Alright, folks, I'm sorry for the massive delay in the publication of even this short chapter. The girlfriend whom I shamelessly based and named Amber Finney after and I broke up. As it turns out, she'd had someone other than myself in mind for several months.
So I Hemingway'd her. One last paper tiger to burn.
Without final ado, the last chapter of Burning Paper Tigers. The ending isn't how I expected it, but I like it. The whole point of Burning Paper Tigers is summed up in this one chapter: no matter what we do, we'll all be paper tigers in the end.
"Follow me," Joe said, waving towards the assembled squadron. They ran off after him. "The Tigers launched atomic missiles," he said as they made their way toward Nora.
"Didn't we, you know, disable those?" the squadron's Bastian component asked. Joe forgot his name.
"Apparently not. They're coming from the Western Bastian territory, Arctic Wolf territory. The sea," Joe provided.
"Mobile sites and submarines. Clever, aren't they?" Youngston asked.
"Unfortunately," Joe muttered.
They all jumped onto Nora. She had to make her back slightly longer and her wings larger to accommodate all five of them.
Joe was working the comm. stone board before she was off the ground. He selected every channel, even civilian stations, set his special priority military override.
"To everyone who is listening, Tiger Kingdom is attacking with atomic missiles. Evacuate to the nearest bomb shelter. If you are in Lyn'Knol, try to get to the portal to Earth, the Great Lane's world. USAF personnel, return to base, get back to your world. This is your only warning."
Nora was now putting everything she had into each and every beat of her wings. Joe could feel the tension of air building up in front of her; she was nearing the speed of sound.
Lyn'Knol was less than a hundred miles from the forward base they had left. They were descending upon it within a minute. Nora swooped through an entrance to the underground USA governmental complex designed for her kind. She stopped haltingly. Everyone dismounted. Suddenly, rather than a large white dragon, they were faced with a small white cat. They all shrugged it off and started running through the complex. Joe knew where the portal was, the rest followed without a word.
They made it through the portal, which was already choked with evacuees, into Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a dismal grey-walled place. The Americans were being incredibly efficient at moving refugees through the portal and to the surface. Several thousand square miles around the complex had been restored to their pre-apocalyptic state by Unity mages. Looks like most of them were going to get used. Lyn'Knol's population was about a million, but Joe estimated that around half of them would use the city's bomb shelters. The other half would try to get through the portal. But time was running out. The Tiger subs had been close to the capital of the United Species Alliance. Joe found that Trace, along with his cabinet and most of the USA General Assembly, were through the portal. They had been among the first.
Joe found a USAF major. "Are you in contact with your personnel on the other side?" he asked the younger man.
"Yes. Everyone but two pilots are through."
Joe knew the worst instantly. Amber and her wingman had been covering Youngston's squadron's escape. Advanced Tiger fighters, prototypes, Joe understood, had tied them up right after the squadron had made it to the base Joe was on. The Tigers intended to tie them up until it was too late...
"What are they doing, sir?" the major asked him.
"The Tigers. The war is over; they lose. Why are they nuking you?"
"They're burning paper tigers, son. All of them. That's all we are. That's all any of us were. It's all any government, any person, has ever been. Any military. Paper tigers. We look so fierce. So dangerous. As it turns out, there's nothing to us. We claim to be there for the people, for their interests. We want to help. All we want is peace, right? So then, why must we wage war for peace?"
Amber Finney looked at her radar. She was mere miles from base, but she wasn't going to make it. The Tiger missiles were almost to Lyn'Knol now.
Suddenly, there was the impact. She'd seen nukes in China. This was different. There was a massive blue flash, and a blue mushroom cloud arose from the ground. And the shockwave was about to smack her F-35.
It flipped her end over end. There was no way to right the jet. Ejecting would only leave her at the mercy of the nuclear weapon.
She accepted her fate as she saw her wingman's plane fill her windscreen. Soon the ground would reach up and reclaim her for its own. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes, she thought.
Two gravestones were made in the complex's new cemetery. One had Amber's name. The other, her wingman's.
A man, a pastor, came up, made a moving sermon. Next, her family came up and made moving speeches. And her boyfriend. Wait, what? Joe thought as the kid introduced himself. They'd been dating for a year, one month and eighteen days, he said. So she'd been cheating with Joe...
As it turned out, she'd been a paper tiger, too.