The sight of nine Air Command Kites swooping around the towering buttes guarding the plains of Bellac Tau was either a thing of beauty or of terror, depending entirely on whose side of the war observed the approach. The planes had arrived, cloaked by technology as much as the dawn, to deliver their payload only hours after leaving the Union's military base on the other side of the flatlands.
"Downtown is in sight," Nova Whiteside said when the external cameras confirmed what her onboard navigator had found.
"But where is everybody?" her wingman's voice came from the speakers in her helmet. "I thought this was going to be fun."
The dusty settlement supposedly making a living by catering to the tribes of nomadic locals huddled empty and desolate in the lee of the foothills. They knew enough about this continent to expect open markets, animal pens, caravans and desert vehicles among the brick buildings. None of that in sight, nobody home. Something had compelled the plains people to heed their ancient instincts for self-preservation and move on to some other village.
"Going to have to poke a stick in it," she said.
A scattering of metal sheds, much newer than the town, came into view and into her gun sights. They housed Rhuwacs, according to the scouts, barely-sentient creatures trained by the Shri-Lan rebels to invade towns and villages, maiming and destroying as directed by their handlers. Cheap, expendable, and easily-replaced cannon fodder imported to this remote planet for just that purpose.
"Chow time! I think someone's noticed us now."
Nova's sensors showed a horde of them pouring out of the buildings when the attacking Air Command squad pounced onto the village. She did not zoom in for a closer look, knowing these people to be slow-moving mountains of muscle under skin so thick that it often cracked in places to give the appearance of scales. Armed with cudgels, simple ballistic weapons, knives and massive teeth, they stood little chance against the airborne threat descending upon them. This was the third of such camps found and routed along the Rim.
"Whiteside, Tonda," her flight lead's voice reached her. "Check out the cave system Jack found before they scram. We'll clean out the Rhuwacs."
"Aye. Save me some, will you?" Nova replied and veered east, toward the additional coordinates provided by their scouts.
"Just get that bunker, Lieutenant."
"Bunker, right," she mumbled to herself. "Now where did they put that bunker?" The plane faithfully obeyed her mental commands, conveyed via the neural interface at her temple, to navigate while she consulted the sensors. They knew the location precisely and finding it was not the problem.
"Probably shielded," Tonda said. His plane glided noiselessly beside her own Kite toward the sporadically forested hills edging the salt flats. "They know we're coming."
A steady ticking sound over their receivers indicated that someone had tapped into their communication. "I don't know how Dakad expects us to find it up here," she said to those who might be listening in. "No one mentioned all those tree-things." She turned her head and signaled to Tonda through her cockpit canopy. He veered away.
She swung the other way, her mind now entirely on directing the Kite toward the next valley where the rebels had hidden their important goodies below ground. Com arrays, weapons, senior members of the faction, likely valuables and contraband as well. The town they had left at the edge of the plains was as expendable as the Rhuwacs corralled there.
Shooting at a pack of mishandled Rhuwacs was a favorite bloodsport among her fellow soldiers and pilots but Nova was secretly glad not to have a part of that today. The creatures, although without empathy and trained to kill, were hardly animals and their role as enemy simply a matter of relentless and cruel conditioning. The Union's xenobiologists had classified them as sentient, a Prime species, and none of this was of their making.
Worse yet, the ramshackle town that her squad was about to destroy surely also housed civilians, even if most of them seemed to have deserted it. A discouraging number of the red-skinned, white-haired locals had sided with the rebels, but most of the residents of this region cared nothing about either the Commonwealth of United Planets or the rebel factions that opposed it. She hoped that the presence of the Rhuwacs had driven the locals from the valley.
Nova shook herself out of these thoughts. "Blow stuff up, Nova," she said. "Get back home in one piece. That's it, that's all."
"Huh?" came Tonda's startled reply.
"Going over my notes," she said. She saw him approaching from the east now to rendezvous above the coordinates they had been given. At this distance, his Kite looked like a dark, graceful bird swooping over the treetops. Deploying the ordnance designed to penetrate shielding known to be used by rebels was not, unlike some of their other weaponry, a long-distance maneuver. "Do we have news?" she asked, both of him and her own systems in search of the shield's configuration.
"Yep," he said and she could almost see the grin on the Centauri's face. "Calibrating now."
"Clever, clever rebels," Nova said when her sensors picked up the communications array embedded in the bare face of a cliff, invisible from afar. The entrance to the bunker would be at the foot of that rock, behind a line of trees. In this part of the planet the trees were little more than gaunt frames for long ropes of gray-green foliage but still dense enough to impede a clear vision of the ground. "Fire at will," she said.
Instead of seeing tracers issue from his Kite, a much broader trail shot up from the ground just as her system warned of additional power sources below them. "Abort," she shouted. "Shielded anti-aircraft positions. We're too low. Abort!" She broke to the right, away from the valley, expecting Tonda to do likewise. "Captain," she switched her com system to reach her wing commander. "Taking fire from the ground. Looks like coilers. Requesting backup."
The reply was a curse.
"Yessir," she said. "Four launches."
"Manage, Whiteside," Captain Dakad snarled. "We're taking fire, too. Someone knew we were coming long before we left the damn base."
"Three now," Tonda corrected. "Got one gone. Where the hell did they get those? What kind of lunatic uses coilers on the ground? Jack didn't mention any of this. Remind me to kick his buttery ass when I-"
"Tonda!" Nova shouted when she saw the other Kite spin away. "Captain, he's taken fire." She veered to describe a wide arc around the likely range of the gun on the ground. Her weapons training did not include anticipating armament not even meant to work inside an atmosphere such as Bellac's. When she saw the telltale tracer of another missile race toward her she rolled and returned fire. The explosion below her confirmed the hit.
"Going down," Tonda yelled, his words distorted by panic. He was barely twenty-five, by Human terms, and this tour was his first aboard a Kite. "Got holed, elevators toasted. I can't punch out!"
Nova watched him streak away from the valley in search of a place to land. She came about when her scanner reported another launch from the ground. The guns had an impressive reach but not enough speed for the Kite's evasive maneuvers. She eluded that one as well and blanketed the location with a few missiles of her own. "Tonda! Did you bail? Tell me you made it."
"Made it. Sort of," he groaned. "Kite's down and not in a good way. From what I can see through all the blood on the dash."
Nova cursed and set after him. She found him in a clearing left by some long-ago rock slide. His Kite leaned drunkenly among some boulders but seemed largely intact. She hovered overhead. "Captain, Kite Four is down. Tonda's still in it. Still talking."
"Too close. If they have skimmers they'll be here in minutes." She scanned the area around the downed plane. To allow even a damaged Kite to fall into enemy hands was unthinkable.
There was a brief silence. "Mitigate."
"By Cazun!" Tonda's oath was a mere whimper.
"Deal with it, Whiteside!" Dakad shouted.
Nova circled the wreck, knowing damn well that she was pointing out their location to anyone looking skyward even if their own scanners hadn't shown them yet. Mitigate. Meaning, don't
leave the rebel with anything valuable. Not a plane and not a hostage. She glanced over her available arsenal."Gods, Nova," Tonda said as if he could see her finger on the trigger.
She ground her teeth. "I'm not leaving you." She took manual control over from her neural interface, expecting the Kite to refuse to land here. Indeed, her warning systems engaged peevishly while the vertical descent system hovered her Kite lower, into a clear space not far from Tonda's plane. The camera at the belly of her plane found a few spots for the landing struts to settle among the rocks. She exhaled sharply. "Can you make it here, Tonda?"
"No. I'm stuck."
She switched the Kite's sensor output to the data sleeve on her forearm. Snatching up a gun, she climbed out of the cockpit and slid over the edge of the triangular wing onto the rocky ground. The loose scree sliding out from under her boots slowed her sprint to Tonda's plane. A glance to her screen showed four vehicles approaching from her left, just above treetop elevation. "That's what I get for saying 'skimmer' out loud," she said to herself.
She climbed up to his cockpit canopy, already shattered by his attempt to eject. The missile had impacted somewhere below the pilot seat and warped pieces of the interior had cut deep into Tonda's leg and right arm. "Damn," Nova breathed when she saw the damage, again grudgingly impressed by the rebels' ability to innovate. She leaned heavily against a piece of the starboard console that had wedged across Tonda's knees, hoping that the ejectors didn't choose this moment to deploy. "You Centauri are just too long for these seats. Move!"
He heaved himself past her, out of the cockpit and onto the wing. With a groan, he let himself slide to the ground where he collapsed. She followed after entering a command code that would destroy the plane's onboard programs and data storage. "Get up, they're coming." She grasped his parachute harness to pull him up again. His face was about as pale as a Centauri could get and the violet eyes had turned nearly grey. "Stay with me now," she snapped.
They stumbled back to her plane where she pushed him up into the cockpit to crumple into the small space behind the pilot seat. The shock of his injuries had worn off and he screamed in pain. Nova leaped into her seat and launched at once, somewhat unsteadily because of the terrain and the extra weight behind her but the Kite finally agreed to cooperate. She rose up and shot away from the wreck.
"What are you doing?" Tonda exclaimed.
She moved out of coiler range and focused on the plane's sensors. "Did you nick an artery or something urgent?"
"Then shut up a moment," she said. "Don't bleed on stuff." She swung around in a wide circle, waiting, counting. The four skimmers had arrived at the downed plane now. Three more were closing in from the direction of the bunker. When they had all stopped she turned the Kite and raced back to the site. Wasting no time with a close approach, she lobbed an incendiary missile at the wreck which promptly exploded in spectacular fashion, disintegrating the skimmers and whatever number of rebels they had brought with them.
"Holy shit!" Tonda's voice was a high-pitched squeal. He peered at the inferno below them as the mossy trees caught fire, fully aware that, if not for her abstract interpretation of Dakad's orders, he would have gone up along with them.
Nova did not reply. She brought the plane around and headed for the coordinates of the bunker. There was one more gun out here somewhere but she hoped that everyone was too busy thinking about what had just happened to look up at the silent Kite over their heads. She unloaded her entire arsenal at the bunker entrance and watched the side of the cliff collapse onto the tunnels below before breaking away to rejoin their squadron.
It was only when they had cleared the badlands and saw the plains before them that she noticed her hands shaking on the control panel. "I might puke," she said. "Whiteside," Tonda grunted around clenched teeth. "If my bits are still where I last saw them, will you have my babies?"
She laughed, aware of the note of hysteria that accompanied it but needing to laugh anyway, whooping with glee to burn off the overwhelming adrenaline that still surged through her body. Gradually, her heart rate returned to normal, at least according to the Kite's sensors, and she was able to breathe evenly again.
They soon reached the devastated rebel compound where the battle had ended not long ago. She circled for a moment to look over a field strewn with building and machine parts, Rhuwac bodies and, sadly, a large scorch mark where another of the expensive Kites had met its end. Nothing moved down there although her sensors showed life forms not far from the perimeter. Escaped rebels, perhaps, or just Bellac scavengers. "I think I'm in trouble," she said.
"Damn right you are," a harsh voice cut across the com link. "Get your ass back to the base."
An hour or two later Nova did just that. She had stopped only briefly atop one of the mesas scattered over the plains to patch Tonda up as best as she could with the basic kit available to them. The rest of her squad had slowed to let her catch up and no one spoke until they reached the installation.
Rim Station served as a temporary sentinel at the edge of the great equatorial plains of Bellac Tau, far removed from anything even remotely civilized. It dispatched airborne patrols to rout rebel hideouts along the edges of the barren expanse of scrubland and two units of ground combat troops provided security for the handful of towns nestled in the badlands. Most of those stationed here assumed that the word 'temporary' had been tagged on to excuse its neglected state of windblown shabbiness. That there was no end to the need to control rebel incursions was made clear every day.
A trolley dispatched by the base clinic was waiting when she touched down and she loitered while Tonda was loaded into it, hoping to avoid her squadron leader for a few more minutes. Tonda reached out to tug on her sleeve. "Whiteside, if you get field boarded I'll come visit you in lockup. I'll bring candy."
"Just glad you're still with us, Tonda. Get gooder soon."
"Are you injured, Lieutenant?" a medic asked her. He patted her face with a cloth that smelled of disinfectant.
"No, it's all his," she said and allowed him to wipe the streaks of blood from her face and hands. Her flight-suit, too, was smeared with it but there was nothing to be done about that now. Quickly, she shook her hair out and retied the unruly red strands without the benefit of a mirror.
Once Tonda was carted away she nodded to the mechanics to go ahead and tow her Kite to the hangars where someone would have to remove a whole lot of blood from the rear compartment. When it moved out of the way she saw Captain Dakad waiting for her. For a giddy moment she imagined that it was the glower on his face, not the heat of the day, that made the air shimmer between them. He disappeared into the outbuilding that served them as a ready room at the edge of the airfield.
The debrief had already begun when she arrived there. Dakad paused only for an instant before returning his attention to the display screens. She walked to the back, briefly tapping the raised hand of one of the other pilots as she passed. She was a little surprised when the man beside him, Lieutenant Heiko Boker, moved over to make room for her. As the only female pilot on this remote outpost, acceptance among them had been a struggle since arriving here weeks ago.
"You got the stones, Whiteside," he whispered without looking at her.
She hid a smile when she dropped into the seat beside him.
The debrief moved on with detailed accounts of numbers and casualties, speculations about the unusual weapon in rebel hands, maneuvers carried out and targets missed. Their planes' video and sound recordings were studied in detail. She winced when she heard that Lieutenant Avlin, a friendly and well-liked wing mate, was the one whose plane was downed by the surprising defense staged by the Shri-Lan rebels. At length, Dakad's eyes found her in the back of the room.
"Perhaps Lieutenant Whiteside will offer some insights into her decision-making abilities today."
Nova stood up to face their squadron leader, a rangy Centauri whose long and undistinguished career had shifted him from one front-line tour to the next. "Sir, there was time to retrieve Lieutenant Tonda. So I did."
"Were those your orders?"
"Not precisely, sir." She squared her shoulders. "You ordered mitigation. I mitigated. It worked." She heard Boker, beside her, exhale audibly and sink lower in his seat.
"So it did," Dakad said. His violet eyes moved over the other pilots. "By risking another pilot and another plane in deciding to land a Kite on unknown terrain in rebel-held territory for which you knew we had faulty intel. Is that your idea of mitigation?"
"As I said, there was enough time before the skimmers reached the site. My intent, until I saw the damage, was to switch planes with Lieutenant Tonda."
"Really," the captain said. "And why is that? Because you're so much better a pilot than he is?"
She frowned briefly. All of them knew that she was the better pilot. "Well, yes. Sir." She noted a dangerous twitch in his eye. "And he was injured, sir. It seemed a good idea at the time."
"A good idea is for you to stick to SOP."
"Why are we here, Whiteside?"
"On Bellac, sir?"
"Are you someplace else?"
Nova felt herself begin to sweat, wondering what point the captain had to make in front of her squad. "No, sir." She glanced at the other pilots. "Air Command's mission on Bellac Tau is to remove the Shri-Lan rebels from the rim towns and provide security while the elevator to the new orbiter is constructed."
"And why do we give a damn about a bunch of cattle herders on the other end of this godforsaken desert?"
"We need Bellac Tau to join the Union," she began by rote. "The new jumpsite we just mapped will cut interstellar travel to Magra by half but it's situated inside Bellac air space. Taking stewardship of the site will let us control rebel activity in this sub-sector. Bellac won't let us post a manned relay near the gate until the rebel is neutralized on the surface and the skyranch is complete."
Dakad nodded. "And what problem do we have here, Whiteside?"
She suppressed a sigh. "We're shorthanded, under-equipped, under-supplied and outnumbered by Rhuwacs," she said, echoing a complaint he voiced at every opportunity but leaving out the expletives that usually accompanied it.
He raised his arms and addressed the rest of the group. "And so you decide to be a hero and gamble another pilot and another plane because you think you know how long it takes to extract an injured pilot from a crash site."
"Given the option..." she began.
"Yes, Whiteside? What were the options?"
She winced. "Mitigation. Destroying the plane on the ground. With Tonda in it."
"Which you refused to consider."
"You told me to handle it," she said, irritated now. "So I did."
"By risking your life and plane over a rookie pilot. A greenie," he added, referring to the green uniforms issued at the flight academies. His eyes narrowed. "Because you don't have the nerve to make that call when it gets down to it."
She took a deep breath, now only moments from losing her temper. Before she could voice her views on teamwork and duty to one's squadron she felt a tap on her foot. When she glanced down at Boker she saw him shake his head in a minute gesture. She remained silent.
"You're escorting the Yasser transport for the next five days," Dakad said. "Dismissed. All of you." He stomped from the shed without looking at any of them again.
Nova dropped into her seat with a groan and a curse while the other six pilots slowly moved to the exit.
One of the Centauri, Lieutenant Sulean, turned back. "Thanks for getting him out, Whiteside," he said. "We'll go check on him."
She nodded and watched them leave. Their Caspian wingman shuffled by and slowed to tap her shoulder, as did Lieutenant Sulean. Finally only Boker and the other Human, Rolyn, remained.
Boker turned to her. "You took that beating well, Whiteside," he said.
She closed her eyes for a moment. "What the hell was that about?"
"The man's an ass," he shrugged. "He's wrong and that's his way of making sure we get our story straight. He couldn't hold it together trying to run the scramble in town and manage you out there as well. You called in just after Avlin went down. Easier to just pull the plug on your problem. If you had actually followed procedure we'd be short one Tonda now and it would have been Dakad's fault for losing his wad."
She sat up. "Did he really expect me to give Tonda up just like that? Is that what you do here?"
He shook his head. "Any pilot worth his plane would have tried to extract Tonda. You did right. You had enough time but Dakad'll never admit it. But this isn't Targon or Magra or wherever you came from. Best to just shut up and let it happen. It's only a six month tour."
The pilots gathered up their gear and left the building. A hot breeze pushed dust across the tarmac and the sun glared red over the horizon, about to drop off the plateau on which the base was built. The ground crew, nearing the end of their shift, seemed less energetic now in preparing for the last of the returning squads.
"Do you think I'll have to hear more about this?" Nova asked.
"Nah," Rolyn said. "He doesn't want any attention on this or he'd have given you more than babysitting chores as punishment. But watch him take the credit for saving the pilot, if not the plane. By tonight what you did will be what he meant by 'mitigate' all along."
Boker gave her a friendly smile. "And no mention made about the bunker you took out by yourself."
"That flight better count!"
"Has to," Rolyn assured here. "We saw the video. How short are you now?"
Nova pretended to calculate the numbers she carried engraved in her heart and mind. "If I get proper credit for this sortie, I'll need sixty more hours to qualify."
Boker whistled. "Almost there, then. We'll have a bona fide Hunter Class pilot in our midst. Don't get hard to talk to."
"Well, that's just to qualify. I still have to get through the tests."
He waved his hands in a dismissive gesture that nearly caught Rolyn across the forehead. "Bah, can't be harder than pulling a greenie out of a downed plane on the side of a hill. Been a long day, Whiteside. How about you join me and Rolie for a bottle of the rotgut after chow?"
Nova smiled at the officer. This was the first time that she was so casually included in their downtime since she had arrived here. She felt like something had changed here today, finally. And if it meant taking a dressing down from the captain it had been worth it. But she had long ago decided to keep a careful distance between herself and some of the male pilots' afterhours entertainment. Unfortunately, other than a few mechanics and some base staff, there were few women here, none of them pilots, with whom she could share her free time. Something else she had to get used to out here, she supposed. "Thanks, but I think I'll go hug my pillow. If I have to shuttle to Yassar and back all day I'll need to stay awake." She waved and jumped onto a runabout heading to the hangars.