A/N: So, this is a little late. But I have good reasons! Week 2: I had 9,000 words and was ready to go. Then, on Thursday night, I found a 405 page technical document on the F-15 Eagle. So in my obsession with realism, I decided to extend to three weeks to incorporate this wealth of information. Week 3: 11,000 words. Then, Friday night, I decided that I didn't like the ending. Too forced, too unrealistic. So I deleted 4,000 words (ouch) and started again. And then I used the extra time to add in more things. And reformatting, and reorganizing the story, and making sure details lined up... and now we find ourselves here. But despite it being double the time to get it out, it is double the length. So I hope that makes up for it a little :)

Two quick things though: For all the research I tried to do, I am in no way knowledgeable about the procedures and such used by the USAF. Information on the aircraft? Yes. Call outs, escalation of force, what do you do when everything fails... not so much. I've had to make some assumptions. Two: They are in the air force, and are grown men. So curse words are tossed around a lot more casually. I rarely curse myself, and don't really condone it - but it is a realistic character choice. Fair warning.

All that said, please enjoy!

"I got it," crowed Rhett Florence, reaching for the four cards on the folding table. Rhett was a large man with a southern drawl, sandy blonde hair dusting the top of his head. A large mustache adorned his upper lip, something he was immensely proud of - and it was now in jeopardy.

"No. This hand goes to me my friend," grinned James Halifax, a small wiry man with close shaven black hair.

"The hell you do. I got the ace of spades in there!" argued Rhett pulling the cards towards him. James' hand snaked out with surprising speed and clasped onto the southerner's thick wrist.

"No, I got the jack of clubs. It's my trick." argued the smaller man from Minnesota.

"The trump suit is spades, not clubs!"

"It's the fucking left, you moron," interjected Halifax's partner, Thad Greyson. "Jack of trump is highest. Off suit jack of the same color is second highest. It's our trick. You keep forgetting that."

"Damn it," growled Rhett in concession, drawing his hand back slowly.

"I suppose that makes this euchre," James said in satisfaction. "Two points for us. Rack 'em up, Thad." Thad did just that, pointing a finger at Rhett as he did so.

"That mustache is going to go, old man," Greyson taunted. "It's not the fucking seventies anymore!"

"You just wait 'till we win an' you've got to drink a bottle of barbeque sauce you young punk," Rhett shot back. "An' what in the name of Sam Hill were you doin' over there Kwan? I picked you to help me because I thought you were good."

"I am good," grumbled Jason Kwan, a frown tugging at his asian features.

"Well? I told you to pick up the jack of spades at the beginning. Why didn't you trump it?" accused the Texan.

"Because I can not control the cards! Thaddeus led hearts and I had to follow suit!" said Kwan. Rhett slammed a hand down in frustration, rubbing at his eyes. Finally the big man waved a hand to indicate his reluctant consent.

"Fine. We'll come back, I'm sure of it," the Texan drawled.

"Eight to three old man," mocked Thad. "You aren't coming back from that."

"You better be careful," chuckled James. "I've heard that old Tex over there still has a lasso from his calf-roping days and he'll tie your ass up faster than any striking rattlesnake."

"Shut the fuck up Hoser," Thad countered in an exaggerated northern accent.

James Hallifax was second in command to their flight lead, Rhett Florence, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Jason Kwan was his wingman, a quiet and calculating man with a high level of intensity that served him well. The youngest member of the flight was Rhett's wingman, Thaddeus Greyson. Greyson was a good kid in the air, but had a tendency to run his mouth on the ground - which put the group in the situation they found themselves in now.

Rhett, the consummate southerner, deigned it necessary to add spice to every mess hall meal they ate - usually in the form of Tabasco or a bottle of ground up peppers. Thad had then decided it would be a good idea to tell Florence, the thirty-two year old veteran, that he could handle the heat better.

Of course, this challenge had predictable results. Scrambled eggs were spewed into a trash can amid a fountain of profanity much to the amusement of the three watching. Florence then challenged Thad, amid guffaws of laughter, to drink a bottle of his barbeque sauce if he thought that was bad. Greyson agreed if Rhett was willing to bet his mustache. And so it came to pass that a game of euchre was drawn up to alleviate boredom while on call and settle the bet.

"Have you seen the F-22 flight that they've stationed here?" James asked as Thad shuffled the next hand.

"Yeah, it's a gorgeous aircraft. Wish I was flying one, the lucky bastards." Kwan replied.

"Eh. They think they're some hot shit. I could take them," boasted Thad.

"Like hell you could," laughed James. "There's a reason our F-15 C's are fourth-gen and the Raptor is fifth-gen. Stealth features, two dimensional thrust vectoring, supercruise, advanced AESA radar - they'd hand you your ass on a silver platter before you even saw them."

"What a load of bull! What's that the old man is always saying? It's not the aircraft you're flying, it's the skill of the pilot." Thad sat back smugly as he looked at his cards.

"I stand by what I said," shrugged Rhett. "Unfortunately you have neither."

"Shut up." grumbled Greyson.

"Trump is hearts," Kwan lamented. "That would have been useful last round."

"Oh quit your whinin'. That attitude ain't going to dig us out of this hole." Kwan frowned at Rhett but did no more. "I'll pass."

"Pick it up," James called, barely able to contain an over-eager smile. Thad shrugged and pulled the nine of hearts into his hand, discarding one. "And good round, that's two points for us."

"Bull. We haven't even played a single set yet!" scoffed Rhett, only for his eyes to widen as James laid his hand down. "The queen, king, ace, and jack of hearts … and the left. What in god's name…"

"Yep," grinned James. "There was no way for you to win. I had all the highest trump. And that means-"

"Whooo!" cheered Greyson, jumping up so violently his folding chair took a spill behind him. "Time to take a razor to that thing!"

Rhett sat back in his chair and slowly placed a hand over his treasured cookie duster as if guarding it. There was a moment of silence for the soon to be fallen comrade that was occasionally broken by Thad as he did an undignified dance around the common room.

The texan sighed and pushed back his chair. "We have a flight briefing in half an hour. Get dressed out and I'll see y'all there."

"What about the facial hair?" complained Thad as he froze, balancing on one leg.

"Briefing. Thirty minutes." With that, Rhett stood and marched out of the room, leaving the door to slam shut behind him. A brief silence endured the cold exit before Greyson chipped in with no level of sincerity.

"I get the impression that he's upset. Do you guys get that impression? Was it something I said?"

Kwan just shook his head. "You may have won this round, but I would not want to be in your shoes."

"What? The hell do you mean?" asked Thad quizzically.

"Thats right," chuckled Kwan. "You haven't been around long enough. Tell him Hoser."

"All I'll give you," said James with a sly grin, "Is that old Tex can hold a grudge like no other. There's a reason that he needed a new wingman." With that the two exited the room to leave Thad to stew.

"Breaking right to heading one-five four," Rhett called out cooly.

"Hoser copies," James replied.

"Divot copies," came Kwan's crackly transmission.

"ALF … ALF copies." Thad sounded particularly bitter, likely due to the new call sign given to him during the briefing.

"As y'all know," Rhett had started off their flight briefing, "Thad has been without a callsign so far. Well, that's about to change."

Kwan and James could barely contain their grins. In typical Air Force fashion, a callsign was unlikely to be given out because of something great or heroic. It was usually a joke at the expense of the one receiving it - and the more you disliked it, the more likely it was to stick.

James had received 'Hoser' because someone had thought his northern accent was hilarious, imitating it at every opportunity. Eventually, with him calling James 'Hoser' so often, the moniker stuck. Rhett had received the call sign 'Bullhead' for not just his southern attitude but for the way his head looked. "That face is ugly as a bull," someone had commented - and invariably no one forgot.

Jason Kwan had somewhat of a more unfortunate story. While on a cross-country run, he had bled the external fuel stores dry and switched to internals - but accidentally jettisoned the bags. The two external fuel tanks dropped with pinpoint accuracy onto a golf course green down below, hence the name 'Divot'.

"Boys, welcome ALF to the team."

"Alf?" asked Thad. "What's Alf for?"

"It's an acronym. You're such an Annoyin' Little Fucker, I thought it more than appropriate," drawled Rhett. Jason and James immediately burst out into raucous laughter and cheers amid Thad's protestations.

"No, c'mon guys. That's a load of shit," complained the newly designated ALF. "That's the shittiest name ever."

"Nope, it's beautiful. I don't ever want to hear anything different," laughed James.

"We tried to warn you! Tex can hold a grudge, and this is just the start!" Kwan taunted, clapping the unfortunate flyer on the back. Now, an hour and a half later, Thad was still sulking.

Rhett eased the stick and rudder gently, pulling into a right-hand turn. At designated intervals, first Thad, then James, then Kwan broke after their flight lead. Jason kept an eye on the compass in the top right corner of the cockpit, watching it slowly creep around towards the marking 154.

"Bullhead, could we quit with this two-gee airliner pull shit and break right like a fucking fighter pilot?" griped Thad.

"I would if I thought you could keep up ALF," came Rhett's immediate reply. The four ship leveled out, slicing through the thin Alaskan air at over four hundred knots. Up at 35.000 feet with the world falling away in all directions, one could almost ignore Greyson's whining. Almost being the operative word.

"-and I can't believe-"

"Oh, quit your bitchin' ALF," cut in Rhett. "I have half a mind to -" There was a sudden break in his voice, and the difference between the playful banter of a moment before and the icy cold of now was evident even over the radio. "Cadillac Flight. Check eight o'clock high."

"Hoser is blind," James called as his eyes scanned the sky. "What're you - Jesus Christ."

"This can't be real," came Kwan's voice. "Is everyone else seeing this?"

"That's affirm," Rhett keyed in.

"Affirm," said James in disbelief.

"Fuck," choked out Thad, which was answer enough.

What the fourship of F-15's was looking at was the sun. Up in the sky the giant orb burned with a brilliant intensity, glaring brighter as if to make up for the shadow that was sliding across it. Slowly but surely, a back circle was crawling its way over the star and eclipsing it in darkness. A shadowy wall spread across the surface of the earth, making its way ever closer to the aircraft with astonishing speed. Thankfully Rhett spoke into the stunned silence, his logical mind already thinking ahead.

"Lights on," Bullhead called out over the radio.

"Affirm," replied James, flipping on his Eagle's external lights. Lights flashed on for all the aircraft shortly just before the impromptu night hit, causing the mottled grey Eagles to disappear into a collection of red, green, and white strobing points.

"What the hell is this?" crackled Kwan over the radio. "Am I the only one who was unaware that there was going to be a full solar ec-"

The radio went dead silent. James worriedly looked around, taking comfort in the lights he could still see around him. Then, a moment later, that last bastion of hope was taken away. Darkness surrounded the Eagle, mixed in with mysterious traces of dark red. The silence afforded by the loss of the radio was taken away as the cockpit blared to life with a myriad of warning lights and sounds.

"Warning. Warning. ECM failure. MLWS failure. Warning. Warning." The automated voice - otherwise known as Bitching Betty - jumped into full panic mode. A wide variety of other stress inducing beeping was going on in the background as James attempted to figure out what had just gone wrong with his jet. "MWLS failure. ECM failure. Warning. Warning. Over temp left. Over temp right. Warning. Warning."

Everything that could fail was failing. James was blind, dead in the sky, and unable to find out what was going on with his Eagle. Taking a firm hold of the stick and throttle, James turned his attention to the instrumentation in an attempt to simply fly the aircraft in the pitch black he found himself in.

Every instrument in the cockpit was giving him different readings. Whether it was in the Heads Up Display or through the other gages, nothing was giving him any level of accurate information. The altimeter bounced wildly thousands of feet one direction, then the other.

Then, as quickly as it had all began, it ended.

The Eagle was spat out into brilliant afternoon light and immediately entered a flat spin. The aircraft spun around its nose cone, falling vertically towards the ground. Finally - a problem that James could easily solve.

100 knots …

120 knots …

140 knots …

James applied opposite rudder, nosed down, and then neutralized the controls, regaining control of the multi-million dollar air superiority fighter with a practiced ease. As the nose slowly came back through the horizon the lone pilot noticed that most of the blaring alarms had disappeared, save for a single master caution that was silenced quickly.

Pushing the throttles forward slightly James was pushed back in the seat as the massive twin Pratt & Whitney F100 engines launched the Eagle into the vertical. As the altimeter spun through twenty eight thousand feet, the number two in the four ship put a call into the radio.

"Cadillac flight, this is Hoser. Does anyone copy?" James asked.

"Hoser, this is Bullhead. What's your position?" crackled Rhett through the radio.

"I don't know. INS and GPS is fucked. GPS is completely offline, and INS is telling me I'm … flying over somewhere in the southern hemisphere, I think," chuckled Hallifax, looking down at the snow and ice below. "Hardly likely. That'll be something for the crew chief to have a field day over." James breathed a sigh of relief. Not that he would ever admit it, but the darkness and warnings had left him shaken.

"Bullhead copies," Rhett acknowledged. "I have the same issue. There's no way we can re-calibrate either; not while we're in the air anyway."

"Yeah. If I fucked up the INS that badly by trying to reset it while cruising at three hundred knots the crew chief would shoot me right between the eyes with his sidearm after I told him what had happened."

Rhett laughed heartily. "Undoubtedly. In the meantime since I can't visually acquire you, search for us with your radar."

"Got a friend Bullhead?"

"Picked up ALF. His radio is out so I don't want to have to drag him around. We're holding around angels thirty." Rhett informed him.

James fiddled with his radar, doping its search to around thirty thousand feet. Wheeling in a slow circle, the pilot stared intently at the small screen until two small circular dots so close as to be almost superimposed over each other appeared on the green screen. "Affirm. I have you at eight mikes."

"Bullhead copies. See you soon Hoser."

It was but a few minutes later that the distinctive shapes of two F-15's came into sight through the front of the cockpit. With each individual aircraft being roughly the size of a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, they were difficult to miss. James pulled back on the throttle, fanning the airbrake slightly to pull in smoothly on Rhett's wing.

"Any word on Divot?" asked James.

"Negative Hoser. No contact. It's possible that his radio is shot like ALF's," the texan said, southern accent blurring the words. "Let's see what the controllers can do for us." Rhett keyed in Air Traffic Control for Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. "J-Bear this is Cadilac one. We have suffered avionics failure and are attempting to regroup. Requesting vector towards Cadillac three."

Only a faint static noise followed Rhett's request.

"J-Bear this is Cadillac one. Requesting vector to Cadillac three."

Still, there was no response. Fruitlessly Florence tried several more times before his patience wore thin.

"J-Bear, this is Bullhead. Get your asses off of your coffee break and give me some goddamn information!" The ominous silence that followed the last radio transmission was indicative that something was horribly wrong. James was on the edge of his seat - as much as the restraints and various connections would allow him, anyway. There should not have been a solar eclipse. Even if there had been, it should not have drowned out all light, caused so much havoc with the jets systems, nor left them so quickly and put the group so far apart. "Fuck it. Hoser, we're going to scan for him on radar. I'll take sea level to angels ten. You take angels ten to twenty."

"Affirm," responded James, once again adjusting his radar antenna to search within the parameters.

"Breaking left. Going to sweep three-sixty and see if we can pick him up. In three… two… one… break."

Rhett rolled over and began a gentle pull. Thankfully Thad was still alert, and quickly followed his element leader. James pulled into a left last, splitting his attention between the aircraft ahead of him and the green screen on the upper left of the cockpit. There was an attitude indicator built into the display to help keep you from running into the ground, but it didn't keep you from running into other aircraft. As the three-ship pulled through one hundred and eighty degrees, Rhett rolled wings level and sent a transmission over to James.

"Cadillac two, this is Bullhead. I've got something on the scopes at about angels nine. Could be Cadillac three. Headin' down to the deck."

With that Florence bunted the Eagle over into a dive. James followed, the negative gee's attempting to lift him out of his seat and sending cockpit dust floating around in mid-air. Despite the throttles that were quickly pulled back, the Eagles still covered the twenty-thousand-foot disparity with ease. Below the aircraft there was a bright blue ocean that foamed white as it crashed against massive grey cliffs. The towering stone structures themselves were covered in ice, a snowy landscape sloping back to oblivion.

"Divot should be at twelve… one o'clock, within five mikes. Keep your lights on and eyes outside the cockpit."

The minute all the lights went out, Kwan knew he was in trouble. Warnings began flaring all throughout the cockpit as pitch black enveloped him. "What on Earth is going on?" he muttered in confusion as the various steam dials and gauges spun madly in their housings.

Kwan's greatest fear was colliding with one of the other aircraft in the ungodly darkness that surrounded them. He attempted to push the stick forward and decrease altitude, but no inputs that were made seemed to affect the fighter in any way.

Then, less than a minute after it started, the darkness disappeared suddenly.

Sunlight glared through the bubble canopy, causing him to flip his visor down as his eyes readjusted to the light. Immediately taking in his surroundings, Kwan noted the conspicuous lack of any aircraft around him. He had ended up far lower than his original starting altitude - that much he could see with how close he was to the icy Alaskan tundra.

The dying whirr of his engines caught his attention. The massive fans in the Pratt and Whitney engines sank in pitch as the RPM's dropped away. Responding quickly, Kwan nosed over and selected a mid range throttle position. As airflow spun the fan blades, the engines automatically re-lit.

"Thank god," he muttered, pulling out of his dive and leveling out at around nine thousand feet, if his auxiliary altimeter was to be believed. Keying the mike, Kwan made a transmission. "Cadillac flight, this is Divot. Position unknown. Where are you? Divot is currently at angels nine holding heading, ahh, 188."

Silence met his calls. "This is Cadillac three. Does any aircraft in the vicinity copy?"


Kwan looked down at the BIT panel, or the Built-In Test equipment. Several of the lights had illuminated, showing that certain components had an issue or had failed entirely.







"Automatic direction finder, lead computing gyro, altitude heading and reference system, inertial navigation system, and communications… including the UHF receiver and integrated communications control. Jesus, it would be easier to figure out what isn't broken on this damn plane." Several minutes passed as the pilot attempted to troubleshoot and engage auxiliary systems to the best of his ability. Suddenly, a bad situation got even worse.

Kwan looked up just as a shadow passed over his cockpit. Crunch. Crunch. With the sound of crumpling and tearing metal, both of Kwan's wings were torn off of the aircraft. Immediately the Eagle nosed over and began plummeting towards the ground as warnings blared once again inside the cockpit.

Immediately, Kwan shifted into the proper position and yanked the handle in the center of the ejection seat he was in. The chair exploded upwards, sending Kwan out of his doomed aircraft and into the crisp air. Wind buffeted him as his chair released and parachute deployed, leaving him to float in the air as his jet careened away, engines still running and white trails of fuel coming out of each wing root where the wings were no longer attached.

"What the shit," Kwan muttered in disbelief. "The hell just happened?"

It was at that moment Kwan hear a bone-chilling screech behind him. Jerking around in shock, the pilot tried to look over his shoulder to see what the unearthly noise could have been. In the corner of his vision, the F-15 driver saw a giant black bird circling around, shaking its talons to remove the two grey wings that were stuck there.

Wrenching its feet free, the humongous bird wheeled itself around and screamed a promise of death at the dangling man, mouth wide open.

"Fuck. Fuck!" screamed Kwan in terror, staring at his personal, six-eyed winged grim reaper. His hands fumbling desperately as the bird approached, unclipping the main chute just as the bird struck. The chute was clamped down on by the giant black bird as Kwan now plummeted to the ground, having cheated death by inches.

Reaching around behind him for his reserve chute, Kwan's hand scrabbled desperately to find a cord that didn't exist. Unlike the training parachute drops, where there was a main chute and a reserve, the ejection seat only came with the one.

Kwan closed his eyes as the whistling of the wind became a howl growing in intensity until-

The Eagles roared through the cold air, all three pilots scanned the skies for any signs of another aircraft. After a minute, Rhett spoke again. "Cadillac one is blind. Radar lock has been lost. All I have is tally on a couple of birds. Didn't know their wings could get them this high."

"Me neither, Cadillac lead," James said. "Looks like we have one to our twelve coming up. We'll get to see what kind of big bastard can get up to ten thousand feet. I have my money on Canadian Geese."

"Of course you would say that Hoser," chuckled Florence. "You're practically Canadian after all, aren't you?"

"Even if I was, I wouldn't want to associate myself with the geese. They're loud, aggressive, and shit all over everything," laughed James along with Rhett. The easy banter that was being restored helped to calm his tension. They'd figure something out – they always did. And it would make a hell of a story back at the local watering hole too.

"Speakin' of aggressive, that bastard looks like he's headed right for us," drawled Rhett. It was true; the black silhouette had appeared to turn around and was now growing in James's windscreen. And it kept growing. And growing, and growing far larger than any bird should have been. The sense of doom that had been absent in James's gut now came back with a vengeance.

"Break, break, break," called Rhett with some urgency in his voice. James didn't need to hear any more before he pulled the Eagle sharply upwards and rolled inverted to watch as the bird passed underneath him.

"What the hell," James exclaimed, voice full of awe, full of shock, and full of fear.

To call the monstrosity that passed between the three Eagles a bird would be monumentally selling it short. The avian was bigger than any of the three fighters by a significant margin. The sheer size of this winged creature was enough to generate a healthy fear of it – but that was hardly the only terror inducing feature. Bone plating glistened a sickening white around the face and other areas. The matte black feathers seemed to leave a smoky trail behind it, as well as a faint red afterimage left by the six eyes that burned a hellish crimson.

Out of the corner of its beak trailed a parachute; the same kind of parachute that was used in the ACES II ejection seat. The ejection seat that was mounted in all their Eagles.

"What the hell was that?" yelled Rhett into the radio.

"I don't fucking know!" James shouted back. "It looks like it fucking ate Kwan though, I'll tell you that much!"

"We don't know that … where the fuck is ALF going?"

"Shit," growled James.

Thaddeus had come to the same conclusion as Halifax. Say what you wanted about the brash young fighter pilot, but he was no idiot. The USAF doesn't just entrust anyone with millions of dollars' worth of tech and the lives of operatives from multiple branches on a whim.

They were aggressive, capable, highly trained, and intelligent. Even though he couldn't communicate with his squadmates around him Thad wasn't totally oblivious to what was going on. He had pieced together that Kwan was still missing when only James had showed up, and figured they were going after the number three when they pushed into a dive.

As such, when they leveled out at around ten thousand feet Thad had doped his radar to search within a narrow altitude block in front of him to help as best he could. It hadn't taken long for the young pilot to find the radar signature of Kwan's jet - and it had taken just as small of a time period for it to disappear.

Then after seeing the bird grow abnormally large in his cockpit windscreen, Thad had started moving out of the way before James or Rhett had moved. The demonic appearance of the giant bird and the parachute were simply the last straw.

Two and two came together to make four. Roaring in anger, the young pilot shoved the throttle to full mil power and hauled back on the stick. Nearly thirty-six thousand pounds of thrust screamed as they were unleashed out the back of the F-15C, launching the fighter into the vertical with a force that would have made an Apollo rocket proud.

As he curled over the top of the loop, Thad strained his neck against the pull of gees to keep the big black bird in his sight. The bird in question had started to wheel around in what would have been an ultimately fruitless pursuit of the number one and two of Cadillac flight.

Thad didn't intend to even give it the chance.

Disengaging the safety, Thad selected cannons and rolled in on a pass. Usually the Eagle's advanced avionics would lock onto an aircraft and highlight it in the Heads Up Display. Then computers would make calculations for how much lead to put on a target. Unfortunately, the bird was not recognized by the computer and no such information was available to him.

None of that deterred Thad. Instead he pointed the piper in the HUD out in front of the bird and pulled the trigger, walking the tracers up until they connected with the huge avian.

Twenty millimeter HEI and SAPHEI shells fired at six thousand rounds per minute impacted the bird and turned it into little more than so much black feathers and paste. It was as if a buzzsaw had been run through the creature, bisecting it and causing two conspicuously smoking halves to fall towards the frozen tundra below.

Pulling out of the dive and roaring ahead to catch up with his flight, Thad surveyed the falling carcass with a cruel smile on his lips. "And if anyone tells me that was some sort of endangered species I should have saved," he said though no one could hear him, "They can shove it up their ugly ass."

"What the hell was that?" James asked for the umpteenth time as Thad slid back into formation.

"Whatever it was, ALF has finished it now," Rhett said, still in shock. "I didn't think Alaska grew crows that big."

"They don't," replied James. "That thing was practically the size of a C-130. There's nothing anywhere that gets that big."

"What in the hell is going on?" Rhett managed. "Damn it all! J-Bear, this is Cadillac flight. Cadillac three is missing and possibly down. Request Search And Rescue at our location."

Once again, the only thing to break the silence of Air Traffic Control was the faint hiss of static in the background.

"Goddamn it!" growled Rhett. "What the fucking hell is happening?"

"Maybe the eclipse or whatever it was took out their communication ability. It certainly did a number on us," James tried reasonably.

"Well they better pull their goddamn shit together fast because Kwan is fucking AWOL and I'd say eaten by a giant bird if I didn't know better!" Rhett took several deep breaths and settled back into the even-keeled logic that he was known for. "Well then, we're going to have to make our way back to base and get someone out here the old fashioned way. Maps out boys. All we need is a landmark and we're back on track to getting home."

Half an hour later, they were not any closer to figuring out where they were. In a vast, desolate expanse of arctic there were no visible distinguishing landmarks for any of the fighter pilots to work from. Without any kind of navigational equipment working and unable to find their bearings on the map, Rhett was forced to marshal the group along the shoreline in what he believed was approximately the direction of the base. Both Rhett and James made multiple attempts to contact both Air Traffic Control or any other aircraft in the vicinity, but were met with only silence.

"Bullhead, up ahead. Mountain range running down to the sea. Anything we can recognize?" asked James. The map in his lap crinkled as he himself attempted to answer the question.

"Nothing, Hoser. No recognizable landmarks, no GPS, no radio signals, nothin'. We got jack all." Rhett sighed, the noise crackling through James's headset. "What in Sam Hill is goin' on here?"

"Beats the hell out of me," shrugged James.

"How much fuel you got?" enquired the flight lead wearily.

"Uhh, seventy … about seventy-two hundred pounds," James winced.

"Damn, is that all? Didn't you take any bags?"

"Just the centerline. This was supposed to be a two-hour patrol from wheels up to touchdown, and now we're going on three."

"Tell me about it," groaned Rhett. "My ass is going numb already. Well, I got about the same as you, and I'd hedge my bets as to ALF having even less. We might just consider finding an available airport or landing strip that we can put down on, forget finding J-Bear."


"Speak of the devil and he will appear," Rhett muttered.

"Cadillac one, I got an unknown spike on the RWR from the, uhh, North East." Halifax said, looking at the Radar Warning Receiver.

"Affirm, Cadillac two. I'm looking at the same thing here."

"We're gonna head for the radar signature, whether it's an aircraft or air base. Either way we're bound to get some help," drawled Rhett. "But first, let's light the wick and head upstairs. I want to conserve all the fuel we got left."

"That's affirm," responded James. "Target altitude?"

"Angels thirty. I don't want the burner on too long," reasoned Rhett.

"Affirm." said James.

"Good. Afterburner on my mark. Three, two one, mark."

With that, Rhett and James jammed their throttles forward into full burner with Thad responding in kind a second later. Over forty-six thousand pounds of thrust roared into life, providing more power than the weight of the large fighter. All three Eagles rocketed into the sky, accelerating vertically into the thinning air.

"Bullhead, I have multiple unknown spikes at our twelve," Hallifax nervously reported, nerves on a hair trigger. The rapid pinging of the RWR filled the cockpit, a sound the fighter pilot was unused to hearing in friendly airspace.

"Me too Hoser. Visual on a town or city at the base of that mountain." said Rhett cooly.

"Eyes on, Bullhead. That's definitely a city, not a town."

"Semantics, Hoser." In his cockpit, Rhett leaned forwards in the restraining straps and squinted hard at the ground. "I think we have an airstrip at the… east, southeast side of the city. I can see aircraft taking off. I say we head there and get wheels back on the damn dirt. Then we'll find out where we are, contact J-Bear, get some JP-4, and be on our way."

"That all, Bullhead?" grumbled James. "We better start descending then."

The first indication that Cadillac flight had that they were under fire was when the rear half of Thad's F-15C burst into a ball of flame. The jet nosed up slightly, falling out of formation as it deplaned. Then, with the severe damage it had sustained, the wind resistance from the mid air body brake the Eagle was performing became too much for the air frame. The rear of the aircraft simply disintegrated under the stress, leaving the multi-million dollar fighter to tumble uncontrollably towards the ground.

Thad was slammed violently around the cockpit as the jet slewed around the skies. Lacking any sort of stabilization the Eagle flopped - ironically enough - like a dead duck as it hurtled onward to complete its parabolic flight towards the earth.

"ECM failure. MWLS failure. Warning, warning. Right engine fire. Left engine fire. Hydraulics failure."

"God-dammit,"grunted Thad as he strained against the positive and negative gees that were assailing him. His g-suit constricted around his torso, keeping the blood in his head as his hands grasped the single yellow and black handle on either side of the chair he was in. Yanking up, several things happened immediately.

As the canopy was explosively cleared away the rocket motors in Thad's seat fired, launching the chair and the man in it out of the aircraft with twenty gees of force. As he cleared the windscreen Thad was thrown directly into the four-hundred-knot-plus winds that were still surrounding the craft. Now, most of us would know wind as maybe a gentle breeze, or something that tosses lawn chairs and makes it hard to walk in extreme situations.

At higher subsonic speeds, it was like hitting a brick wall. Despite his firm grasp on the handle one of Thad's arms was torn away from its anchor and pulled into the wind stream. In an instant his humerus snapped, leaving the limb to whip around like an unnatural windmill.

A few seconds later Thad had to let go of the other handle as the ejection seat detached and fell away, leaving his parachute to finish deploying. There was another jerk and then the downed pilot was left to drift to the ground below.

"Fuck," Greyson barely managed, the dull pain in his back, neck, and arm beginning to come to the forefront now that the excitement of the moment had passed. "Oh fuck."

It was a long way down to the ground.

"James, this total lockdown of Atlas is hurting my company! In the last month I have only been able to get the council's permission to send out two shipments of dust. Two!" roared Jacques. General Ironwood sat calmly across from the fuming Schnee, taking a sip of whiskey from a glass tumbler. Ice clinked as the glass was gingerly set down on a coaster before he responded.

"You are one of the lucky few who have gotten anything in or out Jacques. Many others have yet to even have family members let in because each case must be brought before the council individually and carefully considered. You should be grateful." The shadows under the General's eyes and his unshaven face showed the long hours he had spent personally vetting applications. Jacques Schnee, however, was less than impressed.

"Grateful? I should be grateful? We are going to post a minus eight for this quarter James. A minus eight! This does not happen!" Jacques shouted, leaning across his desk to get in the bigger man's face. "And what about family, hmm? How come your 'Iron Curtain' didn't catch my daughter as she ran off?"

"We hadn't shut down travel yet, Jacques. If you lost your daughter that is hardly my fault."

"I lost my daughter? I lost her?" The white-haired man's voice kept climbing higher, mustache twitching in fury on his upper lip. "You should have helped me contain her! Do you have any idea what this is going to do to my reputation? My company's reputation? First Winter gone, then Weiss – and both have been your fault!"

"Jacques, I have tried to be reasonable," snapped Ironwood, his gravelly voice rumbling dangerously. "But I am not just going to continually meet with you just to have you hurl abuse and unfounded allegations at me. I have more important things to attend to, and if you cannot be civil I will see that none of your shipments make it in or out. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal," growled Jacques through gritted teeth. "I won't forget this, friend."

"Neither will I," Ironwood replied, standing suddenly and turning to the door. "I believe we're done here."

The general marched around the chess table and chairs that were still set up in the middle of a game that was unlikely to ever be finished. As he pulled the dark door open, Ironwood couldn't resist tossing a parting shot over his shoulder. "And frankly, Jacques, I can't blame either of your girls for wanting to leave."

The last thing James saw was Jacques Schnee's face bright red with fury, quivering in anger as the door was slammed shut with a resounding thud.

"I take it the meeting didn't go well, sir?" a soft-spoken voice came from behind General Ironwood.

"No Klein, it didn't. I may not be invited back for a long time," James responded to the short, barrel-chested butler of the Schnee family.

"I'm terribly sorry sir. It was always such a pleasure to have you around."

"I'm afraid Jacques doesn't quite share your good opinion of me," said General Ironwood, drawing a chuckle out of both men. "It's been a pleasure, Klein."

"The honor has been mine sir. Would you like me to escort you to the door?" asked the butler.

"I can find my way out, thanks. I've done it often enough."

"Very well sir. Have a good day." Klein gave a small bow as the general waved, and both turned to go their respective ways. Making his way through the grand corridors, James tried to admire the magnificence of his surroundings. The architecture was fabulous, with high ceilings, ornate pillars and paintings, and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked over a fantastic garden, even while it was frozen in winter.

He simply couldn't bring himself to enjoy it, however. It wasn't just that he had seen the surroundings often; the whole palace like structure felt cold, sterile, and devoid of life. Fitting, considering the man who sat at the heart of it.

The general's scroll rang and he picked it up, carefully extending the screen. "General Ironwood."

"General, sir. Commander N'mall reporting," an anxious voice piped through the speakers.

"Commander. What's the situation?"

"Sir, only a few minutes ago we picked up three long range radar contacts to the southwest. They have no identification and are not responding to hails on any known channel. Airships are travelling at a high rate of speed at altitude."

"How fast, commander?" enquired James.

"Almost five hundred and fifty knots at nine thousand feet, sir."

The general whistled softly. That was pushing the upper limits of the straight-line speed of the advanced Sparrow interceptor, and was far out of the realm of even a Bullhead with up-rated engines. What concerned the general however was the situations eerie similarities to an incident that had happened not a week ago.

The few White Fang that operated out of Atlas were understandably unhappy with the total travel ban, and conspired with Vale – based White Fang members to strike back at the Atlesian Government. Using Bullheads captured in the fall of Beacon, the White Fang showed a frightening amount of technical know-how when they equipped the Bullheads with a crude autonomous control system that they programmed. They then stripped the airships to the bare bones, decreasing the weight and increasing performance.

With programming uploaded, the Bullheads took off and headed to Atlas. Once they got within radar range, the Bullheads accelerated at full power and rose to a higher altitude to make them difficult to intercept. At the final moment, the airships nosedived and streaked straight towards the city itself with the intent to ram themselves into the populace below.

Thanks to the quick reactions and speed of the new Sparrow pilots, all five of the Bullheads had been shot down before they hit the city – but the flaming wreckage still spiraled its way down onto buildings below, claiming several civilian lives.

"Keep an eye on them Commander. Scramble the Sparrows to intercept and alert the ground based Air Defense Systems. If they respond, vector them away. If not, shoot them down before they get close enough to present a danger to even the outskirts. Understood?" James barked out the order.

"Yes sir!" Commander N'mall responded crisply.

"And keep me updated. I want a play by play."

"Absolutely sir."

The day had started out normally for Lieutenant Auburn Sterling. Today her flight, named Aquila, was on standby as part of the Atlas Quick Reaction Force. The AQRF had been hastily assembled and approved in the wake of the recent attacks in order to provide some measure of airborne defence.

Aquila flight was a member of the 48th squadron, the first squadron to receive the new I-14 Sparrow interceptor. Designed by Atlesian Aerospace Engineering - the same corporation that created the GB- 6 Fortress, the current flagship of the Atlesian Air Force - the Sparrow became an immediate success.

It fit a niche that had never been filled until this moment. Though the Great War had been fought on foot, the world of Remnant had rapidly developed technology since that time. Most airships had been focused on simply the delivery of troops into otherwise inaccessible areas, and Close Air Support.

As such, the efforts had been focused on Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft with the ability to use extremely limited areas. Though this had its own set of benefits that were suited to the times and purpose of the airships, they also limited certain other aspects of the flight envelope. None of the aircraft were particularly fast, with newer models of the Bullhead having a never exceed speed of 415 knots - and that was only achievable in a dive.

Slow and powerful had come to a culmination in the Fortress, but such a behemoth really only served its purpose as a flagship. There were very few in the Atlas inventory for a simply reason: cost of operation.

The beast's hull was over seventy meters wide, and just under eight hundred meters long- not including the long fan-like tails that protruded out the back. The amount of power, by way of massive dust powered engines, required to keep it airborne was immense. The cost of dust to power it was through the roof, not to mention the small army of officers, gunners, mechanics, system operators, and other various trained personnel it took to operate it. And were those mechanics ever needed; even with the highest standards of build quality, in a nearly kilometer long ship exposed to enormous stresses there were always things breaking down.

Of course, extreme operational costs were matched only by the extreme firepower the gunboat could offer. Mounted on the ship were four AA-790 Seismic cannons.

Originally designed as long range artillery and anti-aircraft cannons, they drew so much power and kicked so hard they were considered only usable from a fixed position. Then, with the advent of the Fortress, the 790 millimeter electrothermal accelerator found an airborne home. The quad Seismic cannons along with a myriad of point-defense turrets gave the Fortress enough firepower to level a small city.

Couple that to titanium armor plates that were eight meters thick in some places, and the Fortress truly lived up to its moniker. Of course, with so much weight, it moved like a fortress too. Even with the most powerful engines ever produced, the flagship was only able to push 210 knots with emergency power. Still, with all the heat it was packing, speed and maneuverability were hardly a necessity.

Yet for an airship of so many massive firsts, it would be in reality of little significance in an actual war other than as a deterrent. It was impractical for use other than assaulting heavily fortified ground targets - targets that would likely be heavily defended by anti-aircraft fire anyway. Without the ability to gain any significant altitude or maneuver, not only did the Fortress lose the ability to dictate an aerial battle, it had became a hyper expensive mobile stalemate against ground targets.

The Atlesian generals had realized this, and before the last Fortress had left the factory they had commissioned a different airship entirely. A single pilot fighter that was light, fast, maneuverable, and most importantly had low operational costs.

Two separate companies with different design philosophies entered their own designs. The XI-14, submitted by the AAE which became the I-14 Sparrow. The other design submitted by Independent Shipyards, the XI-47, eventually lost.

The XI-47 was based off of the Bullhead, though with a myriad of aerodynamic refinements. The XI-14 however was an entirely fresh design. Through the use of thrust vectoring nozzles and gravity dust, the Sparrow retained its ability to take off and land vertically but kept the engine mounted within the fuselage. As a result the Sparrow had less drag and could withstand greater forces without the risk of pulling the wings off of the aircraft.

Able to achieve a staggering 592 knots at sea level and with a rate of climb approaching eighty meters per second, the immensely capable dog fighter was assigned to the point-defense interceptor role following the attacks.

Now Auburn and the three other members of her flight sat waiting in a hastily constructed dome as they waited for the order to scramble.

"This is dull," grumbled her wingman Vance, looking disgustedly at the protein bar he was attempting to eat.

"The food, or the waiting?" said Auburn snarkily.

"Both. Not only does it taste like cardboard, the damn p-bar is frozen and it's threatening to chip my teeth every time I take a bite."

"Sounds like a personal problem," cut in Hunter, a big bear of a man. "Maybe if you kept the bar in a pocket of your flight suit for a while first-"

"Piss off," said Vance. "It's not even about the food. We're stuck sitting here when we could be out and actually flying the Sparrow. I mean, Evergreen flight is conducting a live fire exercise right now."

"Vance, it's only once a week for a six hour block. We've got plenty of other opportunities," dismissed Auburn. "Besides, I seem to recall you bitching and moaning when they were transferring us off of the Bullheads, and now you want to fly it 24/7?"

"Oh, I'm Vance. Oh, the Sparrow's going to suck. Oh, it won't perform in the vertical or horizontal with my precious Bullhead," mocked Hunter.

"It wasn't that. I was just worried about managing the pilot workload on ground attack missions without a co-pilot," Vance protested.

"Really?" grinned Auburn. "That's not what I remember. I remember-"

"Vance can't manage a microwave dinner without a co-pilot," muttered Hunter under his breath.

"I reme- I re-" tried Auburn desperately attempting to keep a straight face as a smile tugged at her lips. Her efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and she burst out into hysterical laughter.

"Piss off. It's not that funny." Vance frowned at his two colleagues who were doubled over.

"Yes it is," howled Auburn. "It's just too accurate. You're such a dumbass, it's a miracle you haven't tried to land with the gear up yet!"

"It's a miracle he was assigned to fly," laughed Hunter. "I wouldn't have trusted him to check out tools to the maintenance staff."

"You guys are the worst."

On one side of the dome, a figure shifted under a blanket. "Could you fools keep it down? I'm trying to sleep back here."

"Jeez, Dodge. I didn't realize you were actually sleeping back there," said Hunter incredulously. "How do you manage to knock out wearing your flight suit?"

The flight suits that they all wore consisted of a white and navy blue one-piece suit with poly-carbonate armor pieces on the shoulders, arms, legs, and chest. While incredibly good for doing everything from stopping shrapnel to keeping them warm, it was not exactly what one might call comfortable enough to fall asleep in.

"Because fuck you, that's how. Now let me nap in peace."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Were we keeping you up while we are supposed to be on alert, you lazy ass?" shouted Auburn.

"Okay, first things first," said Dodge as he rolled over and pointed an accusatory finger. "I can be ready to go just as fast as any of you. And secondly, the White Fang is hardly going to make another attack so soon."

Auburn crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Oh? And how do you figure?"

"Well, first off: so they sent unmanned drones at us yeah?"

"Yeah," responded Hunter slowly, not sure if he wanted to encourage the madness.

"So if those were the first attempts, the prototype runs if you will, I doubt they would have immediately started converting a bunch of other Bullheads into remote piloted whatevers. They'd probably want to see how it worked first before they wasted any more time and resources on building their next fleet. Besides, they know we're ready for them now. Why waste any more ships when we'll blow them out of the sky?" Dodge sat back smugly, one hand stroking his goatee. "I rest my case."

Sinking his head into his hands, Hunter just sighed explosively. "Wow. That's almost good, except that you've got holes in that theory big enough to sink several Fortresses in it, and a flock of Nevermores to boot. You're assuming they can't use the drones for other purposes if that attack failed. You're assuming they know we're ready. And you're assuming that they actually care, which as near as I can figure out, they don't."

"Okay, okay." Dodge held up his hands in surrender. "There may be some flaws, but I seriously doubt they'll attack-"

At that precise moment, Auburn's scroll went off with violent buzzing and loud klaxon sound. Scrambling to pull it off its clip on her belt, she hastily answered the call. "Lieutenant Commander Auburn Sterling reporting sir."

"Lieutenant Commander, this is Commander N'mall. Scramble flight Aquila for intercept. Cleared for immediate departure, heading 115, maximum climb to FL 10. Link 4 once airborne for more information."

"Yes sir!" Auburn finished scribbling the orders onto her kneeboard, then shut the scroll and clipped it back in place. "Aquila, we are scrambling for intercept! Info: HDG 115, FL 10, max burn. Squawk is Link 4. Helmets on, I want gear up in three. Go, go go!"

It was as if every member had been hit with an electric jolt, recording information and rushing to grab their headgear. Auburn was the first out of the dome, the full-face visor on her helmet protecting her face from the chilling wind that whipped across the apron. Sprinting as fast as she could, she made her way the short distance to where the Sparrows sat poised on their tripod landing stilts.

Dust Popping open the canopy, Auburn vaulted up with a single motion and slid into the cockpit of the sleek but diminutive aircraft. Flipping a switch to initiate the Liquid Dust Fuel Pumps, she waited impatiently as the pressure built up to acceptable levels before activating a finger lift to begin windmilling the blades. Once the fans were spinning at thirty-five percent RPM's, Auburn advanced the throttles from cutoff into idle.

The slight whine and whirr were replaced by a full-bodied roar as the engines came to life. Pulling the canopy shut on top of her head, Auburn initialized the Multi Purpose Holographic Displays, engaging all the remaining systems as the engines warmed up to operational temperature.

Once all the systems were ready, Auburn called in. "Aquila One is hot and ready. Aquila flight, ready status?"

"Aquila Two, hot and ready," reported Hunter.

"Aquila Three, hot and ready to kick some ass," said Dodge.

"Aquila Four, hot and ready," huffed Vance.

"Straight shot to 500 feet, then accelerate out. Rotate 90, throttles mil on my mark." Auburn thumbed the small wheel on her throttle, rotating the thrust nozzles so they pointed straight downwards. "Three, two, one, mark."

The engines of all four airships roared quickly into full power, the thrust causing the Sparrows to ascend vertically into the crisp sky. As the numbers on her HUD whirled towards 500, Auburn dropped flaps and slats in preparation for the shift from vertical to horizontal flight. "Aquila flight, go flat on my mark. Three, two, one, mark."

The small wheel was thumbed back to its original position, a computer slowly rotating the nozzles back at a safe speed while monitoring the airspeed. Within a short period of time the flaps and slats auto-retracted as the airspeed increased, leaving the Sparrows to accelerate away.

"Pull up at 550 knots, thirty degrees." The light, sleek air frame was quickly catapulted up to speed as the pilots skimmed along above the earth before defying gravity to rise skyward.

"Sir, all three airships have increased their altitude. It's looking like the earlier attack, but the… degree... to which they are performing these maneuvers is significantly greater." said the commander, struggling to find the right words.

"Degree? What on Remnant do you mean?" asked Ironwood as he stepped into his private vehicle. "Are they acting like the previous White Fang strike or not?"

"Yes sir, they are. It's just…"

"What, soldier? Tell me what happened plainly, for Oum's sake," barked General Ironwood. Normally the general was far more composed, but with a possible threat to his country inbound he didn't have time to be playing word games.

"Well sir, they increased their altitude by over twenty thousand feet in less than a minutes time and are still on course for the city."

"Oum-damn it," said James Ironwood in a stunned disbelief as he waved the driver to drive off. "That's unheard of in anything but the Sparrow - and no one else has it, of that I'm certain. Thirty thousand feet? And are they maintaining speed?"


"Where are the Sparrows?" asked Ironwood, searching for a solution that didn't involve opening up on unknown aircraft - even if they were violating the no-fly zone he had established. "Are they close to visual?"

"Too low and slow sir. We sent them to intercept at the original altitude of ten thousand. They are climbing again now, but there is nothing on Remnant that can change altitude so quickly."

"They can't be intercepted by the Sparrows," the general breathed to himself. "Too high and too fast. How in Oum's name - never mind. Commander, I want you to get the Air Defense Systems to lock them up and start tracking. I want the first shot to hit them dead on. Understood?"

"Yes sir. Crystal clear sir."

"Keep trying to hail them, but as soon as they hit ten miles light them up."

"Understood sir."

General James Ironwood put both hands to his temples, massaging his head as he tried to clear his thoughts. Were they simply unaware, or hostile? Try as he might, Ironwood couldn't come up with a decisive answer no matter how many times he re-ran the situation in his head. He wished Ozpin were still here. The man had a knack for feeling out a situation on the barest of information, and almost always coming out with a picture perfect view of what was going on. Then again, Ozpin had let Salem corner him needlessly. If James had seen it coming, surely Ozpin had as well? But in trusting that Ozpin was right once more had led to the destruction of Beacon and Vale.

Unfortunately for the General, the few minutes he had spent were all the mystery aircraft needed to force him into a choice.

"Sir, they are at eleven miles and closing and have started descending. No response from any airship. Confirm order to fire?" asked Commander N'mall.

Everything pointed towards another incursion of White Fang drones. Quick action was imperative considering the new heights and speeds with which the airships were traveling. Still, General James Ironwood couldn't help but hesitate. Something was not quite right about the situation - a tickle at the back of his mind that he could be wrong.

"Sir, they have broached the ten-mile barrier. Confirm fire."

James sighed heavily. With the lives of all those under his control at risk, he couldn't spare any more time thinking over the situation. "Cleared hot, Commander."

"Aquila flight, this is Commander N'mall. AA will be opening up. Disengage immediately and hold over city. Intercept diving targets if AA cannot take them."

The flight of four Sparrows leveled out and turned around to hold short of the edge of the city. Every eye was looking down out of their cockpits at the ring of artillery that would surely soon be opening up.

"You ever seen one of those 790's fire?" asked Hunter.

"Only from a distance," said Auburn as she scanned the skies. "When I was flying an escort for a Fortress's live fire run. They were unbelievable - it's like watching a volcano erupt."

"I had to watch over one of those when I was a grunt - before I went to basic to become an airman. You could be a hundred meters away and it would still feel like you were kicked by a horse when it fired. It's not called the Seismic for no reason. I would be scared shitless if I knew they were aiming at me," Hunter chuckled.

"Speaking of, can anyone get eyes on the targets? They should be to the south west somewhere, about ten thousand feet higher," requested Auburn.

It only took a brief moment before Hunter called out the bandits. "Eyes on - our ten o'clock high. Three contrails."

"Eyes on," said Dodge and Vance.

"They're pretty close. I wonder when-" before Auburn could finish her sentence, the guns opened up beneath them. Arcing out were eight or more massive of red tracers converging on the same point in the sky. "Holy crap."

"They're going, they're going, and Seismic rounds impact… now." Hunter cheered as a small puff of smoke and fire appeared, a thick black trail replacing the white vapor that had originally marked the hostile jets position.

"I told you we'd be ready, you White Fang bastards!" growled Dodge. "Too bad they only got one of them."

Both other contrails began corkscrewing downwards, the white trails disappearing as they broke out of the contrail layer. Now more visible, the grey specs leveled out above the tundra and shot off towards the mountain like bullets from a gun.

"Oum, they are hauling ass," Vance breathed in awe.

"Aquila flight- break right now. Head over the mountain to cut the bandits off and intercept," Commander N'mall ordered over the Link.

"Copy that," Auburn responded.

"Aquila flight, be advised that Evergreen flight has been dispatched to aid in dealing with the threats. ETA three minutes."

"With all due respect commander," grinned Auburn excitedly as they streaked towards their first non-training combat scenario. "It's two of them against four Sparrows sir. We can take them without assistance." Left unsaid was the acknowledgment that if Evergreen got involved, it would decrease the chances of Aquila racking up two kills.

"Lieutenant Commander Sterling. These airships have both exceeded eight hundred knots at near sea level. Forgive me and the General for not sharing your optimism."

"Over eight hundred knots? Oum-damn it," choked out Vance in disbelief. "That faster than the speed of sound."

"Fuck!" exclaimed Dodge. "No wonder they want another four ship involved. What on Remnant are those things?"

That was just it though - they weren't from Remnant.

Not in the slightest.

"Oh shit," cursed Rhett as he watched the fireball spin downwards. "Going defensive!"

Rhett snapped the large Eagle over, rolling inverted and pulling hard towards the ground. Opening up the taps, the F-15 easily roared through mach one in its headlong pursuit of terra firma. Florence continued the dive, jinking and spiraling constantly while popping countermeasures to decoy whatever system had fired on them.

"Bullhead is blind. What the fuck just happened?"

"Hoser has eyes on AAA, posted all around the outskirts of the city. Don't know what they are, but they're getting lively," reported James.

In the midst of defensive maneuvering, Rhett craned his neck around and spotted the tracer fire arcing up from below. "Bullhead has visual. Get low and fast and get the fuck outta here."

"Over-gee over-gee. Over-gee over-gee." wailed Bitching Betty as the pilots pulled out sharply to avoid pancaking into the ground. The F-15's blew over the frozen ground, so low that the jet wash kicked up plumes of snow and ice. The two large fighters arced away from the city, James following Rhett's lead.

Red laser-like tracers flew above the cockpits of the aviators as the jinking Eagles roared into the shadow of the mountain. With millions of cubic tons of rock and ice now in between the aircraft and the city, the RWR quieted down considerably. The cockpit's silence was only broken as the Eagles kicked out of afterburner. A juddering boom rolled over the aircraft as they dropped back to subsonic speed, the vibrations rattling their airframes.

Rhett kept his eyes outside the cockpit, scanning the skies methodically out of force of habit. As he pulled back on the stick slightly to clear the ridge between mountains, a glint of metal caught his eye.

"Hoser. Bullhead has multiple bogeys two o'clock high. Turning in." The USAF fighters arced up sharply, vapor streaming off the tips of their wings. Rhett manipulated his radar to boresight mode and put his nose on the bandits. The powerful radar quickly locked up one of the aircraft and flashed information to the texan's HUD.

"Hoser. IFF confirms hostile. Did we end up in goddamn Russia?" The hostile aircraft tipped over, speeding to meet the Eagles head on. Metal flashed by his cockpit, and time briefly seemed to slow.

The aircraft streaking past his canopy was like nothing Rhett had ever seen before, and yet at the same time looked oddly similar. It vaguely reminded him of some of the AV-8B Harriers that the US Marine Corps operated, but far more angular and chiseled - not to mention smaller. The aircraft was decked out in a white and light grey camouflage and the tails wore an emblem that appeared to be a stylized torch in front of gear.

Whatever the aircraft was, it wasn't anything the USAF fielded.

"In the merge," grunted Rhett as he hauled the Eagle through a hard left break. "Whatever they are, they're not ours." Rhett's Eagle cranked over and sliced back towards the ground, only to have the unknown aircraft pull back into him with guns blazing as it attempted to get an angle. "Damn they're maneuverable."

"They're like fucking helicopters," spat out James. "Harriers on steroids."

"Punch out Hoser. The knife fighting is favoring them. Drop tanks and extend to the north," ordered Rhett as the aircraft he was engaged with pirouetted deftly around and slotted in neatly on his tail. With a slight jolt, the centerline tank jettisoned from the aircraft. Now sleeker and lighter both Eagles quickly outpaced the smaller fighters.

As they egressed from the combat, both pilots watched their tails and listened to the RWR with an intensity that bordered on obsession. It was a calculated risk, turning tail to the enemy. On one hand they clearly couldn't continue to push the close in fight; on the other they were exposing themselves to not only a radar guided shot, but the large burners on the back of the Eagle were a perfect target for a sneaky IR missile to home in on.

Rhett had noticed a few things that made him confident enough to take the second option. There had been no externally mounted missiles, nor had he received any indication that they had a radar looking at him much less locked on. Besides, the first move of someone with missile capability was not to go straight to cannons when options permitted instead of fighting for a better angle and position.

Of course, that was assuming US doctrine. 'Closing to guns on everything' was never a discussion that was brought up in the USAF. Besides, the craft could have had internally carried weapon stores like the F-22 they had been so casually discussing only hours earlier. Rhett doubted it, owing to the small size of the aircraft - but one could never be too careful. He led James over the first ridge he could to put a temporary wall of earth between them and any potential missile shots.

Once they had gained a few miles on the pursuing swarm, Rhett broke over the mike once more. "Hoser. Turn around and hit 'em with AMRAAM's first. I'll work my way from the left side, you from the right. If you have to engage, go for hit and run slashing attacks. Keep the energy high."

"Affirm, Bullhead. Ready when you are," said James.

Rhett began pulling up, gaining just enough altitude to roll inverted and pull into a split-S. As the nose came back through the horizon the boresight mode locked onto the nearest aircraft, feeding information to the AIM-120 mounted on Rhett's Eagle. "Fox Three," Rhett said as he pulled the trigger.

"Fox three," James called out almost simultaneously.

Both missiles detached and the rocket engines fired. The missiles pulled away from under the nose like a freight train, diverging slightly as they headed towards their respective targets.

Miles were covered in seconds, and in an instant two explosions blossomed in the sky. Shredded pieces of aircraft described their path towards the tundra in smoke and fire.

"Splash one," reported Rhett as he furiously worked to lock up another bandit.

"Splash one," James said. "Fox three."

"Fox three." echoed Rhett a second later.

Two new missiles once again began their deadly mission streaking towards their unfortunate targets. This time however, the enemy was ready.

Upon seeing the missile contrails the bogeys began to turn violently in a desperate attempt to avoid the fate that their comrades had suffered. It hardly mattered; despite the maneuverability of their crafts there was just too little time and space.

Another pair of hostile aircraft spun into the ground as the Eagles merged headlong through the formation once again. The bandits attempted to shoot the air force pilots, but the rate of closure was far too great for any degree of accuracy.

"You think I can make ace in a day Bullhead?" grinned James. "I know there's only four more, but if you let me take three…"

"Easy there tiger. Stay focused, Hoser." Still though, Rhett couldn't help agreeing with the younger pilot's sentiment. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The two Eagles pulled up into the vertical, streaking into the sky and looping over the top to re-engage.

Below them, one of the aircraft had attempted to pull up into the vertical with the Eagles - an ill-advised maneuver. The bandit had run out of airspeed far below the F-15's and had been forced to dump the nose back over to avoid losing control. As a result, the tailpipes of the aircraft were pointed straight back at the pursuing USAF fighters.

"I have the shot," Rhett informed his now wingman. "Throttle back and watch my six."

"Willco," came the slightly disappointed voice of James. Selecting a sidewinder, Rhett watched as the HUD selected the falling bandit with a shaking green circle as the sidewinder simultaneously fed a growling tone into his headset.

"Fox two." The missile corkscrewed off the rail, flying straight up the tailpipe of the unfortunate enemy and detonating. "Splash."

"Bullhead, Hoser has a shot on bandit."

"Press, press, press," acknowledged Rhett. With that simple transmission, Florence allowed Hallifax to take over as flight lead. Now it was the veterans turn to watch his wingman's back.

Rhett deftly coordinated the stick and rudder, setting his Eagle into a perched position as James slid in on the tail of one of the aircraft. "Fox two," called out Halifax. The sidewinder slid off its rail, but the violently maneuvering bandit managed to shake off its lock.

James popped his airbrake and barrel rolled to maintain position on the smaller planes six without overshooting. "Fox two." Another heatseeker flew off the rail but just couldn't keep up as the aircraft jinked right and broke hard left, overloading the missile tracking with its unbelievable turn rate.

"Hoser, unload and clear out. You're boresight and draining too much energy," commanded Rhett as he watched from up high.

"Willco." James rolled level, 'unloading' the aircraft and moving to disengage. Then, with a speed that bordered on unbelievable, the plane James had been attacking stopped dead and spun around, floating in place like a helicopter. The twin cannons opened up, sending tracers flying into the left wing of James's aircraft.

A firestorm of explosions engulfed the tip and sheared half the wing off leaving fire streaming from the portion that remained attached.

"Shit!" yelled Rhett, who was already in the process of diving down on the floating aircraft. Selecting cannons the texan tried to make a gun run. Firing his burst, Florence watched in disbelief as the aircraft accelerated backwards from its standstill to avoid the deadly hail of fire. Slashing through, Rhett caught up to Hallifax and surveyed the damage.

"Hoser. Hoser, punch out!" Rhett growled as his wingman attempted to keep the jet flying level and straight.

"I got it, I got it," said James, his voice strained. The fire had burned itself out fairly quickly, leaving a thick trail of smoke streaming from the end. In order to keep the left wing safely away from its new higher stall speed, James added power to increase airspeed and lift. Right rudder and aileron, along with some help from the elevator, kept the Eagle flying with only a slight crab right. "I have an asymmetric lift issue Bullhead."

"No shit, Hoser. You're missing a third of your left wing."

"Well, she's flyable." Inside the cockpit, James trimmed the controls as best he could and retarded the right engine slightly. The asymmetric thrust, along with the trimmed control surfaces, kept the Eagle level as they tried to figure out what their next move was.

"Hoser, we need to egress now and figure out what the hell just happened and find friendly controlled skies," argued Rhett.

"Sorry to disappoint Bullhead, but I have to keep punching new minimum fuel numbers into my flight computer to keep Bitching Betty from hitting me with the 'bingo fuel' warning continuously. I'm not going farther than the next neighborhood before the tanks have gone dry."

"Damn it all," growled Rhett. "How much?"

"After the extended afterburner and mil power down low, I'm sitting just over two thousand pounds of JP-4."

"Well - damn it!" barked Rhett. "Check six. They're gaining on us."

Slowly but surely, the hostile aircraft were reeling in the two Eagles. Poth pilots advanced the throttles to attempt to outrun them, but immediately James had to pull back to a lower power setting.

"Bullhead! I can't go much faster than just under four hundred. I've got elephants running on my wings already. The airframe is going to pull itself to pieces," reported James.

Rhett whirled through his options. James couldn't outrun the pursuers, though in retrospect it hardly would have mattered if he could. Both of them had next to no fuel and no idea where they were. That meant they would have to likely eject regardless into the frozen wasteland and somehow find help from the ground that they hadn't been able to for hours in the air.

Essentially it boiled down to a choice between ejection and capture by an unknown enemy or ejection and freezing to death in the wasteland below. Not much of a choice, really.

The texan wasn't just going to resign himself to either fate without a fight. "Hoser, you continue with the egress. I'm going to spin around and keep these boys off your ass." With those parting words, Florence cranked hard back around to face the incoming aircraft.

"Good luck Bullhead."

The well wishing from his companion was lost as he spun around violently, eight times the force of gravity shoving him back in the seat. As he came face to face with the enemy aircraft, Rhett locked up the nearest plane and fired immediately. All three remaining aircraft broke hard in different directions. Though they managed to break radar lock, they were at least forced to divert and bleed speed in their defensive maneuvering.

Rhett hauled straight into the vertical, harkening back to his Top Gun training. Retarding the throttles he allowed the Eagle to bleed airspeed in the almost ninety degree climb as he stayed twisted around in his seat to keep an eye on the opposing aircraft.

Then, at the apex of his flight, Rhett booted the rudder hard right causing the nose to swing around rapidly to point the other way in a textbook hammerhead. The throttles were advanced, and the aircraft only wallowed for a moment as it regained flying airspeed coming straight down on the scattered fighters.

Rolling onto the tail of one of the fighters, the lone F-15 driver came out of the dive and attempted to pull lead on one of the fighters. The sidewinder growled when it saw the heat coming out of the back of the fighter, raring to be uncaged and fired.

"Fox two," called Rhett out of habit as he squeezed the trigger. The sidewinder roared out and tried to cut inside the turn, but just couldn't make it in time. It slid by the back of the aircraft without detonating, sailing off into the distance.

Bunting the plane over and streaking towards the ground, Rhett regained energy and prevented the mystery planes from pulling the trick they had earlier.

He looped around needing to keep attention to allow James a chance to stretch the gap. Scanning over the snow, he tried to pick out the white and silver ships. There was the one he had just attacked, streaking after him. There was the second about a mile behind that, attempting to gain altitude. The third … the third aircraft was nowhere to be seen.

Searching the skies, Rhett failed to pick up the bandit. A glint caught his eye, and his vision was drawn to the black smoke trail that indicated the position of James's Eagle. There, closing in for a gun run behind his only remaining member of Cadillac flight, was the third fighter.

"No no no!" roared Rhett. Ignoring his own critical fuel level, the flight lead jammed his own throttles into afterburner with a bang in a pointless effort to close the gap.

An AIM-120 was selected first, but the two were already close enough together that his radar had difficulty distinguishing the two. By the same token, the heat seeking AIM-9 would almost be a 50/50 shot at fratricide. Neither could distinguish friend or foe; one just took the best heat signature it could find, and the other homed in on a selected radar target. Rhett simply couldn't take the risk.

Though the machines could be completely indiscriminate in their software-guided paths to kill, Rhett still had access to one completely pilot controlled weapon: the M61 A1 Vulcan. Rhett selected his cannon and took an angle on the bandit that seemed to be pulling up on James's left wing.

Pulling the trigger, the flight leaf began spraying a few long range shots to hopefully scare the enemy off. Then, just seconds into the engagement, Rhett's gun stopped firing. The Vulcan, a gun so reliable its mean time between failures or jams was in excess of ten thousand rounds, had now done just that.

His mind raced through any alternative options. Briefly he considered flying in front of the smaller enemy jet and knocking it away with jetwash, but if the powerful vortices and jet blast. The issue with that plan was, once again, the crippled Eagle. If it also hit James, Rhett was doubtful the damaged airframe could recover in its present state.

The texan had to simply sit there, completely helpless as one of his flight members - one of his brothers - was shot down.

"Bail! Fucking punch out now Hoser!" screamed Rhett, just as the bandit opened fire. Large - caliber rounds shredded the rear of James's F-15, sending it spiraling to the tundra below. Rhett immediately pulled the trigger on the AIM-9 he had loaded up, sending the missile flying into the rear of the unprepared airship.

The warhead failed to detonate, but the missile itself tore through the center of the aircraft with all the force of a ballistic telephone pole. Engines dead and airframe shedding pieces, the enemy fell out of the sky like a rock.

Circling around the area in desperation, Rhett breathed a sigh of relief as he watched a parachute deploy. James was alive - at least for now.

He pulled into a right turn, constantly circling his friend's parachute to protect him from strafing runs as the other fighters danced around. Finally, as James neared the ground, Rhett broke off. There was nothing more he could do.

The other fighters stayed behind, circling a second parachute. It appeared that just as he had been protecting his comrade, they had been protecting theirs.

Rhett sped off, attempting to gain distance in order to turn and re-engage once more. There were two aircraft left, and he still had one AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9L Sidewinder. He would have to make both shots count.

However, as he pulled out a couple mile gap on the enemy aircraft, first one, then the other engines died in rapid succession. It wasn't a malfunction; there simply was not any fuel left in the tanks to power the fuel hungry turbines.

"Ahh, shit," growled Rhett. His Eagle coasted silently down towards the ground below. Scanning around, Rhett spotted what appeared to be a highway or paved road of some sort that stretched out away from the city that had come back into view from where it had been hidden by the mountain.

The road was arrow straight, and looked just wide enough to accommodate his aircraft. Rhett began to line himself up with the grey strip, watching his airspeed closely. Fanning his airbrake, he dropped below the magic airspeed of two hundred and forty knots, allowing him to safely extend his gear and flaps.

Placing the velocity vector in his HUD on the point he wanted to touch down, Rhett carefully brought his jet down and finally swallowed out of the dive just above the road. He had carried a little extra speed into the landing, and waited briefly for it to bleed off before flaring.

There was a jolt as the rear wheels touched down and bounced a foot or two back into the air, and a second jolt as they stuck into the tarmac. Instead of aerobraking Rhett opted to slow his Eagle down as fast as possible. Slamming the nose gear down, he stamped both feet down on the brakes, letting the ABS in the Eagle go to work.

As the massive fighter slowed to a crawl, Rhett let out a sigh of relief he hadn't known he was holding. The aircraft juddered to a halt over the slick improvised runway for the first time in several hours, falling silent as its pilot shut off the remaining systems. Pulling his helmet off his sweat-slicked hair, Rhett groaned as he leaned back in the chair.

"What now?" he asked of no one in particular. For all the training and experience he had, nothing could have ever prepared him for this day's events. Did he now attempt to go on foot and evade capture? Or stay with the plane and the shelter from the elements the cockpit offered? "I don't fucking know."

In the end, he didn't have to make that decision himself. The whistle of another aircraft's engines grew louder before stopping almost overhead. Rhett looked up, watching as the aircraft came down to land on the road in front of him.

It was a swollen aircraft, with high-mounted wings and jet engines on the ends. These engines now were swiveled straight down as the aircraft landed vertically like a jet powered V-22 Osprey. The instant its three landing gear came into contact with the earth, twin gullwing doors opened up on either side of the fuselage.

Out of there poured several military personnel members. They all had white body armor, with helmet faceplates that covered their eyes. They each held what looked to be a very futuristic assault rifle - all of which were trained on his cockpit.

"Open the canopy and step out of the aircraft!" came the muffled voices. "Do it now! We will not hesitate to use deadly force!"

Popping his canopy open and sliding it back, Rhett was immediately met by the bitterly cold air. As there was no boarding ladder available to him, he had to drop nine feet down onto the solid ground.

"Fuck," he grunted upon landing hard as one ankle twisted beneath him.

"On your knees! Hands on your head! Now!" roared one of the soldiers. Painfully Rhett compiled, adopting the position requested.

In an instant the four soldiers were upon him, a barrel poking him in the back. One grabbed his arms and twisted them back behind him, securing them with some kind of cuffs. Another quickly patted down Rhett, finding the 9mm Beretta and mags holstered in his survival vest and confiscating them.

"On your feet! Get in the airship!" Rhett limped his way into the aircraft, the jet wash from the running engines coating him lightly with powder. Shoved into the back of the aircraft, Rhett was sat down in a jump seat and strapped down as one military member kept a rifle trained on him at all times.

"All in! Mark location and continue to original objective." The soldier waved to the front cockpit, and shortly thereafter the VTOL aircraft lifted off the ground and smoothy rose into the air, spun around, and accelerated towards an unknown destination.

Rhett sat uncomfortably in a state of complete shock. It couldn't really be happening; it shouldn't have even been possible. The whole venture had been impossible. As the airship came in for a second landing, Florence watched with a sense of detached surreality.

The soldiers jumped off the aircraft as snow swirled into the bay, only one staying behind to guard Rhett. The icy wind fought with the heater to cool the sweat slicked prisoner even further. One of the soldiers returned quickly, grabbing a large bag and dashing off once again.

It took a couple minutes, but the white armored figures quickly returned with Thad strapped down on a collapsible stretcher.

"ALF. Thad. Thad!" cried out Rhett at the sight of his comrade. Thad's left arm was splinted up from bottom to top and tied down to his body. Beyond that there was a twisted grimace on his face, a certain vulnerability that Thad would never let show.

"Hey Rhett," Greyson rasped, barely able to be heard over the sound of the engines. "What a day, huh?"

"Holy hell, what happened to you?" Rhett asked as gently as he could, unable to move to Thad's side.

"Let's just say that despite the fact I have joined the Martin-Baker fan club, I'm not a fucking fan," gasped Thad. Rhett chuckled at that. Despite the physical damage, it seemed Thad's mouth and brain had survived unharmed.

"All in! Get us back to Atlas and tell them that we've got two prisoners, one of whom needs medical attention," barked one of the soldiers. As the doors closed once more and the aircraft took to the skies, Rhett sat back and waited.

It was all he could do now.

James's feet impacted the ground, his legs sinking up to nearly his knees in the fresh snow. The parachute caught in the blowing wind, dragging the pilot for several meters before he managed to disconnect it. As the chute floated away, James looked up at the still circling fighters and spotted a parachute landing barely a hundred meters away.

He quickly dug his Beretta 9mm out of his survival vest and began tramping over to the landing site as quickly as he could. The enemy pilot was floating down under white silk, and a hundred feet off the ground when James managed to struggle his way to where the pilot was going to land.

When the chute was just fifty feet from touchdown, James opened fire at the figure dangling underneath. The handgun rocked in his hands, spitting fire and lead at the enemy pilot.

To James's shock, the pilot simply disconnected his parachute at forty feet and dropped all the way into the snow. The enemy was adorned with a helmet and full see-through faceplate, along with white armor plating and blue accents on her suit.

Before he could even get the gun back on target or process that she had survived the fall unharmed, the pilot leapt forward and threw a solid punch that snapped James's head back. Unconscious, he fell down into the snow.

James stayed that way even as a Bullhead landed by them, picking up the Atlesian pilot and the unconscious F-15 driver to take them back to the military compound.

Several hours later, General Ironwood stood before two separate interrogation rooms. The injured pilot was currently under medical - and military - supervision, but the other two were housed here. He didn't know what had prompted these individuals to attack. Nor did he understand the technology they used, or who had developed it. Looking down at his scroll he re-read the accounts of the remaining members of Aquila flight, Evergreen having totally been destroyed. By two aircraft - two. Against the best fighter Atlas had to offer, and it nearly hadn't been enough.

He would find out, though. And if there was another faction that had risen up and was trying to flex its military might against Atlas, they would rue the day. Striding forward, the general struggled to un-clench his fists.

It was time for some answers.

A/N: So, I'm still not quite happy with the ending. But at the same tie, it'll be good enough to send out. I don't want to leave you guys hanging for another week. If I did I'd probably add the interrogation scene, add some more viewpoints from Aquila squad - but it is what it is now. If I can come up with a plot line I might eventually turn this into another series, but not right now. Anyway, tell me what you think: what you liked, what I could improve, all that. Hope you enjoyed, and I'll see you guys on the flip side with another chapter for Jack of All Trades.