CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

around, checking the aircraft, checking to make sure deck personnel were

clear. He looked up at Batman and saluted.

Batman returned the salute, a final exchange indicating readiness for

launch. The launch officer dropped to his knee, pointing down the deck

as the Green and Yellow Shirts nearby crouched low. He touched the deck

with his thumb.

An explosion of acceleration slammed Batman back against his seat as the

catapult hurled him down the deck. In two seconds he was traveling at

170 miles per hour, past the island, off the angled flight deck, and

flashing past the overhanging cliff of Jefferson’s towering gray bows

close off his starboard wingtip. The catstroke’s acceleration was so

hard it actually seemed as though he slowed down once he was clear of

the track and airborne; he felt the aircraft’s controls biting the

air–nothing soft or mushy, no red-light indicators of engine failure or

control fault. “Good shot!” sounded in his headphones as the Assistant

Air Boss confirmed his launch.

It always took him a second or two to recover mentally from the cat

launch, to “get behind the airplane.” Gently, he brought the stick back

and started climbing. Blue sky and sunlight shone above and around him

with the unearthly, dazzling intensity of flight.

“Whee-ooh!” Malibu exalted from the rear seat. “I think we left the old

stomach back there on the deck someplace.”

“Too late to go back for it now, Mal,” Batman told his RIO. “Let’s see

if we can find us some mountains.”

“I’m with you, dude. Try east.”

“Into the sun.” He brought the stick gently right, watching his compass

heading change on the HUD as the sun, still low in the sky, shone with a

brilliant, golden light above a low-lying ripple of clouds on the


He thought of Sunny, and the last time they’d been together.

0205 hours (Zulu +4)

UN Flight 27 Peoples Republic of Georgia First Lieutenant Marty Cole,

U.S. Army, opened the pilot’s-side door and clambered awkwardly into the

cockpit of the VH-60 Black Hawk. He was stiff and sore from two days of

hard flying mixed with nights of sleeping on hard cots in dilapidated

shanties. Cold and hard as they were, folding cots brought in off the

Guadalcanal and set up in a drafty tent were infinitely better than the

parasite-infested bedding that was the norm in most of the buildings

he’d seen since being assigned to the UN Crisis Assessment Team. But

this morning Cole was starting to wish he’d taken his chances with the

insect life.

“How’s it looking, Ski?” he asked, suppressing a yawn. Another thing he

was wishing for was a decent cup of coffee, even a bad cup of coffee, to

help him wake up. The stuff they served locally was worse than Turkish

coffee. .. and a good explanation for why most people around here seemed

to drink tea. Normally he was up before dawn, but he’d been out later

than expected last night and not made it back to Tara until nearly


Tara–the name of the mansion in Gone With the Wind–was what the

American forces in Georgia were calling their camp ashore, a tent city

just outside a ramshackle native village of stinking huts made of sod,

clapboard, and sheet tin damned near as ritzy-looking as some of Rio de

Janeiro’s poorer slums. Poti, the nearest city hereabouts, was almost as

bad, shot to hell and almost abandoned.

Second Lieutenant Paul Dombrowski looked up from the copilot’s position

and frowned over the top of the dog-eared preflight checklist. “You look

bright-eyed and chipper this morning. Where have you been?”

“Crashed. Crashed and burned.”

“Big date last night, huh?”

“Don’t I just wish. God, I hate this place!”

“Well, we’re preflighted and ready to go. We’re gonna be late, though.

We’re running two hours behind our flight plan, at least.”

“The damned blue-hats don’t give a shit if they’re on time or not,” Cole

said bitterly, ignoring for the moment the fact that both of them had

been issued flight helmets painted the brilliant baby blue of the United

Nations Peacekeeping Forces. “Don’t see that it makes any difference to

us how late we are.”

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