Sarah was kind of pissing him off.
It was just over a month ago Lucas told Sarah about the accident that claimed Amanda’s life, and several months since Lucas asked her to go with him. Yet, here he is, sulking because no matter how much their feelings for each other grow, she will not give in. He knows the growing affections is mutual because all the signs are there. Sarah has not come right out and said it, but the signs are there.
If he does not come around for several days because his own life is too busy, she voices here displeasure when he does. One time, she even stopped by when his parents had him busy all weekend with cleaning out the garage. This came as a very pleasant surprise. It was maybe one of two times, she came calling on him.
But she still will not let them move to official boyfriend/girlfriend status.
Lucas pondered all this while walking to the flight line in preparation for another head to head battle simulation with one of the other training flights. The simulations were as close as him and his classmates can get to real combat. The only thing truly simulated was the weapons fire, but the aircraft and maneuvers were very real. Because of the danger involved, Lucas knew he needed to get his head right.
He saw a familiar sight up ahead and jogged to catch up with Travis. What made Travis stand out from the other flight suit wearing, gear bag carrying, hot shot pilot swaggering, student pilots, was Travis’s Skylab Protective Helmet. It looked like a slapped together paper origami thing. Apparently, it came as a poster with instructions on how to cut it out and fold it. Tab A into slot B, sort of instructions, and it looked ridiculous, but Travis called it lucky.
Lucas remembered all the hype about that old space station falling from the sky. There were parties, people selling t-shirts with targets on them, as well as white plastic helmets that said something along the lines of Skylab protective helmet. But Travis’s was the oddest thing Lucas ever saw on a teenager’s head. It sported a point, said to provide .00193 nanoseconds of warning, as Travis put it. Apparently, it was one of the “special features,” Travis said the latter with finger air quotes.
He wore it every day they went to the flight line. Drawing looks from everyone he passed in the corridors. It surprised Lucas that one of the Federation officials did not put a stop to it. But, since they did not, he assumed the perceived it as a morale booster.
“Still wearing that stupid hat?” Lucas said as he came up alongside Travis, making as though he was going to smash the paper hat flat to Travis’s head.
Travis ducked and turned his head away from his classmate, “hey, it’s my lucky hat, ass munch.”
“It looks dumb,” Lucas replied, dropping the threatening hand to his side.
“I don’t care.”
“It is starting to look a little wore out,” Lucas said noticing some tears with scotch tape repairs.
“It will get me through this, that’s all I care about.”
It was clear by the tone of his voice, Travis was relying heavily on his good luck charm to keep his head in the game. Lucas was not much for good luck charms. He used to wear a lucky sweat band on his left wrist until a girlfriend took it off him. As she slid in onto her own wrist, she said something to the extent, “now I will always have a piece of you with me.” They broke up three days later and he never saw the damn thing again. Losing it did change his luck to a degree. He received a severe sunburn on the lily white part his arm that was seeing its first rays of the summer.
After that he mostly dismissed the concept of good luck charms.
“You better buy more scotch tape then,” Lucas finally said.
“I have plenty.”
After another awkward pause, Lucas changed the topic, “Fighting the Germans today, huh.”
“That’s what I heard,” Travis glanced at him, “wonder if they are any good.”
“Once of my history teachers said the Germans were good fighters.”
“We mopped up the Czechoslovakians yesterday, didn’t we?”
“Wasn’t even fair, and we were down one,” Travis said, then instantly regretted it knowing how hard Amanda’s accident affected Lucas.
Lucas acted as though nothing changed, “I wonder if they will ever fill the empty slot in our flight?”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Travis replied, happy Lucas did not clam up. “They used to adjust the classes as kids were sent home, but since we started flying, it’s been the same group.”
“I wonder…” Travis started, then paused, “is this our flight? Is this the group we will eventually go against the Hoard with?”
Lucas thought about it for a moment before responding, “maybe.”
They reached the heavy blast doors that separated the flight decks from the rest of the station. Travis reached up and removed his lucky hat before stepping through the hatch.
“Happy flying,” he said over his shoulder to Lucas as they headed in the direction of their individual space craft.
“Back at you Skylab,” Lucas shot back, not knowing why he suddenly decided to assign him the nickname.
Travis stopped, turned, and looked quizzically at Lucas, then responded, “I like that.”
Lucas smile, and Travis spun on his heel and resumed course towards his trainer.
* * * * *
“Okay boys and girls, lets show these Germans what we have.” Katherine, todays squad leader said over the comms shortly after the class grouped up.
Lucas was flight lead for his group of four, whilst Francis and Christopher lead the other two groups of four. Katherine, took a flight of three since the squad was a pilot short. Leadership roles rotated among the class as part of the training. The Federation wanted to develop leaders from within the classes. Putting each student in a leadership role encouraged the cream to rise to the top. Lucas didn’t feel like he was command material, but he still enjoyed the challenge the responsibility afforded. Better to call the wrong shot now when it will cost no one their lives, or so he hoped.
Lucas’s group was the defending flight in today’s exercise. They will fly a predetermined patrol pattern and wait for the enemy to engage. In training, this gave the attaching formation an advantage because they knew where their opponent was. The defending group needed to detect and engage the attackers as quickly as possible to mitigate the advantage.
As Lucas’s, and the rest of his flights scopes lit up with enemy fighters, Lucas realized that the German’s may have employed a Hoard tactic. They must have flown to just outside of their ships range for detection, then folded into near space.
“We have bogeys at three o’clock, fifteen degrees above plane.” Katherine called out over the squad channel. “Maintain your flights, all flights form up on your lead.”
“Blue flight taking the lead,” Lucas responded over his flight channel as he banked his fighter to starboard and aimed his T350 at the approaching fighters.
“Full throttle Eagle Squad, we have just a few minutes before they are back up to full power. Let’s take advantage of their tactical faux pas,” Katherine sent, urging them into a fighting mode.
As Lucas pushed his throttles to their stops, he checked the scopes. They were three minutes to weapons range. These exercises did not allow missiles, simulated or otherwise. Missiles were easy, too often they were ineffective, and in limited supply. The energy weapons on the other hand are almost always available, and only skilled piloting offers any type of countermeasure. For training purposes, the power of the plasma cannons was nothing more than colorful beams of light. They splashed off the ships shielding in brilliant kaleidoscope of light and color. Even if the shields failed, there was not enough energy in the bolts to leave a mark on the ship’s hull.
“Eagle squad, even plain. Let’s see if we can get under these sons of bitches,” Katherine instructed her squad.
Lucas leveled his nose wondering what Katherine thought was going to happen. The German flight was not just going to let them fly right under them. Sure, their performance might be a little sluggish at first engagement, but they are sure not going to sit still.
As Lucas predicted, the German flight shifted course below plane to meet his squad head on. At these angles, their cannons are going to rake the tops of Eagle Squads ships while their own beams will just sail off into space. Lucas’s finger trembled over the trigger of his quad plasma cannons in anticipation of their initial engagement.
Just as the two flights reached weapons range Katherine barked an order over the squad channel, “Pull up thirty degrees. Keep your eyes on the scopes and hope they are still waiting for their power plants to get juiced up!”
Lucas followed his squad leaders command. It was her grade if they lost the battle through some stupid tactic. His own grade depended on how he followed orders, and the decisions he made as flight lead.
Lucas watched the Germans space craft slide below the nose of his own craft. Low powered beams of energy lanced under his ship. He noticed just before the Germans slid below his line of sigh that they were adjusting course in a futile effort to intercept. It amazed him how much a fold sucked out of the T350’s performance. While his course changes were crisp and instantaneous, the nose of the German fighters came up at a ponderously slow rate.
“Come around Eagle Squad,” Katherine called out as the German squad slid towards the rear of Lucas’s scopes.
Lucas nosed his fighter over, gently at first to give his flight time to react. “Roll over on my mark,” he said over the flight channel.
At about three fourths of the way through his arc, Lucas called out, “Mark,” then barrel rolled his T350 bringing him and his flight on plane with the dispersing German squad. The fold tactic may have seemed like a good idea, but it was clear by the lethargic way their opponents’ ships were maneuvering, they were going to pay a stiff price.
“Light them up,” Katherine called out over the squad channel.
“Blue three,” Lucas said over the flight channel, “you split off with your wingman, and happy hunting.”
Lucas watched two of his flight break right while he and his wingman, Brenda flew straight at a pair of German T350s desperately trying to look like hard targets. Their maneuvering was showing a little bit more snap, but with them flying at full throttle, it was slowing down the regeneration.
“Blue two, you take right, I’ll get the one on the left,” Lucas sent over the flight channel.
A second before he pulled the trigger on his target, his wingman pulled hers. Four violet energy bolts quickly closed the distance between her ship and the German fighter. As all four bolts splashed beautifully off the Germans shielding, all in quick succession, Lucas’s bolts raced towards his target. His was not a direct hit. One bolt sailed off into space, while the other three generated an almost as spectacular effect as the show his wingman just created.
Computers within the German spacecraft recorded the impacts, and the damage. Brenda’s victim went dark as the ships computer recorded its damage as complete destruction. Lucas’s target listed hard to starboard, its left engine still generating thrust. For the most part, the ship was out of the fight, but their training emphasized total elimination of the enemy. Lucas tracked, and fired a second volley. Once again, the space before him lit into a splendid display of color and light as his bolts splashed off the German’s ship. This time, Lucas’s target morphed into space debris.
The two dead ships were something to keep track of as Lucas and his wingman sought out and pursued new targets. Colliding with those dead ships would take the fun out of these little war games in a hurry.
“Blue one, we have bogeys on our six.” Brenda called out over the flight channel.
Lucas checked his scopes to confirm her call out. Sure enough, the German ships were awfully close to one hundred percent, if not already at full power.
“Keep close blue two. blue three, where are you?’ Lucas called as he started to jig his T350 in all directions to make both him and Brenda hard targets.
“We are engaged,” blue three responded.
“Copy that, when you splash them, we may need assistance. We have three bogeys on our tail.” Lucas responded, hearing the g-forces strain his voice. “How you are doing back there blue two?”
“Hanging right with you,” she groaned as she fought the g-forces pulling on her own body. “Figure out how to get behind these bastards.”
Lucas continued to jig left, right, up and down, changing speeds just a fraction off full throttle. His attention shifted between what was out in front of him, then his scopes, trying to judge how effective his pursuers are at tracking him. As best he could determine, he was just a fraction of a step ahead of them. He wanted to fly straight and on plane for a while, throttles wide open to see if he could put some distance between them. See if they were at one hundred percent. However, that would leave Brenda vulnerable if they were.
His mind worked furiously on how they can gain the upper hand on their three pursuers. Plasma bolts sailed past his ship, far enough away to make him feel better about the skill of the pilots hunting him. Again, he scanned the scopes, and counted eleven active German ships, while his squad was down two.
“Blue three?” Lucas called out hoping for some help before attempting what he had in mind.
“Still hunting blue one,” blue three responded, sounding winded and exacerbated. “These are a couple of elusive bastards.”
“Copy that. Blue two, bank as hard to port as you can muster, fifteen degrees above plain. See how many you can draw with you.”
“Copy blue one.”
“Brenda, fly like hell after you break off, on my mark.”
“Oh, I will Lucas, believe me.”
Lucas started a predictable turn to starboard and nosed down three degrees below plane. It was a maneuver that the German pilots can easily turn inside of, and Lucas was counting on them doing so.
The suddenness of blue two’s maneuver pulled two ships off his tail while the one that remained was on a predictable arc that would put it in weapons range in a couple of seconds. Lucas took a deep breath, cut his throttle to twenty five percent and activate maneuvering thrusters that basically put his ship in a sideways skid away from the German. Lucas watched as amber energy bolts sailed through the space he should now occupy, his German counterpart arcing for another shot at Lucas.
Lucas again used maneuvering thrusters to bring his nose around to face the German, hammered his throttles full, and opened up on the enemy craft. Four violet bolts closed the gap, and two splashed off the shields. The first impacted dead center in the cockpit, the second just aft of it. The Germans computers robbed the pilot of control, but kept the engines burning at full power. According the ships computer, it no longer had a pilot.
Lucas scanned his scopes, looking for blue two. He found her and brought the ship around to close the gap.
“Bring them around my way blue two.”
She responded with two clicks of her transmit button, obviously too busy to talk. As the distance closed, Lucas was counting on target fixation keeping the pursuing German pilots from noticing him closing in on them.
He counted right. Lucas took his time, tracked the lead ship, and made sure his shot counted. He watched Brenda yanking the T-350 around in space like a rag doll in the mouth of a playful puppy. She was clearly making those Germans work for their kill.
Lucas loosed four violet bolts at the lead craft. All four hit home, lighting the space behind Brenda’s ship with a spectacular display of low powered plasma fireworks. The surviving German ship broke violently to its port to avoid the now dead ship in front of it. Blue two banked her own ship to her physical limits to gain the advantage on the now fleeing German fighter.
It appeared that the surviving German craft was more concerned with Lucas, and did not notice blue two until it was too late; she was determinedly tracking his tail. Brenda’s first volley missed as her prey slid starboard at the last possible moment. Lucas wondered if the German borrowed the maneuver from him as he dutifully took up his position on blue two’s wing, and let Brenda hunt.
The second volley was an example of her ability to anticipate her opponents’ actions. Only one of the violet bolts connected, but the computer put it right up the exhaust port of the port engine. As the ship listed heavily to port, Brenda pounded it with another succession of violet energy bolts. Neither Lucas nor Brenda needed the computer to tell them, that was the fatal blow.
“Nice flying blue two,” Lucas shouted joyfully into his voice pickup.
He checked the scopes, and what they showed him left him dumbfounded. He, blue two, and three other ships were all that remained of his squad. If not for the tactical faux pas the Germans committed with trying to bounce them out of a fold, the outcome of today’s battle may have been much different.
“Those Germans can fight!” Lucas mused as the activation command came across his communication console, reviving the dead and crippled space fighters.
“Form up,” Katherine called out on the squad channel.
Lucas felt sweat cooling along his spine and across his chest as adrenaline released its hold on his body. They started with the advantage, but almost lost the fight. The Germans were no more experienced than they, but still nearly kicked their asses.
His stomach tightened as he realized, if this was the real deal, ten of his classmates would not be going home today.