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Videogame Fan Fiction

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

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

I had a bad feeling about Saturn. Most of us did, even if nobody bothered to say it loud: you're not supposed to be superstitious, not in this day and age, but soldiers and sailors (and spacers) are a superstitious lot and no amount of high-tech can change that. 357th had survived Neptune and Uranus unscathed, and luck is a fickle lady: It couldn't last and Saturn would be one hard nut to crack.
To begin with, the enemy was well aware of our coming this time and had had ample time to prepare; on Uranus, the 'Clans still had doubts if we were either fortifying Neptune and use it as a bridgehead for a larger force or move ahead, but by now they had figured out that JMF was invading in force. Saturn was one of the major Ideoclan strongholds, and most of the moons had held bases before the war, so we were in for a tough one.

Intelligence, for once, had stopped being optimistic and predicting "little enemy activity". We had fired a good number of probes in the past days and through some spy work of our own (Intel had still to learn that nosy pilots can be very resourceful) we had managed to see enough of it to understand what was coming, and spent the days before the attack researching new tactics and trying them out in the simulator. At the pre-flight brief we knew we had been wise. Colonel Bonca hammered the facts in our thick heads clearly enough.

"Well, gentlemen. I'm not about to kid you: Saturn is not going to be a cakewalk. You know it and I know it and the Ideoclans know it: if we take it, we'll have secured the biggest foothold in the Solar System yet, and once we have it reinforced we'll have plenty of support behind us. If we don't, we're done for and don't fall for any 'strategic retreat' wordplay because we don't have enough power for another assault. If we can't take Saturn, we can't hold Uranus or Neptune. If we can't hold, we'll have to turn back and wait for the 'Clans to come for the Colonies. Now that the matter is perfectly clear I want you all to forget about it and concentrate on the mission.

"You already know the details because you have had plenty of time with your squadron officers before and you don't need me to confuse you further, but basically it boils down to this: apparently, our stealth bombers aren't as stealthy as they're cracked up to be, or the 'Clans know something we don't. Since we haven't managed to capture much of their technology intact and they don't let themselves be taken as prisoners, we don't know yet but the situation doesn't change: the bombers are sitting ducks and this is where you come in."

He drew a deep breath and worked the lightboard controls, displaying a tactical combined formation in animated graphics. "From now on, you escort them in and out, and this means you hold formation at all times, and you make good use of your BVR weapons. We have secured a full complement of Spearhead missiles for each F-911…"

Applause and cheers broke out. Bonca waited until the room was silent once more and went on: "… Full complement, I said, so there's no excuse to spread out and get into the furball unless there is an absolute necessity. Killing 'Clans is not going to win this war, gentlemen. There are too many of them. We've got to take their bases, intact or not, and destroy their capability to fight. They can't fight but in groups, and once their C&C structure is gone, they're gone too.

"Once you have escorted the bombers home you land, refuel, rearm and off you go again. We're flying 'round the clock and everything is timed so don't linger around. We can't afford any of you coming back late because an unescorted bomber flight is a dead bomber flight and we can't wait for you to be ready while we launch them. If you're there in time fine, you get launched along with the bombers and all is well. If you don't, the bombers go their way all the same but without a Gyruss escort a lot of families back home are going to receive a visit from the chaplain and the blame's on you - got it?"
He didn't wait for an answer - there could be none - and went on: "Now, the 'tech crews have worked out a way to fast-load the missiles on your crafts while you're still in the landing bay. It's unproven and risky because you'll have to do it with engines running so the weapons' bus will be hot and the last thing we need is a Spearhead going off inside the ship. With the gear down it shouldn't happen but Murphy's Law dictates that you can't be too careful, so as soon as you land and the crews get to work on your fighters, you put your hands on the canopy and leave them there until the chief says otherwise. Refueling with the engine on is also tricky, but there will be a fire crew ready before you touch down. Just keep your cool and don't forget to throw off the shield switch, because we already had one arcing accident, and just one is one too many even if there have been no casualties. The bay is going to be laden with explosives and flammable stuff and that's scary enough."
The briefing went on longer than usual and when at last it was time to head off to prepare, we were getting the feeling this time was going to be different. I felt edgier than usual, but I hoped we would all cool off when strapped to our seats. Usually it went that way.

* * *

Back into my cabin, I got my personal kit out. Pilots are allowed some leeway in their gear and people like to carry around items of various usefulness, like their favorite songs in solid-memory form (not that they could listen to them, you can't hook a mem player to the helmet's comm unit) or pictures of their loved ones. There was a Japanese guy who always carried a wakizashi, a long knife, and this only because there wasn't room for a katana in the cockpit. Me, I always take my Swiss Army Knife, which is virtually useless because we are issued a survival knife that is meant to cut the safety harness and to break the cockpit seals in case of emergency and not much else, really. There were no lush alien jungles where we were headed. I also carried a combination first aid/shaving kit, which was absurd because JMF had issued us an excellent medipack, but Swiss soldiers always carry them as a force of habit. And there was the camera, a compact one with a nice zoom objective which I had bought at Paradise PX with the purpose of taking pictures to send home.

There was other stuff too, like a camo stick that somehow found the way into the leg pockets of my flight suit, fire-starting kit (it had caused some concern of fire hazard among the tech crews, who had also asked me to leave behind any non-regs signal flares), a canteen (never go anywhere without water), my Army-issued gyrocompass, and binoculars.

When I had left for Paradise, I was allowed to bring my personal gear with me (as is customary with Swiss soldiers) but I had to leave any Corps' stuff behind, like the binoculars. The Swiss Army binoculars are truly excellent, with light amplifier and IR imager built in, and a fuzzy logic image-analyzing rangefinder that is a little less accurate than the laser or microwave used in some other services, but it doesn't give away your position. At Paradise, I had ordered a pair of binoculars from an e-store, and had them delivered via field mail; they were simple opticals, electronically stabilized 10X50 glasses with an old-fashioned superimposed reticule to calculate range and distance. They were an EVA-cleared version, ruggedized for harsh environmental conditions and fitted with adaptive eyepieces that made it possible to use them while wearing an EVA suit, just as long as your helmet was one of the modern "faceplate" models; the Gyruss flight suit fortunately had a faceplate helmet, in case I needed to do some bird watching in-flight and the on-board camera wasn't working. Mostly I had used the binoculars on the range but they were small and compact and I didn't feel comfortable without them around, so into the cockpit they went.

I checked my M2111 sidearm. It's a nice weapon with excellent stopping power and has been in service a long time, although it had yet to be tested on a live Ideoclan, something pilots weren't exactly keen to do, especially after seeing some video footage of a ground battle on Oberon, one of Uranus' moons. Ground troops had to fight hard for every centimeter and ended up clearing the 'Clan base room by room: the enemy never considered surrendering and when the last of them had been cornered into a subsidiary comms center, they started firing grenades at point-blank range. No one of them had been caught alive. I remember reading about suicide terrorists in history books and I never quite believed that there could be people willing to die just as long as they could take other with them, but the Ideoclans changed my perspective and I had no doubts that if I ever, ever came face-to-face with one of them, I'd have to take them out fast and no qualms about it. That was another reason to practice with our sidearms every day and to keep them in perfect efficiency.

Then came the medikit. Nice little sealed package, with everything you may need from gauze and band-aids to universal antibiotics and antivirals, to antitoxine compounds and nerve gas antidote. There's even a complete surgical set inside but since you don't find many surgeons in fighter squadrons, it's probably not much use. It's the same stuff issued to ground troops, the rationale being that if a trooper gets wounded, the medic staff can use his own kit on him, which saves medical supplies for when they're needed badly.

The last item I picked up was the Becky. The Rescue-Emergency Beacon/Locator is a handheld device combining a coded transceiver with a locator beacon; truly a lifesaver if you ever get into trouble because this baby lets you communicate with your buddies and allows them to home in on your position, and it's encrypted so the enemy can't eavesdrop. The official name is R-EB/C, pronounced as "Rebec" but some homesick pilot had re-christened it "Rebecca" long ago, and it's been henceforth known as "Becky".

* * *

"Oh, damn!" That's the first think I said when I saw my F-911 readied for launch. I had been happy to see the missile rails fully loaded with Spearhead missiles, but as soon as I saw the craft's tail, I couldn't miss the big, cylindrical object protruding just below the engine nozzle.
"Well, sir, I'm sorry but that's orders." The tech chief said almost apologetically.
"Any way to remove it?"

"Sorry. Would take an hour. You could jettison it after launch but I'd rather hold onto it. You may never know when it could come useful. And it's the new model anyway, shouldn't give you trouble."
I gave a sad look to the thing - a solid rocket booster that had been a recent addition to the Gyruss' growing arsenal of useful and not-so-useful gadgets. The MkVII SRB had been conceived to give pilots an "edge" to get out of hairy situations like being surrounded by enemy fighters or ambushed by a larger ship while away from reinforcement. Once engaged, the thing would fire for 30 seconds, accelerating the fighter away from the danger area; the manufacturer boasted that it could take a Gyruss to escape velocity from the Sun even with all the other systems dead.

In theory it sounded like a cool piece of equipment but reality was another matter: pilots have an unofficial 1 to 10 scale for rating gizmos, with 1 being 'relatively safe' and 10 being 'extremely dangerous', and the MkVII rated a solid 15. It was said to be really able to bring a pilot out of a dangerous situation all right - in pieces. It had been tried around a dozen of times by now, mainly in the long patrols during interplanetary travel when two-ship flights were the rule, and though there had been no casualties the SRB had performed as advertised only twice. In the other cases, it had either malfunctioned and shut off prematurely or simply cracked and exploded like a badly assembled firecracker. Pilots had taken the habit of claiming a malfunction during the post-launch continuity check so that they could jettison the damn thing and be done with it.

This time around we'd be required to keep them, to give us some flexibility in the first attack wave, in case some bombers needed help ASAP. Out of respect for the bombers' crews, we'd hold onto the boosters with the secret hope that a continuity check would show them to be defective so we could trash them without remorse. There was no way to fit a booster to a Gyruss during the short refuel/rearm routine.

I climbed into the cockpit, put the helmet on and engaged the self-test routine, then re-checked manually just to show the tech people that I cared about their work even if I couldn't do it if I lived a thousand years. As soon as I gave the OK sign, I lowered and locked the canopy and felt the small tug as the fighter was loaded on the catapult elevator. This time it felt rougher.

* * *

Saturn saw the largest coordinated launch of the campaign: with thousands of spacecrafts all taking off simultaneously, it was a wonder nobody crashed. As soon as 357th cleared the cats, we joined up and headed off to shadow the bomber wings; we were supposed to strike the 'Clan base on Rhea, then come back and reinforce the attack on Iapetus, with the bombers rearmed with close-support weapons. It was odd that a crucial stronghold like Saturn had been so sparsely settled, only half of its moons hosting bases and the largest one, Titan, completely untouched. Most of the outpost were either orbiting Saturn or sitting at the LaGrange points.

Titan was the largest of Saturn's moons and the biggest one in the Solar System after the Jovian moon Ganymede; it also had a thick atmosphere which was probably the reason both the Earth Space Forces and the Ideoclans and left it alone: breathable, Earth-like atmospheres were extremely rare. Most worlds had toxic or corrosive atmosphere or both, and some suffered from so severe a greenhouse effect that their surfaces were blasted deserts heated to above 400 °C. Spacers have a saying, "better no atmosphere than bad atmosphere" and everyone agreed with that. At least vacuum only exposed you to hard rad and micrometeoroids and we knew how to deal with them; and vacuum is easier on space vehicles - no drag and no corrosion. No wonder Titan, with its thick methane cover, had been passed on. The only presence there, according to our briefing, was a research station that had been abandoned during the 'Clan invasion.

We hit Rhea fast and hard, coming up from behind the short horizon so that the bomber crews had to release their ordnance at minimum range.

"Hey, boss, did you see that?" Cellini asked through the intership channel. The missiles that had struck the Ideoclan base must have hit some sort of ammo dump because a large secondary (and soundless) explosion had flashed up sending debris everywhere. I felt something hitting the shield but no damage-warning indicator came up.

"Bandits! Bandits! One o'clock, 5 down!" The lead bomber reported in. The 'Clan fighters were coming up from behind Rhea. I saw the first dots coming up on my scope and locked on the first one. One after one, the rest of the wing reported locked and ready and I gave the order to fire. Calls of "Fox Three" went out but we immediately switched to guns: the incoming bogeys must have been either a vanguard or a long-range patrol because they were caught by surprise and were not numerous: they were wiped out in about 30 seconds.

The bomber wing turned tail and headed off the Lex, while we turned around to spot any incoming bogeys. Nothing came out on the screens but the squadron's channel was alive with calls so the battle was well on; we formed on the bombers, spread out and waited.

"Jeez, that was fast." I heard someone comment on the wings' net. We were supposed to maintain close comms discipline but the channel was encrypted and, anyway, broadcasting to enforce silence was a contradiction in itself.

My wing then assumed a loose combat formation. Nothing on the scope so I felt like doing some sightseeing and turned around a little to watch the Rings. I had already seen them from the Lexington's scopes but being there and see them in person was another thing. Other planets had a ring system, but Saturn had been the first one known to mankind: the immense fields of debris circling the gas giant had awed astronomers for centuries. Some of them would have gladly given an arm and a leg to be at my place. Couldn't blame them.

"Bandits. Bandits at 12 o'clock, straight ahead!" the call shook me out of my reverie. There was a huge cloud of enemy ships just in front of us just then another craft came up just in front and above my fighter's nose. Lining up for another launch, I noticed a small blip just at the edge of the screen. As soon as the missiles cleared the rails, I turned into the new target and interrogated it on the IFF - which came back negative as was expected. Nobody kept their IFF squawking until in range of the respective mothership. It could have been a stray bomber, or transport - not a Gyruss fighter because it returned too large a signal. As I wondered what I could have been, the blip flashed showing separation. Instantly, the warning signal came on: "Warning: missile. Warning: missile."

"One, Fox Three!" I locked and launched my last missile at the target then popped a decoy and turned around. Usually, Ideoclan missile automatically locked before launch and their sensors couldn't discriminate well if a decoy was dropped into their flight path. With 60 seconds before impact, I veered as far as I could away from the rest of the wing so that it wouldn't re-lock on someone else and fired another decoy.

The Spearhead was far faster than anything on the 'Clan inventory: my kill counter went up one, indicating a direct hit. Yet, the blip was still there - maybe the ship was dead but had not exploded. I had half a mind to go there and blast it but I could not leave formation. Besides, there was still the enemy ahead.

The Ideoclan fighters were all gone and their support ships were on fire, but they fought on: a hail of pulse cannon fire quickly silenced any crippled ship that flew away out of control before exploding. Self-destruct, I thought.

At that moment, the Missile Warning sign came out again and something pounded my F-911 hard. I was thrown forward by the impact and lost control, but the flight computer managed to level me before I could crash into another craft. As soon as I get myself together again, the display was alive with warning signs.

Okay, let's not panic I thought distractly while I went over the checklist. I was still alive and in one piece, so it couldn't have been a direct hit. Maybe debris from the exploding frigate, maybe that missile had still been on my tail after all…

"Leader, are you OK?" Came my wingman's voice of the intership channel.
"Yeah. I took a hit. Give me a moment." Avionics checked OK, so did life support. But the shield was off and wouldn't come on again. Maybe the coil had been damaged.

The internal diagnostics kept resetting itself - bad sign. Usually, when a Gyruss is damaged, the computer immediately signals the offending item and automatically shunts power off it and to the auxiliary system - everything is redundant but the pilot. But in this case something really bad must have happened because no auxiliary system was coming online - which meant I had massive damage somewhere that the computer couldn't point out. I switched to manual and checked. Propulsion was working, but temperature on the engine core was rising, which meant a loss of coolant; microhydraulics was fifty-fifty, with part of the actuators responding slowly; weapons were online, but the continuity check on both the port gun and left wing bus was erratical. Since the port gun capacitor is directly tied into the internal main power bus (so that you can use the capacitor's charge to restart the engine if it comes offline) that meant I had a malfunction on the power distribution system - which also accounted for the microhydraulics not working properly and the shield checking OK but not energizing.
"Two, can you take a look at my craft?" I asked. I heard two clicks then Cellini's F-911 turned down and towards me. Some instants later he reported.

"Uh, leader, you have some sort of hole just left of the engine. No burn-through, must be a missile hit. It has knocked out part of the nozzle and you're losing coolant. Looks like the shield coil got hit, too. I'm sending the feed to your channel now."

I switched the display on the video feed channel so that I could see what Cellini was watching through the on-board camera. The IR picture showed where the impact had shorn off part of the ablative armour, taking out almost the entire left tail section. Were it not for the shield which had absorbed part of the kinetic energy and deflected the projectile some, it would have probably gone straight through the engine and blown me to kingdom come.

"Thanks, Two. Rejoin formation." I waited until Cellini was back and away then tried to turn the Gyruss around. It responded sluggishly and the self-stabilization was slow. I would have had a hard time landing.

Another signal came on: the engine's core temperature was rising too fast and would approach critical in about three minutes. "Two, take the lead. I have to switch to emergency power." Throwing the switch that shut off the reactor, I felt the craft going oddly quiet - the slight vibration that is almost imperceptible fading to nothing as the core went cold. Battery was on, but without the reactor my thrust was severely limited.

"Leader, we're about fifteen minutes from base." Cellini signaled. Fifteen minutes at nominal thrust, of course. I had only inertia keeping me going and if the wing had to accelerate I had no way to follow.
I looked forward and up. We were approaching Titan, its large mass all but filling the sky. Its gravity pull was negligible, but the computer flashed some trajectory changes in case I wanted to keep a safer distance.

The fighter lurched a little and another warning came up. "Two, I just lost primary attitude control."
"Roger, Leader. Consider ejection."

Loss of primary thrust and attitude control means you're essentially a big bullet with little way of controlling your trajectory. In this case, you're more of a target and a danger to other ships than anything else. I sure couldn't land - I would have probably either crashed into Lex's side or, worse, into the hangar bay. If I ejected now, the F-911's self-destruct system would have blown the fighter to smithereens before it could pose a threat, and I would have only had to wait rescue in my cockpit pod.
It was the sensible thing to do, but I didn't like it. Losing the craft was bad enough, but having to wait until the end of the battle inside a floating capsule was worse: I would have been a sitting duck with a large SHOOT ME sign painted on. Maybe…

I punched a few commands into the computer and a range-and-bearing readout came on. Looked like the small research station on Titan was still on the air, if only for the automatic beacon. At least I had a reference point. Another couple of clicks and a ground map of Titan along with range and descent curve data appeared. Well, it looked feasible. If only I could kill some of my velocity…
With my engine out, there was no way I could slow myself down but there was another way. I called up some data specs, punched some more commands into the computer and finally had a plan. "Two, this is Leader. Take command as of now."
"Leader, this is Two. State intention."
"Two, you're Leader now. Bring them to the Lex. Come and get me as soon as it's over."
"Roger that, one. I'll check your ejection. Stand by for safety clearing."
"Negative, Leader. I'm not ejecting. Separating now." I fired the maneuvering thrusters and turned my Gyruss away from the wing.
"One, state intention." Cellini asked again.
I breathed deeply. "I'm landing on Titan."
"One-One, please reconsider."
"Two, I'm in no shape to keep going. I'm counting on you folks in case someone decides to drop any heavies on Titan." Although there was no 'Clan activity on Titan, I needed to make sure nobody would think of "sanitizing" the surface by orbital bombardment.
"Roger that. I'll escort you to orbit and see you down."
"Copy that." I had made dozens of simulated landings on the Gyruss but none with total thrust and attitude control failure. I just had to hope my plan would work…
Titan was now filling my cockpit view. The pale yellow globe cast a strange light on my instruments, but I could still read them. I turned around the F-911 into a tail-first position.
"Two, get some room." I called on the ship-to-ship channel. "If this thing goes wrong, I don't want you anywhere near." I reached down to the control panel marked special equipment.
"Leader, what are you doing?"
"I've got to kill off some speed. Without the engine, I've got to use the SRB." I broke open the seal on the firing switch cover.
"This is madness, One."
It probably was. Well, the whole situation was crazy anyway. "I know. Ten seconds to firing." Cellini's fighter veered off and stopped just outside the danger area.
Here goes nothing I thought flipping the cover. On my display, the countdown reached zero. I pushed the button all the way.

And nothing happened. What the… Then I remembered that there was a built-in safety feature that engaged the SRB only after a 2-seconds push of the firing switch. A small eternity later, I felt the kick of the solid rocket booster.

I held my breath waiting for the explosion, and shifted my finger to the jettison switch: the velocity indicator on the HUD was going down fast - I had to slow down enough for Titan's gravity to pull me down. On the main display, I watched the Gyruss' trajectory curve going from an almost flat line passing near the large moon to a curve angling around it, and finally to a falling parable. Time to get rid of the booster: I hit the jettison switch and felt the thump! as the rocket separated.

Immediately I turned the F-911 around with my nose forward. I was really going down! A quick check on the flight data confirmed that I was heading down, only slightly away from my intended trajectory. A quick correction was all I needed. HUD to planetfall. Radar mode to look-down.
"One, you're on your way down. I'm heading home. See ya on the Lex. I'll keep you a cold one in store. Good luck!"
"Roger, Two. See you on the Lex. Make it a six-pack. Out!" I tried to sound cocky but the truth is that I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't just made a big mistake. Titan's atmosphere was rushing up to greet me. I hit the shield switch and turned it off for good - no sense risking - and punched in the ERASE ALL command on the CRM-114. Now in the unfortunate event the enemy recovered my fighter, they wouldn't be able to recover any code and frequency data.

The fighter lurched and jumped as I hit the atmosphere. The control surfaces were responding well enough but I couldn't see the ground so I switched the radar to look-down mode and swiveled the on-board camera down and forward, turning to infra-red. No mountain ranges ahead, thankfully. Down and down the fighter went, into the yellow-orange atmosphere until suddenly the view cleared and I could see Titan with my eyes.

* * *

There was no sunshine on Titan. The only light that the moon ever saw was that reflected by Saturn, which was enough to see, but not much: I had to turn on the rarely used landing strobe, and all I could see were rocks, large and small, and shallow valleys up to the horizon. At minus 178 °C, the frozen surface was as barren as the hottest desert; the thick atmosphere, roughly one and a half Earth standard, sustained the F-911 well, giving me a decent glide ratio. There was a plateau just to my right and ahead, and I touched the controls just enough to bring me down there. I was about to lower the landing gear when I realized that the uneven surface would snap it off and decided to land clean. I breathed deep, raised the craft's nose slightly and fired the hover thrusters just enough to make a landing as soft as possible…

Touchdown! The impact was harder than I had expected, and the spacecraft began to slide around. Holding on to the control stick, I tried to keep the nose pointing straight but at least the Gyruss turned about right and skidded to a halt. Immediately I turned off the propulsion controls and grabbed the ejection handles, ready to shoot the pod out in the event of a fire…
But no alarm went off. In fact, the Gyruss didn't seem any worse for wear than when I had started my descent. I had made my first emergency planetfall and landing while managing to stay in one piece - nice combination of dumb man's luck and good engineering.

* * *

With the power core down, I only had batteries to keep me going and the emergency fuel cell, and though I had oxygen to spare, without power the F-911 would soon turn into a refrigerator. Turning the main display to MAP mode, I searched for the Huygens Research Station - 15 clicks at bearing 106. The station's beacon was broadcasting Mode 2 - unmanned but powered and inhabitable.
I checked out the R-EB/C, but Becky was silent. With the battle still raging, total EMCON was in effect. There would be no rescue vessels dispatched until Saturn was secured - which could be many hours from now.

I was a little short on options: I could stay in the cockpit, hold on and wait it out or slog it to Huygens. Titan was not only cold, but it had a thick atmosphere that worsened the situation: out in space or on airless worlds you can only lose or gain heat by radiation which takes time. Here, the freezing nitrogen mist outside would quickly dissipate the heat. Already the power gauge screen was showing a downward curve - I had one hour or less before the batteries ran out of juice.

OK, I thought. Let's stick with the original plan: bug out, get to Huygens Station, make myself cozy inside and wait for rescue. Beat the hell out of freezing in the cockpit or ride the pod's rocket to orbit which was precisely what I had wanted to avoid.

All of a sudden I realized that the mere thought of leaving the comfort of the Gyruss' cockpit was becoming harder to bear: when you're in combat situation you know you can't avoid it so you just charge ahead with whichever plan you have, but as soon as the adrenaline settles down and you're faced with having to do something dangerous in cold blood, things change big time.

Just to get started off, I placed my gyrocompass on the instrument panel, opened it and pushed the "calibrate" stud. Now it would take about one minute and a half to self-check, warm up, spin up and begin to navigate. Now, suit's power to INTERNAL, life support to AUX, helmet's HUD to EVA; I detached the data and power cables, sealed and unplugged the life-support umbilical and donned the portable lifepack stowed just behind the seat. The F-911 flight suit is a full EVA-capable environmental suit that can sustain a human being in the vacuum of space or in hostile atmospheres as long as they weren't too hostile. During the survival course, we had practices emergency egress and transfer from stricken spacecrafts to rescue ships in low orbit above Paradise, but the instructors had insisted on pilots trying to remain inside the fighter's cockpit, either in docked or separated flight mode. Egress and EVA were last-resort measures only.

Right, I thought as soon as the readouts in the helmet's HUD went from amber to green, all set and ready to go. I drew the M2111 and chambered a round, then retrieved the gyrocompass and strapped it to my wrist. It had calibrated and had finished alignment, so I dialed in the bearing to Huygens station from the computer's map.

My hand hovered briefly over the EQUALIZE command on the environmental controls panel: the cover was already flipped open, and if I pushed it, there would be no turning back. I couldn't open the cockpit in the dense Titan atmosphere without equalizing, which also meant bringing the temperature to outside levels. Once done, the Gyruss wouldn't have enough power to both repressurize to normal and re-heat the pilot module. More likely than not, the controls would freeze.

Here goes nothing I thought, and pushed the button. Keep it pushed about 10 seconds, I reminded myself, relax and breathe normally. It's gonna be fine…
BEEP! A warning light showed up on the HUD: the temperature was quickly dropping and suddenly my visor fogged. Before I had time to panic, the anti-fog mechanism clicked in and cleared it. Now I could see the instruments panel beginning to glisten with condensation - then turning white as whatever vapor was still present in the atmosphere froze. Titan's atmosphere rushed in - thick and toxic. The warning UNBREATHABLE EXT ATM blinked in the helmet's HUD and stayed on.
With a deep breath, I climbed out.

* * *

I realized my miscalculation the moment I stepped down from the egress ladder and touched the Titanian surface: a buzz alarm went off and a schematic came up that showed massive heat loss through the soles of my boots. The supercold surface and atmosphere were forcing the heating system to go into overdrive, draining the battery faster than normal: I had barely the power needed to get to Huygens.

Checking the gyrocompass, I hopped on. The low gravity was a blessing because I could cover more ground in less time, but I had to be careful: one false step and I could injure myself badly - even a sprained ankle would have meant certain death because I would have found myself unable to move. After a couple of leaps, I dialed down the heat settings so that the battery would last longer. I wished for a hardshell - with a combat powered armour suit I could have gotten to Huygens in a few rocket-assisted leaps and I would have been well protected against the cold.

Don't think. Jump. Hop, hop, hop… I couldn't see much because of the short horizon and the thick methane/nitrogen fog: Titan was a place of rocky formations and pools of methane, and surfaces that looked like frozen lakes dully glistening under the pale orange light reflected by Saturn. Precious little time for sightseeing but I couldn't help - I had always wanted to be a space explorer and here I was, stranded on an alien world in a spacesuit running out of power… The stuff I had read about as a boy in old science fiction novels. The only thing missing was an army of alien medusae with ray guns. Well, I didn't exactly miss them.

I stopped for a moment, checked the gyrocompass and hopped on. Doubts began to gnaw at me. Was the Gyruss' computer map accurate? Was the bearing correct? Had I manipulated the compass correctly? I had considerable experience in navigation, and the training at Paradise had been excellent, yet I couldn't help but think that I could have made a major mistake. As the battery power dropped down, I wondered if I hadn't overshot Huygens, if I could have missed it in the mist. And what if I found the station, and it had been destroyed? What if the power was down and only the beacon was working and broadcasting the wrong signal? What if I couldn't get the doors to open? What if…
A dark mass emerged from the fog in front of me and I skidded to a halt, almost losing my balance. It looked like a truncated pyramid, sitting in a shallow valley carpeted with methane snow. On top of it, a slender tower raised in the air, a lone red eye winking in the swirling clouds above - the anticollision strobe.
Huygens Station.
I dropped to the ground immediately.

* * *

The alarm buzzed again as I hit the supercold ground, but I ignored it. Force of habit had kicked in: I had to reconnoiter the place before getting in. I took out the binoculars from the suit's pouch and raised them to my eyes.

I could see an abandoned cart in front of the station. It was a standard utility cart, about 4 meters long. Using this as a reference and the rangefinding reticule I could see that I was about 300 meters from the station's main entrance. The emergency airlock was 10 meters to its right, and a green light was blinking above it. Good: the airlock was working.

I panned left and right: no sign of movements. Huygens had been abandoned when the Ideoclans had launched their first attack, and left by itself. The automated systems and maintenance robots would have kept the base in good shape even without humans around.

Just to the left of the station I could see a deep furrow in the methane snow, disappearing behind the structure. I wondered if the researchers had made it for some purpose but I quickly dismissed it: on Titan it snowed almost all the time. Must have been recent…
BEEP! "Warning: battery low. Internal temperature dropping. Please change battery or connect to external power supply." The battery was almost dead - hitting the ground with my belly and chest had drained a lot of heat. Now I had minutes - maybe less - to get myself to safety. I rose to my feet and started down the slope, beginning to shiver as the suit's temperature dropped to zero.
Even if the whole might of the Ideoclan army was down there, I didn't have any choice. Already I was feeling slightly numb and stiff-limbed. I had to stop hopping and walk to the emergency airlock. I felt suddenly dizzy and fell forward - only putting my hands forward I managed to hold on the outer door without knocking my head.

I managed to find the panel: standard emergency commands, designed for incapacitated or untrained personnel. Just one sealed lever behind a plastiglass screen.

I took out the M2111 pistol and noticed my movements were slow and uncoordinated. The cold was taking its toll. I couldn't even feel the pistol's butt, and I had difficulty closing my grip around it.
I breathed deeply - cold, freezing air - and brought down the pistol's barrel on the plastiglass.
And missed it! The gun banged on the door's metal and almost fell from my numb hand. With a superhuman effort, I brought it down again and this time the glass broke. I closed my left hand around the lever and pulled, pulled… It didn't move. It was frozen!

It wasn't. The seal had taken its sweet time breaking. The lever gave way all of a sudden and I almost fell. The door opened wide.

* * *

Stepping inside the airlock, I lost my footing and fell. Crawling like a baby, shivering from the cold, I found the internal command panel and hit the large round-shaped CLOSE+REPRESSURIZE button. The outer door slammed shut. The pumps pushed the Titanian atmosphere out. Heat came rushing in along with breathable air. I fell to the ground, panting.

The signal EXT ATM OK came on. Temperature read about 10 °C. I raised my still-numb hands to the helmet and struggled to unlock the collar. One, two… Third was the charm and the helmet unlatched and fell to the ground. I tried to breath deeply but couldn't. My chest was racked with spasm. I was going into shock!

My first-aid pouch was strapped to my left calf, inside a heated pouch. Open the seal, first compartment… There they were, four preloaded, color-coded hypoinjectors: red for antitoxin, yellow for general stimulant, green for antibiotic-antiviral compound, blue for anesthetic. The yellow one was the one I needed.

Safety cap off. Injector protective cover off. Ready. I brought the injector to the only exposed skin I had available, craning my neck hard. Push the injector tip. Wait…

I felt a sharp sting as the needle-like spray released the drug into my system. It was supposed to be painless, but I was grateful to see I had retained some sensibility. Count to ten. Release injector.
I sat down and waited. The spasms subdued. Breath came regularly. I was alive. Alive and well, and safe.

Ten minutes later, I tried to rise. I felt dizzy and weak, but at least I could feel all of my limbs. I recovered my sidearm, which had fallen to the ground when I had stepped through the airlock door. A quick check revealed it was all right - no damage from the cold. In the meantime, I decided to have a little snack.

Because of the long endurance times that the Gyruss fighter is known for, pilots need a way to eat and drink during flights. Built into the suit, along with a waste disposal system tied into the craft's life support, there is a food dispenser that feeds rations in liquid form from a preloaded cartridge to a small tube that rises out of the collar. I found the tube and squeezed it with my teeth. The system is similar to the one used in hardshell combat armour, only the Gyruss suit is equipped with American rations that taste like milkshake. Swiss rations are, of course, chocolate-flavored.

After I had put some liquid and sugar into my stomach, I felt definitely stronger. Punching the inner door OPEN stud, I stepped into Huygens Stations itself.

The base looked all right, no flickering lights or broken equipment: the retreat must have been an ordered one. With the reactor running, there was enough energy to keep the lights full on and the air recirculators working. The air smelled fresh, not stale. I checked the action on my sidearm and held it in ready position - no sense letting my guard down.

Huygens had been a busy research outpost before the war: planetary sciences, meteorology, biology, materials, you name it. Empty now, it felt like an abandoned castle of old, vast and eerily silent. Stopping at the feet of a stairwell, I checked out the Becky. No signal yet, though it was receiving the atomic clock signal broadcast by the fleet; this meant that I would be able to communicate once the ALL CLEAR message went out. Who knew, maybe I could find a utility rocketship and blast off back to the Lex… Yeah, with every Ideoclan and his brother after me the moment I left the atmosphere. Besides, no rocketships would have been left behind, and even if I found one I could not fuel and launch it without assistance.

I looked at the stairs, which went up to the topmost level and Control Center. I was about to call the elevator, and then I remembered that soldiers never take elevators. With a sigh, I climbed the stairs.

Even with the reactor on, the station's mainframe wasn't about to allow any waste of energy: the motion sensors built into the walls activated the lights only in the areas I was entering, turning them off as I left. I felt like I was some kind of torchbearer, bringing light where I trod, and the thought almost made me laugh. Almost. Because as soon as I stepped into the Command level, I found the lights already on. Maybe Command was meant to be lighted at all times - but suddenly the lights went off in another area. The sensors, detecting no movement for about half a minute, had deactivated them.

There was someone else inside the station.
Gripping the pistol, I turned around scanning the place. Command was sparsely furnished, only a few consoles arrayed before three large screens. Huygens was heavily automated, and research facilities didn't need the heavily redundancies that were necessary for military C&C outfits. Step forward, scan, breath deeply, count to three, step forward, scan…

The Ideoclan trooper stood at the opposite end of the hall, just beside the doorway to Communications. Armour-clad, he was completely motionless, only the head turning slowly from side to side. He was holding some kind of weapon that looked like a short carbine.

The Ideoclan looked at me and froze. I was already frozen. Then something snapped.
I raised the M2111 and pulled the trigger: two fast shots, aiming for the chest. Two more, quicker than I meant. The report was deafening - it was the first time I had shot the "elephant killer" without ear protections, the first with live explosive rounds instead of target ammo. The explosive rounds sounded like a dull bell ring. The recoil pushed me back in the low Titan gravity, almost falling back.
The 'Clan staggered and dropped, and remained still. His weapon clattered to the ground.

* * *

It took me a couple of minutes to gather enough nerve to get anywhere near the fallen Ideoclan soldier. This was my first close-up kill: I had destroyed scores of 'Clan spacecraft and killed probably hundreds of them, but this was the first time I had actually seen - and shot - one. Even on Cold Stone, they hadn't been more than small figures in my riflescope. I felt both elated for surviving the fight unscathed, and slightly nauseous at the thought I had come this close to getting killed.
I walked up to the 'Clan's body, the M2111 still pointed ahead in case he decided to do a Lazarus on me. Of the four shots I had gotten off, two had caught him in the chest; one near the shoulder, and one had missed him completely and taken out part of the doorframe. Those explosive, delayed-fuse slugs packed more punch than I thought. The 'Clan was definitely dead, armour or not: the shots had punched through the armour suit and blew up inside.

The Ideoclan trooper was completely encased in the armour suit, which I thought was made of ceramics and light alloy, but close by I could see it was some kind of plasteel, or polycomposites. Cheap stuff - the 'Clans didn't seem to be willing to spend big money on individual equipment. The soldier's weapon was shaped like a submachine gun, or automatic pistol, definitely deadly-looking. I pushed it to the side with my foot, just to be sure.

What if he hadn't been alone? For all I knew, there could have been a whole assault battalion hiding in Huygens - no, it couldn't be. There were no sentries posted, no patrols, no activity at all. And 'Clans travel in packs, like sharks or wolves (well, that's what the encyclopedia says): by this time, after the shots, I'd have been surrounded.

A deserter? Fancy as the thought was (could it be we were scaring them so badly that some had seen the light and decided to bug it?) it didn't seem possible. Ideoclans always fight to the death, and suicide before being captured. Maybe a straggler. Not an infantryman, that much I was certain of: 'Clan infantry is equipped with heavy armour and weaponry, far more than I could take on. Not a pilot, either. We had one pilot's body - although headless - and it didn't have that kind of armour.
All right. Let's play forensic scientist. I took out the pocket camera and began taking snapshots of the body from all angles, and of the weapon. Then I did something truly stupid and searched for the helmet's locks. I wanted to see the Ideoclan's face.

The helmet seemed fused to the armour, but there was a lock, just behind the head. One push and it unlocked and rolled away. It could have been booby-trapped, set to blow up if tampered with. It wasn't, and I could finally look the enemy in the face.

Pale dead eyes stared out at me from a face devoid of any expression. The Ideoclan soldier could have been a wax statue - no, a statue would have shown some kind of emotion. This one was like a deactivated android prototype I had seen in a science museum long ago. But it was definitely human - even if a genetically engineered cloned soldier like all Ideoclans were.

Fate wasn't without its fair sense of irony: mankind had fantasized for centuries about alien invasions, murderous extraterrestrial of all shapes and dimensions but in the end, as it always had been, the greatest threat to man was man himself. Homo-sort-of-Sapiens.

It - I found myself unable to think of the dead 'Clan as a he - looked about eighteen although it could have walked out of a cloning vat just that morning. It was completely bald, and had not the shade of a beard, or any kind of facial air. Not even eyebrows. Evidently anyone who had engineered it had made sure it wouldn't need shaving or grooming.

I got up and shot other pictures of the dead body. If and when it got recovered,
Doctor Hunt and his team would have a field day examining it. I had other priorities now - like finding out how it had gotten here, but maybe I had half an idea.

I wasn't exactly keen on getting out again but this time it would have been only for a little time. Climbing up to the observation nest, I found the airlock that opened to the walkway that took to the comms tower. I recharged the suit's battery and for the second time I stepped out in Titan's atmosphere.

I walked to the eastern side of the station's roof and looked down. There was the furrow I had seen when I had come to the base, like a sleigh's traces through the snow. A big sleigh.

An Ideoclan spacecraft. Bigger than a fighter, maybe a reconnaissance vessel, or a scout. It had come down hard about two clicks away and slid to the side of the structure, crashing against a large rock just ten meters from the wall. In Titan's supercold atmosphere, with no free oxygen available, it hadn't caught fire or exploded even if its fuel tanks had ruptured. Looking through the binoculars I saw another Ideoclan draped over the side, the craft's canopy cracked open. It was dead. The cockpit was made for two.

The spaceship's tail was sliced and burned through. Not impact damage, it was too clean. Must have been a Spearhead, or maybe pulse cannon damage. This one had been damaged during the battle raging around Saturn, and its crew had tried to set it down. Or it had tried to get down by itself - 'Clan pilots shared their ground troopers' disregard for their own life. For the first time I was seeing the war from outside. I went back to the airlock.

The food dispensers in the cafeteria were still working and there were a lot of sealed food supplies around so I made myself cozy, fixed up lunch and waited. About two hours and an insane amount of coffee later, the R-EB/C buzzed and I sent out the distress signal. It took more coffee before the rescue ship came down on the station's landing pad. The airlock cycled. Suited figures came in.
The lead one removed the helmet. "The crew of the John Cabot sends their regards! I see that just like all Swiss you're making yourself comfortable in this hell-hole, lunch included!" he laughed.
"Couldn't find steak." I replied. "Be my guests. Beware, there's a stiff one downstairs."
Half an hour later, I stepped onto Titan's atmosphere again, this time in a proper environmental suit, and climbed into the ship. I slept all the way to the Lex.

* * *

Debriefing was hell. I had to run through everything I had done after my Gyruss had been struck, and had all my decisions second-guessed and criticized. I had been lucky, that much I knew, but in retrospect I hadn't had much in the way of choices. You can plan as much as you like but sometimes you've got to cross your fingers, hope for the best and go ahead.
The recovery squad retrieved the dead Ideoclan's corpses and their spacecraft with a heavy shuttle, and another one hoisted my F-911 back to base. It was a loss - I could see it for myself when they parked it in the hangar, and would never fly again. It would have been shipped to the Gyruss R&D facility in order to see how well an F-911 could handle an emergency landing, and how it could be improved. But, there were no other F-911As available for me, so I found myself the proud "owner" of a brand-new F-911B Gyruss fighter, the newer version of the redoubtable combat craft.
"Hey, we should all think about crashing our birds." Cellini commented. "You Swiss types have an odd way of getting new stuff."

The Battle for Saturn wasn't over yet. It took days to pound the 'Clans into submissions and losses were still high, but we were now battle-hardened, more careful, more focused. The new heavy-duty Block II Spearheads with fusion warheads took out whole squadrons of enemy ships as we engaged the Ideoclans moon by moon.

I think everybody who has studied the Ideoclan War has heard about "Fighting Al" Albergottie and the way he handled the final battle, so I'm not boring you now. Suffice to say that the next time you think you've got it bad and you've got no hope of making do, consider we guys at Saturn, outnumbered thousands to one, who still managed to make it through.

And amid all of the chaos, we found time for a merry event as Steve got married to a Nurse Corps officer by the name of Carolyn. One hell of a ceremony, even though I'm not one for formal occasions. Everybody had managed to do their best to make it as much of a traditional wedding as possible under the circumstances, down to the bride's white dress. The only things missing were the gold bands - which got fixed about two minutes before the ceremony began.

When it was over, as I tried my best to get my huge officer's sword out of the way as I walked to the refreshments, Jon came over. "I thought the gold rings were a no-go, what with procurements and everything. Where did you get them?"
There was no hiding stuff from the Texan. "Poached about."
"Got them shipped from home? No, it's not possible. Not enough time."
I knew that if I didn't provide an answer soon, Jon would have done his best to find out. I decided to spoil the game. "Well, you know, Chief MacLeod's got a nice machine shop that can fashion almost everything - rings are easy enough."
"Ok, but what about the gold?"
"Uhm, that was the dicey part. It happens that the polaron inducer that's inside a spacecraft reactor's power-up system is fashioned out of pure gold…"
"Aha - hey, David, those inducers are part of the Gyruss' reactor. You ain't telling me you cannibalized one of our fighters, aren't you?"
"Me?" I feigned innocence. "No, I didn't touch our fighters. But the 'Clans, cheapskates they may be when it comes to their guys' stuff, have spared no expense for the hardware. Their reactors are the same as ours. Since they've been causing us a lot of grief, I went to that ship we recovered from Titan and pocketed a couple of inducers. Just enough to make a couple of rings. Well, it was my ship after all. I've earned it."
Jon laughed. "Figure they owed us that much, after all!"
I looked out at Saturn.
Soon it would be behind us.
Jupiter lay ahead.


Sometimes, you just know that you're going to kick ass and take names!!!

But first…

Now don't get me wrong. I've had my fair share of butt chewings, more so when I was in the Coast Guard. But I had done extraordinarily well in the Army National Guard on New Texas and couldn't recall the last time I had gotten one. But as Chupa went on and on, ranting about how messed up the 357th was and how we were all a big disgrace to the JMF, I couldn't help thinking about how miserable I was feeling.

You see, the F-911 Flight Suit System doesn't take too kindly to having water in it! Especially, in the waste collection pockets! I realized how much my poor son must have felt when he was much younger and had messed his pants, and had told Lori and I that "I'm sorry for yucky pants daddy!" Remembering back to those days I managed to all but ignore what Chupa was yelling about. But then I smiled to myself, and that brought Chupa's attention, and wrath, to me.

He stood right in front of me as I got an earful.
"And you" Chupa fumed ""I am so tired of you New Texans and your so-called Judeo-Christian Republic. You think you're better than me? You're a sorry excuse of a pilot, let alone an officer! You disobey orders, you encourage your subordinates to do likewise, and I am real tired of having you and your wing before me all the time."
"Yes sir!" I replied back.
"Fifteen times, Lieutenant!" He shouted.
Shawn whispered to me, "hasn't it been seventeen times Jon?"
Boy did that tick off Chupa! After a few choice curses, he spoke to Shawn.
"Damnit McConnel, you're supposed to have come from a military family! Seven generations, right?"
"Yes sir, Major! All on New Texas, sir!"
"Then start acting like it! You guys are all a real piece of work. Kurtz, you're supposed to keep the second and third wing leaders in line!"
"I will do a better job, sir." Said David! And, in the best thick-Swiss accent he had! (That was a code to spite Chupa!)
Sitting down behind his desk, he then proceeded to FINALLY tell us our mission.
"I present to you the wing leaders from the 332nd, Torrence, Bowman, and Jefferson. They are stationed on the Carrier Martin Luther King Jr. and they are to be trained by you and your fellow pilots. The JMF has finally allocated resources for bomber escort duty. Before the Saturn Campaign, they and their sister squadrons are to be brought up to speed on our tactics and the latest on the 'Clans. We can't afford the bomber losses of the past anymore. And, that little trick you guys did doesn't provide much protection. It was great to trick that 'Clan pilot, but bombers need fighters around them. Teach them well gentlemen! Dismissed."
And with a crisp salute we left Chupa's office, wet flight suits and all!

Traveling down the passageways we didn't say anything for a few minutes. Finding an open compartment, we ducked into it, motioned for the 332nd guys to follow, and then shut the door behind us. Shawn was the first to speak.
"Well that was a happening!" he said with a big grin! "Welcome to the JMF yawl!"
That broke the ice!

"Looks like Chupa has some issues" said Torrence. "The 357th's reputation has traveled far. And, so has Chupa's!"
"He is a major pain!" David exclaimed-in perfect English!
"And then some" we all said, laughing for a while. We then started to tell each other about ourselves. We preferred to get to know these new guys first, reminds you that they're human like you with families back home. Torrence came from New Texas, and was a sports manager for one of the professional athletic teams there. He and his wife Crystal had no kids but were active in child mentoring programs. Bowman came from New Columbia and was an engineer. Finally, Jefferson (who went by the nickname Junior) was a youth pastor who had volunteered for JMF duty. Graduating top of his class at the New Dallas Theological Seminary. He too had a family back at New Texas. Seems that certain Outer Colonies were more than doing their fair share of volunteering for the War Effort! We also found out the name of the second carrier that was tasked with bomber escort duty. They came from a special class of ore freighters built specifically for runs between asteroids. Their hull skins were very thick-five times that of normal carriers, with even more shielding for combat duty. Rugged and well-armed, they were ideal to start the bomber escort missions. Someone in the JMF was also very historical minded, as the two carriers were known as the "Two Jr's". You see, they were the Carriers Martin Luther King Jr. (hull number 1925) and the General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (hull number 1911). The Tuskegee Airmen would have been proud!

We all agreed to let them get settled in to their temporary quarters and to let us get cleaned up and such. The three of us were quite miserable by then in our wet flight suits! In about two hours we'd start the training. The compartment, room to you landlubbers, had a view port and we looked out at the ever growing fleet. It was an awesome sight. Another build-up before the Saturn Campaign, and the time frame to get the newbies from the 332nd up to speed was very short!

Getting back to our squad bay we informed our guys of the upcoming training we'd be doing with the 332nd, and a bunch of them starting getting all the needed data on the 'Clan, the F-911 combat experience data, and the latest on the Saturn System. And, Shawn, David and I got cleaned up! Man I was so never enthusiastic about a hot shower! Finally cleaned, I got into a jump suit and sat down to check the latest email. The JMF tries really hard to keep its troops in touch with their families. It's something we all appreciated! Sitting down at one of the computers, I briefly noticed that my entire wing was checking their email as well. I was smiling as I opened the first email from Lori.

That smile quickly faded…

There is the kind of mail that any member of the military hates. It's the kind that the time away from home, family, and especially loved ones, finally reaches an apex. Lori had always been lukewarm at best to my continuing military service. The reports coming back home to New Texas didn't help either. Considering the last email had been a long and loving one, this one struck me right into the heart. I knew it was only a spur of the moment vent from her, but it made me quite mad. I punched the bulkhead next to the computer and placed my forehead against the screen.

I wasn't the only one though.

Higeno quickly noticed our dilemma.
"Damn, all the married guys got Dear John letters!" he laughed out loud.
Alexandr was muttering something in Russian, Alexei was just looking at the screen, Andrew could be seen quietly praying, and Yoshiki was speaking out loud what he was typing. I was about to hit the bulkhead again when Shawn stopped me.
"Listen to me Jon", he said as he placed his hand on my shoulder. "It was only a matter of time before she vented at you. You're not there with her and she is feeling it. But you know what, she does love you. I know she's only feeling alone. Keep trusting in God my friend. Stay calm and collected and keep that laser focus of yours. You'll see her again. But just stay cool and focused, you're no good to her if you get vaporized into a million parts. All of you stay frosty, let it go!!!"

Nodding, I closed out the email. I would let time, and my faith, determine what I would write to Lori.

It was soon time to start our training of the 332nd. Close to our squad bay was a compartment that we often used for more in-depth analysis after battles and brainstorming sessions. All of us were there, and soon the entire 332nd showed up. After some small talk, we got down to the serious business at hand. The first thing we brought up was the F-911, and the various changes that had been made up this time. A large holographic display of the F-911 was shown while all of us talked about it to the 332nd, answering their questions and making suggestions to them. The next item we talked about was the 'Clan themselves. At least what we knew from fighting them. Finally, we brought up a display of the Saturn System. This brought up some questions by the 332nd members.
"Why are you guys going in-depth for the next campaign?" someone asked.
"We may not know where their bases are, but it helps us to at least know the neighborhood." Said David.
"Not just that" I added "We also get to have an idea of possible hiding places."
Shawn continued, saying "The Saturn System has numerous large moons. We know the 'Clans will have major land forces there. Other than our support to get them to the moons, that is the concern of the Jarheads and the close in support fighter/bombers. It's the smaller moons that concern us. Even the ones that are kilometers in diameter, the 'Clans will most likely install automated facilities to create and launch huge asteroids at us. Nothing we have onboard the F-911's will stop them. The moons with larger diameters will have fighter bases built into them. And the rule of thumb is that there are always more of them than you really want! Just ask Jon."

We continued on discussing the Saturn System for a while when in walked Col. Bonca and a civilian.
"Attention on deck." Yelled someone.
"At ease gentlemen." Said Col. Bonca "I have someone here who has done the most in-depth examination of the Ideoclan and what makes them tick. Please lend your ears to Dr. P.F. Hunt."

Dr. Hunt proceeded to the front of the holographic console, inserted a memory disk, and started his presentation.
"Thank you Colonel Bonca! Let me first introduce myself. I am Dr. Patrick F. Hunt, the third and I am a professor at the Powell Institute on New Columbia. I have been researching the Ideoclan, the 'Clans to you guys, ever since the start of this war. What I am about to tell and show you has taken a lot of hard work, and I don't need to remind you of how many have lost their lives up to this point. Gyruss Squadrons 357th and 332nd, you are amongst the first to start receiving this information on the Ideoclan!"
An image of the various 'Clan fighter craft was the first shown.
"You fellows don't need much introduction with these, and you guys from the 332nd will soon get to know them well enough. Our defense analysts have pieced together that their craft, though far better than our earlier fighters, are no match for the F-911 and the firepower it contains. They do outnumber us by a large margin, and we can ill afford to loose our forces in large numbers. Their craft use a limited fuel for propulsion. As such their fighters are short range when compared to the F-911, and need to be refueled more often. And I can see that I am boring the 357th pilots!"
We all laughed at that!
"Now if we can find their re-fuelers, we'd be out of a job. But giving you guys the latest on their fighter craft is the job of the military intelligence crowd. This is what I am really here for."
Entering a few commands with the speech interface, a single image of a bald human male, with some oddities, was displayed.
"The large hole in his side is not a defect in the picture gentlemen; this is what we did to him in combat. You're all aware that the Ideoclan refuse to surrender alive. And you can guess as well that large intact bodies, like this are more often than not very rare indeed. Most of what we have been working with has been samples and scraps of tissues. We are also working with the body of a pilot."
That really got our attention.
"This was from a million-in-one shot. The pulse from an F-911 graced the cockpit of the pilot's craft. It wiped most of his head off and also the master computer so fast that the auto destruct was never initiated. The problem is that the flight suit is still a hazard, and our research crews are taking many precautions in the process. But this much is certain; their pilots are smaller than the ground troops. They seem to be breed for the job…"
"Breed for the job Dr. Hunt?" Someone asked.
"Guys, I won't lie to you. With all the samples we have, their DNA signatures are all IDENTICAL!"
"Then that means only one thing." I said.
"Yes Lt. Kryton, the Ideoclans use clones."
The thought deeply disturbed us all, and Dr. Hunt let the silence last for a few moments to heighten the effect this news had.
"They seemed to have figured out the copy-of-copy problem. And from what we have gathered, they seemed to have cloned from an infant pool to avoid the clones from growing too fast. What I mean is that the clone of an older donor will eventually assume the physical age of the donor; despite being far younger. They are using a technology far in advance of our organ replication. But, what they have created is far from paradise. The clones are sterile, and DNA analysis shows that they are docile and follow orders without question. And their tactics in battle time and time again show that death is the end issue if all seems lost. They have taken the worst from the Waffen SS and the suicide bombers of the 21st century. Totally fanatical, totally determined to die if the means achieves the ends."
"Dr. Hunt, does Ideoclan stand for anything?" I asked.
"Yes it does. It stands for Ideological Clan. Quite simply, they are everything the Nazi war machine lusted after-total obedience and without remorse."
Dr. Hunt then took some final questions from us and the 332nd. After that, he and Col. Bonca left and we were alone again.
"All right guys" Shawn said "Let's do some actual stick time tomorrow. We've gotten quite a bit to chew today. We have only a couple of weeks to train you newbie's from the 332nd. Let's set a time of 0600 to meet in our flight suits at the hanger bay. There's plenty of time left today for our information and tactics to be tried out by your pilots on the flight simulators. Lt. Torrence, you and your pilots have a good night and we'll see you in the morning."

And with that, our first training session with the 332nd was over, and as we walked back the thoughts of who the Ideoclan were filled our minds. It had been a long day for us, time for rack ops.

"O dark-thirty" came awfully early!
The whole of us were in our flight suits at 0600 in the hanger bay. Shawn, David, and I had arrived 15 minutes early to check on everything and to make sure we had a slot available in the training sector. (Something that had to be done by yours truly right after the previous nights training session.) With the 332nd there, we began our mission goal; David acted as the Group Leader and gave us the OPORDER (Operation Order).
"The 357th and the 332nd are to go on a combined patrol to the following sector, Training Area Niner-Six-Four-Zero. Enemy activity will consist of AI Attack Drones that are programmed with 'Clan tactics. If a drone is not completely destroyed, and you fail to double-tag, Training Control will asses whom and how many will be killed by a simulated suicide drone. I can't stress enough to you guys (the 332nd) that the 'Clans refuse to surrender and they will try to kill you even if they are about to blow up. Today's mission is to clean our assigned area of enemy craft, 100 percent-no less! Any questions?"
With no questions, Chief McCleod spoke up.
"All of you crafts have had training sensors installed. Trust me guys, they cannot be disabled in flight-no cheating because what you train here as, you will do in combat."
"All right 332nd, time to show them what we got-to your crafts!" said Lt. Torrence.
"357th, time to teach the newbies! Good hunting everyone"

As I climbed into my beloved F-911, nicknamed "Troy's Terror", I reflected on Shawn's words, the letter from Lori, and the rest I had gotten. No mater what, I would make it back to be with her, and Troyton, again.
"System online, Kryton, Jon W."
"System is online"
All systems were a go! I waited for my turn on the cat. It didn't take long.
"Launch sequence engaged", said flight control. "Magnetic catapult active"
And with an all-too-familiar feeling, I was shot out into space. After a few minutes, my wing reported to me.
"Wing two online" I said to Swiss.
"Roger Two. Three?"
"Three online" said Jarhead.
"357th, this is Swiss, follow One's lead to Training Area."

The Training Area was a one hour trip. On the way there, Lt. Torrence wanted to tell us a few things that he and the 332nd had seen at Paradise.
"Hey 357th, this is One, 332nd."
"Go ahead One" said Swiss.
"We were able to see the first Super Battle Carrier in orbit around one of the moons of Paradise!"
"A what…? How did you manage that?" said Jarhead.
"Right after graduation, the JMF needed an escort for a bunch of shuttle craft going to the Super Battle Carrier. Naturally, they chose us! At first we didn't believe our own sensors. It was just HUGE! And when we saw it, it was awesome! Her name was the Dreadnought."
"So that is what they are called, Super Battle Carriers." Said Swiss. "But why after a British ship?"
"The whole class is being made at the William Wallace Shipyards at New Scappa moon, in the New England/New Scotland System. The JMF decided that they would all be named after famous British ships. We got to land on one of her small landing bays-the same size as the main one we were just in on the 'Lex! And while most of my guys were in their crafts, I managed to walk around a bit. One very proud Brit showed me a whole video of the shipyard and the other Super Battle Carriers in various stages of completion. The whole assembly process was amazing to see. From what the Chief Petty Officer told me, the whole class has enormous firepower, with separate reactors for each weapons suite, and advanced armor plate that makes the 'King look thin! The cats can launch entire wings at once too. They say that the first of the class may be seen at the Saturn Campaign."
"I'd hate to see the 'Clans after they're in action against them!" I said.
"Well Lt. Torrence, since you have a nose for such things, and you seemed to lack a proper call-sign, you're Scoop from now one!" said Jarhead.
"Here, here" everybody said!
"All right everyone, 60 seconds to Training Area. Good luck everyone!" said Swiss.

At 30 seconds to go, I double checked all my F-911's systems. I was ready to play! But, we were here first to train the 332nd.
"357th, 332nd this is Training Control, entering Training Area Niner-Six-Four-Zero in ten seconds."

Our sensors all lit up with multiple bogies, in classic 'Clan attack formations. The game was on!

"332nd, fire at all targets" said Scoop.

The attack drones were vaporized with numerous well-placed shots. Not bad for the rookies!

"332nd One, this is 357th One. Good shooting-don't forget the double tagging!!!" yelled Swiss.

Unfortunately, several members of the 332nd had forgotten this most essential rule of combat with the 'Clans. The entire third wing was taken out and had to go to a Refuge Point in the Training Area. At least this was the place to make such mistakes!

"This is why we are here, 332nd" said Jarhead. "Fight as you train! This sector is cleared. Follow our lead!"
"Roger 357th, wings One and Two follow the 357th." Ordered Scoop.

We didn't have much time to think, as Training Control just threw hundreds of attack drones at us.

"Tally ho, everyone's got game. Engage all targets!" exclaimed Swiss.
The sheer number of the drones surprised the remaining 332nd pilots. I had eliminated a bunch of targets myself when I heard calls for help.
"Wing Two, gone. My wingman and I are only ones left." Gasped Scoop.
"Hang on Scoop, I'm right there. Wing Two intercept the attacking drones." I said.
"Lost my wingman!!!"
"Brake hard left Scoop, I got ya!"
The nearest attack drones were destroyed by me with the rest of the wing ensuring the double tagging. Wings One and Three, 357th, then finished up the remaining drones. It may have not been impressive, but the lessons learned would save their lives later on. With our area cleared, and the statistics sent to each pilot, we had an AAR (After Action Report) in a small corner of the Training Area. Swiss spoke first.
"You guys have nothing to be ashamed of. Scoop that was some very good flying and shooting. We didn't tell you this before, but we had the Training Control set the difficulty levels at their highest for this initial exercise."
"What????? Why????" groaned the 332nd pilots.
"I think I understand it" said Scoop "The higher the challenge here, the better we'll do in real combat."
"Exactly Scoop! That has been a trademark tactic of ours even before we had actual combat. We made the simulators hard as hell, and each one of us have been killed numerous times. It really sucks when you are on the receiving end of this, but it makes us all better. We're not known as the sim hogs for nothing on the 'Lex."
"Alright, where do you guys think you did good?" asked Jarhead.
"The weapons were activated right after launch." Said a 332nd pilot.
"Yes, and you can see why-the targets were numerous and if you hadn't activated your weapons, well, the game would have ended just as it started!" said Jarhead.
"Now, what do you guys think was bad?" I asked.
"Failure to double tag!!!" said the 332nd's whole third wing.
"Good" said Swiss. "And now for the ugly part?"
"We let ourselves get surprised by the number of targets." Said Scoop.
"That is the whole key to this exercise" said Swiss. "One is to ensure double tagging, and the other is to let you know just how outnumbered you can be out there. We know that the JMF is limited back at Paradise for simulated 'Clan combat during basic pilot training. If you guys ever knew during your basic course that you could be outnumbered hundreds to one, not many would stay on."
"This is really something we should have had" and I continued "It would have saved many lives."
"Alright, AAR is completed and the data sent back. Time to start another exercise in five minutes. Scoop, get your guys ready. We fly in a combined attack formation to the following sector. It's been put into your flight computers. Good hunting!"

On the second exercise, the 332nd had shown to us that they had learned their lessons well! Scoop showed himself to be a real hotshot F-911 pilot! All targets were engaged and vaporized, with suitable double tagging! In addition, they also used the Death Spiral when greatly outnumbered by the drones. We had stayed back just before the initial contact was made by the 332nd, so we got to see how they did. (Compliments of Training Control feeding us the battle results as they happened.)
"Good job 332nd, exercise completed! Head on back to the 'Lex. Follow our lead." Said Swiss.
"Oh no you don't, 332nd first, 357th last!" Exclaimed Scoop.
"I guess we have a challenge, both squadrons, as fast as possible to the 'Lex!"
And with that, we went for broke back to the 'Lex! And the result?

We tied!

The next two weeks were a blur to all of us. The 332nd and we often pulled three training missions a day, with two-days including simulation training. The intensity of the training became infectious as other squadrons, and even fighter groups, joined in. I wouldn't have called it fun at the time, but it made us all close friends. Chupa surprised us all by throwing in his support for the furious tempo of the training. This led to several hilarious visits to Col. Bonca's stateroom, asking him what he had given Chupa to be so cooperative to us!

We often mixed it up during training as well. Wings were changed out, leaders switched, and individual pilots swapped. Finally, the very last day of training ended up with two fighter groups, including ours and one from the 'King, going up against a full legion of attack drones! It included several mission and tables to complete. It made for one very, very long day-boy were we ever so happy to see it end. Even though we were all tired, and the 332nd was to leave in eight hours, we had a quick party to see them off.

"A toast" said Torrence to us all.
"Here here! Death to the 'Clans!"
"Death to the 'Clans" we said lifting up our glasses.
"To the JMF"
"To the JMF"
"To our Outer Colonies!"
"Yea, to the Colonies!"
"To the 332nd"
"To the 357th"
And just as we were about to end it, I spoke up.
"And, to our families!"
"Hell yeah! To our families!" said Torrence.
"To our families and loved ones" we toasted.

The past behind us, Saturn, with all that would go with it, was next. And the stakes were never so higher.

The briefing we got for the Saturn Campaign proved all of that, and more. We were all to provide bomber escort duty! In addition, we would all get a FULL compliment of Spearheads! "Thank you Chief McCleod" I thought to myself. This nicety turned out to be general for all the F-911 crews. Little did any of us in the 357th know at the time that our future "gift" from Chief McCleod would pack a huge punch when compared to ordinary Spearheads.

Col. Bonca and various staff kept up the briefing, which lasted much longer than normal. This was serious! We HAD to take Saturn. The 357th would be separated again during bomber escort duty, but at least it wasn't like those danged Dawn Patrols! Every wing would be escorting a group of bombers. Together we would be hitting Rhea, and once that mission was accomplished we would be reinforcing the attack on Iapetus. However long the briefing went, towards the end one statement stayed with me and it was from Col. Bonca.

"Once you have escorted the bombers home you land, refuel, rearm and off you go again. We're flying 'round the clock and everything is timed so don't linger around. We can't afford any of you coming back late because an unescorted bomber flight is a dead bomber flight and we can't wait for you to be ready while we launch them. If you're there in time fine, you get launched along with the bombers and all is well. If you don't, the bombers go their way all the same but without a Gyruss escort a lot of families back home are going to receive a visit from the chaplain and the blame's on you - got it?"

That pretty much tied things up!

We were all a little edgy going back to the Squad Bay. Each one of us had ways to deal with such things. You had to remain frosty, or you'd end up making stupid mistakes. Mistakes that could get you killed. Shawn, Andrew, a few others, and I would always pray before an engagement. Knowing that though we were FLYING through the Valley of the Shadow of death, His Presence calmed us. Gathering our gear, we headed out to the flight bay.

The Flight Bay was a hive of hurried activity. The long briefing had also acted as a pre-flight. Chief McCleod greeted us as we walked in. Pulling me aside, he informed me that a very special batch of Spearheads was ours, once the 357th would be fighting as a whole again. Separated again! Double damn! Nothing you could do about it though, the mission was what counted and individual feelings about the matter were not to be said aloud.

David, Shawn, and I had one last meeting before we took off to fight.

"Everyone clear on our missions?"
"Crystal clear David, my wing escorts the 91st" said Shawn.
"And mine escorts the 99th!" I said.
"Enthusiastic as always Jon!" said David. "It's going to be non-stop for quite some time. Get rest when you can. The first 24 hours are going to be the most critical for us all. Good luck and happy hunting."

For a long time, it would be the last words I would hear from David.

"Alright, Wing Two, lets rock!"
"Gotcha boss!" said Yoshiki.
"We are third in line on the Cat! Everyone to your F-911's!"
"And Godspeed to us all!" spoke Andrew.

Climbing into the cockpit of my F-911, I thought of nothing but the mission and getting back-in one piece. I went through the whole routine, as always, and soon it was our turn on the Cat. The familiar voice spoke again.
"Launch sequence engaged", said flight control. "Magnetic catapult active"
And away I was out in space.

The rest of the wing was out with me in a matter of minutes. And in seconds, Wing Two was online.

"Texas, here comes the 99th."
"Roger Shogun. BOMBGROUP Niner-Niner this is Wing Two, 357th."
"We hear you Wing Two, 357th. Good to have you guys along for the ride!" said their leader.
"And it's going to be a wild one! Niner-Niner, I'm Texas, and here are Shogun, Bear, Czar, and Rev. We'll be making sure you get back."
"Understood Texas. This is Intergalactic Harley, Harley for short. Follow us to our targets on Rhea!"

They had said it was going to be intense, and as soon as we left the area, we saw just how intense!

"Holy Cow Texas, look at all that activity!" exclaimed Rev.
"It looks like every system in Saturn is getting hit hard." I said.
"It makes the D-Day landings look like child's play. Wow!" said an astonished Czar!

It was true, and it was only our sector we were seeing too. Everything that had been available for the first wave was used. Hundreds of carriers. Thousands of bombers and fighter escorts. Troop transports, support ships, frigates, destroyers, medical ships-total war! It was amazing that we didn't have many collisions. We were hiding underneath the bombers, in order to try and fool the 'Clans again. It was a gamble. Rhea came up fast. And, so did the 'Clans.

"Texas, this is Harley, multiple bogeys."
"Game on!" I said. "Everyone attack!"

The 'Clans came at us hard. At least they hadn't seen us, the F-911's, initially. We took care of them real fast. Almost too fast.

"Good job 357th!" said Harley.
"Yeah, but that won't work again. Wing Two maintain normal distance from the bombers. We know they're coming again."
And that, wasn't too long in coming either.
"Here they come again. Targets on Rhea are 650Km away. Crews prepare for run."
"Wing Two, let 'em have it."
"Bear, three coming up hard."
"I got them Czar, two at your sector!"
"Texas, four heading towards bomber three!"
"Targets in sight, fire!"
"Damage to bomber five, but slight. 50Km to target. Follow my lead Niner-Niner."
"Keep them off the bombers! Wow this is intense!"
"Bombs away!"
"Watch it Harley, six on your tail. Mad as hornets! We got 'em!"
"Thanks Texas! Target is destroyed!"
"Knock it off, here they come. Dozens-fire the Spearheads!"
The 'Clans didn't stand a chance!!!
"Bogeys eliminated. Thanks again 357th! Bomber status?"

The rest of Harley's bombers reported back to him. Several had been hit, but were able to continue on the bomb run. A few others had been scratched. Compared to previous engagements, this was real good news for the bomber crews.

"Texas, we were really glad you guys were with us. The first one is on us!"
Laughing, I said: "There is a few who'll take you up on that! Best to you Harley!"
"Roger Texas, we're heading back to our carrier. Perhaps we'll see you again!"
"I hear you Harley! Godspeed! Wing Two, back to the 'Lex. We've got many more bombers to escort."

Things became a blur after that. Land, re-arm, back onto the Cat, and escort another group of bombers. Rhea turned out to have more targets than expected, but after a while, all major, and minor, bomber targets were eliminated. All of us in Wing Two had to take pep-pills to stay awake. The bomber groups all ran together for us. The 99th turned out to be the only one we would get to know a little about. Sometimes, if we had enough Spearheads, we would escort bombers on the fly. We saw a lot of carnage, for war isn't war without it. All of us had changed, though the change had been coming. We were hardened veterans. Razor sharp, focused, thinking nothing of killing hundreds of 'Clan pilots. The Dogs of War had been awakened in all of us.

We were finally ordered back to the 'Lex. Boy, was it good to be home!

After we landed, Chaplin McCreary and the rest of the 357th greeted us. Col. Bonca and Maj. Chupa were also there. Everyone's faces said it all. Somebody hadn't come back!

Shawn spoke first as we walked up.
"Jon, its David…"
I felt faint. The exhaustion starting to override me.
"Oh no…when???"
"His F-911 took a hit during the Rhea missions…." Shawn couldn't say much more.
"He tried to land his craft on Titan." Said Maj. Chupa.
"And, we haven't heard anything else yet. Yet-keep hope." Encouraged Col. Bonca.
"Jon, Chaplin McCreary wants to be with us alone. Let's go to our squad bay." Said Shawn.

They say the first time you lose a buddy is the hardest, I was fighting back the tears as we walked away from the Flight Bay. Everyone else was quiet too, each fighting off their own brand of emotions. All that we had been through together, and now…

"Let's pray" said Chaplin McCreary as we entered the squad bay.
Hours, days of exhaustion came to a head. Getting on our knees, we started to pray. The destruction we had seen, and had inflicted, overwhelmed us. Tears started to flow. After Chaplin McCreary finished his prayer, Shawn started in, then Andrew, soon others. Despite all this hell we had been through, peace was coming to our hearts. I was the last one, and I finished with the phrase that most spacers knew best, Psalm 97:6.

"Thanks Chaplin McCreary!" we all said.
"No problem, and if you boys need anything else, you know where I am located!"
And with that, he left.
"Jon, the rest of us have a sleep break. We need it."
"No problem Shawn, we don't need much prodding on this."
Lying down on my rack, I thought of my dear wife and son. My mind became clear as the blessed sleep took over!

The squad bay became quiet, except for the sound of the occasional snorer. Everyone had fallen asleep as they were, most right on top of their racks.

We had slept for about eight hours when Col. Bonca came RUNNING and YELLING in!

"Becky's got game! Becky's got game!" he yelled, breathless.
It took a few moments to let that simple phrase sink in.
"They found his beacon!!! He's alive…"

Boy if that didn't get us up! Matter of fact, several of us jumped out of our racks at the same time and collided with each other! Still groggy, but excited, we chased after Col. Bonca down the passageways. The Colonel had the door stay open and security let us right into the Flight Ops CIC (Combat Information Center). A huge display of Titan was in the center of the room. Numerous other displays were indicating status and incoming data. We crowded around the main display of Titan.

"This is where he is, the abandoned research base on Titan!" said Lt. DiLoreto.
The display then showed an enlarged view of the base.
"His landing was incredibly difficult, since the F-911 normally doesn't land backwards with its' thrusters going. But, he did it and found shelter in the base. The place was abandoned after the 'Clan invasion. There really isn't much else on Titan either-remotely operated outposts, it's a nasty environment. The Becky came through and the Frigate John Cabot picked up the signal."
Noticing our enthusiasm, Col. Bonca quickly spoke up.
"No! You guys can't go and get him! The John Cabot sent a crew down to get him and he's on his way here as we speak. ETA one hour!"

We all let out a collective sigh of relief. That was close. Too close. Col. Bonca then told us to go back to the squad bay and wait. David would need to be checked by medical, de-briefed by Intel, and then sent back to us. So back we went, and waited, and waited. Finally, the prodigal returned!!!

"It takes a lot more than this to keep a Swiss away!" he quipped as he walked in.
"Hey!!!!!" we all said!
"Don't want to do that again, though."
"Boy, we almost thought we had lost you. It didn't sound good." Someone said.
"Yeah, the landing wasn't pretty. The F-911 was left behind, a total wreck."
"Heck of a way to get the F-911B, David!" said Steve.
We all laughed at that!
"That base was weird and spooky, not a soul around. Good thing it was there. And, thank God for the Becky!"
"They say the signal was first noticed about two hours after the Rhea Battle was completed. We were all sound asleep when Col. Bonca came running in and yelled the good news." Said Shawn.
"I know the signal is encrypted, but I didn't want to take a chance nonetheless. The John Cabot sent a shuttle and a fully armed escort. They didn't take any chances as I was taken aboard and we left as fast as they had gotten on there. We were on the ground 30 seconds max! Boy was I ever so happy to see space again!"
"And boy are we ever so happy to see you again!" I said.
"Thanks Jon! And thanks guys for your prayers too. Chaplin McCreary spoke to me at the clinic."
"I do have some bad news though." David said.
"Bad news?" asked Shawn.
"Col. Bonca told me at the de-briefing that the whole 357th is to do supply escort duty for the next several days."
"Supply escort? We're the Dogs of War!" said Eric.
"Yeah, this is like telling a Doberman to guard Vienna Sausages!" exclaimed Steve.
"Yes, I know. But the Colonel wouldn't say why or go any further." Said David.
"I have a funny feeling about this, guys. Looks like we've got another one of those missions 'Only the 357th can do' again." Shawn quipped.
"I was thinking the same thing. He wants us to start the supply escort duty ASAP too. The Major will come in and tell us as soon as a replacement F-911 is found and then off we go." Said David.
"One thing's for certain, this is going to be 'Suck egg mule' duty." I said.
"Yeah" said Shawn. "Makes you feel like an 'E-Aw, E-Aw!'"
We broke out in laughter! Orders are orders. And they came soon enough.

David did get his F-911B. And for the next several days, all we did do was supply escort missions. Can you say boring? It is one thing to not know if an enemy will hit you or not. It's quite another to KNOW they never will, where you are located. Shawn had a picture of a donkey in his cockpit! At least his jokes made the time pass by fast. It was easy duty though, we got to come back to the 'Lex every day and enjoy fresh meals and hot showers. Kind of a rarity once a campaign has started for most of us. We stayed focused by operating the simulators and working out.

Shawn's insight proved correct!

The briefing room was very quiet as we entered. Looking around, it was just us, Major Chupa, and Col. Bonca. It was eerie to say the least. Every seat had an e-book for us to read. Sitting down, we proceeded to absorb the info. Something about a Commodore Albergottie, his exploits and past, very impressive for a former enlisted man; Master Chief in the Navy. We had been reading for about five minutes when Col. Bonca yelled out.
"Attention on deck"
Snapping to attention, we watched as the Commodore walked in.
Massively built.
The years of service had left him with a hard look.
The words describing his actions in the JMFN fit him perfectly. "Unpredictable and unorthodox", "Willing to take risks", "Hits the enemy hard and relentlessly", "He's a fighter!!!"
That was him, Al "Fighting Al" Albergottie.

He stopped at the front of the main display, which was still turned off.
"I understand that most sectors are quiet now. The feeling amongst the Fleet is that we've beaten the 'Clans. They aren't going to try their usual suicide tactics."
Putting his hands on the podium, he looked us right in the eyes and said.
"But do YOU believe that?"
To a man, we responded…
"No sir!!!"

Smiling at us, and then at Maj. Chupa and Col. Bonca, he continued.
"Then what I have been told of you all is indeed true. Carry on!"
Sitting down, we watched as he had main display turned on. An obscure sector with two very small moons and lots of debris came up.
"We all know the 'Clan love to blow themselves up, with as many of us as possible. I for one don't believe that we've cleaned up the Saturn System of all their kind. It's been way too quiet."
The display then went to a magnified view of the two moons.
"Telesto and Calypso. They don't look like much, do they? Only 15 and 13 kilometers in diameter. Scans have shown no surface bases at all. Nothing to let us think that something is amiss."
He walked away from the display and spoke again.
"But let us FEEL!!! Thirteen or so kilometers are a lot of space to be had, underneath the surface! And, we've all gotten to know just how good their engineers have gotten at constructing large underground facilities in short amounts of time. Now, they've had the time, and I say they really have something big out there. And the reason I FEEL and KNOW this???"
"A short time ago a reconnaissance squadron totally disappeared in the area. Massive amounts of RF and Microwave interference blocked most of their signals and the Fleet wrote them off as a lost to stray 'Clan patrols. However, one of the ships carried a device to measure density, at long distances. The signal that came through made it crystal clear to me."
Coming to the podium, he again looked right at us.
"The density of those two moons has been changed-it's less. Something huge has been built underneath the surface, hidden from most scans!"
The calculations of total available area came to us, divided by the known size of 'Clan fighters, it made for some bad numbers. Really bad numbers! The Commodore let that thought sink in. Shawn spoke up first.
"Commodore, then that is where the 'Clans are. They want us to believe that the sector is just space junk. The RF and Microwave interference is probably made to look it's coming from all that debris, leaky reactors and such. Very sneaky!" he said.
"Yes it is Lieutenant! But more importantly is this. We need to take it to the 'Clan directly. If their worldview dictates that they must die so their god is satisfied then let's send them on their way. Their fighters are limited in duration, and must be re-fuelled. Let's hit them where it hurts, below the belt-with a sledge hammer! They're smart, but predictable. And they are only human, not supermen. Even if they are clones. Now, Colonel…"
Col. Bonca spoke up.
"Chief McCleod has been given a very special batch of Spearheads, just for this mission. Nothing different except for the warhead, it's basically a small tactical nuke! If you run into large groups of 'Clans, fire THROUGH their ranks. Let the blast alone destroy them! Also, your main guns have been beefed up as well-the rest of the F-911's will have this upgrade down after this campaign is finished. Finally, the wing leaders will also have very small reconnaissance drones, using electric propulsion and connected via an optic cable. That means someone is going to get real close and personal with the 'Clans. Since they're clones, that means you'll be at least damn near in bed with them! Use your booster packs to leave that bed as fast as hell."
Laughing at that, it was then Major Chupa's turn to speak.
"Your tactics coming to the target will be simple. Tight formation so that the intra-ship communications can be used. Yes I know, that is tight flying. EMCON is at 100%, so that means anything that produces signals, will be turned on stand-by. That includes very-long-range scanners. We have to let the 'Clans think that it's just another reconnaissance patrol."
Commodore Albergottie spoke up one more time.
"Task Force has been named 'Blitz'. My flagship, the Essex, and the carriers Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Jonathan Netanyahu will be there for backup. The frigates Harlan Fraser, Sergio Vasquez, and Tim Spence will provide heavy fire if things get close and ugly. Gentlemen, good luck, God Speed, and happy hunting!"
While we were standing at attention, he said one more thing to us.
"Hit them hard, hit them really, really hard! Dismissed"

Walking to the flight bay, each of us had our thoughts to ourselves. The flight bay was a beehive of activity. Chief McCleod had one final word to us as we were boarding our crafts.
"Boys, this one is for all those who didn't make it because the 'Clans wanted to take as many of us down. Now, take them down!"
"Sure thing Chief!" we all said.
My body secure in the cockpit, my thoughts clear and narrow, I spoke "System, online. Kryton, Jon W…"
It had begun…

"Boy, it sure is quiet out here Swiss!" I said after we had been on the patrol for a while.
"Very much so. Hey Jarhead, how's your group handling?" asked Swiss.
"We're all ready for whatever comes our way! We've got people chomping at the bit to kick some butt!" said Jarhead.
"If those calculations provided by the Commodore are correct, then there is one hell of a lot of 'Clans over there." Quipped Swiss.
"This close flying to maintain secure comms is a real pain. We've got to try something different, next time." I said.
"Texas, this is Jarhead. A couple of my guys and Swiss's have come up with an idea-something that combines all movements from one central craft." Jarhead explained.
"Then, we could also bring about an enormous amount of firepower to bear upon the 'Clans." I observed.
"Moons coming up. Nothing so far. Sure hope that backup is ready and the booster packs operational." Said Swiss.

My cockpit was quiet, as mostly everything was in standby mode to ensure EMCON was 100%. The sights were pretty impressive as Saturn filled quite a bit of the view. Most of the conversations had grown quiet. Then suddenly…

Horrified, I checked my instruments-IT WAS STILL IN STANDBY MODE!!!
My scanner screen then lit up. A huge "blob" filled the screen.
It then went blank.
Then the screen lit up again.
It went blank again.
Then the screen showed the "blob" again. Just past the moon of Telesto.
Then it went blank, and stayed blank!!!

"Swiss, Texas here. Did you…"
"Texas, this is Shogun, what do you make of that?"
"Texas, Swiss. My system was is standby. What was that?"
"Swiss, I don't know. Anyone else get that?"
"Negative Swiss, Texas and Shogun." Replied everyone else.
"IMMEDIATE STOP" yelled Swiss.

We came to a stop and discussed what to do.
"Something showed up, not just once but several times for me." I said.
"I confirm that, Texas." Said Swiss and Shogun.
"We should look into this then. We're really close to that debris field. I say that someone send a drone and check it out." Said Jarhead.
"I guess that would be me, since I saw it first. Great!!!???" I said.
"Finders keepers Texas!" said Jarhead.
"Texas, Swiss here. I'll be the relay for the rest. Go on ahead."
"Roger Swiss, Jarhead. Drone system online. Cable check okay." I said.

My F-911 went at a very slow speed. I was alone, and blind, with no scanners running. The debris field was intense. The RF/Microwave reader was going off scale. At a point I determined, I launched the drone. The fiber cable attached to me and it. What I saw, the rest saw via the relay from Swiss.

"Coming to the debris field. Drone system 100%. Electric propulsion is nominal."
"Turning a bit here. Avoiding debris."
"There seems to be a larger opening. Slowing to snail speed."
"Opening is large enough for F-911's. Turning the drone…"
"Holy cow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I gasped.

All at once, we all saw it. The video feed came through crystal clear! The squadron gasped their amazement, their disbelief!
"Oh my God!" I barely spoke. Praying God would forget that lapse.

What I saw, and the rest saw, would stick with me for the rest of my life!

In the center of my view from the drone was a huge cylindrical object. I had to guess several miles long. Going to magnification, I saw hundreds of little "umbilical" cords coming away from it. Branching off from them were 'Clan fighters. Thousands of them!

I could hardly believe my own eyes. What also looked like 'Clan support ships, frigates, and what I took for carriers were also there, close to that 'Clan ship. It was one of those "refuelers" we had been told about. Except this one was huge. They had been planning a last minute attack! If they were able to get ready to hit us, how could we…?"

"Texas, retrieve the drone NOW" said Swiss.

I didn't need to argue that. Minutes later, the drone was clear of the debris field. I gave it one more final command, heading it towards Telesto and then I broke the cable connection. I knew I had to go back slow, but I wish I could have gone back faster. Getting there, the plans were already being drawn up.

"Then it's clear what we do." Said Jarhead. "Texas, Swiss, and Shogun will go in, with booster packs running at full tilt. At the last moment, release those Spearheads and I mean all of them. Then get the hell out of there."
"The rest, Texas, will be lying in wait waiting for anything survives. They'll hit them from behind as the survivors chase us." Said Swiss.
"I guess this is the time and place to test the extended thrust time of these booster packs, isn't it?" I quipped.
"Texas, Swiss, and Shogun we've got your six. Go on ahead." Said Jarhead. And, he added: "We're going to move a dozen more km away, protected by this moon. . If that refueler has as much fuel as I think it has, then it's going to go off like a fusion explosion!"

Swiss, Shogun, and I went very slowly to the debris field and the place the drone had entered. My throat got really dry, and my hands a little sweaty. Once we were in the opening, we could see for ourselves just what a huge target this was.
"It looked a lot smaller from the drone!" joked Swiss.
"Do you think they know what's about to happen?" asked Shogun.
"They won't have much time to think about it! This whole sector is going to light up real soon!" I said.
"Alright, everyone synchronize on me." Said Swiss. "Arm Spearheads. Check."
My Spearheads came up all ready! My heart was pounding a mile a minute.
"Engage boosters in ten…nine…eight…seven…six…five…four…three…two…"
"ONE!!!" he yelled.

We shot out of there like a bat out of hell. We started flying by thousands of 'Clan ships, still connected to the "umbilical" cords. The surprise had been complete!

"Large 'Clan presence. We caught them with their pants down." Said Swiss, over the comms, for all to hear!
"Prepare to fire…three…! NOW FIRE"
The Spearheads launched from us. We pulled up in a huge arc. The strain on my F-911 was almost too much.
"Two..ONE!!! Direct hit." Yelled Swiss.

The Spearheads had hit their marks. Almost immediately we could see explosions all up and down the line. 'Clan fighters at the end of the line were breaking free. But then, just as we were pulling out of the debris field a massive explosion lit up space. I guessed that everywhere scanners would be picking this up.

"Wow, that took out everything in its path!" exclaimed Shogun.
"We barley got out of there in time, boy what a fireworks show!" I said.
"Just like August the 1st." Swiss replied. (That was Switzerland's answer to the American 4th of July, except it was far older.)
He always had a way to remind us of Swiss history. Even in a moment like this, it made me chuckle. The suddenly…
"Lookout, Bogies!" yelled out Swiss.

Hundreds of hornets, mad as you know what, were chasing us. They were the lone survivors. And our booster packs were dying and they were closing in fast!

"Eject booster packs!"
"Packs away! Thrusters running!"
"This is going to be close. Multiple targets bearing down." I said.
"Anytime now" I thought to myself.
Then, on all frequencies so all could hear…

"Sucks to be you!!!" yelled Jarhead!

To say that the surviving 'Clans were surprised was an understatement! Most didn't even know what hit them as numerous Spearheads flew amongst their ranks and exploded!

"Tally ho, gun down the rest." Said Jarhead.

Shogun shot strait forward as Swiss told me to break hard left. We joined in the game! But, it was all over except for stragglers.

"Yeah baby! Get some of that!" yelled Jarhead!

We were all laughing and whooping it up over the comms! What an incredible stroke of luck! I was saying a lot of quiet prayers and thanks! The shock wave had continued on for quite some time, even some ships managed some damage from it. If the 'Clans had been surprised, so had been the JMF Fleet! The explosion had shocked and awed everyone watching scanners for enemy activity! Coming from a so called "quiet" sector made an even bigger impression! Commodore Albergottie had gambled, and it had paid off.

That single act ended all 'Clan hopes! And, more importantly for us, the Saturn Campaign was finished!

Arriving back to the 'Lex, we were mobbed by hundreds of cheering people! And, over the intercoms as well! Col. Bonca greeted us as we assembled and walked towards the cheering crowd!

"Commodore Albergottie wishes to send you all immense thanks and congratulations for a job well done!" he said.
Just as we finished saluting him, we were all lifted up by members of the Chief McCleod's crew and sister squadrons! We were giddy with victory! We had survived, and we had hurt the 'Clans really hard!

"Hey, you're all invited!" yelled Steve.
"Carolyn and I are getting married!" he said.
"Party time! Through him into the pool!" Everyone said.
And this time, only one guy, Steve, got thrown in!

The chapel was all made up for the wedding of Steve and Carolyn. David's wing and mine were all lined up opposite each other, decked out in our dress uniforms, and swords. Even David had his huge sword with him! Steve's best man was Eric, Shawn was the MC, and the rest of his wing was groomsmen. Carolyn was dressed in a very traditional white dress. How that was managed was a miracle of logistics. She had several friends from the Nurses Corp as her bridesmaids. Chaplin McCreary was presiding over the ceremony. While I was standing at-ease, I thought back to the simple ceremony Lori and I had had when we got married. I managed to all but ignore the wedding ceremony as my thoughts went back to home, and family. I smiled, which got a confused look from David! Finally, the words "I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Steve Bascay" were spoken by Reverend McCreary and Shawn then spoke up.
"Detail!" shouted David and I, looking towards Shawn.
"Ah-ten-huh" said Shawn. (In that thick USMC accent of his-once a Marine always a Marine!)
We snapped to attention.
Our swords were lifted up and formed a tunnel.
The music then played and Steve and Carolyn walked past us. When they had past the last two guys we withdrew the swords to our sides.
"Detail…Dismissed to reception!" said Shawn.

The observation deck was where the reception was held. The band was playing, and they were quite good. There was plenty of food-compliments of some favors granted, and quite a few people. Most of our guys managed at least a few dances, but I stayed pretty much to myself. I walked over to the main window. The view was breathtaking! If you hadn't been through it, you wouldn't have thought that a very bloody conflict had just been concluded. The Rings of Saturn were magnificent to say the least. And, the fleet was just massive. It felt good to just relax, having had some food and the rare beer; I started to write in my e-book. Shawn and David sat down on some chairs next to me.

"That's quite the view, isn't it?" said David.
"It sure is. Peaceful and beautiful now." Shawn responded.
"Jon, is that your e-book?" asked David.
"Yeah, I finally decided on what to really write Lori. More than the usual quick emails during a campaign." I said.
I wrote some final words and clicked the "FINISHED" command.
"Hey Jon, let me see!" said Shawn.
"Sure, here you go."
I handed him the e-book and continued to look out at the scenery. Shawn read the message after several minutes of silence.
"Jonnie! I told you not to worry and such! Good job!" he said. Then proceeding to grab my head and rub his knuckles over my scalp, laughing.
"Hey…." I protested. "Let David read it!"
He handed it to David and then released me from his grip.
David was reading the e-book when Major Chupa walked up to us. We stood up real fast but he motioned to just continue sitting.
"I just wanted to tell you guys how proud I am of you all." He said.
We could tell he was a little drunk. Was he also sad? We had to about lift our jaws off the deck after what he had just said.
"You guys are the best of the best." He said. Then he walked away.

We all had a confused look on our faces when Col. Bonca walked up.
"He's trying guys, he really is." He continued "He's been through a lot. And, I know you guys know!"
Smiling at that, he then sat down next to us.
"This campaign seemed to take forever sir." Said David.
"Yes it seems to have. Especially given how busy you guys kept yourselves before the Campaign even started!"
We chuckled at that.
"Oh, just for the record. You guys really trained the 332nd well-too good actually."
We looked at each other with strange looks on our faces.
"Lieutenant Torrence has been promoted. You see, he and his pilots did such a fantastic job of escorting the bombers that not a SINGLE one got scratched during the entire campaign! Comments such as 'Ruthless in attack. Fearless under combat' were in his promotion letter." Said Col. Bonca.
"Looks like we did our job then Colonel!" said David.
"Yes you did!" he said chuckling. Then he continued "And what you did really hurt the 'Clans."
"Just how bad, sir?" I asked.
"Kryton, you guys hurt them so bad that the best proctologists from New Columbia couldn't fix what was done to them!"
We all laughed long and hard at that. Then just before Colonel Bonca walked away...
"You know," he said leaning in close, placing his hands on my shoulder and David's.
"Over a thousand diagnostic tests later, we'll never figure out why only three pilots had their scanners light up."
We all looked at each other and just nodded slightly, and thoughtfully.
Patting us on the shoulder, the Colonel then returned to the festivities.

"Well guys, it's time for some rack-ops for me" I said to David and Shawn.
"I hear you. I'll probably be heading in too, soon." Said Shawn.
"Same here." Said David.
"See you guys back in the squad bay."

The squad bay was empty as I walked in; everyone else was at the reception. I turned on the lights and headed to one of the terminals. I quickly uploaded my message to Lori from the e-book, added a few voice attachments and clicked the "SEND" function. I quickly changed into a jump suit and lay down on my rack. Sleep came very quickly to me. I entered into a deep sleep. Thoughts and visions came to me.

"JON! JON! Wake up!" said David, shaking me.
"Wha….???" I fumbled with the words.
"I heard you screaming as I walked in." he said.
"Nightmare I think. Fire everywhere! Empty racks!?" I said to him.
My whole body was in a cold sweat. I was shaking.
"What does it mean, Jon?" he asked, concern in his voice.
I sat up. We both looked around the empty squad bay.
"I don't know David. I don't know." Shaking my head.

The empty squad bay looked foreboding. We looked at each other with concern.

"I just don't know…"




Chapter Five
"Jupiter: Farewell, Old Friends"


Copyright 2004, GOOD DEAL GAMES