Chronicles of the Claw - Deluxe Edition


Vice Admiral
Hello, fellow Wingnuts.

So...almost nine years ago (15 July 2006), I started a fan fiction called "Chronicles of the Claw". Part of it is posted in the Fan Fiction Chat forum, but there hasn't been a post in there for over a year. I've recently revised and added a bit to the story, so I figured I'd post it here for some more visibility. If the admins want to move it, I have no issues - I'd just like your feedback. Our story begins on October 27th, 2655 (2655.300), 144 days before the Tiger's Claw is destroyed on February 25th, 2656 (2655.056). I figure there is a lot of story to tell there, and when I get to that fateful day, I'll make a decision on where to take the story from there. But, without further ado:

Wing Commander - Chronicles of the Claw

Part 1 - The Unseen Truth

Chapter 1

Dateline 2655.300

0642 Hours

Colonel Peter Halcyon’s Office

TCS Tiger’s Claw CV-07

Vega Sector - McDaniel’s World System

“Ah, Blair, come in.” Peter Halcyon said from his desk. “I have some good news for you Colonel. We’ve received intelligence reports from the Firekka, indicating that they were able to put up substantial enough resistance to force the Kilrathi to leave the planet.”

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Blair, who went by the callsign Maverick, took a seat in front of Halcyon’s desk. The wing commander of the Tiger’s Claw, Halcyon had recently received a promotion nod and soon would be transferring to Confederation Tactical Command. But in the meantime, Chris was glad that Colonel Halcyon was remaining onboard. They would need him for the upcoming campaign. “That’s outstanding news sir. We can use all the allies we can get right now.”

“Very true Maverick. Unfortunately, the haste at which the Kilrathi have been sending ships back into the Vega sector to make up for the systems they abandoned to chase us down in Antares means that many systems are flooded with Kilrathi ships. We’re here in McDaniel’s World because Confleet Intel believes that the Kilrathi might have a Snakeir class carrier in the system. They want the Claw to take her out. I’m transferring you over to Star Slayer Squadron, you’ll be flying Raptors for the upcoming missions.” Halcyon explained.

“I understand sir. How much longer can we expect the Claw to be on the front?” Blair asked.

“No way to tell Blair, but I have been pressing High Command to send us to a system where some of the crew can take shore leave.” The Colonel replied. Blair had to admire how Halycon kept up with the stress. As well as being the Wing Commander, Halcyon had also served as Tiger’s Claw’s commanding officer since the Thor’s Hammer campaign six months earlier, only giving command of the ship back to Captain Thorn shortly before the Firekka campaign began.

“As long as we aren’t assigned as Diplomatic Corps Honor Guard again. That did not go well.” Chris replied.

“You’re telling me Blair.” Halcyon glanced at the chronometer on his desk. “Well, it’s almost time to being the briefing. Get your gear together and I’ll see you in the briefing room.” Halcyon said.

“Aye sir.” Blair rose from his seat and walked back into the corridor. He turned left, heading for the lift back down to the flight control level. He wished he could swing by Shotglass and get a good stiff drink but it wouldn’t look good on his fitness report if he was inebriated showing up to the briefing.

The lift ride was brief, descending down through the Tiger’s Claw’s conning tower and into the heart of the ship. He stepped off the lift and headed for the berths. As he strolled down the corridor, Maverick could take note of just how much punishment the Claw had received over the past year. The old carrier was looking in a more dilapidated state then she normally did. Wires were hanging from the ceiling, corridor lighting was out in some places and scuff marks littered the old wall panels, which probably hadn’t been replaced since Custer’s Carnival. Certain sections of the ship were still closed off, a testament to the battle damage the carrier had taken hauling ass out of Antares.

Chris walked through the doors into the pilot berthing area of the Claw. It was a long rectangular room with rows of bunks attached to a central ‘rail’ of sorts. Each bunk was adorned with a red mattress, many of them had torn corners or had suffered puncture wounds from all the years of pilots sleeping in their flight gear, the zippers slowly abrading the material. This rail was a long storage unit, with a rack of shelves that would rise up from behind the bed. Along the wall to his right was a row of lockers. There were twenty two lockers on the wall, each belonging to one of the pilots. This berthing area was one of five just like it scattered about the flight control deck. As Blair moved towards his locker, a high pitched voice called to him from the opposite door. “Hey Maverick, how ya doing?”

“Hello Maniac…” Blair said, observing First Lieutenant Todd “Maniac” Marshall jogging over. Marshall’s red hair almost seemed to complement his bloodshot eyes, a testament to just how crazy it had gotten for the young pilot.

“Did ya hear the news? I’ve finally been restored to permanent flight status.” Over the last six months, since the beginning of the Goddard campaign, Maniac had been in and out of sickbay, periodically taken off the flight roster for his almost, well, manic behavior. He started having dreams of flying his fighter into the Kilrathi dreadnought that destroyed Goddard. During the Firekka operation, Maniac had tried getting into a Raptor with just his pajamas on and the flight surgeon, Major Lowe, had immediately put him in the ship’s high security medical ward. He had flown briefly during the pullout through Charon but that was only because the Claw needed every available pilot, sane or otherwise. After five days out of the action, the doctors had apparently found evidence that he was well in the head enough to return to duty. “Maybe I’ll get to be you wingman eh?”

“Maybe…” Blair replied, removing his flight suit from his locker. No pilot with his senses about him ever wanted to fly with Maniac, but he had to go somewhere, and more often than not, it was flying wingman for Iceman. Major Michael Casey was the wearer of that cold moniker, and it seemed to Blair that it must have taken superhuman self-control to have stopped Casey from simply lighting Maniac up with a Javelin after he refused to follow orders and end there. “I assume you’re glad to be away from heavy combat for a week?” He asked.

“Yeah…” Maniac grinned sheepishly. “I’m sorry if I scared you guys there. I was a little nuts for a while.”

“I understand, just try and keep from pissing Iceman off too much today. There’s going to be a point where his patience runs out.” Blair replied. At that point, two short klaxon bursts sounded, indicating all pilots should report to the briefing room. Maverick finished putting on his flight suit. It consisted of a brown flight jacket, which seemed to hail from the days of Earth’s Second World War, complemented by denim colored pressure pants that locked into the shoes of the pilot. He grabbed his helmet from the locker, closed it, and walked with Maniac through two large double doors into the briefing room.

Colonel Halcyon was already at the podium. Blair moved down to the front row and took his usual spot between Iceman and Joseph Khumalo, who went by the callsign of Knight and had recently been promoted to Major. Maniac sat in the row behind them, between Captain Tanaka “Spirit” Mariko and 1st Lieutenant Hector “Grunt” Paz, a fiery Hispanic and former Repleetah marine who Blair had served with in the command academy program some years back.

“Everyone present?” Halcyon asked, and nods greeted him. “Allright, let’s begin.” The Colonel flipped a switch on his podium which changed the lighting in the briefing room to a low red. Behind him, a large viewscreen twelve feet across and about six feet high came to life. It displayed a navigation map indicating the Tiger’s Claw, and then four boxes which indicated navigation points. Areas outlined with gray and red lines indicated asteroid and mine fields on the chart. Off to the right hand side of the map listed basic mission details. This was Alpha Wing. “Allright, first to go is Alpha. That’s going to be Hunter and Skeleton. Your wing will sweep through these four nav points and report back to the Claw on what you find. Be advised that the Kilrathi may have more of their newer Hriss class heavy fighters operating in the system, so stay on watch for those ships. Any questions?”

“Aye Colonel.” Captain Ian “Hunter” St. John began, his gruff Australian accent filling the briefing room. “If we encounter any bleedin’ Kilrathi capital ships, what should we do with them.

“I’d recommend engaging anything up to a Ralari in size if you have the ordinance to do so, but if you encounter that Snakier, back off, and we’ll send a Broadsword wing to deal with it.” Hunter nodded, and Halcyon proceeded through the briefing. As he was detailing Bravo wings assignment, Blair caught the eye of Major Jeanette “Angel” Deveraux sitting a few seats down. Angel and Maverick had been spending some time together in the rec room over the past month, especially after the death of Kien Chen. It was the most emotional anyone had ever seen Angel, given her always professional attitude. At the conclusion of that operation, Angel had been promoted, and in a week, she would be leaving the Claw to take over as squadron commander on the TCS Austin, a Gettysburg class battlecruiser and the personal flagship of Rear Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn, who was Halcyon’s nominal superior.

Blair and Tolwyn had clashed a bit when Tolwyn had been a commodore instructing at command school but Blair had come out of it with respect for the man. Angel smiled, but then looked back at the screen, which made Blair retune into the briefing. The Colonel went through Beta, Gamma and Delta wings quickly enough, mostly patrol and interdiction missions.

“Next up is Epsilon Wing. That’s going to be Maniac and Iceman.” Halcyon began. Beside him, Blair could see Iceman tightly grasp the armrests. Maverick didn’t know what would crack first, Casey or the plastic. But through it all, Iceman retained a straight face. “You two are going to escort a Drayman heading out system carrying wounded marines from the Firekka operation and some other transferring personnel. Make sure it reaches the jump point for Beacon intact.”

“You got it sir.” Iceman replied, puzzled, as was Blair, as why Maniac didn’t have a smart-ass comment as he always did during the briefing.

“Oh, in addition, you two also get to do an operational test of one of our new light fighters, the Epee. It’s fast and has good shields for a ship its size. Armament consists of two laser cannons and four missiles.” Casey nodded in approval. It was well known that Iceman liked fast maneuverable ships, which was reason why he had been overly elated when the Scimitar had been retired last month.

“Okay, Theta wing. That is going to be Maverick and Knight.” Blair smiled slightly, most pilots enjoyed drawing Knight as their wingman, and Chris was no exception. “I want you to fly a three point patrol terminating at the Blytheheart jump point. It’s the only jump leading into this system from the direction of the Kilrathi advance, so if the Kilrathi have brought capital ships into the system, that is where they should be.” Halcyon looked back up at the rest of the pilots. “I will repeat what I said earlier - do not engage the Snakeir if you find her. I don’t want to lose any more pilots who want a Silver Star for gunning down a fleet carrier. Take recon data and call the Claw so we can send in a flight of Broadswords. The rest of you are in hot chairs for rotating CAP assignment. Dismissed.”

The lighting returned to normal tones and Blair rose from his seat. He looked over at Iceman. “Don’t worry Ice, maybe the docs have it right this time. Maybe Todd really is okay now.” Blair said sounding hopeful.

“Yeah…” Casey began as he saw Maniac move towards him smiling. “And maybe Knight will be selected as Miss Vega Quadrant at our next stop in McAuliffe.”

Knight smiled. “Hey, you never know, I am quite the charmer.” He grinned, walking back with Maverick to the briefing room door. Casey groaned softly and began lecturing Maniac for the hundredth time on why it’s a good idea to let your wingleader know what you are doing.

As the pilots headed for the flight deck, Grunt jogged up to Maverick and Knight. “I got fifty that Ice kills him before they even clear the ship.” Blair grinned and turned back towards Paz. “I’ll take that.”

Chapter 2

0718 Hours

Flight Deck

TCS Tiger’s Claw CV-07

The particular Raptor that Blair was going to be flying that day was new, recently ferried onto the Claw by a transport a few days earlier. The bulky heavy fighter was shining, its new paint carrying a polish that probably wouldn’t survive the mission. Missiles with red fins dotted its six hardpoints, and Maverick recognized the spherical shape of a Porcupine mine attached to the rear of the craft. All the markings and labels were easily readable, standing out in fluorescent yellow on top of the soft silver and green that was the standard fare for most Confederation fighter. It was in stark contrast to the majority of equipment on the flight deck. Most of the fighters had scorch marks dotting their dulled paint and small chinks in the armor were everywhere, gaps left by makeshift replacement armor that didn’t quite fit. Front line carriers rarely had enough replacement armor for an operation, so in more than a few cases, the new armor a pilot would find on his fighter for the morning mission was probably taken from a ship that had come back the previous day and was deemed unflyable.

As Chris moved around to the step ladder, he was greeted by the face of Master Chief Petty Officer Robert Lewis. Rusty, as the ship crew knew him, was the chief tech onboard the Tiger’s Claw, and usually welcomed home pilots by rolling up the stepladder himself and making a smart-ass comment about how badly the ship was damaged. “You going to bring back this new bird clean Colonel?” he asked with a grin.

“Of course Chief, do I ever let you down?” Blair asked, pulling himself up the ladder into the cockpit of the Raptor. Lewis just shook his head as Maverick closed the canopy of the fighter. The tech saluted, and Blair returned his salute. Once the pleasantries were out of the way, his fighter was pushed forward into one of the twelve launch tubes on the Claw. Each of the carrier ‘wings’ contained six tubes, which quickly hurled fighters away from the ship. Fighters could also take off using the ship’s long flight deck but that was usually reserved for larger craft and shuttles.

“Radio check. Maverick to Claw Control. Do you read?” Blair asked as the hatch was sealed behind his fighter. The magnetic accelerators in the tubes were already powered up, ready at a flip of a switch to pull his fighter down the tube.

“Maverick, we read your signal fine. Prepare for launch in ten seconds.” At this warning, Chris grabbed two handles on the side of his seat so that he wouldn’t accidentally touch the controls of the fighter. There was an automatic system built into the computer of the Raptor and other Confed fighters to prevent the ship from responding to control inputs while moving down the launch tube but the system periodically failed and a few pilots bought it when they slammed their fighters into the side of the tube during the acceleration phase. So it was standard procedure to remove your hands from the controls during launch.

“5…4…3…2…….launching.” He was slammed back into his seat as the Raptor traveled down the launch tube. The blast doors at the front opened as soon as the accelerator kicked in and his fighter was soon in open space. Maverick placed his hand on the control stick and brought the Raptor into a wide turn off the port side of the Tiger’s Claw.

“Maverick to Knight, all systems check. Ready to proceed to nav point one.” He said into the microphone.

“Copy that Maverick, standing by to engage autopilot on your mark.” Knight replied, his fighter taking up a position roughly three hundred meters behind Blair’s ship and slightly to Maverick’s right.

“Engage autopilot for Nav 1.” Chris ordered, flipping the switch to the right of his control stick. The computer brought the Raptor on course for its first steering point, some fifty-three thousand kilometers distant.

“So Maverick, you have a favorite for the Galactic Cricket Cup final? Sirius Prime versus Gainer’s World.” Knight asked as the two fighters cruised along.

“I’m surprised you had time to keep up with the tournament Joseph.” Blair thought for a moment. “Gainer’s World, just because I like picking underdogs to win.”

“I thought as much. It was just amazing that they made it to the final, especially with that win over Warsaw in the quarterfinals.”

“Well it probably will be a good match, if we’re ever off duty for long enough to actually watch it.” Maverick said with a chuckle. They were silent for a few moments longer, until Knight chimed in about their current mission.

“You think there is actually a Snakeir in this system? I mean, there are plenty of grey towns in Blytheheart. With all the smuggler traffic, you would have thought someone would spot a Kilrathi fleet carrier moving through the system.”

“You never know…” Blair began. “I’m sure the smugglers have no love lost for the Kilrathi but on the other hand, they wouldn’t mind if Confed’s presence was reduced in the immediate area.

Knight was about to reply when a beep issued from his console. The two Confederation fighters dropped out of autopilot. “Hold on Maverick, I have hostiles on my radar. Looks like four coming in from port.”

Maverick was seeing the same thing on his own radar. The computer had enough data to classify the contacts as hostile but it wasn’t close enough to tell what type of ship they were.

“Okay Knight. Go to max throttle, let’s move in and see what our Cat friends are up to.” Maverick replied, advancing the throttle lever up and bringing the Raptor to its maximum sustainable speed of 400 kps. He also toggled a switch under his left VDU, which selected full guns for the Raptor. A squeeze of the trigger would fire both the mass drivers and the neutron cannons of the fighter.

“Copy Maverick.” The hostiles were now less than ten thousand meters away, and the computer had identified them. “Ah lovely, I always enjoy a stack of pancakes in the morning.” Khumalo chuckled. He was referring to the common Confed nickname for the Dralthi class fighter. The ‘Flying Pancake’ as the ships had become known during the war, were the most common variety of Kilrathi fighter in service.

“Mark I or Mark II?” Maverick asked. The two variants were visually identical, the only difference being that the Mark II was armed with a pair of mass drivers instead of lasers. The way the computer identified it was by reading the power signatures of the ships. The Dralthis’ armed with mass drivers used more power.

“Mark I. Watch it, they’re splitting up.” Knight warned. The four fighter wing had split into pairs, each pair now making for one of the Confederation fighters.

“Break and attack, I’ll take the pair to port.” Maverick replied, tapping his afterburners and pulling the Raptor into a sliding starboard turn called a burnout. The ship’s momentum carried it parallel to the two Dralthi while his nose swiveled around to give him a shot on the enemy. Blair depressed the trigger, and balls of blue and silver emanated from his gun barrels, raking the shields of the two ships.

The engines now carried the fighter around the arc of the turn, and he was now behind the two Dralthi, who quickly pulled into a loop to get out of Maverick’s firing cone. As it performed the maneuver, one of the Dralthi pilots sent a taunt over the comm channels. “You pathetic descendants of monkeys!” came the shrill call over his headset.

This only made both Confederation pilots laugh. The Kilrathi were fierce warriors, but twenty years of war had done nothing to improve their taunting skills. Maverick flipped on the seeker for his Pilum friend or foe missile and loosed it as he pulled up into a roll. “Watch it Knight, I just loosed a friend-or-foe.”

“I just hope the techs repaired the comm system.” Knight said. Every so often, a FoF missile would acquire a Confed ship as its target because the radio on the fighter was damaged and not transmitting proper IFF codes.

The missile arced over to left, it had acquired a target. The particular Dralthi was attempting to turn back to lock a heatseaker on to Knight’s tail but this just brought it in front of the missile, which smacked into the forward shields of the ship, bringing them down. Fragments of the missile then peppered the forward armor, making small holes around the cockpit of the Dralthi.

Maverick pulled his own fighter around to concentrate on the lightly damaged Dralthi. The target in question was now surrounded by red brackets indicating that the targeting system had acquired it. Blair switched the system to lock mode, which made the brackets change into a box. He jinxed to avoid laser fire from the Kilrathi pilot and returned it in kind, sending a barrage into the weakened shields of the Dralthi. The first two salvos knocked down the already damaged shields. The second two made hard contact right above the cockpit of the Dralthi. The pilot didn’t have time to scream as his cockpit burst into flames. The fire quickly burned through into the power plant and the Dralthi exploded into multiple pieces.

“One down!” Blair called, pulling up on the control stick to avoid the debris. The wingman of the destroyed Kilrathi fighter swore over the comm system. “You can not defeat the Drakhai!” referring native Kilrathi term for their Imperial Guard. The Dralthi swarmed in behind Maverick on afterburner, letting loose two trails of laser bolts. They impacted the rear shields of the Raptor, red laser colliding with the blue hue of Confederation shielding. A red light started flashing on the shield display, indicating that his rear shields were close to failure.

Blair engaged his afterburners and attempted to do an Immelmann to shake loose the Kilrathi but the stubborn Dralthi maintained pursuit. Another Dralthi broke off engagement with Knight and joined with his companion. Mavericks fighter was caught in a crossfire and he soon heard the characteristic tones of laser fire knocking off pieces of his armor. “Knight, help me out here. The bastards are all over me!”

“One second Maverick, I’ll be right there.” The other Dralthi was on Knight’s tail, but that was by Khumalo’s own design. He pulled up into a half loop, flipped over and quickly dropped his Porcupine Mine. The Dralthi followed him into the maneuver, right into the waiting surprise. It promptly exploded upon contact, leaving Knight free to assist Blair.

Maverick continued to do snap rolls, pulling hard away from incoming Kilrathi fire. Whenever he had attempted to come around and fire on one of the Dralthi, the other started following him from the opposite direction. “Can’t shake em…”

“I got you covered buddy.” Knight replied, releasing a Spiculum IV Image Recognition missile from the undercarriage of his Raptor. The Spiculum was tuned to the image of one of the hostile Dralthi, and it bore in on the Kilrathi craft. The Dralthi attempted an evasive, which gave Maverick the room to pull out of the laser fire. The missile sailed wide of the Dralthi, which had a much sharper turning radius.

Maverick started firing again as the Dralthi came out of its turn. It was at this point that the Kilrathi pilot made his critical mistake. He pulled the Dralthi to port, attempting to avoid the fire. He didn’t realize however that the fast moving IR missile had finally completed its turn and was now a mere hundred meters in front of the ship. There was no room to try and turn out of its way. The purpose built electronic brain of the Spiculum tracked all the way into its target. The missile impacted in the center of the large starboard wing of the Dralthi, blowing it clear off. The crippled fighter flew on for a few more moments until its fuel tank exploded, vaporizing the Kilrathi ship.

The last Dralthi pilot came to the logical conclusion that the battle was a lost cause. He pulled away from the engagement and engaged his afterburners

“Let him go.” Maverick ordered. “We’ll just waste AB fuel trying to catch him. Resume course for nav one.”

“You got it Mav.” Knight replied. The two fighters resumed formation and once the Kilrathi fighter cleared their radar, engaged autopilot towards the first nav point.

“Well, the kats at least have a scouting force in the system. I’m going to radio the Claw and inform them of our encounter.” Blair noted. He tapped the flight console and contacted the carrier. “Theta Leader to Claw. We encountered a group of four Dralthi en-route to nav point one. Three enemy fighters destroyed, the fourth bugged out. We are now back on course for nav 1.”

“We copy Theta leader. Continue on your patrol and report if necessary. Claw out.” The communications channel clicked off and both pilots continued on silently towards the nav point.

Nav 1 was empty, save for the stray piece of debris that had been floating in the void for eternity. “Looks like nobody is home Maverick. Resetting nav computer for Nav 2, engage autopilot on your mark.”

“Engage autopilot for Nav 2.” Blair replied. The two Raptors began a turn to port and slightly above the galactic axis, towards the second steering point on their patrol. Nav point two was significantly closer than one had been, only twenty eight thousand kilometers away.

As they approached the nav point, Maverick clicked on the comm channel. “You picking up anything on radar?”

“Nothing, upcoming nav point appears to be clear, but we can’t be sure until we get to it. I would think we would find more activity if there was a fleet carrier in this system.”

“Yeah, but maybe they’re keeping their fighters close to hide their presence.” Maverick noted. The two Raptors passed through the second navigation point without incident either. Wherever the Kilrathi were, they didn’t want to reveal themselves to the pair of Terran Raptors.

“Empty…” Maverick said. “Allright, set course for the Blytheheart jump point. Let’s see if the kats are hanging around there.” He flipped the autopilot back on and the Raptor flew on towards the jump point, one of two ways out of the McDaniel’s World system. The other led back into the Beacon system and the Sol Sector.

It was at Blytheheart that the cats began to show their faces. As the two Raptors approached the jump point, the radar started to light up with new contacts. Ten contacts were indicated on his radar, nine of them red and one was orange. The orange blip indicated the presence of a Kilrathi capital ships.

“Whoa, we have company…” Blair observed. “Cut your engines and EM signature, I don’t want them to pick us up.” He retarded the throttles completely on the fighter and both Raptors came to a relative stop, although the constant rotation of the galaxy meant that the fighters were never truly at rest.

“I’m starting to get some readings now. The capital ship is a Fralthi, no doubt about it. The computer can’t pin down the class of the fighters but judging by the radar returns, it’s got to be either Krants or Grathas.”

“Allright, let’s make a subtle exit.” Chris said. “Set course back to the Tiger’s Claw, low cruise power so we don’t attract attention. We’ll contact the Claw as soon as we’re far enough away that they can’t pick up our signal.” The two fighters used their thrusters to turn around, and then engaged engines back towards the carrier. The Kilrathi units didn’t seem to indicate that they had spotted the two Confederation fighters as they observed them.

Once the two ships had exceeded twenty thousand meters of range, Blair and Knight increased throttle back to full power and Maverick contacted the Tiger’s Claw. “Theta Leader to Claw. We have sighted a Kilrathi Fralthi class cruiser and nine fighters at the Blytheheart jump point. No sign of enemy carrier in system.” he reported.

“Understood Maverick. Return to base and…” The transmission cut off for a moment. “Belay that Theta lead. We’re picking up a distress call from a civilian privateer in the system. They are under attack by three Kilrathi fighters. We’re sending you the navigation data. Proceed and assist them immediately. Claw out.” As the communication ended, his nav computer switched to the new location. “Okay Knight, let’s help em out. Engaging autopilot.”

“I just hope we get there on time.” Knight said softly, as the two fighters proceeded towards the engagement on afterburners. The two pilots picked up the privateer within thirty seconds of the initial call from the Tiger’s Claw. It was an Orion class light freighter, being pursued by three Salthi light fighters.

A static laced face appeared on the right VDU of Maverick’s console. “Attention Confederation craft. This is the Fairweather. Can you assist?” the freighter pilot asked.

“This is Lieutenant Colonel Blair of the Tiger’s Claw. We are engaging now.” Maverick said, observing the civilian vessel. The Orion class ship was making tight turns to avoid Kilrathi fire. It had a rear turret, which was peppering the Salthis with laser fire if they attempted to get behind the Orion. The ship had been damaged already. Coolant was streaming from its starboard engine and its hull was scorched all along the boxy neck of the cargo ship.

Knight and Maverick wasted no time getting into the fray. They moved in on afterburners, diving straight through the Kilrathi formation, breaking them up and for the moment postponing the firing on the Orion. One Salthi veered in front of Mavericks fire, and Blair quickly depressed the trigger. The energy weapons fire from the Raptor quickly depleted the shields of the light fighter, and then impacted the exposed engines of the Salthi. The neutron bolts and mass driver projectiles easily tore through the light metal covering of the engines and detonated the power plant. In one brief flash, the Salthi exploded.

Knight was occupied with a Salthi of his own, making it pull hard turns to port to avoid his energy weapons fire. Blair came around to get a bead on the third Salthi to cut it off but the Kilrathi fighter was already making a run on the Fairweather. He saw red fire issue from the twin laser cannons of the light fighter. Maverick tapped his afterburners, hoping to get within gun range before the Salthi did too much damage to the freighter.

The laser fire impacted the unshielded rear of the Orion, scoring the armor plating above the engines. The plating began to peel away and another engine on the Orion was knocked out. Finally in range of the Kilrathi ship, Chris pulled the trigger and fired his own energy weapons. The fire had the desired effect, making the Salthi break off its attack run before it could launch a dumbfire missile which could have destroyed the Orion.

As Blair followed the Kilrathi ship as it pulled away, he noticed one of the red dots on his radar display wink out. “Scratch one bogey” came Knight’s call over the comm system. The last Salthi now attempted to make a run for it, but Blair wouldn’t let that happen. He tapped the afterburners and pulled in behind the Salthi, which was about to hit its own burners to egress the area. A cross within a circle appeared on the targeting bracket overlaid on the Salthi on his heads-up display, indicating that one of his Raptor’s Javelin heat-seeker missiles was locked on. Maverick depressed the button on top of his control stick and pulled the trigger simultaneously.

The missile flew off the rail and tracked in on the heat signature of the Salthi’s engines. Heat seeking weapons were the earliest of guided munitions, and even though they had been around for seven hundred years, that didn’t make it any less effective. The Javelin hit the rear shield of the Salthi dead on. The explosion blew clear through the shields and enveloped the rear of the fighter. Shrapnel from the warhead pierced the fuel tanks and set them on fire. The Kilrathi pilot let out a guttural scream over the radio as his cockpit began to burn, mercifully terminated as the Salthi broke apart.

“What’s your status Knight?” Chris asked.

“No damage Maverick.” Khumalo replied as he took up escort position next to the damaged Orion. Blair maneuvered his own fighter alongside the Fairweather. The freighter’s pressure hull appeared to be intact, and it was limping along on its two remaining operational engines.

“Fairweather, what is your situation?” Blair asked.

The pilot of the Fairweather appeared on his screen once more. “Thank you for your assistance Colonel. I’m Trevor Portland, master of the Fairweather. Its good you arrived when you did, or we might have been slagged. We have damage to two engines, our shielding system, forward weapons and our jump drive is trashed. Damn cats were after us with a passion.

“Any idea why they would pursue a freighter so far from the jump point?” Blair asked.

Portland nodded earnestly. “Yes. I spotted their carrier on my run from Blytheheart. Sent a couple squadrons after me, those three and four of those Dralthi ships. I lost the Dralthi in the asteroids but those Salthi picked me up again.”

Blair was impressed with the freighter pilot, now they had a definite fix on the Kilrathi carrier, and could quickly move in to take it out before the Kilrathi got wise that the Tiger’s Claw knew where they were. “That is good news for us Mister Portland. We’re going to escort you to our carrier, you’re small enough to land on our flight deck. Hold while I contact my ship.” Blair switched channels and contacted the Tiger’s Claw. “Theta Leader to Claw. We’ve destroyed the Kilrathi pursuing the freighter and are escorting her back to the ship so she can land and make repairs. The pilot says he has the location of the Kilrathi carrier. I recommend recalling our patrols as not to tip off the Kilrathi.”

“Acknowledged Maverick, we’ll pass that along to the Colonel. You are cleared back to the carrier. Tiger’s Claw out.”

The Raptors flew on at roughly one hundred kps, the highest speed that the crippled Orion positioned between them could maintain. The Tiger’s Claw soon appeared on the radar, and it was not long before the carrier was visible through the viewport. Blair contacted the freighter as they lined up for approach. “Okay Fairweather. The Claw has ACLS, our automated landing system. Just contact them for landing clearance and approach the flight deck. Our ship will interface with the navigation computer on your ship and bring you in automatically.”

Portland nodded and turned the Fairweather in towards the front of the Tiger’s Claw. Blair monitored the landing frequency as the freighter approached the flight deck.

“Okay, we have you on approach, computer interfacing….damn. Your navigation computer is damaged. Can you land her manually?” The LSO asked. Blair sighed, things were never as easy as they could be.

“Yeah, I’ve landed on asteroid depots before and they were tighter than your flight deck. I’ll bring her in nice and slow.” Maverick chuckled as he observed the Fairweather glide down the flight deck of the Tiger’s Claw and into the hangar bay.

“Theta leader, the freighter is aboard. Line up for landing approach.” The LSO instructed. Blair made a turn to starboard and lined up his Raptor with the landing deck.

“Maverick requesting permission to land.”

“Permission granted Maverick, you are cleared to land.” The ride in for Chris’ fighter would take less effort, and the ACLS system brought his fighter in for a smooth landing. Knight was right behind him in the cycle and both fighters were towed over to the repair bay.

The cockpit slid back and Maverick hopped up out of his fighter. Rusty was already there with the stepladder and Chris looked over at the shot-up privateer vessel.

“We pulled that guy’s ass out of the fire. He’s going to repay us by letting us know where the Kilrathi carrier is.” Blair noted as he removed his flight gloves. Lewis just shook his head.

“Yeah, how is he going to repay me? I’ll have to use a bunch of spare parts to fix his piece of shit ship and it just means more work for me.” The tech replied, opening the fuel hatch on the Raptor. Blair just grinned as he walked away towards the hatch leading to flight control.
Chapter 3

0815 Hours

Briefing Room

TCS Tiger’s Claw CV-07

Blair and Khumalo stood with Trevor Portman, the Fairweather’s captain around the large map screen. The rest of the room was empty, all the other pilots either being out on patrol or standing by on the flight deck for rotating CAP duty. They were waiting for Colonel Halcyon, who promptly walked in from the side door. “What do you have to report Maverick?”

“We proceeded on course from the Claw to nav one, encountering four Dralthi Mark 1s. We engaged them, destroying three of the fighters. The fourth one bugged out. We kept going through nav points one and two, both of which were empty. We reached nav three, and observed a Fralthi and nine escorts, probably either Krant or Gratha. I had us take readings and move back away from the Blytheheart jump point, I don’t think the kats spotted us. We were on our way back to base when we received the orders to assist the Fairweather.”

At this point, Portman cut in. “I want to thank you and your pilots Colonel. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be standing right now.”

“That’s our job Mr. Portman. What were you doing here in McDaniel’s World anyway?” The Colonel asked.

“Transporting common woods and electrical equipment from Blytheheart II to the Shalestown settlement on McDaniel’s World. Those colonists need the construction materials and with all the Kilrathi activity around, the regular civilian ‘sports don’t get through. I make a fair share for bringing this stuff in through Kilrathi blockades.”

“I see.” Halcyon replied. “Well, flight recorder shows you killed three Kilrathi Maverick. Knight also gets credit for three kills. Excellent work on bringing Mister Portman back here in one piece. Now, as I also understand it, you know where the Kilrathi fleet carrier is in the system. Do you have coordinates?”

“Yes Colonel.” Portman replied. The Colonel brought up the navigation map of the system and motioned for the privateer to enter in the coordinates. Portman moved over to the podium and entered the location in the console. A white cross appeared on the map, nestled inside a pocket of free space near the system’s asteroid belt.

“Well I’ll be damned…” Knight said. “Think of what would have happened if we didn’t get this information. Our fighters would have destroyed or damaged the Fralthi…” he pointed.

Blair finished his conclusion. “And we would have moved the Tiger’s Claw up through here, past the asteroid belt. The Snakeir would pop out behind us and nail us before we reached the jump point.”

Halcyon nodded. “It appears we’re even now Mister Portman. Your ship is currently being repaired and I think your gunner is in the rec-room right now. Unfortunately, we don’t have the necessary components to repair your jump drive. We could fit you with a spare drive that goes into our Broadswords but I have to get clearance from command before releasing those components. For now, you are free to enjoy time in our recreation area, but I ask you to not interfere with the daily operations of this ship. Talk to the officer of the day to get a place to bunk.”

Portman smiled and walked back out of the briefing room. Blair and Khumalo remained, looking at the navigation map. “Allright, you two get some rest. We’ll wait until our patrols get back. Angel is launching now with Sandman, Spirit and Whisper in Rapiers. They’ll escort Jasper and Boxman flying Broadswords to destroy that Fralthi. We’ll start coordinating how to best attack the Snakeir. Dismissed.”

“Yes sir.” Maverick and Knight echoed, turning heel and proceeding out of the briefing room. They turned right and walked towards the recreation room doors. “Hey, nice move with the Porcu-mine.” Blair said.

“Thanks, I always wanted to find a kat dumb enough to try that. I made a few loops seeing if he would stay on my tail and once I was sure he wasn’t going to turn away, I pulled a half loop and dumped the sucker right into his mouth.” Knight grinned.

The room was rather full, most of its tables occupied by pilots and other off-duty flight crew. Hector Paz spotted the two from a table where he was sharing a pitcher with Iceman. “Hey, Maverick, Knight, come join us.”

Blair took a seat at the table next to Grunt while Knight sat next to Iceman. “So Ice, how was your run with Maniac?” he asked innocently enough.

Surprisingly, Casey didn’t seem as flustered as he usually was after returning from a mission with Maniac. “He didn’t cause too much trouble this time. Even obeyed my return to formation orders. Run to Beacon was pretty easy. Two Dralthi thought they could take a Drayman as easy pickings but Maniac and I each nailed one of em. ‘Sport jumped right on schedule.”

“Hey, see, I told you the medics get it right every once in a while.” Blair smiled.

“How was that new Epee ship Iceman?” Knight asked as he got up to grab a food tray from the microwave.

“All in all, a pretty good ship. Handles like a switchblade, really quick. It has paper thin armor though, so don’t get shot, or you won’t like it.” Casey replied.

“Yeah, a switchblade we can run right into the gatos.” Grunt said, taking a sip of beer out of his mug. “CAP was boring as hell. Not a trace of the gatos. We made our laps and then I came back in for a nice cold one.” He looked around. “Hey…where’s Angel and Spirit?”

“They’re on a strike mission right now, going to find a Fralthi that we found on our patrol.” Knight replied.

“I heard you guys saved a civilian ship out there.” Grunt said.

“Yeah, a privateer called the Fairweather.” Blair began. “Knight and I bagged three Salthi trying to ruin his day. Guy had discovered where the Kat carrier was in the system. Colonel’s working with intel to plan how we can take the sucker out.”

“Good.” Iceman replied.

“Say Ice, when are you going to finally see your daughter?” Paz asked.

“In a few weeks, when we dock at McAuliffe. Confed medical took her home to Vega VII for now.” Iceman’s daughter Julia had been a Kilrathi slave for six years ever since the Kilrathi had raided the Vega system in 2649. The attack had resulted in the death of his wife and his younger daughter, along with hundreds of other colonists. Iceman’s kill ratio had doubled after her capture.

“I’m glad man, you got something back from the kats after all these years.” Knight said. Blair was happy for Iceman as well, the news of his daughter’s safe return had Iceman speaking more than anyone who had served on the Claw had seen him.

At this point, a fresh faced second lieutenant walked over to the table. Blair had never seen him before and watched with interest as the pilot introduced himself.

“Hey, I’m Charlie “Veggie” O’Neil. I just came aboard yesterday with the new shipment of fighters.” He said, extending a hand.

Maverick took his hand and shook it, but Grunt was trying to stop from laughing. “Veggie, where did you get a callsign like that?” he asked, beer sloshing out of his glass.

O’Neil smiled as well. “I got it from my ROTC unit. I once made a comment about good nutrition when we were at mess and one of the guys started calling me Veggie. It stuck.”

Blair nodded. “Hey, we all have oddball ways of getting our callsigns. I’m Christopher Blair, callsign Maverick. Welcome to the Claw.” The other pilots introduced themselves too.

“Thank you Colonel.” O’Neil shook hands with the other pilots around the table and pulled up a spare chair. “The Tiger’s Claw is probably the most famous carrier in the fleet now, it’s cool to be assigned here.”

Grunt raised his eyebrow. “Famous, what are you talking about amigo?”

“Haven’t you heard? The Claw has been all over GNN. Jerry Rivers called you guys ‘The saviors of Firekka’ for what you did to help the birds. That and your chasing down of that Kilrathi strike fleet last year makes the ship galactic news.”

Knight shook his head. “Great…that is just what we need now, the people of the Confederation following our every move. The more eyes you’re under, the more likely you’ll trip.”

O’Neil’s smile faded a bit. “Well, I’m sure it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Is this your first ship Veggie?” Blair asked, still trying to stifle a laugh whenever he said the moniker.

“Not exactly Colonel. I served temporary duty on the Mercury while she transited out here from Sol. Didn’t see any action at all, just a bunch of empty patrols. Took a shuttle here from the Mercury in the Beacon system.”

Blair nodded, while Iceman looked up from his drink. “So, you know how to play eight-ball?”

“Sure Major. I’m pretty good at it.”

“You willing to place a small wager?” Casey asked innocently. “Let’s say 10 credits?” Knight, Grunt and Maverick all looked at each other, knowing what was about to happen.

“Sure sir, I’ll take you up on that.” O’Neil replied, moving over to the pool table located in the middle of the room. The three other pilots just grinned and shook their heads, moving chairs so they could see the slaughter unfold with front row seats. Iceman applied chalk to his cue and turned to Veggie. “Allright rookie, your break.”

O’Neil pulled the triangle away from the balls and set the cue ball on the dot at the other end of the table. He lined up his cue and smacked the cue ball dead on, sending it flying into the fifteen other pool balls on the table. They ricocheted every which way, one, the striped eleven ball, found solace dropping into the right corner pocket.

Blair observed the young pilot take his second shot, a slight miss on the strike which sent the cue ball off to the left, clipping the edge of the thirteen ball and bouncing it against the rail. It was now Iceman’s turn, and the first stroke from the ship champion pockets the number two ball with ease. His next shot put the six ball in the hole too. His third shot didn’t pocket anything, but it knocked solid colored balls in the way of the cue ball, which meant that O’Neil was blocked from getting to his stripes. If he hit one of Iceman’s ball’s first, it was a fault.

“It’s okay amigo.” Paz said. “It happens to everyone who challenges the Iceman.”

Veggie examined the table for nearly a minute, the rest of the recreation room was now drawn in and watching the two. With a fluid move of his elbow, O’Neil elevated the cue and snapped it nearly straight down along the side of the cue ball. The cue ball popped into the air, landing behind the solid colors, and knocking two striped color balls into the side pocket. In quick succession, the other four striped balls were knocked in without any fanfare. It appeared that the crowd could not believe what they were seeing, and neither was Iceman. With a soft tap, he knocked the eight ball down the velvet and streaming into the right corner. It dropped into the bowels of the table with a satisfying clunk.

Grinning, Charlie hung up his cue stick. “Thanks for the match Major.” He then walked out into the berths, a large smirk still evident on his face.

“Well I’ll be damned….” Knight whispered. Iceman was still staring down at the table intently, as if his defeat had never happened.

“Beginners Luck” Ice said softly, putting his own cue back onto the rack and sliding over to the counter where Shotglass was sitting. The rest of the pilots had gone back to their drinks, the momentary distraction now concluded. Blair walked over behind Iceman and patted him on the shoulder. “Look at it this way, one good thing did come out of this.”

“What’s that?” Iceman asked.

“Now Hunter can’t claim you cheat anymore.” Blair chuckled, turning heel and proceeding into the corridor before Casey could reply. He headed for the lift and selected the bridge deck. Maverick wanted to see how the attack on the Fralthi was progressing.

The bridge of the Tiger’s Claw was quiet but you could tell much activity was going on. Every console was lit and manned, technicians monitoring the status of the carrier’s systems. He looked to his right towards the communications terminal. Colonel Halcyon, and the commanding officer of the Claw, Captain Gregory Thorn, were monitoring the radio.

“Ah, Colonel Blair. I heard you had an interesting mission earlier today.” Thorn said, turning back from the console. Gregory Thorn had been the commander of the Tiger’s Claw since 2651. He had briefly lost that position however, when Admiral Tolwyn relieved him of duty during the Thor’s Hammer campaign and gave the ship to Colonel Halcyon. After the carrier returned from the operation, Confed High Command had reinstated him to command.

“Yes sir, we uncovered some valuable data.” He turned to Halcyon overseeing the attack. “How is the strike proceeding Colonel?”

“Angel’s flight is engaging those nine Krants. Spirit already got a couple of them to collide with some sort of trick loop.” The communications officer handed Blair a headset so he could listen in on the attack.

“Go to max throttle Boxman and come around on his side.”

“Flak’s heavy, its making Swiss cheese of my shields!”

“No, wait…..wait! You have a Krant on your tail! Peel off your torpedo run.”

“He’s firing a missing, shit! I can’t evade it. Deploying chaff po-…..” The signal cut out from the fighter in question. Boxman - 2nd Lieutenant Peter McGregor, was flying one of the two Broadsword bombers on the strike.

“Boxman’s down. I can’t tell if he punched out. Sandman, you have a visual?” Angel asked.

“Yeah, I see his pod….coming around. There’s a Krant trying to take it out.” Came the voice of Captain Reginald “Sandman” Munro, a recent transfer from the Kyoto. “I’m firing a missile…..nailed him. Jasper, you’re clear to begin your run!”

“I copy, beginning torpedo run. Just keep the furballs off me.” Blair heard the distinctive Cajun voice of 1st Lieutenant Louis Trudeux, who was piloting the other ‘sword.

“Jeeze, they are all over me here…Spirit, can you get this guy?”

“On my way Whisper.” Spirit replied.

Blair turned to Halcyon. “I hope Boxman’s allright…”

“So do I Maverick, losing pilots is something we can’t afford right now. There aren’t any replacements to send.” He replied. Chris’ focus went back to the comm traffic.

“I have lock….torpedo away…..’ Jasper announced. “It’s on target…… hit. The sucker is toasting now! Enjoy the hot sauce kitties!”

“Good shot Jasper. Swing around and pick up Boxman’s escape pod.” Angel ordered. “Romeo lead to Tiger’s Claw. Target has been destroyed and the remaining Kilrathi craft are fleeing the area. Jasper is picking up Boxman now.”

The communications officer toggled his microphone. “We copy Romeo, good work. Return to base immediately, flight lanes appear clear. Claw out.” Blair took off the headset as did Halcyon.

“Blair, we’ve almost finalized the attack plan for the Snakeir. Report to the briefing room in 45 minutes. Oh, and inform Mister Portman if you see him that our jump drives are incompatible with his craft. He’ll have to stay onboard until we reach a repair facility.” The Colonel ordered, obviously not happy about being forced to keep the Fairweather on his flight deck during combat operations.

“Yes sir. I’ll try and make sure he doesn’t get too upset.” Maverick smiled, walking over to the rear of the bridge and entering the lift. Having a civilian onboard for this upcoming fight would only complicate things more, but who said war was simple. Angel’s flight had done their job of taking out the Kilrathi cruiser, and he hoped Boxman was not too seriously hurt. They would need every pilot they could get in an engagement with a fleet carrier. Once again, the Tiger’s Claw and her pilotswere flying right into the mouth of the beast.

0932 Hours

Briefing Room

TCS Tiger’s Claw CV-07

“Okay people, let’s get started.” Colonel Halcyon began. “First, the good news. Boxman’s escape pod was successfully recovered, he has a broken leg, but the doctor says he should be fine. Now on to business.” He pointed towards the map screen. Blair already knew what the mission would entail, Halcyon had briefed him in private a few minutes before the other pilots had arrived. The plan was risky, but it seemed the best option under the circumstances. “The Tiger’s Claw is currently on course for the Blytheheart jump point. We are taking a route that will take us past this pocket in the asteroid belt, where intelligence we have gathered shows the location of a Snakeir class carrier.”

“Now, up until this point, we have been sending out signals indicating that we do not know the location of the Kilrathi battlegroup. We want the Kilrathi to believe that we think the system is clear, and will proceed with standard escort to Blytheheart. And that is exactly what the Kilrathi will see when we pass their location. We will fly at standard cruising velocity with a six fighter escort screen.” Soft murmuring began to fill the briefing room.

“Sir, we’re going to just cruise by the kats with minimum escort?” Grunt asked.

“Yes Lieutenant. When we pass the Kilrathi battlegroup, we expect that they will emerge from the asteroid belt and attempt to attack us from the rear. As soon as we get indication of the Kilrathi attack, the Tiger’s Claw will immediately go to battle stations. We will have fighters standing by, already prepped in the launch tubes. They will launch and proceed to attack the Snakeir and their escorts. We will continue launching wings as quickly as possible until all fighters have taken off. This is a full smash, everyone is going up.”

“Now, all pilots flying the Rapiers and Raptors will concentrate on clearing the enemy bombers and fighters from around our location. Epee and Hornet pilots will be tasked with escorting our Broadswords on their attack runs on the enemy carrier. Broadsword pilots will concentrate first on the launch bays. We expect that the Kilrathi will want to keep their presence a secret as long as possible, which means they can’t have all of their fighters already launched without revealing their position. So we will attempt to destroy their hanger before they can launch any more craft. Your craft assignments are listed here.” Halcyon changed the map to a roster for the strike mission. “All right, good luck everyone, and good hunting. Dismissed.” Blair rose from his seat and took a look at the assignment board, even though he already knew what fighter he would be flying, which happened to be a Rapier. Iceman was leading the bomber escort element, which suited his flying style. Knight was in charge of the bombers themselves. Veggie, he saw, had been assigned as one of the decoy escort pilots. ‘What a way to start your career, a scramble strike mission. At least it will give him more time to prepare for the attack He won’t lose focus being nervous while he waits with the rest of us on the flight deck.’ Maverick sighed and walked to the briefing room door, where Maniac was standing quietly.

“Ever since I had that dream……I felt like I was destined to do something great back in Goddard…but now…all I want to do is come back alive.” He said softly, looking down at the deck.

“Then you’ve finally gotten the right idea down Maniac. Come on, we’ll stick together out there and we’ll all come back safe.” Blair put his arm around Marshall’s shoulders as they proceeded out towards the flight deck. As he stepped into the corridor, Chris looked back, and saw Halcyon nodding as he stepped away from the podium.

Chapter 4

0951 Hours

Command Deck

KIS Pride of Hhallas

Asteroid Field - McDaniel’s World System

Lord Kr’vak nar Hhallas stood quietly, staring out of the viewports on the bridge of his Snakeir class carrier, the Pride of Hhallas. His scouts had confirmed that the Terran carrier Tiger’s Claw, which had been the bane of the Kilrathi Empire in the Vega Sector for over ten years, was now patrolling through this system. According to all reports, it was flying with minimal escort. The Fralthi that he had brought in system as escort had been destroyed by Terran fighters, but its loss would be insignificant if his task force would be able to destroy the Tiger’s Claw.

It would also help to raise morale for the Kilrathi forces in the Vega sector. Though none would dare speak ill of the empire publicly, for such a statement would constitute suicide, Hhallas was smart enough to know that his forces were not engrained with the lust for battle that he had seen them display only months earlier during the destruction of the Confederation colony at Goddard. It had seemed clear to all involved at that point that the Empire would soon reclaim the lost territory in Vega and make a push for the Terran coreworlds.

But the prey of his Task Force, the Tiger’s Claw, had changed all of that. The ship had nearly single-handedly pushed Kilrathi forces out of the Vega sector. First, late in 2654, the Terran ship destroyed the Kilrathi command station orbiting Kharak Tar, known as Venice to the Terrans. Then, eleven months ago, after the victory at Goddard, the arrogance of the Emperor’s son had cost them that very same strike fleet that destroyed the human colony. It had been the Tiger’s Claw again, turning seemingly hopeless Terran odds into victory. The final blow to Kilrathi morale had taken place a little over eight days earlier. For eons, the completion of the Sivar-eshred by the divine priestess of Sivar had promised great victory for the Kilrathi in battle. A ritual sacrifice was performed to incur the favor of the war gods for the upcoming year in battle. However, for the first time in the six millennia history of the ceremony, it had been disrupted. Terran warriors, assisted by the bird race of Firekka, had killed the priestess even though the operation resulted in the loss of nearly the entire force. Such bravery and disregard for personal safety seemed so….inhuman to Kr’Vak. Ironically, it was almost Kilrathi in its execution.

When the ceremony had not been performed, vast swaths of Kilrathi forces had been on the verge of mutiny. The massive amount of Kilrathi ships in the system almost had the Tiger’s Claw in their grasp, but Prince Thrakhath had to recall his battle fleets for fear of general revolt.

The Emperor had now directed a conventional assault with all of the available Kilrathi fleet on the Vega sector. Prince Thrakhath had proclaimed that ‘superior Kilrathi technology’ would soon bring the downfall of the apes. Kr’Vak had scoffed privately at Thrakhath’s assurance of powerful secret weapons that would soon be brought to bear. The last ‘secret weapon’ deployed by the forces of Kilrah had exploded in a massive fireball under the guns of fighters from the Tiger’s Claw¸ and the shipyards producing these super-weapons had been destroyed by the carrier as well, which had crossed several systems in to Kilrathi space to destroy it. ‘Was there no end to what havoc these apes could wreak?’ he thought.

No, this war would not be won with special toys. It would be won with the loud battle cries of Kilrathi warriors and overwhelming fire of their capital ships. Thrakhath could have his special projects, to be completed at some unknown time. Kr’Vak was in the business of killing Terrans now. And soon, the most hated ship in all Kilrah would be reduced to small particles floating in the engine wake of his carrier.

“My lord...” came a voice from behind him. Kr’Vak turned and looked at Shintahr Tekvar, his operations officer. “The Terran carrier is nearly in position for our attack my liege. It has passed our opening in the asteroid belt and has not shown any signs of being aware of our presence.”

“Excellent Shintahr. The Terrans are now within our grasp. Helm! Ahead full on engines, bring us behind the ape ship.” Kr’Vak barked. “Prepare our fighters for final launch. I want to pour fire down his throat before the leaf eater can get one laser battery to bear against us.” The command deck’s level of activity increased noticeably as the Kilrathi officers and crew carried out the orders of their right and noble lord.

The Pride of Hhallas began to move forward with surprising grace for a capital ship of her forty thousand standard tons. Her shape resembled the top of a switch blade, her sharp profile flaring out to small curved ‘wings’ near the engines of the ship. Her bow was split cleanly down the middle for roughly two hundred meters of her length, creating two ‘prongs’ of sorts.

The Hhallas began to emerge from the asteroid field, turning to starboard in order to get into position behind TCS Tiger’s Claw. She already had twenty fighters aloft by now, mostly Krant class medium fighters whose purpose would be to establish air superiority around the Terran carrier, no matter how anachronistic the term sounded. Tiger’s Claw only had six fighters flying escort, all of them being the new Confederation Epee class fighter. A wing of Gratha were also flying, armed with torpedoes for bombing runs on the Terran carrier.

“We have her sire. There is no escape for the apes now.” growled Kal shintar Vakra Redclaw, the commander of the Pride of Hhallas’ fighter complement, over the communications system. “I request permission to begin the attack my lord.”

“You may engage the Terrans Vakra, and may Sivar grant much glory on to us all.” Kr’Vak replied. He saw the distinctive flare of afterburners through the carrier viewports as his fighters tore through space towards the unprotected stern of the Confederation ship. He settled back into is command seat and growled softly as the battle began.


Red lights were flashing and crewman struggled to be heard above the general quarters klaxon ringing out over the bridge deck and the rest of the Tiger’s Claw. Captain Gregory Thorn looked intently at the tactical screen on his bridge. Colonel Halcyon’s guess had been a correct one. A Kilrathi Snakeir class carrier was now closing astern with his ship, normally a dubious proposition for the ship being chased. But thanks to some good patrol flying and accurate intelligence, the Tiger’s Claw was about to spring a nasty trap on the ship pursuing her.

“Helm, full 180 on my mark. Three…two…one…mark.” At the captain’s order, the young ensign manning the helm console of the Claw turned his control yoke until it was all the way over to the right side. The deck began to shudder as the carrier began to change course. The stars began to shift to the left in the viewports of the spacious bridge. Tiger’s Claw was pouncing on her enemy.

A Bengal class strike carrier, the shiptype to which TCS Tiger’s Claw belonged, was some seven hundred meters long. This was roughly fifty meters longer than the Kilrathi ship behind her. However, the Claw was nearly twice as massive, topping out at some eighty thousand tons compared to the forty thousand of the Kilrathi vessel. Eighty thousand tons just don’t change direction on a whim, even in outer space, and the engines of the carrier strained as they pushed the Claw around to face the enemy. To an outside observer, it would be quite a sight to see that massive a warship perform such a radical maneuver.

As the Tiger’s Claw’s long bow swung around to face the Snakeir, Thorn turned to Colonel Halcyon. “Colonel, that’s your cue. Good hunting.” He smiled.

“Thank you Captain.” Halcyon was sitting at one of the communications terminals and he opened a comm channel to the flight deck. “Initiate launch, all fighters.”

Flight Deck

TCS Tiger’s Claw

Launch Control Command

“Initiate launch, all fighters.” Halcyon’s voice came through the communications circuit clearly. Lieutenant (junior grade) Benjamin McKeon, the launch control supervisor, turned to Ensign Alice Petersen, manning the launch tube control console.

“Launch all tubes at max military.” Max military was eighty percent of the highest sustainable launch velocity that the tubes could hurl fighters away from the carrier, and the upper limit of the safety parameters when it came to exposing humans to intense G forces.

“Aye sir, launching all tubes.” Petersen replied. Her terminal contained a plethora of information, but all of it meant something important. Twelve video screens displayed a visual confirmation of the status of fightercraft in the launch tubes. A key was inserted into the console, which turned off the safety interlock that prevented the tubes from being launched by accident. Twelve sets of three lights occupied the front of the console closest to her hands. Under each set of lights was a square button under a safety cover. And under those buttons was another square toggle which lit up when pressed.

The three lights in each set were colored red, yellow and green. At the time of the launch order, the yellow light of each set was lit. This indicated that the launch tube was closed and prepared to launch. If the hatch to the flight deck was unlocked, the red light would be on as well. The light would change to green when the tube was actually in the process of launching a fighter. The safety covered button under the light sets would launch the fighter out of that particular tube.

The toggles which lit with a faint white hue when pressed were indicators that the tubes were selected to be fired as part of a group. At the far right of the indicator lights, there was one more safety toggle and the group button underneath it. The ensign pressed this particular group button, which selected all of the twelve tubes for simultaneous launch. Alice clicked on the communications circuit and spoke into her microphone. “Prepare for launch in three…two…one….launching.” She flipped off the safety cover and pressed the toggle switch. All twelve light indicators changed from yellow to green at once and the video screens confirmed what the loud rumbling noise already indicated, twelve Confederation fighters had now been launched into space. The lights changed back to yellow, and she flipped the control opening the inner doors, which brought the red lights on, and reset her console for the next set of fighters.

The launch tubes on the Tiger’s Claw, like all other Confederation capital shifts, operated using a linear induction motor. The device was configured in much the same way as a normal electric motor except that the stator was placed in a strip instead of curled around the engine. Instead of creating rotational torque, the magnetic force is directed in a linear direction, which pushes the fighters down the tube. The technology had been in place for over six hundred and fifty years, originally finding applications in magnetic trains and roller coasters. Modern motors for use in capital ship launch tubes were developed in 2571, but even after almost eighty five years of refinement, they were still temperamental devices.

Meanwhile, the landing signals officer on duty in the control room overlooking the main flight deck, one Lieutenant Jeremy Munro, was reversing his regular profession. He was signaling fighters parked for launch down the long flight deck of the Tiger’s Claw that they were clear to proceed, and waves of four fighters began to takeoff using normal power. They wouldn’t have the speed advantage at launch that the fighters in the tube did, but Colonel Halcyon’s concern had been getting as many fighters launched as quickly as possible. Combined with the fighters which had launched from the tubes, sixteen Confederation craft were now joining the half dozen of their brethren which had been the baiting escort of the Claw.

Command Deck

KIS Pride of Hhallas

The sensors operator on the Pride of Hhallas was a third fang, and he squinted as he read his radar display, and then his eyes widened in shock. “My Lord! The Terran ship has just launched an additional sixteen craft. And her weapons and sensor systems appear to be at full combat readiness.”

“What!?” Kr’Vak spun on his operations officer. “You told me that the Terran freighter did not pick up our position!”

The Shintahr was cowering. “My Lord, please, I believed that-”

“Silence fool. Your mistake will be addressed in time, but it will not stop our attack on the Terrans. Prepare additional fighters for launch.” The Kilrathi lord grasped the neck of his subordinate. “And if you fail me again, your head will be used as decoration for the front of this ship.” The Shintahr nodded weakly and turned to one of the communications terminals, ordering the flight deck of the Snakeir to launch more of its fighters.

Kr’Vak cursed the incompetence of his officer as he returned to his command chair. The battle could still be won by the Kilrathi, but all element of surprise had been removed. And the Terran carrier could launch fighters at a much quicker rate then his own ship.

“My lord, our fighters have engaged the Terran craft.” His sensor officer announced. Kr’Vak grunted in response and trained his eyes on the viewports of his bridge as the engagement began.

Alpha Lead

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher “Maverick” Blair

The kick of the launch tube throwing his Rapier into space didn’t get any less intense, even if it was his second launch of the day. Blair noted his radar as he formed up with five other Rapiers to form the first element of what was the protection screen for the Tiger’s Claw. His flight of six had departed from the starboard launch tubes, Iceman was leading his own element, Beta wing, which had launched from the portside tubes. Angel’s flight had been designated Gamma wing, which was a flight of four Broadswords that had launched down the flight deck.

“Allright, Alpha lead, let’s concentrate on those fighters. Iceman, I trust you can babysit those bombers?” He asked, punching his burners and turning in on a flight of three Dralthi which were leading the Kilrathi fighter charge.

“Of course Blair. Beta wing, assume escort positions. Angel, we have you covered.” Casey replied.

“Thank you mon ami. Beta wing, we will standby until the enemy fighters have been cleared from our path. Go get them Maverick.” Devereaux’s cool Belgian accent said over the comm system.

“You got it Angel. Alpha wing, break and engage.” Blair rolled his fighter hard to port and dropped in right behind the flight of three Dralthi he had targeted. The Kilrathi pilots had been so concentrated on attacking the Tiger’s Claw’s initial escort that they didn’t notice Blair’s flight gaining time behind them. The first Kilrathi fighter didn’t have a chance. Maverick depressed the trigger and an unguided dumbfire screamed off the rail towards the Kilrathi fighter only two hundred meters in front of Blair’s own fighter.

At that distance, the fact that the Dumbfire was unguided didn’t matter. It was a fast weapon and no amount of maneuvering could have saved the Kilrathi pilot. Because it didn’t have a guidance system, more room was left in the chassis to mount explosives, and Dumbfires carried twice as much destructive power as other Confederation missiles. It detonated cleanly on the weak rear shielding of the Kilrathi craft, and the explosion quickly knocked them down. It continued ballooning into a sphere of vivid orange, which slammed into the engines of the Dralthi along with fragments from the missile body. The superheated shrapnel sliced through the thin armor like it wasn’t there and pierced the engine compartment. The rear of the craft was consumed by fire and the Kilrathi ship started tumbling out of control before the fire reached the fuel tank and turned the fighter into very small pieces. “Gotcha you bastard.” Blair said.

The other two Kilrathi craft broke formation as their leader’s ship was destroyed. Alpha 2, Lieutenant Raoul “Shine” Castillo opened up with his ships’ energy weapons, peppering the dorsal shields of one of the Dralthi as it desperately tried to avoid the fire from the human ships. The third Dralthi was almost immediately rendered moot, eating a missile from Captain Marcus Rand’s fighter and exploding promptly upon impact. Moonshine celebrated his kill with a quick barrel roll and resumed his position on Blair’s wing as Maverick led his flight towards the next incoming group of Kilrathi fighters.

The Tiger’s Claw had launched another sixteen craft by then, six Raptors led by Knight, six Hornets led by Hunter and four Broadswords with Spirit in command of their element. It had taken merely two minutes from when Blair’s fighters had been launched for the techs to load the next set of fighters into the tubes, set the LIMs to the proper mass reading, close the shipboard hatches and for launch control to launch the tubes. Thirty-six Confederation fighter were now in space. But the Kilrathi were reinforcing as well, and Maverick’s radar told him that five more Kilrathi ships had launched from their own carrier, bringing the Kilrathi total up to forty one, counting the two ships his flight had already destroyed.

His Rapier and his five wingman were now making a beeline for a set of six Grathas which were attempting to interdict Iceman’s escort flights, the last Dralthi from the initial engagement was picked off from a pilot from Eta wing, the Hornet element that Hunter was in charge of. Grathas were nasty customers. Though they were slow, they carried an armament consisting of two laser cannons and two mass drivers, and could easily make mincemeat out of the even slower Broadswords.

Blair noticed a blue dot moving on his radar, and glanced out of the viewport. It was one of Iceman’s Epee element, which had detached from its escort position and was after-burning to meet the Kilrathi heavy fighter group. Iceman’s voice was uncharacteristically loud, trying to order the guy back into formation. “Hammer, break off and get back into formation.”

“I can’t get missile lock, he’s weaving too much…” the pilot in question said over his microphone, still charging at the Gratha flight, which was closing in on the single Epee.

“Beta Five, return to formation!” Iceman said quickly. The Epee hesitated for a moment longer before beginning its turn, and by then it was too late. The Gratha flight opened up with full guns and tore the Confederation fighter to pieces before the young pilot could even ask for help. It disappeared in a brief flash, and when the light faded, only a small piece of tailfin remained of Beta Five.

“Five is down, Beta Five is down.” Iceman said, moving his fighter laterally across the Broadsword formation to cover the hole left by the destruction of one of his escort flight. Blair’s wing was bearing down onto the Grathas from above the Kilrathi ships. The Kilrathi pilots had easily closed in and destroyed the lone Confederation Epee, but this aggressive move brought them right in front of Maverick’s fighter. Chris depressed the trigger, scattering the Kilrathi formation with laser and mass driver fire before they could reach gun range of the Broadswords.

Maverick pulled the Rapier behind one of the Grathas and toggled his Spiculum for lock on. The cross began to close, but the lock was never achieved as Maverick quickly rolled his fighter to avoid gun fire from a Kilrathi fighter that Blair hadn’t noticed. His shields resounded with the hits, and the indicator on his instrument console informed Blair that his shields were down to half strength.

A quick check of the radar showed who exactly was so unpleased with his presence. While Blair’s flight had closed with the Grathas, a wing of Hhriss class fighters had formed in behind Maverick. Chris cursed himself silently for rushing in and tapped his afterburners to pull away from the slower Kilrathi craft. He pulled up into a half loop and rolled the Rapier, completing an Immelmann back towards the Kilrathi craft. Having broken through the Terran escorts, the Gratha were now swooping down on the slow moving Broadswords.

“Gamma wing, take evasive.” Angel ordered calmly, increasing power to the engines of her own bomber and pulling around into a starboard turn. The Gratha formation picked their own target, Angel’s portside wingman, 1st. Lieutenant Nora “Crimson” Jones. The Kilrathi ships opened up at close range and their energy fire impacted against the strong shields of the Broadsword. The bombers’ rear turret spat neutron fire back at the attackers, knocking down the shields of one Gratha as they pulled around for another attack run.

“Wow, little help here?” Crimson asked, weaving the lumbering bomber in an out of turns to throw off the Kilrathi fire. The Grathas pressed on, and Maverick locked his afterburners in order to rejoin the engagement, tearing past the Hhriss formation that had fired on him earlier. Blair wasted no time diving straight into the fray. He depressed the trigger, and red and blue balls of supercharged gas emerged from his cannons to meet the Gratha in front of his Rapier. The Gratha turned hard to avoid the fire, right into the path of Major Michael Casey’s Epee.

“I have him, Crimson.” Iceman said, and both dumbfires jumped off the side of his Epee nearly simultaneously and came together in holy matrimony with the armor of the Gratha. The starboard wing of the Kilrathi fighter was blown clear off, and the pilot cried out one last scream of protest as his fighter exploded around him. “You’re clear.”

“Thank you Iceman.” Jones replied, her relief clearly coming through the communications channel. A bright flash off the port side of his fighter caught Blair’s eye, and he turned to see what exactly had exploded. It was one of the troublesome Hhriss, killed by expert gunnery from Hector Paz, who had joined in on the fray with his flight of Raptors.

The confusion amongst the Kilrathi escort units had given Gamma wing the opening they needed, and the Confederation bombers were lining up for torpedo runs on the launch bay of the Snakeir. The Kilrathi bombers were being kept at bay by Hornets flying through their formation, but that didn’t mean they weren’t attempting torpedo locks of their own. A shrill alarm sounded on Blair’s console, indicating that a torpedo had been launched, and it wasn’t Confederation in origin. Maverick swiveled his head in all directions until he caught sight of the ordinance, bearing down on the port quarter of the Tiger’s Claw from five thousand meters.

Tiger’s Claw, you have an incoming torpedo, port side.” Blair advised.

“We see it Alpha Lead, thank you for the heads up.” As soon as the message cut out, flak bursts and laser fire ignited space in front of the Kilrathi torpedo. It had been launched from long range, and with no other targets clouding the sensors of the Confederation gunners. An accurate flak burst blew the torpedo up two thousand meters from the carrier.

“Gamma wing, begin torpedo runs.” Blair heard Jeannette order, and her bomber flight locked in course for the Kilrathi launch bay. They had to remain on a steady course in order to get the torpedo lock, and they had to hold the lock for twenty seconds until the torpedo guidance computer calculated the phase shift on the Kilrathi shields. Twenty seconds was an eon when combat was concerned.

(Chapter 4 Continued)
Chapter 4 (Continued)

Alice Petersen double checked her status board and was preparing to fire yet another ‘salvo’ of Confederation fighters into space. Her finger was hovering over the launch button, waiting for Lieutenant McKeon’s all clear, when all hell broke loose two decks below the control room. The power relay supplying energy to the launch tubes picked a most inopportune time to short-circuit, and immediately all twelve launch tubes lost power. An alarm rang from her console and the status lights on all of the launch tubes were flashing red and yellow. “Damn it, we’ve lost power Lieutenant. The 2-6 has buggered out.” She said, referring to the designation of the particular power relay.

McKeon immediately turned to his status display. The primary relay was out, and the secondary had tripped its circuit breaker in response to the massive amount of power dumped on it. The lieutenant tried to reset the breaker remotely but it wasn’t responding. He toggled flight deck maintenance on the communications board. “Chief Lewis.”

Rusty had already noticed the power failure and was racing along the launch tubes and yelling at the techs. “Get the trucks in here and pull those fighters out of the tubes, we don’t want to risk a misfire if the system toggles!” Deck hands were turned into Grand Prix drivers as they swerved around missile racks with the lumbering tow carts to pull the fighters out of the launch tubes. Lewis tapped his wrist com “Lewis here, I see the fault. We’re already pulling the fighters out of the tubes.”

“Acknowledged chief, we’re switching operations over to the LSO, get those birds ready for launch down the landing deck. Get a team down to the backup relay for 2-6 and flip the breakers.”

“On our way.” Lewis replied, and he signaled for two nearby technicians to come near. “DuBois, Metcaff, go down to 2-6 and get the backup generator online.” The two techs nodded, grabbed an electrical diagnostic kit and made their way to the rear of the flight deck where the passageway down to where the relay was.

Lieutenant Commander Beverly Cavets, the operations officer of the Tiger’s Claw, hung up the comm receiver and turned to Captain Thorn and Colonel Halcyon. “Power failure in the launch tubes, relay 2-6 overloaded. Flight deck has a team heading down to get the backup relay online, but all the fighters have to be launched manually down the flight deck. LSO Munro says he can handle it but we’re down to launching four craft every two minutes.”

“Damn it, we need to take out that Snakeir’s launch bay now or we’re going to be outnumbered with fighters. Lieutenant Smith, inform our fighters of our new difficulties.” Halcyon instructed the communications officer. Smith turned to his panel and opened a radio channel to the Confederation fighters.

“….be advised, we have lost launch tube capability. Repairs should be complete in under five minutes but we can only sortie ships manually until then.” Blair knew that the success of the torpedo run was paramount to the survival of the Tiger’s Claw. If the Kilrathi were able to launch their entire complement, the Claw wouldn’t be able to keep up until her repairs were complete and by then she could start taking torpedo hits.

His Rapiers were orbiting just astern of the Broadswords, he could risk taking his ships in with their superior shielding. The bombers were just preparing to launch torpedoes, when out of nowhere, a Salthi dived through the formation at afterburners firing his lasers. The Kilrathi fighter misjudged his angle of attack, and instead of diving through the formation, he slammed in to Gamma 4. The light fighter was completely destroyed in the collision, and the Broadsword was critically damaged, its port tail and engine block were ripped open to space. The bomber lumbered along like a drunken bird before its pilot was able to regain control enough to get it away from the flak fire. “This is four…” came a static laced transmission over his VDU. “My port gunner is dead, three engines out. I’m returning to the carrier.”

“Acknowledged Obo, good luck.” Angel replied, her remaining four bombers on course. Her formation was the only one that was in attack range, Spirit’s flight was being repelled by the Kilrathi fighters. Four Confederation fighters had been destroyed, two Epees, a Rapier and a Broadsword, and five had been critically damaged and forced to land, which had hampered launch operations even further. Eight Kilrathi ships had been killed.

Maverick watched the flak fire intensify, holding position five hundred meters behind and fifty above the Broadsword formation. It lit up the shielding of the bombers, rippling with the constant fire. “Standby….standby….torpedo away!” Angel called out. She pulled back on the stick hard and her Broadsword lurched upward as it dropped its torpedo, and the other three did the same.

Confederation shipkiller torpedoes were slow and large, and required twenty seconds to lock on to their targets. They were also extremely expensive; one torpedo could cost upwards of six hundred thousand credits. But the risk to the pilot firing the weapon was greatly overshadowed by the benefit they produced with a good hit. Many smaller capital ships could be crippled by one torpedo hit, if not destroyed outright. No target, not even the largest ships of the line in both fleets, could withstand more than three or four hits before succumbing. And four of these devices were now on course towards the launch bay of the Kilrathi carrier.

The warning by his radar officer only confirmed what Kr’Vak nar Hhallas already knew when he heard the alarms sound on the console. “My lord, we are tracking four Terran torpedoes incoming on our launch bay. Estimated impact in fifteen seconds my liege.”

He cursed his fighters for allowing the ape bombers to close to such a short range with his ship. “Helm, hard to port and intensify flak coverage on that section.” Kr’Vak ordered coolly. The helm officer turned the yoke over but the response was not instant. Pride of Hhallas, like all Snakeir class carriers, was slow on the helm due to their underpowered engines. It took an agonizing three seconds for the ship to begin to respond to the helm officer’s input.

And by then it was too late. The Kilrathi flak gunners had killed three of the Confederation torpedoes, but the last slipped in through the coverage. The torpedo hit the launch bay’s underside dead on. The warhead blew through the weak armor surrounding the deck and detonated in the closed interior of the flight deck. A plume of flame erupted from the opening of the launch deck, vomiting pieces of Kilrathi fighters, structural members and crew into space.

When the explosion dissipated, the entire underside of the flight deck was missing, a fifty meter hole torn through the armor and into several decks above the flight bay. The lights in the forward section of the carrier flickered and went out.

“Nailed him!” Gamma three called over the comms, though no one could be quite sure whose torpedo had hit the Kilrathi ship yet. It would take sensor techs pouring over the data after the battle to confirm that. But no matter what Broadswords had delivered the hammer, the results were clear.

Kr’Vak gripped the arms of his command chair as his ship shuddered from the impact of the Terran torpedo. “Damage report!” he yelled.

“My lord, the launch bay has been destroyed and we have lost forward fire control. Fires are out of control in the forward sections. We might be able to…” The operations officer never finished his sentence as Kr’Vak shot him in the head with his sidearm. There was a momentary look of shock on the Shintahr’s face and then he collapsed forward and hit the deck. It had been the Shintahr’s failure to stop the Confederation freighter that had resulted in his carrier’s current situation.

“Ahead flank speed. Set ramming course for the Terran carrier.” His burning carrier replied with an increasing crescendo of noise as her engines strained to push the crippled ship towards the Tiger’s Claw. Kr’Vak knew his ship would never make it, but it was the Kilrathi way. His operations officer’s failure was his as well. There was no retreat for any Kilrathi with honor.

“Captain, the Kilrathi carrier is on a collision course with us. She’s 65 seconds from impact.” The sensor tech reported to Thorn. Thorn nodded and turned towards his weapons officer.

“Commander Reuben, open fire with our laser batteries and prepare a torpedo solution.” Thorn ordered. The Tiger’s Claw, unlike most fleet carriers, was rather well armed. Her ‘Claws’ as the spacecrew affectionately referred to them, were eight heavy laser batteries. She also had several forward torpedo tubes, which could be used to destroy a closing capital ship if her bombers were unable to respond...

The laser batteries erupted and large laser bolts, far larger than those from her defensive turrets or those found onboard a fighter, streaked towards the Kilrathi carrier. The impacts were not instant because laser cannons were not as one might initially expect, laser weapons. They were named such because they used highly focused lasers to bundle packets of energy and send them along the length of the cannon barrel.

Those energy packets raked the forward bow of the Kilrathi ship, knocking her shields down to a third of their strength. The torpedo hit had damaged her forward shield generator, and the generator overloaded from the impact. It exploded, and brought the bow shields of the damaged Pride of Hhallas down. The following salvos immolated her hull armor, blowing multiple holes in the hull of the carrier. Gas and debris poured from multiple hull breaches as the laser fire ‘walked’ along the upper hull. Plasma fire streamed from the superstructure and the burning carrier drifted off her suicidal course, her maneuvering gear completely destroyed.

Weapons fire had penetrated her reactor, which sat just in front of the bridge conning tower. The coolant system was damaged, and the reactor quickly spiraled out of control. The reactor crew had no time to attempt a shutdown, as the shielding around the vessel failed. They were burned to death instantly in their seats as radiation flooded the compartment.

Kr’Vak knew his ship was dead. The bridge was on fire, and the majority of his crew dead. He was seriously injured himself, a large laceration down the side of his head. He grunted as he crawled along the deck to where what was left of his communications officer sat in his seat. He shoved the burnt corpse aside and activated the comm system, not knowing if anyone could hear what his dying ship had to say. “I go down for my Emperor!” he called out in defiance, and then TCS Tiger’s Claw blew his ship apart around him. The reactor vessel failed completely, and KIS Pride of Hhallas detonated with a flash brighter than ten suns.

The mop up after the destruction of the Kilrathi carrier did not take long. The sixteen marooned Kilrathi craft had chosen to end their lives by suicide, trying to take as many Confederation craft with them as possible. Four had been shot down by the Tiger’s Claw, and three more had died when their fighters exploded against the strong shielding of the carrier. Blair had killed a Dralthi attempting to ram one of the Broadswords, and his wingmen took care of the remainder.

Unfortunately, two Kilrathi craft had been successful in their attempts. An Epee from Zeta wing was rammed when attempting to land, and a Raptor was cut nearly in half by a vengeful Gratha. The pilot of the Epee had died instantly, but SAR recovered the Raptor pilot, who had pulled the cord just before his fighter was hit. The engagement had cost the lives of five Confederation flightcrew, and thirteen more were seriously injured ejecting from their craft. But the cost to Kilrah’s navy was much higher, a fleet carrier and her entire fighter wing was now dust in McDaniel’s World.

Maverick turned his lightly scorched Rapier towards the flight deck of the Claw. The techs had managed to get the launch tubes online again, just in time for them to return to the flight deck and watch the Snakeir explode. “Alpha lead to Tiger’s Claw. Request clearance to land.”

“You have clearance Maverick, welcome back.” ALS took his fighter a few seconds later and pulled it gently down onto the flight deck. A tractor towed his fighter over to the repair bay, and he smiled as he saw a grease covered Master Chief Lewis roll stairs up to his fighter. Blair toggled the canopy control and it slid back cleanly behind him.

“I see you were busy.” Blair grinned, stepping out of the Rapier and down the ladder.

“Shut up flyboy.” Rusty replied. Chris grinned even wider as he removed his helmet and walked towards the passageway into the heart of the ship. Tiger’s Claw had come out of the engagement undamaged, despite the failure of her dilapidated electrical system. It was a stroke of luck that the torpedo did as much damage to the Snakeir that it did. And, Blair reflected, the old Claw needed all the luck she could get.

Chapter 5

Twenty-two hours later.

Recreation Room

TCS Tiger’s Claw CV-07

On approach to Blytheheart jump point

“Well, on to yet another bloody boring patrol in another bloody borin’ system. Blytheheart looks to be loads of fun…” Hunter remarked, staring through the viewports. “You think the Colonel is going to let us take some shore leave? I wouldn’t mind getting me hands on some good booze at one of those cantinas in Platinum City on Blytheheart II.”

“Platinum’s a gray town.” Shotglass said from behind the bar. “No way the Colonel will let you guys down there. He’d sling you guys up over the keel faster than I can whip up a Rostov hairball. “

“Well, maybe there is another way…” Hunter replied. “There are legal settlements on the planet right?” he asked.

“Yeah, Vanderville is legally settled. Someone down their might have some stuff you can get. But you’ll have to be pretty shady about it and I don’t know how you’ll get the stuff back onboard without the quartermaster finding it when he inspects the shuttle.”

Hunter waved his hand. “Ah, Kilpatrick won’t find anything. I can hide the bleedin’ thing easier than Houdini can hide a bikini clad women.”

“What’s this about Bikini clad women?” A soft sounding Belgian accent asked from the door to the recreation room. Chris turned and smiled, seeing Angel in casual dress with Spirit beside her. Tanaka was elaborately dressed, a purple silk kimono draped over her frame. Blair was wearing his standard duty browns, as were Knight and Hunter. Scattered glasses of beer dotted the table, despite the seemingly early hour. After eighteen months of nearly continuous combat, most of the crew had come to ignore what the ship’s clock read.

“Uh, we were just discussing the natives on Joslen in Gemini.” Knight said slowly.

“Of course you were. And Iceman decided to become a Franciscan monk.” She grinned, taking a seat with Spirit at the table next to Blair. Deveraux tossed her hair back revealing the two sapphire earrings she always wore. He and Jeanette had been seeing more of each other recently. Blair didn’t know whether it was because of her impending transfer to the Austin or something else.

“My guess is that our comrades were discussing ways of illegally smuggling liquor onboard the ship.” Spirit said coolly. Hunter kept his head focused on the glass which confirmed her suspicion.

Angel grinned and turned towards Hunter. “Ian, do you really think we’d spoil your fun? We still owe you for the spectacle of seeing our young Lieutenant Marshall stuck to the ceiling of his bunk.”

Knight burst out laughing. “Yeah, that was pretty great, even if you did spend two weeks peeling potatoes in the mess.” He slapped Hunter on the shoulder, who grinned back appreciatively.

“Those spuds an’ I got to be good mates. But it was worth it ‘n the end.” Ian replied. “Say Chris, Colonel drop any hints about our upcoming missions?”

Blair shook his head. “It appears we’ll just be running standard patrols and assisting ISS in customs flights while we’re here.” He said. The ISS - Intersystem Security - never had enough people to effectively patrol the frontier systems where the Confederation Military wasn’t involved. Not to mention the fact that ISS personnel were usually either older retired military or people who had pissed off those in charge within Confed. Some were militia pilots interested in defending their local space from not only the Kilrathi but pirates and renegades as well.

“Aww hell, that’s no fun.” Knight mused, sipping his drink.

“What I’m interested in…” Angel began “…is how our friendly colonists happened to miss the Kilrathi fleet carrier that cruised through their system.”

Maverick nodded. “Yeah, you’d figure that somebody would have noticed that. Say, when are you transferring over to the Austin?” He asked.

“I really don’t know at this point.” Angel said. “The Austin was diverted for an attack on the Vega/Enigma border. Nobody knows when we’ll be able to rendezvous with them again.”

“I don’t really care for ‘em stuck ups on the Austin.” Hunter said. “Wound too tight if you ask me. I mean, Jazz was allright. But can you imagine having to spend an entire tour listinin’ to that Doomsday fellow, mate?” he asked.

Blair started laughing. “You have to admit, its funny listening him over the comm during an engagement. I can’t imagine Captain Thorn wants us to see the Austin again, especially after what Admiral Tolwyn did to him during Thor’s Hammer.”

“Yeah I bet.” Hunter said. He looked over to the door and suddenly burst out of his chair. “Samantha!” A young looking women dressed in coveralls smiled broadly as Hunter waved her over. She hugged Hunter and kissed him on the cheek.

“Mates, this is my sister Samantha. Sheila just got assigned out of tech training an’ they pair ‘er up with ‘er brother.” He grinned. Samantha took a seat at the table and exhaled. Blair could tell that she wasn’t used to being surrounded by a bunch of relatively senior officers, even if they were pilots.

“It’s nice to meet you all. Ian has told me some stories.” She said, taking a sip of beer. Technically, it was against regulations for enlisted to dine with officers but no one at the table would address that particular rule.

“For every story he told you, I bet Hunter has left at least three out.” Knight replied. The rest of the table chuckled and Angel turned towards the young tech.

“So Samantha, what department are you assigned to?” she asked.

“I’m a communications tech, though it’s kinda boring. I’ve ‘een stuffed down in the auxiliary communications room with this senior chief Harold. Seems like a nice enough guy but he never talks. The only thing we do is review decrypted data and pass it on to operations. I don’t even get to communicate with ‘nyone.”

“Its allright, I’m sure that you’ll get noticed eventually.” Khumalo said. “In fact, with Hunter for a brother, I’m sure of it.” He grinned. St. John looked at him crossly and was about to reply when they were cut off by an announcement over the loudspeaker.

“Attention all hands. Standby for jump egress in fifteen seconds. Set condition two, repeat, set condition two.” The pilots got firm grips on their chairs and leaned back in their seats. Samantha was confused at all the activity until Hunter motioned for her to follow what they were doing. Behind the counter, Shotglass had a firm grip on the bar rail and was closing his cabinets.

“Why are we doing this Ian?” Samantha asked. Knight volunteered the information to her.

“Our jump drive is not in tune as much as the shuttle you came here on. It’s going to be rough.”

She was about to respond when the loudspeaker cut in again. “All hands brace for node acceleration. Repeat, brace for node acceleration.” The Tiger’s Claw began to shudder and then for a moment it seemed if time had stopped, and then the ship shook once violently before all was normal again.

“Oooh…that was fun.” Chris shook his head. Jumping always made him a little queasy. Shotglass was cleaning a mug that had fallen over during the transition.

“Well, this is Blytheheart. Maverick, do you think that we will get any down time before we launch on more sorties?” Spirit asked. The infernal loudspeaker answered her question for her.

“All pilots, report to the briefing room. Repeat, all pilots to the briefing room.” Blair started chuckling as the group rose from the table and began to start towards the corridor leading to the briefing room. Hunter gave his sister one last kiss before they departed, leaving Samantha to pout about having no one to talk to as she herself headed for the communications room.

“Okay pilots, settle down. I know a lot of you are looking forward to leave in this system.” Halcyon began. Hunter and Grunt nodded but the Colonel waved his hand. “However, we still have some work to do here. First off, we’re going to start running long range patrols of the system, not only looking for the Kilrathi but for smugglers too. Secondly, we’re going to investigate the colonists and find out how they missed a Kilrathi carrier passing through their system. Shore leave rotations will be posted shortly, but a few of you are going out on patrol now. We’re going to launch five two-ship patrols. Now, we have to track these five nav points around Blytheheart two.” Halcyon gestured to the vid-screen. “Each wing will start at a different nav point and cycle through the rest in order. You’ll make three complete circuits and then another wing will be launched to relieve you. All of you will be flying Epees on these runs.”

Blair nodded and leaned back in his seat. A nice quiet patrol would give him a chance to get some sleep while the ship was on autopilot. Then again, when was the last time they had a nice quiet patrol? He looked up as the Colonel read off the wing assignments.

“Alpha wing will be Spirit and Veggie. You will start at nav one and begin your patrol. Beta wing is Hunter and Grendel, Gamma is Iceman and Angel, Delta is Maverick and Grunt and Epsilon is Knight and Maniac.” Down the row, Chris could see Khumalo visibly slump back in his seat and roll his eyes. “You launch in fifteen minutes. Norseman, Skylight, Cash, Sylvester and Racetrack are on CAP. The rest of you check the schedule for your shore leave. The first shuttle leaves for the planet at 1015. Dismissed.” Halcyon concluded.

Chris rose from his seat and started to walk towards the door when Halcyon called him. “Maverick, wait one.”

“Yes sir.” Blair replied. He turned to Paz. “I’ll see you on the flight deck.” Hector nodded and walked out of the briefing room. Chris turned and walked back to Colonel Halcyon.

“Maverick, I want you to be very careful with the militia. They may not seem to be what they appear.” The Colonel lowered his voice. “We have received reports in the last few weeks that indicate that there may be Mandarins working in Blytheheart’s ISS detachment. It would explain how we weren’t notified about that Snakeir.” The Society of Mandarins were humans who assisted the Kilrathi in exchange for positions of power after the war. Earlier that month, two pilots onboard the TCS Winterrowd had been caught in the act of sabotaging planes from her airwing. Winterrowd had already lost a pilot earlier during a mission to what was determined to be mechanical sabotage. His oxygen generator was rigged to explode and the man suffocated before SAR could retrieve his ejection pod. A group of pilots were so enraged with what their squadron mates had done that they ‘arranged’ foe the brig guard to leave his station for two minutes while they bludgeoned the two traitors to death with a fire extinguisher.

“How do you want me to handle this Colonel?” Blair asked, holding his helmet underneath his arm.

“Until we find credible evidence that the ISS has been compromised, you are to cooperate with them fully on patrol and customs flights. But if you see anything fishy, report it back to the Claw on a secure channel. If you find a situation where you feel you need to fire on militia craft, I’ll leave you to make that judgement. Understood?”

“Completely sir.” Blair replied. In the back of his mind, Maverick didn’t find the prospect of shooting down other humans that enthralling, even if they were traitors.

“Very good. Dismissed.” Blair rose his hand in salute and Colonel Halcyon returned it crisply. Maverick quickly turned heel and proceeded out of the briefing room towards the flight deck.

“Delta 1, prepare for launch.” Lieutenant Munro’s voice came over the communications circuit as Maverick adjusted himself in the seat of the Epee that he was flying. For such a small fighter, he found it’s cockpit to be surprisingly spacious. However, after looking over the technical specs, Blair decided that he’d rather have a few more centimeters of durasteel and accept a cramped cockpit. This was Maverick’s first time in an Epee. During wartime, there wasn’t time to train pilots on new craft so in many cases, a pilot’s first experience in a new fighter was flying it on an actual mission. He checked over the readouts and was satisfied that his ship was ready for launch. The Launch Control Officer’s voice returned to his circuit at that point.

“Launching in 3…2…1…now.” Chris felt the familiar acceleration of the Claw’s launch tubes as the Epee was shot into space. Grunt was right behind him and formed up just to port and behind Blair’s fighter. His navigation computer had already been programmed with his assigned navigation course and all that Chris had to do was switch on his autopilot when the Epee cleared the carrier.

“Allright Grunt, autopilot engaged.” Maverick indicated over the communications system.

“Copy that Mav, you think we’ll see any action today amigo?”

Maverick thought about what Colonel Halcyon had told him. “You never know Grunt. System is supposed to be under control but haven’t we heard that one before?”

“Yeah, like what happened to the Trafalgar at Seti Beta I.” Years earlier, when both Grunt and Maverick had been command academy cadets under then Commodore Tolwyn, the Tiger’s Claw had been assigned to lure what was thought to be a small Kilrathi fleet into the guns of Admiral Rhea Bergstrom’s task force centered on TCS Trafalgar, a sister ship of the Claw. However, despite Tolwyn’s warnings indicating that it was possible for enemy forces to have already arrived, Trafalgarwas ambushed and destroyed by a Kilrathi fleet which had been hiding in the system. Blair had picked up Bergstrom’s escape pod and the Tiger’s Claw played chicken with Prince Thrakhath’s flagship as it made an emergency jump out of the system. That incident had strained the relationship between Blair and the then Commodore, as Bergstrom had previously ordered Blair to report to her if Tolwyn disobeyed her orders. Nevertheless, they had returned to a cordial, if somewhat detached status ever since the end of the Thor’s Hammer campaign.

“Don’t remind me of that one. It was creepy seeing a sister ship of the Claw floating in pieces out there. Makes me really want to protect the rustbucket we all call home out here.” Blair replied. He leaned back in his seat and glanced around the cockpit of his Epee. It was finished in a sort of rustic brown color which reminded him of how the cockpits in the Scimitar used to look. However, that was where any similarity between the new light fighter and the old Scim ended. The craft was built for speed and agility, at the sacrifice of protection. It wouldn’t last long under constant fire.

“I know, I know. I hope we don’t run into one of those ISS bitchos who thinks he runs the system because some roster in some computer in some backwards colony says he’s the senior pilot on the station.” Grunt replied.

“I hate those guys, think they’re all bigshots because they are the senior security guard. God I hope I never have to pull a duty assignment in one of these backwater places. I can not think of anything more boring than spending years launching and landing on a space station that never went anywhere, and with not enough commercial traffic to ever make a flight interesting.” Blair said, as his fighter continued on course for Nav One.

Chris brought his eyes out of the cockpit and out into space. He had never been in Blytheheart before and started taking in the sights. He caught the faint disc of Andromeda, spinning millions of light years away from their own galaxy. They were also rather close to the Forrester Nebula, which was a soft green splotch in the distance as viewed from his port side.

Nav Point 1 was still some 30,000 kilometers distant when his radar flashed a warning tone and his ship dropped out of autopilot. His eyes shot to his radar display, which showed four gray contacts, meaning the computer could not identify them. “Grunt, we’ve got four bogeys closing from starboard.”

“I got them, should we pursue?”

“Standby, let me contact the Tiger’s Claw.” Maverick replied. “Tiger’s Claw, this is Maverick. I’m picking up four unknown contacts thirty thousand klicks from my Nav 1. Request permission to investigate.”

“Standby Maverick…” the comm officer replied “…request approved. Colonel Halcyon wants positive ids on all ships. If they are Kilrathi, do not engage and follow them to their point of origin before returning. Otherwise, situational discretion.”

“Roger that Claw, we’re intercepting. Grunt, increase to 480 and set course for our new friends.” Maverick ordered. The two fighters went to full power and turned to the right in a direction that would bring them in contact with the unknowns.

Blair wondered who wouldn’t be broadcasting an IFF. There were many possible answers to that question. It could be Kilrathi ships trying to avoid positive detection. It could be smugglers who are trying to keep their location a secret, or it could be some civilian moron who doesn’t know how to properly configure the transponder in his ship. Whatever the case, they couldn’t just let the targets escape without properly identifying them first.

Maverick applied gentle pressure to the control stick and put the Epee in a sweeping bank to starboard until his navigation reticule lined up with the vector for the unknown contacts. The TOT number in the navigation display fluctuated while it was recompiling the intercept time, and finally settled on a solution of roughly six minutes until they reached scanning range.

Once again, Chris’ thoughts wandered back to what the Colonel had said. The last thing that the Confederation needed in the middle of a nearly three decade old war was to have conflict break out between human forces. If the Society of Mandarins could score early victories, they might rally enough to their cause to make the war very difficult for Earth and its allies to win.

Maverick didn’t want to believe that any sizeable portion of humanity would be stupid enough to believe that they could retain positions of power if the Kilrathi won the war, but apparently the delusions persisted in enough to cause a problem. The most likely outcome in that scenario would be the human conspirators would either be installed as puppet governors with no real power or introduced to the airlock.

The Mandarins infiltration of Confederation Military units was the most troubling concern. Confed had barely been able to push the Kilrathi out of Vega, and now rumor had it that High Command had set its sights on pushing them out of the Enigma sector as well. Most of the fleet would be committed to such an effort and thousands of lives could be compromised if operational plans regarding the taking of the Enigma sector were leaked to Kirathi forces.

Blair took a glance back at Grunt’s Epee. The Mandarins were causing damage in other ways too. Pilots and ship crews would start becoming suspicious of new personnel, teamwork would suffer and with it morale. The Mandarins didn’t need agents on every ship to do damage, the possibility that there could be a Mandarin on your ship was enough damage in of itself.

These thoughts occupied Maverick’s mind as his fighter sped towards the new arrivals.