23/07/2009 in Warhammer 40K
Isely felt like he had been punched in the stomach as he yanked back on the stick, wrenching the Kestrel’s nose up. The small fighter shot up through the clouds, half rolled, and then followed through the loop to resume the attack. The targets loomed up in front of him: a vic of unescorted Marauder bombers.
‘Are you still with me, Hurricane Two?’ Isely asked, looking frantically over his right shoulder.
‘Affirm, Hurricane Leader, left and a little low.’
‘Follow me in.’
Isely throttled back slightly and smiled as his targeting computer hummed, signifying a lock. His sights turned red, and he thumbed the fire button. Blue laser bolts streaked out, hissing through the air, and raking the right wing of the lead Marauder. Its number three engine burst into flames, the explosion flashing back to number four engine and then ripping the wing off.
The large craft fell sluggishly earthwards. Isely pulled a max rate turn to the right to avoid the return fire which came criss-crossing back towards him from the two surviving bombers.
‘Leader: Hurricane Two. Bandits, seven o’clock high, strength five.’
Isely cursed. It had started so well, and now they were outnumbered by more than two to one. He knew he could take them, but his instructors would mark him down for being reckless – again.
‘Ok Hurricane Two, form on my wing, we’re out of here.’
Isely saw Tanati’s craft nudge up behind his right wing. The formation of two Kestrel training jets dived through the clouds and back towards Imperial Naval Air Station Somerset.
‘At ease,’ Commander Ivak said from behind his desk as he scanned through Isely’s flight recorder readouts. Isely stood at ease and waited, watching through the commander’s office window as three Kestrels lazily moved through the air, unsticking from runway 22.
‘Good,’ Ivak smiled, ‘very good. I’m happy to tell you that you have completed the course with an ‘above the average’ rating.’
Isely allowed himself a broad grin. Above the average meant a lot more than it sounded in advanced flying training.
‘However,’ Ivak continued, ‘I do have something to add. As you are no doubt aware, the pilot shortage in the Navy is currently critical. As you have graduated top of your class, I have an offer for you. Front line service – now.’
Isely hesitated. How could he hit the front line? He had no formal tuition on Lightnings. But then again, he was good: damn good. He was sure he would pick it up in no time.
‘I won’t kid you,’ the commander said, ‘the chances of you pulling through your first two weeks with no time in Lightnings are minimal, but we need pilots urgently. Legally, I cannot force you to go. I can only make you aware of your options. But we need pilots badly, Midshipman Isely, pilots of any quality.’
Isely pondered for a second or two before answering. There really wasn’t much of a decision to make.
‘When do I leave, sir?’
Lynot Isely looked confidently around the shuttle as he forcefully bundled his kitbag into the overhead storage compartment. A few ratings, a couple of soldier types: only two men wore the rank insignia of officers with pilot’s wings on their cuffs. Isely took a purposeful stride towards the two men and held out his hand.
‘Midshipman Isely,’ he announced.
‘Pierre Aphone,’ answered a thin, friendly looking Midshipman who warmly shook his hand.
‘Andres,’ smiled the second man quietly as he shook hands. Isely enviously noted his Sub-Lieutenant’s ring and a campaign badge on the uniform of the tall, clean-cut man as he returned to his seat.
‘So,’ Isely said, ‘seating himself, ‘which ribbon is that?’
‘You don’t really want to talk ‘shop’ do you?’ Andres asked, casting a wary glance to either side.
‘Which squadron are you posted to?’ Pierre asked.
‘805,’ Isely grinned proudly.
‘Oh… the same as the two of us. How come I didn’t see you during Operational Training?’
‘I wasn’t there,’ Isely shrugged, ‘my instructors thought I didn’t need it.’
‘Are you sure it wasn’t because of the shortage of pilots?’ Andres asked politely, flicking through a newspaper.
‘Quite sure,’ Isely snapped, leaning forwards aggressively.
‘Right you are,’ Andres smiled, throwing a suspicious glance to Pierre.
‘So, d’you think we’ll see much action?’ Isely asked, quickly changing the subject.
‘Probably,’ Pierre answered, ‘rumour has it that this is a pretty rough sector.’
The four Lightnings swooped down through the scattered clouds, leaving streaks of white behind them across the blue sky. Jeannie strained her eyes to see what the six dots ahead of her would become. She could not activate her radar or break comm silence without revealing her flight’s position, and no radar meant no missiles.
She looked frantically to either side of her; Suzi Tanawa was glued to her right wing, steady as ever – Jase Liotta’s second rotte of two fighters was lagging slightly to her left. The six dots on the horizon began to take shape as they drew closer. Jeannie gasped as she recognized the sleek, grey projectiles slung beneath their fuselages – torpedoes.
Her schwarm of four fighters could only hide in the sun’s glare for so long: suddenly aware of the threat, the flight of six torpedo bombers quickly scattered.
‘Tally ho Tally ho Barracudas!’ Jeannie yelled, ‘Blue Section attacking now!’
Pushing the control column forwards, Jeannie pounced her Lightning onto the tail of a rebel torpedo bomber. The rear gunner opened up with a burst of panic fire as Jeannie’s fighter closed the gap between the two machines. Laser bolts streaked to either side of her as she centered the enemy craft in her HUD.
Thumbing the trigger, she gritted her teeth as laser bolts and explosive shells spewed from her craft at a phenomenal rate, slamming into the left of the torpedo bomber’s fuselage. Pieces began to break off, and then an ugly black smear of smoke blossomed out of the engine and back behind the craft. Jeannie followed it down, pouring more fire into the torpedo bomber until it flipped over onto its back, lost a wing, and spiraled flaming towards the sea.
‘Barracuda Leader; Yellow One! Enemy fighters, eight o’clock high!’
Jeannie quickly looked over her shoulder in the direction that Jase alerted her to, to see eight rebel Ma-7 fighters falling out of the sky towards her.
‘Barracudas! Break and climb!’
Jeannie kicked in full right rudder and yanked back on the stick, simultaneously activating reheat. Suzi broke away from her and began climbing up in her five o’clock. Four Ma-7s dropped neatly behind them.
A dull thumping sounded behind Jeannie as shells slammed into the Lightning. Pulling the stick back until she shot straight up, Jeannie yawed the fighter over into a stall turn and dived into a cluster of clouds.
‘Shit!’ Jase yelled over the R/T, ‘Johnny’s bought it!’
‘Regroup at two-three-zero mark fourer-oh!’ Jeannie yelled, sweating profusely as her G-induced tunnel vision began to clear, ‘head for home!’
‘Enter,’ a crisp voice said from the other side of the door.
Isely followed Andres and Pierre into Commander Carmichael’s office, snapped to attention and saluted. 805 Squadron’s commanding officer stood at the far side of the office, looking out through a large, plexiglass screen window. He was a tall, thin man in his mid to late twenties with thin, greying hair.
‘Gentlemen,’ Carmichael began, ‘welcome to 805. How many hours on Lightnings?’
‘About two hundred, sir,’ Andres answered quietly.
‘Forty, sir,’ Pierre said, ‘but thirty were on the T.5.’
The T.5 was the two seat trainer variant of the Lightning; the version Isely had flown on an acquaint visit once.
‘Two, sir,’ Isely admitted sheepishly.
‘Two?’ the commander asked, baffled, ‘well, I suppose an inexperienced gun baby is better than nothing at all.’
Isely felt his face redden.
‘Well, gentlemen,’ Carmichael continued, ‘you know the situation. Out here, the Imperium is practically non existent. The Federated Republic of the New Jettysburg Colonies is a collection of nine recently rediscovered planets who have decided that they are better off without the Emperor’s guidance. They are one of the original colonies, all human, and as far as we are aware they are without any trace of mutation. That is why we are here to beat them into submission.
The three of you bring the squadron’s fighting complement up to ten. Sub-Lieutenant Vazquez-Hunt?’
The commander turned to Andres.
‘Vazquez-Hunt? Double barrel surnames are for the Air Force, not the Imperial Naval air Arm.’
‘Vazquez-Hunt, with four kills you are already 805’s fourth highest scoring pilot. I want you in ‘A’ flight; my flight has taken a beating recently. Where did you get your kills?’
‘Dark Eldar pirates, sir,’ Andres answered, ‘I flew a catapult launched Lightning off merchant vessels.’
‘Midshipmen Aphone and Isely: you will fly under Lieutenant Commander Guynemer in ‘B’ flight. If you’ll follow me, they should be back from patrol by now.’
Isely watched in awe as the three Lightnings slowly flared and touched their main wheels down to land on the flat deck of IWS Indefatigable. The lead Lightning’s engines over revved and backfired until it was safely down and, bleltching smoke, it taxied over to the pan.
The scene which followed was like one of the propaganda films which first inspired Isely to join up. The canopies of the first two fighters slid back, and the pilots removed their helmets and harnesses to reveal themselves as staggeringly beautiful women. The first, a blonde woman in her early twenties, vaulted down from her smoking Lightning.
‘Chief Jordsen? Chief Jordsen! We took a hit on the right side, VHFs gone, I think…’
Commander Carmichael barged his way past the mechanic that the pilot had ordered over.
‘What happened Guynemer?’
‘We found six torp-bombers over Seclin. I got one, then we got bounced by a gaggle of Ma-7s.’
‘What happened to your wingman, Jase?’ Carmichael asked the third Lightning pilot as he jumped down from his cockpit.
‘He bought it, boss. A flamer. I don’t think he got out,’ the pilot answered, a short man with hawkish features.
‘We’d best step up our patrols, if they’re playing with torpedo bombers,’ Carmichael said thoughtfully, ‘Lieutenant Commander Guynemer, these are Midshipmen Aphone and Isely, they’re in your flight.’
The shortish blonde woman looked the two new officers up and down, and nodded.
‘Be back here at 0600,’ she said, then turned back to inspect the damage on her fighter.
Isely gritted his teeth as the Lightning was catapulted along the deck with a gut-churning wrench. Once clear of the deck he retracted his undercarriage, and instinctively reached for the flap lever. Nothing to retract; he did not need any flaps for take off because they would not provide any extra lift out of atmospheric flight.
‘Form up, Phantom Two,’ Lieutenant Tanawa barked over the R/T.
Isely guided his fighter towards Tanawa’s, throttling up in an attempt to tuck himself neatly behind her left wing. Struggling to control the awesome war machine, Isely felt his Lightening slipping ahead of Tanawa’s.
‘Who’s leading this patrol, Phantom Two? Me or you?’
Shaking, Isely throttled back into formation.
Pierre frantically switched his eyes between keenly scanning space for hostiles and ensuring that his formation flying was up to scratch. For a little over two hours the two Lightnings had drifted between their three nav points, and Pierre’s concentration was beginning to wear thin.
‘This is shit, isn’t it?’ Jase Liotta growled over the R/T.
‘Affirm, drake Leader.’
‘Don’t bother with protocol out here, Pierre. Let’s do the rounds once more and go home.’
‘Right ho,’ Pierre sighed.
‘Hold on, I’ve got something,’ Tanawa said over the radio.
Isely checked his radar: one blip drifted slowly away from the multitude of contacts which represented the asteroid field. The Lightning’s radar identified the blip as a powered craft; some skulking coward hiding amidst the asteroid field.
‘Tally ho, Phantom Two!’ Isely cried, gunning his engines to full power.
‘Get back on my wing!’ Tanawa shouted, ‘it’s a trap!’
Ignoring his flight leader, Isely centered his sights on the HUD painted target and activated a missile. His target computer identified the contact as an Ma-5; a two seater long range escort fighter, and heavily damaged too, judging by its low speed.
‘On my wing, now!’ Lieutenant Tanawa screamed.
‘Phantom Two! Fireflash one!’ Isely called gleefully, thumbing the fire button.
The missile shot out from his left wing, accelerating rapidly as it flamed towards its target. The wounded craft weakly attempted an evasive maneuver before the missile struck. The Ma-5 crew’s recycled air supply mixed with the craft’s fuel combined to briefly support a cataclysmic fireball which was quickly swallowed by the hungry void of space.
Whooping, Isely flicked over a clumsy victory roll, before fighting the unfamiliar controls of the heavy fighter to steady back to datums. Silently, Tanawa lead the two fighters back to the Indefatigable.
Pierre completed his shut down checks, tore his helmet off, and vaulted out of the fighter’s cockpit. Jase wandered over to him, yawning as he peeled off his gloves.
‘Well,’ the Lieutenant mused, ‘that was crap.’
‘I dunno, sir,’ Pierre said. He was just glad to have any chance to further acquaint himself with the Lightning before it was for real. Such was the shortage of pilots, Pierre had been shoved into the front line before he had completed his year long course on an Operational Training Unit. He had not even started his final term – air to air combat.
‘Catch you later,’ Jase said, throwing his gloves into his helmet and striding out of the hangar. Pierre saw Lynot Isely facing Lieutenant Tanawa at the far end of the hangar, apparently in the midst of a heated discussion. His curiosity aroused, the young Midshipman jogged over to the two, but Tanawa stormed off before he arrived.
‘What was that about?’ Pierre asked.
Isely turned to face him and grinned broadly.
‘I got one. I got a kill.’
‘That’s the problem,’ the shorter man smiled, ‘she’s just jealous. get changed and I’ll tell you all about it in the bar.’
Isely adjusted his belt buckle, ran his fingers through his short blonde hair, and entered ‘D.J’s Locker,’ the junior officers’ bar aboard IWS Indefatigable. The room was dimly lit and smoky, with a music box playing a chilled blues number from the corner of the room.
About twenty officers; aircrew and ‘fisheads,’ occupied the bar, some in uniform, some in flight suits, others in casual clothes. Isely saw lieutenant Tanawa and Lieutenant Commander Guynemer sat at a table, over a couple of drinks. Both women shot Isely evil looks. Good to see that he was making friends already. Isely noticed that Guynemer wore an imperial eagle armband on her black uniform. A fanatic.
Some claimed that the Imperium was a monstrous, fascist juggernaut of a realm where innocents who did not meet society’s impossibly high standards were persecuted or made to disappear. Most others saw the Emperor was god, a savior of mankind, and the Imperium as the Golden age of man. Guynemer clearly fell into the second category. Isely didn’t really care: he just wanted to fly, really fast, and the military was the best place for it.
Isely made his way over to the bar and stood by Pierre, Jase Liotta and a Sub-Lieutenant he had not met before.
‘Hey Lynot,’ Pierre greeted.
‘Hey,’ Isely nodded back, propping himself up against the bar.
‘You Isely?’ asked the Sub-Lieutenant, a dark skinned, broad shouldered man of about twenty. Isely nodded.
‘Heard you had a hell of a first day. I’m Brett Haye,’ he introduced himself, shaking Isely’s hand firmly.
‘Yeah,’ Isely smirked, ‘got my first kill.’
‘Bloody stupid,’ Jase said, ‘your flight leader tells you to do something around here, you’d best do it.’
Isely bit back a retort. He’d got the kill. What the hell was the problem?
‘Hey,’ Brett smiled, ‘a kill’s a kill, right? Lemme get you a drink, man.’
Isely nodded an acceptance.
‘Sure is different,’ Pierre remarked, ‘being out here in the thick of it. Wonder how long it’ll be before we see home?’
‘Not too long, I hope,’ Isely whispered to himself.
It had been less than a week, and he missed Kara already. He hadn’t gone two weeks without his girlfriend since they first met nearly two years ago. She should have been his fiancée, but he bottled out of asking the big question just before he left.
‘You want this?’ Brett asked, snapping him back to reality.
‘Yeah, thanks,’ Isely said, taking the bottle of beer.
‘More patrols tomorrow, I guess,’ Pierre said thoughtfully.
‘Naw,’ Brett contradicted him, ‘me and the ‘A’ flight hombre bounced a gaggle of bombers this afternoon. Things are heating up. Offensive fighter sweep, first thing tomorrow.’
‘So go easy on the beers,’ Jase warned, downing his fourth bottle.
Isely sipped at his beer. It had all been so easy, taking those two lives in that Ma-5. He wondered if he would be so lucky tomorrow.
Carmichael tightened his harness as his Lightning shuddered, buffeting through New Jettysburg III’s outer atmosphere. He glanced around him – the other eight fighters of 805 squadron rigidly held formation. Thousands of feet below him, the clear blue sea rolled peacefully towards Primera, the northern most continent of the planet; the place where intelligence suspected the rebels were building up the bomber force.
‘’B’ flight, drop back and cover us,’ Carmichael called.
‘Blue One, Roger,’ Guynemer responded as she lead her five fighters back a thousand feet over ‘A’ flight’s four.
Carmichael lead the schwarm of Lightnings down another few thousand feet, picking up speed as they dived towards the coast. Jo Reephe followed him loosely on his right wing, effortlessly guiding her fighter in pursuit. To his left, Brett Haye and Andres Vazquez-Hunt smoothly kept the formation together. The enemy coast loomed upwards ominously.
Jase yawned again and gave himself another blast of oxygen to wake himself up. He was playing weaver: lagging behind the other four flyers of ‘B’ flight, weaving back and forth, making sure they were not jumped. He didn’t like being weaver – weaver’s had a tendency to get jumped themselves, to disappear without trace. He had had a mate on 830 who went out as weaver one day, and just didn’t come back. One minute he was there, next minute somebody looked over their shoulder and he was gone, disappeared without a trace.
‘Blue One, this is Red One,’ Carmichael called, ‘we’ve got a large formation of bandits, twenty plus at three-five-zero, angels two-five.’
‘Roger. Red One, moving to engage,’ Guynemer replied.
Jase smiled – he felt totally safe in Guynemer’s flight – she was invincible. Conversely, he was scared to death of her on the ground. Everybody was. She was without a doubt the best looking girl in the Navy, but damn she was cold. Totally ruthless, incapable of smiling.
Jase positioned his fighter as top cover over ‘B’ flight, descending rapidly with the rest of his flight towards the enemy.
Brett checked his radar again, his eyes scanning the horizon for movement. A glint a few miles ahead. There they were.
‘Red One, Green One, visual, 11 o’clock low!’
‘Roger Green one, I see them,’ Carmichael called back.
‘Hell yeah!’ Brett mumbled to himself, settling himself down more comfortably into his ejector seat, his fingers fidgeting excitably at the thought of the approaching combat.
‘’A’ flight! Follow me in!’ Carmichael called as a boom from his fighter signaled the activation of reheat. Brett thumbed on reheat to his own engines, gasping as his seat punched him in the back, propelling him towards the enemy. The four fighters screamed through the air towards the enemy force, who gradually changed from dots into combat craft. Twelve torpedo bombers escorted by ten Ma-5 long range fighters. Damn! This was a strike force!
‘Tally ho Tally ho Red Section!’ Carmichael called, ‘engaging now!’
‘Tally ho Greens!’ Brett grinned, ‘stick with me Andres, let’s rack ‘em up baby!’
Isely watched uncomfortably as ‘A’ flight zoomed towards the enemy strike force. His thumb danced over the reheat button.
‘Move a muscle Isely, I’ll kill you myself,’ Guynemer called coldly over the R/T.
Isely’s thumb moved away from reheat. The Ma-5s broke away and moved up to intercept Carmichael’s schwarm. Isely shivered in anticipation of the order to attack.
‘That’s it,’ Guynemer called, ‘twelve o’clock high, intercept, ‘B’ flight, buster.’
Isely couldn’t see a thing as he vectored to intercept. Then he saw them, six Ma-7s five thousand feet above the main force, hidden behind an electrical storm cloud which masked them from radar detection. They were already dropping towards ‘A’ flight. Gritting his teeth, Isely locked a missile onto one of the Ma-7s and watched the range count down.
Andres followed Brett down towards the torpedo bombers. Fire from the rear gunners criss-crossed towards the two Imperial fighters, forcing Andres to instinctively duck lower into his cockpit.
‘Green One! Fireflash One!’ Brett called as a missile dropped from his Lightning and shot towards the rear most bomber. Andres throttled back and looked up above him. Two Ma-5s dropped like stones towards Brett’s fighter. Andres pulled back on his stick, stood his fighter on its tail, and pulled the fire button. Laser bolts and autocannon shells thundered out of his craft towards the first Ma-5. Several shells impacted with the rear of the fuselage, blowing it in half. The front of the large fighter span earthwards as the two crewmen ejected. The second fighter broke away from the attack.
‘Green One, this is Green Two,’ Andres called, ‘your tail is clear.’
‘I didn’t know anything was on it,’ Brett called back, confusion evident in his voice.
Jeannie pushed the nose of her Lightning on an intercept course with the Ma-7s. A vic of three drifted slowly across her gunsights, seemingly unaware of her presence. She adjusted course slightly, yawed a little to the left, and snapped off a shot. With pin point accuracy, the two laser bolts lanced through the lead Ma-7’s cockpit, spinning it towards the ground as its wingmen scattered.
‘Break right!’ Suzi screamed.
Jeannie slammed her foot down on to the right rudder pedal and snap rolled in the same direction, numbly aware of the Ma-5 which overshot her just before she blacked out.
Jase rolled his wings level, ready for another pass on the torpedo bomber. His last pass had damaged it: it had dropped back out of formation, trailing black smoke. Grinning, he centered his sights back on the doomed machine. Caught up in the thought of his fourth kill, oblivious to all that was around him, Jase never even checked his tail to see the Ma-7 which dropped behind him. The first warning Jase had was the thunder of shells ripping through his cockpit.
A shell slammed into his midriff, the explosion tearing him clean in half, spraying the shattered windows of his cockpit in blood.
Carmichael clenched his lower body muscles and let his breath out in short, sharp bursts, refusing to allow the G-force to take his consciousness. The Lightning shuddered as it pulled around the turn, slowly gaining on the Ma-5. The heavy fighter wandered into his sights, and he fired a long burst from the fighter’s guns. Laser bolts danced along the Ma-5’s right engine, tearing it apart and the wing with it.
‘I’m locked up!’ Reefe suddenly screamed over the R/T.
Carmichael looked frantically over his left shoulder to see an Ma-7 firing a missile at his wingman.
‘Break right!’ Carmichael screamed, ‘dump chaff!’
All too late, Carmichael saw the Lightning roll onto its right wing, moments before the missile turned it into a fireball.
Andres had long ago lost sight of Brett, but had squeezed off a couple of bursts at the torpedo bombers, and had definitely damaged one. He saw two Lightnings suddenly peel away from each other as two Ma-5s overshot them, guns blazing. The lead Lightning span down towards the ground, out of control, the pilot obviously unconscious. Andres recognized the craft’s markings as Guynemer’s.
One of the Ma-5s banked back around to target her. Andres thumbed on reheat and dived down towards the enemy fighter, guns pounding away. Alerted to his presence, the enemy fighter broke off its attack, diving for the clouds. Determined not to let the bastard go, Andres dived down in pursuit, guns still chattering long bursts. His stream of fire finally found its mark: the Ma-5 spiraled towards the ground, burning.
Isely pulled his craft’s nose back above the horizon, rolling his wings through 360 degrees in triumph over the felled torpedo bomber which dropped beneath him in pieces. That was number two. The combat was already beginning to thin out, and the surviving torpedo bombers had turned for home.
‘Behind you, Lynot! On your tail!’ Brett screamed.
Isely pulled a max rate turn to the left and looked over his shoulder. An Ma-7 followed him in the turn.
‘Come on!’ Isely urged desperately, sweating as he saw the fighter gaining on him.
‘Hold on!’ Brett said, ‘I’m on my way!’
‘Get down here!’ Isely cried as the smaller Ma-7 closed the turn on his Lightning. Its guns chattered, smashing projectiles into Isely’s fighter. Holes appeared in the left of his cockpit, and fuel gushed out of the wing tank, over his legs. Tears of panic welled in Isely’s eyes as the second burst hit.
He screamed as shrapnel ripped through his spine, paralyzing his legs. A spark ignited the fuel in the cockpit. Isely vomited as his craft flipped over violently into an inverted spin, blood flooding from the holes in his back, the flames melting his legs. He screamed out loud, numbly aware of someone shouting at him to eject as the flames slowly ate their way up his body.
He pulled on the ejection lever, but nothing happened. All he could do was cry out and hammer his burning hands frantically on the canopy as the flames caught up with his face, and the ground rushed up towards him.
Jeannie scanned her eyes around the skies. A couple of fighters were falling towards the ground, blazing. The remaining enemy machines had now turned for home, crawling back towards safety in twos and threes. She checked around her: three other Lightnings moved to form up on her.
‘Close up; stay alert,’ she said, ‘blue One is lead.’
‘Blue Two, I’m in,’ Suzi called, tucking herself behind Jeannie’s left wing.
‘Green One,’ Brett said, ‘some mother trucker’s shot my intakes up, I’m rough running.’
‘Green Two,’ Andres called, ‘I’ll weave.’
Silence. Everyone else was missing.
‘I saw Jase buy it,’ Suzi said.
‘Isely’s gone, too,’ Brett added.
‘I saw a ‘chute from one Lightning,’ Suzi added optimistically.
The rest of the flight back to the Indefatigable was in an uncomfortable silence.
Jeannie stepped out of her flight suit, and splashed cold water over her face. She stared up into the mirror above the sink. A frightened little girl pretending to be a fighter ace stared back at her through damp eyes. Suzi walked over from her locker and gave Jeannie a slap on the shoulder.
‘You ok, Jeannie?’
‘Pierre’s back,’ Suzi smiled, ‘the kid got an Ma-7, then dived away from a second, got lost and came home.’
Jeannie sighed. That made five of them.
‘It must have been Carmichael who ejected,’ Suzi said, ‘though it gives me goose bumps to think of having to guard him as a prisoner of war. He’ll make life hell for them.’
Jeannie nodded. She walked back to her locker. A few pilots from 805 walked in, looking just as shattered as Jeannie and Suzi. She was boss now, Jeannie thought, taking her towel from her locker. What a mess. Fighting back a wave of nausea, Jeannie went through in her head what she would write to the next of kin of Jo Reefe, Jase Liotta and Lynot Isely.
‘There they are!’ Pierre Aphone shouted, ‘four Ma-5s, one o’clock low!’
Pierre quickly selected missiles from his weapon system VDU.
‘Erm… roger that, Firefly Two. QDM QDM QDM, Firefly One, QDM.’
What the hell was Brett asking Indefatigable for a QDM for? The enemy was there!
‘Firefly One, steer two-four-zero.’
‘Two-four-zero, Firefly One,’ Brett Haye acknowledged.
‘We’re not engaging?’ Pierre asked, eyeing the four enemy fighters in his sights.
‘Who the bloody hell do you think I am? Biggles? There’s four of them! I’m going home.’
Without warning, the Ma-5s changed course towards the rotte of two Lightnings.
‘Run away! Run away!’ Brett yelled.
Muttering under his breath, Pierre guided his craft around and followed his rotte leader home at full throttle. Pierre’s missile warner lit up and whined.
‘Firefly Two! I got one incoming!’ Pierre cried, looking over his shoulder for the approaching missile.
‘Break! Break!’ Brett yelled.
Pierre hauled back on the stick, dumping chaff for good measure. He reversed the roll and banked back around to his right, and his warner light dimmed again. Breathing a sigh of relief, Pierre pulled up on Brett’s wing again.
‘I think they’ve lost interest now,’ Brett said, ‘you ok?’
‘Y… yeah,’ Pierre panted.
‘Good good!’ Right! Off home for tea and medals!’
Jeannie Guynemer glanced around her new office. It had been strange moving her few personal belongings in, as if denying the fact that Commander Carmichael ever existed, or still did. He had only been Missing In Action for three days.
She picked up the picture of her father from her desk. Would the great vice Admiral Guynemer be proud of his daughter now, acting CO of a front line fighter squadron? Did she care? She placed the picture back on her desk, on the other side from the picture of her mother. Separate, the way things had been since Jeannie was sixteen.
She briefly toyed with the idea of writing a letter to her mother, but sat down to look over the files of her three new pilots for the tenth time.
‘No, no!’ Suzi shook her head, ‘Gordi Benner would give Tagger Brown a sound smack around the head!’
Andres lined up the white ball with the black, paused, and sank his seven points before handing the cue over to Suzi.
‘That’s because Benner is a heavy weight. I’m talking about featherweight boxing.’
Murmuring her disapproval, Suzi racked up the table for the deciding game. D.J’s Locker was deserted, except for the two pilots, and a thrashing heavy metal tune played over the bar’s speakers.
‘So,’ Suzi said, ‘how does it feel now that you are a mighty Lieutenant?’
‘About the same as when I was a Subby,’ Andres answered, glancing at the second gold stripe on the epaulette of his white shirt.
‘I bet you’ll take ‘B’ flight.’
‘Me?’ Andres asked in surprise, ‘I’ve only been here five minutes. It’ll be you.’
Suzi shook her head.
‘Jeannie’ll keep me on her wing. It’s you or Brett, and in his own idiom, he’s a muppet.’
‘Speaking of which,’ Andres said, ‘those two should be back from patrol by now.’
‘Don’t bother getting changed,’ Jeannie said icily as Brett’s canopy slid back, ‘you’re going back out.’
‘Imperial Navy pilots do not run from these… scum,’ Jeannie spat the last word.
She turned and saw Suzi and Andres enter the hangar. They were getting awfully chummy.
‘You two! Get changed. You’re going out as well,’ Jeannie snapped, surprising herself at her own ferocity.
Suzi and Andres wordlessly turned and headed off to their respective changing rooms.
‘And don’t come back until you’ve killed something,’ Jeannie called over her shoulder.
Four hours. Four long, eventless hours. Pierre rubbed his eyes and checked his radar again.
‘Can we go home yet?’ Brett whined.
‘Negative, Firefly Three,’ Suzi replied jovially.
Pierre yawned and carried on composing his own tunes by tapping at various instruments and switches in his cockpit.
‘Bandits! Two o’clock high! Let’s go, boys!’ Suzi shouted, waking Pierre up with the flash from her engines. Pierre thumbed on reheat and followed Brett as wingman in the second rotte of the schwarm. Ahead of them, a vic of three Ma-7s climbed up to intercept.
‘Fireflies! break!’ Suzi called.
Pierre peeled off as the enemy fighters shot through their ranks. Brett snapped off what was, in Pierre’s opinion, a lucky shot which ploughed through the cockpit of one of the approaching Ma-7s. That made him an ace. Pierre rolled around to try and jump on the tail of a fighter which had latched onto Suzi.
‘Firefly One! Break right!’ he called, thumbing off a burst of fire to where he anticipated the Ma-7 would follow. A better pilot than given credit for, the Ma-7 peeled off the pursuit to the left, and dived for home. The third enemy fighter had already been fireballed by Andres.
‘Good effort, Firefly four,’ Suzi said, ‘thanks for the cover. Fireflies, steer zero-three-five for home.’
Suzi Tanawa tapped lightly on Jeannie’s door, and without waiting for a reply walked into her quarters. Jeannie sat by her screen window, flicking through her tech-manual.
‘Don’t you ever give it a rest?’ Suzi asked.
‘This is important,’ Jeannie mumbled.
Suzi walked over to Jeannie’s mirror and adjusted her hair.
‘I met our three new pilots today,’ Jeannie said, ‘a Middy and a Subby straight from OTU, and a Lieutenant who has converted from Search and Rescue.’
‘We bumped into a vic of Ma-7s,’ Suzi said, ‘Brett got one and Andre got another. That makes Brett an ace now, so we’re having a little celebration later. Andres’ ninth kill, too. He’s equal with me now as joint second in the squadron.’
‘Is he,’ Jeannie muttered indifferently.
‘So, I’m guessing you want me on your wing, and Andres will take ‘B’ flight,’ Suzi said.
Jeannie stood up and put her bundle of folders back on a shelf above her bunk.
‘Actually, I was going to give ‘B’ flight to Brett or the new Lieutenant, Van Riche.’
‘Great,’ Suzi grinned, ‘an insubordinate cowboy, or a SAROPs jock with no fighter time.’
‘Fine!’ Jennie snapped, ‘find him and tell him to be in my office in ten minutes.’
Suzi walked to the door. She turned around again.
‘Ease up, Jeannie, you’ve been pretty bitchy for days.’
The Lieutenant Commander ignored the comment, and gazed back out of her screen window.’
‘Come in,’ Jeannie responded to the knock from her door.
Andres wandered in and smiled.
‘You sent for me, Boss?’
‘Yes,’ Jeannie nodded, ‘it’s about reshuffling the squadron.’
‘Could we talk through this over a few drinks?’ Andres asked, ‘it’s just that Brett became an ace today, an we’re supposed to be all meeting in the bar…’
Jeannie shot up from behind her desk.
‘We will discuss this now, Lieutenant! Sit down!’ she thundered.
Andres snapped to attention.
‘Very good, ma’am.’
Jeannie took a deep breath as he sat in front of her desk. She resented him. Everybody’s friend, swanning around with his flawless looks and charm.
‘You’re taking ‘B’ flight,’ she said evenly, ‘Only until I get someone good transferred in. You’ve got Brett, and two new pilots – Lieutenant Van Riche and Sub-Lieutenant Karnski.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Andres said quietly.
‘Dismissed,’ Jeannie said, turning her back on him.
Silently, Andres left her office.
Pierre awoke with a start as the klaxon blared. Groggily crawling out of bed, he registered that the ship’s lighting was not red – the Indefatigable was not under attack. What was the siren for? Hastily pulling on his uniform, Pierre left his cabin and looked quickly around his corridor to see if anyone else knew what the commotion was about.
Unsuccessful in his search, Pierre left his corridor and sprinted towards the changing rooms. Around him, mechanics, gunners and officers ran to their stations. Pierre literally ran into Brett in the changing rooms.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Pierre managed as he struggled into his flying gear.
‘A spotter craft found a revel carrier!’ Brett grinned, pulling on his flying boots, ‘and we didn’t even know they had any carriers! We’re gonna go up and kick it’s ass!’
868 squadron’s twelve Lightnings shot away from IWS Indefatigable; eight Lightnings from 805 close behind them. Bringing up the rear were ten Valiant torpedo bombers and eight Vixen dive bombers. They were dubbed dive bombers because of the peculiar similarity they shared with that ancient craft whilst attacking: the Vixen, and others similar to it, locked a tractor beam onto their target, and were pulled violently towards it. Once confident of their path, the pilots hurled their bombs forwards and broke off the tractor beam.
The thirty eight war machines streaked towards their target.
Although dwarfed by the Indefatigable, the enemy strike carrier still filled Brett with awe. He had never seen a vessel of its size on an opposing side. Around it, two destroyers and a cargo vessel drifted alongside.
An explosion blossomed in the midst of 868 Squadron’s Lightnings, then another appeared in the black void of space – flak. As 805 Squadron powered into range, explosions appeared in the midst of their craft, showering shrapnel, pattering off the fighters. The shockwaves of the explosions from the destroyers’ heavy flak guns buffeted and rocked the Lightnings.
‘Keep in tight!’ Guynemer ordered.
Brett glanced across at Sub-Lieutenant Karnski; one of the new guys. He could tell the kid was nervous, even behind his canopy and helmet.
A loud bang caused Brett to shout in surprise, and his Central Warning Panel suddenly lit up.
He glanced across at his left engine, which backfired and struggled, a ragged tear across the combustion chamber.
‘Swordfish Red One: Blue Two. I’ve taken a hit in number one engine.’
‘Is it critical, Blue Two?’ Guynemer asked.
‘Erm… no… negative.’
‘Then stay in formation and shut up!’ Guynemer yelled.
Muttering under his breath, Brett powered down number one engine and nudged more throttle on number two. He thanked the Emperor that he wasn’t in atmospheric flight as he kicked in a little right rudder, trimmed, and then ducked lower into his cockpit as the flak thickened around him.
Suzi cursed again as an explosion rocked her fighter violently. Ahead of her, a Lightning from 868 Squadron burst into flames, the victim of a direct hit.
‘Keep together!’ Jeannie said sternly.
They were practically on top of the rebel task force now. Behind them, the Valiants and Vixens peeled off to set up for their attack run. The carrier did not seem particularly big – Suzi guessed that it wouldn’t be able to accommodate any more than twenty fighters. The destroyers kept up their withering barrage – Midshipman Henderson; Pierre’s new wingman, screamed as a shell exploded near his cockpit. Henderson’s fighter fell out of formation, one engine smoking until it burst into flames.
Then, the flak stopped.
‘That’s it!’ Jeannie said, ‘they’re launching fighters. Swordfish: on me!’
Suzi activated reheat and followed Jeannie down towards the enemy carrier. Smaller guns from the three warships sent laser bolts snaking up towards the Lightnings. 805’s seven fighters shot over the first destroyer, aligning themselves for a strafing run on the carrier.
‘Swordfish One! Fireflash One!’ Jeannie called, sending a missile flying towards one of the carrier’s defense batteries.
‘Swordfish Two! Fireflash One! Fireflash One!’ Suzi shouted, sending two further missiles into the mayhem caused by Jeannie’s first. The carrier’s command tower loomed up towards her as the rest of the squadron announced missile shots. Suzi centered her HUD over where she thought the bridge was, and thumbed a long stream of gunfire. Breaking right to avoid a barrage of defense battery fire, Suzi saw a multitude of small explosions dance over the carrier’s tower.
A pair of Ma-7s suddenly shot from the carrier’s fighter bay, only to be bounced immediately by a schwarm of Lightnings from 868. Suzi pulled away and latched onto Jeannie’s tail again, smiling grimly as a pair of torpedoes slammed into the enemy carrier, exploding violently.
Lieutenant Van Riche stared in awe at the devastation around her. She had never been in combat before, her prior experience was in rescuing downed pilots. She had never had weapons at her disposal. Van Riche saw a vic of dive bombers pulling away from a blazing destroyer, and banked towards the enemy capital ship.
‘Yellow Two, follow me in,’ she called to Sub-Lieutenant Karnski as she activated a missile.
‘Yellow Two, roger,’ Karnski called.
A volley of laser fire pelted over Van Riche’s nose.
‘Yellows! Break!’ Karnski screamed.
In a blind panic, Van Riche broke right, foolishly following Karnski. Behind them, two Ma-7s accelerated, sending steady streams of fire in their wake.
‘Swordfish Yellow One! We need help!’ Van Riche cried, jinking her fighter from left to right.
Behind the Ma-7s, two Lightnings smoothly slid into attack position.
‘You take number two; I’ve got the leader,’ Van Riche heard Vazquez-Hunt call calmly.
‘Roger Blue Leader,’ Sub-Lieutenant Haye answered.
Van Riche yanked her fighter into a steep left turn, panic setting in again as a laser bolt holed one of her tail fins. Brett Haye expertly maneuvered his wounded fighter behind her attacker and quickly fired off a missile. Van Riche whooped as the Ma-7 burst into flames. Below her, she saw Andres Vazquez-Hunt following the second Ma-7 down, pouring a steady stream of fire into its already demolished fuselage.
Jeannie banked around for another strafe pass on the carrier. By the time she came back around, it had already vanished, replaced by a dense field of twisted metal and floating debris.
‘Trident Leader to all Squadrons,’ she heard Commander Ibanez of the Valiant Squadron call, ‘we’ve run out of gift parcels: let’s knock it on the head there. Well done, everyone.’
The carrier was gone. One destroyer was broken in half, the other limped slowly over to pick up the escape pods which managed to break away from the blazing inferno which was once the cargo ship. In seconds it would be a charred wreak, once all of the ship’s oxygen fuelling the fire was used up.
‘Ok, Swordfish,’ Jeannie called, ‘close up and head for home.’
Andres followed behind the rest of his flight, warily watching Brett’s damaged fighter.
‘Indefatigable Tower, Swordfish Blue One. Pan pan relay for Swordfish Blue Two. Engine failure in number two, request priority landing.’
‘Affirm, Swordfish Blue Two,’ the carrier’s flight controller replied.
‘Thanks Blue One,’ Brett said, ‘Swordfish Blue Two, request join for straight in approach.’
‘Roger, Blue Two. Call the ball.’
Andres looked up as a Lightning from ‘A’ Flight suddenly shot ahead out of formation. He smiled as he watched Suzi roll her fighter in a spiral, mere metres past Indefatigable’s tower, afterburners blazing. Guynemer would kill her for that.
Suzi knew that she was in trouble as soon as she set foot in Jeannie’s office. Her friend sat cross legged at her desk, playing with a pen idly.
‘I know, I know,’ Suzi began, ‘but we…’
‘If you know, then why do it?’ Jeannie interrupted, ‘anything could have happened to your controls in that fight, and your silly stunt would have ploughed you into the Captain’s cabin.’
‘We won!’ Suzi urged, ‘morale is high again. I just wanted to show off a bit.’
‘Yes, we won,’ Jeannie answered in a low voice, ‘we outnumbered them three to one. And one of our Squadron was killed, one of our own. Some poor kid who nobody knew his name got his guts blown out before we even broke to attack.’
‘Hey, we blew the guts out of three thousand kids on those cap ships today,’ Suzi countered, ‘and they had families too.’
‘They don’t walk in the Emperor’s light, they deserve what they get!’ Jeannie spat. An uncomfortable silence descended momentarily.
‘Just don’t do it again, ok?’ Jeannie smiled in apology.
‘Well,’ Jeannie continued, ‘we’ve got a Subby coming across from 890 Squadron, and hopefully another couple from OUT soon.’
‘So you’re keeping Andres as flight commander?’ Suzi probed.
‘I suppose,’ Jeannie shrugged indifferently.
‘Nothing,’ Suzi smirked, ‘just that you’ve treated him like dirt since you met him. He saved your life not so long ago, and you never said thank you. He got his tenth kill today, overtaking me as second to you in the Squadron, yet you still question his ability, or at least pretend to.’
Suzi held up a hand to cut off Jeannie’s attempted defense.
‘Furthermore,’ she continued, ‘he’s great looking, a really nice and popular guy, and you still treat him with contempt. You are in denial, because you’ve got a big thing for him.’
‘I have no idea what you are talking about,’ Jeannie stammered.
Suzi folded her arms.
‘Look,’ Jeannie said, ‘I saw what happened to my mother after my father left. I’ll never go through that hell. I don’t want a guy, never had one, never will.’
Knowing that she had hit a raw nerve, Suzi backed off.
‘Ok,’ she shrugged, ‘let’s go have a game of squash.’
The next week was filled with patrol after patrol, in case the rebels had more cap ships. Nobody found anything. Reports came across that the Imperial Guard had assaulted Jettysburg Secondus and established a beachhead.
Lora Van Riche and Ivor Karnski began to establish themselves within the Squadron over the week. Lora was something of a tomboy, a tough, independent woman who became inseparable from Brett and Pierre. Conversely, Ivor was a quiet, anti-social type, tee-total, who spent most of his time reading or writing letters back home.
On the eighth day after the destruction of the rebel carrier ‘Stonewall,’ three Imperial destroyers arrived out of warp, and joined Indefatigable as she headed for Jettysburg Secondus.
Lora rocketed another red in a corner pocket, and then lined up for the black.
‘Tell the fat lady that she’s on in five,’ Lora said, resting the cue on her left hand.
‘Screw this,’ Pierre said, realizing that he was defeated. He walked over to sit with Brett and Suzi.
‘She’s an animal,’ Pierre scoffed, ‘a veritable snooker monster.’
‘So what are we doing on Secondus?’ Brett asked.
‘I hear we’re going groundside for a while,’ Suzi said, ‘emptying her bottle of beer.’
‘Good,’ Lora said, sitting with the three, ‘I’m getting a little bored of this bar.’
Pierre observed a group of four Valiant pilots on a neighboring table.
‘I wouldn’t want to fly Valiants,’ Pierre thought aloud, ‘but you can’t help but admire them. Going into battle in those old crates.’
‘Admire them?’ Brett scoffed, ‘they are the enemy! Rivals! We are fighter jocks, the Emperor’s chosen!’ Observe, inwardly digest, and imitate!’
Brett stood, and walked confidently over to the Valiant pilots. After a few brief comments, one of the Valiant boys stormed over to the bar and ordered eight pints. Pierre recognized the symptoms – boat race time, and the Squadron’s honour was at stake. He didn’t excel at pint downing contests, but he would give this one a damn good try.
Andres vaulted down from his cockpit and peeled his gloves off. Ivor Karnski was already on his way over from his parked fighter.
‘Not bad,’ Andres greeted, ‘but don’t worry so much. We’re not expecting any enemy activity so relax, concentrate on your formation flying, and let me worry about the lookout.’
‘And don’t worry about the sir!’ Andres laughed, ‘Andres’ll do fine.’
‘Find anything?’ Guynemer asked from the hangar entrance.
‘Not this time, ma’am,’ Andres shrugged.
‘Well perhaps you aren’t looking hard enough,’ Guynemer snapped.
‘Yes, ma’am. I hope we’ll have better luck next time.’
‘And have your fighter cleaned,’ Guynemer hissed, ‘it’s a disgrace to the squadron.’
Andres let his temper get the better of him.
‘Of course,’ he smiled patronizingly, ‘I wouldn’t want my gun smoke stains to cover up my kill markings.’
‘And what is that supposed to mean?’ the squadron commander scowled, putting her hands on her hips.
‘That you are jealous,’ Andres said advancing, ‘I’m six kills behind you and you feel threatened. That’s the only reason I can think of why you treat me in such a discourteous manner. With all due respect, ma’am.’
‘Leave us, Karnski,’ she said in a low voice, keeping her frosty glare on Andres.
Without a word, the ageing Sub-Lieutenant left the hangar.
‘You insubordinate bastard,’ Guynemer started.
‘Not insubordinate, ma’am,’ Andres interdicted, ‘but I am an Imperial Naval Officer first, and a pilot second. And as an officer, I know that I should stand up for myself against a spoilt little bully who’s daddy is an Admiral.’
‘That’s it, Lieutenant!’ Guynemer exploded, ‘you’re grounded. Another word and I’ll have you court martialed. Get out of my sight!’
Hanging his head in genuine shame, Andres left the hangar. Curse his temper, he had overstepped the mark this time.
‘Bombs?’ Pierre asked groggily, still hung over, ‘what do we want bombs for?’
‘Ground attack,’ Brett croaked hoarsely, holding his head.
They had been soundly beaten in the previous night’s drinking contest, and were both still feeling the effects.
‘Ok, Fury Two,’ Brett said, with a slight attempt to wake himself up, ‘here are our orders. We are to proceed directly to Jettysburg Secondus, and enter the atmosphere at waypoint Alpha. We will then eliminate anti aircraft defenses at the enemy airfield at waypoint Bravo. 828 Squadron, escorted by 868, will then bomb it flat. We must have the defenses down by 0730 Zulu. The targets will be laser painted by Special Forces who have already inserted. Clear?’
‘Then saddle up.’
The two Lightnings shot over the enemy coast, a mere handful of feet above the ground. So far so good – no enemy contact. Pierre added a few feet to his height as the sandy beach suddenly became palm trees.
‘Bravo Three Five, this is Fury One. Confirm clearance,’ Brett called.
He was answered by two clicks over the radio. Good old Imperial Guard storm troopers – they had the laser designators set up.
‘Fury Two: climb to flight level four zero and follow me in,’ Brett said, ‘target in five seconds.’
Pierre followed Brett in the climb as the enemy airstrip appeared in a clearing in the tropical jungle. Pierre saw Brett’s Lightning dive down towards the first AA missile emplacement. He released a bomb which traveled straight down an invisible laser beam, courtesy of Imperial Guard Special forces, directly into the unsuspecting missile silo. The defense emplacement exploded spectacularly.
Pierre waited until a steady tone sounded in his ears; he jettisoned one of his three laser guided bombs and banked around for another pass.
‘Looks like they’ve woken up,’ Brett said as sparkles from within the airstrip announced small arms fire. Pierre’s bomb turned a second missile silo into a mushroom of fire and smoke. 0725 – five minutes remaining.
‘Shit!’ Pierre gasped as one of the two remaining heavy flak guns opened up on him with four barrels. His nerves getting the better of him, Pierre released a bomb before he heard the steady target lock tone. Cursing again as the tone filled his ears, he released the last of his bombs and shoved in the afterburners, climbing to safety at a dizzying rate of G, laser bolts flickering in pursuit.
Behind him, Brett destroyed the last flak gun, and then dropped his final bomb on a hangar for good measure.
‘Hawk One, this is Fury One,’ Brett called to the main attack force, ‘your target is clear.’
‘Roger, Fury one, attacking now.’
Pierre smiled as he glanced at his chrono: three minutes early, too.
‘Ok, Fury Two,’ Brett continued, ‘I’ve received co-ordinates of waypoint Charlie. I’m sending them to you now. Keep your eyes open for bad guys.’
Pierre nodded as his nav computer bleeped an update.
‘Copy, Fury One.’
That was curious – the next waypoint was still within the planet’s atmosphere: they were being instructed to land on planet. Maybe the imperial Guard had set up a forward air base already. Pierre followed Brett’s Lightning westward, alert for enemy fighters.
‘C’mon,’ Lora said as she entered the crew room, ‘word is that we’re leaving.’
‘Where to?’ Suzi asked, putting down her newspaper.
‘The whole squadron is off planet side, to a forward airbase, I think.’
Suzi and Ivor jumped to their feet and shot towards the door. Andres remained seated, looking gloomily out of the screen window at the stars. The three pilots of 805 Squadron jogged briskly to the changing rooms, and then off to the hangar.
‘What about our stuff?’ Ivor asked Suzi as he pulled on his gloves, striding purposefully towards his fighter.
‘Everything’ll be sent on to us in a day or tow, I should imagine,’ Suzi said, jogging off to her own Lightning.
She quickly paced around her fighter, running through the external checks before clambering up into the cockpit. Across from her, Jeannie dashed around her fighter, checking for abnormalities. The shorter woman looked up at Suzi and smiled briefly. Shaking her head in disgust, Suzi turned away from Jeannie and shut her canopy. How clueless was she? Ground him, that ought to do the trick. Whatever.
Suzi ran through her pre-start checks, and flicked the radio on.
‘Indefatigable Tower, Swordfish Two, radio check on channel one.’
‘Swordfish Two, strength five, you are number two to Swordfish One.’
Suzi gunned her engines into life, checked them, and taxied her fighter in the cramped confines of the hangar bay behind Jeannie’s. She saw her burners light up, and she was gone. Suzi kicked in her brakes, and smoothly throttled the engines up to full power. She let go of the brakes, and the carrier was hundreds of metres behind her.
The four Lightnings buffeted gently as they passed into Jettysburg Secondus’ atmosphere, their undersides glowing red hot. Jeannie glanced around at her schwarm – Karnski was lagging a little.
‘Keep up, Swordfish Four,’ she warned.
Karnski’s fighter powered up a little to regain position. Below them, the blue of the planet’s largest ocean, Europhia, stretched out as far as the eye could see. Off to the west, just beyond visual range, was there new airfield.
Jeannie looked across at Suzi’s craft. What was she in such a bad mood about? No time to worry now, best to keep the mind on the job in hand. Still, it was at the back of her mind, and she should probably try to sort things out when they got down.
A colossal explosion to her left woke Jeannie up from her thoughts.
‘Break! Break!’ Suzi screamed.
Jeannie kicked in full right rudder, rolled onto her right wing and yanked back on the stick, afraid to turn her head to look over her shoulder from the G force.
‘What’s happened?’ she asked frantically over the radio.
‘Van Riche is down!’ Karnski said, ‘she’s dead!’
‘Six enemy fighters, six o’clock high,’ Suzi called, ‘they didn’t show up on radar.’
Jeannie cursed and switched to guns; they must have some sort of stealth capabilities. Above her, the rebel fighters had split into two vics of three – one vic pursuing Suzi and herself, the other after Karnski.
‘Stick with me, Swordfish Two, cover me,’ she said.
Jeannie banked sharply around to face the three fighters head on. As the two flights closed, she centered her gunsights on the leader. Intel said that rebel guns were not as good as Imperial ones. She waited until the enemy fighter was within weapons range, ignoring the ineffectual panic fire from one of his wingmen. Now.
Jeannie thumbed her fire button, sent out a stream of fire, and then rapidly rolled onto her back before pulling the crafts nose all the way through to the horizon in a split S.
‘He’s dead, you got him!’ Suzi reported.
Jeannie let her breath out again as the G force began to lift. She was numbly aware of a blood-curdling scream in her ears, and she looked off eastwards to see an ugly black streak carve up the sky, three dots following it down towards the sea. There was a small flash, and Karnski’s death scream was replaced with static. The other vic would be on its way back to them, no doubt.
‘Head for home! Buster!’ Jeannie yelled, opening her throttle fully and diving west.
The two Lightnings picked up speed as they shot through the thin, wispy clouds towards the safety of the Imperial occupied continent. Jeannie looked over her shoulder frantically at the two enemy fighters behind them. She had never seen fighters like them before – sleek, almost flat, with twin booms. One of them send a stream of laser fire after Suzi, who jinked her craft from side to side to avoid it.
The enemy fighters were gaining slightly – this new fighter of the rebels had better dive characteristics than the Lightning. The second vic was catching, too, and the friendly coastline of New Timas was only just in view. They wouldn’t make it.
‘They’re catching me!’ Suzi yelled.
Jeannie didn’t know what to say, or do. Turn and fight? It was probably their only option, to die with honour. Suzi clearly had the same idea – her Lightning’s engines suddenly idled and her air brakes shot up out of the tail. Her two pursuing fighters overshot her hopelessly, and Suzi mercilessly gunned one of then down into oblivion.
‘Get out of here! Go!’ Suzi shouted.
Even if she wanted to, Jeannie’s hands refused to pilot her fighter back towards the enemy. She sped on, towards safety, as Suzi locked horns with a second enemy fighter behind her.
It was over quickly. Suzi flamed the last fighter from the first vic, but stood little chance against three enemy fighters. Her craft exploded under gunfire from two of the fighters, sending showers of shrapnel into the warm waters of the Europhia. The vic sped onwards.
She could almost imagine that she could see the Imperial airfield now, a little dot amidst the green horizon. She almost laughed at how her temper had saved Andres’ life, grounding him. But Suzi had been right, and now she was dead. Not that it mattered. Jeannie rolled left and banked her fighter in a wide turn back to face the rebels. They broke up immediately and maneuvered to attack her from all sides simultaneously.
Jeannie picked on one of the fighters and pulled her nose up to climb after it. It rolled right and shot across the horizon, but Jeannie’s Lightning turned tighter, bringing her deadly gunsights around in closer behind it. The Lightning could turn tighter, not that Jeannie would live to tell anybody.
Behind her, the thunder of laser fire sounded, sending red bolts up below her nose, ignoring them, Jeannie brought her gunsights up ahead of the rebel fighter, calculated the deflection, and fired. Her autocannon and lasercannon sent accurate fire pummeling into the rebel, blowing pieces off its wings and fuselage.
Sparks danced along its nose as laser fire thumped behind Jeannie, slackening the response on her control column. Her fire found its mark, and the rebel craft exploded.
Jeannie attempted to pull up her nose, but the little power remaining in her engines wasn’t up to the task. Shaking violently, her nose keeled over, the Lightning flipping onto its back before entering a vicious spin. Her ears buzzing, her hands pinned to the glass of the canopy, Jeannie screamed as her world blurred into one endless, blue. Her hands powerless to reach the ejection handle over the G force, Jeannie felt consciousness slip away, blessing her with a painless death.
Seconds later, she was conscious again. The Lightnings nose had dropped, the rudder straightened, and the spin less intense. Instinctively she closed the throttle, pushed the stick forwards and applied full opposite rudder, waiting for the bunt to announce the spin was recovered. Above her, two fighters dived down out of the sun to follow her. She recognized them through the glare as Lightnings.
‘You ok, Boss?’ Brett asked over the radio, ‘you look pretty beat up.’
‘There’s two more of them! Look out!’ Jeannie cried.
‘Naw, I shot one and Brett scared the other away with his bad marksmanship,’ Pierre added.
Number one engine backfired and died, white smoke trailing behind from the holed coolant system. The coast was just ahead, but Jeannie was already nearly at wave top height.
‘You won’t make it, Boss,’ Brett said solemnly, ‘try to ditch and we’ll get someone to pick you up.’
Gritting her teeth, Jeannie Lowered the nose slightly to keep just above stall speed. The coastline rushed up towards her. Her Lightning lost a little lift, fell, and bounced back up off the turquoise water, before ploughing into the yellow-white sand of the beach.
Leaving a trench behind, the Imperial fighter slid forwards, tearing a wing off on a palm tree as it entered the tropical jungle on the other side of the sand. In her panic, Jeannie had forgotten to make the engines safe. Ignoring the brace position, she quickly flipped off the master switches, ignition, and fuel selectors.
The fighter slowed to a halt. Sweating profusely, Jeannie unlatched her harness and popped open the canopy, before quickly leaving the cockpit. The air was humid and unbearably hot, and the paradise beach littered with debris from her fallen fighter. Above her, the two Lightnings circled as they relayed her co-ordinates to the SAR boys. Jeannie pulled of her helmet and gloves, threw them aside, and walked down to the beach. That was as close to death as she ever wanted to come.
Tying the top half of her torn flight suit around her waist, Jeannie wadded through the warm water as she waited for pick up.
Andres stood up from his chair and walked across the hastily built wooden veranda of the officer’s mess. The dusty strip which served as their runway was hardly suited for Lightnings, and the ground crews were busy at work, installing sand filters into the fighter’s engines. At the far end of the runway, Pierre, Brett and Suzi played some silly beach game with an inflatable beach ball they had acquired from somewhere. It was stupid – Suzi really should be taking it easy after the ejection, doctor’s orders. She was lucky they found her at all.
Andres put his hands in his pockets and mooched sulkily across the veranda. A shipment of supplies and half a dozen new pilots was arriving tomorrow, so he still wasn’t needed. Still grounded.
‘What are you so moody about?’ Guynemer spat as she approached him from the crew cabins, her forced landing in no way softening her character.
Guynemer threw him his helmet.
‘Come on, Ace,’ she said mockingly, ‘show me what you’ve got.’
Andres recoiled is if struck.
‘Y… you mean I’m not grounded.’
‘If you’re good enough to shoot me down,’ Jeannie called over her shoulder as she headed towards the parked fighters, adding a subtle wink.
Andres sprinted towards his Lightning.
After they took off, the two craft climbed a few thousand feet before commencing the tail chase, Andres following Jeannie through the orange sky, barrel rolling around the setting sun.
Sub-Lieutenant Pierre Aphone sat on an upturned ammunition crate, idly sharpening his aircrew knife as he gazed up at the midday sun. Heat haze rose up from the parked fighters lined up on either side of the dusty, makeshift runway. A dull clanking emanated from the canvas-roofed hangars as fitters and riggers tinkered with airframes and engines alike, sweltering in the tropical heat.
A dull hum drifted through the thick air, and Pierre’s well-trained eyes immediately picked up a speck moving across the horizon at a fair rate of knots. As it drew closer, Pierre made out a streak of black smoke behind it, and could now detect that the engine of the craft sounded far from healthy.
‘Crash party! Stand by!’ he shouted, jumping to his feet. Ratings ran to their respective stations, and Lieutenant Suzi Tanawa, the Duty Officer, sprinted across from the Mess Blocks.
‘What is it?’ Suzi asked.
‘It’s Vincent, I think,’ Pierre answered, ‘he took his kite up to test some new gauges.’
The stricken craft was now clearly identifiable as a Lightning, and as its engine backfired it struggled onto the glide path for an emergency landing. The fire trucks hovered into position alongside the runway, and Pierre and Suzi retreated behind the cover of one of the AA emplacements.
The Lightning limped along the final approach, one of its undercarriage spars winding lazily out of the left wing. Its remaining engine idled, it glided gently down over the threshold of the runway, connected its one wheel with the sand, tore it off, and skidded the full length of the airfield, throwing up a huge cloud of sand in its wake.
Pierre and Suzi sprinted out in pursuit of the fire trucks towards Vincent’s Lightning. The canopy popped open and the slightly built pilot vaulted down from the smoking cockpit. Pierre had a chance to regard the Lightning as he approached, and was interested to notice its wings and fuselage riddled with bullet holes.
‘That’s one hell of a faulty gauge, Sub-Lieutenant Vincent,’ Suzi growled.
‘Erm, yeah…’ Vincent forced a smile, ‘had a little bit of a weapons malfunction. Managed to shoot myself in the wings. Rather careless of me.’
‘I gave you permission to test a newly installed gauge, not go off picking a fight with the locals!’ Suzi snapped, ‘now you’ve ruined your bus, and the Emperor knows how long it’ll take to fix it.’
Chaz Vincent shrugged apologetically and wiped a hand across his plain features. Pierre jumped in surprise as the right wing fell off the Lightning.
‘Go get changed,’ Suzi sighed.
Pierre watched as Vincent shuffled off to the locker rooms.
‘I don’t like this, Pierre,’ Suzi said, ‘enemy activity is really on the increase in this area.’
‘Well you didn’t believe all that tripe on the news, did you?’ Pierre countered, ‘we’ve got them on the run? Marines are on the way to finish off the last resistance? I think not. They’re stronger than ever.’
Suzi nodded, replacing her white uniform cap. Pierre wandered back over to his impromptu chair to sharpen his knife again. It was down to the CO to worry about strategy and where 805 Squadron fitted into the grand scheme of things. His job was to shoot down rebels. He’d got four of them, and in his opinion that made him pretty good at his job.
Andres glanced around the office uncomfortably. The air was thick and hot, and the shutters over the windows allowed half the sunlight into the room, in thin streaks which illuminated the dust in the air. Jeannie Guynemer stood by the window, watching as the ground crews rushed over to Vincent’s chewed up fighter. Andres tried to ignore her perfect figure silhouetted against the window, but failed.
‘Well,’ Jeannie began, ‘I think that illustrates my point. Intel says that the rebels may have numerous airfields in the sector, and I think that would be the only explanation for the recent increase in opposition. Must be reserve squadrons sent in from Phenex. That continent is practically untouched, and industrially powerful.’
‘Quite, ma’am,’ Andres nodded.
Jeannie looked at him, and Andres could almost feel his pupils expand as he saw hers. Both pilots looked away from each other quickly.
‘We need to recce the area,’ Jeannie continued, ‘but half of these new pilots don’t have the experience required for low level, high speed camera runs. I’ll fly the runs, and you’ll be on my wing.’
That shocked Andres. Jeannie had all but admitted that, perhaps second to her, Andres was the best pilot in 805. He knew he was – even better than her – but he kept that to himself. He hated the cliched, arrogant fighter jock. But Jeannie had one skill he had never seen: she could shoot a speck of dust off a fly’s back with a cannon shell – she never, ever, missed her target.
‘No objections, Lieutenant?’
Andres shook his head.
‘Good. The first run will be at 1500. Be back here, ready to brief at 1400.’
Andres stood up and turned to leave. He felt suddenly sick, tight in the stomach. A feeling he hadn’t had since… back before starting at the Imperial Naval College. Pushing back painful memories, Andres left Guynemer’s office.
The ground crews, clothed only in beige shorts and boots in the blistering heat, scrambled frantically around the two Lightnings, completing last minute checks. Jeannie glanced over her shoulder, checked that her tail was clear, and smoothly opened the throttle up to full power. Her fighter screamed in protest against its wheel brakes, threatening to slip forwards.
On her right wing, Andres gave her thumbs up to signal all ready. Jeannie thumbed on reheat, and the fighter screamed louder. Holding one hand up high in the cockpit, Jeannie simultaneously let the brakes go and brought her hand down, signalling Andres to follow. The two Lightnings shot forwards with a deafening roar, throwing up clouds of dust behind them. Jeannie eased back on the control column, and felt the resistance from the ground disappear. Folding her wheels up and bringing the wing flaps back in, she turned her Lightning to the left and shot towards the enemy lines, Andres glued to her wing.
The miles of tropical, turquoise waters unwound uneventfully below the rotte of Lightnings. At three o’clock, on the horizon, Jeannie saw a handful of small islands breaking the water. On course – good.
After forty minutes, Jeannie saw the enemy coast up ahead.
‘Stick with me, Ace,’ Jeannie called, surprising herself at her blatant disregard for radio transmission procedure.
‘Wilco, Red One.’
Jeannie pushed the stick forwards and felt herself rise up out of the ejector seat, held down against the negative G-force only by the harnesses. Bringing her Lightning down to tree top level, she zoomed over the rebel lines. Out of nowhere, thin, white lines began to move up lazily towards her.
‘Flak, 11 o’clock,’ Andres called.
‘Roger, Red Two.’
Jeannie glanced over to her left and saw a handful of trucks with quad-cannons mounted on the back vanish under her wing. Nothing to worry about. A few seconds later, Jeannie’s Central Warning Panel lit up, squawking.
‘Break!’ Jeannie yelled, yanking her fighter over on the left wing, dumping chaff before she momentarily blacked out.
‘Andres?’ Jeannie called desperately as consciousness returned.
‘On your seven o’clock, slightly high,’ came back the cool response.
Jeannie looked around and saw the Surface to Air Missile she had just evaded droop back down towards the ground. This was getting too hot – the rebels had all sorts of defenses that Intelligence didn’t know about. Maybe they should turn back. No, not a chance.’
‘Target is in five,’ Jeannie called, arming her Lightning’s recce camera.
‘Roger, Red One.’
Good, old-fashioned black smoke began to blossom around the two Imperial fighters from Ack Ack guns. By The Emperor, they had low level radar warning them as well. A triangle of three concrete runways appeared on the horizon, with two huge hangars off to the East side. Jeannie saw three Ma-7s taxiing onto the Westward-facing runway. Fighting the impulse to break into a strafing run, Jeannie stayed on target for the camera run.
A loud bang to her right forced her to cry out in terror, as a neat line of shrapnel holes appeared in her starboard wing.
‘Brake off!’ Andres yelled.
‘Negative, Red Two!’ Jeannie spat.
Her wounded fighter swept over the airfield, the reconnaissance camera holographing every square metre of the base. Jeannie pulled out of the run, swerving from left to right to avoid the pursuing Anti-Aircraft fire. White smoke was trailing from her damaged wing – hole in the coolant system, Jeannie quickly identified. She powered down the engine and re-trimmed as she turned for home.
‘Red One: Red Two, bandits, strength three, five o’clock low,’ Andres called.
‘Head for home, Red Two,’ Jeannie answered.
It was the sensible thing to do, they hadn’t come here to pick a fight, but Jeannie soon realised that her damaged ship couldn’t outrun a vic of Ma-7s. She glanced back behind her, and saw Andres’ Lightning peel off and dart straight back towards the enemy fighters, diving down towards them. Speechlessly she saw him attack head on, guns blazing. The lead fighter exploded into a ball of flames, and Andres’ ship disappeared in the smoke, emerging a fraction of a second later in a flashy victory roll.
Jeannie exhaled as her knight in shinning armour faced certain death to protect her. She wheeled her Lightning back around, thought better of it, and resumed her course back for base, watching over her shoulder all of the time as Andres twisted and turned, dogfighting with the two rebel fighters.
A close range missile shot downed the first; a low-level spilt-S brought Andres under the belly of the last fighter, who he mercilessly gunned down with auto and lascannon fire.
Wordlessly, Andres formed up on Jeannie’s wing for the long journey home.
Suzi held her breath as the two Lightnings appeared on the horizon. Two emergency landings in one day. She prayed that her friend would be as lucky as Vincent was a few hours ago. Lieutenant Brett Haye ran out of the accommodation block to witness the landing.
‘Shit,’ he mumbled as he saw the smoke trail left by the lead fighter, ‘who is it?’
‘The Boss,’ Suzi answered.
She breathed a sigh of relief as the craft flew closer, and recognised the small extent of the damage. Jeannie’s wheels and flaps folded down without incident and her glided gently around finals before making a textbook landing. Seconds later, Andres’ Lightning shot over the runway at over twice the speed of sound, executing a brash victory roll at low level, the sonic boom of his jet engines setting off the alarm of every truck on the base.
That wasn’t like him. Suzi walked over to where Jeannie stood in her cockpit, dragging off her helmet and running her fingers through her sweat soaked blonde hair.
‘You ok?’ Suzi called up to the cockpit.
Jeannie smiled and shrugged. Her ground crew moved over to inspect the damage to her ship as Andres’ Lightning touched down. He taxied over and popped open his cockpit before vaulting athletically down to the ground, throwing his helmet to one side, and shooting a cavalier wink and grin to Jeannie and Suzi.
The next few days were filled with routine patrols for most of the Squadron, and more recce runs for Jeannie and Andres. Time and time again they would limp back, one or both machines covered in bullet holes and shrapnel tears. Word came that the rebels had started to produce medium bombers for a counter attack, but the reconnaissance runs found no evidence of this. The only thing for sure was that rebel forces were building up, and unless reinforcements arrived soon, 805 stood little chance of survival.
Suzi lead her vic of three Lightnings up into the morning sun, piercing the thin layer of stratus cloud, thousands of feet above the calm seas. Brett Haye had dropped out of the patrol and flown back with engine trouble a few minutes after take off. It seemed that he had been plagued with bad luck in the air recently.
Pierre Aphone was steady as a rock on her left wing, the young rookie who had sheepishly turned up on 805 a couple months ago was now a hardened veteran. On her right wing, Sub-Lieutenant Gerrat Dollo stayed loosely in formation, an impressive feat considering his amount of experience in a front line fighter.
‘Got something. Two contacts – zero-five-zero, twenty klicks,’ Pierre called over the radio.
Suzi checked her radar and identified the hostiles.
‘Ok, Green Section,’ she called, ‘let’s get some altitude and jump ‘em.’
The three Lightnings carried on at best rate climb, ploughing through another layer of cloud as they manoeuvred to intercept the hostiles. At five clicks, Suzi lead her section into a steep dive behind the two radar contacts. Her eyes began to red over as the negative G burst blood vessels, the wind howling through her stealthy wings.
The contacts carried on, apparently oblivious to their impending doom. A flash of white appeared in front of Suzi as they shot back down through one of the layers of cloud, and suddenly they were on the tails of two twin engines Ma-5 heavy fighters.
The rebels never even knew they had been attacked. The guns of the three Lightnings lit up, Suzi’s accurate fire obliterating the first fighter, a stream of laser fire from Pierre’s ship taking out an engine from the second. The Ma-5 veered away, flames rippling over its left wing as it fell in a lazy arc towards the sea. A couple of parachutes blossomed behind it before it was just a burning speck hurtling towards the water. It had all taken just a few seconds.
‘Drinks are on me, Pierre! You’re an ace now!’ Suzi beamed.
‘I hold you to that, ma’am!’
The three Lightnings turned back towards home.
The gaggle of pilots, for their uniforms clearly advertised what they were, spilled into the bar. Murmurs of disapproval from the local residents were drowned out by excited calls for alcoholic beverages from the off duty servicemen. Pierre, grinning at the thought of being an ace, still felt nervous about the fact he was celebrating in a civilian bar in a country he had helped to invade. They clearly were not popular here.
Rumours of resistance against Imperial rule was common, as were stories of atrocities committed by angry Imperial Guardsmen who had lost comrades to the resistance factions.
Brett slapped him on the back, bringing him out of his trance.
‘What’ll it be?’
‘Just a pint to start with,’ Pierre answered.
‘You ok?’ Chaz Vincent asked.
‘Sure,’ Pierre shrugged, forcing a smile.
The looks from the bar’s clientele did not install him with confidence.
‘Forget about them,’ Chaz said with a wink, ‘let’s get some beers, go find some girls, dance a little…’
Brett thrust a foaming pint mug into Pierre’s hand, which the younger man promptly downed in one to much well voiced approval of his peers. Gerrat Dollo quickly made his way across the dimly lit room to the music box, and pushed in a few local coins. Pierre grinned and settled into his seat by the bar, more comfortable with some retro rock classics blaring out. Or at least they sounded like that, maybe this sort of music was modern around here.
Suzi pushed her way through the half dozen pilots and presented Pierre with another tankard of beer.
‘Smile, Pierre! You’re in an elite brotherhood now!’
‘I dunno,’ Pierre shrugged, ‘maybe I’m just listening to the wrong songs, but it seems like all I’ve done is take a lot of lives, and destroy a lot of families.’
‘That’s hippy talk,’ Brett warned,’ and it’s a good thing the rest of the guys can’t hear that.’
‘I know what you mean,’ Suzi said soothingly to Pierre, ‘I don’t want to kill either, but you’ve just got to look at why you do it. For the greater good. In the long run, you’ve got to see that you are saving lives. Now force a smile and relax, we’re supposed to be celebrating something!’
Pierre nodded and downed another gulp of beer before taking off his white cap and running his fingers through his straight, blonde hair. The doors to the bar opened and half a dozen local women entered. The male pilots cheered rowdily, and the young women looked around nervously, unsure of how to get out of this predicament. Deciding it was safer to avoid the wrath of the invading forces or the retribution of the townsfolk, they quietly slipped past the bar to a table in the corner, trying their best to ignore the stares of the Imperial officers.
‘You guys’ll never change,’ Suzi said despairingly.
Gerrat and a new Midshipman named Ranur Clarn stood, adjusted their white uniforms, and walked confidently over to the girls in the corner.
‘Fat lot of chance they stand,’ huffed Jana Kidds, another recent addition to the squadron.
‘More chance than you stand with any of the local lads,’ Suzi scowled in response.
The two women had taken an instinctive dislike to each other ever since Jana’s arrival two weeks ago. Pierre had figured that a lot of it was down to insecurity – both were beautiful women who craved attention in a male dominated squadron, and both felt threatened that they had met their match.
Jana shrugged off Suzi’s comment and slipped an arm around Pierre’s shoulders.
‘Well, fighter jock, what’ll it be tonight?’
‘Huh?’ Pierre started.
‘What are you having to drink?’ Jana asked.
Brett sniggered whilst Suzi tutted and turned away.
‘Pint of the same, I guess,’ Pierre answered thoughtfully.
Leading Mechanic (Aeronautical) Kari Sonners yawned as she approached the hangar. The night air was slightly chilly, and the airfield was all but deserted. Lieutenant Commander Guynemer’s room light was still on, as always. Didn’t she ever take any time off?
Something seemed a little amiss as Kari walked up to the hangar. She stopped fishing around her pockets for the key she had just signed out of the Guardroom when she realised that the side door to the hangar was ajar. Her fatigue overriding her caution, she nonchalantly entered the hangar and flicked the lights on. As the huge lamps illuminated the spacious spacecraft hangar, a shadowy figure suddenly stepped away from her fighter. Well, not her fighter; it was actually Lieutenant Haye’s craft. But she was the rigger, and that sort of made it hers.
‘Hello?’ Kari offered, stepping forwards.
‘Erm… hi,’ a familiar voice answered.
‘Oh, h…hello, sir, I didn’t realise it was you.’
Lieutenant Haye stepped out from behind his fighter, dressed in his white tropics uniform, and carrying a spanner.
‘Sorry to bother you, sir,’ Kari continued, ‘it’s just that you seem to be experiencing a lot of mechanical problems these days. I was afraid that I wasn’t doing my job properly, so I figured I’d do some overtime.’
‘W… well…’ Haye stumbled over his words, ‘I’m sure it’s just bad luck. I wasn’t really in the mood for drinking much tonight, so I thought I’d come and check over my kite myself.’
‘With a 1/8 spanner?’ Kari questioned, ‘Lightnings are bolted up with 1/4s, sir. You won’t get very far! I think you’d better stick to flying them, sir, I’ll maintain them.’
Brett Haye shrugged sheepishly and gingerly placed the offending spanner back in the toolbox from where it came. He opened his mouth to say something to Kari, obviously thought better of it, and shut it again.
‘Perhaps you should get some sleep, sir, what with the early morning patrols and everything. I’ll take it from here.’
‘You’re right,’ the Lieutenant agreed, ‘thank you, Ms. Sommers, goodnight.’
‘Good night, sir,’ Kari called over her shoulder as she began walking around the Lightning, giving a good visual check before she opened up any of the panels, It was only twenty minutes into her work that she realised what an odd situation that had been.
The jukebox had progressed onto slow love songs by now, and Pierre was feeling tired. The bar was all but empty. Brett had gone home with a headache, and Suzi, Jana, Ranur, Garrat and Chaz had moved onto a nightclub somewhere. Pierre drained his bottle of beer and slammed it down onto the bar.
The group of girls in the corner, having survived the best that Ranur and Garrat could through at them in the way of pick up lines for an hour, had stayed around for another hour but were now getting up to leave. Pierre considered ordering one, last beer, decided against it, but then changed his mind and slid his empty bottle over the bar.
At the door, he could hear the girls arguing over something.
‘Look, I’ll be fine. Just go and I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.’
‘It’s a bad idea,’ another said.
‘I’m old enough to stay out past ten thirty, now go!’
Pierre slid a few coins over the bar to the establishment’s proprietor, and flipped the lid off his fresh beer.
‘Hey,’ the same female voice said behind him.
Pierre looked groggily over his shoulder at the girl he had decided was prettiest of the bunch even when he was still sober.
‘I’m not here trying to pick up a handsome officer who is drunk and vulnerable, no matter what this looks like,’ the brown haired girl smiled, ‘you just look like you could do with someone to talk to.’
‘I’m the enemy,’ Pierre slurred, ‘you’d sooner kill me than help me.’
‘Not true,’ the girl shrugged, ‘my name’s Aleena, what’s yours?’
‘Aphone,’ Pierre answered, taking another swig from his beer.
‘So what’s wrong, Aphone?’ Aleena asked, ‘sometimes it’s easier to talk to people you don’t know. I guess you don’t have to worry about their opinion as much.’
‘If your family saw you here they would have you shot as a collaborator, you know,’ Pierre warned, ‘how old are you?’
‘The Imperium has more support here than you’d think,’ Aleena answered, ‘and I’m twenty-one. How old are you, Aphone?’
‘Eighteen,’ Pierre answered.
A look of sympathy crossed Aleena’s face.
‘Same age as my little brother.’
Pierre felt his temper beginning to fray. He felt patronised, as only a drunkard can when being offered sincere help, and deep down he realised it. Which was why he decided it was best to leave now, rather than risking offending her.
‘I’ve got to go,’ he said, struggling to his feet and dragging his cap sloppily across his crown, ‘nice meeting you.’
‘You too, Aphone. Take care.’
Pierre forced a smile and staggered out of the bar, towards the downhill mile back to the airfield.
‘I don’t like the look of this,’ Brett said over the radio, his fighter raising its nose a little.
‘What is there not to like?’ Jana exploded, ‘there’s four unescorted bombers down there!’
Jana looked down through eleven o’clock again, just to make sure that her eyes were not deceiving her. The four twin engined bombers lumbered on, apparently oblivious to the stealthy presence of the Imperial fighters.
‘Come on, Blue One, give us the order to attack!’ Chaz Vincent urged.
‘Ok, ok! Follow me in!’ Brett growled, peeling his fighter off down into a dive towards the four bombers.
Jana slid in behind him, gunning her engines up to pick up even more speed in the dive. The three fighters shot out of the sun, gaining rapidly on the rebel medium bombers.
‘Look like Be-511s,’ Chaz said, obviously calling on knowledge of the endless intelligence reports he pored over, as 805 had not met any rebel bombers before.
‘Follow me in, line astern,’ Brett ordered, ‘take out the leader first.’
‘Roger,’ Jana responded, centring her gunsights over the allocated target.
Brett’s fighter swooped down behind the enemy bombers and then pulled up to position beneath the belly for a shot. Alerted to his presence, the four bombers’ tail gunners opened up simultaneously, sending hails of lead back towards Brett.
Without firing a shot, Brett peeled off from the attack, diving for safety.
‘Damn it! Guns jammed! I’m heading home!’
‘Position for a missile shot, Blue One, we’ll go in with guns!’ Vincent called.
Ignoring the radio chatter, Jana flew on through the ineffectual fire left in the bombers’ wakes by the tail gunners. Aiming for the port engine of the lead bomber, she let rip with her autocannon and lascannon. Her fire flew straight over the bomber’s nose, causing the formation to split up and peel off in separate directions. Following the same bomber, Jana managed to squeeze in another burst of fire before she over shot her target. Pulling up into a steep climb, she looked back over her shoulder to see that the bomber was trailing thin wisps of white smoke from the engine she had hit.
Behind the same bomber, Chaz Vincent poured a hail of shells into the bomber’s tail, chewing it up.
‘Break off, Chaz!’ Jana said firmly, ‘Brett’s lost his guns. He needs an escort back.’
‘Wilco, Blue Two,’ Chaz sighed irritably, wheeling his fighter back around to follow Brett’s dive back towards home.
Quickly checking around for enemy fighters, Jana watched her second potential kill as it limped back towards the safety of the rebel continent. Cursing, she dived down after Chaz.
‘So was it a good night?’ Jeannie asked, swivelling her chair around to look out of her office window.
‘Yeah, it was pretty good,’ Suzi answered, sitting on the edge of Jeannie’s desk to follow her gaze, ‘what are we looking at, Jeannie?’
Guynemer shrugged. The morning patrol was coming in, and Suzi breathed a sigh of relief to see all three kites from Brett’s flight line up nicely in the circuit for landing. She turned her attention back to Jeannie.
‘What did you get up to last night?’
‘Nothing much,’ Jeannie answered, ‘I wrote a letter to my mother, and did some paperwork.’
‘You should have come out with us,’ Suzi said.
‘Did Pierre get very drunk?’ Jeannie asked suddenly, ‘I’ve given him the morning off, assuming the worst.’
‘Yeah, fairly,’ Suzi said, avoiding the fact that they had left him alone in a bar in captured territory against direct orders, ‘he seemed pretty depressed, though.’
Jeannie raised an inquisitive eyebrow. Suzi looked back out of the window. Brett had just landed, and was frantically beckoning his fitter and rigger over. More technical problems?
‘What’s wrong with Pierre?’ Jeannie asked deliberately.
‘His eighteen years old, Jeannie, and he’s only been with us a month or two. I think he’s sick of killing, seeing his friends die, homesick, anti-war, a combination of, I don’t know!’
‘I’ll have a word with him,’ Jeannie answered eventually, ‘go and find out what Brett broke this time.’
Pierre’s first sensation was a numb headache. He opened his eyes slightly, recoiled from the light creeping in between his shutters, and closed them again. The knocking on his door which had awoken him came again. He looked at his clock – 10:37 am.
‘Go away!’ Pierre shouted hoarsely.
‘Get up, Sub-Lieutenant!’ Lieutenant Commander Guynemer’s cold voice answered from behind his door.
Pierre dragged himself to his feet, thankful that he was sick the previous night, thus alleviating some of the pain of this morning’s hangover. He pulled his blue dressing gown on and staggered over to the door. His head spinning, he took a second to get his balance back before he admitted his CO into his room.
‘About time,’ Guynemer greeted him as he opened the door, ‘you’re lucky I gave you any time off at all.’
‘I know, ma’am, sorry,’ Pierre answered sincerely.
Jeannie walked past him and into his room.
‘I hear that you weren’t in the mood to celebrate last night,’ Guynemer said.
This would be difficult. Trying to tell a Party Member with an Imperial Eagle armband, that he was starting to lose the will to fight, that he considered himself a murderer. He frantically searched his aching head for something to say.
‘What are you tired of most, Pierre: loosing friends, or taking them away from others?’
‘I don’t know, ma’am,’ Pierre mumbled, immediately regretting the opportunity to deny both.
‘I get sick of seeing this, too,’ Guynemer said softly, looking away, ‘most times a patrol comes back, there’s a gap in the formation. I’ve seen pilots and groundcrews in tears, mourning the loss of their friends more times than I can remember. But that’s nothing compared to their loved ones. I have to write to them every time, to tell them that their son or daughter died for a worthy cause.’
Maybe she did understand. The tone of her voice certainly suggested she did. Maybe the Boss had a soft side, after all. She must do – no sane person enjoyed killing.
‘Then if it’s not for a worthy cause, why do we keep doing it?’ Pierre asked, almost to himself.
‘Of course the cause is worthy!’ Guynemer snapped, ‘we fight and die for the Emperor! The future of the Imperium! We each have only one life to try to make a difference in this war, and we are doing the right thing. Take the day off to think about it, Mister Aphone, but get yourself together quickly. There is no more worthy cause than the future of a race, the master race, and the sooner you realise that, the better.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Pierre answered weakly as Guynemer left his room.
He was right in the first place. She really was heartless.
Gerrat Dollo searched the skies frantically for any sign of intruders. It had been a couple of days since Brett Haye’s morning patrol had run into the rebel bombers, and the skies around Imperial New Jettysburg had been quiet. All the more reason to stay focused, on the ball….
Gerrat Dollo searched the skies frantically for any sign of intruders. It had been a couple of days since Brett Haye’s morning patrol had run into the rebel bombers, and the skies around Imperial New Jettysburg had been quiet. All the more reason to stay focused, on the ball.
The vic of three Lightnings climbed steadily away from the morning sun. Rumours had been flying around that a small continent way west of hear was joining the Imperium, but that its neighbouring countries were preparing to bomb it into the stone age in punishment for its treachery. Bellavia, the country was called. He hoped that 805 wasn’t sent there – grey skies and even greyer waters, intelligence said.
‘Bandits! One o’clock level! Twelve plus!’ Ranur Clarn suddenly called out.
‘They’ve already seen us,’ Andres Vazquez-Hunt cut in, ‘stay on course, let’s shot them up a little.’
Gerrat opened up a little from Andres’ wing, giving him more space to concentrate on his observation rather than his formation flying. From here, his radar showed two formations, and he could visually pick out half a dozen fighters flying slightly above and to the rear of a similar number of medium bombers. The rebels still did not have the strength to mount big raids. Nothing like they would see when the Marauders arrived.
‘Tally ho! Tally ho! Green Section! Get the bombers!’ Andres called, throttling up to dash straight towards the enemy formation.
The six enemy fighters, now clearly identifiable as the ubiquitous Ma-7s, peeled away from the bombers and headed towards the Lightnings. Gerrat centred his sights on one of the fighters, and left his thumb hovering over the fire button. The two opposing forces continued to fly straight towards each other, until it seemed that the Ma-7 had filled his gun sights. At the same time he saw telltale sparks appear on the enemy fighter’s wings, Gerrat hit his fire button.
Shells and laser bolts flew from his guns, whizzing through the air like yellow and blue snakes towards the Ma-7. A shell whacked into Gerrat’s Lightning’s nose, knocking it slightly off course.
‘Screw this!’ Gerrat exhaled, peeling off to the left to avoid the Ma-7.
A huge explosion blossomed to Gerrat’s right, the sound clear even over the angry howl of his engines, and he looked to see a Lightning and an Ma-7 falling towards the ground, blazing, locked together in a macabre embrace. Only now did he realise that turning away from the Ma-7 was a bad idea: two were on his tail.
‘Break right!’ Andres shouted over the radio.
Painfully slowly, Gerrat responded, leaving a trail of shells ploughing through the air in the space he had occupied a fraction of a second earlier. He started to panic. His palms were sweating, and he couldn’t control his breathing.
‘What do I do? What do I do?’ Gerrat shouted, realising that he was close to tears.
‘Dive, Green Two! Get the hell out!’ Andres shouted.
Gerrat shoved his control yoke forwards, and cried out as the blood rushing to his head burst the blood vessels in his eyes. The world composed of different shades of red, Gerrat felt the pressure on his ears build up as the warm sea rushed up towards him. He glanced in his mirror and saw that Andres had picked off one of his assailants, but now tangled with three others as the fourth remained in hot pursuit of Gerrat.
‘No!’ he sobbed, realising that there was no way out.
No matter how hard he twisted and turned, climbed and dived, the fighter remained glued to his tail, gaining all the time. He was going to die. The most stupid things rushed through his head. He’d never said goodbye to his Grandfather, forgotten to send that card to his little sister for her sixteenth birthday. He screamed as he made out the individual waves, and in one, last, futile effort, yanked back on the stick and lost consciousness.
Jeannie paced anxiously around her office, glancing at her watch every few seconds. The morning patrol should have been back two hours ago. Every minute of those two hours had been agony. She looked out at the dusty runway again, as if that would make the three Lightnings miraculously come home. Finally giving in, she grabbed her cap, and rushed towards the control tower, hoping that they could shed some light on the missing patrol.
She realised that her hands were shaking, and she felt sick and weak. Half way across the runway, she heard the familiar sound of RJ-809 engines. Lightnings.
Two specks were making their way slowly across the skies to position for landing. In a burst of commotion, fire crews were already rushing to their trucks, crash parties preparing equipment. Brett Haye leaned out of a window from the top of the control tower, and whistled to attract Jeannie’s attention. She looked up.
‘It’s Andres and Gerrat Dollo,’ Brett called down.
‘What about Clarn?’ Jeannie called up, shielding her eyes from the blazing sun.
Brett shook his head solemnly, and disappeared back into the tower. The two fighters entered the circuit, one flying atrociously, though with no visible damage. The other stayed glued to its wing, providing moral support on the way down. Jeannie let out a breath and almost laughed. From the looks of things, Dollo had seen a bit of a fight, and needed Uncle Andres to talk him down through the panic.
The first fighter landed on one wheel, bumped up into the air again, kangerooed down the runway for a few seconds, and then skidded to a clumsy halt, the crash crews and medics already rushing towards it. The second fighter landed perfectly and taxied quickly over to its wingman. Smiling, Jeannie jogged towards the second fighter. Her smile faded as she saw the ident code painted in grey across the fuselage.
Andres flew VN-2.
The canopy popped open, and Gerrat Dollo rose to his feet, eyes blood red, flying suit covered in vomit. Shaking again, Jeannie turned to face the other fighter. Her hands rose to her open mouth. Medics were pulling the pilot out. Smoke was still rising from the blackened, burnt flesh of his left arm. His shaking hands had formed into tightly clenched claws, and his face was covered in blood. Jeannie turned away and burst into tears.
‘So what the hell happened?’ Pierre asked Gerrat after ushering him into a quiet corner of the mess.
Gerrat stared mutely at the pint of beer pushed in front of him, opened his mouth to speak, but then stopped again. Pierre realised that his eyes were watering. He didn’t blame him. He was exactly the same after the first time he’d seen a friend killed in action. He could still see Isely’s cocky grin as he had climbed into the cockpit of his Lightning that morning.
‘We all know how you feel, Gerrat. I know it’s no consolation, and it doesn’t make anything better, but we all go through it.’
‘We were just flying right at them,’ Gerrat finally mumbled, a lock of brown hair falling over his overflowing eyes, ‘my shots were flying wild: everywhere. The Ma-7 just kept dead in my sights, but my guns wouldn’t hit it. Then I took a hit somewhere – I can’t remember where. Pulled away. Ranur died… he just…’
Gerrat buried his face in his hands and started to sob. Pierre looked around uncomfortably, completely at a loss for what to do. Best to just get him to let it all out.
‘What happened? Did he get shot down in the first pass?’
‘He just blew up!’ Gerrat cried, ‘he collided! Hit one of the bastards dead on!’
Pierre let out a sigh. That could happen to anyone in a head on pass. No control over something like that.
‘I broke away,’ Gerrat continued, clearly more willing to speak now, ‘he followed me. What ever I did, he just followed round and round, getting closer, larger in the corner of my eye all of the time. I think there were two of them… yes, two? Vazquez-Hunt shot one off me. Then he was tangled with another three. Another one followed me down, and I pulled up and blacked out. When I came too I was alone. Andres said over the radio that I had a kill, that the rebel following me down hit the sea. Then he screamed. He was just screaming over the radio, screaming.
‘I’m on fire! Help me, I’m on fire!’ He wouldn’t stop screaming. His fighter fell out of the sky next to me, smoke trailing from the cockpit, spinning. I followed him in, looking out to see if anyone else would mess with us. He got control again. He didn’t say anything else on the way back. I just told him that he was looking good, that everything was ok. And now…’
Gerrat stopped and burst into tears again. Pierre took a swig from his beer and looked out of the window, surveying the skies with a knowing eye. What a mess. He was sick of war. Here he was, consoling a grown man, two years his senior, crying like a baby. But with good cause. Did this war have a good cause? Pierre wasn’t sure how much longer he wanted to be a part of it, or was willing to.
Suzi jogged past her fighter to where Jeannie had assembled the strike team. No reprimand for being late – that wasn’t like Jeannie at all. Jeannie paced around in front of her fighter, her shoulder length blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, her eyes blazing like the fires of Hades. Pierre, Gerrat Dollo, Jana Kidds and Chaz Vincent leaned against Jeannie’s Lightning’s wing, watching her pace. Brett Haye was in the sick bay with stomach pains.
‘It’s quite simple,’ Jeannie suddenly growled, ‘we take off in two flights. We head out on a course of one-one-zero for forty-four klicks. There is an enemy airfield there I recced a week ago. We are going to bomb and rocket it out of existence. Stay low, and kill everything. Kill everyone. If anyone comes back with unfired munitions, I’ll court martial them for cowardice.’
With that, Jeannie stormed off to the ladder leading up to her cockpit and, ignoring the pre-flight checks, strapped in. Suzi didn’t like this at all. She knew what was up, too. When they got back, she would have to have another little talk with her friend, and if her suspicions were correct, Suzi knew what her duty was. She had to relieve Jeannie of her command.
Beads of condensation danced across the windscreen as Jeannie’s Lightning descended through the clouds. The enemy airfield was dead ahead, their defenses already alerted to the six Imperial intruders. Jeannie sideslipped down to the left, loosing her wingmen in the process. Alone – no one to hold her back. As she swept over the perimeter fence, she wordlessly attacked.
On the first pass, she jettisoned two free fall bombs, aiming them at a cluster of nissan huts that intelligence had named Accommodation Blocks. She lowered her nose, centring her sights on the control tower, and thumbed down her gun button at the same time her bombs ripped the crew huts apart.
‘Blue flight, follow me in,’ Jeannie heard Suzi sigh over the radio. She banked around to the right to avoid colliding with the tower, her craft buffeted by flak explosions around her. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw a pair of rebel fighters taxiing out to the holding point for the active runway. Banking back around, she lined up on the enemy machines, and emptied a pair of unguided rocket pods into them, smiling grimly as the pitter-patter of lethal, white darts struck home, devastating the first fighter, and catching the second in the explosion.
The customary exited comm chatter had now begun, and Jeannie was vaguely aware of Chaz Vincent’s monotonous voice as he reported a ground kill. Jeannie wheeled back to face the control tower, gritting her teeth as snakes of AA fire danced up towards her.
‘Blue Three, watch that gun in the east corner!’ Suzi barked at Jana Kidds, sweeping low over the hangars as they exploded from Pierre’s accurate bombing run.
She banked around to the right, fighting the controls through the lethal clouds of flak as she aimed her Lightning’s nose towards one of the deadly AA guns. She saw Jeannie flying like a madman towards the control tower, her guns blazing in one, long, undisciplined stream of fire. Suzi could almost make out the tower’s occupants dancing and convulsing as the shells and laser bolts tore them limb from limb.
Switching her concentration back to her target, Suzi let off a burst of fire which slammed into the northern AA gun, sparking and ricocheting off the crew guard, before suddenly detonating as the volatile ammunition was hit. The gun exploded in a huge pillar of black smoke, the shockwave forcing the Lightning out of control. Swearing aloud, Suzi dragged her fighter’s nose back up through the horizon, swerving to avoid a line of communication cables suspended a few metres above the ground.
She saw a smoking Lightning flash past her sights, and recognised the ident code as Gerrat’s.
‘Red Three; Blue One, what’s your status?’
‘I’ve taken a couple of hits, but I’m ok,’ Gerrat’s calm reply came back.
Suzi turned her fighter back into the fray, flying through the smoke of the obliterated active runway, and jettisoning her bombs on the second runway. She was rewarded with a satisfying explosion behind her.
‘That’s it, Blue flight,’ she called, ‘round up and head for home.’
‘You out of ammo?’ Jeannie called over the R/T.
‘No ordinance left, Red One,’ Suzi reported.
‘You’ve still got power in your lasers?’ Jeannie hissed, ‘turn back around and fight!’
Swearing again in frustration, Suzi yanked her Lightning up onto its right wing and hit the gun button.
Kari sighed and shivered, zipping her jacket up higher as the cool evening winds arrived. She leaned further inside Lieutenant Haye’s Lightning’s aft fuselage access, inspecting the control cables for the fifth time. It seemed that the more she checked, the harder she worked to confirm that everything in Haye’s kite was in working order, the more often it fell to pieces.
The whistling of multiple jet engines drifted across with the evening breeze, and Kari looked up to see six, insect like silhouettes, black against the red of the setting sun. She breathed a sigh of relief; they had all come home this time. The half dozen battered fighters of the Imperial Navy swam closer into view, revealing various stages of battle damage.
The ragged precession of Lightnings lined up for landing. Kari let out an exclamation, echoed by her fellow ground crew workers. Lieutenant Commander Guynemer was first to land, her bus holed like a colander. Sub-Lieutenant Aphone was next in, his engines so badly damaged that he glided in with no power. Then Sub-Lieutenant Kidds, her port engine trailing puffy, grey smoke.
Kari shook her head. That raid must have been a nightmare.
‘Ok, kid, you’re on your own!’
The instructor stepped out of the little propeller aircraft, and he was finally alone. He hurriedly completed his pre-take off checks, and taxied to the holding point. After permission to take off, he lined up on Runway 22, and looked down towards the trees. The mid-summer sun brought waves of heat haze up off the runway, and the smell of aero-oil was thick in his nostrils. There was nowhere in the world he would rather be, or ever wanted to be.
‘So it’s over?’
‘I’ll never see you again?’
‘So I guess this really is goodbye. You take care of…’
‘I never thought you would take this military nonsense seriously. The flying is bad enough. You step foot inside that academy, and you might as well consider yourself an orphan.’
The throttle opened smoothly, and the little training aircraft raced down the sun-baked runway. As the wheels lifted off, he sang to himself, alone in the cockpit for the first time.
‘What do I do? What do I do?’
‘Dive, Green Two! Get the hell out!’
He was twisting and turning, dogfighting with four rebel fighters. The odds weren’t good. He snapped off a missile shot at one giving trouble to the new boy, and allowed himself a smile as it impacted. A burst of fire battered his left wing, and he broke away.
He saw the boy pull up suddenly from the sea, and his pursuer plough into the waves.
‘You got him, Gerrat! You got one!’
A blinding flash, and the forward tank went up. Flames licked through the shell holes in the control panel.
We was going into a flat spin. His hands thrashed in panic around the cockpit as his gloves and sleeves caught fire.
Suddenly he was outside, looking in. The Lightning fell like a brick, spinning round and round, flapping like a leaf in a strong wind. Trailing smoke from the cockpit, his vision zoomed in as he saw flames licking under the canopy. He could see himself, burning, battering his blazing hands on the cockpit.
He was suddenly inside again, his arms on fire. He could see nothing but fire and the horizon spinning around uncontrollably.
‘I’m on fire! No! I’m on fire! Help me! Help me, I’m on fire!’
Screaming wildly, Andres thrashed his arms around him, eyes closed tightly. His arms were pinned down, and he felt a small stab in his left arm. Peace, tired. His eyes drifted open. He realised that he was in bed, and saw the nurse take the needle out of his arm. She looked down and smiled sympathetically at him.
‘You’ll wake the whole hospital, Lieutenant.’
Sweating profusely, Andres tried to sit up, but did not have the energy.
‘I’m on fire,’ he whispered, the last remnants of his nightmare still with him.
‘You’re fine, now,’ the nurse said calmly, ‘the operation was a success. You’ll be back up again in a few days.’
Andres felt sick. He couldn’t get back into that burning cockpit. He looked down at his right arm, the new flesh tightly bandaged. Even on the drugs, it hurt like blazes.
‘I have to get back to my Squadron. I have to get back,’ Andres slurred, drifting towards sleep again.
‘Tomorrow, Lieutenant, tomorrow.’
It was only a few minutes after take off when it happened. Brett’s Central Warning Panel lit up like the Pluto Lights.
‘Damn it!’ he growled over the radio, ‘I’ve got a failure in number two! I’m shutting down!’
‘Roger, Blue Two,’ Suzi said, he voice almost suspicious, ‘head back home.’
Brett quickly powered the engine down and started with his emergency checks. Suzi and Chaz headed off towards the enemy lines. Brett brought his fighter back towards the airfield, smiling to himself. He’d pulled it off again. Smack the combustion chamber hard enough, the cracks will appear. The engine won’t work. And then Brett doesn’t have to go to war no more.
Thanking the powers that be for saving him from the terror of combat for another day, Brett dialled the frequency for the control tower.
Jeannie shut the engine down, and released her harnesses. Over at the far side of the hangar, she could see the ground crews busily inspecting Brett Haye’s Lightning. It had failed to complete the morning’s patrol. Again. There were limits to bad luck – something was going on, and Jeannie had a good idea what it was. She had seen it before. She dragged her helmet off, and jumped down from the cockpit. Her whole squadron was falling to pieces – Suzi and Jana always bickering, Pierre turning into a crusader for peace, Brett loosing every last shred of bravery… and her.
Jeannie Guynemer had just taken a solo patrol up at sunset, deliberately looking for a fight. There wasn’t much more irresponsible then that. Suzi had seen her walking out, and said she wanted to talk when Jeannie got back. Jeannie grimaced, and wiped her oil-streaked face. Suzi was quite formidable when she was angry, and in the right. And Jeannie knew that she was in the wrong, and Suzi was right – she was loosing control.
Jeannie stopped dead in her tracks. She span around to face the man who had addressed her. Andres stood before her, his cap on at that familiar jaunty angle, the whiteness of his bandaged arm matching his impeccable uniform. Jeannie burst into tears. She ran forwards, grabbing his collars and burying her head in his chest. Andres gently put his arms around her. Jeannie just cried. Minutes past.
Finally, she broke away.
‘They said you might die,’ she whispered, ‘they said you were badly burned. There was nothing I could do. I’d lost you.’
Trying to hide his confusion, Andres took a step back.
‘Lieutenant Vazquez-Hunt reporting back for duty, ma’am,’ he said crisply.
Jeannie swallowed and took a step back herself.
Andres looked down at his feet, and shook his head.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, ‘I shouldn’t try to pretend that there is nothing going on. I think I know how you feel about… I just wish I could feel the same. I can’t. I’m sorry, Jeannie, I just can’t.’
Jeannie watched him turn and disappear. She wiped her eyes, and took in the cold, evening air. What the hell just happened? She had admitted to herself that he might have had something to do with her change in behaviour recently. She hadn’t admitted the truth, that she was past having a crush, and was one hundred percent in love. But he was alive, and well, and with her. Now all she had to do was make sense of his words, and hers as well.
Pierre propped himself up on the bar, and downed another beer. He had noticed that he was drinking a lot more these days, and was maybe even putting on a little weight.
‘Yeah, it went a lot better today,’ Gerrat said, draining from his beer, ‘I just felt more confident. I got one of those AA guns with a rocket pod, too.’
‘Can we talk about something else?’ Pierre suddenly said, surprising himself.
‘Sure,’ Gerrat said, ‘what?’
The psychedelic song whining from the sound system suddenly came to a halt. Pierre fished into his pockets, found some coins, and walked over to the jukebox. As he made his way over, Jana Kidds barged her way into the Officer’s Mess, turning the few heads in the bar around to her with her loud entry.
‘Evening, y’all,’ she smiled cockily.
Pierre nodded, and then selected a few tunes before returning to his beer.
‘What d’ya make of today, honey?’ Jana asked, twisting the top off from a bottle of beer.
‘Don’t really want to think about it,’ Pierre answered, ‘we killed some more people. Blew the shit out of a few more buildings. Another day at the office.’
‘I dunno,’ Jana said, ‘I think something’s wrong with the Boss. Was a lil’ reckless today, not much of a plan. Something’s wrong.’
Suzi entered the bar, turning heads in a similar way to Jana’s entry. Her confident smirk was barely detectable. She walked gracefully over to where the small collection of pilots propped up the bar.
‘Andres’ back,’ she said, ‘he’s a little hurt still, but he’ll be back up in a day or two.’
‘Good,’ Jana said, ‘we could do with some leadership around here.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Suzi asked, placing her hand son her hips.
‘Jana was just telling us how the Boss has gone off the rails,’ Gerrat said, in a way which Pierre thought was an attempt to get in Suzi’s good books.
‘You’ve got something to say? Say it,’ Suzi said evenly.
‘Guynemer’s lost the lot,’ Jana answered, ‘today’s attack was just her lashing out with her anger. She endangered all of our lives to satisfy some vendetta of hers, without so much as a thought for the safety of her squadron.’
‘We’ll have less talk like that, Kidds,’ Suzi growled, ‘you don’t talk about a Commanding Officer like that, not whilst I’m Senior Pilot in this squadron.’
‘I thought that Senior Pilots were two-and-a-halves, Lieutenant, and I can only see two stripes on your cuff.’
‘It’s still double what you’ve got, Sub-Lieutenant,’ Suzi retorted, ‘and I think you’ve said enough for this evening. Get back to your cabin.’
Knowing when not to push too far, Jana retired quietly, smirking as if victorious in some way.
‘She really is trouble,’ Suzi said to Pierre.
Pierre shrugged. He had no agree with Jana, and his silence pretty much confirmed it. So did Gerrat’s.
‘So, you two agree with that slut?’ Suzi asked angrily.
‘We all like Andres,’ Pierre answered diplomatically, ‘but I don’t want my head blown off just to give them a black eye back. Today was stupid.’
‘I’ll have you know that a lot more goes into the planning of these operations than you would think, Aphone,’ Suzi warned, ‘information that you are not privy to. I stand by our Commanding Officer’s decision, and her orders. You should, too. Today’s raid was an outstanding success, with no casualties, planned around sound tactical thinking. That’s enough for me, and should be for you, too.’
Pierre shrugged again as Suzi turned to leave the bar. He wasn’t particularly bothered anymore. They were all going down in flames sooner or later, and when, why and how didn’t really matter.
Jeannie didn’t know how long she had been looking out of the window when the sharp rap at her door brought her to her senses. Maybe five minutes, maybe an hour, she had looked up at the night sky, thinking everything over. The knock at her door made her jump to her feet. She dashed across her room and flung the door open.
‘Oh. It’s you.’
‘Well thanks a lot,’ Suzi returned the greeting, pushing her way into Jeannie’s room.
Jeannie returned to her windowsill and looked out at the night again. Suzi shut the door gently and sat besides her friend.
‘Jeannie, you know that I would never question your orders or your authority in front of the Squadron, but people are starting to talk.’
‘I figured as much,’ Jeannie answered.
‘They’re right, that’s the worst thing,’ Suzi said quietly, ‘and no matter how much I do my duty as your Executive Officer, I … I agree with them. What you did today was ludicrous.’
‘It won’t happen again,’ Jeannie said reassuringly.
‘What? Until Andres gets wounded again? Or worse? Everyone knows what it is, and it is behaviour unbecoming of a fighter squadron commander in the Imperial Naval Air Arm.’
‘Look, everything is ok now,’ Jeannie argued, ‘besides, we levelled an enemy aerodrome with no casualties, we…’
‘Had good luck,’ Suzi interrupted, ‘and when you made me Senior Pilot of 805, you forced me to learn all those damn JSP regulations. This is where it comes back to haunt you. JSP 718, Chapter 5 – Responsibility. Paragraph 14, sub-section ii (b): If the behaviour of the Commanding Officer of any front-line or training squadron is considered detrimental to the overall physical well-being of the personnel of that Squadron, the Senior Pilot may, in exceptional circumstances, relieve the Commanding Officer of his or her duties and Command.’
‘Is that what you are here to do, Suzi? Arrest me?’ Jeannie asked, staring her taller friend in the eyes with grim determination.
‘No,’ Suzi answered, looking away, ‘I’m just here to tell you to grow up. You have men and women under your command with their own lives, goals, fears, aspirations. It is your duty to help them be all that they can be, and support them. And as for the way you act with Andres, you remind me of how I used to be at school discos when I was fourteen. Go and talk to him.’
Stunned, Jeannie took a step off her windowsill. But Suzi was right. She had come to the same conclusion moments before her friend knocked on the door. She still had a lot of growing up to do.
‘You’re right,’ Jeannie admitted, ‘you’re…’
Jeannie and Suzi’s comm systems both bleeped simultaneously. Jeannie unclipped her comm unit from her belt and answered.
The brief message sent a shiver down her spine.
‘Lieutenant Tanawa!’ she shouted at Suzi, ‘get my pilots ready! We’ve got a squadron scramble!’
Within seconds, the airfield turned from a collection of sleepy huts into a flurry of activity. Ground crews quickly ran the fighters out onto the pan, and pilots sprinted to their machines, still zipping up flight suits and dragging on LSJs and G-suits. Brett ran to his fighter, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be going far. For the sake of appearances, he conducted a brief but efficient set of walk around checks, before vaulting into his cockpit and strapping in….
Within seconds, the airfield turned from a collection of sleepy huts into a flurry of activity. Ground crews quickly ran the fighters out onto the pan, and pilots sprinted to their machines, still zipping up flight suits and dragging on LSJs and G-suits. Brett ran to his fighter, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be going far. For the sake of appearances, he conducted a brief but efficient set of walk around checks, before vaulting into his cockpit and strapping in.
LM(A) Kari Sommers leaned into his cockpit to hand him his helmet and gloves.
‘I know what’s wrong with your machine, sir,’ she said, staring him dead in the eyes.
Brett stopped dead.
‘But don’t worry, Lieutenant, it’s all fixed now,’ she continued, ‘you’ve got nothing to worry about. We’ll talk when you get back.’
With that, Kari stepped back and slammed the canopy down onto Brett’s sleek, grey tomb. Shaking uncontrollably, Brett pulled his helmet on.
The eight Lightnings took to the air quickly, forming up into two schwarms once they were ten thousand feet above the water. Andres looked around at the second schwarm, which he was leading. He had Pierre Aphone leading his second rotte, which was good. Pierre was a fine asset these days. Pierre’s wingman, Chaz Vincent, seemed switched on enough, too. He wasn’t sure about Jana Kidds flying on his wing. She flew like she had something to prove. Andres didn’t like cocky pilots.
‘All Swordfish, this is Swordfish One,’ Jeannie called over the radio, ‘Bellavia has joined the Imperium. Neighbouring countries have decided this to be treacherous, and bombers are reported to be amassing at airfields on the coast. The Imperial Air Force already has eight fighter squadrons there, but it isn’t enough. We’re expecting the offensive to start tonight, so we’re on our way to Bellavia. We refuel air-to-air at Nav point Charlie. Rotte leaders, are you clear?’
‘Yellow One,’ Brett confirmed, his voice clearly shaken.
‘Blue One,’ Andres said.
‘Green One,’ Pierre finished.
His suspicion aroused, Andres glanced forwards at Brett’s Lightning. He was flying like a rookie straight out of BFT. Something was really wrong with him. Andres decided that he would have to keep an eye on him. Andres winced as his left arm adjusted the throttle, pain shooting across his damaged nerves. Every few minutes, his imagination conjured up a spark or flash in some hidden corner of the cockpit, and he found himself leaping for the fire extinguisher until he realised all was fine. This was no way to fly, or to live. Trying to relax, Andres resumed scanning the skies for enemy craft.
Pierre was quite happy with his air-to-air refuelling, hitting the probe trailing from the Marauder first time. Five hundred miles north of their start point, the waves were now black and rough, the winds were picking up, and rain began to patter off his windscreen. Nobody had spoken for the last half-hour.
A flash of Lightning brought Pierre to his senses, and he realised that he must have dozed off for a minute or two. Cursing himself, he gave himself a blast from his oxygen bottle, and his eyelids were not so heavy. A rumble of thunder made Pierre jump, his head darting around as he looked for enemy fighters. He was on edge. Breathing heavily, he settled back down into his seat, willing the minutes to pass until they were safe on the ground, or otherwise.
Chaz Vincent continued scanning the black skies for enemy craft. They were over the thin stretch of water separating Bellavia from her neighbouring, anti-Imperial countries, and if they found a fight anywhere, it would be here. A flash of lightning suddenly lit up the sky, and Chaz was nearly sick. He didn’t believe what he saw.
In the split second that the sky had been illuminated, he saw perhaps five hundred enemy fighters and bombers, flying neatly in formation towards Bellavia, perhaps eight thousand feet below the Lightnings.
‘D… did you see that?’ he gasped over the radio.
‘R/T protocol!’ Guynemer snapped.
‘Erm… roger,’ Chaz stuttered, ‘Bandits, five hundred plus, two o’clock low, reckon angels two-zero.’
‘Five hundred plus?’ Suzi piped up, ‘confirm, Green Two!’
With a boom of thunder, another flash of lightning lit up the night sky.
‘Tally ho Blues and Greens!’ Andres screamed as his fighter zoomed off towards the armada of enemy craft, ‘follow me in and rack ‘em up!’
‘Red Section, Yellow Section, engage enemy at two-four-five,’ Guynemer ordered calmly, dropping the nose of her fighter to point towards the enemy bombers.
Chaz throttled up and stayed loosely on Pierre Aphone’s wing, following him towards the mass of rebels. He realised that his hands were shaking uncontrollably, and the wings of his fighter were waggling. He loosened his grip on the control column and took a deep breath.
‘Red Two, friendlies, thirty plus at ten o’clock high,’ Suzi called.
Chaz looked up to see a wing of Air Force fighters thundering down towards the rebel bombers. It did little to console him: four squadrons of Imperial fighters was not enough to fight of what lay before him. Switching to missiles, he leaned forwards towards his HUD and selected a target.
Rain flew past either side of Andres’ cockpit as his fighter sweeped down towards the mass of enemy craft. A wing of fighters had broken from the main force to climb to intercept 805 Squadron. Andres considered dashing straight through them to attack the bombers, but decided that the rest of his Squadron’s experience was not enough to survive such a tactic.
‘Blue and Green Sections, get those fighters,’ Andres ordered confidently, locking a missile onto the lead rebel.
‘Blue One! Fireflash One!’ he shouted, launching the missile.
Fireflash calls echoed over the comm from the rest of his schwarm as missiles streaked towards the three dozen enemy fighters. Three fell. Andres’ CWP lit up, announcing a missile lock.
‘Blue and Green break!’ he ordered, snap rolling to the right, ‘dump chaff!’
Obeying his own order, he let fly with the counter measures to combat the rebel air-to-air missiles, and rolled his Lightning onto its back to plummet through the fighter screen.
Pierre had managed to latch onto a vic of Ma-7s, and quickly took the initiative, blowing away the leader before they had a chance to break. The rebel fighter exploded, briefly lighting up the dark sky around him. His two wingmen scattered.
‘Stick with me, Chaz,’ Pierre ordered, pursuing the leftward Ma-7.
‘Roger,’ Chaz responded emotionlessly.
The wing of Imperial Air Force fighters smashed into the rebel fighter screen, ploughing through it as fighter after fighter from both sides fell towards the stormy seas, burning. Pierre followed the Ma-7 in a steep dive, firing an optimistic burst across the rebel fighter’s nose.
‘Break Green One,’ Chaz piped up.
Without waiting for confirmation, Pierre rolled his fighter onto its right wing and yanked backed on the control column, blacking out.
Conscious in the space of a few seconds, Pierre whipped his fighter back around towards the Ma-5 which had dived on him, guns blasting at the space he had previously occupied.
‘You want some?’ Pierre yelled, corkscrewing his fighter around beneath the rebel escort fighter, letting of a burst of cannon fire which stitched a mark of hits along his adversary’s fuselage. Pierre’s missile warning sounded, and he broke off the attack, cursing.
How the hell was he supposed to fight when he was outnumbered ten to one? Pierre’s world was suddenly white, and he couldn’t hear anything. A fraction of a second after the missile ploughed into his fighter, the Lightning automatically ejected Pierre from the cockpit, knocking him out again.
Suzi had lost Jeannie on the second pass, and was now on her own as the huge dogfight raged around her. She saw an Air Force fighter zoom past her, spinning furiously, an Ma-7 hot on its tail, relentlessly pouring fire into its crippled form. Suzi winged over to attach herself to the rebel’s tail, and sent a steady stream of fire into the Ma-7.
She saw her lascannon shots plastering the rebel’s cockpit, and the fighter keeled over onto its back and fell slowly towards the sea.
‘You’ve got one on you Red Two!’ Jeannie shouted from nowhere, and Suzi pushed her stick forwards.
In her rear view mirror, she could see another Ma-7 following her down, guns chattering. White-hot shells flew over her cockpit, far too close for comfort. Gritting her teeth, Suzi barrel rolled back up towards the horizon, clenching her muscles as G-LOC threatened to claim her. The rebel followed. A shell exploded somewhere behind her, and her elevator controls suddenly slackened.
It had finally happened. Put basically, she had met a pilot who was better than her. Tenaciously, Suzi kicked her rudder off to the left and then rolled to the right, dropping her nose again to gain some speed and give a little more response to her elevators. Behind her, the rebel lost a few metres trying to follow the manoeuvre, but sent another stream of shells in her wake, setting fire to her left wing tip.
‘Holy shit!’ Suzi gasped, ‘somebody get down here! Get down here!’
Suzi’s Lightning keeled over to port, and she went with it, thrashing her stick over to send the fighter into a barely controlled spin. The Ma-7 stayed on her tail. Disorientated, Suzi could almost make out the angelic form of a Lightning appear behind the Ma-7. Closing the throttle and kicking in opposite rudder, she dropped her nose to recover from the spin. The ghostly Lightning in her rear view mirror snapped off a brief burst of fire, cutting her pursuing Ma-7 in half.
‘You are clear, Red Two,’ Jeannie said.
Fighting off nausea, Suzi hurriedly commenced her emergency drills to save her damaged fighter.
Brett stared around in disbelief. It was like his worst nightmare, except horribly real. Conditions he would never fly in without enemy presence, let alone the largest bomb raid he had ever seen. Fighters from both sides flashed blindly around him, guns spitting death at each other, as thousands of feet below them, the bombers ploughed on, molested by a squadron of IAF fighters who had managed to evade the rebel fighter screen.
Brett closed his eyes and wished he was far away. But the excited comm chatter was still there.
‘You got one on you, Blue One!’ Jana shouted.
‘Red Two; I’m back in the fight, gimme a vector, anybody!’
‘Green Two, Green One is down! Green One is down!’
‘This guy is good! Try following this!’
‘Red Two; Red One, steer zero-four-zero to intercept hostiles at angels one-six.’
‘Somebody get this bastard off me!’
‘Yeah! You want some more of that!’
‘Clear your six, Green Two! Clear your tail!’
‘Shit! I’m hit! I’m…’
‘Red Two, form on me, we’re going after the bombers.’
‘I can’t hold it, ejecting! I’m outta here!’
‘You got him, Gerrat! He’s gone!’
‘I’m on your tail, Jeannie, on the left and a little low.’
Brett opened his eyes. Pierre and Jana had both ejected. Suzi was damaged. Chaz was dead. Screaming, he opened the throttle and shot towards a rotte of Ma-5s manoeuvring onto Andres’ tail. He thumbed his guns, roaring as he dashed towards them, on course to ram. His fire slammed into the first Ma-5, cutting its tail off and sending it spiralling down out of the fight. The rear gunner on the second rebel fighter opened up on him, sending fire streaming back towards him.
Ignoring it, Brett pressed home the attack, closing on the Ma-5 until he could almost see the panic of the rear gunner’s face. A shell struck his fighter in the nose, tearing one of his guns apart. Brett blasted away with his wingtips mounted cannons, tearing the cockpit of the Ma-5 apart. His second kill fell down in the wake of his first.
Pierre’s first thought was that he was dead. He was literally freezing cold, and his limbs were unnaturally heavy. He couldn’t breath. Something told him to reach for his ankle, and before he knew what he was doing, he had grabbed his Short Term Air Supply bottle from his ankle pocket. Shoving the bottle to his mouth, he finally allowed blissful air to his lungs.
He couldn’t see anything. He let out a breath, and followed the bubbles with a kick of his legs. His head broke clear of the surface of the water, his Life Saving Jacket bobbing him up and down in the freezing, grey water. He spat out his bottle as it emptied, and exhaled deeply, almost choking. Rain whipped into his face, and the huge waves of the merciless sea crashed around him. Thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed from the heavens, and another wave smashed down on Pierre, burying him underwater again.
Fighting for survival, he kicked his way to the crest of the wave, screaming as vital air made it to his lungs again. Shivering, ice quickly forming on every inch of him above the water, Pierre began to lose hope. Another huge wave rolled towards him, and he slid down towards its trough as if it were a hill. At the bottom, he could simply look up and watch the wall of cold, black waterfall on him.
An old hymn about the sea came to mind. He couldn’t remember the words, but the tune gave him some comfort in the last minutes.
Andres was truly alone – he hadn’t seen another Imperial fighter in the midst of the torrent of rebels for what seemed like hours. He jinked, rolled, and twisted his way through, snapping off shots at every half decent opportunity. He had definitely bagged three of the bastards, maybe a few more. The bombers were long gone; the mission failed. Here he was, with seven rebel fighters in a lonely patch of sky. He knew he was good, but this was too much. So this is how it would end. No. Not yet.
The fighter on Andres’ tail was good, but he was better. Rolling the stick around and kicking the rudder pedals left and right, Andres flicked the Lightning up and around, a manoeuvre he had never seen anyone else pull off in a front line fighter at this speed.
The confused Ma-7 shot past him, and Andres recovered neatly on its tail. Following the fighter down through his scattered comrades, Andres lined his gunsights up and blasted a volley into the rebel, blowing a wing clean off. The fighter rolled rapidly into oblivion, trailing debris.
The remaining six rebels had formed into vics and circled to engage him. Enough of this – he couldn’t fight disciplined attacks. Thumbing on afterburners, Andres rolled over onto his back and dived for where he hoped Bellavia was. Nothing could outrun a Lightning in a dive: it looked like he had survived this one.
Gerrat had watched as a schwarm of four IAF fighters had sniped away at the tail end sections of the formation of bombers with some success. He had no idea where the rest of the Squadron was, or if they were even alive. If they weren’t, they were about to be avenged.
Gerrat dived down after the bombers, singling out a Be-511 trailing slightly from the armada. The tail and ventral gunners opened fire at long range, but Gerrat effortlessly threaded his way through the white snakes of laser and tracer. He positioned above and behind the bomber, and thumbed down all guns. His Lightning shuddered with recoil as explosive shells and laser bolts darted towards the 511, smacking into its spine, tearing chunks of metal out of the fuselage.
Keeping his thumb depressed, Gerrat swept across to the right as the bomber loomed larger, tracking his fire into the wing and engine, setting fire to the rebel. He grinned as the bomber filled his sights, burning.
Gerrat yanked back on the stick, and almost imagined his tail chipping the bomber just before he shot up to safety. Cursing himself for the near collision, Gerrat yawed over and looked down to sea the bomber falling towards the sea, a trail of parachutes in its wake. Satisfied, with ammunition low, Gerrat aimed for land.
Jeannie circled the airfield as the sun peeked over the horizon, sending orange beams across the sky, and the drenched, green countryside. She knew that she was the last to approach for landing: her tanks were practically supplying vapour. She had sustained a few hits, but nothing critical. Empty guns and missile racks, and three confirmed kills; one a bomber.
Four Imperial Naval Lightnings were lined up at the side of the runway, a fifth lay crumpled on its nose in a field a few hundred yards before finals. Three unaccounted for, and the Emperor only knew what happened to the pilot of that wreck in the field.
Jeannie flew around onto final approach, checked her undercarriage and flaps, and looked up at the sky. The storm had passed, and only a few wispy, white clouds broke up the pure orange sunrise. The countryside was beautiful. Jeannie lined up, and flared over the piano keys painted at the end of the runway, touching her main wheels down proficiently. He popped back the canopy, allowing some air into her cockpit as she taxied around to join the other fighters.
A lone figure stood silhouetted against the rising sun. Jeannie lowered herself from the cockpit and watched the pilot shuffle over to her.
‘I’m glad to see you made it, ma’am,’ Gerrat Dollo said quietly, but sincerely.
‘Where is everyone?’ Jeannie demanded.
Gerrat said nothing.
‘Where are they?’ Jeannie yelled.
‘Lieutenant Tanawa is in hospital, after the crash landing. Lieutenant Vazquez-Hunt is in the chapel. Lieutenant Haye was sent to hospital, too. We received word about an hour ago that… he died from his wounds. He took four of them with him. Sub-Lieutenants Aphone and Kidds are Missing. Sub-Lieutenant Vincent was Killed In Action.’
Jeannie felt sick. Brett and Chaz were dead. Suzi could be dying. Pierre and Jana were probably gone, too.
‘I’m glad you’re ok, Gerrat,’ Jeannie said, forcing a smile, ‘we all did well last night.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Gerrat answered, an inspirational determination in his voice.
The young pilot looked over Jeannie’s shoulder, and then nodded and turned to leave. Jeannie turned around to see Andres, his eyes red and his face pale. Without saying a word, he reached out and touched her cheek. She let out a breath and closed her eyes.
‘I… I feared… I prayed that they hadn’t taken you away,’ he whispered.
‘They couldn’t,’ Jeannie answered softly, ‘there’s too much unsaid.’
She took a step towards him, and looked up into his eyes. Always drawn to his eyes, she felt more faint now than ever when she saw a tear roll down his cheek. He tried to speak, but Jeannie put a finger on his lips. She stepped forward and embraced him, and didn’t let go.
Andres had never known such a feeling. He sat on the wing root of Jeannie’s Lightning, his back propped up against the fuselage. The airfield was still deserted, and the sun still low in the early morning sky. Jeannie lay next to him, her head on his shoulder as she slept. They had sat together for an hour, perhaps two, watching the sunrise. Neither had said a word. Andres had gently run his fingers through her hair, thinking over every day for the last five years.
He had come along way since he left home at seventeen. He thought of how slack life was as a reserve officer at university, how angry his parents were when he told them he was joining the regulars, how he had waited for that one true love, thought he had found her, and then lost her again. He didn’t know if he was in love now, but he knew for sure that the last one, his first, wasn’t love.
The sun swept across the hills and valleys, warming dry patches into the wet tarmac of the runway. Jeannie stirred on his shoulder, and mumbled something in her sleep.
‘Everything is fine now.’
Andres smiled at the words. He felt the same. He wondered if Pierre or Jana had made it, or if Suzi would pull through. He thought back again to the previous night, the twisting and turning, guns blasting, the screams over the radio, the night sky filled with burning fighters, parachutes, cannon shells, death. He remembered reading somewhere that the trouble with women was that they made you want a future. Cynical though it was, it was true. Only time would tell if he had lost his killer instinct, his utter fearlessness in combat. Before he had nothing to lose, nobody to come home to, nothing except the excitement of battle, and the swell of pride at being the victor. Maybe that was why he excelled.
He held Jeannie a little tighter and closed his eyes as a formation of birds called to each other as they flew overhead.
Jeannie opened her eyes slowly. She sat up, and looked around at the airfield, now bustling with activity. The daily routine went on around them, the blue uniformed Air Force personnel, or “Crabs” as they were affectionately dubbed in the Navy, carrying on their business around Andres and Jeannie as if they were not there. Jeannie looked over at Andres, still asleep, and smiled.
She hopped down from the wing of her fighter, and looked around for any black uniforms amidst the sea of blue. Three Naval officers stood by the Ops room, and Jeannie headed over to them. She recognised all three – two she had given up for dead.
‘Good morning, ma’am,’ Gerrat greeted.
‘Hey, boss,’ Jana Kidds nodded, her eyes heavy.
‘You ok?’ Jeannie asked.
Jana nodded, and yawned.
‘I had to punch out. When I woke up I was washed up on some beach. Now I’m here. That’s all there is to tell, really.’
The third figure turned to look at Jeannie. She never thought she would see him again.
‘Commander Carmichael,’ she nodded, still confused.
‘You’d be surprised how quickly you can dig a tunnel out of a POW camp when you have to,’ the grizzled Commander smiled, ‘how’ve you been? I hear you’ve done a good job with my Squadron.’
Jeannie shrugged. She was glad to see her old boss in one piece, but a niggling feeling at the back of her mind didn’t want to give command of the squadron back.
‘So what happens from here?’ Jeannie asked.
‘I’m taking 805 back,’ Carmichael answered, ‘at least for a month or two. I’m moving up to Wing, then. In the mean time, Lieutenant Commander Guynemer, you can either stay here as my senior pilot, or have your own squadron. We’re getting some new guys in over the next few days, so we stay here to shoot down the bombers. All except for the Golden Boy over there.’
Carmichael nodded towards where Andres was just waking up.
‘What happens to him?’ Jeannie asked.
‘I don’t know if you are keeping count, but that kid’s got 46 confirmed kills. He is the fifth highest scoring living ace in the Imperium. Flag Officer Naval Aviation has noticed him, and he’s being sent to 808 as senior pilot. They’re making him a two and a half.’
‘I don’t think he’ll want to go,’ Jeannie protested desperately.
Carmichael sighed, eyeing Jeannie with sympathy. He knew.
‘I’m afraid he doesn’t have a choice.’
Andres smiled to himself as he powered up the engines. He looked down to the end of the runway, watching the heat haze rise up from the far piano keys, burning in the midday sun. He looked over to the accommodation blocks, at the lone figure in Navy black. He smiled sadly, and then looked forwards again at the hazy runway.
Opening the throttle smoothly, he accelerated along the concrete before easing the nose back. He looked around him at the blue sky, as if for the first time. He couldn’t remember the last time he had stopped to appreciate the beauty of the sky; maybe this really was the first time.
He thought of his last words to her as he banked around to vector for his Nav point on the way to IWS Invincible.
‘Wait for me. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
‘Stay alive. And wait for me,’ she had whispered in reply.
Andres eased back on the stick, leaving the ground behind him. He saw moody grey clouds stacked on the horizon.
A storm was on its way.