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       Raptor Aces, p.1

           Brian Bakos
 
Raptor Aces


  RAPTOR ACES

  by Brian Bakos

  Copyright 2015 Brian Bakos

  cover art: Rob Jones

  interior art: Brian Bakos and Othoniel Ortiz

  Table of Contents

  One: Squadron Home Base

  Two: The Battlefront

  Three: A New Reality

  Four: The Darkness

  Reading Group Guide

  Connect with the Author

  Brian’s Other Books

  One: Squadron Home Base

  1. Descent from the Heavens

  Up here in my cockpit, I float with the gods – embraced by rushing air and the throb of my engine. I am Lord of the Universe. Beneath me sprawls the world of common beings, and running along its surface, a terrified slobe boy.

  I sense his fear from my hundred meter altitude. It excites me! It spurs me on to my best effort. The slobe tries to flee as my airplane hunts him down, but the attack dogs force him back onto the landing strip. He looks toward my approaching aircraft. Terror vibrates up to me.

  “Get down, you idiot!” I shout.

  The slobe can’t hear me, of course, but he does hit the pavement. He’s flat on his belly now, hands covering his head. I close in on him.

  Ground turbulence is fairly severe, bouncing my aircraft in unpredictable ways. Through it blows a strong cross wind. I maneuver my plane into a crab angle, and the ground whips by sideways. A mad joy has me in its grasp.

  Then I take my plane out of its crab angle and into a sideslip. I tweak the stick and rudder pedal to keep my flight path straight. My port wing dips low, toward the boy. He glances up at me then hunkers down, as if he is trying to sink into the pavement. I hold my breath ...

  The tip of my wing misses the slobe by a tight margin.

  Excellent!

  Then I am flying over empty pavement. I ease my plane out of its cross-controlled slip and bring the landing gear toward the surface. Air turbulence buffets me. It’s going to be a brutal landing – I know it, I know it.

  I implore the gods: Don’t let me stumble now

  They hear me, and my upwind tire kisses the pavement followed by an equally gentle contact from the downwind wheel, then the tail wheel drops down. A true greaser!

  Raise flaps, adjust ailerons, light, balanced pressure on the brakes. I am at the turn off, then on the taxiway. I pull onto the grass and shut my engine down. The world becomes silent. A final perfume of exhaust graces the air then drifts away into the perfect morning.

  2. Catastrophe

  Parked in a neat row close by, the aircraft of my flight mates crouch like tigers aching to roar into action. Sunlight glints on their metal surfaces. I struggle to free myself from the restraining harness. The hilt of my squadron leader’s dagger is caught in the webbing.

  My comrades rush toward me, silk scarves fluttering behind like angel’s wings. I love all ten of them ... and the eleventh one, as well – my rival who is winging through the sky alone. He chose to be far off when I did my slobe dive so as not to affect his concentration, but now he’s coming. I can see him, a tiny spec off in the sky.

  The others are not yet aware of him. They call me ‘Eagle-eye’ when I sight things before they can. Sometimes, only half jesting, they call me ‘Ghostie,’ when I see things they insist are not really there.

  Katella, my faithful wingman, arrives at the head of the pack.

  “Good work, Dytran!” he shouts. “That was well inside a meter.”

  I grin, but am not altogether pleased. This is an excellent result, but it can still be beaten – not that I’d ever expected to leave a skid mark on the target’s back, as my brother had accomplished four years ago.

  The others arrive. Bezmir and Sipren hoist their little movie cameras.

  “We’ve got it all here,” Sipren says, “clear shots, from both sides of the runway.”

  “Glad to hear that, boys,” I say, “because I’m sure not going to try it again today!”

  They all laugh. It seems an ideal moment. The ring of guys in their tan flight suits surrounding my plane, broad smiles on their faces and golden scarves tied around their necks, the wind tousling their hair. Everything captured in a day of bright perfection and swirling wind.

  I get the restraints unfastened. Everyone makes way as I jump out of my plane. As always, I feel a bit of shock when my feet touch the ground. I seem to be stepping out of a glorious reality into a much lesser one. Helios must have felt this way when he exited his sun chariot.

  “Beltran’s coming!” several boys cry at once.

  Off in the cloudless sky, like some winged silver deity, an airplane approaches the landing strip.

  “Better get back to your posts,” I say.

  We take off at a run. Then I drop back so as to observe the group I have commanded for the past year. They dash on ahead – all of them fine and athletic. We are the best the Fatherland can offer. We’ve been through so much together since we were chosen to form the Raptor Aces squadron of the National Youth League Air Corps.

  Pride swells my chest. I exalt in the power of my body. I am tall and dramatic, with good looks to match. The wind rustles my golden hair. Of all the world’s racial types, I am at the apex!

  Then I think of him – my rival up in the sky. Beltran is not fair complexioned nor outstandingly tall. He lacks for masculine beauty. But there is cold steel inside him that awes me with its strength. Despite our many differences, he is my brother of the air, in many ways closer to me than my real brother who is serving in the great Eastern conflict.

  As I jog along, a single thought troubles my mind: Will I still be squadron commander in the fall?

  When the officers pick next year’s squadron leader, they will look at many attributes, and the respect of one’s comrades is a key factor. Should I win today, I’ll take the admiration of my peers with me into the selection procedure. The brewing restlessness in our ranks will be quelled, and I will emerge as undisputed leader. It makes the risk of this unauthorized ‘game’ well worth it, in my mind.

  There Beltran is now, turning onto final approach.

  My squadron mates position themselves along the runway on opposite sides of the prone, quivering slobe boy. Sipren and Bezmir ready their cameras for the photo finish. The next moments will determine the future for all of us.

  Bel flew the aerobatic routine somewhat better than me, and the simulated bomb run had gone my way – but none of that is decisive. It is the death-defying ‘slobe dive’ that will determine everything. Whoever comes closest to the target, without harming it, will win the day.

  If I lose there will be a shift of allegiance toward Beltran. All year he’s chafed as my deputy squadron commander, and it’s clear that he longs to take over my position. Well, now is his chance. The two dogs bark with excitement at his approach.

  Bel’s technique is awesome!

  He is flying toward the runway in a crab angle, as I had done. He makes it look like the easiest thing in the world. I almost feel myself up in the plane with him, my hands on the controls contending with the crosswind and the ground turbulence.

  Bel enters a flawless sideslip. As I stand in the grass beside the runway, I adjust my body to replicate his efforts, stick left, rudder pedal to the right –

  I turn my gaze to the slobe boy sprawled along the pavement on his belly. He is about our age, early seventeen or so, and he’s whimpering with terror. I feel an icy stab of contempt. The racial inferior!

  Then an unwelcome thought intrudes: Just how brave would I be in the same situation? If I’d been kidnapped at dagger point and forced to endure airplanes buzzing down on me, could I be any more heroic than this sniveling lad?

  But this is an improper thought process. He is a slobe – just his misfortune
to be born one. I am of the Master Nation, and pity for the lesser peoples is weakness on my part. I square my shoulders against the wind. Anyway, when this is over, I’ll pay the boy a half dozen crowns from my allowance. That’s a good day’s wage for a slobe.

  Then all thoughts of the captive as a human being vanish from my mind; he’s just a target now. Beltran’s port wingtip is coming at him scarcely half a meter above the pavement, knifing down the centerline with deadly precision – it’ll clear the target by bare centimeters.

  He’s going to beat me!

  The movie cameras whine at high speed to capture my opponent’s victory. The world begins to pull away from me as I tumble backwards into a void. I can feel the commander’s stripes being ripped from my uniform.

  I twist my head toward the slobe. All our eyes are riveted on the target now. He isn’t whimpering any longer. Then the unthinkable happens –

  The boy pushes himself upward.

  “Get down!” I shout.

  Everything seems to move in ghastly slow motion. In his final instant, an expression of fierce triumph scorches across the boy’s face. Then the wing strikes him, flipping him down the runway. A collective gasp explodes from my squadron mates.

  Bel’s starboard wing hits the pavement, sheering off the end. The plane slams down onto its landing gear and goes into a vicious, screeching ground loop. The tortured machine pitches forward, shattering its prop on the concrete, then it crashes back onto its wheels.

  The engine dies with a belch of acrid smoke. The aircraft sprawls broken and lifeless, like a slaughtered beast.

  “Ahhhh!”

  Katella writhes on the grass beside me, a splinter of debris jutting from his shoulder. A blood stain spreads on his jumpsuit. The rest of us are stunned into inaction, as if the earth has cracked open and revealed a vision of hell to our dumbfounded eyes.

  3. Time of Decision

  The explosion brings us back to our senses.

  We cringe away from the fireball that is rising out of Beltran’s airplane like some evil genie. A massive fist of hot air strikes us. Beltran is running our direction, leading a string of curses. His scarf blazes behind him.

  The lads all rush to help. Bezmir and Sipren unsling their first aid kits as they run. Even the dogs join the mad dash.

  “Medics,” I shout, “one of you get over here!”

  Bezmir stops in his tracks. “Yes, Commander!”

  He jogs back and kneels beside Katella.

  “Hang on, friend,” he says. “I’ll get you fixed up.”

  Bezmir tries to sound confident, but his face is ashen, almost as pale as Katella’s – and mine, too, I suppose. I leave him to his work and join the crowd around Beltran.

  “Everybody stand back,” I say. “Give him room to breathe.”

  They all move away, only Sipren remains to tend a gash over Bel’s left eye. I look my deputy commander over. Except for the cut and some blood oozing from his nose, Beltran seems to be all right. The fire has not embraced him, thank heaven.

  I think to speak with him, but quickly change my mind. The look of fury in Beltran’s good eye silences me. His mouth is clamped shut, and a tight knot bulges at the jaw hinge. His dark hair bristles like a wild boar’s. Now is not the time for discussion.

  I turn my attention toward Bel’s aircraft. Flames swirl above it sending aloft a foul-smelling tornado of smoke and ash, like a torch lit by the Devil himself. I can almost see a demonic face leering out of it, a monstrous hand thrust up through the pavement grasping the flaming carcass.

  Now that the danger is over, the full realization of our predicament crushes me in a death grip: two men injured, one airplane lost, damage to the runway – all valuable State assets. Everything my fault.

  Wasn’t it my inspired idea to hold these games today? Hadn’t I disregarded all objections? I’d wanted to challenge Beltran, and he rose to the bait. The rest of the squadron had to overcame their doubts and go along.

  Katella, especially, spoke out against this madness. Why the hell didn’t I listen to him? And now this. I am the worst kind of fool!

  Then there is the slobe boy ...

  As if compelled by an unseen hand, I find myself walking toward the grass alongside the runway where he has been thrown onto his back. As I shuffle along, wind hisses in my ears like a venomous snake. I am preparing to cross a barrier; on one side is my whole previous life, on the far side crouches the terrifying future ...

  I look down at the lifeless boy. He seems very small and oddly undamaged, considering what he’s been through. There is little blood, and a trace of the triumphant smile remains on his lips. Except for his unnatural stillness, he might be taking a nap.

  For all the talk about glorious death and sacrifice for the Fatherland, I’ve never seen a corpse before – though I’ve always shouted for blood louder than most. The reality is so different from the swaggering words.

  “Why did you do it?” I murmur.

  Moments pass, still as the grave, just me and the slobe boy. The sun beats down and the hiss of the wind retreats to the corners of my mind ... Then a harsh voice intrudes.

  “That little bastard tried to kill me!”

  I turn to see Beltran at my side. A dressing covers his wound, and his face has been cleaned. Blood splatters the front of his flight suit. The others are joining us now, except for Katella who remains lying alone beside the runway.

  “Can you see all right?” I ask. “Is your mind clear?”

  “Good enough.” Beltran gestures toward the dead boy. “No thanks to him.”

  He turns toward the others.

  “Can anybody tell me why he did that?” he says. “Right this minute he could be walking around free. He’d have a story to tell his grandchildren – and there’d be plenty of them. These slobes breed like rabbits!”

  His voice is shrill, with a note of hysteria. No doubt Beltran has made his own assessment of our situation and is as scared as I am. The others look on with long faces – impossible to believe that they are the same lads who greeted me with such enthusiasm only minutes before.

  I address Bezmir. “How goes it with Katella?”

  “I took the splinter out and staunched the bleeding,” Bezmir says. “He should be all right til we can get him back.”

  We stand around awkwardly for a minute, everyone afraid to suggest any course of action. Finally Albers speaks up.

  “What are we going to do, Commander?” he asks.

  “What else?” I say. “We fly back to home base and report this incident.”

  “No!” Beltran shouts. “That’s the worst thing we could do.”

  I look at him, shocked. Even within the relaxed discipline of our squadron, his outburst is crossing the line of insubordination.

  “Forgive me, Commander,” Beltran says. “I am ... understandably upset.”

  “Of course,” I say.

  Beltran steps back a few paces, so as to address everyone as a group.

  “It’s this way,” he says. “We all know it was stupid to come out here, but we can’t change what’s happened. We have to adjust to the situation.”

  “How can we do that?” Grushon asks.

  Beltran draws in a deep breath. He looks toward me for a moment, then back to the others.

  “We hide the body and report to home base that I crashed on my own,” he says.

  The lads all gasp with surprise, but some also nod agreement. I can’t allow this to go on.

  “Nobody will believe that you, of all people, crashed out while the rest of us landed safely,” I say.

  “Why not?” Beltran shoots back. “Anyone can make a mistake, and the wind is very unpredictable today.”

  I shake my head, but say nothing. Beltran’s logic is sound, and it silences me.

  “But the kid will be reported missing,” Albers says. “Maybe some witnesses saw us pick him up.”

  “My cousin is in the secret police,” Sipren says. “He’ll make sure the slobe
s don’t cause any trouble.”

  “There’s the answer,” Beltran says.

  More heads nod approval. To my discredit, I find myself mulling over Beltran’s proposition. Could we actually pull it off?

  Possibly. If we all kept to the story, if Sipren’s cousin proved efficient – if nobody got curious and started poking around this auxiliary airfield looking for bodies.

  And then what?

  The secret police would have something on me. To this point I’ve avoided entanglements with them. The secret police have always been somebody else’s problem, now they’d be my problem. How would I have to repay the ‘favor’ they did for me? And a lie would be at the center of my life. Even if everyone else forgot about today’s events, I would always know.

  How would Stilikan, my elder brother, handle this situation? Right this moment he is serving in the great Eastern war against the slobe empire. He is battling the toughest men the enemy can offer, shouting defiance into their faces – not terrorizing unarmed civilians like I am. He is a true hero, while I am sliding downhill into moral cowardice.

  I could never dishonor myself with such falsehood. I glance at the dead lad ... I could never dishonor my victim like that.

  “Well, what do you say, Commander?” Beltran asks.

  His tone is borderline disrespectful, especially the way he pronounces the word ‘Commander,’ as if I’ve lost my right to hold the position. He fixes a hard glance on me with his good eye. The other eye is swelling shut, giving a grotesques aspect to his face.

  Everyone else looks toward me eagerly. It is obvious that they support Beltran. Dead moments pass while I flounder in a sea of doubt. Then I shake my head.

  “I’m reporting this incident to the wing commander,” I say. “I’ll take full responsibility. Perhaps things will go easier for the rest of you.”

  “Damn!” Beltran cries. “So now we lose everything!”

  He tears the charred remnant of scarf from around his neck and hurls it to the ground. He stalks away a few paces, then turns back toward me. Pure hatred shoots from him like a thunderbolt.

  All discipline vanishes as I lose control of the squadron. Four of the lads, led by Grushon, close in on me. Rage twists their faces into ugly masks. Others stand by, uncertain. I can’t see what Bel is doing.

 
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