LT. BARTLETT 

VX-33 “Predators” AIR TEST & EVALUATION SQUADRON

Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) — 34th Black Cat Squadron 

1125R hours 5 June 2028CE 

TAIWAN STRAIT   ||  “FLANKER ALLEY”

Yeah, and I cheated death again that day. 

Two bandits pounced us from 8-o-clock high. If it wasn’t for the AIM-9X, and Tou-cho’s clever eyes, they’d be picking pieces of us out of the mountains. 

Tou-cho didn’t make it. Somehow, I did. 

Took down three Chinese Flankers. After they killed Tou-Cho and five others, I hung low and jumped them during their egress. Two of them never saw it coming. The third guy? Well, he pulled vertical and rolled for a one-circle. I tried, but couldn’t get the turn rate up. Helpless, I watched him rate the shit out of me and fire a PL-8, but it tracked for the flares. I jammed his WEZ, staying too close for him to fire missiles, but I’m just not good with the Viper. 

They don’t like AoA, so the Chinese guy jumped on my six gunned me, but I got a lucky shot with a Sidewinder just before the wing broke off and I punched out.  

ROCAF was cheering when they picked me up. 

But it was nothing to cheer about. We’re dropping like flies, and in only two sorties, I saw ten guys go out with me and never come back. Yeah I ejected, but unless ROCAF has the unlimited aircraft cheat, there’s no way to keep this up.

Daddy, I fucking need you. I wish you were here.

“Keep your head in it.” you would say. “Whatever situation you’re in, you have to keep your head in it. Feel it. Change your direction faster than it changes against you.”

I hear you, Dad. I hear you.

June 5th. Fucking air raid. 

Commander Miles says they found me another F-16.

“Try to not get shot down this time.” he smiles. 

Asshole. 

I like the ROCAF bunkers. Day three of pounding and we’re still here, stolid as a rock. They are sturdy, well-lit, and spacious. Like most of the public, I had no idea they were this developed. The ground shakes as warheads hit, the rumbles like thunder in the distance.

Initially, I formed up with a squad of twenty ROCAF and one American. We didn’t have time to meet during the bombardment, hustling into whatever aircraft we could find, but today we’re at least a ‘team’, per say. Three days into the air battle, and I finally meet my flight lead. 

He’s Air Force. I can tell. 

Trust me, they all have something weird about them. 

“Captain Neil Banks.” he says as we scramble for helmets. 

I’m still strapping up. Holy shit it’s hard with broken ribs. 

He’s waiting for my response. 

Be nice. Come on, “Lieutenant Dorothy Bartlett.” I say. “You a Viper pilot?”

“No. Raptor.” he says. “90th Fighter Squadron.”

I look around, seeing none of the wonderplanes. “Oh, good.”

“Look, I flew Vipers about eight years ago.” he admits. “It’s been a long time.” 

“I qualified in them.” I say. “Navy. VX-33 Test & Evaluation.”

“Yes, I know.” he says, suiting up. “You came from Elmendorf. Everyone knows about you. Fantastic test pilot. Watched a few of your rounds. I was a big fan—”

“—Okay.”

Fucking fanboy. Funny, because I don’t remember him, and that’s likely on purpose. I mean, what is he, if anything but another ‘fly guy’? Do you know what it’s like on an airbase? To have your wings? To be little more than ‘the girl’ in the squad?

Oh, wait. That’s right. I don’t care. 

“Look,” I tell him, finishing my harness, “sir, just get us up there and don’t die. That’s all we’re doing.”

“Do you have any tips?” 

The bunker rocks again, shaking us out of this awkward conversation. I have better things to do. So does he. 

Seriously? All I can do is look at him, “You’re a Raptor pilot and a Captain. Sir, you should be giving me tips.” 

His smile disappears. 

“You killed four 5th gens.” he says. “We all heard about it.”

“And, you killed seven Flankers in one fight.” I say. “Three of them in close BFM, sir. You’re the hero, it seems.” 

“Look,” he sighs, stepping up to me, “we’re going to have to work together, whether or not you like it. I’m not up for a pissing contest. I know who you are, how you fly, and I know you’re a tough handle.”

What the fuck does that mean? “Yes, sir.” 

“With that said, two days ago when we lost control of the forward line, you stayed low in the mountains and used airspeed to pounce those J-11s.” he says. “They will get on top of us again, and again, and again. We can’t keep them from crossing the straight.”

Okay, what does he want me to say? “We have inferior missiles, sir. And pilots.” 

“I fucking know that, Lieutenant.” he huffs. “What I’m saying is that I like that strategy. What I don’t like is our performance at the merge. We need to up our game.”

“The Viper is difficult.” I nod. “Can’t get angles like I’m used to in a Rhino. I hoped we wouldn’t need to merge.”

“I need you to have my back.”  

“And you mine, sir.”

He rolls his eyes, “You’re going to be a fucking riot to fly with.”

You want sarcasm? I got it, “That’s what I hear, sir.” 

But he smiles anyway, “You ready?”

“Yes.” I say. “If just a bit scared, sir.”

“That makes both of us. Good luck up there.” 

A ROCAF officer greets me with a salute. Commander Miles is standing next to him, eyeing a list. Then they point to the corner, where I see a pretty little Viper waiting for me. 

It’s time, so I nod and take off running.

Fuck. I can’t run. My leg nearly gives out, but the ROCAF guy is nice enough. Master Sergeant Wouchu. He gives me a hand and helps me limp to the jet. An entire group of maintainers stand at attention. They salute me as if I was a general. 

Thank you, guys. I hope she’s good and ready to kick ass. 

I’m up the ladder, fighting pain from my ribs as I lift my legs over and into the floor recesses. First, I strap in. Second, startup sequence. 

Shit. What the hell is the sequence again?

Think! Think!

Yeah, that’s right!

FLCS test. No faults. Main Power. 

JFS on. Wait for the spovol. Okay, what now?

Throttle at idle position. There we go, I hear the engine. 

Good fuel flow—I think. Hydraulic pressure. Okay. 

MFIL button. Time for the audible alarms. 

PULL UP! 

ALTITUDE!

WARNING!

JAMMER!

COUNTER!

CHAFF! FLARE!

LOW! ALT! BLOCK! CAUTION! BINGO! DATA! I-F-F! 

Power up instruments. INS alignment, yada yada. 

I see the MFD screens illuminating. God, I’m rusty. 

I look up, seeing a crowd of worried ROCAF onlookers. I must be taking too long. I continue flipping switches. The HUD is good. Hell, they even switched the default language to English. 

I love these guys. 

Radio is up. I look over at Captain Banks. 

I don’t even think his jet is on. 

“Give me a minute!” he snaps. “I’m still trying to remember the sequence, but everything is in Chinese!” 

“Fuck me.” I snort, climbing out of my seat, hobbling over to his jet to help him out. Minutes pass, as I flip the switches, none too nicely, “Do you got it now, sir?” I ask him. 

He nods, steam coming from his ears. 

Minutes later, they’re guiding us down the taxiway, a long but beautiful construct literally wedged into the side of a hill. I had no idea they went this far with their shielding, but it’s genius. 

At the end there is a set of large bulkhead doors, each one likely weighing a hundred tons, suspended on a rolling track much like a garage door. They are retracted, their leading edges lit by directional strobes lined neatly with the border of the runway go-zone. At night they trace perfectly straight lines when the ultraviolet illumination takes over. 

If there is much to learn from Taiwan, their base hardening is second to none that I’ve seen. Even under heavy bombardment, here we are taking to the skies yet again. 

Okay. Waiting for airspeed. I have clearance for takeoff. 

Trail formation. Let’s fucking go.

“Game 1, this is control” says GCI. “Game 1, this is control. Do you read?”

Nothing back. 

“Game 1, this is control” says GCI, again. “Game 1, this is control. Do you read?”

This repeats twice more. 

“Sir?” I finally say after the third time, watching him get airspeed and slowly lift into the air. He’s struggling. 

Banks doesn’t give much confidence, “Uh—Game 1-1, control. Reading. Sorry. Taking off.”

“Game 1-2, control,” I say, still trying to get comfortable in these planes. They’re unusual, their seats reclined like I’m watching football on a sofa, the MFDs small, the joystick off on my right side, and even the flight controls are, well, completely different than the Super Rhino, “ugh, airborne. Trail.” 

“Jesus.” says Banks, presumably to me. “I’m still rusty on these Vipers. Copy?”

“Copy.” I sigh. 

I then look behind me to my left, and then to my right. 

I hear the rest, “Game 1-3, airborne.” then, “Game 1-4, flying.”

At least the Viper is easy to fly. It’s deceptively smooth, its flight controls tracking like a Mercedes-Benz on a long straight highway. The jet is—oddly uninvolved. I still don’t like it. There is very little buffeting, very little ‘feel’ if you will, but it’s all I got. 

I figure together, we’ll have to make good friends. 

Get up there and defend the airspace. That’s it. 

Three days ago there were twenty of us. Today, just eight. Two Americans, and six of the best ROCAF fighters FOB Pinglin could find. All young, even younger than me, but all very professional, even if ‘professional’ means ‘professionally terrified’. We kept our introductions brief on purpose. Day three, and it’s better that way. 

Goddammit, my leg hurts. It’s a deep, but slow throb, a hot iron pressing what’s left of skin with each pulse. Out ahead, I see Game 1-1, Captain Banks, banking left between the hills ahead. 

Taiwan’s mountains are beautiful. 

I figured they’ll become quite the friends, considering our only usable tactic of staying low to keep alive. Briefing confirmed what we already know. We’re outgunned, outclassed, and out-tech’d. Chinese have their stealth J-20s up north flying CAP, combat air patrol, above the straight. 

Yeah, yeah. I’m familiar with them. 

I killed four, but that was a stroke of luck and chance all bundled in one. Now, with an F-16C Block 52, I don’t want to take my chances. 

“Maybe you can take on those J-20s, eh?” Banks annoyingly keeps his mood lighthearted. “Show us how it’s done?”

No. Not in this bird. Built in the early 2000s. 

We have a decent air-to-air loadout. 

4x AIM-120C. 2x AIM-9X. 

But this shit won’t touch a high speed 5th gen. 

“Not today.” I shake my head. “Showing 15 miles until Waypoint 1. Turning in.”

“Copy.” says everyone.  

“Stay dark.” Banks reminds. “Control. Reference?” 

No radar. No lights. Minimum speed. 

Things slow down.

Bitchin’ Betty yells again for the thousandth time. 

ALTITUDE. ALTITUDE.

HUD readout says 2600, the aircraft rocking back and forth and as I dial the nose through these mountains. God, this bird is weird. Some control inputs register stronger outputs than others, the flight computers constantly tweaking my commands with whatever they feel is ‘reasonable,’ but I still can’t get the hang of the systems. 

I don’t like them. Where is the limiter override? 

The Rhino has an override! Give me a Rhino and I can fight!

Keep your head in it.

Right. I can’t get lost in sight seeing, but damn, it’s hard. Usually mountains are, well, kind of barren, but Xueshan Range is lush. I’m flying through our safety blanket covered in endless dark green trees, because with inferior technology, we have to play dirty. 

And by ‘dirty,’ our strategy right now is to hide from the PLAF radar until the very last moment. Right when they press. Just when they think they have the upper hand at any given moment, but there are always surprises. 

Waypoint 2 passes. Here we go.

Deep breaths. Deep. Breaths. 

GCI gives an update,  “All: five groups of bandits ahead due west, groups one, two, and three making attack runs on targets in and around Taoyuan City. Groups four and five are LO (low observable) type. Spotty contact. Group four turning in for possible intercept or attack run, high aspect for Game 1. Group five northwest, possible combat air patrol in East China Sea.”

Shit. Another pump and dump, the fifth one today. They’re wearing us thin already, the J-20s to the northwest, still cutting the island off from Japan. God, I wish we could do something about them. 

“Game 1,” says GCI, “Take group three, showing twenty-two bandits, BRA, 3-0-2, for 41, Angels 15. Copy?”

WHAT? Did she say twenty-two bandits?

“Uh—Game 1, Copy.” mumbles Banks. 

He’s thinking the same thing I am. 

“Sir,” I say, “twenty-two bandits? There are eight of us!”

“—I know.”

Minutes pass. My trigger finger is itchy. I hate flying blind, relying on someone as scared as I am, sitting in a room, watching a screen to tell me what my situation is. I want my own fucking radar, but I know that turning it on makes me a sitting duck. 

“Sir,” I say, “control said Group 4 is LO, but turning in for a high aspect on us. My take is they are J-31s, unless the PLAF have J-20s for ground strike. They’re on a SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) mission for those bombers in Group 2 and 3.”

“Agreed.” I watch his bird nearly hit treetops as he banks left to round the hill. Yes we’re that low, “They shouldn’t know we’re here.” 

“Not yet.” I hunt around us, the bright blue sky blinding at noon, even with the JHMCS visor. “We’ll have to split.”

“Game 1 and 2,” says GCI, “good news. Tally 4 is splitting to gover bandit Group 1 and 2.”

Tally 4 is a flight of thirty-five ROCAF out of FOB Jianshi, 33 miles southwest of our base in Pinglin. Commander Miles said they were planning 15x F-16 and 20x of the indigenous F-CK fighters. They’re the closest to the action, so they’re getting the majority of the resources.

GCI again, “Game 2, cross your Waypoint 2. Turn to 2-7-0, be advised, bandit Group 3 splitting, BRA your 2-7-4 for 42, running attack raids cross-Strait.” 

Then the shitstorm begins, the influx of voices of radio coms, some panicked, some confused, and some so calm that they must be dazed. 

“Game 2,” I hear, hoping those damn Mirage 2000s are doing okay, “radar spike! Crossing through Waypoint 2! Clear for radar?”

“No!” says GCI. “Stay dark!”

Then, from ROCAF main command, “*Bulletin. Bulletin. Air Raid in progress, Taoyuan City. All air defenses engaged.*” then it repeats in Taiwanese Mandarin.

So many voices, but I can’t understand but a few.

An American, “Tally 4, spike! 3-o-clock!” 

Spike? From 3-o-clock? They have to be ahead of us. 

And another, “Tally 4-7, turn in!’

“They got missiles out!”

“Tally 4-2, Fox 3!”

“Fox 3!”

“Fox 3, defending! Defending!” 

Shit. Shit. SHIT. 

But Tally can’t be that far ahead. I look down at my kneeboard, checking the INS—god, I miss GPS—trying to figure out where the hell we are, but, wait. That can’t be. 

“2 to 1,” I radio, “check INS.”

After a moment, Banks replies, “1 confirms location. Status?”

“Tally is foxing. We’ve seen nothing.” okay, I’m panicked. “No, no! That can’t be right! Why would red forces pull south? That makes no sense!”

It only takes a few seconds for my panic to infect him. 

Yes, I have that effect. It’s a trap. Trust me.

“Game Flight,” Banks orders, “split! See the peak ahead, 2, 3, 4, and 5 pull left, and I’ll pull right with 6, 7, and 8!”

“Copy!” I say, tightening my grip. Damn side-stick. “Game 1-3 through 5, on me!”

“Copy!”

“Ugh—copy.”

There’s the ridge ahead, the leading edge of the mountainside cut flush like the hull of a ship. I roll left, my eyes naturally hunting upward through the bubble canopy, wondering where the hell these guys are. 

3, 4, and 5 stay on me as planned. 

Throttle up a bit. We go into a Four Ship Wedge.  

I’m ahead, maybe one mile by now, with my wingman, 2, sitting offset like an arrow, the other twin-ship doing the same behind us. They purposely sit line abreast, spread by at least one thousand feet—the biggest we can fit considering the mountain ridges. Look down at your hand with your fingers spread apart. 

Pinky and fourth finger are me. Thumb and index are them.

That’s us. Trying to spread a little wealth. 

Where are they? Come on!

“Okay,” deep breaths, I’m rolling around, trying to get a vantage point, “everyone keep tight!”

“GCI,” calls Banks, “need reference!”

“Uh—hold on,” so GCI now tells us to ‘hold on’, I guess, “we see, bandits, Group 3, BRA 0-4-5—no, that can’t be right. Hold on!”

“Jesus.” I gasp. “Control, what is the range?”

“Control to Game, we’ve lost contact. No return on bandit Group 3. Be advised, last seen eight miles from your position.”

They’re probably coming down on top of us, right now. 

As if they are expecting us. Somehow they got through the air defense—if there still is an air defense. We’re crumbling now, right in front of my eyes, as I pull the nose above the mountain ridge, seeing contrails of smoke rising from ahead, the city of Taoyuan ablaze with dozens if not hundreds of fires. 

Through the haze I see contrails of rocket motors, little missiles streaming into the sky, just as others dial in their final vectors to deal their remaining energy. So many high value targets down there. 

Ships. Factories. Banks. Civil Centers. 

Airports. Missile defense. Home. Schools. 

It’s horrible. I think of all the people that are down there.

Keep your fucking head in it!

I que the weapons select switch to DGFT. More throttle as I power through what looks like the last of these hills. 

ALTITUDE. ALTITUDE. 

Jesus! Almost hit the ground!

PULL UP. PULL UP. 

“Everyone look up!” Banks shouts. “Keep your eyes on 3 and 4-o-clock high! Stay dark! Radars up in 15 seconds!”

Go time. Afterburners. I pick up speed and cross into Mach 1, passing the city below me. Sorry, but this can’t be the loudest thing going on down there. With an eight bird flight, split in two, Four Ship Wedge, we start to split altitudes. We’ll be over the water in seconds now. I’ll take the high altitude. I’ll be the bait.

o time. Afterburners. I pick up speed and cross into Mach 1, passing the city below me. Sorry, but this can’t be the loudest thing going on down there. With an eight bird flight, split in two, Four Ship Wedge, we start to split altitudes. We’ll be over the water in seconds now. I’ll take the high altitude. I’ll be the bait. 

I’ll be your huckleberry. I nose up hard, pulling to 40 degrees to gain altitude fast. If these assholes pressed as deeply as I think, well into the airspace of Taiwan, maybe to get Taipei while we were too busy defending Taoyuan City, they’ll be right—HOLY SHIT. RIGHT THERE!

RIGHT THERE! Four silhouettes. No, eight. There are two groups. Holy shit, are those J-31s? 

No! Those are Su-57s. J-57s maybe? 

We were right!

“2-o-clock, high! Got VID on—” I fight the gee as I bank right, “—eight bandits, unknown type, Angels 10, heading 2-7-8. Still dark! Can’t be more than 5 miles.” I line the reticule the helmet visor with them, trying to stay sneaky, “Come on. Come on!” I plead, “GIVE ME A FUCKING TONE.” 

DUH DUH DUH DUH, WEEEEEEEEEEEH

“Fox 2!” I shout, pressing the trigger, sending a little Sidewinder away. Then I spin my head to place the reticle on the Chinese wingman, sending another, “Fox 2!”

I hear my wingman behind me, “Taking the two on the left! Fox 2! Fox 2!”

Holy shit. It works. 

IT WORKS!

The four J-57s never see what’s coming. I watch as my eyes freeze in time, the Sidewinders streaking towards the ‘Snowy Owls’, as they’re called in China, their pilots oblivious and blind as we close distance fast from beneath them. See, their plan made sense, sending heavy bombers and 4th generation attrition units to the south to soften up Taoyuan City’s defenses in the three big main attack groups. They knew we’d panic, sending whatever we had down to meet them over the Taiwan Strait, all while these assholes in their J-57s pressed well within 10 miles of the shore, firing their little air-to-ground missiles—whatever the fuck they named their AMG-88 HARM equivalent—at Taipei’s air defense sites.

Considering ROCAF’s spotty GCI, I’d say that their plan worked well enough. Down and to my right, over Taipei, there are pillars of smoke rising, but no surface-to-air that I can see. They’ve taken down the radars, leaving Taiwan’s capital a sitting duck.

“Fox 2!” I hear someone call. “Fox 2!” 

BOOM. I see the flash of my lead AIM-9X. It shreds a Felon to bits. “SPLASH!” The second missile does the same to his close friend, timed perfectly with hits from my wingman on the other two J-57s to the left. “SPLASH TWO!”

Then I hear our guys, “Splash!”

“Got splash one! Splash Two!”

Four of them are down.

Our cover is blown, but it’s too late the majority of them. They break away wildly, some to the left, some to the right, but the Sidewinders are already unchanged and hawking them down like hungry little wolves in a forest. 

We have the airspeed advantage. Good. I wanted that. 

Now, we are no longer outnumbered. We have to make this quick. We can’t let them run too far into the Strait, where we will be the prey. 

“Game 1 to Control!” I hear Banks. Shit, I’ve tuned him out for at least five minutes. Sorry, sir.  “We have a ship of twelve J-57 bandits—now eight—egressing from an apparent attack on Taipei radar stations! Engaged!”

“They’re splitting!” I call, watching them fall for the trap, turning right to get away from us, only to find themselves faced with Captain Banks and our guys. “Got a group of four braking right towards you, 1!” 

“Got em!” he says. “Fox 2! Fox 2!”

His wingman calls, “Fox 2!”

And another, “Fox 2!”

“Splash! Splash!”

“Splash one!”

But this advantage won’t last forever. Some of the Sidewinders inevitably miss, their targets now astutely aware of our sneak attack. As they turn, I see them recommit. One of them turns directly to me. 

Shit. SHIT. 

I roll defensive, nosing down towards the ground, my thumb flipping the countermeasure switch, Betty in the background yelling,

CHAFF. FLARE.

CHAFF. FLARE. 

He has a lock. I see his missile. Oh fuck there it is. I jink back the other way, towards him, closing the distance to jam his WEZ (weapon engagement zone). He can’t fire again and hit me if I’m too close, but dammit, this Viper doesn’t like sharp inputs.

We merge, slightly offset but still high aspect, I see the top of his fuselage, the planform both unique and haunting at once. I check speed, I’m sitting at 650. Too fucking fast! I pull hard on the stick, rolling back into his position, but the controls lag again. 

They won’t let me do anything drastic. 

We’re going one-circle, both aircraft turning in opposite directions, but trying to follow the same line. Tracing the circumference of the circle, he’s far slower than me. I know he’s turning tighter, his circle smaller than mine. Usually, I pull the AoA limiter and spike some gee to correct and get angles, but the Viper is too smooth. 

Fucking flight controls. There’s a 25 degree alpha limiter built into these things, and whenever you get close, it takes control away from you. It doesn’t want you to fly the jet too hard. It hates departure, the sudden breakaway from controlled flight, but the Rhino can keep itself together. 

“Game 1-2,” I call, fighting to keep my eyes on my rapidly agressing bandit, “ugh—merged! Single—” I pull harder, inverting the aircraft to assault the AoA limiter, “—J-57. Fuck!” 

He’s already got me locked. He fires. 

I see his missile! FUCK! Get out of the afterburner!

“Keep your fucking head in it!”

CHAFF. FLARE.

CHAFF. FLARE.

“Game 1-1, moving southwest, covering ingress of bandits, J-11,” Banks says. Shit, they called for backup. It was probably their plan to cover each other’s paths after the attack, “Aaaand—Fox 3!”

“I got more J-11s,” says one ours, “tracking three! They’re splitting!”

“Game 1-5, engaged!”

“Game 1-6, uh—also engaged!”  

My bandit is closing. The missile! Oh god! Here it comes—but wait. It stops pulling lead, streaking straight over my canopy, my world upside down as the water fills the void above me. Come on, roll! 

He follows me down. Check speed.

“Moving in to cover!” I hear Game 1-4 say. “Hold on!”

Shit. 508 knots. Too fucking fast!

I roll over and pull hard again, flipping the sky back into correct orientation. Down to 310 knots. Too slow. I feel the aircraft pogoing. 

Right. Goddammit. Clean the jet, Dorothy!

Yellow circle, bottom left of IP. 

EMER STORES JETTISON. I nearly stick my thumb through the button, feeling a sudden jolt as both wing tanks break off. 

In the distraction, I look behind me, hunting for the banit, waiting for him to kill me, but I see fire. I see flames. Fuck. Game 1-4 is hit! He’s hit! 

WHERE IS THE BANDIT?

Roll! Roll! Ugh! I can’t find him!

Goddammit. Missile!

CHAFF. FLARE.

I can’t get this lucky, oh god here it—holy shit it missed.

There he is, pulling up towards me! Let’s try this merge again. The Viper is a rate fighter, just like Banks said. I remember that, too, but it doesn’t fight the way I like. Tough shit. Gotta find a way. I settle along 400 knots, easing into the stick, feeling gee press my guts into the seat, my eyes settled clean on the banit pulling lead to gun me. 

And I roll. I fucking roll, out of plane, away from his nose as I see his tracer rounds fall short—if only by ten or twenty feet. He’s behind me, just like always. God, I’m useless in this thing. I have no more Sidewinders left. Do I get rid of the AMRAAMs?

No, they’re too important.

“Keep your fucking head in it!”

I pull again, trying to maintain the turn rate. Oh yes, here we go. I’m rating him in the two-circle, both of us charting our own sides of a figure eight. We’re coming to meet once again, nose-to-nose. Time for burner. I need a little energy.

Come on, you motherfucker. Let’s go. 

If we die, we’re going together. 

And there he goes! Over the top! He’s dumping his nose, following another one-circle with me, but this time vertically. He’s going down, his speed higher this time, giving me the advantage of turn rate. I nose in right behind him, rolling upside down, seeing his J-57 shoot out from underneath me. He sees this, pulling up over the top. 

I have no fucking angles to kill him. Fucking Viper.

“Keep your fucking head in it!”

I’m horizontal, flying straight, watching him keel over and point his nose directly down. He can’t fire a missile—if he has any left—because I’m still too close. So I roll to keep with him, the ground and horizon spilling over the right side of my canopy, until I’m nose down, keeping him beneath me as he pulls, throttling down to make sure I don’t overshoot. 

That’s what he wants. 

Then, he crosses right in front of me, offset low to the canopy. I want to roll and pull the stick, but I remember Banks’ advice of ‘patience’ in the fight. Aggression in this Viper won’t work. He passes beneath and jinks back to the left. I buck right, and then shift back, cutting throttle even more. I have to say behind him. I fucking have to.

We’re barely separated. Maybe a few hundred feet. 

I can read details on his plane clearly. 

His tail number. His name, painted in Mandarin beneath his canopy. Hell, my phone could probably get a facial ID at this point. 

He rolls back over and rudders towards me again, sliding to the left of the canopy, but I roll with him, trying to outmatch. He’s getting crazy. I see his thrust vectoring. His nose pointing and spinning like he’s pancaked. Shit. He’s so slow now!

No. NO! NO!

Suddenly, he’s sliding to the right of the canopy. And then he goes over the top. Fuck. I overshot! It’s okay. It’s okay. Stay in the fucking fight. He’s off to the left now, trying to pull but he’s got no energy. I use this advantage and turn in his direction. 

It plays in my favor, but only for a moment. 

Now somehow he’s over top again. He noses down now, right behind me. He’s on my fucking six. Time to jink. I roll left and pull, then right, and pull. 

CHAFF. FLARE.

LOW. LOW.

He follows, rounds bursting from his cannon, but I jink left and upward just enough for them to fall short. Oh shit, he’s coming fast, I look back ahead, rolling right now, watching as he slinks past, happy that I forced yet another overshoot in my favor. 

But he doesn’t slip out front. 

Why? WHY?

Pull up! I pull hard, assaulting the limiter. He pulls with me, but he’s bled too much energy to keep up. Instead, he falls below me, my canopy rolling right to put him back in my sights, the ground spinning upward like I’m drunk. Shit, look at him! He’s over the top again, but he’s in front! Well, sort of. 

He’s pulling up into the sky. I try to stay with him, but I’ve got nothing. No stick. No response. Goddammit! I just can’t turn like that!

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Stall warning! He’s just too good at turning. But I have the altitude, if I could just get the fucking nose to respond. Go down! DOWN! Okay, here we go. Here we fucking go. Still behind him!

He’s got no energy to recover from that move.

Neither do I, but who’s on his six? Me. 

Make it count, Dorothy.

“Keep your fucking head in it!”

We’re separating. Oh shit, he’s going to nose back around. Oh, god here he comes. I have no energy to pull. What do I do? What do I fucking do? 

He’s going to kill me!

“Keep your fucking head in it!”

“Patience.” Banks said. “Patience. Stay smooth, gunner.”

I retract my smart-ass statement back in the FOB. Maybe there’s a reason he’s giving me tips. I hold the stick steady. I’m not going to do a thing. I’m in the afterburner. I’ll wait, because when I’m focused, I see what’s going to happen. 

Yeah, the J-57 has thrust vectoring, but there’s no way he can pull that hard. Not now. Not when I just offset to his high left, much to his displeasure. 

He has to see it now. He has to see his fate. 

We line up, my nose pointed straight to him, his entire planform just to the left of the gun reticle. Radar’s locked him, it’s calculating the lead I need to kill, and it knows as well I do what’s next on the agenda. 

He pulls hard anyway. I see him stall, his nose unable to point towards me, leaving him sitting squarely in the sky, right in front of me, right as give left rudder and a slight left roll to put his canopy, wing, and fuselage right in front of the reticle pipper. 

Then I squeeze the trigger. 

I watch as 20mm rounds shoot forward, punching little holes through his dark black wings, then his left engine, then his tails, then his stabilators. He’s on fucking fire now, smoke spewing from the rapidly spreading fuel fire. 

He falls towards the earth, trying to correct the descent enough to maybe limp home, but he’s spent. As I pass by, I look down, just as his left wing detaches, sending him rolling uncontrollably, his canopy blasting off, his ejection seat sending him straight out into the sky—over Taiwanese waters.

“SPLASH!” I call out. 

 

Okay. I survived. But I fixated. Where the hell is my team?

Focus. Focus!

“Game 1-7,” I hear, “I’m hit! Still flying. Fox 3!”

GCI calls, “Game 1, prepare to egress battlespace to the east immediately. Repeat: fall back immediately!”

We’re too far over the straight. We need to drag them back. 

I dip down. Airspeed back up.

Radar time. Sitch to BORE. 

“Game 1-2, back in the fight.” I say. “Front line. I got three contacts, 1-9-4 for 15. Clear?”

Nothing. So I repeat, “Front line. I have three contacts, 1-9-4 for 15. Clear to fire?”

“Fire at will!” screams Banks. “Engaged defensive, off your 3-o-clock low. Tag the guy in pursuit.”

“Copy!” I see them, switching to TWS (track while scan) to get individual headings and altitudes on each bandit. I lock the one nearest to me and fire. “Fox 3!” then I count to ten, lock his buddy, and fire again. “Fox 3!”

I hear a call, “Game 1-5 crossing 1-2” then a boom as his F-16 blows by. “Pass!”

We’re cranking, seesawing back and forth to drag any inbound missile down into dense air while forcing it to turn and make lead corrections. It slows them down, but we maintain our fire by trading targets, ‘passing’ our targets to each other through the datalink that somehow still works. 

I guess the Chinese haven’t hacked the older systems. 

So much for talking shit about the ole’ Block 52 Viper.

“Fox 3!” Game 1-5 says as I roll to crank back to the left. 

I see a flash. I don’t know who that was. Was that one of ours, or one of theirs? There’s too many aircraft up here. I can’t tell! I don’t know who is who!

“Splash?” I’m confused. “Did anyone count a splash!”

GCI confirms, “We’re seeing two splashes 12 miles ahead of you!”

“Game 1-2,” Banks yells, “eyes open, there’s a Flanker through the line! 1-8-3 for 7. Watch for R-73!”

Thankfully, those missiles kind of suck. Shorter ranged than an AMRAAM, but with the Flanker’s electro-optical targeting system (EOTS), they can find a target without ever giving off a radar warning. They are perfect for sneak attacks, and perfect for the inexperienced and overconfident pilot. 

So, I have to assume he’s fired. Maybe even at me. 

I roll over, pressing the countermeasure button.

OUT. OUT.

Well, I guess I’ve run out. Fuck. 

Back to DGFT/MISSILE OVRD mode, hoping that the radar horizontal acquisition can pick him up. Come on. Come on. 

Got him! Wait for a good lock. 

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one-thousand.

Five—fuck it.

“Fox 3!” I squeeze the trigger, watching an AIM-120 stream away. Then I roll and pull defensive again, diving down to the water before pulling up, altimeter reading just 1000 feet. 

ALTITUDE. ALTITUDE. 

PULL UP.

“Control,” I hear a labored voice, “this is Game 1-7. Lost engine. Going down.”

Banks says, “Godspeed, 7. We’ll come get you. Good fight.”

“Good fight.” I say, watching him sink lower. 

“See you soon, my friend.” says 3.   

Seconds pass, but they seem like eons. 

Then I hear, “Splash! Someone got a splash!”

Score. Okay, time to egress. We need to cover our retreat, same way as we crank left to right, passing our targets to each other, we do the same during the run back home. We’ve been fighting for at least 20 minutes. Two casualties. One down. 

I see him eject now, “Marked Game 1-7’s position via INS.”

GCI says, “Marked!”

“Game 1-2, set for egress cover.” I say, hearing the telltale ring of the RWR. “Huh? Spike, 3-o-clock!”

Someone’s locking me. The tone is strong. 

RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING. DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!

And here it comes. The pain from above. 

DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!

“Got missiles inbound!” I call. “Missile inbound!” 

“Got RWR!” says Banks, “Everyone clear out!” 

“Copy!” 

I dip the aircraft low, skating above the water in the rush back ashore. I push into the afterburner again, glancing down to the right at the fuel gauge. As expected, I’m getting low. 2,000 pounds. Dammit the Viper has tiny tanks. 

Keep your fucking head in it!

Just get home, Dorothy. That’s all you have to do. 

But the RWR is blaring. I hate the shrilling tone, like nails on a chalkboard, or stainless steel spoons clacking on a skillet, a child screaming bloody murder. It’s there now, constantly nagging, telling me that I’m going to die if I don’t get away.

I push 700 knots at 1,800 feet. 

Seconds later, I rotate and pull to 1-1-8, never so anxious to see the mountains—the safety they bring, the only thing that keeps us from being exterminated by J-20s or J-57s called in for reinforcement. 

They’re up there, flying high and fast, shooting down at us, their powerful radars stalking prey like lions mid-feast. PL-15s streak down. 

“I see contrails!” says Game 1-3. “7-o-clock high!”

Frantic, I check behind me, wondering why I did this. Why look back? To see when I’ll meet my fate? Wondering when my luck will finally run out? When will my hotshot bullshit finally catch up to me?

The word is out now. 

Their buddies called us in before we killed them. 

Come on. Come on!

710 knots, squeezing the gee, flying as low as possible. 

We have 65 miles to cover before we are back in the mountains, the shield of the Xueshan Range. At this speed, I figure five minutes, but five minutes is an eternity. 

Ahead I see the horizon drawing closer. I hear the roar of the afterburner, the supersonic wind rushing past the bubble canopy. 

“Crank!” yells Banks. “Everyone keep cranking!”

The RWR is blaring, DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!

DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!

DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!-DEE!

Endlessly. I see the bandits on the RWR screen, flashing dauntingly, their designation highlighted in a group of little diamonds, bolded “U” for “unknown” squarely in the middle. But I know who they are. I know what they are. 

Those beautiful J-20s. I know they’re up there, raining missiles down on me. 

Hoping that I die. Hoping that I won’t give them a fight. 

And I won’t, because I can’t, but if I live long enough I’ll find a way. And they watch us run back to shore, as low and as fast as we can, but I promise you I’ll be back. You bastards killed my friends. 

Betty interjects as I strain to pull gee, rolling the aircraft as fast as I can, pulling hard enough to change vectors, but not hard enough to bleed too much energy. All I need to do is make those PL-15s turn. Drag them into the warm, thick air down at sea level with me. Slow them down, render them useless, and fucking pray that I’m well outside the MAR (minimum abort range). 

This is half luck, and half skill. 

BINGO FUEL. BINGO FUEL.

I don’t even bother to check the gauge. Screw it. If I run out, at least I can bail over friendly land. Three minutes later, and five F-16s blow past ROCA defense units hemmed up on the beach at Mach 1. I hope they were wearing earplugs. Sorry guys. 

“Game 1-1,” says banks, “just crossed back into Taiwan.” 

GCI says, “Game 1, we heard!”

Yes, because apparently we’re already famous. Troops on the ground called us in. They were cheering on the radios, some reports said they were waving, throwing their helmets in the air. 

Everyday we go out. Somedays three or four times. 

We’re fucking exhausted. Our entire bodies hurt. 

But so do theirs. Those guys and girls on the ground. 

We do it because we have to. Because we must. 

Me? I’m only trying to help. Only a few more minutes. 

On approach, they open the giant entry doors. This is the tricky part, coasting in, holding the correct approach angle, and nailing a clamshell opening in the side of the mountain. For me, with so many carrier landings, I adapt well enough, but for the Air Force guys like Banks and ROCAF, it’s cringeworthy. 

“Hold your approach!” I coach. “Easy on the power! Easy! EASY I SAID!”

Fuck! Game 1-8 loses it, nosing up in a panic, putting her Viper into a sudden roll that clips a wing on the cliffside. She tries to control it, but she’s a goner. Damn. And there she goes, punching out just before impacting the trees. 

I see a chute. She’s yelling loud and clear on the radio. 

FUEL FIVE HUNDRED. FUEL FIVE HUNDRED.

Banks barely makes it in, “Jesus!” he cries. 

Arresting hook down and lock. Flaps. Glide it in easy, just like a champ. 

Keep your fucking head in it.

But I naturally scoot it on the money. I catch the wire with the hook, bracing in the delay before I’m yanked forward. Coast down, then wheel brakes. When I’m slow enough, time for nose wheel steer. 

Getting the fuck out of the runway is clear. 

Two days ago, we lost three Mirage 2000s because of it. 

I’m back home. Still in one piece. 

The Taiwanese people are beautiful. They are so nice, almost unbelievably so. They swarm my aircraft during power down, rushing up to literally carry me away. 

They are cheering. They are rejoicing. 

I see Banks. He smiles, and I smile back. 

But why are we happy? Two of us in Game 1 died today. 

One of us nearly did on landing. Eight birds down to five. 

Just days ago, we had twelve. So I can’t help but think:

How many more elsewhere? How long can we keep this up?

We are losing. 

Oh my god, we are losing.

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

Title Image is a still frame from “Battle: Los Angeles” ©  Columbia Pictures

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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