[Moby's] CSW Giftsnaps

High tech intrigue and Cold War
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Mobius 1
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[Moby's] CSW Giftsnaps

Post by Mobius 1 » Fri May 23, 2008 5:19 pm

ST is Down for Editting, dudes.
Last edited by Mobius 1 on Thu Sep 17, 2009 1:37 am, edited 3 times in total.
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

Mobius 1
Global Mod
Posts: 1099
Joined: Mon May 19, 2008 11:40 pm
Location: Orlando, FL

Re: [Moby's] CSW Giftsnaps

Post by Mobius 1 » Fri May 23, 2008 5:23 pm

And, here's the STB prequel.

***

Well, shame on me for being the last person to getting around to writing my Secret Santa giftsnap- I had Arty. And no, it's not Shadow Tempest Black, although it does lead indirectly into it and is set in the same time period at STB.

The Last Stand of Phoenix Squadron
It Came From Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

One

The television lights were hot. A trickle of sweat ran down Easly’s face.

Someone must have said something to the reporter, because she started talking.

“Colonel, I understand you are leading the Americans hired to fly the new F-118s?”

He nodded, once.

“If I may ask, why you?”

Well, they don’t exactly hire people with families for this sort of work. He didn’t say that, of course. “I volunteered.”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

How many Americans are with you?”

“About one hundred and fifty.”

“When do you plan to test the new technologies?”

“Soon.”

“You aren’t very talkative, are you, Colonel?”

“That wasn’t one of the qualifications of the job.”

“How much will the Cambodian government be paying you?”

“You’ll have to ask the State Department that question. Or Cambodia.”

“Rumor has it that you get a bonus for every plane you shoot down. Is that true? Is the civil war here that bad?”

“Ask the Cambodians. They sign the checks.”

“Isn’t that blood money?”

“If they pay it, I assume the money would be for the plane, not the pilot. A plane doesn’t bleed, does it?”

“What do you hope to accomplish in Cambodia?”

“Shoot down rebel planes. Quell the rebellion. Help an ally.” Keep the Communists out.

She made a sign to the camera man, and the red light on the camera went out.

“You are being uncooperative, Colonel.”

“This isn’t the NFL. I’m only here because the State Department said to make myself available. I am available.”

“I asked to shoot these interviews with an F-118 as background. You refused. Why is that?”

“They aren’t my airplanes, ma’am.”

“We asked to talk to the African-American pilot. Which one is he?”

“‘The African American.’ That is really grotesque. I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”

“You do have a black pilot, don’t you?

“Alas, no.”

“Why not?”

“ I don’t know. It just happened. I’m politically incorrect. Rip me to shreds.”

“Couldn’t you say something about Russia? Perhaps about the rumors of a far more massive rebellion? …Something about a fight for freedom… perhaps you had a Russian grandparent, or something. You know?”

Easly looked grim. “You say it,” he told her, then took off his mike and got out of the hot seat.

Of course, the person the reporters were most interested in interviewing was Zakharov, but he was having none of it. He was nowehere to be found. Easly asked Stover where Zakharov was, and was told, “Zak said something about finding a whorehouse. I’m to say that to this reporter if she asks.”

“Okay.”

Apparently the reporters didn’t know Stover was the great nephew of the Senior House Minority Whip, so all the juicy questions were avoided, the ones Stover feared. He was here to help keep peace in the world, doing his duty, fighting for victims of aggression, defending an American ally, et cetera.

After fifteen minutes, Stover looked greatly relieved as he got out of the chair.

Most of the pilots gave Christine, the reporter, more of the same, until she got to Butch Baylor, a brother of a Marine Easly had rescued a couple years back. When asked why he was here, he said, “The fighter-pilot ethos has a compelling purity, a rare strain of selfishness and self-sacrifice that too often we lose sight of in modern life. I find it” –he searched for words- “almost religious. Don’t you agree?”

Christine made a noise.

Baylor continued. “I want to see how I will face a competent, courageous, dedicated warrior who seeks to kill me. Will I have enough courage? Will I be bold? Will I fight with honor, and die with honor if that is required? These are serious questions that bedevil many people in this perverted age. I’m sure you thought about these things at length. Haven’t you?

Christine sat staring, her mouth open. Baylor waited politely. “I see,” she finally managed.

“I’m delighted that you do,” he told her warmly. “Most of the pilots” –he flipped his hand disdainfully- “are merely flying assassins, out to kill and be paid for it. They have no ideas, no insight, no intellectual life. I am not like them. I explore the inner man.”

When Baylor went over to the Colonel after his interview, he asked, still deadly serious, “How did I do, sir?

“Fine, Baylor. Fine. You are now the unit public affairs officer.”

Tom Saint made a performance that was the equal of Baylor’s, or perhaps even better. When asked why he had volunteered, he told Christine, “This is the only war we have.”

“How do think it will feel, killing fellow being?”

“It’ll be glorious,” Saint gave Christine a wolfish grin. “I can’t wait. I’ll blow those stupid pinko bastards to kingdom come so goddamn fast they’ll never know what hit ‘em. Just you watch.”

Stunned, Christine recovered quickly. “How do you know that you won’t be the one who falls?”

“Oh, it ain’t gonna be me, lady. I’m too good. I’m the best in the business. The F-118 Vixen is good iron. I can fly that fucking airplane. I’m gonna go through those goddamn commies like shit through a fan. Can’t stand reds. I guess it’s personal with me, something about China and their so-sorry fake diplomacy- but I won’t let that interfere with what I have to do. I’m going to stay cool and kill those polite little sons of bitches.”

Christine didn’t know what to say.

Saint smiled at the camera, unhooked his vest mike, got up, and walked out, right by Kate, who caught Saint’s eye and winked.

Kate sat down in the interview chair and smiled wetly as one of the technicians hooked up her mike.

“Ms, Veerson,” Christine began.

“Captain Veerson, please. That is my rank in the Cambodian Air Army. I am very proud of it.”

She managed to say that with just the faintest hint of a Russian accent. Watching from behind the camera, John Easly covered his face with his hands.

Captain Veerson,” said Christine, smiling brittely.

“All my life I loved Russian things- furs, vodka, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chekhov, Pavlov…” Vector’s recall of things Russian failed her here. She waved airily and motored on:

“I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to actually go to Cambodia, so close to Motherland, I can feel it. To succor her people in their hour of need, to serve this magnificent, yet tragic nation in my own small way, and just perhaps, make a contribution to the betterment of the downtrodden proletariat. And even- dare I say it- the bourgeoisie.”

“Are all of you people assholes?” Christine snarled.

“Unfortunately, I believe so,” replied Vector Kate. She looked straight into the camera and flashed her absolute best “I’m available tonight” smile.

Two

While there were six of them, they all came for the same reasons that pilots wants to become who they are. Ego. Patriotism. Family tradition.

Jeff Stover had tried to buck family tradition dating all the way back to the Great War of aviators. He had tried to avoid it, even joined the Marines as an avionics tech: great job, got to go home every night, no death-defying stunts. But his path was long and roundabout, destined to fall into the slipstream of the previous three generations. But he eventually gravitated into the Air Force Reserves when, unbeknownst to him, his uncle opened a slot for him in UPT- undergraduate fighter training- and he snapped it up, seeing it as an opportunity to keep his family oriented life-style while still flying the world’s coolest planes. Pilots are infamous for the fact that they chew up marriages, and after watcher his father go through two, he vowed not to let if happen to him.

It had been discovered in IFF- the hell that it was on pilots, what with the four-month lull between UPT and IFF (Introduction to Fighter Fundementals), that he was actually damn good at piloting. What set him apart in IFF, quite a distinction it should be noted, was that he didn’t bust any of his tests, the only one in his class not to.

For Butch Baylor, it had been pure patriotism. One could almost say he took the Americanism versus Communism classes in High School a little too closely to heart. Another running story had been related to his first words: “Mommy”, then “Daddy”, then “Plane”. If anything was for certain, one didn’t truly know why Butch Baylor had signed up for the defense of his country, and nobody got past the facetious façade. But it was damn fun to have him around, and he had been the best Wild Weasel in his force when he had flown an F-108 back in the Second Gulf War.

Tymerin Zakharov had been a third-generation immigrant after the massive emigration from Eastern Europe right before the Wall went up. He still had family on the other side of the wall. Tom Saint had been the stereotypical fighter jock with a personal mission as well: his father had been killed in Nam. Easly had found both of them working on starting a vineyard in Napa two months ago, and both had originally turned down the Colonel when he had offered one final job: to serve on an unofficial “mercenary” force of American pilots and equipment loaned to the Cambodians by the United States to beat back the Chinese-backed invasion from Vietnam.

And Kate, well, she had been at the Colonel’s side since she graduated the F-118 B-Course, the one wingmate Easly truly trusted.

Easly himself? Not his choice. In fact, he didn’t even want to be a pilot. He wanted to be a Valkyrie pilot. But, in terms of skill, the Valkyrie- and now the Aurora- didn’t need much. Computers flew most of it and all he did was go faster than missiles and press a button and drop bombs and ar-tee-bee. In fact, he had served as a RIO on a B-70 for three years, waiting for a slot to open up in the early selections of the new generation of pilots for the B-101 when flak had plastered his pilot’s canopy over the wall during the Second Gulf War. Without his left engine and things going to hell around him, Easly had popped the canopy, tossed out the body of his compatriot, and had guided the Valk in for an emergency landing on the airstrip they were bombing. They still tell stories about that to the pukes coming into UPT.

Most pilots couldn’t handle over nine gees. Subsequent tests put Easly in at 10.5 gees, putting him in the top five percent of pilot endurance. This made him naturally suited for dogfighting, the program for which he was shuffled into after all the chaos surrounding the Battle of Tehran passed. He had excellent three-dimensional situational awareness, as well as a background in air-to-ground missions, which made him excellent for the Wild Weasel work that followed during the several Proxy Wars after the Gulf Conflict. Rumor had it he had assaulted a American black ops base back in ’05, flying into a Cliffside hangar to laser a stealth mech, or something ridiculous to that effect. Easly himself denies it, to this day.

When it all calmed down, leading into the turn of the decade in twenty-ten, the unified Vietnam, backed by China, who were in turn backed by an aggressive Soviet military faction, had set their eyes upon Cambodia and its newly discovered oil fields. Siberian oil was beginning to thin at that point, leading to speculation of the Peak in America. Even more than that, old-school containment doctrine generals had their eyes bulge. Communism? Spreading? After Nadya Kiralova ended her term, there was a short period of unrest in Russia, the cap of which was the backed invasion of Cambodia.

But we couldn’t destroy all the progress with the Soviets we had made during the Kiralova administration on account of a couple of reckless generals, and we couldn’t get involved in a full-blown Proxy War like Nam or the 38th. So the decision was made to organize a team of ex-American pilots not in active service, stack them out with equipment and all the support staff that goes with it, and send them to Cambodia with the hopes that they would be able to extend air superiority over the Peninsula. Six Vixen pilots versus the world. Sounded like fun.

Three

When nukes came around, SAC made a decision that would pretty much doom the American pilot in the second half of the twentieth century. Under the spell of the Strategic Air Command, a nuke-obsessed Air Force figured that city-destroying strategic bombing would decide all future wars, with giant hypersonic bombers flying too high and too fast for the fighters to reach them.

But in Korea, pilots found themselves trying to hit tactical targets like tanks and troops with planes built to bomb cities. Worse yet, pilots soon discovered that the cheap, nimble MiGs could outfly them in a dogfight. Only superior training and flexible doctrine had saved them. During the war, US and UN forces flew a million sorties and lost more than two thousand craft, about half to missiles and ground fire, and half to MiGs. The bloody, swirling clash between jet fighters drove home the lesson of World War II- that of the importance of the pilot. In Korea, five percent of the eight hundred US fighter pilots accounted for thirty-seven percent of the kills in the air, it was about the same in the second World War. On the North Korean side, a handful of Soviet pilots, brought in when the US fighter jocks devastated the Northern pilots, accounted for most of the air-to-air kills.

Despite the lessons to be drawn from Korea, the brass made additional, crucial mistakes before Nam. The stars did approve new fighters- the heavy, muscular F-108 Rapier. But convinced air-to-air missiles would change combat forever, the first generations of the Rapier didn’t even have cannons- they took them out and loaded up the plane with bombs and missiles. It took twenty years for cannons to be installed, long after Vietnam. They also cut dogfighting training for new pilots, stressing the use of missiles. Surely these missiles would do away with light, nimble dogfighters- who was going to get close enough to use cannons when you could zap your opponent from across the horizon?

Here comes Vietnam. And with it, the lightly trained MiGs, tightly controlled from the ground, roving to intercept the B-70 wolf packs that would punch into the greatest air defense network in history, began to shoot down Rapiers. Lots and lots of Rapiers. Rapiers who were loaded up with bombs, and spent most of their time on the subject- bridges, power plants, and the like. That meant flying through the above-mentioned air defense, courtesy of the Soviet Union and China, who saw Nam as an opportunity to test tactics and bleed their superpower rival dry. SAC brass didn’t take that into account, they, after all figured nukes would transform war.

Nukes didn’t do a damned thing, except rule out a direct US-Soviet war. And Vietnam rapidly deteriorated into an Air Force clusterfuck. The brass ignored the most important lesson from WWII and Korea: establish air superiority first. Hitler made the mistake of stopping his assault on British airbases and vented his rage on London, a decision that cost him the Battle of Britain. In Korea the US modified the rule by deciding not to go after the Soviet MiGs based in China, a decision that cost Macarthur his job when he tried to go over Truman’s head. But in Vietnam, the pilots couldn’t go through the entire defense net and destroy the Soviet and Chinese ships porting in the SAMs and MiGs- lest they provoke the same exact ground troop escalation that Korea resulted in, right before Eisenhower stepped in and used brinkmanship to force an armistice.

And as the war went on, the defense only got stronger as communist aid poured in- pilots couldn’t even blow up the SAMs shooting at them without elaborate permission requests. The politicians figured the bombing would send a message to get the Norks to cooperate and play nice. Of course, that simply wasn’t going to happen, and the Northerners used the lulls in bombing to rebuild their air defenses- with no intention of giving up, no matter how many high-explosive messages they received.

Moreover, US pilots found themselves faced superior Soviet fighter initially. The F-108 was designed to run ahead of the Valks and blow up SAMs and AAs and trops nukes deep in Soviet territory. It had AA missiles, which were figured to eliminate any silly dogfighting by killing those pesky MiGs at long range. Instead rules of engagement and the lack of long range radar planes (like modern AWACs) made it extremely easy for the MiGs to lay traps.

US Pilot sees contact on radar out of range? They were required to close to visual range- to confirm it was not a friendly- before firing. At that point, AA missiles were useless. The small, speck-in-the-sky MiGs were extremely hard to visually acquire, compared to the brutish Rapier which left a smoky trail across the sky for miles. The made it pathetically effortless for the MiGs to spot and outmaneuver the Rapier. Nevermind the biggest flaw of all: the early AA missiles- the Sparrow, with its theoretical 28-mile range, and the Sidewinder, for close in work- sucked. They only hit ten percent of the time.

Ten percent.

So you fire your missile, the MiG easily pulled a hard turn and loses the lock and suddenly you’re in gun range, with a far more maneuverable plane. Even with the advantage of the RIO, who developed the strategy of acting as a swivel-head spotter, it took thirty seconds to achieve a lock with a gyrating MiG. That meant that that half minute flying straight and level seeking a lock meant a lot of dead American pilots.

One final nail in the coffin was grouping strategy. In the beginning, it was all singular Valks or Rapier squadrons on bombing missions, with no AA-designated planes, dropping a lot of bombs. But by the end of the war, it the (to this day) strategy of having only one or two bombers surrounded by a comparative large amount of AA fighters turned out to be superior. Fewer bombs dropped, but also more damage done, with less collateral. Fewer lives lost to the MiG traps, who could see the Wolf Packs coming from miles. Also, by the end of the war, angry US General finally green-lighted unrestricted bombing around Hanoi- something that could have won the war in the first place- although this argument ignores the escalation lessons from Korea.

So what do we have by the end of the war? The North Koreans downed 243 Rapiers, 397 Sky Knight IIs, and 203 F-100s. The price tag? $3 billion, 1,118 lives, with 599 missing in action. Where did all this dead come from? It may seem odd, but only ten percent of the bombing squads actually landed in the problems described above- a testament to sheer scale of the initial bombing in addition to the sheer speed at which the wolf packs usually blasted past. But with all the orbiting MiGs, beyond the obligatory amount designated for interdiction and interception, the majority were freed for unrestricted attacks on the American bases and CAPs, who were in fact prey to the failings described above.

So, after Vietnam, it took the old, seasoned pilots, who had worked out dogfighting strategies during the war to break out against the mindset of nuclear bombing and reinstitute maneuvering training. Dogfighting. Planes built to dominate the skies. Dogfighters with planes built to dogfight. They finally got it- with TOPGUN and the Air Force equivalent, with the F-118 Vixen, a plane built to own the sky, take in the world. A plane built to own the sky, kick ass, take names.

And now war is changing. With the advent of stealth fighters and, more disturbingly- Soviet AI-controlled UCAVs, it looks to be about as bleak a future for dogfighters as it was heading into Korea and Vietnam. UCAVs can outperform humans in every possible manner- they turn faster, pull three times as many gees, and will never lose in a war of attrition.

Four

The sun was cutting a fine line across the sky when Easly detached from the tanker and floated backwards into a holding pattern as Vector Kate Veerson moved into position to receive the boom. Fighter jets need to gas up once every hour, and going supersonic practically gulped their fuel up in minutes. This was their first refuel since Phnom Penh, where they were based, and they made met the Northrop supersonic tanker roughly forty-five minutes into the sortie.

Peering up through his canopy, Easly- who was running flight lead for his pair formation and the entire squadron- saw the tiny black shape of the Nighthawk holding a couple miles above the three-pair and the KC, a simple silhouette in the setting sun. Orders had come down roughly four hours previous to load a half-half weapons set- meaning, a practical mix of smart bombs and Sidewinders, and get up in the air to rendezvous with an F-117 en route to “Strike a critical target of extreme strategic importance”.

Easly hadn’t heard that sort of language since the Avalonian Woods or thereabouts five years ago. Zakharov wondered if it had anything to do with the Chinese massing to the north in case the ground war went into rapid escalation. Stover though the plane was on a SOCOM mission, and Saint agreed with him: they were going to drop single-man pods from forty-thousand feet onto a hardened Chinese ops center and have Reapers burst out, lasers scything.

Baylor thought it was all bullshit.

It certainly wasn’t often their briefings were this murky. For their entire USAF careers, all the way back to IFF, briefings had been the very crux of the program, lasting for hours as pilots memorizes tankers tracks and kill boxes and callsigns and coordinates. And this? Then again, what could one expect, for an entire squadron and its entailing support personnel dumped into a backwoods Cambodian air field? They had only run two sorties before this, both CAPs over the rear edge of battle. The brass were hesitant to truly commit their American fighters directly to the fold when the Southern Super Vipers were doing a decent job on their own holding off the comparative Skarżyński Fifties- “Farseers”. So the Vixens had twiddled their thumbs at base, the tension mounting until they were finally called in on the black mission.

Their AWACs, orbiting several miles out, phoned in once they had all refueled and left their anchor track around the tanker. “Evil Eye to Phoenix,” scratched his voice over the comm. “We’ve got a couple of transient contacts at a fourty-eight heading five zero zero miles out and closing in an azimuth champagne formation, copy. We’re currently trying to delouse them for you.”

Shit. In cold, jargon-laden tones, Evil Eye had just informed them that they had six bogies approaching at high speed from behind in two reverse-vee formations. What would happen next was critical, as Evil Eye was about to attempt the risky move of cranking up his radar to high levels to identify the targets.

“Copy that, Evil Eye. Declare ASAP.”

If they were Sixteen-Ex-Elles, they could flash IFF tags right about now. But they weren’t.

“Uh, Phoenix One, this is Byzon,” radioed in Baylor. “Aft cameras show no joy on the bandits.”

“Vector, Same here,” noted Veerson.

“Shit, radar spike at one-eight-zero!” shouted Evil Eye. “Evil Eye to Phoenix Squadron, you’re being tracked. Aha, here goes sitrep: we’ve identified six Sierra Kilo Alfa Six-Sixxers, repeat six Firkins are approaching at speed- mach two- in two stacked formations, and they’re buzzing.”

This was not good. The Firkins were Skarżyński’s top-of-the-line fighter and widely considering- barring the stealth- to be the best manned fighter in the world. Since the Soviets didn’t want to export the secret of its artificial intelligence technology so the Americans could get equivalent UCAVs, they had built the Mako, as the pilots called it, to sell to countries who still sought a top-of-the-line fighter to outfit their fledging air force.

It was six on six, and the Makos were closing in fast on the tail of Phoenix Squadron. Easly instantly knew the situation: the Firkins could easily keep pace with the Vixens if they tried to power away at top speed, and it would be an all-defensive fight with the fleeing Americans having no chance to spin and engage. They’d merely light up and provide a terrific target for the enemy heatseekers. More over, the Nighthawk simply couldn’t keep pace with the space-capable Vixens: the mission critical element would be in extreme danger.

No, he thought. They couldn’t power away.

The Makos were closing too fast to call for back-up. And even if, the Super Vipers the South Cambodians were using would be ripped to shreds by the superior 66.

“Copy that, Evil Eye,” Easly tapped into his comm. “Phoenix One to all Phoenix craft: drop to subsonic, perform hook right and engage the bogies. Storm One,” he added, speaking to the F-117. “Move at speed to killbox, and we will catch up. Got it?”

“Roger,” radioed the entire group, rapidly bleeding speed for the one-eighty turn. Evil Eye banked high overhead, providing overwatch.

Right, thought Easly. With the Vixens moving up to supercruise at mach 1.2, and the Makos also supercruising at five hundred miles out, it would take less than fifteen minutes for the two sides to close to fire range- presuming the Makos were running heatseekers, as they didn’t have ground radar behind enemy lines.

Colonel Easly glanced down at his watch as he completed his turn and pushing the throttle to get his fighter supersonic. Ten minutes.

Five

When the call came from the White House on the satellite telephone, the duty officer took it. He handed it to Zakharov, who listed carefully, jotted some info on the duty officer’s notepad, then said, “Yes, sir” three times before he put the instrument back in its cradle.

“A Nighthawk just embarked from the carrier group, and its carrying nukes.”

“Where?” Easly had asked.

“Right now it’s just south of Long Xuyen. The White House wants us to uplink with ity and escort it behind enemy lines.”

“The White House?” Easly asked when the shock of hearing the word nuke wore off a bit.

“You won’t believe this, Skipper, but the voice sounded like the President’s to me.”

That had been four hours ago.

Easly was breathing faster now, although he didn’t notice it. As the minutes ticked by, he was sorely tempted to use his radar. But he had loaded out- as had his entire team- with sidewinders and smart bombs, as the action over the Nighthawk’s killbox would be danger close. Not only that, but the Makos had some minor stealth characteristics that would only serve to light up Easly as a Christmas tree while the Makos wouldn’t be touchable until they were within sidewinder range.

“Evil Eye, talk to me.”

“Phoenix, I’m saying they’re at your twelve-thirty, two hundred miles out. Space Command is having some difficulty orienting their satellite for your area to defeat the stealth of the Firkins, and I’m only getting intermittent contacts from the azimuths.”

Easly growled into his mask, shook his head to keep the sweat from his eyes.

He checked his watch again. If the Makos were transmitting with their radars, he should pick up their emissions. He looked down on his tac map just in time to see a bogey symbol pop up on his scope, way out there, 190 miles way.

Firkin. Quantity one plus. One thousand seventy-nine knots over the ground. Heading 44 degrees magnetic. Altitude four hundred, which meant forty thousand feet. Distance 187 miles… 186… 185… The numbers flipped over every 1.8 seconds.

“Stick with me, gang,” he said into his radio, and turned left thrity degrees. He would go out to the south, then turn and come in from the side, shooting at optimum range as the Vixens flew into the Mako’s right stern corner.

When he was ten miles or so to the south of the Makos’ track, Easly turned back to his original course. The two formations rocketed toward each other.

His formation was where it should be, spread out but not too much so- everybody was within the six-mile visibility bowl. Easly wondered what his wingmates were thinking. Perhaps it was better that he didn’t know.

Still quantity one plus for the Makos. Damn it!

Fifty miles… forty… thirty… at twenty, Easly spoke into the radio: “Okay, gang, get ready for a right turn-in behind these guys. Try for a sidewinder lock. On my word, we will fire one missile. Then will continue to close and kill survivors.”

“Vector, rodger,” replied Veerson.

“Zappy, got it,” said Zakharov

“Shatter, Four,” said Stover

“Byzon in five,” added Baylor.

“Acid, a-okay,” finished Saint.

“Turn… now! It’s go time!”

Easly laid his fighter into the turn. The Firkins continued on their forty-four degree heading. After ninety degrees of turn, the 66s were dead on his nose, ninety degrees off two thousand feet above him, five miles off, according to tac. Easly looked through his HUD, he got a glimpse of one, then lost it.

Damn the dust!

He got a rattle from his sidewinder. It had locked on a heat source. Easly kept the turn in. His flight was sweeping behind the SKA-66s. Through, he HUD, he saw specks. Makos. Three.

Wait.

Three?

Where were the other Firkins? Where were they?

“Let ‘em have it, gang.” Easly touched off a ‘winder. “There’s only three Makos in front of us. They’ve mousetrapped us.”

Six

“Ghost Three, the Americans are behind us. I have them in sight.” Colonel Martos made this broadcast over his encrypted radio, and fifteen miles behind him, his heavy- a grouping of three fighters- heard his words.

The heavy switched their radars to transmit.

Yes. The six F-118s appeared as if by magic.

“Five miles at you four-thirty position, Ghost One,” Janos Esenin said into the radio as he locked up the closest Vixen and pushed the red button on his stick. The first missile roared away.

As he was locking up his second target, his two fellows each fired missiles.

They alternated, putting six missiles into the air.

Meanwhile, Colonel Martos turned hard right and wingman turned hard left, pulling six gees each, trying to evade the missiles the Americans had just put in the air.


* * *

Easly knew for certain he had been ambushed when his ECM indicators lit up. The strobe pointed back over his left shoulders; the aural warning began deedling; the warning light on his HUD labeled “Missile” lit up, then seconds later began flashing. The Russian mercenaries behind him had just launched missiles.

Easly had already fired his first missile. As the targets in front him separated, he squeezed off a second at the target turning right, Colonel Martos, though he didn’t know who was piloting the plane.

Busy trying to turn a square corner, Easly hoped for the missiles chasing him to overshoot. He lit his afterburners and pulled smoothly back to eleven gees, two more than his airplane was designed to take. His vision narrowed, he screamed to stay conscious, and the two missiles behind him overshot.

Martos’ wingman had signed his own death warrant when he turned left, a flight path that carried him out in front of the Americans. Two sidewinders were aimed at him, and they had no trouble zeroing in. The first went up his tailpipe and exploded; the second went off twelve inches above his main fuel tank, puncturing the tank with hundreds of bit of shrapnel and shredding it. The plane caught fire in a fraction of a second.

Without thinking, the pilot pulled the ejection handle. He died instantly when the ejection seat fired him from the projection of the cockpit. A sonic wave built up on his body and disemboweled him before he and his ejection seat could slow to supersonic speed.

Martos was lucky. Two of the missiles fired at him went for decoy flares that he had punches off. The other failed to hack his turn. Unfortunately, his flight path was taking him into the area directly downrange of the Americans.

* * *

Esenin’s first missile smashed into Jeff Stover’s airplane several feet forward of the tail. Stover knew something was wrong when he lost control of the plane- it simply stopped responding to control inputs. Instinctively, he glanced at the annunciator panel, which told him of problems with the plane’s health; he saw that every light there was lit.

What the light and engine gauges could not tell him was that the plane had broken into two pieces. The tail was no longer attached to the main fuselage.

He glanced at the airspeed indicator. Still supersonic. Couldn’t eject.

The nose was falling and the stick position had no effect. IT was then that Stover glanced in his rearview mirror and realized his tail was gone.

The altitude indicators showed his plane in a steepening dive. He retarded the throttle to idle and popped the speed brakes open. They came completely out and would probably have slowed the plane below Mach 1 had it done been going straight done.

Then the plane began to spin like a Frisbee.

* * *

Tom Saint never realized the mercenary planes were behind the Americans, so the explosion that blew off half his right wing came as a complete surprise.

He had managed to get one sidewinder in the air and was preparing to launch another at Colonel Martos when the explosion occurred under his wing. He had his ECM gear on and the audio warnings properly adjusted, but in the adrenaline-drench excitement of shooting missiles to kill people, he never heard the warnings or saw the lights.

The Russian warhead went off under his wing and his plane rolled uncontrollably, faster and faster and faster. He blacked out from the gee, despite the best efforts of his full-body gee suit. When the gee meters indicated sixteen times the force of gravity, Thomas Saint’s heart stopped. He was dead.

The coffin of steel, titanium, and exotic metals containing his corpse smashed into the earth forty-two seconds later.

Seven

One of the missiles missed Colonel Easly by such a large margin that its proximity fuse failed to detonate the warhead. There was another radar target beyong Easly, one slowing to supersonic speed in a very hard turn. The missile might have missed it- the angle-off and speeds involved were beyond the missile’s guidance capability- had not the target turned towards the oncoming missile- tuned just enough.


* * *
The proximity fuse in the missile detonated this time. The shrapnel penetrated the cockpit canopy and decapitated Colonel Martos. The hit was a one-in-a-million fluke, a tragic accident.

* * *

Butch Baylor somehow avoided the shower of missiles that killed Stover and Saint. He had also turned a square corner, and now he found that he had a head-on shot developing with one of the Russian planes far below, one of the three that had fired the missiles. All three of the planes were now on his tac display. He locked up a sidewinder and fired it, then another.

One of the missiles guided, the other went stupid.

Baylor didn’t have time to watch. His ECM was wailing, so he pulled straight back on the stick and lit his burners. He wanted to get well above the furball and pick his moment to come down.

* * *

Esenin knew that if he remained in this dogfight, the odds of being the last man left alive were slim. Rolling over on his belly, he pulled his nose straight up. Going uphill, he came out of burner in case one of the Americans was squirting off sidewinders.

He rotated his plane onto the course he wanted, forty five degrees, and began his pullout. He would get up on the deck and race for the Nighthawk while the Americans were duking it out with Martos and the others.

He was lucky. The first sidewinder Baylor triggered in his direction went stupid off the rail; the second lost its lock on his tailpipe and zagged away randomly after six seconds of flight.

The instant Esenin realized the second missile was not tracking, he made the decision to reengage. He pulled his plane around to target Easly, who had come to the conclusion that two of three Makos in front of him were fatalling damaged and so was completing his turn toward the threat on his rear quadrant while Zakharov bore down on the final forward 66.

Both pilots were in burner- Easly in a slight climb, Easly in a gentle descent. And both were almost Mach 2.

Esenin managed to get a lock on Easly, wom he saw only as a radar target. He squeezed off an AA-10 radar-guided missile, flicked to infrared on his HUD to see if he could locate the American visually. There he was! At about five miles. Esenin switched to guns.

Easly saw the flash of the missile’s engine igniting under Esenin’s wing or he would hever have been able to avoid it. He pulled the stick aft into another square corner while he punched off decoy chaffs and flares.

The missile maintained its radar lock on Easly’s plane, but his couldn’t hack the ten-gee turn. It went under Easly and exploded harmlessly.

Cursing, Esenin pulled with all his might to get a lead on Easly’s rising plane. As the two fighters rocketed towards each other, he squeezed off a burst of cannon fire, then overshot into a vertical scissors.

Canopy to canopy, John Easly and Janos Esenin went straight up, corkscrewing, each trying to fly slower than the other plane and fall in behind. The winner of this contest would get a shot, the loser would dide.

Esenin dropped his landing gear.

When the Colonel saw Esenin’s nosewheel come out of the well, Easly though he had had a stroke. Esenin drifted aft with authority.

Easly shot out in front. He jammed both throttles to the stops, lit the burners, and pull untiul he felt the stall buffet, bringing the plane over on its back, all while waiting for cannon shells to hit him between the shoulder blades.

Esenin had a problem. The designers of the Firkin in Poland had placed a safety circuit in the gun system to prevent it from being accidentally fired while the airplane was sitting on the ground. Only by manually hitting a switch in the nosewheel well could the cannon be fired with the gear extended. Another peculiarity of the SKA-66 was that the pilot had to wait for the gear to fully extend before he could reserve the cycle and retract them. Esenin sat in his Firkin, indicating 240 knots, waiting for the gear to come up while watching Easly dive cleanly away. Furious, he screamed into his mask.

He stopped screaming when a sidewinder went blazing by his aircraft, headed for mother earth. He looked up, just in time to see another Vixen turning in behind him.

His gear-in-transit light went out.

Esenin turned hard into his attacker.

Eight

The slow speed of Esenin’s Mako caused Kate to misjudge the lead necessary. Her first cannon burst smoke air and nothing else.

She was going too fast, overshooting the accelerating, turning Mako.

The guy was damned good. Amazingly, his nose was rising and he was somehow gaining an angular advantage. The gees were awesome, smashing viciously at her. She fought to stay conscious, too keep the enemy fighter in her field of vision.

He was canopy to canopy with her, descending through twenty thousand feet. He was close… too close. Somehow she had to get some maneuvering room.

Slamming the stick sideways, she fed in a bit of forward stick. Her opponent kept his position on her as she rolled. Stopping the roll, she brought the stick back a little. Instantly, the enemy plane was closing, canopy-to-canopy- with only fifty feet between the planes! She looked straight into his cockpit, looked at his helmet tilted back, at him looking at her as they rolled around each other with engines at idle and speed brakes out.

She saw the helmet’s logo. And it certainly wasn’t the logo of the Soviet Air Force. Or anything in this hemisphere.

What she didn’t realize that Esenin was trying to operate his speed flaps with one hand and flying with his right. He didn’t have a third hand for his throttle.

Then he was above her, on his back, and too slow, out of control. He released the stick with his right hand and reached across his body to slam his throttle forward.

Kate realized Esenin had stalled as his plane fell toward her. Before she could react, the two planes collided, canopy-to-canopy.

* * *

Easly had pulled out far below and relit his burners to climb back into the fight. He was rocketing up towards the two corkscrewing fighters. They were too close to risk a shot.

Just as he visually acquired the pair, the two fighters embraced.

The planes bounced apart, then exploded.

Jesus!

Easly rolled and dived under the fireball.

* * *
The final forward Mako, being the furthest out, had managed to avoid the shower of missiles directed at its comrades. Speaking in rapid Russian over the comm, he coordinated with his comrades, falling back as they received orders over their comm.

Baylor, who had dropped to subsonic to maintain his orbit over the furry, noted it over his comm. “Hey, Zappy. I’ve got visuals that says they’re falling back and regrouping. Copy.”

Zahkarov, who had avoided the upsurge of Russian missiles at the opening of the fight, executed a right hook, spinning to visually acquire the reforming Firkins. “Zappy here. Look’s like they’re going for another pass. Evil Eye, confirm.”

“Evil Eye?”

Zahkarov looked up, just in time to flip his plane side over side over side to avoid the falling hulk of the dead AWACs. The gees pulled at him, he screamed at the exertion, but he barely escaped the wake of the plummeting carcass, the passage buffeting his plane.

“Zappy?” commed Baylor. “Oh, holy, shit. Phoenix One, we just lost Evil Eye?”

“What?” Easly’s voice came on. “Wait, what? Confirm!”

“He nearly hit me on the way down, One,” coughed Zakharov. “I’ve got all the confirmation you need.”

The SKA-66s certainly didn’t down the AWACs behind their back. Their actions were accounted for.

That meant an outside element.

His ECM started beeping wildy, and he slammed his eyes to it. Incoming bandit, two-twenty. Radar spike. Energy spike.

Energy spike?

Zakharov furrowed his brow underneath his helmet. The Makos were still holding twenty miles out. What were they doing?

* * *

Baylor’s head was on a swivel, glancing across the sky for any possible contacts while Zak eyed the Firkins. He had seen the contact on his tac display, but it was showing to be on his altitude, not the horizontal plane Easly, Zappy, and the Makos were on. Which wasn’t good.

When the plane shuddered, he reacted with commendable speed, sweeping his eyes over his annuciator. Lights were glowing red. He swung his head right and saw his right wing charred and sparking, trailing fire

He just barely saw the second pulse sweeping it, an almighty blue light coming from four o’clock low. The shaft was a second away from impact when he realized there was no way he could evade.

“Shit,” he said, and ejected.

He was a couple hundred feet above his plane when the laser hit it, slicing straight into his fuel tanks, which promptly cooked off, shredding the interior of the Vixen. A couple seconds later, the F-118 detonated, a massive fireball that singed Baylor’s boots. Looking down, he saw two long cylinders- the aircraft’s engines- shoot out of the explosion and fall in a ballistic trajectory towards the earth many miles below.

And, on the horizon, he saw a flash of orange. He keyed his emergency comm.

“Phoenix squadron, this is Byzon. You’ve got a Firebird entering the combat area.”

Nine

“Phoenix squadron, we can not authorize a retreat. Repeat, you are ordered to engage and halt the enemy interception. The package is approaching the killbox, and it needs all the time it can to get in and out of there. We can no-”

It was repeating in cold tones their fates. They absolutely couldn’t retreat now, now that the MiG-37 had entered the fray, closing at Mach 3.5. The Metyor could easily keep pace if decided to boost to rockets and flee into orbit and slaughter them there. But now, they had to stand and fight, meaning they would almost certainly die. There was simply no way they could match the UCAV.

But they had to try.

“Oh, shit,” said Zakharov. “Sir, the Firkins are reengaging.”

Easly nearly whiplashed himself as he spun to see the three dark shapes of the SKA-66s taking wide, low turns towards the two remaining Americans. Two versus four, with one of the four being a Metyor- he could see the UCAV now, on the northeast horizon, rising up from some far-off base in the northeast.

Zappy swiveled his plane towards the UCAV. What a strange world, he though, when taking on a UCAV and leaving your partner for three incoming Makos is considered a selfless act. He only hoped the Metyor wouldn’t- or couldn’t smite him with its nose laser, having already fired two passes at Baylor. Here’s too a recharge time, he thought, as the Metyor- he could see it fully, a menacing, pointed shape with tiny forward-swept wings and three bulbous engines- pitch up hard with mechanical precision and rolled towards Zakharov.

“Zappy, wait-” came Easly’s voice-

Rolling up to, Zakharov mirrored the UCAV, committing himself to a vertical scissors.

The two fights met at the base of the spiral and began to corkscrew around each other, going straight up, each trying for an angular advantage and each failing to get it.

The Makos were closing to heatseeker range as Easly saw the true intent of the Metyor.

It was playing with him.

Playing.

Christ. For every one turn Zappy made, the UCAV made two revolutions. Suddenly, the Firebird hits its throttles to zero and popped its speedbrakes, almost looking like a startled pufferfish as every control surface on the UCAV burst outward, slowing the plane as if it had been hit by a brick wall. The plane’s needle nose split into four sections and slotted back. Light began to collect at the tips of the four nose points-

Zappy shot out in front, and the Firebird instantly pulsed its engines back to life, easily, almost lazily drifting underneath the Vixen, pushing its nose towards Zakharov-

Realized he had been had, Phoenix Three pulled back on the stick with all his might, bringing his plane over on its back and dipping his nose down in an almost instant backflip, right as-

-The nose laser fired, the blue beam hitting on air where its target had been milliseconds before-

The beam followed him, bubbling the paint of his belly-

Zappy continued to pull.

Then he realized the ground was rushing toward him. He was descending inverted seventy degrees nose-down, in burner, passing eight thousand feet.

Phoenix Three flicked his F-118 upright and pulled until he thought his wings would come off. The gee meter read twelve gees when his fighter struck the earth at Mach 1.2.

Easly’s ECM forward began to tweedle and he pulled his nose to face the, holy shit, incoming azimuth of enemy fighters, inches from sidewinder range. They were stacked vertically, and he saw missiles ignited under each of their wings, two or more per fighter aimed at just him- he got a single lock and he loosed two of his six remaining AIM-9s, before pulling straight up, as hard as he could. The gee suit clinched around him and he hissed in his teeth, nearly crushing his stick as his veins popped in his neck, he spiraled high as the missiles fell into his tail.

Shooting by underneath him, the Makos began to spiral in every-closing circles onto his tail.

Easly began to shed missiles. Two of the four couldn’t hack his climb. Three and four peeled off as Easly punched chaff and flares, his last batch.

Two more missiles.

Easly nosed over in a massive overhead backflip, a much wider and larger toss that Zakharov’s suicidal gamble, and the final two missiles lost him as he reached the apogee.

Flipping his plane over to complete the immelman, Easly began to spiral down, just in time to see the Firkins shoot by below.

* * *

The two missiles split went they left the Vixen’s rails, one going high, the other low for the lead Soviet plane. The Firkin, already committed to the attack, was unable to evade at a level that would have saved his life. He tried to pull his plane high, and barely avoided the first missiles as its proximity fuse detonated at extreme range, scorching the belly of his jet.

The climb brought him into the path of the second sidewinder, which came straight through the cockpit, killing the pilot instantly below it even had the chance to detonate.

Splitting from the explosion, the Makos executed a tidy thatch weave before coming around and spiraling towards Easly in opposite directions as the American began his descent.

All three switched to guns.

Easly knew the bandits had him; their upwards weave would snatch him: even if one of the two planes failed, the other would swoop in on Easly from the other side and rake him.

Rolling his plane over on its back, Easly pointed his Vixen straight down, lighting his burners to blaze through the ring of the counter-circling Makos, who rolled onto theirs side, aborting their attempted weaves to try to fall behind their quarry.

The Metyor reentered the fray.

Ten

The laser streaked underneath his plane and Easly reflexively pulled back up on his stick, making his plane practically jump two thousand feet up to the level of the Makos as Metyor twisted underneath Easly, performing an impossible straight-up spin that would have killed any human along for the ride.

Easly rolled and kept his death grip on his stick, jamming his index finger on his gun trigger. He saw the rotating Makos are around him, their twin cannons thumping as each tried to get within the other’s rotation loop. Tracers blazed by in every direction as the Metyor exploded by on Easly’s right, a thousand feet away as it climbed and nosed over as Easly instinctively juked out of the way

Oh, shit, thought Easly.

And suddenly he looked up to his right, seeing the tailpipe of one of the Makos fall in behind him. The evasion from the ascending UCAV had put him in behind the SKA-66, and Easly hammered down on his Vulcan.

Fire stitched up the spine of the Mako, the massive slugs painting the innards of the hostile pilot over the interior of the smashed cockpit, right before a ricocheting round spark the fuel tanks and blew the entire plane out in a fiery detonation. Easly rolled under the fireball just in time to the final Firkin drop in behind him and opened up with his cannon in turn.

The onslaught caught the tip of Easly’s wing, ripping a dozen holes in the right aileron. The Vixen jumped in Easly’s control, twisted, lost speed-

And suddenly the SKA-66 was right beside him, only a couple hundred feet out, too close. Easly could see the bloodlust in the pilot’s eyes as the sun cut through the canopy and visor to reveal the enemy pilot. The plane bucked in Easly’s hands again, and the Vixen’s mangled right wingtip sliced into the left vertical stabilizer of the Firkin, with both planes climbing at about thirty degrees when the came together.

Easly felt the jolt and instinctively rolled away, just in time to see the Mako pull away as well, trailing smoke-

Rearing once more despite the Colonel’s frantic attempts to regain control of his plane, the F-118 entered a flat spin.

North over east over south over west.

He was falling. Fast. Had no idea of altitude. His HUD was beeping in his ear. Alert. Alert.

And the plane’s tail began to dip, tipping the nose up, Easly saw, with cold fear gripping him, the Metyor pacing him right above, needle nose pointing straight at Easly, flowering open, collecting light.

It took him a couple seconds to notice the sidewinder lock tweedling in his ear. Grinning, he tapped his launch button as fast as he could, sending all of his remaining AIM-9s at the drone.

Blue light lanced down from the MiG.

The shaft of energy rotated all around Easly right as he squeezed off the onslaught on sidewinders.

Missiles exploded.

The Vixen was shredded from all sides by shrapnel. The left wing came off.

A chunk of flaming metal from the wing, whipped by the slipstream, slapped into the cockpit like a bullet, ripping off the canopy. Glass flew everywhere. The kaleidoscope sky exploded into pain as Easly’s vision in his right eye went out, while the hurricane of air battered the other shut.

He took one hand from the stick to touch his head. His helmet somehow had been torn off. He had no mask, but, judging by the altitude, he didn’t need it. Fingers sticky with blood from a hundred lacerations, he brushed the shard of glass sticking from left eye with trembling fingers. The shrapnel had taken out his eye.

He heard the unearthly hum of the laser all around him. Wind lashed him from all sides. All seemed lost.

What had Baylor said?

“I want to see how I will face a competent, courageous, dedicated warrior who seeks to kill me. Will I have enough courage? Will I be bold? Will I fight with honor, and die with honor if that is required?”

With every ounce of will, Easly looked straight up and pulled open his right eye. There. Above him. The Metyor.

“Dodge this, you robotic son of a bitch,” Easly growled as he punched off his tanks and his smart bombs.

Then he ejected. Hell, he didn’t even have to blow his cockpit first. The plane, which had been steadily approaching Mach in the freefall, hadn’t yet touched supersonic, but the cone of air that socked Easly in the chest nearly caved it in.

The rockets underneath his chair pulled him up faster than the round tanks the separated from the disintegrating carcass of his Vixen. The MiG flashed by in front of him and suddenly he was above it all, watching it warily.

The Metyor jinked to the right, easily avoiding the chained cluster of smart bombs. It didn’t avoid the first fuel tank.

Or the second.

The laser, still going, cut across the tank right it slammed into the Metyor’s nose at a thousand miles an hour, ripping it in half right before it exploded.

The two pieces of the UCAV separated; the nose fragmenting into nothingness as the flaming second tank hit the Metyor’s rear second, catching the hulking engines and fuel bladders of the MiG.

The parachute barely avoided being peppered with an upwards shower of flaming bit of metal, but Easly was too far gone to notice. He was unconscious long before his seat touched down a minute later.

Epilogue

The Major nudged the far end of the flickering slab of steel with the tip of his polished boot. Around him the forest was in tatters, the hundred-mile cone of debris having ripped through it like a thin net.

“Major?” came the voice from the Humvee’s cab. “The intelligence boys say they can’t pull anything useful out of the wreckage.”

Sighing, the man trudged back down the hill to the clearing a hundred feet below where a circle of Humvees were parked, robotic pintle machine guns swirling in all directions, tracking anything that moved.

The American pilot, a captain, was sitting in the back of the truck, his leg splinted, as the Major clambered in.

“No luck?” asked Baylor.

“None at all,” replied the Intelligence Major, pulling out a laptop and beginning to rapidly type. “The brain cell for UCAV was destroyed in the explosion. Boom. Millions of tiny pieces. We couldn’t find a thing.”

Baylor smirked. “That’s a good story.”

“Indeed it is. It should keep the Russians off our tail for at least a decade. Especially considering that the MiG wasn’t theirs.”

“Wait, what?”

Sighing once more, the Major removed his sunglasses and snapped his laptop shut. “It all goes back, Captain, to the defection of Chandra Gosely.”

Rubbing his chin, Baylor lifted his eyebrows. “I’m afraid you lost me there, Major.”

“You see, when Gosely fled, we finally realized how massively tied we were to WRAITH. We had been giving them hundreds of weapons and supplies in exchange for them performing our dirty work and cutting down on attacks on American interests. Gosely probably would’ve kept on going on with it, if it hadn’t been revealed that WRAITH was in turn giving some of the weapons to Al Qaeda.

“So she fled, and we purged the CIA of all WRAITH influences. While it is true some elements of our government managed to avoid the cleansings, most notably the incident in the Avalonian Woods five years ago that marked the last flight of Phoenix Squadron before their disbanding a year later, WRAITH had been cut of its closest friend.

“But WRAITH had been gaining power over the past decade, and one has to wonder where they had been getting it from. Sure, they have become a underground arms dealer in their own right, with massive research and development labs scattered across the globe? But who was bankrolling it? And who, we dared to ask, was providing sanctuary for the main contingent of WRAITH, their central base? We had had good idea it was in Laos or Camboida- somewhere in Southeast Asia, but no clue beyond that.

“It wasn’t until these recent coups and internal troubles in WARPAC since Kiralova stepped down that we were able to pinpoint the WRAITH base. The decision was made a day ago to wipe it off the face of the earth, despite the fact that Kroner was in a bargain with the eastern Marshals. We routed in a Nighthawk from the nearest carrier group and called upon our perfectly placed escort squadron into, well, escort.”

“Us,” growled Baylor.

“Indeed,” nodded the Major. “Do you honestly think we put you in there to help out the Cambodians? Containment and proxy wars are profoundly twentieth-century doctrines. This is the new millennium, Captain. There are threats greater to freedom than communism. And this entire war, instigated by us against the rogue WARPAC elements consorting with Kroner was all an attempt to figure out WRAITH’s base. We put you on station not to defend the pitiable southerners, but when we needed a strike package, it would be instantly in the area.

“Of course, WRAITH partially expected us, and they sent their most formidable weapons to stall us. Six of the best manned fighters in the second world and WRAITH’s crown aerospace jewel, the MiG-37 Firebird, easily the best plane in existence, hands-down. However, our bluff with the Vixen squadron worked: they thought you were the ones sent to attack the base, not the stealth F-117. And such, they thought they were safe when their counterattack completely occupied us. They received a low-yield surprise shortly before nineteen hundred hours local time.”

“You bastards throw around nukes just like that?”

“Please. Nukes are used by both superpowers in covert special operations once every few years, and are covered by both sides. Rogue weapons testing facility? Wipe it off the face of earth. Subterranean horror, awoken and ready to unleash havoc? Hammer it down. Internal coup? Bunker buster will solve your problem. And I must say, our strike was a near-complete success. Kroner was tipped as to the Nighthawk minutes before the sledge came down on his base, and managed to escape with his inner circle on a hypersonic spacecraft with seconds to spare. Shame, it seems. Intel indicates Gosely was present at the base.

“But, all in all, we’ve got dealt a major blow to WRAITH, which leaves us with two possibilities: either it fades away for another decade or two, or it jumps ahead with whatever it’s been planning ahead of schedule. And whatever happens, we’ll be ready for it.”

Baylor grimaced. “Will you, Major? You’ve just managed to destroy one of hundreds of WRAITH cells, one with a nametag attached to it. And guess what? That nametag escaped. All you’ve done is anger the beast. And it’s going to come down on you, hard. You’ve got a pissed off international terrorist in orbit and an equally pissed Marshal in Siberia somewhere screaming in his command center. When they hit back, they’ll hit hard. My friends I’ve known for years are dead, sir. They won’t be able to protect you.”

The Major shrugged. “Perhaps. But it’s not to say that we’ve won’t have the best of men and women to defend us. Why, just before we cut you down from that tree, we received word that an American had been spotted amongst one of the local villages. An American with an eyepatch.”
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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