“A bunch of guys with some jeeps and a machine gun knocked off a weapons research depo?” I asked, disbelief echoing from my tone of voice.
Captain Persopoulos, the man representing the Altis government to me for this contract, gave me a dry stare, then nodded.
“We had thought that the facility was too deep and unknown to the rebels,” Persopoulos said, “so it was lightly defended. I presume a few trucks and insects are no problem for a gunship.”
I chuckled and rolled my eyes. “Yeah, but that’s a lot of money to waste for such a small problem. We can do it, but why not take out some of those tanks further west? We’ve got the weapons for it, fresh from the ‘States.”
Persopoulos waved his hand dismissively at my remark. “Colonel Samaras assures me that any armored forces that the rebels might have are a myth. Your eyes deceive you; those are likely empty husks from last year’s offensive.”
I lifted an eyebrow at Persopoulos, curious at the mental gymnastics he was trying to sell me. A friend of mine who had signed on with Henry’s Raiders had told me they snapped some perfect pictures and real-time recon data regarding the FIA – Freedom and Independence Army, as they called themselves – getting a bunch of armored units ready. The FIA apparently hoped that they could push east and take a corner of Altis for themselves, then appeal for help from foreign alliances further east across the ocean. Altis wasn’t exactly a big place, but it was a lucrative location for a lot of power-hungry dictators and warlords throughout the Mediterranean, middle east, and north Africa; they would all jump for the chance to topple the military junta controlling Altis.
Thing is, I wasn’t so sure I cared which way the political wind on Altis blew. I needed money, the unit needed money, and the boys running Altis had that money. A million bucks, all expenses paid, plus bounty? I would’ve been a fool to turn down that payday, especially when most of the FIA were a bunch of backwoods hicks with guns and a drug problem. So why was Persopoulos here trying to sell me on the propaganda when there’s cold, hard cash on the table?
I sighed and rubbed my eyes, then looked back up to Persopoulos. “OK, you can believe that if you want. What’s the objective?”
Persopoulos shrugged and pulled out a piece of paper, handing it to me. “Destroy any rebel vehicles, kill everyone at the depot. A bonus if you find where they carted off the depot’s equipment to.”
I took the page and read over it, my eyes going over to the mission payment: fifty thousand, with a fifty thousand bonus if I completed the secondary objective. The FIA’s lives were valued at a bit less: a hundred bucks a head for every man killed. Curiously, I didn’t see any indications for payment of fuel or munitions used.
“You guys are footing the bill on the gas and the bombs, right?” I asked.
Persopoulos frowned. “Is it on the page?”
I simply shook my head in reply.
“Then we’re not paying for it. We will only cover fuel and munitions after the contract has been fulfilled.”
I sighed and folded the page, then stuffed it in a pocket. I knew that wasn’t the contract terms, but I wasn’t about to argue with Persopoulos over them; he was tasked with assigning targets to the various mercenaries employed by the Altis government, not contract terms and payment. The man was only good for propaganda and towing the official line – anything else was beyond his thinking capacity.
“Well, unless there’s anything else, it looks like I’ve got a sortie to plan,” I said, turning to leave.
“Don’t take too long,” Persopoulos mumbled, turning back to his desk. “We must send a message to these rebels: challenge the power of the AAF and suffer the consequences.”
I turned and rolled my eyes again, opening the door and walking out of the small office. Fortunately for me, Persopoulos’ office was right at the airfield my unit was stationed at, so it didn’t take long to find out what was going on – or at least get the latest propaganda from the “official” sources. Most of the AAF – Altis Armed Forces – were situated in the west, fighting the FIA in the hills and forests of the western part of the country, leaving the eastern edge lightly defended. That gave the FIA a big opening and they took advantage of it in every way they could; this little incident was proof of that.
I grinned at my own thoughts, feeling rather idiotic about sizing up the AAF’s situation. My job wasn’t to do a tactical and strategic analysis, but to blow up what they told me to. I might draw the line at attacking civilians or infrastructure, but legitimate military targets are fair game – they shoot at me, I shoot back, simple as that. Nothing personal, just business. So what if the AAF is ham-fisted in how they handle their affairs; so as long as they pay me and stick to the contract, it’s none of my business.
I look up to find myself coming up to the hangar that the AAF has generously allowed us to use, where our various support personnel have setup around the two AH-64Ds we own – all that’s left from our devastating loss a month back. They’re not the most recent blocks, but they’ve done what we’ve needed them to do and then some. If we can get back up on our feet, then we might be able to upgrade them – or augment them with something else, like the T-129. The Russians were also doing pretty good with the worldwide chaos, so we could always consider something like the Mi-28 or the Ka-50.
I walk up to my aircraft, tail number 582, looking over it and making sure nothing stood out. I had just flown it a couple days prior with Viper, my gunner. We did a little bit of familiarization with the area, getting a feel for Altis and the situation on the ground. Naturally, we saw a lot of FIA out there, but engaging them would have denied us a paycheck – with no mission given to us by the AAF, they would have refused to pay us for even confirmed kills. Further, the AAF was also fond of mistreating mercenaries, which is one of the key reasons we found ourselves coming to this little hot spot in the Med.
“Whaddya got, boss?” A man asked, walking up next to me with a clipboard in hand. It was Levan Nozadze, our crew chief – for both aircraft.
I folded my arms and looked at the paint job on 582, noting how unusual it was. It was close to what the Israelis used on their aircraft, but markedly different; we used a fragmented camouflage that was ideal for the middle east, Mediterranean, and north Africa. It was also quite a bit cooler than the typical olive drab used on most ex-US Army aircraft.
“A simple light strike, Lev,” I finally replied, thinking about what I wanted to load up for the mission.
“Armor? Infantry? Milk run? Gotta pot on it, boss,” Levan said, still looking at the clipboard.
“Some jeeps and some insurgents, maybe. Nothing too heavy.”
“Damn. Out 50 bucks. Whatcha wanna take?”
I dropped down and looked at the M230, looking over the mechanics on it. 582 had a lot of issues with the gun, but Levan had insisted it was fixed now. “Gimme three hundred rounds of 30mil, four Ms, and a pod of 151s,” I said.
Levan nodded and wrote some notes on his clipboard, figuring out what I wanted. 300 rounds of M789 would be more than enough for what we were doing, but I wanted some extra insurance in case something bigger was out there – a pod of M151 10 pounders and four AGM-114M blast-fragmentation HELLFIREs would cost us a hair in terms of fuel, not to mention flight time on weapons that would have to be used somehow, but they would give us some flexibility that would keep us alive.
“Mm-hmm. What about fuel?” Levan asked.
“Gimme half. No need for more; we’re not gonna loiter around out there,” I answered.
Levan again nodded and jotted down a few more notes on his clipboard. He flipped it over and handed it to me, giving me a chance to make sure his figures were correct for the load I wanted. I looked over them and nodded, noting that he had it all correct.
“Looks good, Lev. How soon can we get it ready?” I said, handing the clipboard back to Levan.
“30 mikes, maybe 45,” Levan replied. “There a rush or sumthin’?”
I shrugged in response. “Kinda. This happened last night so the AAF is getting antsy about ‘sending a message.’ What a cluster, am I right?”
“Yeh,” Levan remarked, nodding his head again, “butcha agreed ta tha contract, didnya? ‘Sides, aintcha been wantin’ action since we got ‘ere?”
“Blasting a few jeeps and some poor guys on the ground isn’t ‘action,’ Lev. That’s a slaughter.”
Levan chuckled and turned to leave, presumably to order the crew around to prep 582. “Pay’s pay, any way ya slice it, boss. Best get ready; figure we be done by tha time yer suited up.”
I sighed and stood up straight, lightly tapping on the left avionic bay of 582, then turning to leave. I had only been on 5 missions in 582 before the rest of the unit got shot up in an ambush; me and Viper had sat that one out because of the gun problem 582 was having at the time. 583 was its sibling, and it had returned all shot to hell. We would have written 583 off, but we couldn’t afford to; if anything, it at least served as a parts spare for 582. Since I was the only senior pilot left alive, I ended up in control of the unit, per the legal agreements everyone had signed.
I hadn’t really wanted the job or the responsibility, but getting a unit to sign me on had been difficult enough as it was; if I chickened out, I’d probably never get a shot at commanding a mercenary unit ever again. Still, I was better equipped than most of the people we had: just about everyone had only military experience and I was the only one who had run a successful business before joining up and getting lost in the collapse.
I made my way over to the barracks we appropriated from the AAF, though it really wasn’t much more than a large shed with a leaky roof. The AAF had a few light strike aircraft at the small field, but they had lost them years ago when the FIA blew them up and killed the pilots, leaving the field mostly vacant. On the other hand, there were worse places to be and the relative isolation of the field meant that most of the locals didn’t try to bother us – other mercenaries had many problems with riots and fights arising from people who were most decidedly frigid to the AAF. Being an aviation unit and distant from the community gave us a status that a lot of other units were quite envious of.
I opened the barracks door, being rewarded with a loud creaking noise and greeted with the sight of Viper trying to watch some show on a tablet. We were all fortunate that the internet still worked, because if it didn’t, the collapse might’ve resulted in World War 3.
Viper looked up and frowned at me. “Wireless sucks here, man. We doin’ anything yet?” He asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, nodding, “simple light strike. Blow up a few jeeps, kill a few guys, come back. Nothing fancy.”
Viper sighed. “Figures. Just like the AAF to use us for something absolutely retarded like that. Before you know it, they’ll call me Fred.”
“That is your name, though.”
“■■■■ you man!” Viper replied, laughing. His real name was Frederick Smith and he absolutely loathed the name, so everyone just called him Viper – not because it was a cool name, but because he got drunk one time and puked on a VIP. Hence, he became Very Important Puker, or Viper for short.
I walked up to the couch that Viper had appropriated for himself and looked at his tablet, expecting him to be watching pornography or similar. Instead, it looked very much like some kind of soap opera. I mentally filed away that knowledge for future blackmail material in case I needed it.
“We go up in 30 minutes. You gonna be ready or should we all just call off the war until your show’s over?” I asked.
Viper stood up and stretched, then shook his head. “I’d like to get paid and go home; they can keep the war for all I care. You flyin’ or am I?”
“Me. Most definitely me,” I grumbled back. While Viper could fly, he was most decidedly poor at it – he graduated last in his class in flight school, and there were rumors he only made it that far because he had “relations” with one of the instructors. The rumor was it was his sister, but I was never there so I can neither confirm nor deny that.
“I’ll get my stuff ready and meet you outside. 582, I presume?” Viper remarked.
I nodded and made my way to the bunk area. I opened the door to my austere room and popped open the trunk containing all my flight equipment – helmet, gloves, vest, .45 auto subgun, and a few other essentials that I’d hope I wouldn’t need. Normally, we preferred to stick with just a pistol, but the conditions on Altis forced us to carry a bit more firepower around, just in case Murphy had a bad day and decided to take it out on us. A subgun is bulky, but comforting, especially if you have to set down near an area you’ve just shot to pieces from the air.
I opened up my laptop and put together a basic mission plan from the information I was given – pretty basic, with the only pertinent information being the target, designated “Objective Fury.” A simple set of waypoints would let us catch the FIA unaware, while giving us an opportunity to react to any unforeseen circumstances. I did a few more calculations and some final checks, then sent the files over to Levan so he could load it all up into 582’s computers.
“I thought you said we were going in 30 minutes?” Viper asked, standing in the doorway, ready to go.
“Depends on how long Lev takes to get things ready,” I answered, closing the laptop and standing up. “Our callsign is ‘Hunter 1’ and air control is ‘Judge 1.’ Think you can remember that?”
Viper frowned at how little information he was getting. “Just that? No other friendly forces?”
I shook my head. “That’s all they gave me. Our target is ‘Objective Fury’ if anyone asks, but that’s not hugely important.”
Viper sighed and rubbed the side of his face. “So why are we doing this again?”
“'Cause they’re paying us fifty k for it plus bounty. You know the AAF; they aren’t exactly the best at managing resources.”
“Well, if they got the money…” Viper’s voice trailed off as he wandered back down the hall, prompting me to grab my helmet and follow him. I briefly looked out the window to see that the morning weather looked like rain, but at least the clouds would give us some reprieve from the sun.
“How much longer you think we’ll be here?” Viper asked, again watching his show, sitting on the couch with his tablet.
“As long as the AAF pays us,” I bluntly answered. “The sooner the FIA gives up, the sooner we collect our paycheck and go home. You in a rush to get back?”
“Yeah, I’m tired of the crappy internet out here. Plus, I heard about some things going on in Ukraine; I’d rather be there where it’s cooler than down here, sweating my ass off.”
“If the paycheck is there, that’s where we’ll go,” I replied, knowing that Viper really wanted to go there for the women and the booze rather than the money.
“It’s a place to burn a paycheck,” Viper mumbled under his breath, focusing on his tablet.
I climbed into the rear cockpit, strapping myself in while Viper did the same in the front seat. I did a casual look around, pulling various safety pins out and going through a brief checklist before I did an engine start. There usually wasn’t much to worry about, but complacency could get us killed and I wasn’t about to screw everything up on a rookie mistake. It all looked good, so I opened the storage container for my head display unit and clipped it to my helmet, rotating the monocle down and making sure the fit was the same as always. I flipped it back over to the side, then looked over and twisted the ignition knob to battery, powering on the aircraft. I waited a moment for the computers to fire up, then switched over to my tactical situation display and weapon page.
I cycled the TSD to navigation mode and made sure that the waypoints were correct; I didn’t notice anything out of place so looked over to the weapon page and verified things were good there. Nothing looked out of place there either, so I cycled to the engine page and fuel pages, then prepared to start the aircraft.
“Intercom check. You got me, boss?” Viper asked over the intercom.
I reached over and pressed my stick button for the intercom. “Affirm, I got you loud and clear. How about me?”
Viper gave me a thumbs up in the front seat. “Gotcha boss. All ready up here.”
I nodded and pressed the button to start the APU, hearing it whine and listened for any problems. It didn’t take long and soon the APU had fired up and was providing power. I double checked to make sure the rotor brake was off, then reached over and flipped the switch to start engine 1, watching the engine spool up on my right display. I carefully throttled up until engine 1 was at full power, then repeated the process for engine 2. Before long, both engines were up and running and the rotor was spinning at full revolutions. I turned off the APU, then briefly looked around outside, making sure there wasn’t anything in the way or anyone trying to get my attention.
“All good, boss?” Levan asked, plugged into the intercom port in the wing. I looked over to him and nodded, giving him a thumbs up.
“Green across the board, Lev,” I replied. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
Levan nodded and pulled his headset wire out of the wing, then jogged back to the hangar; 582 was all in my and Viper’s hands now. I looked at the time on the up front display, noting it was 12 past 0600. We were a bit later than I’d like to be, but still within Persopoulos’ requested time.
“Judge 1, this is Hunter 1, requesting permission to take off,” I asked, keying the radio.
“Hunter 1, cleared for takeoff,” Judge replied, sounding bored out of his mind.
I gently pulled up on the collective, holding some pressure on the pedals to keep the torque from spinning us around, then gained some altitude and started going east. Being only at half fuel and a really light load, we gained speed and altitude quickly – it wouldn’t take long for us to get to Objective Fury. I toggled the HDU over to cruise mode symbology, giving me some extra data for flying around.
“Hey, I’m gonna take weapons on this one,” I said over the intercom.
“What? Why?” Viper replied.
“‘Cause I want to. If we use up any HELLFIRE, those’ll be yours.”
“You losin’ faith in my ability to shoot, boss?”
I chuckled and fought the urge to shake my head. “Nah, just wanna blow some things up is all.”
“Fine, but next mission I get to blow things up, alright?”
I was about to reply, then saw something at the corner of my eye that seemed out of place – a dry lakebed to the south that wasn’t much more than a sand pit.
“Got something to the south – few clicks out. Can you confirm it for me?”
Viper swung the TADS around to take a look, then confirmed my suspicions. “Roger that, I’ve got some trucks and a couple helicopters… Looks like Tarus? Pretty sure that’s not FIA.”
“It’s not AAF either. Betcha that’s FIA making a deal of some kind. We’ll take 'em down with the gun.”
“Yeah, definitely not AAF. I see some guns on those trucks; might wanna keep your distance, boss.”
I grinned, knowing that we outgunned the guys on the ground in a big way. “A few guys with a machine gun isn’t enough to make me worried. Keep an eye out for me; this should only take a pass or two.”
I punch the gun into automatic mode and note that Viper has been kind enough to put the targets into the TSD, allowing me to pick a target and let the computers do the work. My finger hovers over the trigger, watching the range estimate tick down on my HDU. I wanted to make a sure kill, so I planned to let off a few bursts at 1500 meters or so, which would be plenty close to take out the technicals down there. 1500 meters closes faster than I anticipate, especially since I was going 136 knots, so by the time I mash down on the trigger, we’re already within 1300 meters of the targets – fortunately for me, the computer calculates close enough and 582’s gun problem is clearly gone as the cannon fires, shaking my feet and riddling the targets with small explosions in the distance. I’m rewarded with some larger explosions as my rounds hit their mark, setting off fuel and explosives, destroying the trucks and setting off large fires.
I quickly acquire one of the Tarus, firing a few rounds into it and causing it to spectacularly explode – it must’ve had something big under it, because it shot up into the air from the blast! I coast past the scene and pull a rapid hammerhead to come back for another pass, shooting up the last Taru with quite a bit less drama.
“Judge 1, Hunter 1,” I say into the radio, “secondary objective complete. Confirm a small FIA convoy destroyed and two helicopters of unknown origin.”
“Hunter 1, well done! You have destroyed the escaping rebels!” Judge replies. I let go of the mic switch and chuckle to myself, knowing that the AAF was already leaping to conclusions based purely on my word.
“I see the depot out ahead – a few jeeps around it, some infantry too,” Viper says.
“Send them some missiles, then we’ll close in and mop the rest up,” I order, allowing Viper to take control of the weapons again. He wastes no time in firing up the laser and designating the first jeep; before I know it, a HELLFIRE comes off of the rail and streaks out toward the depot, presumably homing in on one of the jeeps. A small blast in the distance indicates a hit, cuing Viper to switch to the next target and fire off another missile.
Viper follows up with another pair of missiles, launching them one after the other for a rapid engagement; I see them soar out and strike their targets, seeing burning in the distance from the fires they lit. I switch over to the gun and immediately close the distance, looking for anything we might’ve missed.
“Boss! Technical off the 12!” Viper frantically shouts. I instinctively pull the cyclic to the right, slamming on the right pedal and pulling on the collective to give me power, but the guy behind the machine gun was already ahead of me – I hear pings on the fuselage from light strikes, then suddenly the engine 1 fire light comes on and I hear the all-too-familiar Betty voice over the intercom.
“Engine 1 fire,” Betty cheerfully informs us.
“Yeah, yeah,” I grumble, pressing the engine 1 fire button and discharging the primary fire bottles. The fire is immediately put out, suggesting that we may have taken an incendiary round rather than an engine fire. I’m thankful that we loaded light in case we have to fly on one engine, but I push that thought to the back of my mind and focus on getting back at the ■■■■■■■ who shot us.
“Lock up that asshole for me,” I grumble over the intercom. A truck appears on my TSD, allowing me to acquire it and slave the weapon systems to it. I come around wide, then let loose a burst of cannon fire onto the jeep, lighting it up and causing a small cookoff from the exploding ammunition. Some tracer fire off to the side attracts my attention to some infantry on the ground, no doubt trying to use their small arms to shoot us down.
“Time for your physical,” I grumble, selecting rockets and using my HDU to aim the lone rocket pod. I start firing in the general area of what I see through my sensors, the small blurs of heat scurrying about and trying to find cover from my return fire. The explosions from my hit obscure most of the carnage, but I know more than a few guys are now dead from my salvo. I repeat this pass a couple times until I’ve shot up all my rockets, then switched to the gun to finish off any stragglers. I only see one guy, scrambling around and trying to find his buddies, but everyone is dead; he’s all alone.
“Sorry pal, nothing personal,” I say, then let off a burst of cannon fire. The rounds tear into the man, ripping him apart and instantly killing him. I turn away and do a brief survey of the depot, seeing nothing but smoldering wrecks and bodies, then let out a deep breath before keying the mic.
“Judge 1, Hunter 1, mission complete,” I say, informing Judge that I’ve completed my objective.
“Hunter, objective complete, return to base,” Judge replies, letting me know that my handlers consider my performance adequate. I turn south away from the depot, following my way route back and taking in a few of the sights.
“Well, that’s just great,” Viper grumbles over the intercom. “Lev ain’t gonna be happy that we got shot up a bit.”
“Part of the game, man,” I reply, focusing on my flying. “We’re still alive and I suspect the damage is superficial. How’d you miss him?”
“■■■■■■■ was hiding behind a shed. If we’d come in from the east, we’d have caught him.”
“That was the plan, but you know how that goes.”
“Just so you know, I’m letting you take the fall for this.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I let out a sigh and look around, noting that rain is starting to pick up around us. I’m flying east at a pretty fast speed, so I know I’m going to overshoot the runway by a bit, but I don’t care; the adrenaline is starting to come off and I’m feeling shaky from the let down. I try to focus my mind on the approach, speeding past the hangar before bringing the nose up and around, then sharply flaring as I approach from the east. I gently come down and set the wheels down on the ground, then begin the shut down procedure. I look out the window to see Levan standing in the hangar, looking back with no expression on his face – despite what Viper thinks, Levan isn’t one to complain about his job; he’s only happy he has one, even if it’s a lot of work.
Viper is the first one out, opening up the canopy and hopping out, greeting some of the ground crew as they come out to look over the aircraft. I open my canopy and hop out as well, coming face to face with Levan.
“Took some hits, boss?” Levan asks, folding his arms.
“Yeah, port engine fire,” I answer. “I think an incendiary round tripped it.”
Levan sighed and shook his head. “Might keep ya down fer a day, boss. Dependin’ on how bad it is.”
“Not like we’ve been doing much else here,” I say, taking my helmet off and heading to Persopoulos’ office. No doubt the man wants to debrief me and feed me more useless propaganda. I casually stride up the stairs and open the door, seeing the man sitting behind his desk, as per usual. He looks up and flashes me a toothy smile.
“I see you have returned victorious!” Persopoulos says, readying a few sheets of paper. “No major problems from the rebels, I hope?”
“Took some small arms fire, might take us out of the fight for a day or two,” I reply, sitting down across from Persopoulos.
“I suspect the rebels are reeling from your swift attack regardless. Here; I have been authorized to present you with a $50,000 bonus for destroying the weapons stolen by the rebels. When we review footage from your aircraft, we will determine what you shall receive for bounty.”
I shrug, trying to brush off the utter nonsense that Persopoulos was trying to feed me. “Just a few trucks, some insurgents, and a pair of helicopters. Nothing major.”
Persopoulos chuckled and handed me the papers, most of which consisted of objectives, accomplishments, and payment. I would have to manually put the figures into our budget software to find out if we were going to break even. It was a crude way to do things, but easy and relatively cheap. I stood and began to leave when the captain cleared his throat behind me.
“Don’t wander too far, mercenary,” Persopoulos said. “There is much still to be done.” I stopped for a moment and nodded, then walked outof the office.
I finished typing in the last of the data, seeing that our finances have done pretty well. It isn’t every day you bring in a hundred and twenty thousand as pure profit.
“Seen the news?” Viper asked, standing in the doorway. I look up at him and display a frown on my face.
“Been kinda busy keeping things running,” I reply. Viper hands me his tablet, allowing me to read a news report on it. I briefly look over it, then give Viper a dry look. He chuckled and took the tablet back, shaking his head.
“War’s a big business, amirite?” Viper jokingly remarks.
“War’s a racket,” I reply, looking back to my laptop. “Always has been, always will be.”