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Kalidor

Steel Talons (Chapter 1 - Cloak and Dagger)

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Airship Freeloader

Somewhere over the Gulf of Kaedwan

Year 1, Day 165

 

'Still no response from the airship, Captain!'

Captain "Lucky" Jack Kerman hissed through his clenched teeth in vexation. It was not the radio operator's fault that they could not establish communications with the derelict airship drifting about three kilometres ahead of them.

'Keep trying, lad!'

Leaving the radio operator to adjust the dials on the wireless Jack opened a hatch near the rear of the command deck and slid down the ladder into the forward observation cupola. From this vantage point beneath the airship he was rewarded with a commanding view of the Gulf of Kaedwan - shimmering in the early morning sunlight. On the horizon he could just make out the distant shores of Kaedwaani Peninsular and friendly airspace.

Like most of the private airship captains Jack worked for the Kerbin Reconstruction Authority - transporting cargo and supplies between colonies and settlements all over Kerbin. In the aftermath of the Great War which had engulfed the planet thirty years previously huge swathes of the planet were still heavily irradiated from the nuclear fallout. Airships became the most efficient way of transporting cargo between the surviving settlements - soaring gracefully over the ruined landscape above the worst of the radiation.

Jack could still remember emerging from the White Forest fallout shelter on Kaedwan with other survivors ten years after the bombs gad fallen to find the lush green planet they had left behind a distant memory. Instead they found a poisoned world barely fit for habitation. Despite the challenges ahead the survivors had founded the Kerbin Reconstruction Authority (KRA) and brought together some of the finest scientific minds to begin the mammoth task of rebuilding their ruined home world. Securing a supply of fresh water was the priority and fortunately the underground streams and rivers flowing through the mountains remained uncontaminated. Whilst having enough supplies in the fallout shelters to last for ten years the KRA made securing a new food source a high priority.

The solution was algae.

Grown in subterranean farms in the caves beneath the Kaedwan Mountains algae came in a number of different forms which proved useful to the surviving population. Green algae had a high nutritional value and was used to make food in the form of a yucky green paste which smelled awful but did not taste too bad. Blue algae was used as a antibiotic to fight infections and potent red algae - though highly addictive - was an effective painkiller.

Jack had been an aeronautical engineer before the war and he had volunteered to spend the next five years of his life in the darkness building the vital algae farms that would provide food and medicine for the survivors - putting his skills to good use. When the KRA ordered the construction of Freeloader and her sisters ships to look for survivors and transport supplies he had offered his services and swiftly rose up through the ranks to become the overseer of Freeloader's construction and was awarded the captaincy for his hard work and dedication.

For twenty years he had captained the airship and travelled the length and breadth of Kerbin - delivering supplies to far-flung colonies and fighting off attacks by pirates and red algae smugglers. He even had time to raise a family on board with his chief mechanic. His wife had died several years earlier and raising his children alone had been hard, but extremely rewarding. Both his sons and daughter were vital members of his faithful crew and having them aboard made the long journeys bearable.

Only six months earlier Jack and Freeloader had been reassigned from cargo duty to the costly and quite frankly ambitious project of Dr. Werner Von-Kerman. The Kerbin Space Agency was tasked with restoring global communications and locating resources from orbit which could be used in other building projects. Despite a few teething issues the agency had been successful in launching their first satellite - Stayputnik 1 - only a few months before. This was swiftly followed by the launch of the Kerballed spaceflight of Trailblazer 1. Piloted by adventure seeker and industrialist Jebediah Kerman the space capsule had spent three hours orbiting Kerbin before returning to the surface. Following the success of the mission the goals and ambitions of Dr. Werner and the Space Agency grew exponentially - ranging from orbital facilities to the mining of raw materials from the Mun and asteroids.

As it turned out Jack found himself working directly for Jebediah's Junk Yard on occasion - delivering scrap metal and components located during scavenging missions which were smelted and used to build fuel tanks and rocket engines for the space agency. Despite his devil may care personality he found Jebediah to be a quietly dedicated individual - taking great pride in his accomplishments and that of his company.

At the front of the viewing cupola was an antique wooden ships wheel. The object was purely decorative and Jack had traded some engine components for it on Korvega a few years back. This decoration was shortly joined by a battered but still usable ship's compass which sat behind the wheel and an antique globe of Kerbin as it was before the Great War. They were small touches but their addition made the cupola seem more homely to Jack and he spent much of his free time here.

He was not here to relax now.

Reaching into his pocket he produced his well used battered spyglass and slid it open. Placing it to his eye he scanned the derelict airship in the distance - searching for any sign of life on board. There were several gaping holes and scorch marks on the airship structure whilst the cupola had been torn completely away.

She's not one of ours!

Jack knew the design of Freeloader and her sister ships intimately and this particular vessel belonged to a design that he was unfamiliar with. He guessed it was probably from one of the frontier colonies from up north near the poles. 'Why is she this far South?' he muttered under his breath. Lowering his spyglass he reached over to the panel beside him and picked up the receiver. 'Wes? Are you seeing what I'm seeing?'

The voice of Wesley Kerman - his longsuffering quartermaster - came back strong over the speaker. 'There'll be a lot of good salvage over there, skipper!'

'Too good an opportunity to miss,' Jack agreed. If they towed the derelict into port they would get a handsome reward from the KRA - maybe enough to replace some of the overworked engines aboard Freeloader. 'Let's send a recovery crew over there and find out what happened.'

Switching off the radio Jack climbed up the ladder back to the command deck - calling out to Wes as he poked his head through the hatch. 'Set course for the derelict...,' he closed the hatch behind him. '...and sound battle stations!'

Wes arched a questioning eyebrow in his direction - prompting Jack to grin.

'Nothing is ever this easy, Wes!'

 

Quite unfairly the klaxons above Joseph Kerman's bunk went off as he was in the middle of a pleasant dream. Rolling off the top bunk he landed in a crouch on the floor and began fumbling to put his boots on. His older brother, Todd, grunted as he sat bolt upright in bed - hitting his head on the mattress of the upper bunk and staring around in confusion.

Joe tossed his brother's shoes onto his chest - knocking the air out of Todd's and they landed on him with a thump. 'Come on...,' he called urgently. '...there'll be hell to pay if the old man finds out we were late.'

The door to their shared cabin was flung open and Rosie - Joe's older sister - hammered on the bulkhead with her fist. 'Wake up lazy bones. Dad's called everybody to battle stations!'

'I'm coming...,' Todd grunted as he pulled his shoes on.

Together the three siblings hurried through the cavernous superstructure of the Freeloader towards the ladder which led towards the flight deck secured beneath the airship. There they would each board one of the five Jackdaw bi-planes that Jack kept aboard for security duties and assume a patrol formation around the airship.

Sliding down the ladder they emerged from the hatch into the cool breeze of the exposed flight deck to find a scene of organised chaos as mechanics and armourers hurried to ready the aircraft for launch. Todd flagged down the chief mechanic. 'What's going on Chief?'

'The skipper spotted a derelict,' the Kerbal replied impatiently. 'We're sending a team over to check it out! You're going to fly cover for them!'

Joe zipped up his flight jacket and thumped his brother in the shoulder blade. 'Let's get moving before Dad gives us a hard time for being late!'

'Too late!' Rosie muttered.

Joe looked guilty as he turned to see his father stride onto the deck in his flight gear wearing a disapproving expression. His children were supposed to be on alert and it had taken them far too long to reach the flight deck. Heck, they were not even in their fighters yet.

'It's a good job we aren't under attack,' Jack snapped. 'The battle would have been over by now before we even got a shot off.'

Todd made a face. 'Maybe if we had quarters closer to the flight deck instead of towards the rear of the ship we might get here a little quicker!'

Joe braced himself for the scolding that his brother was likely to receive. His elder brother had inherited their mother's fiery temperament and often brought him into conflict with his father. To his surprise though, Jack let the matter slide and gestured to the nearby fighters.

'We can discuss room assignments later,' he called. 'Right now we have to get these fighters in the air.'

Joe playfully accepted a good luck punch in the upper arm from Todd and hurried towards his red fighter - decorated with a black and gold chequerboard pattern along the fuselage. Scrambling up onto the lower wing he crawled along it and clambered into the cramped confines of the open cockpit.

'Did you manage to fix that oil leak?' he called to his mechanic.

'What do you think?' the burly sleep-deprived Kerbal grunted as he tossed Joe's leather flight cap to him.

'Gee, somebody got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning!' Joe chuckled as he switched on the fuel pumps and batteries before holding down the starter button. After a brief hesitation the powerful radial engine in front of the cockpit roared into life - sending the familiar vibrations through the fuselage. Reaching to his right he switched on the radio and heard his father's voice almost immediately.

'Once we're clear of the flight deck I want Joe and Rosie to fly cover for Freeloader whilst Todd and I fly out to the derelict to check it out,' Jack barked. 'Keep your eyes on swivels. I've got a bad feeling about this one!'

Joe's skin began to crawl as he subconsciously patted the ammunition box near his left leg. They did not call his father Lucky Jack for nothing - his hunches often proved to be right. Reaching down he pulled the charging handle for the twin .50 calibre cannons in the nose of his fighter.

The Jackdaw was a common sight aboard airships. The small bi-plane was incredibly light yet durable enough to withstand the stresses of being launched and captured by the trapeze - essentially a metal bar hanging below the airship that the bi-plane hooked on to before being brought aboard. In the technological drought following the aftermath of the Great War and escort aircraft not having the range to keep the airships safe the Jackdaw was the only thing standing between an airship's crew and an air pirate attack. There was no single factory producing the Jackdaw design - rather the design schematics were purchased and the aircraft were assembled from whatever materials were available, powered by reconditioned engines and armed with whatever was available. No two Jackdaw's were alike and escort pilots became very attached to their aircraft. The radial engine powering Joe's aircraft for example had once powered an airship and was scrapped after breaking down one-too-many times. It took six weeks to beg, borrow and steal the parts to recondition the engine for installation aboard his Jackdaw but the end result was worth it.

Turning to his right Joe gave his mechanic a thumbs-up sign. The Kerbal reached for the control panel beside the aircraft and hauled down a lever. With a lurch the Jackdaw was lifted off the flight deck and rocked to-and-fro as a telescopic piston extended - suspending the plane in mid-air parallel to the flight deck. Throttling up slightly Joe reached up with his left and an pulled a lever - releasing the Jackdaw from the trapeze and cutting him loose from the airship.

Pushing the throttle to full-power Joe built up his airspeed in a gentle dive towards the ocean below before gaining altitude and looping back towards Freeloader to assume his escort position. Todd's green and gold aircraft followed the sky blue Jackdaw belonging to his father - his older brother waggling his wings as he passed by. Aboard Freeloader the anti-aircraft gunners clambered into the gun pits dotted along the superstructure - ready to fend off any unfriendly aircraft that got too close.  Pushing his anxiety to one side Joe kept his eyes peeled for any sign of trouble as he circled the airship and waited to receive the all clear from his father.

 

Todd whistled over the radio as Jack led him towards the derelict airship. 'Whoever attacked this thing sure had access to some powerful weapons.'

Glancing to his left Jack scanned the remains of the cupola as he flew past. It looked as though somebody had let a swarm of mutated termites loose - the structure was peppered with holes bigger than his fist.

'Wait a minute...,' Todd called excitedly. 'I'm picking up a faint radio signal, Dad. It must be coming over a short range transmitter because I've only just picked it up.'

'What's it saying?' Jack called urgently. 'Are there any survivors? Do they need medical aid?'

'Hang on...,' Todd called irritably. 'It's an automated Signal Code. I'm a bit rusty so I'm writing it down to decode it.'

Jack's shoulder's sagged as his hopes of finding survivors were dashed. Somebody must have recorded the signal code - transmitted as a series of dots and dashes - and set it to transmit on an endless loop. Circling the airship he waited patiently for Todd to decode the message.

'It's something about the attack...,' Jack called. 'It sounds like they were stationed at Blizzard Bay and were rerouted down here to deliver a message to the KRA.'

'What was the message?' Jack inquired.

'It doesn't say...,' Todd replied distractedly. 'Just a set of co-ordinates and the word 'Kondor' before the message repeats.'

Jack's skin began to crawl as something on the horizon caught his eye - the sun glinting off several metallic objects in the distance. They were still some distance away but his gut instinct told him that they were not friendly. Gunning his engine he looped around the back of the derelict and back towards Freeloader.

'We're going to have company!' he called urgently over the open frequency. 'Todd and I are moving to intercept. Joe, Rosie; pick up any that make it through,' he glanced over his shoulder to make sure Todd was on his wing. 'Wes; get Freeloader out of here before she ends up like that derelict. Tell the gunners to shoot anything that isn't us!'

'Dad?!' Rosie yelled over the radio 'What's going on?'

'There's no time to explain!' Jack snapped. 'Just do as I say!'

Jack's heart pounded in his chest and he forced himself to breathe deeply. Reaching up he hauled back the lever to charge the cannons located on the upper wing of his Jackdaw.

The distant shapes quickly closed on the derelict - revealing themselves to be aircraft of a design that Jack had not seen since the war. With a loud screech from their twin jet engines they flashed either side of his cockpit and headed towards the derelict.

'Banshees!' Jack hissed. 'Four of them!'

'As in Imperial fighters?' Todd gasped. 'I thought they were all destroyed during the war!'

'Apparently not!' Jack snapped as he looped around to pursue the enemy fighters... very slowly! 'They might have faster planes than us but we have the edge in manoeuvrability. Don't let them get on your tail or they'll tear you to shreds with their cannons.'

The enemy fighters opened fire on the derelict with a salvo of unguided rockets mounted next to the engines beneath their wings. The warheads hit the damaged airship and penetrated the superstructure - igniting the remaining gasbags in a blinding explosion.

'Holy hell!' Todd yelped! The remains of the airship began a slow descent towards the ocean below - the wreckage feeding the fires that raged along its flammable surface.

Two of the enemy fighters had turned to engage Freeloader and Jack cursed helplessly as he bounced back and forward in his seat in a vain attempt to get the plane to go faster.

 

Joe saw the derelict go up like a giant firework and figured that Freeloader would be next. Whoever attacked the airship did not want to leave behind any survivors to reveal their existence. Pushing forward his throttle he led Rosie towards a pair of enemy fighters closing rapidly on the bow of Freeloader.

'Oh no you don't!' he grunted. Dropping the crude targeting reticule mounted to the front of his cockpit over the lead fighter he pulled the trigger on his yoke - feeling the vibrations rock his plane as the twin .50 calibre guns opened fire. The pilot of the lead fighter broke of his attack run with his wingman following in his wake. As the aircraft flashed past Joe caught a glimpse of a Kerbal wearing a leather flying cap.

'They're coming around!' Rosie called urgently. 'Stay on my wing and we'll catch them on the other side of Freeloader.'

At once the gunners aboard Freeloader opened fire on the enemy fighters - throwing up a wall of flak between the airship and the attackers that would make it difficult for them to get close. The gunnery crews had been through this drill dozens of times against pirates and they knew what was expected of them.

Jack followed Rosie's purple Jackdaw as she led them over the manoeuvring fins at the back of the airship. Due to their high speed the enemy fighters needed a much larger radius to turn around and by the time they had lined up for another attack on Freeloader both Joe and Rosie were closing in to attack.

'Don't spare any bullets,' Rosie yelled - suiting words to action by opening fire.

Jack levelled his crosshairs on the second fighter and opened fire - watching the tracers flash past the wings of the enemy aircraft as they flashed past. He was certain that he had landed a few shots and glanced over his shoulder - feeling a surge of elation as he caught sight of one of the aircraft streaming black smoke from her engine.

'Good shooting, little brother!' Rosie called gleefully. The damaged aircraft broke off her attack and headed away from the engagement - too fast for either of them to pursue. At least they had narrowed the odds a little.

The remaining fighter flashed towards Freeloader and Joe clenched his fists around the yoke in desperation - powerless to do anything about it.

He need not have worried as a huge piece of flak from the airships gunners clipped the starboard wing of the enemy fighter - snapping it clean off and sending the fighter into a death spiral towards the ocean.

'You hotshots can't have all the glory!' Wesley called smugly over the radio. 'We'll never get your swollen heads back on the flight deck!'

Joe laughed nervously - the apprehension he had felt moments before quickly evaporating. If the attackers had learned one thing during the attack it was that Freeloader and her crew were not to be underestimated.

Watch it Dad there's one on your tail!

Joe's blood ran cold at the sound of Todd's urgent call. He glanced over towards the flaming derelict as it plunged towards the ocean - desperate to catch sight of his father's plane.

 

Jack grinned as Wesley delivered his stinging rebuke. He would find some way to get even with his quartermaster once they were safely back aboard Freeloader. He triggered a burst of fire at as an enemy fighter flashed past and hissed in vexation when it continued on without any problems.

'Watch it Dad there's one on your tail!'

Instinctively Jack flipped his Jackdaw up on its left wing and banked has hard as he could to avoid being hit. Cannon fire flashed either side of his cockpit - smashing the windshield in front of him before the Banshee flashed past. He peered up to see a gaping hole in his upper wing and gulped - patting himself down to see if there were any holes in him. Aside from his flight controls feeling a bit sluggish there did not seem to be any major damage.

'He's coming around for another pass,' Todd called urgently. 'Hang tight, I'm coming!'

Jack was about to make a wiseass comment when he noticed that his attacker's wingman had broken off and was headed towards Freeloader. 'Negative, one of them is lining up for another attack on Freeloader! Todd, can you see him?'

'I see him...,' Rosie interrupted. 'Go and help Dad, Todd. He's mine!'

Jack glanced up to see Todd's Jackdaw open fire on his attacker as the Banshee finished its loop. The enemy aircraft banked sharply to the right to avoid the worst of the incoming fire - throwing off his attack run. Jack's shoulders sagged in relief as he forced himself to exhale.

'My guns are jammed!'

Jack's relief quickly became concern as Todd broke off his attack. Even at this distance he could make out his eldest son leaning out of his cockpit - hammering the jammed weapon to unblock the jam with the hammer he kept by his side for just such an occasion.

Taking advantage of Todd's distraction the enemy pilot turned to engage Jack again and opened fire. Throwing his aircraft to the left in a barrel roll Jack felt the vibrations of several hits. Oil burst from the cowling around the engine and splashed over his goggles. Quickly pulling them off he glanced over his shoulder to see the enemy fighter on his tail - the pilot deploying his landing flaps to slow down.

'I'm not making this easy for you!' Jack growled - pushing his stick forward and diving towards the flaming airship wreckage. He felt the  heat from the flames brush his face as he passed the structure. The enemy pilot followed him down - firing constantly and scoring more hits on Jack's plane.

Jack broke hard left - swooping towards the empty space between the bottom of the airship and cupola secured below in a last ditch effort to shake off his attacker. He let out a whoop as he passed through the gap - only for it to turn into a scream as a large girder fell from the superstructure directly into the path of his plane. Throwing up his hands in front of his eyes he barely had time to gasp...

 

Todd helplessly watched the enemy fighter hammer away at his father's plane with its cannons and tossed the useless hammer towards it in frustration. Jack's plane suddenly banked left and flew through the remains of the flaming airship in a last ditch effort to escape his attacker - prompting Todd to shake his head in wonderment.

That was a gutsy move, pop!

He waited for Jack's plane to emerge from the other side of the wreckage as the enemy fighter broke of his attack and broke contact - most likely trying to regain altitude and rejoin the battle against Freeloader. It would be up to Joe and Rosie to protect the airship now. His weapons were useless and he doubted that his father's Jackdaw would be in any fit shape to fly after weathering the attack.

When Jack's fighter did not emerge from the wreckage after several moments Todd's heat sank. His voice cracked as he called over the radio - receiving nothing but static in return.

'Dad?!'

The flaming wreckage plummeted to the ocean below and hit the water - sending up clouds of steam as the fires raging over the surface were extinguished. Todd cruised low over the debris - desperately searching for any sign of his father's aircraft or sign of life.

Dad!!

 

Joe whistled as he saw Rosie's jackdaw pepper the enemy fighter with machinegun fire - shattering the glass cockpit as the fighter flew past. Instead of breaking apart the banshee dipped its nose forward in an uncontrolled dive towards the ocean - ploughing into the waves.

'Remind me never to get on your bad side!' he quipped as Rosie executed a victory roll and turned back towards him.

'I'm sorry to interrupt the celebrations...,' Wes barked. '...but we've still got a fighter making an attack run against us!'

Joe glanced around to find the fighter as Rosie re-joined his wing. 'I thought Dad said there were only four fighters!

'One of them must have given Dad and Todd the slip,' Joe grimaced. 'We won't make it in time!'

Freeloader's gunners opened fire on the rapidly approaching fighter as it sped towards them at breakneck speed. Joe narrowed his eyes as the enemy pilot showed no sign of breaking off his attack - making a suicidal run directly towards the airship with no regard for his safety.

'Wait...!' Rosie gasped. '...he's going to!'

The banshee ploughed into the side of Freeloader's superstructure and disappeared in a huge fireball.

'We're hit...!' Wesley called urgently over the radio. 'All hands abandon ship! Repeat; all hands abandon-'

In a blinding flash that shone like a second sun in the early morning sky Freeloader was consumed in a fiery explosion that obliterated the airship from stem to stern. The radio channel was still open and Joe winced as the sound of screams pierced the airwaves.

'Oh god...!' Rosie cried.

Joe watched helplessly as the remains of his family home rained down on the water below. His eyes stung as he flew through the black smoke from the fire raging on the surface and dabbed his face to find tears flooding down his cheeks. He followed Rosie in silence for several moments - his mind trying to process what had just happened as his sister sobbed down the radio - not even trying to hide the turmoil she was going through.

All those people...our friends. Gone!

'Rosie? Joe? Are you still out there?'

His heart leapt at the sound of his brother's voice. Swiping the sleeve of his flight suit across his nose he reached for the transmit button on his pilot yoke. 'Todd...Freeloader...she's gone!'

'I know!' Todd replied bitterly. 'There's nothing we can do about that now. How much fuel do you both have?'

Joe checked his gauge. 'I've got about quarter of a tank!'

'Rosie?'

Joe glanced over and saw his sister gazing down towards the flaming wreckage on the surface - seemingly oblivious to her brother's radio call.

'ROSIE!' Todd snapped.

'Sorry...,' Rosie sniffed, her voice sounding hoarse. 'I've got about half a tank left.'

'We're going to head for the Kaedwan coast,' Todd stated firmly. 'Cut your throttles and try and try to conserve fuel. The closer we get to Kaedwan the better chance we have of being rescued if we have to ditch.'

For the first time since building his Jackdaw Joe wished that he had opted for a less thirsty engine as he feathered the throttle and joined his brother's wing.

'Where's Dad?' she demanded. 'Todd, why isn't Dad with you?'

Joe's world was shattered for the second time that day as his brother's hoarse reply came over his headset.

'He's not coming!'

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Nice! I’m getting a ‘Tales of the Ketty Jay’ vibe here which is a good thing.

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CHAPTER 1

Kaedwan City Ruins

7 Days Later...

 

Preston Kerman - senior security advisor to the Kerbal Reconstruction Authority Council - instinctively reached into his coat packet to check that his trusty sidearm was still there and tightened the grip on his briefcase. A group of raggedly dressed Kerbals lingered at the corner of the alley warming their hands over a fire in a barrel and turned to watch him walk past. The last thing he wanted right now was an altercation but at least he could defend himself if things turned ugly.

Dark storm clouds hung over the ruined city and a light drizzle had began to fall as he hurriedly made his way through winding alleys and scrambled over fallen rubble. Kaedwan City had been heavily bombed during the war and was already in ruins before the nuclear bombs fell on the final day. As such - despite its state of disrepair - the city had lower levels of trace radiation and had become home to hundreds of refugees. Amidst the ruins small settlements sprang up overnight and a provisional government of Kaedwaani citizens had been formed to manage the rapidly growing community.

Clambering through the remains of an old school bus Preston finally reached his destination. An old bombed out textiles factory towered several stories above him. On the third floor he could just make out the dim light of a lantern - the agreed signal that his contact was already here and waiting for him to arrive. Glancing round to make sure he was not followed he entered the dark interior of the factory and made his way towards the iron staircase leading to the upper floor. Below him, the remains of machines littered the floor and torn fabric fluttered in the breeze. It was the eeriest place that Preston had ever set foot.

As he neared the doorway to what was once the foreman's office he reached down into his pocket and put a hand on his sidearm as a precautionary measure and pushed the door open. A smartly dressed Kerbal wearing a grey trilby hat leaned against the far wall turned at the sound of the squeaking hinges. Quickly glancing around the room Preston was satisfied that they were alone and closed the door behind him.

'What's with all the cloak and dagger?'

Huey Kerman - former air racer, social playboy and owner of Huey's Aircraft Company straightened and walked towards Preston. Above his top lip was a neatly trimmed moustache which seemed to add to his debonair mystique - a feature very popular with the females.

'It was necessary,' Preston extended his hand. 'The council doesn't exactly know that I'm here and I'd like to keep it that way if you don't mind.'

Huey took his outstretched hand and then gestured to a pair of chairs nearby. 'Would you like to tell me what's going on?'

Straight to business. I like him.

Preston followed him towards the chair and sat down - placing his briefcase on a nearby table and popping the latches open. From within he produced a tan folder and handed it to Huey. 'Several days ago one of our cargo airships - the Freeloader - was attacked and destroyed whilst investigating a derelict over the Gulf of Kaedwan.'

'Lucky Jack's ship,' Huey opened the folder and began scanning through the documents inside - grimacing as he reached a casualty report with a long list of names. 'Where there any survivors?'

'Just three,' Preston shifted to get comfortable in the hard chair. 'Lucky Jack's kids. One of them - Joseph; the youngest - was forced to ditch about two miles off the Kaedwan Coast but the others made it and raised the alarm.'

'Is he alright?' Huey shuddered. 'I wouldn't fancy taking a dip in the ocean. Does he glow in the dark now?'

'Aside from mild radiation poisoning and hypothermia he will be fine,' Preston assured him. 'Our doctors expect him to make a full recovery given enough time and rest.'

'Tough kid,' Huey flipped the pages. 'So, who was behind the attack? Pirates?'

'Most likely,' Preston rubbed his hands together and blew into them to keep warm. 'From the witness statements provided by Joseph and his siblings we know that there were four attacking aircraft. Based on their descriptions we are confident that they were KE-128 Fighters.'

'Banshees?!' Huey looked up in surprise. 'Where the hell did pirates get Banshees from?'

'Which brings me to the derelict that Lucky Jack was investigating,' Preston replied. 'During the attack a message was transmitted in signal code - a set of coordinates and some gibberish which I haven't made sense of yet. The coordinates are for a location in the South West Kumari Desert.'

'That's well clear of the main aviation routes,' Huey rubbed his chin. 'What's out there?'

'According to our maps, nothing,' Preston replied. 'Fortunately I was able to do some digging and found some geological and construction reports logged by an Imperial Engineering Team. They were examining the area in preparation for constructing a military airbase.'

'Did the Imperials ever finish the base?' Huey glanced up from the report.

'From what I've managed to glean from the reports, it was completed and became a forward repair and maintenance depot for the Imperial Air Force,' Preston explained. 'The Empire planned to open another front and this would have been their forward operations base for strikes against Kaedwan.'

The cogs in Huey's brain began turning at lightning speed. If the base was indeed a maintenance depot then that meant there would have been tools to fabricate new aircraft parts. 'How many squadrons were based there?'

'If the commander followed standard Imperial protocols I would suspect that it had one fighter wing stationed there to protect the base,' Preston shrugged. 'Who knows what else they stored there.'

'So we're looking at between thirty to forty fighters at least,' Huey whistled. Three squadrons of Banshees could upset the delicate balance of power in the region. The swept wing fighter was the first jet aircraft produced by the Empire and though it was only operational for a short time before the war ended Banshee pilots exacted a heavy toll on the slower piston engine fighters fielded by the Independent States. The final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place as Huey realised why Preston had summoned him. 'You want the designs for the Cutlass don't you?'

When the Banshee had first began appearing in combat theatres during the war the Kaedwaani Air Force was quick to act. After capturing an intact Banshee thanks to a defecting pilot Huey was allowed to examine the fighter and tasked with building and aircraft capable of competing against it. The KP-86 Cutlass prototype was flown for the first time just days before the bombs dropped and never had a chance to enter production. When the population of Kerbin emerged from the Nuclear shelters low-tech piston engine craft like the Jackdaw were favoured over jet aircraft by the airship crews and the plans were left to languish in Huey's vault.

'Technically, we want you to build a squadron of fighters to protect Kaedwaani Air Space,' Preston leaned forward. 'Do you think that you could do that?'

Huey rubbed his chin as he began to crunch numbers in his head. 'Theoretically it's possible - I have the designs and the machinery to fabricate the parts. What I don't have are the raw materials to do it.'

'That's where I can help you,' Preston smiled and produced another document from his briefcase - handing it to Huey. 'This is the Baikerbanur Design Bureau were Dr. Werner worked as head of the K-1 Rocket Programme. In the final days of the war the base was evacuated - leaving behind stockpiles of sheet metal and rocket parts.'

'Surely it would have been stripped bare by now?' Huey opened the folder and glanced at the maps contained within. The design bureau was located in a remote valley North of the Kumari Desert. An airship could reach the base but that would mean...his eyes widened in shock.

'Yes...the design bureau is located in the heart of Red Kraken territory,' Preston replied grimly.

The Red Krakens were a group of pirates, smugglers and slavers who controlled a large swathe of what was once the heartland of the Kerbin Empire. They were rumoured to live in the ruins of Imperial City and their enigmatic ruler - known only as Blaze - held his court in the Throne Room of the former Imperial Palace. Due to the Emperor adopting a scorched earth policy when facing defeat the region was highly irradiated and covered in a seemingly permanent radioactive mist that hung over the valleys and mountain passes. Airship captains avoided the area like the plague but the Krakens routinely raided settlements near their borders and any vessel that came too close to their territory was just asking for trouble.  Those unlucky enough to survive an attack were sold into slavery - females often became breeders and males were used as manual labour until they died of exhaustion or pledged their loyalty to Blaze.

'It's a suicide mission,' Huey began ticking points off on his fingers. 'First; I'd have to find a captain crazy enough to make the trip. Second; I'd have to find a group of escort pilots crazy enough to lock horns with the Krakens,' he hissed in annoyance. 'Third; assuming they aren't killed before they reach the design bureau, the crew would be sitting ducks on the ground whilst loading any cargo.'

'Surely a Kerbal with your connections knows some people like that?' Preston smirked.

'Well...yes,' Huey admitted. 'But I can tell you now, they wouldn't do it for free.'

'We wouldn't expect them to,' Preston held up his hands. 'Both you and the crew will be well compensated for your time.'

'You've already said the council couldn't care less about this situation which begs the question...,' Huey narrowed his eyes. 'Who's signing the cheques?'

'Officially you'll be working for the Kaedwaani Government,' Preston replied quietly. 'Unofficially, the whole mission is being underwritten by the Kerbal Space Agency.'

Huey sat back in his seat. 'Why would Dr. Werner do that?'

'Quite frankly, he's had concerns about the council and its practices for a while,' Preston admitted. 'For too long they've been allowed to sit in the lavish confines of White Forest Bunker and use their monopoly on algae production to exert control over people.'

'It's like the bloody war all over again,' Huey buried his face in his hands and rubbed it vigorously. He had been quick to support the former government of Kaedwan when they ceded from the Kerbin Empire. As a result his bank accounts had been frozen and his name blacklisted to serve as an example to others. Fortunately the loss of his fortune did not affect his ability to build exceptional aircraft and throughout the war he supplied the Independent States with fighters and bombers. Now he was being asked to put his business and reputation on the line again.

'I know it's a lot to ask,' Preston sighed.

'Do you think?!' Huey let his hands fall to his lap. 'Why haven't you approached C7 Aerospace about this?'

'The board of directors has too many ties to the council,' Preston replied. 'It wouldn't take long for them to get wind of what we were up to and put a stop to it.'

'So my company and I are expendable,' Huey made a face. 'It's nice to be appreciated.'

'If there was a way to do this peacefully I would take it,' Preston stood and walked to the window - gazing out over the ruined cityscape below. 'For too long the KRA has rested on its laurels. When the Red Krakens began raiding the outer settlements; they did nothing. When Air Pirates began raiding our airships; they did nothing,' he turned back to face Huey. 'Now we learn of another threat - perhaps the most dangerous one we've faced since the war....'

'...and they've done nothing!' Huey finished with a firm nod.

'This is Kaedwaani Soil,' Preston turned to the window again. 'When we first emerged from the shelters people were content to make concessions and let the eggheads run the show. It's become apparent now that the council don't have the best interests of the people at heart, so it's time for change!'

'It sounds like you've been thinking about this for a while,' Huey called softly.

'I was born here,' Preston gestured to the window. 'Seeing the city like this - the starving people in the streets - it makes me angry. The council have may have failed us, but I'm not going to,' he turned back to Huey. 'Once this threat has been dealt with we're going to evict the KRA from White Forest. Then, we'll build more algae farms and export food and medicine all over the planet.'

'What about the Space Agency?' Huey pointed out. 'It's a KRA funded project.'

'Dr. Werner has already pledged his support to any future Kaedwaani Government,' Preston replied confidently. 'Between the Space Agency and increased output from the Algae Farms we can really start making a difference - first in Kaedwan and then...well...who knows what the future holds.'

'You're also painting a very big target on Kaedwan,' Huey warned. 'There'll be a lot of folks who won't think twice about killing to get their hands on all that algae.'

'That's where you come in,' Preston nodded in his direction. 'The aircraft we've asked you to build will be used to equip a squadron - the first of what we hope will eventually become a new Kaedwaani Air Force. If the Red Krakens or any pirates come calling, we'll be ready for them.'

'Well, I admire you for thinking big,' Huey chuckled as he climbed to his feet.

'Does that mean that you'll help us?' Preston visibly held his breath.

'Hold on...,' Huey held up his hand. 'Assuming that I agree to this madness and manage to liberate those raw materials and rocket parts I'll need some way to turn them into usable components.'

'Jeb's Junkyard,' Preston smiled. 'He has a problem with authority at the best of times. Any opportunity to stick it to the suits is one Jeb seizes with both hands. Bring him those materials and he'll make the parts you need!'

'Hmm,' Huey rocked back and forth on his heels mulling it over. 'This could actually work.'

'So...,' Preston smiled. 'Are you in?'

'This is either going to make my career or ruin me,' Huey offered his hand and Preston took it. 'You made a good argument though. I'll do my part.'

'Excellent,' Preston couldn't keep the smile of his face.

'Well then...,' Huey gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. 'If you'll excuse me I have to look for a merry band of misfits to pull off an suicide mission.'

'Yes about that...,' Preston smirked. 'I know at least three volunteers who are just itching to get even!'

Edited by Kalidor

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And the game is on! 

Some nice worldbuilding and character building too. Looking forward to the next chapter.

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Yeah, so, I've got writers block...again!!! :(

I've decided to scrap this fan fic in favour of something more hands on. I've posted in Mission Briefings a new idea for a war gaming thread (Same name: Steel Talons) and have borrowed heavily from this universe I created in my head and applied it to the new game.

Hopefully see you there!

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