Again and again, he had played the numbers game on the computer screen before him. Again and again, he studied the ballet of her death in the choking grey skies over the Waldreich mountians. Again and again, his fists clenched at her turns, moved unconsciously to tease a throttle that wasn’t there and pulled back to put her nose to the blue one last time.
And through it all, the Demon Lord could not paint in his mind a picture of his target. The recordings taken from Vixen’s mangled black box were remarkable intact given what her final resting place looked like. She had been returning from a textbook strike mission on a camp of “revolutionaries” the government of Ustio wanted put down before they rose into a wildfire. He had visited her that morning, jealous of how her Su-34/FULLBACK would taste clean air while his F-15C/Eagle was in pieces after flying far more hours than it was ever supposed to. She was merciless in her teasing, that the hellhound on his nose would have to sit and wait like a good boy until she got back, and tempted him with a last kiss and the promise of all good things to come.
The mission itself was uneventful. She had coordinated her location and vector with Valeris Air Base controllers, held an easy thirty-thousand ft altitude while she locked up her targets and then rolled easily into a screaming dive and almost mach speeds. Pitiful anti-aircraft fire rose up to challenge her, but she paid it no mind as she unloaded twenty-thousand pounds of armament on helpless tanks, fuel trucks and radio stations. Whatever hardware was left after her run was quickly abandoned as any surviving troops ran into the snow.
Her course back home should’ve been just as simple, a series of turnpoints on a map, confirmed by her satellite navigation and her hand map. But deep in the rocky peaks, someone had been waiting for her. Her radar had never classified what it was, but it was fast, closing rapidly on Vixen. She had seen it, and dodged its first shot with panicked luck. He’d watch her speed scream up and down as she dove away and wove around snowflakes trying to get clear. But it hunted her, missing barely with its second missile shot before scoring its deathblow with something else. Cipher could practically feel it now, the moment the FULLBACK shuddered against the impact and rocked onto its side before beginning its final spiral into the rocks, smashing belly-first into what was once a riverbed. It was a moment that never failed to choke him with his own heart and engorge the fire in his blood.
These thoughts still ran though his mind, even as recycled air pumped into his chest and the roar of thirty-thousand pounds of power pushed him through the black of the moonless night. At first, he didn’t want to take this mission, as blowing holes in a runway owned by a bunch of mercenaries and idiots didn’t thrill him. It was the location that made him take it, because this normally forgotten about strip was just on the edge of the mountain pass. Even something short range could have launched from here and waited for her in the nearby peaks, waiting to pounce on his Vixen. So maybe melting some concrete would at least steady his nerves so the Demon Lord could think.
“Eagle Eye to Galm One, we’re reading a huge uptick in radar activity! Multiple missile systems!”
“Copy. Galm One engaging.” It was the only response he had to offer his overwatch. And the only response that mattered. Though his heart began to rock his chest like the thud of a drum, it was not in fear that Cipher narrowed his eyes. It was in rage.
He saw the first missile coming to greet him before his Eagle did, and the Demon Lord spun belly to sky and fired in return. His aim was true and the foe that had tried to burn him down lit the ground around its crater like wildfire. Pushing past the sound barrier, Cipher lobbed another missile into the bulbous fuel towers near the runway and the entire valley was suddenly illuminated by a second sun.
The Eagle howled over the strip as he made his first pass at barely a dozen feet above rooftops, mauling hangers and fleeing trucks with cannon fire. Setting eyes on the control tower overlooking the carnage, he snapped his wings into a vertical rise and released one of the free-fall bombs into the main window. The flames ate effortlessly at equipment and man alike, with one poor soul tossed from the tower like a rag. Cipher watched the man fall without sympathy or pity, but only hoped that the fall killed him and not the burn of the destruction below.
His radar screen alerted him automatically to the approach of something from the air, but he’d paid it no mind until now, for the Eagle now saw its target as a pair of Belkan-built J-10/FIREBIRD. The smaller interceptors quickly moved to face him, one breaking away to try and pull the Demon Lord to expose his flank to either enemy.
Cipher smiled a predatory grin and kept his head-on course to the fool that now challenged him. Both jousters fired a missile within the same second, but where he bounced his Eagle higher into the air like a rock off the water to avoid the shot, his foe had attempted a simple bank away from the approaching death. Cipher caught the J-10 right at the throat and snapped it in two, leaving only metal rain to greet the ground below as he turned to face the other opponent. The smaller fighter had placed itself behind a line of hapless grunts who aimed their smaller shoulder-mounted missiles at the Demon Lord and fired, but Cipher pulled his Eagle into as tight a loop as it would manage, sending the defending shots effortlessly into the clouds. The second bomb that dropped from his wing was just as unforgiving as the first, landing square in the cluster of soldiers that were now trying to escape him.
Come on, you son of a bitch…show yourself to me! Just for a moment! I’ll burn your ashes into the snow for what you did to her! His mind raced as the second J-10 pulled into a its own tight turn to try and evade him. Stomping on the rudder pedal, the Eagle slid like a knife in the air and brought its teeth down on the supple spine of the FIREBIRD. Unspent fuel and ammo sent shards and flakes of his latest kill in every direction, and the Demon Lord rose away with ease.
Coming around again to align with the runway, Cipher let go his last two dumb bombs, the heaviest of the two he’d chosen for this mission. Punching through concrete and steel with ease, two volcanoes of dirt and stone bubbled under the ground before ripping the skin away from the ground, cracking the strip for dozens of feet in every direction. Only the central hanger remained standing now, sheltering what looked like a simple large transport. And if that massive bird stayed still, the Eagle may have overlooked it. Only when the lumbering mass began to pull out of the hanger did the Demon Lord set his sights on it. Maybe they thought he was expended, or maybe they were counting on its nature as unarmed prey to dissuade him, Cipher wasn’t sure. Nor did it matter.
“Attention, attacking aircraft! We surrender! Repeat, we surrender! Our plane is full of wounded and will not engage!” they called to him, the fear in the voice clear even through the static. And for a moment, he hesitated. All of this death, all the money this mission would bring him…and it meant nothing. The one thing he’d hoped for, the sole reason the Demon Lord had been summoned here, had not showed. Somewhere out there sat a pilot, man or woman, who now wore his beloved Vixen as simply another kill. Someone had dared to challenge the ruler of these skies by ripping his heart out.
Cipher offered them only one response, his missile smashing through the transport’s canopy and detonating somewhere in its belly. It shattered like paper from the blast, unsupported wings crashing down into the snow and rotting fire catching hold of the hanger the helpless target had emerged from.
The Eagle circled around one last time as the flames blotted out the stars above him. He knew she never would’ve taken that shot, she was better than that. He knew that somewhere, far away from the carnage, the operators on the ground and aboard the AWACS that had seen him through thick and thin had just watched him carry out a massacre. It should’ve mattered to him…but it didn’t.
“AWACS Eagle Eye to the Demon Lord. I think you’ve just earned your reputation.”
It’s been a long time since I visited one of my favorite pilots and his world. Usually, he is the hero, a Demon in name only out of respect or fear from his enemies. Never his friends.
But that’s not always the way he has to be.
I hope you all enjoy.