Four Eagles soared above the Atlantic, bearing arrowhead roundels on their wings. The Prinz Karl archipelago dotted the sea below, casting dark shadows against a shimmering sunset. Their flight lead flicked a switch on his throttle. “Vapor flight, patrol complete, turn two-two-zero to RTB.”
The fighters banked in sequence away from the sun and towards the mainland, drawing short contrails from their wingtips. An AWACS operator’s voice squelched into Vapor 1’s helmet. “Uh, Vapor, popup bogey group on your six, bearing two-eight-five, twenty-five miles, angels five, hot.”
“What the-” He keyed his mic. “Skyeye, Vapor; we’re bingo. Can’t you vector Halo onto them?”
“Negative, bogeys are closing fast and Halo’s at the south end of the circuit. You’re tasked to VID.”
The flight lead sighed. “Roger, we’re on it.” Bearing towards the contacts, he cycled through radar modes. “Uhhh, Vapor flight,” he asked, “you picking up anything?”
“Two,” his wingman reported, “nothing.”
“Four, no joy.”
“Holy shi-” the last pilot said as an AMRAAM shot through his plane’s nose, obliterating the fuselage in a fireball as its wings helplessly fell from the sky.
“Fuck!” the flight lead yelled, breaking off and dumping chaff. “Vapor flight, music on! Skyeye, Vapor three down, engaged offensive, send help!”
“Roger,” the calm operator replied, “vectoring Halo onto your position, ten minutes. Be advised, bogies have disappeared from radar.”
Another missile came from above. It punched through Vapor two’s wing, sending him into a deadly spiral, trailing smoke and fuel until his tanks blew. “Two’s down!” four shouted.
Vapor one desperately panted as he narrowed his radar’s azimuth. Nothing appeared, and a moment later three dark fighters raced past his canopy, leaving deafening sonic booms in their wake. He craned his head around and tried to follow them. G forces pounded on his chest as air bladders squeezed his legs.
“Skyeye, four,” his wingman reported between labored breaths, “eyes on bogies, three fighters.”
“Copy,” the AWACS replied, “engage and VID them if possible.”
He switched to Sidewinders as one plane came into view. Its seeker squealed as it homed in on twin rectangle exhausts. He recognized its gently bent wings and canted tails. “Bandits are Raptors!” he announced as the missile growled with confidence. “Vapor one, fox two!”
As soon as the Heater left its rail, the Raptor jerked up and disappeared from sight. The missile gently curved upward to the empty sky. Vapor four came into view and trailed smoke across his HUD, peppered with bullet holes and followed by two Raptors. “Shit, shit, shit!” he murmured, his hands paralyzed with fear as he frantically scanned the horizon. He looked ahead, and one Raptor appeared in each of his rear view mirrors.
He instinctively placed his hands between his knees and yanked the ejection handle. The plane rattled from a combination of canopy charges blowing and bullets impacting its aft. His seat rocketed out of the Eagle as it exploded, and he peered down at the three Raptors before greying out in a delirious haze.
Four men sat in a drab conference room, congregated around a folding plastic banquet table. Two wore beige Erusean military dress with scant decorations, the third had on a blue uniform, and the fourth spilled a drop of Akvavit on his suit’s lapel as he took a pronounced swig from his flask and haplessly throwing down a newspaper.
'Senate votes to defund Erusea air policing,' its headline read. 'Disastrous mid-air collision to blame. Last ISAF troops leave in November.'
The Army Chief of Staff reached for the booze. “We said you’d be cutting back,” he scolded.
“And I said shut up, Selgelid,” the Prime Minister slurred back at him, wiping sweat from his balding scalp.
General Pearce rolled his eyes at the drunken boor that his bosses had left in charge of the country. “Well, there’s nothing more I can do about those Raptors,” he said. “From now on, the only air assets in Erusea are your own.”
“Ah Christ,” Prime Minister Møllen muttered, turning to an Air Force officer. “Well, Erik, it’s your problem now,” he said, sending a strong waft of alcohol in the Air Force chief's direction. “What’re you going to do about it?”
Erik shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do. Ever since you made us Debruunify, the only pilots I have left are scrubs and reservists: nobody that I trust to survive a fight with these guys.” He leaned forward, shifting his gaze between Møllen and Army chief. “Look, we know where they’re coming from, why can’t Selgelid just take his spooks and kill them on the gro-”
“We know the general area they’re coming from,” Selgelid interjected, calmly folding his hands. “Nordland’s military already swept the province and didn’t find anything. And they won’t take kindly to a violation of their sovereignty, especially without proof.”
“And that’s certainly stopped you before.” He turned back to Møllen. “Sir, if you really want this dealt with I have some ideas, but I’ll need your support if things go badly.”
Møllen hiccuped. “If you think you’ll screw it up, maybe you shouldn’t do anything at all.”
“Hey, I can do this, but I need pilots," he replied. "Do you have any idea what you did to my officer corps?”
The Prime Minister scratched his chin. “You know, Erik, I’ve got a few more Colonels who didn’t get purged, maybe one of them is fit for a promotion.”
Erik grimaced. “Fine, I’ll handle this,” he said, standing up and sharply pushing in his chair. “Just don’t fuck me, Møllen.”
He sarcastically waved goodbye as Erik walked out of the room, pouring another shot down his throat. Selgelid grabbed the upside-down flask away from him, spilling liquor on the cheap berber carpet. The Prime Minister miserably drooped down to the table.
Mike walked upstairs, lugging an olive flight bag over his shoulder and flanked by his copilot. “Hey, look at it this way,” the other man said, “all those fighter jocks? They’re just gonna go career, start flying desks when they hit O-4, and spend the rest of their lives dreaming about the coupla’ years they were shit hot. We, meanwhile, have got six-figure jobs with the airlines once we get outta here.”
“Maybe,” Mike reluctantly grunted. They stepped into a waiting room with a wall of windows; a large, immaculate, but depopulated terminal. Dated modernist flourishes decorated the ticket counters, bathed in the dusk’s orange hues and frozen in a better time. The light drew silhouettes of decaying skyscrapers against a sign, ‘Farbanti International Airport.’
“Besides, you’ve got what, a month left? And it’s your last flight out here. For once in your life, Mike, stop bitching.”
“Yeah, well, I just feel like I missed out,” he mumbled, setting down his bag and dragging it along the floor.
“Nothing like living in a past that never fuckin’ happened,” he mordantly muttered. “Anyway, I’m hitting the beer gardens with Shapiro and Price, they’re headin’ back home tomorrow and wanted to celebrate your retirement.”
“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” Mike replied, “I need a bit to recharge.”
“I’ll let ‘em know you can’t get over yourself,” he said, throwing his hand up with a half hearted wave, “later.” As his copilot disappeared down an empty corridor, Mike dropped his bag and slouched down into a chair, letting his arms dangle as he peered out the windows.
His paunchy C-17 lazily sat on the apron, its windscreens curved into a contemptuous glare as heavy engines dragged its wings into an impotent droop. He looked down at the budding gut poking through his flightsuit, then back at the jet with a deep sigh.
A faint roar came from across the airport. He got up and rushed ahead, one hand covering the sun with the other pressed up against the glass.
Two miles down the runway, a pair of F-16s lit their burners, their noses gently dipping as they started rolling. Laden only with light air-to-air missiles, they quickly and gracefully lifted off, tucking their undercarriages away before making crisp crosswind turns.
As they passed out of view, he turned around and leaned against a pillar, hearing paper crackle on his back. He groped at it and tore off a flyer.
‘Seeking foreign pilots,’ it read, with mirrored clipart of fighter jets on either side and a questionable choice of font. ‘Fast jet experience preferred. Inquire at FEAF offices, Ministry of Defense, Federal Mall.’
The amateurish composition and vague content clashed in Mike’s mind with the mention of fighters. Feeling that it was at least worth looking into, he stuffed the flyer into his pocket, grabbed his bag, and departed into the city streets.