All characters in the SAS are the creations and property of ARB, borrowed gratefully with the permission of the creator. All characters in Number 5 Squadron, as well as the officers and crew of the HMS Ark Royal, are my creations, and may not be used without permission. The characters of Shane Vansen, Nathan West, Cooper Hawkes and Vanessa Damphousse, as well as the Space: Above and Beyond premise are the property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, and are borrowed here without permission. No offence or copyright infringement is intended. 'Learning to Fly', by Pink Floyd, is mentioned but not quoted (yet!). Again, no offence or copyright infringement is intended.
This story takes place shortly after ‘…Tell our Moms We Did Our Best’. It’s an attempt to explain how the 58th were re-united after their disastrous last mission. It’s also an attempt to remind everybody that it’s not just the United States versus the Chigs in the war. The Wildcards will play their parts, of course, but it’s primarily about RAF pilots.
Note: The British characters in this story pronounce ‘Lieutenant’ as ‘Lef-tenant’. I’d also like to say that things like ‘colour’ and ‘manoeuvre’ aren’t misspellings – they’re British spellings.
I'd like to acknowledge the assistance and support of ARB, without whom this document would never have made it this far, and Kashpaw, my beta-reader
Comments, complaints, criticism, marriage proposals and death threats are welcomed at Werrf@AOL.com
Search And Rescue
Number 5 Squadron Royal Air Force
Squadron Leader Drew McLean Newly promoted CO of Number 5 Squadron
Flight Lieutenant Rebecca Johnson XO of Number 5 Squadron
Flight Lieutenant Mike Barrett McLean’s navigator
Flight Lieutenant Chris Thompson Johnson’s navigator
Pilot Officer Jane Hayes A new pilot
Flight Lieutenant Michael Lewington Her navigator
Fourth Company, Second Battalion SAS
Major Anton Bates CO of the Company
Captain Kelly Thornton His XO
The First Combined Air Wing
Wing Commander John Reginald Newly promoted CO of the wing
Squadron Leader Tom Rankin His XO
Flight Sergeant Nicola Gates His aide
HMS Ark Royal
Captain Edward Frobisher CO of the Ark Royal
Dr. Maria Peltzer A civilian Doctor
I stepped into the briefing room and looked around at my Squadron. My Squadron. Number 5 Squadron, Royal Air Force. I’d been in command here for over a month now, but the thought of being in command still gave me a bit of a thrill. I offered a nod to Wing Commander John ‘Reggy’ Reginald, my immediate superior, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Combined Air Wing, and, until recently, the CO of Number 5 Squadron. He returned the acknowledgement, and I crossed the room to sit with the rest of the Squadron. I noticed that the Squadron wasn’t alone here. We had been joined by the other section of the wing, the fourth company of the second battalion of the SAS. I also noticed that the GROPO’s and the flyboys were staying well separate. The 1st Combined Air Wing still wasn’t very combined. I gave Major Anton Bates, the CO of the SAS company, a wry smile. He ignored me. Captain Thornton, his second in command, was sat next to him, and she returned my smile nervously. We all knew there was a lot of work to do before everyone here was truly comfortably with their comrades. I settled into a seat next to Flight Lieutenant Becky Johnson, my second in command. She grinned and tapped her wrist, indicating the time. It was a running joke in the Squadron: I’d be late for my own funeral if some Chig ever managed to kill me.
"Right, then," Reggy said, "now that Squadron Leader McLean has decided to grace us with his presence, we can get on with it." He turned to the large map behind him. There were three points highlighted: The position of our own ship, the HMS Ark Royal, the position of a Chig fleet, and the position of celestial body Twenty Sixty Three Yankee. I cast a professional eye over the map and guessed that, if 2063Y was our destination, we would have at most five days there before the Chig fleet could arrive.
"Here is our destination," Reggy continued. "Celestial Body Twenty Sixty Three Yankee. Two weeks ago, the Chigs ambushed an ISSAPC carrying survivors from the Tellus and Vesta colonies here. Fortunately, thanks to Marines from the USMC, the civilians escaped. However, one of the APC’s was damaged. The cockpit section was ripped off, and fell into the atmosphere. Radio contact was maintained right up until the craft entered blackout due to re-entry. At that time, both pilots were alive, though one was unconscious. Our mission is to locate and extract them. I’m open for objections. This is your first assignment together. I don’t want to rush anything." I looked at Bates. I knew we were both thinking the same thing. I held out a hand to indicate he was welcome to speak, to tell the world what we had been complaining about just the night before in the Ark Royal’s bar. He accepted the invitation with a nod, then stood up.
"With respect, sir," he started, not wanting to offend his new CO, "we’ve been fit for operational duty for the last month. It’s about time we got some action."
"You may not think that after this one. Drew?" I stood up to answer. Unlike Bates, I’d known Reggy for six years, and I wasn’t worried about offending him.
"I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague, sir. There’s not much point forming an elite force if we don’t use it."
"You consider yourselves an elite, do you?" A scathing reply.
"Yes, sir." A flippant, slightly rebellious answer.
"You consider yourselves up to this?" A subtle hint of scorn.
"Good. So do I." That was the problem with Reggy. You never knew when he was really questioning your ability or when he was testing your confidence.
"The mission will proceed in the following manner," he continued. "Arial patrols by the Tornadoes will locate the pilots, then the SAS will recover them. It sounds simple, but don’t be fooled. There are at least three squadrons of Chig fighters on the ground, and four companies strength of ground troops. They also appear to be searching for the marines, so it’s likely you’ll end up stepping on each other’s toes. It could be rough."
"Sir, every pilot in my Squadron is at least the equal a Chig squadron." It was no idle boast. The least experienced pilot in Number 5 had fifteen kills to her name.
"And I have to say, sir," Bates piped up, not wanting to be left behind, "that I consider one of my men the equal of twenty Chigs." I didn’t know the SAS very well, but I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t at least as good on the ground as my people were in the air.
"Okay, that’s enough bragging. Are there any questions?" Becky looked up. Even in the middle of a serious briefing, her face still carried a decidedly mischievous look. She probably didn’t even know it was there, but it still made everyone who didn’t know her think she was always about to make a joke. I was so distracted looking at her that I almost missed her question.
"What sort of surface are we looking at on the planet, sir?" Once again, she surprised me. The mischievous look didn’t hide a joke, after all, but a serious, professional question. It seemed out of place coming from her mouth.
"We don’t know. The only surveys suggest a rocky surface, with a few plants, mainly lichen, but the only data we have at present was taken from a single probe dropped by the USS Eisenhower. We quite simply have no idea how widespread those conditions are."
"If they’ve got three squadrons on the surface, how can we be sure they won’t attack us?" I asked.
"We know from experience that three squadrons of Chigs wouldn’t stand a chance against the Ark Royal, so we aren’t expecting any trouble from them."
"So why don’t we attack them?"
"If we eliminate a Chig outpost, we’ll have an enemy fleet breathing down our necks in five days. That won’t help find our people."
"It’s a stand off, then? How do we know they haven’t already sent for reinforcements?"
"We don’t, but the fleet seems to be holding its position. At the moment, both sides are expected to continue their work unmolested."
"What if they find the ‘Cards first?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, what happens if the Chigs find the WildCards before we do?"
"I didn’t mention the WildCards." As usual, his voice was calm and cultured, the very image of an English Gentleman.
"Sir, please don’t play us for stupid."
He sighed. When he did speak, his tone was that of a harassed father talking to his pushy seven year old.
"All right. Yes, the Marines we are looking for are from the 58th Squadron. Captain Shane Vansen and Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse. And if the Chigs find them before we do, they’ll either be killed, or they’ll be taken prisoner. Either way, we’ll know, and we’ll eliminate the Chig presence from the planet. Anything else?"
Everyone shook their heads.
"Good. I want the fighters in space for a CAP in twenty mikes. We’ll be in range of the planet in two days. That’s when the real work begins. Dismissed." Reggy turned and stalked out of the briefing room.
"Another fabulous briefing from Reggy, the Wonder-CO," Becky said, her voice dripping with irony, as well as the slight hint of a lilting Irish accent that she was always trying to lose..
"Calm down, Flight Lieutenant," I replied, trying to keep my voice neutral.
"Sorry, Drew," she replied. She didn’t sound very contrite. Throughout the three years we’d known each other, I’d had a problem with Becky – she thought of me as her boyfriend, not a fellow officer. Even now that I was her CO, she didn’t hesitate for a second before making statements that anyone else might consider disrespectful. But, I must admit, she was right. Reggy was renowned for making his briefings short and to the point, and sometimes they were too short, and the point was often some way away when he finished.
We let the SAS soldiers file past us and leave first. I was about to follow them when I noticed Captain Thornton waiting behind. She noticed me noticing her and came over.
"Um…" she began nervously, "A few of us are going to head down to the bar. We were wondering if you’d like to join us when you get back?"
I looked over the young Captain’s shoulder. The two Lieutenant’s in her company were watching nervously. It was clear that it had been their idea, but only Thornton had had the guts to suggest it. I gave the two male officers a wink, then turned back to Captain Thornton, and allowed the full accent of my native Scotland to flow into my voice.
"Who’s idea was this?"
"We…just thought you might like to join us, that’s all," she said, rather lamely. I gave her a grin.
"Aye, well I’ll pass the offer on to the others. I don’t know what they’ll say, but I’ll definitely be there."
"Okay. I’m looking forward to it, sir."
"Oh, and tell your Lieutenants that Flight Lieutenant Johnson’s already spoken for, and if they want to have a go at Pilot Officer Hayes, they’ll have to come through me." I’d seen the various men in the Company eyeing up some of the female members of the Squadron, and decided to put a stop to it. I wanted the two groups working together, but not that closely. At least, not yet.
"I’ll pass the message on, sir." She turned and walked back over to her junior officers. I headed out of the Briefing Room, only to find Becky waiting for me at the door.
"What was all that about?" she asked, somewhat coldly.
"Nothing much. Kelly was just inviting us to join them at the Tut ‘n’ Shive later." Her left eyebrow shot up.
"So it’s Kelly now, is it?"
"You don’t think anyone could possibly replace you as the light of my life, do you, my beloved Rebecca?" I asked in my best Shakespearean manner.
"They’d better not," she replied archly, then turned and stalked into the hangar bay. I grinned and followed.
"Ark Royal, this is Flogger One, request launch clearance, over." The acknowledgement came back loud and clear.
"Roger that, Flogger One, you are clear for launch, over."
"Thank you, Ark Royal, out."
I gripped the controls lightly, checking that the neither the throttle or the control stick was too stiff, or too loose. Everything, as usual, was perfect. I nodded at the Flight Sergeant in charge of the ground crew, signalling that all was well, then powered up the flight systems. Behind me, my navigator, Flight Lieutenant Mike Barrett, flicked switches and checked instruments.
"We’re ready for drop, skipper," he reported.
"Thanks, Mike." Whatever anybody said about the Tornado F22 – that it was out of date, that it was based on a hundred-year-old space frame, that it was designed when the only reusable space craft in existence was the Space Shuttle – some of which was true – it still had one major advantage over such fighters as the rather more common, American-built SA-43 Hammerhead: A two-man crew, one to fly, one to spot targets, to mark them, to check the lidar, to keep an eye out.
And, of course, it was still a bloody good aircraft.
There was no time for more idle speculation, as the space doors creaked open in front of me, revealing the stars outside. Then the spacecraft leapt forward, blasting its way out of the carrier, and I was pressed back into my seat by the G-forces. I checked my rear view mirrors, saw that the five ships that made up the rest of the squadron had all launched correctly, then sat back as the autopilot began to follow a lazy curve down towards the light green planet below us. From high orbit, it looked like a jungle paradise, but we knew from the briefings that it was just the thick, soupy green atmosphere that gave it that appearance.
The wings of the jet began to glow a bright red as the fighter entered the atmosphere. I looked around, and saw that everyone else had also hit the atmosphere at just the right angle. No one was going to burn up or bounce off.
As we penetrated deeper into the green soup, the fighter’s atmosphere sensors began to take readings. Then, with absolutely no warning, we dropped out of the thick green cloud and into a crystal clear atmosphere. Below us, a thick green canopy of jungle stretched out to both horizons. We could just see the dark shapes of flying animals moving across the top.
"Wow…" somehow, Becky summed the sight up best with that single word.
"Okay, clear the airwaves," I said in my best authoritarian voice. "Begin grid search from here. Set course heading…"
"Zero Five Zero," Mike supplied.
"…Zero Five Zero, descend to Angles five." I passed the course on to the rest of the squadron and gave the order to descend to five thousand feet. At the same time, I manipulated the controls to nudge the aircraft into the new course. As soon as we were heading in the right direction, I gave the order to activate the autopilot.
"Roger that, autopilot active." Mike sounded confident and sure of his job. At this point, he was flying the aircraft, working with the computer to ensure the most efficient possible search. At this point, the pilot was dead weight.
With Mike and the computer collaborating in the search for the missing Marines, it was my turn to watch the main LIDAR screen. It was missions like this that made me glad to be a pilot. Watching the LIDAR is probably the most boring job around.
My index finger tightened on the throttle, and a low-grade communications laser linked my fighter with Becky’s. The laser comm was a new design, being tested on the Tornado. Rather than standard radio communication, which could be easily intercepted by the enemy, the laser comm was a direct, point to point link, very useful in this sort of situation. In a dogfight, it was less useful, due to the ridiculous manoeuvres that had to be pulled, but in straight flying it was probably the best method.
"Flogger Two, Flogger One, do you copy, over?" I spoke into my helmet mike, hearing my own voice through my comm set.
"Roger, Flogger One, read you L&C, over," Becky replied, chirpy and confident.
"Are you in communication with anyone else, over?"
"Negative, Flogger One, just you, over."
"Good. What’re you doing tonight?"
She laughed. We both new that carrying on an affair between CO and XO was a bad idea. The problem was that we couldn’t stop. After all, two weeks before we’d both been simple pilots, the same rank, with no ‘Chain of Command’ keeping us apart. Luckily, the RAF weren’t nearly as restrictive of such things as, for example, the US Marines. As long as it didn’t interfere with our performance, we were free to do more or less whatever we wanted.
And we did.
For four hours, we flew back and forth along a pre-programmed search pattern, flying back and forth, scanning all the time for the telltale signs of a crash landing, without result. At the end of the four hours, I called Mike.
"We’re running low on fuel. Time to go."
Due to the lack of information on the planet, we had no idea how dense the atmosphere would be, so the autopilot hadn’t been configured for our actual fuel consumption rate. This meant we had to pull out of the atmosphere manually. Left alone, the computer would fly the fighter back and forth until it ran out of fuel.
"Just give me five mikes. We’ve nearly finished this sector."
"Mike, we don’t have five mikes. If we wait any longer, then run into a dogfight on the way out, we’ll be dead. No fuel to manoeuvre."
"All right. All right. You have control, I have the LIDAR."
I ordered the rest of the Squadron to follow, then released the autopilot and shoved the throttle forward, pulling back on the stick. We ploughed up through the soupy atmosphere and back out into the crystal clear darkness of space.
The Ark Royal hung in the vacuum ahead of us.
"Any sign of enemy activity?"
"Negative, the skies are empty."
"Good. Ark Royal, this is Flogger One, request landing clearance, over."
"Roger that, Flogger One," came the reply from the carrier. "Any luck, over?"
"Negative, Ark Royal, still no sign, over."
We cruised in slowly and silently.
"Why’s it so quiet?" Mike asked me.
"Because we’re in space. No air equals nothing to carry the vibrations equals no sound."
"Okay, but why haven’t we got any music on?"
I smiled grimly. Normally, at the end of a successful mission, I put ‘Learning to Fly’ by Pink Floyd on. It was the Squadron’s anthem.
"Because this wasn’t a successful mission. We didn’t find them, remember?"
"All right. Do you have to be so upsettingly accurate?"
In front of us, the massive space doors on the Ark Royal slid open. The fighter passed easily through the entrance. I shuddered slightly. Three years before, I had been serving on the HMS Invincible when she was struck by an asteroid. The damage was minor, but the doors had slammed shut to prevent atmosphere loss, even though a Tornado was going through them at the time. Before that, no one believed that the ship would sustain damage while fighters were docking, so there were no safety systems on the doors. Afterwards, it was decided that maybe it wasn’t so unlikely after all.
Despite the fact that safety systems were now in place so that the doors couldn’t close while a fighter was docking, I still remembered the image of a Tornado being sliced neatly in half by the doors. It wasn’t a pleasant one.
I shook myself out of my reverie as the locks slammed into place, holding my fighter firmly in place as the cockpit was retrieved and lifted out of the body of the ship. As the canopy cleared the level of the floor, I saw the flight crews rushing in to get the fighters spaceworthy again.
As soon as the cockpit was locked in place, I raised the canopy. The Flight Sergeant in charge of my fighter took my helmet, then left me to climb out by myself. I steadied myself on the deck, then checked the cockpits. Everyone had landed safely and was on the deck. I looked around and saw Reggy standing by one of the pressure doors with a ‘Come here’ look. I put my Squadron before my CO and headed for the nearest cockpit. As I did so, I noticed a brief flash of irritation on the Wing Commander’s face, and allowed myself a brief smile.
"Everyone all right here?" I asked the two officers climbing out of their plane.
"Fine thank you, sir," replied the pilot, Pilot Officer Jane Hayes. She was the newest addition to the Squadron, and I didn’t want her dying too soon. With only six fighters out of the full complement of thirteen, I didn’t want to lose any part of the Squadron, especially a new recruit. She had only been with us for a month, arriving on the supply ship Orion Conveyor. When she arrived, she had already picked up an impressive ten Kills, all taken on the voyage out to us.
Her navigator, Ed Lewington, grunted briefly then turned to work on the plane. I let him. Lewington wasn’t very talkative at the best of times, and after an unsuccessful flight it was best to leave him alone.
I went around the whole Squadron, checking for any problems, just to be assured that everyone was all right.
And then, finally, I strolled over to say hello to my superior officer.
"Finished, Squadron Leader?" he asked as I arrived. He was fairly good humoured about most things. Being kept waiting wasn’t one of them.
"Just about, sir, yes."
"No luck down there I take it?" He sounded depressed. He wasn’t a desk man, but taking the job of Commanding the Wing had left him effectively grounded. He didn’t like it.
"Nothing yet, sir. But I suppose we shouldn’t have expected to hit it straight off bat. We’ll try again tomorrow."
"At your discretion, Squadron Leader. I want a full report on what you found down there on my desk in thirty mikes."
The fighter shot out of the launch bay and began it’s carefully calculated drop towards the planet. After three days searching, we were still no closer to finding the missing Marines. Still, our luck had held so far. The Chig fleet five days away hadn’t moved toward us yet, which meant that at the very worst we still had that long to complete our mission.
For four more hours, I watched the LIDAR and cursed the autopilot. Mike, on the other hand, was in his element. He played with all his high-tech equipment, making adjustments here, changing sensor frequencies there, and talking to the computer by keyboard all the time. Still, I suppose it was a form of justice. He spent most of our missions in the background, letting me do the flying, telling me where the Chigs were. I owed him a mission like this one for all the times his sharp eyes had save both our lives.
To be honest, he was enjoying himself so much I almost regretted it when I had to say "All right, time’s up. Punch up a course for home."
He knew better than to complain and ask for more time, so he just sighed.
"Roger that, skipper," he replied, and moments later, all six fighters began to move up through the atmosphere. We were halfway up when a slightly worried, slightly puzzled voice came over the radio.
"Flogger One, this is Flogger Two, I’m getting an odd signal on the LIDAR, over"
"Roger that, Becky. What sort of signal, over?"
"I’m not sure…Chris says it could be a signal from a US APC, over."
"Where?" I wasn’t about to doubt Flight Lieutenant Chris Thompson’s skill with a LIDAR.
"About a hundred and fifty K’s from here. I’m breaking off to investigate, over."
"Negative, Flogger Two, stay in formation. We don’t have enough fuel to…"
It didn’t help. Becky’s fighter peeled away from the group and began heading back down. I swore. My discipline problem was coming back to haunt me.
"Flogger Two, rejoin formation, that’s an order, over."
"I won’t be a second. I’ve got to check this out."
"She’s not changing course," Mike reported.
"Damn. I don’t need this. Flogger One to Flogger flight, carry on back to the Ark Royal, I’ll be with you in a second."
With that I disengaged the autopilot and jammed my foot down on the rudder pedal, turning a near-vertical climb into a steep dive. I pulled back on the stick and headed out after the errant fighter.
"Mike, how much spare fuel have we got?"
"Give us maybe ten mikes at full thrust before we can’t make it back."
"Great. Flogger Two, this is Flogger One. Come in, over."
"Stand by, Flogger One."
"That was not a request, Flogger Two. Form up on my wing, now, over."
"I don’t care what you’re getting. Turn round and form up immediately. You don’t have enough fuel for this."
"Just a couple of…"
My temper snapped.
"NOW, Flight Lieutenant!"
"Negative, Flogger One, I’m going to find those Marines, over."
"Flogger Two, you will turn round now, or I will be forced to bring you down."
"Yeah, right. What good would that do, hm?"
"It’d make you a lot easier to find."
"Sorry, sir," she replied airily, "I think I’ll keep going."
"Dammit. Mike, target her."
The target appeared in the HUD, and I fingered the weapons control over to missiles. A lock tone keened through the cockpit as I prepared to fire. I tried hard to ignore the fact that my trigger finger, normally totally steady, was shaking like gravel in an earthquake.
"What the hell…!" I could hear the warning tone from her Lidar Warning Receiver over the radio.
"Last chance, Becky. Don’t make me do this."
"For God’s sake, Drew…" My heart wrenched as I heard her voice shake. I wanted to leap in and protect her, to shoot down the bastard who was trying to kill her…but I was the bastard trying to kill her. It took all the self control I’d developed over sixteen years in the RAF not to just turn back. I steadied my voice before speaking again.
"I’m aiming for a non-vital system. You’ll have plenty of time to eject. And we’ll know where to pick you up. We won’t know that if you just plough yourself into the jungle somewhere."
"I’m sorry…" I muttered as my finger began to tighten on the trigger.
Just before I fired, the fighter ahead dipped it’s right wing and steered back towards me.
"Thank God for that," I muttered, switching off the weapons systems. I swung the plane around and headed for the Ark Royal. It was only then that I realised how much I was shaking. I also noticed that my face was soaking wet. I was very, very pleased I hadn’t had to shoot her.
As the canopy of my fighter slowly wound up, Flight Sergeant Williams stepped up to take my helmet, but I brushed him aside and hauled myself up. I was standing behind Becky’s cockpit a couple of seconds later. I held myself back as she climbed out, then I struck.
"WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING?!" I yelled, my mouth inches from her ear. She jumped about six inches straight up, and came down facing me. A small part of me quailed at the look of pure fear on her face, but the rest of me wasn’t going to stop.
"Sir!" She stood quivering to attention
"What were you trying to do down there?!" I was angry.
"Sir! Doing my job, Sir!" Her voice trembled slightly, but she was remarkably calm for someone who just a few minutes before had been on the wrong end of a Tornado fighter.
"Don’t think you can get out of this by saying ‘Sir’ all the time, lady. You are in trouble. You were not doing your job, you were trying to kill yourself and your navigator! The RAF is no place for suicidal maniacs!"
"Sir! I was trying to save those Marines, Sir!"
"I don’t care what reasons you thought you had for your actions, Flight Lieutenant. You disobeyed several direct orders, do you understand that?"
"Sir, yes, Sir!"
"I ought to have you Court Martialled. Both of you." A look of surprise passed over Chris’s face, followed quickly by a refutation by Becky.
"Sir, I was solely responsible for my actions on the planet, and no blame should be passed to Flight Lieutenant Thompson, Sir."
It wasn’t easy to stop myself from hitting her at that point. This was the first time I’d had to discipline anyone in the Squadron for misbehaviour in the field since I’d taken command. Damn, I thought, how the hell does Reggy make this look so easy? Trying to control myself, I pointed at the cockpit she’d just vacated.
"Flight Lieutenant Thompson, would you look in there, please." Hesitantly, he did as he was told.
"What do you see?"
"Instruments, sir. Computer readouts, LIDAR display…"
"And a bloody great control column in the middle of it all. Would you mind telling my why you didn’t use it?" He just stood to attention and stared straight ahead.
"I was trying to get a positive fix on the distress signal, sir."
"You were disobeying direct orders! Five of them, to be precise! We are here to find these marines, not hinder them by making ourselves a target for every damn Chig squadron on the planet! What did you think you’d achieve?" I was focussing my wrath on both of them, now. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the Squadron huddling in a corner under the protective shield of Reggy. None of them wanted to be on the receiving end of a loaded me. I turned my attention back to the cowering pilots in front of me. It’s difficult to cower and stay at attention at the same time, but these two were managing it.
"You two are experienced pilots. You know that a Squadron has to work together or die." I looked Becky straight in the eye.
"By pulling that little stunt," I continued, "you risked your own life, your Nav’s life, and, more importantly, twenty million pounds worth of fighter. As if that wasn’t enough, I had to come after you, so you risked my life, my Nav’s life, and another twenty million pounds worth of fighter. Altogether, not a good day for you, Madam!" I turned my back on the pair of them.
"Dismissed. Report for debriefing at 0900 tomorrow. In the mean time, you’re both restricted to barracks until further notice." I stalked back towards the Squadron, leaving the two pilots to scurry out. I stopped in front of the rest of the pilots. They stood rigidly to attention, everyone trying to hide behind my superior officer.
"You heard that. Debriefing at 0900. See you then." They all left, pleased to have got away without further yelling. As I wandered out of the launch bay, Reggy fell in beside me.
"You handled that well," he said quietly.
"Yeah? I didn’t think so."
"That should’ve been my job, you know."
"Not any more, sir. You’ve been promoted, remember? You only get to tell me off, now."
"Too true," he sighed.
"Besides," I continued, "It meant more to her coming from me."
"There is that," he conceded. "Have you proposed to her yet?" I dipped a hand into my pocket to finger the small box inside. It contained a small ring I’d purchased a month before the war began. I’d spent the better part of a two years trying to find an appropriate moment to give it to Becky.
"Not yet, sir. And I don’t think it’s really appropriate at the moment."
"You may be right there." We walked in silence for a few moments. Then…
"You want to go to the Tut?" he asked, referring to the officer’s club, the Tut ’n’ Shive.
"Not now. There’s some things I need to deal with. See you there later?"
"Jolly good." We went our separate ways.
When I reached the barrack room, Becky and Chris had already settled themselves down to a long night’s confinement. She was lying on her bunk reading an old paper novel while he was at the rooms single computer console, writing a letter.
"Afternoon," I said as jovially as I could. "How’s things?" The imprisoned pilots looked at me as though announced my intention to leave the RAF and join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a potato peeler.
"The Wing Commander asked me if I’d mind inviting the pair of you to join us at the Tut ‘n’ Shive," I announced in my very best English Gentleman’s manner. "I’d be so thrilled if you’d come, what?"
"I, er," Becky said hesitantly, "I thought we were confined to quarters?"
"Absolutely, confined to quarters until further notice. Consider this further notice, old girl."
"Aren’t you angry?"
"Me? I never was angry. It was Squadron Leader McLean who was angry. He’s in a corner somewhere sulking because he can’t execute you. I’m here to invite you to the pub." She looked at me with a calculating expression.
"I’m not sure how easy it’s gonna be to get used to you being my CO," she said.
"You’ve got the easy part," I replied. "I’m the one in charge, remember? As well as my first command, I’ve got you to think about." I looked over her shoulder at Chris.
"I, uh…I’ll be up later."
"Roger that, old boy." I turned back to Becky and offered her my arm. "Shall we?"
"We shall," she replied, taking it.
The Tut was nearly full by the time we got there, but the Squadron had taken over two large tables in the corner and carefully reserved seats for Becky, Chris and my humble self. I grinned at my pilots as I slipped into one of the seats.
"How the hell did you manage to keep three seats?" I asked. Normally at this time, you couldn’t keep a seat free without stapling a Chig to it.
"Well," replied Flight Lieutenant Anna Winters, "there were a bunch of Royal Marines who wanted them, but we told them who we were keeping them for and they sort of backed down.
"These Marines wouldn’t happen to have been from ‘B’ company, would they?" I asked. ‘B’ company weren’t exactly our best friends. Just a few days before, we’d been sitting in the Tut listening to them making tasteless jokes about the RAF. The joking had ended when one of the Marines made a crack about me, at which point the whole Squadron had attacked them automatically.
"Why, yes, I do believe they were something to do with that unit, sir. How did you guess?"
"Just lucky, I suppose." With that, I settled down next to Becky to enjoy night at the pub with my friends.
Reggy stood in a corner and watched as I marched to the front of the room. As I requested, a map of 2063 Yankee had been placed on the screen at the back of the room. I gripped the podium.
"Okay. Thanks to Becky’s suicidal urges, we’ve got our first bit of objective evidence that the Marines may have survived the landing. She picked up a distress signal from their APC. They were unable to get a positive fix on the precise location, but we have been able to rule out most of the planet. As a result, we’ll be concentrating our search in this area." I indicated a large red circle on the map, with the point at which Becky had picked up the signal at the centre.
"A small problem," I continued, "is that this is also the area being searched by the Chigs at this precise moment. If we’re going to engage the Chigs at all, this is when it’s going to happen."
I never saw where they came from. All I saw was that all of a sudden our six Tornado fighters were being chased by fifteen Chig fighters. And they didn’t really look like Good Guys.
"Bloody hell, Floggers, break and evade!" I yelled. I grabbed the throttle and stick, immediately deactivating the autopilot, and yanked the stick hard to the left. I was just in time. A Chig plasma burst passed just inches from the side of the plane, so close I felt the turbulence toss the plane around. I slammed the throttle forward, igniting the afterburners, and pulled back into a full loop-de-loop. The fighter complained slightly at being subjected to such a high-G turn after hours of gentle flying, but pulled the manoeuvre off happily enough. As I rolled the plane, a green box appeared around one of the Chig fighters on my HUD. I squeezed the trigger, and a small Spitfire missile dropped off a wing pylon and charged toward the enemy aircraft.
"Fox Two," I declared over my tactical radio. The missile shot toward its target, letting out a stream of cannon fire as it did so. Only a few of the shots hit, but they were enough, softening up the enemy enough that when the missile did hit, the explosion was really quite pretty. I looked out to starboard, to see Becky’s plane flying in perfect formation. I did a quick check around, and saw everyone else had teamed up in pairs to hunt Chigs. I also noticed a small problem.
"Flogger Four, Flogger One, you’ve got one bandit on your six, over."
"Roger, Flogger One," came the strained voice of Flight Lieutenant Anna Winters, "I had noticed, over."
"He’s mine, over." I shoved the stick hard over to starboard, lined the Chig up in my sights, and gave him a nice long burst of cannon fire. He broke hard to evade it, pulling his fighter up and away – and straight into the Spitfire Becky had launched.
"Good Shot, Two, over," I said, giving her the deserved credit for the kill.
"Thanks for the setup, over," she replied. I scanned the sky for a target, seeing that it was pretty much mopped up. The odds were always in our favour – they only outnumbered us two to one. They never really stood a chance. I looked ahead again, picked a target that was trying to run from the fight, and showed him what I thought about pilots who abandoned their colleagues in a dogfight. The description of my precise feelings on the matter came in the shape of a Hurricane medium-range missile. He acknowledged that he understood the lesson by blowing up.
"And don’t you forget it," I muttered. My attention was suddenly snapped back to my own situation when I heard a yell from behind.
"Look out!" The reason for the exclamation was a rather large, flaming Chig fighter that was barrelling towards us. I flung the stick hard over to the left, checked that Becky did the same to the right, and broke hard away, narrowly avoiding a mid-air collision. By the time I’d recovered myself, I realised one of the last Chig fighters had picked me as a target. I was about to execute some hard manoeuvres to get rid of him when I noticed that one of the Tornadoes was trailing two Chigs. A quick check identified it as Jane Hayes’ aircraft.
"Flogger Six, Flogger One, you have two bandits on your tail, I’m moving to assist, over."
"Roger that," she replied. "As soon as possible, please, over." She was trying to keep calm, but this was her first large dogfight, and it was pretty clear that she was frightened.
"Um, skipper, I don’t know if you’d noticed," Mike said from behind, "but we’ve got a bandit on our tail as well."
"Well spotted. Any other gems of observational genius you’d like to share with me?"
"No, that’s about all I’ve got right now."
"Pity. Flogger two, see if you can help me out here, over."
"Roger, Flogger One, I’m moving to assist, over." I released a second Hurricane, which quickly hunted down and killed one of the Chigs. The second was more of a problem. He was following all of Jane’s manoeuvres, and adding a few of his own to shake me off his tail. It was probably an interesting sight – A Tornado, followed by a Chig fighter, followed by a Tornado, followed by another Chig fighter, in turn followed by another Tornado, all pulling exactly the same manoeuvres. At the time, though, it wasn’t so much ‘interesting’ as ‘terrifying’.
The Chig in front of me was firing randomly, hoping that one of his shots would hit Jane. Unfortunately, his tactic nearly paid off, as one of the balls of plasma skimmed the spine of her fighter.
"Oh, Shit. Jane, you still there, over?"
"R…roger, Flogger One…" she replied. She sounded pretty shaken up. I could hear the warning tones through the radio as she wrestled with the damaged aircraft.
"Are you okay?"
"I’m still alive…"
"Damn, this guy’s good. Jane, on my mark, I want you to break hard right, give me a chance to kill the bugger, over."
"Skipper," Mike yelled, "this bugger’s breathing down our neck!"
"I know, Mike. Three, two, one, mark!" Jane’s fighter curved off to the right. The second Chig followed, but this time, because I knew where Jane was going, I could pre-empt his flight path with a stream of cannon. The explosion lit up the sky. Unfortunately, it was followed a couple of seconds later by a second explosion. That one was my own starboard wing. Moments later, before he could follow the shot up, a Tornado – I didn’t see who – ripped him apart with cannon. I struggled with the stick, trying to persuade the plane to fly straight.
"It’s not gonna work, Drew," Mike told me, "the whole wing’s gone." I looked over my shoulder to confirm that the entire starboard wing had broken off. No wonder I was having trouble keeping control.
"Becky, I’ve lost my wing, I’m going to have to eject. You’re in charge till I get back, over." Without waiting for confirmation of the order, I grabbed the yellow and black handle between my knees and braced myself for the acceleration. I yanked up hard, and the rockets around the base of the cockpit ignited, hurling us safely away from the dying plane. I gritted my teeth as we went from dropping slowly to going up at over sixty miles per hour in less than a second.
On board the HMS Ark Royal, Major Anton Bates of the SAS waited outside the Loading bay used by Number 5 Squadron. If they found anything, this was the best place to be, close to the loading bays that housed the APC’s that would be used to rescue the Marines on the ground. Also, if they found anything but didn’t report over the radio, he’d be able to find out sooner. Both solid, sensible military reasons. He refused to admit that if anyone was killed, he wanted to know about it. Emotions weren’t a luxury he allowed himself these days. He flattened himself against a bulkhead as a medical team ran past, carrying a stretcher with them. He turned to watch them, and realised they were waiting outside Number 5’s bay. He walked over to join them.
"What’s going on?" he asked quietly. The doctor jumped, startled by the sudden voice.
"Wha…God, you scared me.," she replied.
"Sorry. What’s going on?"
"Number 5 Squadron’s coming in, two injured people."
"Any idea who?"
"No, sorry, Major…?" She was trying to make this more than a casual conversation. He regarded her quickly. Young, earnest, not unattractive, and quite short, a good foot less than his six foot frame.
"Bates." He replied shortly.
"I’m Doctor Maria Peltzer. Nice to meet you, Major."
"Likewise, I’m sure." He put a good deal of meaning into that sentence. Basically, he meant ‘Stop talking. I just wanted to know who was hurt.’ She took the hint and shut up.
"Major Bates!" It was a stern, somewhat authoritarian voice. Bates looked up and saw Wing Commander John Reginald, his new CO. It was, he had to admit, rather strange to have a pilot in charge, rather than a soldier, but Reginald clearly knew what he was doing.
"Sir. What’s happening?"
"Are your men ready for a recovery?"
"Yes, sir. Will we be needed?"
"I hope not."
At that moment, the pressure doors along the corridor opened, and they got their first view of the bay. A quick glance confirmed that one cockpit was missing, and a second was damaged. Wing Commander Reginald started forward into the bay, but was cut off by the Doctor, her cheerful smile suddenly replaced by a look of grim determination to do her job. When the medical team were out of the way, Bates followed Reginald into the hangar. He scanned the room, trying to remember who was in the Squadron, who was missing. A double check confirmed that Squadron Leader McLean was nowhere to be seen. He walked over to the damaged cockpit. The crew were still inside. Peering over Doctor Peltzer’s shoulder, he identified the pilot as the youngest member of the Squadron, a Flying Officer, though he couldn’t remember her name.
"I’m fine," he heard her tell the doctor. "Look at Ed." Bates assumed she was referring to her navigator. As the doctors moved away from her and started fussing at the back of the cockpit, the youthful pilot painfully removed her helmet and climbed stiffly out of the cockpit. Without thinking, Bates offered her his hand to steady herself. She took it gratefully, and looked up into his stern face.
"Thanks," she said warmly. He didn’t reply, just kept his hand steady as she climbed out.
"Are you all right?" he asked as she steadied herself on the deck.
"Fine…"she replied, somewhat distantly, "I’m…fine…"
She wasn’t fine. Without any warning, she collapsed. Bates caught her as she fell, and lowered her gently to the deck.
"Doctor!" he called. A couple of seconds later, the Doctor was at the young pilot’s side. So were the rest of the Squadron. Bates backed carefully away as the crack fighter Squadron suddenly became medical orderlies and helped lift their injured colleague onto a stretcher. He leaned against a wall, closed his eyes, and tried to banish the feelings rushing around inside him. Fear…anger… worry… He could normally forget such emotions in a few moments of concentration, but this time it was a lot harder. He opened his eyes and watched the stretcher being wheeled away by some of the very best fighter pilots in the war, then closed them tight again and concentrated. His concentration was broken by a heavy hand landing on his shoulder.
"You all right, old boy?" Reginald asked.
"Yes, thank you for asking, sir," he replied, still somewhat shaken by the strength of emotion he’d experienced. "If you’ll excuse me…" He didn’t wait for a reply, but turned and marched out of the room.
© Werrf February-April 1998
Image kindly provided by the author himself, showing a Tornado