Vengeance of the Kilrathi

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Vengeance of the Kilrathi

After cruising around Vega for a couple of weeks, where the maintenance and tech crews had been kept busy with repairs, the Tiger's Claw had been ordered to Enigma Sector for a move on K'tithrak Mang. Halcyon explained that we would be mounting an all-out assault on the enemy's headquarters. "Get some rest in the next two days, pilots," he barked. "We'll be scrambling every wing onboard as soon as we complete our leap."

That night, I was talking shop with Shotglass when Doomsday grabbed the next stool at the bar. "This is it, Prankster. I can feel it in my bones," he said mournfully. "Our luck can't hold out any longer. We just pulled through Firekka by a hair on a gnat's ass, and now we're heading into the middle of another catfight. Why do we go looking for trouble?"

"That's what the dog days of war are all about," I replied. "We can’t pretend those cats are lying down and purring somewhere just 'cause we don't see them. We have to stop 'em before they find the catnip," I joked. "Anyway, as soon as we hit Enigma, you'll be returning to the Austin."

"Fat lot of good that'll do me," he muttered as he slunk away from the bar. "The pilots there are just as crazy as the ones on the Claw!"

Doomsday was in a perpetual funk, and everyone on the carrier enjoyed feeding his moodiness by giving short shrift to his predictions. After all, none had come true in his four-year career in the TCSN. Whoo, boy! If I'd only known then what I know now!

My Last Patrol from the Tiger's Claw

The Colonel wasn't kidding when he said he was sending every pilot out on our assault. In fact, our roster was so thin that many of the pilots would fly solo. We were really thrilled about that turn of events. "Sorry, boys," Halcyon said, "but we've got an awful lot of space to cover." I was one of the solo missions, and my route would take me a long way from the carrier.

I raced to the launch bay and jumped into the Rapier. The tech who was hooking me up to the oxygen sensors looked up and motioned for me to pull my helmet off. "Sorry, Lieutenant Colonel," he said, "but I wanted you to know that we didn't have time to finish all the diagnostics after our repairs on the Rapiers.

We made it through the drive units and eject systems, but we couldn't get to the radar and targeting units. Just wanted to warn you ... we don't usually let ships fly unless every system checked one hundred percent."

"Appreciate that heads-up, Lefty," I replied, and whipped my helmet back on as the flight-line warning klaxon sounded.

The Destruction of the Tiger's Claw

My patrol was the most isolated of all. I would be 75,000 kilometers from any other fighter wing at the closest. I knew I'd have to stay alert, because help was a long way off.

I hit the first nav point without seeing an asteroid, Kilrathi mine, or enemy ship. It was kind of fun just cruising along at 250 KPS and letting autopilot handle all the navigation while I scanned the radar. I was running through a check of the arming sequences on the guns when a large red blip flashed on the radar display. I wasn't sure whether I'd seen ships or just caught a reflection from the auto-pilot light out of the corner of my eye.

"Maybe it's a glitch," I muttered to myself. "Lefty said they hadn't run the finals on the radar."

I switched to targeting mode on the right VDU, held course, and proceeded with caution. I kept checking all the camera views, just in case the radar wasn't working properly. Auto-targeting didn't reveal a thing.

I was just starting to relax, and thinking that the blips had been a vision, when six fighters materialized in front and to the left of me. They were too far away for a visual ID, and the right VDU still didn't show anything. It just sat there while six enemy ships passed right by.

They were flying a two-wing formation. I remember thinking that the electronics must be in sorry shape for something like this to have happened. I didn't know whether to trust the missile tracking, the gun targeting, or any of the computer-related functions on the Rapier. When in doubt, play it safe, I thought. Either the enemy ships hadn't seen me or they were ignoring my presence, because they just kept to their course. I turned to follow and had just taken up a position on their rear when they disappeared. There was no flash, so I knew they hadn't jumped anywhere. There were no explosions, no debris, nothing at all. I rubbed my eyes and wondered whether I should have had that last mug of Goddard Special last night. Don't be ridiculous, I thought. It had been more than 16 hours since my last drink.

I started a classic search route, flying larger and larger concentric circles in an attempt to locate the enemy fighters. "Damn," I grumbled. "This is a fine time to be without a wingman." I never saw another enemy ship, even though I searched a circular area almost 8000 kilometers in diameter. It took an hour at full speed. My flight to the last nav point in the patrol route was uneventful and I was now almost 110,000 kilometers from the Tiger's Claw. Suddenly, through the crackle of static in my head-set, I heard the Mayday. It was the Claw.

"Mayday, Mayday. The Tiger's Claw is under attack. All Confederation craft please assist."

I slammed my new destination into the nav computer, turned hard to the left, and kicked in the afterburners. I didn't have enough fuel to keep them lit the whole way back to the carrier, but I hoped I could get close enough to head off any other Kilrathi pilots who where racing to join the battle.

I could tell the carrier was in trouble when the comm operator stopped using the normal protocol. "They've got us surrounded. There's four ... no, five ... I can’t tell how many wings are out there. We're getting hammered here! Launch bays destroyed. Conning tower heavily damaged ... help us out here. We're losing power...."

That was the last thing I heard. I desperately hoped it was just a communications problem, but as I neared the carrier's last known location, the only blips on the radar were blue and represented other fighters.

"Hold it," I said to myself, "the radar's working just fine. Why didn't it pick up those Kilrathi fighters?"

I didn't have time to think any more about that, because the airwaves were alive with the transmissions of all the pilots who were returning to assist the carrier. The only problem was that the carrier hadn't survived the assault.

Debris was everywhere, and an ID panel slowly tumbled by on my right. It got very quiet, and I felt like I was part of a tragic space ballet as the fighters slowly circled the site of the battle.

It was eerie. It was sad. It was impossible. Colonel Halcyon, Lefty, Shotglass, and more than 750 others were dead. How had an enemy force been able to wreak such destruction without any of our patrols intercepting them?

From the silence, Angel’s whisper seemed like a roar. "There's nothing to be done, pilots," she said. "Form a convoy pattern and let's head for the Austin. The coordinates are already in our nav computers. Keep radio silence, and watch your six. Iceman out." The flight to the Austin was the worst of my life.

A Charge of Treason

The debriefing was long and brutal. I had been the only pilot to encounter any enemy fighters, but my story of ships that mysteriously appeared and disappeared was met with disbelief. About an hour into the session, a Warrant Officer entered and whispered something in Colonel Fratworth's ear.

"Prankster, where's your flight-data recorder?" the Colonel asked. "You know it's against regs to tamper with the black box." "I didn't tamper with anything," I replied defensively. "As soon as we hit the deck, I came straight to the briefing room."

The Colonel ended the debriefing abruptly, but not before issuing a general order. "All pilots, except those from the Austin, are restricted to quarters for the next 24 hours," he said. "A full investigation will commence immediately. Each of you can expect a visit from Intel during that time. Cooperate fully," he said. On the way to quarters, Spirit came up alongside and offered some encouragement. "Losing the black box is serious, Prankster," she said, "but I am certain it will turn up eventually. It has been a trying day for all of us, and sleep will not come easily. When this is over, we'll take out our frustrations on the enemy." "Count on it," I said, and opened the door to my assigned cabin. That's when the building emotion broke through my facade and the tears began.

Intel didn't just visit, they grilled me like a piece of swordfish. Apparently, the Claw's data recorder had been recovered and revealed enough information to identify the enemy pilots who had hit the carrier as coming from the sector I had patrolled.

I explained about Lefty's comments concerning the electronics on the Rapier. I recounted the story over and over again of the phantom enemy ships I'd seen near Nav 2 on my patrol. It was obvious from their expressions and comments that I was being blamed for the loss of the carrier.

"How can you expect us to believe such a preposterous story?" Major Pyle exclaimed. "No Confederation pilot has ever reported anything even vaguely similar to what you're telling us right now. We've had your Rapier checked out, and your radar system was in perfect operating condition. Your data recorder is missing. We're recommending charges."

They left me to my own thoughts after making sure I understood that I was under house arrest until further notice. No one was allowed to communicate with me, and my computer access privileges were suspended. The court martial papers were delivered the next day, charging me with treason. In normal circumstances, the charges and papers would have taken months to prepare, but Admiral Tolwyn, under the War Powers Act of 2634, had speeded up the process.

Assignment Caernarvon Station

I won't bore you with the details of my trial. If you're really interested, read A Treacherous Hero, by Janet Williamson. Published in 2657, it was on the best-seller list for 11 months. Suffice it to say that the treason charges were reduced to mere negligence for lack of evidence. My rank was reduced to captain. Immediately thereafter, I was ordered to a meeting with Admiral Tolwyn, who had come to the Austin for the military tribunal.

In no uncertain terms, Tolwyn made it quite clear that he thought I was guilty of the original charges. "There's no place for people like you in the TCSN, Captain," he intoned. "I've already written out your resignation. If you'll just sign these triplicate copies, we can end one of the most disgusting chapters in Space Navy history."

There was no way I was going to give this guy the pleasure of forcing me out of the Navy. I'd performed every duty ever assigned to me with all the professionalism I could muster. I'd watched friends die in the war, and still had a score to settle with the Kilrathi. Worst of all, I'd told the truth and Tolwyn was pulling a power play. I knew that if I resigned, the reputation would stay with me forever. At least in the Space Navy, I might have the chance to put the charges to rest forever. I didn't care how long it took.

"I won't sign those papers, Admiral," I said.

Tolwyn's face was a brilliant red and the vein in his forehead looked like it was about to burst. "I can't force you to resign, Captain, but I can make sure you spend the rest of your career on the most remote outpost in Terran-controlled space," he said. "I'm transferring you to InSystem Security. Enjoy your duty on the Caernarvon Space Station. At least there, you won't be able to stab the Confederation in the back again. Now get out of my office. I hope I never see your face again."

Visiting Sick Bay

The Admiral had cut my orders so that I would leave within hours for Caernarvon. He had ordered a pilot's briefing for the same time period, to ensure that I wouldn't have time to visit with any of my former friends from the Tiger's Claw. Then I remembered that Maniac had been transferred to the Austin's sick bay, shortly before that final battle. Unlike other Confederation carriers, the Austin's medical facility included a psych unit.

Maniac looked a bit dazed when I entered, but he recognized me right away. "Hey, it's Prankster," he said. "I guess you're here to beg me to fly on your wing again, huh? We were the best, old buddy. There wasn't a cat around that could handle us, was there?"

"Don't you remember what happened on our last flight, Maniac?" I said. "You wouldn't listen to any orders, and you just kept trying to ram the enemy ships. You're in sick bay now."

"Aww, shucks, Prankster," he replied, "Thanks for the compliment, but I wasn't the only hero on that patrol. You must have taken out one or two of those fighters yourself. Just wait'll we get together again."

Good grief, I thought. Maniac just hears what he wants to hear. This is pretty sad.

"Look, Maniac, you've got to try and listen to me. Really listen, okay?" I said. "Things are different today. The Tiger's Claw was destroyed last week. Other than the pilots who were out on patrol, everyone was lost." I went on to explain everything that had taken place in the weeks since he'd been transferred to the TCS Austin. Once during my recollections, I thought I noticed him actually focus on what I was saying.

His first response was so logical that it startled me. I didn't expect any understanding of the situation, considering his reply to my first statement. "Just remember what you told me, Prankster. Just hang in there and everything will work out," he said.

Before I could reply, the dazed look returned and he started to speak from his fantasy world again. "I'm going to be a hero again soon, Prankster. I heard that Halcyon wanted to promote me to command a fighter wing, but I sent a note turning down his offer. I can do more for the war from the cockpit."

He was really rambling now. "This morning I talked with the Admiral, and I'm sure he said he was grooming me as his replacement. I'll probably be out of here any day now. This Watson's disease has almost run its course, so I'll probably be flying again in a week or so. I'm ready. I'm in tip-top shape.

I've been working out in the gym every day, and spending a lot of time in the simulator too. I'll put in a good word for you with Tactical Command, too. They're always stopping by and asking my opinion of our next move in the war.... "

He wasn't missing a beat, and his eyes weren't even focused on me anymore. I think he was staring at the wall behind me.

I got up and started walking toward the door. He stopped talking when I reached the door. I turned around to make sure he was all right, and he turned his head toward me and winked. Then he turned back away and started up again.

"What was that all about?" I thought.

Ten Years of Boredom

Caernarvon Station was the pits. It was one of the oldest active space stations and my quarters reflected its age. Looking back, it's hard to believe I made it through 10 years of the most boring duty in the Space Navy.

Caernarvon Station was originally designed as a research outpost for the Intergalactic Science Council (ISC), but in the year preceding my arrival, its scientific staff had been sent to a newer facility in another sector. When the TCSN took over, it was put into commission as a monitoring and reconnaissance station for the Enigma Sector of space.

Giving you a 10-year history of my years on the station would be the most boring reading since the Congressional Record during the latter part of the 20th century. Suffice it to say that my responsibilities mainly involved punching keys on a computer, analyzing the data from remote-space sono-buoys, and tracking the progress of various space probes. Only an occasional patrol route in a light fighter broke the monotony until the year 2664. Until that time I never heard, sighted, or suspected the presence of the Kilrathi in our sector.

I tried to keep track of the war, the pilots I had known on the Tiger's Claw, and any new information on the Kilrathi through the computer network. It was, in some ways, my only direct connection with the war effort. I wasn't flying much anymore, but I always scanned the databases for the latest dope provided by our intelligence services for combat pilots. If I ever did run into the Kilrathi again, I wanted to be ready.

In the last nine months I spent on the station, I discovered that, after a lull of almost nine years with only sporadic contact with the enemy, the action was heating up again. Of course, the new data from Intel increased at the same rate.

While it would be impossible for me to remember, or re-create, everything Intel sent across the network, I can describe the major differences in strategy and tactics that evolved during that time. The technology of our own ships had advanced considerably, and with tractor beams, new weapons, and new ships, our corresponding tactics and skills had to be updated. Of course, the Kilrathi had upgraded their ships, and new pilots had emerged from the pack as the best in the enemy's fleet. Their strategy and tactics had changed as well.

Next Entry: The New Tactics of Space Combat Operations