Part X: Vectors
Chapter 53 -- Raising Hell With the Jungle
During the time that Pluto slid stealthily toward its rendezvous point, I mentally lumped the pilots aboard ship into two basic categories. The first group were those with no combat experience. Despite efforts to the contrary, veteran fliers referred to them with a low-key yet derisive arrogance as "combat virgins" or "Charlie Victors," a.k.a. "CVs." Their demeanor was familiar. Outwardly brash, ready to get into the thick of combat as quickly as possible, and wanting more than anything to prove they had what it took. For many, it was a genuine enthusiasm common among those who simply don't know any better--to these unenlightened souls war is seen as a glorious and glamorous endeavor. For the rest, it was merely a facade--an attempt to conceal the fear that gripped them. You could hear it--the difference between the two--in their voices as they jabbered away nervously in the wardrooms, flitting about like moths around a night light. It tended to grate on one's nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. The second group was made up of the "old men," those who had tasted combat firsthand and lived to tell it. Our demeanor was decidedly more serious. Reserved, contemplative, deliberate. Our superiority complex aside, we regarded our inexperienced brethren with empathy--for we had all lived through their plight--spoke in hushed tones, and dealt in facts. Despite the occasional smart aleck comment, our minds were focused on the task ahead. Most of us had seen our fair share of pilots from both groups fail to return from a combat sortie, and this gave us a perspective our CV friends did not yet possess. I spent many hours in my quarters, writing letters to my family and friends, staring at photos, and rehearsing in my mind the procedures and tactics to be used for the upcoming mission. Flying was, due to incessant repetition and practice, second nature, but fitting oneself into the puzzle that made up a strike force was anything but rote. It took careful deliberation and planning, regardless one's experience level, to be successful in such an endeavor. The overwhelming majority of combat pilots are incredibly superstitious. This is a truism that is at least as old as aerial combat itself. Though this thinking lacks a great deal of logic, its pervasiveness cannot be denied. An air warrior goes to great lengths to preserve the order of his pre-mission routine. The socks go on before the flight suit, the weather report is taken after viewing the aircraft gripe sheet, the left breast pocket is always left unzipped. And so it goes... The morning after New Years', 2013, was no different in this respect than it had been a thousand times before. Out of the rack ahead of the roosters, into the shower, down to the mess hall, then to the Ready Room for the Strike Briefing. Groggy, nervous, excited--it was always this way for me. I entered the Ready Room ahead of my squadron mates. Commander Rochon was there, looking over his presentation notes as he spoke over the phone to someone providing him with the latest intelligence and weather information. I hovered nearby, unnoticed. Roach was far too busy to see me. Only when he hung up the phone did he acknowledge my presence. "Jake," he nodded. "Skipper." He glanced at his watch, then said, "Got a minute?" "Sure," I replied. "Good." The lanky Lieutenant Commander ambled--glided, actually--toward the Ready Room hatch and clanged it shut. "Woooh. Secrecy." "Yeah, and there's a reason for it," he fired back, the hint of an edge in his voice. "Okay, I'm game." "We're taking nukes with us on this one." Though intuitively I was hardly surprised, it was monumental news. "Nukes?" I yelped. "Live, low-yield tactical nukes. Nothing else can crack that armor." "Ohhhhhhh, man. A lotta' people are going to be highly pissed about this," I said, referencing our South American friends. Roach nodded, knowingly. "We don't have any choice. It's either that or let the bad guys run crazy all over the place. Latest intel is showing some solid coordination among units we thought were isolated." "They're linking up?" "They're linked up. They've been smashing cities and killing people all over the place down here. That Corpus Christi raid is more serious than we first thought." "Some kind of catalyst?" I asked, rhetorically. "That and worse." Roach pulled a map down and pointed to the biggest trouble spots. "We believed our own press--waited too long to act--and this latest move could serve to embolden Grand Fleet Zentraedi from pole to pole. South America is a total blood bath right now, Breetai's fleet is still in pieces, all these patchwork economies are collapsing, law and order are things of the past in this part of the world... Nukes are the only chance we have of putting the cat back into the bag." "Anyone else in on this?" "Seven Alpha clearance only. This is strictly need to know, by the way. Unless the person has a legitimate reason, we don't tell them no matter what the clearance." I rolled my eyes around the room. "The walls could have ears." "Already swept," he said, holding up one of those fancy bug sniffer/jammer devices you see on television spy shows. "You do realize that when the locals find out about this--and they will--we're in deep shit." "Yeah." "I feel sorry for the first son of a bitch who has to eject.after one of those suckers goes off. They still have cannibals in this part of the world, for cryin' out loud!" I declared. "If the rads don't kill him the natives will." "Well, the 'natives,' as you call them, are pretty rare these days, so there's not much chance of running into them. The 'civilized natives,' on the other hand, are supposedly on our side. We're riding to the rescue, for one thing, and for another, radiation should be, quote, 'highly contained.'" I laughed. "Yeah, but there are thousands of ships out there, and nobody knows what happens when a Protoculture Reactor pops--long term." "The place is going to turn into a giant parking lot." "I don't like this one bit. Nobody here signed up for this crap," I proclaimed, my brow wrinkling with displeasure. "You got a better idea?" "I'd almost rather wait for orbital assets to come back online than to nuke the planet. Do we at least get to tell the pilots flying the mission?" I asked, referring to the use of nuclear weaponry. "Only those carrying nukes--which in this case is you." I shook my head. "Great. Always leaving me with the dirty work and heavy conscience." "That's why you get paid so much." "Heh, you wish." A loud pounding on the Ready Room door commanded our attention. "Briefing time," I noted. "Briefing time," Roach replied. "Just like a monkey fucking a football," I commented dryly as I gathered my things and proceeded toward the front of the room. "More like two," Roach said, as he clanged open the huge watertight door. I couldn't help but agree.
"Greetings, I am Lieutenant 'Grape' Jewycen, and this is the Event One Cyclic Ops Brief." The junior officer on the television monitor smiled meekly behind a pair of thin-rimmed glasses as his words were broadcast into every ready room aboard the carrier. From a ready room down the corridor the Lieutenant's squadron mates chanted rhythmically, "Grape Juice! Grape Juice! Grape Juice! " Despite the raucous support, I did not envy him in the slightest. "We are still expecting haze and restricted visibility in the vicinity of the target area for all strikes. Strike Package One should exercise caution on the egress, the mountains to the north along your departure route will be obscured by fog, clouds, and heavy haze. Surface winds forecast for three-two-zero at one-zero. "Intelligence reports indicate that Target Package Three has a very strong anti-aircraft network. Response time is expected to be rapid." A detailed map of the target area in question popped up on the screen. A number of large red circles surrounded the location of the crashed Zentraedi ship. "As you can see from this updated map of the area, multiple surface-to-air missile sites have been relocated. The ingress path for the Wild Weasels has been moved twelve degrees south west. This is the best route to the target area for you at this time." My stomach tightened as I viewed the chart. The red circles were so tightly bunched together that the term "path" seemed a great exaggeration. I was thankful that I would not be flying that particular strike. "Enemy air defenses are expected to be nil if you stick to your attack profile. By the time they get airborne you should be long gone. Again, follow the profile. Everyone has heard this before, but it bears repeating: do not make two passes on the target...do not linger over the target. Hit and go. Enemy response time will be short, so your only chance is to hit the target and dash for your safety point. "Also, don't forget to lower your flash visors on the ingress. When the reactors are hit they could produce an intense flash." Nice cover story, I thought, somewhat sardonically. Blame it on the reactors and not the nukes... How clever. "Friendly ground forces will be in the vicinity if you have to eject, but there can be no guarantee of a pickup. Be cautious. Be on time. Wild Weasels are mission critical this strike. No weasel, no strike. "Tankers will be on station for chemically fueled aircraft and Valkyries needing reaction mass." A map showing the tanker race tracks flashed on the screen, then Lieutenant Newton reappeared. "Target time is 0915 for Package One, 0920 for Package Two, and 0917 for Package Three. Be on time. Launch is scheduled for 0810, overhead recovery at 1010. Good luck, good hunting. This concludes the Event One Cyclic Ops Brief. Stand by for a message from the Captain." The television flickered for a moment then focused on the face of our Captain. "I'd like to take a moment to commend everyone aboard this ship for the fine work you have done in the past few days. You have prepared well for a difficult job. The world is depending upon us now as never before. Naval Aviation is once more the tip of the spear in the battle for freedom, and today presents us with a great opportunity to build upon the one hundred year old legacy handed down by our forebears. I wish each and every sailor, aviator, and Marine aboard ship the best of luck. Good hunting. Godspeed." The Captain disappeared from the screen and was replaced by the Chaplain. A quick, notably non-denominational prayer asking for the safety of all was said, then the screen went blank. Roach walked toward the front of the room. "Gentlemen, we have a very tough road ahead of us. A massive hell storm has started and there are people dying in droves. You men are going to work harder than you ever thought possible. We're going to push it to the edge. Those of you who are still alive in a month will wish you were dead." My mind thought back to the hell of twenty-hour days during SDF-1's voyage back to Earth. I dreaded having to do that again. "Let's be sharp out there. I want everyone back here for lunch. Stick to your attack profiles. Do not make two passes over the target, no matter what the circumstances. Do not go over the beach solo. If you lose your wingman either find someone else to latch onto or go home. I don't like giving away medals to dead dumbasses who wanted to be heroes. A live aviator is better than a dead hero any day." He stared at each pilot in the room, several of whom shifted uncomfortably in their chairs when they came under his gaze. "Any questions?" Silence. "All right. Good luck, good hunting. Let's kick some Zentraedi butt!" The room, a mingled mass of aviators in one instant, dissolved into silence the next. "Nice speech," I said. "A little over the top, wasn't it?" he asked. I shrugged. "I think you made your point." Roach smiled. "Glad to see I didn't waste my breath." He gathered his things, patted me on the shoulder, and headed out the hatch toward the hangar bay. "See you on deck." "Aye, aye, sir."
On the hangar deck, crews were flitting about like fireflies, checking and rechecking the fighters and support aircraft detailed for the mission ahead. I had drawn 89455 for this mission and found myself thankful. "Four Five Five" was an older Valk, but fresh from an overhaul that included new engines, canopy, and paint, one was hard pressed to tell. It was said she could outperform even the newest Valk off the factory floor and I hoped the rumors were true. I made the usual walk around inspection, suppressing butterflies the whole way around. In spite of my vast experience, I could find no way of ridding myself of these pesky pre-mission jitters. I felt like a complete candy ass. Everyone who came into contact with me could probably see it in my face and in my trembling knees. Kaufman never acted this way. Nor did Waylan Green, Jacien Carr...Brubaker, Plog... Why did I continue to kid myself? I really was a candy ass. Admit it, fool, the only reason why you keep doing this is because of how others perceive you. You like being seen as a hero. You can't bear the thought of people seeing you as anything less, otherwise, you'd have quit long ago. "Shut up!" "What was that Lieutenant?" my fitter asked me. "Huh? Oh, nothing. I was just talking to myself," I replied, feeling a little odd over getting into a fight with myself. Face it. You want to quit, but you can't because everyone will call you a quitter. You know it, so admit it. The voice in my head was right. I didn't love doing this as much as I thought. Sure, the flying was fun, but all the rest of this...it was just a bunch of crap and nonsense. I had been a lucky bastard from day one. I wasn't that good at my job, I had just been fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time more often than the next guy. I had miraculously avoided being placed in a position where my weaknesses showed. I had faked it until I'd made it, and had continued faking it ever since. I was a fraud, and if the day came that I bought the farm, there would be many who would say they knew it all along. The booming voice of the hangar boss over the speaker system called for the pilots to man their aircraft. I was standing by the boarding ladder, scowling with anger. "I am not a fraud, you son of a bitch," I whispered, climbing aboard my fighter. The butterflies were gone, now. The ship broke the surface of the water, and in minutes, jets were being blasted skyward by the steam-recovering catapults on the flightdeck. In time my fighter was towed to the elevator and hoisted topside. When my Valk was parked safely in the startup area, I depressed the autostart button and watched the systems spool up. In a few short moments I was ready to go. All around me jets were being pulled into place while others were fired off the carrier. My turn came quickly. The plane director motioned impatiently for me to pull forward, and I did so. Now all distracting thoughts were gone. My mind was a focused beam, concentrating solely on the immediate task at hand. A snappy salute, head against the head rest, and bang! Into the sky, my destiny still undetermined.
The center MFD and HUD provided me with some very detailed information as I raced across the shoreline at over five hundred knots. Groundspeed, time and distance to target, steering information, everything I needed to know. If I was even a second behind schedule the information would be displayed in bright red, along with an airspeed cue that would make up the difference. As it stood, I let the computer fly the airplane. The automated flight director was far more accurate than I was at this stage of the game, and until I was within twenty miles of the target, I simply let it be. It was a strange feeling, watching the stick move back and forth at the behest of an invisible hand. There were times when I fought the urge to pull on it myself, lest I smash into a ridge, but my fears were without merit--the computer worked just fine. My wingman, a wiry Frenchman with a quick grin, boisterous laugh, and piercingly tactless manner, was tucked in neatly beside me as we headed further inland. Though he was barely nineteen years old, Emmanuel "E6B" Bureau had a wealth of life experiences beyond that of many twice his age. While I found myself leery of being paired with someone devoid of combat seasoning, his fearlessness and exceptional skill would quickly earn my respect. The threat display remained black as we closed on the target. At eight miles I found it eerily discomfiting. I scanned the sky in all directions, looking for fighters, but saw none. All hell should be breaking loose soon, surely. But nothing happened. Closer and closer, miles seeming like inches, we streaked toward a hornet's nest of enemy defenses. That the threat displays played dark gave one the hope his fellow aviators were doing the job. No tones, no whistles, no yellow or red rings, not a tracer round or missile trail in sight. Silence. Blessed silence. How long would it last? My knees shook up and down as the ridge that hid the objective slid into view out of the haze. Easing back on the stick we "skied up the hill" then dumped our noses over as the force of two negative Gs struggled against our harnesses to catapult us into the humid jungle sky. As we reached the target area, explosions were just beginning to erupt from the mottled green alien behemoth nestled in that vine infested valley. My wingman slashed across my six o'clock, taking a position about a mile off my right wing, the four S-2s under his wings tugging at the leash to tear into a SAM radar--we would link up on the egress. Like the bloated remains of a freshly killed dinosaur, the Zentraedi vessel sat there, fat, swollen. In a fraction of a second I rolled the pipper to the right with the saturn ring on the stick, the missiles locked onto their target, and I pressed the button hard. They rocketed ahead of us then dropped down toward their brilliant end. As we flashed across the alien ship, fire, smoke, and debris hurtled skyward as secondary explosions from the Valks that had just struck rocked the landscape. Subconsciously I reached up and touched my flash visor to insure it was lowered, then breathed a sigh of relief that it was. My left hand pushed the throttles forward. Even as they hit the stops I pushed ever harder, wanting to get as far away from that place as anyone could. A brief flash in the mirrors signaled the detonation of my nuclear special delivery package. Accelerating like a demon, I turned eastward as tracers whizzed past me like rabid fireflies. "Come on baby, go fast, go fast!" I whispered to my fighter. I scanned the sky in all directions, pushing my fighter closer to the jungle canopy below. It was a green blur, devoid of any detail as it streaked by with incredible speed. I spotted E6B's Valk off to the right and eased my airplane toward him. Ten seconds later I rejoined my wingman. There were no tones in my headset, no desperate warnings from the threat display, no fighters hovering like hungry wolves in search of fresh meat--nothing. A "milk run" they would have called it in the old days. Why do I feel like hamburger, then? Weaving slightly to cover each other, we hit the coastline and I called "feet wet." Easing back on the power, I pulled into a gentle climb and tried to key myself down from the high that had enveloped me during the strike. Deep breaths, a sip of water, and a few bites of a granola bar could do wonders to one's psyche. In the now-calm environment of my Valk's cockpit I reflected on what had transpired during the previous hours. It seemed an eternity to live through it, yet now it was as if the entire operation had taken less than fifteen minutes. My mind recalled sharply focused details awash in a sea of fear, confusion, chaos, and jubilation. I had rolled the dice and once more, somehow, avoided crapping out. It was a wonderful, though fleeting, feeling. The sky began to give up cottony cumulus clouds as the rendezvous with my squadron mates ensued. We cruised en masse to the ship then dropped out of our formation one after the other for a landing on the sun baked composite deck of the carrier. Another mission completed, we had earned the right to eat a noon meal. The faith that had been placed in us was not squandered on this morning, but we still had two more to go before we would call it a day, and not one of us believed it would remain this easy.
For five days we continued to pound enemy targets all across the southeastern part of South America. Large areas of burnt jungle marked our victories as we established a small perimeter where every enemy vessel that was a threat was destroyed. The Marines, free from immediate attack, were able to embark on daring salvage operations, recovering a vast quantity of Protoculture from the thousands of carcasses that littered this sector of South American continent. Though far from a long-term solution to the fuel crisis facing us, this stockpile will sustain a freshly formed coalition of mechanized armies, known as "The Armies of the Southern Cross," that will wrest control of this sector from the Zentraedi horde.
Our operations in this sector began to meet with steadily increasing resistance both from the local population and from the enemy. The carrier was on the surface constantly, slinging attack jets into the sky rain or shine, day or night. Though restricting our attacks to the cover of darkness would afford some protection, it is a luxury we cannot afford. The enemy must be crushed, no matter what the cost. As we continued our strikes, we each began to secretly wonder who would die first. Thus far, we had lost not a single airplane or pilot. Every pilot could feel the pressure of increasingly dismal odds, and it began to have an effect on our relations with one another. Lack of sleep caused jokes to turn stale and tempers to flare. Talk in the Ready Rooms began to die off little by little as we took every opportunity to catch up on a lifetime of lost sleep. The charm was eventually broken, as it always has been. A quiet Korean named Jorge Chen was the unlucky first casualty. Short on height but long on smile and intelligence, Jorge was always the butt of everyone's practical jokes. He was picked on because he was well liked, but a barely perceptible wounded look permeated his quick smiles. The constant teasing hurt him. I knew it, for I had lived it myself. Like the dutiful father, I spoke to the young pilot about the constant harrassment and asked him to take it in the spirit with which it was intended. To voice my concerns to the squadron would have brought ever greater wrath upon the poor boy, yet allowing it to go unchecked would drive him into the ground. It turned out that the quirks of war would settle my quandary before I had the chance. Jorge was in the second group of airplanes to hit a target lying on a ridge overlooking the Corazon River on the eastern half of Argentina. As I made my attack run I heard the most awful screaming in my headset that I will ever know. It was a slobbering, wailing, maddening cry for help. The words ran together, dripping with saliva and blood and tears and guts. A Valk ahead hurtled toward the sky, wildly gyrating as if out of control as the pilot screamed and moaned in unabashed misery. I released my weapon load on the target and turned hard to the right to follow the stricken fighter. Pushing the thrust levers forward, I closed rapidly at first on the other Valk. A few warbling tones pulsated through my headset over the panicked cries of the pilot ahead. The threat display remained a pulsating yellow. I would have to leave it that way if I wanted to run down the man in front of me. His aircraft was now rocketing toward the heavens under nearly full power. If I wanted to catch him before he disappeared into the overcast time was essential--I could spare not a single tick on the clock. The gray and white clouds that speckled the sky began wisping by as we climbed and my body was jostled in the ever-present turbulence. A glance rearward revealed E6B's Valkyrie far below as it charged skyward to join my own. The distance to Chen's fighter dwindled slowly--agonizingly so--the wounded airplane revealing details reluctantly as its pilot continued to cry out like a banshee. Finally, as we passed through 31,000 feet, I pulled alongside him. It was the most indescribably horrid scene I have ever witnessed. The back half of the Valk's canopy was gone. The few fragments that remained were stained in blood, a trail of which ran aft along the top of the fuselage for six, or perhaps ten, feet. Chen was sitting in his seat, his eyes each the size of a hardboiled egg as he screamed at the top of his lungs. The top third of his head was completely gone. Cleaved off by shrapnel from a missile or flak. Jagged bits of bone and brain tissue were splattered all about the cockpit. A tattered section of his helmet managed to secure his oxygen mask to his face therby prolonging the poor kid's incredible agony. My mind scrambled for a solution to the situation, but nothing seemed to be workable. He would die no matter what was done for him. Nothing in my power--nor anyone else's--could have saved him. "Oh, Christ, what do I do...? What do I do? What do I do?!" The slobbering, agonizing screams continued as I eased the thrust levers back and dropped out of formation, taking up a position behind the mortally wounded pilot. Lord, forgive me for what I must do. A tone in my headset confirmed what I already knew. My finger quivered over the missile firing button. It was the right action, but I could not bring myself to do it. This is morally wrong... I must try to save him! I must. I struggled with myself. Considering the moral implications of what I was contemplating. The wretched image of that cockpit and the horrific screams rattled inside my head. Every moment that passed caused him intense suffering. I was the only one who could end it. No...it is morally right. Do it. DO IT YOU BASTARD! DO IT! I closed my eyes, depressed the button on the stick, then watched the missile as it smashed itself into Jorge's fighter, filling the sky with thousands of pieces of metal, flesh, glass, and blood. The screaming stopped, and Roach's voice broke the short-lived silence. "What the hell is going on?" "Growler Seven is down, skipper...No chute." To his credit, E6B said nothing, though I know he saw the whole thing. The other pilots doubtless knew, but made no inquiries. The matter was laid to rest as it should have been. Pilot hit over target by enemy air defenses and killed in subsequent crash. It took me three passes to bring my airplane aboard the carrier that afternoon. It took thirty years to tell the story of a young and vibrant life, taken in a ghastly, evil way.
The Eleventh of January, 2013, a steamy hot, miserable day. For three days in a row we had lost an average of two pilots per strike package in daylight raids--five times the night loss rate. For each night mission I flew three in the sun. This exposure meant that my chances of coming home in a box were mounting. The enemy defenses were no longer lying dormant as they had in days past, having long-since realized that hiding made them no safer than standing boldly upright. The first signs of a summer cold were beginning to make themselves known, and despite my better judgment, I carried on as if nothing were amiss. It was a sign. One I ignored as so many before, blinded by pride and the sense of guilt that comes with sending another into battle in your place. I launched, rendezvoused, and ingressed the target as usual, my head throbbing with a dull pain the whole way in. As the threat display screamed its crimson and gold warnings, my wingman and I maneuvered to avoid the anti-aircraft fire that stormed after us. E6B, my wiry nineteen year old wingman, did his customarily excellent job of protecting me from enemy fighters, and reminded me for a fleeting instant of how Josh used to cover me not so long ago. "Ninety nine Abbadon, Helix One Five tracking eleven bandits, zero-niner-five for two-niner-five at Angels eight," the Cat's Eye AEWACS controller called out the locations of enemy fighters and we found ourselves searching frantically for them as we roared above the tree tops. I realized that even if they didn't pick us up on radar there was a good chance they'd spot us visually as our fighters' eggshell blue tops were in stark contrast to the jungle below. I spotted a pair of Gnerls at ten o'clock high, heading in the opposite direction and prepared to be jumped. E6B positioned himself to attack them if they did. It seemed an eternity for them to pass us and I chanced a glance to the rear to see if they had spotted us. As they continued blissfully onward I knew they had not. The dark green hump that was our target appeared in the distance, growing in size with each second. As we closed in on the target, missiles and explosions erupted from her. The first fighters in our force had hit the enemy vessel, stirring up a hornet's nest. I was scared, but too absorbed to notice as anti-aircraft fire filled the sky in front of us. Weaving as much as my attack profile would allow, I bored in on the target, my thumb poised atop the button that would unleash sure and certain destruction on the alien ship. Just a little closer... THUMP! I was thrown upward into my shoulder straps and felt a sharp pain in my right knee. The blood in my veins turned to ice as fear reached up and gripped me with an iron fist. My reaction, though instantaneous, was far too late. THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! My fighter shuddered as I jinked out of the line of fire. Red lights lit the panel. The right engine seized violently and ripped itself to shreds taking a pair of hydraulic lines with it, shrapnel tearing out a third. Bells and whistles filled my ears as I pressed ahead, willing my fighter to fly on. Ten seconds to the target--it was clear she would not stay in the air much longer than that. Where the hell did that ground fire come from?! As my fighter began to disintegrate around me, time slowed to a standstill. I had a choice to make. I could eject now and take my chances on the ground, or fire my missiles at the target, saving some unfortunate sod from doing this tomorrow. My Valk would never reach safety either way. Ejecting was pointless. If I held my missiles I would drift helplessly in my parachute toward death amid a bunch of pissed off aliens; if I fired them, I would meet my end in a nuclear conflagration now, or later, and more painfully, from some godforsaken radiation induced illness. For the first time in my life, that inner peace people talk about--when one knows death is no longer possible, but rather immediate--descended upon me. It made my decision easy. Begging my family to forgive my sacrifice, I did the only thing that made any sense, a part of me hoping it would mollify those that thought me a hack... I'm not a fraud you sonsofbitches! I squeezed the trigger. The wait is over! Today I will be with you, Case.
Chapter 54 -- A Midsummer Nightmare
The missiles ripped through the battered hull of the great ship with a vengeance, smashing their way through armor plating my squadron mates had shredded an instant before. A secondary explosion flashed brilliantly right in front of my fighter and my jet was slammed violently by the shock wave as I crossed over the enemy vessel. My Valkyrie, in shambles and bleeding violently from mortal wounds, soldiered bravely onward as if possessed with a ravenous hunger to carry me to safety if only through force of will. Four seconds...eight...eleven...fourteen. She pressed ahead far longer than I could ever have hoped, but we were both bleeding, and the only question left was who would go first. The needle on the small standby airspeed indicator moved steadily downward as I struggled to keep my stricken fighter upright a mere two hundred feet above the trees. I pulled harder and harder on the stick trying to coax another few seconds out of the battered Veritech, but the updrafts and eddies generated by the surface winds took all the effort--and luck--in the world to simply keep her from flopping onto her back. Finally, having soldiered on for almost two miles, the gallant old girl gently wiggled the stick in my hands as if to bid farewell, then rolled over and died. As I pulled the yellow and black striped ejection lanyard a brilliant flash lit up the afternoon sky. The ejection seat fired me into the muggy air at the same instant my nuclear payload went up, spewing radiation and shrapnel in all directions. The realization of what had just occurred put a horrible, sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was as good as dead. As before, I had little time to think. One swing in the chute and then the familiar wrenching that accompanies an unprotected fall into a canopy of trees. As I smashed into the green umbrella my body went one way and my right leg the other, wrenching my knee and flipping me inverted, where I came to a stop some twenty feet in the air, head down. Struggle followed struggle as I wrestled to free myself, but it was in vain. My legs were hopelessly tangled in the rigging. The blood rushing to my head made for an awful ache, and like an oncoming freight train, my pulse pounded in my ears with exponential exigency. Retrieving my survival knife took additional effort as nearly every harness, lanyard, and strap was snared by the branches. Finally, after several minutes of creative contortion, I managed to free my knife and slash through the nylon webbing that had helped to ensnare me. With one hand on a branch for support, I hacked through the last piece of the harness and flipped right side up, dangling now by only one arm. With care, I placed the knife back in its sheath, and with painful movements, clambered down the vine-covered tree to the leafy ground below. The sounds of battle were very near and my heart raced as I heard voices--Zentraedi voices--barking orders in the humid jungle air. Swallowing hard to force my heart out of my throat, I began to make a bee line away from the crashed enemy ship, hobbling awkwardly, a trail of blood marking my route. My attack profile had brought me in from the east south east and meant that the enemy ship and its associated radiation stood before me and the safety of the coast. Now, instead of a one hundred mile hike due eastward I was facing the very real possibility of clawing my way westward through several hundred miles of thick jungle. With an easterly breeze coming from the coast the radiation would quickly catch me if I ran westward. Turning north meant more hostile territory. What a pickle, I thought, stopping long enough to bandage my shrapnel-riddled knee as best I could. I'm as good as dead. The words echoed hollowly in my head. How pathetic am I? Get up. Get moving! I chastised myself, recalling the words and events written by Hans Ulrich Rudel, the famed World War II Luftwaffe tank buster in his epic autobiography Stuka Pilot. A remarkable individual whose accomplishments are unrivaled in military aviation, his axiom is perhaps the finest ever written: "Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost." Though considered little more than a nuisance to his commanders upon completion of his training, Rudel went on to become Germany's most highly decorated aviator and was widely regarded as "the foremost combat pilot in the world." A survivor of gunshot wounds, plane crashes, and a leg amputation (he returned to flight status within days after even that), to call him incredible would be a drastic understatement. It became obvious that, truth be told, Rudel had on numerous occasions survived far worse situations than mine, and defeatism simply would not do as the order of the day. So with a knee, back, and head in a three way race for the title "King of Pain," I staggered through thick green foliage northward. Though this heading would take me deeper into enemy held territory it would also take me further from the areas we had struck in previous days. Any unconfined radiation was best avoided, assuming I survived that which crept closer toward me with each passing second. After marching for several hours the pain in my knee became unbearable. A gravel-like crunching sound accompanied every step and had managed to grow louder each minute. The blood soaked bandage proved a fertile congregation center for flies and insects of all kinds. I flopped onto the ground, my mouth parched, as an isolated storm dumped a torrent of rain onto my head. Within half an hour the sun would emerge and turn this section of the jungle into a steam sauna. Seizing the opportunity, I retrieved my canteen, opened the cap, and placed the opening at the tip of a nearby "elephant ear" type leaf I had folded in half. In this manner I could collect some water to replenish that which I had thus far consumed. A long, arduous hike lay ahead of me and would need every ounce of water I could get. The rain left and the sun emerged, turning the already sweltering jungle into hell. Throughout the day I marched wearily through the morass of vines and trees, taking frequent breaks as the pain in my knee intensified. The hot, humid air made breathing difficult, and the abundance of mosquitoes made removal of my flight suit top an impossibility. I scrabbled and clawed my way over vines, rocks, fallen trees, mecha wreckage, and craters for half a dozen miserable miles before I could go no further. My knee would have nothing of it. Unable to walk a single step more, I flopped onto the ground and appraised my situation. The survival radio that was my lifeline was gone, as was the Beretta pistol, both of which left my possession when I ejected from my fighter. The handgun was of particular concern, and its loss was my fault. Atypically, instead of donning my shoulder rig before slipping on my flight suit top, I had put it on last. Why on this day I chose to do things differently from my normal routine was anyone's guess. The typical aviator would point no further than that as explanation for my shoot down and all bad luck since. As I sat in the dank jungle I could find little reason to disagree with that assessment. Rumbles in the distance signified another attack. Reports from Triple-A and SAM launches caused a raised eyebrow. It would be safe to guess that another of my comrades would soon find himself in my situation. Things were not getting any easier as our alien friends were now beginning to counter our attacks--and in some cases, proactively disrupt them--with aerial interceptions and aggressive tactics. I flinched noticeably as an earth shaking screech and boom signaled the passage of a jet fighter making a low level escape from the target area. It was then that the day's events finally caught up with me. Wearily, I crawled into a dense pocket of foliage. With thoughts of snakes, leeches, and nuclear radiation bounding around inside my head, I closed my eyes, and curled up for a fitful nap. I had a long struggle ahead.
A horrible smell wafting through the jungle--one of rotting flesh--awoke me from my slumber. It was unmistakable, over powering, a grim reminder of that day when Josh and I stumbled upon that village. I scanned the area around me intently before rising slowly to one knee. The smell continued unabated but I could not pinpoint its source. My face and neck itched and mosquitoes buzzed in my ears. I reached up and felt my face. It was clear that I had fed quite a few of the blood sucking insects during my nap. Daylight waned in the thick jungle as I noted the contrast between where I sat and where I had come from. From pockmarked desolation to insect infested misery. I found myself laughing inside at the irony as I swatted away fruitlessly at the annoying bugs. I thought the Rain Forests and jungles of the world were an endangered species! Not! The smell of rotting flesh was becoming fiercely nauseating, and I decided it was best to find fresher air. As I staggered and stumbled through the vegetation, I happened upon a shallow, but steep drop off. I was not prepared for what met my eyes. Bodies...perhaps two dozen...broken, dead, and dying bodies littered the banks on both sides of a narrow but rapidly flowing creek. It appeared that most, if not all, had suffered severe burns. In a desperate attempt to cool those burns, these people--men, women, and children--had come to the creek, only to die in agony. The desire to help momentarily overcame my nausea as I staggered down to the creek bed, my knee howling in protest. It was soon obvious there was nothing that could be done for any of the people there. Tattered clothes, burns, the buzz of flies, and the stench of rotted flesh abounded. The smell was so bad that I vomited despite my best efforts to the contrary. I stumbled away upstream, trying to put distance between myself and the corpses, lying around like so many match sticks dropped clumsily on the ground. Finally, my tolerance for the misery in my knee exhausted, I flopped onto the ground at the creek bank. The taste of bile was strong and I leaned over to rinse my mouth and face. The cool liquid was a refreshing change from the hot and humid hell I had suffered through for more than a day now. As I gargled the water I began to feel a soothing relief, then wondered if it had not itself been a contributing factor to the demise of the people I had found. I felt a panic rush up the back of my neck as if someone had injected me with a deadly virus. Spooothhh!!! Out came the water, and with it, any and all relief it had provided. "Damn it!" Other thoughts entered my mind at that moment, and I pondered when I would meet my demise. This whole area was doubtless radiated. I wanted out of there desperately at that very moment and felt the rage that comes with being in a desperate situation, powerless to change it. I reached for my survival radio, but remembered that it was not there. If I was going to get out of this mess it would be on my own two feet. With Rudel's admonition in mind--Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost--I gathered myself up and marched in the direction of home.
Three days of misery passed. Bug-bitten, blistered, and broken, I'd managed to move nine hard fought miles, through thick jungle and rough terrain. Numbness to pain had come and gone several times, but for the past day my misery had only grown more intense. Dehydrated, I could not shed tears, every muscle in my body was cramped beyond anything I had ever experienced, and my survival skills, diminished through injury, had not been able to keep pace with the situation. As I leaned on a rock atop a small ridge line and surveyed the jungle below me, I refused to admit the desperation of my situation. Nobody knew where I was. I could barely move. Water--despite recycling my own urine through a makeshift still--was nowhere to be had, and I had nothing with which to purify any I might stumble across. If I could have set the jungle afire and attracted attention I would have, but this, too, was not an option with anything short of napalm. You sure know how to get yourself in an awful mess. Should have stayed near the crash site and taken your chances... I must have tossed a hundred ideas around in my head, finding each as unworkable as the one before. I had to find those Marines, or find the coast, and from where I sat, the coast was not even a fuzzy line on the horizon. The sun was high in the sky, with not a cloud in sight. The heat was wilting, but at this point I hardly noticed as I was unquestionably suffering from heat exhaustion on top of my other problems. In time my mind began to drift in and out of reality, back to other times and places... My eighth grade "graduation" class trip materialized... Not the greatest memory, considering I was sunburned so badly on the second day that I could do little else but vomit. The trip home wasn't bad, I must admit, for it was on the bus ride back that I fell madly in love with Elsa Morfin. I can still recall the picture I took of her on the bus, in her red tee-shirt and straw hat. Her face...so beautiful...her breasts...positively delicious looking...Elsa was the first woman for whom I noticed a sexual attraction (not that I had the slightest idea what to do with her if I caught her!). Born and raised in Mexico City, she was a tall, olive-skinned beauty with waist-length hair and a smile that could melt the hardest heart. She was also the first woman to break my heart. I wrote her daily from boarding school... Asked her to both the Birthday Ball and Spring Ball every year... Spent every free weekend with her at the skating rink... Poured my heart out to her on a swing at the park near our neighborhood and told her that I loved her. She cried. "You deserve someone better than me. I'm not good enough for you." "I don't care. I want to be with you." I was devastated. Everyone told me to forget about her and move on, but I never could. Still haven't. It's funny how life works that way... I spied in the distance a very thin wisp of smoke rising through the canopy of trees and vines of this miserable place. Can't be more than a couple of miles, I thought. The pain in my knee was a wrenching, throbbing, stabbing, all-consuming one. Walking could only be termed unbearable. Yet my salvation clearly rested upon my ability to make it to that tiny gray plume that rose gently skyward in the distance. But after all the pain and suffering I'd been through to walk nine miles, two more seemed too much to ask. Still, Rudel's axiom bouncing around inside my head proved more powerful than the pain. Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost. With agony beyond anything one could put into words, I pulled myself up to my feet. I cursed vehemently between clenched teeth. With a thin hiking stick for support, I took one step, and then another, aiming in the direction of the gray smoke, then stopped. Was it really my salvation that rested in that wispy column of gray, or was it instead the marker of my doom? Who was responsible for the fire that produced the faint ray of hope ahead? Was it a sign from above saying, "Go there," or was it instead warning me to stay away? Was it a squad of Marines? Perhaps it was a small village of people, friendly and willing to help. Or was it a tribe of cannibals, a gang of terrorists, or an angry mob of civilians burned out of their homes by our air strikes? Staying here would mean certain death, of that there could be no doubt. Slow, agonizing, torturous death, not unlike the one I would meet if my sojourn led me into the waiting arms of people who wanted me dead. I wrestled with the decision in the bastardly heat. At least there existed a glimmer of hope in the smoke. Where I stood there was none. And if death were to come, it would be pleasant relief from the misery I felt at that moment. My own axiom came to mind then. "It is better to die trying." I staggered and hobbled down the hill, my stomach in the throes of the diarrhea that dehydration inevitably brings. My knee was all but useless, and it was not long before my progress was reduced to crawling. The thick vegetation made movement slow, and as I continued downhill, the smoke was obscured by the vine-laden trees. I continued to move in what seemed the direction of the fire, but it was only a matter of time before I found myself hopelessly disoriented. As day turned to night, and what little energy I possessed left me, it was time to stop. I collapsed upon the ground, not knowing or caring about anything any more.
I do not know how many days or nights I was out. That I regained consciousness at all was a great mystery. But there is something about the will to live that is ingrained in the psyche of a fighter pilot. Where does it come from? Some would say that the never-give-up instinct is infused at birth or through upbringing and manifests itself in later years as the desire to become a combat pilot. Others say it is the discipline, fearlessness, and do-your-damnedest-to-be-the-best competitiveness instilled in training, deployment, and combat that causes it. A combination of both? Pride? Ego? Is it something so mundane as the desire to be looked upon favorably by your peers? Or is it simply dumb luck? Whatever the reason, I found a way to keep going. I moved twenty feet at a time, resting for long periods between movements. Hallucinations, blurred vision, numbness to pain, and then hypersensitivity to pain--Make the worms stop!! They are burrowing into me and eating me alive!! Make them stop!! --came and went with increased frequency. Brubaker, Carr, Case, Waylan, Steve McQueen, and even Ben-Hur (I loved that movie!) paid their visits. "Don't give up!" they implored. "Whatever you do, don't give up!" It is better to die trying. I kept crawling...crawling...crawling. It was pure hell, but somehow, I continued on. In and out of consciousness and through divine intervention, I found the clearing--and the fire--but I was too weakened to go any further. Within eyesight of what was surely my hope for life, I collapsed for the final time. I would die within yards of my salvation. Death approached me at that instant in the shape of a black cloaked swordsman, and my life now depended on my ability to ward him off. Like a swashbuckler of old, I dueled with the dark one in a desperate bid for life. He was fast and knew how to use a foil. I was winded. Broken. But I parried his attacks, parried them like Clark Gable, Zorro, and Luke Skywalker on their very best day. Back and forth we went, sparks flying as our swords clashed, Death's jet black cape flowing gloriously as he whirled. Our duel attracted attention, and in time, a crowd had gathered to watch us. Evil looking creatures with claws and fangs, they cheered Death on, spitting at me a hatred so vile I could taste it. Though powerful in the beginning, my efforts were doomed to failure. The fiendish one clearly had more stamina than I. I wheezed like an asthmatic, gasping for breath as I fended off the efforts of the evil swordsman. He lunged at me with great fury. As I blocked his attack, my knees grew weak and I kneeled on the ground lest I fall. Upright, though barely, and on one knee I countered his every offensive, draining energy with every move. Then, in the distance rode a knight, gleaming in silver armor astride a white horse. He charged in with a battle cry as loud as thunder. Death's eyes widened at the sound and he twirled about to face the onrushing attacker. I seized the opportunity. With the last bit of strength left in me, I took my saber and slashed the dark swordsman at the back of the knee. Blood spurted forth in a crimson geyser. Howling in pain, he collapsed to the floor as the tendon in his right leg separated. The knight leapt from his steed and finished the job, beheading the sable robed villain with one swing of his powerful arm. There followed a bright flash of light and flame, and Death was no more. There was no denying that he'd be back, but not that day. The knight silently pointed an armor-clad arm in the direction of a bright light on the horizon, then climbed atop his stallion, saluted me sharply, and rode away. Weak, but alive, I scrabbled toward the light--toward life--as Death's henchmen howled epithets at me in an effort to halt my drive. I brushed them aside...and pressed ahead. Their chiding served only to invigorate me, and as the light began to consume me, I did what any brash young fighter pilot in my situation would do... I shot them the finger.
Jason W. Smith
Copyright © 1995 by Jason W. Smith
(Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual events, persons, etc. is coincidental--even if intentionally so! --June 1995)
Based on characters and situations from
Robotech, © 1985 Harmony Gold, USA, Inc.
Robotech (R) is the property of Harmony Gold. This document is in no way intended to infringe upon their rights. The author has not accepted any remuneration for this work.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
Copyright © 1996 Robert Morgenstern
Version Last Updated: 30 August 2000