From fifty-one dispatched fighters, only nine of them had returned safely. Most survivors belonged to Gromov's group, which made him feel awkward.
In comparison with other groups, the discrepancy in performance was abysmal.
While he had no clue about where such an astonishing difference originated, the pilots, to his sheer embarrassment, gave all credit to him.
"As expected from the aces of Dolzana base, sir," exclaimed the female voice of C3 enthusiastically. "You and lieutenant Anbi were unfathomable. I have to adopt your methods myself."
"What methods?" Gromov wondered speechlessly. "I don't recall doing anything extraordinary."
But not only C3 expressed that opinion. From what Gromov overheard, his conduct of command brought some mysterious quality to the battle, at least according to the other pilots. What nonsense!
"Enough, everyone," he barked finally. "This is laughable. Lieutenant Anbi had some disposition for manual maneuvring and was recognized as an excellent acrobat at Dolzana base. But as for me, I am far from special. I guess C-group was just lucky today."
"Yes, we were lucky because we had you, Captain."
"Nonsense I say!"
"So humble, sir."
But not only humility made Gromov stop the debate. He was never adamant of one-man success narrative, often exercised by higher officers who never hesitated to praise themselves as the godsend saviors.
"C1 to all units," he said instead. "Prepare for landing. Connect the Space Station to receive a dedicated incoming slot and proceed according to your number."
One after one, fighters in coordinated fashion started their descent towards entries, opened in the monolithic wall of white construction. There was no reason to go in waves anymore.
After the final jerk hinted Gromov that the fighter had dropped in the position, he took down the helmet and unbelted from the seat. Then, he heard the panicking voice of Jamal.
"My legs are somewhat funny. I cannot move them at all."
"Are you injured?"
Not waiting for anything, Gromov removed his seat, slid into the tunnel leading under Jamal's turret, and forcefully pushed his gargantuan body inside.
The boy's face looked pale, with red drops of blood coming out of bitten lips, and with growing bruises around glossy eyes.
"Am I going to die? I feel weakened and sore."
On the verge of losing his conscious, Jamal searched for Gromov's hand. "It was an honor, sir..."
Captain just slapped his face.
"Save your heroic departure for next time, brave soldier. You'll be alright. Your body probably is not used to such a burden. Stay still and I call paramedic team to take you out."
"Oh, is it so?"
Jamal sighed in relief and relaxed. Gromov, on the other hand, immediately pressed the emergency button on Jamal's spacesuit and contacted the Space Station.
Gunners or pilots, especially after the prolonged load of a space skirmish, tended to collapse. These states were often caused by internal bleeding and required medical attention.
"You'll be fine," repeated Gromov while preparing everything for fast Jamal's extraction from the turret. Fortunately, paramedics appeared in a few minutes, taking care of the youngster.
Gromov could only accompany the stretcher along, eyeing poor Jamal cautiously.
"Stop right there, Captain!"
In the middle of the hangar stood Steiner with two MPs. The MPs had blasters in their hands and aim directly at the surprised officer.
"What is it, Colonel?" Gromov asked. "Have you lost your mind completely?"
Steiner looked like a madman. The food poisoning took a heavy toll on his constitution, making him tremble involuntarily.
"I accuse this man of disobedience and cowardice under fire," he proclaimed finally. "Seize him. If he resists, shoot him."
Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.