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Videogame Fan Fiction

"From Neptune to Earth"
by David Cuciz & James Krych

Chapter Two
"Neptune: Blood, Sweat, and Tears"

Troop "Attention on Deck"
Snapping to attention, we waited for Col. Bonca to come to the front of the Briefing Room.
"At Ease, Gentlemen" he said. Sitting down, he proceeded to explain to us our first combat mission.
"Good morning. This is what all of you, and the JMF, have been waiting for. All of your training, all of your simulated combat, it has all come down to this. Our first Offensive against the Ideoclan in our own Solar System in a true test of our craft, tactics, and technology, the War begins here! I can't stress enough that the entire population of Earth, and of your own Outer Colonies, depends on what we do here."
Punching up the tactical information, the Neptune System, and its moons came up.
"As you can see gentlemen, our first objective is to clear the Neptune System, and it's surrounding moons. Most are extremely small, but provide ample space for hiding. Triton is the largest, and we will be sending troops down to clear out the enemy. The 13th is to go in first, to clear the way for our bombers, and then for our troop transports. Other fighter groups and various squadrons from amongst the fleet will support you. A total of 13 carriers, including the Lexington, have been assigned this mission."
Cutting to close-ups of Triton and the smaller moons, Col. Bonca then said the following.
"Our Intel shows that there is little surface enemy activity in this system. It seems that they are concentrating more on the planets closer to Earth. Bombers will fly in unescorted, and reserve fighter squadrons will provide troop support. One thing to watch for is Neptune's odd magnetic field; it can play havoc so watch your sensors! Gentlemen happy hunting!"
Snapping to attention, we waited for Col. Bonca to go. Then it was Chupa's turn to speak. We then sat back down.
While he spoke, David, Shawn, and I just listened straight ahead. The rest seem to hang onto his every word.
"Group Leader is Capt. Britcher. You will fly in patrol formation until he orders you to assume attack formations."
Again, we just looked straight ahead. We knew Chupa hated us.
"You are not to engage your weapons systems until Group Leader says so. And, for you malcontents out there in this room, NO DOUBLE TAGGING"
That was for us. We had a great habit of "ensuring" the enemy was "defeated" in simulations and mock combat.
"Now, get to your squadrons and prepare for this mission."
Coming to attention, we waited until he left, and then we waited for the rest to leave.
Walking through the passageways, I turned at a small room and motioned for the other two to follow.
David spoke first, "You don't believe what Intel said, do you?"
"Not at all" said Shawn and I.
"You know" as I leaned against a bulkhead, "In the Army, somebody always never gets the word, right"
They all nodded.
"Then it's settled" as we were all thinking the same thing. "We engage our weapons systems as soon as we leave the 'Lex."
"And Double Tagging!!!" said David.
"Damn straight" said Shawn. "Better alive and in the clink, then wrong and dead."

Getting back to our squad bay, we got ready for the mission. I went over my wing what our sectors were, and the mission objectives. Then we started putting on our gear. The G-suits, the M2111 pistol, testing our helmets, putting on our flight boots, and of course, the flight suit-designed for the extended stay cabin of the F-911. Andrew, Shawn, and I then went through a quick prayer, starting with the first two lines of Psalm 144. When everyone in my wing had checked each other out, and the other two wings were ready, we headed to the 357th's flight deck and maintenance crew bay.

Chief Warrant Officer Rory McLeod greeted us warmly. We got along great with him, and his crew was just fantastic, the best mechanics in the whole JMF!
"They are all ready lads," he said in that thick Scottish accent of his. "All ready for killing the 'Clans!"
Grinning at him, we proceeded to enter our craft and engage the internal systems of the F-911.
"System, online. Kryton, Jon W." I said.
"System is online" the computer spoke back. Displaying all of the system status and system checks.
Some final checks on my weapons, NAV, and power core, and I was ready to go! A silent prayer for my wife, my son, and my fellow squadron mates, then waiting on the launch tunnel for the command to go.

"Hey Texas"(my nickname)
"Yeah Jarhead"(Shawn's nickname)
"Ready to rock?"
"Let's do it" I said back.
"Hey Swiss, time for butt kicking!"(David's nickname) I said.
"Damn straight, Texas" he said.

David's wing was launched first. Then came our turn, Second Wing!
"Launch sequence engaged", said flight control. "Magnetic catapult active"
With a sudden increase in G's, I was shot out into space, with the rest of my Wing following. Then Shawn's Wing was launched out. The 357th was ready for our first real fight.

"1st Wing online" said David.
"2nd Wing online" said I as my wing got into patrol formation.
"3rd Wing online" said Shawn.

We were flying in reserve of the 13th Fighter Group. With Capt. Britcher leading the way. The whole Group was in a very wide patrol formation. We had already engaged our weapon's systems. Now, this got the attention of our CO and Group Leader, but we had all turned on the squelch on that "noise" and we were willing to live with the consequences of our decision on this.

Wow, Neptune really stood out, even though we were many hundreds of thousands of km's away. It really was an imposing sight to behold, even beautiful in a weird sort of way. But we weren't there to sight see. Things were proceeding along pretty smoothly as we came within sight of Triton, Neptune's biggest moon. Then suddenly, our sensor scanners lit all up with white dots.
"Swiss, Jarhead, you see that?" I said.
"Affirmative Texas"
"Group Leader, this is 357th 2nd Wing. Large readings on long-range scanners."
"357th this is Group Leader, you are seeing magnetic disturbances, disregard."
Something just wasn't quite right. I had that nasty gut feeling, similar to when I was at NCO School and had sniffed out an ambush. The others felt the same way.
"Texas, this is Rev.(Andrew), I concur with you. This isn't right."
"Swiss, this is Prof.(Brooks), I really think that's the enemy."
"Jarhead, this is Speedy(Hector), I can make out individual movements."

Then the three of us made the call. "Victor, Victor, Victor Assume Attack Formation!!!"
Rapidly flying into Attack Formation, we got berated by the Group Leader.
"Negative 357th, re-assume Patrol Formation!" said Capt. Britcher.
"357th!!!" shouted Chupa "You are ordered to Patrol Formation."
"357th" shouted Britcher, "I order….."

The order never came, because in that split second of time, we were under attack. Britcher was killed instantly, as was the entire 356th, 390th, 312th, and 512th Squadrons. The 'Clans had used the odd magnetic field of Neptune to hide themselves, and had skimmed along the surface of the planet itself. Rather ingenious of them, rather deadly.

All Hell broke loose. The remaining front Squadrons tried to engage their weapons and to attack. They didn't have time.

We did.

"Open fire, fire at all targets!" we said.
Immediately my wing, David's, and Shawn's released deadly pulses of energy and missiles; for those who had them.
The 'Clans didn't expect that-good, that meant the bastards could be surprised.
An all-out dog fight ensued. Targets were everywhere and coming fast. "Little Enemy Activity" my foot, there were hundreds of them, thousands. We rallied the remaining and surviving Squadrons of the 13th. Leading the way, we blasted at everything that moved. And, we double tagged!

One 'Clan got on my tail and we got into a hell of a chase. I used all my skills flying for the O.C.M.A.F. and I got him into my range. Firing my twin cannons, I knocked him out. Then, I sent another pulse blast up his reactor core, to let him really think about it!

Other squadrons weren't so lucky. We watched in horror as one group of bombers passed by a damaged 'Clan fighter. The 'Clan then speed up to the middle of them and exploded his reactor core and weapons. An entire bomber squadron was wasted instantly.

There was too many of that, on that first day. Bombers that went unescorted were blasted before they even had a chance. Troop transports were knocked down, and their crews and passengers killed. It was FUBAR, all of it!

They kept on coming and coming. Hundreds to a single fighter. We kept on firing, blasting them all away. Nothing survived from our pulse blasts. The 'Clans even launched small asteroids at us, and nothing we had could knock those out! And, those nasty satellites that fired every which way. But even as we were constantly fighting, we started to notice a pattern. The 'Clans would come at you, then get into formation, and while they were there, you could play havoc with them. They'd come after you once they had gotten into formation, five or so at a time.

We got shuttled from one sector to another. Going back to the Lexington only after the maximum endurance time was about to be exceeded. We didn't get much rest at all. We got to see the results of the "Clans when one of our troop transports carrying wounded made an emergency stop on the 'Lex.

It was ugly, the carnage to young bodies, whom only yesterday were healthy and whole. It brought tears to your eyes. But we didn't have much time for that. The F-911's were refueled, weapons recharged, and out we were again. I lost count of how many 'Clans I killed and vaporized, I think we all did after a very short time.

But we had changed, the 357th. When we had first gone into battle, we were all nervous, a little scared, and had sweaty palms, itchy for a fight. We were calmer, more determined now. The 'Clans weren't invincible, and we had shown that. Slowly, a day, a week, at a time, the JMF pushed on. Then finally after we and the remaining 13th Fighter Group squadrons cleared the way, Triton was won!

The smaller moons of the Neptune system were also cleared of 'Clan activity. Neptune was itself left! We thought it was over!

We were deadly wrong.

There seemed to be a lull in the activity, after all we had been through, it was almost peaceful. But, we stayed on our toes. The 'Clans didn't take long to prove us right. The carriers Franklin, Yorktown, and Akagi were sent in close to Neptune to scout for remaining enemy outposts. When suddenly, 'Clan fighters appeared and rammed everything in their sight. An entire Legion of fighters, used as a sacrifice to the god of war.

The three carriers didn't have a chance. All their crews, pilots, and staff, killed. One carrier had been played with, as a cat plays with a mouse it has disabled, and the engine reactor was knocked out, so it was dragged into Neptune's 2000KM winds. It was terrible to behold. We shot up everything that came across our way, we literally killed hundreds of them, but it was too late for the three carriers and surrounding fighter squadrons. Then, and only then, was it finally over.

Even in defeat, the 'Clans would go take as many of us down with them.

What Fleet Command did next later became standard operating procedure during the Ideoclan War. They launched probes onto the opposite side of Neptune. These probes, once armed and remotely detonated, would wipe out all electronics for 100,000 cubic kilometers. You had to be quite a bit away from them, once they had started to go off. Think of them as 23rd Century depth charges. The radiation that was also released would snuff any remaining forces into the open.

It was rather tense, with everyone expecting another attack, of any sort, but none came. The JMF had won its first victory over the Ideoclan, albeit at a terrible cost. Boy, did we all have much to learn!

We then flew back to our landing bay on the 'Lex. David's wing went in, then mine, then Shawn's. Chupa was watching us come back on a nearby observation deck, and was quite critical of our return. I guess he had to take it out on someone, for the orders that killed so many close associates, had come from him. Though he blamed us for the results.

We could have cared less, though. It was just so good to have a break in the action, and to rest, and just be thankful that we had survived.

The official AAR was done with Col. Bonca, Maj. Chupa, and various staff officers from Fleet Command. The wing leaders of the surviving squadrons were also invited, though our numbers were far less than they had been at the beginning. Tactics were discussed, the usual "good, bad, and the ugly" was discussed. The three of us were berated by Chupa for our "inability" to follow orders, and the direct violation of engaging our weapons systems, let alone "double tagging." After that AAR, we went back to our squad bay.

While we were on our way back, a couple wing leaders from other squadrons thanked us in private for what we had done, though.

What we did next would show everyone just what we were made of.

We decided to have our own AAR, and we included Chief McLeod, and a bunch of his guys to be with us. We wheeled in a portable F-911 simulator, and went over everything-our tactics, the recorded actions of the 'Clans, etc. We talked to Chief McLeod of how the F-911's had handled, and what could be done to improve the performance; if only 5%. Nicola and Yoshiki went over the coding of the simulator, and adjusted everything, based on what we had seen and fought against. It was agreed that we would have several of Chief McLeod's men "fly" the simulator, to understand the feel of the craft, plus we would "borrow" a trainer to take his son and chief mechanic, Rocky, out into actual space during downtime. We were so busy doing this that we didn't see Col. Bonca walk in…
"Attention on deck" somebody said.
"At ease" said the Col. "continue on what you are doing."
As he watched us, we saw a grin develop, and then he started taking down some notes.
"All of the other squadrons are resting and licking their wounds, except you guys. You've brought in a simulator, invited your flight crew, and have even started making changes to your tactics immediately." Said the Col.
"You guys were really important during the Battle, especially during the first encounter with the Ideoclan forces. Everyone knows that, especially from interviews we have done with the other squadrons you were involved with. I cannot give you gentlemen medals, because Chupa's connections are still too strong, for now. But that will change. But what I can do is this. I will send down the line new procedures for front line squadrons. The weapons systems WILL be engaged upon launching from the carrier, and, insurance of the enemy's non-ability to continue to fight on once hit will be HIGHLY encouraged and recommended. Carry on, gentlemen!" And with that he walked out.

It was time to get cleaned up, rest, and write home. We checked out any emails from home, and then enjoyed some much needed sleep. About a week later, we got new operating procedures, directly from Fleet Command, and they were exactly what Col. Bonca had mentioned! We just smiled inside, as Chupa read them to us, and the wing leaders, and the newbies who had just arrived. Yeah, he was ticked, and we knew it! And there wasn't a thing he could do about it!

Getting a video email from home from my wife and son really cheered me up! Anything from home always does! We ran, worked out, flew training missions, over-extended our training time on the simulators, and broke in the newbies. We all laughed at Steve's latest conquest, knowing full well she wouldn't last! Played practical jokes on each other, enjoyed what was available in the "gedunk", and just prepared ourselves for the next battle; which was sure to come.

The Fleet was also getting bigger, as more carriers were coming on line, and more troops were being trained. The Outer Colonies were really starting to ramp up to full war footing. This one was going to be long, and it was going to be hard, every step of the way.
We made damn sure we passed on what we had learned to the new squadrons joining us!


* * *

Spacecraft carrier Lexington was big. And I mean really big.
Not just "big" as in "large", although Lex was by any means large, but big as in enormous, titanic, humongously great, larger-than-life Big; I remember, when I was fifteen and my father took me up to see the family's mining company flagship that I though that was big. Largest ship of the commercial fleet, Rheingold II was essentially a cylindrical hull with a huge ion-plasma drive strapped on behind and a large prow-mounted deflector shield; her living quarters and flight deck were the size of a small city block, yet they looked like a wart on a whale's back. Biggest damnedest thing I had ever seen.
Lexington would have dwarfed Rheingold II a hundred times over. I'm sure you all have read the ship's specs somewhere because it's all in the records, but numbers do not make her justice. To give you a feel, let's assume that you could stand on the forward mast of the main sensor array, right on the anticollision strobe, and that you could walk down it and onto the armoured deck, through the forecastle and along the flight deck between cats A and B, and down three decks to the main hangar (because the Lex is not uniform in length I'm taking you through the longest distance between fore and aft), to the storage area and living quarters; suppose now that you could walk through the heavy shielding around the Hawking Drive amidships without getting fried by the radiation flux between the core and the graviton polarizers, you would emerge right into the cooling tower, the heat exchangers and the fusion reactors that power the sublight engines and all the ship's systems. Finally, out into space again, go up two decks and walk along the Number Two plasma thruster to the very end of the vectoring louver (don't even think of trying it for real because it will vaporize you in milliseconds); it's more than an hour's walk, even at brisk pace.
Not that space for walking lacked, aboard Lexington. There was a lot of it, and unlike Paradise's surface it was bug-free; artificial gravity always feels strange - it has a way of drawing you downwards that accentuates the more you get near the floor - and in every cruise you end up with a lot of spacesick guys. I hadn't any problems with it, like most of the pilots, but some of the ground troops were at their first long term deployment and it showed, especially during the few minutes of freefall that happen just before the Hawking Drive is engaged.

Our Captain had taken it easy before committing to the warp, as had all the other ships, but that was understandable: we planned on coming out of FTL flight just before crossing the Oort Cloud which marks the outer limits of the Solar System - that Solar System, the first one, the cradle of mankind and all that jazz - and then to coast until Neptune which was our first objective. We would have bypassed Pluto: there was at best an observation base there and it was well out of detection range, on the opposite side of Sun.
There is a rationale on wanting to fine-tune a warp: you want to come out exactly where you want, when you want, give or take a few thousands of kilometres and you don't want to cross any enemy ship during FTL cruise; of course, you can't engage in combat while in warp because the relative velocities are so high that there isn't a chance in a million years you could bring your weapons to bear in the brief moment you have contact and even if you could, the Hawking Drive screws up so much with the space-time continuum that any missile or beam fired from your ship would be torn apart or scattered by the tidal forces on the edge of the hyperspace "bubble" surrounding the craft. Anyway, a spaceship's detection radius can only be so wide: chances are your enemy will not even pass near enough to register on a mass counter.
But it can happen, and if we were spotted by an Ideoclan ship while in warp, they would have guessed our destination and reported back to base upon coming out of warp. Comms are out of order while in warp, because that same hyperspace bubbles distorts any signal you may try to send, but as soon as the enemy came out of warp, they would have made contact and phased tachyon-wave communications travel hundreds of time faster than warping ships; we would have found ourselves facing one hell of a welcoming committee when we hit sublight. You can't change course or stop during a warp: once all is set and the Hawking Drive is engaged, the dice is cast. It's like throwing a ball in a curved trajectory: once it has been thrown, there is no way to make it stop or turn around. Laws of physics apply to space and hyperspace, they're just a different set, so you can see why it was so important to have a perfect warp: it would have been one big embarrassment if the whole campaign failed just because we ended up too far from the Oort Cloud or crossed a 'Clan ship by chance.

We had a lot staked on the surprise factor, even if it couldn't last: it had been decided we would take on all of the outer planets one by one, before engaging the Ideoclan forces on Earth; if we had just warped to Earth over the ecliptic plane, the fleet would have been surrounded by 'Clan forces from all the Solar System. Instead, we had to "blast a path" to our final objectives, destroying the Ideoclans' fighting capability before they could call reinforcements and taking over their bases so they couldn't reinvade. By the time we reached Earth, our ground troops would have been firmly entrenched and there would be warships around each base to watch over them; JMF wasn't about to make the same mistakes Earth forces had done, and leave the System wide open for the taking.
While the approach was strategically sound, it meant more work for us and a longer travel time. The Outer Planets weren't all aligned and taking them on one by one meant a lot of travel back and forth, and this meant more chances for the enemy to attack the fleet while it moved. This in turn meant flying CAP a lot, and more flying hours meant more mechanical failures on our fighters and increased chances of accidents happening: tired people make mistakes and you can only be alert so much for so long before the stress gets the better of you and punches you in the nose.
All these thoughts, however, were just hovering in the backs of our minds as we passed the orbit of Pluto, on a direct course for Neptune.

* * *

Lieutenant Kurtz. I still had to come to grips with my new condition -er, rank. The Officer Corps had finally got its claws on me, after I had sweared for most of my recruit school time that I would have never allowed myself to rise higher than Private First Class, only to end up signing for NCO training. There had been a minor drama about my promotion by JMF, because the Swiss Army is very possessive of its members, and they were not about to let the upstart Joint Military Forces promote one of their sergeants without them having their saying. Of course, there wasn't anything they could do about it, because you can't have a non-com leading a spacecraft wing, and I suppose they were mightily chuffed about having a Swiss get a command position in a JMF squadron, but it was a matter of principle; so, what they did was to promote me to Lieutenant exactly 3 minutes before JMF did. I can barely imagine how the usually prudent Swiss military machine had fired up all engines just to beat JMF in putting shiny new epaulets on my overburdened shoulders. Only the cost of sending the notification by phased-tach from HQ must have been horrendous.
Anyway, there I was and new rank meant new responsibilities: oddly enough, I had less people under my command than I used to have as a non-com, but once you add up the people, the planes and the tech support it makes for a pretty big outfit for one to handle. By the time we got our first combat orders I had it pretty much figured it out - sort of.
We went to our first combat briefing like it was just another exercise, but deep inside we knew this was going to be different: the voice of reason inside my brain kept telling me that I had seen the Ideoclans before and they could be beaten, no problem. Another more sensible part was screaming bloody murder for getting involved with JMF in the first place.
Anyway, our first mission was to support a drop on Triton, where the 'Clans had set up their base. We'd be escorting the troop carriers all the way in, while bomber craft would fly in unescorted to soften up the defences; the rationale behind this was that the bombers' stealth capabilities would be enough to protect them against the 'Clans anti-spacecraft batteries and fighters. To many of us, including bomber pilots, it looked like madness, even though that wonderful oxymoron called "Military Intelligence" had kindly informed us that 'Clan activity around Neptune was expected to be low. Big deal: Cold Rock had been as low as 'Clan activity could get, and it had still been one hell of an operation.
The final straw was that according to ROE and safety regulations, Gyruss pilots were supposed to remain "weapons tight" until ordered otherwise, which was madness: the F-911 armament systems take as much as twelve seconds to warm up once the arming switch is thrown, and sometimes it stays cozily inert for half a minute before the pulse guns' supercapacitor has charged up enough. Though Colonel Bonca, had not issued any orders on this item, our CO Major Chupa had been adamant.
Not that we should have expected otherwise: Chupa passionately hated anything Gyruss-related, perhaps even the letter G. He had opposed the F-911 program from the start, insisting on proven technology like the existing space fighters, no matter that they'd proven woefully inadequate against the 'Clans crafts, and his contempt extended to the pilots. I strongly believe in freedom of thought, so if Chupa wanted to think of us as useless and expensive gadget freaks that was fine by me, and the same goes for those in the squadron who thought that Chupa was a big pile of organic fertilizer.

* * *

With the briefing over and the officers and most of the other squadrons' leaders gone, we of 357th held a briefing of our own. I didn't believe the Intel data and I stated my mind.
"OK." Texas (Jon's nickname) said. "We engage the weapons as soon as we clear the cat."
"Agreed." I answered. "I may be still thinking like a mudpounder but in the infantry you don't stop shooting 'til your target drops. I vote we tag them until we're positive they're down."
"Roger that. Got to fix up things with the mess guys so we don't get cold meals in the brig - which is where Chupa will send us as soon as we land."

You can't be too careful when you're readying for takeoff from a space carrier; first, you put on your flight suit with internal life support and waste disposal pack; then it's the G-suit, which prevents you from passing out or having your head exploding while manoeuvring; and then there is the survival vest which carries the compact medical kit, the flashlight, long-range radio with locator beacon, flares and knife. And, of course, the holster for the M-2111 sidearm; the "Elephant Killer" is a nice weapon but I feel a little uncomfortable around any weapons which require the shooter to stay at less than 100 meters from the target. I carried my Swiss Army knife on its pouch on my belt, but I still had to figure out a way to carry my rifle in the Gyruss cockpit.
With all my gear on, I headed for the launch bay and had the pleasant surprise to see my wing's fighters equipped with two Spearhead missiles each. The SIM-85 (Space Intercept Missile) was one of the first standoff weapons available for the Gyruss, since the F-911 databus couldn't support the standard interface used on other combat crafts; there were more in development but we wouldn't be seeing them anytime soon. The Spearhead was an excellent short-to-medium range missile, contained in a disposable pod; you just lock it onto a target with the Gyruss battle computer system, fire it and forget. The pod disintegrates and drops away as the SIM-85 is fired, then the missile homes in and as soon as it gets a good solution it explodes firing a hypervelocity armor-piercing slug towards the intercept point, guaranteed to punch through almost any kind of shielding. There is also a shipborne version used for close-range defence since it is a relatively small weapon. When I first learned about the Spearhead I was thrilled to see the Colonies could develop such an excellent device on their own, and my elation took a blow when I learned that it had been initially developed as an infantry weapon, but when the designers understood that no rifleman would be going to carry around 150 kg of guided missile, they remade it into a spacecraft-carried weapon, so that it would not be wasted.
What an irony that it would be first tested in battle by a mudpounder turned aviation puke.

* * *

"Anything I should know?" I asked my head mechanic, who was handing me an e-board waiting for me to sign.
"No, sir. It's a good bird - checked it out myself twice, like the rest of the wing."
"Well, I had to ask." I signed for my fighter and climbed into the cockpit. "Could you do a little modification for me when I come back?"
"As long as it doesn't go against regs it's no sweat, sir."
"Great. Ah, can the 'sir' stuff. I'm lieutenant Kurtz, and 'LT' is just fine." I fastened my helmet and engaged the computer systems. "This medieval stuff is a bit too alien to me."
Couldn't really expect the man to humour me, but I had to try. In the Swiss Army you don't "sir" anyone, not even the higher ranks. If I ever met General Carpentraz I would call him 'general' and that would be it. We take our democratic stuff seriously.
With the computer and engines online, I closed the canopy and taxied to the hooking platform; this is a circular place not too far from the spacecraft bays where you take your fighter in order to get prepared to launch. As soon as you get there, a hook mounted on a rail engages your front wheel and carries you toward the catapult lift, which is a large vertical structure with a series of platforms mounted on a loop: the F-911 with you in gets on it, then the hook releases and the platform rises and takes you to an elevated stage where another hook draws the craft into the pre-launch chamber, which is essentially a large airlock. When pressure reaches zero, the front doors open and into the launch sequencer you go. If you're familiar with magazine-fed weapons, think of yourself as the cartridge: the sequencer is the magazine and the catapult is the firing chamber and barrel. While I waited in the dark, I did a last check of my instruments and hit the shield precharger switch: there was a high-pitched screeching sound inside the cockpit, caused by the shield generating coils being cooled to just above absolute zero. It's not permitted to touch the shield controls while pressurized because the coils tend to discharge when exposed to an atmosphere and the high-voltage arcs that result do pretty nasty things to people and stuff. If it fails, you're to abort immediately, which is why you've got to check it out as soon as you get to the sequencer.
Shield checked green, so I went to the radar preactivation sequence. That too was green, and I left it in standby because radar gives off a lot of nasty rads which you don't want to release anywhere near living beings. I just reported, "This is Leader: shield and gadget check OK." Two and Three reported a green board too, so I relaxed and waited.
TWACK! Vacuum doesn't carry sounds but metal does, and in spades. A fighter had just launched from the cat above me. BUMP! The sequencer raised one step. One step closer to launch.
One step closer to battle.
I couldn't believe I was heading into a fight. Come to think of it, I believe no-one of us really believed it and we behaved like it was another ex, which is the sane thing to do since worrying about getting maimed or killed isn't the healthiest way to psych up.
TWACK! "357th, 1st Wing, you're next. Report when ready." I heard the voice into my helmet and waited for my wingmen to report to me, then I answered: "1st Wing ready to launch."
"Copy that, 1st Wing. Launch in 60 seconds. Good luck and Godspeed."
I clicked twice and breathed in deeply. The 60 seconds before launch are the longest in your life: you spend them thinking about what you may have forgotten and checking and rechecking everything from the board to your straps. You know it's all OK because the computer would have told you by then and in the launch control room there are a dozen people checking on your craft and on the launch mechanism but still…
BUMP! The platform raised and suddenly I found myself facing the launch tunnel. The cat shuttle engaged my front wheel and took my Gyruss ahead a couple of meters. I throttled up my engines one third, exhaled and breathed in again. Beep! Beep! Beeeeeeeeeep! There it went the launch signal…
I've heard and read it enough, especially from non-pilots, how the launch cat "kicks you in the back with the force of a sledgehammer" and other awe-inspiring nonsense. In reality, you don't get a lot of g's because in space there is no takeoff speed, you only have to clear the ship and rocket ahead but there is enough space to speed you up without crushing you. What you feel is a small tug to the craft, then you start to accelerate and it seems like your chair is being pulled from under you. Kinda weird, but nothing brutal: the magnetic catapult throws you into space in about two-thirds of a second and you lose your sense of orientation as you leave the artificial gravity field of the ship beyond. Freefall.
No time to waste: I throttled up to max and initiated a "dogleg" manoeuver to clear the launching trajectory so that I didn't run the risk of having the next fighter speeding up to my tailpipe, then I waited for my wingmen to launch; 30 seconds later we were in formation and engaged the shield generators. Then I made a gesture with my left hand and we hit the weapons' engage switch: both the cannon and the secondary weapons status light showed green. A couple of seconds later an irate voice boomed into my earpieces.
"1st Wing, you're not authorized to engage weapons. Switch to standby and wait for…" I squelched the channel: we had everything we needed on the main comms and craft-to-craft anyway so we could safely ignore major Chupa's plaints.
2nd and 3rd wing reported in a couple of minutes later, so we joined up and the whole of 357th headed off towards Neptune. A big blue sphere glowing in the dark, the world named after the Roman god of the Seas was an imposing sight, taking up a big slice of the sky and a large percentage of our sensors' effectiveness. As soon as we got within visual range of Triton, the largest moon and our target, the scopes filled with white dots.
"Leader, two-one is gadget bent." I heard from my wingman. Looking down at the scope, I could see that it was effectively blanked out. Three-One reported a similar condition: Neptune's mag field was doing its best to blind us.
Or was it?
Neptune is a gas giant, with a strong magnetic field surrounding it: no wonder our sensors had their fair share of problems getting through the radiation soup that came out of the big storms going off in the upper atmosphere. But the pattern looked a little too regular for my taste.
"Swiss, this is Texas." Lt Jon Kryton, 2nd Wing Leader, paged me. "This ain't right."
"Roger that. I have multiple inbounds at one o'clock three high." I called back.
We reported to Group Leader captain Britcher, but we were instructed to disregard the patterns as "interference". Then I saw some of the dots moving about as if forming up.
Forming up!
Interference, my ass!
As if on cue, all of 357th wing leaders including me gave out the order to assume attack formation; Britcher threw a fit. "357th, assume patrol formation and disengage weapons IMMEDIATE…" And then the transmission broke, just like that. No crackling sound, no screech as the transmitter is vaporized, no hiss of static: digital comms don't do that. They die when you die.
Comms with Group Leader died as his F-911 was hit by an Ideoclan burst and disintegrated, along with four other squadrons and much of our command structure.
"Contact! This is One-One: ENGAGE!" I barked in my transmitter. Interferences or not, the 'Clan were approaching fast, and it was at that moment that I screwed up, big time. We had been trained to immediately disengage if attacked, regroup then attack in a two-pronged manoeuver; but at that moment I turned back to be an Infantry sergeant, and when ambushed an infantry unit can only do one thing: attack the ambush force back immediately. My screw-up ultimately saved my life and that of 1st Wing, because that was the last thing the 'Clans were expecting.
Without a second thought, I charged into the enemy formation. Fortunately, we had drilled target selection procedures well, and we locked onto the approaching crafts in less than a couple of seconds.
"One-one, Fox Three." I called while pressing the launch switch on my stick: the Spearhead missile under my port wing was gone in the blink of an eye, the pod disintegrating beyond me as the SIM-85 headed towards its target.
"Two, Fox Three."
"Three, Fox Three."
I pushed the target switch command, moved the cursor and released just as I touched the lock-on button, in a procedure called a "fast-lock". Saves you a couple of seconds. Meanwhile, all of 1st Wing had fired the first Spearhead volley. "One-one, Fox Three." I called again and it became confused with the other call launched as the second volley went its way. I silently counted up and tried to make out the enemy craft still beyond visual range on my HUD…
Impact! The Weapons Impact and Damage Assessment Monitor lit up. That part of the equipment consists of a small computer display that is tied in to the main sensor suite and weapons system and computer whether your shot has hit its mark or not and if your target is down. We call it KC, for Kill Counter. Mine went up one, then two as the Spearhead missiles found their targets. I called out "Splash Two" and got almost identical reports, except for Three, whose KC has indicated two kills but who could still see his second target intact and manoeuvering on his scope. Smart guy. Right then, we got into visual range and I ordered to fire at will. We all padlocked into a target and went after it, with Three going after his second "kill".
"GUNS! GUNS! GUNS!" I called out while pulling the trigger with a 'Clan fighter filling up my sights. There was a slight shuddering as the pulse guns fired and I saw the enemy's tail blossoming into a ball of plasma. I followed it firing short bursts until it broke apart, then selected another one. I didn't bother to call "guns" nor did I signal the kill. There was no time.
By this time, all of 357th had engaged and I could hear their voices on the group comm net.
"Tallyho! Multiple bogeys inbound, eleven o'clock two down!"
"SPLASH ONE! Two, you've got one coming on your five o'clock high…"
I had to squelch out most of the traffic except for the squadron net and the Lex's own frequency. The Ideoclans came in waves - the space warfare equivalent of a human wave attack. They seemed completely unconcerned about losses or individual safety and they outnumbered us by more than one hundred to one.
Luckily, the F-911 was far superior to anything the 'Clans could throw at us. Our shielding could not take a direct hit but it could deflect a lot of glancing shots that could have caused damage, and our weapons could tear through their shields and hulls easily. But still they came on, and we couldn't take their kind of losses.
"Leader, you've got one on your tail." I heard in my helmet. No need to turn around - the proximity warning signal had lit up in my HUD; I jinked the craft around and mashed the countermeasures button: on my fighter's tail, a dispenser pack spat out hundreds of self-inflating decoy ballutes the size of small marbles, which quickly ballooned to tennis-ball size. Their reflecting surfaces made for a more inviting target than my Gyruss, playing havoc with the enemy's target-seeking sensors; not once the 'Clan on my tail did get a close shot before being destroyed by my wingmen in a pincer manoeuver attack.
I muttered a thanks and headed towards the nearest troop carrier group which was getting hammered: we nailed a dozen of enemy fighter on the first swoop, then turned around and engaged the rest, which instead of doing the sensible thing and retreat flew straight into our cannons. None survived, but two transports had been hit badly.
Suddenly, there was a flash slightly above and to my starboard side and a transport exploded silently. There were no fighters on my scope, and the only nearby objects were small satellites that looked like weather birds…
Weather birds around Triton?
One of the tiny satellites fired its thrusters and moved toward the transport wing. I locked on and fired, but before I could hit it the bird exploded firing energy bursts in all directions.
"MINEFIELD!" I bellowed in my microphone. "Everybody turn around! We'll engage at medium range."
1st Wing turned around and the troop transports altered course, not before another one got hit by a mine. We locked onto the mines and fired with automatics on to reduce the firing rate, which was threatening to overheat the guns. Pulse cannons take time to cool down, and overheat quickly reducing their effectiveness.
"All leaders, this is Two-One." I heard Texas's voice over the net. "Tag them until they're destroyed. They're using suicide tactics."
My blood froze. There's nothing worse than an enemy who cares nothing about survival. Their crippled fighters, if not shot down, overloaded their reactor cores and exploded right in the middle of our formations or headed off towards our ships. Our first battle was turning into a nightmare. What was worse, this was not the last surprise they were coming up with.
"Three-Two, there's movement in the Koenig Belt. Do you read it?" Wing Two was near the Koenig Belt - the artificial asteroid belt around Neptune that had been built over decades to provide ore for the Lagrange Stations. Cheaper than mining the moons and lift the cargo up there. What could be moving around there…
"All wings, ALERT! They've fired up the plasma engines on some of the rocks! They're heading towards the fleet!"
Rocket-powered asteroids! Nothing that we had, short of a nuke, could deal with them. The carriers' tac missile batteries opened up and blew a couple of them into tiny rocks, but one of them smashed right through the hull of a small cruiser, which lost directional control and spun towards Neptune. We tried to form up and fire at the plasma engines, while fending off the 'Clan reinforcements.
"357th, you're cleared to disengage for rearming and refuelling." At last a respite. We broke contact and shot straight towards the Lex, when the proximity warning signalled an entire enemy squadron on our tails. We pumped out decoys while trying to decide whether to continue the approach or turn around and engage, when we got a message from Combat Information Center: "Everybody squawk IFF level 5 immediately, over."
I reached for the IFF controls and dialed in code 5, which gave off a tremendous radio signature which was why we had headed off into battle with the squawk box on silent. All of a sudden, tiny flashes erupted along the Lex hull. I though they were explosions and was about to alter course when I realized they were missiles - Spearhead missiles. The shipborne version of our SIM-85s tore through the pursuing 'Clan squadron leaving no survivors. Despite the elation at the reprieve, I couldn't help thinking about dozens of high-velocity AP darts shooting around: IFF or not, if one of us got on a Spearhead's firing line it would have been game over.
We began the final approach procedure. Throttle to idle, landing gear out, scanner on standby, weapons on standby, retros on automatic… What did I forget?
It came down upon me with the landing bay forcefield filling up my canopy. The shield! The shield, you dumbhead! I threw the switch seconds before hitting the atmospheric integrity field which separated the bay from the vacuum of space. A moment too late and the shield discharge would have fried most of the landing area. I would have kicked myself in the head.
Touchdown! The landing gear engaged the braking wire and my Gyruss stopped dead. A tech crew sprayed the fighter with equalizing fluid, which brought the hull temperature to ambient level, preventing thermal shock and risks of fire as metal and ceramics were exposed to oxygen. An APU was connected and the fighter shuttled off with me inside to the rearming area. I popped off the canopy and removed the helmet.
"How is it going out there, sir?" a young crewman asked.
"Hairy as hell. Any chance we can have some more Spearheads?" I asked. The missiles had proven a godsend.
"Negative, sir. We can't break them out of the mag and ferry them up here. Should have been done earlier, but nobody thought they would be needed."
The words military intelligence flashed up in my brain. Ninety percent of our fighters had taken off without missiles, and those of us who carried them only had two shots. The F-911 could carry eight.
My thoughts were interrupted when a damaged troop carrier did an emergency landing nearby. It had been shot up badly, and as it passed the forcefield the superheated components ignited and its rear end was engulfed in flames. Firefighting crews hurried towards the burning ship and managed to contain the fire, but when the transport's doors opened I put my helmet back on and engaged the onboard camera to get a better look: there were far too many mangled bodies being pulled out by the medical crew. I wondered how may had managed to land on Triton, and how many would come back.

* * *

We were shuttled off to the launch sequencer again and took off. This time it was only seconds before we entered the furball of fighters closing towards the fleet. I lost sight of the KC on my board, which had gone into the triple digits: we had entered a strange state of calmness, fighting without thinking, losing track of time.
The enemy's numbers dwindled, but even though their base had been overrun, the 'Clan would not roll up and play dead: they launched a final attack on a carrier group which was scouting ahead. The antiaircraft batteries, Spearhead missiles and CIWS took their toll but it wasn't enough: three carriers were destroyed in a terrible conflagration, their crews incinerated before anyone could get to the lifeboats.
But it had been the Ideoclan's swan song as far as Neptune was concerned. 357th headed off towards the landing bay again, and at least this time I didn't forget to disengage my shield. All of our squadron had survived, it turned out. Impressive, considering the losses we had suffered.
I breathed a sigh of relief and popped the canopy open. The fumes of the landing bay were the sweetest scent I remember smelling for a long time.

* * *

Debriefing was a surreal experience: all of 357th wing leaders, including myself, were hammered pretty badly by Major Chupa because of our blatant disregard for standard procedures. The fact that everyone who had followed them thoroughly was now flesh particles orbiting Neptune didn't have any effect on him.
We sat down through debrief, then took off and had our own little debrief with the mech stuff. When Colonel Bonca joined us we were a little surprised, but not too much; our squadron had not only survived, but had successfully defended the troop transports that had done the drop on Triton and took out the 'Clan base. Our KCs had recorded the most hits, effectively killing more enemies than all of the other squadrons combined.
We talked the whole engagement through, discussing tactics and manoeuvers - especially the "Death Spiral" that looked like the Gyruss' best unique combat manoeuver, spinning the fighter around an imaginary line towards the target while firing the cannons. Most of us had employed it almost unconsciously and it had worked all the time. We had a tech specialist program the simulators with the new data, and wrote memos for the mech crews about some mods we felt the crafts needed. Then we sat down with the armament guys to fix up a way to lift missiles to the landing bays.

* * *

After dinner and a shower, it was time to hit the bunk. I had more than a little envy for Jon and some of the other pilots who had a wife and kids expecting them at home: all I had was a message from my parents, which was fine anyway and some lines from friends I had left behind. But there was also a letter from my High Command - looked like I was making the Swiss Army proud. I answered most of the mail, and then I went off to sleep.
But sleep didn't come. I was still high on adrenaline and couldn't just doze off. At last, I went to the medicine cabinet and popped off a couple of sleeper tablets from a tube we had all been issued with. They were supposed to neutralize adrenaline leftovers and induce deep sleep and sweet dreams. Worked like wonders.
Sometime later, I would come to regret taking them. But at the time, all I cared for was a good night's sleep, which I got, and nothing else mattered.



Chapter Three
"Uranus: Long Days in Hell"


Copyright 2003, GOOD DEAL GAMES