Kavarke Air Force Base, Melchragor City, Salkovaria
4:20 PM, 8 Februarius, 2156
"Xaliur Squadron, your boots hit the ground, and you make a beeline for that debriefing room, do you understand?" the control tower commanded. Marcus new that this was an unusual occasion, because an unfamiliar voice was manning the control tower, and it sounded abnormally unfriendly.
"Yes, sir, we understand," Marcus answered submissively. Marcus, Akon, and KIOSK were 'holding hands,' according to air force jargon. The F-14, F-15, and small commercial jet were approaching the tarmac in tight formation. Few airports could accommodate three plane widths landing simultaneously; Kavarke was one of the few. Marcus's jaw rattled as the F-14's puny tires jolted and rumbled with the jet's touchdown. He flipped a lever on the control board; flaps on the rear of the jet opened, acting as parachutes to hasten the fighter's deceleration.
"Just leave your jets on the tarmac and get to the debriefing room ASAP. We'll put them away for you," the voice ordered.
"Yes sir," Marcus repeated.
"KIOSK, you can just stay put after you finish your land roll." KIOSK didn't reply. Once Marcus had finally stopped moving, safely on the ground, a team of technicians help him lift the massively heavy glass canopy, and he and Aaron descended. Akon and Flint did the same. KIOSK, due to its much lighter weight, had stopped its landing roll many meters before Marcus and Akon did. They could see it sitting forlornly on the landing strip decameters behind them, but they could see no human activity coming from it as of yet.
Leace set the headset on the desk and sighed. There was no sign of the day growing peaceful at all. Already he had had a dogfight on his hands, with rogues, nonetheless, and now he had discovered that the craft that had been rescued might not have been entirely truthful. Who knew the origin of this craft? The appearance of Defence Resources on the scene was even more disturbing. The whole day, it seemed, had been exhausted in the air by the Xaliur Squadron.
Leace rested his face his face in his hands and sighed again. An aging man with dark but graying hair, Leace Rader had seen his share of conflict. But there had never ever been a dogfight like the one Xaliur Squadron had just been pressed into since the last war. And for what? An unnamed passenger in a golden Learjet, that just may have had something to do with Defence Resources. Leace felt sick. He grew sicker by the moment as he looked out the window onto the tarmac, were that Learjet had come to rest.
He had checked with outside airbases, looking for records of a KIOSK flight 270. His searches had not come unrewarded. Ovald International Airport, which was a good hundred kilometers away, had recorded a departure of a KIOSK flight 270, but there was no scheduled return time. Odd. This KIOSK flight 270 had departed on a one-way flight… and yet had come back, demanding the assistance of the Salkovarian Air Force.
Leace could think no more, lest he throw up. The dizzying height of his vantage point in Kavarke's control tower on top of these disturbing events made him feel nauseous. "I'm heading down. You can take over traffic," he said to the young air force officer who was sitting to his right at the computer console.
"Yes, Colonel," the officer responded.
Colonel Rader descended the spiraling stairs in the throat of the control tower. He didn't know what he felt, whether it be anger or depression. Either way, it made him sick, and he knew that the explanation he was about to receive would not relieve his stomach at all.
When Leace had received word of the dogfight with the so-called 'Veervak' rogues over the Kagany glacier, and the further upsetting news that Defence Resources had been involved, he had dashed for the control tower immediately. He wanted this one under his direct command. He had ordered the Xaliur team to go to the debriefing room immediately. He couldn't bear to let them see the outcome of their efforts, should it be disappointing. He owed the Xaliur Squadron a lot. They had come through for him in so many ways. He couldn't bear to see them be crushed to realize that the outcome of their actions was harmful.
It was KIOSK that had some explaining to do. Leace was on the tarmac right now. Steam rose from the heat from the pavement reacting with the chilling Februarius day. Several decameters away stood KIOSK, Leace's bane of the day. Since the jet had been coming into land damaged, Kavarke had scrambled firefighters onto the tarmac to inspect and monitor the jet, should anything explosive happen. Leace, on the other hand, just wished the jet would burn and disintegrate, leaving him hopefully forever. He had dealt with it enough today and it was the last thing he wanted to see right now.
Or the characters exiting the plane. Leace walked slightly closer to see the identity of the figures exiting the jet. He stopped, and his stomach sank. They weren't women and children, like he had been led to believe. No. These were fully armed soldiers exiting the commercial jet, armed to the teeth and dressed in winter camouflage. And they were wet and muddy. They had just been doing something… Leace clenched his jaw and jogged to the jet, his mind numb with disbelief. By the time he had reached the plane, the line of soldiers had ended. They stood huddled in a group at the tarmac, chattering quietly to themselves. Leace could tell by comparing their uniforms to that of the Salkovarian Army soldiers standing nearby that these newcomers weren't Salkovarian. He knew full well from whence they came. "Detain them," he said to the Salkovarian soldiers. "Keep them locked up. I'm going to deal with them later."
"Yes, sir," the soldier said. "C'mon, guys! It's into the pen with you!" The soldier and others rounded up the winter-dressed commandoes and herded them into one of the buildings. Leace frowned and turned back to face KIOSK once more. One more individual was descending the stairs.
At last Leace felt like he could keep his stomach down no more, but he maintained his composure before the man. "You," he said. It was more of an accusation than a question.
"Yeah. Me," Colonel Braffus replied, his lips caked with mud and blood.
"You look like you were fighting."
"You should see what the other guy looks like," Braffus retorted. He had stopped on the stairs, as if reserving the last two steps to the ground until after all accusations had ceased.
"I don't recall authorizing you to do anything to 'the other guy," Leace said. His mind whirled to identify 'the other guy', but he would wait to ask until interrogation.
"Trying to make a living. And help the cause."
"Right," Leace said, nodding slightly. "Trying to make a living."
"And help the cause," Braffus insisted.
"We need to talk."
"Congratulations, Xaliur Team. Not only did you inspire many other pilots to greatness, undoubtedly, but you also exhibited great skill behind the controls of your aircraft. We of the Kahvlozag and Salkovarian United Air Force expect great things from you," the Major at the head of the room said proudly. Marcus and his teammates were in the debriefing room. The theater-like room contained six rows of seats, sloped so that the rear row was higher than the front, a projector behind a glass window, and a large canvas screen at the head of the room.
The screen played a summary of the Xaliur Squadron's most recent mission. Marcus's F-14 took on the form of a blue arrow, while Akon's was white. The arrows mimicked the maneuvers Marcus and Akon executed on their last flight. Eventually, the enemy helicopters appeared as red arrows, and KIOSK as green. The whole dogfight was played before their eyes in virtual space and at quadruple speed. The major continued his monologue, "KIOSK's purpose in the airspace is still inconclusive, nearby airports having no records of the return flight, but we are still searching. Rest assured, Xaliur Team, this mystery will be solved. As for the so-called 'Veervak', we have no idea of the definition of this term. We have dispatched a search and rescue team to recover the fighter pilot that ejected and interrogate him." Red arrows descended to the virtual 3D ground and crashed. "As for Defence Resources' timely appearance, we've received word that they are sending a liaison and contract auditor to clear things up immediately. In conclusion, this was a mission handled by the book. Well done, Xaliur Team. You've completed your good deed for today."
Marcus and the rest of his team in the room were also accompanied by several officers who also had interests in the mission. Marcus felt a collective sigh of relief circulate about the room with these words. The projector powered off, and the room went dark until the lights in the room powered back on. Just as a group would after viewing a movie, most of the room's occupants rose from the seats and slowly filed out. Marcus, Akon, Aaron, and Flint stayed behind to speak to the major.
"Major Saspet?" Marcus said, saluting. "I have a question, sir."
The major saluted back, grinning slightly. "Yes?" The numerous medals on his chest glinted with the light above.
"Was KIOSK or was KIOSK not Colonel Braffus's flight?" Marcus said briskly. He wanted the answer outright.
The major chewed his lips for a second, thinking. "I am not at liberty to answer yes or no." He shrugged apologetically, grinning sheepishly. "Sorry."
Marcus nodded. "I see."
The major offered his hand. Marcus shook it, smiling faintly. "Congratulations again, Captain Lacrosse." Major Saspet repeated.
The foursome of Xaliur team was entering the vast hangar for the second time in two hours, now far more tired than they were the first time. Their olive green jumpsuits were unzipped past there neck in a relaxed fashion. To see the four would have been to watch a symphony of yawning.
Rader had done as he had promised. Marcus and Akon's jets were in the hangar as well, looking just like they had when the pilots boarded them this morning.
"Hey Chucky!" Akon called out. "You in here?" His voice echoed through the hangar to every little nook and cranny within. Every individual inside the hangar, no matter where, would have been able to hear him, having his voice amplified by the cavernous room filled with metal objects.
The response he received was a clanging sound, as if a wrench had been dropped on the floor, and a grunt. There was a second's pause before a deep voice bellowed, "Yeah, I'm in here."
Marcus jerked his thumb in the general direction of the voice, leading his three friends in that direction. Ducking under the tailfin of the F-14, Marcus sought for the source of the voice. "There you are," he said conclusively upon finding Chucky.
Chucky's jumpsuit was blue rather than green. Chucky was a mechanic. A balding middle-aged man with stubble, Chucky's light eyes had a grandfatherly slant to them. The man just simply looked friendly. Seeing the two white slab-like boxes Chucky was holding made Marcus's mouth water. "Heh heh, you caught me on my dinner break…," Chucky smiled, setting the two pizza boxes down on a 33-gallon drum, obviously meant to serve as a table. "Bet you're hungry too, eh? Heard you had a long day."
Akon and Marcus nodded. "Strange things, strange times," Akon mumbled.
"Yeah! I hear you ripped a couple of fighters some new ones," Chucky said, grinning. Behind his grin, however, was a very perplexed mind.
"I don't know if that's anything worth bragging about…" Aaron stared at his feet. "There was something screwy going on out there over Kagany."
"Something screwy?" Chucky repeated. "I'll tell you what's screwy. Colonel Braffus. That man is screwy."
"I wouldn't be surprised if… well, today had something to do with him," Marcus frowned. "KIOSK took advantage of us."
"That's not the worst of it," Chucky said, sitting on a tool chest, relaxing. Chucky was rarely one to become tense. His amiable nature made him the friend of many. "If those quote-unquote 'Veervak' fighters had anything to do with Canova," he said, forming quotation marks with his thick fingers on the word 'Veervak,' "Salkovaria might be in a pile of pâté back at the INCC. Who knows what Braffus was doing in Canovan territory?"
"Oh, please don't mention food," Flint said, rubbing his stomach hungrily. "Mr. KIOSK made us skip lunch today."
Chucky grinned. "You are more than welcome to my supper, son," he said, leaning to the 33-gallon drum to open the pizza boxes. Lifting the lid, he revealed the piping-hot thick crust pizza underneath, steaming into the chilly hangar. "Mmmm-mm," Chucky hummed approvingly, inhaling the tantalizing odor of tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni. "Looks like my buddy Perch was cookin' today. Look at all that cheese!" Marcus smacked his lips. The sight of all the melted, oozing cheese on the pizza was the most welcome sight ever. "Dig in," Chucky smiled, removing a generous slice of pizza from the box, the stringy cheese dripping from the crust. He didn't have to tell the four twice. In a matter of minutes, the first pizza had disappeared and the five hungry men had begun attacking the second.
Their stomachs filled, Akon and Aaron squatted on the oil-stained floor, whilst Chucky, Marcus, and Flint assumed conversational positions. "Well, how was your day so far?" Marcus inquired.
"Ah, the life of a mechanic… it was pretty uneventful, until… that," he said, rubbing his stomach contentedly. "But I think it's not my day that was important, how was yours?" he asked.
"Like hell. We already started to go over that, didn't we?" Akon said.
Marcus nodded in agreement. "Yeah. This was a new thing for me."
"You never had to bag a fighter before, did you?" Chucky grunted.
"Nope. Never had to."
"The Canovans and their little INCC get bolder and bolder every day," Chucky added. "I heard that those Apaches and Flankers you engaged earlier today were transmitting Canovan IFF tags."
Aaron nodded. "They were. I saw them firsthand. They were definitely Canovan craft."
Chucky thought for a moment. "What about the pilots?"
"Biggest weirdoes alive," Akon said scornfully. Chucky lifted one eyebrow inquisitively.
"They were fanatic. They referenced the term 'Veervak' more than once." Marcus handled the word delicately, as if it was potentially dangerous to simply say it. "That must be what they call their little organization."
"Called," Akon corrected. "We blew those guys away. You know how rogues are, they probably spent every last one of their little stinkin' aircraft on chasing down KIOSK."
"If that was Braffus's flight, that would make a lot of sense," Chucky mused. "Braffus isn't exactly everyone's favorite person in the global community. Surely there are enough people out there to amass a small band and confront him… with weapons, that is. There are plenty of people who hate the company he represents."
"I sometimes wish we didn't have to use him… or them," Aaron said, staring into the air thoughtfully.
"Well," Chucky grunted, changing his sitting position slightly, "I'd betcha fifty creds that Colonel Rader is thinking the same thing right now, over a cup of either whiskey or Pepto-Bismol." He sighed loudly and regretfully. "It's too bad that our own country won't supply us with the personnel we need. We gotta buy mercenaries from other countries just to get the job done." The four younger men nodded in solemn agreement. "Two squadrons of aircraft," he said, thrusting up two fingers. "Count 'em. Two. Xaliur and Glaciur. And I hear more and more rumors every day of Galciur getting disbanded. Every day the Kahvlozag grows smaller."
Marcus sighed, deflated. "What can't they see? What can't the Salkovarian Congress see?" he asked rhetorically. "The Kahvlozag air teams are quadruple as effective as the Salkovarian Air Force's Static squadrons. Between Akon and me, we just shot down ten aircraft in one sortie. There is no way a squadron of Statics could have done that, and we only had two fighters."
"Oh, do I know it," Chucky agreed. "It's the same thing with everything that the Kahvlozag does. The Kahvlozag is the last remaining cell of active-duty magicians in the Salkovarian armed forces, and two parts of any Kahvlozag battalion can outdo ten parts of any Static-battalion."
"Everyone brags about how wonderful Salkovaria is for magicians," Flint mused. "Maybe in the civilian sector, but what good is exceptionality in private life if we can't tap into that exceptionality to defend ourselves?"
"Especially when the INCC is getting so big for its britches," Chucky said. "I mean, I don't wanna start preaching Armageddon or anything, but they're getting awfully pushy lately. I think our country could certainly use a stronger defense… you know, 'just in case.' I can't think of a worse time to phase the Kahvlozag out."
"And our funding from Congress is disappearing faster than those pizzas did," Flint lamented, indicating the now-empty grease-soaked boxes.
"I guess we should just thank our lucky stars that Defence Resources maintained a couple magic-capable regiments. I mean, I know Colonel Braffus doesn't have much in the nobility department, but you have to admit, he's one helluva magician." Chucky smiled ruefully. "And the nobility part is Rader's job. I guess if Braffus would follow Rader's orders…," he trailed off, leaving the unmentionable unmentioned.
Akon preferred to mention it. "Braffus has a penchant for overkill," he said bluntly. "I hope that auditor Defence Resources is sending gives us a different man or at least the Kahvlozag's money back."
Chucky raised a brow. "Oh-ho, they're sending an auditor?"
Marcus nodded. "Yeah. That's what they told us during debriefing."
Chucky nodded and stood, stretching and trying to rid himself of the feeling of sluggishness downing two-fifths of a pizza gave him. "See? This just might turn out for the better. Braffus went out and did something stupid—"
"—as usual," Aaron interjected.
"—Defence Resources gives us a new guy, on them," Chucky finished, ignoring Aaron's comment. Marcus smiled slightly. "'sides, in the big scheme of things, I suppose none of us would have been here if Defence Resources hadn't done all that magical technology research at the end of the last war."
Marcus nodded. "Agreed. I guess we owe our careers to that company…"
There was a solemn silence as that last sentence set in. Had it not been for Defence Resources's invention of the Immersive Reality Add-On a decade and a half ago, magical dogfighting would have been extremely difficult without a dragon. Under such circumstances the Kahvlozag would have been disbanded far earlier.
"Yeah," Akon agreed. "But I still hope we don't have Braffus much longer."
There were several moments of silence before Chucky stood up, groaning. "Well, I guess dinner break is over, and I still have two more hours of work to do." He grinned and pointed at Marcus's F-14. "Northrop Grumman built a beast in that F-14, but a beast still needs to be cared for."
"Catcha later, Chucky," Flint said as the four stood up.
Chucky nodded, smiling his same old smile. "Yeah, see you guys later! I'm gonna tune the jets up again. You keep shootin' 'em down, I'll keep fixin' 'em up."