Why those four Peskas from Bulldog Squadron were wandering alone below a sea clouds
|A short story set in the 'Sky's Over Stalingrad' VR Gaming Universe.
Aurthor's note: It helps to have read the rest of my 'Skies' story, but I think this one stands alone fairly well. A couple of minor characters who wanted a chapter of their own. Revised when someone pointed out just how atrocious my punctuation really was.
Greg wasn’t happy about the mission, but this time he wasn’t in charge. Today that was Larry, who he was sure was doing his best to get them all killed. First he had somehow managed to miss the rendezvous point for their fighter escort from Grizzly Squadron. Then the fluffy patches of clouds they had been dodging around started growing darker and thicker, but instead of climbing above it when they had the chance Larry kept them underneath until the empty spaces above them were sealed over and it was too late. So now Bulldog Squadron was hugging the bottom of the clouds, miserably slogging their way across German airspace without help from the fighter escort currently enjoying the sunshine up top of that impenetrable cloud barrier. On the plus side, the clouds made it difficult for the flack guns to spot them. It also made it impossible for the enemy to attack them from above, so maybe it wasn’t all bad after all.
“Alright, comrades,” the radio crackled. “Five minutes to target. Time to put the hobnail boot of the Glorious People’s Republic into the groin of that godless Nazi oppressor.”
Larry had gotten a hold of some communist handbook or other and had gleefully lifted a few revolutionary sounding phrases “To add flavor to the conversation.” was how he put it. Flavor that was annoyingly limited to mostly repetitious variations of ‘Hobnail Boot’, ‘Godless Heathen Oppressor’, and ‘Motherland of the Glorious People’s Republic’.
“Sure, freedom and bread to the people and all that.” George radioed back. “How about just feeding us some of that Glorious Republic Peoples flight data, will you?” Larry made him play Tail End Charlie every time he commanded a mission just because he knew how annoyed it made him, so out of spite George had taken to mocking Larry’s plagiarized phrasing. “And try to keep the Hobnail measurements in Glorious Peoples Imperialistic units this time.”
“Fine.” Larry radioed back peevishly. “Ground speed 300, altitude 6500, wind drift, umm, let’s see.”
As Larry read out the settings, Greg busied himself setting up the Bombardier’s targeting controls. If everything was in sync they should get a nice bomb drop pattern, which would give them a better than 20% chance of obliterating their primary target. Provided Larry didn’t mess up and hit the release early again.
“Engine RPM is ….” There was a long pause. Greg frowned and looked up towards Larry’s plane, and was astonished to see it had vanished. A few seconds later George radioed. “Larry? What the hell man, where’d you go?”
Suddenly Frank was screaming into the headset “Bogy! George. You got a Bogy! Six 0’clock high!”
Greg slapped the autopilot off and wrenched the bomber into a hard left bank as George was cut off in mid scream. As he did so a fighter flashed passed, so close he could clearly see his little mascot painted on the engine cowl. A German! How the hell had a German patrol managed to sneak up on them? Surely someone should have seen them coming. Far too late he keyed the commands that brought the AI turret gunners to life, swearing at Larry as he did so. If the gunners had been in autonomous mode in the first place maybe they would have provided some warning of the attack, but Larry had worried they would spoil the surprise of their stealth attack by rattling off at shadows and had insisted the AI be set to ‘fire on command only’. Well, that had certainly worked for those Germans, hadn’t it! Greg pushed the throttles wide open and punched the bomb release. Dump the weight and get the hell out of here, he though desperately, even as he heard his turret gunner firing behind him. His target was too far away to see clearly against the clouds but it was definitely German, you could tell that by the red tracer shell the Germans preferred to use in their guns. After a few moments the turret gunner stopped firing.
Greg looked around, trying to spot the rest of the enemy patrol. To his astonishment the sky looked empty. A search of the airspace around him showed no one, friend or foe, anywhere near him. George and Larry were gone, more than likely shot down and already crashed. Where he had last seen that one distant fighter there was a streak of something, probably Frank’s plane, burning as it fell from the sky. Even as he watched the streak hit the ground and exploded. But there was no sign of the enemy patrol that had attacked them. For an anxious minute he searched, trying to look everywhere at once but seeing nothing. Could they have just left the area? That was unlikely. A single bomber without escort was a sitting duck. It made no sense to just leave it alone unless… Maybe they had been low on fuel or ammo. Just enough for one pass and whoever survived it got to go home free. Unlikely, but the though stirred a glimmer of hope within him. Was he actually getting away? Then his turret gunner started firing again. Even though he looked quickly, he couldn’t spot what the gunner was shooting at.
“Where is he?” Greg yelled.
A less than helpful “Target lost” was the gunner’s response, to which Greg let out a string of equally non-helpful curses. When it came to gunners the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ was definitely an oxymoron. Then he brightened a bit. In long range autonomous mode the AI gunners were notorious for shooting at things that were not there. That’s what had gotten them into this situation in the first place. Greg looked around quickly, trying to spot what the gunner had been shooting at. He scarcely dared to hope that it was just a false alarm.
Several minutes passed with nothing happening and with each passing minute, little by little, Greg’s hopes that he might actually survive this rose. Only to be dashed as the plane shuddered and red tracer flicked by his windows. Once again, the turret gunner started firing and Greg started swearing, frantically peering around. Where were those Germans? Left, right, down, back. No matter where he looked he still couldn’t spot the fighters his gunners were firing at. After a moment the guns fell silent, only to start firing again a minute or so later. Each time they fired Greg tried his best to spot the patrol, succeeding in getting only the occasional glimpse of what could be a plane before it disappeared. Twice more the pattern was repeated; gunners setting off several rounds and then nothing. He’d be convinced they were only shooting at shadows if it wasn’t for the occasional stream of red tracer flickering past his window and the holes that kept appearing in the wings. Was he fighting ghosts? Greg was half convinced they were. The Ghost Patrol had an ominous yet morbidly catchy ring to it, something to yarn about late at night while trying to spook the newbs of the squadron.
Except it wasn’t as funny when it was actually happening to you.
There was another lull in the firing, the longest yet. This one lasted several minutes, Greg getting more antsy with each one that passed. Other than the drone of the engines and the whirr of hydraulics as the turret gunners nervously scanned the sky there was nothing. It was all extremely unnerving.
‘Time to call for help’ he suddenly decided, both surprised and chagrined that the thought had only just now occurred to him. He was just reaching for the radio mike when he spotted the German coming down out of the cloud right in front of them. Down out of the cloud!
In a moment of clarity Greg realized that was where they had been hiding. It was astonishing. He had never trained to fly by instrument. None of them did, so they had ignored them, flying visual only and relying on good visibility. VFR it was called. And because everyone they knew or fought against also flew VFR they had gotten into the habit of assuming that was what everyone did. VFR didn’t work in clouds, so everyone stayed out of them. The idea that someone could be using a cloud layer as cover was one that had honestly never occurred to him. Yet here that German Sonovabitch was doing just that.
A German SOB who was coming straight at him.
Greg pulled the yoke hard to the left, but before the sluggish controls of the big plane could respond the fighter was passed and gone, his quick burst of cannon fire leaving a trail of damage that lit all the warning lamps of the #2 engine. Quickly Greg throttled back and cut the fuel feed, killing the engine fire before it could get fully established. The plane slowed and yawed alarmingly even as Greg fought to feather the prop and reduce the drag on that side of the plane. Even with the prop feathered the drag it produced was still considerable, forcing him to work his remaining engine hard and hold the rudder hard over in an effort to keep on an even remotely steady heading. Sweating and swearing in equal amounts as the heavily smoking bomber staggered and crabbed across the sky, Greg keyed the radio and finally sent off that belated call for help.
It wasn’t Grizzly Squadron who turned up to assist. They flatly refused to descend into the cloud, especially when they heard there were German fighters lurking in there like school of hungry Great White sharks. No, they merely wished Greg good luck and called it a day.
Fortunately for Greg, Wolverine Squadron was returning from a mission and was close enough to lend the crippled bomber a hand. None of them ever saw the enemy fighters, in spite of all the milling around watching for them that they did. They had vanished.
Like a ghost.
Even with the arrival of a fighter escort Greg’s problems were far from over. Short an engine, leaking fuel and oil, he barely made it back over the line into Russian held territory before the remaining engine quit and he had to put down into the closest field. It was a forced landing was surprisingly calm and by the book. And it was almost successful, if it hadn’t of included one of those old, beautiful, and surprisingly solidly built stone farm houses that he slammed into the side of.