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The ground crew motioned the Hornet forward. The thrusters burst blue flame and it shifted sideways before leveling off and hovering only a few feet above the flight deck. The Hornet was the mainstay of the UEE fleet. It was a multi-role fighter interceptor, capable of atmospheric flight by way of its rearward sweeping wings reminiscent to the turn of the millennium F-14 Super Tomcat.  Supplemental to the basic armament of lasers, cannons and missiles; the Hornets ball turret, tied in to the pilots helmet with optical tracking, made it a force to be reckoned with in any engagement.   

The ground crew gave a thumbs up as he walked across the yellow line.

Subtext returned the thumbs up and then watched the man, waiting for the signal. It came sooner then expected.

His yellow reflective vest shrunk low as the ground crewman crouched and shot his arm down the flight deck toward the stars visible at its end. With practiced timing, the Hornet's main engine ignited in blue fury and it jetted down the shaft as though the crewman's arm had thrown it fiercely.

In the cockpit, Subtext felt his rib cage crushing against the back of the seat. His helmet pushed into his face as the forces of his acceleration tugged at every atom of his being and the craft around him. The bulkheads flashed past him like the boards of a wooden fence he used to bike by on his way to school as a child. Then, nothing. The empty vastness of space enveloped him with its surreal caress. The blip on his radar told him the next Hornet had already launched.

“Wolf Charlie three, this is Wolf Charlie one, form on my wing, over.”

The radio squawked and Subtext hit his transmission key to respond. “Wolf Charlie one, roger over.” When he released the key, he already recognized he had made a mistake, and shook his head, waiting for the slap on the wrist.

“Wolf Charlie one, voice procedure. Identify yourself as responder, not the receiver. Over.”

He keyed the mic again. “Wolf Charlie three, roger over.” He heard his other headphone squelch.

“Subtext, it's Hotrod, sorry to have to give you shit over means like that but if we're not on the Squadron channel we have to perform proper voice procedure. Part of that includes me burning you if you fuck up.”

Subtext sighed with a faint smile. “That's all good Hotrod. I saw it coming once I realized what I did wrong.” he said, as he came in close to Hotrod's Hornet and formed up next to him. He could see Hotrod in his cockpit, he was giving Subtext a thumbs up.

Hotrod's voice came over again. “We'll usually use TacNet channels when we're requesting something from the Scipio or some other entity like a station. The Traffic techs like hearing us so they know what's going on. Most of the time though, you'll be hearing us through your right ear, which should be Squadron channel unless you've modified it.”

Another blip showed up on their radar and the left earphone clicked to life.

“Wolf Charlie one this is Wolf Charlie two, permission to form up, over.”

It was a female voice that Subtext didn't recognize. “Who's this?” he asked over Squadron.

Hotrod's voice replied. “According to manifest, Charlie two is Second Lieutenant Sophine Blackwood, callsign Black.”

“That would be me.” came her voice once again.

“Charlie one, permission granted.” came Hotrod's voice over the TacNet channel.

Subtext could imagine the myriad Traffic Controllers sitting just below the bridge, their tall massive windows alight with tracking information and vectors, all listening to their maneuvers.

“Alright lady and gent. Let's go meet up with the rest of the Wolf Pack then shall we?” said Hotrod as his Hornet accelerated away.

Subtext and Black pushed their throttles forward to stay in formation.

Ahead of them, the glimmer of blue engine wash could be seen, all neatly sorted into each formation of both the 82nd Fighter Wing, along with the 22nd Bomber Wing. It was a good show of force for any seedy pilots in the system, their radar signature would echo across the screen like one giant blip of thirty six Hornets and eight Gladiators. The only ships that weren't deployed were the Scipio's compliment of M50's, four in total. Two had just recently arrived to the Scipio and were grounded for inspection, while the other two were yet to be signed out by their respective pilots.

There were, however, a few more craft that were present. The Wing Commanders of both the 82nd Fighter Wing and the 22nd Bomber Wing and their 2I/C's, all strapped in to the auxiliary Hornets the Scipio carried. It was rare to have a Wing Commander actually out on patrol, nearly unheard of in fact. The position Colonel Collins held as the Wing Commander of the 82nd Fighter Wing was chiefly a desk job. He kept track of the manifest, maintained the files of the members within his Wing and dolled out disciplinary charges when it was necessary to do so. Finding yourself in front of the Wing Commander was very rarely a good thing.

The mic squawked. “Scipio.” Came a deep voice over the comms. “This is Eight Two Actual, permission to speak freely, over.”

Clockwork, in his bomber formation next to Minx's Gladiator, almost felt the the asshole pucker on the poor junior officer at the other end of the radio. The Colonel had just asked him to “Fuck voice procedure.”

“Scipio, permission granted, over and out.”

“Oh shit.” Mira said over Squadron comms. The Traffic tech had just outed the Colonel. She wondered if the tech would be reprimanded later.

Gryphon's voice blared, “Minx, shut up.”

Songbird cringed, wanting nothing more than to strangle Gryphon.

“Yes sir.” Mira replied, knowing it would burn him, and not caring about the extra duties she might receive.

Gryphon laughed to himself. Making them think he was an asshole would be all the sweeter when they finally earned his respect. He knew that now they hated him, but soon they'd feel as though they accomplished something in 'bringing him around', and the Squadron's camaraderie would benefit from it in the long run. “You'll regret that.”

“Thank you Scipio.” came the Colonel's deep voice once again. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am Colonel Sean Collins, and I am the Wing Commander of the Eighty Second Fighter Wing stationed on the UEES Scipio. I'm very glad to see the Admiral order a full deployment. It's good to be sitting in a cockpit once again. For many of you, this will be your first tour of duty. It's a strange time for the Empire; with the rebellion over and a new enemy on the horizon, we're in an era of change and tactical evolution.

The Vanduul are a fierce and savage enemy. They fight without honor, and kill indiscriminately. I am convinced that you will all, someday, find yourselves in a dogfight with one of these skilled enemies if you haven't already. However, that time is not now.

The Captain has seen fit to allow me to disclose that our current mission will not take us back to Vanduul territory. We are to head to the border worlds within the week, to help stabilize the region as sympathizers have apparently begun striking UEE assets in the area. For the veterans, take pride in what we are doing. I know you want nothing more then to take the fight back to the Vanduul for those we lost recently. Nevertheless, the Empire needs us elsewhere and we do not serve our own urges, but the will of the Empire and its interests. Take solace in knowing that the day will soon come where we will once again cross paths with our quarry.”

Almitt was shaking his head, and he imagined the other vets were doing much the same.

“Today.” Continued the Colonel. “We will train. Terra and the Council has given us permission to use the southern Ocean and airspace above as a temporary range. We will be conducting Flight and Squadron interceptions and evasive maneuvers in low orbit and transitions to atmosphere for the next few days. To promote team building and leadership qualities, junior officers will be chosen at random to perform the tasks of Flight Leaders and Squadron Leaders, be ready young men and women; it will be your time to shine.

In closing, I'm proud to be witness to this new influx of pilots to the two Wings and Auxiliary of the Scipio. It's my honor and privilege to welcome you all into the fold. The Scipio has a long and colorful history and has won many battle honors, you have all been charged to carry a heavy flag, laden with expectations of bravery, loyalty and courage. To quote House Lear, the honorable lineage of our Captain, Hold Fast and Steady to Victory.

That is all.”

The mic clicked silent before the Squadron Leaders received their orders and began barking them over the comms.

Subtext winced, listening to both the voices on TacNet and the channels below before he recognized McKeen on Squadron level comms.

“Alright boys and girls, playtime has just begun. This just in from TacNet. War games for the next few days, all simulation levels from logistics to Traffic and up the chain to the Admiral himself. That means the Scipio will be a green zone only within a two kilometer radius, meaning about four hundred meters off the bow. You're home free on landing for re-armament or repairs in that area only. Everything else is free game other than a few out of bounds locations. These locations are as follows: the station and satellite sector of orbit around Terra. In Atmo, boundaries are all airspace above populated areas in the southern hemisphere. The entire northern hemisphere is out of bounds below two hundred kilometers Mean Sea Level. Sector two and three have debris fields that are not out of bounds, but be wary of collisions. More to follow.”

The mic went silent.

Black's eyes shifted left, she saw two flights from the Dread Hounds formation break off at full throttle. Her heart began to race.

“Wolf Pack, orders.” came McKeen's voice. “Enemy: Dread Hounds Squadron along with four Gladiators from the 18th; Alpha and Bravo flight. Our start area is eight figures, grid sector x-ray foxtrot, seven five zero zero, niner eight zero zero. Bearing zero three zero zero, solar reference. Get underway, there will be more to follow at destination.”

Her fingers were bouncing off the keypad as she entered the training and simulation menus to tag the IFF signals of the Dread hounds along with Alpha and Bravo flights from the 18th. All the while, her other hand pushed the throttle and then grasped the joystick as she 'one handed' her Hornet. She moved from the training menu to the navigation system, simultaneously entering coordinates for the destination sector as she maintained formation. She watched the blips on her radar turn to enemy signals as the Hounds fled toward their starting location.

“This is bound to be fun.” came Subtext's voice over Squadron comms.

Sophine smiled. “So long as I don't have to keep your ass alive.” She said, looking out her canopy to find Subtext staring at her as they flew in close formation.

“We'll see who's saving who's ass.” he retorted.

The End

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