Author's Note: As always, comments are appreciated - I tried to put together a semi-realistic mission briefing to introduce our OC's, and I hope the details aren't too badly mangled. Any reviews, criticism, and suggestions are welcome. Thanks to all you faithful reviewers who have encouraged me to keep writing this story, and I hope you enjoy this chapter!

Chapter Four: Briefing

They came from all over the Earth.

They flew in from China, from Brazil; from Britain, America, and Germany; from the islands of the Pacific, and from the Czech Republic.

These were the best fighter pilots in the world – at least, the best ones who were willing to take the job. All eight – including Rei – had fought the JAM on Fairy. And now, they were back to hunt them down on Earth. Looking over his new squadron, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Bukar regarded humanity's last, best hope.

We've got a lot of work to do. "Hey! Break it up, you two!"

The lithe, short-haired Chinese pilot released her lip-lock on the American next to her. "What?"

"You know that dating within the same command structure is against regs. As much as I hate nosing around in my pilots' personal lives, PDA's right in the middle of the hangar deck are beyond what even I'm willing to tolerate."

"Uh, well, we are kind of married," the American replied with a shrug.

Married? Wha…? Jack rifled through the dossiers he had been given. Wu Daiyu and William Carson … Wu served in the SAF, Carson in the FAF … both signed on with the ADF after the Fairy War … both married a year after the war ended? Damn! "Is this some kind of joke?" Jack said aloud. "What idiot decided to let a husband and wife serve together in the same unit?!?"

"What, aren't you the guy in charge?" Carson asked, a little lopsided smile on his face.

"You bet your ass I am!" Jack shot back, fixing the well-muscled American with a glare. "Jesus Christ. When Wright said the ADF was unorthodox, I didn't know he meant totally undisciplined. Married or not, you two will keep your hands to yourselves, or I'll treat you just like any pair of hotheads who can't keep it in their pants. Understood?"

"Yes, Sir," the duo murmured.

"What was that?" Jack roared, the old training routine coming back to him like riding a bicycle.

"Yes, Sir!" the pilots shouted, now standing at attention.

Jack nodded, letting his frosty gaze linger on each in turn. "Better." Leafing through the list of names, he started taking roll. "Well, we know that Wu and Carson are here. Gonçalves, Paulo!"

"Here, Sir," called the lean, dark-skinned Brazilian at one end of the line, dressed in an olive-green FAB uniform.

"All right. Von Richtofen, Axel!"

"Present, Sir," replied a tall, brown-haired young man, with just a hint of a German accent. Standing ramrod-straight, feet apart, hands clasped behind his waist, he looked like some idealized image of an ADF pilot, chiseled from granite.

"Noted. Svoboda, Evzen!"

"Here, Sir," called out a stocky Second Lieutenant, nodding his shaved head respectfully at Jack.

"Noted. Swain, Richard!"

"Call me Wraith," said a lanky, redheaded Brit, giving Jack a sloppy salute. "So, this is supposedly the best fighter squadron in the Air Defense Force? God help us all."

Over the years, Jack had developed a keen ability to sense a pilot's personality, and Swain was already tripping several alarms. Damn, this guy acts like a cartoon version of his own dossier. Crappy attitude, no respect for his unit or the other pilots in it. "You don't like it, Mister Swain, you can always leave," Jack growled. "Otherwise, straighten up and show me why you deserve to be here."

The Brit shrugged, assuming something like a ready stance. "Yes, Sir," he murmured, eyeing Jack the way a college prankster might regard a particularly disliked professor.

Jack just shook his head. "All right. And, last but not least, Tukaho, Vileti."

"Actually, it's Tuku'aho, Sir," replied an enormous Tongan, his basso voice seeming to vibrate through the deckplates. The burly man grinned, showing off a dazzlingly white smile in the midst of his ebony face. "Just call me Second Lieutenant T."

"All right. My name is Lieutenant Colonel Jack Bukhar. And this man will be my second-in-command: First Lieutenant Rei Fukai."

At the mention of Rei's name, all seven sets of eyes went wide, fixing upon the tall, lean Japanese pilot in his freshly pressed ADF uniform.

"No way," Carson whispered, his mouth hanging open in shock.

"This cannot be," von Richtofen murmured, his intense brown eyes scanning Rei like a pair of lasers.

"Bloody fucking hell," Wraith said aloud. "The One Man Air Force? Jesus Christ…."

Rei swept his cool, expressionless gaze over their faces. "You all look like you've seen a ghost," he said evenly. Maybe this whole living legend thing isn't such a bad deal after all.

"I think I'm starting to see why this whole thing was so hush-hush," Wu said quietly. "So … you did make it through the Passageway after all."

"We can discuss it later," Jack said, snapping them back to the present. "Right now, we've prepared a briefing for you new arrivals. If you'll follow me up to the main conference room, we can get started."

As the pilots made their way through the ship, blue-suited ADF personnel turned to watch the motley assortment of different uniforms going by. Finally, the nine entered Conference Room A, just beneath the bridge of the Banshee. The civilian tech, Anderson, was already waiting, prepping the projector table for Jack's briefing.

"Have a seat. We've got a lot to go over." Jack tapped some keys, and a holographic globe appeared over the table. "At 1900 hours standard time, the Antarctic carrier fleet was attacked." The globe reoriented itself, tilting to give a better view of the Southern Ocean. "The raid began without warning or provocation. First, communications and radar were jammed. Then the attackers employed some kind of electronic warfare system to hack the fleet's systems, literally shutting down the carrier, several escorts and aircraft. All of this happed in less than a minute."

"My God," murmured the Czech. "Some new kind of electronic weapon? Developed by whom?"

"By what might be the better question," Jack replied. "Take a look at this."

Abruptly, the globe vanished. In its place was footage from somebody's flight recorder. As the plane rose up out of an aircraft carrier's maintenance bay, the crisp full-color picture was replaced by a grainy green image. Against dark water and a cloudy, starless sky, dozens of lights moved through the air. As the camera flew toward them, one of the lights dropped down and accelerated straight toward the camera. Whoever had taken this footage had then fired a salvo of AA fire. The oncoming bogey jerked aside, evading the shots, flashing by at the left of the screen.

"Frame back. Back. Freeze and enhance."

"Oh my God…"

With the digital image enhancement, the flight-recorder image was as clear as day. The enemy aircraft at the left was covered in gleaming black armor. Stealth technology made its outline somehow indistinct, almost ghostly. Nonetheless, to everyone in this room, the general appearance was chillingly familiar: a Y-shaped aircraft, with a brightly glowing "eye" at its center.

"A JAM fighter…?"

Jack nodded gravely. "That's right. Twenty-two of them, of four different designs." Tapping another key, the video vanished, replaced by four sinister-looking black aircraft. "These three, we're all familiar with. Type-I interceptors, Type-II fighter-bombers, and one electronic-warfare unit, which we're calling a Type-III."

"But what the hell's that other one?" Wraith asked, gesturing at the fourth hologram. "Looks like an Earth fighter, but made by JAM tech."

"Funny you should say that; it's just what we thought. Actually, while its aerodynamics seem specifically tailored to Earth's atmosphere, it's a design unlike anything we've ever seen. VTOL capability, triple engines, dual processor cores; these things seem to be some new type of air-superiority fighter. We're calling them Type Vs; they're faster, more maneuverable, and smarter than the other Types."

"But where did they all come from?" Wu asked. "Did the JAM open up a new Passageway?"

"That's just it; they haven't. Which means the JAM must have had some kind of base on Earth before we collapsed the Passageway five years ago."

The big Tongan, Tuku'aho, looked thoughtful. "You're suggesting that the JAM have established some sort of airbase here? On Earth? And nobody has noticed it?"

Jack nodded. "It's the most sensible conclusion, all things considered. We know that they can disguise themselves as humans. And we all saw the Fairy mirage; if they've brought that kind of technology to Earth, then they could hide an installation almost anywhere."

"Well," Wraith said, "that's just bloody wonderful. So how are we supposed to find the JAM if they could be hiding anywhere?"

Jack tapped some keys, and a red line appeared on the map. "After the raid, one of the JAM units was seen traveling northwest, on this heading. Assuming it was flying a straight-line course to conserve fuel, its base is probably somewhere along this line."

"This is, of course, assuming that it did not simply make a course correction somewhere along the way," von Richtofen said doubtfully.

Jack sighed. "I'll admit, there are a lot of 'maybes' and 'what ifs'. But until the JAM show themselves again, this is the best lead we've got. The line passes through several islands, part of Africa, and the northeastern tip of North America. As we speak, Banshee One is already on course to begin searching that area."

"What will we do, then?" asked Svoboda. "If they can conceal themselves so well, how will we detect them? Do we just fly overhead, and expect them to attack us? If I were trying to keep my secret base a secret, I would not send up fighters to intercept every flyover – especially not if I know the aircraft is part of a larger search effort."

The German shot Svoboda a condescending glance. "He didn't ask you," the taller man said. "Why don't you stop talking and let him finish?"

"I meant no disrespect," the Czech replied, giving von Richtofen an icy glare. "I am simply curious what they expect us to do. We are here to find and destroy aliens; first, how will we find them?"

Whatever was going on between these two, Jack decided it had gone far enough. "That's a valid question," he said. "Doctor Anderson, would you mind?"

The young lab-coated man stood up, adjusting his glasses. "Based on sensor readings taken during the evacuation of Fairy," he said, "we think the JAM use some kind of nanotechnology to generate false coverings over their installations. The covering can mimic soil, man-made structures, even plants, but can also be dissolved as needed. Assuming the JAM are using this approach to conceal themselves on Earth, all you really need is a suitably precise electromagnetic sensor system to discriminate between ordinary landforms and those comprised of JAM matter. Right now, Banshee One's sensors are being modified to do this, and by the time we arrive in our search area, we'll have modified TARPS units for each of your aircraft."

Wu raised her hand. "Speaking of which, just what will we be flying? If this does turn into a fight, and these JAM are even tougher than the ones we saw on Fairy, then we're going to need something a whole lot better than F-28s."

Jack nodded. "I think I'll let First Lieutenant Fukai explain that," he said, nodding toward Rei. As Jack sat down, Rei swept his cool, gray eyes over the other pilots. "What have you people been doing these last five years?" he asked.

Rei's direct, almost accusatory tone seemed to unsettle the newcomers. "Working at my Da's auto shop," Wraith replied with a shrug.

Wu gave a smug little smirk. "Great," she said to the Brit. "If we need an oil change, we'll call you."

"Oh, go to hell, you little—"

"Hey! Nobody talks to my wife that—!"

"SHUT UP!" Rei snarled. "The reason I asked, is because the only ones who act like they have any discipline at all are Svoboda, von Richtofen, and maybe the Tongan. You're not here to play Top Gun, or to fuck around with military aircraft. You're here because, supposedly, each of you distinguished yourselves in combat. All but two of you fought on Fairy, and if you had any sense, this briefing should have been a wake-up call.

"You're not shooting down drones now. You're not changing tires, or flipping hamburgers, or whatever the hell you've been doing since you got back. The JAM are here – not on Fairy, not on the other side of a Passageway, but on our home planet.

"I saw these things in action in Antarctica. They blew up a cruiser, crippled two destroyers and a missile frigate, and they damn near vaporized an aircraft carrier, all without losing a single aircraft. If it hadn't been for Yukikaze's sensors, they would have slaughtered every pilot and sailor in that fleet without being detected.

"You think the JAM were dangerous on Fairy? They were playing with us. Batting us around, like a cat with a mouse. Studying us, to find any weaknesses they could exploit during their invasion. This invasion.

"Well, the experiment's over now. They aren't on Earth to study us; they won't leave any test subjects lying around to mess with later. They're here to wipe us out, plain and simple. And unless you people start acting like professional, serious pilots, they will swat you out of the sky like gnats."

For five long seconds, silence ruled the conference room. Von Richtofen shifted in his seat, looking as though he wanted to respond – until Rei's eyes bored into his like a pair of lasers, and the tall German pilot seemed to shrink back into his seat.

Satisfied, Rei pulled up a series of images. "Most Earth fighters can't handle the JAM," he said, "so General Cooley has managed to pull several FAF aircraft out of mothballs. We know you haven't handled anything like them for a while, so I expect you each to log at least fifteen hours of simulator time between now and when we begin our search operation in two days."

"Fifteen hours? In two days?" blurted Carson. "That's—"

"All the preparation you'll get," Jack said, "so if I were you, I'd make the most of it."

Rei nodded. "Right now, we have three FFR-31-MR/D Super Sylphs and a Mave being fitted with modified TARPS units. All of you except Second Lieutenant Swain will be assigned to one of the Super Sylphs; you'll be given your assignments after the briefing. Second Lieutenant, your file says you were involved with the Fand-II test program, is that right?"

"Yeah, before they decided to turn them all into drones," Wraith replied.

Rei nodded again. "Good. You'll be waiting on the Banshee's launch deck, while he rest of us spread out to increase the width of our scanning area. If any of the TARPS craft encounter hostiles, you'll launch in an FA-2 to act as a first responder. Until the Banshee arrives to destroy the enemy installation, the nine of us will be responsible for keeping the JAM on the ground."

Tuku'aho frowned. "Just how many enemy aircraft are we expected to engage?"

"All of them," Rei answered grimly. "If the JAM establish an air perimeter, Banshee One might not be able to get close enough to drop its bomb load. In that case, fighter-bombers from the other squadrons would have to fly in, evade the JAM patrols, and try to knock out the base. It could take days, if it even worked at all. And it would cost lives."

"Well, why not just nuke the bastards then?" Wraith asked. "I doubt they could shoot down an ICBM coming at them at four kilometers a second."

Jack glared at the red-headed fighter jock, standing up to take Rei's place. "Oh, so now you're a strategist, Second Lieutenant? And what happens if the JAM base happens to be sitting next to a major city? We don't even know where they're hiding yet. Besides which, there are enough treaties prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons; unless you want to kick off World War III, keep that kind of talk to yourself."

Wraith held up his hands in surrender. "You're the ones saying how nasty these new JAM are," he said. "I just don't want to get killed if I don't have to."

Jack sighed. Four secondhand planes, and seven hotshot pilots to fly them. And I thought Rei was a handful. "Just do your jobs, and you might survive your first mission with the 101st Special Operations Squadron. This concludes your briefing; aircraft assignments will be delivered to you before the mission. In the meantime, hit those simulators if you want to live. Dismissed."