2949-11-30 – Tales from the Service: The Kingfisher Trial 

Despite numerous skirmishes here in the Milian system, the Incarnation fleet stationed at Hallman has yet to make a move toward Berkant. The Fifth Fleet picket line has suffered a number of small vessels damaged and destroyed in these skirmishes, but no major warships have been removed from the fleet’s order of battle, while it’s expected that at least two of the Tyrant heavy-cruiser analogues sent to probe the fleet screen have been damaged sufficiently to render them not suitable for future combat. 

Of course, the enemy fleet at Hallman has at least thirty-five ships of that type remaining in good order, and a number of auxiliaries, including troop ships. Admiral Zahariev’s staff indicates that they think this force insufficient to defeat Fifth Fleet in open battle, but also worries that Hallman is a trap, and does not want to go on the offensive until more intelligence is gained. A few scouting flights have been made (Tales from the Service: Watching Hallman), but the enemy is increasingly learning to keep these prying eyes at a safe distance. 

With the civilian population of the system largely evacuated, and extensive ground-side defenses on Berkant, there seems little reason to remain on the defensive, but Admiral Zahariev seems to be taking a methodical approach. I for one don’t blame him; if the enemy retreats from Hallman, they open themselves up to a disastrous rout in open space, and if they remain, their fleet remains pinned down and incapable of taking the offensive elsewhere. 

As reported last week, a few squadrons in Fifth Fleet have been equipped with the new Kingfisher strike gunship; this sleek, high-tech war machine built with the assistance of Kosseler designers is meant to outperform enemy strike formations in ways the rugged, dependable Magpie could not. There have also been rumors of a revised Magpie variant being tested in less active theaters of the conflict, though most likely the two projects are intended to be complementary rather than competing for the same role. After brief training cycles with the new machines, I am told that the first Kingfishers saw action only a few days ago on the Milian skirmish line, and all indications are that their first taste of combat went quite well. 

Vitali Borja scanned the cockpit displays in his new gunship rig. Only nine days before, he’d ferried the shiny new Kingfisher gunship from a fleet tender, and though all twelve of the new rigs had been out on training exercises every day since, he still hadn’t gotten used to the streamlined displays and their adaptive holographic control surfaces. Every time he sat down, he still looked for the bank of switches and buttons that controlled the startup sequence of a Magpie, instead of focusing on the main display, where a series of virtual controls and timing indicators would walk him through the sequence. 

Fortunately, the one thing that had survived a mad Kosseler engineer’s fixation with adaptive controls was the twin-stick piloting arrangement common to most strike rigs. Vitali couldn’t imagine going into a fight without the feel of physical triple-axle control sticks, and the controls of the Kingfisher felt all the more solid for being some of the only hardware controls in the entire cockpit. 

“Dorsal guns are go.” Cadeyrn Landon, one of Vitali’s gunners, snapped his attention away from the feel of the inactive controls. Vitali could tell the phrase “dorsal guns” was still new to Landon, who’d previously operated the single portside quadmount turret of their Magpie. Now, he had a battery of four weapons to manage – two rapid-fire railgun mounts, and two high-tech but short-ranged plasma cannons. 

 “Ventral guns are go.” Sandeep Patel, a squadron rookie with only a few dozen hours of combat ops, had taken to the arrangement of the new Kingfishers far more quickly. “Ordinance bay is go.” Vitali had high hopes for Patel; he was a natural in the gunnery role, but he needed a few more missions of real combat to knock the green off. 

“Flight systems...” Vitali scanned the board and started the warmup sequence for the twin gravitic drive units that would hurl his craft through space at speeds he preferred not to think about too hard. If the inertial isolation system failed during a combat maneuver, he wouldn’t really have time to think about it before he was reduced to a gritty pink paste anyway. “Flight systems are go. Onboard datasystems are go.” 

Vitali also ran a quick diagnostic on the beam cannon built into the Kingfisher’s nose, though he didn’t bother to report the results to his compatriots. The bow cannon, controlled by a trigger on one of his control sticks, was the least important weapon on the whole rig, especially in combat against nimble Incarnation Coronachs. 

Vitali glanced at a screen to his left, and hurriedly reached up to tap a yellow control there, which immediately switched to green. “Fisher Three reporting a green board. Awaiting launch clearance.” 

“Roger, Three. Hangar depressurization is ongoing. You’ll be second in the launch order.” Fidelity’s hangar ops chief, the silky-voiced Commander Amalberti, stood silhouetted in the hangar observation deck as she replied over the squadron’s comms channel. “Head out on vector two-zero-five, one-ten.” 

“Two-zero-five, one-ten.” As Vitali repeated the instruction, one of the secondary screens lit up and displayed a wireframe of Fidelity and the indicated course vector leading away from the hangar doors. He didn’t know if the onboard computer had loaded the course from the carrier’s datasystems, or parsed the radio transmission, and it didn’t really matter. 

Across the hangar’s broad deck, a launch platform lifted a sleek Kingfisher several meters above its fellows, allowing it to gently nudge forward and upward against the pull of the carrier’s A-grav. As soon as it lifted off, his heads-up display marked it as Fisher Two, Lieutenant Tollemache’s rig. The Kingfisher turned to orient itself with the elliptical maw of the still-closed launch doors. Tollemache probably didn’t have clearance for the rapid-launch she was lining up, but Vitali doubted anyone would reprimand her for the maneuver on a combat mission. 

When the bay finished its depressurization and the doors yawned open, Fisher Two surged forward, passing out into open space before the big armored iris had opened all the way. Vitali couldn’t help but be impressed; the Lieutenant’s rig had cleared the doors with less than two meters to spare on either side. For that needless risk, the squadron executive officer might earn a reprimand from Commander Roubio, but Vitali doubted it would be a terribly forceful one. Roubio had a soft spot for daredevils. 

With a bump, the platform carrying Vitali’s craft began to rise, and he decoupled the landing gear latches. With the slightest nudge on the sticks, he brought the Kingfisher off the rectangle of hangar deck and oriented it with the doors. Another nudge, and he sailed through into the infinite black of interplanetary space. Milian, the local star, drowned out all others, though the adaptive viewpanels dimmed its fierce light considerably. He set the autopilot, then sat back as the craft oriented itself on his authorized departure vector and began accelerating away from Fidelity. 

Within minutes, all twelve Kingfishers and six Magpies of Fisher Squadron had launched and formed up behind Fisher One, Roubio’s rig Bluetail. Vitali slaved his helm controls to the squadron commander’s channel, then checked his systems one more time as Roubio led them all away from the carrier and toward the fleet picket line. 

“Stay sharp, everybody.” Roubio still, Vitali suspected, thought that phrase improved morale, even though everyone else thought it archaic and meaningless. “Two flights of Coronachs are harassing one of the picket frigates up ahead.” 

Vitali winced; even with the fire support of a frigate, their sixteen gunships would be facing at least twenty of the enemy flyers, possibly as many as thirty. For their first action in the new rigs, those were hardly ideal odds. 

“What caliber of pilots are we expecting, Commander?” Tollemache, cool and collected as always, interrupted the incomfortable silence that ensued after their leader’s announcement. 

“According to the frigate’s estimates, these guys are average at best. No Immortals.” 

That, at least, was a relief; Vitali and his compatriots hadn’t yet tangled with the rare but all-but-unbeatable bionic super-pilots the Incarnation sometimes employed, but they’d all heard stories of squadrons who had been bested by one or two of these elite strike flyers. If the Coronach pilots ahead weren’t particularly skilled, and Fisher Squadron stuck to the tactics it had been working on for the last week, the fight would be at least slightly in their favor. 

“You’d think they’d find something soft for us to cut our teeth on.” Landon grumbled on the gunship’s intercom. 

“They probably did.” Patel replied before Vitali could reprimand the comment. “We’ll be fine, Cade.” 

As the smart viewpanel magnified infinitesimal flashes ahead to show a wildly maneuvering warship being chased by a swarm of darting pinpricks that could only be Coronachs, Vitali hoped the rookie was right.