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Videogame Fan Fiction

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



Chapter Three
"Uranus: Long Days in Hell"


"Lieutenant Kurtz - please wake up."
The voice got to my brains through layers of sleep. Was I dreaming that I was awakening, or waking from a dream?
"Lieutenant Kurtz, sir, it's 0400. Please wake up."
Then it wasn't a dream at all. Dreams do not spell numbers. Not correctly anyway.
I sat up on my bunk and looked out: standing silhouetted against the open door was a yeoman - one of the unfortunate souls aboard Lexington whose job was to wake up gruff pilots like me.
"Heard you." I answered yawning. "Give me a couple of minutes, OK?"
"Right, sir."
I fought the temptation to go back to sleep. Now I understood why they had to use people for this kind of deal instead of simply instructing the computer to wake up crew members: you don't feel bad about making a machine wait for your lazy butt to slide off the bed.
I got up, not too fast to avoid ending up with a dizzy head, and headed off to the bathroom. Took a couple of cold-water splashes on my face to wake me up fully, sort of. I looked at the miserable face staring at me from the mirror, then shaved and showered, put on a fresh suit, and got out. The yeoman visibly relieved that he hadn't had to pull me out of the bunk motioned for me to follow.

At 4:00 AM or 0400 in military parlance, Lex's corridors were devoid of the usual activity. With reveille at about 0530, most of the personnel around were either the night shift going about or early birds, like kitchen staff and the like. My escort led me to the mess room doors, saluted and went off. I went through the door.
Mess hall was almost deserted, except for some familiar faces from 357th: Jon was there, along with a couple of wingmen. "Hi, Swiss." he said upon noticing me. "Got the dawn patrol too?"
"Yeah." I picked up a tray, selected breakfast from the food dispenser and sat down in front of him. "So, how does it look like out there?"
"Calm. No trade, no threat. Picked up a couple of slow movers but they were old comm birds out of orbit. Looks clear enough. Not like two days ago."
A couple of days before, Jon's patrol had run into a 'Clan flight. They managed to get through and down all of the enemy planes, but one of his wingmen had taken a hit and had to limp home with the other two fighters covering him. One hell of a ride considering that Ideoclan fighters never stray too far from the pack.
"How about the new stuff?" I asked.
"The drone works fine. I wouldn't count on the jammer, though. It didn't even warm up this time, had to jettison it before landing."
"Great." The mess hall doors opened and two of my wingmen appeared and saluted. I stood up, shot back a salute then sat down and resume breakfast. "And the booster pack?"
"Didn't get it. Maybe you'll strike lucky, I've seen the techs bring up one from storage while landing."
I felt a slight shiver. The booster pack was one of the technical innovations that the tech team had been working on while we were still sweating our butts off on Paradise: it's basically a solid rocket strapped to the Gyruss' tail and it's supposed to take you out of trouble really fast if a 'Clan flight comes along and you can't fight it. Rumors had that it had been delayed because of a nasty tendency to blow itself and the craft up.
I looked at my plate of cereals and sighed. Electronic recon, long-range scanners and what did we have to do?
Dawn Patrols.
Double damn.


With Neptune safely behind us and the Ideoclan forces stationed at the outer limits of the Solar System destroyed, the question on everyone's mind had been "What next"?
The obvious answer would have been: "On with the plan" but the civilian authorities saw things a bit differently: a part of the Powers that Be, upon seeing the Neptune battle won, wanted to press on and get the Fleet straight to Earth; the other, seeing the losses, wanted the Fleet to stop and Neptune and fortify the place, waiting for reinforcements to arrive. None of the options were valid, of course, and praise be to the JMF command for not caving in to politic and media pressure.
For starters, we couldn't stop at Neptune: what element of surprise we had was lost now, and the 'Clans knew we were there; if we just stopped they would have asked for reinforcements from the homeworld themselves and we would be caught in an attrition war we couldn't win. Neither could we go straight to Earth or we would have found ourselves in the grip of the biggest pincer maneuver ever made, with all of the Ideoclan forces in the System coming after us. So we had to stick to the plan and take on Outer Solar System planet by planet. Next stop, Uranus.
Trouble was that we couldn't see up to Uranus, because optics only gets you so far and there is no radar big enough to look at another planet and tell you what's orbiting around it that is smaller than a considerably sized asteroids. Since Ideoclan ships had low-observability characteristics the overall chances of imaging the 'Clan forces around Uranus from Neptune were this side of zero.
We had to adopt another approach, because the stakes were way high: with the element of surprise gone, the odds for the next battle would go to the part that first spotted the enemy and reported it, which meant aggressive reconnaissance and equally aggressive long-range patrols to engage and destroy enemy scouts before they could see the fleet and radio back their findings. There was another reason to seek them out before they got in range: Ideoclan patrols, upon being spotted by the fleet's CAP, had this nasty habit of mounting suicide attacks on the nearest ships, as two escorts had found out at their expenses.
Meanwhile, we kept our eyes open for the enemy fleet as well.
Someone took the WWI concept of early dawn patrols and updated it, so each squadron got, in shifts, the not much envied task to go and sniff out the enemy. Of course, we had some more technology on our side: the F-911 has enough of a sensor suite to act as a recon platform on its own right, but we got issued with a remote drone, which was to be launched from one of the pylon mounts and scouted ahead, effectively extending out maximum range by a large factor since the drone didn't have to come back. We also got a jammer pod, which could disrupt communications over a wide radius, eliminating any chance of the enemy reporting their contacts - if it worked, of course. Some jammers simply never engaged and our techs couldn't find out what was going wrong because no-one ever got back to base: pilots always jettisoned them because they screwed up the Gyruss' balance and anyway you don't come back with ordnance under your wings, period. Especially when you're talking about going through the landing bay force field with a helium-cooled superconducting magnet that could be nanoseconds away from firing.
Anyway, the concept worked: we did get a glimpse of a couple of long range patrols, once, and managed to trace them to their predicted origin, which gave us some idea of where the Ideoclan forces thought we were. Which is better than nothing.


I wanted Uranus to be done ASAP; we all wanted that, but the reason had less to do with the war than it had with briefings.
You see, Uranus got its name from a Greek primeval deity, a rather unpleasant guy who happened to be God of the Heavens; he also married his mother and, genetic rules applying to divine beings too, generated a rather unpleasant progeny consisting in Titans, Cyclops and other critters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. The monster mash went on until his son Cronus castrated him and took his throne. As mythological stories go, this one is pretty soft - at least it doesn't include cannibalism. Anyway, when William Herschel discovered the 7th rock from the Sun in 1781, he thought to go along with the tradition of naming planets after ancient deities and christened it Uranus.
Herschel couldn't know the grief his choice would befell JMF officers some centuries later.

The first guy to hold a briefing on our way to the 7th planet was a young staff captain who had thoroughly rehearsed his speech but had forgotten to listen to himself. It's not Herschel's or the Greek's fault how the planet's name sounded in spoken English, but as soon as the captain started to explain about how we were "going to Uranus", why was so important to "fight over Uranus" and the way we would "conquer Uranus", the hall echoed with snickers. And then he spoke the killer sentence: "OK, what's so weird about Uranus?"
Good thing sound doesn't travel through vacuum or the 'Clans would have heard us coming from the other side of the Solar System.
By the time we were mounting the first patrols, everybody had had enough of Uranus jokes and wanted the battle to be done and over with the sooner the better, and prayed they wouldn't get snuffed there. Being recorded as "fallen at Uranus" was everyone's worst nightmare; we wanted Uranus safely behind us (no pun intended) and go on with better-sounding planets.

I got to the launch bay early, so that I could take time inspecting my fighter. The F-911 had proven a solid and reliable platform despite being untested, but only because we had survived Neptune it didn't mean we had all the kinks ironed out. Tech crews were still "adjusting" (polite term for "tinkering with") the hardware and software to get better performances. As a result, we never exactly flew the same spacecraft twice.
Mine had gone through some minor "readjusting", as I could see from the number of items on the e-pad the tech chief handed me for signing. "Have you had time to think about that mod we were discussing yesterday?" I asked.
"Yes, sir. I need to do some mass ration calculations before, though. Can't really put more stuff in there that was intended."
"Well, do your best. I'd appreciate it." I handed back the e-pad.
"Of course, sir."
At that moment Nicola Cellini, my wingman for this flight, showed up. "Sorry to be late, sir." he said. "I took some time to review the Intel update."
"You're not late, lieutenant." I replied. "It's me being early. Anyway, I'd rather take off later than un briefed. What did Intel come up with in the last 10 minutes?"
"No trade, no threat. As always."
"Which means there's probably someone out there, only we can't see them." I mused. "Well, I guess we've got to earn our pay."
I looked up at my craft. "I've got both the drone and the jammer." I pointed at the GTD-171 Remote Recon System and the ALQ-68 Disposable ECM Unit. "You have two Slingshots".
Cellini nodded. "We should have been issued Spearheads."
"We should." The SIM-88 Slingshot was another recent addition to the Gyruss arsenal, a short-range anti-spacecraft missile much smaller and lighter than the Spearhead. It had IR guidance, updated via the IRST (Infra-Red Search and Track) sensor in the F-911, and a blast fragmentation warhead guaranteed to punch through any Ideoclan shield. Can't really comment on this since we still had to fire one outside the simulator (where, it should be said, worked really fine). Pilots didn't like being issued the smaller and untested missiles, because the heavier SIM-85 Spearhead had proved itself an excellent weapon and every pilot wanted two, or four, or more at each takeoff. Trouble was that supply lines were still having problems delivering the stuff and the new pylon mounts that allowed carrying 3 on each station hadn't reached us yet. Slingshots on the contrary were cheap and a supply ship could carry four of them for each Spearhead, so they had become immensely popular for the logistic staff.
We should have considered ourselves lucky to have any missiles at all.


We launched at exactly 0450 and did a couple of orbits around the Lexington before heading off to our assigned vector. We would be flying under total EMCON (Emission Control), which meant no radar, no lidar and absolute radio silence. We had a laser grid unit that allowed direct ship-to-ship comms but it was unreliable and it called for the fighter to tighten up too much for anyone's taste, so we had all agreed on a common code to be used with the anticollision strobes. It wasn't exactly standard stuff because each squadron seemed to have its own brand of strobe dialect, but it worked fine enough. I flashed the "loose formation" signal which told Nicola to slow down a little to cover me, while taking a bit more space between the fighters. I got the "Roger" flash back, so I relaxed and concentrated on the instruments.
Uranus was just a shining dot on a black background, one among many, maybe bigger than others. Funny how people seem to visualize star systems with all the planets being colored spheres surrounded by millions of little stars. I remember an interview with a senior pilot when the journalist had asked why the Gyruss needed to have this sophisticated nav system only to fly within planetary range, since all it took would be "aiming the nose at the nearest planet and throttle up". Smart. Really, really smart. You can't tell a planet from a star with the naked eye at the distances we would be working with, so what if you aimed the nose at the Andromeda Galaxy thinking it was, say, Jupiter? A long, lone journey, that would be it.
When you're "out there", the instruments are the only thing that will ever tell you where you are, where you're going and even what you're doing. There is no up or down, no sense of speed. You can go as fast as you like sublight and never notice anything moving: the Universe is too big a thing.
With the navcomputer set, the only thing I had to do was to follow the steering cues on my HUD. Plenty of time to get to our zone.
Plenty of time to think.

Like many other officers, I had known I would have to brief the squadron, sooner or later, but I did not dread it like others did. Giving a formal brief to your own squadron is not hard, but Command had issued an order that called for other squadrons to be present at each briefing, because attrition at Neptune had thinned the ranks. We needed more officers to attend each briefing, so that information could be spread out as swiftly as possible.
Of course, nobody really wanted to do a briefing on anything related to Uranus. As luck would have it, I got my turn to brief after two previous officers had fallen victim to the laughingstock curse, and Uranus jokes still hadn't lost their edge.
I had a secret weapon, though: Swiss citizens speak at least three languages, but not everyone knows this. A lot of folks from other squadrons who didn't know me believed I spoke German or French, and when I took the podium I feigned a deep and thick German accent: looks like "Oo-raa-noos" doesn't sound funny. Felt like an idiot, but nobody laughed - my squadron mates just smiled at the trick. After that, many other officers seemed to discover a non-English speaking relative in their family as a justification to conjure up the most ludicrous accents - just for briefings, of course. When Staff had enough of it, they placed an announcement on the mess hall e-board that called for all briefings to be conducted on "proper English, for comprehension purposes".
Someone scribbled a note just under: "You can bet Uranus on it!"


A staccato of bleeps brought me back to the Gyruss cockpit: that was the CRM-114 encoder/decoder transceiving device coming to life. Strange for Command to send an encoded message so soon after takeoff - we'd been out for little more than half an hour. I punched in the passcode and the text flashed on the device's screen.

POSSIBLE HOSTILE CONTACT STRENGTH OF 2 DETECTED INSIDE OUTER ENGAGEMENT RANGE. VECTOR FOLLOWS. INTERCEPT, IDENTIFY AND DESTROY IF HOSTILE CONFIRMED.

Looked like the 'Clans had sent a patrol of their own inside the outer perimeter of the Fleet's sensors. Well, it wouldn't have been the first time: ever since we had set for Uranus they'd been probing for us. Three days before, a lone cruiser which had been sent forward to extend the Fleet's detection capability had run into a flight of two Ideoclan heavy fighters before the F-911s sent as CAP could get in range. The cruiser's ECM system had prevented the enemy crafts from sending out a contact message and one of them had been destroyed by a ship-launched Spearhead. But the other one, even though heavily damaged by a CIWS turret-mounted pulse cannon, had flown right into the cruiser's hull aft of the main batteries. Battle armor can only take so much: the fireball that had been the Ideoclan craft crashed through the bulkheads and started a fire which had been extinguished only when the captain had given the order to vent the burning areas to vacuum. The cruiser limped back minus two dozen men and badly crippled: it was still in repair and most of its armament had been rendered useless.
As a consequence, each patrol had to stay flexible to respond to this kind of threat. We didn't even want to think of what could have happened if a carrier had been targeted, with the enemy fighter crashing at full speed into the recovery hangar bay.
I flashed the new instructions to Cellini using the strobe code and got the acknowledgment message. We turned to the new vector at once: 30 minutes to intercept. I could have let the autopilot handle the intercept, but I have heard it goes against the pilots' nature to trust the navcomputer to fly you to the target so, partly to accommodate my new status as a "pilot", I decided to go manual. Besides, I had heard the navcomputer's intercept program had a little bug (some called it a "feature") that tried to fly the Gyruss straight into the enemy's tailpipe. It should have been fixed, but engineers seemed to have other priorities.


We were woefully short of engineers. The week before, we had lost six: nothing dramatic, really, they were still alive and well, but they had to be transferred to Saratoga.
Saratoga, one of Lex's sister ships, had suffered a minor malfunction in the Hawking Drive core just after warpout. Nothing serious, no one had been hurt and there was no need for it to perform at 100% because no other warps were planned; but the drive core is slaved to the main reactor and if it's either offline or performing badly, it leeches energy that the ship badly needs. You can never have too much energy on a spaceship, especially a space carrier. The captain wisely decided to have the core taken offline and repaired, and then reactivated: an engineer crew was sent down with the drive powered down to fix it and, as far as I know, they did a good job of it, but something went horribly wrong. I'm no space engineer and I can't give you the details, but from what I could understand some of the graviton polarizers had retained a charge - it happens when the coils are not immersed in liquid helium before field stripping the drive, something you can only do in dry-dock - and as soon as the assembly was reconnected to the main line with the power off, they discharged and the core pulsed.
It took three days to have the core deck cooled down enough to enter. A chief engineer I talked to - a big Arab fellow who looked like he could lift a plasma thruster with one arm - told me of the bulkheads twisted by white heat, and of the shadows of the engineers on the core's deck. Nothing else, just the shadows where they had stood when the core had pulsed. It creeped me out: it's one thing being killed by 'Clans, or by meteor strikes or the like, those risks go with the territory, but getting the raw deal from your own ship it's scary stuff, if you get my meaning. Makes you feel afraid to lie in your bunk and sleep.
Anyway, Saratoga had to replace their lost engineers, so some of the ships had to "volunteer" some of their own, like we had any to spare. Replacements would come, but it's easier to meld greenies with experienced crews than send a bunch of newly trained guys to a front-line ship and see if they can find the instructions' book.
I didn't venture anymore around the Hawking Drive or the reactor, that's for sure. Found safer places to walk around when I had time, like the missile tubes.


With less than 15 minutes to intercept, I flashed the "combat spread" signal and took the lead. I had acquired the enemy fighters on the HUD, which was getting the targeting data from the Infra-Red Search-and-Track device. It gave an educated guess at the distance, which was not exactly accurate but still enough to engage the onboard weapons: we couldn't risk firing beyond visual range because only Nicola had missiles, and nobody trusted the Slingshot enough to engage at the maximum envelope. We would go in guns only, and only when we could see the enemy ships with our short-range eyeballs.
Meanwhile, I was thinking about charging up the jammer. If we didn't kill the 'Clans on the first pass they would have tried to report back to base, and this we couldn't afford. But if the jammer's charging switch were thrown, then it would remain charged because there is no way to turn it off, and I would have had to jettison it before landing. For all I knew, it could even be a dud - the pods had a reputation for being temperamental.
Without thinking it out further, I flipped the cover and threw the switch. The ALQ-68 ECM POD CHARGING signal flashed on the display along with a progress bar and percentage reading and an estimate of the time-to-go before full arming. Better to have to jettison it later than needing it and have it not ready. At least it was warming up.
10 minutes to go. Having to wait is almost worse than combat itself - at least combat doesn't leave you too much time to think.


I must admit I feel a little bit of envy towards my buddies. They have got wives/kids/girlfriends/whatever back home always sending them mail and lots of packages - the Fleet runs a small flotilla of cargo ships only to deliver the metric tons of stuff that people back home send to their loved ones at the front. It's partly for the morale: you know, when you're always on the verge of getting vaporized it's great to know there's someone out there who cares and who's worth fighting for. People fight for their buddies and their families harder than they'd do for any cause, noble as it may be: always been like that always will be and that's the way it should.
I was an exception among the pilots, because I was one of the few "unattached" ones, except for Nicola who was the squadron's official playboy; in less enlightened times he would have been reprimanded on several occasions for "conduct unbecoming an officer" and "fraternization", but this was the JMF and ladies these times know exactly what they want and they're not afraid to show it. Besides, when we signed up nobody had ever told us to give up our genders.
From the e-mails I had been receiving it looked like half the female population of the Outer Territories knew my name and address, and the other one was either uninterested or busily searching. The Army's PR staff was to blame for this - I had become some of a "poster boy" for them after I had survived Neptune and they were willing and able to milk my so-called "image" for all its propaganda worth. Another reason to want the war to be over ASAP - if they kept up like this any longer, I'd have to queue up for plastic surgery when I got back.
Apart from having to answer love letters from anything between dewy-eyed teenagers to divorced mothers of three, I had to cope with other funny stuff, like having my high-school principal singing my praise on one of the biggest news services - and this after making my life miserable for all of four years. Pity I couldn't fire a Spearhead at his big sorry head.
And, of course, the Swiss Army didn't forget about me. It looked like they weren't content with making me an officer before JMF could, they wanted me to look like one and had a dress uniform sent me through priority mail. It was a good fit, lucky me, and it came with a little surprise.
You see, in the ancient times officers used to wear a saber. Up to the late XX Century, Swiss officers carried a small dagger and when the use had been suppressed they had been clamoring for a renewal of the tradition.
Well, they got their wish granted - in spades. Together with my brand new dress uniform came a short sword that looked anything but short. I wondered if someone at General Staff was a fan of Arthurian legends because the thing was sharp as a razor and looked like it ought to be mounted on a stone. Weighed like one, too.
I had thought to put the dress uniform and the cutting implement in my closet to be taken out only when going back home, but someone high in the Fleet thought to throw a little party for the fleet officers where everybody was to attend in the dress uniform of their service. There were white Marines' uniforms, blue Navy uniforms, dark green Army uniforms and various greys and maroons and blacks from many other services and armies of all the Colonies.
And there was me with Excalibur. I feared I would become the party's laughingstock but everyone pretended not to notice - JMF folks tend to think of themselves as gentlemen. But on the way back my wingman, LT Brooks looked at me and said: "Jeez, you Swiss must really hate brass if you go to their parties with that stuff."
Well, he was almost right. Almost.


The 'Clan fighters hadn't noticed me and Nicola sneaking up on them and hadn't changed course. I thought first they were just pretending and they'd jump us at the last moment, but this was suicide. Ideoclans aren't known for their attachment to life, but they don't throw themselves away for nothing. I almost feared a trap but any enemy ship would have registered on our sensors by then. When I had the fighters well in my sight, I signaled to attack.
We engaged thrusters and closed in: the craft in front of me filled the targeting ring and I squeezed the trigger three times, in short bursts. The first burst hit the 'Clan fighter straight in the canopy, shattering it and killing the pilot; the second tore through the hull without any more apparent damage. It was the third one that did the trick, drilling the engine's core and exploding the craft in a silent burst of light. I turned around to see how Nicola was faring, but all I saw were the debris of the second ship - Nicola was a better shot than me, and he had destroyed his target with the first burst. My kill counter registered three - three hits on an enemy, but only one really counted. We did a 360 around the engagement area and, seeing nothing more, we resumed the original patrol course.
I was proud of my squadron's skill. Nicola was the best shot; Brooks had a knack for formation flight that no one could hope to match; Higeno was the space equivalent of a dancer and could throw his Gyruss fighter into all kinds of maneuvers without losing his orientation; and Hector could almost see what the enemy was thinking. I had to wonder why I had been chosen as a squadron leader instead of one of them, but the unit's leader is almost never the best fighter. In the end, I could lead them better than they could in my place but, still, I was extremely lucky to land into such a team.

Many F-911 squadrons are a mixed outfit, but 357th seems to have drawn the lucky straw. We're a pretty balanced-out lot, with a knack for both solo and teamwork, and we tend to discuss our strategies and work out new tactics at all levels. I have heard there are some squadron and wing leaders who'd never dream about asking their subordinates for advice, but 357th is different. Leadership doesn't mean dictatorship and you can't expect your subordinates to work for you if you don't listen to them; and if all leaders follow blindly the brass' orders, then you might as well leave your brains in your quarters because you're not going to need them.
Look at 357th's wing leaders and you'll probably end up wondering how in Space we can have it working. As far as wing leaders go Jon, Shawn and me seem to come from opposite corners of the Universe. Jon is a bit of a hothead (well, he's a Texan, he's got a right to be) and has a tendency for breaking the rules whenever needed. If you need to get things done, and done for good, he'll find any loophole to manage it. His wing has scored more kills than any other in the fleet, and for good reasons.
Shawn seems to come from a family with strong military traditions and you will never, ever, find him with a brass button out of order. He expects dedication from his pilots but he has probably recommended more people for promotions than anyone else. If any of us will ever be considered one day to get a general's epaulets, he'll be the one.
As for me, I'm a by-the-book Swiss officer. I follow the rules as far as possible so that when I have to break them, it always looks like the exception rather than the rule. The fact that I have done it more times than I (or anybody else) care to remember seems to go unnoticed. I don't like anybody calling me "sir" but few listen.


We were fast approaching the point in space that delimited the end of our patrol run. There was nothing distinctive about it, except that it was the result of some intricate orbital calculations. Well, as long as the navcomputer knew where it was, no problem; I punched in the code to activate the recon drone and got an OK diagnostic message: the drone was being fed nav data directly from the Gyruss' computers so all I had to do was push the "commit" button on my stick - the one that is used to uncage missiles - and wait until it decided it was time to buzz off. Then the PPA (Passive Proximity Alert) started blinking.
I thought I had veered off towards Nicola's craft by mistake - the PPA is slaved to the F-911's passive sensor suite and activates whenever something enters the relatively short range of its detectors. It's also part of the automatic collision avoidance system and it keeps you relatively safe from crashing into another ship or anything remotely solid. Not that it always works, mind you, but when the PPA sounds it's always better to pay close attention.
There was a huge signal up there at two o'clock three up - either an asteroid or a medium-size ship. This far out from the Fleet's forward front, it could only be a drifting wreck from the Ideoclan invasion or a 'Clan ship: I released the pressure from the commit button - I didn't want it to notice the drone's launch signature - but in the same moment it beeped thrice and I felt a dull thump and the GTD-171 separated, fired its thrusters and was gone.
Triple damn! There was no turning back now. I quickly turned to the CRM-114 and sent out the "possible threat detection" alert message to the fleet; no sweat, it's a standard one so it only takes to keypresses to have it done. Then I flashed Nicola to assume combat formation and fired my thrusters. When you're attacking a large ship with only two fighters and no antiship weapons, surprise is your only asset. I readied the jammer to launch, engaged the active radar and locked the thermal imager on the target.
It was a 'Clan light frigate, all right, but badly damaged and battered. Part of its tail section was missing, along with much of its thruster assembly, and it had a large hole amidships; it was probably partly depressurized and it was a wonder it was still out there, since Ideoclan crews have a tendency to blow themselves up with their ship rather than risk being captured. Normally they do it when enemy craft are nearby, so that they can do more damage.
But this one didn't. Either their crew was dead or incapacitated, or the self-destruct system hadn't kicked in. Were it possible to send a recover crew, maybe it could have been salvaged and studied and…
And the frigate's turrets swiveled and fired in our direction! I swiveled the Gyruss into a Death Spiral, fired guns and broke high with thrusters on full, then stabilized and launched the jammer. Immediately my radar screen went loco with saturating radiation.
Nicola fired his two Slingshots and I managed to see an impact through the IR imaging camera mounted under the Gyruss. I couldn't see the second impact because a high-g maneuver overcame the camera's automatic lock function and I lost sight of the target.
We reformed and attacked again, this time guns only because it was the only thing we had left. If the frigate had had a functioning comms system, we had three more minutes before the jammer ran out of power.
I targeted what remained of the propulsion system, hoping to rupture a fuel line. Nicola concentrated on the one turret that was still firing and took it out, and then he went after the aft section of the frigate. Eventually, a small explosion blossomed out near one of the plasma nozzles and part of the hull's armor detached. The ship was losing what little atmosphere it had.
On the third pass, we only got to fire a few shots before the 'Clan ship broke in half and the prow section disintegrated as the magazines exploded. Poor bastards I thought at first, to get this far out on a damaged ship and then die in the middle of nowhere. Well, I thought after, we hadn't invited them and they were not welcome so tough luck to them.
We turned off all active sensors, did a large turn to spot any more possible enemies, and then headed back to base.


Debriefing was a slow torture. Apparently Army Intel was concerned that the two fighters and the damaged frigate we had downed had been related in some ways, despite Ideoclan troops not having a very caring attitude toward each other. Nobody could seriously believe that they were on a rescue attempt, although it had been possible that they were looking for the derelict to blow it up. But nobody in the squadron believed that.
"Ideoclans are not concerned with single ships." Suggested Jon. "They were probably on a patrol of their own. But that battle-damaged frigate can't be from Neptune."
"It can't." Shawn added. "No 'Clan ship got out of Neptune."
"Then where could it have come out of?" I asked, calling up the pictures I had taken from my Gyruss' IR camera. "Can't be a leftover from the invasion. Look at that damage; it would have been a drifting hulk. That ship must have been hit hard 48 hours ago, max."
"Yes, but by whom?" inquired Jon. "No-one but you reported engaging anything bigger than a fighter."
Nobody could answer that. We filed it under "unknown" but pledged to further research the matter. Nothing intrigues soldiers as an unsolved mystery.
I went to sleep and went out again, on CAP, that very afternoon but otherwise the day was uneventful, for which I was grateful.
Three days later, we reached Uranus. The battle there was even more fierce than Neptune, because the 'Clans knew we were coming, but we had learned too. A new tactic some of our pilots had figured out avoided us the terrible losses suffered by bomber wings at Neptune, and the policy of arming the weapons upon takeoff saved many fighters. Even so it was a terrible day, especially for ground forces.
But we were learning: the 'Clans always fought in patterns, which was their undoing. Their losses-to-kill ration was horrendous, but they also had the ships and the crews to spare, a luxury we didn't have. Anyway, when finally the last Ideoclan resistance had been beaten, we found ourselves in far better shape than after Neptune. Even the rear echelons were finally getting the hang of it, and we had less supply trouble than before.

That night we threw a party for Rocky McCleod, the Chief's son who was being sent to Paradise to undergo pilot training. He'd been working with the F-911 simulator most of his spare time, and he was really good; we needed more of his like and showed our esteem for his dedication by throwing him in the gym's swimming pool. We also welcomed the new pilots, fresh from training, and held some briefings for them so that they would learn the tricks of the trade faster.
Uranus down, Saturn to go.

D.W.K.


***

"Flight Tango-Foxtrot Niner Niner Four, you are clear for Cat Launch."
"Roger Flight Control," I responded, "All systems are a go."
"Launch sequence engaged", said flight control. "Magnetic catapult active"
"Good luck Texas, don't rough up the rookie too much!" said Jarhead (Shawn).
Before I even had a chance to respond, we were shot out of the cat and into space.

Heading to the training site, we were able to get a look at the full size of the Lex.
"Wow LT, I didn't realize just how big she was! " exclaimed Rocky!
"And just think Rocky, there are even bigger freighters that are being used as carriers too! " I mused.
"When do you think the JMF will use something designed specifically as a carrier?" asked Rocky.
"There are Rumors of a huge design, but none of us have seen them, or it, for that matter." And I continued, "And those who should know are keeping their mouths shut too!"

Laughing at that, we arrived at the training site. Rocky had shown himself to be an excellent F-911 pilot, on the simulator. Logging in more hours than some pilots in other squadrons we knew. But that was all right with us, we knew we had a potential ace here. And, we had to find out just how good he was!

The F-911 is normally a single pilot craft. However you do need trainers that can handle two pilots, and the design must be very close to the actual single-seat craft or else you do not get a feel for the real thing. The Lex had a couple of trainers, so we took advantage of them, during the time between the next campaign and that would give Rocky the needed stick time.

I ran through the course first, showing Rocky the different styles of attack that the F-911 was capable of. Then I handed control over to Rocky and just told him:
"Show us what you got rookie!"
And thrusting the F-911 at full tilt, he ran through the course.
"Target engaged, fox one."
"Intercept course plotted, firing main cannons."
"Death Spiral activated, firing at all targets in view."
"Enemy hit, double tagging him!!!"
Then it was over.

Through it all, Rocky had been cool and collected. A few rough spots here and there, but overall very impressive. Check that, damn impressive. His Scottish warrior instincts had come through, like the fighters of old. We had an ace here!
"Okay, how was that?" asked Rocky.
"We are going to sign the recommendation papers, Rocky" and I added "All of us!"
"You 're serious?"
"Yes, we need you back here ASAP as a pilot!"
"Hey LT?" asked Rocky "mind if I fly her back to the Lex?"
"Sure Rocky, but crash and we are both SOL!" I responded.

Going through the landing sequence, I now knew how parents of teenagers learning to fly and land hovercars must feel, and I said quite a few prayers during the landing. But, Rocky landed fine. His dad was waiting for us. After getting out, I told Rocky to go on and return his flight suit and that I would be talking to his dad.
"So Johnny, how'd my boy Rocky do?" asked the Chief.
"Really good Chief, damn good actually."
"Do you think he has a chance?"
"I know so Chief! The whole squadron was waiting for the flight results from me, and we are going to all recommend him for Flight School. Col. Bonca will send the paperwork out immediately. He's going to Paradise, it's only a question of when!"
"Rocky will be the first fighter pilot in our family." exclaimed Chief McCleod "I can't tell you how much this means to me for you guys to do this for him."
"Chief, he's always had this talent. It's a God-given gift for sure. It was just waiting for the right time!"
"No, it really means a lot." Chief McCleod said. "And I want to pay you guys back."
"You don't have to…"
"Listen" cutting me off "We are scheduled for a full compliment of Spearheads after the Uranus campaign. I am going to personally make sure that at least on one mission, the 357th will be fully loaded with Spearheads. You have my word on that!" He said.
"Hmmm, now a full compliment would be nice to have, darn nice to have." I shot back.
"No problem LT! no problem at all!"
And with a quick salute by the Chief, and the return one back from me, I headed on to our squad bay. A full load of Spearheads, wow, now we just had to survive Uranus to have them!

On my way back I passed by a little gym, where Shawn, Eric, Yoshiki, and Alexei had just finished pumping iron. We still do that in the 23rd Century! But, we also have a lot of high-tech workout gear too! Eric was bragging, in his false German accent, again!
"Ja, I had a good workout-pressed 450 Ja!"
"Real good one again huh Eric?" I asked.
"Ja, 300, five sets of ten!" he sounded quite pleased!
We all were laughing at him. But, truth be told, Eric was not lying! He was the 357th's resident bodybuilder. Back at Paradise, he had actually come to within one push-up of beating Fryberger's record!
"So how did Rocky do?" Shawn inquired.
"Real good guys, real good." I answered, "I'll have all of us sign the recommendation."
"Great!" Shot back both Yoshiki and Alexei. "We need more like him!"

Entering into our squad bay, we saw that everyone was circled around Steve. The door was shut behind us and Nicola posted a watch. David motioned for us to join the group.
"Glad you guys are here," said David "Steve has gotten a hold of some real hot info on our CO, Chuppa."
"Everyone here?" asked Steve?
Looking quickly around and seeing all fifteen of us, we all nodded. It got real quiet in the squad bay.
"Okay, listen up" he said while sitting on a chair.
"Here's the scope on Chuppa. He's a real piece of work. He flunked the Space Academy exams five times. His family was able to get him an exemption for a sixth test. He graduated the very bottom of the barrel, out of a class of 3,240!"
Shaking our heads, someone commented "But the rules say only five total exams!"
"I know," said Steve. "Now get this, he nearly got kicked out several times."
"And his family saved his butt every time" said David.
"Exactly, and on his senior summer, he crashed one of the training ships!"
"Ouch, I wonder how much that cost his family?" Brooks joked.
"It gets even worse. You guys ready, he has a family back on New Terra!"
"You mean to tell me this guy actually mated and reproduced?" Nicola asked.
(Boy did we all crack up at that. When the laughing was over, Steve spoke up again.)
"It was arranged-a large family too. Eight kids, and his wife has threatened separation a bunch of times" and Steve went on. "He has a disability that prevents him from long space flights in a fighter. And, his family is a major contractor for FTL engines. Very rich, and he's very spoiled."
We all sighed at this. We truly felt sorry for this man now, at least for the wife and kids.
"So Steve" inquired Brooks "where did you get this information on our fearless leader?"
"That nurse Carolyn I've been dating. She's been updating medical files for some time now. She just ran across his."
"Hey Steve" quipped Nicola "This isn't like you to stay with anyone for so long. You're not getting soft on us are you now?"
"Yeah, I know. She's really special, we get along so well, and I'm actually thinking about…"
"NO not the M word Steve!" said everyone!
"Yeah, I am, actually" he said back.
"Another good man bites the dust!" joked Nicholas!
"Get this man a psych test," said Andy " He's gone daft on us!"
"Hey Steve" said David "This means you'll have to join Kryton's wives and kids club then!"
"Thanks David" I shot back!
"Poor Johnny" laughed Shawn. "Picked on in the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and now the JMF!"
I just sighed and shrugged my shoulders!
"Oh and hey guys, ask him about the water truck incident" said Shawn.
My eyes got real big as everyone in the squad bay looked at me.
"Sorry Jon, just before we left New Texas, your buddies Jason, James, and Brian told me all about it!" Said Shawn-with one big, huge grin on his face.
"Thanks buddy", I mumbled back. Emphasizing the word buddy.
"And you just know that buddy is a two-letter word" answered Shawn back!
(Take the word buddy, and add a slang term for mating to get the idea.)
We all laughed at that! You have to laugh at yourself, in the military. Otherwise you'd end up like Chuppa. And just as everyone had signed the recommendation for Rocky and it had been sent to Col. Bonca we got a call for a briefing.

A new planet system to take on and conquer, with new risks, and little did we know at the time, long hours and days ahead of us all. The Uranus System!

Uranus. Another gas giant planet to deal with. Except that this planet had a whole mess of moons to contend with. For our ground forces, the five largest moons would be where the action was: Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon. Sure, there would be bomber missions for those moons to soften the 'Clans up, but it was those numerous smaller moons that were just the right size to house all manner of 'Clan fighters. Those were going to be trouble from the get go.

Give the 'Clans credit. When they invaded the Solar System, they went in with everything and that also included the ability to create and maintain forward bases for their fighters.

So here we were at the first briefing for the Uranus campaign. The 13th had been given replacement squadrons and the room was quite full. Status on the Fleet was passed on, as well as what the Gyruss squadrons would be assigned. We also learned that the bombers would again go in un-escorted. Shawn, David, and I both looked at each other and thought the same thing, suicide! We needed those birds to be escorted; the losses at Neptune proved that!

This time though, a lot of the nonsense from the Neptune campaign was gone, and Chuppa was basically a neutered tom cat after the debacle. This briefing wasn't too eventful but when they mentioned the words "Dawn Patrols" I sat right up with a big "what the????" on my face. As they explained it more and more the less and less we liked the idea.

Here we were with all this technology, and we were going to be used as a way to sniff the enemy out. David was right, double damn and a few other words to go with that! Not to sound like a very bad and old pun, but this Uranus campaign looked like it was going to be a royal pain in the ass!

For the guys in my wing, this was going to happen sooner than later as we were chose to be amongst the first to do this. Shawn patted my shoulder and said "lucky you, eh Jon???!" Lucky as a hen in a den of foxes. Added to that, these patrols were going to be LONG, taking advantage of the F-911's ability for endurance flights.

Getting back to our squad bay, we filled in our wings on what our mission would be. Since my wing had to be ready in six hours, we got some last minute things done-emails to family, enjoying the only good food we'd have in a long time from our care packages, etc. And prayer, lots of it. They say there are no atheists in a fox hole. They're right, ditto for pilots. After some final looks at pictures of family, and putting on our flight suits, my wing headed off to be fitted for our first Dawn Patrol.

As we were walking to the fighter bay I reflected on just what a group we were. We were all family men, married and with kids, and yet we had become hardened warriors. We seemed to complement each other in our abilities, and in our faults. Especially since I had a slight "temper", David seemed to think otherwise!!! Andrew(Rev) was calm but determined since he had come from a long line of ministers at New Australia. Yoshiki(Shogun) had a large family back on New Japan and he had come from one even larger! He was methodical and daring, traits he carried on from being a master programmer. Alexandr(Bear) was as ferocious in battle as a grizzly bear, but you would never guess that when you heard him talk about his family and farm back on New Russia. And finally there was Alexei(Czar), he was a master tactician and was always coming up with new concepts on fighter attacks and testing them in simulations. As for me, in addition to my New Texas temper, I viewed the Rule Book as a book of suggestions. I got yelled at a lot for thinking like that but when we got things done, they were done perfectly. And that thinking pretty much "infected" my wing. I can't tell you how many times Chuppa yelled at all of us in his stateroom!

Arriving at the fighter bay, we met our fellow 13th Fighter Group wings that were assigned to the first Dawn Patrol. After a brief introduction we were issued our initial flight instructions and then we headed for our own crafts.
Chief McCleod greeted us, cheerfully as always, knowing full well it was going to be a long time before we saw him again.
"Listen boys, you have some new gear to play with." he said. "Drones to look ahead for your Dawn Patrols and Jammers and the new Slingshots; two to each F-911."
"Great, but no Spearheads" said Yoshiki.
"I know, but we're working on that." replied the Chief, winking at me.
"Looks like we'll have to do with what we got." I responded. "But, it looks like the Booster Pack is still a no-go for now. Alright Chief, let's get this thing started!"

As we all boarded our F-911's, I was suddenly fighting off feelings of doubt. Was I losing it? The old demons from my active duty days in the Coast Guard were coming back. Was I really doing that good of a job? I buried the feelings in a quick prayer, looked at a small picture of Lori and Troy, and activated the F-911 systems. I was at peace, and, ready to kill.

My wing was the first to be launched. After we were all assembled in attack formation we headed off to a starting point. Once there we then headed off on the directions assigned to us from Command. Our first Dawn Patrol had started!

The sensors were clear, no threats at all. Boy, what a way to fight but you were also on edge since the 'Clans were also expected to be out there as well. We pretty much kept quiet during the first six hours until we got to a clear point. A clear point is an area that has been deemed safe for fighters to come to a stop and relax a bit. The JMF knew that we would need breaks during our 36-hour flight, and the clear point was a welcome change.

Several other wings had already been there so we settled into a close formation. This would allow the laser communication system to work. We'd be able to talk to each other through this and the 'Clans couldn't break in and track us down. It's a nice feature, however there is one small hitch-you have to be very close to the next guy to enable it and you have to be lined up too.

Once everyone was settled in, I reported to the CP command. My orders came on the CRM-114:
WELCOME WING TWO, 357 GYRUSS SQUADRON, FIGHTER GROUP 13 TO CHARLIE-PAPA NINER ONE ZERO. YOU ARE ALLOWED SLEEP/REST FOR 04 HOURS. YOUR NEXT MISSION WILL FOLLOW AFTER THE REST-PERIOD.

Wouldn't you know it, just as I was about to rest when...
"Texas, this is Shogun. You've been out voted!" laughed Yoshiki.
"What??????????" I said.
"Yeah Texas, confession is good for the soul. So tell the Rev!" said Andrew.
By now the rest of the wing were on to it too.
"Da, no secrets now Texas!" exclaimed Bear and Czar.
"I suppose pulling rank wouldn't go over well right about now?" I said.
I got the well-known New York cheer.
"Okay!" I said, sighing. "It was near the end of my unit's tour of duty and we were doing work at Base San Diego. I was operating a 20-ton water truck to carry water to the sites. I had just taken on a full load and wouldn't you know it, I got stuck on an incline. What made it even worse was that the water was coming out the back and the truck started to slide backwards! When Brian came to see what was up, I had my hands on the controls so tight that they almost needed a crowbar to get them off. I had frozen in panic when the truck had started to go backwards on me. Brian was able to get the truck to the top on the hill, while I had been so mad at myself I had thrown my helmet in disgust."
"So, the truth is out!" quipped Rev.
"And later that day when I was making my journal entry they came by and joked about what I was writing in it. Stuff like "And they had to pry my white knuckled hands off the controls son" and other things like that. I was teased about that for the remainder of the tour." I explained.
"Our great and fearless wing leader got a truck stuck!" laughed Czar.
"Hey guys, at least he isn't flying water trucks for the JMF!" joked Shogun.
I even laughed at that one. Well, it was funny now, but back then it hadn't been.
"Alright everyone, we've got about four hours left to rest before our next mission. Use it wisely! See you in a few" I said.
And with that, everyone got quiet, and we entered into a much needed sleep. I made one last check on everyone using the inter-wing video system, and then I drifted off. My thoughts were jumbled for a little while, but I finally relaxed. My thoughts were of home, of a different time, to when my tour of duty for my division at New Texas had just ended. A peaceful time, free from military duty for 11 months. Back home, back with wife and son...
"Well, you certainly made his day. He's all tuckered out!"
"Sorry about that, I knew he was waiting for a flight with me." I said.
"But, going on a couple of orbits right after seeing you from active duty?"
"I guess I got carried away and wanted to please the little guy." then smiling "I couldn't turn him down when I flew back from the armory."
"All he talked about was flying with you while you were gone! He didn't even want to ride his horse at times."
"Well I'm certain that Cornelius and Centurion kept him busy around the ranch." I joked.
"Yes, but that is not the point! Plus, you were away from me! It was an all boys thing you two did."
Slipping my arms around my wife Lori I held her close.
"I missed you. I thought about you a lot when I was duty and at the sites. Thanks so much for the care packages and the constant emails."
"I missed you too. You're welcome for the care packages and emails."
"Te Amo" I whispered gently to her.
"Te Amo too!!!" she said. "You've learned a little haven't you?"
"It kind of goes with being on New Texas doesn't it? Plus the fact that half of my unit is Hispanic means that Spanish is spoken all the time. I just have learned a little slower than most." I said.
"Well you impressed me!" she said.
"Thanks. Oh, and thank you for the welcoming back party too. It was neat seeing my brothers again since they are both so busy here on New Texas. And, your parents were kind enough to break away from their legislative duties. It seems that many people want to break away from Earth here."
"But do you really think the Outer Colonies have a chance to break away?" Lori asked.
"Hmmm," remembering the conversation that had taken a great deal of time earlier, "the Earth Forces were very arrogant towards us while I was duty. We're like some red-headed stepchild to them. They acted like we didn't know how to do our jobs. But the problem is that we only have a population of so many people, all of the Outer Colonies. Earth could raise a force totaling our entire population. But, they would have to occupy each and every planet and settlements on the various moons. Time would be with us, but it wouldn't be easy. Plus, certain Outer Colony planets are totally against freedom from Earth-they would lose all their tax privileges."
"Enough of that talk for now, please? She said.
"No problem! Time to catch up on things here. Starting with you!" I said.
"Yes, you were the Army's for thirty days. Now you're all mine for eleven months!" she whispered.
All I could say was "yes Mam!" kissing her back...

The New Texas night was beautiful and magnificent as Lori and I went outside to enjoy the view. The twin moons cast a glow around everywhere. We did have it very good here. The ranch was doing well, Lori's writings had paid off, and my computer consulting job would be starting up again. The New Texas economy was booming, as was most of the Outer Colonies. Trade was brisk and growing all the more. New Texas had established itself as an exporter of high-tech and agricultural products-especially oil made from special trees and plants. But we were no utopia either. Technology could never cure the human spirit. Crime existed. And, every once and a while, certain colonies would use violence towards each other when diplomacy failed. Mankind had gone to the stars, but his nature followed right beside him. It had been a long time since there had been any major war, and many questioned the existence of the various armies and militias and National Guards and armed forces overall. But, we knew, something wasn't right. I kept my thoughts to myself and didn't tell Lori. Mankind was at peace, mostly, but I just had that feeling deep down. Would it be us versus the Earth? And what would happen to my beloved New Texas during a war? New Texas, New Texas.

Texas! Texas!

The F-911's main computer wakened me. After a few minutes of grogginess and using a little water to clear my eyes I orientated myself to the situation. I had set my alarm about 15 minutes early so I was doing a little prayer and reading to kill some time. I then set to the task of waking the guys up. Not a pleasant job but one I could relish after they forced me to talk about the water truck incident! Revenge can be subtle! I used an old-fashioned alarm sound, and played it loud!

"Greetings gentlemen! I'll relay the next mission to you all while you get awake." I said, with a grin!

SQUADRON 357. DEPART CHARLIE-PAPA NINER ONE ZERO IN 10 MINUTES. HEAD TO SECTOR NINER-NINER-ZERO-EIGHT AT TOP SPEED. ANTICIPATE ENEMY ACTION EN ROUTE. STRENGTH OF ENEMY FORCES UNKNOWN AT THIS TIME. MAINTAIN EMCON AND DEPLOY DRONES AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION. HAPPY HUNTING.

I engaged the F-911's systems and double checked all internal diagnostics. My bird was ready to fly and kill! I then punched in our sector destination and waited for the guys to acknowledge their F-911's coming online.

"Wing Two, 357th Squadron. Report" I said.
"Shogun, online"
"Rev, online"
"Bear, online"
"Czar, online"
"Alright then, let's go! Assume attack formation!" I said leading the way.

And in a very short time, CP 910 was history and behind us.

At first it seemed that this run was going to be just like the last, boring with no contacts at all. The first four hours seemed to drag on and on. But then we heard the following:
"Any units, major 'Clan forces in sector Niner-Niner-Zero-Eight-Romeo-Foxtrot."
That was a very precise location in a large area of space. But, I waited to respond, not wanting to break EMCON. Then the following came up:
"I authenticate; Tango-Charlie-Four-Five-Zulu-Echo-Alpha."
The authentication was right on!

"Weapons check!" I said to the F-911's systems. I didn't have to tell the others because they knew what to do, that's training for you-in times of stress you fall back on what you are used to doing.
"Weapons online." replied the F-911.
"Drone status?" I asked.
"Drone is now ready for launch." replied the F-911.
"Drone away, sector Niner-Niner-Zero-Eight-Romeo-Foxtrot." I ordered.

The drone was launched in front of us, giving the signature of a full fighter squadron. For ten full minutes we headed towards that specific location, at maximum speed. Ten very tense minutes as we all watched our sensors, ten minutes to not think, just respond by instinct.

We didn't wait long after that.

Our sensors lit up with 'Clan contacts that the drone sent back to us. I knew immediately this was going to be ugly, very ugly very fast-hundreds of contacts! I launched a jammer just before the 'Clans blew the drone to atoms.

The 'Clans had expected a full squadron and had given away their position in destroying the drone. We had about five seconds of surprise. Enough for a Slingshot volley.

"Fox one, Slingshot away!" we all said.

About twenty 'Clan fighters evaporated as the missiles struck home and caused others to crash into each other. An all out fight broke out. I lit up a whole formation of 'Clan fighters, on my own, then I heard the warnings from the F-911 systems. This was bad.

"Shit-there's a whole bunch more of them." I said to the wing.
"Texas, we've stumbled onto a major fighter base here." exclaimed Bear.
"Everyone execute extreme Death Spiral. Fire all you got." I told them.

It was intense. We surprised them first with our drone. Then they repeated the honor by revealing their full strength. I got into that tunnel-vision feeling. The kind where you go by instinct and training. They were going at us in mass-no one on one here at all. I had to be careful, that I didn't overheat the main guns. I had one Slingshot left, and I didn't want to use it until I really had to.
That time came fast.
"Texas, everyone, I can't shake them!!!" screamed Shogun.
The 'Clan group, about five, was hot on Yoshiki's tail. I destroyed a group of 'Clan fighters and sped away to help him. Bear and Rev were right behind me.
"Hang on Shogun! We're almost there!" I said.
"I'm hit!!!" his voice breaking in panic.
Shogun's F-911 took a hit to the starboard side. The plasma blasts by a 'Clan fighter had taken out his main guns. Worse yet, his main power system was rapidly going. He was losing speed!

"I got you Shogun, it's not your time yet." I told him.
I fired my Slingshot at the lead 'Clan fighter. I aimed it to knock of his wing and to cause him to crash into a couple of others.
"Bear, Rev fire your Slingshots." I ordered.
Fortunately, they each had one left.
"Slingshots away" they said.
We then got in close and let loose a mass of firepower at the remaining 'Clans. We got vicious with the rest of them. I can't tell you how many times we came close to overheating. It didn't matter, we had become killers, predators ripping their prey unmercifully. Bear and Rev watched over Shogun while Czar and I ripped the 'Clans a new one. Finally I lined up at the last 'Clan fighter. I fired my guns so far up his wazoo I didn't even need to double tag him. He was toast, extra burnt. Then, it was over.

The battle had lasted only seven minutes.

I must have aged a dozen years in the process! 'Clan debris was everywhere. Several hundred 'Clan fighters had engaged us. Not one got through, but it had been a very close thing for us.
"Shogun, what's your status?" I asked.
"I've shut down my main systems. Hull integrity is at eighty percent, but I am okay. Engines will last only for the landing. I'm going to need a tug." Shogun replied.
Wow, he was one lucky pilot.
"Texas, we'll tug Shogun, you and Czar guard us." said Bear and Rev.
"Sounds good. I've reported to the 'Lex. They want us back ASAP. We're heading straight for her. Our course has been sent to all your nav computers. Bear and Rev link up and tug Shogun. Czar and I got your six. Let's go home." I said.

It was a long, quiet three hours back to the 'Lex.

Boy did the hull of the 'Lex ever look so appealing after that first Dawn Patrol! After Bear and Rev disengaged from Shogun, he fired his engines and was able to land. We all stayed a little behind him first-the fire crews and maintenance squads took control of his craft and made certain nothing was going to blow. Then, we got the all clear to land. Chief McCleod informed us that he and his crew would have Shogun's F-911 back up and running in about 24 hours. We'd have some time off!

Debriefing went well. We passed on all of the video telemetry to Intel and we also learned what other wings had sniffed out. We had run into a major 'Clan base, buried deep in one of those small and distant outer moons of Uranus. We were also informed of the major ground campaigns that even as we spoke, were ongoing. Five armies were involved, with two in reserve, each for the largest moons in the Uranus system; Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Oberon, and Titania. We chuckled at the names of the generals in charge of each invasion, history had indeed proven a mistress of the unusual and ironic: Zhukov, Patton, Rommel, Montgomery, and Schwarzkopf. Generals Washington and the Duke of Marlborough led the reserve armies.

Two days later, after rest and some simulation time, we were assigned to another Dawn Patrol. We met David and some of his wing in the Mess Hall. I had stopped by Intel earlier and it looked very quiet. Which if you haven't learned by now, is always subject to change.

Away we were again! This time, the entire 36 hour mission was as exciting as watching grass grow. All of us in the wing agreed, that must have been the longest day and a half of our lives. More so because we were also updated as to what other sectors were up to. Quiet for us, long days in hell for others.

After we arrived back on the 'Lex, a troop transport made a "hard" landing on our bay. All of us helped with bringing the wounded out, and also the ones who had left this life for a better one behind. One of the soldiers I helped off was a Gunnery Sergeant Butler. He had been badly wounded in the leg and was cursing between each breath. His arm patch was the crossed armored fist and sword-Zhukov's Army! He filled us in as he was being worked on:
"Four of the moons have been taken. Ouch! Damn that hurts!" he said.
"Titania was a disaster! Montgomery was totally wiped out! They just overwhelmed them. No one got off Titania alive!" he continued, letting loose a whole barrage of curses with his southern accent. The medics then took him away.

A setback! An entire JMF army wiped out on the moon of Titania. Titania had to be taken, it was the largest in the Uranus system. We all looked at ourselves, we couldn't be stopped here! We later learned from others that Montgomery's attitude had been over confident. It cost him, and his entire army, their lives!

At another debriefing, we learned of a mystery of two lone 'Clan fighters, and a very badly damaged frigate. When David's wing had come upon them, the ship had already been hammered hard, he and his guys took care of it. But the question was, just who had hit it?

We had other Dawn Patrols as well. Most were very boring for us, typical it seemed. While the JMF was blasting Titania and landing the forces of the Duke of Marlborough, with Washington in the second wave, we were doing Dawn Patrols. Of course now, looking back, they were boring. You see, when you jump mere squadrons of 'Clan fighters it's a lot less exciting than being outnumbered sixty to one!

But the funny thing for us, the 357th, was that except for a very special mission, we didn't fight together. After one briefing, we were told by Chuppa and Col. Bonca that they would meet US in our squad bay. David, Shawn, and I walked back wondering what we had done wrong. Once we were there, the two walked in and informed us that we had been volunteered for a very special mission.

"We were told to get the very best for his mission." said Col. Bonca.
"There seems to be a lone 'Clan fighter, specially equipped and armored, who is attacking the medical shuttles and destroying them. Just one it seems. And the pilot leaves a calling card after each attack: a skull and crossbones on the medical video frequencies." added Chuppa.
"We are going to send all of you guys on a mission to hunt down this pilot." Col. Bonca said, adding "You will escort a medical mission into his sector, the shuttles will act as if they are carrying lots of wounded and have encountered heavy damage."
"Sir, we think we know how we can pull this off." said David, Shawn, and I.
"Go on, explain." Col. Bonca inquired.
"You see, we still are flying bombers unescorted, medical shuttles give off a lot more signatures than bombers do so that would explain why this 'Clan pilot can track and attack them." I said.
The Colonel nodded and listened. Steve then continued.
"Eric, Andy, and I have come up with an idea. What you would do is hide an F-911 under the bomber, or in this case a shuttle, the signatures of the craft would make our fighters invisible to the sensors of the 'Clan attackers. We know it will be tricky since the two will have to be connected and then released at the last moment but we believe that it will give us the necessary shock and the escort protection that the bombers, or the medical shuttles, will need." Steve said.
"Very, very clever. What do you think Major?" asked Col. Bonca.
"If anyone can do this, then these guys will." replied Chuppa. We nearly died from his answer!
"We'll talk to Chief McCleod about having his crew rig up magnetic hooks to hold us in place, then releasing us to attack this 'Clan pilot. Just how many shuttles has this pilot destroyed?" we asked.
"Eighty shuttles, nearly three thousand wounded who could have made it, all annihilated." Col. Bonca answered. And then he added "including, one of my own sons!!!"

We all resolved, we would hunt down and kill this "Butcher of Uranus!" We would do it as a team, the 357th versus this pilot! We all got that "look" in our eyes as we made our plans. This was personal, and we did some quick simulation time to test our idea. Chief McCleod and his gang installed fifteen medical shuttles with magnetic hooks. We just had a small piece of metal attacked to us, it would be simple-cut the power to the magnets and we would fly away! We would have nothing but our pulse cannons for this, anything else could give us away. We got ready, did things that got us focused, and then the big day arrived. While the offensive on Titania was going full tilt, and all of the attention was on that, fifteen medical shuttles launched from the 'Lex. One single squadron of F-911 Gyruss fighters were then launched. If one could have seen it, they would have hardly believed their eyes-fifteen fighters then flying very close to the shuttles and actually connecting to them! Somebody out there was going to be in for a shock! And, there was going to be hell to pay!!!

The shuttles arrived at their meeting point, then a couple of bombers joined them. The bombers were in fine shape, but as we continued on they gave off signals of battle damage! The ruse even included a few drones sending out massive amounts of "chatter" on all possible frequencies. This was one well planned trick!

All of us in the 357th just had to wait. We didn't have our sensors engaged and only our weapons were activated, that would have given us away. Well, we didn't have to wait long! Suddenly, and without warning, one of the bombers exploded! And then the other was hit by this 'Clan pilot! He had ignored the drones but went for the kill of the bombers. You could tell he was smelling blood after the attack went so well. Except for one thing, that all of us in the 357th knew, the bombers were remotely piloted! They had been the bait!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"Fighters away!" said the mission leader.
Instantly we activated our sensors and headed towards the 'Clan fighter!
"Texas, bogey dead ahead!" yelled Swiss.
"Got 'em! Letting loose!" I replied.
My pulse cannons struck the 'Clan on his left wing and engine.
"Break hard left Texas." said Jarhead.
Breaking hard left I gave an opening, my wing opened fire at the 'Clan fighter. My guys riddled his cabin with cannon pulses.
"You guys finish this SOB!" I said.
"One and Three, let 'em have it." said Swiss and Jarhead.
In a matter of seconds, this 'Clan fighter became atomized as ten F-911's lit him up. Game over for him!
"357th, report." asked the mission leader.
"1st wing all here!"
"2nd wing all here"
"3rd wing all here"
"Well done! Looks like this 'Clan stuck his neck out one last time and you guys cut it off! Head back to the 'Lex! Oh, looks like Col. Bonca wants to say something. Go ahead Colonel!" said the mission leader.
"Squadron 357, 13th Fighter Group. What you just did was incredibly brave. This 'Clan fighter has also been linked to many of our own fighter losses. Your willingness to take a risk on a mission like this, and to use a totally different tactic, says volumes about you. Those who were killed by this butcher can at least allow their families closure. I knew you guys were the ones to do this! Bravo Zulu! Well Done!"

And with that, we headed back to the 'Lex and at full speed!

Arriving back we were greeted by quite a few people. This 'Clan fighter had been a real thorn in the JMF's side! It also felt good to avenge all those people too, especially Col. Bonca's son. I had thought about what it might have been if my own son had been killed by that 'Clan pilot. I guess that is why I was so aggressive and fired the first shot.

We had a final briefing for the Uranus Campaign. The mission we had been on was kept low-key. We found out that Titania was brutally conquered by the Duke of Marlborough who had trapped 250,000 'Clan soldiers and eliminated them with a variety of weapons. General Washington had feinted and caused the 'Clan army to follow him into a very well laid trap! As for us fighter pilots, Uranus had been a long, hard campaign. One thing that cheered us up was that the JMF was starting to escort bombers and that two very special carriers had been tasked for this. The F-911 squadrons were also to receive training from the more experienced squadrons-including using us! It looked like the Saturn Campaign was going to be very different from the first two! Finally, at the end of the briefing, Col. Bonca said "The Uranus Campaign was a..."
"Pain in the ass, sir!" yelled out Shawn!
For thirty minutes, we laughed! Weeks of being on edge and stressed fell away! Boy were we so glad it was over-for now!

We were all giddy as we got back to our squad bay. In the center was a large group of CARE packages! Nicholas passed around a bunch of Newcastles and we enjoyed them thoroughly! I and a bunch of my guys were sharing the latest email news from our families when Rocky burst in, all excited!
"I did it!" he exclaimed.
"Did what?" asked Steve.
"I got accepted for pilot training at Paradise! I leave on the next shuttle going to Fleet Command!" and he added "And it says that my DI is some Gunnery Sergeant Fryberger."
"Well, you got the best DI! Congrats Rocky!" said Shawn.
"Yeah Rocky, you sure deserve this!" I said, then sneaking around him.
"Hey Rocky, we have to celebrate this most important event!" quipped David.
"Thanks guys, you made all the difference in this." said Rocky, not knowing what was going to happen next.
"Grab him!" I said, being the first to do so.
"What the..."
"Time to celebrate in the pool Rocky!" said Andy.
Andy, Shawn, and I were the first to grab Rocky. Then the other twelve helped to pick him up and carry Rocky through the passage ways to the pool. Even though he was outnumbered fifteen to one, Rocky still fought it! When we got to the pool, he held on to a bunch of us as we tossed him in! Flight suits and all! And when a bunch of our guys were laughing at us, David pushed them into the water! Soon Eric and Steve grabbed David and the three took a dip too! Moments like this were just too good to pass up!

It ended rather abruptly as Chuppa stormed in.
"What the heck is this? And in your flight suits as well?" he fumed.
"I have the wing leaders from the 332nd in my office waiting to be trained by the so-called best and here you are fooling around! You are all a disgrace to the JMF!!!" he yelled.
"Kurtz, Kryton, and McConnel come into my office, as you are, now!"
And with that he left.

J.W.K.

COMING SOON

Chapter Four
"Saturn: Enter, The Dogs of War"






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