VII. Day of the Dragonfly
Racing Cross The Heavens For The First Time...
The time was ten of 12, the place was the driving range behind Base. It was the only field large enough for what was to take the Force from ground-based infantry to an air-supported offensive. The Cessna A-37 was trucked in under cover of darkness from the labs at Am Base Alpha. She had passed a series of midnight taxi tests with flying colors, and was now standing idle beneath a dark green tarpaulin, in wait for the great ceremony to commence.
While Chief Ridgefield had traded his denim-and-leather for suitable airman fatigues, tending to the great machine on the range and staying calm as the moment of truth drew near, General Adam Knox was finalizing security detail with Chief Harrison Garret in his office.
“Lieutenant Blanc will run the parallel defense team to the north and Lieutenant Grady to the south.” The gray General illustrated. “We’ll maintain all west-facing defense positions on the wall, and keep riders on reserve in case anything comes a-knocking.”
The thin, slightly gaunt brown officer nodded and compared notes with a list of teams assembled. “That’s about the best we can do. I’ll start rustling up the hounds for our wolven bulwark. Over-under on Op: Bomber?”
Knox shot him a perplexed scowl, but the tension dissolved into a sigh. “If Nic says she can fly, she can fly. I just don’t like idle threats hanging over our heads on the day we find out for sure.”
“Well,” Chief Garret said, “here’s hoping she’s USW-capable after she passes the payload tests.”
“What’s got you dreaming of ultrasonics, Harry?”
The ex-lawman smirked. “Knowing Speed, he’ll try killing ‘em all with rock-n-roll. Death by blast beat is a helluva way to go.”
Knox and Garret both broke out in a fit of hoarse cackling, bent over the General’s old wooden desk. When the officers had pieced themselves together, the elder gray gave Garret a pat on the back.
“Get rustling Richter, launch at 1230.”
With a casual salute, the Security Chief sauntered out of the office, leaving the General to tend to his end of operations.
It didn’t take long to get everyone lined up and ready around the field for the big moment. Seas of soldiers flooded the roped-off areas safe for observation, and a sharply-dressed Captain Westley, wrapped in white from jacket-to-boots, kept everyone in check, the red officer always quick with a “mind the rope!” as others filed into the spaces.
Further away on the North side of the Base’s perimeter, Gibson Blanc had gotten his wall of riders lined up and ready. The tan lieutenant led a mixed unit, half Moto Corp and half Auto Corp, the even blend affording him the strengths of both hot rod and hog alike. He kicked down the legs of his black bike Exciter and radioed to the Southern unit.
“Blanc to Grady, come in Grady.” he said, looking over his shoulder to the ranges as more wolves filled out the crowd..
“Grady here.” came the reply, the gray lieutenant sporting a vaguely Irish accent. “South Unit in place. Over-under on us seeing the launch while we’re waiting?”
Gibson chuckled. “Kinda hard to miss something that high off the ground, Pat, even when you look up from that seventh black beer in the morning.”
“Oh sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up.” he shot back in mock indignity. “Will keep an eye out for enemy action. Over an’ out.”
The two units could hear each other guffawing from opposite sides of the Base, even with the commotion on the range.
Once the clock struck 1230, all was set. Though the ceremony was to be brief, there was still an air of grandeur, the many eyes of the Infantry wide with anticipation as the great figure of the plane loomed over all. And it all began when a sharply dressed General Knox took his place at the podium, the tarped machine stood a few yards behind him.
“Ladies and gentlemen. A day of great import is finally upon us. This day marks the end of months of research, of restoration, of arduous tests. A day that may very well take the world back to the heights it once knew, all those centuries ago. The official completion of Operation: Bomber, and the latest ride to join the Force in this most important fight.”
From the hands of a thousand hounds came the applause of millions, the excitement echoing off the hills. Knox gestured for silence with his cybernetic hand. “Having consulted with the minds of those who have tried and failed to bring wolfkind to the clouds once more, it is an honor, a privilege, and a tremendous responsibility that this first capable machine shall be aiding us in overcoming the many tyrannies at our doors. Be they the forces holding the great city of Haven and the desert hostage, or those who wish to see all subjugate to their own dastardly breed of authoritarian rule.
“Before I introduce her pilot to-be, my final word on this project’s achievements. To the many scientists, engineers, and workers who have brought her back to full-bodied life, I am eternally grateful. And to the great machine before us, may you fly on into victory, and past victory, into the pages of history. Now, a few words from the grand architect of this operation: Chief Engineer Nic Ridgefield.”
The black-furred cowboy was almost unrecognizable in the dark green flight suit, the only giveaways being the white boots and the brown cowboy hat. Ridgefield shook hands with the General before taking over the podium.
“Afternoon.” he began gruffly. “By gum, what we’re about to see here is nothing short of a modern miracle. Resources were scarce, knowledge about as arcane as black magic, and trying to get yours truly, that block-headed lead-foot, to understand flying seemed impossible.”
There came plenty of laughs from the crowd, Ridgefield nodding and snickering to himself before regaining composure. “But in the end, we made it, she made it, and with any luck, we’ll be flying right overhead of y’all when the walls come down around that bitch ACES.”
When the units on guard caught that last line, they erupted into a morale-boosting roar, the on-lookers joining in shortly. Ridgefield gently flicked his hands, trying to bring the noise down like a freshman conductor of a concert band. And once he had the volume where he wanted it, he pointed to the team around the plane and cocked his head. Off came the tarp and before the whole of the Force was revealed the great Dragonfly.
She was a rich, dark green, with a short and slightly stout cockpit, and a hell of a gun fixed to her round nose, and four bombs all loaded and ready to go, two per wing. The attack bomber yielded gasps, cheers, and a furious round of applause. It wasn’t a terribly big plane, the short flat-bed trailer gave that away, but it commanded the same attention the great warbirds and jetliners once did. And written there on the nose, both sides for all to see, was a name in bright white: “Icarus M. Wright.”
Once the excitement had died down, Nic came out with his final words. “For all y’all thinking I had rock-n-roll on the mind with her…you were kinda right, but the pairs of us had a heart-to-heart one night and chose something a little more special than just scrawling lyrics and in-jokes all over her. Those are in the cockpit!” He paused to get his laugh from the crowd, and once he had it, pulled out a small, thin book.
“This is why the Force’s first plane bears the name she does. I ain’t one for poetics, but one man put it all together in a way I could only dream. He spun a yarn about the first fellow to fly to space, and in search of a name fit for such a journey, became Icarus Montgolfier Wright. A bold, beautiful name that stands as birthright, epitaph, and life story to all who have ever left the Earth and have touched the sky, and thereafter, the stars. And to that I can only say: let’s join ‘em Sweetheart.”
With a salute to his mechanical partner-in-flight, Ridgefield stepped off the podium. He shook hands with the General one last time, waved to the roaring crowds of fellow soldiers and officers, and sauntered up the cockpit. One of his assistants helped him trade his cowboy hat for a helmet and he waved them all away as he climbed up and into the Dragonfly. When the glass came down around him, the world stopped for a moment.
Nic looked over the instruments, the dials, the switches, the levers, all with their place on the large black panel. Coming out from between his legs was the half-circle control wheel, his firepower just a press of the thumb away. He turned his eyes up to the clear blue sky he’d kissed twice before during the earliest tests at Am Base Alpha. This was it. By God, this was it.
“IMW to Control. Reading me?” he began, adjusting his seat.
“Control to IMW, loud and clear.”
The black wolf sighed. “Killer. Guess this is where we say ‘contact’ huh?”
He could sense the radio operator’s smile through the headset. “That’s propellers, Chief. Just get her fired up, let us know when you’re taxiing.”
“Roger that Control.” He announced every flicked switch and every step of the way as the twin jets began their incredible whine, a whirring that grew and grew, leveling out to striking pitch.
“Taxiing now.” Ridgefield said, the dark green miracle sent off with another round of frenzied excitement and glee. The Dragonfly rolled along the packed-in sands of the driving range, a mighty cloud of dust kicked up by her landing gear as she gained speed.
With not a soul in sight, his query of “Clear for takeoff?” was met with a droll “Not yet, there might be a gnat in this airspace.”
“Fly swatters don’t come bigger than this, boys.” the Chief shot back. “Going for takeoff.”
Faster and faster the plane moved, racing closer and closer towards the special array of targets setup for her to slay. With a firm hand and eagle eyes, gently he pulled the control wheel towards him, and slowly, the nose began to lift, and with the nose came the rest of the Dragonfly. She was off.
The rush had leveled out once he felt himself airborne. With the landing gear retracted, he switched on the laser-cannon mounted on nose. First few targets were all crates of some kind. With the first of the row in his sights, he ripped down through the line in an electric explosion of red, white, and blue laser-fire.
“Target Row 1 is kaput.” Ridgefield radioed in. “Moving on to Row 2.”
Smooth was the Dragonfly’s maneuvers. Though she had to be steered in broader, softer motions, the towering engineer chief found himself right at home at the controls. He made quick work of the second row of crates before moving onto something juicier: a derelict truck.
“Shame about that F150.” he chuckled. “But here goes nothing.”
He didn’t even get a chance to fire when the rusted-out truck blew to pieces. Suddenly, streaks of green laser-fire blew past, coming closer and closer to the wings of the Dragonfly. Nic pulled up and sent the pint-sized bomber darting about the skies.
“IMW to Control, IMW to Control, enemy action coming in from Six O’Clock, due East. Checking rear-cams and…you’re shitting me?”
“Control to IMW, what are you reading?”
Away went Pilot Ridgefield and out came the Chief of Engineering. “I’ve got eyes on three M42 Dusters. Whether they’re A.C.E.S. or Spurs, they’re anti-aircraft self-propelled guns hot outta ‘Nam. Someone just brought their toys to the playground.”
“Take offensive action, we’ve got ground backup on the way.”
Ridgefield smirked. “Copy that, giving ‘em a real welcome.” The dark green aircraft swung around and raced towards the trio of tank-like machines. They were jet-black, with thin, long barrels all held aloft and firing off round after round of electric lead towards the Dragonfly.
With swift flicks of the wings, the volleys whipped past and evaporated into the air while Ridgefield returned the favor with the plane’s rapid-fire gun. The stars-and-stripes dished up by her made light work of the mobile gun at the center of the formation, the machine bursting into a vicious fireball, flame licking and lashing the sides of its companions as they spun the full 180 to try and catch the bomber flying by.
“Control, that is one down, two to go.” Ridgefield cackled with glee. “Clear to try out the munitions on these guys?”
“IMW, you are clear to deploy munitions. Fly eastward to avoid friendly fire.”
“Roger that, going for another pass.” The black wolf pulled the control wheel closer, the plane rising higher and higher into the sky. Gently he guided her through the air, the winged beast graceful in her moves as she circled back around and went for another pass. With a careful push of the wheel, she descended faster and faster.
Nic flicked the necessary switches, and radioed in with an assured “deploying Payload 1.”
Except it didn’t.
The Dragonfly whipped past the enemy M42s without so much as a click of acknowledgement or the creak-and-groan. “IMW to Control, failure to launch Payload 1. I repeat, failure to launch Payload 1.” When Ridgefield looked out the left side of his cockpit, he could see that the bomb hadn’t even partially dismounted.
“Any danger of on-board detonation?” Control asked.
Nic flicked the bomb’s switch off and closed the flap. “They’d have to shoot ‘em to set ‘em off. I’m gonna clear the way for the Force’s ground troops to stomp ‘em. Flying back to Am Base to sort this out.”
“Copied. Scrambling crew for Am Base. Will see you there.”
The Dragonfly raced away from the self-propelled guns, blasting past the backside of the driving range, though there was no one there waving him on. Everyone was back at their positions, with Gibson’s unit leading the charge on the tanks. The tan-furred lieutenant sent his hot-rodders ahead of the bikers, the carguns standing a better shot at making a dent in the armor of the pint-sized tanks, which they did. Rides made pass after pass, landed blow after blow. But something was off. Very off.
“They ain’t returning fire.” Lieutenant Blanc. “They’re still aiming for the plane.” He sent the hot-rodders in for the kill, blasting off the tank treads of both mobile guns, but they still didn’t stop to fire back. Once his team had cleaved through the metal armor, the M42s were done for, erupting into a deafening explosion of crackling blue flame. When he radioed in their defeat, he was met with yet another challenge.
“Calling all forces, calling all forces! IMW just sighted a full battery of U1 Mega Tanks heading in from the West. Crossing in from Sector 200. Standby for deployment orders from the General.”
Pat Grady drove up to Gibson with his southern unit in tow, rolling past the carnage in an apocalypse-proofed Eldorado. The short gray wolf doffed an invisible hat to his fellow lieutenant. “Real devil of a job done, huh boyo?”
“And sounds like more on the way.” Gibson sighed. “Hell of a day to welcome her to the crew, but I guess nothing’s meant to go right around here, huh?”
“Keeps it fresh.” he teased, though his mood shifted to stoic observation. “Don’t count on swapping fronts as far as the action goes.”
Gibson didn’t bother to ask, for both knew the answer. How could three self-propelled anti-aircraft guns come rolling in from the East? Machines materializing from out of the edge of civilization.
Incapable of resisting a good fight, Ridgefield sent the Dragonfly soaring towards the mobile storm that was the fleet of U1s. The simple, hovering leviathans, battered and war-beaten by decades of deployment were still a ways off from Base. And Nic was going to keep it that way. With a flick of his thick gloved thumb, the black-furred cowboy opened the panel for his munitions, the four silver switches standing by.
“I’m gonna try Payloads 2 through 4.” he radioed to Base. “If all three fail, then I’m firing guns until the rest of you get out here.”
Diving towards the buzzing dust cloud of ACES’ attack dogs, he tried for his second bomb.
He tried for his third.
He flicked both down and flew around for his last attempt. If it failed, the guns would have to suffice, though there was no way to get under the turret ring without some deathly low flybys.
The barrels of the hovering tanks snapped up, firing rounds at the agile metal falcon. Ridgefield, quick at the control wheel, fired back as he came in for another pass. Just as we went for the switch
Two shots graced each wing of the bomber.
Ridgefield went for the radio again. “IMW to Control, we have a damage report. Took two hits from the U1 fleet, one on each wing. Doesn’t look like severe structural damage, but we sure as hell felt it. Going to try for Payload 4. If that ain’t working, we’re fighting ‘em ‘til you get here.”
“You really want to risk it, Nic?”
The scoff said plenty, but the answer said it all. “Ain't a day on this Earth that I ain’t risked something. Just ask Hell Patrol.”
The Dragonfly dove towards the rush of floating metal fortresses. With scattered rounds of laser fire dancing past the scarred but unwavering Cessna, Nic pressed his thumb against the switch for Payload 4.
“C’mon girl…give it…to ‘em…NOW!”
Away it went, whistling on its way down to Earth. When it reach its target, the explosion was immense. Three of the U1s erupted into sparks and furious flames, turrets blasting to pieces as the heaving bodies dropped and rolled through the desert soil. Those that didn’t course correct rammed into the carnage, the pileup sending electric arcs and shots of fire up through the skies.
Through his cackling cries of victory, Ridgefield could see more of the U1s coming up from behind, the automated machines finally steering clear of the ongoing tank wreck. He looked down at his switches for the first, second, and third bombs, all still hanging off the wings of the Dragonfly.
“Good news Control,” Ridgefield hollered. “Just took out at least six of the bastards with Payload 4. Bad news, more on the way and I still got three bombs burning a hole in my pocket.”
“You’re gonna try again, aren’t you?” the radio operator asked.
“You betcha.” the black wolf smiled. He guided the Dragonfly towards the densest part of the formation, but tried for something different. Up went the nose of the speedy bomber, gaining altitude swiftly before leveling out. He throttled down and began circling. Checking the targeting cameras on the bottom of the craft, he looked for his gaggle of hovering tanks, all of them vainly firing up into the skies.
Carefully, his index finger resting beneath all three of the switches, he gave them a flick and pressed the control wheel’s trigger. He felt the plane jolt as all three dropped at once, both wings now relieved of their payloads. Down the camo-green trio went, drawing nearer and nearer to the Neon Goddess’ army.
For a second, the flash made the Sun dim. The entire patch of desert cratered, the husks of a half-dozen more U1s falling into the hole, sparking and rupturing into fountains of metallic debris and electric blue fire.
“That’s a direct hit Control. Payloads 1 through 3. Six more U1s donezo.” The mountain of a hound in the cockpit was pleased as could be. Though not all was perfect high in the sky.
When Ridgefield checked both wings, the sight of fluttering metal plates greeted him. “Looks like the grace is a proper gash now. Plating on both wings around the scorch marks is loosening. I don’t want to chance her falling apart on me. Heading back to Base, will land next to the driving ranges. Will be coming along the south side.”
“Copy that, will get you patched into Lieutenant Grady so he can clear the way for you.”
Ridgefield opted for a slow descent, wanting to stay out of the remaining tanks’ ranges and keep the turbulence to a minimum. So far, so good.
Beneath him was like an open field day and Christmas morning all at once. Legions of muscle cars, rat-rods, jacked-up trucks, chopped-hogs, straight-ahead cruisers, all racing, swerving, and firing with every ounce of stopping power on them and their drivers. Those that hadn’t burned were being whittled away with ease. Turret rings were eviscerated in seconds, and though there were still heavy blows dealt to the Force as they rode on towards, the sheer volume of soldiers, rides, and willpower was just as powerful as anything from out the barrel of A.C.E.S’ finest.
On the backside of the Base, Grady had pulled his silver Caddy around to coordinate a landing. “This is Lieutenant Pat Grady for IMW, come in.”
“IMW to Grady, reading you loud and clear.” Ridgefield replied. “If you get me through this Pat, I owe you a full keg of Guinness from Doc’s.”
The gray soldier snickered. “No sweat Nicky my boy, the runway's clear for you. Don’t mind the smoke from the north side of Base. Nuked the rest of those protesters for you.”
Lower and lower the small bomber flew, her landing gear slowly descending as she passed the length of the Base. Once there was nothing but sand, she went in for her landing. The wheels hit the ground with a jolt, the shock rattling the plating. It wasn’t off yet, but it was more battered than when it left. Once she had slowed down enough, it came time to brake.
With the same easing, Ridgefield began to apply them. “Easy you blue-blesséd beast. Easy.” he soothed. The landing gear made a grating, grinding noise as the wheels slowed, and sure enough, they had made it. Nic took one great big breath before doing anything else.
“IMW to Grady,” Nic radioed. “Dragon’s landed. Thanks for that. Standby while I patch back into Control. It ain’t over just yet.” With a few flicked switches, he was back in. “Control, this is IMW. We are on the ground, safe and sound, but I want to get some hounds out here to tack those sheets down on the wings. She can fly otherwise, but I don’t need her ripped apart first day on the job.”
To Nic’s surprise, the voice on the other end of the line wasn’t the radioman, but Knox. “You’ll get ‘em sent from the shops, we still got workers on reserve.” came the elder gray’s raspy reply. “What I need from you is some recon when you’re ready.”
The black-furred officer nodded. “Whatever you need, Sir. Whatever you need.”
Ridgefield and the Dragonfly had been gone for an hour now. She was made flight-ready again, ordered to survey the Outpost network for any signs of destruction or any explanation as to how such a mass of machines could’ve weaved its way thru the outer sectors. In the meantime, plenty more discoveries lay at their door.
“Dig this,” Gibson observed, surveying one of the charred M42 husks, “the upturned spur etched on the side here. Seems to be on a hinged panel. They usually keep cloak devices somewhere near the back, right Captain Herrera?”
The darksome Latino nodded. “Si, Teniente. Bit of a scale down from the M103s in the hills, but the circuits should still sit somewhere accessible.
The flap was small, and while the metal was still hot, it was cool enough to touch. With a careful swipe, carried out by the tips of his claws, the tan-furred lieutenant opened the hatch. Only to find nothing.
“Probably all melted,” the Lieutenant muttered to himself.
He walked around to the back of the machine. He recalled that the refraction generators, though the tech was still relatively foreign to them, were typically loaded onto the backside of the Black Country’s units. Had been that way since the A7s from their first battle. And yet, there came that snake-eyes luck again; the back of the self-propelled gun was practically original.
“Grim,” said Gibson, his gaze now quizzical. “I think they were sent au naturel. Unless they got some sweet microchip edition in their bag of tricks, not a trace of the usual kit’s on ‘em.”
The Captain fixed his concho-wrapped hat and surveyed the machine alongside the younger wolf. Sure enough, all sides pointed to there not being any cloaking tech whatsoever.
“Automated anti-aircraft,” he muttered to himself, “And they just rolled up behind us. Didn’t even try to hide.”
It wasn’t long before two and two came together and the Captain was on the radio with General Knox.
The haggard top hound sat in his oak-wood office running the mother of all switchboards from his desk. Grim’s call came in just as he had finished taking the umpteenth report from the Western cleanup crew. It looked like they had enough material to actually build a U1, and as the thought of that many making it through his first two lines of defense nagged at him, the sickly grin of the video memo sent by the Black Country still lingering in his mind’s eye, the thought of having a hover tank on a leash sounded awfully good right about now.
“So there’s no way they could have slipped by us.” Knox surmised from the Captain’s report. “They just blew into town like ten-ton tumbleweeds from No Man’s Land.” He slammed his metal fist on the desk, but his voice was cool as ice. “Keep learning everything you can. We’ll keep the husks for Nic to do his own–well shit, speak of the devil.”
The hot-line for a certain Cessna was coming in bright red, “IMW to General’s Office” ringing loud and clear.
“Thanks for the update.” Knox nodded, pivoting from one call to the next. “Reading you loud and clear IMW, glad you’re back from the moon.”
Ridgefield could scoff. “Not quite ready to play Major Tom yet, Sir.” His jovial attitude vanished quickly. “Here’s the intel: it was no fault of anyone’s that the Outposts didn’t warn us. They couldn’t. With that many tanks, charged with that much electrical energy, forcefields and all, they were a mobile EMP. And part of that’s on me because when they detonated, some of the discharge kept those outposts suppressed. We haven’t gotten any civilian reports yet, and here’s hoping we don’t. But the net was certainly cast wide. First Outpost I could contact was 314. Way out on the edge of the network.”
Knox couldn’t even get riled up anymore. He just shook his head and sighed. “I asked for an answer, and I got it. Thanks Chief. ETA on return?”
“Coming in for a quick flyby in about two minutes and then bringing her back to Am Base. I passed the Silver Sea we made today, got HQ in my sights. Platonically of course.”
That finally got the old man to smile. “Get your ass over here Flyboy. Want to see her one more time.”
Sure enough, they could hear the jet coming in hot from afar. Knox turned to look out his window, pushing the Venetian blinds up and out of the way. From his office he could also see just about every operation. To the east, he could still see the salvage crews going over the half-pint tanks, and to the west, the remains of the day rested just on the horizon. And from out the skies he could see the small green bomber rushing forth, coming in for a pass.
With the Dragonfly in sight, the hounds who stood guard on the wall facing west let out a deafening howl that carried right across the whole compound. And when everyone realized who was flying by, they all joined in with whoops, cheers, and a deafening roar. He could even hear, through the loving din of it all, a few who knew the bounding, chipper melody of the song sung in honor of the Air Force of old.
“Off we go,” Knox said, his cold eyes captivated by her soaring over his Force. “Into the wild blue yonder. Climbing high into the sun.”
He couldn’t get through the rest without chuckling to himself. Not out of any high-brow dignity, but because he remembered precisely who had taught him, and who had likely taught the few singing full-throated down amongst the crowd.
“Godred you old sonofagun.” he snickered, the thought of a mess hall full of half-drunken wolves singing every military anthem put in front of them came vividly to mind. But as he looked back up to see the Dragonfly, the 365th’s own “Icarus M. Wright,” one line came racing across his mind.
We live in fame or go down in flame.
“Well then,” he said, looking over his base and his hounds, “best we start living.”
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