Minuteman

“Contact, 30-k and closing, 9-low.” The voice brought Kyle Mason out of his thoughts. The targeting computer on his flight helmet’s HUD registered the enemy aircraft as they came into LR sensors range, appearing as red triangles.

“9 o’clock?” responded a voice from his earpiece. “Brekkie time already?”

“End the talk, two-two. Two-six, control your flight.”

“Aye, command,” said Mason.

“Assigning targets.”

A red circle flared around one of the small triangles on Mason’s display, and a double red circle outlined a firing corridor. The craft was not in visual range, but that hardly mattered to the computer.

He depressed the confirm switch on his flight stick and double blinked his eyes on the radar target. A satisfying baritone hum sang in his ear. “Lima,” he called out.

The phrase was repeated eleven more times as the men and women in formation around him locked their targets.

“Breach!”

For a surreal moment, his mind followed the accent of the speaker. He was not American. Mason had always been fascinated by how different people could come up with so many ways of saying one word.

“Fox 3.” He slammed the firing button on his stick.

The cockpit rumbled as the launch doors opened. The delay between pressing the button and the ignition of the missile had always irked him. The payload had to stay concealed below the airframe to maintain the craft’s stealth profile, but Mason wanted a more one-to-one response, like in video games.

The time between trigger and ignition was less than a second, and finally the ALRAAM roared to life. The seeker streaked away trailing a brilliant blue flame and joined a flock of its brethren.

Their targets, Dragon-24 Hōshō aircraft, panicked. They were ten years out of date, barely Gen-7 fighters. Their sensors had not detected the approaching MF-52 Archangel. Pride of the UMC, the fighter was top of the line Generation 7 technology.

It was an unfair fight. You never saw a Ho in the air, except in training simulations.

All eight hostiles scrambled. Their signals blurred on the HUD as they activated their SHIELD systems to fool the locks, but their pilots might as well have been using fly swatters. Five craft vaporized under the salvo, one was clipped and two evaded. Mason’s own target was scrap and ash.

That disconnected part of his mind wondered if the pilot had ejected. He always wondered that, even here. Air combat was so impersonal. It was easy to blow up a machine. It was hard to remember that there was a human inside it.

The three remaining bogies turned tail, one limping away.

“Lima,” said a woman’s voice.

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

“He’s getting away,” she said with a dark edge.

A vague memory of dark long hair drawn tightly into a military bun swam up to him.

“Stand-down, two-five.” Mason had been put in charge of Bravo Flight and he was not about to let some pilot’s frantic ambition endanger the mission. The commander was listening.

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

The cockpit went wild. A screaming tone wailed, and the HUD flashed red. The display began a quick succession of calculations that ended in a growing red dot at his peripheral. He turned to track it, the cockpit around him disappearing. The digital overlays in his helmet transmitted directly from the angel’s sensor skin. It was an unobstructed view of the pearlescent sky and the crimson pixel that was growing to 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 irrefutable proof. They were caught in an ambush.

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

“Scatter!” someone called, and the orderly formation began to break apart. Aircraft banked and dove to shake their lock. It was every man and woman for themselves. Terror is contagious and the more hysterical some became the more the group felt the effects.

Waves of electromagnetic energy washed over Mason’s instruments, momentarily darkening them. Panicked pilots began to prematurely activating their SHIELDs.

But the small circle around his own incoming seeker had grown to the size of a button, 25 klicks and closing. Mason fought to keep his sense of fear in check.

“Cease alarm.” The insistent blaring tone instantly died.

“Bravo flight on me,” he said switching from squadron to flight channel. Calming three voices was easier than calming eleven.

“On your six,” came the familiar female voice.

“On your wing,” said another voice. Mason had not recalled hearing it before.

“If we’re going to die, we’d best do it together,” said two-two, his distinct Aussie accent clear. The last craft tucked in behind his right wing.

“We’re not going to die,” said Mason projecting a calm he did not feel. His hand was shaking so hard on the flight stick he half expected his craft to be swaying back and forth.

20-k and closing, the circle was now an egg, and the details of the missile were just visible beneath the digital outline.

“Follow the leader!” Mason swung his angel, pulling hard on the stick. The world spun sideways. The growing red circle swung beneath his feet. He put his craft into a steep dive toward the deck, his flight a few hundred meters behind. The world was rising to meet them.

A quick glance at his sensor readouts showed four missiles bearing down, only 10 kilometers. Around them the blue marks of his squadron were winking out of existence, their cries silenced one by one on the squadron-wide frequency. With his tail to the chaos he could only imagine their fiery defeats.

“Climb and SHIELD on my mark.” His voice strained from the G’s pushing on him. The inertial compensators were screaming at their limits.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest filled his windscreen, and the red circle had grown to grapefruit proportions. It was less than 4-K and still coming. Mason waited another second, but not longer.

“Mark!” He pulled back hard. His vision blurred before his flight suit constricted, stemming the blood loss from his head. Warning lights flared again. The onboard LAI computer was compensating his maneuver, easing the movement over a softer arc to protect the airframe. Even with the interference it was less than a second before blue sky replaced the green forest.

He locked his eyeballs on a switch on the forward controls. The LAI was fighting to level the craft. There was no way he could move his hands. He dub-blinked the switch. 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 he never heard the electromagnetic pulse, but he felt it on the hairs of his neck and the static across his instruments. A countdown timer appeared on his display.

The System to Hull Integrated Electromagnetic Lock Defense took two minutes to recharge. That could be overridden, but it would fry his onboard circuitry along with any missile in a 700-meter radius.

His burst was followed by three more from his flight.

The missiles faltered. Even against less sophisticated ALRAAMs a SHIELD was no sure defense, but coupled with the maneuver and the force of gravity, the seekers were dead in the air.

The EM wave disrupted their systems and fogged their SatNav guidance, but an armed missile was a still an armed missile. The long slender cylinders plummeted past Mason and two collided. The explosion fell away, but the shockwave rattled his airframe and his teeth.

At the tail of their formation two-five screamed. “Fuck… ” The line died.

Mason turned in time to see the trailing plane lose altitude. It tumbled wildly. Blue flames poured from a now exposed engines. Then it was gone, blocked by cloud as the three remaining angels ascended toward the ceiling.

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

“Keep your head in the clouds. This isn’t over.” Mason’s HUD picked up six new contacts closing on them, Ghosts. They had come into active SR sensors range, which mean they were out of long-range ALRAAMs.

He leveled off and took a quick assessment. Three angels facing six ghosts. The rest of the squadron was destroyed or gone from the arena. It was two to one odds against crafts that were nearly invisible. There was nowhere to run.

The angel roared as the afterburners kicked in. A familiar thrill wrenched his gut and the plane rocketed forward. “Break formation and engage. Time for a little payback.”

The air cracked as he broke mach-2 and the gap to his two targets melted away. Telescoping his vision, Mason could see the silhouettes of the approaching aircraft. He had only heard rumors of the Dragon-32 Haneul-nim fighters. They were said to be Gen-8 fighters. No one who encountered them lived to tell anyone what they saw.

With a flick he cycled to his four AIM-14L Sidewinders. A tone beeped with increasing rapidity till it became a single hollow sound. “Fox 2.”

The blue tail of the missile was blinding as it sped away, locking onto the heat of the closest target. Then a new sound vied for his attention, as the Dragons fired their own heaters.

Instinct took over and Mason pulled back hard. “Chaff,” he called out. A trail of superheated metals shavings fell away from his craft like a comet’s tail. The first missile slammed home and exploded amidst the glowing field. The shockwave sent him spinning.

He cursed and fought to regain control, but finding the horizon did not mean finding safety. The second heater came screaming in, only momentarily diverted by the death of its comrade.

Mason rolled and it passed within meters. It soared out before wheeling back for another pass. He heeled his craft around and scanned the arena for the Ghosts.

His two bogeys had avoided his heater and were streaking toward him, meaning to catch him between a rocket and hard place. With the missile closing behind and his enemy ahead there was nowhere to run.

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.

It was called a Drescher Maneuver, named after some German pilot. The heater shot past him, its guidance systems momentarily scrambled by the pulse. Most missiles had shielding against EM waves. They were programmed to reset to their default directive. For SatNav seekers that meant regaining a lock on their target, but for heaters that meant locking onto the closest heat source, which was now the lead Dragon.

“Fox 2.” Mason fired one of his own. The dragon dodged the first missile, but the second one took him unaware. The craft exploded.

Mason’s HUD went red, as the angel shook. The second bogey strafed past him, guns blazing a molten hot trail of cannon fire. His helmet highlighted damaged or inoperable systems, as the computer’s placid female voice rattled off the wounded systems. They included his SHIELD, self-repair systems, and a worrisome coolant leak in his right engine. Without the coolant the hydrogen-shockwave fuel cells were going to reach critical temperatures.

He turned a half-loop to get behind the second bogey, but the LAI stopped. Thanks to the damage, the stress on the airframe was too great. The sheer force of the air-friction was threatening to tear skin panels from his plane.

The Dragon moved to match him and for a moment they looped around each other like a carnival ride.

“A little help, mate?” said two-two. Mason’s HUD showed two dragons chasing his damaged angel.

One of his pursuers exploded as two-one arrived on the scene. Their last flight-mate was being chased by two more dragons, their cannons chewing up parts of his craft.

Mason stopped his looping and kicked headed for two-one. His bogey was caught off-guard by the change in priorities and was slower in following.

Mason switched from HeatSeek to SatNav and barely waited for the lock tone. “Fox 3.”

The Dragon following their most silent flight-mate peeled off to escape the incoming seeker.

Mason pulled a wide wheel and switched back to HeatSeek. “Fox 2.” he fired a wild one at the second pursuing dragon. The missile was avoidable, but enough to distract the pilot.

“Two-two, light out. I’ll cover your six.”

“No worries, ma…” The Aussie became a blue ball of flame and shrapnel.

“Sig,” cursed Mason as he finished his maneuver. The arc of his turn brought him behind the bogey that had been shadowing the now dead pilot. He was so close he didn’t bother waiting for a lock signal. He dumb-fired.

Without the standard lock warning his target had no warning till the missile slammed into his engine. Flaming pieces plummeted after two-two, but the satisfaction did nothing bring back the downed Aussie.

A familiar warning tone signaled that Mason’s own pursuer had finally unleashed another heater.

His last remaining flight-mate wheeled around and to come back toward him, but mason called him off.

“Belay, two-one. Light out.”

The fighter kept coming.

“That’s an order, pilot.” Mason, flicked his stick dove toward the Earth, releasing the last of his chaff. The shockwave knocked something loose, and t HUD highlighted his flight control systems. The stick became sluggish in his hands.

“Acknowledged,” came the response from the remaining pilot. Two-one’s angel looped back and headed out of sight. One of the dragons fell into pursuit, but Mason locked on and fired his last heater. It juked to avoid, and within seconds the angel was beyond SR range.

The heat in his right engine was reaching critical. His computer was trying to bleed the compartment, opening vents and filtering in additional coolant, but the fuel-cell was shot.

“Recommend, engine one shut-down,” said the female voice.

“Override, Betty” he responded, as the cockpit warned of two incoming missiles.

Mason kicked upward heading away from two-one’s escape corridor. The force acceleration pushed him back, but the missiles and their masters were gaining.

The blue of the sky parted and faded to darker shades, and for a moment Mason saw the stars against a dark cerulean field. Then, everything exploded.

He probably screamed. He always did. He did brace himself as his vision went dark, and only relaxed when the simulator cockpit rose around him. Light flooded into his black cocoon, and it took a moment to adjust to the glare of the steel gray room and government issued LED ceiling lights.

He took off his helmet, slick with sweat, and breathed.

“G’day,” said the voice of a figure standing over him. The man reached in and helped Mason from the simulator. “Xavier Given, but you can call me Bogan.”

“First Lieutenant Kyle Mason.”

“What’d you say to a pint?” said the sandy-haired man.

Mason steadied his shaking legs. “Yeah, I can use one.”

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