Clean Sweep

Chapter 6

Approaching Delius Station

Delius System

"That's a large station," Pershing said, fighting to steady his nerves. He was not afraid, not of the Kilrathi. His fear ran along the lines of letting down his comrades.

"Makes it that much harder to miss," responded one of the Raptor pilots in an accent Pershing could not quite place. She sounded like a cross between Swedish and Russian. Probably from one of those Russian colonies in the Alpha Centauri system, they always had strange accents.

Both Raptors flew ahead of them, lining up on the large target. They were but bugs before the Kilrathi behemoth. Like anything other spaceborne structure the Cats designed or captured, Delius Station had countless sharp edges, and a few blades sticking out at odd angles. Many of the bladed edges were not far removed from daggers. They house pulse turrets, as well as missile launchers. For the moment, the four fighters, along with other quads, remained outside useful missile range.

For the moment.

"Relax Mailman," Candy radioed. He fighter flew along side Pershing's no more than ten meters too his left. "Just let the Raptors worry about the starbase. You worry about enemies closer to your own size."

Pershing had not forgotten about them, though he expected to see far fewer than the briefing warned. Fighters from Victory smashed the fighter garrison on the moon. Some of the explosions he could spot without sensor aid, as annihilation warheads simply vaporized ground installations. Pershing spend only a few seconds wondering how many Terrans were on the moon. The Cats, or at least the males that comprise their military, were not known as prolific builders. Everything built on conquered worlds not colonized with their own people were built by indigenous slave labor.

Did the same thing happen on Hurricane and McLeran? Pershing drove the images of his neighbors in chains with Kilrathi soldiers standing over them with rifles and whips. Those fail to live up to their overseer's expectations were killed. Or worse, they might even be eaten. No, those stories could not be true. Rapier pilots, or at least the most veteran, told stories like that to rookies. Sometimes, they said, the Kilrathi spacemen were so sick of rations, they would tractor in escape pods and cook the contents.

"What, me worry?" Pershing said, shoving his musing to the back of his mind. "Why would I worry about a starbase. That's a threat I can see. The invisible ones worry me." Invisible fighters, now there was a truly disturbing image– so to speak.

"Glad to hear it," Candy replied. "We're about to cross the line. Don't forget to keep an eye on your decoy count."

For all the things Pershing was suppose to keep an eye on, perhaps a giant spider would be a better choice for a fighter pilot. Humanity has run into Giants, Lizards and Cats, but to his knowledge, not into any spider-people. There were even a couple of Varni serving in the Task Force, though not as fighter pilots.

In an instant, every alarm in his cockpit screamed for attention. At least it sounded like it, with all the racket they made. Perhaps he should start flying with his cockpit depressurized, just for some peace and quiet. His sensors tracked a swarm of Kilrathi missiles homing in on him, and perhaps some of the other pilots as well. He hoped they were FF missiles. If the Cats decided to fire their own image-recognizing missiles, he was in dire straits. The only chance he had was to fire off a missile from a wing hard point, and hope the sudden change in his fighter's outline confused the missiles. Terran IR missiles have been known to go stupid like that.

The four fighters banked sharply as one, releasing a stream of decoys behind them. Decoys were simple enough devices, just transponders with amplifiers built into them. FF missiles would home in on the loudest noise. Pilots could deactivate their own transponders as well, but that was a dicey proposition. Sometimes missiles will ignore objects without a signal; after all, they ignore rocks floating around in space.

Other times– other times were what worried pilots. Confed pilots without transponders had the habit of being shot down by their own carrier's automated defenses. Anything that flies in too fast without identification is targeted and destroyed. Fortunately, weapons were always manned, in the event the Cats got cute and put captured transponders on their ASMs. It was a rare gambit, since whichever side that fired the missiles might accidentally shoot them down.

All Kilrathi missiles launched towards Pershing detonated against decoys. Space behind him lit up brighter than the surface of Delius. Even not facing the explosions, Pershing still had to blink the glare from his eyes. Anybody who faced such blasts would be useless for a few minutes. Of course, anybody who faced them would likely be dead as well.

Evading the first wave of missiles, the quad shifted back on course for Delius Station. Al around the station, hundreds of small suns winked in and out of existence. Most were missiles on decoys, but not all. How many pilots on both sides were vaporized as fusion warheads detonated on contact with shields and hull. With no Cap Ships about, the Kilrathi had only their fighters for interception. His instruments counted some forty-three remaining Kilrathi fighters, a number dropping faster than their Terran foes. Perhaps a dozen fighters survived the earlier attack on the moon.

The moon in question was off in the distance, a half-moon against the backdrop of space. He did not expect to see anything over there, but that did not stop him from glancing. A garrison was tiny compared to any world upon it was stationed, thus would vanish with the tiniest of flashes. The moon looked a dead as countless other moons spread out across the galaxy. He spotted flashes far closer than the moon.

His comm unit blared to light as an omni-directional from the stricken Dogwood. The frigate was swarmed by the survivors of the moon, each pilot looking to avenge their fallen comrades. TCS Dogwood remained far too distant to be seen visually. Pershing pictured the scene in his mind, a scene where the frigate was breaking in half, escape pods shooting out in every direction. He could not understand most of the message, but what he did chilled him. The Cats were flying nothing fancier than a Krant, without weapons to kill a ship. Two of the fighters, badly damaged with no hope of survival, turned their own fighters into missiles.

Earth had its own share of suicidal enemies throughout its history, either desperately defending their homes against impossible odds, or simply civilians with nothing to live for and so much hatred in their hearts. Whichever the Kilrathi were, the results did not change. Two exploding fighters overwhelmed the Dogwood's shields and smashed through her hull. Victory's flight controller tried to vector the carrier's own returning fighters to aid the frigate, but Pershing held out little hope for the ship. Perhaps with so many dangerous enemies about, the Kilrathi pilots would ignore the escape pods.

"We're on our run," the pilot with the odd accent announced. "Keep the Cats off our back."

"Will do," Candy spoke for the escorting duo.

Pershing kept his eyes open, scanning his sensors and the space ahead of him. He did not need to wait long for incoming enemies. A trio of Sartha, light fighters both agile and lightly armed, dove straight on to the Raptors. So focused were they, Pershing wondered if they even noticed the escorting fighters.

Candy was more vocal on the opinion. "How dare they ignore me! Mailman, let's go teach them a lesson." Candy broke formation and dove into the trio, scattering them with blasts from her pulse cannons. Several shots of million degree plasma smacked into Sartha shielding. One fighter was positively aglow from the attention.

Pershing checked his sensor quickly, making sure no Cats were sneaking up from behind, before joining his wingman. He fired his own pulse cannons briefly, still unsure of the feel. Where Candy could hit what she aimed for, Pershing's plasma found nothing but endless space, and eventually Delius V below. The banded gas giant was not quite large enough to take up half the sky, but it was not from lack of effort.

Pershing gave up on guns in a hurry; these Cats were just too slick to keep in his sights. Instead, he toggled fire control over to one of his IR missiles. Supply officers gave pilots grief over firing them too often, usually something about quotas and budgets. This close to the Raptors he wanted to make sure he destroyed the target. If the heavy fighters were not already locked on their own attack runs, they could have easily defended themselves.

Lock-on alarm beeping, Pershing let loose his missile. The Sartha pilot had skill, that much was clear from kilometers away. The Cat unleashed a stream of decoys, believing the missile to be FF. The decoys worked, though not against Pershing's missile. He could hear Candy cursing the weapon that ran astray, and very sarcastically thanking Pershing for his assistance. The Kilrathi pilot thought the blast meant he was safe. He did not live long enough to grasp his error. Pershing's IR missile slammed through the Sartha's dorsal shields, exploding right behind the cockpit.

Pershing did not celebrate his third fighter kill, nor would he until safely back on the carrier. He tried to find a fourth kill, only to learn that Candy destroyed one of the other three Cats and sent the third running. He would have to forget about that Cat, at least for the moment. He and Candy reformed on the Raptors during the final three seconds of the run. Both heavy fighters pulled away sharply as their ASM payloads separated and bored in on Delius Station.

The missiles were not alone. Ten more pairs of Raptors pulled away at the same instant. Kilrathi guns ignored the fighters and began to hammer away at the incoming missiles. Several blew up well short of the starbase. Pershing could hear one of the Raptor pilots howl in rage as his anti-ship missile detonated kilometers away from its target. The second pilot lost his missile milliseconds later.

Only a handful of missiles reached their target. Flashes far brighter than any he had seen that day lit up orbital space. Pershing wanted to shout in triumph. More than a few pilots did just that. They were all rookies. Pershing heard not a single veteran celebrate, not until the light faded. Darkness returned to space and pilots cheers turned to gasps of dismay. Delius Station, though missing sections, still orbited Delius V.

Incoming fire died down to a trickle, but had not ended completely. Some of the Kilrathi were still alive on board the station. One half of the station remained silent, not a single gun firing. Were the defenders there dead, or just waiting for Terran fighters to fly closer. Many of the former sharp edges were nothing but shrapnel slowly drifting away from the station, to join the debris of smaller orbital fortresses that were destroyed.

"Looks like we'll have to rearm and take another pass," a Raptor pilot said. "Ok you two, escort us back home."

Pershing could hear frustration in Candy's voice. "Alright, move it."

They were less than halfway back to Tennessee River when Kali came on line. "Alright pilots, the next mission's scrubbed. We're to land, rearm, and join Tenn'Court B in escorting the Task Force out of here."

This close to victory? Pershing could not believe it. One more run on Delius Station would destroy it. They came too far to not finish the job. "What's the story, boss?" it was Ghost who asked the question on everybody's mind.

"Not entirely sure, Ghost. Task Force Intel intercepted Kilrathi communications. A Cat carrier group has just jumped into the system from Venice and is barreling towards us. No idea how many Snakiers are in it. If I had to guess what was up, I'd say Admiral Bellemonte wants to quit while we're ahead."

It fit with what Pershing knew about the Admiral. Bellemonte was a cautious, conservative man, who did not believe in taking chances. Maybe they could beat the Cat task force, but Bellemonte was not about to risk trading his own ships in the process.

"Looks like you're a veteran now, Mailman," Candy said on their own private channel.

Pershing shook his head, though it was hard to notice the motion inside his helmet. "Let's not celebrate until we jump into friendly space. We can all still get killed between here and the jump point."

Candy hesitated before responding, surprised at his attitude. "And I thought Snake Eyes was the squadron's residential cynic. Have it your way; we'll all celebrate on leave. But Mailman, you're buying the first round for the squad."

If they made it back to Confed space, Pershing had no objection to being that much poorer. "Looking forward to it."