Front Lines

Thanks again to all commenters and readers.

Chapter 21: Siege

Razor’s perspective

From outside, Oasis station looked as if it may very well have been abandoned many years ago. In the murky sunlight which was largely hidden behind the ghastly orange clouds, the typically shiny dura-steel shell looked aged beyond its years. The constant battering that it had taken from sandstorms had also gone a long way to make the place look a derelict hulk.

In reality however, the base at this time was undoubtedly as lively as it had ever been. As I was sprinting across the platform to my fighter which was waiting on a nearby landing platform; I noticed three laser tanks moving into a position to cover the launch pads. I’m not sure what class they were, but they looked modern.

I just hoped that they didn’t contain Retros.

I couldn’t see any Kilrathi ships, not that I especially wanted to look for them outside of my cockpit. I’m guessing that they were still a little way out. Maybe they were still descending into the atmosphere.

A deafening whine drowned out the sound of rushing wind as two Sabres took to the sky. My own fighter was only a few meters away. The ladder was already in place and the guy holding it was looking at me with a face that showed an utter lack of hope. He expected to die here. Miserable bastard.

I ascended the ladder; it took me longer to get up the thing in the wind. When I finally stepped into my cockpit and closed the canopy, the resulting stillness in the air felt surprisingly comfortable. I felt almost at home in this thing.

The ships systems soon started coming to life around me. My eyes fixed on the radar as it lay featureless before me. When it finally came to life with a short electronic hiss, I noticed nothing except for a large cluster of light blue dots with a handful of darker blue ones circling them.

My engines finally came online. I hit my ventral manoeuvring thrusters and pushed myself off of the ground, then I hit full acceleration, pulled up and climbed into the air.
“Oasis Station, this is Fire Wings leader. What are we looking at?”

It took them a while to respond. For an instant I wondered whether the Retros had gotten through to the bridge already, then a face, a Confederation face, appeared on my com screen.
“Fire wings leader, this is Oasis, we count fifteen Kilrathi fighters, all Vakoths by the look of it. We’re also picking up two bigger contacts, they look like troop transports.”
“That’s it?” I’d half been expecting him to tell me there was a H’varkann in orbit, along with all its escort ships and at least three hundred fighters.
“That’s it ma’am. There’s nothing else on sensors.”
“I’m uploading a nav point to all your onboard computers, that’s where the cats are coming in from.”

The face vanished from the com screen at pretty much the same time as the nav point appeared on my radar.

This didn’t look right. If it weren’t for the troop transports, I’d assume that the Kilrathi had just sent an advanced wave past the Hermes to weaken the base’s defences. On their own however, they would be hard pressed to soften us up enough to clear a path for the troop transports. Unless…

Realisation hit me like a punch in the gut.

Unless they had inside help, which presumably took the form of the Retros. They’d waited until some agreed time to attack and thereby cause chaos at the base. They’d probably try to sabotage systems from within; maybe even turn some of the base’s weapons on us.

Of course they had the marines to contend with, and after the show in the bar, I doubted that the Retros would fare too well. Maybe the Kilrathi knew that too. Perhaps they figured that they could use apes as cannon fodder to make their lives easier.

The first of the Kilrathi contacts appeared on the radar and I abruptly stopped caring. My job was to stop them getting through and that was what I had to focus on. It wasn’t like I could be much help anywhere else after all.
“All fighters, break and attack. Try and lead them to the base’s defenders, but don’t let them get a shot in.”

A few people responded with ‘aye ma’am’s’ and so on. Most people were too busy picking targets and readying missiles.

I’d assumed command of the base’s remaining fighter detachments shortly after arriving. The reason for this simply being greater experience. The previous wing commander hadn’t been especially happy about this, but hadn’t made an issue of it.

As it stood, we had eighteen ships. Seven Hellcats, (as many as the base could accommodate), and eleven Sabres. The Hellcats were basically replacements for the handful of modern day fighters the base had that the Retros had stolen. The Kilrathi Vaktoth outclasses both kinds of fighter, and there was no shortage of the, which didn’t do much for our confidence. Add to that the lack of experience in the majority of the Sabre pilots, tank and turret crews. This was not going to be easy.

Two minutes later

“Watch it Whisky 3, you’ve got one on your tail.”
“I can see that!” Came back the irritated response from the pilot. “Lancer, focus on one of his wings, see if you can’t…”

I closed the channel. They were taking too long. The Vaktoth would annihilate the Sabre before the gunner’s brain told his fingers to press down on the fire button.

I abandoned my target and peeled off to the left, lining myself up behind the Vaktoth. It was a long way out, and the sun made it difficult to see, but it was still in missile range.

I locked on a friend or foe missile and fired.

The missile struck the Vaktoth in the midsection, I think, but didn’t break through the shields. The enemy seemed to sway a little under the impact but soon recovered.
“That was a missile by the way.” I said over the radio, trying to force scathing pomposity into my voice, “I’m guessing you’re too stupid to figure that out yourself.”

A snarl was my answer, and the Vaktoth soon turned towards me. I kept moving towards him for a few seconds then swung around and ran back the way I’d came.

My rear shields started taking hits. I pulled right and downwards slightly; trying to keep my ship in his forward display. I needed him to focus on me.

And that he did, right up until two missiles from the station sailed past my fighter and tore his ship to pieces.

The vapour trails that the missiles had left in their wake hung in the air for as long as I could see. On closer inspection they were just two among dozens. There were still a fair few Kilrathi ships around so I was guessing they weren’t all faring with as much luck.

Blue streaks of light shot out from one point below me, they seemed to be chasing a Vaktoth across the sky, the Kilrathi pilot seemed to be dancing around them. Whether this was just a coincidently picturesque series of evasive manoeuvres or just him showing off I couldn’t tell, and didn’t really care.

I switched through contacts until I got his ship, then I closed on him and fired with full guns.

He had a harder time evading two sets of gunfire. Not long after I landed my first hits, the laser fire from the tank below finally found its way onto his shields.

The cat took his ship into a dive to the floor, I almost followed him, then I realised that I wasn’t in space and would probably plunge nose first into the dirt if I tried. Damn planetary engagements.

His ship was hard to make out next to the dusty ground. I tried to track the fighter as best as I could and let off a few shots at the green crosshair on my screen. Only a few hit home. The cat didn’t seem to care.

After a few seconds, he fired. The fire from the tank died out a few seconds later and I noticed an explosion next to the base, followed by another a few meters behind it, and then another.

Those tanks each carry a crew of four.

I accelerated again and unleashed another string of gunfire. Soon after gunfire shot out from three different points on the surface, all pointing at the Vaktoth. It seemed some of the tank crews had witnessed the destruction of their comrades.
One of the tanks seemed to land a hit on the fighter’s engines. The enemy ship slowed at first, then began to descend. The bow of the craft tilted towards the sky, suggesting that the pilot was attempting to pull up.

Fire from the tanks ceased, they seemed content that the creature was doomed. I wanted to make sure.

My gunfire ripped one of the enemy’s wings off shortly before his ship smashed into the floor and vanished in a cloud of fire and scorched surface dust.

I called up a third Vaktoth and swung my ship around to face it. When I saw it, I also saw a flaming wreck that had once been a Sabre break apart in front of it.

That was the fifth Sabre we’d lost, at the very least.

I lined up my targeting crosshairs on the screen and fired.

The Kilrathi didn’t seem too worried about evading my fire. Instead all he did was turn around and fire at me. I didn’t fancy a pounding match with a heavy fighter which I had no chance of winning so instead I afterburned past it.

I didn’t realise that the station’s com officer had reappeared on my screen until he started talking. He sounded worried.
“Attention all fighters. The tank in the north east quadrant is almost gone; and our turrets and missile launchers in that region have taken hits. Cover that area! We can’t give the cat transports a safe place to set down!”
“You heard him people.” I said to the other pilots, “Fire Wings 5, 6 and 7; keep trying to draw them towards more defended areas. All other ships, cover the northern quadrant.”
“Yes ma’am.”
“Holy shit!” Screamed a dying Hellcat pilot, “I’m breaking up! I’m…”

Damn it!

My previous target had gone elsewhere, probably a more tempting target had shown itself. I caught sight of two Vaktoth which were following a Hellcat towards the north east quadrant, and taking the occasional pot shot at him as they did so.

I prepped one of the three leech missiles that I had and placed one finger over the afterburner controls. I’d have to afterburn in straight behind the bastard and fire the missile into his rear shields; leech missiles, as we’d discovered in this battle, were easy things for the Cats to avoid.

The lock chime eventually sounded. I hit the afterburners and charged at the Vaktoth. The Cat sent a few shots at me from its rear turret, but didn’t make any attempt to evade. Presumably he thought he could afford to stay put for a while.

I launched the missile and was rewarded with the briefest hint of a blue flash as the warhead impacted on the beastie’s shields. I came about and afterburned away from fighter.

For a while nothing happened, except for the Vaktoth deciding to chase me. Enemy gunshots sailed past my fighter; others sailed into my rear shields. I pulled upwards and tried to roll back and lose him that way. He stayed with me, and my lock light soon came to life.

I released three decoys and dived for the surface. The missile smashed into one of the decoys, but the cat still stuck with me. I didn’t think that this leech was going to do anything.

As if on answer to my thoughts, the Vaktoth began to fall away. His speed decreased steadily, and then his altitude began to drop. Losing your engines is an especially bad thing to happen in a planetary atmosphere when you have gravity to contend with.

“A coward’s tactic!” Hissed the Kilrathi as his ship plunged into the dirt, “There is no honour!”
“Yeah, but which one of us is dead?”

He didn’t answer.

“Attention all fighters,” The station’s com officer said again, there was no visual with the face this time for some reason; “We’re picking up new contacts. Looks like; ah shit! They’re Vaktoths, another fifteen of them. They’ll be entering the atmosphere in three minutes.”

My heart sank, and for a while it was all I could do to fly in a straight line while I absorbed this news. There was no way we were going to be able to hold off a second wave. Most of our ships which weren’t charred wrecks on the ground were in pretty bad shape. Two Sabres and a Hellcat had been forced to withdraw already. The ground defences could still
“Looks like the first wave ships are retreating to join their litter mates.” Said one of the Sabre pilots, her voice echoing the sudden hopelessness our situation had taken.

How many fighters did the Kilrathi have to throw at us? There were more ships in this single engagement then there were in a single squadron onboard the Hermes.

“Alright,” I said at last, “Oasis station, how long till the cats get here? Do we have time to land and rearm?”
“Negative, enemy eta is…” The voice broke off as something on one of the displays caught his attention. “What the… I’m picking up new contacts in orbit, directly behind the Kilrathi. They’re, wait. Confirming…”

The wait was maddening. We didn’t know what the hell he was going to report, and I was little short of certain that it would be something unpleasant like another 15 Vaktoths, still, the uncertainty bread hope, and it was the hope which was maddening.
“It’s a Concordia class fleet carrier, plus escort ships. I’m also reading at least twenty fighters heading our way, but I can’t make out what they are yet.” With that he closed the com channel.

For a long time I was too amazed and far too relieved to think. Then for one brief moment I thought it was the Hermes, returning in triumph from the engagement with the H’varkann to assist us. Then the com screen crackled and a blurred face appeared on the screen, and I was to be proved incorrect. Atmospheric turbulence was doubtlessly responsible for the poor signal quality.
“…To *static* you. Repeat this *static* the TCS Invincible, we are launching fighters to assist you.” The transmission now seemed to have cleared up slightly, and I was able to make out the features of a youngish looking communications officer. She looked almost apprehensive. “We are also launching marine shuttles to bolster your station’s defence force. Be advised, one of our marines is a Kilrathi. Inform your people of this, we don’t want any friendly fire situations.”

A Kilrathi?

And then it clicked, the Invincible was the ship which Z’ratmak had been assigned to. I grinned and felt a short stab of grim humour at the thought of what would happen to any Retros who came across him.
“Stay sharp pilots.” Said the station’s com officer, suddenly reappearing on the screen, “The Cats are still going to get here before our reinforcements.”

To be continued.
Now I remembered some other spelling things you'll want to look out for:
Capital first letter in fighter-names

*Resumes excited reading*
Thanks again to all readers and to Mystery Muppet for commenting.

P.S. For those that don't know, 'Vikyah' means 'McAullife' and 'Churnah' means 'feeble minded'.

Chapter 22: Prey

Z’ratmak’s perspective

“Attention marines, Oasis station reports a large Retro incursion. At least 60 hostiles are engaging Confederation marines in five areas of the base. The heaviest fighting is around the station’s primary fusion reactor and command centre. The spine snapper unit is to assist marines at the reactor. The Shuriken unit is to assist in holding the command centre. Upon landing you will meet with marines who will lead you to the assigned areas.”

I replayed the announcement in my head in puzzlement. Attacking the command centre suggested that these terran Retros sought to take the station for themselves, but there were far too few of them to accomplish such a task. Perhaps they sought only to gain brief access to the stations weapons so as to turn them on the Confederation fighters. Yet this did not explain their attempting to seize the fusion reactor.

From what I understand of these Retro creatures, their reasoning is not typical of terrans. In fact it seems almost as if reasoning does not factor into their being. They seek the destruction of all technology, believing that it shall bring purity to their species or some other elevated state of being. And to achieve this end they make use of that they claim to despise. Their hypocrisy is plain for all but themselves to see it seems.

Furthermore, if somehow they reached this insane goal of theirs, all they would usher in is an effortless victory for the Empire of Kilrah.

But I digress. Seizing the station’s reactor suggested that the pirates sought instead to destroy the station. This seemed doubtful considering the presence of Kilrathi troopships. It seemed clear that both sides were working together, at least for the moment. The Retros would be slain by the Empire in an instant once their usefulness reached its end.

Perhaps they intended to seize the reactor in case they failed in their attempt to seize the commander centre. In case they failed they may seek to destroy the ‘technological abomination’ or what it is they would call it.

Truthfully I did not know what their plan was, but that was unimportant. They were the enemy, and they were to be slaughtered before they could do any substantial damage.
“Touchdown in three minutes.”
“Prepare your weapons.” I said, and watched as my troops readied themselves. Their faces bore the typical nervousness that preceded our engagements. However today there was something different about their expressions. There too was the anger. Not one of my troops had gone through this war without losing one or more of their hrai to the Empire Corporal Olivia ‘Hailstorm’ Johnson had lost her son, Corporal Harvey ‘Soulless’ Hawling had lost his parents and three sisters at Goddard. There were fifteen soldiers at my command. None had remained free from losing one of their H’rai.

I was fortunate in comparison. I was the only member of my line who served in battle, none of my H’rai had been lost in this war, save for my father who had perished in the battle of Vikyah. I did not know him too well, being only a cub when he left to rejoin the Imperial fleet, and I never saw or heard from him again. I do know that he was a loyal subject of the Emperor to the end. A loyal subject to the accursed wretch who had plunged both the Kilrathi and the humans into this ridiculous war.

Forgive me; I am drifting from the point. The anger on the faces of my soldiers I noticed this time was different from what I saw during typical engagements. This time there was disgust mingled with the anger. The disgust any true warrior reserved for traitors. The same that I imagine many Kilrathi would reserve for me. But I am no traitor to my people. I fight to save them, not to destroy them.

These churnah terrans however are traitors in the truest sense of the word. They fight to bring regression and annihilation to their species. They are fools, and truly deserving of contempt and death.

“Touchdown in one minute.”

An uneasy shuffling ensued as we prepared ourselves for battle. Compared to some of our previous engagements, the victory at Morpheus for example, this was nothing. Still, it seems to take less for terrans to tremble. Nevertheless, the warrior’s spirit is alive in the warriors under my command; they need only glorious combat to bring it to the surface.

It had been a long time since I turned my claws on a terran. Part of me could not help but feel glad for this change. The simple truth is that it is easier to kill a creature when they are not your own kind.

“All hands, brace for landing.”

I grasped the support bar that was barely larger then my paw, the others did the same. A sharp jolt signified our touching down. As the hatch began to slide open, I stood, my marines did the same shortly afterwards.
“Do not allow yourselves to become complacent.” I warned, “Follow me.”

With our weapons pointed downwards, we quickly filed out of the shuttle. Only to be met with the sounds and sights of battle. From within the shuttle it had felt quiet and peaceful. We had, rather surprisingly, passed unnoticed and unmolested through the battle. This was puzzling. Marine shuttles are always tempting targets, especially during situations such as these.
Soon we noticed a terran marine moving towards us. When she noticed me she acted as many terrans tended to. A brief moment of shock and then a twitch in her arms as her instincts told her to shoot me. I growled in irritation as she realised I was not the enemy, and then moved closer towards us.

“Spine snappers?” In spine of the deafening sounds of battle around us, there was still the familiar scorn in the voice, no doubt because of my presence. I was growing tired of hearing it.
“Yes.” I growled in response.
“This way.”

She turned about and began to sprint back towards the base. Soon we followed and were moving to meet our enemy.

Overhead, the battle still progressed. It was hard to make out anything of the fighters, save for the occasional explosion. They were moving too fast to make sighting them easy, and the glare from the surface laser fire made visibility even more difficult. But this was unimportant. We were not here for sightseeing. We were here to hunt.

Seven minutes later

In the distance I could hear the fire from human blasters, and also raised voices, though I could not tell what they were saying.
“This is a minor engagement.” Said the marine who’d met upon touchdown, “I read three Retros engaging four marines ten meters up ahead. They’re trying to sneak into the core room through the back door. The main engagement is up ahead.”
“I understand. Bates, Valdez, Turcotte, Hawling.”

From behind me, the marines stepped forward.
“You will accompany me, the rest of you stay here and hold this position.”
“Aye sir.”

Slowly we advanced, as we turned the first corner, we caught sight of the three attackers. They were firing into the depths of a corridor and using the walls on either side for cover. Blaster fire streaked out from the corridor form the Confederation marines on the other side.

There was no cover for me or my troops to make use of. We would have to wait until we were nearer, then pounce.

I suppressed the urge to utter a snarl of anticipation.

I raised my arm and twitched my paw forward slightly, signalling for us to advance quietly.

The Retros were too focused on their engagement to notice us at first. We closed to within roughly six meters and readied our weapons.
“Fire!” I growled, loud enough for the enemy heads to turn our way.

Our shots ripped through the terran’s backs. I did not surpress my triumphant snarl this time.
“Who’s there?” Came a shout from down the hall.

I shot a glance to Corporal Bates. He nodded and moved closer to the corridor. It was easier for humans to introduce our unit to other humans rather then for me to do it. I tended to be met with scepticism and disbelief. It had almost gotten me killed on two occasions.
“We’re a marine detachment from the TCS Invincible.” Bates shouted, “We’re here to help.” He then uttered the detachment’s serial number, further authentication of our identity.

There was some murmuring from the corridor.
“Good to see you.” Came the reply, “Follow us past the core, we’ll get to the rest of the Retros quicker that way.”
“Got it. Be advised, our commander is a Kilrathi defector, don’t shoot him.”
“A Kilrathi. Are you serious? Let’s have a look at him.”

I rolled my eyes; it was a habit I had picked up from Torrent when I was still serving aboard the Hermes. This was a waste of time, yet it was unavoidable. Rushing could lead to my death here.

I stepped into view of the marines; some moved towards me, others viewed from a distance. Those that I could see viewed me as if I were rogue Trathra beast that had snuck into their home.
“Well that’s the damnest thing I’ve ever seen.” Said one of the marines finally, a Colonel like myself by the looks of things. “Jamie, Ice pick, Wren, Otis. You stay here and cover this area. Everyone else, let’s get moving.”
I sent Valdez back to summon the rest of the unit; I doubted they would have much trouble following the sounds of gunfire in the distance. The rest of us ran through a doorway and past the bulbous form of the station’s primary power core. The device hung from the ceiling like a round stalagmite. It would take only a single grenade thrown close enough to the core to destroy the station, or at the very least disable it, depending on the effectiveness of the base’s safeties.

We passed through this room; the technicians dotted around it seemed to trip over themselves attempting to keep out of our path.
“Keep low,” Said the other Colonel as we approached another door. The sound of gunfire was heavier here. “Unless you want to get your head shot off.”

I lowered myself, doubting that it would help much. Even when slouched I was still about as tall as a short, standing human.

The door hissed open and I immediately threw myself to the floor. It was an action dictated by instinct more then anything. I was not sure whether I’d find waiting Confederation marines on the other side of that hatch of whether I’d find an enemy pointing a gun at me.

The latter alternative was the truth. A stream of blue light tore through the air past my left shoulder; impacting on the face of one of the base’s marines. She fell backwards and screamed as the weapon discharge devoured the flesh from her skull.

Three marines as well as myself returned fire in the direction of the Retro. The creature tried to run but was cut down before he could take his first step.

Beyond his corpse there were pitched battles that spread up the wide corridor. It seemed that the majority of the marines were holding back near to the core room, perhaps feigning weakness or defeat; allowing the Retros to venture towards them before cutting them down.

The terran Colonel moved forward and we followed. Along two corridors were lines of marines, those that were not wounded and being seen to by field medics were waiting in a line for an opening to form in the firing line. There was one man who was dragging away a body of his fallen comrade.

I signalled for my own men to form up along the wall on my right. I placed myself close to the line of fire. I would not wait in line for battle.
“It’s not as bad as it looks.” Shouted a youngish looking human as I came up beside her, she either didn’t notice that she was that she was speaking to a Kilrathi or didn’t care. “We’ve taken out at least ten of them already. They shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Can’t say the same if the cats land though.”

She was right. If the Kilrathi broke through, it would be with at least one thousand troops. There was barely a quarter of that number of Confederation marines here. We would all be slaughtered if the Empire landed troops here.

I heard a sound from down the hall, it sounded faintly like a roar I had heard Kilrathi hunters use in my youth, but it was a feeble sound by comparison.
“Another load of martyrs.” Said the second Colonel, I never did learn his name, “Stun only. We think those guys are strapped to explosives tied to dead man switches.”

I did not know what a ‘dead man switch’ was, but I recognised the words stun only. Not that I was happy to hear them.

The pathetic human battle cry grew closer. I waited, moving closer to the opening in the pathways. The sound grew louder still; I heard the clanging of footsteps on the metal deck.

Wait, wait, Now!

I moved swiftly forward, judging the timing by the sound of the terran’s wailing. My arm shot forward at the same time as the first of them came into view. Grasping the terran by the neck, I swung him into the wall behind me.

The swing was not powerful enough to crack the skull, but the creature fell to the floor, the consciousness knocked from him.

A second Retro was brought down by at least five different stun batons.

One of the marines looked at me with a facial expression that might have been admiration. At the same time, the rest of my soldiers arrived from the core room. On my order they formed up along the wall with the rest of the ‘Spine Snappers’.

Fire from the end of the corridor seemed to have come to a halt. Either we had crushed the Retros, or they simply did not wish to shoot their own suicide bombers.
“Runner,” Uttered the human Colonel, “Send ‘em a consolation prize.”

One of the station’s marines removed a concussion grenade from his belt and moved to the edge of the corridor. She removed the safety from the top of the explosive and prepared to throw it.

And then the deafening sound of an explosion preceded the sudden shaking of the station. Many of the marines, and also the grenade were cast to the floor.

Either a torpedo had struck the station, or a fighter had collided with a section very close to that in which we stood.

For a few moments there was chaos. Those that were not unconscious were hastily trying to stand and prepare themselves once more for battle.

I did not notice the grenade at first; I was busy lifting a number of my own stunned warriors from the floor.

It was Corporal Blackman who in fact noticed the explosive. He could not speak at the time; I believe Sergeant Tilak had inadvertently struck him in the throat as fell. He pointed desperately at the grenade as I pulled him from the deck. At the same time he parted with a pained wheeze and clutched at his throat with his other hand.

I turned and caught sight of the device. It glowed slightly amongst the darkness of the corridor, signifying that it was charging.

With barely any prior thought I charged at the explosive and grasped it. Its detonation would certainly slay all of us, and allow the Retros to seize the core. Assuming there were any of them left.

I cast the explosive down the open corridor, I watched as it vanished into the darkness. (The Retros had destroyed the lighting in that section to conceal themselves.)

The grenade exploded only a few seconds after it had left my paw. I had no time to get out of its way. Flames clawed across the distance both in and away from my direction.

I do not think the blast dispatched any Retros; however the flames did meet with myself.

My armour, though heated protected me from the majority of the blast. Yet I still could not help but snarl in sudden pain.

I soon realised that the area in which I stood was exposed. I moved myself back behind the cover of the wall on the right.
“Are you alright sir?”
“I am fine.”
“Hey fur… I mean Colonel.” This was from the terran Colonel. I decided to ignore the ‘furball’ jest this once. “Nice work.”

There was some faint murmuring of approval, mostly from my own troops; from others there were spits and signs of disgust at their commander’s praise.

“There may still be Retros nearby.” I said, we had wasted too much time already, “Blackman, Tilak, Bates, Green and Norwood. You will accompany me.”
“Singer, Spike, you and I will go with them. The rest of you, stay here and hold this position.”

We advanced cautiously through the corridor, keeping low as we moved and passing a number of Retro corpses. Many of which looked as if they’d been hit with at least three gunshot wounds.

I did not believe that there would be any remaining Retros, if there were any survivors then, (assuming they hadn’t fled,) they would have kept fighting.

I soon found that I was wrong however. At the end of the corridor we came to a section not unlike the one we had been using for cover. In it we found a single Retro. He looked barely old enough to be an academy cadet. He wore the uniform of one of the base’s personnel; lying next to him was a brown hood. I’d seen these on some of the Retros that we’d already slain.

When he saw me, he jumped visibly.
“My Lord,” He wailed at me, “Please forgive me! We tried our best but there were too many of them. We need help from your warriors if this battle is to be…”

It was then it seems that he realised I was not of the Empire.

His face took on a deeper look of horror. He began to raise his weapon towards us, he was shaking so bad it seemed possible that he would drop it. I grasped his firearm and pointed it upwards towards the ceiling. He tried to prise it from my grasp but that would be impossible for any terran.

With my other paw, I unsheathed my claws and prepared to strike at the throat of this creature.
“Wait a minute.” This was the Colonel again, there seemed to be pity in his voice, or something not to dissimilar. “We need to take a few of them alive; we’ll need to get some information out of ‘em.”

I think it was possibly the young age of the terran which invoked this commander’s sympathy. Maybe he reminded him of his own son. In any case, he did not seem to want the snivelling creature to die.

I snorted in disappointment and instead of clawing the human’s throat out, I landed a quick blow to the back of his head. He fell unconscious in an instant.

“Alright, Spike, Singer, get him to the brig. On your way inform the command centre that the reactor is secure and we are searching for stray Retros in the surrounding area.”

To be continued
Thanks again to all readers and to Kilrah for commenting. Sorry it’s taken me a while to get this chapter up.

Chapter 23: David

Fool’s perspective

“Oh my God!”

Attacking the carrier had had the secondary effect of placing me at the perfect angle and distance to witness the destruction of the H’varkann.

Its engines were gone, nothing but dissipating flames were left where they had been. Explosions were breaking out all over the hull which was by the way, now in two pieces. One of the claw-like outcroppings on the bow had been ripped clean off, and the docking bay was vomiting flames like an enraged dragon.

A more beautiful sight I have not seen.

As what normally happens when a large cap ship dies, there was a period of staring. There was for me and Salamander at least. Ordinarily when this happens we, (human and Kilrathi alike) sit back, watch as the cat cap ship burns for two and a half seconds and then the battle started up again.

With no one around us, we saw no harm in dawdling. I could only imagine what the Kilrathi must be thinking now. Their colossal, hitherto indestructible dreadnought had just been taken out by a measly, run of the mill Confederation fleet carrier. Humiliating isn’t the word for it.

And it was about to get a lot worse for them. The Bhantkara lay only 20 kilometres from us. The tactical display confirmed that the ship had taken a pasting. Looks like the fighters from Adjudicator squadron had managed to get a few shots off before they were taken out.

One well aimed torpedo would be all it took.

Salamander’s fighter overtook mine and hovered in front of my screen for a while, he then began to accelerate towards the carrier. Remembering that I’d reduced my speed to take in the view, I pushed the speed control and shot off after him.

Either they hadn’t noticed us, had run out of fighters or had had their docking bay smashed up so badly that they couldn’t launch. Either way this made our job easier.
“Hang on.” Salamander said, there were still traces of triumph in his voice, but they were fading, back to work. “I’m picking up what looks like a Confederation ejection pod. We’ll pick it up before we head on to the carrier.”

Trent had ordered that all Thunderbolts and Longbows be retrofitted to carry tractor beams when word reached his ear of the H’varkann. Basically the hope was that we’d be able to pluck a pilot from the fray if we fell upon one. In a battle like this one, the potential to get whacked by a stray shot was a high one. There was enough space in a Thunderbolt to fit a single pod, barely.

The pod appeared on my radar, a single purple dot hanging uncomfortably close to the carrier. It was kind of encouraging really. The fact that the Cats hadn’t used the pilot for target practice suggested that they may not be able to fire, at least in that section. Or maybe they just hadn’t seen him.

As I stared at the dot on my radar, I noticed two red dots appear behind me.
“Shit, major we’ve got…”

My ship shuddered under the impact of volleys of gunfire from two Strakha.
“I see ‘em.” Salamander responded, “I’m almost at the pod. Cover me. Then I’ll give you a hand.”
“Aye sir.”

The Strakha were woefully outgunned and they knew it. But the Kilrathi code of honour dictates that they engage. Either that or they were just so royally pissed off with us that they’d attack anything they could see.

I swung my ship around and returned fire. My shots tore into the forward shields of the enemy on my left. Before too long his ship was reduced to an exploding wreck.

The second Strakha re-cloaked. I fired where it had been and where it might have been moving, but I didn’t hit anything. It looked like hew was heading towards Salamander.
“One beastie down sir.” I said over the com, “But the second one cloaked, looks like he’s heading your way. He might be trying to…”
“To hit the ejection pod.” Salamander finished for me, “I know. Its about the only thing he could take out. I’ve about to activate the tractor beam. Get over here and shoot at anything that might be a Kilrathi fighter.”
“Yes sir.”

You might think that protecting the carrier would be high on the Kilrathi’s list of priorities considering that it was the only cap ship that they had left. However in the state of mind that they had to be in, (humiliated, utterly vengeful etc.) They might be more concerned with making the hairless beasts pay. Besides, the carrier wasn’t going anywhere. Why take chances?

I hit my afterburners and chased after Salamander. I couldn’t make out any visible distortions that might indicate the presence of a cloaked Kilrathi fighter. I’d have to wait for him to de-cloak.
“Engaging tractor beam now.”

I came to a halt. From here I had a good line of sight and would be able to get a quick missile lock if the Kilrathi showed himself.

A thin trail of blue shot out from Salamander’s fighter and impacted on an invisible point not far from his ship.

My eyes sprung to my radar, I waited for the red dot to appear. And it did, alongside two others, directly behind me.

"Oh shit!"
Almost without thinking, I jettisoned a decoy. Razor had taught me this, it gave me a slightly higher chance of survival if the cats decide to launch a missile. I jettisoned two more after it.

Distantly I thought that the Kilrathi probably were more concerned about their carrier after all.

Three rounds of Kilrathi gunfire tore into my already damaged shields and tore them away like a sheet of paper. I heard the unpleasant sound of armour being ripped from around my engines as I pulled my ship to the right and hit the afterburners.

“I have him.” Salamander said over the com, “I’m on my way to assist kid. Be there in a second.”

One of the Strakha peeled off and headed toward Salamanders position. I watched the red dot on the radar move off briefly before pulling back on the flight stick.

The Strakha followed me; they wee clinging very close to the rear end of my fighter. Ordinarily I’d stop, come about and smash them to bits, if I tried that now, they’d probably crash into me, which was probably what they were trying to do. Redeem themselves with honour by taking an enemy to the grave with them. I wondered how many of the others had suicidal felines to worry about.

My rear turret was out of action; and my damage control display told me that it wasn’t going to be repaired until a technician or two from the Hermes had ripped it off of the ship and replaced it for a working one. (Well, not in so many words but… ah forget it.)

Another round of gunshots ripped past me, some scraping my dorsal shields.
“Major, I need a ha…”

As if on cue, gunfire from Salamander’s Thunderbolt ripped the closest Strakha to shreds. With that one out of the way, there was nothing to stop me from coming about and unloading cannon volleys in his face.

The first shots were rushed and passed underneath the fighter. I lined the target up in my sights as I fired and…
“This death.” There was a pause as the Cat hissed in sudden pain, “Is deserved.”

There was none of the rage and bloodthirsty desire for vengeance that I’d expected in his voice. There was only shame. From this point I stopped pretending that I knew what the Cats were feeling or how they’d act.

“Nice job kid.” Salamander said, “Let’s finish what we started. You get inside the carrier and try and blast them from the inside, I’ll do the same from the outside and try and cover you on your way in, assuming their flak turrets still work. Assume that they do. We’ll approach from the damaged side.”
“Yes sir, and don’t call me kid.”
“Sure thing urchin, whatever you say.”

I suppressed a scowl and was about to reply when I saw Salamander’s fighter pass overhead. I hit my afterburners and followed him in.

On my way in, I couldn’t stop the mental images of Torrent returning. She was dead because of that thing. And now it lay before me, damaged and stationary, possibly helpless, just waiting for me to avenge her.

I focused as much as I could, but it was only now that I noticed just how exhausted I was. This fight dwarfed everything I’d ever been in before. Distantly I though that this must be what the battle of Earth had been like.

I shuddered, remembering the terror and dismay I felt as I watched the battle unfold on a tactical display map at the academy. Blue dots seemed to vanish in groups of ten, the Kilrathi crawled ever closer to Earth and, well, Salamander will probably fill you in later; he was there after all.

We closed to within firing range of the carrier. Only three laser turrets started firing in our direction, the rest were either inoperative or the gunnery crews were dead. Or both; or neither.

“Change of plan kid,” Salamander said, “Just shoot the bastards.”
“Aye sir.”
I called up the torpedo and waited for the lock chime. We were still afterburning towards the beast. The closer we were the less chance there was of the incredibly thin flak fire taking the torpedoes out. Also, it just felt better to slam the things into a Kilrathi cap ship at close range. It’s more personal, for lack of a better word.

“Torpedo away!” Salamander half shouted.

Five seconds later, the lock chime finally sounded.
“Same here.” I said, pressing down on the release. The torpedo shot out from under my ship and vanished into the distance.

The carrier was about five kilometres out. We needed to put some extra distance between us and it before it blew.

As we turned round I noticed that the wreck of the H’varkann seemed to have cooled slightly. Huge gaping holes in the hole were still vomiting flame, but there were no explosions breaking out across it. There were however, brief hints of explosions in the distance.

I was too far out to know how the fighter engagement was progressing. Nothing was showing up on the radar except for the Hermes, (the computer automatically kept track of it over a distance of 100,000km considering at some point we’d have to go back there. There wasn’t much point in keeping track of anything else that far out. If nothing else, it was nice to see that the Hermes was still there.

A blinding flash from behind us signified that the Bhantkara’s fusion reactor had breached. The last Kilrathi cap ship was gone. Even if the remaining fighters killed us all, they wouldn’t survive.
“Let’s have a look shall we.” Salamander said, he was starting to sound tired as well.

I brought my ship to a halt and came about. Sitting there before me was the crispy remnants of a Kilrathi carrier. Like the H’varkann, it seemed to have split in two.
“Rest in peace Ryuku.”

It was hard to feel triumphant. A friend’s life for an enemy ship is no exchange. Still, at least justice had been done.

We stared at it for about a minute before heading back to the Hermes. I kept a close eye on the radar, waiting intently to see thirty or so Kilrathi fighters heading in our direction.

Instead the first fighters I saw were four arrows. They were moving towards us; soon more blue dots crept onto the screen. I tried to quell the growing hope, and kept searching for Kilrathi.
“Welcome back.” Scar uttered, appearing suddenly on the screen, “I’m guessing that torched Bhantkara over there is your doing.”
“You guess correctly.” I replied, “Am I dreaming or are there no Kilrathi fighters here.”
“A fair few of them self destructed when they saw the H’varkann blow up. Strange thing. Of course most of them tried to ram us. We managed to shoot them off each other’s backs. Mostly.”

We had won.

There was a moment of silence; part of me was thrilled and awed at the fact that we had prevailed. Another part of me was feeling equally deflated at the price we’d paid for this victory.
“How many did we lose?” Salamander asked.
“I’m not sure, but there aren’t a great many of us left. And the Hermes is disabled. She took a torpedo to the bridge.”
“Oh shit,” I responded, “Were there…”
“No survivors.” I felt a sudden queasiness developing in my gut. “Landing operations are being directed by the Rome’s communications officer. For now though we’ve been assigned to look for anyone who might have ejected.”
“Understood.” Salamander responded, “To that end, I picked up an ejection pod near the Bhantkara.”

It could…

You can’t let yourself feel hope, it will only hurt you.
“Alright then you need to talk to the Rome’s com officer. Fool, find yourself a wingman and then talk to one of the destroyers; they’ll give you the location of a transponder beacon.
“Understood. See you all back at the ship.”

Seven minutes later

In the end I was teamed up with Captain Gregory Colson, (no relation to Zach Colson), we went after the ejection pod of a pilot we believe came from Swift Blade squadron.

Neither of us said anything as we moved towards the pod. There didn’t seem to be anything left to say.

This was the last ejection pod. There were only about seven of them in total, and there were only twice that many surviving fighters, not counting the seven we’d sent to Brimstone 2.

I wondered briefly what the Cat’s would throw at us next time, two H’varkanns maybe? They wouldn’t just leave the system to us. It was too valuable for that.
“Attention, human life sign detected.”

I thought the computer was talking about the ejection pod. Then my tactical display brought up something that was definitely different.
“Computer, what is that?”
“Sensors identify it as a Kilrathi escape pod.”
“What? Confirm human life signs.”
“Scanning…Human life signs confirmed. The pod has one occupant. It seems to have been heavily damaged and thrown here by the destruction of a Kilrathi capitol ship. Life support is failing.”

It couldn’t be…
No it fucking well couldn’t! That is NOT Torrent! She’s dead. Do you understand that?
You’re right, that has to be a Retro.

Whoever it was, we had to bring the pod back to the Hermes, there were still some unanswered questions which the Retros had to answer for us.
“Captain, you see that?”
“Yeah I see it.” He replied, “Let’s split up. I’ll get the pilot, you get the pod. Make sure there’s a security team to meet you on the launch deck.”
The pod was spinning past me quickly. I afterburned after it. The chase took roughly two minutes but eventually I snared the damn thing.

It was too big to fit in my fighter; I’d to drag it back to the Hermes.

Fourteen minutes later

I stepped onto the empty deck and stretched my limbs free of the aches they’d accumulated in the cockpit. Since I’d been dragging the damaged pod, I’d been granted priority clearance, most of the pilots were still outside. There were three not too far away from me gathered next to one of the anti-grav cranes. No matter who was in that pod, they’d be of more use to us alive then dead.

When I noticed the line of marines walking in my direction I hastily stepped away from the pod that was lying on the floor and made my way over to the group of pilots. I doubted they’d mind me joining them; I got the feeling that there weren’t a great many of us left.

Two of them nodded a greeting as I approached, the other stared at me with a look on his face that said he might lunge at me at any second.
“Do you know what…” He swallowed hastily, “Do you know what happened to Captain Dischler?”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, not sure what tone of voice to use, “I don’t know who that is.”
“Joanne Dischler? ‘Spindly’?”
“Sorry,” I said again, “I don’t know.”

His eyes fell to the floor and he inhaled sharply, the sound was more like a hiss.
“You’re Fool right?” Asked the pilot at my left, a tall looking bald guy. He looked familiar, then again so do a lot of people on carriers.

He nodded, I doubted he really cared who I was; he was just making conversation. Looking for something to divert or disrupt his doubtlessly grim thought patterns.
“Who’s that?” Asked the third pilot, a short African woman, gesturing at the Kilrathi escape pod. “Prince Thrakhath?”
“No, they’re human whoever they are.” Heads turned in my direction at this news, “a Retro maybe.”

From the far corner of the room came a bellowing cry of,
“Stand clear!”

We moved slightly closer to the bulbous looking Kilrathi escape pod and tried to get a closer look.

The door snapped open with a loud clank and a hiss, and simultaneously the marines drove the muzzles of their guns into the entrance to the pod.

After a few seconds I definitely heard one of the marines say,
“What the fuck? It can’t be.”

Two of the marines stepped into the pod and whisked out the unconscious form of its occupant. When they pulled her up, I looked upon the sloped figure in their arms and almost had a heart attack.

It can’t be.

To be continued.
You have an amazing talent and a astounding flare for WC story-telling. I sincerely admire your work.
...naturaly, I whant more of it :)
Thanks again to all readers and to Marc for commenting.

Chapter 24: Aftermath

Salamander’s perspective

Two days later

With all the damage the ship had taken, no one had thought to draw up a proper casualty list, until now. Now I sat in my cabin and read the names on my computer for what must have been the sixth time.

1st Lieutenant Harold Kensington
2nd Lieutenant Silas ‘Slimy’ Prise
2nd Lieutenant Emilia Powel
Captain Dak-Ho Choi
1st Lieutenant Nathan ‘Flute’ Lloyd
Major Karl Von Tieschowitz
Commodore Kristen Ammadon
Lieutenant Colonel Kenji Matsumoto
Captain Wendy ‘Titan’ McAllister
2nd Lieutenant Alistair ‘Lichen’ Green
Lieutenant Colonel José ‘Red bat’ Martinez
Ensign Isabella Bedeau
2nd Lieutenant Jamie ‘Cannonball’ Rogers
Lieutenant Jake Coben
Ensign Ira Paine
1st Lieutenant Kate Wang
Colonel Cade Trent

And that’s not even half. Not by a long shot. And this list didn’t include the names of those who’d died onboard the escort ships that we’d lost. Maybe it would be easier to give you a list of people who’d survived.

The Hermes was en-route to the Tomayo system, where it would be powered down and undergo a lengthy period of repairs. Two of the Invincible’s escort destroyers were accompanying us, as well as our surviving ones. Well, when I say accompanying us, they were helping to drag us to the Tomayo system. Without a proper bridge, the Hermes couldn’t fly herself. The downside of this is that getting to Tomayo would take a lot longer then usual.

For he most pat there hadn’t been much for us to do but sit around, either on the carrier or on an uneventful shift outside in a fighter, flying alongside the wrecked Hermes.

I’d stayed in my cabin for the most part since I’d landed. It was the one place where I didn’t feel the emptiness that now haunted the carrier quite so fully. The rec room is filled with empty seats which not three days ago had sat nervous looking pilots and crew who were now nothing more then bodies; or vapour trails in the Brimstone system.

In spite of all this, I couldn’t help but feel overjoyed at the fact that the others, by which I mean Razor, Fool, Scar, Adish and even Torrent had survived.

When they’d pulled Adish’s ejection pod out of my fighter I had to stare at his weary features for at least two minutes before my mind punched through the surge of disbelief and registered the fact that he was alive. With Torrent it had taken almost an hour.

It was Fool who had let me know that she was still alive. He was as jittery as a, um, jittery thing, and he’d virtually dragged me to the infirmary and when I saw Torrent’s face through the window I nearly went into shock.

It didn’t seem possible. The same higher power or fate that I’d spent so much of my adult life bitching about had spared two of my friends from death, one of whom who had been a Kilrathi POW. In 99.99% of all cases you don’t escape from that.

But Torrent had, God only knew how, but she had.

I hadn’t had a chance to speak with her yet, the meds and councillors had been guarding her tenaciously since she was brought onboard. ‘In the interests of ascertaining her mental condition‘ apparently. For now, I was just glad that she was alright.

When we’d arrived at Brimstone 2 and noticed the charred wrecks of two transports, I did two things. One was kick myself and mentally kick everyone else for not realising that the damn things weren’t next to the H’varkann when we engaged it, another was feel a strong and unyielding surge of panic when I realised that Razor hadn’t escaped from the battle. I’d been certain I’d soon hear that she’d been killed by an enemy fighter wave.

Instead, her fighter was among the first two to land. When I saw her, it was too much. The relief, disbelief, shock, elation and dare I say it, love; made it impossible for me to do anything except go over to Razor and hold her. Considering that she returned the embrace instead of kneeing me in the crotch for this blatant, public show of affection, I’m guessing that she felt the same way. Hiding from everyone now just seemed pointless. Maybe because there was virtually no one left to hide from.

So that was that, over 1000 Confederation servicemen and women dead; almost ten times that number of Kilrathi incinerated, the Brimstone system had been saved, we had a number of Retros that had reportedly spilled their guts to Confederation interrogators. One H’varkann class dreadnought was gone, which might just cause problems on Kilrah for the Empire’s power base, assuming that they couldn’t hide this fact from their people. I didn’t know if they could or couldn’t, and I couldn’t care less.

Maybe this would help elsewhere, the story of the Hermes’ triumph over the feared Kilrathi H’varkann class dreadnought would inspire other pilots, other Confederation ship crews, maybe it was just the boost we needed to keep us from slitting our throats. Maybe not. Again, at the time I couldn’t care less.

Thirty nine minutes later

There was a knock at my door which startled me from my depression induced trance.
“Come in.”

Razor stepped through the doorway and smiled slightly as she walked over to the bed and sat down next to me.
“I thought I’d find you here.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out; nothing seemed appropriate.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m…” I paused, “I’m surviving. You?”
Surviving? The word sounded more and more stupid as I repeated it to myself.

Razor held out a closed hand in front of me. When she opened it, I saw two white metallic leaves, rank insignias of a Lieutenant Colonel.

I let loose a low whistle and distantly remembered that Fire Wing’s squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Martinez was on the casualty list.
“Congratulations.” I said, trying to make it sound as genuine as possible.
“Captain Moran told me to tell you to get to her office at 17:00 hours. I think you’ll be getting some of these yourself.” There was a sick loathing in her voice, as if the rank insignia ribbons had been pulled callously from Martinez’s corpse and handed to her. Granted that wasn’t even close to the truth, but still, some things you can’t ignore.
I couldn’t help but feel slightly excited at the possibility of becoming a squadron commander. Then I remembered that Colonel Matsumoto would have paid for such a promotion with his life.
“Maybe.” I said with traces of personal disgust in my voice. I, we, were sick of being promoted because our predecessors had been killed.

For a few moments we sat in silence. Then Razor broke it for both of us.
“Do you want to meet for dinner later?”
“Well, dinner being a euphemism for chocking down emergency rations in my quarters.” I smiled faintly, it was a tempting offer but I didn’t really feel up to doing more then as little as possible until we got to Vespus.
“Well, Samantha, to be honest I’m feeling pretty drained…”
“Too bad.” She snapped, “I’m not going to have you cooped up in here slowing fading away. Get to my cabin at 20:00 hours. That’s an order major.”

It seemed I had no say in the matter.
“Aye ma’am.” I replied, enjoying the first scraps of genuine humour that I’d felt in days.
“To that end,” she continued, their was a satisfaction in her voice that told me she was enjoying her new found power far too much, “It wouldn’t kill you to step outside for a while. You can’t let that eat you up.” She flicked her head at the computer in my lap, where the casualty list was still displayed.

I cast another glance at these names and it was then I realised how much I really didn’t want to be looking at them, disrespectful though that may sound. I wasn’t doing anything which could help them, and I wasn’t doing myself any favours.

And a dismissive glance at the clock built into the wall told me I had only 20 minutes to get the Toronto to meet with Captain Moran.
“Oh shit!” I moaned, feeling a fresh surge of weariness with the effort of feeling shock.

I pushed myself up and made my way to the door. Once there I turned round, made a feeble gesture at the time display as an explanation for my sudden flight.

Razor turned her head towards it, turned it back to me and nodded.
“20.00 hours?”
“20.00 hours” She replied, “You get the food.”

Smiling, (something which felt like I’d need nails implanted in my face to maintain), I left the room.

Sixteen minutes later

“Ah, Mr. Mclean, have a seat please.”

I moved further into the barely lit office and tried not to cast my gaze at the image of the huge hull breach where the Hermes’ bridge once was that was displayed in the window.

I sat myself in the seat opposite Captain Moran. She was by the looks of things hastily trying to finish reading something on her display. She looked wasted; strands of long black hair had dropped over her bloodshot eyes. I’m guessing she hadn’t slept in a while.
“I’ve just been reviewing the data collected from your flight recorder. Very impressive, Kramm ‘Deathfang’ nar Caxki has been thorn in Confed’s collective side for far too long. Add to that the destruction of a Bhantkara class carrier.”
“Thank you Captain,” I replied, “But to be honest, Fool, I mean Lieutenant Venner deserves as much credit as I do for taking out Deathfang, and that carrier was all but dead when we got to it.”
“No false modesty Colonel. You were able to keep Deathfang occupied for a long time, allowing for Lieutenant Venner to sneak up on him. That in itself is an achievement. Most pilots didn’t last that long against him. Also you were the one who fired the shot that killed the furry bastard.”
“Um…” I didn’t know what to say to that, as I tried to think of something however, something else occurred to me, “Did you just call me…?”

She laughed, well, it was more of a short -lived, weary murmur truth be told.

“Yes Mr. Mclean, in view of your record and recent accomplishments, I have decided to award you a battlefield promotion to the rank of Colonel. I sent the notice through to HQ and the confirmation should come through within the next few days. You will be taking over as the Wing Commander of the Hermes once she is repaired, as well as Death’s Shadow squadron’s squadron commander until we can bring in a suitable replacement.”

For a moment, I simply sat there, staring dumbfounded at the Captain. Being a Wing Commander was something I had never expected to live long enough to see, and something that didn’t hold much appeal to me. I was content simply to go out and blast cats. This responsibility was, well, an unpleasant prospect.

Unfortunately during war time, promotions are non negotiable. And, stupid though it may sound, ‘Colonel Mclean’ had a nice ring to it.

I set another wave of revulsion at this thought, similar to the one I had felt at the prospect of becoming a squadron commander. Colonel Trent, the man who rightfully should be doing the job was dead. That was the main reason why I had been promoted. I could only hope that I’d prove to be a competent successor.
“Thank you Captain.” I said at last, “I’ll try not to disappoint.”
“Be sure that you don’t.” Moran replied, and then, standing up and extending her hand said, “Congratulations Colonel. You’ve earned this.”

I stood up, shook the offered hand and waited as she fished two rank insignias for a Colonel. They were similar to the ones Razor had shown me, only a lot darker.
I took the two small pieces of metal and instantly felt a fresh wave of panic go through me. I wasn’t ready for this, what the hell was Moran thinking? I don’t know the first thing about…[/I

]“Now if you’ll excuse me Colonel I have a lot to get done. When you return to the Hermes, please hunt down Captain Ricks and tell her to report to my office at 19:00 hours.”
“Of course Captain.” I saluted, turned on my heel and left the room.

An hour later

I’m not sure exactly why I went to the briefing room. I guess I just wanted to see what would happen if I stood behind the podium I’d watched Trent stand behind time and time again. Looking at it now, it seemed a huge, cold and uninviting thing. To that end, so did the map display, the row of seats before me, virtually everything in this room. And giving briefings would be the easy part of this job.

Being a Colonel meant that I’d be assigned with sending people out to what may very well be their deaths every day. It would mean that I’d constantly have to be the embodiment of an optimism that I almost never felt in an effort to keep the morale of the pilots up. It meant that I’d have to scream down the neck of the first panicking plebe that ditched his craft the second a Kilrathi appeared behind him, and then later write the defcom to his or her relatives. Being a Wing Commander, by the looks of things was a soul crushing task. Trent had lived to the age of 41, and he looked like, used to look like he was in his late fifties. That was what I had to look forward to.

However, having said that, it was what I had to do. It was my responsibility now, my turn if you will, to lead the pilot of the TCS Hermes to whatever end. And, difficult as it was, that was what I would do, even if it killed me.

To be continued. (Bit of a short one I know. The next one should be longer.)
I like it! By reading this last chapter I just remembered that feeling I used to have when we were promoted in the game.
Thanks again to all readers and to Jaeger and Kilrah for commenting.

Chapter 25: Innocence

Adish’s perspective

It took us a further four days to reach the Tomayo system. As it turns out we arrived shortly after the system had its own Kilrathi assault to worry about. I’m not too clear on the details but apparently with the aid of the TCS Victory, many a hairy bastard was sent to the grave.

This was all good news, but I can’t say it really felt that way. I’d been shaking pretty much constantly ever since they pulled my ejection pod back to the Hermes. This was broken only by the occasional moment of disbelief and queasiness. A ghost ship can have that effect.

Not long after we’d gotten to the system, Captain Moran arrived onboard and called all of the pilots to the briefing room, all 17 of us.

Normally I complain when the briefing room is crowded, I always seem to get seated next to someone with overpowering bodily odour, or failing that, the aptly names Captain Larry, ‘farter’ Mills. Today, I’d have gladly sat through that for a solid week rather then sit in that room with its many empty chairs, trying not to look for missing faces. So instead I focused on Moran as best as I could.

“Ok,” She was trying to sound triumphant, but she realised as well as any of us the price of that victory. “First of all, I wish to congratulate you all once again for your actions in the Brimstone system. Holding that system, and taking out a H’varkann class dreadnought is of almost immeasurable value to the Confederation.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement. It was something o be pleased about, for everyone else at least.
“Alright, now listen carefully people, because I have good news and a lot of it.”

I looked up and wondered briefly if I was cracking up. Wartime good news was almost an oxymoron.
“First of all, with the total annihilation of all Kilrathi forces in Brimstone, and specifically with the destruction of their dreadnought, it seems the cats are getting a little worried about what kind of forces we might have in Vega. Prowler corvettes have already discovered Kilrathi ships withdrawing from several systems around Brimstone, including Chang Cu.”

We almost cheered, but there was just enough sick numbness in us to quell the urge and it came out as a quiet, low itched hoot from three or four people.
“The second piece of good news is that the Retros which survived their assault on Oasis station have provided us with some worthwhile information. It seems that the Retros had had operatives on Oasis for a long time, and also several other Confederation bases throughout Vega sector.” This caused some uneasy murmuring. “The co-operation with the Kilrathi is only a recent development which they believed would be expedient. Their original plan was simply to gather their forces, capture the bases and outposts on which they were stationed and try and take Vega sector. Idiots.

“Anyway, with the information they have provided us, we know the names and locations of a lot of Retro operatives and I have been told that a number of arrests have already been made. They won’t be a problem here for much longer.”
There was a moment of silence as we absorbed this information. The thought that even now, with news of Kilrathi attacks obliterating Confederation colonies become more and more frequent, and with news of retreats, losses and casualty lists as long as Blackmane station, we still had morons trying to destroy us from within.

And the worst part is that it was pure luck we’d been able to thwart them. The morons had eluded us. Then again, that might not be fair, we did have the Kilrathi to worry about after all, and who would have expected to find Retros in Vega?
Anyway, the point was that they had failed.
“My last piece of good news concerns you more closely. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the Hermes will take a few months to heal. Until it has, you’ll all be given temporary assignments, most of which in this system. Before that however,” She paused, probably for dramatic effect, “You’ve all been granted three weeks of shore leave. God knows you’ve earned it.”

This time we did cheer. It had been a very long time since any of us had been home; far too long. Shore leave, like news of victories, seemed to be getting rarer and rarer. Shore leave which lasted more then three or four days was virtually a myth.

I forced myself not to think about it too hard, worried that over thinking would take it away.
“Shuttles will be departing from Tomayo 2’s hanger deck in four hours, these will take you to Cadiz depot, from there you can make your way to wherever you homelands may lie.”

Some much needed grins broke out among the assembled pilots, myself included.

Four and a half days later

Let it be said now that I hate shuttles, I hate them all. They are crowded, overheated coffins.

Then again, I guess that it helped in making my first step into sunlight all the more enjoyable. Well at least it would if it wasn’t raining. Adger 4 was almost renowned for its warm weather and incessant sunshine. Today however, in keeping with Murphy’s Law, it was wetter then Planet hurricane.

Nevertheless, looking around me at the tightly packed, towering buildings and the swarms of sub orbitals, I knew I was home, and for one brief moment the war seemed like a bad dream.

The last time I’d stood at this shuttle port was almost a year and a half ago. I took in the view for a few more moments before the uncomfortable effects of standing in the rain overcame my sudden joy at setting foot upon my home once again and I made my way to a cluster of taxis.

Three hours later

“Uncle Adish!”

I looked down into the excited looking face of my five year old nephew and couldn’t help but grin. When you spend half your life fighting to make sure kids like him and their families don’t end up as cat food, or worse, it’s always nice to see someone like him living happy and carefree. It was one of the few times when I could feel like I was doing my job properly.
“Hey Jason,” I replied, “How’s it going?”
“All’s well sir.” He quoted, probably from ‘Eagle’s prey’, a long running cartoon series which basically showed Kilrathi getting shot to pieces left right and centre by one larger then life Confederation pilot and a handful of sidekicks.

Scattered about the floor I noticed three model Hellcats and a Longbow. I’d almost stepped on an arrow on my way in.

I summoned the gold star from my pocket, these we had been awarded about three days after the battle with the H’varkann. Whenever I got medals, (twice), I passed them on to Jason, they meant more to him then they ever would to me.

Remembering a magic trick that my father had taught me, I seemed to make the medal appear from behind Jason’s ear. After I put it in his hand, his mouth opened in a huge grin.
“Don’t be putting medals behind my boy’s ears again.” Imani Haajanen, my sister commanded from behind me, she was trying for lightness in her voice but it didn’t hide what was underneath, “The last time you did that he was searching behind his ears for the damn things for weeks.”
“No I wasn’t.” Jason protested, clearly embarrassed, then his eyes returned to the medal in his hand, How’d you get this uncle Adish?”
“Um, I…”
“I bet you killed lots of furballs.”
I felt a sudden, unwelcome twinge of surprise. That was not a pleasant thing to hear from a five year old.
“Jason honey,” Imani interrupted before I degenerated into more stuttering, “Why don’t you go watch some more of that holovid you’ve got on the player, me and your uncle have to talk about grown up things.”
“Ok,” he said with a disappointed voice, “Thanks for the medal uncle Adish.”

He walked off with the medal held tightly in one hand, he kept an eye on it as if he was afraid it would slither away if he let it out of his sight.

Imani walked towards the kitchen, I followed. For a few moments she didn’t say anything, she just stared at me. She looked like she wasn’t actually sure whether or not I was really standing there.
“I saw the newscasts.” She said finally, “They’re not talking about much else on the news. This was something big wasn’t it? Something really important?”
“I hope so.” I replied. “We saved a lot of lives, and the less Kilrathi dreadnoughts there are, the better it is for the rest of us.”

Another silence followed, we both knew what we wanted to avoid, we just weren’t sure how best to avoid it.
“How did you get that medal exactly.”

Exactly? I didn’t know. They’d given one to everyone and the sum total of my achievements involve hitting, although not destroying a Kilrathi carrier, (almost killing one of my closest friends in the process I was later to learn), and getting shot down by a Kilrathi ace.
“Killing furballs.” I replied with more anger in my voice then I intended.
“Killing furballs.” Imani replied savagely, “He’s five years old and he’s talking about killing like it’s a fucking game.” She kept her voice deliberately low to keep Jason from hearing it. I suddenly felt a sudden, familiar sense of shame.
“He doesn’t understand, when he gets older he’ll learn the truth.”
“No,” she snapped, and then inhaled heavily, “No, he won’t. You’ve seen how he idolises you. His uncle the war hero. He wants to be just like you. You’ve seen that right.”

I nodded, we’d had this conversation before but I guess starting it from scratch was somehow easier for her.
“I don’t want that kind of life for my son. I won’t have him whisked away by navy recruitment vultures to fight this damn war. He deserves better then that.”
“We all deserve better then that.” I responded, “But the universe doesn’t hand things out based on what you deserve.”
“Don’t give me that shit! I’m not going to have my son die out there! I don’t care if that’s selfish. We’ve lost too much family already.”

That last point was as much about me as it was about Jason.
“Dad knew what he was doing. He knew what he had to do.”
“He wanted revenge.” She said simply, he anger had vanished from her voice with a startling abruptness, “And the Cats got him too. That’s why you went too isn’t it?”
“That’s why a lot of us are there.”
“Revenge.” She fell silent as if she was considering the word, whatever conclusions she drew; she didn’t continue the topic, “You didn’t help by giving him that medal.”
“I’m sorry. I just figured that…”
“You’re encouraging him. You’re making this war look like a game. I’ve been trying to get him to focus on something, anything else. You’re not making life easier.”

I thought of the toy fighters on the floor and wondered why she allowed them. It was probably Edward, his father, who’d given them to him.
“Look,” I said as softly as I could manage, “He’s only five. It’ll be a long time before he’s old enough to enlist, and who knows what will happen before then? Maybe he’ll loose interest in flying, maybe the war will be over by then.”
“For God sake Adish, this war’s never going to end. We can’t stop those, those things out there. We can’t beat them and we can’t make peace with them.” She shuddered, maybe remembering what happened when ‘peace’ was made with the Kilrathi, “we can only hold them off.”
“You’re wrong.” I said simply. Not sure whether or not I believed myself.

Once again, silence broke out. I seated myself on one of the stools.
“We’ve lost enough people Adish.” She said eventually, she sounded tired now, “Dad, Uncle Harry, Aunt Hetty. How long’s it gonna be before…”

I swallowed, and wished I had a reassuring answer that she wouldn’t see instantly as a lie.
“I’ll be careful.”
“That’s never enough.”
“No it isn’t. But it’s the best I can do. Look at the news Imani, things are looking up. Brimstone and Tomayo were saved; the Confederation will be on the offensive before too long, mark my words.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Just trying to calm the mood enough so that I can steal a biscuit or two from that tray behind you.”

Relief flooded through me when she laughed at this. The aura of depression that had entered the room seemed to retreat somewhat. Imani took the trey in one hand and held it out to me. Then snatched it away as I tried to steal a biscuit from it.
“These are for after dinner.”

We both laughed this time. And now, with the grim conversation about life and death, war and loss less then a minute behind us, I still felt the warm, welcoming feeling that came with returning to your home world and seeing the family again that you’d gone through hell to make sure stayed alive.
“So what time’s mum getting here?”

To be continued, I know I said this one would be longer but there wasn’t really a way to stretch it out without it getting overly monotonous.
Thanks again to readers and commenters. Sorry for the wait.

Chapter 26: Rest

Razor’s perspective

You know, when you’ve spent the last year sleeping on undersized slabs of concrete which sadistic and/or delusional navy logistics personnel called bunks; it can be a startling thing to wake up on its large, soft polar opposite.

There were sounds below that my half sleeping mind initially thought was the Hermes’ air recycling system crapping out again. On closer inspection I realised that it was the sound of people on the street outside, I’d almost forgotten what that sounded like.

I lifted myself up onto one elbow and listened with interest to the dozens of chattering voices below. I couldn’t make out anything that anyone was saying, but the sound itself was like something, well, something that shouldn’t be there. It didn’t feel right.

I shook the thought aside as I heard the door to the bathroom open. Salamander stepped through, towelling his hair. He was looking better.
“Afternoon?” I replied, “How long was I asleep?”

He gestured to a nearby clock on a small bedside table. It read 12:30AM.

I stared at the clock in surprise for a few moments; I didn’t think I was physically capable of sleeping that long anymore. I always woke around 7:30AM, no matter how much, if any, sleep I’d gotten.

In the corner of my eye I noticed Salamander grinning. I tried to suppress one of my own.

We’d decided to have a week to ourselves before we went off to visit relatives. We’d caught a shuttle to Earth from Tomayo and from there caught the first sub orbital transport to Arizona, (being the hottest place either of us could think of which hadn’t been levelled by a Kilrathi missile). We’d decided to burn most of our pay over the last year in an extravagant looking hotel, (I forget the name), figuring we might as well make use of our pay checks whilst we still could.

By the time we’d arrived it had been late evening, two days into our shore leave and neither of us were up to do anything more then eating assorted peanuts from the mini-bar and passing out under the covers of the bed.

Today, by the looks of things, the sun was shining brightly. Part of me wanted nothing more then to get outside in the fresh air. I’d been waiting a year to feel the wind again. Of course I wasn’t so mad with the desire to step outside that I lost track of helpful details such as it might be a good idea to get dressed first.

As I moved to get out of bed, Salamander slipped underneath the covers, closed his arms around my waist and leaned in to kiss the back of my neck.

I smiled as I turned round to face him; I guess it wouldn’t hurt to stay in a few more hours.

Five hours later

The streets outside weren’t nearly as crowded as I expected. A lot of people had probably gone back to their assorted places of work. We received a few stares from passing pedestrians as we walked by, probably because we were still in uniform. We didn’t have any other clothes with us.

It was hard to tell much of anything in the stares. They weren’t filled with resentment, admiration or loathing. They were just blank. It was a little unnerving.

As we turned a corner, a bored looking man in a Lieutenant’s uniform offered a leaflet to me. Then he noticed my uniform and took it back.
“Sorry ma’am.” He said.

Salamander glanced as the collection of leaflets in the man’s hand; then nodded to himself. I looked myself and found to no great surprise that they were ‘join the navy’ flyers.
“Any takers?” He asked.
“Hard to say sir; more people seem to be taking them home today then jus tearing them up in front of me at least.”

I almost seethed. It seemed that everywhere you went in the Confederation you found weasels, idiots and cowards, those that were content to blindly ignore the threat of the Kilrathi or those that were content to cower behind the shield of the Navy without doing anything to help it themselves. That wasn’t true of everyone of course, not by a long shot. But anyway, I’d rather not get into a rant right now.
“Excuse me sir, ma’am. But aren’t you um,” he paused and clicked his fingers a few times, “I’m sorry, I know I’ve seen your faces somewhere. Oh yeah, you were on the Hermes weren’t you? I saw your faces on a few of the newscasts.”

He what? What the hell were we doing there?

I thought about it for a few seconds and realised that it would probably make some sense. This was bound to be something the news services would feed on for as long as they possibly could, that would mean recorded footage of ‘showable’ parts of the battle, reports about exactly what strategies were used to slay the H’varkann beast, and of course mentions of the surviving crew and pilots, maybe even interviews.

I bristled at the thought, and made a silent promise to myself that any news vulture that shoved a camera in my face would find themselves pulling it out of their throat.

We talked for a few more minutes, and then the Lieutenant directed us towards the ‘The Hidden Hellhole’, a bar which was apparently a popular haunt for all servicemen and women in the area. This was pretty much the only bar we could go to in the area. Anywhere else, we’d probably get into an argument with a pacifist or two and wind up in a fist fight. That’s what happened last time, and neither of us really felt up to it.

Twenty Minute Later

The bar was as you’d expect it. Small, simple and unpretentious with an aging bartender who’d retired from the service and a handful of patrons in Navy uniforms, all of whom looked half dead.

A few of them gave us a weary nod when we entered. Most of them were home fleet types, clean shaven and youthful, all discussing things like why they should be at the front and what they’d like to do to Saryanna Carr in the cockpit of a Longbow.

There were also a handful of older people, veterans presumably. Creatures of legend that had somehow, either through injury or old age managed to retire from the navy.

Salamander fetched some drinks whilst I snared a table in as secluded a corner of the place as I could find. It took him a while to extract himself from a conversation with the bartender. By the looks of things, he recognised our faces as well.

This had the makings of a long week.

Salamander finally walked to the table, shaking his head in exasperation as he did so. I hid a grin as he sat down.

Fifteen Minutes Later

“Three of the hairy buggers were coming up behind me, another two in front of me. Lasers flying every whichway. My wingman’s ejected. What I did see, I waited until the hairballs were practically flying through my windshield and up my tailpipe, then I drop a mine, tilt upwards, hit my afterburners and watched the inferno behind me. One mine, five dead fleabags.”

The captain who told us that story pushed back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. By the looks of things he was waiting for us to applaud.
Instead all he received were a number of glares from those seated at the table we’d all crowded round in at the end.
“I thought it was four Kilrathi. That’s what you said last time.” Uttered a second bar patron.
“No I didn’t, I said five.”

I shook my head. In reality he probably dropped five mines at a single Kilrathi. You will always get egotistical idiots preaching superhuman feats of flying that only the insanely lucky or people with broken flight recorders ever manage to achieve.

I signalled to the bartender for a refill and watched as the Captain’s face took on a familiar look of awkwardness.
“So I hear you took out Deathfang.” Uttered a shortish looking second lieutenant who’d been flicking sideways glances at Salamander and me ever since we came to the table. He then hastily added, “Sir.”

Salamander mumbled something under his breath that I didn’t catch.
“It was a team effort really.” He said slowly.
“That’s not what we heard on the newscasts Colonel,” added a second, 2nd lieutenant. “We heard that massacred him. They had footage of you closing on his spinning fighter and blasting it to pieces.”
“They what?” His tone was so dark the Lieutenant face took on an abrupt look of horror.
“That’s just what we heard sir.” Squeaked the Lieutenant. “They’ve been saying a lot about you over the newscasts. Both of you actually.”

I drew in a deep breath and thought for what must by now have been the seventeenth time that this was going to be a long week.
“Those fucking…” I cut myself off and was about to say something more when another of the pilots spoke, I remember she was wearing an eye patch which struck me as strange.
“Ah those newsie bastards will twist anything. They’re making a very big deal of the fact that you two are,” She formed her hands into talons and pushed them together, signifying that me and Salamander were a couple presumably.

I suppressed a look of horror. For one thing that was none of their fucking business. Secondly, if Fool saw that he’d have enough incentive to churn out taunts from now till doomsday.
“Still,” she continued, “Best you can do is just ignore them. We’ve all got more important things to worry about then some over dramatised hero story.”

From the amount of venom in her voice I wondered if she’d had media troubles herself.
“What happened with Deathfang,” Salamander said, apparently eager for a change of subject, “He was picking us off one at a time. He was trying to kill me and it was pretty much all I could do to stay out of his way. A guy from my squadron got lucky and sent two missiles up his arse. I closed in and finished him off.”

There was a nodding of heads from our audience who, truth be told, seemed a little disappointed. I guess the story lacked the dramatic edge that the media had apparently endowed it with.
“What about you ma’am.” Asked one of the lieutenants, “If you don’t mind me asking? The news didn’t mention your role in the battle.”

I shuddered as I considered what it might have mentioned instead. I made a mental note to go to Washington and rip out Barbara Miles’ throat before replying.
“I commanded the fighter detachment on the surface. A fair few Kilrathi tried a pre-emptive strike with their Retro minions in advance of their main fleet.” I paused, recalling the battle and in particular the dying screams of Confederation pilots, “We sent them packing.”
“Retros?” The boastful major spat out, “I heard those bunch of fuckers were in Vega. What the fuck has crawled into their heads to make them so retarded. I mean…”
“Calm down Jack,” The woman with the eye patch interrupted, “They’re being dealt with as we speak.” She flicked a gaze in our direction, “Right?”
“Right.” I replied.

We stayed there a little longer before paying our tabs and leaving. The street outside was becoming more lively as the early evening crowds in search of a dinner they didn’t have to cook themselves took to the streets.

Neither of us said much as we wandered aimlessly through the collection of intertwining roads. Salamander looked ready to punch the first person he saw. I couldn’t say I blamed him. So many of us had died to secure the Brimstone system, and the most the media were willing to say about it it seemed was that…

I said I wasn’t going to go into a rant. So I won’t.

A few heads turned our way as we walked through the streets, I noticed two teenage girls whispering and pointing in our direction as we passed and it took a great deal of self control not to bury my fist in their necks.

In the end we decided to abandon going to a restaurant and instead bought some assorted hot foods which we ate at the hotel. I forget what it was exactly.

Salamander was quiet after we got back. I think the whole thing got to him more then it did to me. Remember when I told you that when you spend your life trying to keep your home worlds from becoming a series of large cratered rocks that the more trivial things start to seem unimportant. Well, it’s a different story when the people you’re trying to defend are beating you over the head with those aforementioned trivial things; well, it’s hard not to feel betrayed.

To be continued. (I’m trying to keep the shore leaves ones pretty short since they seem to get a bit dull if dragged out too much.)
actually plywood, the shoreleave bits are good, they show depth to the characters as they ineteract with mainstream idiots who tend to think of war as something that happens to other people in far off places