Forward Air Base, Task Force Two
Long ago, Major Hector Mendoza’s first flight instructor told him
that the hardest part of battle was waiting for it to happen. In his youth,
that was especially true; Mendoza was always driven, determined to
accomplish whatever was required to get whatever he desired. This drive
had carried him well through his military career, fast-tracking him to
major five years ahead of his peers. Combined with his natural skills
and instincts (his superiors called him a “hot stick”), Mendoza was
confident bordering on arrogant and aggressive in the sky. In short, he
was a perfect combat pilot. He relished the time he spent in his plane;
merging his mind with a powerful craft was intoxicating, to say the least.
And yet, despite the awesome destructive forces at his command, when
he was gliding among the clouds, he never felt more at peace. With over
fifty combat missions completed without so much as a scratch on his
craft, Major Mendoza felt completely invincible.
At least, until the demons visited his home city of Cali.
Mendoza clenched the small sun coin in his hand once again,
focusing his will to keep his mind clear and focused. Since command
started the operation, Mendoza and his squadron had been placed on
high alert. His squadron’s twelve-hour rotation was almost complete,
and soon another would take their place as the alert-ready aircraft.
But until he was relieved, he had to be ready for the call. So he sat in
the cockpit of his fighter with his rigger cocoon open, the day’s heat
washing over him despite the thermal insulation of his aircraft’s shelter.
The rest of his squadron was in the pilots’ ready room; making good
use of the air conditioning. Mendoza preferred to wait in his craft for
the order to launch. He was a native Aztlaner, and all his life he’d
embraced the heat of the beloved sun.
With a mental command, he accessed the chrono in his com-
mlink; less than twenty minutes before the alert shift was over.
Mendoza squeezed his coin again, hard enough to leave an indentation
despite his heavy flight glove. He wanted the scramble order to come so
that he could be one of the first to respond, the first to enact righteous
vengeance. Mendoza opened his palm and stared at the dull yellow coin.
It wasn’t worth anything, except to Mendoza. His son Roberto
purchased the once-bright coin with the gaudy cartoonish sun when
their family visited Tenochtitlán four years ago. It was a cheap trinket
meant for tourists, but Roberto knew how devoted his father was to
the path of the sun and wanted Mendoza to have it. The coin remained
forgotten in a pocket for years until he found it again after Cali. It was
the only thing he had to remind him of his family. Mendoza squeezed
the coin yet again, trying to focus, but his will failed him, that fateful
day coming back in excruciating detail.
His squadron was one of the first to arrive in the skies over Cali,
and nothing had prepared him for what he witnessed. Demons on
leathery wings soared in the sky, raining death onto his city below. On
the ground, monsters advanced like a rising tide, slow and unstoppable.
Like any good solider he charged in, the afterburners of his Zeta-Bravo
fighter spitting trails of hellfire behind him as he desperately tried to
defend his people from the advancing threat.
But all his training, all of his experience, and all of his raw
determination meant nothing. His weapons refused to lock onto the
dragons, and when he overrode the launch protocols to dummy-fire
his missiles, his adversaries simply dodged out of the way. Still he fired
and fired, letting everything loose until his weapon bays were dry. This
must have amused the beasts, who swooped past and looped around
him and his wing mates, toying with the Aztlan fighters. Before
long the dragons grew bored and started tearing the wings off the
fighters. Mendoza lasted longer than most, and managed to kill one
who ventured to close to his fighter’s rear. The flames from Mendoza’s
afterburner removed the creature’s face and head like a blowtorch on
butter. He had tried to engage another after that, but the recall order
was given. Enraged, Mendoza refused to retreat and aimed his craft at
the biggest demon of all. But before he could complete his suicide run,
Mendoza’s commander overrode the fighter’s controls.
Mendoza watched through the rear sensors as his city, his home,
his family, was destroyed in one final blue flash.
When he had arrived back at his base hours later, Mendoza
was promptly escorted to a holding cell, where he languished for two
days. Convinced that he was to be court-martialed for refusing to
obey orders, perhaps executed for failing at Cali, Mendoza wasn’t
surprised when he was taken to an interrogation room. There, a man
in an Aztlan uniform bearing a Military Intelligence insignia and a
man in a well-cut business suit were waiting. Mendoza’s fears were
almost confirmed when the Intelligence officer told Mendoza that he
was now officially a dead man. The man in the suit passed a com-
mlink with a data packet on it, which Mendoza took, thinking they
meant for him to sign a confession. Instead, the packet contained a
new identity, a benefits package for a new employee of Aztechnology,
and new orders.
That was over two years ago. Since then, Mendoza and many
more began training for a special mission: this mission. They were given
the most bleeding-edge equipment Aztlan and Aztechnology had to
offer. Mendoza’s own craft came straight from the R and D labs and
had no real designation other than Bloodwing. Sleek, black, and deadly,
with its unique variable-geometric wing surfaces and unique vectored
thrusters, it could outperform anything he had flown before, including
his old Zeta-Bravo. There were also other aircraft, ones that could
control an entire squadron of drones by themselves. The drones they
controlled were also unlike anything Mendoza had ever seen. There
were other craft stationed at other forward bases, strange ones that
were the same design as his but somehow integrated magic into their
systems. Mendoza wasn’t sure what to think of that, but it wasn’t
his place to think. He had his orders, had his weapon. One thing all of
these craft had in common: every single one of them was armed with
weapons designed to achieve the revenge he—and everyone around
Coming back to the present, Mendoza let out a huff of satisfac-
tion as he thought of the special ordnance in his weapon bays. He gave
his coin a soft kiss before pocketing it. He checked his chrono again;
only four minutes before his shift was up. Frustration started to creep
into his mind, but he resigned himself. If the gods willed it, he would
be at the tip of the spear. If not, he would just have to trust that he
would be part of some other master plan.
With three minutes and fifty seconds to go in his rotation, AR
tags lit up Mendoza’s field of vision as alarms blared all over the base.
The order was given: all pilots SCRAMBLE. Pilots and aircrews rushed
to their respective craft as techs moved into position. Mendoza gave
silent thanks to the gods as he slid down into his cockpit and closed his
eyes. The VR immersion systems came online instantly as his rigger
cocoon sealed. In less than a heartbeat, he was one with his craft. Its
sensors were now his eyes and ears; the power of its engines was his
heartbeat. Already craft status indicators were filling his VR heads-
up display indicating all systems were green. With a mental command,
Mendoza checked all control surfaces. In his virtual vision, he could
see the ground crew visually verifying the test. With a thumbs-up
from the crew chief, Mendoza blinked the running lights three times
to indicate his own thumbs up.
“Avenger Two-Zero-Zero, ready for taxi,” Mendoza signaled to the
With an acknowledgement, Mendoza watched as an unneces-
sary AR overlay indicated which runway to proceed toward; he knew
the base by heart for just this moment. As the engines powered up,
Mendoza felt a rush of adrenaline as his craft made its way down the
runway. By the time Mendoza reached takeoff position, his wingman,
Lieutenant Perez, was also pulling into position to his right. With both
craft properly positioned, they heard the order to take off.
Mendoza took a deep breath as he mentally applied throttle
and brought his engines to full military power. With Perez on his
wing, both craft roared down the runway and into the sky. Once
airborne, Mendoza checked his tacnet. Coordinates filled his eyes, in-
dicating course, speed, direction, and time to target. With practiced
ease, Mendoza and his Avengers formed up at their predetermined
rendezvous, turned toward their target, and applied full afterburn-
ers. According to information from the combat flight controllers, their
target had finally decided to make good on his promise to destroy
Tenochtitlán. Mendoza smiled; they would intercept him long before
then. Fifty kilometers from Acapulco if his estimates were correct.
“Avenger Two-Zero-Zero to group, come to ten thousand feet
and maintain current speed. On my order, initiate attack plan Alpha.
Leads go for good shots only and wings watch their backs, especially
for more bandits. Everyone watch your exit vectors; don’t let those idiot
drone-jockeys box you in. Let them absorb the damage!” A chorus of
acknowledgements came over his comm, but Mendoza was already
thinking ahead. At present course and speed, they would intercept the
target in approximately fifty-one seconds.
As the seconds and the kilometers ticked away; Mendoza
watched as his long-range radar and sensors synched up with or-
bital assets and painted his target. Mendoza came in on the target’s
three-o’-clock side, high, and for a moment it seemed the enemy was
unaware of their presence. Mendoza held his breath as his weapons
systems worked to gain a solid lock, but just before they could, the
target stopped suddenly and turned ninety degrees—directly toward
Cursing to himself, Mendoza shouted out orders: “All Avengers;
break and engage at will, repeat: engage at will!”
The Aztlan flyers broke neatly into pairs, trying to scatter and
force the target to choose a direction so the rest could turn and engage.
But before the maneuver was completed, the target was among them.
Screams and pleas from the doomed pilots echoed across the tacnet as
the target tore into them with tooth and claw, or blasted them with
Mendoza continued his bank and saw through the tacnet that
two-thirds of his squadron were already gone. Twenty seconds in and
the engagement had already degraded into a chaotic dogfight. Kicking
his engines to full, Mendoza went vertical and inverted into a dive back
towards the engagement zone. With his nose pointed directly at the
target as he dove, Mendoza held his breath as his sensors tried to lock
on to the target. Just as the Bloodwing’s targeting system registered
a weapons lock, the target looked directly above, right into Mendoza’s
eyes. Mendoza snarled as Sirrurg arched his back and surged up-
wards towards him, his mouth full of dagger teeth opened wide.
“That’s right! Come on! Come ON! COME ON!” Mendoza bel-
lowed as his missile fired.