LAST EDITED ON Feb-08-09 AT 05:59 PM (EST)|
This adventure appeared as the B-feature in issue #188 of Tales of the Lensmen (the A-feature was a Nikola Tesla/Tuncer the Last Elite story, "Christmastime in the City").Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bacon Comics Group
Kozue Kaoru in
Tales of the Lensmen:
Before Victory Comes Honor
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Bacon Comics chief: Derek Bacon
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Thursday, December 23, 2410
Colonial Battlestar Aurora (SDF-100)
Cambrai system, Loire sector
United Federation of Planets
"What's the deal, Wedge?" Kozue Kaoru asked as she entered her squadron commander's office. "I thought we were supposed to get a couple days off."
Then she paused, looked around, and said a trifle belatedly, "Where's everyone else?"
Wedge Antilles, seated behind his desk, gestured to one of the decommissioned ejection seats that passed for chairs in his office. "Have a seat, Kozue," he said. "This isn't a squadron matter."
Now that Kozue realigned her expectations and had a better look, that was apparent. Not only was the rest of the squadron missing, there was someone entirely unexpected in the office, standing next to Wedge's desk with a data solid in her hand: Yuri Daniels, the International Police Organization's deputy chief, in her trademark red trenchcoat and hat.
"Hello, Lt. Kaoru," she said, smiling. "Been a long time."
"Christmas before last, wasn't it?" Kozue asked. She took Wedge up on his offer of a seat, then asked, "What's up?"
"I'll get right to the point," Yuri said, "because we don't have a lot of time. The IPO needs your help, Kozue."
Kozue blinked. "Mine? Specifically?"
Yuri nodded. "A member of Big Fire's Magnificent Ten is believed to be operating in this area, and we think you're our best chance at stopping him."
Kozue stared at her. "The Magnificent Ten? Uh, I think you're talking to the wrong Duelist. You want Utena for that. Or Corwin."
Yuri smiled and shook her head. "No, I'm pretty sure we want you. Can I fill you in a little more?"
"Sure. I'm curious, if nothing else."
Yuri slotted a data crystal into the top of Wedge's desk; the small holotank in the middle of the office, used for quicker and less formal briefings than the larger one over in Aurora's full air wing's ready room, glowed to life and displayed a near-life-sized image of a tall, thin, fair-haired man in old-fashioned leather and canvas flying gear - not too unlike the outfit Kozue often wore when flying her antique Warhawk during her infrequent home leaves in New Avalon.
"This is your opponent: Hans August Otto Freiherr von Hammer, code name Hellhammer. And the reason we're asking you to help us with him is because flying is his game. He's a fighter pilot, maybe the best in the galaxy."
Kozue looked the holo over. "That explains the Red Baron costume," she said. "He's some kind of Retro? Like Zerstörer Dampfherz?"
Yuri shook her head. "It's worse than that, I'm afraid. He's a renegade Returnist."
Kozue turned to her. "Are you kidding me?"
"Wish I was, believe me. Von Hammer flew fighters for Germany in both of Earth's first two World Wars, back in the 20th century. He died in 1969, fought with distinction in the Ragnarök, and claimed his Right of Return six years ago."
"And joined up with Big Fire?"
"Apparently so. We'll get back to that," Yuri said. "At any rate, now he's in this sector, taking point for Big Fire's backing of the totalitarian revolutionary government of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. He's played hell with our attempts to support the legitimate democratic regime - interdicting military supplies, keeping the Loyalist aerospace force on the ground in fear, and killing anyone we send in to try and whip them back into shape.
"Things have reached a head, though, because of tomorrow's shipment. There's been an outbreak of Destričre's disease in the main Loyalist encampment. They don't have the wherewithal to treat that kind of thing locally, so we're sending in a load of toronepine. If it doesn't get there quick, there may not be a Loyalist encampment by this time next week."
Kozue sighed. "What a mess." She fell silent for a few moments, contemplating the holo of von Hammer, and something occurred to her. "Wait, back up. This guy flew for Hitler and then went to Valhalla?"
"He's a complicated man, apparently," said Yuri wryly. "I've brought along someone who can probably give you better insight into his character than I can. He'll complete your briefing from here - if you're up for the job."
Kozue considered the holo for a few more moments, then looked at Wedge. "What do you say, boss? Sounds to me like a job for the old PWEI fake freighter trick. I don't care how good this guy is, he can't take on the whole squadron, especially if we take him by surprise."
Wedge shook his head. "Nothing I'd like better, but we can't go with you," he said. "Colonial High Command is staying strictly the hell out of the whole Le Cateau mess. If you take the job, I put you on leave and you take care of it on your own time."
"And with my own equipment, naturally," Kozue finished for him.
He nodded. "I'm sorry, Kozue, but that's the way it's got to be. That comes straight from the Colonial Senate. Under no circumstances are any Colonial military assets to get involved in the situation here in the Cambrai system. Hell, just loitering out at the edge of the system like we're doing is pushing it."
Kozue thought that over, nibbling unconsciously at the edge of her thumbnail for a moment; then she turned to Yuri.
"Well, what the hell. If I'm on leave way out in this nowhere system, I've got nothing else to do. You just hired a pilot."
Yuri grinned. "Great. Let me bring in the man who'll complete your briefing." She went to the side door leading to the ready room, opened it, and put her head through. "Major? We're ready for you."
The man who accompanied Yuri back into Wedge's office looked... well, not entirely unlike von Hammer, come to that. He, too, was tall and slim, with fair hair, and he wore clothes that wouldn't have looked out of place in any of Earth's more adventurous locales of the early 20th century, including a leather flying jacket not too unlike one Kozue owned herself. His hair was a little longer and considerably more tousled than von Hammer's severe crew cut, though, and his face wasn't quite so thin, nor so broodingly ascetic.
He didn't walk into Wedge's office so much as limp, aided by a cane, and Kozue saw that one of his legs was in a pressure cast from knee to foot. The rest of him was sufficiently athletic that she figured this had to be a recent injury.
"Let me introduce you," said Yuri as Kozue got to her feet. "Lieutenant Kozue Kaoru, Colonial Forces, meet Major James Bigglesworth, CMG, DSO, IPSF."
Bigglesworth smiled and gave Kozue's offered hand a firm shake. "Delighted," he said heartily. "Call me Biggles. Dreadfully sorry about this," he added, gesturing ruefully to his cast. "I'd take care of this nasty business myself if not for this leg. Had a bit of an argument with a hedge during a parachute jump last week, I'm afraid."
Kozue, who had once had a bit of an argument with an entire ejection seat high over the deserts of Muroc III, nodded sympathetically. "That kind of thing always seems to happen at the most inconvenient time."
"Doesn't it just," Biggles agreed. "Now then. You'll be wanting more information on your quarry for this show, I expect. Well, there's nobody better placed to give it to you. Von Hammer and I have a lot of history. I've flown against him for keeps more times than anyone else around. Twice in the Great War and twice more in World War II. When all was said and done, the score was two all. He's a damned clever man with an aircraft, and the best gunner I've ever seen. It's a deadly combination, as any number of men learned to their cost in the wars."
"Does he have any weakness?" Kozue wondered.
"Well, I don't know if I'd call it a weakness, as such, but he does live by a very rigid code of honor. He's a Prussian nobleman, and they tended to take that kind of thing seriously. I've never known him to attack an unarmed foe, for example. I survived our second meeting during War I because he turned around and went home after realizing that my Camel's guns had failed, rather than finish me off."
Kozue raised an eyebrow. "And yet he's apparently such a creep he'd blow up a transport loaded with medical supplies?"
"They aren't being flagged," Yuri put in. "The Loyalist leadership won't allow it. They claim - and I can see their point, though I don't agree with it - that if word got out that they were in such a bad position, it would destroy public confidence in their cause. To say nothing of what the Revolutionaries might do with such an advantage, with or without von Hammer's help."
"You might be able to make use of that fact," Biggles said. "If you can convince him that it is a load of medical supplies, von Hammer will let it through. I'm as certain of that as I am of anything. He'll still press the attack on you, because you're an armed aggressor, but he won't touch the transport. Convincing him won't be an easy matter, though. He's likely to think you're indulging in a ruse de guerre."
Kozue exhaled noisily, puffing her cheeks. "It's never easy. If Starbuck had woken me up this morning and told me that I'd be sent out to fight a dead Nazi working for Big Fire, I'd have told her she was sniffing spice."
"He's not a damned Nazi," Biggles said, a touch sharply. Seeing Kozue's startled look, he held up a hand apologetically and said, "Sorry. It's just... von Hammer's a friend. Even in our first lives, when we occasionally did our level best to kill each other, we were never enemies, only adversaries, and in Valhalla... " He sighed, shoulders slumping. "In Valhalla, we were like brothers. At any rate, he isn't a Nazi. He never joined the Party; in fact, it was well-known that he hated Hitler and his cronies. He joined Göring's Luftwaffe to fight for Germany, not the bloody Nazis. Wouldn't even have their damned swastika on his aircraft, which was unheard-of."
"Then why'd he join Big Fire?" Kozue asked.
"He's bought into what it says in their marketing bumf," replied Biggles. "Thinks they're going to save the galaxy by taking control of it. Utopia through the judicious application of the iron fist - it's really quite a Prussian ideal. Doesn't surprise me that it appealed to him."
"Hmph. Not one Big Fire member in a hundred believes that crap," Kozue said.
"True, but a number of their leaders, the so-called Magnificent Ten, do, and von Hammer's among them."
Friday, December 24, 2410
23:42 hrs UTC
Cambrai system, on approach to Le Cateau-Cambrésis
Bored cross-eyed in the cockpit of her much-modified Z-95 Headhunter, Kozue took another look at her sensor scope, visually verified her formation with the GR-75 transport Mom's Home Cooking (Who names these things? she wondered, not for the first time), and then, in something like desperation, deliberately performed a mystic incantation to summon her foe. Making certain that her comm system was not in VOX mode and the push-to-talk was not engaged, she said aloud in the privacy of her cockpit,
"Maybe he's not coming."
Three seconds later, the sensor array signaled the appearance of a new contact emerging from hyperspace.
Kozue smiled. "Works every time."
Once she had a visual on the new arrival, there could be little doubt who it was. There was little chance that anyone else in the galaxy flew a bright red Heinkel He-490 Mantelform starfighter whose only markings were the black cross of Old Germany and the stylized torch of Big Fire.
Kozue might have snorted at the idea of someone in this day and age bringing a Cloakshape to a fight, but then again, she had a Headhunter - a spacecraft of approximately the same vintage - and she would have been willing to bet that there was very little stock about either one. It wouldn't be the first time she'd seen an He-490 capable of holding its own against modern front-line fighters, either.
This suspicion was confirmed when, a moment later, the Cloakshape throttled up for an attack run. No stock 490 had that kind of acceleration.
Kozue grinned, powered up her Headhunter's weapons array and made to intercept.
Von Hammer took notice of her, but did nothing, judging that he would have enough time to make his first - and, if all went well, final - attack on the transport before the interloper reached him. Pushing his He-490's engines to full power, he made for the transport flat-out, his combat sensors seeking a missile lock on the GR-75's engines.
Just before they would have achieved that lock, however, the transport's exhausts flared white.
"Our job's done, X-Ray One," Mom's Home Cooking's captain announced on Kozue's tactical band. "We're out of here. Good hunting!"
And with that, the decoy transport fled into hyperspace, leaving Kozue alone with her quarry. If Von Hammer had any thought of making a run for it himself now that his own target had gone, he never showed it; indeed, he aborted his torpedo run the instant the GR-75 disappeared, executed a hard left turn, and charged head-on into full engagement with the Headhunter instead./* Operator
"The Only One"
Soulcrusher (2007) */
Within a single pass, Kozue knew without doubt that she was in a serious fight. Her assumptions about von Hammer's 490 were proven correct in moments, and everything Biggles had told her about his ability seemed to have been true as well. Until today, the toughest single opponent she'd fought in the sky had been Guld Goa Bowman, a man whose experience and aggression balanced her natural talent and plain doggedness almost perfectly.
Von Hammer was better, because - and Kozue could never explain to anyone else, except possibly Max Sterling, how she knew this - he had that same kind of talent too. This wasn't a game pitting a prodigy against a grandmaster. They were both prodigies...
... and von Hammer had the experience as well.
Well, said Kozue to herself as she kicked down the power on her starboard stabilizers and skidded her Headhunter out of the Heinkel's line of fire, nobody said this job was going to be easy.
Most aerial engagements, whether in the skies over France in 1916 or deep space in 2410, were over in seconds - blurry instants of fury and fear in which victory, as often as not, went to the pilot with the sounder instincts. Rarely were pilots and machines so well-matched that they could elude each other's attempts to destroy them for more than a few moments. This battle, on the other hand, lasted for several minutes, testing not only the combatants' skill but also their endurance as they threw their craft around the void.
It was tactically that von Hammer's experience first paid the German pilot a solid dividend. Through a combination of canny maneuvering and judicious fakery, he managed to coax his young opponent into coming after him a little more aggressively than was really prudent. It was a narrow window of opportunity, but he figured it was the best he was going to get. He'd heard stories about this girl's skill at the controls of a starfighter, but he'd taken them with a pretty big grain of salt. It hadn't taken her long to demonstrate to him that underestimating her would be folly.
In fact, if he had to tell the truth, von Hammer was quite enjoying this fight. It had been a long time since he'd faced an opponent that was truly worthy of his time. He rather hoped he wouldn't have to kill her, even if she was committing the unpardonable faux pas of supporting the Cateau resistance.
Now, as she bore down on him at full throttle, he rammed his He-490 into a negative-G Z-axis translation, pancaking away from the Headhunter's guns and disappearing entirely from Kozue's field of view for a moment. He expected her to shoot past him, thrusters still firewalled, and straight into a volley of fire from his quad-linked blasters - but she didn't appear.
The trick had almost worked - in its initial phase, Kozue had been entirely taken in - but von Hammer had reckoned without her phenomenal reaction speed and her equally phenomenal spacecraft control. When she saw the Cloakshape vanish from in front of her, she reacted instinctively, standing on her own Z-thrusters and hauling the joystick back at the same time. The result was a perfect pinwheel turn, a maneuver she'd learned in Viper training and spent hours figuring out how to translate to the Z-95's control system. The Headhunter swapped ends like a thrown knife, thruster exhausts rainbow-haloing with the sudden reversal of momentum, and clawed away from the Heinkel. After two seconds of full-power burn, she doubled the maneuver, flipping back to her old orientation, and the red Cloakshape swung neatly back into her sights.
Von Hammer cursed and twisted his craft away from Kozue's streams of scarlet blasterfire, feeling the Heinkel's spaceframe jolt and whump as red bolts punched through his weak aft shields and pocked the armor plating of its broad wings. Then he played his own next card, a skidding about-face that whirled the flat fighter on its vertical axis, and opened up as his opponent charged in with guns still blazing.
During his abbreviated training for the Kaiser's air force, one of the things that was drummed into the young Hans von Hammer's brain time and again was, "Never turn away from a head-on pass. If you do, the enemy will have you." It was a rule he'd lived by ever since.
Apparently Kozue had learned the same lesson somewhere along the way, for she kept right on in as well, ignoring the buck and thump of the German's fire raking her ship. They passed within a few yards of each other, practically a collision in spaceflight terms, and immediately started angling for the advantage on the next pass, their shields discharged and armor smoking.
Kozue felt the wrongness in her craft as soon as she started her turn. It was subtle, not the outright wounded-bird stagger of a badly damaged fighter, but a bit of a sluggishness in the starboard stablilizers. She could only hope that she'd exacted a similar price from von Hammer.
Back and forth they went, falling into the eternal paradox of one-on-one aerospace combat: each dead set on killing the other; each feeling a deepening respect for the other with each pass. The thing really was like a duel, with the same give-and-take, the same parry-and-riposte, and for a few moments, von Hammer could forget that he found himself in a computerized age of vacuum-hardened guided weapons and back in the simpler age when pilots like himself really had been knights of the sky.
Then they made the sort of simultaneous pass that had often left both men dead back in those days, another near-collision head-on pass in which both pilots felt, heard, and smelled the damage being inflicted, but neither dared back off or turn away. When it was over, Kozue's balky starboard S-foil had gone offline altogether, making right turns next to impossible and left turns difficult, and von Hammer found his cannon system entirely inoperative.
He hated to do what came next, because under the circumstances there was hardly any sport in it and it took him entirely out of his nostalgic frame of mind; but he was a professional and he had a job to do. He patiently jockeyed for position, noting to himself how brilliantly the IPO pilot evaded him even with her spacecraft so nearly crippled. She even managed to turn her blasters on him a few more times, at one point coming damned near to holing his canopy. This was still a fight... but the magic had gone, and von Hammer cursed the times in which he lived as he overflew Kozue's turning radius and lined up to finish the game.
Kozue knew he had her; had known what the probably outcome would be the instant that disastrous pass was finished and she felt her fighter's sluggish response become outright lousy. Only the fact that von Hammer's cannons seemed to be out, and the fact that she was just constitutionally unable to give up a fight, kept her working as hard as she can, hoping there might just be a way out after all.
On the fifth ever-tightening turn, however, when she knew she wasn't going to be able to get him under her guns again, all she had left to do was hang on, try to make it as hard for him as possible, and listen to the sound of his missile seekers in her helmet.
dit dit dit dit ditditditditditditdidididididiDAAAAAAAAAA...
Instead of launching warheads and blowing her to kingdom come, von Hammer streaked past in full burner, rocked his wings twice, and then boomed into hyperspace, heading for home. As suddenly as she had been expecting to die, Kozue was left alone with the depths of space and her thoughts.
It took her a few seconds to reacquaint herself with the idea of living to return to the Aurora after all. Once she did, she turned her attention to her Z-95's onboard diagnostics, checking to see whether she could, in fact, limp home, or if she'd have to call for help.
As she checked the MFD and saw that she could, in fact, just about make it back, she noticed the blinking icon indicating an Extremely Narrow Band text message arriving. Puzzled, she opened it, read it, read it again, and then just sat looking at it for a few moments, letting the pattern of green phosphor dots sink into her consciouness.
Across the top of the display, the standard onboard systems banner announced the date and time, as usual.
INCOM SUBPRO INFORMATION SYSTEM - SAT 25 DEC 0002 2410
The only other information on the screen was the ENB message she'd just received. Unsigned, bearing no origination address header, it consisted of just 21 characters:
"Kozue?" The voice in her headset almost made her jump, so lost in her own private thoughts had she been. "Are you okay? We've lost your telemetry."
"Uh. Yeah! I'm here, Wedge," she replied.
"What's your status?"
"I'm okay. My bird's a little shot up, but I can make it back."
"Where's von Hammer?"
"You took him out?"
"Negative. He left. Hypered out just before you called."
"Damn. That means he'll be back tomorrow for the real transport. We'd better get you back and see if Cally can put your Z-95 back together in time."
"I don't think that'll be necessary," said Kozue.
She smiled to herself and set her limping course for home. "'Cause it's Christmas, Wedge. Gentlemen don't fight on Christmas."
"Before Victory Comes Honor" - a Tales of the Lensmen mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
ending suggested by Geoff Depew
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited