuff myself)...
Kokoda Trail is a passage through the mountains of Papua New Guinea. It is the best route from the northern part of the country, to its capital, Port Moresby. The Japanese *had* to get to Port Moresby, because that would give them an ideal base against Australia (not to mention, it would make it pretty difficult for the Aussies to launch a counter-offensive in PNG). Once they would have Port Moresby, they could invade Australia with impunity, because the Australian coastline is so long that it's practically undefendable (also, the northern half of Australia was very sparsely populated).
They got close to PoM, but Australian troops fought them to a stand-still and eventually a retreat, on the Kokoda Trail.
I didn't suggest Actium, because I think you've already used it.
5. Damn, that's what I call bad luck
19. I was sooo stunned when I found out birds are actually a danger for jetfighters
29. Yep, just about every name out there has a meaning - but most names are so old, that their meanings have been forgotten (and thanks to lingual shifts, they sound like pure gibberish).
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