From the pages of WRAITH
Merlin upturned the shaker, dumping a stream of red powder onto his popcorn. “You should be proud of your work tonight. You flew sharp and your presence of mind saved us from a potential second Roswell, not to mention your near suicidal effort to save the B-2. You did the Triple Seven proud, kid.” He popped a handful of reddened popcorn into his mouth, chewed it thoughtfully for a moment, and then nodded as if the seasoning had transformed the bowl of stale kernels into a culinary masterpiece. “Tonight’s events are water under the bridge,” he said, pulling the Triple Seven patch off of his shoulder and placing it on the table between them. “Let’s talk about something else. The Colonel tells me you want to know what all of this means.”
For the first time since the accident, Nick smiled. “Yes, sir. I surely do.”
“As well you should. As any young officer should want to know the history of his unit.” The older pilot settled back into his seat. “Very well then, in 1972, before you were born if I remember your file correctly, the powers-that-be decided to create a covert chase unit for test missions, and the Seventh Chase Squadron was born, with four pilots and two shiny new T-38 aircraft.”
Nick raised an eyebrow.
“I see you noticed that I said ‘the Seventh Chase’ instead of ‘the Triple Seven Chase.” Merlin narrowed one eye. “Keep that in mind for later. As I was saying, four pilots, under the command of Michael ‘Rat’ Shaw, were based at Holloman under various cover assignments. Every day they took off with the dawn patrol in their T-38s and practiced test maneuvers that pushed the edge of sanity.” He paused a moment and then cocked his head to one side. “Have you ever seen the movie Top Gun, where Tom Cruise flies inverted directly over the top of a MiG?”
“Yeah, everyone knows that scene.”
“True. Well, Rat and his band of misfits were flying that maneuver long before Tom Cruise was playing beach volleyball and showering with other guys. Anyway, one of the Seventh’s objectives was to test the new laser-guided bombs, and Rat discovered that the easiest method for following a bomb through its parabolic flight path was from above while inverted.” Merlin demonstrated the maneuver with the flying hands that most pilots use when they tell a story, holding one inverted over the other.
“Rat and his guys practiced the move on each other, with one T-38 playing the bomb, and one acting as chase. It wasn’t long before the boys were ready for their first test mission—not a bomb, but a new top secret drone.”
The lieutenant colonel scooped another handful of popcorn into his mouth, and Nick gathered from the dramatic pause that Rat’s boys were not, in fact, as ready as he supposed.
“Rat sent Frank Eubanks up to chase the drone,” said the lieutenant colonel, wiping red seasoning from his lips. “Half way through the test, Frank slid his jet underneath to check controls. Stupid drone picked that exact moment to go nuts. It made an abrupt pitch down, right on top of his jet. Both went down in flames in the desert. The resulting cover-up was a pain in the proverbial neck, but the Seventh survived.”
“You still haven’t explained how you added two more sevens,” interrupted Nick.
“Patience, kid. Man, you Generation-X people have no attention span.” Merlin pressed his lips together and glanced down at his bowl, as if suddenly feeling the kick in the red seasoning. He stood and headed for the coffee machine. “So anyway, they buried what was left of Frank and carried on. The next test involved a laser-guided bomb, the kind they had practiced for. Rat flew the test himself, chasing the bomb through its parabolic profile, and just as they’d practiced, he entered an inverted dive above the weapon. This time there was no malfunction. The bomb was following its normal guidance sequence. Rat simply got too close. It was the early days. We knew laser-guided bombs made big corrections, but we didn't know just how big.”
“You mean the system they call ‘bang-bang guidance’,” offered Nick.
“Yeah, it went bang alright.” Merlin returned with his coffee, pausing before he sat down to take a long, pepper-quenching swallow. The weapon made a pitch correction and slammed into Rat’s canopy. Boom. This time, there was nothing left to bury.” He set his coffee down and pointed at the ribbons on the patch. “That’s why the names are written in blood red. They are a memoriam to Sideshow Eubanks and Rat Shaw.”
Merlin stared quietly down at the patch for a few seconds, as if paying his respects to the dead. Then he slowly lifted his head. “Heads began to roll. With two fatal mishaps in as many tests, the squadron was a dismal failure. Everything was shut down. In 1984, however, along comes a Major by the name of Bob Windsor. The uppity-mucks had handed Windsor an ultra-classified project. And he had nowhere to conduct his tests. So then he stumbles across the records of the Seventh Chase. Light bulb. Revive Biggs North One. Resurrect the Seventh. He met with resistance, though. A lot of people with the right clearances considered the whole idea unlucky. But Windsor is stuborn. He pestered them into submission.”
Merlin picked up a piece of popcorn from the bottom of the bowl, almost entirely red with seasoning. He considered it a moment, then popped it into his mouth and chased it with some coffee. “Under Windsor, the squadron took on an entirely new format—an additional duty for select pilots, something you do once in a blue moon. There are six of us at any given time. Each has another flying job and only returns to Romeo Seven as the need arises.”
“But what about the name?” asked Nick, tapping the numbers on the patch with his finger. “How did it become the Triple Seven Chase?”
“Oh, right. I almost forgot,” said Merlin, though his smile indicated otherwise. “You know, you and Windsor should get along fine.”
“The name, boss.”
“Yeah, yeah. The Triple Seven Chase. Right. Windsor came up with it. He had to change the name to get around a few superstitious superiors, and what he came up with was a stroke of brilliance. Windsor melded the squadron’s history into a name and symbol that seemed the essence of luck itself. No one could argue with three sevens. By Windsor’s account, his revival represented the third iteration of the Seventh, hence the name, and hence the motto, ‘Third Time Lucky.’”
The older pilot leaned back in his chair. “So there you have it, kid, the whole story. How’d I do?”
Nick shrugged. “I don’t recommend it for younger audiences, but not bad.”
“Thanks, I’ll take that under advisement.”