25th NOVEMBER 2005 – NEAR A DISPUTED BORDER
"Oh him? Yeah, I know him." The man said softly, but easily heard above the faint noises of gunfire and shouting in the background just several blocks away. "It's going to take a while; it happened years ago."
The single stool the interviewee sat on was the only piece of furniture in the battered, war-torn living room of the two bedroomed house the Osean Broadcasting Company's reporter, Brett Thompson and the man sat in. Bullet and shrapnel holes were in too great a number to count, the fighting here had been heavy. The conflict between the rebels and the army for control of the town was all over the news, but that wasn't why Thompson was here.
"Did you know, there are three kinds of aces?" The man asked the Thompson, hidden from view behind the camera. He raised three fingers on his left hand one by one as he spoke, his right balancing his AK-47 assault rifle on his knee. "Those who seek strength, those who live for pride and those who can read the tide of battle. And him?" The man sighed and shook his head slightly, smiling to himself as he chewed on gum. "He was a true ace."
"He was a fighter pilot they called 'Solo Wing Pixy.' He was a colleague of the man I seek." Thompson introduced the well-known man, and his motive for following him into a battlefield. "Ten years ago, there was a war that engulfed the world. The Belkan War. And in that war was a pilot who trailed across the sky and disappeared from history."
The screen changed. Now, an old black and white photograph was the centre of attention taken from the cockpit of a fighter aircraft only an experienced pilot of said plane would be able to identify. The focus of the shot was on two other aircraft nearby, banking away in unison with sharp white contrails drawing graceful parabolas in the grey sky. "He was a lone mercenary who inspired both fear and admiration." Thompson continued. "He is the man I seek. And so, with the words of 'Solo Wing', the curtain rises."
The camera switched back to the fighter pilot who began his exciting tale with the simplest of lines. "It was a cold and snowy day…"
2nd APRIL 1995 – VALAIS AIRBASE - USTIO
It was a late Sunday morning when Cipher touched his McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle down on the single long runway at Valais Airbase, an Ustio Air Force base located in the icy mountains to the south of the conflicted country. The mercenary taxied his fighter to two small alert hangers under orders of the Air Traffic Controller and eventually by the ground crew and powered down his twin Pratt & Whitney F100 engines, parking outside facing the taxiway to the runway. As he climbed out of his cockpit and did his post-flight checks, he watched a second Eagle, silver with its starboard wing painted bright red, also land with a screech of tyres and eventually begin to taxi to the same hanger he was parked outside, vacating the runway via the central taxiway.
"You must be Solo Wing Pixy." He commented as the pilot, clad in a grey flight suit and a red helmet, climbed out of the cockpit.
"How'd you guess?" The pilot smiled at Cipher, his voice cool. He was in his late twenties, with amber eyes and messy brown hair, well known for losing his right wing in combat and yet still managing to return to his base. "I'm guessing you're here for the same reasons as I?"
"That depends if you're here for the excitement or the money." Cipher grinned in reply.
"Is it too bad to pick both?"
"Then I guess we're both here for the same reason. I hear the Belkans are some decent pilots, that'll about cover the excitement I think."
"True, they say that we Belkans are some of the best pilots." The pilot smiled and extended a polite hand, gloved against the chill in a white leather glove, towards him. "Second Lieutenant Larry Foulke."
Cipher shook Foulke's hand, immediately suspicious of the Belkan mercenary. Why was he fighting against his home country? It didn't make any sense, and he was instantly questioning his motives. "You can call me Cipher."
"Just Cipher?" Foulke looked confused, probably expecting a rank and a 'proper' name of some sort.
"Just Cipher." He answered. Cipher was his mercenary name. He'd used it ever since his first missions as a mercenary fighter pilot, and his real name was only reserved for those he deemed worthy of knowing it.
"I've heard stories about you. They say you've got what it takes to win!" Foulke grinned.
"I didn't realise I was that famous." Cipher smiled.
"You're not. I just had some friends in Yuktobania." The Belkan clapped the smaller man on the shoulder as a gesture of goodwill.
An Ustio airman threw open a door to a small hut nearby and urgently called them into the briefing room. Cipher and Foulke were the last to arrive; the room was already occupied by eight surviving Ustio pilots clad in maroon flight suits, and an older officer, a Lieutenant General acting as the intelligence officer for the base.
"Cipher, Pixy." He announced as they entered in a loud and deep voice, one that demanded attention. "You must be the two mercenaries, welcome to the 6th Air Division."
The two pilots took a seat at the back as the lights dimmed and a large orange map of the area was projected on the wall, the dimming of the lights suppressing the quiet murmuring of the Ustio Air Force pilots. Ustio was central on the map. Belka lay to the north, and Sapin bordered Ustio to the west. East Osea was visible on Sapin and Belka's western edges, and other eastern countries were just on the edge of the screen, countries which Cipher had not bothered to learn the names of.
"Okay, listen up! We have a situation on our hands." The map zoomed in on the area of Valais Airbase to the south of Ustio, and the icy mountains surrounding it. "A major squadron of Belkan bombers has crossed our border and is making its way here, to Valais Air Base. Apparently, they intend to attack our base in an initiative to gain hegemony over the entire Republic of Ustio. Valais Air Base is our country's last line of defence. If our base falls, no one will be left to stop Belka from taking over Ustio. Your mission is to destroy the squad of bombers and defend our base."
The officer looked up from the lecture table, a light brown oak wooden structure with the base's insignia, a castle with two hawks circling it, and looked at all the pilots as he spoke the last word of his briefing. "Belka's invasion must end here."
Cipher and Foulke were on their feet and racing towards their planes before the officer had even finished the word "Dismissed". They saw Ustio technicians waiting for them, and with instructions from Cipher and Foulke, they rapidly armed their planes with six AIM-9 Sidewinder short range air-to-air missiles and four AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range air-to-air missiles onto ten of the Eagle's eleven hardpoints, leaving the central fuselage pylon free. Fuel tanks wouldn't be needed on such a short-range intercept mission.
Cipher rapidly carried out his checks and leapt into the cockpit of his fighter, flicking switches and checking gauges in the blink of an eye, faster than any Ustio pilot on the base could dream of doing. He pulled on his white helmet and dropped the black polarised visor, clipping the oxygen mask to his lower face. Seconds later, the massive heart of the Eagle roared to life, and he followed Foulke to the runway. "Tower, this is Cipher. Permission to take off runway one eight over." He asked.
"Roger Cipher, you cleared to take off as soon as Pixy is off the ground." The woman in the control tower replied in a calm voice despite the seriousness of the situation.
Cipher lined up with the white dashed line on the runway and pressed a button on his control panel. The HUD came to life, green light showing his attitude, airspeed and altitude. Also, if the target was close enough, a pipper for his 20mm Vulcan cannon. Ahead, he saw Foulke leave the ground, and slowly increased the throttle to maximum. The fighter roared and buckled against the brake, and Cipher released it, pushed back in his seat by the sudden acceleration. He watched his airspeed rise rapidly from 0 to 60 knots in a few seconds, then carrying on past 100 and 150. At 200, later than he would normally leave it, he pulled back on the stick and his Eagle jumped off the tarmac and into the air.
"Cipher has vacated runway, turning to loiter at angels five one mile northeast of the runway." He informed as he raised his landing gear, waiting until he heard the reassuring sound of the lock securing them in the raised position before banking off to the right. Checking his fuel gauge, he noted that the ground crew hadn't had time to refuel his aircraft but he easily had enough fuel for the mission.
The two mercenaries circled in formation with Cipher leading, waiting for the next two flights of F-20A Tigersharks to take off. He listened in on their comms, mentally noting their squadron and callsigns in case he needed them. Once the group were airborne, they headed to the intercept location. Cipher and Foulke flew together whilst the eight members from Fenrir squadron flew in four flights of two arranged in a line-abreast formation. Chatter was minimal, all of the pilots feeling like this was a suicide mission. No one went head to head with the Belkan Air Force and won.
"It's starting to come down." Foulke commented on the increase in the snowfall.
"This is Base Command, guess all you boys managed to get up." The ATC back at Valais Airbase reported.
Cipher clicked the mike to show he understood.
Cipher, Pixy, you are now members of the Galm Team." Base Command informed. "Galm One, Galm Two, maintain present course." Base Command ordered.
"This is Galm Two, roger that." Foulke replied while assigning himself as the role of Cipher's wingman. He dropped back onto Cipher's port wing.
"Bearing 315, Belkan bombers approaching." The Base Command told them.
"No-one wants to bail out into a mountain of ice." Foulke said. "We're counting on you, flight leader."
Cipher clicked the mike again, accepting the role of the flight lead.
"All planes, prepare to intercept."
"I expect our pay ready and waiting." Foulke warned the commander as the newly formed Galm Team turned onto the vector.
"That's only if we both make it through this alive." He replied.
"Be ready to pay up, we'll be back before you know it." Cipher replied.
"Galm Two, follow all orders from Galm One. Unauthorised engagement is strictly prohibited during this combat." Base Command informed Foulke.
"Galm Two roger." Foulke formed up off his left wing. "Cipher, you're Galm One now." He reminded Cipher of his responsibilities. Like he needed to be reminded.
"The quicker we bag these suckers, the quicker we can get home and get us a little hot whiskey!" One pilot said.
Cipher increased his throttle and turned towards the battle zone. "Galm Team, engage." He ordered over the comlink as he attached the oxygen mask on his helmet and banked towards the Belkan bomber squadron.
Foulke pulled away and also increased his throttle. "Galm Two roger, engaging bombers."
Cipher engaged his afterburners, pumping fuel straight into the engine outlet. The g's pushed him back into the seat as the fighter accelerated, breaking the sound barrier with a bang and a slight jolt. Foulke followed his lead. The bombers and their escorts soon came up on his HUD, surrounded by green squares. He saw that Fenrir Squadron had already engaged the fighters.
"Fenrir Seven, Fox Two!" Cipher saw a white trail of smoke shoot from one of the blue-squared Ustio fighters towards a Belkan fighter, the latter exploding into flames. "Fenrir Seven, I've bagged a bandit." The fighter pilot reported.
"Galm One, engaging the bombers." Cipher climbed to the same altitude as the B-52H bombers approaching head-on and armed his medium range missiles. The green squares around the bombers turned to red diamonds as the AMRAAMs locked onto both targets. "Fox Three, Fox Three!"
Two missiles dropped from his fuselage and ignited their rocket engines, homing in on their targets. The bombers had no way of evading the missiles and they hit, exploding and sending fragments of burning metal hurtling towards the ground. Cipher flew past the two stricken planes and carried on towards the main formation.
"One enemy bomber down, continue with operation." Base Command informed.
"Galm Two to Galm One, one of the bombers is still flying!" Foulke exclaimed as he passed through the formation, following his flight lead.
Sure enough, one bomber struggled onwards, trailing fire and smoke from a wound in its side. Cipher pulled an Immelmann, reversing his heading and shedding off excess speed to engage his prey again. His g counter came to life, the annoying female voice stating "Over-g, over-g," but Cipher ignored it, gritting his teeth and pulling through it until he was level and behind the bomber. This time, he switched to his gun and pulled the trigger. The 20mm revolver cannon came to life and made quick work of the bomber's left wing. Unstable, it rolled and pummelled to the ground.
"Galm One, splash another."
"Second enemy bomber down." Base command said. "Stay sharp out there."
Foulke formed up on his wing again as the two air-superiority fighters sped towards the main formation. Cipher saw seven green squares appear on his HUD.
"Galm Two cleared to engage using AMRAAMs." He cleared his wingman for the use of the multi-target missiles.
"Roger that, XMAA firing sequence initiated." Foulke pulled ahead slightly. "Galm Two, Fox Three, Fox Three." All four missiles dropped from the Eagle's fuselage. They spread out and hit four enemy aircraft, each bursting into flames and debris. "What did I hit?" Foulke asked as he pulled away to avoid colliding with bits of aircraft.
"Galm Two, three bombers and one fighter down. Good shot!" Fenrir One answered the mercenary.
"C'mon Pixy, save a few for us will ya?" Fenrir Six joked.
"This is Otto Five, IFF is malfunctioning. I'm unable to carry out the operation." A Belkan bomber pilot informed his colleagues in a calm voice. Cipher listened on their intercepted communications. "I'm withdrawing from operation airspace."
"One of the bombers is leaving the battlefront." Base Command informed.
"Guess they got scared, why bother flying out this far then bug out?" Foulke muttered.
"He must of chickened out." Fenrir One joked.
Cipher engaged a grey F-4E Phantom II. The larger, heavier fighter couldn't match Cipher's manoeuvrability and struggled to shake him off. Cipher used his guns and tore the Phantom's left intake to shreds.
"I'm damaged! Disengaging." The Belkan pilot pulled away and headed in the same direction as the fleeing B-52M. Cipher's instincts screamed at him to let loose another volley of gunfire. His sudden anger towards the Belkans for invading a peaceful nation caused him to follow his instincts. The Phantom spiralled out of control.
"Damn mercenaries! Only you would be so cowardly to shoot down a plane that's out of commission!" The Belkan pilot cried out before he ejected.
Cipher fired a missile at an oncoming F-5 Tiger attempting to take him head on, which failed and the fighter exploded. "Splash another fighter." He confirmed the kill.
He saw the large B-52H pulling a sharp right turn. He latched onto its tail and destroyed the engines on the left wing whilst jinking to avoid incoming fire from the tail turret. The aircraft began to yaw right as the excess power on the starboard wing threatened to flip the airplane. In the end, it stalled and Cipher watched his prey tumble to the mountains below.
"Fenrir Four, I'm hit!" A Tigershark, smoke pouring from its engine outlet, pulled away from a bomber. "Returning to base!"
"There won't be a base if we don't stop these bombers!" Foulke exclaimed.
"There are four bombers left. Fenrir Squadron, you deal with them, Galm Two and I will deal with the fighters!" Locking onto the two bombers closest to him, Cipher fired his last two AMRAAM missiles and shot them both down.
"Two more bombers down." He reported, looking for his wingman in the battle between the Belkan fighters and Fenrir Squadron. Foulke sped past him and dived onto the tail of an attacking fighter, quickly shooting it down with a sidewinder which blew it to pieces, the shrapnel falling to the mountains below with the snow.
"Thanks for the assist Galm Two." The F-20A pilot turned towards the bomber formation. The other five surviving members of the squadron also disengaged as Cipher joined the dogfight.
"Looks like Galm Two's gonna steal the show again." Fenrir Eight muttered.
Cipher and Foulke took on the four Belkan F-4E Phantoms with ease. Together, they flew rings around the heavier fighters, the latter aircraft unable to get into an optimal position to launch a missile. When they did, Cipher or Foulke were quickly on the tail of the attacker, resulting in the attack being thwarted and heavy cursing over the Belkan radio channel. The two mercenary aces quickly shot down three of their number using a mixture of guns and missiles.
The last Phantom attempted to get away by executing a Split-S and engaging his afterburners. Cipher was in no mood to be merciful. He riddled the fuselage with bullet holes and ripped the wing from the body, causing the machine to tumble out of control.
"Base Command, we've mopped up the escort planes. Continuing on to enemy bombers." Foulke reported.
"Roger, we're counting on you!"
"Holy shit...I can't believe we're actually doing this!" One of the Ustio veteran pilots muttered.
"Galm Two form up and let's finish this." Cipher ordered. Foulke complied.
His missile warning system came to life, turning his HUD red and emitting a high beeping noise. Instinctively, he turned hard to his right and popped flares, gritting his teeth again against the sudden g's. "Jeeeeeeeeez," He gasped as the g-counter barked at him again. "Where'd he come from?"
The system turned off as two missiles harmlessly exploded elsewhere. The ace flew an F-5E painted literally like a tiger, Cipher catching a quick glimpse of it as it screamed past with full afterburner.
"Galm Two, he's on your six!" Cipher warned as it rolled into Foulke's blind spot.
"Jesus Christ..." Foulke tried to shake the Belkan ace with a fancy display of turns and climbs. Cipher followed, trying to engage without blowing his wingman up instead. The F-5E fired another missile which missed, and Cipher saw his opening.
Foulke had rolled right, but rolled 270° and pulled left, confusing the ace. Cipher dived onto the fighter's tail and became the attacker. The ace knew he was beaten when Foulke came about and also engaged. He bailed out as Cipher's missile hit his outlets and destroyed the light fighter in one shot.
"Base Command to Galm Team, the enemy attack unit has been successfully intercepted." Base Command congratulated.
Cipher and Foulke formed up in their two-man formation, Foulke to Cipher's left and slightly below and behind. They passed Fenrir Squadron, the six remaining Tigersharks forming up in an improvised arrowhead formation.
"I'd like to see how those Belkan cowards report back to their superiors." Cipher could almost hear the cheering in the tower.
"Cipher; I have a feeling that you and me are going to get along just fine." Foulke said. "Buddy."
Cipher looked back over his wing and saw Foulke's red helmet in the cockpit of the Eagle. He had no doubt that he would. He settled back and followed Fenrir Squadron on the very short trip back to Valais Airbase.
"Galm Team, you have permission to land." Base Command said after the Ustio squadron had vacated the runway. The mercenaries landed in quick succession, Cipher on the left and Foulke on the right. After landing and conducting his post-flight checks, he entered the briefing room along with Foulke.
"Well done. Thanks to you, Belka's attack on Valais Air Base has failed. Your efforts will not go unrewarded. Your actions may well decide who wins the Belkan War. I, for one, will be counting on you." The Intelligence officer praised.
Cipher declined John Henderson's – Fenrir's flight lead – offer of drinks and headed to his room to unpack and shower, stripping out of the heavy flight suit and stepping under the steady stream of hot water which washed away the sweat and stiffness. He slipped into a pair of jeans and a plain blue shirt. He then donned a leather jacket given to him by his father, the son of a legendary ace in the first war between Belka and Osea in 1910. It had belonged to him when he flew the first biplane fighters, claiming almost 70 aircraft for six losses. A record that was difficult to beat for a regular pilot. But Cipher was out to challenge the feat. He had already claimed forty aircraft to two losses in air combat.
He went outside into the dying sunlight and light snow. He resisted the urge to shiver and head back inside, instead heading to his alert hanger where his blue-winged Eagle was parked next to Foulke's fighter.
The sound of a jet fighter caught his attention. He looked up and saw an F-16 Fighting Falcon landing on the long runway, its tires screeching as they accelerated from zero to a hundred miles an hour in an instant. He watched as two more dark grey Falcons landed and taxied to another set of alert hangers across the paddock from him. All three aircraft were painted exactly the same, with a white heart just behind the cockpit.
Cipher had an idea. He walked to his Eagle and used a ladder to climb up onto his wing, his favourite thinking space, and pulled a notepad and pencil from the inside pocket of his jacket. There, he began to draw, his artistic mind coming to life.
A cold wind whistled through the hanger. Shivering, Cipher climbed down from the wing and opened his canopy, settling into the heated cockpit and shutting it.
He started by writing the Air Division and Squadron number he was in. 6th Air Division, 66th Air Force Unit, Galm.
He smiled and began to carefully draw, his creation quickly coming to life on paper. Simple pencil marks became lines and curves, dots and points became hubs for many more lines. Time seemed to disappear as he was drawn into his creation.
Someone tapped on the canopy, startling him. He looked and saw Foulke peering in at him. "What are you doing in here?" He asked when Cipher had opened his cockpit.
"The right wing is usually my favourite thinking space, but it's cold up here in the mountains." Cipher answered. He gestured to his drawing. "What do you think?"
Foulke sat on the edge of the cockpit and studied Cipher's notepad, holding it up close to his face with a look of genuine surprise. "Did you draw this?"
"Yes. My father was an artist in his spare time, and I carried on the trend."
"Christ, so you're a pilot and an artist!" Foulke gave it back with a grin and a small shake of the head. "What's it for?"
"Our insignia." Cipher replied. "I saw three Falcons land and they all had the same insignia. Seeing as we're a team now, I guessed it would be good if we also had an insignia."
"What made you think of the Hellhound?" Foulke asked. Cipher had drawn a red dog with angry yellow eyes tearing at its chain. It had a black background and an orange circular border.
"Think about it. 6th Air Division, 66th Air Force Unit…" He said.
"No joy. I don't get it." Foulke gave up after thinking about it for a few seconds.
"666. The number of the beast." Cipher said.
"Oh yeah!" Foulke grinned. "I never guessed. By the way, Crow Team landed a few hours ago, more mercenaries. The Fenrir Squadron challenged us to a game of indoor football, mercenaries versus Air Force. You wanna come?"
Cipher thought about it. "No, thanks. I'm okay here."
Foulke shrugged. "Suit yourself. See you in a bit Buddy." He jumped from the cockpit and jogged back to the main compound.
Cipher watched him go and closed the canopy, settling back into the seat. He stared through the transparent, powered-down HUD and the events of the day overtook him as he gave in to heavy eyes and soon slipped into a deep sleep.
"It was a cold and snowy day." Solo Wing said. "And I thought to myself…He had potential."