Narrow stairs lead from the main bridge to the traffic control bridge below. Captain Anderson, followed closely by his first officer, descended in haste.
“What's the situation?” asked the first officer, his voice carrying over the Captain as they reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Sir.” The respects were followed with a salute, delivered by the crisp alto voice of Major Lillian Jasper, the Chief Traffic Officer aboard the Scipio. “A flight from the hundred and fifteenth is making its way toward us now sir. No comms yet, if I were to hazard a guess I'd say they're here to dispatch the defending flight of the thirty first Sir.”
“I'd hazard the same guess.” remarked the Captain as he peered through the holographic display. “Any other movement so far?”
“Yes Sir.” She nodded, walking over to one of her controllers. “Lieutenant Shoffer was able to pick up a few signatures of the one sixteenth even though they're in low orbit on the other side of Terra.”
“How did you manage that?” Asked the Captain, leaning over the young officers shoulder to look ponderously at the display.
Timidly, Lieutenant Shoffer spoke. “Well, I used a low frequency band and allowed the lens effect of Terra's upper atmosphere to warp the signal around the planet slightly. It just happens that I can read a few pings. I was lucky enough to read a blue shift, so they're on their way back.”
“How many?” Asked the fist officer.
“At the moment I can't tell, but the Scipio has powerful optics, as soon as they're within visual range I'll be able to scan through the EM bands and isolate each individual signature.”
The Captain nodded. “Good work Lieutenant. You have big boots to fill, but I'm very pleased with your efforts. Keep it up.”
The Captain turned and walked toward the tall windows littered with holographic telemetry. He stood staring through the symbols and into the stars beyond.
“Do you think they're truly ready?” Asked Geoffrey.
Anderson sighed. “Geoff, no one is ready for the real thing. It doesn't matter how much training you get, how many exercises you complete or how many times you run through simulations. You can't be ready for combat.” He turned to his friend and first officer. “But you can prepare for it.” He said, smiling as he put a hand on Geoffrey's shoulder. “Prepare and lie to yourself that you're ready until … ” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “ … until you shit your pants when the bullets start flying.”
Geoffrey laughed, turning to follow the Captain as they made their way back up to the main bridge. Behind them, the holographic representation of four M50's could be seen launching from the Scipio's main hangar.
“You're clear of the bow.” Cardboard said to Flash over squadron comms. He watched the M50's ventral thrusters ignite as it's nose climbed. The main engines erupted in a blue storm and the small craft bolted into the stars beyond. Through his peripheral, he watched the last of the Scipio's bulkheads rush past him as he too cleared the bow of the Scipio. He checked his instruments one last time, and then pulled up on the joystick while shoving the throttle to maximum. His body sunk into the seat as the forces of gravity multiplied and adrenaline poured into his bloodstream. This is what he lived for; the rush only a pilot could truly feel. Beyond the canopy, space was still, pristine, a frozen glitter of diamond studded velvet. A stark contrast to the vibrating hull and crushing acceleration that Cardboard felt as his M50's engines thrust him through space at such high speeds that cesium clocks could record a marked warp in time as it slowed from dilation.
“You going to catch up or what?” Asked Flash.
“I'm here.” He said, gritting his teeth as he spoke, his muscles tightened against the forces playing on his body. “So why do they call you Flash anyway?”
“It's because of a trick I once tried involving flashing my engines to increase acceleration.”
“So you tried pumping excess fuel into the chamber between cycles?”
“Yeah that's the idea. Each cycle increases the amount of material that didn't react.”
Cardboard sighed. “Also bringing you increasingly closer to a runaway reactor or a nuclear explosion a few feet behind your head.”
“True, but it was worth it at the time. Your turn, why do they call you Cardboard?”
“It's a long story.”
“We have time.” Flash said peering out the side of his canopy to find that Cardboard had formed up on his wing.
“Apparently we don't, I'm picking up a flight of Hornets.”
Flash peered down at his scopes. “Apparently so. What are they doing out here?” His attention turned to the comms as they lit up and a message crackled over the Higher means.
“Greyhound Alpha, this is Wolf Bravo Flight Lead, over.”
Flash shrugged and keyed his mic. “Greyhound Alpha, that you are, over.”
Mathew re-adjusted himself in the cockpit of his Hornet, slightly bothered by the informality of the reply. He cleared his throat and hit the mic again. “Wolf Bravo one, we lost comms with the Scipio, over.”
Flash rolled his eyes. “Greyhound Alpha, that you did, over.”
“This guy's playing with us.” Jon said, looking at Mathew's Hornet in formation. “Don't let it get to you Matt, just get the info and we'll be on our way.”
Mathew nodded, “I agree Jon, let's form up on their wing for now and see what we can pry from this idiot.”
The hornets slowed and changed course to meet the flight path of the M50's, but when they came to form up, the M50's shot past them at blurring speed.
“Can't keep up?” Came a voice over their Squadron Comms.
Mathew clenched his teeth. “What's the deal?” he asked.
“I'm to deliver mission specific information to Wolf lead.”
Pierre chimed in. “Guys, he's not going to give us any info, but I have an idea.”
“What's that?” Matt asked.
“The Scipio has four M50's.” Pierre said.
The cogs in Mathews mind started linking together and his eyes grew wide. “The other wing is on their way to meet up with the Hounds!”
Flash smiled. “Good luck boys, seriously if you can take out Rogue and Bubba you're better pilots than you look like.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” Jon quipped.
It was Mathew's turn to tell Jon to calm himself. “Let it go Jon, let's break and intercept Greyhound Bravo before they deliver their message.”
The three hornets dropped their pursuit as the formation swung in an arch to change heading, the sun glistening off their rear-swept wings.