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Captain "Crunch" O'Malley was exhausted.
For the last ten hours, he had been flying his RF-4X Super Phantom in a wide search pattern over the eastern sector of the Philippine Sea. Under normal circumstances, he would have quit for the day a long time ago.
But there was nothing normal about today's recon.
What Crunch was looking for, what he was actually hoping not to find, was nowhere to be seen. Except for the occasional green dot of some obscure, uncharted island, all that stretched before him were thousands of square miles of empty ocean. Water, water everywhere.
"But not a drop to drink," O'Malley muttered.
A quick glance at his control panel's fuel quantity indicator told him that the Super Phantom was getting critically low on gas.
He banked to the left and set a new course.
"Time to head for the barn," he thought.
His new destination was a place called Xmas Island. Located approximately 400 miles southeast of Luzon, Xmas Island had nothing to do with Santa Claus or Divine Birth. Just the opposite, in fact.
Xmas was owned and operated by the Triad Holding Corporation, a collection of some of the most greedy and cutthroat wheeler-dealers on the planet. Absolutely anything could be had for a price on Xmas—it was capitalism gone amok. Any kind of operation was allowed on the twenty-square-mile island: prostitution, drug manufacturing, weapons running, money laundering ... and jet refueling. Just as long as Triad got its cut—usually 50 percent—anyone could do business there. It was all strictly cash and carry. If the payment was short one penny, justice was swift. No trial, no jury of peers, no appeals—only execution. Sometimes as many as ten a day. All in all, it was definitely not a place for the faint of heart.
O'Malley had been to Xmas Island dozens of times over the past few years and knew it well. None of the squalor, fifth, and disease that was rampant in this part of the world existed on Xmas. The reason was simple: despite their econo-authoritarian ways, the Triad Holding Corporation poured a substantial amount of their profits back into development and maintenance of the island. So, oddly, Xmas boasted the best living conditions in the Pacific Rim—a nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there.
The island itself was beautiful. Except for the harbor, where much of the importing and exporting went on, the entire coastline was covered by gorgeous beaches of pearl white sand. Fishing was ideal and plentiful, wild fruits and vegetables grew everywhere, cattle and exotic game hunting provided the meat, five state-run distilleries provided the booze. And it was said that the power surfing there was better than any other place in the world outside of Hawaii.
But Crunch wasn't going there to fish or eat or surf or get drunk. This time is was simply a fuel-up stop for a tank of JP-8 and maybe a bottle or two of scotch. Then it would be up and out again for another 2500-mile loop, this time south, skirting northeast New Guinea, continuing his search for a nightmare.
He activated his radio and set it to the regular hailing frequency for the control tower on Xmas Island.
"Triad One, Triad One, this is Phantom Zebra-Adam. Over."
Crunch continued to eyeball his fuel status while waiting for a reply. But none came. He radioed again.
"Triad One, Triad One, this is United American Air Force Phantom Zebra-Adam. Are you receiving me?"
Nothing. The island was just appearing through the haze on his southern horizon. Crunch dialed over to the Xmas tower's emergency frequency.
"Triad One, I am approaching at 28,000 feet, about sixty-four miles east of you. Request permission to land and purchase refueling services. Over."
All that came back was an earful of static.
"What the hell is going on?" he thought. "These guys go out of business?"
He brought the RF-4X down to 10,000 feet, tried the radio again, and got the same results. He quickly double checked his own UHF set system—maybe something was busted on his end. But everything came back green. The island was now looming in the distance about forty miles away.
Gradually reducing his airspeed, Crunch descended through the cloud cover preparing for a visual fly-by over the island. He also armed his weapon systems—just in case.
He was down to an ass-scrapping 1,000 feet when he streaked over the island's outlying barrier reef and immediately headed inland. A bad feeling began to rise in his stomach. His gut was telling him that something was very wrong on Xmas—a correct assumption as it turned out.
He broke through the last cloud cover about a mile in. He wouldn't soon forget what he saw.
Gone was the lush green vegetation that had covered the island. Now the landscape below consisted of nothing but hundreds of smoking craters. No buildings. No roadways. What few trees remained were only charred stumps.
What the hell happened here?
He banked towards the main town and was over it four seconds later. It was a pile of rubble and smoking debris. The high rises, the casinos, the barrooms, and the brothels were all gone. All that was left were thousands of bodies and body parts lying everywhere. It was astonishing—Crunch had never seen such utter devastation. The entire twenty square miles of the island had been completely leveled.
It was the Bingo Bell that snapped Crunch out of the shock of viewing the hellish vision below. Reality returned. He was running out of fuel—fast. He needed gas, and he needed it now.
He nosed the RF-4X toward the airfield, located at the island's southern tip. It too was completely devastated. All that was left of the control tower was its foundation. Every other major structure around it was little more than a pile of twisted steel and busted concrete.
Suddenly Crunch got lucky: Most of the auxiliary runway still looked serviceable. That was the good news. The bad news was that right smack in the middle of the usable part was an airport maintenance truck, laying on its side, burning wildly.
Crunch quickly assessed the situation. His fuel gauge was buried past bust—he was flying strictly on fumes. He had to put the Rhino down before it put itself down, and he had only once chance to do it.
He roared back around, this time at a right angle to the runway, lined up dead on with the overturned truck. His weapons control system up and running, he let loose his single offensive weapon, a Maverick air-to-ground munition. The missile shot out from under his right wing and Crunch banked hard starboard as soon as it cleared. Twisting in his cockpit, he turned to see the AGM hit the truck square. Its warhead exploded as advertised, scattering chunks of the burning vehicle everywhere.
The runway was now as clear as it was going to get.
He came around a third time, even as he heard his last fuel reserve tank click off. The Phantom hit the runway with a bone-jarring thud. Crunch immediately deployed his drag chute, but the landing proved to be like driving through an obstacle course. He fought with the stick, careening the big jet away from chunks of concrete, steel, and debris scattered across the concrete ribbon. Finally he got passed most of the wreckage and gradually brought the Phantom to a halt.
He popped the canopy and slowly climbed out of the cockpit, his 9-mm pistol in hand. The devastated landscape was like something from a science fiction movie. And absolutely quiet. He jumped from the plane and cautiously began to reconnoiter the immediate area. It wasn't long before he was convinced that not a single soul had survived whatever the hell had happened. He slipped his sidearm back into its holster. Except for the occasional squawking of a couple of vultures fighting over a piece of flesh, the silence was deafening. It was so eerie Crunch started to get a major case of the creeps. He had to find some fuel—quick.
The gas storage tank area was destroyed and still burning—he knew he'd find no usable fuel there. However, through the smoke and haze, he could see the remains of two of the island's defensive fighters still burning further up the runway. They had crashed, apparently on takeoff. Acting on a desperate hunch, he began walking along the edge of the strip, and in less than a minute, he found what he was looking for. The fighters had obviously scrambled at the onset of the disaster, letting go of their drop tanks in the process, just to get the hell off the ground as quickly as possible. Buried nose down about three feet into the mud in front of him was a 1300-liter drop tank from an old French-built Jaguar. O'Malley rapped it with his knuckles. It was full.
It took one hour and forty-five back-breaking minutes, but Crunch finally managed to get the fuel out of the drop tank and into his fighter. But while scrounging around in what was left of the hangers nearby for rubber hoses and the makings of a hand pump, he discovered some intriguing evidence. There was almost nothing of any value left inside these bombed-out shells of buildings. Just about anything that was not tied down had been cleared out; sinks, toilets, electrical wiring, doorknobs, pipes, windows. As strange as it seemed, it looked like everything had been taken before the buildings were destroyed, including, he was sure, any usable weapons and ammunition. This told him something he didn't know before. The place had been stripped clean first. And then it was leveled.
Xmas Island did not die a natural death. No hurricane, earthquake or tsunami could have caused such complete and utter destruction. No—he was convinced the island had been attacked, and attacked so ruthlessly that it defied comprehension. In all his years of combat, he had never witnessed such total and wanton devastation. The big question was: Who was responsible?
He was afraid that he already knew the answer.
He climbed back into the fighter and quickly took off, overflying the island twice, the cameras in his nose cone working frantically to capture the entire ghastly scene below. Then he kicked in his afterburner and rocketed away to the east.
He'd found his nightmare.CHAPTER 2
San Diego Harbor
48 hours later
United American Armed Forces Captain Ben Wa scanned the pile of black and white photographs spread out in front of him and felt his jaw tighten.
"Unbelievable," he whispered. "Just incredible ..."
He was sitting in the conference room aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Mike Fitzgerald. The ship, battered and hurting from a recent campaign in the Pacific, was now in dry dock for major repairs and refitting, a project expected to take a year or more. But because the carrier still held a lot of important communications gear, the United Americans were using it temporarily as a base of operations.
The photo prints before him were so recently back from the darkroom, Ben could still smell the developing solution. When he first saw them, he actually thought they were shots of the lunar landscape. There was photo after photo of nothing but desolation and craters. But when he learned they were of Xmas Island, a place he was familiar with, he was simply astonished. The once-beautiful haven of capitalistic hedonism was now as barren as the moon. Absolutely nothing was left.
And one thing was clear: Whoever was responsible for the devastation was a very dangerous force indeed.
"We sure as hell don't need this," Wa whispered again.
That was an understatement.
It had been a tough past few months for the United American Armed Forces. The USS Fitz and the men aboard had taken a terrific beating in the all too recent confrontation with their latest enemy, the Combined Greater East Asian Warrior Society, otherwise known as the Asian Mercenary Cult.
This fanatical, quasi-religious organization had successfully invaded the American continent just over a year before. Occupying most of the territory west of the Rockies with fifty infantry divisions, the Cult also had two very dangerous aces up its sleeve—a pair of nuclear-armed submarines, known as the Fire Bats, which continually patrolled the waters off California, their sixteen-megaton ballistic missiles ready to be fired at a moment's notice.
The United American forces couldn't readily attack the occupying Cult forces as long as these submarines cruised offshore. On the other hand, the Cult did not have the military or logistical ability to expand eastward over the Rockies and beyond. The result was a stand-off—a "Phony War"—existing between the two sides for several months.
Then American intelligence sources learned that the Cult was preparing for a nuclear first strike against the helpless American citizens held captive by the occupying forces. The United Americans had to act and act fast before a million or more innocents were immolated.
The Americans' counterplan was to stage a preemptive air strike called "Operation Long Bomb," using the Fitz as its launching platform. Modeled after the famous Jimmy Doolittle Raid during the early days of World War II, the idea called for bombing a number of key targets on the Cult-controlled Japanese Home Islands, one of which had also been high on Doolittle's list: Tokyo.
The strategy was to do away with the Cult's leader, Hashi-Pushi, a drug-crazed madman who exercised absolute control over a brutally repressive, far-flung Pacific empire. The hope was that with the head of the snake eliminated, confusion would cascade down to the highly regimented Cult officer corps and quickly diminish their fanatical willingness to die—or to order the launch of a nuclear warhead on their own.
Incredibly, the bold American air strike worked.
Using an ungainly collection of land-based jet fighters adapted for carrier service, the United Americans nearly burned the entire city of Tokyo to the ground. The destruction was so swift and so widespread, Hashi-Pushi chose to do the Americans a favor and blow his brains out.
But the battle was far from over.
Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Cult had created a tremendously efficient underground factory on the nearby island of Okinawa, dedicated to manufacturing World War II-vintage kamikaze airplanes. Hundreds of explosive-packed Mitsubishi-type A6M Zeros were being turned out twenty-four hours a day by this facility, mainly with the labor of enslaved natives.
Faced with this unexpected threat and their own diminishing resources, the small American fleet—consisting of the Fitz, two supply ships and the Norwegian-manned battleship, USS New Jersey—eventually staged a brilliantly conceived air-land operation which resulted in the total destruction of the huge Okinawa complex, freeing thousands of slave laborers in the process.
When news of this defeat flashed around the world, the Fire Bats disappeared and the Cult ground forces began withdrawing from West Coast. With this stunning victory, the American continent was totally free of foreign invaders for the first time in years.
But a final confrontation with the Cult was still to come.
Massed around what was once called Pearl Harbor, the Cult was tricked into expending its entire aerial strength on the destruction of a United American "phantom navy." The result was the bulk of the Cult's forces were either killed or isolated on the island of Oahu, their food and water supplies obliterated. There, they were left to the unheroic fate of mass starvation, cannibalism—or suicide.
But now, as Ben scanned the photographs once more, he realized the fight was not yet over.
He was not alone in this conclusion. There were three other men in the conference room with him, and by the grim look on their faces, Ben knew that they silently agreed.
Sitting to his left was JT "Socket" Toomey, one of the most experienced and capable fighter pilots in the United American Armed Forces. Next to Toomey was Major Pietr Frost, the Free Canadian pilot who served as military liaison officer between the United American Armed Forces and the democratic government of Free Canada.
And sitting at the far end of the table was Major Hawk Hunter, known to all as The Wingman, the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived.
It was to him they turned to now.
Hunter shifted uncomfortably in his chair. For once he was well-rested, but hardly by design. Shortly after the defeat of the Cult forces at Pearl Harbor, he had returned briefly to Okinawa. On the return flight, he somehow ran out of fuel and was forced to ditch on a deserted island at the very western end of the Hawaiian chain.
Excerpted from Wingman by Mack Maloney. Copyright © 1993 Mack Maloney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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