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Videogame Fan Fiction

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



Chapter Five
"Jupiter: Farewell, Old Friends"


"Praise the Lord and pass the sugar."
Pancakes and maple syrup - the breakfast of champions, maybe. Of Gyruss fighter pilots, definitely. For a guy whose concept of Day's Most Important Meal had been firmly established as bread and jam for most of his life, I had adjusted easily to the ultra-caloric American-style routine that was standard aboard Lexington.
Couldn't complain, really. I had been thinking for a while that the long-endurance feature on the F-911 had been designed mostly as an excuse to deprive us of a nice, hot meal or two.
"Here it comes." I passed the sugar to Shawn. "Easy on that stuff, with all the caffeine you're gulping down it's like rocket fuel."
"Gimme a break - I've been flying long-range recon last night and all I had for dinner was milkshake-tasting liquid rations. If I end this war one pound lighter than when I signed up, I'm gonna sue JMF for starving me."
"You tell me." Retorted Nicola. "My mama would throw a fit if she ever saw what we're eating. Mi passi lo zucchero per favore?"
"Tieni." I recovered the sugar cup from Shawn before he could empty it and passed it to Cellini. "Guys, you ought to pay me for playing sugar-mover and interpreter." Cellini had taken to speak Italian from time to time when I was around - because I could speak it as well.
"Hey, we can't afford JMF going bust before we get paid." laughed Jon.
"I'm just glad JMF can't make Chupa's threat count." The man actually talked about detracting the F-911 I had crash-landed on Titan from my pay. Of course, he couldn't have - legally - especially since it had been recovered if not returned to service, but if that particular threat had been carried out, I'd have had to work for JMF for the rest of my life. If I could live a thousand years, of course.
"Pay no attention to the guy, Swiss. He can't stand us."
"Yeah. Feeling's mutual. He threatened to court-martial me too - for abandoning JMF's propriety."
"Nonsense, David. You got it back after all - not in good conditions but you got it back."
That's the funny thing about military stuff - if you wreck it and bring back the pieces, it's not that bad.
"Well, what about it?" Inquired Shawn. "Any better than the -A model?"
My shiny new F-911B - the only one around - had been a favorite conversation topic for some time but I had deferred discussing it before thorough testing. It was high time to speak out. "It accelerates a little better and carries about 15% more ammunition, power bus is somehow more stable." The Gyruss power distribution subsystems are temperamental to say the least after about 10 hours in-flight. "Cockpit is a little larger, too. The cooler stuff is in the software department, anyway. It does its search-and-track stuff way faster, and I have never had to reset it."
"Heard the shield also has better hard rad protection." Added Jon.
"Yeah, but I'm not that keen to check it out. Anyway, word is that the -D version is way cooler."
Nicola laughed. "Then we'll have to find us a nice comfy Jovian moon and crash-land the whole of 357th!"
"Don't say it aloud." Shawn said. "If Chupa hears you, and you come back with even a small scratch on the hull, he'll want detract the paintjob from your pay."
Beep! My wristwatch's pager flashed, notifying me of an urgent message. "Sorry guys, got to check the mail."
"Personal stuff, huh? Must be love letters again." More laughter. Somehow (though I had some suspects), someone had heard about the flood of mails I had been receiving from some nubile Swiss girls who had happened to see my mug plastered on some e-newservice front page. Being a poster boy is tougher than it sounds like, especially when it comes to the slagging you get from your buddies. I had since ran out of one-liners to counter it, so I just left.

I began to worry halfway to my room. Urgent is not a label assigned lightly to personal messages, since it flags them for precedence over other mail relaying. We were in wartime, so the post office must have assigned it - civilians were not allowed to label their stuff anyway they liked because nobody could risk a letter from your mum getting ahead of an ammo request form. So, urgent meant just that. What had happened home? I stepped up my pace just out of the transcar and almost raced to my door. Somehow I managed to complete the security identification procedure without fumbling and then the message came out on the screen.

FROM: sgtm Kurtz, Hans Rudolph, cp III/495
TO: I lt Kurtz, David Wilhelm, 357th Squadron

[- no subject -]

--- MESSAGE FOLLOWS ---


Willi,

I don't really know how to tell you but I have to. There has been an accident this morning at Nebelsee. Brytta has died - she and her family were on a boat when a storm broke out. Little Peter lost balance and fell into the water - she jumped too and managed to catch him but the water was frigid and she couldn't swim back. They pulled Peter out but a wave came along. She went under and never came up.
They found her ashore after the storm ended - looked like she was sleeping. Doctor says she didn't feel a thing, hit her head against a submerged log, passed out and drowned.

I know this will be pretty hard on you and I hate myself for breaking the news this way. God knows you have already a lot of things to worry about but I know how much you and Brytta were close. Mother has been crying her eyes out all day long and Dad's pretty upset too, the Schwetters are not just business partners. I wonder who will tell Peter her sister is gone; he's still under observation.

The funeral will be held tomorrow. We know you won't be able to attend but everyone's here is thinking about you. Take care and be back soon. We're all pulling for you.

Rudi


--- END OF MESSAGE ---


I stood there, unable to think, unable to move.
Brytta has died.
How could it be?


* * *


I had known Brytta Schwetter since we were kids. Well, almost. Our family had been in the Outer Territories since they had first been settled, while hers was a first-generation Outie family. In short, we were patricians and they were bourgeoisies, and the two do not mix. Sort of. Hell, forget about it, nobody really cares but everyone acts like it's damn important. It's a Swiss thing.
Being the same age, give or take a few months, we were around each other a lot. We went to school together, we spent summers together and we were often guests in each other's houses. The Schwetters traded in space mining equipment and my family had a mining business so our families were in pretty good terms.
As teenagers, our relationship made a sort of quantum leap. I know what you're thinking about but you're wrong: we were never boyfriend-and-girlfriend in any sense. We had been through too much of our life together to even think spending the rest of it the same way. But we did a lot of fooling around - as other teenagers stumbled and fumbled their way in the wondrous world of sort-of-adult romance, we simply turned to each other. It was, for lack of a better term, familiar territory: no broken hearts, no hurt feelings. Anyone who ever said a man and a woman can't be friends while sleeping together doesn't know jack.
We saw other people, of course. There had never been any jealousy between us, and when she began dating guys I was happy for her (though I always did some background check on them, just in case) and when at the ripe old age at 17 I had my first serious romance Brytta even threw a mock engagement party. Oh well, it did last an eternity. All six months of it. And a half.


* * *

Time waits for no man or Gyruss pilot. With Jupiter and its moon looming ahead, we had to train and train hard - and yet 357th seemed to take it easy. We were the veterans, the survivors, the 'Clan-slayers, and everybody seemed to look up at "the Squadron" as we were being called by the media back home. It shouldn't have gone to our heads but somehow it did - we were used to get out unscathed where entire wings had met their doom, to pull ourselves from the thickest furball, to down even enemy major ships with our fighters. Inevitably, we were beginning to think ourselves invincible.
I kept my grief for myself: what I had with Brytta was mine, and although my buddies were the closest friends I ever had something inside me didn't want to share anything. When training or duty didn't keep my mind busy and memories came back, I found myself an excuse and went back to mourning in private.
It felt absurd. It wasn't right - out here we were seeing so much death that it had grown to be a constant companion. We were at war, and it was only natural but how could folks back home keep dying like they did in peacetime? How could they dare? Couldn't they see how precious life was, and just be careful? Yet beside the front pages of e-newservices, which were fully dedicated to the conflict, there they were the odd car accident, the house accident, the miner forgetting to check his suit before stepping out of the airlock… Life, and death, as usual.

"Everything checked out, chief?" I asked walking to my F-911.
"Yessir. It's a good bird. As good as it can be. The mod you asked for, it's done."
"Good." I did a quick check around and opened the bag I had been lugging from my room. Inside there was my Stgw-11 and two full magazines, with a couple of ammo boxes for good measure. I climbed into the cockpit and locked the rifle into the rack mounted behind the seat - the new -B was a little more roomy and if anything funny like Titan happened again, I wanted some more firepower on my side.
"Cool job, chief." I did a thumbs up. "I owe you one."
"Just bring it back in one piece, sir. Don't forget those." He handed me a zip-bag filled with plastic strips. I shivered.

There was a new enemy waiting on Jupiter, one that we couldn't fight with the Gyruss arsenal. Radiation - the bogeyman of space travelers - the space around the giant planet was burning with it. The F-911's shielding and armor can withstand hard rad, but it's designed to cope with nuke flashes, the occasional stellar flare or radiation storm, not full immersion in a massive EM field; we were given extensive briefings on radiation sickness, on the treatment which would be administered - quickly - to anyone exposed, to the importance of getting back to base before the rad-sensitive plastic strips strapped to our wrists and legs became blue, the color of radioactive death.


* * *

"Fox Three!" My fighter vibrated as the Spearhead missile launched and the disposable pod disintegrated. Switch to next target, designate, lock-on and… "Fox Three!" There goes another.
"Leader, this is two. Enemies at two o'clock high."
"Roger that, turn to engage. Wing, combat spread!"
"Leader, this is three. I have ten - make it twelve bogeys coming about from above the horizon. Engaging now - Fox Three!"
Damn, double damn and triple damn. Three days into the Battle for Jupiter and we weren't apparently making any dent into the 'Clans ranks. They had been making serious dents in ours, instead.
"Swiss, this is Texas. Check rad strips. We're going into the green." Came Jon's voice through the voice channel. I shot a look at my thigh strip - it was glowing greenish. Hot but not deadly yet.
"Texas, we're green already. We're boosting the shields - gonna buy us some time. Disengaging in thirty seconds. 1st Wing - fire at will and form on me."
"Two."
"Three."
The last of our missiles flew ahead. Engaging into Death Spirals, we merged with the Ideoclan formation with our pulse guns firing. Silent explosions flashed into the darkness as we turned around to rejoin with the rest of the squadron.
"Everybody max out speed." Jon directed. "Lex is waiting."
It seemed to take forever getting back to base. At least we touched down and to our surprise we were ordered to move to the standby area instead of rearming. Another surprise followed as we were directed to shut the 'planes down and go into debriefing ASAP. Upon getting to the debriefing room, we found out why.

Green were the strips and green we were too. Green as in puke-green, green as the faces we saw in our mirrors. I was already shaking badly when I lay down on the bed as rad treatment began - blood purification, nanosurgery, you name it they had it ready. We were in no condition to protest and there was no alternative: radiation damage is cumulative. You either repair it or it will catch up on you and kill you in the most unpleasant way.
But this was small consolation. As we dragged ourselves back to our rooms to get some rest, we looked like a bunch of drunks swaggering in a most un-military way and holding on each other in order not to fall face-first to the floor.
And as a side effect, the treatment seemed to have taken away my capability to sleep. I looked at the ceiling, too weak to move, but not to think. And remember.


* * *

"What you're going to do?" Brytta asked, nestling against my shoulder, looking at the night sky.
"Right now you mean?" I asked shifting a little to make her more comfortable. The earth felt soft under the plaid we were lying on but it was no substitute for a foam mattress.
"No, stupid. You know what I mean."
High school was over. Come next year, we would be University students. Our teenage years were coming to an end - the end of an era for both of us. I was going over to Astronautics and Space Engineering, Brytta would be taking Economics and Resource Administration. With the Federal Campus being the size of a city, we'd be seeing each other a lot less. More so since Astronautics meant 'field trips' - going into space and actually work there. I was looking forward to it, had been 'spacing around' since sixteen and loved every moment of it.
But for the first time I would really be alone. My father would not be around to pull me out of trouble. My big brother would not be looking over. And Brytta - she would not be there.
"Why don't you take Economics too? Or maybe Law, or Planetary Engineering." She said. "You can travel as much as you want when you have a good job. There's no need to enlist."
"Look, Bri, we've been through this already. Space Exploration wants pilots and navigators, and you can't get into Space Ex if you're not been through Astronautics." The only other way was to become a space fighter pilot, which was a most absurd notion. "Two years into Astro, then military service… Damn, I'm having orientation two weeks from now. Got to ask Rudi what not to tell the guys in green. Wouldn't want to end up in some logistics battalion or worse."
"You don't have to do military service. You could…"
"Hush, Bri. I want to serve. Nobody gets into Space Ex's high echelons without serving. I want to explore, not service engine tubes."
Brytta shifted a little and bit my ear. "You're a big kid. You're going to get lost on some rock out there, be captured by aliens and turned into a space zombie."
I laughed. "Maybe I'll get captured by space amazons looking to repopulate their planet."
She punched me in the ribs. "Dümmli."
"Hey, are you jealous?" I joked.
She didn't answer. In the darkness, I could not see her face. "I'm not." She said finally, and we didn't go back to the subject anymore. The night was young.
So were we.


* * *

"If we're going to go through that damn treatment again, I'm not coming back." Said Nicola.
"If we've got to, we ain't gonna be in shape even to get out again." Retorted Shawn. "Is anybody hungry?"
After treatment, we had been 'eating' liquid rations - less work on our mistreated digestive systems but no substitute for real food.
"Heard they're spraying the fighters with some anti-rad paint. Supposed to improve the shielding." offered Shawn.
"They can spray me if it's any good at all." Jon answered.
I tried to attack my 'meal' with some surrogate of enthusiasm, to no avail. We needed to eat, and not just out of hunger. Complete blood replacement means having synthetic blood in you for a while, and although it's incredibly efficient in carrying oxygen and impervious to pathogenic agents, it's not the real thing by a couple of parsecs and some. It makes you feel weak, something with its partial inability to carry nutrients. The body eventually replaces it with the genuine article, but in the meanwhile it's like getting up after a bad case of flu.
"I just hope the 'Clans are as vulnerable to radiation as we are." I muttered.
"According to Hunt they are - and I bet they ain't bothering to give'em any treatment." Jon said. "They just don't care."
"Yeah. Just like those terrorist guys in the history books."
Nicola looked up. "What's a terrorist guy?"

"This is a good day."
"Good to you, Ahmed. You ain't going out." I told the fire crew chief, half-laughing. Ahmed, two meters tall and some, had been with the fire crew since Lex had been launched and had been promoted to chief just after Saturn. I'm not sure if that's what he would have liked, for Ahmed was a no-nonsense guy who enjoyed working, not ordering people around to work in his stead. "Just make it so that we have something to come back to."
"God willing, the Lexington will be here for you." Ahmed replied.
"Yeah." I signed the board and started to climb out. "Hey, since you're in good terms with the Big Guy, won't you put a good word for me?"
"I will, but don't worry. God is merciful. You will be safe."
Jee-ru-sa-lem, I hope so. Radiation hardening notwithstanding, it was clear we couldn't flight and fight in the Jovian radiation field at maximum endurance, which meant more turnaround, increasing the likelihood of accidents. The new rule was get out, get it done, get back, get cured, get sleep. Like it was easy.
I felt the tug as my fighter was loaded into the catapult elevator. Time to go.

* * *

Willi,

The ceremony has taken place this morning. It was raining but there were a lot of people anyway. All of your school and university buddies and although you couldn't attend, we knew you'd have been there if you could have. There was a heavy downpour until about the end, then the clouds parted and for a moment there was sunshine like we haven't seen for months. Almost like she was saying goodbye.
Peter is up again and getting better, physically at least. It's gonna be hard for him, he's putting on a brave face but he's only a little kid.
I overheard Dad talking with the local military head of section, he was asking for at least a not-combat post but he's overage. You know the old man, he's got two sons in the Army and feels cut out. He should know he's more useful now that he's helping out with the merchant's fleet reconversion in case the enemy comes around our space.
Well, that's all for now. I've got to report back to HQ in two hours. The maglev leaves in 30 minutes. Take care.

Rüdi.

--- END OF MESSAGE ---

* * *

"Break left NOW!"
"2nd, form on me and engage."
"1st, disengage and regroup, there are too many of them!" I called out while trying to steady the Gyruss. Between Europa and Io there were more 'Clan fighters than we had ever seen. More than we could handle.
"Mamma mia, quanti ce ne sono!" Nicola joined formation on my left.
"Yeah. Three and Four, space out. Say situation."
"Three, guns only."
"Four, I have two… FOX THREE! I correct, one spear left."
"Roger that. Texas, Jarhead, you need any assistance?"
"Negative Swiss, we're… GUNS GUNS GUNS!… Outta here."
"1st, back to base, on the double!" Count one, two, three, pull back stick and throttle out… I grunted against the g-forces as the fighter fought to change its velocity vector.
"Guys, this is murder." Shawn commented over the commnet as squadron upon squadron flew into battle to take the place of those who had to go back before rad could take its toll.
"Right on, Jarhead, right on." Texas sounded tired. Couldn't blame him. We all were.

Back on Lex, the treatment was quicker and less painful but unpleasant nonetheless. At least this time we would have been able to eat solid stuff. I missed eating solid stuff. I missed sleeping. I missed a lot of things. I missed home.

* * *

"Home sweet home." I muttered climbing down the stairs from the shuttlecraft. After three months in low-gee I was feeling heavy.
"Man, college life's a bitch." Jean-Luc said just beside me. "Three months cooped up on Darkside ain't no fun."
"That's space travel to you." I swaggered towards the spaceport's transit station. Low gravity has a way to change your walking habits. "See ya on Darkside."
"Salut, David."
"Bis bald."
Darkside was the massive space station in synchronous orbit, positioned so that it was always sitting above the planet's night side. Cool for astronomy but it makes you a little depressed looking down at the city lights from a place where the most exciting thing to do was staring at the docking lights change color - and there is only one visible from the students' area.
"Hey there." A voice called out. Turning around I saw a figure in white and blue beside a car, at the spaceport's lot. Brytta.
"Hey there you and some." I called back. "Looking at the pretty shuttles going up and down?"
"Looking for you, dummkopf." She motioned for me to climb aboard. "Maglev's off. There's a broken down loco two stations back, won't be up for some hours. Though you might use a ride."
The road between the spaceport and industrial area to the outskirts of Neues Zuerich is one of the best sights on the planet, running alongside fields on one side and the Sonnensee just to the left, coming from the spaceport. It's rarely used because the maglev train is way faster if not so spectacular.
"Nice new car." I commented.
"Thanks. I've had it for one month now. Should have come as a birthday gift but Dad thought I would have needed it sooner. The campus' transportations are far worse off than the spaceport."
"I hope Fredy's not jealous." He was Brytta's boyfriend, had been for about three months. I had never met him in person and didn't know if he was the jealous kind of guy.
"Fredy's history. He dumped me for being a 'snob girl'."
"Imbecile." I snorted. "He ain't in your league."
"No loss. He couldn't stand me getting better votes. What about Katherine?"
"Katherine's history too. She dearjohned me a couple of weeks ago. Looks like she found someone better."
"Lucky man."
"Lucky girl." I retorted. "Kathy's been a bit late in checking out her tastes."
Brytta laughed. "Well, better this way. She did look at me funny when you introduced us before going up."
I laughed too. "It's a crazy universe."
"It is. How's up? Heard Darkside is not exactly a luxury resort."
"Comfortable it ain't. It's a research station, mainly. After the first three days of orientation, we've been put to work. Astrometrics, long-range imaging, this sort of stuff. Then we got to fly some propods, I've done it for years so I've been doing cool at least on that. Math's giving me a headache instead."
"Can't imagine how people can live cooped up in that place." Brytta was a little claustrophobical.
"Oh, it's spacious after all. It's mostly in zero-gee so you can sleep on the 'ceiling' if you want. The gravity areas are in the utility and command-and-control centers and we have ships docking and departing every day so it's not like we get bored. Some guys do get weird, though."
"Weird as in crazy?"
"Weird as in odd. But yeah, we've got worried once. Some new guys decided they had enough, loaded up in a utility pod and undocked. They didn't figure out that they couldn't come down from synchronous in that, much less land. Took six full hours to warm up another pod, catch up with them - they had drifted some while trying to lower orbit - dock and bring'em back to Darkside." I tried to make it sound like small stuff but it had been quite scary. The pod had sailed away with limited life support and it had been recovered with just minutes to spare on the CO2 scrubbers.
"They sent them home?" Brytta asked.
"Nope. They got ran over pretty badly, though. What's the plan?"
Brytta laughed. "You got planetside one week early. Thought you had plans."
I shrugged. "Figured I'd spend the week downtown from the spaceport. Or maybe visited the Southern Ocean, it's just two hours and some on a shuttle…"
"No you didn't." she interrupted me.
"No I didn't." I admitted. "Haven't the foggiest idea. I thought to play it out by ear…"
"I have a room at a shore side inn by the Sonnensee. You game?"
"Me game." You don't agree with a smart girl.

"Why don't we go downside?" Brytta asked me.
"We're already downside." We were lying beside the lakeshore, catching some sun. I had a bad case of 'spacer's tan', the peculiar paleness that space travelers get after months without natural light, and only UV lamps to get your vitamin D working.
"I mean Earthside. I was born there but I can't remember it." She took off her sunglasses and stared at the horizon. "I'd like to see if it is as beautiful as they say."
"Dad says it was a mess."
"Yes, my father says so too. But I'd like to see Earth with my eyes. Just once, out of curiosity."
"Well, you'd better wait for better times." I stood up. "Things may heat up a little in the next months."
"Why so?"
"The Colonies want independence, and the governments Earthside aren't willing to go along. If push comes to shove, we might have to forego deep space travel for a while."
Brytta looked alarmed. "You mean there could be a war? Nobody said…"
"Nobody knows downside, but up there…" I pointed up "… News travel fast."
"I can't see why they'd want independence. We don't, what's the issue?"
"It's not like us, Bri. We're Outer Territories. We hold more seats in the Federal Assembly than the states Earthside. We can do whatever we want, and we can trade with anyone we like. The Colonies can't, they've got to follow orders from their respective governments and people are fed up - and rightly so."
"And if Earth forces come their way? What can they do?"
"Don't know, but they're not going to roll over and surrender, you can bet on it."
She shivered. "It's getting windy. Let's go inside."
We got up and to the restaurant, and over a cup of tea we forgot about the Colonies and Earth. They were light years away.

* * *

The briefing was longer than usual. Bad sign.
"You'll be covering bombers on the way in to Io." Major Ryan explained, "then you'll begin a search-and-destroy pattern in the area until the second wave comes around. At this point, you'll escort the second wave on the way out." He touched the e-board console to change graphics and highlighted the Io sector. "Intel reckons it's buzzing with 'Clan fighters so we can't leave it unguarded. The pounders got hammered out badly last time 'round, so we've got to change tactics."
There were some loud sighs around me. We knew what it would be leading to.
"As an added precaution against radiation, we're supplying you with rad-hardened suits. Comfy it ain't but it's miles better than getting fried. On the plus side, the new suits have better conditioning, so you won't boil. Keep the enviro controls on the lo-temp settings anyway. It's gonna be one long flight."
Nice and getting nicer. Flying in a hardened suit was bad enough, having to go into endurance mode with rad-suits on made electroconvulsive therapy sound appealing.
"You're getting the new booster packs as default configuration." Ryan went on. "They're far more stable than what you guys were used to, so hold on them, they'll kick you out of the danger area faster if you need to. They've been juiced up too, watch out for high gees - the dampers are not set for this kind of thrust and you'll have to be ready. Just don't fire them if you've got bogeys on your tail, the rocket makes for one hell of an IR signature."
Better and better. I shot a look at Jon. It's gonna be bad.
"Now, move out and move on. Good shootin', folks!"
Good shootin', indeed.

* * *

You gotta be kiddin'.
Jupiter loomed large in the ever-dark sky, as we approached Io at full speed. Behind us the bombers' wing held close formation to present the smallest possible cross-section to the enemy lidars. Like it would work. You couldn't fool the 'Clans this way.
Sure enough, they were there. "Bogeys, eleven o'clock high!" came the call.
"Roger. Combat spread - boomer disperse." The 'boomers' or bombers had now to spread out to avoid being taken out by single missile hits - some missiles the 'Clans had been fielding lately had proven murderous in the extreme.
"Incoming!" Something flashed from the general direction of the volcanic moon. Another flash went by - and one of the bombers disappeared in a cloud of debris.
"Mamma mia!" That was Cellini. "That ain't no missile."
Right on. The warning had not gone off - another flash.
"Guys, that's a railgun down there." I called out. "Maybe more than one. Change course. Boomers, bring it on."
"Roger, Leader. Engaging ECM now." The boomers turned their countermeasures on. Let's hope their gear isn't any better than ours.
More flashes. There was a whole battery on Io. Whoever was down there must have been out of their minds: the moon was an inferno of volcanic eruptions and a tortured, active surface. Either the 'Clans were more fanatical than we could even imagine, or there was a robotic defense on the surface. The bombers were supposed to pound an orbital radar facility with long-range missiles, but nothing was expected on the ground. We didn't have any ordnance that could hit the guns on the surface.
"Leader, we're nine hundred seconds from IP." Higeno warned me.
"Lex, this is Viper Flight. We've got ground fire from Io - uploading coordinates now. Multiple bogeys unbound. We could use some help. Out."
"Roger, Viper. Wait one. We're hailing Vincennes."
Vincennes was a heavy cruiser, serious firepower to say the least. Still I couldn't see how a warship way out of our position could…
"Viper Leader, this is heavy cruiser Vincennes. Please update estimated enemy position via datalink."
I punched some commands into the console, relaying the guns' estimated position to the cruiser. Another flash lighted up and something behind us blew up into nothingness. Another bomber I thought.
"Viper, this is Vincennes. Get outta there fast. There's some heat on the way, thirty seconds."
"Roger. Wing, on my mark turn to the bogeys and let rip. Boomers, stay glued. Don't stray."
"Two."
"Three."
"Four."
"Five."
"Wilco, Leader." This was the bombers' leader.
"Right. Three, two, one… MARK!"
We turned towards the incoming fighters and went to full power, the bombers straight behind us. One by one, the lidar resolved the targets and locked. Before I could pickle my Spearheads off, I saw something just to my right side - some kind of flash, but not from Io. From space.
There was another flash, a hundred of times more brilliant, on the volcanic moon's surface. I thought it could be some sort of eruption, but it was just too violent. From where the railguns had been firing, a shockwave rippled outwards, the ground itself melting under the impact.
"Viper, this is Vincennes. Splash."
"Vincennes, this is Viper leader. Splash indeed." I had been reading about the JMF ships' weaponry for a long time since I landed on Paradise, but numbers did not do justice. The cruiser's batteries had just turned several square kilometers of rock into molten lava.
"Fox three!" The first missile from my wing went off - that had been Brooks. Time to go to back to work. Time to kill.

* * *

"You're crazy." Brytta looked at me like I had just suggested throwing myself off the Nid des Aigles cliffs.
"Take it easy, Bri, and slow down." I was struggling to take off my dress uniform jacket while sitting, something that the uniform's designer had tried to make as difficult a task as possible.
"You're crazy." Brytta repeated. "Thought you had enough of it. You've been writing me each and every week how hard Army life was and then you sign up for more."
"Aw, it was hard but it's supposed to be." I retorted. "And I didn't sign up - I have marching orders."
Brytta turned the car to the roadside and shut the engine off. This was my fourth long leave since marching off to military service, and she had played chauffeur to me all times, shuttling me back and forth from the Army field. It was faster - and more fun - than catching the train to Neues Zuerich and commute to the monorail and finally to a car shuttle to my neighborhood. The journey takes up to five hours if you strike lucky: for some perverse reason, the Army tends to set up its facilities as far as possible from all signs of civilization.
But Brytta, gentle soul she was, never failed to show up in her convertible whenever we were let on extended leave.
"First you want to get into the Space Exploration Corps even though your folks have a good job just ready for you, then you get all the off-world assignment at the University even if they don't count as additional points for your curriculum, and now you want to go career?" She was almost seething. "When are you going to grow up, David? When are you going to get settled down?"
"Hey, I'm not going career. I…" One look at her face and I knew I had to tread softly. "Look, regs say one can't refuse a promotion, OK? It's not my fault I got good qualifications from my LT. I didn't do it on purpose and… Well, Bri, I'm not going to say I'm sorry for having done well."
She sighed. "I know. You're always trying to prove something. Even to me."
There was an uncomfortable pause. "It's just some more months. I'm not the only one who got the orders. The ranks need all the people they can get because of that tension between the Colonies and Earth. In case something comes up, we've got to get ready to…"
"To fight?"
"… To protect ourselves. Our neutrality, mainly. We don't want to take sides, and we can't have one side or the other use our space to play funny games. It's going to be a full-time job for Space Defense, we grunts will be placed around every spaceport to pull security duty and that will be all." I finally managed to get my jacket off - ah, the fresh air. "It's not going to last long, anyway. The Colonies will get independence sooner or later, Earth will get sore about it but in the long run that's what's gonna happen. They will huff and puff and look scary, then everybody will have tea and biscuits and sign the papers, preferably at Île Géneve so we'll have to do security there too. Then we'll proudly march down Wilhelm Tell Strasse singing 'Gilberte de Courgenay' and the top ranks will make big speeches and we'll go home heroes."
Brytta remained silent.
"Look, I mean it." I went on. "Probably it won't even happen this way. We won't even get mobilized. No need to worry."
Brytta looked up, finally. "I have a bad feeling about this."
"Sorry." I wasn't so good as reassuring people after all.
"No, it's not you. It's not your fault. But ever since you've gone… Well, I have a feeling I won't see you again."
That took me by surprise. I didn't know what to say.
"A guy in my class died one month ago." She said. "He was going home for the weekend… Maybe he was thinking, or didn't pay attention. A car hit him and he fell back, struck his head against a bench. Everybody thought he had just passed away. Didn't look he had hit hard but when the paramedics arrived, he was already gone. Been dead the moment he had hit his head."
"Did you know him?" I asked.
"Not even his name and I wasn't there but… He used to sit always on the leftmost chair, upper row, at Econophysics and never ever changed place, and all of a sudden he wasn't there anymore. All of a sudden he was… Gone." She breathed deeply. "One day I'll be gone too."
"About one century from now." I tried to cheer her up. "Old and gray, surrounded by a host of grand-grand-children…"
Brytta laughed briefly. "It's so brief, David. Life is short. Once I thought we'd be around forever, us and our parents, and our brothers and sisters, and all of our friends. Now… I'm turning twenty next week. I wonder if we'll make it thirty, or forty. I'm not sure anymore."
"Ah, me I'm going to make it one-hundred and fifty and be a grumpy old geezer. I'll sit mumbling all day and trip skating kids with a cane. By the way…" I leaned back and rummaged into my bag, finally finding a packet.
"Look, should have been a surprise but maybe it will cheer you up now." I handed her the packet. "I will not be able to attend to your birthday, so… Happy Birthday, Brytta."
She looked at me, surprised, then took the packet and opened it. Inside there was a blue, white and gold silk scarf - about one month and a half worth of a recruit's pay and a whole afternoon of leave spent going through shops on the other side of the planet - my gift for my longtime not-girlfriend, part-time lover.
"David… It's… Beautiful!"
"Glad you like it." It had been a difficult choice. All the long years we've known each other we had exchanged gifts: books, games, gadgets. But that had been the past. For her birthday, Brytta deserved a woman's gift.
She caressed the silk, then folded the scarf and tied it over her head, like one of those movie divas of old.
"Now I won't have to worry about wind messing my hair anymore." She leaned forward and kissed me. "Thank you, David."
The dark mood was gone. "Dinner for two at Francesco's. You game?"
She smiled. "Me game." Then she fished in her purse and took out a pair of oversized sunglasses. "Bought them on a hunch. Never wore them." She put them on. "So?"
"You ought to be in pictures." I took my camera out and snapped a shot. "And you are."
Brytta laughed and started the engine. "Picture this!" and she poke her tongue at me. I snapped another picture and laughed. Sometimes it's so easy to chase away bad feelings.
Sometimes it's not. A mere seven weeks from a perfect night spent in an inn's room on the outskirts of Neues Zuerich, our world would turn upside down as the Ideoclan armada invaded the Solar System and encircled Earth.

* * *

"The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake."
I didn't envy the chaplain, McCreary, his job. He always had - was expected to have - the right words, and never failed. He had them for everyone: Jews, Christians, Muslims, everybody found comfort in McCreary's words; he made you feel like he had the Almighty's emer freq, and I'm not the only one who suspected he really had.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."
When you're waking up at the most ungodly of hours, strapping yourself in the hot seat of a rocket loaded with weapons only seconds away from being blasted into space… Well, being in good terms with High Up makes things look a little less crazy. Sort of, you're being only slightly in control. Not of your fate, of course, but in case you're going to bit the Big One well, it's like you've got your gyros locked to the right course, so to speak.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever."
Amen. I thought. I wasn't sure if it was right. Unlike most of my fellow pilots, I'm not a religious guy. But the orders that came after, those I understood well.
"Detail, ten-HUT!" We stood to attention.
"Detail, SALUTE." Our hands snapped to our foreheads in the military salute. Someone at a command console somewhere turned a knob, there was a hiss of air venting into space and an elongated pod flew out into space. In a matter of seconds, it was gone.
Major Chupa's coffin.
"Detail, recover, dismissed!" We broke ranks and filed out.
Higeno was the first to break silence once out of the room. "You know, I feel bad. Used to hate the guy's guts."
"We all did." Shawn said. "Should have known better."
"Yeah. You can never know someone too much." Jon added.
Chupa had died the day before, after a particularly vicious attack by Ideoclan fighter-bombers had struck the Lex. He had suffered massive, lethal radiation damage.
"I wonder where all those damn ships come from." said Nicola. "How many carriers have you seen?"
"None. Not that many bases, either." I thought about it. "Either they keep their carrier fleet packed together on the far side of Jupiter, which makes no sense, or…"
"… Or they have something out there we haven't seen." Jon concluded.
"Yeah but…" Brooks' voice was broken off by the intraship alarm system.
"Red Alert. Red Alert. All heads to combat stations. Multiple contacts inbound. All fighter pilots, SCRAMBLE!"

The fighter bay was buzzing with activity. Our F-911s had already been loaded for bear, in preparation for the next strike: six Spearhead missiles, four with the standard armor-piercing dart, two with the new plasma-blast warhead, two Slingshot short-range missiles and of course the internal twin pulse-cannons which were the Gyruss' fangs. All the fighters were fitted with a booster.
We signed for the planes, climbed in and in less than five minutes the whole of 357th was launched. The sky was lighted up by multiple explosions from the defensive missile batteries and from the CIWS particle beam cannons.
"Wolf, this is Lexington. We're going all release, get out of range ASAP." Lex and her escort ships were about to set their defense on full engagement mode, which meant they would open fire on anything moving about - friendlies included. There was no time to check IFF. We acknowledged and went to full military power, dropping to a lower orbit around Jupiter, which would take us out of range faster. Oddly enough, no-one followed.

Eight hours later, hovering above Jupiter's dark side in total EMCON mode, orbiting a dark moon whose name I had forgotten, we had nothing to do but wait. There had been no further communications from Lex, no orders, no update even through the CRM-114 secure comms device. For the first time since we had reached the Solar Systems, we were alone. At least we could talk through the laser channel: at first we had maintained proper comms discipline but as the hours went by, our exchanges had taken the form of a chat among soldiers on sentinel's duty.
"You think it's going bad?" Someone asked. The channel couldn't tell one party from another.
"Naw, Lex's a tough lady. They're gonna pull it through."
"Yeah. Wish they'd bother to tell us. I'm freezing." That must be Nicola, I thought. He was always complaining for the cold. With the Gyruss' systems set on energy saving mode, the heater was one of the first elements to be turned to minimum.
"1st Wing, prepare for sweep." I interjected. When we had reached our station, we had placed the fighters in a triangular formation with the noses outwards, and at set intervals we would turn our sensors on to see if there was anything nearby. Fat chance: Jupiter's neighborhood was spacious to say the least.
The sweep lasted about twenty seconds then we turned the sensors on standby again, but left the passive on. Maybe we'd catch something.
"David, seen anything?" That was Jon.
"Nope. Zilch. Nothing. Looks like the party's somewhere else."
"Yeah. Let's wait it out. Maybe they'll call."
"Maybe." I clicked the channel off and looked out. Jupiter was a sea of darkness beneath us. Thousands of stars shone above. We were as alone as anyone could possibly be.

* * *

Switzerland was at war. You could tell it by the silent streets, by the checkpoints, by the military police everywhere. Neues Zuerich was under a downpour the likes of which I had not seen since childhood, like sky and earth were at war themselves.
The traffic was non-existent. The streets had to be left as clear as possible to allow military vehicles, police, fire departments and medical transport to pass unhindered. Even the gaudy neon lights and colorful beacons had been turned off: the city was "darkened" and all of the windows had their curtain closed. Useless, of course, you don't bomb a city by visible light anymore, but it showed how much the people had adapted to the new reality.
A giant e-board above the commercial district, which usually displayed commercials, was now showing clips of soldiers training, space fighters taking off, IFVs rolling through the countryside; periodically it blanked out and giant words stood out:

ALL FOR ONE

ONE FOR ALL

The Swiss motto in times of war, just like the Musketeers. In my dress uniform, with the shiny new sergeant's laurelled cross on a chevron rank insignia on my epaulets, the white-and-red cordon on my right shoulder and the combat ribbons on my chest (a souvenir of Cold Stone), I felt conspicuous. I had crossed at least three checkpoints on the way home and done a good deal of saluting and returning salutes. The last one had been just a block from my house, where an old man dressed in a Civil Protection uniform and wearing an Infantry insignia - meaning he was a former soldier volunteering for duty - had stood to attention and saluted me as I passed. I returned a sharper than usual salute, two generations of soldiers paying respect to one another while on their respective duties.
I was home, for a while.

"It ain't right." Hans-Rüdi grumbled. "I should have gone."
"Nonsense, son." my father interjected. "The Army needs you where you are now."
My brother was a little upset at the high echelons' decision to send me and two other newly promoted sergeants to a training facility in Colony space. Being the senior, he felt responsible for me but it was no use arguing.
"They should have sent officers." That was my mother.
"Mom, they will be sending officers." I offered. "We're just probing the ground, so to speak. We don't know much about JMF, just the info we've gathered from the commnet. High Up there they want to check out what we're getting involved with before engaging officers."
"Little Willi gets to play spy." Rüdi laughed. "Do you know who else is going?"
"Well, there's Didier from IV/82, they're Artillery and there's Mattia from I/23, they're Ground Defense, Missile Batteries. We use the same stuff the Colonies do, after all."
"Why no Space Defense? I thought they would need pilots."
"They probably have enough of them." I mused. "Especially the Americans. They're fixated with space fighters."
"The Russians too." Father added. "They've taken heavy losses at the Volga Expanse."
"Yeah." This we had learned from our intelligence ops, and it had been leaked to the media. Russian forces had met the Ideoclans at the edge of their space and had managed to turn them back at heavy cost, outnumbered one hundred to one. Cold Stone had been a cakewalk by comparison - we had suffered no casualties. But Cold Stone had been an ambush.
"I'd rather not talk about this now." Mother said, her voice almost trembling.
"You're right, Anna. Willi, dinner is almost ready. Could you help me with the wine?"

We managed to forget the war, at least around dinner. The citizens had adapted quickly to the new situation, with all able-bodied men under 35 mobilized, a good deal of under 45ers re-called to administrative duties and most young women between 20 and 30 serving either in Security or Medical duty. Most of the schools were now open until late to take care of children while their parents were either serving or pulling double-duty at home or work. Even senior citizens were helping out, running places left empty by mobilized personnel. All for one and one for all, I thought. The soldier's creed from time immemorial.
"Do you have to go so soon?" My mother asked as I adjusted my uniform. "You could wait a little while, look, it's raining." Outside, a light drizzle was falling on the empty streets. Knowing the weather around there, it could have turned into a storm very quickly.
"The rain's not going to stop for me, Mom."
"We could at least take you to the station."
"No, it's not necessary and we'd probably be held at a checkpoint. You need a valid reason to get out on a car after curfew." That was an unnecessary measure and everybody knew that, since very few military vehicles needed to cross the city after sundown, but it was part of the 'regular' emergency laws and nobody was complaining much.
Mom looked on the verge of tears and I couldn't blame her. I felt bad for denying her some more moments with a son she could very well not see again. I didn't know what JMF had in store for me. The soldiers manning the checkpoints wouldn't have objected about a family escorting a son to the maglev station, but I wanted to say goodbye at home.
"Brytta would have come to see you." Rüdi told me while helping me close my bag. "She has volunteered as a nurse at Ostenspital. She has the night shift."
"It's OK. Look, I know you'll be on duty from tomorrow on, but check on Mom and Dad if you can. Dad's got his company and Civil Defense, but Mom will feel awfully alone."
"Yeah. Company's stationed just ten clicks from here, I'll check'em out as often as I can. Anyway, Mom's been talking about joining the Civ Def Volunteer Corps, so at least she'll have something to do."
"Great. " The Volunteer Corps covered all those things authorities were now too taxed to oversee such as fire prevention and the like.
"Good luck and see you, son." My father shook my hand. "We're all proud of you."
I hugged my mother, who was putting on the brave face. "Come back soon, Willi."
I didn't leave my brother time to speak. I just snapped to attention - as a sergeant major, he was my superior after all - and saluted. "I take leave!"
Rüdi saluted and shook my hand. "Be careful, sergeant Kurtz." He said half-laughing. "Show those JMF colonists what Swiss soldiers are made of."
"You betcha." With this, I took my bag and left. The drizzle had turned to rain.

By the time I had reached NZ Hauptbahnhof the rain had given in to a downpour. The maglev platform reserved for military transport was n° 13, a single rail covered by a ceramic roof opened to the elements. The train was already there, a green-and-black snail waiting to ferry me to the military spaceport. The train was automated, but a conductor was always around, as traditions dictate. Apart from the conductor, and me the place was deserted (and soaking wet from the rain coming in from the side) since I was to be the only passenger. I was about to board when I saw a lone figure at the end of the platform, hurrying towards me.
Brytta, I knew it before I saw her. She was wearing a raincoat over her nurse's uniform, holding an old-fashioned umbrella in her hand, her blonde hair covered by the scarf I had given her as a birthday present just months before. She half-stumbled and I caught her.
"Bri, what are you doing here? This is a restricted…" I stopped when I saw her face: she way crying, it was no rainwater.
"You stupid doofus!" she blurted out. "How do you dare leaving like that!"
I half protested, she was supposed to be on duty and… But I remembered Rule One about women: they're right, always; and we're wrong, always. And that's the way it is.
"Sorry." I said at last. "I didn't want to disturb you. You have your…"
"I have nothing that can't wait for us." She snapped. "When will you come back?"
"I don't know." I shook my head. "I really don't. We're not dealing with the Brigade Command anymore, that's JMF now. Probably I'll just go to a drill facility on a Colony world or something like that. You'll find me, as always."
She stood silent. "Hey," I tried to encourage her. "I'm just a rifleman. They've got plenty of them. The Americans have whole divisions of Marines, the Russians have more rifle corps than you can shake a stick at. They'll just want to see how we measure up."
But all my cheering didn't help. At the time, I didn't know what was in store for me. I didn't think what JMF might need a Swiss Army sergeant for. 911 was a number and a date past. 'Gyruss' was a word I didn't know. There was an awful lot of 'didn't' in my small world and one big 'should have'.
"Please come back. Promise me." Brytta said at last. "Don't die out there. Don't go where I can't find you."
This time I was at a loss for words. We simply kissed, there on platform 13, me in my dress uniform and she in her nurse outfit, with her coat and headscarf, like in one of those old was movies we were so fond of.
"Don't leave me forever, mein lieblich." Those were the last words she said.
An old-fashioned whistle blew, the last signal to board. Reluctantly, I climbed on and looked at Brytta in the eyes. "I'll be back. Hold on. I always come back, like all bad weeds."
She didn't answer, so I leaned forward and we kissed one last time. As we parted, I whispered in her ear.
I barely managed to avoid getting my head caught by the automatic door, and as the maglev began pulling away I sat down by the window and watched Brytta's figure becoming smaller and smaller as the train accelerated.
Mein lieblich she had called me. My beloved. Into her ear I had whispered a single I love you, something that had been left unsaid for years.
When NZ Hauptbahnhof had vanished from view and the train had reached cruise speed, I fell asleep as all good soldiers do.
Little more than one hour later, I would have reached the Army spaceport, where me and my gear along with two other NCOs would have been loaded up a shuttlecraft, then transferred to a heavy transport to a Colony world. Not long after, I would have landed on a never-heard-of-before planet called Paradise.
I would never see Brytta Schwetter again in this life.

* * *

The CRM-114 came suddenly to life. Lexington under attack and heavily damaged. Assistance required. Number of enemies unknown.
Damn. "This is Leader, engage all systems. Acknowledge." One by one, my wing reported ready. Jon and Shawn had just finished readying up their wings when something abnormally large registered on the sensors.
It looked like Jupiter itself had decided to take a stroll into our detection range. Slaving the camera to the radar, I zoomed on the bogey and felt my blood turning to ice.
The thing was large. Larger than Lex. Larger than anything I had seen. Larger than anything I had ever imagined built by men. The size of a small moon, shaped like an elongated wedge with a two-pronged bow, the Ideoclan supercruiser trundled idly in low orbit around Jupiter, its anodized hull bristling with cannon ports and missile ramps, its cavernous bays - the smallest of which could have accommodated a JMF battleship - disgorging fighters and bombers like wasp nests. The juggernaut was surrounded by half a dozen warships, each one impressive in size in its own way but hopelessly dwarfed by the great beast they escorted.
"Jon, Shawn… Do you see it?"
"I can see it." Jon answered. He was as awed as me.
"Yeah." Shawn didn't waste any words.
"Mamma mia quant'é grande!" Nicola broke silence but I couldn't blame him. How big it is. Right. And that Moloch of a ship was aiming straight for Lex's group. Even at full strength, Lexington's batteries would have had little hope against the thing.
At least the awful truth dawned on me. We're not going back. There would be nothing to land on. 357th couldn't even hope to take on the Ideoclan supercruiser group. This is it. Either stay here and eventually die of radiation poisoning, or come back to Lex's burning hull, and die in a futile battle among the ruins of our carrier or…
"Guys, I've had enough of hiding." Shawn suddenly radioed out. "What about you?"
A pause, then. "Roger, Jarhead. I'm with you." Said Jon.
And then I thought Why not? If this is where we die, then so be it. This way. "You crazy Yankee cowboys… OK, let's do it. 1st Wing, what's the call?" I called out.
"Two. I vote we do it."
"Three. Let's get movin'."
"Four. Rock'n roll."
"Five. Bring it on!"
Those were my boys, playing tough as we faced the Lady with the scythe. "OK. Everybody, arm boosters. We rocket down from their seven o'clock high, lock and fire as soon as in range. Don't call out. Stay close to the hull so they can't fire on us without hitting each other. If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn't, shoot all the same. It's been cool flying with you folks. See you in Valhalla."
There was a series of clicks of acknowledgment as 1st wing got ready. I called Jon and Shawn on the radio. "Well, guys, I hope you're right with all the afterlife stuff because in a few minutes I may be very disappointed. Just… It's been great knowing you. Really."
"Same here, Swiss. Don't give up. Game's not over yet. Second Wing ready."
"Yeah. Who knows, maybe we'll laugh about it later. Ready here."
I breathed deeply as I flipped up the booster cover. Wait for me, Brytta. I'll be with you soon. I thought of something cool to say to my wing before riding to our final battle. I thought of Custer's Last Stand, of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, of Winkelried at the Battle of Sempach, throwing himself on the Austrian spears to open a path for the Swiss patriots. But the image that came to my mind was from a book I had been reading and loving since my teenage years and well into early adulthood. I thought of the epic battles in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, of the desperate ride of the Rohan cavalry on the Pelennor fields, in defense of their allies' city. Steadying my voice, I opened the channel.
"First Wing, on my mark. Three, two, one… Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending!" The booster came to life and I sank into my chair. All of 1st Wing was around me, in arrow formation. 2nd and 3rd Wing had boosted off at the same time, and the whole of 357 was now bearing down on the immense Ideoclan warship from high up on it blind side. In range. I locked and fired off my first missile, then fast-locked a plasma-blast Spearhead straight into the centre of a fighter swarm. The boosters separated, the F-911 now still accelerating by the power of their engines. Like war horses made of steel, with electro-optic nerves, their hearts beating with nuclear power, the Gyruss fighters rode on towards the enemy,
And the enemy reacted. The escort ships' batteries opened up but too late. We merged with the fighter's swarm just as the first missiles impacted, turning a whole formation into a fireball the size of a city block. Our wings separated as Jon's wing attacked the missile ports on the juggernaut's side. Shawn's fighters turned towards the carrier bays. I flew towards the big guns and the sensor domes.
I could almost touch the warship's hull! I felt the familiar trembling as the twin pulse guns opened up, tearing into the armored hull: at this range, they could pierce almost anything. A battery I had targeted blew up like an artificial volcano; something at the edge of my vision moved into position, so I locked it up on the helmet's HUD and loosed off a Slingshot. There was a flash as the missile flew off, then it tracked and exploded, taking another 'Clan craft.
A flight of enemy fighters screamed down in pursuit, but they couldn't maneuver as well as we could. Twisting and turning, I managed to evade their fire, then climbed up and turned around, firing another Slingshot almost point-blank. The explosion threw two fighters against the immense warship's hull, punching a hole into the armor before exploding.
Another contact registered lock-on. Without thinking, I fired off a Spearhead. The kill counter went up one.
I could hear myself laughing. The fear had gone. Even the acceptance of my own fate was a thing forgotten. All that mattered was the battle, for it was the most awesome thing I had ever saw. I felt elated, alive as I had never been. The radar was my eyes; the guns pulse was the beat of my heart; the Gyruss fighter was my body, with wings as eagles, breathing fire like a dragon, the on-board computer was my conscience urging me to kill. I sung as I slew my enemies. They burned and exploded and evaporated into nothingness, the purity of space defiled by blood. Jupiter loomed up in the sky, now illuminated, the Red Spot looking on me like the eye of Odin, like the Dark Lord's Eye from his tower in Mordor.
The madness gripped me as I turned up and down in a deep dive, a plasma-tipped missile roaring from my wing towards the topmost pinnacle of the command tower-bridge of the Ideoclan supercruiser. A fireball erupted, cleaving the structure in two. Into the cleft I flew, firing from my guns.
One lone Ideoclan fighter dropped to my six and fired. I felt the blow. I knew I was doomed. Then it simply disappeared into a puff of plasma, and a Gyruss fighter blasted through the dissipating conflagration. Someone had just saved my life for a few more seconds.
I was now facing the giant bell nozzles of the juggernaut's engines. They were turned off, but the rear batteries were not. I hugged the spacecraft's hull to avoid their fire while looking for another target.
Emerging under the ship, I found what I had been looking for: a shuttlecraft bay was open, right on the belly of the beast. I locked on something inside and fired - and more missiles joined in as my wing opened fire on the same target. My wing had followed. In the grip of berserker rage, I had not noticed them.
Suddenly, the port fighter bay seemed to shudder and, in a flash of fire, it separated from the hull. Shawn's fighters had blasted the structure setting off a chain reaction that blew it open. Another flash from high above signaled a catastrophic explosion inside the superstructure. Those were Jon's boys, blowing up the missile ports.
1st Wing's missiles found their mark and the whole of the shuttle bay was consumed by a massive explosion. The seemingly invincible supercruiser veered off course and ran into an escort ship, crushing it as it plunged into the wedge-shaped hull. The escort ship's core pulsed and another explosion, this time many times more powerful, tore away a chunk of the cruiser.
"1st Wing - let's get the hell outta here!" I screamed into the comms channel. Without boosters, we could only hope to be fast enough. Behind us, the supercruiser broke in two. The aft section rotated, trailing sparks, then a flash brighter than sunlight turned it and everything nearby into superheated gas.
Something hit my craft. This time I felt a sharp and brief pain in my side. I counted heads - 1st Wing was still there! "ALL FOR ONE!" I felt myself shouting in the radio.
"ONE FOR ALL!" came the reply.
But it was not over! Suddenly the screen was filled with symbols for enemy craft. We had slain Grendel. The Beast's offspring were still out there. Our last missile went to seek their targets. Switching to guns, we flew into the furball. Then, a voice came out clear.
"Everybody out there, this is 332. Squawk IFF. Last warning." We complied. Seconds later the sky lighted up with countless explosions as hundreds of missiles found their mark. A few 'Clan fighters survived but were soon killed off by individual F-911s from other squadrons, joining the battle as the tide turned.
I looked up. Many clicks above, but still visible, the Ideoclan fleet was locked in battle with JMF's battle cruisers. I saw at least one capital ship break into pieces and exploding.
"357, this is Lex. Recover. I say again, recover and get ready to relaunch."
Lexington had been hit bad. The main bridge had been hit and the hull was breached. Still, the landing bay was operating. Just as we lined up to land, something zoomed by straight into the entrance.
"Suicide bomber!" There was a flash and a ball of fire, snuffed out by vacuum.
"Multiple bogeys inbound. There's a swarm of them - anyone got missiles?"
Our Slingshots and Spearheads were gone. Nothing left but guns, and precious little power.
There was one last card we could play. Multi-move - lining up the ships, rotating around to combine the firepower of three Gyruss fighters into a single, murderous barrage of fire. Dangerous, forbidden by all regs, and of course we had practiced it. This time it was for keeps.
We lined up, rotated and fired: the barrage tore into the suicide bombers' swarm, obliterating it. But more ships were coming - larger ships.
The something blacked out the red glare of Jupiter - a JMF carrier flew straight between the stricken Lex and the enemy fleet. Its guns and missile ports blazed away. The incoming enemy ships burned away in a wave of white flame.
"This is Martin Luther King. You're clear. I say again. You're clear." The JMFNS Martin L. Luther King Jr flew gracefully by, an angel made of metal. We flashed our strobe lights to salute, then headed back to the wounded Lex. But, we couldn't. We had to land on the 'King.

My first thought when I stopped the engines and opened the canopy was to check out Jon and Shawn's wings. We had been last to land, and Jarhead's guys had flown right into the thick of the fight. I grabbed my rifle and started down the ladder but as I approached Shawn's fighter and saw the paramedic squad carrying a stretcher, I felt suddenly dizzy. My legs gave way. I fell toward the deck, forever as it felt like.
Someone called out MEDIC. Maybe. Or not. It didn't matter. I felt cold, and then warm. And the dizziness was gone. I was just tired. I wanted to sleep.
Sleep…

* * *

There was a rainbow upon the water. The sun shone through holes in the clouds. I could smell the wet grass. This was Nebelsee, the Mist Lake. The place where couples went walking. The place where families spent their Sundays on summer.
The place where Brytta had died. And she was there, of course, standing barefoot on the shore, looking at the sun about to set on snow clad mountains on the other side of the lake.
"It is beautiful." She said.
"You are dead." I heard myself saying.
"Yes. And you will be too. Not now. One day. I used to be afraid, but there was nothing to fear after all."
I tried to remember something, there was a war somewhere. Maybe. It was like a dream, receding fast after waking up. But I could see faces, and names, and those I remembered. Before I could speak, Brytta turned towards me and seemed to shift. Suddenly she was wearing her white and blue dress, the one she liked to wear while riding her convertible.
"They're here. Your friends. They have just arrived."
"Here on Nebelsee?" My voice sounded strange to me. Like I was a figure in a dream and everything else was real.
"No. Here. And you will come here too. I'll be waiting for you.
"Do you mean, I have to go somewhere?"
"You have to go back, for a while. Grieve for your friends' loss if you have to, but don't grieve for them. They're safe. They're saved." She smiled at me. "Now, don't go and say you've seen me or they'll think you're ready for the funny farm. Well, you are but you don't want them to know, would you?" Brytta stuck her tongue out.
I blinked and for a short moment I felt like I was elsewhere, then I was there on the shore again, and I could feel the sun on my face. Brytta shifted again, her shape blurring and becoming clear again. This time she was in her nurse wear and coat, her head again covered by the blue, white and gold scarf like the last time I had seen her. "They're calling you. Don't let them wait."
"I should have told you that…"
"I know. I always knew. Now it's clearer, but you will see me again when the time comes."
Her voice now seemed to come from far away. I couldn't see the mountains. The rainbow had gone. The color was fading away.
"When the day comes, I will find you." I felt something like the soft brush of her lips against mine and everything faded. There was a rushing sound in my ears, like the growing thunder of a nearby waterfall. Once again, I was falling.

* * *

"God is great. You are saved." A woman's voice said.
I came to my senses all of a sudden, and saw a figure in white hovering above me. I blinked and shook my head weakly. Who was there? Then I saw brown eyes, and a white dress, and someone speaking in Farsi.
"David, you alright?" That was a familiar voice.
"Jon? Is that you?"
"Yeah. Harireh - I mean, doctor Sadri - she just declared you out of danger. You had internal bleeding, sounds like a metal splinter nicked your abdominal aorta."
"How bad?" I asked.
"All of 3rd wing." Jon whispered. "Shawn… And all of his boys. They're gone. The Lex too. We came this close to get it… The reactor was overheated."
"They shut it off?" I asked stupidly. I was drowsy from anesthesia. Of course they had shut it off, we wouldn't be alive.
"Yes. The main command lines had been cut so… Ahmed donned a fire suit and went to turn the manual override. I don't know how he made it. Telemetry indicates his life support failed almost three minutes before he reached the lever and temperature inside the compartment was above 500 °C. But we heard him on the radio, he said 'God be praised, I have reached it.' And then the reactor safed."
Jon pointed to a duffel bag in a corner. "We have managed to save much of our stuff. There is yours, rifle, uniforms and everything. You don't come with much in the way of baggage."
"Yeah. Lightweight's my name." Shawn is dead. I thought.
"I'll let you rest for a while. You'll be up in no time - we'll be having a memorial service soon. I'll drop by again to see how you're faring." Jon said, standing up.
Don't grieve for them. They're safe. They're saved..
"I'll be there." I said weakly.
"I know. And, David, could you tell me something?"
"Go ahead."
"While they were operating you, you flatlined."
Flatlined? Then I remembered. It meant my heart had stopped.
"You've been, well… Clinically dead for a couple of minutes before they brought you back. So… Saw anything?"
"You want to know if I have seen Heaven?" I asked.
Jon shrugged. "Well, just curious. See you later. Shouldn't have asked."
I heard myself say "It's beautiful. If you like mountain resorts, that's it."
"Now you're kidding me."
"No, I'm not. And there are angels there. At least, I have seen one."
"With wings?"
"No." I looked at the ceiling. "She didn't have wings. She doesn't need them."


D.W.K.

1st Wing: "After the turn of the 23rd century"
2nd Wing: "In the clear black skies of space you see."
3rd Wing: "Came a roar and a thunder men had never heard"
1st Wing: "The thunder of clone 'Clan war birds."
2nd Wing: "Many men tried, many men died"
3rd Wing: "To kill the 'Clans and turn the tide."
All: "10-20-30-40-50 or more, those damn ole clones,
Come at you and more. Better shoot 'em twice
And over again, or you'll be history and they'll be in
."
1st Wing: "In the nick of time, a hero arose"
2nd Wing: "A funny-looking dog with a big, black nose"
3rd Wing: "He asked the 357th for a new battle plan"
1st Wing: "And Snoopy blew up the 'Clans…"
2nd Wing: "Again and again!!!"(LOUD)
All: "10-20-30-40-50 or more, the 357th evens the score!
Too bad for the 'Clans, they aint no more.
The 357th just robbed their store!"

"Hoo-ah!!!"
"Hey Texas?"
"Yeah Swiss?"
"How come you Texans always say that?"
"I don't know, tradition I guess. Hey Jarhead, why don't you say it for Swiss!"
"Ew-wah, how's that Swiss!"
"You Yanks!"
"Remember, we're Texans Swiss" I quipped.
"So Swiss, what do you guys say? Choc-o-late?" asked Jarhead.
(Lots of intercom laughing)
"Guilty as charged Texas and Jarhead!"
"Just like Chupa to ruin our fun and send us on a patrol!" I said.
"You're right Texas; we haven't had much of a break at all." Said Rev.
"Yeah, we're going to need lots of rest soon enough for the Jupiter campaign." I responded.
"Swiss, this is Texas."
"Go ahead Texas." Said Swiss.
"Whiskey Lima time?" I asked.
"Yes, I agree. Time for all wings for Wing-Leader Time." Responded Swiss.
"Roger, Wing Two-follow my lead." I ordered.
"Whiskey Time!!!" joked my wing members. "Whiskey time!"

Whiskey-Lima Time is the designation for Wing-Leader Time. It allows us to say what's on our minds after a long and tiring campaign.
It also allows us to speak up about our fears and such, privately. We have to flow in a very tight formation for the LASER to work to do this.

"Texas, is it true? Steve and Carolyn have to separate?" asked Rev.
"Yes, the JMF just gave her orders on a medical Frigate, the Slabinski. At least they had something of a honeymoon."
"And the Rev. McCreary, he's been sent to the Frigate as well?" asked Shogun?
"Yes, but only for a few weeks. They have some training going on, looks like we'll be missing his weekly Bible studies." I said.
"That's not good. I have some bad feelings about all of this." Bear said.
"That's not like you to be so anxious Bear" I said. "Did you get some bad news from home?"
"No, just the usual. But, I heard what happened to you after the wedding reception."
"No Texas hasn't jinxed us!" exclaimed Czar. "We're all jumpy from our lack of rest."
"I agree Czar, we need the rest. Jupiter doesn't look good for pilots" I said.
"And, it doesn't look good for troops either." Said Czar.
"Go on, Czar, you've done some background research on Jupiter." I said.
"It's those damn moons, Texas. So many of them; small and dangerous." And he continued.
"But the worst part is all of that radiation. It's ten-times worse than the Van Allen belts on earth. We can't be doing our usual patrol times out near Jupiter."
"Yes, I know. I don't like what they plan on fixing us if we are out there too long. Total blood transfusion with nano-surgery!" I said.
"Just how long do you think they'll keep us on patrols?" asked Shogun?
"I am hoping no more than eight hours, tops. Plus our fatigue factor will be right off the scale."
"We need to keep on our toes out there!" said Czar.
"That also means the 'Lex will be up close and personal. More possibilities for attack then, it's going to be rough. The magnetosphere is going to play havoc with all of our sensors, including the 'Lex's." I said.
"Hmmm. Not good." Said Bear.
"No, it isn't. And, it'll be just as hard on the 'Clans as well." I said.
"Small conciliation. We'd all rather be somewhere else." Said the rest of the wing.
"I know. Oh boy do I know." I said. "Okay, Swiss has signaled me. Time to get back to the 'Lex."
"And rest?" Rev asked?
"Yes, we have a week of rest. Then a week of briefings and campaign preparations." I said.
"Then back to the War." Said Czar.

That time came by faster than we all wanted…

Week One: Himalia Sector
Situation: Heavy Combat
Day: Three

"Status report, everyone Wing Two!" I said on the net.
"Rad levels way high, Foxtrot factor not good." Said Shogun.
"Same here Texas. Getting hot here." Said Rev.
"Bear, Czar?"
"Da, not good Texas." Responded Bear and Czar.
"Yikes, and we still have hours left on this patrol."
"Swiss, this is Two-One. Any word from the 'Lex?"
"Negative Texas, long-range comms are really screwy."
"Incoming! Multiple bogeys, those damn satellites too." Shouted Jarhead.
"All wings, fire at will, conserve your Spearheads." Ordered Swiss.

"Texas, two coming at you!"
"Oh no you don't!" then performing a Death Spiral, I nailed them.
"Gotcha. Lookout Shogun. One's on your tail!"
"One just met his Maker!" said Czar. "Got your six Shogun!"
"Thanks. Here they come again."
"They've lined up in waves. Everyone, fire a Spearhead!" ordered Swiss.
"Roger, Wing Two fire one at the formation." I said.
"Fox one…Fox three…Fox two…Fox one…Fox one…" we all said.
The other wings fired theirs as well.
"Formation gone. Watch out for those damn sats." Said Swiss.
"My boys got 'em" said Jarhead. "Wing three blast them!"

"Texas, talk to me." Said Swiss.
"Wing is hot."
(And that's all I needed to say)
"Just got a recall signal, go back to the 'Lex" said Swiss.

Boy, did I say a few prayers of thanks. My life stats were all through the roof. This Jupiter fight really took its toll on us all. I could only imagine what the ground troops had to be going through right now. Then again, we all were in this mess together.

"That was close again, Texas." Said Shogun.
Nodding as I spoke to Shogun. "Yes it was. Another nail-biter"
"Everyone as close to max as I am?"
"Yes, eight-hours my foot" said Rev.
"Still fifteen minutes from the 'Lex. Keep up your sensors."
"As good as they are in this magnetic swamp." Said Czar.

The few minutes to the 'Lex seemed to drag on like hours. We'd been on the razors edge for several days since being assigned to the Himalia Sector. One of those small moons of Jupiter that the 'Clans seemed to have had a lot of fun installing things on. Things like satellite launchers, mini-asteroids, and of course-fighters the fight never seemed to end. A bunch of events were combining to make combat out here more dangerous than normal. The radiation was just hell.

"Welcome back, 357th." Said Flight Control. "You are cleared for landing."
"Texas, you go this time." Said Jarhead. Your guys need to get out of this."
"Thanks Jarhead, I owe you one." I said back.

My wing landed first, then David's and then Shawn's. My F-911 was immediately looked over. Several close calls had left some nasty carbon marks and Chief McCelod's men were on it, cleaning up the fighter and running advanced diagnostics.
"Close one today, eh Johnny?" asked Chief McCleod.
"Too close for my comfort, Chief. What about the 'Lex?"
"They had a few scares but nothing. The gun crews were all stressed out though. My crew is as cool as ever though. We'll get your F-911's ready to go in a few hours."
"Thanks Chief. Hear back from Rocky?" I asked.
"He graduates in the next couple of weeks. He's anxious to get a taste out here though."
"He'll get enough, soon enough." I said.

And with that I left and my crew followed me back to the debriefing room. Upon entering…

"Everyone put out your right arm. Blood test." Said Major Bremmer.
"Oh no…"
The not-so-subtle beeps told us what we didn't want to hear.
"Just as I thought. Everyone report to the sick-bay. And that's an order, now!"

We walked out just as the others were walking in. Our faces said everything and as we walked away, we could hear the Major bark the same orders to David and Shawn's wings. We were only luck enough to have this done to us first.

Total blood transfusion, with a mix of artificial blood and nano-bots to fix what was messed up. I don't have to go into many details about it; it hurts like hell and drains you terribly. Certain male parts that are also affected by the radiation take longer to fix, and how bad that feels I leave up to you to imagine. Since I was the wing leader, I had to watch my men go through it before me. But then again, the treatment also varies on how much radiation you received. All of my guys walked very slowly back to the squad bay.

I actually finished my treatment at the same time David did. We both held onto each other as the normally short walk to the squad bay seemed like a 10K run, having been kicked by a mule. The squad bay was full of muted groans.

"I don't feel so good, Jon." Said David.
"Dang this hurts like hell." I said.

I helped him to his rack and then crawled towards mine. Eric came in and even he was too weak to help me. Our eyes met for a moment as I dragged myself up. Then turning, I collapsed onto the rack. The squad bay chorus was a list of men who had been through battle, and now their bodies, with the help of the treatment, battled the effects of the radiation.

And the worst thing, I couldn't sleep for hours.

Week Two: Europa Sector
Situation: Light to Heavy Combat
Day: Two

"Enemy forces, 120 kilometers and closing fast."
"Roger 357th, One-One."
"All pilots, arm spearheads for maximum blast radius."
"357th, make blast point at my direction. Coordinates uploaded now."
"Acknowledged Group Leader." Said Swiss.
"Texas, Jarhead, report."
"Wing Two ready, Wing Three ready."
"Group leader this is 357th One-One. Ready to fire."
"357th, 388th, 390th, and 411th, prepare to fire on my mark."
"Ready…mark…Fire Spearheads…"
"Fox one! Spearheads away…"
"Ten seconds to impact…"
"Impact…"

The massive 'Clan formation just dissolved, any possible survivors would soon be killed by Jupiter's radiation. We were flying with our Group Leader and our fellow squadrons. It had been a very long time since all of us had flown, and fought, together. Of course, the last three squadrons had a lot of rookies who were becoming veterans real fast. Command had decided that the Europa Sector would test the theory of massed fighter craft and enough Spearheads to do the job.

They did, but the 'Clans liked to throw monkey wrenches into that theory. More always came…

"Game on, here come the others."
"Tally-ho. God speed and watch your six.' Said the Group Leader.

"Texas, Jarhead, vector to six-eight-niner." Said Swiss. "Separate 'Clan formation started."
"Roger, vectoring."
"Here they come…"
"Good shot Texas. Rev, one's on your tail."
"Gotcha-got your six Rev." said Bear.
"Swiss, three closing fast." I said.
"Got your six, Swiss. My boys are closing fast." said Jarhead.
"Whew, close one. They're turning away to come back. Get ready." said Swiss.
"Bogeys and satellites. Watch it. Fire at will!"
"Here come a bunch of those damn asteroids."
"Warning sent back to the others." I said.
"Good. Watch out all, too quiet." said Swiss.
"Sector is quiet. All 'Clans destroyed here." said Jarhead. "My boys topped you all again!"
"Let's see, 45-65-80. Not too shabby Jarhead!" I said.
"Okay, status report everyone!" ordered Swiss.
"Wing Two report…" I asked my guys.

A few scratches, some close calls, but everyone okay. We were all feeling pretty good since our last treatment. Of course, Command decided to have us only out in space for the minimal time frame. And, this time the clocks went off about an hour before the return time. Combat in the Europa Sector was light to heavy, depending on the mood of the 'Clans of course. The whole Jupiter Campaign required the close-support of all ships, and that meant the 'Lex was always close by. And, so far, she had been very lucky…

"Wing Two is nominal, Swiss." I said.
"Roger, Texas. Wing Three?"
"We're all good to go here too, Swiss." said Jarhead.
"So Swiss?" I asked.
"Go ahead Texas."
"Do you think we ought to report that big monolith in our Sector!!!?" I said with a total seriousness.
"What???!" Swiss responded.
"Yeah, it seems to be full of stars." I said again.
"My Lydar can't sense it Texas, what monolith?"
"It's got a 1-4-9 ratio, its hugs Swiss." I said.
"Wow, look at the size of that." My crew said. They had caught on!
"Wing One, what do you see?" said Swiss to his wing.
"Gotcha Swiss, that's a good one Texas!" Laughed Jarhead and his crew.
"What?" asked Swiss?
"Seems Texas pulled a 2010 on you Swiss. Remember that Sci-Fi author Arthur C. Clarke?" Jarhead asked.
"Oh, you! I guess we ought to tell Command that we see David Bowman floating out there too." said Swiss.
"I thought you'd remembered that novel Swiss!" I said. "Of course I don't think the JMF would find that too funny, though!"
"Yeah, all we need to do now is have Hal tell Command there is a problem!" quipped Swiss.
"We have a few computer experts here who could do that now!" joked Jarhead.
"Touché!" said Swiss, Shogun, and a few others.
"Alright everyone, time's almost up. Return back to the 'Lex!" ordered Swiss.
"Roger, no arguments here. No one wants to go through THAT again." Jarhead said.
"Amen to that…" We all said.
"Lexington Fighter Control, Squadron 3-5-7 returning." said Swiss.
"Roger 3-5-7. You are cleared for return. (noise and static) Wait one…"
"Lexington Fighter Control, say again over." Swiss said.
"3-5-7, this is Lexington Fighter Control. Emergency flight bay just received a hit. Fire crews responding. Maintain patrol around Lexington security space. We'll have you back on board in time."
"Roger Control. 3-5-7 enroute." Swiss said.
"Okay boys, make it back. ASAP!" he ordered.

Our ship had finally taken a hit…

Day: Three

"She's taken on more damage, guys." said Swiss.
"Where this time, Swiss?" I asked.
"Control just told me, forward of the main sick bay. Batteries two, five, and eight and the observation deck took a hit from a damaged 'Clan fighter." Swiss said.
"Oh no." a bunch of my guys said.
"Maintain this sector, they are telling me. The other squadrons are being re-grouped to provide tighter security." He said.
"Roger Swiss." Said Jarhead and I.
"3-5-7 this is 13th Group Leader, other squadrons are with me. We are to hold the line here."
"Roger Group Leader, this is One-One."
"Okay boys, here they come. Game on. Protect the 'Lex!" said the Group Leader.
"Protect the 'Lex!" we all said.

A tremendous fight ensued. Nearly a quarter-legion of fighters, supported by their satellites, attacked us. This was intense. My wing and I managed to do our part, as did the rest of the 357th. This close in support of the 'Lex made us fight all the more harder, and our Group did really well together; combat will do that. Unfortunately, our Group Leader took a hit. His craft survived but the radiation did him in. He barely managed to land his F-911 on the flight bay. The sight of him and his rad burns will stay in my mind forever. As we had managed a quick look at the 'Lex, we surveyed the damage. The Captain had vented the affected areas so all fires were snuffed out. Patches were being placed by the damage-control parties. Out-of-ship parties had to resort to using repods to place the plate patches. It was a mess.

We had a quick de-brief. We were being assigned to a different sector. One that seemed to be way too quiet, several other carriers would be assigned to our mini Task Force; that and several smaller ships. A repair ship was assigned to the 'Lex for a few days to affect repairs, especially the gun batteries.

David had been acting very quiet. And when our squadron left the de-briefing room, Shawn and I talked to him.

"David" I said, looking right at him. "What's wrong buddy?"
"Is it bad news from home, David?" said Shawn very softly.
"Yeah…I…." David had to force the words out.

I didn't say much at all. Bad news from home is almost as bad as a wound in combat, sometimes even worse. I gave David a hug, as did Shawn, and we quietly prayed over him. Pastor McCreary, having just returned from the training, happened to stop by while we were praying over David. His presence really encouraged us all and he finished our prayers.

Sometimes, all you have to say is not much and your buddies will come to your aid.

Week Three: Almathea Sector
Situation: Enemy Forces Unknown
Day: One - Our Longest Day

"Attention on deck!"

The snap of boots made a distinct sound. In walked Col. Bonca. He was wearing a portable comms system. The sounds of fire-fighting crews and damage control parties were evident on the normal ship's intercom system. The Rev. McCreary walked in after him.

"At ease, gentlemen." He said. "Let's get started."
"You all know that the 'Lex has taken some terrible punishment. We are part of a task force dedicated to clear this sector of any possible enemy activity. This moon we are stationed by, Almethea, has a low density. I don't have to go on and tell you what that could be used for. Our situation here is critical. Captain Plant has started to evacuate all non-essential personnel. Pastor McCreary has volunteered to stay with us. His prayers are most welcome. Two other carriers are assigned to this sector, including one of the "Jr's", the King. You guys from the 357th, you may yet see the 332nd again."

"Sir, is it true that the ship's sensors are on standby? With our position so close to Jupiter, the magnetosphere will keep us blind." asked Shawn.

"I won't lie to you guys, I haven't ever since I have been the Fighter Command CO for you all and I won't start now, it's not looking good."

"I know that many of you have had to endure the Treatment. After today, you may have to go through that again. I'm sorry."

Col. Bonca looked older. The strain of the weeks, the loss of good pilots and the stress of command in this environment had aged him.

"Our mission is two-fold. Protect the 'Lex and destroy the 'Clan. Your areas of responsibility have all been assigned. Now, a quick prayer from Chaplain McCreary."

Pastor McCreary stepped up in front of us. His gentle and soothing voice calmed us.
"Gracious Heavenly Father. Lay you hand on these young men as they prepare for battle. Guide them and comfort them as they confront their foes. Let them know, that you are still on the Universe's throne and you are still in control. Amen."

"Amen."

"Men, to you fighters! Happy hunting and God Speed. 357th stay behind." He said.

We waited until all of the pilots had left. Pastor McCreary stayed with us as well. Col. Bonca spoke up.

"Major Chupa is in critical condition in the sickbay. He was close by the Observation Deck when it was hit, and he absorbed a lot of radiation. He wants you guys to see him before you go off. The Chaplain will escort you to him. Now I know his relationship with you guys has been rocky at best, I think he genuinely wants to make amends. Chief McCleod has already been informed that you will be delayed a bit. Go to Major Chupa."

As we walked away, I turned back and looked at Col. Bonca. Our eyes met for a moment. In the twinkling of time I realized one dreadful truth…

I wouldn't be seeing him again.

The walk to the critical care sick bay took some time. Each one of us had our own reasons to not want to go through this. We also had our own thoughts. The various sounds of the ship were ignored as we walked on. Finally, we arrived.

"Nurse, I am Chaplain McCreary. I am here escorting these pilots to see one of your patients. Major Chupa."

"Yes sir, right this way." The nurse said. Then following her, we came to Chupa's room.

"He can't speak much. And, I'm afraid we can't hide the effects of the radiation sickness. When he can, he's been talking about you guys."
Having said that, she then stepped outside the room. The silence in the room was depressing. He was a mess. A pitiful site.

"Major, we're here." Said David.

His eyes lit up at that, he grinned at us all. He motioned for us to get closer to his bed. We got closer and then he spoke.

"Very…proud…of…you…all…" he said, straining.
"David, Jon, Shawn, good…job…leading…them…"
Here was a man, messed up beyond belief, our nemesis for so very long, reaching out to us all.
"All…of…you……the pride…of the fighter……corps…" The breathing difficult and words hard to hear.

Shawn looked at David and I, and we nodded back. Shawn spoke out.
"Attention on Deck!"
We all snapped to attention.
"Salute"
We all rendered the most impressive and professional salute.

Major Chupa painfully raised his arm, and returned the salute. A tear in his eye.

The nurse came back in, and we took one last look before leaving.

We were walking to the Flight Bay when Chaplain McCreary spoke up to us.
"Now, you all be careful out there. I will be praying for you to have a safe return. Godspeed." He said. He also added.
"Chupa and I have been talking ever since the accident."

"Thanks Pastor. We'll use those prayers of yours!" said Shawn with a glint in his eye.

The Flight Bay was a beehive of activity. Chief McCleod greeted us immediately.
"Jon, your wing has to go last. Your F-911's all failed the last diagnostic test. It'll take about another 45 minutes to get launched. The rest of you, we have only a few Spearheads but this is all close range fighting. Use them sparingly. Good Luck!"

"Just your luck Jon!" said Shawn.
"Well looks like I'll owe you for the return trip Shawn. Your guys can go before me." I said.
"We'll take that offer Jon. Alright, Wing Three, get to your crafts." He said.
"Jon, join us as fast as you can. We need everyone on this." Said David.
"No problem David. Alright Wing Two, you heard the Chief. Time to hurry up and wait."

It was tough seeing David and Shawn's wings load up and head off to the 'Cat. Finally, our F-911's were repaired and the clearance was given. I was the first on the 'Cat when suddenly, the lights all went out. They then came back on. I was told we had another delay! Imagine a bullet ready to be fired, and the trigger is millimeters from being pulled. But, having to hold that position for fifteen minutes. I didn't want to even think but to just stay focused. Finally, I was launched out and in minutes Wing Two was ready to join the fight. It took us a short amount of time to speed off to where Wings One and Three were.

"Texas and the rest have decided to join us." Said Jarhead.
"Well you know us; check the oil, fill up the gas, wait to get launched." I said back.
"Excuses, excuses. Been too quiet here Texas." Said Swiss.
"Then we seem to be in the right area." I said. "We have a nose for this kind of business."
"Roger that. Texas and Jarhead, what does your scanners show?" Swiss asked.
"A magnetic swamp, thick and oozy." Jarhead replied back.
"Swiss, this area sucks!" I said.
"All, this is Three-Three. Switch to low-freq. I sense something."
Switching to the low-freq the picture alarmed us.
Rather, the blobs of pictures.

"Multiple bogeys. Informed the 'Lex. Prepare to fire Spearheads." Said Swiss.
"On my mark…Fox One!"

The Spearheads were launched. Seconds later, enormous explosions lit up the coldness of space.

"That was too easy. Watch out for strays."

"Another group heading our way!"

"Game on. Tally Ho! Let 'em have it."

The comms net became filled with the sounds of pilots reacting to their targets. Chasing, being chased, shots fired, double tagging, evading, calling for help.

"Got that one on your tail, Rev." I said.
"Thanks Texas. Watch out, three coming your way."
"Texas, Bear and I have their number."
"Thanks. Boy that was close." I said.

"Everyone, check your life signs." Said Swiss excitedly.
"Oh shit….."
"We've only been out here for a few hours." I said. "Not good."
"Wait one…Oh no, the 'Lex just got hit again-the bridge was wiped out. The XO has assumed command in the Battle Bridge."
"We're being recalled, everyone back to the 'Lex." Ordered Swiss.

The trip back was quick. The signs of the latest attack were everywhere. Damage, debris, even some bodies floating around. The 'Lex was blind and bleeding. Since we were also close to the rest of the Task Force, we could hear some of their pilot's chatter on the Net.

"Our life signs are all pegging out. Check your guys again." Said Jarhead.
"Jarhead, mine have to go! Oh wow!" said Swiss.
"Texas, how are yours?" asked Swiss.
"We're barely under the max." I said.

"Swiss, one of my guys took a glancing blow. We have to go in. I'll wait until the rest are in. Then you and your guys can go back in. Texas, you and Wing Three will have to wait a little bit." Said Jarhead.

"This is serious Jarhead, we read you loud and clear. Go!" I said.

"We have clearance to land. Go on in Wing Three." Said Swiss.

"Roger, see you guys in Heaven." Said Jarhead, jokingly. (One of his favorite sayings while landing.)

Wing Three proceeded to land. Jarhead was just getting ready to enter the Flight Bay when…

"TEXAS, look at your Lydar." Screamed Shogun.

A single 'Clan fighter flew right by us. He headed right towards the flight bay. I screamed but I couldn't do anything. The flight bay exploded into a tremendous fire from hell.

Then suddenly my alarms went all berserk.

"INCOMING! Fire at…" I shouted.

A single blast hit my port side. The shield barely deflected the energy hit and a piece of hot metal flew off and buried itself into my left arm. The pain nearly caused me to faint! Blood shot up everywhere. The sizzling of my flesh sickened me. My F-911's systems were screaming at me.

"Texas, I'm hit." Said Swiss.

The sounds on the net became deafening. Pilot after pilot reported being hit. Out of the corner of my eye I saw multiple 'Clan craft burry themselves into the 'Lex. Horrified, I looked at my HUD. (Heads Up Display) Enemies, everywhere.

My F-911 took another hit and sparks flew everywhere, an electric jolt zapped me in the left knee.

"Here they come! Look at them… Oh My…" said Czar.

The sudden though nearly paralyzed me.
"Swiss, they're playing with us! Cat and Mouse!" I said, barley.
"Texas, I see them." Said Rev.
"Everyone, we got to try multi-move." Shouted Swiss.

Multi-move. All ships rotate around a single control craft and create an enormous barrage of firepower. We had practiced it enough.

"Roger, perform multi-move. I'll be on the right of you Swiss."

We moved in seconds.

"Systems online, FIRING!" said Swiss.

The sudden barrage of firepower shocked the 'Clans. But, our time was running out. Everyone of our F-911's had limited power left. Some crafts were worse off than others. I did what I could. I looked at a picture of my wife and son. And, started praying.

"Another wave, FIRING!"

I started saying Psalm 25.
Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.

"Here they come again, systems down to 50%! FIRING!" shouted Swiss.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways;

"Texas, Swiss, I've lost power!" said a couple of people.
"Really down, 35%. Use what you have. FIRING. Texas, pray for me."

The large 'Clan formation rapidly filled its lost ranks. Time was running out. Our firepower was nearly gone.

According to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord. "Yeshua, Addoni." I whispered.

"Guys it's been great knowing you…"

"3-5-7 GAME NOT OVER!" shouted a familiar voice.

"332nd, follow me, blow away those bastards." Said Scoop.

Laser pulses flew everywhere! The 'Clan were surprised even further when the 'King flew right between massive formations, hitting them point blank with their gun batteries and missiles. Long range missiles were then launched at the last 'Clan formation. Their end was brutal, and efficient.

It grew silent. My alarms had stopped, but the ship status alerts were still ringing. I was feeling weak.

"3-5-7, this is Scoop. Can your guys land?" he asked.

"Our crafts can, with some difficulty." Responded Swiss.
"Thanks Scoop" said Swiss and I.
"No problem, we had just switched frequencies when we noticed what was about to happen. We got here as soon as we could. We've got crews searching for survivors."

Suddenly, out of the blue, our net filled with...

"Jon, David, I don't feel so good."

It was Shawn! The initial blast had thrown him away from the Flight Bay and the 'Lex.

"Jarhead, this is Scoop. We're on our way."

Two F-911's went to grab Shawn. The 'King had emergency crews waiting for us as we landed. Every one of us had been wounded, some really bad. Our F-911's were a total loss. A maintenance crew was helping me out of my cockpit when I saw Shawn's F-911 get an assisted landing. Despite the warnings of the medical types, we all struggled to meet him as he was being lowered down onto a stretcher.

He was fighting back tears. His face blackened by smoke. Medics were all over him, the readouts made it clear-massive internal damage. He was dying.

"Jon, David, I lost my boys. My wing's gone." He said, the tears flowing down his face.

We just nodded. I had to hang on to a medic to stand up.

"Time…is…up…going…home…thanks…for…being such great…friends…"

Shawn looked at us, peace filled his eyes then he breathed his last.

The pain I had was overwhelming me. I felt my strength going as I closed my eyes, and embraced the great oblivion.

"Medics…Get these guys to critical care NOW…"


Six Days Later
Location: Post-Surgical Tank Sickbay
Carrier: JMFNS Martin L. King Jr. (H/N 1925)

White light. Soft voices in my ears. Where was I?

"Jon, Jon…"

Someone calling me? I opened my eyes slowly. I scanned where I was. Medical instruments and displays everywhere. IV's attached to my arms. I licked my lips and some post-op recovery fluid was offered me. I drank it down. And then I lifted up my head. A person was standing over me with an arm sling. It was Pastor McCreary!

I blinked at him, as if I was disbelieving my own eyes. He answered me.

"No, I am not dead. I and a dozen others managed to get into an escape craft before all was lost." He said in his soothing southern accent. (Pastor McCreary was being humble as always. He had actually pulled several people from debris and led the rest through thick smoke. He waited until the very last minute before escaping. He would later receive a medal for his heroic actions on that dark day.)

"You were badly hurt so they had you placed in a surgical tank. You were just taken out six hours ago. You're healed now, but I know the scars inside will take longer. The rest of your friends are also in here. Some are still asleep though."

"Shawn?" I asked, but I knew what had happened.

"At peace, home with His Lord." Pastor McCreary said.

A few tears flowed down my cheek. The loss would always hurt.

"Your wife was sent a priority-survivor message letting her know you were still alive."

"How many…survived?" I asked.

"About two hundred actually. Someone remembered their battle drills and had the main reactor shut down after the initial impact. Otherwise, we'd all be dead. We did collect about a dozen bodies-including Shawn's. The Lexington was so badly damaged that the JMF counted over a hundred impact points. The Ideoclan fighters had been given extra explosives to do what they did."

"Where is the 'Lex?"

"She was tugged and sent into Jupiter. She's no longer around to fight." He said.

"We have a funeral service on the main Flight Bay tomorrow. The ship's personnel are making you up jump suits so you can attend. The nurses will soon be removing your IV's and you'll get some nutrients to allow you to walk." Hearing some other voices, he then said "Well, looks like the others are starting to awake. I must attend to them too." He said with a smile. "Jon???"

"Yes, Pastor?" I said.

"When you need me, you let me know. We'll talk then." He said, going to David's bed next.

I sat up slowly; a nurse came by and started to remove my IV's. I looked around the room. We had all been placed in the same room with no others.

Ten survivors…


One Day Later
Location: Main Flight Bay
Situation: Funeral Services for JMFNS Lexington Personnel
Carrier: JMFNS Martin L. King Jr. (H/N 1925)


"Detail, Attention!"

I got up, as did David and the rest of us. We stood by Shawn's casket. He had been cleaned up and such. In a way, his family was very lucky. The JMF would spare no expenses to get his body and casket back to his family on New Texas. Most families would get only a notice and the death certificate. Ours was a life of either alive, or dead in a million glowing particles. We had been given new jumpsuits, boots, and headgear to wear.

Pastor McCreary gave a quick excerpt from Scripture.

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."
"Colossians 1:15 to 17."
"And our Lord said 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.'
."
"John 11:25."
"Gracious Heavenly Father. We send these to their families. Comfort them and their friends, who have lost them to you. Speed them on their way. Amen."

"Amen."

"Detail, render Salute."

The sound of bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" came over the speakers. All of us were crying.

"Detail, recover. Dismissed."

We walked over to the view port on this Flight Bay. I put my hands on the banister and looked out, into space. Torrence walked over to us. He spoke about his own loss of two squadron members. David and I nodded.

"You know Shawn and the others would want you all to remember them and to continue on. I know it hurts though." Said Torrence.

"I know…I know…" I said. And looking at David and the rest, I said "We will." They nodded and said yes back.

The bagpipe music stopped. Then through the speakers came one of Shawn's favorite songs. It was an old one. Haunting and stirring at the same time-Dallas Holm's "The Love of God".

As the song played on, I looked back out the view port. Yes, I thought. We would remember and continue on. The War would continue on with or without us.

Ships passed by. First the smaller ones darted by, then the larger bombers. Small destroyers and larger frigates passed by our line of view. Finally, carriers moved into position and then passed on by. Yes, the War was continuing on.

Yet, as all of these marvels of mankind's thought and design had passed by, Jupiter loomed overwhelmingly. And beyond that, the stars and finally the Universe beckoned. As big as we could make things, we truly were small. I continued to look out the view port, and remembered.

"For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies." Psalm 57:10

In Memory:
1LT Shawn McConnel, 1LT Nicholas Harlan,
1LT Andy Warner, 1LT Eric Wagner, 1LT Steve Bascay
Wing Three, 357th JMFAS, 13th Fighter Group

 

J.W.K.

COMING SOON

Chapter Six
"Mars: The God of War - The Tide Turns"






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