This scene contains violence and death.
14th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Solstice — Apsara
Malik heard the commotion over the radio.
She was perplexed, until she looked over her shoulder through the canopy.
Trailing smoke behind them, six enemy aircraft suddenly appeared.
Like phantoms they burst out from a cloud and gave chase.
At first the significance of their appearance was lost to her. And when she heard Mannan shout about rocket boosters Malik hoped the Archers would be as weighed down with ordinance as she was, but they seemed to have no such impediments.
Initially appearing as distant dots, the Archers accelerated and maneuvered with such distinctive speed and grace that one could not have lost track of them amid the rest.
They were fast; faster than Crossbows.
Malik swallowed nervously.
Her Garuda was slowed by its weight, and responded to turns with just enough struggle that she found herself somewhat off-balance in horizontal maneuvers.
Against the Crossbow, which was heavier than her even without the extra weight, she and Anada had managed to fend off every attack. Now she was not so sure.
Against an Archer the Garuda’s main strength was turning. All of those Archers could still turn as well as they ever could, but now her Garuda had no turning advantage. She had defeated Archers, but not like this. Her Garuda was just like a Crossbow to them.
In a handful of turns, she would lose any advantage, easily zeroed in by their guns.
She might have a chance if she dumped the rockets.
But then she would have no chance against the Hierophants.
Even one of them getting away could do devastating harm to the people of Solstice.
Over the radio, she heard Anada shouting.
Malik entirely forgot about the awkward state of their relationship the past few days. In that moment all of those dramas were fleeting and pointless. They were in danger.
“We need to run!” Malik replied. Her thoughts were racing with nervous energy.
“I know! But in a normal turning battle they’ll get us no matter what!”
Malik felt her body hollowed out with stress and fear.
Over her shoulder the Archers were splitting up into groups.
One was clearly headed for Captain Sheba, Mannan and Sayyid, but the remaining three formed an arrowhead that thrust aggressively toward Malik and Anada.
Three on two, but those three were faster and could take a tighter turn than their two.
Was there any chance? Were they just waiting to die?
“Malik, I’m splitting up!”
As Anada said this and as Malik immediately began to object, Anada’s Garuda broke formation and sped away. Malik would have instinctively turned the same direction but failed to do so because she was so distracted, as weighed down with emotion as her Garuda was weighed down with munitions. Anada was climbing and turning, dancing away in the sky; Malik gave the plane throttle and began to climb straight up.
There was an initial hesitation in Anada’s voice, but when she did speak she sounded determined. Malik could almost see her in her mind’s eye, balling her hands up, her ears and tail sticking straight up, her brow furrowed, her cat-like eyes fixed sharply.
“If they go after me, you come to my rescue! I’ll pick them off if they come after you!”
Bait; all either one of them could be at this point was the bait.
“Absolutely not!” Malik shouted. She couldn’t bear it if she lost Anada. Not now!
Anada sounded just as anguished as Malik felt. “It’s the only way!”
If they split up their pursuers would not split up after them.
Whoever they left alone had only a slim chance to get behind them.
A three to one advantage would be so massive they would expect a kill almost immediately. That is why it represented such effective bait. Even the threat of getting Malik on their tail would not matter if they could down Anada fast enough, and with their advantages, they certainly could. It was an absolutely insane and suicidal plan.
Even if they went after Malik instead, she still could not stand such an idea.
At that point they might as well dump their ordnance, since they wouldn’t get to shoot!
Malik was about to shout again– but Captain Sheba, who of course was listening on the same frequency, interjected at that point. “Malik, split up! Do as she says!”
Though she felt like shouting, Malik kept just enough of a grip on herself not to.
“Captain, how could–“
“Please trust me!”
Had Malik shouted something like ‘are we sacrifices?’ it would have destroyed Sheba and hurt everyone else and definitely broken Vulture’s taboo. They could fight if they dropped the rockets; this splitting-up plan was ridiculous! She wanted to shout at the Captain that they should dump the rockets and run but– then the mission would fail.
She was so absorbed in thinking that it felt like an eternity went by unnoticed.
In the next instant the Archers began to loom larger behind them.
Captain Sheba spoke uneasily, but it was clearly her officer’s tone of voice. “Homa is coming up behind you as well! You just need to survive for a little bit! We can do this!”
There was no time to argue any more. Malik couldn’t even look for Homa.
She just had to grit her teeth, trust and pray.
Malik barely breathed it out.
She felt tears rise up to her eyes as she began to turn her Garuda I-bis away.
Gritting her teeth and unable to see Anada, all she could do was fly her own line.
Malik had climbed a significant amount as they deliberated, and was now well above the desert. It would do her no good to climb more — she was slower on the climb than the Archers were, far slower. She and Anada had flown apart, but they continued to keep an eye on each other, or at least, Malik kept an eye on Anada. She knew that the easiest way to tell what was behind you was to fly with your wingman’s eye on you.
In her head Malik heard the old Captain’s advice, Shurelis’ advice.
Don’t fly in a straight line.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Watch your wingman’s six and trust your wingman to do the same.
She watched, and she saw nothing.
“Don’t do anything stupid. Live.”
Shurelis had said those words too.
But Shurelis also told them to follow Sheba.
She had left instructions to promote Sheba to Captain.
For the old Captain’s sake, and for the new Captain, and the people of Solstice–
Malik grit her teeth and bore with it all.
Anada started to turn, but in her direction. She came charging toward Malik.
In that instant, Malik heard the warning on the radio.
“They’re after you Malik! All three of them are gaining fast!”
More and more bullets soared past Malik’s Garuda.
Stray machine gun fire, ranging shots from cannons, growing in density.
“I’m trying to give chase!” Anada said. “Please hold on, Malik!”
Malik jerked the plane into a turn.
She snapped around to look over her shoulder as she turned and saw all three archers. One farther above, two coming in around her sides. They had her covered from every angle. It was their fight to lose, and her heart was writhing with anxiety. A cold, hollow feeling nearly overcame her, but the physical effort of turning the craft distracted her.
Never had the Garuda felt so unresponsive.
She strongly considered dumping the rockets. She told herself she would do it.
Behind her the Archers split up, one climbing, one following her close and the third taking a much wider curve. It could afford to. With its speed advantage it could keep ahead enough even on a wider turn to eventually cross her flank with cruel ease.
Her direct pursuer was likely the enemy commander, or a senior officer.
They were feeding him the easy kill. Seniors always got first dibs on bounties.
Malik grit her teeth so hard, her entire body tensing up.
She wouldn’t let herself be counted out so easily.
Green machine gun fire swept past her wing, clipping the outer edge.
A round bounced off the top of her canopy.
Cringing from the sudden impact, Malik screamed and dropped into a sudden dive.
Her pursuer dropped easily with her, but everyone else had to correct.
For the Archer that had climbed higher, he had to level out and consider his options.
For the Archer moving to flank, he had to account for a higher diving speed.
Behind her Malik was quickly beset by renewed gunfire.
One bullet hitting the rockets or rails and it would’ve been the end of it.
She hit the pedals and struggled with the stick, and went into a roll.
Her pursuer mimed her and every bullet fired in the interim flew off into the distance.
Malik’s stomach tightened as she took the Garuda into a tight spiral, turning and turning as she descended toward the desert. To avoid gunfire she would complete some turns but then swing Garuda in a different direction, breaking up the elegant spiral into a careening zig-zag, and in turn throwing her pursuer’s concentration.
Stray bullets flew all around her, slashing her wings and striking chunks off the chassis.
Before she could try to escape this latest volley a cannon shot struck the canopy.
Everything shook; the blast rocked the Garuda and Malik inside it.
She screamed, and the canopy felt like it would burst.
A spider’s web of fractures formed across the top of the glass.
Malik looked up momentarily, speechless. She waited for the instant it would burst.
A held breath–
Shaking fingers clutched the stick–
Her heart descending into her stomach and rising up her throat–
She must have been grazed rather than directly struck.
Below her the desert rapidly expanded until the sand was all she could see.
Malik hugged her arms around the stick and pulled back with all of her might.
Sand blew out from under her in every direction.
Behind her, the Archer pilot was following closely. He must have thought he could easily win the game of chicken with his unburdened speed and superior rate of climb.
He did not count on the cloud of dust and sand when making his precise attack.
Every bullet he shot bit into nothing but dirt and he was forced to pull up.
With the sand blowing in his canopy, Malik took her chance.
Flying directly up from the sand and, from her own perspective, upside-down, she spotted the underside of the Archer fixed against the sun for a brief instant as he climbed. There was no chance that she could hit him with the light in her eyes, upside-down, carrying the rockets and with nothing but a split second to make the decision.
Her nose would align with his wings and undercarriage in a moment.
“Go to hell!”
Once she said this it was already far too late.
Malik held down the trigger.
From the Garuda’s nose a hailstorm of bullets and shells flew out to meet the Archer.
Dozens of machine gun bullets trailed the underside of the plane, and two cannon shells tore open the landing gear housing and punctured one of the wings. Wisps of fire and a thick trail of smoke followed in the Archer’s wake, and rapidly losing speed, it began to drop out of Malik’s sight. She whipped her head to either side of the canopy, checking her flanks as she righted her plane. Her pressure meters went wild. Flying upside-down had not been healthy for the engine. She suspected oil would leak.
As soon as she righted herself, Malik spotted the flanking Archer closing in fast.
Its nose lit up with green muzzle flashes.
Machine gun bullets bounced off Malik’s canopy in the dozens, leaving hairline cracks that grew and grew. Her ears rang with the incessant drumming on the glass.
Her body shook as the energy from a cannon impact transferred through the plane.
Malik thought she would vomit as the plane rocked, stricken in the side.
Near her leg, a metal truss bulged inward from the impact.
There was nothing she could do.
She had no speed advantage, and it would mimic any turn she made.
Flipping on the radio, tears running down her eyes, Malik called out to Anada.
“Anada, I’m sorry, I love–“
Everything she tried to say was drowned out.
“I’m here! Please stay alive Malik!”
Behind the Archer appeared a familiar Garuda, weighed down with rockets.
Its cannons and machine guns roared, unleashing a torrent of gunfire.
Bullets ran up the wings and canopy of the Archer, punching off large square chunks of material off the monocoque. Malik could almost feel the anger and desperation Anada was feeling with each shot taken on the Archer. In her fury she ripped the enemy apart, and the Archer was in the next instant reduced to a smoking wreck, the wings barely attached, the pilot a bloody pulp in a shattered canopy careening down.
Anada took a sharp turn and ended up on Malik’s wing.
Malik looked out her canopy and saw Anada in the cockpit, a hand up to the glass.
She raised her own hand to the fractured glass on her canopy, weeping openly.
Anada herself wept silently upon seeing Malik, as close as they could be in the sky.
Suddenly a pair of green cannon shots tore them apart.
Malik and Anada banked away from each other harshly.
Having climbed to a commanding position, the third Archer began its attack.
“Not on my watch!”
Malik narrowed her eyes at the sky, and the two dark figures fixed beneath the sun.
She watched as the Bennu overtook her final pursuer, nearly crashing into the plane.
Homa rolled past the Archer, throwing it off-balance and off the pursuit.
Her flying was intense. Malik could scarcely imagine the forces that must have acted upon Homa’s body. Her tight turning carried all the speed the Bennu could muster short of using its jet. In one remarkably fluid turn, Homa put all the forward thrust had built and she elegantly swept behind the Archer and stuck to its tail, giving chase.
Her massive cannon was nonfunctional, but her machine gun still worked.
Without the power of the cannon, Homa could only win through persistence. Dozens of machine gun bullets pockmarked the wing surfaces, the canopy and tail of the Archer as Homa chased it off. She stuck doggedly to it, and though the Archer dove, turned and rolled in every direction, Homa responded immediately to every move.
It was as if she could perfectly mimic the enemy’s flight.
Malik watched what seemed like minutes worth of blows and counterattacks happen in the span of seconds just over her head. Had the battle left a visible trail in the sky it would have been like the curled writing on a doctor’s signature, all loops and twists.
When there was finally a trail to see, it was the smoke that signaled defeat.
Black gas belched from the Archer as its self-sealing fuel tanks finally absorbed enough punishment, and the craft tumbled from the sky straight into the desert.
With one final roll the Bennu made to return to Anada and Malik in triumph.
“You kids okay?” Homa asked.
Before Homa could get her answer, however, a new crisis developed.
“Homa, I can’t keep them off Sayyid and Mannan! Hurry here!”
Captain Sheba’s desperate situation was made clear by the tone of her voice.
Homa looped easily back around from where her prey had left her and charged past Anada and Malik, making for the Captain. Malik scanned the skies to the right of her canopy, where Homa was headed. She could see three aircraft in formation and three others buzzing around them, twisting and turning in a coil that was tightening further and further with every second that passed. Captain Sheba and the rest were trapped.
Malik took the Garuda into a turn, and she could almost feel the aircraft groan. It had taken a brutal beating, but somehow, she had survived. Anada joined her, wingtip to wingtip once again, and looking through the canopies at each other they nodded with determination. Together again, the two youngest Vultures sped back to their captain.
Though Malik felt ashamed for wavering on the mission during their moment of crisis, she could redeem herself if she could continue the fight. She focused on that instead.
She was still only human, but she had the strength to forgive herself for that.
Homa almost wanted to scream.
If she couldn’t handle things by herself why did she send Homa out?
She did not know what she would do with herself if anyone died on her account, and she could hardly grapple with the emotions she felt seeing Sheba suddenly in danger.
Some horrible, cruel part of her wanted to say she’d have rather saved Sheba than the rest but not knowing where this response came from or being able to process it at that moment, Homa felt repulsed with herself. She grit her teeth and though she never would have admitted that it happened or why, her eyes were stinging with tears.
All she could do then, was save everyone. That was the only way to set it right.
Even with its compression chamber sealed, the Bennu was a next-generation Garuda II-derived chassis and was running a state of the art M.A.W. V-12 engine, of the sort that was pushing prototype heavy tanks around. Despite the dead weight in propeller flight, it was still faster and more aerodynamic than any other airplane in the field.
Mere moments after she received the distress call Homa was already upon the enemy.
Captain Sheba however had not simply stuck around waiting for rescue.
Homa watched in disbelief as Sheba cut her throttle and fell back amid the enemy’s trajectory. All of them broke off their pursuit of Sayyid and Mannan to avoid crashing into or giving their tails to Sheba. However, when she got behind them she went into a clumsy dive instead. All three Archers took the opportunity to get on her tail instead.
She baited them all by throwing her own body in the way.
You stupid self-sacrificing bitch! Homa’s mind screamed.
Accelerating as fast as she could without switching the engine mode to jets, Homa plunged in behind the Archers and quickly caught up to the battle. Green tracers spat out from each of their noses at a rolling and weaving Sheba not too far out in front.
Homa held down her trigger, and felt a jolt of anger and fear as her cannon continued to stick and only the machine gun responded. Dozens of bullets, hundreds of bullets flew a furious red trail to the Archers ahead of her. She hardly made a dent in them.
A stray cannon shot then struck Sheba’s wing and knocked a plate off.
Without her cannon, Homa couldn’t kill them fast enough!
“Sheba, let me boost–!”
Homa felt an alien emotion that caught the words in her throat.
Helplessness and fear and the dread that she would watch someone die.
Someone? Just anyone? Or someone that she–
She had seen people die before.
But not someone that she– that she would miss having–?
Her mind screamed as her mechanical hand began to slide the throttle to jets.
The Bennu still had its speed and a veritable bomb inside of it.
She could smash into them, blind them with the smoke, vent the compressor at them.
I could blow it up between them–
Her unfeeling fingers had almost pushed the throttle past the lock when a hail of red tracers flew past the Bennu and smashed the wings off one of the trailing archers.
Homa swerved away.
The Bennu narrowly avoided flying through the mid-air debris of the destroyed Archer.
It also narrowly avoided igniting its compression chamber and plunging into them.
Seeing where her hand had gone and realizing where her mind was, Homa eased off the throttle until she was overtaken by a pair of Garuda I-bis. One had a crane bird on the tail but the other had a lotus flower. Both hurled cannon fire like dragon’s breath, consuming the Archers who frantically struggled to break free of their assault.
Homa watched with unblinking eyes as the Archers split up, climbing away from the Garudas. Rate of climb was an area where the Archer had the slight edge on a Garuda.
Faced with Lotus Rajavari, whose plane bore her namesake flower as a tail marking, the Archers could never have gotten away fast enough. In a maneuver that was as elegant as it was brutal, a synthesis so astounding that it provoked a surprised swell of emotion from Homa, Lotus climbed behind one of the Archers, blasted one of its wings off, and then turned into the second as it broke into a dive and intercepted it.
Before the Archer could turn its nose down, Lotus split the machine in half in a hail of gunfire and blew past the wreckage, swinging her wings to and fro in celebration.
“This is A.C.I. Parfait to Vulture squadron. Lotus Rajavari sends you greetings and wishes you good health. Our commander bids you please take good care of her.”
“This is A.C.I. Cornet. Much appreciated, Parfait.” Marcy said.
Marcy had kept well away from the action, being far more vulnerable than anyone else.
“Sorry everyone. I wish I could’ve done something else, but I asked Crane for help.”
“That was good timing, Marcy.” Captain Sheba said. She sighed openly into the radio.
Homa also heaved a sigh that felt like it took hours to wind itself out of her throat.
She then shouted at the top of her lungs.
“Captain, permission to slap you for that one when we hit the tarmac! Dumbass!”
“I deserve it. Thank you for everything, Homa.”
There was a barely disguised quiver in her voice.
“We’re just dropping code names for good?” Homa replied, trying to sound aloof.
She had hated herself for shouting at Sheba– for acting on how upset she was.
“For now. I think everyone ought to know who the heroes are today.”
Captain Sheba sounded genuinely apologetic, but also relieved for everyone.
Homa really couldn’t make herself fault Sheba for what happened anymore.
“Fine, fine. Don’t get all mushy.” Homa replied.
In response, the rest of the Vultures laughed on the radio.
“That was incredible flying, Homa.” Malik said.
“But let’s not have to do it again.” Anada added.
Now that the immediate crisis was over, they could regroup and reorient.
“We’ve still got a few Hierophants to take down.” Captain Sheba said. “Stay focused.”
“Where are they?” Anada asked.
“Up higher, they climbed during all the commotion.” Marcy said.
Homa regrouped with Sheba and the rest of Vulture squadron, Sayyid and Mannan directly below them and Anada, Malik and Marcy on their left wing. Behind them, Lotus Rajavari and her wingmate were waiting to provide support. Meanwhile some 3000 meters overhead, the Hierophants were managing an escape. They were about to go over the town of Apsaras. In minutes time they would be beyond the lake, and gone.
“Ma’am, I’ve taken a lot of damage, but I think I can keep fighting.”
Malik had spoken up on the radio.
She had clung on to her rockets, but her plane was badly damaged in the brawl.
Homa questioned whether it had the stability to fly up high with the Hierophants.
“I see that.” Captain Sheba said. “Stay back for right now. You did a fantastic job, Malik, thank you for trusting all of us. Don’t be ashamed for how you’ve flown today.”
“You sound like she’s lying down bleeding!” Anada said.
“She’s just trying to look after the kid’s self esteem.” Sayyid said.
“Anada,” Malik trailed off into a sigh. “It’s fine. I’ll keep below.”
“Then I’ll stay back with her! Hmph!” Anada said, huffing and puffing into the radio.
“I’m not sure whether I like this better than when you were quiet.” Sheba sighed.
“Sayyid and I will take the next attack run, no problem.” Mannan said.
“I guess it’s not volunteering if we were already scheduled.” Sayyid replied.
“Homa, we could use your support distracting the Hierophant.” Sheba said.
Homa grumbled. She was still feeling surly about everything that happened.
Without a cannon, she was nothing more than a fishing lure to distract those turrets.
“Fine, fine, I’ll do whatever.” Homa replied. “It’s not like I’m worth anything right now.”
“Please, Homa, don’t be that way.” Sheba said.
Her tone of voice was so remorseful that Homa was almost charmed by it.
“Should’ve watched out for someone else’s self esteem.” Sayyid said, laughing.
Captain Sheba’s stern voice returned, and everyone heeded this simple order.
A pilot’s emotions were as chaotic a landscape as the battlefield itself.
Homa tried to settle hers as much as she could.
While the Vultures were avoiding the Archer squadron, the Hierophants had sped away as much as they could, but not far away enough. Flying at close to full throttle and accounting for the Garuda’s difficulties in climb and the drag from the radiators, the Vultures could still make up the difference in around a minute. The Hierophants loomed closer and the sordid melee between the dwindling Crossbows and the allied squadrons seemed like a battle between insects going on well below them.
They had been fighting between 1000 to 2000 meters, but now had to fly close to the height limit to fight back. Malik and Anada remained around the 4000 meter mark while the rest of the Vultures climbed on. At 5000 meters they were level with the rising Hierophants and their sparse escort: one pair of Crossbow-class for both.
“A.C.I. Parfait here. Leave the escorts to the Cranes.”
Lotus and her wingmate sped past the Vultures and opened fire on the Crossbow escorts. Having spent this long in the fight, they knew full well the dangers a Garuda presented to a Crossbow stuck in formation, and they started to maneuver, hoping to divert the Garudas away from the bombers. Lotus pursued with unequaled agility.
“Thank you Parfait. Alright girls, don’t let Lotus show you up!” Marcy cheered.
Homa broke off from the attack formation at that point.
While Crane got the escorts riled up, someone else had to tie up the bombers, or Lotus might just get shot in the back by a dorsal cannon in the middle of the dance.
“I guess I’ll give them a look up my skirt now.” Homa said, in her surliest voice.
“Good luck then.”
Captain Sheba sounded composed. She was not taking the bait that was laid for her.
Homa gripped the controls and thundered on ahead.
The Hierophants were far more interested in her provocation.
Turrets circled around to meet her, shooting off dozens and hundreds of rounds of machine gun and cannon ammunition her way in long, visible green trails of tracers.
As deftly as she approached them, Homa just as deftly evaded the guns.
Homa had an overwhelming speed advantage on the bombers. A stock Wizard-class was only 2/3 as fast as a Garuda even with over twice the engine power. A full load of bombs slowed it down even further, and the Hierophant’s modifications were so stark that Homa would not have been surprised to see Hierophant’s speed testing at less than half the sustained speed of a Garuda. Homa’s Bennu was faster than a Garuda.
To blow past the Hierophants took Homa a couple of seconds, and she could swing around back to them in the same amount of time. She was flying circles and zig-zags around the bombers, trying to remain as unpredictable as possible as to where she would be; where the machine gunners would see her as she entered their field of view.
Firing at where she had been, the trails seemed to chase her but never catch her, and she was quick to avoid any cross-fire when she flew between the two bombers.
And she was not idle as she flew. It was not just an acrobatics show.
Though her cannon was out, she had to present a credible threat, and each time she buzzed the bombers she would shoot the turrets if she could. Though the bulletproof glass staunchly resisted the machine guns, if she snuck a bullet or two in between the plate and the glass housing she might clip the gunner’s leg or a hydraulic device.
No such luck. She flew and flew and the enemy continued to hose her down.
In the distance, there was a brief flash.
Lotus had set alight a fuel tank on one of the crossbows covering the bomber’s left.
There was a clear opening.
“Homa, we’re moving in! Flank right on Hierophant #3!”
“Roger. Hey, Captain, watch this–!”
It was not the same, flying without being able to really shoot, but Homa found she could entertain herself in her own way as long as she was still part of the plan.
So when Sheba’s order came in she grinned and found a fun way to realize it.
Coming down from the sky over Hierophant #3, Homa dropped down its right flank and manipulated the throttle and control surfaces to take her aircraft into a slight spin.
While spinning, she also looped twice off the Hierophant’s side.
At that point the gunners must have believed she was just toying with them.
Their gunfire grew ever more furious, all directed exclusively at her.
“Homa, do you need to show off like that to get their attention?”
Sheba was finally a little exasperated with her.
“I do!” Homa replied. There was no further response from the Captain.
Instead, Marcy came in over the radio suddenly.
“I’m getting requests from the ground units to allow them to fire on them Hierophants. They say the bombers are getting too close to the point of no return.” She said.
In the next instant her concerns and those of the ground troops found their answer in a roaring explosion and a expanding cloud of smoke and metal parts from enemy #3.
Homa climbed away from the shower of metal that had become of her flank.
She glanced back over her shoulder and spotted Sheba and Sayyid emerging from the vicinity of the falling wreckage. Homa marveled at the fantastic, fiery explosion they had wrought, far more terrible and instantaneous than when Sheba had launched her own attack. Not only did Sayyid have more rockets than Sheba, Homa would not have been surprised if she had managed to blow up the magazine of the underside naval gun in her attack. That would certainly explain the exponential violence of this pass.
“Homa, swing back around to the left side of Hierophant #2!”
“And no funny business!”
“Of course, mistress.”
Sheba did not rise to this surly provocation.
This time Homa was not even disappointed.
She had plenty of funny business planned, of course.
Grinning like a fiend, laughing to herself, reveling in the rush of the Bennu in full acrobatic flight, she leveled from her climb and immediately dropped straight down the other side of the remaining Hierophant. She applied gentle nudges to the stick.
Emboldened, she buzzed the Hierophant’s wing a few meters from the propeller.
Homa avoided the ventral turret by skirting close to the underside gun housing.
With what used to be the bomb bay now bulging out with metal, Homa dipped under the chassis and completed a messy, frantic loop over the cockpit in almost full view of the men inside the greenhouse-style nose. She flew away, pursued by the dorsal gunner and the forward machine gun, completely capturing their attention.
“That enough, mistress?” Homa shouted.
“Ugh,” was Sheba’s response, but it was drowned out.
Mannan’s voice came in loud and at that moment Homa thought she could also hear the rockets lighting up from under her wings and blazing toward the Hierophant.
In the next instant, a series of massive explosions blew heat and smoke in the wake of the Bennu. Homa looked over her shoulder and she could see dust and red, burning, churned-up metal go flying. Mannan flew out from under the Hierophant and tilted her wings to indicate her thanks and that she was healthy, aware and had succeeded.
“My only regret is I couldn’t see more of your acrobatics.” Mannan said.
“You’ll get a chance.” Homa said. She was glowing from the excitement and praise.
“Could you show me how you operate the controls with your prosthetic?”
Sayyid, Mannan and Homa formed up around the Captain as they turned back around.
Operation Trident was almost complete, despite everything.
Captain Sheba breathed a loud sigh of relief. They were in the final stretch.
“Scratch three. My precious vultures are really looking alive.” Captain Sheba said.
There was a girlish giddiness that she failed to control or acknowledge.
Nobody, not even Homa, pointed it out. Every mission was a cyclone of emotions.
It was fine to let the Captain glow with this rare euphoria.
“Hate to interrupt, but Hierophant #4 is entering the battlespace!” Marcy called out. “Hierophant #5 is also on radar, not far behind. Two escorts on each of them.”
“Comrades, this is it!” Captain Sheba said. “We’ll set them alight and go home!”
Sayyid and Mannan were now free to fly without encumbrance, save for a minimal amount of drag caused by the rails for the rockets. Homa and Sheba could cover for one of their remaining rocketeers, and those two could cover for another. With the fourth enemy target coming into view, Vulture Squadron reorganized along those lines. Malik was guarded by Sheba and Homa, and Sayyid and Mannan would go on the offensive immediately while escorting Anada to Hierophant #4. Behind them, Lotus and her wingmate from Crane flew casually around the group, awaiting more targets.
“Can’t we talk to that lady?” Anada asked.
“We’re not supposed to. She has to be able to listen to her own squadron.” Sheba said.
“But she’s with us now. This is a bit inconvenient.” Anada said.
“We can sort it out for the next mission. Right now, it’s fine if Marcy handles things.”
Marcy chuckled on the radio. “Ah, sorry, I’m doing my best to keep us connected. I don’t think I’ve missed anything from the A.C.I.’s channel, but it’s been busy.”
“You’re doing fine, Marcy. I’m sure Lotus is the quiet, focused type.” Sheba said.
“Actually, she’s a chatterbox. But you don’t need to hear all of it so I don’t report it.”
That was A.C.I. Parfait, the Crane’s radio and radar girl. One more mystery solved.
“For example, and I will report this, she’s now flirting a bit too eagerly with me.”
Behind them, Lotus Rajavari tilted her wings in cheerful acknowledgment.
“I see. Good luck out there, Parfait.” Sheba replied, giggling a little.
Homa cracked a little grin at that messy exchange. Pilots were something else.
They really did come in every size and shape, and with all manner of personal defects.
Vulture were maybe a little more mismatched than the rest, but they all had to have a few worms in their brain to get out here in these 2000 kilogram contraptions, spitting oil and chewing up fire. Climbing high into the sky to kill men, flirt and tell awful jokes.
Homa shook her head and sighed.
She really was the worst of them all, she told herself.
“We’re about 3000 meters to target, Captain.” Anada suddenly said.
Those cat-like eyes caught it first; soon it was unmistakable for everyone else.
In front of them, the Hierophant lumbered, its massive frame drawing ever nearer.
At its sides, the Crossbows took notice of the incoming Vultures and stormed ahead.
“Everyone get ready!” Captain Sheba said. “We’ll be attacking Hierophant #4.”
They had already agreed how to designate the targets by relative direction.
With the order given, and the target identified, the pilots engaged.
On cue, Lotus and her wingmate from Crane flew out to intercept the Crossbows.
Vulture split up. Homa and Sheba led Malik away, flying a half-circle to put distance between themselves and the Hierophant in case they needed to come at it from another direction. Mannan and Sayyid flew on each of Anada’s wingtips, escorting her into the fray. Sheba was not able to micromanage this particular stint, but everyone trusted Mannan and Sayyid to come up with a good attack window for Anada.
“We’re approaching!” Mannan reported. “Sayyid and I will distract the gunners.”
Homa took a look out of her canopy and saw her comrades swarming the bomber.
Below them, Anada approached.
Lines of gunfire flew out to meet her, but she stayed her course adamantly.
In moments, she would have the rockets lined up.
Homa heard a gasp on the radio.
“Something’s coming! Extremely fast!” Marcy shouted.
Sheba groaned. “More boosters? How many rocket launches did they plan?”
She began to turn the formation back toward Hierophant #4.
Homa spotted something suddenly coming from the distance.
Within seconds of being spotted it invaded the airspace.
Something incredibly fast, a white contrail following in its wake.
First in its sights was Anada, who in the next second took to the radio in a panic.
“It’s coming at me! I have to abort!”
She was about to attack, and in the blink of an eye an attack had been launched at her.
Anada’s rockets sailed into the empty air around Hierophant #4 as she escaped.
Her Garuda swung back back in the nick of time to avoid a stark black aircraft slicing through the air around her. From its large black tail a bluish-pink flame danced. So powerfully had it thrust through past Anada that it threw her Garuda off balance.
Homa stared at it, speechless as the craft rocketed across the skies.
Her voice quavered with disbelief as she switched on the radio.
“It’s a jet engine!” She said, hardly believing herself.
Unknown to her then, Nocht’s new S.F.-X Musket was shooting right for the Bennu.