© 2000-2001 Strata Drake of NEWST.
Sure enough, as Sheridan sat there awestruck, the two legendary Icebreaker-class nuclear missiles were launching. For its final act, the Red Dragon had programmed in the coordinates for both Sheridan's and Arconius's bases, one missile for each base. Arconius demanded that Sheridan pick one nuclear missile to have Nigel's Phoenix fleet take down. Sheridan designated one missile and shouted, "That one!! Shoot it down!!!"
In a moment, Nigel led the Phoenix fleet up into the sky after it. The missiles, however, were climbing faster than Nigel and Arconius could follow, and it was putting distance between it and them.
Sheridan watched them chase the missile into the sky. "Nigel, old friend, you can do it. You have got to...none of us down here can help you now, and no one will survive if you fail."
Walker looked at Sheridan. "I hope, for both our sakes, that you chose the correct missile. Because we won't be getting a second chance at this."
Sheridan sighed. "I know. No one is getting a second chance this time."
Walker looked to the south. "Sheridan; did you see exactly where Aegis fled?"
Sheridan responded. "To the southwest, I think. Why?"
Walker said, "He may be trying to call for reinforcements."
Sheridan was somewhat shocked. "How? What Red Dragon reinforcements could he possibly bring in?"
Walker looked back. "Sheridan."
That caught Sheridan's attention.
Walker spoke his mind to Sheridan. "Arconius prohibited me from telling you this earlier. In all respects, you should have been told. Do you remember what I told you about the Red Dragon?"
Sheridan looked back. "Yes...a group of rebels who stole the FRB drone technology and Nova Dragons."
Walker frowned and shook his head. "It's more complicated than that. It was actually our group who rebelled against them, and we took most of the FRB technology with us."
Sheridan was aghast. "What?!? And the Nova Dragons...were they...?"
Walker shook his head again. "That portion of the story was, fortunately, true. The Red Dragon had recovered the Nova Dragons itself. At that time, our current generals--one of whom was Arconius--realized that we couldn't remain in their forces. When they recovered the Nova Dragons, something about them changed....
"So, late one night, we shorted out the power generators, grabbed a contingent of vehicles, and stole off with the FRB technologies. Aegis volunteered to track us down, with his squad and the three Nova Dragons. But fortunately, with stealth as our cover, we made it here. It was a small miracle that we even survived this long. Aegis commandeered the fear of the local scavenger clans with the Red Dragon drones and Nova Dragons. We were low on options, until Bruno..."
Sheridan was even more surprised at the mention of the scavenger's name. "You know him?"
"He was one of our covert operatives, and spent most of his time living amongst the varied scavenger clans to pick up information. We did manage to acquire one of the Red Dragon's jets; Bruno volunteered to fly the thing across the ocean to your continent. We didn't know exactly what help he could find, but we believed that we could find someone to come to our aid.
"Aegis, however, caught wind of the plan and sent a group of Red Dragon jets to chase down Bruno and cut our message short. I'm glad to see that they failed."
Sheridan finished the story. "Bruno made it safely to one of our cities. Nigel's group took down Bruno's pursuers themselves. As for now, Bruno is safe at home in our country."
Walker looked up at the sky even though the nukes had faded from sight. "Pleased to hear it. Even more so to know that you came through."
Sheridan sighed. "We didn't come here to help your forces out of a war. Bruno hinted at nuclear missiles like the two that just took off. We've seen what they can do first-hand, and assuming that the Red Dragon was around to use them, we had to investigate."
Walker nodded, and Sheridan thought for a moment. "So...what kinds of reinforcements could Aegis call for?"
Walker looked at Sheridan. "A lot."
"A LOT of reinforcements. Ironically, though, if Nigel should fail, and those missiles hit, I don't think Aegis's request for more troops will be honored. We could very well rebuild and recover with almost no threat from the Red Dragon at all."
Sheridan shook his head; "assuming that we even live through these nukes ourselves." He grabbed the radio. "Nigel!! You there?!?"
All Nigel received from that communiqué was a bit of incomprehensible static. The Icebreaker missiles seemed to have a nearby jamming effect; long-range communication between Nigel and anyone else was impossible. Arconius hailed Nigel as he switched on the jet's laser-communicator. "The nuke has quite a lead on us. We'll have to maintain top speed in order to catch it. C'mon!" Arconius accelerated the Falkron to a speed that Nigel's fleet could not match and charged ahead. It took two minutes for Nigel's fleet to catch up.
They chased the missile as Arconius quickly briefed them. "According to records, Icebreaker missiles were designed to be the ultimate anti-defense weapon. Their armor plating is almost utterly impervious to lasers and other thermal-based weaponry. In addition to com-blackout equipment, they are also equipped with a number of anti-defense countermeasures. They can literally destroy a defense missile or installation from afar, paving a clear path towards their target."
Nigel looked at the sleek, blue missile. "Just wonderful. What type of countermeasures is the nuke equipped with?"
"Several. One reason why the missile is so large is that it has four stages of countermeasures. As soon as we open fire, it will activate the countermeasures to defend itself." Arconius gave an order to his drones, relaying a copy to Nigel. "Order your drones to intercept. We'll need it."
Nigel did so, and then opened fire with his jet's railgun. The magnetic-velocity projectile slammed into a portion of the missile's armor. Aside from a small hole, no damage was visible. The Phoenix jets opened fire as well, firing off two salvoes of rail shells. Arconius loaded some hypervelocity "Shatter" missiles and fired a salvo of six. Arconius's missiles seemed to do more damage.
Four side panels from the missile blew off, and four rear-facing revealed themselves. The launchers released a salvo of missile shells. Nigel looked at it in astonishment. "What the...?"
Arconius filled him in. "Stage one countermeasures." As Nigel watched, the missile shells switched on. They were travelling forward as well, but compared to Nigel's own speed, they were travelling back towards the fleet.
All of the aerial drones moved to intercept, firing their shells to detonate the countermeasures. They were, however, somewhat inaccurate as the countermeasures decelerated more and began moving backwards at a quicker rate.
Arconius relayed Nigel. "Class two smart missiles. The outer shell contains an inner missile that launches at a pre-determined time and distance from the target. The interior missiles are quite fast. If we let those shells fall behind us, they'll open up and hit our jets right in the afterburners. All pilots continue firing on the nuke, the drones should be enough for these."
The drones' accuracies were improving, as they targetted, intercepted, and detonated several of the incoming countermeasures. As Nigel's fleet continued firing at the nuke itself, it released a second, larger wave of incoming countermeasures, thirty in number. "Incoming!"
The drones responded quickly and began shooting down the countermeasures. Nigel's fleet fired off a third salvo of rail shells at the missile. Arconius charged his jet's laser cannons and took aim to assist the drones. Still, amid all the interception and firing, some of the countermeasures managed to fall behing Nigel's fleet. True to Arconius's description, the countermeasures activated, launching one high-velocity missile from each. Shaera's jet was hit in the wing by one of the missiles, but the damage was minor. Two other pilots weren't as lucky as the other missiles hit their jets in the thrusters and they went down for emergency landings on the ground. Several more of the smart-missiles missed as Nigel's fleet took evasive action. Nigel still had ten comrades left in action, plus a set of his six drones, the Falkron, and Arconius's twelve drones.
The missile launched another, even larger (numbering in the fifties), set of countermeasures. Arconius opened fire on them instantly with the Falkron's lasers, and the drones kept up their interception. Fifteen of the countermeasures fell behind the group. They activated, and even though Nigel's fleet took evasive maneuvers, the smart missiles knocked two pilots out of the air along with one drone.
Arconius noted, "Stage one countermeasures should be about expended by now." They resumed attack on the main nuke, as it released a set of thirty countermeasures. As Arconius opened fire and his drones fired intercept, Nigel's fleet let off another salvo of shells into the nuke. This time, Arconius and the drones managed to down all thirty countermeasures, protecting Nigel's fleet from harm.
The nuke's thrusters seemed to dim, and with a large hiss of steam, it separated the rear section from itself. A large, thirty-foot-diameter and ten-foot long chunk of missile, expended of its countermeasures, fell out of the sky towards the ground. The nuke kept travelling. "Arconius, what's stage two?"
Arconius responded. "You'll see..." Nigel's fleet and Arconius let off another volley of shots to damage the missile's next section. Another salvo, and nothing. After a third salvo, the nosecone of the missile began venting steam, covering the missile in a white cloud.
Nigel looked pleased, and radioed Arconius. "Did we do it?" But before Arconius could answer, a large aerial explosion from the head of the missile commenced. It caused a bit of turbulation damage to Nigel's fleet as they passed through the explosion. When the smoke cleared, Nigel looked around--the nuke was nowhere to be seen. "Arconius, we did it!!"
Aconius responded quickly. "Negative, Nigel! That was stage two--full about!" Arconius pulled his jet to a stop and turned around. Nigel ordered the fleet to do so. They performed a wide, circular turn to follow Arconius. The drones also responded to the order, slowing to a hover before turning around. Although invisible to radar, Nigel could identify the nuke suddenly travelling in the opposite direction. "What the...!"
Arconius informed him as they accelerated to pursuit speed. "Stage two is something to throw off any pursuers. Stage two releases a large, powerful explosion from the front of the missile to act as a brake and slow the missile down. The interior section of the missile separates and begins a course in the opposite direction...toward its target."
Nigel was stunned. "Huh?" Arconius filled him in. "Icebreaker missiles are supposed to be launched in the opposite direction from their intended targets. It may appear to be travelling one direction, but in reality its target is actually in the opposite. That is a feint in itself, but stage two is a trick to make observers think the missile was destroyed."
Nigel looked at radar. "And a darn good trick at that. On the flip side, it just bought about 150 extra miles to target, and we now have more time to shoot this thing down. What is stage three?"
Arconius led the way as they pursued the nuke, which (now missing its outer shell) was a bit smaller even though it was still roughly twice as large as the typical Pre-Collapse nuke. "Stage Three, if I remember the records correctly, is similar to stage one...another few sets of countermeasures. However, these countermeasures are going to be trickier. When we begin attack, we should also make basic evasive maneuvers for defense, and I'll help take them out."
Nigel probed. "And stage four...?"
Arconius frowned. "I forget what the Stage Four countermeasures were. The records didn't really specify, but stage four is a final defense to rid the nuke of pursuers so that it can annihilate its target."
The nuke was now in range. Nigel's fleet opened fire with their railguns, and Arconius fired a few salvoes of missiles. The drones were still acting on intercept orders but assisted with their firepower.
Stage three activated. A rear section of the missile detached from the main, and it decelerated quickly. Its sides flung open to resemble propellor-blades of sorts, and it began spinning. Quickly. As it cut backwards through the air, it shredded four of Nigel's drones and damaged three comrade jets; they were forced to descend and seek out a landing area. "What was that?"
Arconius looked back. "That was the beginning of Stage Three. Unusually effective, too...however, the real challenge begins now" Nigel could now identify eight sizable high-caliber missiles attached alongside the nuke's active thrusters. They launched, and in similar fashion to the previous countermeasures, they decelerated in order to fall behind Nigel's fleet.
"If we let those missiles get behind us, we're toast, so I'll take them out." Arconius countered by drawing back from the fleet as well, focusing the Falkron's firepower on one missile at a time. Before long, he had dismantled one of the missiles, and his drones were tearing apart a second. "Keep firing at the nuke!"
Nigel nodded; he ordered his five comrades and two remaining drones to attack. They launched another salvo of rail shells at the missile. They seemed to inflict damage this time. Nigel looked back at the Mk3 countermeasures. Equipped on each rocket was a laser battery. "Evasive action!"
Arconius and his drones downed a third countermeasure. The remaining five fired laser bursts in the direction of Nigel's fleet as they evaded. Nigel's two remaining drones were taken down by the bursts, and his comrades received less damage due to their high-strength laserplated armor.
Arconius downed a fourth, as the countermeasures let off another salvo of laser bursts. Nigel's fleet managed to evade them this time, as Arconius fell back a bit more for better angles of attack.
The countermeasures recharged and fired again as Nigel's fleet let off another volley at the missile. Arconius and his drones downed another countermeasure, following up with a few shatter missiles to take down a sixth. The countermeasures fired again, inflicting a bit more damage on Nigel's fleet yet failing to down any of the jets. The damage was, however, slowing Nigel's pace slightly, and the main nuke began creeping ahead.
Arconius and drones finally dispatched the last two countermeasures, then began catching up to the group. Nigel's fleet let off another salvo of rail shells into the main nuke, denting its armor but otherwise to no visible effect. The nuke's finale, the stage four countermeasure, activated. Four particle emitters sprouted from the sides of the nuke and began taking shots. The particle bursts were inaccurate but damaging, and another of Nigel's pilots had to break off for an emergency landing. However, the emitters didn't let the pilot land, firing another few shots off and destroying the pilot's jet. Now with Nigel down to four comrades, Arconius approached at a higher velocity and his nine remaining drones took the lead. "This thing is a nightmare!"
Arconius responded back. "80 miles to target, but this is stage four; the final set of countermeasures. If we can take it down, this is our one chance to do so."
Nigel's fleet dodged an incoming burst from the emitters and counterattacked. "As if we haven't had a chance already?"
Arconius nodded, and fired off a salvo of missiles, targetted at one of the emitters. "There is little armor plating between this inner shell and the actual nuclear warhead. If we can disrupt the warhead from here..."
A thought ran through Nigel's head. "Wait a second! If we disrupt the warhead, won't it detonate and take us down with it?!?"
Arconius fired another salvo at the nuke. "That is a very likely possibility. It is, however, a better result than the nuke hitting its target."
Nigel sighed. "Sad, but true... if we break off now, the nukes will hit and we'll be as good as dead anyway. Dead one way or another; I'd rather go out fighting!" Nigel's fleet fired again at the nuke. Still, there was no damage visible on the nuke. The emitters fired again, and they downed one more of Nigel's comrades.
Arconius fired off a salvo of his own missiles, and seemed to disable one of the emitters, blowing it clean off of the missile. "Nigel, I like that. But we have to hurry. There's only forty miles to target. Twenty more, and the base will be caught inside the nuke's blast radius even if we take it down!" They fired again at the nuke. It counter-fired again, damaging another of Nigel's comrades and forcing the pilot to seek a landing.
Arconius fired again at the same area, trying to cause more damage at the missing emitter. "At this speed, we've only got about four more minutes, until impact--and only two if we're to prevent damage to the base."
Nigel's remaining comrades fired another salvo. "Something had better happen soon; we're starting to run low on payloads." The emitters fired again, taking down one drone and one of Nigel's two remaining comrades. Shaera was Nigel's one comrade remaining; it was now Nigel, Shaera, Arconius, their drones, and the nuke.
Nigel ordered his remaining three aerial drones to attack at close range; hopefully, this would protect him and Arconius from the countermeasures. The drones did so. The emitters fired at the drones. Somehow, they managed to stay airborne and in pursuit. Arconius backed off slightly and fired again. He must have hit something, for the nuke began spouting steam from the damaged area. "I think I've hit its fuel systems...it should begin slowing. With any luck it'll fall short."
The nuke, however, did not slow. It began a slight, calculated ascent and rised higher. The fleet followed suit after it. After another minute, its thrusters shut off. This, however, was not good, as Shaera relayed Nigel with her observations. "Phoenix 1, it's out of fuel, but at its current trajectory, it will still hit the base! Perhaps we should draw back and let it hit?"
The missile's ascent slowed, and soon it began descending in free-fall. Nigel followed. "No! Even if it's within range of the base, we can at least lessen the damage if we can disrupt and detonate it now!"
Arconius fired another salvo of missiles. The nuke's emitters fired, taking down the last of Nigel's drones. Arconius's aerial drones, still six in number, automatically acted and began attacking the nuke at close range, just as Nigel's drones had done previously.
Nigel and Shaera fired with their weapons, and Arconius began to fire his last salvo of missiles, one by one this time. "I'm down to my final pack of missiles. When I run out, I'll have to fall back."
Nigel almost-shouted back. "Then aim carefully...!" He and Shaera fired off another few shells.
The missile's descent was getting steeper, a sure sign that its target was well within range. Everyone proceeded in a dive to follow after it. Arconius ordered his drones to follow it, no matter what, as he fired off his final two missiles. "That's it for me..." Arconius spread the Falkron's wings forward to begin breaking off, and he quickly did so.
One could almost hear a ten-second countdown as the nuke travelled the last mile of its journey with Nigel, Shaera, and aerial drones in hot pursuit. It was the type of imaginary countdown that seems to slow down the flow of time to a trickle.
Ten... The target below was plainly visible; yet at this fierce pace, it was not possible to determine whether the base was evacuated or not.
Nine... Due to the Icebreaker's communication-jamming equipment, Reason has it that no evacuation could have been made.
Eight... Nigel and Shaera fired off what would be their last salvo of rail shells at the nuke.
Seven... Expended of his payload, all Arconius could do was retreat to a large distance and watch.
Six... The nuke's particle emitters went strangely silent, as if expended of ammunition, as the nuke's stage four countermeasures closed back into the nuke.
Five... Nigel and Shaera belatedly began to break away from the nuke's path so as not to impact against the ground.
Four... Arconius's six remaining drones remained true to their orders, pursuing and firing at the nuke, oblivious to their impending destruction.
Three... The nuke's systems powered up for pre-impactive nuclear detonation.
Two... Nigel and Shaera continued their effort to break away from the nuke.
Nothing could be heard as the nuclear missile fell the final leg of its journey into the ground. At what could be measured as ten or twenty feet, the nuke detonated. Its massive shockwave instantly shattered most of the base's structures, defenses, and vehicles as the nuclear force inside the explosion soon followed. A blaze of nuclear white engulfed everything in and around the target base, and everything on the ground was instantly annihilated from plasma-like heat energy that could even melt Nova Dragon -strength armor like butter in a frying pan.
And there they were. Having accelerated to almost four times their normal airspeed, Nigel's and Shaera's jets could be seen streaking away from the annihilation only as two black sillihoutes against the explosive white. They raced ahead with the explosion catching up, yet at a distance of four miles, they managed to out-run the nuke's explosive blast radius; they had survived a trial by nuclear fire.
Communications were all clear now. Arconius was at a distance of two miles up, and had a terrific bird's eye view of the explosion. "Nigel...!" Nigel radioed back, as he and Shaera circled around the perimeter of the explosion. "Give us a place to land. Something to sit and rest on would be nice as well. And aspirin... a lot of aspirin...."
The mushroom-shaped explosion from the nuke had now taken its shape. Nigel and Shaera landed at a safe place along one of the mountain's travel paths; Arconius also landed nearby and climbed out of his jet to view the explosion from the side.
Within minutes, Sheridan's group was visible racing across the pathway to them. Walker was with them. They stopped short of the group, and Sheridan radioed Nigel with a distraught tone. "Nigel... you didn't stop it, did you?"
Nigel smiled back and sighed. "We didn't stop it... we survived it!"
Walker looked around. As the smoke was clearing, the nuke's crater was visible. There was nothing identifiable--let alone salvageable--in the wreckage of Sheridan's base. Sheridan's logic for protecting his own base against the nuke had not been made in a selfish manner, but instead, was based upon the observation that Arcnoius was the only Phantom pilot in the fleet ordered to take down the nuke. Sheridan had known that the remaining pilots, all from his own base and home, would fight much more efficiently to know exactly what they were protecting.
Walker gave word about the fate of the Phantom base's destruction. The nuclear missile that struck the Phantom's base had completely eradicated everything within a distance of fifteen miles from the base. Phantom casualties were low, and predominantly drones--Walker had informed his home base about the impending nuclear missile; the Phantom crews had taken what they could and evacuated their base, proceeding to a safe distance of forty miles...they were safe.
Nigel's efforts were, in fact, successful in damaging the missile. As Pre-Collapse records (had they been available) would have shown, the nuke's stage four countermeasures--the particle emitters--draw their power from the actual nuclear warhead itself. Once at stage four, every particle burst fired from the missile literally diminished its destructive capabilities. Nigel's fleet had succeeded in absorbing about 80 percent of the nuke's radioactive warhead, in turn reducing its destructive power from about 25 miles radius to a mere four miles. They may not have been able to stop it entirely, but they had indeed weakened it--mission accomplished.
Still, both Sheridan's and Arconius's forces would have to rebuild. Sheridan's salvage crew was still busy searching for Nigel's comrades who were shot from the sky by the nuke. "At least it's over. Now for the tough part; we'll have to re-build."
Another communication broke the silence. "Having a party without me, are you?" It was Falco! He drove into view with group Seadrake, the base's entire research and construction crews (along with ten freshly-made drones), virtually all of the residents and, fortunately, enough recovered and spare parts to quickly rebuild from the aftermath.
Arconius relayed Walker, instructing him to locate the survivors from their home base and bring them here. Despite a good partial layer of cumulus cloaking much of the blue sky, the sun's rays were shining through them down upon the area.
It was beautiful weather indeed. Having endured and prevented the worst, Sheridan saw fit to re-christen their entire forces, both Project and Phantoms, under one name--the Silver Phoenix.
Congratulations for reading all the way through both stories! You deserve a break from my questions, and as such I'm only giving you one idea to ponder--have we seen the last of the Red Dragon??? Think about it on your own time, and if you think up a good idea, feel free to e-mail me and let me know what you think.