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Chapter 4

November 3, 2406 AD

27 Light-years from the Sol System

Thursday, 11:15 AM, Expeditionary Mission Standard Time

“Roger that, Air Boss!” USMC Colonel Caroline “Deuce” Leeland, commander of the USMC FM-12 Strike Mecha squadron the Utopian Saviors, said over the command circuit. The Saviors was only one of two squadrons left over from the old Sienna Madira crew. The other was the Navy squadron Demon Dawgs. They had been an Ares-T squadron but Moore had decided to go with all FM-12s for maintenance simplicity on the long deep-space mission. There had been a lot of retraining for the squids and retooling and software upgrades to enhance the FM-12s. They were more versatile and capable than ever before.

“Ground pounders need some cover. Saviors are on it. Deuce out.”

Deuce toggled over to the fighter wing tactical net and brought the full battlescape DTM into her mind. The Utopian Saviors all showed blue and fully capable. Deuce looked the battleview over in her mind for a brief second and zoomed in on the planetoid surface where the AEMs and tanks had landed. There was a swarm of AutoGnats, as the mecha jocks called them, buzzing the shit out of the ground pounders. The AutoGnats were very similar in appearance to the old Separatist Gnat fighting mecha but they were run by AI and made much more harrowing g-loaded turns. On the other hand, they were not very creative and good mecha pilots usually tore them up.

“Listen up, Saviors! The ground pounders are getting lit up from above. We need to get in there and pull those AGs off of them and get them up into a ball. Just like the last two missions!” Deuce briefed her team.

“Same shit, different star system,” her wingman, Major Timothy “Goat” Crow, said. The two of them had been flying together for a couple of decades and had seen some bad days together during the Separatist War.

“Oo-fuckin-rah, Deuce!” Captain Shawna “Golfbag” Fernandez added.

“Alright. Form up on your wingmen and dive. Let’s hit fast in fighter mode and target as many as we can on the first run-through. When you hit the deck, mix up with them in bot or eagle as you need to. Let’s see if we can pull their attention away from the tankheads. And then we’ll pull them up into a ball and take the bastards out. Maximum velocity with maximum ferocity, Marines!” Deuce threw the HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) control forward with her right hand and slammed the throttle all the way to the stop with her left. The armored fighter pitched nose down at the planetoid. The star field was blotted out by the dull gray of the frozen rock and the occasional metallic glint from the bot base. Deuce could see flashes all across the surface where the fighting was going on. From the looks of it, the AEMs and the tankheads were having a busy day.

“Deuce, we’re going in hot!” her wingman shouted.

“That’s the plan, Goat!”

Warning! Surface approaching rapidly. Pull up. Pull up, the Bitchin’ Betty chimed.

Deuce waited until the last second to kill some of the throttle and pitch up. She barrel-rolled over as she pinpointed several of the bot fighters in her DTM.

“Mix it up, Saviors!” Deuce shouted. She noted the location of her wingman just to the right and behind her. He was flying in hot but not as fast as her. He’d be able to cover her six.

Warning! Collision imminent! Pull up. Pull up, the Bitchin’ Betty continued.

“Oooohh . . . fuckin’ . . . rah!” Deuce grunted through the gees as she toggled the control marked “F.” The armored fighter plane rolled right and pitched forward as giant mechanical arms and legs rapidly unfolded from within it. Deuce somersaulted into a full run as her thruster boots slammed into the planetoid’s surface. The maneuver generated enough crazy spinning acceleration that she had to choke back bile and squeeze her abdominal muscles until they nearly burst just to keep from blacking out.

She rolled judo style across the surface to use up some of the extra momentum. The bot-mode mecha bobbed, weaved, and bounced like an Olympic hurdler fighting a karate match. The impact of the surface against her mecha made vibrations that translated into the cockpit as earsplitting pinging, clanking, thudding, and screeching sounds as she continued.

“Guns, guns, guns!” she shouted as she pointed the cannon in her right mechanized hand at an AutoGnat that was strafing overhead. She flipped over several hovertanks engaged with enemy tanks beneath her. She tracked the enemy bot fighter across the sky with orange tracers from her cannon. She didn’t get it, but she hoped she’d gotten its attention as she rolled through the flip, coming down on the surface for her next bounce. She still had a lot of momentum to bleed off. She slammed and skittered into the surface, throwing a rooster tail of dust behind her that flickered like glitter confetti at a rock concert in the dim lighting from the distant star. The occasional explosion added a strobe effect, making the rooster tail all the more impressive. As she continued through her bounce, several small flying bots swarmed in her direction. Deuce reached out with her left hand and pounded one of them into the ground. She swatted at another as if it were nothing more than a menacing fly. Her giant mechanized hand hit it, sending it whirling off in a corkscrew spiral, flining sparks in all directions. She kicked the ground with her thrusters and arced upward over an outcropping of rocks.

“Fox Three!” Goat shouted. A mecha-to-mecha missile screeched past her on the left. The purple ion trail from the missile tore into the tail of an AutoGnat moving in on her three-nine line from the nine o’clock position. The enemy fighter’s tail exploded, throwing it into a mad spin. It was put out of its misery by the secondary explosion when it slammed into the planetoid’s surface.

“Great shot, Goat!” Deuce said to her wingman.

On several of the bounces she had to adjust her landing position with thrusters in order to avoid landing on one of the hovertanks. They were busy enough fighting as it was. They most certainly didn’t need to worry about blue-on-blue from an FM-12.

One of the hovertanks was pinned down by three enemy tanks just to her right. She had bled off her momentum now and was in full control of her trajectory. She bounced down behind the tank, standing back-to-back with it briefly. The combined firepower of the tank and the bot-mode fighter was enough for the two of them to overpower the enemy bots. Deuce targeted one of the enemy hovertanks as it rushed them. The thing looked like an old Separatist droptank she had fought during the war. Deuce knew how to fight Seppies.

“Deuce, I’m bleeding off speed,” her wingman said over the net. “I’m about a half a klick behind you coming in hot.”

“Great, Goat! I see you in the DTM. Cover my topside as I help out this tankhead.”

“I’m on it, Deuce.”

“I’ve got your six, Deuce,” the tankhead said over the net. Deuce could feel his cannons shaking the ground as he fired. She backed right up against the rear of the tank and stood her ground. Deuce checked her DTM for the nearest targets. “Fox Three!”

The missile released into the enemy tank charging her, scattering it into exploding orange bits that expanded away from them in an oblong blob of glowing shrapnel. Deuce turned to her left just in time to grab the turret of a tank-mode enemy bot. She spun aikido style, using the tank’s momentum to fling it past her. The tankhead behind her, Warlord Four according to her DTM, leapt into the air and landed atop the tank, stomping through its automated canopy.

“Gotta run, Warlord Four.” Deuce fired her propellantless boot thrusters and kicked upward, rolling forward as she toggled the mecha back to fighter mode.

“Thanks for the help, Deuce!” Warlord Four responded.

“Anytime!” she replied. “Goat, quit goldbricking and get your ass over here on my wing!”

Okay, Bobby! Get me some targets, she said to her AIC.

There are plenty available, ma’am.

Several yellow dots surrounded the Utopian Saviors in every direction. They currently were in an upside-down bowl engagement with the bot fighters. The bots were staying close to the surface and using the planetoid to cut the fighting sphere in half. Normally, that made it easier for the FM-12s to mix up modes and fight, but right now being on the surface was getting in the way of the tanks and infantry. They needed to get the bot fighters off the surface and up into space so the ground pounders could do their jobs.

The bots were numbering in the several tens at least. Currently, Deuce had seventy-seven flying enemy tracks, but at least fifteen of those were tiny. The only threats to an FM-12 were fighter-sized, and her AIC had presently highlighted fifty-two of them. There were ten Saviors.

The Saviors were bouncing and skittering across the surface in a mix of fighter, bot, and eagle modes, doing their level best to pull the bot fighters from their strafing runs to engage them.

Okay, Bobby, give me some energy curves and flight path solutions.


Almost instantly, several of the red dots had yellow targeting Xes pop over them, and red flight paths twisted off in every direction. Goat’s blue dot was right on her wing just behind her three-nine line at the four o’clock position, and their trajectories were laid out in blue. Deuce banked her fighter toward the nearest enemy target that was moving away from them, with hopes of jumping onto its six o’clock.

“I’ve got lock on that one, Deuce!” Goat said. “Fox three!”

A mecha-to-mecha missile twisted out in front of them, leaving a blue ion trail as it chased the enemy fighter. The bot plane clearly detected that it had been locked on and was taking evasive action. It rolled over and then pitched a complete one hundred eighty degrees so that the nose of the fighter was pointed back at them. It went to guns immediately, taking out the missile.

“Shit! Watch the guns, Goat!” Deuce shouted. She yanked the HOTAS hard to the left and threw some yaw into it. She then stomped her right outer pedal and started crabbing in a corkscrew spiral as she added speed. The closer she approached the AutoGnat, the more sideways she flew. “Bank out right, Goat!”

“Bankin’ right!”

Deuce added more throttle, and the centrifugal force of her spiraling and crabbed trajectory was putting more than seven gees on her body. She grunted and cursed as the pressure layer of her e-suit squeezed her legs and abdomen. The red flight path of the enemy plane spiraled inwardly at her in her mindview, and outside the cockpit, the world spun madly. The blue and red trajectory lines finally intersected just ahead of them. Then the targeting X turned from yellow to red.

“Guns, guns, guns!” she shouted and continued to grunt through the g-load.

Bright orange and red plasma balls the size of racquet balls tore across the space between them and hit home on the AutoGnat’s right wing. The cannon fire burst through the structural integrity fields of the enemy fighter and then blew the wing free of the spar. Sparks flew in every direction as the added angular momentum of the impacting cannon fire sent it spinning asunder. As what would normally be the cockpit rolled over into view, cannon rounds burst through it. The little enemy fighter exploded into a bright orange and white firestorm.

Deuce let off the foot pedals and let go the HOTAS briefly to let her mecha right itself. She quickly grabbed the stick and pulled it up and found her wingman in her DTM. Then her sensor alarms sounded and Betty started bitching.

Warning, enemy sensor lock detected! Warning enemy sensor lock detected!

“Shit!” Deuce bit down on her temporomandibular joint (TMJ) bite block and took in a fresh burst of oxygen and stims while simultaneously pulling the stick back to her gut and pushing the throttle full forward.

“Fox three!” she heard Goat shout over the tac-net. She caught a glimpse of her wingman’s mecha screaming by just behind her as he let the missile loose. The missile hit home this time, taking out the AutoGnat that was locking her up.

“Great shot, Goat!” Deuce shouted.

As the rest of the Utopian Saviors pulled the enemy fighters upward and mixed up with them, the chatter on the net picked up. Deuce did her best to keep up with the team in her DTM while at the same time doing her best not to get her ass shot off.

“Romeo! You’ve got one on your six!” Volleyball’s voice cut in.

“I’ve got him, Romeo!” his wingman Freak replied. “Guns, guns, guns.”

“Look out, Freak! You’ve got a couple of them starting to form up on you. Jesus, it’s thick out here.”

“Got that right, Romeo. Damn AGs are like angry bees swarming and they ain’t sticking on their wingmen,” Golfbag added.

Deuce didn’t like it. The enemy planes were using a new tactic on them. They had more of a hive or swarm attack plan rather than the standard wingman divide-and-conquer approach. They were outnumbered more than five to one and didn’t have a lot of room between themselves and the surface. They needed to mix it up more and somehow put the enemy at a disadvantage. On the upside, the attack had been successful. According to the DTM battleview, it looked like all the bot fighters had turned their attention from the ground pounders and were now targeting the Saviors.

“Alright, Marines, we’ve gotten their attention.” Deuce announced. “Let’s pull them upward and away from the surface.”

“They have us outnumbered, Deuce. You have a plan?” Lieutenant Colonel Connie “Skinny” Munk asked over the net. Deuce could see her longtime friend’s blue dot in the DTM view but couldn’t make out her fighter. It was below her and underneath her wing on the left side.

Any Marine knew that when you were outnumbered you attacked. But what type of attack would be best? In the microsecond she had to consider her next move, her mind was a flurry of memories of space battles and training sessions. She could only see one clear tactical approach and it didn’t make her happy.

“Yes. We get these bot bastards up in the ball. On my signal I want A-group to start pukin’ while the B-group covers our ass on the backend,” Deuce ordered. She hated to go to the pukin’ deathblossom so soon in an engagement, but the numbers were too much in the enemy’s favor and that is what the maneuver was for.

“Shit, I just ate,” Skinny said.

“Well, Skinny,” her wingman Captain Michael “HoundDog” Samuels grunted, “at least you get to eat it again.”

Deuce held her abdominal muscles clenched as she bit on the TMJ bite block. Her trajectory carried her upward at top speed away from the planetoid. Nearly fifty of the enemy fighters adjusted their flight paths all vectored toward hers. The red and blue flight lines’ intersection was predicted to be only a matter of seconds away.

Purple tracer rounds zipped by her canopy and one them slammed into her empennage. The SIFs held but the mecha rocked violently. Deuce pulled back on the HOTAS and stomped the left inner pedal, yawing the mecha around while keeping her flight path headed in the same direction. She was flying backwards with her DTM targeting system lighting up red on several targets.

“Guns, guns, guns!” Deuce barrel-rolled while still flying backwards and let loose a couple of missiles to give her some breathing room. “Fox Three! Fox Three!”

The enemy fighters appeared to be flying in some sort of chaotic pattern. They hadn’t done that before. There was no wingman coverage as far as could be discerned. Deuce knew that for her plan to be optimally effective, they would have to get five of her squadron inside the swarm before they went to the whirling madness of the Pukin’ deathblossom algorithm.

“These son of a bitches are swarming everywhere!” Beanhead shouted. “Guns, guns, guns.”

The A-group pilots were pulling in on Deuce’s position slower than the bots but they were close enough. Deuce was damned near puking already from the rapid and wild evasives she was taking due to the erratic swarm’s attack tactics. The deathblossom was going to take a toll on her for a few precious seconds.

For more than forty years the maneuver had been referred to as a “pukin’ deathblossom” from some ancient pop-culture reference and because the wild spinning motion of the maneuver put constantly changing g-loading on the pilot. It was a crazy, mad, three-dimensional spinning cacophony of death. It would cause the pilot’s inner ear to go apeshit crazy with a side of batshit nuts. The mecha would spin like a Tasmanian Devil, launching death and hellfire from cannons and DEGs in all directions. The maneuver was first designed around the Navy VTF-35 Ares fighters but as soon as the Marines saw it they knew they could do it in their FM-12s.

The maneuver was the most mentally taxing and physically demanding thing a mecha jock could do. The pilot and AICs and the direct-to-mind linkages were required for such a maneuver to prevent Blue-on-Blue casualties. But over the past few decades of warfare in space there was no other mecha maneuver that was as effective against superior numbers.

The spinning was usually more than the pilots could take and would force them to vomit violently from the inner-ear confusion. But most good Navy pilots could manage so it certainly was doable for a U.S. Marine! Any good Marine could take a little vomit in their e-suit helmet. Besides, the inner recycle layer of the suits usually absorbed the vomit in a few very long and smelly seconds.

“Go, Saviors! Start pukin’!” Deuce ordered. She toggled the deathblossom controls and the ship started pitching, yawing, rolling, lurching, and jolting in every direction possible. There was a whirlwind of targeting Xes spinning around her at blurring speed. The fighter’s cannons and directed-energy guns fired almost continuously. The spinning and rapid direction changes put g-load changes on her at over ten Earth gravities. The stars spun by, then the planetoid, then the stars again, and there were weapons firing all around her.

Deuce followed the red force tracker numbers as they dwindled in her DTM. Reflexively, she bit the TMJ bite block so hard she thought she’d break a tooth or her jaw. She thought she was going to make it through the maneuver as the countdown clock in her mind showed nine seconds remaining in the maneuver. Then the retching started.

“Marine mecha jocks ate their own vomit for breakfast and begged for more,” she recalled her flight instructor shouting at her the first time she attempted the maneuver more than thirty years prior.

For Deuce, the vomiting didn’t bother her so much. It wasn’t even the retching and dry heaving followed by the pressure suit squeezes and the high g-loading that took real presence of mind, fresh air, and vapor stims to overcome. It was the smell. She just hated the damned smell of supercarrier cafeteria eggs the second time around.

Deuce watched the red force tracer in her DTM as the maneuver spun down. She knew it would take a few seconds on the other side of the maneuver to be worth a damn. The maneuver had lasted eighteen seconds. Studies had shown that any longer was too much on the pilots. It would be okay; Deuce knew the B-group wingmen would look after them as they recovered. The DTM red force tracker showed eleven bot fighters left. In eighteen seconds, five fighters had taken out well over thirty planes.

Eleven bots to ten, now those are much better odds. She bit the water tube. The fresh water squirted into her mouth. She sloshed it around and swallowed it. When it hit her stomach she nearly heaved again, but she managed to keep it down.

Yes, ma’am! Great odds. her AIC replied. Targeting Xs and priority engagement statistics popped up in her DTM. We still have work to do.

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