FIRE ON HIGH

RESPONSIBILITIES

 “Fire On High” is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. All characters and settings © Tigermark 2003-2005 unless otherwise noted. Request permission before using them, please. This is a stand-alone story and is not necessarily canon to the continuing story of Fire On High.  United and American Airlines, and Boeing Aircraft are mentioned here in an historical context, and no infringement of their trademark is intended. While the basics of this story were kept as true as possible to actual events of that day (9-11), some dramatic license was taken. Most notably, a) the aircraft scrambled from Langley on 9-11 were F-16’s, and there were three of them, b) In the 9/11 Commission report, it is stated that no aircraft were ever in a position to intercept Flight 93 before it crashed. The Langley interceptors arrived over Washington, D.C. before Flight 93 would have arrived there, but did not have time to reach the area where it crashed. c) The C-130 that is talked about here was actually an H model from the Minnesota Air National Guard and yes, the RL crew was present for the end of both Flight 77 and Flight 93. I have chosen to borrow the characters from my good friend Silver Coyote’s B-Team to fill that role. Joe Latrans, Annie Latrans, Steve Lupus, Molly Lomax, Randy Clarkson, Slam Whiteline, Matt Barstock, Intermountain Charter and the Bitch © Silver Coyote and appear here with his permission. Resources used for this story are archived newspaper accounts and timelines from that day, and the 9-11 Commission report.

Capt. Jonathan “Jedi” Foertsch is © his player. SSgt. Helena Oceloton © Jonathan Foertsch. The exchange between these two when Jedi gets in his F-15 was written by Jonathan, with slight alterations by me, and is used with his permission.

This story is dedicated to the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces. The work they do, the decisions they make, and the responsibilities they face are world-changing and awesome. It is also dedicated to those who lost their lives on 9-11-01. May we not be doomed to that history ever repeating itself.

“Let’s Roll”

— Todd Beamer, 9/11/2001

Lt. Colonel Alex O’Whitt stretched and yawned. The book he was reading was good, but he needed to give his eyes a break. Putting his bookmark in and closing the volume, he placed it on the table beside his chair. He gave his 6’2” tiger frame a long stretch again, all the way to the tip of his snow-leopard’s tail. It was just past 0800 on a Tuesday morning. He was pulling a week of standing alert as part of his yearly two-week Air Force Reserve duty, taking the place of another pilot whose wife had just given birth.

He steepled his fingers and contemplated the day so far. He and his wingfur, Major Jonathan “Jedi” Foertsch, had awakened at 0600, did the morning preflight on their two F-15C Eagle interceptors, had breakfast, and now they and their crew chiefs were settled in to await any alerts, or scrambles, that might happen. The aircraft were kept on alert to respond to any threats the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) center might detect. Already since Sunday, they’d been sent up to check on an unidentified aircraft 6 miles out to sea from Norfolk. Sitting their alert in a hardened hangar at Langley AFB, they had launched and intercepted the unknown in about three minutes. In this case, it had been a Boeing 737 airliner coming in from the Caribbean a bit off course. Still, it had been good practice, but ever since then Alex, or Ice as he was called, had felt a bit uneasy. He couldn’t put a claw on the reason, but his instincts had kept him alive through more kalifights than he’d like to recall, so he didn’t dismiss the feeling.

Jedi was diligently studying a book on aerial combat tactics, the tip of the spotted feline’s tail slowly waving back and forth. SSgt Helena Oceloten, Jedi’s crew chief, and TSgt Barry Baston, Ice’s crew chief, were engaged in an intense and long-running game of chess. Barry was not fairing well at the moment, Ice noted, as the brown tabby’s tail was flicking back and forth in agitation. His opponent’s spotted ocelot tail was curling slowly back and forth as she contemplated what moves should come next on both their parts. In the background, the TV set in the ready room where they waited was tuned to the Central News Network’s repeating news show. Jedi glanced up from his studying and noted Ice’s contemplative look.

“What’s got you so thoughtful this morning, Ice?”

Ice looked at the spotted feline and gave a small smile. “Just thinking about that intercept yesterday.  Most intercepts like that end up being small private or corporate aircraft coming in out of the normal approaches, or from time to time a Russian bomber or patrol plane testing to see if we’re still paying attention. Something about the fact that it was an airliner isn’t sitting well.”

“Oh? How so?” Jedi marked his place in his book and put it down. His leader was working on a problem, so he felt he should help.

“Well, the intercept itself was no problem. We had the target on radar almost as soon as we launched. What I was thinking was, once we got there, then what? What if the crew hadn’t come up on the radio? What if they hadn’t responded to ATC? What if they’d been hijacked? I read an intel report a little while back about terrorists possibly planning some hijackings.”

Jedi looked thoughtful a second. “I thought airliner hijacking had become passé with terrorists. Blow them up, maybe, but it’s been quite a while since they’ve tried a hijacking. Too hard to get weapons onboard with airline security. Too many countries that will not give them asylum, or won’t even let them land. Found out their grand statements were just heard as so much blah blah blah.”

“So most folks have thought. The report said the tactic wasn’t to land and send a message. What concerns me is that the new tactic is to incapacitate the crew and use the whole aircraft, plus all the furs onboard, as a makeshift missile. Crash it into whatever target they’d chosen, or use it to deliver an NBC (Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical) weapon. What I’m wondering is, since there’s no standing order about such an occurrence, what would we be ordered to do?” Ice’s expression had gone from thoughtful to troubled as he remembered the report. That was what had been bothering him about the intercept. Finding the target was no problem, but once they had closed on the airliner, what then?”

Jedi thought a moment. “Well, maybe we’d make some close passes; try to herd the aircraft away from where the hijackers want to go. Uh, Ice, I know where you’re going with this, and you can’t seriously think we’d shoot down an airliner full of furs, do you? Anyone who ordered that would be lucky if all that happened was that they got thrown out of the service. The press would go nuts! More likely they’d end up in jail.”

“Perhaps, but what if they were trying to fly it into a nuclear power plant? Or the brass thought there was a nuke or a big chemical weapon on board? Think logically about it, Jedi. Would the President order the shoot down of an airliner with say, a hundred on board in order to save thousands on the ground? All the exercise scenarios I’ve seen dealing with that have the aircraft being intercepted out over the ocean, and yes, shot down. It’d take a Presidential order, but it has been thought of.” Ice was trying to think the problem through, and was glad his wingfur was willing to talk about the idea.

“Okay, granted, if they had a weapon like that on board, or were headed for a power plant or chemical plant, but how would they get the weapons they’d need, large or small, on an airliner? Security at airports is a lot better than it was back when all the hijackings were taking place.” Jedi had a very earnest expression on his face.

“Probably easier than we know. Security isn’t the same everywhere. There are places where they might just walk right on with whatever they intended to use.” Ice smiled a bit at Jedi’s look of doubt.

“Well, I still think they’d have a hard time getting weapons onboard an airliner these days,” Jedi said definitively.

“Perhaps,” Ice replied, a pensive look still on his face. The prospect of having to fire on an unarmed airliner chilled him to his soul. Even if the order came down from higher up to do so, it’d still be his paw on the stick, and his finger on the firing stud.

“Ah Ice, it’s a quiet Tuesday, the weather’s nice, and the Defcon level is low. Nothing’s going to happen today,” Jedi said to reassure his friend.

Ice looked earnestly and intently at the younger feline, to the point that Jedi nearly squirmed.

“An old Security Policefur who’d served in Vietnam once told me, ‘Just when you would relax, and think nothing’s going to happen today, Charlie would hit you. Remember son, today is always the day.’ It’s sound advice.” He said after a moment.

“Uh, yes sir.”

Just then, Helena called out a loud, “Checkmate!”

Barry responded with a sharp epithet. Helena stood and stretched the kinks out, her spotted ocelot tail curling. While Barry sat and looked at the chessboard, grumbling, she walked over and sat down near the pilots.

“You two sirs talking shop again?”

Ice and Jedi looked at her, and then at each other.

“Yes, I suppose we are. It’s something near and dear to our hearts. But you may be right. Let’s talk about something else for a bit,” Jedi replied.

“Fine.” Ice still looked a little lost in thought, but he was ready to change the subject, too. “What shall it be, religion, politics, or something less deadly?”

“Ah, let’s not get too serious, all right sir? It’s still a bit early for anything that heavy,” the ocelot replied. “Ah, how are things going at your business? Jedi mentioned that you are co-owner of a charter service.”

Ice nodded and smiled. “Yep. Kentiger Executive Air Service, based out of Lexington, Kentucky. It’s going really well. We just added a second Gulfstream Four, and a Beech Starship. Kinda showy, but we had the demand. Fuel prices are not too bad right now, so we’re doing well. Added four new pilots as well.”

Ice could’ve gone on to list all the newer equipment, and additional support furs they’d hired. Billy Panelli, his partner and friend, had nearly dropped his stripes when he saw the numbers on their new operating budget. Ice thought the Bengal tiger was going to have a stroke until he showed him the revenue projections and expected flight hours demand sheets.

“Wow, a Beech Starship? I always wanted to give one of those a try. Is it much different flying a canard pusher?” Jedi was referring to Beech aircraft’s twin turboprop Starship. As opposed to the usual arrangement of main wings in front, with smaller ones on the tail, and propellers that pulled the aircraft, the Starship had small canard wings on the nose, with the main wings at the tail. The propellers were on the back of the wings, pushing the aircraft along.  It made for a stylish, fast, safe and roomy ride.

“Well I’ll be done with my two-week annual reserve duty when we get off alert Saturday,” Ice replied. “Come on over to Kentucky when you get a chance, and we’ll see about letting you fly along on a charter in it.”

Helena smiled. “Any room for enlisteds on the ride?”

Barry, who seemed to have recovered from his loss at chess, ambled over and piped into the conversation as he sat down. “Yeah, sounds like a fun time. How about it, Ice?”

Ice grinned. He always seemed to get himself into things like this. “Ah sure, why not? I’ll charter the aircraft for myself, and hop over here and we’ll all go get a hundred-dollar hamburger somewhere. Should be room for your wife and kittens too, Barry.

They all laughed at the idea, and then the conversation drifted on to Barry’s family.

“All in all, a nice, routine day,” Ice thought to himself.

                                           #                                                                      #                                                               #

Billy Panelli noted the time. 0830 local. After a quick yawn and stretch of his long tiger frame, he stepped over to Loni Lyntica’s desk and looked over the lynx’s shoulder at her computer screen. Their new program let the aircrews check in and update their status and location over a secure data link. Billy was in his mid-fifties, but he always liked new technology as long as it was useful. The data link was only the latest in a steady stream of improvements in how he and his partner managed their business. Loni had a box on the corner of her screen showing the latest data in case a customer called to check on where their charter was. It was a Tuesday, so they only had four aircraft out. One of the Gulfstreams had left very early and was now airborne with a charter for the movie company in Wilmington, NC. One Citation was on the ground in Atlanta awaiting the president of a manufacturing business and his sales manager, who wanted to fly to Dallas. One of the Kingairs was just leaving Indianapolis enroute to Pittsburgh with a team of tech reps. Another was on a cargo run for a mining company. That one was on the ground loading at Bluefield, WV. By 0900, it should be airborne and heading for Arkansas International Airport, the former Blytheville Air Force Base.

Satisfied that all was running smoothly, Billy turned to go back to his office. He noted that Duncan Jetter, Kentiger’s chief pilot, was sitting in their makeshift crew lounge, going over company flight procedures with one of their new pilots. The leopard was pointing out things in a manual as the young golden retriever looked intently on. In the corner, the small TV set was showing the trail ends of a network morning news show. All felt right with the world at the moment. His paperwork load wasn’t overbearing yet, as it was still early in the month. His partner, Alex O’Whitt, was in Virginia on his annual two week Air Force Reserve duty. 

Penny, Billy’s tiger-fox wife, had mentioned that morning that they should take off somewhere on the coming weekend, before things began to heat up, schedule-wise, as autumn and the holidays approached. He had that on his mind as he walked down the short hall and into his office. Soon he would be on the net, investigating possible getaway locations. Sometimes it was good to be the boss.

Once seated at his desk, Billy started to warm up his computer. Again he noted the time. His son Rusty was on a business trip for his auto parts store, and should be leaving Baltimore on his flight home. Billy checked the email message again after the computer finished booting up. It said that Rusty would be leaving out of Baltimore at 0905 local and arrive at Sioux City, Iowa by 1400.  He’d call later to make sure his son got home all right.

For now, there was work to do, and a trip to plan. He’d left the door open, and the distant voices and chatter from the TV in the pilot’s lounge made for a soothing backdrop as he set to his daily tasks.

                                            #                                                                     #                                                                  #

Ice, Jedi, Helena, and Barry were still sitting and quietly conversing. Ice noted the wall clock. Soon it would be time for them to go check all the communication lines again.

“Too bad,” Ice thought to himself. He was enjoying the talking. It had settled his earlier troubled mood.

“Well, I hate to break this up, but we’ve got a scheduled comm. check in ten minutes.”

“Okay Ice,” Jedi replied as he stood up. A “Yes sir” from both enlisted furs accompanied their standing also. As they started to head for the small stack of radios and the two telephones at the console in the next room, Ice heard the music that announced a news alert on the television. Almost unconsciously, all four stopped to watch.

“Hello, for Central News I’m Kelly Wallaby. Word is coming in to us now that there has been a plane crash in downtown New York City. Details are sketchy at this time, but smoke can be seen rising above the skyline. We’ll bring you an update as soon as we have any more information.”

Barry let out a low whistle. “Dang! A plane down in the Big Apple? That’s gotta be a mess!”

The others nodded and Ice led the way to the comm. room. He didn’t like the sound of what he’d heard on the news report one bit, and the feeling of apprehension he’d had earlier had returned.

“Okay crew, standard check in. Barry and Helena handle the radio checks, Jedi, the tower line, and I’ll handle the command post check-in.” A chorus of “Yes sirs” echoed back to Ice as he picked up the phone that directly linked them with the wing command post.

As the others began their calls, Ice spoke into the pawset. “Hello Rich, Ice checking in.”

“Copy Alert hangar, authenticate Bravo Sierra.” The response was a bit terse, unusual for the officer that Ice knew was on duty at the command post. He pulled out the day’s authentication code card and responded.

“Command Post, Alert, I authenticate Sierra Lima. What’s up?”

“Standby for the wing CO.”

Ice began to have a very bad feeling as he awaited General Higgins. Shortly the lion came on the line.

“Ice, Scatcat. No time for more, but something might be up. ATC is having fits along the east coast. They just had a plane go into the World Trade Center in New York. Think it’s a hijacking. There’s several more flights out of communications, and they’ve scrambled the alert birds out of Otis in Massachusetts. You two go get your G-suits on and be ready to go just in case.”

“Yes sir, Scatcat. Are we on cockpit alert?” Ice was ready to order his wingfur and himself into their aircraft, where they would wait for launch orders.

“Not yet, but stay close.”

“Yes sir. Alert out.”

Ice turned to his crew as he hung up the phone. They’d all gotten similar instructions. He simply nodded and he and Jedi started out toward the hangars where their g-suits waited beside the ladders up to their cockpits. As they passed the ready room on their way, Helena gasped and stopped dead in her tracks, causing the others to stop, too. They all looked in horror at what the television was showing. The announcer was following what was being shown, and her own gasp went along with the alert crews.

. . . As we continue with Central News’s coverage of a plane crash into the World Trade Center in New York. We’re now showing you live pictures of the scene were an airliner, we believe it to be a Boeing Seven Fifty Seven or Seven Sixty Seven, has struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center up near the ninetieth floor. Speculation has been heard among officials that the aircraft might have been hijacked, and. . . Oh! Our cameras have just picked up a second airplane approaching the World Trade Center, and it. . . .Oh Dear God!”

The four furs looked on in shock as a second airliner angled in and crashed into, no, more like exploded through the South Tower of the twin buildings. A fireball and pieces of wreckage traveled completely through the building, to begin falling toward the street below.

Ice was the first to find his voice. “Okay furs, MOVE! Jedi, G-suits, now! I’ll monitor the hotlines, Barry, Helena, go and switch on the mains and make sure that the aircraft are ready to start the second we get our straps on, I want to be able to be airborne in under thirty seconds.”

As the other three sprang into action, Ice thought to himself, “How many more? Could the nightmare scenario I thought of earlier be happening?”

                                           #                                                                       #                                                                      #

Billy was perusing possible getaway sights for the coming weekend, and had decided the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee sounded good. The fall colors were beginning to show, and the thought of Penny in a hot tub at one of the chalets was darn near irresistible. He was about to email for reservations when a commotion out in the crew lounge caught his attention. He’d heard Loni gasp, which he almost never heard since Alex had barred Glenn Mustid from the crew lounge. He stood and walked out of his office and down the short hall to the lobby and crew lounge.

Once there, he noticed that Loni had left her desk and was standing with a paw to her muzzle, staring at the television. Duncan Jetter and Len Rexhund, the new golden retriever pilot, also sat open-mouthed. Billy stepped up to Loni and looked at the screen. What he saw shocked him. The image appeared to be the World Trade Center in New York, but the twin buildings were belching smoke from ugly scars in their middle and upper floors.

Wha—, What happened?” Billy managed to say. The sound wasn’t up, so he couldn’t hear the commentary.

Loni spoke in a voice choked with emotion. “It . .they . .ah, two planes flew into the buildings. They came on with the report of the first one, and then . . . then.” Loni’s voice caught in a sob, but she took a deep breath and then continued. “Then a second one came in and hit the other tower, right on camera. Oh Billy, what could have happened to them?”

Billy gulped as the scene of the second aircraft angling in, pulling hard to keep from missing the building, and flying into the side of it was repeated. The explosion was huge! It was followed by pieces of building and aircraft exploding out the other side and beginning to rain down toward the street below.

“Uh, guys, that was no accident. That aircraft intentionally maneuvered to hit the building. It has to have been some kind of attack. The planes had to have been stolen or hijacked.”

Duncan and Len looked on, stunned. Billy had seen many aircraft, both enemy and friend, go up in a fireball while in Vietnam and the Gulf war, but Duncan was a civilian. He had never seen another aircraft go down. Billy snapped out of his horrified contemplation of the scene and went into action.

“Okay folks, let’s move. Very soon we’re going to start getting calls, either from the FAA to ascertain the status of all our aircraft, or from furs who’re stuck and need a ride. Let’s be ready for the calls. Loni, move! Get contact with all our aircraft that are out. If they haven’t taken off, have them hold where they are until we see what actions the FAA and military take.”

Loni looked at Billy, and then back at the screen. She then straightened her back and headed for her computer to begin messaging their crews.

Billy now shifted focus to Duncan. “Duncan, I know it’s hard to digest, but we need someone on the phones to help Loni when the calls start coming. Also, call Jackie and have her come in if she can. We’ll either be completely shut down soon, or up to our ears in pickup calls. I’ll contact the FAA and see if they have anything figured out in a few minutes.”

Duncan broke his gaze away from the TV and nodded. He stood up and headed for his desk to comply with Billy’s orders.

Len looked up at Billy, and then stood up. “Ah, Mr. Panelli, what can I do to help?” The golden retriever’s soft German accent had become slightly more pronounced, giving away his anxiety.

Billy thought a second. The young pilot was brand new, fresh out of training at Flite Academy, Inc. He had no family in the U.S. and was glad to have the job, as he would be able to bring his wife over much sooner than he’d expected. Billy didn’t think he’d been there long enough to work the phones, and he wasn’t ready to crew yet, so what could he have him do?

“You make coffee, Len?”

The canid was taken aback. “Erhm, yes, I can make coffee, but . .”

“No, I don’t consider keeping us in coffee while we go through this as a do-nothing or gofer job, Len. We may be here a long time, and fresh coffee will help us all cope.” Billy waited to see if the young pilot would take the team-player approach or not.

After a second, the canid grinned and lolled his tongue out. “I’ll keep you in the strongest coffee in the world. Good German-style. Put fur on your chest.”

Billy laughed. It felt good amidst the coming time of stress. “Great! But I already have enough. Danke’, Len.”

The golden retriever laughed and headed over to the coffeemaker, where he put the nearly-full pot on the warming pad and started to get out ingredients for a second pot. Billy headed over and turned up the TV a bit. The news anchor was recounting the latest info, and Billy listened intently. He hoped he wouldn’t hear anything about any flights out of Baltimore being involved.

“. . .the latest word is that the two airliners were both either Boeing Seven Fifty Seven or Seven Sixty Seven aircraft. We’re uncertain at this time where they were flying out of, what airlines, or any other details. Smoke and fire continue to billow out of the devastated towers of New York’s World Trade Center as police and fire units continue trying to evacuate those that they can. Reports of bodies either falling or jumping from the building . . .”

Billy turned away, unable to watch anymore. He bowed his head and said a silent prayer for his son, and for those who had already died, and those who most likely soon would in the blazing buildings. Then he turned and headed back toward his office to call Penny. He had a feeling their planned weekend wouldn’t be happening now.

                                           #                                                                      #                                                                      #

Jedi had just stepped into the ready room to hand Ice his G-suit when the alert phone rang. Ice grabbed it and answered.

“Alert hanger, go”

“Ice, Scatcat. Go to Battle Stations. Cockpit alert. Conserve your fuel, we don’t have a target yet, but NEADS (NorthEast Air Defense Sector) wants you ready to go. They might head you toward Baltimore area. They’re not sure, but there might be another hijacked plane heading toward Washington.”

“Copy Scatcat, we’re on it.” Ice turned to Jedi and nodded. “Let’s get mounted up, Jedi. Battle stations.” The spotted feline merely nodded and turned on his heel, running just ahead of his flight leader out into the alert hangar. Ice noted the time on the wall clock as he passed. 0909hrs EDT.

Ice reached his F-15 as his crew chief reacted instantly to his terse, “Battle stations!” Barry Baston took the helmet from Ice as he finished zipping up his G-suit. Then the feline followed as Ice scrambled up the ladder and into the cockpit. He helped the tiger strap in and connect the comm and O2 lines to his suit and helmet. He then scrambled down and removed the ladder, and took up a position where Ice could see him after walking quickly over and hitting the button on the wall that opened large doors at the front and rear of the hangar.

“Okay Ice, ready to start when we get the word,” the NCO said through his intercom headset.

“Great job, Barry. Standby,” Ice replied.

Over at Jedi’s aircraft he and his crew chief want through a litany they’d established as she helped him get settled in the cockpit.

    “Sergeant, on time and more than ready, as always.  I assume my girl’s ready to dance?” Jedi asked her as he settled in.

“Aye, sir, just like you like her.  Full tank o’gas, new oil in the reservoir, and fresh air in the tires.” Helena smiled as she handed him his helmet. Jedi smiled in return.  “I’ll bring her back in one piece, not a scratch,” he said, parroting his part of their launch rituals.  He fit the helmet on his head, adjusting the chinstrap. The ocelot helped him connect the comm and O2 lines, and then climbed back down the ladder, removed it and put it aside. She then took up her position beside the aircraft’s nose to await the order to pull chocks.

“Not a scratch, I’m holding you to that, sir,” she said over the intercom as they waited for the launch order.

As they waited, Ice contemplated what they might be called to do. Would they order the shootdown of a civilian airliner? Would he, could he do it if they ordered him? The thought came to him, an old quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V:

                                   “Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
                                       enough, if we know we are the king’s subjects: if
                                       his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
                                       the crime of it out of us.”

Humpf,” he thought. “I was only following orders,” was a very lame excuse, but then again, if the aircraft in question were going to kill many more furs when they crashed, and those aboard were going to die anyway, wouldn’t it be right to shoot? Another quote came to him, more worthy of his friend Jedi in the other F-15. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

They waited like that for what seemed a long time, but Ice noted on his cockpit clock that only fifteen minutes had passed. Suddenly the klaxon on the hangar wall went off and the loudspeaker blared out, “Alert aircraft, immediate launch, Alert aircraft, immediate launch.”

“Okay Barry, start ‘em up!” Ice called on the intercom. The crew chief went through the paw signals rapidly and in a few seconds Ice’s Eagle had rumbled to life. Over at Jedi’s ride, he and his crew chief went through a similar sequence. They then did a rapid set of control checks, and Ice called for Barry to pull chocks. The feline rushed in and pulled the lone set of chocks on the port main gear. He then pulled his intercom and ran to the side, turning and raising a salute. Helena Oceloten did the same, slipping a quick “may the force be with you,” in before pulling her intercom. Jedi grinned in his mask as he returned the salute she raised.

“Let’s go, Jedi,” Ice called as he released the brakes and began to taxi out.

Langley Tower, Alpha One, alert birds out of the nest for Runway Eight.”

“Copy Alpha One, hold short for traffic on final,” a very young-sounding voice from the tower replied. Ice looked right and saw the lights of a C-141 out about 3 miles. They’d have time to be gone before it got there.

“Langley Tower, Alpha One, negative on hold, we’re on an alert launch. We have time to get airborne before the Starlifter’s arrival.” If they didn’t, they’d have to wait for two more minutes for the wake vortices from the big transport’s wingtips to dissipate.

“Alpha One, I said hold,” came the terse reply. Ice thought about asking to talk to the supervisor, but decided by the time he did that, the cargo plane would be down and they’d be delayed even further.

After about a minute, they heard a different voice come on the radio. “Starlifter Five Two, Go around. I repeat, go around. Turn right to zero eight zero and climb to two five hundred. Alpha One, go!”

Ice saw the big jet on approach suddenly veer off and begin to climb as he hit the throttles and keyed the mike. “Thanks tower.” It was 0930, he noted. “So much for a fast launch,” he thought as he and Jedi roared down the runway and into the air. Gear up, flaps up, and they started climbing.

Switching to the departure frequency, Ice called, “Langley departure, Alpha One outbound on a scramble launch.”

“Copy Alpha One. Turn to a heading of zero niner zero and climb at your discretion.”

Ice gawped at his radio for a second. East? He’d have thought they’d be sent north.

“Uh, Langley, Alpha One, did I copy zero niner zero for the heading?”

“Copy correct, Alpha One. Your flight plan calls for a standard alert departure of zero niner zero for sixty. That’s where we have traffic cleared.”

    Ice thought a second as they climbed. The command post hadn’t actually had a target heading and distance for them, so maybe they were just being launched as a precaution.

 Langley, Alpha One copies, turning to zero niner zero.”

As they headed east out over the ocean, Jedi called over the ship-to-ship. “Ice, what’s going on? Everyone seems confused, or is it just me?”

“No Jedi, it’s not just you. I don’t think anyone knows where to send us yet.”

“Do you think there’s more aircraft that have been hijacked? Or is something else happening?” the concern in the spotted feline’s voice came through loud and clear.

“I don’t know. I pray not. What we saw on TV was bad enough.”

They were silent a few seconds, and then Ice keyed the mike. “Jedi, if there’s any shots to be taken, I’ll take them.”

“Uh, okay Ice, if you say so.”

“I do.”

The pair flew east for a few minutes, and then the tactical frequency came to life. “Langley Alert flight, this is Skywatcher. What’s your current heading?”

Skywatcher, this is Langley Alert, call sign Alpha One, Ice here, heading zero niner zero per last instructions from ATC.” Ice responded to the controller from NEADS.

“Negative! Come around to three four oh and punch it! Supersonic is authorized, now get yourselves up to Washington DC ASAP!”

Ice automatically heeled his Eagle over and headed north-northwest, pushing the throttles up to full and pushing past the sound barrier, Jedi close on his wing.

“On our way, Skywatcher,” Ice radioed. “Have you got a target for us?”

“Negative, Alpha One. But we need you up to CAP (Combat Air Patrol) Dee Cee as quick as you can get there.”

“Copy Skywatcher. What are the orders on firing?” Ice was still apprehensive about the possibility of having to fire on an airliner. He wanted to be sure there were no mistakes if it came to that.

“Negative on that so far, Ice. Orders for now are to get a tail number and position if you spot a bogey, and we’ll, ah, make that decision then.”

“Okay Skywatcher. I put us at about one five oh southeast of Washington, coming on fast. Uh, try and get us a tanker slot somewhere, we might be thirsty after this run.”

“Gotcha Ice, we’re working on that already.”

The two Eagles flew on at well above mach, heading for the nation’s capitol. The time was 0936.

                                               #                                                                     #                                                                       #

“Yes sir, that’s right, we’re grounded now, too,” Loni stated into the phone for what seemed like the hundredth time in the past twenty minutes. She noted Duncan was responding the same. All their flights were on the ground and their passengers had found alternative means or cancelled their flights. Their cargo run Kingair had been lucky enough to be able to put in at Bluegrass Field, so at least one of their birds was home. The Gulfstream had landed in Memphis, and the producer and director they’d been flying had pitched a fit. She’d just gotten an earful from them when Billy had come on the line and in no uncertain terms told them how it was. They’d still grumbled, but then had headed for a car rental place. Billy had told his crew to do the same, if they could, and charge it to the company and come on home. The flight to Pittsburgh had made it there, and Billy had told that crew the same. The Citation had never left Atlanta, and that charter had cancelled his flight. Billy told that crew to drive home, too.

“I doubt anyone’s going anywhere for at least a couple of days,” he’d said. She hoped her son wouldn’t be too upset if she and Duncan were late picking him up from afterschool care. Billy was now on the phone with the company’s insurance carrier, seeing to it that the financial losses they were about to incur would be at least in part covered. Loni looked at the clock at the bottom of her computer screen. Had it only been just over a half hour since the images of destruction had come across the television?

Just then, Jackie Tortelli walked in. She hung up her jacket and walked over to Loni’s desk.

“Hey Loni, saw it all on the TV. My kids are with my mother, she went and got them out of school. What’s up here?”

“Hi Jackie. Pandemonium, as usual. All our planes are on the ground with no mishaps. The FAA has ordered a nationwide stand down of all aircraft, commercial and private. I guess we just need some help answering the phones. Everyone and their brother who just got stranded on a commercial flight is calling, thinking we can still come get them.”

Just then the phone rang again. Loni clicked on and answered it with her headset while Jackie went over to her desk and sat down to start fielding calls, brushing down her dark feline fur on the way.

Kentiger Executive Air, may I help you?” Loni said in her smooth, professional voice.

“Yes miss,” the voice on the other end said in an only slightly cross voice, “I’m stranded in Cleveland. The airline says they can’t fly. Some darn fool thing about a terrorist attack. I need to get to Denver, my business is vital! I need to charter a flight right away.”

“I’m sorry sir, but we’re grounded too, for the same reason. I suggest either a hotel or a rental car. All air travel is suspended until further notice.” Loni winced as the fur on the other end of the line swore loud and strong. He then hung up without further comment. She rubbed her muzzle and her eyes. Just then, she heard the music for a special report on the television.

“Now what?” she wondered as she turned to look. The banner at the bottom said simply, “Smoke over DC.” The picture showed a smear of black smoke rising above what appeared to be the skyline of the nation’s capitol. It was all too much, and Loni buried her face in her paws and muttered, “How many more?”

                                           #                                                                      #                                                                      #

“Andrews Tower, Intermountain Four Four rolling,” Joe Latrans said as he pushed the throttles on the old C-130E forward. The coyote/German shepherd hybrid had done this routine what seemed like a million times before. The Herc, affectionately known as The Bitch for her habit of having at least one system break down on each flight, roared down Runway One Left, lifting off out of Andrews AFB enroute to Duluth, Minnesota.

Joe glanced over at his copilot, Steve Lupus. The dark-furred gray wolf was occupied with pulling up the gear as Joe concentrated on the takeoff. They were on the last leg of a charter run that had seen them hefting various cargo for the Department of Defense (DoD) around the Caribbean, some of which required the security of a Marine escort. Lance Corporal “Slam” Whiteline, a coyote/mountain lion hybrid who stood well over six feet, seemed a little too large for the jumpseat at the back of the cockpit he now occupied. His part of the flight was over, and he was basically just along for the ride home. Randy Clarkson, the young skunk who had joined Intermountain Charter only a few months ago as their loadmaster, occupied the navigator’s console seat.  Recently out of the Marines himself, he had already proved invaluable both at loading and unloading the old refurbished Hercules, and also at helping out with the various system problems that seemed to crop up.

Joe called out for the flaps to be brought up a bit more as they climbed through twelve hundred feet. Steve reached over and moved the lever to the position called for. Below, the environs of Washington D.C. began to pass by as they gained altitude.

“Nice view of the Mall,” Joe noted as they climbed.

Steve looked across Joe. “Yeah, I always enjoy seeing stuff in DC when we take off. Really great way to see it all at once.”

Randy and Slam had leaned over to look, as well. Both were silent as they noted the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.

As Joe did his visual scan for traffic, he noticed an aircraft out about four miles, descending toward his altitude.

“Steve, I didn’t hear Departure Control say anything about any traffic at our ten o’clock, did you?”

“No,” the wolf replied, looking up in that direction. “Hey, he’s in pretty close. Why hasn’t he called in that he sees us?”

“Don’t know,” Joe replied. The aircraft was an airliner, 757 0r 767. He couldn’t really tell from this angle. He began to become concerned as the craft started to fill the windscreen on that side. Just then, ATC called them.

“Intermountain Four Four, Reagan Departure, do you, ah, do you have a visual on any traffic near you?”

“Departure, Intermountain Four Four, that’s an understatement! He’s about to, no, wait, he’s turning.” The aircraft had made an abrupt, sharp turn, and was now passing in front of them about two miles out. “Yes, he turned in front of us, we have him in sight.”

“Copy Intermountain, what kind of aircraft is he?”

Joe and Steve looked at each other.

“What kind of question is that? Why wouldn’t they know what kind of aircraft it is?” Steve asked. Joe shrugged.

“Don’t know unless he’s having comm and transponder problems. Remember, oh, two months ago when we lost our transponder going into Offutt and ended up with a fighter escort?”

Joe keyed the mic and answered ATC. “Reagan, he’s a seven five seven or seven six seven, American Airlines from his colors.”

Reagan Departure answered immediately with instructions that Joe had never heard in all of his years of flying. Okay Intermountain, could you, ah, turn and follow him?”

Joe and Steve, as well as Randy and Slam, all exchanged glances. “I have a bad feeling about this,” Slam stated.

Joe was already having a hard time keeping the airliner in sight as it sped away into the usual east coast haze. “Wow, he’s really moving! I can barely pick him out,” Steve said.

“Reagan, Intermountain, I’m after him, but I’ve almost lost him in the haze. He’s somewhere over close to the Potomac,” Joe called as he pushed the Hercules for a bit more speed.

“Aw Shit! Look at that!” Randy exclaimed. A huge fireball had blossomed somewhere near the river.

“Reagan, Intermountain, he’s impacted the ground.” Joe was so stunned; he was almost on automatic pilot as he took in the sight. He assumed the aircraft had some sort of emergency and was trying to make the airport. The fireball rose into the sky, giving testimony to the crash. He glanced at the clock on the panel. 0938 EDT

“Intermountain, did you say he impacted? Where?” The ATC controller sounded confused, and almost desperate.

“Somewhere close to the Potomac, let me get closer.”

They flew toward where a column of smoke had begun to rise over where the fireball had been. As they got closer, Joe began to have a sick feeling. He dared not believe what he thought he was seeing. As the visibility cleared, he heard Slam swear softly. Below, they could see the smoke rising from a blazing, ugly scar in the side of the Pentagon.

Joe had a brief thought, wondering if it could have been intentional. Then ATC called, asking if he could see exactly where the plane had crashed.

“Ah, yeah Reagan, he, ah, he impacted the west side of the Pentagon.”

There was silence a few seconds, and then, “Intermountain, did you say the Pentagon?”

“Affirmative, Reagan, the Pentagon. Do you want me to set up a low orbit around it and relay more information for the first responders?”

“Negative Intermountain, clear the area ASAP, the DC airspace is now closed, and all civil traffic is instructed to land at the nearest airport,” came the very terse reply.

“Copy that, Reagan, do we need to return to Andrews? We’re a DoD flight.” Joe answered as he steered the C-130 through the smoke plume. As he did, the thought came again about a terrorist attack, and he decided flying through the smoke plume probably wasn’t a really good idea. What if they’d had chemical weapons of some kind on board?

“Negative Intermountain, just get out of DC airspace, and contact Washington Center, they should be able to vector you in somewhere.” The controller sounded very tense.

“Okay Reagan, we’re outta here,” Joe replied as he pushed the throttles forward and began to climb up and away.

After a few moments, Steve spoke up. “Joe, what did we just see? Was that an accident?”

Before Joe could answer, Randy swore loudly. “No, that was no accident! That was intentional or my fur is blue!” 

“I agree sir,” Slam chimed in. Joe glanced back. The marine’s jaw was set, and his eyes held a fierce gleam. “That was the Corps’s section of the Pentagon they hit. I’m betting a bunch of Marines just died. Dammit, just like Beruit.”

Joe thought a second, and then contacted Washington Center.

“Washington, Intermountain Four Four is a civilian C-130 on a DoD flight out of Andrews for Duluth. Ah, we just vacated Washington Airspace, and they said you’d tell us where to set down.”

The controllers were very busy handling all the traffic as every non-military aircraft in the sky looked for a place to land. It was several seconds before Joe got a response.

“Ah, Copy Intermountain Four Four, just continue on your present heading for now. We’ll call you when we have a spot for you.”

Joe sighed, and looked over at his copilot. Steve shrugged and said, “On hold again, as usual.” The wolf had a troubled look on his face, and he was trying to lighten his thoughts a bit. Joe gave him a wry smirk, and then answered ATC.

“Intermountain Four Four.” The radio traffic was too heavy for him to have time to ask any questions, but as they droned on west northwestward, Joe got an idea.

“Randy, see if you can patch in an AM radio station. That should have the crash as breaking news on the talk radio shows.”

“Will do, Joe.” The skunk bent to the stack of radio equipment at the navigator’s position. After a few minutes, he humpfed and turned back to the front.

“Joe, I can usually pick up a couple of stations out of New York, but it’s all quiet now.”

Joe thought that was odd, too. “Well, keep trying around the band, I’m sure you’ll pick up something in a minute or two.”

“Aye sir,” Randy replied, unconsciously slipping back into marinespeak.

As they droned on, and they had a few minutes to think, the mood on the flight deck became decidedly somber.

“Dear Lord,” Joe prayed, silently he thought, “be with those who’ve died today, and with those they left behind, and with us as we deal with what we’ve seen. Amen.”

“Amen,” Steve said. Joe looked quickly to the side.

“You spoke that out loud,” the wolf said.

“Yes sir, we heard it too. Amen,” Slam piped in. Randy just kept working the radios and didn’t acknowledge that he’d heard.

Joe flew on, wondering what the news would have to say about the crash.

                                            #                                                                      #                                                                      #

Ice noted it was 0948 as he and Jedi banked in over the column of thick smoke that marked the gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon.

“Dang Ice, they snuck one past us! What did that, a cruise missile?” Jedi said incredulously.

“Negative, Jedi. I’d say the same thing that happened in New York.”

“I guess so. Fur, was I wrong earlier.”

“Don’t sweat it.”

Just then NEADS called them. “Alpha One, Skywatcher. We have a tanker for you northeast of the DC area. Take up a heading of three two five and pick them up at twelve thousand. There are fighters coming up out of Andrews to cover.”

“Copy Skywatcher, much appreciated,” Ice replied as he scanned with his radar. The ATC folks had done a phenomenal job of clearing the airspace around the city in short order, leaving any unknowns easy to spot.

“Let’s go fill up, Jedi.”

“Right with you.” 

They turned away from the devastated building and flew out toward northern West Virginia to meet up with their tanker. Their fuel wasn’t critical, but Ice wanted full tanks in case he needed to do another speed run.

Just as they had made radio contact with the tanker, NEADS called again.

“Alpha One, Skywatcher, do you have fuel to make a run up to southwestern Pennsylvania?”

Ice looked and did a quick calculation. “Yes Skywatcher, if the tanker will follow behind and we can refuel not too long after.”

“Copy that, then come to heading Three One Five and get some altitude. We have another airliner that’s reported as hijacked, and a possible bomb onboard. Getting reports that some of the passengers are calling in from cell phones.”

Ice paused a second as he and Jedi adjusted their course and began to climb. “On our way Skywatcher. Uh, are we ordered to fire if it is a hijack?”

“Negative, Ice, just follow and report the tail number. CO says the shoot/don’t shoot decision will be made if the aircraft gets within fifteen flying time of DC or any other high-value target. Also, there’s still a lot of traffic in the air up that way.”

“Copy that, Skywatcher.”

They flew northwest amidst an evermore crowded sky. Ice could well understand why they wanted to verify the identity of the aircraft before any action was taken. He wished he didn’t have to get that close. If he were spotted by the hijackers, they might panic and blow up the plane before anything could be tried to talk them down. And if he saw a passenger looking at him, especially a young kit or cub or pup. . . well, he didn’t want to think about that.

In a few minutes, Skywatcher had vectored them on to what they thought was the hijacked aircraft.

“Okay Alpha One, the suspect flight is United Flight 93. It’s a Seven Five Seven, with tail number November Five Niner One Uniform Alpha. We show him five miles at your eight and well below you. His transponder is off.”

Ice checked his radar and highlighted the target at that range and bearing. “Okay Skywatcher, I have him on radar, we’ll swing around behind him and come in for a look.”

Skywatcher copies.”

“Ice,” Jedi called on the ship-to-ship, “go in carefully, remember the tip vortex.”

“Got it, thanks.”

Ice came around, Jedi right on his wing, and in under a minute the large airliner with its gray, blue and red markings loomed out of the haze. Jedi remained about a half-mile in trail as Ice eased up on the airliner from behind and above to avoid both being seen and the larger planes’ wingtip vortices. The aircraft was flying down at around six thousand feet, and Ice had no problem getting close enough to confirm its identity. He could see the number, N591UA, clearly on the fuselage just in front of the rear door. He backed off to a half-mile with Jedi and made the call.

Skywatcher, Alpha One, I have him. N number is November Five Niner One Uniform Alpha. He’s flying straight and level at six thousand.”

“Copy that Alpha. Lock on to him and await further orders.”

Ice took a deep breath. He knew that, if this aircraft was deemed a threat, eventually the order would come. He watched it flying, apparently serenely, on its way toward Washington. What was the hijacker’s target, he wondered? The Capitol? The White House? He’d seen on the morning news that the President was out of town. Was there a way, any way, of getting the plane down intact? If he fired a sidewinder, it would trash an engine, cause some other damage, but maybe the hijackers would react instinctively and put the plane down in a crash landing. Then he thought of the images he’d seen that morning on the television, just before they’d scrambled.

“Yeah Ice, and maybe pigs will grow wings and fly to the sausage factory,” he muttered to himself as he designated the airliner’s port engine as the target. The tone in his earphones confirmed lock-on as his HUD displayed the targeting data.

“What was that, Ice?” Jedi asked. Ice hadn’t realized his musing had gone out over the ship-to-ship. 

“Ah, nothing. Hey, keep an eye out for any other traffic close by. If I have to shoot, I don’t want the bird getting confused.”

“You got it.”

“Alpha One, Skywatcher. Ice, CO says the shoot/no shoot decision point is over the Cumberland Valley. You have about ten minutes.”

    “Skywatcher, Alpha One, has the President ah, has it been authorized?” Ice replied, dreading the answer.

“The word is coming through now. No, wait one.”

Ice tried to clear his mind and think of the airliner centered in his HUD as only a target. It didn’t do much good. A minute later NEADS was back.

“Ice, FAA says they’ve had word that the passengers may try to retake that plane. Stay sharp and be ready to come up on the radio to help. Talk to them, help them fly it down if they do.”

A surge of hope shot through Ice, and he heard Jedi say a quiet “All right!”

“All right, Skywatcher, We’ll stand down and—.”

“Negative Alpha, stay locked on. Unless we have positive proof of that happening, CO says we shoot at Cumberland or at first chance once we receive clearance.”

Ice watched the airliner in his sights for a few seconds as it flew steadily on, feeling resigned to what he would have to do, if the passengers failed in their attempt. He knew that when authorization from up the chain came, he would do his duty. He didn’t have to like it, though. The fact that there was no other option would not change the outcome for those caught up in the hijacker’s plot.

“Then I pray for those aboard.” he said quietly.

“Amen,” echoed Jedi.

Ice maintained position behind the Boeing, the lock-on tone steady in his earphones, dreading the order he knew would come soon. Jedi was on his wing, watching out for other aircraft. There were several in the area, all up above ten thousand feet, so they wouldn’t cause any problems in targeting.

“Ah, clear to fire when it’s time, Ice. No potential conflicts with the target.”

“Thanks, Jedi.”

Suddenly, the big airliner began to rock its wings back and forth, banking sharply. Ice stayed with the aircraft, keeping the lock on.

“Ice, did they spot us? Are they trying to shake us?” Jedi asked.

“No, I think the passenger’s plan is having an effect. The hijacker is trying to stop them.” He then called NEADS. “Skywatcher, Alpha, the target has started violently banking back and forth. I believe the passengers have started their attempt.”

“Stay with them, Alpha.” The controller replied. The big Boeing stopped it wild swings for a second, and then began to pitch rapidly up and down as the hijacker tried another tactic. Ice reported this change too.

“Okay Alpha stay with them. You have five minutes until decision point.”

“Copy Skywatcher, I- Oh Crap!”

Ice watched in horror as the 757 suddenly rolled over onto its back and began a rapid descent.

“Alpha One, report . . . Ice?” Skywatcher called.

Skywatcher, he just rolled, he’s on his back and going down.” Ice called as he and Jedi followed the airliner’s dive.

“Alpha, does, ah, does it look recoverable?” the controller asked.

“If they roll back over now, they, ah, negative. They just pulled in steeper, they’re gonna hit.”

The aircraft impacted nose down and exploded in a massive fireball. Ice and Jedi felt the shock wave buffet them. The all-too-familiar column of thick, black smoke began to rise skyward. They pulled up and made a tight circle around the impact point.

“Okay Skywatcher ,they’re down. No chance of any survivors.” Ice had gone from horrified to the stone cold calm he was famous for. Now it was mostly a defense mechanism at having just seen an airliner with probably over a hundred furs on it cease to exist in one blinding flash. Jedi was saying a prayer low over the ship to ship, thanking God for the courage of the passengers. Ice said “Amen.”

“Alpha One, Skywatcher copies. Get out of there and go meet the tanker.”

“On our way, Skywatcher.” Ice answered after a second. “Let’s go Jedi,” he called on the ship-to-ship.

As they pushed the throttles forward and pulled away from the site of the crash, Ice said his own prayer of thanks. He hadn’t had to fire, and the end for those in the airliner had been very, very quick. He also asked again, “How many more?”

                                           #                                                                       #                                                                      #

“Okay Cleveland Center, Intermountain Four Four,” Joe acknowledged. They had just been told for the tenth time by an ATC entity to stand by for a landing spot. The mood in the cockpit had gone from somber to angry as Randy had found a radio station detailing the events of the morning. Now it was more just concerned and wanting to get home. Joe thought of Annie and their pups and wondered how long it would be before he’d make it home. It was just coming up on 1000 local, and news of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon now filled every minute of every station. They were over south central Pennsylvania and still flying west. If they went much further, Joe was going to push to be allowed on to Duluth.

“I think I’m gonna hole up wherever we land and get as drunk as I can,” Randy said out of nowhere. Joe shrugged. Since Randy was single and had no family to get home to, it was probably as good a plan as any to put the image of that fireball out of his mind. His loadmaster had never professed any kind of religious faith, and Joe wondered if there was anything he could say to console the young skunk.

“I just want to get home to Molly,” Steve said with a slight sigh. They were all angry and heartsick, and he just wanted to hold his lady skunk tight for a while.

“I don’t imagine I’ll have much time for anything after I land. We’re bound to go after whoever did this, and the Corps will be right at the forefront,” Slam mused. The rest nodded.

As Joe looked out his port windows as part of his normal traffic scan, he saw a roiling cloud of black smoke rising skyward from a field. The smoke continued to rise and he saw a huge crater under it as the Bitch flew closer.

Aww hell, I hope that’s a tire fire,” Joe said. As the others looked at him, he pointed below. Even from the altitude of twelve thousand feet that they were flying at, they could see scattered very small pieces of wreckage strewn about around the hole.

“Uh, Cleveland, Intermountain Four Four, we’re seeing, black smoke rising just south of our line of flight, just over near, ah, Stony Creek.” Joe made the call as Steve pointed the name out on the sectional.

“Okay Intermountain, thanks. We, ah, we just lost an aircraft off the scope there.”

“Intermountain Four Four.” Joe acknowledged. He again noted the time. 1005 local.  Joe then spotted two military jets. F-15s by the look of them, he thought. They were climbing up and away, and he doubted that they’d seen him through the haze. Could they have shot the plane down? The four furs looked at each other, and then Joe called ATC again.

Cleveland Center, Intermountain Four Four. Request direct to Columbus International. We’re going home.”

“Intermountain Four Four, copy request direct to Columbus. Ah, okay, we have a slot to get you in there, no waiting.”

“Finally some good luck,” Steve said. Just then they all heard a small ‘pop’ and the number three CRT went blank.

The others all groaned, but Joe just shrugged a bit. “At’s my girl.”

They flew on toward central Ohio, silent as they tried to comprehend what they’d seen.

                                           #                                                                       #                                                                      #

It was well past 1600 as Billy took a few moments to gather his thoughts. He thought about shutting off the television, but he feared they would miss something important if he did. The images of the planes crashing into the World Trade center were replayed ad nauseum. They’d even managed to find a tape from a film crew in the streets below of the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, screaming in low overhead and crashing into the building. The scene of fascinated horror as first one, and then the other towers collapsed in fire and a massive cloud of debris and dust, had also been shown over and over. The sound was up just enough to hear.

“For central News, I’m Kevin Bruinaw.” A large brown bear had taken over the anchor desk at noon. “In what officials are calling the deadliest surprise attack ever launched against the U.S., official are saying that the death toll could reach well over ten thousand. All civilian air traffic has been grounded until further notice, and fire officials in both New York and Washington will not say how soon the fires that are burning …”

Billy turned away. He’d heard it all already a dozen times. The President had finally come on a little while ago, making a statement from a secure location at Offutt AFB. Everything still seemed very confused to Billy. At least the volume of phone calls had slowed down.  He still had a crew in Atlanta. They couldn’t find a rental car, so Billy had sent them to a hotel for the night.

Loni and Duncan had taken a break, and were sitting over in the corner, holding paws and quietly consoling each other. Len was looking out the window, lost in thought. Jackie was stretching and sipping coffee at her desk. Suddenly Billy’s cell phone rang.

“Billy Panelli.”

“Hello Dad, it’s Rusty.”

Billy had to sit down. He’d been secretly worried sick about his son, even after the news had said that none of the hijacked flights had originated in Baltimore.

“Son, it is so good to hear your voice. Where are you?”

“We landed in Cleveland. I’m in a hotel here. We were one of the first flights in, so there were still rooms available. I was gonna rent a car, but I wasn’t sure how things would go. Rumor is they might close the interstates so the terrorists can’t hijack a tanker truck or something.”

Billy almost laughed, until he realized that in the current climate, that could really happen. “Are you going to try to head home tomorrow, then?”

“Probably. I called Callie a little bit ago to make sure she knew I was all right. She and the kids are fine.”

“Good.  Uh, son? I love you. I was really worried.” Billy was subdued as he said this, quite the opposite of his usual, boisterous self.

“I know Dad. When we heard about what happened, we were all a bit scared, but otherwise I’m fine. I love you too. Now, I think I’ll see if I can find a bite to eat. Been a long time since breakfast.” Rusty’s stomach had just growled at him again.

Billy laughed, realizing that he and his crew had worked right through lunch. His stomach was growling, too.

“All right son. Call me at home later.”

“Okay. Tell Mom I love her. Bye.”

“Will do. Bye Son.” Billy clicked off and let his shoulders sag in relief. In a second, he’d call Penny, and maybe they’d go out and eat when he got home, but for now he just relaxed. Things would be tough for the next while, but he knew now things would work out for him, his family, and his business.

For the country though, things would never, ever be the same.

                                           #                                                                      #                                                                      #

Ice was so tired he could barely eat. After refueling, he and Jedi had stayed on CAP over Washington for several hours. They were replaced by another crew for the night, but in the morning they had to go back on alert. As jumpy as everyone was now, he anticipated several alert launches in the coming days. Even with all the civil traffic grounded, he was sure they’d end up scrambling after some errant military aircraft or other.

“Ice, you okay?” Jedi asked. The spotted feline sat across from him as they ate supper in the base Officer’s club. Their two crew chiefs had been waiting to take their aircraft and begin to get them ready to go back on alert, and then get some rest, also.

“Hmm? Oh, yes, I’m fine. Just tired.”

“Uh huh. Wanna talk about it?”

Ice focused on his wingfur. “Talk about what?”

Jedi sighed. He liked his leader, but the stubborn tiger rarely opened up if anything was troubling him. Jedi had learned, though, that when Ice was silent and staring off into space, that he was either mulling over a problem or troubled by something.

“Talk about what happened today. I guess since General Higgins told us not to talk to anyone about it but Air Force investigators, we’re the only ones we can talk to.” Jedi was working at just trying to sort out what had happened, and when. The enormity of it was nearly overwhelming.

“What happened today. We launched on an alert, flew for several hours, and did our jobs the best we could.” Ice’s tone was matter-of-fact, but Jedi could see there was more going on in the tiger’s head than he let on.

“You know what I mean. We saw an airliner crash right in front of us. Almost had to shoot it down. We saw planes full of furs crash into buildings full of furs. We went from an easy day at peace, to getting ready for a war, when they find out who’s responsible for this. That’s gotta bother you in some way. I know it bothers the heck out of me.”

“Chicken’s good tonight,” Ice commented. Jedi just shook his head and continued eating. Maybe, over the next several days on alert, the tiger would make his thoughts on the day known.

Ice kept his own council, wishing to have a more solid handle on the day’s events before he spoke much about them. Right now, he just felt numb. Despite having thought about the possibility of this type of attack, when it came down to it, there was little the Air Force had been able to do. By the time they’d gotten the word on what was happening and reacted, the damage was done. He knew one thing. He’d be seeing that airliner roll over and dive into the ground in his nightmares for a long time to come. He’d heard on the news reports after they got back that the plane had been only about a third full, with 44 passengers and crew in all including four hijackers. It was cold comfort. He was sure he’d feel the same if it had been a Cessna with only one soul on board.

What was bothering him most was the fact that, if it had come to it, he was certain he would have fired. He wasn’t sure if he liked what that made him. He was no robotic, cold-blooded killer, ready to destroy a planeload of furs without a second thought if the order came. The fact that he was questioning himself proved that. But he was certain he would have followed orders, if it had come to it, and sent the plane and its occupants to a fiery death in order to save a much higher number of lives. In fact, the orders to shoot down any aircraft that failed to respond to ATC or the fighter’s calls had come over a half-hour later, and then it had been a call of “Alpha One, you are now weapons free,” followed by an authentication code. That meant they were free to engage and fire at Ice’s discretion. Fortunately, no other aircraft presented a threat.

“Sometimes logic really sucks,” he thought to himself.

As he and Jedi finished their meal and got ready to head for their quarters, Ice was certain it was a conversation he’d have with himself many more times in the next few weeks.

                                           #                                                                      #                                                                      #

“Another round here,” Matt Barstock called as a waitress passed by their table. She nodded that she’d heard and moved off toward the bar. Joe, Steve, and Randy sat around a table in the airport lounge. Their Labrador/golden retriever boss was getting their story of the day’s events. Slam Whiteline had left to report in as soon as they’d landed. The Bitch now sat on the tarmac outside Intermountain’s hangar, her cargo still aboard.

“So, you’re telling me you guys saw both those planes go in?” asked Matt.

“Well,” Steve answered, “we saw the fireball when the one hit the Pentagon. The one in Pennsylvania, we only saw the smoke and the crater and fire in a field as we flew past. Cleveland Center said they’d just lost one on radar there, so I guess he’d just gone in.”

“So, you didn’t see the crash, and you didn’t see those fighters you told me about fire on the airliner, right?” Matt was concerned that Intermountain might be blamed if a story got around that the plane was shot down. There was speculation on the news, but the word so far was that Flight 93 had crashed, probably intentionally, as the passengers tried to take the aircraft back from its hijackers.

“No Matt, we didn’t see them shoot. It looked to me like they had made a circle around the crash sight and were outbound from there.” Joe took a deep breath. They’d repeated the story at least three times for their boss, and his response had come out harsher than he’d intended.

Matt sat back, satisfied that the two pilot’s stories matched. He turned to Randy, who had been silently drinking through the whole conversation. Just then the waitress returned with another round of beers. Matt paid her for them, and she went on about her job. After she was gone, he turned back to Randy.

“What about you, kid? You have anything to say about it all?”

The skunk turned slightly glassy eyes on his boss. “No. Haven’t drunk enough yet.” His words were just beginning to slur a bit, even though he’d been pouring and downing shots of bourbon from the bottle he’d ordered at a prodigious rate.

“Uh huh. Okay, who’s making sure our newest employee gets home all right?” Matt had a slight grin on his muzzle. Steve and Joe looked at each other, then at Matt.

“We’re both staying here at the airport, I guess. All the hotels were full by the time we got in. We’ll take him over and put him in a cot where we’re at,” Joe stated. Intermountain’s hangar had a side room along the back wall that was used as an emergency bunk room for the pilots who flew in from elsewhere to start their charter flights.

“Sounds good enough for tonight. Everything’s grounded, probably for at least a couple of days. I’d be having a fit if I hadn’t already contacted some of the government agencies we fly for and made them pick up the cost of us being down.”

“Matt, in a way I think it’s a good thing. I know I’m not to sure about what’s happened today, and with what we saw, I don’t think I’d have my full attention on flying. Probably be jumpy as a kaht.” Steve looked tired, and would probably soon go call Molly again and then try to sleep. He’d called to let her know he was all right as soon as they’d landed, but that call had been rushed. He and his lady shared a home in Kansas City, and he knew it would be a while before he got back home.

Joe had a call to make, too. His call to Annie had been brief, as well, and he wanted to hear her voice at length, and talk to his two pups before they went to bed. The time at his home in Denver was two hours earlier than the local time in Columbus, but he didn’t want to wait too late. He was pretty sure, even though he felt exhausted, that sleep wouldn’t come easy. “Yeah, I think that’s probably true of a lot of us right now. I’d hate to be an airline pilot when they first go back to flying. I’d probably be ready to jump someone anytime the cockpit door was opened.”

Helluva way to go,” Matt mused. The others, even Randy, looked his way. “To have your aircraft taken, and have to sit there as they flew it into a building, or be attacked, and have your dying thought be that you couldn’t keep your passengers safe. I don’t think the big iron drivers will ever be the same again.”

The other’s nodded. After a few moments of silence, Matt held his beer up.

Gentlefurs, to those who were lost today, and to brave passengers.”

The others clanked their bottles, and Randy’s shot glass, together, and took a drink. They all lapsed in to silence for a few more moments, and Matt decided it was time to call it a night.

“Okay guys, I’ll be in early, so I’ll see you in the morning.” He drained his beer and stood to leave. He’d take a taxi home, and call one to come get him in the morning.

G’Nite, bosch,” Randy said as he got unsteadily to his feet. Joe and Steve also stood and quickly steadied him before he fell. The skunk grabbed the bottle of bourbon, now well over half empty, and tried to get underway. Joe and Steve held on to his arms and began to steer him toward the doors.

G’Nite, Matt. See you in the morning,” Joe called. Steve just waved.

“One things for sure,” Joe thought, “things will never be the same again, for us, and the country.”

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“Alpha One, you are authorized to fire. Take ‘em down.” Ice heard in his earphones.

“Acknowledged, Skywatcher,” he answered in a strange, metallic voice. He looked down at his paw on the stick. Metal fingers, with long thin actuator rods, held the F-15 absolutely steady. In the HUD, a huge, beautiful swan with the wingspan of a Boeing airliner soared serenely on, apparently oblivious to him. On each of its wings, a pylon held a jet engine.

“Fox one,” Ice announce in that odd, unemotional voice as he pressed the firing stud. A sidewinder detached from his port wing and flew steady and sure into the engine on the swan’s wing. It exploded, sending fire and pieces of metal in all directions. The swan screeched in agony as its wing folded up and blood splattered its silvery white feathers.  Ice followed its death spiral as it fell into a smoking, bloody heap on the ground. It then burst into flames.

As the smoke began to rise from the dead bird, Ice pulled up and circled away. “Skywatcher, target is destroyed,” he called, with absolutely no emotion.

Suddenly a voice sounded in his ear. “Ice! How appropriate for such a fine little robot. Where is your heart, tin fur?” The voice sounded familiar.

“Processing . . . Jedi?” Why would his wingfur be speaking in such a tone. After all, he was only following orders. He looked down. Instead of his fur and stripes, a cylindrical metal barrel greeted his gaze. In the center of it was a large, heart-shaped hole.

Alex sat straight up in bed, feeling for the bedside light. Turning it on, he looked down himself. The same fur and stripes he’d always had was what he saw.

Wheeew,” he exhaled. It had been a nightmare. He was in his bed at the VOQ. He and Jedi had driven over to the BOQ and small-talked a bit, and then Ice had come to the Visiting Officer’s Quarters and got a room. Since he’d been on alert, he hadn’t needed to have anyplace to stay during the last week of his two-week annual reserve duty. Now, Scatcat had told him he’d been activated for at least an additional two weeks. Tomorrow morning he’d go back on alert, but if he was going to be there that long, he’d need a room.

When he’d gotten there, he’d spent a while thinking, and praying. Again, he was certain he was no robot, that he considered his orders and instructions carefully before blindly following them. What was this nightmare then? A warning maybe? Not to let himself become one, as the nation prepared to strike back at those who had done the things he’d seen today?

In the quiet of the room, he could almost hear a soft “yes” as his heart confirmed the thought. He shook his head slightly.

Ol’ tiger, I do think you need to get some rest, before they send you off to the shrink.” But as he turned out the light and turned over to go back to sleep, he had a relived smile on his muzzle.

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Epilogue

Airline travel, long considered one of the safest ways to travel, was brought to a halt on 9-11. It would be weeks and months, as new security measures were put into effect, before it returned to anything close to normal. The pilots and air traffic controllers that day did an outstanding job of not making the tragedy worse, getting every non-military aircraft in the sky over the United States safely on the ground in short order after the hijackings and crashes. The military, caught off-guard, reacted quickly and had the Washington and New York airspace secured within a short time of them being notified. The scenario presented here is fictitious, but is accurate to the actual timeline of that day. Had Flight 93’s passengers not taken their brave actions, the order to shoot them down might not have made it down to the interceptor pilots before the plane found its target.

As for the story, Ice ended up having to remain on active duty for over a month, standing alert or flying CAP over one of the cities of the east coast. Jedi too. The events still haunt both pilot’s dreams from time to time. After they got back in the air, Kentiger really boomed as their customers didn’t have to wait in security lines. Billy insisted that everything carried onto the plane be checked, though.  The crew at Intermountain got their cargo to Duluth three days later, and then finally made it home to their loved ones. As the war on terror heated up, the Bitch found herself very busy doing what she does best. Hauling cargo and bringing her crew home safe, despite a few hiccups along the way. In general, after a time when the nation mourned, so-called normalcy returned.

But now, underlying every aircraft accident, every train crash, every industrial fire or explosion and every unusual outbreak of a disease, there’s always the question.

Did we just get hit again?

THE END

 

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