CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

three and her last was just thirty-eight seconds.

Her first missile, flying at better than Mach 5, covered the forty-eight

miles to the first target in a little over forty seconds. He saw the

detonation when it went off, a tiny flash in the night far to the west.

Her second missile hit, the third missed–evaded by some spectacular

aerial maneuvers by the target–and then in rapid-fire succession, the

fourth, fifth, and sixth AIM-54s all struck home.

Within the space of a minute and a half, Dixie and Cat had just launched

six million dollars’ worth of technology, destroying five aircraft worth

some twenty-five times the total cost of the AIM-54Cs.

There was no way of knowing at this range whether or not those

aircraft’s pilots had managed to eject or not.

“Poor Man, this is Air Hammer One-three,” Dixie called. It was strange,

but he didn’t feel the elation he’d expected. The engagement had been so

distant, so. .. clinical. “We’re five for six and dry.”

“One-three, hold one.”


It wasn’t until sometime later that something else occurred to him:

They’d just scored five kills, technically qualifying him as an ace. He

didn’t feel like an ace; Cat had fired two of the missiles, and four had

been launched by the aircraft’s computer. Over the tactical channel, he

could hear bursts of radio chatter from other aviators as they launched

on the unseen enemy.

“Fox three! Fox three!”

“That’s one! I saw it hit!”

“God, look at those flames. I’ve got a Mig here, going down inflames!”

“That’s Fox three for Hammer Two-two.”

They sounded so distant, so isolated. It seemed a cold and lonely way to

fight a war, and he was glad Cat was with him.

“One-three, this is Poor Man. We copy you dry. Hold your position. The

helos are going in.”

“Roger that. Hammer One-three, maintaining position.”

This was the part of Operation Ranger that he’d not been sure he could

handle. With no missiles remaining, his only weapons were the F-14’s

guns, weapons useful only for extremely close-ranged combat–at

“knife-fighting distance,” as aviators liked to say–and then only when

you could actually see the other guy. But the operational plan had

called for two flights of Tomcats, Air Hammer One and Air Hammer Two, to

move in over the Crimean coast and, once the weapons-free command had

been given, to down enough enemy aircraft to keep the rest cautious. If

they turned tail and fled for the Jefferson now, the enemy would follow.

.. and blunder into the flight of helicopters off the U.S.S. Guadalcanal

that even now ought to be streaking through the darkness toward Yalta at

wave-clipping height.

By maintaining position, the two Tomcat squadrons presented a formidable

wall of radar targets that ought to keep the enemy guessing. .. and at a

distance. Not all of the F-14s had launched; half were holding their

warloads in reserve. Dixie and Cat were relying now on Badger and Red to

cover them with their load-out of Phoenix missiles.

Nonetheless, Dixie felt naked, orbiting through the night without a

missile left to his name.

2144 hours (Zulu +3)

Yalta Crimean Military District “Are you sure you want to go through

with this, General? There’s still time to get out.”

Tombstone watched Boychenko’s mouth quirk upward at the corner as PO/2

Kardesh translated for him. Her Russian was precise, fluid, and glib.

“I. .. am sure,” Boychenko said, his accent thick. “is my gift to you,

for save my life.” He hesitated, frowned, then said something quickly in

Russian to Kardesh.

The woman nodded, then looked at Tombstone. “He wants to know if our

battle group will have fuel enough to carry out this operation, with all

of the flying that’s going on now.”

Tombstone glanced up at the dark sky, laced with the colorful streams of

antiaircraft tracers. It was strange to think that his people were up

there, Batman and Brewer and Nightmare and Dixie and all the rest.

“Tell him we’ll have enough to take the facility, Tomb stone said after

a moment. “But it’s essential that we secure the Arsincevo complex, or

this whole exercise is going to do nothing but leave our planes grounded

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