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Firing Back

by Gary Clifton

“Searchlight 27, this is Option. My JPS shows you at negative max, inside the margin. Langley picks up on that, they’ll raise hell. Can you re-chart... uh, thirty-one miles south and maintain your present heading?”

“Option, you could find space thirty-one miles north,” Searchlight 27’s sultry voice drifted across the scratchy resonance of ultra-high frequency radio waves distorted by speeds approaching 12,000 knots at one hundred feet altitude.

Even contorted, Searchlight 27’s tone dripped sensuality. Heather Du Plessis, recruited out of university ten years before, was a fine pilot. She was also multi-talented. Jackson had spent the previous night in her bunk and several more before that, with every intention of repeating the engagement.

Jackson repeated, “Searchlight, this is Option, and you are out of position. Move south now. Priority six red.”

A raspy voice that both recognized but that neither had never known in person, scratched onto the system. “Searchlight, get your ass outta the zone. Now.”

“Searchlight received.” All flirtation flushed away. “Vectoring south immediately. Sorry, Homerun, didn’t realize y’all were out and about tonight.”

“Not out, dammit, sitting on my ass sixteen floors below ground at Langley. Now listen to your team leader. I believe you just received a thirty-day yellow sheet because of that mouth.” The rebuke was serious. Searchlight would park her humor at curbside, fly her aircraft, and avoid talking back to Mission Commander Option, at least for the time being.

Homerun spoke again. “Option, we show activity. Four units, just south of Mexicali, angling south by southwest into Sonora, south of Nogales. Section Six assessment is no entry into U.S. Territory and a probable low-level attack on the Mexican radar station at La Belatosa.”

Jackson immediately saw the plan ISIS was pursuing. A dumb move in terms of material losses, but they’d concocted similar heavy-handed operations before. ISIS would attempt to take out the La Belatosa station and tell the world the U.S. had done it.

Anybody who knew a damned thing would see the deception, but the world of 2031 included an uninformed mass of humanity whose give-a-damn factor was dead even with the ground.

In defense of Israel, the U.S. had dropped a class-four nuke on a rogue government five years before, skewing public opinion even further out of balance. World gutter talk had edged the United States from the Great Satan to Great Satan times two.

The loons of the world, well aware of the consequences of a direct attack on the U.S., engaged instead in a backwater war of grab-ass, hoping to turn a few million more people against America. The leverage was definitely in their favor.

“Do you have a vector for us?” Jackson asked. “And the bogies’ location and ETA?”

“You can’t see them on your system, Option?”

“Negative... at least not yet.” Mindful of flying just above ground level at high speed, he leaned over the series of screens in the darkened cockpit of his FA-99. Are they invisibles?” He was asking if the enemy was flying stealth aircraft.

“Negative, just still out of range. You’ll smell them soon enough. Bird’s Eye estimates time of arrival at La Belatosa as 1:06 hours at eight thousand feet. Option, handle at your own discretion, but we see signs of anti-aircraft artillery again tonight. You must maintain ground integrity.”

Ground integrity? Jackson wondered. Bouncing along at six hundred feet, his FA-99 was bucking like a rodeo bronco so close to ground level in the hot, semi-desert region; fly any lower and he’d have to drive to Nogales.

The ISIS forces had upped a surprise for this latest venture. Provisioned, as well as anyone could tell, by the Russian government, the enemy had acquired a monster the Central Intelligence Agency apparently knew nothing about. A massive submarine, capable of carrying at least a dozen drones was hove to somewhere in the relatively shallow water southwest of San Diego. The sub was equipped to remain submerged and launch and recover drones from below sea level.

The fact the water was not of great depth actually helped the craft evade detection while lying on the sea floor. Jackson was confident Langley would find the submerged craft and eliminate it in a few days. Until then, caution was necessary. It was high noon again tonight.

The CIA had grown in stature and power in the past thirty years and now not only controlled all activity along the U.S. border, and in any foreign venture, they also occupied a seat at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Jackson had been a clandestine operative for nearly thirty years, engaged exclusively in black-ops flight missions. A former Methodist minister, he’d always managed to compartmentalize the dichotomy of killing hundreds in air-to-air and air-to-ground confrontations around the world. A sensitive loner, quiet and precise in his personal habits, Jackson was the best chess player in his section, stationed near Phoenix. He studied the maze in front of him.

“Roger that, Homerun. Searchlight, do you copy Nogales at Latitude 31.31847 North, Longitude 110.94617 West?”

“Copy,” she replied steadily.

“Then vector to that mark. I’ll maintain the one-hundred mile margin to the south. Stay low and don’t hit any trees.”

“There aren’t any trees in that area, Option.”

ISIS, again propped up by the Russians, had used their super submarine to bring in a weapon equally unknown to Langley. Some way, they’d managed the past few nights to lift a ground-fire anti-aircraft gun platform from the submarine, hide it is the shallows below Baja California and crank off rounds at passing aircraft.

Each morning, they’d moved it back to the mother sub before daylight. No combat aircraft had been hit, but two nights before, they’d managed to bag an Arizona West commercial liner with 250 souls aboard. All were lost. Jackson wondered where they hid the helicopter or helicopters strong enough to tote the load of that gun.

“You heard. Be aware of ground fire,” he cautioned Searchlight, although he felt no immediate danger. Nonetheless, concern for hostile fire from the ground was the cause for keeping the two aircraft in his flight one hundred miles apart and on the deck. The enemy couldn’t shoot what they couldn’t see, even with modern radar-assisted guidance systems.

“Roger that, Option.” The sexiness crept back into her voice. From long experience, Jackson knew Heather Du Plessis could get high on bubble gum, and night-fire activity drove her into another orbit. Jackson smiled at the orbit thought in his darkened world. Far from orbit, Heather was flying just above oil-well height.

Jackson kicked the FA-99 up to 10,000 knots and 1,000 feet. In fifteen minutes he was cruising the Mexico-Arizona border. Like distorted insects hurrying to lunch, the squat little drones came into view on his screen in minutes, flying at 8,000 feet.

Toads, as the Langley pilots called them, could make a top speed of about twelve hundred knots at sea level. Two nights earlier, after reducing his drag to stall status, he’d downed two Toads, both on the U.S. side.

Although both had been extensively damaged upon crash, he was confident Langley would have a working copy in weeks. Having to be versatile enough to fly from below sea level but rugged enough to conduct air attack operations, the Toads — actual designation Stupic-39’s — had to be durable.

Jackson made altitude, watching the blips steadily move east on his screens, hoping for the opportunity to bag a dozen more before the supply was gone. Any drones he destroyed after last night’s experience would have to be taken from distance to overcome the speed discrepancy.

“Option to Searchlight. Check your weapons.”

“Weapons inspected and in order, Option Leader.” Had she not been certain Langley was listening carefully, she might have referred to Jackson less formally.

“Remain mindful of ground fire, Searchlight.”

“Roger that. All systems ‘go’ and tested. I don’t think those little puddle jumpers have much of an air to air detection system.”

“Yes, but as you gain sky, that damned moveable unit they used to shoot down the commercial jet night before last certainly does have eyes. Double tap your screen for incoming.”

“I’d love to get a shot at that rig, Option.”

Homerun broke in. “Can the small talk. Our estimate is enemy contact in less than ten minutes.”

“Roger that,” Option and Searchlight echoed.

“I’ll close on your left about ten miles, Searchlight. We shut this down, then you owe me a beer.”

“Roger that.”

“Knock it off,” Homerun said sharply.

The weapons of death carried aboard by both Jackson and Searchlight had been augmented that afternoon as they loaded up at base. The standard FA-99 air-to-air superiority missile had been expanded to a non-gun powder affair, which operated on carbon expansion force power. Jackson could seek, find, and fire a world of death at any target with no trace of the weapon in the air. The lack of spark eliminated any form of muzzle flash or traceability. They couldn’t see it coming.

The enemy’s only warning was destruction. And the thing never ran out of ammunition, gathering new rations of mayhem from carbon in the atmosphere. Even Heather, a reasonable hardcore lab squint type, didn’t understand it. Jackson had told her all she needed to know was how to pull the trigger.

But the booster came when the smiling crew chief rolled his cigar stub across his mouth as he strapped a new kill-toy on the left wing of each aircraft. Resembling a normal missile about five feet long, the chief had explained that this new horror, code-named Armageddon, was equipped with an internal aiming system capable of finding “a rat in a hole in the Mohave Desert.”

“Get your fix, tell this baby who you want eliminated, and say goodbye,” the chief had chuckled. “You won’t believe what this thing spits out. And don’t lose it on the Mexican side.”

Jackson hummed along in pitch-blackness, the Armageddon riding beneath his wing in deadly silence. The weapon had been developed and manufactured by Cud Sec Systems in a highly guarded facility buried beneath the Arizona Desert an hour’s drive north of Phoenix. Designed and supervised by a team of aerospace and software engineers who averaged twenty years education, the weapon would not fail. Should Jackson or Option have need to shoot somebody with the thing, they were deader than good table manners.

* * *

Although Jackson and company didn’t know it yet, eight hundred miles to the west, ISIS had managed to dredge up their portable anti-aircraft gun platform, move it to a secluded spot in the Mexican desert well east of Baja, and poke its ugly seeker snout skyward to acquire targets.

The enemy ground to air system had probably been designed in Moscow, also by highly trained and intelligent engineers. Jackson’s best guess was that the missile system was a Petrofsky, which probably had been sold and resold through the international markets for ten years or more.

What Jackson had no way of knowing was the difference in mechanics in assembling the Petrofsky. The American missile was armed with its deadly venom by a hands-on crew, all with delicate security clearances, careers, and homes and families to go to at the end of the day.

When the Petrofsky’s payload was installed in an isolated country that had been absorbed by another country, then another, the workers had been slave laborers of a sort, incapable of walking away from the job voluntarily. “Take this job and shove it” translated directly to “shoot me behind the ear” at the Petrofsky plant.

The final assembly of the missile now waiting years later on the Mexican frontier, had been supervised by Karmid Revnadsky, father of five daughters, pillar of strength in his Temple, a staunch supporter of the law, a man dedicated to his family.

Karmid Revnadsky, educated in computer science in Greece, had been a village elder and successful computer programmer when the new regime had taken over the remote part of Eastern Europe where he lived. The regime assigned Karmid Revnadsky to use his skills to upload live explosive charges into the missiles manufactured by the Petrofsky Complex.

He kept the faith. But faith was hard to maintain after uniformed soldiers of the regime had broken into his home a week earlier, raped his wife and daughters and beaten him senseless.

Karmid Revnadsky had completed a missile-load the day before, then a second the next day. The first, he’d carefully checked and re-checked the sensors designed to cause the final, catastrophic explosion. Then he’d been rebuked by his supervisor. No punishment would follow for the men who’d invaded his home.

That afternoon, he’d assembled the second missile. It seemed a just cause to casually fold back the trip-wire transistor attached to the simple blasting cap used to ignite a detonation sufficient to sink an American aircraft carrier. This missile might find paydirt and might even achieve a minor explosion, but it would not fully function.

Karmid Revnadsky walked into his superior’s quarters that same evening, knelt in prayer, and detonated the ten-pound high ordnance device he carried in his pocket. Sixteen officials were killed. The regime shot his wife and daughters the next day, but they had already been ruined anyway.

Karmid Revnadsky, too, had been the best chess player in his section.

* * *

Homerun flexed Langley’s muscles once more. “Lotta air traffic in that area tonight, Option. My orders are to fire with my approval only.”

“Damn,” Jackson said into his transponder. “This caper is so routine. Worst case scenario: ruin Searchlight’s manicure.”

“Target acquired, eighty-seven miles east of Nogales,” Searchlight broke in. “Uh... eleven hundred knots at eight thousand... now diving to seventy-five hundred. Permission to fire?”

“Shoot those bastards,” Homerun directed casually from his hidden cave a continent away.

“Splash... uh... one, splash two,” the excitement in Searchlight’s voice was evident. “Hot damn, splash three. Breaking left. Do you have me on visual, Option?”

“Affirmative,” Option said. “Keep rolling left and we’ll make it a clean sweep.” He studied the lone drone showing on his screen and squeezed off a conventional carbon burst. “Splash four,” he said calmly.

“They’re making this too easy,” Searchlight’s voice again distorted over the high speed radio blur.

Option thought Homerun’s voice a tad calm when he said, “Ground fire on your six, Searchlight. Break left, descend to one thousand.”

The horror of failure enveloped Jackson’s cockpit and the Mexican night sky. Heather Du Plessis — Searchlight — the hottest chick in the whole wing was gone in less than a heartbeat. Karmid Revnadsky’s missile had functioned despite years in a storage bin. One of the drones had carried surveillance cameras after all. But the kill shot had come from that portable ground fire missile launcher.

Jackson stared out of his cockpit at the night sun of millions of burning, falling bits fo debris.

“Dammit, Option, wake up. They have a tone on you, too. Break right. Gun your ride, man, and you can outrun that thing.”

Jackson yanked the FA-99 to his right. The Petrofsky detonated ten feet off his left wing, but the explosion was a dud. Karmid Revnadsky’s second missile had worked as intended. Oddly, Jackson felt a small sting in his left upper chest, then noticed the cracked shatter-hole in the windscreen.

The blasting cap had exploded, but the missile had not. Although the pain was bearable, he knew his body. The A-Fib in his heart suggested a tiny piece of brass blasting cap had nicked the aorta or something similar: a one in a million shot. The sensation was that he had drunk a large, chocolate malt, which had expanded to a gallon after ingestion.

“Langley, do you have a return tone on that last ordinance?”

“Yes, Option, but our monitors show you’re hurt. Can you take a vector to Phoenix.”

“No, sir. Not sure I can make it that far. Please supply the ground gun coordinates.”

Another voice spoke on the system. “C’mon, Jackson, we can clear L6 to the south. You can make it.” It was the crew chief, who’d apparently sat patiently listening to the action all along.

The unsteadiness in Jackson’s tone was instantly apparent. “Hey, dude, thanks, but it’s more jump than I got.”

“Turn on your JPS.” Homerun said gruffly. “You can have that ground fire station. Then try for home. That’s an order.”

“Thank you,” Jackson’s tone was laconic, fading.

“Jackson, you gotta try for the nest.” It was the crew chief again. “Hellfire, man, you owe me ten bucks. Crash it in the desert. We can find you.”

“Sorry,” Jackson said faintly.

Locating the rats in the sand was easy enough. He simply threaded the FA-99 backward on their own signal. As he came in at 11,000 knots, they threw up all they had, but Karmid Revnadski’s finely tuned missiles were all used up. Conventional ground fire could only scratch a target moving at Jackson’s speed. He put the FA-99 dead center on target.

Jackson, in his quiet way, would have shrugged it off. Karmid Revnadsky would have been proud. Two chess champions had met at mid-circle. If anything had ever really been worth a damn, perhaps they could have met in another dimension to match board skills. But, that was a frivolous idea. The sort of thing damn fools spoke of when they’d sat too long in the sun.

The crew chief’s new instrument of death had worked just fine. The explosion was seen and heard for over a hundred miles. Langley denied any involvement.

Copyright © 2014 by Gary Clifton

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