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Videogame Fan Fiction

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

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

Bad news travel fast. Very bad news put warp speed to shame. No sooner had the details of the Battle for Jupiter (as the media had taken to naming it) reached home that all sort of doomsayers had come out of the woodwork to brand the whole enterprise as 'a costly failure' and 'a terrible mistake' and to call for 'a peaceful solution to be negotiated' before it could 'cost any more lives'. The fact that the enemy had shown zero attitude for negotiating anything was, of course, politely omitted.
Not that the opinion of the people directly involved was ever questioned, either, and with good reason: no e-news editor has ever been promoted by running clips of soldiers proudly proclaiming "hell, no, we won't go back!" which would be exactly what they would have gotten if any self-styled reporter had bothered to show up at any JMF ship and asked any soldier.
The upper echelons, of course, staged their own mediatic campaign which consisted in a series of 'Why we fight' pieces which aired on all the Colonies channels, hourly. One of the latest was running on my e-board as I waited for my shuttle to dock at Suvorov.
"Bloodied but victorious, Joint Military Forces have liberated the Jupiter space and are now pushing through the perilous Asteroid Belt to carry the battle to the Ideoclan's doorstep." The voice announced while shots of the Jovian moon changing colour from red to blue.
Yeah. The 'perilous Asteroid Belt'. Never mind that you could zoom through it back and forth 'till Kingdom Come without ever seeing a rock. One reason it's called 'Space' is there's a whole lot of it. I switched the board off. Maybe I'd watch the rest later. Maybe.
My first impression of Suvorov as I descended the shuttle ramp was What a mess. The flight deck was cluttered with anything from power loaders to assault shuttles, and mech crews working on spacecraft of all kinds. A young officer, another 1st Lieutenant judging from the insignia he wore, was waiting for me.
"I ask permission to come aboard." I asked saluting him.
"Granted." He answered while saluting. "Welcome aboard, lieutenant Kurtz. I am starshiy leytenant Andrej Korolev. You will excuse us but we're busy around here."
"You're not alone." We shook hands. "Since we're both low on the food chain, let's dispense with the formalities, will we?"
"Da, it will be better. So, you are our liaison officer?"
"Yeah, let's call it reduced TDY. Looks like I was the only one who could speak English, German and French among the pilots' ranks. They're full of bilingual officers, but it takes a Swiss to go above that."
"You speak Italiano too, I heard? Always wanted to learn it."
"Lo parlo, si. Want to learn it for the literature?"
"Nyet. It's for girls. They like to hear Italian speaking types."
Them lucky Russians I thought. These tricks don't work in plurilingual Switzerland.
We walked through the hangar bay. Korolev seemed to have a little limp but he set a brisk pace nonetheless.
"You've got some other fighters than the Gyruss here." I noticed looking around. Among the familiar F-911 frames there were some bigger space fighters, with longer bodies and larger wings, and big, big engines.
"Da. Those are our TyR-79 Zvezda fighters. Best Russian kosmoperekhvatchik ever built. Strong. Fast. Agile too. Sensors not so good, Gyruss radar is far better but Zvezda can take worse hits unshielded and still come back. Easier to repair, with Gyruss we always have to get parts, always take them apart after few missions because spacecraft is so complicated."
I looked at the bell nozzle of a missile that hung under a wing, which looked like it could swallow a Spearhead and still have space left for dessert. "Is it vectored?" I asked.
"The missile engine. Is it gimbaled?"
Korolev took hold of the nozzle and shook it from side to side and up and down. My heart skipped a beat. "Da. You see? They have rocket rings near warhead too, they make for better terminal guidance." He looked at me with a strange expression. "Are you well?"
"Uhm… Yeah. I'm all right. That missile, I suppose it's a dummy, isn't it?"
"Dummy? What's dummy? Mannequin missile?" He asked, confused.
"Ah… I mean it is a practice round? No warhead or engine, right?"
He laughed out loud. "Practice? Why practice?" He slapped the missile hard. "We're at war! Why waste space with fake rockets?"

* * *

Our stay on Martin Luther King Jr had come to an end just the day before, as soon as we were deemed fit enough to walk on our own. Well, not walk, more like limp on our own.
Half-limping, half-trying to march, we had met our new Commanding Officer in a most dramatic way. I had come to the hangar just in time after a reunion with the "Special Effects Crew" as the Swiss Expeditionary Force was known.
Back home, the Assembly had still been struggling with the concept of Swiss soldiers serving alongside a military force that wasn't even recognized by the Federal Government on Earth, when another problem had surfaced: how would the Swiss personnel with JMF be addressed as? The Assembly wanted the unit to be easily distinguishable from the rest of the Joint Military Forces and also easily recognizable as Swiss. They had toyed with different names, and since troops were already being deployed, they had made damn sure everybody would receive a unit patch to sew on their uniforms. First it had been Swiss Mobile Force (SMF) then Swiss Extraterritorial Unit (SEU) and then again Swiss Outer Regiment (SOR). Each time a new name had been decided, new patches had been issued with the written recommendation to send the former ones back to the arsenal. Nobody complied, of course, and the patches had become a hot item among collectors in the JMF ranks.
In the end, they settled for Swiss Force, eXpeditionary (evidently "Swiss Expeditionary Force" or SEF didn't sound right) or SFX for short. Nobody had noticed that it was also the acronym for "Special Effects". Thus the Swiss personnel with JMF was known as the "Special Effects Crew": you could tell them by the white cross on a red shield surrounded by a field of stars with the Milky Way in the background.
For this reason, the Swiss troopers were also known as "The Crusaders".
Anyway, the reunion had gone a little longer than programmed: it just happened that JMF used a radically different command style than the Swiss Army and someone High Up had objected to officers, NCOs and soldiers referring to each other by name, and not "sir"'ing each other all day long. Madness, of course, but that's High Up for you. Didn't matter that Swiss soldiers were far more by-the-book than many others in JMF when it came to attitude. The matter was resolved with the help of an Israeli colonel who took the rear-echelon guy who had complained in a corner and kindly explained him all about life, the universe, and why he should have stuck his nose on his forms and let the troops alone.
Later, I talked this out with 1st Lt Cometta who, referring to the guy from High Up, shrugged and said "Chel lì, al ma mettü pagüra cunt un s'ciöpp vöt". Which, translated from Swiss-Italian patois, meant: "That guy scared me like an unloaded rifle."
With this out of the way, I went to meet our new CO.

* * *

"So, how is he like?" Korolev asked me.
"Well, he's a character and no mistake."
"I've heard he's rather good pilot."
"That's an understatement: colonel Barts is a great pilot." It hurt to admit it, but he was better than us, and his standards were consequentially quite high.
"That's both good and bad for you. Good because he's a pilot, and can understand you better."
"And bad because he'll be expecting a lot." I concluded. "Well, easy is not listed as a job spec under 'Gyruss pilot'."
Korolev laughed again. Russians seemed to laugh a lot, which contradicted a good lot of stereotypes. "There's no easy until we've done or we're done for!"
We turned the umpteenth corner: Suvorov was a maze. On Lex we had boards that could tell you the direction wherever you were, and in any case you could sync up your compad to navigate you around. The Russian carrier was built like it could crash into an asteroid and leave the rock off for worse, and there were no such commodities in sight.
"Here," Korolev pointed, "you walk down this corridor, you get to escape pods' area number three. Shortest route there is. You won't come nearer any other, so you've got to remember. And look here." He banged his fist against a sealed box encased in the bulkhead. "Emergency compartment. Fire extinguisher, for all it's good for. Medical kit, first aid, only good if you're surgeon but there it is. Emergency spacesuit, this is useful. Good model, a little complicated and bulky, compared to JMF standard, but sturdier and gives you six hours instead of two in hard vacuum. Cold gas jet pistol in there, too. Not good as rocket pack, but better than floating around if hull breaches."
No argument here. Hull breaches mean decompression, decompression means death very, very quickly unless you can get to a pressurized area fast. Emergency pressure garments (EPGs) are disposable spacesuits that can be donned in less than ten seconds if you've trained hard enough and can keep you alive until rescue. Unlike with NBC drills, where you have to don nuclear-biological-chemical protection gear as fast as you can, EPG training is followed religiously by all hands. A breach on a spaceship is far more serious threat than a gas or germ shell coming through the hull.
I almost tripped. "Watch your step, corridor is sealed, like airlock." Andrej warned me. "Lots of people get hurt on their first days."
Regaining my feet, I looked hard at the protruding metal: I could see now that all sections of Suvorov were sealed by old-fashioned pressure doors. JMF's newer ships had automatic doors flush with the floor. "That's what got you then?" I asked.
"I saw you're limping. Did you trip too?"
Andrej Korolev looked lost for a moment then laughed out real loud. "Hah! No, I didn't trip. Look!" He raised his left trouser leg: under the overhead lights I saw silver and white metal instead of skin.
"Bionic implant. Hydraulic-powered limb, see? Top of line, short of a cloned leg. Have to wait for one."
I felt both sick and stupid. "I-I'm sorry." I stammered. "Couldn't know… Should have known better than…"
He cut me short. "Don't be sorry. Not your fault. Courtesy of Ideoclans, missile shrapnel, cut into my cockpit and into my leg. Lucky me, could have been my head. They don't make bionic heads. Shame, lots of people could use one."
Including me I thought. "Volga Expanse?"
"Da. Pretty intense battle. A bit like Saturn, maybe, different scale. Ideoclans were probing our defense, then went in with fleet-size force. General Zhukov was only one who saw through their strategy. That's why we won."
A heavy victory I thought, glad that the topic had shifted from my blunder. "Before Neptune, I only saw the 'Clans at Cold Stone. That was a sideshow compared to Volga Expanse."
"Small battle, yes, but do not underestimate your effort. We learnt a lot about their ground attack tactics."
"You learnt a lot?" I asked, surprised.
"Da. You don't think you're only ones to spy around?"
Intel's gonna throw a fit I mused. "So, would you like to tell me about Volga Expanse? I could only read reports."
Korolev sighed. "Well, we went to intercept them at the edge of our space. Six battlecruisers, old ships but sturdy. A good lot of destroyers, more than twenty. Biggest force we could muster, hundreds of fighters.
"We met enemy forces early on, they threw thousands of bombers, with no escort, right at fleet's core. They lost so many ships we couldn't believe our eyes. Then we started taking losses as well, I had just been launched with my squadron, saw Volgograd go out with a flash. Five hundred men, just like this. I hoped some had managed to save themselves, but no survivors. Akula was next, suicide pilots, hit her amidships and it caught fire. Fire in space, worst thing ever. Kinder to just blow up, I saw her hull glowing red and I thought of her crew, most terrible thing I ever saw.
"Their fighters began to show up shortly after, we lost four squadrons in less than a minute, our Zvezda had better range but as soon as they came near enough, we couldn't match them in agility. And there were so many of them! I couldn't count them. I shot all my strela missiles, then went in with guns. They overheated, I had to evade, wait for them to cool down then go into the fight again. I lost my wing leader, then I saw there were only other two TyR-79s remaining.
"We regrouped and tried to defend our mothership, Kirov, as best as we could. We couldn't land and rearm, there were too many bogeys around. Then something crashed into Kirov, I think it was Ideoclan bomber or maybe bigger. Took the whole conning tower out and started a fire in the core deck. I though she would blow up but she didn't."
Korolev took a deep breath. "The other ships weren't so fortunate. We lost our fleet commander when Kirov was hit - at that moment Zhukov assumed command and started issuing orders."
Zhukov's Gambit. The man had turned around Volga Expanse, maybe out of desperation, but he had done it.
"We were ordered to close in with bigger Ideoclan ships and pummel them, ignore fighters." Andrej continued. "We gunned and gunned and gunned them, and finally took out a big one, maybe heavy frigate or cruiser, can't tell with Ideoclan ships. All of a sudden the bombers changed course, seemed uncertain. Kirov fired what remained of her missiles and took them out."
"I thought Kirov had lost control, with the conning tower gone…" I interjected.
"Da, tower gone, but auxiliary bridge still working. There was a young officer, a young woman named Ekaterina Malysheva, she was inexperienced but good. Took command, turned ship around, put her between enemy and fleet. Used sensors to guide fleet weapons towards Ideoclan capital ships.
"Kirov had a ruptured core, they had turned it off but it was leaking radiation. Half of survivors were already dying because of it, other half fatally irradiated. The people on the auxiliary bridge were hit, too.
"Another wave of bombers came towards the fleet, no way to stop them in time. With most senior pilots gone, no one was left to coordinate the fighters. Best pilot we had, young hotshot by name of Vassily Krykalev, he'd have made a great Gyrusskaj pilot, he cried 'Follow me!' and we went after him. He disappeared into the battle, never to be seen again. He was good friend. He was Malysheva's fiancé, last words we heard were 'Proschai, Rodina. Doh'Zvedanya, Katyusha.' And then my fighter was hit. I could barely make it to a hangar bay."
I was at a loss for words. "Those were good people." That was the best I could do.
"Yes, they were. But tell me, how comes pilot like you gets sent to do liaison?"
"Well, it's a long story." Actually, not that long.

* * *

Between training and getting used to our new rides, the F-911D, we still managed to have time off, a rare commodity. Unfortunately, this also got us into trouble.
We were still adjusting to our new home, the Super Battle Carrier Victory: if Lex had redefined big on my personal scale, Victory threw it definitely out of whack. Forget the specs. Forget the books. In fact, forget anything you may think about a Super Battle Carrier: unless you've seen one in person, you don't know what you're talking about. The first time I saw her out of the shuttle's viewport, I thought we were about to crash into the hull - and we were many clicks away. The ship was so big that it had its own railway system, and maglevs that shuttled back and forth. Parts of Victory were still unmanned and unpowered - personnel were being shuttled in from the Colonies - and were dark and empty, but the rest was wide-awake. In time, we would learn that sometimes the fastest route from one point to another was actually to take a shuttlecraft and fly to it, rather than walk or take the train.
Her cats were longer, which coupled with the faster acceleration that our new Gyruss birds generated made for quite interesting launches. A pity our recent flight performances didn't exactly match up: technically there was nothing wrong but something intangible was missing,
The spirit was gone. We were flying like human autopilots. Jon was quick to diagnose the condition: Jupiter was still affecting us. Not the rads or the still-healing wounds, but the loss. 357th had lost 3rd Wing. We had lost Lex. You can replace fighters, ships and even body parts but souls need more than quickfix glue.
We talked it out with Pastor McCreary, who was always there to listen and to give us the right words. Darn better than any shrink-counselor-psych, he made us feel there was truly something out there beside hard vacuum. And besides, he knew that we needed to spend our times in something other than F-911 training.

We had just recovered and gone through debriefing when we decided to spend the time off we had to unwind a little. After shower, I had changed into dress uniform in preparation for a formal meeting with some big shots from the Marines' ranks who had just been attributed a Swiss SpecOps detachment. We could have handled it less formally but you don't play around with Staff high-and-mighty types. Not the best way to go around unnoticed, especially with that big sword clanging away at my side, but couldn't be helped.
I was early, so I decided to go along with Jon and the rest of the squadron to a place they called 'the gedunk' which, as I found out, is what Swiss soldiers know as the Soldatenstübe, i.e. the place you go to for a pint or two. The rest of the guys were in jumpsuits, I was the only conspicuous type and trying hard to make myself invisible.
Brooks and Andrew went indoors, while we stayed outside.
"Spero ci sia qualche cameriera carina." (I hope there's some pretty waitress) joked Nicola.
"Don't get your hopes high, man." Higeno said. "Chances are they're all robowaiters there."
"One can hope."
CRASH! Suddenly there was loud yelling from inside the Stübe - er, gedunk. Screams and curses, and sounds of stuff being thrown around and broken.
A voice from inside: "Get this, you hotshot nothing!"
Another voice: "Hell, no!"
Jon looked at me.
I looked at Jon.
"Hell, yes!" We both said and ran inside.

A major brawl had broken out between Andrew, Brooks and some mech crew guys for reasons unknown. They were at least ten to two, not a fair fight by any means. Time to redress it.
"Two, three, follow me." Jon ordered his guys. "Four and five, flank and cover."
"1st Wing, combat spread and engage left-to-right." I ordered mine.
"Two." I heard from my left.
"Three." "Four." "Five". The rest of the wing answered.
We chose our targets. Mine was a burly mechanic who was advancing on my XO. Range was about five meters, so I did what they told me in Basic Training: throw something first, then work it out. I scooped a tankard from a table and hurled it at the guy's head. It flew straight and bounced against his skull - light plaspex, not glass. It confused him just enough so that I could grab a chair and bring it down behind his knees: he went to the ground immediately.
Another one came at me from my left - but tripped and fell.
"Oops, scusa." Said Nicola innocently, then brought a chair down on the man's back and sat on it. "Stai comodo?" (Are you comfortable?).
Splash two bogeys I thought.
"Everybody move along!" Yelled someone. "Security! Freeze!"
I dodged a punch from another mech and kicked him hard in the stomach. Dress uniform boots have reinforced points - it hit hard and caused the man to double over.
Then I felt a painful shock at my side, like a wasp's sting. Shockrod. A Security Officer had actually hit me with a shockrod!
I saw red, all of a sudden.
Blind, white-hot fury filled me.
The bastard has dared to shock-rod me. I'm defending myself! I thought.
And, without even realizing it, I drew my sword.
More than one meter in length, double-edged and razor sharp, my ceremonial sword had been machined from a solid block of steel. Its maker had not meant it to just look pretty: as any piece of Swiss military equipment, it was meant to be practical.
It was meant to be deadly.
I saw the shock on the Sec Officer's face as I turned around and blocked his second shockrod thrust with the sword, then shock gave in to fear as the blade slashed downwards at him. This time he parried it but he started to step backwards as we dueled like a couple of swordsmen out of a bygone age.
Anger blinded me as I lost any sense of measure. To me, the Sec Officer was the enemy now. He was just another foe to be slain. Another Ideoclan, even though a part of me knew he was not.
It didn't matter.
I brought the sword down with a heavy blow. He tried to parry it by raising the shockrod with two hands, but the blade broke it in two with a sharp crack. He stumbled back and fell.
I raised the sword with both hands. A hideous voice hissed "Ich will dich TÖTE!"
I will kill you.
Then sharp pain flared from my back. Another shockrod. By rights, two shockrod strikes should be enough to paralyze an adult, but I was too charged to notice. I swung around and my sword hit a rod and flung it away.
More pain, from behind my knee. Just how many of them are there? I thought distractly as I fell down on my back. I parried another shockrod lunge then slashed around at a movement at the corner of my eye.
I felt my sword snag briefly into something, with an odd sound like ripping fabric. There was a yelp of pain. Something heavy falling.
Someone cried "MEDIC!"
A shockrod touched my wrist as I tried to scramble to my feet. My hand went numb and the sword clattered to the ground. Then they were all on me like in those old movies about American Football.

"You are in trouble." Colonel Barts said almost matter-of-fact.
The whole squadron stood silent. No arguing with that. The paramedics had just ushered away the last of the wounded. Nothing serious, compared to what I had done.
"Now, Lt. Kurtz, do you have any justification?" The colonel asked me, while I massaged my wrist. The shockrod paralysis had left. "Because I'm here to hear it before the JAG does. Do you realize what you have done?"
I now realized it fully well. The most serious wounded was my work. The yelp of pain I had heard in my rage had been a loud scream, really, as my sword had cut through the leg muscles of a Security Officer struggling to immobilize me. It had taken three of them, who had jumped me as soon as I saw me about to kill a fellow Sec.
I still couldn't believe it. I've never thought of myself as a violent man. To the contrary, I've never picked up a fight all my life. I was at a complete loss for words, and the thought that I had been about to kill a man with a sword - and wounded another - was too much to take.
"I - I don't know what happened to me, sir." I simply stammered.
"Well, you better wise up and think of what happened because…"
"Just what are you doing with my patient, gentlemen?" asked a woman's voice. I turned around. Doctor Harireh Sadri, the surgeon who had patched me up after Jupiter, was making her way through the SF people.
"Doctor Sadri, 1Lt Kurtz here has…" Someone began.
"I know. I was here to check out on some pilots when I heard about the accident." She cut short. "What is 1Lt Kurtz doing here? He's meant to rest and get himself to sickbay for periodical checkups. He's been missing four checkups so far. What do you think you're doing, lieutenant?"
I had all but forgotten about the checkups! I'd been feeling fine for days, so…
She brought up a small medical scanner. "Eyes wide open." She ordered, then did a quick check. "As I suspected."
"Would you please, doctor, share your suspects with us?" Colonel Barts asked.
"Of course. You see, lieutenant Kurtz here is one of many pilots who have been suffering from sleep problems since Neptune."
"Many have."
"Yes." Harireh continued. "But he is one of those who made use of dreamsleep meds - artificial endorphine compounds. They're new-generation sleep pills, they help the organism into a REM sleep state, as opposed to general sedation. JMF has been liberally issuing them to troops from the beginning of the campaign, something I have been opposed to.
"You see, artificial endorphins have a very long life once they get to the bloodstream, the compound has been proven to reduce the body's ability to produce its own. So far, it's not a great hazard because once off meds, it only takes a couple of days for the natural endorphins count to go up.
"But 1Lt Kurtz here and many pilots have gone through complete blood replacement following rad exposure during the Jupiter campaign. Artificial blood is a poor medium for natural endocrine functions - diminished enzyme count and immunitary system weakening are part of the symptoms - and hence his body has limited capabilities to produce endorphins that counteract adrenalin production. Adrenalin storms are another side effect of blood replacement, some individual react abnormally to synthaemoglobine."
She drew a breath. "Under intense stress or if subjected to pain, lieutenant Kurtz - and some other soldiers, I'm warning you - will react very violently."
"That doesn't excuse him from trying to cutting up my men!" Officer Basse - who was watching me closely holding a Class-2 shocklance - counteracted.
"He's trained as an Infantry NCO, what do you expect?" Colonel Barts answered. "He did hand-to-hand combat. Well, what do we do with this man, Doctor?"
"First of all, you take him off flight status, immediately. Next time he could gun someone out. Then you make sure he checks in at sickbay, periodically, until I personally clear him. Lieutenant, sewing you back together was hard work, God be praised, make it worth something."
"Yes ma'am - doctor." I answered.
The Secs released me. Colonel Barts walked up and said: "So, you heard the good doctor and you'll comply, lieutenant. Make no mistake, I'm not cutting you any slack but I can't afford to lose any more pilots: see to it that you're cleared to return to flight ASAP - only when the doctor says so. Understood?"
"Yes, sir."
"In the meantime, you can not fly but this doesn't mean we're leaving you idle. By your file, you can speak French, can you?"
"Oui, mon colonel."
"Don't go multilingual on me, mister. I don't need it but JMF's Chiefs of Staff apparently do. Get your ass suited up 'cause I'm loaning you to the Russians, they seem to need a liaison guy aboard Suvorov and you're it. So, pack your stuff and I hope to hell you like borsch. Dismissed!"

* * *

"So, that's it." I concluded.
"You cut up somebody and end up working for big brass? You should have dismembered him, you'd be an General now!" Andrej laughed.
I felt lighter - literally. "Something up with the gravs?" I asked.
"No. This area is lower gravity. Some are at zero-g, easier to load things."
"Yes, but this is a C&C area." I objected.
"I know, good reason anyway. You'll see now."
The door in front of us opened up into a large room, occupied by a long table and a massive overhead screen. There were half a dozen officers sitting there, and someone further down the hall was working at a commboard. We half-leaped in, stood to attention and saluted - not a small task in a low-gee area.
"Starshiy leytenant Korolev reporting as ordered."
"1st Lieutenant Kurtz, reporting as ordered."
"At ease, gentlemen." Said a female voice, clear as a bell, from down the hall. The figure at the commboard turned around and advanced. She was a woman, thin and tall, moving through the half-darkened room with the grace of a ballet dancer in the low gravity field. The moment she stepped into light, I could see her clearly.
She was not thin, but gaunt. And completely bald. Her skin had a pallor that was unlike the 'space tan' common to longtime travelers, and almost translucid. At her waist she wore an odd-looking belt, certainly no standard equipment. As she came closer, I could see small tubes running from two cylinder-shaped objects on the belt to the rear of her uniform jacket. I had seen something like that in my days aboard Martin Luther King, Jr.
Portable life-med support I thought. Blood purificator and dialysis equipment.
"I'm Captain Ekaterina Malysheva." She introduced herself. "I command Suvorov. Now that we have our liaison officer, we can begin. We will dispense with formalities later."
I was too dumbstruck to answer with more than a nod and I simply sat down.
"I thought she had…" I whispered to Andrej.
"Died? Yes, she has, so to speak. She was only one alive of Kirov crew three days after Volga Expanse, fatal radiation dose. We're short of experienced officers, so they did their best to keep her alive. We need her."
"But radiation sickness…"
"Incurable, da. She will still die, nothing can avoid that. That belt, and periodical treatments, will stave off a little but she will die all the same. She knows, but she will fight. When war is over, she can join Vassily."
"Must be painful."
"Life is. Low grav helps some. Her bones have become frail, and she has very little muscle left."
I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her. Living on borrowed time, connected to a life-support machine all the time, going through the pain of heavy rad treatment day after day so that she could still fight. I couldn't take it I thought.
I took another look at her. She had no eyebrows left, either, and her hands were covered by gloves. She must have lost her fingernails, too. Yet I could see that she had been beautiful, once, the same way you can look at an old lady and know that she must have been a head-turner in her youth. Some things may pass, but have a way of lingering on.
Someone barked a short sentence in Russian. Andrej poked me in the ribs. "Stand to attention." He said. I snapped up immediately.
The doors on the other side of the room opened, and a man entered flanked by two aides.
General Zhukov I thought. They didn't tell me…
"Now we'll see just how good you are at diplomacy." Korolev whispered.

* * *

"And that's a present from Admiral Abergottie, himself." I showed my buddies the datadisk and the handwritten note. I believe in you, that was it. He wasn't a man of many words. "Tactical data for Valles Marineris."
"Mars' Grand Canyon." Jon filled in.
"Yeah. Something big coming along, I can tell you. Those Russians don't play around, they mean business. Whatever they're cooking up, the 'Clans are going to eat it and there ain't enough antacid tablets in the Galaxy to relieve them."

I'm not going into details about the Martian Holocaust because one, you'll have read about it and I can't do better than historians did, and two, it makes me sick only to think of it so spare me the task, pretty-please. I've seen grown men cry about it and the only reason I wasn't among them is that I was busy being very, very sick. Just when mankind thinks everything has been said and done in the atrocities field, along comes something - someone - to upper the scale. The Ideoclans, cloning and genetics notwithstanding, were definitely human in origin: nobody else around has that knack for nastiness.
When the shocked silence had passed after seeing the video docs from Mars, the comments for the squadron could be resumed in one sentence:
"Those bastards gonna pay big time!"
Which neatly brought us to the task at hand.

The thing I always liked about being a soldier is that you get very simple answers to questions that would normally leave you dumbfounded: it's "attack this", "cover that", "shoot this" and "strafe that". After a taste of the horrors of the Martian Holocaust, we got our particular brand of medicine with Operation 617.
"So, this is what we call the 'Wallis Bomb'." Colonel Harlow explained. "The whole idea for the mission comes from the Dam Busters' mission that RAF Squadron 617 brilliantly executing during World War Two, so we decided to borrow some of their luck."
We took a look at the sleek device. It didn't look like a conventional bomb, there were no steering rockets, no target-seeking "eye". Instead, is was round and massive, designed to lay flat against the bellies of our F-911Ds. It had lateral fins and canards to guide through the atmosphere. The underside was slightly flattened to give it a sort of lifting-body configuration.
"It's strictly an air-delivered weapon, highly specialized. Notice that there aren't any sensor windows apart from the camera, and that is only for taking pictures on the way down. The datalink after release is up-only, it has no remote guidance." Harlow went on.
He pointed to the midsection of the bomb. "The only guidance mechanism is a gyro platform here and accelerometers here. There's a data interface in the dorsal section, designed to mate with the standard Gyruss bus. It doesn't take targeting data from the navcomputer, though."
Harlow uncovered a device on a table. It looked something like out of a history book, ungainly and full of gears and wheels, with a tracker screen mounted on a jointed arm.
"This little gizmo here is the Norden bomb-targeting computer. It's a self-contained hybrid electromechanical device, with its own inertial navigation and guidance system. It's mated through the standard MilBus to the Gyruss nose camera, so…" He flipped a switch and the tracker screen came alive. "… What you see through this screen here is the terrain ahead superimposed with targeting data from the Norden."
"Why not use a standard bombsight?" Brooks asked.
"There will be heavy EM interference around the target. At Jupiter, we have had several bombsight failures because the mag field played a number on the sensors. This baby here is jam-proof."
"The why don't we equip all bombers with it?"
"Because it lacks flexibility." Harlow turned the screen around. "It's a purely inertial device, it needs to know where the target is. What you have to do once you reach the IP is look through the tracker screen and follow the nav cues. When the bomb run starts, the clock inside syncs up with the Gyruss computer and calculates a firing solution continuously. You hit the commit button, then you can manually release if you want but the Norden will drop as soon as the solution is correct. The bomb's flight profile is precalculated, it will fly the rest of the trajectory, skip over the water and adjust for wind currents if necessary, dropping through the shaft and exploding at a preprogrammed time after release.
"You've all been issued boosters - yes, I know how you feel about them but the new model is way safer than anything you've seen and you'll need them to get to safety. Those babies are nukes, lest you forget, and underground detonation or not, we're talking about one massive event. You'll want to put as much distance between the target and yourselves after release."
"So we'll be using a gyro-stabilized bombsight to drop gyro-stabilized bombs from a gyro-stabilized spacecraft?" Nicola asked.
"Well, I think I'm in need of some gyro-stabilization myself!" We laughed.
Nukes. Nuclear weapons. That was a novelty, nobody used them anymore. Why waste time on nukes when a battlecruiser cannon battery could turn a large surface into lava? No nukes had been used in combat since World War Five, and that had been about 70 years before. And then there were fusion-plasma devices, directed jet stream warheads, you name it. Nukes were only used in space demolitions and mining - and Operation 617 was a combination of both, really. We were going to bring down a massive underground cloning facility.
No clones, no troops. It was as simple as that. Taking out the main enemy clone supply we'd be cutting down their numbers.
"Of course," Harlow continued "there will be little fallout, since the bombs will explode way below the surface and those who may hit the surface… Well, we have engineered those babies to produce precious little in the rad contamination field. The devices are locked during the flight and will be armed through PAL protocols, but the final safety will be taken off only during release."
He took a deep breath. "Now, gentlemen, you have been personally selected by General Zhukov and Admiral Abergottie to do this but I have to repeat it, it's still a volunteer thing. Nobody would think ill of anyone walking away, because it's going to be hard and it's been a long, long time since nukes have ever been used in combat. I'll be leaving you alone and think of it. Think it through and think it well because we don't want anyone going who is not one hundred and ten percent convinced. There isn't going to be any room for mistakes. See you later!" And he walked away.
Alone in the room, we looked at the bombs and the Norden bombsight. "So, this is the first time we get a say in what we do or not." Jon said. "I'm not putting any pressure on you guys but… I'm going."
"Me too." Yoshiki said.
"Behind you, leader."
"Let's do it."
I didn't count my wing's comments. I had turned around to face the Norden bombsight, and I could see my face reflected on the Wallis Bomb's surface. The durasteel case acted like a distorting mirror. I wasn't thinking about the missions.
I thought about the Martian population.
About the Ideoclan bio-toxin attack.
About death camps.
About mass graves.
About misery, starvation, the grief beyond imagination that survivors were facing.
And something deep inside me, something ancient, thought long buried, something dark and old as Cain, unimaginably evil, stirred. I saw my face contracting into a rictus grin. I heard myself uttering something sotto voce.
"Say again, David?" Jon asked.
I paused, my face turned to normal, though I didn't turn for fear my buddies would see through me.
"I said we go and nuke them." I whispered, finally. "I say we burn the bastards."

* * *

Train, train and train. Our whole existence ever since we had given our go to the mission consisted of this. The F-911D Gyruss fighter was fully capable of atmospheric flight - we had gone through it back at Paradise - but low-altitude bombing was another matter. The THDAR equipment allowed us to fly fast and low, but as long as there was a man in the loop, there went the weakest link.
We worked as hard as possible to strengthen that link. By the second week we had become so accustomed to the Norden bombsight that it was hard to imagine we had never seen one before. Once I found myself reaching for the tracker controls while eating breakfast. When I told Jon, he said "Well, I've been trying to input the PAL arming codes into my ice cream, go figure."
With H-Hour barely two days away, we could have flown the whole mission in our sleep, which would have come in handy because we had been getting precious little. Thanks to the accurate topographical data that Swiss Intel had "gathered" from the Terran Engineering Corps, we had the best targeting info we could ever have. No excuses at all.
The last day we stood well clear of any mission-related stuff and had a little party. It could have easily been our last.

Kinder to shoot a man, I thought, sitting at my desk. I was staring at a blank screen trying to write what may have proven to be the last letter in my life. No training in existence could have prepared me for this.
As far as I had gone, it went like:

Dear Mom and Dad, dear Rudi,
Well, that's it. If you're reading this it means I've bitten the Big One.

Bitten the Big One I thought. What in Hell am I thinking? I deleted the sentence and started again.

If this letter gets to you, it means I'm gone.

Dead, I should have written. Dead, not gone. But something prevented me from changing the word. I tried again.

If you're reading this, it means…

It means what? That you should be grieving? Of course you will. Why was I trying to be cocky? I pressed DELETE once again.

Dear Mom, dear Dad, dear Brother,
Thanks for the wonderful years you have given me. I know I've never been the easiest child to rise, but you've all been great. There has never been a moment in my childhood that I can call sad because of any of you. It's not me who should judge, but I've turned out as good as I could and anything bad about me is my own doing, really.
I know how you must be feeling…

I know? I know? Oh, yes. This I could say. I know how it feels to lose loved ones. Brytta. 3rd Wing. All those people I had come to respect on the Lex. Yes, this I could say, I knew.
… And I'm truly sorry but believe me, if it has come to this it's because it was unavoidable. Please remember that it's a good cause, one I believe in. If you've been watching the news, you know.
I've been fortunate enough to fly and fight side by side with the finest people ever to live, and if I had the choice and still know the outcome, I'd go again.
Yes, that was better.
This mission was worth any sacrifice…
sacrifice. Was it correct? It was one thing to think about my life, but would I have sacrificed my brother's life for the mission? I was grateful I'd never have to make the decision.
This mission was worth it. The tide had to be turned. I have done what I wanted the most…
… Killing Ideoclans.

No, I hadn't written this. But I had thought it. I shook my head and continued writing.
Doing my duty.
Killing, burning, maiming Ideoclans by their hundreds, their thousands. Nuke them. Burn them. Burn them all.

Again the thought. I closed my eyes and saw the face of the 'Clan soldier I had killer on Titan. His blank face stared at me from empty blackness.
Doing my duty, and…
… What I wanted the most. Kill, kill, kill.

I stood up and the chair fell back. I turned it up. What's up with me?
Kill them. Kill them all. I hate them. Hate them. Hate, hate, hate. Damn them. Damn them all to Hell.
My heart was pounding hard. I stepped back and fell onto the bunk. My hands were trembling. Another adrenalin rush I thought. But no, this wasn't possible. Doctor Sadri had cleared me. I didn't dare going back to sickbay because she could take me off flight status again. I wanted to fly this mission. But I still knew it had nothing to do with my body. That was my mind speaking.
I want to kill them. Make them suffer. Die, die, die. Burn, burn, burn.
"No, no. This is not me. This is not ME!" I shouted standing up suddenly. My voice sounded hollow and broken.
"This is not me." I repeated like a mantra. Oh God, please, no. Do not let it be. I haven't prayed since I was a little kid and I was afraid of the dark, but now the dark is me. Please, do not let this happen. Don't let me become the thing I hate the most.
I sat on the floor, trembling with fear and hatred. I didn't touch the letter again.

* * *

There were two wings of people on our way to the cats, cheering us on. I felt like one of those first astronauts I had read about, the stories that had made me think of a career in Space Exploration. Those people had ventured first into space, riding spaceships barely tested out, sitting on rockets that were far bigger than our boosters and far more volatile. We were going into uncharted territory ourselves, but instead of out into the unknown we were going in, into the heart of the enemy.
Our F-911D had been fully fitted out. The Wallis bombs - the nukes - were attached to the spacecrafts' bellies, bearing some "dedications" to the 'Clans from JMF. Mine read Tick Tock, read and weep.
"Here we go." Jon said looking at the spaceplanes.
"Yeah. All for one?"
"One for all!" 1st and 2nd Wing - what was left of 357th - bellowed together.
We climbed to our cockpits and strapped in. We checked each and every system, repeating the startup checklist manually to be absolutely sure everything was fine. My rifle, once again, got into the cockpit and into the specially designed rack behind the seat. A small measure of security.
APU online. Computer online. Weapons powered and ready. Bus continuity positive. Comms check OK. Hydraulics check OK. Life support OK. Engine start, engine check OK. Now for the new stuff, EXT CTRL panel powered and on green, boosters check safe and OK, Permissive Action Link check, Special load (the bomb) continuity OK, safed and ready, guidance reading fine, Norden bombsight powered up and ready.
Everything go for the mission. I thought about the sandstorm, the Storm of the Century, down on the Red Planet. That had been a grave enough concern, so much that we had been asked if we wanted to abort the mission. We decided to go ahead.
My fighter was loaded into the catapult. Just the time for a deep breath, to clear the mind, to concentrate on the business ahead. Then the push, gentle but firm.
And then, freefall.

* * *

"That was close!" came Brooks' voice over the commnet. Debris were coming down, trails of flame through the upper Martian atmosphere. There goes one reconsat too many I thought. Entering atmosphere at a shallow angle to prevent overheating, we leveled out at 15000 meters and throttled up to get to cruise speed. I could see the storms ahead.
"1st, this is Leader. Check out your gizmos, there's trouble ahead. Let's not fox-four if we can help it."
"Two, roger."
We were flying in a downward trajectory, on an interception course with another "friendly", a drone bomber that we were to down as soon as in range. This, and the fake 'Clan IFF codes we were broadcasting for all to see should have confused the enemy - or so it was thought.
Jon's wing took out the robot bomber before we could. He'd been in a better position and spotted it first. Gun-only kill, something impressive in an atmosphere. The DEW (directed energy weapon) lines from the pulse guns seemed to linger like smoke trails.
"Waypoint in 30 seconds, engage inertial navigation." I ordered while turning mine to ON. The message TRACKING appeared on the screen. I was on the loop.
Passing the waypoint on our route to the Trench. I could barely see it.
"Check THDAR, ten seconds…" I counted down and at zero we entered the Grand Canyon, slightly under supersonic and into the thick of the storm.
"Jeez, boss, let's get a shovel and bucket next time!" quipped Nicola.

One minute of flying blind is unnerving. Four hours plays sick little jokes on your sanity. Of course, we had the forward-scanning radar (lidar was useless in the sandstorm, and IR was the same) but it was no substitute for the real thing. The THDAR would keep us from crashing into each other or flying into the ground or against the trench walls, but there was no escaping the feeling that we weren't in full control of our lives. Four hours. Too much time. I didn't want time. I didn't want to think.
I hate them. Hate them. Hate them.

There was it again, the Beast biting at the edge of my conscience. Whenever I felt it, I tried to concentrate on the mission, go through the system checklist, fine-tune the Norden sight, whatever. Occasionally, we'd enter a pocket of calm air and we'd see each other and the walls of the trench again, and we'd salute, glad to see company. Then we'd go back into darkness and loneliness.
At 200 clicks from the target, we went through the final checklist and entered the PAL codes into the panel. Seconds of whirrs and clicks later, the message CODE ACCEPTED - DEVICES ARMED blinked on the screen.
"Seventy clicks to target… Damn!" All of a sudden the darkness dissipated giving way to a clear sky. Lake Tsiolkovsky was before and beneath us, blue and sparkling. And before us…
The cloning facility.
I could see the harsh face of the underground monstrosity even at that distance: the cliff by the lakeside had been excavated through, and there were exhaust ducts pushing hot gas through the atmosphere like pits from Hell. The entrance looked pitifully small and low.
"Drop down. Staggered formation." I ordered my wing. 2nd followed fast. We flew straight and true towards the target. Pulses of light flashed from the lakeside.
"Small arms fire, Swiss." Said Jon.
"Roger, Texas. Let'er rip a bit." I touched the trigger and my pulse guns came to life. Other fighters opened fire, raking the area. Some flashes disappeared, others remained. I positioned the Norden tracker screen to my face: targeting cues appeared superimposed to my view. The entrance was marked with a circle, a series of lines indicated the predicted bomb path, a pipper the point of impact. Slowly, the lines began to converge.
Something zinged against the canopy. I ignored it. The lines were almost straight…
"Ten seconds." I called out. The entrance loomed closer, like the jaws of a titanic beast. Nine. Eight…
"Leader, you're on target." Brooks called out.
Five, four…
All my life has been…
Three, two…
Aimed towards this moment.
I pushed the commit button.
A beeper went off in my helmet.
I pulled the trigger.
The Gyruss fighter leaped up as it became lighter.
Then I pulled the stick hard.
Damn, I missed. I thought I had it and I missed. No way I can have hit it, no way I can…
"Leader, you've got two good bombs. They've gone through, straight to the core!
I straightened out and unsafed the boosters. I made it, I made it, I can't believe I…
"Bombs away!"

More calls came from 1st Wing, and then 2nd, as they released their bombs. Most got through, one didn't, but there were enough hits to matter. We engaged boosters to get the hell out of Dodge, seconds and distance passed, before…
Sunrise. No, it wasn't the sun. The sun was above us. What was rising behind our backs was the fireball from the nuclear detonations. When the Ideoclans had excavated the facility, the terrain had been weakened and the first explosion had caused the structure to collapse, blasting the ground wide open. The bombs were now chain-exploding, their fireballs merging into one.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the canopy automatically darkened to shield me from the flash. The visor turned dark, too. But still the light came.
The boosters fired away, carrying me away from the nuclear fire, g-forces tearing at me. The shock was nothing like I had imagined. I screamed out loud, and yet I was silent.
I didn't dare turning around to see the apocalypse. The shockwave was riding behind, a hammer of superheated air. But a F-911 could run faster. We leveled out, I checked on my wing. I was surprised we were still alive, 2nd too.
"Mamma mia. That was fun, can we do it again?" asked Nicola, shaken but still in a quipping mood.
"Be good and I'll buy you another ride." I shot back. Then I looked behind me. A fist-shaped cloud was punching through the upper Martian atmosphere.
"Scratch one cloning facility." Jon said, shaken as well.
The boosters spluttered out and separated, falling away. The quiet of space felt odd. Then I heard something on the radio.
"This is Tango Delta One-Oh-Six, we require air support. I say again, this is Tango Delta One-Oh-Six…"
Ground troops! They were under fire.
"This is Echo Charlie Three-One-Niner, we require air support. Grid coordinates X-Ray Kilo six oh eight…"
"This is Yankee Five-Oh, support requested on…
" there were too many calls.
"1st, we've got some groundpounding to do. If you're still in the game, let's get down and do some work." I said.
"2nd, follow me!" Jon called out, simply. His wing went one way, we went another.

* * *

The sector we had vectored to was a vast rocky valley, with precious little in the way of cover. From the distance, I could see the JMF Marine units slugging it out with what looked three Ideoclan tank platoons. As soon as we locked them, we released a volley of Spearhead missiles toward the enemy armor.
The Spearheads had been designed as antitank weapons: this was the first time they'd be used for the purpose. I saw the trails from their engines go straight up and thought the atmosphere firing had thrown them out of whack, then they arced down and exploded, each one sending an AP slug into a tank. Each one of them burst into flames.
Closing in, we fired the pulse guns into the enemy ranks. Each shot kicked up sand and dust, leaving an ionized trail behind. I felt small arms fire against the fuselage, but the armor shrugged it off. We had no shields, of course, because of the atmosphere, but the Gyruss is well protected all the same.
I zoomed down on a 'Clan infantry unit, firing my guns. I saw them crumble and fall. Regaining altitude, I came down for a second pass. No one of them would leave the battlefield alive, I decided.
1st Wing had lost any semblance of a formation, buzzing like angry bees over the valley, taking out enemy units one by one. No missiles left, we had only our pulse guns. More than enough.
One of the fighters - Higeno, I thought - pumped shot after shot at a surviving tank until it went off in a spectacular secondary explosion. An artillery nest was my next target, it had been well camouflaged but my FLIR had it down cold. A burst of pulse gun fire turned the nest into flaming ruin.
"Warning, guns overheat safety on. Thirty seconds to normal operation." My guns shut down to cool off. I spotted an Ideoclan missile squad and turned around. No time to wait for the guns to come online again: I flew straight at them and engaged the hover thrusters. Flames shot down, burning them.
"Twenty seconds to normal operation." The computer warned again, but I still had no time: there were more 'Clans scrambling up a hill carrying a mortar-like device. Turning around, I zoomed down on them.
"Ten seconds to normal operation."
Just before overlying them, I pushed the shield activation switch: manual override bypassed the safety protocols. The shield came up with a blinding flash, lightning crowning my fighter's hull. There was no damage, but it felt like I was sitting at the heart of a mighty thunderstorm, the arcing discharge raking the ground. It didn't last long, the automatic safety disengaged the shield coil within seconds but the work was done: I saw the charred bodies as I climbed back up
Before long, we had run out of targets. And not just them.
"Ah, Leader, check your cooling level." Brooks suggested. I looked at the panel and saw it well into the red. We had pushed our birds hard, and the reactors were overheating. We had to turn them off within five minutes or lose them.
I briefly thought of trying and make it to orbit, but we would have been sitting ducks. And there was a sandstorm coming, I could see it over the horizon. Setting down was the only solution, but not in the middle of a battlefield…
"Guys, there's a weather station fifty clicks northwest of here." I looked at the map. "Let's land and wait it out."

The weather station's landing pad was wide enough for all our fighters to hover down, and the main hanger was open and empty. We taxied in, then safed the systems to hibernation and erased the IFF codes and dumped the PAL memory. We assembled near the hangar entrance.
"Well, we can't stay here." Brooks said. "We can close the hangar's door, but the storm could go on for days."
"Amen that." I looked at my e-pad. "According to the map, there's a small town built around the station and we're not in the red zone." 'Red' meant Ideoclan-controlled. There wasn't any 'blue' yet. I punched in some commands and a series of pictures came up. "I managed to snap a few shots while flying by, structures look good. There is a main building housing the weather station and power generator, then we have a little residential area all around."
"Threat scanner was in the green." Hector said. "No CBW stuff around."
"Yeah, no rad either." Celina confirmed. "Looks like we're in no-man's land."
I slung my rifle around and held it in the 'patrol' carry. "Well, let's see how the local hotels are."

The town was smaller than I thought: just the main building shaped like a truncated pyramid, surrounded by utility sheds and about two dozens of housing structures with the out looking sides lying diagonally. All a protection against the strong winds and sandstorms, obviously. We were standing on a hill overlooking the place, while I scanned the area through my binoculars.
There wasn't much to see: obviously the power had been cut, not even the anti-collision strobes on the sensor tower above the station were working, and the place had an abandoned look to it. A couple of land carts lay in the streets, one of them overturned. Maybe the wind I thought, but I also saw burn marks and holes in some of the buildings. Directed-energy weapons, maybe pulse guns, or explosive slugs. Shifting about to look from another side, I noticed a gash in the weather station's side, previously hidden by a smaller building. Now that I could see it, it was obvious that combat had taken place here at a time: not enough to cause massive damage but something had happened.
Then there was the area about half a click from the east side of the town: it looked like it had been excavated recently. I was reminded of Titan, and the trench in the methane snow dug by the crashing Ideoclan craft, but this was something else entirely.
Whatever action had been there, it was since long over. No sense worrying too much. I rose up and signaled my squad - my wing - to follow, and we walked down the hillside in a staggered line: Nicola and Hector ahead, myself in the middle, Brooks and Higeno at the rear. Much as I would have preferred to stay at the front, my Stgw11 was the best firepower we had so it made sense to have it where it could provide cover. I wished for a MG02, a Maschinengewehr (machine gun). The Null Zwei could fire 1500 7.7mm caseless rounds per minute, mixed AP and HE. You can't have everything. I fought back the urge to check the rifle chamber - I had done it just before starting down the hill - and reminded myself that everything was fine, the rifle was locked and loaded, no problem.
We finally reached the town, just as the wind was getting stronger. We filed down what looked like main street, even as though probably streets weren't even named here.
Hector froze and pointed. Behind what looked like a small condominium building lay two figures. Bodies. Ideoclan soldiers.
They must have been dead for quite some time. They were bloated and misshapen, and there were several gashes in their armor. Light infantry, maybe, not heavy stormtroopers gear. The damage was not from firearms, either.
"Look here." Brooks whispered. He was pointing at a small object, a round box roughly the size of a teacup saucer, attached to a building's face. Looking closely, I could see a spiderweb-thin wire running from it to a nail in the opposite wall.
"Antipersonnel mine." I said, recognizing it. "Stay clear of the wire, it fires razor-sharp metal discs when it blows up."
We put some distance between the device and us. "It's no 'Clan stuff." I remembered the training guides. "Terran weapon, old type too. They've been out of fashion for forty years at least."
"So, this is what killed those two 'Clans?" Nicola asked.
"Yeah, wounds are telltale. Pretty bad armor they get issued, too, if it gets sliced through by an old landmine like this." And we don't have any armor at all I thought.
"Guerrilla? Some survivors? Maybe they picked some old depot."
"Probably. Maybe they booby-trapped the place and left. Those two could have been part of a scout patrol, sent to recon the town."
"In that case, why did they leave them there? And why didn't they come in force?" Higeno asked.
"Don't know. 'Clans don't care much for each other, I doubt they'd do something as inefficient as carrying their dead or wounded back to base, or giving them proper burial." It was not exactly as if they had people back home who cared.
"Maybe those were the only two. Which begs the question, why didn't send someone to see what happened to them?"
"They didn't care." Offered Brooks.
"Probably." I looked around. "They don't think twice about sending thousands of troops to certain death, they're not about to lose sleep about two lost soldiers. Maybe their unit was locked in combat somewhere near by and they were simply scratched off as casualties."
Still, I didn't like the uncertainty of it all. We scouted around and found a clear way to the station.
"OK, file down as before. Keep your backs to…" A puff of dust erupted a scarce meter from me. A sharp CRACK resonated.
"CONTACT! CONTACT! Everybody DOWN!" I bellowed. Another shot rang out, another puff of dust. We were under fire!
"Where are they?" Higeno looked around.
"Look there!" Hector pointed. I saw a flash at a window in the uppermost floor of the weather station centre. Rising up the rifle, I snapped out the scope and looked through.
There it was: a rifle barrel, just poking through a window. Turning the fire selector to semiauto, I pulled the trigger fast. The Stgw11 produced a sharp report, like a loud coughing, as it fired its 4.1mm flechette rounds. The barrel moved, my shots hitting the concrete above the window. Shouldn't have snapped I thought.
Loud bangs erupted all around as my men opened up with their sidearms. The Elephant Killer may have been not accurate at long range, but the explosive rounds made for some nice fireworks. We advanced to the door, then paused.
"Window." I said. We shot the plaspex out and leaped in, in case the door was booby-trapped, then ran up the stairs. The centre was only four floors tall, we reached it in no time.
I changed magazines and turned to full automatic as I turned the corner, sending a burst down the corridor. We advanced and finally came to the entrance of a room. A shot rang out from the inside and ricocheted against a wall. Wild shooting, this was no sniper. No 'Clan, either, this seemed sure enough. I grabbed a cylinder from my belt, pulled out the rings and threw it inside. Throw something first, then work it out. No grenade, of course. Smoke cannister. Good enough. We stormed the room.
The figure inside was hunched above a weapon, fiddling with the magazines. Instead of shooting, we jumped and brought the would-be sniper down hard. There was hardly any struggle. When we finally took a good look at him, we could see we had been right. He was no Ideoclan.

* * *

The man must have been in his early thirties but looked older, and frail. He was disheveled and dirty, and his camouflage suit was torn in many pieces; his weapon, a light carbine, was well maintained though. From his unit and rank insignia, we determined he was a reserve Lance Corporal with the Colonial Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. He had been living at Windbreak Gorge - so the town was named - for five years with his wife and kids when the Ideoclan invasion came. The town had decided not to obey the 'Clan orders and barricaded themselves, and reservists had organized the resistance. Lance Corporal Alex R. Crowne had taken upon himself to go out and set up the passive sensor net that would have alerted the town of the invaders' coming.
Unfortunately, the Ideoclan had attacked the small city before the colonists had time to prepare, and although the resistance had been fierce, they were overrun.
Crowne had returned just in time to see the Ideoclans bury the bodies in the trench we had seen from the hill.
I tried to imagine what LCpl Crowne had gone through and gave up. It was just too much to think about. From that moment he had stood watch, getting ready for his last stand when the enemy would come back to occupy the town.
But the enemy never came: the weather station was not an important military target and the 'Clans had attacked it only to destroy the residents. Apparently, they hadn't even thought of bombing it. Maybe they thought ground troops were less expensive than bombs. Only some scouts had come along, to probe their perimeter, and had been killed by landmines or by Crowne's carbine. The only serious confrontation had come weeks before when a platoon had come about to set up an antiaircraft battery, and Crowne had managed to put it out of commission with the only one antitank round left. A brief firefight had resulted and he had been wounded twice, but the attackers had run into a booby-trapped fuel tank and had been wiped out. No-one was sent to investigate, because the same day a strong sandstorm had broken out and a couple of Ideoclan shuttles had crashed into the surrounding mountains. He had seen them, swatted against the rocky cliffs by powerful winds. Anyway, the 'Clans commanders didn't care. They had plenty of soldiers and shuttles. The losses at Windbreak Gorge were obviously other casualties to Mars' freaky weather. Nothing to worry about.
The Ideoclan commanders didn't care about Windbreak Gorge.
Only LCpl Alex R. Crowne, ANZAC, cared. He was the only one left, and not for long. He had treated his wounds as best as he could at the station's med facility but there's only so much than a man and automated surgeons can do. He had been living on scarce rations for too long, and lost much of his body's ability to fight back. And he was suffering from denutrition.
We tried to care for him as best as we could, using our medipacks' antibiotic and stimulants to lift him up, but he was too far gone. He could just sip the spare liquid rations we carried around on our suits.
If he had been just a little sharper I would have been dead. The man must have been a good shot in his time, judging from the sharpshooter medal on his dress uniform, which we found at his home.
"Bloody… 'Clans." He muttered while we ran a medscan on him. Hector had managed to start up the power generator using a spare suit's battery to boot it up.
"We're not Ideoclan, Corporal." I said. "We're JMF. 1st Wing, 357th Gyruss Squadron, from JMFNS Victory. We're on your side."
The man seemed to snap out a little. "You're Terran Navy? Space Defence?"
"We're from the Colonies." I explained. "We're invading the Solar System. Been taking them down planet by planet."
"Good." He muttered. "They told us not to fight, wait for orders, they wanted us to give up our weapons… Said, leave it to the pros. Like we couldn't fight."
Typical, I thought. Earth's military was completely a professional service. Most colonists, even on Mars, were militia types. It's funny how some people view as 'progress' the taking down of the people's ability to fend for themselves. Another fine irony was that Earth forces had been defeated and it was up to us, mostly citizen soldiers, to reclaim our space.
"I couldn't save them. They killed them all. My sweetheart. My boys." He cried. "Couldn't stop them."
"You've done good, corporal." Far better than I could have. "You held your position and denied use of this facility by the enemy."
The man's forces were fading. "I… Tired… Not slept for a long time."
"I'm relieving you, corporal. Get some rest, that's an order. We'll continue debriefing later.
"Yes, sir… Later."
He fell asleep. I took a look at the medscanner's readout, which were not good. His lifesigns were fading. It was a miracle he'd been still alive.
And maybe not. He had been kept alive by his sense of duty. The war had taken his life away from him, the Ideoclans had taken his family and his friends.
Now we had taken his mission and he could die.
Outside, the storm raged on.

* * *

By midnight we had fallen into a comfortable routine. One of us would rest, one would man the sensor suite, one would stand by, two would watch over our guest. No, not guest, host. This was his place. When I went to see him, he was still emaciated and looking ill, but not dirty and disheveled anymore: we had taken it to wash and shave him and provide a clean set of BDUs. The man was dying, he deserved to go in battle dress.
Towards three o'clock in the morning, he woke up. "Lieutenant? Sir?" he called in a voice suddenly clear and strong.
"I'm here, corporal." I said.
"Sorry for trying to shoot you."
I shrugged. Thanks heaven you didn't hit me. "You've done well. I should have identified myself."
"Please do a thing for me." He asked.
"Go ahead."
"When I go, bury me with the others. Call someone to bless the place. It's not hallowed ground."
"I'll have our Chaplain come along as soon as the storm is over and we have clear comms. Stay with us."
He made a croaking laugh. "Naw, sir. Don't think so. Will ya do this for me?"
"I will. Spare your energies now, soldier."
"Haven't much left." He stared at the ceiling. "Didn't like this place when we came here. Windy and lonely and the sight's not much. But you know, after a while, I got used to it. It was a good home."
He fell asleep.

Lance Corporal Alex R. Crowne didn't wake up again until early dawn. Light had just broken above the horizon when he opened his eyes and stared straight ahead and up, at something we couldn't see, and he spoke clearly one last time.
"I… Can see… You…" he said, smiling broadly, and then he was gone. We stood to attention and saluted.
Here goes a good man I thought. As far as I have been able to determine, he has done nothing serious wrong in his life and he has suffered like no one should so please, God, take him with you and get him back to his family and friends. He did try to kill me but the intentions were good, so to speak, thus I'm not going to hold a grudge and, by the way, I'm still around so no harm done.
With the storm over, and by the dawn's early light, we carried LCpl Crowne to his final resting place. We had dressed him in his dress uniform, his carbine upon his chest, his coffin made out from a 2-meters long metal container that had once housed missile parts.
I read out the Spacefarer's Prayer, the only one I knew by heart, while we buried him on the small hill overlooking the trench that held the remains of Windbreak Gorge's residents. Guide your servants, O Lord, by the ways of the Heavens you have made. We are humbled and awed before the beauty of your House…
A single plaque, etched out by laser welder, read:

Lance Corporal

Alexander Raymond Crowne


Died in the line of duty.

… And should our devices fail, shape our final orbit to your Home. Amen.
Higeno fired up his audio player, which he always carried around. There was a clip he had found on the station's data banks, which was just perfect.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled
"Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?"

We rendered our final salute to the fallen soldier. The sun was rising fast on the horizon, which looked so near.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled,
"Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?"

I thought about Shawn, and 3rd Wing again, and Ahmed, and Brytta, and myself. There's peace somewhere, but not for us. That was the harsh truth. There will never be peace for us living.

Up jumped the swagman, leapt into the billabong,
"You'll never catch me alive," said he,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong,
"Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me".

The song faded into silence. I ordered at ease, then we filed down the hill.
"We ought to call Chaplain McCreary." Nicola said. "Bless this place. Make it hallowed ground."
"Yeah, we'll do that." I looked out at the ground. "But you know, maybe wherever good people are buried, that's already hallowed ground."
"Si, probably. But say, how many good people do you need? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?"
"Don't really know, Nico. I don't think that High Up they go for big numbers. Maybe one will do."
"Yes. One should do the trick. Plenty of good ones down there, though. Big holy place, then."
"Right." I sighed. "Big holy place, for sure."

* * *

The remains of the Ideoclan forces on Mars were destroyed just as 2nd Wing came down on Windbreak Gorge following our Becky signals. With our Gyruss fighters cooled down, we took off and followed back to Victory. After extensive debriefing, and McCreary's promise that he would go back to Windbreak to bless the place, we finally had time to rest. Jon's loss - his mother's passing - hit me like I had lost a member of my own family. Then I realized we were family, a band of brothers like they say in books. Me, Jon, our wingmen, and Alex R. Crowne back on Mars. There was something between us all that went beyond genetics.
The black fury didn't hit me again after the battle. That evening at the Observation Deck, Colonel Barts toyed around with the telescope until it finally locked onto something far away. On the screen, we finally saw it.
Blue and white, and grey, suspended in a sea of darkness.
The Blue Marble.
Cradle of Mankind.
Shining like a jewel, our final goal and destination.

After all the partying, I went back to my room to get some rest. Check mail first I reminded myself and of course there they were, letters from my parents, my brother, friends I had back home and in the service. No bad news for me, this day. No losses for me. I grabbed a stylus, and began to compose some replies.
Then I remembered Jon's grief.
Alex Crowne's grief.
My own grief, for Brytta.
The Martian Holocaust.
The Ideoclans.
Kill. Kill. Kill them all.
The mass grave at Windbreak Gorge.
Burn them.
Nuke them.
Damn them all, damn them all to Hell.

No, please, not again. But the rage, cold as ice, crept up on me. It had nothing of the pure, berserker rage I had experienced at Jupiter, or at the gedunk while fighting it out with the sec officers. This thing that came at me was dark and tainted, coming up from the recesses of the human mind we try our best to forget about and cover up with pretenses of civilization.
Don't do this to me. Go away.
I breathed deeply, trying to chase away the feeling. My heart wasn't pounding. I felt calm, and that terrified me. Then I finally understood it.
I finally understood it with absolute clarity: I hated the Ideoclans. Each and every one of them. Not because of what they had done or what they were, but because of that they were not and could not do. They felt no fear, no regret, no pain. They didn't care for life. They had no families, no friends, no loving wives or girlfriends, no children. No loved ones waited for them at home, no one would miss them. Nobody would grieve over the thousands of Ideoclan soldiers I had killed. It was as if they had never existed. Their existence was devoid of joy, of sorrow, of anything that makes life precious and worth living.
I wanted them to be like me. I wanted them to be scared. I wished they could feel fear when they went to battle, terror when they sighted a Gyruss fighter, desperation and pain when our pulse guns tore them apart.
I wanted them to have loved ones to mourn them. Spouses waiting in dread for the next letter from the front. Families worried about them.
Best of all, I wanted them to have those things so that I could take them away. My hands fastened around imaginary controls as I recalled the switch sequence that armed the Wallis Bombs, only this time there was no underground base in my Norden sight seeker but an Ideoclan city, defenseless and full of life. I almost felt the bomb dropping away, the flesh-searing light, the nuclear fire burning houses and people, leaving nothing but glowing ash. I hated them. I hated them.
SNAP! The stylus broke in my hands. My jaws hurt, so hard I had clenched them. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt sick.
The thing that looked back at me wasn't even remotely human. A rictuslike grin in a hideously distorted face, showing teeth, eyes deep cold and dead-looking, yet ablaze with something I wouldn't have thought I'd see in a million years. There was nothing natural, nothing healthy in the hatred I felt.
I tried to look away but couldn't. This was a face my mother wouldn't have recognized. My father and my brother would have turned away from me.
This was a face Brytta Schwetter could have never loved.
I now understood how people could come to commit hideous crimes in war.
I could see the abyss a human soul can fall into.
What can happen to us all if we step away from the path and choose to be any lesser than we're meant to be.
CRACK! I head butted the mirror and fell to the floor. Please, please, help me wherever You are, because I'm failing. I'm failing. I'm trying hard but it's not enough. I'm looking at myself and what I fear the most is coming true. Because I've seen what I am and, help me, I'm not a good man.
I hugged my knees and sat trembling. Think of Earth I told myself.
Think of Earth.


We met our new CO a few days later.

Very often, you can figure out just what kind of officer your CO is by noticing his first few moments with you. As for us, we were clueless since we hadn't been told anything at all about him either. We were all lined up on the main flight bay of the 'King waiting for his arrival.

A shuttle landed first. Okay, that was probably him landing in a shuttle. Some people came out, mostly non-comms. A single warrant officer met us. A puzzled look came over us all; I looked at David. His face showed confusion. None of this was making any sense then suddenly the flight bay intercom sounded off with two bell rings. I hadn't heard that for a long time! A bossuns pipe sounded off.
"Now, 13th Fighter Group arriving!"
A single F-911 came though the magnetic shield. At least it looked like an F-911. Nothing like ours, or David's. We had just heard about the "D" model the day before.
The F-911 glided slowly and came to a halt, hovering above the shuttle. It then moved a few feet to the left and started to land. There was another craft right next to the shuttle. Didn't this guy realize he had no space?
The F-911 moved smoothly down, deliberately and with a purpose.
It landed with a gentle "whoosh"; mere centimeters from either the shuttle or the other craft!
"Now, 13th Fighter Group aboard."

We all looked at each other with genuine surprise.
Our new CO was a pilot! An F-911 pilot at that!
And a real damn good one.

He got out of his craft, handed his helmet to a flight crew member, and started to walk towards us.

He was older than us, tall, probably late 40's. Space combat is not the sole domain of the young. He walked with a confidence.

We were all at attention, rendering a salute. He saluted back.

He looked at the Chief.
"Colonel, you know my boys and I hate it when you land on manual! Said Chief Fongheiser.

That got all of our attention. He had landed that close on manual.

That's really damn good.

The Colonel chuckled at his maintenance chief's comments, and at our own astonishment. He then spoke up.

"Gentlemen of the 357th, I am you new CO. I'm Lt. Colonel W.L. Barts."

He spoke with a southern accent.

"The entire 13th Fighter Group has been assigned to one of the Super Battle Carriers, the JMFNS Victory. We have two more additional squadrons, the 512 and the 513, to our group as well. And, you guys from the 357th; you were requested-by name!"

We looked at him, question marks written all over our faces.

"You must have impressed him too, that person is none other than Admiral Albergottie himself. He specifically asked for you all. He also sends his regards to your recent loss. He said he wanted the best of the best on his flagship. Now, you have quarters and new equipment, including the new F-911's back on the 13th's flight bay, on your new home. Board the shuttle and I'll meet you there. Chief, inform them with what they need to know." Said the Colonel.

"Oh, before I forget, that's an F-911D. You'll all be getting one of those back on the Victory." He said.

We rendered another salute, the Colonel saluted us back, and then he walked towards his F-911. He got his helmet from a waiting flight crew member and he boarded his craft. His F-911 was lead to the cat assembly. We then boarded the shuttle and once everyone was on board, the shuttle door was closed and all of us prepared for the flight to our new home. We saw Colonel Bart's F-911 get loaded into the cat assembly; the flashing red lights told us he had been launched. Then it was our turn. The shuttle pilot lifted off, moved slowly towards the magnetic shield of the flight bay, and off we were.

It's weird being a fighter pilot being shuttled to your new home, not flying there on your own. Our new maintenance Chief told us some background history on our new CO.

It was most impressive. He had been a prior service Master Chief; in the Coast Guard. Everyone looked at me and chuckled. The Chief continued on telling us about the Colonel. He had retired, but had volunteered for pilot duty. His master spacecraft handling had served him well during flight school. He was a real natural. His leadership and abilities had landed him one promotion after another. War tends to promote the most capable most quickly. He had also earned numerous awards and medals. But, as the Chief told us, was loath to brag about it all. We were also told that he was gruff, but had a sense of humor and really loved looking out for "His flyboys". This all took some time to get used to.

A new CO who was a pilot, a professional, a war hero and genuinely concerned for his men. This was all new to us.

Finally, we were able to see our new home come into view; while it was still a way off!

"Guys, that's your new home; the Victory." Said the Chief.

Huge didn't describe it. The Super Battle Carrier was everything Torrence had described and more. When we finally got a lot closer we were able to see the multiple gun batteries and flight decks. We then entered the 13th's own flight bay. A ship that had separate flight bays for entire fighter groups and their support personnel! We saw the rest of the F-911's parked in the flight bay. And, we saw ten F-911's similar to our new CO's. We landed with a gentle bump. The shuttle door opened and out walked the Chief and the others. We walked up to the Colonel, who had a member of the ship's crew next to him; with Royal Navy designations. The flight bay was cavernous. People and machines were busy everywhere.

"Welcome aboard 357th! Commander Alexander Beg will escort you to your new quarters. You will find them most adequate. And, you'll also find an attached spare room filled with portable flight-simulators; based on the new F-911D's. He will also show you parts of the ship. This and the other 25 are part of an entire new way of attacking the 'Clans.
You will enjoy the facilities. Now, I will see you at 0730 tomorrow in the 13th's briefing room. After the briefing, you will start your education on the new F-911D's. Dismissed."

Commander Beg then motioned for us to follow him. As we walked away we couldn't help but be impressed with the size and newness of the Super Battle Carrier. We were shown the other flight bays, the CIC, the Fighter CIC, the bridge, the numerous battle bridges, the medical centers, chow halls, engine rooms, one of the many gun batteries and their crew (the battery had a separate reactor for it and several others!), and finally the workout areas and our new squad bay; with the training room.

"Well, that was the Victory, hull number SBC23002. This ship has proud ancestry lads, we're glad to have you aboard."
With that he left us. The Squad bay had quite a few more amenities than what the 'Lex had. There were uniforms and clothes laid out on each rack. We then went into the training room. A flight simulator for each pilot! David and I looked at each other and nodded.

"Alright, we are here. Our new home. I noticed there are manuals on the F-911D's. Let's read them together." Said David.
"I agree, let's get some info on these new birds before they start our training. Let's also burn some time on those sims too!" I said.

The first hour looking over the manuals was a completed shock to us. The cockpit was almost entirely changed. This would take some time. The firepower was increased too! The twin pulse cannons had 15% more range with about a 25% increase in power!

"Wow, this is one sweet machine." Said Andrew.
"Well, what are we waiting for? No better time than the present to learn how to fly these birds." Said an excited Brooks!
"Let's do it! Everyone into wings and let's try these babies!" I said.
"Hell yes!" Said Swiss. Surprising us all with his words!

We all got into the sims and started at the hardest level.

Boy was that a mistake. The training room was soon filled with the curses of our guys trying to get used to the new F-911D control systems. But, we hung with it. We even skipped lunch. Sometimes a laugh would erupt from one of the sims as a pilot finally leaned a certain section of the control system. It was all coming, slowly, to us. This also took our minds off of what had recently happened to us. It was good to keep busy and not dwell too much on the past.

But unbeknownst to us, and later told by Colonel Barts to us, was that he had entered the squad bay; quietly. He had watched us for twenty minutes and then he left; smiling.

For the next couple of weeks, though, he'd be doing little of that towards us…

It was early in the morning when we received our first briefing on the F-911D. The captain explained to us all the major differences. He also made it clear that it would take some time to get used to the new fire-control system of the F-911D, in addition to the all new cockpit layout. Our course of training was for two weeks to get up to speed with the new F-911D.

"Alright, now get this straight as well. The F-911D has three times the computer power of the first generation. The neural network incorporates everything we have learned in combat with the 'Clans. Your so-called "Death Spiral" is already built-into the flight control system. You can also modify how tight the maneuver can be. One more thing, multi-move is also something that we recently added. Test it further to your liking. Now, assemble in the flight bay for your first mission op-order."

The walk to the flight bay was swift. Entering in, Chief Fongheiser explained that our F-911D's were all ready for the mission. A major read us the op-order; a simple recon flight. We each took to our new crafts. No one said anything to each other except David and I. One thing for certain, we had lost that edge as a squadron.

I spoke the command words to my new F-911D. Words that sounded so heavy to my soul.

"System online. Kryton, Jon W." I said.
"System functions are online. Diagnostics are a go." said the flight control computer.
"Texas, see you out there." said Swiss.
"Roger Swiss, meet you in a few." I radioed back.

"Squadron 3-5-7, you are cleared for launch. Wing One, load." said Flight Control.

David's wing was loaded at once.
"Magnetic catapult system energized. Wing One prepare for launch…launch."

No more individual F-911 launches, the new SBC's had wing-launchers.

It was our turn next.
"Wing Two, load." said Flight Control.
Our crafts were loaded into the launch tunnels at once. The F-911D cockpit came alive with catapult statistics and such! That was new.
"Magnetic catapult system energized. Wing Two prepare for launch…launch."

In a matter of second we joined the coldness of space with Wing One. The multi-cat launcher had each F-911 launch at a slightly different angle as to avoid any possible collisions.

"Swiss, this is Texas. Wing Two is online." I said.
"Roger Texas, follow my lead." responded Swiss. "I have the mission point coordinates."

The flight to our mission point took about 15 minutes. Most of us didn't speak much, the new systems and constant reports had us paying attention to that. This was really a simple flight; nothing else was planned. Arriving at our mission point, we then headed off to a clear point. That took about thirty minutes. Finally, we headed back to the Victory. Each of us landed on automatic; with a few bumps to mark the occasion. For me, the new cockpit layout ended up being intuitive in actual flight. The controls had started to become natural to me, as I had moved my F-911D a little here and there during the flight. I noticed that David had done the same. But, no one else had. It had been a very cold and lifeless flight.

"Welcome back 357th! Now, prepare for another mission. Your op-order has been uploaded into your flight control computer. See you again in about four hours." The major said.

The flight did last four hours. We traveled to different points. We even engaged a few targets at a live-fire range that Training Command had setup for us. The improved weapons system really impressed us. David and I again took the opportunity to test the sensitivity of the control system. He flashed some simple commands to me, and I confirmed with him. We lacked an edge as a squadron!

Col. Barts was waiting for us when we returned the second time. After the AAR, After Action Report, we stayed back with him in the briefing room.

"Okay, how do you like the new F-911D's?" he asked.
"Very nice sir." said David. "The flight systems are much improved."
"The controls respond very nicely, and the cockpit layout is intuitive once you have flown in it for a while." I added.
"And, the extra range and firepower of the twin pulse cannons is a real plus." said David.
"I knew you would like them." The Colonel said with a chuckle. "I am known for being gruff but I enjoy a good laugh. I know your last CO was a real piece of work. All I can say is that I'll show you I'm different. Now, there seems to be a problem."
"There is, Colonel. Something isn't quite right." I said.
"We're not gelling as a squadron. There's none of the usual chatter on the 'net as we fly. It's not the new F-911D's. We've picked up on the new systems in no time at all." said David.

"We need to resolve this guys, you have about two weeks to get totally familiar with the new F-911D's. And, that also means you need to be a tight and focused squadron again. Work out together, run, and swim whatever it takes. Now, Lt. Kurtz, have each of your men come into my office one at a time. I need to talk to everyone. You two I'll do last. Dismissed."

We saluted and left. David and I said a little before we entered our squad bay.
"I think we really got messed up after Almathea, David."
"It's been affecting me ever since. We need to talk to a Chaplain during our off time." He said.
"If we don't gel, we'll never make it back home alive." I said.

He nodded as we entered the squad bay. The guys hadn't taken off their flight suits yet and were basically hanging around.

"Alright, the Colonel wants to see us, one at a time. My wing is first to go so Brooks you're first." said David.
"Gotcha boss." said Brooks.

While the rest of the guys were having their initial interviews by Colonel Barts, I took time to change into a jump suit. I got my boots polished while my guys started their interviews. Once the last guy was done, I headed off to Col. Barts office. Whacking his door with my palm three times I waited for his response.

"Entree Lt. Kryton." The Colonel said.
I entered his office. He had pictures of his family, and his service medals lying on the bulkhead, wall, behind him. He also had a large Coast Guard flag on another bulkhead. A hot cop of coffee was on his desk and he had an e-book next to it.
"Lt. Kryton reporting as ordered." I said and saluted at the same time.
"At ease, J.W., I may call you that?" he asked.
"Yes…sir." I responded.
"Okay then, J.W., have a seat. Let's talk."
I sat down and started to talk about myself, my New Texas National Guard duty and my prior service in the Coast Guard. It turned out that we had both been in the Aids to Navigation branch. He had worked both earth, lunar and Mars shipping lines. I had worked on earth entry and lunar orbit. My ranch on New Texas was discussed, as was Lori and my son; Troyton. I explained to him how my wife and I had been trying for a child of our own together before the War. Finally, the JMF and F-911 Gyruss flying came up as subjects.
"They have some theories they'd like to prove with the F-911's. Especially massed fighter attacks with close-in ship support. We'll probably be training that for the Mars campaign. The JMF has its usual REMF's who think they know everything. However, some combat veterans were recently promoted to flag positions so they have the pull to test it all."
"Let's hope so, being on single patrols can be a real pain." I said.
"Agreed, J.W." he said. Then reaching to his intercom he said "Okay Lt. Kurtz, enter."
David entered, saluted, and then sat down on the seat next to me.
"Thanks for waiting, Lt. Kurtz. The reason I interviewed your guys first is to know just how your wings respect you. No problem there. Now, how do we propose to fix the squadron's "problem." the Colonel asked?
"Well, Colonel Sir, we need first to be talking to Chaplain McCreary. Secondly, a few days break will help us all. We know the schedule is tight but even a day off will help. Finally, we can be doing joint workouts and such." David answered.
"I agree, also Sir." I said.
"Then gentlemen, the problem is clear. The 357th is coming along nicely in learning the new F-911D systems. You must become a squadron again. What I think is the problem is an overwhelming sense of survivor guilt. Talk as much as you need with Chaplain McCreary. He's a good man; we've already spoken to each other. Oh, and before I forget, you two are to do all your landings on manual from now on."
David and I exchanged a quick glance.
"That's not a suggestion, that's a direct order gentlemen." Besides, he added "I know you two can do it."
We both stood up and saluted.
"Request permission to leave, Sir?" we asked.
He saluted back.
"Permission granted, dismissed. And gentlemen, keep on flying; the books are open."
David and I didn't say much on the way back to the squad bay. But first, we stopped at the gedunk and got a beer. Drinking it slowly we discussed what had to be done.
Two weeks.
The knowledge was there.
The spirit wasn't.

One Week Later

All of us sat in a semi-circle. Chaplain McCreary sat at the middle of the circle. This was our third visit with him.
"It's like, I see him dying so close to us, again and again. Then I think of Steve, Eric, Nick and Andy and I ask myself why." Brooks said.
We all agreed.
"Go on." Rev. McCreary said.
"I mean, we could have been landing instead of them. If we hadn't been delayed…" I said, choking back the emotions.
"Jon, you can't blame yourself for the delay." Andrew said.
"Please, don't Jon. Andrew is right. That was entirely out of your hands." Rev. McCreary added.
"We seem to be flying away. We've all gotten real good at understanding the new F-911D's. I just don't know…" David said.
"Guys, we all came so close that day. Every one of us had to be placed into those surgical tanks. I don't know about you, but I really don't want to do that ever again." Yoshiki said.
"All of you, it's natural to feel survivor's guilt. No one this side of eternity knows why you were spared when so many had to die that day. I can't offer any answers to that question. But, I can tell you this that God is still there for all of you. The very one who is the Good Shepherd, is also with you when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The very heavens proclaim His Righteousness. He knows every star by name, and if he does even that, then you are even closer because he created you and loves you all. His promises still stand during the hell of war. I have known all of you for quite some time now. We've been through talks about Chupa, about family problems and quite a few bible studies. I am really proud of you all. Everyday you're at the top of my prayers. Now, go do something together-not related to F-911 flying either." He said.
We nodded and let his words sink in. Brooks spoke up first.
"Thanks Rev. Guys, I know we haven't been gelling as a squadron. I'll be the first to admit that. Let's go to the gym for zero-gee wallyball. Andrew and I'll pick teams."
"Good, see, do something as a team. Mix everyone up as well. Have fun!" said Rev. McCreary.
"Sounds good! Hey, keep Jon and David off the same team!" said Yoshiki!
"Let's go!"

Three Days Later

"Almost there, David." I said.
"Yes, almost there. This mission went real well, especially the covering your guys provided during the attack runs." He said.
"We're about 75%. We needed this." I responded back.
"Alright everyone, change into your jump suits when we're back in the squad bay." David said. Then he added "The Colonel doesn't need us immediately."
"Okay, hey Andrew and I want to go for a pint after we're done changing." Said Brooks.
We all looked at Andrew. That wasn't a normal thing for him, but he was known for having a pint once and a while.

The squadron walked to the gedunk and the rest of us stayed outside as Brooks and Andrew went inside for a pint. Andrew had been boasting about a certain kind of beer only found in New Australia and Brooks had talked about a certain beer found on New Texas. The gedunk was loud during this time of the day. I was leaning up against the bulkhead. Yoshiki said a joke and all of us laughed at it. We were feeling like a squadron again.

Then, the sounds in the gedunk got real loud. Shouts, cursing, sounds of objects being thrown. Suddenly, someone came running out saying…
"They're beating up those two pilots!"
A couple of guys said "Oh Hell no…"
David and I looked at each other and simply said:
"Hell, yes!"
With that, we all ran in…

13th Fighter Group Briefing Room

We were in trouble…

Col. Barts went on and on, while we were all still restrained by members of the Security Forces. One officer in particular, Officer Falfas, had had a grand time restraining me during the fight. I think the words "you have two options" and "what can I do to make you cooperate" were the last ones I heard before I was put into some kind of arm hold.

That hurt like hell, and that was the end of my fight.

David had been pushed face down hard by Officer Basse and that had been the end of his fighting. The rest of our guys had been just as quickly subdued. Poor Andrew, he was beet red as the Colonel kept on yelling at us. Things like "you ought to know better", "I can't believe you did this", and, of course, "what the #$%^ were you all thinking?" came from the Colonel's mouth. Yeah, we were all screwed. Who knows what they'd do to us. If we had any conciliation in this whole mess it was this: we had fought as a squadron and even called each other by our call signs. If we were hurting, at least the mechanics that had picked on Brooks and Andrew were in the clinic. Small conciliation, though, the Courts Martial wouldn't worry about such small details.

"Now, what the hell should I do now, 357th?"

Andrew spoke up.
"Sir, no excuses sir. But Colonel, we fought together-everyman looked out for each other."

"Yes, I'm well aware of that. The video will make for a fine piece of evidence at your Courts Martial. Everything on video, real good one guys." And with that, he then stepped back from us.

It was an awkward silence. A groan from one of us would be the only sound made. But, was I seeing things? The Colonel, he had a smile on his face? Suddenly,

"Attention on Deck." The Colonel said.

With our SF's tormentors releasing their grips, we all came to attention. In walked Admiral Albergottie!

"Officers, you are released back to your duty station." And with that, the SF's left.

The Admiral looked at us. We were all beat, but we had fought a good hard fight. He then turned to the Colonel and said the words we never, ever expected to hear.

"Colonel Barts?"
"Yes Admiral?"
"Are they a squadron again?"
"Hell yes, Admiral! Hell yes!" said the Colonel most enthusiastically.

With those words, we all knew what was coming. Admiral Albergottie wanted his favorite squadron for a special mission. However, he walked to the front desk and left us a memory disc and a piece of paper.

"Colonel, the 357th is confined to their quarters for two weeks, in that time they are to read and study this material."

"Yes Admiral. Attention on deck!"

The Admiral walked out. Col. Barts then grabbed the disc and the paper and handed both to David. A familiar face then walked in, except this time she was a major. It was Steve's widow, Carolyn Bascay! With her were several nurses.

"Gentlemen, you've heard the Admiral. David here has the info and a personal note from the Admiral. You are all confined to quarters for two weeks. Now, MAJOR (The Col. Emphasized that) Bascay will escort you to your quarters. She and her nurses will tend to your bruises. Just because she was married to one of your own doesn't mean a thing. She outranks you all and all I need is just one peep from her and you guys are ALL going into the brig. Read and study this material. Now, squadron…Attention…Dismissed." And the Colonel walked off.

We all gathered around David before we left. The disc was labeled "TACTICAL/GEOGRAPHIC DATA - MARS. TOP SECERET" It was the note that took us away. We expected something long and such. It wasn't, all it said was "I believe in you." With some verbal hints from Major Bascay, we all left and headed for our quarters. It would be a long two weeks being confined to quarters. But one thing kept on being mentioned, the Valles Marineris; aka Grand Canyon of Mars. We studied everything-no detail was too small to be memorized.

Two Weeks Later
13th Fighter Group Briefing Room
Time: 0555

We were all tired as we stood waiting for the Admiral to enter the briefing room. We hadn't gotten to sleep until 0200. During our absence, someone had been very busy in the briefing room; displays, extra computers, etc. We were just as curious about what this was to do with us. Only that we knew it had to be big. We'd find out soon enough just how big it would be.

"Attention on deck." Someone yelled out.

In walked Admiral Albergottie. Behind him was Professor Hunt, several lower-ranking officers, and finally Chaplain McCreary! The Chaplain stood next to us.

"At ease everyone." The Admiral said. And with that, everyone sat down.

"The content of this meeting is classified TOP SECRET. First of all, I'll introduce Professor Hunt. He and his team have had a major breakthrough in deciphering 'Clan technology. Professor Hunt…" Said the Admiral.

Professor Hunt and his assistants stood up.

"Thank you Admiral. Let me first tell you guys why the good Chaplain came in with us."
Prof. Hunt rolled back the sleeve of his shirt and proceeded to show us one nasty burn.

"Please bring up video 99-08-24. Okay, as you can see, this is a 'Clan fighter that we managed to get. The radiation around Jupiter ended up killing the pilot. We actually think that a small breach was caused by an F-911 pulse cannon. It also seems that several systems were disabled when the damage occurred."

Suddenly, the video showed a small explosion. Several figures were seen running, one of whom was the Prof.

"However, not enough to prevent this. We were all lucky that day. I had just had a chat with the Chaplain when this happened. In my line of work, you need all the prayer you can get!"

We all laughed at that.

"What our major breakthrough is that we have deciphered their IFF. It seems that the IFF code is based on the radiation count of each planet, taken at the time of the invasion. What we have also managed to do is replicate this device! The 'Clans may be clones, but their physics are the same as ours. It turns out that the craft didn't exploded because a bug in their software, hidden very deep, actually put the craft into what we call 'Maintenance Mode' and from what we can tell, the craft can be worked on and not be exploded. We also think that some repair work was done because some code seems to be data indicating repair comments."

"But, that is not why we are here. Though this is a great breakthrough. Let my chief assistant, Lt. Pefferly, fill you in."

The Lieutenant spoke up.

"As you know from the disc provided to you. The pre-invasion population of Mars was estimated to be around 20 million or so. Mars is the oldest of the tera-formed colonies so it has had the longest time to grow population wise. Most of this was based around the Valles Marineris canyon system."

A large display started showing the Valles Marineris.

"This canyon system makes the Grand Canyon on Earth look small. It was the Martian parallel to the river Nile for the development of human colonization. Nearly 95 percent of the entire Martian population was located along this trench."

Admiral Albergottie then spoke up.

"The Mars Campaign has already started. It has been the JMF's MO to scout, commence light attacks, and then bring on the big guns. We are letting the 'Clans think we are still doing that. For the past three weeks, three highly-trained Special Forces teams have been on Mars! They are Americans, Brits, and Russians. It seems that the 'Clans did a number on the population of Mars. The SF's have found evidence of vast unmarked grave sites. It seems to be a slaughter three and a half times worse than the Jewish Holocaust of the mid-Twentieth Century."

We all gasped at the thought of that.

"However", said the Admiral. "The SF's have also found pockets of survivors!"

With that news, everyone in the room cheered.

"They are only a couple hundred right now. They have been providing our teams with extraordinary information on our enemy. They have also informed our teams that once Mars is ours, they will show major groups of survivors." said the Admiral.

"Sir, this is indeed great news, but how was this possible?" asked David.

"It's true that over the centuries, maps of nearly all sewer systems and drainage outlets were made. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. And, many private and industrial entities made their own un-mapped systems. One thing that seems to have helped them too is the fact that Mars has extremely nasty sandstorms. The earliest colonists had to dig in to protect themselves. And many of these first shelters were forgotten about. Allot of these hidden sanctuaries also contain enough food and water supplies. Many of these survivors are also non-military people, which mean that they didn't try hit-and-run tactics on the 'Clans. Better to hide and wait." explained the Admiral.

The Admiral then motioned to a nearby aid, who began entering information into a computer.

"What you are all about to see is actual video taken right after the initial invasion. The 'Clans hit the major cities first, but they left the smaller suburbs alone. However, those who survived the initial attack were in for a fate worse than death it seems." He said. Then adding "Now, watch..."

The video was remarkably clear. However, it was quickly apparent that it had been taken at a distance and from a well-hidden area. The zoom function was constantly being used. We saw survivors being led by armed 'Clan troopers. The troopers wore their usual armor so we couldn't see their faces, but what we did see were also un-masked leaders! From what we could tell, they were female!

We also heard speeches and translations being offered to the survivors. Telling them to go to this point and such. The untranslated speech was puzzling until Prof. Hunt spoke up.

"We have determined that language to be a simple version of Esperanto." he said.

We all nodded at that.

The video continued on. Every once and a while you would hear 'Clan aircraft fly overhead. The people were being led to a local collection point. Up until now, nothing pointed to the horror we would soon observe.

The 'Clan leaders then informed the survivors that they were prisoners of the Ideoclan Empire. The people seemed to be in shock and in fear.

Suddenly, a 'Clan craft flew close by and deposited a weird and colored cloud onto the crowd. Almost immediately the people seemed to have their flesh dissolve from their bodies. The screams of the children were the worst. We watched in horror as the crowd simple died a terrible and horrific death. You could hear the person taking the video try to prevent from yelling out loud. Once the crowd was reduced to bones, large vehicles came by and scooped up the bones.

The video turned to the left and showed a crowd a fair distance away being led to the same area. The camera then panned to the sky to show a vast armada of aircraft fly by. The video then turned back to the crowd, the same instructions were heard from the 'Clan leaders, and the video suddenly went fuzzy and finally black.

"We believe that the survivor who shot this video had to leave rather quickly. He passed this video onto others who then passed a copy onto the American SF team. The video was then sent via quad-encrypted signals to the JMF fleet outside Mars." said the Admiral. And, continuing, he added. "What we think happened to those poor souls was a combined biological-chemical warfare agent. It's pretty well localized and not one to spread outside the infection zone. We have reports from the survivors that this scene happened in all of the remaining cities and suburbs. Fortunately, word spread quickly amongst certain groups who ignored the local Mars' leaders calling for a peaceful surrender."

We all just shook our heads. The immense tragedy of this was too much to take in.

"Now, back to you, Professor Hunt." said the Admiral.

"Thank you, Admiral. Remember what we said about the pre-invasion population of Mars. It would seem that scans of the CO2 levels would indicate a far lower amount. In fact, it's not. All three of the teams have access to special instruments that can read local CO2 levels. It was a puzzle to them until the test results were sent to us. And even then, it was a mystery for a while. It simply didn't make sense. The levels were off the scale. Even taking in consideration the estimated 'Clan forces on Mars; we shouldn't have had such readings. Until..."

He then displayed a picture on the screen.

"This is a picture taken of the H.G. Wells Underground Facilities Entrance Shaft. It was the first such facility ever built on Mars and has been considerably expanded over the centuries. Our SF teams managed to get this picture from a location about two and a half kilometers away. They were lead to this position by several survivors. Anyway, what really made them curious was the fact that their compasses had become really screwy. In fact, after taking this picture and several others, they started to re-trace their steps to see the extent of the magnetic distortion. It was after 100 kilometers that it was finally gone! The SF team then returned for several days of surveillance. They noticed that craft did enter the Facilities Entrance with no problems. They sent us the results of their surveillance as well as local CO2 readings." The Prof. said.

He then continued.

"That magnetic field does extend for 100 kilometers in every direction. That is except up. It extends to nearly low Mars orbit! Our weapons have made shots at it and the field deflects every energy shot. Missiles launched at it are destroyed by laser batteries. Our SF's have also indicated large 'Clan forces on the plains near this entrance. This and the CO2 levels we have recorded can only mean one thing." He said.

He paused and waited for us to figure things out. The thought slowly sank in.

"They're protecting a very large cloning facility!" He said.

The thought of this made everyone uncomfortable. Having to deal with millions of 'Clan fighters already were bad business. The prospect of having to deal with even more of them made for a real bad dream-a nightmare come true.

"Then our mission is to destroy that facility, Admiral?" Said David.

"Quite correct Lieutenant Kurtz. Of all the missions accomplished so far during this war, this will be the most difficult. But, that is why I chose you after being certain you and your fellow pilots were a squadron again. You see, this is going to be the linchpin to the entire Mars Campaign. If you succeed, and I know that you will, then conventional invasion plans will be thrown out for something we call ultra-rapid expeditionary forces. General Zhukov's army has been tasked with liberating Mars. With that facility and magnetic shield in place, the chance for success is limited and all of you know that we cannot fail here."

He paused, and then continued.

"Everything we have been doing so far has been designed to fool the 'Clans into thinking we are doing business as usual. We know they have large cruisers, as experienced by you at Almathea. But, from what we have seen and preliminary information from the Mars skirmishes, they have nothing at all like our Super Battle Carriers. I plan on using then in an unconventional method, just as we plan for unconventional tactics with General Zhukov. But, in order to really surprise them we need to destroy their future. The destruction of the cloning facility will be the start of the liberation of Mars, and, the eventual liberation of the Earth. You have all seen what the 'Clans did to the colonists on Mars. And, I want to inflict on them a taste of their own medicine. This is personal." And with that, he motioned to an aid.

"Gentlemen, I am Commander Andrew Harlow, from the colony of New England. I am now going to brief you on your mission." He said.

The main display became alive.

"As you can see, the cloning facility is on the very end of the Mariner Trench. All information points to major 'Clan forces on the three sides of the facility entrance. However, the weakness is from the East. However, we have determined that normal missiles are deflected by the magnetic shield or shot down before reaching their target."

A view of Lake Tsiolkovsky came into view.

"This lake is at the very entrance to the facility. It extends for about 80 kilometers west and at its widest point it's as wide as the Mariner Trench. The mean depth is 30 meters."

He then had the display split into two. An animation then started.

"Each of you will be carrying three high-level nuclear bombs. They have been shaped specifically for this mission alone. They won't go live until they enter the facility and they won't explode until they have reached the inner chamber, some eight kilometers down. Several of these bombs are also equipped with a rapid photo system. We should hopefully get one picture of what's down there before hell erupts for them."

He continued.

"You will enter at a predetermined point some 4000 kilometers away. You will fly at 1000km/hour until the final 80 kilometers. You will then skim above Lake Tsiolkovsky at an altitude of 29 meters exactly, flying 800 km/hour. This is critical, gentlemen, for what you will be delivering are gyro-stabilized bombs that when released will skip over the water until they come into the facility entrance. They have some control over reaching their target but because of the massive magnetic field they must be delivered manually. The facility is wide enough that all of you can have your bomb loads delivered. But, that also means flying close-10 meter distance. And, I stress that you cannot go supersonic during your trip." He concluded.

"Sir, how are we to maintain such close proximity?" I asked.

"You are all being equipped with a THDAR system. The Tera-Hertz Detection and Ranging offers great collision avoidance and altitude ranging while being extremely limited in its leakage. Also, it's darn near impossible to detect unless you're in its path to begin with." He answered.

"And, once the bombs have been released, how much time are we looking at for minimum safe distance?" Asked David.

"We anticipate no more than 40 seconds. And, we know you normally don't have enough speed for that. You will also be equipped with a special booster pack that will get you where you need to be very fast. Understand this; you'll be experiencing g-forces far more than you have ever been used to. But once those bombs go off, we're looking at an explosion of close to 200 megatons!" He explained.

"What have these bombs been called sir? I asked.

"We have called them 'Wallis Bombs' after a mid-twentieth century British scientist. By the way, the codename for this mission is '617'." He said.

We seemed puzzled until Hector spoke up and answered why the mission was called "617".

"I think I know why it's called "617", Commander Harlow." He said.

"Go on..." Said the Commander.

"617 was the name of the squadron that became famous as the damn-busters of the Second World War. I had to do a research assignment at college about risky military missions. They were the one I did the most research about." He said, with an excitement in his voice.

"Well done Lad! Someone here does know their military history!" Exclaimed the Commander.

Admiral Albergottie then spoke up.

"Gentlemen, using Professor Hunts' breakthrough, we'll deliver hell right into their nursery! For the next four weeks you'll do nothing but train, train, and train. Every possible problem and scenario in a limited timeframe. I and my staff have nothing but the utmost confidence that you will accomplish this mission." He said.

With that he motioned to his staff. With an "Attention on deck" sounded, we stood at attention as he and his staff left, including Professor Hunt and his associates.

We looked at each other for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Col. Barts spoke to us.

"Four weeks! Four weeks..." He said.

And with that, we left the room and headed to our squadbay. Hardly a word was spoken during the walk, but we all though the same thing.

"This would be our greatest mission and our finest hour-ever."

We weren't about to let anyone down.

But, getting there would require patience and attention to detail. And, like the Admiral said, lots and lots of training. We'd get just that.

Mission "617" Timeframe
23 Days Left:

"Simulation Complete...Simulation Complete"

With a "whoosh" our individual F-911D simulators opened up. This last mission had been a real pain. We were hit with the worst possible sandstorms and massive small-arms fire and half of us had system malfunctions of one sort or another. That we managed to complete the mission and sent about a third of the bombs really made a nasty mission end well. Sort of. We wanted an eighty-percent drop rate for those bombs.

This was also our thirtieth mission in five days. How could we have so many? The first two days had alot of terminated simulations. And of course, we'd start all over again, and again, and again...

Each week was to be basically the same, except that the first had us get used to the bomb drop methodology. You see, they were gyro-stabilized and that meant alot could go wrong. And it did.

Simulating the bomb drops actually required a very long shallow pool of water with equipment simulating the speed and visuals we'd have. For the first several days we could lay claim to the longest training pool in the Fleet! Not that anyone could swim much in a half-meter of water.

We were getting tired. We were getting maybe four-five hours of sleep at best.

We then got a very pleasant surprise; a ten-hour break from all things "617" related! To blow off steam we all hit the pool and did laps and then had a most filling breakfast. Fully sated we slept for nearly eight hours straight.

And then, it was back to training. And it was harder and more stressful than the prior days had been...

Nineteen Days Left:

We'd hit a deadly snag...

It was an extremely rare possibility, but one that required an immediate re-assessment of the mission operations.

It was found that during our final run, with all of us lined up and at the right altitude above the Lake and if one of our outer craft was hit, the possibility of a domino effect could rapidly end the mission-one craft would crash into each other in a matter of milliseconds.

While the techs and engineers left us to play around with some potential fixes to this problem, we talked amongst each other.

"So, let me get this straight. It's the Swiss we have to thank for saving civilization?" asked Andrew.

"Yeah, I second that. What goes with this idea, David?" I asked.

"Here is how I understand the whole thing." David answered. And continuing on, he explained. "The Terran Corps of Engineers had conducted a hyper-accurate survey of this whole Mariner Trench system. We're talking down to millimeter accuracy. They would use from four to six un-manned vehicles to laser scan each section at a time. Now, because of the Martian weather system, they sometimes were able to get a month of work done, or sometimes just a few days. The whole job took over 400 days to complete. The raw data was sent back to Corps Headquarters back on Earth. Well, they took that raw data and added in all the grid coordinates. The files were then sent back to Mars. This happened to be about a week before the 'Clan invasion. None of the Outer Colonies were privy to this info. However, one of our remote Swiss bases intercepted a transmission from Mars to a Terran outpost in the Pluto system. Actually, I should say that a Swiss Freighter intercepted that signal! The encryption was quite easy to break for us but no one really gave it much thought. Well, that turned out to be about three days before the 'Clan invasion and the freighter was already far away and had reached a Swiss colony. After the invasion, and the declaration of war, we passed this info onto the JMF High Command. I was told that they literally dropped their mouths to the deck when they realized what we had gotten."

"So basically, we plug this info into our main computers, and with our inertial nav system, we can fly around the trench without fear of running into things." I said.

"Yes. Except for the last 100 kilometers. Then we fly by sight and by dead-reckoning to the target. Fortunately for us, no building in the Mariner Trench is over two-hundred feet in height. The sandstorms tended to influence their architecture more than anything else." responded David.

"It looks like we owe the Swiss alot." quipped Yoshiki.

We all laughed at that. Then reality struck us again...

"We still need a fix for this problem of ours. Or everything we've done is moot." said Alexei.

We nodded at that. Someone then entered our training room with some hot Russian Tea. I was the first to get a cup.

"Way to go Jon! All those years on Coast Guard cutters and not a single drop of coffee. But you sure love your tea!" joked David.

"Tea time! Cheers!" I said with a smile.

I was looking over the video from our last mission when someone suddenly yelled out. Hector had spilt his tea and it was running over everywhere!

"Quick, lift up these other cups." said David. "Someone get a towel to dry the table."

While the cups were lifted up and moved away, I suddenly had an idea. A crazy one.

"No, put those cups back on the table and don't wipe away the tea." I said.

"What??????" asked David." Are you nuts?"

I put my cup down on the table. The tea had run over everywhere and had made a fine mess. I started playing with the cups. I first lined up ten of them, in a row. I stood back for a moment. I then placed my cup forward about four cup lengths ahead. I then stepped back to look again.

David came up to me. While I was still looking at the table, he then placed a cup two lengths in front, but behind mine.

Alexei then staggered some other cups. Now everyone started in on it! When we were finished, where a single line of cups had previously been placed, we now had several staggered groups.

They say such things as this are "Eureka" moments. We all stood there with the biggest grins on our faces. Before anyone said anything, Hector quickly ran for the door.

"I'm going to get those engineers in here now..." he said. And with that he was gone, sprinting down the passageways.

Seven Days Left:

Mission after mission. Honing our skills to a fine edge. Sharper than any knife blade. At one point, during our sleep time, everyone suddenly woke up at the same time! The words out of all of our mouths had been...

"Bombs away, pull up!"

Everywhere on the Victory we could see never-ending preparations. During our rare brake periods, we could see massive fleet movements. The flight bays were just as busy. There was a feeling of electricity in the air. Everyone knew in their bones that this was it. That at Mars, we would really hurt the 'Clans.

We saw quite a bit of Col. Barts and his squadron leaders during meal times. He was doing his own preparations for the coming campaign. He would often come over to our table and just grin at us. Not much else was said. But we'd all say "thanks Colonel" back!

48 Hours Left:

"Men, then we are confirmed for a 'go' for 617 Mission." asked Col. Barts. In with him were Admiral Albergottie, General Zhukov, and Chaplain McCreary. I was puzzled about the Chaplain being in with us.

"Yes sir!" answered David.
"Yes sir!" I also answered.

"And despite the weather reports saying this is the worst sandstorm in over 100 years?" asked the Admiral.

"Yes, we asked all of our guys and no one backed down." answered David. "Thank goodness the F-911 has no need for engine intakes!"

"I knew you were the squadron to pull this off. Now the reason why the good General Zhukov is also here with us is that he'd like to borrow you." said the Admiral.

David and I looked at each other-it was just us, the wing leaders of the 357th.

"After your mission, you are fly to a pre-determined location. Initially it will be away from the intended invasion zone. Believe me, you won't want to be in that area for the first ten minutes. You will then be providing air support for General Zhukov's troops. We'll have a forward support group to replenish your missiles and bombs, and any field maintenance required. Your codeword for this will be "Plan One Acknowledge."

"You'll be a great asset to the General," said Col. Barts. "It'll be crazy enough out here."

David and I nodded. We then stood at attention and saluted.

The Admiral saluted back, and then he said...

"Lieutenant Kurtz, please remain with us."

Curious, but knowing I wasn't invited to this party, I left.

Walking down the passageway I had a most unexpected surprise-I ran into members of my old New Texas National Guard unit! They had been called up and were to provide engineering support to General Zhukov. Jason was there, as was Ted, Brian, even Matt! They told me how Brian had been dragged kicking and screaming to accept the First Sergeant position. Ted had received a battlefield commission and Jason had been moved to the platoon sergeant level. Matt was being Matt of course! They also told me how their initial contact with the 'Clans had proven deadly. The headquarters platoon had been wiped out-a brand new second lieutenant had insisted on taking prisoners. Needless to say, that didn't turn out so well. They also told me how they favored the "shoot and bury" method. They would shoot the 'Clans and then bury them under tons of debris! Different from our double-tagging, but whatever works! After some good-lucks, I then went on to my squadbay.

24 Hours Left:

We had just completed our last training mission and we were all ready to start the mission for real. Col. Barts had then invited us to a separate room and as we entered it we saw a huge spread of food!

It was food representative of our home colonies, including food from New Columbia, New England, and New Scotland. (In memory of Wing Three)

And, the best surprise of all was actual sparkling white-grape juice from Mars itself! It was several years old actually and had a little bite. But, no alcohol for us!

We enjoyed the food and the company it represented. Finally, after several toasts we were told to get "some good sleep, 'cause you'll not get much after the mission" and we did. We all had to take some sleep aids first though, but once we had we all fell into a deep and restful sleep.

As far as I could remember, I had no bad dreams.

H-Hour: Mission "617"

The Flight Mission Preparation Room was quiet. Each of us had our own thoughts to contemplate. Hector was hitting his fists together like a boxer getting ready for the fight of his life. I myself was tightening each flight glove again and again, while I just looked straight ahead.

Weeks, hundreds of simulated missions, and hundreds of hours of training had come down to this day, this most important day.

Chaplain McCreary came in and we had a quick prayer with him. He even had communion for us to take. I was thoughtful as I took the wafer and drank the grape juice. I had a peace that transcended all understanding.

Col. Barts then walked in, fully decked out in his dress uniform. We all came to attention.

"It's time..." He said.

With that we grabbed our helmets and walked out, down to the flight bay.

No one said a word. The passageway was empty of people. The ships' normal life-noises were the only things we heard as we walked.

I thought about Lori, and about Troyton. We had all written a "If you're reading this letter then..." letter to our families. Which would be followed by a JMF message saying that "The JMF regrets to inform you that...". But we didn't dwell on that at all. We were of one purpose, one goal, and one mission to accomplish.

As we walked into our Flight Bay, we were greeted by hundreds of cheering and clapping people! A huge banner had been hung and it read...

"Give them hell, 357th!"

We smiled at that. People were slapping our backs and giving us high-fives. We came up to our F-911's. Boy were they decked out! Booster packs, THDAR attachments, and of course, the Wallis bombs. Some of them had a special camera to possibly take a very quick picture of what was down there at the target. And, each one had some writing-words of love from the JMF to the 'Clans.

Admiral Albergottie was there to send us off. General Zhukov was already suited up and ready for battle, but had wanted to see us off. We stood at attention as the Admiral read us our mission orders.

We saluted him once he was finished. Then General Zhukov came to each of us and shook our hands. When he came to me I said something I had been practicing for quite some time-with alot of help from Alexei and Alexandr.

""Gospeed Ka Vomm E Vashing Rhabring Voicecam, Generalo Zhukov."
<< "Godspeed to you and your brave troops, General Zhukov." >>

He grinned at that and gave me a big Russian bear hug. Finally, after he was done, Chief Fongheiser came up to us and said...

"Sirs, your F-911's are all ready for action."

With that we all boarded our crafts. I said my commands and the system came alive. Everything was if we were still running simulations-except this was for real!

David's wing was launched first. Then it was our turn. A quick prayer and away we were launched.

Mission "617": Flight Log

The Red Planet came up quickly.

Behind us was the massive JMF fleet and Mars invasion force.

We were actually following a remotely controlled bomber. Once inside the Martian atmosphere, we were instructed to blow it out of the sky! Our fake 'Clan IFF signals would make them believe that it was their forces that blew up the bomber.

That came soon enough. Our 'Clan IFF instruments had only red and green lights. Green meant that they were accepting our false IFF signals. Red meant, well, you know what I mean. So far, the lights had stayed green.

Atmospheric flight!!! Once we were in I remembered what it was like! Even simulation couldn't prepare us for the jolt!

The bomber flew a little further in front of us. With our IFF lights still green we flew up and blew the bomber out of the sky! Lower and lower we flew until we were 2,000 meters above the Martian Plains.

Even at this distance we could see the huge sandstorm that would soon greet us and then swallow us up.

"System checks, everyone." Said Swiss.

We all responded back. All systems were a go.

"Engage Inertial Nav systems, waypoint in thirty seconds." he said.

All was go, IFF was still green. Finally...

"Sixty seconds to trench entrance...sixty seconds...Check THDAR positioning." ordered Swiss.

I checked my positioning to my left and right. All was correct. The huge sandstorm grew even bigger with each passing second.


On the Battle Bridge of the Victory, Admiral Albergottie was told the news.

"Admiral, 3-5-7 has entered the Trench." said an aid.

"Now, for the longest four hours of their lives." He said back.

"617" Mission: Hour One

The initial shock of entering the Trench, combined with the massive sandstorm, made for some rough going. It was also freaky. Although we had been trained for it, that you couldn't see the pilot to the left or right of you. You had to rely on the inertial nav and the THDAR, and the other pilots skills.

We kept communications to a bare minimum. I joked to myself that with all this sand we were flying through we'd need a whole new paint job once we were done!

It was like flying in a brown, swirling mess. The buffeting I was getting was incredible. And, I knew everyone else was experiencing the same thing.

I had a very lonely feeling. But I kept concentrating on my instruments. I stayed focused.

"617" Mission: Hour Two

A couple of times there was a break in the sandstorm. David and I would look at each other and give a salute. But within seconds, the sandstorm would again swallow us up.

Then it was back to my thoughts, and my prayers...

"617" Mission: Hour Three

David just asked us how we were all doing.

I think the consensus was "Lonely...Let's do this!"

Seconds dragged on...minutes were becoming an eternity...

How anxious we were all getting. Nothing could have prepared us for this. Back at simulation, we knew we were onboard the ship. Here, this was for real.

At the Battle Bridge of the Victory, an aid handed Admiral Albergottie weather news.

"It says here that there is a break in the sandstorm about 150 kilometers from the target?"

"Yes Admiral, should we inform the 357th?"

"No, they know what to do." He answered. He then went to another screen.

"General Zhukov..."

"Yes Admiral Albergottie..."

"The 357th is in stage three. Prepare your invasion force!" He said.

"Yes Admiral!"
"Ponea Pobeda Ka Vomm Evashemo Forteme, Admiralo."
"Total victory to you and your fleet, Admiral."

To which Admiral Albergottie replied with:
<< "E Ka Razreshenye Kwano Vasheme Sewam, Generalom." >>
"And to the destruction of the 'Clans by your forces, General."

"617" Mission: Hour Four - 250 km's to target

"Everyone, 250 km's to go. System checks." Said Swiss.

"My boys are ready, Swiss." I said.

"Roger Texas. Once we hit that lake area, fly down to attack level."

"Roger Swiss." I answered.

The storm was intense, as was our nerves now. Every second meant that much closer to the target. We flew on until...

Suddenly we entered a huge break in the storm! And we still had 70 km's to get to the lake!

"Okay, this wasn't planned. Alright, everyone, fly low. I mean really low. There are no tall buildings over 10 meters here." ordered Swiss.

Quickly, we flew low. We were no more than 100 meters above the surface. It was quick thinking on David's part.

The scenery started to change, from dry land to swampy areas then finally...the lake!

We had hardly noticed that the magnetic disturbances had played havoc with some of our instruments.

We were now at the edge of the lake! It was calm...peaceful...the calm before hell was to be released.

"Assume attack level, assigned staggered positions, bombing run speed!" Order Swiss.

We flew to attack level and to our assigned staggered positions. A quick encrypted signal was sent to the Victory.

Battle Bridge: JMFNS Victory
"Admiral, the 357th has started the bomb run." said a comms specialist.

"Excellent...prepare the Fleet for Operation Hammer Fist.." said the Admiral.

In space above us, the massive JMF fleet started to split up. The immense Mars invasion force also was launched. Three thousand landing craft started their final entrance procedures.

The run was going smooth...70...60...50 kilometers...then suddenly...

A shot flew across my F-911, then another...

The suddenly the entire area seemed to light up with small arms fire!

"Small arms fire...from the left and right..." I said.

"I see it, Texas...send a message..." said Swiss.

I sent a real quick one.

Battle Bridge: JMFNS Victory
"Admiral, 357th reports very heavy small arms fire."

"Understood. Send some blasts down there to help them." he said.

Soon we saw some pulses hit the areas where the small arms fire had come. Then it seemed like we walked into a hornets nest! Several blasts grazed my craft!

"That was close! We can walk on this stuff" I quipped.

"Too close for me, Texas." said Swiss.

"Thirty kilometers to go...engage gyro-stabilization..." ordered Swiss.

"Roger Swiss, all crafts, engage gyro-stabilization." I said.

"Twenty...maintain positions..."

Battle Bridge: JMFNS Victory
"Admiral, twenty kilometers to go."

"Commence Operation Hammer Fist...All units."

With that order, the units that had split off from the main JMF fleet suddenly warped out of Mars space.

"All units...prepare to engage the enemy." The Admiral said. Others would say that during this time the Admiral had a look of pure confidence, his features as steady as a rock.

"Ten kilometers...prepare for bomb drop..." said Swiss.

My heart rate must have been going off scale by now. The IFF had worked to only a certain point. The small arms fire became just intense. I could see the target entrance in the distance.

"There it is boys...get ready..." I said.

"Ten seconds to bomb drop...on my mark..." said Swiss.

The quickest prayer in history...

" THE BOMBS" shouted Swiss.

My F-911 suddenly lurched up as the three Wallis bombs were dropped. And, like clockwork, we all pulled up and made a hard left.

Battle Bridge: JMFNS Victory
"Bombs are away..."

The bridge suddenly became quiet.

As my F-911 was pulling left, I was able to see the bombs skip over the water. One skip...second skip...third skip...I held my breath...

The bombs dropped right into the Facility Entrance! All but one, which had gotten stuck in the corner.

"Everyone...engage booster packs...NOW!" shouted Swiss.

Battle Bridge: JMFNS Victory
"The packages have been delivered! All but one!"

The bridge suddenly erupted into cheers.

Admiral Albergottie simply pounded his fist on a console and said "Yes!"

The sudden acceleration of the booster pack sent me right back into my seat. The G-Forces were intense...2 G's...3 G's...4 G's...

"Come on baby...get us some distance." someone shouted.

Down and down fell the Wallis bombs...every second we were pushing for even more speed...and more distance...

We were pushing the limits of our crafts. Every second without an explosion was a greater distance for us. The edge of the lake started to come into view!

The bombs kept on falling...

Battle Bridge: JMFNS Victory
"Admiral, bomb telemetry indicates opening to cloning facility two more kilometers away."

He merely nodded.

If we could have, every one of us would have constantly looked behind us, but the G-forces were too strong. Confined to our seats, pushed back by the acceleration, we could only look forward.

At fifty seconds, the first bomb fell into a vast underground expanse. At fifty-two seconds the other 28 bombs broke into a free fall.

"We're at the edge of the lake!" I exclaimed.

"It's going to get hot real soon." Said Swiss.

At 54 seconds, Wallis Bomb number Mike-Alpha-Mike-Echo Decimal Niner-Six took a single picture that was transmitted and received in 100 milliseconds. At the Combat Information Center, the picture literally took peoples' breaths away. It showed an expanse some thirty statute miles wide, in a huge circle. A total of 706.5 square miles.

At 250 milliseconds after that, an Ideoclan cloning administrator looked up and saw 29 objects fall closer to the surface. At 260 milliseconds, a female 'Clan member looked up and started to scream. But nothing came out...

Her voice became one with an artificial sun that suddenly erupted at the end of the facility. Quickly, the nuclear fireball spread its wings across the massive arena. Fusion power plants, providing power to the cloning facility and to the magnetic shield, were incorporated into the growing fireball. The shock wave went up and out the tunnel causing a massive quake. The fireball also started out into the tunnel.

The quake caused Wallis Bomb number Mike-Alpha-Mike-Echo Decimal Seven-One to fall break free and fall into the entrance. It immediately went active as it fell down.

At a point half-way down, the bomb met the oncoming fireball and exploded. The massive blast blew the tunnel and caused huge cave-ins.

In about twenty seconds, the entire underground facility had been turned into a radioactive graveyard.

Battle Bridge" JMFNS Victory
"Admiral, long-range scan shows massive underground activity at the target zone. Large release of radioactivity. And, the magnetic shield is gone!" said the scan officer.

"They did it! Send them the message. All units engage the enemy but stay on this side of Mars." ordered the Admiral.

"Texas, everyone, we got the Bravo-Zulu message! We did it!" exclaimed Swiss.

We all erupted into cheers. As much as we could. Finally our booster packs lost power and the G's got less and less. I could lean forward again!

"Everyone, report!" said Swiss.

"A little squished, but everything else is a-okay!" said Rev.
"I hear that! Yeah" said another.

"Alright everyone, I am sending you the following coordinates. Texas, inform boss our intents." said Swiss.

"Roger Swiss, sending message. 'Plan One Acknowledge'" I spoke to the encrypted channel.

Forward Landing Strip: Echo-One

Our F-911's finally landed at the makeshift landing strip. We didn't have much time to relax as Chief Fongheiser and his crews removed our booster packs and attached missiles and bombs. We held a quick mission brief. Attack all targets of opportunity!

We also learned that some three-thousand landing craft had been used as a decoy. The 'Clan had expected them to land but instead each craft contained neutron bombs. Some ninety percent of the 'Clan forces were simple melted away before the main force even hit.

General Zhukov and his Ultra-Rapid-Expeditionary-Force (UREF) had landed nearby. Some one thousand landing craft carried 150,000 troops, 1000 massive hover-tanks, and nearly 500 mechanized artillery to the invasion zone in a matter of ten minutes! It was a gamble of new and exotic technology. Even the landing craft were equipped with guns.

We, however, were to provide quick air-support and to give any surviving 'Clan fighters a reception that they would never forget.

During those first hours of the invasion, General Zhukov placed his men in a position that caused the 'Clans to be forced into the largest kill-zone in history. Nearly one million 'Clan troopers were annihilated.

During that week, we all provided air-support. Sometimes flying together, but often times flying separately. During one sortie I heard calls for help. I was the closest and I quickly came to their aid. I rapidly lit the area up with laser blasts and missiles. I tipped my wings as I left the area.

I later found out that it my old unit, B Co. 712th Ultra-Mechanized Engineers, which I had come to the aid of.

I'll let David tell you what his squadron went through during this time.

Probably our proudest moment came when we had an opportunity to talk to some survivors. It was weird, seeing people who had been through a hell we could never imagine, and yet having them shake our hands and want to listen to us. The most touching part of all that was when one very dirty child came up and gave David a hug. There wasn't a dry eye in the place after that.

Finally, we were released back to the Victory. Upon landing, we finally were able to see how sand-blasted our F-911's had become! I sat in my cockpit as my craft was tended to by the service crews. I slowly took off my helmet and breathed a sigh of relief. I looked at David and just nodded my head. He gave me the thumbs up.

As we were walking away, David tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to go to where Chaplain McCreary was; next to Col. Barts.

When I got there, David whispered to me "I'm so sorry Jon..."

My confusion led to immense sorrow as Chaplain McCreary told me the news. I fell to the deck in tears as years of memories flooded my brain...

Seven Days Later: Forward Base Zhukov

My mom had always wanted to visit Mars. As a matter of fact, after she had arrived on New Texas compliments of my two other brothers and I, we had started slowly saving for a Mars trip for her. She had a close friend in the city of Mares. We had actually planned for the visit to begin about a month before the 'Clan invasion happened. Her first heart attack negated that trip.

It turned out that that actually was a blessing. Her friend wasn't one of the 9,640 survivors of the Mars Holocaust. I reminded myself of that while I kneeled in front of a makeshift cross. I had taken a copy of one of her rare emails to me, and a picture of her, and buried them on Mars.

My buddies were silent as I did this. As was Col. Barts. Even General Zhukov took time away from his busy schedule to visit.

After some more tears, and a prayer, I got up. David was the first to come up to me.

"You know, it turned out for the best that she never arrived here." He said.

I nodded. "Yes, I know. It was for the better."

I had been told that she had held a picture of me, in my flight suit, in her left hand while my youngest brother Wally held her cheek on the right, and Chuck was at the foot of the bed as she passed. She went peacefully.

General Zhukov gave me a bear hug and said he was sorry for my loss. He then had to leave. The "Liberator of Mars" had alot of work to do.

Col. Barts then spoke up.

"Guys, it has been a tough nine weeks. The good General here just left us with two cases of the finest New Russian Vodka from the Kirov Distilleries. I know of a place on the Victory where we can celebrate."

Alexei and Alexandr gave a whoop. The Vodka evidently met with their approval. And, it was time to celebrate. One more final look and I joined them in the shuttle.

Twelve Hours Later: JMFNS Victory, Navigational Observation Deck

We were all a little drunk. The Vodka hit us hard. But boy were we giddy!

I don't know how he had achieved it, but Col. Barts had managed to have the NavObsDeck emptied except for us. We were hooting and hollering, having a great time.

We also had managed to get some real food up here. Much better than those field rations we had had to live with.

Admiral Albergottie had gambled with splitting up the JMF Fleet. A gamble that had paid off handsomely. The 'Clans were caught between two major forces, and nothing they had could compare to the firepower of the Super Battle Carriers. Read his book for a better detail of just how massive our victory at Mars was. The tide had indeed turned. The god of war had been turned into a bleeding wreck. It was the JMF's finest victory of the entire War.

Col. Barts was fiddling with the navigational telescope while Alexei read us the message that General Zhukov had left with the Vodka.

"To my brave comrades of 3-5-7 squadron. Please accept this token of my enormous appreciation of your bravery and skill. And, may you have years of prosperity and many children to enjoy them with you." (A traditional New Russian blessing.)

"Hey J.W., read that message the Red Cross got for you." said Col. Barts as he went back to fiddling with the telescope.

"Yeah Jon, go ahead and read it." said David.

I pulled out the copy and started to read it-it was a short message from my wife.

"My Dearest husband, Jon,
" I know that you feel great loss,
"But know this, I love you

"Awwwwwwww." said everyone.

I continued.

"And all of us here love you.
"We are praying for you and know
"That God will one day
"Bring you back home."

Home. The word seemed to have a life of its own.

Suddenly, Col. Barts started jumping up and down and shouting.

"I found it, I found it!" he exclaimed. He then punched a button to show all of us what he had found.

The main view screen came into focus, and I swear you could have heard a pin drop once the picture came into view. All movement stopped as well.

Blue and radiant. Beautiful.

It was the Earth...


"This chapter is dedicated to the loving memory of
Wynnette D. Wright
11 Oct 1943 - 02 May 2005
We love you, mom!"
Jim, Chuck, and Wally

(Special thanks to "Franca" and "Michael" for the validation of the Russian phrases.)



Chapter Seven
"Earth: Three Campaigns To Earth"


Copyright 2005, GOOD DEAL GAMES