Dancing with the Devil

In another time, another place, the VF-216 might have become an elite squadron. However, in the Saturnian Sphere, the fighting is most intense and all the good pilots have a bad habit of winding up dead. Desperate to hold back the Sheolite menace, the Union will throw anything at them, and so the VF-216 is more of a dumping grounds where anyone who can handle a stick is thrust into the thick of it. The disillusioned commander of the 216 has had enough. As he prepares a new batch of inexperienced young pilots for their inevitable deaths, Fate lays out a new path for him. Should he take up this path, is he throwing away his pride, or is he finding it?

Location: ESS Lysander, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Fri 14 Oct 118
Time: UST 1713

Senior Lieutenant Karl Steiner walked up to the door of his squadron leader's stateroom and rang the bell. No answer. He rang it again. Still no answer.
Not keen to wait, he smashed in the control panel with his fist and the door slid open. Commander Zhukov was sitting at his desk. His face was as unreadable as ever.
"This is the eighth time you've broken my door," the Commander said. "DC is getting tired of fixing it."
"You could open the damn door when I ring the bell, sir," Steiner replied. "And it's their own damn fault for not fixin' that bug. Helluva comfort if we lose pressure out in the passageways. Bash in the console and the door opens."
Commander Zhukov sighed. "They cut corners to get these Spartans out the gate, just like they cut corners with everything else." He glanced over to Steiner. "Shut the door behind you."
Steiner took hold of the door and dragged it across, probably damaging the mechanism further. They would have been better off with manual doors anyway. Relying on automation made you soft and the military couldn't afford any softness, especially not with a war going on.
Steiner then recalled his business.
"CAG's lost a few teeth," he said. "Little pussy's hiding out until he can get 'em replaced. Pushed all his work on the DCAG. That was quite a number ya did on him."
"In any decent military," the Commander grumbled, "I'd be shot by now or swinging from the yardarm."
"We don't have a yardarm, sir," Steiner said. "And unless ya kill the damn CAG, they can't afford ta get rid a' one a' their best squadron leaders."
Commander Zhukov sighed again. "They're desperate. Too desperate to pick their methods. Too desperate to have standards. Out here, they'll do anything, just to hang on by their fingernails. But they're too stupid to fight smart, so all we do is bleed. I wanted that sorry sack of shit to remember what it feels like to bleed, like we do whenever he sends us out half-cocked."
"I can't say he got the message," Steiner said, "but A for effort, sir."
"Once a dumb fuck, always a dumb fuck."
The Commander poured himself a glass of vodka from the bottle sitting on his desk and began to slowly drain it in the slow, deliberate way he did just about everything.
"You realize, sir," Steiner said, "that the consumption a' alcoholic beverages while underway is a violation a' regulations."
The Commander pulled another glass out of his desk drawer, filled it and offered it to Steiner. Steiner promptly accepted the glass and downed it in a single swig.
"You through?" the Commander asked.
Steiner extended the glass again. The Commander poured and Steiner downed it just as quickly as the first time.
Letting out a satisfied 'aah', Steiner replied, "I am now."
"You have a funny way of asking for a drink."
"People don't ask you for things," Steiner said. "Not if they know what's good for 'em."
Steiner held out his glass for another refill. The Commander was obliging as ever, but Steiner was about the only person who could get away with it.
As he was downing the glass again, the Commander noted, "You're not just drinking for the taste."
"We've got replacement pilots inbound," Steiner replied. "Thirteen of 'em. Five for us. A new sub-leader for me and four nuggets."
The Commander shook his head.
"Nuggets... Why do they bother? What's the point of training those kids for three years just to send them out here to get dusted?"
"All the pilots with experience are already out in the shit or dead," Steiner said. "What's left are the nuggets. They keep pushin' 'em out the nest and hopin' they'll fly. Not too many of 'em do."
Uncharacteristically, the Commander swigged the remainder of his glass and pounded it down on the desktop.
"Where does it all end?"
It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but Steiner felt compelled to answer it anyway.
"Your guess is as good as mine, sir. We're coming up on our twentieth. Not too many wars make it this long. Someone usually cries uncle by now."
"We're not hitting the Shellies hard enough for them to give," the Commander said somberly, "and until they hit Earth, no one in Atlantis City is going to want to talk."
"Come on, sir," Steiner said incredulously. "Ya don't really think we can talk with the Shellies, do ya?"
"I know no one's ever tried."
"The Libbies did back in Oh-One. Shellies lit up their asses real nice."
Zhukov poured himself another glass and said, "Well, that was just one time." He glanced at Steiner. "You done?"
"Yeah, boss," Steiner said, setting his glass down on the desk. "Jus' keepin' ya up ta date."
"Then get."
"Later, boss. Thanks for the drink."
Steiner pried the door open, walked and then dragged it shut behind him, leaving the Commander to his confinement and his vodka.

* * *

Date: Mon 17 Oct 118
Time: UST 0557

The new arrivals inprocessed over the weekend and this morning's formation was their first as full-fledged members of the squadron. Besides the five new pilots, there were about twenty others.
"Fall in!" Master Chief barked.
The squadron formed up just ahead of reveille. Once that was done, accountability was called and then the XO called them to at ease.
"We've got some new people here today," he said. "Welcome to the VF-Two-Sixteen. I'm Commander Vincentes, the XO. Unfortunately, our squadron leader couldn't be here to welcome you himself. You should have the chance to meet him next week.
"Pilots, while Lieutenant Sun is experienced enough to truly understand what this assignment entails, the rest of you are fresh out of the Academy or OCS. You are combat fliers and the Saturnian Sphere has 46% more attacks than any other planetary sphere. You are not here because your predecessors PCS'ed. Bear that well in mind.
"For the rest of you, don't think that you're in any way safer being here onboard. If we lose our pilots, we'll lose the ship, so remember that your job is to support our pilots to the utmost of your ability. Do I make myself clear?"
"Aye-aye, sir!" the squadron shouted in reply.
"Good," Commander Vincentes said. "I expect nothing but excellence out there. Squad-ron!"
"FROM HELL!" the squadron boomed.
"Flight leaders, take over," the Commander said.
"Aye-aye, sir!" the flight leaders replied.
Commander Vincentes did an about-face and left the assembly area. The two flights and the squadron staff then went about PT, each according to their own methods. The start of another day in paradise.

* * *

Date: Tue 01 Nov 118
Time: UST 0900

Commander Zhukov and his MA escort walked into Captain Marzano's office and stood at attention.
"Sir, I have brought Commander Zhukov as ordered," the MA said.
"Very good," the Captain said. "That will be all. You are dismissed."
The MA exited the office, leaving just the two of them.
"I should keep you standing at attention." Captain Marzano said, "but I know you'd do it without complaint. I could probably keep you standing there for two days straight and you wouldn't budge. At ease."
Commander Zhukov went to the position of at ease. The Captain sighed wearily. He had at most one more tour in him unless this one ended up being his last. He was old and tired, so much so that he seemed a good ten years older than his actual age.
"Commander, you are an outstanding flier, one of the Union's best," the Captain said. "If your record was a little cleaner, you'd probably be a Hero of the Union by now."
"An empty honor," Commander Zhukov replied. "Better to be alive and barechested than a corpse weighed down with medals."
"That's exactly the kind of attitude that's keeping you from achieving your true potential."
The Commander said nothing to this and a few moments passed before the Captain spoke again.
"What you did should be a career-ender. You should be in the brig. But we don't have the luxury of following the letter of the law. I'd never find someone even half as good as you are out there, where it counts the most.
"People seem to think I don't know what goes on here. I'm not as clueless as they think. I just... I just can't do anything about it. You, on the other hand, you can make things happen. That's why I'm suspending your confinement to quarters and overriding Captain Efrimov's objections to your return to your regular duties. I just ask that you do what you can to keep this ship combat ready. If the chatter is accurate, we'll be seeing another attack soon."
'Understood, sir."
"I hope so. Dismissed."

* * *

Date: Wed 23 Nov 118
Time: UST 1012

Ensign Janet Reid pressed the buzzer for Commander Zhukov's office. She'd already gotten her ass chewed by the Captain and the DCAG and slapped with NJP, but in all honesty, she was more afraid of her squadron leader.
"Enter," a crackly voice from the buzzer box said.
The door opened and Reid marched in, going to the position of attention in front of the Commander's desk.
"Ensign Reid reporting as ordered, sir."
Commander Zhukov had his hands folded in front of his mouth and there was no reading those glassy shark eyes of his. It was really unnerving.
"At ease, Ensign," the Commander said. "You've barely been in my squadron a month and you've already been taken to Mast. Care to explain?"
"Those goddamned bitches, I-- Uh, I mean, I had a, um, disagreement with my roommates, sir. It, uh, it escalated."
"You looking to end your career before it even begins, Ensign?"
"I, ah..."
The Commander suddenly sprang to his feet, slammed his hands down on his desk and shouted, "Don't mumble, Ensign!"
Ensign Reid nearly pissed herself. This man was terrifying.
His voice low but simmering with anger, he continued, "You're no 90-day wonder, Ensign Reid. You had three years to think about what you're doing, so tell me. Why are you here? What are you trying to accomplish?"
Stupid though it was, the honest answer came out unbidden.
"I dunno, sir."
"What was that?"
"I said I dunno, sir. Academy slots, they ain't common, but I was offered one. My foster parents pushed me to take it. I don't wanna be here, but no matter how much I fucked things up, they never kicked me out. Yeah, I graduated dead-last, but they still let me fly. I guess that's somethin'."
"So flying is your motivation?" the Commander asked. "Well then, fuck-ups like this is a straight ticket to getting your ass off the flight roster. Whatever the hell those bitches you rack with do, you're going to take it. Fly straight or you won't fly at all. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir."
"Now get out."
Ensign Reid went back to the position of attention, did her about-face and stiffly marched out of the office. Once the door closed behind her, she could feel her legs turned to jelly. She needed a drink. She heard rumors that Lieutenant Loesser of first flight kept a stash of hooch. Whatever she needed to trade to get some, she'd give it to him.

* * *

Date: Sat 26 Nov 118
Time: UST 1635

Booze, cigs, stim tabs, and poker. Lieutenant Loesser always had the best parties. People called his room Sodom and it was a bit of an open secret. Lieutenant Loesser was the kind of person who could get things for people and the people he had wrapped around his little finger went as high as the ship's XO. If anyone tried to make trouble, it got buried pretty quick.
When you went in for one of his parties, all the rules went out the window. No ranks, no chain of command, no customs and courtesies. Anything could happen and anyone who wasn't prepared for that wasn't welcome.
Including Loesser, six of the pilots in the 216 were regulars. You had Loesser's buddy from OCS Krause, who just liked to drag on m-cigs and zone out in the corner. There was weaselly old Dahl who was always using the brainjack to surf porn, fatass MacPhail who'd always push for strip poker games because nobody wanted him to lose, dumbass Padilla who was already up to about a year's salary in debt to Loesser, and of course Reid herself, who was willing to do just about anything and as one of the few females who participated in these parties, that made her very popular.
Loesser's eight-man room was pretty well packed solid with twenty revelers, the cap for a party. It was first come, first serve, though for a nominal fee, you could book a slot and still show up fashionably late. Some of the higher ranking guests would take that option, but it was too rich for the grease monkeys and deck swabs.
They had to wrap things up around the 1800 chow call. The schedule for the parties floated to make the XO's job of keeping a lid on things a little easier. So far, a couple hours at a time was the max, but some of the people who had been there longer would tease the new arrivals with stories of the occasional four- or six-hour party and one epic 20-hour monster of a bacchanal from last year.
With an eye on the time, there was extra pressure to get someone to bust at the poker game. Naturally, the guys tried to gang up on Reid, even going so far as to bribe her to lose hands, but she liked to string them along, not because she was shy or anything but rather because she knew that the longer you leave a guy wanting, the more you can get out of him. Just because she was looking to wreck herself didn't mean that she had to do it for free.
The game was set to twelve articles of clothing. If you folded, you had to take an extra drink, so unless you were really good at cards, your options were winding up buck-ass naked or totally shitfaced. Maybe both.
Reid was already down six. Four more to go before she got to the good parts. She might take a dive on a couple more hands just to get the others to raise the stakes. Losing a month's pay on NJP didn't matter so much if she won it back three times over just by teasing a little skin. Guys were so dumb, so easy.
"Twenny creds ta lose this hand, girl," Bellowicz, one of the maintainers, said.
"Fiddy if ya let me cop a feel once ya bust out," the services specialist Corgan said.
"Keep those offers comin', boys," Reid said, hoping to break three thousand this game.
Sangar, a career counselor for another squadron, trumped them all says, "One thousand credits for thirty minutes of your time to use as I will."
"Party like that's gonna cost ya more'n that," Reid replied with a grin.
"I'll take ya up on that," MacPhail said.
"You should think about it, Sangar," some new guy--apparently from his squadron--said. "Lardass over there's got bigger tits anyway."
Except for Sangar, who had about as much sense of humor as a piece of wood, everyone at the table burst out laughing. Before the negotiations could continue, though, alarms started blaring and red emergency lights switch on. Loesser killed the music just as the intercom announced, "All hands to action stations! All hands to action stations!"
What the hell was this? A drill?
"Attention, all pilots! Attention, all pilots! Prepare to scramble! I repeat, prepare to scramble!"
"Shit, that's our cue," Loesser said. He then clapped his hands, shouting, "Alright, people! Our festivities are over! All transactions are canceled! Get your shit and get out!"
While everyone was scrambling to get their stuff together, down one last last drink, take a drag on their cigs, Loesser rummaged through his desk for an autoinjector that he then jabbed into Krause to bring him out of his cannabis haze.
"C'mon, buddy," he said. "Come on back. We gotta bounce."
Reid didn't pay attention after that. She was busy reattaching the sleeves to her StatSuit, putting on her boots and shirt and zipping her flight suit back up. MacPhail, her wingmate, was agitatedly beckoning for her to follow him out the door.
"Let's go, let's go. Get the lead out, Screech."
"Can it, fatass," she growled. "I'm comin', I'm comin'."
As Sangar passed by her, he quipped, "That is what you would say if you took me up on my offer."
She seriously doubted it, but she had more important things to worry about. This was going to be her first real scramble and she was half-drunk and already hopped up on a stim tab. Shit. This wasn't going to end well.

* * *

Date: Sat 26 Nov 118
Time: UST 1748

Lieutenant Steiner checked his radar screen again. There were no more enemy contacts. They were either destroyed or they bugged out. If this wasn't the most hard-fought battle he'd been it, it was certainly up there on the list. He lost his wingmate and so did Dahl. He wasn't sure how the rest of the squadron fared. He was just about to check for himself when Commander Zhukov came on the line.
"Red Squadron, this is Red One. Sound off."
Just like his face was unreadable, the Commander's voice told them nothing. No fear, no anger, no relief. He didn't even sound tired after all they'd been through.
Steiner waited for Greuner, but when Greuner didn't respond, he realized it was his turn to speak up.
"Red One, this is Red Three."
"Red One, this is Red Seven."
"Red One, this is Red Nine."
"Red One, this is Red One-Zero."
Then it was Second Flight's turn.
"Red One, this is Red Six."
"Red One, this is Red One-Three."
No one followed Red One-Three. There were only seven of them left. Half the squadron was dusted.
The Commander said nothing about their losses, at least not over the radio. All business as ever, he immediately hailed the Lysander to report.
"Red Base, come in. Red Base, come in."
Nothing. Steiner checked his radar screen, confirming what he was afraid had happened. He wasn't the only one.
A panicked Loesser started blubbering, "It's gone. It's gone! The Lice... She's gone!"
"Get ahold a' your damn self," Steiner snapped.
Still, the loss of Lice meant they had nowhere to go back to. Maybe they could squeeze their Wasps into the Savoy or the Bolivar if either of them made it. They could probably get back to Smythe themselves if they had to. Whatever they were going to do, their next step was in their leader's hands.
Even though he was sure the Commander already knew it, Steiner said, "Red One, the Lice is gone. Orders?"
There was silence for a few moments. Then the Commander simply said, "Let's go."
"Wha--?" a confused MacPhail asked. "Whaddya mean?"
Dahl opened up a private channel and started to ask Steiner, "Boss, what--"
Steiner cut him off, though.
"You heard the man. Let's go."
In all truth, Steiner had no idea what the Commander planned to do, but he would follow him into the pits of Hell, but honestly, what did Hell have on the war? Whatever was in store for them, it had to be something better. He was sure of that.