CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

since returning aboard late last night, she’d had to watch herself to

keep from sounding short or sharp with Hacker or her other fellow NFOS.

She glanced down at the map clipped to a board attached to the right

thigh of her flight suit. A carrier’s chief strength, outside of the

obvious punch and counterpunch represented by her aircraft, was her

speed. Jefferson had covered 150 miles during the night and was now less

than forty miles south of Kerch, well into the broad, open bite that

stretched along the southeastern coast of the Crimea and down the

western coast of Caucasian Russia.

“Hey, Tomboy.”


“You think this thing’s gonna work?”

“Of course it will,” she replied. Her earlier bad humor, she realized,

was rapidly dissipating. She couldn’t help grinning behind her face mask

as she added, “We’re about to go take a bite out of Crimea.”

Hacker groaned appreciatively. Thunder boomed from the right as Tomcat

201–Batman and Malibu–roared off Cat One and into the early morning

sky. White-shirted checkers paused, crouched low, as Batman’s F-14

howled off the bow, then continued their inspection of Tomboy’s

aircraft. A Green Shirt standing to starboard of her cockpit held up a

board reading 65000. She nodded and signaled OK, the tally matching her

figure for the Tomcat’s full-loaded weight. An ordie held up a bundle of

red-tagged arming wires and she counted them off. A standard intercept

warload: four Phoenix, two AMRAAM, and two Sidewinder missiles–correct.

She gave the Red Shirt a thumbs-up and he dashed away, getting clear.

The deck officer signaled for her to wipe her controls and she did

so–flaps, ailerons, spoilers, rudder–as White Shirts checked each

movement, then signaled OK. Another signal, and she eased the throttle

forward, feeling the raw thunder of the F110-GE 400 engines building as

she took them all the way up to full military power. The checkers

watched carefully, then signaled thumbs-up.

All clear, ready for launch.

Another Tomcat was being rolled onto Cat One and hooked up as steam

swirled off the slot from Batman’s launch. The nose number was

216–Dixie and Cat. Tomboy caught Cat’s eye in the other aircraft’s

backseat and waved; Cat tossed back a jaunty salute.

The pace of launches was rapid this morning–one every forty-five

seconds to a minute. The deck crew scurried about, sometimes appearing

to be some sort of huge, brightly colored colonial or amebic creature

moving with urgent purpose rather than a scattered group of tired,

hard-worked men and women.

“Green light,” Hacker called.

“Good. Let’s grab us some sky!”

“Fine. But no more Crimea puns. Please!”


The launch officer took a last look up and down the deck and around the

Tomcat. He looked up at Tomboy and saluted.

She returned the salute. The launch officer dropped to his knee,

pointing down the deck as the Green and Yellow Shirts nearby crouched

low. He touched his thumb to the deck.

Acceleration–a momentary surge of pressure and noise as she sank back

hard against her ejection seat–and then the dark gray of the carrier’s

deck was gone and she was soaring out over the open sea. She pulled back

on the stick, climbing, climbing. Glancing back over her shoulder, she

saw the Jefferson’s bow dwindling with distance. The rescue station

helicopter was a tiny toy well off the carrier’s port side, its rotors

sparkling in the sun. To the north, Shiloh and Decatur held station.

Beyond that was the forbidding-looking coast of the eastern Crimea.

Tomboy held her climb, taking the aircraft past eight thousand feet in

seconds, rising swift and clean out of the Earth’s shadow. Sunlight

exploded around her, warm, golden, and glorious.

She hated like hell to admit it, but Tombstone was right. This was where

she belonged.

0744 hours (Zulu +3)

Near Arsincevo Kerch Peninsula, the Crimea Tombstone stood on the low

hill, peering through binoculars at the tank farm below. It was typical

of such facilities the world over, endless rows of squat, cylindrical

tanks painted a drab olive color, together with the tangle of piping,

fractionating towers, compressor buildings, flare towers, and furnaces

that marked a petroleum refinery.

Arsincevo was a small town, a village, really, on the southern outskirts

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