Chapter 29
Saint George and the Dragon
Near Mars, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 21 Nov 122
Time: UST 0020

There were only three Vipers left in the current formation. They would not last much longer.
"Stay focused, Rittern," Matt warned.
The last thing he wanted to see is one of his pilots get shot down because they were getting cocky. They lost Lieutenant Yuen from Delta a couple sorties back and Matt did not want to lose any more. They had done well not to lose anyone before now, one of the few squadrons to boast as much. It would be nice if Yuen was the first and last Ritter who had to die.
While he was lining up an attack vector, Matt received an incoming message on a private channel. As it began to play, he realized it was Commander Joachim.
"Major Harold, I imagine you're busy right now, but I need you to listen. If you're receiving this message, then I'm already dead and I've failed my mission. You need to finish it. You need to take out the Hades."
Commander Joachim was dead? And he wanted Matt to take out the Hades? Why him of all people?
The message continued, "Return to the Tico at once. There should be a Tigerhawk waiting for you in Hangar One along with whatever is left of my squadron. Take it and complete the mission."
Matt did not see how he was supposed to complete the Commander's mission, but Commander Joachim anticipated his doubts and his questions.
"I know what you're thinking. You're just a secondary. How can you do what I can't? Well, fact of the matter is I had the results of the qualifications altered. You were supposed to be a primary, but I wanted to keep you in reserve. You're my trump card."
That would explain the awkward vibe he got from Colonel Kreuger at the end of the course. At the time, Matt thought it was just because he fell short of the expectations of his old instructor. Now he saw that Commander Joachim used the same trick as the Colonel from Matt's training days. Still...
"Don't think," Commander Joachim said tersely, "don't second-guess. If the Hades is destroyed, the Shellies' C-and-C will fall apart. The sooner the better. Countless lives are on the line here, Major. I'm counting on you."
Matt took out the Viper he was targeting and one of the remaining two left in the formation was dusted shortly thereafter. All the while Matt was mulling over Commander Joachim's message. He did not get to do so for long when they were contacted by HQ.
"Blau Squadron, this is Blau Base. Return to the Tico at once."
"We ain't done yet, Blau Base," Sean countered.
This did not deter HQ any.
"I repeat, return to the Tico at once."
"Rittern," Matt said, "break off pursuit and return to base."
Most of the grumbling was kept off the airwaves as they let the surviving Viper go and returned to the Ticonderoga. While they were starting their approach, Major Samedi contacted Matt over the private channel and asked him, "Any idea why they're cutting our sortie off short like this, Blau One?"
"Hard to say, Blau Two," Matt replied.
Was Commander Joachim's message the reason they were being recalled? Matt could not be sure, but he decided against leaving Major Samedi entirely in the dark.
He reopened the private channel and said, "Sabado, when the Rittern scramble again, I may not be with you. You'll have to take command."
"What's going on, Cav?"
"I can't say. I just didn't want you to get blindsided if it happens."
Thankfully, Major Samedi left it at that. Once they had landed and Matt was going over the checklist with the crew, he was approached by four airmen in Navy spacesuits.
Ironically, it was the youngest among them who spoke for the group.
"Major Harold."
"I'm Lieutenant Gitell. Commander Joachim sent me. Will you come with me, sir?"
So it was true after all. Lieutenant Gitell and Major Singh Matt knew from his team during the qualification course. He was not as familiar with the other two.
Turning to the crew chief, Matt said, "Sorry, Chief, I have to take this. Can you cover the rest of the checklist for me?"
"Sure thing, Major," the crew chief replied.
Matt was usually so by-the-book that the crew chief knew this had to be important for him to skip out like this. As he followed the four survivors of Commander Joachim's squadron, Lieutenant Gitell said, "The Commander's put a lot of faith in you, sir, so I'll do what I can for you. I'll be on your wing. You'll have Lieutenant Gonzales' bird. Lieutenant Thian here will be your NFO."
Lieutenant Thian stopped dead in his tracks, bringing the group to a halt.
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I can't go back out there. I won't. It's a suicide mission and you know it."
"Dammit, Thian," Lieutenant Gitell growled. "You aren't the only one whose ass is on the line here. You have a job to do and you damn well better do it or so help me--"
"No! I refuse!"
Lieutenant Gitell grabbed Thian by the collar.
It looked like Gitell was going to punch Thian, but Matt intervened.
"Stand down, Lieutenant," he said. "He's no good to me if he's unwilling to go out there. I can solo it."
"Solo it?" Lieutenant Gonzales balked. "You're crazy!"
"No, he can do it," Lieutenant Gitell said, letting go of Thian and pushing him away. "You better do it, sir. A lot of lives are riding on this."
Matt simply nodded. Leaving Lieutenants Gonzales and Thian behind, Matt, Lieutenant Gitell and Major Singh refilled their oxygen tanks (not that they were likely to need it) and made their way to the Tigerhawks waiting in Hangar Two.
Upon seeing Matt approach Lieutenant Gonzales' Tigerhawk, the crew chief stood in the way.
"Hold up there, sir. You can't be here."
"He's the replacement pilot," Major Singh said. "Commander's orders."
"Where's his NFO, sir?" the crew chief asked.
"He doesn't need one," Lieutenant Gitell replied. "Get him ready for takeoff."
"Aye-aye, sir."
It had been several months since Matt was last in a Tigerhawk's cockpit, but it all came back to him rather quickly. The preflight checklist was expedited due to the urgency of the mission.
"Observe radio silence once we take off, Major," Lieutenant Gitell said. "No active scanning either. Silent Death."
'Silent Death' was the squadron's nickname. Matt knew that much even though the Triple-Nine was such a highly secretive unit. He remembered everything about the Tigerhawk's stealth capabilities from his training, only now he did not have an NFO to help carry some of the load. Of course, the NFO he was assigned to work with during training proved woefully underequipped for the task, so he already had experience handling more than his share.
While he flew to the target, Matt primed the weapons systems. He had to wait until the absolute last second to get a missile lock, but all the preliminary work could be done in advance so there would be no delay when the time came.
When he was about five minutes away, the radio screeched, giving way to the sound of a deep-voiced man.
"Union pilot, this is Samael, Emperor of Sheol. Your ship has been compromised. You are not hidden from my sight as you think you are. Continue your attack on the Gehinnom and you will die, just as those who came before you have died."
Matt realized the screech he heard was the frequency being hacked. He was not transmitting, so there was no way anyone should be able to contact him unless they had been given the information beforehand. Was that why Commander Joachim failed? If so, what was he going to do?
"Your skills will not avail you," the man who claimed to be the Shelly Emperor said. "You will fail and you will die for naught."
Matt realized that even if he was receiving the signal, so long as he did not reply, perhaps they would not be able track him. The so-called Shelly Emperor was trying to provoke a response. If he did not rise to the bait, perhaps there was still a chance to accomplish the mission.
The Emperor continued, "There is one here who would not wish to see you die. You met her once before, on the moon you call Titania. Speak, handmaid."
The radio popped and then a woman's voice came on the line.
"Dieter... I'm so sorry..."
"Tabby..." Matt said under his breath.
The girl he thought was his sister, the woman who was enslaved by the Shellies. The mother he never knew.
"Take your vessel and strike down the ship called Ticonderoga," the Emperor commanded. "Do so and your life and the life of your mother will be assured. Refuse and you shall die. Even if you could complete your mission, you will be killing your mother by your own hand. Could you bear the weight of that sin?"
Matt's grip on the stick loosened. His whole life was nothing but lies and manipulation and this moment was no different. However, there was one truth. His mother was on the ship he was ordered to destroy. Millions of lives might be saved, but what of the one he did not want to lose for a second time?
"Go on, handmaid," the Emperor said. "Plead with your son for your life. Plead with him as you pleaded with us."
Matt recalled what Tabby told him back on Titania, how she begged anyone who would listen to save his life and hers. It was the Shellies who answered and now it all came to this moment.
"Dieter..." Tabby began weakly. "No, Matthias... Send these Shelly bastards back to Hell."
Matt could hear the sound of metal striking metal. Even if the Emperor could be trusted, what kind of life would he be saving? If the Hades was destroyed, no one else would have to suffer as Tabby had. He knew what he had to do.
As if to anticipate Matt's newfound resolve, the Emperor said, "It is not too late, Matthias Harold. Save your life and the life of your mother."
There was the faintest hint of desperation in his voice. His victory was not assured, which meant Matt still had a chance.
The Hades came into view. It was now or never.
Matt dropped active cloaking to get missile lock. He had twelve Starbeams and a torpedo. If he could deliver his payload directly to the engines, he could at least cripple the ship if not destroy it outright. He lined up his attack vector, secured the lock and...
Even though the weapon systems were supposed to be all green, they did not respond to the command to fire. There was no time to troubleshoot the problem either, because all the weaponry of the Hades was now focused on him.
He may not have had his weapons, but he could still fly. He weaved through the sweeps of the laser arrays and dodged the first wave of dumbfire missiles. Heat-seekers followed. He tried to launch flare pods to throw the incoming missiles off his tail, but his countermeasures were not functioning either.
He could outfly the missiles, but he struck on a better idea. He let the heat-seekers follow him as he wheeled around to the Hades' main thrusters. He flew as close as humanly possible and was rewarded by three of the five heat-seekers making impact. He then skimmed the surface across the starboard, losing another heat-seeker to a turret and the other to some apparently random protrusion. Also, unlike Union craft, the Shellies did not restrict the range of their weapons to prevent striking themselves, so all those turrets and arrays targeting him were doing more damage to the Hades itself.
Apparently the Emperor recognized the threat because he came back on the radio, declaring, "You may sink this ship, Matthias Harold, but the Red Planet will burn first!"
Matt's sensors picked up a massive energy spike as the dome atop the Hades' dorsal rose up to reveal a massive sphere at least 200 meters across. A telescopic barrel extended from the center and began rotating. Matt did not know what this weapon was, but he did not think the Emperor's threat was an idle one.
Unable to use his weapons, what could he even do to stop it?
Then he remembered that he had a weapon: the Tigerhawk itself.
Because of its top-secret nature, the Tigerhawks were equipped with a self-destruct mechanism. The reactor would go critical and create a nice little thermonuclear explosion. Given the sort of power the Hades' superweapon was drawing, targeting it was sure to have an effect. At very least, Mars would be spared its destructive power and if there was anything left of the Hades, the rest of the Fleet was sure to make short work of it.
All that remained was to guide the Tigerhawk on home. If what he was doing was a sin, he would pay for it with his life.
"Tabby, I'm sorry..."