CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass


Navy and Marine Corps public affairs officers had already characterized

the landings, however, as “meeting little opposition” and “suffering

only very minor casualties,” all in all a “remarkably clean and

uncomplicated, surgically precise strike.”

0835 hours (Zulu +3)

Above Arsincevo Tombstone lay flattened in a pool of near-liquid mud,

face-down, hands clasped over his head, as the ground beneath him bucked

and rocked. Thunder passed, caressing him; he looked up and saw smoke

boiling into the sky.

“Goddamn it, Matt!” Pamela screamed from her patch of mud a few feet

away. “Tell them we’re on their side!”

“Rule number one of combat, miss,” Chief Geiger growled from close by.

“Friendly fire isn’t.”

Slowly, Tombstone rose to his knees, staring after the departing

aircraft in time to see sunlight flash from the wings of the two A-6

Intruders that had just spilled an avalanche of high explosives–a

“force package” in the sterile lexicon of official reports–across the

top of the ridge.

There was nothing, nothing more demoralizing in warfare than being

attacked by your own side.

Rising unsteadily from the mud, he jogged toward the smoke. Boychenko

was there, pointing and giving orders as Russian soldiers trotted toward

the crest of the ridge. Several vehicles had been hit on the road and

were burning furiously, including, he noticed, the ACN van. Oh, God, no.


But there were no bodies, no screaming wounded. He spotted PO/2 Kardesh

standing near the general. “Natalie!” he called. “Anybody hit in that


She shook her head. “I don’t think so, sir! But the general asked me

whose side those Intruders were on. He says some of the men are a little

shaken by that attack!”

“I can believe that.” Fortunately for the rebel column and its American

auxiliaries, the Intruders had dumped their load on the vehicles, which

had been standing empty along the Kerch Road, on the west side of the


“Tell him he’s got to get the panels out!” Tombstone told her.

“I did! He said this ridge is too exposed, that we have to try moving

closer to the refinery. Otherwise, we’re going to get flanked up here.”

“God save us from military geniuses.”

Natalie blinked at him. “Pardon, sir?”

He hadn’t realized he’d muttered the thought aloud. “Never mind. Come

on. Translate for me.”

Tombstone could hear the sound of the ground battle developing up ahead,

on the east side of the ridge, a sharp rattling and cracking of

automatic weapons. As they reached General Boychenko, he was conferring

with several of his officers. He looked up from a map as Tombstone and

Natalie approached. “Ah, Captain Magruder,” he said, raking Tombstone

with his eyes. “You. .. are one of us now, da?” He added something in

Russian, and his officers chuckled.

Tombstone looked down at his full dress uniform ruefully, now so coated

with mud that he was very nearly as well camouflaged as the Spetsnaz

troops in their camo fatigues. Both of his shoulder boards with their

four broad gold stripes were gone, and he’d pocketed his medals during

the drive from Yalta. His uniform was no longer blue, but a smeared mix

of black and clay-brown. It felt as though his face were probably

colored the same way.

“General,” Tombstone said. “if you don’t get those marker panels out,

we’re going to be one big, happy bull’s-eye on top of this hill.” During

his planning session with Coyote, they’d agreed that cloth ground

panels–parachute material or canvas or whatever else could be scavenged

for the purpose–would be laid out in the shape of large Vs, visible

from the air, identifying Boychenko’s column. If there’d been time, he

would have insisted that Vs be painted on the vehicles as well, but

they’d been on the move, on the run, really, all night.

And now it was too late. He was just glad no ACN people had been in that

van when the Intruders had struck.

Natalie translated, then gave Tombstone Boychenko’s reply. “He wants to

know if we aren’t in communication with our ships.”

“Tell him yes, we are, but things are pretty confused out there right

now. With so many planes in the sky, it’s hard to coordinate. All of

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