James Fitzpatrick bunted the A-10 over, stabilizing the jet as he dove. His finger was tense around the trigger and he could feel the giant 30 millimeter gun begin to spin up beneath him. Looking through his Heads Up Display (HUD)—the screen on top of his cockpit forward panel—he lined up the aiming pip on the horde of Infected.
There were maybe twenty or thirty, he wasn’t sure, but as soon as the pipper crossed over the frontmost Infected, he pulled the trigger.
There wasn’t anything more satisfying to him than the sound of that cannon going off. It shook the plane violently, feeling like it might break apart under the stress. It didn’t of course, and ahead of him, the rounds sent up clouds of dust, dirt, bone and flesh. He gently pulled back on the flight stick, easing the jet out of its dive while simultaneously dragging the pipper right up the line of Infected.
They died in droves. The mere impact of those rounds was enough to kill a human being. Standing next to one as it struck the ground could potentially fracture and splinter limbs. He learned pretty early on that Infected were more fragile in some aspects and yet tougher in other ways. Pistols had a tough time on them but the A-10’s gun?
He really, really enjoyed this job.
Pulling out of the dive, he angled the jet upward and roared back into the sky. The seat beneath him vibrated as he increased the power. Dirty, saturated clouds buffeted him as he clawed for altitude, streaking the canopy with moisture. Looking over his shoulder he saw his wingman burst through the clouds behind him.
“Do we need another pass, Ringo?” James said, preparing to correct his turn if need be. Ringo was his wingman’s callsign, given for an unfortunate bowl-like haircut he’d worn before basic. That was a long time to stick by a nickname.
“Unknown, One. I hit’em pretty hard.”
“Want to arm the clusters?”
There was a moment of hesitation.
“Not within mission parameters, Cubby,” Ringo said, though he sounded just like James felt. The cluster bombs beneath their wings were basically big bags of small bombs that exploded across an area, obliterating anything in the vicinity. They were lethal, and effective against hordes. They were also really damn rare and were only to be used in emergencies.
His dad would likely kill him for using one.
“Turn left to two-five-one, at five hundred,” James said, rolling his fighter onto its left wing and watching the heading tape at the top of his HUD scroll towards “251.” He angled his nose down to settle at a mere five hundred feet. He wanted a second look at that horde.
No need for a cluster bomb, that was for sure. As he looked over the canopy rail, his fighter still in a steep left hand turn, he could see the ground and the area around his target very well. There was nothing left of the horde. Their attack had ripped them to shreds. Body parts and splashes of dark blood stained the snow in almost every direction.
Not a bad day in the neighborhood, he thought and was about to look away when something else caught his eye. There, in the tree line were two vaguely human-shaped shadows. Were they Infected or were they human? Even at their relatively low altitude, it was hard to tell. The horde wasn’t moving, that was easy. Individuals inside of the forest? Slightly harder, even for his sharp eyes.
“Ringo, check me. Can you see two people in the forest near the horde?”
A moment passed before his wingman’s voice crackled over the radio. “Negative. We’re clear. I’m almost bingo on fuel, man. Can’t linger anymore.”
James glanced down at his fuel gauge, noting how many pounds of gas he still had. Damn it, he thought. Not enough to stay. He’d make sure he mentioned the sighting when he came home though.
“Maintain heading, climb to angels eight at 10,” he told Ringo and then pulled back on the stick, aligning his indicator with a ten-degree climb and roared into the dimming sky. Running low on gas was something he was used to, but his hand still itched to dial in the old frequencies for a refueling tanker. There were no tankers now. As far as he knew, they were the only jets still flying in the whole world.
It made him itch to pay a visit to some old ‘friends.’ Like that Afghani bastard who killed the Canadian girl before the marines could arrive. Then, the asshole went across the border to Iran and waved the finger at them for months. When he left the Air Force, it always felt like he’d left it unfinished. One good Maverick missile and he’d shut that motherfucker up for good. The world was gone. Politics couldn’t protect his ass anymore.
Iran was a long way away now. Without the Air Force’s support, his effective range was a few hundred miles where once he couldn’t imagine a limit to air power. It was like the Infection had made the world a much bigger place. Darker too.
They’d flown for only a minute before Ringo chimed him again. His wingman had formed up on his right wing, holding steady about fifty feet away. Normally, James would do a battle damage check but what was the point? No one was shooting at them.
“So did the old man give a reason for this trip? Or any of the trips we’ve made down here?”
“Nah,” James said, easing his shoulders against the restraints and flipping down his visor. The sun was to his 10 o’clock but still glaring. “He just said to cruise on down to this area and look around. Well, I saw a horde.”
“Think he knew it was down here?”
“I guess. Maybe they came up from Pleasant Valley? Hard to say.” James checked his kneeboard, then looked up to his navigation display.
“Ringo, lets turn two-seven-zero and drop down to angels two. He said to get a look at the radio tower if we have the gas. It’s on our way.”
“Copy, turning on your mark.”
James zippered his mic, two quick clicks of his radio’s activation button as an acknowledgement, and began his turn. The clicks would sound like two quick beeps in Ringo’s headset. Together they turned into the new heading and began to descend.
It wasn’t long before the tall spire of the radio tower was visible among the hills. The dead were strewn all around it, but the corpses were old. They circled a few times but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary before turning back to their original heading.
James was just about to call out a new altitude change when something once more caught his eye. It was a glint of metal on the ground, moving from the west. He frowned and keyed his mic.
“Ringo, hold pattern. There’s something down there, going to check it out.”
James pulled the fighter in a long, wide arc, keeping his left wing pointed towards the ground so he could get a good look at whatever it was. He fanned the airbrakes as he approached the location and felt his stomach tighten up.
Trucks. They were armored trucks. One was a humvee with a machine gun on its roof while the others were more civilian-oriented jobs, SUVs and pickup trucks. He couldn’t see how many men there were but he circled until he could put his targeting pip on their location and mark it on his computer. He’d have their location at the very least.
“Ringo, there’s a bunch of—“
An alarm went off in his cockpit and James glanced at his Radar Warning Receiver (RWR). The flashing icon there made his jaw drop.
“Missile missile missile!” Ringo yelled.
“Flaring! Fucking shit!” James banked the fighter in the opposite direction and pulled back the stick. As he did so, he pounded on the flare release switch, hoping the burst of super-heated gas would confuse the incoming ordinance.
Looking over his right shoulder, he saw the smoke trail from the shoulder-mounted missile launcher. The small, white dart was invisible to him, but he saw the orange glow of its brief, but powerful engine. It ripped through the air, arching through the space where he’d been just moments before.
“No detonation. You all right?” Ringo said.
“Bingo, fuel. Bingo, fuel,” his flight computer began to declare.
“Yeah. Ringo, come one-one-zero, I’m setting up for a gun run.”
“Negative, we do not have the gas for this. We’ll have to dance another day.”
“Fuck that man, I’m killing these pieces of shit!”
“Cubby! I am not explaining to your dad why you got shot down by a ManPad.”
“Turn two-nine-five, go for angels twenty. Fuck this place.”
James fumed in silence, wanting to just turn his jet around and let loose with that thirty-millimeter gun and rip them all to shreds. But, despite being Flight Lead for this mission, Ringo was the senior pilot. That last was an order. Biting back his anger, he banked the fighter back on course.
“Copy. Goddamn it!”
“Cubby, I know how you feel. I do not want to run from a fight, but we are very low on gas and even lower on replacement fighters. If either of us are hit or run out of gas and need to ditch and bail out? Man, we can’t risk one of these jets like this. No matter how much we want to.”
“How the hell did they get one of those?” James said, monitoring his RWR for more problems while also looking behind him every half-second just in case they fired a manual-launch rocket.
“I don’t know, Cubby. Your dad will want to know about this.”
It took him nearly ten minutes to feel safe again. His whole body felt alive with nervous energy, his senses sharper, more precise. Each tick on the heading tape was easily navigated, each location on his dash mounted map a simple matter to locate. Battle awareness was a hell of a thing, and James absolutely loved it. He just wished he hadn’t just wasted the opportunity to use it.
He couldn’t wait to pay those assholes another visit. First though, they had to get home and file their reports. He just hoped his dad wasn’t going to hold him back from offering a reprisal. James doubted he would, especially after last time. That thought made him smile.
Black Dawn was the new power in America and there was no way his father, Gideon Fitzpatrick, would waste an opportunity to show it.