A SR-19 is a fully stealth, long-distance, air superiority aircraft. Specifically designed as a patrolling, engagement, and neutralization apparatus for the entrenched border zone, it’s virtually silent under cruising speed, and ballistic in battle. At Mach 2, generated from dual RE-24 core-reactor engines, it delivers back-up to any skirmish, where its pin-point thrust-vectoring will out-maneuver nimbler vehicles, allowing it to reposition on both surface or air attackers. With a munitions payload including twin 20-caliber Gatling canons, 4 long-range Spurcer rockets, and 4 “Pucks” missile bays, paired with onboard aeronautics, including visual recognition software, used for complicated, tightly-timed flight maneuvers, the SR-19 can single-handily annihilate enemy encampments, provide cover fire for ground ops, and, if you believe the top brass, be the sole armament necessary to win the war.
It’s the United Earth Military’s finest jet fighter, and it’s important you know all of this.
Because I’m about to die in one.
The enemy fire lays in by surprise.
The com-net momentarily ablaze in grunts, the cool silence of execution follows. Blue Team, my squadron, breaks into tight formations of two, surveying the midnight skies for our attacker, one of our own already a flaming wreck, tail spinning in a mess of explosions that balloon to obliterate the aircraft, incinerating a man I used to know pretty well.
Priority one is to get organized. Be a team.
First, I listen.
“Command, this is Blue 4. Blue 5 is down. Roll recovery vehicle, over.”
“Blue 4, this is Blue leader, I got no response from the ground.”
“Blue leader, this is Blue 2—radar’s a negative. I got nothing on the target.”
“Blue team, stay alert. Whoever sees him, report in.”
We were warned a situation like this could happen. It’s one of those eventualities that, at the time, felt slightly preposterous. You can imagine a fight at a numerical disadvantage, or facing superior fire power, you can imagine rationing of food or water or medicine, but you never quite imagine this—because you’re a trained airman, you’re a fighting machine, you’ve practice day-in and day-out, you’ve dreamt it, you’ve feared it, you’ve occasionally desired it, and so while death is an acceptable hazard, you’ve always believed you would mount a formidable defense. No good squadron ever really considers that they’ll be blind, picked off one-be-one.
Like what’s happening to my wing mate, Blue 3.
A bright light fires from nowhere. On a jarring path, like a lighting bolt, striking a hole straight through the belly of aircraft, the loss of aero capsizing it, the force ripping it in two. Half my night-vision is blinded by the bolt, and what remains loses clarity in the explosion, and I barely make-out the faint imprints of his ejection, seeing no indication of his parachute, simply the slight trace of increasing velocity, on a collision course to the ground.
Him, I knew better.
My turn to speak. “This is Blue 4, Blue 3 is down.”
“Roger, Blue 4, location of target?”
I want to say that I know. I want something to shoot. “Negative, Blue leader, I have no target.” Like everyone else, my radar is useless, and all other sensory equipment, the infra-red, the thermal imaging, is pinging back normal. That’s when I notice something even worse. “Blue leader, the ground is black, all power is out. Are we still negative from command?”
“Roger that, we are negative from command.”
This is when you assume command is gone, and you’re all that survived.
I toggle my night-vision, and the black is all-consuming to my naked eyes. With ground power compromised, I lose the location of the horizon, my fighter veering. My displays go active, flashing locational coordinates for an unknown object, then calculating several programmed escape patterns to elude the aircraft, including a list of re-engagement opportunities.
“Blue leader, they’re check 6 at X-46, 39-delta.”
Blue leader is quick. “Blue team, go hot—peel off and engage!”
All right, now we do our ass-kicking thing.
The SR-19s roar in aggression, each taking a different course to engage the target, some directly, others attempting to flank, all of us out of our line of fire. I jink out of possible engagement, bringing my aircraft around. Using voice commands, I tell the onboard AI of my simulation selection. It fine-tunes the fighter for optimum operation in a micro-second, the weapons bays recede, the weapons safety released, the go-symbol green as the engines kick. I see the others. I don’t need to talk with them. For all our disagreements, as individual persons, when it comes to the skies, none of us are surprises to the other.
We fly like a unit. We kill without remorse.
And something is wrong.
In the spurts of explosions, the flashes of gunfire, or in the small side-displays where the AI feeds enhanced images of the target, I see a device unlike any I’ve encountered before. It is no plane, that’s for sure. It appears like a giant humanoid, four limbs, a head, hands and feet, save the shoulders are like shoulder pads, and they appear to shoot tightly packed micro-missiles similar to our Pucks.
The com-net is silent but for, “Blue 6 is down,” and a second later, “Blue 7 is down,” and a second later, “I think they’re four of—”
That was Blue-2.
I align myself astern of a bogey, Blue 5 sealing off its exit. Gritting my teeth, my vision precise despite the violent vibrations rocking the cockpit, lifting and depressing the pedals at my feet, both hands on the stick, the computer auto-correcting my course, and the weapons system activating my crosshair. I can’t get it to stick. The bogey jumps all across my line-of-sight, controlled by at least a dozen small boosters at its ankles, elbows, back, wrists, and hips. My targeting system’s recalibrations reset the crosshair violently, I queue up most of my Pucks missiles for the shot, certain I’ll have this sole opportunity before being annihilated.
The targeting system goes yellow, indicating a partial lock, and it’s all I need. In case someone is out there, I call, “Blue 4, Pucks-2, firing!” My finger is on the trigger before I finish the words, and the bogey thrusts high, changing the angle of ascent on the Pucks—wide-set missiles resembling hockey-pucks when viewed from the bottom—and using this modified lift, the bogey launches a blanket of countermeasures and an assault of fire so massive that, what didn’t intercept the Pucks, creates something similar to sunrise when detonating the ground.
I’m on the com-net. “Blue leader, the bogey shot down the Pucks.”
Blue leader responds. “Blue team, stay engaged.”
It’s the last words I hear.
Death is a very sudden thing.
All eight of us are still in our flight gear, our flight simulators, large oval containment devices that stimulate g-forces and provide a 365 degree visual and audio reconstruction of warlike conditions, are in various states of shut-down, and we’re not far behind, standing straight since we’re supposed to be at attention, but mentally lapsing into self-pity, anger at our failure, or simple confusion at what exactly happened.
We know flying an SR-19 is hard. We’ve been told it for six weeks.
We’re being told it again.
“Anderson, look at the angle you took, exposing both your rear, and slowing your speed. You made it easy.” What follows each critique is three-dimension battle recordings displayed in a holographic sphere that revolves by the swipe of a finger. “Parker, where to begin? You went down in five seconds. You never even finished your entry maneuver. Simulation 4 is a poor choice for an unknown enemy.” The mistakes pile up, one by one, to where we broke down as a team, essentially turning into a bunch of decapitated chickens, random nerve impulses leading our ridiculously expensive aircraft into certain destruction. I’m last. “Riber, your idea to turn off the night vision was risky, but it paid off, as it revealed the enemy’s position to your surveillance systems. If not for you, your entire team would’ve been picked up without firing a shot.” By mistake, I let the shy indication of a smile crack the edges of my lips. It is addressed. “Too bad you didn’t survive to collect any commendations, Lieutenant Riber. I’ll make sure to issue them to your tombstone.”
The holographic vanishes. The lights rise.
“I got news for you corpses. What you just encountered in there—it’s real. We don’t know whom they are, we don’t know what they want, but we do know they’re tearing apart everything we throw at them! And so help me God, if I hear any of you speak a word of that classified information outside of this room, you’ll be shipped off to battle in pieces cause I’ll tear you apart first.”
The meeting over, it’s time for Bruce, Bob and Dana to start drinking, Frankie and Janice to start (covertly) fucking, and for Julie, Roger and myself to start studying.
It’s not going to happen, not tonight.
A man stands next to our instructor. This man needs no introduction.
He gets one, anyway.
“This is Commander Cole Pike, the lead officer of Gehenna squadron, and one of the most decorated active or non-active pilots in UEM history.”
Cole wears the same grin I did, but he smudges it out with an apparent distaste for the sight of us. “Airmen, that was some pretty sloppy-ass flying up there, but I suppose it wasn’t too bad. Pack your shit ASAP and report back at 0600 for immediate deployment and squadron assignment.”
Those words, for at best half this room, are a death sentence.
Blue leader, Bruce, blurts it out. “But, sir, we all died!”
Cole considers the statement for a second, then he’s done. “Airmen, you might want to break that habit…pronto.”
Bio: Justin Ordoñez lives in Seattle and likes to write.