The shuttle lurched as they hit a final pocket of turbulence in the upper atmosphere before a distinct smoothness came over the vessel. The rumble of air resistance faded, and only the harsh crackle of the engines continued to accost Mathew’s ears. It wasn’t his first time breaking atmosphere, far from it. Mathew had earned the callsign “Martyr” for having risked his own life to retrieve a fellow candidate from UEE’s Aerospace Academy flight school.
It all happened when his wingman burned his two forward ventral thrusters during a re-entry drill. He’d come in at too steep an angle and literally bounced off the atmosphere. The trainer craft were robust, but they could only take so much. With a disabled vessel, the trainee was adrift with enough velocity to leave the gravitational pull of the planet, yet not enough control to return under the ships own power.
Mathew, already in atmosphere, ignored orders to leave the retrieval to the dock tugs and took it upon himself to climb, break atmosphere and give his wingman a gentle nudge in the right direction. It was all the talk of the academy the day after, that along with the question of whether or not Mathew would remain a candidate or be expelled from the program. Luck, it seems, was on his side. He would not have been watching the sunlight glimmer off the bow of a Bengal carrier in low orbit if it hadn’t been.
“Wow.” The sight had left him breathless, and so the words were mouthed as less than a whisper.
“You know how long it takes to build one of those things?” asked Jon rhetorically.
Jon’s callsign was “Teacher” for the simple fact that his mind was filled with an abundance of information he often felt the need to share with anyone within earshot.
Mathew sighed as they came about, a shaft of light escaping past the hull of the carrier to spear through the dark cabin of the shuttle. He squinted as he spoke. “Come on. Don’t ruin this for me Jon, just … don’t.”
When they once again entered between the sun and the carrier, Jon too was speechless. Its dark silhouette devoured the shuttle as the shape grew rapidly; a shadow blade falling toward their eyes as if to sink into the blackness of their pupils. Soon, nothing but a black wall could be seen out the window, until pricks of light began fading into view.
“Windows.” Jon said, his voice wanting breath.
“Look at the size of those engines.” Mathew exclaimed, shrinking into his seat and leaning up against the window as he tried to see where they ended.
Both of them recoiled when the sun once again blasted into the cabin as they crested the aft of the carrier and manoeuvred through the massive bay doors.
“Please prepare for landing.” Came a voice over a speaker, and before they could even really do so, the shudder came. The flight crew of the shuttle sprung into action, disengaging harnesses and opening doors. The deck crew on the carrier had already begun unpacking the shuttle when Mathew was coming down the ladder.
An officer with a large Glas came out from a dimly lit passageway and began hollering names. “Leger, Staffer, Goulet, Flemming, Curshaw, Black, Low”
“Sir.” Came a voice from within the crowd. Then another as each member responded to their names.
Mathew heard his and piped up. “Sir.”
“With me.” Said the officer, as he turned and walked away.
Those named scrambled with their bags, grabbing what they could and rushing awkwardly from the flight deck to follow. They zig-zagged through the narrow passageways of the carrier, their kit bags and barrack boxes getting caught on absolutely every bulkhead, railing or doorframe they passed. The trek was exhausting, and near the end Mathew wasn’t even sure if he was going the right way, he simply kept padding ahead, one foot in front of the other, desperately trying to keep up as he struggled with his bags. They stopped, and he hunched over, hands on his knees as he gasped for air. Beyond the others, he heard the voice of the officer, muffled by the panting of his fellow pilots.
“These are your berths. You are now part of Squadron one sixteen, The Wolf Pack. Welcome to the Scipio.”
The UEES Scipio: survivor of decades of raw abuse and unbridled warfare. Even now Mathew could hear them working on her hull, repairing the damage caused by Vanduul raids. If that was not proof enough, all he had to do was look around him. The flushed faces of the exhausted men at his side told him everything he needed to know. They told him that here stood nearly an entire squadron of fresh blood, young Second Lieutenants right off the line from UEE Aerospace Academy; one shuttle of many more to come.
All these fresh faces begged the question:
Who, pray tell, were they replacing?