“The Righteous Stuff” – Chapter 3September 10, 2009
The Righteous Stuff
by Jeffrey D. Waggoner
based on characters and situations in the
“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling
DRAKA 135th FIGHTER SQUADRON
“Patrick, can y’all heah me? Yah be lookin’ ovah yah shoulder, boy?” Gus Jaeger clicked his microphone key a couple of times to wake up his wingman. No enemy fighters had been reported in the area, and the Draka controlled the area around Vienna on the ground, but the portable “electro-detection” installations were new and temperamental. They had been wrong before, and the mountains to the south didn’t help much. Lots of holdouts hidden in the mountains, some with some serious firepower.
“I gotcha, son, don’t be worryin’ ’bout me,” Patrick Barclay replied. Jaeger could see him wave from the cockpit of his Shark fighter. He was right where he should be, just slightly behind and to the left of Jaeger, twenty meters off his wing. The sky was nearly cloudless, and at seven thousand meters the reflection from the snow below was not bright enough to dazzle the pilots.
It seemed to Jaeger that this was going to be yet another uneventful day patrolling the skies over the southeastern zone of Austria. The Draka had enough supply-chain shipping on the Danube to make it worthwhile to provide some air cover for the commandeered barges.
“All right, boys, let’s head back north,” Jaeger said over the microphone. As one, the four planes turned to the left, wheeling on Barclay’s left wing. It was a well-tuned group, and they had flown together for almost six months now.
“What the hell—” the starboardmost pilot keyed his mike for just a second, his voice was followed by static. Jaeger tried to turn his head to see what had happened, but couldn’t turn far enough. “Barclay, what’s goin’ on?” he shouted.
“He’s gone, Gus, he’s gone! Ah can’t see any planes! Ah’m droppin’ back!” Barclay pulled back further, but all he could see was flaming pieces of the Shark dropping toward the snow.
Jaeger was slapped down, sharply and with no warning, the plane nosediving instantly. He instinctively let it drop almost vertical to avoid a spin, then gently pulled up out of the dive as he had been trained. He searched the sky above him for some evidence of what had happened. The plane was responding fine, and the other two pilots checked in. They both reported some turbulence, but nothing like Jaeger had felt. They continued to turn and headed back toward Vienna, following the river.
What the hell happened? It’s not a control problem, it’s not a rocket, so what was it? Jaeger thought. He glanced to the left, to Barclay’s Shark next to him, just in time to see it come apart in a blossom of flame. This time, Jaeger rolled off to the right, diving. The turbulence was there, pulling the plane’s tail up and over, but as he lost altitude he found he had more control.
“Weber, you all right? What did you see?” Jaeger was shouting into the microphone again, as if he could be heard better by the remaining pilot to his right.
“Ah don’t know, suh, it flashed by me so fast,” Weber replied. “It looked like a plane, but with no propellers. And it was goin’ awful damn fast, that’s a fact, suh.”
“So, Centurion, y’all got mebbe a little ideah what ya saw?” the Cohotarch said with a sneer. Jaeger and Weber were standing at attention before her desk, and she sat back, her eyes narrowed at the young pilots. She found it difficult to believe the story they brought back, and did nothing to hide her opinion.
“No, ma’am, ah certain-sure do not. The best ah can guess, maybe, is a jet or rocket powered aircraft of a sort. Ah knows the Fritz been workin’ on ‘em, like we are, but mebbe they got one that works by now.” Jaeger was not afraid to fly directly at a German plane, firing right at him, but Cohotarch Allaire gave him the willies. She was a truly great fighter pilot, as good as he was, or better, and absolutely fearless in the sky. She was just as fearless on the ground, and accepted absolutely no excuses from her pilots. She was certainly not willing to accept that a mystery plane came down out of the sky and killed off two of her best, completely without a fight and without warning. Jaeger remained at attention, eyes straight ahead.
She chuckled. “Jus’ a little-ole Fritz jet airplane, or mebbe a rocket plane, is that it? Shee-it, Jaeger, I thought you could come up with somethin’ better’n that.” She got up from behind the desk and walked over to a wall of file cabinets. She opened a drawer with a key from her uniform pocket, and pulled out a file folder made of red cardboard. “Sit down, boys. Ah got somethin’ to show yah.”
“So, the Fritz built how many of these things, Cohotarch?” asked Weber, after they had seen the pictures and read the few pages of reports.
Allaire leaned back, folding her hands in front of her on the desk. “Doan’ rightly know. All we know is they was in development las’ year, and they got a few out before we bombed the factory to hell an’ gone.”
“As many as half a dozen?” ventured Jaeger.
“No more than that, we think,” she answered. “And fuel is still a problem. They is rocket-powered, and that means alcohol, mos’ likely, and liquid oxygen, mebbe. Other fuels are possible, of course. The Freya-damned Messerschmitt Me-162 used hydrogen peroxide. Unfortunately, the bombers didn’t leave much of the factory to sift through. Any left are prob’y hidin’ in the mountains, in caves. Can’t imagine why they’re this far south. You boys are the first to run into ’em in combat. Sorry to hear y’all got your asses kicked.”
“No more than we were, Cohotarch.” Jaeger looked thoughtful. “So, they’s fast, and they’s high-fliers. But limited range, very limited, a couple hundred kilometers at the most. Mebbe light missiles an’ guns. No bombs…the damn thing is prob’ly almost all fuel and engine.”
“That’s the intelligence estimate, as well. You weren’t tol’ ’cause we never expected ta see ’em.” Allaire grinned, a death’s-head look if Jaeger ever saw one. “You boys care to do some huntin”?”
“Care to do some huntin’?” muttered Jaeger, as he balled up his parachute and looked at the mountains above him. “Care to do some walkin’?”
They had found their prey in the mountains, that was for sure, and their prey had proved to be far more maneuverable than they expected. Weber’s plane went down first to the guns from the delta-winged rocket plane, almost invisible as it bore down on him from above. At least Jaeger got a good look at it as it flashed past him. It was no larger than his own Shark fighter, obviously single-seat, but lacked elevators in the tail. It was almost a single delta wing shape, with a bulge for a cockpit and a conventional rudder. It was painted mottled gray and white on the top and gray below, making it virtually undetectable by eye in the winter mountain regions south of Vienna. It was diving faster than Jaeger could ever dive in a propeller-driven plane, and the guns were firing all the time. The pilot must have been able to withstand tremendous G-forces to bank as he did, and the plane turned and climbed back toward Jaeger.
“We is under attack, ah say under attack!” he shouted into the microphone as he rapidly banked from side to side, trying to elude the guns. The rocket flashed past him, missing his wingtip by a few feet. The pilot must be a madman, even for a Nazi, he thought.
He dove for the mountain pass below him, hoping he could make the faster plane overcontrol in the narrow confines of the valley. The pilot of the rocket plane was not to be so easily tricked, however, and he shot past Jaeger, above him. “Can’t get me here, ya bastard,” Jaeger muttered grimly, watching the cliff walls carefully. He might just get out of this by eluding the rocket until it ran out of fuel.
The rocket pilot had more training in the mountains, though, and came back around, firing his guns from above, making a single pass just over the Shark at a combined speed of over a thousand miles per hour. Jaeger felt the engine seize before he saw the smoke. In an instant the plane became a high-speed glider, and not a good one at that.
Jaeger rolled his plane to the right, quickly scanning for a landing spot. Not in these mountains, he thought. Oh, well, better see what I can remember from mah parachute training.
He knew he was on the other side of the mountain from rescue. He tried to keep the plane in a flat spiral as he opened the canopy and unbuckled his seat harness. He had to take his hand off the stick to use both hands on the canopy. The slipstream was trying to pull his hands off the frame, and the handles were not placed where he needed them to be. Thanks, boys, he thought to the designers of the fighter. When I get back, we’ll have a little talk, I think.
Apparently the rocket plane had run short on fuel, for it had disappeared. Jaeger half-expected it to make another pass, to make sure he was finished. He crawled out of the cockpit, hanging on the edge for a moment, then let go and dropped off the side of the fuselage.
His timing was correct, or he was very lucky. He missed the tail section of the plane, and watched the altimeter on his wrist. He pulled the cord early, not being sure of the elevation of the floor of the pass below him. He knew he couldn’t judge altitude in the snow, from above, with no more references than trees and rock. After the parachute opened, he tried to direct it north, away from where he assumed the Nazi rocket plane was hangared.
Jaeger hit the fluffy snow almost soundlessly. He was grateful for that, but not for the fact that it was a full meter deep. Wearing a flight suit, with minimal survival gear, and with kilometers to walk before he reached safety, he knew his chances were not particularly good.
He and Weber had left the aerodrome outside of Vienna at dawn, hoping to use the shadows created by the rising sun to help find the rocket planes and caves. It was now just about nine in the morning, and so at least he would have some time to find shelter before sundown, if he needed to. It was a clear, bright February day, and Jaeger would have been delighted to be out skiing with a couple of pleasant Austrian wenches. Slogging through the drifts in the valley – where there were no visible signs of human habitation – was as far from that as he could have imagined.
He stuffed the parachute under a rock and inventoried his meager survival supplies as he began walking northeast. It seemed the flattest route through the mountains. There should have been a road here, sometime, even if it was just a cattle track. He could easily walk over it in the deep snow and never find it, so he concentrated on maintaining his direction and not breaking an ankle on rocks under the snow.
The hours passed with no sign of aircraft, smoke on the horizon…nothing. There was little wind, and with the sun above him, Jaeger was not cold. In fact, the exertion of trying to move though the drifts were working up a sweat, and he was careful to rest often. He knew that as soon as the sun dropped behind the mountains, the sweat in his flight suit would freeze. He saw pine trees, ash, and other he could not identify. There were blowdowns that he was sure would provide branches for shelter and fire, but he was reluctant to stop until it was necessary. He was much closer to the Nazis than to the Draka-held regions and he had no need to draw attention to himself.
Speaking of which—he opened a flight suit pocket. The light on his radio beacon was still flashing. He expected no one could fix on it with him between the mountains like this, though, and put little stock in it getting him out of his predicament.
About two o’clock he rounded a large boulder and stand of pines and saw the remains of an aircraft, still smoldering. It was obviously the rocket plane, lying on its belly with one wing bent over a boulder. Apparently the pilot was overcome by his drive to shoot down the Draka, and did not realize he lacked the fuel to return to his hiding place until it was definitely too late.
Jaeger immediately dropped back behind the trees, pulling his pistol from his flight suit. The olive-drab suit would provide a little camouflage in the trees. The plane was damaged, and there was evidence of a fire near the tail, but that could have been caused by the heat of the rocket engine as the plane came to a stop. Jaeger didn’t know much about rocket engines, but guessed that the exhaust temperature was higher than in the jet engines the new Draka fighters had. The plane was on its belly in the snow, without any visible landing gear. The canopy was open, so the pilot survived the landing. He obviously had not bailed out, or the plane would not have crash-landed as it did.
Jaeger scanned the area for signs of the pilot. He was too far away to see if there were footsteps in the snow, and where they might lead. He was reluctant to leave the cover of the trees. If he stepped out in front of the trees he could be seen, even with the sun coming from behind him and to his left. He listed carefully, but heard no evidence of the other man.
“Standplatz noch! Setzen Sie die Gewehr unten!” Jaeger, despite his surname, knew only a few phrases of German. The tone was easily understood, though, and he turned slowly to his left, with his right hand raised with the pistol in it.
A woman! A woman pilot! Jaeger was truly surprised. He had flown with many women Citizen pilots, but they were raised from birth to stand toe-to-toe with men in the Domination. The Nazis must really be in trouble, he thought. She was holding a gun on him without shaking, though, in the classic two-handed stance. She was barely over a meter and a half tall, and the revolver she held would have been over a mantle in the Domination. She can’t weigh over a hundred pounds. If she fired that gun, she’d knock herself down. On the other hand, she looks like maybe she knows how to use it.
Reluctantly Jaeger dropped the gun, but onto a convenient low branch of a fir tree, not onto the snow. “Now, cain’t we be friends, little lady?” he said gently, walking slowly toward her, hands in the air.
“Bleiben Sie, wo Sie sind!” She shouted at Jaeger, but didn’t move. She’s a cool one, he thought. Crashed her plane, but not shook up at all.
They both heard the sound at the same time. The rocket pilot’s head snapped to the left, as the helicopter came over the trees on the mountainside, and Jaeger dived for his pistol. She had apparently never seen a chopper close up before, and she was frozen in place for a moment. Before Jaeger could bring his gun to bear, the woman’s body was torn to shreds by the machine gunner in the gunship. Her ruined body dropped limply into the snow.
After a moment Jaeger came out of the trees slowly, waving his hands over his head. The chopper dropped to head height over a snowdrift, blowing it up and out of the way, then slowly settled to the floor of the valley.
“Glad to see you boys,” he said with a grin. “What took you so long?”
“The rocket plane was a risky proposition, for sure,” Cohotarch Allaire said. “No range to speak of, with any pilot over a forty-five or fifty kilos. Every liter of fuel was important. Ah don’t believe this was really a production model at all, with that crazy fuel mixture they used. It might be the only prototype they had.”
“And we have it now,” answered Jaeger, seated casually in front of her desk. He figured he had earned a little slack from her by now.
She smiled at him, a feral little grin. “And y’all did a pretty good job of huntin’ it down.”
Jaeger laughed out loud. “Hunted it down? I was jus’ tryin’ to save mah sweet ass, draggin’ it outa the snow, is all. But if’n the chopper had been a little later, the pilot woulda had a bullet in her brain.”
“Ah know. But Command will still look at you as a tough, hard-ridin’ boyo.”
“Mebbe. Still, I was just walkin’ outa that valley.”
“Ya will be decorated, like it or not.”
Jaeger waved a hand. “Pah! The other boys lost their lives, not me. They should be gettin’ the medals.”
The Cohotarch smiled again. “But you brought it down, accordin’ to the account o’ this one. I don’ rightly know what ta do with ya…but I have an idea.”
“And that would be…”
“Syria. We be buildin’ a new test pilot facility there. While the war is still goin’ on, we need new weaponry, new planes. This rocket thing should tell Command that. Somehow the Fritz is still comin’ up with new stuff, even with practically no raw materials and us bombin’ the shit out of ‘em. We need to keep doin’ the same, but away from the front.”
Jaeger sat up straight, hands on his knees. “So you want to banish me to Syria?”
The Cohotarch drew a thin cigarette from an enameled case on her desk. It was a beautiful ebony box, with the bat-winged Draka dragon emblazoned on the top in a bright red enamel. Obviously it was a very expensive gift, and one that must have had great personal meaning to her, if she brought it with her so close to the Front. She blew a cloud of smoke at the ceiling, then looked at Jaeger with her eyes level. “Not banished, you idiot. Sent to be a test pilot, wringin’ out all the new hardware. Y’all can get that through your silly head, right?”
“Absolutely, Cohotarch,” he said formally. “But I’m needed here…”
“Frankly, the front isn’t a place for the smart ones. It’s for the quick, which you certainly are, and it’s for the young, which you still are. But somethin’ about your demeanor when you fly makes me think you’re a good candidate for this.” She pause and smiled. “Ah could be wrong, of course.”
“It just takes some gettin’ used to. Test pilot? Ah don’t have much trainin’ in engineerin’.”
She chuckled. “Ah hope yah’s can be taught. And ya can be right smart, sometimes. Like now, what might your Cohotarch be thinkin’?” She stood, and began taking off her uniform blouse.
Jaeger also chuckled. “Ah reckon ah’s smart enough ta figure that out…” He stood and went to her.