UEES DUNLEVY – ORBIT NEAR ODIN IV: 0200 SS

Glenn Wade sat at his desk, sipping the dregs of his coffee. He was angry, but the anger was low and dull, like a bruise on its way to healing. In the privacy of his own chambers, he could let the festering indolence of it run its course. The report on his desk was now two weeks old and the vid files had been pulled off UEE Comm channels almost six days ago.

And no one could tell him what the fuck it meant.

The strange symbol they’d found in the hangar bay had continued to elude even the best efforts of the 5th Commandos. Petty Officer Jubius had done some damn fine work on this, but even his meticulous investigation had pulled up nothing. The report from CPO Jackson on the ransacking of the Dunlevy’s supplies hadn’t cheered him either. Having to call down to Captain Darrow to get replacements was a treat. They didn’t call him “Castle” for nothing.

“This is a fucking nightmare,” he said and reached for the glass of Terran shia brandy. It was empty, just like every other time he’d reached for it and cursed, just like he did each time he remembered. He really needed some goddamned sleep.

He stood up and turned off the lamp, beginning to unbutton his uniform jacket. That’s just what he’d do then, sleep. Ward could watch the bridge. He seemed to spend his time there a lot lately, when he wasn’t running down leads on this strange new group thing.

He’d just sloughed out of the jacket when his communicator rung.

“Goddamn it,” he said and activated it. “Wade.”

“Sorry to bother you sir, but you might want to come up to the bridge.” That was Captain MacDonald, the CAG. What the hell did Ripper need him for? Further… what was he doing on the bridge?

“What’s going on, captain?” Glenn said, tugging his jacket back on and running his fingers over his cheeks. He should shave but between the hour and the oddity of the request, no one would bat an eye at that. The privilege of command, he thought.

“CAP’s got something. Might want your judgement call.”

“Is Ward up there?”

“I’m here,” Rear Admiral Renz Ward said over the channel. “I agree with the Captain, sir.”

With a heavy sigh, he told them he’d be right up and cut the channel. So much for sleep tonight. This had better be a goddamned emergency. On his way out, he glanced back at his desk. The file on Commander Price’s little AWOL stunt was still open on his PDA. He really didn’t like the smug little smirk on the Commander’s face in his picture.

"Fucking vac-heads," he grumbled and left, almost not feeling guilty over the slur.

#

SQUADRON 43 CAP – NEAR ODIN IV: 0200 SS

“Keep it together, Red Group,” Jacob “Snippy” Treat said, glancing over his shoulder where his wingmates hung off his port wing. Red Two was a new girl from Vega they’d picked up on their latest little recruitment tour. Just twenty years old, her former experience was as a shuttle pilot for her dad’s produce business. Snippy suspected her vacuum experiences could be counted on two hands. Red Three was a former mechanic off one of the refugee ships, an older guy in his forties. Didn’t say much, and always looked at Snippy like he was some rotting piece of meat, which boded well for his command prospects.

Despite this, he watched their P52s slide into something of a loose formation. Commander Price had dictated that all Merlin groups should fly in threes or, ideally, fours. Since ‘A’ Flight’s little stunt of going missing had shortened Snippy’s roster by half, he didn’t have a lot of options in numbers.

He glanced down at the radar in the P52’s instrument panel. The contact was gone again, but it had just been there. Something was coming through the jump node and he’d be damned if the Chargers were going to miss it. The last thing he’d need is to hear one more smart remark from one of those bloody Spartans.

“Bigger guns my ass,” he murmured, forgetting he’d kept his thumb on the radio switch.

“Sir?” Paige responded. That was Two’s name, Paige. Samantha Paige. He’d learn them sooner or later, especially if his CO decided to stay AWOL. He’d have to. They’d promote him to Commander after all. Right?

“Nothing, continue heading zero-two-zero.”

Checking the radar screen again, he made a few adjustments to the scan frequency and narrowed the beam. That might blind him to what’s behind or on either side of his craft, but that’s what his wingmates were for. They might be green, but they had eyes. Snippy just hoped they used them.

There it was again! A blip. No, two blips! Three! The P52’s sensor data was actually coming from the Dunlevy, but he was focusing it, using his tiny snubfighter’s limited capabilities to look through the wide sensor traffic of a specific area. He felt like one of those hermits on the beaches of Terra, sifting sand for artifacts.

“One, this is, uh, Two. I’m seeing something weird on my radar,” Paige said.

“I see it. Power up your guns. I don’t want to be caught off guard.”

Snippy reached down and flipped his Master Arm switch from “Offline” to “Online.” The moment he did that, the two Bulldog repeaters hummed to life and the big Tigerstreik cannon spun itself up. His IR and EM ratings spiked and if there was someone else out there, they’d see him for sure now.

“Red Group, copy Master Arm.”

“Red Two, standing by.”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s on. This is Red Three.”

Snippy sighed. Oh well, there was time to get the particulars right. Momentarily, he wondered if Red Three was sober. He hoped so. Drunk pilots missed and they tended to miss in the general area of his fighter.

Suddenly his crafts IFF system began to scream at him. “Bandit, bandit, bandit!” Sparing a brief glimpse at the radar he saw the blip go red. Then his computer popped up the ship’s fuselage cross-section.

“Vanduul!” Red Two screamed into her comm. “What do we do!”

“We fucking shoot them,” Red Three said and shot passed Snippy, his boost burning hard. Biting back a curse, he opened the throttle to full and followed.

“Red Group, on me! Don’t go straight at them! Just like we practiced, a good off-angle slide! Two go combat spread at One-K. Three, One-K off her. Do not lose sight of your mark!”

“C-copy!” Red Two said. Red Three didn’t respond at all and didn’t fall back into formation either. Snippy bit back his anger and angled his fighter just to the right of his target then applied a little forward and lateral thrust, angling the P52 on an off-center intercept course. Once he was within two kilometers, he’d start to roll, making his tiny snubfighter almost impossible to hit.

“Dunlevy CIC this is Red Leader. We’ve picked up three Vanduul bandits inbound at zero-one-zero your marker. Intercepting!” Snippy called over the GUARD channel, the all-alert frequency for the forward fleet.

“Copy, Red Leader, we see your bandits. Scrambling Yellow Group and recalling 301 Squadron. Two minutes to Yellow. Ten minutes to 301.”

“We’ll keep them busy,” Snippy said and checked over his shoulder at his wingmate.

To her credit, Red Two stayed with him. They had practiced this kind of intercept only twice before and that had been when Miek was around. He had a way of teaching people that was less drill sergeant and more of a buddy who was helping you through a tough time. In the beginning he liked that about the young pilot. Now he wondered if that meant he’d been missing something vital to leading a squadron. He’d gone AWOL after all.

“Approaching the merge!” Snippy called to Red Group, snapping his eyes towards the distant marker of Red Three. He’d already be there, the no-going-back place where enemy and friendly radar could both lock onto one another. Sweat popped free of his scalp and slid down the back of his neck as he resettled his hands on the dual sticks.

Up ahead he saw the tell-tale gold streaks of laser fire erupting from the leading vanduul fighters, shooting at Red Three. Gently booting left roll and applying some gradual dorsal thrust, Snippy guided the snubfighter into a large, gradual barrel roll. Adjusting pitch and yaw slightly, he pulled the targeting pip across the lead enemy.

“Fuck!” Red Three shouted and Snippy checked his wingmate’s status. He had taken damage to the right wing and likely one of the wing-mounted laser repeaters were gone. Cursing inwardly, there was nothing he could do about it now. Holding his breath, the opportunity to open fire ticked down in endless, slow heartbeats until finally the pipper glowed.

Snippy pulled the trigger’s first stage, igniting the two Bulldogs on his wings. They spat out blue fire in rapid succession, the deadly light seeking his target. At first nothing happened, then the shots began to land one after another. The vanduul’s shield splashed and glowed as it was eaten away by Snippy’s attack. It rolled onto a wing and pulled away, disengaging from its attack on Red Three.

“Watch out, Red Leader!” Red Two called a moment before laser bolts streaked passed his cockpit. The second vanduul had corrected its trajectory and was now firing on him! His rolling, angled-attack combined with the P52’s tiny cross section had saved him.

Snippy dumped in some more dorsal thrust, shoving his fighter “down” from his current plane, widening his already-loose barrel roll and pushing him away from the incoming attack. It made his own aim less sure, but in the meantime it would keep the vanduul from hitting him. Locating his attacker, he thumbed the Group’s comm frequency.

“Red Two, break and engage my attacker. Red Three, status!”

“Copy, Red Leader!” Red Two said. Snippy saw her sleek fighter shoot passed in the distance, precious boost fuel making her engines glow briefly.

“Busy!” Red Three said and when Snippy glanced at his radar, he saw his wingmate’s fighter drifting away from the engagement, the third vanduul in pursuit. Ending both his dorsal and lateral thrust, Snippy pulled the P52 into a pirouette so it “stood” on its nose in relation to the incoming enemy. Dumping some of the snubfighter’s limited boost fuel into his engines, he grunted as the g-forces shoved him into the seat. The maneuver had canceled almost all of his forward momentum and he was now hurtling away in a new one, almost ninety degrees “down” from where he’d been.

His attacker followed.

Good, Snippy thought as he kept this trajectory for a few moments before beginning a slow, looping climb back towards his original position. The vector was almost lazy in its simplicity, but it would force the vanduul into a very predictable flight path and that would make it easy for Red Two to hit. In addition, it let Snippy locate the original vanduul who he’d fired on earlier. It was now moving to intercept Red Three again. Two-on-one against a lone P52 were terrible odds and he needed to alleviate the pressure fast.

Once more he dragged the pipper up and up until it glowed. This time when he pulled the trigger, the shots landed right away. Within moments the vanduul’s shield exploded and Snippy clenched his teeth, focusing on his target even as weapon fire from his pursuer opened up all around him. As his target grew larger in his canopy, Snippy used some ventral thrust to bunt the P52 up while he dipped the nose down. This effectively “hopped” his fighter up and above his target so it showed him its entire top cross section, further guaranteeing solid hits.

Depressing the trigger to its second stage, he let loose the snubfighter’s deadly Tigerstreik rotating cannon.

Chunks of armor and components exploded from the vanduul fighter. Within moments the knife-like wing blew off, whipping passed Snippy’s cockpit so close it almost hit him. The vanduul jinked and pulled up and away. For a moment, Snippy almost followed, the desire to kill the alien craft strong in his mind. It was in a fighter pilot’s blood to go for the kill once they’d sunk their teeth in but the need to help Red Three overrode his bloodlust. Instead, he opened the throttle to full and rocketed away from the crippled vanduul, heading for his injured wingmate and his attacker.

Meanwhile, his own pursuer had broken off. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the telltale blue laser fire of Red Two’s guns. She had either forced him to break off or it was too busy dodging to fire at Snippy. Either outcome was just fine with him.

Moments later he saw Red Three’s snubfighter begin to break apart. The large nose of the P52 spun away first, taking its main weapon with it. Then a small explosion occurred near the rear of the fighter as one engine gave out. Red Three’s fighter began an uncontrolled death spiral, trailing leaking gas and short-lived fires.

“Red Three, eject!”

The man didn’t respond but Snippy thought he saw the white puff of an ejection engine. It would have to do. After this was over, there would be time to locate his beacon… if there was one.

The vanduul tore the rest of the snubfighter to scrap before rolling onto its blade-like wing and pulling hard around towards Snippy. The range wasn’t good but he fired anyway, the laser repeaters reaching out with their thin, deadly fingers. The vanduul jinked away, pulling its guns away from Snippy’s fighter and that was good enough.

“Alert. Alert. Jump node opening. Alert. Alert.”

Snippy looked up towards the known jump point. He was nearly on top of it! Quickly he dumped more of his limited boost and rocketed in a direction perpendicular to the jump node’s entry point, hoping to avoid being hit by whatever might come through. He silently prayed it wasn’t a kingship. The attack on Vega Two might have just been a prelude to another invasion.

Instead, a massive Idris-class frigate slid through the yawning jump point. The ship was old, battered and patched. As Snippy rolled his fighter to have a better look at it, he could see the fast-welded plates that were keeping its hull sealed.

As it fully emerged he caught sight of gold lettering that looked much newer than the rest of the ship: UEES VIRGIL.

“What the fuck?” Snippy muttered just before his sensors alerted him to seven brand new contacts. For a moment, his heart sank, expecting more vanduul but a moment later they were identified as P52 Merlins. The poured out from the Virgil’s opening hangar bay even as the frigate opened fire on the vanduul. The enemy who had shot down Red Three instantly exploded into dust and spent ozone.

“Crypter, crypter, Five-Seven-Niner-Bravo-Charlie,” came an all-too-familiar voice over GUARD. The countersign was old, almost two months old, but Snippy knew the voice who had uttered it.

I am going to kill him, he thought.

“Where the fuck have you been!” Snippy shouted in response as the last two vanduul fighters met similar fates to the first, gunned down by the new swarm of snubfighters.

“Good to see you too, Snipster, we brought a present!” Mike “Miek” Price said as Snippy’s contact list updated. It identified the new P52s as belonging to Blue and Green Groups of Squadron 43.

They’d returned.