Bug Hunt

Bug Hunt

Author's Note: Please understand that I do not claim ownership interest in the Rifts multiverse. Rifts and all associated copyrighted materials are the intellectual properties of Palladium books. My intent is purely non-profit storytelling utilizing the background, themes, and settings described in the Rifts role-playing game. This story is written solely for your reading pleasure and is not to be distributed for any gainful purposes whatsoever.

Chapter 1

Demons and Doubts

April 2, 102PA 0830 Hours

Coalition Expeditionary Forces

Forward Operations Base, Charlie One-Four

Northern Michigan

With his right hand progressively rotating the throttle back, Captain John Drogue felt more than heard the big machine come to life beneath him. The young coalition officer had likened the sensation to straddling a violent she-demon. Like a mechanical force of pure rage; vibrating, pulsating, and barely contained by the alloy shackles withholding it. The three main engines below and between his legs slowly shifted from a high pitched whine to a dull roar as she drank in the offered power. Superheated air became ejected plasma, providing the thrust that was rapidly building his velocity down the makeshift runway. The heart of a demon to be sure, but the airman imagined that she must love him all the same. They'd been together a long time. He felt the familiar surge in lift as the sky cycle hit the translational lift barrier; busting the so called 'cherry'.

The transition from a hover to forward flight could be tricky for a rookie pilot. For pilots of the AFC-023 Sky Cycle, it was known as 'busting the cherry'. The term roughly describing a transition in which the pilot urged the aircraft past the point where it was reliant on vectored thrust and into forward flight where relative airspeed was the primary lifting force. It was a source of consternation for many young flyers and a maneuver that saw many cadets in the Coalition States Air Forces Division washed out and sent packing for infantry school. For those who succeeded, it became a subconscious thought process rather than a manipulation of the controls. And so it was today.

The clandestine dirt strip cleared for their use by the Ishpeming government now flashed by as he smoothly relaxed pressure on the vertical thrust levers. Minus the drag of its 'vert-burners', the cycle continued to build momentum, forcing the ace hard against the safety harness holding him fast in the saddle. They were loaded heavily on this run, and the more speed he could generate while still in ground effect, the better. The wind whipped angrily past his armored body as he entered tuck position, placing his swooped helmet behind the meager windscreen further reducing the parasitic drag on his ship. Finally, at 100 knots he serenely coaxed the 'death's head' likeness on the nose of his craft skyward.

As the earth fell away below him, the young flyer was once again alone with the familiar exhilaration of powered flight. He shifted his weight lightly from side to side; dipping the handle bars first one direction then the other, forward then aft, drinking in the slightly varying gravity forces dancing through his body. He felt almost like his call sign namesake: Ghost, or The Ghost, as he was called by his squadron mates.

"Wolf lead, is alpha-bravo," he spoke into his helmet mike, using the phonetic brevity code for the word 'airborne.' The captain then rolled his ship left into a shallow bank circling the lonely dirt strip as he continued to climb. Below, he could see the raised dust streaking behind another AFC-023 on the takeoff roll. Moments later his helmet was filled with the familiar voice of his wingman.

"Wolf two, alpha-bravo," spoke 1st Lieutenant Jared White, better known as "Cracker" to his fellow pilots of Wolf flight.

At 1000 feet, Captain Drogue leveled off and reduced airspeed allowing his wingman to close the gap and form up. As Cracker pulled gently in at his eight O'clock, the radio crackled to life once again.

"Wolf three, I'm alpha bravo," came the Arkansas drawl of 1st Lt. Alan Ichfeldt, or "Icky".

"Wolf four, I'm up," was the last radio confirmation as wolf flight completed a final pass over the rudimentary airfield. 2nd Lt. Marion "Huck" Fynne was the last to join formation as the four ship flight rocketed off to the west.

Within minutes the rocky shoreline and shallow surf of Lake Michigan passed beneath the hurtling sky cycles as they proceeded out over the water and on to the target.

"Norgun departure, Wolf flight is feet wet, westbound at 1000," The Ghost, as flight leader made the outbound transmission to the Northern Gun radar operators in Ishpeming. They had not been briefed on today's action and there was no immediate response from the tower.

"Hold on we're getting coffee," came a mocking voice over the internal frequency. The Captain smiled inside his helmet, looking over his shoulder at Icky, the offending joker. He lifted his chin in salute, reflecting a shared sentiment.

After an interminable pause, Drogue was about to repeat when a husky voice came back over the departure frequency. "Uh, wolf flight roger, you're clear outbound. Good hunting."

"Wolf flight," was all he replied, signaling a received message. Then switching frequencies, "Wolf den, Wolf flight is alpha bravo, squawking guard, requesting vectors to target."

The radio operator in CS battalion HQ was much more prompt than his Northern Gun counterpart. "Wolf flight, vector 265 to target, two-fifty miles out… you're cleared hot. Give them hell, Sir."

"Wolf flight, wilco," replied Ghost coolly. Then, switching to his internal communications frequency, "All right boys, arm yo' shit, switch comm channel four, climb three thousand, make it two zero zero knots. Target is on the nose, bearing two six five at two-fifty miles."

The four sky cycles gently ascended to the prescribed altitude maintaining a perfect "finger four" formation. The formation so named for its resemblance to the fingertips of a human hand if viewed from above. The number one and two men forming Alpha element consisting of the middle and index 'finger' positions, while wolves three and four became Bravo element as the ring and pinky 'finger' positions. This was their standard four ship combat formation, practiced since flight school. It held the advantage of giving them excellent maneuvering options in battle, each element having a lead and a wingman in case the formation needed to be split.

As the airmen thundered further out over the seemingly endless expanse of the great lake, The Ghost chanced a look back at the rapidly receding shoreline of northern Michigan. He had to fight to turn his streamlined helmet against the whipping slipstream at 200 knots, and the action upset the trim of his aircraft just enough to cause a slight ripple in the formation.

"No worries, Chief," came the calm reassurance of his wingman, Cracker, the one member of the flight who perhaps knew him the best. They had been together since flight school back in Chi-town and after thousands of flight hours and nearly eighty combat sorties together; they could almost read each other's thoughts. While Drogue was honored by the devotion and confidence of his team; it was with extraordinary effort that he trusted himself with such loyalty. They might believe that 'The Ghost' could lead them all into hell and back out again, but the man was not so sure.

Although he professionally kept all doubts to himself, Drogue hated flying over the vast expanse of water. Due to weight limitations, and in order to carry the laser guided bombs critical to their assignment, Wolf flights' sky cycles had been stripped of all non- critical components. Nothing had been spared, even parachutes and flotation gear were considered 'extraneous' on this one. If anyone developed a mechanical problem, bail out was no longer an option; they'd have to ditch in the frigid liquid below.

Truthfully, this was only one nagging doubt out of many that banged around in the mind of the Coalition flyer. But orders were orders, and going around the lake was simply impractical. The flight lead had to consciously force the resurgent concerns to a forgotten corner of the mind and concentrate on the successful execution of his objectives.

"No worries," he replied with the steady cool of a seasoned combat aviator. It helped. Like dry land, the nagging anxiety of certain death disappeared behind him. John Drogue knew he would find a far greater peril awaiting his flight on the distant shores. It would be this danger that would consume all of his efforts should he successfully bring even a single one of his friends home again. All knew it, and all accepted it, but only the foolhardy welcomed it; The Ghost smiled. Beyond the distant blue horizon waited a fifth 'wingman', a constant and familiar companion to the bold airmen… ahead was Death.

Ahead were the Xiticix.