2948-10-06 – Tales from the Service: The Winnowing of Hawthorn Squadron 

In our first installment of Tales from the Service featuring the fighting at Margaux (Tales from the Service: The Bumpy Ride to Margaux), we had a limited view of the Marine Pumas of Hawthorn Squadron escorting dropships down to the planet’s surface. 

In ensuing weeks, Commander Rory Vargas, that squadron’s commanding officer, has reached out with his own account. He confirms that the drop to Margaux was his first as squadron leader – and reveals in his own contribution to this series that command of Hawthorn Squadron has not been all he hoped it would be. 

Of the twelve pilots and craft in the squadron when it departed Gerard Lovell at full strength that day, the unit was withdrawn from active service on Margaux in the last week of September with only five pilots remaining. Of those five, Vargas and one other have been put on psychological leave behind the lines (which is probably the only reason he had time to write an account for us). Twelve capable Marine flyers were ground down to just three in a bit more than four weeks of action.

As sad as these losses are, Vargas’s squadron is credited with a number of instances of meritorious conduct, and rumor is that he is being considered for a Centaur Cross for his tireless service on Margaux - in the month they were on the line, they performed nearly daily close ground support and interdiction missions over Incarnation lines.

[N.T.B. - Tireless, hells – the man is a wreck. Based on what he sent us, it looks to me like he’ll snap if they give him a medal and try to call him a hero. He seems to think the people deserving the medals – especially his late XO, one Lieutenant Radkov – are the ones who never made it back to base.] 

Commander Rory Vargas took off from the landing pad just like he was on a close air support run for the front-line Marines. The Incarnation’s eyes in the sky wouldn’t be able to tell his squadron was outfitted for orbital forays instead of ground-hugging support duty until it was too late.  

As he circled over the rendezvous position and watched the other four Pumas in Hawthorn Squadron rise from their pads and form up, Rory tried and failed to avoid thinking about the other seven Pumas which had rocketed from Gerard Lovell’s hangar alongside him four weeks before. All but Mizutani had made it down to Judicael safely on the first day, and with the enemy’s deadly-agile Coronachs being all but useless when subject to the friction and stresses imposed by an atmosphere, he’d dared to hope that ground support for Lovell’s Marines would be a cakewalk.  

He hadn’t been at Mereena, but he’d heard from the few Marine strike pilots who’d participated that the Incarnation seemed to care little about the deadly dance of the Pumas over their heads, even when that dance showered their troops with ordinance. The big Sirocco ground-attack gunships were tough enough and defensively armed against interceptors, but on Mereena pilots had reported taking almost no fire from the ground. 

Margaux had proved quite different. The Incarnation, between Margaux and Mereena, had found a way to solve the Puma problem. Autonomous, fast-tracking laser mounts had been mounted on any vehicle with a large enough roof to take one. When Rory’s squadron had appeared over the battlespace on the third day after arrival to wreck a column moving across one of the Causey’s rare open spaces, the sky above the enemy formation had almost literally burned with their interlocking beams. Klement and Sarkozy were gone before anyone knew what was happening. Rory had called a retreat, but Williamson’s craft had taken too much damage to make it back to Judicael. She had ejected before it came apart and her gravitic featherpack had registered its landing position behind enemy lines before falling silent. Rory prayed she had been killed, because the unpersoning horrors that might be in store for her if she was still alive did not bear contemplation. 

They had revised their tactics, roaring down canyons to hide from enemy sensors until the last second, but that too had its risks. On the eighth day on Margaux, Aarden had suffered a systems fault during a high-speed canyon run and plowed into a protruding rock formation. The flight techs at Judicael had sworn to Rory that Aarden’s Puma had been working perfectly when he dusted off, but Rory remained convinced that they had missed something. The deepening bags under their eyes even then told a tale of overwork, with too little expertise being spread thin across too many squadrons. Between servicing the Navy’s loaned Magpies, the Marines’ Pumas, the FDA’s fleet of overpriced Kosseler Wyverns and superannuated Jie Yu Yerens, and the half-dozen patchwork mercenary squadrons who had appeared from somewhere, the ground crews barely seemed to have time to sleep. 

After Aarden’s date with the Margaux terrain, Rory and his fellow pilots had started servicing their own craft on the pads to try to keep the ground crew from having complete breakdowns. They lost a little sleep, but it seemed to help reduce the rate of inexplicable systems failures. The pilots of the Yeren squadron assigned to share their hangar started doing the same, and soon half the entire base’s flight crew were pulling second shifts in blue coveralls. Rory’s squadron went a full nine days without losing any craft or pilots, and he began to think they had reached the mythical cakewalk phase, where their tactics brought something to Margaux the enemy could not properly counter. 

Sunden getting hit was bad luck, really. He had done everything right as he closed in for the kill on a wounded Sirocco limping back to its own home field, but the Sirocco’s rear-swiveling guns had pulled off a one-in-a-million shot, skewering Sunden’s Puma with a heavy particle beam. At least it had been instantaneous. The poor kid, Rory thought, had probably crossed the Sea of Glass still trying to pull the trigger for his forward guns. 

The final straw for Rory’s spirit, though, had been Radkov, who’d made the same one-way journey into eternity only three days ago. She had been his second in command, and everyone had considered her the best pilot in the squadron in terms of raw ability. Rory had quietly recommended her conduct for award consideration no less than five times since he’d first set foot on Margaux’s poisoned soil. At the controls of the agile Puma, she could dance through impossible storms of laser-fire without even getting her paint scorched. She was the closest thing to an Immortal pilot the Confederated defenders had – and since the Incarnation’s elite super-soldiers couldn’t use their reflexes flying a lumbering Sirocco and couldn’t bring Coronachs to an atmospheric fight, that had made her the queen of the Margaux skies. 

“Hawthorn Actual, Thunderbird reports ready-op.” 

Rory jumped in his restraints as the ground-side controller interrupted his morose thoughts. A quick scan of the board showed all his squadron’s Pumas at the ready altitude, their status indicators green. Today, they weren’t going for a ground-hugging, stomach-clenching ride over enemy lines. The life-line of wounded going up and supplies coming down needed to be maintained once more. For the time being, the Incarnation fleet couldn’t hold orbital station over the Causey redoubt without being served a hefty helping of surface-launched heavy missiles. “Hawthorn is ready-op." 

There was a brief pause, then the controller spoke again. “Begin your run, Commander.” 

Rory flicked his status indicator control to get his pilots’ attention, then set his Puma on a pre-arranged flight path. The other interceptors formed up in line behind him, just as discussed. For the first minutes of their run, it would appear that they were heading for the network of canyons that would shield them on their approach to enemy lines.  

Meanwhile, Thunderbird, a mercenary-operated pinnace filled to the gills with Marine wounded, was heaving itself off a pad at Outpost Abbott eighty klicks away and straining for the sky. It would, to anyone watching sensor plots on the enemy side of the line, look like the pinnace was un-escorted, since Hawthorn’s remaining Pumas were flying like they were equipped – for ground support, not orbital operations. 

The ruse would hopefully draw out any Coronachs left in stealthy geo-sync orbits over Causey. When they attacked, Rory and his fellow pilots would pull up suddenly, cut their gravitic drive units, and engage the old-fashioned disposable liquid-fuel boosters strapped to their interceptors’ bellies, rocketing up to low orbit in about thirty seconds. The Coronachs could stay and fight, or they could quit the area. In either case, there were almost thirty other small transports waiting on the ground for the way to be clear. Once they broke orbit and began their outward acceleration, it would quickly become impossible for enemy interceptors to catch up to them. 

As his squadron dipped low as if to make their canyon run, Rory remembered the enthusiastic laughter Agata Radkov had, perhaps inadvertently, broadcast on the squadron comms channel as she closed in for the kill on an enemy troop-ferry aircraft which had strayed into their area of operations. The kill had been her last. She had grown increasingly gleeful with the bloody work on Margaux as everyone else became exhausted and resigned, as if weariness could never touch her. She had never lost any of her finesse, and Rory had thought, watching her hurtle toward her victim, that she would be the last one of Hawthorn Squadron to survive. 

Five seconds after he had thought she was invincible, Radkov’s Puma exploded. Three days later, he still didn’t know what had taken her down – he had not seen any signs of ground fire and Incarnation air ferries were barely armed, surely not well enough to cause that kind of sudden loss. There was no ejection, no chance of surviving that inferno – she had been blotted out of the sky she had ruled for nearly a month. It was as if the universe had simply conspired to blot her out.

“Thunderbird reports cold-starts in low orbit. Hawthorn, you are go.” 

Before the controller back at Judicael had even finished his report, Rory had already pulled up on his control column. “Liquid fuel boosters online. We’re going to space the old-fashioned way today, boys and girls.” 

Two seconds later, the Puma’s main drive cut out, and with it the inertial isolation unit. After an instant of sickening weightlessness, Rory was crushed back into his chair by multiple gees of acceleration as he rode a column of roaring primeval fire toward the Coronachs who had revealed their positions overhead. A quick glance at the plot showed the others right behind him. Five Pumas against what looked like six Coronachs – nearly even odds, but Rory knew his squadron had the advantage. Sitting in orbit to raid supply ships wouldn’t be a duty saved for Nate’s best pilots, and Hawthorn, even now, was still among the best. 

The ghost of a familiar whooping cheer played across Rory’s imagination, and his craft’s shuddering ascent freed a single tear from his right eye. He had sent his letter of condolence to Agata Radkov’s family on Maribel only a few hours before dustoff – they likely already had the news that she was gone. “Agata, you would have loved this ride.”