Left Behindby E.J. Heijnis
"You absolute piece of human garbage," Sonya said.
Colonel Rayden lifted his wintry eyes from the reader in his hands. "Shut the door," he said.
She reached behind her without breaking eye contact and slammed the flimsy door, cutting off the shocked stares from the handful of staffers on the other side.
"I'm going to give you that one," the Colonel continued, still skewering her with his frozen stare. "But no more."
She folded her arms, rejecting thoughts of physical violence for the seventh time since she got the news. "You're in for a bad day then, because you fucked up."
The reader clattered on the metal desktop. Rayden sat back in his chair and straightened his sweat-stained shirt. "Spit it out, then."
Nostrils flaring, she advance on him and slammed her hands down on the desk. "When I scrubbed that mission, I did it because we would have been butchered before we even got a shot. And for you to transfer me out, and then send them anyway?" Leaning over the desk, she growled, "Garbage is the nicest thing I could call you."
His eyes narrowed a twitch. "Sit down." When she didn't respond, he added, "If you want answers, Major, you're going to have to sit down."
With a glare, she took one of the rickety folding chairs behind her. She should give him a chance to explain himself before she beat him to death.
"You're not aware of the greater strategic picture. As I've told you many, many times before. But here's a glimpse: we have two divisions holding on Smoker Three. The Sadit have seven. If they push our lot out, they own that system. That means within a month or two, we'll have a major enemy fleet base less than a light year from our convoy routes. You think escort duty's hazardous now? Wait till the Sadit can put six squadrons on your haulers with two minutes' notice."
"So send the damn fleet!" she snapped. "Been saying that for a damn year!"
"We don't want the escalation. We send two cruisers, they'll send four. They've limited their fleet commitment, and we're fine with that."
She leaned in again. "Yeah, you would be. My Hellcats are dead! Eleven boys and girls shot to pieces! And you have me sitting at this shithole base, filing—combat reports—" She wiped at her eyes with an angry hand. That damn knot in her throat wouldn't let her speak.
He watched her with that bland excuse for a face, no doubt amused at seeing emotion in his hardass squadron leader. "You're a household name, now. Highest kill count in the Air Force. Word came down you're not to be risked."
She frowned. She'd been killing Sadits since the first day of the war. It's what she did best, so—
"You're being transferred to Training Command," he continued in an even voice. "Recruitment is down, and they want a face people will recognize. Somebody they can put on street displays." No. They couldn't do that to her. She needed this. "Colonel—"
"Paperwork's already gone through, Sonya. You've flown your last combat."
She thought to argue, to fight, even throw a punch and see what happened. But somewhere in Rayden's stony mask, she saw a glimmer of sadness, of understanding. He was just the next rung on the ladder, and the people who had just wasted her life were far, far away.
She got up without another word and marched out. She kept her eyes locked forward as she passed between the folding desks and their occupants, lest some lowlife staffer catch a glimpse of her misery. Might as well save her reputation for the few days she had left at base.
There was work waiting for her, but she suspected Rayden wouldn't give her shit for skipping out, even if she'd prefer he did. She wandered the halls of the sweltering underground base, dodging ground crew in grease-stained orange overalls and pilots in bright yellow flightsuits. They gave her a wide berth, and whispers floated in her wake.
Her eyes lingered on a passing flight officer's shoulder patch. A cobra's flaring neck hovering over a grey planet mostly covered in darkness. No one had ever bothered to tell the Vipers they'd picked the wrong snake for their insignia. Her own patch had been designed by Crackerjack, second-highest ranking ace in the 19th Assault Squadron, the Hellcats, and it was a work of art. A tiger streaked with dark flame, crouched low, stalking towards you from a blood-red star. The one on her shoulder was the last one in existence.
She wandered into the hangar, bay three, where a dozen Demon heavy assault fighters should have stood ready for flight. Only her ship remained, the dark grey stealth finish gleaming under the overhead lights. Even the squadron's three reserve fighters were gone, no doubt already reassigned.
A small, familiar figure crouched on the lone fighter's wing with its arms buried in the port engine, bringing a painful smile to her face. "Flaco."
The diminutive old man withdrew from the engine, beads of sweat on his face as he looked at her from underneath bristly white eyebrows. "I heard."
"They're disbanding the 19th. Couple of others, too. Not enough ships." He spat. "Now I'm supposed to go work for Mo, with the Reapers."
The hole in her heart grew a bit wider. She could take over another squadron, even if it hurt like hell. But they didn't need her skills anymore. Just her fame. Would the sheep back home be as excited to see her if they knew she left her squadron to die without her? Not that they'd ever hear that part of the story. They'd only see her success, her perfect mission record. They wouldn't see the emptiness in her heart, the ache that only combat cured, the itch that never left until she sat strapped down in the pilot's seat with an enemy to shoot down. "Reapers is a good outfit," she managed.
"Not good enough."
She wandered closer, stretching to run a hand along fuselage, just below the rows of red kill markers underneath the cockpit. "How's she looking?"
"Better than fine," he said, light returning to his eyes. He stood and wiped his hands on a rag. "They gave me three days' leave, so I went and did the monthly. Calibrated the scopes, replaced fuel filters and injectors. Should get a bit more thrust now. Scrubbed the maneuvering jets, too, every one. I wanted to replace the gun lenses, but I can't get her to the range to calibrate 'em, so I just cleaned 'em real good. Oh, and I greased the missile loaders."
His words should have poured joy into her heart, reigniting the spark that had sent her to flight school seventeen years ago. "Is she loaded?" she said, unwilling to let the moment end.
Of course not; no mission to fly. She'd asked the question out of habit. His answer took her back to the reality of her future. Bleak, and pointless. Teach some kids all the stuff that didn't really matter, and send them off to war, without being there to protect them, to help them survive those first, crucial mistakes that made trained pilots deadly instead of just dead. Waking up every day to those fresh faces, so impressed with her bravery and eager to match her. How those fire-hearted youths would despise her if they knew the truth.
She closed her eyes. "Can you do it? Hard target loadout?"
He didn't answer right away. She opened her eyes to see him staring at her. She stared back, slowly becoming aware of what she'd asked, what she intended.
He gave a slow nod. "Yeah. Need to do it tonight. You sure?"
When she came back an hour after midnight, the bay was deserted and dark, and freezing now that the sun had set and only the outer doors held the cold vacuum at bay. She felt lighter than hydrogen as she trotted to her ship. When she strapped herself into the cockpit and flipped the switches to begin the startup sequence, she found the note Flaco had left her.
She laughed as she primed the fuel pumps. "No god where the Hellcats are going, my friend," she said with a grin.
Opening the outer doors triggered an alarm up in Ops, but she'd guided her Demon out through the containment field and accelerated to cruise speed by the time the first warning came through her helmet: "Hellcat One, your takeoff is not authorized, repeat, not authorized. Return to base immediately."
"Tell Colonel Rayden I know it wasn't his fault, but damn it, he should've tried." She turned off the comm system and aimed the fighter's nose at the ink-black sky, leaving behind the moon's cratered surface. Once she'd picked up enough speed to escape the moon's gravity, she killed her transponder, turned off the engines, powered down the weapons, and shut down every system other than life support and essential containment. Combat air patrol would have a tough time finding her with no ping and no power signature. They tried anyway, and she watched as the four dots in diamond formation passed behind her, silhouetted against the moon's grey surface. She waited another ten minutes before powering back up and sending her ship hurtling into subspace, on course for Smoker Three.
Subspace spat her out again in the shadow of the planet's only moon, just as the Hellcats must have done days before. She took one deep scan of the system and put her fighter on course to swing past the moon and aim for Smoker Three before powering down again.
The Sadit would know something had arrived, but one fighter could hide where a dozen couldn't, and she hoped they'd dismiss the momentary contact for an unmanned probe. She rested her head against the backrest and watched the moon's red surface slide by until Smoker Three crested the horizon. Perpetually covered by black clouds, the planet reminded her of some ancient vision of the underworld.
She closed the distance to the planet without a single contact on her passive scopes. The Demon's nose glowed red, then gold as it penetrated the atmosphere, sending a deep shiver through its frame. She shifted in her seat and rolled her shoulders. This was where the fun began. Not until she passed through the cloud layer did she power up her systems and pull up from her hurtling descent. The fighter leveled off just above the treetops, a sea of dull purple racing past below.
The Sadit command post was seven minutes away. She still remembered the mission data from last time, when she'd made the determination the attack was suicidal and turned her squadron around. The Sadit had set up in a valley, taking over an ancient bastion belonging to a long-gone civilization, and fortified it with anti-air missiles, rapid-fire quad laser emplacements, heavy orbital artillery, and point defense guns. Electronic defenses likely included signal distortion and active radar scrambling. At least two wings of short-ranged Spider defense fighters would be available to protect the base. If she wanted to last more than a few seconds into the fight, she'd have to even the odds a little.
She armed her missiles and torpedoes, released power to the wing lasers, and set the fuel mixture to combat ratio. One minute out.
At thirty seconds, her scopes warned of missiles attempting to lock on. The last ridge before the valley loomed before her, where mission data told her a missile emplacement had been hidden. She sent one of her missiles streaking across the short distance, igniting a fireball among the trees. The lock warning vanished.
She cleared the ridge with inches to spare and aimed down. The fortress sprawled across the valley floor, a conical tower rising above a complex of squat buildings. She located the block where the fighter squadrons had been housed and fired one of her two torpedoes at its wide outer doors. The explosion blew through the roof and sent chunks of ancient masonry flying through the air. She pulled a tight curve around the valley, weaving her ship as it shook from superheated air left behind by laser guns firing at her.
Her scopes blared and displayed thirteen signatures bearing down on her. She grimaced as she adjusted her course to minimize the profile she presented. The Sadits had had ships on patrol. The Hellcats' attack had made them cautious.
She'd never expected to come home after this, but the point was to blow up the command post and supply dump. Turning away from the approaching Spiders, she dove back into the valley. The main complex's walls were too thick for one torpedo to penetrate, but the fortress had a small courtyard within the central tower, lacking the protection of the thick outer walls. To hit it, she'd have to approach from almost directly above. She'd have to get rid of the Spiders first, and hope she'd survive long enough to make the run.
More missile lock warnings. She waited for the launch alarm, then dumped chaff and hugged the treetops. Explosions buffeted her craft from behind. A damage alarm sounded in her ear, but the engines didn't change pitch and her guns still worked, so she ignored it and tore the Demon through a corkscrew to evade more ground fire. Coming out of it, she lined up her sights with one of the quad gun emplacements and liquefied it with a burst of laser fire.
But now the Spiders had caught up. Bright bolts of plasma flashed past her cockpit, setting fire to the purple jungle below. She snap-rolled and tried to put the fortress's tower between her and her pursuers, but more ground fire forced her to turn away. "Come on," she muttered. "Not yet."
She reversed thrust, dumping her speed and straining the inertial compensators. The pursuing Spiders scattered, but two didn't curve sharply enough. As the engines propelled her forward again, she tracked a burst of laser fire across the multi-limbed craft in her sights. It flared out of existence as her missile reached a firing solution for her second target and raced after it. Her scopes confirmed a kill as she pulled up at the other end of the valley.
Her left control panel exploded, shards slicing through her flight suit and into her flesh. She could only see from one eye, and her left hand became reluctant to move, something to do with the two-inch panel fragment sticking out of it. Jaw clenched, she rolled into another dive. Another hit shook the ship, and now her port engine had a rattle to it. Multiple missile lock warnings buzzed in her ear. "Sorry, Hellcats," she muttered. "I tried."
The locks disappeared. Fireballs erupted all along the valley rim, and a voice spoke in her helmet: "We ain't done yet, Top."
It was a voice she'd known she would never hear again. "Crackerjack?"
"The one and only."
She looked to her left, and there he was, in his Demon with the eyes painted on the nose. She looked to the right and saw another Demon, and that was Deadeye Alice, giving her a thumbs up. More Demons zipped across the landscape below, giving chase to the Spiders.
"Stay on task, Major. We'll handle the Spiders and the ground fire. You set up for the attack run."
She soared skyward with glory in her heart, laughing through the pain. They were here! She didn't care how, or why. The Hellcats would finish the job they came to do. At the zenith of her ascent, she aimed the fighter at the fortress below. The tower's gaping opening rushed towards her. She saw crates stacked high, barrels, loaders moving around—
The torpedo crossed the distance in less than a blink. Fire erupted across her vision, surrounding her ship. Alarms blared, then went silent. She flinched as heat rolled over her.
She must have done something right, because when her vision cleared, she'd left the planet behind, heading into the black of space. Crackerjack flew by her side, as did Alice, as did all the Hellcats. "Crackerjack, how are you here?"
His voice came calm and clear in her ear, free of comm distortion. "We ain't, Major. Not exactly."
Sonya chuckled and shook her head. "I don't know how I'm going to explain this one."
"You're not going back, Top."
"What do you mean?"
Crackerjack's voice turned sad. "You ain't here, either. Not anymore."
Alice said, "We didn't want you here, Major. Didn't need the company. Why'd you come?"
Sonya closed her eyes, the last traces of stress and worry slipping away. "I should've known you were all right," she murmured. "But I wasn't. I needed the company. Didn't want to stay behind." She gave a carefree smile. "So lead the way, Crackerjack. Take me home."