“Green-5, you have two uglies closing on you! Turn to three—one—four—mark—zero—one—eight and we’ll clean them off!”
“Acknowledged, commander, turning now!”
“Caution, possible collision. Caution, possible collision.”
“Yes, yes, I know! Be quiet you damn machine I’m trying to concentrate here!” the commander said irritated.
“Gold-2, you still with me?”
“Below and behind, commander, let’s get ’em!”
“Gold-2, as soon as Green-5 passes between us, engage the uglies!”
“Roger that, sir!”
The pilots of the two enemy fighters must have been fixated on their prey because they were too slow in responding to the new and quickly developing threat. It was a mistake they would never make again.
“Thank you, commander, and thank you, Gold-2.”
“You’re welcome, son,” Gold-1 replied. “Now let’s get back into the fight, there are still plenty of uglies left.”
“You owe me an ale, Green-5,” Gold-2 said.
“Roger that, Gold-2. It will be my pleasure, sir.”
“They hurt us, they hurt us bad,” the commander said dejected.
“That they did, sir. Caught us in another ambush! Damn uglies!”
“Yes, they’re getting good at that.” The commander shook his head.
“Yeah, and we’re getting good at dying in them!”
“I know, I know. We can’t sustain these losses.”
After a short pause, the commander continued.
“Too bad about Green-5, he had skill and potential.”
“Yes, sir, and he might still be alive if they stopped rushing those young pilots through training! It’s a damn waste! We’re just leading them out to slaughter!
“I thought, given our mission, we were only to get experienced replacements. Isn’t that what they told us?”
“That’s what they told us, and that’s what we’re getting.”
“What? These kids, sir? Experienced?”
“Shouting at me isn’t going to help. I’m not the one doing the training, nor making the selections or assignments.”
“Yes, sir, sorry, it’s just … oh, forget it. Anyway, you’re right … no point in shouting. It’s just a shame …
“He did seem to be a good kid, sir.”
Taking in a deep breath and a long pull on his drink the wingman spoke again.
“Wish he was still here. He owes me an ale.”
Both laughed a short, dry, tired laugh and then slumped in their seats—each sad and depressed.
“Can’t for the life of me remember his name. Do you recall it?” the commander asked.
“No, sir, sorry. Didn’t get a chance to know him.
“I hate that!” the wingman shouted. “Seems we’re losing them as fast as we get ’em, sir!”
“Yes, it does seem that way.
“He was the third replacement we lost in as many weeks, not to mention the painful loss of some of our veterans. It’s bad out there … definitely worse now than it was in the beginning.”
“Roger that, sir, it damn sure is … no doubt there. So does that mean we’re losing? It sure as hell doesn’t feel like we’re winning.”
The commander lowered his head and slowly shook it again.
“Not sure anymore, number two.” His voice was barely a whisper.
Rising to tired feet, exhaustion permeated every part of his body. The commander looked down and wondered if he looked as haggard as his trusted companion. I probably do, he thought, feeling even more depressed.
“Finish your drink and get some rest. We’re back at it in the morning.”
His wingman acknowledged with a slow nodding of his head and an unhappy faraway stare.
“Computer, begin recording.” The commander waited for the two acknowledgment beeps and then began to speak.
“This is my first personal journal entry.
“I have for some time now been avoiding this, keeping a journal that is. It seemed to me to be defeatist and pointless.
“Now … I’m not so sure.
“Besides, she has really stepped up the nagging. Inquiring about it each time we speak and insisting I take the time and make the effort to do this.
“No, that’s not right nor fair. It’s not nagging, it’s concern. Yes, that is what it really is. She’s afraid. She’s afraid because I’m afraid.
“I guess I haven’t been able to keep that from her. She knows me too well.
“So, for her, here I am taking the time and making the effort … just in case.”
His mind invariably drifted to her and of their last time together. It seemed an eternity ago. The pain he felt at being parted for so long tightened his chest and pulled him back to the present.
“When the war began, I was certain and confident it would not last long and that I would survive.
“It has now lasted longer than anyone imagined it would, and there is no end in sight. In addition, with each passing day, it’s getting worse, not better, and the enemy—
“Ah, but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back in time and tell a bit of the beginning, of what happened and how we ended up where we are today.
“So … where do I start?”
A short while later, after having gotten lost in his thoughts, he spoke again.
“They came into our space, unexpected and unwelcome.
“That was just over two years ago.
“To this day we still haven’t figured out how they managed to enter our space undetected. That hasn’t happened again, at least that we know of.
“Anyway, the interlopers initially came in three ships and were able to get uncomfortably close to Linnor before the defense forces responded.
“Once confronted, they stopped their approach and made no aggressive moves and none were made against them.
“After a few days, some basic communication protocols were established, and the ships were allowed to continue their approach and enter orbit at Linnor.
“That much is common knowledge, but what isn’t so commonly known is the full and true result of their arrival and the hope that it represented.
“You see, our species is dying.
“That information has not been shared with our people. Sure, they all know that life is difficult on all our worlds and with each passing year is becoming even more so. They just don’t know how bad things really are. What they don’t realize is that we are well on our way to our own extinction.
“We only have a hundred years or so before we all cease to exist.
“That is as it was, until the new visitors arrived.
“What we learned from them changed everything. It gave us new hope for the survival of our people—for those of us in the know, at least.
“But now, back to events at Linnor.
“In retrospect, it is obvious that there must have been serious shortcomings in our efforts to convey our plight to the visitors and how we hoped they could help secure a future for our people.
“Even today, we have yet to fully master their linguistics, and we still struggle to communicate with them coherently.
“After they were informed of our needs and our desired assistance—as best we could communicate it to them—all three visitor ships transmitted a burst of signals. They then attempted to break orbit and leave Linnor. That could not be allowed, not yet, not until we could ensure they understood our position and until we better understood theirs.
“So, the defense forces prevented their departure.
“Anyway, within a matter of hours after that four more visitor ships appeared just outside the Linnor-Prime system and began a fast approach to Linnor. Of course, the defense forces responded to this new group of ships by moving to intercept and halt their advance.
“We were not sure what was happening. We had no idea what the visitors intended or what to make of the new development.
“And that is how the war started. It began that very same day with what is now known as the ‘Battle of Linnor.’
“It was the first combat between us and those we would later come to know as the Oowans. That is not the only name by which they have come to be known. For those of us in the military who have had up close and unpleasant encounters with them, they have come to be known as uglies. They truly are a hideous race.
“The new visitor ships dispatched fighters that attacked our defense forces.
“Obviously, the Oowans on the original three ships felt threatened and called in a rescue force. The newly arrived ships must have waited nearby in case of this eventuality.
“As a military tactician I can understand and even approve of this tactic. It is what I would have done.
“In any event, the first engagement was fairly brief.
“While the Oowans fought bravely, they were out matched and out gunned. All their fighters and their mother ships were destroyed, and it was in this battle that the metric for our superiority was set.
“In that first battle the enemy lost seven ships for each one of ours destroyed. With that kind of kill-ratio we were confident we could overpower any force they might send against us.
“And so, in the beginning, I too was confident we would win all battles, that the war would be short, and that I would likely survive.
“That was then.
“Now … I am not so confident.
“In fact, given recent developments, I suspect we might actually lose this war, and I no longer have any realistic expectation of surviving the conflict.
“While we have penetrated deep into Oowan space and have made great strides, the tide is starting to change. The Oowans have adapted and evolved to meet the challenges of the situation in which they find themselves. This comes as no surprise. It was, of course, expected.
“What has come as a surprise is the rate at which they have adapted and evolved. It was not thought possible that they could change sufficiently quickly to thwart our advance. But that is just what they have done and are continuing to do.
“Where once we were the hunters, we now often find ourselves the hunted.
“Now, for each of three enemy ships we destroy we lose two.
“At the rate at which they are improving their technology and tactics, they will achieve parity with us in a matter of a few weeks. If they continue in this way, it will only be a few more months before they begin to consistently overwhelm us.
“At that point, the war is lost, and we may find that our extinction has come sooner than anticipated.
“The Oowans are a highly intelligent species, and they are cunning and fierce warriors too. In this way, they are our curse. At the same time, they are the means and resource by which we might save our people from extinction, and so, they are also our salvation.
“We must remain engaged with the Oowans for our survival, and yet that very engagement may actually hasten our demise. It is a complex situation for which—
“Computer, pause recording.”
The commander took the incoming call that interrupted his speech and thoughts.
After listening intently and asking a few questions, he rose from his desk and left his room.
“Okay, quiet down and let’s get started.”
Silence filled the room.
“Last night I received an intelligence update based on findings from a remote sensor-probe in Sector 7.”
The commander saw and felt the immediate change in all present. Their fear and tension were plain to see, and he hoped they did not see the same in him.
“Sector 7 … that’s—”
The harsh scowl the commander gave silenced his wingman. Looking back over the assembled group, he enabled the large display on the wall behind him to show the details of the new mission.
“That’s right, we are striking a target in Sector 7.
“Yes, it is a deep space incursion that will require an eight jump hop. And if all goes according to plan we will arrive on target at about this time three days from now.
“Once we arrive we will most likely find ourselves engaged in combat immediately.”
Again he felt a rise in tension as his pilots absorbed both his words and the mission details displayed behind him.
“Who? Who’s going?” his wingman asked.
“We all are, the entire squadron.”
“You mean what’s left of the squadron.
“We just got hammered by the enemy yesterday and haven’t finished repairs to our damaged ships. We haven’t even received replacement pilots yet, and you want us to go on this, this … lunacy?”
Again the commander saw his wingman shrink under the hard stare he gave—everyone else in the room saw it too. He had also heard the increase in pitch of his wingman’s voice when he had spoken. The commander realized that what he heard and saw was the result of accumulated weeks of combat stress. He also knew that all present were likely feeling and thinking the same as his wingman.
“If you will allow me to continue, I may be able to assuage your concerns.
“Intelligence indicates this should be a soft target with minimal and light defenses.
“Because this target is so deep into Oowan space, they should not feel any threat to it and thus feel no need for heavy fortification, and this appears to be confirmed by the sensor-probe.
“So you see, we don’t need a fully resourced squadron to take this target. What we currently have will be more than sufficient to get the job done.
“Because this is a soft target, and because we will be taking it by surprise, I don’t anticipate we will have any casualties at all.
“In fact, the worse part of this mission will likely be limited to the long duration transit. We will all have to suffer the tedium of that, but that should be the worst of it.
“Study the mission and get ready. We leave in an hour.
With that question asked, the commander focused his stare on his wingman as did all others in the room.
The mission went off easier than the commander had expected or even dared hoped for. And to everyone’s surprise, and relief, the squadron indeed took no losses.
The final transit jump placed all fighters on target simultaneously. That had the effect of overwhelming the limited automated defenses—defenses that were easily and quickly dispatched.
For once, it seemed, Division Intelligence got it right. This was indeed a soft target after all. It was a small research outpost on a not unpleasant world orbiting a red giant. And best yet, the facility was populated by seventy-three Oowans.
Despite the fatigue of a long mission, the gathering of pilots in the dining facility was a pleasant and energetic one. Calls of “welcome” and “join us” rang out from all the pilots present. It was apparent they were now happy with their commander—a rarity to be enjoyed while it lasted.
“Ah, commander, you’re late to the festivities,” called out his wingman.
“Join us and sample these delectable morsels, they are exquisite! Ummm…” moaned the wingman as he took another bite from the food before him.
“Thank you all, I will join you.
“I’m famished,” he said, looking down at his wingman.
“Who do you think, sir?
“The only two among us who know how to cook. They volunteered to feed the whole squadron.”
“Of course, foolish of me to ask. Wonderful, but first I have an announcement.”
As he climbed onto the table, he noticed his wingman no longer looked happy with him.
“Listen up, I have an announcement to make.”
A chorus of boos and “sit down and eat” echoed out from the suddenly not-so-happy pilots.
“No, hear me, this is good news, listen up.”
The room quieted quickly and all focused their attention on their leader.
“I have no intention of spoiling your festivities. In fact, I will only add to them.”
He could tell that those last words got their attention.
“I have received an intelligence update that will significantly simplify our fundamental mission and will likely improve our chances for success and survival.”
The room exploded in an outburst of cheers. It was easy to sense that the cheers filling the facility and drowning him out were backed by genuine emotions of appreciation and relief. He waited patiently for silence to return.
“We now know the Oowan system has four gas giants that orbit a yellow star. That tremendously reduces the number of solar systems in this sector that we need to investigate. So much so, in fact, that if the Oowan home world is within this sector, we are virtually assured to find it!”
Another round of cheers filled the hall.
“Wait, there is more.
“As a consequence of our success today and in light of this new intelligence, we are moving our base of operations to this world. We are staying here and holding this place.”
The silence that followed was immediate and unexpected.
Then his wingman spoke up.
“We get to keep the uglies we captured, don’t we?”
“Yes, of course!”
And that did it. Again thunderous cheers filled the dining facility.
“Okay, that’s all I’ve got for now. Let’s enjoy this well deserved banquet. That’s an order!”
The room filled with a mixture of cheers and laughter.
Climbing off the table he sat down to join in the feast. The commander warmed to his companion’s approval and joy.
“Good speech, sir. You don’t make enough of those.”
“I make them when I can, but you’re right. I don’t make enough of them.”
“Enough shop talk, sir, let us turn our attention to matters of greater import.
“Do you happen to know what the uglies call this part?” the wingman asked, pointing at his food. “It’s wonderful, so moist and tender—although I could do without the bone.”
“Yes, they call that part the tye. At least that’s the closest we can come to their word. It belongs to the upper part of one of their biped appendages.”
At that moment one of the volunteer cooks stepped up to the table.
“Hello, chef,” the commander said with a smile.
“I was wondering if you wanted to make any special requests for your meal?”
“Why, thank you, chef, do you have any suggestions?”
“You have definitely got to try some of these tyes, sir,” his wingman interjected. “They are a delight.”
The wingman then turned his head and pointed to the back of the room.
“As you can see, sir, we have the uglies bound-up at the other end of the hall. Why don’t you go there and pick one out. My serving is from a female and I must say I have never had better.
“My complements to the chef,” the wingman added, nodding to the volunteer cook.
“Yes, that sounds like a good idea. Why not? Let’s do that, chef,” the commander said.
“Certainly, sir, a fine idea. We are quite fortunate in that we have a good selection to choose from.”
It did not take the commander long to make his choice.
“There, that red-head female,” he said, pointing. “I’ll have her.”
“Very good, sir, right away.”
The commander paid no attention to the muffled screams and pointless struggles of the bound female Oowan as she was carried back to the kitchen for preparation. Returning to his table, one of the pilots called out a question for him.
“Sir, what can you tell us about the uglies’ home world?”
The hall fell silent and all eyes turned to the commander.
“Unfortunately, not much. We still have very limited data on that subject. We are fairly certain the Oowans spawned from the third planet in their system. We are also reasonably certain that they number in the billions.”
“Billions, sir? Really?”
“Yes, we think so.
“With proper management, the uglies should be able to feed our people for millennia.”
The sea of fluttering inner-eyelids gave testament to the joy his pilots found in that information.
“Sir, do we know what they call their home world?”
“Yes, the Oowans call it Ert.”