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THE WAY OF THE MANIAC
| Part One
The 127th Angry Angels Squadron broke formation about twenty megastatute kilometers over Planet 2063 Yankee and engaged the oncoming Chig fighters. After nearly a year of rebuilding, they were now led by Captain Camilla "Cams" Reynolds, a brave, valiant woman who proudly represented what it meant to be a United States Marine aviator. Piloting the newly- refitted(and re-designated) SF/A-43-B Hammerhead, she juked right, pulling in behind one of the Chigs, and pulled the trigger on her flightstick. The enemy craft was shredded like paper by a stream of laser fire. "Splash one, heading three-o'clock," she radioed in. "Collins! Watch your five! Two incoming. Angels are at six! AOA is eight-point-five degrees. Moving in!"
Reynolds fire her cannon again, taking out another bandit when two members of her wing vanished off the LIDAR. Another enemy squadron was detected coming from the planet. The odds were now three-to-one against the 127th.
"Collins, you still with me?"
"Roger that, Cams," came the reply. Collins was one of the original members of the Angry Angels before the war began. Injured in the initial engagements, she managed to recover fully and regain flight status, while all other members(including their quiet Tank C.O she remembered as being called "McQueen") were either dead or transferred. Reynolds called again. "Looks like we're being boxed in here," she said, slightly resigned, but then grew louder. "Let's give these Chigs a taste of Angry Angel fury! HACK!"
With that, she turned her Hammerhead around to face their pursuers. She stared wide- eyed at the enemy, then let out a war cry she hadn't used since boot as she turned and burned, blanketing the oncoming aliens with hellfire from her cannon. Cams saw a Chig pull in on her six, and was all prepared to meet her Maker when it detonated, scattering Chig wreckage all over the dark skies.
"What the-" was all she could get out before three more Chigs bought it on her nine. Reynolds looked to her left.
Another Hammerhead had appeared out of nowhere, and was now doing a once-over on the Chigs. She re-engaged the enemy while Collins and their new friend took out five more. The aliens began to retreat, but not before their new horrifying foe took down two more of them. The Chigs fled the area as the Hammerheads regrouped. Reynolds let out a sigh of relief, and radioed in to their new friend.
"Hammer currently on my three o'clock, this is Captain Camilla Reynolds of the 127th. Don't know who you are, but we owe you big time. Identify yourself, Marine."
The response was quick and to the point. "Ah ain't no damned leatherneck Marine. Ah am Major Zachary Russo, 4th Wing, 303rd Squadron, United States Air Force."
Reynolds raised an eyebrow. "The Major Russo?" she asked. "Well, it's an honor to have you on our wing, sir. We're headed for the Saratoga for refueling, then onto the Colin Powell. Care to join us, sir?"
"Ah am headed for the 'Toga myself, actually," he said. "A've some business there with Commodore Ross, but ah won't bore you with the details." The major grinned broadly as he ticked off some lines on a small notepad in his lap; kills he'd scored since the start of this war.
"It would be ma pleasure to fly with you, 127th."
The twenty-one gun salute fired their last shots as the crew of the U.S.S Saratoga and the 58th Marine Aviator Squadron commemorated their fallen comrade, Lieutenant Paul Wang.
Nathan West looked at the smoke left from the guns. As a boy, he and his brothers had witnessed the deaths of many great men and women of the armed forces. He remembered the look of sorrow and grief on the faces of the soldiers who once befriended the deceased. He never could have imagined that he'd be one of them one day. Indeed, he contemplated that thought at every funeral he'd been to as a Marine: Michael Pagodin's, Kelly Ann Winslow's, everyone.
West turned to his left, watching the faces of his colleagues. Cooper Hawkes stood next to him, his expression not one of sadness, but of fear. Having never completed the In-Vitro Special Training he began just after being decanted, Hawkes never could be clear of his feelings about people or events, but West could see that he was sure of what he felt now, and he shared it.
Vanessa Damphousse was next. She could not stand due to injuries she'd received during the 58th's last mission. SAR teams, miraculously, managed to find them before permanent injury to her nervous system could set in. Sitting in her wheelchair, she wept bitterly, but quietly, for the loss of her former love, but managed to maintain her detached, mechanical Marine "stiff upper-lip" expression.
Beside her, Captain Shane Vansen barely managed to contain her feelings. As leader of the Wildcards, she was responsible not only for their conduct, but their very lives in combat. She'd suffered many losses in her life, none of which could come close to the horror of watching the death of her parents at the hands of the A.Is. That is, until now.
Colonel McQueen could not attend. He was already on a Red Cross transport for Earth, but he had left a video eulogy prepared for this service as his tribute. It was moving, and reflected the deep, philosophical side of a man whom West and all members of the 58th knew and loved. Two Marines moved in to remove the flag from Wang's coffin. West couldn't help but stare. He felt the loss all the way to his soul. Camaraderie in the military always goes there, and in wartime, men and women in the same unit always function as important parts of one another. The loss of a friend, someone who just yesterday, you were playing pool with, or watching a Niners game with, or just joking around with, always takes a lot from you. West wondered whether there was any of him left. He'd been to so many of these services already, he wondered whether all that was Nathan West was some small dot in the centre of his being, all alone in the dark. Then he remembered Kylen Celina, his love, now headed home after the hell of being a Chig prisoner. She was almost all that was left of him now.
The guards called attention. It was over. West clicked his heels and saluted with his comrades, as the coffin was placed in the launch porthole, then released into the empty, war-torn depths of space.
"Saratoga, this is the 127th Angry Angels arriving on schedule, minus two, requesting permission to dock, over."
"Roger that. Welcome aboard, 127th."
"'Toga, this is Major Zachary Russo, 4th Wing, 303rd Squadron, United States Air Force, requesting permission to land, over."
"Acknowledged. It's an honor to have you, Major Russo. Permission granted for landing on Pad Twelve, over."
"Thank you, 'Toga."
Hawkes sat at a table in the tavern, absently sipping his ale. Two decks above him, Damphousse lay in sickbay, undergoing mobility tests to see how long her recovery would take. Vansen and West, meanwhile, remained in the 58th's quarters, sitting on the bunks, facing each other, but their gaze directed to the floor below.
"You know," Shane started, then stopped. West nodded. He did know what she was going to say, but would not repeat it here. They sat there in silence. Wang's things had already been sent back to Earth. Now there was nothing left of him here but memories. The P.A system sounded. "Five-eight, this is Commodore Ross. Report to briefing room immediately. Lieutenant Damphousse, you must attend as well." Shane and West looked at each other at the same time, then got up and went to the B.R.
They met 'Phousse there, being pushed in her wheelchair by Hawkes, still with the same expression on his face as when he was at the service. West didn't blame him. Only a day after the death of their friend, and already they were being assigned a mission. All of them stood and saluted as the brass entered the room.
"As you were," said Commodore Ross as he took centre stage. He began.
"As you know, certainly more than anyone else on this boat, this war is about to really heat up. With the Tellus and Vesta colonists safely back on Earth, we can now finally begin to turn the tide. We've all suffered terrible losses, and while we must honor the memory of those who gave their lives in battle, we must also look to the future, to ensure that what they fought for was not in vain."
"Therefore, I'd like to introduce you to an old friend of mine, someone I'm sure you've all heard of by now. I knew him back home on the Mississippi, and now he's decided to join us here. Recently promoted to the rank of Major in the U.S Air Force, he has the largest number of kills of any pilot currently fighting this war. " He turned to the open hatch. "Zack, come on in here."
Major Russo walked in, garbed in full Air Force dress, popping what looked to be a "G.I Geequed" brand piece of bubble gum into his mouth. Ross continued.
"This is Major Zachary Russo of the 4th Wing, 303rd Squadron. He'll be here to fill in Colonel McQueen's position until he returns from Earth." Vansen raised an eyebrow, then stood to speak.
"Sir," she said, "with respect to the Major, why have we been assigned an Airman? There are many other suitable Marine officers here fit-" The Major cut her off.
"Thanks to the recent discoveries of conspiracy by members of Aerotech Industries and maybe even some high ranking officers in all branches, the government has decided to have officers of all services mixed together in one environment. Hopefully, this will encourage more unity in our fighting forces so that our attempts at defeating the Chigs will not be undermined again." He grinned, chapping his gum loudly at Vansen.
"So, with respect to you leathernecks, this will be a challenge for me as well."
Ross spoke again. "As part of this new environment, we have the rest of the 303rd coming in tomorrow, along with a Canadian and Chinese naval squadron from the Iwo Jima one month from now. As for now, five-eight, you'll be serving with the 127th Angry Angels. They've requested and received permission to stay on for two weeks."
The Wildcards rolled their eyes and moaned. The Angry Angels. Vansen had once admired those flyers, but her image of their grandeur evaporated when she met some of them in boot. They were pompous, arrogant and egotistical bullies, and treated her like dirt. Now she'd be spending the next two weeks rubbing wings with them.
Great, just great.
The rest of the briefing concluded several minutes later, the fifty-eight retired to the canteen, all sitting around their table. All except Wang. Now, at least, they had something to take their minds off their recent loss.
Hawkes frowned as they got their drinks. "What's so special about this Russo guy, anyways? I haven't heard anything about him."
'Phousse looked at him strangely. "What's special about him?" she asked incredulously.
"Coop, this guy has had well over six hundred kills, and he hasn't even been touched once by enemy fire." West chimed in. "They call him our answer to Chiggy von Richthofen," he said. "Only he's playing by the rules: no advanced tech. Just a regular Hammerhead."
Hawkes took all this in, wide-eyed. "Wow," he said. "I didn't have a clue about it. Where'd you guys hear about it?"
"Found out about it from Spacenet and some friends on Earth," said Vansen. "Don't you use the com?" Hawkes shook his head. "Don't have anyone back home to talk to," he replied, then turned back to his drink. West continued.
"I heard that once he took down an entire Chig squadron on his own," he said, "then went on to destroy a Chig cruiser. All the time, his LIDAR and engines were damaged from a collision with some chunks of space rock when tried to lose some of them on his six. Still, he managed to return to his base and land, all without ground assistance."
Coop whistled. 'Phousse's mouth dropped in awe. Vansen took a sip of her drink. "Where was he when we needed him?" she asked sarcastically.
"Speak of the devil..." said 'Phousse, and motioned to the door.
Russo walked in, still chewing the gum he had during the briefing, but now dressed in Air Force olive drab. He got a drink at the bar, spit out his gum, then walked over to the jukebox. He inserted a quarter, then chose a song. The room then filled with the brassy tunes of "Straighten Up and Fly Right", an old big band song from World War II. He then came to sit with the Wildcards. West, Hawkes, and Vansen started to stand up.
"Whoa, whoa, as you were!" he said, chuckling quietly. "Ah don't know how you leathernecks run things, but where ah come from, when your C.O comes to sit with you in the bar, it's as a buddy, not a C.O." He laughed again as the Marines sat back down, then grew quiet.
"Look, ah read your reports on your last mission," he said. "Ma condolences on your loss. God knows a've lost many close friends in this war." The Marines cringed. They'd been avoiding talk of Wang for a while now, and to have it thrown into their faces by a flyboy who happened to be their C.O was awkward. Before they could say anything, Russo raised his glass in the air.
"Here's to Lieutenant Paul Wang," he said. They all raised their glasses, and clinked them together. The soldiers then emptied the smooth contents in one gulp, then took a breath. Russo spoke after a moment.
"Ah know we didn't get off to a good start," he said, "but ah'd like a chance to try again. So, tell me about yourselves."
They all told the Major about life on the Saratoga, where they came from, people they'd lost, and all through the evening, they realized that their new C.O was all right.
"Five-eight, this is the Commodore! Scramble alert! Repeat, this is a scramble alert! Chig battle group is approaching! Head for your fighters!"
The alarm couldn't have come at a better time, interrupting a dream in which Wang had come back and was beckoning West with Death at his side. He got into his flightsuit with the rest of them. They washed their faces with cold water, then headed for the launch bay. 'Phousse, still recovering from her injury, remained in her bunk, staring blankly at the ceiling.
West, Hawkes, and Vansen made it to the flight deck. Major Russo arrived the same time they did. "Okay, listen up!" he said, stopping them just before heading to the pits. "The Chigs have launched five squadrons from a small battlegroup just assembled two hundred MSKs from our position. Two Air Force squadrons are inbound. The 127th is already out there. Our job will be to give them support." Vansen scoffed. Give THEM support?
"Mah callsign on this mission is 'Maniac'. Ah'll be leading the flight. MOVE OUT!"
The 58th ran to their cockpits, and were lowered into their waiting fighters below. Major Russo, meanwhile, headed for Pad Twelve for his Hammerhead.
The Wildcards shot out of the hangar bays like bats out of Hell. Russo joined them from above, forming an echelon formation, not what the fifty-eight were used to.
"Maniac to Wildcards," said Russo, "Got some new intel from the 'Toga. There are about fifty A.I's aboard one of the Chig cruisers. Seems the Chigs decided to lend them some hardware. We're not sure which ship they're on. The old man is sending two destroyers to disable the cruisers. They'll take about half-an-hour to get here. "Your new objective is plain and simple: take out as many fighters as you can, then destroy the cruisers' defenses. That'll help out those Swabboes a helluva lot. Enemy now at one-hundred and thirty MSKs and closing fast." There was a pause as Russo looked up.
"Mah, aren't those Angels beautiful?"
The 127th now soared over them, forming up ahead of them in the new Hammerhead "B" fighters. The "B" version was cutting edge, with an extra third engine and intake between the two others, and a slightly less pronounced forward swept-wing design with two new cannon on the thinner wingtips. They were beautiful indeed. The Wildcards all of a sudden felt obsolete flying behind these six fighters.
"Five-eight, this is the 127th coming in on your twelve and three," said Captain Reynolds. "We're now at one hundred MSKs distance from the enemy battle group. Follow our lead until we engage the enemy, then break off nine o'clock and fire at will. Just watch your six, over."
Russo replied. "Roger that, Cams," he said. "But don't you worry your head about l'il ol' us. We'll be just fine." There was some silence.
"Major," came the reply, "I'm sorry, sir. I was unaware you were out on this mission. You have the call, sir."
"That's all right, Cams," he said, chuckling, "You're plan will do just fine and dandy, but we'll now take the lead. You break nine o'clock when we engage."
"Sir, yes sir!"
Vansen had been listening, a smile two parsecs wide on her face. It was finally nice to see the Angels doing some bootlicking for a change, rather than getting their feet kissed all the time.
The two squadrons flew towards battle. Soon, Russo's LIDAR showed no less than thirty-five Chig fighters and five cruisers. He pursed his lips in anticipation, and took out his small notepad of kills. He turned to a new page and wrote the date on the top, then strapped the pad to his leg as he prepared to greet the first catch of the day.
"Bandits, Bullseye! Twelve o'clock low, five MSKs out!" he called out to the other Hammerheads. "Steady...steady.. .127th! Break now!"
The Angry Angels broke off, firing their twin and forward cannon at the Chig fighters. The Wildcards headed right, taking out five Chigs in the first five seconds of the battle. Hawkes pulled a nice little banking turn between two Chigs, then looped around and took both of them out.
"HooYAH!" he shouted happily. West regrouped alongside Hawkes and did a little fancy flying of his own, pulling a vertical split-S and an Immelmann to pull behind his pursuer.
"Eat this, Chiggy man!" he shouted, firing a missile up the Chig's six. He then pulled back to help Hawkes out with two bandits on his tail.
Vansen, meanwhile, dodged the enemy fighters with the grace of a ballerina and headed straight for one of the cruisers. Its defenses were at full power when she opened fire, taking out three of its guns on the portside bow. Suddenly, a stray shot hit her fighter on the right wing.
"This is Queen of Diamonds," she called, "I've lost all weapons on my right wing, need assistance."
"No problem," came the reply. It was Collins, the same Angry Angel that had started the fight back at the Asteroids bar in boot. Before, they were fighting each other. Now, they were fighting together.
Collins dropped in, drawing some fire from the cruiser's batteries while Vansen turned around, taking out more guns. Collins shot two missiles at the last two guns, which went out with huge bangs.
"Collins to Cams," she called, "Cruiser One is a sitting duck. Approaching your position. Glad to help out, Queen of Diamonds."
"Thanks, Collins," replied Vansen, "Nice to be fighting on the same side for a change."
Suddenly, two Chigs approached on Collins' seven o'clock. Vansen saw them, but Collins did not. "Collins, watch your-"
The Chigs fired, their missiles tearing off the rear of Collins' Hammer before blowing the rest of it to kingdom come. Vansen fired through the debris, taking out one Chig and damaging the other. Suddenly, seven Chig fighters, lined up side-by-side in an uncharacteristic fashion, appeared on Vansen's ten. Russo's voice came through the mike.
"Geez, Vansen, if you needed help, wha didn't you call me?" He came around, moving above the fighters and strafing them, one after another, in one run. He then turned around, firing three missiles at four more fighters. Two hit their targets, while the third hit its target on an angle. The Chig collided with the other one, lighting up the dark heavens with crimson and gold. Russo pulled into a straight flight path, then started ticking off kills on his notepad.
The other fighters began to retreat, leaving the cruisers wide open to attack. The two Air Force squadrons arrived, and began to pursue them as Russo radioed in. "Wildcards, Angels, move in on the ships! HACK!" The three Wildcards, the four remaining Angels, and the Major descended upon the Chig cruisers. Their defenses fired randomly, their crews in a panic as the Hammerheads unleashed their fury on the guns. Soon, very soon, the cold dimness of space reclaimed the area as the batteries were silenced.
"Wildcards, this is Maniac. Enemy is immobilized and powerless. Our two destroyers are fifteen MSKs away. Return to homeplate."
The fifty-eighth set a course for the Saratoga, flying past the destroyers Missouri and Eridani before vanishing into the blackness of space. They'd all gotten back in the saddle, setting aside their grief for the death of Wang for the greater glories of victory against the ones that killed him. They would celebrate now on the Saratoga while the destroyer crews took stock of the A.Is and the information they had on the Chig cruisers.
Corporal Henderson came to oversee the A.I prisoners of war recovered from the Chig cruisers. The Chigs, once presented with the threat of boarding by Earth forces, decided to kill themselves in an orchestrated oxygenating of their vessels. The A.Is, on the other hand, weren't going to give up without a fight. They lost twenty good men before forcing them to surrender, and now that they had them in custody, the old Army grunt was anxious to see them, if only to glare at them.
Henderson entered the interrogation room of the Eridani, where two guards were waiting.
"Bring him in," he said gruffly. The guards left the room, then brought in the leader of the A.Is onboard the Chig vessel. The guards sat him down on the far side of the dimly-lit table. Henderson sat on the opposite side.
"What is your name?" he asked the A.I. The machine did not reply. Henderson stared silently for a minute, then grew louder.
"I said, state your name!" he ordered the silicate. The A.I leaned forward, his face now shown in the clear light of the overhead lamp. He was a model that the Corporal had not seen before, appearing as a young man with Asian features.
"I am Wang-A model 101," he said. "And I will speak only to the current leader of the 58th Marine Aviator Squadron."
McQueen sat on his old desk back in Pennsylvania, in his ex-wife's old library in her country house, staring at the Portable USMC ICS(Interstellar Communications System), and frowning. The latest reports indicated that several Russian and French vessels had been destroyed in the latest engagements, with countless lives lost on both sides. Regardless, they weren't anywhere near the Saratoga Carrier Group, which was now heading away from Planet 2063 Yankee.
The ICS beeped. A new message had been sent from the Commander in Chief of the Marine Forces out in the Ceres Region of space. McQueen adjusted some of the controls of his new artificial leg and swiveled around in his chair. As he did, he looked at himself in a large mirror on the far wall of the library. If only the 58th could see him now. He hadn't shaven in days, and his hair was now long overgrown. The vest he'd been wearing for the past two days was damp with sweat, and smelled accordingly. McQueen sighed. The once proud leader of the Wildcards was now a pencil-pushing desk jockey.
He pressed a button on the keyboard, and read the message over. His eyes widened as he saw the contents. Re-reading it to make sure he wasn't seeing things, McQueen's jaw dropped slightly. He then shut the machine down, and got up. The mechanical leg quickly adjusted for the change in weight distribution as Lieutenant Colonel Tyrus Cassius McQueen walked out from the library towards the bathroom. He had a long trip ahead of him.
West ran towards the bunks and nearly tore the hatch off. Vansen, Hawkes, and Damphousse were waiting inside, just as anxious as he. Hawkes got up.
"Is it true?" he asked. West caught his breath, then composed himself as he sat down.
"It's true," he said. "The Eridani captured an A.I that's almost exactly like Wang." Damphousse covered her mouth as she gasped. Vansen, her eyes now filled with fiery and terrible light, stood up, and stormed towards the hatch. "I want to see it," she said. West blocked her way.
"Brass doesn't want us involved," he said. "Only person allowed to see him is the Colonel." Damphousse wheeled forward.
"He's coming back?" she said.
West nodded. "Left on a transport at 0640 GMT. He'll be here in several days. Ross is moving the Saratoga Carrier Group closer to the wormhole exit."
Vansen sighed loudly and slumped back down on the bunk.
"Dammit! Those A.I bastards! How could they do this to him?" Damphousse closed her eyes.
"Kazbek," she muttered. "When we were at Kazbek, they tortured him. God only knows what else they did." Hawkes scoffed.
"Yeah, God and us now," he remarked. He looked to West, then started for the hatch. "I'm headed down to the canteen. Who's with me?" The rest of them nodded, and followed him out the door.
They only managed to go several feet in the corridor when Major Russo called them from behind. "Five-eight!" he called, "Ah need to talk to y'all for a minute." West stopped and walked back, the others following suit. Russo looked like he'd just seen a ghost.
"Ah heard about the A.I," he said. "Ah know it's tough, but ah've got other things for you to worry about now. Where were you headed?"
"To the canteen," replied West. Russo nodded.
"Yeah, go have a quick drink, then meet me and the Commodore on the flight deck in twenty mikes. There's something we need to discuss." With that, the Major turned around on his heels, and walked away. As he did, he popped another piece of G.I Geequed gum into his mouth and tossed the wrapper on the ground.
The tension on the flight deck was as thick as the pea soup now being served in the galley when the Wildcards, this time with Damphousse attending, came for their meeting. Ross and Russo were there to meet them, and put their discussion on hold as West led the way in.
Ross approached them, then looked behind them, waiting for more people to come in. West and company stood there for a moment, then spoke.
"Sir," he said, "what are you waiting for, sir?" Ross looked at him.
"Captain Reynolds and the 127th," he replied. Russo came in, wearing the same face he had when he called them to this meeting.
"They also have to hear what we have to say," he said. "They're also involved. You'll get all the details when-" The hatch opened, and Captain Reynolds and the three remaining members of the Angry Angels walked in. They marched alongside the Wildcards, then stood at ease. Ross began.
"People, the mission you are about to undertake is classified and compartmentalized. Major Russo will explain the bulk of it." Russo stepped forward.
"You will participate, alongside the 303rd Air Force Squadron and the 59th Ready Reserve, in Operation 'Scarlet Ring'. The objective is to recapture the Kazbek Penal Colony and retrieve all informational and technological bits of information relevant to our current intel needs. You ah now undoubtedly aware of the presence of a silicate whose image and superficial aspects have been stolen from one of your fallen comrades, Lieutenant Paul Wang. Intel had indicated that the A.Is have gathered a large number of weaponry from the Chig transports in that area. These reports indicate that they are prepared to launch massive attacks on Earth forces, thus becoming a new, dangerous factor in this war. We have also discovered several Chig recon vehicles patrolling an area close to the colony."
"You will first take out these recon vehicles, then meet up with the 303rd and the 59th. They will lend you air support while you land on Kazbek and take out the main air defenses. When all AAGs are taken out, the 59th will land about one mile away on the opposite side of the main compound. You will then both converge on the colony and take out as many A.I's as you can."
"Your standard issue M-590 photon rifles will be given an extra punch just developed by the labcoats. They now have extreme rapid fire capabilities, and have 50% more power than previous models. As you close in on the compound, the 303rd Air Force will assist you with position reports and air-to-ground fire. You leave at 1630 hours today in the new SF/A-43 "B" Hammerheads. Ah'll be joining the rest of the 303rd."
Ross stopped him, then stepped forward. "In the meantime, I am giving you two new orders. One: you are not to discuss any details of this plan with anyone. Two." He turned to the Wildcards.
"Five-eight, I know you are aware of the presence of the A.I on the Saratoga. I also know you want to exact vengeance on those who have desecrated his image like this. I need you people to keep your cool before this mission. Therefore, I'm ordering you not to discuss this AI amongst yourselves and anyone else. Save your rage for the mission. Are there any questions?" The Wildcards gave no response. Ross ordered them dismissed, and they filed out of the flight deck, now with more problems than ever before.
Next : Part Two