Rölle bent over and walked into the gusting winds on his way over to the Ops dome. The whistling wind combined with the whine of shuttle engines as another 252 lifted off from the LZ. The prefab shelter held a prominent position to one side of the landing area. As new units made landfall their commanders reported in. Though the sandstorm was finally subsiding, the landings were far behind schedule.
Rölle stooped and moved through the small airlock into the cramped dome. Four workstations were spread about the room with a table and holoprojector in the middle. This was TF Hannibal's Tactical Operations Center or TOC. Additional domes would be erected around it and eventually there would be a star-shaped facility, which housed operations, intelligence, logistics, Civil Affairs, and communications. However the lander with additional domes had not yet arrived.
Get me Makowsky.
Jawohl, Herr Oberst. A moment later Makowsky's face appeared on the viewer.
Leutnant, the winds down here are subsiding. I want you to get this landing back on track at once.
"I know Herr Oberst. I have already made the changes to the landing schedules. However there is another storm that will hit the LZ in about 90 minutes so I cannot guarantee how many I can get in. I have routed as much traffic to LZ Grumman as possible. The weather cleared there about twenty minutes earlier.
What's the situation over there? What do they have down so far?
A Company, 4th Hussars is intact. They're pulling security until their attachments arrive and B Company gets in.
Unacceptable. I want them moving to Loki pass at once. Wait. Rölle called for his operations officer.
Weston, get on the line to LZ Dora and get A Company's commander. I need them moving at once. Attachments can catch up later. 3/RLS-3 can handle security there. He turned back to the monitor. All right Makowsky, continue.
As I stated before, I diverted some of the 504th's traffic to Grumman. They've already off-loaded some more AV72s and Chinooks. Second squadron will be operational from there within thirty minutes. B Company, 4th Hussars plus attachments will be fully constituted by 1300. A battery from the 43rd FSU will be next down.
What about the area defense network?
Behind schedule. Air defense is still under controlled of local units. But with the weather clearing we should have the net up shortly. We also have casualties that have to be flown offworld at once, so that is slowing things down also.
"Very well, Leutnant. I want you to get as much force down here between the lulls in the storm as you can. I need combat power! Rölle out. The TOC staff could sense Rölle's anger. Colonel Rölle. Said Weston. The 4th Hussars are moving out at once. Their ETA to the pass is forty minutes. We have enough AV72s dirtside at this point to keep four on station at all times, but I'm pulling some off of their recon duties. The landings will be back on schedule within three hours. The pass should be safe for now. I'm stripping our LZ defense of another platoon and shuttling them out to Loki pass on the medevacs to augment Captain Plummer. The Pommern is keeping up it's bombardment of the Kra'Vak forces around the massif. I can shift the Donau there within five minutes if the situation warrants.
"Well, it looks like we'll have to push back the attack against the massif."
Yes, Sir. I would recommend that we postpone it to past midnight. That will give us time to adjust the plan and move our forces to their jump off positions.
All right lets get the planning cell working on it. Let me talk to Wesreidau.
Major Natalie Burns pulled off her gloves and stuffed them in her pockets. She was underneath the Raptor standing in its bomb bay, helping to shackle a 500-lb. bomb. With the landings behind schedule the pilots were helping the ground crews to get their Raptors ready to fly. They had removed the interface module and were loading ordnance. One more bomb and she could start her preflight.
Another tech peeked under the Raptor's belly. Major Burns. Colonel Robson's on the line, Mam. Burns saw the release claw snap in place and called for Corporal Collins to pull the strap. Okay, it's in place. You two get the last bomb hooked up, I'll go see what the CO wants. She squinted in the bright light as she crawled from under the fighter and sprinted to the single squadron ops dome set up beside the make shift airstrip. Fifty meters beyond were several pallets of bombs and missiles as well as fuel bladders. The ground crewmen were shuttling the deadly cargo to the two fighters now squatting in one corner of the field. Beyond them, 252s were landing and disgorging troops and materials. It was a busy place.
Burns entered the ops dome and found Serena Long, her wingman already there. Her face bore a single black smear across the nose. Obviously she's been working with her crew also.
Captain Martin, the ground control officer, was tapping info into a computer. "The CO's off the line. But he wants you and Flight Officer Long sortied at once. There's an enemy gun concentration dug in across the valley north of the massif. Ortillery is not sure they can hit it with the accuracy needed. The CO's flight is out of ordnance. Magic and Coggs are due in any minute. They're light also, so it's your turn in the barrel.
Right, give us the Gen.
Right here on the datapads. Here you go. I've already sent Brown out to the birds to fill the targeting system. You're all set. Once you take off, I'll hand you off to ORCON, code named Lubber, for the trip out. They'll hand you off to the FAC when necessary.
Is it going to be Muldoon?
I'm not sure. It may be the power armor blokes, but I know Muldoon is working with them. His callsign is Walkabout and that's whom you'll want to contact first. He'll put you on to whoever gets the hand off, if there is one. We'll see. You'd better get going, Mam.
Right. Serena, lets gear up. In one corner of the dome was their flight gear. They were already in their flight suits. Both picked out their G-suits and strapped them on. The Raptors, being light front line air breathers didn't carry the complex inertial damper system of a space based fighter so G suits and G training were important. They affixed the tight corsets to their thighs, arms and mid sections, each helping the other buckle in. Next came the survival vest and parachute harness. When they were geared up, each pilot was encumbered with an additional 35 lbs. of equipment. They grabbed their helmets and datapads and walked out to the Raptors.
Despite the cold, Burns could see that Long was sweating. Her fair complexion was even more pasty white than normal. It was her first live combat mission. Strands of dark hair were pasted to her forehead as she pulled on her skullcap and then her helmet.
Relax Serena. Natalie put a hand on the young pilot's forearm. You'll do just fine. It's no different than training. Just a few angry red b-b's tossed your way occasionally. Stick close and follow my lead, per SOP.
Right then, off we go. They split up and ran to their fighters. Natalie called up the preflight checklist on her datapad. She knew it by heart, but of course repetitions and procedure were the key to growing some day. Especially in the excitement of combat, it was easy to miss something simple, even for a veteran like herself. Her external walk around found the bird in perfect shape, as she expected. Sergeant Wiggins was the best plane captain in the squadron. She climbed up to the cockpit and eased into the narrow seat. Wiggins was by her side, attaching her umbilical to the plane, and helping her strap into the seat. He had his usual reassuring smile. His last act before climbing down from the cockpit was arming the ejection seat, which Burns verified visually. She ran through the engine startup checklist as the rest of the ground crew pulled everything away. The APU whined to life. When it reached 50% RPMs enough power was generated to light both turbofans. The reassuring roar of the Raptor's twin engines gave Burns a sense of control and confidence. In her headset she heard the computer's female voice commence its familiar litany.
Self test completed. All systems nominal. Volume check. One...two...three...four...five.
Wiggins was on the ground besides the cockpit. She raised one fist and jerked it up and down. The plane captain nodded and pointed to his two corporals. They removed the red safety tags from the ordnance. Burns was carrying eight 500 lb. General-purpose and four 500 lb. cluster bomb units in her internal stores bay. Slung in underwing pylons were eight Hammerhead guided missiles. A Krait air-to-air missile was mounted in an internal bay on either side of the Raptor's fuselage. Wiggins gave the thumbs up when they were done. She looked over to Long's Raptor and saw her giving the thumbs up for ready.
Watchtower this is Dragon flight. Request take off clearance.
Roger Dragon Clear to taxi to point alpha and hold. Burns eased the throttles forward and the Raptor slowly rolled out from its makeshift revetment to the Red marker hammered into the ground 100 meters distant. The reinforced landing gear took the uneven ground in stride. She applied a touch of brakes and the Raptor came to a halt, sinking onto its front strut. She could feel the heavy weight of her ordnance. She looked to her right and saw Serena parked twenty meters beside her. Natalie could not make out any expression from behind the reflective visor, but the young lieutenant gave thumbs up, which her flight leader returned.
Ahead of them, a 252 slowly rose off into the sky and began its climb back into orbit. Dragon flight, this is Watchtower. Your are cleared for takeoff, heading 120 once you reach 500 meters turn 100 and push three for Lubber. Have a nice flight.
Roger and thank you, Watchtower.
Natalie rotated the nozzle incidence quadrant, to 60 degrees and eased the throttles to full power. The engines nozzles would now be pointed downward, directing thrust into the ground and shortening take off. Superheated compressed air from the engines was directed from the engines through pipes to reaction control valves (or RCVs) in the wingtips, nose and tail. This also provided vertical take off and landing thrust stability. The Raptor rolled over the uneven ground and within one hundred meters was airborne. She could have done a straight vertical take off but this setting conserved fuel and still got them airborne quickly. She reset the thrusters to zero, cleaned p the aircraft and throttled back to 80% and they leveled off at 500 meters. Push three. Two. Lubber this is Dragon Flight on three for Walkabout. Can I get a vector? Roger, Dragon. Walkabout is 095 for 65. Maintain current altitude. Contact Walkabout on two when you are 20k. Threat picture is clear in all directions. Out. At five hundred meters, they would be well above the low rolling hills that covered this part of the desert. Ahead she could see the jagged mountains that protected the high steppe from the open desert beyond.
Natalie pushed a selector near her left hand. "Master Arm on."
Go card. Tight.
Long's Raptor pulled to within fifty meters of Natalie and held its position off her right wing.
Muldoon was giving Glover a hand with a large flat rock. They were taking advantage in the lull in the fighting to improve their fighting position. The rock would provide their fighting position with little bit of overhead cover. Suddenly there was an odd swishing sound and something flew over their heads at very low altitudes. It was moving too fast for them to get a look, but a loud explosion followed a second later. They dropped the rock and sprawled to the ground, scrambling for cover. Twice within a few seconds, the odd swishing noise repeated itself followed by more explosions. Muldoon looked up and caught a brief glimpse of an odd shaped black craft flying overhead. It looked somewhat like a bat. The distinctive u-shape clearly marked it as a Kra'Vak design. He saw two small objects detach from the aircraft and explode onto the ridgeline across from him, directly over second platoon's old position. The entire area was engulfed in smoke and debris.
Air attack! Came the redundant cry over the company net. Ragged firing erupted from the paras as two more Kra'Vak craft came in for a bomb run. From atop MOE, the area defense team fired off a missile which shrieked skyward and hit one of the bat-shaped craft. An explosion tore off the tip of one wing and the craft tumbled into the ground. The explosion left flaming debris over a two hundred-meter area. In the distance, he saw an AV72 pop off and fire a missile, which one of the Kra'Vak ships avoided A moment later, the AV72 exploded and fell to the ground in a flaming heap.
Lubber, Lubber this is Walkabout. We 're under air attack. I say again, we are under air attack!
Walkabout this is Lubber. Are you sure? We've got nothing on the scanners.
Of course I'm bloody sure! Listen for yourself! Another pair of ships rushed by, depositing their deadly cargoes.
Dragon flight this is Lubber. Be advised, bandits reported in your sector.
Before Burns could even acknowledge the call, several things happened almost simultaneously. Her threat warning receiver (TWR) stared bleeping at her. A quick glance down showed an unknown type signal at her six. She glanced rearward in time to catch Serena's Raptor explode. The ship broke in two just behind the cockpit and both parts, streaming flames, tumbled into the ground. There was no ejection.
Burns reacted by instinct. She kicked right rudder and pulled the Raptor into a low right break as she jammed the throttle quadrant against the wall. A second signal showed on her TWR. The Raptor, heavily weighted with all the air to ground ordnance was slow to respond. Three loud bangs reverberated through the ship, which she felt through the stick. Her heart leapt into her throat. She quickly scanned the damage board but everything as in the green. Struggling against the Gees, (the suit constricted against her arms legs and torso, to keep the blood to her head), she glanced back and caught a glimpse of a black shadow behind her. It was bat-like in appearance. Kra'Vak!
Computer, jettison all air to ground stores!
The Raptor virtually leapt in her hands, having been released from four tons of ordnance. She switched master mode from nav to air-to-air. Another bang reverberated through the bird and she saw a fist-sized hole in the Raptor's wing. Natalie shoved the stick left, sending the aircraft into a barrel roll then broke high and to the right, using her directed thrust to make an extra sharp turn. This was a major advantage of the Raptor, known as vectoring in forward flight, or Viffing. At least one of her pursuers was taken by surprise and reacted slowly. The other was nowhere to be seen, nor was it showing up on the TWR. The two craft were now in a deadly one-circle fight each on opposite sides of a l km radius circle from other. The Raptor carried two fire-over-the-shoulder capable Krait air-to-air missiles (AAM), but she needed a better firing angle. The Krait needed less than 70 degree off beam on the target. Burns applied 40 degrees of Viff, which drastically reduced her speed and temporarily increased her turn rate. The Raptor lost some altitude but also swung its nose around sufficiently to bring the target within firing parameters. She had to hold her monocle reticule on the target for much longer than normal before the tracking system locked and gave the shoot cue. She thumbed the release and the Krait dropped from its internal bay and lit off after the enemy fighter. Either the Kra'Vak pilot didn't notice the missile or thought that it had been fired at too great an angle to be a threat. The Krait flew off several hundred meters then pulled up and around and slammed into the enemy fighter from above. There was a small explosion on its midsection, and the ship flew on apparently unscathed for several moments. Natalie cleaned up her aircraft and extended for some speed. Then the Kra'Vak fighter belched a puff of smoke and slowly nosed into the ground. Oddly it didn't explode, but flipped over onto its back. It kicked up dust, debris and smoke as it slid along the ground and lay motionless. Burns scanned the TWR for the second bandit. Nothing. The fight had taken them close to the mountain ranges and a canyon opened up before her.
Dragon Flight, this is Lubber, did you copy my last transmission? From the corner of her eye she caught sight of the second Kra'Vak fighter. It streaked up from 12 low, passing dangerously near from left to right. Natalie pulled the Raptor into the vertical and found herself into a climbing spiral with the Kra'Vak ahead of her. Again the tracking radar would not lock, so she switched to the Infrared tracking system. The IRTS was unable to auto-track either.
"Computer, manual track slew." Natalie's helmet contained tiny sensors which tracker her eye movements. In this manner she could look at various cockpit instruments to select them. The Raptor had the capability of using the eyeball tracking sensors to slew the targeting box onto enemy aircraft seen through her helmet mounted monocle. It did not work as efficiently as the auto-tracking system, but would do in a pinch such as this. Natalie manually brought the tracking diamond onto the black bat-like fighter and called "lock". There was a steady growl confirming the lock and she launched her last Krait. The hyper velocity missile arced up after it prey. Oddly enough, the enemy pilot kept his fighter climbing at the same course. Then at the last second he performed an unbelievably tight break that nearly swung his ship completely around and broke into a sweeping left-hand turn. A number of black puffs erupted in the Krait's flight path and it exploded harmlessly well away from its target. So the asshole has got some sort of counter-measure device, she thought.
Now it was down to guns. The Raptor carried a 20mm binary-propellant autocannon. To get a high probability killing shot, she would need to close within one kilometer of the Kra'Vak. He was still in a high speed left hand turn. Natalie drove for closure to where she expected him to be. She would have like for him to break right and extend but the enemy pilot was not that stupid. He continued his power turn and Burns dumped airspeed as she approached. She passed him on the right and pulled hard, now at the Raptor's optimum cornering velocity of 310 knots. At this rate she'd have a firing solution within seconds. The Kra'Vak snap rolled right and dove for the ground. Stick with him until he fucks up, Burns thought as she gently followed him through the maneuver, remaining in lag pursuit. There was no need to bring her gun to bear before everything was lined up perfectly. As he sped for the deck, Natalie increased her own speed in an attempt to limit the other pilot's choices. She was gaining on him slowly, with a closure of only 40 knots. The ground rushed up alarmingly. Suddenly, she noticed the closure between the two craft jump alarmingly to 300 knots. He was trying to lead her into the ground.
In a panic Burns pulled back on the throttle and extended the speed brake. She yanked the stick back into her stomach as the Raptor shuddered in its attempt to pull out of the fatal dive. Burns fought for control, regulating her breathing to fight off the onset of G-induced loss of consciousness. For a moment she considered ejecting but at this speed would be lucky to clear the canopy before impacting. She jammed the nozzle incidence lever to past vertical to 110 degrees into what was known as a "full braking stop", then slammed the throttle forward. The Raptor shuddered and oscillated against the Gee as the ground rushed up. Natalie was thrown forward against the restraining harness so violently, she though her eyeballs were going to pop out. In what seemed like slow motion the nose came up above the horizon but the plane was still sinking, pancaking into the ground. She lit the afterburners and cleaned up the aircraft as it finally righted itself a bare fifty meters off the ground.
That fucking bastard! She said aloud. He tried to put me in the dirt!
This is Lubber come again? Did you copy our last transmission.
Christ. Roger Lubber. Am engaged with one bandit at this time. Dragon Two is down. Wait one.
Burns scanned the ground ahead. Her excellent vision paid off and she caught sight of a tiny speck two kilometers off her starboard wing. The fact that she was so low helped her spot the Kra'Vak who was cruising at two hundred meters, no doubt recovering from his own brush with death. Natalie banked left at full power to follow. The bandit broke into a right hand turn to come around back into the fight. At this low altitude, slamming into a hill or a rock face was now a factor. In her HUD, the gun-targeting reticule followed lazily behind a line known as the snake . The line showed the predicted flight path and the circle was the point where her rounds would impact at any given moment. Her task was to line up the reticule, snake and target, then make the shot. Both aircraft were now speeding towards each other at over 800 knots closure. Natalie considered taking a head on, but was unfamiliar enough with the enemy craft's armament to opt for a lead turn against him instead.
The Kra'Vak did the same, breaking high and to the right then slashing back towards the ground in an attempt to get on her six. Burns now found herself in a one-circle fight on the deck. Speed began to bleed off rapidly. She was amazed at the Kra'Vak's ability to keep his ship stable at slow speed. As they ran round and round, the Raptor began to lose control authority. Standing on a wingtip, its nose was yawing up and down above the horizon. Natalie would trade altitude for speed to gain stability but at one hundred meters altitude that would only work maybe once. The Kra'Vak ship seemed stable at all speeds, fast or slow. If she extended to gain speed he would be on her. The same for him. They were locked in a death circle
At 50 meters Natalie had one last chance. She Viffed 90 degrees, kicked full throttles rolled left and nosed into the ground. At the last millisecond, she yanked back hard and to the left, her airspeed a bare 80 knots. The Kra'Vak realized he was going to fly right into the nose of her fighter and broke harder into her turn. Finally his aircraft sunk to the ground. He was so low that dust and debris was kicked up behind him as she fought to stay airborne. Miraculously the enemy pilot recovered, but he could not continue his turn due to a looming hill so he extended for speed. Here we go! Natalie cleaned up the Raptor, rolled her jet left and started firing even though the targeting computer reported out of the envelope. The buzzing cannon sent vibrations though the Raptor as it spewed its deadly titanium shells at the fleeing adversary. Geysers of dirt kicked up in front of the low flying Kra'Vak's ship and he pulled into a climbing right turn to get out of the bullet stream. Burns eased off the trigger and pulled her nose up until it was just below the enemy fighters. She walked a stream of tracers from her cannon into the underside of the Kra'Vak fighter, slicing through the sinister bat-like craft from front to back. A catastrophic explosion tore the ship apart and metal fragments rained down in her flight path. She rolled left flying briefly through the debris. A few prangs caused her to wince as she struck parts of her adversary.
Burns dove for the deck at full speed heading off to the west. She did a number of snaking turns and visually scanned the area to ensure no one was following her.
Lubber this is Dragon lead. Two bandits splashed. Dragon Two is down and did not survive. Request RTB. Low fuel and no AG stores.
"Roger Dragon lead. Be advised a number of enemy aircraft have hit Loki pass. Enemy is up in strength. Pulver flight is over the LZ on CAP. Vector 220 for 34 for recovery. At 10k push one and contact Watchtower for finals.
Roger Lubber." Burns kept up her unpredictable turns, but it looked like she was in the clear. Her neck ached with tension. She inspected her damage board nervously, but miraculously, despite all the hits, everything was in the green. What a great aircraft, she thought. She had just survived the most trying experience of her life and gotten two kills at that. But the elation was dampened by the image of Serena's aircraft smashing into the ground. That young woman had a promising career ahead of her. Natalie had met both of her parents once, before departing for this operation, in fact. She would have to write them. Suddenly, the cockpit of her fighter was a depressing place to be.
Go to Bright Lights, chapter 8, part 4, of Röt Hafen
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