Chapter 3
Ramon Starbase, Martian Sphere
Date: Tue 24 Jun 122
Time: UST 0748

The group of candidates from the Ticonderoga filed into the briefing room. After the morning formation, the forty-five officers were dismissed to board a shuttle that delivered them to Ramon Starbase. They were met at the docking bay by an Air Force captain who took them to the DFAC and gave them about half an hour to eat breakfast. After herding them into the briefing room, the captain took his leave of them.
The briefing was set to start at 0800, which gave them a little time before things got started. Ten squadrons of Joint Air Division 9 were represented there and they naturally formed clusters based on unit and branch of service. It did not take long, however, for Lydia to break ranks and gravitate over to where Matt was, bringing Lieutenant Trifkovic in tow.
"Hey there, wing buddy!" she said cheerily. Noting Sean was there too, she added, "Hey, ya mick."
Sean started to reply, "Hey, ya chin--" before awkwardly turning it into "--poko rider."
"The fuck?"
"Present company includes some individuals who might take a lil' extra offense at our usual banter, kid," Sean explained.
Matt was thankful Sean could occasionally have some sense of propriety. With several of the officers present being of Chinese descent, Sean's usual epithet for Lydia probably would not stop at an EO complaint. Lydia glanced around a bit and shrugged.
"Huh, guess there's a fair bit of leller up in here, huh?"
Matt looked around somewhat nervously, hoping none of the potentially offended parties picked up on what Lydia was saying. Neither Lydia nor Sean seemed particularly concerned and Lieutenant Trifkovic was simply looking on with her usual annoyance at Lydia's antics.
No longer interested in her back-and-forth with Sean, Lydia turned her attention back to Matt, saying, "So, yeah, you an' me on TDY together. Brings back memories, huh?" She pointed behind her. "Even got the Jew-guy here."
Matt could barely see through the crowd to where Commander Joachim was sitting. A year had passed since the incident with the Seven Deadlies and the Commander no longer looked quite so lean and gaunt. He did not need the assistance of an exoskeletal suit to walk anymore and had obviously been cleared for flight duty or else he would not be there.
It then struck Matt that Lydia was dangerously close to breaking OpSec and he realized he had to stop her.
"Nyx, you really shouldn't--"
"Be talkin' 'bout shit that'll get your ass strung up," Sean interrupted.
Sean had seen through the cover story for their mission, but knew the system well enough not to press the issue. His warning seemed to be enough to clue Lydia in to the hot water she was getting herself in.
"What?" she said, trying to shrug it off. "All's I was gonna say was that we came all this way to Ramon ta see the new warbird an' they wound up wastin' our time instead. It'll be nice ta actually get my hands on her this time."
A part of Matt was actually impressed that Lydia even remembered the cover story, to say nothing of the fact that she was able to spin a vaguely plausible story from it. Then again, he could not exactly say that her ability to lie so easily or so naturally was necessarily a virtue.
Before they could say anything else, a big man walked up behind Lydia and said, "You're on the wrong side of the fence, Han. What're you doin' draggin' Trifkovic with you?"
"I got time ta chit-chat 'fore they get this show on the road, bossman," Lydia replied, hiding none of her annoyance at the interruption.
"And what've you chit-chat about with an Airhead?" the big man asked. He nodded to Matt and added, "No offense."
Although the big man did not sound all that sincere about not meaning any offense, Matt was going to simply say "None taken" and move on, but Sean had to insert himself into the conversation.
"Ya know, Cochise," Sean said, crossing his arms, "there's more'n enough a' us here ta take offense an' do sumpin' 'bout it."
Glaring at Sean, the big man replied sharply, "I don't believe I was talkin' to you, Captain."
The last thing Matt wanted to see was interservice rivalry flare into a full-fledged fight, so he quickly moved to defuse the situation.
"Kodiak, stand down," he said. "It's alright."
"Aw, don't stop 'em, Cav," Lydia said. "I'd kinda like ta see the mick and bossman go at it."
Matt sighed. "Nyx, please." To the big man, Matt extended his hand and said, "We haven't met. I'm Major Harold of the Four-Two-One. I take it you're Nyx's squadron leader?"
"That's right," the big man replied. He then took hold of Matt's hand in his powerful grip and said, "Commander Figueroa of the Three-One-Three. So what's the connection between you and maddest of the Madcaps?"
Lydia acted like she was rubbing her eye, but she was noticeably using her middle finger to do it. Commander Figueroa gave her a light cuff to the back of the head and got a mean glare for it.
Trying to give Lydia no opportunity to get herself into more trouble, Matt continued the conversation with Commander Figueroa.
"She was my wingmate when I was assigned to the VF-208. We flew together for four years."
"So you flew with this hellcat?" the Commander asked incredulously. Looking at Lydia and then back to Matt, he then half-sarcastically asked, "Any pointers for dealin' with her?"
"Seriously, what the fuck is it with ever'one callin' me a hellcat?"
"Maybe that should be your new callsign," Lieutenant Trifkovic said.
"Don't start with me, Curly," Lydia growled. "I'll kick your ass right in front a' Cav, bossman, the mick, an' ever'body."
Before things could spiral out of control, one of the Navy people shouted, "Attention on deck!"
"As you were," a gravelly voice said.
It was a silver-haired colonel wearing his flight suit and jacket, followed by three other similarly dressed airmen. They were all wearing aviators, which was generally against regs but still common in some segments of the flying community.
The right side of the Colonel's face was badly scarred and the black band around his head indicated he was wearing an eyepatch. He had obviously had some reconstruction work done, but no cosmetic restoration. This was hardly a rare thing among servicemembers, many of whom wore their scars as proudly as any medal.
Standing front and center, the Colonel removed his aviators and looked out on the crowd.
"Take seat," he said. Once everyone was seated, he continued, "Alright, people, let's get right down to it. I'm Colonel Kreuger, wing commander of the One-Twenty-Third Test Wing. The ABCs may not be the only test wing in the service, but we are the best. If you've flown it, chances are we broke it in for you first.
"You know you're here to qualify for the new warbird, but that's about it. And that's how it should be. The details are still very much classified, so you sure as hell better not be flappin' your gums to your wing buddies when you get back to the Tico. Do I make myself clear?"
The assembly responded with an almost universally loud, "Yes, sir!"
Impressed, Colonel Kreuger cracked a bit of a grin and said, "Good soundin' off. I might just get to like you maggots by the time we're done here, but don't count on it."
The Colonel pulled a remote from his jacket pocket and punched a few keys.
"And now for the main event."
The holoprojector at the front of the room hummed to life, displaying the new warbird they had all been waiting to see. It appeared to be a blended wing body design, low profile with sharp angles.
"Here she is," the Colonel said, "the Ica-85 Tigerhawk medium space fighter. 29-point-five meters in length, a 30-point-two-five-meter wingspan, five-point-four-five meters tall, 25-point-five tonnes fully loaded. She has two Six-Deltas propelling her to a top speed of 600kps. She has 67-point-five millimeters of armor and fourteen Delta series shield projectors. She's armed with two BK98 pulse cannons, two Mark VI laser arrays, a TK9-Alpha-2 light particle cannon, a BK101 ion cannon, a BK110 microwave cannon, two Mark 1 missile revolvers, and one Mark 3 torpedo tube. Her countermeasures include the standard EMP generator plus seven countermeasure dispensers: four chaff, two flares, and one interceptor."
Colonel Kreuger crossed his arms and stuck out his chest slightly, showing the sort of pride you would find in a father describing his star athlete son.
"I think you can all agree that this is one badass bird," he said, "but that ain't all. She also features the very latest in stealth technology. She can get right up on your front doorstep and you won't know it 'til she rings the doorbell with a couple Starbeams. She's a ship-killer. Used right, a squadron of Tigerhawks can cripple an entire fleet and I mean to see that we get people in the seats who can use her right."
The Colonel turned off the holoprojector and began pacing from one end of the room to the next.
"Your asses are my personal property for the next four weeks. You'll be bunkin' here. Expect 16- to 20-hour days every day until I send you back to the Tico. This is a 400-hour course. You will have 90 hours of classroom instruction, 150 hours in the simulator and 160 hours of flight time. Any of you math whizzes crunchin' the numbers in your head should already have it square that we're on a tight schedule and I have zero tolerance for bullshittin'. Give me any shit--any shit--and you're gone."
Colonel Kreuger went silent for a moment, scanning the room for any sign of a joker to tear into then and there. When no one gave him that opportunity, he resumed the briefing.
"Your average medium fighter squadron runs ten birds, but the Tico's only gettin' seven Tigerhawks. Look to your left and look to your right. Only one of you's gonna make first pick.
"This is how the qualifications work. The top performers get tapped as the primary candidates. When they scramble the Tigerhawks, you're the ones I say are best for the job. Next up is the secondaries. If a primary candidate can't be in the cockpit, you'll have to do. Seven primaries and seven secondaries to replace 'em. Anyone who's left who meets the minimum cutoff will be a tertiary candidate. You're only worth puttin' in the cockpit if things get really desperate. Now, if you don't meet the minimum cutoff, you are a good-for-nothing fuckup. You will piss me off for wasting my time."
The Colonel stopped pacing and stood front and center once again.
"A few things you may have noticed. First, most of you pilots don't fly medium fighters. Navy and Corps don't use 'em for one thing, but Zash drivers should be able to handle it. As for you light fighter pilots. the Tigerhawk's real quick and nimble for her size. You might find that you take to her better than the Pigstickers out there.
"Second, we got 24 pilot candidates but only 21 CSOs." He gestured to the three officers standing at ease along the wall. "Captain Jamal and Lieutenants Lieuw and Sanducci here will be fillin' in the gap. If you've only flown light fighters, you're probably not used to the idea of sharin' the cockpit, but I expect you to learn quick if you wanna qualify. We'll be shufflin' y'all up at the start, but later on we'll be lookin' for pairs that click.
"Lastly, you might be wonderin' how this'll work out once we're done here, seein' as how all y'all wearin' different uniforms and everythin'. The new Tigerhawk squadron will be a joint operation and its wing assignment will be determined based on who qualifies for squadron leader."
"Now, y'all are officers in the Earth Union Armed Forces and I should be able to trust each and ever' one a' y'all to be accountable for yourself, but I wasn't born yesterday. Me and my people ain't gonna follow y'all 'round to wipe yer lil' asses, so for accountability and schedulin' purposes, you'll be divided into three teams of eight pilots and seven CSOs each. When I call your name, sound off. Aswani!"
"Here!" a Navy pilot sounded off.
The Colonel proceeded to list off the other fourteen names, which included Lydia, Commander Joachim, Lieutenant Trifkovic, and Commander Figueroa. After Lieutenant Trifkovic sounded off, Colonel Kreuger said, "Y'all are Team Alpha. Your team leader is Commander Joachim. Beles!"
This next list included Matt and Sean and ended with a Navy person named Wiseman.
"Y'all are Team Bravo. Your team leader is Major Harold."
As the Colonel called out for Lieutenant Byron, another pilot representing the 421, Sean leaned over to Matt and whispered, "Looks like you an' me is Bravo again, Cav."
Colonel Kreuger continued to list off names until he got to a Marine captain named Yu.
"Y'all's Team Charlie. Your team leader is Major Piatelli."
"Joachim, Harold, Piatelli, you three are responsible for each and every man and woman on your team. If anything happens to them, if they ain't where they're supposed to be, if they ain't doin' the daggone right thing, you sure as hell better have an answer for me when I come wantin' to know why. Do I make myself clear?"
Matt, Commander Joachim, and Major Piatelli shouted, "Yes, sir!"
"Alright, that should do it for now. Take care of inprocessin' and get settled in. Captain Jamal will be the sponsor for Team Alpha, Lieutenant Lieuw for Team Bravo and Lieutenant Sanducci for Team Charlie. Once you get all that done, grab some chow and be back here at 1300."
The Colonel turned and started to walk away, but then shot a glare at the assembly--who were all wearing their service dress uniforms--and said, "And change into your damn bags. Ain't no time for monkey suits here. Dismissed."

* * *

Date: Wed 25 Jun 122
Time: UST 0617

The three teams of pilot and NFO/CSO candidates were kept together for the first day of classes, a rather dry eight-hour introductory course to the Tigerhawk's capabilities. After that, the teams were broken up and put on staggered schedules so they would not interfere with each other. Breakfast was the only meal where all three teams were likely to meet.
Matt and Sean had just come to the DFAC from the gym. They got their meals and took their seats. Matt gave Sean the bacon on his plate. He did not want it in the first place, but the server insisted that he could not customize the orders. This was no doubt a lie but not worth pressing the issue.
Almost as soon as they sat down, Lydia picked up her tray and headed their way, beckoning for Lieutenant Trifkovic to follow. Although this probably would have drawn attention anyway, the fact that she was getting up and leaving her place made her all the more a target for Commander Figueroa.
"Han, where the hell you goin'?" he demanded. "That's the wrong damn table."
Without even looking back, Lydia replied, "Not listenin', bossman."
"Han, you--"
"Leave her be, Figueroa," a voice interrupted.
It was Commander Joachim. He did not look away from his food and continued to eat as if nothing happened. Commander Figueroa clearly did not appreciate the interference, though.
"With all due respect... sir, I can handle my own squadron."
The 'sir' came very forced. Commander Figueroa was obviously not too keen on acknowledging someone over ten years younger than him as a superior. The building tension did not prompt Commander Joachim to back down, however.
"Right now you're not here as squadron leader of the VF-313," the Commander said, "but as a member of Team Alpha. And as your team leader, I'm suggesting you leave Lieutenant Han to chat with her old wingmate when it doesn't interfere with her responsibilities."
This 'suggestion' did not endear Commander Joachim to Commander Figueroa any.
"Sir, I--"
Commander Joachim cut Figueroa off, saying, "Don't make the same mistake General Pfeiffer does, Figueroa. The harder you push, the more insubordinate she gets. She'll do what needs doing. Just pick your battles unless you want to waste the Skipper's time sending her to Mast."
Lydia, who had already sat down next to Matt while all this was going out, told Commander Joachim, "Aw, don't help him out, Gimpy. He's a big boy. He can take care a' himself."
Still not looking away from his meal, Commander Joachim said, "That didn't sound like a 'Thank you, sir' to me, Foxkit."
In a sudden flush of anger, Lydia stabbed her plate with her fork and growled, "You call me that again and I swear to God--"
"Mind the profanity, Lieutenant."
Lydia rolled her eyes.
"Oh, what the hell ever."
Matt once again found himself trying to defuse the situation before it escalated any further.
"Nyx, as much as I appreciate you wanting to talk to me, you don't have to come over here if it's going to make trouble with your team."
"Tryin' to get rid of me, Cav?" Lydia asked, half-teasing, half-serious.
"No, of course not," Matt replied. "I just don't want any trouble, for you or anyone else."
"Psh, bossman'll get over his plebey team loyalty bullshit. Not like it means anythin' 'cept a way for Ol' One-Eye ta deal with less a' us at a time.
"Anyway, I was gonna say look forward ta more boring-ass class time. Actually makes the simulator seem halfway fun. S'pposed ta get some hands-on time with the grease monkeys by Friday, but they won't let us in the cockpit till Monday. Sucks, man."
"You'll get ta raise hell soon enough, kid," Sean said.
This was little comfort to Lydia, who mumbled through her food, "Not soon enough."

* * *

Date: Wed 25 Jun 122
Time: UST 0823

Rather than starting their day in the classroom, Team Bravo's schedule had them experiencing the Tigerhawk simulator for the first time right after breakfast. This was the closest the candidates would get to actually being behind the stick until the following week.
Matt was never a big fan of the simulators. Inside the simulator pod they simply had a holoprojection of a particular craft's cockpit, which sacrificed a lot of the tactile feedback that helped build muscle memory. It was almost a wonder there was a physical joystick given how everything else was simulated. It was a necessary evil, of course, lest they have to manufacture separate simulator pods for each and every plane in the service, but for whatever good simulator training accomplished, it was still far inferior to getting in real flight time.
Having flown Pelicans when he was in SAR, Matt did not find that coordinating with an NFO was as difficult as it may have been for someone who had only flown light fighters. Still, it felt unnatural giving so much control over the combat systems to someone else. He would have to get used to it, though. While he was not quite sure he wanted to be reassigned to the new Tigerhawk squadron, he did not want to be wasting anyone's time by being there either.
The current simulation was an ambush on a Sheolite cruiser squadron moving to raid a freighter convoy. The scenario struck Matt as highly unlikely given that the Sheolites almost always seemed to take the Union by surprise whenever they attacked, but perhaps the freighter convoy was being used as bait to draw out the Sheolites. Matt had never heard of the idea being tried before, but it sounded more something Special Operations might do.
Even with the Tigerhawk's impressive stealth technology, you had to kill the engines when laying an ambush, floating dead in the water until it was time to strike. Matt had already been waiting for over half an hour, but now the target was coming into sensor range. It required a bit of guesswork, but the next thing to do was let the target get as close as possible before attacking.
As Matt eyed the rangefinder and readied the engines, Colonel Kreuger's voice came up on the radio.
"Bravo One, this is Eagle Base. Let's see how you can deal with a little distraction."
"Roger that, Eagle Base," Matt replied impassively, focusing on the task at hand.
In a real-world scenario, you would be observing strict radio silence, but in a simulation like this, the instructors would sometimes come on the line with additional directions and feedback. Usually they did not interfere with the realism of the scenario, but the Colonel clearly had other plans.
The target was 100 micks and closing.
"You don't get rattled so easy anymore, do you?" the Colonel said, no doubt looking at Matt's biometrics.
Matt did not answer him right away. His focus remained on the objective. The comment itself was intended to rattle and distract him, after all. It was all part of the Colonel's style.
90 micks and closing.
Not satisfied with Matt's unresponsiveness, the Colonel then said, "Don't tell me you forgot 'bout me."
How could Matt possibly forget?
"Negative, sir."
"I'd sure as hell hope you didn't forget the person who taught you to fly."
"Of course not, sir."
Yes, Colonel Kreuger was Matt's flight instructor back at the Academy. While Matt would never forget such an influential figure in his life as the Colonel, he was surprised Colonel Kreuger actually remembered him. After all, the Colonel had to have trained dozens of cadets.
75 micks and closing.
"Damn skippy," the Colonel replied. "And I see you've done well for yourself since you left the nest. Squadron leader, huh? Done a tour at the Academy too."
"Yes, sir."
65 micks and closing.
"What's this SAR bullshit?"
Matt winced inwardly. This was not a topic he wanted to get into right now. Even under the best of circumstances, how would he even begin to talk about it with someone like the Colonel?
60 micks and closing.
"It's a long story, sir."
"Hmph. No disrespect to SAR, but that wasn't where you belonged."
55 micks and closing.
53... 54...
That was as close as the target was going to get. It was getting farther away and Matt had to move before it opened any more distance between them. He kicked the engines in. He had about 80 seconds before he would be close enough to deliver a kill shot to the Sheolite cruiser.
As he was closing in, the Colonel explained what he meant earlier.
"You wanted to be a combat pilot," he said, "and you had the chops for it. A little time out in the shit proved you had what it took, but then that 'long story' happened. I think I can venture a guess, but we don't need to get into it."
Coming up behind the Sheolite formation, Matt's Tigerhawk remained undetected, but that would not last for much longer. He killed the engines, relying on momentum to close the distance while his NFO began to get a torpedo lock on the Sheolite cruiser's engines.
"Wait for my mark," Matt told the NFO.
"Copy that," the NFO replied.
"Point is," the Colonel continued, not seeming to pay much attention to the simulation, "combat flyin' is what you're supposed to do. I got high expectations of you, Harold. Don't disappoint me."
Matt was at about five micks from the cruiser, within the enemy formation. He was glad the NFO did not get impatient and fire the torpedo early. Now was the time.
To answer the Colonel, Matt said, "I'll do what I can, sir." Quickly, he then told the NFO, "Fire torpedo."
"Firing torpedo, aye."
The torpedo launched and Matt kicked the engines in again. Between the launch and the engines, there was no hiding from the enemy at this range, but Matt took full advantage of the Tigerhawk's speed to get away from the other ships in the formation before they could react.
"We have a confirmed hit," the NFO said. "Enemy cruiser is down."
Although actual Sheolites would probably continue the raid, the ones in the simulation withdrew with the loss of the cruiser. It was enough to satisfy the victory conditions for the simulation.
As the simulation closed out, Colonel Kreuger replied, "Your weak-ass answers is somethin' that hasn't changed, but, damn, you still get the job done. Keep it up. Eagle Base, out."
Matt breathed a sigh of relief. At least he did not disappoint his old teacher this time, but he would have to continue to give it his all to meet the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders. It was going to be a long four weeks.