Some of the other squadrons pursued the fleeing Krix for a few more kills before being called back. The fleet had faired well, minor to light damage was reported to the flagship by those ships that had lost their shields. Marshal Reen reviewed the incoming reports from his operations center deep in the heart of the Ittala. He was most interested in the report from Excalibur.
Colonel Marcone’s face filled one of the many monitors on the walls of the darkened chamber. “We took a few hits, sir,” stated Marcone, “but most of the damage is from a system overload.”
“What’s your propulsion status?” the Marshal asked without looking up from his other messages.
“We have a fire in the main thrusters. Looks like I’m down fifty percent. But the phase-drive is on line.”
“Good, return to base and begin repairs.” As an afterthought Reen asked, “And Colonel, how did Mister Cromwell fair?”
Marcone smirked, “We haven’t done a laundry check, but he seems all right.”
Cromwell bore out the indignity of the comment as he sat motionless. He would rise up and challenge that infidel if only he could release his death grip on the chair’s arms. He had rode out the battle with what he thought was a calm expression. In reality, he was pale. It took all his personal stamina and control not to vomit on the deck. Never would he put himself in that situation again.
Reen turned from the communication monitor to the sensor reports. A third wave, half the size of the first two, was assembling over the planet. He leaned back in his seat a moment to think. His console was connected to a large display table, on which were holographic representations of the star system and fleet. Officers standing around the table and manning stations about the room awaited his next move. Would they retreat, or press on? The decision rest with Reen alone. A hundred and seventy out of two hundred and fifty of his interceptors had survived the first battle, and five more squadrons were ready to launch. With a deep breath, the Marshal rose to his feet and faced his staff.
“We almost have them down to one on one,” he said. “People, this is the best shot we have had in a long time.” Heads nodded in agreement.
Reen turned to his flight officer, “Launch the second wave. Have them engage in a hit and run on the last of their defensive screen and draw them off. Recycle the first wave and have them escort the strikers in.”
He pointed at the enemy fighters in the table’s display. “If they hold to their usual tactics, we could go in clean.”
Reen smiled. “Launch the strikers. They’re to hold for their escort, then take out all long-range defenses. The taskforce will follow them in for close-range orbital bombardment.”
Hit and run had been a very successful tactic for the outnumbered Alliance forces. The slower accelerating Krix fighters had greater range, but they almost always turned back to refuel after a certain amount of combat, as if they were programmed to not risk running out of fuel in continued engagements once a threshold had been reached. They would commonly pursue after a brief fight, but quickly gave up and turned back unless otherwise ordered. Alliance interceptors could then score easy kills from behind. If the enemy turned to protect its rear, you simply out ran them again. In the early days, large masses of fighters had been hounded until they had exhausted their fuel. This worked well until the Krix finally figured out that they didn’t need to turn back their whole formation.
The Krix had also used variety of fighter class’ as the humans still did, interceptors, reconnaissance ships, and strikers for killing capital ships. However, they had switched to a multi-role heavy fighter several years before. Unified production was suspected to be the reason for that move.
Tactics, determination, along with superior equipment had served to keep the human race alive for that long. By far the greatest weapon in their arsenal, other than people, was the Ittala Class Carrier. Its speed, maneuverability, and shear firepower were unmatched by anything in the known galaxy. It was the culmination of a half dozen worlds which had joined together to form the Grand Alliance. The ship’s best advantage was its flight operations. The ability to launch a full squadron of fifty interceptors at once was unequaled.
After a standing launch of fifty, the Ittala Class would be able to launch a second full squadron within a matter of moments. The two landing-bays could recover returning ships without interfering with launch operations. Ships could then be sent right back up to the launch-bay for a quick refit. If not being recycled, inbound fighters would be sent directly to the main hanger bay located in the center of the ship’s fuselage.
The 663rd was to be recycled. With the Oronos’ starboard landing-bay damaged, they were forced to lineup for the port. One by one the sleek fighters reduced their speed to a little more than the carrier’s and glided into the rear of the bay. The gradually increasing artificial gravity gave them a soft landing.
Although the SF-75 had the ability to land vertically, a rolling touchdown was more desirable, it saved precious fuel. Once on the deck, the interceptors continued taxing down the long bay to the forward cross over. Flashing lights along the deck and reinforced ceilings directed the ships around the corner and into the belly of the ship. Heavy columns lined the walls of the landing-bay and cross over tunnels and each had the usual staggered bulkheads.
Once they entered the main hull the tunnel split. Straight ahead was the main hanger-bay, a gradual right led to a long upward ramp. At the direction of the lights, the line of ships moved up the ramp to a junction of passages that led to the two launch-bays and another downward ramp, which serviced the other landing-bay.
As the ships entered the launch-bay they were directed back to their individual platforms. The nose of each interceptor rode up on the rear of the platform and the front landing gear was retracted. An operator would use a moveable gantry on the platform to line up tracks on the bottom of the ship with their counterparts on the platform. Then the rear main gear was also stowed and the ship was pulled the rest of the way into position.
Then the ground crews attached charging cables and fuel lines from hatches in the deck. Quick maintenance checks were performed and pilots, who were to remain in their ships, were offered a nursing drink. In long battles, with repeated sorties, they would also be given stimulants.
While the interceptors refueled, the task of launching the strikers was underway. The S-15 tactical striker was much larger than the SF-75. It had a crew of two and a load-out of four torpedoes, as well as other weapons. The larger strike and reconnaissance ships were too big for the launch tubes and it was impractical to expand the launch-bays for them. Instead, everything other than interceptors would use the forward openings of the landing-bays. In fact, the forward halves of these bays were designated launch-bays three and four.
With the rear half of the Oronos’ starboard bay blown away, her strike squadron of twenty-five ships was already staged in the front half, launch-bay four. Once the recovery operation was complete the Flight Operation Center turned its attention to launching the strikers. One by one they accelerated out into space.
First Lieutenant Michael Hammann used a shaking hand to steer his ship onto its platform. The shaking had started as a quiver when he hit the deck, then became uncontrollable.
Of all people, why him? The very thought of it twisted his guts. Jacko had a wife, a baby on the way, now he was gone. His best friend gone. Somehow the drunken fantasy about going out in a blaze of glory didn’t look quite so honorable in the cold reality of the muzzle flash that had taken Jacko. Fear and anger battled for control of him. He was mad at the loss of his boyhood friend and terrified at how easily it could have been him. Death was a crap shoot.
Hammann wasn’t new to it. He’d fought the Krix with the US Navy when they first attacked Earth. He had always taken each death personally. Along with the emotions swimming in his head was the notion that more and more of the causalities were coming from Earth. It was a resentment that had been growing for some time and was shared by many.
As the canopy rose, Hammann pushed up the lap panel and stood up in the cockpit. He threw his oversized helmet into the front wall before climbing from his ship. He ignored the crewman who shouted, “We’re on re-launch, sir.”
To the controller who echoed the same message in the noisy bay, Hammann gave an obscene gesture along with a screamed curse. He didn’t know what to do, where to go, he just had to get out of that flying coffin. He had to get away, but where?
Hammann just stood there between two of the fighters as personnel rushed about him. The image of the pilot appeared on monitors in different locations in the ship. A distraught man in the launch-bay was cause for some concern, particularly a heavily armed man.
Hammann’s helmet had come to rest near the tale of his ship. It was scooped up and thrust back into the man’s chest. Hammann looked up to meet the eyes of Colonel Sterett.
“Mike, what’s the problem?” Sterett asked firmly. “We’re on re-launch. Get back in your ’pit.”
Hammann stumbled over his words. He tried to put something together, but only managed a feeble, “Jacko.”
Sterett nodded slightly and lowered the man’s helmet to his side. “You were friends, I’m sorry.”
“Are you!” Hammann snapped. He now had a place to vent his anger. “What the hell do you know about it?”
He looked about at the other pilots, who looked on from their open cockpits. “You people are already dead. He had a family. Now he’s just another number to be marked up on your loss board. What the fuck do you people care about him, or me?”
Sterett had faced this far too many times before. He had to justify the unjust, another death in a senseless war. A fine line had to be walked, discipline had to be maintained. A firm hand gloved with a measure of compassion was in order. He couldn’t let one shot cost him two people. The old, “We’re all in this together,” spiel was in order.
“Mike, we’ve all lost friends and family here. I know it’s tough, but the time to deal with it is later.”
Hammann rolled his eyes and shook his head. The two security officers wearing high tech suits of armor, which appeared over the Colonel’s shoulder, highlighted his choices. The soldiers cradled their short rifles in readiness.
“What a bunch of bullshit,” Hammann blurted out. “You people don’t give a shit about us. Earth is just another planet for you to harvest. You’ll throw us aside when we’re all used up.”
“All right,” Sterett wasn’t much for compassion anyway, “you wanna feel sorry for yourself, go right ahead. But you aren’t gonna find too many people around here to blubber with.”
Hammann was taken aback, that was the last thing he expected.
“I’m sorry about Jacko. I’m sorry his kid’s got to grow up without a father. That’s if they get to grow up at all,” Sterett shouted. “Mine didn’t, they’re piles of ash on that rock down there. Along with hers,” he pointed at a nearby crewman who was refueling a fighter, “and his, and his, hers, and theirs.” Sterett pointed wildly at people around them.
“I can’t change that!” Hammann shouted back. “I’m only one man.”
Sterett came nose to nose with him “Then what’re you doing here?”
“Why are you here?” asked Sterett.
Hammann didn’t answer. He didn’t have an answer.
“You’re no pussy,” said Sterett. “You wouldn’t be in my squadron if you were. You requested this post. Why?”
“I don’t know.” Hammann wasn’t sure what to say. As the words left his mouth, he was sure that it wasn’t that.
“Bullshit!” Sterett yelled in his face. “I know you, I know everybody in this unit. I know you better than you know yourself. You got a wife, three kids, where are they right now?”
That angered Hammann further. “Leave them out of this.”
Sterett found his weakness and moved in for the kill.
“They at home? Or maybe in school learning propaganda? Maybe they’re snug in their beds, safe and secure in the idea that daddy’s out here protecting them. Is that it? Huh?”
“Yeah,” Hammann admitted. “That’s it.”
“Your own selfish little reason,” Sterett paced around him. “Good.”
After a pause Sterett continued, “What are you gonna do? You gonna quit? Walk away and let those bastards butcher your kids the way they did mine? Shit man! We’re winning this one! You gonna walk away now? What are you here for?” he yelled in the man’s ear.
“I’m here to fight,” said Hammann.
The Colonel stepped in front of him and jammed the helmet back into his chest. The force knocked Hammann back a step.
“Get back in your ’pit, Lieutenant,” Sterett said firmly.
Hammann took hold of his helmet, but Sterett didn’t release it right away. He waited for the man’s, “Yes, sir.”
The two men stood face to face a moment before Hammann stood at attention and snapped his right hand up in an American salute. The Colonel repeated the action, only he brought his right fist over his left breast in an Aultrian salute.
As Sterett watched him climb back into the cockpit, he somehow expected something more, some measure of gratitude perhaps. He told the security officers that everything was under control.
“We’re to take him to medical,” one responded.
“He’s all right,” Sterett said. “I’ll take responsibility for him.”
“Standby, auto launch sequence,” the controller’s voice sounded in the bay.
One of the fighters next to Hammann’s was Sands’. He had watched the whole confrontation take place. While he readied his ship for launch, Sands wondered how he would have handled that situation. He felt that he would have handled it differently. Sterett could be a bit harsh at times. After the fighters did another rapid launch, he had time to think about it on the long flight in. How would he have handled it differently?