Another pair of Kestrels launched. Joe’s Falcon swung gently as the deck crew moved it along the rails. Joe adjusted the shaving mirror clamped over his head until he could see Emma’s fighter, sliding onto the rails behind him. Two more Kestrels fell through the launch hatches, and the rail operators drove Joe’s Falcon to the forward hook.
Burr’s voice crackled in Joe’s headphones. “Command here. Do you read me, Joe? Over.”
“Five by five.”
“Swell. The British zep’s launching planes?—just fighters so far. Over.”
“Copy.” Joe switched his radio to the mission frequency. “Heads up, everybody. We got bandits in the air.”
In the mirror overhead, he saw Emma’s fighter rock as its arrester hook locked around the skyhook. On the deck in front of him, a crewman waved to get his attention. Joe flashed a thumbs-up. The crewman held up an open palm, then spread his fingers to count down from five. He reached zero, a closed fist, and the skyhook released Joe’s fighter. It plunged out the zep’s belly, and Joe felt himself falling until his plane hit the clear air under Inconstant. He pushed his throttle forward and pulled out of his steep dive. Behind him, Emma did likewise, coming up on his wing. Together, they climbed, regaining the altitude they’d lost in the combat launch, circling back toward the zep. It passed below Joe’s left wing, and ahead of him—behind Inconstant—he saw the British zep climbing toward them. He could just barely pick out airplanes circling above it. As he watched, three pairs broke off and climbed higher.