Yanex returned to his ship to await orders and get repairs done as best he could. Without the construction crews, work on the starboard landing bay was pointless. Instead, he directed his maintenance crews to concentrate on internal repairs and anything else they had materials for. He also opted not to recall his crew from leave, they deserved a rest. The news would greet them soon enough.
Official word of the coming campaign came in the form of a classified message hand delivered from the Communication Sub-Section. Yanex viewed the message only once on a display placard before erasing it. Leaving Tellious in charge once more, he left the COC, bound for his quarters. There he changed from his everyday all red uniform, into his formal dress uniform. He was hard pressed to remember the last time he clamped on that uncomfortable collar. It was Reen’s last big speech. There were a lot more of them then, lined up on display in front of a stage, showing their determination as Reen pledged that they would make their stand at Earth. It seemed so long ago.
Had he been wrong? Did Reen make a grave error in staying and fighting? Yanex often wondered about that. He tried to look at it from the Marshal’s place. Could he live with sacrificing over seven billion people? He pondered that during the trip back to Gateway Station. As firm as Reen had seemed about keeping his word, there were those cargo shipments that had been trickling aboard over the past few days. Shipping containers of food rations, construction and farming equipment, and unmarked boxes with classified manifests. From what he heard from his fellow commanders, all the ships were getting them. Perhaps it was just another precaution.
This session was not a staff meeting like before. There wouldn’t be an open discussion, no input of ideas. It was a briefing. A formal briefing where they would be told what was going to happen, not asked for ideas.
The first row of tables in the conference room had been moved to the back wall and the center table was replaced with a glossy wooden podium bearing the Alliance emblem. Only the top echelons of the command staff were in attendance at the classified meeting. The commanders of each Alliance carrier, top defensive commanders, as well as officers from the Consortium, United States, Russia, and China. All in dress uniform, all standing in three short rows. They snapped to attention when Fleet-General Bella announced the Marshal by shouting, “Stand to orders!”
She stepped aside as Reen entered. He headed directly for the podium, only to stop just short of it. Reen placed his computer placard on the podium and gazed a moment at the assembled room. As the supreme commander of the Alliance, he would take a moment to review his troops. With a stern face, he walked each row looking his people over. They were all his people, and never in the many years he had served had he felt that way. Sending people to their deaths was part of the job, but the stakes had never been so high. Failure meant annihilation, extermination.
He stepped behind the podium and announced, “You look good. All of you.”
A wash of emotion came over him as he tried to sum up his feelings. “I want to take a deda to tell you how proud I am of you.” His voice crackled. “You’ve performed admirably under the worst circumstances. The sole reason that we still live to fight is because of you and the people you lead. May the future generations, who will owe their lives to you, sing your praises and name their children after you. I am honored to serve with you.”
Reen then stepped back from the podium and applauded them. The smack of his hands in the otherwise silent room echoed in eerie tones. Seven times he clapped in an old Aultrian tradition. Then he put them at ease.
“I have gathered you here, this day, to announce the commencement of operation Bright Star.”
With a control on the podium, Reen activated a holographic projection of the Carmella system behind him. “The sole purpose of which is the destruction of the Krix fleet at Carmella, via the Cromwell Vortex Device.”
A stir ran through the group of officers. There were murmurs, gasps and some even glanced around to get the reactions of others.
Reen raised his hand to demand silence. “People, I have no intention of engaging that fleet.”
The hologram zoomed in on one side of the star system. Red symbols representing Krix warships swarmed around one of the planets, the planet that had once been the capital of a nation and home to four billion humans.
“The Cauldare and Huron will drop out here,” Reen said as two blue symbols appeared on the outskirts of the system. “They will immediately begin generating false images of four more carriers and the Excalibur. This is the diversion force, you are not to engage,” Reen directed at a certain overzealous officer.
“Your objective is to keep the enemy occupied while the rest of us get into position.”
The display then focused on the far side of the system. Reen directed them next to a cluster of small planets in close to the star.
“Excalibur is the Mission Fleet. She’ll drop out here,” he pointed to a spot behind one of the planets. Using a planet to shield light particles was a risky maneuver at best, one that a ship could do only a few times before its systems began breaking down.
“Using the Vortex Device, we will induce a chain reaction within the star that will cause it to go super nova and destroy the entire system and the Krix fleet.”
Reen took a deep breath and relished in the room’s rising tension.
“This isn’t going to be an instantaneous process, it could take some time. Therefore, Ittala, Rhyolite, and Oronos will be the Support Fleet. They are to defend the Excalibur, at all cost, until the reaction begins. They will then make a run for the jump-limit and use their phase drives to escape. The Krix on the other hand can’t instantly jump to ex-space.”
The Marshal looked back over his shoulder as the holographic star flared out to wipe out the system in a bright flash. Then the display cut out.
“My friends,” he turned back to them, “once it starts, we can’t stop it. If you can’t make it out, well, I’m sure you’ll be greeted with honor on the other side.”
A subdued laugh ran through the ranks.
“We won’t know what the time frame is going to be until the operation begins. Therefore, we will avoid launching fighters. There is to be no unsecured discussion of this operation beyond this room, until after we are underway. Departure is in three days. Good luck, and may the God bless you.”
Reen took a step back from the podium, came to attention himself and saluted them. He then turned and strode out of the room.
When he was through the door, General Bella released them with, “Dismissed!”
Few left the room right away. It would be the only real chance to freely discuss what they had been told. There was a lot of doubt and speculation as to the odds of success. Besides the obvious concern for the reliability of the weapon, the support fleet would have to use their phase drives inside the one hour jump limit. Although it was dangerous and would likely damage the ships, it was not impossible. They could drop in, but not jump out.
For Vice-General Yanex there was a mix of feelings. He expressed his concerns to his fellow officers, but kept his elation at going on the mission silent.
Despite the fact that repair crews had worked around the clock, Excalibur still wasn’t ready on time. It was five days after the meeting, not three as the Marshal wanted before the fleet pulled out. This gave the crew of the Oronos an uninterrupted vacation before they returned to the ship. Some were a bit disconcerted to report back aboard instead of some Earth-bound base. Rumors were abundant and varied, most centered on the fevered repairs to the Excalibur. Few doubted the Alliance had big plans for their new weapon.
The Ittala Class warships were designed to be self-contained. They could operate singularly as well as in large taskforces. To this end, each ship had an Operations Room like the Ittala. A war room so any one of them could act as a taskforce flagship.
The Operations Room on the Oronos was a little different from the one on the Ittala. It was brighter lit and had round table in the center. There were workstations and computerized tactical maps along the walls, and a small communication post sat on a raised platform at one end. Yanex preferred to run his ship from the COC so he rarely used the room, except for strategy or command staff meetings.
With the fleet safely underway, Yanex was ready to brief his crew as to the nature of their mission. Before making a general announcement, he gathered his top officers in the Operations Room to go over the details with them first.
When Colonel Tellious called the room to attention everyone snapped to attention where they stood. There was an awkward pause before Vice-General Yanex walked through the door. He took his time walking down the short flight of stairs and stepping to the head of the table.
“At ease, take your seats,” Yanex said, then sat himself.
Waiting until everyone was seated; Yanex folded his hands on the table and leaned forward.
“It’s Carmella,” he said flatly and without emotion.
His calmness was not shared. A stir ran through the eight other people at the table. There was a gasp or two and Hellor was heard mumbling, “Well, we’re all dead.”
“Not necessarily, Major,” Yanex responded. “Apparently we’ve come up with a new use for the Vortex Weapon. They’re going to use it to blow-up the star in that system.”
Colonel Marcone scoffed and shook his head. He wanted to laugh.
“Colonel?” Yanex inquired. “Something you’d like to share?”
Marcone held his hands up and shook his head, “No, sir.”
“If all goes well,” Yanex continued, “we won’t be launching fighters. Once that star starts to go, we’re going to be making a quick exit. Hopefully we should only have to lay down some cover fire.”
Yanex gave a brief explanation of their role in the operation, then answered a few questions as best he could. A status report from the five section commanders showed the ship to be in fairly good shape, despite being battered and bruised.
“I’m shorthanded,” Sterett announced when the floor was opened for discussion.
“Everybody’s short, Colonel,” responded Colonel Marcone. As the new Commander of Flight Operations, requests should have gone to him before the Commander.
“I’m down to thirty-four crewed interceptors,” Sterett pushed. He waved a hand at the man sitting to his left, “Colonel Kran here has forty-four, but they pulled the strike squadron, it’s just us two.”
“I spoke with Marshal Reen personally,” said Yanex. “There are no replacements left without pulling more units off the defensive line. Perhaps if this operation goes well the politicians will see fit to loosen their strangle hold on our throats and let us do our jobs. But for now, we’ll just have to get by with what we have.”
Once a few more topics were discussed the meeting was closed. Colonel Marcone wasted no time in pointing out a breach of protocol to his squadron commanders.
“I believe you both have a copy of the memo I received from the Commander on replacements, did you not Colonel Sterett?”
Sterett glanced over at the pile of notes left on the table for him. “Didn’t get a chance to read it.”
“Perhaps you should, Colonel,” Marcone said. “Hence fourth, all logistic matters will go through me first. Is that clear?”
“Oh, well, the General and I have a certain rapport.”
“Yes, I have my own rapport with the General. Rapports aside, things will be done by the book on this ship from now on. Is that clear Colonel Sterett?”
“If that’s what you really want.”
“Is that clear Colonel Kran?”
“Crystal,” Kran said with a sarcastic smile.
As Marcone walked away, smug in his victory, Sterett called after him. “Hey Marcone, didn’t we fly together?”
The incident in which his then flight leader, Captain Sterett, had cut him some slack on an accident popped back into his head.
“Briefly,” was his response.
“It’s Carmella,” Sterett repeated to his flight leaders after gathering them in a quiet corner of the squadron’s dayroom. Never one to hold anything back, he pulled a chair out in front of them and told them straight out.
“Shit!” exclaimed Sands as he covered his face and rolled back on the couch he was sitting on the edge of.
“Well,” said Major Ecar, Echo Flight Leader, “I’m kinda tired of livin’. How ’bout the rest of you?”
Major David Russell of Delta Flight said, “I sort of had a few more things I wanted to do.”
“You can just forget about them,” Ecar shook his head, “this is a one-way trip.”
“I’m not dying out here,” Russell said with determination. “I’m coming back from this.”
Talya spoke out over their gloom. “What’s the plan?”
“We’re gonna use the Vortex Weapon to cause the Carmellian sun to go super nova,” Sterett explained. “It’s all or nothing, glory or death.”
“Wait a second,” Sands sat back up, “that could work.”
“We’ll take out over half their fleet in one blow,” Sterett said.
“It’s crazy,” said Russell, “we’ll be outnumbered by over ten to one, not including their ground forces.”
“Not to worry, we’ll slip in, zap that star, and be gone before they even knew we were there.”
“That’ll only kill thirty-five out of their estimated sixty carriers,” said Ecar. “We still only have four heavy carriers and five standard carriers.”
“That’s all we’ll need,” said Talya. “If we can break their offensive, we can take out their production facilities once we shore up our defenses. Without their production, they’re nothing.”
“They’re nothing with twenty-five carriers and who knows how many thousands of fighters,” said Russell.
“That’s a hell of a lot better than what we got now,” said Sands.
“Next stop the Krix home worlds,” smiled Sterett, “the Grand Tour.”
“If we survive,” Russell breathed.
“The fate of the human race is in our hands,” Sterett stated.
“We’re so screwed,” uttered Ecar.
“For now,” Sterett stood and raised his voice, “I’m going to reorganize into four flights. I’m taking overall command and spreading Alpha among you. The new assignments will be posted by the end of the day.”
As Sterett walked across the room, headed for his office, he tripped on a foot deliberately stuck in his path. Aurora looked down at her leg, then briefly glared up at him before going back to her reading.
Sterett leaned on a table in front of her with both hands. “Yeah?”
“Do something for me,” she said quietly.
“Well, it’s been a while, but...”
“Not that. Put Lazell in Cigna.”
“Why? You warm for her?”
Aurora rolled her eyes at him. “Just do it or I’ll kick your ass all over the room.”
Sterett smiled, “How ’bout I do it and you still kick my ass?”
He laughed out loud when she drew an exasperated sigh.
“Maybe when we get back,” she muttered as he turned to leave.
Sterett laughed even louder and rocked her with a smack on the arm.
Clearly the happiest about the new roster was the young woman with uneven ponytails in her light brown hair and a blue stripe painted down one side of her face. Armed with a legitimate reason to be there, Lazell bounced over to the dayroom’s corner table where the bulk of Cigna Flight played an ongoing game of cards.
“Guess what,” she announced joyfully while dropping into the only empty chair, “I’m in your flight now. Isn’t that great?”
“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” Bogan exclaimed, throwing down his cards. “Where’s Sterett?”
“He’s probably hiding,” Talya growled from across the table.
“This is just great,” said Bogan.
Marcus took the opportunity to add to his misery by informing him, “We got Hammann too.”
“Hammann,” Bogan snorted and shook his head.
“What are you bitchin’ about,” Talya said, “I got Wilson. Hammann can only aspire to be the screw-up Wilson is.”
“Big deal, he’ll be dead tomorrow.” Bogan motioned at Lazell, “This one’s gonna be around for a while.”
“We’re all gonna be dead tomorrow,” Aurora threw in, “what’s the difference.”
Sands dealt out the cards and threw cards in front of the new girl, who scooped them up with a big smile.
“What’s the matter you big pussy,” said Aurora, “don’t you like girls?”
Bogan pointed an accusing finger at her. “You did this.”
“Me?” Aurora tried to look surprised. “I’m not in command of this squadron.”
Then an evil little smile parted her lips.
The Flight Operations Center was located in the main hull near the hanger bay. It was one of the many sub-command centers that carried out the different operations of the ship. Many of the officers in the Central Operations Center were liaisons that represented sections like that one. Liaisons would relay information and orders back and forth between the Commander and their individual sections. Much the way Lieutenant Lorran was the liaison officer for the Sensor Sub-Section (or Tri-S), Major Carlisle was the first shift representative for Flight Op’s. Neither of them was in charge of their department, but had full access to all its information. When the Commander called for a long-range scan, it wasn’t Lorran who carried it out. She could, but usually her department did it and she would report the results. Much the way Carlisle, or whoever was manning that station, wouldn’t launch ships. That was all controlled by the Flight Operation Sub-Section.
Interceptors, strikers, shuttles, convoy ships under escort, all were coordinated by the technicians in that chamber. Anything that had to do with ships moving in the sky or on the deck was the responsibility of the officer that ran that department, the Commander of Flight Operations. That’s whom Colonel Sterett was there to see.
He paused a moment to look around the busy chamber after entering. Workstations ringed a large holographic display table at the center of a sunken floor. The table displayed the fleet and surrounding space. The back wall was lined with small glass front offices, while the rest of the room was wall-sized monitors displaying the various ships assigned to the Oronos, including his own squadron. Each fighter’s position, status, and crew were categorized, along with upcoming assignments and missions.
Strolling at a leisurely pace, Sterett made his way across the room, stopping to talk and laugh with a few people along the way. When he finally reached the center office on the back wall, he walked right in without knocking.
“You wanted to see me?” Sterett asked.
Marcone was slightly startled and looked up, annoyed.
“Isn’t it customary to announce yourself and salute on this ship?”
“I kinda like things informal myself,” Sterett said, “but feel free to salute, if you like.”
“Time in grade,” said Sterett. He had been a colonel a bit longer than Marcone. “I out rank you.”
Marcone was in no mood to point out the structure of position over rank.
“I really have no inclination to deal with this foolishness, Colonel. I have a job to do here. One that if not done properly can cost people’s lives, including those of you and your squadron. The General has seen fit to give me this job, whether you or anyone else on this ship likes it. Is that clear?”
“What did you want?” asked Sterett.
Marcone produced a display placard and dropped it in front of him. “You reorganized the squadron without consulting me, why?”
“It’s my unit. I feel we’ll be more effective in four stronger flights.”
“Regulations require that you authorize any major changes with myself or the ship commander.”
“The General lets me run my unit as I see fit.”
Marcone was trying to keep his anger in check. “I’m not about to start arguing with you. You are not to make any changes that affect mission capability.”
“Assign us a mission,” Sterett said defiantly, “we’ll complete it.”
Marcone leaned back and folded his arms. He had expected the usual animosity that seemed to haunt him, however he hadn’t expected it to be so overt. Having been a simple fighter pilot he’d grown used to the arrogance of Tyramma. However he had some apprehension when he learned that he’d be dealing with this particular Tyramma.
“I’m not unfamiliar with your rather colorful record, Colonel Sterett. Perhaps it needs a bit more color? I assume you’ve already implemented your changes. And in view that the current time frame would make it unjust to your officers if I ordered you to change back, you may keep your current configuration. We’ll address this matter in detail once this operation is complete. Understood?”
“Lookin’ forward to it.” Sterett turned and left, without saluting.
A formal briefing was to be held by the commander for the fighter squadrons before they dropped out of ex-space. Attendance was mandatory. Bogan was running late. He took a quick shower got dressed and rushed down for breakfast with his hair still wet. There he sat at a large table with most of Echo Flight and shot his mouth off. Part of the reason Aurora ate alone, or use to.
“It just galls,” he was saying, “a good man like Zeke buys it and some worthless twerp like Lazell survives. I tell yeah there just no justice in the ’verse.”
What he didn’t notice, that Sands did, was Lazell stop as she passed behind him. Not that it would make any difference to Bogan.
Sands watched her go back to the serving line and get something from the coffee bar. Walking back she stopped behind Bogan and started sprinkling something white in his damp hair. Both Talya and Marcus also watched as she dropped several pinches of the substance on him. Neither they, or anybody else said a word. They just watched in fascination.
“What?” Bogan said to the strange looks he was getting. It was all Talya could do to keep from busting up.
He brushed some of the white granules off his shoulders. “None of you seen a little dandruff before?”
“I don’t think it’s dandruff, man,” said Sands.
Lazell had dropped down at the table with Aurora by then. “Watch this, this is gonna funny.”
Aurora glanced at her, then over in time to see Bogan jump up with his fingers covered in the sticky goo from his hair.
“What the fuck!”
Half the dining hall burst out laughing as he looked around in disbelief. “Who did this!”
No one said. The laughing just got louder as word got around that it was sugar.
Lazell laughed hysterically. “See, wasn’t that funny.”
“Yeah,” Aurora said flatly. “That was hilarious.” Then went back to eating.
“Come on, you’re not even gonna laugh at that? It’s gonna take him a week to wash that shit out.”
“No, really that was funny.”
Bogan stormed up to the table and threatened, “If I find out you had anything to do with this you little twerp.”
“What are you gonna do, huh?” she quoted him in an angry voice.
She watched with an evil little smile as Bogan stomped off toward Sterett’s table.
“Now that was funny,” Aurora said without emotion.
“I see you’re gonna be tough one,” Lazell said before going back to the happy carefree girl.
Sterett was having breakfast with Ecar and Russell when he walked up.
“Excuse me, sir. I, ah, had a little accident. I need to run back to the barracks real quick.”
Sterett had seen the whole thing. “Bogan, if you’re one deda late for this briefing I’m gonna stick my foot so far up your ass you’ll be tasting boot for a week!”
“That wasn’t funny?” Lazell asked.
“Oh yeah.” She pointed to Colonel Sterett as he loomed over them with his arms folded and a scowl.
“I saw what you did, Lieutenant,” he growled.
Lazell shrunk back and said in very small voice, “I’m sorry, sir. I won’t do it again.”
Sterett glared at her a moment, then let out a loud boisterous bout of laughter.
“What’s so funny?” asked Russell when he returned, tears practically rolling down his face.
“Didn’t you see that chick put sugar in his hair? When that shit dries it’s gonna be like he’s fucking wearing a helmet.”