Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Who is the 523rd

The 523rd is a reconnaissance and survey unit charged with charting possible battlefields among the stars, and keeping an eye on enemy movements. These were not risky missions despite their distance away from the safety of the fleet’s galactic patrols.

Twenty one ships and 50 men rotated in three shifts to maintain a 24-hour watch over the stars. In the early days, the missions were long and dreary, lonely trips through the dark vacuum of space. Nebula borders were mapped, asteroid trajectories charted, and the occasional enemy patrol shadowed. Day after day. Sure, there came the occasional excitement in the routine with the transfer of the squadron to a new task force, or with the discovery of new and unknown stellar phenomena. But those days were far and few between, and rarely even discussed at the watering hole. The men of the 523rd were not proud pilots, nor were they volunteers to the squadron. Many even despised the unit because assignment to the 523rd, since its inception, has always been as a punishment for those undisciplined pilots of other squadrons.

“Give’em a stint in the 523rd. That’ll cool their jets.”

The squadron was piloted by the rejects of the fleet. These were not bad pilots; bad pilots were weeded out at the academy. These were just men who had more fight than the fleet could provide them with. Surly, angry at the galaxy, faces full of each others’ fists, many pilots decided a year in the brig was better than a year in the 523rd.

Then came Captain Dick “Rip” Sagan.
Rip was a flight commander in the 998th Blue Devils until a fist across the face of a rear admiral earned the captain reassignment. It had all been a political move: The rear admiral goaded Rip into the punch. With Rip reassigned, the rear admiral could get his son into the Blue Devils. Rip punched the rear admiral’s son, too.

Rip was a warrior, and he would not let assignment to the 523rd be punishment. It may have been a survey squadron, but as long as the ships had wings and engines Rip could use them in a fight. There were always torpedoes, rockets, and other older weapon systems sitting unused in remote armories. During his stint with the Blue Devils, Rip memorized the location every single Galacteer armory, be it near a colony, on a moon, or secreted away on some remote asteroid. And he had learned the favorite drink of every one of those armories’ quartermasters; One of his first actions after arriving at the 523rd was to fill the squadron’s command ship with cases of liquor. Rip rarely used this ship in combat; the liquor needed to be kept safe.
The men of the 523rd didn’t realize, nor did they care, that Captain Sagan was assigned as their new commanding officer. But they realized they might actually like this commander when, on the day of his first survey mission, Rip had all the sensory equipment stripped from his ships, and torpedoes slung to the wings.

“Sir, what kind of mission is it today?”
“Close in, lieutenant Drummond. Very close in.”
“Close in? Are there new orders then, sir?”
“New orders? No, lieutenant, we’re just going to recon the Phoenix Nebula.”
“Near the Imperial border, sir?”
“Yes, near the Imperial border. And when we arrive, I expect we might find some enemy ships. When we do, I want the fighters to cover our flanks while we’ll drop off these data-gathering pods.”
Rip patted the warhead of one of the old Mk II space torpedoes.
“Data-gathering pods, sir?” the lieutenant said with a smile. “What kind of data do ‘these’ gather?”
“The exploding kind. Now go tell the flight we’re launching an hour early. I think the old Bulldog knows some of his torpedoes are missing.”

Every pilot of the squadron was on hand for the launch of a mission that could otherwise have been routine. They had never seen torpedoes strapped to those smaller class II ships. And it would not be the last time they’d see those ugly yellow and gray ships so armed. Captain Sagan, or just “Rip” to thos around him, made it a habit of extending his missions, to the dangerous delight of his men.

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