Neptune to Earth"
Cuciz & James Krych
Blood, Sweat, and Tears"
"Attention on Deck"
Snapping to attention, we waited for Col. Bonca to come to the
front of the Briefing Room.
"At Ease, Gentlemen" he said. Sitting down, he proceeded
to explain to us our first combat mission.
"Good morning. This is what all of you, and the JMF, have
been waiting for. All of your training, all of your simulated
combat, it has all come down to this. Our first Offensive against
the Ideoclan in our own Solar System in a true test of our craft,
tactics, and technology, the War begins here! I can't stress enough
that the entire population of Earth, and of your own Outer Colonies,
depends on what we do here."
Punching up the tactical information, the Neptune System, and
its moons came up.
"As you can see gentlemen, our first objective is to clear
the Neptune System, and it's surrounding moons. Most are extremely
small, but provide ample space for hiding. Triton is the largest,
and we will be sending troops down to clear out the enemy. The
13th is to go in first, to clear the way for our bombers, and
then for our troop transports. Other fighter groups and various
squadrons from amongst the fleet will support you. A total of
13 carriers, including the Lexington, have been assigned this
Cutting to close-ups of Triton and the smaller moons, Col. Bonca
then said the following.
"Our Intel shows that there is little surface enemy activity
in this system. It seems that they are concentrating more on the
planets closer to Earth. Bombers will fly in unescorted, and reserve
fighter squadrons will provide troop support. One thing to watch
for is Neptune's odd magnetic field; it can play havoc so watch
your sensors! Gentlemen happy hunting!"
Snapping to attention, we waited for Col. Bonca to go. Then it
was Chupa's turn to speak. We then sat back down.
While he spoke, David, Shawn, and I just listened straight ahead.
The rest seem to hang onto his every word.
"Group Leader is Capt. Britcher. You will fly in patrol formation
until he orders you to assume attack formations."
Again, we just looked straight ahead. We knew Chupa hated us.
"You are not to engage your weapons systems until Group Leader
says so. And, for you malcontents out there in this room, NO
That was for us. We had a great habit of "ensuring"
the enemy was "defeated" in simulations and mock combat.
"Now, get to your squadrons and prepare for this mission."
Coming to attention, we waited until he left, and then we waited
for the rest to leave.
Walking through the passageways, I turned at a small room and
motioned for the other two to follow.
David spoke first, "You don't believe what Intel said, do
"Not at all" said Shawn and I.
"You know" as I leaned against a bulkhead, "In
the Army, somebody always never gets the word, right"
They all nodded.
"Then it's settled" as we were all thinking the same
thing. "We engage our weapons systems as soon as we leave
"And Double Tagging!!!" said David.
"Damn straight" said Shawn. "Better alive and in
the clink, then wrong and dead."
back to our squad bay, we got ready for the mission. I went over
my wing what our sectors were, and the mission objectives. Then
we started putting on our gear. The G-suits, the M2111 pistol,
testing our helmets, putting on our flight boots, and of course,
the flight suit-designed for the extended stay cabin of the F-911.
Andrew, Shawn, and I then went through a quick prayer, starting
with the first two lines of Psalm 144. When everyone in my wing
had checked each other out, and the other two wings were ready,
we headed to the 357th's flight deck and maintenance crew bay.
Chief Warrant Officer Rory McLeod greeted us warmly. We got along
great with him, and his crew was just fantastic, the best mechanics
in the whole JMF!
"They are all ready lads," he said in that thick Scottish
accent of his. "All ready for killing the 'Clans!"
Grinning at him, we proceeded to enter our craft and engage the
internal systems of the F-911.
"System, online. Kryton, Jon W." I said.
"System is online" the computer spoke back. Displaying
all of the system status and system checks.
Some final checks on my weapons, NAV, and power core, and I was
ready to go! A silent prayer for my wife, my son, and my fellow
squadron mates, then waiting on the launch tunnel for the command
"Yeah Jarhead"(Shawn's nickname)
"Ready to rock?"
"Let's do it" I said back.
"Hey Swiss, time for butt kicking!"(David's nickname)
"Damn straight, Texas" he said.
wing was launched first. Then came our turn, Second Wing!
"Launch sequence engaged", said flight control. "Magnetic
With a sudden increase in G's, I was shot out into space, with
the rest of my Wing following. Then Shawn's Wing was launched
out. The 357th was ready for our first real fight.
Wing online" said David.
"2nd Wing online" said I as my wing got into patrol
"3rd Wing online" said Shawn.
were flying in reserve of the 13th Fighter Group. With Capt. Britcher
leading the way. The whole Group was in a very wide patrol formation.
We had already engaged our weapon's systems. Now, this got the
attention of our CO and Group Leader, but we had all turned on
the squelch on that "noise" and we were willing to live
with the consequences of our decision on this.
Neptune really stood out, even though we were many hundreds of
thousands of km's away. It really was an imposing sight to behold,
even beautiful in a weird sort of way. But we weren't there to
sight see. Things were proceeding along pretty smoothly as we
came within sight of Triton, Neptune's biggest moon. Then suddenly,
our sensor scanners lit all up with white dots.
"Swiss, Jarhead, you see that?" I said.
"Group Leader, this is 357th 2nd Wing. Large readings on
"357th this is Group Leader, you are seeing magnetic disturbances,
Something just wasn't quite right. I had that nasty gut feeling,
similar to when I was at NCO School and had sniffed out an ambush.
The others felt the same way.
"Texas, this is Rev.(Andrew), I concur with you. This isn't
"Swiss, this is Prof.(Brooks), I really think that's the
"Jarhead, this is Speedy(Hector), I can make out individual
the three of us made the call. "Victor, Victor, Victor Assume
Rapidly flying into Attack Formation, we got berated by the Group
"Negative 357th, re-assume Patrol Formation!" said Capt.
"357th!!!" shouted Chupa "You are ordered to Patrol
"357th" shouted Britcher, "I order
order never came, because in that split second of time, we were
under attack. Britcher was killed instantly, as was the entire
356th, 390th, 312th, and 512th Squadrons. The 'Clans had used
the odd magnetic field of Neptune to hide themselves, and had
skimmed along the surface of the planet itself. Rather ingenious
of them, rather deadly.
Hell broke loose. The remaining front Squadrons tried to engage
their weapons and to attack. They didn't have time.
fire, fire at all targets!" we said.
Immediately my wing, David's, and Shawn's released deadly pulses
of energy and missiles; for those who had them.
The 'Clans didn't expect that-good, that meant the bastards could
An all-out dog fight ensued. Targets were everywhere and coming
fast. "Little Enemy Activity" my foot, there were hundreds
of them, thousands. We rallied the remaining and surviving Squadrons
of the 13th. Leading the way, we blasted at everything that moved.
And, we double tagged!
'Clan got on my tail and we got into a hell of a chase. I used
all my skills flying for the O.C.M.A.F. and I got him into my
range. Firing my twin cannons, I knocked him out. Then, I sent
another pulse blast up his reactor core, to let him really think
squadrons weren't so lucky. We watched in horror as one group
of bombers passed by a damaged 'Clan fighter. The 'Clan then speed
up to the middle of them and exploded his reactor core and weapons.
An entire bomber squadron was wasted instantly.
was too many of that, on that first day. Bombers that went unescorted
were blasted before they even had a chance. Troop transports were
knocked down, and their crews and passengers killed. It was FUBAR,
all of it!
kept on coming and coming. Hundreds to a single fighter. We kept
on firing, blasting them all away. Nothing survived from our pulse
blasts. The 'Clans even launched small asteroids at us, and nothing
we had could knock those out! And, those nasty satellites that
fired every which way. But even as we were constantly fighting,
we started to notice a pattern. The 'Clans would come at you,
then get into formation, and while they were there, you could
play havoc with them. They'd come after you once they had gotten
into formation, five or so at a time.
got shuttled from one sector to another. Going back to the Lexington
only after the maximum endurance time was about to be exceeded.
We didn't get much rest at all. We got to see the results of the
"Clans when one of our troop transports carrying wounded
made an emergency stop on the 'Lex.
was ugly, the carnage to young bodies, whom only yesterday were
healthy and whole. It brought tears to your eyes. But we didn't
have much time for that. The F-911's were refueled, weapons recharged,
and out we were again. I lost count of how many 'Clans I killed
and vaporized, I think we all did after a very short time.
we had changed, the 357th. When we had first gone into battle,
we were all nervous, a little scared, and had sweaty palms, itchy
for a fight. We were calmer, more determined now. The 'Clans weren't
invincible, and we had shown that. Slowly, a day, a week, at a
time, the JMF pushed on. Then finally after we and the remaining
13th Fighter Group squadrons cleared the way, Triton was won!
smaller moons of the Neptune system were also cleared of 'Clan
activity. Neptune was itself left! We thought it was over!
were deadly wrong.
seemed to be a lull in the activity, after all we had been through,
it was almost peaceful. But, we stayed on our toes. The 'Clans
didn't take long to prove us right. The carriers Franklin, Yorktown,
and Akagi were sent in close to Neptune to scout for remaining
enemy outposts. When suddenly, 'Clan fighters appeared and rammed
everything in their sight. An entire Legion of fighters, used
as a sacrifice to the god of war.
three carriers didn't have a chance. All their crews, pilots,
and staff, killed. One carrier had been played with, as a cat
plays with a mouse it has disabled, and the engine reactor was
knocked out, so it was dragged into Neptune's 2000KM winds. It
was terrible to behold. We shot up everything that came across
our way, we literally killed hundreds of them, but it was too
late for the three carriers and surrounding fighter squadrons.
Then, and only then, was it finally over.
in defeat, the 'Clans would go take as many of us down with them.
Fleet Command did next later became standard operating procedure
during the Ideoclan War. They launched probes onto the opposite
side of Neptune. These probes, once armed and remotely detonated,
would wipe out all electronics for 100,000 cubic kilometers. You
had to be quite a bit away from them, once they had started to
go off. Think of them as 23rd Century depth charges. The radiation
that was also released would snuff any remaining forces into the
was rather tense, with everyone expecting another attack, of any
sort, but none came. The JMF had won its first victory over the
Ideoclan, albeit at a terrible cost. Boy, did we all have much
then flew back to our landing bay on the 'Lex. David's wing went
in, then mine, then Shawn's. Chupa was watching us come back on
a nearby observation deck, and was quite critical of our return.
I guess he had to take it out on someone, for the orders that
killed so many close associates, had come from him. Though he
blamed us for the results.
could have cared less, though. It was just so good to have a break
in the action, and to rest, and just be thankful that we had survived.
official AAR was done with Col. Bonca, Maj. Chupa, and various
staff officers from Fleet Command. The wing leaders of the surviving
squadrons were also invited, though our numbers were far less
than they had been at the beginning. Tactics were discussed, the
usual "good, bad, and the ugly" was discussed. The three
of us were berated by Chupa for our "inability" to follow
orders, and the direct violation of engaging our weapons systems,
let alone "double tagging." After that AAR, we went
back to our squad bay.
we were on our way back, a couple wing leaders from other squadrons
thanked us in private for what we had done, though.
we did next would show everyone just what we were made of.
decided to have our own AAR, and we included Chief McLeod, and
a bunch of his guys to be with us. We wheeled in a portable F-911
simulator, and went over everything-our tactics, the recorded
actions of the 'Clans, etc. We talked to Chief McLeod of how the
F-911's had handled, and what could be done to improve the performance;
if only 5%. Nicola and Yoshiki went over the coding of the simulator,
and adjusted everything, based on what we had seen and fought
against. It was agreed that we would have several of Chief McLeod's
men "fly" the simulator, to understand the feel of the
craft, plus we would "borrow" a trainer to take his
son and chief mechanic, Rocky, out into actual space during downtime.
We were so busy doing this that we didn't see Col. Bonca walk
"Attention on deck" somebody said.
"At ease" said the Col. "continue on what you are
As he watched us, we saw a grin develop, and then he started taking
down some notes.
"All of the other squadrons are resting and licking their
wounds, except you guys. You've brought in a simulator, invited
your flight crew, and have even started making changes to your
tactics immediately." Said the Col.
"You guys were really important during the Battle, especially
during the first encounter with the Ideoclan forces. Everyone
knows that, especially from interviews we have done with the other
squadrons you were involved with. I cannot give you gentlemen
medals, because Chupa's connections are still too strong, for
now. But that will change. But what I can do is this. I will send
down the line new procedures for front line squadrons. The weapons
systems WILL be engaged upon launching from the carrier, and,
insurance of the enemy's non-ability to continue to fight on once
hit will be HIGHLY encouraged and recommended. Carry on, gentlemen!"
And with that he walked out.
was time to get cleaned up, rest, and write home. We checked out
any emails from home, and then enjoyed some much needed sleep.
About a week later, we got new operating procedures, directly
from Fleet Command, and they were exactly what Col. Bonca had
mentioned! We just smiled inside, as Chupa read them to us, and
the wing leaders, and the newbies who had just arrived. Yeah,
he was ticked, and we knew it! And there wasn't a thing he could
do about it!
a video email from home from my wife and son really cheered me
up! Anything from home always does! We ran, worked out, flew training
missions, over-extended our training time on the simulators, and
broke in the newbies. We all laughed at Steve's latest conquest,
knowing full well she wouldn't last! Played practical jokes on
each other, enjoyed what was available in the "gedunk",
and just prepared ourselves for the next battle; which was sure
Fleet was also getting bigger, as more carriers were coming on
line, and more troops were being trained. The Outer Colonies were
really starting to ramp up to full war footing. This one was going
to be long, and it was going to be hard, every step of the way.
We made damn sure we passed on what we had learned to the new
squadrons joining us!
carrier Lexington was big. And I mean really big.
Not just "big" as in "large", although Lex
was by any means large, but big as in enormous, titanic, humongously
great, larger-than-life Big; I remember, when I was fifteen and
my father took me up to see the family's mining company flagship
that I though that was big. Largest ship of the commercial fleet,
Rheingold II was essentially a cylindrical hull with a huge ion-plasma
drive strapped on behind and a large prow-mounted deflector shield;
her living quarters and flight deck were the size of a small city
block, yet they looked like a wart on a whale's back. Biggest
damnedest thing I had ever seen.
Lexington would have dwarfed Rheingold II a hundred times over.
I'm sure you all have read the ship's specs somewhere because
it's all in the records, but numbers do not make her justice.
To give you a feel, let's assume that you could stand on the forward
mast of the main sensor array, right on the anticollision strobe,
and that you could walk down it and onto the armoured deck, through
the forecastle and along the flight deck between cats A and B,
and down three decks to the main hangar (because the Lex is not
uniform in length I'm taking you through the longest distance
between fore and aft), to the storage area and living quarters;
suppose now that you could walk through the heavy shielding around
the Hawking Drive amidships without getting fried by the radiation
flux between the core and the graviton polarizers, you would emerge
right into the cooling tower, the heat exchangers and the fusion
reactors that power the sublight engines and all the ship's systems.
Finally, out into space again, go up two decks and walk along
the Number Two plasma thruster to the very end of the vectoring
louver (don't even think of trying it for real because it will
vaporize you in milliseconds); it's more than an hour's walk,
even at brisk pace.
Not that space for walking lacked, aboard Lexington. There was
a lot of it, and unlike Paradise's surface it was bug-free; artificial
gravity always feels strange - it has a way of drawing you downwards
that accentuates the more you get near the floor - and in every
cruise you end up with a lot of spacesick guys. I hadn't any problems
with it, like most of the pilots, but some of the ground troops
were at their first long term deployment and it showed, especially
during the few minutes of freefall that happen just before the
Hawking Drive is engaged.
Captain had taken it easy before committing to the warp, as had
all the other ships, but that was understandable: we planned on
coming out of FTL flight just before crossing the Oort Cloud which
marks the outer limits of the Solar System - that Solar System,
the first one, the cradle of mankind and all that jazz - and then
to coast until Neptune which was our first objective. We would
have bypassed Pluto: there was at best an observation base there
and it was well out of detection range, on the opposite side of
There is a rationale on wanting to fine-tune a warp: you want
to come out exactly where you want, when you want, give or take
a few thousands of kilometres and you don't want to cross any
enemy ship during FTL cruise; of course, you can't engage in combat
while in warp because the relative velocities are so high that
there isn't a chance in a million years you could bring your weapons
to bear in the brief moment you have contact and even if you could,
the Hawking Drive screws up so much with the space-time continuum
that any missile or beam fired from your ship would be torn apart
or scattered by the tidal forces on the edge of the hyperspace
"bubble" surrounding the craft. Anyway, a spaceship's
detection radius can only be so wide: chances are your enemy will
not even pass near enough to register on a mass counter.
But it can happen, and if we were spotted by an Ideoclan ship
while in warp, they would have guessed our destination and reported
back to base upon coming out of warp. Comms are out of order while
in warp, because that same hyperspace bubbles distorts any signal
you may try to send, but as soon as the enemy came out of warp,
they would have made contact and phased tachyon-wave communications
travel hundreds of time faster than warping ships; we would have
found ourselves facing one hell of a welcoming committee when
we hit sublight. You can't change course or stop during a warp:
once all is set and the Hawking Drive is engaged, the dice is
cast. It's like throwing a ball in a curved trajectory: once it
has been thrown, there is no way to make it stop or turn around.
Laws of physics apply to space and hyperspace, they're just a
different set, so you can see why it was so important to have
a perfect warp: it would have been one big embarrassment if the
whole campaign failed just because we ended up too far from the
Oort Cloud or crossed a 'Clan ship by chance.
had a lot staked on the surprise factor, even if it couldn't last:
it had been decided we would take on all of the outer planets
one by one, before engaging the Ideoclan forces on Earth; if we
had just warped to Earth over the ecliptic plane, the fleet would
have been surrounded by 'Clan forces from all the Solar System.
Instead, we had to "blast a path" to our final objectives,
destroying the Ideoclans' fighting capability before they could
call reinforcements and taking over their bases so they couldn't
reinvade. By the time we reached Earth, our ground troops would
have been firmly entrenched and there would be warships around
each base to watch over them; JMF wasn't about to make the same
mistakes Earth forces had done, and leave the System wide open
for the taking.
While the approach was strategically sound, it meant more work
for us and a longer travel time. The Outer Planets weren't all
aligned and taking them on one by one meant a lot of travel back
and forth, and this meant more chances for the enemy to attack
the fleet while it moved. This in turn meant flying CAP a lot,
and more flying hours meant more mechanical failures on our fighters
and increased chances of accidents happening: tired people make
mistakes and you can only be alert so much for so long before
the stress gets the better of you and punches you in the nose.
All these thoughts, however, were just hovering in the backs of
our minds as we passed the orbit of Pluto, on a direct course
Kurtz. I still had to come to grips with my new condition -er,
rank. The Officer Corps had finally got its claws on me, after
I had sweared for most of my recruit school time that I would
have never allowed myself to rise higher than Private First Class,
only to end up signing for NCO training. There had been a minor
drama about my promotion by JMF, because the Swiss Army is very
possessive of its members, and they were not about to let the
upstart Joint Military Forces promote one of their sergeants without
them having their saying. Of course, there wasn't anything they
could do about it, because you can't have a non-com leading a
spacecraft wing, and I suppose they were mightily chuffed about
having a Swiss get a command position in a JMF squadron, but it
was a matter of principle; so, what they did was to promote me
to Lieutenant exactly 3 minutes before JMF did. I can barely imagine
how the usually prudent Swiss military machine had fired up all
engines just to beat JMF in putting shiny new epaulets on my overburdened
shoulders. Only the cost of sending the notification by phased-tach
from HQ must have been horrendous.
Anyway, there I was and new rank meant new responsibilities: oddly
enough, I had less people under my command than I used to have
as a non-com, but once you add up the people, the planes and the
tech support it makes for a pretty big outfit for one to handle.
By the time we got our first combat orders I had it pretty much
figured it out - sort of.
We went to our first combat briefing like it was just another
exercise, but deep inside we knew this was going to be different:
the voice of reason inside my brain kept telling me that I had
seen the Ideoclans before and they could be beaten, no problem.
Another more sensible part was screaming bloody murder for getting
involved with JMF in the first place.
Anyway, our first mission was to support a drop on Triton, where
the 'Clans had set up their base. We'd be escorting the troop
carriers all the way in, while bomber craft would fly in unescorted
to soften up the defences; the rationale behind this was that
the bombers' stealth capabilities would be enough to protect them
against the 'Clans anti-spacecraft batteries and fighters. To
many of us, including bomber pilots, it looked like madness, even
though that wonderful oxymoron called "Military Intelligence"
had kindly informed us that 'Clan activity around Neptune was
expected to be low. Big deal: Cold Rock had been as low as 'Clan
activity could get, and it had still been one hell of an operation.
The final straw was that according to ROE and safety regulations,
Gyruss pilots were supposed to remain "weapons tight"
until ordered otherwise, which was madness: the F-911 armament
systems take as much as twelve seconds to warm up once the arming
switch is thrown, and sometimes it stays cozily inert for half
a minute before the pulse guns' supercapacitor has charged up
enough. Though Colonel Bonca, had not issued any orders on this
item, our CO Major Chupa had been adamant.
Not that we should have expected otherwise: Chupa passionately
hated anything Gyruss-related, perhaps even the letter G. He had
opposed the F-911 program from the start, insisting on proven
technology like the existing space fighters, no matter that they'd
proven woefully inadequate against the 'Clans crafts, and his
contempt extended to the pilots. I strongly believe in freedom
of thought, so if Chupa wanted to think of us as useless and expensive
gadget freaks that was fine by me, and the same goes for those
in the squadron who thought that Chupa was a big pile of organic
* * *
With the briefing over and the officers and most of the other
squadrons' leaders gone, we of 357th held a briefing of our own.
I didn't believe the Intel data and I stated my mind.
"OK." Texas (Jon's nickname) said. "We engage the
weapons as soon as we clear the cat."
"Agreed." I answered. "I may be still thinking
like a mudpounder but in the infantry you don't stop shooting
'til your target drops. I vote we tag them until we're positive
"Roger that. Got to fix up things with the mess guys so we
don't get cold meals in the brig - which is where Chupa will send
us as soon as we land."
can't be too careful when you're readying for takeoff from a space
carrier; first, you put on your flight suit with internal life
support and waste disposal pack; then it's the G-suit, which prevents
you from passing out or having your head exploding while manoeuvring;
and then there is the survival vest which carries the compact
medical kit, the flashlight, long-range radio with locator beacon,
flares and knife. And, of course, the holster for the M-2111 sidearm;
the "Elephant Killer" is a nice weapon but I feel a
little uncomfortable around any weapons which require the shooter
to stay at less than 100 meters from the target. I carried my
Swiss Army knife on its pouch on my belt, but I still had to figure
out a way to carry my rifle in the Gyruss cockpit.
With all my gear on, I headed for the launch bay and had the pleasant
surprise to see my wing's fighters equipped with two Spearhead
missiles each. The SIM-85 (Space Intercept Missile) was one of
the first standoff weapons available for the Gyruss, since the
F-911 databus couldn't support the standard interface used on
other combat crafts; there were more in development but we wouldn't
be seeing them anytime soon. The Spearhead was an excellent short-to-medium
range missile, contained in a disposable pod; you just lock it
onto a target with the Gyruss battle computer system, fire it
and forget. The pod disintegrates and drops away as the SIM-85
is fired, then the missile homes in and as soon as it gets a good
solution it explodes firing a hypervelocity armor-piercing slug
towards the intercept point, guaranteed to punch through almost
any kind of shielding. There is also a shipborne version used
for close-range defence since it is a relatively small weapon.
When I first learned about the Spearhead I was thrilled to see
the Colonies could develop such an excellent device on their own,
and my elation took a blow when I learned that it had been initially
developed as an infantry weapon, but when the designers understood
that no rifleman would be going to carry around 150 kg of guided
missile, they remade it into a spacecraft-carried weapon, so that
it would not be wasted.
What an irony that it would be first tested in battle by a mudpounder
turned aviation puke.
* * *
I should know?" I asked my head mechanic, who was handing
me an e-board waiting for me to sign.
"No, sir. It's a good bird - checked it out myself twice,
like the rest of the wing."
"Well, I had to ask." I signed for my fighter and climbed
into the cockpit. "Could you do a little modification for
me when I come back?"
"As long as it doesn't go against regs it's no sweat, sir."
"Great. Ah, can the 'sir' stuff. I'm lieutenant Kurtz, and
'LT' is just fine." I fastened my helmet and engaged the
computer systems. "This medieval stuff is a bit too alien
Couldn't really expect the man to humour me, but I had to try.
In the Swiss Army you don't "sir" anyone, not even the
higher ranks. If I ever met General Carpentraz I would call him
'general' and that would be it. We take our democratic stuff seriously.
With the computer and engines online, I closed the canopy and
taxied to the hooking platform; this is a circular place not too
far from the spacecraft bays where you take your fighter in order
to get prepared to launch. As soon as you get there, a hook mounted
on a rail engages your front wheel and carries you toward the
catapult lift, which is a large vertical structure with a series
of platforms mounted on a loop: the F-911 with you in gets on
it, then the hook releases and the platform rises and takes you
to an elevated stage where another hook draws the craft into the
pre-launch chamber, which is essentially a large airlock. When
pressure reaches zero, the front doors open and into the launch
sequencer you go. If you're familiar with magazine-fed weapons,
think of yourself as the cartridge: the sequencer is the magazine
and the catapult is the firing chamber and barrel. While I waited
in the dark, I did a last check of my instruments and hit the
shield precharger switch: there was a high-pitched screeching
sound inside the cockpit, caused by the shield generating coils
being cooled to just above absolute zero. It's not permitted to
touch the shield controls while pressurized because the coils
tend to discharge when exposed to an atmosphere and the high-voltage
arcs that result do pretty nasty things to people and stuff. If
it fails, you're to abort immediately, which is why you've got
to check it out as soon as you get to the sequencer.
Shield checked green, so I went to the radar preactivation sequence.
That too was green, and I left it in standby because radar gives
off a lot of nasty rads which you don't want to release anywhere
near living beings. I just reported, "This is Leader: shield
and gadget check OK." Two and Three reported a green board
too, so I relaxed and waited.
TWACK! Vacuum doesn't carry sounds but metal does, and
in spades. A fighter had just launched from the cat above me.
BUMP! The sequencer raised one step. One step closer to
One step closer to battle.
I couldn't believe I was heading into a fight. Come to think of
it, I believe no-one of us really believed it and we behaved like
it was another ex, which is the sane thing to do since worrying
about getting maimed or killed isn't the healthiest way to psych
TWACK! "357th, 1st Wing, you're next. Report when ready."
I heard the voice into my helmet and waited for my wingmen to
report to me, then I answered: "1st Wing ready to launch."
"Copy that, 1st Wing. Launch in 60 seconds. Good luck and
I clicked twice and breathed in deeply. The 60 seconds before
launch are the longest in your life: you spend them thinking about
what you may have forgotten and checking and rechecking everything
from the board to your straps. You know it's all OK because the
computer would have told you by then and in the launch control
room there are a dozen people checking on your craft and on the
launch mechanism but still
BUMP! The platform raised and suddenly I found myself facing
the launch tunnel. The cat shuttle engaged my front wheel and
took my Gyruss ahead a couple of meters. I throttled up my engines
one third, exhaled and breathed in again. Beep! Beep! Beeeeeeeeeep!
There it went the launch signal
I've heard and read it enough, especially from non-pilots, how
the launch cat "kicks you in the back with the force of a
sledgehammer" and other awe-inspiring nonsense. In reality,
you don't get a lot of g's because in space there is no takeoff
speed, you only have to clear the ship and rocket ahead but there
is enough space to speed you up without crushing you. What you
feel is a small tug to the craft, then you start to accelerate
and it seems like your chair is being pulled from under you. Kinda
weird, but nothing brutal: the magnetic catapult throws you into
space in about two-thirds of a second and you lose your sense
of orientation as you leave the artificial gravity field of the
ship beyond. Freefall.
No time to waste: I throttled up to max and initiated a "dogleg"
manoeuver to clear the launching trajectory so that I didn't run
the risk of having the next fighter speeding up to my tailpipe,
then I waited for my wingmen to launch; 30 seconds later we were
in formation and engaged the shield generators. Then I made a
gesture with my left hand and we hit the weapons' engage switch:
both the cannon and the secondary weapons status light showed
green. A couple of seconds later an irate voice boomed into my
"1st Wing, you're not authorized to engage weapons. Switch
to standby and wait for
" I squelched the channel:
we had everything we needed on the main comms and craft-to-craft
anyway so we could safely ignore major Chupa's plaints.
2nd and 3rd wing reported in a couple of minutes later, so we
joined up and the whole of 357th headed off towards Neptune. A
big blue sphere glowing in the dark, the world named after the
Roman god of the Seas was an imposing sight, taking up a big slice
of the sky and a large percentage of our sensors' effectiveness.
As soon as we got within visual range of Triton, the largest moon
and our target, the scopes filled with white dots.
"Leader, two-one is gadget bent." I heard from
my wingman. Looking down at the scope, I could see that it was
effectively blanked out. Three-One reported a similar condition:
Neptune's mag field was doing its best to blind us.
Or was it?
Neptune is a gas giant, with a strong magnetic field surrounding
it: no wonder our sensors had their fair share of problems getting
through the radiation soup that came out of the big storms going
off in the upper atmosphere. But the pattern looked a little too
regular for my taste.
"Swiss, this is Texas." Lt Jon Kryton, 2nd Wing Leader,
paged me. "This ain't right."
"Roger that. I have multiple inbounds at one o'clock three
high." I called back.
We reported to Group Leader captain Britcher, but we were instructed
to disregard the patterns as "interference". Then I
saw some of the dots moving about as if forming up.
Interference, my ass!
As if on cue, all of 357th wing leaders including me gave out
the order to assume attack formation; Britcher threw a fit. "357th,
assume patrol formation and disengage weapons IMMEDIATE
And then the transmission broke, just like that. No crackling
sound, no screech as the transmitter is vaporized, no hiss of
static: digital comms don't do that. They die when you die.
Comms with Group Leader died as his F-911 was hit by an Ideoclan
burst and disintegrated, along with four other squadrons and much
of our command structure.
"Contact! This is One-One: ENGAGE!" I
barked in my transmitter. Interferences or not, the 'Clan were
approaching fast, and it was at that moment that I screwed up,
big time. We had been trained to immediately disengage if attacked,
regroup then attack in a two-pronged manoeuver; but at that moment
I turned back to be an Infantry sergeant, and when ambushed an
infantry unit can only do one thing: attack the ambush force back
immediately. My screw-up ultimately saved my life and that of
1st Wing, because that was the last thing the 'Clans were expecting.
Without a second thought, I charged into the enemy formation.
Fortunately, we had drilled target selection procedures well,
and we locked onto the approaching crafts in less than a couple
"One-one, Fox Three." I called while pressing the launch
switch on my stick: the Spearhead missile under my port wing was
gone in the blink of an eye, the pod disintegrating beyond me
as the SIM-85 headed towards its target.
"Two, Fox Three."
"Three, Fox Three."
I pushed the target switch command, moved the cursor and released
just as I touched the lock-on button, in a procedure called a
"fast-lock". Saves you a couple of seconds. Meanwhile,
all of 1st Wing had fired the first Spearhead volley. "One-one,
Fox Three." I called again and it became confused with the
other call launched as the second volley went its way. I silently
counted up and tried to make out the enemy craft still beyond
visual range on my HUD
Impact! The Weapons Impact and Damage Assessment Monitor lit up.
That part of the equipment consists of a small computer display
that is tied in to the main sensor suite and weapons system and
computer whether your shot has hit its mark or not and if your
target is down. We call it KC, for Kill Counter. Mine went up
one, then two as the Spearhead missiles found their targets. I
called out "Splash Two" and got almost identical reports,
except for Three, whose KC has indicated two kills but who could
still see his second target intact and manoeuvering on his scope.
Smart guy. Right then, we got into visual range and I ordered
to fire at will. We all padlocked into a target and went after
it, with Three going after his second "kill".
"GUNS! GUNS! GUNS!" I called out while pulling the trigger
with a 'Clan fighter filling up my sights. There was a slight
shuddering as the pulse guns fired and I saw the enemy's tail
blossoming into a ball of plasma. I followed it firing short bursts
until it broke apart, then selected another one. I didn't bother
to call "guns" nor did I signal the kill. There was
By this time, all of 357th had engaged and I could hear their
voices on the group comm net.
"Tallyho! Multiple bogeys inbound, eleven o'clock two
"SPLASH ONE! Two, you've got one coming on your five o'clock
"Three, BREAK LEFT! BREAK LEFT!"
"I'M HIT! EJECT EJECT EJECT
I had to squelch out most of the traffic except for the squadron
net and the Lex's own frequency. The Ideoclans came in waves -
the space warfare equivalent of a human wave attack. They seemed
completely unconcerned about losses or individual safety and they
outnumbered us by more than one hundred to one.
Luckily, the F-911 was far superior to anything the 'Clans could
throw at us. Our shielding could not take a direct hit but it
could deflect a lot of glancing shots that could have caused damage,
and our weapons could tear through their shields and hulls easily.
But still they came on, and we couldn't take their kind of losses.
"Leader, you've got one on your tail." I heard in my
helmet. No need to turn around - the proximity warning signal
had lit up in my HUD; I jinked the craft around and mashed the
countermeasures button: on my fighter's tail, a dispenser pack
spat out hundreds of self-inflating decoy ballutes the size of
small marbles, which quickly ballooned to tennis-ball size. Their
reflecting surfaces made for a more inviting target than my Gyruss,
playing havoc with the enemy's target-seeking sensors; not once
the 'Clan on my tail did get a close shot before being destroyed
by my wingmen in a pincer manoeuver attack.
I muttered a thanks and headed towards the nearest troop carrier
group which was getting hammered: we nailed a dozen of enemy fighter
on the first swoop, then turned around and engaged the rest, which
instead of doing the sensible thing and retreat flew straight
into our cannons. None survived, but two transports had been hit
Suddenly, there was a flash slightly above and to my starboard
side and a transport exploded silently. There were no fighters
on my scope, and the only nearby objects were small satellites
that looked like weather birds
Weather birds around Triton?
One of the tiny satellites fired its thrusters and moved toward
the transport wing. I locked on and fired, but before I could
hit it the bird exploded firing energy bursts in all directions.
"MINEFIELD!" I bellowed in my microphone. "Everybody
turn around! We'll engage at medium range."
1st Wing turned around and the troop transports altered course,
not before another one got hit by a mine. We locked onto the mines
and fired with automatics on to reduce the firing rate, which
was threatening to overheat the guns. Pulse cannons take time
to cool down, and overheat quickly reducing their effectiveness.
"All leaders, this is Two-One." I heard Texas's
voice over the net. "Tag them until they're destroyed.
They're using suicide tactics."
My blood froze. There's nothing worse than an enemy who cares
nothing about survival. Their crippled fighters, if not shot down,
overloaded their reactor cores and exploded right in the middle
of our formations or headed off towards our ships. Our first battle
was turning into a nightmare. What was worse, this was not the
last surprise they were coming up with.
"Three-Two, there's movement in the Koenig Belt. Do you
read it?" Wing Two was near the Koenig Belt - the artificial
asteroid belt around Neptune that had been built over decades
to provide ore for the Lagrange Stations. Cheaper than mining
the moons and lift the cargo up there. What could be moving around
"All wings, ALERT! They've fired up the plasma engines
on some of the rocks! They're heading towards the fleet!"
Rocket-powered asteroids! Nothing that we had, short of a nuke,
could deal with them. The carriers' tac missile batteries opened
up and blew a couple of them into tiny rocks, but one of them
smashed right through the hull of a small cruiser, which lost
directional control and spun towards Neptune. We tried to form
up and fire at the plasma engines, while fending off the 'Clan
"357th, you're cleared to disengage for rearming and refuelling."
At last a respite. We broke contact and shot straight towards
the Lex, when the proximity warning signalled an entire enemy
squadron on our tails. We pumped out decoys while trying to decide
whether to continue the approach or turn around and engage, when
we got a message from Combat Information Center: "Everybody
squawk IFF level 5 immediately, over."
I reached for the IFF controls and dialed in code 5, which gave
off a tremendous radio signature which was why we had headed off
into battle with the squawk box on silent. All of a sudden, tiny
flashes erupted along the Lex hull. I though they were explosions
and was about to alter course when I realized they were missiles
- Spearhead missiles. The shipborne version of our SIM-85s tore
through the pursuing 'Clan squadron leaving no survivors. Despite
the elation at the reprieve, I couldn't help thinking about dozens
of high-velocity AP darts shooting around: IFF or not, if one
of us got on a Spearhead's firing line it would have been game
We began the final approach procedure. Throttle to idle, landing
gear out, scanner on standby, weapons on standby, retros on automatic
What did I forget?
It came down upon me with the landing bay forcefield filling up
my canopy. The shield! The shield, you dumbhead! I threw the switch
seconds before hitting the atmospheric integrity field which separated
the bay from the vacuum of space. A moment too late and the shield
discharge would have fried most of the landing area. I would have
kicked myself in the head.
Touchdown! The landing gear engaged the braking wire and my Gyruss
stopped dead. A tech crew sprayed the fighter with equalizing
fluid, which brought the hull temperature to ambient level, preventing
thermal shock and risks of fire as metal and ceramics were exposed
to oxygen. An APU was connected and the fighter shuttled off with
me inside to the rearming area. I popped off the canopy and removed
"How is it going out there, sir?" a young crewman asked.
"Hairy as hell. Any chance we can have some more Spearheads?"
I asked. The missiles had proven a godsend.
"Negative, sir. We can't break them out of the mag and ferry
them up here. Should have been done earlier, but nobody thought
they would be needed."
The words military intelligence flashed up in my brain.
Ninety percent of our fighters had taken off without missiles,
and those of us who carried them only had two shots. The F-911
could carry eight.
My thoughts were interrupted when a damaged troop carrier did
an emergency landing nearby. It had been shot up badly, and as
it passed the forcefield the superheated components ignited and
its rear end was engulfed in flames. Firefighting crews hurried
towards the burning ship and managed to contain the fire, but
when the transport's doors opened I put my helmet back on and
engaged the onboard camera to get a better look: there were far
too many mangled bodies being pulled out by the medical crew.
I wondered how may had managed to land on Triton, and how many
would come back.
were shuttled off to the launch sequencer again and took off.
This time it was only seconds before we entered the furball of
fighters closing towards the fleet. I lost sight of the KC on
my board, which had gone into the triple digits: we had entered
a strange state of calmness, fighting without thinking, losing
track of time.
The enemy's numbers dwindled, but even though their base had been
overrun, the 'Clan would not roll up and play dead: they launched
a final attack on a carrier group which was scouting ahead. The
antiaircraft batteries, Spearhead missiles and CIWS took their
toll but it wasn't enough: three carriers were destroyed in a
terrible conflagration, their crews incinerated before anyone
could get to the lifeboats.
But it had been the Ideoclan's swan song as far as Neptune was
concerned. 357th headed off towards the landing bay again, and
at least this time I didn't forget to disengage my shield. All
of our squadron had survived, it turned out. Impressive, considering
the losses we had suffered.
I breathed a sigh of relief and popped the canopy open. The fumes
of the landing bay were the sweetest scent I remember smelling
for a long time.
was a surreal experience: all of 357th wing leaders, including
myself, were hammered pretty badly by Major Chupa because of our
blatant disregard for standard procedures. The fact that everyone
who had followed them thoroughly was now flesh particles orbiting
Neptune didn't have any effect on him.
We sat down through debrief, then took off and had our own little
debrief with the mech stuff. When Colonel Bonca joined us we were
a little surprised, but not too much; our squadron had not only
survived, but had successfully defended the troop transports that
had done the drop on Triton and took out the 'Clan base. Our KCs
had recorded the most hits, effectively killing more enemies than
all of the other squadrons combined.
We talked the whole engagement through, discussing tactics and
manoeuvers - especially the "Death Spiral" that looked
like the Gyruss' best unique combat manoeuver, spinning the fighter
around an imaginary line towards the target while firing the cannons.
Most of us had employed it almost unconsciously and it had worked
all the time. We had a tech specialist program the simulators
with the new data, and wrote memos for the mech crews about some
mods we felt the crafts needed. Then we sat down with the armament
guys to fix up a way to lift missiles to the landing bays.
dinner and a shower, it was time to hit the bunk. I had more than
a little envy for Jon and some of the other pilots who had a wife
and kids expecting them at home: all I had was a message from
my parents, which was fine anyway and some lines from friends
I had left behind. But there was also a letter from my High Command
- looked like I was making the Swiss Army proud. I answered most
of the mail, and then I went off to sleep.
But sleep didn't come. I was still high on adrenaline and couldn't
just doze off. At last, I went to the medicine cabinet and popped
off a couple of sleeper tablets from a tube we had all been issued
with. They were supposed to neutralize adrenaline leftovers and
induce deep sleep and sweet dreams. Worked like wonders.
Sometime later, I would come to regret taking them. But at the
time, all I cared for was a good night's sleep, which I got, and
nothing else mattered.
"Uranus: Long Days in Hell"
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