2949-11-23 – Tales from the Service: The Kingfisher Surprise 

“Come on, Vitali.” Commander Adam Roubio, the squadron commander, slapped Vitali Borja on the shoulder, nearly causing him to inhale his mouthful of vaguely chicken-flavored stew substitute. 

Swallowing hurriedly before his body could begin coughing to expel the small amount of food which had managed to worm its way down his windpipe, Vitali held up a hand for Roubio to wait as he recovered. Expecting the man to wait, he realized as he stood up and turned around, had been a bit silly. Roubio was already halfway across the mess hall, giving the same treatment to another member of the squadron’s flight crew. Fortunately for most of the unit, Vitali’s hacking coughs had served as a warning that Roubio was in the compartment. 

Stuffing his mostly-untouched tray into a return receptacle, Vitali hurried after the whirl of activity caught in Commander Roubio’s orbit. He didn’t know what it was this time, but if they were being scrambled without a carrier-wide alert, it wasn’t the big battle everyone was expecting. That was itself a sort of comfort, but dying in a low-level pre-battle skirmish was just as fatal as dying in a proper stand-up fight of cruisers and battlewagons trading salvos across the beaten firmament, and smaller ships brawling in the space between for the right to disrupt the big ships' operations. 

The dozen-odd personnel, most still asking various flavors of “what’s going on?” at odd intervals, followed Roubio out of the mess hall. They received no information for their troubles. Vitali, seeing that his commander had not collected the whole roster, instead hung back and tried to divine the commander’s intentions from the people he’d gathered. Rik Baines had been chosen, but his better half (at least in looks) Margurite had been left in the mess hall. Dour T.K. Jager, the most experienced strike gunner in any squadron on Fidelity, had been left scowling into his coffee, but the rookie pilot of his rig, one Van Houten, was close on Commander Roubio’s heels. He’d picked eleven, all pilots of their respective Magpies, and no gunners. 

Since Roubio himself piloted the squadron’s lead rig, that meant he wanted something – twelve somethings – flown, but probably not taken into a proper fight. Going into a battle against agile Coronachs in a Magpie with its guns under strict control of the main targeting system was not a good survival strategy on the best of days, and even the ever-energetic Roubio was not suicidal enough to try it unless he had a very good plan. Most likely, Vitali concluded, they were needed to ferry a few of Fidelity’s ready spare Magpies to one of the other Fifth Fleet support carriers. 

As it turned out, Vitali was almost correct. After a quick stop in the ready-room to switch from their uniforms to their flight suits, the commander led them onto the carrier’s main hangar deck and up the boarding ramp of a boxy personnel shuttle. 

“Strap in, ladies and gentlemen.” Roubio gestured to the seats along either bulkhead. “We’re heading for Rietveld.” 

Vitali took a seat next to Baines as the ramp retracted and the pressure doors clamped shut. If they were riding across on a shuttle, the rigs they were ferrying would be their ride back. Rietveld was one of the carrier’s tenders; it was functionally a hauler with its forward cargo bay converted into a low-grade hangar. It was strange that they’d be flying spares off the tender to Fidelity, because the carrier’s squadrons fresh from a long stint at Maribel, had full complements of spare rigs available. He didn’t bother trying to puzzle it out in further detail, though. With battle looming, he could hardly blame command for wanting an over-abundance of reserves. 

“Borja, you look like you’ve got something figured out.” 

Vitali looked up to see Lieutenant Jessica Tollemache fixing him with her icy stare. The squadron executive officer had been assigned to Roubio’s squadron only recently, but nobody could argue with her experience, or with the blue-green and white Centaur Cross emblem on her lapel. She’d been one of the few survivors of a squadron cut to pieces at the first Battle of Berkant, back when the Incarnation’s tactics and equipment were still very much unknown. 

“Looks like we’re doing a ferry job to me, Lieutenant. What’s to figure out?” Several of the others, including Baines, were watching him, and Vitali didn’t like being the center of attention. 

Tollemache managed to chuckle without smiling or lowering her gaze. “You’re missing something, then. You should have guessed already.” 

“Guessed what, ma’am?” 

“Since when has the Commander been so excited about a ferry job?” 

Vitali glanced sidways at Commander Roubio. Now that Tollemache had pointed it out, he could see more than the man’s usual frenetic energy powering his incapacity to sit still. Roubio seemed hardly present as the shuttle bumped free of its clamps and headed for the hangar hatches, as if he was already somewhere out there, in the cluttered hangar aboard Rietveld. 

“Is he up for a new rig, Lieutenant? Something wrong with Redtail?” Redtail was Roubio’s Magpie, a command variant with better comms and computer systems than most. 

This time, Tollemache smiled. She rarely did, and Vitali decided quickly that he preferred it when she didn’t. “You're up for a new rig too.” 

“Oy, there’s nothing wrong with Grigor V. Just had a full over-” 

“Wasn’t saying there was, Mr. Borja.” 

Vitali leaned back, frowning. Why would the Navy replace perfectly good Magpies? It had been barely two hundred flight ops hours since their last total overhaul, and most of the squadron’s rigs had been replaced back at Maribel anyway. 

Tollemache nodded her encouragement. “I can’t tell you, but if you guess now, it won’t hurt anything.” 

Vitali closed his eyes for a moment. If the batch of Magpies they’d been issued was defective, they’d be flying off eighteen units, not twelve. This had to be an upgrade worth junking twelve perfectly good Magpies, and that meant it wasn’t just a rollover from one incremental model to the next. “We’re getting something newer. Something way better.” 

Tollemache said nothing, but her single raised eyebrow told Vitali he was right. Several of the others, having listened to the exchange, began talking all at once, exploding with speculation as to what they would be picking up when they reached Rietveld. 

Fortunately, they didn’t have long to wait. The shuttle entered the tender’s bay and bumped down to the deck less than twenty minutes after it cleared Fidelity’s hangar doors. The moment it touched down, Roubio loosed his restraints and sprung to his feet. “Follow me, pilots. I’ve got something to show you.” 

The commander paced in front of the pressure doors until the tender’s hangar had repressurized, then squeezed out before they’d even fully opened. The others, having heard Vitali’s speculation, were close behind him, but Vitali himself hung back. If there were twelve pilots, there would be twelve rigs, after all; he hardly needed to rush. 

“Patient. I like that.” 

Vitali turned around to find Lieutenant Tollemache still languidly unhooking her restraints. “Seems pointless to rush, Ma’am.” They were alone in the shuttle, now, except the pilot behind his sealed cockpit door, and somehow without the presence of the other members of the squadron, the woman wasn’t nearly as intimidating. Still, he squirmed under her undivided attention; Tollemache was a notoriously strict enforcer of regulations and military discipline. 

“Sure is, but excitement gets the better of even the Commander sometimes.” She didn’t smile, but her icy-blue eyes flashed with more mirth than any smile could. If he didn’t know better, Vitali might think she was making fun of the boisterous squadron leader. “From what I hear, the new Kingfisher Gunships are going to be a real treat to fly.” 

“Kingfisher, eh?” Vitali’s imagination seized on the name. It was a good name, at least as the Navy named its strike classes. “I haven’t heard anything in the rumor mill.” 

Tollemache walked past Vitali to follow the rest of the pilots down the ramp. “Well, you’re about to. Come on.” 

Last week we published a story of Incarnation innovation in the pre-battle environment here in Berkant. Far be it from us to imply that the Navy is not also making improvements. 

Limited numbers of the new Kingfisher gunship have been introduced into the battlespace. Though not as powerfully armed or as durable as the Magpie, this strike unit is designed to penetrate escort screens and shred formations of strike bombers and other slow, cumbersome strike-scale units. Squadrons composed of both Kingfishers and Magpies are theorized to be the perfect counter to Jericho Bomber raids escorted heavily by Coronach interceptors. 

There are other weapons and systems being tested out by the Navy in this theater, though Naval Intelligence is rather tight-lipped about most of them for obvious reasons. The Kingfisher program, designed by a joint team of Kosseler Premium Products and Centauri Naval Yards technicians, is the first major weapon system brought from point zero to full field testing in this war, but it is hardly going to be the last.