The Devastator sideslipped to port, and Loyle throttled back and slid into the pirate's five o'clock. He jammed the fire button down yet again, grinning as his incendiary rounds tore into the trailing edge of the starboard wing, close to the fuselage. There was a glimpse of white smoke pouring from the new bullet holes until the burning magnesium cut through the wing armor and ignited the Devastator's wing tank. The fireball tore the Devastator apart, leaving only wreckage to fall to the lake below.
Loyle spared a moment to survey the battle. In the distance, Ivy and Horse's Warhawks joined the furball, climbing into the fray after skimming above the lake's surface. Greenbacker's plane dove onto the pirate Brigand; smoke and fire spouted from the Brigand's engine. Nice work, kid, he thought. You're even better than they said.
Loyle thumbed the transmit button. "Ivy? Looks like Greenbacker has picked the lamb for today. Try to make sure we can bring that one home intact. I'll keep the bandits off your tail."
Two clicks in his earpiece was all the response Loyle got. Ivy's Warhawk came up alongside the wounded Brigand. There was a puff of smoke as a flash rocket streaked ahead.
Crawford turned his head to avoid being blinded by the strobe of the flash rocket
and was startled by the call over his radio: "Stopper, look out! Above you!"
Crawford looked up, only to see the gaping maw of the Fury's seventy-caliber cannon bearing down on him. The roar of the cannon was audible even above the Maddy's twin Feldman engines.
Loyle snapped the stick to starboard, just as the burst from the Fury's cannon slammed into the nose of the Madison Dawn, just forward of his canopy. The Avenger's nose dropped suddenly as the deck's armor plating ripped open like a sardine can, hurling metal fragments against the windscreen. Loyle heard the ominous crackle of an electrical short from behind the control panel.
Crawford began to cough, as filthy smoke crowded good air from the cockpit. Clutching the stick with his knees, Loyle forced the canopy open, allowing the slipstream to suck out the smoke that threatened to fill the cockpit. He gasped, sucking in the chill morning air and shook his head to try to clear away the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him.
The red receive light on the radio flashed briefly, then flickered erratically. His headphones were filled with the loud crackle of static, breaking up the reception.
"Stopper's been hit! All I can see is smoke pouring from his canopy"
There was another burst of static. "one more pass and Crawford's"
"leave him! Concentrate on the others"
Loyle thumbed the transmit button on the radio. "Greenbacker? Do you copy? Ivy? Come in, Ivy!" He reached over and flipped the channel selector. "Horse? Do you copy?"
Damn it! Loyle pushed the stick forward, diving the Maddy towards the surface of the lake. He needed to get clear of the scrap and reassess the situation.
Loyle thumped at the radio to settle it down. A spark leapt from the casing as the unit jumped frequencies again. His headphones filled with the hiss of static, spotted with moment of clarity filled with the chatter of pilots in a fight for their lives.
"break right! Break right bef"
"get the bastard! That's what you're up here for"
For a moment, the static swirled, as Crawford split his attention between controlling his plane and working his damaged communications system. Suddenly, like fog burning off the lake below, the static dropped away and he was relieved to hear voices more clearly. Static hiss still muffled the transmission and the wind roaring through Crawford's open canopy made identification of the voices nearly impossible. But he could hear well enough.
"Skull Base to Mole 1, confirm orders," an unfamiliar voice crackled from the damaged radio.
"Mole 1, affirmative. Be advised: Crawford has orders to keep the base intact. We're supposed to capture a pirate for questioning."
"Well, Mole 1, thanks to you, your squadron will be leaving empty handed"
Loyle stared at the radio in disbelief, almost oblivious to the battle outside. Only the Venturers knew the planin fact, he hadn't worked out all the details until just before the mission briefing this morning.
Someone in the Madison Avenue Venturers was a traitor.
Loyle craned his neck, trying to see if any of his squadron-mates were holding back from the fight. Greenbacker was working to keep the pirates off Loyle's tail. Carpetbagger's Raven had smoke pouring from the engine cowling but he was still running interference for Morgan, who was cutting loose on a pirate Devastator. Ivy and Iron Horse were still trying to shepherd the crippled Brigand away from the fight.
Suddenly, the Brigand's canopy opened and the two aircrew bailed out. The plane spun out of control, slamming into the waters of Lake Champlain. Loyle watched in mounting despair as his plan dissolved into thin air. With the Maddy effectively out of action and Carpetbagger smoking as well, the chance of breaking out another pirate was next to zero.
Giving up on his ruined radio, Loyle waggled the stick back and forth. The Madison Dawn responded sluggishly. Loyle knew if he climbed back into the combat, the pirates would cut him to ribbons.
Loyle swung around the edge of the bay. He was pointing straight down the main runway of the pirate base. Three hangars were spread out at the far end of the strip, just in front of the forest. Next to them, a stockpile of dozens of fuel drums sat inside a chain link fence.
Maybe there was some way to salvage this mission after all. "When in doubt," he muttered to himself, "change the rules."
Two pirates were sitting in the back of a battered truck at the lake's edge. Loyle guided his wounded craft into a strafing position, startling the complacent thugs. They threw aside their cigarettes and swung up the .50-caliber machine gun mounted in the back of the old Ford truck.
Opening the throttle again, Loyle lined the gun truck up in his sights. Just as the crew opened fire, he mashed down on the firing stud. Thirty-caliber rounds raked across the ground towards the truck, throwing clods of dirt several feet in the air.
The magnesium rounds hissed into the truck's cabin and found the fuel tank. The truck exploded in a giant fireball, hurling the pirates in the back into the air.
"Now we're cooking with gas!" Crawford cheered.
The radio's receive light flickered again. "the hell is he doing? We're not supposed to do that!" The headphones were filled with static as the radio jumped frequencies again. "someone had bloody well better get down there and stop that madman!"
Loyle grinned through clenched teeth. The Madison Dawn raced down the length of the runway. Flicking the weapons selector switch, he opened fire on the fuel stockpile. The cannon rounds lanced through the thin metal of the drums, spraying fuel over a wide area. He switched back to the incendiary rounds and opened up.
The bullets raked their way across the runway, before coming in contact with the leaking gasoline. With the spark of the incendiary rounds, the tanks erupted in an enormous fireball. Several drums were hurled hundreds of feet in the air, as the explosion's shockwave ripped the corrugated iron sheets from the sides of the hangar buildings.
Loyle yanked on the stick and cranked the Avenger's nose around for another pass. The Maddy grudgingly responded, coming around to face back down the runway, towards the lake. A trio of pirate aircraftdesperate to protect their airstripmoved to engage, and fired off salvos of rockets.
Crawford sent the Madison Dawn into a barrel roll, twisting his plane to port and fighting to keep her from spiraling out of control. The pirate rockets missed him by mere inches as they slashed past the belly of his plane.
The radio crackled again: "ow could you miss him? He was a sitting duck!"
Pointing his nose back out towards the lake, Loyle raced towards the enemy fighters, doing his best to dodge the stream of bullets they threw in his direction. The Maddy bucked as machine gun fire raked across the wings and rear fuselage.
Loyle watched as the enemy fighters turned to chase him, only to be cut to shreds by carefully aimed shots from the rest of his team, who had rallied during the brief respite in the fighting he'd bought them with his run against the fuel dump and airstrip.
Within seconds, the remaining pirate planes slammed into the cold waters of Lake Champlain, scattering wreckage over a wide area. Doesn't look like we get to take anyone home for questioning. Damn.
He banked the Madison Dawn back towards the airfield again. The fuel dump was still blazing, as were the hangars. A large crater had appeared just off the centerline of the far end of the main airstrip.
The rest of the Venturers fell into formation off Loyle's wings as the sun rose fully above the horizon. He could see the puzzled and furious looks on their faces. Ivy tapped her headset. Loyle shook his head despondently. Explanations would just have to wait.
He waggled his wings to signify it was time to go home. Even though they weren't bringing home a pirate, Loyle relished the feeling of cheating the pirates at their own game. None of the Venturers had gone down in the fight, so the traitor could not pin this mess on anyone else.
It would make finding the bastard that much easier.