Part Six - Positive Rate, Gear Up
Chapter 27 - The 100 Club
As Thanksgiving edged closer, the members of Sand Pebble Team received a pleasant, well-deserved surprise. Following another boring BARCAP mission "Beowulf" Andresen said we were to report to Lieutenant Plog's quarters immediately.
"Don't worry about changing," he said. "Surgeon says to come as you are."
"Okay, thanks Beo," I said, clambering out of my fighter's cockpit.
I rounded up my wingmen, and, flight helmets and kneeboards in hand, we hopped into a jeep and sped over to Plog's quarters.
"I wonder what we're in trouble for now," Josh asked, clearly unconcerned.
"Who knows? Maybe that girl you like is Maistroff's niece and he doesn't want you to see her any more," Waylan said with a chuckle.
"Hey now, that's not funny," Josh replied indignantly.
Waylan shrugged. "Well, you asked."
"Don't sweat it, guys. I'm sure it's nothing," I commented, unheard by my two wingmen as they continued their verbal joust.
I drove through the front gate, parked the jeep in one of the parking spaces reserved for some paper pusher assigned to headquarters, and made my way up to Plog's quarters, Waylan and Josh still engaged in a raucous debate behind me. I knocked on the door and was told to come in. We entered and found Sprabary and Ray napping on the two couches in Plog's quarters.
The "Surgeon" emerged from the hallway and tossed a pair of small black boxes at Waylan and Josh. "Congratulations gentlemen," he stated, as a proud smile spread across his face. "SSGT Green, SSGT Kaufman, I've just received word that you have been awarded the Silver Star with a V for Valor... 'For conspicuous gallantry in the face of superior enemy forces.' Congratulations!" He reached out and shook their hands. "The official ceremony will be sometime next week, or so I am told. As for you, Mr. Framton," he said, turning to me. "You've just been awarded the RDF Cross for your attempt to save LCDR Carr in spite of the extreme personal risk involved. Congratulations," he smiled once more, clasping my hand.
Plog's announcement took me completely off guard--I had no idea that I was even being considered for it, much less that I had been awarded it. The RDF Cross was the second highest medal for valor conferred by the RDF, and to be considered worthy of it was a tremendous honor--and a sure ticket to a command track. The coveted platinum cross, dangling passively from a red ribbon, was pinned to my chest during a short ceremony later in the week. As I walked down the hall, the medal thumping lightly against my chest, I was overcome by a tremendous feeling of guilt. I had failed to save Carr's life, and that failure made the medal seem meaningless...hollow. I would have traded a thousand RDFCs, and all the clout they carried, to have LCDR Carr back.
As I stood in front of my mirror in the barracks following the medal ceremony, I cursed myself for not striving harder to save my leader. "You gutless bastard," I said to my reflection. "You didn't try hard enough..." I took the medal off and put it in its box. Never again would I wear it. I vowed, instead, to give it to one of Carr's family members--if and when I made it back to Earth--for it was he that was worthy of a medal, not I.
Waylan, Josh, and I had planned to eat dinner together that evening, but plans changed. Waylan said he had things to take care of. Strangely, this had become a common occurrence with him of late. No matter how carefully laid out our plans, no matter how far in advance an activity was agreed upon, something always came up that caused Don to back out. It puzzled me, but I felt it wasn't my place to ask him why. I wished him well, and joined Josh for a relaxed evening at the local Italian restaurant.
We sat and ate our dinner to the soft strains of a live band playing traditional Italian folk music. "You know, I think I've met the perfect woman, Jake," he said over dessert.
"Really?" I said, leaning forward with heightened interest. "Who's the unlucky woman?" I chided.
"She's the most beautiful, sweet, wonderful girl in the world, Jake. She's just great! I'm completely mad for her, but--" he stammered, then, with a whisper, "I don't have the foggiest idea how to go about asking her out."
"Hell, just ask her. Buy her some flowers or something. Tell her she's beautiful, that you'd be honored to have her company for dinner. Something like that."
"I thought about that, but I wasn't sure if it would be too forward," he replied.
"Girls love flowers man!" I blurted, banging my fist on the table unconsciously. "It'll work. Trust me."
He laughed, "All right. I'll give it a shot." Then, looking at his watch, "Woah! Time for us to hit the rack. We've got to start engines at 0400."
"Christ! Will this war ever end?!" I lamented glancing at my own watch.
"Well, if she says yes I'll personally end the war in two days. Tops," he boasted, rising from the table.
"Ha! In that case, where does she work? I'll stop by and make sure she says yes," I replied, placing a tip on the table for our waitress.
"I bet you will. Just don't forget to pay the check, medal boy."
"Jesus," I said, as I picked the check up off the table and headed for the cash register. "This is really starting to get expensive."
On 26 November 2010, Josh passed the magic century mark, scoring a pair of kills during a routine patrol. As we trapped aboard Prometheus and were lowered to the hangar deck, it was clear that the number crunchers had spread the word. The hangar bay was filled with applauding young fighter pilots and ground crewmen as we taxied to our tie down spots. When Josh popped open his canopy a tremendous cheer--louder than a half dozen Valkyrie engines at full throttle--roared through the hangar bay. He waved to the pilots and crewmen, leaning out of his cockpit to shake hands with those that had gathered around his fighter.
Scrambling out of my jet, I shoved my way past the gathered throng and rushed over to shake his hand as his plane captain spray painted a kill marking through a cardboard stencil. He then whipped out a paint brush and neatly scripted the number "100" and the date underneath it. A cameraman snapped a picture of the smiling Kaufman, standing with 1LT Plog by the midnight blue Veritech. It was a tremendous moment, and a fitting way to celebrate the holiday season.
With his two scores, Husky became the twelfth fighter pilot aboard the SDF-1 to reach the "Magic 100," and his name was placed on a plaque compiled with the other members of the prestigious "100 Club." This seemed an incredible feat for someone like Joshua. Always quick to smile, never one to offend another with harsh words, he was an unconventional warrior, and did not command the same respect as a Roy Fokker. Even so, he was a tremendous fighter pilot, and like Waylan, tactically flawless, perpetually aware, and totally fearless.
It cannot be stressed enough that Waylan and Joshua were more than just highly talented pilots. They were the fiercest gladiators in the universe's most deadly arena. Never again in my career would I meet a pair of warriors so resolute in purpose, persistent in effort, and effective at making something out of nothing. I had witnessed both of them regularly nail Regult pods at over three miles with the GU-11--an almost impossible shot with a maneuvering target--and this adeptness was clearly evident in their scores. Pilots that were not Team Leaders generally had kill totals that were around half that of their leaders. That these two had tallies that exceeded my own was not so much an indication of generosity on my part, but rather a testimony to their skill and tenacity in the cockpit.
In the annals of great fighter aces, one would be most remiss in his duty not to include the names of Joshua Kaufman and Waylan Green. A finer pair of warriors one would be hard pressed to find.
The Thanksgiving/Christmas Season proved an exceedingly lonely time for me, even though I spent it with my now extended family. The Caseys did their best to put a happy face on things, but it was a difficult thing to do. Pictures of Rebeckah still covered the walls and mantelpieces, her stocking hung by the tree, and her room was left undisturbed, just as it was when she moved into our apartment. As the Casey and Framton families sat around the tree discussing the things people talk about at Christmas time, I snuck away to Case's room. It was like a shrine. I stared at her bed, a thick pink quilt folded neatly by the pillow. The letter jacket she had worn hung motionless on the back of the door, a reminder of more innocent times. Her closet, still filled with clothes evenly spaced on hangers, stood open, as if to suggest she had walked down the hall to get something. Her dresser, stacked neatly with makeup, pictures of the two of us stuck all around her mirror, brought back memories of the happy days we had spent together, and I couldn't help but shed a tear.
I wondered then if I had not let myself off the hook too easily. Had I deluded myself into thinking that I didn't have to mourn her passing any longer? Was that night over the ocean just my imagination running wild? There was sudden feeling of doubt that overcame me. I realized how much I really did miss her, and that I had conveniently ignored the magnitude of my sorrow. I sat there in the room for nearly an hour, staring at her things, smelling her scent on everything I touched. Those days proved to be the hardest ones of my life. There I was, surrounded by loved ones, yet I felt totally alone.
I truly missed my beloved wife.
Waylan joined the "100 Club" on 1 December 2010, with six kills during the first major combat action since June. The mood was the same as it was when Josh reached the prestigious 100 mark--perhaps even more so. We lost only one fighter, the pilot of which was rescued, and this only added to the celebratory atmosphere of the occasion. Don seemed far more jovial than he had been in months, and I was relieved to see him snap out of his funk. The pictures, cheers, and congratulations might have gone to the head of a lot of pilots, but not him. He took the praise heaped upon him with a casual gratitude and a selfless grin that was the exact opposite of the macho attitude one might expect. But then, what could anyone expect from a guy we called the "Gentle Giant?"
Waylan and Josh were now being called the "Dynamic Duo," a reference to the comic book superheroes Batman and Robin. There were only two teams aboard ship with a pair of one hundred-kill aces: Rick Hunter's, and now, my own. This proved to be a feather in my cap, and I was recommended for promotion to Third Lieutenant. I didn't feel deserving and asked Lieutenant Plog to withdraw the recommendation. He refused, and my nomination was forwarded up the chain of command for final approval. With both Waylan and Joshua at the one hundred-kill mark, all that remained to be seen was whether or not our team would be the first to post three "100 Club" members.
"Boss! Boss, guess what!"
I looked up from my weight bench to see an excited Josh Kaufman weaving over to me.
"What?" I asked, rising from the bench.
"That girl I told you about. Remember her?" he asked.
"Yeah, what about her?"
"I've got a date with her tonight! She said yes!!" he exclaimed, shaking his fists in the air.
"That's great!" I replied, slapping him on the arm. "Good work. When do I get to meet her?"
He put his hand to his chin in mock thought, "Well, how about Friday night?"
"Fine by me."
"Great! I've gotta' run, skipper. I need to go get ready! Those flowers really worked, by the way. Thanks."
"You bet. Good luck."
"Thanks. I'll see you around," he said, weaving his way back out of the weight room.
"I expect the war to end in two days, tops!!!" I shouted after him, with a chuckle.
"You got it boss!" he shot over his shoulder. "Two days...!"
That Friday I met Josh's new girl, a tall beautician named Kristy Harris. With high cheekbones, cherry red lips, and auburn hair flowing past her waist, she was an incredibly beautiful young lady. Her personality proved equally charming, and when she spoke her green eyes flashed brightly. She charmed the socks off of everyone she spoke to, and I was extremely happy for my friend, for he had indeed struck gold with this wonderful girl.
On 23 December 2010, my name joined Josh's and Waylans on the "100 Club" plaque. We were returning from a RATA escort mission when a group of enemy fighters attempted to cut off our return to the ship. Sending Josh and Waylan back with the Cat's Eye, I stood and fought a group of Regults, destroying seven. Once the Cat's Eye was safely away, I retreated to the ship, destroying two more. With nine kills, my total now stood at 105, and Sand Pebble Team became the first aboard the SDF-1 to have three 100-kill pilots.
The century mark brought with it a Distinguished Flying Cross, and a promotion to Third Lieutenant to mark the fifteenth month since my debut combat action. Since that time I had amassed a total of 1,231 combat flight hours on three hundred thirty-one missions during fifty-two weeks of active duty (excluding nine weeks I sat out for injuries to my cheek bone and clavicle), for an average of nearly three and a half hours per day in the cockpit.
The performance of my team reflected positively upon me, and things could not have looked better. Fortunately, I wasn't one to celebrate prematurely, and events would soon show the wisdom of this policy.
Chapter Twenty-eight - Hack Sack
I peeked over the pages of the book I was reading, Saburo Sakai's classic tome, "Samurai!" At my doorway stood a young Marine Corporal.
"What is it Corporal?"
"Sir, you're wanted by the CAG. He says come immediately."
"Did he say what he wanted?" I asked.
"No, sir. He just said to get you to him right away."
I groaned. I had been enjoying my first chance to sit down and view a different world through the words of another. My promotion had brought with it a better room in the Officer's Quarters, and I was doing my best to enjoy the new comforts afforded me--especially the plush couch. Begrudgingly, I set my book down and wondered what the problem was, as it was highly unusual to send a member of the Marine Shipboard Detachment to fetch someone for the Air Wing Commander.
I jumped into my boots, zipped up my green trimmed flight suit, and headed out the door, two paces behind the young Marine. As we weaved our way down the gray and white corridors toward the CAG's quarters, I asked myself what I had done. Clearly I had to be in some sort of trouble, or else it was one of Max's practical jokes. One could never tell with that blue-haired troublemaker, and I relaxed for a moment at the possibility that something funny might be imminent.
I reached the CAG's door and knocked on it.
"Come in!" a voice squeaked from inside. Rick Hunter was not known for having a booming, Fokker-like voice, which helped to earn him the almost derisive nickname "Mouse."
I entered and reported in to the lanky First Lieutenant, his jet-black hair in its customary unruliness.
"At ease Lieutenant. Can I get you something to drink?" I shook my head, and noticed that Lt. Plog was standing on my right shoulder. "We've got a problem, Framton. Your boys are causing trouble," he said, an expression of utter frustration indelibly etched on his face.
"Trouble, sir? What kind of trouble, exactly?" I asked.
"They were transferred out of your team this morning, and we--"
"Transferred?! Out of my team?! On whose authority?!" I demanded.
"At ease Lieutenant," he said, with a commanding gesture of his right hand. "This one is on Maistroff's authority. As usual, the genius of the higher ups is sorely evident. The number crunchers probably think it will raise the kill per mission ratio by breaking up your team.."
"Well gawdamnit, CAG, I'm not going to stand for this!"
"Apparently neither are they, which is why they are in hack," Lt. Plog said.
"IN HACK?!!" I turned to face my squadron commander. "Grounded for what?! What the hell kind--"
"Objection isn't a strong enough word, but I guess it will work," Hunter continued. "They refuse to fly without you, and you're going to have to get them to recant or else Maistroff will stuff them so far back in the brig they'll never be seen again."
My mind was reeling. I wondered what in the hell kind of a military broke up such a highly effective, cohesive fighting unit as my own. "No can do, CAG. If they don't fly with me, I won't fly either, and if you want to take issue with that...you may as well stuff me in the brig, too," I insisted.
"I don't want to do that, Mr. Framton, but if you back me into a corner on this one, I won't have a choice. Listen, if you will talk to them, get them to play ball, I will see what I can do about this. I'll go talk to Gloval if I have to. At the least we can give Maistroff what he wants on paper and do things our way when we're flying. What do you say? Will you do that for me, Lieutenant?"
I was beyond pissed by this point, but Hunter's word was good, and I decided I'd give it a shot.
"Alright, CAG. Where are they?"
"Next door with Max. I'll take you over there," he said rising from his seat on the coffee table.
I turned to follow the two Lieutenants out the door, seething with anger. I couldn't understand what Maistroff's problem was. It almost seemed as if he had a personal grudge against me, and I could think of no reason why. We walked into Max's room and I shook his hand. Josh and Waylan were sitting at Max's kitchen table, arms folded in defiance.
"Hello skipper," Waylan said.
"Hello guys. All right...what the hell is the deal? When did you find out you were getting pulled from my team?" I asked.
"This morning. We got called up to see CAG, and he told us what was going down. We won't do it, Jake," Josh stated, a fierce look in his eyes. "You know we have had plenty of opportunity to move elsewhere, and under better circumstances to boot--promotions and everything--but we prefer to stick with you."
"That's right, Jake. We don't want to fly with anyone else. Period," Waylan added.
I put my head in my hands. Refusal to fly was blatant insubordination--mutiny, practically--and brought with it some dire consequences. If I didn't talk them out of it they would find themselves in serious trouble. "Guys...I appreciate the gesture and your loyalty, but this is not the way to do things. You are going to jettison any future you may have in this crazy Navy of ours. Let's face it, this war can't last forever, and you need to think of what you are going to do afterwards."
"Give us a break, Jake. You know where I stand on that," Waylan insisted.
"Yeah, and flying with anyone else would make thoughts of a future academic. Our best chance at making it out of this is if we do it together," Josh continued.
"Maistroff is going to put you in the brig."
Josh laughed. "Let him. It will keep us from getting killed by those assholes out there," he said, jerking his left thumb over his shoulder.
"Look, CAG says he'll help us out. Why not give him a chance? Give the policy wonks their phony victory, and we'll work something out." I was imploring them now.
"Not gonna' happen, Jake."
"Not a chance."
I threw my hands up in despair. "Is there anything I can do to get you to change your minds?" They both shook their heads. "Well...I won't fly with anyone else either, so it looks like we're going to get our asses in a collective sling. We could get hung for this, you know."
"Big deal. If we fly with anyone else we'll get killed any way, why fuck around with it? Let's just get it over with now and save the Zents the trouble," Waylan insisted.
My words were in fact a tactful understatement. The consequences of our course of action could prove to be dire, and if liberally interpreted, our actions could in fact be considered desertion in the face of the enemy, a death penalty offense. Even so, I knew what I had to do, and with a nervous sigh, I stood and turned to face Lt. Hunter.
"Lieutenant, I'm sorry. If they can't fly with me they won't fly, and if I can't fly with them...I won't fly either." My voice and hands trembled as the Lieutenant's eyes narrowed.
"O.K., Framton. If that's how you want it."
"Yes, sir, that's how I want it," I confirmed, rising and moving toward Hunter.
"Very well. Corporal!" he hollered over his shoulder.
The young Marine entered into the room. "Sir?"
"Have a security team down here on the double. Confine these men to quarters until further notice."
"Aye, aye sir."
"I'm sorry guys. I have no choice. You may consider yourselves officially in hack. I'll do what I can, but you have dug yourselves one hell of a deep hole," Hunter said. "You've dug us all a hole," he said with a glance at Lt. Plog.
"I'm sorry sirs, but I'm sure you can both understand where we're coming from," I said, standing nose to nose with the wiry Air Wing Commander.
"I certainly do."
The security detail, complete with rifles and sidearms, showed up to escort the three of us to our respective quarters. As we stood in the hallway before heading out, I turned to my two wingmen and muttered, "You know, you two are a pain in the ass."
"Thanks, Jake," Josh said with a smile.
"Yeah, thanks. Keep the faith, Yah-Yah," Waylan noted, before being escorted down the hall.
"PAIN IN THE ASS!" I hollered over my shoulder as I headed toward my quarters, surrounded by armed Marines.
Chapter 29 -- The Sand Pebble Mutiny Court Martial
Being in hack did have one minor advantage--I was able to finish reading "Samurai!" Command of my squad was now in the hands of my Fire Team Two's Corporal Ozzie "Wizard" Martin. For three days I spent my time confined to quarters, wondering what fate awaited me. A non-judiciary punishment hearing--known as "Captain's Mast" in the naval arm--was scheduled to consider the charges of insubordination in the face of the enemy.
The purpose of the Captain's Mast was to determine if judiciary punishment was warranted. If it was determined that non-judicial punishment was sufficient, we could be fined, imprisoned, and dishonorably discharged. On the other hand, if judicial punishment was determined to be appropriate, the punishment could prove far more severe. For whatever the reason, Maistroff wanted my ass, and I was certain he would get it.
It was inevitable that my career as a fighter pilot would come to an ignominious end. The only thing left undecided was whether or not it would end stuffing garbage cans or blindfolded facing the end of a rifle barrel. The latter seemed ludicrously unlikely, but stranger things had happened before in war--and this was the mother of all wars.
On the day of the Captain's Mast, I arose and dressed in my finest uniform. The previous night I laid wide awake in bed, staring at the ceiling as I rehearsed the speech I would give to the members of the board. I realized this was a pointless exercise--never once in my life had I ever said anything the way I had practiced it--but I continued along any way, in the shower, brushing my teeth, buttoning my blouse.
A knock on the door told me it was time to go. As I passed the mirror I checked my uniform one last time, then headed for the door. A pair of armed Marines stood at attention on either side of the hatchway.
"Right this way, sir," one of them said.
"I know the way, Corporal. Thank you," I snapped before turning down the corridor, the Marines falling into step behind me.
We made our way down to the hearing chamber where I met Waylan and Josh.
"This is it, gang," I noted. "There's no turning back now."
"We wouldn't want it any other way, Jake."
"It doesn't appear we get a choice," I noted.
The three of us marched into the hearing chamber and snapped to attention in front of the large, circular table, where a large number of high ranking officers were seated.
"State your names for the record," came a deep, unrecognizable voice.
"Third Lieutenant Jeffrey Dale Framton, RDFN, reporting as ordered."
"Staff Sergeant Joshua Peter Kaufman, reporting as ordered."
"Staff Sergeant Waylan James Green, reporting as ordered."
Colonel Maistroff, resplendent in full dress uniform, stood and addressed the three of us. "We are here to consider the charges faced by the men before this board. Insubordination in the face of the enemy, blatant refusal to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer..." As he continued my mind began to wander. He was not nearly as tall as I had envisioned him, and his words were quickly lost on me. In short, he laid out the charges and asked us if we had anything to say to them.
Never one to keep my mouth shut, I stepped forward to speak, pulling my uniform coat down nervously in a desperate attempt to remain calm. "Sirs, may I take this opportunity to speak freely?"
"You may speak freely, Lieutenant," Col. Maistroff said.
"Thank you, sir," I said, then, clearing my throat I continued. "For the past seven months, I have had the privilege of leading these two fine fighter pilots--among others--into combat, and the performance of the pilots under my command speaks for itself most unambiguously. We have flown with each other for a long time now, and this has served to hone us like a fine instrument. We have learned to predict our actions and thoughts, to read the tones in our voices, to know exactly what the other is thinking.
"These men are loyal and conscientious, qualities that any leader would want from his subordinates. They have followed me without question, hesitation, or reservation, through some of the deadliest sky and space any human has ever dared to tread. This loyalty was not won lightly, but rather, earned in the heat of battle--a heat that has forged us like steel into a weapon. My team is a weapon, and a better one will not be found aboard this ship.
"The whole idea behind the organization of a fighter squadron is to maximize effectiveness and cohesion through teamwork, cooperation, and mutual support. The arbitrary, and highly suspect decision to break up my team--in spite of the objections of my air wing commander, squadron leader, and self--flies in the face of a naval fighter squadron's reason for being.
"We are not refusing to fight. Just look at the number sorties flown or enemy craft destroyed if you doubt our willingness to do that. No member of this team has ever...aborted. We have flown missions when our aircraft were not in top condition--with radars inoperative, engines out, missile racks that refused to fire. If we lacked the willingness to fight we would have maintenance aborted on each of these occasions--but we did not. To suggest that these two brave men have performed in any manner less than brilliance is an insult. There is not a finer pair of fighter pilots on any ship, in any military, anywhere. This board's insinuation that these two pilots are unwilling to fight is an outrage!" I yelled unconsciously, pointing at my two wingmen. Some the members on the board shifted uneasily in their seats at my comment. "We have hung our asses out to dry--we have risked our lives--while many of the members of this very board have stood safely in the confines of their quarters or on the SDF-1's bridge."
"Lieutenant Framton, I must warn you that you are bordering on slandering this board," Col. Maistroff interrupted, an air of pomposity permeating the air about him. "The charges you face are gravely serious Lieutenant."
"These charges are fraudulent, sir, and you know it. We are more than ready to fight. All we ask is that we be allowed to fight together. These charges are baseless and unnecessary if it were not for the meddling of certain so-called superior officers."
"Lieutenant, hold your tongue."
"I shall not hold my tongue, sir," I responded, my hands shaking as my face turned an angry crimson. I had always lived with a tremendous fear of authority figures--police officers, school principals, and senior officers. I was going way beyond my comfort level with this display of insubordination and it terrified me, but the grind of the last year finally caught up with me and I found myself not caring to sugarcoat things any longer. "How many missions have you flown, Colonel Maistroff? Zee-ro." I placed my thumb and index finger together, forming a circle--a zero--for emphasis. "You have never flown a combat mission, and yet you dare attempt to tell us how to do our jobs! You should be drawn and quartered."
"That's enough, Lieutenant. Your job is to obey the lawful orders of your superiors, no matter how illogical you may deem them," he said.
"These are my men, sir, not yours, and I have a responsibility to protect them from the periodically ridiculous decisions handed down by my superiors!"
"I will have no more of this, Lieutenant!"
"This court martial is a fraud! These charges are baseless! Your orders are not justified!"
"ENOUGH!! " Maistroff roared, slamming his fist on the table as he rose from his chair. "I WILL HAVE NO MORE OF THIS!!! Corporal, remove this man from these chambers immediately!"
"Aye, aye, sir."
"What kind of a leader refuses to give his pilots time off after a year of non-stop combat?!" I demanded, pointing at Maistroff. I was really pissed off now, and realized that nothing I said would matter any way. "Your orders are arbitrary and unnecessary! You have no credibility, Maistroff!! These men are my responsibility! MINE!" I shouted as the Marine escorted me out of the chamber.
"Stupid, mother fucker!" I hissed at the wall. "Damn that arrogant son of a bitch!" I hollered, kicking the water fountain in the hallway. I paced the halls for ten minutes, cussing and ranting until I finally calmed down enough to think rationally. It was then I realized I had made a grave error. "Oh, Jesus, what have I done," I muttered, putting a hand to my forehead. I had really stuck my foot in it. Maistroff was the number two man in SDF-1's chain of command, and--naturally--wielded a great deal of power and influence on the ship. Even if I had not alienated the board, my chances of getting off without severe punishment had taken a serious nosedive--Maistroff could overrule the board on a whim, for this was his mast. Seeing as how I had told him off directly to his face, I could see nothing short of a permanent assignment to the brig. With the realization that my flying days were over, I paced the corridor like a caged animal for twenty minutes until Waylan and Josh finally made their way outside.
"Good one, Jake. You nailed him good," Waylan said quietly. "You really got to him."
"What's going on in there now?" I asked, staring blankly at the deck at first, then glancing at the faces of my charges.
"They're considering the indictments."
I paced the floor nervously. I had cooked all our gooses, and I knew it. "I'm sorry guys. I shouldn't have done that."
"Hey! Forget it, Jake. You were brilliant," Josh said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "We couldn't have said it better."
"Yeah, well, we're all sunk now."
"Maybe. But at least they know where we stand," he continued. "People need to stand up to the Maistroffs of the world."
I agreed. It was true that we needed to stand up to people like him, but in the military, standing up was also a good way to get shot.
After another ten minutes a Marine stepped into the hallway. "Sirs, you are wanted inside now."
I turned to face my wingmen, told them how much I appreciated them, and apologized beforehand if we ended up over a barrel. "Well, this is it," I said with a nervous sigh. "Into the mouth of the cat."
"Woof! Woof!" Waylan barked.
We marched up the aisle, reported in as before, and stood at attention to hear the charges before us. To my surprise, my father and Captain Gloval were both seated at the table next to Maistroff. As the RDF's Chief of Aircraft Development, my dad had powerful friends, which gave me some hope--tempered by the fact that my father had never once used his influence to rescue me from a predicament inflicted by my own stupidity.
"Gentlemen," Colonel Maistroff began. "It is the opinion of this board...that the charges against you be dropped." I waited nervously for his personal ruling, my mouth dry as a desert, my heart a huge lump in my throat. "Though I find it personally distasteful, I must concur with the findings of the board." I nearly fell over with relief as adrenaline shot through my veins like ice water. "Further more, the order transferring Staff Sergeants Kaufman and Green out of Lieutenant Framton's squad is rescinded. These proceedings are closed."
I was freaking out. I was certain that Maistroff was going to hang me. I couldn't fathom any reason for him not to do so. The three of us did a simultaneous about face, and departed the hearing chamber.
"Looks like we've got our jobs back," Waylan said with a smile.
Josh laughed aloud, "Some job!"
I turned to him and grinned, "A wise man once told me this is the only job there is."
"Yeah, well, after all this time out of the saddle I'm beginning to think he's right," Waylan noted. "How the hell did we get off, any way?"
"I dunno, but I'm going to find out. I'll check in with you two later."
"See ya' later, Jake," they said in unison.
As I turned down the hall toward my quarters, I was intercepted by my father.
"Dad? Dad what the hell?" I asked, turning to face him.
"Let's take a walk," he said, guiding me toward an exit.
We walked to a base parking lot and my father's car. As he reached for his keys I turned to him and asked, "Dad what happened in there?"
Glancing around quickly, he leaned over the roof of the car. "The board's recommendation went against Maistroff--and so did Gloval," he said with a smile. "Get in."
I climbed into the car and he started the engine. "I trust you had something to do with the board changing its mind?" I asked him.
"Oh, I dunno. Maybe a little," he said with a wry wink.
"Cut the bullshit dad, what happened in there?"
My father pulled out onto the road, accelerating to avoid being rear-ended by one of the SDF-1's all-too numerous psychotic cab drivers. "Let's just say that Maistroff and I go back a few years. Not to mention the fact I have some friends in high places who realize you are a thousand times more valuable in the cockpit of a fighter plane than locked in a prison cell."
"Might one of those friends be Gloval?"
"One of those friends might Gloval be," my dad said with a mischievous grin.
"What else have you done on my behalf dad?" I asked, wondering if the things I had accomplished thus far were of my own merit or merely the result of political influence.
"Son, I made a promise a long time ago that, no matter what happened, everything you were to accomplish you would accomplish of your own accord and not because of me. I swore you would earn everything you received. This case was a little different. It was a grievous injustice that needed redress, and I couldn't, in good conscience, just sit there. Not this time."
"So you pulled some strings," I noted.
"Well, let's just say I gave one a little tug."
"So what's the deal with you and the Colonel? How do you know him?"
"Ah, we used to date the same girl at one point," my father said, staring at the road ahead. "It's a long story."
I was now supremely interested in their common past. "Ah, come on dad, what happened?"
"I punched him in the mouth once," he said with a mock right handed punch.
I busted into laughter. "She must have been some kind of girl!! Who was she?"
"Well 'she,'" he said matter-of-factly, "is your mother."
The blood drained out of my face as I was totally unprepared for his answer.
"Hahahaha! Don't worry Jeff!" he roared with laughter. "You are not Maistroff's son!"
I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God for that. Well, at least I know now why he hates my guts so much."
"Yeah, well, don't worry. He won't ever mess with you again. I've taken care of that problem. Any way, I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat."
I chuckled aloud. "That's fine by me, dad. Fine by me," I said, as we sped off toward the restaurant district.
Chapter Thirty - Ring Around the Tower
I returned to duty on New Year's Day 2011, flying my first mission the following morning. I would have been better off to have stayed in hack, for as Murphy noted, everything that can go wrong will--and did.
My squad launched for the last patrol of the day. Having been away from flying for nearly two weeks, it took a few minutes to get back into the swing of things. With the five fighters of my squad formed on my right wing, I headed toward our assigned patrol sector. The controller's voice on the radio was not a familiar one. Lisa Hayes, the ship's regular fighter director, was down with an appendicitis, and her substitute, Sammy Porter, was anything but adequate, being far too nervous to remain effective. Her ineptitude would prove costly.
During the previous weeks I had taken the time to go over the Zentraedi's tactics in the hope of coming up with some more effective defensive maneuvers to counter them. It mattered to me not whether I would fly again. If they were never to be used by me I was hoping they would prove valuable to someone else.
One of the maneuvers I developed was a defensive one to be employed by three- and six-ship formations. Later known as "Framton's Clover," it was a three-dimensional derivation of the "Thatch Weave" from World War II. In the "Clover," the aircraft in each section would break in different directions. The number one aircraft would execute a vertical pitchout, with numbers two and three pitching out left and right, respectively, after a 135 degree roll outboard. All three aircraft would extend out slightly before pitching through a reversal onto a reciprocal vector to meet at the point of the break (Figure Three). This tactic was best employed when bounced by an inferior number of opponents as it allowed one fighter to come free in order to assist the other two as needed. In offensive situations the maneuver reduced the likelihood that three fighters would present a target for any one enemy fighter, and allowed aircraft to clear each other as they converged. This tactic would save at least two of my pilots that evening, as the Zentraedi had yet another surprise in store for us.
As I swept the starry sky for the presence of enemy fighters, I allowed myself a smile. My daughter was now in her eighth month of incubation, and in only four more weeks I would officially be a father. I had paid a visit to the hospital every day since the Captain's Mast, and I couldn't help but get impatient at not being able to take the kid home with me. She looked like a healthy baby after all, and like a hungered person watching a cake bake in the oven, I wanted to take her out before she was truly ready.
With a bump on the throttle, I decelerated in order to match speed with the SDF-1, and therefore maintain my proper patrol distance. "Strike, from Fast Eagle Two-Zero-Niner. On station with five chicks," I called. My squadron was working in two shifts--twelve hours on duty, twelve off. I was the flight leader for the "night shift."
"Uh Fast Eagle Two-Zero-Niner, roger. Uh, proceed as...normal?" came Sammy's response.
I chuckled to myself. The poor girl was having a rough time. She had never done anything quite like this before, and although she was fully trained for the position, she lacked the most important training one could ever have: experience. When I realized she would have to keep everyone straight if the Zents decided to attack--always a likely possibility--my smile disappeared.
I took the time to glance at my squad. Waylan and Josh were in perfect formation off my right wing. Number five was a bit too far behind his leader, ruining the otherwise flawless symmetry of the formation.
"Sand Pebbles take it to combat spread," I ordered calmly.
"Roger," Wizard Martin called.
I watched the fighters from the other team curve gently away to the right out to a distance of about a mile. Josh's Valkyrie dropped back slightly before sliding slowly underneath my fighter from right to left. As he disappeared from sight, I shifted my view back to the left. His fighter reappeared, moving out to a distance of half a mile.
We continued scanning the dark sky, engines at flight idle--the minimum necessary to keep the reactors lit and the environmental systems operating--in order to conserve fuel. Keeping the reactors moving was essential, lest we be forced to attempt a restart under less than ideal conditions.
It seemed this would be yet another routine patrol. Lack of Zentraedi activity for long periods of time was becoming a fact of life, and it was hard for most to keep complacency at bay. I began to daydream for a moment, then caught myself. The experience with the Cyclops was still fresh in my mind, and the image of Josh's fighter filled with cannon holes caused me to sit upright in my seat. Almost immediately, a shrill voice in my headset caused me to flinch.
"Sand Pebble One, this is Strike," I looked at the console in front of me and saw the image of Sammy's flushed face.
"Go ahead Strike," I replied.
"Sand Pebble One, you've got bandits approaching, off the two-nine-zero--no--three-one-zero, at...oh jeez," she stammered.
"Calm down, Sammy. Take a deep breath and read the numbers to me one at a time," I was staring into my screen, trying to make eye contact with her. Her eyes darted about frantically.
"Okay," she inhaled sharply. "Off the three-one-zero, two-nine-zero, at seven-hundred-ninety-five miles," she managed.
"Roger that. Was that from a Cat's Eye or from Bullseye?"
"From Bullseye," she managed.
"Sand Pebbles, come right to three-two-zero," I called. I plotted the course into my GAPS and moved the throttles forward for an intercept. As my fighter began to accelerate, I went through my checks. "Sand Pebbles, knockers up." I armed my weapons systems and started my Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) equipment before running down the pre-combat checklist one final time.
As I approached radar range, I showed no contacts. I checked my switches--everything was set. Something was wrong. "Sand Pebble One, to Wizard One. Do you show the bandits on your screen?"
"Ah, Sand Pebble One, negative. My scope is clean, over."
"Gawdamnit," I cursed to myself. "She got her fucking numbers backwards!" I hissed, as I reefed my Valk back to the left, just in time to spot a gaggle of Gnerl Fighter Pods, guns blazing, streak towards me. "Sand Pebbles break!" I yelled into the net before reefing my fighter into a wild reversal to pursue the Gnerls that had just flown past.
A tone in my headset and a trio of red halos on the HUD showed my missiles had locked onto the enemy fighters. With the toggle switch set to fire in groups of three, I thumbed the missile button. Three Stilettos streaked away from my Valk. Two of them struck the fleeing fighter pods dead center, while the third was successfully evaded by the remaining enemy craft. The tail of the Zentraedi fighter flared brightly as the enemy pilot added power to attempt an escape. I followed suit, shoving my throttles to the stops. The fighter rolled right, trying desperately to evade me, but it mattered not, for he was a dead man.
I stomped on the right rudder, and pulled the stick back and to the right, corkscrewing around in an effort to stay with the pod. With a tone in my headset and a red halo on the HUD, I flipped the volley toggle to "1" and fired. A Stiletto shot forward, impacting the pod below and behind the cockpit. A brilliant explosion--white hot fingers of fire hurling pieces of jagged steel out into space--billowed out before dying suddenly of oxygen starvation.
I racked my fighter back to the left, peering over my shoulder to check my tail. It was clear. Turning again back to the right, I headed in the direction of where I estimated Waylan would be. I had found myself becoming extremely protective toward the hulking fighter pilot, and I wanted to make sure nothing happened to him. Josh was less of a concern, since he did not seem so convinced he would die, and so I worried a bit less about his fate--I knew, intuitively, that he would be fine. The flashes of light ahead were evidence that a violent dogfight was raging, and so my guess on Waylan's position seemed to be accurate.
"Sand Pebbles, check in when able," I called into my helmet mike.
"Three here, boss! We've got our hands full stand by!"
I rammed the throttles to the stops and closed on the dogfight. The excitement in Josh's voice--every successful fighter pilot learns to translate fear into excitement rather than trying to ignore it--added to the urgency I felt. I screamed between a pair of explosions that were the only remains of a duo of Gnerls. A Veritech rolled, then corkscrewed violently to my right, a pair of Fighter Pods matching it turn for turn.
"Somebody get him off me!" I heard a voice scream hysterically. It was number five, a young Corporal named Ben "Rash" Hyves.
"Hang on Rash, I'm on my way," I said as calmly as I could. No sooner had the words cleared my lips than a fiery explosion lit up the starry sky. Ben Hyves was gone, now a footnote in Captain Barr's history book. As the flash of Ben's fighter dissipated, I was overcome with rage. "Not today, you fucking bastards," I muttered to myself, dropping into the saddle behind the two pods. I would be damned to let them get away with killing another one of my boys, even if it meant I had to ram them.
With a thirst for blood I focused my efforts on this one goal, oblivious to everything else going on around me. Closing on the pair, I felt a strange calm come over me. Like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter, I had entered into my zone, and nothing was going to stop me. I placed the pipper on the lead Gnerl's canopy and fired a one second burst. The cockpit exploded as if in slow motion, shards of glass and steel flying out in all directions, before the pod tumbled tail forward and disintegrated.
The number two fighter, now aware that he was in trouble, broke hard to the left. I followed him with ease, my finger easing back on the trigger. A second short burst was all that was required. The enemy fighter exploded into a billion pieces, hurtling toward a rendezvous with infinity. Its destruction did little to calm my rage. I had never lost a pilot, before, and the emotions this caused are not easily described. That pilot was my responsibility, and losing him left me with a feeling of guilt that would never go away.
I pulled on the stick and pitched through a half loop, turning my fighter back toward the dogfight. There was no fight here any longer. "Sand Pebbles, check in," I called.
Waylan! "Sand Pebble Two from One, do you read?" I waited for several seconds as my blood ran cold. "Sand Pebble Two from One, do you read me, over?!" There was no response. "Christ," I thought. "This can't be happening. Damn that incompetent Samantha Porter!"
I made several more calls, and still received no response. "Corkscrew One-Five, this is Sand Pebble Lead, over." I was contacting one of the Cat's Eyes in the hopes they could find Waylan's fighter. It was clear Sammy would not be able to give me an answer.
"Sand Pebble Lead, Corkscrew One-Five. Go ahead."
"Corkscrew One-Five, Sand Pebble Lead. Do you have radar contact with Fast Eagle Two-One-Zero, over?"
"Sand Pebble Lead, stand-by one."
I waited impatiently for his reply. Waylan's premonition came to mind, and I realized that he might very well be dead.
"Sand Pebble Lead from Corkscrew One-Five," he called. The pause was excruciating. "Fast Eagle Two-One-Zero is at your four o'clock for three-zero miles. His transponder signals he has communications failure, over."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God." My friend was alive. "Roger Corkscrew. Thanks very much. Sand Pebble One, out."
Waylan was a "NORDO," an acronym from the old days meaning "No Radio." He would probably need an escort to facilitate his recovery aboard ship. I banked to my right in the direction of Waylan's fighter, and found him orbiting not far from our patrol sector. As we formed up on him, he tapped his helmet with his right hand, signaling that he had radio problems.
"Fast Eagle Two-Zero-Niner, to Strike. Fast Eagle Two-One-Zero is NORDO. Request bingo to a ready deck, over," I was doing my best not to show my anger. Sammy's screwup had nearly cost us our lives.
"Fast Eagle Two-Zero-Niner, this is Strike. Clear to Platform...Report....Marshall, over."
"Two-Zero-Niner, roger." I pointed to Waylan, then to Josh. "Three, escort him to the boat. I will stay here with the remainder of the section."
"Roger, One," he replied before peeling off to the right in the direction of the ship.
The rest of the mission went off without any further problems or entanglements. Our BARCAP destroyed over sixty enemy fighters for the loss of seventeen of our own. A poor trade, doubtless negatively affected by Sammy Porter's frayed nerves. In a way I felt sorry for the poor girl, but at the same time, her incompetence (was there another word for it?) had cost lives, and that was not acceptable.
As I headed back toward the ship--after being relieved by another squadron--Sammy's frayed nerves were as evident as ever. My first attempt to trap aboard ship resulted in a hook skip. As I entered into the bolter pattern, Sammy's frantic directions shrieked over my number two radio.
"Sand Pebble One, break left for traffic!"
I hauled the stick to the left and watched in shocked disbelief as a pair of Valkyries flashed beneath my nose, only inches away from colliding with me. "Jesus Christ!" I screamed, before heaving my fighter back over to the right to re-enter the downwind for Prometheus. The pattern was a shambles.
Fighters being directed to their patrol areas are often completely at the mercy of their controller, and Sammy was wreaking havoc. I had no sooner entered the bolter pattern when she ordered me to break right for traffic. Another pair of Valk's flashed past me, and I blew up. "Porter, you gawdamned twit! Get the hell out of the freaking bridge! You're fucking dangerous!" I hissed. I no longer gave a damn about holding my tongue.
Her reaction was priceless. "Lieutenant Framton, please do not interrupt me while I'm trying to give instructions."
I almost choked. "That fucking bitch," I snarled, slamming the configuration lever to "B" to switch my Valkyrie into Battloid mode. I had had enough. "I'll fix her wagon, and good. The little shit," I muttered to myself.
I maneuvered my Battloid right up to the glass bubble that separated the SDF-1's bridge from the cold vacuum of space, and leveled my gun pod at the blonde teenager. The expression on her face, the radar screen casting an incandescent glow upon her cheeks, was priceless.
"Sammy, I said get the hell off the bridge. I will spell it out for you. You...are...dangerous. Either calm the hell down or get someone else in there who is! Do I make myself clear? You've already cost enough lives with your bungling. Pull your head out of your ass, and do it now!"
Fortunately for her, Claudia Grant, the number three officer on the bridge came to Sammy's rescue. When she spotted my midnight blue Valkyrie standing nose to nose with her, she realized that things were not right. A lithe, golden-brown Nigerian, Claudia calmly moved Sammy out of the way of her console. "I'll take over from here, Mister Framton. You may return to the ship."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Grant. What took you so long? Where the hell is the rest of the bridge crew?"
"That will be all Lieutenant," she said firmly. "Return to the ship."
Arrogant bitch, I thought, turning my Valk around and departing the vicinity. I returned to the Prometheus, not giving a damn about flying the pattern again. I was more than happy to simply fly onto the elevator in Guardian mode without even making a call to the carrier. Enough was enough.
I stormed into the Ready Room seething with anger. It was completely beyond my realm of understanding that anyone so incompetent could reach such a high level of responsibility. Still, this was the military, and like any other military in the history of the world, it was prone to commit such errors.
Not surprisingly, I never received an answer to my question of why the bridge had been so slow to respond to Sammy's predicament. I presumed the oft-compartmentalized nature of the bridge's operations meant that her difficulties went unnoticed for far too long. Unfortunately, she would have yet another opportunity to insure her bungling would not escape attention indefinitely.
On 7 January, while substituting once again for Lisa Hayes, Sammy's frayed nerves would send fighters careening in all directions, unable to make effective intercepts. Only a miracle would prevent another catastrophe. Her second screwup in less than a week resulted in her being pulled from fighter direction duties until she could successfully complete a remedial training syllabus. Thankfully for us, it would be awhile before Samantha Porter served as fighter director again. It was unfortunate, however, that this decision came too late to save the seventeen fighter pilots who died that first January evening, and one could only hope her suspension would serve to save more lives in the future.
Chapter Thirty-one - Fatherhood: The Birth of Two Ladies
The first week of January proved to be an excruciating period. Zentraedi activity from the second to the eight of the month reached a fever pitch before ending suddenly on the ninth. The pattern of Zentraedi offensives would have made one great Reggae beat, but that did little to explain the reasoning behind it. Much as Hitler's Luftwaffe had done during the early days of the Battle of Britain, the Zentraedi had made tremendous strides toward breaking us, only to change their tactics on the verge of victory, thereby allowing us a chance to rebuild and resist further. It made little sense--at least at the time.
During the Zentraedi assaults I managed to rack up twenty-five confirmed kills during some of the most intense dogfights of the First Robotech War. Waylan and Joshua continued to perform brilliantly, scoring similar totals, but it was a desperate situation for us. Day after day we launched in defense of our ship, and each day we lost more and more of our precious Valks. Maintenance crews worked around the clock tending to some very sick fighters, trying to stem the tide in any way they could, but they were losing the fight. With each passing day our defenses shrank and our valuable stock of spare parts dwindled. Re-supply operations were a pipe dream, and we found ourselves alone, within astral spitting distance of our home planet. It was an all too familiar struggle. Our constant efforts to defend the ship were taxing at best, and when the offensive ended on the afternoon of 9 January we were all ready for some rest--though we wouldn't get it.
When I wasn't flying one could find me in the hospital, peering at my daughter in her sterilized chamber through impenetrable panes of Plexiglas. She was so tiny. Peaceful. A total contrast to everything going on around her. The thought made me shake my head in disbelief. She was like the eye of a hurricane, oblivious to the huge storm swirling all around her. I agonized at not being able to take her home. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve--I wanted my presents before it was time. Indeed, the one activity that would usher in the opening of presents--sleep--was the most difficult to undertake. My Christmas Eve would last three weeks, and during this time I came to realize that my decision to have her was not a mistake.
After only two days' worth of waiting, I realized I was going to turn into a basket case unless something came along to take my mind off of my child. My salvation came on 12 January in the form of an assignment to the Valkyrie Development Project, as part of a group of pilots tasked with making recommendations to be used in the design of an improved version of the VF-1. It was a welcome assignment. Finally, I could make my criticisms of the Valk official--something outside the realm of the father-son chat.
In all fairness, the VF-1-series of Veritechs was an extremely capable aircraft, light years ahead of anything ever built to that point. Like any young design, however, it was far from its true potential. Recent advances made in the Valkyrie as a weapon system had done a great deal to address some of its shortcomings, but there was still ample room for improvement.
When compared to its contemporaries, the basic Valk was far more survivable than almost anything the Zentraedi could offer. With the exception of the Quaedluun-Rau--which was, thankfully, rarely seen--Zentraedi designs did not put as much emphasis on survivability as we did. Their fighters, while well armed, were lightly armored and lacked the sophisticated countermeasures that helped Veritech pilots avoid missiles. We held the edge, but we did not delude ourselves into thinking it was anything other than a highly tenuous one. As a fighting system, the Quaedluun-Rau was easily the equal of a Valk--in space some would even argue that it was a superior one--and if the Zents ever deployed it in large numbers, the game would be over very quickly.
My own personal complaints about the Valkyrie were pretty much in line with those of the other fighter pilots on the Development Team. I now had well over twelve hundred flight hours in the fighter, which made me the most experienced flying member of the development team--with the notable exception of Lieutenant Rick Hunter--and so my suggestions carried a lot of weight. In short, I wanted a Valkyrie with more armor, range, firepower, and speed.
After more than a hundred dogfights I had seen a lot. Too many times had I witnessed a Valk spew reaction mass like a severed artery after taking only one, relatively minor hit. Other times I had been forced to disengage from combat because of shrapnel damage to an engine, or been forced to abandon a pursuit or leave a fight for lack of fuel. In other instances I had been forced to break off an attack because I was out of ammo--twelve Stilettos didn't last long in a fight--or had been outrun by an enemy ship. These were issues that needed immediate redress, and the engineers listened to us with sympathetic understanding.
We needed a fighter that would let us engage the enemy at a greater distance, for a longer period of time. We needed a fighter that could go like a bat out of hell and still have fuel to fight a prolonged engagement without concern. We needed a ship with enough missiles to duke it out at close range when outnumbered thirty-to-one and still have missiles left over. We needed a fighter that could stop on a nickel and turn on a dime. A fighter that could take a hit and come back for more. In short, we needed a miracle.
It was true that the Robotech engineers had taken steps to address these concerns with the GBP-1 Valkyrie Armor System, a.k.a. the "Armored Valkyrie." The GBP-1 Armor System could be fitted onto any existing Valk, and it vastly improved several aspects of the standard Valkyrie design. Giving the VF-1 an appearance akin to a Sumo Wrestler--hence the nickname "Sumo"--this modification more than doubled the Valk's armor, and the total number of missiles available rose from twenty-two with special racks to eighty. A booster "backpack" added to the Armored Valk's maximum acceleration in space, and helped overcome the additional weight of the armor when in a gravity well--allowing it to make short, rocket-assisted jumps. I had flown the Sumo on several occasions and found it a far more potent and survivable weapon system than the standard VF-1. Even so, it was far from perfect.
The addition of the armor and weaponry came at a cost. A Valk wearing GBP Armor was all but useless in an atmosphere--it could not fly--and had to stay in battloid mode no matter where it operated. Mode changes could only be accomplished by first jettisoning the armor and any unspent missiles in the Sumo's racks. Once cut loose, the armor would float slowly off into space, never to be seen again. Jettisoning armor meant a loss of weaponry, armored protection, and the possibility of colliding with the miniature debris ring this procedure created. Not only was this an unattractive option from the standpoint of a pilot in the middle of a fight, but also from the standpoint of the SDF-1's limited resources. Also, and more importantly, the Sumo was not nearly as maneuverable as the standard VF-1. The Armored VF was in essence a space-worthy Destroid, and the standard Valkyrie vernier thrusters proved insufficient to overcome the additional mass inherent in the design. A new answer was needed.
The concept we arrived at was rather simple: expand on the principle of the Sumo so that it covered every regime of the Valkyrie's operations, while maintaining the standard VF-1's agility. During the development of the new fighter we hoped other minor issues could be resolved as well. For example, I was really agitated by the fact that changing modes required a pilot to release the throttle and use his left hand to activate the mode change panel. Under G, this often proved problematical, and slowed one's reaction time considerably. I wanted the mode change lever to be located on the stick or the throttle so that it could be activated with the touch of a button.
Also, the VF cockpit used two sets of control sticks. The first set was comprised of the traditional stick and throttle arrangement used in jet mode, while the second pair of sticks was used for control exclusively in battloid and guardian modes. When in combat situations--always a high-G environment--mode changes were often hairy. Not only did one have to fight to get the correct switch on the mode panel, but one then had to reach up and grab the control sticks used in that particular mode. We wanted a single set of sticks that could be used to fully control the Valk in any mode.
The engineers and project leadership--my father included--listened to our complaints and suggestions. By the time February showed up on the calendar they would have a wonderful surprise for us, and I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
On 2 February 2011 the doctors told me that it would be safe to take my daughter home the next day. They told me they wanted to run one more series of tests before I could take her, but they foresaw no problems. That night was a sleepless one to be sure. My daughter was coming home!
The morning of the third, Max, Waylan, Joshua, my mother, father, and both of Beki's parents, joined me at the hospital. The traditional pink cigars were handed out to everyone, and everyone there took a turn at holding the new baby. A new life had begun, and we were overjoyed.
"Congratulations, daddy-o!" Waylan exclaimed, giving me a huge hug.
"She's a beautiful baby," Max added. "She's absolutely precious. I know she didn't get her looks from you," he added jokingly.
He was, of course, right. This child was a spitting image of her mother, and she could not have looked better. She was so incredibly beautiful, not one hair on her tiny head, that I found myself unable to stop looking at her, unable to stop smiling.
Caring for my little girl had long been a concern of mine, and I had decided that when she was not with me, my little rug rat would spend half the time at my parents' house, half at the Casey's. It seemed the only fair arrangement for all involved.
For months I had agonized over an appropriate name for my new daughter. It was clear that there was only one Rebeckah Jane Casey, and I fought hard for a decent name. In the end I decided on what I felt most appropriate: Casey Rebeckah-Jane Framton. Not only did it have a nice ring to it, but it was a surefire way to honor the young one's mother. If ever there was a name worth remembering, it was hers.
On 7 February 2011, the Prototype Super Valkyrie was rolled out onto a secluded section of the Prometheus' hangar deck. A menacing looking machine, it was the most incredible thing I had ever seen! With flowing yet rakish lines, large maneuvering thrusters all about, and a pair of rakish backpack boosters, it was clear that this was a fighter pilot's dream. I couldn't wait to get my hands on her!
For various reasons, the pilots chosen to fly the Super VF were not publicized. As the Development Project's ranking pilot, Rick Hunter was tasked with taking the Super on its first test flight. It was a dream come true, and every pilot on the project envied Hunter's good fortune. Later that day, as I sat quietly drinking a Dr. Pepper--the official soft drink of the State of Texas--endlessly scribbling my daughter's name on a piece of paper, I was unprepared for what Hunter to say.
"Lieutenant, she is all yours."
I almost choked on my soda. "What?!"
"The Super. She's yours to fly," he said, motioning toward the door and the Super VF waiting outside.
"Oh...shit..." I mumbled in disbelief. Hunter's offer was an unambiguous gesture of respect, and I was completely taken aback by it. "I can't do that, CAG. You've earned the shot at it. I insist you do it, sir."
He inhaled deeply and in a stern voice, "Lieutenant, don't make me order you. You've more than earned this opportunity. I suggest you take it."
Shaking my head as I was wont to do when dumbfounded, I reached out and shook Hunter's hand with a simple, "Aye, aye, sir," an ear to ear smile covering my face.
"That's what I like to hear," he said with a twinkle in his eye, before heading to the door. As he turned the corner I heard him shout, "I'll see you on deck at 0600. I'll fly chase. Don't be late. Now go get some sleep!"
It would prove to be another sleepless night.
At 0530, I crawled out of my rack, shaved, brushed my teeth, and hopped into a clean flight suit. I'd long since learned that showering at night meant I could sleep that much later in the morning, and I preferred it that way, even on nights when I didn't get any sleep. Before heading over to Prometheus, I stopped by my parents' house to see my girl. She was peacefully sleeping in her crib, and I gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead before slithering out the door.
I reached the Ready Room at 0545 for the preflight briefing with Lt. Hunter and the the other chase pilot, Lieutenant Jim "Mason" Dickson. The briefing was merely a review of established procedures that every memeber of the Development Team was well aware of. In short, Hunter and Dickson would be positioned in such a manner that they could intercept my fighter if anything went wrong. Unlike test flights on Earth, there was no place to land if there was a problem. An engine that refused to shut down--or one that failed to operate properly to when trying to decelerate--could result in my darting off into infinity, unable to stop. This was an unlikely possibility, but one we had to plan for just the same.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, the Super was not outfitted with any weapons for this test flight. If the Zentraedi were to attack, it was up to the two Lieutenants to insure my safety. That, more than anything, caused some concern on my part. The Zentraedi hadn't made any significant efforts against us in weeks, and we were about due for a house call.
"Any questions?" Hunter asked. There were none. "Alright. Jake, you will be 'Special One.' I'll be 'Dash Two,' Mason will be 'Dash Three.' Our Button Five is 230.50, and the entire area from radial zero-one-zero to one-five-zero is ours. Good luck," he said, shaking my hand. "Let's do it."
I nodded to both Hunter and Dickson, then grabbing my helmet, stood and headed for the door. I was about to take the most incredible ride of my life.
Chapter Thirty-two - Super Super
I donned the helmet and pulled the visor closed as per our orders. There was an unusual secrecy surrounding the project, but it was deemed necessary by those in charge, and again, ours was not to reason why--ours was to do. As I walked up to the prototype Super Valkyrie, I cinched up my anti-G suit, nervously. With its nose pointed toward the deck at a steep angle, the fighter looked like a cat about to pounce on its prey, or a muscle car about to launch from the starting line. It exuded power and speed, and I found myself staring at it in awe.
As I walked up to the forward fuselage I realized that this was a very special fighter. Though truly an interim solution, the Super Valk gave the VF-series a much-needed shot in the arm. The system, which could be applied to any existing VF given the proper modifications, expanded our capabilities greatly. Although we did not get everything we wanted--armor for the cockpit, a new flight control system, a mode change button--what we did get was truly exceptional, and I itched to take the fighter into combat. We had been assured by the engineers that the Super Veritech's deficiencies, both glaring and slight, would be more than made up for in the next generation Veritech Fighter, the VF-4 Lighting.
After clambering up the boarding ladder I swung ungracefully into the cockpit. Aside from a slightly different shade of paint and a different COM panel, the Super's cockpit was exactly like that of the standard Valkyrie. The two sets of control sticks and mode change control panel remained unchanged. The programming necessary to consolidate the sticks and replace the mode change panel with a single button was already written, but the top brass felt the time needed to create the production tooling and put it into operation would stop Valkyrie production for too long. We would have to wait for the next block of VF-1s before we would see these beneficial changes.
As the plane captain helped buckle me into the fighter, the unusual nose down attitude with which the Super sat on its landing gear became readily apparent. I initiated the auto-start sequence and started clocking it with my stopwatch. In only twenty-five seconds--a full twenty seconds faster than the standard VF-1--my fighter was up and running, all systems fully ready.
"Special One is up, Button Four," I called glancing over at the Valkyrie to my right. Lieutenant Hunter's wide-eyed expression caused me to chuckle into my mask. He was clearly surprised by the speed of my fighter's startup sequence.
After another twenty seconds, Hunter and Dickson stated they were ready to go.
"Special One Dash One is up, Button Four."
"Dash Two up, Button Four."
I glanced left, then right to clear the area around my fighter and signaled the plane captain to pull the chocks. At his direction I eased my fighter toward the elevator. A light tap on the brakes brought the Super Valkyrie to a halt on the right side of the elevator. Hunter's Veritech taxied up on my left side and stopped parallel to my own. As the elevator rose to the flight deck, I clenched and unclenched my fists repeatedly. I was a bundle of nerves--excited by my grand opportunity, intimidated by my fighter's size, and fearful of the potential for disaster.
I taxied as directed across the flight deck to the port side. A cat shot was not going to take place, just in case the Super gave us some sort of unexpected difficulty. Instead, I was to simply taxi "over the side" of the Prometheus in order to do some very elementary maneuvers. This would insure that the flight control system was working "as advertised."
"Prometheus Tower, Special One. Requesting clearance for departure," I called.
"Special One, Prometheus Tower. Cleared for departure. Good luck," came the cheery reply. It was clear that this was a special moment and those privileged enough to watch felt a wave of excitement envelop them.
After a final check of the flight control system, I smoothly added power and taxied the Super off the flight deck. Hunter and Dickson followed, and once clear of the ship I did a set of rolls, turns, and loops to insure the flight control system was operating. Everything went flawlessly, and I proceeded to the test area at a cautious pace. If anything were to go wrong, the two chase pilots would be able to stop me by grabbing onto my fighter and performing a short retro burn to bring us to a stop relative to the SDF-1.
Once into our "maneuvering box," an area of some three hundred cubic miles, we began to slowly put the super Valk through its paces. I started out with some very slow turns and reversals, a few loops, and some mode changes. In Guardian and Fighter modes the Super was almost twice as responsive as the standard Valk in yaw and pitch, and had a comparable roll rate, but the real treat was its acceleration.
I made a series of speed runs with Hunter and Dickson ready to stop me in the event of a catastrophic failure. With each succeeding pass I increased my total thrust, and hence, my speed and acceleration. The fighter was proving to be flawless, and with Hunter and Dickson running interference, I decided to go for a full throttle pass.
"Dash One from Special One. I'd like to make a max speed pass this time. Any objections?"
"Special One, Dash One. Negative. Everything seems to check out all right. It's your call, over," Hunter replied.
"I think I'll give it a go, over."
"Rog. I'll stay with you as long as I can. Dash Two, move out to seven hundred miles, repeat seven zero zero miles, over."
"Dash Two, roger."
I looked off to my left, straining for a glimpse of Hunter's fighter between my Valk's fuselage and the booster pack. In formation flying visual contact is a necessity, yet the position of the boosters made visibility from the "Three-Nine Line" aft impossible--an undesirable feature we would be forced to live with. I could not see him and could only trust he was there, spaced out to a safe distance.
"All right Dash One. I'm going to give a you a count down from ten, over."
"Roger, Special One. I'm at your seven o'clock, slightly high, spaced out about two hundred yards. Ready when you are."
"Roger, standby," I said. I took a deep breath, then said a prayer. There was always the chance that something would go wrong causing me to fly off into space, never to be heard from again, or perhaps worse, explode in a fireball. In a test program these were the risks one took, and it was impossible to know when your number would come up. You simply shrugged and prayed.
"Dash Two on station."
My left hand trembled as I reached for the throttle and depressed a button that would allow it to control both the Valk's engines and the booster engines simultaneously.
"Awright, Dash One, stand by..."
Fuel pumps on...
Fuel selector set to "BOTH"...
Fuel flow...in the green...
Shoulder harness engaged...
Booster temp...in the green...
Navigation...checked and set...
Will signed and sealed...
Jesus in Heaven don't let me die...
Throttle forward, through detent... I am shoved quickly into the rear of my seat by the acceleration. A glance at the accelerometer shows 3.2 G, and I'm feeling it all, as the force tries to ram me through the ejection seat and out the back of the aircraft. The Valk shudders lightly as if on a gravel road but she heads off exactly in the direction I have pointed her. Clearly the program code written for the Super is right on the money.
"Special One, from Dash One. I have lost visual contact with you! You blew past me like I was standing still!"
I glanced down at the GAPS and realized exactly how fast I was going--over twice as fast as the standard Valk, and still accelerating! The HUD lit up with a red halo giving bearing and distance information on Dickson's Valk. The distance between us dwindled rapidly, and I was past him before I knew what had happened, as a momentary streak of red and green nav lights flashed past my left side--I had just busted my "safety net." I realized there was no way I could set up an attack solution for a gun pass without a lot of practice-- the high closure rate would take a great deal of getting used to.
"Special One from Dash Two. You just flashed by me. Better take your foot off the gas."
"Dash Two, roger. I'm going to pull the power off now. Stand by for retro burn in three...two...one...retro," I said, pulling the throttle to idle. Thumbing the "Booster Slave" button, I applied reverse thrust by swinging the main engines forward in the VTOL mode--which is the basic Guardian mode without the arms extended. A long burn brought me to a stop relative to the SDF-1, and I pivoted my fighter to make my return to the ship.
Because this was supposed to be a short flight, the reaction mass in my tanks was down to about 25% of capacity. Our standard emergency reserve was 10%, and I would be tapping into it by the time I decelerated for the Marshall Pattern. Still, barring any unforeseen events--an accident on deck or a Zentraedi assault--I would make it home with fuel left over.
"Special One, Bingo. I'm now inbound to the Prometheus Marshall off the one-three-zero, six-five, twelve-zero-six miles. Form up at your discretion, over," I called calmly.
As I closed on my wingmen I allowed myself a huge sigh. It took a few minutes for the stark reality to hit me. Although more testing would be required before it entered production, the Super Valk was a success!
Jason W. Smith
Copyright © 1995 by Jason W. Smith
(Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual events, persons, etc. is coincidental--even if intentionally so! --June 1995)
Based on characters and situations from
Robotech, © 1985 Harmony Gold, USA, Inc.
Robotech (R) is the property of Harmony Gold. This document is in no way intended to infringe upon their rights. The author has not accepted any remuneration for this work.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
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