CPT. BANKS

19TH FIGHTER SQUADRON

0448R hours 25 MAY 2028CE

EAST CHINA SEA to BATTLESPACE 2 (see map)


Rachel. I think about her.

About everything. About our little girl. About how it started with us, a floozy night at a bar, a knock of the boots, the touch of her skin, her lips, and now this. We shouldn’t work, but I think about how we do. So romantic, eh? The bar hookup, sweet-talking in her ear about how badass we fighter pilots are.

Sure, she bit the bait, or did I?

How did I become a fool for her? Could it be that we actually work? Or that, out of all the craziness, we’re just fine considering a three month old infant? Damn, what a woman.

But then, reality hits me. I can’t help but to cringe.

We saw it all, the inbound missiles hitting the fields during our ‘suspenseful’ taxi to the main runway. THAAD batteries firing salvos into the sky to meet theirs, the radio swamped with calls for support from all directions. I never mean to gloat being a Raptor pusher, but damn, are we in the highest demand.

We did one loop around Okinawa. A rocket hit the power station, and we watched the whole island go dark. I remember her voice, her concern about what was happening. The news switched to 24 hour coverage, the US Navy and PLAN both sinking ships. We broke the blockade.

Five of ours were down: Three destroyers. Two missile cruisers.

Hours later, we finally got three of theirs—maybe more.

Radio chatter is telling. The Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea are bloodbaths.

Birds down everywhere. Dozens. Both sides. Even civilian airliners. Some asshole shot down a Boeing 777. Was it us?

There were ongoing negotiations, a ceasefire, and then we were put on 24hr alert. A few days passed, taking rounds flying out to support tankers ferrying assets to Taiwan. They pressed, and we defended, splashing two dozen bandits in the high seas, but I guess they sent them all. Then we lost two tankers one hour ago. Now, I’m here, 2nd lead in a flock of 22 aircraft.

Kelly = Our last tanker.

Eagle = Five of us Raptors. We’re a tight crew: 1, me. 2, Briggs. 3, Collins. 4, Powell. 5, Dugens.

Blue = Ten little Lightnings. Some are As from Kadena, and some are Cs that were ferrying to Ronald Reagan from Guam. I’m told we aren’t going to risk the carriers. They pulled them away.

Kei = Seven Kadena Eagles. Those guys are awesome.

Yeah, we’re rolling deep now. Figure anyone in their right mind would be idiots to try this formation, but alas, guess what MOP says.

“Bogeys! Bogeys!” it was our third MOP tonight. Must be tough up there. “Confirm again, pop-up group off your 2-8-4 for 80. Angels 20. Flight of ten, 550 knots. Flanking off—”

Static. “—Gah! We got a fire in the panel!” more static, “Get your masks on! Command this is Zoro Six-Five, mayday, mayday!” the frenzy grows, “Inbound missiles! Evade! Evade!” then one of the MOP’s escorts directs, “Zoro Six-Five bug out heading 0-4-2! We’ll try to cover your egress!” static, “Zoro Six-Five? Zore Six-Five I show you spewing smoke. Zoro—”

Coms go out. Looks like that MOP is done too. Shit.

Looks like we lost another satellite and AWACS.

So we have a pop-up group, eighty miles out, flying at 20,000feet, heading to cut us off en route to Taiwan, but that wasn’t our concern yet.

We need to engage the bogeys, but it’s a suicide mission under these circumstances. We’re decked up, stacked full for air-to-air, drop tanks and all, but we’ve been pushing it. Hard to establish a no fly zone when it’s just you, and you’re outnumbered.

This isn’t a ‘no fly zone’ anymore. It’s a ‘stay alive as long as you can’ zone.

Who knows if we’ll even make Waypoint Alpha at this point.

“Eagle Flight.” I say. “Looks like we’re up again. Busy night.”

“Fuel, Cap.” says Powell, my 4th wing. “We don’t have much.”

“I know.” I say, fighting the clutter. “We’re short on options. Goddammit, I should’ve moved her to the mainland. We should’ve moved them.”

“She’s okay.” says Briggs, my 2nd wing. “Our ladies are fine.”

At least he’s positive. I pretend to be. With Zoro 65 breaking up, our coms auto seek, trying their best to find a stable channel for a new MOP. The radio clutter distracts me, I hear voices from everywhere, all saying similar things:

One voice, a C-130 transport, “This is Chelsea Two-Five, Requesting CAP. Snap heading to waypoint three-six, Angels 20—” and another, “—I’m hit! We’re on fire!” another, “Halo Flight to MOP. Halo Flight to MOP.” I guess no one told them the AWACS was downed. “I say again, Halo Flight to MOP. ”

“Cap?” says Dugens, my 5th wing, “Halo Flight. That’s our rendezvous.”

“They’re in trouble.” I say, shaking my head. “They have interceptors doing bum runs off the coast out there. Unless they have numbers.”

“I think there’s only three of them, sir. Navy Rhinos.”

Three?” I sneer. “Briefing said fifteen. Unless, the other dozen are down.”

“Never made it up.” says Kelly Flight, the tanker. “That FOB is trashed.”

Halo flight is screwed.

“Dammit.”

“Say again. Say again.” says Charlie Flight, somewhere engaged to our northwest. They flew out with Blue Flight, but got caught up in the mix. “Zoro Six-Five is down. We are regressing to your location for refuel. Can anyone reach David Flight?”

“Eagle Flight, no return from David Flight.” says the Blue Flight lead. I see his Lightning perhaps a mile ahead in formation. “Command says they’re down.”

“Goddammit.” I say, embarrassed to be so surprised about the situation. CAP zone is a real thing, but I assumed MOPs had it under control. It’s literally their job, at least if they aren’t dead.

It hits me. Our command and control is fucked.

We’re dropping like flies. Outnumbered and outgunned.

My god, we’re losing.

Going on ninety minutes in, shit gets dicey. Pushing CAP, we make rounds to encircle our tanker, occasionally lobbing off nuisance missiles, the ones we know have little chance of hitting, but they keep the bad guys out of range.

RWR sets a pilot straight. Chinese or American.

So long as they know we’re here, they stay away. We’re four to zero in the score so far, the splashes each a beautiful long range engagement at a time. Eagle Flight is mopping up. Textbook. J-11s pressing for the tankers, and some asshole in an old J-8 at Angels 50 I caught pressing me, or at least where he thought I was.

You want to try me in a J-8? Never.

“Agh!” I hear, looking to see one of the F-35s rocking on the fueling boom.

Then the tanker, “Break away! Break away!”

The Lightning retreats, it’s little wings bouncing wildly. A minute later, he’s back on the teet, filling up. There’s too many of us, all stuck at the mercy of one tanker, exactly where they want us. This is flat out a shitty situation.

Stuck over the ocean, with one tanker, and twenty two jets.

Dammit, it’s choppy up here, but time is tight.

We need fuel, the one thing these birds have an appetite for aside from an otherwise hyped legacy of prowess. Today, I guess we test it, showing our faces in the midst of what appears to be the opening of a major war.

None of us are sure what happened.

I know we scrambled, and we scrambled fast. I didn’t have time to call, and through all of this, I worry about them. I worry about my little girl, Mia. She’s a fucking baby. She has nothing to do with this, and I know I must focus, but she is my focus. I talked with Rachel a few hours ago. I told her everything was okay.

Yeah, it was bullshit, but sometimes we must lie.

Now I feel bad. Scratch that. I feel horrible, slave to a gut-wrenching feeling that won’t leave.

I radio the tanker. “Anyone have status on KD?”

KD = Kadena Airbase, our alert status home.

“Sir.” says my 3rd wing. “She’s okay. They have bunkers for the civilians. I went over it with my lady too. They know, sir. They know.”

“Confirm status on KD.” I say again.

“KD is uh,” the tanker said, “well, it’s seen better days. Stay sharp Cap. It’s just us.”

“Roger.” I nod, taking a deep breath, scanning the area through the night vision visor. Towering clouds, all highlighted with varying shades of green.

For a moment, I take in the peace, knowing what’s next.

I hear a voice radio, “To all friendlies in Battlespace Alpha,” she sounds as frightened as we are, “this is MOP 3454, forwarding updated directive from Command. Mission: Defense. Skycap all angels. I’m showing Kelly, Eagle, Blue, David—no, David?” MOP must be talking in the background. Sounds like hell in that room, wherever they are, hopefully far from here. “Shit. David is down. Uh, who else is in the Battlespace?”

We let them argue with themselves. Never seen a MOP transfer work well.

“Fuck.” I sneer, hating being told the obvious. “They have no idea what’s going on.”

“Satellites must be sketchy.” says a Lightning pilot.

“MOP to all flights I listed.” MOP says. “Repeat. MOP to all flights.”

I’m lead wing here, for all 22 of us. “MOP, go ahead. We’re here.”

“Status?”

“We’re twenty-two deep. Flying heavy, trying to maintain the best CAP we can. We’ve rationed our fuel, but the CAP runs are running us short. Kelly Flight is filled with badasses,” I hear snickers, even in the heat, “and they’ve kept us going, but we can’t loiter forever. We need somewhere to set our birds down. Over!”

‘Ole 3454 doesn’t see the humor, “Negative! Negative! Airspace is too hot. I’ve got bandits pressing from all directions.”

“With all due respect, MOP 3454,” I say, holding back my temper, “Can you tell us something we don’t know!”

Ooh, she’s snarky, “Pardon me, lead wing, but I’ll be frank. You know better than I do that our situation is dire. We’re trying to manage assets the best we can, but you have to buy time.”

“Ma’am,” I say, “how are we looking? Honestly.”

She hands us a rare truth, “Okay. I’m going to be real with you because I feel like you need to know. We have satellites down all over the Pacific. The First and Second Island Chains are wrecked. Most of our forces are pushed back to Wake Island, Midway, and Hawaii.”

“B-1s and Raptors from Guam, ma’am?”

“Negative. I repeat, we have nothing operational west of Wake Island. DF-21s peppered Guam, Philippines, and Japan. We’ll look better if you stay airborne. Stay sharp!”

I look over, seeing Briggs shaking his head, and then all of us pilots in some fashion doing the same. We’re confused, and we should never be confused.

MOP has even more.  Sounds like she’s twelve, shaky voice and all, “Be advised! Be advised! Bandits! Potential flight of J-11s, pop-up group last seen off your 0-8-7 for—” and something a MOP has never said before, showing that she’s willing to break the rules, if only for us, “your position. Halo Flight is engaged. Prospects are, uh, sub-optimal. They’re giving it the best they can. I project the bandits will head straight for you!”

Awesome. Two large groups of hostiles coming from both the left and right of us. I guess these guys are here to finish the job. Us.

Our radars are off. It keeps them from seeing us on RWR.

“Distance?” she’s annoyingly left this out.

“120 miles. Maybe 110.” she says. “You’ll have to bear with me. Radar coverage is scant. Long range only. There’s a seven second lag between scans. I hope your radars are off.”

“Confirm.” I say, knowing what’s next, “We don’t have much time,” knowing that between us all, we’ll have to part ways, if not permanently, “but we’re going to split. Kelly Flight is the ferry. Can’t afford to lose it, so Eagle will take lead. MOP, any estimate on numbers?”

“Between fifteen to twenty.” says MOP. “Cross section still paints J-11, Sukhoi Flanker, or similar type. Updating classification to Bandit. I’m not taking chances in this sector. The goal is to get you home and keep this airspace. Do whatever the hell you have to do to make this happen.”

“Copy.” I say, looking around to other aircraft. “Ladies and gentlemen,” it never hurts to add humor, “we’re going to have to break up the dream team here.”

I’m sure they understand. We each do a fuel check.

Yeah, the results are pretty dire. We can keep the Lightnings from Blue Flight running. They were the last refuel before Kelly’s boom tanks got low. If we can pull away from the tanker, the three Kei guys could get them back to Kadena. Surely, we’d have some kind of backup runway open by then.

We discuss, eventually concluding this:

Obvious Goal A = Get the damn tanker away from the battlespace. Goal B = Push back the PLAAF, though this will be difficult considering we’re fifteen birds (minus the Kadena guys, who will escort Kelly Flight out) against what we think will be more than thirty bandits aiming to kill.

Down two-to-one. Shitty, but we’ll do it.

Goal C = Push back the PLAAF, using tanked Lightnings on low cover, and us, the Raptors, will drop tanks for sealth, and pincer high and fast. I only have to be careful about my fuel. I’ll be on internal reserves. Keeping fighting and maneuvers to a minimum are key.

I don’t expect good luck with that. With our calculated fuel, the point of no return hits in two minutes. I make the most of them, and so do my fellow pilots. Our countdown begins. This is likely the last time we’ll see each other.

There is no hesitation. Everyone knows what to do.

“90 seconds to PNR.” says 2nd wing.

“MOP,” I say, after moments filled with silence of thought, the ambient noise soothing me, my heart echoing through my ears, “that’s all we have. Confirm request with Command?”

More silence, then MOP timidly says, “Confirmed.”

I imagine them arguing in the MOP center, debating hotly for ways to get us home, but they can’t. There is no way, but they’ll never say it. Not directly, because it’s bad for morale, and it’s in bad taste. They hate to lose us. $2 billion worth of aircraft, though I hope they think more of us than that. Fact is, we’re valuable. Each bird is an asset, a tool to project power in ways stretching further than just missiles and bullets. It’s all a show, and that’s all we knew.

We were a deterrent. The things designed to avert war.

No one challenged us, until they finally did. Until we started shooting at each other, and now look at us. . .

We’re losing.

“40 seconds. . .” says 2nd wing.

Blue Flight feeds us scope through the datalink. Holy shit. We contend with the fact that there might be more than thirty of them.

“Eagle Flight to Command.” I say, with a lump in my throat, “We have scopes up. Bandits. Bandits. Two pop-up groups, off both our 2-7-2 and 0-6-9, for 75. Flanking. 700 knots.”

“Confirmed bandits.” says MOP. “Counting thirty two, maybe more.”

“30 seconds. . .” 2nd wing says, as if we don’t already know.

“We see that.” I say, looking up at our formation. “Request permission to engage.”

Rachel and Mia, know the odds are we don’t make it out. I want you to know that we tried. We tried our damn best up here. I never said it enough, but I love you both.

“I say again: Request permission to engage.”

“Eagle Flight,” says MOP, “there isn’t a single soul in this room that would deny that request.”

“I like you.” I tell MOP. “Best MOP we’ve had all night.”

She laughs, if only for a moment, “I intend to keep it that way.”

The countdown takes over. It’s all I can think about.

“Twelve.”

I look over to the tanker. I peer into the windscreen.

“Ten.”

I see the pilots.

“Nine.”

“Kelly Flight?” I say and salute them. They know, but they roll with it. Kelly Flight is a beluga whale in a swimming pool filled with great whites.

“Eight.”

“Kelly Flight: Go.”

Alas, it shows up on my RWR, pinned as a friendly. There we go, setting the trap. I imagine somewhere 100 miles away sits a PLAAF pilot, smiling ear to ear, seeing a giant target painted clear as day.

“Seven.”

We wait, and Kelly Flight switches off its radar. Our jammers take over, hoping that they’ll home on the last known signal.

“Six.”

“Blue Flight?” I say, saluting them.

“Five.”

They salute back, “Blue Flight: Go.”

I tighten my grip on the stick. I inhale.

I see Rachel. I kiss her, just in case this is one last time.

“Four.”

I see Mia, rosy cheeks, and pudgy little fingers holding mine.

“Three.”

And then, my guys, “Eagle Flight?”

The Lightnings get an early lead. I see them salute again, all before waving off into higher altitude. Those onboard datalinks will make a killer C3I. Command. Control. Communications. Intelligence. 

“Two.”

“Eagle Flight: Go.”

Once clear of the tanker, they bank right. I see their burners ignite as they pull away. Kei flight, wing waves, their lead dropping dead front of the tanker they’ll sip from to get home.

Good hunting, guys. Japan is awesome.

And then, I hear it.

“One.”

Go.” I say, just as the Kadena F-15s and tanker wave off hard to the right of me. Damn, fly that big ‘ole girl.

Badasses in that plane, I tell you.

My Raptor rolls hard left, I see the horizon tilt, and as I pull back against the stick, I feel the gee. It’s comforting, like a hug from Rachel when I see her after 48hour alert.

I can still smell her. Her lotion. Her perfume.

I love her, but I never said it.

Looks like I’ll just have to make it back to her to correct the mistake. I push the throttles forward, keeping out of burner purposely to conserve fuel.

Not like it matters. Raptors, being the wonderful machines they are, happily accelerate to supersonic without breaking a sweat. I push up high, crossing Angels 48, watching the mach indicator tickle its way above Mach 1.2, then 1.3, then 1.4.

Remnants of the typhoon press a weather front through the area. I see the clouds everywhere around me, towering perhaps 30,000 to even 40,000 feet. They are like fortresses, each one a pillar of cotton, flushing the canopy with condensation each time I pass through.

The Raptor crests. Angels 50, and I can see the Earth below. The globe is beautiful, the rungs of dawn edging over the horizon as I take a moment to inhale and collect myself.

Now, I must tell them, “Eagle One,” I say, edging into a leftward roll, pulling back on the stick to change heading, “turning out for pincer now. Angels 50.”

“Roger that.” says 2nd wing. “Good hunting, sir.”

And then, “Eagle Two and Three, taking mid. Pincer left. Angels 30” and then, “Eagle Four and Five, splitting now. Pincer right. Angels 40.”

We’re splitting, now in a formation shaped like a trident, heading out with the hopes to encircle and trap the bandits hot for Kelly Flight. Kei Flight and the Kadena Eagles are cold, having turned their backs to the encroaching fighters as planned.

We hope to trick them. They think our command and control is shot, and though they’re correct, it’s nice to know that they’ve underestimated the value and merit of our systems.

Sure, we have weaknesses. But so do you.

Allow us to exploit that. Allow us to take this one last stand, and though I know very little about what started this, I know one thing.

This is for Rachel.

This is for Mia.

This is for my brothers and sisters that learned today was their very last. Fuck you.

“Blue One to Eagle Flight,” says our lovely Lightning friend, hanging high with three buddies, heavy and slow, his radar turned on and the datalink hooked to us, “Bandits! Bandits! They split! Eagle One, pop-up group, fifteen hits, hot off your 3-1-5 for 50! Angels 30! 680knots!”

Okay, motherfuckers. You want to play.

I push further left, knowing where I want them. They’re going for the Lightnings, their com relays showing like a lighthouse to any PLAAF pilot within spitting distance. We have low radar cross sections, and they knew it the moment they had trouble tracking us. We won’t use jammers for this reason, mostly because giving the assholes home-on-jammer is just a chance too close to call given the two-to-one odds.

“All Eagles,” says MOP, “clear to circle back in.”

But I’m not going to turn in. Not yet.

There’s too many. And if I do, this won’t work as well.

I make my peace with it. Dammit, Rachel and Mia, I love you.

The other Raptors kept their drop tanks. They should have more fuel than me.  I engage the burners, the noise of the air rushing around the canopy rumbling like a train. My heart pounds, the airframe jumping about as I jut the nose down, trimming towards the clouds below.

“Eagle Two and Three,” says MOP, “Bandits! First group of six, off your nose, for 35, hot! Angels 34!”

“Eagle Flight, bandits hot! Master arm on! Standby to engage! ”

I see the sky. It’s lit well enough for comfort.

They pop on their radars. Go time.

Their voices mix, “Got them! Six bandits!” 3rd wing, “I got tone! Aaaaand, Fox Three!” 2nd wing, “Fox Three! Fox Three!”

MOP sounds solemn, but confident. “Eagle Flight, we show you engaged. Good hunting, and Godspeed.”

At this point, both tanks are dry. I see the warning, flipping them into decoy mode, their little fins popping out, the drag on the plane severe enough to throw me forward. Then, I release them, and they tumble away, their rapidly expanding fins breaking away, providing a lovely RCS equivalent to perhaps a five wing formation.

To this I add a few dispersions of chaff.

Yeah, that’ll get some attention.

My Raptor crosses Mach 2.0, then 2.1, then 2.2. I look over, the outer edges of each wingtip reddening with friction.

Mach 2.5, Mach 2.6.

“I got RWR!” says a Lightning, likely Blue 5, “We’re tracking six bandits, splitting, hot! Angels 34 and dropping!”

“Press! Press! Press!”

“Fox Three!” says one. “Thirty miles!”

And another, “Fox Three!” I hear his missile warning, “Fox Three! I’m defending!”

A fleeting moment passes. I blink, and think of her.

Mach 2.7.

Mach 2.8.

And they say the F-22 top speed is classified. All I say is that the Wikipedia estimate is wrong.

Mach 2.9. Judging by the buffeting. I’d say this is it.

“Eagle One,” says the AWAC Lightning, “you’re pressing too far! You’re too far! Turn in, confirm!”

No. I won’t. Sorry, bud.

He says again, “Eagle One, this Blue Three, you are pressed too far! You don’t have fuel!”

I ark into a slow turn, burners off, pulling just enough to hold six gee. My breaths are shallow, but stern. I focus. Keeping light of what’s ahead.

They’re getting angry, “MOP to Eagle One!” she says, “MOP to Eagle One! Can anyone get Eagle One? Anyone have visual?”

Too much to focus on. Can’t talk.

“Negative!” says someone. “He’s too far out, I’m showing 1900knots and dropping! What’s he doing?”

“Sir!” says 2nd wing. “Sir, turn in!”

“Fox Three!” says 3rd wing. “Oooooh, splash! Splash one!”

2nd wing comes again, “Wait, I see one, no, two, three splashes! Visual range, preparing to merge!”

“Splash one more!” says 2nd wing. “Got RWR! Shit!”

“Defensive! Defensive!”

I hear a Sidewinder tone, “Fox 2!”

“There’s three bandits! Splitting!”

Shit. Not good. “Three, missile! Missile!”

“Flares! Flares!”

“Eagle Four,” nice to hear them finally, they must have run a longer flank towards Taiwan, “Pressing, looks like they’re having a hard time finding us! Six bandits, split! Prepare to engage!”

“Eagle Five, splitting. Taking the three bandits low, Angels 18.” then, “Fox Three! Fox Three! I see missiles! Defending!”

“Eagle Four, engaged! Fox Three! Fox Three! Fox Three!”

Finally, I level the wings, the nose pitched even with the horizon ahead. I can’t see them, but I know where they are.

I see contrails. Missiles streaking towards the decoy tanks.

Angels 39. 1400knots. I flip on the radar. APG-77s can track up to eight, but only we know that. 20 miles. They’ve killed three, but I see more.”

“Eagle Two and Three,” says our AWACS Lightning, “I see two bandits from the main group, breaking off 0-4-3 for 20, hot!

Confirming that I’m not crazy. Nice.

But 2nd and 3rd wing they’re busy. Two pop-up groups, three leftover from Eagle Two and Three’s group, and another pair that probably split from the center group. I lock the three assholes turning in to kill Eagle Two and Three. I leave the other two for later, assuming they turned in to cover the ass of their three soon-to-be-dead buddies.

And I unleash the pain.

“Fox Three!” I yell, pressing the button three full times, seeing an AMRAAM spool away with each press. “Eagle One! Hard press, engaged!”

They track, pulling upwards into their ballistic trajectory.

One shouldn’t fire when an enemy is turned cold, unless, of course, your airspeed is 1300knots—and the bandits’ are 700 and slowing, just to kill your friends. AIM-120Ds travel at Mach 4, so I only added more flair to their fangs with the high speed release.

I turn, popping the Raptor’s nose left to lock the other two bandits. I see them turned hot now, launching missiles at 2nd and 3rd wing, thinking they’ve got them pinched. Our low RCS keeps their radar homing missiles at a piddling range.

Good for us. Too bad for them.

“Fox Three! Fox three!” I shout. “Heads up! AMRAAMs headed to the two bandits off your five-o-clock!”

It takes but a few moments ahead of me. The contrails get wavy as their rocket motors extinguish. Go figure that the bandits got launch confirmation and went defensive, now sandwiched between me and Eagle Two and Three pressing them again.

They’re fucked, and I hope they know it. At this distance, their evasion probability is near zero.

My HUD shows a 28 second intercept countdown.

This is the part I hate, the part where voices run together, where situational awareness, in all of the heat of battle, disintegrates.

“Eagle 4—I’m hit!” my heart sinks. “Say again! Hit! Lost the—wing. Punching out! Mark!”

“Fox Three!” says Blue 5, somewhere behind 4th and 5th wing, “I got fucking RWR! Defending! Can’t shake it! What are these guys firing!”

“Splash one!”

“—Me too! Chaff! Chaff! Oh shi—”

“MOP to Eagle Four, marking your position!”

“Blue 6 is down! He’s hit! Mark!”

“Fuck! Fuck!” I think it’s Blue 7. I wonder what’s happening. “I see splash one! Defending!”

I see bursts ahead, “Splash!” and another, “Splash! Splash!”

“Oh my god.” says MOP and Blue Three at once.

Holy. Shit. Two more down. “Splash five!” I shout, dropping below 900knots, “Pressing two off my two-o-clock, 15 miles!”

I drop the right wing, looking up through the bubble canopy to see ahead. The helmet visor seeks for them, the IRST system looking for the heat signature of their engines. This is ominous, a close-in engagement. My advantage is gone, my stealth compromised the moment I fired and closed the distance.

Rachel’s face, the moment she told me.

She seemed sorry, almost apologetic, handing me an early pregnancy test, tears in her eyes. She waited four days. Four whole days to tell me, taking test after test.

We argued. I can’t remember about what. Then we calmed down. “Do you want to keep it?” I asked, and then, “If it’s mine. . .”

“I can’t believe you’d ask me that!” she hollered.

Neither can I.

Shit. God dammit, I can’t find these two guys.

“—Blue 7, I’m hit.” then, “Splash!”

I’m fucking daydreaming, and now I can’t find them! I hunt around, my shifting head threatening to disorient me as I roll the jet from side to side. They can’t be more than 5 miles away, hopefully too close for the R-27s or whatever bullshit missiles they carry.

Problem is, infrareds don’t give RWR. Obviously.

There’s no warning, just visually. So in this shitty cloud covered soup, I hunt through the condensation on the glass, the entire aircraft jumping in the turbulence. I need out of this cloud.

“Eagle Two, Fox Three! Pressing, two remaining bandits 12-o-clock for 25! I see them defending!”

I can’t see shit!

“Eage Three, Fox Three!” he says. “Two Flankers, splitting to engage us! Prepare to merge!”

I burst through, seeing the sky again—

FUCK! Contrail! Four-o-clock!

Flares out, I dip down, rolling into a dive, cranking back the throttles to reduce the heat. Now cold to the missile, it’s out of my sight, and I pray it’s fooled.

Hell, I’m fucked anyways. I roll again, nosing up to where I last saw that contrail, figuring I won’t see burners if the PLAAF know any better. They do, but I hear him as he blows by above.

“Eagle One is merged!” I radio, if for nothing else, comfort. “Two bandits! Flanker type!”

“MOP to Eagle One, Godspeed.”

I pull up above him, a perfect barrel roll enough to correct my overshoot. Well damn, it’s a J-15, banked hard left, turning in to greet me with a R-73 heat seeker. He’s got a helmet cueing system, too.

Fuck this guy. Breathe. Just breathe.

I get the shot off first. “Fox Two!” I bark, sending more flares off behind me, watching his Fox Two stream its way in my direction.

It’s ballsy, but I rotate to turn back in. No fucking way I’m going cold to this guy, just to get a missile up the ass. Not today. And there, I wonder if this is the last thing I see, the silhouette of the J-15, oddly painted dark grey.

Oh, he’s good.

Our missiles both track, and as we both pull away throttle, they do the unimaginable. The flares don’t fool them, our range much too close for that, but in the incremental second we both nose towards each other, their seekers find little more than themselves to follow.

Both aircraft against the sky, covered in moisture, engines sucking in cool air, prove to be much colder than their rocket boosters. So, as our luck progresses in this duel, they merge, cross against each other, tripping the prox fuses towards detonation, the ball of fire a backlight of hell as our jets cross once again.

And we merge. The beginning of a deathly dance.

He’s gone, somewhere in the clouds, but where’s his buddy? Where the hell did the other guy go? I hunt as I roll, picking up RWRs like firecrackers. The datalink is spotty. Blue Flight is definitely busy.

We’re all busy.

Contrail! I see one, another dark J-15, just lit a Fox Two towards me. I rotate towards him, dropping flares, noticing my airspeed indicator flashing in the visor. I’m crossing beneath 350knots, all these turns killing speed and energy all the while.

I can’t throttle up. I don’t want to give their Fox Twos heat.

Dude rolls twice, displacing his energy to match mine. He doesn’t want to overshoot, but I crank hard and force him. I get the AoA warning, just before the stall. Fuck! The missle! I drop more flares, swearing to god almighty as it crosses over the canopy, no more than twenty feet away.

I await death here, but it doesn’t come. Expecting the prox fuse with it so close, I wince, holding the stick as if that would help me, but again with the luck.

No explosion. Just a trashed missile.

J-15 guy zips past, rolling over again to dip for airspeed. Critically low, I have to follow, or else I stall and become a brick—or easy target practice.

Avionics yells at me. “Airspeed! Airspeed!”

I fucking know.

Hell. I roll as the J-15 does, our movements somehow in sync that my canopy follows his aircraft splitting above and ahead of me. I know this move. He wants to displace again and come back down for another shot. I don’t have the airspeed to nose up to him, and he knows that.

It’s a game of chicken with no burners. I don’t expect his buddy to fire, probably scared that his R-73 might commit fratricide instead of splash his bandit: me. This guy noses up so hard that he’s dancing, using the thrust vectoring to give the pitch that his wings can’t. Something’s off. He’s too fast. No way that’s a J-15. They don’t have the engines for that.

I see the tails. No bright red stars, telling of the PLAAF.

Fucking Russians.

We’re so close I see his helmet and visor. We make eye contact through them. He drops the R-27s. They’re useless this close, and their weight only slows him down.

This is an acknowledgment. Like me, he knows that it’s unlikely he makes it out of here. He has one heat-seeker left, and he won’t waste it.

At the top of his stunt, he completes a backflip, coming down behind me, energy lower than absolute zero, with a missile locked on, and ready to fire.

I immediately flare, knowing that this is my last chance.

Fucking radio, “—Hit! Blue Eight—is down!”

350 knots. I go for the airbrake, seeing the missile chasing me, and kick rudder, pancaking downward into a flat spin. I cut the throttles, looking up, ready to shit myself just as the missile explodes above me, right in the middle of the group of flares.

I hear shrapnel hit. I see smoke and steam, but avionics and flight control are okay. I go back into burner to displace from the spin, nosing down straight for the water.

Fuck, talk about lucky. . .

150knots.

200.

330.

385.

400.

Avionics screams at me, “Pull up! Pull up!”

And I listen. I nose up, Angels 2, barely enough to recover again should I stall. I roll right, kicking rudder to skid the plane into more rotation. Good thing I kept my eye on him. He’s down there, three-o-clock below me, pulling off the deck, trying to recover energy from his nose up missile launch.

I imagine him sitting there, frozen in the cockpit, looking back at me, wondering when and where he fucked up. He’s an excellent pilot. I’m among the best on our side, so I’ll admit it. I’m the Red Flag champion, hundreds of hours logged in dissimilar combat training.

As an enemy, he can go fuck himself.

As a combat pilot, he has my respect.

This is it. This is his last moment.

The visor’s reticule fixates on him, his aircraft hovering just in front of my nose. He sees my next move, and I telegraph it. Panicked, he goes for burners. The tone buzzes, the reticule flashing in my vision.

He sees my weapons bay door pop open.

And then, “Fox 2!” I say.

A Sidewinder uncages, streaming towards him. He doesn’t even have time to flare. Perhaps only a quarter mile away, the missile flies straight through him.

“Splash six!” I blurt, turning to look for his friend.

The fratricide risk is gone. So I figure he’ll swoop in now. I need airspeed, so I push to max dry thrust. Nosing up, I hear the very last thing I want to.

Avionics, in all its wisdom, “Warning! Bingo Fuel! Warning! Bingo Fuel!”

I level out, turning to heading 2-6-8. At bingo fuel, I can still limp it home, so my next attempt is to pull the last J-15 with me. He’s still there, orbiting above and out of heat seekers.

No missiles. Just us.

I wait for him.

So he comes down, rotating fast to press me hot. We’re nose to nose, approaching each other north of 600knots. Under a mile apart, we make our plans, his move first. Tracers streak by the canopy, a classic try to kill me just before the merge, but he nosed up too soon.

We cross, yet he turns away from me.

I repeat his move, buying into his belief that he can try that shit again, only this time, I switch to GUN, Horizontal Acquisition Mode, looking back up through the canopy to time it. It has to be perfect. At worst, he takes off a wing, or kills me straight on.

Death by 30millimeter rounds. There wouldn’t be much left of me. No open casket. Nothing for Rachel to hug. To say goodbye to.

I think of Mia. Her smile and cheeky giggle warm me over just enough to stay calm.  I remember the lullabies, the ambient sound of ‘Twinkle Tinkle,’ holding her little body tight, watching her pacifier move rhythmically as she drifts to sleep. Her fingers wrap tightly around my thumb. I kiss her forehead. One last time.

Pay attention, Neil! Don’t die!

There’s still a chance!

We’re in a two-circle flow, following each other through. I know he’s looking, waiting, for me to cross into him again. But I don’t worry, becauseI have something for that. Halfway through my turn I cut throttle, feeling the fuselage shake and stutter, the airspeed choking away as if I hit an emergency brake.

He follows the move. I can tell because I see his bank angle increase, his nose dropping near stall. Then, I throttle up, watching him ease out of his turn to cut me off. I’m below him, maybe fifty feet at this point, closing on him faster than he can cover. He noses down, but can’t follow as I slip further beneath.

Yes. He has to roll inverted to spray me, and that will take time.

Time is all I need, and just as he does, just in the moment I see his left wing begin its rotation, I pause, all before yanking back the stick as hard as humanly possible.

The AoA warning chimes. The Raptor’s tail dips, its front and rear ends rotating about a centerpoint just forward of the wings. This is a supermaneuver, just like his friend that tried the backflip minutes ago.

I look through the HUD.

I see the Flanker cross the top web of the glass frame.

Then past the target reticle.

Then he begins to eclipse the bottom frame web.

I squeeze the trigger, the M61 cannon spooling to life in an instant, firing perhaps 150 rounds ahead of me, leading the 400knot J-15 momentarily—then, slicing through its underbelly as it passes, piercing its fuselage, severing through its right engine as I rotate atop, and then its right wing, and finally, the thrust vectoring nozzles.

My eyes follow it down, watching him break into pieces.

I see him eject, hoping I meet the same fate.

“Splash seven.” I say, only after catching my breath. “Oh my god.”

The wings level, the nose pitching up to return to the pretty clouds above. I check fuel. Shit. 2,800 pounds.

“MOP to Eagle One, good kill!”

I still hear trouble from the squad.

“We lost most of the RWR!” says Blue Two, maybe 170 miles away now, then, he hands us the bad news, “Showing—shit—ten to fourteen bandits. Hot from mainland China! Where’s Halo Flight? I don’t want to hit them!”

“Got RWR!” says Blue 4. “Can’t shake it! We need to fire!”

 The adrenaline fades, if just a bit. I look down. Our datalink is gone. Blue Two was our AWACs. I wonder what the fuck hit him.

“What the hell are they shooting at us?” I ask.

“MOP to Eagle One,” I hear, “looks like some kind of new long-range missile.”

“Don’t know!” says Blue 7. “I’m—getting fucking constant RWR! It breaks when I defend, then it’s back on me! Here it goes—my last Fox Three!”

PL-21s? Can’t be. That’s against all data I’ve seen.

“Eagle One,” says Blue 7 again, “my radar tracked Blue Six before he was downed. Fucking missile went pitbull,” pitbull being the moment a missile does a terminal track, “and I got the closing speed north of 3600knots!”

Mach 6. Yeah, six times the speed of sound. This says a lot.

Not a known PL-21 profile. “Holy hell.”

“—Eagle Five, splash one! I’m trailing three bandits, Flankers, tracking Blue Five and Six!”

“Thanks!” says Blue 6.

Then, more bad news “Blue Three, still engaged!” I hear, thinking he’s northwest of 5th wing. “Got bandits, split from the other group of ten. It’s a flight of two, popping through 2-8-9 for 70. Angels 30 and descending. I’m getting RWR! Missile launches, long range!”

“Jink and notch!” says someone. “Lost one of them with a notch each time RWR popped up! They seem to track constantly, but I don’t know how the hell they find you in notch—”

We hear the explosion on radio. He’s down. Hard.

“Who was that?” I ask. “Who’s down?!”

“—Uh,” says MOP, her voice stumbling, “looks like Blue Four is down.”

Blue 3 cries, “Nooooo! Mark his pos! We split, he was 40 miles behind me!”

Fuck! What are these missiles? I panic, and for a few seconds I hunt around me, looking out the canopy for contrails. I see none, and I wonder why I’ve yet to be targeted. Perhaps my pincer and my extension far to east helped?

“Eagle One to MOP,” they need to know this, “the two Flankers I merged with were Sukhois, not J-15.”

MOP replies, “Forgive me, Eagle One,” yes, she’s awesomely annoying, but human, “but how did you verify?”

“How did I verify?” I snark. “With all due respect, I ‘verified’ when I went into the merge! They’re either the best Chinese pilots the world has ever seen, flying with stolen engines, or these are actual Sukhoi Flankers with good pilots and not knock-offs.”

She asks, “Eagle One, are you running tapes?”

“Confirm tapes.” I say. Yes, I recorded it all.

Too bad our satellites are fucked.

“MOP to all flights,” she says, “our track is showing some—fourteen bandits. Heading due east from Putian. Confirming report from Blue Two. Weapons check?”

“We’re all low!” says a Lightning, probably Blue 1.

“Shit.” says MOP, though I admire her effort, “Okay, we’re trying to find a way to get you guys through this. Who has Fox Threes?”

“Blue Flight has Fox Threes.” they report, “Blue Five, I’m out.”  then, “Blue Two, I have two.” then, “Blue One—uh, shit, only one left.” and, “Blue Three, showing three.” and, “Blue Ten, I have three.” and, “Blue Seven, I have three, preparing to press bandits that turned east to return to that Chinese carrier!” and finally, “Blue Nine here, I’m trailing Blue Seven, and I have two Fox Threes. About to use them!”

Not enough. MOP doesn’t like the answer, “Okay, Eagle Flight?”

“Eagle One, I’m out.” I say. “Guns only for me.”

“Eagle Two, two left.” then, “Eagle Three, one left.” I expect 4th wing, but I remember that he’s gone. Fuck. “Eagle Five, two left.”

I assume MOP is thinking the same as me. Together, Blue and Eagle flight combined, we have seventeen long range active radar missiles. Problem is, we’re split up. Fourteen high speed interceptors will likely blow through the four Lightnings to the north of me.

“Guys,” says MOP, “I have Halo Flight, F-15s engaged with this group. Contact is spotty. Two are down. Repeat, two of them are splashed. I need you to press! We have to keep northern Taiwan clear for reinforcements!”

“Copy. Status on Eagle Flight!” I demand. “I need you, guys.”

“Sir,” I’m glad to hear them, “Eagle Two, and Three here, we’re looking for you.” 2’s voice grows solemn. He’s choked up,  “Four is down. No chute. Don’t think he made it.”

“Goddammit.”

“I know, sir.” says 3, and with a pause, he asks me what everyone wants to know, but not hear, “How’s your fuel, sir? We show you seventy miles east.”

“I got bingo fuel about ten minutes ago.” I’m honest, though I don’t want to face it. “We need to keep in the fight.”

“We just dropped our tanks.”

That’s good. They’re luckier than me. With their internal reserves, they should have enough fuel for a quick press, maybe two if they manage well. My guys know what they’re doing.

I stomach the courage to check my status.

My voice dips, “I’m showing less than 2,000 pounds. Got a fuel light.”

“Blue Two, have  you launched yet?”

“Negative Eagle One.” he says. “Dropped our tanks. Radars off. Stealthed up. Go figure we lost the RWRs for now. We’re going to press them, Angels 30, planning to split. Time to intercept: 8 minutes. Guys, I hate to say it, but we’re going to need all the help we can get!”

I breathe. Slowly. Deeply.

We’re this close to Taiwan. So close to land, and all I have to do is get there. I just need to set the wheels down and take a breather, maybe have a drink, bullshit a bit with the squad, play a few games, and if I’m lucky, call Rachel. I want to hear Mia.

We can sit together like we did weeks ago.

My little lady sleeping in her mother’s arms, smelling the aroma of freshly grilled steak as her dad bullshits about the NBA finals, or the NCAA March Madness. I want a fucking barbeque.

Datalink is back. Props to Blue 2 for flying high. He’ll have RWR in minutes, if not seconds. Better make it quick.

“MOP to Blue and Eagle,” she nearly shouts, “Halo Flight is reporting visual ID of—type J-20 interceptors. Engaged.” she pauses, “They, uh—” and then stops.

“Come on, ma’am.” says Blue 10, “be real with us. You have so far!”

“—They won’t hold that line.” MOP admits. “It’s on you now.”

I check the situation. It’s a bad as I thought, and though our split and pincer saved the day with the first big engagement, our coverage is too spotty for the next. Six minutes and counting. Blue 1, 2, 10, and 3 are up north facing off with a flight of up to fourteen Chinese bad guys. Fucking J-20 stealth fighters, too?

“Sir,” says 3rd wing, “you seeing the link?”

“Yes.” I say.

“Got three bandits, off our 2-7-5 for 55.” he says, and I check to verify,  “Same ones we tracked minutes ago during the engagement. They haven’t fired again.”

“Eagle Three,” says a Lightning, “we were taking launches from that group. Those long range super RWR missiles we talked about.”

“Guys,” I say, “assume they’re real Suhkois. I’m guessing Su-35.”

“Must’ve gotten a helluva financing deal on them.”

“Lease specials. Zero money down.”

I laugh, even though I shouldn’t. “Focus!” yeah, time to be a hard ass again. “My group, I want the Eagles to press for Blue Flight’s flank. Cover their rears, go high, and Fox Three as many bandits as you can. Who am I kidding? You know how to handle it.”

I wait for objections. It takes two seconds.

“But, sir!” says 5th wing, maybe 20 miles ahead of 2nd and 3rd wing to the west of me. “What about the three bandits?”

“They can’t have much fuel left. Taking off from a Chinese carrier is hell. Ski-jumping and all.”

“Let them run out of gas then!” says 2nd wing, then, “How the hell is that Chinese carrier still there? Sink it!”

Politics. That’s why.

MOP takes lead with this bullshit explanation, “MOP to all flights. We have no clearance to engage flattops at this time! Mission is to control airspace!”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” I groan.

“I don’t make the rules.” snarks MOP. “Five minutes. Come on, we need you to regroup!”

The three bandits have fired since the initial engagement. I imagine them, out of long-range weapons, flying mid-altitude to conserve what little fuel they have left.

Liaoning is about 200 miles southeast of me.

Fuckers. In the same boat as me. No fuel. No weapons.

Their plan is textbook from my best guesses, hoping to surround the island and quickly subvert it before “negotiating” new terms with us. Washington, already in a clusterfuck with lost ships and aircraft, doesn’t want this to escalate any further. Same for the Chinese. It’s smart to not target the big ships, at least for now.

But I have to make a decision.

Rachel. Mia. I have to be selfless here. I want to see you, so badly in fact that I yearn for it with every beat of my heart. God, I love you both.

“Eagle Flight,” I order, “follow my directive. Press to cover Blue Flight. Good hunting, over!”

“Sir—!”

I cut him off, “YOU HAVE YOUR ORDERS!”

Silence. I can practically feel their disdain. “Copy.” says 2nd wing.

“Eagle Two.” I humbly say. “You are the lead now. Godspeed.”

“Godspeed, sir.”

Here’s to hoping the three leftovers don’t press me.

Seconds pass. I watch the datalink, my eyes glued to their positions as they change with each update. I dial my Raptor to the right a few degrees, changing to 3-1-0, or northwest to not commit to them. 500knots. I’m slow, running on fumes. My plan is to get as close to the island as possible. I have 220 miles.

If anything, I can dip back to a little Japanese island, Ishigaki and ditch there. I need to choose. PNR is, well, now.

Avionics says, “Fuel, 1500!”

Shit. That’s—what, eight percent fuel left.

Focus. Check the bandits. Their noses are pointed beneath me.

My guys should be in supercruise, likely cresting Angels 40 by now. I hope they bring the pain. All they have to do is make their presence known. Too bad I can’t be with them.

Shit. Shit. The bandits have turned towards me. I have no RWR, so they can’t be tracking that way. Maybe infrared. Su-35s have a hell of an IRST.

I turn back to 2-7-2. Straight at them.

There’s no way I can run. I don’t have the fucking fuel for that.

Then, against the expectations, I hear, “Last chance. I’m taking the shot. Locked bandit for 40.”  he speaks about one of the three guys sweating me, who is just off 3rd wing’s nose, “Eagle Three, Fox Three!”

What?! Against my orders!”

“Blue Seven,” who has them in flank, firing at their sides, “Fox Three. Fox Three. I’m out! Godspeed, Eagle One!”

“Goddammit!” I shout. “Save your missiles!”

“Couldn’t let you get jumped, sir.” says 3rd wing, “Passing Angels 35. 900knots.”

I can’t help but smile. You bastards. Always looking out.

Up north, at the tip of our group, “Blue One, we’re showing confirmed ten bandits. Type J-11. They split, and can’t see us. No RWR yet. I’m engaged! Fox Three!”

“Eagle Flight,” says Blue 10, “we’ll push them your way!  Blue Two, hold the datalink! Fox Three!”

“Copy that! We’ll—”

My brain lets them fade into the background. I know they’ll handle it, not because of some blind faith, rather the fact that they have to. They have no choice, and if anything, I’ve seen time and time again out of these pilots, is that we always find a way.

Today is a bad day.

We are losing.

We are outnumbered.

We are outgunned.

But we are just getting started.

“Whoa!” I say, seeing a flash in the distance, near the horizon in front of me. “I see a splash! Splash one! Should be two left! Off my nose, I’m guessing 20 miles!”

Fuck. They’re getting close.

I keep my radar off. I need the stealth. With Blue Flight engaged up north, I figure their radars are pointed west towards the assholes from the Chinese mainland. My Raptor guys are way past us now, at least a hundred miles, supercruising north of 1,000knots.

My datalink is gone. I can only use my eyes.

The helmet visor is seeking, hoping to pick up their infrared—though I know they are doing the same for me. I hold my breath, not sure for what reason, but it helps me deal with the suspense. I see just one target, dead ahead. The IRST reticule locks, blinking as he appears.

I grip the stick. He grows closer.

“Fuel, 1000!”

A dark grey Flanker, its planform evident in the distance. He turns my way. I dial in a bit towards him, and wait. Anxiously, I wait for his next move.

“Don’t do it.” I mumbled, my eyes locked to him. “Keep your nose away, guy.”

But he doesn’t. He gradually shifts towards me, the anxiety between us acting as a magnet pulling our aircraft together.  The low fuel light begins to flash. I see it in my peripheral vision, but I dare not look. I know. I already know that I can’t do this.

I can’t keep away. I need energy if he makes a move, so pulling the nose sharply in his direction should he choose to shoot would cost me dearly. I can’t go burners. I’d run the reserve tanks dry in minutes.

We’re so close to home. Rachel. Mia. I’m coming back to you. I just have to make this one last leg.

Alright, guy. I see you, and I know you see me.

We’re in the same situation, buddy. Same exact situation. Thing is, will you let me go home? Will you let me see my Rachel, and my Mia again?  Will you leave me alone, or will you try to kill me?

It’s up to you. Your call. I’m game, only if it’s what you want.

So, are you going to be my huckleberry?

This can’t happen, but it will, and as he makes one final correction again, I yaw his way. We’re five degrees nose offset from each other. He has two infrared missiles, R-73s, and I have none. I know well of those missiles, after all, I was nearly killed by two just minutes ago. If he wanted me dead, he would’ve fired by now.

Or—is he just waiting?

Like me? Waiting for the right moment?

Holy shit. He jettisons his missiles, waving his wings in a gesture as questionable as his intent. I tighten my grip on the stick, dialing in just a few degrees more, this way we’re perhaps no more than two degrees offset. We might as well be head-on, crossing beneath two miles.

He noses up—and drops the two degree offset to zero.

You motherfucker. Okay. I flip to GUN.

Looks like we have a gunfight. Let’s go. “Eagle One to MOP. Mark my position. Joker fuel. Engaged, Su-35 Flanker. Guns only.”

MOP says, as calmly as ever, knowing my situation as well as anyone else on coms, “Copy, Eagle One. Call it.”

Half mile now. We’re nose to nose.

I throttle up, just beneath burner. I’ll make due with 550 knots. So will he. And in a last ditch, I pull up, firing a few tracers—warning shots.

He fires too, deliberately above my canopy.

30mm rounds zip by, the percussions of their sonic booms telling of what awaits. I can get him. I can end him right now, just as we cross beneath a mile. A Raptor has the pitch authority, the pipper of the target reticule in my visor telling me to take the shot, but what kind of pilot would I be?

He jettisoned his missiles, and still wants a fight.

What kinds of sportsman takes a cheap shot? Not me.

I love you both, Rachel and Mia.

“Fuel, critical!” says avionics. “Fuel, critical!”

Details grow stronger, exponentially by the passing second, each jet covering entire football fields in the span. The Sukhoi is admittedly beautiful. It’s pudgy, downward sloped nose painted a shiny white like snow, its canopy led by the telling budge of its seekers, its twin tailfins towering straight above its wide and imposing wingspan.

And here, just before we pass, I see the pilot.

Staring straight at me, we make eye contact through our visors, and in this moment, as he stares at me, I see his right hand raise to his forehead in salute. His hand finishes the motion in front of him, likely finding its way back to the joystick, and the Flanker rolls—inward towards me. I roll as well, countering his move, preparing to turn, to make use of every single knot of kinetic energy I can spare.

I inhale, and then I let it out.

These are what feel like some of my last breaths.

My Raptor rocks in wake turbulence, our craft blowing by perhaps just fifty feet—or less, apart. I note that our encounter marks the closet I have ever come to an aircraft so linked to legend.

“Eagle One,” I finally call it, “MERGED!

And just as he does, I begin my turn towards oblivion.

 

This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are creations stemming from the author’s imagination. Any events and locations are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2021 Bryan James Williams

Artwork developed and flown in DCS World, and stylized by me

Aircraft Images come from the wonderful community at shipbucket.com

Tac Maps are created by me in CMANO – Edited in Photoshop © Matrix Games

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