Stuart Slade. . Chapter One

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

Source: World Online Dictionary

Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, October 2008.

“That looks ominous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘“A-10s Sir? What about the B-2s?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

High on the AOC wall were a series of displays from the outside surveillance cameras. One of them pointed east and showed the ground out towards Sedalia. Or, it would, normally, but now the scene was different. The sky had blackened over until light levels had dropped to night-time conditions. Even so, the camera was showing three massive tornadoes bearing down on the base, their fearsome funnels illuminated by the almost continuous lightning discharges. The sight was awesome, even the tornadoes that had destroyed Greenburg hadn’t matched these monsters.

“They’re EF-5s for sure, no doubt about it. I’d say they were F-6s on the old Fujita-Pearson scale.” The meteorologists voice was awed. Those funnels must be three quarters of a mile across. Lord knows…” He was interrupted by an exaggerated barrage of throat clearing from around the room. Mentally he dope-smacked the back of his head, he came from a family that had taken its Baptist religion seriously and The Message had hit them all hard. One of his aunts had even laid down and let herself die just like it had demanded. Now the truth was known, nobody in his family believed anything any more and they looked on their dead aunt as the worst kind of fool. Even so, changing the speech habit of a lifetime took doing. “Sorry. I have no idea what the wind speeds in those things are, over three hundred miles per hour, I’m sure of that.”

The funnels swelled quickly until they filled the screen. By that time the sky was so dark it took Cochrane a few seconds to realize that the television camera had ceased to function. The room was filled with a dull roar, the floor shaking despite the depth to which the facility had been buried. That, if nothing else, told Cochrane just how much energy the storm was containing. The television screens were all blacked out, he guessed the cameras had been destroyed but then he saw a shadow moving on one and realized it was just the conditions out there. “Have we got a night vision option on camera five.”

There was no verbal reply but the image on Camera Five went from black to green. It showed very little more than the normal vision had revealed, the intense driving rain was blanking out most of the imagery but what was visible went far beyond any words Cochrane had to describe it. The shadow he had seen was a B-2, picked up by the storm and thrown cartwheeling down the hard-stand. Other shadows could have been the A-10s and F-5s parked there being tossed around with the contemptuous disregard malicious children showed for toys belonging to others. There were other objects as well, Cochrane couldn’t recognize them but they hurtled across the screen before Camera Five too blacked out.

“That’s it Sir. All cameras are gone.” The voice was quiet and awed at the brief glimpse of the destruction on the surface.

“Doppler radar has gone as well Sir.” The meteorologist looked over at General Cochrane, half-expecting to be held responsible for the equipment failure. But who could have expected something like this, F6 tornadoes weren’t supposed to be possible, that’s why the classification for the Enhanced Fujita scale stopped at EF5. Boardman guessed that an EF6 would be added after today,

Cochrane glanced at the viewer, it was still showing the track of the storm front. It was passing Whiteman and closing in on Warrensburg, the small town to the west of the base. It was a favorite for men on leave and now it was going to be gone. No town could survive a tornado that had hammered a base designed to resist nuclear attack so badly. “How come we’re still getting data?”

“Sir, we’re pulling radar data from the Tornado Watch on the Weather Channel. We’ve got a cross-connection, when they sought permission to use input from our radars, we got input from their system in case ours went down.”

“Who thought of that?”

Boardman shrugged, “It was a joint effort sir, we were all brainstorming and the idea just came up.”

The storm on the screen was slowly weakening as the trailing edge crossed Whiteman and left the base, if there still was one Cochrane thought, sitting in a sea of light green. By the time it enveloped Warrensburg, the purple areas had gone and the dark red had shrunk markedly. That was only relative though, Warrensburg still didn’t have a hope of surviving. It was towns beyond that now stood an honest chance of being able to rebuild. The dull roar had faded and the floor had stopped shaking, it looked like the monsters had indeed passed.

A few minutes later, he was standing on what was left of Whiteman Air Force base. Behind him the massive doors on the bomb-proof hangars were opening. It was still raining but the force of the downpour was easing off. Cochrane almost found himself wishing it hadn’t for the rain had hidden the worst of the destruction that surrounded him. The aircraft left outside on the hardstand had gone, mostly they were small fragments of shattered wreckage scattered all over the base. 20 B-2s, Cochrane thought, at two billion dollars each. That alone made this storm a catastrophe. The smaller, lighter aircraft, the F-5Es, A-10s and the handful of F-16Cs that had been assigned here as guards against a Harpy attack, oddly they had suffered a little less than the B-2s. Perhaps because the tornadoes had picked them up and thrown them rather than just ripping them apart, some of the birds were still recognizable. There was, for example, what was obviously a wing from an F-16C stuck in the ruins of the control tower.

It was the hardstand itself that showed the awesome force of the storm that had hammered Whiteman Air Force Base. The concrete and blacktop had been ripped from the ground in huge chunks and the fragments hurled around the base as giant, vicious projectiles. One such chunk had hit the blast doors of a hangar and dented them It had dented a door meant to resist a nuclear blast. That alone showed the incredible force that the storm had unleashed.

Around him, the base personnel were pouring out of the hangars and bomb shelters, only to mill around, seeking direction in the face of the unimaginable devastation. Cochrane looked behind him, the areas where base housing had been built were leveled as thoroughly as the rest of the installation. That gave him his first priority at least. Fortunately he had a loud-hailer available, the presence of mind to think of bringing one as he’d left the AOC was one of the reasons why he’d made it to General.

“Listen up. Everybody who has family in the base housing area, you are dismissed now. Take whatever transport you need from the hangars and get to your quarters, help your families. Move.” He hesitated while about a third of the men broke away and set off. “The rest of you, we’re forming work gangs to dig the casualties out. There will be a lot of them and we have to move fast. Get whatever tools you can find and get going. Base security, get the infra-red gear and the K-9s, we’ll need them to find people buried in the ruins.”

As the base surged back into activity, Cochrane walked over the shattered hardstand to the runway. It wasn’t quite as badly damaged as the hardstands but it was still a mess.

“Sir.” The voice sounded behind him. One of the pilots was running up to join him.

“Yes Captain?”

“Sir, my Warthog is fuelled and ready to go, she was being prepped for a test flight when the emergency hit. I can take her up, see what the damage is from the air. I’ve got a FLIR pod as well, I can help look for people in the wreckage.”

“Captain, just take a look at the runway. It’s a wreck and its covered with debris.”

“No problem Sir. The Warthog can handle the damage and worse. My bird still has her Hell-filters fitted so that’ll stop any foreign object ingestion. Sir, after this we need everything we can get to help us and I can do more good up there than pushing a spade.”

“Make it so, Captain. But steer well of storm fronts if one starts to form. And don’t take the fact you are clear for granted. This one turned through 90 degrees and doubled in power in just a few seconds.”

“Sir, word from the base housing.” Harmsworth was looking grim. “It’s gone, all of it. I don’t see how many people can have survived in there. Some in the basements and shelters perhaps, but I don’t know, the houses are so thoroughly destroyed, its hard to tell where they were. Even the roads are all ripped up. The men are digging but it’s looking pretty bad in there.”

Cochrane sighed. “Anything else?”

“Local police and emergency services are tied down at Warrensburg, the situation is as bad there as it is in Base Housing. Streets are all blocked or torn up or both, all the buildings are down. They’re expecting thousands of dead, nobody even can guess how many severely wounded. Total population minus the dead is their best guess. So, they’re telling us, we’re on our own resources for a while.”

“No, we’re not. We need to get through to SecDef now.”

“Comms are down Sir. As far as we can make out, our communications tower is somewhere in the Knob Noster National Park. It should be easy to find Sir, there isn’t a tree left standing over there.”

“Then find another way to get through. We need help down here. Is there any good news?”

“The storm front dissipated before it hit Kansas City. They got heavy rain and strong winds but that’s all.” Harmsworth was interrupted by the sound of an A-10 taxying out on to the wrecked hardstand, three ground crew helping it to steer around the worst of the damage. “And, Sir, it looks like we’re back in business.”

Half an hour later, Cochrane was on the telephone to Washington, speaking directly with Defense Secretary Warner.

“And so Sir, Whiteman is out, we can fly an A-10 or two but that’s it. The B-2 force is history, there isn’t even scrap metal left. Our personnel have mostly escaped, but their families have been hit hard. The base housing is like the B-2s, just tiny pieces of scrap being blown in the wind. We’re going to need emergency services, disaster teams, you name it. From what we’ve been able to put together, we’re looking at twenty or thirty thousand dead. This could be as bad as Detroit or Sheffield.”

“That squares with our estimates General. I’m speaking with FEMA right now.”

“Mister Secretary, please, not FEMA. We’ve had one disaster here today already.”

Cochrane could almost hear the drumming of fingers at the other end of the phone. “That’s changed, the problem that caused the mess back then isn’t even here now. And there are things about this storm they need to see. I understand it changed direction and speed without warning?”

“That’s correct Sir. Was heading north-east, it suddenly turned west.”

“That fits some other pictures we have. General Cochrane, you hang in there. Help is on its way. President Abigor has a standing offer to send help for disasters like this. I’ve got a feeling he was expecting something along these lines.”

“Sending Baldricks Sir?”

“That’s right General. They’re good at digging and shifting wreckage. And I guess you need all the help you can get.”