Chapter 4
The Bear

Location: Fahrenholz Starbase, Uranian Sphere
Date: Fri 08 Oct 112
Time: UST 2340

Matt fidgeted in his new service dress uniform. It had only been a few weeks earlier that he had swapped the uniform of a cadet for that of a full-fledged officer. It would not be long before his shuttle docked at Fahrenholz, his first duty station. He could not deny that he was nervous, but he did his best to keep his cool. He had signed up for combat duty, after all, and he had to make a good first impression for his new wingmates. If he seemed too squirrelly, the other pilots would not trust him to watch their backs and would not be willing to watch his either.
As he felt the shuttle's landing gear touch down on the deck of the docking bay, he took a deep breath to collect himself. Confidence and nonchalance were the key, but nothing fake or they would see right through him. Once the light blinked for the passengers to disembark, he rose out of his seat and took his place in the line exiting the shuttle.
He was left to look around in bewilderment for a few moments after getting off the shuttle before he was approached by a lieutenant clad in a flight suit and jacket. Matt recognized him from the welcoming materials sent by the unit. The lieutenant extended his hand and smiled broadly.
"You're the new jack from the Academy, right? The name's Mazurek, but I go by Clipper or Clip. As you prolly know, I've been assigned as your sponsor. We're in the same flight an' all. Matter a' fact, I wouldn't be surprised if ya get assigned as my new wingman. My old wingman Fraggle PCS'ed a coupla weeks ago an' I've had ta fly with the boss ever since. Speakin' a' the boss, I'll be introducin' ya once ya stow your gear."
Mazurek began to walk off and Matt followed, but he had only gone a few paces when Mazurek stopped and turned back around to face him.
"Whatcha doin'?" he asked. "Ain't no bellboys here. We ain't got the manpower ta spare. You're goin' ta hafta march yourself back ta the shuttle an' grab your shit. Make it fast, too. If I know the boss, he's gonna wanna have ya out there by Monday."
Matt did not question him, nor did he complain. He was not above carrying his own gear, after all. He returned to the shuttle where a couple airmen were unloading the cargo. It was not long before Matt got his bags and was on his way to his new quarters. Upon entering the small and austere two-man room, Mazurek pointed to the wall locker on the right.
"That one's yours," he said. "Sorry, but there ain't much space 'round here. O-3s an' below gotta live in these two-man jobs. Your roommate's a guy named Letterman. He's cool. Out on patrol right now. Hurry up an' stow that shit so I can get ya ta the boss."
Matt complied with all due haste. He did not have the time to unpack right now, so he simply tossed the bags in the locker as they were. He did, however, spend the few seconds it took to set the lock to his ID card before following Mazurek to his next destination.
He was led through the winding corridors to a briefing room just large enough to support the pilots of a standard squadron. Plastered on one of the walls was the crest of the squadron, a blue Japanese devil defiantly raising up a spear with a crescent-shaped head against a backdrop of stars. Along the bottom of the crest was a banner that read '227th Fighter Squadron' and above it was kanji that Matt recognized as 'ao'oni', the name of the creature depicted in the crest.
A broad-shouldered man dressed in a flight suit and jacket like Mazurek was seated at the desk at the far end of the room, completely absorbed with some work on the console. Mazurek stepped forward and called out to the man.
"Hey, boss! New jack's here."
The man looked up from his work, not quite seeming to process what he was just told. Realizing this was his new commanding officer, Matt walked up to the desk and saluted him.
"Lieutenant Harold reporting as ordered, sir."
The man, who Matt now identified as a captain, absently returned the salute.
"At ease, man," he said lazily. "Relax."
Matt complied, but was taken a little aback by the Captain's lackadaisical manner. After four years of officers following the regs to the letter, his CO's nonchalance was rather jarring. The Captain seemed to realize this and made no effort to hide his consternation. He rose from his chair and extended his hand.
"Here," he said. "This is how real men greet each other."
Although it was a little awkward, Matt shook the CO's hand, earning a slight grin.
"That's more like it," he said. "I'm Captain Sean McCormick, but you can call me Kodiak. Welcome to Bravo Flight." He leaned in closer. "Let me tell ya how things work here. You can ditch most a' that bullshit they taught ya at the Academy. We don't have time for it out here. The Shellies love ta hit this neck a' the woods, so all that matters is how good you are in the cockpit. Believe you me, we'll find out real soon.
"The second you're done inprocessin', you and me are gonna go out on a patrol. I'd love ta cut ya new jacks some slack, but the learning curve's real steep 'round here. Ya either learn or ya get your ass killed. Only thing is ya usually get your buddy's ass killed, too, so I ain't got the patience for no fuck-ups. Ya fuck up, you're out. The wing commander and me is real tight, so don't think I can't make it happen. Ya volunteered for combat duty, so ya've got some reason for bein' out here and I'm sure it'd rub ya the wrong way ta get transferred ta some shitty air unit an' reclassed ta pilot a goddammed Swallow.
"But you ain't gonna be that way, right? We're gonna go up and you're gonna be solid fuckin' gold. You're gonna double ace your first sortie, right? Tell me I'm right."
"I'll do my best, sir," Matt replied.
"Don't give me that soft ass shit!" Captain McCormick barked. "Tell me you're gonna fuckin' double ace!"
Recalling how he had to respond to badgering upperclassmen, Matt shouted, "I'm going to triple ace, sir!"
"That's what I'm talkin' 'bout!" Captain McCormick boomed in delight. "You're alright, man. What's your handle?"
"Cavalier, sir."
"Cav, eh? We'll see if ya earn the right ta keep it. Let's hope ya don't end up like Skidmark." He called out to Mazurek, "Hey, Clip! Ya remember ol' Skid?"
"Yeah," Mazurek said. "Ain't never seen someone fuck up a bird like that. What happened to his crazy ass?"
"Motherfucker was transferred ta the Belt and got splatted his first week."
"No shit?"
"No shit, man." Captain McCormick patted Matt on the shoulder. "Ol' Cav here ain't gonna end up like that, right?"
Mazurek scratched his head. "I dunno, boss. Right now we've got five-to-one odds he'll fuck up on the first patrol."
"You've gotta be bullshittin' me," the Captain remarked incredulously. "Have ya seen this boy's stats?"
"Academy stats don't mean shit," Mazurek replied. "Think about Backdoor."
"Aw, he don't count." Captain McCormick slapped the desk. "Tell ya what, put me down for 500 creds. He ain't gonna fuck up."
"It's your money, boss," Mazurek replied with a shrug, "but remember what happened when ya bet on Zigzag."
"He ain't gonna end up like Zigzag neither," Captain McCormick insisted. He looked back to Matt, who was starting to wonder if he had been forgotten. "If I win the pot, you get half. Deal?"
"Uh," Matt replied hesitantly, "I don't gamble, sir."
"What? Some kinda religious thing?"
"Yes, sir," Matt said.
"Fine," the Captain said. "I'll be sure ta buy ya a nice steak dinner the next time we get a three-day pass or somethin'. I know this joint down on Tita. We're talkin' primo stuff here. And there's this waitress..." He paused, apparently recalling some experience Matt would rather not have to hear about. Captain McCormick shook his head, breaking out of the momentary reverie. "Forget about that now. You get ta inprocessin'. I want ya ready ta saddle up as soon as possible."
Matt cocked his head slightly, which prompted Captain McCormick to look at his watch.
"What? Zero twenty-one?" He made a face. "Well, shit... Admin won't be open till oh-eight... Alright, rookie, you go ahead an' hit the sack for a while. Clip'll pick ya up at oh-seven ta give ya a quick tour a' the base. Now get outta here."
Translating that as 'dismissed', Matt went to attention and saluted. This earned him an exasperated look from the Captain.
Captain McCormick cursed, "Dammit, rookie. Remember what I told ya? We ain't got time for protocol bullshit. I don't wanna see ya salutin' anythin' less than three bars, ya got me?"
"Yes, sir."
Captain McCormick returned the salute even sloppier than before.
"Now get."
"Yes, sir."
Captain McCormick went back to his work on the console while Matt and Mazurek left the briefing room. As they were walking, Mazurek started looking at Matt as if he were some sort of alien.
"Damn," he said. "I ain't never seen the boss take to a new jack like that. Maybe I should look at those stats a' yours after all..." He gave Matt a severe look. "Don't bank on that shit, though. I've seen plenty a' new jacks with good numbers crash and burn somethin' awful." Mazurek's features softened into the devil-may-care expression Matt had gotten used to. "You don't seem to be quite as cocky as a lot of 'em, so you might do okay. I might just put some creds on ya, too."
Once they had reached Matt's quarters, Mazurek gave him a hearty pat on the shoulder.
"You get some shut-eye and I'll see ya at seven."
"Alright," Matt said.
"Take care, man."
Matt waved as Mazurek walked off. Entering the room, he saw that his roommate still had not returned yet and decided against waiting up on him. He could always introduce himself later. Opening his wall locker, he dug out his PT uniform from his duffel bag and changed into it. He carefully hung up his dress uniform and, opting to unpack later, went straight to bed. After all, he had a big day ahead of him.

* * *

Date: Tue 26 Oct 112
Time: UST 0521

The first time he took his Kodachi out on a patrol with Captain McCormick, Matt succeeded in defying the odds and returned to Fahrenholz without a hitch. The pressure was intense and it had been difficult for him to relax. Any screw-up could leave a pilot marked for the rest of his career, but Matt had narrowly dodged that fate. He got to keep the callsign he earned at the Academy and the Captain swore to make good on his promise to treat Matt to that dinner the next time the unit got a three-day pass.
Two weeks had passed since that first patrol and Matt was getting used to life on the starbase. The patrol schedule was constantly shaken up to keep the pilots from becoming complacent, so he was always on his toes. Nearly two months had passed since the last enemy contact in the sphere and the chatter from intel gave no indication of an impending attack. All that was about to change.
Matt had just gotten back from a patrol and was on his way to his quarters for a few hours of sleep when an alarm sounded. Warning lights flashed as the wing commander's voice blared on the intercom.
"Attention, all fighter pilots! Attention, all fighter pilots! Report to your ships at once! We have incoming bandits! Repeat, we have incoming bandits! All fighter pilots, report to your ships!"
There was no time to lose. Matt ran back to the 227th's launching bay as fast as he could. He started to suit up the moment he got his hands on his gear. Although he donned the suit hastily, he was still careful enough to make sure everything was adjusted just right. An oxygen leak was the last thing he needed in his first combat sortie.
He started to worry about his ship. It could not have been back more than twenty minutes and he knew it was not enough time for the crew to run all the necessary checks. He approached the crew chief with that concern in mind.
"How is she?" he asked.
"We've only had time for a quick diagnostic, sir," the Chief replied. "You didn't report any problems when you came back, so we haven't had anything particular to look for." He glanced at the DataPad in his hand. "Goin' from the report, it looks like the number five shield projector is a little glitchy. It could go out at any time and we don't have time to try and fix it. Just keep an eye out for shots on your ventral."
"Is there anything else I need to know?"
"There's nothing else we could find," the Chief said, "but a deeper scan might've turned up something. We just don't have the time for anything more intensive."
"It'll have to do, Chief," Matt said. "Good work."
"Be careful out there, sir."
The Chief saluted him.
"Thanks, Chief," Matt said, returning the salute.
Matt climbed into the cockpit, secured his helmet and strapped himself in as his fingers danced across the console to activate the launch sequence. Looking back to the crew one last time, he gave the final salute and was on his way. Within moments he was outside the base and his radar screen was lit up by dozens of contacts. Before he could react, Captain McCormick's voice boomed on the radio.
"Bravo, form up! Stay with me! I'm uploadin' data inta your nav-coms. We engage all bandits within this radius. Repeat, engage all bandits within this radius. Stay sharp, people! Here they come!"
The enemy fighters had already come into view, launching an unfocused volley of light weapons fire their direction. Given the type and pattern of the fire, Matt recognized the enemy ships as Viper-class light fighters. Even though the Sheolites had employed them since the beginning of the war, they were fully capable of standing toe-to-toe with a second-generation fighter like the Kodachi. As the blasts came closer, Captain McCormick's voice could be heard on the radio again.
"Stay in formation! They're just tryin' ta spook us. Let 'em come ta us."
Mazurek whooped, "Don't shoot till ya see the whites a' their eyes!"
One of the other pilots laughed. "Those fuckers don't even have eyes, Clip!"
"Cut the chatter!" Captain McCormick snapped. "They're coming inta range. Weapons free. Let's send these bastards back ta hell!"
The radio was overwhelmed by a roar of assent from the other pilots in the flight. As the blasts from the enemy flew past or glanced off shields, the pilots of Bravo Flight picked their targets and opened up with their pulse cannons. The rapid spray of low-energy bursts worked well to weaken shields, softening up ships so more powerful weapons would not be wasted.
Of course, the Sheolites had their own way to deal with shields, a potent electromagnetic beam that could overload shield projectors. But fortunately for the Union forces, the Sheolite disruptors drained excessive amounts of power and were likely to render all energy weapons inoperable and occasionally short out shield projectors and missile launchers as well. The smart ones used the weapon sparingly, but as a general rule, the Sheolites were suicidally reckless and seemed to care little about their own losses.
The enemy fighters continued to charge forward with guns blazing. Checking one of his display screens, Matt saw that his scanners were no longer picking up forward shields on the Viper he was targeting. He quickly transferred more energy to his own forward shield as he switched to the more powerful particle cannon. The volley of slower but considerably stronger blasts tore through the Viper's cockpit and struck the power core. The fighter exploded along with a few others the flight had taken out.
"Nice shootin', Cav!" Mazurek beamed.
"Use squadron callsigns, dammit!" Captain McCormick shouted as the surviving Vipers flew past the formation. Spinning his ship around, he barked new orders. "Alright, boys, let's break it up! Ao Seven, stay with me. Ao One-One, take your wingman and engage the bandits at will."
"Roger that," Seven and One-One replied in unison.
The flight broke off in pairs to take on the Vipers that had gotten past them and the successive waves en route. While closing the distance between them and the enemy, Mazurek opened a two-way channel between Matt and himself.
"Stay close, Ao One-Two," he said. "We're gonna take down these bandits right in front of us. You're doin' good so far. Just stay cool and we'll get through this."
The two Vipers they were targeting either did not know about their pursuers or they did not care. They were charging at the starbase at full speed, making little effort to dodge the fire from Fahrenholz's batteries. Devoting the bulk of their shield power to deflecting the base's defenses, the Vipers were highly vulnerable to an attack from the rear. Mazurek did not need to tell Matt what to do. There was no need to soften them up with pulse cannons and several particle blasts were all it took to shatter the main thrusters of both craft. Mazurek whooped victoriously as the Vipers exploded within a split-second of each other, but the sense of victory was short-lived.
"Oh, fuck..." Mazurek cursed. "Those bastards launched their missiles before we splashed 'em! We've gotta try ta take 'em out, Cav. If the shields don't set 'em off, we'll lose the launching bay. Use your pulse cannons!"
Matt had already switched back to his pulse cannons before Mazurek had finished speaking and took out one of the missiles before he could say 'roger' in reply. By the time Mazurek's stream of pulse fire raked across the trailing missile, Matt had destroyed the other two.
"Damn you're fast..." Mazurek commented in astonishment. "Where'd you learn ta--" He was cut off by the urgent beeping of the onboard threat detectors. "What the--? Break away!"
If Mazurek's realization had come a second later, both pilots would probably be dead. The two Kodachi flew apart just as a flight of six Vipers swept down from above, narrowly missing them.
"Where the fuck did they come from!?" Mazurek exclaimed. "There aren't supposed ta be any bandits on this attack vector!"
"They must've launched from another location," Matt replied. "The Shellies probably have other cap ships around here, just out of sensor range."
"Maybe," Mazurek said, "but we don't have time ta worry 'bout that. Get back on my wing and we'll take 'em down."
"Roger."
As soon as Matt had formed on Mazurek's wing, the Vipers split up, flying in all different directions.
"Don't let 'em rattle you!" Mazurek shouted. "Stay with me and we'll take 'em down one-by-one. You got that?"
"Y-yeah..." Matt stammered, "ah, roger."
"Stay with me, Cav," Mazurek said. "We can do this."
Matt did his best to keep it together. No one would be able to save him if he got rattled. He would never forgive himself if Mazurek put himself in danger on his account.
He was doing well to stick to Mazurek's wing when one of the Vipers looped around and flew between them, nearly taking off Matt's wing. Before Matt could return to Mazurek's wing, two more Vipers flew between them.
"They're tryin' ta split us up!" Mazurek said. "Get back on my wing, Cav!"
"I can't!" Matt shouted as another one drove him further away. "Wait, you've picked up one on your six. I'll take him down and form on your port side."
"No!" Mazurek barked. "They're tryin' ta draw ya out, Cav! Don't fall for it!"
The Viper tailing Mazurek fired a couple particle blasts that glanced off his shields. He took evasive maneuvers, but the Viper doggedly stuck to its prey. Matt decided to ignore Mazurek's warning and swooped down on the Viper.
As he peppered the Viper with a spray of pulse fire, it broke off its pursuit and made a wide arc away from Mazurek. Matt did not want to stray too far, but he was even less keen on the idea of letting the Viper go. The Viper was good enough to stick to Mazurek's tail and could dodge well, but it could not escape Matt's blasters.
Just as Matt shot down the Viper, he saw four others flying at Mazurek on all sides. In unison they fired their disruptors. There was no way he could dodge the concerted attack.
"What the--?" Mazurek cursed loudly, "Oh, shit! The thrusters are offline! My shields! I've got no shields!"
There was no time to lose. Mazurek was a sitting duck. A couple good particle blasts were all it would take to tear through a Kodachi's armor.
"Hang on, Clip!" Matt cried.
Having been drawn away too far from Mazurek's position, Matt kicked the engine into high gear and sped to his wingman. Hoping the Vipers' shields had been shorted out by their own disruptors, he opened up with his particle cannon on the nearest one while getting a missile lock on another. The computer was taking too long. He quickly estimated the projected coordinates of the other two and launched missiles at all three at once.
He had guessed right. None of the Vipers had their shields up. His reward was four fireballs bursting around Mazurek, but he had made a critical oversight. There was still one Viper left.
As if it were on cue, the surviving Viper swept through the wreckage of its wingmates and fired a missile squarely at Mazurek's engine.
"Shiii--!!"
The blast tore Mazurek's Kodachi in two. There was nothing Matt could do.
"Clip!"
It was already too late. Reflexively, Matt fired his last missile, somehow managing to hit the Viper. It was detonated by the Viper's shields, but the enemy fighter did not escape undamaged. When it looped around to fire back at Matt, its starboard particle cannon exploded. Knocked off course, the Viper tried to correct itself to fire its surviving cannon, only to be finished off by a volley from Matt's Kodachi.
Matt glanced at his radar. There were no hostile contacts nearby. During the momentary reprieve, the full weight of Mazurek's loss hit him. Intellectually, he thought he was prepared for the inevitable deaths that came with warfare, but nothing can truly prepare a person for the real thing. He probably would have stayed in a daze if Captain McCormick's voice had not roused him.
"This is Ao Four. Bravo Flight, report in."
Silence.
"Ao One-One, Ao One-Two, do you copy? Report in."
Nothing.
"Bravo Flight, sound the fuck off!"
The desperate edge to Captain McCormick's voice stirred Matt out of his momentary catatonia.
"Ao Four," he said slowly, "this is Ao One-Two. Ao One-One is down. Repeat, Ao One-One is down."
"Goddammit..." In a cold, professional tone, Captain McCormick said, "Damage report, Ao One-Two. Are ya hit?"
"Negative, sir," Matt replied.
"Okay, Ao One-Two," the Captain said, "I'm sendin' ya my coordinates. Form up with me and Ao Seven."
"Roger."
As Matt was flying to his position, he could hear Captain McCormick broadcasting to the squadron leader.
"Ao One, this Ao Four reporting in. All bandits have been splashed, but Ao One-One is down. Ao One, do you copy? Ao One?"
When he got no reply, Captain McCormick got in touch with the squadron's communications officer.
"Ao Base, Ao Base," he said, "this is Ao Four. Do you have a reading on Ao One?"
"Negative, Ao Four," the communications officer replied. "Ao One is down. Repeat, Ao One is down."
"Dammit... Okay, Ao Seven, Ao One-Two, stay with me. We're almost through this."
Captain McCormick was interrupted by the sound of the threat detector as several contacts moved to intercept the three fighters.
"We've got one more wave inbound," the Captain said, still amazingly collected in spite of all that had happened. "Stay sharp, people."
It was a flight of six Vipers like the one that had surprised him and Mazurek. Matt felt a little more prepared this time, but he used up all his missiles earlier and had to rely on his cannons alone. These Vipers were far more aggressive than the last group, favoring volume of fire over accuracy. Once they got closer, it would not make much difference.
"We take 'em together," Captain McCormick said. "Go from right to left. Watch the readings on their shields and get ready to switch out."
The Vipers could not hold up long against the concentrated fire of the three fighters. One went down, then another. The shields on the third were wearing down when Captain McCormick's ship was rocked by an explosion on his right wing.
"Ao Seven!" he cried. "Fuck! Ao One-Two, you still with me!?"
"Yes, sir!"
"Okay," Captain McCormick said, "hang in there! We're gonna make it!"
He said they were going to make it, but with all the blistering fire they were taking, Matt was not so sure.
"Break off, Ao One-Two!" Captain McCormick shouted.
"But--!"
The Captain's voice became harsh. "That's an order, airman!"
Matt broke away from Captain McCormick's wing just as a missile crashed into the main thrusters of his ship. The injured Kodachi spiraled down to the surface of Titania below them. He was unable to react to it just yet. There were still two Vipers left. His shields were all but gone at this point and they could not recover while he continued to take fire from the stubborn bandits. Fortunately, they could not outfly him. He looped behind one, blowing off its tail and knocking it off balance before firing a volley into its engine. He then pulled up sharply, spun 180 degrees and attacked the survivor from above. Its shields did not hold up for long and soon it joined its comrades.
With the radar screen finally clear of hostile contacts, Matt did not even have time to catch his breath when a voice came on the radio.
"This is Ao Two," the voice said. "Pilot, identify yourself."
"Ao One-Two," Matt replied.
"Ao Four," Ao Two asked, "what's the status of Bravo Flight?"
"Ao Four is gone..." Matt said.
"What?"
Matt said it again. "Ao Four is down, Ao Two."
"Ao Squadron, this Ao Two. All craft form on my wing and report in."
"Ao Two, this is Ao Three."
Matt sounded off after Ao Three and Six. Then there was Ao One-Three. That was it. Of the fourteen pilots of the 227th, only five had survived. The Sheolite attack had been thwarted, but the price was steep. For the time being, at least, Fahrenholz and Titania were safe.

* * *

Location: Titania Colony 01, Titania, Uranian Sphere
Date: Sat 30 Oct 112
Time: UST 2047

The next thirty-six hours following the attack on Fahrenholz were spent sweeping the surrounding area for any Sheolite forces that remained. The Navy dispatched a couple destroyer battle groups to assist in the search, but they turned up nothing. With no sign of the enemy, the base commander felt he could afford to give a three-day pass to the men who had been directly in the line of fire. There were not many of them left.
Matt went down to Titania and found himself in the steakhouse Captain McCormick had bragged about. He had promised to take Matt there when they got a pass, but Captain McCormick was gone. It all had a hollow feel to it.
He sat alone at a table. There were actually quite a few customers, but Matt was oblivious to them. He did not even notice the waitress standing right next to him.
"Hey there, handsome," she said. "Haven't seen you around here. What outfit are you with?"
It took Matt a moment to react. He forgot that he was in uniform.
"The 227th..." he said distantly.
"Really? Do you know Sean-bear--I mean, Captain McCormick?" she asked.
Mentioning Captain McCormick caught his attention. Matt remembered Captain McCormick saying something about a waitress here. He looked at her. She was in her early twenties and had wavy brown hair that went down past her shoulders. She wore one of those old-fashioned Anna Miller numbers that were popular on Titania. He could not help noticing how the outfit accented her rather generous bustline. For some reason, Matt was not surprised that she was Captain McCormick's type.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," Matt mumbled.
He did not have the heart to tell her. He excused himself and left the steakhouse. He was on the next shuttle back to Fahrenholz. He went straight to his quarters the moment he got back.
All he wanted to do was sleep. While he changed into his PTs, he stared at his roommate's bed. Letterman was one of Alpha Flight's fatalities. They had already cleaned his personal effects out of the wall lockers and stripped the linens off his bed. The bare half of the room was an inescapable reminder of the unit's losses.
Not even three weeks had passed since he joined the 227th and almost every pilot he knew was dead. He did not have any illusions about people dying on a fairly regular basis. It was the nature of the military, the nature of war. But he did not expect it to be like this. Maybe he was just naive.
Matt was sure of one thing: He could not take many more losses like this. With that thought on his mind, he flopped onto his bed. He had not been sleeping well since the attack, but perhaps tonight would be different.

* * *

Location: Fahrenholz Starbase, Uranian Sphere
Date: Mon 01 Nov 112
Time: UST 1025

Matt swallowed hard before entering the wing commander's office. He had made a difficult decision and he knew it was not going to go over well. He had to defend that decision or the effort would be wasted. He knocked on the door and was told to come in. Upon entering, he promptly saluted the wing commander.
"Lieutenant Harold reporting as ordered, sir."
"At ease, son," the wing commander said. He gestured to the chair in front of his desk. 'Take a seat." Once Matt sat down, the wing commander picked up his DataPad. "I've been looking at this request you submitted after the attack." He looked up from the DataPad and eyed the young pilot. "You volunteered to fly combat missions, correct?"
Matt shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, sir."
"And after one sortie you want to be reclassed?"
"Yes, sir."
The wing commander put down the DataPad and folded his hands. "Humor me, Lieutenant," he said. "Why?"
"Well, sir," Matt replied, "I volunteered for combat duty because I thought it was where I could do the most good." He paused, bowing his head slightly. "I was wrong. I can't hack it."
"What do you mean?" the wing commander asked in disbelief. "You double-aced in your first engagement! It's unheard of! You're an excellent pilot, a great combat flyer!"
Matt shook his head. "With all due respect, sir, I have to disagree. I'm the only one to survive in my flight. If I was good enough, my wingmates wouldn't have died."
"Listen here, son," the wing commander said, "you can't think like that. If there was any evidence anyone in Bravo Flight died on account of your negligence or incompetence, I'd be court-martialing you instead of recommending you for a promotion and the Distinguished Flying Cross." His voice became grave. "You can't expect all your wingmates to come home and you can't expect to protect them from everything either. This is war. It hurts like hell, but these things happen."
"Sir, I think I can do more good in search and rescue," Matt said. Hoping a concession would improve his chances, he added, "I'm willing to stay on until enough replacements arrive and get brought up to speed."
The wing commander was quiet for a few moments, as if he was gauging Matt's resolve. "You aren't going to back down on this, are you?"
Matt held his ground. "No, sir."
"Well," the wing commander said with a sigh, "I guess I don't have much choice. You're too good a pilot. If I force you to stay on the combat roster, you'll just get sloppy and get yourself killed. I'll approve the request, but it has to go up to 13th AF before anything can happen."
"I understand, sir."
The wing commander gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "Alright, Lieutenant, you're dismissed. I just want you to know that I think it's a waste of your skills."
"Yes, sir."
Matt rose from his seat, saluted the wing commander and did an about-face. He believed the wing commander was being sincere about passing along his request. The higher-ups would be reluctant to send him through a new round of training so soon after graduating the Academy. He could only pray for it to happen. If he could redirect his career to finding and rescuing other pilots, he could start to chip away at the debt he owed to all the comrades who died so he could live.