Chapter 1: Willow Lake
The ranks of officers and crew of No. 468 Squadron "City of Ajax", Royal Canadian Air Force, stood with their backs to the closed hangar at the remote base north of RCAF Station Cold Lake, Alberta, on this still-cool early May day.
As Captain Harry "Hot Dog" Arsenault stood stiffly at ease, he wondered exactly why they were there. It was now the second year of the Era of the Swarm, barely one month after the speech by the President of the United States confirming the presence of the Confederacy and the threat of the Sa'arm, and the world around him seemed to be going mad. Terrorists seemed to girdle the world, the Quebec separatists were making noises again, and now the Middle East was going to hell in a handcart, with both Israel and the Arabs threatening all-out warfare against each other. Refugees seemed to be everywhere, and were seemingly not wanted anywhere. Confederacy pickups were usually hazardous orgies held behind interdiction fields, as those at or above the magical 6.5 CAP score cutoff struggled to volunteer and choose concubines, those below that line tried to be chosen as concubines, and malcontents tried to disrupt the whole proceedings. Mankind at its finest, he snorted.
The impact of the Sa'arm threat were being felt throughout the world. Like all other natural resources, panic buying had sent petroleum prices to record highs over the past month, and finally Canada – along with much of the world – had introduced draconian gas rationing. His own squadron's training had been abruptly cut back, at a time when the Government indicated it wanted to ramp up training, along with recruitment. An example was this very trip: they'd been taken here by a humble inter-city bus burning biodiesel fuel. Their squadron of CF-235 Lightning II's, known as F-35's in the rest of the world, were left behind on the tarmac of RCAF Station Cold Lake.
Most gasoline-powered transport had been parked, new car production had been not just curtailed but cancelled for the duration of the emergency.
Shortages were being felt in the most surprising areas, as the new scarcity of petroleum byproducts hit home. Cosmetics, medicines, rubber for any number of uses including car tires were all growing expensive and harder to obtain. Those who had permission to use their cars were careful about driving to not only preserve the tank of gas, but to not incur any flats. Harry's own vehicle, a sport-utility with power everything, was up on blocks, its tires requisitioned for military use.
"Ah-ten-SHUN!" called his Commanding Officer, Major Dupree. Obediently the triple ranks of warriors came to attention as the Major whirled around to face the officer now coming on parade. It was General Chennault, commander of all fighter squadrons in the RCAF. Interesting.
After the major had taken his position beside the man at the far right corner of the massed ranks, the general stood them at ease.
"Gentlemen, as you know, the situation is becoming serious. We have constrained conventional resources, and yet have to defend ourselves against enemies both human and alien, and enemies both without and within. We need more combat aircraft than at any time since the Second World War, and we need them as soon as possible. We need to fly more than ever before. And yet we have a critical fuel shortage."
Behind them, Harry could hear the hangar doors open. The gentle purr of an electric engine grew louder as something – probably an aircraft towing tractor – cleared the massive hangar door. It took all the discipline of four years in the Armed Forces to keep his eyes straight ahead.
"We will be resuming training shortly, with a different, more modern type of aircraft, hot off the assembly lines. Gentlemen, it's time to meet your new chariots. Ah-ten-SHUN! Ay-bout ... TURN!"
The squadron turned to meet their new mounts. Despite their iron discipline, there were quite a few gasps of both surprise and puzzlement.
"The design has been gone over inside and out. It's got four electric engines powering those big bladed propellers, with power coming from a single fusion reactor mounted within the fuselage, right behind the navigator's station. It has a crew of seven, can carry up to 10,000 kilograms of bombs in that 10-metre-long bomb bay, and can manoeuvre like a fighter. Granted it's not supersonic, but the whole idea is to deliver a stand-off weapon and bugger off out of danger before it gets anywhere close. The design is battle-tested. It can fly as long as the crew can stand it – she only needs to land once every four years so the crew can re-enlist."
The men of No. 468 Squadron stared at the behemoth before them. Most were just too shocked to make any sort of reaction. A few were snorting in derision. Major Dupree came to attention, his right arm tucked tight against his body, his left arm bent at the elbow with forearm parallel to the ground, palm up, fist clenched.
"Yes, Major?" the general politely asked.
"Sir, ah, Sir, er, that ... that ... that's a Lancaster."
"Why yes, Major. So it is."
"Where ... why?"
"We started by scanning into a replicator one of the only two remaining flyable Lancasters, from the Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton. We then took the duplicate, installed the reactor, replaced the engines with types newly developed by Rolls-Royce that run on electrics rather than aviation fuel, upgraded every bit of the flight systems, and re-scanned it," the General explained. "This is the result."
As the Squadron gaped at the sight of the antique World War II bomber, the general continued. "You need to bring your flying hours up, and this will enable us to do so. We'll be doing a LOT of flying, starting tomorrow at oh six hundred. Today, we've got classroom and simulator training."
With those encouraging words, the general turned the parade over to the still-befuddled major, and marched off the runway.
The sign outside the main gate of the base announced it to be RCAF Station Willow Lake. Everything about the base evidenced its newness, the air redolent of fresh paint and freshly-sawed lumber, the lawns a green sprayed combination of seed and fertilizer over dirt rather than blades of grass.
Most of the structures on this very new base were H-huts, a design familiar to any Canadian serviceman. Most of the older bases across the country had at least some H-huts left over from the Second World War. The two arms of the "H" in the barracks were the sleeping quarters, with ablutions rooms, showers, toilets and a laundry and supply room in the crossbar. The difference between the ranks: senior officers got single rooms, lower-ranked officers got to share the rooms two at a time, the NCO ranks split each room between four, and the privates had one long common room. The mess halls were similarly H shaped, with each arm feeding the occupants of two H-huts from the single kitchen located in the crossbar.
The major difference between these barracks and their World War II counterparts lay in its construction material. Back in the day, the typical construction used 2x4 stud framing with an interior sheathing of beaver board – a highly flammable compressed sheet of wood chips and glue – covered with coats of paint. The resulting structure was quick to build and relatively cheap, but draughty. It also tended to burn like a shingle factory when it caught fire.
These modern, Swarm-era huts were made of lightweight prefabricated sections that a crew could manually heft into position in no time, built of a highly insulated interlocking brick similar to cinder block and framed out with metal studs. The roof trusses were still wood, but at least the walls would take longer to burn. The sections were wired and plumbed and already covered with gypsum board, only requiring the assemblers to mud, plaster and paint. They even had windows and doors in all the right places.
Harry Arsenault sat in a simulator, wearing an insulated and heated flight suit. The simulator even included air conditioning to mimic the conditions at altitude all the more closely. The Lancaster flown in World War II had been a single-pilot plane, and the "new" electric-engined version was no different. The pictures on the screens around him showed a very realistic view of the RCAF Station Willow Lake runway.
"Lima Alfa Foxtrot Gulf, cleared for takeoff," advised the tower in clipped tones.
"Roger, Lima Alfa Foxtrot Gulf cleared for takeoff," Harry responded calmly, although he could feel his pulse racing. "Rolling, over." His gloved hand pushed forward on the throttle controls.
The simulator tilted forward, mimicking the effect of the tail rising as the machine raced down the runway. Smoothly Harry pulled back on the stick, as the ground fell away and the notional Lancaster notionally rose into the notional air. Harry raised his landing gear, and the bird was well and truly airborne in the fictional sky.
Beside him, he could see other Lancasters had formed up beside him, each with what looked like heads in them. His navigator tapped him on the shoulder with a gloved mitt, handing him a pair of binoculars. The navigator pointed to the nearest notional Lancaster. The wind outside the canopy was making it difficult to communicate despite throat mikes and ear buds.
Harry risked a few seconds' look at the plane pictured off his port wing. He recognized the pilot as fellow Captain William "Razor" Sharpe, his oxygen mask swaying from the left-hand strap. Harry knew that Razor was in another simulator near him, but couldn't tell the difference – the simulation was that good. Harry resumed attention to where he was going, beginning his turn toward Willow Lake off to the south.
Again and again that morning, Harry and his crew practised touch-and-goes, landing and immediately taking off again. By the time his simulator sessions were done, he'd worked up quite a sweat and welcomed the final taxiing into the tiedown position.
"Well," Captain "Beast" Buckler, the officer commanding the simulators, asked as the four pilots emerged from their simulators, "what do you think?"
"It's a sweet, sweet ride," Harry confirmed with satisfaction. "It seems to handle as nimbly as a fighter plane, yet is stable and seems to have no bad habits. If the real bird is anything like this simulator, I think I'll enjoy flying it."
"And you haven't even tried dropping a bomb from it yet," Buckler observed. "Tomorrow you fly the real thing, then the day after you drop bomb loads in the simulators, then you drop the real thing – real dummy bombs, anyway."
Harry and his fellow pilots nodded.
"However, for now I release you. Grab some lunch, everyone, and meet back here at thirteen-hundred."
As they left Hangar 1, where his flight's simulator room was, Harry noted to his surprise that the field now held all twelve of the squadron's assigned Lancasters. Ground crews were busy checking the systems in preparation for the next day's first flights.
First Squad of the Second Platoon, Third Company, RCAF Regiment was in P.T. gear, running laps around the runway. As part of their physical training, they wore steel-toed combat boots rather than running shoes. Their leather soles caused their footfalls to echo dully across the runway. The RCAF Regiment was a new creation, tasked with providing RCAF stations with security. Despite this station's location far from civilization, it was still considered a prime target.
A tall, wiry man with a slightly swarthy complexion ran beside them, encouraging them by threatening bloody punishments for any slackers. Unlike the others whose T-shirts were plain white with a blue-green collar and cuffs, his bore the cap badge of the famous Royal 22e Régiment, the Van Doos.
Private Charles Boucherville's lungs had long since begun to burn as this sadistic taskmaster led the RCAF Regiment squad on yet another circuit of the runway. He was mere weeks out of basic training, and his conditioning was still not yet up to that of the experienced Mohawk warrior temporarily seconded to his newly-formed Regiment from the Van Doos.
"Gauche droit gauche droit gauche droit gauche! Gauche! Gauche! Gauche droit gauche! Let's have a cadence song!"
The squad inwardly groaned. Not only did they now need to suck in oxygen to continue this killer pace, they now needed enough spare lung capacity to sing, too?
"Goddamn motherfucking son-of-a-bitch shit!" the Van Doo began.
"Masturbate!" the squad chanted, resignedly joining in with their demented commanding officer. "Fornicate! Think of all the cunts you ate! Munch, crunch, box lunch! How do you like your meat! RAW!"
"That was pathetic!" the captain called. "Again, louder! Make them hear you in Calgary!"
And again, the hapless squad of newly-inducted RCAF Regiment privates chanted the bawdy cadence song as they passed the line of Lancasters.
Off in the Station's perimeter, Second Squad was having things no easier. Dressed in Temperate Woodland "CADPAT" combat uniforms, they were busily adding concertina wire to the perimeter fence. Third Squad was on watch, in eight gun towers scattered around the outer fence and at the main gate guard post, and the fourth was busy under the supervision of Alberta Ministry of Natural Resource forest fire fighting specialists, extending the fire break and burning brush to keep the risk of a killer fire under some semblance of control.
General Chennault came up to the painfully young lieutenant in nominal command of the platoon. The lieutenant saluted nervously. "General Chennault, Sir."
"Leftenant Solway. How are your men?"
"I could use some more seasoned sergeants, Sir, but I think we can handle things."
"I wish I could give you more seasoned sergeants, son. The best I can get for you is Captain Whitefeather." He nodded toward the sadist running alongside First Squad. "And you'll only have him for four more weeks. Don't just use him as a resource. Ruthlessly abuse him. Get him to lead you on some war games. You've got him for his experience in counter-insurgency. That's priceless."
Lieutenant Solway nodded. "I understand, Sir. The training schedule does include war games. Captain Whitefeather is taking Second and Third Squads out tonight at oh-two-hundred for a trial run at the fence, and that's just the start."
At that moment, up in the control tower atop Hangar Number Two, the duty senior controller found his attention drawn to a blip on the radar screen. A label beside it provided him with altitude and direction, but no identity.
"Unknown aircraft at altitude angels three, please identify." His finger hovered over the alert button.