“Look alive, squad. Contact, 30-k and closing, 9-low.” The voice brought Kyle Mason out of his own thoughts. The targeting computer on the HUD in his flight helmet immediately registered the enemy aircraft as they came into LR sensors range, appearing as red triangles against a green background.

“9 o’clock?” responded a disembodied voice from the other end of his earpiece. “Hell, I don’t get up before 11.”

“Cut the talk, two-two,” came the clipped British response. “Two-six, control your flight.”

“Aye, command,” said Mason.

“Assigning targets.”

Mason watched as a red circle flared to life around one of the small triangles on the heads up display. Simultaneously, a double red circle appeared on the main display of his helmet, outlining a firing corridor that led to his assigned hostile. Visually he could not see the craft, but he could tell where it was. He held down the confirm switch on his flight stick and double blinked his eyes on the radar target to set the lock. A satisfying deep baritone hum sang in his ear as the computer acknowledged the command. “Lima,” he called out.

The phrase was repeated ten more times across the board as the men and women in the formation around him found their own targets.

“Breach,” the single word floated to him through his headset as if spoken by some voice of his own imagining.

For a surreal moment the most distant part of his mind registered that the speaker of the word was not American. Too little emphasis was put on the “ea” sound. Mason had always been fascinated how by different people could look at even a single word and come up with so many ways of saying it.

The more active part of his mind only registered the command and the implied action. “Fox 3,” he called out as he slammed home the firing button on his stick. The cockpit below his feet rumbled as the launch doors opened. The delay between pressing the button and the rewarding ignition of the missile had always irked him. Realistically, he knew that his payload had to stay concealed below the airframe to maintain the craft’s stealth profile, but instinctually Mason had always wanted more of a one-to-one response, like how it was in the video games he grew up playing. Maybe that’s why pilots had come to jokingly to call the delay Server Lag.

The time between trigger and ignition was, in actuality, less than a second, and finally Mason heard the ALRAAM roar to life. The seeker streaked away trailing a brilliant blue jet of flame and joined a flock of its brethren as they emerged from the bellies of the craft around him.

Their targets, Dragon-24 Hōshō aircraft, didn’t stand a chance. They were more than ten years out of date and could barely be called Gen-7 fighters. Their sensors had no way of warning their pilots of the danger they were in until it was too late. Mason’s own craft, the MF-52 Archangel, was top of the line Gen-7 tech. It was never going to be a fair fight. You almost never saw a Ho in the air anymore, except in training simulations.

All eight hostiles scrambled. Their signals blurring momentarily on the HUD as the craft activated their SHIELD systems to try and fool the locks, but their pilots might as well have been warding off the missiles with fly swatters. Five craft vaporized under the salvo, one was clipped but maintained and two managed to evade. Mason’s own target was left as nothing but scrap and ash.

He wondered if the pilot had managed to eject. He always wondered that. Mason never thought of himself as a killer, but that was only because air combat was so impersonal. It was easy to blow up a piece of technology, it was hard to remember that there was a person inside it. He hoped that the pilot had managed to bail, he always did.

The three remaining enemies turned tail and lit out, one limping away on his only working engine.

“Lima,” said a voice in his head.

“Stand down,” Mason said. “Two-five, stand down.”

“I’m not going to just let them get away.” The voice was female and had a hard edge to it. He found no noticeable accent to her voice, most likely American. He could barely place her face, with only a vague memory of dark long hair drawn tightly into a pony-tail.

“Stand-down, two-five.” Mason put an edge to his own voice. He had been put in charge of Bravo Flight and he wasn’t about to let some pilot’s frantic ambition endanger the parameters of the mission. He knew the commander was listening. “You’re not cleared to fire.”

“Aye, sir.” The response was terse, spoken through gritted teeth. He could almost hear her thumb ease up off the firing switch.

He let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. The reprieve was brief.

The cockpit suddenly went wild. A screaming tone wailed inside his head, and the HUD flashed red. The main display began a quick succession of calculations that ended in a growing red dot at the edge of his peripheral. As he turned his head to track it, the cockpit around him seemed to disappear beneath his gaze. The digital overlays in his helmet transmitted directly from the Angel’s sensor skin, giving him an unobstructed view of the pearlescent sky and the small crimson pixel that was growing to become a discernible digital circle.

“I’m painted red!”

“Ghosts, bloody piss.”

“Missile lock. Missile lock. ”

“I’m red!”

The in-line channel was full of chatter as pilots around him started coming to the same conclusion he had. They were caught in an ambush, and time was running out.

The clipped British instructions of air command were lost among the chaos of the other ILC transmissions. The words came so fast that the calls began stepping on each other, like a frantic crowd of people clawing over one another to escape a fire, but there was no escape. So there was just panic.

“Scatter!” someone called, and Mason watched as the neat, orderly formation began to break up. Aircraft banked and dove, trying everything they could to shake their lock. It was every man for himself, every woman for herself. The terror was contagious and the more hysterical some of the pilots became the more the group as a whole began felt the effects.

Waves of electromagnetic energy washed over Mason’s instruments, momentarily darkening them, as one or two of his more panicked squadron mates began to prematurely activate their SHIELDs.

All the while the small circle of his own incoming seeker had grown to the size of a shirt button, 25 klicks and closing. Mason fought to keep his sense of fear in check, with the memory of a plan swimming up out of the murky depths of his mind. “Cease alarm.” The insistent blaring tone instantly died.

“Bravo flight on me,” he said switching from squadron channel to flight channel. He could do nothing for the full group, but calming three voices as opposed to eleven was a lot easier.

“On your six,” came the immediate and surprisingly calm American female voice.

“On your wing,” said another voice, with barely a hint of any accent. Mason had not recalled hearing it before.

“If we’re going to die, we might as well do it together,” said two-two, his distinct Aussie accent clear, even over the ILC. The last craft tucked itself almost effortlessly behind his right wing.

“We’re not going to die,” said Mason in a voice that radiated a calm he did not feel. His own hand was shaking so hard on the flight stick it was a surprise that his craft wasn’t swaying wildly back and forth.

20-k and closing fast, read his display and the circle was now the size of an egg. The details of the missile were just visible beneath the digital outline.

“Follow the leader,” called Mason and he swung his Angel around, pulling hard on the stick. For a moment the world was sideways, the growing red circle on his helmet swung toward the metal flooring of the cockpit. Slamming the stick forward he put his craft into a steep dive toward the deck, his fellow pilots only a few hundred meters behind him, the world was plummeting up to meet them.

He risked a quick glance at his sensor readouts. It showed all four missiles bearing down on them. They had crossed the 10 kilometer barrier. All around him the blue marks that had once represented the other members of his squadron were winking out of existence, their cries of help silenced one by one on the squadron-wide ILC frequency. With his tail to the chaos he could only imagine the sight of their fiery defeat.

He put the images from his mind. “Climb and SHIELD, only on my mark.” His voice was strained from the G’s pushing him back in his flight cushion. The inertial compensators were practically screaming, but he wasn’t done yet.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest filled the view of his windscreen, but a quick glance behind him showed that the red circle had grown to grapefruit proportions. It was less than 4-k and still coming. Mason waited only another second, daring not to hesitate any longer.

“Mark,” he screamed and pulled back hard. His vision blurred only slightly before his flight suit constricted, stemming the blood loss from his head. The warning lights flared to life again. The Angel’s onboard LAI smart computer was compensating his maneuver, easing the sudden jerking movement out over a softer arc to protect the integrity of the airframe, but even with the unwanted interference it was less than a second before blue sky once again replaced his view of the deep green forest.

He locked his eyeballs on a switch in the forward controls of the cockpit. The flight stick was still fighting him, he couldn’t risk moving his hands for even a second. Instead, he dub-blinked on the switch, watching as it lit up blue, as the computer acknowledge his selection. “SHIELD,” he said, and the node went from turquoise to emerald.

Over the rushing sound of wind and air friction against his cockpit he never heard the modified electromagnetic pulse activate, but he felt its effects as they rocked his plane and sent static across his instruments. A countdown timer appeared on the side of his helmet. Two minutes to recharge before the System to Hull Integrated Electromagnetic Lock Defense could be used again. That could be overridden, but a pilot ran the risk of frying his own circuitry along with any missile in a 700 meter area.

His electromagnetic burst was followed closely by three more as his flight mimicked his maneuver almost perfectly. The missiles, on the other hand, had a harder time. Even against less sophisticated ALRAAMs activating a craft’s SHIELD was no sure defense, but coupled with the hard maneuver and the force of gravity they were dead in the air.

The seekers were nearly on top of them when the EM wave disrupted their systems and fogged their SatNav guidance. Unfortunately an armed but targetless missile was a still an armed missile, and as the four long slender cylinders plummeted past Mason’s Angel two collided. The explosion fell away, but the shockwave rattled the airframe of his craft, to say nothing of the teeth in his head.

Not all his pilots were so lucky. At the tail end of the formation two-five screamed as the explosion engulfed her. “Fu… ” The line died.

Mason turned his head just in time to see the trailing Archangel lose altitude. It tumbled wildly, burnt and sheared. Blue flames poured from the now exposed engines. Then it was gone, blocked by cloud cover as the three remaining Angels ascended back toward the ceiling.

“She’s going to be spewing mad,” said his Aussie wingman.

“Keep your head in the clouds,” said Mason. “This isn’t over.” As if to illustrate his point the HUD picked up six new contacts closing on them fast. It was the ghosts. They had come into active SR sensors range, which only meant one thing, they’d depleted their long-range ALRAAMs and were coming in to finish off their prey.

Mason leveled off and took a quick assessment of the situation. They were the only three Angels still in the sky. The rest of the squadron was destroyed or had lit-out of the arena. They were facing two to one odds against craft they had not even known existed two minutes before. Running was out of the question. There was only one thing left to do.

His Angel roared as the afterburner kicked in, and even now a familiar thrill wrenched at his gut as the craft below him rocketed forward. “Break formation and engage.” He smiled despite himself. “Time for a little payback.”

The air cracked as his craft broke the mach-2 barrier and the gap between him and his two targets melted away. Mason could see the silhouettes of the approaching aircraft against the backdrop of the white-blue sky. They were Dragon-32 Haneul-nim fighters. He, like most of the Allied pilots, had only ever heard rumors of them. They were said to be the first Gen-8 fighters ever built. Not many who encountered them had ever lived long enough to tell anyone about what they saw.

With a flick of a switch he cycled to his four AIM-14L Sidewinder missiles. A tone began to beep with increasing rapidity till it became a hollow single long sound. Almost before he heard the noise his finger was depressing the firing button on his flight stick. “Fox 2.”

The blue tail of the missile was momentarily blinding as it sped away, locking onto the heat signature of the closest of his approaching targets. At the same time a new sound vied for his attention as the Dragons fired their own heaters.

Instinct took over and Mason pulled back hard on the flight stick. “Chaff,” he called out and the computer responded be releasing a trail of glowing hot metallic embers. The sparking superheated metals shavings fell away from his craft like a comet’s tail, existing for only the briefest moment in time. The first missile slammed home and exploded amidst the glowing field of red-hot debris. The shockwave rattled his craft and sent him spinning.

The cockpit rang with grunts and curses as he fought to regain control of his ballistic Angel, but even when the horizon returned to its proper orientation he wasn’t out of danger. The second heater came screaming in on him, only having been momentarily diverted by the death of its comrade.

Mason rolled his craft over, the missile passing within meters of his right wing. He watched it soar out for several full klicks before wheeling back for its next pass. He heeled his own craft back around and scanned the arena for the ghosts.

They weren’t hard to find. After easily avoiding his initial salvo the two wingmen had reformed and were streaking back toward, intent to catch him between a rocket and hard place. There was nowhere to run with the missile closing behind him and his enemy ahead, but running was never his plan.

The heater was back on him in seconds, 500-m, then 300-m, and then 100 meters away. Mason made sure to dub-blink the control switch before throwing his Angel into a wild barrel roll. “SHIELD,” he yelled and this time heard the hum of the electromagnetic turbines as they spun to life, making the hairs on his neck stand at attention.

It was called a Drescher Maneuver, named after some German pilot Mason could never remember. The heater shot past him, it’s guidance and electrical systems momentarily scrambled by the pulse. Most missiles had pretty sturdy shielding against even modern EM waves, and were programmed to reset to their default directive. For SatNav seekers that meant regaining a lock on the assigned target, but for heaters, which weren’t controlled by satellite guidance, that meant locking onto the first available heat source. In this case, that was the lead dragon.

“Fox 2,” for good measure Mason fired one of his own, and even as the enemy pilot dodged the re-aimed missile the second one took the Ghost almost completely unaware. The sky lit up with the explosion.

His HUD went red, as the Angel shook around him. The second dragon strafed right past him, its guns blazing a molten hot trail of cannon fire down his fuselage. His helmet display highlighted parts of the Angel that were damaged or inoperable, as the craft’s eternally placid female voice rattled off the critically damaged systems, including his SHIELD system, self-repair systems, and a worrisome coolant leak in his right engine. Without the coolant his hydrogen-shockwave fuel cells were going to start reaching critical temperatures, but only if he lived long enough for that to happen.

He threw his craft into a half-loop to get behind the second dragon, but the LAI screamed at him to stop. Thanks to the damage, the stress on the airframe was too great. The sheer force of air-friction was threatening to tear skin panels from his plane.

The dragon started a similar move and for a crazy moment the two craft looped around each other like a carnival fun ride.

“I need a little help here, mate,” said two-two. Mason’s HUD showed two dragons chasing down the Aussie’s already damaged Angel. Then, one of the chasing enemies exploded as two-one, the last remaining Angel, appeared on scene, even as he was being chased by two more dragons. To Mason’s naked eyes the event looked like nothing more than a distant flash in the sky, like a small firework exploding.

He stopped his loop and kicked in the afterburners heading for his wingmates. His own pursuing dragon seemed caught off-guard by the change in tactics and was slow in coming after him.

The computer chirped as Mason switched his firing back over from HeatSeek to SatNav and barely waited for the lock tone before letting loose his last ALRAAM at one of the two enemy craft trailing the fourth and most silent member of his squadron. Immediately the dragon peeled off to escape the incoming seeker.

He pulled a wide wheel and switched his missiles again back to HeatSeek. “Fox 2,” he fired a wild one at the second dragon still in pursuit of two-one. From his distance the missile was easily avoidable, but Mason hoped it would be enough to distract the pilot.

“Two-two, two-two,” he called over the ILC. “Light out of the arena. I’ll cover your six.”

“No worries, Tw…” Two-two exploded in a blue ball of flame and shrapnel.

“Shit,” cursed Mason as he finished his slow maneuver toward where the Aussie pilot had been moments before. The wide arc brought him directly behind the dragon that had been shadowing his now dead wingmate. He was so close he never bothered waiting for a lock signal. He dumb-fired his AIM-14L. Without the standard lock warning his target had no idea what was coming till the missile slammed into his engine and exploded. Flaming pieces plummeting after two-two, but despite the satisfaction of the kill it didn’t bring back the downed Aussie.

A familiar warning tone began blaring, signaling that Mason’s forgotten pursuer had finally caught up and unleashed another heater.

On the HUD he saw the last Angel begin to wheel around and come back toward him.

“Belay, two-one. Light out.”

The fighter kept coming.

“That’s an order, pilot. Get the hell out of here.” Mason, flicked his wrist forward and dove toward the Earth, releasing the last of his chaff. This time the shockwave of the missile explosion knocked something loose. The HUD highlighted his flight control systems, and the stick was sluggish in his hands.

“Acknowledged,” came the response from the remaining member of his flight. He watched as the Angel looped back around and headed out of sight. One of the dragons fell into pursuit, but Mason locked on and fired his last heater. It was enough to deter the dragon and within seconds two-one was beyond his sensors range.

The heat-level in his right engine was reaching critical. His onboard computer was doing all it could to bleed the engine compartment, opening vents and filtering in additional coolant, but the fuel-cell was beyond help.

“Recommend, engine one shut-down,” said the calm female voice in his head.

“Override, Betty” he responded, just as the cockpit warning started up again with not one but two incoming missiles.

Mason kicked the craft upward in the opposite direction of where two-one had disappeared. He wanted to get the dragons as far away from his wingmate as possible. The force of acceleration pushed him back into the flight couch, but the missiles and remaining dragons were still gaining.

The blue of the sky parted and faded to darker shades. Despite the fact that it was still midday, Mason opened his eyes and, for a moment, saw the stars against a dark cerulean field. Then, everything exploded.

He probably screamed though he couldn’t remember if he had. He instinctively braced himself as his vision went dark. He didn’t relax until the simulator cockpit began to rise around him and light from the outside world flooded into his small black cocoon. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the glare of the steel gray room and government issued LED ceiling lights of the training center.

He took off his helmet, slick with sweat, and let out a deep breath.

“G’day, mate,” said the voice of a figure standing over his open cockpit. The man reached in a hand and helped Mason from the simulator. “Xavier Given, but you can call me Bogan, all my mates do.”

“First Lieutenant Kyle Mason. Pleased to meet you.”

“What do you say to a pint?” said the sandy-haired Aussie with a wink.

Mason gave the man a weak smile as he steadied his shaking legs. “Yeah, I can use one.”

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