Prompt :– A White Lie
Title :- Induction to the Dead Stick Squad
Genre :- Sci-Fi / Space Opera
Word count :– 2500
Deadline :– 17 May 2017
[Note: This is part of a larger series, set as a stand alone, in sequence it lands before the previous story.]
Kelton’s head slammed back against the wall, his attacker towering over him.
“One more stupid stunt like that and I won’t be hoping the Tessera end your streak, I’ll do it myself!” The Captain’s words echoed through the silent mess hall. Captain Haynes and Kelton had been feeling each other out ever since Kelton was assigned to Haynes flight squad. If Kelton were honest with himself, he just wasn’t that good a team player. Formation flying, zone defense, and in general, being part of a good safety net was just not his style.
Feeling his head bounce off the wall brought Kelton back to the present, Haynes mere inches from his face, screaming about something. This was bad. He’d drifted into memories in the middle of an actual fist-fight, just like he’d done after he went rogue and broke formation earlier in the day. While he had taken out the hive-link relay ship, shutting down the attack, he’d put the entire flight team in jeopardy to do so.
Lashing out, then twisting himself out of Haynes’ grip, Kelton stepped back and raising his hands, Surrendering to the larger man. “Sorry, I screwed up.”
“Sure as hell did cadet.” Haynes turned and stalked away, only to stop at the door, “Striking an officer, guess you’re done then.”
Kelton stood, stunned. He hadn’t seen that coming. Haynes wasn’t the type to play political games, but rules were rules, he had hit the larger man.
Sure enough, as he got back to his bunk there was the notice of action waiting for him. He was summoned to base command headquarters.
Shined, polished and five minutes later, he presented himself to The Commander.
“Demoted to Cadet again Kelton?” Commander Cat looked him up and down. “It seems like you’ve not matured one pip since I laid you out on the mat in training. Don’t you ever learn?” The question hung there, loaded, as she looked down at the readout on her desktop.
Having nothing to say, Kelton simply stood at ease and looked out the window over the blasted moonscape as it rotated past below.
Commander Cat looked up at him, thoughtfully. “You are one of the best combat assets we have, but your mental profile indicates that there are issues in your past which keep your effectiveness marginal at best. I’m not left with a lot of options here Kelton.”
“Aye Sir.” There was nothing else to say. Kelton had heard it all before, and it was all true.
“One of these times you’re not going to survive. Have you given any thought to a will, or your family should one of these episodes end up terminating you?”
Kelton shook his head, “No Sir, I don’t have a will prepared.”
“That’s it then. You’re detached for the next two days, to attend to personal matters, write your will, and report back to me when it’s complete, you’re removed from active duty.”
Shocked, Kelton nodded his understanding and waited to be dismissed. Later, en route to his quarters, his situation crashed down on him.
The next step was dishonorably discharged. He let that sink in for a moment, staring at his blurry reflection in the serviceable mirror that had seen many faces and many better days.
Only one way to save face; do as The Cat ordered. Not much to say, not much to leave behind. He sat at the small built-in desk, knees pressed to the wall under the tiny steel shelf of a table, picked up a pen and started writing. First he tried to write it formal as he could, but realizing he had no idea how to even go about drafting a formal document, he settled for listing what he could remember, and then he got stuck.
Letting his tired eyes play over the meager list, a few treasures and some ceremonial weapons that his family had held from before time began.
But none of it mattered, his one true love was still dead, he had no children, no siblings. His parent’s were gone and the only remaining family he had was his aunt and uncle and their three children.
He finally just put the bare words down and addressed it to his aunt Kelsey and sealed the letter. With tears threatening his eyes, he headed to the corporal’s office to log the will in case he didn’t make it back next time.
Two days of intense workouts broken up by melancholy music and sawdust tasting food later, Kelton woke from an exhaustion induced nap to a summons from The Cat. Acknowledging receipt of the summons and noting that he had about time to shower and change before presenting himself to the commander, he took advantage of it.
Finding himself once again pressed and presentable, Kelton arrived at the Commander’s office with moments to spare.
“Kelton. Please take a seat, she’s had to deal with something that came up, won’t be a moment.” The generic young man seated behind the desk obviously knew his trade, but was so completely forgettable that Kelton couldn’t pin if he’d seen him before or not. As the minutes passed into tens, then a full hour had passed, Kelton had to turn to meditation to keep himself from fidgeting and getting anxious.
“Kelton.” The secretary’s pleasant tenor brought Kelton back to the present. He’d been wandering again, back to before the war, before the darkness had taken Jade; back when the world held something worth living for, rather than merely something worth dying for.
He stood, and the secretary indicated the open door, “She’s ready for you now.”
Without saying a word, he stepped through into Commander Cat’s spartan office again, musing to himself that many went their entire service without stepping foot into The Commander’s office. Here he was returning for the second time in three days.
As he passed through the door however, he stopped dead. Two men in uniform were still in attendance. He looked askance at The Commander. Indicating with his eyes and tilted head first the man in the black uniform sans badges, and then the seated man in captain’s bars.
The Commander simply looked amused, “Even jaded Kelton can be caught off guard I see.” Waving to the man in gray-blue Fleet Strike informal wear with captain’s bars on the shoulders, she continued, “I thought it’d be prudent to introduce you to your new squad captain in person. Please meet Captain John Shock, one of our more effective squad leaders. He often takes our less than co-operative recruits, such as yourself Kelton, and he molds them into a viable team player, or he breaks them in the trying.”
Captain Shock stood and offered a hand. “Kelton is it? The Commander has told me quite a bit about your personal history. Sad story, truly tragic, parent’s and a new bride lost in these trying times. Your service record is about what I’d expect of a man who’s been pushed to the edge and held there. I hope we can work together to bring you back to your true calling as a soldier of Earth.”
Kelton hadn’t said a word, but taking his new Captain’s hand, he gave a half smile and returned the firm handshake without hesitation. He wasn’t being discharged. There was some hope yet.
“Alright farmboy’s! Listen up! Sticks live, anybody don’t make it back, save me a seat at the bar!” Kelton’s new sergeant at least had a sense of humor.
Rotating on their z-axis, Kelton and his squad had been patrolling the front lines, checking the vast space between the outer orbits of Pluto and the Oort cloud, where the Tessera dropped out of whatever they used for a transit corridor.
The sergeant’s comment just now had been in reaction to Kelton of all people pinning the marker on the Tessera’s emergence point, and sure enough, just like always, he’d been spot on. A quartet of the enemy alien scout ships had dropped into temporal existence just where he knew they would. With a dozen fighters however, Kelton was sure this wasn’t going to be a problem.
Streaking to intercept, Kelton red-lined, pushing hard to engage before the death toll approached the usual sixty to seventy percent. Watching his fighter moving at tens of thousands of kilometers hour on the display, he cringed as the distance to the hostiles shrank at a painfully slow pace. The Tessera hadn’t noticed the Earth fighters yet.
Feeling himself start to drift mentally again, Kelton powered through a stim-pack, bringing his focus back to crystal clear, but knowing he would pay for it later, if he survived. Catchign his breath as he noticed the Tessera micro-hopped closer, his sensor suite lagging by a few milliseconds.
He keyed his comm, “They’ve seen us sarg, how’re we going to face this one.”
“Dammit Kelton, I hope they fry your ass first! You’re so far outta position you’re useless to me, just try not to get dead, and get back into flank by Sam as soon as you can.”
“Roger.” Kelton looked and found that the Sarg was right. As he watched however, the Tessera blinked out of existence, reappearing between him and the rest of his squad.
“Frag! They just showed up outta nowhere!” Sam’s voice came scared across the comm.
“Head’s down, sights up, and let’s do this!” Crazy as ever, the Sarg matched word to action and started firing, trying to work with Sam and the missing Kelton to catch the lead hostile in a cross-fire. The only way to actually kill one of these bastards when they could see a few seconds in the future, was to catch them so that there was no way out of the kill zone.
“Sam, bring it in, Kelton, Damn you!”
Kelton winced at the condemnation, watching the other two wings of fighters square off against their own target and knowing he was so far out of place that he was a liability more than an asset. Time to change the game. Part of his mind was plotting his re-entry to the fight with his wing while another part entirely was tracking the fourth Tessera, watching as it circled. He noticed that it was patterning, and absentmindedly detached a pair of guided missiles to take up residence in the path of the fourth, to go dormant until their passive sensors pinged, at which point they’d blow and hard.
Knowing that the odds were against such a tactic working, Kelton promptly forgot about anything but getting back to his own wing and protecting Sam. Pushing the aged fighter well past it’s safety limits, he felt the heat building behind his where the reactors were, but he would rejoin this fire-fight or die trying.
Kelton watch the Tessera fighter twist in the three way cross-fire, wriggling in and out of reality, all the while fighting back such that the Earth fighters were only barely holding their own. Three on one should be a simple win, but not against the Tessera, not anymore. The rules had changed, and the bigger bully’s had better sticks to hurt the simple little earth boys with.
Coming in behind and below the firefight, Kelton detached a handful of proximity mines to drift into position (at speed) and pinged their existence to his wing so they could steer clear. Then with all the subtlety of a angry elephant, he opened up at the Tessera from behind and below while trying to get into position. Strafing sideways towards his spot on Sam’s left, he lit up both forward cannons almost continuously, hemming the Tessera in, shepherding it towards the other pair’s crossfire kill zone.
“Frag! It’s turning, trying to break free.” Sam caught the shift before anyone else, Kelton had always admired that about his new wingman, he was fast on the uptake. “Kelton where the hell are you, it’s targeting me all alone out here!” Sam’s voice showed he was only barely in control of his terror.
Sliding into place beside Sam with both cannons sill tracking the elusive Tessera, Kelton shot a feral grin towards his wingman, even though they couldn’t see each other. “Sorry I’m late, did I miss anything?”
“As…” Whatever Sam had been about to say was lost in a blossom of fire and shrapnel.
Choking down bile and fighting back the tears that sprang to his eyes at the sudden change, Kelton’s focus narrowed to the single active Tessera fighter. This Furg was going to die! Dancing the fighter around like a deranged insect, Kelton kept up the heat, keeping the alien’s focus while Sarg and Jane worked to corner and end the damned invader.
“Blam!” One of the Tessera’s bolt’s connected with something on Kelton’s port wing, but aside from some red lights on the HUD, and a sluggishness in rotating he wasn’t sure what had been hit. “Blam” a second impact spelled doom for the suicidal fighter pilot. Assuming that he was in fact done, Kelton triggered all ordinance and targeted the Tessera scout. He was too close to escape the carnage, but he was going to die anyhow, might as well take this bastard with him.
“Hold on love, I’ll be there soon. We will be together at last.” Kelton’s last thought before it all went black was of his lost love. He’d been fighting so long, it was time to die.
* * *
Static crackled, piercing Kelton’s unconscious mind, and dragging him reluctantly back to the land of the living.
“Fighter ER7RS-x2, do you copy? Your telemetry and feed says you’re alive in there, are you awake?”
Kelton thumbed the comm open and tried to answer.
“Acknowledged, you’re there, but not talking. I’m hurt. You think just anybody would search out here to find your sorry insubordinate ass Kelton?”
Kelton managed to grunt a query, “Sir?”
“Alright, I knew you were here, Captain Shock sent me. Welcome to the Dead Sticks squad recruit.”
“I’m not dead?”
“Obviously, but everybody need to think you are. Let’s see about that hardware you’re sitting in.” The line went dead for a moment, “Ahh, you burnt out your secondary thursters, but here, now you can at least limp back to the hideout.”
Kelton sat amazed as his instruments came online, a set of telemetry loaded into his nav-comp.
“Follow me back, I’ll go slow so you can keep up. You’re going to have to keep your head down, and I’ll pass a little white lie to the base, let them believe you died out here. You had your affairs in order didn’t you?”
Kelton felt he’d been duped, or groomed, he wasn’t sure which. But the way forward was clear, if he wasn’t dead, then there was an Earth, other brides, other children, other families to protect.