O.K,I got a fair amount of information from tactics. soI'll be polite and thank whoever made that website.

Also, thanks to 'Mcgruff' for reviewing on the CIC forums.

Finally, I don't own Wing Commander, I don't own nearly enough of the games either.

Front Lines

By the Plywood Fiend

Chapter 1: Retreat

Salamander's Perspective

A strategic withdrawal. That's what they always called them. Intentional surrender of nonessential systems, thereby causing the enemy to spread themselves too thinly, allowing for a greater chance of success in counter attacks. If it had ever worked out that way I didn't know. All I knew was that here in the Vega sector, all we seemed to do was carry out a 'strategic withdrawal', then spend a month or two trying to defend whichever system we fell back to before abandoning that to the Kilrathi as well.

If they were spreading themselves too thinly, you wouldn't know it from the force they sent to chase us out of Chang Cu. Three Bhantkara class fleet carriers with five Fralthi 2 class cruisers. The Hermes task force was no match for them on its own. Hence we'd been sent out to keep their bombers away from our ships whilst they made for the jump point. This was the kind of mission I loved more then most, the kind of mission where, assuming you weren't incinerated in your cockpit, you could easily be left behind by your home ship and then incinerated in your cockpit, (if you were lucky).

Anyway, things hadn't been going all that bad to begin with. Me and my two wingman, 'Torrent' and 'Fool' had already trashed a wing of Paktahn bombers heading for the Dominion, and the Arrows from 'Swift Blade' squadron and Hellcats from 'Fire Wings' had been keeping the cats off of out backs. Unfortunately, for every bomber we destroyed, three more seemed to emerge from a Kilrathi hanger.

"Guys, follow me in, same as last time, pick one and keep firing till you see floating whiskers."

"Aye sir." Torrent replied, it was nice to see that the nervousness I'd heard in her before the mission had faded.

"Sure thing Major." Fool replied shortly thereafter.

A Dralthi took a few pot shots at my Thunderbolt on the way in, my front shields took a hit before I was able to swerve out of the way. I instantly brought up my rear view turret display but the Kilrathi was nowhere to be seen. I checked the radar and saw a bright red dot that looked fairly close to the stern of my fighter, being chased by a blue dot.

I didn't have time for gratitude or relief; the first of the Paktahn was already in firing range. A series of bright green, blue and yellow flashes to my right told me that Torrent had already started firing. I followed suit a second later when I had positioned my targeting crosshair over the rotating green one on my view screen.

The pilot's reflexes were far better then his predecessors that we'd blown apart earlier, he pulled his ship out of my line of fire before after only a few hits. I looked at my targeting display; his port shield was barely damaged. Shit.

"Worthless human filth," chortled a Kilrathi pilot happily over my com unit, "You cannot hope to save yourselves."

I considered replying but I abandoned the idea, I didn't have time for this.

I pulled my ship to the right, narrowly missing a string of fire from my target's rear turret. I tried to keep the beastie in my sights long enough to get a missile lock but I soon found my shields getting whacked once again. This time by a Vaktoth. Presumably the ship of the guy who'd just taunted me.

I wouldn't take any bombers out with this bastard snapping at my heals, and I couldn't sit back and hope that a passing Arrow or Hellcat would blow it away.

"Torrent, Fool, keep firing at the bombers, I'll try and get this guy off out tails."

"Aye sir."

"Got it."

The Kilrathi had flown passed my fighter and was now preparing for another run at me. I immediately punched my afterburners and swung my ship towards him.

As the cat saw me flying towards him at suitable ramming speed, his first reaction, thankfully, was to get out of my way before he found the bow of my fighter embedded in his cockpit. As he flew off to his left, I instantly pulled in behind him. His rear turret started firing at me but that didn't defend him against the far greater stream of gunfire that I threw into his rear shields. Once these had collapsed, I fired off an Imrec missile up his engines. He had time to eject one decoy, which flew straight passed the missile and into my front shields, before the missile struck his craft, causing it to spin uncontrollably, trailing a line of fire as it did so.

The pilot said a few things over the radio in Kilrathi. I don't know what he was saying but it was probably something offensive. After revelling in triumph for about one second, I pulled back towards the others and tried to find another Paktahn to shoot at.

I increased my speed to maximum. Sitting still for extended periods of time in a place like this redefines stupid. I found Torrent and Fool roughly five kilometres away from me. Out of the original group of four bombers, three remained, judging by the look of Fool's target, it looked like the number would soon be reduced to two.

Space was beginning to fill up with debris; most of it was too badly charred to determine whether it was from a Kilrathi or Confed fighter.

Whilst moving my ship around what once may have been the wing of a star fighter, I almost flew my ship into an ejected Terran pilot, I had to swerve and then some to avoid them. I couldn't help but feel a sudden stab of pity. None of our ships had been outfitted with tractor beams, there was no chance that the Hermes would send out a rescue shuttle in the middle of a battle like this, and they wouldn't be here when it ended. That pilot, whoever he or she was, would either get whacked by a passing ship, get fried by a stray shot or be scooped up by the Kilrathi. There was nothing any of us could do about that.

I pushed the thought from my mind as best as I could as the ping of the missile lock sounded. I fired off a second Imrec into a nearby, seemingly undamaged Paktahn's shields. The pilot instantly pulled up, losing its torpedo lock on the Toronto.

The missile swerved into a decoy that the Kilrathi bomber had deployed and detonated a few moments later. I let it go. I had to focus on the fighters that were still heading for our capital ships.

I found a target, and fired. The Paktahn didn't try and flee right away, the pilot presumably was mere seconds away from a missile lock. I grinned, I was firing at an idiot. A rookie without a doubt. The sort who hasn't figured out from a dying wingman's last snarling hiss that they aren't immune to death.

His shields failed after a moment, soon afterwards, my tactical display revealed moderate damage to his engines after a few gunshots impacted on his hull.

He started to move then, not that it did him much good. His engines had taken a fair few hits and he couldn't move much faster then a porcupine mine. I swung around behind him and fired again. He ejected about five seconds earlier then he probably could have got away with. I wasn't so careful to avoid his ejection seat as I was with the other pilot. There was a slight flash of blue as the Cat was fried on my shields, then nothing. Oh well, accidents happen.

"The Rome is taking hits guys," Said Lieutenant Jake Coben, the Hermes' com officer, "Cover her."

Above me, I could just make out shapes that appeared to be Longbow bombers. It was nice to see they'd finally got some of those in the air, maybe now we could even up the odds a bit. Unfortunately, their presence meant that a lot of the fighters guarding our rears were about to be diverted to cover the bombers.

I heard a scream then, a human scream which came from a face that had appeared on my, and most probably everyone else's com screen. The pilot was waving his arms frantically, trying to fend off the flames that were reaching up from his consoles to lash at him.

There was the briefest sound of an explosion, and then the screen went dead.

The pilot had probably opened a channel to all ships to request assistance. It was easier to ask everyone then see who was closest, especially if your wingman had been fried. I don't know if this was the case. Anyway, instead, our entire compliment of airborne pilots was treated to the sight of his fiery death and the sound of his shriek of an epitaph. Not to sound unfeeling, I mean I did feel bad for the guy, I still do, and I'm not blaming him for what happened, but in the heat of combat we don't need stuff like that.

"All fighters," Coben again, "We are approaching the jump point, you have five minutes to get yourselves back here before we jump out. Don't dawdle people, if we have to leave you behind, we will.

I remember thinking that it was kind of pointless sending the bombers out seeing as they didn't have time to shoot at anything, That was before I heard the cry of,

"I die for my…"

This transmission was cut off abruptly as space lit up by the exploding fusion reactor of one of the Bhantkara carriers. After another moment of silence, a number of Kilrathi pilots started hissing and growling their outrage at us over the radio. They also seemed to be shooting at us with renewed zeal.

My rear shields took hits from two Darkets that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. My onboard computer instantly took control of the rear turret and let off a few rounds into the closest fighter, which then proceeded to fire a heat seeker at me.

My 'Lock' light sprang to life with the fast, nervous beeping that usually added to the nervousness of the guy trying to evade the missile. I dropped off a decoy and hit my afterburners, swinging my ship around so that it was pointed at the Hermes. It made no difference.

The missile crashed into the rear of my Thunderbolt, ripping my rear shields away with contemptuous ease. There was a sharp jolt and I was flung forward towards my view screen. My ship had veered off course slightly, I tried to correct that after I'd pried myself off the window, but the two Darkets quickly appeared from the shadows once again and started firing at my now singed fighter. Flying in a straight line no longer seemed like a good idea.

"Hurry up people, you have three minutes left."

My rear turret was gone, no help there, I hit the afterburners and hoped that the damage I'd taken from the missile hit hadn't wouldn't slow me down too much.

"Jak-ta-gah! Yes, run! Worthless ape dung. You will die before you…"

The Kilrathi pilot's taunt was cut off as his fighter blew up. Its always a good idea to keep an eye on your radar when firing at a target, its easy to get distracted when you're a hit or two away from a kill and not notice the beastie sneaking up behind you.

"Thanks Razor." I uttered, trying to hide my relief behind forced nonchalance.

"Don't mention it. I knew you'd need me to help you sooner or later." She cut the channel before I could respond with a witty comment of my own. Truth be told I didn't really have one, but that's not important.

The second Darket had veered off, presumably to try and avenge his wingman. I was tempted to try and even the score by shooting the beast off of her tail, but decided against it when I noticed the flak fire coming from the Hermes and her support ships. She didn't need my help. Truth be told she probably didn't need it anyway.

Pilots were flying into the Hermes' docking bay in groups of twos and threes. I guessed that no one was making landing requests considering the circumstances; they were just waiting to be told to get in and getting in, quickly.

I spent about twenty seconds hovering near the Hermes; it felt more like twenty minutes. I kept expecting to see the ship disappear into the jump point, leaving the rest of us alone with the cats.

I spent this time launching my remaining missiles at whatever targets hadn't already been taken out by Flak fire or had already gotten out of firing range. I was able to take out one limping Dralthi and cause one Vaktoth pilot to eject before Coben's face finally appeared on my com screen.

"Major McLean, get your wing onboard now!"

"Alright guys, you heard the man, land and land quickly."

"Yes sir." They said in succession.

I hurled my ship around the bridge and hastily lined myself up with the docking bay. It felt a bit like an anxiety dream, the kind where you're running towards something vitally important and your legs feel like two cinder blocks.

I moved forward far more quickly then landing procedures recommend, as a result I was almost sticking out the other end of the Hermes when my ship stopped moving. I guess that was a good thing, it gave the others more room to move.

The crew on deck virtually ripped me out of the Thunderbolt. I kept hearing cries of 'Come on, move your ass son', and 'Hurry it up fuckwit, we don't have long.'

I moved as quickly as I could. I was almost tempted to leap to the deck, but hauling away an idiot with two broken legs wasn't going to help anyone get in any quicker.

"I was directed towards one of the exits, where I noticed pilots hurriedly getting out of the way of landing fighters, that seemed like sense to me.

I felt a welcome relief when I saw two Thunderbolts, in other words Fool and Torrent, emerging through the force field of the Hermes. This was soon replaced by concern for Razor's wellbeing, along with Scar's and Adish's.

Get out you fool! My head started screaming at me, or it might have been a technician, Get out know!

I dashed for the far wall to make sure I wouldn't get caught under someone's landing gear on my way out, then I rushed for the exit.

About halfway there, there was a sharp jolt that sent everyone on the flight deck, hell probably everyone on the ship flying to the floor. I found myself sliding towards the door before I was able to stop myself. This jolt was accompanied by an almighty bang that nearly blew my eardrums out. It took me a minute to realise what had happened.

The Hermes had taken a torpedo hit.

It didn't take too many torpedo hits to down even the strongest of warships, just that one would undoubtedly have caused critical damage to the Hermes. My head shot up again as a new noise emerged suddenly out of nowhere. As I noticed three Arrows touching down on the deck plating under the now flickering lights, I noticed a trail of debris being left in the Hermes' wake.

If they'd taken out the jump engine…

I pushed the image aside and made my way to the door once again. Half expecting to be flung through by another torpedo hit.

Eventually, I made it through and hastily made my way down the corridor to the stairs leading to Flight control. A good place to be at this time, out of the way and with a view of the flight deck.

"Attention," Said an echoing, somewhat fuzzy voice from the ship's intercom, "Jump point in 30 seconds, repeat, jump point in 30 seconds."

There'd be people left behind, no doubt about it. They would be pulling as many ships as they could onboard now, except for the bombers, they had jump engines of their own, hell they'd probably gone through already.

"Jump point in 20 seconds, repeat, jump point in twenty seconds."

"Come on Razor," I whispered, "Scar, Adish. Get onboard."

I had no idea if they were onboard or not, that's why I was heading for flight control, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of their faces from the window overlooking the flight deck.

"Jump point in ten seconds."

No time left, I crouched slightly and grabbed onto the banister. Jump points could be bumpy things, especially if your ship was damaged.

"Five, four, three, two, one"

"I'm sorry."

"Initiating Jump sequence, now."

The ship shuddered, there was a bright light from the doorway up the stairs, light from the wormhole coming through the flight deck and the windows in Flight Control overlooking it. I was still wearing my flight helmet, there was a light filter in the visor that protected my eyes against such lights, everyone working on the flight deck was required to wear one in times like these, we couldn't afford to lose people to blindness in times of war.

Eventually, the shuddering shopped. The light faded and there was a deathly calm for a few moments. The calm after the storm. The fire fight that we'd escaped from less then a minute ago felt like it had happened a week ago.

Now we were in the Brimstone system. I'd fought here once, as a 2nd lieutenant, less then a month out of the academy, flying off of the TCS Redoubtable and helping to wrest the system from the claws of the enemy. I can still remember the pride and hope I felt as I watched the News footage of our demolitions team taking down the base on Brimstone 2. I can never forgive myself for feeling hope.

Oh, in case you were wondering, I was apologising to the pilot I'd flown passed, and anyone else who had been left behind in Chang-Cu. I know there was nothing I could do to save those that had bailed out, nor could I have gotten one more person onboard. Still, I couldn't help but feel guilty.

I've had to apologise too often.

I released the banister from my grasp and made my way back down to the flight deck. There was no sign of Fool or Torrent, they must have been in Flight Control or somewhere.

As I stepped onto the flight deck, I saw a lot of frustrated faces, everyone feeling bitter over our failure in Chang Cu, everyone feeling irrationally responsible for all the people who died or were left behind. I also saw a few people, like myself, searching for familiar faces, praying silently to God to let there friends be alright.

I noticed Scar first, or should I say he noticed me. As I was wandering aimlessly, trying to stay out of everyone's way and make my way to the large cluster of pilots who seemed to be gathered next to a Thunderbolt, I felt a grip on my shoulder. I turned around and there he was, just staring at me, looking as deadpan as he always seemed to.

"Greetings tovarish, " He said, his thick Russian accent barely penetrating the ringing in my ears. "I'm glad to see you made it."

"Likewise," I said, clapping him on the shoulder as I did so, "Have you seen Razor? Or Adish?"

He shook his head slowly. I sighed and nodded, more to myself then him.

"Let's head for that lot, maybe they're in there somewhere."

"Very well sir."

We walked toward the line, hastily trying to get close enough to distinguish faces. In my line of vision, I soon found myself looking at the faces of a lot of relieved looking pilots, chatting with friends who's lives they had been afraid for, other people were still searching, their eyes becoming ever more worried. One young looking guy was crying.

Scar grabbed my shoulder again, I turned round and saw him pointing at two figures a few meters away from us, talking to each other next to an Arrow.

Relief flooded through me, it was Razor and Adish. For a moment, I just stood there, enjoying the feeling. Then I noticed Adish pointing in our direction, the four of us began moving towards each other.

"Thank God," Razor said, when we finally got close enough to hear each other. She still looked worried, "Where's Fool and Torrent?"

"They're fine," I said, "They came in around the same time as me, I think they went through into Flight control, they're probably looking for us from one of the windows."

Adish sighed heavily, the relief was now flooding through him. I enjoyed the feeling while it lasted. After a few moments the bitterness and guilt fought their way back to the surface.

"Let's get out of here." Adish said, "We're just getting in the way, and I don't know about the rest of you but I could use a drink."

"I think we all could," Scar added.

We moved towards the exit. The Hermes and her escort ships now were now running at best possible speed to the Confederation position at Brimstone two. We needed to get away from the jump point quickly, in case the Kilrathi decided to follow us through. We doubted that they would, it made more sense to fall back, gather a suitably strong fleet and just waltz in and pound us later.

After we met up with Fool and Torrent, we headed to the rec-room and like many other pilots, we drank. We drank until our defeat was a distant memory, hidden behind the vale of a drunken stupor.

To be continued.