Best posting in the whole kiith, was it? Hah! Ensign Kheral Balek, Kiith Somtaaw Fleet Strikecraft Arm interceptor pilot and heir apparent to the rank of Somtaaw-Re, lit a cigarette and gazed moodily out across the hangar deck of the great Explorer-class mining vessel Kuun-Lan. Even now it was worryingly crowded; there had been several collisions whilst taxiing to and from the elevators already this tour, one of them serious enough to write off both craft and land one pilot in the infirmary. What it would be like during a scramble, or in the rather unlikely event that kiith Somtaaw found the personnel and the budget to bring the Kuun-Lan up to her full design complement of fighters, was something the young Acolyte pilot was trying hard not to think about.
The sandy-haired man watched with mild interest as a four-ship Seeker flight descended from the launch bay, leaning on the railing around the balcony attached for no obvious practical purpose to the Quick Reaction Alert ready-room. This had to be better than that pre-Landfall rustbucket of an Imperator that had constituted the entire Somtaaw fleet prior to the launch of the Explorers, Kheral reminded himself; as one of`Somtaaw's few Soban-trained pilots under the age of forty he could all but write his own ticket, and had. But at this point in time, it seemed as if all he'd gained was the opportunity to be undersexed, underemployed and bored out of his skull somewhere with slightly nicer crew quarters and fewer bits falling off.
Kheral crushed the cigarette butt out in the overflowing ashtray some well-intentioned soul had welded to the railings, and was just considering lighting another when a dull, throbbing klaxon blared throughout the hangar.
"Action stations, action stations! All hands man your battle stations, all hands man your battle stations! Emergency hyperspace in three minutes!”
His training kicked in immediately. Kheral spun on his heel and jogged towards the personnel elevator on the far side of the ready-room, pausing only to snatch up his flight helmet from the nearby rack. The other three QRA pilots crammed aboard the too-small elevator platform, and clung on grimly as it rocketed upwards with a dull thungof high-powered magnetic repulsion. It slammed to a halt on the launch deck with bone-jarring suddenness, -literally: a previous scramble had taken off a pilot light when someone sprained his ankle- and its occupants dashed to their assigned ships. Kheral scaled the ladder and swung himself into his cockpit, starting his preflight checklist even as the canopy descended. "Scorcher One One, good to go," he reported crisply, connecting his helmet's O2 feed and sealing the respirator across his mouth and nose. He barely heard the flight leader's acknowledgement, watching in steadily increasing worry as a second Acolyte four-ship was lifted from the hangar bay. "This can not be good," he said to himself.
"All hands, this is the captain." Kheral instinctively straightened in his ejection seat. "We have just received a distress call from the Home Fleet reporting an Imperialist incursion into Hiigaran territory. All communications channels with the Homeworld are being jammed, so we have no intelligence on the size or objective of the enemy force, but we are proceeding to render all possible assistance.
"I don't need to tell you people what the stakes are here. We've all been under fire before, so just remember your training and stay sharp. And may the Martyrs of Kharak watch over us all. Captain out."
"This is gonna suck..." someone murmured.
"Stay cool, rookie,"the fighter direction officer soothed. "Scorcher One, you are clear to taxi to catapaults Alpha through Delta."
"Taala, Scorcher One." The flight leader shifted frequencies. "You heard the lady, boys."
"Copy that. Scorcher One One, taxiing to catapault Bravo." Kheral started the small electric motor powering his fighter's landing wheels and sent the Acolyte towards one of the four ramps leading out through the narrow hangar aperture. A crewman in a pressure suit guided him into position with two lighted rods, and the sturdy Bentusi-derived fighter shuddered slightly as a powerful electromagnet rose into place behind its tail, the residual energy beginning to push against the dozen magnets built into the vessel's stern. Red warning lights flashed for fifteen seconds, and then a dull roar fading to a soft hiss indicated the decompression of the launch bay. The hangar doors ground slowly open, and the deck control officer knelt down with both batons pointed towards open space. Kheral shoved the main thruster controls forward just as the electromagnet kicked in. The acceleration pressed him back in his seat as the fighter roared out of the hangar bay, then cut off as a quick burst of retro-thrust brought it to a halt. By now, his central multi-function display was alight with an influx of tactical data from the command ship and the Hiigaran sensor network.
The news wasn't as bad as it might have been. Opposition forces currently amounted to four destroyers, a lone Qwaar-Jet heavy cruiser and a dozen frigates, plus a beleagured assortment of fighters whose presence indicated that there was a carrier in the vicinity. On the other hand, the Home Fleet was showing up several vessels short, including one Avatar and a couple of Revelations. To Kheral's eye, the playing field seemed very nearly even at this stage.
"Scorcher One, Taala. Incoming bandits, vector 017 by negative 12 and engage."
"Taala, Scorcher One. Flight, go card and follow my lead."
"Copy that." Kheral twitched his left-hand attitude control stick and increased the distance between himself and the wing-leader, peering intently at the radar screen. "I make it five bandits, Triikors by their speed."
"Concur. Two, bracket right and go nose-cold, we'll catch 'em with their pants down." The four fighters split in opposite directions and looped around behind the Taiidani interceptors, disengaging their onboard radar and relying exclusively on the datafeed from the Seeker squadron's vaunted Heavy Neutrino Scanning Arrays. Kheral watched the arrow-shaped pips in his HUD slowly transform into the distinctive, asymetrical outlines of Triikor interceptors, lining up the gunsight on the leader for a deflection shot and watching the range indicator scroll steadily down to...
"Now!" Kheral's index finger tightened on the trigger, sending a two-second burst of a hundred iridium-tipped iron slugs into the enemy fighter's engines. It went up like a firecracker as its fuel tanks ruptured. "Splash one!" the pilot roared exultantly, then swore and flipped his fighter along its own axis as the survivors rolled out of his field of vision. Something carommed off the Acolyte's lower fuselage as a volley of glowing mass-driver rounds whistled through the point in space it had been a few seconds earlier. The Triikor that fired it shot over his head, so close that Kheral thought he saw the pilot's eyes widen in surprise at being out-manouevered by a mere Hiigaran.
"Wing, I've picked one up!" his wing-leader called urgently. "I'm on it," he replied tersely, searching the void for his superior's fighter. It was close and heading towards him, jinking violently to spoil the aim of the bandit close on its tail. Kheral headed towards it at full throttle. "Going for a head-on pass, break low now!" he called out, letting rip as the other Acolyte dived sharply. The Triikor never stood a chance, and turned into a short-lived comet of metal and superheating deuterium that tumbled wildly for a few seconds before the canopy burst outwards and a spacesuited figure drifted away from it. "Thanks for the assist, kid!" the wing-leader called out.
" Welcome, skipper. Taala, Scorcher One One. Tai pilot bailed out, request you mark position for SAR pickup."
"Copy that, Scorcher One One, wilco. Scorcher One, new target at thirty klicks, bearing 047 by positive three, friendlies in need of assistance."
"Taala, Scorcher One. Flight, form up and follow my lead. Wing, I thought I saw you take a hit, are you good to go?"
Kheral glanced over his instrument panel. "Affirmative, lead. Definitely took a hit but no apparent damage, it must've glanced off at an angle."
Their targets turned out to be a dozen Kaark bombers, which were engaging a Firelance squadron. The lumbering ion cannon frigates were taking desperate evasive action, light sprays of tracer ineffectually pecking at their assailants from the bridge airlocks; marines or ratings with shoulder arms, Kheral guessed, more of a gesture of defiance than anything else. "Eyes open, people," warned the wing-leader, "Intelligence says the Tai have started fitting their bombers with tail guns."
"Took 'em long enough," someone muttered. "Weapons and nose hot, engaging!"
Kheral lined up on the nearest bomber and fired a long burst, sideslipping as it was answered with more enthusiasm than accuracy; the new tail guns appeared to be on an unpowered pintle mount, whose addition couldn't have done the structural integrity of the cockpit canopy any favours, and operator training had also evidently been somewhat abbreviated. Better than nothing, he supposed, dipping under the tail-gunner's field of fire and raking the bomber with his own guns until it blew up. But not by much. "Splash one- Jakuul almighty!" The whole fighter lurched violently, and a cacophany of alarms started chiming urgently in his earphones as tracer sizzled past the Acolyte's nose. Kheral tried to bring his fighter around but only about half his manouevering thrusters responded. "I'm hit! Thrusters damaged, tumbling! Son of a bitch , what the hell just hit me?"
"Three new bogeys, interceptors! Watch your backs lads!"
Kheral swore until he ran out of new profanity and somehow turned his stricken fighter in the general direction of the command ship. "Pan pan pan, Scorcher One One requesting emergency clearance."
"Copy that. Do you require landing assistance, over?"
Pride and prudence warred for a moment, but Kheral knew a losing proposition when he saw it. "Affirmative, my attitude thrusters are shot to hell; I'll be doing well if I don't wind up on the moon."
A Worker was standing by with a magnetic grappler, and towed the stricken Acolyte into the launch bay, depositing it on the main elevator. Kheral ran through the post-landing checklist in an ill humour, chagrined at the way he'd been caught out, becoming so fixated on the target in front of him that he'd let the Imperialists catch him unawares.
The taxiing motor declined to start, compounding his frustration. “Oh, come on! Leave me at least a little bit of my Qwaardamn dignity!”
Kheral grumbled, thumping the instrument panel. A recovery cart was waiting for him at the bottom of the elevator shaft, and the crew hooked a tow cable around the nose gear and dragged the battered fighter to the repair bay. Kheral popped the canopy and clambered awkwardly down the proffered ladder, pulling off his helmet and barely resisting the urge to throw it across the deck. "All yours, Chief. Sorry about the mess."
"Don't worry, lad, I've seen worse," replied Chief Petty Officer (Eng.) Meklan, regarding the young pilot with almost fatherly concern; down at the sharp end the Somtaaw Fleet Strikecraft Arm wore rank with Number One mess blues only. "What happened?"
"Got bounced while I was busy pasting another bandit," Kheral replied glumly. "Of all the stupid rookie mistakes..."
"So learn from it. That which does not kill us, right?"
Kheral laughed weakly, trying not to look at the jagged, blackened scar across his fighter's underside. "Bloody close-run thing that time around. How soon can I be back out there?"
"Ask me again once... Ah, here we go." A fitter had succeeded in prying away the remains of an access panel with a crowbar. Meklan examined the stricken fighter's innards with the aid of a pocket torch. "Not too bad," he declared. "Armour took the brunt of it, it's mostly just a few severed control cables. I can have her flying in about twenty minutes, maybe a bit less. Don't wander off too far, eh?"
"No further than the QRA mess, Chief, promise." Kheral tucked his helmet under one arm and fell in step with a couple of Seeker pilots. "So, did I miss much?" he asked, fishing a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his hip pocket.
"Not much; looks like things are winding down now. Those Firelances you bailed out slagged the Tai carrier, and it looks like this was just a big commerce raid anyway," replied one of them.
"So how the hell did they get this far in-system?" Kheral wondered. "I thought we were looking at the fag-end of a maximum effort that got chewed up by the frontier patrols."
"Round the back way apparently," the second Seeker pilot replied. "We linked up with some Manaani pilots hunting for that carrier, and they said the Tai did a drive-by on their picket squadron covering Chapel Perilous."
"They got through that maze with what, four squadrons of fighters and a couple of dozen corvettes covering the battlewagons?" Kheral whistled, impressed despite himself. There were patches of the Hiigaran system's outermost asteroid belt where chunks of planetary-collision debris orbited mere scores of metres apart; a heavy cruiser could block the orbit of three or four along its own length. "Got to give them ten out of ten for nerve, though no points for common sense."
"Imperial Loyalists generally have more balls than brains," replied the first Seeker pilot sagely. "And we've probably killed most of the stupid ones by now."
He made it as far as the balcony before his hands started to shake, and he still managed to strike a match on his first try. Kheral was really quite proud of himself for that.
"You doing alright, kid?" Kheral turned, and saw his wing-leader carrying a large mug of tea. "Here, get that down you."
"Thanks Rin." Kheral took a sip, and nearly spat it out in revulsion. "Ugh! How much sugar did you put in this?"
"Drink up, all of it; it'll take the edge off the shock without rotting your lungs."
Kheral shot his superior a mutinous look but finished the tea without further complaint. "I only smoke because it pisses Dad off anyway," he added.
"Hah! How old are you, fifteen?"
"Only in new money." Hiigara's longer year, almost exactly double the length of Kharak's, was something the Kushan-born former Exiles were still adjusting to.
Kheral stubbed out the cigarette, sobering somewhat. "Everyone get back alright?"
"One of the recon pilots had to punch out, not heard anything yet. Plenty more came in damaged, but yours was about the worst. I saw the panels they stripped off your ship; you did well to get her home in that state."
"That'll teach me to watch my back," Kheral agreed with a wry smile.
"Happens to the best of us. Anyway, head shed wants a piece of that cruiser before they make a run for it; ready to get back in the saddle?"
"Much as I ever will be."
"Those things are long overdue for the scrapyard," someone remarked sourly. Kheral at glanced the dozen Thunderbolt Mk.3 bombers lumbering alongside his Acolyte, inclined to agree. Refitting them with the Acolyte's unique remote-refuelling system had improved their handling characteristics and freed enough internal space for a nose-gun, but they were still easy meat for strikecraft and flak, and even the ponderous traverse of a Qwaar-Jet's guns could score a lucky hit. Fortunately, like most Taiidani ships of the line, the Qwaar-Jet was highly vulnerable to attacks from astern and above or below; a skilled and cautious bomber pilot could get in several hits from maximum range and break away before straying into its firing solution, reattacking in the same pattern from another vector before the stricken capital ship could come about to engage.
"I count three escorts, probably Seejurs,"called out the Seeker pilot providing forward recconaissance. "I'm getting some extra fire-control radar emissions, at least two sets; source seems to be the cruiser. Looks like this one's had the refits."
Kheral's eyes narrowed behind his helmet visor, and he peered closely at the radar screen. The Taiidani Republic had realised fairly early on that vast fleets of highly-specialised capital ships covered by equally specialised escort vessels were an expensive luxury, and devoted most of their defence budget to improving their big iron's ability to look after itself versus strikecraft. Those still claiming fealty to the Imperial dynasty had been slower to change their own thinking for ideological reasons, but pragmatism was slowly winning out. This wasn't going to be fun.
"Spread formation, go card."
At three kloms the flak started up, slow-firing but quite heavy calibre cannon firing airburst shells, probably repurposed from Raachok light gunships. Not as bad as it might have been; unless one blew up less than a dozen metres from your hull it was possible to weather quite a few hits, and the Somtaaw formation was loose enough to give the enemy targeting AI some trouble placing shots for maximum effect.
"Concentrate your fire on the Seejurs," Rin ordered. "Voodoo flight, try and burn those damn flak turrets off the hull first!"
Kheral nudged his attitude thrusters to avoid a burst of fire as the Acolytes entered the range of the Seejur wing's guns, flinching as a flak cannister blew up dangerously close to his starboard wingtip. So-called Defenders like the Seejur and its Hiigaran copy seldom scored many kills against the loose, widely-spaced formations favoured by Hiigaran fighters, but then they didn't really have to; their pilots were trained to fire a single short deflection burst at one target and then move on to another, the objective being to spoil the enemy's aim by forcing them to jink all over the sky. Combined with the heavy flak going off all around, even three Defenders were-
"What the hell-?"
A glowing ball of plasma the size of a small car leapt out from the cruiser and blotted an Acolyte from the sky. Kheral yelled in pain and averted his eyes from the blinding flash. "They've got their main armament trained on us!” someone yelled, a touch redundantly. ”Hit the big guns, fast!" He lined his gunsight up on the huge turret as its muzzle swivelled to bear further back and out than any Tai battlewagon had a right to be capable of, slamming the throttle forward in the hope of getting into range before it could get another shot off. Plasma bombs from Voodoo flight sailed past, flak bursts rattled the whole fighter and railgun slugs crisscrossed the sky all around him but all Kheral could see was that huge hole in the centre of the turret as it seemed to point straight at him...
An internal explosion ripped the turret clean off its sponson, spinning the cruiser around. Kheral released a trigger he diddn't even remember pulling and worked his attitude and braking thrusters, aiming to skim over the dorsal hull and dive underneath the stricken cruiser, hopefully too low for its guns to depress, then realised it was unlikely the cruiser could have fired if it wanted to; plumes of fire were venting out of a great rent in the vessel's side where the aft turret had been, spinning the stricken vessel around in a lazy circle, and the main drives were unlit. Escape capsules were spilling away from it like birds from a falling tree, and as he watched another internal explosion tore several armour plates clean off the dorsal hull, probably the fire reaching the ammunition for the flak guns.
"Attention, Kushan strikecraft," a Taiidan-accented voice growled over the distress frequency. "Our reactor seals have been compromised; it would behoove you to get out of the blast radius."
Kheral flipped his Acolyte over and gunned the main engines, sideslipping wildly to avoid the lifeboats as they jetted away on high-powered rocket motors. An instant later, the fighter shuddered from nose to tail as the blast wave rolled over it. Its pilot let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding and brought his ship to a dead stop, switching on his collision-avoidance LIDAR to avoid colliding with either a lifeboat or what was left of the cruiser. "Nice of you to warn us," he remarked conversationally into his radio mic.
"Consider it professional courtesy," replied the Taiidani who'd spoken earlier, presumably the ranking surviving officer. "Could I possibly prevail upon you to reciprocate by not using our lifeboats for target practice as your military is so often wont to do?"
"Yeah, like you Imperials are a bastion of fucking military correctness," someone snarled.
"Button it!" Rin interjected. "Anyone fires on an escape pod and I'll blow him out of the sky myself. Scorcher One is RTB, now."
They were within sight of the Kuun-Lan when the Home Fleet command ship, which happened to be a Nabaal vessel this year, broadcast a message of thanks from which Somtaaw was mysteriously omitted. Angry mutterings from the Acolyte pilots were silenced when a nearby Firelance in Nabaal colours signalled them with its message lamp: KIITH-SA WROTE THE SPEECH. OUR CO TRIED TO ARGUE BUT WAS OVERRULED. FRIGATE SQUADRON N32 OWE SOMTAAW OUR LIVES AND WONT FORGET IT.
"Poor bastards," Rin remarked. "Bet you a week's wages their CO gets dumped out on half-pay for standing up for us, too."
"No bet," agreed one of the Thunderbolt pilots. "I dunno about you lot, but I could have lived with us getting annexed if their kiith-sa wasn't such an arse."
"He's actually not an unpleasant bloke if you meet him socially," Kheral added. "Bit too slick for his own good, but he's hilarious when he's drunk: I'd leak some video footage of a certain anniversary party to the media if there weren't people I'll have to see again in it."
"Heh. I forget how nobby you are sometimes," his wing-leader observed.
"Must be doing something right, then. Gear... down."
Kheral powered down his taxiing motor and ran through his checklist methodically, using the familiar routine to soothe his still-frayed nerves. A dull clang made him glance up, and he watched with mild interest as the refitted Providence resource gatherer that served as the Kuun-Lan's lighter descended to the main hangar deck via the heavy-duty elevator. A sizeable party of marines and several medical officers were heading towards it at the double. Must be doing SAR pickups from the cruiser, Kheral supposed, pulling off his helmet. Wonder if they'll let us paint a turret kill-marker on the squadron birds? A flash of movement caught his eye, and he saw a figure in a pilot walking slowly towards the lighter. What he could see of the man's expression beneath the helmet he had yet to remove was not reassuring.
"Jez?" Rin called out. "Jez! Jesban, whatever you're thinking, don't!"
Kheral swung himself over the side of the cockpit, hung there a moment to break his fall, and then dropped. He landed in a crouch, unbuckling the holster of his service automatic as he straightened. Rin caught his eye and shook his head minutely. Kheral subsided, keeping his hand on the butt and his eye on Jesban's hands; he was a powerfully-built man, and if he kicked off...
"Jez, look at me," Rin urged, putting his hands on the younger man's shoulders. "This is crazy; you're better than this..."
"Spare me the 'moral high ground' lecture," Jesban snapped.
"Turning into one of them won't bring anyone back, Jez. Now give me your sidearm before you get yourself in trouble."
Jesban seethed for a long moment, then unbuckled his holster and lifted the weapon out between thumb and forefinger. He handed it over to Rin, shot Kheral a look just shy of outright hatred, and stalked off without another word.
Kheral found his cigarettes and lit one, inhaling deeply. "Well, that was fun," he muttered.
Rin shrugged helplessly. "Jez had a wife in cryosleep with him in Tray Six and a couple of grown-up kids on Kharak."
Kheral winced. "That's... Hell, there's not a word for what that is."
Rin nodded, his expression indecipherable. Relatively few of the Exiles had had close friends or family back on Kharak, susceptibility to homesickness being a strong disincentive to sign up for the Gold List, but cases like Jesban's were far from rare. "Go get cleaned up, kid," he said at last. "The Old Man'll probably want a word with you."
It was something of an open secret that Kheral was a relative of the Kuun-Lan's commanding officer; the passing facial resemblance would have given it away even if it weren't common knowledge that Ifriit Balek Somtaaw-Re and Rear-Admiral Tarn Irbol were brothers-in-law. It had never been openly discussed, the black and scarlet medal ribbon on his mess jacket and his proven competence forestalling any suggestion of nepotism, and it was assumed that Kheral was a distant cousin from some cadet branch of the Balek family in whom Tarn was taking a dutiful interest at Reyan's behest.
This was wrong in almost every detail, not that Kheral was about to correct them.
He snapped to attention and saluted smartly. The Captain returned it and gestured to the ready-room door. Kheral entered and stood in front of the desk at parade rest until his superior took his seat, removing his cap and setting it on the desk. Kheral recognised the gesture for what it meant; no cap, no formalities. He was tempted to leave his own on and feign ignorance, since he had a pretty good idea of what was about to be said and did not feel terribly well-equipped to deal with it just now, but discarded the idea as unworthy of him; behaving like a petulant teenager wasn't going to get Uncle Tarn off his back.
"At ease, kid. How you holding up?"
"No worse than the rest of the squadron," Kheral replied rather pointedly, reaching across the tiny office to hang his own cap on a coathook before taking a seat.
"Now, now," Tarn replied, more amused than anything else. "We agreed I wouldn't treat you any different from the rest of the crew, but you never said I couldn't worry more."
Kheral sighed. "Yeah, I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. It's been kind of a rough day at the office, you know?"
"Tell me about it," Tarn agreed. "We had the Imperials hitting four different flanks at once and Home Fleet still trying to keep their fighter screen in reserve in case they turn out to have some ADWs squirreled away after all and some rookie taking forty litres of paint off the hull trying to land a Worker under fire and your mother finding out you were out there today..." Kheral banged his head gently on his commander's desk. "It would help you'd call her every once in a while," Tarn suggested.
"If Mum wants me to call her, she can stop complaining about my career choices every single time we speak, which she has continued to do in spite of any advice she might have received to the contrary. It's not that I'm unsympathetic to her desire to see me live to a ripe old age..."
"Yeah, I know. But I'd hate to see you turn around and find she's gone and the last conversation you ever had was a fight."
"So would I, but let's face it, me calling her won't help that right now. She'll come out of it in her own time or not at all, and after the palava we all got put through when I signed up I'm not any too bothered which."
"You're as stubborn as she is," Tarn grumbled. "But you're also probably right there. Oh, and I heard you mention that video footage earlier. I should probably warn you that arranging a private viewing for your squadron-mates would be... detrimental to your prospects for advancement."
"I only meant the bit with the dancing!" Kheral protested. "Vilrath nodded off before the bit with you in it."
"Nevertheless," Tarn said forbiddingly.
"Alright, all right. You continue to honour your promise not to give me special treatment, and I won't let the crew see you, Dad and Uncle Rey doing the limbo. Deal?"