Part Four - Position and Hold
Chapter Nineteen - Homecoming
On the afternoon of 12 March, 2010, the SDF-1 touched down in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. After almost a year in space, the citizens of Macross City had finally returned to Earth. A huge wave of euphoria swept through the ship, but I was completely oblivious to it. I had done little else in the previous 18 hours but cry. There are truly no words to describe what it feels like to lose the one person you love the most. I felt a deep hollowness in my soul and my heart seemed as if it were made of lead. I had cried until there were no more tears to cry, and simply locked myself in my room, a mere shell of my former self.
My squadron commander could not have been more sympathetic to my situation, and over the objections of the higher ups, he secured for me a three-day down chit. Colonel Johannes I. Maistroff, the SDF-1's Executive Officer, was opposed to any type of reprieve for the pilots. Why the man took such a hard stand on the issue is beyond me, but when he found out that I had been taken off of flight status he flew into a rage, demanding an immediate retraction of the order and a return to duty for me. It took the intervention of the Senior Air Group Commander, Commander (CDR) Roy Fokker, along with the Chief Flight Surgeon, to finally change Maistroff's mind. The scuttlebutt had it that Fokker even went so far as to threaten Maistroff with grave bodily injury if he did not rescind his order.
"The only thing you have ever flown Maistroff, is this desk! And I promise you--promise you--that if I send that kid out there and he winds up in a body bag, I will rip your pompous head off with my bare hands!!!"
Captain Gloval, was now off the ship attempting to convince the Governing Council of the United Earth Government to allow SDF-1 to deboard the 60,000 plus civilian refugees--as well as brief them on the events of the past year. In the wake of his absence, there was nobody to stand between Maistroff and the fighter pilots except CDR Fokker.
For whatever the reason, Maistroff backed down, and I was taken off flight status for three days. I spent my time trying to find understanding in something that could never truly be understood, and the loneliness that overcame me was devastating. Wherever I went I felt a dark cloud hanging over my head and nothing I did could shake the feeling of despair that consumed me. When flight and supply operations where not being conducted, I spent my time standing on the bow of the Prometheus staring at the ocean. I was in denial. I hoped against hope that I was in a coma-induced dream, one that I would awaken from at any moment to find Rebeckah lying at my side, but it was not to be.
The irony of it all was that her youth proved to be the very thing that contributed most to her untimely death. Had Beki been post-menopause, she would have died from old age long before the cancer could have killed her. But the hormones in her body fueled the growth of those evil renegade cells, and she died because she was, of all things...young.
As I pondered the questions Case's passing had left in its wake, the cries of the seagulls and the sounds of the ocean took me back to that fateful summer day when I first met her. It was too much. Overcome with grief, I cried with fitful sobs as the ocean waves slapped the sides of the giant aircraft carrier. My Case was gone, and I would have to wait for the rest of my life to be with her again.
Funeral services for Lieutenant Brubaker and several other officers that had died in recent weeks were held on the deck of the Prometheus, the following morning. As the chaplain read aloud the names, I thought back to the times I spent with the Lieutenant. His sage words were indelibly etched in my mind. His kindness and compassion were once a constant source of comfort, and his death left in its wake a feeling of complete loss. I asked myself why over and again. Why did good people always die while the rest of us were left behind to screw up everything? It didn't seem fair. The chaplain's words were lost in a flood of memories. What good were they? His words could not begin to do justice to this great warrior who, like so many others, had died long before his time. Why? Why, why, why? A lot of us still ask why...
I was contacted by Rebeckah's physician, Dr. Luis M. Rios, a few hours after the funeral service. He offered his sincerest apologies and invited me to stop by his office. I stopped in to see the short, tanned, sixty-something doctor, and his words proved to be one of the biggest shocks of my life.
"Mr. Framton, before your wife passed away--in fact, before she even underwent her first surgery--she made a request," he said in his bass Mexican accent. "After we operated on Mrs. Framton the second time we were able to save some of the eggs in her right ovary. We did not tell you this sooner because, frankly, we didn't think we could stabilize them. But we have successfully recovered a fair number of healthy eggs as per her request, and it was her wish that you be presented with the opportunity to be a father."
With those words my jaw hit the floor, and the blood ran out of my face.
"I...what? Ahem..." I turned to look out his window, fighting back tears--a battle I quickly lost. Placing my head in my hands in embarrassment, I sobbed uncontrollably, and it was several moments later before I regained my composure. "Well, doctor, this is a big decision I must make....uhm... Oh, boy. When must you have an answer? I mean, how long can you preserve the eggs?" I asked.
"Indefinitely, Mr. Framton. Take your time. Think it over...and get back to me when you've made up your mind," he said.
I thanked the doctor and walked out of the office in a daze. This decision was not one I cared to make in haste. If I was to father a child, how could I care for it myself? I could depend on my parents and my in-laws of course, but was it fair to rear a child in the middle of a war? What were the chances that I would live long enough to see the baby so far as its first step, much less be there as a father until it reached adulthood? I considered the consequences of orphaning a child and it was not a pleasant thought.
Still, I reminded myself of what Case would have wanted. There was no doubt in my mind that she would have wanted to leave something tangible behind. I thought of her tear filled apology when she discovered she would not be able to give me children, and it broke my heart. At that moment I realized how truly important being a mother was to Rebeckah when she was here, and how, even in death, fathering her child would mean a part of Case would still be alive. With that thought I decided to allow the doctors to incubate a child.
I would do my part to insure Beki's last wish was fulfilled.
When it came to troubles they always happened in bunches. On 13 March, GYSGT White's Guardian-mode Valkyrie lost power during a night recovery and crashed and burned on the deck of Prometheus. The veteran ace managed to eject from his free-falling Valkyrie as it pitched forward and slammed into the carrier, but he was at the extreme edge of the ejection envelope. His ejection seat fired him at a very shallow trajectory. Before his chute could deploy his body, limbs flailing wildly, skipped off the harsh surface of the flight deck, leaving a bloody trail in the harsh glare of the explosion as it careened down the deck and into the water. He died gruesomely, but thankfully, instantly.
The next day, "Bam-Bam" Mitchell's Valkyrie lost power while launching from Prometheus for a daytime BARCAP. Bam-Bam knew something was seriously wrong when the fighter wallowed and staggered off the cat with barely enough speed to fly. The instrument panel lit up like a Christmas tree and the stall warning horn blared in his ear as he fought with the flight computer to keep the nose up, but his fighter refused to fly. The right wing dipped toward the sea and Bam-Bam reached for the ejection lanyard. As the Air Boss screamed for him to "Get out! Eject! Eject! Eject!" visions of Gunny White's ejection the previous day flashed through his mind and he hesitated.
The Valk's right wing clipped the top of a wave and cartwheeled into the ocean with a giant geyser of white spray. The heavily laden Veritech made a perfect anchor, and headed rapidly for the ocean floor. Dazed by the impact, Mitchell thought he was dead and watched as darkness descended upon him. It wasn't until the cockpit began to fill with water that he realized he was in fact alive. Still grasping the ejection lanyard between his legs, Bam-Bam yanked with all his might.
"I don't know why I pulled it," he recalled later. "I guess I just had no other choice." The slack reels retracted and the seat fired him out of the fully submerged cockpit. "It was the most violent event that I have ever experienced. It just knocked the hell out of me. I shot out of the airplane and burst through the surface of the ocean like a Trident missile. When that chute popped open, I thanked the Good Lord with all my heart for saving my butt. I'm lucky to have survived."
When the SAR team pulled him out of the water, he was two inches shorter and had three collapsed vertebrae. It seemed certain that this great ace's career as a fighter pilot was over, but the squadron was truly relieved that Bam-Bam had made it out alive.
I returned to duty on 15 March. My promotion to Sergeant had been approved--along with those for Josh and Waylan--and Lieutenant Carr had assigned me to be the squadron's Administrative Chief. It is my opinion that he did so in order to take my mind off of Case. As the Admin Chief I was not only responsible for handling all the squadron's paperwork, but I would also take charge of Squad 1's second Fire Team.
Thanks to, among other things, "Josh's Flying Pencil Principle," there were finally enough pilots to fill the majority of the SDF-1's depleted fighter pilot ranks. We received two new pilots to fill the spots left by Mitchell and White--CPL Ozzie "Wizard" Martin and LCPL Ben "Rash" Hyves. These two were assigned to Lieutenant Sprabary's Team, while Josh and Waylan were assigned to mine.
All nugget pilots were now being brought up to speed on atmospheric flight--including such things as ejection, survival, physiology training, instrument flying, etc.--and this process was expected to take four to six weeks. My three days off meant I was already behind the power curve when it came to atmospheric flight training, but my prior experience as a civilian pilot--not to mention my experience as a combat pilot--helped to make up for this to a large degree.
The demands of training, the responsibility of being a leader, and the realization that I would be a father--and more importantly, that Beki would be a mother--went a long way toward giving me a reason to live. I still cried myself to sleep each night, and found myself staring up through my cockpit canopy at the blue sky as I orbited in the Marshall pattern each day, talking aloud to her, yearning to hear her voice in my mind. Even so, I could no longer monopolize my time with self-pity, and this forced me to concentrate on my responsibilities as a fighter pilot and leader.
It was strange flying in the atmosphere again. I had forgotten about the bumps and jolts, the constant force of gravity being applied to the body, and the danger of departing controlled flight (particularly the infamous base-to-final stall/spin)--a condition from which the flight computer would automatically recover, so long as the aircraft had sufficient altitude (which there usually isn't when on short final to a carrier). My Valk was just as responsive in the air as it was in the vacuum of space, proving that the slight sluggishness I felt on my first training flight was due more to my inner ear than to the fighter itself.
Much to my disappointment, I found myself fighting with the nausea demon once again, and I wondered if I should have chosen a different profession. In the atmosphere we could pull more than nine Gs in a turn compared to a maximum of roughly 3.2 in space, and it took time to build one's tolerance to the higher G-loading. Thankfully, I got over it rather quickly, though for the first couple of days I was completely miserable. "They're going to change my callsign to 'Barf' if I don't get this under control soon," I mumbled to myself one morning as I heaved my breakfast over the starboard elevator.
When we weren't flying, we spent a considerable amount of time in the classroom learning the ins and outs of Aviation Physiology. The training in this area was incredibly valuable, and I found that, despite my conditioning, my resistance to hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) was very poor. During our rides in the pressure chamber we were routinely taken to altitudes approaching 50,000 feet. Our sessions in the pressure chamber--which is basically a mobile home-sized tube that is depressurized to simulate high altitude--were designed to alert us to the effects of hypoxia so that we would be able to take prompt corrective action if we ever encountered them in flight.
As altitude increases, the partial pressure of the atmosphere begins to decline to such a point that human lungs can no longer extract oxygen from it. Without my mask--gulping for air to no avail--I could last about twenty seconds at a pressure altitude of 30,000 feet, beyond which time I quickly lost sensation and coordination. This was followed by an overwhelming feeling of euphoria. Pilots who have reached this stage experience a false sense of giddiness that is promptly followed by a rapid descent and impact with the terrain or sea after the pilot has lost consciousness.
A tape recording of the session revealed more to us about the effects of hypoxia than anything we could have ever been taught or read. One of the pilots in the chamber had been given a simple task to accomplish without his mask. A plastic ball with cutouts of various shapes and matching pieces to fit into them, was given to the pilot. His task was to get the pieces inside the ball while breathing only the oxygen available in the air around him. As we watched the tape, he could clearly be seen trying to put the round plastic piece through the square cutout in the plastic ball. Failing in his task, he set down the round piece and tried to grab a different one. Once again he grabbed the round plastic piece and tried to jam it into the square hole. We burst into laughter as we watched him try to jam the piece into the square hole, then the triangular one, and then in the square one again, banging the plastic piece against the ball in frustration. It was quite comical, but it underscored a very important point. When asked what he thought of his behavior the pilot replied simply with a smile, "I swear, I don't remember doing that."
Thankfully, our fighters were--as are all combat aircraft since the late 20th century--equipped with the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning and Recovery System (EGPWRS--pronounced "e-jip-whiz") designed to prevent accidents due to loss of consciousness, be they G- or hypoxia-induced. The onboard flight computer issues the pilot with a verbal warning that impact with the terrain is imminent. If the pilot does not respond and further delay will result in a crash, the aircraft will execute a pullout to level flight, so long as the unconscious pilot is not applying a force of more than eight pounds of pressure on the stick. As one can imagine, this system is hardly foolproof, since even an unconscious pilot can easily, and inadvertently, apply far more than a meager eight pounds of force on a control stick. Still, EGPWRS was better than nothing, and saved more than a few lives.
Before our ride in the pressure chamber we were excused for lunch. The flight surgeon cautioned us to avoid certain types of food--like pizza. As you can imagine, those of us scheduled to "go up" in the chamber headed right over to the "Pizza Sub Pub." At the Pub one could buy a pizza that was three times the size of the ones sold in town--and ten times tastier--for about half the price. Each slice was loaded with cheese, pepperoni, and tomato sauce, and was so big it had to be folded in half to keep from dumping the contents onto one's plate. There was only one problem to this approach, however, and our ride in the pressure chamber showed us why.
As the pressure in the chamber was lowered to simulate altitude, the gasses in one's body expanded. When this occurred, there were two ways for the gas to escape, and when we removed our masks at the 30,000-foot level we were instantly made aware of the route our gasses had taken. The smell was almost over-powering, and the giggles that accompanied the noises we made during the "climb" broke out into hysterical laughter. We each promised that for our next training session we would save pizza eating until after the chamber ride.
As long as the SDF-1 remained in the ocean, our flight operations assumed a different look. Because of the location of the carriers on the SDF-1 in Attack Mode, we did not make any conventional landings aboard ship--the "arms" where the carriers were attached simply could not be moved out of the way of the approach path without affecting the buoyancy of the battle fortress. All landings were instead vertical in nature, and although this would place more stress on our engines--and hence, shorten their Time Before Overhaul (TBO)--we had no choice. We would approach the ship--which looked very much like a person sitting on an armchair--from the stern, switch to Guardian mode, then descend onto the flight deck. This was an incredible experience at night, as combat conditions meant that the ship's running lights were all turned out. In short, a pilot had to rely solely on instruments and a set of dim positioning lights to make his landing in the pitch-black night, and the tricks this could play on the inner ear defy imagination. There are doubtless many pilots out there--myself included--who thanked God not only for the occasional moonlit night, but also for the Automated Carrier Landing System (ACLS), which could park a Valk aboard ship conventionally or vertically within a two meter by two meter box.
We spent five hours a day in the air during our remedial training period, practicing the art of formation flying and aerial combat, and even "enjoying" a few BARCAP missions. It was grueling work. Formation flying here was far different than it had been in space. Our planes were more responsive, yet less touchy, to control inputs, and it was possible to fly very precise formations without regard to the fuel concerns that are a fact of life in vacuum operations. Josh and Waylan were wonderful wingmen, each with a tremendous amount of skill, and their combined ability to stay tight on my wing made our fire team look very good when we made our break to enter the landing pattern for Prometheus following each hop.
By the end of the second week I was confident in my ability to fight effectively in the atmosphere. My timing could not have been better, for a fanatical Zentraedi commander named Khyron had a giant homecoming surprise in store for us.
Chapter Twenty - Aloha, Khyron
Captain Gloval's attempt to convince the UEG to allow us to disembark Macross City's sixty thousand-plus civilians had fallen on deaf ears. It was the UEG's opinion that we were expendable. If the SDF-1 were to sojourn away from Earth and distract the Zentraedi forces long enough for the UEG to marshal its defenses, our deaths would be a bargain tradeoff. After battling our way home for nearly a year against an indefatigable enemy, this was a bitter pill to swallow, and I was not the only one who felt angered by the UEG's irrational decision.
I was sitting in the Air Operations Office when Waylan came in jabbering about eight miles a minute, an ear-to-ear grin on his face.
"What's up, Waylan?"
"Ho-ho-ho!! Haaa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!! Oh, gawd this is killing me! Iggy just beat the shit out of half the town! Haaa-ha-ha-ha-ha!" he roared, doubling over and clutching his stomach.
"He did what?!"
Waylan's face was bright red now. "Hahaha! He just got in a fight and beat the tar out of half the people in Macross City!"
"Yes, Max!! Hahahahah!! I always knew those glasses were a disguise." He struck a frightened pose. "'Who--who are you?!!' " Then standing fiercely upright, his voice like a cannon. " 'I'm Maxman !' Hahahahahaaaaaa!!!!!" he doubled over with laughter once again, banging a counter top with his fist.
I laughed at Waylan. He was killing me with his antics.
Sure enough, Max Sterling, Rick Hunter, and several other RDF personnel were enjoying a nice lunch at a local restaurant when the word came out over the ship's broadcasting network that the SDF-1 was not going to be allowed to offload any civilian refugees. Needless to say, after being cooped up inside the SDF-1 for over a year, the civilians in the restaurant did not take this information very well, and decided to vent some frustration. No doubt the slight-statured Max looked to be an easy target, but much to their surprise, he was in fact a highly capable fighter.
The news of the brawl spread quickly throughout the ship, and it wasn't long before Max Sterling had garnered for himself another rung on the ladder toward immortality.
With the SDF-1 still at anchor near Bird Island in the South Pacific, we were all but sitting ducks. Thankfully, the Zentraedi forces appeared to want the ship taken intact, which granted us at least a modicum of protection, and for several weeks, they had left us completely unmolested, bobbing like a cork in the water. Unfortunately, even a highly disciplined military force like the Zentraedi's was subject to the occasional wild card, and that wild card was summed up in the persona of one Khyron "The Backstabber" Kravshera.
Commander of the 7th Division of the elite Botoru Fleet, Khyron was something of an exotic personality. With a lust for combat that bordered on fanaticism, there was little, if anything, that could stand in the way of his pursuit of glory--including the deaths of his own men. He was a ruthless, bloodthirsty leader cut from the same mold as American Civil War general--and later president of the United States--Ulysses S. "The Butcher" Grant. Grant earned his nickname during his march on Petersburg in the fall of 1864, when he lost more men in a three-week period than the Confederacy lost in the entire war. Grant's idea was that his manpower could outlast the South's no matter how many casualties he suffered--"I've got more men, I'll just keep sending them until the enemy finally runs out." Khyron Kravshera was no different, and would even go so far as to shoot one of his own soldiers in the back if he inadvertently stood in the way of a kill.
Obsessive, cunning, and ruthless, it was this man who chose to bring his unique style of warfare down to Earth for a house call on the SDF-1, and it is no small miracle any of us were able to come out of it in one piece.
I had just landed aboard Prometheus from a four hour BARCAP sortie when a standby alert call was sounded. I was tired and sweaty, and my Valk's left engine had given me fits all day long. Not counting the engine I lost on my first mission, this was the third powerplant in as many months that I had had trouble with, and it was beginning to get annoying.
"Gawddamn it, Philo, are you sure there's nothing wrong upstream from here?" I asked, pointing a flashlight up inside an access panel.
"No, sir. Everything checks out from asshole to eyeball, Sergeant. Maybe you're a little heavy on the left rudder, skipper, I dunno."
I was not in the mood for ribbing at that moment. "Damn it, Rorbough, I want this fucking thing fixed, now!! Do you hear me?! I am tired of gigging this fucking engine. Fix it!" I said, storming off to my Ready Room to find out what was going on.
"Aye, aye, Sarge," I heard him say, with a wounded tone to his voice.
I met Waylan and Josh at the door. We exchanged glances then walked in and found Lieutenant Carr waiting for us somewhat impatiently.
"Gentlemen, I hope you enjoyed your vacation, because it just got canceled," he said, slapping a wall map with a pointer stick. "We've picked up a ship on radar making a descent into the atmosphere, and he's going to come down right on top of us. We have been assigned to patrol near Bird Island, so you know what that means. As it stands, we think this guy will touch down near there, possibly as a staging area to pound us. We're not sure." He looked at us with fierce intensity. "Gentlemen, any questions?"
We stood in silence.
"All right men. Good luck. Good hunting. Button five will be two-three-zero point five-zero, your block times will be one-eight-three-zero and -four-zero. Good luck."
Block times are instrument departure and arrival times used to route fighters in and out of an instrument pattern. In this case we were to enter the Marshall Pattern at 1830, and be descending out of Platform at 1840, staggered in two-minute intervals. It would be after dark when we were to make our landings, and there would probably be a lot of confusion, so meeting our block times would be essential to insure the recovery operation went off without a hitch.
I headed to my locker and double-checked all my flight gear: knives, pistols, flares, spare raft, dye markers, etc. Most pilots didn't bother with half the equipment we were given. It was bulky and uncomfortable, and when pulling G's it weighed a pilot down more than he might want. Here in the atmosphere we'd be able to sustain pulls of nine or more G's--as compared to a maximum of four to five in space--so every ounce one could shed would save nine in a hard turn. There was a good chance I would end up getting wet, along with a lot of other pilots, and it could be awhile before a "Sea Sergeant" rescue helo could pluck me out of the water. In short, I didn't give a damn about weight, my only concern being that of staying warm and dry.
"Sea Sergeant" Air Sea Rescue / Anti-Submarine Warfare Helicopter
After sliding an eleven-round magazine into the magazine well, I chambered a round of high-velocity hollow point ammo in my backup pistol--an Italian-made, stainless steel, Beretta Model 96 .40 caliber semi-automatic. It had been a gift to me from my father, and I considered it one of the finest firearms ever produced. As I examined the handgun's fine lines, I realized that I could very well end up using it before the day was over. I would be damned to let a Zent capture me alive. What they were unable to get out of Max Sterling and company they would doubtless attempt to get out of whomever they captured next, and I did not want that to be me.
Sliding my pistol into its holster, I slammed my locker shut and headed out of the ready room to my fighter, Josh and Waylan following closely behind me.
After going through the myriad of things every fighter pilot must do before blasting himself into the wild blue, I said a quick prayer and glanced at a picture of Rebeckah on my instrument panel. I felt a twinge of pain at the sight of her smile. I wondered then if she knew how much I loved her and missed her. I hoped so much that she did.
"Sand Pebble Two is up, Button Four."
"Three up, Button Four."
Waylan and Josh's sharp announcements over our team's frequency snapped me out of my reverie. "Sand Pebble One is up, Button Four. Sand Pebbles light my fire," I said into my helmet mike.
I engaged the starter for engine two and watched as it engine spooled up and stabilized. Number one continued in a start loop, but did not light off properly--a "hung start" as it is called. I was pissed.
"Gawdamned piece of shit!" I hissed, hurling my fist against the start selector. To my amazement, number one began to spool up slowly and finally stabilized. "Son of a bitch," I muttered to myself. "Who would'a' thought?"
As the din in the hangar bay reached a crescendo, I ran through my pre-taxi checks and looked over at my two wingmen. Each flashed a thumbs-up, and with that I closed my canopy and looked at Philo. At his command, I taxied out of the chocks toward the starboard elevator. We exchanged salutes, and I wondered then if I had not acted in haste in jumping on him so harshly. The fusion turbines that powered the Valkyrie were notorious for being hard to start (and keeping a fusion reaction going had always been a difficult thing to do, as evidenced by the crashes of White and Mitchell) so I really couldn't blame Philo. He was a good plane captain, and I could not have asked for a better one. I would be sure to apologize to him when I got back aboard ship.
Because of the noise on the flight deck, plane directors could not use headset radios as easily as they had in space, and so it was more important than ever to pay attention. We were spotted behind the four bow catapults, and I went through another litany of checks. I recalled the new Button Five frequency and entered it into my COM panel. It was a good thing I had remembered it, otherwise I would have been unable to contact my fighter controller when I arrived on station.
The Valk ahead of me was blasted off the catapult, and it was time to remove the safety pins for my weapons. I placed my hands on the glare panel as the armorers pulled the pins out of my twelve rack-mounted Stiletto-A and eight pod-mounted Stiletto-B missiles as well as the GU-11 gunpod. If we were to end up in a fight we would need all the ordnance we could carry, because getting back aboard ship to rearm was going to be pure hell.
I flashed my weight board to the Cat Officer and at his signal, began configuring my fighter for the launch. I flipped the wing spread handle to the forward position and watched as they motored forward. "Wings spread and...no flag on the left...no flag on the right...wings spread and locked. Going dirty," I called, moving the flap lever to '30.' I glanced in the mirror to verify the speed brakes were closed, then over both shoulders to verify that the flaps were at thirty degrees, the leading edge slats were out, and the spoilers were down. "Boards, flaps, spoilers, slats. Checklist complete."
The Cat Officer began motioning for me to move forward. I added power and rolled my fighter at his direction onto the catapult shuttle. I felt a thump and my Valk stopped abruptly. As the Cat Officer motioned his right hand rapidly back and forth over his head, I moved the throttles into the afterburner detent and felt my Valk lurch forward against the shuttle as a force of over 75,000 lbs. of thrust was unleashed out of the rear of my fighter. I was now "in tension," with nothing but the catapult holdback bar preventing my Valk from being flung off the deck.
A glance at my gauges and a quick thumbs-up for the Cat Officer. Head against the headrest, a quick salute, and BANG! I was forced deep into my seat as the cat fired me off the deck of the Prometheus. I eased back on the stick as my Valk dipped toward the water, and watched the Vertical Speed Indicator (VSI) as it registered a positive rate of climb. "Gear up, in transit...gear up and locked." A glimpse at the airspeed box on the HUD showed I was accelerating through 170 knots. Flaps up at 180 knots...200 knots and pull. Straight up I climbed, still in afterburner, the carrier and SDF-1 shrinking slowly in my mirrors. I glanced to the right and saw the horizon, now paralleling my upper body like an extension of my ejection seat cushion as I shot upward as fast as a rocket.
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner, airborne."
The Valk continued to accelerate, pressing me further into my seat as it climbed. A look at the airspeed on the HUD showed 450 knots and increasing, the altimeter winding up through 12,000 feet. Easing out of burner, my body shifted forward as the Valk's momentum fell off. I rolled my fighter to the right for half a turn, then pulled slowly back on the stick. The ocean filled my canopy, and as I pulled the nose through to the horizon, I called the departure controller.
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner, fifteen for eighteen, heading two-eight-zero, Romeo, switching." I told the controller. The "Romeo" and "switching" calls were meant to inform him that I was combat-capable and was going to call the strike controller.
"Two Zero Niner, roger."
"Sand Pebbles, Button Eight," I ordered on our team's discreet frequency, my two wingmen now clawing for altitude after their own cat shots. Although they already knew the drill, I told them the frequencies on which I would be talking to our controllers to insure there were no mistakes, and to save myself from having to relay instructions.
I rolled upright and glanced over my shoulder. Waylan's Valk was slowly approaching me from the left, and as he eased into position just above and to the left of me, I switched my view back to the right. Josh's fighter was there, bobbing slightly, just off my starboard wing.
"Strike, Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner, level at one-eight, heading two-eight-zero, three Victor Fox Ones."
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner, this is Strike. Radar contact. Cleared to Jelly Fish. Frequency change approved." Jelly Fish was the code name for our patrol station.
"Two Zero Niner, roger. Break. Sand Pebbles Button Five," I replied, telling them to go to our sector fighter director's frequency.
"Time to go hunting, gentlemen," I said to Josh and Waylan on our discreet Button Four freq. "Come right, to two-eight-zero."
We banked our Valks gently to the right and headed toward our patrol area. With a strange sort of reserved intensity, I scanned the beautiful blue sky as the fighter director alerted us to the position of the enemy ship.
"Ninety-nine Jaguar, contact off Bullseye three-four-zero, five-niner-five miles. Passing out of Angels one-two-zero, stand by," the lead fighter director called out over our radios. "Jaguar" was the SDF-1 Air Group's code and Bullseye was a pre-selected reference point from which all position reports referenced. The message showed the contact was closer than I had first thought, and I went through a very hurried check of my status to insure every switch was in its proper place. Glancing to the left of my fighter's nose I caught sight of Bird Island and my assigned patrol sector. If the bad guys decided to send an assault force here it would be up to us to stop them. I laughed at the thought. We were going to be outnumbered ten thousand to one as it was. What in hell were we thinking?
In a few short minutes, the beach line crossed beneath my fighter and I drifted into a short daydream. How nice would it be to just plop down on a chair and stick my feet in the surf under a coconut-laden palm tree?
No sooner had I allowed the thought than a series of flashes lit up the peaceful island terrain. A dozen streaks of smoke shot out of one of the island's numerous mountain valleys. Within seconds they were busting through our altitude and zooming upward at an incredible rate.
"Holy, shit! Thanks for the warning assholes," I muttered into my facemask.
The Bird Island Ballistic Missile Base had just shot its wad at whatever it was that was coming after us. Thirty seconds later, the sky above lit up like the midday sun as the missiles struck home. It did absolutely no good--the missiles' conventional warheads glanced harmlessly off the thick armor of the enemy ship.
As I listened, one of the other squadrons made an attack on the giant ship, but they were only slightly more effective than the Bird Island missiles had been. Within ninety seconds the enemy had broken through all three defense lines, and the situation turned quickly from unfavorable to critical. Our sister squadron, VF-131, was pulled off the Bird Island station and recalled to help the SDF-1. As they broke away smartly in the direction of the ship I cursed aloud, having wanted the controllers to call my squadron in instead.
The Radar Threat Display (RTD) of my Electronic Warfare System began to flash an ominous yellow cone off to my eleven o'clock position as the Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) detected an enemy radar probing at us. We were still at the extreme outer edge of this radar's range, which gave us some time to act before it could lock onto us. "Sand Pebbles, search radar, 11 o'clock." I flipped on the radar jamming system and the cone disappeared. We were invisible--for the moment.
I continued to listen intently to the battle unfolding over the radio until a buzzing sound and a red warning light caught my attention. "FIRE" they commanded. With a smile, I pulled my left throttle to idle. "Well, this is what happens when things get built by the lowest bidder," I muttered to myself. "Sand Pebble Team, Sand Pebble One. I have a fire warning light," I called over the net.
It was not uncommon for the Valk to give off false warning lights, and ninety-nine out of a hundred times they would prove unfounded. However, the pilot who ignored that one warning that turned out to be true did so at his own peril, and more often than not found himself getting wet--after riding the loud seat and silk elevator into the water.
The strip gauges on my engine panel began to unwind wildly. "Christ," I muttered again. This one looked like it wasn't one of those ninety-nine. A moment later I felt a lurch and a shudder, followed by an audible bang.
"Lead, you're on fire," Josh intoned over the net, as calmly as he dared.
"Damn gawddamn it!!" I yelled into my mask as I ran through the memory items for an engine fire.
Thrust lever idle. Start stop selector stop. Fire handle pull. Wait thirty seconds. If light still illuminated rotate handle (to discharge fire extinguisher). Wait thirty seconds. If light still illuminated rotate handle to fire second bottle.
After hitting all the memory items I pulled out my "Pocket Rocket" (an abbreviated list of emergency procedures that could be quickly referred to when things went wrong) and started going through the checklist for an engine fire. In my left mirror I saw a thin trail of black smoke curling out behind me. "What a piece of shit!"
"Ninety-nine Fast Eagle, this is Strike. Return to Home Plate, signal Browning," that was the SDF-1's lead fighter controller signaling us to return to the ship with weapons hot--he had just ordered us to attack.
"Damn it all to hell," I cursed again. "I shoulda' stayed in bed this morning."
I glanced around and saw several other groups of fighters already heading toward the ship. "Sand Pebbles, follow me," I said, rolling my fighter inverted and pulling five G's to put us on a reciprocal heading back to the ship. The smoke trail was still with me, but all my instruments showed the fire was out, and the Automated Flight Control System was handling the asymmetric thrust condition without any problems. I didn't know what else to do and prayed that it was just insulation burning off back there. A reactor is not a good place to have a fire and usually indicates a loss of plasma containment, as Max's first hop proved not so long ago.
At thirty-five miles we were descending out of six thousand feet. I briefed Josh and Waylan to stay together and not worry about me if things got heavy. "I've got to keep my speed up, guys. I'm not good for any turn fighting business today. If it gets tight, break away from me and I'll figure something out on my own."
The ability to sustain high-g turns and vertical maneuvers is directly related to the amount of "energy" a fighter has. The sum total of both kinetic (speed) and potential (altitude) energy available to an aircraft at any particular moment, it is the most critical factor in aerial combat. A fighter low on energy is highly vulnerable to attack by an enemy aircraft with a higher amount of same. Turns, vertical maneuvers, and missile evasion tactics--among other things--quickly use up energy, which must then be regained by accelerating. Aircraft with high thrust-to-weight ratios can maintain energy more easily while maneuvering, and accelerate more rapidly when not. With only one engine operating, my ability to gain and maintain energy was effectively cut in half, and I wanted to insure my wingmen understood this.
My RWR flashed yellow once again as an enemy radar probed at me once more. A glance at the panel showed a single radar, fifty-five miles ahead and closing. One of the problems with counter measures is that they too can be countered. The enemy radar had defeated my attempts to jam it, and was working hard to acquire the three of us. I turned my targeting radar from standby to on and the screen lit up with a dozen contacts. It was now a chess game with both sides aware of which pieces remained on the board, and the first move would be determined by whose missiles came into range first.
As the distance to the ship shrank rapidly, my radar began to sort and prioritize my targets based on time to contact. A large force of Gnerls--a.k.a. "Lawn Darts" or "Yard Darts" because of both their shape and the function they served when they plowed themselves into the ground (after taking a few well-placed 55mm hits of course)--were heading toward us. Their task was doubtless to provide air cover for an assault force whose destination was Bird Island (or perhaps more likely, to cut off our attempts to assist the SDF-1). Thumbing a button on the stick, I set the missiles to fire in groups of four, and made a final check of my systems and switches. I squirmed in my seat, anticipating the imminent dogfight--our work was clearly cut out for us.
Zentraedi Gnerl Fighter Pod
The missiles locked on with a growl in my headset. It was time to go to work. "Okay boys, fight's on! Go get 'em!" I called out, cutting loose a hail of missiles at the wave of fighters approaching me. The Stilettos streaked ahead majestically, wavy streamers of white trailing behind them. In a matter of seconds the horizon ahead lit up with smoke-filled explosions as the missiles found their targets and detonated. The targeting halos on my HUD shifted to other targets, and I fired another bracket of Stilettos. As the missiles surged ahead, my IR detection system lit up like a Roman candle. The tone in my headset alerted me to the presence of an inbound group of heat-seeking missiles, and the computer concluded--with ninety-eight percent certainty--they were tracking my fighter.
"Sand Pebbles, break!" I shouted into my mask.
Waylan yanked his fighter hard to the left as Josh pitched vertical, and I reefed my Valk to the right in an eight-G turn. The bladder of my anti-G suit inflated as the g-forces shoved me deep into my seat, and I went into my "Energy Straining Maneuver." "Hooooo-kuh! Hooooo-kuh!" By tightening all the muscles in ones body and forcing the word "hook" out of the mouth while accenting the k, it was possible to prevent the onset of G-induced Loss of Consciousness (GLOC), and sustain high G levels for longer periods of time.
GLOC is always a danger for a combat pilot. When a pilot pulls Gs the blood in his body wants to collect in his feet, reducing the number of red blood cells--and hence, the oxygen they carry--that gets to the brain. Depending on the severity and duration of the onset of G-forces a pilot will usually suffer grayout (a graying of vision) at three to four G's, tunnel vision or blackout at five G's, and unconsciousness at six G's, when the blood pressure in the brain drops to zero. Unconsciousness takes up to fifteen seconds to awaken from, and forty-five seconds from which to regain full mental and physical functions. This is a bad situation to find oneself in during a dogfight, where the effects of GLOC turn you from a turning, thinking adversary into a one-G guns kill target. With the help of an anti-G suit (which affords only a maximum of about one and a half G's protection) and the energy straining maneuver, the pilot can usually withstand up to nine and even ten G's for appreciable periods of time without taking a nap. The latter is what I was attempting as I broke hard to evade the missiles heading at me.
It is an axiom that the best way to defeat a missile is before it leaves the rail. After that, your chances are reduced dramatically. The only alternatives are to spoof the missile with countermeasures or perform a carefully timed, violent turn to force the missile into an overshoot condition. We called it a "Bat Turn" in homage to the maneuver performed by the Batmobile in the Adam West "Bat Man" TV series. Though a proximity fuse would often cause the missile to nail you any way, a near miss was better than a direct hit.
The corkscrewing smoke trails from the missiles appeared over my shoulder, confirming what I already knew. After a 120-degree heading change, I reversed my turn back to the left and thumbed off a flare program to distract the IR seekers of the missiles that were after me. Almost immediately, the IR tone went off in my headset and the missiles streaked after the flares, detonating harmlessly in the humid Pacific sky.
At that instant, a pair of Gnerls flashed past the top of my canopy, heading in the opposite direction in pursuit of Josh's Valk.
"Husky! Six!" I called out in a warning to my wingman as I honked my fighter around to the left in a desperate attempt to set up a missile shot before they could fire on him. Rolling out of the turn I found myself "in the saddle" directly below and behind the two Zentraedi fighters as they clawed toward Josh's jinking Valkyrie. With back pressure on the stick, I brought the nose up thirty degrees and placed the pipper squarely on the alien ships. With two pulls of the trigger a pair of Stilettos surged forward, tracked flawlessly, and blew the pods to pieces with a short-lived brace of popcorn-shaped explosions.
"Husky, clear!" I called.
"Ah, roger. Thanks!"
The HUD showed my airspeed had fallen below 300 knots, a cardinal sin in aerial combat--especially when one is operating on one engine--and I realized that I did not have enough energy to evade another missile attack. I had to get my speed up, and fast. Rolling inverted, I pulled back on the stick and dove for the ocean. I exited the combat area and waited for my airspeed to reach 450 knots before once again reversing my course back toward the dogfight that had just erupted.
Waylan was engaged in a swirling fight that stretched from the ocean up to my altitude. A hornet's nest of Gnerls swarmed around his Battloid, as he jinked back and forth, firing at pods left and right. I locked onto four of the pods near the middle of the swarm and fired. The Stilettos lunged off the racks toward their targets. They covered the distance to their targets in a matter of seconds, and as the missiles struck home, it seemed to take the fight out of the fighters nearest to the explosions. They scattered in all directions.
"Don, clear!" I radioed, as I flashed past Waylan's Battloid.
"Thanks for the help, Yah," he called back.
"You got it. Wait one. Sand Pebble Three from Lead, where are you?" I said, glancing over my right shoulder. A fighter pod had just planted himself in the saddle behind me. Rolling inverted, I yanked on the stick and turned back toward Waylan's Veritech.
"Uh, Sand Pebble Three is about five miles west of the island. I've got a dozen of 'em cornered over here if anyone wants to help out, over," he called.
I allowed a brief grin in spite of myself, still concentrating on the pod that had glued itself to my tail. I went into a series or reversals, hoping my Valk's superior roll rate would force the pod to overshoot. I did not have the energy to turn inside the Gnerl, and he stuck with me turn for turn as I attempted to maneuver back over to where Waylan had been. My maneuvering was causing the pod to lose ground, but not nearly fast enough for my comfort.
"Donis, get this bastard off me!" I snarled impatiently as Waylan's Battloid loomed large in my windscreen.
"I've got him! Standby, Lead!" he said breathlessly.
As I flashed past Waylan's Valk, I rolled into a ninety-degree bank to the left and reefed my fighter into a hard turn to set up the shot for him. Still in Battloid Mode, Waylan took aim with his GU-11 and blasted the pod out of the sky with a short burst.
The explosion in the mirror told me what I needed to know. "Thanks Don," I said.
"You got it boss."
"Join on me when you can," I ordered.
"On my way."
Still in a left turn, I circled as Waylan's Valkyrie changed into Fighter mode, accelerated like a cannon round, and formed up smartly on my port wing. Once again the fight on our end had broken up, and Josh would doubtless be thankful for some help where he was.
"Husky, hang in there, we're coming!"
"Rog!" he grunted.
One of the interesting things that always happened in the middle of a dogfight was that the voices of the pilots rose by about two octaves. This phenomenon was evident in spades to anyone listening to the communications of Sand Pebble Team that day. The odds were stacked against us and we knew it, and this knowledge was translated through the shrill pitch of our communications over the radio.
As I entered into the area where Josh was engaged in his fight, I saw his fighter streak past my nose from right to left. Turning to the right, I positioned myself behind him, stepped down and left. Waylan followed suit on the right side, and together we guarded Josh's tail as he cleaned up on a group of Gnerls that had been running away when we showed up.
"Nail him, Husky! Hurry up!" I said impatiently, referring to the last surviving member of the group. There were sure to be more of them heading this way to assist their comrade, and I didn't want to stay on a predictable course.
"Stand by. I'm on him," he said, following the Gnerl as it jinked frantically from side to side.
We weaved back and forth behind the lone surviving Yard Dart, slamming ourselves around--up on one wing, then the other--as Josh slowly gained the advantage over his adversary. Suddenly, my RWR went nuts and a quick glance in my mirror showed another Gnerl was in the saddle behind me. I'd neglected to check six--fatal mistake number two--and he was right there.
I dumped the boards (air brakes) and skidded my fighter out to the left with a stomp on the left rudder pedal. Without wings, there was a limit to how slow the Gnerl could fly, and the maneuver forced him to overshoot. The alien pilot broke to the left and I followed him into a descending spiral toward the cobalt blue ocean below. Had he gone up instead of down there is no way I would have been able to stay with him and I was thankful for his error. Trading energy for position, I pulled the pipper up onto the pod after pulling seven Gs and fired. The rounds from my first burst passed behind the alien fighter, but my second burst struck home. The pod broke into two brightly flaming pieces, plunged into the choppy surf and exploded, hurling debris for a quarter mile. A pillar of black smoke rising out of the water was the only sign of its existence.
I rolled level and pulled up, grunting audibly against the G forces that tried to crush me. As I glanced back over my right shoulder I heard a metal-grinding crunch, and felt my fighter heel hard over to the left. Shifting my eyes back to the left I saw a streak of smoke curling away behind me in my mirror. The trail of smoke curved gently into the ocean and disappeared. My Valk wobbled out of control. As I wrestled with the controls I managed a glance to the left. I was aghast at what I saw--half my wing was gone!
"Holy shit!" I exclaimed as my fighter rolled inverted. I'd just collided with an enemy pod, and by some miracle had come out of it still flying! My fighter rocked and lurched as the flight computer attempted to maintain some semblance of level flight. The altimeter was unwinding rapidly as the sky and sea swapped ends again. I glanced down at the ejection handle, its yellow and black stripes beckoning me to give it a pull before it was too late. The clock in my head began ticking--if I couldn't recover in the next eight seconds I would be forced to eject.
"Come on sweetheart. Settle down," I said, to my careening Valkryie. "Settle down."
It was clear that my control inputs were doing nothing but creating havoc. With one hand on the ejection handle, I let go of the stick out of sheer desperation, engaged the autopilot, and let the ACS takeover. With a few lurches my trusty fighter rolled itself upright and level in a gentle dive toward the ocean some four thousand feet below. Wobbly though she was, it was clear she was flyable and I no longer contemplated ejection.
"Sand Pebble Team, from One. I've had a mid-air, one mile southwest of Bird Island! Orbiting three-point-two. Rendezvous with me at your discretion, over."
"Sand Pebble One from Three, we're on the way," Josh replied.
As my Valk seesawed back and forth in the fading sunlight, Josh and Waylan again formed up on my fighter, and we headed toward the SDF-1. The ship was calling for reinforcements to repel a second Zentraedi attack, but there was little I could do with one engine and half a wing gone. As it turned out, the reinforcements were not needed, for the second Zentraedi assault wave was merely a covering force sent in to guard the retreat of the initial attack force. We all said a thankful prayer that the Zentraedi had pulled back. They had gotten awfully close to nailing us this time.
As we entered the Marshall pattern for Prometheus I assessed my situation. There was not much chance of getting aboard ship today. The asymmetric thrust of going to Guardian would be a lot for the flight computer to handle, and even if it could, the engine wouldn't hold together for long. Still, I had to give it a try.
"Sand Pebbles spread it out a little. I'm going to try going to Guardian with this turkey."
Filled with a feeling of apprehension, I moved the configuration lever to "G" and my airplane rolled violently inverted, banging my head against the canopy. The rule book says that if you change configurations and something bad happens you should consider moving things back to where they were before you screwed with them. Needless to say I moved the lever back to "F" and decided to come up with something else. When I regained level flight, the altimeter showed that I'd lost nearly three thousand feet during the configuration changes, and I patted myself on the back for trying things out at high altitude rather than right over the ship. Doing the latter would have killed me.
A look at the instrument panel clock showed our block time was upon us. It was time to start down the chute. "Okay guys, you get aboard. If they have to come fish me out later I won't hold it against you," I said with a smile.
"Roger. Good luck Jake," Josh said.
"Yeah. Good luck, boss," Waylan intoned. "See you on deck."
I flashed my lights at my wingmen and watched as they descended away from me into the darkness toward Platform. My chances of taking a swim were increasing substantially, and I feared it would be a long, wet night.
Chapter Twenty-one - Hard Case
As the last Valkyrie in the Marshall pattern descended out of the night sky, I realized it was time to make a decision as to what I would do. Landing on the carrier would be all but impossible. Even ignoring the fact that I had never made a conventional atmospheric carrier landing--much less made one at night--the arms connecting "Promie" and Daedelus to the SDF-1 stood in the way of any conventional approach. The only way to get aboard ship would be to fly into the net, making my approach from the wrong end of the carrier! Without a Fresnel Optical Landing System on the bow of the ship, the LSO would literally have to "paddle" me aboard like the LSOs of the Korean War period! What a thought. Besides that, the condition of my fighter would necessitate a near-two-hundred knot approach, and even if the LSO and I could keep up with each other as I made my pass, the net might not be strong enough to stop me. The webbing from the nylon barrier would wrap around my canopy--making it impossible for me to eject--and my fighter would careen down the deck before ramming into the hardened alloy of the SDF-1's right arm, where I would die in a ball of fire.
I shuddered at the thought. The Prometheus would not do. I had to come up with another option, and fast. I'd been awake for over twenty hours without a break and fatigue was eating away at me. I could feel myself getting punchy.
Sea Sergeants from all three ships were busy at work plucking pilots out of the water, so ejection would be an unattractive option. Likewise, ditching would not be pleasant, especially in darkness. Bird Island was out of the question as it did not have a full-length runway, but rather a short, five hundred-foot long STOL strip. The island had neither need nor real estate for a conventional landing strip and all equipment and supplies brought onto it were delivered either by boat or VTOL transport. It might be possible to crash land along one of Bird Island's many beaches, but the soft sand would surely flip my fighter onto its back, and I'd be trapped inside it until someone found me at best, killed in the crash at worst. With this in mind, my only other option was to head toward another ship or land base and make a landing there.
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner, Prometheus Approach, all chicks are now safely aboard. What is your status, over?"
"Prometheus Approach, Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner. Unable Guardian mode. I don't want to ditch. I need another option."
"Two Zero Niner, standby one."
Making a night approach to a carrier for the first time would have been a daunting task under normal circumstances--even seasoned aviators with years of experience found little joy in night traps--but these days were anything but. The VF-1 was unique in history having been the first fighter of any kind to be equipped with an integral Forward Looking Infrared System (FLIR). Mounted in the Valkyrie's nose blisters the super sensitive liquid cooled seeker could turn night into day. A development by Gulfstream Aerospace called the Enhanced Vision System (EVS) projected what the FLIR saw right into the HUD in front of the pilot's eyes effectively turning night into day. It was also selectable on the MFD screen on the instrument panel. (Later versions incorporated this feature into the helmet along with helmet mounted sights. The pilot's head movements were mimicked by EVS sensors in the nose and head turret giving unbelievably crisp forward quarter vision at night or in all but the heaviest precipitation). In addition to enhanced situational awareness EVS also offered the advantage of far lower weather minimums for precision instrument approaches. To save on limited ammunition supplies available aboard SDF-1 these gadgets were removed in favor of the nose laser armament. Thus I found myself without FLIR capability at precisely the moment I could have most used it--flying a crippled fighter in the dark skies above the Pacific Ocean.
Heads Up Display with Enhanced Vision System (EVS) similar to the version installed on the VF-1 "Valkyrie". Note the red protective cover for the HUD placed in front of the pilot's eyes to simulate darkness or clouds. The airplane on the other side is clear despite this obstruction.
I orbited in the pattern waiting for the flight controller to come up with a vector. He had access to information on where the nearest carrier was--I did not. My mind was reeling. Japan was almost a thousand miles away, and the weather there was below minimums for an instrument approach. Without approach plates and low en route navigation charts I'd be unable to weave my way in there without running the risk of hitting a mountain. And what if I did make it to Japan? Would I be allowed to return to my ship, or would they keep me around and probe me with questions? I damned sure had to stay with the SDF-1 no matter what, which meant Japan was out of the question. I'd eject first.
"Two Zero Niner, Prometheus Approach. We can Bingo you to King Five Zero, King One Niner, or Falcon. King Five One and One Niner both IFR and currently below minimums. Your call, over."
I flipped open my kneeboard and consulted my notes from an earlier briefing. "King Five Zero" was Yokohama, Japan, "King One Niner" was Kadena, Okinawa--both effectively to the west--and "Falcon" was the aircraft carrier Chronos (CVS-107), cruising some 650 miles away to the east, nowhere near Japan. Once committed to the carrier I would have no other option.
I paused for a few seconds, pondering my limited instrument experience, then took a deep breath and replied, "Two Zero Niner does not have approach plates for King Five Zero or King One Niner and I'm getting pretty tired up here." Although the information could be data linked to my fighter, nine hundred seventy-five miles was too far a distance to risk an instrument approach without a hard copy to view off my kneeboard or on my Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) on the MFD. It was too critical an operation to make a mistake.
"Roger, Two Zero Niner, we're going to send you to Falcon," the controller responded.
"Two Zero Niner, request Bingo info, over."
"Two Zero Niner, this is Prometheus Departure. Vector zero-one-zero for six-niner-five miles. Falcon is reporting ceiling six hundred broken, three miles [visibility], with showers and fog, over."
Great. My first carrier landing in less than ideal weather, on four hours of sleep, twelve hours of duty, and after a flight of nearly seven hundred miles. I pressed a menu button on my center MFD and saw to my dismay that the ACLS was inoperative. It was going to be a fun night.
"Two Zero Niner, roger. Vectoring zero-one-zero," I said, banking my wounded Valkyrie to the right in the direction of the carrier Chronos. It would be interesting to see what life on another Prometheus-class ship was like.
"Two Zero Niner, contact Falcon Approach, two-one-zero point five-zero, good luck."
"Two-one-zero point five-zero for Two Zero Niner. So long," I said, reaching for the com panel.
As I entered the frequency into my radio I found myself wishing I had asked for an escort to the other carrier. If something went wrong I would find myself hundreds of miles away from a rescue helo, and God only knew how long it would take them to find me and pluck me out of the water--if they found me at all.
I tuned my GAPS to find Chronos and watched as the miles ticked slowly downward in tenths. The digital readout brought to mind an image of my car's instrument panel on that first day with Beki, and my mind drifted back toward happier times. I yearned for the tenderness of her touch, the feel her soft skin, the warmth of her body next to my own. Her beautiful face appeared in the cockpit in front of me and I reached up as if to touch her--and found nothing there. I was struck with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. The coldness, the pain, the feeling of isolation. It was more than I could stand, and I cried fitfully into my mask.
Looking up at the starlit sky, I called her name aloud. "Rebeckah!! Why...? Why did you go...?" I wailed and screamed, slugging the cockpit canopy with my fist. "Damn you! Why did you leave me?! Why didn't you fight, Case?! Why?!"
I clenched my jaws as tight as I could and let out a guttural roar, stomping my feet, slamming my elbow against the ejection seat. I was in a rage. "Damn gawdamn it!!! AAAAAH-HAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I sobbed uncontrollably through my screams.
"Jake..." It was a soft and feminine voice.
I stopped hollering and sat upright in my seat, ears straining to hear over the dull roar of my fighter's engine.
I heard the voice again.
"What?" I said aloud.
"Jake, please, listen to me..."
It was Rebeckah's voice. Distant. Hollow.
"Case?" I asked aloud. My engine had grown strangely quiet. "Case is that you?"
"Yes, my love...it is me... I am with you... I don't have a lot of time... You must listen to me, Jake..."
"Case, where are you?!" I asked, searching frantically in the cockpit. It was as if she were inside with me.
"Jake...please. You must go on... This bitterness must end... I am at peace now, Jake... You must do the same..."
"What? I must... Case, why? Why did you go? Why didn't you fight, Case? Why?" I asked aloud, searching frantically for the source of the voice.
"Jake, there was nothing I could do... It was my time... I fought as hard as I could, my love... It was just not meant to be..."
"Case, I have no life without you...I...I...can't...I can't do it by myself..." I said, my cheeks now a flowing river of tears.
"Jake, you must go on..."
As I watched in amazement, her image appeared in front of me, ghostly at first, then as real as life. "Rebeckah?" I asked, leaning forward, reaching out with my hands to touch her. She reached forward to touch my hands as well. Our fingers met. I could feel her! "Can this really be you, Case?!" I asked, between sobs.
"Yes, Jake. I'm here. But I cannot stay. You must go on, Jake. You have to take care of our daughter. You have a responsibility to her."
"A daughter? It's a girl?" I asked.
"Yes. You must be there for her, Jake. You must be there for her. You cannot do it by worrying over me..."
"No buts, Jake. You must go on. Someday we will be together again...but for now, you must go on. Jake, promise me you will go on."
"When will we be together?! When?"
"In time, Jake. In time. Until then, you must promise to go on."
"I promise, Case... I promise," I said in disbelief. I could feel the weight of her body on my leg. She was literally sitting in my lap. I could feel her. I stroked her face...her hair. She was really with me--physically with me. It was nothing less than incredible.
"Jake," she said, with her characteristic smile, her bright blue eyes flashing. "I love you, Jake..."
"I love you, Rebeckah," I said, leaning forward to kiss her.
As our lips met, I felt all the bitterness and anger that had been pent-up inside me since the day she died disappear completely. We kissed for what seemed like minutes but was surely only seconds. Our lips parted and she caressed my cheek.
"I must go now Jake," she said, softly.
"Stay with me, Beckah. Please stay with me!" I begged her.
"I cannot stay, Jake. I have to go. We'll be together again, I promise you," she said, as her image began to fade.
"Beki, no! Please!" I yelled, reaching out to grab her fading image.
"I'm sorry Jake... I must go... I love you..." she said.
"I love you, too, Beki. I love you, too," I said to her as she slowly faded away.
"I love you...Jake..."
And she was gone... The sound of her voice slowly replaced by the dull roar of my Valkyrie's engine. In a stupor, I checked my oxygen system--everything was in the green. I checked the seal of my faceplate, and it too, was fine. I removed my mask, slapped myself hard across the face, and pinched my arm until I nearly drew blood. I was wide-awake. I contemplated the thought that perhaps I had passed out or suffered some sort of trauma when I thumped my head against the canopy. But nothing was amiss. There was no denying what had just happened and I was utterly and completely stunned. The serenity that enveloped me was more refreshing than the coolest breeze of the summer. There was no doubt about it: if only for a moment, Rebeckah had come back to me. She had been there!
I missed her so badly, and cried tears that were a mixture of sadness and joy, yet her words had a tremendous effect on me. We would be together again. I wondered what she meant by that. Would I have to wait until death to be with her, or would she come visit me again? I had no idea, but I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was with me in the cockpit that night over the South Pacific, and at that moment life had suddenly taken on a new meaning.
I cruised toward the aircraft carrier at three hundred fifty knots. Any faster caused the left rudder of my fighter to flutter and the ACS would relinquish its rudder control authority--something that was not supposed to occur short of a catastrophic flight control malfunction--resulting in a sudden, rather pronounced sideslip. With an engine out, the book called for five degrees of bank into the operating engine and rudder appropriate for zero sideslip. This provided the best performance and aircraft control. Normally, the ACS would automatically maintain the zero sideslip for us, but something in the tail of my Valkyrie was not right. When the ACS went off line for the third time, I commanded the computer to run through a series of tests but nothing abnormal appeared. Thus I deduced the problem had to be a structural one and sure enough, I was right.
Flying on one engine without the ACS's help can be a real chore, and the leg muscles on the side of the operating engine get a real workout. I was already exhausted and the idea of stomping on a rudder pedal to save time--assuming the tail didn't fall off--was not particularly appealing. Thus, the trip to Chronos took longer than it otherwise might have, and went a long way toward explaining the relieved tone in my voice on the initial call to the ship's Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC).
"Falcon Approach, Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner. Inbound Falcon's one-nine-zero, fifty-five miles, out of Flight Level Two Three Zero, over."
"Two Zero Niner, Falcon Approach. Squawk two-zero-one-zero and ident."
I reached for the transponder and switched it to 2010, then hit the IDENT button. "Two Zero Niner squawking two-zero-one-zero."
"Two Zero Niner, Falcon Approach. Radar contact. Turn right heading zero-one-five. Descend and maintain Flight Level Two Zero Zero. Slow to three-zero-zero."
"Three-zero-zero knots, zero-one-five on the heading, leaving Two Three Zero for Two Zero Zero, Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner." I confirmed.
As instructed, I began a speed-bleed descent by retarding the throttle, popping the speed brakes, and extending the spoilers by thumbing a button on the stick. With half the spoilers on the left wing gone I could only pop them up about ten degrees, and had to hold in a lot of left aileron to keep my fighter from rolling to the right. At twenty thousand feet I eased back on the stick and retracted the spoilers, watching as the airspeed moved quickly toward two hundred ninety knots. I retracted the brakes and eased in enough power to maintain my target airspeed. The distance to the ship continued to dwindle, and I allowed myself a moment to consider the fact that I might actually make it aboard.
I quickly filled the controller in on my situation, informing him of my combat damage and lack of atmospheric carrier landing experience. He dutifully noted the information and put the Senior Landing Signal Officer on the radio to me.
"Don't worry about a thing. It'll be a piece of cake," he assured me.
I knew better than to believe him, but tried to just the same, saying a silent prayer as I stared into the blackness below.
At twenty miles I called Marshall, and at the controller's direction, eased my Valk out of the starry sky toward the clouds below. The moon had just popped out of the overcast to my right, and its incandescent glow gave a texture to the puffy clouds all around me. Flashes of lightning punctuated the summer night as I descended toward the cottony, gray hued clouds forming the lowest point of a storm system that boiled up from the ocean all the way to fifty-five thousand feet. I brushed through the uppermost layers in the valley of the storm, and the moonlight began ebbing and flowing in a strange rhythm. Then came blackness.
I switched to my IFR procedure, cross-referencing my MFDs with the HUD to insure that nothing was amiss, for it is an axiom in carrier aviation that a good start begets a good finish. Satisfied with my approach, I called platform.
"Fast Eagle Two Zero Niner, Falcon Approach. Charlie on arrival, report Gate."
I lowered my hook and continued on instruments down to Gate.
"Two Zero Niner, Valkyrie Gate, ten point oh," I called.
"Two Zero Niner, roger, go dirty," came the Radar Approach Controller.
I lowered my gear, flaps, and rechecked that my hook was down. I was passing through one thousand feet and began to slowly reduce my rate of descent. During an instrument approach to a carrier your rate of descent in feet per minute should not exceed your altitude over the ocean.
"Paddles is up," came the LSO.
I was still in blackness and my heart was in my throat. I was scared to death and as my fighter wobbled in the night sky I began a brutal tug of war with vertigo. Focused on my HUD, I did my best to ignore the conflicting signals between my inner ear and my eyes. My instrument experience was extremely limited, and the idea of landing on a tossing and turning space the size of a tennis court in the pitch black night did not appeal to me in the slightest.
"Two Zero Niner, Falcon Approach. You're at three and a quarter miles, on glide slope, on course. Check wheels down and locked."
With the Radar Approach Controller's friendly reminder, I again checked my fighter's configuration. Everything was set.
My eyes darted about the cockpit as I scanned my instruments, focusing the majority of my attention on the HUD and the abundance of information it provided on the status of my aircraft. With the exception of the occasional flash of lightning, the blackness was darker than anything I have ever seen--or rather, NOT seen--and aside from the dim glow of my instrument panel, there was an abundance of nothing in all directions. I was really sweating now.
"Two Zero Niner, Falcon Approach. You're at a mile and a quarter, call the ball."
I stared into the blackness as I had done so many times in space, straining for a glimpse of the ship and the ball. It was nowhere to be seen. My heart began to beat rapidly and my mouth ran dry as I felt the onset of the sheer terror that aviators describe conducting night carrier landings. It is a fear that exceeds all but the most extreme combat involvement or in-flight emergency, and no amount of exposure ever seems to limit its impact.
"Two Zero Niner, Valkyrie, Clara, ten point oh, manual," I said, searching frantically for the ball.
The manual call was to insure the LSO was aware that I had the Approach Power Compensator (APC)-"auto-throttle"--and Direct Lift Control (DLC) features of the ACLS disengaged. In space the auto-throttle is never used, and in order to cut down on the time it took to train us, we had not been taught how to use the damned thing any way. With half my wing gone, the DLC was equally useless, and Chronos' LSO needed this information so he would know the proper calls to make to me on my approach, as the commands used for a manual approach are different than those for an auto-throttle one.
"Paddles Contact. Two Zero Niner, keep it coming. Ease your aircraft right. Okay, hold there. Give me a little power," the LSO calmly demanded.
I was below the glide path. In space, using the ACS, I would simply ease back on the stick (the same reaction held true for an auto-throttle pass), but in the atmosphere under a manual pass like this one, altitude is controlled solely by power, airspeed by attitude. The LSO was instructing me to add power slightly while maintaining a constant attitude. I was hurtling toward the ship at a blistering one hundred eighty knots so as not to stall my port wing. Feeling low and fast, I fought the urge to pull back on the stick slightly to change my vector before reducing (or even reversing) thrust--the proper reaction in space under such a condition. I resisted with all my might, aided by the LSO's voice over the radio. Still unable to see the ball, and with the altimeter reading three hundred feet, I was about to execute a missed approach when the LSO gave me his verbal cut signal.
"Ease it over!" he ordered.
I pushed forward on the stick just a hair and saw the ball flash past me as my fighter slammed onto the deck. I shoved the throttle into afterburner and felt a bump as the hook skipped the number four wire then snared the number five. I'd trapped aboard the ship without even seeing a gawdamned thing! I slammed the throttle to idle, as adrenaline flowed freely through my veins, and I felt my Valkyrie being pulled backward by the arrestor cable.
"Son of a bitch!!" I exclaimed to myself. I'd made it! "Paddles from Two Zero Niner, thanks! I owe you big time," I said, excitedly, relieved.
"Any time, Fast Eagle. Any time. Welcome aboard," he said.
At the direction of the deck crew I retracted my tail hook, taxied my fighter toward the bow of the carrier, and pulled the engine to idle/cutoff. I sat quietly and listened to the instruments and gyros humming softly as they spun down, suddenly weary, but totally thankful. The expression on the plane captain's face as he climbed up the boarding ladder and saw the rows of kill markings beneath my canopy was unforgettable. He was clearly shocked.
I opened the canopy and began unstrapping myself from the airplane. I'd been in the cockpit for nearly eight hours without a break, and I was exhausted. I placed my kneeboard on the glare panel and my helmet on the canopy rim.
"Welcome aboard, sir," the plane captain said.
"Thank you. You'll never know how glad I am to be here," I said, climbing wearily out of the cockpit and down the ladder. "Thank you, baby," I said, as I kissed the nose of my Valkyrie. "You are one hard case, sweetheart."
As I patted the fighter's nose I realized I had just come up with the perfect name for my fighter: "Hard Case." The double meaning was unmistakably clear--and appropriate. I blew a kiss toward the sky, then, turned to the plane captain and asked the only question I needed to know.
"You got a head aboard this damned thing?"
He broke into understanding laughter. "Right this way, sir."
"Hot damn," I exclaimed, following him most eagerly, a new bounce in my step. Life was suddenly worth living again.
The repairs on my fighter were expected to take two days. During that time I was to be a guest of Chronos' Valkyrie Squadron, VF-33 "The Screaming Toms," so named for its heritage as a premier F-14 "Tomcat" squadron during the late-20th and early-21st century. My chaperone was a young Second Lieutenant named Chris "Country" Meadows, and he went a long way to insure that my stay aboard ship was extremely pleasant. Indeed I was treated more like a hero than a lowly NCO. The fighter pilots were extremely eager to hear details about the Zentraedi--their equipment, their tactics, their appearance, etc.--and we spent many hours in the Ready Room discussing the events of the previous twelve months.
Lieutenant Meadows gave me a tour of the ship, one of the newer Prometheus-class carriers. Although the ship's layout was familiar, it seemed far less crowded than its older sister ship, and for good reason--Chronos had about a third as many personnel crammed aboard it as did Promie. As it was, I did notice many refinements and improvements in workmanship and functionality aboard Chronos, and I was quite impressed with the progress that had been made subsequent to the time Prometheus was built.
As any aircraft-lover might guess, however, the most enjoyable portion of the tour had nothing to do with the ship itself, but rather, with an up close and personal view of the aircraft aboard it. The Chronos' Air Wing was a diversified one to say the least. From the F-24 "Dragon," a high-speed, high-altitude fighter interceptor with STOL capability, to the LTV "Adventurer II" VTOL attack jet, the planes aboard the ship were a highly integrated, cohesive fighting force. I was even given the opportunity to fly in the F-24 "Dragon," and I absolutely loved it. It was without a doubt the finest dogfighter in the world. With a roll rate that bordered on unbearable and a thrust to weight ratio that would make even a Veritech pilot salivate, I quickly decided that every aviator should have one! I was even more shocked when the pilot, 1LT "Thunk" Sherrard, trapped aboard Chronos after our flight at only fifty knots! It was clear to me then why the "Ultra Viper" was the safest carrier aircraft in the RDF inventory. It was truly a work of art.
F-24 "Dragon II"
As the repairs to my fighter were completed, the members of VF-33 made me an honorary member, and I was presented with a beautiful leather jacket emblazoned with VF-33's insignia on the back. I was genuinely touched, and vowed to do something nice for the fighter pilots who had extended such kindness to me during my short stay aboard ship.
As I made my way to the flight deck, one of the ship's maintenance personnel sauntered over and handed me a scorched set of bearings. "That's what did it, Lieutenant. A pair of fifty-nine cent bearings brought that multi-million dollar engine of yours to its knees."
I was not surprised. "Thanks Chief. These will look great on my key ring," I said, shaking hands with the burly enlisted man.
"Don't mention it. Have a safe flight home, sir."
"I sure will."
We continued up to the flight deck where Lieutenant Meadows thanked me for sharing my knowledge with the pilots on the ship. In the event Chronos' air wing ever engaged the Zents in combat, the information I had supplied would prove highly valuable.
"Good luck, Jake," Lieutenant Meadows said, shaking my hand.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. I hope to meet you gentlemen again, soon."
"As do I. Take care," he said.
"Aye, aye, sir," I said, saluting the young Lieutenant.
I turned on my heel to walk toward my fighter, and the sight that struck my eyes was enough to make me sick. My beautiful Valkyrie was smeared from nose to tail in ugly white paint, bearing all forms of profanity, comments about the manhood of the members of my squadron, and other cracks about the illegitimacy of our parentage. This was my first exposure to an age-old tradition shared between rival squadrons, and I winced visibly, wondering if I had been wrong about taking such a liking to the types of people who would defame my airplane in this way!
The members of the squadron could hardly control their laughter as I clambered aboard my fighter and started the engines. Since Chronos was actually able to generate some wind over its deck by moving along, the catapult stroke was far softer than that on the Prometheus. This did little to ease the anger I felt at having had my beautiful fighter abused in such a cruel manner, however, and as I turned on course toward Promie, I swore I would have my revenge.
The kill report for the Bird Island protection mission officially credited me with eight victories, plus the fighter I had collided with, bringing my total to seventy-one. Josh and Waylan scored well themselves with twelve apiece, bringing the three of us within striking distance of the magic century mark. There is little doubt our scores that day were substantially higher, but the three of us could not have cared less. That the ship was safe was more rewarding than any number of kills that could be credited to our names.
For the next few days we continued to fly our BARCAP patrols, and they were totally uneventful. The SDF-1's re-supply operation was nearing completion and it became readily apparent that my window for revenge was narrowing. I had to act fast.
I quickly devised a plan to give the Chronos' air wing a show it would not forget. With Philo's help, Waylan, Josh, and I were able to con the supply officer into allowing us access to the paint shop.
"We need the paint to do some touch-up work on one of our fighters," was the line we gave him. "You can confirm it with Lieutenant Carr if necessary."
"Oh, no problem. That's fine. Take all of it you need," the supply officer said.
Needless to say we carried off a hell of a lot of paint. We then paid a visit to every head aboard ship and stole all the paper towels and toilet paper we could get our hands on. Finally, we secured several Zip-Tite garbage bladders in various sizes and assembled in the hangar bay to do our dirty deed.
With extreme care, we filled the bladders with paint, sealed them, and placed them inside the landing gear wells of our three fighters. Then we placed several rolls of paper towels and toilet paper inside each gear well, securing them in such a way that the cat stroke would not break them loose. Finally, I placed a note inside the nose gear well of my fighter so the intended target would know who sent it.
Rubbing my hands together I laughed evilly. When the morning BARCAP ended, I would seek my revenge.
On the morning of 1 June 2010 we launched as part of the 0900 BARCAP. I had cautioned my teammates to go easy when maneuvering so as not to pop our payloads loose. The patrol was boring to say the least, and we didn't see so much as a seagull. When our relief appeared, we broke away and headed toward Chronos. I had received permission to spend an hour flight testing my fighter from Lieutenant Carr. This was not an unusual procedure for a fighter that had undergone such extensive repairs as mine had, and it afforded me enough time to complete my little prank.
"Falcon Approach, Sand Pebble One. Flight of three Victor Fox One's, inbound off the Falcon one-five-zero, descending out of Flight Level Two One Zero, over," I called.
"Sand Pebble One, Falcon Approach. Descend and maintain one zero thousand. Squawk one-two-five-zero and IDENT."
"Sand Pebble One, squawking one-two-five-zero."
"Sand Pebble One, radar contact. Turn left heading three-one-zero. Report Platform."
As instructed, I proceeded on course toward Platform.
"Okay, Sand Pebbles, this is it. We're in," I said, flashing a thumbs up to my wingmen. "You know what to do from here on. Good luck."
As we descended toward the Chronos, I couldn't help but chuckle excitedly. There was no stopping us now. Those bastards would be shocked out of their minds.
I reported Platform, was handed off to the appropriate controller as I descended toward Gate, and flew a precise approach toward the ship. The LSO worked me down the groove toward the carrier, and I found it hard to refrain from laughing as I called the ball. At 3/4 of a mile I pushed the throttle forward and lowered my nose toward the ocean.
"Attitude. Attitude! Power!!! Power!!! POWER!!!" came the LSO's blood curdling scream. "WAVE OFF!! WAVE OFF!! BURNER! BURNER! JEEEESUS KEE-RIIIST WAVE OFF!!!" Without a doubt the LSO was diving into his safety net to avoid having his head taken off by an out of control Valkyrie. I smiled at the thought.
Skimming the ocean, I saw that the flight deck of the Chronos was full of parked aircraft, and I roared with glee as I pushed my throttles into afterburner. At the precise moment, I eased back on the stick, then reefed into a six-and-a-half-G pull. The centrifugal force exerted on the items in my landing gear wells propelled them out in an arc toward the plane-laden deck of the carrier. Once certain the contents were clear, I rolled my Valk one hundred eighty degrees, pulled the power to military thrust, and eased back on the stick. Peering through the top of my canopy I saw the six giant bags of white paint burst as they struck the aircraft parked toward the front of the carrier, toilet paper streamers floating down all around them. Immediately behind me, Josh and Waylan hurled twelve more bags of yellow, blue, and red paint toward the ship, and as I watched, the bladders impacted in rapid succession, turning the front of the carrier into a giant impressionist painting.
"Hahahahahhaahhahahahaaaaa!! Take that boys!" I exclaimed, retracting my landing gear and rolling upright. "Woo-hoo-hoo-hahahahahahaa!" It was beyond hysterical. "Sand Pebbles join on me!"
Laughing so hard it hurt, my wingmen formed up on my fighter.
"Sand Pebbles go to Guardian mode," I called out, heading back toward the Chronos.
With Josh and Waylan holding a perfect formation, I brought us to a stop in relation to the carrier and descended to about fifteen feet above the huge ship. Popping my canopy open, I was greeted by the brisk, salty air that roared across the carrier's flight deck. Reaching behind my seat I retrieved two padded containers labeled "VF-31." With a snappy salute I hurled them both out of the cockpit as hard as I could so they would not get sucked into the intakes, and watched them bounce onto the deck to be retrieved by deck crewmen. The bottles of Scotch contained in each were a gesture of thanks for the jacket and a sign that no hard feelings were taken at the abuse handed to my wonderful airplane.
Lowering the canopy once more, I moved the throttle through the burner detent and launched straight upward, Waylan and Josh with me all the way. Stomping on the right rudder pedal, we pirouetted in formation like a sadistic trio of ballet dancers all the way up to three thousand feet. Reconfiguring to fighter mode, we then headed toward our own ship--after making a nice, tight, beautifully precise low-level pass over the Chronos, wings waggling a good-natured "so long." I would have given anything to see the expressions on the faces of the Chronos' pilots when they read my note (I had attached a copy to each bottle of Scotch to insure it was received) confirming it was me.
"Thanks for the paint job. However, you need some work on your methods and I thought I'd give you a practical demonstration. This is how seasoned combat pilots paint. Do you like our technique? Best Wishes--Jeff Framton."
The three of us laughed the entire way back from the Chronos. We just couldn't help it. After all, those boys were going to have one hell of a fun time cleaning up that mess!
"Pay back is a bitch, isn't it?" Waylan noted, an ear to ear grin on his face.
We laughed at Waylan's comment and continued to crack jokes during the entire return trip. We only stopped when it was time to contact the ship, and even then, I had a hard time refraining from bursting into a hysterical, guffawing fit. As we descended toward the SDF-1, I realized that this was the first time I had allowed myself to laugh since Case had died. Indeed, seeing her again had changed the entire direction of my life, and as I glanced up at the bright blue sky, I took the opportunity to say, "Thank you, sweetheart."
As the carrier came into view, it was obvious that the news of our "painting" had preceded us. We screamed over the center of the SDF-1 at three hundred seventy-five knots. Giving Josh a two-fingered salute with my left hand (my "kiss off" signal), I broke into a hard left turn, my Valk's wings motoring forward for low-speed flight, and entered the downwind leg for Prometheus. The entire deck of the carrier was filled with cheering and waving sailors and pilots, and as I shut my Guardian down after a perfect landing, I began to worry. What if Lieutenant Carr was displeased? A cold chill ran down my spine.
"Oh shit," I muttered to myself as I popped open the canopy. "I could lose my wings."
I clambered down from the cockpit, exchanging hi-fives with the deck crew before meeting up with Josh and Waylan. "Good work, boys," I said, trying to look as confident as possible, the cold reality of my childish impetuousness threatening to overwhelm me.
"That was absolutely hysterical, Jake. You nailed them good. Pow!!" Josh gesticulated excitedly with his hands.
I smiled unconvincingly, then turned and made my way down to our Ready Room on the hangar deck below. I walked through the hatch and was greeted by the sight of a stoic, obviously irritated, Lieutenant Carr. "Oh, shit," I said to myself.
"Sit down you three," he said, pointing toward three seats in the front row. "Do you bastards realize what the hell you just did?! Do you?!!"
We sat in silence.
"Well?! I'm waiting for an answer? Do you three geniuses realize what you have done?"
"Uhm, sir," Josh volunteered. "We're, uhm...ahem...We're sorry, sir."
"You're sorry?! You're sorry?!! You think saying you're sorry is going to fix this," he roared, his black face turning darker with rage. "Do you?!!"
"No sir," I answered.
"What am I supposed to do with you idiots? What...am...I...supposed...to...do...with...you, uh?!!" he exclaimed, his voice louder than a Valkyrie's engines in full burner.
After a short pause, Waylan muttered quietly, "Shoot us...sir..."
"Shoot, you? Shoot you??" he asked incredulously, his French accent suddenly seeming more pronounced. "Hell! I'd like to promote you!"
"Promote us, sir?" I asked, turning in shocked disbelief toward my teammates.
It was then that we realized Carr was putting us on. "Hell yes, Sergeant! That was the best damned show I have ever heard of in my ten years of service. 'This is how seasoned combat pilots paint.' Ha! Good job boys!" he exclaimed extending his hand. "I hope you brought back gun camera film!"
I was stunned. The rest of the squadron quickly piled into the ready room and started up a giant celebration. As the heroes of the hour, not a one of us could buy a thing to eat or drink in town for over a week--wherever we went someone always volunteered to pick up the check. We also found ourselves immortalized by name as "The Three Picassos," and our little bomb run became one of the legendary stories of the First Robotech War. It was a truly marvelous moment in my career, and an experience I will never forget!
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
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