1624: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 23:



            Woody gave the signal. “Lead’s in the pitch…now!” His aircraft turned sharply right, rolling out just as sharply when aligned with the target. Jesse continued north, counting to ten and then copied the other aircraft’s steep turn and rolled out precisely behind it. Focusing entirely on lead, he waited, waited.


            Suddenly, the aircraft ahead changed aspect, beginning a dive. Jesse again counted to ten and followed in a dive of his own. For the first time, he could focus on the target. From a slant range of no more than half a mile, Jesse could pick out shapes among the trees. Conforming to Woody’s dive angle, he displaced slightly left of Woody’s path and waited for him to fire.


            Suddenly, smoke and fire burst from under Woody’s wings, as four rockets came off their rails and streaked downward. Woody’s aircraft pulled up into a climbing right turn and then it was Jesse’s turn. He’d begun counting when Woody fired, but when he reached ten, he held fire for a couple of more seconds. Woody’s rockets had already impacted in the trees, four explosions throwing dirt, branches and smoke skyward. Just as Jesse fired his rockets, he saw a small figure running out of the woods, chased by a larger one in skirts. A woman following a child. He didn’t have time to look longer, pulling hard and banking into his turn. He could hear his rockets explode in the trees beneath him as Stearns craned his neck, looking behind.


            “Christ, Jesse, there are women and kids in there!” Stearns shouted.


            Busy following the first aircraft, Jesse did not turn his head or answer immediately. As he reached a trail position behind Woody, he turned toward Stearns and asked, “Mike, did you see any secondary explosions?”


            His face pale, Stearns replied, “Uh, no. Not that I could tell.”


            “Okay,” Jesse said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky next pass.”


            He didn’t say anything further. With Stearns—in this respect, he was different from most politicians Jesse had known—you didn’t have to waste time with stolid and antiseptic little speeches about the “unfortunate but inevitable side effects that come with war.” Mike detested the phrase collateral damage as much as Jesse did himself, and he was perfectly aware that given the nature of seventeenth century armies, almost all of them had lots of camp followers mixed in with the soldiery.


            You simply couldn’t fight against such an army, without accidentally killing or wounding some women and children. Mike’s protest had been the simple horror of the moment, that he’d just swallow and let go. Unlike—some very sour memories got stirred up here—any number of politicians Jesse could remember from back up-time. Men who had no hesitation ordering something done—nor any hesitation thereafter washing their hands of the consequences that had been guaranteed by those same orders.


            The second pass was performed like the first, except that they now had smoke and dust as an aimpoint. Woody aimed to the right side of the smoke and Jesse slightly more left. Once again, Jesse and Mike watched as rockets hurled from Woody’s aircraft. This time, as they impacted, there was a huge secondary as one of the rockets found something very explosive. Fire and smoke belched upward with a gigantic sound. Without thinking, Jesse fired his rockets and stomped left rudder, turning to avoid the still climbing smoke and debris. The blast’s concussive force shoved them sideways. Stearns stared out the window on his side, peering intently downward until the turn took the scene from his view. As he rolled out, Jesse could see where his rockets had struck. He saw no secondaries, but there were several fires burning down there and he could see people prone on the ground. Where Woody’s rockets had struck, there was nothing but a large smoke-filled gap, the trees blown flat, flames and smaller explosions hiding the ground itself.


            The rockets had done better than they usually did. Quite a bit better, in fact. But that was part of war, also. You got good luck as well as bad. More of the former than the latter, if you were aggressive but kept just this side of recklessness.


            Once the two aircraft had rejoined, Jesse could smell his own acrid sweat and tried not to consider what might have happened if he had flown directly behind Woody on that pass. He’d crossed that line some, he knew. This really had been too risky, after all, with Mike on board. There’d probably be hell to pay after Admiral Simpson found out.


            So be it. Jesse wiped his brow and grasped the radio mike.


            “Lead, Two. Good show, gentlemen. Well done. I suggest you revisit that spot in a day or two. That secondary was no caisson. It was probably a hidden magazine. Keep hitting the tree line all around their camp. They’re sure to have more such stores around the perimeter. Oh, one more thing. Should we ever do that again, I suggest that a thirty second spacing between aircraft might be more suitable.”


            Woody replied crisply, “Yes, sir. That might be more comfortable.”


            Jesse felt almost calm, now. “Excellent work, Woody. By the way, you are now a captain and Ernst is now a first lieutenant. Now let’s complete this mission and the two of you can go home and wet down your promotions. I’ll be sending you some help before very long.”


            The rest of the flight went smoothly enough. While Woody and Ernst distracted the Danish pickets by overflying their positions, Jesse slipped in behind, flying slow and low. Lined up on the grassy sward just outside the city wall, Jesse carefully picked his aim point and flew his approach only a few knots above stall speed. Power up and nose abnormally high, he firmly dropped the Belle onto the turf, rolling to a stop in only a short distance. He actually had to add power to taxi toward the outlying bastion where Swedish soldiers waited to aid them. After Jesse had shut down, the soldiers pushed the aircraft into dead space next to the bastion and surrounded the machine with fascines readied for the purpose. It would be well guarded for their overnight stay.