The hydraulics of the shuttle's main hatchway whined as it opened, unveiling the starboard hangar deck of the Enterprise, the Systems Federation's aged, but august battlecarrier.
Ensign Benjamin Oswald and his fellow replacement crewmembers felt the humidity rise as they exited the environmentally-controlled shuttle. They also sensed the tasteless air of the shuttle dissipating in the face of the pungent smell of grease and sweat. Older human warships, like the Enterprise, lacked advanced environmental temperature controls and also tended to have worn down ventilation systems, and the Enterprise proved to be no exception.
As Oswald and the other replacements lined up in formation at the shuttle's bow, he was amazed at the activity taking place within the hangar. Various aircraft of the Enterprise's air wing, Hellcat fighters, Dauntless bombers, Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, shuttles, large and small, and an Avenger-class gunboat, used for fending off fast attack craft, were all being serviced. Deck crews, with different colored jerseys ran to and from aircraft and supply lockers. All of them appeared overworked and dirty.
Oswald felt out of place aboard the Enterprise. Replacement crews were rare aboard the Enterprise, in particular, recent graduates of the Fleet Academy. For a ship that had been in near-constant combat with the Dakon, the Bugs as everyone called them, for the past two years, it was a glaring oddity. Many of her missions were considered to have been suicidal in nature.
Following graduation ceremonies at the Academy, Oswald's superiors told him that his assignment to the Enterprise, while still an untested rookie, spoke well of his abilities to be a part of the most elite group of pilots in the Fleet. What skills, thought Oswald. He considered himself to be competent, but nothing special. He'd had his share of ups and downs at the Academy.
His so-called skills were not the real reason why he had been deployed to the Enterprise. Oswald knew that the Fleet had been suffering from an acute shortage of trained pilots and needed every one of them that it could get its hands on. Oswald had seen it coming some time ago when training at the Academy was accelerated without prior notice by the cadre.
His eyes shifted forward to the head of the formation where an officer, a lieutenant by the appearance of his rank insignia, set a step ladder in front it. He rose part way up it to better address the assembled replacements. His orders were direct: find you're quarters, stow away you're gear, and then find you're section commander. In Oswald's case, his section commander was the CAG (Commander, Air Group). No one would be meeting the captain, James Halsey. According to the lieutenant, the Captain was too busy with other duties.
With that, the lieutenant dismissed the replacements.
Oswald felt a hand slap down hard on his back. He didn't need to turn to regard whose hand it was.
"This is going to be great, Oz!" said Ensign Marcus Hardy, Oswald's best friend and a fellow graduate of the Academy.
Marcus was as good a friend as Oswald could hope for. When Oswald first arrived at the Academy, he was often shy about getting to know others. Marcus had been assigned as his roommate and his impulsive manners forced Oswald out of his shell.
Despite their close friendship, Oswald felt that his piloting skills were mediocre, at best. Due to Oswald's frequent and indispensible help, Marcus managed to graduate, though just barely. He did not belong aboard the Enterprise.
"I can't wait to see some action with these guys," he said with glee, "They always get the best missions."
"You mean the hardest ones," Oswald replied.
"And then there's the Whiskey Killer," said Marcus, oblivious to Oswald's correction.
Whiskey Killer was the famous whiskey made exclusively aboard the Enterprise. Only crewmembers that had killed someone in combat could drink it. According to a former Enterprise crewmember at the Academy, to drink Whiskey Killer was the greatest honor ever bestowed upon her.
"You're doing this just for the whiskey?" laughed Oswald.
"Well there are also the ladies, the parades, medals, and all sorts of other stuff," replied Marcus.
Marcus' excitement jarred Oswald from his trepidation, forcing him to grin.
"Come on," said Oswald, "Let's find our quarters."
"Lead the way," Marcus responded.
Getting to their quarters proved to be a task easier said than done. First, they had to navigate the chaos that was the starboard hangar deck. Aircraft, ordnance, and various supply containers crowded every available space. Deckhands bickered back and forth with each other about any number of issues. From the scuttlebutt Oswald listened to as he passed by, a major operation was supposed to be in the works, but no one seemed to know much beyond that.
After exiting the hangar, Oswald and Marcus entered the maze of corridors that formed the interior of the Enterprise. Within several turns, they became lost. With helpful, and unhelpful, directions from various crewmembers, they succeeded in finding their new quarters.
Upon entering the room, they found a trio of pilots arguing around a table sitting in the middle of the room over who had originally owned a pornographic magazine, Galactic Butts. Whatever positive impressions that Oswald had had of Enterprise pilots ended right there.
The squabbling amongst the trio ended once one of them, a tall, muscular man with a shaved head noticed Oswald and Marcus. He walked halfway to them and halted. Oswald had no idea who he was, but reasoned that the pilot outranked him and Marcus.
"You guys must be the nuggets, right?" he asked in reference to Oswald and Marcus being novice aviators.
"Yes sir," they responded in unison as they came to the position of attention.
"Just relax," motioned the pilot with his hand, "What are you're names?"
Oswald, then Marcus, responded.
"My name is Frank O'Hare. You can just call me Butch, my call sign," he said. Oswald knew he was sizing them up, wanting to know what they were made of.
"You guys are out of the Academy?"
Oswald opened his mouth to answer, but Marcus spoke before he could. Oswald couldn't believe what he had to say. Without the slightest hint of shame, Marcus boasted that they had been considered the best pilots to come out of the Academy in years. Oswald knew that Marcus' egotism piqued Butch by the look on his face.
Butch drew a smile and then shot down Marcus, "Academy fucks ain't worth shit on this ship!"
Marcus fell half a step back, but Butch didn't push things any further. He seemed satisfied with what he had said and waited for some kind of pithy come back from Marcus. None came and an uncomfortable silence followed for several moments.
Without warning, Butch jerked his head back toward the table. He turned his head back toward Marcus. His face wore a proud smile. He turned around again and reached for a clear glass bottle sitting in the center of the table. In it was a gold-colored liquid unknown to Oswald.
Hefting the bottle back and forth between his hands, he focused his attention back on Marcus with another smile, "I think you know exactly what this is."
"Whiskey Killer," responded Marcus in awe of the renowned drink.
"It's actually called Whiskey For a Killer because it is only for killers," explained Butch, "A while back, someone decided to call it Whiskey Killer. I don't why, but I figure that they thought it sounded more 'badass' or something like that. Anyway, it's contributed to that aura of mysticism."
Marcus smiled at what Butch had said.
Butch ceased to tossing the bottle between his hands and pointed the neck of it at Marcus, "But you can't have any because you're not a killer yet."
He then pointed it at Oswald, informing him of the same thing.
Before Oswald could reply, Butch looked past him to the doorway behind Oswald and Marcus. Oswald turned to see what Butch was looking at. Standing at the doorway was a tall and slender woman with fiery red hair like the evening sun that was further accentuated by her pale skin. In spite of her physical elegance, Oswald detected a cold darkness about her.
"Having fun picking on the bloody nuggets, Butch?" she asked in an icy tone.
When Oswald turned back around to Butch, he could see that Butch had straightened up. Oswald thought that if Butch was intimidated by this mysterious woman, then he ought to be as well.
"Yes ma'am," replied Butch. Then he smiled, "You had me there for a second."
Oswald cocked his head back around to the woman. She was also smiling. Her teeth were white as porcelain.
She faced Oswald and Marcus and introduced herself, "I'm Commander Saffron Thach, the CAG."
Oswald and Marcus shot to the position of attention and saluted her. She returned their salutes and bade them to relax with a flick of her hand.
Saffron Thach was as much a living legend as Captain Halsey. Her kills numbered into the hundreds, almost as many as the Captain. Oswald recalled seeing multiple newscasts covering her. All had portrayed her as a sort of paragon of service and freedom. Now he saw the real Saffron: cold and ruthless to the core.
"You can call me by my call sign, Shadow. But only in certain situations," she said.
Neither Oswald, nor Marcus said anything in return.
"Anyway," said Saffron, breaking the silence, "I came to tell everyone that new orders came down the brass. Report to 1st Squadron's ready room for a briefing on them."
"What're the orders, ma'am?" inquired Butch.
"You'll find out there," she replied without any hint of emotion before stepping away from the doorway and disappearing into the corridor.
Oswald turned to Marcus to see what he had to say about Saffron. To Oswald's surprise, Marcus had nothing to say. He just stood there, awestruck by Saffron's natural beauty. Oswald waved his hand in front of Marcus' eyes, bringing him back to reality.
Marcus shifted his attention to Oswald and remarked, "That is one hot piece of ass."
"Forget about it," said Butch as he passed between Oswald and Marcus on his way to the door, "That ass belongs to the Captain." Oswald looked at Marcus, not quite able to digest what Butch had just told them.
Oswald and Marcus followed Butch and the other two pilots to 1st Squadron's ready room. Entering the room, Oswald was certain that it would have appeared to be much more expansive had it not been so crowded with pilots. Every seat was taken. Little standing room remained. The air was thick from the breathing of some two-hundred pilots.
Oswald saw Franks walk up to a pilot seated in the front row and order him to get up. From Oswald's vantage, both pilots appeared to be of equal rank. The pilot complained at first, but relented as Butch refused to back off. None of what he saw made any sense to Oswald. Why didn't the pilot just keep telling Butch no, he thought.
Oswald saw the same thing repeated a few more times as he and Marcus moved to find a space in the back of the room. It dawned on Oswald that the reason some pilots, like Butch, made others relinquish their seats to them was because they had more combat experience, or at least more kills.
Oswald listened in on the conversations he could hear within earshot. The Enterprise pilots were a fractious lot. Half of the conversations he spied on were arguments over a variety of matters. Some were petty, such as two female pilots disputing which male pilots had the best looking bodies. Others were more professional in nature, with another pair of pilots arguing over war games. Oswald even heard actual threats hurled from one side of the room to the other. How did they ever survive all those suicide missions together?
"Think it's a suicide mission?" asked Marcus.
"I don't know," Oswald replied. The thought of his first combat mission being a suicide mission made his stomach twist.
Saffron entered the room and marched straight toward the podium in the front center of the room. Her mere presence was more than enough to quiet most of the banter among the pilots. Oswald wondered if it was her coldness or reputation.
"Alright, listen up!" her authoritative voice echoed across the room, silencing any remaining conversations.
She waited a moment and then began, "We've got another tough one."
Oswald pondered if by 'tough one' she meant suicide mission.
"Stay easy, it won't be as bad as the last one," she finished in a reassuring tone.
"That's what you said last time!" retorted Butch.
The room erupted in laughter. Even Saffron shared in it.
Oswald felt sure that the Enterprise was being sent on another suicide mission. His stomach twisted again at the assumption. He aimed his face at the floor and shifted his feet about.
Saffron continued the briefing. The target was Planet XL48G, codenamed Helen. In orbit of Helen were several shipyards, dry docks, and space stations. They were protected by a series of orbital weapons platforms. The Bugs had also stationed a large fleet there. Oswald couldn't believe that they were going to attack all that.
"The Xath, the Hyperions, and the Asgard will be attacking those targets," announced Saffron, "We have a more important task."
Oswald wished that the task meant performing as a covering force, but it seemed to be wishful thinking on his part
Saffron detailed that the Enterprise and her escorts, Battle Group 16, were to attack a battle-station in very high orbit of Helen. The station had been given the codename Paris. Anything within its line of sight would come under heavy attack. The mission of Battle Group 16 was to engage and destroy Paris, or at least distract it.
"According to the Asgard, Paris is designed for long-range combat," continued Saffron, "I've seen the report and trust it's finding completely. That means we'll be getting in close, which happens to be our forte."
Oswald felt somewhat better with the information Saffron had presented. To him, it seemed that the Enterprise was going to have an easier time than the Allies. Saffron dashed those hopes a moment later. Paris was not wholly defenseless. The Bugs appeared to be aware of its shortcomings. Current intelligence suggested that they had placed a flotilla of warships reinforced by several wings of Banshees, their premiere space superiority fighter.
Oswald's jaw dropped. After a moment, he collected himself and glanced at Marcus, who was all smiles. Oswald couldn't believe Marcus. How can you think that all of what she just told us is a good thing, he almost said aloud to himself.
"I'm not going to lie to you," said Saffron with great solemnity, "This operation is going to be a mess for all involved. However, defeating the Bugs here will open up a multitude of areas that we could strike. The Bugs can't defend everything at once. Mark my words. Winning here will go a long way in winning this bloody war."
Oswald wanted to throw up. He shifted his feet again to take away any attention he had focused on his stomach. He locked his fingers together to keep from twiddling them.
"Sounds like its going to be a good time," quipped Marcus.
"Knock it off!" retorted Oswald.
"What's going on back there?" called Saffron.
Oswald was caught off-guard. He had no idea that she could have heard him from down in the front of the room. The other pilots cocked their heads in Oswald's attention. The collective stare of two-hundred sets of eyes seemed like a thousand to Oswald.
"Something you wanted to add, nugget?" asked Saffron with the same icy tone from earlier.
"No ma'am," replied Oswald.
His voice did not carry very far. He was intimidated by Saffron, as he was sure that many more pilots were. He hoped that his weak response would be more than enough to persuade her not to chastise him any further.
"No ma'am," responded Marcus right after Oswald had.
He though that she was talking to both of us, raced Oswald's mind. He felt relieved that he was not alone.
Saffron leaned forward on the podium for a moment. Oswald had not the slightest idea what she was thinking. Whatever it was, it could not in any way be good.
"Butch told me about the conversation he had with both of you earlier," said Saffron, her words acting like an unmerciful whip, "They said that they were the hottest pilots out of the Academy in years," she announced to the rest of the pilots present.
Her remark drew a combination of some unsuppressed laughter, a good deal of snickering, and even some groans. Oswald didn't bother to rate which of it was the worst. It was all bad and he and Marcus did not need any publicity of that sort.
Oswald's face grew red with embarrassment. On the interior, he was angry. Oswald didn't think that it was fair that he was being mocked as well. He hadn't said a single word. Every one of them had been from Marcus' mouth.
"How can either of you consider yourselves to be 'hotshots' when you're untested?" asked Saffron.
Pointing to their fellow pilots, she continued, "Do you know why the pilots seated and standing before you are alive? Because they decided a long time ago that they were not going to be hotshots! And they survived because of it!"
Saffron ceased belittling Oswald and Marcus and returned to the briefing. It continued on for another hour, a very long hour for Oswald. He had considerable difficulty paying attention after the dressing down that he had received. From what he did pay attention too, a recitation of already presented facts was given, but in much greater detail on the known, and suspected, capabilities of Paris.
Following the briefing, as the pilots filed out of the ready room, Oswald castigated Marcus for being such an idiot. Marcus didn't seem to understand.
"Relax, alright. I'm sorry. Besides, I got plenty of flak from her too," he replied.
Oswald sighed, "Well we've probably got a few rough days ahead for ourselves over that."
Marcus nodded, perhaps now understanding Oswald.
The next morning, Oswald awoke to find Butch getting ready for the day's flight operations. Almost empathically, Butch's eyes darted up and saw Oswald staring at him.
"Sir, you've got an hour before reveille sounds," Oswald informed him.
"Yeah, I know," replied Butch, "Captain's orders though. Squadron leaders have to be ready to go before everyone else."
He pulled his helmet from his duty locker. Despite the helmet's benign appearance, it was a well-designed piece of equipment that integrated several technologies found aboard Federation fighters into its Head Up Display. Pilots could use their HUD without needing to look at most of the cockpit's flight instruments.
"Have you met the Captain yet?" asked Butch.
"No sir," replied Oswald.
"I'm not surprised. The CAG told me last night that the brass have asked a lot him on this op."
Marcus began to snore, again. Butch rolled his eyes. Marcus' snoring had kept him up throughout the night. When they had first become roommates at the Academy, Oswald suffered during those first few nights from Marcus' merciless snoring. He understood the contempt that Butch held for the snoring.
"I'm used to it," gibed Oswald.
"You're friend seems eager for combat," said Butch, changing the subject.
"He's kind of like a friend I used to have."
"What happened to him?"
"He decided to be a hotshot and died."
Butch made up his bunk while Oswald let the cruel remark sink in. He was now very worried for Marcus.
Butch turned back to Oswald, "Don't worry about today, kid. You and your buddy just have CAP duty."
Three days later, Oswald and Marcus were still flying Combat Air Patrols. Oswald felt much relieved that their CAP duties had lasted for as long as they had thus far. Marcus, on the other hand, was not at all pleased with this.
The rest of the air wing had been too busy with reconnaissance and additional CAPs to pick on Oswald and Marcus for wanting to be 'hotshots.' Most were involved in reconnaissance operations around Helen. Most had occurred within the vicinity of Paris to test Bug defenses. When Marcus asked them about their defenses, he was told that Helen was teeming with Bugs and that they had attacked each and every scouting mission with great force. The eyes of those pilots held no lies in them. There had been a lot of talk about many close calls, yet in a strange quirk of fate, no casualties. However, every pilot involved did not deny that casualties would happen.
Oswald was glad not to be involved in any of that. Today, he and Marcus were on the very far edge of Battle Group 16's current area of operation in their Hellcats.
"This is fucking bullshit, Oz!" Marcus moaned over the radio. Oswald cringed. They had strict orders to maintain radio silence, unless it was an absolute necessity. Marcus' statement did not fit that.
"Goddamnit, Marcus!" screamed back Oswald, "Radio silence, radio silence!"
"I'm just saying. I mean, come on. This is boring. We get all the boring shit and everyone else gets to have some fun. Besides, don't we deserve a chance to get some experience? Could prove helpful in the future, especially in the next few days. We do have a 'major engagement' coming up. You agree with–"
"Shut up Marcus! My sensors are reading contacts. Keep a look out while I sort out who they are."
It was standard operating procedure among Federation pilots for one pilot to check sensor data against unknown contacts while his or her wingman kept a lookout for ambushes.
Alright, I've got…oh dear," announced Oswald, his voice trailing off. From the displayed information on his HUD, a dozen Banshees were fast approaching their position. Oswald's heart sank.
They had broken through the blockade, and have been very successful at it since they were so far away from Helen. Oswald guessed they had powered down to ambush any nearby patrols. He felt relieved that he and Marcus had at least some warning against them.
The Hellcat possessed an array of superb armaments; six 30mm auto-cannons and a large variety of missiles on its sixteen hard points. It was also superior to the Banshee, but a dozen Banshees against two Hellcats was not a fair fight, even by a long shot.
"Marcus, power up your slipdrive," ordered Oswald. There was no chance that they could win. Retreating would alert the Enterprise and have reinforcements sent out to deal with the marauding Banshees.
"Come on, Oz!" he argued.
"We are outnumbered and are leaving!" yelled back Oswald.
Oswald flipped his Hellcat over and then righted it by rolling over. He was relieved to see Marcus follow his order. He slammed on his afterburner, decelerating the backwards flying fighter. Oswald watched his speed indicator fall to zero and then rise as the Hellcat shot forward, away from the fast approaching Banshees. Oswald checked the rear view mirror mounted at the top of the cockpit's windshield for any visual sign that they Banshees were bearing down on them. To his relief, they were still out of sight.
On the instrument display was a large, round blue button. Oswald punched it. As soon as he did, the Hellcat's tiny slipdrive hummed to life. A bluish-white hole opened before him. Slipspace.
Slipspace existed on an alternate plane that permitted faster-than-light travel, but if not properly entered, death was a certainty. The slipdrive was designed to open a hole into slipspace that allowed ships to "slip" in and out.
Because they had pre-programmed the coordinates of the Enterprise in eventuality they were attacked, Oswald and Marcus were able to slip away without needing several minutes to upload the coordinates.
Surrounding Oswald was the wormhole that he had created. Enigmatic blue energy swirled around its sides. Blinding white flashes created bolts of energy from slipspace crashed against the exterior of the wormhole. Oswald recoiled from each one, though he was safe. So long as the wormhole held, he would live. For those new to slipspace, it was an intimidating place. Though Oswald was well acquainted with it, he still did not like it at all.
A moment later, Oswald slipped out of the wormhole. He looked to his left and saw Marcus slip out of his.
Floating before Oswald was Battle Group 16, three cruisers and destroyers surrounding the Enterprise. She dwarfed every single one of them, including the cruisers, which were almost 600 meters in length. The newer battle-carriers were even larger, but they did not possess the fearsome reputation of the Enterprise.
Oswald contacted the Combat Information Center, the nerve center of the Enterprise, and Battle Group 16. Oswald gave his report of the situation, racing his words in the beginning, but slowing down as he reached the end of it.
"So are we going with the cavalry?" he timidly finished.
"Standby," crackled the feminine voice of the communications officer over the radio.
Oswald waited several seconds. What was taking them so long, he pondered.
"Oswald and Benjamin," came the communications officer again, "report to the starboard flight deck for docking and debriefing. CIC out."
Oswald and Marcus followed their orders and docked in the starboard hangar bay. Upon docking, one of the crew chiefs told them that they were wanted in the CAG's quarters for debriefing.
Saffron's quarters were unlike the quarters for the rest of the air wing. They were for her alone and despite the privacy and extra space afforded, the room was still cramped. The lighting was poor making everything look ragged and dirty. The room reminded Oswald of a dive bar Marcus had once dragged him out too.
Saffron began the debriefing by casting one aspersion after another on them from behind the cluttered mess adorning her desk. Gone was the icy, phlegmatic voice from when Oswald had first met her. For several minutes, Oswald had not the slightest idea of what she was so angry about. He felt confident Marcus was just as confused. Oswald accepted that she was right in pointing out that radio silence had been broken for "improper purposes," but he recoiled when she held both of them equal in responsibility. Oswald wanted to protest what he saw as a gross inaccuracy, but knew better than too. Saffron was far too angry and any protestations on his part would only make matters worse.
"But the worst thing you two dumbasses did was blow an important intelligence gathering operation!" she yelled.
Oswald cocked his head toward Marcus with a confused look. Marcus held the same exact expression on his face.
This is what she's so pissed about, thought Oswald.
"Ma'am, with all due respect," Oswald ventured, "we have no idea about what you are talking about."
Saffron leaned forward, placing her palms upon the clutter that still occupied her desk. Oswald had been sure that at some point during her tirade, she would have been knocked something off of it.
"The operation was gathering information on the Dakons' long-range communications capabilities," she began, "We had good reason to believe that they would run the blockade and set themselves up in the sector you were patrolling to broadcast and receive communications. We didn't want them to know that we were poking around in the sector. That was why you had to maintain strict radio silence."
"Its one less place that they can go, ma'am," observed Oswald.
"This is true," conceded Saffron, "But space is pretty fucking big and sensors don't cover everything, everywhere all at once. With the Bugs choosing that sector, we could have observed the number of transmissions, getting an idea of how worried they were. We even might have been able to tap into them and picked up God knows what now.
"Because of your actions, we will never have that chance. The Bugs will choose a new route now and we'll have less intelligence on what they've got in store for us when we attack," she finished.
"Then why were we sent there if it was so important for the Bugs not to be disturbed?" yelled Oswald.
"The Bugs are notoriously paranoid when it comes to supply routes. That area had been patrolled routinely. If we had suddenly shifted our patrols, they might have caught on, or at least let paranoia grip them again. It was a calculated risk. One that failed because you two fucked up!"
Saffron caught her breath and stood up straight again. She set her hands on her slender waist and looked back down at her desk. After a moment she dismissed them.
While Oswald was glad the ordeal was now over, his stomach rolled from having stood up to Saffron. Staying silent would have been better than knowing the consequences of Marcus' actions. Who was he kidding? Saffron would have told him about the Bugs regardless. How this would lead the other pilots would treat him and Marcus now made him shudder.
"Oh, by the way," called Saffron just as Oswald and Marcus were about to exit her quarters, "Since you two are so eager for some 'action,' tomorrow should put you at ease."
Outside her quarters, in the corridor, Marcus asked, "What does she mean by 'action'?"
"She was talking about Paris," said Oswald.
The next morning, the entire air wing gathered back in 1st Squadron's ready room. Oswald and Marcus arrived there first and picked a pair of seats toward the back of the room. They worried Saffron might not react well to them sitting up front.
They also expected to be told to move sooner or later by the other pilots. To their surprise, once more pilots began filing in, none forced them to move. None of what Oswald had seen a three days before occurred. The pilots treated each other as equals. No banter, arguments, threats from the other side of the room, or even sociable conversations accompanied them; just an uneasy silence. Oswald was mystified by the apparent politeness they showed each other. He settled on the assumption that on the day of battle, they treated each other as equals because some of them would die.
Saffron entered with her typical coldness and announced that the Captain would not be giving a speech. He was too busy. She began the briefing by reciting some already known facts about Paris, but went into considerable detail on the operational duties that the air wing was to perform in the upcoming battle. Oswald devoted little attention to her words. He sat dejected in his seat, his mind too focused on the possibility of dying within the next few hours.
Marcus, on the other hand, leaned forward throughout the entire briefing, all too eager to experience combat.
Whenever he felt it permissible, Oswald would glance around the room to get a feel for what other pilots were thinking. Not a single one of them seemed excited or despondent over the prospect of dying. They had been through too many missions like the upcoming one.
Following the briefing, Oswald made a beeline for the starboard hangar deck and inspected his Hellcat for any defects or other problems. He found nothing wrong with it. The deckhands were masters of their trade.
Yet Oswald pestered them with petty questions. He hoped they would pull the fighter aside and he wouldn't have to fight. The deckhands repeatedly assured him nothing was wrong with the fighter. Oswald relented after several minutes, kicking himself for acting like a coward.
The word 'coward' stung him. How could he act like one? He looked over at his fellow pilots. How many times had they gone into combat, certain that they would die, yet come out alive? From all the stories Oswald had heard, countless might be the right amount.
Over the loudspeakers came a crisp and authoritative masculine voice, identifying itself as the executive officer. All pilots were ordered to board their aircraft.
A deckhand set up a ladder for Oswald to use to enter the cockpit of his Hellcat. He thanked the deckhand and ascended it. His feet weighed like iron. He did not want to fight.
With reluctance, Oswald set himself down in the cockpit. As he began his pre-flight checklist, he heard someone yelling his name. He lifted his head to see Marcus possessing no lack of glee as he smiled at Oswald and gave him a thumb's up. Oswald forced a grin and waved back. His nerves would not allow him to muster anything more than that.
Oswald signaled the crew chief that he was ready for launch. The chief nodded and ordered his crew to get in position to slide the Hellcat into the shooter bay.
The shooter bay was a feature unique to human battlecarriers. Any other ship that launched small spacecraft, such as Hellcats, did so with a flight deck. Depending on the size of the flight deck and the number of spacecraft being launched, several minutes might be consumed to launch all of them.
With the shooter bay, Oswald's Hellcat would be launched through an ingenious combination of magnetic repulsion and it's the inertia generated by its engines.
With shooter bays lining her port and starboard sides, the Enterprise could launch all of her Hellcats in several seconds, offering an immediate tactical advantage.
Only the Hellcat could be launched, though. The Dauntlesses, Prowlers, and Avengers were all too large to be accommodated. Instead, they launched for the flight decks.
A deckhand standing at the controls of the inner doors indicated to the chief that the outer doors, the ones leading to space, were secure. The chief ordered him to open the inner doors. Oswald watched them slide open as if they were the jaws of death itself. The deckhands pushed the heavily-laden Hellcat along a track running into the bay.
As soon as the Hellcat was far enough into the bay, the inner doors slammed shut, enshrouding Oswald in pitch black darkness before red emergency lights flared to life. Oswald took a deep breath in a desperate gamble to maintain his composure. His mind flashed back to when his instructors at the Academy told him that remembering his training would one day save his life. The advice and instruction he had received produced a calming effect.
The voice of the XO came over the radio, distracting Oswald from his apprehensive thoughts, "This is the XO. Stand by for combat slip. We will be slipping in on top of them. Expect immediate action. That is all."
Oswald remembered Saffron mentioning something about slipping in close to Paris during the briefing. He now wished he had paid better attention. He didn't even know what his role was. Was he going to help defend the Enterprise or cover the Dauntlesses when they attacked Paris? He told himself to forget about it. Once the shooting started, whatever plans that had been made wouldn't matter.
"Well, here I am," he said to himself.
Oswald began to laugh. What a stupid thing to say, he told himself.
He felt his Hellcat rumble as the Enterprise entered slipspace. The slip would last for a few seconds; a short-hop in military slang.
In the movies, moments such as these were when the hero recalled a moment from their childhood that defined who they once were. Oswald's mind drew nothing. He was no hero. He only hoped to survive the battle, to live to the next day.
The Enterprise's hull groaned, signaling her exit from slipspace. The outer doors popped open, revealing the stunning blue-green planet that was Helen. Oswald would have continued being entranced by Helen had not Paris caught his eyes.
The bitter irony of Paris was its grotesque appearance. The center of it was a misshapen sphere. From it, stretched six twisted arms, each one twisted different from the others.
Ordnance flew from a top and below where Oswald's shooter bay was. The Enterprise's primary, secondary, and point-defense batteries had initiated the battle. Much of the ordnance exploded midway between the Enterprise and Paris. Oswald knew that Banshees and other attack craft were being savaged by the successive volleys of it as they charged the Enterprise. They would not penetrate her flak barrier.
Oswald caught sight of ordnance sailing toward Paris and the Bugs from other directions. He figured that the rest of Battle Group 16 had opened fire. He could see the Bugs return fire, but it was a feeble effort, as much of it was intercepted before coming anywhere near the Enterprise.
"Standby to launch," came the phlegmatic voice of the communications officer.
Oswald shifted about in his seat in anticipation. His heart thumped too hard for him to ignore it. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he powered the Hellcat's engines
"Standby," came the communications officer again.
"Enough already," Oswald complained to himself.
An alarm sounded in his cockpit. Oswald checked the instrument panel and saw a warning light flickering over the engine display window.
"Crap," he muttered to himself, "I've got a problem with my engines," he then called out over the radio to the crew chief.
"Copy that," replied the chief, "We'll bring you back and fix you up."
The outer doors slammed shut just as Oswald witnessed scores of Hellcats streaking away from the Enterprise to take on the Bugs. He powered down his Hellcat's engines just as the inner doors opened. Oswald removed his helmet and opened the cockpit window as the deckhands pulled it back into the hangar deck.
He was as anxious as ever. He'd finally been ready to go and got sidelined. Fear began to creep back into his mind. He pushed whatever returning fears there were to the back of his mind and prayed to himself that they would remain there.
Deckhands scurried all over the Hellcat. The crew chief barked orders to them. Most of the deckhands were centered on the engines, while some inspected other areas of the Hellcat, including the missiles that it carried.
The chief began yelling ever louder. Oswald reasoned that meant that they were nearing completion of whatever repairs the engines needed.
"Let's go!" shouted Oswald at the chief and the deckhands.
"Just hold on," the chief shot back.
Oswald didn't hear anything back. No doubt the chief had heard all of what he'd said before and decided that it was worth ignoring. He had more important problems to focus on.
Without warning, the Enterprise rocked from an explosion. Oswald had no idea what had struck her, other than that it had to be big for the concussive force to jolt the entire ship.
"Jeez that was a big one," Oswald heard a young-sounding deckhand remark.
"We've had a lot worse than that, son," shot back the chief. That did not improve Oswald's feelings or impatience.
The chief signaled to Oswald with a thumb's up that the Hellcat was ready to go. He and his deckhands shoved it back into the shooter bay. Oswald repowered the Hellcat's engines. As soon as he received the go-ahead order from the CIC, Oswald hit the afterburners. Combined with the bay's magnetic repulsion, they fired Oswald into the fray.
Clearing the shooter bay, Oswald found himself surrounded by the violence of the battle. In front of him a Bug cruiser lined up to land a full broadside on the Enterprise, but didn't get the chance. The Enterprise unleashed a barrage that tore through its hull, shattering it from the jarring impact of each shell and the mass depressurizations that followed. The cruiser's only worth now was scrap.
As Oswald witnessed the cruiser come apart, a small, bulbous spacecraft, a Banshee, cut in front of him. Oswald fired a short burst from his guns, his accuracy flawless. The Banshee fragmented from the furor of each 30mm round that slammed into it.
My first kill, thought Oswald. What amazed him most was not the kill itself, but that it happened so fast.
"Nice kill, Oz!" cried Marcus.
Before Oswald could thank Marcus, several rounds struck past his Hellcat. Oswald checked his rear-view mirror. A Banshee followed close behind him. The Banshee fired again. Oswald rolled his Hellcat out of the way just in time.
Looking in the mirror again, Oswald saw the Banshee still clung to his tail, trying to line him up for another shot.
Remembering his training, Oswald forced himself to maintain his composure. He pulled back hard on his joystick, while firing his forward thrusters. The Hellcat lost speed. Oswald hoped the Banshee would shoot by, but his hopes were dashed when several rounds grazed his Hellcat's fuselage. Oswald jerked out of the way of several more, feeling lucky to be alive.
"Hold on, Oz! I'm coming," screamed Marcus.
Oswald cut hard to his left to give Marcus a clear field of fire. He cocked his head to discover Marcus firing long, wild bursts at it, none of them remotely accurate.
"Use your missiles," Oswald shouted. In the absolute zero temperature of space, the heat-seeking missile had a proven reputation for being a killer of even the best pilots.
"Don't worry! I'm on him!" he yelled back.
Oswald twisted his Hellcat to avoid more incoming fire. The Banshee was getting closer.
"Fire your missiles," yelled Oswald.
Marcus did not reply. Oswald cut hard to the right and out of the corner of his eye he saw Marcus still firing guns at the Banshee. Oswald banged his fist against the side of his cockpit.
"Marcus!" he yelled again.
Marcus shouted back a long string of expletives about not being able to hit the Banshee.
"No shit," Oswald muttered to himself.
"There's one on me," screamed Marcus.
Oswald jolted in his cockpit. He jerked his Hellcat hard to the right again, straining his neck to get a view of Marcus. To his alarm, the Banshee pursued Marcus, keeping him from maneuvering away with well-timed shots.
"I can't shake him! I can't shake him!" shrieked Marcus.
"Beam Defense!" ordered Oswald, recalling it from training at the Academy.
Beam Defense was a centuries old maneuver dating back to 20th century Earth. A pilot being pursued would set up his wingman to get a frontal shot at the pursuing enemy fighter. Even in space, it was still an effective maneuver.
"I can't do it," yelled Marcus.
"Calm down and just do it," replied Oswald, forcing himself to remain as calm as possible in the hope it would lead Marcus to do the same.
"You have to do it."
"I'm hit. It's real bad."
"Marcus, you're going to be fine," said Oswald, assuming Marcus had just been grazed instead. Even if he had, the Hellcat had a solid reputation for taking heavy damage and still giving it back with interest.
"Oz, I--," said Marcus before static came over the radio. That was all the confirmation Oswald needed to know Marcus was dead.
Oswald didn't need his mirror to know both Banshees were tight on him. The volume of fire was more than enough to confirm that.
Whenever Oswald maneuvered to evade the fire of one, the other fired on him. With skill, and some luck, Oswald danced his Hellcat out of the way. He didn't have the skills to turn the tables on them and he knew that his luck would run out soon.
Oswald recalled a nifty tactic an instructor taught him once. To throw off the aim of the Banshees, Oswald maneuvered before they fired. The tactic met with some success, reducing their rate of fire and accuracy. But they still clung to him.
Taking a deep breath, Oswald reported, "This is Oswald. My wingman is down and two Banshees are tight on me."
"Oz, Shadow," called Saffron, "I'm on my way, but there's a lot of Banshees. Hold on."
Whether she exaggerated or not, Oswald did not know. His pursuing Banshees also ensured that he didn't check to see if there really were swarms of them.
Oswald's warning receiver blared to life, its high-pitched squealing scaring Oswald. The receiver meant only one thing: missile lock. In his rear-view mirror, a missile shot out from one of the Banshees toward him. Oswald depowered his engines and rolling away, ejecting a series of Flickers.
Flickers were small, spherical shells that emitted intense heat, enough to distract a heat-seeking missile.
To his relief, the missile arced into them and exploded.
"Enough of this," complained Oswald.
Oswald flipped his Hellcat over so that he faced the Banshees while still flying away from them. Using his HUD, he acquired a solid missile lock on one of them and loosed a single missile at it. With the targeted Banshee charging after Oswald with reckless abandon, it never got the chance to maneuver of the incoming missile.
As the missile crashed into the cockpit of the Banshee, Oswald turned his guns loose on the other Banshee. Firing all six guns at once, Oswald raked the Banshee, reducing it to a pile of flying debris.
With both Banshees gone, Oswald breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. His thoughts drifted to Marcus. He was gone, truly gone and Oswald knew that he would never come back.
"Don't rest on you laurels yet Oz," called Saffron, jarring Oswald from his thoughts of Marcus, "We've still got work to do."
"Copy," replied Oswald.
"My wingman had to eject so you and I are best friends for the moment. The bloody Dauntlesses are making their attack runs on Paris and need cover."
Oswald copied the last transmission, repowered his engines, and line up close behind Saffron.
"We'll take a shortcut through what's left of that Bug cruiser," said Saffron.
Oswald recognized the cruiser as the very ship he had seen the Enterprise obliterate earlier. The remains of the cruiser constituted a large field of drifting wreckage. With great finesse, Oswald struggled to stay with Saffron. Oswald did his best to put as much space as possible between himself and any wreckage. To his sheer amazement, Saffron cut close to any wreckage. Was she enjoying herself, he thought.
Coming out of the wreckage, Oswald had a bird's eye view of the battle. The remnants of Dakon warships littered the space between Battle Group 16 and Paris.
"Are the Bug ships already out of the fight?" asked Oswald.
"Copy that," replied Saffron, "I didn't say that close combat was our forte for no reason."
Oswald glanced over at Paris; just in time to witness the monster unleash scores of missiles in the direction of Helen. In a terrifying sense, it was beautiful. It also meant the Hyperions, Xath, and Asgard were attacking the Dakon around Helen.
Orders rang out from the Enterprise. All ships were to concentrate their fire on Paris. Oswald watched in awe the amount of ordnance Enterprise and her escorts poured in Paris. Dozens of explosions erupted on the battle station, and yet it still did not do enough damage.
"There's the Dauntlesses," said Saffron.
Oswald turned his head to the left and saw a large body of the venerable bombers spread out in an attack formation he didn't recognize.
"And there's a pair!" shouted Saffron, "Up above."
Oswald looked up to see a pair of Banshees preparing to pounce on the Dauntlesses.
"Cover me," ordered Saffron.
Before Oswald could copy her transmission, Saffron jerked her Hellcat up and gunned down both Banshees. They never saw her coming. His own abilities seemed to pale in comparison to hers.
Looking back up, Oswald spied another pair of Banshees.
"I'm on another pair," he announced.
"Copy," said Saffron.
Using his HUD again, Oswald achieved separate missile locks on both Banshees and fired off a pair of missiles, one for each Banshee. One of the missiles shattered its Banshee. The other Banshee veered to the left at the last possible moment, evading the missile with aid of a Flicker.
"Fucker," cried Oswald. Now he knew what that other Dakon pilot felt when he avoided its missile earlier.
Oswald rocketed after the Banshee, seeking another missile lock. Every time he locked onto the Banshee, it twisted away. In frustration, Oswald turned to his guns. The Banshee continued to evade him. It cut hard to the right, into path of Helen's sun, becoming obscured in the blinding light.
Oswald's HUD possessed the technological ability to filter out the brightness, but he proved too impatient for it to do its work.
Use you're Mark One Eyeball, he recalled an instructor once telling him at the Academy. With his left hand, he extended his thumb over the sun. The thumb blotted out the blinding sunlight and revealed the Banshee hiding along the edge. Before he could gain another missile lock, the Banshee turned directly toward him.
Oswald gasped and fired a missile before attaining a lock. The Banshee rolled to the side as the missile harmlessly sailed past. With the Banshee distracted, Oswald lined up for the perfect shot. But the Banshee pilot recovered in that short space of time and charged at Oswald again. Oswald screamed and unloaded his guns until they emptied of all remaining rounds the same time the Banshee fired.
Scores of rounds from each fighter connected with the other. The Banshee fragmented under the hail unleashed by Oswald. Only his Hellcat's sturdy design saved him from a similar fate.
"Still there Oz?" asked Saffron.
"Copy," he responded, "but I've been hit all over."
"I can see that. Don't worry. You're still in the fight. The Dauntlesses are making another run and need more cover. Follow my lead."
Oswald came about and stayed on tight Saffron's tail as she led him toward Dauntlesses. He remembered from flight training that Banshees liked to attack Dauntlesses from below if at all possible because there were no defenses there. I was glad to see that Saffron was leading him to a position below them. Already, a number of Hellcats and Banshees were tangling with each other.
Oswald steadied himself as he reached out to acquire a missile lock on a Banshee.
"Watch out!" screamed Saffron.
A Banshee flew straight up in front of Oswald, distracting him from the other Banshees. A flash then overcame him as he heard his Hellcat unravel. Darkness took him.
Oswald's vision returned. Everything was white and blurry. His head throbbed from some unknown pain.
"Where am I?" he asked.
His began to clear, but the blurriness was still strong.
"Where am I?" he asked again.
His vision continued clearing for several seconds until Oswald could see well enough that he was in a Sickbay on a cot. He did not know whether it was aboard the Enterprise, or some other ship. All he knew was that it was human in origin from the many white-clad human nurses and doctors tending too scores of fellow wounded humans.
Oswald looked himself over and was relieved to find that he had no visible scars. His head still throbbed from the pain.
"Where am I?" he asked a passing nurse. She turned away from him and motioned to a doctor, a young man with curly brown hair. The doctor walked up to Oswald's cot, putting his hands on the bars that made up its sides.
"It's okay," he said, "You're on the Enterprise, and lucky to be alive."
"Absolutely, Ensign. A Banshee collided with your Hellcat. How you survived is beyond me. The same goes with how you were found."
"I don't remember being found."
"I know. You never activated you distress beacon. A Prowler happened to come across you. They thought you were dead."
"All I remember seeing was a blinding light and hearing a crashing sound. That's it."
The doctor assured Oswald he was going to be fine. Oswald was released from Sickbay two hours later and reported back to his quarters. Butch and several other pilots were there. They welcomed him into their ranks.
From his duty locker, Butch retrieved a shot glass and a bottle with a familiar looking liquid in it. He filled the glass to the brim and presented it to Oswald. Oswald accepted the glass and studied the liquid it held for a moment.
"Well go on," said Butch.
Oswald forced a grin, lifted his head back with his mouth wide open, and downed the entire shot. Oswald's throat erupted as if it were on fire. He had drunk plenty of whiskey before, both good and bad, but Whiskey Killer was by far the worst. Oswald leaned forward, the urge of vomit overcoming him.
"No, no, no!" yelled Butch and the others while laughing, "Finish it, finish it!"
Oswald leaned back. His face turned red and scrunched up as he fought the urge. His eyes welled up and tears flowed down his cheeks as he forced the whiskey back down his throat. Once permanently down, he leaned back and gasped for air.
Looking back at Butch and the others he complained, "That's Whiskey Killer?"
"Sure is," replied Butch with a laugh, "Have another."
"Six kills, six drinks Oz,"
Oswald later learned from Butch that the battle group annihilated Paris and the Dakon defending it, avoiding heavy casualties in the process. The Xath, Hyperions, and Asgard were hit hard by the first salvo from Paris, but made their orbital landings on Helen and overran the primary clusters of Dakon on the planet in the first few hours. The fighting had been tough, and casualties were heavy from some engagements. The Battle of Helen had proved to be a decisive victory, but Oswald found little, if any, solace in that. The loss of Marcus far outweighed the strategic consequences of the victory.
The air wing held a victory celebration in several of its ready rooms a few hours later. The Captain was supposed to have made an appearance to congratulate them on a job well done, but other duties prevented his attendance. Oswald thought it was for the best. In short order, the ready rooms were trashed from a combination of alcohol-fueled horseplay, toasts, dares, and even some fights.
"I'm surprised you guys actually survive each other and combat," Oswald said to Saffron.
"We're tough on each other because of all the tough missions. It keeps us going," she replied.
"This is how we let off the steam."
The air wing's behavior led Oswald to moderate his drinking. While they celebrated and mourned in drunken self-destruction, Oswald thought it preferable to do both in silence.
As the celebration died down, Oswald found himself the last remaining person in 1st Squadron's ready room, minus Butch, who lay passed out on his back in a corner, his legs propped up against the wall. Oswald sat at a table in the middle of the room, his back facing the door. On the table sat a glass of Whiskey Killer. He poured a glass and lifted it in remembrance of Marcus
"Someone told me you got six kills today," an unknown voice from behind said.
Oswald turned around, his eyes widening at the sight of a familiar face, its youthful demeanor and looks giving off an air of supreme confidence, which were betrayed by his shiny gray hair.
Before Oswald could rise from his seat, Captain James Halsey put out a hand and told him to relax. Halsey took a seat across the table from Oswald and poured himself a shot of Whiskey Killer.
"My first time in combat," he began, "I got five kills. I also set a record aboard this ship that went unbroken until today."
"I didn't know, sir," stammered Oswald.
"Doesn't matter. Records are meant to be broken anyways. What matters is that you did good today. Saffron was impressed. Told me herself. That means something. Rarely is she ever impressed to the point where she openly admits it."
Halsey downed the shot in one gulp. His ability to keep the vile liquid down mystified Oswald.
Halsey glanced at Oswald and grinned, "This whiskey is just awful, but after drinking it for years I can drink anything else without any problems."
"It is pretty bad, sir," replied Oswald, "I remember a former crewmember of the Enterprise at the Academy telling me it was the best thing ever."
"The best thing about it is not the taste," said Halsey, "It is the reputation that one acquires from drinking it. That was what your friend Marcus wanted. The reputation of a killer."
The words stung Oswald. There could no reputing of them. Oswald had been wrong about Marcus all along. He had never wanted to see combat for the sake of glory. He wanted drink Whiskey Killer.
"The name Whiskey Killer was created by my mentor," said Halsey, "He called it Whiskey Killer not because it was to give someone the reputation of a killer, but to show them that killing is a bitter experience."
"I never wanted to be a killer, sir. Hell, I was afraid to fight," blurted Oswald as he leaned forward in his seat, blushing right after saying them.
"Me too," admitted Halsey.
"I know how you felt just a few hours ago. I was there once. So were Saffron and Butch. You're among a few who've heard me admit that."
Oswald relaxed and settled back in his seat, finding relief in that the Captain had once felt the same as him.
"You never admitted that to everyone, sir? Why?" asked Oswald.
Halsey poured himself another shot, but did not gulp it down. He used his thumb to turn the glass. He appeared to be deep in thought.
"I became a living legend after I became an ace in a day," began Halsey, "Living legends can't have weaknesses in the eyes of others, including those who intimately know them. We have to deny our own mortality or else everyone looks at us differently. Saffron was surprised when I told her. In time, you'll find someone who you can admit your own mortality too. It wasn't easy for me to admit it to Saffron. The same went for her. And for you when you do."
"I don't know what to say, sir," said Oswald
Halsey put up his hand, "Its okay. You don't know what to say right now anyway."
They sat in silence for several minutes, Oswald contemplating the Captain's words. Would he know how to explain his mortality to someone someday? How would he face his mortality?
Oswald's thoughts shifted to Halsey. Was he looking back on his own mortality? Was he looking back on his past deeds and how they led him to contemplate it one day?
"How did you face your own mortality, Captain?" asked Oswald.
"Well, it came after the death of a friend," said Halsey, "His name was Arnie. We met shortly after I was deployed to the Enterprise on my first tour. She looked a lot prettier back then than now, but that's okay because she's got class now."
Oswald and Halsey chuckled.
"Anyway," continued Halsey, "After I got those six kills and drank Whiskey Killer for the first time, he wanted to be just like me. He died like Marcus did."
Halsey lowered his head. Oswald feared Halsey was about to break down.
"Every now and then, I silently toast to him with a shot of Whiskey Killer," finished the Captain as he lifted his head.
"I know how you feel, sir," whispered Oswald.
"There's some good and bad in that."
Halsey raised the glass in silent remembrance of Arnie. Oswald did the same for Marcus. Once their toasts were done they downed their shots, Oswald having somewhat more difficulty than Halsey.
Halsey rose from his seat, facing toward the door. Oswald turned and saw Saffron standing there. She wore a large smile.
"I guess its time for me to turn in for the night," announced Halsey with a wink.
"Yes sir," replied Oswald, fighting to hide a smile.
Halsey patted Oswald twice on the shoulder before leaving.
"Good night, Oz," said Saffron.
Oswald waved in return. He watched them walk away until they disappeared around a corner.
Oswald inhaled and then exhaled before putting the cork back in the bottle of Whiskey Killer. He smiled to himself and rose to leave the room, resolved now more than ever to carry on.