Revision Dates: 9 September 2000 / 18 July 2001 / 15 January 2002
Part Three: Taxi & Runup
Chapter Thirteen - The Streak Eagles
I did my best to untangle myself from Rebeckah's arms without waking her. The clock read 0600. I had to report to my squadron commander's quarters by 0700 and I still had a million things to do. I succeeded in getting dressed without disturbing my new fiancÚ, and I said goodbye to her with a gentle kiss on the forehead.
After a short cab ride to my barracks, I checked in with the duty officer, and quickly made my way to my quarters. All the members of ATS-2 had been assigned to fighter units aboard the SDF-1, Prometheus, and Daedelus, and we had to move into the respective quarters of our new squadrons as quickly as possible. I looked at my watch and saw that it was now 0630. I had plenty of time, but Waylan was nowhere in sight. I began to wonder if he would make it and was about to pack his belongings when he burst through the door.
"Damned fucking alarm clock!" he hissed.
"Dude, what happened?" I asked.
"My alarm clock didn't go off. I'm lucky I woke up! I just sensed I had to be somewhere, bolted out of bed, and bammo! It's 0620. Christ. I haven't even showered," he said, stripping his clothes off.
"I'll get your gear. Better move it."
I began collecting his things as quickly as I could. I pulled open one of his drawers and noticed a picture of a beautiful, blonde-headed child, probably no older than two. Figuring the photo was of his baby sister I carefully placed it in his duffel bag. Waylan was out of the shower within three minutes, dressed within five, and after a quick glance around the room, we were out the door. We linked up with a few other members of the squadron and made our way to the SDO.
As we walked down the Juniper-lined sidewalk, I looked at the platoons of cadets on their morning run and allowed myself a much-deserved smile of satisfaction--I had come a long way since those difficult early days.
We checked out with the duty officer and made our way to the Prometheus shuttle bus. Josh, Waylan, Max, and a few others were there, and as we climbed aboard I could hear a familiar voice booming loud and clear through the stale SDF-1 air.
"All right you malcontents let's move it!!!"
I chuckled softly to myself and climbed aboard the bus.
"What a hothead!" Josh commented.
Shouts of "Amen to that!" and "You got that right!" filled the bus as it headed out the gate.
The shuttle bus dropped us off at the off-base housing complex for Prometheus flight crews. My watch read 0655. We checked in and then made our way to our respective quarters where we dumped our gear off. Time was short and we didn't have enough to unpack. Our squadron commander would have our asses if we were late.
Waylan, Josh and I, along with a few other pilots, headed over to our squadron's barracks and stood quietly in front of our CO's quarters. A sign on the door beneath the squadron emblem of an eagle diving in front of an orange sun read, "Commander, VF-12." My watch read 0700 and I moved to knock on the door.
"Here goes nothin'," I said.
A booming voice with a thick French accent bellowed, "Come in!"
Followed by my companions I entered into a comfortably furnished living room. I glanced quickly around the room but saw no one in sight. I snapped to attention and announced my arrival, "Squadron 2 replacement pilots reporting as ordered, sir."
"Have a seat, gentlemen," came the voice from an adjacent room. I motioned my companions toward one of the plush, scarlet colored couches, and took a seat with Josh on the other.
We waited patiently for our Squadron Commander to enter and when he did, his appearance was completely out of synch with his voice. A handsome and muscle bound black man, First Lieutenant Jason George "Shuba" Carr stood only 5' 3" tall! I found myself wondering if he could even see out of the cockpit of a Valkyrie--with or without a booster seat--much less command a squadron! A Liberian by birth, Lieutenant Carr was, like so many RDF officers, a champion boxer, and also one of the RDF's top fighter aces. On the day of the SDF-1's maiden voyage, Lieutenant Carr was credited with downing twenty enemy fighters during three sorties in the skies over Macross Island. Had he not been wounded and forced to eject over Macross Harbor his toll that day would have been far higher.
"Greetings, gentlemen. Welcome aboard Squadron Twelve. We are 'The Streak Eagles.' I'm First Lieutenant Carr, your Commanding Officer. Your X.O. is Second Lieutenant Leonard Plog. Lieutenant Plog downed the first enemy ship over Macross Island and he's an ace a dozen times over. You can learn a lot from him," Carr said with a nod of his head.
I studied the lanky, thin-faced Plog. Considered the finest pure pilot aboard ship, Lieutenant Plog's precise airmanship and gunnery skills had landed him the call sign "Surgeon."
"You'll get your aircraft assignments later today," Lieutenant Carr continued. "I trust you had no problems with your quarters assignments."
"No, sir. None at all."
"Very good. We do things a little differently around here compared to other squadrons, and our record speaks for itself. We're going to break you into this game slowly. You're a hell of a lot more valuable to us alive than dead, and that is the way I intend for it to be. No one dies here until I give them permission. Understood?"
"Yes, sir!" we answered in unison.
"Very good. If you have any problems, you come see me. This squadron sticks together. We take care of our own. This is not just a squadron, it is a brotherhood, and woe to he who breaks the trust of this squadron."
There was a knock on the door. "Come in!" Carr demanded.
I was greeted by the sight of a bespectacled pilot of medium build and height, with closely cropped black hair. "I've got those plane assignments here, skipper," he said, waving a stack of papers in his hand.
"Excellent. Gentlemen, Lieutenant Plog," Carr said. "Guess we'll scratch those earlier plans and head down to the hangar deck. We'll grab a bite to eat afterwards if anyone needs it. Let's go."
We followed the two Lieutenants out the hatch and down the hallway. Out front were a pair of jeeps and we climbed aboard, three in each. Josh, Waylan, and I rode with Lieutenant Plog, and the three other new pilots--LCPL Jin "Taco" Takamura, a native of Yokohama, Japan and former Marine sniper who left the Corps and joined the RDFN to fly jets; LCPL Dain "Drain-O " Clements, a burly former All-State offensive lineman from Dallas, Texas; and LCPL Geoffrey "Beowulf" Andresen, a lanky classical literature major from Ontario, Canada, who could quote all of Shakespeare's plays from memory--rode with Lieutenant Carr.
We drove down to Prometheus' Hangar Bay Three and the sight that greeted my eyes cannot be described in words. Parked neatly before my eyes were the most beautiful Valk's I had ever seen. Painted a deep midnight blue with sleek black trim, these fighters were the epitome of intimidation!
A trio of VF-1A "Valkyries" in undergo maintenance and rearming on the hangar deck.
"Framton!" Plog called out.
"Aye, sir!" I called out, hopping out of the jeep and making my way to the Veritech with the number "209" painted on its nose.
I was in love. VF-1A-10-SD 10-024911VF-1A-10-SD 10-024911. What a beautiful fighter she was! Ducking under the nose, I stared into the business end of the enormous, triple-barreled, 55mm GU-11 Gatling Cannon mounted on the centerline station just behind the turret-mounted, high-energy laser gun. With a firing rate of over six thousand rounds per minute, the GU-11 was a tremendously powerful weapon. A well-placed half second burst could destroy anything the enemy could send against us, and I felt a momentary surge of confidence overtake me. My pulse quickened as I walked around her, slowly and lustingly running my hands along the cool panels that covered nearly every inch of this seductive and menacing machine. I was truly in love with that airplane.
As I made my way around to the left main gear tire I kicked it with my boot. With a pressure of over 400 lbs. per square inch the tire had about as much give as a piece of iron, and my boot bounced harmlessly off of it. Although it may seem laughable to the uninitiated, this kicking of tires is a traditional ritual of naval aviation. Naval aviators kick the tires of their planes for no reason other than the fact that we've always done it. Perhaps in the old days it had a useful purpose, but today it accomplishes nothing--excepting the occasional broken toe!
I climbed aboard my Veritech and sat in the ejection seat. The feeling I felt while running my hands along the canopy sill was pure ecstasy. From my lofty perch I commanded a view of the hangar bay that was magnificent, and for a fleeting moment I felt like an Egyptian Pharaoh or Roman Caesar. I glanced over at Josh climbing aboard 210 and flashed him an enthusiastic thumbs up. He returned the gesture with an enthusiastic smile and child-like look of wide-eyed amazement.
"Gentlemen! These are your swords!" Lieutenant Carr's voice echoed through the hangar bay. "Take care of them! Learn them! Know them! The degree to which you get to know your machine will determine how long you live! I want you to live a long time! The rest of the morning is yours! I want you to go over every inch of your fighter with your plane captain! Learn every idiosyncrasy! Learn and know every inch of your craft! Your fighters are new and will doubtless have bugs in them! I want you to spend your time searching out these quirks so we can get them taken care of! A dogfight is not the place to discover your weapon selector switch is tits up!" Tits up is an aviator's term for "unserviceable/out of order." "Are there any questions?"
"No, sir!" we answered.
"Very good! I will be in the squadron ready room going over flight assignments with Lieutenant Plog! Carry on!"
The two Lieutenants marched out of the hangar deck and disappeared into a hatch to my left. I glanced back to my right and caught sight of my Plane Captain, LCPL Philo Rorbough.
"Greetings, Corporal, I'm your main man! Lance Corporal Philo Rorbough. Anything wrong with this ship, I'm the man who'll get it fixed for ya'!" he exclaimed with a smile as he ascended the boarding ladder.
"Nice to meet you, Philo. Guess we'll tear into this turkey, huh?"
"You betcha'! I'd suggest we start with the avionics since they like to crap out most often, okay?"
"Fine with me," I said.
Philo jumped off the ladder and scrambled toward the panels along my Veritech's nose. Within thirty seconds he had every panel up front removed and placed neatly behind the Valk's nose gear. For the next two hours we went over the Valk's systems, finding absolutely nothing amiss, and it appeared the engineers had done one hell of a fine job slapping this bird together.
I climbed out of the cockpit and exclaimed with joy, "I can't wait to fly this baby!"
My chance would come sooner than I expected.
After a hurried brunch we assembled in the squadron ready room for Lieutenant Carr's briefing. Josh and I were assigned to Squad One, Fire Team One--"Ogre Team"--commanded by the Operations Officer (S-3), Third Lieutenant (3LT) James "Ogre" Sprabary. Ogre, as the senior of the two Squad Leaders in the squadron, was known as a "Group Leader"--though this term was rarely used because it could be confused with "Air Group Commander." If the situation required it, Sprabary would coordinate the efforts of the twelve fighters that made up non-command element of the squadron.
Of all the people in our squadron, Ogre was by far the most imposing. A giant, barrel-chested man, well over six feet tall and 300 lbs.--the latter of which was directly attributable to his affinity for "adult beverages"--he epitomized the word massive, and with his long pony tail, looked every bit the biker gang member. His rich, booming laugh was infectious, and his wisecracks during briefings would go a long way toward relieving the tension that was inevitable before a combat mission.
The other members of the squadron included: Squad Two, Fire Team Two Leader and Squadron Liaison Officer (S-2), First Sergeant (1SGT) Jeff Tarango; Tarango's wingman, Staff Sergeant (SSGT) Brian Mitchell; Squad Two Squad Leader and Squadron Logistics Officer (S-4), 3LT William "Tank" Sherman; Squad Two, Fire Team Two Leader, the Squadron Safety Officer, Gunnery Sergeant (GYSGT) Damon "Gunny Honky" White; and his wingman, CPL Thomas J. "Notso" Wise. It was with this group of men, most of them barely out of their teens, that I would fly with into combat for the first--and, I hoped, not last--time.
Because of our lack of experience, we newbies would be assigned as part of SDF-1's Barrier Combat Air Patrol (BARCAP). Our mission was to serve as the inner ring of the defense network put up around the SDF-1. Any alien craft that pierced the outer two rings were left for us to stop. As we gained experience we would move to the middle defense ring, and finally, to the outer ring--if we lived that long. This procedure was intended to break us into combat operations in a slow and deliberate manner. Placing us in the primary defense ring would have been a slaughter given our lack of experience.
Lieutenant Carr stood in front of a chart of the SDF-1 with three concentric circles surrounding it. He spent several minutes going over the vagaries of our new fighters and admonished us not to rely on our turret-mounted lasers. Although extremely powerful, they were prone to overheating and he cautioned us to use them intermittently, thereby allowing them to cool down between shots.
Turning toward the chart, he began the official pre-mission briefing. "Today we form part of the 1400 relief for BARCAP Ring Three. We'll be up there for about four hours. I do not anticipate seeing any action, but in the event we do, I expect you to stick to your fire team leader. Do what he says, follow his moves, and I promise you, you'll come out of any engagement with your collective ass intact. Don't try to be a hero out there. You'll have plenty of opportunity for that in the future. Lieutenant Plog has the frequency kneeboard card for you. Be sure to take a look at it. Acceptable Merge Ratio is twelve-to-one gents."
A groan went up from the assembled pilots. We were to do combat even if outnumbered twelve-to-one.
The room was silent.
"Very well. One final note. Watch your fuel. Report to your fire team leader the moment you bingo. I don't want to have to tow anyone home. Understood?"
"All right, let's mount up!"
We rose from our chairs and after grabbing our helmets, made our way to the hangar deck. As we walked to our fighters, I turned to Josh, an incredible sensation of fear and excitement overtaking me, and laughed aloud nervously.
"Here we go!"
"Off to the happy hunting ground!" Josh exclaimed with an ear to ear grin.
I didn't like the sound of the reference and did my best to ignore it. "Break a leg," I said to him, pausing in front of my fighter.
"Hopefully it'll be from one of those oversized alien Nazis we've got to deal with!!" he exclaimed, shaking my hand with a wink. "I'll be with you all the way, partner," he said over his shoulder, flashing a thumbs up as he headed toward his aircraft.
I paused for a moment in front of the cockpit boarding ladder and took a deep breath. A quick glance aft was all the preflight I needed--LCPL Rorbough would have long completed the preflight check, and would spare nothing to ensure my Valkyrie was safe for flight. Heaving myself up the ladder and over the cockpit rim, I sat firmly in the ejection seat, and with Philo's help, fastened and strapped the myriad of belts and harnesses that would secure me to my aircraft. I paid special attention to the shoulder harness--failure to secure it properly could lead to a busted helmet in the event one needed to "slam on the brakes" in a fight.
"Boss, you're all set. Good hunting," he said, slapping my shoulder before disappearing beneath the Valk's nose.
I mumbled a nervous "thank you" before engaging the master switch, and as my fighter came to life, I scanned the area around me. Crewmen were scrambling wildly about the Valkyries in the hangar bay. Lieutenant Carr's team had already started engines and was being directed to the elevator. I engaged the starters one at a time and monitored the engine instruments as the turbines spooled up. Once satisfied with the operation of the engines, I set up all the NAV and COM equipment, then lowered the canopy and pressurized the cockpit.
Philo appeared from beneath my fighter's nose and walked me through the pre-flight checks. At his direction, I moved the stick and rudder pedals in all directions while the ground crew looked my airplane over for hydraulic leaks and insured the flight controls were working correctly. He then placed both hands together and opened them up while keeping his palms touching. This told me to extend the flaps and spoilers, allowing the crew to check again for leaks and proper flight control operation. "Flaps-up" came next, followed by Philo's "Three Down" signal, which told me to lower my airplane's launch bar and tail hook, and open the speed brake and In-Flight Refueling (IFR) Probe. The ground crew again searched for anything amiss as Philo did a quick walk around, consulting the computer aboard my airplane for any unseen anomalies. Satisfied with what he saw, the young Lance Corporal popped up on the left side of my airplane flashing the "Three Up" signal, whereby I raised the launch bar and tail hook, and closed the air brake and IFR probe. With a final glance aft, Philo ordered the plane crew to "break chains," and the steel cables that held my fighter securely to the hangar deck were released. The entire process took only twenty seconds.
I held the brakes by applying pressure to the tops of the rudder pedals with my toes. Jerking my thumbs aft behind my head, I signaled Philo that I was ready for him to pull the chocks which kept my fighter from rolling when parked. The ritualistic pop of my ears to equalize the pressure in my head before closing my faceplate was followed quickly by a call from my team leader.
"Ogre team, check in."
I checked all my displays for any sign of something amiss, then informed Ogre of my status. "Ogre Two is up," I replied.
"Three," came Josh's call.
It should be noted that communications can be a rather tricky business, and one's identifier is based not only on who you are talking to, but also your service branch and the force level at which you are operating. A Carrier Air Group is comprised of all the aircraft aboard a particular ship, the size of which is determined by ship type and mission. Any group of fighters larger than a squad that divides into two separate parts is known by the generic term "wing," and the Air Group is no exception. For example, when the Air Group splits into two units, one wing is lead by the Air Group Commander himself, the other by the Air Group Executive Officer.
Since the Prometheus was now attached to the SDF-1 we effectively had two Air Groups operating aboard the same ship. A new billet, Senior Commander Air Group ("SCAG"), was created for the overall commander of the planes aboard SDF-1 and Prometheus. Since he was the highest ranking pilot aboard ship, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Roy Fokker--whom we affectionately referred to as "Super CAG"--took the position. A veteran of the Global War, and its highest scoring ace, Fokker had fifty squadrons under his command--fifteen from Prometheus, and thirty-five from SDF-1--from three different service branches: RDF Spacy, RDF Navy, and RDF Marines (there were a handful of Air Force pilots aboard as well, though not enough to form a complete squadron). Each of these squadrons were composed of three parts: a three-plane Command Fire Team, and two six-plane Squads made up of two three-plane Fire Teams each.
Because of the hodge podge of services aboard the SDF-1, the subtleties of communication were somewhat blurred. Though the radio procedure differences between branches had been minimized during our training, they still varied enough to notice, and one could usually tell the service branch of the person to whom you were communicating with by their style. As a member of an RDF Naval Squadron, I operated following the radio procedures commonly used in the naval arm. While communicating to members of the squadron we assumed our Squad Leader's call sign followed by our position number. In this case, I assumed the identifier "Ogre Two," and Josh, "Ogre Three." Our Fire Team Two would go by Ogre's call sign when attached to him, and that of their fire team leader when detached from the squad. The members of the other Fire Teams adopted their call signs in the same manner.
If brevity is the soul of wit in a conversation or literature, then in the wild confusion of a dogfight it is often the difference between life and death. In combat, short, precise communication was a necessity, and for this reason, personal call signs most often became the identifier of choice in combat situations--or any other time squad or team members were in radio contact with one another.
When communicating to outside sources, however, personal call signs went by the way side in favor of either our mission call sign--which was assigned to us before flight--or our squadron call sign--in this case "Fast Eagle"--followed by our aircraft/position number. For example, if our squadron leader was communicating with someone outside the squadron--a controller, another squadron's aircraft, etc.--he would report as "Fast Eagle Lead," "Fast Eagle One," or "Fast Eagle Two Zero One," unless a controller referred to him as something else--i.e. if a controller called me "Ogre Two" then I had to identify myself as that to him/her until referred to in a different manner. See? Simple.
All of this might seem confusing to the novice, but in reality it really was quite easy with a bit of practice. If all else failed, the "Who, Where, What" principle--"Tell them who you are, where you are, and what you want"--made radio communications a breeze.
Satisfied with the status of his team, 3LT Sprabary taxied his Valkyrie toward the elevator. With a salute and a thumbs up, Philo handed me off to the plane director and I made my way to the elevator as well. Josh followed immediately afterward, and in short order the three fighters of Ogre Team were spotted on the elevator and hoisted to the flight deck. The bright red planet of Mars dominated the sky. Two days earlier, the SDF-1 had successfully replenished its supplies at the abandoned Mars Base Sara during a heated battle with our alien pursuers, and Earth's sister planet was clearly in view as it began to shrink slowly behind us.
The carrier pointed us in the direction of our patrol sector so that we could launch using a minimal amount of fuel. I was spotted on one of the starboard waist cats as 1LT Carr's team was hurtled off the flight deck, thrusters flaring in the twilight. Carr made a gentle left turn and proceeded to the rendezvous area where he would orbit in wait for the rest of the squadron. The cat officer turned to me as Lieutenant Sprabary's fighter was fired off the catapult beside me. In rapid succession Josh and I were blasted off the deck of the ship, and we quickly joined up with 3LT Sprabary. Following his lead we made our way to the rendezvous point where we were joined by the other members of the squadron.
My first taste of fire was not far away.
Chapter Fourteen - First Combat
"Fast Eagle two-zero-one, contact Golden Eye, button three."
"Roger, White Tiger. Fast Eagle, button three."
"White Tiger" was the Prometheus Departure controller, and he was handing us off to "Golden Eye," one of the SDF-1's defense controllers. I immediately switched to frequency three.
Lieutenant Carr continued, "Golden Eye, this is Fast Eagle Two Zero One. Outbound three-one-zero, two-zero, fifteen miles, with fifteen Victor Fox One's." "Victor Fox One" is the phonetic spelling for "VF-1."
Normally, naval fighter squadrons operated at a force level of 15 aircraft and 21 pilots per squadron. Our squadron strength, as it was for most fighter squadrons throughout the SDF-1, was down to 15 pilots and 15 fighters (as opposed to the peacetime norm of 15 fighters and 18-21 pilots) which meant there would be little, if any, relief for the ship's fighter pilots. We would fly until we made it home or were killed--period--and this gruesome reality would take a tremendous psychological toll on every fighter pilot aboard ship.
"Fast Eagle Two Oh One, this is Golden Eye, radar contact. Turn right heading three-two-zero."
"Fast Eagle come starboard ten," came Lieutenant Carr once again, turning us to the right ten degrees. This would place us on a heading to intercept the squadron we were to relieve, call signed "Boilerplate."
"Boilerplate One, this is Golden Eye. Fast Eagle Two Zero One is at your six o'clock, three miles, over."
Then came the familiar voice of Lieutenant Brubaker, "Boilerplate One, roger. Good afternoon Fast Eagle."
"Hello, Boilerplate. Have you in sight. We're at your seven o'clock, two miles."
"Roger that, Fast Eagle."
I strained for a glimpse of the other squadron's navigation lights and saw nothing. The Lieutenant's ability to spot those Valk's from so far away was incredible. It took me an additional 10 seconds to pick up the Veritechs visually, strobe lights flashing as they grew larger at my one o'clock position. We slid in beside them and I stole a quick glance to my right. As steady as rocks on a road, the twelve fighters from VF-31 were in perfect formation, stacked in a descending right echelon.
"Golden Eye, Golden Eye, this is Fast Eagle Two Zero One on station with fifteen chicks."
"Roger Fast Eagle. Boilerplate, you're cleared to Home Plate."
"Boilerplate Lead, roger. Returning to base," Brubaker called. "Shuba, keep an eye on that Framton kid. He's trouble," the Lieutenant said with a chuckle.
"Roger Boilerplate, thanks for the advice," Carr replied.
I grinned inside my faceplate. It was nice to know that Lieutenant Brubaker was keeping tabs on me.
Off to my right, Brubaker reefed his Valk up and over his squadron mates in a climbing right turn. His number two followed immediately after, then number three, and so on. It was an awe inspiring sight, and I peered after them for as long as I dared, a trail of blue flares disappearing quickly into the distance.
"Fast Eagle, bring it out to combat spread," Carr ordered.
Combat spread is the basic fighting position used in aerial combat. In spread, supporting units maintain a position abeam the leader, stepped up or down as the situation dictates. In general, the distance interval between planes operating in the combat spread formation is equal to two thirds the turning radius of the aircraft at cruise speed. Since aerodynamic forces were not at work in space operations, this distance was usually one- to two-thirds of a mile.
"Ogre Team, starboard twenty," Lieutenant Sprabary called to us before moving his Valk out to the right. At two-thirds of a mile he eased us back to our patrol heading.
"Ninety-nine Fast Eagle, knockers up," came Lieutenant Carr's order. This was his order to all aircraft under his direction to engage armament switches, radar systems, homing equipment, warning equipment, and all offensive and defensive electronic warfare systems. In short, this meant the game was now a reality. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and I felt a strange rush as my center Multi-Function Display screen (MFD) lit up with information fed to it by my electronic warfare systems. I allowed myself a long glance at the MFD then turned my attention to Lieutenant Sprabary's aircraft.
Formation flying in space is simultaneously easy and difficult. The easy part involves the lack of aerodynamic forces to fight against. One can point his fighter in a certain direction and it will continue along that vector until acted upon by some other force. This makes formation flying rather simple, requiring far less frequent position checks than are required in an atmosphere. It is this lack of aerodynamic forces, however, which makes precision formation flying in space difficult. Because of the lack of friction in vacuum, lining one's fighter up perfectly with another is impossible. A small amount of drift in some direction is inevitable no matter what one does, and the only real control a pilot has is in how fast or slow the drift rate is. Finding the exact control input necessary to maintain a zero drift rate is like finding the exact position to place the steering wheel on a car to eliminate drift to one side of the road or the other. In other words, it can't be done. Likewise, it makes being a wingman very difficult, especially for the novice--and it is always the new pilot that runs out of fuel first--because of his tendency to overcontrol the fighter, making it behave much like a car on ice.
I glanced down at my radar screen and it was completely blank. Thinking that it was a problem with my equipment I said nothing. Mine was a new fighter after all, and if the radar was out of service I'd put it on the "Gripe Sheet" for Philo to fix.
Scanning the stars around me I felt a giant pain in my lower back. Only an hour had passed since starting engines, but the strain of imminent combat--coupled with a rock hard ejection seat--was having a deleterious effect on me. I squirmed in the seat, trying an innumerable number of positions in an attempt to get comfortable, but it didn't seem to help. Whoever designed the Valk ejection seat had to be a masochist for it to be this uncomfortable in zero g, and as I fidgeted, my headphones erupted with a frantic call from the SDF-1's senior fighter director.
"Fast Eagle Two Zero One, this is Gunsight One. Emergency! Vectors for the intercept: come right heading one-four-zero. Bandits one-two-zero, zero-zero, 340 miles. Buster." Buster is the fighter direction code that directs an aircraft on an intercept to use full military power.
"Fast Eagle Lead, roger, vectoring one-four-zero. Fast Eagles starboard to one-four-zero."
Following Lieutenant Sprabary, I yanked my Veritech into a hard right turn, the ACS mimicking atmospheric flight. As we accelerated and closed on the enemy ships, I went through a quick cockpit check to insure that all my switches were set properly. To my chagrin I had mistakenly set my radar on standby, and I quickly flipped it to the on position. The radar screen erupted with activity, the number of targets on the screen easily equal to the maximum number the Valk's radar could track.
The familiar rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins was chilling. My first taste of combat was just moments away. A strange mixture of fear and excitement enveloped me as the blips on the radar screen grew closer, the distance dwindling at a precipitous rate.
"Ogre, move your squad outboard. I want to get an angle on these guys. Maybe we can split them up."
"Rog." Ogre banked his Valk to the right and we followed him. I noted that our blue paint was great for hiding from bandits, but bad for keeping track of our leader when things got crazy.
Two other squadrons of Veritech Fighters joined up with us, but the odds were easily twenty-to-one in the enemy's favor. So much for acceptable merge ratios, I thought. Despite our disadvantage, I felt emboldened by the presence of so many of my fellow aviators.
"Okay boys, this is it. Stick together as long as you can. Let's hold them off until the backup arrives," Lieutenant Carr ordered. "Sort side-to-side. Fire when you get the range."
I set my targeting computer to auto and saw three red halos on my Heads Up Display (HUD). When the halos turned to diamonds I loosed three Stilettos and watched them streak ahead of my Veritech, along with six dozen others from the other fighters around me. Explosions lit up the starry sky as the missiles struck home, and we tore through the center of the alien formation, pods flashing past us on all sides. Lieutenant Sprabary pulled us up and over the top of the enemy formation which had scattered in all directions.
"Ogre Team, go to guardian mode," the Lieutenant ordered.
I pulled down the "G" lever on my panel and my fighter changed into the highly maneuverable guardian configuration. Not only did this provide more flexibility in the maneuvering arena, but also in targeting, since the gun pod was no longer limited to a direct line of fire.
VF-1 "Valkyrie" in Guardian Mode
With the knowledge that he was shepherding a pair of rookie pilots, Sprabary positioned us well above the fight, and the brilliance of his plan became obvious. Since we were fighting standard "Headless Ostriches" (Regult Combat Pods/Tactical Battle Pods, as they were later known), armed only with beam weapons and cannon, they would have to close their range on us to get off a shot. Beam weapons are in and of themselves short ranged. Cannon on the other hand, though not as short-ranged in space as they are in an atmosphere (a cannon round can theoretically travel forever in vacuum, which makes hitting what you aim especially important, lest you accidentally nail a friendly fighter), are difficult to aim from a distance. Any rounds fired beyond half a mile will score an increasingly lower percentage of hits, especially on a moving target. As it was, the Ostriches would be well within our missile cone long before then and we would simply lay back and rapidly pick them off one by one until our missiles were exhausted.
Zentraedi Regult Tactical Battle Pod
As the pods attempted to close the range on us we took turns plinking them out of the sky with Stilettos. It was like shooting ducks at a carnival. I tagged six more pods, the only negative being a missile rack that refused to fire. I reluctantly jettisoned the rack, angry at having to lose three perfectly fine missiles. Had the battle not swung decisively in our direction the inoperable rack could have proven fatal.
"Ogre Team, move it out a little!" Sprabary ordered. In our fear, my wingman and I had moved in close to Ogre's fighter hoping subconsciously that safety was inversely proportional to the distance from our leader. In fact, the opposite was true, and Ogre was spacing us out some so we would not present such a large target for a gun pass by one of the battle pods. With missiles exhausted, it was time to face the pods on a more even level.
I braced for the onslaught that would doubtless come our way. Tracers lit up the sky, as a group of nine Regult Pods, moved in on us. Abruptly, the cannon and laser bristled pods split into three groups. I was too stupid to be terrified, and as a string tracer rounds flashed within yards of my canopy I remember thinking, I can't believe it! Theese bastards are trying to kill me!
I jerked to when Sprabary barked, "Ogre team, break right!"
The pods descended upon us like wolves. I felt suddenly vulnerable, naked, and alone. In a panic I reefed into a hard left turn, forgetting right from left, as one of the groups moved in between Sprabary's Valk and mine. It took only an instant to realize I had made a bad move, and as the three pods moved in on me I leaned on the throttle for all I was worth. The pods continued to close on me and I told myself to remain calm as tracers whizzed past my right wingtip. Had my adversaries been armed with missiles it is likely that I would have been flamed right there, but weeks of training--and a not-so-invaluable piece of free advice--prevailed.
Recalling 2LT Lehman's counsel, I toggled off the ACS, jammed the stick forward, and flipped my Guardian into a front half somersault. Lining the first pod up in my gunsight I let loose a four second burst of cannon fire. The pod jinked out of the way but I kept with him and nailed him with another short burst. The other two closed on me and I lined one up in my gunsight, placing the pipper squarely on him. His laser and cannon fire lit up the sky and I jinked hard to my right as cannon fire from the other pod tore through my left wing. They had me boxed in.
"Holy Christ!" I exclaimed, racking the Valk back over to the left, laser fire screaming past my cockpit canopy. With a thrust to weight ratio of 2.5 to 1, the Valk could produce 2.5 Gs through sheer brute force, and the feeling one gets from slamming back and forth in Guardian is much like being involved in a sadistic game of bumper cars--or having a car accident. The kick in the ass from the catapult, though more powerful, pales by comparison to this violence. Breathing is labored at best, bruises are a fact of life, and your helmet is your best friend.
As the pods continued to fire at me I gritted my teeth and let loose a five-second burst. Laser fire ripped into my Valk's left leg, but the 55mm rounds from my GU-11 gun pod did their job and their impact tore the left Regult Pod to pieces, causing a short-lived explosion. I turned my cannon on the remaining battle pod, my Guardian accelerating in reverse as fast as it could go. The pod disintegrated under a hail of 55mm bullets. Surprisingly, there was no explosion.
With my pursuers now a memory I shifted my focus inward to the cockpit. My Valk's instrument panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree, warning lights of all kinds demanding immediate attention. My number one engine was shimmying wildly and my left wing was a screwed up mess. A quick scan of the instruments showed that my hydraulic systems were bleeding and would be out of fluid momentarily. I quickly switched into Fighter mode and assessed my situation: Forty rounds of ammo in the gun pod and 23% fuel in my tanks. The left engine would probably not hold up, and at my present rate of speed I was heading away from the SDF-1 at over 35 miles a minute. Turning my Valk back toward the ship I glanced again at my fuel gauge. I was down to 17% of my 30,000 pound capacity.
The flight computer alerted me to this fact in a calm female voice, "Bingo...Fuel...Five point one." Research had shown that male pilots responded most quickly to a female voice, hence the reason for the computer's gender. She was telling me that I had 5,100 pounds of fuel remaining (we measured fuel in pounds instead of gallons or liters, even in the weightlessness of space, because this is how jet pilots had done it for more than half a century. The fuel system did the work of keeping track of fuel volume/mass and translating it into pounds automatically).
"Ogre One from two. Bingo, five point one."
"Ogre Two from One, roger. What's your position?"
"Ogre Two is off the zero-four-seven, one-seven, for one-three-zero, over."
"Roger, Two. I'm on my way. Ogre Team, button nine."
I switched to button nine, then pulled my power back to flight idle and watched as my fuel flow meter hovered around zero. I was still losing fuel at a precipitous rate for my power setting, and it became readily apparent that I had a fuel leak.
"Ogre One from Two, I've got a fuel problem."
"Roger, Two, I have you in sight I'll be with you in a minute," Sprabary called.
Taking out such a large force of pods had taken a long time, and in a running fight our fighters were drawn further and further from the SDF-1. As the last battle pod was dispatched, Lieutenant Carr called for us to check in. Much to my relief, everyone from our squadron made it through the engagement okay. The other squadrons had taken some losses, but thankfully very few. Lieutenant Sprabary informed Carr of my predicament and was ordered to escort me back to the SDF-1. I was glad to have the company. In the meantime, the other squadrons had intercepted a second attack wave of much larger size, and so it seemed the force we intercepted was a decoy intended to draw the BARCAP away from the ship.
I was sweating noticeably now as Josh and Ogre formed up on my Valk, one off each wing.
"You've got a bad leak, Two. What's your state?" Sprabary called.
"Fuel critical. 3,200 pounds."
"Okay. Can you plug-in to the tanker?" Sprabary asked.
"Standby Lead," I replied.
I had enough fuel to make it to the emergency tanker--essentially a Valkyrie with buddy pack refueling bladders underneath its wings and centerline--but I would not be able to plug into the refueling drogue if my probe would not extend. I pulled the actuator handle out and twisted it to the left, then peered over the left side of the nose waiting for the probe to pop out. Nothing happened. I repeated the procedure a dozen times to no avail.
"Lead from Two. Negative. My probe is stuck. I can't refuel."
"Okay. No problem. Let's just be prepared for the fire to go out. I'll park you on the ship myself if we can't get you aboard on your own. Give me fuel flow readings every 500 pounds," Lieutenant Sprabary said.
"Ogre Team, Button Eight."
I selected Button Eight and listened for Sprabary's call.
"Prometheus Approach Control, Fast Eagle Two Zero Four, zero-six-zero, one-zero, thirty-five. Flight of three Victor Fox one's. Request straight in approach. Be advised we have a fuel emergency."
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Four, Prometheus Approach, parot zero-seven-zero-zero," the controller replied.
A pause as Sprabary changed his transponder code.
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Four, radar contact, two-zero miles, signal charlie. Button One-Six at twenty miles."
"Two Zero Four."
"One from Two, I'm at two point two."
"Roger, Two. Almost there."
We intercepted the approach path for Prometheus and I turned my fighter to the right. It used up almost all of my remaining fuel, but I was now lined up on the ship.
"Ogre Team Button One-Six."
I fiddled with the radio selector and got the right frequency tuned.
"Prometheus Approach, Fast Eagle Two Oh Four, twenty miles."
"Paddles is up."
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Four, what is the aircraft on approach?"
"Ah, Prometheus, the aircraft on final is Two Zero Niner, over."
"Two Zero Niner, call your needles."
I glanced at the HUD and saw the course and glideslope needles up and to the right. "Uh, Two Zero Niner...up and right."
"Roger, continue Case II."
Time stood still as the fuel dribbled out of my tanks. The DME ticked downward, but the fuel needle fell faster.
"Two Zero Niner you're at 3/4 mile call your ball," the LSO said.
"Two Zero Niner, Valkyrie, Ball, zero point two."
"Roger Zero Niner, keep her coming. Check gear down and locked."
This was the LSO's friendly reminder that I had neglected to lower my landing gear. I pressed the emergency gear lever. Compressed air blew the landing gear into the down and locked position. The hook had a separate hydraulic system and lowered normally. I was really sweating now, the salty liquid stinging my eyes. I had enough fuel for two minor corrections at the most. My vernier thrusters were all but exhausted of fuel, and all that I really had was the last bit in my fuselage tanks. At half a mile I was high and right, and the LSO corrected my approach with the calmness of a hurricane's eye.
"Just a tiny bit down, Zero Niner."
I eased it down as the deck approached. That was the last bit of fuel I had.
"Paddles from Two Zero Niner. My tanks are dry. I've had it."
"Two Zero Niner, advise you eject at this time."
"Negative." There was no way I was going to bail out of this ship. It had taken a hell of a pounding without quitting on me, I'd be damned to quit on it. Besides, every Valkyrie aboard SDF-1 was worth its weight in gold. In addition to the components SDF-1 was supposed to take to Moon Base Aluce during its maiden voyage, our stockpile consisted of a cache of spare parts and engines that Daedelus was delivering to Macross Island during the initial assault. This, added with those salvaged from the Navy's Veritech Aircraft Rebuilding Facility (VARF) there, would seem enough to sustain us for some time. However, without the fabrication infrastructure that building complex equipment requires, we had no way to manufacture engines and other critical components from scratch, and every airplane lost or damaged forced us to dip into that precious, limited well. Indeed, we had been subsiding on this finite resource for a long time now, and if the spare parts stock dried up before we made it home the game would be over--we weren't going to get any new ones.
The deck rushed toward me, the ball indicating I was below the glide path. I was going to come up a few feet short, and ejection suddenly seemed an attractive option. As the deck grew in size I realized I was going to strike the ramp, and closed my eyes as the carrier filled my windscreen.
With a tremendous, bone jarring crash, I slammed onto the deck. The impact knocked the hell out of me, and I was sure I had plowed into the ramp and died. I couldn't feel or see a thing, and feeling certain that I was about to meet Saint Peter, closed my eyes and put my head back against the headrest. "So this is what death feels like," I thought to myself. After a few moments, I sensed vibrations and heard noises being transmitted through the Valk's frame and realized that if I were dead, I wouldn't be feeling or hearing anything. Dazed, I looked around and saw deck crewmen scrambling to get my fighter moved toward an elevator. It was then I realized I had trapped aboard the ship dead stick! My good fortune was a pleasant surprise, and as the elevator lowered me to the hangar deck, I said a quick and weary prayer of thanks.
Actually, I said two!
Chapter Fifteen - Ace!
As my Veritech was towed into the hangar bay I removed my faceplate and helmet, then raised the canopy. I inhaled the stale, oil-scented air and felt a wave of relief rush over me. I had survived my first combat mission and felt drained by the experience. My muscles were transmitting signals of protest at the harsh treatment they had received. As the tow tractor pulled my fighter up to its parking space I tapped the brakes and brought us to a halt. My throat was dry and my back was incredibly sore. I didn't have the strength to remove my shoulder harness and just sat there like a helpless child until Philo climbed the ladder and unstrapped me.
"Jesus, boss, you got hammered!" he exclaimed.
I replied with a grunt then removed my kneeboard, placing it in on the glare panel. Feeling like a ridiculous wimp, I somehow managed to force myself out of the cockpit and down the ladder on rubbery legs. I realized then and there why all the physical training was forced on us during boot camp. Flying combat is a tremendously demanding exercise from a physical as well as mental standpoint, and it is not something you can do effectively without being in top physical and mental condition.
A short glance at my Veritech showed me more than a thousand words could say. My poor fighter had indeed taken a beating, and I marveled at how well constructed it was. A quick inspection revealed enough to make one's stomach churn. Three and a half feet of the left wingtip were gone, the charred remains peeled back like a banana. The left leg was riddled with over 100 laser and cannon holes. Several access panels were completely missing and the port engine was clearly visible. The engine itself had taken several hits and thrown some parts through the fuselage. It was inconceivable to my mind's eye that an engine could run in that condition--but somehow it did.
As I made my way around the rear of the fighter to the right side, I let out a loud chuckle. From this side one would think the fighter had just rolled off the assembly line--untouched, without a mark anywhere, the pristine paint in marked contrast to that of the left side.
"Wow! This is something!" Philo exclaimed from atop the fuselage.
"No doubt," I responded, a measure of composure returning.
"Corporal, I think you oughta' take a look at this," he said, a look of amazement on his face. I dragged myself up the ladder once again, stealing a glance at where Philo was pointing. The front dorsal panel was riddled with holes too numerous to count. I clambered back along the top of the wing root glove and made my way to where Philo was kneeling. Peering into the cannon holes revealed some severe damage to my fighter's frame.
"This thing should have come apart, skipper," Philo said with a look of wonderment.
"I think it still might! That's a damned cannon round in there!" I exclaimed, backing away and nearly falling off the damned airplane.
"A what?!! Shit!!!" Philo said, leaping off the fighter.
I did the same, running like hell for a stack of fifty gallon barrels.
"EOD Team! EOD Team!!" Philo was hollering aloud, pointing in the direction of my Valkyrie. As we dove for cover, an Explosive Ordnance Detachment team--a group of five men in protective body armor--made its way over to my fighter. Peering over my makeshift fortress, I could see the team working to remove the impacted cannon round from the frame of my Veritech as the other fighters in the hangar bay were towed as far away from it as possible.
After a dozen tense minutes, the EOD team loaded the cannon round into a padded armor case, placed the case on a front end loader, and moved quickly out of the way. The loader made its way to the elevator where it was hoisted to the flight deck, then driven to the stern of the Prometheus where the round was detonated without fanfare.
"Hangar Bay Three is secured. Return to your normal duty stations. I say again, Hangar Bay Three is secured. Return to your normal duty stations," came an announcement from the hangar boss.
I dragged myself out from behind my hiding place and walked over to Philo. I stared at my Valk in disbelief, then turned to him and said, "That friggin' thing should have blown up when I trapped. Jesus..."
"No shit. You have a lucky streak going for you just like Corporal Sterling's," he said.
"I should be dead," I replied, stupefied.
"Don't sweat it, Mr. Framton. You've still got eight lives left. Any how, don't worry boss, we'll get it fixed up for you in no time," he said with a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
"Better check out the circuitry on those missile racks. I had to jettison one out there."
"No problem. I'll get right on it."
"Thanks," I said, turning toward the crew elevator. The thought of checking the missile rack circuitry seemed completely ludicrous in light of the situation, and I chuckled to myself loudly. "They might as well replace the whole damned plane and fix all the friggin' problems!" I laughed aloud as the elevator doors closed behind me.
They would not replace her, however, and as events would later show, a more faithful steed I would have been hard pressed to find.
After securing our aircraft we assembled for a squadron debriefing. Lieutenant Carr critiqued each of us in turn, handing out praise, criticism, and advice. He signed off on a positive note, calling it an "outstanding debut action" for the new pilots in his command. In due time, as we gained experience, Lieutenant Carr would solicit our comments and criticisms, each of which would be prefaced and concluded with a sincere "It's good to be here, sir." Indeed, we meant it.
With the conclusion of the squadron debriefing we split into our individual squad debriefings. During the squad debriefing Lieutenant Sprabary made some very specific comments about our performance.
"Can't tell left from right, eh, Framton?" Ogre grinned wryly.
He punched me on the arm. "Well the least you could have done was to stay in the turn when you broke. I wanted you to come back toward me after the break so we could cover each other and you kept right on going the other way. I asked myself 'What in hell is that kid thinking?'" he said with a faint chuckle.
"Sorry skipper, I guess I panicked."
"Well, next time, try not to panic. That is what gets people killed. Other than that you did damned good. Just remember two words from now on: mutual support. We can only stay alive by protecting each other. Don't forget that."
"Aye sir." I took Sprabary's words to heart. He was a first rate tactician and his advice always proved valuable.
"The kill and trap reports will be posted in the foyer of the barracks later this evening. The rest of the day is yours. Head to town, the rack, whatever," he said smiling. "You've earned it."
"Aye, aye sir," I replied, turning on my heel toward the exit.
I headed to my quarters and crashed on my rack, exhausted. I didn't bother to unpack my gear, make my rack, or change out of my sweaty flight suit. Had not Waylan and Josh come into my room and dragged me out of bed, I'd have slept all night.
"Out of bed Yah!" they hollered at me. "Come on man! It's time to celebrate!"
"Celebrate what? I'm tired, leave me alone," I said groggily.
"Out of that rack now mister!!!" Waylan bellowed.
I refused to move, but that didn't save me. With one arm he lifted me over his beefy shoulder and carried me downstairs to the foyer. I was kicking and writhing in an attempt to break loose, but Waylan was easily three times as strong as I and the effort was wasted.
"What the hell is so damned important you guys?!!" I demanded, staring at the floor.
"This!" Josh said pointing to the bulletin board. Waylan set me down and I ambled over to where Josh was pointing. Without my glasses I could hardly see and had to walk up very close to read what the bulletin said.
"You're top scorer, Jeff!" Waylan exclaimed, slapping my back.
Squinting at the sheet of paper on the board I saw my name on the kill report and the number 10 beside it. Ten kills!
"Holy shit!" I exclaimed. "Ten???"
"Yeah! You got ten man!" Josh said shaking my shoulders.
"You're a double ace now!" Waylan yelled giddily.
In all fairness, my score was not a true measure of my combat skill. The majority of my victories were standoff missile shots, and there were without a doubt many others who scored more than I. Unfortunately, nearly a third of all missile kills are listed as probables. The systems that keep track of which fighter's missiles score a hit leave much to be desired, especially when a large number have been launched from several fighters.
Additionally, missile kills are incredibly easy when compared to a guns kill. Max Sterling, for example, was credited with nine kills on his first mission. Raw totals aside, Max's performance was far superior to mine because the majority of his kills were gun kills, where as the majority of mine were long range missile shots--I was just lucky in that the majority of my hits were actually credited to me. When you factor in the number of rounds/shots per kill and find that Max's was always around one-fifth the ship-wide average, there is little dispute that he was the unparalleled master of combat. He was "The Blue Devil," and with good reason.
Another factor that weighed in my favor was the fact that during the first missile volley I only fired three Stilettos--one of which I received credit for. The other members of the squadron fired far more, and in the confusion this caused, many of the missiles were untraceable. This left me with six missiles--not including the three on the bad rack--to use in standoff mode, which resulted in six kills for six shots, a total of seven for nine on the day--a high percentage.
Squinting at the board again I saw that Josh and Waylan had both scored well, with seven kills apiece. Lieutenant Carr was also credited with seven kills, and I am certain he would have scored more had he not been so busy shepherding his new pilots.
Puffing out my chest I announced with mock piety, "This calls for a celebration!"
"Yep, it sure does," Josh replied with a mischievous grin.
"And as top scorer, you get to pay for it!" Waylan added with a slap on the back.
"Oh brother," I muttered.
"Well, go on! Get ready! We've got things to do big daddy!" Josh insisted.
"Alright, alright," I said, heading up the stairway to my room and a much-needed shower.
I buttoned my uniform blouse and headed down the hallway to the phone booth. I made a quick phone call to Rebeckah and told her to meet us at the newly rebuilt "Crow's Nest." I then caught up with my two buddies and we caught a cab to town.
As we rode in the back of the cab the day's events came flooding back to me. It was hard to believe that I had actually done what I had always dreamed. As a boy reading about the exploits of my heroes--Greg Boyington, Steve Ritchie, Robin Olds...Roy Fokker, Manfred Richtofen, Willie Coppens...Don Blakeslee...Don Gentile, Pierre Clostermann, David McCampbell...Alex Vraciu, Chuck Yeager...Saburo Sakai...James Jabarra, Adolf Galland, Ken Walsh...Geoffrey Page, Jack Ilfrey, "Duke" Cunningham...Albert Ball, Georges Guynemer, Donald Lopez, and a thousand others--I carried around a fantasy of one day being one of them. It was a childish dream, and as I grew up it seemed sillier with each passing day. Yet here I was, an ace, fighting in a realm that these men--with the possible exception of Fokker--never thought possible. I was now part of the most exclusive fraternity in aviation, and I could hardly believe it.
As we climbed out of the cab I began reciting the names of all my boyhood heroes, and at the end of the list I placed my own name. It sounded strange, but hearing my name mentioned in the same breath as these great men gave me a surge of confidence.
That evening proved to be as enjoyable as any in memory. Max Sterling came in and introduced us to his new VF team--3LT Rick Hunter and CPL Ben Dixon--the latter of whom I recognized as the boisterous member of my platoon in boot camp. We had a great time telling our versions of the day's combat, and a few laughs were had at the expense of each person at the table. Lieutenant Brubaker even stopped by long enough to share a story or two, and before leaving, took the opportunity to offer a few important words to me.
"I knew I was right about you, kid," he said, patting me on the shoulder. "Just remember--don't get the big head. That's what gets people killed. I'll see ya' around."
The lateness of the hour eventually forced an early departure, and as tradition demanded, I was stuck with the check. A short glance at the total bill was all it took to realize that being a hotshot fighter pilot, though entirely fulfilling, was damned expensive!
"If this keeps up I'm going to have to take out a loan," I said aloud as we walked out of the restaurant's double doors toward a waiting cab. "Well, maybe I'll get a raise," I said to Case as she climbed into the bright yellow taxi.
Chapter Sixteen - Diamonds and Lace
The next few weeks were filled with constant combat, and my time away from the Prometheus was limited. It proved to be one of the more dismal of my holiday seasons. After a short dry spell, Max Sterling went on a tear through November that culminated on the 29th when he destroyed fourteen enemy ships. This brought his kill total to sixty-five enemy craft in less than six weeks--an incredible number for any pilot, especially one who was always committed to guarding his leader's tail.
We had done well as a squadron, having suffered no casualties. Although we knew it would not last forever, we each felt we'd be around to see the luck run out for some other poor sucker. On the 15th of November, after bringing my kill total to twenty-four, I had the misfortune of nearly losing an eye in a foolish accident, insuring that I would be alive to witness our squadron's good fortune come to an end.
I was working with Philo in an effort to rid my ship of the gremlins that were hiding in the radar system. While carrying a box of electronics over to my fighter I failed to pay attention to where I was going and stumbled over a seam in the hangar bay deck. Somehow, I hit my right eye on the bottom step of my Valk's cockpit boarding ladder, fracturing my cheekbone. How I failed to lose my eye is still a mystery, but the damage put me out of action for seven miserable weeks.
It was a devastating experience. For the next month, all I could do was watch as my comrades flew mission after mission against increasing odds. The closer we came to Earth the more intense the attacks against us became. The feeling of helplessness that overcame me cannot be described, and I was soon frustrated beyond description. As I sat on sidelines and watched, the fighter pilot ranks dwindled. With each passing mission came more empty racks. More letters to parents and loved ones. More boxes to be packed by squadron mates. I cursed my bad fortune while assisting my fellow warriors in any and every way possible. I helped them during briefings and preflight checks, escorted them to their fighters as they staggered wearily under the weight of flight gear and fatigue, waved to each one as they taxied to the elevators. I watched every launch, paced the floors while they were gone, and counted them each time they returned to the ship. There was little else I could do.
My helplessness was multiplied when pilots from my own squadron began to fall before enemy guns. LCPL Jin "Taco" Takamura, the Marine-sniper-turned-fighter-pilot, was the first to be killed. On the afternoon of December 1st, outnumbered as usual, our squadron got mixed up in a fight that lasted nearly forty minutes, and stretched for over seventy-five miles. In the confusion, Jin got separated from his team. His frantic calls for help were answered too late, and Taco died in a hail of laser fire.
The next day was equally tragic. On the morning of December 2nd, our squadron had been moved to BARCAP Ring Two for the first time, and on this day our pursuers decided to launch a major offensive, sending almost everything they had. Every fighter aboard ship--including trainers--was sortied in a desperate effort to stave the alien onslaught. My instructor from advanced training, Lieutenant Lehman, took full advantage of the opportunity, scoring nine kills.
By all accounts, it was a huge dogfight. Outnumbered as usual, fire team integrity dissolved quickly as fighters were forced to split up, and in short order every pilot aboard ship found himself engaged in his own individual fight for survival. The SDF-1 looked like a bear being chased by the residents of a disrupted hornets' nest as fighters careened in all directions. During this wildly lopsided battle, my friend and fellow Texan, LCPL Dain "Drain-O" Clements, became something of a man possessed. He was Fokker, Sterling, and Carr all in one. Trap shooting pods left and right, dodging missiles, and engaging as many as fifty enemy fighters on his own, Dain's performance was nothing less than stellar.
I had gotten to know Dain Clements well during our days together. Burly, quiet, and unassuming, he seemed more like a teddy bear than a fighter pilot. Only 19 years old, Dain's courage knew no bounds. Never one to hesitate when his help was needed, Drain-O was a stellar human being, and with 21 kills to his credit, he was well on his way toward establishing himself as a premier fighter pilot aboard the SDF-1.
The details of the day's action are not completely clear. What is known however, is that Drain-O responded to a call for help from our squadron Safety Officer and ace, 3LT William "Tank" Sherman. Stung by the loss of Taco the previous day, Tank wanted desperately to prevent it from happening again, and as leaders are sometimes wont to do, he put the welfare of his pilots ahead of his own. During his efforts to shepherd his pilots, Sherman got separated from his wingmen and found himself chased by a mixed gaggle of over forty Regults and Gnerl Fighter Pods. The enemy's primary interceptor--and one of the few alien ships our intelligence people actually knew by its proper name--the three-engined Gnerl had made its presence known in the skies over Macross Island during the initial alien assault. With its compliment of medium-range missiles and three nose cannon, it was a heavily armed--if lightly armored--adversary.
Zentraedi Gnerl Fighter Pod
Barreling in on the group with self-less abandon, Drain-O Clements succeeded in clearing his leader's tail, destroying three Fighter Pods in the process. Unfortunately, the two pilots quickly found themselves almost a thousand miles from the SDF-1. Low on fuel and ammo, and being chased by the same group Dain had successfully driven off minutes before, the two aces made a mad dash for the ship, only to run into a portion of the returning enemy strike force. Outnumbered five hundred to one, they never had a chance.
The two pilots fought bravely, destroying nearly a dozen fighters before their ammunition was exhausted. A relief force sent to retrieve them arrived too late. The battle had long since ended, and the pilots found nothing but empty space.
We waited anxiously for Tank and Drain-O to enter the pattern for Prometheus, but our hopes were in vain, as the pilots did not return. It was a sad day for the members of VF-12, and the loss of these two fine men served not only as an inspiration, but as a grim reminder of the desperation of our situation. Four of every ten pilots were killed before their tenth mission, three of the remaining six before their thirtieth. It was bound to happen sooner or later.
With three pilots lost in only two days, the charm that surrounded us had finally been broken.
Christmas--as so many Christmases to come--came and went without fanfare. The empty racks and grieving families made celebrating the season difficult at best. As January rolled around, my eye began to show rapid progress. I realized then that my return to combat would not be long in coming. That, coupled with the knowledge that our pilots were dying in growing numbers, forced me to move ahead with my marriage plans. After discussing the situation, Rebeckah and I decided to set the date for January 4th--two days after her eighteenth birthday. I applied for and received a two-day leave.
A grand gala was planned. My hope was that this joyous occasion might divert attention away from the heartache and sorrow of the previous three weeks.
It was a spectacular wedding considering the circumstances, and everyone was filled with joy. My bride to be never looked more beautiful than she did that day, and I was completely overjoyed at my luck. She looked every bit the Heaven-sent Princess, and I am sure that every man at the wedding was envious.
It was a wonderful celebration. Waylan was best man, and Max and Josh served as groomsmen. Fighter pilots from throughout the ship attended the ceremony. In the crowd were my friends Nathan Morris and Joe Burkett--now a squad leader with a Daedelus Destroid squadron.
As the priest went through his litany, my mind drifted back to the day I met this beautiful woman. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. Her eyes stared deeply into mine, and I fought the urge to slap myself.
I snapped back to reality with the priest's words, "You are now man and wife. You may kiss the bride." He didn't have to say it twice! I lifted the veil over her head and kissed her, wondering what in my past made me deserve such a wonderful wife.
We stayed for the traditional cutting of the cake and mingled with our friends. The air was filled with a genuine happiness that had not been present in some time. It felt like the day after a storm front passes, full of freshness and renewed hope.
That night was the most incredible night of my life. I had taken the time to prepare our new apartment, placing the petals from a hundred roses--one for each future year of my life I would commit to her--in a trail from the front door to our upstairs bedroom. The bed too was completely covered in rose petals, and the soft light of the room was supremely romantic.
That evening would prove to be the happiest of my life, and in our small apartment that night, every moment revolved around the happiness we each felt in loving one another.
I returned to duty on 6 January 2010, two days after our wedding. The heavy losses of the previous month forced us to reshuffle our squadron organization, and GYSGT White took over the remnants of Squad Two, composed of only two pilots--"Beowulf" Andresen and "Notso" Wise. Much to our relief, the alien attacks on our ship had all but stopped, and though the reprieve granted us was desperately needed, its meaning was not lost on us. Up to this point, our enemy had not been making a serious effort to destroy us. With the firepower at their disposal, there was nothing to stop them from wiping us out completely, and when our pursuers finally decided it was time, the end would come quickly.
After seven weeks away from combat flying, I found that I was quite rusty. Having been out of the loop for so long, I decided it was best to fly as Number Three for a time, giving Waylan and Josh the opportunity to take turns flying as leader--which not only helped them pad their scores, but provided them with some valuable combat leadership experience. As a result, my performance lagged behind that of my peers, and I was credited with only five kills for the entire month of May, bringing my total to twenty-nine. Others might have felt differently, but personal achievements were of little concern to me then. I was far more concerned with my wingmen and their development. In those few weeks I watched them mature as leaders, becoming more lethal and decisive with each mission. I could not have been more pleased with their progress. Waylan bagged eleven, bringing his total to fifty-two, and Josh flamed fifteen, bringing his total to an outstanding fifty-nine.
By this time, the Earth was beginning to get fairly large in the window, and we began to allow ourselves some hope. The enemy's attacks had all but stopped, and it appeared we might actually make it home. We wasted no time in taking the opportunity to replenish our withered defenses--building fighters, training pilots, and repairing shipboard damage. The lull in the fighting allowed our pilots the chance to rest and relax, and when the attacks resumed in mid-June, our squadrons were nearly back to full strength.
On 2 February 2010, our alien pursuers attacked the SDF-1 and destroyed the ship's main radar tower. Although all our communications systems were Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) units--which meant they had several features to insure against unauthorized interception during transmission--our foes had learned a thing or two about the English language. A tersely worded threat followed just minutes after the uncharacteristic attack, and we heard for the first time the name of our enemy--the "Zentraedi."
The attack itself was truly without precedent. Until this time, the Zentraedi had been perfectly comfortable in concentrating their attention on whittling away our fighter defenses. With the radar system destroyed, we were forced to rely on the less capable abilities of our ES-11 "Cat's Eye" Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEWACS) squadron. With a range of only four hundred miles the Cat's Eye Radar left much to be desired when compared to that of the SDF-1. On Earth, four hundred miles is a huge chunk of sky, but in space, it is not even a drop in the proverbial bucket, and our ability to fly effective intercepts was hindered dramatically.
The loss of the radar tower made it necessary to send our Cat's Eyes out on Reconnaissance and Threat Assessment (RATA) missions in order to determine what the Zentraedi were really up to. Probing into the Zentraedi fleet at distances over three thousand miles from the SDF-1, the chances of getting lost, attacked, or run out of fuel while flying RATA's were high, and they were without question the most hazardous duty one could face. Doubtless every fighter pilot aboard ship secretly hoped he would not be chosen as a RATA escort.
On 3 February 2010, I returned to my quarters to a cheerful message from Case on my answering machine. I called her at our apartment and heard the sweetest words any man can ever hear.
"Honey... You are going to be a daddy!" she said with a cheerfulness that cannot be described.
"I'm gonna' be a what?" I replied, dumbfounded.
"You are going to be a father!" she exclaimed.
"Wow!" was the most original thing I could manage to say.
I was overjoyed! Me! A father!! I couldn't believe it. Never had I considered it even a possibility, and yet, here it was, a reality. For over an hour we talked with each other, discussing potential names along with a thousand other things that people in the same situation do. After I hung up with her, I ran down the hallway shouting the news to anyone who cared to listen. Searching out Josh and Waylan for nearly an hour, I finally found them in the Ready Room. I was able to get through half a sentence before the expressions on their faces showed me that something drastic had occurred.
"Hey, I'm going to be--!" My smile disappeared. "What's wrong, Josh?" I asked, looking at him quizzically.
"Uh, Jake..." he said, choking back tears, his voice cracking. "I...I uh...don't know how to tell you this...but uhm..." he stammered, dropping his eyes to the ground.
Then Waylan continued, "Max is missing, Jake."
"Max is what?!" I exclaimed, wondering if the words I had just heard were part of some waking nightmare.
"He's missing. He disappeared around 0700 this morning with a Cat's Eye and two other fighters. We haven't heard from them since, and it doesn't look good," he said. "I'm sorry."
I stood there in stunned amazement. The joy I felt a moment before evaporated, tempered by the news that my good friend Max Sterling had disappeared. For several minutes I just stood there, staring in disbelief then staggered out of the Ready Room in a daze. When I finally realized where I was, I was on the bridge of the Prometheus. I spent the rest of the day there, waiting intently for my friend to return, and would have stayed up there for a month had Lieutenant's Carr and Brubaker not come up and escorted me to my quarters.
I went through shock, denial, and finally pure, unadulterated rage. I cursed aloud, banged my fists on the desk in my quarters, and hollered into my pillow as loudly as I could. It didn't seem possible that the greatest fighter pilot anyone had ever seen could be dead. There was just no way.
I called Case at our apartment and choked back tears. My friend Max was gone, and there was nothing I could do about it. I cursed Fate for taking this great warrior away from us, and I would soon regret doing so.
My life was about to become a living Hell.
Chapter Seventeen - Complications
The loss of Max Sterling dealt a severe blow to morale of the SDF-1's fighter pilot community--particularly for the first cruise ("nugget") pilots. As far as we nuggets were concerned, Max was the fulcrum upon which every endeavor rested, and the yardstick by which everything was measured. Of all the fighter pilots aboard ship--the legendary Roy Fokker notwithstanding--Max was not only the most skilled, but the most well-liked and respected. His loss was felt by all, and we each began to wonder if our numbers would come up before we made it home. After all, if Max Sterling--"Igloo," "The Flying Genius," "The Blue Devil"--could buy the farm, what was there to keep the rest of us from doing the same? This may not seem in keeping with the macho fighter pilot stereotype, but it was a pervasive attitude aboard ship, and demonstrated not only how important Max was, but how poorly morale had sunken in recent weeks.
I was badly shaken up by the loss of Max. It was a strange feeling riding the elevator to the flight deck on my first mission after his disappearance. VF teams were launched in Ring Order--that is, BARCAP Ring One fighters were launched first, then Ring Two, and finally Ring Three. Most of the time I would reach the flight deck at about the same time Max's Vermilion Team was being bolted to their catapults. Searching for the familiar blue-trimmed Valkyrie, I saw in its place a tan colored VF-1A. The reality finally set in then and there. Max Sterling was gone.
I flew into a rage, repeatedly slamming my right fist against the canopy of my Veritech, cursing into my facemask. I swore then and there to do something to avenge Max's death. Those Zentraedi bastards would pay! Damn them all to hell!
As it turned out, my chance for vengeance would have to wait for several days. The lull in the Zentraedi attacks continued uninterrupted, and although I continued to be frustrated in my attempts to break my hitless streak, we could not have asked for a better time for them to take a vacation. The usually reliable Cat's Eyes were hit with a rash of unexplained electronics problems resulting in some sizable holes in our radar screen. Each blind spot in the radar net was covered at all times by two squadrons of Veritechs operating in six-hour shifts. On station arrival times were overlapped so that every three hours one squadron in each sector was relieved, and all squadrons pulled one shift every twelve hours. Operating on less than six hours of sleep between missions, it wasn't long before nerves began to get testy.
The Zentraedi cease-fire lasted until the morning of February 28th. My squadron's shift was just about to end, and after nearly six hours of searching the blackness my eyes began to wander, drifting over toward the Earth. About twice the size of my thumbnail, it was a beautiful color of blue with clouds swirling all over it. I had an urge to turn my fighter in that direction and just make a mad dash for it. I began to calculate the distance in my head. If I accelerated out I could reach it in just under...
A black dot flashed in front of the planet and disappeared. Then two more. I snapped bolt upright in my seat.
"Fast Eagle Lead from Two Zero Niner, three bogies just flashed past our ten o'clock."
After a quick scan of the area "Nine from One, no joy. Break. Gunfighter Lead this is Fast Eagle Lead, I've got three bogies heading your way, over," Carr returned.
"Fast Eagle One from Gunfighter One, roger."
I leaned over my left shoulder and scanned the starry darkness. I saw nothing. Our radars probed the area in front of us, but they too returned nothing. Another glance in the Earth's direction and I saw more dots. I stole a look at the center MFD on my instrument panel. Normally we would fly with our radars on standby to reduce the chances of being detected by the enemy, relying on a data link from the SDF-1's radar to detect enemy fighters. Because of the holes in the radar screen, however, we were forced to fly with our radars actively probing for enemy activity. This served mainly to increase our detectability to the enemy--they new where we were by sensing our radar emissions and if they wanted to, could simply go around us. My screen was blank. We were being jammed!
"One from nine, I've got bogies, ten o'clock. Silhouetted against the Earth," I called excitedly.
"Tallyho, I've got 'em. Fast Eagles come left to zero-three-zero. Break. Golden Eye, this is Fast Eagle Two Zero One, we've got bogies off the three-three-zero, four-zero, four-five-zero miles, inbound heading one-eight-zero, over."
Without radar coverage in our area there was little the defense controller could do except try to plug the hole with more fighters. The alert aircraft were without a doubt being launched, and throughout the ship crewmen were manning anti-aircraft artillery and missile batteries.
As we headed toward the Earth, more specks passed in front of it. Finally, my radar began to give some intermittent returns. Six blips appeared, identified as Gnerl Fighter Pods, followed closely by two dozen more of various types.
"Ninety-nine Fast Eagle, check knockers up."
I went through the motions of making sure everything was "hot" and prepared for the battle ahead. I went over my checklist three different times to be sure, verifying that everything was ready. Master arm...on. Fuel pumps...on. ECM's...active. Harnesses...secure. These items, among other things, were part of the litany I had long ago learned backwards, forwards and sideways.
The adrenaline surge was again present, and I shuddered as it rushed through my veins. Once again the game was about to become reality. As we closed on the bandits my HUD lit up with halos and my helmet began to give off tones and growls as missiles locked onto their targets.
"Alright Fast Eagles, let's do it. Stick together as long as you can. Sort standard. Fire at will, gentlemen," Lieutenant Carr commanded.
We closed rapidly on the enemy formation. The Stiletto's lethality cone extended out to sixty miles in space--about twice that of its alien counterpart--which meant that the likelihood of a hit, no matter what the enemy did to evade it, was nearly 99%. As the halos on my HUD changed from yellow to red, and finally to diamonds, I fired three Stiletto's at the attacking Zentraedi formation. As the missiles streaked forward, the group of about eighty Gnerls and Regults, stacked in an inverted V of three-ship deltas, split up--half heading for the SDF-1 and the other half staying to tangle with us.
The missiles found their mark and bright flashes--like firecrackers--lit up the dark sky. I screamed through the formation with my teammates as pieces of debris bounced off my wings and canopy. I heard Lieutenant Carr make a call to Gunfighter Lead in the hopes he would be able to intercept the group of pods that had flashed past us on an intercept course for the SDF-1. I pulled back on the stick, following Lieutenant Sprabary up and over the Zentraedi formation and wondered how so many had managed to slip by undetected before I spotted them.
As I looked through the top of my canopy I found myself relieved to be fighting Gnerls. Although heavily armed and extremely fast--in a straight line--they were lightly armored and about as maneuverable as the Empire State Building. It did not take many rounds to turn one into a Roman Candle, and if a Valkyrie pilot could force a Gnerl into a turning engagement his chances of success improved exponentially.
As we dove down on the enemy fighters, they split in all directions, and Lieutenant Sprabary called for our team to break. Switching to Guardian mode, we formed an overlapping triangle with our gun pods, covering each others' tails as best we could, until the sheer number of enemy fighters forced us to fend for ourselves. As the menacing green pods rushed past us on all sides, bright yellow flashes from cannon and laser fire lit up the starry sky like some kind of sadistic video game. I jinked back and forth in a desperate effort to avoid a collision, but the effort seemed utterly futile. It was like dodging rain drops and I knew that it was only a matter of seconds before I became part owner of a Raloun've Fighter Pod.
Sweat stung my eyes and splattered against my faceplate, but I couldn't afford to take my hands off the controls long enough to wipe either. I fired a pair of missiles, closing one eye, then the other in order to see. A huge flash in front of me marked the end of a pair of pods. All around me, Gnerls and Veritechs flitted around in a macabre death dance. I still couldn't see very well, and simply yanked the stick around to keep myself from being a stationary target.
As I rolled to the left a group of Gnerls charged at me in a head on pass, guns blazing. At that moment I thought I would die--blinded by the sweat that was running rampant inside my helmet--but I was wrong. Lieutenant Sprabary's Valkyrie screamed in on me from the left, the gaggle of pods disintegrating in its wake. His timely and brilliant attack had given me the breathing room I needed to disengage. Shoving the throttles past the afterburner detent I extended out of the combat area at maximum acceleration. After clearing my tail I quickly wiped the salty liquid out of my eyes before making another run into the furball that had erupted only moments before.
Switching back into Fighter mode, I reefed my Valk around to re-engage the attacking pods. Rolling in behind a pair of them, I fired a burst from the GU-11 gun pod. The Gnerls disintegrated under the storm of 55 mm bullets. As I flew through the debris, I strained over my shoulder for a glimpse at my six o'clock and saw a Gnerl cut loose a bracket of missiles at me. A few of them exploded as they struck the debris from the first pair of pods, but the balance was firmly committed to nailing me. My helmet was screaming a warning as my sensors tracked the missiles. I switched again into Guardian mode, jinking and launching flares for all I was worth. As the legs swung forward, my heat signature diminished greatly, thereby improving the chances that the flares would distract the missiles.
Continuing to yank my fighter back and forth, a bright flash reflected off my cockpit mirrors as the missiles detonated against the flares, and I immediately slammed my Valk over to the left, stomping on the right rudder pedal to yaw the Guardian around to the right. As my GU-11 came to bear on the enemy fighter I fired a half-second burst. It was all that was required. The pod exploded into a half million pieces, debris flying in all directions.
I rammed the throttles to max power, reconfiguring into Battloid mode as cannon fire tore through the sky I had occupied just seconds before. A Gnerl flashed past beneath my Battloid's feet close enough to touch, just as a group of three attacking Fighter Pods barreled in from my right. Rotating backward in a half somersault, I screamed out of Harm's Way, firing between my Valk's legs at the first pod. The transuranic rounds struck home, stitching a line of holes into the fighter's canopy, which disintegrated with a flash of light. I did not have time to enjoy my victory, however, as a second group of pods came charging in hell bent on ramming me. In a near panic, I closed my eyes and salvoed all seven of my remaining missiles. A huge explosion erupted, engulfing my Valk in a short-lived fireball, pieces of steel glancing off my fighter.
And just like that, it was over. The three pods were nothing but chunks of charred metal, and as I spun my Battloid around to get a bead on the situation, I found myself completely and totally alone. It was incredible how quickly one could get spit out of a fight. One moment you found yourself completely surrounded, a few short moments from death, and the next you found nothing but a surreal calmness. No warning lights demanding attention, no creaking from an airframe stressed to its limits, no growls from missiles demanding to be set loose on an unsuspecting target. Just a disturbing silence.
"Ninety-nine Fast Eagles, check-in," came Carr's accented order.
"Two." That was 2LT Plog.
"Three." 2LT Ray.
"Four." 2LT Sprabary.
"Six." 1SGT Tarango, now Squad One's second fire team leader.
"Seven." GYSGT White--"Gunny Honky"--leading the remnants of Squad Two.
"Eight," quipped SSGT Mitchell, Tarango's number two.
"Nine," I replied.
"Ten," came Josh's call. I was glad to see he had pulled through.
"Eleven." To my relief, Waylan, too, was okay.
"Twelve." LCPL James "Beowulf" Andresen.
"Fourteen." CPL Thomas "Notso" Wise.
The missing numbers--five, thirteen, and fifteen--were of course the members of our squadron that had departed us--Sherman, Clements, Takamura.
"Ninety-nine Fast Eagle, form up. I'm off the three-five-zero, one-zero radials, four-zero-five miles."
I pulled my Valk around and headed it in the direction of Carr's position. I did not realize how far away I had drifted during my short fight, and five minutes elapsed before I caught sight of the squadron's eight other fighters, stacked neatly in a descending right echelon. Sliding in behind them, I moved up to my position between Sprabary and Josh.
"Okay Fast Eagles, let's run through the checks," Carr called to us. "Report any damage to me immediately."
As ordered I did a quick check of my status. Fuel and ammo were fine, but my number two engine was running a bit hot. I chose to remain silent, a foolish decision. Fortunately, my pride would not hurt me this time.
We continued to patrol without incident until Lieutenant Brubaker's squadron arrived on station as our relief. After exchanging the customary pleasantries, Carr broke us off smartly, and we returned to the Prometheus for our recovery.
I climbed out of my Veritech and stole a glance at the number of kill markings along my canopy sill. There were now twenty-nine of them, lined in two rows of ten and one of nine. It was a heady sight.
"How many did you get this time, boss?" Philo inquired.
"I dunno," I said, handing him my helmet with a wink. "Bad luck to count 'em."
Officially I was credited with eight kills--my highest total since my first mission fluke. Clearly this was not proper vengeance for the loss of Max Sterling, but at least I was able to extract some retribution for his death.
My total now stood at thirty-seven.
I headed to my quarters, exhausted. Case had left a message for me to call her when I got back. I was worn out, with barely enough energy to dial her number. She was glad to hear I had come home ok.
"I'm going to see the doctor tomorrow. Checkup time," she cooed. I could hear the smile on her face.
"Ah, me a daddy. You a mommy. Wild isn't it?" I said smiling.
"It sure is. Oh, I love you so much," she said.
"And I love you, too, baby."
"See you tomorrow," she said.
"You bet. Goodnight my love," I said to her.
I set the phone in the cradle and was asleep before I hit the pillow.
The next morning I made my way down to the Ready Room for the morning briefing and found out that Waylan, Josh, and I had all been recommended for promotion.
"I could sure use the raise," I noted to Josh, wryly.
"Yeah, but you'll be calling me 'Sir,' buster" he said, jabbing a finger into my chest.
"Actually, I'd be senior, you little worm. When's your birthday?"
"September 9th," he said.
"Ha!! April 2nd. I'd be senior, bonehead. When's your birthday, Donny?" I asked.
"July 5th," replied Waylan.
I laughed aloud. "You wankers. You better hope they lose my paper work or else you'll be working for me!" I said, striking a Napoleonic pose.
"Not on your life, asshole!" Waylan said, as we burst into laughter.
"Attention on deck!" came the call from the back of the Ready Room. We all snapped to attention as Lieutenant Carr marched up the aisle dividing the two sections of theater seats.
"As you were, gentlemen," he said.
With those words, the briefing began.
The mission was uneventful. After six hours of sitting in the Valk's ejection seat my rear end felt like lead, and I was anxious to get out of it. After unstrapping myself from the seat and my kneeboard from myself, I handed my helmet to Philo, who had clambered up the cockpit boarding ladder.
"Boss, the Chaplain wants to talk to you right away," he said.
"The Chaplain?" I asked, somewhat surprised. "What gives?"
"I dunno, Corporal. He just said he needs to talk to you right away."
"Ok, Philo. Thanks," I said, a feeling of dread enveloping me.
After clambering out of the cockpit, I walked over to the Chaplain and saluted him. "Commander," I said.
"Please, stand at ease," he said, returning my salute. "I've got some very serious news for you, son. Your wife is in surgery--there's been a problem. I'm to escort you to the hospital right away. Don't worry about changing out of your flight suit, we'll leave immediately. Lieutenant Carr will be informed of the reason for your absence."
My blood ran cold, draining out of my face, as tears welled up in my eyes. I almost passed out there on the hangar deck, but summoned up the fortitude to make my way to the Chaplain's jeep.
We sped away to the hospital.
When I arrived at the emergency room the doctors briefed me on the situation. During Rebeckah's morning checkup her blood work returned abnormal. Further tests revealed cervical and ovarian cancer of an aggressive nature--an astronomical rarity for someone Case's age--requiring immediate, emergency surgery. In the doctor's words it was "a miracle that she conceived at all." Two hours after walking into the doctor's office for a routine pregnancy checkup, my beloved Case was under the knife.
I waited over five hours in the ICU for her to wake up from the surgery, but briefing time was fast approaching and I could not wait around any longer. As I kissed her on the forehead I looked at her face. I just couldn't stand the idea of living my life without her, and I collapsed into a fit of sobbing and tears. It seemed that everything I was at this moment was because of her. She had supported me, encouraged me...believed in me when I didn't believe in myself...and life without her would be too much of a burden to bear. I touched her hand, then made my way out of the hospital, completely in a daze.
Life had suddenly lost a lot of its value.
Chapter Eighteen - Sad Goodbyes
Rebeckah's hospitalization could not have come at a worse time. The Zentraedi had once again stepped up their assault on the SDF-1, and the closer we came to Earth, the more determined they appeared to be to prevent us from getting there. Day after day the attacks increased in intensity and frequency, and our already weary fighter pilots were quickly pushed to their limits. Our maintenance personnel did the best they could, but the condition of our Valks mirrored that of those who flew them. Spare parts stocks were at a critically low level, and those fighters that managed to get aloft were in anything but ideal shape. I recall flying many a mission with dead vernier thrusters, engines that wouldn't produce full power, burnt out Multi-Function Displays, an inoperative radar system, electrical problems... The result was an even higher price than usual paid for defense of our lonely ship, and though Spring Break was just around the corner, there was little cause for celebration among the adolescent fighter pilot contingent.
Our depleted fighter defenses left little time for anything other than flying, fighting, and fixing broken down jets. All fighter pilots were placed on a twenty-four hour alert status, and though I could not be spared time off to attend to my beautiful wife, I was with her as often as my physical state would allow. I spent every non-flight hour in that hospital during the days following Case's surgery, napping in a chair beside her bed--dirty flight suit notwithstanding--and her condition did not appear good.
It was soon discovered that Beki's initial surgery was not extensive enough. Further testing showed that the cancer, fed by the hormones produced by Rebeckah's young body, had already spread and attacked her other reproductive organs before the first surgery was even attempted. The disease was so far advanced that the doctors could guarantee that further surgery would be successful only if the cancer had not spread throughout her body. As it stood there was no choice but to remove Rebeckah's disease-ridden reproductive system, and we lost the baby. It was a sad day for us both--although I was far more concerned with the well being of my dear Case--and she took the news very harshly.
"Oh, Jake," she cried. "I wanted so much to give you beautiful children. I'm so sorry." Her voice cracked.
I held her and tried to assure her it was ok, but she was completely beside herself. Her eyes, once the most beautiful color of blue, had turned the color of a winter storm cloud, and I could sense the will to live slipping away from her.
"Case, please. Please hold on. You have got to fight this thing, sweetheart. Please fight!" I held her close as her tears continued to pour out. There was little else for me to do, and at that moment I fancied the thought of my own death. Once again, life had taken a tragic turn for the worse...
The one bright spot in an otherwise dreary month was the return of Max Sterling and company. That they made it home at all--not to mention alive--was itself a matter of Divine intervention.
On the day of Max's return, Ogre Team was flying as part of BARCAP Ring One. A large fight had erupted well off to our right, and as we prepared to be sent in that direction, a flash of light caught my attention. It was moving far too fast--in the wrong direction--to be a Veritech.
"Ogre One from Two, I've got a bogie at 5 o'clock, heading one niner zero, padlocked," I called, as I turned my fighter toward the enemy craft. A pilot who calls padlocked is stating that he must maneuver immediately to maintain visual contact, and so all other aircraft in the formation must give way.
"Two from one, no joy. She's all yours," came Sprabary's call.
I lost visual contact with the craft and switched my view to the radar screen on my console. The radar was unable to identify the bogie, and it later turned out to be a never before seen type of Zentraedi mecha--the Quaedluun-Rau. As I watched, the target zoomed across my screen in a zigzag pattern, then disappeared out of range.
Sprabary made a call to Skull Team, already engaged in another fight. As the new fighter zoomed in on the SDF-1 it left a swath of destruction in its wake. The reaction to the new fighter was best summed up by our SCAG, LCDR Roy Fokker, who exclaimed, "What the hell was that?!"
No one knew.
The battle was short-lived but ferocious, and as it would later turn out, designed to distract the fighter defenses long enough to plant three Zentraedi spies--Rico, Bron, and Konda--aboard our ship. It worked brilliantly, and as the last Zent fighter departed the area, we quickly realized the high cost of this engagement. As far as the eye could see, the sky was littered with death & debris--the remnants of broken battloids and battle pods.
On the return to Prometheus my fighter was struck by thousands of pieces of debris, and our place in the Marshall pattern was continually bumped back as fighters made emergency landings aboard ship. Looking down on the fighters as they landed, I was struck by the beauty of it all. Navigation lights twinkled like fireflies, and rotating pieces of debris reflected sunlight in staccato rhythms. That death could look so incredible was as ironic as anything I have ever seen.
Having arrived in the combat area last, we had the most fuel and were placed at the end of the line. The emergency tanker was orbiting nearby, and I watched a pair of Valks plug in before making their approaches to the ship. After orbiting in the Marshall pattern for over half an hour, I finally had my shot at the boat, and my pass was surprisingly uneventful--a textbook three wire trap.
After securing my fighter on the hangar deck, I removed my helmet and stared at the instrument panel. I was in a daze at the ironies that continued to confront me. My landing had been perfect, and my shooting could not have been better (four kills with a total of only fourty-seven rounds), yet my life was turning into a Greek tragedy, and I could not understand why. Thinking of my beloved wife dying in the hospital, I tuned out of reality for several minutes until Philo nudged me on the shoulder.
"Boss? Are you ok?"
"Wha-?" I looked around, confused.
"Are you ok, Corporal?" he asked again.
"Huh? Oh...oh, yeah. Yeah, I'm fine, Philo."
I was determined to appear composed, though one look at my eyes would have been enough to show that I was anything but composed.
"I just heard some good news that I think you'll be interested in, Corporal," he said.
For a split instant I fancied the thought that it might be about Case, but I was wrong.
"Commander Fokker and his team just captured a Zent Regult Pod," he said. "And you'll never guess what they found inside it."
"Yeah, I give. What did they find?" I was hardly interested in anything but my own problems, but I figured Philo was trying his best to cheer me up so I pretended to care.
"They found Max Sterling and his gang," he said with a smile.
"They what?!" I exclaimed.
"Yep! They found Max. He's back!"
I dashed over to a phone and made a call up to the bridge. Sure enough, Fokker had found Max Sterling. The Blue Devil was back.
Case's condition continued to worsen as the SDF-1 approached Earth. Although cancer treatments had advanced over the years, they were anything but an exact science, and even the newest in localized radiation treatments could not guarantee a cure. Still, we were only three days from Earth, and it was hoped that once the SDF-1 landed safely Beckah could be shuttled to the Cancer Unit at St. Francis Hospital, Salt Lake City, the world's premier cancer treatment center. It was her only real chance.
As it was, my constant vigil was punctuated by visits from Waylan, Max, Josh, Lieutenant Brubaker, and others. My family, along with Beckah's, made sure that she was never alone.
Among friends, Lieutenant Brubaker seemed to take Case's condition to heart more than anyone. I am certain he looked upon the two of us with a parent's eye, and to see either of us in pain or peril was no doubt disconcerting to him. As he said goodbye to Beki on the morning of 11 July, she had no reason to believe it would be the last time she would see him. In hindsight, it was probably for the best.
The heavy losses sustained during the previous weeks, coupled with the inoperable radar system, forced us to eliminate the outer BARCAP ring. There simply were not enough pilots to plug all the holes, and so we had no choice but to move everything in a notch. This did not sit well with the fighter pilots, seeing as how the short notice afforded us with the outer ring intact would be lost. Though not enough to allow for effective interceptions without radar guidance, the short amount of time saved by having the first ring up was better than having none at all.
We were a sad lot, the fighter pilots of the SDF-1. You could see it in the unshaven faces and the dragging footsteps. The tempo of our operations was at a level never before seen, and just when it seemed we would reach our breaking point, the enemy pressed us ever harder.
The familiar story of an attack by superior forces was repeated on the 8th of March. With Lieutenant Brubaker leading the afternoon BARCAP, the ragged out fighter force was in as capable hands as any aboard the SDF-1, and the VF teams fought a brave fight. It was not long, however, before the onslaught decimated the ranks of the haggard Veritech pilots, as one by one they died under Zentraedi guns.
I had just reached the hospital from my own patrol when the alert went out. With legs and eyelids as heavy as lead weights, I made a mad dash out of the hospital, hurdling stretchers loaded with patients on their way to the operating room. Scrambling out to my jeep--which had been graciously loaned by Lieutenant Carr--I screamed out of the parking lot on my way to the Prometheus.
Slewing the jeep into a corner of the hangar bay, I hit the deck running and made my way to my fighter. With my right fist I slammed the "Bang Button" inside the boarding ladder storage bay, and as I donned my harness and G-suit, the Valk went through its auto start sequence. By the time I reached the cockpit, all systems were online and ready to go.
After mounting up and strapping in, Philo handed me to the plane director and I proceeded up to the flight deck. Fighters were being slung into the vast blackness as I taxied into position behind one of the port waist catapults. In the distance, bright flashes of light punctuated the starry sky, and for a moment, I found myself disoriented, almost detached from what was happening about me.
The Cat stroked me off the deck and I immediately turned hard to port to clear the departure end of the carrier. I was joined by another pilot from an SDF-1 squadron, and together we made our way over to the combat area. After a quick assessment of the situation, we dove headlong into the fight. It was an utterly foolish move, but I was too exhausted to care. Doubtless my new wingman felt the same way.
Pods and Valk's chased one another in mad circles, each intent upon emerging victorious. I moved the pair of us into Battloid mode and we wasted no time in shooting everything that passed in front of us. It was the most intense fight I had ever been involved in, and, tired as I was, not once did my head, eyes, or hands stop moving. We danced all over the twilight sky, shooting pods, dodging cannon fire, and avoiding collisions in our efforts to protect each other.
During the wild melee I shot at everything that moved and rippled off a trio of missiles at a group of four Regult pods, destroying all four. Dodging to the left to avoid laser fire, I launched two more at another group then somersaulted forward and destroyed another pod with my GU-11. I stomped on the right pedal, then the left, jinking back and forth. Missile launch. Gun. Jink. Missile launch. Gun. Jink. Two more missiles, two more hits. A series of bursts with the gun pod destroyed several more Zentraedi fighters, and like Moses' parting of the Red Sea, the area was momentarily clear.
I was down to eleven rounds.
"Sand Pebble Two from One, Winchester." For this mission I had using "Sand Pebble" as my identifier, and I was informing my adopted wingman that I was out of ammo.
"Roger, One. Egress your discretion," he said.
I jammed the throttle to max power and exited the combat area in the direction of the SDF-1, the other pilot covering my tail. I had to get back aboard the Prometheus to rearm as quickly as possible.
Things were in complete disarray and I didn't feel I had enough time to go through the vagaries of a carrier landing pattern. Still in battloid mode, I approached the SDF-1 from below so as not to run into any fighters that might be in the pattern, and came up and into one of the SDF-1's starboard mecha bays, just as it was about to disgorge another pair of fighters.
With my intrepid companion in tow, I made my way to the hangar bay of the SDF-1 and grabbed a pair of GU-11's out of an ammunition locker. Handing one to my wingman, I took the other and charged back out of the hangar bay, heading in the direction of the fight I had just departed.
When we arrived on the scene the battle had ended, moved, or broken up, so we went looking for more game--which we found in the form of a large group of Regults heading away from the SDF-1. Emboldened by past successes, we again dove into the Zentraedi formation, sending pods scattering in all directions. Employing the same methods as before, the two of us set up shop in a particular area of the sky and hammered anything that entered into it. It wasn't long before the Zent's went looking for easier prey.
As we headed off to search for more targets, the SDF-1's fighter director instructed us to break off our attacks and return to force (RTF). My wingman and I had done amazingly well, and as we entered the Marshall pattern for Prometheus he flashed me a thumbs up, then broke away smartly, heading toward SDF-1's Marshall pattern. I had no idea who the pilot in the gold trimmed Veritech was, but he was one hell of a warrior.
It was an utterly perplexing conundrum. Tired, demoralized, and bitter were all words apt to describe me, yet my combat performance had reached a new level. I was officially credited with an astounding twenty-one kills for the two sorties that day--no fewer than twelve of them with the GU-11--bringing my total to sixty-two victories. Though not the highest two-mission total ever, it remains one of the most successful days ever by a single-seat fighter pilot. In my heart I know that my toll that day was even higher--perhaps by as much as a dozen. I was in a groove that I had not experienced before, and the irony was unmistakable.
Any feeling of satisfaction I might have felt was tempered, however, by the discovery that my friend and mentor, Lieutenant William Brubaker, had failed to return from the day's combat. It was a stunning reality I found impossible to believe. Nobody saw him hit. No one saw him in trouble. He simply vanished.
Second only to Roy Fokker in victories, Lieutenant Brubaker was among the most elite fighter pilots of any era, and his loss was a great shock to my fellow fighter pilots, casting a giant shadow upon our imminent return to Earth. The story behind Lieutenant Brubaker's disappearance would wait nearly five years for a resolution, and would cast a far larger shadow on the survivors of the SDF-1's maiden voyage.
I was inconsolable. My wife was dying, our baby was gone, and now the man who paved the way for my dream to become a reality was missing and presumed dead. It was almost too much. I went to my quarters and squalled for over an hour--I wanted to get it out of my system so that Casey would not be able to tell I was lying when I told her Brubaker was just too busy for a visit.
With no more tears to shed, I cleaned myself up as best I could, and made my way to the hospital. As I rode the elevator to the floor where Rebeckah was staying, an unshakable feeling of dread overcame me. The doors parted and I walked down the corridor toward Case's room. As I turned the corner I was greeted by the grim face of Case's doctor, and I could tell by his expression that things were not right.
Rebeckah Jane Casey-Framton, the beautiful and loving girl I had met on that hellish day in 2009, slipped into a coma and died at 3:44 p.m., March 10th, 2010. She was eighteen years old.
The news hit me like a freight train. I felt as if I was in the center of a nuclear explosion--searing heat, pain. The walls closed in and I found it all but impossible to breathe, as if a giant vise were crushing my lungs. With a heavy heart, I headed straight to my quarters, locked the door, and proceeded to cry like a baby--alone in my anguish. It was best that way...
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.
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