This is a re-post of my original 'With Friends Like These...'. Most of it is basically the same as the original, but there have been alterations. This is, in part, due to my writing more fic. Certain points in the original 'WFLT...' became either superfluous or down right inaccurate. It is also due to comments made after I posted the original about technical details, plot and character, which I incorporated into the second version.
If you have already read 'WFLT...' and don't wish to plough through it again, that's OK, you won't miss anything too important. If however you do decide to read it again, I would be interested in whether you think it's an improvement or not. Or, indeed, if you noticed any difference at all! The re-writes main purpose is to clarify certain points, patch up some plot defects and make the piece consistent with 'Moving Shadows', my new fic.
If you've never read 'With Friends Like These...' all I can say is......where have you been?!?! ;>
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
RACHAEL J WALKER
McQueen sat at the bar, studying the scotch in front of him.
It had been an average day. A day spent waiting. At 08:00 hours, he'd watched their cockpits descend through
the floor of the hanger bay, trying to ignore the nagging feeling in his stomach. Then, a
day spent on the bridge, keeping his mind occupied, as the hours dragged by. He had to admit he was beginning to cope better. These days
he only felt sick once they were officially late, which they often were. Today had been no
exception. An interminably long five minutes had passed before the ISSCV pilot confirmed
their extraction, with no casualties, and only then did McQueen relax............just a
little. The debriefing had ended half an hour ago, after which time,
the Wildcards had made their way to the bar. The young pilots sat, talking at a table.
McQueen had the feeling a poker game was being planned and he hoped Hawkes hadn't brought
a lot of money with him. He always wondered if he should talk to him about that. He
hated taking the kid's money, and he hated the rest of the 58th taking advantage. But he'd
tried dropping subtle hints, and he'd had to learn the hard way, after all. Just then he heard unfamiliar voices behind him. He was
about to turn, when Damphousse stepped up beside him. "Colonel" He nodded as she ordered a beer. "We're about to start a game if you're
interested?" "Not tonight." "Hey, tank!" McQueen saw Damphousse flinch. The young woman flashed an
angry look over his shoulder, but before he could even consider a response he saw her jaw
drop, as two arms locked him in a bear hug. "Hello Zygramski." McQueen didn't need to turn round. He'd known her all her
life, and most of his. No one else would ever have dared...... A hand shot out towards Damphousse. "And you are.....?" "Um............Lieutenant
Damphousse............Ma'am" "Major Zygramski, 32nd Royal Marine
squadron............pleased to meet you." As they shook hands McQueen noted the bemused expression on
Damphousse's face, and the fact that she seemed rooted to the spot, beer in hand. "She's an old friend, Lieutenant." "At least Mac's old, and I'm a friend." Damphousse tried, and failed, to suppress a smile. "Um............Major............Colonel". She
excused herself, uncertain what else to do. She wanted to stick around, but the look on
McQueen's face made her think better of it. "Oh, yes..........I forgot." The Major proffered
her hand, once again. "Congratulations on your promotion, Colonel,
and..........um............ commiseration's on the circumstances." "Thanks. Same to you." Zygramski nodded. "You're looking well. Especially
since I hear you're getting your arses kicked around the quadrant." "Oh, that's what you've been hearing, is it?" Zygramski smiled, and McQueen found himself doing the same.
He always tried to maintain an air of irritation, when she took him off guard like that,
but it never lasted long. Besides, he thought, she may be a lousy poker player, but she
always knows when I'm bluffing. And it was damned good to see her again. "So, what the hell're you doing here?" "Don't know. The Colonel's talking to Ross as we speak.
We have to be back in the hanger bay in half an hour, which gives you just enough time to
buy me a drink." "What'll it be?" "Well, considering the fact that I'll be flying in
thirty mikes, and I wouldn't be caught dead drinking crappy American beer, I suppose it'll
have to be a coke."
McQueen sat at the bar, studying the scotch in front of him. It had been an average day. A day spent waiting.
At 08:00 hours, he'd watched their cockpits descend through the floor of the hanger bay, trying to ignore the nagging feeling in his stomach. Then, a day spent on the bridge, keeping his mind occupied, as the hours dragged by.
He had to admit he was beginning to cope better. These days he only felt sick once they were officially late, which they often were. Today had been no exception. An interminably long five minutes had passed before the ISSCV pilot confirmed their extraction, with no casualties, and only then did McQueen relax............just a little.
The debriefing had ended half an hour ago, after which time, the Wildcards had made their way to the bar. The young pilots sat, talking at a table. McQueen had the feeling a poker game was being planned and he hoped Hawkes hadn't brought a lot of money with him.
He always wondered if he should talk to him about that. He hated taking the kid's money, and he hated the rest of the 58th taking advantage. But he'd tried dropping subtle hints, and he'd had to learn the hard way, after all.
Just then he heard unfamiliar voices behind him. He was about to turn, when Damphousse stepped up beside him.
He nodded as she ordered a beer.
"We're about to start a game if you're interested?"
McQueen saw Damphousse flinch. The young woman flashed an angry look over his shoulder, but before he could even consider a response he saw her jaw drop, as two arms locked him in a bear hug.
McQueen didn't need to turn round. He'd known her all her life, and most of his. No one else would ever have dared......
A hand shot out towards Damphousse.
"And you are.....?"
"Major Zygramski, 32nd Royal Marine squadron............pleased to meet you."
As they shook hands McQueen noted the bemused expression on Damphousse's face, and the fact that she seemed rooted to the spot, beer in hand.
"She's an old friend, Lieutenant."
"At least Mac's old, and I'm a friend."
Damphousse tried, and failed, to suppress a smile.
"Um............Major............Colonel". She excused herself, uncertain what else to do. She wanted to stick around, but the look on McQueen's face made her think better of it.
"Oh, yes..........I forgot." The Major proffered her hand, once again. "Congratulations on your promotion, Colonel, and..........um............ commiseration's on the circumstances."
"Thanks. Same to you."
Zygramski nodded. "You're looking well. Especially since I hear you're getting your arses kicked around the quadrant."
"Oh, that's what you've been hearing, is it?"
Zygramski smiled, and McQueen found himself doing the same. He always tried to maintain an air of irritation, when she took him off guard like that, but it never lasted long. Besides, he thought, she may be a lousy poker player, but she always knows when I'm bluffing.
And it was damned good to see her again.
"So, what the hell're you doing here?"
"Don't know. The Colonel's talking to Ross as we speak. We have to be back in the hanger bay in half an hour, which gives you just enough time to buy me a drink."
"What'll it be?"
"Well, considering the fact that I'll be flying in thirty mikes, and I wouldn't be caught dead drinking crappy American beer, I suppose it'll have to be a coke."
Vansen looked up from shuffling the deck as Damphousse sat down.
"You didn't see then?"
"That British Major over there, talking to McQueen."
"What about her?"
Well, she just, kinda, came up and ...........er............hugged him."
Four pairs of eyes fixed on Damphousse.
"She did what?"
"You heard me"
"And I missed it." Wang's forehead hit the table top. ".......Damn!"
Five heads turned towards the bar.
Out of the corner of her eye, Zygramski noticed the reaction she was getting. She smiled and returned her attention to McQueen.
".........So, you're still flying those things, Boomer?"
"Those things?" She was incredulous. "The Tiger Moth is the best plane in any body's military. Makes a hammerhead feel like steering a whale through treacle....................besides, they look really snappy!"
"Ah.........I hadn't realised you got points for artistic impression."
"But of course. Anyway, how are the 58th coming along? I hear only good things."
"They have a way to go yet, but I'd say they have the potential to be as good, if not better, than the 127th."
"High praise indeed. But, I suppose the real question is, will they ever be as good as the 32nd."
McQueen raised an eyebrow. This was an old argument which could never be resolved.
After the AI wars, their two squadrons had flown together in Guatemala, in the UN's euphemistically termed "peace keeping force". A friendly rivalry between the two nations elite had been inevitable. The two squadrons would sit in the bar for hours, drinking ungodly amounts of beer, digging at each other and, only occasionally, resorting to violence. At least, the other pilots did. McQueen and Zygramski would find themselves a quiet table, in the corner, and discuss politics, music, tactics, and the art of making a good cup of tea.
Hawkes found he couldn't concentrate on his cards, which, oddly enough, seemed to be helping. His attention would drift to a point, just above West's shoulder, where he could see the two senior officers talking at the bar.
She wasn't particularly pretty, and a scar on her forehead, obvious even at a distance, didn't help, but there was something about her that he couldn't put his finger on. She was tall, slim, with short, dark hair. She wore a uniform he didn't recognise, but Shane had assured him that it was a flight suit from the Royal Marines, a black one, rather like the Colonel's. And she was British, this intrigued him. The only other British person he'd ever met had appeared to be quite mad. At the time, he had wondered if that was, in fact, normal behaviour, and considering what Damphousse had just told them, he was beginning to think it was.
"You playing or what?" West scowled at him.
"Oh.........yeah, I raise two."
"Well I'm out." West looked disgustedly at the small pile of chips in front of him, and the significantly larger pile in front of Hawkes. What the hell was going on?
Hawkes was looking over his shoulder again. What was it with him? He had that goofy expression he wore, when you could actually see his brain ticking over.........very, very slowly. He'd obviously never seen two people talking at a bar before.
West stopped himself. He had to admit that his irritation was only partly due to Hawkes' inattention. It was mostly due to the fact that he was sitting with his back to the bar, and, however much he wanted to, he didn't think craning his neck to stare at his CO was such a good idea.
But then something happened that over-rode any previous thoughts of maintaining an air of decorum. A familiar, but still slightly odd sound behind him.
He saw the other pilots look up, wide eyed. Hawkes was grinning. The others looked about as surprised as he had felt the first time he'd heard it.
McQueen had laughed.
Five pilots stared at the pile of chips in the centre of the table. This wasn't the wry smile he occasionally wore, or the relieved expression, when they returned, safe, from a mission. This was laughing............out loud.........in public
Vansen realised they hadn't been the only ones to notice. Only the 32nd seemed unconcerned, talking quietly over their drinks. There were only four other people in the Tun, pilots from the 62nd, playing pool. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Pauwlins, cue in hand, motionless over the shot.
Her CO shifted on his stool. The Major, head resting on the bar, back shaking, seemed to be enjoying herself immensely.
And then things returned to normal as a group of Navy boys walked, noisily, through the swing doors.
The 58th stared at each other. A competition seemed to have broken out......who could keep a straight face the longest. Hawkes lost, and collapsed quietly into his beer. Wang quickly followed him.
"We've got to go for the triple tonight." Wang grinned. "We should try to get him to buy us a round later."
"Does your presence at the bar usually cause such a stir?"
McQueen regarded the mock innocence on her face and realised scowling just wasn't going to work. He smiled into his scotch instead. He couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed out loud like that at a joke. Well, maybe he could, it was over two years ago. The last time he'd sat and talked with Zygramski. She always had that effect on him. He'd try to dissuade her from teasing him like that, with stern looks, but he knew neither of them were buying it. Despite all his intentions to the contrary, he'd find himself laughing. And she was right, he did take himself too seriously sometimes. It had just been a long time since he'd heard that particular story.
Normally, being reminded of a night he couldn't remember would have irritated him. But he had to admit that the sight of him, paralitically drunk, trying to relate the details of his latest fur ball, must have been somewhat amusing. And she did do a very good impression of him, at twenty nine, worse the wear for drink. She'd even knocked over her coke, in a dramatic representation of his lack of coordination.
Smiling, he bought her another one.
"Anyway, Jack says 'hello' , and he was wondering when he might be seeing you again."
"Well, the Saratoga will be due for planet leave if we make it through Roundhammer, so I guess I might drop by."
McQueen saw Hawkes step up to the bar right beside Zygramski. He was trying to look nonchalant, but the fact that he'd chosen that particular spot to stand, at an otherwise empty bar, made his attempts laughable.
He was fidgeting when the Major looked over her shoulder.
"You going to introduce us, or what?"
"This is Lieutenant Hawkes.........."
"Hawkes." The hand shot out again, startling the young man. "J. Attica Zygramski." She smiled. "I've heard a lot about you."
Hawkes didn't really know what to say.
"So, you winning?"
"Just consider yourself our tank ambassador to gambling. Go win one for the nipple necks."
Despite the initial shock those two words caused him, Hawkes found himself grinning."
"I'll do my best." he said, and turned to walk back to the table.
McQueen realised the young man had forgotten to buy his beer. Obviously she didn't have a disarming effect on him alone........
As Hawkes sat down, he realised the conversation had taken a new track.
"..........I'm picturing hot and steamy......."
"Paul!" Vansen looked appalled at the concept.
"Don't tell me you ain't thinking the same thing."
"Good grief." She shook her head.
"Do you really think she's his type?" West asked.
"Well he obviously has a penchant for Majors......."
Hawkes found the conversation vaguely irritating. Why did they all assume their CO had no personal life? Why did they find the recent appearance of two old friends so startling?
He knew that, of all the 58th, he knew most about Lieutenant Colonel T.C. McQueen, Although, even he didn't know what 'Ty' was short for, and, to be honest, he didn't really know all that much.........none of them did.
One night, Wang had got drunk, and challenged them to name one thing they knew about McQueen, before he had joined the 58th. It had been a very short game. Hawkes had claimed he didn't know anything, though he suspected they knew he was lying.
He didn't really understand the Colonel. He would think he was working him out, and then he'd say, or do, something that made him re-evaluate all his assumptions. The Kazbek mission had been one such example. Just when he'd started to think that McQueen was probably just plain stupid for fighting their wars for them, he'd come up with the best reason Hawkes could think of for doing so. Then he'd clammed up, and he hadn't said a word on the subject since.
And there was the time he'd finally plucked up the courage to visit his CO's quarters. McQueen had told him that if he ever had a problem, he'd much rather he talk to him about it, than to later find West with fewer than the standard compliment of teeth.
Hawkes had finally taken him up on the offer after three sleepless nights.
McQueen had sat and listened to him recount the dream he'd had.
He opened his eyes to find himself in a tank, engulfed in liquid, unable to breathe. He'd try to scream, try to get out, but it was sealed. All around him, in their own tanks, others struggled silently, beating on the glass. Then, he'd turn, to see a lone individual standing, hands on hips, watching...............and smiling.
As he talked he caught a strange look in McQueen's eyes before his guard was up again. But just then he'd noticed the picture on McQueen's desk. It looked out of place in his Spartan quarters. McQueen, in dress blues, with a pretty woman on his arm, holding flowers.
"Who's that." He'd blurted out, and immediately wished he hadn't.
McQueen looked up and replied in a straight forward manner. From the look his CO shot him, he had realised that he'd not been able to hide the shock as well as he would have liked.
"So, you going to introduce me to the rest of your squadron?"
"Do you think that would be wise?"
"Probably not........................anyway, I have to be going." She downed her drink and stood.
"See you around T.C."
He looked up and offered her his hand.
"Make it back, Attica."
"I always do."
That had been three weeks ago. McQueen had watched her walk out of the bar, he'd finished his drink, and left.
He had immediately gone to find Ross.
"I don't suppose you can tell me where they're going, or when they'll be back?"
Ross shook his head.
"Compartmentalised and classified, Ty."
"But, what's it got to do with the Saratoga?"
Ross sighed, he hated this part of the job. He looked at his friend, knowing he really shouldn't say anything.
"Don't hold your breath" was all he had eventually said.
Ross walked away, leaving McQueen to wonder just how long he'd have to wait. It was nothing new. All he seemed to be doing these days was waiting for the return of people he cared too much about.
Back in his quarters he'd sat, thinking about the first time.
He'd known Zygramski for thirteen years. Near the end of 2050 AI activity had died down in North America, only to surface two months later in Europe. He had found himself part of a massive relief force flying to a country he'd barely even heard of, and in March of 2051, he'd been stationed at an RAF base in northern England. Here he didn't stack explosives in bunkers, he stacked them in aircraft hangers, in bombers, and in fighters.
It had been the first time he'd seen a plane up close. He'd watched them flying over Port Riskin and wondered what it felt like to be that free. Now, he realised, he wanted to find out. But he was a tank, and tanks didn't fly. They stacked explosives, were sent out on suicide missions, or used as cannon fodder. That was life...........his life anyway.
Attached to the base was an In Vitro facility, designed specifically to produce tanks to perform the latter two tasks. In the Spring of 2051, McQueen had found himself sheltering from the rain just inside one of the hanger bays, on his way off duty. Alone, he'd stood and watched the constant drizzle, which was starting to grate on his nerves. It seemed like he'd been soaking wet since he'd arrived, and he wondered if it would ever stop, if England actually had a summer.
Suddenly someone barrelled into him out of the darkness. She immediately sprang back, a nervous look on her face.
"Oh, that's OK."
Looking up her expression changed.
"Ah, you're a Yank-tank."
McQueen noticed the IVA symbol on her fatigues. He thought he caught a slight look of confused desperation in her eyes, before it was deliberately hidden. She was so young.
"I'm J. Attica Zygramski."
"Great name, huh? Our head monitor had a hell of a sense of humour....... what's yours?"
"Tyrus Cassius McQueen."
"I guess yours had too."
They'd talked for a while. She was three days out of the facility, and a member of one of the five tank platoons made up of the In Vitroes from her batch.
McQueen had been surprised that he'd stayed. He'd never been particularly talkative, and since his spell in solitary he'd hardly said a word to anyone. But he sensed that, right now, she needed to talk far more than he needed to walk away. So, he'd stayed in the hanger and listened to her talk, almost without taking breath, for fifteen minutes. And then the rain had stopped.
"Well, I'm shipping out tomorrow, so I guess I'll see you around."
McQueen nodded, suddenly unable to look at her.
"You don't think I'm coming back, do you?"
He didn't know what to say, so few of them did.
"I promise you I will, and when you see me again, you can call me Boomerang."
With that she had smiled that strange smile that McQueen had come to know all too well, and then she was gone.
Later that day McQueen had wandered down to the hanger bays. There he had noticed that the 32nd's Tiger Moths were still on board, but there was no one he could ask about it, so he'd tried to put it out of his mind.
Now he found himself sitting at the bar again, nursing a scotch. Tomorrow they were due to rendezvous, at Gamma Tarrus, with the H.M.S. Wakefield, Zygramski's ship, and one of only three super carriers in the British fleet.
Tomorrow, maybe, he'd find out if she'd made it back just one more time.
Colonel Sanderson stepped off the transport and made his way through the ship.
The 32nd had got back six hours ago, and the Wakefield was due to leave for the Von Braun Line immediately his business here was concluded. He hadn't seen Earth since the start of the war, and there seemed little hope of seeing her again, at least in the near future. The Colonel pushed his thoughts aside as he entered the commodore's office.
Ross looked up.
Colonel Sanderson snapped to attention and then placed a briefcase on the table. Silently he unlocked it from his wrist and gave it to the commodore.
"The mission was a success?"
"Yes sir. Unless there's another mine we don't know about, there won't be any more Chiggy Von Richtofens."
Ross nodded. He didn't need to open the case, he knew what was inside.......what should be the last remaining sample of Sewell fuel, anywhere. Their hope in the coming months.
"Did you all get back?"
"All but two, sir."
Ross paused. He didn't know Sanderson well enough to press him further. In fact, he knew him only by reputation. He had one of the best records of any officer during the AI wars, he was the CO of one of the best fighting units in the UN's forces, and he was a by-the-book, old school, military man. Still, McQueen was going to want to know.
Suddenly alarms rang out on all decks.
"Colonel, you'd better accompany me to the bridge."
Paul was running like the wind. Rounding the corner, he almost hit someone coming the other way. He span and ran on. He could hardly feel his feet touch the ground as he sped through the school gates and up the steps. Slamming through the doors he heard the bell.
But the bell didn't stop.
He woke up with a start, swung his legs out of bed, sat up, and was almost crushed as West leapt off the top bunk.
"Watch it!" Paul rubbed his leg, staring about him.
Orderly pandemonium had broken out in the 58th's quarters. They were off duty, so they weren't due to fly in the first wave of fighters to leave the ship, but that gave them only a precious few minutes more to get to the hanger bays.
Flight suits were being hurriedly zipped up, helmets taken from lockers, boots laced.
In a short time the first of the pilots were heading out of the door. This was not the first time the alarms had woken them, after all. And then there were the surprise drills Colonel McQueen liked to pull at four in the morning. There wasn't a nicer way to wake up than having your CO yelling in your face.
"OK people..........get the hell up! Hanger bays, now. Full flight kit .......move...............MOVE!"
Paul grabbed his helmet and raced out of the room.
McQueen was already on the bridge when Ross arrived, which confirmed his suspicions that he would have had a visit from the Colonel as soon as Sanderson had left.
"One hive ship and accompanying fighters, sir. Our squadrons are scrambling and the Wakefield is moving to engage."
"Thank you, Colonel."
Ross stepped to the centre of the bridge and surveyed the situation. It wasn't good. The ships would soon be in firing range, and even two super carriers would have their work cut out for them taking on a hive ship.
"63rd squadron ready for take off." A voice crackled over the intercom.
"Roger that, you are number one on deck."
The Lieutenant continued to count off the squadrons as McQueen studied the screens, ready to link in with them once they'd cleared the hanger bays. He'd noticed Colonel Sanderson come on the bridge and take up a position next to Ross. So, the 32nd were back and scrambling from the Wakefield. It must be hard on him, caught on the Saratoga without his Tiger Moth, unable to lead his squadron.....
"Copy that, Blackhawk, move into position. Call this one in the air."
McQueen couldn't hear the response in Sanderson's headset, but he didn't need to. 'Blackhawk', that was Zygramski. So, at least for the moment, she was alive.
"58th squadron, ready for take off." Vansen's voice came through his head set.
Ross noticed McQueen look at his watch, before he turned back to the screens showing the ships' positions.
"Time till we're in firing range, Mr. Harper?"
"Twenty five seconds, sir."
"Prepare to fire on my command....Mr. Jennings, where's that link to the Wakefield."
"Patching you through, sir."
"H.M.S. Wakefield, this is the Saratoga, stand by for message transmission."
"Red Eagle, this is Blackhawk, we are clear of the Wakefield."
"Copy that, Blackhawk, move into position. Call this one in the air."
"Roger that, out. 32nd, move into Tigereye formation on my mark............mark."
They swung in behind her. Zygramski was relieved the Colonel had left this one up to her. Maybe they didn't get along personally, but at least she knew he respected her abilities in the field.
The squadron rounded the planet the two carriers had been orbiting and saw with their eyes what the LIDAR had been telling them. A hive ship. It seemed impossibly large, disturbingly alien.
She couldn't help but think of the last time she'd flown up against one of these things. The first battle of the war, and one of the most disastrous in human history. Sure, they'd driven them off in the end, but at a terrible cost.
The 32nd had faired better than most, only two losses. But this was only partly due to the skill of the pilots. Much of it was dumb luck. That, and the new LIDAR system they'd been using.
The vast majority of the fighters were American and unfortunately, when the war broke out, the EEC was still in negotiations with the US over selling them the new technology. Half of their planes were blown out of the sky before they knew what hit them, the other half couldn't lock their weapons on the enemy ships. The losses had been horrendous. Near the end the 32nd and the last three remaining pilots of the 127th had joined forces. McQueen had been right behind her when his hammerhead was hit. Moments later it exploded. It had been three days later that she'd found out he'd ejected in time.
"Engaging in five." Focusing on only one thing her mind relaxed, and with a slight smile on her lips, she tore through the enemy lines.
"58th squadron ready for take off." Vansen could feel her heart rate rising, adrenalin pumping, as her cockpit was lowered and locked in. Moments later she was pulling away from the Saratoga, McQueen's voice on her head set.
"Roger that Queen Six."
The Wildcards sped towards the battle already raging ahead. Holding formation, she could see targets appearing on the LIDAR.
"OK, Wildcards. Let's make it happen..........going in..........."
When the hive ship erupted from the inside out it took the 39rd and 72nd with it. The last of the remaining Chig fighters were being chased down and picked off. At last, the screens was clear.
Damphousse was breathing hard. Mental and physical energy drained. As she turned back toward the Saratoga she could see the Wakefield falling towards the planet below, ISSCV's and escape pods emerging from her broken hull. And then the carrier hit the atmosphere........but she couldn't look away.
Zygramski sat silently in her cockpit as it was cranked up into the hanger bay. There was a click as the Tiger Moth fitted uncomfortably into the casing and she pushed the hatch release. Colonel Sanderson was there, talking to her. He looked pale and tired.
"Are you alright?"
She nodded as he turned and left.
"Colonel McQueen, I'll be in my office if you need me."
McQueen stood on the bridge, damage reports coming in over the intercom. The Saratoga was in bad shape. Weapons and propulsion systems had been badly hit by the final shots of the enemy ship. With the last of the transport from the Wakefield on board, the 'Sara was limping away from Gamma Tarrus. He could only hope there would be no more enemy activity where they were going.
The image of the carrier breaking up, erupting in crimson flames, was still crystal clear in his mind. Horrific but fascinating. Devastating but beautiful. He knew Zygramski was on board. He knew she'd be checking her plane, running through maintenance routines, planning her debrief report. Anything to stop herself from thinking about what he'd just seen.
"You must have been tracked."
"I would have sworn that we weren't sir, but, it does seem to be too much of a coincidence. We haven't heard of a hive ship this far inside our territory for months, and then one shows up six hours after we return. They must have known."
"And you were sure you were undetected on Kazbek?"
"We would never have made it back across the Line if we had been."
Ross looked at the black case still lying on his desk. He couldn't help but wonder how the 32nd managed to get across the Von Braun Line undetected, in the first place.
All he knew was that they'd left in an ISSCV that had arrived on board only three hours prior to their departure. They had left their Tiger Moths on the Saratoga. Three days later, the 67th Royal Marine squadron had arrived in an ISSCV and left in the Tigers. He didn't know what the 32nd had returned in and probably never would, but since Aerotech was tied up with this somehow, it bothered him.
Why had the 32nd been chosen for this mission? Why not the 58th, who had been there before? Which brought him to a question that had been nagging at him about that mission. How did Aerotech know the Sewell Fuel existed? The 58th hadn't brought the sample back, so someone from the SAR team must have. But how did they know what they were looking for?
"I've informed Aerotech of our situation, Colonel, we should be hearing from them soon. Considering the circumstances, I imagine there could be a change of plans."
Hawkes looked around the Operations Room. They'd been back on board less than two hours when they'd been called to the briefing. Barely enough time to draw breath. He'd hauled himself off his bunk, pulled on a fresh flight suit and dragged himself out of the 58th's quarters. His legs hurt and he could feel the beginning of a headache coming on.
On the other side of the room the 32nd Royal Marine squadron sat, talking quietly. He recognised the woman McQueen had had a drink with in the bar. She was reading something, he couldn't see what. McQueen was standing by the mission charts occasionally glancing her way. He looked agitated about something. Perhaps it was because the Major appeared to be ignoring him?
Hawkes stood at attention as Commodore Ross and a man he didn't recognise walked into the room.
Ross stood in front of the pilots. He looked around the room, his expression familiarly intense.
"5-8, this is Colonel Sanderson of the 32nd Royal Marine squadron. He will be CO of this mission. The 32nd and 58th will fly escort to an ISSCV. Only the Colonel knows the destination co-ordinates which have been entered into your flight computers where they can be accessed, by password, in the event of Colonel Sanderson's death. It is vital that the ISSCV makes the rendezvous. It must, under no circumstances, fall into enemy hands. If possible, you are to avoid engaging the enemy at all. Colonel."
"This is one of the most important missions of this war. It is imperative that it succeeds. I need you all alert and ready. Be on the flight deck at 09:50. The time is presently 09:30.....ready....ready.... hack."
Ross stepped forward
"Colonel McQueen remain here. 32nd, 58th...dismissed."
Commodore Ross turned to face McQueen as Sanderson put the black case on the table.
"Colonel, you'll be taking this with you. Only myself and your contact at the other end, have the combination. This is what is so important, McQueen." Ross smiled slightly. "Don't loose it."
Ross held out the wrist lock as McQueen extended his arm.
"I don't suppose you're going to tell me what's in here?"
"Compartmentalised and classified, Colonel."
It didn't matter. McQueen had a disturbing feeling that he knew what was inside. Remembering what had happened to the last person he'd seen carrying a case like this didn't do anything to reassure him about this mission. He presumed Aerotech was involved somehow....what a charming thought.
"Will that be all, sir?"
Ross nodded. "Report to loading bay five."
McQueen and Sanderson left the 'O' Room leaving Ross wondering what else could go wrong. He had a bad feeling about this. It was not every day a hive ship showed up out of nowhere. It was not every day you saw ten thousand people die as a carrier went down, or sent a friend on a mission with none of the facts and a bomb strapped to his wrist. Ross sighed and headed back to the bridge.
They were twelve hours out when the LIDAR picked up enemy fighters moving their way.
"58th, stay with the ISSCV, Blackhawk, White Owl, perimeter." Colonel Sanderson took off with the rest of the 32nd.
Fourteen klicks out they encountered five squadrons of Chigs.
"White Owl, this is Blackhawk, I have two squadrons coming this way. Assist. Wildcards, move in behind her. ISSCV, head for Aldus One, if necessary get down in the atmosphere, last I heard it wasn't hot."
Zygramski checked her systems as the other pilots pulled into formation. The enemy was closing fast. They were in the middle of a fur ball before they knew it.
"I got one on my six!"
"I'm there Hawkes." Vansen smiled as the fighter exploded around her.
"West, you're with me." Zygramski swung round to head off three Chigs attempting to intercept the ISSCV.
West fired his missiles, taking out the first two, Zygramski got the third. But, no sooner had they erupted into flames she had two more on her tail. They fired. She dodged the missiles, but realised they had homed in on another target.
"West, get rid of these two bastards for me."
Zygramski headed after the missiles as they arced towards the ISSCV. She knocked one of them out of the sky with the last of her missiles, but missed the second. It was a glancing blow, but enough to knock out one of the ISSCV's engines. Looking around, she realised, with relief, that West had dispatched the other two Chigs. McQueen had been right, he was good, she thought as three more hurtled towards the ISSCV, closely followed by two hammerheads.
"I got 'em, 'Phousse, watch my six." Hawkes could see Wang and Vansen coming in on his three o'clock. These were the last three. He fired and they exploded into flames, but not before one of them got a shot off. Helpless, he saw it hit the already listing ISSCV and send it spinning down towards Aldus One. He saw it flatten out, so the pilot had some control, but not enough to pull up. And then it disappeared into the clouds.
"Red Eagle, this is Blackhawk. ISSCV in the drink, wasps destroyed, advise."
Vansen heard the response, but either this was how all British pilots talked, or Colonel Sanderson was being purposefully cryptic.
"Blackhawk, we have four more squadrons converging. We'll hold them off while you SAR. Mission is status "ONE". Case must reach Dover. If wasps retrieve, Belgrano. C and C. Out."
"Wildcards follow me down. Where's White Owl?"
"I had to eject. I've radioed our position to the Saratoga, they'll be here as soon as they can make it. They estimate about thirty six hours."
Zygramski paused. Chan would be dead by then if they couldn't get a grapple on her cockpit. "White Owl, stay in contact with Red Eagle. They'll be with you when they're through." She knew she had to find the ISSCV and, in all honesty, there wasn't a lot she could do anyway.
"Let's hit it, Wildcards."
They picked up the ISSCV on the LIDAR but no sign of enemy activity, and put down two point four klicks WSW. The APC had crashed on ground too rugged even for the Tiger Moth to land. A plume of smoke could be seen over the trees as the pilots jumped from their planes. Zygramski's orders were only to retrieve the case. She just hoped that didn't involve cutting it off which ever poor bastard was attached to it.
"Wang, you got a small grenade launcher stowed."
"Bring it with you, and get your planes covered....quickly!" She saw the rest of the 'Cards glance at Vansen who moved immediately to get her camouflage net. They followed her lead. Zygramski smiled as she unfolded her net. McQueen had only mentioned Vansen's name once in a long letter he'd sent her in December. All he'd said was that she was a leader, he was right. No squadron likes a commander they don't know. The one thing on her side was that they knew she was a friend of McQueen's. They'd probably follow her simply in the hope of picking up some gossip. Still, Vansen's easy acceptance of her authority was an added bonus. She knew enough to show her Lieutenants that she trusted her new CO. She was good.
They were half way to the ISSCV when enemy planes sent them diving for cover. But they didn't fire and Vansen realised they'd been lucky, they hadn't seen them. But knowing the Chigs superior capabilities for landing on rough terrain she knew they'd have to pick up the pace.
"Hawkes, drop back. I'll take point." Zygramski gave Vansen a sealed envelope and ploughed through the undergrowth. She sped passed Hawkes at break neck speed, the rest of them followed.
Wang remembered what she'd said about this place before they'd left. The Chigs had held it for six months. Then, Earth Forces had taken it back but found it heavily minded. Since then, there'd been little activity. How the hell she expected not to get them all blown to kingdom come, he didn't know. He gritted his teeth as he watched her, twenty yards ahead, half expecting to see her flying in several directions at any time.
Suddenly she came to a standstill, fist raised. They froze. She gave the signal for a trip wire, stepped carefully over it, and took off again.
"How the hell d'she see that?"
"Shut up Wang. Let's move!"
The vegetation was thinning out as they headed up a sandy incline. Again the Major stopped and knelt. They did the same until she signaled for them to join her.
"Mine field. You see those raised lumps?" She saw them frown. "Well, just step where I step, OK. Keep ten meters apart. We need to get into that cover over there as quickly as possible, but don't rush. Believe me, you do not want to fall over right now."
With that, she started to pick her way through the mine field.
As Damphousse followed her tortuous path she tried to see what they were avoiding. She didn't see any raised lumps and hoped the Major knew what she was doing, because there was no way she was getting out of here on her own. She was also learning, very quickly, not to underestimate her new CO. It was hard to reconcile this marine with the woman she'd met at the bar. Still, she suspected McQueen didn't tolerate fools, either as soldiers or as friends.
She saw Zygramski halt inside the cover they were making for and give the signal for clear ground. Hawkes followed her in, then West, then Wang. Vanessa's heart rate was dangerously high and her legs shook as she placed her feet in the tracks. It was worse now she was so close to safety. Only four more steps. Behind her, she could hear Vansen's shallow breaths. Don't rush it, she told herself, you're almost there. And then she was in the undergrowth, breathing hard, watching Vansen and realising that that was worse. Watching Shane move so slowly, so labouriously, eyes fixed to the ground, expecting to see her loose her step. And then they heard it. The characteristic sound of Chig fighters.
"Go for it Vansen!" Hawkes yelled.
Vansen looked up, almost loosing her balance, caught in the open. After a second, she bolted over the last four yards and dove head long into the bushes as the planes flew over.
Zygramski made a mental mote to talk to Hawkes about shouting at someone when they are standing in the middle of a mine field.
"Are you OK?"
Vansen nodded as she brushed herself off.
"Damphousse, how far to go?"
"Point four klicks."
"OK. It appears they don't know we're here. I want to keep it that way. Stay close and in cover, if you can. It's thinning out, which isn't good. Right now we need stealth, not speed. I'm guessing the ISSCV's over that rise there."