Operation Trident (78.2)

This scene contains violence and death.

Ayvarta, Solstice — Apsara

Thirty aircraft departed from Sickle Airfield and flew northwest to the Apsaras region of Solstice’s Red Desert. For Homa, it was the first time she had flown in such a large formation. Her previous experience with combat flight, such as it was, all took the form of simple pair flights over forests and mountains, picking off uncoordinated air attacks from the imperialists. It was never the aerial war over Cissea that was in doubt.

Even so, whenever Homa thought of Cissea, it felt disgraceful nonetheless.

So she resolved not to think about it.

On her right and several hundred meters above flew the twelve planes of the famous Ibis squadron. After the start of the war, they had been moved closer to the front to do battle with Nocht, and racked up the most experience of anyone in Sickle Airfield. To her left, and even higher up, Crane squadron was a run-of-the-mill patrol group save for one pilot. Lieutenant Lotus Rajavari was Sickle’s highest-scoring fighter ace with twenty personal kills on enemy fighters, and recently, three Wizard-class bombers.

She was born and stationed in Adjar and fought in defense of Nakar’s forces in Bada Aso before moving to Sickle. Outside the other pilots, however, she had little wider notoriety. Homa couldn’t have guessed what she must have seen and felt, flying and fighting over her home, watching it fall, and then retreating to this barren wasteland.

So much personal skill and power, and she still couldn’t do anything about Bada Aso.

“Oh well.”

Not that any of that was her concern.

Nor, she told herself, was she really that curious.

She didn’t want any pity, so she should not give unwanted pity to others.

After all, she was just as much a failure herself. Just as undeserving of any pity.

“Whatever.”

She turned her attention to her surroundings.

At that moment, the desert felt soothing.

In the center of the formation, Vulture squadron flew about 1500 meters above the ground. For combat aircraft they were flying fairly low, but indeed, so was Nocht.

Homa tipped her wings briefly to see below. As they crossed the Oasis of Rapat and the town of Apsaras, the two final landmarks in their defensive zone, even from this height she could spot trucks, tiny as a mouse from her vantage. A line of trucks rolled through the center of the small town and set up around the small hilltop plaza that was Apsara’s sole attraction. They were towing in guns and the men and women to crew and shoot them. Smoke billowed up as a train rolled into the Apsaras station with several cars covered with tarps. Probably more guns or ammo. Meanwhile a few autocannon tanks skirted the edge of town and set up a picket around the Oasis.

She was just starting to get enthralled with the view when a voice came on the radio.

“It’s a cute little town! Might be a nice place to take a wife to after the war.” Sayyid said.

One was never alone on a radio-equipped plane. Homa was still somewhat unused to this. Her old Anka from the Cissean Civil War had never been equipped with a radio. She had learned several flag signals and used those to communicate instead. While testing the Bennu she chatted briefly with the engineers over the radio as they gave instructions and asked her to try certain controls; but the sensation was still new.

For Homa, who was not altogether well socialized, it felt like being surrounded.

There was always chatter, always someone saying something. It felt overwhelming.

She endured it, however.

Whining was not something she wanted anyone to see as part of her persona.

“Hopefully our comrades below will not have to fight.” Sheba said.

“I’ll protect this idyllic vista! I swear I’ll find a wife to bring here!” Sayyid said.

“Good luck with that.” Sheba replied.

Mannan immediately piped in. “With these 82 mm rockets, I can’t imagine how the enemy could survive! We’re flying with some serious hardware right now, you know?”

Even her scratchy radio voice appropriately conveyed her jubilation. She was a true hardware maniac, Homa thought, whether it involved prosthetic arms or aircraft parts.

“Those rockets have no effect without a direct hit.” Sheba said. “So focus less on their firepower and more on your aiming, or they will go to waste when it’s your turn.”

“We only have one chance each huh? Now I’m feeling nervous.” Sayyid said.

Homa interrupted with a devilish chuckle. “It’s okay, even if all of you fail, and are left hopeless and miserable, my 37 mm cannon will make mincemeat of those bombers.”

Ever since the 37 mm had been installed in the Bennu, Homa felt like she was floating on air. She told herself many times to tone down her excitement to a minimal degree to avoid unsightly expressions, but it was just no use. Fickle as they were, her glands had all decided to fill her brain with jubilation and whimsy and bloodthirsty joy. When she pulled that trigger and watched an airplane disintegrate, it was pure euphoria.

She could have been called any dirty name for her fascination; she did not care.

Bloodlust was the second strongest emotion she brought to the battlefield.

Coucou coucou! This is A.C.I. Cornet! Testing the long range radio!”

Chiming in loud and clear over everyone’s radios was Marcy, now designated A.C.I for “air controlled interception” and acting as their telecommunications support. Not only was her Cathawk equipped with a radar, it also had a more powerful radio than the fighters. For this mission they were far enough away from Solstice that it mattered. Only an A.C.I’s long-range radio could pick up command communications from Sickle in the Apsaras region. Marcy was therefore their only viable line back to home base.

In addition, she was given the callsign Cornet, since all Helvetian radio personnel wanted to continue their native tradition of going by the names of sweets and cakes.

“Ah, it looks like I can get Sickle command from here. General Nakar has asked me to only use the channel for important communications since all A.C.I’s are sharing it. I was hoping they would respond with cheer. Radio girls need to have energy, you know!”

“You’re kind of simple, huh?”

Anada finally spoke up, though she still sounded bereft of her usual energy.

Quoi? I’m just doing my best for all of you~!” Marcy said in an affected tone of voice.

“Is how carefree you sound correlated to how hard you work?”

“Sorry to have to ruin the party again, but lets cut the chatter now.” Sheba said.

Homa could practically see the exasperated, narrowed-eyes look on Sheba’s face in her mind’s eye. Had she turned her head she might have even seen it through the caniopy glass, but she did not want to go that far, especially since Sheba could look back. She allowed herself a little grin, and told herself that responding would not be too compromising. Though she hated appearing too chummy and drawing any attention, this was different. After all, in this squadron, everyone took every opening.

“Yes, mother.” She then replied. Her mischevious tone was poorly disguised.

“Boris.” Sheba said, with an edge to her voice.

Briefly switching off the radio, Homa allowed herself a much louder laugh.

Even emotionless weapons could indulge in a little fair play!

Banter helped pass the time as the Garudas and Bennu cleared the town and soared over the rolling sands outside of its limits. Soon this sky would be their battlefield.

“We’re almost in position. Marcy, do you see them?” Sheba said.

For aircraft, the idea of a battlespace was nebulous, defined only by where the enemy was and where they wanted to go. They had to defend Apsaras, but as far as their tactics were concerned there was nothing below them. Tanks and infantry had to ponder the geography of their operations, the routes the enemy would take through physical obstacles in the terrain. Aircraft had no obstacles but the weather. As much as Homa could look at the ground below and think of Apsaras as a town of stone roads in the sand and small buildings clustered around a train station and a hill, none of that mattered to her mission. The area of operations was as far as Marcy’s radar could detect and the positions of the enemy within each invisible tide of electronic waves

There was nothing but open sky in front of her and clouds higher above, and it was that infinite blue in which she’d soon fight. Nevertheless, in the language of the military, it was true that they had arrived at their Area of Operations when they flew over the advance guard in two staggered networks of trenches and A.A. strongpoints. Ground units had strict instructions to only fire at the bombers, and only if the enemy broke through the fighter cover. Otherwise they could risk hitting their own allies.

Regardless, it was the ground unit’s trenches that delineated the combat area.

“Enemies are beginning to enter the Area of Operations.” Marcy said over the radio.

This meant that they were crossing the farthest of the infantry’s picket lines.

Marcy could see them on her radar before any of them could identify them visually.

“Everyone hang back.” Sheba said. “We’re essentially bombers, so lets not get careless until the targets come into view. Crane and Ibis are already moving ahead of us.”

Homa looked over head and around the side of her craft. Garuda I-bis from the allied squadrons were speeding their pace. As Sheba instructed, Homa eased up on the power and her craft started to slow down. Soon the other formations overtook Vulture. Two giant arrowheads circled around the battlefield to meet the incoming enemy first. Homa could just barely see aircraft in the distance as Crane and Ibis’ planes began to leave them behind. She could not identify the enemy models.

They were not, however, the main targets. Not large enough to be the Hierophant.

“This is A.C.I. Parfait to Vulture squadron.”

A strange voice came on the radio. She had a slightly thicker accent than Marcy.

“This is Vulture leader, receiving.” Sheba said.

“A.C.I Cornet can handle liaison ma’am. Please focus on combat command.”

Homa heard a bit of a grunt from Sheba on the radio.

“Ah, sorry, sorry.” Marcy replied. “This is A.C.I. Cornet. What’s the situation Parfait?”

“Be aware that enemy crossbow-class fighters are flying well ahead of the target. Crane’s commander is requesting your assistance in clearing any stragglers. Should a Crossbow class break through our ranks, Vulture should be in place to pick it off.”

“Roger that, over.”

“Over.”

Parfait and Cornet returned to their respective duties. No one had practiced this part of the relationship before, so it was a little awkward, but Marcy was henceforth supposed to handle radio liaison duties so Sheba did not have to talk to officers and intelligence personnel while commanding the squadron. Sheba, who was used to doing everything by herself, was in turn utterly unused to delegating in such tasks.

“Cornet, how many enemies are ahead?” Sheba asked, now that Parfait was done.

As Sheba asked this, in the distance Crane and Ibis’ fighters started to break up into pairs, and a mass of the enemy ahead had begun breaking up into individuals. Tracers flew from both sides, red and green, back and forth. Quick dots zipped across the sky and several more ponderous dots and blobs followed after them, twisting and turning around, looking to the Vultures like a swarm of bees, but growing closer every second.

“There’s so many.” Marcy said, sounding mildly shaken. “Thirty? Forty?”

“Then all the Crossbows did leave the Hierophants behind. They expected us.”

There was a hint of trepidation in Sheba’s voice that annoyed Homa.

She was annoyed enough to put on her most contemptuous voice and speak.

“Yeah? That’s not a trick that impresses me.” Homa said. “Anyone would expect to be intercepted when they’re flying with that much firepower with them. I’m not afraid.”

Homa started to raise the throttle, just gently enough that Sheba would notice the extra power. She was being considerate to her commander. She wanted them to charge in and fight already, but she did not want to charge ahead alone like a jerk.

Though she did not acknowledge it, this represented quite a softening of her attitude.

“Anatoly, cover me and I’ll cover everyone else!” Homa said.

“Hom– Boris! I don’t disagree, but don’t take initiative just on your own.”

“Just making a suggestion, ma’am.”

Sheba sped up and managed to stay at Homa’s side. Underwing rockets burdened the plane, but Sheba carried less of them than anyone else. Sayyid and Mannan, as the most experienced pilots, had three rockets on each wing, because they could handle the weight and drag. Malik and Anada had two rockets per wing to give them a bit more room to maneuver. Sheba, as the commander, had only one rocket on each wing.

“Vulture-1 and 2 are engaging!” Sheba said. “Everyone else, break up into pairs and go after targets of opportunity. When Hierophant-1 makes its appearance, I will be the first to attack; subsequent runs will be Emeric, then Dmitri, Vasily and Gregory. Cover your squadmates and don’t do anything stupid! We’re making it back alive, okay?”

“Roger!”

“And Boris, not too much throttle, okay?” Sheba said.

That meant ‘no jets allowed just yet.’ Homa read her loud and clear. “Yes ma’am.”

Vulture sounded off, and behind them, Anada and Malik began to climb, while Sayyid and Mannan swept away in a different direction. Homa and Sheba thrust forward to the heart of the enemy formation. Ahead of them, the chaotic melee that Crane and Ibis had gotten themselves into loomed large enough to tell the individual participants and to follow them by smoking damage and the incessant color of tracer fire. Planes danced in great arcs and circles and twists, trading gunfire in every direction.

“Vulture! Nice to see you join the party, but don’t get too crazy!”

Another radio message, this time clearly from Abeer.

“Watch out for the rear machine gunners! These guys are slow but their guns mean business!” Parveen suddenly added. “Good hunting Vultures. Make ol’ Shurelis proud!”

Sheba made a little ‘tch!’ noise on the radio in response.

At that point, enemy planes started to break off from around Crane and Ibis, and making for the airspace around Apsaras town. Homa spotted a trio of Crossbows heading straight for them, and it was barely a few seconds from spotting them that multiple machine guns and cannons from the crossbow’s wings and nose sprayed gunfire blindly forward at the pair of them. Hundreds of tracers sailed past Homa.

Attacking head-on only benefited them. They had four times as many guns forward.

Homa was not about to play chicken like that.

Instinctively, she climbed, and Sheba followed her, putting the bullets beneath them.

Homa marveled at the sheer size and armament of the enemy and wondered how she had not seen them in the distance sooner. The Crossbow was nearly long enough to match a Wizard’s size, maybe as much as 2/3rds the bomber’s length, but it had the wingspan and streamlined, aggressively slim build of something like an Archer. That must have been what made them difficult to spot head-on, the aerodynamic profile.

Propelled forward on twin engines, Crossbows could carry more fuel and lift off with more weight than any fighter. To fight Vulture, they made a treacherously long journey.

She thought that this foe definitely lived up to the designation of “heavy fighter.”

Heavy, however, was not exactly a positive adjective up in the air.

She would welcome them to Apsaras with some traditional Ayvartan dance.

“Follow if you can, Anatoly!” She laughed, dutifully using Sheba’s callsign.

Having climbed out of the way of the Crossbows, Homa watched them go where their bullets also had: uselessly charging under Homa and Sheba. All three underflew them, and the Vultures passed over. Other craft would be ‘showing their ass’, but the Crossbows went with confidence: soon as they flew past the Vultures their rear gunners sighted the girls. Homa and Sheba had traded the machine guns on the front for the rear cannon, and long trails of heavy green tracer shells flew past their wings.

Avoiding the initial fire, Homa and Sheba started to weave from side to side.

However, Homa wasn’t planning on just dodging gunfire forever.

“I’m going after them, Anatoly!”

Suddenly the Bennu dropped its nose.

Long green lines sailed past Homa as the Bennu started to gain speed.

She grabbed the stick and gave it her whole body’s worth of tilt.

Rolling the left wing hard toward the ground, the Bennu groaned as Homa took it into a twisting dive in the direction of the fleeing enemy. Everything rattled as speed and gravity acted on the plane while it wrenched itself away from its previous heading.

Upon exiting the turn she raised the wing and leveled the craft once more.

Her gauges stopped screaming.

She had now turned the game of chicken into a pursuit.

Having first flown past them, she had now reversed course to follow them instead.

Tracers suddenly sailed past her, the rear gunners glued to their triggers, but the wild movements of her wings kept throwing off the autocannon fire. To any observer it would seem she was dancing between the bullets, deftly avoiding every volley.

Coming out of the turn, Homa leveled off the wings and grinned to herself.

Her breathing quickened, and sweat formed on her forehead, neck and breasts.

Her heart was banging in her chest and her skin brimmed with nervous energy.

Death was staring her in the face and she was staring back.

“Boris!”

Sheba’s Garuda could barely keep up, but she realized quickly enough what was happening. Coming out of her turn Homa briefly glanced at her side. To her surprise and secret excitement, she found Sheba where she needed to be at her wing, safe and sound and coming out of the same maneuver only very slightly slower than Homa.

Now that she could trust her to follow, Homa would not care to look again.

“Watch and learn, Anatoly!”

Instead, she focused ahead, where the Crossbows appeared below her.

Having escaped the game of chicken, now she had them in her gun sights.

Homa had only a few seconds to aim as she bore down on the Crossbows.

Soon as the sight hovered over the gray paint, she held down the trigger. Her machine gun sprayed red bullets across the wing, but it was the clunky blast of her 37 mm cannon that truly mattered. A burst of several massive rounds accompanied the tiny 7.62 mm bullets. Two shells flew off into the distance but the first shot struck the rear gunner’s position on the lead Crossbow and blew a crater into the rear of the aircraft.

Tail nearly severed, and a fire spreading across the chassis, what truly killed the target was that the pilot was concussed by the force of the blast. In the next instant the Crossbow was nose down and hurtling to the sand and Homa flew in between the remaining crossbows, her dive taking well below and past them at great speed.

She looked briefly over her shoulder at the two remaining crossbows.

One of them was diving after them, while the other was swinging around, its wing on fire. In the next instant, the fire grew bad enough that the ammunition in the rear gunner’s destroyed pod burst and the entire plane started going nose-down too. Not from air-frame damage necessarily. Probably the pilot was injured, like Homa’s target.

“Don’t get cocky, Boris! I’m not a bad shot myself!”

Sheba had scored her own kill. Maybe there was something to her, after all!

Just as they reconvened at each other’s wings, hundreds of rounds flew around them.

Though it was not catching up in straight line speed, the Crossbow behind them had enough guns to saturate the air around them in bullets. And while it was slower and heavier than them by a fair margin, if all it had to do was follow them shooting all the while, even at a 25 kph deficit in speed it was bound to score a kill eventually by sheer weight of fire. Even Homa was starting to get antsy at all the bullets flying past her.

Sheba and Homa started to bob from side to side to avoid the guns, but they had to do something to shake him off or get an advantage, or they would both get cooked.

Before Homa could make a suggestion, however, her partner came in over the radio.

“Now you follow me, Boris!” Sheba said over the radio.

Her voice had a passionate edge to it. Homa had never heard this tone from Sheba.

“I’m watching, Anatoly.” Homa said.

Almost no time at all passed when Sheba suddenly pushed her nose further down.

Surprised and fascinated, Homa hit her stick and dove even more steeply with her.

They were both headed almost straight into the ground!

If Sheba wanted to take the lead, Homa was happy to follow if the dance was good.

By all indications, the footwork was going to be fun.

Behind them, the Crossbow had no problem dumping all its weight into a harsher dive.

With its four heavy machine guns blazing and its twin nose cannons launching volley after volley, to the Crossbow it must have felt like the situation had not changed at all. Homa and Sheba rolled and yawed their craft to throw off the immense volume of gunfire, hurtling toward the rolling sands and trenchworks like a pair of artillery shells.

They were barely 500 meters from the ground when Sheba gave her next instruction.

“Boris, break left!”

It was evident what she was going to do; Homa anticipated it with a satisfied grin.

Both of them turned from the dive, pushed their noses up and climbed in a half circle.

Their dogged assailant plunged in between them.

Once more the rear cannon lit up the sky behind the Crossbow, but it could do little but watch as Homa and Sheba flew around, completing a semi-circular rise past the crossbow and to its tail. Six guns had been narrowed to a single gun once again.

Pursuer had become pursued.

The Crossbow, with its heavy frame and wider wings, had a much slower rate of climb than the little Garuda and the Bennu. Though the gray craft gradually pulled out of the dive, and thought its rear gunner had a clear view, an itchy trigger and was fighting for dear life, to the Vultures it was like watching a gull thrash to death in a crocodile’s maw.

Soon as the Crossbow got parallel to the ground and before it could even think of joining the turning battle, Home and Sheba were again stuck firmly behind it.

Sturdy and heavily armed as it was, the Crossbow was simply too slow to climb and too ponderous to turn. It couldn’t compete in a running battle with light fighters. Once it was tricked into diving after them, and once it failed to immediately destroy them, its fate was sealed. There was no way it could come out of the dive faster than them.

Within moments, Homa and Sheba had cut the distance and rode up to the Crossbow with guns blazing. The rear gunner disappeared amid a barrage of cannon fire, and the Crossbow spun toward the desert, its wings trailing fire and smoke like a meteor.

Homa and Sheba pulled out of the pursuit and began to climb back up again.

Below them, the infantrymen cheered and threw up a flare in celebration.

“Impressed yet, Boris?” Sheba asked.

“No, but I appreciate the effort, wasted as it is on a loser like me.”

Homa laughed and chided her. Sheba cracked a short laugh over the radio too.

“You two are almost cute.”

Mannan’s fond voice interrupted them.

Sayyid and Malik could be heard laughing briefly.

Even a muted “nya-ha-ha” could be heard from Anada

“Hey, shut up!” Homa replied impulsively.

“Oh, stuff it!” Sheba said at almost the same time.

Because it was a shared channel, all of the Vultures could hear the instructions and banter. It was easy to forget when they all got quiet and perhaps even in the middle of combat when they were all screaming in turn. Perhaps Homa simply tuned out all of their instructions and banter and focused on their own, and in her mind she was conversing only with her partner, as if truly arm in arm. This was why they prefaced every combat message with the person’s callsign, for whom it was intended.

In this case, everyone had heard and maybe seen Homa and Sheba’s ‘dance.’

It was enough to make Homa feel mortified again about standing out too much.

“Ugh.” Sheba sighed. She was clearly flustered too. “Forget it. Status report!”

All around them Garudas and Crossbows chased each other across the skies. Gunfire flew every which way, but most of the fighting was happening overhead and there was little danger of being caught in a crossfire when it came to aerial combat. So Homa could for a moment sit and take in the chaotic melee. It was like flying beneath a flock of birds. Because of their rear gunners and thicker armor, many of the crossbows were managing to fight off the dogged pursuits of the Garudas, but the faster, lighter, more agile Ayvartan fighters flew circles around their enemies and had the initiative.

There were smoking gray planes everywhere. Though spectacular turning battles had broken out all over the airspace, the Garudas’ greater speed and maneuverability let them escape their enemies easily and choose when to engage. Overwhelmed, several of the Crossbows broke from their groups to try to expand the battlespace, and this shift caused a few inexperienced Crane squadron pilots to break up and chase after them as well, exposing themselves. These pilots gave the Crossbows an opportunity.

Though strictly defending at this point, the crossbows still proved a dangerous foe. Homa saw several Garudas with damage, and as she gazed overhead, one of the Cranes dove down, its propeller faltering after absorbing a rear gun shot. Another crane, broken off from its pair, was chased by a lone crossbow and caught in a hail of gunfire. An explosion flashed far off the side of Homa’s vision. She shook her head.

Ibis squadron was in the battle, however, and their expert pilots stuck to their pairs and never once let the crossbows dictate their movements. Fully taking advantage of their speed, they outright ignored several of the paired crossbows and went after the breakaways. Crossbows went up in smoke around the edges of the melee, saving a few Crane pilots from their mistakes. Amid all of this chaos, it felt like Vulture was in the eye of the storm, flying almost literally under the most violent of the fighting.

“This is A.C.I. Cornet. I think the laughs indicate everyone has checked in and we’re all fine, commander.” Marcy said. “But we should watch the skies for stragglers.”

“You’re right. We’re sneaking past, but a Crossbow could get ideas at any moment.” Sheba said. “Remember to look up your canopy as much as you check around it.”

“I’m hardly scared. These Crossbows are so slow, even with my load I shook one off.” Anada said. “But we really need to dump these rockets soon and get proper stuck-in!”

“Well, I’m almost glad you can talk again, Gregory.” Sheba said. “Feeling better?”

“Better? What? I’m allowed to have different moods, aren’t I?” Anada grumbled.

Sheba sighed. “Whatever you say. Well, if that’s everyone–“

“Enemy entering the airspace! It’s a large one! This must be the Hierophant!”

Marcy called out over the radio. There were a few gasps, and some excited tittering.

“Direction? Time to engagement?” Sheba asked.

“Correct a few degrees, northwest. Altitude unknown, so I can’t say for certain–“

Anada interrupted. “I see it! It’s, I dunno, a thousand a few meters up above!”

Homa looked ahead and up, and through the smoke, she could definitely see a much larger plane climbing slowly in an arc, like a javelin reaching the apex of a throw. There were a few flies loitering around it that were clearly identifiable as Crossbows once the Vultures gained some speed on them. And the Hierophant loomed larger and larger, its immense cylindrical shape broken up by the thick gun pod on the bottom.

Hierophant was a truly impressive model. Clearly based on the Wizard class bomber, with the same “greenhouse” glass cockpit dome and the same basic armored body, its wingspan was even greater, and the engines were reinforced. Homa thought she could see two protrusions on the tail of the Hierophant — takeoff boosters, perhaps?

Looming large, ponderously rising to the sky, the Hierophant was like a flying whale.

Luckily, if the Hierophant was a whale, Vulture had plenty of harpoons.

“Remember the plan! Boris and I will go first. Dmitri and Emeric, gain altitude and set up a flanking attack on the Hierophant in case I miss. If you have a shot, take it!”

Vulture squadron briefly reconvened past the main mass of the air battle, all six planes wingtip to wingtip with Marcy just behind. Once everyone had identified the Hierophant and agreed on their approach, they broke up once more in the shadow of the target. Sheba and Homa began climbing quickly toward the Hierophant while Mannan and Sayyid tried to put a good amount of horizontal distance from the target before beginning their own flanking climb. Malik and Anada loitered, awaiting their turn. If everything went right, they would be attacking Hierophants 4 and 5, not 1.

“Boris, here we go!”

“I heard you already!”

Homa and Sheba shot up towards the target from below, flying almost straight to it.

Though the Crossbows couldn’t stop them, the enemy still had a greeting for them.

The Hierophant was a wizard-class chassis, and its ventral gunner noticed the two Garuda chassis flying toward it and quickly opened fire. For a moment long bursts of green machine gun fire hurtled down from above Homa and Sheba, but they shook them off in such a way that in the next instant the gunfire was entirely cancelled.

Both of them had the same idea once again.

Unlike the Wizards, the Hierophants had a massive underside gun block for the 102 mm naval cannon. This blocked the traverse of the dorsal gun against targets with a certain angle of attack. Homa and Sheba divined this immediately and executed their approach flawlessly. They charged straight up at the Hierophant, flying with their tails forming a line to the ground. While it flew ‘straight,’ they flew ‘perpendicular’ to it.

As they climbed, they pushed their noses up to adjust the line of their attack, always correcting for the Hierophant’s forward movement. This kept the gun block between themselves and the dorsal gunner, preventing him from turning the gun on them.

They had rendered the Hierophant defenseless and opened an attack route.

“Boris, I’m going to attack!”

“Got your back!” Homa said.

Now they had a clear path to the Hierophant and it could not defend itself.

Though the unguided rockets they had been equipped with were best fired from a level plane, Sheba was no slouch with her gun sight, as she had made clear before.

As she approached the Hierophant, Sheba rolled her plane so the rockets would hit along the length of the gun block. Had she retained her former orientation the rockets might have sailed around the sides of the Hierophant. It was a testament to her skill that while rolling the plane around like that, she was able to keep steady and aim.

“Firing missiles!”

One hit of a special switch on her stick, and the rockets released from their rails.

A flash of fire and a puff of smoke and the missiles went on their way.

Sheba’s rockets charged toward the Hierophant in a remarkably straight path.

Two impacts followed, accompanied by little fanfare at first.

No flashes of dramatic explosions. No sudden rain of shrapnel.

Two holes simply blossomed in the gun block beneath the bomber.

Fire and smoke slowly belched out of them.

“Did I miss?” Sheba shouted with frustration.

“I’ll follow up!”

Homa thrust ahead of Sheba and held down her cannon trigger.

Five shots pushed out of the cannon, each followed by a clunky thud and finally by a shaking of the Bennu’s nose. Three of them sailed past the Hierophant; the first and most stable shot punched its own hole into the bottom of the Hierophant. Homa rapped the combined trigger for her weapons, but after those five shots nothing but machine gun fire released. Her bullets struck the underside of the bomber to no avail.

Sheba and Homa broke away from the Hierophant, separating briefly to avoid the ventral gunner on the top and the two crossbows flying alongsid, waiting for their chance. The Vultures shot past the Hierophant, and the escorts’ gunners opened up, but none of the gunfire could reach them as they weaved away from the target.

Homa barely knew what to check first. She looked over her shoulder.

Behind them the fire and smoke from the Hierophant intensified.

Satisfied something was happening she tried the cannon again and got nothing.

“My cannon’s stuck! Anatoly, I have no cannon!”

As Homa broadcast this, the fire aboard the Hierophant must have reached the magazine of the naval gun, because the bomber quite suddenly went up in a bright red explosion, swallowed amid a storm of fire and smoke. Split into two massive pieces of billowing scrap, the Hierophant tumbled down from the sky, destroyed so quickly that the propellers on its amputated wings were still spinning as the pieces fell.

“What do you mean you have no cannon Boris?” Sheba called. “Boris?”

Machine gun bullets started bouncing off the bulletproof glass on Homa’s canopy.

She cringed, unable to answer Sheba’s cries as she wrenched away.

Behind her, from out of the smoke and flames, one of the Crossbows chased after her.

Four machine guns and two cannons on its face opened up on the Bennu.

Shells from the 20 mm cannons blew past her, any one threatening to take her apart.

Homa shook the wings from side to side then gave the plane hard stick to the right.

A storm of green machine gun bullets swept over and under her wing, colliding several times, chipping away bits of paint and fireproof coating and denting the steel frame.

She was lucky those cannons did not strike anything, especially not her fuel tanks.

Homa slammed the pedals, worked the throttle with her mechanical hand.

All of her body went into the maneuver; the Bennu dropped away from the Crossbow.

At once the Crossbow began to roll its wings just the same as Homa had.

Despite its weight the turn was expertly tight and threatened to keep it in pursuit.

Homa desperately dove; Sheba flew past.

Dozens of red machine gun rounds and several cannon shots peppered the surface of the Crossbow as it swung heavily in the air. Sheba’s volleys crossed from the tail to the wings and and finally perforated the nose. Before it could complete its turn, black smoke streamed from the Crossbow like feathers shed copiously from a bird.

Sheba flew over and ahead of the Crossbow, and its engine finally gave up.

Spinning clumsily wing over wing and tail over nose, the Crossbow disappeared toward the desert below and Homa breathed a sigh of relief. She checked her wings for damage and found little to be concerned about. But her armament was gutted. Without her cannon she stood no chance of doing anything to the Heirophants. She felt cheated, frustrated. Even more than losing her life, she feared this powerlessness.

“Boris, are you okay?”

Sheba joined on Homa’s wing. Homa could see her through the glass canopy.

She put a hand up to the glass in solidarity. Homa shook her head at her.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the cannon, but I’m not giving up.” Homa said.

She needed to hear that said by anyone, even if it had to be herself.

Without a main cannon she could not see how the Bennu would be any use.

But she wouldn’t retreat. Not when Death was challenging all of them again.

“You’re not alone. I’ll support you. Let’s cover for the rest of our little bombers.”

Sheba smiled. Homa saw it through the canopy again. She looked sincere.

In this smoking, burning piece of the sky, she even looked beautiful.

Homa shook her head again. “Don’t pity me, I hate that.”

This, she whispered to herself, rather than said over the radio.

“This A.C.I. Cornet, commander, do you read?”

Marcy again; Sheba answered quickly. “I read. One Hierophant is down.”

“We saw.” Marcy said. “However, I think the remaining Hierophants are grouping up. I’m seeing several enemies in a tight cluster. They’ll be in the operational area soon.”

“They have escorts too, I’m sure.” Sheba said. “Dmitri, Emeric, are you ready?”

“Aye aye, ma’am.” Sayyid replied.

“Of course. We’ll form up behind you.” Mannan said.

“Boris and I will draw their fire away. Make your rockets count!” Sheba said.

Two rockets had not been enough to outright destroy the Hierophant’s gun block, so more than ever it was important for Sayyid and Mannan to hit with every shot.

This time there would be no supporting cannons that could make a difference.

Homa thought back to when General Nakar had joked about her notoriety, and she felt indignant at the concept that she would be zippy bait for panicking Nochtish gunners. Without a cannon, however, she couldn’t be much more than that for anyone anyway.

“Um, wait a moment!”

Marcy had shouted suddenly.

Sheba and Homa formed up in front of Mannan and Sayyid.

In the distance, Hierophant-2 and -3 came into view.

Flying side by side, the pair had only two Crossbows with them.

Not much of the enemy was left behind, then. All of them had taken a gamble on charging ahead of the bombers in a big mass and thereby tying up the Ayvartan interception. They had not counted on a dedicated anti-air bombing squadron that could simply fly past all of them and engage the Hierophants, so the escort was light.

“Cornet?” Sheba asked. Marcy had gone silent.

As they approached the Hierophants, they heard Marcy’s nervous breathing on radio.

“Commander, several enemies, moving fast, too fast!”

Sheba shouted back. “Where are they?”

“Look left!” Marcy said.

Homa turned her head, and in the next instant she saw the enemy arrive.

Shooting out from the distance, appearing like mirages in the haze of the desert heat.

There were six Archer class light fighters that could not have been there.

Massive trails of smoke followed in their wake, and as soon as they arrived within sight distance of the Vultures, they discarded several objects to lighten their airframes up.

From under their wings they jettisoned drop fuel tanks; from their tails, the billowing and burning propellant tanks that had boosted them this far and this fast, fell away.

“Boosters!” Mannan shouted into the radio. “They have operational rocket boosters?”

“Nevermind that! We have six archers coming! Homa, go after Anada and Malik now!”

So urgent had been the order, so evident the panic, that she forgot the callsigns.

It was at that point that Homa realized that, burdened as they were with rockets, and with nobody to guard them, Anada and Malik were sitting ducks below them. Sheba could guard Mannan and Sayyid, Homa was with them too. Nobody had stayed with the kids; nobody had thought that it would be necessary to protect them and Marcy.

At their flank, the Archers realized the same.

Three of them maintained course for the Hierophants.

The remaining three peeled away and dove at a low angle for their exposed prey.

Homa wrenched the stick and worked the pedals and jerked the Bennu away.

She hit the throttle and accelerated, unblinking, gritting her teeth, praying.

Without any warning, an enemy that was more than a match had appeared.

And as they bore down on Malik and Anada she did not know if she could intercept.


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