The six flat black shapes glided effortlessly over the jutting hills and deep valleys, which cut through the terrain below. Keeping their altitude less than twenty-five meters enhanced the invisibility already provided by their radar reflecting shape and materials. Directly above the small strike group flew two elements of three fighters at one thousand meters. They were packed together tightly, within five meters of each other. The vertical stacking their special formation designed to mask their true numbers. In addition the special IR defeating electronic gear worked in a way which enhanced the IR masking qualities of the entire formation when the skimmers flew in such close proximity. The Kra'Vak intent was to deny FCR lock until they were in effective gun range, thus negating the effectiveness of the human killer missiles which had cut them so deeply in past encounters.
Burns checked her Master Situational Display and saw the icons for Magic and Coggs approaching. The MSD was updated via datalink from Lubber, which in turn collected information from Satellites, ground and airborne sensors. The information was then disseminated to all units of the area defense network, both airborne platforms and ground units. The MSD showed the incoming Kra'Vak as approximate contacts untargetable as of yet. She swore under her breath. If they were fighting anyone else beside the Kra'Vak the engagement would most likely not progress past a BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagement. However the Kra'Vak ships, with their mysterious stealth technology, virtually guaranteed that this would be a close in dogfight. No 1 squadron, primarily oriented to ground support had only three AWI-qualified pilots. Luckily Mako and Burns were two of them.
"Dragon this is Magic, we're joining you from the north east 20 klicks out, you should have us on your misty"
"Got you. We'll be engaged before you join, but let's put flight comms into effect. Check in: One-one."
"One-two", replied Flug.
"Two-one", said magic
"Two-two", said Coggs.
"One-one do either of you have a lock yet?"
"Negative, no FCR just MSD."
"Two-one we're running a single side offset to the right. Suggest you keep alt and hit them from behind assuming they turn on us."
"Wilco." Magic furrowed his brow at that. Why the hell is she running a single side offset? That called for one aircraft swing wide to one side and then reversing back into the rear of the enemy fighter, while the second ship took it straight down the middle of the enemy formation, engaging head on. While it certainly had the potential to confuse the enemy and trap them between both fighters, it also meant that for a time Burns and Flug would be operating without mutual support. That was particularly a no go when they weren't even sure of how many bogeys they were dealing with. Worse still, the kraits were having a hard time locking onto the Kra'Vak fighters at anything other than short range, thus negating the normal advantage of the missile.
"On the way" Flug brought his thrust to 140% and rocketed down and to the right. Burns eyed her fire control radar. She had is slued exactly on the spot where the MSD showed the incoming bogeys but there was still no lock. Since the Krait was also capable of IR guiding she uncaged the seeker head on the first missile. Burns was well aware of the dangers of running a single side offset in this situation but there was a lot to be said for unpredictability and surprise. At the merge the Kra'Vak would either have to split up, or blow through in which cases they would be exposing their rears to Flug. She anticipated that they would choose to mix it up, which would give Magic and Coggs an opportunity to pick them off, providing she could survive the initial encounter.
At 18 kilometers the three Kra'Vak blips depicted on the MST split into two groups of two. Burns still had no lock on the FCR. ""OK they've split into two groups, angels two, one to my right one to my left."
"One-two copy, tally."
"One-one we are at your six, fifteen K angels ten, coming down hard." Said Magic.
"One-two make sure you keep up your energy, keep it out of the low and slow regimen. Once two-one and Two-two joins make your way back to me. Don't get low or slow with this bunch." Said Burns.
The threat warning receiver began beeping and she glanced at the UV targeting bug it depicted. "Spike."
The opposing groups were now closing at 1200 knots. At 12 K Burns finally got a hit on her FCR. "Got em! Two groups of three! Holy shit! I'm going for the group on the right, one-two, right on the nose. Two, lock em up."
"I can't. I don't have a lock! Breaking into ‘em now."
"Can't. I don't have a fucking tone!"
"Vis. Got the right group on the nose ten K." Natalie switched her FCR to auto-boresight. The FCR would now automatically lock up whatever was off the nose without her intervention. The fire control computer immediately built a shoot list of all three contacts. At 8 kilometers she pickled the first Krait. It ejected from the portside chin stores bay, fell ten meters and ignited, racing off ahead. The FCR immediately switched to the next contact.
"Fox two." Burns pickled off her second missile at the Rmin, or minimum engagement range, of one kilometer. The first Krait ran straight for the lead Kra'Vak who broke right and down, leaving countermeasures, which looked like series of black puffs, in his wake. The Krait corrected put itself into a lead pursuit plot. The Kra'Vak broke back to the left throwing off the Krait which exploded fifty meters behind, detonated by one of the Kra'Vak scatter packs.
Natalie saw none of that. She saw the lead bogey break and angled her nose down slightly to pick up a little more speed. One bogey angled to her left passing less than fifty meters from her, but the second bogey bore straight in. The second Krait homed right at him, and Burns was forced to break hard at the last instant to avoid a collision. There was an explosion right outside the cockpit and the Raptor was buffeted in the wake of the close pass. She scanned her Christmas tree in a panic but there was no damage.
The break blew some of her energy but she kept the Raptor in a ten degree nose down attitude, building up to 700 knots before pulling up into a loop. She strained her neck looking up and to the rear, as she went over the top, in an attempt to reacquire the bogeys visually. Behind her, roughly in the vicinity of the merge, she could see a dissipating black cloud of smoke with tendrils of flame dropping gracefully to the ground. Did I kill that guy?
Flug received a lock just as Burns was passing through the merge. He had cut his bracket too short and missed the left vic of bogeys but had a good aspect on the right hand trio which was in a coordinated left hand break turn in an attempt to turn in Burns.. At 6 kilometers he launched three Kraits, the FCR assigning each one a separate target. The three Kra'Vak dropped their planned turn and split apart, one high, one low, and one right. Flug watched the one breaking right, which offered it's tail towards the Krait. The bogey was dropping black puffs behind its tail and barrel rolling to the right. Miraculously the Krait flew straight through the scatter packs and exploded in a black puff on the bat shaped fighters left wing!"
"It's a hit!" Flug cried in triumph watching the target spin towards the ground.
"Break right one -one or one-two!"
Flug jerked out if his fixation, and looked behind him. Shit! "One-two breaking right." He pulled the stick into his gut and yanked it right instantly putting himself into a nine-Gee turn. The G-suit contracted against his stomach, legs and arms. And he tightened himself in the gee straining maneuver concentrating on his breathing. He held the hard turn as long as he could. Sweat was coming off his forehead in streams, sting his eyes, and his mask was being pulled off his face by the tremendous Gee forces. He began losing his peripheral vision as G-induced loss of consciousness (or G-LOC) began to set in. He could hear creaking noises as the Raptor's airframe overstressed.
"Unload and break low One-two!" Flug barely made out the voice of Magic calling frantically on the radio. He let up on the stick unloading the Gees on the raptor. The break turn had taken him up to 6000 meters! He strained his head and caught sight of a black shape behind him. He was in a panic now. The fight was ahead of him instead of the other way around. He was in reaction mode. He strained and broke left, while kicking rudder, diving for the ground. The Raptor had gotten dangerously slow during the initial break but now built up speed, passing quickly through 600 knots.
"Fox two!" Called Magic.
The reddish brown terrain sped up towards him through the windscreen. He was in a corkscrew-like dive, but the Kra'Vak stuck to his tail like glue. Flug chopped throttle, and shifted his NIQ to 100 degrees, rammed the throttle forward again in an attempt to slow down and pull hard to the left, out of the climb. There were three loud bangs and suddenly the stick went dead in his hand. Every light on the Christmas tree was blinking red and both yellow engine firelights blinked at him. Flug didn't hesitate but reached up to grab the ejection handles only one of which he could get his hand on. Nevertheless, he pulled down hard and his world was encompassed in a violent explosion.
As Burns pulled over the top of her loop she was looking up out of her canopy down at her wingman's demise. She saw his left wing tear off followed a moment later by his ejection and the Raptor smashing into the ground. It was followed a moment later by his Kra'Vak killer, itself the victim of Magic's Krait. There was no time to sightsee. She rapidly acquired a single Kra'Vak at the top of his own loop, rolling wings level and heading straight at her. Using her helmet mounted targeting system she was able to keep the aiming reticule on him as she pulled through the loop and got a good tone on the Krait. Just as she fired it, there was a loud bang and she glanced left to see the left wingtip rail mounted Krait ignite its engine though she hadn't fired it. The best she could figure was that it had been hit on the head-on pass. There was no time to think on it. It was just one more piece of information that had to be catalogued and prioritized in the swirling dogfight. She reacquired the Kra'Vak fighter just as it passed her ship.
"Computer Jettison stores station one. "
"Jettisoning stores, station one…malfunction…. malfunction."
Natalie had planned to keep the Raptor's nose low through the merge to build up some extra energy, but now the information on the hung missile kicked itself up to a priority problem. She afforded a quick glance at her wingtip and saw it half-off the rail stuck with the motor still burning, she could also see some damage to the wingtip herself. She waggled her wings twice then pulled hard left into a reverse, hoping that would shake the missile loose. It did. The missile fell away and instantly careened off to the left out of control, exploding a second later.
"Vis on One-one," said Coggs. "Tally two bogeys, one at your twelve high and a second bogey, at your low six passing from east to west."
Natalie now swung her head behind sure that the Kra'Vak was on her tail. She couldn't see anything behind her.
"One-one is no joy on that second bogey."
"Roger you're ok for a minute with him, he's trying to get back into the fight. Cleared to engage the one on your nose."
The lead fighter had extended in a wide turn and was now coming back at her head on. A second's glance to the MSD followed by a look around outside confirmed in her mind that two-one and two-two had joined in the fight, bouncing two bogeys which were climbing back into the fight from the east. Her bogey was out at her eleven o'clock high. She knew that at least two were splashed which left one unaccounted for.
The bogey off her nose was racing at her from above at 600 knots while she was going 350. She intended to use his speed against him by lead turning on the bogey. At 1 kilometers separation, Natalie rammed the throttle full forward kicked right rudder pointed the nose low and broke hard right. She used a little viffing to make the turn as tight as possible, gambling against the loss of speed that she would be in a good firing position. Her gee suit tightened around her body and her helmet pushed down around her head down, which now weighed almost 100 pounds with the gee forces. Grunting in the cockpit, she was almost through 180 degrees as the Kra'Vak raced by her. It was too fast and too wide an aspect for a Krait to get a lock.
"Going for guns."
She selected the autocannon and for a split second her Raptor was sitting on the Kra'Vak's tail as he sped past almost 200 knots faster than she. The touched the trigger twice and there was two quick burrrps from the cannon as it spit out 100-shell bursts. The second burst hit the bat-wing shaped fighter dead center and it belched smoke and large chunks of debris, which Natalie banked to avoid. The fighter continued speeding along its flight path. At first she thought it was unharmed but slowly increased its dive angle, never changing vector until it plummeted into the ground.
"Good kill, good kill." It was Coggs. Burns began sweeping the sky around her, nothing in the immediate vicinity, though she could see Magic and Coggs were engaged.
After Magic had killed the Kra'Vak which had shot down Flug, he spotted the surviving pair of bogeys from the right hand vic. Having avoided the Kraits aimed by Flug, they had reformed into a tight formation and were climbing back into the fight. Magic thought it odd that they would stick to such a close formation in the actual fight until he found that his FCR failed to acquire either target. Something about the way they flew together and fed off each other's ECM defeated his attempts to target them.
Magic turned into the climbing pair. "Two-One's in."
"Covering." Replied Coggs, who would take a supporting role while his lead engaged. It would be his role to keep Magic and the bogeys in sight while clearing his six and setting himself up for a shot if Magic called out of the fight or got into trouble. He swung his Raptor wide to the left, keeping the fight on the right of his cockpit where he could observe.
"OK, Two-one's engaging a pair on the nose. Something about the way they stick together that's keeping me from getting a tone."
"Roger." Coggs scanned left and right matching his MSD with his own visual cues. He acquired One-one who was in her own fight with another Kra'Vak. It was at that time that he made the first call to her:
"Vis on One-one. Tally two bogeys, one at your twelve high and a second bogey, at your low six passing from east to west."
"One-one is no joy on that second bogey."
"Roger you're Ok for a minute with him, he's trying to get back into the fight. Cleared to engage the one on your nose." He could see the second Kra'Vak climbing through two thousand trailing a thin line of smoke. Burns must have damaged it with a Krait. Having cleared her, he turned his attention back to Magic.
"Two-one, you're clear."
Magic put his Raptor on a collision course with the pair of Kra'Vak, flying with less than ten meters separation. He made two quick jinks, still got no lock, and opted to fire off a Krait on override anyway, in the hopes of scaring them apart. It worked. The pair broke in opposite directions as they passed through the merge, Magic already pulling hard into the right hand bogey.
"I'm on the bloke to the right, take the one on the left."
Coggs had anticipated his lead's call and was already setting up for a shot. "Two-two's in."
Michael Flug regained consciousness after what seemed like minutes but was actually seconds, to find himself in the rather awkward position of flying over the desert floor at two hundred meters without his plane. He saw, but barely comprehended, his ejection seat, just separated from him, tumbling away. Behind it, his stricken Raptor tumbled into the ground in a fiery explosion. He could actually feel the heat from the blast. Behind it a second ship, the Kra'Vak, slammed into the ground. There was a violent jerk as the parachute popped open, and he still hadn't regained his senses enough to even get his feet and knees together when he slammed into the hard desert ground and tumbled into a heap. He lay there for a moment on his back staring up in the sky as he mentally got himself together. He followed the small dots twisting and turning like flies in some mating dance. Tendrils thin smoke marked the final plunge of aircraft. Points of racing light marked the flight of Kraits spinning to their targets, (missiles had long since gone "smokeless"). Black puffs following the Kra'Vak fighters marked their attempts to destroy the Kraits before impact. There would be a flash, followed seconds later by the aural report.
Flug reached up and engaged one of his canopy releases, which deflated the chute. He sat up and cringed in pain at his left shoulder. It felt dislocated, or worse.
Magic was calm and precise, completely "in the zone". His mind processed the locations of the three bogeys, fitting them in to his spatial perception of the volume of space they were fighting, then adding in his locations, Burns and Coggs. This was situational awareness. The qualified AWI was quickly able to ascertain where his opponent was going, when he was going to be there, and in what energy state. Magic, just "drove for the elbow" putting his Raptor within weapons parameters and launched two Kraits. The bogey jinked hard right than screwed up and broke back left, which simplified the Krait's intercept trajectory. The small black puff emanated from the rear of the aircraft, and one of the Kraits exploded twenty meters behind the fighter. The second however, bore in and exploded directly behind the hapless Kra'Vak. Miraculously the ship did not crash, but it belched a cloud of thick black smoke and dove for the deck yawing in an exaggerated manner, left and right about its axis.
Coggs by contrast could smell the kill before him and was suffering from a peculiar form of tunnel vision known in the fighter community as "fangs out and hair on fire." After the Kra'Vak had broken left, it had stood the batwing-shaped fighter on its tail and went into an almost vertical climb. Cogg's initial attack had carried too much speed during his dive and the Raptor took twice the normal turn radius to bring itself back around and begin the climb after its prey. Still, Coggs was intent on getting his first kill and had gradually begun to make up distance. The Krait would not lock no matter how narrow and directed he made the Raptors APG366 radar. He uncaged the Krait's seeker head in an attempt to get a manual IR lock, but that failed also. He'd just have to get in closer and go for guns. The Kra'Vak was good. As he closed, the bandit kept on breaking back into Coggs, then reversing his turn in an attempt to cause him to overshoot. This was a classic rolling scissors, except hat hey were performing it in the near vertical. Both aircraft were spending their precious energy at an alarming rate.
As Burns pointed her Raptor back towards Magic and Coggs she took a moment to scan her Damage board. Right wingtip pylon was down as were the auto-trim hydraulics to that wing. Annoying but not a showstopper, she thought. She scanned the radar and her MSD, watching first Magic and Coggs and their targets, then for any signs of other bogeys. She had long learned not to trust the MSD and began a visual search of the area as she drew within 6 kilometers of Coggs, who was in a ballistic climb on the tail of a Kra'Vak. Se scanned the terrain below and…
Holy shit! "Two-Two you have three bandits on your six low, passing through west, left hand turn!" Where the fuck had they come from? She saw three black dots travelling in a very tight V formation zoom up in and climbed behind Two-two. Coggs, locked in a very rare vertical scissors, had together with his opponent, nearly bled off all his speed and was just hanging there in the sky like low hanging fruit waiting to be plucked.
Natalie still had not elicited a response from Coggs who was bent on the kill to the exclusion of all else. "Two-two, break! Bandit six! Break!" She was already at full throttle and moving in behind the three for a missile shot.
Magic, who had been closing in to finish off his own bandit, immediately broke off at Burns' first call and reversed back towards his wingman. He too joined in with the break calls. "Two-two, break right! Break right!"
Though Natalie could not see the Kra'Vak firing, Coggs Raptor, spit out a long tongue of flame from it's engines and fell off to one side in an inverted spin. The automatic flight control system should have immediately detected the Raptor's departure and corrected it, but the system must have been damaged in the firing. There was nothing on the radio from Coggs.
"Eject, Eject!" Called out Magic. Cogg's Raptor pancaked onto the desert floor on its back, vaporizing itself in the ensuing explosion.
Burns was now in missile parameters and received a lock on the three still tightly formated bandits. She had two Krait's left. But now the starboard inside pylon returned a malfunction light. That left her with one missile and three bandits.
"Two-one I've got a missile malfunction but a good lock. Give me a stores status."
Roger, passing over to you." Burns selected handoff on her FCR and sent her lock and shoot list via datalink to Magic's Raptor. He now had two good locks on his HUD. He adjusted the nose f the aircraft slightly and fired both missiles. "Fox Two, Fox Two."
Burns deselected Hand Off and fired the last Krait at the lead Bandit. She watched as all three missiles streaked towards the enemy formation. Too late they broke apart, but not before the two trailing Kra'Vak each received solid hits. One exploded in a fireball, and the second nosed over and dove straight into the ground. The lead Kra'Vak almost broke too late. The missile exploded five meters above he fighter. It emitted a thin stream of smoke and dove for the ground. Natalie followed in hot pursuit with Magic forming up to cover. The Kra'Vak pilot was good and dove right for the deck twisting and turning the damaged fighter amongst the rocks and gullies. Natalie pursued for two minutes but the and it in the clutter. She thought better than commit to following and already damaged enemy. It was a mission kill anyway, she thought to herself. Better to reverse back to the scene of the fight and see if she could get a lock on Flug. They sanitized the are for any other bandits. None were spotted. They flew low over both crash sites. There was nothing left of Two-two but a smoking hole and a few little fires. Over One-two's site Natalie saw an abandoned parachute drifting across the desert. She switched to the guard net.
"One-two this is One-one. Do you read?"
"Roger this is One-two."
"Christ, how are you."
"Bit of a prang but I'll live."
"OK activate your beacon for a moment." Flug did so and Natalie got a precise fix on his position. "Right. Go on and turn it off. I'll relay to the CSAR and we'll have you out in a jiff."
"Don't hang around for me, I suppose you both are Winchester."
"As a matter of fact we are, and we're bingo fuel also.." Both were out of missiles.
"Well go on then, I'm all right. Just make sure they get here before it gets dark."
"Will do. We are RTB."
"Roger. By the way, that was a hell of a show watching from down here."
Magic was doing the calculations in his head. "Christ, Splot, we just mixed it up with nine of the bloody bastards."
"Let's get out of here. We can tell war stories later."
They had indeed "mixed it up" with nine enemy fighters. The remaining three unseen craft were the whole reason that the Kra'Vak had decisively engaged the Number One Squadron combat air patrol. At he first sign of trouble they descended from one thousand meters to twenty meters and avoided the fray above. The three deadly aircraft stayed low until they were twenty kilometers out from Röt Hafen at which time they checked in with their GCI or Ground Control Intercept for a vector to a ground target. A top priority request had just been received from "an Eye" or reconnaissance team, outside of the city which had a perfect view of a large concentration of Human artillery. Receiving the handoff from GCI, the strike quickly made contact with the Eye and received vectors in for a picture-perfect low level lay-down bombing run and a full battery for the 32d fire support unit as well as it's adjoining headquarters and headquarters battery. Almost as an after thought, and certainly too late to do any good. The area defense network came to life and shot down one of the attackers. The remaining two escaped the area unscathed.
The target was obliterated, and thus in one fell swoop, TF Hannibal lost the majority of it's remaining fire support at Röt Hafen. With the Pommern withdrawn to participate in the space battle, the 32d off line, and the OUDF Raptors fighting for their lives in the skies above, Rölle was hurting for fire support. He was down to only three hard pressed AV72 attack VTOLS, one or two tubes form the 32d, and whatever organic mortar support his line units cold provide for themselves.
It was at this time, with the allies' trump card, overwhelming fire superiority, taken away, that the Kra'Vak counterattack struck.
Go to Caught in the Grinder (Part 2), chapter 11, of Röt Hafen
Return to Bri's Science Fiction Collection