"The Supreme Minister's delegation will be arriving sometime tomorrow, I'll let you know when the final arrangements have been confirmed. Your squadron will be the honor guard as her ship comes into orbit. Full flight lights and a demonstration of weapons on one-tenth power will be in order. All fighter pilots are to be fully briefed and the display coordinated. Flights A and B are to be forward as escort, flights C and D will be the security detail in standoff mode. Understood?"
The captain stood at stiff attention, "Yes Admiral. Thank you sir for honoring my unit this way."
The admiral nearly laughed. "Sitting in a cockpit for endless hours waiting on Madam may be an honor indeed, but I'm not sure your pilots will all think so."
"Then there may be a few changes in the assignments." The captain said seriously.
"It's your baby now, just make sure She sees the Fighting 35th at its best."
The squadron briefing room was usually a mix of tense nerves and childish pranks, today was no exception. The captain ignored the occasional whistle and hoot while he diagrammed the various maneuvers the squadron would perform. Some of the pilots paid close attention, others seemed, well, distracted. All as usual for this outfit, one of the most highly decorated tactical units in the fleet.
Not wishing to slight the two security flights, they would exchange standoff positions as the Minister's ship made its approach in a full speed battle formation fly-by. Twenty fully armed fighters rushing by in two tight formations was an impressive sight, and he was sure whatever of her entourage saw it would be impressed. He transmitted the plan early to the admiral to make sure nobody on any of the delegation's ships mistook the fly-by for an attack and started shooting at them.
The escort detail was a lot more complicated. Spiral formations and crossing patterns, intricate weapons displays, close quarter drills, all inherently dangerous in and of themselves, now even more so that they would be performed relatively near several capitol ships, one of which carried the highest civilian authority around, the Supreme Minister.
Finally when the captain had gone through it all, he fielded questions. He was always surprised that pilots that had seemed to be asleep or engaged in a game of fusel could ask a meaningful question about some of the more technical aspects of the briefing.
The practice went like clockwork. There were a few minor errors, all of which were corrected. The crew of the freighter they used as a stand-in for Madam's ship cheered wildly over the com-lines for the display of firepower and military daring do.
Now they had just a few hours to rest and iron out some rough spots before they would be on stage. The captain was confident everything would go well.
"Things have changed. Suit up and move NOW! Madam's convoy is running ahead of schedule."
"Sir? Are you sure? These things never run early."
"Yes captain. As odd as it may seem, they are on their way. Get going."
The fighter ships were ready to roll. The pilots scrambled into flight suits and lifted off in formation. Some of the pilots had half eaten meals in bags with them, others were rubbing sleep out of their eyes, but they were professionals, and they had a duty to perform.
They formed up on station in a parking orbit and waited.
Boredom became the enemy. The two security units could at least fly combat patrol and monitor incoming traffic for a threat to Madam, the escort units had to stay on station. Flight A began some playful dogfighting and showing off. Flight B's lieutenant made them sit in a tight formation and shut down non-essential systems.
The B pilots complained some, but they understood the lieutenant's explanation, Madam may have been unavoidably delayed and they might be in for a long wait. Occasionally, snores could be heard on B's com-line.
"Lieutenant Able Group. I told you to conserve fuel and weapons." The captain said again from his command ship in orbit between the security detail and the escorts.
"We are sir. Just keeping ourselves loose. We'll be ready when Madam gets here."
The Captain nodded slowly. He had already threatened and promised much nastiness on the flight if something went wrong.
"Captain. Some of our ships are getting low on fuel and charge. Permission to make a touch and go landing for fuel." Flight A's lieutenant called later.
"OK. But make it fast."
Half the flight began to descend. The captain sat in his ship and counted the ones from the first wing that rejoined the formation, two, three. They might make it, he thought.
"ALERT. ALERT. THIS IS GENERAL STOVER IN SYSTEM COMMAND. THE SUPREME MINISTER'S SHIP IS IN FINAL APPROACH. BEGIN HONOR GUARD FORMATION."
If sighs could kill, flight A's lieutenant would have been a casualty of the action. The captain issued an emergency recall order for flight A, the lieutenant protested, saying several other ships in his other wings were very low on fuel.
"I don't care if they have to row, get them in formation." The captain ordered.
"Yes sir." Came the weak, almost sheepish reply.
"Tonight on News Com-Line, we have extensive coverage of the arrival of the Supreme Minister and her delegation from many of the Free Worlds. We begin with Hal Brickhome on the arrival this afternoon. Hal..."
"Upon arrival, Madam Supreme Minister was treated to a spectacular display from the fleet's 35th Fighter Squadron. Including grand maneuvers in attack formations and skilled formation flying. She also witnessed a demonstration of open space rescue by the 103rd Recovery Unit when several fighters simulated battle damage and floated without power in the freezing vacuum of space."
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