2237-10-01 - Altitude Adjustment

A routine patrol over Tyllium mines in Sadah gets unexpectedly exciting when it encounters a Cylon patrol, and one of the most junior pilots on the wing is put to the test. (Gage GMing, like a champion.)

Date: 2237-10-01

Location: Skies Over Sadah

Related Scenes: None

Plot: None

Scene Number: 1443

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Being a viper pilot is often a mixture of moments of delight and terror, interspersed with long, low periods of nothing. This patrol is one of the latter -- tracing a path over the mountains of Sadah that takes them between two Tyllium mines that have yet to come under attack. The other viper pilot, Lt "Banger", is in charge, though he's spent almost the whole time arguing with the Raptor's ECO, "Mince" about the current form of Virgon's pyramid team. Nails, the Raptor pilot, has been a lot more low key -- one might suspect he's asleep, except that surely his ECO would've noticed, but who knows what sort of agreements the Raptor's occupants have come to. Things going as dull as they have, it looks like they'll make another circuit of their path before their patrol is due to end.
"I tell ya, Benson should've never been drafted to the Virgon Knights. He's a Boskirk All-Reds level player, if that."
"Man, Banger, you're crazy! You didn't see the point scoring he did in that last match yet--!"
"I saw, I saw. It was luck."
"Luck!?"
This. On repeat. For nearly two hours. Who's crazy now?

Bad news for the air wing again this morning: another downed Raptor, more MIA pilots. If this weren't a routine patrol, it's unlikely Ines would feel she had the luxury of listening to music instead, particularly given her recent performance -- she'd expect to need every last ounce of her focus.
Nobody on this flight seems to feel that way, though, and she's chosen to indulge, piping something mellow and atmospheric into the cockpit -- something that pairs well with the (to her) alien landscape of Sagittaron. Between the dramatic formations of the mountain range, so different from anything on Leonis, and the alluring progression of what she's listening to, she's almost able to tune out the radio chatter. Almost.
And though she knows the Raptor went down somewhere far from where they are, she can't help herself: she scans the ground, as though some glint or gleam of twisted, broken metal might be visible, some sign of those they'd lost.

"Now, Dunbar, he's going to be worth the draft pick."
"I don't know, he basically face-planted the other day trying to score that touchdown. It was pretty epically bad."
The patrol crosses near one of the rear entrances of one of the Tyllium mines, not much to mark it except for a well-used road, the mountain forcing them to climb sharply.
Out the window, the ground below is a variant on a theme, slightly different shades of dusty browns and grays of dirt and rock. No downed raptors. Just a glint of something briefly reflecting off the sun to the west, moments before a smoke trail appears in the midst of the air, headed towards them.
DRADIS flares brilliant green with the sudden contact, and alarms start sounding in the cockpit.

Pale eyes snap up from the terrain below them to the DRADIS display, then sweep the horizon in that direction, snaring on the wink of sun on metal. "Nails-"

And that was weird for Ines, because that was the callsign of the Caprican pilot in the war games -- their top ace -- and he'd dinged her viper's wing for flying aggressively like it was nothing, and that had been maybe just a little something of a thrill-

"-Kestrel. I'm seeing one contact, can you confirm? Just one?" Thermals rising from the range below them buffet the attitude of the viper's wings, tilting it first one way, then the other. They smooth out as she banks to place herself on the intercept side of the Raptor.

It seems that Nails is awake, and not a few seconds behind Ines' call, "Missile! Break, break!" Indeed, as the contact nears Ines' DRADIS resolves it into that all-too-deadly weapon, streaking right for the middle of the patrol. Nails' raptor immediately rolls out of the way, away from Ines' viper, followed seconds later by Banger's viper.
"FRAK!" That's Mince, his voice going up a notch or two in a way that conveys barely controlled alarm. "I have three more contacts, repeat, three-zero, coming up hot. Jamming!"
They might be visible through the sway of the cockpit -- just barely -- shapes seem gleaming over the peak of the mountain, swooping down towards them after they missile they launched.

Missile.
Training and reflex are what follow the command to break -- tilting sideways, slicing downward like a knife through sheets of air -- not anything even remotely like cognition. What Ines has by way of deliberate thought is just one thing: where are they coming from...? And then she knows, Mince is telling her, telling all of them. They scatter around the streak of the missile, but it's only seconds before she's ascending back to formation with the other viper. The most junior pilot on this flight, too, she'll do what she's done on every flight since joining the Wolves: she will take her cues from her more experienced wingman.
"Banger, Kestrel. I'm on your wing and ready to fire on your target." Across the comm her voice is gelid -- almost always calm. The thing that got her into the CF in the first place, that unrufflable composure, kindles on a fine thread of adrenaline and settles in, heavy and hollow. In defiance, really, of the creeping doubts that want to bleed in after her last several outings, and the rapid beating of her heart.

The raptor isn't as agile as the vipers are, still out of position by the time Ines rejoins her wingmate. "Still jamming! Nails, get us out of here!" Mince is yelling through the open comms; by contrast Nails sounds positively in control, "I've got it."
Banger, too, sounds confident and in control. "Roger that, Kestrel. Focus contact A-49'er." It's the heavy that sits in the midst of the pair of raiders, undoubtedly the one that launched that missile.
The heavy and one of the raiders quickly climbs to meet the pair of vipers; the third raider breaks and veers after their raptor.

It's that voice they all know well -- monotone, almost indifferent, like an emotionless cipher. Radio Voice. Why it is that most people who wind up on the radio emulate this way of speaking is a mystery for the ages, but it works, anyway. The rest of her flight's pilots sound collected, and that somehow diminishes this unforseen development. No problem. Nothing to it.
Only...there's a Heavy.
Doesn't matter. Not a problem.
"Kestrel copies." She maintains parallel with her wingman with that eerie precision so iconic to fighter jets, eyes flicked between her visual of the target and the DRADIS. When they hit range, she opens fire -- a half-second early, today, rather than a half-second late.

The heavy doesn't immediately launch -- they have limited missile weapons, and it's clear whatever robotic brain is behind the controls wants a good shot. Kestrel's KEW fire rakes the side of the heavy even as it comes in range, followed shortly by Banger's. The damage is significant, exposing the inside to air -- not that that matters to cylons -- and the missile launches, in perhaps a last, desperate shot before the heavy breaks apart. DRADIS registers the missile, headed for them, not that the instrument is needed. She can see it, out the cockpit window, gleaming and deadly, heading for her.
"Kes--!" whatever else Banger was going to say comes in static as the other raider's KEW fire strikes Banger's viper. He's still flying, but now he's going evasive, breaking from her to lead the raider away.
The raptor, and the third raider, are nowhere in sight right now. A couple of contacts on DRADIS that might be them, but no radio chatter.

Half a second is an eternity in a viper, she'd told the new Marine recruit yesterday, over coffee. Lamenting, at the time, her lagging shots.
Turns out it's twice that when you're looking at the business end of a missile, close enough that you think you might be able to see your own aircraft's reflection in the very tip of its snub nose. Twice at least.
She can see small pieces of debris snatched away from her wingman's viper by the jetstream, but she can't look. There's no time. Her heart cramps around one single, hard beat, and then she's jamming the center stick off to the side, the toes of her boots shifting to drag at pedals that throw her into a rising bank away, flashing the belly of the viper sunward. The ground becomes, briefly, the sky, and in all of that she loses visual contact with the missile -- all she can do is hope that she's evaded it, every nerve in her waiting for the fireball she'll become otherwise.
Through gritted teeth, as the bank becomes a tightened arc, then a corkscrew that rights her: "Nails! Banger! Status!"

The seconds tick away, with just the sound of her breath and the in-cockpit alarms warning of her of what she already knows. With no way to visually confirm, it's only DRADIS that can assure her the missile's spun past her, streaking out into the empty Sadah air behind her.
Banger does not check in. Static. But there's two contacts, one presumably his, accelerating away from her.
"Kestrel, Nails. Shake this little shit off our tail, would you?" She might even be able to see them, a streaking, gleaming contrast against the dull ground she has a great view of in her inverted viper -- the Raptor veering left and right, pitching up and down, close to the mountain as Nails is comfortable with, the raider close in his wake. It's clear Mince is making heavy use of ECM, since the raider's done no damage to the raptor yet.

Ines can't worry about Banger. She needs that ECM. Assuming he's still flying, they both need it.
Relief floods her like an opiate at the sight of the bus.
Every muscle in her body is working as she noses toward the ground and then loops into pursuit behind the Raptor and its hanger-on. Acceleration drives her back into her seat, legs tight, ribs vised, anything to keep the blood in her body in her head where she needs it as the g-forces rapidly accumulate. Tight breaths.
She levels out behind, swings out wide, little spangles at the outer edges of her vision. The arrangement isn't ideal, she needs a wider angle to strafe the Raider without risking any friendly fire. "I'm on it." I hope. I hope.
Crags whistle past beneath them, stirring the air into unpredictable currents. She pulls up alongside the Raider, out at distance, then tilts slows, banks hard to rake the axis of her cannon fire backward, nose to tail. Turbulence rattles the viper, and the chug of KEW fire knocks her helmet back against the headrest, none of which she notices.

It's a difficult shot. Nails isn't making it easy for the raider by any means, and the ship jerks left and right as it doggedly chases the bus. Kestrel's KEW fire lances through the back half of the raider, some punching all the way through. Smoke comes out, but the raider's still flying.
And worse, it's turning onto her now, braking sharply and turning -- a move a human would find extremely uncomfortable, but no problem for a robot -- it's own KEW fire rattling and streaking towards her in retaliation.

<FS3> Ines rolls Composure: Great Success (8 7 7 6 6 5 5 5 1)

As she continues the loop begun by her strafing bank, Ines leans hard, head cranked, trying to get a look over the top side of her bird. Her plan is to circle, come back around for another pass, but in that brief moment that she has line of sight on her target she sees sunlight rill down its polished exterior in a way that tells her it's peeling off to follow her.
Underneath the glacial chill and that empty hollow contained by the cage of her ribs, a tingle of mixed feelings. As long as it's on her, it's not going to be after her Raptor, and Mince can do his job. "That's right, putain. You're coming with me."
But now what?
Shallow but steady breaths and the rush of blood in her ears are all she can hear as she arcs off on a lead-away trajectory. Eyes the color of sea glass slash the geography in front of her, looking for any kind of advantage or hazard. Looking for her wingman.
The strange silence of her isolation in the cockpit ruptures as a shot from behind her punches into the belly of her aircraft. Alarms sound, almost enough to drown out the second shot that lands, somewhere else -- she's not sure where. The gloved fingers of one hand flip over her instrument panel, checking systems -- not in detail, there's no time, but to see if the fuel line's ruptured, if she's lost weapons, if --

"Kestrel, you're getting out of ECM range. Nails--!" Mince can be heard, as the bus turns around. It hasn't the agility of the other ships, trailing behind the raider. Chances are they can get off a clean Talon shot, given enough time.
One of the rear stabilizers has been damaged, but she probably doesn't need the instrument panel to tell her that -- it turns the ride immediately bumpy, and there's a slight pull to the left that easily correctable, but might cause a problem for any hard turns in that direction. There's plenty of advantages -- and hazards -- in the mountains. Nails had some luck riding close to it, but he hasn't her damage. Still, there's... yes. A narrower passage, a canyon they passed earlier in the routine. It's straight, which makes it dangerous since she's being chased, but it's also tight, a perfect shooting gallery -- if the raptor or the other viper can get in place. DRADIS shows Banger at the edge of range, but only one visible dot -- either he made his kill, or the two are so close as to be indistinguishable.

Radio protocol breaks down at this point. She could swear that her veins are glass tubes, her blood jet fuel already ignited. Everything is numb and somehow, at the same time, painfully and exquisitely aware, alive to the reality of being alive, and how very precarious that state of affairs is.
"I'd love to slow down for you, gentlemen, but-" DRADIS is wailing countless reasons for her not to do that. She sees the passage, and for the first time experiences a pang of real, animal fear, something that blossoms in her gut like a flower made of knives. All of her shaken faith crashes in like a tidal wave. I'm not good enough. I'm not good enough to survive that. She's seen what 'good enough' looks like in a canyon. The memory is fresh. 'Cane. Shirts. Jigger. That kind of flying is still beyond her. Beyond most people, she thinks.

But maybe she doesn't have to do it for long. "There's a passage, my eight o clock." Breathless. "If you get set up there, if you can time it right, I can-" Her viper banks hard, out and away. "-I'll bring it to you. I'll bring it back."

"Kes--" there's something strained in Mince's voice, but it cuts off abruptly, for some reason. A second later, Nails' calm voice is copacetic, "Roger that, Kestrel. Set it up for us, we'll knock it down." He is calm, completely confident.
It might help, but it doesn't stop the raider dogging her from firing, Mince's ECM indeed too far too help. KEW rounds slam close to her, but her hard bank spares her any direct hits. The raider banks right behind her, sticking close on her heels, waiting for another opportunity at a good shot.

What she needs to do is --
Is not something she wants to do. God, does she not want to.
She needs to let it close distance with her viper. She needs to let it do that while avoiding being shot out of the sky by it in the process, because once they enter that ravine she needs to be able to pull back on the center stick as hard as she's able and shoot up out of the way, to give the Raptor a clear shot. And she needs to do all of this without giving the Raider reason to turn around and chase someone else.
Which is worse, the strain she hears, or the calm that follows? The combination of the two together? She squeezes her eyes shut for just a moment. It's not a prayer. She's got a problem with the pantheon. But it's like that, anyway. A prayer to nothing.
Her viper tilts on an angle, then dips down toward the range, fighting her to pull to the left all the while. She gets it as close as she dares, and then noses up, throws out flaps to slow her speed. Hard enough that she slings forward in her harness, hard enough that there'll be bruises on her shoulders tomorrow -- if she's lucky. And then up, a twist, and over the peak, down the other side. Slow enough to tempt, but everywhere, erratic.

Apparently the abrupt gesture is unexpected by the raider. Maybe it doesn't compute, because -- too slow -- the raider fires as he comes on her suddenly nearer viper -- but Kestrel's erratic flying means he can't get a clear shot. There's mostly misses, but she can feel the shudder or two as some of the rounds pierce her ship. Nothing vital enough that the alarms don't intensify, anyway.
"That's some nice flying there, Kestrel," comes Nails' voice. Can he actually see her where he's set up, in waiting? Maybe, but probably not.
"I have it in range, jamming now." Mince's voice is level, none of the earlier strain. Maybe there was a conversation between the raptor occupants she wasn't privy to. Either way, the shots ease up, swinging wider and slamming into the ground and mountains they pass over.

Taking damage mid-roll is strange: the canopy is struck, and pieces of ballistics glass whirl in the interior air and seem to hover endlessly, winking as they tumble end over end. Her throat is closed around the knot that she suspects must be her heart, lodged there forever. There's no horizon anymore, this close -- just an electrified awareness of how close she is to the terrain and how close the Raider is to her tail and how close those shots are as they whip past her canopy and Nails, bless his heart, hands her a kindness over the radio and all she can think is SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP JUST SHUT UP because everything is coming at her so quickly that it's all she can do to process what's in front of her. No tomorrow. No thirty seconds from now. Just this peak and that bank and that thermal pushing her out of alignment, that KEW fire, that new alarm in the cockpit. The glances she can spare over her shoulder are unkind to every tendon in her neck, but it's still there. Still with her.
Ten different kinds of eternity later, she emerges from the opposite side of the range streaking smoke that braids together with her contrails. Inside the helmet her face shines with a cold sweat. "We're inbound-"
Then not inbound. In. As the walls surge in toward her aircraft it feels to Ines as though they're going to simply slam closed on her, stony jaws, and she feels a pang of something like panic. It's almost bad. It causes her to freeze.
And then she braces her boots and yanks on that center stick as hard as she can, like she could arch her back through her seat itself.

Given enough time -- maybe a few more seconds -- the raider would be right behind her. But that's not the plan. Nails' raptor is waiting, as promised, talons streaking towards the raider. She can feel the shudder beneath, the explosion that's intensified by the nearness of the walls, trying to reach upward after her before dying away.
A moment, two, an eternity of silence, then, "Splash one. Good work, Kestrel." Nails sounds pleased, but it doesn't last long. "Report in. Do you need to RTB?" she can't hear it directly, but Mince's voice, echoing through Nails' comms: "I've got Banger's location."

The chaos of it all means that when it happens and that brisance folds over her viper from behind, she is -- for just one moment -- not sure which of the two of them the explosion belongs to. And then she's coasting up into open air and blue skies, listening to the alarms but otherwise --

She sags back against her seat. Lets go of the controls completely. One held breath leaves her in a rush that, combined with those earlier maneuvers and the sheer relief, has her feeling light-headed. She lets herself pass through to the other side of that before she swings the bird around, dropping back into a more sedate rate of speed. She sits forward, and can feel the tremble in her fingers as she begins combing through alerts. "No critical systems were hit but I wouldn't want to catch another patrol out here like this. Let's RTB." And, after a lengthy pause, half-laughing in giddy decompression of that strain: "You don't know how much I appreciate you right now." They might be able to hazard a guess, though.

"Roger that. It looks like Banger is vectoring in on us. Suspect his comms are fried." Probably true, given Banger barely shut up the entire time of their patrol, his silence unusual. Nails' raptor joins her, moments later, settling alongside her viper.
"And same to you, Kestrel. This works both ways," Nails says, with a hint of wry humor.
And that might be that, except Mince can't help himself, voice dropping all pretence: "Are you frakking kidding? That was some hot-damn-shit there. Damn near messed myself."
"Please don't," comes Nails' firm voice, though there's a hint of humor audible all the same.

Settling in with a new unit is hard. For Ines, the soldiers she worked alongside after the Uprising filled a crater in her -- an enormous hole where everything else used to be. Leaving them was, and remains, one of the hardest things she's done since the war began.
Just then, though? Returning to base with her flight, everyone alive, all of these disparate lives woven together by the willingness to put it all on the line -- and then somehow laugh about it after the fact? There's a surge of affection in her so strong that it feels like a fist. It takes her a moment to even find room to breathe.
"Let's just...go home," she manages, eventually, through an idiot smile she can't seem to get rid of.


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