Went and polished up a piece I’ve had sitting almost-finished for quite a while. Rake, you’ve seen this already.
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Ricardo Rodriguez, pilot of the third flight of Fury Squadron, brought a darkly tanned hand down to his mahogany control panel and moved a brass slider engraved with a stylised picture of the sun. The tint of the cockpit glass around him, thick glacis and side plates, darkened a few shades. The early morning sun of Jericho, rising red and beautiful on the western horizon, would soon be high enough to be blinding. The canopy of Twelfth Fury, his fighter, was drawn back to expose him to the winds, and he would regret having to seal himself in a dark glass cage when the sun rose too high. He loved the feel of the air rushing around him, the smell of engine-oil and jet fuel, the roaring power of the single massive engine beneath his seat.
The Hound-type fighter named Twelfth Fury had been flying longer than he had. It had been built nineteen years before, with the rest of Fury Squadron, to crush the Eastern Commonwealth in formal war when it declared its grievances against the strong and just Falgar Nation. The Hound IV, as it had been built, had been modified and refitted countless times since then. Its armament had changed from two to four guns, four to three, three to six. The engine behind the fighter’s gaping mouth was almost twice as powerful as the one it had been built with. The airframe was as much patch as original, carrying the old scars of war. The dark brown livery and white insignia it wore now had been painted on top of many other coats, many other colours.
But it was still Twelfth Fury, the same Twelfth Fury that had earned its kill markings in glorious combat almost two decades ago, and it was his.
This part of Falgar was rice-land, flat and glittering with the inundation as far as the eye could see. The paddy-fields, with low clay walls marking their boundaries, were drowned in murky brown. The few roads here were on earth causeways, with low iron bridges carrying them over larger rivers and irrigation channels. Columns of Union soldiers and war machines ground along those narrow passages, their uniforms the dark green of the Myame army, their wheels and boots and tracks the reddish brown of the Falgar mud.
The helmet on his lap let out a static-muffled murmur. Guiltily, he pulled it over his head in time to hear Manuel, commander of the squadron, repeat the weapons-free order. Ricardo pulled the safety tabs from the triggers in his cockpit: two to free the cannons, one to arm the rocket pods. He knocked on the canopy shrineboard, red wood inscribed with his ancestors’ names in tiny gold letters, and checked that his fire cone was clear before pulling the triggers back. The fighter shook a little as he squeezed a couple of rounds from each cannon. Gun-flashes danced from the mouth and wing-roots of Ninth Fury, just ahead of him, as Jared went through the same ritual, and he heard the rattle of machine cannon above the dull roar of the jet engine. Ricardo had never had his guns freeze or jam, but if his mother and the instructor at the old Palis training base had agreed on one thing in all the world, it was that safe was always better than sorry.
“Jamal, take the tip,” crackled Manuel’s voice, now loud if not clear in his headset.
“Acknowledged,” said Jamal shortly. Third Fury, white lightning bolts painted against its dark brown fuselage, hit the vectors and slid perfectly into the lead position. Jamal was the best pilot in the squadron by far, perhaps one of the best in the Falgar Nation’s vast air force. He knew it, and so did Manuel. That made him conceited as anything, but also meant he went where he could do the most good. Ricardo thought it a fair trade. “Any idea what we’re to be facing?”
“Sky control will be keeping me updated,” replied Manuel. “For now, I know nothing,”
The twenty Hounds of Fury Squadron roared high over the sodden ground, drawing stares of envy and wonder from the infantry trudging among the fields. The fighters, like all Hounds, were short, fat, angry-looking machines with graceless lines and stubby gull wings bent near the fuselage. The front of the plane was taken by a huge, yawning air intake that made “nose” a poor name and “mouth” an apt one. But the aeroplanes had a freedom and grace that none of the land-men below would ever experience, beyond their dreams.
A squadron of straight-winged Scorpion utility bombers, their cockpits set far back in their cylindrical bodies, followed the Hounds in a loose echelon formation. Racks of rockets hung beneath their wings. The Snouts, as they were called when women or superior officers were around, couldn’t dogfight for anything, but carried enough guns and bombs in their suggestive-looking fuselages to make anything directly in front of them sorry. There was no end to the list of dirty jokes told about the planes.
Like Fury Squadron, the Scorpions were painted the dark, rich brown of the Falgar Nation’s air force. So was Wrathful Spirit squadron, which took the form of another twenty Hounds to the high south, and another echelon of Scorpions following them. Other orderly formations of Falgar fighters, bombers and things in between were formed up across the skies, launched before dawn from every air base in Falgar Nation. There were older model Hounds and antique Gnats in the yellow camouflage of the Eastern Commonwealth, old enemies now sudden friends, and yet more Hounds wearing the dark green of the Myame Nation’s own air force, joining the aerial armada as it closed on the invaders’ beachhead. They furrowed the sky with white contrails, drowned all other sounds with a vast choir of jet engines.
Someone on the war channel started singing, a battle song Ricardo had last heard as a child, nineteen years earlier, when Falgar went to war with the Commonwealth. Soldiers marching through the barrio sang it then. The tune had almost faded from his memory.
But in an instant, the singer was joined by everyone who knew the words, and many who didn’t. Soon the Commonwealth men were singing, too, in their own language, the radio a rising cacophony of male voices. Among it, squadron leaders shouted in several languages to clear the channels. They might as well have been trying to hold back a flood.
The armada, a thousand tiny shapes against the cloudless steel-blue sky, flew on.
“All right,” said Manuel, on the squadron channel, his anger clear even through the indistinct radio. “Enough damn singing.” He waited for the voices to die out, pounced on the last to do so. “Jared, you’re on a charge when we get back.” To Ricardo, he sounded almost like a schoolmaster rounding on an errant pupil. Maybe Manuel was a teacher when he wasn’t flying fighter jets. Ricardo was a plasterer when he was not serving Fury Squadron, more because he enjoyed it than for the money. Everyone had a life.
“We are now forty miles from the enemy landing,” the possible schoolmaster said, into the sudden hush. “Sky control advises that air pickets are rising to meet us, possibly in the next few minutes. Turn your own magdar gain to maximum and you may see them, but do not rely on it. Their aircraft wear a strange skin.” He paused, which let Ricardo listen to the gentle hum of his magdar as he adjusted it to the highest gain.
Manuel dropped his voice a little. “Sky control, whose eyes see further than ours, tell me there cannot be more than twenty enemy craft over the whole front. We outweigh them fifty to one. Even you stupid rats should be able to handle half an alien between you.” He was joking now, not angry. A round of dutiful laughter came through the radio. Another voice cut over it.
“This is Harayd. My magdar just- ”
Everything went to hell.
Ninth Fury blew apart in midair, with a blast that kicked Ricardo’s Hound completely out of formation. Twelfth’s blunt mouth pointed straight down at the flooded fields. He wrenched the controls instinctively and threw the jet back into control, hard c-force crushing him against the old leather of his seat. He felt light-headed, realised dimly that all his blood was in his feet.
Dark brown jets were scattered across the sky, black trails and puffs of dirty smoke showing where the men of Falgar had not moved fast enough. He saw distant fireballs burst among the squadron of Scorpions far above. Black shapes, tumbling wreckage, fell close to Twelfth Fury. Something bounced off his wing, with a strange and distant thud, and left a reddish smear against the brown and white.
Jamal’s Hound was on its tail, climbing at an angle Ricard hadn’t thought Hounds were capable of. A jet with a white “1” and the characters for “Fury” painted on its side wandered across his vision. It took him a moment to recognise the squadron leader’s plane. There was a smoking ruin where the cockpit should have been and a stump where a normal Hound had a wing.
Ricardo cast his eyes about, looking for an enemy. The radio came alive with war-yells, confused orders, and the screams of men trapped in burning planes.
Another ripple of explosions took a flight of forest-green Hounds as they powered past. Whatever had hit them didn’t even leave trails. The sound on the radio grew to a terrified crescendo. The magdar, tuned to maximum yield, was going insane.
Over it all, someone was screaming his name and the word “evasive.” Hands and feet working the controls with an instinctive ease he would not have dreamed of in flight school, he put Twelfth into a wild roll that saved his life. A tiny missile cut through the space he had just been in, hissing furiously, and exploded with a flash and an ear-splitting crack a little way ahead. A moment later, a far more terrible device cut the air between his upside-down fighter and the ground.
The Korrei fighter hung sharp and darkly beautiful beneath him. It was twice the size of his Hound, a long, terribly slim cylinder pointed at both ends, tipped by things that couldn’t be anything but propellers. Propellors! Two at the nose, two at the tail, gnashing at the air with such fury Twelfth shivered all around him, their sound an endless shuddering bellow, unimaginably loud. Narrow leaf-shaped wings crossed at its midsection, a pod packed with things that were clearly weapons was impaled by the tip of its thorn-shaped tailfin. At the centre it bulged out suddenly into a smooth teardrop shape that shone like glass, though he could see nothing inside. The rest of the hull was a blue so dark it was almost black, veined with gold lines. Everything about it was lean and hard-edged, built for a harsher sky.
In a heartbeat he saw all this, and as it soared past and the backwash of those airscrews he compensated without thinking, without looking at the controls, his fighter rolling in and out of control, his eyes locked on the dark fighter.
The air around its nose flickered, interspersed with trails of the faintest white. Fourth Fury disintegrated, pulped by invisible bullets. A saviour-seat blurred out of the shredded canopy, but that which was left seated in the device didn’t deserve to be called a human.
Ricardo, the fury of the squadron’s name filling him, tore Twelfth around and yanked back on every trigger as the beyonder roared through the smoking, tumbling pieces of Harayd’s fighter. His Hound carried enough ammunition for eight seconds of continuous fire. He didn’t waste a single round. Parts of its wing seemed to shatter, more like glass than metal, and fragments fell away from it. The dark machine jerked, slipped to one side, recovered in an instant, stood on its tail, escaped.
His guns were empty. Sudden despair crossed him. The noise of the airscrews above shattered his mind, his vision blurring, his control lost.
Then a familiar howl of jets filled Ricardo’s battered ears, and the thunder of rockets and cannon-shells bursting. A gull-winged silhouette swept over his vision. Third Fury, red fire and white lightning, slid in behind the dark fighter and hurled another burst after it.
The backwash from Jamal’s engine threw Twelfth Fury further from balance than the passing of the beyonder machine had. Ricardo pulled the stick back, and felt the familiar invisible hand pressing him back into his seat as he burned speed for altitude.
Below, now, and ahead, the stricken plane twitched in mid-air. Its engines seemed to be telling it to go one way while what remained of its wings insisted it go another. Jamal stuck to the beyonder like glue, though his guns stopped blazing. He, too, was out of ammunition.
A pair of what looked like Hound II fighters, older still than Twelfth Fury and painted the sickly yellow of the Eastern Commonwealth, tore in from directly in front of the beyonder. Guns in their old-fashioned straight wings sparkled, spraying shells with wild abandon. The Korrei gave up.
It turned slightly, blew one of the Commonwealth jets into a screaming fireball, and aimed its nose straight down. The sound of its engines got louder, if that was possible. Then it was skimming the paddies, turbulence turning the water below to a white storm in its wake, and far out of range in a heartbeat.
The other Hound II threw itself into a barrel roll as it roared past. He thought perhaps the Commonwealth pilot was celebrating his victory, but an instant later, the missile the yellow jet’s pilot had tried to avoid sent him to join his comrade.
Jamal’s voice cut across the radio, hard and angry and distinct even over the ringing in Ricardo’s ears. “Fury Squadron, this is Third Fury. Abandon the attack, I say again, abandon the attack! The commander is dead. I assume full responsibility for the squadron. Escape!” The jet in front of Ricardo whipped around, levelled off perfectly and turned to the south, shock diamonds in its engine plume.
The orange screen of Ricardo’s magdar seemed to show a sky alive with planes, but that was because it had been tuned to the greatest yield. Many, almost all, of the bright marks it showed were not fast enough or large enough to be aeroplanes. Perhaps pieces of aeroplanes. Pieces of men.
Ricardo realised, numbly, that his fingers were still white-knuckle tight on the triggers. There was a faint and reproachful clicking noise beneath his seat as the autoloaders tried to feed shells that weren’t there.
He turned Twelfth Fury to the south, embracing the harsh acceleration that pressed him against his seat. He muttered two prayers, two strong and heartfelt prayers, to the saints and the ancestors. The first thanked them for their wisdom in keeping him alive, protecting him where so many had so suddenly died.
The second begged them not to change their minds.