HMS Wellington, Procyon Sector, 08:40 Zulu
Air-Commodore Coulthard was angry. For the last twelve hours after the complete destruction of the Connaught, he had been in a debrief with the senior Command Staff.
Of the seven high ranking generals, commodores and other officers present no-one seemed to understand how serious the situation was.
The initial battle should have taken place about 400 MSKs further away from Acheron and Erynis - where the fleet could have manoeuvered more easily than in the small flight corridor of the two moons.
Since the destruction of the Connaught, two more carriers had been disabled - one even crashing down on Erinys, resulting in a giga-ton explosion on planet. The technicians and Aerotech specialists still were not certain what consequences might come from that. One thing was sure though - the radiation had killed any life forms on planet, native as well as alien.
The Air-Commodore squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. His first and foremost task now was to keep his squadrons together - and retrieve the ones that had been grounded on planet - like the Dark Knights.
There was no telling whether the RAF squadron had survived the crash though it had been confirmed that the satellites around Acheron had been contacted via GPS on planet shortly after the crash.
Coulthard went over to the head to splash his face with water.
To hell with the top brass, he thought. All they wanted to do was covering their own behinds concerning this ill-planned mission.
He was determined to save his men and women. This was his tub and all hands on it were his responsibility.
If the top brass didn't realise the enormity of this battle and the losses from that - he certainly did and he wanted to make sure that all of his crew were safe.
The Chigs seemed to be retreating but all through the ship the blasts of lasers as well as the missiles could be heard. Wave after wave, the Chigs still flew their attacks. It was as if they knew that the fleet was about to break up and they wanted their kill.
Time to get back on the bridge, he thought and, straightening his uniform, he made his way back to the command centre.
The red alert lamps cast an eerie light throughout the Wellington as Commodore Coulthard went back to the bridge. All around him the sailors as well as the other Navy personnel swarmed like midges. The blasts reverberated through the whole ship but up till now, the Wellie stood her ground.
"Sir, the Canberra just broke out of formation, Sir," Coulthard was greeted by a tired voice void of any emotion.
"Get her on the com PDQ!" he ordered.
"...Repeat cannot evade, flight decks seven to eighteen are open to space, sections cannot be sealed off, the ship is inmanoeuvarable. The nuclear engines have been hit, we are floating ..." there was static to be heard, then the voice of the Commander of the Canberra was heard again.
"The Canberra is dead ... May God help us all ..."
A few seconds later, they could feel the blast of the explosion on the bridge as particles and debris of the Canberra hit the outer hull of the Wellington.
Acheron, 09:00 hours
The night according to ship time had come and gone uneventfully. Megan and Woolfe had pulled two more shifts - quietly conversing with each other over the comlinks as they had watched the sky lighting up overhead. Every time it did so, Megan asked herself if the cause was a ship of the Fleet or one of the Chigs.
They had both agreed that all of them needed to be extracted from planet PDQ but neither were sure if there was a Wellington still to return to. During the small hours of the morning, they had made out activity in the direction of the Chig base and both knew they couldn't stand up against a fully armed and equipped Chig division.
Woolfe had volunteered to help Andy getting the TACBE operational again and salvage bits and pieces from the pit to see if they could jury-rig a similar device.
Megan was glad that Woolfe had obviously overcome his initial depression and she supported the young pilot as much as she could but not without supporting the rest of her crew with all her might.
The young woman was determined to save them - now more than ever. Last night, although she had tried not to show it as obviously as Woolfe had, the sight of the Chig installation had shook her to her deepest roots. From the size of it she estimated about three cohorts of Chig squadrons were installed there. Too many to take with a surprise attack by far. Besides, they were RAF and not Army or Navy ground pounders.
Woolfe stood at one of the cargo holds and bent over a chart he had been working on since the early hours of the morning. After they had scanned the area of the crash, he had meticulously marked down all landmarks on a piece of paper. With the GPS he had even outlined the exact measurements between their crash site and the Chig base location.
Megan had not noticed she had stared at his strong back for quite a while and when she finally noticed she sighed inwardly and rubbed her eyes. She had to get them out of here, whatever it would cost her personally.
"Are you in pain?" Meg asked and Pat shook her head.
"Only when I try to stand up to go to the head, but Andy helped me," Pat replied. "Do you know how humiliating that is? I really thought of keeping that little mystery to myself."
Megan grinned lop-sided.
"Well you know the proverb, Everything's fair in love and war." She was glad that Pat had not lost her humour. She was just hoping that it would stay on.
"I better get back to relieve Anne," Megan said and stood up. But as she stepped away from the bunk, Pat held her back with one shivering hand.
"We'll get back, won't we?" she asked, all of a sudden very serious.
Megan hesitated but then pasted a smile on her face to reassure her squadron mate.
"Of course, we will, don't you worry."
Ever since the Connaught and the Canberra had been destroyed, Coulthard had harbored a deadly anger deep inside of himself. The meetings with SPACECom and the top brass of the fleet annoyed him to the limit. There was no reasoning with them.
We don't have enough personnel to send out for SAR! they had said, no personnel indeed. Seven SAR units had been dispatched to look for the son of an American Congressman.
Ratbastards, he thought and grinned despite himself. He had picked up too many slang words from the Yanks stationed on his tub.
Thinking of Yanks, his thoughts were drawn to Chambers and her squadron. Being a half-American, a tankbrat and leader of an all tank squadron must be hell and he wondered how she fared down there on Acheron.
He sighed and let the last coordinates appear on his control panel again. He had to get them out of there, no personnel or not.
He was thus deep in thought that he almost didn't notice the young officer standing beside him, clearing his throat.
"What is it, Frankel?" Coulthard asked irritated.
"Sir, the first SAR teams are enroute back to the Wellington, the first to return will be the number four-eight squadron. Upon hearing that the number seven-two squadron has crashed, Wing Commander McDougal has asked permisison to be assigned to the number seven-two SAR team once they are back onboard."
"McDougal, you say?" Coulthard wiped his eyes wearily as he tried to put a face to that name.
"WC McDougal was CO of Chambers and her squadron back at Glenarfon Barracks, Innsworth, Sir," the officer replied.
"Ah yes, tell him permission denied. The brass will need him for another mission."
"Aye, Sir ..." the young officer replied and suppressed a sigh. McDougal wouldn't be amused, he thought.
"And, Frankel ...," Coulthard called him back with a definite edge to his voice. "The next time you get back to me I want to hear that the SAR teams have found the son of that Congressman, understood?"
"Aye, aye, Sir." Frankel swallowed.
Woolfe was standing at the air-lock when Meg came in. He looked over his shoulder when he heard her footsteps and grinned.
"Time to get a fresh whiff of air," he said laconically and Meg sighed.
"As if I didn't know," she replied.
Andy had been the first who had tested the air and its breathability. It was non-toxic and had slightly more oxygen than Earth' atmosphere. After several more tests, Andy had gotten out without a helmet for a quick roundabout of the crashed STCV.
The weather on Acheron was always the same, dry, without any wind to stir the dust and dirt on planet.
Only little by little, the pilots realised that the light of Acheron, powered by a huge gas giant millions of MSKs away, went dimmer.
"Guess Acheron's sun has a three day cycle. I just hope that time we called night was really the night," Woolfe commented, after checking the GPS and made some triangulation. "Heard anything about Chigs loving darkness?"
"Dunno, your bet is as good as mine," she retorted, somewhat sharper than she had intended.
Woolfe's head jerked up and after a minute or two of staring at each other, Meg shrugged her shoulders, the gesture not very revealing in an EVA combat suit, even without the heavy oxygen tank on their backs.
Silence drew between them until the female officer sighed and nudged her com link with her chin.
"I'm sorry, James," she said and Woolfe turned his helmeted head.
"No problem, Boss, we all get edgy sometimes ... especially these days."
It still amazed Megan that Woolfe, despite his poor InVitro upbringing, was so insightful. When they got off this planet, she was determined to treat him to a couple of pints, just to make up to him for her moods.
In silence they circled the perimeter, cursing beneath their breaths while the sun grew dimmer and dimmer. After several minutes, the two pilots were not able to see their hands in front of them, and first Meg then Woolfe put on their NVGs. According ship time they would still have about three hours day light left, so this sudden twilight came as a surprize. When Erynis rose over the horizon, it was in form of fiery ball, so different from the gentle almost peaceful looking planet they had seen every afternoon for the past two days.
It seemed as if the planet had been painted with day-glow colours, a pulsing fire wall spreading over the surface of the planet, burning everything in its wake.
"Shit!" Woolfe exclaimed and pointed at the sky. "That must have been a hell of a big ship."
"At least Marauder Class ... if not bigger ..." Chambers replied. They exchanged a short glance. They both knew that only nine ships in the fleet were big enough to cause fireworks like that, and the Wellington was one of them.
HMS Wellington - 03:00 Zulu Time
When WC McDougal climbed out of the pit of his Tornado, he could only barely control his foul mood. Being of Scottish descent, he had a fiery temper and he was mightily pissed off right now.
"Duncan!" Brian Lutham-Stokely, McDougal's navigator stepped away from the cockpit and held him back. When he noticed the dead cold look on his friend and CO, he swallowed.
"Bri, be a good chap and let go if you don't want to end up in the infirmary," Duncan growled and looked first at the restraining hand on his shoulder and then into his navigator's face.
Brian smirked at that although he knew what McDougal was capable of, he had not been first in boxing at Cambridge for nothing.
"You don't help Chambers and her squad one bit if you end up in the brig," The young navigator said.
Duncan McDougal closed his eyes for a moment, then he nodded.
"You are right, Bri ..." Duncan knew that he wouldn't be a great help if he grounded his whole squadron just because he couldn't get his anger under control.
Looking at his men from one to the other, he made his way towards their quarters.
Coulthard had been standing in the briefing room and had witnessed the short exchange between the two men through the glass windows. He knew what McDougal felt. He might not know the man as much as he would like to but he could relate to his feelings. Chambers and her tanks either generated love or hate and in this case, Coulthard was certain, McDougal felt love.
After Frankel had mentioned the number four-eight squadron, he had pulled McDougal's dossier and had read about the man. Coming from a long list of officers for both RAF and Army, Duncan McDougal was an exceptional aviator and CO. He had been in Cambridge, where he had read law and then had moved on to Innsworth as instructor. Chambers had been his protegé from the start, and the Scot had made sure she was not discriminated. Coulthard knew his orders to look for the American serviceman first would cause a lot of tension between himself and McDougal.
On the other hand, Coulthard thought, one squadron of Tornadoes more or less wouldn't make that big a difference in the search with the battle still going on.
Sighing, the Commodore turned and headed towards the corridors where the RAF pilots were still conversing with each other.
"Wing Commander McDougal!"
"Sir," the pilots said in unison as they saluted and stood to attention.
"At ease, gentlemen. Wing Commander ... a word with you ... in private, if you please," Coulthard said.
After the pilots had quickly dismissed themselves with all due respect and speed, Coulthard led McDougal into the briefing room beyond the flightdeck.
"I was informed that you volunteered your squadron for a SAR mission, Wing Commander?"
"Yessir, that is correct. The number four-eight squadron asks to look for their MIA comrades, the number seven-two squadron who supposedly crashed down on Acheron ... Sir!" McDougal replied, adding the respectful title somewhat reluctantly.
"Negative, McDougal, I cannot spare one squadron until this battle is won or until we have found that missing crewman ..."
"With all due respect, Sir, but there are five crewmen down there on Acheron ..."
"Which we do not know for certain, McDougal!" Coulthard squeezed his eyes shut for a short moment, then raised his hand in silent admonition.
"I know ... we both know that the number seven-two squadron is on Acheron, it is the gut feeling we have, but first things first. For the moment, Chambers and her squaddies are safe down there - it is probably the safest place in this part of the universe." Coulthard sighed. "All we can do right now, is to make certain they are down there and not pieces of hardware floating around in the Strait of Acheron and Erynis."
McDougal nodded and yet, he had this gut feeling as Coulthard had called it, that the number seven-two squadron was not as safe as both men wanted to be believe.
"Sir, this officer asks permission to go on SAR for the missing crewman in the vicinity of Acheron and Erynis ..."
"Permission granted, McDougal ..." he noticed the fleeting smile on the other man's face. "But, McDougal, your first ordnance is to search and rescue or retrieve the missing American crewman. If on the grounds you are successful you can follow the second ordnance ..."
"Aye, Sir," McDougal answered and from the tone of his voice, he ment it.