by James Jago
Summary: The Mysterons are playing 'Divide and Conquer', and the irksome cad of a pilot who has won his daughter's heart is on Skybase for a joint SPECTRUM/RAF/Royal Navy Exercise. Colonel White has had better weeks...
Disclaimer: The following not-for-profit story is blah blah blah...
I dedicate this to my beloved girlfriend Amber, who took me to Fanderson 2005 and is indirectly responsible for giving me the idea. There may be certain vague references to the unaired episodes I got to see whilst there, but they shouldn't give anything much away, I hope.
"Skybase, Angel Lead. Visual on bandits, engaging!" The leading White Falcon interceptor dived on the 'enemy'; exercise or no exercise, Destiny was a firm believer in fighting like you trained and training like you fought, and intended to take this seriously.
The four Lancaster B strike bombers released a full payload of training missiles. They had no actual warheads and would explode a safe distance from Skybase if not disposed of in time. Which isn't going to happen on my watch, Destiny thought to herself. Not with half of SPECTRUM and a good chunk of RAF Strike Command -not to mention Paul- watching the whole thing on the remote camera feed.
"Alright, Angels, concentrate on the missiles for now. And watch out for fighter cover!" She hastily assigned each of her ten missiles a target and fired. The others followed suit, which still left plenty of leakers. "Fox one, Fox one!"
"Destiny, we've got multiple bogeys approaching, bearing zero seven three; computer makes them Super Tempests," Green warned.
"Roger that," Destiny replied tersely, looping her aircraft over towards the incoming fighters. There were a dozen of them, big delta-winged fighters with twin tails and an unusual three-engine configuration that made them slightly faster than the White Falcon but not much less manoeuvrable under optimal conditions. The quartet of Penguin VI anti-shipping missiles and centreline drop-tank rendered conditions a long way from optimal, but those twin Sky Dagger heat-seekers at each wingtip could do some serious damage. Switching over to 'Simulate' -wouldn't do to really blow up a British fighter- she cut in her afterburners and screamed across the formation with her cannons crackling. Three aircraft streamed chemical smoke and broke away, their pilots making obscene gestures at the Angels. The survivors let rip with virtual missiles, their trajectories plotted by Skybase's computer with an error margin so tiny as to be negligible (repeated attempts at bribing Serena having failed miserably), but it was to no avail. Only six Super Tempests were able to launch their missiles before succumbing, and the Angels and Skybase's own point-defence cannons disposed of all but three.
The Angels exited their fighters to wild applause from the ground crew and the defeated British pilots, who had landed first due to their lower fuel state.
The debrief was rather more subdued. "We took three hits, one of them dangerously close to the aft missile magazine," Colonel White said gravely. "It wouldn't have brought us down, but it would have cost us much of our strike capability, for which the opposition can well afford to lose six fighters. However, three hits out of forty-two is a ratio that speaks well of your abilities. Well done, Angels."
The RAF/Fleet Air Arm debriefing took a rather more solemn tone. "Well, what have we learned?" enquired their leader, a tall redheaded Group Captain by the name of Tufnell.
"Bring some Vampires as escorts next time, or at least a lighter missile load," replied one of the Navy observers; for some complicated historical reason Fleet Air Arm operated the Ark Royal's Vampires for air-defence purposes whilst the RAF took on the strike role, so no Navy aircraft had participated. "And take out the CAP first."
"Agreed. Anything else?"
An RAF officer raised his hand. "It might be worth using some anti-radar missiles to put the close-in weaponry out of action. Maybe send a few Vampires in first to wear down the combat air patrol and knock out Skybase's radar, then use Tempests and Lankies to finish the job. SEAD applied to maritime warfare, if you like."
"I think it would be better to load the Tempests with a mixture of Penguins and anti-radar," put in another pilot. "That way, they can either take out the Penguins and chance it with their radar, or stop radiating and rely on the Angels. Who incidentally will hopefully have Lankies and maybe a few Vampires to worry about as well. Ultimately, the way to take this thing out is to give them too many choices, all of them bad."
"Both sensible ideas. We'll run some simulations in the morning. Now, let us take advantage of the numerous consolation drinks that will surely be offered by our hosts!"
The pilots colonised the bar, talking shop. Scarlet and Blue resorted to brute force to get through and acquire a beer each.
"Well," Blue said thoughtfully, depositing his cap on the table, "I wouldn't say anybody disgraced themselves, but I sure hope they never Mysteronise Skybase."
"Or HMS Ark Royal," Scarlet replied. "Those flyboys still knocked three big holes in us, remember?"
"Yeah. I'm sure Simone will need a lot of consolation this evening," Blue chuckled.
"Adam, it's no good taking refuge from your burning jealousy in heckling!" Scarlet laughed. "Who on Earth do you think you're fooling?"
Meanwhile, Destiny and the other Angels were listening to an account from one of the RAF pilots of his famous ancestor's exploits during the Second Falklands War.
"So their entire strike aircraft contingent now consists of two Typhoons and four Hornets off the Washington," Flight Lieutenant Julian Harris explained. "The Las Malvinas is bearing down on Ascension with every intention of wrecking the place, and if they manage that then the Falklanders and what was left of our guys are as good as beaten. They haven't got an awful lot of firepower either; a few Penguin 3 anti-shipping missiles, distant ancestors of what we went after you with, and a load of ALARM beam-riders. Obviously, this has to be a hit-and-run job. They fly really, really low -Dad jokes about how he thought the spray would ruin the paint- in line-astern with only the lead aircraft's terrain-following radar on and then ripple-fire everything they've got at the carrier and her escorts from maximum range, then spin around and head for home. Result? One destroyer sunk, one so badly damaged she had to be scrapped, and the carrier spent the rest of the war in drydock having the holes in her hull patched up."
"Not bad for an ad-hoc tactic," Destiny allowed. I'll remember that one... The Angels were supposed to take a crack at the Ark Royal some time the next day. She saw Scarlet glaring at the admittedly attractive young officer, and suppressed a very un-military giggle.
"Not a dry seat in the house," Blue remarked bitterly. "What's he got that I don't?"
"I think it's because all that swagger is covering up deep-seated insecurities, which makes him attractive in a little-boy-lost sort of way," Green explained. "But lighten up; I can see the engagement ring from here."
"That's hardly a guarantee," Scarlet replied grimly. "Hmm, I wonder why Colonel White's glaring at him like that?"
"I don't know and I don't ever want to know," Blue replied. "Another round?"
"Not for me; I'm on duty tomorrow. G'night, folks." Green retreated.
Later that evening, Scarlet encountered Destiny in the lift. "You seem to have hit it off with that young man," he remarked guardedly.
"Oh, yes. His father was one of my childhood heroes," she replied. "Ever read anything by the Harris brothers?"
"What, 'The Blade And The Storm'? That was his father?" Peter Harris had been more or less accidentally propelled into hero status by his rather more proactive take on escape and evasion in hostile territory; he'd taken an Argentine officer hostage, maintained an hour-long standoff until flushed out with CS gas and then engineered a dramatic breakout from captivity with the assistance of some Falklanders, wrecking most of an Argentine camp in the process. His brother Thomas had been involved in equally impressive feats of derring-do both in a Scimitar light tank and on foot.
"The very same. Poor boy's got an inferiority complex roughly the size of Canada!" she giggled.
"Hence his apparent goal of impregnating all five of you Angels," he replied sourly.
"Not likely!" Destiny giggled. "Any guesses as to why the Colonel looked like he was about to explode all evening?"
"Because him screwing his way through the entire female population of Skybase would be bad for morale, I should expect."
"That's not the half of it. He's marrying Victoria in three months!"
Colonel White was on the phone to his daughter at this very moment. "Daddy, much as I love you, you talk complete rubbish sometimes!" she said lightly. "I can't believe that even you think he was trying to seduce five women at once!"
"I tell you he had all the bloody Angels staring at him with utter rapture!" White fumed.
"No doubt he did, and I'm sure they'll all be insanely jealous of me! I know you think he's got a dangerously high sex-drive, Father, but do you suppose he also has a death-wish?"
"I know he's got the common-sense of a loaf of bread," White replied. "So don't say I didn't warn you."
Victoria's expression turned deadly serious. "Father, unless you can produce definite photographic evidence of infidelity on Julian's part then I shall treat this as another one of your attempts to turn me against him, and ignore it accordingly."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Vicky! I'm only doing this because I don't want to see you get hurt by that irksome little Casanova you've got it into your head to marry, alright?"
"Well don't waste your breath!" she snapped, and terminated the connection.
White sighed. "I give it a month, at the most."
Diana called him a few hours later. "Victoria's just been on the phone. Charles, we've already discussed this. You two have already had the row, and Vicky won hands-down. You're just going to have to put up with it."
"So I'm supposed to sit at the sidelines and watch him chase everything in a skirt before they've even finished eating the damned wedding cake?" he replied bitterly.
"Charles, you know and I know that if he'd played away whilst he was courting Victoria then she would have castrated him personally. And please, please promise me that you'll try to get on with him at the wedding."
"I don't yet know if I'll be able to make it. I might have my hands rather full saving the world from alien invasion," White replied sarcastically.
"If you want Vicky to ever speak to you again, you'll turn up," she replied coldly. "Goodbye, Charles." The screen went blank.
"Dear God Almighty," he muttered, heading for the drinks cabinet and pouring a whiskey. "I didn't expend a great deal of effort -and appropriate much needed SPECTRUM resources- to rescue her from kidnappers for this!"
Meanwhile, the being once known as Conrad Lefkon - AKA Captain Black- was climbing through the window of the services building attached to a large Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force fighter base. In his bag, he had a large quantity of an exceptionally powerful nerve agent.
In the early stages of the war his masters had preferred to work with inanimate objects. But it had been realised at a fairly late stage that vehicles apparently operating themselves was liable to arouse a certain amount of suspicion. As a result, it was no thought expedient to dispose of the personnel and maintain a veneer of normality.
Black ruminated uncomfortably that this was liable to be rather easier to bring off in a miserable backwater like Ragnarok, Alaska than a major military installation, but put it out of his mind. It only had to work for long enough for the Chinese fighters to hit Skybase -and, more importantly, be seen to hit Skybase- and humanity's inherently violent nature would do the rest. And I ought to know, the part of him that was still human remarked icily in the privacy of his own head. It wasn't exactly a group decision to shoot first and ask questions later, was it Conrad?
He shook himself mentally. This was not the time or the place for such thoughts. He went over to the water purification system, and added the nerve agent. Now, provided his opposite number at a US airbase in Taiwan had been equally successful, it was just a matter of time...
The five White Falcons flew in a perfectly straight line, just far apart to avoid each other's jet-wash. Only Destiny had her terrain-following radar on, using it to stay above any especially large waves. It was a risky game of follow-my-leader in supersonic jet fighters fifty feet from the sea, but it ought to let them sneak up on Ark Royal fairly successfully. The waves and spray ought to conceal them from airborne early-warning aircraft as well, or so they hoped.
HMS Ark Royal appeared on her forward-looking infrared picture. "Hello, sailor," she said quietly. "Target in sight, girls. Spread formation and open fire!"
Almost the same instant they fired, six Vampires and four Tempests dived out of the clouds. The Angels rose to meet them, and in the ensuing dogfight the missiles were forgotten.
Destiny sideslipped to avoid a missile, and opened fire with her tail guns. "Oh, shit!" She had checked that they were on 'Simulate' before she'd fired, but the guns had still fired live rounds!
"Bloody hellfire, woman!" Julian yelled, radio protocol forgotten as he brought his damaged Tempest back under control. "I'm going home; you lot are playing for keeps this morning!"
"Exercise terminated!" Colonel White barked. "Destiny, what the hell happened?"
"I don't know, sir; the computer swears blind that the weapons are set on 'Simulate', but the cannons still fired live."
"That's confirmed, sir," Green added. "The Tempest seems to be only slightly damaged; he's making an emergency landing on the carrier."
"Oh? Good, good." Colonel White tried not to look disappointed.
"Wasn't as bad as it might have been," Group Captain Tufnell reported a few hours later. "He lost his centreline engine and part of his rudder, but he was able to land without difficulty. Harris finds the whole thing quite amusing, though he swears you put her up to the whole thing."
White merely laughed. "I don't hate him quite that much, but the thought isn't without appeal!"
Tufnell laughed too, but then turned serious. "I know how he comes across. He's trying too hard to be as good as Pete, and he does have more of a swagger than he ought, but his heart's in the right place. And he isn't shagging his way through the fleshpots of Dover the way he used to before he met Victoria; damned if I know how, but she's actually tamed him."
"Be that as it may," White replied, his imagination shutting down in despair at what Julian must have been like before Victoria got involved. "He's still an irresponsible fighter-jockey with a mental age of fifteen, and the thought of him having anything to do with Victoria..."
Tufnell sighed. "Charles, I've known Julian a long time. His parents are old friends; we were all out there in the Falklands together. He's a good kid underneath, but he's spent so much time in his father's shadow he's overcompensating. He'll grow out of it in time."
"Before or after the divorce?"
Tufnell thought about it. "Now there you do have me."
Destiny stared pensively out of the window. It had been proven to be an electrical fault in her aircraft that had caused the cannons to fire, but she still shuddered at what had nearly happened. "Destiny, there's a call for you," Harmony chimed in.
It was Julian. "I figured you'd be pretty shaken up, so I wanted to see how you were. I'm sorry I yelled at you, by the way."
She laughed. "I'm the one who ought to be apologising; I nearly shot you down."
"The CO told me what happened. It wasn't your fault; computers throw up glitches like that every so often. Part of me still thinks your boss told you I was a Mysteron agent or something, of course!"
Destiny bit her lip to avoid giggling; all calls aboard Skybase were liable to be monitored and recorded, and she was prepared to bet quite a lot that the Colonel himself was listening to this one.
"He's not as bad as all that. He's worried about Victoria, and you do come across as a bit on the rakish side. Try and see it from his point of view."
"I don't have a daughter I know of -which is probably your point- but I see what you mean. He doesn't make it easy on me, though, I must say. Okay, he knows my reputation, but setting a private investigator on me was just a bit too much!"
This time, Destiny did laugh, convinced he was making it up. "Well, what do you expect if you try and marry the daughter of a former secret agent? I take it this investigator found nothing that the Colonel didn't already know, of course?"
"A big, fat negative result; I haven't touched another girl in two years." Julian shrugged. "I'd better go. See you on the next exercise."
Destiny sighed. "Oh, sweet Jesus. He had to be kidding, right?"
"Destiny? My office. Now," Colonel White demanded coldly.
"I suppose he told everybody," White said grimly.
"Not at first, sir. We recognised the photograph of her he had in his wallet. I don't think he even knew you were aboard."
"I bet. Damn it all to hell, he's no business doing this! If this gets any further there won't be the merest scrap of discipline left aboard. What was he calling you for, anyway?"
"He wanted to see how I was, and apologise for yelling at me after I nearly killed him, sir." Destiny kept her tone neutral with an effort.
"I see. That will be all, Lieutenant."
Destiny left without a word. White stared at the door, suddenly finding himself with a lot to think about. Assuming Destiny was being truthful, it was a gesture so unlike Julian Harris... No, a voice reminiscent of Diana's reminded him, unlike the person you think is Julian Harris. And how many times have you met him? Twice.
The 'Action Stations' klaxon blared throughout the ship, and suddenly White had more immediate problems.
"They're Chinese, J-17s by the look of it," Destiny reported. "They're carrying a full payload of Fei-Lung 15 anti-ship missiles. Still no response to the radio."
"Understood. Assume covering formation. At fifteen kilometres, open fire."
"SIG." Destiny armed her weapons, but deliberately refrained from seeking a missile lock. She was damned if she was going to provoke them into opening fire...
Suddenly, the dozen Chinese fighters all fired at once. Breaking several FAA rules with their language, the Angels chased down the missiles as best they could. The J-17s broke off, unable or unwilling to offer combat. "Let them go," White ordered. "They won't be the last wave by a long shot."
"This is Ark Royal. What the hell's going on?" Tufnell demanded. "We're picking up four more waves of Chinese fighters heading your way."
"I've no idea," White replied. "But you'd better be ready in case they take a crack at you as well."
"No doubt. I'm scrambling everything we can scrape together to intercept those fighters; even you couldn't hold out against that lot on your own!"
Julian swore under his breath, cutting in his afterburners and praying for his Comet long-range missiles to get a lock on the Chinese/Mysteron/Christ knows fighters before they could launch. If I let her father get blown up Vicky will crucify me, he thought grimly. "Come on, come on... aha! Fox one, Fox one!" Eight J-17s veered away, trying to evade the missiles. Three succeeded.
The survivors let loose their payloads. Still swearing under his breath in a low monotone, Julian turned to intercept as many missiles as he could. A J-17 pulled in behind him and opened fire. Julian popped his airbrakes and dropped the nose, forcing the enemy fighter to overshoot. As it filled his HUD, he poured tracer into its engines and sent it into a screaming death dive. Seconds later, the pilot ejected. Julian barely had time to register the fact before he was in range of the nearest missile, and attacked it with his guns.
It blew up about a yard from his Tempest, sending the fighter pitching violently upwards. Suddenly deprived of all forward momentum, it began to tumble uncontrollably. Julian wrestled with the stick struggling to regain control. Sixty thousand feet gave him enough time to regain control, more or less, but the stick wasn't very responsive. Must have taken damage to the control surfaces. Now what about weapons? They still worked, according to the computer. Okay, I'm still in the fight. He climbed as best he could, seeking a lock on the nearest J-17. "Come on, just a little closer... Yes! Have some of this!" The fighter exploded prettily. "Right, anybody else?" A Chinese fighter dived at him with cannons twinkling. Julian swung about to reply with his own guns, and the two aircraft came alarmingly close to colliding in midair. Julian's Number One engine caught fire, and the Tempest began leaking fuel badly. What happened to the J-17 he didn't see.
"Blue Three requesting emergency clearance," he called, knowing perfectly well that he couldn't stay in the fight any longer but bitterly regretting it all the same.
"Took you long enough, you lunatic! You're clear all the way in," Green replied.
"Copy that. You might want to let the Angels land first; the way this thing's playing me up I might make a mess of your flight-deck," he warned. "I'm alright for a few minutes, I think."
"You're pissing fuel and hydraulic fluid and you're an engine down, Blue Three. Are you sure that's a good idea?" a fellow RAF pilot warned.
"I tell you I can hold her for long enough! The Angels don't have the fuel to divert to Ark Royal, and if I crack up..."
"Julian!" White yelled into his own microphone. "Stop trying to play the hero and either punch out or get your arse on the deck, you stupid boy!"
"Copy that. Here goes nothing..." He lined up on Skybase's flight deck and forced his landing gear down with a burst of compressed gas. "Left three degrees, up a little... good. You're in the groove. Just keep it steady..." the landing control officer urged. "Your nose is dropping, pull up! Pull up!"
"Can't! Controls aren't answering!"
"Wave off, Blue Three, wave off!"
"Too late... she won't respond..."
"Eject, Blue Three! For God's sake, eject!"
But it was too late. The Tempest slammed into the flight deck, bounced twice and skidded to a halt against the control tower. Swearing even more loudly than before, and trying desperately to ignore the pain from the cracked ribs he suspected he'd picked up, Julian throttled up and tried to wrestle his battered aircraft over to an elevator platform. "Come on, old girl, just a bit further... Oh, great." The Tempest began to slide off the deck. "Move, you piece of junk!" Gunning his remaining engines, he reached the elevator by essentially tacking into the wind.
As the elevator settled and the rescue crews rushed forward, Julian ran a somewhat abbreviated power-down checklist and popped the canopy. "Sorry about the paint!" he remarked cheerfully.
"Don't apologise to us. It's Colonel White who's gonna kick your ass for busting up the flight deck!" one of the medics joked.
"Arrgh! For the love of God, don't make me laugh!"
"How is he?" White asked Dr Gold.
"Three ribs and his collarbone broken, and a concussion on top of that, but he'll live." Gold paused. "You could at least try and look pleased, Colonel. I mean, if you want to be the person to explain to Victoria that her betrothed got himself killed landing on your carrier..." White usually found the man's sense of humour reassuring, but not today.
"You're skating on thin ice, Major. May I speak to him?"
"By all means."
Julian was sitting up in bed, reading a newspaper. At the Colonel's approach, he attempted to salute through a mass of bandages.
"Lieutenant, I don't know if that's how you normally approach an in-flight emergency, but it was idiotic. That aircraft wasn't safe to land. That you pulled it off without killing yourself or putting too many dents in Skybase speaks well of your flying skill, I'll give you that, but it was an unnecessary risk. If you're going to insist on marrying my daughter then for her sake, I'll thank you not to do anything that stupid again, or I will personally ensure that you wish you had never been born. Is that quite clear?"
"Good." He stalked off.
"Well," Julian remarked thoughtfully, "compared to our last exchange that was downright friendly."
Much to White's disgust, the Angels appeared en masse. "Just say the word, sir, I'll make it look like an accident," Blue offered sardonically. Julian's effect on women was starting to get on his nerves as well.
"Don't tempt me."
They convened a staff meeting twenty-four hours later. "I have just returned from New York, where the Security Council was in session." White snorted. "Session? More like a blazing row. The situation is as follows. Soon after the attack on Skybase, a number of US fighters based in Taiwan attacked a Chinese carrier battle group in apparent retaliation. Both sides deny they ordered the attacks, of course."
"Divide and conquer," Scarlet mused. "The Mysterons can't be bothered with wiping us out themselves, so they're getting us to kill one another. The only problem is that it's such a crashingly obvious ploy..."
"That's what I said," White replied, "but everybody's still at Def-Con Two. Some days I think the Mysterons might just have a point. Anyway, we've traced those fighters to an airbase on Hong Kong Island. Blue, Scarlet and Ochre, you will be collaborating with a unit of Ark Royal's marines to infiltrate the airfield and try to get to the bottom of this; the Taiwanese government is handling the US strip. And if you find that it isn't the Mysterons, then God help us all."
The three SPECTRUM agents disembarked from their Hummingbird on Ark Royal's flight deck. A dozen black-clad Royal Marines were already boarding a Eurocopter Raven special forces transport helicopter. "All change!" Ochre remarked.
"I'm going to try and set you down as close as I can safely get to the airfield perimeter. Recce-satellite passes show an increased guard presence, but everything else seems normal," the pilot informed them once they were airborne. "ETA ten minutes."
"I have a very bad feeling about this," one of the marines said to nobody in particular.
They disembarked without incident about a mile from the airfield, setting down behind a stand of trees. Scarlet led the way, silenced submachine-gun at the ready.
"There's the perimeter fence," he said quietly, going prone against the grassy slope. "I can see a four-man patrol just inside it. No dogs, though."
The senior marine nodded thoughtfully; he did this stuff all the time. "Better lay-up here for a bit and see how regular they are."
The patrols turned out to come about every half an hour, giving them very little time to get over. "If we have to, we'll neutralise one or two of those patrols," Scarlet said firmly. "Mysterons or not, they tried to destroy Skybase."
In the event, it wasn't necessary. Throwing blankets over the barbed wire and making use of specialised climbing gear, they were over the fence in record time.
"Right, we split up from here. Blue, you're with me. Search every building you can, especially the stores and hangars, for anything that looks out of place."
They spread out through the airbase, evading additional patrols. Scarlet picked the lock on a door to the service building and let the two of them in.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" He picked up the canister of nerve gas. "That settles it; they've Mysteronised the whole base!"
"Well spotted, Paul. Very well spotted indeed," Black remarked coolly. "Oh, hello again, Adam."
Scarlet sighed. "Conrad, you are annoyingly difficult to kill. I would have thought a direct hit from an exploding Bison would have got rid of even you."
"Try saying that out of context with a straight face," Black chuckled. The assault rifle he was holding didn't waver. "Now why don't you two put those guns down before somebody gets hurt."
"Wouldn't be so sure of yourself if I were you," Ochre remarked cheerfully, sighting down the barrel of her own weapon. Black didn't bother looking behind him. The rifle clattered to the floor.
"Thanks," Scarlet said briefly. He went over to the wall and wrenched open a junction box. Wrapping his black Nomex jacket around his hands, he extracted a length of high-voltage cable. "As far as Dr Gold can determine, a large electrical shock is the only thing that can seriously inconvenience a replicant granted the ability to retro-metabolise. It doesn't necessarily kill; a brief enough exposure merely restores the subject's freedom of thought and action. You don't have to be their puppet any longer, Conrad."
"Oh, come on, do you think I'd ever be trusted by SPECTRUM again?" He laughed derisively.
"Aren't I? You'll get a very large strip torn off you by Colonel White for your actions on Mars, of course, but given the alternative..." He held up the cable. "It's not a nice way to die, Conrad. I don't want to inflict it on somebody with the face of a good friend."
At this point there was a massive explosion. Black took the opportunity to dive for his weapon. Ochre and Blue emptied their entire clips into him. Without waiting to find out what happened to him, the three SPECTRUM agents retreated hastily.
"What the hell was that all about?" wondered Blue, as a second explosion echoed across the base. "What in... Look!" A quartet Sukhoi-50 ground-attack aircraft were engaged in levelling the Mysteronised airfield.
"Might've let us get out of the way first!" Scarlet muttered. Ochre merely cast fearful aspersions upon the ancestors, lifestyle and nocturnal habits of every single member of the Chinese Politburo, mostly in Gaelic because it had more interesting swearwords. The utility building took a direct hit and blew up in a spectacular fireball.
The marines and SPECTRUM agents rendezvoused at the helicopter pickup point, somewhat the worse for wear but still alive. The Raven picked them up right on time.
"Well, I suppose the Chinese decided to look after their own," Blue remarked grimly.
"Yeah. Shame every fighter on the station launched before we arrived," the marine sergeant remarked. "I'll give you three guesses where they're going."
"Damn it, boy, you aren't fit to fly!" Dr Gold yelled in exasperation.
"Under other circumstances I'd agree, but if I'm going to die I intend to do it in a cockpit, not a hospital bed." Julian dragged on his jacket and ran for the lift.
By the time Colonel White got to hear of it, the somewhat war-weary Super Tempest was screaming into the sky. "What in God's name does he think he's playing at?" White muttered. "Dying heroically, I suppose."
Julian opened fire on a salvo of cruise missiles, destroying most of them. "Look out, Destiny!" She dodged a burst of gunfire from a J-17 and blasted it with her tail guns.
"Thanks! Second wave coming up!" They dived on it. There was a massive explosion behind them as one of the leakers hit Skybase. "Bugger!"
Thirty more J-17s appeared, and engaged the Mysteron aircraft. The Angels, Vampires and Tempests wisely drew back, unable to tell friend from foe. Rhapsody's White Falcon took a stray cannon round, sending it into a steep dive in the general direction of Ark Royal. "Controls are out, I can't pull up! Ejecting..." There was no response from the ejector either. "Or not. Come on, baby, work with me here!"
Julian dived, pacing the damaged fighter. "I've got an idea. Ark Royal, prepare the emergency arrestor gear." With infinite care, he placed one wing under the other aircraft and gently pulled back. They bumped together, and Rhapsody's White Falcon seemed to fractionally raise its angle of descent.
"Julian, get out of there! Do you want to kill both of us?" Rhapsody yelled as they made contact.
"Not really, but letting a colleague crash and burn without trying every trick I can think of doesn't appeal either." Colonel White, Group Captain Tufnell and the remaining Angels were now all yelling for him to stop being so foolish. "Listen, all of you! The chances of this working aren't all that high anyway, but I am quite definitely going to die if you don't stop shouting at me and let me concentrate!"
"Stubborn bloody fool," White grated. "Julian, I did warn you about this..."
"Are you going to order me to stop trying to save somebody under your command, Colonel?" That brought him up short. "I thought not. Listen, if this doesn't work out, tell Vicky I'm sorry. I'd give anything to spend the rest of my life with her, but I won't leave another pilot to die like that; if I was that sort of man I really wouldn't deserve her. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got my hands rather full..." He switched off his radio and hauled back on the stick, his aircraft's three engines trying to do the work of five and the left wing creaking ominously in protest.
"This is one of those situations where we have to either court-martial or decorate the madman," Tufnell remarked grimly, watching the two aircraft descend. "Damned if it isn't working... Yes! Her nose is coming up! Hell's bells, it might just work!"
Still locked together, the two aircraft plummeted towards the deck. "Drop your gear if you can!" Julian instructed. Rhapsody complied. "Okay, brace yourself..." They hit the deck, skidding towards the arrestor net strung across the flight deck. One of Rhapsody's outrigger wheels collapsed and the White Falcon slewed around into the side of the bridge. Julian's Tempest hit the net with some force, then gradually came to a halt. Rather shakily, he opened the canopy and stood up. "Told him it'd work," he remarked to nobody in particular, then passed out.
Three months later:
"Of all the people they had to put on the security detail..." Scarlet muttered, adjusting his tie. "And seating me between the groom and the father of the bride is downright cruel and unusual!" It was well known that the two of them had not exchanged a word since Julian's abrupt return to Ark Royal.
Julian's best man had been killed in the dogfight, so Captain Blue had been drafted in on the grounds that, in Colonel White's words: "Victoria and I can both more or less put up with him if and when Julian doesn't bother to turn up!" Adam had gone along with this solely because the best man usually got to shag the bridesmaids, as far as anybody else could see.
"Cheer up, Paul. You're getting free booze and nibbles out of it, at the very least," Destiny pointed out reasonably.
They were gathered nervously outside the small rural church, waiting for Victoria to arrive. Julian was deep in conversation with his parents, and trying hard not to look nervous. He retained a spectacular scar across his right cheek from making forcible contact with his instrument panel in the crash, but the Distinguished Flying Cross offset it pretty well. Colonel White had only found out about that this morning, and what he thought about it was hard to say; Scarlet didn't feel like pressing his luck or his indestructibility by asking.
Julian's younger siblings and cousins -mostly teenagers- were lurking hither and thither, obviously bored. Scarlet confidently expected them to run riot come the reception. One of the Harris brothers -two year age gap or not, he was damned if he could tell them apart- intervened to end an outbreak of violence in the aftermath of a joke involving sheep and gynaecology. Probably Thomas, then; he'd settled in the Falklands with a local girl after the war.
The vicar searched for somebody who looked as if he was in charge. "I don't wish to intrude, but if she isn't here in another half an hour I'll have assign you another slot; I've got three more to do today," he warned Julian's father. Squadron Leader (rtd) Peter Harris merely laughed.
"Sabotage, I call it!" Julian muttered.
At this point, a SPECTRUM Cheetah screeched to a halt. Cursing the limousine company and the AA under his breath, Colonel White helped Victoria out of the car. "This didn't happen, alright?" he said quietly.
"The misappropriation of SPECTRUM resources, or the fact that you actually went out of your way to get me here on time?" she enquired sweetly. Scarlet and Destiny tried hard not to snigger.
After the ceremony, during which both Diana and Julian's mother both burst into tears, they made their way to a nearby hotel for the reception. Scarlet got there just behind the happy couple, and was therefore the only person to see Julian emptying a half-bottle of vodka into the children's punch.
Julian's father had been elected to give the speech. "Since I still bear the scars of my own father's attempt at one of these, I shall keep this brief and refrain from making any estimates of how long it will last." He smiled ruefully. The less said about the first Mrs Harris, the happier he'd be. "We all recall the events of the past few days, in which my dear son has demonstrated admirable reserves of... well, let's call it unwillingness to give up in the face of near-certain death. It's an attribute he'll find just as useful in married life as in flying under wartime rules of engagement, believe you me." Laughter from everybody but his partner, who pretended to scowl. "I wasn't talking about you, Heather; it's not like we ever got around to marrying anyway." Laughter from everybody, this time. "Before I mercifully shut up and let everybody get on with having a good time, I'd like to give Vicky a few words of advice. Don't under any circumstances let him near the kitchen unless under qualified supervision. Getting him to stop taking sugar in his coffee is a waste of time; we've been trying since he was fourteen. And finally, remember one thing. Regardless of how he may come across in his dealings with the opposite sex," -Colonel White winced at this- "I am reliably informed that since he met you, prophylactic sales figures in the Portsmouth NAAFI have hit a ten-year low."
"We know," Diana called out helpfully. "The PI went to quite a lot of trouble!"
"Anyway," Harris Sr continued, keeping his face as straight as he could, "here's to the newlyweds!"
It was the usual sort of wedding reception, involving at least one attempt by Colonel White to dance, his courage bolstered and his self-consciousness eroded by five cups of the allegedly non-alcoholic punch. One of the Harris children -which sprog belonged to which brother was a mystery to all, including their fathers after a few beers - commandeered the decks and played some of his own preferred music, until dragged off the stage by both Harris menfolk and given a dressing-down.
Nobody could work out where Blue, Scarlet and Destiny had gone for a long time, but when the happy couple eventually departed the mystery was resolved. The Cheetah had 'Just Married' written across the rear windscreen with shaving cream, and assorted tin cans strung from the back.
"Whose idea was this?" Colonel White enquired blandly. Everybody looked at Scarlet. Dealing with a blandly enquiring Colonel White was like juggling live grenades; a fun spectator sport, but only from a safe distance.
"What? It's my fault all of a sudden?"
"You can retro-metabolise," Blue replied, "we can't."
"I see. Since you were evidently the ringleader, you can drive!" White replied sternly. Scarlet shrugged, took a deep breath, and expelled the alcohol from his bloodstream. It was an under-reported side benefit of being a Mysteron replicant that he could sober up at will.
The car roared away into the night. "The punch was low, Julian; I have to look some of those people in the eye come Monday!" Scarlet complained good-naturedly.
"You wait until the video footage reaches Skybase," Victoria replied, giggling.
Scarlet gently beat his head against the steering wheel, and wondered if he could get a transfer to the SPECTRUM office on Mars before that tape came in the post.
Several thousand miles away, Captain Black watched through binoculars as Skybase hovered over the ruined airbase. "Next time," he ground out through his teeth, then went to find a telephone box and report yet another failure to High Command, who were not going to be best pleased...
Maybe Paul's offer wasn't such a bad idea after all, that treacherous voice remarked. Even if it would mean a messy love-triangle... Well, that was just one more thing to hate Scarlet for, wasn't it? Black shrugged, and walked off into the night.
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