Desert Strike cover in what’s probably going to be its final form…

 

Desert Strike cover

 


Here’s the first chapter of my upcoming novel Desert Strike, scheduled for an early-October release – and soon to be available for preorder on Amazon:

Chapter One

The transport plane was a cumbersome four-engined jet, painted grey-blue for the Air Force and to contrast maximally with the desert below for easy spotting in case of a crash. When the piercing alarm came through the cockpit, they were cruising at five thousand feet about a hundred and twenty miles west of Sand Harbor, speed an optimal-fuel-efficiency two hundred and seventy miles per hour.

Two sharp screams, at a tone designed for maximum aural penetration while the pilot, one Brandon Ballard, thought what the hell. Then:

“Six-Three Alpha, this is Albatross Control. You have two bandits inbound on an intercept course. Repeat, Transport Six-Three Alpha, you have two bandits intercept.”

Ballard was blond, crew-cut, aged twenty-nine. There were three upwards-pointing silver triangles – meaning captain – on each shoulder of his pale-blue flight uniform.

“What the fuck?” asked his co-pilot, Ensign Murkowski, in the right-hand seat. He was a kid not long out of the Academy with a round baby face and disbelief in his eyes. “This far west? Can’t be.”

Ballard’s eyes went to the long-range radar panel on the control dashboard, one of half a hundred digital indicators there. It showed a pair of red arrows in wing formation at their ten o’clock, which meant just south of their east-southeast objectively. Two bandits, coming in at easily four hundred miles per hour, definite intercept course.

No time for rookie bullshit right now, not when it contradicted obvious facts.

“Looks like it is.”

He keyed the mike. “Copy that, Albatross Control. Out.”

They were an unarmed transport, not a fighting bird; in the back were about two dozen passengers and some pallets of perishable goods, mostly food. What the hell were Zinj doing this far west?

Worry about that later, and hope there would be a later. Right now was time for him to earn that lavish paycheck.

“ECW is yours, co,” he told the co-pilot.

“ECW is mine, sir,” Murkowski replied automatically. A second later Ballard saw the green light on his display that showed the ensign had assumed active control of their plane’s Electronic Counter-Warfare measures.

On the horizon, at about quarter to ten o’clock, appeared dark specks. Matched the radar.

Tell the passengers?

Downside: Might panic them.

Upside: They were clueless and helpless as it was. If he, Ballard, was going to die, as he probably was, he’d appreciate knowing first. Plus, they were really going to want to strap themselves in.

“Co,” Ballard said, as most of his brain watched the speed indicator, altimeter, the radar with those incoming bandits, “tell the people in back to buckle themselves up.”

Radar said the fuckers were still twenty-five miles out – twenty-three, twenty-two. Logic said that Ballard shouldn’t have been able to spot the red flare bloom from one of the black dots, but he did, and that forestalled other thought.

He threw the ungainly cargo plane into a sharp left-hand dive, aiming for the orange sands below and the jagged rocks that bloomed amongst them. His ears heard the co-pilot saying something; they also heard the sharp beep-beep-beep of an incoming radar lock.

From five thousand to four thousand feet, down toward three thousand , the height of some of the rockpiles below. The desert here was orange and yellow, endless streaked sands punctuated by seismically-thrust-out rock formations. Some were rough and new, others worn smooth by centuries – millenia? – of sandstorms and erosion. Somewhere on top of one of the taller ones, as three thousand feet of height became twenty-five hundred, a communications antenna glinted in the sun.

The plane was tilted, angled, diving; two thousand feet above the jagged stacks and mesas. Some of those were that high, the very tallest peaking above them now. On the radar was a tiny, incandescent-yellow dot moving fast; that was the missile, far-and-away his primary concern at the moment. The inbound bandits had adjusted course too, noticing Ballard’s evasion on their own radar.

It was not the time for someone to – they had an override code, otherwise they shouldn’t have been able to – come into the cockpit.

“Carry on,” said a female voice. “Just wanted a front-row seat. Don’t mind me.”

Ballard didn’t take his eyes from the ground below him, the ground around him now. He had to put rocks between himself and that missile, and he had to do so – the outlines of the terrain were growing, transparent dotted shapes, but that was only as of the last satellite reading at the altitude he was at now, an altitude that was changing rapidly – at the right moment, or they would die.

He shifted right a moment, the plane banking in its dive. Left-hand pushed the throttle forward an inch, but only an inch.

“Get the hell back out of here,” he told the intruder. “Now.”

“Pulling rank,” came the female voice. “At ease and carry on.”

“Get her out of here, co,” said Ballard, and turned his attention back to where it belonged, keeping them alive.

They were flying at a thousand feet now, low enough that he could make out individual boulders dashing past on the ground below. Rippled, shifting sands, spikes at eye-level and above them; a momentary low beep as they briefly crossed the top of a pinnacle with perhaps thirty feet to spare, sand blasting up from the disturbed air. And that missile…

Forwards. Right a shade, to avoid an oncoming pile that went high into the pale blue sky.

Beeep-beeep-beeep-beeep, the incoming-missile-warning sounded insistently, as the yellow dot curved in directly toward them and a big rectangular shape loomed up on the radar, and as a towering orange shape in Ballard’s field of view.

I know, I fucking know, he thought to the audio warning as he leveled the plane, threw hard left, banking. Left-hand back on the throttle, six hundred feet up now. A lone vulture-like bird passed through the edge of his vision as the transport’s thunderous engines drove it from its nest.

“Got the rank,” that bitch behind them was saying. “Argue later, co-pilot; right now do your job. Give me audio channel three, do your job and right now that is an order.

Ballard had more important things to do, and the overriding sound of harsh, guttural talk – one of the enemy languages, he didn’t speak any of them – in the cockpit was at least a welcome break from the insistent beeping of the missile-lock.

Besides, with that incoming lock, the missile close now, about to intercept, the high rectangular mesa on their right…

He threw the plane down more as the missile launched its final intercept burst—

And slammed into the other side of the thin mesa across from them, exploding.

He pulled back on the throttle, hard, too soon for relief because—

One of the bandits appeared ahead of them for just a moment, a pale red thing with a propeller on each wing and, below the nose, a rotating-barrelled Gatling gun spitting thousands of rounds a minute of blazing death at where his transport would have been if he hadn’t slowed down a moment ago.

It would have been a perfect line-up for a kill if this dumpster on wings had had a single nose-mounted gun, which it didn’t. But the fighter would have to turn, its first missile had been evaded, and he’d bought them a few more seconds.

He pointed the plane down further, closer to the dirt.

* * *

The dimly-lit back of the transport was rows of inward-facing passenger seats along each side, people belted into them, and netted-down pallets on the rollers in between. The pallets were chilly, mostly frozen food; the passengers were aged between twenty and forty, a handful older or looking older, in an about-equal mix of sky-blue Air Force and dark-orange Army uniforms.

Egan O’Connor wore fresh blue, a polished silver ensign’s triangle on each shoulder, and he was shit-his-pants terrified.

Not because he was going to die in battle; he’d always expected that, hoped for that, because a warrior’s death was a man’s death and honorable. Terrified because he was going to die helpless in battle.

The transport jinked and swerved and something exploded on the side across from him, the right-hand side of the plane.

He was a pilot on his way to his first deployment and he was going to die before he got there because there were enemy this far west; enemy west of Sand Harbor when the Zinj fuckers had no business being able to reach to Sand Harbor. He’d trained all his life to fight in a combat jet and now his first action was as a passenger in the back of a transport, a trash-hauling cargo plane that couldn’t hit back.

Around him, people had their eyes closed or fixed forwards, their fists clenched or pressed together. Someone was loudly praying.

Dear God, O’Connor thought, may we make it through. May we at least crash-land safely. I want my crack at those bastards.

“Ensign?”

It was the man seated to his left. Tiny little shaven-headed guy – he’d stood five feet, four inches as they’d boarded, and might have weighed a hundred and ten pounds if drenched – in a uniform that was either bleached Army or sandblasted Air Force. There was no rank insignia on his shoulders, which meant he could have been a civilian or a buck private, and he looked somewhere in his thirties. Well, there were a few oldster recruits.

Maybe he knew something O’Connor didn’t, from the digital tablet he’d been focused on.

“Yes?” O’Connor asked. Tense, nervous.

“You happen to know an eight-letter word for ‘hungry,’ third letter V?”

What?

“No. What the fuck?”

The man shrugged.

“How about four letters, senior executive, final letter being P?”

The man seemed utterly uninterested in anything but whatever was on the screen of his tablet. A crossword?

A crossword now?

“You know we’re being attacked?” O’Connor demanded.

“And?” The man was indifferent.

Was this guy crazy?

“We’re being intercepted,” O’Connor insisted. “Enemy aircraft are trying to kill us. That’s why we’re making all these crazy banks” – another one came, throwing both men forwards against their straps; the tiny shaven-headed man didn’t seem to notice – “and turns. You do realize that, right?”

“And?” the other man asked. “Gotta pass the time somehow.”

He turned back to his tablet.

O’Connor closed his eyes and prayed.

* * *

Three hundred feet up, redlining the throttle at three hundred and seventy miles per hour, the whole transport shaking.

“Albatross,” Ballard snarled, his voice high and loud for the radio, “we need help now. Before now.”

“On the way,” came the inhumanly-calm female control voice; calm because she wasn’t the one under attack six hundred miles west of the fucking Meridian where Zinj aircraft were not supposed to be, were not supposed to be able to reach.

More of the Zinj jabbering came over the radio. Their yammering didn’t mean a damn thing to Ballard and he didn’t have time to worry about it now; they were three hundred feet above sand level now, a shade more than twice the transport’s own wingspan, coming up on a big rock spire followed by three more, probably parts of the same formation, that ran north-south directly across their path. Doing three hundred seventy mph, that was about to be an immediate problem.

Equally immediate were the two red dots coming around, regrouping, about to be on his six. One of them was coming up hard on them, accelerating, on their seven now, and a yellow dot detached—

“Chaff! Chaff!” screamed co-pilot Murkowski, and hit the button.

Ballard reacted; they’d been through this drill and Murkowski had done the right thing. Now, given the terrain, it was up to him to make the more important decisions. With that missile launching from their seven o’clock and the rock formation barring their way in front, the Zinj bastards thinking they had to break left or right if they wanted to stay low where it was harder for missiles to hit—

Right. Hard right, turning the missile intercept into an acute angle, and up. Throttle forwards, pushing it forwards; his knuckles strained with the force as he pushed it and pulled the rudder up, over the formations of spikes. Warnings lit up too late, a glaring rainbow of bright colors across the control-panel indicators, as they cleared one of them with feet to spare.

Then down, down low, three hundred feet, two hundred feet, a hundred and fifty.

The missile blinked off into the distance, foiled by the chaff and the Zinj voices, already irate – but who could know? – seemed to get angrier.

The high-ranking bitch in the cockpit laughed. Then spoke up.

“V-O-Two,” she said in a calm override order; voice-override two. Then, onto the enemy channel in sharp, imperious tones: “Askel!”

One of the enemy instinctively – obeying an order? – launched a yellow dot.

You cunt, Ballard thought for a second as he banked his ungainly transport left around a huge boulder, sand blowing and blasting around them. Eighty feet above ground-level; one twitch would get them all killed.

The yellow dot vanished. Explosion a second later as it detonated behind them, wasted on some rock formation.

Ahead of them, a green dot appeared. Two green dots. Faint, implying far away; the intensity of a color on the screen said whether it was long, medium or short-range.

Help is on the way and they’re down three missiles of a not-infinite number, Ballard thought.

On the other hand, he was down all the altitude he could afford to burn, and some he could not. Murkowski had used up half the transport’s ECW, a nominal load since this trip was supposed to be a milk run, it always had been a milk run until now, and there were two fighters against one transport.

Seventy-five point one feet. They were low enough that the altimeter was speaking in decimals, and that was scary.

Ballard’s left hand unconsciously tried to push the throttle a little harder. His right focused on the stick, angling slightly to avoid an upcoming rock.

The red dots behind him were regrouping, forming up on his six.

The green dots were getting closer, going from faint to less-faint but still too damn far away given the situation.

“Ready flares,” his mouth tersely snapped to Murkowski.

“Flares ready,” the co-pilot replied. “On command.”

“Stand by.” Rocks swept by to their left, feet from their wingtips. Pulled the stick back and left-pedal down, banking the plane left-up to avoid another outcrop. “We got one chance.”

* * *

Bump, bump, explosion.

“See? Zinj aircraft can’t hit shit, like I always told you boys!” a grinning blond man was saying to the other passengers, a couple of seats down from Egan O’Connor’s right. He was in his late twenties, handsome in a square-jawed brawler’s kind of a way, triple black upward-pointing chevrons on each shoulder of his dark-orange Army uniform.

“Ensign, sir – you got pilot wings,” the sergeant called over.

The plane dove, left, right, down again, up, sharply.

“I have, Sergeant,” O’Connor fought to make himself say.

“They any damn better shots up in the air than they are on the ground? Doesn’t look it!”

“Take it from a pilot,” said O’Connor, feeling shamed. An officer had a duty to motivate and encourage; he had no right to sit cowering in fear while there were enlisted men in the transport that it was his duty to lead.

This sergeant – an enlisted man while O’Connor was an officer; graduated from the Academy, commissioned by the Secretary and sworn by God to the Union! – had shamed him.

Good man, and O’Connor would do his part now, run for a bit with the ball the sergeant had put into play and kicked over.

“Take it from a pilot,” O’Connor repeated. “Those bastards can’t shoot worth a damn. Their excuses for pilots as well as whatever trash they call soldiers!”

“See?” the sergeant picked it back up. He turned to O’Connor and gave the ensign a grin, which was far more satisfying than it should have been. Respect from a man who’s seen the bullets fly! “Ensign here knows, he’s fought the buggers, hasn’t he!”

The plane banked left, dove, threw itself up sharply then down-right hard, throwing O’Connor and the other men on his side forwards. The tiny shaven-headed man to his left seemed inert in his seatbelt, focused on his tablet, tapping a booted foot.

“Haven’t fought them this side of the Meridian,” O’Connor said, taking a risk. He couldn’t say he’d fought them here or anywhere, except in video games; the Academy honor code said I will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do, and so far as he was concerned even morale-boosting lies were still lies.

But he didn’t have to tell them everything, so he chose his words carefully.

“Nobody’s fought them this side of the Meridian,” he went on, “because the fuckers haven’t been stupid enough to come this far west before!”

A staccato underpinning came beneath the steady thrumming noise of the transport’s engines through the thin metal sides of their compartment. And then a chudder and a deafening din as gunfire tore through same thin metal of the aircraft; ripped metal screeched, impacts thumped, and someone screamed. Someone else cried for his mother, and O’Connor found his mouth praying:

“Strength of thy long spear by me,” he implored St. Lugh, and then opened his eyes. No saints protected cowards, or at least no saints worth praying to did; he’d face his death with eyes open.

“They missed!” the Army sergeant grinned, not looking at O’Connor because, he thought, he doesn’t need to wink or grin at me to know that as an officer I’ll do my part while I can. “See what I told you about how those pissant ragheads can’t shoot worth jack?”

There were bullet-holes through the transport and something in one of the pallets was leaking green sauce into the rollers, but O’Connor knew what he’d sworn to. The screams sounded like fear, not pain; nobody seemed to be hurt.

“Sergeant, those fire-worshipping nut-job fanatics couldn’t hit their wives with a good load of dick when it’s right inside `em. Why do you think they need four wives for every husband?”

The Academy training had been mostly about leadership, tactics, discipline and most importantly flying well and all the theory behind that, but O’Connor thought he had that part right about Zinj culture. Not that it was important.

“Because the other three blow themselves up in some intramural squabbling?” the sergeant asked.

“That, and because it takes four tries before they can even put a seed in!” O’Connor said. The words helped; bluster really did keep the fear away.

He caught the eye of a young enlisted female airman and nodded; couldn’t see across the aisle due to those damn food pallets, so he turned to his left.

The small, shaven-headed guy turned to look at him.

“Ya-ya fucks can’t hit shit, can they?” O’Connor smirked, as the plane sharply banked left, then just-as-sharply right.

“Some of the Zinj can aim just fine,” said the other man evenly. “Some of our people, on the other hand, could stand to work on their forwards deflection.”

Forwards deflection meant aiming ahead of your target if it was moving; that was first-year basic theory at the Academy, but O’Connor was mildly surprised to hear the term coming from a civilian or a private.

Then he saw the bullet-hole through the middle of the seat between him and the man. A hole through the bottom of the seat, which meant it had been fired from closer-to below than behind. Fired from someone who’d been under them.

“Any suggestions on a six-letter word for ‘simple’, second letter O, second-last being S?” the nutcase asked, as though they hadn’t just been shot at – hit! – by somebody on their own side.

“You fucking crazy?” O’Connor demanded, then got control of himself: “Seriously, Zinj, are you fucking crazy coming this far just to die when you could have saved a load of perfectly good fuel by dying your side of the Line?”

“Don’t think that’s it, Ensign,” said the man.

More staccato gunfire. The plane banked, right, hard, enough to throw everyone on O’Connor’s side forwards into their belt straps. Someone screamed; the blond sergeant to O’Connor’s right had his fists tight and his teeth clenched, which seemed like a good enough idea for him to emulate. The nut to O’Connor’s left casually scanned his index finger over his tablet, tapping the screen a couple of times.

Gunfire ripped through the top of the transport as it angled upwards.

* * *

Ballard took the ungainly blue transport, its engines roaring and straining, well into the redlined part of the dial at almost four hundred miles per hour. The aircraft was shaking and vibrating; not just the engines but the whole airframe, not designed or built to withstand this much speed for this long a time.

Its airframe was shaking, trembling; control surfaces less responsive than they should have been, no margin of error at this point since he was having to lift them above rocks, then dive down and right now

He yanked the stick left and the rudder up and his left hand would have pushed the throttle forwards except that the physical thing was already at maximum that way. The transport turned on its side as red tracers ripped through it, punching and penetrating the already-stressed steel; something whipped over Ballard’s head and something in the ceiling exploded.

Then tracers, solid streams of red Gatling-gun flame, were underneath them. Cackling – it sounded like cackling – came in the guttural Zinj language over the radio.

The woman standing behind them raised her voice for the radio to pick up and then spoke something back, equally guttural and unintelligible.

There was an uproar; both enemy voices snarled at once, and flames lashed underneath the transport. Long, thick streams of red tracer fire came from both aircraft, one for a couple of seconds longer than from the other. If Ballard hadn’t known already that the bastards were almost directly behind him, this would have been his clue.

Lining up their shots.

“What you tell `em, ma`am?” Murkowski asked.

Ballard aimed the cumbersome transport; big rock formation coming up, almost a mountain, and he angled to the center of it; if he were lucky he could buy a few more seconds. But they were out of ECM, on the dirt altitude-wise, and running out of tricks.

The woman said something else, and one of the voices howled. Fire lashed out; even from half a mile away – point-four, point-three, closing fast – Ballard could see little fountains as the Gatling shells impacted the mountain.

The stream of gunfire was fifty feet easily below the transport and even Ballard, focused on flying the plane at a speed and altitude that had no tolerance for mistakes, could tell that the Zinj was firing angrily.

“Just a couple of things no decent upper-caste Zinj ever likes to hear about his sister,” the woman behind them said.

Then she raised her voice to snarl something else in the language; part of it sounded like ‘kars umak’.

The response, although the jagged mountain-like formation was looming and Ballard didn’t want to give the faster-flying enemy aircraft any notice of his intentions, was another stream of angry fire.

“Or his mother,” the woman remarked.

More streams of fire tore into them and Ballard broke right, suddenly, the opposite direction to what he’d been thinking and perhaps unconsciously feinting.

His plane banked hard, hard; indicators blazed and alarms screamed as the transport turned on its wing, Ballard fighting for lift as much away from the forty-five degree slope of the mountain as from the ground itself.

“Try their god next,” Murkowski suggested. “What I hear, those guys really don’t like insults to their god.”

The red blip on their left, the other side of the mountain, suddenly vanished.

Blazing red tracers came from the Zinj that had broken right to chase them. Below, above, around, a few into their plane.

“I think,” said the woman behind them, “they can say that themselves. In person.”

Desperately, the Zinj plane raced past them. It was pale red, the color of eastern sands, a sleek dual-engined turboprop of the design Ballard had heard the bastards called their Jinn-class.

It was accelerating desperately, running from something, and a few hundred yards ahead of them it lost the chase. The right wing seemed to disintegrate under flashing pale-yellow tracers; then there was another burst that must have taken out something critical, because the plane became a fireball – red for a second and then blazing white, and then just burning wreckage falling toward the yellow sands not so far below.

A dual-tailed bone-white Viper jet drew alongside them, taking an escort position just outside the span of the transport’s right wing. An incoming chime came over the radio; Murkowski turned a channel to it while Ballard slowly brought his plane up, trying not to let the relief get to him. He was going to live another day, but not if he got sloppy this close to the ground.

The Viper kept place without wavering as they slowly lifted toward a safer altitude. Painted by its sharp nose was an eyepatch-wearing skull with a smoking cigarette in an ivory holder, clenched between its teeth on the forward-facing side.

“Incoming transport, this is Skull Delta-One Ironrod. Thanks for baiting the prey, not as though we expected `em this far west. Looks like you owe us one hell of a favor!”

The woman behind them raised her voice.

“Delta-One Ironrod,” she said, “this is Air Marshal Jaeger, incoming Sector Commander, Air. Looks like you just made a very, very good impression on your new top boss. Out.”


Blog reboot

08Sep15

This blog’s existed for a while but never seen any use to speak of until now.

Expect it to be busier going forwards, my speaking about author stuff here…