Reen’s plan worked out well. The second wave of Alliance interceptors engaged the last group of Krix near the planet Aultra. After a brief fight, in which both sides lost about the same numbers, the humans were able to draw their enemy off in another direction. Even though the second wave of SF-75s was outnumbered by two to one, they were able to hold their own.
The strikers went in clean, that is they encountered no fighter resistance. Losses to defensive batteries were low among the strikers and none for their escorts. Their torpedoes were specifically designed for re-enforced targets. Fired from just inside the atmosphere they were very effective against the stationary Krix positions. Long-range weapons and fighter bases were the primary targets. Any Krix fighters that did survive had no place to land or refuel. Any batteries missed were easy prey for the guns of the battleships and cruisers. A volley of return fire answered the occasional shot fired at the approaching taskforce. The path to Aultra lay open.
Designated as Green Squadron for the operation, the 663rd Tactical Interceptor Squadron returned to its home on the Oronos. Being directed into the main hanger was always a welcome sign for the carrier’s primary interceptor squadron. With the 204th in the launch-bay, it meant they had a reprieve. Squadrons from some of the other ships were holding the CAP, Combat Air Patrol, the defensive perimeter. There would be some time for rest and celebration before it was their turn.
Although it had been shorter than most battles for the seasoned unit, they had still lost sixteen people, most of them replacements. Victory usually came at a high price.
Once the interceptors were parked in the front half of the large open hanger, ground crews attended them at a less fevered pace. A subdued sense of jubilation was in the air. It was a short-term victory; they could never hold that position. The objective was more of a strike mission to damage the enemy rather than take territory. Still, it was good to win one for a change. It felt better than simply surviving.
At least it did for Major Sands. He readily accepted the congratulations of crewmen and other pilots as he climbed down from his ship.
“How’d you do?” Major Talya asked as she let down her long blond hair.
“Took two of ’em,” Sands answered with a smile.
“Nice work,” Talya responded as she opened her heavy gray flight suit. “Lose any?”
“Son of a bitch,” she shook her head at the deck.
“Ya know what gets me? I don’t feel a fuckin’ thing.
“I mean I’ll miss Zeke, he was one of us. The others, I barely knew them. And two of them were from Earth.
“Talya, what the fuck is wrong with me?”
“I feel the same way. Ya know what? I’m grateful for it.”
“Grateful? How can you be grateful for being a zombie?”
“Because if I felt anything I’d blow my brains out.”
She motioned over at Hammann as he and some other Earth people walked past. “Hey, what went on during recycle? You were there.”
Sands tried to minimize the event. “Oh, Mike was just a little upset, that’s all. Him and Jacko were tight.”
“Little upset? Well, I guess we all get a little upset now and then.”
“Yeah, Sterett took care of it.”
Talya gave her sarcastic nod, she jutted her chin out and back. “Okay.”
She then leaned into him and spoke softly, “Let’s hope he’s not upset when he’s supposed to be clearin’ my ass.”
“Yeah,” Sands had to say.
“We’re flight leaders. We need to be concerned about these things.”
“Yeah, ah, you’re right.” Sands thought a moment as they walked. “Maybe we should take a look at morale.”
“Morale seems to be improving.” Talya slapped Marcus on the back as they passed him. The man was laughing and talking with some of the ground crew who wore their squadron’s patch.
Also in good spirits was Bogan. Having once again escaped death, with some assistance. He had cause to be grateful. In Tyramma tradition he shouted out his gratitude, although the pilot who saved him might not be there.
“You’re welcome,” was the feeble response from Lazell as she darted past, headed for the forward transports.
“Her?” the big man uttered in disbelief.
“Her,” confirmed Aurora. “She took four this day. Take a look at her flight record, it’s scary.”
“No way,” said Bogan as he headed toward the briefing room.
Aurora turned back to him. “I want her posted in our flight.”
“No way, forget it. I’d rather have another Earther.”
In the COC, Colonel Tellious reviewed the causality list before taking it to the General. “The recovery ships have reported in, sir.”
General Yanex looked briefly at the display placard. It was essentially a digital piece of paper that was able to be loaded with information then rewritten and used over again. Thirty-four names, twenty-four interceptors and five strikers, most of them two word names, from Earth. Aultrians were listed by their singular names and identification numbers. Clan associations were not part of any official records as they could very often change. Even the few remaining Nationalists were listed under only one name.
“How’d we do fleet wide?”
“Moderate losses overall, base damage is minimal. We took no damage ourselves.”
Yanex shook his head and leaned back in his oversized chair. He remembered back to when he was flying, twenty-five percent causalities had been a disaster. Now it was a good day. How things had changed, how desperate they’d become.
“Inflicted?” he asked.
“Twenty-five hundred, sir, including abandoned and the ones the Cromwell took out.”
“The Cromwell”, it irked the veteran officer. That man would claim credit for the campaign without spilling one drop of blood. Never mind the fact that it was true, they could have never done it without him. The numbers spoke for themselves.
“Acceptable losses,” Yanex said half to himself.
“Yes sir,” agreed Tellious.
“Closing on station, sir,” Captain Ratoe reported over the intercom. “Two teda (three minutes) till optimum range.”
Yanex leaned forward. “Let’s see it.”
Tellious reached down to the control panel by which he stood. The main display screen mounted above the steps that led down to the propulsion section, as well as the one on the forward most wall, changed to a view outside the ship. A half sphere of the planet below filled the screen. Aultra, once a green and blue jewel in the sky, hung gray and dark. Massive firestorms touched off by Krix bombing had blackened her sky. Nuclear winter had long since set in. The planet fought back with its own volcanoes and quakes.
It pained Yanex to see her that way. He let his mind wander back to the days when he was a boy, playing in her lush green forests without a care in the world. He remembered days of innocence when this nightmare was far away and only spoken about by adults with hushed voices. The sweet smells of home haunted him still. He’d tried visiting some of the national parks on Earth, but it just wasn’t the same, it wasn’t home. How he missed it.
“Major Hellor,” Yanex called out over the intercom. “Engage first firing program.”
Hellor responded and went to work with his assistant.
“Any signs of life Tri-S?” Tellious inquired.
“No sir,” was the response from Lorran.
“Anything at all?” Tellious held on to the idea of there somehow being survivors, even after three years. The thought of people bravely fighting to stay alive against all odds appealed to the Colonel, even if his wife wasn’t among them.
“No sir, nothing.”
“It doesn’t mean they’re not there,” Yanex said with bitterness. “Even when we hit the Krix home worlds we never picked up life signs.”
“They’re an abomination,” Tellious spat. “They have machines do their dirty work. They are beyond cowards. Is it true that it takes only one of them to control one of their command carriers and all of its ships?”
Yanex nodded, “Kill their command carrier and the fighters run out of control. At least we got plenty of them when we raided their home worlds.”
Tellious hardened his expression. “So long as they know what it is to die.”
The General nodded in agreement, then rose to his feet. He slowly stepped out from behind his console and down to the main floor. As he paced the area in the middle of the COC, overlooking his crew, Yanex pondered what they were doing. He felt guilty for it, striking another blow at their home world. It felt like kicking a wounded animal. If only he could be sure they were there. That at least one Krix life would be traded for all theirs. He wondered if they knew what it was to suffer, what it was to die. If they did, how could they be doing this to them?
Yanex found himself standing at the top of the steps leading down to the Propulsion and Power Sub-Section. Ratoe, who sat in the center of the large console that ran along the front wall, turned and looked up at him. “On station, sir. Main power grid fully charged.”
“Very good, Captain.” Yanex turned back to the weapons section over his right shoulder.
Hellor glanced up from his controls. “We have Operational Command authorization. Awaiting local.”
“You have it.” Yanex turned back to stare up at the image of his world on the giant screen. “Fire when ready.”
Hellor took a deep breath before proceeding. Having been on the receiving end of what he was about to do, he had a deep respect for the power he was about to unleash.
“CPN,” he said into his microphone. Ratoe answered.
“Give me a negative five degrees for full forward display, please.”
The Captain responded and fired maneuvering jets that angled the massive ship so all of the forward facing main batteries had a clear shot at the surface of the planet. Eight encased charged particle cannons, two on each side of the forward hull and two on each side of the outer wing tips, began glowing as they charged.
“Standing by,” called an officer from the Centralized Tactical Center.
Hellor studied the target list. Krix military bases and industry that had sprouted up as soon as they’d moved in. It never ceased to amaze him how fast they settled into a place.
“Give me two full barrage patterns, half power. Dead on the first two targets and singles on the rest,” Hellor ordered. “We’ll lay down scatter on the secondaries.”
“Double dead on the first two, yes sir,” was the reply from over the intercom. After a moment the officer in charge of the CTC reported, “Ready.”
Hellor spoke softly. “Commence fire.”
The main display screen filled with red flashes as each gun fired twice in rapid succession. Bolts of energy from the corners of the screen streaked out toward the surface.
“Pulse away,” Hellor said.
Lorran watched the rounds on her monitor as they raced toward their target. “They’re on steady, looking good,” she reported.
“Continue program,” Hellor transmitted to his section.
Yanex watched as flashes from the surface leaked through the heavy cloud layer. He was deep in thought when an officer from communications brought him a message. It was a copy of a transmission sent to the Ittala. Long-range sensor probes had detected Krix warships breaking off from the main fleet gathering in the Carmella system. They were moving toward a jump to ex-space and headed their way, ETA three days. More than enough time for the Alliance fleet to hit their targets and escape. This was good news to him. The Krix probably wouldn’t attack Earth with a reduced force. It gave them more time, it gave them a chance.
The overhead screen glowed again with the continued firing of the ship’s main guns. The extra power needed for the sustained volleys drained the main power grid. Raw plasma was transformed as it reached the batteries transfer cells. Once converted to a charged particle bolt, it was encased in a containment force field and projected at the target. The internal and explosive force ate away at the containment field as the rounds tore into the planet’s atmosphere and hit their objectives. The impact ruptured the shell and let loose the charge. Window-less square and cylindrical Krix structures shattered when penetrated by the rounds. Large groups of buildings were promptly reduced to rubble by the numerous explosions, each equivalent to a twenty kiloton nuclear warhead. Rounds that hit the ground detonated with a force that threw debris high in the air. Each blast sent out shock waves that knocked down smaller structures and whatever trees might be left.
A level of the ship was a three story high cell; vertically the ship was taller than a seventy story building. Level twenty-one was the lowest point of the Oronos’ forward hull. A large domed sensor array hung there surrounded by an outcropping of equipment. Most of the structure was dedicated to the array and other systems, but there was one small portion set-aside for the crew, the Belly Lounge.
This recreation room contained some of the few windows on the warship. Angled in view ports gave a spectacular view of the planet below and the two forward batteries, which rained destruction down on it. The massive guns hung out of their protective bunkers firing randomly at the surface below. Feeling safer, the fleet had moved into a closer orbit for even more hitting power.
Lieutenant Bogan raised a metal mug at the discharge of another volley. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he announced then took a gulp.
Aurora, sitting to his right at the large round table, smirked, “We’re bombing our own planet.”
“No,” Bogan replied, “it’s theirs. It’s theirs until we take it back.”
He finished off his drink then reached for the pitcher full of fruit juice at the center of the table. Intoxicants, which were rare on combat ships, were banned during the course of the campaign.
“That’s not going to happen.” Talya also had a cynical tone. “There’s no way we could hold this position. Let alone support an invasion.”
“No,” he conceded, “not now. But, if that prototype works out, we could be retrofitting the entire fleet with that weapon. Imagine that.”
“Yeah, if we live long enough.” Aurora griped as she lowered her mug of juice below the table and poured the continence of a flask into it. She then passed it to Marcus who nodded his thanks and did the same. Sands turned it down.
“Shit,” she continued, “we lost sixteen people in our squadron alone. That’s one of the worst days I’ve seen in a long time. And for what?”
Sands once more looked at the casualty list on his computer placard. Sixteen out of fifty pilots from the 663rd were lost. Almost a third of the squadron was dead. They weren’t the worst unit either. Some squadrons had lost upwards of half their numbers. The killed in action numbers had gone beyond appalling long ago. How could they possibly survive like that?
Both his Cigna and Delta Flights had lost four each. Echo and Alpha lost three each and Bata only two. Major Russell’s Delta Flight had transferred from an earth unit as a whole. Ten of the causalities were from Earth. With the bulk of the replacements coming from Earth, and inexperienced, they had become the brunt of those killed. The reasons, as justifiable as they may be, still made no sense to most people. Animosity was festering among the Earth members of the crew. Divisions were growing.
Sands sat back thinking, haunted by the memories of the Krix bombing Earth a few years before. It had been a cold slap of reality for him, as well as the rest of the country. Back then the Alliance fleet had come to their rescue. That was when he’d decided to enlist in the alien military, much to the dismay of his family. He had left for off world service long before it was fashionable to do so. So long ago. Suddenly that old question came back to plague him. Who was going to save them? This just couldn’t be the last days of humanity.
“We’ll make it,” Sands threw out into the gloomy discussion.
“How so?” asked Aurora.
“We will, we have to.”
Marcus raised his glass, “Another note of optimism.”
“Come on,” Aurora said, “we had an entire nation, a huge fleet, and we couldn’t stop them. How are we gonna do it now with sixteen capital ships and one backwards planet? Need I remind you that there are now only four Ittala Class left?”
Marcus placed a weathered hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Never give up on the spirit of humanity. In my one hundred and fifty cycles, I’ve seen extraordinary feats from people at their most desperate moments. We will survive this. If not here, somewhere else. Don’t bury yourself yet, my sister.”
“You think we should give up,” Sands said bitterly. “Run away?”
“I think we should survive,” replied Marcus. “In another part of the galaxy, we can build a new nation, a new fleet. It may be pointless to continue fighting here against an enemy who’s out to exterminate us for reasons unannounced to us.”
“You’d leave Earth to be destroyed?” Sands didn’t like what he was hearing. Talk of the New World was growing despite Marshal Reen’s vow to defend Earth.
Marcus thought a moment. “We may be powerless to prevent that, even if we can deploy the new weapon. This could just be another chapter in our destiny, unavoidable no matter how hard we try.”
“Or it could just be the end,” said Bogan. “What’s to prevent them from hunting us down? Reen decided that we should make a stand here, and that’s good enough for me.”
Marcus was contemplating his response when he caught sight of Colonel Sterett entering. Sterett strode to the center of the crowded room and called for everyone’s attention.
“Listen up! We have confirmed that fourteen Krix ships have left Carmella, and are headed here. Fleet Com’ now views this operation as a major success. I want to congratulate you all.”
Cheers filled the room.
Sterett moved toward the bar as he spoke. “I pulled a little weight, and with the Commander’s personal approval, the bar will be open for one hot shot to each of you, on me. After which, all flight personal will be retiring. We fly CAP at zero-five-zero.”
After a second round of cheers died down, the Colonel concluded, “And people, well done.”
Sterett had a style of command all his own. Having been a Tyramma for so long, he’d pretty much seen the whole leadership deal from just about every angle. He made no attempt to hide how many times he’d been busted throughout his long career. In fact he almost reveled in it, wore it like some badge of honor. It was his experience and blatant honesty that earned him the respect of his unit. One never doubted where they stood with the Colonel. If he was mad at you, you knew why and how to fix it.
Sterett had managed to achieve an almost fatherly relationship with his people. He was their leader, and yet to a limited degree, their friend. Few officers could spend long nights partying with their units and still have them call him “sir” throughout. It was something that other officers envied, and a few had attempted with disastrous results. As he worked his way around the room, officers and crew stood when they spoke to him. It was far from snapping to attention, shaking hands, slapping on the back kind of stuff, but they still stood.
Before taking a seat with the senior members of Echo Flight at their window front table, Sterett turned to the room and called out, “I hope every one of you bastards remembers you owe me a drink when we hit base. I plan to be drunk for a month!”
His own roar of laughter was heard over the rest as he dropped into a chair.
“So, we headed into base, there, Colonel?” asked Sands.
“Yeah, this pig’s long overdue for the dock.”
“Drink, sir?” asked a waiter with a try full of shots.
“Shit, am I breathing?”
“What about us?” asked Talya, “They gonna post us on another ship?“`
“Doubt it,” Sterett responded as he picked up the small glass of red liquid the waiter placed in front of him. He inhaled the aroma deeply as glasses were passed out to the rest of the table. “It sounds like we’re going into a defensive posture for awhile. We’ll probably end up sitting on the line.”
“Think we’ll get some leave when we get back?” asked Sands.
“I should be able to get us a few days while we’re being re-stationed.”
“What about replacements?” asked Marcus. “Any chance they’ll restock us again?”
“I severely doubt it. They’re just not available. Most of what we got last time was pulled from other units. Hell, Russell’s flight came from a UESC squadron. I’m probably gonna reorganize into four flights for the time being.”
“Great,” Talya sighed, “we sit on the ground during the next big operation.”
“Fine by me,” breathed Bogan, “I’m tired of being shot at.”
“What makes you think you won’t be shot at on the defensive line?” Aurora quipped.
“I should think they’d want to launch another campaign now that we have the edge,” said Talya.
“Maybe they’re planning to use the weapon to ambush the Krix when they attack Earth,” Sands said optimistically.
“That’s a foolish plan,” Talya declared. “There’s far too many Krix carriers for that. They’d deploy their fleet all over the system. That weapon needs them to be concentrated.”
“What do you think, Colonel?” Bogan asked.
“I’m just a grunt,” Sterett responded, “I just do what I’m told. I’m sure Reen’s got a plan in mind.”
“So long as Reen’s still calling the shots,” Bogan said.
Marcus shook his head. “I can’t see there being a major change in command right now.”
Bogan came forward to lean on his elbows. “I just hear that the Earthers are putting a lot of pressure on him to give them some more pull.”
Even Sands disagreed with that. “No way, we’re still operating under Chapter Fifteen, the disaster rules. There’s no way we’re ready to reform a civil government.”
“Yeah,” Talya said, “but if they did, Earth would be an equal, if not ruling party.”
“I really wouldn’t worry about it,” Aurora said sarcastically. “We’ll be lucky to see next month.”
“One should always consider the future,” Marcus said with a smile, “even if it looks bleak.”
“Here, here,” said Sterett as he thought up some sappy words about the future. He took a quick look around to make sure everyone had a glass, then stood to propose a toast. The rest of the room also stood and raised their glasses as he did. The toast he was about to give was suddenly wiped from his mind by a bright red flash from the windows behind him. A hush fell across the room as the batteries outside let loose with a sudden concentration of rounds. Brilliant red flashes filled the room.
The room was silent by the time the guns subsided. Sterett turned back to them and said the first thing that came to mind.