"Roger that, Dalewick."
Paladin would play along. "Partner" probably meant he had been assigned a wingman. Maybe for a test of skill?
Planes buzzed around, under, and over "Lightning Girl" as they all continued to circle the airfield. He spotted the red J2 Fury, which also bore a silver snake emblem coiled on either wing. Nice and subtle.
The Fury was circling directly across from "Lightning Girl." Paladin eased back on the throttle so they could catch up.
The little red plane slowed, too, however, matching his speed and keeping a fixed position across from him.
"Helluva lousy wingman," Paladin muttered.
The radio crackled, "Okay, ladies and gentlemen. The show's on. Let's see what you're made of."
Gunfire erupted and every plane veered from the circling formation. The red J2 banked and dove toward the underside of Paladin's bird.
A Defender on his wingtip shattered as a rocket exploded over the cockpitPaladin reflexively banked hard to starboard.
So this recruitment of Justin's was apparently only open to a select few. That's what the ground controller meant by "partner." Not wingman. The J2 Fury was Paladin's target...and "Lightning Girl" was the Fury's.
Paladin rolled "Lightning Girl" upside-down to get a better look. The nimble J2 Fury was attempting come up under him, to align its deadly .70-caliber canon and make short work of him.
"Nice try," Paladin growled.
The Fury was lighter and faster than his Warhawk, even with Tennyson's modifications. But the Fury was nose heavy and could stall even at a moderate angle of attack unless the pilot knew exactly what he was doing.
Still inverted, Paladin pushed the stick forward and poured on the speed, climbing in an inverted loop. The Fury followed him-almost straight up.
He leveled out at three thousand feet; he had to. Ribbons of smoke poured from his port engine. "Lightning Girl" couldn't take much more.
Beneath him, however, the Fury sputtered black smoke, and her nose dipped. The pilot quickly recovered from the stall and leveled out. That was all the invitation Paladin needed.
The Fury's pilot must have realized his mistake. He dove.
Now it was Paladin's turn to pursue. He opened up the throttle, and the full weight of his Warhawk gave him a crucial speed advantage. "Lightning Girl" fell toward her prey like a meteor.
The Fury rolled to port, a mistake at stall speed. If he had continued a full power dive, he might have gotten close to the ground and pulled out at the last moment. A Warhawk wouldn't be able to match such a maneuver.
Paladin didn't hesitate to exploit his enemy's error. The instant the Fury lined up in his sights, he opened fire with the outer pair of .60-caliber guns. Bullets streaked past the Fury's wingtip.
He let all four guns blaze. The noise was defendinglouder than the trio of engines at full speed. The Warhawk's frame shuddered, but Paladin held her steady in the dive, ruddered over, and let the torrent of bullets spray across the Fury. A moment later, amid a fountain of red paint chips, the Fury fellher snake decorations obliterated by the dark, smoking pockmarks of bullet impacts, both wings chewed off.
Paladin rolled and pulled back on the stick, easing out of the dive. He cast a glance over his shoulder and glimpsed what was left of the Fury's fuselage spiraling toward the airfield.
He looked away. He wasn't squeamish by any means, but there were dogfights in every direction, whirling pieces of metal, clouds of smoke and tracers whistling past his cockpithe had to get out of here.
Paladin spied a clear piece of sky and nosed "Lightning Girl" in that direction. He sailed over Dalewick Airfield, not more than a hundred feet off the ground. The radio shack was on fire.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the radio announced. "Cease fire. That was an excellent demonstration of skill and daring. We regret that we only have a limited amount of berths for your fighters, and that we had to resort to such a drastic selection method. But as they say: to the victors go the spoils."
Overhead, a shadow darkened the clouds, which parted as a massive zeppelin began its descent. Mounted within the observation deck were a dozen machine gun nests and the gleaming noses of a hundred rockets.
"3-Delta-475, please climb to one thousand feet and proceed to dock. Welcome aboard the George Washington."