DISCLAIMER: The characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. This story is not to be published on any ftp site, newsgroup, mailing list, fanzine, or elsewhere without the express permission of the author.
*RATING*: R for language, violence. Some scenes may be unsuitable for small children. Parental discretion is advised. All comments welcome. Brian "Hundo" Wight
NOTES: Thanks to Keith Clark and Susi Patzke for their rough- draft comments. Additional thanks to Susi for the German translations. I spent many hours on this story and I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you liked and disliked about it.
*A note on Esperio/Esperian Army: a subnation of Peru, these people descended from a religious cult that exclusively spoke Esperanto. The widespread cult emigrated to Peru in 2012 with promises of sanction in return for service in the Communist War ravaging Peru. With the experience gained in this war and the discipline of their Spartan society, these people soon became a leading source of mercenaries. Unhindered by the ethics and rules of "civilized" combat, they were highly effective soldiers (some use the term, "barbarians"). Approaching combat with a "whole-battlefield" approach, they stopped at nothing to win. Killing children was justified because children would grow to become soldiers. Killing wounded and POW's was justified because hindered troop movements would only prolong the conflict and bring further death. The same was said for torturing POW's for information. Recognizing their value in ending the Communist War of Peru, the United Nations agreed to recognize the nation of Esperio in exchange for their service in the AI wars. The war crimes of the Esperian Army were overlooked since the UN faced disintegration under the AI attacks. As UN members, the Esperians were compelled to fight in the Chig War and currently have five active fighter squadrons and 22 infantry regiments serving in Earth's defense.
After the Battle of Ixion, the Saratoga assisted in a battle for control of space lanes near the planet Hercules-7. Forced to withdraw, the Saratoga is now awaiting supplies. The USS Valley Forge is enroute to relieve the Saratoga.
USS SARATOGA: Bridge 11:34 1-21-65
"CHIG TORPEDOES INBOUND!" cried the port radar operator on the Saratoga's bridge. Half of the heads in the room swung around to look at the radar operator while the other half looked to Commodore Ross.
"Battle stations!" Ross reacted instinctively. Without a moment's pause, he rushed to the radar operator's station as he asked, "Number, position, and vector." The questions were highly standardized and the radar operator had already readied the answers. Ross turned his head to the flight officer and barked, "Scramble the ready-five fighters."
"Helm, full ahead 3-5-0, 0-9-0 topside."
"Aye-aye, full ahead 3-5-0, 0-9-0 topside."
Meanwhile, the radar operator repeated to himself, "This is just like the simulations... you can do it... must stay calm..."
On cue from the automatic fire-control system, missile launchers turned to bear on the torpedoes. The missile officer reported, "All missile batteries ready, sir."
"Cannon batteries ready, sir."
"No contacts reported by CAP flights, sir."
"Hold their pattern, Lieutenant. Call in the destroyers, anti- torpedo pattern."
The executive officer ran from terminal to terminal, yelling, "What the hell fired those torpedoes? Give me some answers."
As the Commodore turned back to the radar terminal, the port radar operator responded with a slightly quivering voice, "Four torpedoes, 2-5-3 kilometers port bearing 3-3-5, 0-4-5 topside, vectoring to intercept the Saratoga at 25 g's, sir."
"Time to intercept?"
"Forty seconds, sir."
Ross averted his eyes from the terminal. A soup of numbers stirred inside his head. Two Phalanx missile batteries with fifteen missiles each: 30 missiles. Reload time is 72 seconds. PK is 32%. Three missiles per torpedo, 12 missiles.
The executive officer reported to Ross. "Sir, we are not picking up anything out there."
"We'll worry about that later." He ordered loudly, "Allocate 5 P-II's per torpedo, 5 salvos."
Almost an instant later, at the flip of a switch the first salvo of Phalanx-II missiles broke through their transparent sealant covers and flashed out of the launch tubes.
"Ready the cannons."
"Five-oh's trained on targets, sir." On command, several laser pulse cannons swiveled to point at the torpedoes still beyond effective range.
In the light of the nearly continual P-II missile flashes, five Hammerheads screamed from the flight bay and turned towards the torpedoes' origin point. A moment later, a sixth Hammerhead followed to join up with the others.
"Ready-five craft launched, sir. We'll have 11 more craft ready in seven minutes, sir."
"Time to Phalanx impact?"
The bridge fell silent. Their survival depended on several cylinders of electronics, explosives, and rocket fuel streaking towards the torpedoes.
"Who was on ready-five?"
"The 58th, sir. The Wildcards."
Ross cocked his head as his eyes began to bear down on the ensign. "I know my squadrons, Ensign. Bridge to 5-8, keep your eyes peeled, we have nothing on scope." As he said this, the Chig torpedoes launched their own anti-missile capability, dubbed "Lampreys" by Earth forces. These tiny missiles detached from the torpedoes and accelerated to destroy the Phalanx missiles.
The missile officer reported, "Lampreys detached... salvo one destroyed... Salvo five firing." After the last salvo of missiles, the rumbling beyond the bridge windows fell silent.
A crackling radio transmission beamed into the bridge from Captain Vansen, "We are in range of torpedoes, please advise, over."
"Ignore the torpedoes, 5-8. Seek and destroy all enemy vessels, over."
"Roger, moving to torpedo launch point, over."
The missile officer peered beneath a black hood to watch his missiles hit their targets with a telescopic video unit. "Torpedo one damaged...destroyed, sir." This report from the missile officer brought smiles to many of the crew on the bridge. "Torpedo two destroyed...torpedo three damaged... breaking up."
"Cannons tracking the wreckage?"
"Torpedo four destroyed." The missile officer smiled broadly at his handiwork.
"Wreckage clear. No damage, sir." A collective sigh filled the bridge.
"Wildcards, what do you see, over?"
"Wildcards to bridge, we're not detecting anything out here. Possible stealth craft, sir." Captain Vansen switched to the flight's frequency. "Keep an eye glued to your LIDAR. When it flips you'll know they're near. Smith, another sloppy launch like that and I'll personally have your wings."
West added to Vansen's comment, "SMITH, you idiot! What are you trying to pull on us?"
Lieutenant Robert Smith, call-sign 'Ace of Spades', was the newest Wildcard, brought in to replace Lt. Winslow lost at the hands of the infamous Chiggy von Richthofen. A recent top- graduate from flight school, Smith was getting his combat cherry broken with the battle-hardened veterans of the 58th. He was anxious to bag his first kill and earn the reputation of his callsign's symbol: an omen of death. Vansen felt he was a little too eager for combat. West hated him from the beginning. The painful memories of his brother's death resurfaced every time he looked upon Smith's naive incompetence. He took every opportunity to criticize Smith's errors and point out that he was not meeting the high standards of the Wildcards.
Wang and Damphousse groaned to themselves at the thought of facing another Chiggy von Richthofen. Even worse would be to face *four* such craft. Four torpedoes would require four fighters to carry them. If four stealthy fighters suddenly appeared behind them, the entire 58th would be destroyed in less than a second. An almost debilitating fear swept over Wang, Damphousse, and Hawkes. Vansen felt no fear since she was too busy planning the squadron's next move; West was too busy fuming at Smith; Smith was too busy trying to stay in formation.
Hawkes crackled in, "There's gotta be four fighters, man. We're gonna get greased!"
"I want radio silence," Vansen snapped.
Wang added, "He's right. I've always wondered what it smells like in a CCC."
Smith mentally ran through all the acronyms he learned during flight training. "CCC, combustible conversion chamber, no... central channel conduit, no... chaff control, no... Chig... conventional... combat... no, no, no. Must be something new..."
"Cut the chatter, Chig-lover!" Vansen raised her voice.
Smith thought, "CCC, no... could it be?"
At that moment, the squadron passed through a Sewell-fuel vapor trail. Each Hammerhead's recently-installed Sewell-fuel detectors caused the cockpit warning indicators to flash and the klaxon warnings to begin their ear-piercing wail.
"We're SPAMMED!" shrieked Hawkes like a three-year old about to be vaccinated.
"HOLD FORMATION! West, loop over... check for a visual." Hawkes whimpered in his helmet, frantically checking every standard Chig attack angle.
"Roger." The SA-43 shot up into the starry blackness and turned over. West strained at the g-forces pulling his helmet down toward his chest. "I gotta workout in the gym more often..." he muttered to himself. He glanced at the center MFD in his cockpit. The multi-wavelength camera was picking up nothing but stars... nothing on the HUD as well.
Wang called in to Damphousse, "As much as I like the ringing in my ears, I want turn to turn it off. What's the sequence again?"
Damphousse nervously engaged Wang in this untimely conversation to divert her mind from the nagging fear she felt. "Forgot it already? Maybe you should sleep in your *own* bed once in awhile. Then you wouldn't be so groggy during upgrade briefings." Damphousse glanced backwards, checking her six.
"Just what are you talking about?"
"I hear you when you leave late in the sleep-shift... I'm not stupid."
"Hey, that's spying!"
"I would sneak around too if I was going with some Navy REMF."
"Watch it, 'Phousse."
"Watch this, Joker, press 'Shutdown, SF-WS'."
"SF-WS? I thought that was the San Francisco White Sox score update."
"Wang, what exactly is a CCC?"
"Aw, Phousse... the Cola-Can-Coffins."
West reported in. "King of Hearts to Queen of Diamonds, no sightings, 100 klicks, turning back, over."
"Copy, rejoin immediately, over." Vansen scoured her cockpit displays. "Set your cameras to UV only, over." In a tactical decision that went against standard procedure, Vansen ordered the squadron into an offensive search-pattern, splitting up the defensive formation and leaving each fighter more vulnerable to attack. She felt that finding the enemy was more important at this stage. She worried about additional torpedoes being sent the Saratoga's way. There would be hell to pay if the Saratoga was struck by a torpedo. For forty minutes, the Hammerheads scoured the space around the torpedoes' point of origin in an expanding spiral pattern. Additional Hammerheads as well as unmanned reconnaissance vehicles from the escorting destroyers joined in the hunt for the elusive prey. Commodore Ross ordered the 58th to return when it was obvious that the enemy had disengaged and successfully escaped. Chigs: 0, Saratoga: 0. That was fine with him at this point. Ross preferred offensive engagements, where he could choose the time and place of battle. If the elusive ships' carrier was found, he would gladly steer the Saratoga at full speed to intercept it.
USS SARATOGA, Flight Deck 1 15:29
The 58th's cockpit units rose from the launch bays as a swarm of support personnel bustled about the flight deck. The mission had taken its toll physically on all of them except Hawkes. Hawkes was giddy with nervousness. He continued to frequently turn his head to check upwards and behind him in search of imaginary Chig fighters. His support crew traded knowing looks at each other when Hawkes mumbled to himself about Chiggy von Richtofen's, Spam, green-meanies, and mean Queenies. His monologue sounded like a Dr. Seuss story. The support personnel felt uncomfortably awkward as they removed his helmet and unstrapped him from various hoses and safety belts. Hawkes cockpit reeked of sweat. The avionics specialist did not look forward to sitting in the drenched seat to flight-check the systems. Hawkes stumbled towards the debriefing room.
West was stone-faced as usual. He tried to hide his fears and his stress from the mission, occasionally shifting his eyes to see if anyone was detecting his emotions. Damphousse took off her gloves and scratched her itchy scalp. Wang sought desperately for a one-liner wisecrack but the mission had drained his mind. It felt good to all of them to be back onboard the Saratoga where they were fairly sure they would not die instantly at any random moment. Vansen began to write on her flight-pad as she walked to the debriefing room. Smith proudly exited his cockpit having completed his first combat mission. He was congratulated by the flight crew and he shook their hands earnestly. As he passed Smith's beaming face, West muttered, "Dumb-ass FNK, wipe that smile off your face, now." Smith complied and obediently followed behind West. Colonel McQueen stood sternly with arms crossed as he waited in the glass room adjacent to the flight-deck for the 58th Squadron to assemble.
The six pilots settled into the reclined seats, pulling out their flight-pads. Hawkes fidgeted in his seat, alternatively staring at his feet and nervously checking behind him. This caught McQueen's attention and a worried look spread across his face. The others also observed Hawkes, but tried not to stare.
"Hawkes..." started McQueen. Hawkes continued his eccentric pattern.
"Queen meany- YEAH?"
"Yeah?! Are we back on the farm? IS THERE A PROBLEM, LIEUTENANT?"
"No sir, no problem *here*..." Hawkes mumbled something about 'over there' and looked again behind his chair.
"Clear out, 58th- all except Hawkes. Smith, I want to see you later, so stay sober. Dismissed."
West raised his hand, "Sir, what about the debriefing?"
"Any sightings of the enemy?" McQueen asked half- sarcastically.
"No, sir. UV scans indicated-" Vansen started in her dry emotionless duty-voice. West became agitated and looked to the other members of the 58th for their reactions. Wang's head tilted back as he began to doze off. Damphousse kept scratching her scalp, oblivious to the discussion.
"Then CLEAR OUT. File a report, Vansen. Debriefing over. Damphousse, get some powder for that!" The entire squadron rose to their feet and began to exit the room. McQueen stopped Hawkes with a hand at his shoulder. When the others had left, McQueen closed the door and turned to stare Hawkes right in the face.
"I want the DRUGS NOW, Lieutenant, or you are going STRAIGHT TO THE BRIG!"
"The greenies you're taking, or whatever else!" Hawkes began to lose his nervous movements and mumblings, regaining his normal posture.
"Sir! I'm not using ANYTHING!" Hawkes was frustrated and felt betrayed by his fatherly CO.
"I don't believe you."
"Sir, you've got to believe me!"
"Got to? The only thing I've GOT TO do is keep this squadron *alive and ready* when called upon! If that means-"
"Sir, search me! Search my bunk!"
"-I have to cast you overboard then I'll do it!"
Hawkes was on the verge of tears. "PLEASE McQUEEN! I didn't do it!" At this, Colonel McQueen grabbed Hawkes by the chest and slammed his back into the bulkhead. Hawkes' eyes widened in fear and disbelief.
McQueen's nose almost touched Hawkes'. "I let the 'Queen Meany' remark slide... but you just broke my rules! The only two words I want to hear out of that hole of yours when referring to me are SIR or COLONEL! Now hear this, Marine, CFB. You will report *immediately* to the infirmary for a CMA drug test. In exactly 20 mikes, I will *personally* escort you to either the BRIG or the Psychiatric Evaluation Unit. IF YOU DO NOT GET WITH THE PROGRAM, YOU WILL BE S-O-L! Dismissed!" McQueen raised his forearm and looked at his wristwatch. Hawkes stood there staring at McQueen.
"WELL?!!!" shouted McQueen.
"Yes sir!" Hawkes bolted for the door and ran down the corridor. In his rush, he dropped his flight pad. With a sigh, McQueen picked it up and walked to the doorway. Sticking his head in the corridor, he turned to shout at Hawkes. Hawkes was nearly four compartments down the corridor and still running.
"The INFIRMARY is AFT!" yelled the Colonel. Examining the flight-pad with its repeated entries of '4xCVR=death', 'Queen the meany', and 'Spam I am', Colonel McQueen could only clench his jaw and swallow hard. He erased each entry.
USS SARATOGA, Bridge 15:36
Commodore Ross paced around his centralized map and control terminal on the bridge. The supply convoy of food and water would arrive in a few minutes, and the Saratoga would be vulnerable. Each re-supply operation was meticulously planned to the second, to minimize collisions and friendly fire while maximizing defensive capabilities. Two squadrons of Hammerheads flew CAP while one more squadron stood on full alert, sitting in their cockpits with engines and weapons primed and ready, just thirty seconds away from launch. Ross watched on his computerized map as the long string of supply-class ISSCV's made their way towards the Saratoga. Any Chig recon within 2 AU's had surely seen the convoy. Still, the re-supply was inevitable. The Saratoga's food lockers were empty but for some rice, ketchup, and pickles. The crew was tired of rice and morale was suffering. Ross reminded them of the burdens of war and assured them he would fill the lockers at the first available opportunity. He also reminded them of the sacrifices those on Earth were making to bring them their food. If the Saratoga had not withdrawn from the battle for Hercules-7, they could have literally starved to death. During the battle, the Navy had graciously supplied them with more than enough ammunition and spare parts, but a snafu with the food-supply logistics had nearly starved an entire sector of operations.
USS SARATOGA, Infirmary- Section 4 15:50
McQueen looked over the CMA drug test results for Hawkes' blood sample. An impatient Dr. Thatcher stood nearby, checking over the medical chart of some Marine enlisted soldier with a fungal infection. He thought to himself, "Here I am, yanked out of surgery school only to be caged in the bowels of this tin can treating fungal infections on some dumb grunt who is barely more than an animal. Hell, I'm a *veterinarian*, not a doctor." As his stomach growled, the doctor considered stealing some dextrose solution to satisfy him until dinner. He eyed McQueen and decided he'd better not. "That thick-skulled jarhead is probably watching me."
"Your blood is clean," reported McQueen to Hawkes. Hawkes' body grew more relaxed at this confirmation of his innocence. He wondered if the Colonel was serious about the psychiatric unit.
"But your brain is not." Hawkes looked up to McQueen in disbelief. "Doctor Thatcher, see to it that Lt. Hawkes here is seen ASAP by the psychiatric evaluation unit."
Eager to be freed from the presence of mesomorphic leathernecks, the doctor replied, "Yes, Colonel. I can see to it right away."
"Very good. Hawkes, I want you to remember I'm doing this for the 58th, and you are part of the 58th. It's OK to be scared- just keep your head together. I'll check on you later."
"Yes sir." Hawkes did not know what to expect.
USS SARATOGA, Infirmary- Section 8 16:20
The evaluation room was pink. Pink everywhere. The color made Hawkes uncomfortable. It was garish yet inviting to him. Something warm stirred in his gut and he felt very peaceful sitting there. He wished to remain in that pink room forever and forget the war. That is why he hated it. He was losing the courage to face death every moment he remained in that room. The prospect of death had never bothered him before, but lately that had changed. This newly discovered fear of death was costing him the mental and physical edge he needed to win in battle both on-planet and above-planet.
With a rustle of papers that were scattered upon his desk, the flight surgeon stirred from his mental tasks and engaged Hawkes.
"You will not require a hospital stay. You only need some minor pharmaceutical treatment." The doctor held up a medical prescription requisition form. "V-D will make you fit for duty, Lieutenant. You are lucky. Many of these cases require... more drastic measures." Hawkes glanced behind the doctor and noted some bizarre equipment. Strange devices flanked a few gurneys, dangling wires and clamps as if they were trees bearing fruit. Hawkes could not find the luck in being given V-D's. Those were given to soldiers who cracked- to weak soldiers.
"Do not be alarmed, the V-D is harmless to In-Vitros... and *non-addictive*. I have already given you some in the injection earlier. You see? Perfectly harmless. Take them once a day and have the bottle refilled when they're gone. The dispenser will alert you when you need another evaluation." The doctor rolled his chair to the counter behind him and retrieved a bottle of pills.
"Here they are. Now try not to lose them. They're not cheap, you know."
Hawkes took the bottle of oblong yellow pills and nervously passed it between his hands.
"Right, so give this to your CO and that should be it." Hawkes took the sheet of paper and began to read it.
"I suggest you get some sleep, in order to adjust to the V-D. There's nothing on that sheet that I haven't already told you. Now, if you'll excuse me I have two more patients before supper." Hawkes stared at the words, "Battle fatigue, stress disorder, unfit for duty without standard round of oral V-D." The words pounded his head like a hammer: "Unfit for duty... I am unfit for duty."
"Lieutenant? You must really run along now, sorry old chap."
Hawkes stood and made his way to the 58th's sleeping quarters. Thankfully, all the others were asleep and Hawkes did not have to face them. He sucked the doctor's summary sheet down the toilet, took a little yellow pill, and slipped into a troubled sleep.
USS SARATOGA, Bridge 16:22
"ISSCV Convoy Alpha, requesting clearance to land." The string of supply vessels had arrived. With the Saratoga at half- speed, the ISSCV's would approach her from behind and overtake her. Two lines would alternately land on the left and right elevators. There would no time for the pilots to have a cup of coffee onboard the Saratoga- even if the Saratoga still had coffee. The supply-ISSCV pilots called these "Hit-n'-Split" operations. They would come in with dangerous speed, hit the elevator hard, lock down, be lowered into the Saratoga and unloaded by a large mechanical gripper that pulled out the entire contents of the modified APC in one stroke. Even before the ISSCV cargo doors closed, they were elevated to the deck and released. If their engines were not fully throttled by the time the locks released the ship, they could expect a reprimand from Commodore Ross. To add to their excitement, each incoming ISSCV narrowly missed the preceding one as it left the elevator.
McQueen arrived on the bridge shortly after the first ISSCV landed. He had felt and heard the distinctive metallic clank a fully-loaded supply vessel makes when performing a FLUFL (Fast-Landing-Unloading-Fast-Liftoff). Ross monitored radio communications and the time-schedule necessary to ensure safety of everyone involved in the supply operation.
"McQueen, watch Bravo convoy. Helm, why is our speed at 651? Is there a problem?!" McQueen studied the map and radioed in corrections to Bravo convoy.
"Sir, no sir. Speed set to 650, sir."
"What in the hell!" Ross stormed to the helm and compared his datapad's figures to the terminal. After depressing a few buttons, he walked back to the map and leaned on it with strong arms. He was fuming inside for making an error in front of his bridge crew, but only McQueen knew it.
Two officers acting as safety monitors stood looking out towards the bow through the bridge windows . They recorded pilots' flights as either smooth-and-safe or erratic-and-dangerous. They also gauged the severity of their landings. Too severe and they were risking elevator damage, not severe enough and they were jeopardizing the strict time schedule. They stood with stopwatches in one hand and a datapad in the other, carefully watching each ISSCV as it slammed down onto the elevators. One particular landing attempt caught the attention of both officers. ISSCV Alpha-8 veered towards elevator two at the correct speed, but was turned nearly sideways.
"Collision! Collision! This is Alpha-8, we have collided!"
"Collision alarm! All hands, brace for impact!" Alarms sounded throughout the Saratoga. Ross could see clearly through the windows that the ISSCV was going to damage the elevator. Ross was concerned about which ISSCV that Alpha-8 had contacted. He needed the other ISSCV's trajectory to determine whether he needed to scrub the mission and take evasive action.
"Alpha-8, who did you collide with?!"
"Unknown! Unknown! Unnnnnngh!" The pilot strained under the stress of a demanding mission and the impending crash. The ISSCV slammed hard onto the elevator completely sideways. The port engine on the ISSCV crumpled and a huge fuel ejection sprayed the Saratoga. As the fuel boiled off the bridge's windows, the safety observers could only stare in amazement at the four black Chig-bomber vessels silhouetted against the Saratoga that were slowly descending onto her surface. For them, time stood on its head, passing not forwards, but backwards. The collision had made sense. Alpha-8 must have collided with one of these four vessels. The shouts they made sent a wave of terror throughout the bridge.
"ENEMY VESSELS BOARDING SHIP!!!"
"Battle stations! Intruder alert! This is not a drill!" shouted Ross.
Ross could feel the hair on his neck stand straight up and tingle. McQueen felt a pit deepen in his stomach as bloody ship- storming memories from the AI wars flooded his thoughts. The crew of the bridge who had until then avoided ground-combat suddenly felt weak and useless. Their job was to defend the ship from such incursions and they had failed. They could hear it themselves as the black vessels clanked against the Saratoga. It was clearly distinguishable from the ISSCVs' sound which had now ceased as the pilots had aborted their missions. The bridge crew knew that if they were to survive the boarding, it was the grunts and jarheads that they so often demeaned that would make it happen.
The first stealthy modified Chig-bomber planted itself right on top of the observation dome above the bridge, crushing various antennae as it descended. Three more followed to take up positions near the elevators. The over-zealous AAA fire- control teams fired at one of the birds and destroyed it, but the exploding wreckage that slammed into the Saratoga's hull brought that to halt. As the slower pieces of wreckage drifted by the bridge windows, the contents of the Chig bombers became clear: AI Silicate troops. To the bridge crew's disbelief, some AI troopers that survived the explosion began firing their rifles at the Saratoga. They were quickly taken out by smaller manned AAA turrets.
Orders were given out by the book. All hands, prepare for enemy intruders, this is not a drill, repeat, this is not a drill, launch all fighter squadrons- code Gamma-ray, all security teams report to chokepoints, all personnel carry sidearms and space-lungs, evac teams ready the lifeboats, distress signal mayday Delta- Gamma-Delta, and on and on they went. The flurry of alarms, flashing lights, and deafening orders even woke up Lt. Paul Wang of the 58th Squadron.
USS SARATOGA, 58th Bunk-room 16:28
"What in the hell?!" West shot up out of his bunk, nearly hitting his head on the riveted overhead. Wang came to life from his bat-like sleep. Vansen instinctively began dressing and assembling the space-lungs for the 58th. Damphousse and Wang glanced at each other as they rushed into their fatigues. West distributed extra pistol clips among them. Each finally donned their emergency space-lung. If they were caught in a depressurization, they could use their space-lungs to maintain lung pressure for thirty seconds. This often made the difference between life and death in zero-atmosphere emergency combat operations. These precious seconds often allowed survivors of the depressurization to be snatched by lifeboats. However, these devices could not overcome all the dangers of sudden depressurization.
Bulkhead compartment 1-c-a was a well-traveled side corridor on the observation level above the bridge. Moments after the Chig bomber planted itself onto the top of this level, an ingenious boarding ring descended to contact the Saratoga's hull. A circle of directional explosives first cut a perfect circle into compartment 1-c-a. The bulkhead doors creaked as the air rushed out and forcefully sealed off the compartment. This rush of air did not deter the Chig vessel firmly latched onto the Saratoga. The disk cut from the Saratoga's hull spun out and ricocheted off the Chig bomber, spinning madly to an unknown destination. The crew inside the compartment were killed instantly as they bounced off the bomber's black armored plating. Those inside the compartment were dead, even if they survived the depressurization, for as soon as the pressure probe on the Chig boarding ring read zero, two hinged doors underneath the bomber swung open and 62 fully armed AI assault troops were pneumatically pushed into the bulkhead. As the first AI's spread throughout the compartment, more troops were inserted. When the bomber's hangar became empty, the ring was retracted and the bomber pulled away. A pack of bombers in waiting took the entry holes like lions at a water-hole. Delivery after delivery, the AI troopers came and spread throughout the Saratoga.
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom... rhythmically the explosives went off as more and more Chig bombers attached to the Saratoga. They were invisible to all the million-dollar sensors on the Saratoga. Ross stared at them with $200 binoculars in disbelief. They were only visible as black silhouettes against the dark-gray of the Saratoga. As the bridge crew directed the supply convoy's retreat and alerted the USS Lincoln Escort Carrier, two distinct explosion types could be heard throughout the ship: the louder boarding-ring explosions and the smaller popping of the bulkhead doors behind systematically ripped off their hinges with shaped explosive charges.
Ross was barking orders like a madman convinced he was God. Secure decks two and three, no firing in the nuclear zones, do not launch lifeboats until so ordered, status of security forces, I want casualty reports every 30 seconds. The Saratoga's escort destroyers reported no contacts, though they could see the silhouettes against the Saratoga. In a vain attempt to feel useful, they drew close to the Saratoga to shield against torpedo attacks.
The reports from the observation dome came in first. Bombers are delivering AI troopers into bulkheads. Estimated 40 AI's per vessel, fully armed, heavy casualties, we are falling back to the bridge bulkhead. As Ross contemplated his choices, a rush of USMC security troops ran towards the back of the bridge to secure positions leading to the observation dome. If the AI's got past them, the bridge and the Saratoga would be lost. Ross made the difficult decision and he would take responsibility.
"Bridge crew, fall back to Chokepoint 1. That is an order, there will be no heroes in *my* bridge crew! Move it!"
Ross knew the bridge was useless in this fight. This fight would be won or lost by the security troops. His highest priority now was safely evacuating the crew if necessary. The security officers were handling the troop movements. They had the training for such ship-storming scenarios and Ross left the defense to them.
As the bridge-crew filed out, Ross took one last look out at the Saratoga's deck. As one bomber deposited its deadly load of assault-AI's, another swooped in and took its place. "Damned Chigs are putting holes in my ship and spreading AI vermin!" he thought to himself. It pained him to look upon his own ship so helplessly being raped. As he watched the disarmed auto-turrets pitifully track the incoming bombers, never straying as each bomber came and left... as he watched the fully loaded missile racks sit upon the Saratoga as harmless as a dinner table would sit upon his dining room floor... he admitted to himself the certainty of this disaster unfolding before him.
After the last of the security troops from Chokepoint 1 had entered the observation dome, the bulkhead door slammed shut behind them. This startled Ross from his worried thought. Turning to exit he bid a silent farewell to the brave men beyond that solid door. A moment later, the gunfire erupted and impacting rounds plinked against the bulkheads. The agonizing screams followed, but went unheard. In defense of their beloved Saratoga, these soldiers had given up their lives.
USS SARATOGA, Flight Deck 1 16:30
The 58th Squadron barely made it to the flight deck because a constant rush of personnel enroute to Chokepoint-2 blocked their way. The reactions of the crew they passed were startling. Many were eager to finally personally fight the mysterious Enemy with their own sidearms. Others became pale and sluggish as fear congealed their blood and stole their breath.
The pilots they passed had mixed emotions as well. Code Gamma-ray meant possible abandon-ship orders. Ordinarily this order would arise from heavy damage from ship-to-ship battle, but an enemy storming of the ship was a markedly different matter- a matter most pilots did not take seriously in flight combat operations school. The procedural flowcharts they learned long ago were fuzzy memories after so many months of combat where textbook rules were often useless.
Are we to scuttle the ship if it is lost to the enemy? Should we just disable it? What about reinforcements? Should we focus on protecting the lifeboats? These questions ran through Captain Vansen's mind as her SA-43 cockpit descended to mate with the fighter body. She was glad to see three other squadrons running to their cockpits. This emotion was short-lived, for as she descended, she caught the glimpse of a bright flash consuming the flight deck, followed by the unmistakable whine and screams of a sudden depressurization.
All the pieces had been laid. The Earth and Chig officers would now commence their deadly game of chess. The SCVN Saratoga, being overtaken by ship-storming AI troopers. The nine Hammerhead squadrons that escaped from the Saratoga regrouping to defend their ship. The four squadrons of Hammerheads abandoning their CAP missions to attack the stealthy Chig bombers lingering near the Saratoga. The six destroyers twisting about the Saratoga, running torpedo-evasion paths while shooting randomly into space in a vain attempt to hit the sensor-invisible Chig bombers. The nearest capital ship, the USS Lincoln Escort Carrier, was on her way to defend the Saratoga.
"SWAC reports 3 Groups of Chig fighters inbound- ETA 7 minutes," Vansen yelled to her fellow pilots. The 32nd squadron joined up onto Vansen's three-squadron formation, as ordered.
"Listen up, we can't see those bombers so I want patterned sweeps of short cannon bursts astern of the Saratoga. Watch the friendlies, especially those destroyers. It's payback time!" A surge of adrenaline filled all those in Vansen's formation. They looped over in unison and approached the Saratoga at high speed.
"Fire in five seconds. Remember, use short bursts only- we may have a furball on our hands with those fighters coming in."
Vansen and the others readied their thumbs on their trigger switches.
"FIRE!" Each Hammerhead squeezed out split-second bursts and swept the space behind the Saratoga. By luck, there were a few faint yellow flashes visible about 200 meters off the stern.
"Got one! Hit him hard!" hollered one of the 32nd Squadron members. The others had noticed the rounds impacting a bomber and were already training their nose cannons onto that section of space. The Chig bomber crew awaiting orders did not even have time to make evasive maneuvers. Fifteen streaks of lightning slammed home ripping the bomber into a thousand pieces.
"HOOOOORAAAAAAH!" cried the formation.
As they neared the Saratoga's stern, two more Hammerhead squadrons managed to launch from the Saratoga.
"Watch the friendlies, two more flocks in the air!" Vansen's words were ill-spoken as the Saratoga's forward AAA batteries opened up on the accelerating squadrons. One-by-one they were quickly destroyed or damaged, forcing the pilots to eject.
"Saratoga task group, be advised forward fire control has been commandeered by the enemy!" Moments later, the aft AAA batteries opened up on Vansen's Hammerhead formation speeding away from the Saratoga. "Correct that, forward and aft fire control both taken, over. Vansen formation, spread out, pattern Epsilon." Streaks of green laser fire danced amidst their formation.
An communications officer on one of the escorting destroyers acknowledged Vansen's report, "All Hammerhead squadrons, standby..."
West thought, "Standby? Coordinate us you Navy bastard so we can kick some ass!" As the Hammerheads wove their evasive maneuvers while retaining a loose formation, Vansen kept her eyes on the Saratoga. She thought she saw lifeboats being jettisoned, but she countered that they might be more Hammerhead squadrons launching.
The destroyer officer crackled in again. "The Saratoga is abandoning ship. Standby..." In groups of three, the lifeboats of the Saratoga jettisoned and veered off towards the distant USS Lincoln. Some were destroyed by Saratoga AAA batteries, but most escaped. As ordered, the destroyer officer confirmed that all lifeboats had ejected before giving his next directions.
"Saratoga task group, we must scuttle the Saratoga, repeat, *scuttle the Saratoga*. Hammerhead squadrons, ignore the bombers, direct all fire to the Saratoga."
"WHAT!?", thought Wang and Damphousse. Hawkes sat up in his seat in anticipation of this new challenge. Vansen wanted confirmation before carrying out this incredible order.
"Please confirm, scuttle the Saratoga?" The destroyers had already begun to launch anti-ship missiles and direct their AAA fire to the Saratoga.
"Affirmative. Repeat, all vessels direct fire on the Saratoga. Orders from up high, over."
This was an unthinkable mission for the Hammerhead squadrons. As they slowly looped around to face the Saratoga, each pilot recalled the many times they had approached her after harrowing missions. The safety they usually felt under her defensive umbrella contrasted with their current feelings of fear and anger. Now that defensive umbrella would be directed at them. They would be crazy to attack a Chig capital ship, let alone the Saratoga herself. However, sanity was not a prerequisite for the Marine Corps, and they commenced a standard heavy-ship attack.
As they approached, one Hammerhead instantly exploded. All heads turned to look for a tell-tale ejection flash. There was only flaming wreckage.
"What in the hell was that?" cried Hawkes. "Now they have stealth *missiles*?!!!"
"Shut it, Hawkes. I saw bomber debris, they must have collided. Ready all missiles, aim for the main engine cylinder, one-by-six. Ready... hold... FIRE!" Six missiles from each Hammerhead streaked towards the Saratoga's main fusion engine cylinder. The scene before them was worse than any nightmare. Six destroyers were pummeling the Saratoga while she struck back with all her guns trained on one hapless destroyer. The poor souls on that destroyer were spared the agony of suffocation as the ship's ammunition magazine was ruptured and ignited. Huge chunks of wreckage spun off into various directions- some meeting the Saratoga.
The Saratoga missile launchers turned on the Hammerhead's missile group. Several Phalanx II missiles were launched in their proximity-fuse anti-missile role. Vansen's choice of six salvos was wise, as most of the fighters' missiles escaped harm before slamming into the Saratoga's main engine cylinder.
"Eat that, Silicates," muttered Vansen.
Although the impacts and warhead explosions were fierce, the main engine remained intact. There was significant damage, but no secondary explosion. This was unfortunate since a main engine explosion would have scuttled the ship in a matter of seconds. Although they had failed their mission, the Hammerhead pilots were relieved- not having killed any surviving human crew members.
The Hammerheads were largely ignored as they swept past the Saratoga on their cannon attack-run. An occasional streak of small-caliber AAA tracers kept them alert, but both sides knew that their cannons were ineffective against the Saratoga's 100 cm armor. Destroyer #3 was viciously mauled by the Saratoga after losing one of its two engines. This destroyer was forced to abandon the fight. They were lucky to escape the next phase of the Chigs' battle plan.
By this time torpedo-equipped Chig stealthy bombers had entered the battle. They had been awaiting orders until the ship- boarding was complete. The destroyer captains drenched themselves in sweat as the reports of torpedo launches flooded their control rooms. Destroyer #1 was nearly broken in two and spun violently. The other destroyers were forced to direct all fire at the torpedoes. The Saratoga was left to pound on them at will. The torpedoes were incessant, and their sources invisible. The Chig officers commanding the battle finally moved their Queen chess-piece into play: 60 Chig fighters piloted by hand-picked pilots for this strategic operation.
The three Chig fighter Groups quickly tore through the nearest CAP SA-43 squadron. They human pilots were outnumbered twelve to one and expected only death. The Chigs lost no planes in this engagement and resumed course with hardly any deviation. The other CAP's, still enroute to the Saratoga, turned to intercept the Chig fighters. The Chigs arrived at the Saratoga as the last remaining destroyer became covered in flame as its fuel stores ruptured. The fighters finished her off.
It was clear to Vansen that remaining in this battle was suicidal. All the destroyers were either limping away or destroyed, the Saratoga was now turning her guns on the Hammerheads, 60 fresh Chig fighters had arrived, and countless stealthy Chig bombers awaited random collision. It was time to retreat and regroup with the Lincoln task force.
"All Hammerheads, disengage and rendezvous with USS Lincoln. Repeat, disengage and fall back!"
There was no hesitation among the pilots. They all saw the inevitable defeat before them. With no missiles and low cannon ammunition, they would die quickly at the hands of the fighters.
The Chig leaders made slurping noises with their anterior orifices beneath their body-armor suits. The AI's onboard the Saratoga beeped in exhilaration. The King-piece SCVN Saratoga had fallen- the game was won.
Escort Carrier USS LINCOLN: Bridge 17:49
The asymmetrical hull of the USS Lincoln slipped quietly between the stars. At full speed, she would intercept the Saratoga before the day could end. Nearly triangular when viewed from ahead, the hull had six launching bays on one side for its six SA-43 squadrons and single bomber squadron. A Washington-class escort carrier, she resembled a shortened half- sized version of the Saratoga. Rectangular lifeboats from the Saratoga drifted nearby, awaiting rescue. The Saratoga crewmembers lucky enough to escape peered out the lifeboats' viewports and could not help but admire and fear the AI troopers' courage to assault a ship twice the size of the Lincoln. The Lincoln laid before them as an impenetrable fortress: swarms of Hammerheads flying CAP, three destroyer escorts, Phalanx missile batteries, laser cannons, AAA batteries, and the Army and Marine forces resting deep within her thick armor.
Captain Brown paced in slow steps as reports concerning the Saratoga task group trickled into the bridge. Captain Brown was a cautious commander, never jumping into battles without planning for every possible contingency. He was a good friend of Commodore Ross, however, and he did not think twice before steering his ship to aid the Saratoga. Although his ship held seven squadrons, it was not immune to attack.
Brown listened intently as more reports came in detailing Chig and Earth-forces movements. The Chig fighters had set up CAP's around their newly captured treasure. Lifeboats were arriving at the Lincoln retrieval was underway. The Saratoga was now heading straight towards a Chig task group that had arrived in the sector yesterday. Reinforcements for the Lincoln were scarce, yet those available were enroute. Operation Roundhammer preparations were in full-swing and Captain Brown had gotten used to such conditions.
Brown stopped to look out towards the bow. Lifeboats were slowly streaming onto the flight-deck elevators as the Saratoga's 48 surviving Hammerheads entered the Lincoln's six hangars. All of the Lincoln's fighter squadrons were flying CAP for this recovery operation. Brown wondered how he would manage to stow all these extra Hammerheads... he would have to wait for a big carrier, he decided.
"I'll be in the loading bay, keep me posted," Brown announced. He traveled to the loading bay where the lifeboats were being emptied. As he approached the bay, he passed a long line of the Saratoga's enlisted crew awaiting processing. Most of the crew looked pale and exhausted from their ordeal.
Captain Brown walked to the Saratoga officers gathering at the far end. A loud debate ensued over who was responsible for losing the ship. The verbal stings turned into pushes. Captain Brown forced himself into the middle of the melee.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen. There is no point in fighting each other. We have an incredible task before us, and we cannot waste any time bickering. The Saratoga is enroute to Chig reinforcements as we speak. She will be un-recoverable if she reaches those reinforcements. Now where is Captain Vicks?"
Captain Vicks was the highest ranking officer after Commodore Ross. Brown assumed that Ross was still aboard the Saratoga, holding tradition so dearly.
"Over there," someone muttered apathetically. Captain Vicks had just disembarked from a lifeboat along with several other officers. They were the last lifeboat to jettison. Captain Brown raised his hand and called over Vicks.
"Now that the last lifeboat is aboard, we can assess our... *situation*. Assemble your high officers, would you please, Captain Vicks?"