April 2nd, 1943
Urumqi Aeroporia (Air Force) Base
“Gentlemen. Thank you for coming.”
The courtesy was, in some sense, ridiculous; they had been ordered to come, and could, in fact, have been court-martialled and shot if they hadn’t. Nonetheless, Batu appreciated it, just as he appreciated the good prewar coffee from the tribune’s private stock. These little courtesies had an effect all out of proportion to their actual size in smoothing over the harshness of military life. Would that all Komnenoi were so considerate of their subordinates.
“The weather report is in,” the tribune continued, “and it’s clear from here to Frunze, except for a patch of cloud near Almaty, which we’ll route around. So, Dawning Harmony is a go.”
Batu couldn’t help but roll his eyes slightly; the tribune’s aide was Chinese, and trust a classically-educated Confucian to come up with a name like ‘Harmony’ for a military operation intended to destroy an enemy formation. Yes, yes, obviously there would be ‘harmony’ in the air if it worked, in the sense of no opposition to what the Athena Squadron did, but sheesh. Tacitus’s old jibe, about making a desert and calling it peace, stood; Chinese or Roman, empires were all one.
“So, if I can draw your attention to this route map, for the final details. To avoid the bad weather at Almaty we will go in a dogleg, first to this map reference point” – he reeled off a string of coordinates, which the navigators duly noted down; the point was out in the middle of the desert, and very likely a hundred miles from the nearest habitation. “Then we will head straight north for Frunze. Now, you were each assigned your individual targets at the briefing yesterday, but in case anyone is too hung-over to remember, here they are again.” The tribune’s aide went around the room delivering slips of paper to the pilots; Batu took his without looking at it, knowing perfectly well that it said “Hangar 3, Airstrip 6, Hangar 5, Warehouse 4, targets of opportunity” – that had been his priority target list for this raid for a week now, and he had gotten to the point of using it for a meaningless meditation phrase.
“A few final words. You all know why this raid is strategically important: Frunze is the main airbase of the Punjabi air force on this front. Knock it out and they have to move their bombers back halfway to Samarkand, giving them that much less time in the air over the front line. It’s also an important day for the Athena Squadron: This will be the first time anyone puts more than 200 aircraft over a single target in Asia. We are going to obliterate Frunze. The ragheads have a few flak positions around it, maybe twenty guns in all. Gentlemen, ignore that completely; stay in your formations and bomb on the word of command. We’ll have two hundred and forty bombers in the air. Just the bombs that miss their actual targets will likely be enough to knock out their guns. This, gentlemen, is shock and awe: We’ll put enough bombs on the ground at the same time to completely paralyze the defenses. But, I say again, only if you stay in formation. There won’t be room in the air above Frunze for any drastic maneuvers. Stay in formation, stay on target, stay focused.” The tribune paused and looked at them challengingly, then smiled. “And good luck. Takeoff at 0600. Dismissed.”
South of Frunze, altitude 5000 meters
“Bogeys, two o’clock high.” The warning crackled through the static in his headphones, sending a spike of adrenaline through Batu’s bloodstream. He snapped his eyes up and to the right, squinting against the Sun – yes, there they were. Black dots, shimmering against the harsh light, making it hard to count; but definitely aircraft, and since Athena Squadron was all around him and Nika Squadron was sticking to its own zone of operations in Tibet, that made them unfriendly. He opened the intercom, making sure he was only speaking to his own crew; the tribune was death on filling the air with chatter. “We’ve got company. Wake up back there, Arslan, looks like you won’t be sleeping the mission away after all.” The tail gunner had jokingly complained that he was the only man in the crew who didn’t have a real job. “We’re going to stick to our formation and make a wall of lead, just like practice.” That was doctrine, and Batu agreed with it. Two-engine bombers carrying four tons of high explosive couldn’t very well dogfight. They could, however, give each other mutually supporting fields of fire, making a porcupine of tracers to impale any enemy aircraft that came too near. So the ragheads had got their planes into the air – warned by some observer on a mountaintop somewhere, perhaps – well, the worse for them! Their bombers were even older than the Harpy aircraft of the Athena, which would themselves have been considered obsolete on the battlefields of Europe. And whatever Punjabi aircraft survived the storm of fire the Athenites would put out would have a hell of a time landing on smoking, cratered landing strips. Batu grinned fiercely to himself. Let them come!
The enemy aircraft did in fact approach rapidly; Batu frowned as he tried to estimate their airspeed. True, they were almost head-on with his own formation, but still, wasn’t that rather fast? Or was he imagining things? Then they were close enough to make out details beyond the cruciform shape, and his eyes widened. The enemy aircraft were single-engined!
“Those aren’t bombers,” he said clearly, not shouting, just as in training. There was a lump of ice in his belly. Punjab wasn’t supposed to have any fighters. Had the Tenth Bureau been asleep on the job again? Then the warning crackled in over his headphones: “Enemy aircraft are fighters, repeat, fighters”, and he realised that in his concentration on not giving in to panic by shouting, he’d forgotten to switch back to the squadron channel. His warning had only reached his own crew. That was at least three precious seconds lost – but then again, what could have been done with them? There was nothing for it but to stay in formation and shoot it out. His knuckles whitened on the control stick, but it was all up to Arslan.
The vee of vees opened fire in a wave that went somewhat raggedly from right to left, as individual gunners thought they were in range. At night it might have been beautiful; in this clear air the tracers looked thin, a fragile lacework against the blue. Batu held the stick against the juddering as Arslan opened up; the weight of the multiple tons of explosives in the bomb bays gave the Harpy a stolidity it hadn’t had in firing practice. We could have had three times as much firepower, no problem, Batu realised; but of course that would have come at the expense of throw weight… Then his neighbour in the formation was hit, making his own plane stagger in midair, and Batu suddenly realised concretely what the abstract phrase “four tons of explosives” meant. There are eighty loads each of a hundred pounds of tri-nitro-toluene in our bomb bays, and ice went through his veins and the hair on his arms tried to stand up to make him larger and scarier. The pilots in those imported fighters were quite unlikely to be impressed, though. They only had to get one hit somewhere amidships, while to down the fighters the tail gunners had to either bend enough metal to make their sturdy engines not work, or else hit the pilot.
“Drop the bombs,” Batu ordered. Then he switched to the squadron channel. “Sir,” he said, quite calmly. “We’re just waiting to blow up, here. Suggest we jettison and abandon.”
“What?” his bombardier said on the intercom. “We’re nowhere near the target!”
“Drop them anyway, that’s an order!” Batu hissed, then realised that he had forgotten to switch back to the intercom. The squadron channel was coming alive with similar internal chatter, radio discipline breaking down, and a few shattering booms as pilot microphones picked up the deaths of their aircraft. Frantically he flipped to the internal channel. “Jettison the damn load, we’re under attack! Falling somewhere in Punjab will have to be good enough!” he shouted. There was no response, but the stick juddered again in his hands with the characteristic rough airflow of the bomb doors opening.
“Radio silence!” came in over the air, the tribune’s voice, and the frantic combat chatter cut off; probably everyone was as relieved as Batu at hearing that this clusterfuck was still under command. “Drop the” – and no doubt he intended to say “bomb loads,” that was the only thing that could possibly follow. Instead there was an explosion and then a dreadful drawn-out “shiiiit”, proving that, by the bodhisattva, the new radio equipment really was much more robust against battle damage, and also that it was actually possible to survive, by some miracle of shrapnel, when your bomb bay went up. Perhaps even the fall that followed? They did have parachutes… Batu snapped out of his stunned slowness. Who was in command now? It should be Deng, who commanded First Wing, but no Chinese accent filled the channel, whose crackle now sounded like the voice of stunned indecision. Had he been killed, did he just not realise that he was in command, or was he trying to decide what to do? It didn’t matter, Batu decided. Seconds were important.
“This is Batu,” he rapped out, making sure this time to flip the switch to the squadron channel first. “I’m assuming command.” They could court-martial him later, if there was a later. “Jettison the bomb loads, squadron turn to new heading oh-niner-oh degrees.” Straight west would do; they could figure out the exact navigation later. “Keep the formation, we’re dead meat if we break up.” Maybe that wasn’t true, maybe the fighters wouldn’t be able to hunt them all down; but better a decision, any decision, right now than the perfectly correct one in two minutes. Anyway they could always break up, but getting back together again would be impossible. The formation turned with agonising slowness, one vee at a time – ragged, ragged, there were holes were wing leaders should have been, but it turned. Bombs exploded far below; Batu hoped cordially that there was a Punjabi Army formation somewhere down there. Perhaps this slaughter wasn’t a complete waste, if they were lucky. The goddamn fighters were coming around for another firing pass, but there was nothing to be done about that except whisper a prayer to the bodhisattva – Batu became aware that the voice in the intercom wasn’t his own, but Kunwoo the navigator’s. “Now, and in the hour of our deaths, Amen.” Then he started in again from the top, “Hail Mary, full of Grace” – Batu tuned it out. He had a job to do, namely to start turning the aircraft, now, following the vee in front of him. Kunwoo didn’t, right now, although he’d be busy when the time came to figure their way back; so he might as well pray. They would need it.
April 3rd, 1943
A room in the Curia, New Byzantium
An hour before noon
“Sir.” Chiang stood at attention, although not in the ramrod-rigid posture traditional in a man called to the carpet for a major screwup. Why bother? The matter would not be made any better by a particularly textbook salute. “If you want my resignation, you have it.”
Konstantin looked at him coolly. “I’ll consider it,” he said calmly. “First, sit down and tell me how bad it is.”
“It’s pretty bad, sir,” Konstantin admitted, relaxing slightly. “We lost about half of Athena Squadron. They won’t be good for anything for months, at least, until we can replace the crews and, more important, their morale. I’ve pulled them back to New Byzantium and sent the Samothrace Squadron east to replace them at Urumqi.”
“Samothrace Squadron has the old Sphinx bombers?”
“Yes. Well, they’re about halfway through conversion to Harpies.”
“So we lose considerable throw weight and range.”
“Well, yes, but what’s worse is that we daren’t get too close to the Punjabi airbases. Those fighters of theirs don’t seem to have a very long range, but they’re certainly good enough for defending their own territory. In effect we can no longer contest air superiority on the Tibetan front.”
Konstantin pressed his lips together grimly. “Well. There are limits to air power. We can take Frunze by more traditional means.” They both knew that the Legions would suffer heavily for the lack of air power; but they would do their duty.
“Yes, sir. At least we still have air superiority on the Burmese front.” Incredibly, the Punjabi government didn’t seem to have built a single airfield in its new territories; true, the treacherous winds around the mountains limited the range and usefulness of Nika Squadron, but still, to have no air support at all had to be demoralising the ragheads there.
“Indeed.” Konstantin looked at Chiang, considering, for a long time. At last he said, “Thank you, Megas Aquileon, but your offer of resignation is not accepted. There is no better man for the task. Mistakes happen.”
“Thank you, sir.” Chiang very carefully did not let his shoulders slump in relief. There were any number of Komnenoi, many of them good officers with excellent connections, waiting in – hah! – the wings, ready to take over his position at the drop of a bomb.
“Now. Stick around. Perhaps you’ll find my next interview more pleasant.” Konstantin pushed a button on his desk, giving an order to his secretary. “Send him in, please, Elena.”
The door opened to admit the head of the Tenth Bureau. Arkadios’s bald forehead glistened with sweat. He wasn’t in uniform, being the head of a civilian agency, and so, properly, did not salute the commander-in-chief of the Legions; but he looked as though he rather wished he could. He’d been an officer once, like most high-ranked Komnenoi. The forms were a comfort, sometimes. He stood at something approximating attention before Konstantin’s desk, the same spot that Chiang had occupied two minutes earlier. “Sir,” he said. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, Arkadios,” Konstantin said, deceptively gentle. Neither Arkadios nor Chiang was fooled. “I’d like you to explain how the Punjabi acquired two entire wings of reasonably modern fighter aircraft, without my knowing about it.”
“Well, sir.” Arkadios swallowed. “We’ve recently become aware – ”
Konstantin interrupted him. “How recently? And who is ‘we’, in this context?”
“Ah. That is. Sir. There is a report from an agent in Samarkand, stating that a transfer from the Ethiopian Air Force was being discussed at high levels. It is dated January seventh. But. It gave no details, no numbers, no dates. Consequently it was assessed that it did not have sufficient priority to reach higher levels. So, ‘we’, the Tenth Bureau, have in some sense known since January. I, personally, became aware of it late yesterday.”
“I see,” Konstantin said. “You say, ‘it was assessed’. The passive voice is the death of clear thinking. Who did this assessment?”
Arkadios straightened, some defiance coming into his eyes. “Sir. No names, no pack drill. It happened on my watch.”
“So it did.” Konstantin paused, thinking. “You’re fired,” he said at length. Arkadios very carefully – Chiang could see the effort it took him – did not slump. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Was there anything else?”
“That will be all.”