Andrews Air Force Base, MD, United States of America, Sol III
0323 EDT October 10th, 2004 ad
"All right, here's the plan, such as it is," said Lieutenant Colonel Augusta Sherman, commander of the Twenty-Second Tactical Fighter Squadron. The squadron ready room at Andrews Air Force Base was heavily soundproofed. The soundproofing was legacy of the days when fighters and supply aircraft thundered into the skies; the padded walls reduced the thunder to a dull rumble. In the face of the grounding of aircraft worldwide it created an eerie silence into which the squadron commander's soprano voice dropped like pebbles in a tomb.
"We know that the Posties are in and around Fredericksburg," she continued. "But we don't have a hard fix on numbers, depth, locations or any other damn intel. Army AirCav Kiowas have fixed a route in that is out of sight of any of the landers by sneaking along with their sensor masts just above the trees. In case you need a reminder, flying in sight of landers is a definite no-no."
She pointed to the snaking course drawn in on the map. "It's pretty close to following the Rappahanock River. But just north of Fort A.P. Hill they ran into solid Posleen forces and really got mauled by the God King's automatic targeting systems."
She looked around the ready room at the group of blue-suited squadron pilots. Until the coming of the Galactics, American military hardware was the crème de la crème and the F-22E was the cutting edge. But with the coming of the Galactics and the Fleet Fighter Force the cream of the world's fighter pilots was sucked off into space. So many fighters were needed for the fleet that virtually anyone with a background in flying or even a strong aptitude was offered a slot.
What was left to fly the hottest plane ever developed through purely Terran technology was a ragbag group of relative losers. There was Kerman, who had his flight license suspended after putting his crop duster into a house then registering a blood alcohol level of .25. The investigator had it retaken because it seemed an impossibility anyone could fly with that much blood in his alcohol. There was Lieutenant Wordly, who spent as much time holding on to a puke bag as he did the stick, Jefferson Washington Jones, plane lover, GED graduate, a functional illiterate until he was twenty-five, whose first solo, at the age of fifty-seven, was in a jet trainer, and all the others.
And there was one antiquated squadron commander who got such a severe case of agoraphobia after one trip out of the atmosphere she could no longer fly above two thousand feet. It's not the height, General, it's the horizon.
On the other hand, they had a plane that practically flew itself and every single pilot was bound and determined to do the best job they possibly could.
"They tried sending in Predator drones, but they got mauled too. The powers-that-be hope that the combination of Terran stealth and high speeds will give us some limited survivability. It's really the only reason they produced the Echo, for a situation just like this."
She took a sip of coffee to give an appearance of calm and took another look around the room. Most of the pilots were simply listening, taking it all in. There would be hardly time to breathe on a mission like this one, much less read notes. And the whole mission would be programmed into their birds. This was just so the pilots had some idea what was happening when they had to change the plan. Kerman picked up the sheet of paper in front of him and started to fold it, whistling quietly through his teeth.
"We're going in Nap-Of-The-Earth—sorry Wordly," she said in an aside that produced general chuckles. "Set your terrain-following gear to hard. And we'll go in one at a time. When the point bird is lost the next in line will follow. Hopefully they will be able to avoid whatever took him out. The alternative, throwing everyone in en masse, is suicide. None of the data we have indicates that we can overwhelm the Posleen systems."
Augusta was getting distracted by Kerman. Whatever the origami was that he was working on, the sound of the folding was interspersed across her words. And she was trying in the back of her mind to remember what the song was that he was whistling. She thought she recognized it, but she couldn't figure out from where.
"Eventually we are going to get a complete look at the Posleen-controlled area or we'll run out of planes, take your pick. We'll be continuously uplinking the take from all of our sensors, but we are going in black otherwise. We'll have to depend on our low-light gear and IR lidar for terrain avoidance and data. I realize how badly the Army needs intel, but the only way to get it is if we can survive the penetration." There was a snort of disbelief at this last suggestion. She thought it was Kerman, who seemed to have almost completed his complicated origami.
Augusta agreed that surviving this mission would be unlikely. However, they had all signed on the dotted line and raised their hands to swear. She still intended to give them a chance to back out.
"Once we are in the basket, into the actual Fredericksburg area, I intend to go full active so we can get the max information possible." There had been some fidgeting and quiet conversation before she said that. When the words were said, the room dropped to total silence.
"Because of the threat and the fact that we are forced to go active on sensors, I personally do not expect to come back. Given that fact, anyone who wants to bow out can do so." She paused and waited for someone to get to their feet. Surprisingly, nobody did. She looked pointedly at Kerman but the older pilot just smiled quietly and kept whistling.
"Okay, with the exception of the first run, we'll draw lots for the order. Oh, and we're going in loaded for ground attack. If you find a juicy target, there's no reason not to pickle the bastard."
"So, who takes the first run?" asked Kerman, slipping on a set of jet-black aviator's shades and popping the origami to full size with a flick of the wrist. He obviously felt that as the aviator with the most experience at this sort of flying it should be him.
"Who do you think, Captain Kerman?"
When the last lingering pilot had quit the room, the origami of a mushroom cloud was left to flutter in the breeze from the air-conditioning.
* * *
At over twelve-hundred knots the darkened trees to either side of the river were a blur of gray, even when she was fully conscious. With a setting of hard on the terrain-following gear, the plane was no longer adjusting itself for human physiology. The only thing that mattered to it was the plane's survivability. Between thrust-vector technology, super-cruise ability and the craft's robust airframe design Colonel Sherman was taking regular hits of over sixteen Gs.
Between her gray- and red-outs she could see bars of silver and red flashing by on either side. At first she put it down to optical illusions from the pounding she was taking, but then she realized what it really was.
"Base, this is Tigershark 1," she gasped. "Are you copying this fire, over?"
"Roger, Tigershark 1. You hanging in there?"
"Negative, Base, I'm fading in and oooooooh shiiit." She broke off.
"Sorry, Base," she continued after a moment. "There was a lift by Rufin's Pond."
"Hang in there, Tigershark. You're beyond where the Kiowas took it in the ass."
"Roger, Base. Fire picking up now, there's . . . damn." She tapped a command into the low-light TV camera. "There's Posleen packed onto 17 headed into town. Fredericksburg must still be holding out."
The TV revealed masses of the centaurs headed north on U.S. 17 in brief flashes through the trees. The God King's systems were thwarted by the same trees; the plasma, flechettes and lasers attenuated just enough that the Peregrine continued its remarkable survival.
"Coming up on Fredericksburg, now," she continued, pointing the camera forward again. "Got some tracers, they must still be fighting in there. I'm gonna give them a little room. Don't want to kill anybody with the sonic boom." She touched a series of controls and the plane made a hard bank across the Posleen mass on 17. To survive the moment, the bank took her to over twenty Gs and she blacked out despite crunching as hard as she could. The blackout was only momentary, nor did she succumb to the complete loss of blood to the brain that pilots call the "funky chicken." She was back in action in moments. In that time, however, she had flashed across over three miles and was coming up on Concord Heights too fast to target the next likely attack point.
"They're solid on U.S. 1, too," she continued as she recovered. "I guess they're pressing them back into town. Heading for the I-95 interchange and going active now."
It was one of the few required tasks laid on the mission, and one she was certain was going to be her last. Once she crossed into the interchange of I-95 and VA 3 she would be in the open, radiating in multiple spectrums, and that was a deathtrap. She finally understood how the Japanese kamikazes felt. She made a series of adjustments to the weapons controls.
The F-22E Peregrine variant hosted a number of instruments the original F-22 designers would never expect would someday be standard equipment. The plane was originally conceived and designed, in the days of the Global Positioning System, as an air superiority fighter. If there was a ground autotargeting system to be installed, it would naturally be based on the GPS.
However, since the designers modifying the F-22 into a ground-attack variant recognized that there were not going to be any satellites, period, they had to come up with other measures. Eventually they fell back on three old but proven technologies.
First, the Peregrine could fix its position fairly well on the basis of inertial guidance. Given that it knew where it took off from, sensitive devices measured every direction vector on the craft and, on the basis of calculating all of those various vectors, could determine its current location with fair accuracy. It was '60s technology, but with more sophisticated computers, software and sensors, its degree of accuracy far exceeded any previous system. However, the farther the plane went from its starting point, called an IP, the larger the degree of inaccuracy. This was especially true when the plane was performing excessive maneuvers such as max thrusters on a hard terrain setting.
Second, the plane could "look" at the terrain and match it to a computerized map in its memory. A system originally developed for the much slower Tomahawk cruise missile, with modern computers, radar and software it was more than capable of taking terrain reads at twelve hundred knots. The terrain reads were primarily used to adjust the data from the inertial guidance system, correcting it as it got farther and farther off baseline. Thus, if the terrain was good the inertial guidance became much more accurate.
Last, the plane could fix its position in two dimensions quite well off LORAN radio direction finding.
So when Colonel Sherman programmed all of her cluster bombs to land just east of the 95/3 interchange, she could be fairly certain that that was where they were going to land. All she had to do was live long enough to give the drop command. She had to ensure that the CBU-58s would land on Posleen and not human defenders.
The plane made a hard jink to the left and dropped as a huge explosion occurred behind her and to the right. Slapped by the shockwave, she at first thought she had dropped her load early and looked in her rearview at the wrong moment. As she snapped her head back to the front she got tone just as the Peregrine cleared the woods west of Fredericksburg.
The area in and around the interchange was a seething mass of Posleen. Forces driving from the north and south had met at the interchange and tens of thousands of them were creating a sea of alien centaurs in their haste to enter the city before it could be fully sacked. But that same pileup made for thousands of God Kings and they all swiveled towards the target as Colonel Sherman's fighter rocketed fully into the open.
Before her thumb could complete the fractional movement to the firing button, hundreds of lasers and plasma cannon shredded her aircraft. The high-tech fighter came apart in a shower of carbon fibers, jet fuel and rocking explosions, but before those cannons and lasers tattered her aircraft the last burst of data from her sensor rig, video, radar and all, was received by the ground controller.
* * *
"That's a hard target for Showboat, sir," said the technician, stabbing the monitor with her finger in eagerness.
"Concur," said the ANGLICO captain, looking over her shoulder. "Call 'em up. Tell 'em to give it all they've got; there's no humans in that mass."
* * *
"Fire mission, continuous!"
With the setting of the sun, the wind had died and the Potomac River was as still as a pond. The ship had already dropped its anchors to hold it in place against the slight current and the huge guns now swiveled westward in their turrets.
Doors opened in the side of turrets and the long green rounds slid across the compartment, up the carriage and into the breeches.
"Elevation twelve-fifty, five bags."
The tubes slowly elevated as teenage seamen and women hurled the heavy bags of powder onto the rammers, doing the same job their great-grandfathers had done over sixty years before. With a sussurant hush the fifty-pound bags were shoved up behind the antipersonnel cluster rounds.
"Warning Light is ON!"
Throughout the ship sailors opened their mouths and clamped hands over ears already stuffed with earplugs.
And the newly refurbished USS North Carolina, one of the seven remaining battleships in the world—pulled from her berth in Wilmington where she had spent nearly fifty years as a state monument—shivered as flame lanced from her sixteen-inch guns for the first time in over sixty years.