Clean Sweep

Chapter 1

Flight Deck

TCS Tennessee River

Delius System

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Marcus Pershing sat back in the flight couch of his brand new F-105 Scimitar. The fighter was fresh out of the package. It was his first combat mission, like half of squadron Tenn'Court A. It was not to say it was his first time in his Scimitar. He had plenty of flight time on the trip out here, near the anti-coreward fringes of the Vega Sector. More than enough time to familiarize himself with the control and to rack up several hours' worth of touch-and-goes. It was nowhere as near as sporty as the Rapiers, what with only having a pair of pulse cannons and six hardpoints (only two of which carried IR missiles). Those hotshot space superiority pilots gave the pilots of Tenn'Court A hours of grief over them flying venerable crates on babysitting missions.

Pershing, callsign 'Mailman', had ever intent on making Tenn'Sup B's eat their words. If they were half as good as they claimed, how come they were not sitting on the flight deck, preparing to escort the A-14s of Tenn'Strike B against the Kilrathi ships in orbit of Delius II. Their C.O.'s excuse was that somebody needed to guard the barn while the peons were out protecting the Raptors. His own Wing Commander, Commander Mira 'Kali' Kishna, a mean looking woman who was actually born on the Indian subcontinent, ordered he pilots to ignore those jackassess and focus on their mission.

He was sixth in line of the F-105s to launch. Traffic control just announced on the mission's frequency that the last of the Raptors has just launched. First up for the Scimitars was Kali herself. She was a mean one, with a scowl that would probably send the Cats running if they ever saw her in a pissed off mode– which was pretty much most of the time. She was also a vet of Second Enyo, as well as half-a-dozen earlier battles flying off the Victory She might not be friendly, but Kali was all business, and nobody doubted her competence. Certainly none of her former comrades on old Vicky, whom were all part of Task Force 37 along with the carrier Libertè. Both were older Concordias, capable of carrying half the fighter compliment as Tin Man, as the Tennessee River was so affectionately called.

He watched as the fifth Scimitar launched, his wingman, so to speak. That fighter was piloted by on Lieutenant Candice 'Candy' Elliot, another pilot from Earth. He could not remember exactly which part of the American District she hailed from; somewhere on the Pacific. She had the least original of callsigns, but was not as sweet as her name might imply when she was in the cockpit. Each of the five new pilots was assigned to the wing of the five veteran pilots. Candy missed Second Enyo by a few months, but was there for the whole patrol of the Vega System Patrol last year, and shot down a number of Kilrathi fighters during their constant raiding of the sector's capital.

He really did not know any of his squadron that well. He spoke to Candy quite a bit, seeing how he was assigned to her wing during all the training missions as well. She inevitably asked about his own callsign. Pershing was tagged by that in flight school. With a simulator score of over ninety-nine percent, his instructor told him that he always delivered the package, and grumbled about how much he wished the postal service was as efficient. After which, the name stuck.

He watched as Candy's fighter leapt out of the launch tube, accelerated by electromagnets. The Scimitar was sure ugly looking, with its pulse cannons sticking so far forward, and its cruising engines sitting like giant bulbs on top of its wings. Its appearance aside, it was still as lethal as its namesake, and would slice through a flight of Dralthi like they were pancakes. Appropriate metaphor considering their appearance.

"Mailman, you're up!" the flight controller, an Ensign by the name of Smitty. He did not hail from anywhere on Earth, and Pershing was at a loss to his homeland.

"Acknowledged," he replied, tapping the flight stick and rudders, to move the fighter into position. Or tried to. Most of the work was done by internal tractor beams. With the space drives active, the Scimitar just hovered in place, as if gravity around it was simply shut down. A few old-fashion tractored vehicles were parked along the bulkhead, well clear of flight actions, in the event the tractor beams failed. He already had to fly a couple of training missions with those towing him around. Back-ups were the only reason the landing struts of all fighters still had wheels on them.

Pershing relaxed and leaned back into his acceleration couch. Despite centuries worth of compensating for inertia, these sudden launches still pressed on him. More than one of the rookie pilots in his squad received a bad case of whiplash when they did not lean back into their seats before launch. He heard a short countdown, and at zero felt as if he just tripled his weight. His fighter shot out of the front of the Tennessee River like a pellet from a cannon. One hundred meters passed swiftly, at which point, Pershing yanked his stick to the right, causing his fighter to veer out of the carrier's way. Pilots who did not veer out of the way tended to have their engines pushed into their back, as the next fighter on the catapult slammed into them.

In space, his own fighter's space drive took control, nullifying any sensation of acceleration. Fighters, being so much smaller than the capital ships, always had a bit of trouble keeping up when it came to compensating. If he pulled tight enough turn, he would feel it, albeit at a fraction of a fraction of what his true acceleration where. If the space drive where to fail, the G-forces would turn him into pulp. Of course, if it ever failed, he would not be able to maneuver anyway.

He pulled his fighter into formation, fifty meters off and ten behind, Candy's fighter. "Glad you could join me," she called over the radio.

"The pleasure's all mine," he said, fighting to keep his nerves down. This was it, his first combat mission. He would either come back blooded, or not at all. The only thing worse than getting shot into a million pieces, some no bigger than quarks and gluons, would be to fail his wingman.

Candy was once a green pilot, and guessed what ran through his mind. "Relax Mailman. Stick to me like a tick on a doe and you'll be fine." Not the most flattering image to project into Pershing's head. Did ticks not burrow their whole heads into their hosts? "Just remember the mission. I'm Sickle Five, and you are number Six."

He was not so daft as to already forget the briefing. He was about to voice his opinion, but decided to keep his trap shut. Tenn'Court A was Sickle, and Tenn'Strike B was Hammer. A few guys over in Ops got a laugh out of it, but Pershing could not quite see what was so funny about hammers and sickles. They were just tools.

"Hammer Flight is in place," came the voice of Tenn'Strike B's Wing Commander. It was a high British accent, something that just screamed old money and class. He was another of the Second Enyo vets.

"Sickle Flight, call out," ordered the voice of Kali, with its less pronounced Hindi accent. Pershing called out his number immediately after Candy. It would not do any good to get ahead of himself. "Sickle Flight is with you Hammer. Lead the way."

Pershing ran through the mission again, for the sixth time since the briefing. They were to escort ten Raptors to Delius II, where Task Force Intel has picked up at least one Kilrathi capital ship, a frigate, and perhaps another. Just why the Raptors needed escort to destroy a pair of Targus was beyond them. He supposed it was better to have and not need. Perhaps there was a fighter base on Delius II. The planet was small, rocky and had a trace atmosphere. The only strategic value it would have was its proximity to the Tamayo jump point.

His was not to question why, only to say 'yes sir' and carry out his orders. Part of him wanted to face a swarm of Sartha, while the more rational part of him would be happy to complete this mission without ever being fired upon. As the Hammer and Sickle Flights formed up and accelerated to cruising speed, Pershing would have four hours to dwell upon it.

Orbital Approach

Delius II

Delius System

Pershing's eyes narrowed as he took his gaze off his sensors and relied upon his eyes. Only a moment before, the order to drop down to combat speed was issued. It was a steep deceleration from three percent light speed down to a mere hundred kilometers per second. Fighting so close to a planet, the speed would have to drop even further, for one misstep would result in a spectacular explosion as he ploughed into the surface of Delius II. Or worse still, his fighter and another from the Tennessee River happen to briefly occupy the same space at the same time.

Ahead of him, the half-sphere of Delius II steadily grew in both size and luminosity. The planet could have been any other dead world in the galaxy. It reminded him of Mars, the old Mars that is, as it existed when humanity sent its first probes there. Of course, after a couple thousand years of inhabitation, the planet looked radically different. Before the jump points were discovered, attempts were made to terraform the planet. Full scale effort was abandoned after living worlds were discovered in other systems, and to this day, the Martians had to spend every waking hour fighting nature's attempt to return the partially terraformed planet to its natural state. Delius II had the rusty sheen, but lacked the polar seas.

"Heads up, Sickle Flight!" Commander Kishna called out, her voice in his helmet as clear as if she sat right behind him. "Looks like Intel was wrong." By the way she said it, Pershing knew she was not surprised.

He checked his own sensor suite. In low orbit of the planet, passing over the terminator from night to day, he spotted the two Targu-class frigates. That was to be expected. After all, why send to squadrons of fighters out here if there was nothing to strike. However, it was not all his sensors detected. Between both frigates was a lone Ralatha, a destroyer with considerably more firepower than a pair of frigates. Its sharp angles and fearsome projections gave the destroyer a distinct knife-like figure, with the impression that it was only waiting for the word, and it would tear open its victim. The frigates had similar silhouettes, but they were pocket knives against a dagger. Given the Cats' anatomy, perhaps claw was a more apt analogy.

"Hammer Leader to all fighters," came the distinct and aristocratic tone of Tenn'Strike B's commander. "New targets have been designated. Break and attack."

Pershing broke formation only a spilt second after Candy. The two of them were assigned to cover a pair of Raptors homing in on the highest Targu. The fighter-bombers slid into a missile run, having not only to close within a few thousand kilometers of the target, but also having to stay on target while the ECM package on their anti-ship missile fought its own electronic war against the frigate's defenses. They only need a few seconds to achieve a 'lock', but in those few seconds, the Raptors were locked in a ballistic trajectory.

While they were on their run, Pershing was just as locked on that path. His mouth grew dry as nervousness and excitement battled each other for role of primary emotion. He sat in this same situation countless times before on the simulators, and most of the time he survived. Targus had pulse cannons, firing pulses of plasma at sub-luminal speeds. If he was quick, he could evade a shot. The same could not be said for those charging the destroyer. Heavier warships all had grasers, light-speed weapons. The first one knew of a graser firing upon them was after they were hit.

When the first of the Targu's pulse cannons opened up on the incoming fighters, all of Pershing's anxieties were forgotten. His mind focused on the mission, the enemy, and surviving. Adrenaline began to flow through his blood as Pershing was introduced to the excitement of combat. He marveled at the nerve of the Raptor pilots, both guiding their fighters right down the barrel of the Kilrathi guns.

"Heads up Mailman!" Candy announced. His wing leader flew forward and to his right, some ten meters ahead. "We've got company from the surface."

Pershing glanced down at his sensors and spotted sixteen icons rapidly rising from the surface of Delius II. All were Sartha, light fighters that carried only a missile each, but where deadly agile. Pershing ran the facts through his mind; Sartha were lightly armed and shielded. The vets told him that a well placed volley from his pulse cannons, either on top or bottom of the delta-shaped fighter, would punch through shields and armor. The trick was getting the little gnats to hold still long enough to hit them.

Like his own squadron, the Sartha broke off into pairs to chase down their own targets. Four were headed Pershing's way, two for each of the Raptors. Those had to be the primary target, for Scimitars could damage frigates, but would be of little use against a fully shielded capital ship. Despite slowing into combat speed, the relative speed between both waves of fighters was great, and the Sartha closed the gap in seconds. Four headed towards Pershing, his wingman and the two Raptors. The instant they entered range, all four Sartha launched their lone FF missile.

These were simple weapons, designed to home in any target that lacked the correct electronic signal. This also forced both sides to broadcast clearly their transponder codes, to prevent friendly fire should an ally launch their own FFs. One of the Raptors broke off from his missile run and turned on the light fighters. He let out a string of decoys that broadcast louder than any fighter. Both Pershing and Candy broke their own ranks and followed suit, Pershing popping six FF decoys. The Kilrathi missiles all impacted on the decoys, their fusion warheads lighting up space.

Pershing turned on the lead Sartha and launched a pair of his own Friend-or-Foe missiles. The agile enemy broke formation and scattered, trailing their own decoys. Like with missiles, the Sartha had a very limited number of decoys. One of the Kilrathi ships blossomed into a miniature sun as pulse fire from a Raptor ripped apart both shields and armor plating. Neither of Pershing's missiles scored a hit.

With the numbers down to three-on-three, Pershing chose his target and tried to keep his cross hairs on its back. The Cat jinked and banked, foiling Pershing's every attempt. The enemy pilot was skilled, and far more veteran than the rookie Pershing. Within ten seconds, the Sartha had turned the tables, diving and tucking under Pershing, and bringing the Scimitar into his own sights. Alarms flared in the cockpit as the fighter gave Pershing warning that the Cat had locked on. If he had another missile, Pershing would have been toast. As it was, the Kilrathi was content to shoot him to pieces.

Pershing slammed the flight stick back, pulling the Scimitar into a loop. It was the oldest trick in the book, but sometimes the obvious was overlooked. Not by this Sartha pilot. His fighter, lighter and more maneuverable, turned tighter and brought fire down upon the top of Pershing's fighter. Hits registered and his top shields began to flutter. Instantly, his flight suit fully sealed itself, in the event of a breach in the cockpit. Pershing tried in vain to outmaneuver the light fighter. He climbed and dove in orbital space, pulling so tight that the ship's inertial compensator had trouble keeping up. Pershing felt like another one of him was sitting on his chest.

He hit the transmit key on the opposite rest of the cockpit. "Sickle six to five!" he called into his helmet's mike. "Candy, I could use a little help."

His cockpit window dimmed again as a second Sartha exploded a kilometer off his starboard. His sensors tracked a Scimitar busting through the rapidly expanding cloud of vapor and ions. "I've got your back, kid. Bank right!"

Pershing obeyed, jamming his stick full right, throwing his body around in his cockpit. He glimpsed Candy's fighter pull up for a reverse corkscrew. She dove down right on top of the Sartha, who has already fallen victim to his bloodlust. Candy did not waste a missile on this fighter; blasting away instead with pulse cannons. Shots of blue-hot plasma raked the light fighter's roofs, tearing through its weakest spot. The Sartha came apart in a fury of unrealized energy contained inside its own fusion reactor.

"Thanks for the save," Pershing called out.

He heard Candy give a short laugh. "Couldn't lose my wingman on his first mission; it looks bad."

Pershing's own laugh was forced and full of nervousness. If it looked bad on her record, what would it look like on his own? Marcus Pershing; killed in action by a Kilrathi point-defense fighter. They might not pack a great punch, but once they get on one's tail, they stay there.

Pershing's attention returned to the Kilrathi frigate, its few pulse cannons firing. The Raptor that stayed on track already pulled up, putting as much distance between himself and the impact. His wingman, two more kills on his record, followed the anti-ship missile in, keeping a respectable distance. He was back-up, in case the Cats scored a lucky shot on the incoming Orca ASM. Even if it did, the detonation of the matter/anti-matter warhead would blind their sensors, allowing the second Raptor an easy kill.

In a flash of light, the issue was redundant. The missile struck the Targu's shields, passing through them as if they did not even exist. Several grams of anti-matter came into contact with its counterpart at the exact instant the warhead touched the hull of the ship. The force of the impact smashed the warhead, vaporizing the anti-matter containment field. Anti-protons annihilated protons, shredding the durasteel hull of the Kilrathi warship. Ruptures within the Targu spilled liquid hydrogen into the oxygen-rich atmosphere.

A second explosion rocked the ship, as large as the first. Pershing's cockpit dimmed as a newborn sun appeared over the skies of Delius II. Dagger-like fragments of the Kilrathi frigate spilled out of the fireball, the larger pieces raining down on the planet below. Smaller chunks of the ship, pea-sized bits of durasteel, titanium and other chunks of matter best not remembered, peppered his fighter, causing the shields to flare.

On boards sensors detected a second sun forming some hundred kilometers away. The other Targu attempted to break orbit, pull its back from the wall and fight. Tenn'Strike B made short work of the that ship as well. Pershing ran his eyes over his sensors, searching for fresh targets.

"Sickle Leader to Sickle Flight," Kali's voice filled his helmet. "Mission accomplished, let's go home."

Pershing blinked in surprise. The mission was over? After such a long flight, the mission was over in a matter of minutes. Maybe even less. He lost track of time the moment he and Candy followed those two Raptors down the chute. All this time spent in the cockpit, and only a couple of minutes of action. The maneuvering, the danger, and most exhilarating of all, living to fly another day. He knew he should not think as such, not until his Scimitar was parked firmly in the landing bay of the Tennessee River.

"Hammer Leader to Flight; excellent work people. Three dead ships, all by the book. Time to go home," Squadron Commander of Tenn'Strike B sounded as if he had not even broken a sweat. Pershing, on the other hand, knew his forehead was drenched in sweat, and the full impact of the fight began to assert itself as the adrenaline rush wound down. He tried to play back the battle in his mind, but it was all a blur. It happened fast, too fast, as if the computers took over the fighters and it was really the machines doing the fighting. They did the fighting, and the pilots still did the dying.