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Modern Dragons


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Chapter I
Minding the Fence

Wednesday, 5 March 1986 | 23:42 hrs [UTC-3]
Liaria, Knežečak | Air Defense Command HQ
Lieutenant Zlatko Tonković

Lieutenant Zlatko Tonković rubbed the bridge of his nose, pushing his eyeglasses up onto his forehead as he did, fighting a rapidly losing battle with fatigue as he began the tenth hour of his twelve-hour shift.  Like many shifts, it had been dull and uneventful, thus every minute lasted two, every hour lasted three, and he was surprised that the clock was even progressing forward anymore.  Even the motor oil that they tried to pass off as coffee was having no effect on the man, which was why he was giving his eyes a momentary rest from another monotonous session of staring at the display panel, which was showing a composite image of the entire Southeastern Air Defense sector.  Data from four stations fed directly into his panel so that he could oversee what his four subordinates were seeing and three identical setups around the room covered the other three directions, which in turn all fed to a single, gigantic display in the front of the room, which was the purview of Tonković's superior, Major Slaven Stefanović.

          Tonković and Stefanović couldn't have been more different.  Stefanović had joined the military out of secondary school and worked his way up through the enlisted ranks quickly enough that he was able to trade in his chevrons for bars and now an oak leaf though, at his age, he was only guaranteed one more promotion before he hit mandatory retirement.  He was one of the oldest majors in the military, the oldest within the Pojački National Air Force for sure by at least fifteen years.  Tonković, on the other hand, had been the son of a well-known colonel and joined the air force as an officer, expecting to get an exciting posting.  In fact, when he'd been told that he was going to the Air Defense Corps, he envisioned himself leading a surface-to-air battery, bravely facing incoming missiles only to shoot down hostile aircraft, protecting an important target.  The disappointment was palpable when he was assigned to Air Defense Command HQ as a section leader, staring at display screens showing Poja's entire airspace.

          Tonković resented his posting; Stefanović saw it as a hard-earned positing.  For that reason, Stefanović had a rather low opinion of his subordinate and uniquely noticed every time the man wasn't paying attention to his panel, like now but even now, Stefanović had to cut the man some slack, if because staring at a display for ten hours was extremely straining on the eyes.  He was lucky to have responsibility for everyone in the room and thus his focus was the big display and not a seventy-five-centimeter circle.

          In his chair, Tonković leaned back and exhaled deeply before letting his glasses slide back onto the bridge of his nose.  Yet another two hours of staring at nothing, he thought to himself.  The radars that fed into his display, like the others, were a series of short-range and long-range systems designed to provide a complete airspace picture of the entire sector, out to 2,500 kilometers in range and up to 1,500 kilometers in altitude.  The shorter-ranged radars were concerned largely with two threats, airborne and sea-launched ballistic missiles while the longer-ranged radars were almost exclusively dedicated to detecting intercontinental ballistic missiles cresting the horizon.  High-speed or high-altitude aircraft could be detected by the longer-ranged radars as well thanks to their UHF frequency band.

          The combined, 360° radar coverage around Poja looked deep into the airspace of other nations though it was primarily aimed towards the country's most powerful and most aggressive enemy, the United Kingdom of Gaellicia, a nation which matched Poja in military capabilities kilo-for-kilo.  The two nations had already had a few spats, nothing like a major conflict, but there had been times when all-out war looked to be moments away, which was more than a little concerning for the Pojački government.  It's why men like Tonković and Stefanović and so many others sat for twelve-hour shifts staring at display screens, looking for the first sign of trouble, "Poja's Vanguard," as the patches on their sleeves proudly proclaimed.

          Some vanguard, Tonković thought to himself, thinking of the patch in his boredom as his mind wandered to a hundred different places.  He looked down at his display and relaxed his eyes behind his glasses only for the display to go blurry and moments later dark as his eyes involuntarily closed.  His body held rigid, a trick many military men had learned over the years enabling them to sleep in formation.  Unless you were looking directly at his face, you wouldn't know he was asleep but he was, his eyes closed, his arms holding his weight.  He couldn't help it, one moment he was awake and the next, he wasn't.  His body was on autopilot and he was merely along for the ride, wherever it might take him.

          Where it took him though was directly into the mouth of trouble as one of his subordinates not only caught him in the act of sleeping but also inadvertently broadcast it to Stefanović when he requested to have his panel covered so that he could use the restroom.  This request, by itself, was hardly out of the ordinary but when he had to call "Sir" several times, not receiving a respond, that alerted the ever-vigilant Stefanović that Tonković was certainly not paying attention and with a startle, the elder major, from his seat at the back of the room, barked, "Lieutenant."

          Tonković immediately startled awake and turned around to face Stefanović, "Yes sir?"

          "Pay attention," Stefanović admonished him, not unlike a child in a classroom, pointing to the junior sergeant whose intestinal trouble was beginning to grow rapidly.

          "Yes sir, what can I do for you sergeant?"

          "Sir, requesting a brief restroom break."

          "Granted, I'll cover the panel."

          "Thank you sir," the junior sergeant hastily departed and Tonković pushed a button on his display that highlighted the area covered by the now abandoned terminal.  He had the view of all four terminals but with this feature, he could focus on one area, knowing that his were the only eyes looking at it, outside of the watch leader.  

          The junior sergeant was gone four minutes when Tonković's eyes suddenly caught sight of something from the man's panel.  It was a blip at the very edge of radar range but being tracked, nonetheless.  Has to be a mistake, he thought to himself as he looked at the blip and moved his trackball cursor over it to bring up the information.  Altitude twenty-seven kilometers, speed thirty-five hundred kilometers per hour, he thought to himself as he read the display, weak return.  Must be a phantom, he reached over and pushed the self-test button.  For the next fifteen seconds, his panel was offline as the system ran through a self-test to ensure it was operating effectively but when the test was completed, the track was still there.  Well shit, we have something, he thought as he perked up and pushed a button on his panel, which highlighted the target on the main display, immediately catching Stefanović's attention.

          "Sir, possible bogey, weak return, altitude twenty-seven kilometers, speed thirty-five hundred kilometers per hour, positioned just over the Dolch Sea, course three-zero-zero, directly for the coast," Tonković said, speaking to the major, while also logging the details into a book, noting the time as 23:51.

          "I see it Lieutenant," Stefanović's hand was already reaching for the phone, which would go directly to the duty officer in the Ministry of Defense.  At the same time, he lifted a plastic cover on his console and looked down at the four, numbered, unlit buttons.  The southeastern sector would be the button numbered "two" and so he pushed it, which immediately activated a light, illuminating the button in a red glow.  The button sent a coded signal 250 kilometers away to a predesignated printed in a squadron ready room.  What would print out was brief information about the target and the order to scramble alert interceptors to go out and identify the target.

          The shift's monotonous dullness had been wiped out in mere seconds as everyone focused on the board at the head of the room instead of their own panels.  As the phone rang in Stefanović's hand, he noticed this and cleared his throat, "Panels gentlemen, panels," wrangling the nineteen men back to their panels so that they could look for other threats.  The other end of the phone finally picked up and Stefanović identified himself quickly, "We've got a bogey over the Dolch Sea moving at high altitude and high speed towards the coastline, intersect point near Bježega, likely the naval base."

          "Are you able to identify the bogey type?"  The voice on the other end asked, the scratching of a dull pen audible over the phone.

          "We do not have a type but the flight profile and radar return suggests that it is a reconnaissance aircraft."

          "Potential to be an SLBM?"

          "Negative, altitude is too low, speed is too slow, and trajectory is too flat, it's also much too far." 

          "I'll take that under advisement Major but we cannot rule it out, we have intelligence that the latest SLBMs can fly depressed trajectories."

          Stefanović had read the same intelligence report but he'd also read that this meant fifty kilometers in altitude, not twenty-seven, and still at speed of over Mach 6, not around Mach 3, like this target was.  He knew it was no use arguing with the man but also knew that there was no chance it was a missile.  "I've sent the scramble order."

          "Very well Major, we'll wake everyone up and see what we have here.  Maintain your position and ensure you control access into and out of your room."  

          "Last question, is this a drill?"

          "No," the line went dead and Stefanović looked over at the doors and shook his head.  Sorry Nešić, you're going to miss all of the fun, he thought to himself as he rose and locked the doors, effectively locking the young sergeant out of the room until the situation was resolved.  

          Stefanović looked down at the room, at the panels, and at the men.  The room was arranged so that the front of the room was lower than the back so that, from his desk, he could see everyone and their stations.  "All right let me get everyone's attention up here," his tone was authoritative and not meant to be repeated.  Everyone stood and turned to face him.  "This is not a drill.  I repeat, this is not a drill.  We're under lockdown right now, no one in or out right not, which includes Nešić and his ill-timed bathroom break.  Interceptors received the scramble order and will be getting into the skies in the next few minutes.  Tonković, you're on point for this.  Everyone else, you're watching your panels.  This is a single contact but there may me more out there.  Anyone sees anything, put it on the display right away.  Remember, we've trained and drilled for this, let's do it right, that's all."  Everyone shuffled back to work and Stefanović returned to his panel, hopeful that Tonković wouldn't embarrass him.

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Chapter II

Wednesday, 5 March 1986 | 23:55 hrs [UTC-3]
Liaria, Žabačak | Žabačak Air Base
Major Mijat "Ogre" Šaponjić

Decades earlier, when war planners in the Pojački Ministry of Defense were looking at ways to ensure that the country maintained its air deterrent even in time of all out war, they identified a dual-track solution that, while costly, afforded the Pojački National Air Force some of the greatest survivability rates of any air force in the wurld.  For a nation like the Confederacy of Poja, maintaining its air deterrent was crucial to maintaining its independence from foreign aggression and belligerence.  As a result, Poja's main air bases, which were those that housed interceptor and strike wings, were all built alongside small mountains.  While the runways themselves were outside of the mountains, all of the airbase's critical command and control facilities and its hangars were inside of the caverned-out mountain, protected by thick, concrete and steel blast doors that could handle any a direct hit from conventional and a nearby hit from low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.  The second part was dispersal, allowing a squadron of twelve fighter aircraft to disperse itself to highway strips and auxiliary, reserve airfields in groups of four, adding that many more targets for the enemy.

          Žabačak Air Base was one of four interceptor bases throughout the Confederacy of Poja and, like the others, built into a mountain just outside of the rural, Liari town of Žabačak, 250 kilometers from the nation's capital and about half that from the Kezanoi Sea, which made up the country's entire eastern border.  Žabačak itself was a boring town, small before the arrival of the air force and small even after though the local economy had expanded thanks to the military presence.  Still, the roads into and out of the town weren't major highways but rather secondary routes, often times with only a single lane in each way through the more narrow or windy parts of the region, though the area around the air base sported flat, wide, long, and very straight, dual-lane highways to provide fighter aircraft with makeshift runways.  Every year, the squadrons drilled and practiced dispersing from the main base and operating under wartime conditions, validating that the strategy remained viable and would remain viable for many years to come.

          Žabačak Air Base was home to the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, which consisted of three, twelve-aircraft squadrons of high-speed interceptors.  Designed in the 1960s, built in the 1970s, and recently upgraded, these high-speed interceptors were Poja's first line of defense against hostile, foreign air threats.  Designated as the ZuB-12, after the aircraft's design company Zubareva-Bogolyubova, it was named the Stervyatnik or vulture.  It was a national symbol of Poja and a major feat of aerospace engineering.  A mammoth aircraft that weighed almost fifty-eight tonnes at takeoff, the Stervyatnik could climb up to thirty kilometers and flight at three times the speed of sound, though it usually cruised at only Mach 2.5 to conserve fuel and reduce stress on the airframe.  It was an aircraft that was built around two, behemoth engines, each of which could put out enforce force to get this aircraft into the skies in less than 1,400 meters, even when fully loaded.  If there was an aircraft in the wurld that came close to being a rocket, it was the Stervyatnik.  

          Žabačak had been quiet this week because there were no flight operations on the schedule, in what was referred to as a "ground week."  Pilots were booked in simulators all week while their aircraft were given thorough inspections, scrutinizing much more than your standard post-flight maintenance.  Ground weeks happened monthly across the air force and the squadrons rotated so that the entire air force wasn't grounded at the same time.  The exception however was the on alert aircraft and each fighter wing kept three fighter aircraft on alert at all times.  Air crews stood alert for twenty-four hours at a time but their aircraft would sit there for as long as seventy-two hours before they were swapped out for fresh aircraft and "stood down" from their preflight status.

          Aircraft on alert were essentially "cocked and locked," having already been pre-flighted, fueled, and checked by the pilots and the engineers assigned to them.  They were kept "warmed up" with their systems on standby, connected to a ground power source so that all a pilot had to do was climb into the cockpit, initiate the startup sequence, and light the engines.  They could go from silent to ready to taxi in just five minutes and airborne within the next five minutes.  The unique systems of the Stervyatnik were specially tailored for quick reaction alert, which was why they could get airborne so quickly.  With three aircraft and three air crews on alert at any given point in time, this allowed each wing to surge two interceptors into the skies at a moments notice and even have a spare in case one of the aircraft suffered an issue during startup.  Life in the military was all about redundancy, for good reason.  

          At Žabačak Air Base, like all air bases, the QRA area was a specially designated area that provided the quickest egress from the mountain hangars to the runway.  For the flight crews and engineers on alert, there was a specially built barracks just for them that offered all of the amenities one would need to sit and wait for twenty-four hours.

          The air crews sitting alert on this evening had come on duty at 17:30 and had already settled into their watchkeeping schedule, which allowed for four-hour increments.  Of the six increments, two were used for rest with the other four for duty.  Only one air crew would be on rest for any of the increments with the other two awake.  At 17:30 the following day, they would be relieved and given a full, off day so as to reset to their regular duty schedule.  It wasn't too taxing because, for the most part, little happened.  Scramble orders didn't go out very often and, when they did, they were usually uneventful with the aircraft returning after a short time in the air.

          On this particular evening, Major Mijat Šaponjić and his back seater, Captain Emir Cehajic, were just one of the three crews assigned to alert duty.  Major Šaponjić went by the callsign "Ogre," owing to his otherwise large body frame and less than attractive looks, which even he admitted to owning.  The Dosniman, Captain Cehajic went by "Gargoyle," which while sounding like a cool callsign was given to him because of his inability to hold his liquor.  By this point, they were midway through the second, four-hour duty shift.  The crew from aircraft two were down on rest while those for one and three, were awake and on duty.  The men from aircraft three were in the duty room, monitoring comms, which left Ogre and Gargoyle to a particularly intense game of gin rummy.

          It was in the midst of this game that Stefanović's signal was received in the comms room and Captain Dražen Savić, whose callsign was "Convict," immediately turned his attention away from his book and to the computer monitor as the details came up on the screen.  "Unknown, high-speed contact coming in over the Kezanoi, high altitude."  Convict was the pilot for crew three and his RIO, Captain Milanko "Romeo" Janketić, immediately picked up the phone and was routed right through to the Ministry of Defense.  A code phrase was passed back and forth and Romeo was told in no uncertain terms, this is not a drill.  "Roger that," he said as he slammed the scramble button on the panel and shot out of his chair.  His pilot was already a few steps ahead of him with two printouts, one for him and one for Ogre.  

          The klaxon that sounded would have woken the dead and the crew from aircraft two, were asleep, quickly shot out of their beds, dumped their feet into their boots, and raced to the front door where the other four airmen were already grabbing their helmets and necessary flight gear.  The clock was ticking and the klaxon was sounding as engineers rushed past at a full sprint, not needing gear.  Each engineer team ran to their aircraft and immediately began the startup procedure, running through last minute checks while the pilots, a few moments behind, sprinted after them, bolting up their crew ladders towards the cockpits.  Ogre would go right into the cockpit, while Gargoyle stepped out onto the engine intake to get himself prepped.  

          "Engine start!"  Ogre shouted, almost loud enough for them to hear in the other revetment, and reached down and flipped the switch to crank up the engines, the mode selector in "Scramble," which meant that both engines would start at the same time.  As he did, the revetment was filled with a loud, high pitched whine and hiss as isopropyl nitrate was ignited in the intakes of both engines, immediately starting up the turbine.  It would take a few seconds for the turbines to spool up and while that was happening, Ogre and Gargoyle were going through the rest of the checklist.  Aircraft three was being started as well while, for the time being, aircraft two sat silent, the crew ready to crank it up if either of the other two crews reported a problem.  Engineers scrambled around, yanking the ladders down while others had already begun the opening procedure for the blast doors, the klaxon now echoing outside of the mountain and across the flat expanse of the air base.  

          Once the engines were cranking, Ogre had considerably less to do than Gargoyle, who had to go through the process of getting the aircraft's systems into a self-start mode.  Because the aircraft themselves were connected to ground power this entire time, they could skip many of the steps, one of which was the lengthy alignment process for the aircraft's INS system.  But just because Gargoyle didn't have to sit through that process didn't mean he didn't have plenty else to do getting the radios up, the radar into standby mode, the electronic countermeasures or ECM system getting up to stand by, and of course all of this through their built-in self-test procedures.  He also, which was more arduous than anyone figured, had to insert a data cartridge into a cartridge slot behind his seat, which was more than just a little difficult to reach.  It had some preprogrammed waypoints and avionics settings that would come in handy but it had little to do with their mission since the data would have to have been uploaded first and that process took several minutes.  They would be reliant on ground control for the interception.

          Within nine seconds of cranking, the two engine turbines were already spooled up to one-third their maximum RPMs, which meant that now fuel and air were flowing and the turbines could spool up to their idle setting of 70%.  The roar inside of the revetments grew exponentially and in the confined caverns of the mountain, where the primary construction material was concrete, hearing protection could only do so much.  From here, the aircraft came alive as the engineers ran around to disconnect the aircraft from ground power.  So far both aircraft had no reported issues and so it was looking more and more like they would be taxiing and the crew from aircraft two would be returning to the barracks, where they would take over duty at the comms center.  

          With the aircraft roaring to life, Ogre went through some final checks as he monitored the engine RPMs come up to and stabilize at 70%.  He checked the nozzle position and the inlet temperature, seeing that everything was in the green.  The engines were running, humming, and good to go.  "Canopy," he spoke into the intercom and received a "Good" call from Gargoyle.  The two canopies began to close over both cockpits with the flick of a single lever.  All of his panels, gauges, and his HUD were now on, there were no caution lights except one indicating that the ejection seat wasn't armed, which was right what he wanted to see.

          In the back seat, Gargoyle flicked onto the right radio frequencies and did a quick radio check.  "Vulture One is ready," he said moments later after getting the clearance that both of their checklists were complete.  In the third aircraft, which was "Vulture Two" for this sortie, Romeo responded that they were indeed ready to go too.

          Ogre flipped a hand signal out of his cockpit to a hard-to-see engineer below the aircraft.  With a thumb's up in return, he cycled through the flight controls, moving the rudders back and forth, the elevators up and down, and the ailerons left and right.  All of the control surfaces functioned normally and he lowered the flaps into takeoff position and received a thumb's up in return.  "Vulture One, ready to taxi."

          "Vulture One, clear to taxi to holding area," came the response from an air traffic controller sitting at the other end of the base.  

          Ogre gave a final signal to the engineer outside and the wheel chocks were removed.  The engineer saluted, which Ogre returned, and that was it, the signal that all was clear to go.  Ogre advanced the throttles slightly and the turbojet engines barked as the aircraft inched forward, "Vulture One, taxiing."  The aircraft pulled out of revetment and onto the main travel lane, Vulture Two followed only a few seconds behind and both aircraft departed the mountain cavern and taxied out to a holding area just about one hundred meters from the jet.  There, the two aircraft were held and two more engineers ran around, yanking all of the arming pins from the aircraft's weapons before running to the front so Ogre to see and count the pins.  "Vulture One, ejection seat arm," Ogre called out over the radio and each of the four crewmen locked and armed their ejection seats, turning off the final caution lights.  Because they were inside of a mountain, ejection seats were never armed until they were clear, lest a malfunction send them into the ceiling and kill them.

          "Vulture One, no traffic, no restrictions, cleared onto runway 0-6 for takeoff heading 1-0-0, wind 0-1-5 at ten, cleared for takeoff."

          "Vulture One, no traffic, no restrictions, cleared onto runway 0-6 for takeoff heading 1-0-0, wind 0-1-5 at ten, cleared for takeoff," Ogre read back as he advanced the throttles and pushed the aircraft out of the arming area.  It wasn't far to the runway, just a few hundred meters and behind him, Vulture Two was receiving the same clearance.

          Once he was on the runway, Ogre gave a quick check to his instruments and his gauges, making sure that his engines were still good, that he had no caution lights, that everything was good before finally running up the engines to 90% to make sure that everything remained in the green.  The last thing he needed was a compressor stall or a surge of one engine over the other.  Compressor surges had been an issue for prototype aircraft due to issues with the intakes and though this had been rectified in production models, the checklist remained cautious on this front.  

          "Vulture One, rolling," Ogre said as he released the brakes and the aircraft began its roll.  The roar of the engines was tremendous but it was nothing in comparison to what it would be as the aircraft picked up speed and he threw the throttles all the way forward, igniting the engines in their most powerful afterburning stage, which sent a twenty-meter flame torch out of each engine.  The kick of thrust was tremendous and the Stervyatnik went from slowly gaining speed to rapidly gaining speed as it barreled down the runway, screaming towards takeoff speed.  

          In the rear cockpit, Gargoyle was focused on only one thing, the airspeed indicator.  It was his duty to call out speeds as they barreled down the runway so that Ogre could concentrate on keeping it aligned and not worrying about it.  "That's V1," he called as the aircraft rocketed past 130 knots, which meant that if they had to abort the takeoff, it was safer to bring the aircraft off of the ground rather than try to stop on the runway.  "One fifty," he called out, "One sixty, seventy, ninety, two hundred, rotate, rotate."

          Ogre eased back on the stick and the aircraft leapt into the sky at a shallow climb angle.  As he watched the ground disappear underneath him, he reached out and raised the landing gear, cutting a major source of drag out from the aircraft.  Speed picked up faster now as he kept the afterburner lit.  The flaps retracted automatically from here, both because they weren't needed and also because there was a maximum speed that they could be used.  "Vulture One is airborne," Gargoyle called out over the radio and Ogre turned to the departure heading of 100° as he kept the aircraft in a shallow climb as it built up speed before reducing the afterburning to its initial stage and taking on a steeper climb as Vulture Two came alongside them, separated by about five hundred meters.

          In the darkness of the night, the aircraft were visible only as long as their afterburners were lit.  Those at the base who happened to be outside watched them climb out and felt the quiet solitude return to the air base after their thundering departure.  The crew in the second aircraft sullenly climbed out of their cockpits and returned to the barracks, not running this time but rather walking at a regular pace.  They'd hoped to be able to go because all pilots hated to be left on the ground, especially for something of this nature.

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Chapter III

Thursday, 6 March 1986 | 00:15 hrs [UTC-3]
Kezanoi Sea | 300 km SE of Poja
Major Mijat "Ogre" Šaponjić

It had been twenty-four minutes since the bogey had been detected and while that might have seemed like a long amount of time, it wasn't considering how fast it was moving.  Traveling at 3,500 km/h, this meant that in those twenty-four minutes, it had moved 1,400 km closer to the country, more than halving the distance between its first detection and the coastline.  It had only 1,100 km to go, which would only take another nineteen minutes, thus making it imperative that the two Stervyatnik interceptors got into position as fast as possible.  Both pilots had kept the afterburner lit as they climbed, taking a steep enough angle that they could gain altitude quickly but also not lose speed in the process.  In fact, the sheer power of the engines meant that they broke through the sound barrier while in the climb and continued to accelerate, especially as the air grew thinner.  Their massive turbojet engines, optimized for high-altitude, high-speed flight performed up to spec, propelling them up to an altitude of 23,000 meters.  There, they lit their afterburners back to maximum again and the Stervyatniks had little trouble accelerating through Mach 2.

          "Vulture Flight, Sector Control," Tonković's voice came over the radio.  He'd been issuing commands to them verbally since they checked in shortly after takeoff.  "Maintain heading and speed, contact range now nine-five-zero kilometers."  The contact was simply too far away for the Stervyatniks to track on their radars so they were reliant on ranging direction from ground control.  Moreover, they were reliant on a course path too since they didn't have any preprogrammed waypoints.  Tonković would set them on a course and manually calculate when to turn them.  His goal was to put them far enough out that they would have time to identify the target before it entered Pojački airspace but, given its speed, that also meant a very limited engagement window.  Moreover, he had to have the Stervyatniks turned back around and heading home and at high speed so that the target would pass overhead and the aircraft could maintain pace with it because the Stervyatnik's top speed was the current cruise speed of the bogey.  They would be able to keep pace with it for only so long before they had to throttle back or risk seriously damaging their engines.

          "Sector Control, Vulture One, roger that, request permission to climb to two-four kilometers."

          "Permission granted Vulture One," Tonković answered, knowing that in order to achieve their maximum speed, the aircraft had to be at 24,000 to 24,500 meters.  Any higher and they risked a flameout from lack of air in the intakes.  The slight increase would also assist with a slight reduction in air friction.  Upon hearing the permission, Ogre eased slightly back on the stick, bringing the aircraft into a slight climb.  Moving at over 2,650 km/h meant that even the slightest control inputs could have major effects and he didn't want to lose any airspeed in the process.  Soon, he knew, they would begin a very long and wide arcing turn, first sweeping out and then back in so that they could complete a 180° reversal, putting themselves on the same heading as the bogey.  In a plane like the Stervyatnik, there was no such thing as a quick turn and at that altitude and speed, turns were measured in grid squares.

          A check down at the fuel gauge told Ogre that he still had plenty of fuel but his engines were sucking it down, especially as he maintained the first stage afterburner.  The aircraft really had three stages of afterburner with the third stage for takeoff, zoom climbing, and rapid increases in speed.  It was rarely used in other situations because it of just how powerful it was.  The second or intermediate stage was more commonly used in combat and roughly sat, from a thrust generation point of view, evenly between the other two.  For supersonic cruising or climbing, the first stage was typically used.  They couldn't get past Mach 2.5 on the first stage but they could get up to Mach 3 on the second stage.  The third stage could take them all the way up to their maximum speed of Mach 3.26 or 3,500 km/h but, because of the added wear and tear on the engines, this could only be authorized for special, emergency situations.  Typically, they were limited to as fast as the second stage could take them, Mach 3.04 or 3,250 km/h.  It's what set the Stervyatnik apart from its chief rival, the MiG-25 Foxbat, which was limited to Mach 2.8 except in special, emergency situations.

          Flying onward for another few minutes, Ogre continued to cross check his gauges.  Flying the Stervyatnik at such high speed and altitude meant a necessity to be constantly aware of any change in anything with the aircraft.  The altitude and speed were deadly and though they had ejection capsules, those weren't foolproof, especially if something went catastrophically wrong with the aircraft.  More than a few Stervyatnik pilots and RIOs had been killed during high-speed flight accidents at high altitude because of a capsule failure or catastrophic structural failure prevented their ejection.  So much had to be monitored that Ogre's mind was rarely on anything else.  Handling the radar, the communications, and the weapons were Gargoyle's responsibility and, from the back seat, Gargoyle handled everything quite well.  

          Ogre and Gargoyle had been paired up shortly after either of them arrived at the squadron.  Stervyatnik crews were unique in that once a crew was formed, it was rarely split up unless at the request of one or both of them.  This was because crew cohesion was extremely important, more so than in any other aircraft in the service, except maybe the SR-71 Blackbird.  Stervyatnik crews often conducted training flights where their only purpose was to fly around and get acquainted with one another's quirks and idiosyncrasies in flight, just so each man knew precisely what the other man was thinking and doing.  The cost of fuel and flight hours paled in comparison to the reward in having expert crews who were so in sync with one another that communications over the intercom were almost unnecessary.  It was why Gargoyle had requested the altitude change, he knew that, based on their speed and fuel quantity, Ogre would want slightly better performance, which he did.  Ogre didn't even need to thank him for the request because he knew Gargoyle would make it and so, with a slight tap on the stick, he leveled out at 24,000 meters with Vulture Two, flying five kilometers off their wing, doing the same.

          "Vulture Flight, Sector Control, we're going to start your turn, come left, heading zero-two-five, maintain speed and altitude."  Gargoyle and Romeo acknowledged and with a slight movement on the stick, the two pilots banked their aircraft slightly to their port side, adding about +1.2G of load onto the aircraft.  It was a slow turn but at this speed, they were covering ground quickly.  The bogey remained true to its course, altitude, and speed, screaming in at over three times the speed of sound.  This was why the "kick out" was happening now and it wouldn't even need to be that long for as soon as the aircraft reached the heading, Tonković came back over the radio, "Vulture Flight, Sector Control, come right, heading two-nine-five, maintain speed and altitude, alterations to come during the turn as necessary."  This meant that it could be a head of 290°, 298°, or maybe even 320°, it all depended on how the turn went for the two aircraft.  Tonković had done the math using the assumed turn rate of the two aircraft for their given speed and altitude, which was what the two pilots were doing but he was doing complex math with nothing but a calculator and a few charts.  He'd been trained in it and drilled in it and he performed fairly well but no one could be perfect, he wasn't a human computer, those had long since been replaced by machines.

          Ogre followed the instructions and held the interceptor in a gentle bank as it completed a wide turn, coming out on a heading leading back to Pojački airspace with the bogey coming up behind them but at a greatly reduced closure rate.  As he completed the turn, Tonković offered a few more instructions, a slight turn this way or that way to align with the course so that the bogey would pass over them on its way to the Pojački coastline, which was hardly a good position for a fighter aircraft to be in with reference to a potentially hostile target but nothing about the aircraft's flight profile or radar signature suggested it was anything other than a reconnaissance aircraft and reconnaissance aircraft weren't armed, at least not ones that sustained over Mach 3 at an altitude of 27,000 meters for over 2,500 kilometers.  Even the fabled and massive XB-70A Valkyrie bomber couldn't fly as fast or as high as this bogey.  In fact, the only aircraft that could do this was the SR-71A Blackbird and the Blackbird wasn't an armed aircraft.  Unless Poja's enemies, chiefly the United Kingdom of Gaellicia had developed a brand new, hyper capable warplane, there was no threat to the Stervyatniks from the bogey.

          "Vulture Flight, Sector Control, bogey, BRAA one-two-two for one-five-zero at twenty-seven thousand, hot.  Maintain heading, speed, and altitude."

          "Vulture One copies," Gargoyle said into the radio.  "Vulture Two, nose hot."

          "Two, nose host," Romeo responded and with that, both men flicked the switch on their radar taking it out of standby and into transmit mode.  The mighty power of the radar began to sweep a 140° cone in azimuth and 130° cone in elevation ahead of them, which was useless given that the bogey was behind them but soon enough, it would be in front of them for their radars to detect.  

          "Vulture Flight, Sector Control, bogey has closed to a range of one-zero-zero, no other changes.  Radar contact remains weak, suggest a stealth aircraft.  Visibility will be limited."

          "Limited," Ogre said from the cockpit over the intercom, "it's pitch black out here."  He said in jest to a chuckling Gargoyle in the backseat.  "We'll be lucky to see it at all."

          "Roger that but you know these air defense guys," Gargoyle flicked a few switches in the backseat to go through a self-test on the missiles.  "Missiles are looking green."

          "Doubt we'll even use them," Ogre quipped as Tonković came back with a range update and a slight course correction of two degrees to starboard.  With the bogey at twenty kilometers, Tonković ordered them up to an airspeed of 3,250 km/h, which cut the closure rate to a mere 250 km/h.  Both aircraft would be in the intermediate afterburner stage, screaming ahead while the bogey closed on them, the whole group racing back to the Pojački coastline.  Because of the speed of the bogey, interception would occur almost as they reached Pojački airspace, giving a limited amount of time before they could stop it from crossing over the coastline.

          "Vulture Flight, bogey intercept in thirty seconds," Tonković started a stopwatch and waited as did the two aircrews.  Fuel levels had gone down considerably but there was no risk of not being able to make it back to their airbase.  They wouldn't be able to follow it across all of Poja but they could stay with it for a considerable amount of time.  "Fifteen seconds."  Quiet filled the cockpits as the RIOs looked up out of their canopies to try to see something or anything in the darkness.  "Vulture Flight intercept now."

          Gargoyle and Romeo, craning their necks to look upwards saw little to nothing.  "Two, see anything?"  Gargoyle asked over the radio.

          "Pretty stars man," Romeo answered, the two RIOs finding the situation somewhat humorous.  "Not really…oh, tally-ho!  Coming up between us."

          "I see it," Gargoyle said, craning his neck the other way.  "Sector Control, Vulture Flight has visual but there isn't much to see.  It's single-engine, one afterburning flame.  Definitely above us.  Can't make out the airframe in the darkness."

          "Roger that, stand by Vulture Flight."

• • • • ‡ ‡ • • • •

Thursday, 6 March 1986 | 00:26 hrs [UTC-3]
Liaria, Knežečak | Air Defense Command HQ
Lieutenant Zlatko Tonković

Tonković and Stefanović looked at one another in slight disbelief.  "Did he say single-engine?"

          "That's what he said," Tonković repeated.  "SR-71 has two."

          "Would they fly out there with one inoperable?"

          "Not a chance," Tonković couldn't believe his superior officer had asked such a dumb question but took it in stride.  "Quick, someone get the identification book and let's see what's out there, has to be something like the SR-71."

          "Sector Control, bogey is increasing distance from us."

          "Stand by, we're attempting to identify."

          Precious seconds ticked away, until Gargoyle's voice came back over the radio with a sense of tension to it, "Sector Control, bogey is changing course, new heading three-one-five.  Speed decreased a little but it's picking back up now."

          "Someone input that now," Stefanović ordered in the room as one of the sergeant's plugged in the information on the screen and relayed it to the main display.  "Put up all sensitive targets on the overlay."  The same sergeant complied and several red dots appeared on the map.  With his jaw almost hitting the ground, Stefanović quickly grabbed his phone and picked it up from the desk.  The line had been left open to not only the Ministry of Defense but President Radoman Vladić himself.  "The bogey has changed its course and it is heading directly for Rugi but it will pass over seven sensitive sites along the route, including two classified as Tier One."

          President Vladić, who happened to be seated in his office, awakened by an aide because of this situation, drummed his fingers on his desk.  "How long before it reaches Rugi?"

          "Less than eight minutes sir."

          "Can we positively identify this bogey?"

          "Not visually sir, it's too dark and the aircraft is likely painted black."

          "Suffice it to say, this isn't a 'friendly' and it is violating our airspace."  Vladić continued to drum his fingers.  He also cleared his throat, the byproduct of a stubborn cold that left him somewhat congested.  "Two Tier One?"

          "Yes sir."

          "Can you confirm this please, have a second set of eyes look?"

          "Yes sir."  Stefanović put down the phone but he didn't need to verify anything.  The radars had the bogey's exact position to within fifty meters and the Stervyatniks had a visual on the target, even if they couldn't perfectly identify it.  As he did, someone quickly shot up from his desk and held up the book.  "What is it?"

          "D-21 reconnaissance drone, no doubt launched from an M-21 aircraft.  Intel suggests they were retired over a decade ago sir."

          "Guess not, all right, let Vulture Flight know."  Stefanović picked the phone back up, "Sir we have reason to believe it is a D-21 reconnaissance drone, Gaellicia operated them over a decade ago."

          "Major, what is our engagement window?"  Vladić asked, the drumming of his fingers having finally stopped.

          "Very short sir, if we're going to do it we need to order it right now."

          "Very well, under my authority you are ordered to shoot down the target."

          "Yes sir," Stefanović took the handset away from his head and put it against his chest.  "Tonković, reclass bogey as bandit, proceed with shoot down."

          "Yes sir," Tonković said with a hint of a smile creeping across his face.

• • • • ‡ ‡ • • • •

Thursday, 6 March 1986 | 00:29 hrs [UTC-3]
Liaria | 200 km southeast of Rugi
Major Mijat "Ogre" Šaponjić

"Vulture Flight, Sector Control, contact is classified as bandit, permission to engage," Tonković said over the radio and with that order given, it was now up to the air crews.

          "Vulture Flight confirms, contact is classified as bandit, engaging," Gargoyle answered.  Ogre reached forward and flipped the weapons switch from SAFE to ARM, immediately giving him what they called a "hot trigger," meaning that he could launch the weapons if necessary.  On his HUD, the target was bracketed ahead and above them, a perfect firing position.  

          Gargoyle and Romeo had already had the target locked up with their radars but it was getting away from them.  The infrared signature of the target was excellent since it was now in front of them and running its afterburner.  The radar signature was adequate too but they could tell that the target was not only small but also designed in a way to reduce its radar cross section.  By being underneath it though, they were able to get a better read on the larger surface area of the drone's underside.  "Two, we're going shooter-shooter, good lock, one fox one, one fox two, how copy?"

          "Two, confirmed, shooter-shooter, one fox one, one fox two, ready to shoot."

          "Two, salvo on my command," Gargoyle reached forward to the firing button on his left console panel.  "Three, two, one, salvo."  The button glowed red, indicating that it was ready to fire and he pushed it once, immediately extinguishing the light.  The computer in the aircraft rapidly went through the firing sequence, sending an electronic signal to the missile underneath the aircraft's port-side outer wing hardpoint and commanding the rocket motor to fire.  It took only a quarter of a second before that motor not only fired but propelled the missile away from the aircraft at an increasing speed.  Gargoyle's index finger hovered over the switch as it glowed red again and he pushed it a second time, firing the second missile.  The computer, having been programmed to fire the two missiles in sequence, had already switched over to the next missile and in roughly one second, two missiles had been fired from each aircraft.

          Neither Gargoyle nor Romeo would be able to see the missiles streak away due to their limited visibility in the rear cockpits but Ogre and Convict could and they reported that the missiles were flying good and tracking.  With four missiles away, all they had to do was wait and watch.  The two infrared-guided missiles were on their own, screaming towards the hot exhaust of the D-21's engine, seeing it with no effort whatsoever.  The other two missiles were guided by semi-active radar homing, which meant that they required their firing aircraft's radar to remain locked onto the target, radiating back energy for them to home in on as SARH missiles were, essentially, blind.  

          The missiles, rocketing away at over Mach 4, quickly gained speed and turned up towards the escaping target.  Their rocket motors burned out and Ogre and Convict watched, trying to keep track of them in the darkness of the sky.  Unfortunately, the target was simply too high and the missiles, despite their initial speed and strong rocket motors simply couldn't get the target, even though they were tracking it well.  The infrared-guided missiles failed first, simply unable to keep up with the target anymore.  The SARH-guided missiles failed shortly afterwards with one prematurely detonating at least a kilometer behind the target and the other simply veering off to the far right.

          Ogre, disappointed from his seat in the cockpit looked at the range to the target.  It was opening and if they fired another salvo from their remaining wing-mounted missiles, the result would be the same.  "Let's dump the wings and I'm going to stage three," he said into the intercom and Gargoyle, having already expected this, flicked the switches and prepared.

          "Two, we're dumping the wings and going to full throttle.  Coming with us?"

          "Two, roger," Romeo answered.  Seconds later, they jettisoned the remaining two missiles on their wings and Ogre and Convict pushed their throttles up to full afterburner, giving a major kick in the pants.  The target's closure rate dropped as the Stervyatniks accelerated up to what was their maximum, structural speed, 3,500 km/h.

          "Fox one," Gargoyle said over the radio followed shortly by Romeo repeating the same command.  That meant they fired off another SARH-guided missile but this one came off of the semi-recessed hardpoints on their belly, which meant that it was not only a much bigger missile but it was also a much faster missile.  With the launch being at Mach 3.25, the missile's rocket motor had a huge boost in initial velocity and it screamed away at tremendous speed, the missile passing through Mach 5 roughly halfway between the Stervyatniks and the target.  

          The two mammoth missiles had little trouble keeping up with the target and screamed forward but, much to the continued dismay of both pilots, failed to connect with the target, both going past it and off into the distance where they were detonated by the Stervyatnik's computer once it realized they missed the target.  "Fox one again," Gargoyle said as he fired off a second missile.  Romeo followed and once again, the two missiles streaked away though Gargoyle's had a slight lead of a half second.  

          That half second was all he needed.  The missile, screaming forward at over Mach 5, tracked well on the target and tracked right underneath it where its proximity-fused warhead successfully detonated at a distance of around ten meters from the drone, which was well within its lethality radius.  That warhead weighed fifty kilograms but most of that weight wasn't explosives but rather steel rods that formed a cylinder around the explosive charge in what was called a continuous-rod warhead.  It was designed to slice heavy bombers in two and, against a small drone, the warhead had absolutely no challenge.  Upon detonation, the warhead propelled the rods outward and, because they were all connected to one another, they began to form a steel ring that, when moving at over a kilometer per second, tore clear through whatever was in their path, which included the drone, which exploded in a brilliant fireball about ten kilometers ahead of the two aircraft.  Romeo's missile would detonate too but by then, the D-21 was already destroyed and thus the kill would go to Ogre and Gargoyle.

          "That's a splash!"  Ogre shouted into the intercom.

          "Sector Control, Vulture One, confirmed splash, target is down.  Took some effort."

          "Good news Vulture Flight, RTB."

          "Roger that, Vulture Flight is RTB."  In the front cockpit, Ogre flipped the weapons switch back to SAFE and reached for the throttles.  He'd flown the aircraft higher and faster than ever in his career but he was also looking at his fuel gauge with mild concern.  They weren't far from home but fuel was one of those things you couldn't necessarily put back into the aircraft without the aid of a tanker and there weren't any tanker airborne.  "Two, what's your state?"

          "One, we're down to five thousand, about to hit bingo."

          "Two roger that, fifty-five hundred.  Drop down to ten thousand and reduce to zero-point-eight."

          "Two, confirm down to ten thousand and zero-point-eight," Romeo answered, "good splash one.  You beat us to it."

          "Quick hands two, quick hands."

          "Beer's on us."

          "Roger that," Ogre smiled as he pulled the throttles back and pitched the aircraft slightly over nose down while Gargoyle switched over to the navigation computer and brought up the waypoint for home.  The contact had pulled them closer to home than they expected and as Ogre saw the range at only one hundred kilometers, he felt a little sad.

          "Closer than expected and with all this fuel to burn," he said over the intercom.

          "Well, it's a long way down from up here."

          "That it is, I'm not in a rush."

          "Hey, I'm just along for the rid bud, you do you.  My job's over.  You're welcome, by the way."  They shared a laugh.  It would take another twenty minutes to get onto the ground as they had to come down from 24,500 meters in altitude and they couldn't simply flip over and scream towards.  The Stervyatnik couldn't pull out of a steep dive quickly and they would not only overstress and overspeed the aircraft in doing so but they would also probably rip the wings off and go spiraling into the ground.  So, they came down gradually in a lazy corkscrew, slowing down as they did by easing back on the throttles just enough to avoid a stall but not enough to maintain supersonic flight.

          Touching down, they found a quiet an empty air base, at leas on the outside.  Once they taxied into the mountain, it was a totally different story.  The entire wing was awake and ready to celebrate as the two interceptors were flown into the taxiway and the aircrews completed their shutdown checklist.  The aircraft would be pushed back into position by a tractor where they'd undergo refueling and a thorough inspection, especially after Ogre and Convict both reported taking the aircraft up to its maximum structural speed, all of which would be done in the hour-long debriefing while the party started without them.

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Modern Dragons

Ratko Vujić was just eleven years old and there was no reason he should have been awake past midnight; in fact, had his father or mother known about it, he would have been in very serious trouble and likely reprimanded and ordered to go to sleep, as if he could just go right back to sleep and forget that only seconds before, a large, fire-breathing dragon had nearly swallowed him whole.  Young Ratko had a very active imagination and he dreamed of writing fantasy stories one day of dragons and heroes battling for dominion over the planet.  Of course, with is active imagination came plenty of nightmares where he, himself, was the hero trying to slay the dragon.  The dragon of his dreams tonight was particularly fearsome and one that he'd never encountered before and so, when it nearly swallowed him whole, young Ratko's brain pulled him right out of the nightmare and brought him back to the safety of his bedroom.

          Resisting the urge to scream for his mother, like he did when he was younger, Ratko opted instead to lay back down and stare at his ceiling, hoping that he could go back to sleep quickly enough to get another crack at the dragon.  But that had been almost three hours ago and he hadn't felt tired since.  Instead, he took to looking out of his bedroom window staring at the twinkling stars and flashing lights of jetliners high overhead.  He'd never been in a plane but they always fascinated him and his father had promised him to take him to the largest airshow in Poja, the Krapek International Air Show in June.  It would be his first time seeing an aircraft up close and he already couldn't wait to go, least of all because he knew he could see the most amazing plane in the wurld, the ZuB-12 Stervyatnik there.  He was captivated the by plane, knew all of the stats - well the ones that had been published - and figured that it was so fast that no dragon could catch it because, after all, it was all about defeating the dragons.

          Looking up into the night sky, young Ratko tried not to fixate on any one thing, scanning the entire sky because there was so much to see.  It was a clear night and the moon hadn't risen yet so it was especially dark for young Ratko and his family lived in a rural village about 150 kilometers to the southeast of Rugi.  As he did, something caught his eyes, rather two somethings.  Far up in the sky, moving at a very fast rate, he saw two blueish-white dots streaking from the right of his window to the left.  They glowed fiercely and nothing like he'd ever seen before and very quickly, he found himself fixated on them, as if nothing else in the sky mattered anymore.

          Then, without any warning, he saw a bigger glow in front of them that had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared and young Ratko immediately wondered if something had blown up in the sky.  He wondered if the dots were rockets and maybe one of them failed but truth be told, he didn't know what he was looking at in the night sky.  He couldn't know that he was watching the end result of the interception that Ogre, Gargoyle, Convict, and Romeo had just completed.  He looked down for a moment and when he looked back, the dots were gone, the flash was gone, and he had to wonder if he'd seen anything at all.

          That thought was fleeting.  Young Ratko knew he'd seen something but what it was he didn't know.  He'd come up with a thousand theories in his head.  Of course, it would go unnoticed by the eleven-year-old when the military announced it had shot down an enemy reconnaissance drone over Liaria because what eleven-year-old paid attention to those things?  For young Ratko, he'd never know just what he witnessed and never know how his "dragon killers," or Stervyatniks, had been right before his eyes, albeit dozens of kilometers away and two dozen kilometers up into the sky, far enough that he just saw dots but close enough that he saw them at all.

• • • • ‡ ‡ • • • •

President Vladić had managed to get back to sleep fairly quickly after the incident had ended with the confirmed downing of the drone.  Recover efforts were underway to locate and examine the wreckage but, given the drone's altitude and speed when it was hit, military personnel were doubtful they'd find much that could be useful, especially since they expected the wreckage to be scattered over such a vast area that they'd never be able to recover everything.  In fact, they would have been hopeful and lucky to recover enough to piece together the origin of the drone, if of course the owner happened to identify themselves, though that wasn't necessary.

          The military and intelligence leaders in his cabinet had already pointed to Gaellicia as the culprit and it made sense.  No other nation was a mortal enemy to Poja like Gaellicia was.  The drone's flight path across the Dolch and Kezanoi Seas exploited well-used international airspace corridors and would have been the best launch route for a Gaellician reconnaissance aircraft.  By coming up through the Kezanoi, the drone could photograph Poja's main naval base and then head inland to pass over several important military targets, including Žabačak Air Base and Air Defense Command Headquarters.  Yet neither of these was very alarming to the President and not why he ordered the shootdown of the drone.  These targets were photographed several times a day by satellites; in fact, there were entire crews at all targets whose sole job was to move around barrels and useless equipment just to fool around with the satellites.  They would run out between satellite passes and rearrange certain things, which would undoubtedly capture the enemy of intelligence analysts.  

          No, what really mattered to Vladić was hearing that the drone would pass over two, Tier One facilities.  In Pojački parlance, a Tier One facility was an extremely sensitive facility that garnered the utmost secrecy and protection.  The two that had been identified, which Stefanović did not say aloud because he didn't necessarily know their names, only their classification, included Poja's main chemical weapons research and development center and Pajevo Air Base, which was a highly classified installation where the Pojački National Air Force was working on its next generation of fighter aircraft, which was to be designated the ZuB-17 Ter'er.  It was a highly maneuverable, multirole fighter that would replace the aging fleet of ZuB-7 Fishbed interceptors that made up the backbone of the Pojački National Air Force.  The ZuB-17 had yet to be revealed to the wurld but it was undergoing ground and engine tests, which were deemed highly sensitive, lest Gaellician spies camp out and get precious intelligence on the aircraft before it was put into service, which could only hinder not only the capabilities of the Pojački National Air Force to field it but also export it, which was a major priority for Zubareva-Bogolyubova.

          Sitting in a briefing, the President finally looked over at his military leadership and knocked his hand on the table to get everyone's attention.  He had a number of quirks and ticks about him as he was a peculiar individual but knocking his knuckles on the table was perhaps the most common, which was a signal to everyone to stop talking because he had a question or something to say.  Those within earshot silenced immediately and everyone else took the cue.  "All right listen, we can argue all morning about this but push comes to shove, this is a major violation of our sovereignty.  Of course, we came out victorious and perhaps that is enough to warn the Gaellicians from trying to do this again but this cannot go unanswered."

          "Sir, wouldn't shooting down the drone be our best answer?"  The question came from the country's foreign affairs minister, a scrupulous Chernarussian named Ruslan Šavel.

          "That is but one message, yes," Vladić answered, "but there needs to be a stronger message to Gaellicia.  We cannot respond with our air force as we lack the same strategic capabilities as them but we do have a navy that can respond, can it not Minister?"  He posed the question to the Minister of Defense, Dražen Georgijević, a man who was hardly popular with the rest of the cabinet but who seemed to have become a member of Vladić's innermost circle of advisors.

          "Yes sir we could but it will take some time.  The navy is currently performing maneuvers in the Qingming Sea.  We're looking at two weeks if we were to turn them around at this very moment.  This would put them in a precarious position for supplies on the return trip, which would necessitate at least one port stop, likely in Adaptus.  We can respond but I do not know that we can respond quick enough to send the message you want sir."

          Vladić began to drum his fingers on the table, another tick of his.  "That leaves me with little option.  All right, Šavel I want something drafted in the next two hours as a statement that we can have the ambassador hand deliver."

          "Yes sir, we can work up a statement quickly," Šavel answered, scribbling down some notes.  "We shot down the aircraft so we're coming at this from a position of victory.  Not only that but we shot it down in our airspace.  We're largely positive it is a Gaellician aircraft but we'll watch for their denials.  If they deny it and we have irrefutable proof with the wreckage, it will only embarrass them at the Assembled Nations."

          Vladić nodded to this and with a satisfied look, waved his hand allowing the previous topics of discussion to resume, which took a few seconds as everyone tried to remember what they had been discussing before the interruption.

The End

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