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"When Time Stands Still" by Aditya Mandrekar
 

"Damn!"

The word escaped from my lips again as I fingered the papers marked "For your eyes only". I shook my head, and I turned back to face Sparky sitting behind me. My forever-wisecracking Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Sparky was silent, for once. Our eyes locked. His were saying, "What the hell?" So were mine.

"This is for real, right?"

"Yes Gentlemen, this is for real." The Commanding Officer (CO) replied. He looked as if he hadn't slept for a decade. "You have been trained for this since the beginning. All you have to do, is stick to what you have learnt, and it will be okay. Good Luck." That's it. None of that "Kick some butt!" you see in Top Gun and JAG. Just a simple "Good Luck."

Across the aisle, Scoop and his RIO Thunder held almost identical sets of paper in their twiddling thumbs. Both looked at us and Thunder gave me a wry smile. "Bad Luck guys, you lucked out this time" is what she seemed to say. And she was right. After all, Scoop and Thunder would carry the spare bomb, while Sparky and I carried The Nuclear bomb, the one which would be dropped tonight.

* * * * *
The war was almost over. We shot down their planes, torched their tanks and flattened their bases over the last six months. Sparky and I too had done our bit. Apart from numerous air-to-ground strikes in our Sukhoi Su-30, we also had three Air-to-Air kills. Two of them were enemy J-7s, while the third was our prize catch, an F-16. It seemed that we were winning the war.

As I said, Almost over. The enemy, down on its knees, had responded by using tactical Nuclear weapons on two major bases. These bases were flattened, and left to rot. Now, two weeks later, we were giving them an apt response. Fighters from all along the border would destroy the mobile missile launchers, eliminating some nuclear warheads and missiles. But Sparky and I would hit the Mother Lode, the storage facility. Approximately 75% of the enemy's warheads were stored here. There was only one way to render them useless. To fight fire with fire.

* * * * *
We had always wondered what was inside Hangar 17. Guarded round-the-clock by two armed soldiers (who carried enough weapons to start a war), it was off-limits to all pilots. Though there was much speculation about chemical weapons being stored there, no one really knew except for the CO, and he wouldn't tell.

Now, as I walked around Hangar 17, I felt a shiver rise up my spine. Standing in front of me were two dull black MiG-27LNs. They differed from the original MiG-27L "Bahadur" as they had two seats (one behind the other) and were not painted in the usual camouflage colouring. No one asked what the new "N" stood for.

This model was much older than my pet Sukhoi, but I had flown it for four years, and I was considered to be the best pilot to handle it. Sparky, as the RIO, could make electronic instruments dance at his fingertips, and together we were the best team in the sky. I knelt down and ran my fingers over the black monster sitting in a corner. Strange. A weapon of Mass Destruction sure didn't feel like one.

* * * * *
Wires ran from the bomb to a console near the wall. I typed in a six-digit code into the device, while Sparky and the weapons officer did the same. The light on the console turned from Green to Red. The bomb was ready to deliver. We would also be carrying two extra fuel tanks, and two air-to-air missiles. Though intelligence told us to not worry about air threats as we were having escorts, we didn't want to take a chance.

The chief flight engineer came up to me, as the safety covers were being removed off the weapons, and said, "Please bring the plane back safely sir." and almost choked.

"God!" Even Sparky's voice cracked at his attempt to say something.

* * * * *
We lined up at the runway, with Scoop and Thunder a few feet behind us in the other plane, codenamed November two. I was flying November one. Our flight would be preceded by four MiG-29 "Baaz", whose sole objective was to keep our path clear of any enemy aircraft. The rest was up to me.

At exactly 00:33 hours, we were cleared for takeoff by the Traffic Controller.

Right. Here Goes Nothing.

* * * * *
We levelled out at 30,000 feet, flying at approximately 1000 km/h. Our Radar was switched off and we were under strict Radio silence, to avoid detection. I could only talk to Sparky on the intercom, but our conversation was restricted to Radar updates. November two was sticking to my tail, while the four MiG-29s were down below in front of us, searching for any bad guys in our path.

75 kms from the target, Scoop pulled out of formation. The plan required him to orbit at a safe distance while I would head to the target area. If, for any reason, the bomb failed to release or detonate, he would move in and deploy the spare bomb. Sparky called out in an unnatural robotic voice to say that the MiG-29s had run across two J-7s, and were going around in a business-like manner, shooting them down. I watched the warning screen as four green triangles converged onto two red ones. Both Red triangles disappeared successively. Scratch two J-7s. We maintained our altitude and speed.

48 kms from the target, a voice crackled into my headset.

"November One, your signal is Golf Alpha, I repeat, your signal is Golf Alpha."

Golf Alpha. Meaning "Go Ahead". Groan.

The four MiG-29s ahead immediately pulled around and headed back as fast as they could. When the sky came falling down, they darn well didn't want to be under it.

I pushed the throttle all the way ahead to give maximum thrust and put my MiG in a 25-degree climb. Sparky switched on his radar. Immediately the screen on my right sprang to life. I watched as Sparky sorted out the ground objects and isolated the target.

* * * * *
43 kms from target. Sparky calls to say that two F-16s have spotted us, and are heading our way. But they are 80 kms away. Too far to harm us.

36 kms from target, the same voice says in my headset,

"November One, you have a go. You have a go."
"Roger that, on my way." I acknowledge, breaking radio silence.

32 kms from target. The bomb has been programmed to release at an altitude above 32,000 ft and only at a 45 degree angle. I pull the plane up to 40 degrees, and continue slowly pushing it.as the needle goes past 35,000 ft. The plane hits 45 degrees, and in a fraction of a second, I release the bomb.

* * * * *
For a moment my eyes follow the bomb as it seems to hang still in midair. Then reality in the form of an airborne strategic nuclear weapon wakes me up.

"Shit!" I shout as I turn the plane upside down, make use of gravity to give me some extra speed and I double back with a half loop, dropping the external tanks and the air-to-air missiles to reduce weight. With the MiG-27 having "Swing Wings", I am able to pull my wings all the way back and get into full speed. Sparky murmurs "Go! Go! Go! Go!" to me as I try to get the hell away from ground zero. I attempt to glance back at the falling bomb.

"You know the rules, no looking back man!" Sparky warns me. And he's right. The flash of a nuclear explosion can blind a person instantly, even with protective glasses. Thirty seconds to impact. We were going at 1,500 km/h, and still accelerating. My hand starts to shiver, and I hold the stick with both hands. We are now moving at 1,800 km/h.

Fifteen seconds to detonation. Seems like hours since I dropped the bomb. All I can hear is the rugged Turmansky engine, and Sparky's breath through the intercom. I seemed to have held mine all along. I start counting the seconds down mentally.

Fifteen. Ten. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.

I don't hear anything.

I just begin to wonder if something has gone wrong when the Pulse hits. Followed by the shockwave.

* * * * *
Every nuclear explosion is followed by an electromagnetic pulse that literally Fries all electronic equipment in its path. It hits us too, and the intercom goes dead. But this is the very reason why the MiG-27 was chosen for this mission, not the more advanced Sukhoi. The Sukhoi has a lot of wires in it, and could literally prove unflyable in the wake of an EM Pulse.

Some of our systems do fail, including the radar. But the aircraft is still flyable, thanks to its old mechanical connections between stick and wings, not electrical ones. I perform a test of all flight equipment in the aircraft, as Sparky goes through the checklist in silence. We are shaken, but not in pieces yet.

And then, simultaneously, both Sparky and I stop. And look back. The mushroom cloud that was rising behind us looked straight out of a National Geographic Photo. Except it wasn't a photo, we were watching it. Live. Sparky's digestive system gives up, as he pukes into the nearest barf bag. I am too sick to even vomit, and the headache that hits makes me wonder whether I could fly back home safely.

We land back at our airport alright, though with little fuel left. As we taxi the plane into the hangar, no one says a word, except the chief engineer. "Thank you for bringing her back safely, Sir." I'm seriously wondering whether the guy has a heart…

* * * * *
Back inside for debriefing, I sit on a chair waiting for the CO. Sparky sits behind me, sipping some juice. His face is still pale, he won't fly for a few days I bet. Neither will I, for that matter. Scoop and Thunder are sitting next to us. Scoop has his eyes closed, while Thunder stares at her desk. Nobody's celebrating, that's for sure.

The CO comes in, eyes bloodshot, and switches on the projector. After grading the ground staff's and Scoop's performance, he turns to us. "November one performed a perfect approach to delivery area. He correctly put the aircraft into a climb at the appropriate time, and release was also good. The bomb impacted approximately 400 metres from ground zero. Since it was a Nuclear weapon, that distance did not make a difference. The storage facility was destroyed, and no one will touch those warheads for a long, long time."

No one clapped.

"Casualties are estimated at approximately 170 killed including workers, soldiers and a few civilians." Great.
"None injured." Obviously.
"Ground damage includes Storage facilities, assorted vehicles, Surface to air missile sites, and anti-aircraft guns." Not bad for a single bomb.
"Air damage includes some minor structural damage to November One and two F-16s which crashed following the electromagnetic pulse." Poor guys. Hope they didn't eject into ground zero.
"All in all, a perfect mission result." What a consolation.
"Dismissed!"

Sparky and I got up to leave, the CO came over to us.
"Since the blast killed the two F-16s, their "kills" are credited to you. Now you guys have five kills, and are the first aces of your squadron. Congratulations."

* * * * *
Aces are normally revered by their fellow pilots. There are drinks all around. A party even. But everyone filed out of the room silently. There would be no celebrations tonight.

------------------------------------------------------
About the Author:
Aditya Mandrekar, 19, lives in Mumbai, India. More popularly known as Flanker30MKI on ezboard, he is doing his engineering in electronics (3rd Yr) from Sardar Patel, Mumbai. Please visit his site at: www.geocities.com/indianpilots

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