They got him at 90 000 feet.
They were almost at the edge of space – the fighters were barely responsive at this altitude, in the air too thin to provide much resistance to control surfaces. Both pilots knew that neither the speed nor the altitude were sustainable, but all they had to do was get a lock for the missiles and fire them – then they could try to descend safely.
The contrail was just a suggestion, but no matter – the interceptors had this strange target on their own radars now. There was a flash, and the leading plane spawned two barely visible smoke trails. A split second later the wingman heard the warbling tone – his own missiles got the lock. Push of a button and they were off.
– This is Acorn Leader, missiles are away.
Both planes dived, back to safer altitudes, back to thicker air. In the distance, an explosion bloomed.
– Starlight, this is Acorn Leader, he’s hit.
– Bang up job, Acorn. Descend to FL 700 and… – the ground controller’s voice trailed off.
– Acorn, descend and standby.
A few moments of silence, then –
– Acorn Leader, your new heading is 187, flight level 700, move in to the target and inspect the damage.
They turned, both pilots scanning the skies.
There it was – a smoke trail. The target was still airworthy, if only barely. It was most definitely hit, losing altitude and no longer moving at ludicrous speed. Closing in wasn’t hard now, but the flight leader was wary: if its defensive armament was on par with performance, they could be in for a nasty surprise.
– Starlight, this is Acorn Leader, I have visual on the target. It’s a – a plane of model unknown to me, painted in what resembles an anti-flash white scheme. It resembles an elongated triangle, with wings barely present. I see no cockpit nor windows. The damage is visible on the front of a left, uh, winglet? It seems to have lost most of its thrust and is losing altitude fast. It might make it to Shetlands, but just barely.
– Roger that. Acorn, can any of you make out any markings?
– Standby Starlight. Yes, there seems to be something on the tail fin, it’s…
There was a long silence.
– Starlight, this is Acorn Leader. I can see the markings on the craft.
– Understood. Acorn, the vector to your tanker is 273…
– Starlight, about these markings, it has –
– We understand, Acorn Two. The vector to your tanker is 273, flight level 420. Get to it or you’re both swimming home.
– Roger that, Starlight.
Both interceptors changed course again, speeding to meet the fuel-heavy Victor again.
Behind them, the mortally wounded plane was fighting for altitude, the swastika on its tail fin barely visible.