BECK: Welcome to Empire Report and thanks for joining us. I’m Beck Russum.
ALAN: And I’m Alan Nuevo. We begin today’s show by turning our attention to the Vanduul front. While the public is often regaled with stories about high level accomplishments, the incredible, personal stories of the starmen tasked with protecting the Empire are often overlooked.
BECK: Victoria Hutchins is in the Kilian System to bring us one such story detailing the incredible journey home for a UEE Navy combat pilot.
VICTORIA: This massive hangar on Osha may not look like much, but for members of the military and their immediate family there’s no sweeter spot in the UEE. It’s here that one day each week, starmen step off transports, having completed their tour of duty in some of the most dangerous corners of the universe, to be reunited with their family. While these homecomings are typically filled with excited loved ones holding handmade signs, gracious government officials and even a military band, last night’s return of Lieutenant Commander Liam Nealey was a much different affair.
The usual pageantry was put on hold, as a support ship that normally carries supplies pulled into this hangar with Lt. Commander Nealey aboard. Only his wife, Anaya, daughter, Gabija, and a few high-ranking military officials were present. This emotional homecoming was arranged specifically for the pilot, who only days earlier had survived the unimaginable — being trapped alone in Vanduul space.
Empire Report was granted an exclusive interview so that he could share his harrowing story.
LIAM NEALEY: Thanks for having me. To be completely honest, at one point I never thought I’d ever make it back here.
VICTORIA: Lt. Commander Liam Nealey’s incredible journey home might have ended safely in this hangar, but it began on the Vanduul front. A decorated fighter with hundreds of missions and dozens of confirmed kills under his belt, he knew an enemy encounter was possible when he launched from UEES Ammit.
LIAM NEALEY: We’d been tasked with doing a recon sweep. Military Intelligence wanted updates to their maps and the system was supposed to be uninhabited. Well, it wasn’t. Turns out a small Clan had taken up residence and was chewing up resources. We ran into them as we were exiting the jump. I’ve tussled with ’duul before, but something was different that day. They just had our number. Everywhere I turned, they met me and just hammered my shields. Outgunned, our flight didn’t stand a chance.
I knew I wouldn’t last long once my shields were down, so I threw everything I had at ’em. There was one countermeasure left when my shields phased out. That’s when I looped around and pointed my nose just below the wreckage of this Driller we’d somehow managed to knock out.
I really didn’t think about what I was doing. It was all adrenaline and instinct.
Thankfully, I timed it right. I juked left, dropped that last chaff and hit eject, hoping they’d lose me in the lightshow. Didn’t even look back to see my ship actually crash, just kept moving until I got inside that destroyed Vanduul ship.
VICTORIA: Unsure if he’d appear on Vanduul scans, Lt. Commander Nealey avoided sending a distress call right away. Instead, he relied on tactics learned during Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training to stay alive. He kept moving, and most importantly, tried to control his breathing.
LIAM NEALEY: It’s much harder to do when you’re moving through a blasted Vanduul cap ship. Can’t tell you how many corners I turned to come face-to-face with a dead ’duul. Never been so close to one before and hopefully never will again. I’ll tell you, I don’t know how the Marines do it.
VICTORIA: When Lt. Commander Nealey felt confident he wasn’t being tracked, he shifted focus to the next step, getting rescued.
LIAM NEALEY: I sent out a distress call, but no one responded. That meant that everyone was either too preoccupied saving their own hide or gone. Only way to know for sure was to look.
VICTORIA: Nealey risked venturing back out into open space. What he saw confirmed his worst fears.
LIAM NEALEY: There was wreckage everywhere, but that was it. The battle was over and I was alone.
This wave of panic washed over me. That was the moment I never thought I’d see my family again. The Ammit was an entire system away and there was no way to let them know what happened. It’d be hours before my squad was officially deemed overdue and a rescue party organized.
Thankfully, my training took over. Some quick math proved what I already suspected. My suit didn’t have enough oxygen to survive until the search party reached the system.
VICTORIA: Lt. Commander Nealey found himself in a catch-22. He needed oxygen to survive, but the exertion of searching only used more of it. Slowly, he EVAed through the debris looking for any O2 that had survived the destruction.
LIAM NEALEY: Wreckage of ships blown to bits kinda looks the same too. Sometimes I’d waste precious time EVAing to a debris field only to discover it’s a Vanduul ship.
VICTORIA: Nealey didn’t have much luck finding O2 floating amidst the wreckage, forcing the task to take a macabre turn.
LIAM NEALEY: The one place I knew I could find O2 was … well, attached to other flight suits. Finding fallen starmen became my priority. It was hard to inspect the remains of pilots I’d trained and grown close to. I logged their name, ranks and exact location. That way, if I survived, I could ensure they made it home too.
VICTORIA: As Lt. Commander Nealey systematically searched the debris field, his oxygen supply slowly ticked away. The little O2 he found added precious minutes to his life but he was still running out of time.
LIAM NEALEY: I thought about stopping my search to focus on conserving O2, but it still wouldn’t last until a rescue party mobilized. I was growing desperate and drew more and more deep breaths to stay calm.
That’s when I saw this Gladius in pretty good shape floating in the distance. The hull was riddled with plasma fire but from what I could tell, the cockpit seemed mostly intact. I took a risk and EVAed further out than was probably smart. As I approached, I noticed the canopy was open but the cockpit and console were in one piece.
VICTORIA: Nealey climbed in the cockpit and closed the canopy. Knowing his life was on the line, he took a moment and then began to activate the life support systems.
LIAM NEALEY: My heart almost exploded out of my chest when it sprung life. Don’t know what I would’ve done if it hadn’t fired up.
VICTORIA: Miraculously, it did. The life support system cycled O2 into his suit.
LIAM NEALEY: Everything hit me at once in that moment. The realization that I might survive just about overwhelmed me. Don’t know what I did to get so lucky.
VICTORIA: Lt. Commander Nealey stayed in the cockpit, patiently waiting until he knew a rescue party would be dispatched. He factored in the time it’d take them to launch, travel to the jump point and traverse it. He feared that sending a distress signal too soon would attract the Vanduul, who are known to return to battle sites to scavenge resources.
LIAM NEALEY: Thankfully, I timed it right. They weren’t in the system long before I sent my first distress call. Seeing that rescue party drop outta quantum in front of me was one of the best moments of my life. It meant that I was going to make it home.
VICTORIA: And home is exactly where Lt. Commander Nealey is right now. After being rescued, he helped locate the bodies of starmen found during his search. His valor earned praise from High Command, who granted him a temporary leave to rest and recuperate with his family.
As for his future, Naval officials have offered him a teaching position at the academy, and though he claims to have not made an official decision, when asked about his plans, Nealey’s eyes sprang to life.
LIAM NEALEY: Well, what I can say, right now, is that our mission against the Vanduul isn’t over, and I’m obviously not one to give up.
VICTORIA: I’m Victoria Hutchins reporting from Osha. Back to you, Alan and Beck.
BECK: Thanks, Victoria.
ALAM: What an incredible story.
BECK: Absolutely. On behalf of a grateful Empire, thank you for your bravery, Lt. Commander Nealey.