"Man must be trained for war, and woman for
the relaxation of the warriors; all else is folly."
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Linda Howard
He was a legend even before he graduated from the Academy, at least among his own classmates and the underclassmen. As first in his graduating class he had his pick of assignments, and to no one's surprise, he chose fighter jets. The politically savvy all knew that the fastest way to promotion in the Air Force was as an aviator, and fighter wings, with their inherent glamour, had always been the most visible. But those who knew Joe Mackenzie, newly commissioned officer in the United States Air Force, knew he didn't give a damn about promotion, only about flying.
His superiors had doubts about his suitability for fighters, but that was the training he had chosen, and they decided to give him the opportunity. He was six foot three, almost too tall for a fighter jockey. He'd be okay as a bomber pilot, but the dimensions of the cockpit in a fighter meant it would be a tight fit for him, and the physical demands of G forces were generally better met by men who were less than six feet tall, and of stockier build. Of course, there were exceptions to every rule, and the statistics for the physical build of the best fighter pilots were general profiles, not hard-and-fast rules. So Joe Mackenzie was given his chance at fighter training.
His training instructors found that, despite his height, he was better than competent: he was superb. He was that once-in-a-lifetime jet jockey, the one who set the standards for everyone who came after him. He was peculiarly suited, both physically and mentally, for the job he had chosen. His eyesight was better than twenty-twenty, his reflexes were phenomenal and his cardiovascular condition was so good that he was able to withstand greater G forces than his shorter fellow trainees. He remained at the top in his classes on physics and aerodynamics. He had a light touch with the controls and was willing to spend extra hours in the flight simulator perfecting his skills. Most of all, he had the unteachable quality of "situation awareness," the ability to be aware of everything going on around him in a fluid situation and adjust his actions accordingly. All aviators had to have it to some degree, but only in the best of them was it highly developed. He had an amazing degree of it. By the time Joe Mackenzie earned his wings, he was already known as a "hot stick," one of those with the magic touch.
As a very young captain in the first Gulf War, he downed three enemy aircraft in one day, an achievement that, to his relief, wasn't publicized. The reasons for it were political: to ensure better public relations with their allies, the United States Air Force was willing to let pilots from the other countries get the glory. Captain Mackenzie was more than willing to go along with policy. It had been mere chance, on the second day of the war, that had put him in the middle of the toughest resistance the enemy put up during the short length of the hostilities. He hadn't been impressed with the enemy pilots' skills. Nevertheless, for about three minutes it had been a real fur ball, when he and his wingman had been jumped by six enemy fighters.
The end result was an almost indecently fast promotion to Major, and Joe Mackenzie, tactical call sign "Breed," was recognized as the fastest of the fast trackers, a fast-burner on his way to a general's star.
During the second Gulf War, Major Mackenzie scored two more official kills in air-to-air combat and was designated an ace. This time there was no way to keep his achievements out of the media, not that the Pentagon wanted to; it recognized that it had a public-relations gold mine in the handsome half-breed American Indian, who exemplified all of the qualities they most wanted to project. He was given the choice assignments and made lieutenant colonel at the age of thirty-two. It was generally recognized that for Breed Mackenzie, there was nowhere to go but up.
She was the most beautiful bitch he'd ever seen, fast and sleek and deadly. Just looking at her made his heart beat faster. Even parked in the hangar, her engines cold and wheels chocked, she gave the impression of pure speed.
Colonel Joe Mackenzie reached out and touched the fuselage, his long fingers caressing her with the light touch of a lover. The dark metallic skin of her airframe had a slick feel to it mat was different from every other fighter he'd flown, and the difference entranced him. He knew it was because her airframe was a revolutionary new composite of thermoplastics, graphite and industrial spider silk, which was far stronger and more flexible than steel, meaning she could withstand far greater force without breaking apart than any aircraft ever before built. Intellectually he knew that, but emotionally he felt that it was because she was so alive. She didn't feel quite like metal; maybe it was the spider silk, but she wasn't as cold to the touch as any other airplane.
Developmental programs were usually given code names that didn't reflect the program's nature, which was why the earlier SR-71 Blackbird had been code named "Oxcart." This particular bird, a second-generation advanced tactical fighter, bore the unusually descriptive code name of Night Wing, and when it went into production it would receive some suitably macho designation like the F-1S Eagle or the F-16 Fighting Falcon, but to Colonel Mackenzie she was "Baby." There were actually five prototypes, and he called them all Baby. The test pilots assigned to the program under his command complained that she-whichever "she" it was-always acted up with them because he had spoiled her for other pilots. Colonel Mackenzie had given them his legendary ice-blue stare and replied, "That's what all my women say." His face had remained perfectly expressionless, leaving his men uncertain if that was the truth or a joke. They suspected it to be the truth.