Dozens of columns of thick, black smoke stretched from the ground and into the sky above Los Angeles. Whole sections of the city were blotted out by the ugly black clouds. Other sections glowed orange as flames swept through one block after another.
Stringfellow Hawke clenched his jaw as he flew Airwolf over the burning city. His narrow eyes glared through the visor of his dark, motorcycle-like helmet. He turned his head to the south. More smoky clouds stained the horizon, smoke from San Diego and Tijuana. A chill went up his spine. He wondered if the West Coast could ever recover from this.
His anger boiled as he flew past Los Angeles. Guilt slithered through him as he glanced at the fire-ravaged city. He wanted to land, to help the people suffering down there.
But how much good could he and Dom do? Sure, they might be able to save a few people. In the meantime, hundreds, possibly thousands of others would die.
You can't save everyone. He thought after all the missions he'd been on, he would have realized it long before now. Actually, he did realize it. He just didn't like admitting it.
Face twisting in fury, he said a silent prayer to the people of Los Angeles, and all the other cities along the Southern California coast. He tried to concentrate on the mission. If they could find out what caused this catastrophe, they might be able to help those millions below them.
He glanced over his shoulder. The stocky man sitting behind him just stared out the cockpit window, visor up, eyes unblinking.
"You okay there, Dom?"
Dominic Santini didn't turn to face him. He just kept staring at the hellish scene below them. Finally, Santini shook his head. "I can't get over this, String. It looks like a war down there."
Hawke grunted. "We might be at war, Dom."
Santini finally looked at him. Hawke sensed his friend frowning under his helmet. With a sigh, Hawke turned back around.
Minutes later, Airwolf was over the water. Hawke pointed the sleek, hi-tech helicopter's nose to the southwest.
"Dom, can you raise Archangel and tell him we're feet wet?"
A few seconds of silence passed before Santini answered. "Ah, it's no good. All I'm gettin' on the radio is static. Even our radar's on the fritz. I don't get it. Airwolf's supposed to be shielded against EMP."
"That's if this was an EMP attack."
"Well what else could be messing up most of the electronics in Southern California?"
Hawke worked his jaw back and forth. Electromagnetic Pulse was the theory Archangel, the FIRM's deputy director, put forth. If so, why did it affect Airwolf's systems? Like Santini said, the chopper was protected against that sort of attack. It couldn't be a solar flare. NASA reported no unusual activity coming from the sun. That meant, whatever this was, had to be man-made.
That begged the very important question. Who was responsible? Naturally the Russians had to be the prime suspects. Could this be the start of a pre-emptive strike on the US? Or could it be one of the USSR's "good buddies" like Cuba or North Korea or Libya? Or it could be China, or some terrorist group, or some criminal syndicate?
Hawke shook his head and groaned. He could play "Guess That Bad Guy" all day long and not get anywhere close to the truth. No, all he could do was head to the apparent epicenter of this attack some two hundred miles away. Maybe then they could get some answers.
He checked the compass on control panel, and scowled. The thing spun erratically.
Doesn't anything work?
He clenched the cyclic stick in a death grip. How the hell were they supposed to find anything in the middle of the ocean without radar or a compass or any other piece of necessary equipment? For a brief moment he understood the feelings of the people rioting from Tijuana to LA. No TVs, no radios, no phones, no way to get information. What could be more aggravating? Unfortunately, aggravation went hand-in-hand with fear, and when those two emotions combined, you had the perfect ingredients for violence. Violence the police and National Guard would be hard-pressed to control without any way to effectively communicate with each other.
Rage burned deep in Hawke's gut. God help the SOBs who did this. If, no when, he found them, he would make them pay dearly.
Airwolf flew further out into the Pacific. Hawke scanned around him, looking for anything out of the ordinary. He saw a few ships here and there, fishing trawlers and cargo ships mainly. Or did they hide something more sinister? None of them did anything to raise Hawke's suspicions. Had communications not been so screwed up they could have monitored Airwolf's electronic warfare suite for any transmissions the typical fishing trawler shouldn't be making.
As it was, all he and Santini could do was mark down the locations of each vessel and have the FIRM check them out later.
On and on he flew, desperately wanting to find something, frustrated that Airwolf's vaunted hi-tech equipment had become useless.
That's when he noticed three dark specks on the horizon.
"Dom, we've got company."
"Agh! The radar's still on the fritz. I've got no idea what's coming at us."
Tension gripped Hawke's body. Because of the electrical interference, no aircraft were supposed to be flying in this area . . . officially.
Could they have something to do with this EMP or whatever?
Heart thumping, he told Santini to activate Airwolf's weapons systems. Thirty-millimeter chain guns popped out of the tips of the chopper's wing stubs. The tri-barrel missile launcher slid out from the aircraft's underbelly.
"We can forget about missiles, String," Santini told him. "I'm not getting a lock from anything. The Sidewinders won't even pick up a heat signature."
"Terrific," Hawke grumbled. At least they still had the chain guns. Those could be aimed optically, and bullets didn't need any electronics to blow apart a hostile.
Though using guided missiles made that task easier.
The specks grew larger with each passing second. Before long, Hawke could make out specific details. Rounded wings, a teardrop canopy, a blunt nose with a single propeller. He held his breath, his index finger caressing the trigger of the cyclic stick.
The three aircraft shot past Airwolf in a blur. Even in that split second, he spotted a bright red circle on the wing of one plane.
"Holy Moley," Santini said in awe. "String, did you get a gander at those planes?"
"I did, Dom."
"Man oh man. Mitsubishi A6M Zeros. They look in mint condition, like they rolled right off the assembly line."
Hawke said nothing. Instead he twisted his head to and fro and checked his rearview mirrors, his mind still trying to process what he just saw. Some of the criminal syndicates he and Santini faced in the past had used World War II-era aircraft. Still the sight of Imperial Japan's most famous fighter plane flying over the Pacific astonished him.
"Hey!" Santini shouted. "One of them's coming around to port."
Hawke checked over his shoulder. One of the Zeros swung around and headed back toward him. Another check of his right rearview mirror showed the remaining two Zeros coming up on his starboard side.
"All right, Dom, get ready to . . ." He paused just before he was about to jink Airwolf. He furrowed his brow as he watched the Zero on his left.
The fighter was actually slowing down!
What the hell? The creed of every fighter pilot was "Speed is life." So why slow down when going in for the kill?
Hawke noticed something else. The Zero's angle of attack was way off. In fact, it appeared as though the plane tried to parallel Airwolf.
He checked on the Zeros to his right. They also came straight in, trying to parallel Airwolf's course.
"I don't think they're trying to attack us," he told Dom.
"Okay, so what are they trying to do?"
Hawke glanced at the Zero on his left. "I'm sure we'll find out soon."
Seconds later the Zero came right alongside Airwolf. Hawke studied the figure in the cockpit. The man wore a thick brown jacket with a furred collar, a leather helmet and goggles. Even with all that, he could tell the pilot was indeed Japanese.
What in the hell is going on here?
The Japanese pilot turned to him and made a series of sharp gestures with his hands. Hawke immediately understood, and threw the pilot a nod and a salute.
"They want us to follow them."
"And are you?" Dom asked.
"Might as well."
"You sure that's a good idea?"
Hawke shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But World War Two Zeros flying around an area where we may have had an EMP attack, they have to be related."
"Hopefully we'll find out soon."
"Yeah, or maybe we're just flying into a trap."
"I thought about that, too," Hawke replied. "But if that's the case, we'll just escape."
"Oh, like it'll be that easy."
"I didn't say it would be easy. But we'll do it. Don't we always?"
"Yeah, and what if this turns out to be the one time we don't do it?"
"Then you can kill me before these guys do if that'll make you happy." Hawke chuckled briefly.
Santini scoffed. "What'll make me happy is not getting killed." He sighed loudly. "Well, I guess nothing to do now but sit back and enjoy the ride . . . to wherever the hell they're taking us."
Hawke maintained formation with the Zeros. He took numerous glances at the fighters, marveling at their condition. His eyes also lingered on the weapons. A 20mm cannon in each wing and two 7.7mm machine guns mounted in the engine cowling. His stomach tightened. The machine guns didn't worry him too much. Those rounds would bounce of Airwolf's armored hide like pebbles. The 20mm cannons, however, could do the chopper some serious damage.
If these guys wanted to fight, they would have done it by now.
Or they wanted to capture the most advanced aircraft in the world, and here he was just handing it over to him.
He tried to dismiss that thought. In his gut, he knew the Zeros and the EMP or whatever had to be connected. And after seeing Los Angeles in flames, he had to take some risks to learn the truth.
The four aircraft continued flying over the Pacific. Hawke found himself glancing at his fuel gauge more and more. They had enough to go about four hundred more miles. Still he couldn't help but be nervous when he looked out the cockpit window and saw nothing but ocean. There were no islands within Airwolf's current flying range. If these planes came from a land base, then they should be flying east, back toward California or Mexico.
So where the hell are they taking us?
He tried to beat down the paranoia that created mental images of Airwolf going down, and he and Dom floating in the ocean hundreds of miles from anywhere.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Still no sign of any . . .
Wait a minute.
Hawke leaned forward. A dark speck sat on the horizon. Then another. And another. In all he saw five shapes. They grew larger the closer he got. After a while four of them remained the same size. The fifth still grew . . . and grew . . . grew.
"Good God." Hawke gaped at the sight before him. He felt more than saw Santini looking over his shoulder.
"No way this can be real. No way."
Hawke wished he could agree with his friend. What he saw below him should not be real.
Four knife-shaped vessels with boxy gun mounts plowed through the waves. He recognized them instantly. Fletcher-class destroyers. Like the Zeros, also straight out of World War II, only they served with the US Navy instead of Japan's. But what awed Hawke the most, what he couldn't take his eyes off of, was the ship in the center of the little destroyer screen.
It was an aircraft carrier. A gigantic one. He estimated it had to be around the size of a Nimitz-class carrier, maybe even bigger. As they got closer, they noticed the carrier bristled with guns of all shapes and sizes. Just guns. He couldn't find a missile launcher anywhere. That made him scrunch his face in puzzlement. What modern navy would send a ship like this to sea without any surface-to-air missiles?
He then noticed dozens of planes sitting on the carrier's massive deck. Several Zeros, just like the ones escorting him. He also spotted other planes straight out of a history book. Aichi D3A Val dive bombers and Nakajima B5N torpedo planes.
Hawke shook his head, trying to make sense of this. Who would build such a massive ship and arm it with planes and guns forty-some years old?
"String. Check out the flag on the carrier's mast." Santini pointed.
He screwed up his face and tilted his head.
A white flag snapped in the wind, a white flag with a red circle in the center and several lines stretching out from it. A flag that hadn't flown since 1945.
The Rising Sun flag of Imperial Japan.
"I'm almost afraid to ask if this can get any weirder," Santini commented.
"I have a bad feeling it will."
Hawke noticed movement out the corner of his eyes. He turned and saw the Zero on his left waggle its wings, trying to get his attention. Again the pilot gestured with his hands, indicating he should land on the carrier. Hawke gave him another nod. Inwardly, frustration built up. If only their damn radio worked. They could alert Archangel and The FIRM to this fleet of museum pieces. As it was, only he and Santini knew this carrier and its escorts sailed just a few hundred miles off the West Coast.
If this is a trap, we better be able to escape. Even with a bunch of World War II-era weapons, these guys could do some serious damage to the US if they wanted, especially with Southern California in total chaos.
Hawke piloted Airwolf toward the aft of the carrier and spotted the landing signal officer. Using his brightly colored paddles, the man guided Airwolf over the stern and to a spot on the port side of the flight deck. Hawke flared the engines, deployed the landing gear, and touched down. He and Santini shut down the helicopter's system just as one of the Zeros landed, bouncing as its tailhook snagged the arrestor wire. Several deckhands hustled over to the fighter and pushed it off to the side to make room for the next Zero.
"Ah, String." Santini tapped him on the shoulder.
"What is it?" He just completed the sentence when he saw a group of blue-clad, helmeted Japanese rushing toward them. All of them carried rifles. As with everything else here, they were straight out of World War II. Arisaka 6.5mm rifles, each one with a long, razor sharp bayonet protruding from under the barrel. A compact, bulldog-looking man emphatically waved for him and Santini to exit Airwolf.
Sweat broke out all over Hawke's body. His eyes flickered over the rifles, the bayonets and the serious faces of the Japanese marines. He wondered if following those Zeros back to their carrier had been the best course of action.
Nothing I can do about it now.
He stiffened his face so as not to betray any emotions, removed his helmet, and opened the cockpit door. The Japanese eyed him and Santini as they stepped out of Airwolf, rifles at the ready. A steady, salt-scented breeze whipped past him. The loud drone of a piston engine engulfed him as another Zero slammed onto the deck and jerked to a halt.
"Um . . . hi." Hawke held up his hand and gave the Japanese a half smile.
None of them smiled back.
"How's it goin'?" Santini beamed at them, though his smile was a bit forced. "Say, you guys know World War II ended over forty years ago."
Again, the guards didn't respond.
"No sense of humor," Santini whispered to Hawke. "That's not a good sign."
"Make way! Make way!" Someone barked in English, though with a Japanese accent.
The marines parted. Marching up to him and Santini was a muscular man in a flight suit. Hawke eyed him curiously. The man appeared in his late forties, perhaps, but those alert eyes displayed wisdom and experience well beyond that age.
"Yoshi-san! Yoshi-san, hold up."
Hawke's eyes widened. This new voice spoke without any foreign-accented English.
Then he saw the source of that voice. Try as he might, he couldn't keep his jaw from dropping.
The man was tall and broad shouldered with close-cropped blond hair and a square-jaw. He also wore a beige navy uniform . . . a United States Navy uniform.
Hawke blinked a couple times. What would a US Navy officer be doing on a Japanese carrier? What the hell were the Japanese doing with a carrier anyway? Their navy – hell, they didn't even call it a navy. They called it a maritime self-defense force, and they didn't have any carriers.
The American looked past Hawke and Santini and stared at Airwolf in disbelief. The man shook his head. "This can't be possible."
"It is possible, Brent-san," said the Japanese pilot, Yoshi. "We are staring at it, and it is real. How this can be real is another matter entirely."
The American, Brent, just nodded thoughtfully. His eyes then shifted to Hawke. "Quite a machine you have here."
"Yeah, it is."
"What kind of helicopter is this?"
Hawke hesitated. "We call it Airwolf."
"Uh-huh." Brent gave another thoughtful nod. "Sorry. I should introduce myself. I'm Lieutenant JG Brent Ross, US Navy. This is Commander Yoshi Matsuhara, our air group commander."
Matsuhara bowed to him and Santini.
Hawke turned to Santini and shrugged. He returned the bow, followed by Santini.
What the hell? Might as well start off on the right foot.
"So what is this ship?" Hawke asked. "Why are you guys sailing around on a World War Two carrier?"
Ross and Matsuhara gave each other curious stares before turning back to him and Santini.
"All your questions shall be answered, I assure you," Ross said. "But right now, our admiral is very anxious to meet you. Come with us."
"Lieutenant." The bulldog marine blurted. "These two must not go through the ship without an armed escort."
Ross stared at Bulldog for a couple seconds. "Very well. Two seaman guards should suffice."
"Hei!" Bulldog pointed to a pair of guards, who snapped to attention and took up position on either side of him and Santini. This didn't make Hawke overly nervous. Any military organization worth their salt would not allow strangers to walk around their base, or ship, without some kind of security. Even a military outfit using World War II ships.
Hawke and Santini followed Ross and Matsuhara into the island. They wound their way through corridors with pipes hanging over head and up narrow metal staircases. The party soon came to an oak paneled door guarded by a seaman who looked barely old enough to shave. The lad snapped to attention as Matsuhara knocked.
"Enter," someone said through the door.
Matsuhara opened the door and ushered in Ross, Hawke, Santini and the two guards. A polished conference table dominated the center of the room. Several figures sat around it. A tall, slender American with snow white hair and wearing a beige US Navy uniform, a balding mustached man in khaki fatigues and a puffy man in a plain white dress shirt.
Hawke's eyes widened when he came to the last two people. Both looked even older than Santini, who was just a few years away from collecting social security. One man was bald and slouched, and seemed seconds away from dropping dead. The other resembled a living mummy with his leathery skin and narrow eyes. A thin, white strand of a beard dangled from his chin.
This guy should be in a nursing home, not on an aircraft carrier.
"Names!" the mummy demanded in a surprisingly strong voice.
"My name's Stringfellow Hawke, and this is Dominic Santini."
The mummy gave them both an appraising look. "Stringfellow. That is an unusual name."
"That's what everyone says. May I ask your name?"
"I am Admiral Hiroshi Fujita of his Imperial Majesty's ship Yonaga."
"Yonaga! Banzai!" The other ancient Japanese man hollered, spittle flying from his lips. None of the others here seemed to pay him any mind.
Hawke nodded. "Well, Admiral, I must to say this is an interesting ship you have."
"Not as interesting as the aircraft which you have flown here. Perhaps you would care to tell me, Stringfellow Hawke, how it is you are able to fly a helicopter when no helicopter, no aircraft that possesses a jet engine, has flown anywhere in the world in over four years?"
TO BE CONTINUED