by Robert Lyman - 2021
“You can't be serious?” I said. “I just got out of the NAF and you want to send me back? Hell, I know for a fact there’s a bounty on my head because of what I did when I left. A few of my old comrades are just itching to get at me to collect on it!”
“Well, Commander, you wouldn’t be going to the NAF,” Captain XO replied. He inhaled a long deep breath. “Technically you’d be going to the UNC, so what’s the issue?”
“Um, let’s see, and you’ll pardon the language, but they’re fucking surrounded by the NAF!” I replied.
Seriously, does he think I’m crazy? It took me two fucking years to position myself to escape and that didn’t include the secret purchase of a house, on an island, in a fucking foreign country! And now he wants me to go back?
“Look, there’s something bigger at play here, I can feel it. NAF wouldn't be traipsing around UNC territory if there wasn’t something there. Don’t believe me? Ask the Chief.”
“Captain’s right,” she said. “For all the animosity between them, there’s always been a healthy dose of respect for my people after the last brush war. We kicked them in the nuts pretty hard then, hard enough for them to remember not to fuck with us. If they sent a team into the badlands for something, that something has to be pretty fucking important.”
“Yeah, I remember that. I was just a raw boot when that happened. That was some mystical shit you folks played on them. Brought down half the fleet with some next level hocus pocus,” I replied.
“We had help, but I’m not at liberty to talk about that so don’t ask,” she replied and turned her attention back to the Captain. “When do we leave?”
“What? Wait a minute! I didn’t say I was going!” I really did not want to go back. I left because I saw how rotten the NAF had become, rotten deep down into the marrow of its soul. A rot that could only be excised with fire and a lot of it. I couldn’t bear witness to it and remain silent, so I ran. I stole the plans to a new stealth dive bomber prototype along with the two prototype planes and fled. By the time I made it safely to the Renegade and her crew, I was financially wrecked, morally bankrupt, and emotionally and physically exhausted. I had done things for a nation I no longer loved and a political system I never believed in. To go back was to me, like asking an abusive ex-lover if we could be together again. Not a good plan.
“Commander, I understand your reticence regarding this, but you’re one of the best pilots, if not the best, on the Renegade and if you don’t do it, I’ll have to turn it over to Lieutenant Commander Flack, who, I’m sorry to say, is not up to the task, I’m afraid,” Captain XO said. He leaned back in his chair for a moment to let me stew on that little notion.
I’d brought Lieutenant Commander Flack with me when we fled the NAF. We’d been friends since we were kids. We went into the NAF Military together right after college, both of us becoming pilots. I rose through the ranks and made Commander just before escaping. He, on the other hand, had stalled out after a particularly bad incident. He cracked up his bird during a disaster response. He had a choice, rescue some and have none to come back to or overload his aircraft and possibly lose everyone if it crashed.
He almost made it.
The aircraft strained under the increased load forcing him to set down short of the relief staging area. Wound up putting the bird down on a small house. None of the civilians died, but he lost his co-pilot. The board of inquiry found him negligent, he was sanctioned, and the matter was laid to rest, but it doomed his career.
Afterward, he went into a dangerous tailspin emotionally and it took all his efforts just to stay one step ahead of a general court martial and a permanent spot before a firing squad. When I decided I wanted out, I figured that since he was an old friend who could use a new start, I brought him with me. Was he as good a pilot as me? At one time he was, but not now. There is good in him, I just hoped this change in venue was the balm he needed. Time will tell as they say.
“Let me think about it while I work on the report. Give me an hour or so. Not sold on the idea yet,” I replied. And I really wasn’t. True enough we were going to UNC territory, but we’d have to fly through NAF airspace. That was the tricky part and given that being shot down and possibly captured was in the offing, I was REALLY not wanting to do this.
“Chief, if you can get me the gun camera footage from my bird and Ack-Ack’s that would be appreciated. Sooner the better.”
There it was again, that look of ‘your piss, poor, planning does not equal my emergency’ stare then a heavy sigh, before, “You’ll have it within two hours.”
“I’ll take it. Captain, I’ll let you know my decision once I’ve completed the AAR.”
“Fair enough, dismissed,” he said as he spun his chair to stare out the window. “Oh, and a reminder, this is just between us. No need for the rest of the crew to know at this point.”
“Aye sir,” we replied in chorus.
I left the Captain’s quarters and wandered a bit through the airship giving some thought to what the Captain had asked of me. Once we were over UNC airspace, we’d be mostly fine. The NAF had some serious long-range missiles that even with the Remora’s stealth capability, would not make it a cake walk by any stretch, but it was still doable. Assuming a straightforward run, I figured it would be best for a low altitude run across the northern Appalachians keeping low and using the hilly terrain for cover. Then hit the Great Lakes region and put the bird on the deck as it were, keeping as close to the water as possible. After that it was a simple pop up over the upper Midwest and a quick landing in the UNC.
Yeah, straight forward like all my plans. Straight forward into a buzzsaw of anti-aircraft missiles and remote-controlled hard points. And let’s not forget NAF aircraft that might be sent to deal with us. And the pilots behind those sticks were going to work a lot harder to bring us down than simple missiles and gun emplacements. Those are just a few of the any number of ways it could go completely sideways, which on the whole, are too numerous to count. Yeah, this is going to be a fun trip for sure.
I paused to look out one of the port windows. I have to admit the view is quite stunning from this altitude. Maybe, just maybe I can bring the wife on the next trip. Maybe one of the short haul trips over to the mainland, one of the famous ‘beer’ runs. I think she’d like that. Not much of a beer drinker, but she can always bring a bottle or two of Islay’s finest.
That brought to mind that I needed to get a message to her. She hasn’t gotten a word from me in a while and is probably going out of her mind. I couldn’t tell her about the mission for certain, but at least it’ll keep her sane.
I made my way back towards the comms room and I turned the corner just in time to almost knock Ack-Ack over as he was exiting said room.
“Hey, watch out!” he exclaimed. “Oops! Sorry Robert, I mean Piper.”
I stepped aside, dodging the near collision, “Hey Ack!” I caught him at the shoulders to steady him. His shoulders shook a bit as he relaxed against the wall. “Steady there, buddy, wouldn’t want you to fall over! Everything alright?”
“Yeah...yeah, just ah, dropping off an outgoing message, but Jones, the comms guy, is out at the moment,” he replied. He was still shaking and seemed nervous about something, but that wasn’t unusual, given all he’d been through the last several years.
We all get the shakes every so often, especially when you find yourself doing something totally mundane. It can trigger an old memory, especially the bad ones. I have quite a few myself, but over time I’ve managed to keep them at arm’s length as it were. Finding my wife Miriam was a great start. Getting out of the NAF helped the most. The memories will always be there, watching and waiting for the right time to totally derail me emotionally and physically, but now I have the support structure to help me. The crew aboard the Renegade and most importantly, my wife back home in Scotland.
This was the big reason why I’d convinced Ack-Ack to come with me. His own support structure was the NAF military and that, shall we say, is extremely lacking in its ability to do much more than say ‘Suck it up’. His parents were gone and with no other family or friends to lean on, he dove headfirst into alcohol and occasional drug use. When you go way back the way we did, some bonds are just so strong you can’t walk away even if you know you should. I should have walked away a long time ago, but I just couldn’t give up on him. Not yet, not while he was making the effort.
“Hope everything is okay,” I said. “Jones should be back soon and I need to send a quick message. If you like I can have Jones send it for you. Save you the trouble of coming back later.”
“No! I’ll check back later when Jones is back on duty,” he replied, his voice a bit on the terse side as if he was afraid I might read it or something. What was even more striking was his shakes seemed to be more intense when I suggested delivering his message. Might just be the shakes from his quitting alcohol. Addiction can do strange things to you.
“Okay, okay, well I can if you want, just let me know,” I said and stepped aside to let him pass. “Meet me in the lounge later and we can get a cup of coffee.”
“Yeah, um sure, that’d be great,” he replied before giving a halfhearted salute and walked off down the hall. I shook my head and stepped into the comms room.
Lots of lights blinking on and off with the occasional whir of hidden machinery doing whatever it was it did. All of which I knew nothing about. It was not a large room by typical standards. There is after all, limited space on an airship, even the Renegade. It was probably about the size of a broom closet with most of the space taken by said equipment. It always had that warm ozone smell, like the aftereffects of a small thunderstorm. Kind of comforting when you think about it.
Jones was, as Ack-Ack had mentioned, not available, so I grabbed his message book and scribbled out a short note for him to send to Wick, who would then send it on to my wife. I was just finishing when there was a series of beeps, clicks, and whirs, followed by the teletype chattering and paper feeding out. I waited for a moment, curiosity getting the better of me. It was addressed to Chief Zilla. I resisted the urge to read the remainder of the message and instead tore it off the teletype, folded it in half and tucked it in my pocket. It would be a long walk back to the maintenance bay, but I could use the walk anyway.
The walk took less time than I imagined and mostly because I was still thinking about Ack-Ack’s reaction to ‘bumping’ into him outside the comms office. For some reason it was nagging at me and I don’t know why. I mean it wasn’t until the accident that he became jittery and all. Before then, yeah he’d have given me a run for my money as a pilot. He was the coolest pilot I knew under fire. I guess sometimes events in life just change people, some more than others.
I entered the maintenance bay to find the Chief ‘slaving away’, her terms not mine, at the modest repairs needed to the Remora I’d just flown. My boots thumped on the deck as I made my way to where she was hovering over the port side wing.
“And to what do I owe you for two visits in one day Piper? If I thought worse of you I’d suspect you were flirting with me.” She never looked up from her work. She worked her tools like a master artisan working their favorite medium, careful and precise, no wasted movement.
“Would it be that I could, but as you already know, I’m taken,” I said.
“Good, because if you tried anything I’d tell Miriam and then take turns with her slapping the shit out of you for even trying,” she replied.
“An important safety tip and one that I will keep in mind should I ever lose what’s left of my sanity and make such a move. No, I came by to drop off a message that came through in comms while I was waiting for Jones, so I grabbed it for you.” She tensed a bit at that last part.
“Message? I’m not expecting any messages, especially after what the Captain said earlier, which frankly I wasn’t in total agreement with. I haven’t sent anything out in at least several weeks. I’ve been too busy putting your crews’ rides back together,” she turned to face me as I held out the folded paper. She took it and looked me in the eyes.
“You read it?” she asked.
“I am many things, but insanely stupid isn’t one of them,” I replied.
“True enough, you’re just mostly stupid, which on the whole is quite a few notches down from insanely stupid,” she opened the message and after a moment folded it and handed it back to me. “Not mine I’m afraid.”
“But it’s addressed to you?” I replied. “I mean why would someone send a random message to you?”
“Secret admirer I guess, beyond that I don’t know. Besides, all my messages to and from home are in my people’s language so peeps like yourself can’t read them...you read it and tell me what you think.”
I unfolded the message and skimmed straight to the message itself, skipping the header data. Sure enough it was in plain English, but it made no sense.
PLEASE ADVISE ON PACKAGE DELIVERY. EAGERLY AWAITING BUNDLE OF JOY.
“So, if you weren’t expecting this, who was?” I asked.
“Not sure, but I bet it has something to do with my supposed overuse of comms the Captain spoke of earlier. I’d report that to him and let him use it to root out whatever is going on,” she replied. “Oh, and the camera footage you wanted is on your rack.”
“Thanks, and yeah I think I’ll drop this with the Captain,” I said tucking the message back in my pocket, I turned and exited the hangar bay, heading towards my quarters.
True to her word, the gun camera footage was laying on my bunk along with a portable film reader exactly two hours later. I’m not sure how she does it, but damn I’m glad she’s on our side.
My quarters weren’t as posh as the Captain’s, given that well, I wasn’t the Captain. It was basically a bed on one side, an aisle down the middle wide enough to stand, and a set of built-in cabinets with a small desk on the other. Oh, and the most important part, no window. I could live with the cramped space, but no window? Gives me a reason to spend more time in the lounge I suppose.
I placed the viewer and the film cartridges on the desk. There were two; one from my Remora and one from Ack-Ack’s. I took a seat, pulled out a pad of paper and a pen, loaded the cartridge from Ack-Ack’s into the viewer, and pressed the play button. I like to watch the film start to finish at least once before I make notes. Helps to give me a refresher on what happened. Especially since in this action I had let Ack-Ack take the lead on the attack.
The screen went black and then the NAF base appeared. Numbers along the bottom ticked away the time as the aiming reticle appeared. Though there was no audio I could hear Ack-Ack’s voice in my head as we called out the attack. It was always a bit surreal to watch these after the fact.
Ack-Ack lined up for his run. The compound was small, about the size of a couple football fields set side by side. It was located near the coast in the upper Northeast of the NAF in what was at one time known as the State of Maine in the old United States of America before the Breakup. It was not even on our radar as it were until very recently. What it did though was give the NAF a launching point into the Free Maritimes, the old Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Isle, New Brunswick, Labrador, and lastly Newfoundland. The NAF had been trying to reel them in with the help of the Quebecois for the last few years in a bid to finally consolidate NAF control over all of the North American continent. Destroying the base would crimp their style for a bit and give the Free Maritimes some breathing room to deal with the pesky Quebecois next door.
The base was coming into focus now as the time ticker sped forward with each frame. It was outlined by two rows of concertina wire and then a wall of gabions. On each corner and along the midpoint of each wall were guard towers. Each tower had mounted machine guns for both air and ground defense. Inside of the gabion wall there were a couple aircraft revetments for helicopters, four Quonset huts, and lastly a large landing pad and airship mooring mast. That last part was significant, because there was an airship tethered to the mast. An airship not unlike one I knew so well having served on it during my early days in the NAF Air Service.
It wasn’t hard to miss given the captain’s proclivity for self-promotion and ideology. The entire front section of the ship was painted to resemble a large grey and black wolf’s head. Teeth bared in a ferocious snarl and eyes that glowed with a menacing abandon. Captain Tyre spared no expense to have that done even though it was against regs. Better to ‘beg forgiveness than ask permission’ was his go to reasoning for everything he did, especially when it came to enemies of the NAF. If the brass above disapproved, they didn’t show it. They did however make it clear to other ship captains that such a ‘disregard’ for regulations would not be tolerated and any attempts to emulate Tyre’s example would be met with an equally harsh punishment. In the NAF that meant being sent to one of the ‘rehabilitation camps’ established in the upper middle of the country. They were, ironically enough, placed close to UNC territory. Both as a giant middle finger to the UNC and to effectively place a large ‘military force’ nearby in the form of a ‘conscript battalion’.
By this point Ack-Ack had been calling off the distance having settled the aiming reticle on the Fenris. If he hit it, that was going to be one big ass fireball. Would probably not destroy the base outright, but would cause some serious damage, nonetheless.
Bright streaks of light flashed past the cockpit as the air defenses opened up. I felt the reflexive thump even in the safety of my cabin at this display. It has a lasting effect on your psyche. Even several years after a raid I can still feel the thumps of rounds hitting my craft whenever something bumps me just right. It is, to say the least, unnerving.
He was down to the final call outs when the screen went black. No warning, just nothing. And then, after what seemed like a lifetime, but was only, maybe two or three seconds, the scene resumed. Now however, he was pulling out of the dive and making a grab for altitude and the safety of open sky.
What the hell just happened there? I rewound the film and played out the attack again paying close attention to the time track at the bottom. The numbers ticked upwards from 20:28:31 at the start and right up to the point of release and the black out at 20:31:42. Then nothing. Then moments later the count starts at 20:31:43. How was this possible? I was on comms with him the whole time and he never skipped a beat. Add in the fact that I was right behind him by maybe ten seconds flight time and saw the whole thing. I mean at least I thought I saw the Fenris get hit. Or did I? The blackout was at least 2 or 3 seconds long so that should have been reflected in the timing on the footage, but it picks up right where it left off.
That made no sense.
I made some notes on my notepad and rewatched the footage again. Same result. Weird. The only way to make that blank spot was to turn off the camera, but even if you did that, the camera was synchronized with an on-board clock. That clock would reflect the time gap between when the camera was turned off and back on again. This, however, shows no gap at all.
Whisky, Tango, Foxtrot.
I replayed it again only this time I let it continue so I could see his second run. This was the attack on what we thought was the power unit for the base. The clock continued onward as before and once again I could hear his voice in my own head as he called off the time and distance to target before release. This time though there was no black out. He went through the countdown to the last moment, releasing the payload and pulling away. Standard attack, no deviation, no black out. A textbook run any junior pilot could have made with their eyes closed.
I made some additional notes, making sure to record the blackout timing so I could review it with the Chief later. I loaded the viewer with the camera footage from my plane and pressed play.
This time I was watching as I saw it happen. Once again I was hearing him call off the numbers as he lined up his attack on the Fenris. This was again a textbook run, especially with that big fat target laying there like a beached whale. At a certain point I lined myself up behind and just below the line of his plane as I started calling out my own numbers in preparation for my run. This meant I had to take my eyes off his plane and pay more attention to my target which was not the Fenris, but what looked to be the headquarters building just off to one side. In that moment, as I’m calling out my numbers in my head, I see his plane jink left slightly just before release.
That was not out of the ordinary all things considered. Defensive fire can alter a pilot’s planned approach, etc. But add in the blank spot in the footage and…
I let the thought hang there as I continued to watch the footage as the two planes lined up for the second and final attack. He was aiming for the power unit and I for another Quonset hut. Dancing pencils of light scanned the skies as the spotlights tried in vain to illuminate us. We lined up for the run and I watched this textbook attack happen just as it had with his footage.
I made some notes and watched it a few more times to make sure I had all I needed. It was the last time through where I saw the anomaly. So, search lights are powered by the power unit as part of the base. This is, as they say, a given. It was equally baffling when I watched the footage for the last time through when I noticed what appeared to be the lights going out just a fraction of a second, maybe two, before the bomb actually hits. I rewound the film and watched it again and again. I slowed it down to frame by frame and there, right before the bomb struck, the lights went out and they never came back on. After this run, we overflew the base before heading back to the Renegade and it seemed all power was lost. Besides, I know the bomb exploded because my camera caught it. Along with the damage from the prior run as well, which it would seem, may have done little to no damage to the Fenris, this was raising some interesting questions for me and they needed answering.
I turned off the viewer and sat back. I needed to think about what I was seeing here. Did he deliberately miss? The gun camera issue notwithstanding, a case could be made that he had taken damage and that had been the cause of his missing the Fenris, but the power unit attack didn’t make sense. It was almost as if they knew in advance and turned off the power on purpose.
I needed to speak to the Chief before I went to Ack-Ack.
A knock at the door broke my trance, “Come in,” I replied.
The door opened and in walked the Captain. “We have a problem,” he said.