Chapter 27
Nothing to Fear
Near Mars, Martian Sphere
Date: Thu 20 Nov 122
Time: UST 0616

"Look alive, people! We got bandits inbound!"
Commander Figueroa's words were like music to Lydia's ears. Everyone called her a psycho for her bloodlust, but this was what she lived for, killing Shellies. Because the Ticonderoga was kept out of the fighting for the most part, she only got to have a couple sorties ever since they arrived in the Martian Sphere.
Once the fighting started, the red mist would come to cloud her vision and it wouldn't go away until every last Shelly was dead. She could never really remember what happened, but her killboard stats went up every time, so that was all that mattered.
A little part of her felt bad for the rest of her flight, Trifkovic in particular. She wouldn't be much good as a leader once the red mist took over, but she never asked to be in a position of leadership in the first place. They got through the previous two sorties okay. They'd get by this time too.
Only this wasn't going to be like the last two sorties.
The Shellies were still a couple micks out when she felt it. The familiar pain of a needle being jabbed directly into her brain. The last time she felt it was when they captured that Shelly pilot which led to the Tico herself being taken. The time before that...
It was like she could feel her prosthetics grinding against raw bone. The pain was increasing the closer the bandits got. Already the red mist was starting to cloud her vision.
While she still had some control over her senses, she radioed Trifkovic and said, "Curly, I'm gonna need ya ta take over for me."
A confused Trifkovic asked her, "What are you talking about, Madcap Five?"
Lydia gritted her teeth. She didn't have much time.
"When I break off," she said, "don't folla me now."
"Nyx, what are you doing?"
"Try not ta get your ass killed without me. I's jus' startin' ta like ya."
"Talk to me, Nyx. What's going on?"
"Madcap Five, out."
Lydia turned off her radio. She didn't need any distractions, not that she'd hear anything once the red mist blinded her.
Her headache was now so bad that she wanted to crack her own skull open to let the demons out, but maybe she needed those demons. Whatever it was that was behind the red mist had delivered a lot of dead Shellies to her. Now if she could get at least one more.
Giving voice to her last conscious thought, she muttered, "I been waitin' a long time for this, you sumbitch. Let's dance."

* * *

Trifkovic didn't know what was going on, but as much as she felt obliged to stay on Lydia's wing, someone had to take responsibility for the rest of the flight. They lost Calderon in their last sortie, so Zhang, Gul and Fogel were all flying together. Because Zhang and Gul were wingmates, Trifkovic wanted to keep them together, so she would take on Hex.
"Madcap One-Nine, this is Madcap Eight. Form on my wing."
"Copy that, Madcap Eight," Fogel replied.
Fogel had to be one of the unluckiest pilots Trifkovic ever met. Or rather, anyone who was assigned to his wing was unlucky. With Calderon dusted, that made four wingmates he'd lost just on this tour. His callsign used to be 'Rickshaw', but he certainly earned 'Hex' as his new handle. Trifkovic only hoped Fogel's bad luck wouldn't rub off on her, at least not any more than it already had. After all, it was his former wingmate Iwata who slit her throat and left her for dead in the showers on his way to kill Lydia, the bloody psycho.
Trifkovic couldn't think about that. She had to stay focused. She didn't plan on joining Calderon anytime soon.
The sensors IDed the incoming bandits. Two formations of Vipers, eleven and thirteen. Commander Figueroa came on the radio almost as soon as the new data was in.
"Madcaps, this is Madcap One," he said. "First and Third, take the bigger group. Second, with me."
"Copy that, Madcap One," Lieutenants Balakrishna and Chatree replied.
Part of Trifkovic wondered if she should speak up on Lydia's behalf or if that would only cause more problems. She had to hope the commander focused on the bigger fish to fry, but she did at least needed to get Lieutenant Balakrishna in the loop.
"Madcap Three, this is Madcap Eight," she said. "I've been put in charge of Third while Madcap Five is off doing her own thing."
"Again, Madcap Eight?" Lieutenant Balakrishna asked. "Very well. Acknowledged."
The first time the 313 sortied against the Shellies, Lydia going off on her own caused a fair bit of chaos, but by now everyone learned to deal with it. They just had to let her go and focus on their own problems.
Speaking of Lydia, she was making a beeline for the leader of the Shelly formation, who responded by breaking off to engage her one-on-one. Both of them were moving quite a bit faster than the standard engagement speed. No ordinary pilot would dare risk it. They risked the limits of human reaction time as it was.
While those two flew off, several of the other Vipers also broke off to pursue.
"Madcap Eight, it looks like Madcap Five has divvied things up for us," Lieutenant Balakrishna said. "You and Third follow her and leave the rest to us."
"Copy that, Madcap Three," Trifkovic replied.
With their attention on Lydia, the Shellies would be easy prey. They'd wise up soon enough, so Third Flight needed to take full advantage of this opportunity while it lasted.
"Alright, people," Trifkovic said, "let's try to draw some of that fire off Madcap Five. I'll take the left. Madcap One-Seven, you go right."
Trifkovic and Zhang split to take their respective attack vectors.
"Pick your target, Madcap One-Nine," Trifkovic told Fogel as she lined up her shot.
Maybe it would've been smarter to focus on one Viper together to ensure at least one got taken down before they turned their attention away from Lydia, but the more Shellies that came under fire, the fewer of them would be gunning for Lydia. That was the plan at least.
She started working down the shields of a Viper with her pulse cannons. It didn't even react to the incoming fire and once its rear shield was down, a single missile was all it took.
The loss of the one Viper prompted Lydia's pursuers to split off. Rather than pairing off or flying in any sort of formation, each of the five remaining Vipers went in its own direction. That would make them easier to pick off, but it also made it easier to get blindsided.
"Eyes out, people," Trifkovic said. "Take 'em down at a time. Don't let 'em sneak up on you."
Trifkovic targeted the one Fogel was after earlier. Its shield were already low and it wouldn't hold out much longer. She let Fogel take the kill shot, but they did not get to savor the victory. Checking her radar, Trifkovic saw a Viper was on Zhang's six.
"Madcap One-Seven, you've picked up a tail! Evasive maneuvers!"
"I know, I know! I can't shake him!"
"Come on, Madcap One-Nine. We gotta get in there."
"Copy that, Madcap Eight."
As Trifkovic was setting up on her attack vector, Zhang came on the radio again.
"Madcap One-Eight, break--"
And then he was gone.
Angry as she was, Trifkovic didn't do anything stupid like shooting a missile or two from the hip at Zhang's killer. It would go down like any other.
"Concentrate fire on my target, Madcap One-Nine."
The Viper tried to get away. It was better than most, but Trifkovic didn't let up. Between her and Fogel, its shields couldn't hold up for too long. Once the shields were down, Trifkovic fired off a missile. A rare sight for a Viper, it managed to dodge the missile, only to fly right into the path of a follow-up shot by Fogel.
"Nice save, Madcap One-Nine," Trifkovic said.
"My ace rank's gonna level up at this rate," Fogel replied.
He was only two kills away from the next ace level. Trifkovic would've made her next level if that missile connected, but there were still more than enough Shellies to go around. Of course, killboard stats wasn't what she needed to be thinking about right now.
"Madcap One-Eight, form on my wing," she said.
"How the hell am I supposed to do that!?" Gul snapped back.
Gul was rattled bad and he was going to get himself killed if he didn't get it together quick.
"Calm down, Madcap One-Eight," Trifkovic said with all the authority she could muster. "Don't try to engage the bandits right now. Focus on evasive maneuvers. I'm gonna try to give you a little breathing room. Stay close, Madcap One-Nine."
There were two Vipers harrying Gul. Trifkovic decided it was worth the cost of a missile to get at least one of them off his back.
As she fired off the missile, Gul shouted, "I'm takin' fire!"
"Evasive maneuvers, for God's sake, Ghoulie!"
Fogel used the same trick as Trifkovic on the other Viper. In both cases, the missiles detonated on the shields, but the Vipers were knocked off-course, giving Gul enough of a break to get out of the line of fire and form up on Trifkovic's left.
"Okay, now we take 'em together," Trifkovic told the junior wingmates. "Nothing fancy. Concentrate your fire. One by one."
Together they took down one of the two Vipers that was taking potshots at Gul earlier, but the hits just kept on coming.
"Oh God! I just lost Madcap One-Zero!"
It was Andropova, sealing her reputation as 'Doombitch'. She was only second to Fogel when it came to losing wingmates. If the two of them were ever paired up, it would probably mark the end of the universe.
Gallows humor aside, losing another member of the squadron was bound to have an effect.
"Don't get rattled, One-Eight and One-Nine," Trifkovic said. "We can do this."
Still rather panicky, Gul snapped back, "Fuckin' easy for you to say, Madcap Eight! Where the hell is Madcap Five?"
"Don't worry about Madcap Five. She's busy--"
Even as she was speaking, Trifkovic saw the little icon for Lydia's Hornet go red. Both she and the Shelly she was after were gone from the radar screen.
Trifkovic felt her stomach sink. For some reason, she flashed back to when she was lying half-conscious on the deck of the showers, Lydia's hand the only thing keeping her from bleeding out before the Corpsmen arrived. Then to the Shelly lab where she saw Lydia suspended in a stasis tube, with all those terrible scars on display. And then the time Trifkovic asked her how she dealt with it all, by devoting herself to nothing but killing Shellies. Lydia's words rang so clearly in Trifkovic's mind, it was as if it had just happened.
I do it for me. What you need ta do is go out there, kill some Shelly bastards an' enjoy it. Do it for you.
Killing Shellies was all she had, or at least that was what she kept telling herself. And now she was gone. Trifkovic supposed she went out doing what she loved, sick as it was.
Remembering her responsibilities, she contacted Commander Figueroa and said, "Madcap One, this is Madcap Eight. Madcap Five is down. I repeat, Madcap Five is down."
"Acknowledged, Madcap Eight."
Surely he saw it on his own display, but maybe he was too busy with his own Shelly problems. Speaking of Shellies, the surviving Vipers were moving erratically in the absence of their leader. Trifkovic could sympathize.
While scanning the Vipers to assess current strength, she picked up an unexpected blip on the screen. Her heart fluttered a bit at the sight of it.
"Wait. Madcap One, I'm picking up Madcap Five's beacon."
"Heh, suerte del Diablo..." Commander Figueroa replied. "Alright, Madcap Eight, I'll call it in. Continue with the mission."
"Roger that, Madcap One."
Trifkovic rededicated herself to bringing the fight to a swift conclusion. They may have lost two Madcaps this sortie, but if she had anything to say about it, they weren't going to lose anymore. With Lydia out of action, someone had to pick up the Shelly-killing slack.