The cold night wind nipped at the exposed areas of my face as I stood just outside the door of the hangar for the training aircraft. The bright orange coloring of the T1 Hawks we used here were offensively contrasting with the white, winter-wonder-land, but I still found I had affectionate feelings towards the craft. It had been my first ticket to the sky, to a haven that was rarely visited by terrestrial beings. I began to walk into the hangar, relived when I entered its threshold and escaped the biting wind. It smelled faintly of oil and lubricants and my cheeks began to burn as the warmth of my blood filled my cold face with heat. My steps echoed loudly in the hangar, there was barely any cloth present to absorb the auditory energies produced by my snow-laden boots that were leaving watery footprints on the smooth concrete behind me. When I reached the left wing of the aircraft, I reached out and touched the smooth aluminum that was interrupted with bumps of rivets. I began my walk towards the rear of the plane, keeping my hand placed on its surface, producing a soft, metallic brushing sound that made me think back on all the events that had culminated to this moment.
When I was twelve, the sky was attacked. An asteroid ripped through our planet's atmosphere like a boulder punching through paper. I lost my family and as a result, I became almost as hard at the pieces of rock that killed them. I was placed in a family that was provided by the state. They helped me out of the dark places I had fallen into. They had lost family, I had lost family, and together we found family. It was during that time I found the sky a solstice. While it changed day to day with clouds and varying hues and colors, it stayed fundamentally the same, recovering even from the worst of wounds. It was tragic that the same couldn't be said of the nations that resided on the ground.
They had tried to prevent the celestial collision. Nations all over the world proudly boasted over the complaints of others about how their system would save us all, urging us to ignore the voices in the back of our heads about the dangers such weapons could pose if they were aimed in a different direction. Our continent, Usea, built Stonehenge, a multiple rail-cannon system that could target falling debris that would eventually strike the continent. While it had done a great job considering the circumstances, destroying some of the largest pieces of rock that could've taken out entire countries if they had been left to do so, it couldn't hit every piece and countless lives were still lost.
Only four years passed until the next cataclysm struck my life. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, Erusea began to take hold of the majority of the continent, including Stonehenge. With me and my new family living in North Point, we were spared most of the grim realities of war. But the television made sure to show us what was happening anyways. For a while, it looked like our island of resistance to the military juggernaut would fall as well. It got to the point where my new father was conscripted into the Independent States Allied Forces Air Force. But when school rolled around like nothing happened, I devoted time into finding out why the tide of war was beginning to change. A single pilot was foiling Erusea's military advances and pushing back against their barrage. My father updated me and my mother about things he could, not always being able to talk a lot about what he was doing or where he was doing it, but he made sure to tell us not to lose hope, that he was going to win this war for us, even if he had to do it alone.
I finished up my junior year but the war was still raging and my father was still fighting. I followed the ace pilot who became known as Mobius One. The way he fought his enemies showed me he was clearly at home in the sky, it was his natural habitat that his enemies had stumbled into. My father checked up on us often through frequent video calls, and when he could, told me generalized stories of his air battles. The way he lost himself when he talked of his feats, the way he could just stare off into the open space between us, it evoked something in me. That summer, while I was preparing for school, I began the process of looking into a career with the ISAF Air Force as well. But before I could even begin senior year, the war ended, my father came home, and we jumped across the Cascade Ocean to Osea. The transition was so fast, so sudden, that I became overwhelmed with things to catch up on. School started in a month, I had no idea about the new country we moved to, and every plan I had made with the people who I had made them with were suddenly gone from my life. My chances at flying were getting further away and I was becoming stressed.
My father told me not to worry about having to serve, thinking my main motivation was just to get into the military. 'This new country, Osea, has had its last war a while ago and isn't looking for another,' he told me. But I told him of my desire to serve, to become a pilot like he had been. When I had told him that, he had gotten quiet for a while. I was starting to wonder what I had said to him to cause him this shift in mood when my birthday rolled around on the sixth of September, a week before school was to start. My father had been uncharacteristically antsy the entire day and I was about to ask him why when he handed me an envelope with the Osean seal on it. I looked at him with puzzlement and he just stood there, encouraging me to open it. Inside were papers certifying me as a legal citizen of the Osean Federation. I looked at my father, the same expression of my confused state still on my face.
"You're a citizen of this country now. You can join whatever government institution you want to, including its military, or maybe... more specifically, it's Air Force."
My head had begun to fill with emotions and questions, chief being how he had been granted citizenship so fast. He helped me fill out a special scholarship provided by the Osean Air Defense Force that would pay for my college tuition in return for military service. That year of school was the toughest I had yet faced, temptations of drugs, alcohol, girls, and if that wasn't enough, I was playing catch-up with Osean history. Luckily, I was ahead in terms of math, science, reading, and writing skills. Apparently, Osea's schools were second rate compared to North Point's. I earned the OADF scholarship and was to go to a prestigious school in Oured. My parents beamed at my accomplishments and couldn't stop telling me how much they were proud to be able to call me their son.
Soon after I got situated at my new life in college, my father was called away, back to ISAF for 'one final mission,' as he called it. I missed not being able to share my first few months of my new life with him, and I sensed he regretted it to, but I could also tell that the prospect of returning to the cockpit of a fighter jet excited him as well. I understood his appeal and knew I would have conflicting emotions in his position as well. He returned safely after a short deployment of three months and everything seemed fine for a while. Three years later, half way through my senior year in college, a home robbery gone wrong resulted in me losing my second chance at a family. With nothing left to come back to, there was only forward.
It felt like as soon as I had walked across the stage with a degree in hand, I was put through physical exams, physical tests, mental exams, and mental tests. Every part of me was examined and then thoroughly tested. As soon as I was through all the paper parts of pilot training, I was shipped off to the remote Heierlark air base to begin hands on training in its freezing environment.
They started me slow here, with computer simulations, flight classes, and more intensive PT in the chilling conditions. But I gave it my all, knowing it would mean an express rout to my haven I longed to join. Within a month of getting on base, I was in my first aircraft, a T1. It was less responsive than some of the aircraft I simulated in, but nothing could simulate the feeling of your organs shifting around, the adrenalin of seeing the real world race by you as you took off from a runway and pulled up sharply to meet the sky in a long awaited embrace. The instructor I rode with those first couple of times had to remind me at least twice to stop gawking out the canopy. My first few flight hours were just the basic maneuvers and procedures, but I wanted more. I needed more. I began to pull more advanced maneuvers without his guidance. I started besting some of the people who had grown complacent with average skill. I was becoming more comfortable with the handling of the plane and the base picked up on it.
Soon we were in mock dogfights with other pilots. Sure, I lost some of the first battles, but never twice to the same opponent. I learned and analyzed successful engagements and incorporated the maneuvers into my own tactics, making sure to exploit weaknesses in the others strategy. People began to take notice of me, the rookie pilot who was beating pilots three years my senior. Then the instructors began to skew the odds, trying to make me fail, but I wouldn't let them revoke my stay in the sky. The dogfights became two on one and then three on one then F-5 vs. Hawk then F-5's vs. Hawk. I finally was shot down in an engagement against three F-5's when I ran out of ordinance on the last bogey. An important lesson was learned that day about conservation of weapon ammunition.
Other junior pilots on base came to talk to me to gain insight on what they could do or just to talk, but they all found out rather quickly that I wasn't the typical 'top gun' pilot. I wasn't trying to be rude or anti-social, but to me, I was just another pilot, nothing special or that couldn't be replaced. I didn't like the limelight when there were so many other topics deserving of the attention. That was when she transferred in, another pilot who thankfully took the attention off of me. She was a superb pilot. The instructors began to skew the odds with her, like they had with me. I decided I would try and help her get further along than I had. Everyone liked it when the trainees showed up the trainers. However, finding the pilot had proven a more difficult task than I had assumed. I spent the entirety of one particularly freezing Sunday afternoon searching for her, but to no avail. With disappointment, I returned to my barracks to think about how to come off on her not as a jerk trying to show off his knowledge, but as a peer trying to help her stick it to the man.
The next morning, I was awoken to the harsh sound of my flight trainer screaming my name, telling me I was to scramble and get into my aircraft in the next fifteen minutes or the base would be raided by enemy fighters. I knew it was a drill but that didn't slow down my rushed dressing routine and b-line to the hangars. After an emergency flight check, we sortied in four and some odd minutes.
"Damn, that was the fastest I've ever seen a rookie sortie. I think you just got your call-sign, Blaze. Yeah. That's a good one. What'd think, rookie?" my flight trainer asked when we were at cruising altitude. I began to take a breath to respond before he cut in. "I knew you would agree. Okay, keep your eyes peeled, Blaze, control is reporting a lone bogey coming from vector 038. Most likely a Belken scout." I rolled my eyes. In all of our training exercises, the enemy was always the Belken Air Force. I thought it was a dated antiquity left over from the war 15 years ago, but whatever flew their plane. The sun was beginning to turn the sky pink to my right. I began to get distracted again, getting lost in the neon colors the clouds were beginning to exhibit.
"Blaze! Hello!? Damn it, your one weakness is your fondness of this place." I rolled my eyes at the foul mouthed reprimand of my trainer and respectfully replied,
"How can one not lose them-selves in such ethereal beauty?" I could just picture the confused scowl on my instructors face in the moments of silence that ensued. I liked to flaunt my language skills whenever he started fouling up his. After a few days of our unusual banter, my instructor told me he didn't care what I talked like, so long as I kept shooting down enemy planes like he went through beers on a Friday night. The first time he had said that to me I figured that my instructor must be some kind of alcoholic.
Now that my attention had been thoroughly torn away from the intrinsic beauty outside my canopy, I looked down at my instruments and spotted the enemies radar blip. Sure enough, it was approaching from the vector control had provided. I began to yaw to meet the bogey head on. The singular blip on the search radar both comforted and worried me. It had been a while since my last 'fair fight' and the fact that I only saw one plane either meant they pulled out all the stops and had stealth craft with the one non-stealth, or that the other pilot was some sort of war-hardened ace looking to knock me back down to where I 'belonged.' I was scanning the skies like an eagle. The sun was beginning to become annoyingly bright and I flipped down my shaded visor. That was when I got eye's on.
"Tally ho, enemy fighter sighted two-o-clock high, hiding in the sun. Turning to engage." I reported to my trainer.
"Copy that, Blaze. Good luck." I took a pause for a micro-second. My trainer never once wished me luck before. Not even on my first mock battle. Something was up. I throttled up and rolled to the right to begin banking towards the bogey. Even from the distance I was at, I could tell it was another Hawk. Only one aircraft and it was another trainer. Something was definitely going on. I was on edge the entire ingress to my target, constantly scanning for a glint of a stealth fighter's canopy. The other trainer finally noticed me and began to change its course. It already had a height advantage but the pilot began to climb even higher. I was already flying into the sun and I didn't want to put myself at another disadvantage, so I pulled my nose up just enough so that the floor of the cockpit was blotting out the peeping sun. My gaze was locked on the other aircraft. It had leveled out its climb and was now beginning to dive for me.
My plane was traveling directly east now and either way I rolled, I would be faced with the sun again, so I chose to play off of my left, rolling the plane with the nose still in a ten degree climb. I began to bank to the left at an air speed of .7 Mach with the opponents plane closing the gap all the while. They would be in missile firing range shortly and I would be in a poor strategic position when it happened. Or so the pilot thought. My warning alarm began to buzz and my HUD lit up a light red color. I kept course however. It would only be mission over if the missile alert warning was on for more than 3 seconds at this range. I waited until the warning turned into an alert and made my move, quickly completing a half barrel role and pulling a high G inverted maneuver, bringing the wailing of the alarm to an end and putting me into an optimal position to begin pursuit of the opponent.
The other aircraft flew past me as I expected, not having enough reaction time to pull out of their dive they had initiated to start their attack. I applied full dry thrust, not that I could initiate after-burn in the trainer, and pursued with rocketing acceleration, the aircraft bouncing around in the jet wash of the other plane. I quickly began closing the distance between me and the target craft. The pilot began to pull crazy maneuvers to try and shake me, and to their credit, they were good. I stuck to them like white on rice on a paper-plate in a snowstorm though, feeling the fluidity of the action-reaction take control of my hands, feet and head, moving them all as if there was a brain for each of them. I was about to get a lock on with my missiles when the pilot suddenly applied full air brakes and cut power to their engines. I yanked back my throttle and pulled down hard on my flight stick, desperately trying to avoid a mid-air collision. At the apex of my loop, I looked down through my canopy to where the other pilot was supposed to be but they weren't there.
"Lost visual," I cried out to my trainer. But all I heard was a muffled chuckle from behind me. My instructor had turned off his mike and was laughing at my efforts. So much for any help from him. I righted my plane and pulled up into a 25 degree climb while circling around the area, trying to get a fix on the other trainer while gaining an altitude advantage. At 30,000 feet, I leveled with the horizon but continued my circular patrol of the area, constantly checking radar to try and get a read on the other pilot's location. We were too close to each other for it to be of any use so I had to rely on my eagle eyes to find the opponent. Then another glint caught my eye. It was about 2,500 feet below me, performing the same circling motion I was. The way the pilot wasn't changing course told me they hadn't spotted me. Yet. I had the element of surprise.
Being mindful of the sun, I began to lower altitude to the bogeys level and made sure to stay in their blind spot, carefully angling my plane to prevent the same glint that had given their plane away. I purposefully turned off the lock-on computer to keep it from giving away my position and when I was ready for attack, flipped the boot switch and held my thumb over the missile launch button. Almost as soon as I had tone, the other plane began bucking around like a wild Emmerian stallion. I launched a simulated missile with the lock I had and moved my index finger over the gun trigger. It wasn't needed however. At the range we were at, the pilot had only a half second of reaction time before the 'missile' impacted their plane. I heard a click over the radio indicating to me that my instructor behind me had turned his mike back on.
"Damn, I thought she had you for a moment."
She? Was it her? I pulled up to the right wing high position of the now level rival aircraft. As I looked over to the other canopy, I saw the pilot pulling off their oxygen mask and lifting their tinted visor. Sure enough, I could make out the face of the other rookie pilot who was beginning to make splashes like I had. I smiled at her before I realized that my visor was still down and my O2 mask was still covering my mouth. I quickly reached over with my left hand and undid the clasp on the right side of my helmet for the mask while sliding the visor up as well. I quickly smiled and waved. She had put me through a more intense fight than I had my entire stay here and was thankful for the challenge she had given me on even terms. Who knows how the fight would've gone down under different circumstances. I was interrupted from my musings as usual by my instructor.
"Okay, Blaze. Let's RTB and debrief. I think that pilots call-sign is just as fitting as yours."
"May I inquire as to what that name may be?" I asked, purposefully complicating the sentence just to drive him a little crazy.
"I swear, you keep talking like that and one day someone is going to kick you in your pompous ass."
"What's her call-sign and how'd she get it?" I asked flatly.
"Better. Her name's Edge. Her instructor gave it to her for putting her opponents, well, on the edge."
"A very apt name," I commented, glancing back towards the other craft that was beginning landing procedures.
"I should say. You look a little shiny from back here. You sweating, Blaze?" I detected a hint of mockery in his voice but I didn't know why. She had put up a great fight and the extra perspiration she had caused me was a testament to her superb flying skills.
"Yes sir, I am. I'd like to practice more with that pilot, she has given me more challenge and demand of skill than I have experienced in a while." The soft chuckling of my instructor was silenced when I began speaking again. I could once again picture the confused look on his face at my admittance of the woman's challenge. After a telling silence, he spoke again.
"Well, hate to dash your sweet hopes with pepper flakes, but that was your final test. And hers I might add. You've both been assigned a squadron. Congrats Blaze, you earned it." I was stunned. I had only been in flight school for six weeks. A typical pilot received at least ten.
"Thank you sir, but it wasn't a one sided effort. Remind me to buy you a Friday night's worth of drinks when we get back ground-side." To that, my instructor laughed a loud and deep laugh that caused me to cringe a little at the sudden noise in my ear muffs.
"Son, if you did that, you would be broke for a month. I will gladly let you pay for a round though."
"Sounds like a deal," I replied as I lined up for approach. The sun had been covered up by a sudden shift in weather that had brought dark snow clouds to the area. A mean cross wind and an incoming blizzard were making landing conditions less than optimal. I yawed the craft five degrees to the left to compensate for the winds and at the last moment, brought the nose in line with the middle of the runway and pulled up to ensure the back wheels touched down first, promptly followed by the nose gear. I applied full brakes, reversed the thrust, and deployed the flaps to slow the craft down. I was then directed by a man who looked like a Nordennavic native in his thick winter clothing to a hangar for the trainer. After I shut down the engines just outside the hangar's doors, a specialized vehicle latched onto my front landing gear and swung us around to back us into the hangar.
When the doors to the enclosure had finally shut, I reluctantly opened the canopy and was meet with the chilly exterior world. The sweat I had worked up seemed to freeze solid and I quickly jogged to the locker near the side door of the building for the thick winter coat I had stocked in it.
I had a nice hot meal for dinner to celebrate my assignment to a squadron. I kept looking for the woman I had battled with earlier but I couldn't see her anywhere. I thought she had been assigned a squad as well? After the mini-party, I changed into more weather resistant clothes and walked back to the hangar I had been parked in earlier. My adventure through my life was suddenly interrupted by a voice in the hangar with me.
"You look very contemplative," a soft voice said. I almost jumped when I heard her, I hadn't noticed anyone else in the hangar with me. I snapped my head towards the voice to see an outline of a woman in the dim light of the hangars lamps. She was sitting cross-legged on a tool box off to the corner of the room with her head in her hands.
"Just thinking back on things," I said casually, trying to hide my initial fright. Had she been in here with me the entire time? "So much has happened to me, so many things could've happened differently. I'm just thankful I will be able to fly." I turned back to the plane that had given me my first taste of boundless freedom.
"I know what you mean. I think we are very lucky to have been assigned to squadrons." The shuffling coming from her corner told me she had gotten off of her perch and was walking towards the aircraft and me.
"The squadron assignment is just a bonus. I am in it for the... freedom. I can only hope I won't have to stain the sky with any death. I will if I have to, but..."
"... Only then," the pilot completed. She surprised me again, her voice much closer than I expected. I turned around to face her only to find eyes the color of milk chocolate drawing me in as soon as I faced her. Her hair was short and thin, teetering on the edge of brown and black, reacting to every movement she made. "You're an amazing pilot," she started again. "You seemed at home in the sky today. It's been a while since I've seen anyone more comfortable up there than me," she finished with a small smile coming across her thin lips.
"I could say the same about you," I said with a faint smile of my own. At my reciprocation to her complement, her face colored slightly before she turned away. She quickly recovered from the movement though and faced me again no more than a second later.
"I'm Nagase. Kei Nagase," she said as she pushed a stray hair behind one of her ears before offering me a hand. For a moment, I was frozen to my position, forgetting all normal behavior and just losing myself in her presence just as I had with the sunrise earlier today, but I quickly recovered when she asked a question of her own. "What's your name?"
"I'm Caden. Irving. Caden Irving," I said as I clumsily came out of my trance and shook her hand. I had planned on giving my name a little more eloquently, but I had forgotten in my rush to answer her. Trying to recover, I asked, "How long have you been flying, Ms. Nagase?" She smiled again at my formality and began to walk forward, past me and to the plane, running a hand over it like I had, a similar expression capturing her face as she began to recount her adventure in the skies.
"I enlisted back in '08," She started, opening her eyes from her trance and glancing back at me, continuing to walk forward with her hand on the plane. "I worked hard to get into Officer Training School, only to be denied three times. Finally made it this year." She stopped in place for a moment and bowed her head in thought and contemplation. "I had a bone to pick with them for not admitting me earlier." She lifted her head again and looked back at me. With a small smirk, she continued, "Made sure to show them what they had been skimming over." She began to walk forward again, quickly ducking under the wing of the Hawk to stand beside the cockpits right side. I stepped up to the wing and leaned over on it, resting my elbows on the shiny aluminum alloy. "When I got into the cockpit for the first time, I felt so..." She spun around to face me again. I knew the look on her face, so I smiled and nodded. Satisfied that I understood, she leaned on her right against the aircraft.
"Anyways, when they started dogfight training, I vowed to show up. I was doing so well down in November City that they transferred me up here for..." She looked straight at me with another friendly smirk. "… Competition." November City? I had made waves that big? She looked at me for a while, like she was expecting some big head remark. When I didn't say anything, she continued. "You're not like what the other pilots I've been meeting told me you'd be like. They all said you were... well... let's say, less talkative."
"Sorry to disappoint," I told her with a slight grin. Then I added with seriousness, "I'm just another pilot in training. If I start acting like some big-shot, then I get shot. Everyone who tries to talk to me seems to want to ask questions about things that an instructor could answer better. They don't ask the right questions, is what I'm trying to say, I guess." She smiled. I was starting to think she knew what I been through in terms of dealing with people who just wanted a good pilot as a friend to elevate their own status.
"I know what you mean," she said, confirming my suspicions. "So what squadron did you get assigned?" I thought back to what the Base Commander had told me.
"I believe it was the 108th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Wardog. Supposed to be stationed out at Sand Island. It'll be a nice change of scenery, I think. How about you?" Kei stood there for a moment, head held forward with open mouth and squinted eyes like I had said some profane word.
"Wardog," was all she was able to put forth.
"Yep, that's what I said. How about you? What Squadron were you assigned to?"
"No, that's just it. I'm Wardog as well." It was my turn to have the unbelieving expression.
"Do you think they...?"
"Did it on purpose? Maybe. It is a pretty big coincidence otherwise," she finished my question as I smiled and looked down at the wing I was leaning on, shaking my head.
"Well," I started. "Maybe you can help me become more 'talkative.'"
"I don't know if I'm the right person to help you with that, but I'm more than happy to try so long as you try to make me a better pilot," she returned.
I looked up at her again and stood back up, taking my weight off of the wing of the Hawk. "I think we can work something out," I said slyly. She flashed me a quick grin before dropping her gaze to her feet and shuffling them about.
"I think there's a party going on for us back there," I said, nodding my head back towards the mess hall. Still grinning, she lifted her head and nodded, quickly walking back over to the toolbox she had been sitting on and grabbing her winter coat. I walked over to the side door of the hangar and placed my hands on the cold bar to open it. I pushed but the door wasn't budging. I pushed harder and heard the sound of ice snapping. I backed away from the door a bit and rammed my body against the door and heard more snapping and popping. I repeated this three more times and finally on my fourth try, broke the ice seal on the door. Huffing a little and then clearing my throat from my exertion, I turned around and held the door wide for Kei. She had a bemused look on her face and I could tell she was struggling at trying not to laugh.
"Ladies first," I said with a small cloud of condensation forming from my breath. As she walked past me she gave me a playful punch on the arm and then raced off towards the mess. I was pretty happy knowing she would be coming with me to Sand Island. With all the changes I had endured in my life, some consistency would be a nice... change. I rushed on after her and we meet as she got to the door leading into the building. It, like the hangar door was frozen shut.
"I suppose I will have to help you even after that little stunt," I said with mock disapproving. She just punched me in the arm again with a harmless smile on her face and stepped aside. After another couple of yanks on the door, it snapped open, blasting us with warm air. We both walked to the mess hall in relative silence, the squeaking of our boots providing the sounds we refused to make with our mouths. There were fewer people in the mess now but still at least 30 all said. I grabbed a slice of cake and a glass of punch and sat down with the remaining members of my training flight and Nagase with hers. The rest of the night was enjoyable and when it came be around 2300, I excused myself and retired for the night. Tomorrow, Kei and I would be flown out to what would become our new home. I was thinking I would get a restless night of sleep, but as soon as I hit my cot, I was out. It was some of the soundest sleep I had gotten in a long time. I knew I had secured my citizenship with the sky, and I could finally rest easy.