Stuart Slade

Chapter One

Pantheocide: The pre-planned, organized and systematic extermination of gods.

Source: World Online Dictionary

Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, October 2008.

“That looks ominous.”

“The weatherbugs say that we’re due for thunderstorms with heavy rain and strong winds this afternoon. The main storm line is passing well east of us, probably coming no closer that Sedalia. We should be all right here.”

“We’d better be. There isn’t a vacant hangar on the base.” And that, General Walter Cochrane thought was the honest truth. Once long ago, or so it seemed, the bad old days when aircraft would spend tens of hours on the ground getting fixed for every one they spent flying, seemed to have gone. The F-14 had required 50 man-hours of maintenance for every flight hour, the F-111 had needed eighty and they had been considered great improvements on what had gone before. The F-18H and F-16Gs that were now entering the Air Force and Navy inventory required just five.

Now the problem was back again and it wasn’t just the fact that the F-111 and the F-14 had both been pulled out of the boneyard and returned to service. It was where they were flying. Hell was not a good environment for the operation of aircraft, the pumice dust that saturated the atmosphere clogged engines and abraded airframes, sending maintenance requirements skywards. The life of engines between complete strip-down and rebuilds had dropped by two orders of magnitude, back almost to Second World War levels while the need for airframe refurbishment had soared to an intolerable degree. The result, inevitably, was that serviceability rates had fallen to appalling levels. Before the Salvation War had started, the USAF demanded 80 – 90 percent availability rates for its front line aircraft, privately Cochrane admitted that had been an optimistic target, but now they were down in the 20 to 30 percent. For all its expansion over the nine months since the Salvation War had started, the Air Force wasn’t actually fielding more aircraft than it had done pre-war. If it hadn’t been for the museum relics and boneyard salvage filling out the numbers, the situation would be dire.

“Perhaps we ought to do it like the Russians Sir. Build the engines cheap and throw them away after seven hundred hours.”

“The Russians don’t get seven hundred any more than we get a thousand. And we can’t just throw old engines away, we’re too short of replacements. Even with the government buying every engine Pratt and Westinghouse can turn out, we’re still short. They don’t even build a lot of the engines we need any more. And as for them..” Cochrane gestured at the row of B-2 Spirit bombers parked on the hard stand.

His aide knew what his General meant. If the problems were bad on the conventional aircraft, they were many times worse on the B-2. The aircraft had been designed for operations in very hostile air environments where it would be the target for multiple batteries of surface to air missiles. It was built so that it would be near-impossible to see on radar and that was a great achievement. Only it was one that had turned out to be completely useless, the Baldricks in Hell hadn’t had a single anti-aircraft system to their name and human aircraft flew their missions without any kind of serious opposition. Only, the same dust that wrecking engines destroyed the delicate anti-radar materials that gave the B-2 its evasive capability. B-2 serviceability had never been good, now it was abysmal. Of the twenty B-2s operated by the 509th Bomb Group, only one was operational.

“We need the C version like yesterday.” Colonel Harmsworth spoke glumly. As aide to General Cochrane, one of his jobs was tracking the efforts Northrop were making to produce a B-2 that was built of conventional materials but it was harder than it seemed. Effectively it meant an entirely new aircraft.

“We’ll never see it Bill. Bet you a hundred bucks on it. Rockwell are putting the finishing touches on re- assembling the Bone production line and Boeing are designing a version of the C-17 as a bomber. We’ll see both of those before the B-2C becomes reality and the powers-that-be will decide a third bomber is just too much trouble.” Cochrane hesitated. “Is it my imagination or is the wind picking up fast?”

Before Harmsworth could answer, the emergency sirens on the air base started to wail and a tannoy message echoed around the hardstand area. “Emergency, General Cochrane to the tower, immediately.”

It was undignified for a General to run anyway, that’s why they had aides. But, when a Lieutenant in the air operations center believed the situation was bad enough to warrant him giving orders to a General, running was in order. If the situation really was that bad, every second counted, if it was not, there was the transfer of a Lieutenant to one of the airbases in Hell to arrange. Even as he sprinted to the steps that led down to the AOC, Cochrane reflected that many Generals in history had told incompetent junior officers to go to hell but he was one of the first who could make that order happen.

“What’s happening?” He snapped the question out as he entered the crowded room.

“Sir, the storm line is changing and intensifying. Look at the Doppler radar plot.”

Cochrane had never been a meteorologist but years of watching the Weather Channel had made him familiar with the display. The brown of the map was disfigured by a green band that stretched horizontally across the display. That wasn’t the problem, it meant heavy rain but that had been expected. The problem was the small section in the center of the band that went from yellow to orange and then to deep red with a small purple spot in the center. That meant tornadoes. They had been expected too, but the weather pattern had meant they would be nowhere near the base. Even as Cochrane watched, the band was changing, the whole right hand side was collapsing in on itself and reforming at an angle of almost 90 degrees to its original orientation. It was also picking up speed and the deep-red/purple area was expanding fast.

Cochrane didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the microphone to the alert system and thumbed the speaker button. “Severe weather anomaly approaching. Everybody take cover in the hangars and close the doors. Any A-10s hooked to tractors should be towed under cover, otherwise leave the aircraft. This is not a drill.”

‘“A-10s Sir? What about the B-2s?”

“Screw them, they’re out of service for weeks. Our boys fighting down in Hell need the Warthogs.” Concrane relaxed slightly, losing the aircraft would be bad but the skilled technicians who maintained them were irreplaceable. The Air Force was as desperately short of ground crews as it was of everything else. The hangars had been designed to take anything up to and including a very near miss from a large nuclear weapon, the vital technicians would be safe inside them.

The minutes ticked by as the storm line reformed and swept down on Whiteman. The meteorologist shook his head and sucked his teeth. “Storm lines just don’t do that Sir.”

“Well, watch one do it.” Cochrane almost added ‘You moron’ to the end but stopped himself. He would save that for a private meeting with the officer later. ‘Praise in public, punish in private’, the old mantra ran through his mind.

“Hangar doors closed Sir.” The young officer who had called him to the AOC made his report. “They got three extra A-10s inside.”

“Thank you, Estrada, you did well to call me in so quickly. Good call.” The young man straightened slightly and couldn’t stop himself glancing around to see the reaction to his General’s praise.

“Wind speed picking up fast.” The meteorologist was attempting to make up lost ground. “120 knots now and still increasing. The anemometer goes off the scale at 165, we’re going to pass that easy.”

High on the AOC wall were a series of displays from the outside surveillance cameras. One of them pointed east and showed the ground out towards Sedalia. Or, it would, normally, but now the scene was different. The sky had blackened over until light levels had dropped to night-time conditions. Even so, the camera was showing three massive tornadoes bearing down on the base, their fearsome funnels illuminated by the almost continuous lightning

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