An invisible line was crossed and the carriers in the Imperial Fleet began releasing their warbirds, with powerful magnetic accelerators shooting them out of specially designed launch tubes with enough momentum to stay ahead. Squadrons formed up and assumed formation behind wing-leaders, as previously deployed EW shuttles joined them. Group commanders aboard specialized command fighters would provide direction for the dozens of fighters in their authority, trying to insure that no one avenue of approach was overlooked or concentrated too heavily upon. But outnumbered four to one, the Empire’s fighters had only one real role to perform; they had to kill as many enemy strikefighters as humanly possible.
Jagdeschweder 1/3 of the 318th Naval Fighter Group, based on HIRMS Albatros, was typical of the forces soon to hurl themselves against the Ssi Rissan horde. The highly-trained pilots of the squadron were equipped with a dozen top-of-the-line Daimler-Suiza Falke interceptors, each boasting an anti-matter reactor and advanced gravity drive with superior inertial compensators allowing them to accelerate at over 2900 gees. Each interceptor also carried six long-range anti-fighter missiles on external mounts, and a dozen short-range missiles in an internal bay, and possessed an integral nose-mounted laser useful for attack runs as well as providing a last-ditch dogfight weapon once the missiles were exhausted. The Imperial pilots lacked the DNI of their Ssi Rissan opponents, but had a multi-target and vector computer system that kept track of all potential opponents in engagement range and ranked them by threat priority.
“So, everyone remember to kill four Cats and we can go home heroes.” The squadron tactical net squawked, and Leutnant Birgit Ramier recognized the voice of the unit’s jokester. She found Grassi far less engaging than most of the squadron, but then he wasn’t trying to get into their pants.
Fortunately, their Squadron Leader found him as tiring as she did. “Shut up, Leutnant, and keep the lines clear for orders,” Kapitan Woeder rebuked. “We’re all professionals, act like it.” With that, their commander shut off the commlink and no one else dared to restore it.
Birgit concentrated on her HUD display, which was providing the vector information for the squadron relayed from the 318th Group command ship. Their squadron was the leading edge for their wing, which would be positioned as a reserve element just behind the other three wings of the group. The group itself would be boosting at full military power right into the onrushing Ssi Rissan strike, with a synchronized release of their long range missiles, salvoed one after the other, within twelve light-seconds of the enemy. Their short-range missiles would be used at tactical distance, under five light-seconds and closing, where the entire formation would as likely as not break up into a giant furball designed to kill or tie up as many Ssi Rissan strikefighters as possible.
The maneuvers into position were just like the hundreds of training exercises, and when the order came to accelerate to full power she complied by unthinking instinct. The Imperial Naval Aviation Command was known for ceaseless drilling, designed to insure that pilots knew the operations of their fighters and the maneuvers of their commands by rote. For all the glamour of the “Knights of the Void” they were strikingly fragile in combat, and safety rested on the heightened situation awareness that flowed from no longer having to think consciously about the most routine elements of flying.
The holographic display generated inside her cockpit showed her fighter in the midst of a vast swarm of familiar Imperial fighters. Transit gave her time to reflect on what would be her first combat sortie. Like most Imperial fighter pilots, she came from a solid burgher family yearning for the greater respectability of a purchased title and an officer among their sons. They would be of mixed emotions, if they knew what she were doing now; they had despaired when she had decided to join the military, but had provided the money to enroll her in a good college that let her get into the Naval Fighter corps. The few women who volunteered into the common military usually wound up in the fighter corps for a variety of reasons, and while the most comfortable fit for female (and middle-class) officers, the attrition rates were ugly.
So why was she here? At one point it had seemed so obvious, so natural. She was going to be independent, be something more than a well-educated wife for some prosperous burgher. But she could feel the adrenaline coursing through her veins as anticipation of the fight ahead built, and embraced the killer instinct it augured. She smiled grimly when recalling Grassi’s earlier comment; she meant to down at least five, and claim the title of ace. Lucky there would be so many targets...
The range closed, agonizingly slow to Birgit but now merely a matter of few minutes. Her HUD was filled with targets, but she forbore from marking out hers until after the wing was committed from reserve. Ten seconds later, the leading wave of the Imperial strike reached the outer range of twelve light-seconds, where the pilots ahead of her wing fired off their long-range missiles one after the other, two per enemy strikefighter to insure the broadest sweep of targets. At that range, against the Ssi Rissan ECM and superior maneuverability, they were pretty much relying on the odds to deliver them hits.
Group command finally vectored them onto a new course, slightly above the rest of the 318th on the Z axis, and gave release to fire. Birgit rapidly selected three targets via her HUD, even as other targets went grey as the squadron datalink indicated that other pilots had chosen them. Having selected, there was little else to do; Kapitan Woeder would release the long range engagement, and then...
Her missiles were off! They joined a general wave of long-range missiles heading towards the Ssi Rissan strikefighters, who were already beginning radical maneuvers to force the Imperial missiles to waste more of their limited burn-time. She watched, trying to track her own strike, hoping all three were kills but expecting to be lucky if only one were hit. The Ssi Rissan had no equivalent long-range weapon and so there was little else to do as the range closed, down to the fateful five light-second mark that would bring short-range missiles in play. The toll then would be terrible, and as the range closed even further she would be free to maneuver and engage at will with the deadly laser cannon of her fighter. If she was going to make a mark in the battle, it would happen then.
Thousands of Khanate strikefighters blinked out of existence as the first salvo of Imperial missile fire reached them,, and Birgit shouted in triumph as two of her targets disappeared from the screen. Most of the Imperial pilots were far less lucky, and though over twenty-thousand Khanate fighters were blasted to pieces the odds against them remained heavily stacked. And as the line closed further, she could finally feel a soreness in her throat as bile started to work its way up, and her heart constricted and pumped and her hands felt clammy inside her pilot suit...
And then, suddenly, they were all within the short range and she began selecting targets with her HUD again. The squadron would fire off another salvo of six missiles ahead of it, and then break into dogfighting elements. Grassi, unfortunately, was her wingman and would be behind her in the breakout, but not everything could be perfect. Just before the last release from the squadron, she contacted him directly. “I’m breaking left at ten o’clock on a vector through the swarm. Follow and cover me.”
“Ah, signora, I’ll cover you any...” Fortunately, his pickup line was cut off by the release of the missiles, and a directive from wing command releasing them all.
“Happy Hunting, JS one-three,” Woeder chimed in again. “And last one to make ace buys the drinks next time we’re in port!”
At the ranges they had closed to lasers were deadly effective, as the laser would arrive almost immediately after being fired. Imperial fighters had only minimal shielding and any time at all in the firing arc of another warbird would deplete its defensive capabilities. Khanate strikefighters had slightly less powerful shields but had better acceleration since the Cats could withstand some bleed-in gee effects better than humans, and their laser cannons were nearly twice as powerful. That made them deadly in a furball, even if they lacked the long-range punch of Imperial interceptors.
And the skies were full of Ssi Rissan.
Birgit jerked her fighter hard-left to get out of the cone of fire for one onrushing enemy fighter, and rotated her front facing upward to slash into the belly of another Khanate target. She squeezed the trigger on her laser cannon, not really firing the device so much as releasing the targeting computer to fire once the target was within the forward arc. Invisible death tracked across the skies, cutting into the shields of the Ssi Rissan strikefighter and in a matter of seconds depleting them. After the shields were depleted it sliced through the body of the craft, causing a rather satisfying explosion.
“Three down, two to go,” she counted off. Of course, she hadn’t been able to track what her short range salvo had accomplished, but the computer had and it might add to her score after she returned home. But she was going to be conservative for the time being.
“Bogies on my ten, help!” Grassi called her in alarm. Most of the Khanate fighters were ignoring the toll being taken on them by the Imperial interceptors, but it seemed like a few Cats were still willing to play.
Ramier checked her scope, and located Grassi behind and below her with a pair of enemy fighters coming in on him. She rotated the fighter again, now with her engines towards the onrushing Cat fighters, to try and get a shot off at Grassi’s pursuers without losing her own momentum. The Khanate pilots weren’t maneuvering as violently as they could, for the same reason; their main task was to harm the fleet however possible, not to tangle with the Imperial fighter forces. It was an easy task to line her fighter’s nose up on one, and at less than two light seconds, the targeting computer would automatically adjust for where the fighter should be...
She toasted one. “That’s four, Paolo. And you damned well owe...” Even as she was taunting him, Grassi had rotated to face the other Khanate fighter, but he was too late. The enemy’s reflexes were better, and his weapon more powerful. Grassi was flamed out of the sky as she watched on, shocked. And then the Ssi Rissan pilot turned back to concentrate on the enemy strike package, and momentum carried him out of her engagement range before she could react.
And the rest of the enemy strike was already clearing out. She tried to engage a few stragglers, but she had to cut her own momentum to chase after them rather than continue to drift out towards the orbit of the Khanate homeworld. Squadron lead called the remaining fighters to rally at a point within the broader sweep of space assigned to their wing. When Birgit maneuvered her way there, she found only seven other fighters left. They’d lost a quarter of their pilots in the brief melee.
“Alright, good job 1/3.” Kapitan Woeder sounded almost relieved, as though he were shedding the stress of the battle then and there. “Once the Khanate fighters come back from their strike we’ll have another go at them. The fleet should be on their orbital bases before they have time to return and rearm for another strike, so let’s make the next pass count.”
There was little enough to do know but let their momentum build up again, though carefully. The fighters would not want to get into the line of fire of the Imperial warships as they engaged the enemy strike. The level of firepower being thrown at the Khanate fighters was custom made to deliver tragic identification errors no matter how good their IFF gear was. For her part, Birgit was eager to have another go and found herself impatient with the wait.
And then Woeder exploded over the squadron commlink. “God gloeiend godverdomme!” He had even slipped out of the standard German of the common military, but Birgit could figure out the jist of the expletive. “The fucking Cats aren’t coming back, they’re launching suicide attacks! Every last one of them! We’re going in at full military power, damn the friendly fire!”
A lump formed in her throat, but she obeyed automatically. The squadron, the wing, the group, and all of the fighters strained up to 1900 gees of acceleration right back towards the cauldron of fire that had enveloped their fleet. She didn’t know if they would arrive in time to matter, but the situation was desperate. There would be tens of thousands of guided missiles bearing down on the Imperial fleet, in addition to the heavy loads of anti-ship munitions carried by the Khanate strikefighters.
She prayed, for the first time in a long while, as they headed into the holocaust.
As they approached the fleet they could see evidence of the massive holes torn into the Khanate strike force by the waves of long-range anti-fighter missiles launched by 8,000 Imperial warships. The globe that had marked the Khanate formation before had collapsed into chaos, with Ssi Rissan fighters taking off on their own vectors and seemingly choosing targets at random. They seemed to be heading towards the first ships in sight, and the lighter flotillas acting as screens for the wall of battle were being savaged.
“Clear those bastards off the Hydre!” Woeder ordered. The French light cruiser was being swarmed by nearly twenty of their strikefighters and had been battered heavily by their anti-ship missiles, with several Khanate pilots already lining up on torpedo runs. She lined up on one and poured engine power into emergency acceleration boost, and strained against the heavy gee bleed-in as the figher reached 2980 gees of acceleration. She slammed down on the trigger of her laser cannon well before she had fully put the target in her line of sight, there was no point wasting time.
Her target disintegrated as she reached within three light-seconds of the target, from a short-range missile fired by the crew of the light cruiser. She was momentarily irritated, but there were other targets, and she was able to simply rotate her craft’s nose upward to find another one. That Cat pilot was even further along in his run, and to her immediate satisfaction she managed to flame him down before he launched.
“There’s a leaker!” Another one of her squadron mates shouted, and she saw a Khanate fighter barreling in on the Hydre. She squirmed, trying to angle her craft to get a lock, but it was spiraling in from above the cruiser and she was over three light seconds away. That Cat was a good pilot, damn him to hell...
He impacted at full acceleration, and the damaged light cruiser took the impact squarely on her spine. Explosions ravaged the interior and in a series of horrifyingly short seconds she broke in half, both sides still firing away at Khanate fighters now passing her bye towards the battle squadrons. Lifeboats and evacuation pods began streaming into space as the explosions in the interior of both halves built up, and Ramier was momentarily shocked by the violence of the scene before her. And then the Ssi Rissan began casually striking down lifeboats as they passed bye.
“Fuckers! We have to save those survivors, kill all the damned Cats!” She shouted over her comment. Kapitan Woeder didn’t respond, but the rest of the squadron’s survivors shouted out their agreement, and she returned to the hunt. She sensed a Khanate fighter over towards her one, above her, and she was quick enough to catch it rotating to blaze down a lifepod. “Not today, pussy cat,” she snarled. The feel of her triggers was comforting, as she lashed out in her hatred of the enemy and felt the Ssi Rissan pilot yelp in surprise as he was painted and killed by another fighter.
The rest of the battle went by in a blur. The squadron was following her, she noted without really registering, and they were simply trying to kill as many goddamned Cats as possible in as short a period of time as possible. The Hydre wasn’t the only ship she saw go up, not by far, but it was the only one etched in her memory later. Fuelled by adrenaline and the rush of danger, she danced along the flanks of battleships and blasted apart another four or five Khanate fighters, including taking one out even as it spiraled in at 300 meters before impact.
And then, at last, an all-clear signal was received from the Albatros. Group command, it seemed, hadn’t survived the battle. A haggard voice reached across the group’s commlink. “All squadrons, stand down. Enemy fighters have been neutralized. Return to Albatros by wings in order of precedence. Well done.”
She signaled the rest of the squadron to form up on her. Four other pilots returned her orders. Kapitan Woeder had bought it, and the rest were obeying her for the time being. She realized that as they finally began procedures to land on the Albatros flight deck. She was an ace, and she had her own squadron command.
And as she was finally climbing out of her cockpit back to the deck the cost finally reached her, and her grip slipped. But only for a moment. There was going to be a lot of killing yet, and she had to be strong if she were going to survive. She took a deep breath, and continued down. The flight crew was there, all cheers and smiles. So she smiled back, and shouted herself hoarse advertising her new status as an ace. If she hadn’t, she might have broken down and cried.