Tower of the Southern Star

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Tower of the Southern Star

Post by Shelby »

“Command to Tower, Southern Star is ready to launch.”

“Acknowledged, Command. Runways clear, no inbound, Southern Star is clear for takeoff. Tower out.”

The RASG Southern Liaison Squadron had little to do but listen to the takeoff happening ten miles away, at the better-funded and better-equipped Cadentia Aerospace Defense Wing headquarters. Their airfield supported six squadrons, with full ground crews, concrete buildings that could withstand the harsh desert winds, and a location that kept the runways clear of blowing sand.

The Liaison Squadron -- who had been mockingly dubbed “Humpbacks,” as shown by the sad gray whales with tiny wings on their squadron patches -- made do with a cluster of rusty steel buildings that looked to have been lifted straight out of the Pacific Theater, that rattled and howled in every sandstorm. Their jets were far older, or custom-built, including two that dubiously claimed to be “space-capable” without any recent respected certification.

The CADW consisted of a number of pilots with recent training from state or private militaries, as well as the children of those who had previously served elsewhere or in patrolling the skies around Cadentia in the past. All of them were in good standing wherever they had previously served, with nothing of substance to besmirch their records.

The Humpbacks, however? A ragtag cadre of flight school dropouts, military burn-outs; bush pilots with too much baggage and too little discipline to be considered an effective fighting force in the eyes of any competent commander.

The radio chatter was enough to stir Flight Leader Shelby Monaro from her nap in one of the hammocks that dangled from one wall of the hangar. In the signal and the noise, something felt off to her, but she couldn’t put her finger on it -- yet... “They get Bravo Uniform in the air yet?”

“It’s rolling now.” Her wingman, Akarui Sora, called from within his plane. They’d been effectively grounded for the last two months, but that didn’t stop Shelby and Akarui from making sure that the jets they had built together stayed ready. She heard him tapping a dipstick as he went on, “Big beluga whale of a bird that’s going to spend its days faffing about in the desert... too big for any scavengers to shoot down feasibly... and too costly for the corporations to want to.”

He turned and slipped down the edge of his plane, landing near Shelby’s hammock as she climbed out. “And we’re just sitting here -- sleeping the days away, not even getting a chance to log flight hours.”

“I put more hours into my biplane in the last two months,” Shelby grunted as she pulled her boots on, “than I did the entire rest of the year.” She did a quick scan of the hangar. Their so-called C.O. -- Captain Alice, a CADW-appointed minder for the RASG squadron -- was usually absent, an effective way to keep them disorganized and directionless; but she had a nasty habit of popping up at inopportune times to keep them in check. “They can’t--”

“Command, this is Wyvern One, echo airship bearing, over.”

Shelby stopped and frowned at the renewed radio chatter. There was that feeling again.

“Airship bearing one niner five, over.”

“Airship has turned to one three zero. Please advise.”

“Wyvern One, we have resubmitted our commands to Southern Star. Head it off at two klicks and decrease speed -- algorithm will respond to obstruction and resume original bearing.”

“Copy that.”

The remotely controlled Southern Star had deviated from the flight plan, in a direction that made little sense to Shelby. She stopped by the radio and pointed to one of the other pilots in her flight -- “Hamdi, wake the others. They need to hear this.”

Akarui had been talking about sending money to his family, but trailed off as Shelby focused on the radio. “What’s going on?” He looked out of the hangar into the distance, in the direction where he could hear jet engines though they were too far to effectively see, squinting through his aviators at the glare of sunset. “If it’s about Southern Star, it just sounds like a glitch in the code. Give the code-crunchers a few hours and they’ll have it doing flips and loops to show off to the public,” he added with a chuckle.

Shelby shook her head, her frown deepening as the other pilots in the squadron formed a circle around the radio to listen in. “No, it’s been acknowledging with clicks. And I can still hear them, but, uh... it... you know...” She shook her head again, and gave Akarui an uncertain look. It was always hard to describe her gift. “It’s just off. Something’s not right, and we should--”

“We should leave it up to the C.O. what the squadron should and should not do, Flight Leader Monaro.” Captain Alice was there now, stepping up behind two pilots who instinctively parted to either side. Her squadron came to attention, though the pilots’ expressions were tense.

“Yes ma’am.” Shelby’s jaw jumped with tension, too, but she didn’t give voice to it.

Before the captain could speak again, the radio was flooded with overlapping chatter. “This is Wyvern One, Southern Star has locked onto me! Please advise!” “Wyvern One, we have negated that action with new commands, do NOT change bearing--” “This is Wyvern Four, we are seeing multiple locks--!” “Command to Wyvern, do not engage--” “Wyvern One and Three are down, I repeat, blue on blue--!”

All eyes had turned to the commanding officer expectantly, but she was silent, eyes ticking back and forth as she processed what she heard and calculated how to handle this.

“Command to Third Flight, engage and destroy Southern Star.” “Flight Leader -- we copy.” Captain Alice’s shoulders relaxed their tension, and a few others exchanged glances and a murmur, expecting this incident to be concluded in the next few moments -- until the next words to come through the radio. “Our auto-targeting is jammed! We cannot acquire a lock!” “Wyvern Nine, the automated systems are-- shit, I can’t--” Fire and screams and a final transmission from the AWACS filled the channel before it went dead.

The silence between that moment and when CADW Command came back on the channel was deafening, but as soon as the noise started again, the C.O. twisted the knob to switch the radio off. “This isn’t entertainment. Good pilots are dying. Return to your duties, and let them do their jobs.”

Shelby’s back stiffened. She knew they were being kept on the ground for a reason -- older and customized planes, less disciplined pilots; while the CADW was still receiving the cooperation they wanted from the RASG, while only maintaining the letter of their liaison agreement. But she also knew what was wrong here -- and that the Humpbacks had an edge.

“Ma’am, if I may. Their automated systems are getting jammed, something our craft don’t--”

“Ms. Monaro, you may not.”

“Please listen, captain! I know something’s hijacking that UAV, and it’s got to be what’s jamming Wyvern Squadron! If we get airborne--”

“You don’t know shit!” the captain erupted, stepping up to her, meeting her gaze until she was certain that she had secured her silence. “And you will stand the fuck down and listen to me. All of you!” She raised her voice as she looked to the rest of the squadron. “Now I know some of you joined this squadron to get a piece of the action that you feel you’ve been denied. I am here to tell you that you aren’t entitled to shit. I joined the CADW to protect the skies of Cadentia, not just from pirates and raiders, but from RASG rejects who lack the good sense to protect and serve without getting each other killed.” Her gaze settled back on the young Flight Leader, her expression turning to a sneer. “Or denying half the city clean drinking water on her first jet-powered flight with a reckless old burnout.”

Shelby’s jaw jumped forward, eyes damp with angry tears at the reminder of the flight that had resulted in her father’s death only two years before. A mechanical failure, and a crash landing in a Cadentia reservoir that narrowly avoided the city itself. The captain lifted her chin, daring the young pilot to hit her, and while her hands balled into fists -- she didn’t move.

“Do I have everyone’s attention?”

“Loud and clear,” said Akarui, his voice and tone defiant as he looked to the captain. “Sit on our hands and asses, do nothing while the skies are filled with burning birds and good pilots whose duty it was to die.”

The captain was receiving messages on her buzzing phone, trying to divide her attention between the important updates and the insubordinate pilot. “Airman...”

“And when Wyvern is down, they’ll send Devil-Dog, and another fourteen pilots and seven AWACS personnel will die--”

“Mr. Sora--!”

“Then maybe they’ll call in a hotshot from RASG space command, or who knows, Matt Simon himself--”

“Mr. Sora, you are--!”

“And then, CADW is down fifty personnel all for nothing while we run laps--!”

Captain Alice pocketed her phone and stepped up to him, her voice quiet with cold fury as she said, “That’s enough, Airman. You are way out of line. And may I remind your thieving ass that you are all here as guests of the Cadentia Aerospace Defense Wing, and I am in charge of making sure this band of rejects doesn’t get anyone killed just because they want some action. That includes deciding what I’ll do with you... and Ms. Monaro, for breeding this level of insubordination within her flight.” She lifted her chin, daring him to defy her further. “Full load, and two full circuits around the city walls, courtesy of Ms. Monaro and Mr. Sora. I’ll be at Command.”

Akarui froze, the weight of the consequence not for himself, but for Shelby, hitting him. “Yes ma’am.” The acceptance was all he could muster, and he and the other pilots stood at attention until Captain Alice disappeared from sight. “...Give me your loads. It’s my fault, and my burden.”

“No, Airman.” Shelby had composed herself, and looked him in the eye, before meeting the gazes of the other pilots around her. Bitter, angry, even sad, but they all looked back at her, nodding one after another. “We all carry our loads. Humpbacks! Fall in!”

As she moved to grab her back, the rest of the squadron moved to grab theirs, falling in behind her. They lined up outside of the hangar, where Captain Alice was checking her messages by her jeep. She looked up from her phone at Shelby, who was staring right back at her in silent defiance, as she held the obedience of the squadron through respect alone.

“Let’s move out!” As their boots thumped down the runway in unison, the squadron broke out into a cadence, helping them keep the time as they ran under a dusk sky, streaked with hazy smoke in the distance from the downed aircraft.

((Adapted from a scene with Akarui's player, with thanks!))
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Re: Tower of the Southern Star

Post by Shelby »

Text from Sammy: Shelby, there will be a package awaiting you in your bunk, addressed to you. Within you will find all that you asked me to find and anything else of use. Still nothing on this Southern Star...

Shelby had been given the next pieces in the puzzle, aerial photographs of a Cadentia Air Defense Wing forward operating base deep in the desert -- and even shots from ground-level of three different squadrons taking off and landing, including Captain Alice's own long-range fighter. It explained why their CO had not gotten around to punishing them yet.

But it had been weeks, not days, since the incident. Even if they'd been unable to find it, shouldn't the flying fortress called Southern Star have dropped out of the sky by now? Its power reserves only lasted up to five days. And why three whole squadrons for a single plane? Weren't they better prepared this time?

The last photograph showed an approaching haze on the horizon, a sandstorm rolling in from the south, the same one that had struck the hangar three days ago and was only now receding. Was it all related? How could it be?

Unable to paint a clear picture yet, Shelby prepared her grounded squadron to the best of her ability. She reached out to Commander Simon at the RASG about the incident with their CO, so that they could prepare their own measures against the Southern Star. She ordered a full review of every computer system in their squadron, including flight, navigation, and targeting; they were mercifully few, given the age of their aircraft and most of the parts they used, but every receiver for diagnostics was removed, as well as the ability to interface with any remote devices the pilots favored. Everything was hard-wired. Missiles fried their receivers upon firing, relying on infrared for homing. And finally, their tower's long-range radio was tuned to the coordinates of the CADW FOB.

Three days of a sandstorm rolling its way across the desert, of reviewing the intelligence, preparing the squadron, and trying to tune and re-tune to hear the FOB through all the interference. Shelby was exhausted by it all, and retired to her hammock in her flight's hangar while Akarui helped monitor the situation in the tower. She'd meant to sleep, but instead found herself staring at the rusted metal ceiling, replaying old conversations in her head. War stories from her grandfather, her father, and her uncles -- not the ones where they laughed, but the ones where their expressions sobered and their voices strained. She'd known she was ready to fly again; but was she ready to fight?

* * * * *

The violent sandstorm made Akarui's work in the tower -- a new task for him to begin with -- all the more hectic. Broken and scattered radio signals popped up at random hours, from different frequencies. The occasional broadcast of a large unknown airship was quickly drowned out by another radio signal, only frustrating Akarui further at what he believed was clear sensor jamming from the Southern Star.

When he wasn't in the tower, he brought his plane in line with the specifications set forth by Shelby, so the systems were all ready should they have to scramble. Scramble. The thought alone had been a distant memory, actually flying. They'd been grounded for so long...

It was late in the afternoon, and while most of the crew slept or relaxed in a ready state, Akarui was up in the towe againr. Every few minutes he scrubbed to another frequency that he knew was used, checking repeatedly over CADW as well as civilian frequencies that were often trafficked by marauders, corporations and desert nomads. With the consistent radio static that came through the line and the silence of the calm winds crossing the desert, Akarui leaned back in his chair, boots finding their place upon the metal casing of the radio box as he waited to hear what could have been transmitting upon the CADW secondary frequency.

The static continued to pop, whine, warble and hum -- until it suddenly fell silent.

"Foxtrot Tower to Devil-Dog One, we are seeing clear skies. What do you report?"

The call went out from the forward operating base to the squadron leader currently in the air, followed by a heavy silence.

"Foxtrot Tower to Devil-Dog One, do you copy?"

The next words that came out were frantic, every bit as terrified as during the first incident with Southern Star: "This is Devil-Dog Four, does anyone read?! Sierra Two jammed us -- it's an ambush! God, there's gotta be dozens of them!"[/i]

Immediately the radio was filled with cross-chatter, as radar confirmed command's worst fears: most of the squadron had been wiped out, and a massive UAV attack was underway.

"Tower to all squadrons, get airborne, we have incoming! Oh, fuck--" Communications from the tower itself suddenly went dark.

Akarui had still been in a stupor up until the third broadcast, when he sat up in his seat and listened closely. He pressed his finger down on the mic as he brought one headset ear (the only one that was working) to his left ear and spoke: "Central Tower, Humpbacks... scrambling."

Protocol. It had to be done by the books. Clearing his throat he pressed his thumb against the aging knob of the PA system, turning it on with a loud screech of the speakers within the hangar, followed by the attempted sounding of the air warning alarms. They sounded closer to a screaming feline, but at least shrill enough to get the squadron's attention.

"Humpback Squadron." Akarui's voice crackled and broke, both because of his own nervousness and because of the speaker nearly shorting out after not being used in over a year. "Scramble... Scramble... Scramble." A pause. "Humpback Squadron.... Scramble... Scramble... Scramble. Southern Star inbound to Foward Operating Base Dune.... Repeat, Southern Star inbound to FOB Dune..."

He took his thumb off the knob and went rushing for the stairs, grabbing his flight helmet along the way.

* * * * *

At the first tone of the siren, a switch flipped in Shelby's head. The fears were pushed to the back of her mind for now, replaced by the call to act. She swung her legs off the hammock and leapt down to the floor. "Flight leaders, find your pilots and get them up! Joker and I will brief the squadron en route," she shouted as she grabbed her helmet from one of the crew. As soon as her boots touched the lower rungs of her ladder, she swung a look out for her pilots, and saw Hamdi and McMahon come to a stop by her plane at the same time Akarui entered the hangar. They exchanged a look, and McMahon was the one to speak up:

"We got our asses kicked last time we saved somebody. We really going out there again? For them?"

Shelby's tightened one hand around the ladder as she hung out from it, dog tags rattling free. Her eyes fell to Akarui, just for a moment, and she gave him a slight nod... before looking between the three of them. Her flight. "Why'd you join -- to prove 'em right, or to prove 'em wrong? We'll show them what we're made of, no matter what, because we're Humpbacks." She slapped the ladder twice for emphasis and said, "Mount up!"

It was enough to kick them into gear, now running to their waiting planes...
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Re: Tower of the Southern Star

Post by Shelby »

Callsign Joker: "Fifteen minutes prior to wheels up, Devil-Dogs under Captain Alice were on routine patrol over the immediate airspace around FOB Dune when they came under unknown direct contact with Unmanned Air Assets linked with Sierra Two. They were cut off from communications to Central one minute after first contact, Devil-Dog four was the last report three minutes after that. Unknown counts of UAV's, expect dozens.

"Two minutes after that Dune reported contact and we were given the scramble. Unknown of other allied assets in the sky at this time."

Callsign Mustang: "CADW is sending a flight from Chimera squadron, two VTOL Heracs for evac and two Minotaurs to escort. Coyote and Twister will patrol and protect Cadentia, with RASG providing support.

"First flight will take the lead, engage hostile UAVs and take the heat off anyone friendly in the air. Mack, Starling--" Hamdi and McMahon-- "Cover us, scan for the captain and Sierra Two. Second flight, focus on UAVs targeting the base. Third flight will support second until Chimera closes within radar. Then I want you to protect the evac. As soon as they are underway, first flight runs interference, three stays on escort, and two on overwatch while we get the hell out.

"Mack, Starling, come in from above. Mustang, on me, nice and low. Let's uppercut these assholes."

* * * * *

A human pilot may have noticed the sand clouds rising as they rocketed across the desert dunes, but they weren't dealing with human pilots today. The drones chasing the scattered surviving aircraft away from those making bombing runs on the burning base started to break away from their targets, circling to try to get a lock on the pair of fighters coming at them from above. It looked like Mack and Starling would be the anvil.

Which made Joker and Mustang the hammer.

Shelby's aircraft rumbled with resistance as she opened up with the guns just as she was skimming over the base's razorwire fence, clipping off a gray fueling drone's wing and sending it spiraling away from the base on its would-be suicide run. She spun as she climbed above the base, close enough to hear and feel the engines of other craft roaring past her, but could still make out the tone of the lock when she released a missile at a UAV sweeping not far overhead, blasting it apart. A third climbing after Starling tried to hack her lock, and by the time its algorithm put together the fact that it couldn't, it was too late to outrun the heat-seeking missile. She abruptly turned the climb back into a dive, her aircraft shuddering again, and came down nearly on top of a desert camo drone with bulbous sensors and bristling with guns, a long-range raider craft from far to the south, in hot pursuit of one of the few surviving Devil-Dogs. A quick burst from her guns and it disintegrated.

A much more frantic tone filled the cockpit as the drones turned on the pilot who'd just splashed four of them in rapid succession, taking out the craft better designed for air-to-ground missions than air-to-air -- and ill-equipped to deal with craft that couldn't be hacked or jammed. Shelby spun her plane, then swerved wildly in her dive to throw off the locks.

While Shelby had skimmed the top of the Foward Base, Akarui had swung outward to one side in a rocking motion, the momentum of which sent him back the other direction. His head flicked upwards when he watched Shelby pull into her steep climb and counted the seconds. One... two... On the third he pulled up behind her, avoiding her wake as he moved with her. Watching each rocket and burst of gunfire leave her plane as he waited for her to break away from the push.

When she spun into a dive he roared past her. His HUD displaying the multiple locks as he pressed down upon the second red button on his joystick: several missiles suddenly scattering off to individual targets in the sky. Three of the four connecting just as his forward momentum began to slow. Wheeling over slowly, the ominous warning bells of missile locks soon began to tag him, as he dove back down towards the sands and broke hard left as flares began to shoot upwards and downwards from the rear of his plane.

"Is that..."

Akarui heard the impact of a missile on the ground under him as he evaded, looking upwards to see the massive flying fortress, the Southern Star, lumbering in the sky just a few miles away with a smaller craft darting around it erratically.

Mack cut in: "I have visual on Sierra Two -- and Lady!"

It seemed that the Devil-Dogs had not been the only ones to make it into the air, in spite of the attacks on the FOB. As Southern Star began another attempt to bear down on the base from only a few miles out, Captain Alice's agile craft with hooked wings and heavy thrusters came flying up towards the aircraft's side for another strafing run, forcing it to alter course and turn away. Another missile streaked after her, and with a twitch of her wing it went rocketing just past; smoke was trailing from her craft as she made the turn, however, evidence that she'd sustained damage, and it showed in the way her plane shuddered in the air as if on the verge of stalling.

"Lady, this is Mustang, turn to oh-one-five. We can draw it off," Shelby said as she began chasing after a fast drone trying to find an angle in from the edge of the action.

"Negative, Mustang. You lock horns with Sierra Two, you're locked in. Stay on task. That's an order! You get them out." There was silence in response, as Shelby's jet began another pursuit. "You have a mission?"

"Yes ma'am," she grunted, drifting in and out of lock with her target. "Stop the bombers, escort the evac, lead friendly birds out. That means you, ma'am."

Captain Alice ignored that part. Her plane was making no efforts to break away, continuing to bait the dangerous flying fortress away from the action, as another missile streaked after her. "Joker, you on her wing?"

"Affirmative, Captain. I am right with her." Of course, the noises that echoed in the background indicated another volley of missiles were on their way to him, as he braced himself tight within the cockpit. He was too low to dive down and draw the missiles off course... too fast to duck into sand dunes to avoid them. So he braced. At the last moment he pulled up hard and, with a minor modification down upon his plane when the computing systems were ripped out, he seemed to go into a stationary stall at high G-forces, before whipping back around in the same level flight just as two UAV's ripped past him and were torn to shreds.

"Ma'am, I could get a long range lock on, but I would need an IFF to lock onto and I am not reading anything from the Siera-Two... I can see it, but the things a ghost on my scopes." He spoke quickly as he scanned the airspace and pulled hard right, falling back in line with his wing-woman and flight lead.

"Don't try it, Joker. You stay on her wing, you keep her on task, and you bug out with our people. I'm brevetting you to sergeant and her to l.t. Do you copy?"

There was a pause, before Akarui answered, "Copy. Ma'am-- status on fuel?"

"I have enough, Joker."

The sky around the CADW interceptors had become choked with the vapor trails of dozens of UAV's and jets dancing in tight quarters, missile trails, and black smoke wafting from the ground at the relatively low altitude engagement. More and more UAV's joined the downed CADW planes smoldering on the ground, while the escorted Heracles cut through the haze to land at the base.

Akarui banked hard as a missile nearly clipped his wing right off. He let out a sigh of relief and fell back in line with Shelby as he scanned the battlefield again.

"Mustang, we got another flight of drones coming in on the Three-Three-Zero.... we need to get the pilots off the ground and home or were all going to be learning how to burrow into the sand faster then a fucking Emu."

Shelby had been focused on engaging the scattered drones remaining around them, unable to process what her captain was saying. Not in the moment. "Copy that, Joker. Chimera is completing evac. Starling, Mack, still with us? First flight will cut off the incoming drones bearing two-eight-five on my mark."

After they copied came the work of clean-up, first flight breaking formation to chase down the remaining drones with what remained of their payloads. In a single minute, the skies around FOB seemed to be finally free of hostiles for the moment...

All save for the Southern Star. The massive airship was in a slow turn, bearing away from the Humpbacks and towards the south, deeper into the desert, where Captain Alice's damaged fighter tried to weave as nimbly as she could as she led it away.

"Lady, Sierra Two is coming up on your six, turn to three-four-zero!"

Shelby's plea was ignored, but her captain gave her a final reply: "It's your squadron now, Mustang. Do better."

The streak of one missile, then a second passed by Captain Alice's aircraft as she twitched her wings. The third struck her craft dead on, with a violent fireball that took it out of the sky for good.

Static -- followed by a singular transmission. A gruff female voice with a Scandinavian accent, yet strangely stilted: "Bandit destroyed."

The way was clear now, as it would take almost a full minute before the flying fortress could lumber through a turn back to the north. Akarui's eyes were on the burning hulk of Captain Alice's aircraft, whispering into his rebreather for a bail-out until the plane cratered into the ground.

"Mark," Shelby croaked, her voice thick with tears, and led the first flight in their rapid departure. The approaching drones broke away after them, distracted from the evac and escort's egress along another bearing, but were never close enough to gain lock. They were home free--

--less most of the Devil-Dogs and the two others at the FOB, and the Humpbacks' first loss in the form of Captain Alice.

"This is Joker... we're returning to base."
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Re: Tower of the Southern Star

Post by Shelby »

After parting ways with the flight from Chimera, consisting of the evac and escort vehicles, and all that remained of the Devil-Dogs, the eleven surviving pilots of Humpback Squadron turned towards the RASG Southern Liaison hangar south of Cadentia. Shelby and Akarui were the last two to land, staying in a holding pattern and circling in silence while the rest of the squadron landed by the light of the setting sun.

Shelby's landing was rough, coming in a little too light and bouncing, forgetting in the moment how much her payload must have weighed. The process of going down the runway and taxiing into her flight's hangar was done on autopilot (metaphorically), and she was still going through the motions of opening her cockpit and removing her helmet when she realized Akarui was already climbing out of his plane.

The pilots already on the ground had been bragging about their kills, congratulating each other, or trying to shake off the shock of combat, but fell silent and began to gather around as Shelby climbed out of the cockpit and onto the ladder. It wasn't just her flight here; it was the squadron. All of the Humpbacks, the crew and the pilots, minus one, and they were looking at her expectantly.

Her boots hit the concrete floor, and she raised the floor to look at them. She was too shocked, too sad, too angry to be terrified of addressing them all.

"They killed one of our pilots today. Captain Jermina Alice, callsign Lady." She let her name echo in the hangar, then raised her voice, looking for fury and determination in the faces around her: "They killed one of OUR pilots today!"

Grimness and rage sparked in the faces she saw, including Akarui's, who looked up to add, "And we are the only fully combat ready squadron left this side of Brno Beach."

"He's right," Shelby nodded. "There's only two squadrons left in the CADW, and their craft are too equipped to deal with this threat. Every advanced system they have, every advanced system the rest of the RASG has, is vulnerable. We are it."

Akarui nodded his agreement. "The days of lounging around the hangar... are over. Lieutenant Monaro." This caused a murmur among some; word had only passed to some about the brevet promotion. "What are your orders?"

When she spoke up again, the hangar fell silent. "Sergeant Sora, you're acting XO. Debrief the squadron, then coordinate with crew on replenishing weapons and fuel." She looked from him to one of the crew chiefs, and she nodded grimly in reply as she was addressed: "Check every craft top to bottom, and prioritize the birds that are gonna give you the most trouble. I'll be in contact with CADW and RASG command. We'll find out what the hell happened out there... and we'll put a stop to it."

Her hands curled into fists. Now she could feel her nerves, and hear her heart thudding in her ears. She lifted her chin again, defiantly, and called out: "Who are we?"

"Humpbacks!" The sonorous war cry of the liaison squadron filled the hangar.

"Dismissed." Shelby watched the pilots and crew disperse... and finally wiped an arm across her eyes, her lip quivering as she stalked away to raise Command.

((Adapted from play with Akarui, with thanks!))
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