Like Fourth of July firecrackers, there was one flashbulb detonation after another as Paladin's bombs found their marks. The planes slammed into each other, transforming the tight, precision formation into an insane tangle of smoke, whirling propeller blades, glittering shards of metal, and igniting fuel that mushroomed and roiled with screeching thunder.
Wings and tails and glass hailstones emerged from the cloud, fuselages spiraled out of control, and other twisted hunks of steel plummeted toward the earth. Paladin caught a glimpse of an opening parachute, and a tangle of fluttering silk wrapped around a body.
Paladin didn't waste his time feeling sorry for any of them. They had wanted to start a warthey'd damn well get a war.
He banked back toward the zeppelins.
It wasn't the acceleration that made his stomach sink; "Lightning Girl" had dumped her bombs to remove the advance squadron. Now how was he going to stop three fully-loaded military zeps and their escorts?
Paladin eased the throttle back. He needed time to think.
The radio crackled: "Come in Black Ace One. Repeat your status and position."
It was now or never. The pale man's forces were confused and blind. Paladin quickly planned his approach and opened the throttle up. Whatever he was doing to do, however he was going to stop themhe had to do it fast. Their confusion, and Paladin's window of opportunity, wouldn't last for long.
As he drew closer, he spotted the shiny bulk of the George Washington...then saw the shadows of the Samuel Adams and the Thomas Jefferson as they descended from the clouds. They took positions in front of the Washingtona triangular formation that would maximize their firepower if anyone was foolish enough to engage them.
Circling above the zeps were their escort squadrons, the fighters that would catch any strays the zep didn't get, and then bombers that would turn Washington into rubble.
They were expecting Columbia's militia to be hot on the Warhawk's tail. They were expecting a fight. So he'd give them one.
Paladin pulled back on the yoke, executed a quarter roll, and accelerated toward the Jefferson. He lined his plane up, aiming to pass slightly above the line of fire of the zeppelins' machine gun nests and gleaming rocket tips.
He held his breathwaited until he was close enough to see people inside pointing and panicking and running from their positions as the plane they thought was on their side barreled toward themthen opened fire with cannons and rockets.
Smoke trails snaked from "Lightning Girl" to the belly of the zeppelin. Fire blossomed inside the converted passenger's galleythen a staccato string of detonations as the munitions inside exploded in a chain reaction. A hundred rockets launched to port and starboard, billowing thunderheads of smoke and flame and sprouting greasy blossoms of flak and fire.
Paladin snapped "Lightning Girl" upright and pulled back fastarcing up and over the zeppelin, so close he felt the randomly firing machine gun cartridges zinging off his plane's fuselage, so close he thought he could feel the heat of the passing rockets.
He leaned over and strained to get a look at the Jefferson. Her underside was ablaze, and flames and plumes of sooty smoke curled up the sides of the airship...flames that quickly dwindled and died.
"Damn," Paladin muttered. "So much for the element of surprise." It all figured, though. This wasn't some low-rent bunch of pirates; this splinter group of Unionists had the money and the resources to fill the zeppelin with helium. Had she been filled with cheaper hydrogen, she would have gone up like gasoline-soaked dynamite.
The pale man's moment of confusion, and Paladin's luck, had just run out. He glanced back. The sky was thick with swarming planes...all of them gunning for him. Bullet holes stitched across his starboard wing, and a trio of slugs ricocheted and pinged off the canopy, cracking it.
The Jefferson was still aloft and her engines were running at full speed. The zep, however, looked like a bite had been taken out of her. Where the gallery had been, there was now a twisted, blackened mess of skeletal superstructure. The central gasbags were rapidly deflating and jets of fire spouted from broken fuel lines.
Paladin had to make a break for it. If he gained altitude fast enough he might be able to get away in the cloud cover.
But what about the peace conference? The pale man still had two zeps and enough planes to pull off his missionmaybe not as easily as intended, but it could still be done.
Paladin sighed and patted the instrument panel of "Lightning Girl." "This may be the dumbest stunt we've pulled all week, friend." He pulled back on the yoke, rolled, and righted "Lightning Girl"heading straight into the face of his enemies.
Two dozen fighters opened fire. They dove toward him. It looked like it was raining tracers outside and enough bullets impacted with "Lightning Girl" to make the plane's engine stutter.
The Warhawk's starboard engine smoked and coughed but kept going. Paladin squeezed both triggers and peppered a pack of Devastators directly in front of himcracking the canopy of the lead plane. The planes veered aside at the last second, as the lead Devastator began to tumble. Scratch one pilot.