Part Five - Rolling
Chapter Twenty-three - Heroes and Legends
After celebrating our incredible and bizarre prank, events aboard ship turned tumultuous to say the least. In a dogfight on 8 June 2010, Max Sterling added yet another chapter to a story that was already legendary. Although it would be tough to top a feat such as the one he accomplished while trapped as an unwilling guest aboard a Zentraedi cruiser during his short stay on the "Missing, Presumed Dead" list in February--donning a Zentraedi uniform with his Veritech--nothing Max did ever failed to surprise anyone, and this day was no exception.
During an attack on the battle fortress, Max Sterling and Ben Dixon scrambled as part of a welcoming committee in defense of the giant ship. Lead by the great Roy Fokker, their opponents that day were composed almost entirely of the deadly Quaedluun-Rau. As the dogfight erupted, my squadron stood ready on the flight deck, prepared to scramble at a moment's notice.
The enemy attack was swift and sure, and our losses were tremendous. Never before had we seen a force as powerful as this, and within minutes, four of the SDF-1's senior-most fighter pilots had been killed or wounded, including Roy Fokker. As Max gave chase, one of the Quaedluun-Rau made a run on the SDF-1. Lieutenant's Carr, Plog, and Sprabary, along with my own team, were launched to intercept the enemy fighter. The cats took twelve seconds to fire the six of us into the air, but the attempt proved to be in vain--we didn't even have time to retract our landing gear before the Zentraedi craft flew into one of the SDF-1's supply corridor hatches. Although Captain Gloval had ordered the hatches sealed, the order was not carried out in time to prevent the enemy ship from entering. Worse still, the decision to close the hatches nearly prevented any of us from getting in to stop it.
Enter the inimitable Max Sterling. As the doors closed, Max screamed into the hatch with no room to spare. (Inspection of his fighter would show that his margin of error was indeed absolute zero--the paint from the upper surfaces of his vertical stabilizers had been scraped off by the closing hatch!!!) As the Quaedluun-Rau tore through the city, Max gave chase. The enemy fighter blasted through downtown Macross City, toppling buildings, mowing over signs and lamp posts, and generally causing a great mess. With precision that was his trademark, Max calmly lined the fleeing enemy ship up in his sights and cut loose with his GU-11. A dozen well placed shots knocked the heavily armored ship off balance, and it slammed onto the street, buckling the pavement. The alien fighter absorbed a tremendous amount of damage, and that it did not explode is a great testament to the strength of its design.
Riddled with holes, the Quaedluun-Rau stood slowly and turned to face Max's Battloid, the latter with gunpod at the hip like a gunfighter from the Old West. An overhead hatch was opened, and the alien, unwilling to do further combat, made a mad dash for the roof, leaving a large volley of missiles in its wake. Max gave chase until ordered to return to base, and the alien strike force withdrew as quickly as it had appeared.
For us, the battle was anything but a great victory. Two out of every seven fighters that sortied failed to return to the ship and a good many that did were in bad shape. Roy Fokker was seriously injured and would die as a result of wounds suffered in the day's combat. Two other top ranking pilots were killed, and a third--Prometheus' Air Wing Executive Officer--gravely wounded in the fight, making Lieutenant Carr the senior aviator aboard ship. With the loss of so many of our high-ranking aviators, Carr was promoted to Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) and given command of Prometheus' Air Group--and as senior aviator, became the Senior Air Group Commander (SCAG), commanding both the Prometheus and SDF-1 Air Groups. Our squadron was suddenly catapulted to prominence, and our workload doubled as we took on the most important missions.
Although Commander Carr would still fly with our squadron, 2LT Plog took over as Squadron Commander and was promoted to First Lieutenant. 2LT Ray became the new X.O., and "Ogre" Sprabary became our new Liaison Officer. Waylan, Josh, and I were promoted to Staff Sergeant, and I was posted to the position of Squadron Operations Officer. "Notso" Wise also was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and took over as Safety Officer, a job both Waylan and Josh turned down, having chosen instead to stay with me. Had they accepted the opportunity it would have been a fine career move for them, and I was deeply moved by their selfless gestures--not to mention grateful to keep these two fine warriors as my wingmen. They had protected my tail flawlessly on mission after mission, and the cohesion and comradeship that had formed between us was second to none. Flying with new wingmen would have been highly disconcerting.
As it stood, things slowed to a snail's pace. Aside from the occasional airspace intrusion by a probing enemy recon force, the next ten days were mostly uneventful. That all changed on 25 June 2010 however, when events of a more serious nature took center stage.
I had launched with LCDR Carr as cover for a Cat's Eye RATA mission. Our task was to probe the upper limits of the atmosphere in an attempt to ascertain the strength and location of the Zentraedi forces orbiting the planet. The SDF-1's radar system had again gone down, and the Cat's Eyes were performing RATAs on a regular basis.
The mission went off without a hitch. The Cat's Eye collected a wealth of valuable data, and we departed our patrol area with the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. We descended out of the dark sky, the curvature of the Earth distinct from our high altitude, and everything seemed to be in order. As we passed through thirty-five thousand feet, the sky was calm, clear, and blue, and the sun's rays provided a reassuring warmth that brought to mind the careless summer days of my youth. This was what I was born to do, and I savored the wonder of the moment. I thought of Case and of the knowledge that I would be a father. A smile crept onto my face. It was a wonderful day to be alive.
We formed up on the two ES-11D's, and headed for home. My GAPS showed seven hundred miles to go, and I had just settled in for the final leg of our mission when Commander Carr made a call that caused the hair on my neck to stand up.
ES-11D "Cats Eye" AEWACS
"Panther Two from Panther Leader, I've got a problem here. I show a reactor venting plasma. Better drop down and look me over." "Panther Leader" was the Prometheus Air Group Commander call sign and his wingman was known as "Panther Two." Anyone who heard the call sign "Panther Leader" would instantly know it was LCDR Carr.
My blood ran cold. "Lead from Panther Two, roger," I said, sliding my fighter underneath Carr's. Sweeping slowly from right to left, I strained upward for a glimpse of anything amiss with the Commander's aircraft. I could see a streak of fluorescent green liquid seeping out of the port engine bay, but everything else appeared to be in order. "Lead from Two, I see a coolant leak from your number one engine. The leak appears to be moderate, over."
"Roger Two. Coolant level shows okay. Temperature okay. Standby one."
I moved back out to Carr's port wing and listened for his next call. We flew along in the still air for several minutes before he updated his situation.
"Two from One, it's a coolant leak. Coolant level now critical. Reactor temperature is in the upper limit of the yellow arc. I'm losing magnetic containment now, too. I think she's going to come apart."
"Better shut her down, CAG."
"I already have," he said.
"Shit," I cursed. With the reactor shut down the temperature should have stopped climbing. That it did not showed that things were indeed seriously wrong--Carr's reactor was a "runaway," an almost unheard of condition for a fusion turbine. "Roger, CAG. Better make the call, sir," I said.
He paused for a moment, then replied, "Roger. Button Three."
I switched my primary radio to Button Three and listened to Carr's communication with the SDF-1's approach controller.
"Home Plate, Panther Leader. Inbound off the Fountain one-four-zero for six-four-five. I've got a reactor problem that is rapidly becoming critical. Request a rescue helo standby, over."
"Roger Panther Leader, this is Homeplate. Rescue helo, Angel Seven Three Three, now departing. Would you like to declare an emergency, over?"
"Uh, Panther Leader, negative, ah...stand by one."
I watched the Lieutenant's head duck into the cockpit, his hands moving about frantically.
"Two from One, I've got a serious problem in here," he said to me before continuing. "Mayday...Mayday...Mayday...This is Panther Leader, Fountain one-four-zero for six-one-one. I've got a severe, repeat, severe reactor failure. Request you expedite that helo, over."
"Panther Leader from Home Plate, roger. That helo is now outbound, ETA is about ninety minutes, over."
"Say again, Home Plate."
"Panther Leader from Home Plate, Angel Seven Three Three's ETA is ninety, repeat, niner-zero minutes, over."
"Roger, understand. Nine zero minutes."
"Christ," I muttered to myself. Though winter in the northern part of the South Pacific was not known for its brutality, I worried about the effects of exposure. As it stood, ninety minutes was no cake walk, but assuming radioactive containment, it was a survivable length of time to bob in a raft or life jacket under the current conditions so long as the sharks weren't biting.
"Skipper, I think you ought'a punch out of there, now," I said.
"Negative, Yah-Yah. I'm going to have to take her down."
I wondered what kind of problem would force him to stay in his fighter instead of ejecting. I could think of nothing and simply replied with a confused, "Rog."
The Commander lowered the nose of his fighter and plunged toward the ocean below. I stuck right on his port wing and descended with him. He updated his position to the ship as I read the emergency checklist to him item by item. At two hundred feet he leveled off and began to decelerate, wanting to impact the water at the lowest airspeed possible. As I watched, his canopy flew off, whipping backwards in the airstream toward a violent impact with the sea. Moving my Valk over to starboard, I slowed my fighter right along with my leader's aircraft, which was now below and to the left of me. With a giant plume of white ocean spray, Carr's Valkyrie smacked into the water, breaking in half just ahead of the engine intakes. It sank instantly in a ring of white foam and debris.
"Panther Two to Home Plate. Panther Leader just ditched. Aircraft sank immediately," I said, my voice trembling as I racked my fighter into a hard left turn, straining for a glimpse of a raft or dye marker. Orbiting over Carr's position, I searched vainly for any sign of him. After two orbits, I decided I had to do something drastic.
"Panther Two to Home Plate. I'm going down to search for CAG. Standby."
I slammed the configuration lever into "B" and transformed my Veritech into Battloid mode. Selecting "Hostile" on the environment control panel, I reverted to internal reaction mass and life support, then descended toward the water. Trying my best to be deliberate, I hovered momentarily over the ocean waves. The heat from my exhaust boiled away the seawater and covered my Battloid in a giant cloud of steam. Going to idle on the throttles, I dropped into the water and flipped on my shoulder mounted, high-intensity spotlights.
Using my vernier thrusters as I sank deeper into the ocean, I maneuvered around as best I could in search of my CAG. He had enough oxygen in his ejection seat pan to last perhaps five minutes, but no more, and if I didn't reach him soon, it would be an academic exercise. Quite simply, the deeper his fighter sank, the more pressure would be exerted on it. If the fighter sank far enough Carr would be crushed like a grape, and I had to get to him before then.
I descended further into the sea, trying my best to locate the canopy section. The cavitation caused by the exhaust of my engines made control almost impossible. The light diminished rapidly as my Veritech sank deeper into the ocean, and I realized to my despair that Carr's fighter had sunk too far for me to reach it. A pair of bright red lights on the engine instrument cluster ominously flashed the word "TEMP" at me, as the turbines began to overheat. To add to an already dangerous situation, my Valkyrie began to "oil can" as the pressure of the increased depth pushed in on it, and I knew then that I had to abandon my rescue attempt. If I pressed on any further my Veritech would begin to come apart. As my fighter began to creak and groan, I reluctantly decided to abandon my efforts and head back toward the surface.
With surgical precision, I moved the thrust levers slowly up toward 100% power, doing my best to keep my Battloid facing upright. It was a struggle, and required maximum control inputs in every direction just to keep from darting off uncontrollably on some random vector. The surrounding water began to lighten rapidly, and with my back to the sky, I shot out of the ocean at a forty-five degree angle like an ICBM from a ballistic missile submarine. Going to Guardian, I took my airspeed up to one hundred twenty knots, then switched into Fighter mode and headed back toward Carr's location.
VF-1 "Valkyrie" in Guardian Mode
I orbited the area for another hour, hoping in vain for the Commander to pop up to the surface. The plane guard helo arrived just before sunset, but it was clearly a wasted effort. As the sun began to sink below the horizon, I reluctantly decided it was time to return to the ship. With a final pass over the spot where Commander Carr's Veritech had ditched, I turned to escort the helo back to the carrier.
There was no doubt about it: Lieutenant Commander Jacien George Carr...veteran...mentor...and beloved leader...was dead.
After landing aboard the Prometheus, I reported the day's events to the Debriefing Officer. I felt horrible at my failure to save my skipper, and cursed myself viciously. To this day I still feel the guilt that comes with believing I could have saved him if only I had acted more quickly, or pushed my attempt a little further. Almost immediately, I began to second-guess every aspect of the events that had just transpired. I was puzzled by the Commander's refusal to eject from his aircraft. Surely ejection would have increased his chances of survival astronomically. It just didn't make sense. After long moments pondering this question to no avail, I decided to seek out Lieutenant Plog to see if he had the answer, and his revelation on the subject was stunning.
"Commander Carr had a bad back--an injury from that fight over Macross Harbor. He was able to fake his way past the flight physical and into the cockpit, but his back was a complete mess. An ejection would have crippled--hell...it may have even killed him. He knew that. If you want my opinion, I think the impact from the ditching killed him, Yah Yah," he said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "You couldn't have done anything to save him."
All I could do was shake my head slowly in wide-eyed amazement as he spoke. When he finished, I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes and face to clear the cobwebs caused by what Plog had told me, unable to believe the courage LCDR Carr had displayed for so long. Each time he flew, Carr's well being depended entirely on the condition of his fighter. If anything went wrong with his Veritech there was a good chance he would end up dead or in a wheelchair, and he launched on every mission with that knowledge. He was, in effect, a Kamikaze on each sortie he flew, and the thought was sobering.
We often talk about service, self-sacrifice, warriors and heroes. Indeed we use these words so frequently that they quickly lose all meaning. Jacien George Carr did more than merely give those words meaning--he was the essence of their definition. Carr was a special kind of hero. He epitomized all of the qualities one could want in a warrior, leader, and human being, and like too many others, he died before his time. He was an upstanding, noble person, and his loss was not only a loss for the men who served under him, but for mankind as a whole.
William Brubaker, Roy Fokker, Jacien Carr... Their deaths diminished us all, and with their passing, humanity lost a good share of what little brightness in it remained.
Chapter Twenty-four - Overload
With the loss of Commander Carr, Max's Squadron Commander, Second Lieutenant Rick Hunter, new rank tabs on his collar, took over as Senior Air Group Commander. Hunter's promotion caused quite a stir aboard ship because he was picked over several other senior fighter pilots, including First Lieutenant Plog. The majority of the RDFN pilots--myself included--felt the move was a political one made by the higher ups at the expense of the naval contingent. Some cynics even went so far as to suggest that Carr's death was due to sabotage. Although I did not subscribe to this view, one thing was for certain, the fast track to promotion now rested firmly in being with the SPACY.
I had nothing against Rick Hunter, and had little doubt that he was a capable leader. He was a highly decorated pilot, and having survived being trapped aboard a Zentraedi vessel not once, but twice, was considered one of the SDF-1's great heroes. He was an ace several times over, and his Vermilion Team was one of the hottest on the ship. Though this was due in large part to the exploits of Max Sterling, Lieutenant Hunter received the credit, and his closeness with Roy Fokker only added to his chances for promotion. I was disturbed by the decision of the higher ups to promote a junior aviator over so many senior ones, but my job was not to ask questions--mine was to follow orders.
The rift between the Navy and SPACY pilots did not have long to grow. Captain Gloval's conference with the UEG was anything but a success, and as if to place a rubber stamp on it, the Governing Council refused to allow the civilians to leave the ship. So as not to panic the people of Earth, the story behind the SDF-1's disappearance was attributed to an attack by the Anti-Unification League. The world government claimed that Macross Island had been destroyed and all the island's residents were declared dead. The political ramifications--not to mention the panic--that would have resulted from fifty thousand dead people suddenly returning to their homes, then explaining to their friends and family that Earth was under attack by alien forces, would have been tremendous. In order to protect its credibility, the UEG was adamant that the SDF-1 keep the civilians aboard indefinitely.
This did not sit well with Captain Gloval. A sympathetic man to the core, he was truly concerned with the well being of the citizens of Macross City. Long months of agonizing negotiations had been met with stonewalling, demands, and counter demands. When he received word that the civilians would not be allowed to leave, Gloval flew into a rage--something he did not often do--and ordered the battle fortress into the air. An emergency briefing for the fighter pilots revealed some of the details of Gloval's plan to get the civilians off the SDF-1 and back to their families--and we found ourselves united once again, bound together by a common cause.
Setting a course for the North American Quadrant and the continental United States, Gloval hoped to force the UEG to allow him to offload the civilians. Unsure as to whether or not we would face armed resistance from the UEG, all fighter pilots aboard ship were placed on an emergency alert status. Once again the BARCAP missions began in earnest, with the only difference being an adherence to the "Three Hour Rule," which stated that no aviator would spend more than three hours in the cockpit without a break. This significantly eased the nerves of the fighter pilots, and helped insure that we would not accidentally fire on a friendly aircraft--a "friendly" aircraft being one from the SDF-1's composite Air Group.
I flew seven missions in three days, and even with the "Three Hour Rule" I was exhausted. It was extremely stressful to feel that we were not only enemies with the Zentraedi, but with our own planet as well. Luckily, we found sympathy among the leaders of the Ontario Quadrant Sub-Command. They agreed to accept the civilians, and with Veritechs forming a barrier out to three hundred miles, Gloval headed the ship in the direction of Ottawa, Ontario.
We arrived in the Ontario Quadrant on 30 September, and it appeared Captain Gloval's plan had worked perfectly. Unfortunately, Khyron Kravshera, weary from his defeats on Mars and at Bird Island, was not ready to give up his efforts to take the SDF-1, and we found ourselves under attack once again, this time by a group of Zentraedi battle cruisers under his direct command. Every fighter aboard ship was scrambled to intercept the incoming raiders, but our efforts had little effect.
Fortunately for the SDF-1, the Robotechnology wizards had devised a new defense system--the Omni-Directional Defensive Barrier System (ODDBS)--to replace the older, smaller, Pinpoint Barrier System that had been used thus far, with mixed results, to protect the SDF-1 from attack. Unlike the older system, which covered only about eight percent of the ship and had to be moved manually with a set of trackball-like controls, the new barrier surrounded the entire ship. The ODDBS did indeed save the SDF-1 from destruction on that gloomy summer day, but it came at a great price.
As we did what little we could to stem the enemy onslaught, the Zentraedi cruisers fired at the battle fortress time and again. The tremendous amount of energy the barrier absorbed proved too much to handle, and the system quickly overloaded. With a flash of light brighter than the midday sun, the energy absorbed by the barrier chain-reacted with the atmosphere, causing a tremendous explosion--the power of which was more than four times the size of mankind's largest thermonuclear warhead. The surface of the ground was completely obliterated as the blast continued out to a radius of twenty-five miles and drilled a 1,500-foot by 2,300-foot crater in the ground. The attacking Zentraedi ships were all destroyed or heavily damaged by the explosion and those that survived beat a hasty retreat to safer skies.
Unfortunately, the order telling the Air Wing to withdraw to safety came too late, and a number of pilots were lost--including Max's wingman, the boisterous Ben Dixon. That my own squad survived is directly attributable to the fact that we were engaged with one of the cruisers that was furthest from the ship. The additional three miles this placed us from the center of the blast allowed us the time we needed to make a dash to safety.
As it was, we could only escape the explosion, not the shock wave. Never before in my flying career--nor since for that matter--had I ever been subjected to such a powerful force. The shock wave hit so hard that it fractured my right clavicle on the ejection seat harness. I was so stunned by the events that had transpired that I wasn't aware I had broken it until that evening. As I was showering in my quarters, I attempted to reach up to adjust the shower nozzle but could not lift my right arm. Examining the tender area with my left hand, I could clearly feel the break, and with nothing on but a towel and a pair of slippers, I headed to sick bay.
I was told I would be out of action for three weeks. Worse still, the SDF-1's composite Air Group had taken a tremendous pounding. Empty racks in the barracks, vacant seats in the mess halls, and a sudden abundance of space in the hangar decks all served as grim reminder of the toll that had again been extracted from the fighter pilots aboard ship. Suddenly, the once vehement, insistent, and indignant accusations of political favoritism seemed embarrassingly petty.
The fighter pilots weren't the only ones that changed their minds in short order. The damage inflicted by the barrier completely wiped out the city of Ottawa, and the leaders of the Ontario Quadrant withdrew their offer to take the fifty thousand civilians off the SDF-1. With the news that these non-combatants would not be allowed to leave, a huge wave of despair swept through the ship and we found ourselves powerless to do anything about it.
Unable to remain in the quadrant, we were forced to make our way out to the coast where re-supply operations were conducted. It was a strange feeling. Unlike the re-supply effort after our initial return to Earth, this one was far more intense and prolonged. For three straight days a constant stream of helos and transport planes delivered vital supplies--food, ammunition, materiel, spare parts, beefed up engines, etc. onto the flight decks of the Prometheus and Daedelus. Flight operations came to a screeching halt for us as the transports made their deliveries without interruption, and we realized that it was only a temporary reprieve. Orders to depart would inevitably come.
As expected, the UEG handed down its final ultimatum--when re-supply operations were completed, we would leave Earth without delay, and the civilians would go with us. Gloval was furious, and doubtless contemplated throwing his orders out the window. We wondered amongst ourselves what action the UEG would take if Gloval refused to depart. Even outnumbering us a million to one, it seemed they would have had one hell of a time defeating the combat hardened flight crews of the SDF-1. Also, and more importantly, one could not disregard the SDF-1's main battery. One shot from that massive gun could have theoretically obliterated every piece of military hardware left at the UEG's disposal. The threat of attack by our own forces, regardless our course of action, appeared highly unlikely. "After all," we reasoned, "what are the chances that members of the RDF would obey a directive to fire on their own flagship?"
As the final supply helo departed the flight deck of the Prometheus on 14 November, crewmembers throughout the ship waited to see what Captain Gloval's response would be. Would he stay and fight, or succumb to the whims of the Governing Council? A call went out on the loudspeakers for crewmen to report to their stations, and the question was answered. Gloval had chosen to obey his orders, as ridiculous as they had seemed, and our postulating proved to be for not. With the SDF-1's supply operations completed, the battle fortress once again lifted off toward the cold, ominous blackness of space, and into an uncertain future. I found myself wondering if I would ever set foot on Earth again, and it seemed my chances had become infinitesimally small.
Chapter Twenty-five - One-Eyed Gambit
I was credited with five victories for the mission over Ottawa, bringing my total to seventy-six. Josh and Waylan brought their scores to ninety-one apiece, and the race was on to see who would reach the magic century mark first. Because of my injury, I found myself with more time than usual, and used it to nominate both of them for the Titanium Medal of Valor. Their performance for the last three months in general--and for the Bird Island Protection Mission in particular--had been outstanding. I felt it was only right that they get some recognition for their efforts.
Despite the flight surgeon's order that I remain grounded, I managed to fly regularly during my "recovery period." I also served part-time as a classroom instructor for the latest Veritech Pilot Training Class. It was a truly rewarding experience, and I discovered that the best way to learn something is to teach it. My students were attentive, bright, and eager, making the experience even more rewarding. Their questions helped me to realize, in part, what Lieutenant Brubaker must have felt like as he calmly fielded my inquiries and steadied my confidence during those days of Advanced Flight Training.
When I wasn't in the classroom I could usually be found in the Ready Room with my squadron mates, or in the hospital with my baby. Indeed, the experience of peering into the Infant Care Unit and seeing the equipment that kept the child alive as it grew from a newly fertilized egg to a baby was mind boggling. The doctors reported that everything was fine, and I smiled uncontrollably each time I left the hospital. I am sure Rebeckah was smiling too, wherever she happened to be.
I walked into the ready room on 19 November 2010, finding things much the way they were before I was injured. Waylan and Josh had both been awarded the Titanium Medal of Valor for "consistent exemplary performance in combat" and I couldn't have been more pleased. Our alien friends had chosen not to attack for several days--aside from the usual probing by small groups of enemy fighters--and there were no complaints among the fighter pilots aboard ship.
My Veritech had been completely refit during my absence, and any lingering problems caused either by my short swim in the Pacific or by the shock wave of the barrier overload were corrected. In fact, my fighter looked brand new when I laid eyes on it for the first time post-refit, and I was happy to see her again. I walked around her, much as I had the day I first saw her, and ran my fingers along her clean lines. As I reached the nose, I traced the neatly scripted letters that spelled "Hard Case" with my right index finger. A chill ran down my spine. My Case would have been proud.
That week, our squadron was assigned to BARCAP Ring One. The Zentraedi had entered into one of their mysterious lulls, and we averaged one three-hour mission per day. The relaxed pace was a welcome relief, although it did have its downside. The worst thing a fighter pilot can do is become complacent. Even in peacetime, one's head must always be "on a swivel," one's eyes constantly scanning the sky for enemy fighters. The complete lack of Zentraedi activity for such a prolonged period made complacency attractive, and I found my scan getting sloppy.
Fortunately for me, during a patrol on the afternoon of 23 November 2010, Waylan's scan proved better than mine. As my mind wandered aimlessly, his excited voice alerted me to the presence of enemy fighters.
"Lead from Two! Bandits 2 o'clock! Padlocked!" he exclaimed excitedly, yanking his fighter up and over mine.
His call snapped me to awareness. Glancing to the left, I heeled my fighter into a turn to follow Waylan's Valkyrie, straining for a glimpse of what it was he had seen--a Quelle-Quallie Theatre Recon Scout (also known as the "Cyclops") and its escort of eight Gnerl fighter pods. A giant, roach-shaped ship with four long antennae protruding aft, it was the Zentraedi's primary intelligence gathering and reconnaissance vessel, often found probing the defense network of the SDF-1 from great distances. This one was apparently attempting to sneak past the SDF-1's BARCAP ring, presumably for the purposes of intelligence gathering.
Zentraedi Quelle-Quallie Theatre Recon Scout - "Cyclops"
On this day, my team was patrolling with our radar systems set to standby, or "passive" mode. The outer BARCAP ring often flew missions with radar sets on standby for several reasons, the most important being a desire to prevent the enemy from getting a bead on the strength and location of our BARCAP force. Instead of using our own radar, controllers, using data from the SDF-1's main radar or from patrolling Cat's Eye AEWACS planes, would vector us to an interception, thereby keeping ourselves nearly invisible from enemy detection until the last moment.
One of the nice by-products of our passive defense network was the possibility of finding an unsuspecting enemy force entering into our airspace. Sure enough, the Zents had taken the bait, sending a Recon Force in under the impression that the BARCAP was down. That the SDF-1 had not alerted us to the presence of the Cyclops and its escorts meant that it was likely jamming the ship's radar. The only thing between them and the SDF-1 proved to be Waylan's eyesight.
We dropped in behind the group, stepped down in a ten-mile trail using our Enhanced Vision System (EVS)--essentially an all-aspect, all-environment, ambient and infrared camera--to track them. I made a call to the SDF-1's Fighter Controller, informing her of the situation, then turned my attention to my team. The Gnerls were lined up in two echelons of four apiece, one echelon on each side of the Cyclops. I decided to let Josh and Waylan take the first shots at the enemy force. They had spent so much time in the past covering for me while I fired on enemy fighters, it was only right I cover them for a change.
Zentraedi Gnerl Fighter Pod
"Sand Pebble Two from Lead. Take the group of four on the left. Three, you take the group on the right. I'll stand by and pick up the pieces, over."
As I watched, Josh and Waylan moved ahead of me, dropping into firing position behind their respective targets. I scanned the sky intently, searching for any bandits that might try to sneak up on us. The force had not detected us, and it did not appear they would. With a set of brilliant flashes, two groups of four missiles streaked toward the unsuspecting enemy fighters and exploded, turning the Gnerls into expanding rings of debris. The Cyclops, now aware that he was in danger, added power and attempted to run.
"Two, you take the first shot, Three you follow."
Waylan turned to chase the enemy ship, cutting inside the recon vessel's turn to close his range to it. As he dropped into position behind the Cyclops, it lit up with multiple flashes. Smoke trails corkscrewed out of the bug-shaped craft as a high pitched tone in my headset alerted me to a radar guided missile launch. The three of us broke in different directions, each pumping out chaff and jamming signals for all we were worth in the hopes of evading the missiles that had our names on them. After a series of corkscrewing jinks, four missiles streaked past within inches of my cockpit canopy. The radar tone went off in my headset, and was immediately replaced by another, lower pitched tone from my Rearward Looking Infrared Detection System. I looked over my shoulder and saw a pair of Regult Pods right on my tail. p>
Zentraedi Regult Tactical Battle Pod
"Where in Christ's name did they come from?" I exclaimed, yanking my fighter into a left-hand 2.6-G turn, as cannon rounds tore into my left wing with a series of staccato flashes. "Ah, hell! Not again!" I yelled, reversing my turn back to the right, the Regults sitting comfortably in the saddle behind me.
The Cyclops was long gone, now, having left behind a force of Regults to facilitate its escape. Going to Guardian, I employed Lieutenant Lehman's somersault tactic, taking out both pods with a pair of well aimed bursts. Clearing the area around me, I headed immediately in the direction of my teammates.
"Sand Pebble Team, check in."
"Two, here. Okay."
"Three, okay, skipper. That scout ship is off the zero-four-zero, one-eight, for seven-one-five. I'm on him right now. He took everything I have and he's still hauling the mail. I don't think I can stay with him for long," Josh called.
"Roger, Three. Two, get that bastard! I'm on my way!"
I headed toward the Cyclops, accelerating as fast as I could, and reported its location to the fighter director.
"Sand Pebble One, roger. Proceed with caution."
I acknowledged the controller's advice, wondering where she had been before I made my ill-advised decision to proceed with an attack on a superior force.
"Sand Pebble One from Three. Boss, that pod is pulling away from us. I unloaded on him, too, but it didn't appear to do anything, over."
Waylan's words proved what I had already deduced. My earlier view of the Cyclops' exhaust nozzles showed them to be very large, and by my guess, extremely powerful. Indeed, their greater thrust and fuel capacity gave the Cyclops a range/acceleration (Delta-V) that was probably in the neighborhood of three to four times that of a VF-1. There was little else we could do but curse. The scout ship's speed proved more than our Veritechs could match, and we quickly lost ground.
"Sand Pebble Team, form on me," I said disgustedly. "I'm off the zero-four-zero, two-zero, at nine-one-five. Break. Gunsight One, Sand Pebble One, that bandit pulled away from us like we were standing still. We are abandoning the pursuit and returning to our assigned patrol area. Be advised Sand Pebbles Two and Three report Winchester, over."
"Sand Pebble One, roger. Your relief, Dagger Two One Zero, is at your five o'clock, two-five-zero miles. E.T.A. four minutes, over."
"Gunsight One from Sand Pebble One. Roger, understand, four minutes."
"Damn it!" I cursed at myself. I had been stupid, and over-confident. It was a miracle I had not killed us all. Clearly, I should have waited for backup, but I was unconsciously greedy, and as I glanced at my riddled port wing I again cursed my poor judgment. As Josh and Waylan formed up on me, I noticed that Husky had picked up a few hits near his left engine. I made sure that he was aware of the situation, and he reported that his systems were all fine. With another string of curses, I turned back to my patrol station, suddenly more aware of my surroundings and alert to the potential presence of enemy fighters.
In the debriefing we sorted out the details of the day's combat. After comparing notes and discussing the mission with each other we deduced that the Cyclops had better protection than we had first thought. Aside from the eight Gnerls that were in the formation, the Cyclops had an additional eight Regult Pods stored internally. Josh and Waylan bagged three apiece, leaving me with the remaining two.
I was disappointed in our failure to destroy the Scout ship, but more importantly, I was embarrassed by the fact that I had been caught napping. The dogfight impressed upon me the importance of situational awareness and a good scan--not to mention the patience to wait for backup if at all possible. I asked myself what would have happened if the Cyclops had seen us first. With all the missiles it could carry, the Regult pods piggybacking inside it, a high rate of speed, and a large Gnerl escort flying cover, the Cyclops was a formidable foe. Had the Zentraedi force gotten the jump on us, the result may very well have proven fatal. I swore silently that I would not let my scan go to hell again, no matter how bored or tired I may be.
Chapter Twenty-six - Spaceship Spelunk
In terms of major combat action, the month of November proved to be rather uneventful. Flight operations continued at the relaxed pace resulting from the lack of Zentraedi activity, and by the end of the month, the pace had been cut by two-thirds. Pilots were now flying one three hour BARCAP every third day, leaving us with a great deal more free time than ever before. With the flexibility our time off provided, I took the opportunity to do some different things.
My teammates and I had become a finely tuned, highly cohesive unit. The time spent together caused us to develop a genuine camaraderie that was truly without equal. My wingmen had worked extremely hard to protect me. I could have asked for no better pair of pilots to guard my tail, and I felt it was time to do something to "get away."
Now, there aren't many things one can do to "get away" on a spaceship orbiting a planet, but this particular ship had one thing going for it--it was pretty damned big! With a few carefully directed orders and requests, I was able to secure some gear. My plan was to get some high adventure camping done! After all, the opportunity to get away from everyone for a few days would do the three of us a world of good.
With an amount of gear necessary to sustain ourselves for a couple of days, and enough climbing gear to clamber around the SDF-1's remotest areas, we headed off for a two-day "adventure." I left word as to where we could be reached and instructions on how to retrieve us in the event of an enemy attack. It would take no more than about fifteen minutes for us to reach the extraction point and another five to be in the Ready Room. Considering our current alert status, we were well within the expected response time of thirty minutes for non-alert pilots.
I had asked Max to come along with us, but his duty cycle was not the same as ours, so he couldn't come. In a way, this was a good thing, since it allowed the members of Sand Pebble Team to come closer together without any "third party" interference--though Max was truly much more than a third party.
We hiked out from the base to a remote area near where the ship's main engines were located. After setting up a base camp, I gave the guys some instruction on the methods used for climbing and rappelling, then headed off in search of a good place to practice. With cross members, foot holds, and overhangs in various places, the structure of the SDF-1 served as the perfect "climbing wall." I handled things as I would any face climb, and after scaling the wall the first time, we developed a great deal of confidence and trust in each other.
"Man that was something!" Waylan exclaimed, as he peered over the edge of our lofty perch on a large compartment divider.
"Wait until you try it on a real mountain, boys. It is the greatest rush known to mankind," I replied smiling, the chalks on my belt clinking musically.
"I just can't imagine what that must be like. Boy I can't wait to get the chance to try it!" he continued.
"I wonder what's down here," Josh asked, shining a flashlight down the opposite side of the wall we just climbed.
I shined my light down into the darkness where Josh was pointing, unable to see the bottom of the floor. "I dunno. Anyone want to try going down?"
"Sure, I'll go," Waylan said.
"You got it," I replied.
I rigged the ropes and harnesses, tying the end of the belay (safety) rope around a beam that connected the ceiling with the compartment divider. If the floor of the compartment was lower than the one we had climbed up from, this would insure that Waylan would not be allowed to fall once he had reached the end of his control ropes.
"On belay," Waylan called.
"Belay on," I replied.
"Rappelling," he said.
"Rappel on," I replied.
Waylan started his descent into the dark pit, his mining helmet light throwing wavy shadows onto the beams and girders surrounding us. As he continued into the darkness, Josh and I carried on a muted conversation, ears attentive to anything from our rappelling companion.
There were many tales that stemmed from the initial exploration of the SDF-1 after it crashed on Macross Island in 1999. The stories that had been bandied about since that day gained mythical proportions--supposed larger-than-life skeletons, killer robots, floors that one could pass through like a doorway--and one had to choose for himself what was true and what was not. The reality of it all was far less than what the stories told. Although there were no giant skeletons or man-eating monsters hiding in dark corners, as with any legend of this type--no matter how exaggerated--these tales played to one's fears, and the effect was chilling. Indeed, I found myself becoming nervous, if not a little scared, as Waylan's rope continued to reel out.
After another thirty seconds Waylan's belay rope stopped. "Off belay!" his voice reverberated.
"Belay off!" I called back, releasing the rope. Waylan was now at the bottom and wouldn't need anyone watching his safety line.
"Woah! Check this out guys!" he hollered up at us, his voice echoing hauntingly through the darkened recesses of the giant ship.
"What is it?!" I called back.
"It's a giant drain!" he yelled.
"A what?! " I asked.
"A giant drain!! I think we stumbled upon a shower stall or something!"
I turned to Josh and chuckled. "A shower stall?"
"I guess so," he chortled. Then in a mock announcer's voice, "While in search of adventure, monsters--a secret cache of gold--our intrepid companions stumble upon a shower drain! Tune in next week! Same bath time, same shower station!"
I laughed aloud at the comment, as Waylan continued to wander around down inside the compartment. I kept a close eye on him, and after a short period of searching, he made his way back to the divider.
"Well?!" I called down to him.
"There's nothing else down here! A door I think, but that's about it, boss!" he shouted back.
"Fine! Good work!"
"Say, uh, skipper?!" Waylan queried.
"How am I supposed to get back up there?!"
I laughed in spite of myself. "Fill up the shower and float to the top like any giant turd!"
"You bastard! Get me out of here!" he shouted back.
Josh and I burst into hysterical laughter. "You should have thought about that before you volunteered to go down there!"
"You prick! Get me the hell out of this place before I get eaten by a giant roach!"
I laughed, then turned to Josh. "Okay Josh, belay me. I'm going to go down there and get him."
"Have fun boss."
I rappelled down to get Waylan, then climbed back up the wall with him in tow. Indeed, the climb was harder than the descent, and we used a seam in the wall to make our way to the top. We sat and chatted there for nearly half an hour before descending back down the other side. I rappelled down last without a belay. After securing our gear we returned to our "camp site" and prepared our dinner--shish kebabs. They would have tasted better over a true fire, but the camp stoves of the day were as close to the real thing as one could hope for, and the kebabs were first class.
Afterwards, we pulled out our sleeping bags and sat around drinking coffee and hot chocolate--I didn't drink coffee--trading stories about our experiences during the preceding twelve months.
"Do you think we'll ever beat these guys?" Josh asked.
I sat and thought about his question for a fast second before replying. "You know, I honestly don't have a clue. I have this great internal struggle over this very issue. They've got enough firepower to outlast us no matter how much damage we inflict on them, but the optimist in me can't envision us ever losing. I dunno. As much as I hate to say it, the realist in me thinks we're going to need a miracle soon and the realist may be right."
The two fighter pilots nodded grimly at my comment.
"You know, I have confession to make," Waylan said softly. "I don't think I'll ever set foot on Earth again."
"Hey, now, what's that supposed to mean?" Josh asked him, gesturing with his Sierra cup.
"I just don't think I'm going to live long enough to see Earth again. I have this feeling my days are numbered."
"Oh, come now, Don," I insisted. "Everyone feels that way."
"Not like this. I really think I'm going to die. It's kinda' strange. I mean, I expect it, but I don't really have any fear of it. I've basically accepted it," he said with a shrug.
"Waylan, you are not going to die. I'm not going to let you. Either of you. Do you hear me?" I said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "We're going to make it through this thing. That miracle is going to come. I know it."
"Yeah, well, I've just got this feeling... I don't know when it will be, but I just have this feeling..." he said, his voice trailing off.
"Look, Commander Carr said it to us, and I'll say it to you. Nobody in this Fire Team dies until I give them permission. We are going to make it out of here, I promise you."
"'Yeah sure' my ass. I'm fucking serious here. I mean, look at us. We don't take ourselves too seriously or believe our own press. We can practically read each others' minds, and we work pretty darned well together. We have to make it out to tell the story later. We're the good guys damn it!! Don't you ever watch movies?"
"Yeah, well, Jake Holman died Yah-Yah. He was a 'good guy,'" Waylan noted, referring to the McQueen character in "The Sand Pebbles."
My attempts to shake Waylan out of his mindset were failing miserably. Jake Holman had died, and he was a "good guy."
"He's got a point, skipper. Take a look at Carr, Roy Fokker, Lieutenant Brubaker," Josh interjected. "They were all good guys, and all better pilots than we are. Look at what happened to them. I agree that it's probably just a matter of time. Our only chance is to win this thing before our time runs out."
"You guys have a shitty attitude," I mumbled. "See if I put your asses up for promotion! Dragging down morale with all that bullshit talk. Besides, Carr's death would have been avoidable if it had been anyone else in his seat...or if I'd tried harder. I could have saved him you know."
"I don't know about that. You did all you could, it was just his time to go. And as far as our feelings go, it's not a shitty attitude, Jake. Just a realistic one," Josh continued, his voice even and matter-of-fact. "It's out of our hands. When your number gets called it gets called. You can only dodge so many missiles, but sooner or later your reaction is a tenth of a second off or your foot slips on the rudder pedal and you die. It happens."
"Well, that's not going to happen to us! Not while I'm in charge of this unit!" I declared.
Waylan's reply was instantaneous. "Well, just the same, if it does happen, you guys take care of my affairs."
"Ditto for me," Josh said.
I sat silently for a few seconds then added, "Well, the same goes for me. I don't want my kid growing up without a father."
"Don't you worry about that, Jake. We'll be sure to take good care of that little rug rat," Waylan said with a smile.
We sat in silence for several minutes before going on to more cheerful subjects--discussions of our childhoods and backgrounds, likes, dislikes, fears. I learned a great deal about my two friends. I discovered that both were highly intelligent, honest, and virtuous. Like me, their one dream had been to fly combat aircraft, and like me, the war had given them the opportunity to do so. Still, their comments disturbed me. There was not a fighter pilot aboard ship that felt any different than they did, but, as combat pilots, none of us truly believed it. We simply regarded it as a normal part of the job, something that forced us to stay sharp. My teammates seemed to carry this a step further than most, and it was a disconcerting revelation.
I did my best to put those thoughts out of my mind, and for the rest of our trip we explored a few different areas of the ship. A day's worth of climbing and rappelling was interspersed with more heartfelt conversations. It was a rewarding experience, and we enjoyed it more than anything the three of us had done in a long time. Still, the cloud of what my wingmen had said hung over my head like a storm that refused to blow away. As we packed our gear and headed back to our quarters, I resolved to do everything I could to insure both pilots returned to Earth in one piece.
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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