Part XX: Title
Chapter 59 -- Come About
I arose with the morning sun, visible as it was behind the surrounding hills. A scuddy layer of clouds filled the sky to the north and west as I gathered my belongings. Breakfast consisted of cinamon rolls, orange juice, and an apple. Global population loss had more than made up for the dip in agricultural production--a disturbing trend that promised to continue.
To the south, our forces, now operating under the title "Operation Southern Cross," were desperately holding the line as the seasonal floods in Brazil and other areas receded, bringing more crashed alien ships within the reach of ground forces. The jungle fighting among mountainous terrain was bloody and brutal, but the problems of food and fuel supplies faced by the Zentraedi enemy was helping to offset our manpower disadvantage. Several forward bases had been established for our Valkyries, where Marine, Navy, and Air Force fighters could return to rearm with great speed. Many of the naval assets, decimated by the intense fighting of the previous months, had completely withdrawn. Replacement Air Wings would take months, if not years, to be trained, and naval aviation found itself at a crossroads.
To the west, Josh's squadron--among others--fought many battles in the snow and ice against a savage and entrenched enemy, but under his watchful and spirited leadership, losses were surprisingly low. The Zentraedi in this region did not show the propensity for mass destruction as their South American counterparts did. One wondered if the illegal drug trade that plagued Central and South America did not have something to do with this fact. At any rate, the operation being undertaken to the west was considerably more successful than the one in the south. Zentraedi forces, squeezed on both sides, without adequate food or fuel, were beating a quick, albeit calculated, northward withdrawal along the Rocky Mountain chain, where their lack of shelter and clothing would soon exacerbate their situation.
Breetai's Fleet was still being refit, and orbital assets were, regretably, unavailable. Oh the bloodshed that could have been prevented had they been ready! The mission to capture the Robotech Factory Sattelite, a giant space vessel that could produce a star destroyer in a day and Battle Pods by the bushel in only minutes, was a bittersweet success. Despite great odds, the ship was successfully folded into Earth orbit, only to discover that it had been severely damaged by a previous combat action. Our best hope to restore orbital defense proved a staw horse.
In the ice far to the north of the great battle for South America, an old and determined enemy was finding new and better ways to ply his trade as well. Khyron Kravshera, the bloodless, egomaniacal Zentraedi leader, used the sacrifices of his fellow Zentraedi in recent months to consolodate his own position. Rather than joining them in the fight to hold onto the South American jungle, he let them purchase time with blood. Under the covering fire of his brothers in arms, "The Backstabber" slid away like a serpent, abandoning his comrades. His mission in pursuit of glory and self-gratification would ultimately prove to be more ingenious than many care to give credit for, but his methods evoke fitting disdain from all corners.
Allied Zentraedi (many of whom were Micronized to human size after the end of the First Robotech War), welcomed into human society with open arms--jobs, education, housing, and compassion--had long grown restless. Though the riots had stopped, the discontent had not. The "Santini Syndrome" (being a warrior without a war) was a pervasive enemy. The slow but steady escalation of the fighting in South America began to awaken dormant hostility in our allies. Overnight beds were emptied, houses abandoned, as these Zentraedi warriors began a long trek southward, toward their genetic calling. Fighting for a cause was not important. Fighting itself was all that mattered.
Khryon, alerted to the discontent, put out feelers to all Micronized Zentraedi who could be reached. "Bring them to me and I will restore them to their original sizes so that they may stand tall and proud once more." It was a clarion call, answered to by thousands, and set the stage for SDF-1's final, epic battle.
These were the thoughts that crossed my mind often. I felt hopelessly out of touch as I started the engine of the brand new Buick and wheeled onto the roadway once more. A sense of relief permeated my being. No more long stretches away from my family, no more combat missions against long oddss and empty racks in the barracks... I knew my career in the military had met its end, and I felt a profound and inner peace for the first time in a long while.
Still wearing my civlian clothing, I made my way to the Aviation Medical Division office and asked the secretary if anything with my name on it happened to be lurking in the vicinity. She was youthful brunette, barely a day over twenty, with long eyelashes that accented flashing green eyes. High cheekbones and a model's figure were more than enough to place her completly out of my league... What a shame.
As she leaned over and fished through stack of papers I subconsciously stood on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse down her shirt. She looked up at me quicker than I expected and I found myself turning bright red with embarrassment. This sexual fixation was bewildering, and I chastised myself silently. Get a grip, man!
With an annoyed look she handed me two separate envelopes. One was from the Medical Review Board and the other from the Director of Assignments. Feelings of shame vanished as trembling hands clawed at the envelope. My heart began to beat rapidly in my chest as I ripped open the first letter. There was still hope, and as my pulse quickened I read the letter.
The last line of the third paragraph was all I needed to see.
LCDR Framton's physical limitations are demonstrably outside the parameters described in NAM-95-451 Physical Standards for Naval Aviators. The panel must therefore deny the applicant's request for an exemption to NAM-95-451 on the grounds that said waiver would not only unduly jeopardize LCDR Framton's physical safety, but would clearly fail to prevent degraded performance of the airman in a combat environment.
I crushed the letter into a ball and dropped it in the wastebasket beside the receptionist's desk, spun on my heel and walked out. It was over. In spite of all the hard work, blood, sweat, tears, and personal sacrifices, my flying career had come to its anti-climactic end.
The second letter was my reassignment to the staff of Rear Admiral Ken Hughes at the RDF's version of the Pentagon, "The Palace," based outside Washington, D.C.. Though New Macross had served as the RDF's Headquarters immediately following the last great battle of the First Robotech War, the power of the purse necessitated that it be moved back to its original location. Though concentration of the command structure in one place was tactically vapid, a new central command center was built at tremendous expense, and New Macross' influence in the politics of the UNDF waned considerably.
I was assigned as "Director of Research for Normal Deployment Forces" (I know how you feel--I don't have any idea what it means either!), and would spend my final six months in a uniform as a glorified clerk. Shuffling papers and filing reports that nobody would even bother reading was worse than death. Having lost my flight qualification due to my medical condition I would still wear my wings but would not be allowed to fly so much as a basic trainer! What a miserable existence!
With disgust in my soul, I packed my bags and marched out of my temporary quarters, heaving my bags into the trunk of the blue Buick. Through the gates of the base, I turned east into the mid-morning sun. The familiar landscape from San Antonio to Houston rolled past in a flash. The road was all but devoid of traffic, and I paid little mind to the speed limit on the open highway. My drive would take twenty-four hours at this rate going straight through without stopping. Driving any slower than eighty-five was not appealing.
I quickly dialed Kristy up on the phone and filled her in on my siutation, taking the time to work on convincing her to leave New Macross. I missed my children, and I knew that moving them to D.C., only to move again in a few short months would be unfair. Flying jobs at the major aircraft manufacturers were scarce. Consultant jobs required more diplomacy than I posessed, and my status as a "war hero" was not enough to overcome my hot temper. My future, if indeed there was to be one, rested in my ability to educate myself. I had already decided to go to school and get a degree or two, then see what the world had to offer. If I could convince Kristy to move along with me, life would be great. I could help her when Josh was away and she could help me with the girls. It would be an ideal life, and Josh had already given his approval.
It was a tough sell, but I secured a tentative agreement with Harriska on the subject. I would get settled in at my new quarters in D.C. then pay a visit to New Macross for the remainder of my leave, where Kristy and I would work up more details. With joy in my heart, I placed the phone down in the seat beside me and lost myself in thoughts about the future.
The drive through Louisiana, Mississippii, Georgia, and Alabama was depressing, to say the least. Though Texas had taken its lumps in Dolza's rain of fire, this part of the country was completely devastated. The swamps and forests had been burned to the ground. Eradicated. The place looked like Mars. Desolate. Abandoned. Here and there an oasis of civilization would emerge from the wasteland, feebly trying to take back the ground it had lost. Not even darkness and rain could hide the scars, and a part of me wept for all those who had died on that terrible day.
Along the way I stopped at various outposts for rest. The highways in this part of the country were dangerous places to be, especially after darkness. Bandits--Zentraedi and human alike--roamed the countryside, looking for hapless victims to rob, rape, torture, and murder. To go anywhere without a handgun or rifle was utterly stupid, though many did--and paid for it with their blood.
Finally, after two days, I reached my destination. I cannot begin to describe the shock of seeing the nation's capital. It was right out of the postcards and pictures I had seen as a youth. Nothing had changed. The Iwo Jima Memorial and the Washington Monument stood as proudly now as they had before Dolza's attack, even though they had been utterly destroyed. Clearly a great deal of money had been spent to bring the city back to life. Considering the misery and suffering so evident elsewhere, such expenditures seemed a great waste of resources, and I found myself angry at the state of affairs here.
I was provided housing at one of the lavish hotels a few minutes from the White House. The Palace, a beautiful, spired building of marble and glass that towered over everything around it, was only a few blocks from the hotel. It was here that decisions involving billions of dollars and hundred of thousands of lives took place, and I would have a small hand in the goings on, at least for a short while.
With haste, I stashed my things in the hotel and made my way to the Naval Air Station.
My time at home was bittersweet. My family was happy to see me, as was I to see them, but the girls, especially Casey, seemed extremely reserved. One could hardly blame either of them for their reticence. After all, in the previous three years I had spent less than as many months as a part of their lives.
I contemplated this reality over several stiff glasses of Rum and Diet Coke, seated comfortably in front of my father's stone fireplace, when the kids had been sent up to bed for the evening. Men are providers. We put the food on the table and the roof overhead. We do it to the exclusion of all else. It is a tragic, irreversible mistake.
My dad noticed my somber mood and dragged me over to the bar, pouring a glass of Rum and Diet that was far more Rum than Diet. "Don't you think it's time you learned to drink Scotch?" he queried.
"I hate that stuff, you know that."
"You never learned to drink it right. You don't chug it, you just wet your tongue with it. Swill it around. Go...slow..."
I did as instructed. Amazingly, the stuff didn't taste so bad after all. No "bitter beer face" contortions accompanied the Scotch's journey to my stomach, only a warm feeling inside.
As the hours passed, one glass became six or seven--maybe ten--and a box of cigars was produced.
"You gotta' be kidding me, Dad."
He motioned with his glass, "You can't drink Scotch without smokin' a Cigar, son. It's against protocol."
So there we were, beside the small backyard swimming pool, sipping Scotch and pulling on cigars. I can truly say it was in keeping with dad's habit--at least since I turned twenty-one--of getting me smashed when I was too wound up about things. "By gawd I'll find a way to get you to relax if you don't do it on your own," was his common refrain under those circumstances.
In time, I was feeling nothing but giddiness, and our conversation turned much deeper. We talked about death and dying, family and duty, all the things that seem so important when one takes the time to consider them. In the end, we managed to tell the other that we loved him without drowning in the hot tub.
When we were both so dizzy we could barely stand, I decided to clamber out of the hot tub and get another drink. In the dim light I spied a dark, slender object, coiled menacingly near the steps.
Recalling one of his stories about just such a scenario, I bolted upright with fear. "Oh shit! Dad it's a fucking rattle snake!"
He peered over his glass, trying to force his fifity-something year old eyes to focus. "By gawd I think it is."
"Oh shit!! What the hell are we gonna' do?" I felt so hopelessly ridiculous. Here we were, two fully grown men, trapped in a hot tub by a giant rattlesnake.
We were being loud and obnoxious and my mom came out and chided us. "What the hell are you two doing? It's three o'clock in the damned morning and I have to get my sleep!"
"Don't come out here! There's a fucking rattle snake right there!"
Unphased, my mother walked over and grabbed it with her bare hands.
"NO!" we both hollered in unison.
She looked at us with a disgusted look on her face and shook the snake around. It jingled merrily like a bunch of sleigh bells. "Your belt, you mean?"
I felt like a complete ass as she tossed it over on a lawn chair. I had removed it prior to diving into the hot tub and in my drunken stupor, had completely forgotten!
"Me thinks we've had enough, son," my dad said.
So with wobbly legs, I crawled out of the tub, went in the house, and to my bed upstairs. The celing spun crazily about me until I passed out, not caring about anything for the first time in awhile.
I awoke the next morning with an ear-splitting headache. Dizzy, ill, my mouth dry and stomach queasy, I staggered out of bed and into the shower. The look on mom's face as I waddled into the kitchen could have melted ice. She slammed a plate of bacon and eggs on the bar near the sink without a word. I wondered how well my dad was doing, being twice my age.
He appeared looking haggard and worn, about twenty minutes later. I could tell he felt at least as bad as I. Putting on a good face--the best we could manage at least--we tried to put on an air that nothing was awry. Dad had decided to take the kids to the train museum to ride the miniature railroad cars around the park. It involved a minimum of exertion, which was part of the reason he elected to do it, no doubt.
So with heads splitting, we loaded the kids into my dad's roomy large cab truck and headed to the park with the kids. It was a sunny day, a slight breeze causing a rythmic swaying of the trees. Hiding behind dark sunglasses we drove down the newly paved streets of New Macross, and after getting lost and phoning for directions, found the train museum. The miniature train was a big hit for the girls and they squealed with glee as it chuffed around the park. For the first time since I had been home, I noticed the two little ones warming up to me...taking my hand as we walked to the concession stand for ice cream cones. My heart leapt with joy.
On the way home we stopped at a small go-cart track and let the kids drive around under the superivision of the attendants while we huddled in the shade out of the bright sun. From there we proceded to the hamburger joint and let the kids play around on the giant indoor playset.
"Look at me daddy!" they shouted, poking their heads out here and there.
Dad looked at me with a knowing smile, which I returned. We scarfed our food down, let the kids run themselves ragged, and returned home, vowing to never again touch an "adult beverage."
The hangover lasted two days!
As do all good things, my time with the family reached its end, and I begrudgingly boarded a transport back to D.C.. I was anything but thrilled about the circumstances. Just when my kids were beginning to grow used to the idea of having me around, duty ripped us apart. I was tempted to simply refuse returning to my assignment, but spending five years in a military prision was far more unappealing than six months working as a glorified secretary.
Had I known what would happen only four days after my departure, I would have defied those orders, and saved myself more heartache and misery than any man has ever known.
Chapter 60 -- Last Oohrah
I returned to D.C. in typical fashion--not as the conquering hero, but like a sack of mail wedged into the uncomfortable ass end of a VC-22. Sitting back there for hours at a time was enough to make one crazy, and no amount of effort could shut out the gawdawful whistling of the slipstream around the blocky fuselage.
My first day on the job, 11 August 2013, set the tables for one of the strangest periods of my life. The Commander Naval Operations Joint Operations (COMNOJO), was the famous carrier admiral, Admiral Ramsey "Hermit" Hughes. A cigar chomping, foul mouthed, gray-haired Naval Aviator, his exploits from the Persian Gulf War of 1990 through the Global War in the latter part of that decade were legendary, and his subordinates swore by his name. Hermit was a crusty old seadog who did not suffer fools lightly, and this caused a great deal of misery for our boss, Captain Way. A spindly, condescending, desk-bound lard ass, whose only real goal in life was to survive without making waves long enough to earn a star, Way was gutless sod.
The horrendous losses suffered by naval squadrons deployed in the South American Campaign resulted in an emergency directive to draft a proposal to rectify the situation. Put simply, we were tasked with determining a way to dramatically reduce losses and increase the sortie rates of the air units flying combat there. A recent string of aggressive attacks on our carriers had resulted in a severe degradation of an already poor operation.
Carriers are, by nature, power projection tools of limited effectiveness. Although they can provide air assets to every point on the globe, their impact diminishes significantly over time. Pilot fatigue, maintenance, weather, sortie rates, and supply issues become more pronounced as time goes by. There is only so much space on a ship and only so many missions that can effectively be flown as a result. As it stood, our ships had been engaged for more than a year in this brutal, World War I-esque struggle over real estate of dubious value. A bottomless pit of men and metal had emerged, all to no avail. Our enemy had in fact become strengthened by our attacks, as these provoked a rapid force consolidation. The very thing we fought to stop had only accelerated due to our efforts. Complex defense networks had sprung up over time resulting in huge losses to the Southern Cross Expeditionary Force. In fact, the entire campaign teetered on the verge of collapse.
Admiral Hughes wanted an immediate solution to the problem of carrier vulnerability and sortie rates. Tasked by Captain Way with this duty, I culled together the group of men assigned to the staff to discuss the situation. One of my cohorts was a forty-something U.S. Navy Commander named Jim Rowlands. With a snowman-like figure and a boyish laugh, Jim was a shoot from the hip kind of guy. A former Naval Flight Officer and navigator instructor on the P-3 "Orion" anti-submarine warfare aircraft, he had only about three months left until retirement. Though talented and intelligent, his characteristic bluntness had probably shortened a promising career. Higher-ups do not like to be told they are wrong, but Jim reveled in doing so.
The obvious solution to the carrier problem was to remove the carrier from the equation. Captain Way was completely flabbergasted by the suggestion. Yet, try as we may, we could find no alternative. Every problem cited had a single common denominator, and that was the ship itself. It seemed that Naval Air had met its true limit.
The obvious solution to the carrier problem was to remove the carrier from the equation. Captain Way was completely flabbergasted by the suggestion. Yet, try as we may, we could find no alternative. Every problem cited had a single common denominator, and that was the ship itself. It seemed that Naval Air had met its true limit.
"Get rid of the carriers? Get rid of the carriers?! Have you lost your minds? Get rid of the carriers?! Why have a navy at all?!"
We attempted to explain our position but he would have none of it and dismissed our suggestions as folly.
"Well, sir, with respect, it seems we can't do it all," I noted.
His face reddened. "What pray tell do you propose we do about it then?!"
"Well, sir," I stammered, taken aback by his anger, "we could try forward bases."
"Too easy to overrun. Next."
"Island bases off the coast, sir."
"Dispersals in the jungle. We have VTOLs, Captain."
"Too hard to coordinate so many units."
I squared my shoulders and stared at my superior doing my utmost to contain the anger beginning to boil up inside. "The we lose our ships, sir. It's quite simple. If we continue the way we're going we'll have no naval air assets left."
He stood from his desk and punched it from above, then leaned on his clenched fists and jutted his jaw forward. "Keep your cockamamie ideas to yourself, mister. These proposals are unacceptable and you will come up with something else by the end of business today. Getting rid of carrier assets is not a viable solution. We have a progress meeting with the Admiral first thing in the morning and I want to give him something of substance!"
I stood there in silence for what seemed an hour before he concluded our conversation with a terse "Dismissed!"
Turning on my heel, I wondered why I even bothered any more.
That night at the Officer's Club, as I knocked back a Rum and Diet, bad news whisked its way around the bar. One of our carriers had been sunk where it operated, some two hundred miles from the coastal city of Pôrto Alegre, Brazil. The attack was swift, relentless, suicidal, and ultimately successful. Though, survivors were being plucked out of the water losses were expected to be catastrophic. The timeliness of our assignment was chilling even to the least observant among us as my words echoed in my head. Then we lose our carriers, sir. I slept little that night. A lot of good people were dead, and heads were going to roll in the morning.
Admiral Hughes arrived promptly at 0900, his cigar clenched firmly in his teeth (no one had the temerity to inform him that it was against the rules). Captain Way and the rest of us stood as the Admiral walked through the door, ignoring his dismissive wave to stay seated.
"What have you got for me?"
Captain Way began a long-winded presentation about increasing sortie rates by increasing the number of pilots through cooperation with other services and other details that escape my memory. In effect, all of it was bogus, and the Admiral saw right through it.
"What do you think, Commander?" he asked, stabbing his cigar in the direction of Jim Rowlands.
Jim wasted no time pouncing on this one. "I think it's...a bandage on a severed artery...sir."
The Admiral leaned against a desk and motioned for Jim to go on.
"Well, sir, there is only so much deck space in this Navy. Building new carriers takes too long and bringing in pilots from other services alone won't do the job. They don't have the training to fly off a deck. By the time they do, even if we train 'em, they still won't have any more carriers to fly from, and probably less," Jim was referencing the previous day's loss. "It's a giant traffic jam and when they're trying to blast your ship out of the water and you hide...well, you can't launch Valks from under water, sir."
"Your proposal, Commander..."
"Increase land bases and forward deployed forces. Also increase the use of conventional airplanes where able. It would be better to put the Valkyrie squadrons in the jungle to double as infantry and deploy conventional jet aircraft from the ships."
"We can't do that," Way's face reddened. "Where are we going to base these planes?"
Jim stood and pulled a map down from the wall near the dry erase board behind the Admiral. "There...there...and there," he said, noting the numerous islands that dotted the northern and eastern coasts of the South American continent. "We can also use lots of forward bases for our VTOL assets. The battle lines are fluid, but stable, and the VTOL assets are mobile enough to move on short notice when the situation changes. Move the Valk assets forward and use the carriers and distant island bases for conventional warplanes. Bring in Air Force and Marine assets. Use more international ground troops. Get serious about this war and take the onus off the Navy's back. This isn't Horatio Nelson vs. Napoleon. We cannot do this without grunts on the ground."
The Admiral nodded approvingly. "You've answered many of my questions before I got the chance to ask 'em, son. I can't say it's the most original plan, but nothing else seems doable. I damned sure can't lose any more carriers like we did yesterday. Gawdamned alien bastards!" He banged a fist on the desk. "I need some people on the ground down there right away to tell me what it's about. Captain, get some men to Brazil and put this thing into motion. I want COMAIRLANT and General Patrick [the Air Force Chief Liason] on a conference call as soon as you can arrange it. Let's get this ball rolling, now." Admiral Hughes leapt to his feet then ambled out of the office, stopping long enough to wink at Jim. "Good work, son. Finally someone who can simply tell me what I need to know and not fill me with some nonsensical grabastic political bullshit."
"Thank you, sir."
Way's face darkened.
"Thank you, sir."
We all began to smile but Way put an end to any celebration. "Framton, Rowlands. Get your asses down to the Air Station and down to Sao Paulo ASAP. It's your fantasy project. You see to it."
I couldn't believe my ears. I had barely arranged my things in the hotel and now I was being sent to that gawdamned jungle hellhole once more. Way's glee at my discomfort was obvious. I'll show you sons'a'bitches never to undermine me!
All I could do was groan. "Way to go, Jimbo. Two months to retirement and you can't keep your damned mouth shut!" I chided him as I stood to leave.
"Hey, at least we're still alive."
I marched out of the room and mumbled over my shoulder, "Yeah, but for how long?"
In the darkness of another dreary, drizzly night, our transport awaited. A haggard VC-33 stood forlornly on the ramp awaiting our arrival. Splashing through pools of cold rainwater, I trudged up the ramp despite protesting knees and into the back of the old transport. The swelter of the jungle had not faded from my memory, and beads of sweat poked their way through my skin. Like a Pavlov's dogs, it was a trained response. In times like this one often asks, "Why me?" It seemed an utterly pointless question.
In time the jet departed, bouncing through turbulence and rain as it headed south. I could not imagine the fate that awaited me, nor the horrible events unfolding a thousand miles to the west. A dear friend was dying in the snow and I was powerless to do anything to stop it.
The jolt of the main wheels thumping onto the ground roused me from my slumber. My stomach felt queasy and I wanted to vomit. The steamy jungle air sucked the life out of me as the cargo ramp opened and a squad of Marines charged up the ramp, rifles at the ready. I was taken aback by their presence and it was only after their squad leader explained it that I realized why they were there.
"Hello, sir. I'm Corporal Garcia. We're here to escort you to your quarters. There are snipers and sappers all over the place, sir. Until you get your feet wet, you are best not left unescorted."
A chill came over me as he spoke. I looked at Jim and cursed. "You and your gawdamned big mouth! We're gonna' get our asses fragged!"
All my friend could do was shrug and smile. He didn't seem the least be rattled by any of it, and I wondered how he could remain so calm.
We slung our gear over our shoulders and followed the Marines out the cargo door, sloshing through the mud and water in that energy-draining humidity. In the dim light we could hear sporadic gunfire and make out figures running all over. Our foothold on this place seemed tenuous at best.
"Corporal!" I called out to the Marine squad leader. "What's the situation down here? We were under the impression this was a secure area."
The Marine pointed to the two men beside him and motioned them ahead, then eased over to my side as we continued at a brisk trot. "The Zents made a massive push to the southeast about three hours ago, sir. They broke through our lines in several places. We only managed to stop them just now, but they are bringing in reinforcements. We will not be able to hold them for long. They're using Micronized infantry in large numbers, augmented with armor and full-size troops," he shook his head. "It looks bad. They've gotten a foothold in the city to the west of us and there is no way to drive them out. We don't have the manpower. We're trying to evacuate civilians as best we can, but at this stage we may be lucky to get ourselves out."
I groaned. "This is a hell of a way to end my tour."
The Marine laughed. "Don't feel bad, sir. I'm just starting mine. Two kids and a wife at home. Just ain't fair, sir. Join the Marines, see the world, sir. Last to know, first to go...all that...stuff. We'll let 'em know we were here, any way, sir."
The fierce determination in his eyes told me all I needed to know. These Marines would die to the man if need be, no questions asked, no sympathy required. I admired their guts. They had in ample supply what I desperately lacked.
We jogged through the mud and darkness to a collection of tents scattered throughout the jungle. The whine of jet engines and the sporadic bursts of gunfire echoed around us as the Marines led the way. "These are you quarters, sirs," the Marine Corporal stated as he came to a stop in front of one of them. "If you would, please stow your gear and come with me to the Command Center."
We did as instructed and followed the lanky Marine with the determined eyes back into the darkness. By the time we arrived at our destination I was not only in great pain from a protesting knee, but in a state of complete confusion. I had no idea where I was nor where I had been.
A tall Navy Captain in a dirty flight suit thanked the Marines for bringing us over, then dismissed them. Before I could thank our escorts, they were gone. All eight would be dead by morning, but I had no way of knowing it at the time.
"Welcome to hell, gentlemen. I'm Captain Rivers. This is my XO, Commander Bowen." We all shook hands in the dimly lit room. Faces were hard to make out in the darkened Command Center, and I found myself thankful for that. If people were to die, it was best they remained faceless.
"We are getting our asses kicked. We've poked a hornet nest with a stick and they are mad as hell." He moved over to a map of the region hanging on the tent wall behind him. "We currently hold a line stretching from seventy miles southwest of Pôrto Alegre almost due north to the Rio Paraná along the river back east past Sao Paulo to Belo Horizonte to Vitoria. A second front stretches from the port city of Sâo Luís down toward Salvador. They have split us in half. Brazilia is completely wiped out."
Jim asked the question we both wanted to know, "What the hell happened? I thought we were on the verge of wearing them down."
"We were," Commander Bowen interjected. "We managed to destroy the reactors on most of the ships crashed around here. That, however, has proven to be the wrong strategy."
Jim and I raised our eyebrows at the same moment, waiting for the pay off.
The Commander could see our expressions and cut to the chase. "Simple, really. Destroying the reactors keeps them from leaving the planet, and it shuts off their ECS [Environmental Control System] equipment. It does nothing to stop their manpower. Once we started knocking out their ships, they caught on. They made us pay for knocking out those reactors. They manned the defense installations with minimal crew and evacuated everyone and everything else. They wore down our forces while they hid in the jungle. We thought they'd die off. You know, starve. They adapted quite handily."
Captain Rivers broke in. "They had help from the locals and from Zentraedi that integrated into the society down here. They have changed from a bloated, inefficient military machine into a rapid reaction guerilla force. They are also highly coordinated and cohesive, and they are not afraid to die."
"They are without fear," Bowen noted. "And one full-sized Zent can absorb a hell of a lot of small arms fire before he goes down. We simply don't have the assets to do this job. All the air support got used up taking down those gawdamned reactors."
"Yeah, and though we got the reactors, we didn't get all the Protoculture. They hoarded it. Early on it was worth it, but we've been using more than we're salvaging for a long time now," Rivers noted. "You recall your Economics classes... 'Diminishing Marginal Return on Investment' I think it is called. We thought they were tough slogging through a quagmire, you should see them when it's dry."
"So what do you want from us?" Jim asked.
Rivers looked me squarely in the eye, "Can you fly one of these things?" he asked, pointing a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the dispersal area.
I was momentarily taken aback at his question. Fly? He wants me to fly? "Uh, yeah...sure. It's been awhile, but, yeah, I can do it."
"Good," the Captain stated without emotion. "I have to keep these airplanes in the air and my pilots are tired. If I can put you in one, then maybe someone else can catch a nap for a couple of hours. As for you, Commander," he said, glancing at Jim. "I could sure use your expertise in Command and Control. We've lost a lot of people and I need help directing this holding action. We need to come up with a plan, fast." Jim and I nodded at one another then at the Captain.
"Terrific. Let's get to work!"
The plan wasn't perfect. It wasn't even very original. But it was hoped that it would work. In short, the idea was much like that of a martial artist--use your opponent's weight against him. The Zentraedi had a great deal of unchecked inertia. By allowing a breakthrough, we hoped to be able to encircle them and cut off their supply lines. Allowing a push all the way to the sea if need be would leave them with no place to go. Our only hope was they would not become wise to our plans.
I was attached to a U.S. Marine Fighter Squadron, VMF-232 "The Thunderbolts," commanded by Major Joel "Molokai" Hagenbrock, a former Aggressor Instructor and seasoned veteran fighter pilot. We would act more as infantry than air support, and as a result, I was somewhat out of my element. But the requirement to fight again was more than enough to awaken dulled instincts.
Joel welcomed me with a very firm handshake, and I was immediately impressed by the stocky, scowling, completely bald Marine ace. In his trademark gruff voice he ran me quickly up to speed on the differences between the Marine version of the Valk and the models I had flown. Because of its grunt status, the Marine Valks had more armor plating in vital areas, particularly around the engines and cockpit. As a result, they were a bit less spirited in terms of maneuverability, but the added protection would come in handy in a close range slugging match. Other changes included the Block 30 upgrades: a simplified cockpit layout, an updated ACS that expanded the flight envelope, and three different targeting modes.
The Marine pilots gathered in a huddle around the nose of the CO's Guardian. He laid out the plan of action for the rest of the night. "Darkness is our friend as well as our enemy. We'll just have to hide in the dark and cap anything that comes our way. Hold your line as long as you can, then pull back as you need to. We'll fall back as necessary in pairs. One guy cover the other as he retreats...leapfrog backward until you can disengage. Do not take any undue risks, folks. If you are in undue jeopardy, pull back."
The group of Jarheads nodded.
"Okay. Jake, I'll go with you. Kibbles, you go with Feet."
"Aye, sir," the Squadron Executive Officer acknowledged in the darkness.
"Let's do it. Oohrah!!"
"Oohrah!!" the squadron replied as one--my voice self-consciously among theirs--in that guttural chant all Marines seem to spew regularly, with or without provocation.
I trundled over to the gray nose of my temporary ride and hitched up my anti-G suit, survival gear, and so on. It had been so long since I last squeezed into this getup that it felt uncomfortably tight on my body. The circulation to my legs was certainly affected and I resisted the notion of simply going without it all, even though I probably wouldn't need it.
With assistance from the Marine maintenance team I made my way up the ladder into the cockpit. The flip of a switch brought the airplane to life, teeming with electrical energy as the MFDs came online and the navigation systems stabilized. I noticed that the cockpit, though familiar, had changed just enough to add to my discomfort as several buttons and displays had been moved.
Though the cockpit redesign was disconcerting at first, the changes to the targeting system were even more dramatic. In previous software versions the targeting computer could be toggled between a manual and an auto mode. In the auto mode a pilot could set the targeting system to automatically acquire and select enemy targets based on criteria (speed, distance, angle-off, etc.). The pilot had the option to cycle to the next target or group of targets in the priority list through a button on the thrust lever (fighter mode) or left stick (Battloid). The new layout eliminated the Battloid-only sticks and moved their functions to the standard stick and thrust levers, thereby eliminating the need for hand switching in combat.
An all-aspect helmet-mounted sight was also new to the latest version of the Valk. It had the advantage of allowing a pilot to look anywhere in the sky and designate a target. No longer did a Valk driver have to have the enemy ahead of his "three-nine line" to shoot. If you could see a bandit you could shoot him, simple as pie.
The "High Threat Mode" was a new feature that used artificial intelligence to designate targets automatically based on their lethality to the Valk. It was a system with much potential but lacking refinement. The manual mode from previous systems was still present and was essentially unchanged. Clearly the helmet-mounted sight held the most promise.
Rusty nerve impulses struggled to do what they must as I moved the sticks and pedals to get the Guardian into motion. With a touch of the thrust levers I brought the Valk to a hover and followed my leader through the dark night toward our area of operations. Fires and explosions raged in the distance as the horizon took on a dull orange glow.
It took little time for us to hover over to the battle area. The dark and winding jungle road fanned out into the embattled city where fires glowed brightly in the distance. Our ten-man Valkyrie squad spread and melted into the shadows that flickered in the firelight. Explosions rocked the ground and caused my heart to leap at irregular intervals. The destruction and devastation wrought upon this blacked cityscape made me wonder what we were fighting for. Nobody could possibly inhabit this place if the fighting stopped that instant any way.
Following Molokai's lead I reconfigured into Battloid mode and marched through the streets toward our battle line. Columns of civilian refugees, soldiers, equipment, and Valkyries, many wearing the scars of a pitched battle, streamed past us toward the rear area, presumably to refuel, rearm, or escape. It was disconcerting to note that the number leaving the front exceeded those going in to replace them. The weary looks on the faces of the people moving past provided the grim assurance we would not hold our line long.
The Zentraedi were making a heavy push from the mountain passes to our north. Our forces there were literally fighting an uphill battle. Sheer weight and momentum would crush us handily unless something dramatic took place, but we stood our ground for as long as possible in the hope that reinforcements or Divine intervention would turn the tide.
As we moved through the shadows a series of loud explosions shook the earth to my right. Half a city block fell in the shock wave. Gunpods blazed away on all sides with their buzz saw reports all but drowned out by the fusillade raining down upon us. We had reached the new front line.
I moved my Battloid across the street from Molokai's. I would fire at anything from his left ten o'clock position to my twelve. He would cover everything from my right two o'clock to his twelve. I waited for a blast to take us out as the explosions marched closer. The sound of my pulse slammed into my ear drums at a lightning pace as tracer fire lit up the street on which we stood. With a short glance and three rapid squeezes on the trigger I opened fire. A trio of full-sized Zentraedi soldiers collapsed, one after the other, in a pile of blood and body parts under my gunfire. A fourth alien burst through the intersection, rifle blazing away. A snarling, almost rabid look was etched on his face as he charged at our position and I cut him down. Molokai did the same to my right. A fifth and sixth Zentraedi continued the push where their comrades fell. I took them out as well before the building by which I stood was taken down around me.
I felt my Valkyrie stagger and moved the pedals and sticks to keep her upright. I was out in the open, dead center in the middle of the street. The hounds of hell have no fury like that sent my way at that instant. Cannon fire ripped through the shoulder of my Battloid pulling it further off balance. Molokai stepped out from his cover and unleashed a withering barrage in the direction of the alien soldiers, thwarting their attempt to mow me down. In desperation I threw everything "into the corner" and in a half stumble, dove across the street. We ducked around the corner of the building where Molokai was standing and fired outboard. In the confusion I couldn't tell where the frontline began and the rear ended, but it was clear we were moments from being overrun.
Retreat orders and cries for help were blaring over the airwaves as we pulled back in pairs, two blocks at a time. After only twelve minutes of fighting our ammunition was running low so Molokai dispatched two of his Marines to retrieve additional gunpods and put out a direct call for more reinforcements.
Shoot. Run. Cover. Shoot. Run. Cover. It didn't seem to matter. For every Zentraedi we killed three more took his place, each emboldened by the demise of his predecessor.
"It's getting hot here," Molokai called out. "We're going to have to pull back faster."
"Ninety-nine Thunder, Thunder One. Fall back now! Four blocks, standard cover! Move out!" Molokai ordered over the radio.
A series of radio clicks filled the airwaves, a signal that the skipper's retreat order had been received by the Marines in the field.
We pulled back over large chunks of real estate. As we did, the intensity of the enemy fire diminished. We were dangerously low on ammunition and the warnings flashing on my instrument panel did not bode well for the future of my Valkyrie. I was set to say a prayer of thanks for my salvation when the radio erupted with a call from one of the Marines in the squadron.
"Molokai, Roads and Kojak just got cut off! Three blocks due east of your position! Can you assist?"
Two of the Marines in the Team had their escape path blocked by Zentraedi troops. A quick glance at the MFD showed where they were located. I felt fear well up inside me once again as I followed Molokai back into the hell storm we had just escaped.
"Thunderbolt Squadron form on me! Punch in and get those men out fast!"
Defying the sector retreat order that was blaring over the air, the squadron coalesced in short order and with guns blazing, assaulted the alien position with a fury unseen by my eyes. I joined them with carefully aimed, though exceedingly rapid bursts of fire at anything that moved. Brrrrrp! Brrrrrp! Brrrrrp! Brrrrrp! The buzz saw report of my GU-11 echoed through the smoky night air as a trio of Zentraedi fell to the ground. We charged forward to within eyesight of our Marine comrades only to be met by a veritable fusillade of cannon and missile fire.
A large explosion toppled three of my squadron mates and caused our advance to grind to a halt. We fought to free the encircled Marines but were driven back at the cost of two more. In the end, the men we fought to save died, too. Outflanked and stormed by Zentraedi foot soldiers, they had no chance from the get go. With no way out, the gallant pair wielded their GU-11s as clubs and stood their ground valiantly, dying in silence. Staggering away from the explosions and gunfire--none of us had a choice--I prayed that I would have their dignity when my turn came.
A pair of Light Artillery Regults opened fire on our position and I returned the favor, sending a brace of Stilettos at them as a missile slammed into the apartment building just above my Battloid's head turret. Rubble rained down upon me and the dust that flew up masked our view toward the front. Our foe simply could not be stopped and a general retreat order was sounded. The city would be theirs. Our only chance was to recede into the jungle and hope that terrain would slow them more than we could.
A squad of Marine infantry armed with bazookas and RPGs made a quick attack near our position allowing us just enough time to pull back. It seemed almost cowardly to retreat ahead of a non-mechanized unit, but we had no choice. Our Valkyries simply could not be replaced and the Marine grunts had more ordnance at their disposal than we. The Leathernecks would fire at everything that moved then slither into the rubble to make their way out of town.
We screamed outbound, stopping only long enough to scoop up a refugee or soldier on our way. The jungle invited us into its leafy embrace. Six of my squad's Marines lay dead in their Valkyries, gobbled up by the relentless push of our Zentraedi enemy. Six more families were left now without a husband, without a father, without a son. War was total madness.
Arriving at the rendezvous point I secured my aircraft as quickly as I could and sat there for a long moment contemplating the events of the previous two hours. Jim was standing at the boarding ladder as I clambered out of the damaged Valkyrie with sweat stinging my eyes.
"This is for you," he said, handing me an intelligence summary.
Half a world away, in the snow and ice of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the charred remains of Joshua Kaufman's VF-1 lay smashed and smoking. The hurt and anger of this realization exceeded anything I could have imagined and I threw my helmet to the ground in frustration.
We were losing. Demolished cities and hundreds of thousands of dead civilians to add to the billions already killed. Bill. James. Jacien. Waylan. Now, Joshua. They, too, were gone. Erased forever.
Jason W. Smith
Copyright © 1995 by Jason W. Smith
(Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual events, persons, etc. is coincidental--even if intentionally so! --June 1995)
Based on characters and situations from
Robotech, © 1985 Harmony Gold, USA, Inc.
Robotech (R) is the property of Harmony Gold. This document is in no way intended to infringe upon their rights. The author has not accepted any remuneration for this work.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
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