The pair of Hornets dropped out of the jump point and banked in unison as they closed into a tight formation.
"One more system and we'll be there," said the young Lieutenant Leon "Ilyzin" Wake. He and his wingman only recently graduated from the academy and were originally assigned to the Bengal class UEES Dimora. However, just as they were awaiting transport, they'd received an urgent change of post to the UEES Scipio. The Equipment Technical Quartermaster signed them off to two brand new Hornets and they were very quickly briefed on a flight plan to rendezvous with the Carrier Strike Group as it continued to make its way deeper into the outer systems.
Leon's wingman was a young pilot named Ivar Kondratov, nicknamed "Messer" due to his first name being the same as the tyrant who'd made himself the most powerful man in history; Ivar Messer. Leon and Ivar got along well, and were glad when they were posted to the Dimora together. The mood changed slightly when they learned that their posting to the Scipio was in relief of two lost pilots. It was a bittersweet posting. On one hand, they were both sad for the loss of two brothers in arms, even if they'd never met them; yet on the other, they were excited for the prospect of real combat. A prospect which, at this very moment, was beginning to creep up into their minds for perhaps the first time in their lives.
"I don't like this," said Ivar over squadron comms. "I hate to be cliche, but it's way too quiet."
"The Scipio didn't get engaged anywhere along this route Messer, we should be fine."
"The Scipio has enough escorts to wage a war on its own Ilyzin. We, on the other hand, are like that pile of fish guts they use to attract the sharks."
Ilyzin chuckled, but couldn't help feeling that Messer was not far from the truth. "The system looks clean from here."
"There are plenty of places to hide."
"Just stay on your toes Messer, we'll be fine."
Ivar shook his head. "This is stupid," he said to himself, scanning his scopes once again to make sure they were indeed alone.
Matters worsened when a blip appeared on the scopes.
"Do you see that?" asked Ilyzin.
"I do, not close enough to get any info."
Messer peered at his scopes, his fingers tapping on the screen as he navigated through different filters. "Yeah I don't see it anywhere anymore."
Ilyzin sighed. "Alright, get ready."
"You think this is it?" Messer's heart was pumping.
"It very well could be."
Messer re-aligned power consumption to favor weapons and defensive systems, then sat back. His heart was pounding in his chest as they continued to the waypoint.
"Nav three, clear. New heading, zero zero five zero."
The two ships tilted, sliding their vector toward the next waypoint.
The blip appeared again.
"Ten o'clock Ilyzin, it's a Cutlass."
Leon peered out the canopy, knowing it was nearly impossible to see the vessel at this distance. "Just stay on course."
"I'm not liking this one bit Ilyzin. Not a single bit."
"I'm right there with you Messer, I've got worms in my throat. Chances are it's just some guy traveling to a destination, just like us."
Their radios beeped, an incoming message on the civilian band. "Are you two pups lost?"
Messer cursed between clenched teeth, "Shit." The anticipation of conflict was palpable.
Ilyzin took in a deep breath and opened the channel. "Civilian craft, maintain your distance."
"Or what?" said the Cutlass pilot.
Ilyzin's mind rolled back onto his training. "If your vessel trajectory, at any point, resembles an attack vector, we will consider this a hostile act upon which; under the United Empire of Earth defense article five, sub-section alpha twenty two: we are free to utilize lethal force in the protection of UEE property and personnel."
"What, you mean if I turned my nose into your current line of travel, as though I was leading you with my guns?" The Cutlass banked.
Ivar watched the ship's vector drift into a firing solution for their current speed and direction. He felt a bead of sweat ball up on the edge of his eyebrow, hanging there in the zero gravity environment of the cockpit. He keyed squadron comms, "He's calling our bluff."
"Really? I hadn't noticed. Just stay on course."
The Cutlass pilot laughed over the civilian band as he fell behind them, never once having even transferred power to shields or weapons. Soon he was beyond visual range, and then after a few more minutes, his blip on the radar vanished.
Ivar shook his head for the bead of sweat to break free. "That wasn't cool."
Ilyzin sighed. "What a dick."
"And that's nav four, we're here," Ivar said, looking out through the canopy to see nothing but open space, yet somewhere before them was a rift, a hole in the fabric of the continuum that would allow them to travel vast distances in an instant.
Ilyzin keyed his mic, "Loading up the drive information. Alright we're clear. Synchronizing. Hit it when you're ready."
Ivar typed in the required commands on his console and the computer took over flight controls, bringing him uncomfortably close to Ilyzin's Hornet before thrusting them forward in unison.
In silence, they both took one last look on their scopes and out the canopy, wondering where the Cutlass had gone. Then, the two Hornets slowly slid through the darkness toward the invisible gateway; before disappearing in a brilliant flash of light.
On the bridge of the Scipio, Captain Anderson and the Admiral were standing near the holosphere as Major Jasper came up the stairs from the level below.
"Sir," she said in her soft voice. "The replacements have just jumped into the system. Their estimated time of arrival is at five hundred and twenty hours.
The Captain nodded, “Thank you Lillian, let me know when they're on final approach. I'd like to greet them on the flight deck.”
Major Jasper smiled, “Will do Sir.” She turned on her heel and made her way back down the stairs.
“So they made it through without getting into trouble," said Captain Anderson.
Admiral Jameson looked at him with a cocked eyebrow. “You didn't expect they would?”
The Captain looked at Jameson and took in a deep breath. “To be honest, no. I protested them coming the whole way without escort. We should have sent a few Hornets to rendezvous with them two systems back.”
“We need all the firepower we have here with us Michael,” said the Admiral. “What if we'd come under attack?”
Michael almost snorted a laugh. He looked around, lowering his voice. “Are you serious Rick, look at this!” He pointed to the holosphere where next to the Scipio floated ten large blips and a half dozen smaller ones. “No one in their right mind is going to come after us out here. A small fight of two Hornets by themselves in an outer system, that's for the pickings. Do you know how much a stolen Hornet goes for on the black market?”
“No Michael, I don't have time to look up useless information like that.”
“Neither do I, but there are plenty of people out there willing to sell information if you know where to look for them.”
Jameson furrowed his brow. “Are you saying you used UEE assets to hire the aid of renegades?”
Anderson looked his friend and superior in the eye. “The assets don't belong to the UEE the second they're in my personal account Rick," he turned his gaze back on to the sphere. “After that, I can do whatever I want with them.”
“When's the last time you did something as stupid as that?” asked the Admiral.
The Captain stood silent.
“I see," the Admiral shook his head. “Recently.”
The Captain smiled, “Maybe.”
“Just don't force my hand Michael.”
“You're the only one in control of your hand Rick. What I do is irrelevant. If you really wanted to slap me a Court Martial, you would have done so the first time I told you what I thought about leaving Terra without doing more for our missing pilots.”
Jameson sighed. “Those two Hornets are on initial approach, you should head down to the flight deck if you want to catch them arriving.”
“That's a good idea Admiral. I'll assume you're not going to join me?”
“No, I have to work on this formation layout and deal with the complaints the Quest keeps giving me in regards to being too close to the Grace.”
The Captain laughed. “I suppose they're concerned that if they go high order we'll take out our Mercy ship at the same time.”
Jameson nodded, looking at the current formation on the sphere. “Well the whole point of keeping them together is so that we can protect our two most valuable assets short of the Scipio herself. Commander Turpin just doesn't seem to want to budge on this one. She's adamant about keeping the Starfarer out beyond the frigates.”
“Maybe she thinks we will only be attacked from the front. Either way, she does have balls to be arguing with the Admiral of the Strike Group.”
“Mhmm," Jameson nodded his head. “I'll give her that. Now get going, you'll miss those pilots.”
“Yes sir," Captain Anderson said, almost mockingly.
The Admiral gave him a narrow glare, in jest, before watching the Captain make his way to the lift.
On the flight deck, the two Hornets were taxied in. Ivar had barely finished shutting her down when Jessie hopped up the ladder.
Jessie smacked the hull to get the pilots' attention. “Hey, keep main power on, we need to do a full inspection.”
Ivar, startled, stared at the man for a few seconds before nodding in response. “Yeah, just don't pop out of nowhere like that, you scared the hell out of me.”
Jessie's smile kinked as he chewed gum, “Welcome to the Scipio, now scram, we need these inspections done as soon as possible!”
Ivar stared at the technician, dumbfound. “You know I'm a Lieutenant right?”
Jessie looked back up at the man from the flight deck. “I don't care if you're the fucking Imperator, those inspections need to be done," he said, walking off toward a pushback tug parked nearby.
Ivar shook his head and looked over to Ilyzin. “Do you believe that guy?”
Ilyzin shrugged and shook his head.
“Welcome to the Scipio.”
The two pilots looked down to see the Captain standing right on the flight deck, followed closely by a large bald man, covered in scars.
“I am Captain Michael Anderson, your new Commanding Officer.”
“Sir," the two saluted. They were dumbfound as to why the Captain would greet them himself.
“Please, climb on down, I'll bring you to your Wing commanders.”
Messer and Ilyzin awkwardly made their way down the ladders to the flight deck and walked over to the Captain, coming to attention near him and saluting again.
The Captain returned the salute. “That's the last time you'll salute me today gents, my arm gets tired.”
“Yes sir," they replied in unison.
“Alright, how was the flight?”
Jessie watched the four walking off the flight deck as he drove the pushback tug into position at the front gear of the Hornet. He got out and pinned the bracket into the towing chassis, shaking his head at the two greenest pilots he'd seen in his life. Getting back in the seat, he tugged the Hornet to one of the large lifts, lining it up with the markers painted on the pad before uncoupling the pushback tug and parking it again. He then walked to the lift controls and tapped the down arrow. The cogs growled and the lift began to descend as amber and red warning lights spun at the edges of the platform. Jessie sighed, descending into the pits below for another long day of labor.