***** MOUNT ROBILLARD *** by Quatorze *****

1. A battle

"Squadron Three launched. Three-one out."

"Base confirms."

"Squadron Four launched. Four-one out."

"Four-three, come in. Do you copy? Zero-one out."

"Four-three reports, sir. Looks like my left rear thruster's not working 100%. Requesting permission to pull back. Four-three out."

"Four-three, permission granted. Base, steer Four-three back when all's clear. Zero-one out."

"Copy that. Four-three, move over to sector 03 and wait. "

"Yessiree, Base!"

"Four-three, this is a mission, not a training camp."

"Sorry, Commander."

"Squadron Five launched. Five-one out."

"And Base confirms. All squads are out, Commander."

"Everybody into formation. Base, confirm target's location."

"No changes, Commander. Location fifty-two by seventeen, distance... oh"

"Base, confirm the target's location! Now!"

"... Commander, something's definitely not right there. We are picking up abnormal activity in the target's approximate location."

"Please be clear, Base!"

"Commander, we are trying to make out what it - oh for the... Commander, we are picking up far more disturbance than we should. It looks like there's some really powerful shielding up there. Most probably they have a lot more firepower waiting than what our equipment can detect."

"Commander, if I may suggest -"

"Continue the attack. Zero-one out."

"Commander, I really think that..."

"Captain Dahomey, I believe you heard me."

"Commander, judging by the amount of shielding you're outnumbered by at least three to one. Plus, you're within their range within seconds. Requesting you to return immediately. Base out."

"You seem to be forgetting who the Commander is, Base. Continue the -"

"Holy shit!"

"Where the hell did THAT come from?"

"Reggie? REGGIE? Do you copy?"

"Continue the attack!"

"Commander, this is an ambush! We have no chances against them, not now, not like this! Can't you believe already that they have ways to mask their true numbers from our detectors?"

"Silence, Dahomey! Continue the attack!"

"I'm hit... zzzttt... to land..."

"Commander, replace 'attack' by 'suicide' and you're getting closer to the truth!"


"Squads One, Two, Three, Four, Five, retreat immediately! Zero-two out."

"Captain Dahomey, I order you to continue the attack!"

"Commander, suicide's not my idea of fighting this war. All squadrons, evasive action NOW and return to base! Follow me!"

"Yes, Captain!"

"Right behind you, Captain."

"Dahomey, this is mutiny!"

"No, Commander, it's a massacre! All squadrons, return to base immediately. Altitude two hundred, drop now. I repeat, return to base. Zero-two out."

"Commander, this is Base - we can see them now! There's a full fleet of them, at thirteen hundred, altitude ninety-five hundred and closing in! Get out of there!"

"Continue attack. Stay in formation. Zero-one out."

"Fuck you, Seranno! Everybody, get out of there NOW! Drop to one hundred, route C. Fly, goddamnit!"

The inferno that broke loose only a fraction of a second after the furious roar seemed surreally distant. The rebel base deep in the bowels of Mount Robillard, the third biggest mountain on planet Jainah, was surrounded by tons of stone that provided a powerful barrier between it and the outside world, and its occupants were thoroughly used to their near-hermetic existence. This time, though, the eerie silence was accentuated by the conspicuous lack of the rock-shaking blasts that usually reverberated from the AD section. The guns were manned but did not shoot; the battle was raging well out of their reach, and their crews were totally denied the satisfaction of action as, for once, the Union fleet showed no interest in tailing the rebel aircraft sneaking towards the well-hidden entry chutes. Instead the attackers were gleefully annihilating the hopelessly outnumbered and rapidly dwindling group of fighters that was effectively trapped in the eye of a fiery hurricane.

Yet the flurry of voices and sounds, carried into the base by a chaotic maelstrom of radio traffic, made the situation all too real to the people who had crowded in the common room. Commander Seranno would hardly have accepted it, but Commander Seranno never knew that whenever the base was in mission mode and its pilots were out, radio traffic between base and the planes was immediately relayed to the loudspeakers in the common rooms for everybody to hear. That had been a silent wish among the people living and working in the base, and whatever the Commander's opinion, control room was found obliging.

And thus, on this occasion too, just about everyone could be found in one of the common rooms listening to the voices, storms of static, explosions. Grim, desperate gazes were glued to the radar screen that showed in merciless detail the utter hopelessness of the situation. The number of white dots on the screen, alarmingly small to start with, was constantly changing. Too many of them just blinked and then disappeared forever. The control room, helpless in the face of the carnage, concentrated on the one thing it could do: getting retreating pilots and their planes safely in. Each time one of the white dots turned briefly into green before vanishing, a collective sigh was heard in the common rooms. Another one was safe.

"Altitude five hundred, fire at will. We -"

The line crackled and went quiet. The gasp from control room was heard clearly over the loudspeakers.

"Commander? Commander!"

"Gone," shouted a frantic voice. "We're trapped here!"

Then he, too, was gone, replaced by rattling static.

More than one person turned numbly to look at a dark-haired woman whose eyes closed and tears overflowed at last on her cheeks, her mouth pressing into a tight line. A tall man standing next to her lifted an arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently, brown eyes sad under the frown. She acknowledged his gesture with a tiny nod, opened her eyes again and looked wearily around.

"I'm sorry." Her voice broke but she took a deep breath and tried again. "I'm so sorry for this all all those lives he threw away"

"Hush, Monah," said the man quietly and squeezed her tighter. She turned and buried her head on his shoulder, unable to look anymore, and the man swallowed thickly.

The door to the connecting corridor opened and a dishevelled Captain Dahomey stormed in, sweat glistening on his espresso-colored face. He stopped as if rooted in the middle of the room and stared agape at the screen.

"No way - no fucking way! I don't believe it!" His deep voice rose with incredulity. "We've lost - what - a half of our pilots and aircraft in a single harebrained attack! One single mission!" He shook his head and smashed a big fist into his left palm. "Oh for the love of Ginny"

"Osip!" The tall, slightly greying man shot him a threatening glance over the dark woman's head and Dahomey stiffened.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Seranno," he said hoarsely.

"Don't be," she breathed and pulled herself upright. "You at least had the sense to disobey him. Your example has just saved many lives."

The captain looked at her gravely before bowing his head. Quite a few people were watching them, others trying to comprehend what had just happened, too many trying to reconcile themselves to the fact that someone close to them had just ceased to exist. Faces he'd never see again flashed before Osip's eyes and unsuccessfully he tried to swallow the big lump from his throat, choking on sadness and fury and frustration.

Three men, each as flustered as their captain, came in with hurried steps, soon followed by others. Their arrival seemed to snap everyone out of a trance and within moments the stymied silence was broken as people burst into action - doing something, anything, was infinitely better than standing there in defeat, and talking at least helped to keep one moderately busy.

Somebody went to hug one of the incoming pilots. Osip's broad shoulders slumped at the sight and he gritted his teeth as impotent rage washed again over him in a burning rush. Okay, perhaps it was not very polite to curse the dead, especially someone who had been blasted into oblivion less than half an hour ago, and quite especially while standing in the same room with the wife of that late someone. But he could not help it. Curse Seranno and his goddamn haughtiness, his goddamn pride, his self-righteousness! More than forty men had just died because of that, because they had been hesitant to go against orders given by a voice Osip had grown to hate vehemently. He did not consider himself an overly volatile person, but he didn't deny that there had been no love lost between the stubborn, uptight Commander and his second-in-command. The common cause they had fought for - and their very grudging acknowledgement of each other's brilliance as pilots - had been just barely enough to keep their dislike of each other at a manageable level. This certainly wasn't the first time that Seranno's headstrong convictions had led him to make a mistake in judgment. But this time Osip had not been able to salvage the situation.

"Osip, thank goodness for you"

A smooth voice interrupted the captain's silent fuming and he whirled around, slightly embarrassed at the way his chest always seemed to constrict at the sound.

"There's nothing to thank me for," Osip Dahomey countered almost savagely, but the slim blond man shook his head with a sad smile.

"You did what you could. I wish we could have given you a definite warning earlier."

"Not your fault, Arria. You're not to blame for our stitched-together equipment or its less-than-glorious performance." Osip pushed his fingers through his matted hair and sighed. "But right now, I think we should all try to get some rest. It's late. This has been a long day and it ended in hell. That's going to be hard to deal with."

"I think we'd better start dealing with it right now," said Wilson, eyes flashing in pixie-like face, and glanced around challengingly. "I know, everybody's in shock and too many people aren't going to join us ever again. But still I think the sooner we do something, the better."

A murmur followed her words and more than one person nodded. Arria shot a questioning look at Osip who in turn surveyed the weary faces of his pilots.

"The sooner the better," echoed Percy from his customary perch on a railing. "We need to know where we stand. And we need to have something to do."

"All right." Everybody's eyes were trained on the unusually solemn face of their favorite Base Controller whose pleasant voice effortlessly carried throughout the room even without electronic enhancement. At the moment Arria seemed far too small for his rich baritone, but then, very few people in the Robillard base (or outside it, for that matter) did not look small next to the hulking Captain Dahomey. "We all come back here in an hour and talk. Then we'll take a look at the situation and decide on how we'll go on from here."

"And that's all as in 'everyone'," Osip confirmed. "Each and every one of us here in Robillard. Now, get going, folks. One hour."

People began to disperse to the corridors and halls, mechanics heading to the hangars, maintenance personnel resolutely setting themselves on the task of getting a late supper ready. Arria looked up into Osip's face that had gone blank with weariness.

"I think you too ought to use that hour to your own benefit, Captain," he pointed out. Osip blinked and flashed him a grin that was probably meant to be goofy but looked merely exhausted instead.

"Yessiree, Base, copy that! But you're right, I could use a shower. And the water'd better be hot"

Arria still stared at the door for a good while after the large figure had disappeared from sight, then slumped into a chair and heaved a big sigh. The sounds of the battle kept playing in his head, he let his slim frame sink deeper into the cushions and chewed thoughtfully on his lip. Another sleepless night lay ahead, that he knew - being a helpless witness to even one pilot's death was a horror he'd never get used to, and that multiplied by forty-three... the reality of it all would take time to fully sink in. But before dealing with the appalling loss of people, they'd have to deal with what that loss meant to the base.

That wasn't a minor thing, either. Not only were they now down to one half of their fighter pilots but also aircraft. And, nasty as it sounded, those might actually prove more difficult to replace than the men who had flown them. Arria grimaced to himself. New people were steadily trickling to the base, including the occasional pilot-to-be: someone with the basic skills, only waiting to be honed into a full-fledged fighter. But planes and their parts were an altogether different matter. It was so unfortunate, though hardly an accident, that nearly all areas producing aircraft and their supplies just happened to lie within the legislation of the Ziroshel Union. And naturally the Union was keeping particularly close tabs on all parts and supplies that might be used for anything even remotely associated with flying. After all, interplanetary transports inevitably involved flying, and that was what the Union was so determined to reign. Such immaculate logic: Get a monopoly on the equipment needed for trade. Soon you have trade pretty much under your control. And after that, dictating terms in other matters, too, became that much easier.

Arria massaged his temples. Such immaculate logic, and it was working so damn well. The rebel groups in different parts of the Union's area were hard put to maintain a network of communication, and despite all the support and funds they received, each had to focus on their tiny slice of the daunting task. For the little base in Robillard, their slice consisted of keeping an eye on the strategically important military base on Jainah and hampering its operations as best they could. Sure, they had plenty of local supporters, even ones that could provide them with highly classified materials. But still, their life was a constant struggle to keep their aircraft in working and fighting order. Aircraft was needed to strike against the Union forces and to defend their base when needed. And now, with so many planes simply pulverized, the mechanics were probably weeping on each others' shoulders at the moment... Of course the trashwagons would be going out as soon as possible to look for anything salvageable, but everything considered, the likelihood of their finding much useful was slim. It didn't help that their mechanics were capable of incredible feats, they still couldn't build whole fighter planes out of mud.

Arria glanced at his watch, then closed his eyes and sank deeper into the comfortably cushioned embrace of the chair. Forty-five minutes to go. No harm in doing some slight meditation to calm down and to get himself composed for the impending meeting. It was not a new thing for everyone to be called into the common room, but in the past those had been called briefings', not meetings. One person had done the briefing, the others had listened to him. This time, Arria swore to himself, this time it would be different.

* Last revised: Nov. 12, 2003 *