Prologue
An Old Friend
Location:
Near Io, Jovian Sphere
Date: Mon 10 Mar 116
Time: UST 0827

The VF-208 was being dispatched to respond to a group of bogeys headed toward the shipping lanes. The long-range sensors picked them up early enough that the squadron would be able to intercept them before they could do any damage if they proved to be hostile. The Orbital Guard was sending a couple frigates, but if the bogeys were a squadron of Sheolite superlights, the frigates would need fighter support to survive.
Matt had been flying with the 208 for almost a year now. It was a strange thing, being an Air Force pilot attached to a Navy squadron. Why he was chosen out of all the pilots in the service to partner with his wildcard of a wingmate remained a bit of a mystery, but that was the situation he found himself in. Ensign Lydia Han--his wingmate--had developed a grudging respect for his abilities in the past year. She was still a handful, but at least she no longer treated him like the scum of the earth.
It took them about forty minutes to fly from Zhu Que to the intercept point, so Matt could afford to reflect a bit while en route. Although he preferred the Kodachi fighters that the Air Force used, he had gotten used to flying the Navy's Wasps. He was looking forward to the new light fighter Kohler was developing, which was doing well in its trials from what he understood. Even if they went into production as scheduled, though, Matt probably would not get the chance to fly one for another two or three years.
Idle thoughts about the newest warbird had to be put aside once they were about five minutes away from the intercept point. The squadron leader, Commander Johnstone, came on the radio, saying, "Alright, Crazy Eights, you know the drill. Figure Eight attack formation."
It was something of the 208's calling card to go into battle in a double diamond formation, which was reinterpreted as a figure eight to fit with the squadron's theme. Navy fighter squadrons liked to have flights of six as opposed to the flights of four used by the Air Force. It concentrated a little more firepower in one place, but Matt had always found it to be a less flexible arrangement unless you had a squadron leader willing to break up flights, and few were.
Matt kept about as careful an eye on Lydia's signal as he did on the approaching bogeys. If they were confirmed to be Sheolites, there would be no holding her back. Sometimes it felt like he devoted more of his energy to watching her six than actually fighting the enemy.
"Belmore has confirmed that bogeys are Shellies," Commander Johnstone said. "Be advised, we may have civilian craft entering the area of operations. Weapons tight, people. Watch that fire."
"Wait for them come into range, Crazy One-Zero," Matt told Lydia, but she might already be past the point of listening.
"Crazy Nine, this is Crazy Three," their flight leader, Lieutenant Rojas, said. "You and Crazy One-Zero, just work your magic and try not to get yourselves killed."
"Roget that, Crazy Three," Matt replied.
Lieutenant Rojas had only been in the unit a few months, but he quickly learned to accept the unconventional nature of Matt and Lydia's pairing. In a way, you could almost consider the two of them a semi-autonomous detachment attached to the squadron as opposed to regular members of the flight.
The Sheolites were coming into range. It was a composite squadron of four Cobras and twelve Vipers. They outnumbered and outgunned the 208 on its own, but the Navy pilots had two frigate squadrons providing additional cover. It would be a difficult fight, but they could handle it.
Although it did not always happen, many times during an engagement with the Sheolites, they would flood the common frequencies, a low-rent form of EW and psychological warfare. Usually it was just gibberish (possibly the Sheolite language), but every now and then, there would be an intelligible taunt or insult amidst what was generally just noise.
This was one of those times, but it was not the usual sort of vulgarity involving their mothers or anything like that.
"Don' hyuu' 'ill ya hee th' whyth a' th'r eyeth!"
Matt could feel his heart skip a beat. Though muffled and slurred, he was sure of what he had heard. "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!" It was the same thing his first wingmate would say before engaging the enemy. Yes, it was a historical quote, but he had never heard anyone else use it in combat, especially not any Sheolite.
Of course, it could not possibly be his old wingmate. Lieutenant Merkel 'Clipper' Mazurek was killed during the Battle of Titania. Matt knew because he was there when it happened and it was his fault Mazurek died.
Wasps did not have a very robust sensor array, but Matt was at least able to trace the signal back to the source. He set his shipboard computer to lock onto the source and track it. Impossible or not, he had to know for sure.
A Cobra's lasers raked across his shields, immediately snapping him back into the fight. His life and lives of everyone in his squadron were still very much on the line.
True to form, Lydia had already broken off to charge into one of the Sheolite flights with the same suicidal abandon she always did. If she were not such an outstanding pilot, she would have been dead after her first sortie, but even as skilled as she was, she needed someone else watching her considerable blind side. And that was exactly what Matt was there for.
While helping her wear down the shields of the Viper she was targeting with his pulse cannon, he targeted two others with his laser arrays to discourage them from ganging up on her. It was the true that the Sheolite pilots tended to be just as reckless as Lydia, but some had enough sense of self-preservation to break off an attack when they came under fire.
It was not working this time, though. Matt continued to target all three, hoping to create the openings he would need. The shields of the Viper Lydia was targeting dropped and she destroyed it in short order, continuing to fire all guns until she cut through the Viper's skin and made its reactor go critical.
With the first Viper taken out, she broke left, so Matt broke right to focus on the Viper she was exposing her back to. Concentrating his fire, he was able to open up a hole in its shields and fired off a missile to finish it off quickly. Normally he was more sparing with his missiles, but there were not that many Sheolites and he did not want to leave Lydia alone a second longer than he had to, especially with a Cobra on the loose.
Lydia had the remaining Viper on the run. She was chasing it eagerly. She had apparently shorted out her pulse cannon, because she was only firing lasers. It was not going to last much longer.
It was then Matt realized what the Viper was doing. It was deliberately setting itself up as bait, leading her right into the Cobra's attack vector. Matt gunned his engines to intercept the Cobra before it was too late.
The Viper went up, but Lydia did not get the chance to savor her second kill for the day. The Cobra already had her in its sights. It hit Lydia with its disruptor. There was no way she could have dodged it.
Having just gotten into range, Matt immediately fired a missile. It detonated on the Cobra's shields, but the blast knocked it away before it could open fire on the now-defenseless Lydia. He then concentrated his fire to strip away what was left of the Cobra's shields and then fired another missile. The Cobra tried to get off a parting shot, unloading all four of its missile tubes, but it was not quick enough and its missiles were caught in the subsequent explosion.
Matt breathed a sigh of relief. That was a little too close for comfort.
"Crazy One-Zero, are you okay?" Matt asked. "Nyx, respond."
Lydia was not typically very conversant whenever they went up against the Sheolites, but this time it was entirely possible that her radio was offline. Without her to transmit a damage report, there was only so much Matt could tell from his own sensors. She might be able to reboot her systems, but until then, she was dead in the water. If there were more enemies in the area, he would stick close to her and protect her until she was either up and running again or until she could be extracted. In the current situation, however, he would serve her and the rest of the squadron best by helping finish off the remaining Sheolites.
The rest of his flight was still contending with two Vipers, one of them the source of the signal from earlier. He would have to hurry.
"Crazy Three, this is Crazy Nine," Matt said. "Crazy One-Zero has been disabled. Request permission to form up and finish clearing out bandits."
"Negative, Crazy Nine," Lieutenant Rojas replied. "We got this. You stay with Crazy One-Zero."
"Roger that, Crazy Three."
Matt was growing increasingly anxious. Could that Sheolite really be Mazurek? As crazy as the notion was, he could not shake it no matter how hard he tried. He had to find out the truth, but how?
Then, an opportunity presented itself. Almost as soon as the other Viper was shot down, a panicked voice came on the radio.
"This is the Ranfurly! We've taken a missile hit! Request immediate assistance!"
Thinking quickly, Matt said, "Crazy Three, Crazy Seven, I'll take that last Viper. You all go help the Ranfurly."
"Acknowledged, Crazy Nine," Lieutenant Rojas said. "Take down the Viper then get back to Crazy One-Zero."
"Roger that."
"It still counts as my kill, Cav," Lieutenant Rhee--Crazy Seven--said.
Lieutenants Rojas and Rhee and their wingmates broke off their attack and Matt swept in before the Viper could try to follow. Disabling a Sheolite ship without destroying was pretty much unheard of. Even when one would be successfully disabled by an ion cannon shot or something like that, they would self-destruct before they could be recovered. As far as Matt knew, the Union had never successfully captured any Sheolite craft since the war began.
There was a first time for everything.
Matt opened fire on the Viper, whose shields were already considerably worn down. Once the shields were down, he scored some light hits with his lasers, deliberately avoiding the engines and where he could only guess the cockpit was. He then looped around and got in front of it. It was an insane risk, but all part of Matt's gambit.
A couple particle blasts glanced off his shields and then the Viper fired its disruptor, just as Matt was counting on. He narrowly dodged the blast, but it had the desired effect. While the disruptors could disable Union ships, Vipers tended to short out when they used them. And that was exactly what happened this time.
Matt could only hope his radio would get through as he tried to hail the Viper on the frequency it used earlier. Even though he should have the sense to address the Viper generically as 'Sheolite craft', he found himself unwittingly saying, "Clip? Clip, is that you?"
There was silence for a moment. Then the radio crackled and Matt heard the same muffled voice from before.
"Tha'... Tha' 'oysh... Ca'?"
That... That voice... Cav?
Matt could not believe it. It really was Mazurek.
"Oh my God. Clip... Is that really you?"
Mazurek chuckled.
"I' th' hleth... m'r 'r leth."
In the flesh... more or less.
"How did you survive?" Matt asked. "I saw your Datch go up."
"Ah d'nno," Mazurek replied. "Ah thoh' Ah w' dead, 'u' th'n Ah w'k uh in thish k'khi'. All Ah c'do w' hly an' hyuu'."
I dunno. I thought I was dead, and then I woke up in this cockpit. All I could do was fly and shoot.
"Har' a' meh knowth i'th wr'ng, bu' Ah can' h'lh i'. Ya shdar' da herrge' ahdah a while."
Part of me knows it's wrong, but I can't help it. You start to forget after a while.
"Th' ho'gammin' dakes owah, 'u' th'r's alwey' tha' hieth a' hoo ya yuth'da be, naggin' a' ya. They don' dake i' all h'm ya."
The programming takes over, but there's always that piece of who you used to be, naggin' at ya. They don't take it all from ya.
Matt did not know how the Sheolites were able to get Mazurek and turn him into one of their pilots, but even if he had been put through all manner of conditioning to fight for the enemy, the Mazurek Matt knew was still there. There was still hope for him.
"Clip, let me call in a Pelican," Matt said. "I can save you."
"Heh. No g'd. Mah hingah's 'n th' driggah righ' now. Th' 'nly reath'n ya ain' dead ith 'cuth ya dook ow' mah g'nth. No, i' doo lay' her meh."
Heh. No good. My fingers on the trigger right now. The only reason ya ain't dead is 'cause ya took out my guns. No, it's too late for me.
"Hinith meh ohhh. End i'."
Finish me off. End it.
Matt could not begin to imagine what all the Sheolites had put Mazurek through, but there was no way he could bring himself to finish him, be it for mercy or any other reason.
"No, Clip, I can't do it."
"C'm'n, Ca'," Mazurek pleaded, starting to sound both angry and desperate. "M'n uhh! Ah'd heel beddah nooin' yaah th' un hoo hinith'd th' yob."
C'mon, Cav. Man up! I'd feel better knowin' you're the one ta finish the job.
"Let me help you, Clip."
"D'mmi', Ca'!" Mazurek snapped. "Unth they ge' ya, th'r no goin' back. Ya wanna helh? Hull th' driggah!"
Dammit, Cav! Once they get ya, there's no goin' back. You wanna help? Pull the trigger!
Before Matt could try to convince Mazurek any further, he saw a signal coming in fast. It was a friendly. It was Lydia. She must have found the presence of mind to restart her systems, but now that she was in attack mode again, there would be no stopping her. As soon as she was in range, she opened fire.
"Nyx!" Matt shouted. "Weapons hold! Stand down!"
It was no good. It was already too late. Lydia's lasers cut into the engine block of Mazurek's Viper, causing it to blow. And for the second time, Matt watched Mazurek die right in front of his eyes.