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I was curious from the moment I entered the briefing room.

How could I not be? After all, I was the only one in there, and rushed atmosphere suggested this was important, whatever it was, and something that needed action right now. My plane was already being fueled and armed, and I hadn't even been briefed yet.

I took my seat and the briefing began immediately: no formalities or greetings. "Two civilian aircraft flying through the hills region northwest of Los Canas are under threat of attack by Erusian aircraft." Apparently the engineers who designed Stonehenge were defecting, and bringing their families with them, escaping from their occupied country. The escape is the only real surprise; Stonehenge was located in San Salvacion, which was neutral until it was invaded and occupied by Erusian forces, so it's no surprise that the engineers would feel less than favorably about their oppressors, and would want to aid us. However, I'm sure they were kept under a close watch, and escaping must have been difficult and dangerous.

After the briefing (which I'm sure sets a new speed record,) and the interesting tidbit that one of the planes is flying at low altitude "due to some unknown problem,"  I climb into my cockpit and take off.

 

I'm in the area quickly, but I'm still too late; I can see an Erusian fighter already closing in on one of the civilian aircraft. Sky Eye makes contact: "Air Ixiom, this is Sky Eye, please describe your situation."

"Air Ixiom flight 702 here." A man's voice informs me, "Erusian fighters are closing in on us at 23,000 feet. Please hurry!"

"Flight 701 here. We were shot on takeoff and our captain's injured. This is first officer Nagase." This voice is female. Hmm, shot on takeoff. Probably the reason it's flying so low.

Sky Eye replies: "10-4, an escort is inbound. Both aircraft maintain your course." He says this in his usual, calm, "just another day at the office" voice he usually uses at the beginning of any combat mission. Of course, this time, it's not because anything is routine, but for the benefit of the civilian air crews, to keep them calm. "Ah, fighters, ok. No worries. We see this all the time. Our escort will take care of it. Just relax, no need to panic."

I've already pushed my throttle to maximum and angled up to meet the enemy fighter. By the time I have visual he's apparently finished a circle of the civilian plane and is sliding in behind them to go for the kill. All my senses ramp up, pinpricks of fire igniting the edges. Everything's on automatic for a moment and I react almost instinctively. Nosing up, from below, the enemy is flying in a perfectly straight line to match the airliner; an easy target. I pull my trigger and unleash a deluge of bullets. It looks almost like a scene from a movie: tracers saturate his plane, cutting through it for a moment before the whole thing bursts into a brilliant fireball with a loud bang. I see the explosion shake the airliner, slightly, and pull away to avoid the debris field as I go shooting past 23,000 feet and throttle down. I need to stay close to the airliners.

My senses dull at the edges again, my mind taking control back. I intend to sweep a circle around the aircraft and begin a search but Sky Eye intercepts me with his words: "Mobius 1, there's another bandit closing in on flight 701 at 6,000 feet." Speaking to me now, with no civilians to keep calm, his voice has urgency, communicating the magnitude of the situation.

6,000 feet. That's very, very low for a commercial airliner. Shuttling back and forth between these two altitudes is going to be very demanding. Sky Eye thinks so too, apparently, and asks: "Flight 701, can you raise altitude? This will assist the ISAF escort." But we get a denial, with an explanation: "Negative we cannot maintain cabin pressure if we climb."

I drop down and point my nose to intercept the encroaching enemy. There are two of them this time, presumably the partners of the lone point man I juts downed. Also I get a nice surprise: Sky Eye seems to have finally started intercepting the enemy's communications, and I get one of their lines fed into my radio: "...target has an escort fighter." The meaning of this is explained as I approach from above, and one of them angles up to meet me while the other makes a beeline for flight 701. The one looking up is intent on a joust, but I surprise him and peel away, slotting myself in behind his wingman, who is still flying in a straight line for the airliner. He's a sitting duck and his partner won't come around before I can take my shot. The pilot realizes what's happening just a moment too late; he rolls his aircraft, apparently to bank, when my rounds slice into him. There's a small explosion from the right of his craft, and it slides down towards the ground, still mostly in one piece, a thick plume of black smoke pouring from the frame.

Here now the other plane is within range, coming at me level from almost ninety degrees to my right. I barely have time to register the lock-on warning before it becomes a missile alert, my whole HUD turning a blazing red as the usual alarms blare out at me. Of course, he's no real threat, firing from such an angle, and it's child's play for me to dodge the missile. It puts us both in awkward positions, unable to re-engage without some considerable maneuvering, but that doesn't matter. I'm alive.

As I bring my craft around, all the parts of my mind (that is, the part wondering where my enemy has gone and the part wondering why he would waste a missile on an attack like that) are totally engulfed by panicpanicpaNIC SHIT he's going for the airliner.

Apparently they've been given strict orders to focus on the objective, because the enemy has decided to totally ignore me and head straight for flight 701. I throttle up again, pushing my aircraft to make firing range on him before he makes firing range on the civilian plane. "C'mon baby, go, go, go, we've got to get there."

We're lined up too straight with the airliner; I can't risk using my gun even just to persuade him to break off since any stray bullets could hit the civilians. It's a race to missile lock. My eyes flit between the plane in front of me and the range indicator on my HUD, watching the little arrow representing his craft descend closer and closer to lock-on range, hoping and praying that I won't see the burst of light as his missile fires and sails towards the people on that plane, waiting for it to come any second now...Is that my plane rattling with speed, or my body shaking with energy? I've begun to almost growl at the front of my canopy, my energy all coming out in a slowly growing noise of vocal frustration, when I hear it: that blessed beeping as my plane zeros in, and that glorious, glorious lock-on tone: beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

I fire, releasing all my energy with the missile, yelling out "YeAHRGRGRGRGRGR" in some guttural combination of the word "yeah" and an animalistic shout. It streaks ahead of my plane, boosted on by my speed in addition to its own propulsion, and hits my enemy squarely on target, obliterating it in a single yellow explosion.

I peel away to fly parallel to flight 701, letting relief flow through me: If they keep focusing so single-mindedly  on the civilian planes, I'll have no trouble shooting them down. But there is worry, too. If they send large enough numbers, I'll never be able to hold them all off. I'm just one man. 

The enemy shows no signs of letting up: "This is flight 702. Several Erusian military aircraft are inbound and closing rapidly!"

Sky Eye confirms: "Mobius 1, hostiles at 23,000 feet. Don't let them get near those aircraft."

Thankfully these ones still have a little distance between them and the airliner. I'm able to reach altitude before they get in range. I hear them again, through Sky Eye's communications interception: "Our primary target is that passenger plane. Don't bother with the small fry." This group seems to be afflicted with the same tunnel-vision as their comrades, and moves in on flight 702 in formation, level, in a straight line. Leveling out behind them, I switch to the special missiles in my belly, capable of tracking and firing on multiple targets at once, and from long range. I feel the slight bump as they lower out of my weapons bay, and immediately have lock-on on the lead plane in the center, straight ahead.

Lock-on for the other two follows shortly, and I press the button, releasing three missiles from their racks to go streaking off towards their targets. As I switch back to my standard missiles, and my fourth and final long-ranger retracts back into my weapons bay, I watch the enemy fighters. The lead plane, who had his lock-on warning for a second or so as I gained lock on the other two, is already evading, but the others are too slow. The missiles tracking them sail out in tandem and almost simultaneously obliterate their targets.

The lead plane, though, is firmly in an evasive turn, and I follow his path, watching as my missile closes in on him, only for it to miss, grazing past at what looks like mere inches from his plane. As he turns back the other direction, I match him, firing a burst from my gun as I go, but I can't get the reticule to catch up. The bullets keep him on edge, though, as he turns right back past the airliner and continues to evade. A brief check of my radar shows no other enemies inbound ("yet," I think to myself,) and I bring my focus back to the pilot in front of me. He's good, making real slick turns that slip straight from one into the next with no visible seam. He's moving too much for missile lock and I can't get my gun lined up for a shot.

I bring my focus into him, my perception darkening at the edges as I tunnel all my attention onto the plane in front of me. He hasn't changed his pattern yet, which hasn't given me a shot, but, unfortunately for him, predictability is easy to exploit. I undercut his next turn, starting mine sooner than his, and begin firing. He banks just as expected, and flies straight into my hail of bullets. They rip his aircraft apart, producing a grey smoke, but not a kill. It's all I need, though, as the rounds cripple his ability to maneuver. I adjust slightly while his battered plane struggles and finish him off with another burst.

I get just a moment to breathe, before four more hits ping on my radar: four more Erusian fighters. Sky Eye helpfully informs me as well: "Multiple aircraft confirmed at 6,000 feet." Looking for visual confirmation, I see them down below, and I've already begun to lower my altitude, heading down from in front of them, when I hear the woman from the plane over my radio again, broadcasting openly: "This is Air Ixiom flight 701. We're carrying civilians! don't shoot!" There is no change in the fighters path or speed. She tries again: "I repeat, we have civilians on board. Hold your fire!" She's optimistic, I'll give her that, but I'm not exactly about to put my faith into the kindness of the enemies' hearts, so I continue my attack run.

There's a brief glimmer of hope, though, as I hear from the enemy: "Are you sure that's the right target?" But it's squashed almost immediately by the reply: "Don't ask questions. Just do your job." It's clear the Erusians have no intention of sparing the airliner.

Sky Eye speaks again, to both of us: "Flight 701, enemy aircraft are closing in but you're almost out of Erusian airspace. Maintain current altitude and speed. The ISAF escort will cover you."

As she replies, I can feel all her hope and fear flooding over me out of my headset: "Roger, we'll do our best. Our lives are in your hands."

 

I've got to ruin their attack run, but how? I can't shoot down four planes at once, even if I had all four of my special missiles, at this angle they'd never hit...but I can't focus on one plane either, or the other three will make mincemeat out of flight 701. I've got to hedge my bets, and hit them all at once...there's got to be something! And then I get a truly crazy, desperate idea.

I gain missile lock on the tail aircraft in the formation, my nose angled down away from him, trying (or rather praying) for my weird little trick to work. This is my only chance; there are too many to keep at bay otherwise. The enemy opens fire right as I release my missile; I can see their tracers sailing towards the civilian plane. Thankfully, I'm just in time: I fired my missile while pointing my nose at the frontmost craft in the formation, and immediately follow up with a wide spread of gunfire at the three craft for which I didn't have lock-on. Those three scatter, abandoning their attack on the airliner, and my missile, somehow, miraculously, almost as if it were planned ahead of time, meets the enemy plane it was targeting in the rear of the formation: it impacts on the top of his craft, from directly above, ripping the airframe in half and annihilating the back end. As what's left of it plummets to the ground, I pull up and quickly make a decision: the other three planes had split off into two groups: a pair straight ahead and a single craft to my left and behind. I have to focus on the pair; it puts me at risk but I have to focus on protecting the civilians.

Blessedly, I hear another enemy transmission, as the enemy reacts to my assault: "Lone bandit. He's got a ribbon insignia." They're forgoing the attack on the civilians to focus on me. Good. Now all I have to do is hold their attention, and shoot them down if I can.

Because I came from above, and got to select my direction, I'm already behind the pair of enemies. Outside of standard missile range, I switch over to my last special long-range missile and fire. It impacts quickly, destroying the enemy plane as his wingman pulls away. Retracting my now empty belly rack, I switch back to my one remaining standard missile and begin to follow. Unfortunately, as I stay glued to his tail, the lone plane from before attaches himself to mine. Now it's a strange, desperate, three-way struggle. I've got to move enough to evade the enemy behind me, but be steady enough to shoot down the one in front of me. Meanwhile, if the enemy in front of me keeps evading, and I keep marking him, his buddy won't ever get a shot, so he's got to be stable enough to expose me, but keep moving enough to evade me, too.

And so we fall into our pattern: me squeezing bursts off whenever I get a chance, and the fighter behind me doing likewise. I can hear the bullets wiz past my canopy, see the tracers flash by right in front of my face. It's exhilarating. And terrifying. Every so often his rounds pass close by the plane in front of me, and I can hear my target yelling abuse at his wingman for the close calls.

We continue like this for some time before, suddenly: Chaos! The fighter behind me gains lock-on for a split second and fires a missile, and at this close range I can't evade, but I'm already in a turn from following the plane in front of me so I dump my flares and hope for the best, the flash and smoke from my counter measures filling the sky around me, and the missile zooms past harmlessly, leaving its own trail of flash and shadow-smoke in the space. The sudden dazzling burst of visual effects seems to confuse the pilot in front of me, and he levels out, presumably to re-gain his bearings or perhaps to look and see if I'm still there. It's all the opportunity I need. My gun growls and my bullets tear him to bits, his plane explodes, and it's all over for him. I immediately pull away, circling around to come back on my pursuer, but am surprised: he's right where I left him, level, flying in a straight line.

I slide over and fall in behind him, attempting to gain lock and keeping an eye open for any kind of trick or trap, but nothing happens. As my plane zeroes in, (BeepBeepBeepBeepBeepBeepBeepBeepBeepBeep) he rolls his plane to the left, ever so slightly, and all my muscles tense up for an instant...but nothing happens. He just keeps flying. In a straight line, at a consistent altitude, rolled slightly left of level.

I gain lock-on (Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee) and go to press the button to fire my missile...but something stops me just short. I see it now. I understand what he's doing. I feel it.

 

Off to our left, a little distance away, is flight 701, flying parallel with us, at almost the same altitude. He's looking at it. I just know it, though I can't see the man in the cockpit. He's contemplating flight 701. Is he looking at it with anger? Thinking "Damn, I can't believe it got away from me!"? Or is he looking at it with disappointment? "I can't believe we let such an easy target get away."?

No, somehow I know this is the one who asked, before: "Are you sure that's the right target?" Somehow I'm sure: he's looking at it with sadness. With regret. He regrets setting out on this mission to slaughter innocents, which then became the death of him. He regrets firing on them, he regrets taking off; he regrets getting out of his bunk this morning.

For a moment, I soak in his sadness. I take the time to really feel it, from one pilot to another.

Then, I release my missile, and send him on.

 

After the explosion, there is only silence.

 

For one moment.

 

For two moments.

 

For three.

 

Then: "Mobius 1, Sky Eye here. Both aircraft have exited the combat area safely. There were no losses. The mission was a success."

And, like a last parting gift before I pull off and head home, one last message from Nagase: "Sky Eye, this is flight 701. All passengers and crew are safe. Please thank the fighter."