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WolfSinger Publications

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The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home
- Rob Jackson

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LongWayHome

After a war and a plague, eight pilots escape from a Russian prison camp. They need to try to return to what remains of the United States. While most of the world is trying to rebuild from the rubble, they have been warned of a plan by some still fighting the last war to finish what the war had started.

They must make their way across a ruined land largely controlled by groups of shifting alliances to thwart the plot, and the head of the team carrying out Operation A is the former commandant of the prison camp. He's made it personal.

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Chapter 1

Reynaud walked across the tarmac with Bill Taylor. It felt good being in his flight suit again, even if he had an angry mob of butterflies in his stomach and still felt a little weak from his bout with the plague.

Of eighteen pilots in the squadron, only he and Bill remained alive and duty-ready. Half had been lost in combat and the rest had either died of the plague or were still recovering. Reynaud’s memories suffered some fuzzy spots and he couldn’t remember the exact day in early May when the war broke out. He was already bed-ridden with the plague at the time. After the out­break of the plague, the war sputtered along like a damp fuse. Both sides had launched some missiles, almost on a one-for-one trade-off, and within the first four days both sides had destroyed most of the oil refinery capacity of their enemies and almost everyone else. Most major military bases had been hit, with vary­ing degrees of accuracy and damage, and some major cities had been devastated.

It was a measure of the Air Force’s desperation that he and Bill had an escort mission for a lone B-1B to wipe out a major staging area. The bomber was still sometimes derisively called “the Groundhog” or “the Hangar Queen,” although they’d finally worked out most of the kinks in the system.

Bill grinned at him. “Break a leg, Lieutenant Dechaine,” and walked to his boarding ladder. Reynaud smiled at Bill’s quirky way of wishing his wingman luck. He continued to his own machine, an F-22 Raptor, a deadly, shapely bird that looked as predatory as its namesake.

Most of the groundcrew had also been killed or incapacitat­ed by the plague and as Reynaud climbed the ladder to his “office” he saw the remains of the old Russian Frogfoot that attacked the base and destroyed several hangars and aircraft before it had been shot down.

Reynaud still felt more than a trace of admiration for the gutsy Russian pilot. Too bad he’d augered in with his plane.

Bill and Reynaud had chosen the best of the surviving air­craft. Bill, as the senior officer, had first choice of aircraft, and he was to lead the mission. He settled himself, pulled on his flight helmet, and ran through the pre-flight checks before closing the canopy.

Bill led the way to the strip and into the air, then to the rendezvous point with the bomber. They stayed low and formed up with the bomber at an altitude of less than two hundred feet and sped eastward, keeping to one of the alleys cleared through the SAM screen. They crossed the safer German airspace and flew over the Polish border within less than a quarter of an hour. After they’d cleared most of the population centers, they opened their formation. The bomber stayed on the deck, seeming almost to touch its own shadow while the fighters climbed above and half a mile away in the two and ten o’clock slots.

He was never sure of what happened next, although he guessed Bill’s electronic countermeasures system had suffered an attack of gremlins and, instead of being invisible to Russian radar, drew it like a magnet.

The first warning was a flash of motion then Bill’s plane blew up. Almost simultaneously, a pair of MiG29s flashed past in a shallow dive. No time for thought, only reaction. With no time to turn before the MiGs would be out of range, he dropped his external tanks and kicked the rudder, throwing his Raptor into a spin. The missiles his ship carried were the new Rocs, which supposedly needed no lock-on time but were armed when launched and locked onto the target within half a second. As his plane lurched around in a wickedly fast spin, Reynaud saw a flash and launched.

The missiles leapt out from under his fuselage then Reynaud had to give all his attention to snapping out of the spin. He was losing altitude rapidly, the ground rushing up to meet him while he tried to stave off an attack of vertigo that would leave him helpless. On one of the sweeps around he saw the red and black petals of an explosion blossom then he fought the fighter out of the spin.

As soon as the fighter was again under control, he scanned the air and ground below him. He noticed a broad river he took to be the Vistula and, just east of it, he discerned a black arrowhead that had to be the bomber and, behind it and closing rapidly, the other MiG.

“Big Friend, bandit at six o’clock,” Reynaud chanted then opened the throttle and put his plane’s nose down. He’d begun to close the distance when two missiles streaked away from the Russian fighter. One of them hit a ridge the bomber had just cleared, putting up a cloud of rock fragments while the other went off almost inside the port engine nacelle. The MiG sprang upward to avoid the airborne debris and almost centered itself in Reynaud’s sight.

Reynaud guessed either the Russian’s warning system had also failed or he was so fixed on killing the bomber he was ignor­ing it. The Cajun couldn’t launch another missile—the bomber was too close to the MiG for him to count on the electronic brain of a numbskull missile. Reynaud continued to close. Still appar­ently totally absorbed in stalking his prey, the Russian never saw Reynaud slip into the kill-slot.

He checked his own tail. Clear. He chopped the throttle to avoid overshooting, centered the exhaust of the MiG in his sights and, as soon as he could see the national markings on the upper sides of the wings, touched off a burst with his cannon. The gun growled for an instant and the Russian fighter simply came apart in the air. Pieces of plastic and metal flew along the slipstream then the jet exploded.

Reynaud had reflexively closed his eyes as wreckage streamed back toward his own bird, but he heard and felt the hammering of metal against his own plane. Something gashed the canopy above his left shoulder and he knew the vacuum cleaner of his engines were sucking in everything from a fifty-foot radius, and the sweeper was rushing forward at almost the speed of sound. He hit the speed brakes and the plane yawed sharply. Some of the hydraulics had been damaged and only one of the brakes had opened. He tried to close the open brake but the machine continued to yaw, while warning lights flickered like lights on a Christmas tree and the engines began to emit a grinding sound as they started to come apart. He tried to chop the throttle again but the grinding sound became louder and the engine began to howl like a banshee warning of death.

The engine was building up to an explosion. Reynaud jetti­soned the canopy then jerked the ejector ring.

It felt like being flung, face-first, into a brick wall while being shot out of a cannon. Black seeped around the edges of his vision as the shell exploded and he was hurled into winds of over four hundred miles an hour. Somehow, he remained conscious and as he reached the top of the arc he kicked free of the ejection seat. He started to fall, then the opening shock slammed him against his parachute harness with bruising force as the chute bil­lowed out above him.

Hanging from his chute lines, he looked around and saw three black smudges still staining the sky and saw his own plane spin into the ground. Immediately it exploded and a geyser of flame shot upward. More smudges in the east, where the damaged bomber, one of its engines leaving a black trail, was already nearly out of sight. Four planes and three men gone, another plane dam­aged, all in fifteen seconds or less.

He was captured within hours by local militia, and was glad to see regular troops, convinced the locals were ready to lynch him—or worse. After he was sent to the prison camp, he decided he’d merely traded an ugly death that might last for hours for a death just as ugly, but lasting for months.

~ * ~

Reynaud shivered, partly from the cold, partly from sup­pressed horror, rage, and shame. The POW uniforms provided him and the airmen around him were too thin for the early winter in these mountains on the Russian-Polish-Czech border. More chilling than the cold was the reason the airmen had been assem­bled on the parade ground.

Reynaud’s eyes scanned the compound, taking in the chain-link fence and the guard towers with their machine gun posts. Inside the fence stood the prisoners’ huts and just outside it the ugly, blocky administration building and the guards’ barracks. To the north, beyond the patch of cleared ground, a pair of guards led out a prisoner who moved as though drugged.          

Another guard held up a sheet of paper and, in Russian, bel­lowed, “This prisoner is being executed for insufficient diligence in carrying out his assigned duties.” This meant the supposed rea­son for his execution would be “malingering.” The actual reason was always the same; Colonel Chernikov and Lieutenant Oshevsky were vicious sons of bitches who liked to feel a prisoner’s bones break or tissues tear under their hands. He wondered which of them would carry out this murder.

Both the colonel and the lieutenant strode out to the guards and the prisoner. Halting, the colonel stripped off his bearskin coat. As usual, when he carried out an execution, he wore battle