Authors: Joe Buff
IN A DIFFERENT SORT OF WAR.
Damn, the wingman told himself, this is something else. He grunted as he pulled back on the stick between his legs, giddy with expectation, jinking to evade the antiaircraft fire from the Axis frigates below. He kicked his two F414-GE-400 turbojets into afterburner power, literally going ballistic. The acceleration pressed him hard into his ejection seat. His U.S. Navy F/A-18E jolted as he released the special ordnance, America's latest salvo in this limited tactical nuclear war at sea, a war that Germany and South Africa started by a giant ambush earlier the same year.
The wingman went for altitude and separation, and his g-suit squeezed his guts. His aircraft handled easily now, all its missiles and its cannon ammo gone, both 480-gallon wing-mounted fuel tanks long since jettisoned. He closed up in loose formation on the other Super Hornets in the four-plane element—their defense-suppression roles had been well played while they loitered, their electronic warfare pods had functioned perfectly.
His flight leader ordered them all to flee for safety on heading three two zero true. The wingman brought his head-up steering bug in line, then eyed the other data on the holographic plate and on his cockpit LCDs:
chronometer, airspeed and angle of attack, kinetic energy cue, fuel gauges and bingo point, engine temperatures and RPMs, chronometer again. His autopolarizing visor was already down, but he could still see well enough in the clear late morning air. Just about now, he told himself.
The sky lit up, it seemed from all directions, a quick violet-white stabbing glare. He looked back—like Lot's wife, he told himself, surprised that now of all times he'd think of the Bible. The high cockpit and twin tails of the F-18 gave him good visibility rearward.
A blinding orange-yellow fireball punched high into the air, tendrils of superheated plasma dancing on its crown, perched atop a widening column of smoke and tortured water, an obscene phallus whose warmth the flier felt right through his mask. A small atomic warhead, yet already he could see the tsunami begin to spread. He watched the airborne shock wave gradually overtake him as his formation built up speed, riding afterburners hot as blowtorches. He checked the sky around, checked his leader's position, glanced down at his hydraulic pressure and electric system amps, and watched again. The sphere of ghostly condensation bloomed fast in all directions, much more swiftly than the tidal wave, quicker at first than sound. The aviator could see the overpressure's Mach stem piling up to punish the surface of the water. Then it hit his aircraft, a hammer and a hurricane. He struggled for control, avoiding a flat spin by just a whisker, pulled back in his fly-by-wire air brakes, and leveled off. Inside his nuclear-biologicalchemical protective suit he dripped with sweat—his thighs seemed soaked and he wondered if he'd wet himself. He glanced at all his readouts, then at his flight-mates. He smiled grimly. The other fighter-bombers looked okay, and his own mount was in good shape, all things considered. Those frigates had just paid dearly
for nuking his carrier battle group's last E-2C Hawkeye AWACS and the midair refueling forces.
The wingman's leader signaled a turn due east and a lower airspeed. The wingman followed gladly. Today's battle, just the latest battle, had been long—the air and sea around were marred with thick black plumes, stale pyres of ships and planes and men. This was his diminished squadron's third sortie since sunup, and it was time to head for home. Not back to Jacksonville, Florida, of course, to his high school teaching job and family and duties as a weekend warrior. God knows when he'd do that again, get to see his wife and kids. Right now back to USS Ranger was enough, his home away from home, recommissioned out of ready reserve after the ultranationalist Double Putsch in Berlin and Johannesburg, the coups that were the setup for the ambush. At this point aiming inward almost toward ground zero, from a hundred meters up the aviator watched the tidal wave his bomb had made come at him. It was easily sixty feet from crest to trough, a mountain of angry ocean boiling as it raced on by. Others followed, smaller only by comparison, foam and spindrift whipping backward off their peaks. His flight path cut the periphery of these concentric juggernauts, heading well north—upwind—of the blast. He double-checked that his cockpit ventilation system was sealed.
The wingman saw another flash beyond the earth's curvature, more southward and more pink, and assumed another strike had been made, more enemy vessels hit, more stragglers gone. Or maybe that was a defensive missile, to smack others of his air wing down. A mushroom cloud rose over the horizon, black with white intrusions capped by throbbing energetic red, silhouetted against the azure blue, delicate and vicious. Sooner than he expected the shock wave struck. His plane bucked in chaotic winds. The surface of the ocean chopped and writhed.
He scanned his instruments again. Three yellow caution lights but nothing major. His encrypted tactical radios still worked. They'd survived the electromagnetic pulses, though reception was shot to hell by the persisting TREE—transient radiation effects on electronics. The onboard shielding protected his avionics gear, but nothing could protect the very ether. His flight leader ordered one more course change, the last leg back to the carrier.
The wingman glanced down at the ocean—something caught his eye. Jesus, rocket motors. One, two, three, more and more, coming from deep underwater, leaving brownish trails of smoke till their sustainer jets cut in. His leader saw them also and warned Ranger. This sector had been sanitized repeatedly, but somehow an Axis submarine got through—were those Boer frigates a feint?
A dozen cruise missiles ripped the air, all aimed at Ranger, a full salvo from the modern U-boat's vertical launch array. Bad news, there go eight more, must be from her torpedo tubes. Again the flight leader sent a warning, but no one else was yet in interception range. The carrier ordered the four pilots to knock the vampires down. The overworked battle group's main line of defense hinged on the wingman and his flightmates now, and many lives hung in the balance.
The flight leader had some gun ammo left, and one of the other planes still had two Evolved Sidewinders. The whole flight headed for the deck, on afterburner again. These enemy cruise missiles were supersonic, almost certainly SS-N-19s, export-model Shipwrecks sold by a pseudo-neutral Russia to the Berlin-Boer Axis for hard cash. Shipwrecks did Mach 2.5, according to the briefings. Boeing's McDonnell Douglas Super Hornets topped out at 1.8.
The wingman's leader actually got two missiles before his M61A1 cannon ran out of 20mm shells. Debris went
flying, winglets and fuselage sections mostly, splashing into the sea and then falling far behind. The pilot with the Sidewinders got two more. Chemical explosions flared—
missile fuel and high-explosive charges—gentle caresses compared to the earlier atomic fireballs. Two other vampires malfunctioned on their own, hit the water, and disintegrated. That left fourteen. Some of these would be decoys really, mere conventional warheads, but Shipwrecks, the wingman told himself, were nuclearcapable platforms. The Axis had secretly built U235 bombs to spare, then announced the fact by using them in combat.
Rapidly the four aircraft and the cruise missiles chewed up the remaining distance back toward Ranger and her escorts. Two older, smaller F-18Cs vectored in, also low on avgas and munitions. The wingman watched his own fuel gauges drop alarmingly. They were running out of time, and so was Ranger. He hit Mach 1.
Easing in toward one cruise missile, he tried to slap it with his vortex turbulence. He watched it stagger but then get back on course. He eased in again, nudged it with his wingtip. It flipped over and crashed. He saw his leader do the same to another missile. But rapidly they were coming up to speed, planes and vampires both, and soon the missiles would outrun the Super Hornets irretrievably.
One of the other aircraft also tried to flip a missile, miscalculated, and both went into the sea. No chute, just a giant drawn-out splash. At a thousand knots airspeed you died instantly. The reservist watched the fourth pilot in their element aim his aircraft at another missile, ramming it on purpose. Jet fuel and missile fuel went up in a sharp double explosion, silent through the wingman's canopy and earphones, unheard above his rumbling engines. No big high-explosive blast this time—that one had been atomic. Bits of metal and flesh rained on the ocean and were quickly left behind. Inside his uncomfortable protective suit the wingman fought his stick, driving hard through the thick air right above the water. The sea swell rolled by in a blur. Behind him, he knew, his twin jets and his shock front would be making cockscombs on the ocean, but now he couldn't spare a moment to look back. He eyed his flight leader just in time to see him hit the surface, bounce once, and disintegrate. A split second's inattention, a wavelet slightly higher than the rest—it didn't take much.
Another, slower fighter, a late arrival, fired two AIM-120 AMRAAMs. Both missed, corkscrewing erratically, leaving useless trails of smoke—they must have suffered battle damage in some earlier dogfight. Flying on just vapors now, probably, that pilot pulled up and ejected. Good chute! The wingman called it in.
Another fighter rammed a missile, another harsh eruption, and the wingman was alone. He tried for one himself, using every ounce of thrust, his engine temps far in the red, happy to make the sacrifice for his 5,000 shipmates, surprised how easy it was to die. But his target was too fast. He watched the surviving missiles draw relentlessly ahead, arrayed in an arc in front of him. They left his Super Hornet to buffet in their jet wakes, spattering his windscreen with kicked-up spume.
With no other option the pilot gained altitude and throttled back and radioed in another warning. Ahead, hull down over the horizon, an Aegis guided missile cruiser opened fire. He guessed these were RUM-139B Updated ASROCs, in very short supply, antisubmarine rockets that dropped nuclear-tipped Mark 54 torpedoes, aimed to bracket the sub that launched the vampires.
Common sense told the wingman to turn north or south and flee, but loyalty kept him on course eastward. Running very low on fuel, running away from the ASROCs' impending nuclear detonations, heading almost certainly toward one more, he went for altitude again. Now he could see the whole battle group ahead, Ranger in the center, escorts spread around her in a circle foreshortened by perspective. They were well dispersed against atomic warheads, but at the cost of weakened interlocking antiaircraft fire. White spray began to shroud the vessels as high-pressure nozzles started the washdown that was a basic defense against the upcoming heat and fallout. The ships seemed so tiny against the surface of the water, their wakes curving in coordinated Vs as the formation altered course. To buy a little time? To show the smallest profile? Blue-gray fumes poured from Ranger's stack as her engineers squeezed every last knot from her aged oilfired boilers. Steam billowed from her flight deck as F-14s catapulted into the air against the crosswind, and her combat air patrol did what they could.
One missile went for an Arleigh Burke destroyer, attracted by the rippling thermal signature of her gas turbine exhausts. There was a brilliant flash. Conventional high explosive but she went dead in the water immediately, shrouded in flames and dirty smoke.
The wingman tried to spot the Shipwrecks, aptly named he told himself, but from his lofty, slower vantage point the supersonic projectiles were invisible to the human eye. They'd be mostly unseen to crewmen on the ships as well, he knew, though not to their pulse-Doppler and phased-array air-search radars. He watched the fluffy booster trails from RIM-7P Sea Sparrows, which made Mach 3.5 themselves, but whose range was only eight nautical miles. Some scored hits with their fragmentation warheads, and he prayed none picked up his fighter; he put his Identification-Friendor-Foe in squawk mode just in case.
Roiling black puffs belched from guns on every vessel now, throwing up a wall of steel, hoping for last-minute intercepts. Clouds of SRBOC chaff burst between the ships, and HIRAM decoy magnesium flares drifted on
the wind—they showed up, too, amidst the chaos on the pilot's sea mode radar and on his forward-looking infrared. He pictured the ships' close-in-weapons systems slewing into action, firing 20mm nickel-cobalt-tungsten slugs at 3,000 rounds per minute. Some connected, and other missiles exploded or plunged into the sea.
But Ranger couldn't hide. Her thousand-foot-long bulk, her fifty-year-old most unstealthy lines, would draw the target seekers hungrily. The wingman altered course to northward, self-preservation taking hold at last. There was another blinding flash. Once more he looked back.
Off Ranger's starboard side a supernova flared. Her island superstructure blew apart, antennas first and then her stack and other chunks of twisted steel. The flag bridge and the main bridge vaporized, as the aviator tried not to think of the men and women who'd been inside. Ranger's remaining warplanes took off sideways, dissolving in midair, followed by her four big aircraft elevators, tumbling like leaves in an autumn breeze. The carrier's entire flight deck crew, traditional multicolored vests worn over rubberized jump suits and breather hoods, shriveled like ants under a magnifying glass and blew away in tiny puffs of soot. The carcass that was Ranger burned furiously from stem to stern.