The transport rocked as it exited subspace, the mottled blue-white of subspace shifting into a field of stars, a nebula visible as a small but still noticeable spot through the viewport. He leaned against the viewport, staring dully ahead, idly noticing the large station only a hundred kilometers away or so.
At this distance, it was little more than a blur, but he could see the Antares Station in his mind's eye, the great, slowly rotating disc, the long spar coming from it's middle on either side, with countless freighters and transports docking and undocking from it. He supposed it would be more quiet as civilian traffic was no doubt at a minimal, although he suspected there would still be a few cruisers guarding it, their fighters shifting to and fro.
"You don't seem terribly excited."
He snapped out of his reverie and looked over at the small, grinning woman seated next to him. "You've been about as lively as a dying fish since we left Aquilae Station."
"Was that a while ago?"
"Well, there was the jump from the Station to the Antares jump point, the transit to the jump point, the jump through...about three hours. Most of the people on here are either excited or scared, you're just bored."
He glanced around, and could tell she was right. Nobody on the flight seemed particularly good at reading faces. "I've been out this way before. Haven't been around it in a few years, but this is nothing new."
"And being sent to go fight the Vasudans doesn't bother you?"
"I learned I was going out nearly a year ago. Between pilot training and travel time, I've gotten over it."
"You're a pilot?" She cocked her head. "That's what they decided I was fit for, too." She held her hand out. "Tanya Velikova."
He shook her hand. "Vincent O'Reilly." She had a firm grip, he noted. "You don't seem terribly bothered either."
"Never been into space before!" She looked around with a grin. "It's not quite as luxurious as the movies show it, but the view is incredible." She ran her fingers through her crew cut. "On the other hand, the haircuts aren't great."
A voice from the cockpit cut in. "Standby for turbulence, we're about to re-enter subspace." The transport began to shake gently as the blue-white portal began to form, the edges visible through the viewport. Tanya leaned over Vincent, her mouth half-open.
"Still haven't gotten used to it?"
"It's only my fifth trip through subspace."
He nodded, then found himself leaning against the viewport. They were only in subspace for a scant few seconds before the portal re-opened, the transport exiting. He furrowed his brow.
"That's odd. Where is it?"
The transport came around, a gigantic ship coming into view, a massive if somewhat ungainly looking ship, like a great sword hanging in space, bristling with cannons and antennae, a gigantic hangar bay on it's lower section. Most of the great battleship became obscured as the transport began it's approach to the hangar.
"Transport Bravo-Two, GTD Galatea welcomes you to Antares."
Tanya's mouth hung low enough that her chin nearly touched her collar, and Vincent couldn't help but feel impressed by the sight. He, and Tanya as well no doubt, had seen Orion-class vessels in news reports and movies, but seeing one in the flesh was a wholly different feeling.
The transport quickly moved across the space separating them into the docking bay and setting down with a bump and the sound of escaping gas as the clamps attached. A minute or so passed until the light over the ramp went green and the door slid open, leading into the colossal hangars.
Tanya hopped out of her seat, first in the transport, followed by Vincent and the rest of the passengers. He gazed around the deck as they stepped down, awestruck by the sight. The hangar seemed to stretch on forever, with hundreds of technicians working on dozens of craft. Vincent could pick out several types - Apollo and Hercules fighters, Athena and Medusa bombers, Poseidon-class haulers, and a few boxy Elysium-class transports like the one that had brought him to the ship.
"Looks even bigger on the inside."
A badly scarred woman paced to and fro behind the podium, gesturing periodically with her prosthetic arm.
"Pilots, welcome aboard the Galatea. I'm Captain Shan, commander of Galatea's second wing. You pilots will be replacing some of the casualties we sustained during the recent Operation Thresher. You're only the tip of the iceberg. Current casualty counts across the Fifth Fleet have us at five hundred and four pilots dead, fourteen missing." Which meant they'd been vaporized, or otherwise reduced to a fine spray of dust.
"The Vasudans still have a strong grip on the jump node to Vasuda Prime, but their inner-system assets have had supplies cut off, which means they're lacking reinforcements and supplies." Captain Shan reached onto the podium and flicked a switch, the screens switching from the GTA symbol into a still image of three huge, bizarrely shaped warships. Vincent leaned over, examining the bizarre shape. They resembled swords broken near the hilt, with the broken end forming the engine section, covered in brown-purple mottled armor.
"These are the core of the Vasudan's Third Fleet - Akenaten, Seti, and Ramesses, all of the Typhon class. Familiarize yourself with them and their known complement. Anubis scouts, Horus interceptors, Seth assault fighters, and Osiris bombers." The Captain stepped down, nodding to them. "I believe you're all scheduled for squadron briefings. The squadron briefing rooms are on the other side of the corridor as you leave. Suicide Kings down to the left, Rhinos dead ahead, Sabers to the right." She waved her hands at them. "Get going, you're already late."
Vincent stood, Tanya bobbing at his side. "Shit. Five hundred pilots dead? That's, what..."
"About sixty percent of the Fifth Fleet's pilots. Mostly from Galatea, Bastion, Stalwart, and Vigilance."
"Oh. You read the briefing docket on Thresher?"
"I had a long flight from Mars."
The two of them turned to the right and headed into the 44th Saber's briefing room. The room was about a third full, the seasoned pilots turning in their seats to see the rookies file in.
"So what happened to Captain Shan?"
One of the more experienced pilots heard Tanya's question. "She rammed a bomber making a run on the Galatea. Ejected before the impact, but the blast and shrapnel..."
Tanya went a little pale, but seemed to retain her characteristic exuberance. "Wow. She's a badass."
"Hell yeah she is." He turned back around to face the podium as the squadron's CO walked in. Vincent furrowed his brow, this wasn't the commander he had seen in the briefing docket.
"I'm Lieu-excuse me, I'm Commander Stiles, I'll be taking command of the Sabers." He looked a little young to be commanding a fighter squadron. Vincent grimaced. It looked like Thresher was causing some rapid advancements. Then again, he looked like a classic politician. "To new pilots, welcome to the squadron and the Galatea. We'll be leaving Galatea for the next two weeks to reinforce the GTC Orff and GTC Surtur in the Betelgeuse system."
He flicked a switch, displaying a series of shots of Vasudan fighter craft.
"We've had problems in this region with Vasudan raiders, most likely remnants from our taking of the system three months ago. Mostly just scattered groups of fighters, operating out of the system's asteroid belt. We'll be hitching a ride on the next group of transports, and from there assist our cruisers in mopping up. Since we've had about a fifty percent reduction, we'll be mixing our veterans and rookies together. I'll command Alpha Flight, along with Martinez. Blake, Victor, you'll be flying with us. Harbison." The veteran Tanya had spoken to nodded. "You'll be flying with Snipes, along with O'Reilly and Velikova. Connelly..."
The briefing stretched on for some hours, until finally they were scheduled to head out. Vincent sat in the pilot's seat of his Apollo fighter, examining the controls. They were like second nature to him, considering how much time he'd spent in the simulators at Basic and on Antares Station. He flicked the power on switch, a gentle hum running through the craft.
"Harbinger to Beta Flight, check in." Harbison's voice cut into the near-silence.
"Javelin, all set."
"Beta Three, ready to roll." Even through the static, Tanya seemed exuberant.
"Beta Four, ready."
"Remind me to think of a callsign for you two." Snipes' voice cut into the channel.
"Beta Transports are already waiting for us. Form on my wing." Harbison's thrusters activated as the hangar doors slid aside, Alpha and Gamma flights already departing to either side. Vincent hit his thrusters, pulling up the rear of the formation. Ahead, he could see their two freighters waiting with magnetic clamps extending. He hadn't seen the new Poseidons before - they looked vaguely like legless, boxy gorillas, complete with dangling 'arms'. He maneuvered his fighter to one side, Snipes to the other. The ship trembled as the magnetic clamps attached.
"Alright, from here it's no stops until we rendezvous with the Surtur."
The six transports jumped into subspace.
From there, it was only a scant few hours before they entered the Betelgeuse system. Vincent held one hand up against the bright glare of the many suns. The channel opened and his shipboard computer noted a transmission above his authorization being sent in the vicinity. A moment later, he heard chewing through the channel.
"Hrmm...we've got a problem, Harb. The Orff can't make subspace, and it's about a four week journey from it's position to the rendezvous point. They need an escort and someone to go inform Galatea that they need a repair crew. Rock paper scissors for it?"
"Damn it. Alright, decouple from your freighter. You two are on escort, we'll head back to get a crew." Transport One turned and re-entered subspace while Vincent worked to decouple his fighter from the freighter.
"Alright, truck driver, we're off, you run along now."
"Bite me, Snipes..." The transport entered subspace. Vincent reoriented his fighter, and he entered subspace only moments later at a slightly different vector. Seconds later, they emerged in the shadow of a cruiser. It looked more like an old space station than a warship, complete with a tiny spinning radar dish and dull gray plating.
"GTC Orff, this is Beta Flight. We're here to provide escort."
The open channel went quiet, and a moment later, Snipes switched to the private channel.
"Alright, rookie, now you learn the difference between training and real life. They ever teach you to take a nap in the cockpit back in basic?"
"Well, time to learn. We're gonna be here for a while. Don't wake me unless it's urgent."
The channel went silent. Vincent leaned back in his chair and tried to relax. The cockpit was phenomenally uncomfortable. He found his eye resting on the chronometer. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Hostile jump signatures. "Wait, what?" He sprung upright, looking out the canopy as four blue-white discs formed in space. Red blips appeared on his radar.
"Snipes, wake up! Vasudan fighters!"
"What!" The voice on the other end sounded incredibly clear for a guy who'd been napping only minutes before. "Orff, alert Alpha and Gamma Flights that we're under attack. Engaging enemy fighters! Stick close to me, kid."
He targeted one, glancing at it. "Well, that's a mercy. Anubis-class fighters, nothing fancy."
"Yeah, because we're sitting in the pride of the GTA armada, kid...target the lead fighter and fire missiles on my mark...mark!"
Four missiles streaked away from the two fighters, flying across the separating space in a flash and impacting the fighter, blasting it into debris. Vincent pulled up the next one and squeezed off a shot, the missile punching through the cockpit canopy and rendering the pilot 'Missing in Action'.
"Break and attack!"
The Vasudan craft opened fire, gold bolts of energy streaking across space. Vincent felt his craft shake under an impact here and there, but the armor plating held. He nudged the craft to the side and swung it around, letting inertia carry him. The Vasudan streaked past his sights, only for his finger to twitch. Bolts from his ML-16s punched into it's fuselage, turning the craft into a ball of quickly extinguished flames.
In his peripheral vision, he could see Snipes right on the tail of the last Vasudan fighter. A moment later, he opened fire, shredding the craft and leaving it as little more than another spray of debris floating across the system.
"Nice flying, rookie. Believe we're two for two. Don't get cocky, though, Anubis jockeys are the worst of the worst. I'm surprised they weren't just loaded with bombs. They do that a lot."
"So I'd heard." He engaged his engines, pushing past his inertia to head back towards Orff.
His radar beeped loudly. "More..."
"You don't need to keep telling me, break and attack!"
Another group of four - two Anubis class, and the vaguely turtle-looking Seth-class fighters. "Watch out for the Seths, they're armed to the teeth. Heavy and slow-turning, though."
Vincent targeted one of the Anubis' and fired his missiles, then one of the Seths and did the same. His loadout beeped - all missiles launched. He gritted his teeth and readied his grip on the main cannon. The missiles streaked towards the fighter. The first pair impacted the Anubis where the bottom two fins met the fuselage, reducing the back half of the craft to glowing debris, while the Seth dove starward, spinning and firing chaff out the back, the missiles detonating several hundred meters short.
He pulled up behind, using his superior speed and manueverability to catch up to the Seth, and opened fire. The first few bolts stitched the top, leaving deep score marks in the armor before the Seth spun and opened fire. Darts stitched across his armor plating, blasting holes in his ship. Shrill alarms began to ring within the craft.
"I'm hit!" He twisted on his wing, away from the spray of fire, then brought his nose down and fired at it's thinly armored side plates. The first shots were absorbed by the armor, but the next punched through. The fighter suddenly went dead in space.
"Looks like you got the cockpit, rookie. So, we're four and four. How's your ship?"
"Seems to be holding together...portside missile launchers are slagged, two maneuvering jets fried, and I've got a fuel leak."
"Not too bad."
Vincent sighed and sagged in the seat, still half expecting more - the radar beeped. He looked up, only to see four Apollos emerging from subspace.
"Gamma flight has arrived. Beta, you stand relieved. Head back to the Surtur, repair crews are inbound."
"Thanks for the assistance. Set course for the rendezvous."
The two fighters jumped into subspace, emerging seconds later near a near identical craft to the Orff. The Surtur hung in space, surrounded by freighters, transports, and fighters, with a great, barren brown planet below, a small torus-shaped station half constructed.
"Go ahead and land on the station. It'll be a while before Gamma and the rest of Beta get back, and I don't think you had an opportunity for rack time back on Galatea. This's how it's going to be for the next year or so, kid, until we get some leave. Well, there is one other way to get a break."
"Oh? How's that?"
"Get shot down."