What if Iran acquired the means to decapitate America's leadership? What if they acquired the political and religious will to act, and set a plan in motion? And what if a rag-tag band of passed over and past it has-beens, improbably enabled by a despised Pentagon poltroon, equipped with cast off and stolen hardware, set out to save the world?
May 1, 0456
North of NAS Fallon, Nevada
“Ripper 100, Lone Rock, Bravo 20 from the north,” said Lush on the radio.
The ambient glow off to the left of the jet burst into brightness as the limb of the sun peered over the horizon.
“Ripper, Bear Ace,” said the exercise coordinator from his perch in the back of an E-2D Hawkeye, 60 miles to the south, “cleared to press, range is hot.”
The F-14S Tomcat streaked in at 650 knots, 500 feet above the sere Nevada desert.
In an instant it all came together in the pilot part of Vike’s brain. Training, muscle memory, experience, situational awareness.
Ah, there it is.
For the first time in months, he became one with the jet. They – he and the thirty-ton monster he rode – were flying, no longer wrestling with each other. His grin came back with a vengeance. He dialed the radar altimeter down to 200 feet and pushed the nose over.
If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’.
“You’ve got steering to IP,” said Lush on the ICS, “four miles, on the nose.”
Vike watched the countdown marker click steadily toward the bottom of the Head Up Display, then flash as the jet roared over the initial point.
“Take steering,” said Lush, “157 for 30. Stepping to attack.”
The heading cue skittered across the HUD and Vike smoothly eased the Tomcat’s nose east until the diamond captured the bug. He grinned beneath his oxygen mask.
“PAL’s green,” said Lush, indicating that the shape had accepted the code she’d entered as a valid one. As a simulated special weapon, it was referred to by long convention as a shape. The target bug glowed magenta in the diamond. The shape, based on a live GBU-28, now had permission to do its thing, and knew just where to do it.
“Getting some Doppler, very low energy, front quarter,” said Lush.
Probably side-scatter from Bravo-19, thought Vike, they’re not going to throw fighters at us today.
“Sabre holds bandits overhead bullseye,” blared the radio, “heading north, 500 knots, 26,000 in the descent, flight of three, Fulcrums.”
“Knife fight,” said Vike as the HUD symbology instantly snapped from attack to dogfight. He grunted in approval at the seamless transition. His grin widened as his fangs came out.
“Come left thirty,” said Lush and Vike yanked the Tomcat’s nose farther to the east. “Okay, flight of three, 185 for 26, 25 grand, comin’ down hard. Geometry’s tight.”
Vike shoved the throttles into afterburner and unloaded, letting the speed build for a few moments, then pulled his nose up to face the oncoming threat.
The flight of three F/A-18’s were a wild card. Simulating MiG-29 Fulcrums, they were not supposed to be there, at least according to the mission brief.
Kay, thought Vike, play it hard.
Coming downhill from the target in a loose, Iranian-style arrow formation, the Hornets were in perfect position to bounce the Tomcat. The pilot of the lead Hornet squeezed a button on his throttle, trying for a missile lock. He didn’t realize it yet, but the fight was already over.
As the jet blasted through 12,000 feet, Lush launched a simulated Sparrow missile from the back seat. “Fox-one on the west bandit,” she called, just as Vike centered his pipper on the cockpit of the rapidly closing leader and squeezed the trigger.
“Guns on the leader,” he called.
“SPLASH TWO,” called the TACTS Range controller. The pair of dead bandits climbed out of the fight, moments before the Tomcat and the remaining Hornet hit the merge.
Vike took the Hornet down his port side with far less than 500 feet of separation. He rolled 90 degrees into the bandit and pulled until vapor flowed from the tail surfaces, reducing throttle to minimum afterburner as the wings began to program forward.
The Hornet pilot matched the Tomcat’s angle of bank and pulled eight G’s, bleeding energy fast. He stomped top rudder, opting for a nose-high, low-speed reversal, anticipating a quick kill. He knew how an Iranian would fight the Tomcat.
“Five o’clock, nose high,” said Lush, straining to keep the Hornet in view over her right shoulder.
Vike bunted the nose, unloaded the jet, and still in knife-edge flight, accelerated as the g-forces eased. One potato, two potato, he silently counted, then snatched the stick back and right and mashed bottom rudder. The big Tomcat pirouetted in three axes.
“Guns on the trailer,” called Vike, squeezing the trigger as his pipper walked across the Hornet from tail to nose, pausing on the cockpit.
“SPLASH,” said the TACTS controller.
The HUD symbology snapped back to air-to-ground. “Keep your turn in,” said Lush, “take steering.”
Vike rolled out on the attack course, diamond locked over the heading bug. He pushed the nose over and the big jet screamed toward the desert 12,000 feet below.
“One-trick ponies,” said Lush, “22 miles, we’re in attack.”
Yep, thought Vike, she’ll do!
“One-mile offset, 177 for 19, follow steering,” said Lush.
The countdown marker quickly tumbled down the left side of the HUD, and the steering bug, neatly trapped in a centered green diamond, began to pulse. A lift-vector line appeared above the diamond, green for the moment, anticipating the climb to bombing altitude. At 11 miles the line flashed and the steering bug flowed up out of the diamond to meet it. Vike shoved the throttles past the detent and into full blower as he smoothly pulled back on the stick until g meter steadied on four.
“Twenty-one thou,” said Lush as the jet roared past 15,000 feet, “don’t bust it.”
“Kay,” said Vike, slightly nettled. The Tomcat needed to be stable in level flight for weapon release, and a 21,000 foot drop would give the shape optimal penetration energy. Still following the steering cues on the HUD, he fed in forward stick as they passed 19,000 feet, shallowing the climb.
“Spoon Rest, 115 for 35,” said Lush, “I’m jammin’. Missile battery just south of the target.”
Vike ignored the Guideline threat and smoothly leveled the jet at 21,000 feet, bang on course, airspeed 680 knots. He pulled the throttles back out of blower as the countdown marker tumbled. Just as the marker flashed he mashed the trigger and felt a thump as the shape kicked free from the jet’s belly station.
“System” he said, indicating that the computer had pickled the bomb. He jammed the throttles back into afterburner and buried the nose.
“Weapon’s gone,” Lush confirmed. “Take steering, looking for, um, 188. Take it down hard!”
The Tomcat roared toward the desert far below, quickly blasting through the sound barrier. The double-thump of a sonic boom rolled across the range, startling desert denizens far below.
“Don’t mask me!,” said Lush, as Vike rolled the Tomcat toward the egress heading. “Kay,” she said, I got…kay, that’s a hit, and…detonation!”
“Center-bull,” called the range observer, “detonation.”
Vike eased the throttles and stick back, bottoming the jet’s plunge 300 feet above the desert, heading just west of due south, 650 knots on the clock.
“Black Net,” shouted Lush, “on the nose for 20, in acquisition!”
Vike squeezed a throttle button several times, pumping out bundles of radar-absorbing chaff from a dispenser beneath the tail of the Tomcat. He pushed the nose over. The radalt screeched at 200 feet. Through the windscreen he could see flat desert all the way to the mountains, sixty miles away.
“Let’s come right 90,” said Lush.
Vike smoothly rolled the Tomcat 90 degrees right wing down, pulled the nose through to 278, then snapped wings level.
“Kay, he’s out of acquisition. Let’s hold this for a minute. “Fan Song to the east, should be no factor.”
Vike started to glance over his shoulder to look for tell-tale smoke trails, caught himself, and quickly returned his eyes to the cockpit and picked up his low-level scan.
Just fly the jet, he thought. She’s got her shit suitcased.
“Kay, come left, uh, 148.” said Lush.
Vike rolled left and pulled, keeping the nose on the horizon, until the diamond captured the heading bug, the snapped wings level.
“Five grand, we’re fat,” said Vike, telling Lush they had plenty of fuel.
“Kay,” said Lush, “range exit in seven miles.”
“Ripper, Bear Ace,” called the exercise coordinator. “Terminate, terminate, terminate. Range is cold.”
“One-zero-one,” called Vike.
“Take steering for Fallon,” said Lush. “193 for 37.”
“Kay,” said Vike as he turned the jet toward home and began to climb.
The Tomcat ghosted over the fence, gear down, wings spread, flaps and slats whistling the lovely, keening Grumman song that had for so long been absent from the air station. Across the base most people paused and listened. Few of them recognized the sound, but they all, at some level, were captured by a sense that things were once again right with the world.
The big jet floated past the numbers, then firmly planted her main gear astride the centerline of runway 31-L. Aero-braking, Vike held the nose high for as long as physics allowed, then let the twin nose wheels gently kiss the concrete. Slowing, he turned off the taxiway at the eight-board and coasted to a stop under the direction of the Plane Captain, Airman Browning. As he shut down the engines, Lush opened the canopy and Browning scurried around to pop out the boarding steps. The crew safed their ejection seats, then Lush clambered down and hopped lightly to the ground, followed moments later by Vike.
“Jet’s up,” said Vike to the young enlisted man. “Flew like a charm.” The Plane Captain grinned in delight beneath the goggles and brown plastic of his cranial.
“Yessir,” he said, “good mission?”
“Kicked ass,” said Vike.
“All-right!” said Browning as he dashed off to do his post-flight inspection.
Pilot and RIO grinned at his retreating back, then paused for a moment, making eye contact. Words of praise began to form in Vike’s mind, but something in his RIO’s green eyes stopped them just above his diaphragm.
“I gotta piss,” said Lush as she turned and strode toward the hangar.