“Two pair, aces and threes,” a tremulous-voiced man said. “What you got?”
Van Walker rounded the corner and entered the Liberty’s barracks. The room was smaller than what Van had stayed in during basic. Six bunks lined the metal walls – three on both the left and right walls.
“I got shit.” Three men were sitting at a metal table in the center of the room, others were scattered around the room. One of the men at the table threw his cards in the pile.
“Why you gotta be like that?” a blonde broad shouldered man said. His jacket read Private 1st Class Gannon. Gannon greedly gathered his winnings as the gruff man gathered up the worn-out cards.
“You must be the new kid.” A man that had to be ten years Van’s senior approached him, his jacket read Private 1st Class Williams. “Welcome to the Liberty, the fastest pile of shit I’ve ever lived on,” Williams said in honeyed voice. He held out his hand to Van, Van shook it.
“You got that right,” another airman chimed in from the card table. He was shorter with brown hair and a pockmarked face. His jacket read Private Johnson.
Now that they mentioned it, Van realized that the Liberty smelled of diesel, sweat, and rusty metal.
“Shit, they’re giving us dodos now?” A dark-haired man who was lying on his bunk asked, with a half-hearted glance at Van.
“Well, sir, if you give me a chance, I’d –” Van started.
“Like to shit your pants? Until you’ve faced real combat, Kid, you ain’t got room to dream about doing well, let alone talk.” He sat up which gave Van a better view of the man’s jacket. Itread Corporal Martin.
“Give ‘m a break, Martian.” Van turned to see the other Corporal for this squadron was coming to his defense. “Kid, once you’ve been on a real mission, come find me. You’ll need to talk then.” His jacket read Corporal Thompson.
Corporal Martin rolled his eyes as he passed Van on his way out of the room.
“Don’t forget, dinner is served at 1800 hours, and lights out at 2100,” Corporal Thompson called down the hall after the angry man.
“Man, Chicago’s so protective of the new Dodos. I wish I had a Corporal like that,” Private Gannon muttered, shuffling, “Kid, you know how to play?”
Compared to the grueling rigidity of basic, dinner on the Liberty felt like a Country Kitchen buffet, except the food was worse, the seats were hard, and the company wasn’t all that good.
“What’s your name again, kid?” Van was sitting across from Private 1st Class Smith. The man was twice Van’s size.
“It’s uh, Van… sir.” His mashed potatoes tasted like creamy piles of sawdust.
Private Smith, having already finished his meal, reached across the table. “You’re not going to eat your ice cream? These little things always go fast.” He snagged the small round container, opened it, and swallowed the contents in two large spoonfuls.
“Did you even taste it?” Private Johnson asked rolling his eyes at Smith. Then, eyeing Van’s sullen look, added, “Kid, it’s a dog eat dog world around here. We don’t get seconds; Vulture eats whatever is in his reach.”
Van looked up and realized that everyone else was sitting two or three seats away from Smith – er, Vulture – who was now eyeing Van’s piece of meat.
“Do you mind if I…” Vulture saw something over Van’s shoulder, frowned, then got up and left. Van turned to see what had scared Vulture off. Corporal Thompson just smiled and gave Van a small wave from a few tables away. The other Corporals didn’t notice.
“Corporal Martin and Corporal Thompson are officially in charge of the two wings, but Thompson has… an understanding with all of the members of our entire squadron. He Commands more respect than even our Squadron Leaders.” Private Johnson slid down a few seats to sit in front of Van. “Kid, you have a lot to get used to around here. We are a tight group, if you work hard and do as you’re told, you’ll be alright. We work hard for a reason.” Private Johnson wiped his hand off on his pants. “The names Will, but call me Wrench.”
“Thanks, I’m Van. Van Walker.” They shook. “Wrench? I get Vulture, though I think Gorilla or Ape would have been better.” Van laughed, but Wrench just chuckled for a minute.
“I earned Wrench a few months back, we were flying back from a run, but a handful of enemy fighters caught up to us. Most of the time we can handle them, but one of them got a lucky shot in. Our flight engineer took a bullet and went down, I had to take over for him, and somehow I ended up carrying his wrench with me back to our bunks once we got back on the ground.”
Van laughed. “Do most of them have stories behind them? I wonder when I will get one.” Maybe he should have given up his meat. It tasted like it had been sitting in a freezer for months even though the Liberty had left port only earlier that day.
“Don’t rush it, that’s how you get stuck with something you don’t like,” Wrench advised. “C’mon we need to get going, it’s almost time for lights out.”
The trip to the air base took about a week. The Liberty was an A-Class Cruiser, which carried multiple artillery batteries and a small group of four fighter planes. These planes were not much bigger than the training planes that he had flown during basic. Wrench had called them seaplanes. The planes were equipped with floats instead of landing gear which allowed them to land on the water. The floats required the plane to be catapulted into the sky, rather than allow for the traditional “running start.”
“You’re good to go, Kid, let ’er rip,” Corporal Thompson called down from the observation tower. Van looked down at his console. It had the same general layout as the plane he flew for most of basic. However, there were little holes on the left side of the console. A chill ran down Van’s spine. This plane had seen more action than he had.
“You have clearance to take off, Kid,” Corporal Thompson repeated himself.
Van reached for the button that would catapult his plane off the deck of the massive destroyer, but he started shaking. This was the most nerve-wracking part of flying.
“Let’s go, Kid, we ain’t got all day.” This time it was the other Corporal Kenneth “Martian” Martin.
Van took another deep breath, closed his eyes for a second, then pushed the button to launch his aircraft. With a sickening feeling, Van’s aircraft was catapulted off the deck of the Liberty. Van flipped a few switches and the craft roared to life and he shot into the sky.
“Good job Kid, now go meet up with Tiger,” Corporal Thompson called to him.
Sergeant “Tiger” Martinez was flying high overhead and it took Van a few minutes to get up to Tiger’s height, but he made it without any issues.
“Welcome to the skies, Kid. It took you long enough to get up here. I’m almost flying on fumes!” Tiger laughed. “Join me in formation, don’t worry I won’t bite.” Van was already working his plane into the space to the right and slightly behind of Tiger’s plane. “At least you learned something at basic.”
Tiger was flying another seaplane, but his was a different model. Van’s had a propeller in the nose cone, but in Tiger’s the wings were wide enough that he had two on each side of his cockpit.
“The Liberty isn’t stocked with anything special, we had to retrofit these two for water landings. My plane is an outdated escort fighter model, where yours was overhauled after it failed to pass inspections.” Tiger paused to clear his throat. “We are out here to test your skills, I want to see what you learned from basic. This is a dogfight training, you should have done this in basic many times. Do you have any questions?”
During Van’s pilot training at basic he had done this drill many times. This idea was to get your opponent into your gunning sights before they could do the same to you. The first to do this three times won.
“No sir,” Van said over the radio. Tiger’s plane shot backwards as he cut the throttle to his engines, before he gunned the two of them up again and pulled in behind Van.
“That’s one, Kid, this is going to be easy,” Tiger chuckled. Tiger one, Van zero.
Van dove straight down, before he pulled his plane up sharply. The whole time Tiger followed suit quite easily.
“Are you trying to lose me? You’re not even making it difficult.” Van banked right, and even rolled his plane a few times, but Tiger just slowed down and banked just as quickly. This created some space between the two of them, and Van managed to turn his plane around to face Tiger. Van gunned his engine and charged straight at Tiger, but before Van even got close Tiger dove straight down. Van followed slowly closing in on the larger plane. That’s when Tiger rolled to the right and slowed again. Van shot straight by, which gave Tiger the opportunity to pull up behind Van.
“That’s two, Kid. Even Wrench was able to score one point. Show me what you got!” Tiger taunted.
Van pulled straight up pushing his little plane’s engine as hard as he could. Tiger followed.
“What are you trying to do, Kid?” Tiger taunted.
Van just ignored him, “C’mon, C’mon…” he said to his plane. After a minute the two planes were struggling to gain any more altitude. Van started breathing faster and faster, but he kept going. His altimeter read 30,000 feet. Tiger broke the climb first, and started to level off, his plane was struggling to keep up. Van continued and only leveled off after he was sure Tiger already had. Van had lost sight of Tiger, but soon found him far off to his left. Van dove to his left, Tiger started to move to cut Van off, but Van’s plane with the added speed of his descent was far too fast. He was closing in on his prey.
A few seconds later Van blinked awake his plane was still diving, but he was nowhere near Tiger… “KID! Pull up!” A voice blasted into his ear. Van’s eyes focused and he saw the sea racing towards him. He grabbed the flight stick and pulled up slowly leveling his plane.
“What…What hap—” Van started before his headset exploded from Tiger yelling at him, “Kid, you almost killed yourself with that dive! What do you think you were doing! That plane costs far more than you paycheck for the entire year! I’m amazed you didn’t kill me, too, with that reckless stunt! You are never going to pilot another plane as long as I live! Get that plane landed and get on the flight deck, right now!”
Silence. Tiger had switched off his radio.
“Private Van Walker, when you boarded this ship I had hoped that you would be able to fill a vacancy as an escort pilot for us.” Van stood at attention as Staff Sergeant Brian “The President” Robinson paced his quarters. “After that stunt you pulled…. I’m not sure what to do with you.” Neither of them needed to mention it, they both knew Van had blacked out. Not during combat, but in a training drill.
“Permission to speak, sir?” Van asked, still at attention.
Staff Sergeant Robinson stopped and turned towards Van. “Fine, at ease. Permission to speak granted.”
Van relaxed slightly. “The exercise was to test my flying capabilities. I am not an experienced pilot, but I pushed myself to the limits, nevertheless. I will not make the same mistake a second time, sir!”
Van had been soaked with sweat when he returned to the Liberty. He had been told to shower and change, Staff Sergeant Robinson required a special form of respect. Even though it was his call sign, only a few people called him “The President” to his face.
“Kid, I do not allow risky behavior from my pilots. Sergeant Martinez was right in his evaluation. At the present time you are a risk to any flight that you are assigned to. If I had my way, I’d ground you forever, but we need the manpower. This war isn’t going to win itself….” Staff Sergeant Robinson sighed. “Have you ever been in a super bomber?”
“A what, sir?”
“A super bomber. Last year, the private sector came out with a special bomber that is far superior to the bombers we had been using. The rest of the Air Forces has taken to calling them super bombers, I don’t care what their technical name actually is.” Staff Sergeant Robinson gave a small wave motion. “All that matters is that I’m not going to let you fly, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be useful. However, if you put anyone is a situation like that again, especially yourself, I will kick your ass all the way home. Do I make myself clear.” He didn’t even wait for Van’s answer. “Dismissed.”
He turned away from Van, looking at a few charts strewn across a small table next to his bed. “You can leave now,” he said to Van, without turning back to look at him.
“Uh… Thank you, sir.” Van turned and scampered out of the room.
“I thought it would be bigger…” Van said. His wing, which was the largest in the Squadron, had just walked off the Liberty. Camp Fulmination, which was less of a camp and more of a metal pyramid, was spread out in front of them. Soldiers marked with Army badges ran along each level, but Van could see a large chunk of airmen along the lowest level. Camp Fulmination was laid out so that on each corner of the pyramid was a large ramp leading up to the next level, in the middle were smaller staircases that allowed personnel easy access up or down.
“The camp is only small on the outside, once you go inside, the mazes of hallways will confuse you like no other. My first trip here was pretty embarrassing,” Corporal Thompson had come up beside Van. Van saluted, but Corporal Thompson said, “At ease, Private Walker.”
On the North end of the compound airmen were towing massive planes that took up the entire ramp out of Camp Fulmination. On this side the ramp continued on for quite some time, forming a small airfield. A runway connected perpendicular to the ramp and airfield.
“Sir, are those the super bombers I was told about?” Van pointed out the massive planes.
“That’s a B-29, kid. That’s the biggest super bomber in our fleet. Your entire wing will be in one of those when we conduct missions.” The super bomber hit the bottom of the ramp, and another one emerged from the belly of the pyramid. “I heard that a few of them had to go under some minor repairs from the last mission they were on. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard one had to be repaired. They must have gone through some serious hell.”
Van just gawked at the planes.
“Come on, we have some time before dinner. I might as well show you the inside.”
Corporal Thompson escorted Van down to the small airfield. Camp Fulmination was located just far enough from the water to not have a pier, but the walk from the Liberty was short.
Upclose the super bomber dwarfed Van. The plane was designed like any plane, it had wings, engines, and a place for the crew, but that’s where the similarities ended. The wingspan was double the size of the small water plane that Van flew on the Liberty. Each wing had two massive engines. Van had only seen engines with propellers on the front, but these engines had the propellers inside a massive metal casing.
The body of the bomber was bigger than the farm tractors his father had driven when Van was young. The front sported a cockpit that had to take more than one pilot to fly, below the cockpit was a small bubble that housed a huge machine gun. Behind the cockpit was the cargo bay, that would house the bombs. Where the cargo bay ended the tail begin. The tail ended in with fins that were as long as Van was tall. At the meeting point between the cargo bay and the tail was another gun and bubble to be manned. This was the first plane to be brought out, but the next three were being escorted down the ramp.
“What a marvel of engineering these babies are.” The voice caught both Van and Corporal Thompson staring at the super bombers. Van turned to see Technical Sergeant Lewis standing next to them eyeing the bomber as well. Van and Corporal Thompson snapped to attention.
“At ease airmen,” Technical Sergeant Lewis waved. “Private… Walker is it? Corporal Thompson, good to see you again.”
“Yes, sir,” Corporal Thompson replied. “Private Walker is taking over the rear gunner position in Flight One. Private Harris is moving to Corporal Martin’s squadron.”
Another of the super bombers were escorted into the small airfield. “Walker, do you know what I see when I look at these birds?” Technical Sergeant Lewis continued. Corporal Thompson eyed Van.
“Uh, a huge and powerful machine?” Van had no idea what the Technical Sergeant was looking for. It was a blatantly rhetorical question.
“You aren’t incorrect, but what I see is something more than that. I see something that is more symbolic. I see hope, faith, and promise. Our nation has been transformed by the power of war. Death is a strong motivator and it has pushed our people to be the best they can be. Our smartest minds wouldn’t have come up with something like this before the war started. We are more powerful than ever before, and even though our enemy is pushed by the same force,” he pointed off to the North far beyond Camp Fulmination and the super bombers, “We have become something far greater than ever before.”
Van, wide eyed, looked from the enormous bomber to Technical Sergeant Lewis, then back again.
“The best part is, that even though you just got here. You’re as new to this as you possibly can be, we have a place for you. In fact each one of us are depending on you to do your part. As magnificent as these birds are, you are just as important. Each bolt, each piece of metal, each pilot, each of them play just as important of a role in this war as the others.”
Corporal Thompson just chuckled, “You love making these speeches, don’t you?”
“Of course, I was promoted for my charisma, grandeur, and vision. I can’t hit the side of a barn with one of those guns,” he motioned to one of the huge machine guns inside the bubbles.
“Kid, I got the same kind of speech when I got here for the first time. Don’t just wave it off as some kind of motivator or as someone out of touch with the frontline. Technical Sergeant Lewis was one of the best pilots we had when he flew,” Corporal Thompson said.
“I like you — what’s your callsign?” Technical Sergeant Lewis asked Van.
“Uh, I guess it’s Kid.”
“Well, I like you, Kid, if you ever need anything. Come see me. I will make time to see you. However, on that note, I need to get going, and you better get settled. Your first mission will be tomorrow morning. You’d better be ready.” Technical Sergeant Lewis saluted the two of them, they promptly returned salute, and he walked off, catching up with a mechanic a few paces away.
“He’s right, we’d better go find our quarters,” Corporal Thompson motioned, and the two of them left the fleet of massive birds to watch the setting sun.
Van’s quarters were somewhat larger than on the Liberty, but the biggest difference was that Van slept only with his flight. At mission briefing, Van’s flight was accompanied by one of the other bomber flights, and three escort fighter flights. Corporals Martin and Thompson also accompanied the briefing, but Sergeant Martinez did not.
“Our target today, Camp Ambition, is a naval base located approximately 200 miles up the coastline.” Technical Sergeant Lewis pointed to a map on the wall. Camp Fulmination was clearly marked at the bottom and Camp Ambition was marked slightly above it. “Camp Fulmination, our home away from home, is located in enemy territory and this operation is set to expand our area of influence. This will create an area of influence that will allow us to strike at the heartland of our enemies. If we are successful today, this will be the start of the end of the war.” Technical Sergeant Lewis turned towards the airmen and saluted. “Mission starts at 0800 hours. Good luck, dismissed.”
The entire room stood up to leave at the same time.
“Kid,” Corporal Thompson stood behind him. “Meet me on the airstrip at 0730, sharp.”
“Yes, sir.” Van nodded and Corporal Thompson left Van among the sea of airmen.
When Van returned to his barracks, Van found the rest of his wing there. Two of them ignored Van when he walked in. Privates Gannon and Williams were reading. Gannon the Bible, and Williams, some book that he had picked up from one of the nurses. Vulture was eating, as always, but Wrench approached him, “Your first mission, eh, kid?”
“Yeah, I’m not sure if I should be nervous or terrified. We are about to be flying straight into the front lines, but I’m perfectly calm,” Van said flatly.
“That’s normal, everyone else has seen multiple battles and know what to do. This will be the easiest mission, and your next mission, the hardest. After that, you’ll figure out something to do between briefing and take off,” Wrench said.
“What do you normally do?” Van asked.
“Well, I usually tour our bird. Check her over, get everything in order, clean my station if possible,” Wrench made a wiping motion with his hand.
“Mind if I accompany you? I don’t have anything else to do…” Wrench just nodded in response and grabbed his bag of gear.
“She’s named Katherine,” Wrench explained, “After the movie actress. One guess to who named her?”
“Lovelace?” Van chuckled.
“Bingo.” The two walked up the ramp into the plane.
“It’s a good name though.”
Wrench just rolled his eyes. “She could have been anything, Angel, Rosie, anything else, and he names it after Katherine. That’s why he’s called Lovelace now. Ah, here we are.” Wrench stood over a panel full of nobs, levers, and multiple blank screens. “From here I monitor the radio, radar, and detonate the bombs. Your gun is back that way.” He pointed to a ladder that met a small walkway just above the payload.
Van ventured towards it and found a massive autocannon attached to a plexiglass dome. The dome was lightly attached to the frame with ball bearings and a track. This allowed the gun, and dome, free movement around the opening. He would be able to cover the entire tail from this point. However, the space was too large to sit in, so he would have to stand up the entire flight.
“Oh, good you found your station.” Corporal Thompson poked his head into the small area from the walkway.
“Yeah, Wrench showed me, sir.” Van gave a quick salute as he answered.
“How does it feel? You’re going to be up here for quite some time once the battle starts.” Van grabbed the gun and moved it around. At first it felt a bit heavy, but it quickly became pretty natural. He would easily be able to aim at anything near him.
“It feels pretty good. I thought the auto cannons were heavier than the training machine guns.”
“Basic only has older clunkier models that they train you on. Before we got the super bombers we weren’t able to have this heavy of a gun equipped. This will ruin a fighter’s day if you tag it even once.”
The entire wing burst out laughing. “I shit you not, he really dropped the bowling ball on his foot,” Wrench said.
Van and his wing were in the air on their way to Camp Ambition. They were in formation among the other handful of bombers. Private Gannon, Corporal Thompson, and Van were in the rear of the cabin waiting for word about enemy fighters. Vulture, and Lovelace piloted the craft, while Wrench operated the radar and radio.
“Our support has arrived,” Vulture said. Two squadrons of escort fighters joined the squadron of bombers effortlessly. Each of the escort fighters were similar to one of the engines that the super bomber sported on its wings. They required a huge air intake to push the smaller plane into the air and to allow it to keep up with the enemies fighters. Each one was armed with a set of small machine guns, but also a handful of unguided rockets. The machine guns stuck out like a sore thumb, but the rockets were hidden by the wings themselves.
“Good,” Corporal Thompson replied. “Radio all other bombers, mission has the green light. Get ready for combat.”
“Yes, sir,” Wrench acknowledged.
“That means us too, get moving Kid.” Corporal Thompson nodded towards the walkway towards the rear gun. Van nodded and followed his orders.
Van put on the small radio headset he had been given when the Katherine had took off.
“Internal radio check,” Corporal Thompson ordered.
“This is Ray Gun, radio check,” Private Gannon said.
“Lovelace, radio check.”
“Vulture radio check.”
“T-this is Wal-Kid. Radio check.”
“You sound nervous Kid. You good?” Corporal Thompson asked.
Van cleared his throat. “All good, sir.” He was nervous, but he wouldn’t show that to the rest of this wing. He was going to prove himself, he wouldn’t let them down.
“Radio check complete. Wrench, check in with the other bombers. Let me know if there are any issues. The rest of you, keep your eyes open. We are getting close.”
A chorus of “Yes, sir,” answered Corporal Thompson’s orders.
Van could only see open sky, but there had been times when bomber formations had been ambushed from above or behind. His job right now was to watch for that, but all he saw was open sky.
“All other bombers report all systems green, we are operating at optimal efficiency, sir,” Wrench announced.
“Good, thank you.”
The radio went quiet, the only sound Van could hear was the sound of Katherine’s engines, and the muffled roar of the other planes. The bombers were lower, but louder than the escort fighters.
“Sir, I have multiple contacts on radar. Incoming from three o’clock. Time to impact estimated two minutes,” Wrench’s modulated voice sounded over the radio.
Van couldn’t see them, but he knew that Corporal Thompson and Ray Gun were straining to see anything in the sky to the East. Van could see a little bit, but the metal frame of Katherine blocked most of his vision to the plane’s left or right.
“Visual on multiple targets. Estimated 10 fighters at 2:30.” This time it was Ray Gun who had spoken.
“Confirmed visual, everyone brace for combat.”
All Van could do was wait until the fighting started. He still couldn’t see anything, and it seemed the enemy planes were flying further away from his field of view. Just as he was starting to think that the fighting would never start, Van suddenly could hear the enemy. Their engines were high pitched and whiney.
“Contact, weapons free.” Corporal Thompson announced, and Van heard Corporal Thompson’s autocannon open fire. The other bombers open fired and Van heard the escort fighters’ machineguns. It was hard for Van to just stand by and listen to the battle. He wanted to help, otherwise he was just a sitting duck.
But he had to trust his wing, they were all experienced airmen– an enemy fighter flew right over him. He was startled, but managed to recover and unload a handful or rounds before the plane dropped below Van’s field of view.
Another one soared overhead, but this time Van was ready. He lead the plane by a few inches and pulled the trigger. Thud – Thud – Thud the gun pounded in his hands, but suddenly an explosion drowned out the gun, knocking Van off balance.
“Nice shot, kid!” Corporal Thompson yelled over the radio.
Van had hit his target. He brought down an enemy plane! This wasn’t going to be as hard as he had thought. Another enemy plane roared over Van, then another and another. He had three targets at once. He aimed at the closest but his gun found no purchase.
Just as quickly as the fighters had appeared they dropped out of Van’s field of view. They knew that the rear of the bombers only had guns mounted on the top, and were actively exploiting it. One tried to come up from below and put some bullets into Katherine’s belly, but one of the escort fighters dove from above Van and took it down.
Another one flew directly over Van, but just as Van aimed to fire one of the escort fighters rocketed into his line of sight. Van hesitated waiting for an opening, but instead another enemy fighter shot into view looking to bring down the escort fighter. Van open fired and brought down the enemy fighter, just as the escort fighter closed the distance and brought down the first plane.
Then, just as quickly as things had started, it was over. Only a couple of the escort fighters had been lost, and one of the bombers had been sprayed with a hail of bullets, but it was still funcional. Van had won his first battle.
“Good job, airmen, but keep your eyes open we are getting close to the mission target. The fighting will be the worst there,” Corporal Thompson announced.
Radio silence fell once again. Van kept searching for enemy planes flanking their formation, but he always found none.
“Camp Ambition on radar, prepare the cargo bay for payload deployment,” Wrench directed. A few heartbeats later the payload doors behind Van’s post opened. Wind whipped up behind him, but he refused to let it distract him.
“Hold tight back there, Kid,” Corporal Thompson radioed back at him.
“Yes, sir,” Van yelled back.
Katherine started her bomber run, and started to descend. Van’s field of view went from just above the horizon behind them to just the sky above them. He was almost useless in this position. A few escort fighters retreated so they were just above Van and his gun. They kept pace with the larger bomber until Van started to hear more gun fire from the front of Katherine. The two escort fighters rocketed out of view. The others must be doing a good job, as Van had nothing to do. Another plane shot into view, Van aimed, but realized it was an escort fighter just before he pulled the trigger.
“Target acquired, dropping payload,” Wrench called out over the radio, and Van heard “wirrr, woosh,” then another “wirrr, woosh,” and another. The clamps on the bombs were letting them go, and they dropped into the air as the plane sped by.
“ETA to impact, 3, 2, 1,” Wrench called out. Then a huge explosion rocked the back of the plane. Van used the gun to keep himself standing. The bay doors started to close behind Van. Another explosion rocked Van, then another and another. Van tumbled to the floor of the deck. Two more explosions shook the end of the plane, but they were already climbing and further away from these two.
“Kid, you still back there? Make sure you are watching our back!” Corporal Thompson called back to him.
“Yes, sir,” Van said as he scrambled off the metal floor.
When he looked out of his view port, Van saw a pair of escort fighters blocked most of the view, but behind him he saw the majority of the bomber squadron, and the remaining escort fighters. Beyond them was explosion after explosion. Van couldn’t tell if anything was left of Camp Ambition.
Van watched the rest of the squadron follow Katherine higher into the air, but he never saw another enemy plane.
Van wobbled out of the Katherine. His legs weak from the strain of the mission.
“Good job, Kid!” Wrench called out to him.
“You did pretty good kid, you can watch our backs anytime,” this time it was Lovelace that had spoken. He clapped Van on the shoulder, which caused Van’s legs to give out and he stumbled to his knees.
“Woah, are you okay kid?” Lovelace again.
“I-I’m fi–” Van lost it, he puked, right there on the metal airfield. “Ugh…” Van groaned.
“Kid, you don’t look so good. Let’s get you to the medic,” Wrench helped Van stand. “If you’re going to lose your cookies again, try not to hit me…”
Van just nodded, he didn’t have the ability to speak.
Van spent the next couple days in bed. The medic had attributed it mostly to stress. Van had shot down someone, been tossed around like a rag doll, and had stood in the same spot for three hours straight. Not to mention the stress of people shooting at him and the rest of his wing. Individually they weren’t a whole lot, but it had accumulated up.
“You must be doing better if you’re here,” Wrench said as Van sat down next to him. Van set his tray of miscellaneous grey mushy food down.
“Yeah, I’m back to this…garbage. The med tent has real food. I had an apple yesterday, before they released me,” Van said pushing at the mound of mush with a fork. “Did I miss anything?”
“Not really, a couple of the guys were worried about you, but otherwise we just had PT for the last few days,” Wrench explained. “We have another mission coming up though, do you think you’ll be good enough to go?”
“I think so, the medic sure thinks so, but I don’t want to puke again…” Van trailed off.
“That’s good to hear. I don’t want to have to start calling you Chuck, as in ‘What’s up Chuck?’” Vulture laughed as he took a set across from Van.
“Oh, lay off. We already knew we were getting a Dodo,” Wrench objected. “That’s why we call him Kid, obviously.” He rolled his eyes.
“Kid, you feeling better?” It was Corporal Thompson. “I heard they released you last night.”
“Yeah, I’m back to one hundred percent, sir.” Van then hastily added, “I should be ready for the upcoming mission.”
“I hope so,” Corporal Thompson turned and found a seat next to Staff Sergeant Robinson. Van saw Corporal Thompson point Van’s way with a spoon a few minutes later.
“Honestly,” Van started low enough that only Wrench could hear, “I’m scared shitless about the next mission, but I’m not going to be sent home because I’m too scared to fight.”
“Kid, if you’re scared, but you still want to fight. That’s healthy. We’re all terrified that the next mission we go on will be our last,” Wrench didn’t even lower his voice. Van expected the others at the table to make fun of him or to react in any way, except nod in agreement. “Being scared IS part of the mission. That’s why we are here, and not just any grunt. We can be terrified and still get the job done.”
“This mission is the highest of importance. The brains back home have given us a new weapon. It’s still somewhat of a prototype, but this bomb, codenamed Supremacy, is supposed to be far stronger than anything they have given us to date. The Katherine will be carrying the main payload, Victory and Homefront will be carrying secondary bombs, Ascendancy and Dominion respectively.”
Technical Sergeant Kevin Lewis stood in front of the whole fleet that were stationed at Camp Fulmination. He pointed at a map projected on the wall. “This is our target. The locals call it Hac-ten. It’s their capital, and is home to their largest military facility. If we are able to land a devastating blow there, the rest of the war will be easy comparatively. It will be dubbed target Lacerate for this mission.”
The room was totally silent. This was the mission of all missions. “Because of the importance of the prototype bombs, I am putting Corporal Thompson in charge on location, even above Sergeant Steven Martinez, who will be ranking officer among the escort fighters. Staff Sergeant Brian Robinson will be operating the radio from here, and I will be standing by in case any support is needed. This is our one chance to cripple our enemy, we must seize this opportunity.”
Corporal Thompson stood up, “Sir, may I ask a question.”
“Speak up, Corporal,” Technical Sergeant Kevin Lewis looked up at Corporal Thompson from the bottom of elevated rows of seats.
“Sir, until now, we have yet to target civilian populations. If we start now–”
“Corporal, respectively, we have the chance to really end this war, and in the process we can avoid a full scale invasion. The cost of war has always been high, but this will save lives,” he stopped to look around the room.”
“If anyone wants to sit this mission out, they are welcome to. I already radioed the Liberty and they made landfall about 200 miles South and East of us. I will be more than happy to send you back with them, Command will take care of your discharge paperwork when you reach the mainland.”
The room was silent. Technical Sergeant Lewis surveyed the room. Corporal Thomas even sat down, though his expression soured as he did.
“Mission start is 1800 hours, I will see you all then. Dismissed.” Corporal Thomas stood and left the room faster than anyone else, even Technical Sergeant Lewis. The majority of the airmen in the room hadn’t noticed the protest, but most of Van’s wing had.
“Are we really going to target civilians?” Private William said quietly.
“No way, they’re just collateral damage,” Wrench replied. “We carry out this mission as if it’s any other, the sea base is our target, not the city.”
Van had never seen anyone stand up to a superior officer in the way Corporal Thompson had. It wasn’t a blatant disregard for orders, nor had he directly criticized the mission, but he had made his feelings known.
“Hello, Kid? Earth to Kid?” Wrench tapped Van on the head. “Anyone home?”
“Oh, up what?” Van blinked out of his captivation.
“What do you think? About the mission.” Both Privates were looking at him.
“Uh… I think… I think Corporal Thompson is right.” He was caught off guard by the question, no member of his wing had asked for his thoughts before. “The mission is for the sea base not the city, this is wrong. We don’t need to kill their civilians, just those who are apt to fight us.”
As he spoke he became more and more sure of his answer. “We can’t do anything about it though. If it’s an order we follow it, even if it has some consequences, that’s for Technical Sergeant Lewis and Command to decide.”
“We shouldn’t be questioning Command’s decision to target this base. For all we know they could be preparing to use similar tech against us,” Ray Gun but in. “I don’t like the idea, but the Kid’s right. We have to do it.”
The mission took Van and his wing far into the island they were stationed on. Corporal Thompson, however, was not among them, electing to face the repercussions of his protest instead. The cabin of the Katherine was somber this time around.
“We are closing in on target Lacerate, three minutes to combat zone,” Wrench said.
“Thank you, patch me through to all bombers.” Staff Sergeant Brian “The President” Robinson had been reassigned to the Katherine instead of radio duty. Wrench flipped a few switches and nodded to The President.
“Everyone listen up, this is The President. We are closing in on target Lacerate, regardless of moral standings, at the end of the day it is our job to bring home a victory. If the brainiacs back home think Supremacy is the best way to do it, then that’s what we do. This is for our wives, our mothers, and the children back home. We fight for The Republic! To combat stations!”
Van closed his eyes for a minute. The fighter that he shot down playing in his mind again and again. He took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. The President was right. This wasn’t about him, it wasn’t about any of them, this was for the people back home. His friends and family!
“Let’s go kid.” Van opened his eyes, Vulture stood over him. He held out a hand, Van took it and stood up. The two locked eyes for a moment, Van slowly nodded, then they both headed off to their respective gunner nests.
“Descending to payload altitude,” Ray Gun called over the radio.
Katherine tilted slightly as started their descent, these new prototype bombs didn’t require such a direct approach toward the target. They, instead, could be monitored and detonated remotely which allowed Katherine to drop its payload from a much higher altitude.
“Opening payload doors,” Lovelace said. Van could hear the now familiar grinding of the payload doors even over his headset. The wind growing more intense as the doors opened, but he didn’t let it distract him.
“Sixty seconds to Supremacy deployment.” It was Wrench this time. His usual comedic mentality was gone. “Thirty seconds.”
Time seemed to zoom by, they were about to end the war with just a few presses of a button.
“Supremacy window, permission to drop payload?” Everyone knew that Wrench would get the green light, but this was standard procedure.
“You have a green light, drop payload.” The President answered.
Van heard a muffled sucking sound, “Supremacy away. Close payload doors.”
The grinding started up again, and eventually the wind died down again leaving Van with just the slight crackling of the radio.
“Climbing out of blast radius, adjusting destination: Camp Fulmation,” Ray Gun informed them.
“Supremacy detonation in 5…4…3…2…”
From Van’s perspective he could see most of the city as the Katherine climbed. One moment the city was covered in sunlight and only the shadows the planes flying overhead, then the next instant the city was gone. In its place was a massive ball of fire. Clouds of smoke instantly formed and blocked his view.
“Detonation confirmed” Wrench said. Katherine turned pulling the clouds of smoke from Van’s view. A moment later the rest of the crew saw the fruits of their labor.
“What have we done…?” The President’s voice was strangled and toneless.