The Falcon Banner - 36. Chapter 36
and let slip the dogs of war!
-Shakespeare 'Julius Caesar'
Kendrick regarded Nazzien coldly; he stared into those ivory eyes, looking past him towards Lauren who was stepping backwards into the elevator, trying to hide the fact that she was crying.
"You're a goddammed officer!" Nazzien spat out, aware that there were crewmen clustering around to see what was going on.
Kendrick sneered as he stared down the lieutenant, calmly reaching up to remove the rank insignia from his tunic, and flipped it so that it clattered to the Orion officer's feet.
Nazzien looked down at the small metal pin on the deckplates, and then up at Kendrick, as the wing commander turned and marched away from the group heading for the elevator. A pair of marines, glancing at Nazzien, moved in to contain him but Kendrick checked them with a withering stare. They looked searchingly over at Nazzien, who shook his head and gestured for them to let the former wing commander go. They complied, allowing him to pass through them.
* * *
He stared at his kit bag dispassionately; everything he had brought with him was tucked in there, but he found he didn't care-he had other, more important things to do. He changed, relieved to be out of the restrictive Imperial uniform as he slipped into something more utilitarian. He shrugged on his black leather jacket, and left, leaving the kit bag on the bed.
Some of the other fighter jocks watched him as he walked down the corridor, but none met his eyes-guilt had a funny way of taming anger. And Kendrick would have sympathized with them, if he could. But his mind was focused. It was like he was seeing clearly for the first time in his life. It was like looking through tinted glasses, everything was the same, yet the colours were all wrong.
He reached up to rub his brow, refocusing. He needed a drink, to talk to someone, calm down. But he was alone there; he wasn't close to any of the crew, not even his other pilots. There was a difference between leading men and calling them his friends. He felt trapped between the panes of the looking glass. He was shattered.
He didn't even realize what he was doing until it was done. The security guard that had been making a standard sweep of the ship had nodded to him. He was now face down and bleeding, Kendrick holding the marine's pistol in his hands staring at it. It had been instinct, the guard had something he needed and he had taken it.
He stared at what he had done, glanced left and right, making sure that no one had seen what had happened as he scooped up the guard and opened one of the emergency lockers that were further up the hall. Designed as an emergency life support pod if the ship suffered a fatal hull breach, it was perfect for storing the unconscious marine.
He slipped the pistol into his pocket, realizing that he was in real trouble now, still seething from his anger. He wished he could blame his violent behaviour on not thinking clearly, but it only sharpened his mind, he knew what he was doing when he lashed out violently... he knew exactly what he was doing.
Something was wrong, and he needed to get help. The world was spinning around him. And as he stumbled forward a plan began to form in his mind. He had to escape, try to figure out what he would do next, and he realized that the moment someone discovered that he had assaulted a marine... he needed to get off the ship, and he pulled Rousseau's device from his pocket, making a decision.
He sprinted past a couple of engineers who stared after him a moment before shrugging and continuing about their maintenance schedule. He had the element of surprise, and that most people would underestimate him.
And Darien was off the ship...
He found himself closing on the flight deck, a natural instinct. He walked through the machine shops where the F-150 fighters were being repaired, a couple of them were already undergoing maintenance, and half of their drive systems were disassembled.
Flight Lieutenant Katz hopped down from the cockpit of one of the F-150's and grinned at him.
"Hey Kendrick, I take it you're here to look over the EV-II?" Katz smiled brightly, "I've been trying to work the kinks out of her systems and I think I have it nailed down now... She should fly just fine now, though so far the simulations show it's tricky to keep control over her at high speeds." He cleaned off his hands on a rag, "Come on, we have her tucked into a maintenance bay so she's out of the way."
Kendrick chewed his lip, as he followed behind the young engineer, his hand in his pocket gripping the pistol tightly. "Yeah?" he said carefully. "Have you spoken to anyone upstairs today?"
Katz shook his head, "Been inside a fighter service hatch all day fixing a leaking coolant valve, why-did I miss anything?"
Kendrick smiled inwardly; Katz hadn't heard.
They made their way over to the starboard maintenance section well away from the bustling activity of the main hangar deck. Katz tapped an access code into the electronic lock; he entered the security code and watched as the blast doors slid open slowly.
Inside Kendrick found the F-150 Evolution II illuminated in bright white light, resplendent with all her armour and boosters as she waited patiently for him to bring her to life. With eyes searching for anything amiss, he did a quick walk around, removing the various protective covers and pulling the pins for the rail cannon pod and turret-mounted Masers. Satisfied that she was ready to go, he climbed aboard and started her up. The familiar cockpit came alive with information as the systems brought themselves up to speed.
Katz looked up at him in confusion, "Hey Kendrick, we don't have clearance to take her out."
Kendrick ignored him as he turned and taxied the fighter out into the hangar deck, Katz jogging alongside as the wing commander gestured to a plane crew to clear a path for him. They took one look at the wing commander and hurried to clear the starboard elevator for him.
Katz shrugged as his comm. link began to chirp for attention, and he fished through his pockets pulling it out. "Yeah?" he said, speaking into it as Kendrick loaded the fighter onto the elevator and gestured for one of the crews to send him up.
Katz listened to the comm., turning to look up at Kendrick in shock, as Kendrick calmly levelled the marine pistol. "Send me up," he ordered calmly.
Katz gaped, looking from Kendrick's burning eyes to the pistol and then down to his comm. link, trying to decide what to do. The whine of the pistol cycling up to charge sent him scurrying to activate the fighter elevator.
Kendrick scanned over the nav and comm. equipment, then lowered the canopy and pressurized the cockpit. He wasn't wearing a flight suit or a helmet, he hadn't the time, but the EV-II held pressure and the environmental system was operating perfectly.
The comm. channel on the console before him came to life as Lieutenant Nazzien appeared.
Kendrick slid on the earphone and microphone, "Good afternoon, lieutenant, welcome to Air Kendrick." He touched a control and leaned down to where the remote override control box was located. Predictably it was set to shut down a fighter should anyone attempt to steal it and Kendrick pulled the box connection wires free. Normally not a possibility, but Elias hadn't finished installing some of the components.
He sat upright and dropped the wires onto the floor, making sure that Nazzien could see it. "Please make sure your seats are in their full and upright position." He brought the masers online as the fighter rose up onto the Excalibur's flight deck, confused cat crews staring at him, receiving orders through their Tac nets as they refused to lock him into the catapult.
"Fasten your seatbelts," Kendrick breathed as he powered up the liquid state boosters and slammed the throttle forward.
The EV-II exploded off of the Excalibur's flight deck. He was shoved quickly into the rear of his seat by the acceleration. A glance showed him blasting along at a high speed, the fighter shuddering as it continued to force itself forward. And as he pulled back on the stick the fighter arched gracefully around for a strafing run on the Excalibur's ventral side.
Lieutenant Nazzien was still screaming over the comm. channel, and Kendrick rolled the fighter using the Excalibur's hull as a horizon, and examined his options. He knew that he only had a few as he thumbed the safety off of the firing trigger and he depressed it, sending auto-maser blasts into the Excalibur's fighter recovery system, silencing the grappling system before it could be used to snare him. He was within the Excalibur's firing arcs and being caught flat-footed the ship was an easy target. He had made similar practice runs against the Excalibur hundreds of times in his F-150 fighter. He knew all the tricks.
The fighter dipped and rose as it curved up and over the stern section, rolling again, hugging the hull to avoid the Excalibur's pinpoint batteries beginning to come online as they realized they were under attack.. The HUD gave him a red halo as his missiles acquired their targets. A telltale warble indicated that the Excalibur was trying to get a weapons lock on him, an impossibility with him that close to the hull.
Kendrick thumbed the appropriate toggle, as the missile packs slung under the wings of the fighter dropped their payload free and a pair of missiles sprang to life They impacted with the windows of the captain's stateroom with a satisfying bang. The EV-II buzzed the bridge, before the fighter roared through the gap between the support struts for the upper engine trefoil, arching down towards the centre line of the vessel.
A trill from a sensor panel warned him that the Excalibur was launching her own fighters: his vaunted Paladin Squadron, VF-54. The EFIS display showed him a magnified view of the pair of fighters that had launched from the rear landing section of the flight deck. His other screen showed the rest of the squadron launching ahead of him. He smiled as he barrel-rolled the fighter, and pulled her into a boosted climb, rising up and over the upper engine, before spiralling away from the Excalibur's first pinpoint maser shots.
"Nice try," he breathed, diving down at the pair of F-150's that were trying to climb after him.
Paladins four and seven were unprepared as the EV-II roared towards them. The fighter rendered their targeting system obsolete, and they frantically tried to switch to manual streak fire. Kendrick didn't give them the chance; the Gatling rail cannon carved the pair of them to pieces. One attempted to eject, the seat blasting free in the nick of time. The second erupted into a ball of expanding gasses as it collided with the Excalibur's hull.
These were his men...his own men, a voice trapped within his own mind screamed at him. But he was lost to it, too far gone to care.
Kendrick switched the comm. channels to the one used by the Paladins. Katz was sounding desperate. "Paladin Five from Three, we just lost Four and Seven!" Katz screamed, near a panic. He was all alone now straight in the EV-II's sights, the other fighters were too far out of position.
Without support, Katz would soon join his comrades.
Kendrick smiled. "Aces over three's," he murmured as the auto-masers spewed forth a volley. Amazingly Katz's fighter jinked as he curved under the upper weapons pod and climbed sharply away, up to the cover of the Excalibur's weapons arcs. The Excalibur's pinpoint defences were going to be problematic for the Imperial ace, but he would concern himself with that later, right now he had turkeys to shoot.
His Sensor Warning Receiver sounded its high pitched alarm a split second later, announcing a targeting lock at six o'clock, followed by another tone as one of the Paladins fired a wing-mounted missile. Kendrick was fortunate-most of the Paladins hadn't had time to mount a full payload of missiles, and only two of them had missiles at all. And one had just fired them all. A mistake, as Kendrick reefed his fighter over to the left. He was able to jam the missiles that had been launched at him just long enough to get them to overshoot. Their proximity fuses caused them to explode, but Kendrick was outside of their lethality envelope and avoided damage. A snap assessment of the situation showed there were five Paladins remaining, and only one had missiles.
The Imperial ace smiled coldly as one of the fighters flashed in front of his nose. He tapped the firing trigger releasing two of his remaining ten missiles and watched them streak into the overshooting interceptor. The fighter incinerated easily as the first missile slammed into a chaff package, the second connecting with the fighter's exhaust a few seconds later. Paladin five died spectacularly.
"Excalibur, we need cover fire, we're getting shot to pieces out here," Katz called desperately. The other fighters broke for a higher altitude, hoping to lure Kendrick away from the sanctuary of the ship's hull line.
The former wing commander shook his head as he swept back under the bow of the ship throttling back just a little to get a clear shot at his target-the Excalibur's combat radar. There were redundancies in place, but it would take Excalibur time to restore weapons targeting.
The bright blue white flashes of the salvo fire erupting from the secondary battery of the Excalibur's main guns caught him by surprise. Nazzien was getting gutsy, firing the main guns that close to their own hull; he ran the risk of damaging the warship if they hit him. He opened the throttle and took the fighter up and out of the firing arc of the powerful anti-capital ship weapons. Nazzien was manning the weapons systems and as usual he was too predictable.
The manoeuvre worked for the Excalibur though; he had missed his attack run on the combat radar, and would have to line up for a second pass. He curled about, as the Excalibur's main batteries opened fire again, except this time it wasn't Nazzien. Whoever was directing the huge maser cannons so close to the ship required a precision that was beyond the capability of most humans... he smiled; Excalibur herself was fighting back. He was dicing with time now; the blasts were sweeping to and fro with a murderous intent, firing at angles that singed the heavy armour plates of the Excalibur's hull in the attempt to hit him.
"Jesus, you're good!" Kendrick muttered aloud, as he weaved the fighter at full speed through the pattern of fire, trying to line up for his one and only shot at the radar system. He waited a heartbeat as the halo on his HUD flicked to a red diamond, and he squeezed the trigger reducing the system to molten slag. The cannon fire from the Excalibur fell silent.
A wolfish grin spread over his face, the cover fire that had handicapped him was gone. He thumbed the throttle and climbed, lining up the surviving Paladins squarely in his sights. He tapped a couple of commands into the onboard computer and activated a music file. This was becoming enjoyable.
Paladin Three spiralled away, as the fighters frantically called for help. They were outmatched in space, and they knew it. Paladin Six vanished as Kendrick fell into a tight chase, sticking to the fighter like glue, and nothing Six could do would shake him. He rolled left and Kendrick followed, doing his damndest to stay behind him. The ace rent the fighter open with a series of strategic hits to its fuselage.
"Children playing a man's game," he commented aloud over an open channel. "Who dies next?"
A beeping from the sensor panel alerted him to another launch from the Excalibur. The target identifier confirmed it to be an F-120 fighter. Someone from VMA-23 was weighing into the fray.
"Ahh, someone interesting," he murmured, engaging the afterburners and shooting the EV-II out of range of the plodding F-150's. He needed room to manoeuvre if the outclassed F-120 Orcas were out to play.
The stark differences between the EV-II and the 120 were twofold, firstly the EV-II was so much faster than the fighter it was planned to replace. But the F-120's boasted an impressive armament of gatling maser cannons mounted beneath the wings, as well as unrivalled aerial superiority. In an atmosphere the EV-II would be unable to use its speed to its full advantage, leaving them on a level battleground.
"Good morning, Squadron Leader," he said quietly, turning the EV-II fighter about and tapping a few keys to bring the ECM system online. The F-120 mounted a full payload of missiles, as well as some impressive weapon systems to back them up.
"You're not playing with children now, you psychotic son of a bitch," Masconi's hard-edged voice came through the comm.
The Orca roared towards him, and he felt the hair on the back of his neck begin to rise. He spared a look over to where the F-150's of Paladin squadron were quickly running back to the ship for a rearm. It was just the two of them for the time being.
Kendrick slammed the throttle open and broke, hauling the fighter into a loop more violent than any he had ever tried.
As the G's forced him into his seat, he strained for a glimpse of the squadron leader. The F-120 was closing on him fast, sticking to him turn for turn as he reefed the fighter back and forth in a desperate attempt to keep from getting flamed. He wasn't sure how she was keeping pace with him, and he pushed the EV-II back to full speed.
The F-120 had the distinct advantage of having a very large field of fire. It's auto-masers and multiple cannon could be pointed in almost any direction, making it a very hard fighter to dodge. Kendrick had fought F-120's the day before, an experience that gave him a cold respect for the fighter.
He swept up and rolled, throttling back fully, allowing the 120 to rocket up and under him. Flying at exactly the same velocity the two fighters flew parallel to each other. Kendrick could see straight into the 120 cockpit. He frowned, that wasn't Masconi in there... He didn't recognize the pilot's helmet paint, and the body shape was all wrong...
He swore as he pulled the fighter up and away; his own F-150 screamed out of the cover of the sun and cut loose with it's own missiles. Kendrick held tightly as the missile slammed into one of the booster pods, rocking the whole fighter. On instinct the wing commander punched the jettison button, the armour and the boosters separating from the EV-II moments before the booster exploded.
His advantage was gone, and there was a 150 out there Piloted by a pissed-off squadron leader out for his head. It became serious all of a sudden, and he needed to get the advantage back. He saw the planet and hammered into a power dive, daring the 150 to follow him into the arena of his choosing. The SWR screamed at him that the 150 had a lock; Masconi was good, but not fast enough. Kendrick activated his countermeasures, jettisoning chaff rockets to intercept the missiles as he entered Tempus's atmosphere.
Masconi broke off her pursuit, refusing to be lured into an environment where she would be easy prey for the EV-II. The pilot was too intelligent for that. The 120, piloted by the unknown pilot, flatly refused to give up the pursuit. A rain of rail slugs swept past Kendrick's wings, one of them punching a hole in his fuselage.
"Fuck me!" Kendrick commented in surprise; he had underestimated the 120 pilot's determination, a mistake that wouldn't happen again. The prick wasn't going to get a second chance.
Kendrick pulled a sharp loop, powering forward, and firing the lateral thrusters. A manoeuvre best performed in zero-G, the fighter slid to the side, and the unknown pilot found themself ahead of the EV-II. But Kendrick, his throttle full to the stops, was not closing on the 120 very quickly. In fact, Kendrick doubted he was closing on the unknown pilot at all. The halo on the HUD surrounded the fleeing F-120 fighter with its yellow ring, and he waited impatiently for it to change to red. Suddenly-and with timing that could not have been worse-the beeping alarm alerted him to his fuel status with a calm, matter of fact "Warning, fuel status low."
"Oh you bitch," Kendrick muttered, glancing at his fuel gauges.
He couldn't keep chasing the F-120 and hope to escape back to orbit. He broke off his pursuit, diving for the ground, hoping to confuse the other fighter's radar as he pulled blindingly fast manoeuvres over the tree line of the planet, the fuel in his tank diminishing steadily.
The F-120 curled about to pursue, but instead peeled off back to the Excalibur, the pilot knowing she couldn't catch Kendrick now.
* * *
It was beyond impressive; the EV-II, as he would later learn it was called, was small compared to the typical Imperial fighters. But it had outflown a squadron under the guns of an Imperial warship. Simple modifications to existing Imperial technology and a relatively useless recon fighter and a colonist turned fighter ace had torn through all its resistance with nothing more than a few holes in the fuselage.
Rousseau stared through the binoculars at the small fighter descending towards his field; its landing gears down as it made for a landing, lifting its nose as its VTOL engines took over, dropping the fighter to the ground with a bounce and a roll.
A ground crew sprinted out to cover the small fighter with camouflage netting as the former wing commander jumped down to the tarmac, staring up at the sky towards the ship he was leaving behind, and to the chaos he had wrought.
"I knew you would come," Rousseau said, gesturing for some of his men to lower the pulse rifles they were training on the ace.
Kendrick was still staring skywards, his emotions sliding about his mind as he tried to piece together the chaotic spiral of events that had caused him to snap, to tear apart everything and everyone he had ever cared about.
"God..." he murmured, shaking slightly as what he had done caught up to him, "...oh god..."
Rousseau guided him by the arm back towards one of the tents, gesturing to the ground crew to secure the fighter, while he made sure to secure the shaken pilot, their only hope of completing a centauries-old mission.
* * *
Lauren stripped off the helmet, pitching it across the deck in frustration as she stormed past the repair crews. A plane captain desperately tried to catch her attention, but she ignored him as she entered a crew elevator. As the doors closed she felt her hard-edged resolve begin to crack, tears seeping from her eyes as she rested her head against the sides of the elevator car.
The doors slid open again, allowing Masconi inside, Lauren quickly trying to wipe her eyes and hide her tears.
Masconi looked at her a moment as she contemplated leaving the lieutenant alone, taking the next car; instead she simply closed the doors and leaned back on the opposite wall.
"I'm sorry," the squadron leader said awkwardly. Emotions were never her strong suit; she was a pilot-it was her life. Emotions always got in the way, made people irrational.
There were no words necessary between the two women, Masconi softening in understanding as stood beside Lauren, letting her know she understood. She folded her arms and looked up at the roof of the car.
"You loved him?" she said, finally turning to look over at Lauren.
Lauren nodded composing herself. "Dumb move, I know," she replied. "I..."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Masconi offered.
Lauren shook her head, "I can't, not right now; I need to get to the bridge..."
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