Even as the aircraft still aboard Admiral Masorin and Eden rapidly evacuated into the air to escape the blast, every allied radar system was tracking the incoming barrage of missiles. The slower-moving tactical missiles could be intercepted by aircraft and a lucky SAM shot, but the allied ground troops relied on the aerial power to cover them. The ships would also generally face more targets than they had countermeasures.
'How many are yet to evacuate?' Captain Gennadi asked the flight controller on the bridge of Masorin.
'Six more, sir.'
'And how long until the missile hits?' he said to the radar operator.
'It's travelling slowly for an ICBM. Old Dollet design from back when a SAM worked with heat. Series 2 Paixfabricant, top speed twelve hundred kilometres an hour. Been in the air thirty seconds, so five until it starts coming back down, eight until impact,' he reported, not betraying his fear.
'A little too soon for my liking.'
'Well, sir, if it flew straight like the tactical missiles, it'd be here in three. Luckily, Dollet modified them to go up high to evade SAM's.'
'Can we stop it?'
'Our SAM's can only start tracking at forty up. They'll reach it at twenty. If they miss, very likely because they're programmed for slower targets, it's here in forty five seconds and airbursts.'
'So the only real choice is to get away from the edge of the blast radius and hope it's far enough.'
To intercept a fast moving object, you must get in front of it, or be faster. Only one thing the allies had was faster. Ragnarok. It was five times faster than the missile, being a spaceflight-capable vehicle.
'Ragnarok, be advised, Garden is under missile threat, please evacuate the airspace. You should be receiving advised co-ordinates now.'
The navigator read them out loud, causing the pilot to question them immediately.
'Garden, those co-ordinates are over ten miles from Garden. What sort of missile threat is this?'
'Amanver has fired a possibly nuclear weapon at Garden.'
There was no reply. The pilot spoke after a moment of silence.
'Garden, are you tracking the weapon?'
'Feed us your tracking data,' he said simply, and then spoke to the other three men.
'Guys, I need a decision. We can stop the missile, but I think our options are limited in how to do it. We can fire a volley at it, and let our missiles fly up and it come to meet them, but if that doesn't work... Our other weapons won't be accurate enough unless it's at point blank, and that will bring us down as well, even if we can get that close. We need to be assured the threat is halted. We have to hit it head on, and the particle cannon might set the nuke off. That kills us, and every plane airborne below us. Everything else, apart from being too slow, won't stop the twenty tons of burning metal and fuel anyway.'
'Sir, you're asking us to agree on crashing into the missile,' the weapons operator said.
'I am, yes,' the pilot said simply. 'Any objection, I fly to the co-ordinates garden supplied.'
'Just thought I'd say, sir. No objection here,' the weapons operator said.
'Nor here, sir. Four of us, hundreds of people on Garden and in the blast radius. We can stop that. I don't think I'd live with myself if I didn't,' the navigator said. The co-pilot was the last.
'Well, I can't say much more, sir. Don't think I'd be able to handle it either.'
'And we'll be famous. Posthumously, but famous. First men killed by nuclear warfare,' the weapons operator joked. He was a man known for black humour that usually was found too distasteful by his comrades on the flight deck, but on this last occasion, his joke was the funniest joke in the world inside the cockpit of Ragnarok. Those about to die will laugh at anything.
'Then let's roll,' the pilot said. 'Garden, we have a plan.'
As Ragnarok was given clearance and sped up to intercept its target, allied aircraft hunted down the shorter ranged missiles.
Swordfighter, Blaze, and Smoker were moving to intercept a volley that seemed aimed at the landing site by Izrani. They were about to intercept them, still over the ocean and still a long way from any targets.
'I count nine birds, Swordfighter,' Blaze reported.
'Roger that, Blaze. No fighting over kills, they're just rockets. And we need them down ASAP,' Swordfighter instructed.
Down to only a few missiles each, and their nose-mounted cannon, the SeeD fighters were pushing their planes to their top speed.
'I have lock on one,' Blaze announced, his only missile now warbling that it was ready.
'Got two,' Smoker reported.
'Got the one myself. Let them loose.'
The four missiles streaked off, heading for the noses of the ballistic missiles. The air-to-air weapons streaked across the skies, leaving an almost invisible trail of smoke as they sped towards the thick black cloud the Amanverian cruise missiles had left behind in their wake.
As the air-to-air weapons neared the larger missiles, they chased the hottest part. All four focused on the afterburners, on angles that would mean they hit the nose or body of the missile on the way. That meant the destruction of the weapons.
The first to hit slammed into the side of its target, a flash and a fireball heralding the end of both weapons. The Amanverian missile fell down from the sky in flames, half its rear blasted away, before its warhead gave in another fireball. The next missile was hit head on, the explosive warhead disintegrating itself and the carrier vehicle. The third had its engines blown off, and simply dropped out of the sky, slamming into the sea below. The last one had the missile aimed at it streak past by a few inches, the proximity circuits making it detonate a few seconds too late to do anything but puncture the fuel tanks. A spray of liquid hit the afterburners, and ignited. The missile sped on, as the three VTOL's began firing their cannon at their targets. Only one missile died this way, the one already ablaze.
The VTOL's streaked past the missiles, their second bursts harmlessly zipping past the targets. The three VTOL's quickly attempted to turn and chase the missiles. They snapped their noses to the sky, almost flipping upside down before quickly correcting themselves to a dive.
'Shit, got a stall. Gonna be late for the end of the party,' Smoker announced, as he tried to pull out of the malfunction caused by the sudden and violent turn.
'We'll bring you back a doggie bag, Smoker. Catch up if you can,' Swordfighter replied.
The planes had to chase the missiles for a minute to get in range. Firing short bursts of a few dozen rounds, they managed only to claim two of the five surviving weapons.
'Getting near ground zero, Swordfighter. '
'Affirmative on that. Gotta speed it up,' he replied, firing another burst, and getting a fireball in return.
'Two left, Blaze. Let's get it done yesterday.'
Despite the valiant efforts of the planes and ships to shoot down every missile, a few slipped the net. Zell's force was advancing along the highway, his vehicle behind four tanks, when two weapons fell. One slammed into the lead tank almost head on, destroying it and causing a blast that washed over the second tank and almost had the power to rip the turret off. The other missile hit three DGPT-4s at the end of the convoy. The remaining vehicles screeched to a halt, and their occupants quickly ran out of the softer skinned vehicles to cover as the blasts still echoed. As it died down, Zell looked up. The tank that had been at the lead was almost gone, the seemingly-unstoppable vehicle torn open like it was made of tinfoil by the weapon. Only a few smashed remains of the vehicle sat in the crater, and twisted metal was scattered for a hundred meters around.
The same was true of the four-by-fours. The three hit by the blast had been ripped apart, and though they had not been hit directly, they had been shredded and sprayed across the impact area. Another pair in front had been flipped over, the rearmost having actually flown over where the one ahead had been and crashed on its side before rolling off the road, coming to rest thirty meters from where it had been moments before. Medics and other soldiers raced over.
'What's our status?' Zell shouted as he ran over to a DGPT that had slammed over onto its roof. It had been furthest forward
'Drivers dead, sir, got three out so far,' a soldier replied.
Zell surveyed the scene. The column had halted, and he could see the mangled remains of the other three vehicles clearly could hold no survivors. The other wreck looked almost as bad as them, the glass shattered, wheels, doors and various sections of the body having torn off. Zell saw two soldiers had been removed from the vehicle, one of them almost torn in half that he presumed had been the gunner, and the second lying with his skull smashed against a boulder. A few mangled helmets and rifles were amongst the debris left by the crashing vehicle.
A squad surrounding the vehicle gingerly pulled out an unconscious SeeD.
'We have to hurry this along, Sergeant. We need to keep moving,' Zell told Kelly.
'Yes sir. What should we do?'
'As soon as everyone alive is out of the wrecks, leave them, a squad, and medics to tend to them. The rest of us have to get moving fast.'
It was early in the evening in Esthar , and the sight of a missile launching from Amanver immediately placed Estharian Strategic Defence on high alert. The twenty-thousand strong force of missile silo operators, radar sites, and radio operators had one role. In the event of war, they were ready at any moment for confirmation to fire their missiles, and communicate to the Air Force and Navy to launch their own compliment of Esthar's arsenal of over thirty thousand nuclear warheads. The sight of the missile flying from its silo had alerted the presidential guard detail, who raced the president to the bunker below the presidential palace immediately. When there, a slightly bewildered President Laguna Loire was actually told what was going on.
'Mister President, five minutes ago SD Command detected a class-one threat being launched from the Amanverian republic. It is not suspected to be targeted at the homeland, but SDC recommends your response is based on the threat that further launches may be aimed at our interests,' an Air Force Major who looked to Laguna about twelve rather than thirty explained rapidly.
'Alright, someone explain that again?' he asked, confused by the initial report.
'Amanver launched a nuclear weapon,' his advisor translated. Kiros did not have better Estharian than his President, but he did have a better understanding of techno-babble.
'Oh right. Can't we keep it in simple terms? This isn't my first language...'
The Major spoke up once more.
'Sir, the bird... Uh, weapon...'
'I get that part.'
'...was fired at our navy and our allies attacking the island of-'
'Major, I'm going to stop you there. Our interests already have been targeted. So get me the Amanverian government on the line. And order a reasonable amount of missiles retargeted to Amanver. Not too close to our forces, but make sure we have the ability to turn that shithole into a car park when I give the word. Can we intercept the missile?'
'No sir,' the Major replied.
'Don't we have...'
'Mr President, few people are cleared into the project I presume you speak of. It is currently not operational in the first place, and may never be operational.'
'Oh right,' the president corrected himself. 'Forget you heard me mention the idea, Major.'
The major was puzzled, but did not question what idea the president had even mentioned.
'Poor bastards,' Smoker said. The three VTOL's had flown northwards after they had finished the last missiles. A straight section of highway a few miles ahead could let them land more safely than a vertical landing on the path that tank treads had already ripped apart, or on uneven rocks.
Whilst every other plane airborne could theoretically survive the effects of an electromagnetic pulse by racing to high altitude, and powering down all systems, the VTOL's could not. Their profile was not designed to glide particularly well, and their engines were slow to restart, as they required the computer to be ready first. They could of course still fly if the computer crashed, but the engines first needed confirmation from the computer to switch on, for reasons of security. That took a minute, then the engines took another. By that time, a VTOL would either become a crater, or would be a few seconds from it.
'Yeah. At least we won't need to warn them we're landing on the road,' Swordfighter said grimly.
The jets swooped overhead, seeing the two craters ripped into the road, and the soldiers racing around below, trying to help survivors. All three pilots knew it was possible, but were still surprised to see what had happened to the lead Challenger.
'Hell of a mess,' Blaze said.
'Not as bad a mess as we'll be if we don't get on the ground before that bomb goes off. When I catch the genius that designed the computer interface of this thing, I'm gonna hit his house with a metric fuckton of ordinance,' Smoker pointed out.
'Keep it steady and keep it shut,' Swordsman chided his wingmen as the straight section of runway neared. The three planes carefully landed on the impromptu runway, and the pilots sat waiting in their planes, knowing full well they might not have a carrier to return to if they took off again.
Laguna had moved to the operations room of the bunker, a large table with sixteen seats around it. Each seat had a telephone, a computer terminal with keyboard, and a clock. So far, only the President, his advisors, and the major were here.
'Well, how long until the chiefs of military branches are here?' Laguna said, impatiently. He was watching a computer-generated tracker of the missile and its target.
'A few minutes, sir,' the major replied, fiddling with his own terminal.
Laguna tapped a few keys, minimizing the window showing the missile's course. Four others lay below, the live images from four satellites. He caught two large explosions on a highway as the other missiles began to fall, but ignored them as his phone rang.
'President Loire,' he replied.
'Mister President, this is the signals office, Colonel Boradenko speaking. We have sent messages requesting immediate contact to Amanver and Galbadia's governments, as well as Dusania, Gdeto, and Dollet.'
'Excellent. When are we expecting responses?'
'Within ten minutes, sir.'
'Ten minutes. Thank you Colonel.'
Laguna grimaced as he hung up the phone, but kept his voice level as he spoke, mostly to himself.
'In ten minutes, our sailors on the Masorin might be dead and our carrier sunk, not to mention the casualties our allies will suffer.'
'True, Laguna, but politics moves slower than the battlefield,' Kiros reminded him.
'Perhaps. But I want to be ready to retaliate if I have to. Even though I never dreamed I'd have to.'
But as Esthar's government began responding to the launch, Ragnarok was a few moments from nearing it. At ten kilometres altitude, Ragnarok was now streaking up on the exact same flight path the missile was now taking down.
'Alright, we're lined up, just keep it steady,' the navigator replied.
'When in range, fire whatever you can,' the pilot told the weapons operator.
'Yes sir,' he replied, knowing it would be a waste of time, but doing so anyway.
The missile fell a kilometre . Ragnarok advanced three. Twenty kilometres apart.
'Missiles away, ' the weapons operator announced. The pilot flew Ragnarok a fraction left, and out of the path. A few seconds later, the Ragnarok passed the missile as she began to turn and head back to chase the weapon should her missiles fail.
'Two have popped. Down to six,' the weapons operator reported. Seconds later, the other missiles failed, and began to fall to earth, the high altitude having depressurised the air to air missiles to the extent the metal bodies simply broke apart.
'Guess we don't have any more options. It's been good working with you, guys,' the pilot said, lining up with the afterburner of the missile below. The Ragnarok, a faster vehicle than the missile, accelerated for the last time. The ship could survive re-entry from orbit, but the flames from the afterburners washed over the nose for barely a second before the rest of the Ragnarok slammed into the back of the missile. And almost an instant after, they were both gone. The missile, the ship, and the four men aboard, gone in a second.
The fireball was visible on the ground, and for a brief moment, some feared the weapon had been set off in the skies as an electromagnetic pulse. That would have crippled the electronics of the allies and left them essentially blind and the computer-controlled fire systems useless. But when the fireball faded in a few seconds and was not a blinding light, they realised the nuclear component was not what had detonated. Fuel and explosives aboard the missile and Ragnarok had combined to cause the fireball a hundred meters in diameter that briefly shone like a new, dull sun.
The shards of metal that had survived the near-obliteration of the two vehicles fell, along with plutonium fallout, to the sea below. No shard was bigger than a football, but each was coated in blazing fuel. A falling shower of stars was the strange beauty and tragedy that marked both the passing of the crew of Ragnarok, the ship, and the saviour of Garden.
As the soldiers on the island on both sides stared at the sky for a brief moment, the allies swore vengeance in their names. And as the larger parts physical fallout reached the ocean waves, Amanver was soon to be subject to political fallout, as well as possible retaliation.