The morning mission was not intended to be a revenge killing, but I knew that’s what was on everyone’s mind, especially Katya’s. I let her lead to test her ability to control herself. If she went solo trying to get the Red Ace, it would be her last flight. I was reasonably sure she would stick to the mission plan. I kept the mission simple and instructed everyone to keep their eyes open and look for any weakness they could find in the new enemy fighters.
As for tactics, I told them to fly like they do when they go against each other in training. Assume the new fighter handles similar to their own fighters only better. The new fighter appeared to have a tighter turn radius and was faster, they needed to compensate for that fact when they tangled with them.
I could see in their eyes that they were scared again. As much as everyone was out for blood, they also looked as if I were sending them off to slaughter. Any of them could close their canopies for the final time. I wanted to go with them but I couldn’t risk my own life and leave the unit leaderless.
My preflight speech was more of a pep rally than instructional. I needed to make sure they didn’t come apart up there at the first taste of combat. They had to maintain the fierceness that had made them so good these past few months. As I watched them gather their gear and head to the flight line, I wondered how many would come back. I hadn’t even considered that before now. Dammit.
Karvuk and Sweetness would be the leads, with Condor and Double as their wingmen. I hesitated to send up Sweetness again so soon, but she was our most experienced pilot against the new fighters. I felt they had a better chance with her along. She seemed up to the task and even eager to get back in the fray. That was a hopeful sign.
All the off duty pilots gathered in Ops to listen to the mission on the comms. I stayed in my office until they reached the enemy airbase, occupying myself with trying to figure out new tactics. Nothing was coming to me.
I checked my messages hoping for guidance from Fleet. There was only a message received notice, no official response. I contacted the base Comm Squadron and asked if there were any issues receiving messages from Fleet. They assured me that the communications lanes were open. Dammit.
A knock at my door was Hank.
“Ma’am, they’re almost to their target now.”
I nodded and got up to join everyone in the main room.
The fighter telemetry was displayed on the main viewer as blue icons representing the Alpha Flight. There were no red icons on the map, but that wasn’t unusual and was mainly due to our poor scanner data of the planet.
They buzzed the airbase low, searching for parked enemy aircraft and only found a dozen or so KiV-3’s parked in their revetments. A second pass brought ground to air fire from the base defenses and made their attack more difficult. Karvuk and Condor circled higher up, waiting to be pounced on by fighters on patrol. But they encountered nobody. After several passes and at least six fighters confirmed destroyed on the ground they formed up and headed for home.
“Control, Alpha Lead. No joy on the new fighters,” Katya’s voice sounded defeated.
“Copy, Alpha Lead.”
I went to the paper map that was pinned to another wall and ran my fingers over the island chain where they had just been. There were no other bases within reach to house the new fighters. Where the hell had they come from?
I opened up my sweep to a few more hundred klicks and found another, smaller atoll. The islands were uninhabited and barely above sea level. I moved to the main screen and pushed around menus until I opened the latest images we had of the atoll. There were about seven smaller islands and two larger ones. I zeroed in on the larger ones. One of them had what looked like a natural cave entrance that was large enough to store fighters.
I grabbed the mic. “Alpha Lead, this is Rocket One. Change course heading 270. I want you to do a pass on the Ring Atoll. Copy?”
There was a pause as she no doubt was searching her navicomputer for the coordinates.
“Alpha Lead, Rocket One. Wilco.”
Seconds later they were all on course for the atoll, climbing to combat altitude. Everyone sat on the edge of their seats or stood leaning into the comm system to listen. Minutes ticked by as we waited for Karvuk to report in what they saw. As the icons got closer to the atoll the comm lines crackled.
“Holy shit, we kicked the hornet’s nest!”
“Tally ho!” said Sweetness.
New icons emerged as the combat computer was updated with current telemetry from the Swifts. Three, then six and finally nine enemy fighters poured out of the cave from the main island. It seemingly took them mere seconds to gain altitude and meet Alpha Flight. Alpha were outnumbered and they had lost the element of surprise.
“Alpha Lead, break off and disengage. Copy?” I said into the mic.
A burst of static was the only reply. Followed by excited chatter from Condor, Double and Karvuk. It sounded like they were able to gang up on the first wave of fighters and were close to splashing one. Seconds ticked by again. An eternity.
Finally. “I got one! Splash one of those bastards,” Condor said.
A cheer broke out from the other pilots and was quickly quieted when more chatter crackled over the speaker.
“Double, break right and come up. I’ve got your six,” Karvuk said.
“Negative Lead, I’m losing pressure and speed.”
“Double pull up and stall it, I got him.”
One of the blue icons winked off, followed by another red icon. Nobody cheered that time.
“Sweetness, I can’t get around him. Where are you?” said Double.
“Other side, back at you.”
Another red icon winked off.
“This is Lead, break off. Repeat, disengage. We’re out numbered up here.”
“Copy Lead,” said Sweetness.
“On your wing Lead,” said Condor.
“Control this is Alpha Lead. State twenty to splash. Lost Double.”
“Alpha Lead, Control. Enemy status?”
“They are breaking off too. Looks like they’re heading back to the main base,” Karvuk said. You could hear the defeat in her voice, or was it disappointment?
I walked over to the status board and crossed off Double’s name. Then I went back to my room. The other pilots spoke in hushed tones about losing Double. I couldn’t face them right now.