Tombstone wiped his Tomcat’s controls, using the aviator’s mnemonic of

“Father, Son, Holy Ghost” as he moved the stick back, forward, left, and

right. He moved the foot pedals controlling the rudders for the “Amen.”

“Eagle Leader, this is Eagle Two. Tombstone, m’ man, how’re you reading


“Loud and clear, Batman,” Tombstone replied. He checked over his left

shoulder and saw Tomcat 216 behind him, preparing for a simultaneous


Batman had a new RIO in his backseat. Lieutenant Commander Aaron

“Ramrod” Kingsly normally flew a Tomcat, but his F-14 had been one of

those down-checked after the fire, so he was filling in as RIO this time


Tombstone glanced back over his right shoulder at the ready light on the

carrier island. It showed green. He could see shadowy figures behind

the windscreens, both on the bridge and on the flag bridge. He thought

he saw one of the figures salute.

A yellow shirt signaled. Time to crank her up. He eased the throttles

forward, bringing the F-14’s engines to full power. The plane trembled,

yearning to be free of the deck once more.

The squad safety inspector, in green cranial and white jersey, completed

his final check and gave a thumbs-up. The Catapult Officer, identified

by his yellow jersey and green helmet, looked up at the cockpit.

Tombstone saluted.

Ready …

With a graceful twist, the Cat Officer turned, pointed forward, and

touched the deck. There was a surge of motion, of power, and Tombstone

was flattened into his ejection seat. The acceleration clamped down on

his lungs, squeezed his eyeballs back into his head, pressed his spine

against the chair as the Tomcat hurtled off the catapult ramp.

“Good shot! Good shot!” he called.

“Tomcat Two-oh-one airborne,” Pried-Fly’s voice answered in his


“Tomcat Two-one-six airborne.” There was a pause. “Good Luck, Stoney.

Good hunting!”

“Copy that, Homeplate. Thanks.”

Sunlight exploded over the rim of the ocean as he grabbed for altitude.

The burst of noise and speed and golden light seemed to break a dam

inside Tombstone’s soul. He was alive … and in command of a

thirty-three-ton, high-tech fighting machine drilling into the clean,

endless blue depths of the sky.

It felt like coming home.

0628 hours, 21 January

Flag plot, U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson

Admiral Magruder was leaning over a table on which maps of Thailand and

TENCAP photos were piled in seeming disorder. TENCAP–the acronym stood

for Tactical Exploitation of National CAPabilities–was one of the most

dramatic advances in battlefield management history. For the first

time, commanders in the field could call down up-to-the-minute

reconnaissance photos from American spy satellites in orbit. Until

recently, such high-resolution photos were processed first at the

National Photographic Interpretation Center in Washington, D.C., then

distributed down the chain of command by the CIA. It had taken weeks,

sometimes, for the men who needed the data to get it.

No more. These photos had been taken only hours before. They were in

infrared, penetrating the darkness. Individual people were clearly


Magruder found himself looking down on two men in ragged uniforms with

AK-47s across their shoulders; the glowing tips of their cigarettes

registered like tiny, diamond-brilliant stars.

In two hours, Bright Lightning would hit U Feng like a whirlwind. That

soldiers were already moving into position. They would go in when the

bombs stopped falling. The victory had to be clearly theirs, proof to

the dissidents and a panicky population that the Royal Army had things

well in hand.

Washington had agreed with his assessment. Nothing would discourage the

army mutineers or strengthen the legitimate government’s resolve faster

than a quick, sharp victory at U Feng.

“Admiral Magruder?”

He looked up. His Chief of Staff stood in the door. “Come in, Brad.

What do you have?”

“Eagle is airborne, sir. Thunderbird is over the coast now, on course,

on time. Pried-Fly reports that Chickenhawk is ready for launch.”

“Thanks, Brad.”

Eagle–six aircraft of VF-95–would escort Thunderbird–the Intruders of

VA-84–into U Feng. Chickenhawk was the code name for the F/A-18

Hornets of VFA-161. Their job would be flack- and SAM-suppression over

the target.

Faster, but with smaller fuel reserves, they were being launched last.

VF-97, once again, was being held in reserve, providing CAP for the

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142

Categories: Keith Douglass