Abandoned fragment #2– The Recce

I made good progress last night on putting in changes for Shadows, but I am at the point where I need to take time to make some minor additions (a few hundred words each) in different places to iron out thin spots or rectify some piece of action that just didn’t work. I anticipated having to do so, so I am not terribly worried about it. More critically, though, at this point I have only cut the text down to something just under 169,000 words, which is still too large (as a comparison, Tolkien’s Return of the King is only about 137,000 words). It seems unlikely now that I will get this novel under 140,000, a number I had in the back of my head as a target size. I don’t want to engage in radical surgery, but I don’t want Shadows to drag like a boat-anchor, either. I will just have to see.

Meanwhile, I have another fragment to pull out of the dust-bin. This segment is from the same alternate-history novel as fragment #1, but precedes it in the story’s chronology. The Confederation sends out a reconnaissance (a ‘recce’) to investigate a mysterious Spanish base in Holland.

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Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel

The jet cleared the cliffs and left the coast of Scotland behind. Ahead lay the North Sea, aglimmer with moonlight and the reflected lights of the shore. The pilot could make out the glow of the coasts of Europe ahead as a distant haze of light, but beyond that there was only the night.

“Well, if they didn’t know we were coming, they do now.” The nav-widef operator’s voice was laconic and amused in the pilot’s headphones; but he could still hear the younger man’s tension.

“They were going to twig eventually,” the pilot replied. Inevitably they had passed over towns and hamlets as they crossed Scotland; even it wasn’t so sparsely peopled that a straight-line course could avoid every human habitation. And they had to fly a direct route, no fuel margin for anything else. The pilot felt an irrational twinge of guilt; beyond doubt they had left a path of ten thousand broken windows in their wake, flying nape of the earth at transonic speeds. They’d leave ten thousand more on their way home– if they made it that far.

The pilot eased the RJ-22 down closer to the surface of the water, shedding the altitude that had carried them over Scotland. One hundred-fifty feet, one hundred, eighty…there he hung it. Any lower and they might get caught in their own spray.

“We’re putting up a mighty big rooster tail,” the navigator said.

“Just so we stay ahead of it,” the pilot said. “Keep the nav and widef reports coming—I don’t want to smack a fishing-boat’s mast without at least a formal introduction.”

“Roger. We’re on-course, waypoint Midge coming up. Nothing on the forward scope.”

“Understood.” So perhaps all the multinational fisherfolk who crowded these waters by day had gone home of the night. Good. This mission was chancy enough without hitting a boat at these speeds.

They’d waited a week for a clear night on which to fly this mission. The pilot would have preferred flying by the dark of the moon, but his commander had said that waiting two more weeks was out of the question. Supreme Command wanted pictures of the complex by the Zuyder Zee yesterday– so that meant that the full moon would be their cheery companion while they were over the target. “Just keep moving,” was what the commander had said. The pilot had resisted the urge to tell his superior officer what he could move.

While waiting for clear skies the pilot had studied the available maps and intelligence on the target until he was seeing the complex in his sleep. Four targets, scattered across miles of flat pastureland, polders and islands at the southern end of the Zee—together with enough anti-aircraft emplacements, both guns and surface-to-air missiles, to shoot down a whole bomber fleet. That much protection around a Spanish site had apparently excited interest somewhere up the food-chain; but no one had bothered to share their guesses about what the Spanish were up to in Holland with the pilot and his navigator.

Get in, get the pictures, get out; the three Gets of Recon. The pilot wished it was that simple. Truth was, no one had ever tried an aerial recce this deep into Spanish territory before, and certainly not with a fast-burner. They’d talked about sending in a prop-driven RP-101, which certainly had the range. But the brass had realized that the slower craft would spend too much time in Spanish-controlled airspace and would almost certainly be shot down. The RJ had a better chance of getting in and out fast, and staying ahead of interceptors. Their fuel-margin would be next to non-existent, though, since they had been flying firewalled and nape of the earth since entering Spanish airspace. The pilot thought about that and wondered why he had volunteered.

A two-tone alarm sounded softly on the control panel. “External tanks empty,” the navigator announced. “Switching to internal.”

“Understood,” the pilot said. He eased the plane up, cautiously. “Jettison the externals.” He added another smidge of altitude; it would be really embarrassing for them to be knocked out of the sky by their own fuel tanks ricocheting off the surface of the ocean.

“Roger.” There were twin thumps on either hand. The pilot glimpsed in his rear-view mirror the white spray the tanks created when they hit the water.

“We’re clear,” the navigator said.

“Good.” The pilot eased the plane back down. The tanks had gotten them much more than halfway to the target, just as planned. They were what had made the mission possible in the first place; on internal tanks alone the RJ-22 would have run dry about 900 miles short on the way back, somewhere over the very cold waters past the Faeroes. The tanks, outsized and custom-designed for the mission, had been so heavy that the pilot had barely been able to get the jet off the runway at takeoff. He’d cursed them then; now he took back every word.

They rode in silence for a long time, seeming almost to skim the water. The pilot tried to stay alert; they had known that this would be the hardest part of the mission until they actually reached the target. Not just because they were running down an alley with Imperial widef coverage on three sides, but also because the slightest mistake or inattention could plow them into the sea before they could blink.

“Waypoint Midge,” the navigator said at last. “Dutch coast up next. We’re on course, no hostiles on the scope.”

“At some point they’re going to have wake up,” the pilot said.

“Hopefully everybody still thinks we’re joy-riding hotshots of the brave League Air Force,” the navigator said. “You know the type—scarves, mustachios, a little sestina at the café before a leisurely siesta and a fifteen minute evening patrol.”

“Sounds like the life. Let’s hope you’re right.”

“It’s sure thing, captain. I…dammit, surface contacts! Dead ahead, ten miles—one, two, three, five fishing boats or trawlers.”

“Coming up,” the pilot said. He took the RJ higher, nudging her over one hundred feet and leveling off. At better than nine hundred miles an hour the plane would cover that ten miles in less than a minute. “How big do they look?”

The forward-scanning widef on the jet was sensitive enough to resolve the ears on a man’s head. “Small fry, sir; you should clear them easy.”

The pilot grunted. “Good.”

At that moment the pilot spotted the fishing boats, outlined sharply in the moonlight against the water. They seemed to be hove to for the night. They loomed for an instant as silvered shadows, and then flashed past beneath them. At once the pilot eased the RJ back down.

“Whoa—they all rolled like bowling pins,” the navigator said. “They stayed afloat, but I doubt anybody’s still asleep on any of them.”

“Pretty close for a sonic boom,” the pilot said. That was something he could have done without; their own parting advertisement, trailing just behind them. Anybody with half an ear would know that a transonic plane had just scorched their roof-tiles, or, in this case, pilothouse; and the Spanish didn’t have many jets that fast. One more thing he couldn’t do anything about, like the sweat pooling under his armpits.

The pilot made a decision. “Going to light enhancement.”

“Roger.”

Holding the stick in one hand, the pilot used the other to slip the goggles riding on his forehead down over his eyes and activate them. At once the night disappeared, and the world turned a grainy green. The pilot could see the ocean below, see the gentle waves on its surface; the moonlight glimmer became a sparkle. The pilot marveled at this machine, even more remarkable than infrared goggles; he could even see wispy cirrus clouds far overhead. He reminded himself to be cautious; although with the moonlight the light-enhancer’s made the night very nearly like daylight, his field of vision was quite restricted, and things like high-tension power lines and the tips of wireless antenna towers would still be hard to see. And the batteries in the device wouldn’t last forever. But he felt better being able to see what was ahead.

“Keep the widef reports coming, Paul,” he told the navigator. “I can’t see everything, even with these new eyes.”

“Yes, sir. We’re on course, Waypoint Nudge and the Dutch coast in three minutes. We’re painting it now; no sign of hostiles.”

Beyond a few miles the green faded into indistinct mists; not actual mists, but the limits of the light enhancement devices; except, here and there, the pilot could pick clusters of light, man-made illumination– farmhouses, hamlets, off to the left a major glow that could only be a city. That was good; once they started to pass over inhabited areas the light-enhancer could only improve in performance.

And then the coast emerged from the mist, resolving into a low shoreline with sand dunes and tidal marshes. “Coast in sight!” the pilot called.

“Waypoint Nudge– now,” the navigator said.

The coast rushed at them and passed underneath. The pilot had to gain very little altitude to clear the dunes; now he understood what they meant when they called this place ‘the low countries’. The jet thundered across polder and marsh, its sonic boom shaking the land and the backwaters.

“Come right five degrees,” the navigator said.

“Coming right five.” The pilot careful put the jet over on its new course. At once they were over water again– the Zuyder Zee itself.

“That’s it! You’re dead on course; four minutes to the first IP at Harderwijk.”

“Arming cameras.” Those were the only weapons the RJ-22 possessed; one stereoscopic camera with light-enhancement, an infrared camera, and a high-speed camera linked to a strobe light that could take a hundred frames a second. They would need every ounce of their speed; with the jet making almost twelve miles a minute they would be over each target for only moments. That was one drawback of using a jet for this work. Another was the fact that the RJ-22, while as fast or faster than most fighters, was nowhere as nimble; they would have to come back and line up on each of the targets after making turns that would carry them back out over the Zee to the north and nearly halfway to Arnhem to the south. The targets were clustered between Harderwijk and Nunspeet in an arrangement that seemed almost calculated to frustrate aerial reconnaissance. Which perhaps it was. They would each have to have a run of their own.

The pilot had told himself he would not do what he now did; he looked to his right. Just a glance; enough to see the bright glow, in the distance, of Amsterdam. It was as close as he was ever likely to get to his ancestors’ home; their very good and prosperous home, before the Spanish won the war against the Dutch Protestants. And here he was, generations later. The pilot reflected that God must love irony.

“Thirty seconds,” the navigator said. “We committing?”

Get tight, the pilot told himself. “Committing.”

“Roger.”

There was the coast again; and now the pilot could see the glow of the two towns that were his boundary markers, on his left and on his right. He brought the jet up, to just under a hundred feet, partly for safety, partly to give the cameras a better field. They cleared the salt marshes and thundered inland.

The pilot could hear the navigator taking in a breath. “IP One…now!”

“Cameras on.” The pilot thumbed the master switch on his joystick. He could hear the whine of the cameras over the roar of the jet’s engines.

The light-enhancer showed the pilot that they had hit their first target dead-on; a huge complex of barracks, workshops, and motor parks. They shrieked over the buildings and were almost immediately over countryside again.

Light flashed, and the plane bounced; airbursts decorated the sky above them. “Goddamn,” the navigator said, “there is someone awake down there.”

The pilot glanced overhead. “They mis-fused the first volley. They aimed too high. Won’t happen on the second pass.” He checked the cameras; they had shut off automatically on schedule. “Give me a course.”

“Keep hanging it straight for thirty seconds, then come right one-three-zero degrees.”

“Roger.”

They rocketed off over the countryside, leaving the flash and rumble of the antiaircraft behind. The pilot did a quick inventory of the plane. He could see nothing that indicated battle-damage; the plane’s speed was good, fuel level steady, no alarms.

He looked up from the half-second glance. What he saw, the navigator saw on his widef scope at the same instant.

“POWER LINES!” they both screamed at once, a synchronicity that would have been hilarious under other circumstances. The pilot pushed the stick down, resisted the panicked urge to shove it hard. The plane dipped and shot under the low-arching wires with what looked to be only inches to spare. Steel towers flashed past on either side, looming monstrously close and tall.

Then they were clear. The pilot eased the plane up again before it found a tree trunk to smack into. The sky was clear, the horizon empty of further snaggy obstacles.

There was a long moment of silence in the cockpit. “Sir,” the navigator said at last, “I have to report that I have pissed myself.”

At that moment the pilot found nothing funny about the statement. He told his own stomach to stop leaping about and making such a fuss. “Don’t think you’re the first navigator to ever do that,” he said. “Forget about it; stay focused. What’s my course now?”

The pilot heard the navigator take a deep breath. “Come left one-six-three degrees.”

The pilot swung the plane around in a broad arc. He glimpsed pastures and plowed earth below their left wing; in one meadow, he spied a herd of cows. The animals were on their feet and running; running, he realized, from his plane, which to them was an unholy noise out of the clear night sky. He liked cows; he felt another unreasonable flash of guilt.

“Here come the lines again, sir,” the navigator said tightly.

Forewarned now, the pilot eased the jet down in plenty of time. They cleared the lines with ease and pulled up smoothly on the other side. “See,” the pilot said, yielding to a speck of humor, “it’s not so bad when you practice a little.”

The pilot sensed rather than saw the navigator giving him the finger. All the navigator said was, “Twenty seconds to second IP, sir. You’re on course.”

“Roger.”

Now it was the pilot’s turn to perform a sphincter-check. There was an old joke that it was ill-advised to make a second run through an antiaircraft zone you had just riled up. The pilot reckoned that preparing to do it for the second time out of four tries marked you as certifiable. I may be crazy after this. If he lived.

“Second IP!” the navigator shouted.

“Cameras running,” the pilot said.

The airbursts started at once, much closer this time, shaking the jet. The pilot held on to it, knowing they had little margin for recovery if they were hit. Running AA at ten thousand feet, where you had room to think of something before hitting the unforgiving ground was one thing; doing it at ninety feet where the least mistake could plow you into the earth, with no time to eject or even think oh, shit, was another. His back was drenched with sweat as he concentrated on keeping the plane level and watching for more power-lines or aerials.

The second target rolled past under the plane. There were two zones; the first was a huge complex of what appeared to be ammo bunkers, although the actual number of bunkers was small, only about thirty or so within a vast system of concentric fences and gates that would have outdone any prison in the Confederation. One of the bunkers, however, was huge; it passed under the plane and the pilot heard the navigator whistle. The thing was half-buried, but the pilot could see that it was easily five or six acres in area, and appeared to be massively armored with steel and concrete.

Just beyond the bunker complex was an airfield, a large complex in its own right, with three runways, a concrete and steel control tower, hangars, and large fuel points. The runway looked long enough to handle any size aircraft.

Then they were past it. The pilot brought the jet up a little, to clear the coastal dunes. Almost at once they were angling out over the Zee.

Something kicked the plane in the tail. The pilot cursed and fought to control the machine. If they had been twenty feet lower the plane might have plowed into the Zee. As it was the pilot screamed with the effort to get the jet’s nose back up. It seemed to skim the waters– surely that had to be the pilot’s imagination– before angling up and shooting back skyward on its engines.

“Give me a report!” the pilot demanded.

“Looks like we took a burst pretty close off our left rear, sir,” the navigator said. His voice was strained. “Engines are still good, but we’ve got some fairly impressive holes in the number two left aileron and the vertical stabilizer. How are the controls?”

“A little hard to move, but we still got them.” Actually, the control surfaces were as stiff as an old preacher. But there was no jars or hangs in the rudder and aileron action; the pilot could still control his craft. He swept his eyes over the fuel gauges. They didn’t seem to be losing fuel. “We’re flyable.”

“Good.”

The pilot suddenly noticed the navigator’s voice. “Are you all right?”

“I took some frags,” the navigator said, his voice tight with pain. “Mostly my arm, I think.”

“How bad you bleeding, Paul?” The pilot instinctively tried to turn around to look, but his light-enhancer was in the way.

“It feels like a flesh wound; I’m functional.”

The pilot permitted himself one moment of dithering, then said, “Get yourself bandaged as best you can. What’s my course for the third IP?”

They turned right in a broad, looping circle that carried them, by necessity, far to the north and down to the east. The center of their circle was Nunspeet, a splash of white brightness close by the dark, shallow sea, always on their right. As they crossed back over the coast and leveled out on course for the third IP, that brightness suddenly winked out. The pilot had an instant to wonder if the light-enhancer were failing, when the lights of the base complexes ahead began to go out as well, and then the further glow of Harderwijk disappeared.

“Was wondering how long it would take them to get around to that,” the navigator said. The pilot realized that he was witnessing a belated blackout going into effect. Were the air-raid sirens sounding only now down below? It seemed typically Spanish; late by half.

They began to pick up AA again, more scattered than before, as if the Spaniards had blinded themselves in turning off the lights. “Ten seconds to third IP,” the navigator said, sounding a little sluggy but carrying on.

“Roger.” The pilot put his finger on the camera button.

They hit the IP and the cameras whined. The pilot pictured what was going on in the camera compartments; the ultra high-speed film screaming through the cameras, moving from one cassette to another. If the film were to break it would jam itself into the recesses of the cartridge and the photo boffins would have to open the whole mechanism in a completely dark room if they hoped to recover any images at all, and the pilot wondered why he was worrying about such things as the first part of the third target passed underneath.

This was more ambiguous; a series of buried chambers or bunkers, marked only by the great steel doors that opened onto a huge apron of concrete. The hardstand was linked to a set of well-paved roads. There were eight or ten of the chambers, apparently cylindrical in cross-section, but well-buried.

“Shit,” the navigator said. “We got a widef signal painting us…they got a lock.”

“Feed ’em chaff,” the pilot said.

The plane shuddered. “Chaff away.”

The pilot pictured the chaff grenades exploding in the plane’s wake, the shimmering streamers of foil drifting and twisting in the plane’s wake. Then he forgot about it completely as the second part of the target appeared. This was another underground facility, but its purpose was more clear; the lines of concrete-armored piping leading away from the facility suggested fuel or liquid gas of some kind. The camera whined and shut off as they left the tank farm behind.

“Shook the lock…no, dammit, it’s back. Shit, we got a missile launch!”

“Flares!” The pilot shoved the plane even lower and prayed there were no big trees in their path.

Light burst in their wake. “Give me a course away,” the pilot demanded.

“Come left ninety degrees– and watch out for those damn power lines.”

“Turning.” The pilot swung the plane left; the ground seemed very close.

The sky erupted in flame behind them. The plane bounced and shimmied as a shockwave shook it. “Missile hit one of the flares,” the navigator said, triumphant. “Thank God for second-rate Spanish missiles.”

“Don’t count your missiles before they’re launched,” the pilot muttered. He leveled out.

An alarm went off, a high-pitched whistle. “We’re bingo for fuel,” the navigator said. “You want a course out of here?”

The pilot hesitated. His navigator was wounded, the plane damaged, and they had just escaped a surface-to-air missile by the grace of God and a twenty-crown flare. In the end, though, there was no choice.

“We gotta hit that last target. We got a few hundred pounds extra margin. It’s on the way out of here, anyway.”

“More or less. All right, I’ll give you a course as soon as get past those power lines.” The navigator killed the alarm.

They shot under the lines for the third time this night; the pilot was becoming almost comfortable with them. Almost. He felt sinfully proud that he was dealing better with them than the navigator.

“All right– run her for twenty seconds, and then come left one-seven-five degrees.”

“Roger.”

They ran out, turned, passed under the lines again, and the pilot could hear the navigator’s audible sigh of relief. He pulled the plane up to one hundred feet; their last target was a strange, dike-like structure close to the coast, and he wanted to make sure he cleared it. He shrugged to himself at the added risk from ground-fire. Surely God wouldn’t let them eat a missile now, when they were so close to finishing. The pilot hoped God agreed with him.

“Fourth IP in ten seconds.”

“Roger.”

The pilot could already see the fourth target ahead in the light-enhancer; a berm or dyke like a wall a mile long across their path. He nudged the RJ-22 up higher. Oddly, they were taking no AA fire.

“Fourth IP.”

“Cameras running.”

There was something strange about the top of the dike. Huge concrete pads or plates lined its top, with a couple hundred yards separation between each of them. One of these, however, appeared to be out of place; a small tower of some sort stood beside it. They were on it, bouncing over the wall like a runner vaulting a fence, before the pilot realized what he was looking at.

“Holy SHIT!” he yelled, even as the missile– a huge missile, being lowered into some sort of lighted cylindrical cavity deep enough to hide the whole machine– flashed past underneath. “Was that what I think it is?”

“An SICR,” the navigator whispered. “A fucking Strategic Intercontinental Rocket. I thought we wiped those out last year.”

Both men had had friends in the bomber force that had destroyed the Lisbon rocket base the previous year. Many of them had not come back. “We didn’t knock the knowledge of how to make them out of the graybacks’ heads.” Suddenly High Command’s interest in the base became clear.

AA bursts erupted around the plane. “Dammit.” Now the Spanish were shooting– which made sense, since the RJ-22 was headed away from the precious rocket. The pilot reasoned that the graybacks must have been testing whatever platform raised and lowered the rocket when the Americans started their camera runs over the base, and for some reason had not been able to lower the missile at once. The pilot shoved the plane down on the deck again.

“Going home. Give me a course.”

The navigator didn’t answer at once. “Paul?” the pilot called.

“Sorry, sir– just feeling a little woozy….”

“Dammit, Paul, don’t you pass out on me! I need you. Give me a course.”

The pilot could hear the navigator take another deep breath. “Come right…thirty-two degrees.” He hesitated. “Aw, hell…I’m tracking multiple high-performance targets. Looks like…they finally got those fighter jocks out of bed.”

“Screw them. Let them eat our exhaust.” With even a few miles head start the recon jet could outpace the Spanish fighters. If the fighters didn’t have missiles. If the Americans didn’t run out of fuel. “Just give them the finger for me, huh?”

The navigator didn’t answer. “Paul?” Still no answer. The pilot glanced in his rear-view mirror. The navigator was slumped to one side.

The pilot looked ahead, across the moonlit sea. Just get him home. The pilot sent up a silent prayer and pulled the jet over to the course the navigator had given him, pointing its nose toward Iceland.

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The novel this came out of was entitled A New Heaven and A New Earth, and it was the longest and most complex novel I had written to that point (nine years ago)– 131,000 words with multiple story-lines and characters. In the novel there were several sub-stories, such as this one, which were not part of the main story-line but whose events influenced what happened to the main characters. This one almost stands on its own as a short-story, but not quite. I hope it was enjoyable.

Later.

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