The debriefing room was pretty simple on the Pious Devotion. They were five days into the operation and still hadn’t seen the enemy. They were going along the mountains, keeping low enough to avoid any radar and visual sightings from outposts that were around. Unlike Oerban airships, they didn’t make noise. Their ships were almost silent as they made their way in to hostile territory. The war still looked like it hadn’t really started. Nobody wanted to make the first move. They had passed by huge swaths of territory where the enemy was almost looking right at their own forces. But they were just holding tight. A fact that was becoming more and more odd to the captain of the ship, the further in they got into their mission. The Devils led their scouting flights. Booker was someone the Captain trusted to not give away their position to the enemy. She was getting nervous as they got their first mission.
Everyone gathered inside, with the First Officer putting out a map of the surrounding area on the table. Aurealia stood by Booker. Page couldn’t help but see the two of them and see how their mannerisms were just like two squadron leaders who flew together. They just seemed to be comfortable around each other. Emily was there too, and the three of them looked like they were in the years gone past, when they flew together.
The Captain got to the front of the room and the lights went dim everywhere except the table.
“Alright, everybody, we’ve got a lot to cover, so I’m just going to get right down to it. We’ve just received orders on our first attack target.” She pointed to a segment of the map, nestled in a valley that was inside of a mountain range, like the crook of an arm. “There is an enemy base where they dry-dock and build airships. Our orders are to go in, bomb the hell out of the factory and move out. It is very close to the border, so the goal of the operation is to get the enemy to believe that it was a sneak attack from long-range bombers that came across the border at night. We will be commencing this operation just after midnight, with our fighters taking off at 2200 hours. We will be holding position inside of another valley just to the south of the base. You will go in low, staying below their radar.” She traced a direction on the map that looked simple enough to follow. “Once you have attacked the base, you shall start heading west, so as to make them believe that you are returning to the border. Once you get to this valley, make your way back to us. If all goes as planned, you should be reaching our ships just before dawn.”
“Ma’am,” Aurealia addressed, “how big is the attack force going to be?”
She nodded, having her First Officer take the map away. “Our force will consist of three squadrons, yours and the two squadron leaders assigned to Lieutenant Booker, along with the Sky Devils. You will be accompanying three heavy-bombers and five medium-bombers.”
The group took it in, mentally preparing themselves. Booker was quiet. Something was bothering him.
“Ma’am, am I the only one who is wondering why we aren’t seeing a lot of combat along the border? For real, ma’am, I’ve been taking my planes on patrol for the last five days and I’m telling you – there’s hardly a brushfire. It’s like nobody wants to get things started. Like we’re making the first move. Something doesn’t smell right.”
She nodded. In every way one could, she agreed. “I hear ya, but we have our orders. For now, there’s nothing we can do. Alright, everyone, you have your orders.”
Down in the hangar, Belle sat, helping Ellie tinker on her bird. A gentle rhythm with a woman singing about love was drifting over the radio. Koraline and Booker were working on his. Firo was in love with this mission, while he got his plane ready. He was one of the few who hadn’t felt weird at all about this mission. A job was a job, as far as he was concerned. It all ended with them getting one hell of a paycheck. He was stoked, relatively bummed that a dogfight with the enemy was unlikely. If everything went right, they should have been in and out before the enemy even know what hit them. Still, the potential for a great battle was there.
Page walked in, seeing Emily and walking over. She seemed to hardly regard her when she got to her plane.
“Hey, Emily! So, you stoked for the mission?!” She so wanted to become friends with her. Given her military record, something told her that the two of them would get along well.
“That’s Flight Lieutenant to you, pilot!”
She recoiled, looking hurt. “Apologies, ma’am. Thoughts on the mission?”
She looked out at the ground below them. They were flying low enough to avoid detection. “Stick with Aurealia and you’ll be fine.”
Page nodded, trying to look dignified. “I see. Thank you for the advice, ma’am.” She turned and started walking away. Her shoulders started to shake as she did.
Booker walked over and leaned in. “You have to be so cold to her? She clearly likes you. Why be so harsh?”
Emily’s look was grave as she reached for a wrench. “That girl has the potential to be one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen. But not as she is. She has to find that part of herself. Remember how Aurealia was with us?”
He let out a sigh. “Oh yeah. I wanted to blow her head off most of the time.”
“Same here. She was tough, but man, we learned so much from her. I regret a lot about my time in the service here, but she was the best teacher a pilot could have. If Page is going to insist on coming under my wing, I’m going to give her the same treatment.”
That surprised him. “She’ll end up hating you, you know.”
“Probably. I’ll lose a potential skirt to chase and will create one of the best pilots in the navy. Someday, she’ll thank me. Just as I would thank Aurealia, if I didn’t have too much pride.”
Booker smiled, heading back to his plane. Part of him believed that the two of them would end up not hating one-another. These feelings of his were usually right.
It was dark on the flight deck as people were running to their planes. Everyone had their ritual about what they did right before a mission, too. Firo would kiss a necklace that had various good luck charms he had accrued over the years. Griffin offered a final silent prayer to the Spirits, then hopping inside. Belle would sing some song lyrics that she liked. Emily would go to the end of the runway and let the wind run over her, like she could feel it. Booker would have a quick smoke and then get into his plane. Aurealia did much the same. The two met eyes and smiled at one-another. Page was seen playing with a knife she had. The girl was quite good with it. Harris sat on the wing of his plane for a few minutes, reading from an old-looking book. Seera kissed a girl who was her mechanic. They held hands for a few moments, before she took off.
The planes lined up at the end of the runway after being started. The running lights didn’t come up, since the goal of this operation was stealth. They knew where to go. A light inside the launch bay came on. Two red lights, then a green. Booker was the first to launch. He go underway, heading out fast. He looked to the other airships and saw the bombers being launched. They would be a sight to see, in daylight.
Booker came on the radio. “Alright, Devils, we take point. Harris, Seera, your squadrons have our flank. Aurealia, you’re covering the rear. Everyone got that?”
There were noises of agreement as they formed up. The bombers stayed in the center. Duke and Herschel’s plane was with them, since they were their radar and tracking bird. They started to move fast, staying low enough to be below the Oerban forces radar. The mission was finally happening.
Almost an hour had passed when Duke came on the radio.
“We’re coming up on target, boss!”
“Alright, everybody! Weapons armed! Gunners, get into position. Bombers, ready payload! I want a clean spread! The goal is to maximize destruction. Since we aren’t stopping over the base, time it to one second after you pass over the closest explosion. Understood?!”
“Yes sir!” Inside of the bombers, the defensive gunners got into position. The average lifespan of this job was 20 seconds in a combat situation. Some of the bravest soldiers who served, served in there. In the base of the heavy bombers, their payload doors opened. Inside were dozens upon dozens of bombs. The man in charge of releasing the payload lowered on a chair right above the target area, synching his night-vision and looking straight down.
Inside all of the main fighters, they brought their targeting reticules up, ready to fight. Right as they were about to reach the primary objective point, alarms started going off. Their approach had been perfect. the enemy was off-guard and there wasn’t enough time to scramble fighters.
“Alright, expect anti-air batteries! The goal is to hit the factories and dry docks. Only attack when you can see buildings big enough! Spread out as much as you can, give them something harder to shoot!”
They did as ordered, with the firing crew of the bombers sighting. The medium bombers had the person doing the sighting sitting behind the pilot and co-pilot. The first planes sighted their target, releasing the payload. Anti-air fire started coming in.
“Once you’ve released your payload, all bombers are to climb and evacuate the battle area!” Aurealia shouted.
“The enemy isn’t going to be able to dispatch fighters, so smaller aircraft are only to stick with the rest until the closest bombers evacuate. You fall in line.” Booker felt a little bad, as he was leaving Aurealia’s group taking the worst of it.
The payload struck home, right on target. Orange plumes of death came up from the shattered buildings with people on the ground running around, trying to put out the fires. Once their payloads were released, the bombers started to climb, heading west, as briefed. The anti-air fire was getting thicker. Herschel started moving down, sighting his guns on a battery nest. He let-fly, ripping a couple of their people in two, while mutilating or scattering the rest.
The second row of bombers sighted their targets, beginning to release their payload. It was another horrific show of carnage, except this one was worse. There were more buildings in this area, with more things to destroy. They started to climb, with the Harris and Seera’s squadrons going with. Just then, there was an anti-air round that went clean through the engine of a medium-bomber. It was losing altitude.
Aurealia looked over, wide-eyed. “Pilot, can you regain altitude?”
There were sounds of desperation, but then leveled-off breathing. “Yes ma’am, but we are way off target. Can’t get back on it to release payload!”
“Fuck the payload. You’re no good to us dead. Climb and evacuate. You’ve done enough!”
The last group of bombers sighted their targets. These were the places that were being used for dry-dock of the airships they completed. There were dozens of smaller and larger ones that were sitting in rows. The bombers unleashed their payload at them, turning the entire area into a funeral pyre. The last of their group rose and left the battle area, eager to put some distance to the petering-out anti-aircraft fire. By now, they all had larger things to concern themselves with. As they left, Booker took one last look back. It was beautiful and terrible at the same time, watching the base burn.
“No way they’re all gonna be that easy, huh, sir?” Harris asked.
“Correct, Squadron Leader. Very, very correct. Any casualties?”
Aurealia came on the comm. “Medium bomber got hit, but they got out. We’re good. We’re good.”
“Alright, then. Follow the plan as we make our way back. We should be returning to safe harbor in about two hours.” Everyone could feel themselves getting tired.
Not long after they got out of the area, Duke came on.
“We’ve got bandits! They’re tailing us from the base!”
Emily looked up. “Revenge?”
“Looks that way,” Griffin mumbled.
Aurealia started to bank. “We’re bringing up the back, sir. Leave them to us!”
Booker and Emily peeled off, in perfect formation. It was like they could read minds. “No need. We can sort them out fast. Aurealia, you take command. The rest of you, carry on with the mission plan!”
“Page, fall in with me!” Emily called.
Beneath her mask, the girl smiled. “Yes ma’am!”
“Stay on my wing and don’t fuck this up!”
The girl got more serious. “I’m on it!”
The three planes saw five bandits coming in fast.
“Break ’em up! I got the leader!” Booker said, turning on his targeting reticule. Emily let-fly with bullets, taking out the one in front of her. She turned fast, keeping on two more. Page was right on her. The two seemed to have a good flow. Booker also opened up on the leader’s wingmate, taking him out. He came about, with the leader of the squadron doing everything he could to dodge him. It was clear that he was desperate. Booker sent a couple of waves of bullets, to pepper him a bit. At this point he was playing with the man, and both of them knew it. Finally, the leader tried something daring. He stalled upward, trying to let Booker pass. He saw it coming, through, and did the same. The two snapped back at about the same time, continuing their dance. Finally, the Devil had had enough and blasted the plane until it was headed down.
Emily and Page split up, each taking one of the fighters. Much like Booker and the leader, they were playing with them. These pilots were clearly not on their game, and they didn’t last long against the three of them. Their revenge didn’t get far.
They saw the Pious Devotion, along with the rest of their fleet, nestled in the crook of a valley. They seemed to be on the ground, getting some supplies. They had several large hoses hooked up to an aquifer nearby. They signaled that they were friendly, with the bombers returning to their ships and the rest heading for the flagship. As they docked, parking their planes, the bulk of them got out. Booker, Emily and Page came in last, with the group in the hangar running over.
Aurealia saw Page getting out, a smile on her face. Booker and Emily got out as well, with him throwing an arm around her. The two of them were laughing. The rest of the Devils ran over, laughing and feeling powerful. Harris, Seera and the rest of their squadrons were also enjoying the moment. Page ran over to Emily, her grin from ear-to-ear.
“You were amazing out there!”
“‘You were amazing out there’…?”
The girl got much more sober. “Ma’am. You were amazing out there, ma’am.” She felt that cold feeling inside. She wanted to cry, because she wasn’t getting anywhere with this comrade.
“Thanks. You weren’t too bad out there, yourself, pilot. You may have a future in this, after all.” She nodded to the girl, walking back to her bird.
Page felt hope rise inside of her. A compliment. That was something. But why was she so cold? Does she not like me? She shrugged as Aurealia walked over and they headed to grab some chow.
Booker walked over to his bird, where Koraline met him.
“Nice work out there, sir,” she greeted.
“Call me Booker. This rank is just a formality.”
The girl smiled. “Alright. Nice work out there, Booker.”
He smiled back. “Thanks.” The two looked out as the sun was starting to come up. He felt it on his face, and life was coming back into his bones.
Until next time, a quote,
“I imagined it would have been the sky. It seemed the most natural, for him.” -Foo Ko, The Sky Crawlers