“Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? That’s easy, Devon Ardel. She rammed a KIV-3 and lived to tell about it! Not many people are that crazy or that damn good. Including me.”
– Excerpt from: Test Pilot: The Life and Times of Red Allen, by Red Allen with Lester Reye
One of the maintenance bays on the SS Sokol had been taken over by the remains of the alien fighter that Devon had brought down. Techs laid out all the pieces on a grid of tape on the floor. It looked like a giant puzzle of broken metal bits around the shell of the fighter’s fuselage. Devon found herself lying in the now familiar cockpit, trying to imagine what it must be like to fly it. She hadn’t been able to sleep and came upon the darkened bay on her midnight walk-about.
Part of the reason she wasn’t sleeping was her inability to forget what had happened to Hap. Every time she closed her eyes to sleep, the image of Hap’s Scrambler splitting open replayed in her mind’s eye. She wanted nothing more than to kill those responsible for her friend’s death. As if somehow that would make the images in her head and the pain in her heart go away.
The other reason she couldn’t sleep had to do with her new career as a military pilot. Her Ranger pilots were not adjusting well to the spit and polish regulations now being forced on them. They were not use to all the customs, courtesies and seemingly endless rules of life on a starship. Neither was she for that matter.
She remembered being all uppity when she had came to Ocherva. It was her first command and she had just graduated from Ranger School. It didn’t take long for her to drop the formalities and adapt the relaxed ways of life on the desert moon. She wasn’t liked by anyone until she stopped with the boot polishing and saluting. These were hard flying, hard fighting people who didn’t take well to meaningless pleasantries.
But this was not the wild Outer Rim anymore. They were the outsiders and they needed to toe the line in this new life in the military. Otherwise the squadron would fall apart in pointless internal bickering. The leader in Devon realized this, even though her heart was with her mates.
She already had more demerits than any of her pilots for speaking her mind and breaking the rules. Commander Jaye had been tolerant with them up until now, because he needed them. But she got the feeling that if she and her pilots didn’t shape up, he would be clipping their wings and assigning them permanent billets in the brig.
Her hand traced the outlines of the tiny control panel of the fighter. The dials and switches were marked in an unfamiliar language but their functionality could easily be deduced. There were turn and back indicators, airspeed and environmental controls. At least that’s what they looked like. It was amazing how familiar everything was to the pilot in her. She gripped what was obviously some kind of control yoke and moved it back and forth idly.
“Has a nice play about it doesn’t it?”
Devon turned her head back to see who had spoken. It was the civilian test pilot with red hair, Allen. He strolled lazily over beside the cockpit and offered her his liqueur bottle. She took a sip from the foul smelling, clear liquid inside. It burned all the way down her dry throat and made her gasp.
“Rocket juice, hun. I distilled it myself,” Red Allen said.
She took another sip, this time she was ready for it. It had been a long time since she had taken a drink. The Sokol was a dry ship and she was quite used to having easy access to alcohol on Ocherva. Not having alcohol had been yet another adjustment for her and her pilots.
“Not bad,” she said, handing him back the bottle.
He took a longer drink from it and held it up in a mock cheer. “Beggars can’t be choosers. Right?”
Devon nodded as he handed her back the bottle. She liked this guy already. He was dressed in a shabby flight suit and a worn leather jacket. He took out a cigar from inside his jacket and started to light it with an old, metal lighter.
“Smoking will set off the fire alarms.”
He winked at her and lit the weed in his mouth. No alarms went off. He took a few short puffs and savored the aroma.
“I turned them off in here before we even left Selene.”
Devon recognized the smell of the cigar. Her dad smoked them all the time on Prahran. “Prevens?”
Allen nodded, pleased that she had recognized the brand. She eyed the cigar like it was a canteen filled with water in the desert.
“Got ‘em on Prahran. Grown in the highlands,” he said, handing her the cigar.
Devon took a long draw on the cigar and blew a smoke ring as she exhaled. It was heaven. She hadn’t smoked a cigar in years and had forgotten how much she missed them. “I was born on Prahran and raised on these.”
Allen arched an eyebrow. He took the bottle back from her and motioned for her to keep the cigar. “It’s all yours hun. I’ll stick to the rot gut.”
They smoked and drank in silence for a while. Devon rested her head back and blew rings up to the smoke detectors high above them. Finally Allen spoke, his voice loud in the mostly empty bay.
“What can you tell me about this can?” he said, patting the cracked canopy he was sitting on.
She looked at all the twisted green pieces of metal strewn around the bay floor. “It’s fast.”
“Figured as much. It has virtually no armor. All push and firepower. My kind of fighter. I’d love to fly her,” he said. He winked at her again and took another drink.
“Me too.” She blew out more smoke and managed a thoughtful stare. He was not like the military pilots. He seemed easy going and he obviously didn’t give a damn about shipboard rules. “It turns inside about half as quick as the Scrambler in air.”
Allen nodded thoughtfully. “Most of the wing is aileron, near as I can tell.”
“It can cut power and rotate on its axis in the black,” she motioned with her hand in the way pilots do when they talk about how their planes handle. “That’s how it got my wing man.”
Allen raised his bottle to the memory of Hap. “How you did you bring this can down?”
She chewed on the cigar for a while, savoring it. She brought both of her hands together in a mock crash. Her expression frank.
Allen shook his head in amazement. “That’s what I thought, judging by the shearing on the starboard wing. Damn ballsy move, lady.”
Devon shrugged, took the cigar out of her mouth and offered it back to Allen. “He killed my best friend. I had nothing to lose. My guns were ineffective and I couldn’t get behind it to save my ass.”
Allen took the cigar from her and stuck it in his mouth without hesitation. Then he handed her back the bottle. She took a big swig and choked it down. “Going to be hard to fight these bastards if the only way we can get ‘em is by ramming them.”
Devon agreed. The rocket juice was getting her stoned pretty quickly. She was already more relaxed than she’d been since coming aboard. She closed her eyes and let the bottle rest in her lap. She was wearing her ratty knee pants, an undershirt and her Ranger jacket. It was cool in the bay, but she didn’t feel it. In seconds she was asleep.
* * *
Devon’s head throbbed in her hands. She all but tuned out the pre-flight briefing and dragged her tired butt into the spacious cockpit of the Vickers A-9. As she sat and waited for the technician to secure her communications and air lines, she wondered what the hell was in that rocket juice Red Allen had shared with her. As terrible as she felt, she wasn’t upset by it. It helped her get to sleep, and it took her mind off the pain. Mason had found her in time to drag her back to her billet before the briefing. How he knew where to find her she had no idea.
Her fellow Ranger pilots always looked after her. They were some of the most loyal people she had ever commanded. They stepped up for this assignment knowing very little about what they were getting into. If Devon was going, they wanted to be with her. If they got a chance to kill some of the bastards who killed Hap, all the better. Most of them just wanted to be with Devon and to fly. Pilots loved to fly, at least the good ones did. It wasn’t just a job, it was a calling.
Her Ranger pilots had cut their teeth on crude, out dated equipment that was always breaking down in a desert environment as harsh as anywhere in the galaxy. If you could fly in those conditions, you could fly anything, anywhere. She knew they were cocky about it too. Which didn’t bother her any but really annoyed the regular military pilots. None of them had any real combat experience. Their flying was stiff and by the numbers. Nobody improvised or flew on instinct. That concerned Devon more than the brashness of her Ranger pilots. She wanted those around her to think for themselves when they flew, not like they were just cogs in some precision military machine.
“Lieutenant Ardel, take your flight to sector four and conduct standard patrol sweeps.” The voice of Commander Jaye startled Devon out of her thoughts.
“Aye, sir. Devil Flight break right and form on me. Break!”
She rolled her Vickers fighter into a ninety degree slew and one by one her flight did the same. Jaye and his wingman continued forward. They would circle around and perform a mock-attack on her flight. She was supposed to hold her formation until they made the first move. But that was boring. Devon switched to a private channel to address her flight.
“Alright Devils let’s let them have their way with us.”
“Dev, this is stupid. We don’t want to do these lame maneuvers anymore,” Mason replied.
“Yeah, let’s set a trap for them, shake things up,” Kell chimed in.
Devon considered their flight path. They were patrolling a region of space with one gas giant planet and several rocky moons. There was a radiation belt around the primary moon that caused havoc with their scanners. The scenario was supposed to simulate an inner system world and they were to maintain their speed and formation until attacked. At that point they had a pre-determined series of maneuvers that were to be executed to engage the attackers. It was boring and they had done the same exercise every day for the past week with only minor variations.
“Larn, Rease and Kell, stay on course but spread out a bit. Mason, with me.”
“Right on,” Mason said with excitement.
She broke formation with Mason on her wing tip. They took up a polar orbit around the largest moon. It let them see the others while remaining unseen to the attacking bandits. The danger to them for loitering in the radiation was minimal at best. But it would effectively block them from Jaye’s scanners. Devon thought up the plan days ago but had kept it to herself.
Within minutes the main flight was pounced on by Jaye and Stuggs.
The Ranger pilots executed their evasion maneuvers and one of them was destroyed by Jaye’s training shots. The other two pilots carried on and tightened their formation. Jaye and Stuggs swung around for a second attack. Devon and Mason dove into them from above and blasted them with mock-rounds that instantly registered kills.
“Lieutenant, what the hell was that?” Jaye’s voice boomed in her headset.
“That, sir, was an old fashioned ambush. We attacked from above with the sun to our backs. You didn’t see us coming because of the radiation belt.”
She looked across the inky black to Jaye’s fighter now flying beside her. She could see his helmeted head shaking.
“Alright, that’s enough Lieutenant. Head back and meet me in the briefing room.”
“Aye sir,” she said. She knew she was in trouble again as she watched Jaye’s fighter break away with his wingman in tow. But it had been worth it.
* * *
Captain Raider and Commander Trimble were studying a star map projected in the air in front of them. It displayed all the known worlds of the Federation and was centered on the Outer Rim.
“They could be anywhere in this area,” Raider motioned to the empty region between Ocherva and Prahran.
Trimble brought up the trade routes indicated by green paths and then the communication nodes between worlds. There were very distinct pathways between Prahran, Kew and Tulia, the Trade Triangle of the Outer Rim. Lesser paths from worlds like Negram, Ocherva and Alifax showed up as fainter lines.
“Assuming the aliens have similar scanning abilities, they can see much of this activity. Where would you attack us, sir?”
Raider pointed to Prahran. The most activity was centered on that tranquil world. Trimble agreed with him. “What worries me, is this.” He pointed to the even larger funnel of activity that led back to Selene and the inner system worlds.
“Do you think they would bypass Prahran? Go straight to the Inner Systems?”
Raider stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Unknown. But it is a strategic possibility.”
Trimble motioned to the image of Kew. “Why Prahran and not Kew? Both have equal amounts of traffic between them.”
“If I were bent on controlling this sector, I’d go after the nexus point at Prahran. The problem with acting on instinct is that we don’t know how their minds think. There may be better reasons to go after Kew or even Tulia. Hell for all we know they might be interested in Alifax due to a more compatible biosphere.”
Trimble adjusted the projector controls to focus on Prahran; the jewel of the Outer Rim planets. Home to two billion people and only lightly defended. It was the home of the Stellar Rangers, so it had some extra-planetary defenses, but mostly it had a conventional army of about a million people. Rough terrain around the equator and semi-arid areas that were barely populated. It was also the home of one Senator Gail Constantine.
“Can I ask you a personal question, sir?”
Raider nodded, as he contemplated defending the planet.
“Are you at all influenced by your association with Senator Constantine? I mean, if she were from Kew or Tulia, would we still be focusing on Prahran?”
Raider lifted an eyebrow at his First Officer. “Commander, my decision to defend Prahran is not determined by which planet supports the Federation military and which does not. None of these worlds are Federation members. The only reason I’m willing to make a stand out here is to prevent this alien force from advancing into Federation space.”
Raider took over the projector controls and mapped out a clear path to the Inner Worlds of the Federation. Red glowing dots covered each planet straight to Selene, the home world of the Federation. “This is what I’m hoping to prevent. If we can turn away these aliens out here, we can hopefully prevent a war with them and buy the Inner Worlds some time to build up our Starforce.”
Trimble nodded her satisfaction with his answer. “I just had to ask sir, given what took place on Selene before we left.”
“I understand your concern. There is another good reason to take on the aliens at Prahran. It’s the home base of the Stellar Rangers.”
Raider noticed her look of dissatisfaction with his mention of the Rangers.
“The Rangers are a bit unconventional, to say the least, but they are tenacious fighters and they have the advantage of owning the home court. Nobody knows the terrain on that planet better than they do.”
Trimble agreed with that. They were going to need all the luck they could muster just to hold that planet.
“Recall the fighters and lay in a course for Prahran. I’ll contact planetary officials and give them the bad news myself,” Raider said as he straightened his service coat.
Trimble bowed her head and excused herself.
* * *
“You’re grounded! I was trying to give you Rangers a break by not coming down on you but now you’ve made me look like an ass. I can’t have that. Turn in your flight gear and report to the brig.” Commander Jaye clenched his fist. The muscle on the side of his jaw twitched. Red was the dominant color in his face.
Devon decided not to plead her case. She saluted, did an about face and started to leave his office.
“You have not been dismissed, Lieutenant.”
She stopped, but did not turn around. She waited for him to continue but he said nothing. She whipped around to face him, back ram rod straight. Face set in stone.
“Captain Raider ordered me to train you and your people. I didn’t want to because I knew you’d have trouble taking orders and maintaining discipline. You’ve just proven me right. If any more of your people screw up, by God, I throw them in the brig with you.”
She stared at him, her eyes squinting slowly.
Lots of interesting interactions in this chapter. Here are some fun tidbits about it.
The character of Red Allen was originally based on a real test pilot – Chuck Yeager. But he has since evolved into his own man. I introduced him in a short story called “Red Allen” which is available on Amazon. That is one of my favorite short stories and well worth a read if you like aviation. Red Allen makes an appearance as an old man in the short story “War Stories”, also available on Amazon.
The designation KIV-3, for the Eight-fighter was based on Soviet fighter jets. Think MIG. I originally called it an Eight-wing. But that was deemed “too Star Wars” by my beta readers. Good call.
Originally, Devon Ardel smoked cigars. But then along came the remake of Battlestar Galactica and suddenly Kara Thrace was the same kind of tough as nails character that my Devon was. So I dropped the cigar and just left her with drinking as her only vice.