Lightning from an unseen cloud.
The stars were truly beautiful out at the station, far from any town or city. The silence too, was remarkable. It wasn’t the absolute vacuum of sound that you found in the desert, but the natural music of branches dancing with the wind. Even the smell of the air was not of a farm or a city but of the way the land wanted to be, at peace. All of this only accentuated the desperate swearing of the Australian conscripts.
“We have to do something,” declared 2nd Lieutenant Tom Jacka. A young man, 22, he didn’t stand out in the unpainted metallic armour of the drafted Australian rifleman. Less than two years ago he had been studying history in the University of Sydney. History was telling him to lay down and die.
Jacka intended to disobey.
“What can we do?” asked the computer officer at Jacka’s side. Corporal Blish didn’t take his eyes off the incoming aircraft crawling across his screen. He was in that short-lived state of a shocked man seeing an inevitable death not in fear, but with curiosity. “Command says we gotta take it, we gotta take it.”
“Command hasn’t contacted us for hours,” Tom asserted. “Besides, we’re the ones about to cop it.”
The comp officer didn’t reply. The missile base, only built two years back in 2033, had some fifteen glistening SAM launchers. The red signals all over the display were the American fighter jets approaching like a storm. If he didn’t do anything the enemy aircraft would jam them, swarm their counter-missiles with an oversized attack and destroy them. All the Australian SAM stations to the north had been destroyed in this way about two hour ago. Tom’s pacing back and forth did little to contain his panic.
“Shut them down,” he more suggested than ordered.
“What? Are you insane? If we do nothing then they’ll get even further inland.”
“We’re not going to nothing. We’re going to shut them down and see how they react. When they get closer we’ll bring them up again. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
“I’m contacting the colonel.” Blish reached out for the radio.
“No,” Jacka insisted, grabbing his subordinates arm. “They might intercept the message. They’re might even be a spy around. Besides, it’ll take half an hour to get onto her. This is our thing.”
“You can’t do this,” the comp officer protested. “We have orders.”
“And so do you corporal, now shut them down.” Jacka commanded.
Corporal Blish was more than ever regretting failing the strict officer’s course he’d attempted last year. Tired of listening to Lieutenants such as this young Jacka, he had decided to try and become one himself. However, Blish lost his chance at rank when he’d allowed himself and all those on his watch to drink on picket duty. Back then war and battle were for video games and it was madness to think the US would ever attack their old ally.
With nostalgia for those routine days and one last burst of defiant swearing, Blish began entering the commands for shutdown.
“Turn it all off. Even radar. Make it look like we lost power.” Tom was replied to with a stolid nod. The young Australian lieutenant brought the thirty men of the station together and told them of the change of plans.
* * *
Out at sea, within the bulk one of the great American aircraft carriers, a heavy table was bolted to the floor. Unlike the displays upstairs, which were more associated with the USS Sabre herself, the screen that completely covered the tabletop showed a digital map stretching from 300 kilometres inland to the sea. Dots and wedges crawled and jumped and danced upon the map, symbolising the friendly jets and paratrooper planes and even the panicking enemies along the shore. One threatening rectangle of these opposing Australian defenders disappeared unexpectedly.
“Admiral,” called the senior sensor’s officer.
Admiral O’Brien hair had turned grey long before he surpassed the age of retirement. No one in the fleet knew more about the ships, about their operation, about the men. His mind was as compartmented as the submarine’s barracks. Half considering the jets: How to get them in the air, hit the enemy hard and get them back home. The other half thought of everything measurable: Paratrooper rations, Fuel/arms ratios, missile ranges, proximities, armour thickness, loading times, cruising speed, afterburner speed, impact probability….
Gradually, while dictating a message to another officer, he meandered towards the table.
The admiral needed only one glance at the screen-table to see an opportunity. His adrenaline began to pump. His eyes darted all around the sensors, trying to find a reason to check himself and resume regular operations. Yet that patch of darkness still stared at him like a nervous virgin.
He hadn’t felt this way since his largest operation, on that damned day many years ago. He had, admittedly, seen an opportunity like this and overcautiously delayed the naval attack. Instead it was a South Korean officer who initiated the attack from another flank and received all the credit. O’Brien would not be called one who made the same mistake twice.
“What happened? There was a whole SAM station there. Was it CIA?” he inquired.
Wherever there was an admiral there was also an intelligence officer waiting in the nearby shadows. His job was to answer such questions and to know what the rest of crew didn’t need to know. “It just shut down, completely,” the shadow answered. “We haven’t heard any notification. It could just be a power failure. Maybe one of ours had an opportunity and hit it, but couldn’t notify us.”
“Can the Hornets intercept any radio round there?” The admiral queried.
“I’ll tell them to listen in,” a captain announced.
The admiral leered lustfully over the opening in the Australian defences. “This could be a chance gentleman. If that station stays down, we can send our fighters straight through that opening, drop the paratroopers behind the SAM line, and attack here,” he pointed to large red rectangle on the map, “Fort Maraboon, by the air. We knock out that fort, there goes a major bulkhead of their forces on this front. Then their aircraft will have to refuel elsewhere, which gives us time to re-arm for another attack, on the coast. We could have Brisbane in a few days.”
“Sounds too good to be true sir,” a commander warned. In that dark, claustrophobic place full of flashing diodes and sensor screens and uniforms wearing headphones it is easy to lose track of the fact that they are responsible for real men. It looks so clean from the command centre, like a video game. Reality is dirt and mud.
“Of course, I’m exaggerating,” O’Brien read the commanders mind. “Things will go wrong, forces will move from the north to south… But the Australians are gathered in only two major forts. We knock out Maraboon today that’s a major blow to their command, numbers, supplies, everything. It’s too good an opportunity to pass.”
O’Brien turned to the returning officer. “What have we got captain?”
“Sir, a recording, one of the Hornets picked up some enemy messages.” The captain indicated one of the terminals that surrounded them.
The crowd of commanders was growing too numerous, so the admiral indicated a select few high ranking officers to follow him and sent the rest back their posts. He thought they were like excited children in a crisis.
The terminal was a digital desk with several interactive displays. The top row had several maps which would react to what was on the other screens. The bottom display, nearest the officer, was full of various lists of data from the different fighters, including several audio files. The officer tapped a file and the other screens immediately began to show where it had been detected and where it had come from.
“This was just intercepted by India squadron,” the officer explained then turned the volume up so they could all hear the captured transmission:
“I say again, Lieutenant Jacka come in. SAM station golf zero-four, come in.” The recording was of a female voice, with an obvious Australian accent and the rank lieutenant pronounced ‘left-tenant.’
“They’re now using a simple infantry code;” The communications officer explained. “Otherwise we’d have no chance of decoding it. Before this there was a lot of other unknown radio chatter heading towards the station, in those traditional channels that we can’t decode. It all seems either desperate or deliberate sir.”
All eyes turned to the Admiral.
“That proves it then. The SAM site has been disabled,” the admiral declared. “This is it. Everyone has new orders. We will still need a beach, so forces heading for objective Delta shall proceed as planned. Forces heading for Alpha, Bravo and Charlie will change course towards the failed SAM site. First the Raptors to destroy it completely, then the other fighters to cut us a hole, then finally the paratroopers can land where able. Let’s make it happen gentlemen!”
* * *
In mid-air, an army of American infantry with heavy backpacks ceased their circling and at last moved out. Three quarters of them were startled to find they had new plans and the remainder disappeared off to the north to Delta. To the infantry there wasn’t much difference. All those thousands of men wanted was to touch the ground, to again embrace the surety and safety of soil. They did not care if it was foreign soil. They just wanted to get their boots wet.
These numbered men clung awkwardly to the sides of several Boeing Y200s, a craft designed not to be fast, not to carry arms, but to cram as many of them in its hull as possible. Rows and rows of infantry halls were wrapped around a central compartment that carried the significantly wider tanks and humvies. Each of these had several hatches for soldiers to fling themselves into the naked air, one after the other, over the drop-zone. For now they were a part of these Y200 elephants in the sky. The massive grey-painted engines upon grey-painted wings seem to beg gravity to spare them as each craft was dragged through the air.
Into this scene innumerable nameless radio waves shimmered their way down off the clouds to rebound off the titanium hulls. A very small portion would bounce back more and less exactly to where they came from, reflecting again off the clouds and at last coming to rest in the parabolic curves of an Australian sensors dish. You can tell how far away something is by counting the amount of time before that reply comes back. Computers are good at these calculations and have been taught to paint a picture from these few waves. To the trained eye:
Dozens of these Y200 now head for the coast, a quarter separating from the others towards point Delta, the northernmost of the drop-zones. With the Y200 flew an escort of F-35s, the aging standard jet of both the American and Australian air forces. Also in the air group were F-22 Raptors (still the most expensive, most stealth and fastest fighter mass-produced) and the Hornet 2’s, an essential craft whose role is to jam enemy sensors.
Suddenly a whole bunch of both Australian and American consoles beeped with excitement: It was now possible to draw a straight line in the air from the American jets to Jacka’s humble SAM station without passing through the ground.
“Station Bravo is in range. We’re beginning jamming,” a Hornet 2 pilot announced. Nothing visually changed in his craft, save a few lights in the cockpit, but the fighter’s systems ignited with action. A host of random false radar signals from several fighters soon bombarded Jacka’s radar dish. For all the merit, it became impossible for the Australian computers to separate which signals they actually bounced off the jets to find their position and which ones were just sent to confuse them.
The cost, however, was that the position of the Hornets, the source of these countless signals, could easily be traced by enemy missiles. The role of the Hornet was to blind the enemy so that the other fighters could swoop in and take free pickings.
The Admiral knew that is what had always happened.
“Raptor flights Charlie One and Charlie Two, approach and destroy that station,” O’Brien’s voice came curtly over the radio. Immediately eight Raptors ignited their afterburners and flew ahead. Their pilots were already checking their missile systems and programming in their targets.
* * *
On the firm soil Corporal Blish was frustrated that none of the other Australians shared his excitement.
“Look, there’s nothing coming out of the dish!” Tom’s belligerent computer officer opened up a complicated network map showing the amount of radio waves flowing through certain vectors. The lieutenant had no idea what any of it meant, but he conceded that point of the argument.
“Right, well how come we can still see their entire fleet? Their jamming’s so thick I can hear it.”
The map hadn’t changed. The American fighters were all there, as with the frigates, cruisers and carriers that made Jacka feel like his base was battling against a floating city. It was a miracle, as impossible as a dead man walking on water. Yet Jacka was cynical and looked to Blish for answers.
“I don’t know, but it’s beautiful.” The computer officer had a devilish grin on his face. “We should start targeting.”
“Maybe…” Jacka postulated. “We must be connected to the stations still. What we’re seeing’s gotta be data from the other stations, and that data would be jammed off unless it’s a cable. Maybe it’s coming to us by cable. They can’t jam a cable.”
Blish, clearly not paying attention, pointed to the screen. Eight dots had separated from the rest of the aircraft and were approaching at twice the speed of sound, and accelerating. “Raptors. They’re coming to check it out. They’ll be in range in fifteen seconds, but we want to wait till they’re a least pass the charge line, you know that point when they can’t turn and outrun the missile.
“We’re going to wait even longer, we want to hit the whole lot of em,” Tom Jacka insisted.
By his expression it was clear that Blish consented, but not without consternation. “We can’t wait for too long, we gotta get the-” He sat up in alarm. “Incoming missiles! I’ll activate-”
“No. leave the radar off, it’s jammed anyway. Our counter-missiles will work well enough on heat and the data we have.”
The computer officer’s hands stopped hammering the keys of his console. “But… it could help. And… They’ll still attack, cause they’ll think their jamming is working.”
Tom shook his head. “It won’t help us and it’ll make them cautious. Set the counter-missiles, 4 for each missile.”
“That’s all already done, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking,” Blish snapped. “Sir,” he added when he realised his mistake. “There’s eighteen missiles,” he muttered. Tom could hear his breathing accelerating. He shook the man friendily by the shoulder “It’ll be fine ok. Now target our missiles for when they get closer. And I told you not to call me sir, it wastes time.”
Then Tom walked to the others, who stood in a circle, sharing the vacuum of confidence within them. He told them curtly. “Missiles are incoming, our counter-missiles are set. We’re going to return fire soon, so stand by your SAMs, get ready to reload with standard.”
He walked away from the men, giving them no opportunity for verbal dissent. During his training he had heard a thousand variations of what was “good leadership”. In the end he had made his own mind: What gets the job done. Preferably, you get it done calmly and with everyone’s respect, but getting the job done is always priority. That was obvious now.
Tom sat on the soil and looked into the night. Now that he had nothing to do, the concoction of fear swelled his stomach too. So he stared right back at it, right into the darkness. He stopped himself from wondering about death. Took deep breaths. Noticed how silent everything was.
“Ten seconds!” The computer officer shouted.
So soon? And that could be it. Ten seconds, my life. Gone. No last cry, no last thoughts. These, my last thoughts… Jacka’s mind raced on, drifting between home and the present and becoming less and less logical and lucid, until he heard a distant clicking and popping.
The counter-missiles had launched. About half the length of a forearm, they had only a few seconds of fuel and existed entirely to fly into the path of enemy missiles. The small explosive at their tip was only as strong as a grenade, and the device navigated itself by a small heat sensor and, if possible, information sent to it from the station that fired it.
A lot further than it seemed, a cloud of fire appeared in the air and -an instant later- an echoing boom. That was the first.
Immediately after two more missiles exploded prematurely. Then a wide spray of burning fuel illuminated the ground.
The next explosions were even closer. The first explosions had knocked the light counter-missiles awry, so immediately new counter-missiles were launched with a clicking sound that was drowned out by the booms.
The last explosion sent burning fuel into the air only a hundred metres or so from Tom. The fuel was still burning as it landed on the grass in front of the base.
Tom Jacka swore. And that was it: all the missiles had been countered. But he would have testified that he felt the heat of the last explosion even through his armour.
* * *
“Sir, it appears Beta has its missile defences up. All missiles were intercepted,” the commander of the American raptor wing reported.
Admiral O’Brien looked towards the intelligence officer, who shrugged nervously. “Counter-missiles can work well on just heat. It wouldn’t be unusual for the station to have several infrared sensors for this reason.”
“But they must have some power.” The Admiral knew.
“Yes,” the officer conceded.
O’Brien glanced towards the screen-table, noting the changes in the arrangements of certain red icons. When he had condensed his air forces he had left the other enemy Australian stations at Alpha and Charlie unjammed. Now these stations where spewing forth a steady trail of long-range missiles.
“Nothing the Hornets or countermeasures can’t handle sir,” the intelligence officer assured, following his commander’s glance. “We can also fly low if we need to, once those missiles are out of line of sight of their stations they lose the guidance of their bases. The Earth’s curvature will suffice.”
“I know Colonel. But this is our last chance to pull out of what could be the crudest air ambush I’ve ever seen.” The admiral was silent for a while. He was beginning to be irritated by this officer. “Even if we pull back now those long range missile will still catch up to those Y200 slugs.”
Leaning over a comp officer, the admiral spoke directly to the Raptor wing. “Move in and take them out. Use anything, even your MGs if you have to.”
* * *
The Raptors were descending. The comp officer pointed out their altitude reading, which was next to the intimidating reading for velocity.
“They’re going to come real close to the ground,” Tom explained calmly. “Their plan is to fire missiles at the last minute so that our counter-missiles don’t have their five seconds to work.”
“We gotta launch now then!” Blish checked the targeting. They hadn’t assigned how many missiles would be launched. They had only programmed priorities so that these missiles would first seek out the two Raptor flights, before moving on towards the rest of the air group, taking out the Hornets, then the paratrooper planes, then the escorts.
“No. Wait,” Tom commanded.
“They’ll pass our position in 90 seconds!”
There was no rebuttal, Tom’s tone was too stern and it was evident he was managing his fear much greater than the other soldier.
“Are the other fighter’s past the charge line?” Tom asked, referring to that point in time in which a plane can no longer turn around and outrun a standard missile.
“Umm, no, but they close. Thirty seconds.”
“What about the paratrooper planes?”
The comp officer replied with a shrug. “No, but considering how slow they are to change direction, we might get them with a long-ranger, an Albatross’d do. Please sir, we have to fire at those raptors.” The man had the most pitiful expression Tom had ever seen.
“How long now?” The lieutenant queried calmly.
“Boot up everything.”
Enthused, the comp officer buried his fear in his duties. Almost immediately the lights on the SAM launchers came alight. Then the hydraulics on each lifted their heavy twelve missile arsenal till they pointed towards the sky.
The men standing by were awoken out of the reveries of idleness. A steel rack stood in front of each launcher. When the launcher had depleted its stock, it would point back to the ground and the men would slide new missiles off the rack into the launcher. While the launcher was firing they would then lift missiles from the piles all over the ground onto the rack for the next shot. All this effort ensured that the launcher was almost always firing.
Tom realised there would be no signal, no precise moment when he would know it was time. The others fighters would be past the charge line now, that was all he had been waiting for.
“Everyone,” Tom shouted, “Prepare for firing, stand clear.”
He looked at the computer officer, who stared back with his finger over the digital trigger.
There was an alarming roar as the first wave of missiles took to the air. It was followed by another, then another. Soon hundreds of missiles filled the sky with trails of white dust.
* * *
“Incoming missiles. Orders?” The Raptor flight leader tried to keep his voice calm.
O’Brien was learning over the table-screen in disbelief. “Use countermeasures. Continue closing in.”
“Spread out, formation Petal-Nine,” the flight leader commanded.
The fighters made the slightest change of direction and their speed instantly caused them to separate from their comrades. The new formation, easily three or four kilometres across, gave them much more room to manoeuvre, but meant they would need to use different tactics when they fired back at the station. Up there, the pilots were encased in the familiar serenity of being in midair, where everything was so silent. Silence deceivingly seemed safe.
Already the first white trails were upon them.
“Launching counter-measures,” the flight leader reported confidently. His craft, at the very vanguard of the formation, emitted burning hot distractions into the air. Ideally the missile would be unable to tell the difference between the countermeasure and the heat of the jet’s engine. Tonight, however, the missile ignored the countermeasures, slammed through the cockpit and exploded.
“Jesus!” A voice came over the radio. In the air the fighters tried all sorts of desperate dodges, all the while sprinkling more countermeasures through the air. It was normally exhilarating, being thrown to the side by some manoeuvrer.
“I’m-” A pilot began to say before a missile slammed into his craft too. Remains of both craft and pilot splattered and melted together.
“They-” Another pilot.
“Countermeasures ineffective, use-”
“Mayday, mayday, I’m in stall.” That pilot was about to be thrown into unconsciousness by the speed in which her craft was rotating. The missile had missed her but, as it was programmed to do, it had exploded at the instant when it was nearest. The push and violent disruption of the air knocked the rear of the woman’s raptor to the side. Supersonic speed and air resistance did the rest. The craft fell into an incredible spin and then a stall. Just before passing out, the pilot ejected. A few seconds later a spare missile would slam through the derelict craft before it had hit the ground.
“What just-” one more voice came through. “The missiles just ignored our countermeasures. I’m the only one left. Jesus, more missiles. I’m ejecting.”
“Flight…” Admiral O’Brien began to speak at last. But one glance at the sensor map and he knew it was useless. Those forward flights were destroyed. He should have sent more ahead, enough to take even an active station.
“All Hornets, F-35s, and Raptors, approach and destroy that station. Y200s, turn immediately and head back towards the fleet. Hotel squadron, fly escort. I say again Y200s turn now, get out of there!” Even the admiral found his brow drenched with sweat.
* * *
“Hornets, jam those missiles, hang back and spread.” Group Captain Page, a very senior pilot, took command of the remaining American aircraft from his cockpit. “Two flights for each side head off and jam the missiles from the other stations.” While the Admiral would discuss with other officers, make discissions, craft a plan and give the orders, Page’s job was simple: Make it happen.
Page had flown over every continent in the world. He had first served in Iraq and shortly after in Afghanistan. Yet age had not slowed his reflexes and his calloused hands held the controls with precision. It was pilots like Page that had kept humans in fighter jets. Computers did not have the grace or instinct needed to dogfight like a human with a passion for nothing else than flying. In Korea, Page’s flight had taken out nearly a third of the North Korean airforce. The Australians were next.
“Juliet Two and Juliet Three will take the north side,” a squadron commander volunteered. The squad of Hornets separated and configured their equipment to jam the other Australian sensors to the North.
“India One and Two will take the south.”
“F-35 and Raptors, fall in new formation,” The group captain ordered. In his cockpit he entered a series of commands and selected a simple eagle-like formation which would still be effective with such large numbers of fighters. A box then appeared on the display of every other Raptor and all the F-35s present: “FALL IN FORMATION. UNDER COMMAND OF GROUP CAPTAIN PAGE: ACCEPT / DECLINE” The pilots each tapped the former command hovering in front of them.
Once all the pilots had acquiesced they nervously let their controls move by their own accord. The fighters had simultaneously kicked into autopilot, quickly and accurately drifting on their own accord to their place in the new formation. It was as if their jets were possessed. After the fighters had glided into position, however, the autopilots did not dismiss themselves automatically. The formation would be maintained by the perfect mathematics of the autopilots until the order came to break apart. For a time those hundreds of aircraft would be under control of one man.
Group Captain Page checked his sensors. “How’s the jamming Jacob One?”
“We need to spread further before we can sure sir. The first set of enemy missiles are blind at least. We’re trying.”
“We haven’t got time to wait for you. Use afterburners, form semicircle.” Page’s experienced hands quickly drew the dimensions of the Hornets’ future formation onto the map. His craft then calculated and sent each Hornet its new position. Seconds later Hornets flew off to the sides, while others slowed down so they wouldn’t get ahead of their brethren.
Page checked his sensors: The first missiles were ten or twenty seconds away. Slowly, he pushed forward on the joystick. His Raptor began dropping, swooping down towards the ground. Behind it, the hundreds of Raptors and F-35s in the air group sunk in precise computer-guided formation. They were more perfect than any mortal flock in the eternal sky.
The pilots held their controls warily, and some were very tempted to press the “cancel” key that would return their wings to their control. They waited though as their fighters disturbingly threw them downward on their own accord.
Flying as one, the Raptors and F-35’s dropped kilometres in altitude. The first wave of missiles, apparently blinded by jamming, flew straight over them. Page relaxed his grip on the joystick. The fact that the missile had missed them was a sign that the jamming was working. Reactivating autopilot, the senior pilot watched calmly as a dozen more waves of missiles passed over them.
“Activating counter-measures,” a Hornet pilot announced.
Of course, they weren’t aiming for us in the first place! Page’s phlegmatic calm disappeared with his jet’s exhaust.
“I’m hit! Mayday, Mayday!” another pilot cried a moment later. In the air, the Hornets span and dived to evade the steady trickle. The missiles had traced the jamming back to its source. At first, when the hornets outnumbered the missiles, many missiles flew through without catching that glimpse of heat they needed. Once a missile got close, the Hornets furthest way or to the sides of the incoming threat would take over the jamming, in an attempt to lead the missile in a never-ending circle. Yet these missiles somehow recognised when jamming switched hands, and ignored it, relying on its previous data and heat to hunt down the Hornets.
“We’re getting slaughtered here. What the hell is going on? Use evasive manoeuvres, counter-measures useless,” a leading Hornet pilot recommended.
Page watched as the numbers of Hornets dropped, slowly at first, then falling flight by flight, and soon by entire squadrons. First he fired all their afterburners, propelling the whole formation with a jolt to even greater supersonic speeds. Then he selected the SAM sites in the targeting panel.
“Firing.” His voice remained cool and crisp over the radio.
A missile launched for each fighter in his control. Hundreds of white trails heading for the ground temporarily outnumbered those passing above them.
* * *
“Incoming missiles,” announced Corporal Blish.
“How many?” Tom demanded, still recalling the curt message from his commanders: We are firing long-range missiles to destroy the paratrooper planes, you need to destroy the fighters in front of you.
“Hundred and sixty-five.” The officer was honest.
“How many counter-missiles do we have?”
“Ahh… Two hundred and, and fifty.”
“Set it so there’s one and a bit counter-missiles for each incoming,” Jacka ordered. He turned and watched his men. In complete contrast with the idleness that they stood by their machines with earlier, now the crews worked without a hiatus as they loaded the missiles into the rack. Some had taken off their sweat-drenched armour within the three of four steps to the next armament. Truthfully, they were labouring for their lives.
“Incoming, ten seconds!” The comp officer shouted. On his display the red dots that symbolised enemy projectiles had come together to form one threatening blob.
The counter-missile launchers were already clicking. Tom held his breath.
A couple of flashes appeared in the distance. And then came the delayed booming. Suddenly the flashing grew and spread and filled the horizon. The ground was not only illuminated. The explosions challenged the night itself, the clouds and whole field revealed in a strange twilight. Dust bellowed out of the ground and dew-wet grass caught alight. It was like staring into the sun, or into a fiery, smoky hell. The worst thing for the soldiers, however, was that it was reaching for them, stretching to smother and swallow them.
The explosions came closer, but less frequent, just as the deafening roar overwhelmed the crews. They all fell to the ground or into a crouch or onto their knees with their hands over their ears and their mouths open, not because the sound was loud for a soldier, but because it had come so suddenly. Dust stabbed at their eyes, making them regret leaving their helmets off to help them see what they were lifting.
Another nexus of flames sprang into existence just as Jacka discovered what was happening. So many missiles were bunched up so tightly that their explosions overlapped, causing a chain reaction that spread over hundreds of the projectiles. Tom hoped this would save them as the final surge of destruction came, and waned in front of him.
A silence filled the fields, making many wonder whether they had indeed been hit and had reached some nocturnal paradise.
“Get back to work!” Jacka shouted. “We can’t let them fire at us again. Comp officer, we’ve hit enough Hornets…”
* * *
Page swore in his cockpit. If he fired too few missiles, they would be destroyed one by one by the stations defences. If he launched too many, they destroyed each other. He would have to discover a delicate balance. This required time and concentration, neither of which was available to him.
A new wave of missiles was heading straight at them, despite their swoop to lower altitude. Meanwhile the Hornets’ numbers were thinning, their pilots struggling to maintain discipline as more missiles exponentially penetrated their defences. Page had been forced to silence all but the highest ranked Hornets from radioing his group.
“Be advised, we’re going to rise to 60, 000 feet.” Page pulled up on his joystick. The other fighters followed obediently as he rose sharply into the heavens. Subconsciously, Page looked out to the sides for his wingmen. He couldn’t see them: After all he was at the head of the formation. The great flock of titanium-steel soared upward, so far untouched but still so delicate despite their armour plating.
The missiles should have continued along their path and missed them. But a single missile received data concerning Page’s new position from Jacka’s station. Immediately the missile relayed the new data to its brethren, and within seconds the whole swarm of projectiles had adjusted its bearing.
It took awhile for Page to realise that the red marks on his three-dimensional map had followed them higher into the sky. Here we go.
“I’m returning control to you. We have incoming. In two-zero seconds, the left wing is to fire a single standard missile, then the centre, then the right. I want you to fire individually, not in flights or squadrons, but one after the other so that there’s one long line of hell heading for that station. Returning control now.”
The second after Page had relinquished control of the group, a missile came out of clouds straight at him. A fighter pilot for thirty years, he veered right just in time. A second missile was waiting for him. His position at head of the wedge evidently made him the first target. Spinning, feeling his weight quadruple, he pulled upwards, just enough so that the missile gave up the chase and pursued one of Page’s wingmen instead.
But just as Page recovered himself, not one but four missiles swooped in. Taking one disheartening look at his sensor display, he span courageously downward. Two missiles hit each other, the shrapnel and blast knocking control of the craft away from Page and into the hands of fate. Page fell into a third projectile, quick and painless and airborne; a pilot’s death.
* * *
Admiral O’Brien watched as his line of fighters was snapped in half. Flight after flight, squadron after squadron, the green symbols faded into the black of the digital map. Some had fired their own armaments back, enough to destroy that damn station. But it had been too late for them to save themselves. They were more than outnumbered by the missiles pursuing them. The enemy should have run out of ammunition! O’Brien was ashamed to see some of his men ejecting prematurely.
A handful of Hornets raced back to the carrier on O’Brien’s orders. At half way they should meet the paratrooper planes that badly needed the escort. Long range Albatross missiles had been streaming out of the other Australian stations. They would intercept the Y200’s long before the gigantic planes could reach their mothership. The only hope for the battalions, thousands of infantry, aboard was if the Hornets could jam their way out. Already O’Brien had his doubts.
Even from the large scale perspective of sensor map, it was evident that the remaining hornets were losing the race. A sensors officer had entered a quick command into the screen-table’s control and a timer had appeared, counting away the moments before the first missile hit the first Y200 and the first few hundred men spilled out. O’Brien marched back to a communications terminal, believing the worst he could’ve done was nothing.
“All Y200’s,” the admiral commanded, “you are to drop your men immediately. I say again, all Y200’s are to drop all resident paratroopers immediately.”
Even in the command centre, O’Brien was met with several defiant stares. As Admiral he didn’t have to explain himself but he also couldn’t have any delay in those cockpits.
“You all heard me damn it! Those men have more chance in the ocean than on your planes. Now get everyone jumping. You yourselves can eject when every other soul is off-board. Just leave the autopilot on when you do.”
* * *
Meanwhile, the second wave of Page’s missiles advanced inexorably towards Jacka’s SAM site. The Australian counter-missiles clicked for the last time as they launched and the night was again alight with burning fuel. They didn’t last long, the American missiles finally balanced perfectly so that they benefited each other. Each knocked away the small defenders without being so bunched that they destroyed themselves.
The first SAM exploded and moments later the entire base was in flames. It was overkill then. Every single device was obliterated. Out of the craters dust was thrown into the air. The calm and unconcerned wind soon blew it all away, as though the station had never been there. The trees shook back into their rhythm and the night returned to its symphony….