This scene contains violence, death and brief suicidal ideation.
12th of the Postill’s Dew 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Red Desert — Khet Airspace
“Commence interval jump!”
Homa watched with rapt attention as a line of parachutes bloomed in the air beneath the transport plane. Minardo’s infantry dropped from the side doors of the plane with great agility and precision, each executing their jump in an exact interval before the next comrade. They exhibited such tight coordination that the white parachutes with their segmented gores truly resembled a chain of daisies, tied by some invisible string and pulled down to the ground by a child’s gentle hand. That there was nothing holding these men and women in formation but their own timing made the jumps all the more miraculous. Soon the wind picked up and the parachutes began to bob out of place, but everybody who saw them jump remembered their initial accomplishments.
Vulture dispersed into three pairs, circling around the area of the training excercise. Homa easily overshot the transport aircraft once the landings got well underway, but she quickly swept around for a better view of the falling infantry. A little over fifty men and women in two long lines, askew from the wind but still well within each other’s orbit, floated slowly down to the sand below. Homa whistled. It was quite a sight.
Minardo was ecstatic over the radio. Her voice was fluttering, filled with elation.
“Beautiful! Perfect! Captain, we’ll be making a few passes to shoot photos and start calculating the dispersion. Everyone stay on the ground until we can plot the landings.”
“Understood. After that?” Sheba asked.
“We’ll be carrying out one final exercise to get everyone linked up. A truck from the Konstantin direction will pick them up after that. I’ll be flying back before then.”
“Acknowledged. We’ll hold the skies for you until then. Good luck.”
Sheba’s plane reappeared at Homa’s wing at that point, assuming her routine position. Though Sheba was the squad leader and the pair leader, in Ayvartan doctrine the pair leader held back just slightly behind the wingmate, who was sent on the attack first. It was up to the pair leader to exploit opportunities and react to enemy actions, and the wingmate to be aggressive and disruptive as possible to their enemy. This was a relationship that required an unspoken but ironclad trust between them to succeed.
That was part of why for most of this “Solstice War,” Ayvartan dogfighting involved chaotic, every comrade-for-themself melees in the sky. Ironclad trust was a bit lacking.
Homa was absolutely not there yet with this woman too, but she was also sure she could handle herself well enough alone. And this was only a training exercise anyway.
She could see Mannan and Sayyid off in the distance; it was easy to tell them as the pair just doing their job professionally. When she turned her head and peered out of the glass in the opposite direction, she found Malik and Anada flying in a graceful pair. Malik allowed herself a few tight banked turns, while Anada was practically orbiting her like a moon, spinning, turning, and seemingly having the time of her life.
“Gregory, for the love of–” Sheba sighed deeply into the radio. “Stop it already!”
“I’m not using up that much fuel! My throttle is under control, honest.” Anada replied.
“Follow my instructions or I’ll ground and punish you! You’ll beg to peel potatoes!”
Sheba was audibly upset. Clearly because Anada knew her better than Homa she must have known how much she could get away with, how far she could push. She seemed to be like that with anybody regardless of the circumstances, however. And this time she had clearly crossed a line one too many times for the Captain’s liking.
Anada backed off quickly and completely. Her Garuda I-bis returned to Malik’s wing and flew its prosaic route next to it without any pomp whatsoever. She contented herself with turning gracefully alongside Malik whenever they hit the edge of their area and swung back around. It was a less of a dance than before, but Homa could still see the waltz in their little turns. She found herself mildly, and quietly, impressed.
“Hate me if you want for it, but this is not a toy.” Sheba said. “We have a certain amount of fuel and a specific mission. I know you’ve all been itching to fly, but content yourself with that and trust me that we’ll practice aerobatics when the time is right. You can roll all you want when you need to. Do you understand? Please tell me that you do.”
“Yes, yes, I get it, kapitan.”
Anada did not sound bitter or angry. She sounded more like a bored kid.
Homa and Sheba overtook the transport plane, turned around, swept past it once more and turned back its way again. Homa applied some stick, rolling the plane a little on its side so she could see below. All of the paratroopers had hit the sand and looked like ants. Several gathered closer and awaited something. Ahead of her, Homa saw the transport plane going in a circle around the drop point while opening its rear hatch part of the way. She watched the transport buck in the air, losing a little stability.
There was a small crew pushing something out via a line.
Before the leading pair could overtake the transport plane again, the crew cut the lines and meticulously dropped an anti-aircraft gun from the back hatch. The gun fell quite differently from the parachutists, dropping in an ungainly fashion and careening toward the earth. From this heavy object sprouted a long series of black parachutes, eight of them in total. They struggled mightily and managed to slow its descent.
Visibly affixed to the 37mm gun were a few boxes of its ammunition. In total it must have weighed over two thousand kilograms. Sand billowed up from where the gun hit the ground. For an object like that, it was not just a matter of gently bringing it down but stopping it from smashing itself to pieces when it eventually crashed to the earth.
Several of the paratroopers convened around the piece. Homa couldn’t look at them forever, since looking straight down at the ground required her to fly almost knife edge and her plane’s delicate internals did not take kindly to remaining in a steep angle for extended periods. After some time however she saw a flare light up the sky, and when she turned the Bennu to look, the paratroopers seemed to be celebrating around the gun. They must have fired a flare shell out of the breech to prove the gun worked. For a heavy gun to remain operable after dropping from the sky was rather extraordinary.
“That’s it! We completed every test. Perfection all around. Thank you so much.”
Minardo sounded almost moved to tears on the radio. She spoke with a moving fondness for her troops — like a doting mother, whether she intended to or not.
“I’m so proud of all of you. We’re going to prove that Ayvartans rule the skies!”
At the sound of those words Homa felt her heart rush a little with pride.
She shook her head and chided herself. She had nothing to do with it, after all.
A few minutes after Minardo’s gentle voice last left the radio there was a slight buzzing from the set as a scratchy transmission started to come in. Homa had a relatively poor understanding of how the radio worked but she was reasonably sure she could adjust the sound by turning the knob and she did until the panic in the voice was audible.
“This is Mallard coming in from the Tamir direction! Thirty enemy fliers! Eight casualties! Repeat, this is Mallard from Tamir, thirty enemy fliers! Eight casualties!”
Homa’s heart skipped a beat. Vulture was an undersize squadron, but most Ayvartan squadrons had between 10 and 12 planes divided into two flights consisting of two or three strike unit pairs. For Mallard to have taken eight casualties meant it was almost completely destroyed by the enemy. This was the initial shock to Homa’s brain, but the presence of the enemy was just as anomalous. Nobody had expected an air attack.
Of course, that was the whole point, from the enemy’s perspective.
“What do we do Captain?”
Anada’s voice broke the silence that had fallen since the radio transmission.
“We need to go help them.” Malik said, a sudden determination in her voice.
Perhaps a tinge of anxiety also.
“I’m– I’m contacting command for instructions.” Sheba replied hesitantly.
“Is there time for that? Mallard’s almost gone!” Anada shouted.
“We can’t just charge in!” Sheba replied. “There’s only six of us!”
“Captain, my paratroopers can’t get away from here. I need to know–“
Minardo’s voice was cut off entirely by a certain cat shouting into the radio.
“I see them! Coming in west-southwest!”
There was a certain reverent silence that followed.
Anada was farther away than the rest of them, and there was something to be said for the sharp eyes of a cat-kin, but it was still unbelievable to Homa that the enemy could have gotten so close since the transmission came in. Close enough to be seen by someone’s eyes, and close enough for that sight to be trusted. But this was air war, after all; infantry and tanks could have hours of time ahead of spotting an enemy, but for aircraft moving at over 500 km/h, recon had a shelf life of minutes, not hours.
“Give me a moment, I can almost tell the classes!”
Homa realized there must have been an implicit trust in the squadron jester. Nobody defied her, nobody criticized her. There was a kind of sacredness to the soothsaying of the resident cat-kin. Everyone remained quiet for a few seconds while Anada gathered herself. Her tone took on a grave seriousness. Everyone seemed willing to believe her.
“Fighters 10, and 20 bigger craft farther behind. They’re chasing three of ours!”
Soon as those words left Anada’s lips and transmitted over the radio, so quickly that their transmissions almost overlapped, Sheba called with a tremor of grim resignation. There was no more hesitation, and just off of Anada’s sight, they were ready to act.
“Everybody form into your pairs and climb! Dive into an attack, it’s all we can do!”
“I’ll try to get out of your way!” Minardo said in response. Her transport plane had little time to make its escape, even as she must have gotten the transmission herself.
Everything transpired with torturous rapidity. From the moment she heard the call for help, to Anada’s declaration and now, Sheba suddenly climbing up from her wing, Homa felt like her brain’s thoughts were being left behind like trails of exhaust in the wake of the craft. She felt taken back to all the bloody skies that she had flown over. To those horrific melees over Cissea, what felt like eternities ago. Different craft, different people, but the same feelings around her eyesockets, behind her ears, a tremor in her jaw. She felt like she was being squeezed by the pressure. Her movements felt slow.
Though the hand she had on the center stick shook, the hand on her throttle was steady and unfeeling. It had been taken from her by the cruelty of the sky, or perhaps, it could be better said the hand was given to her. It was the hand she kept on her throttle because it was impossible for it to feel fear. It was the hand of her courage.
Cold, unfeeling, ready to be severed again and again only to be put back.
There was a blankness in her mind. She even started to smile involuntarily.
More than saving her comrades, more than winning the sky. She had a call to answer.
Death was coming for her in the untouched blue over the oasis of Khet.
This would be the time she met her fate.
Gritting her teeth to stop them shaking, Homa set the throttle to “Overheat.”
She felt a thrumming vibration, passed on from the machine into her own body.
A roar of awakening sounded as the lightweight compression chamber that sat heavily under her cockpit began to feed treated air into the afterburning chamber in the back.
A conical exhaust flame appeared from the back of the Bennu, its massive heat creating a rippling haze behind the craft that gave it an otherworldly appearance. Homa’s instruments marked a sharp increase in heat, thrust, and soon, altitude.
Despite Sheba’s head start in climbing, Homa was soon blowing right past her.
Shooting up into the infinite blue, Homa’s eyes teared up with unblinking purpose.
“Homa! You’re not authorized–!”
Homa tuned out Sheba’s warnings.
Likely all of her squadron could now see her soaring overhead, a lance shooting heavensward and then careening back toward the unworthy earth. Even Homa could now see the fleeing Mallards in their Garuda I’s, and the formation of enemy fighters behind them, maintaining level flight and slowly gaining speed on their prey. Gray Archer monoplanes peppered the targets of their pursuit with machine gun fire.
Farther behind them was a tight formation of Wizard class medium bombers.
Homa launched into an angled dive from far enough away to avoid coming straight down, which would have certainly caused her great distress at her speed and altitude. Within moments she was coming up on the enemy fighters, who were unaware that they were about to be pounced. They loomed larger and larger in her gun sights.
Rapping the cannon trigger, Homa launched seven 20mm shells into the nose, spine and cockpit of an Archer and two shells into the wing of another. She swept past them with incredible momentum, and responding to the shock of the ambush the fighters broke formation, each one flying in a different direction like the plucked petals of a great gray flower, leaving behind their damaged allies and their fleeing prey.
Homa looked over her shoulder as one of the fighters she damaged caught fire and broke apart, while the other rolled out, lost control and descended from trying to maneuver with such heavy wing damage. She grinned to herself. That was two kills.
But the fighters were no longer her concern. She hoped her allies could take them.
She turned her gaze forward, and in the next instant begin to climb rapidly.
She had about three minutes worth of jets to make a difference.
Ahead of her, the enemy’s medium bomber formation was laid bare to assault.
Even for her, it was daunting to fight thirty aircraft alone, and she was uncertain about her new comrades. She could not know how the Vultures would fare against fighters.
Homa knew she could do the most damage against the bombers, however.
Bomber aircraft were too valuable to fight to the death.
Under sustained, unchallenged assault, a bomber group would have to retreat.
For her to know this point of air strategy was not enough, however. Her enemy also had to believe in it. If the bombers and fighters all fought her to the death she would be caught amid a storm of concentrated gunfire. No amount of speed could prevent her being fired upon from every possible direction by a group of over twenty aircraft.
As a lone fighter in a small group of six aircraft it was her only shot.
Tempting such a fate did not bother her; she was smiling the whole time.
There was such a profound sense of speed flying the Bennu that her breathing went ragged through little effort. This contest had awoken every centimeter of her body.
As she charged the defenses of the bomber group, she felt an electrifying thrill.
Since her attack Homa had continued to dive until she was nearly a thousand meters under the enemy’s formation. Several seconds after resuming climb, she was headed straight for the guts of the enemy’s tight bomber formation. Ventral guns took note of her and pointed her way, but they were too late. She held down her secondary trigger.
Synchronized with the movements of her propeller, the cannons and machine guns launched fiery red lances through the blurred disc on the Bennu’s nose. Her 20 mm and 7.62 mm machine gun tracers sprayed the underside of two bombers, sliced into one engine, and blasted through a wing and left a sizable hole, exposing the interior.
One bomber slowly stalled as one of its stricken caught fire, the prop blown off.
Meanwhile the second endured, remaining in flight with a burning ventral turret.
All of this meant only one thing to the bloody-minded pilot of the Bennu.
Three craft down, one damaged.
Two light and one heavy kill; what was the bounty for that again?
Her radio was buzzing with activity, but for Homa it just refocused her mind.
She refrained from answering or even listening to it and continued her assault.
As Homa climbed through their formation, clearing the horizontal plane and soaring overhead, the bombers responded with a raging fusilade of anti-aircraft fire from their dorsal guns. Homa was too fast for it. She did not even see any of the green tracer bullets crossing her wings or cockpit. Nocht was just unused to fighting such a quick craft and were attacking where she was a second ago every time, unable to sight her.
They would continue trying to adjust to her speed; she had to head them off.
Homa quickly banked and threw herself back down onto the combat box.
Now she could see the bullets flying toward her in long, deadly green lines from the dorsal cannons, the tracer trails soaring past her cockpit, over her wings, under the hull. Too many of those 13 mm bullets could puncture the cockpit and stain the glass red with her brains, but the missiles seemed determined to miss her. She rolled her wings gently and angled her dive, deftly avoiding the guns and picking up speed.
Perhaps from the perspective of the gunners she seemed ghost-like, as much of a reaper as the one she awaited, flying through a cloud of flak untouched, phantasmal.
Homa was determined to be the deadliest, most daring phantasm they had seen.
As her target grew massively larger within her gun sight, Homa sprayed the cockpit, “greenhouse” style nose and central body of the third Wizard left in the center of the formation. Her bullets poked holes and her cannon fire took chunks out of the Wizard, but it endured, lumbering heavy and undaunted in the sky. Despite doing minimal damage with this pass, she felt triumphant as she broke under the formation again.
Ventral machine gunners awoke to the threat and sprayed in her direction as she dove under them, but it was clear that she could buzz the Wizards with impunity for a time.
That time was two minutes; beyond that there would be no victory.
Sheba felt a profound helplessness as Homa overtook her in the air.
Cutting through the clouds, with its fiery jet roaring red and blue, the Bennu seemed less like a machine and more like an apparition, soaring far away where she could not reach. Sheba called out several times but Homa was not responding anymore.
Stunned speechless, Sheba nearly faltered, her Garuda’s nose dipping for a second.
She was already struggling under the pressure of the events unfolding around her. Sweating, breathing heavily and with great difficulty switching between piloting, sighting and coordination tasks, Sheba thought she might pass out or throw up. She had been in combat but never as the commander and never against these odds.
Despite the individual capabilities of its pilots, Sheba was sure Vulture was not ready to battle the enemy as a group. Images of death flashed in her mind and it was almost enough to make her want to scream. She channeled that energy into the stick.
Vulture needed her. Not just Homa, but all of them. She had to do something.
“Dive into the fighters to rescue our comrades! Quickly!” Sheba ordered.
She reiterated her order as she initiated the dive. No running away; the die was cast.
“Don’t have to tell me twice!” Anada responded.
“Don’t go too crazy!” Mannan called out.
Though there was no response from some of the members, all of them moved as one.
Anada, Mannan, Sayyid and Malik followed Sheba as she dove after Homa.
Around Sheba her Garuda I-bis rocked and shook amid the forces of nature that it was built to defy. Her stick, notorious for its rigidity compared to other models, made the effort to fly even more taxing. She was using her whole body; her legs on pedals, her body and back into the stick, her hands switching between many different controls.
Despite this effort, Homa was flying farther and farther away.
Though her dive was steeper than Homa’s, the Bennu was so much faster that it boggled the mind. Sheba watched Homa speed effortlessly ahead of them with a quiet panic in her heart, her mind flooded with all the ways that dour, quirky girl could be destroyed, set ablaze, rendered unrecognizable and unable to join the living again.
Her eyes unblinking, tearing up, she watched as Homa broke through the enemy.
There was a flash, smoke, flying metal, and the enemy careened out of sight.
Glory flashed before Sheba’s eyes and vanished as suddenly as Homa had done.
She had seconds to react. Anada, Malik, Sayyid and Mannan, flying in and around her craft in formation, all had the exact same idea as she did at exactly the same time.
Watching Homa’s attack and where she sped off after, they understood her plan.
Sheba broke past the scattering enemy fighters and started to climb again.
Behind her, the Vultures joined with their two pairs and twisted around in pursuit.
Looking over her shoulder Sheba spotted Malik and Anada first. They chased after an individual Archer, cornered it with speedy aerobatics and hosed it down with fire.
Though the Archer weaved in various directions to avoid the guns, it was isolated and outmatched, taking fire from two planes at once coming from different directions.
Within seconds they had chased it off the battlespace, smoke rising from its nose.
In the distance, it began to fall.
“Woohoo! Score for the gorgeous Vulture-3 wingwoman!”
“That could have been me, you know.”
Somehow Anada was in her element and even Malik was back on the radio; but even Sheba’s heart was fluttering with hope. Her mind was racing with sudden possibility.
Seeing Homa speeding fearlessly through the enemy, sending them flying like a mortar shell into a foxhole; such incredible flying inspired confidence in Sheba.
And this energy had transferred to the other Vultures as well. Everyone had witnessed her attack during their dive. Everyone watched her subsequent run to the bombers.
Homa was not just acting crazy, she had a plan, and it was a plan that her actions communicated near perfectly to her allies. Vulture was a young group and it was undisciplined and under-strength, but everyone in it had flown before, had killed in the sky, and had lost many comrades. As untested as they were, they were also veterans.
Using her massive energy advantage, Homa scattered the enemy with her ambush and then broke for the bombers. Now the enemy fighters were struggling to regroup and protect their charges; and now Vulture could utterly capitalize on that disruption.
As graceful as they were when flying in formation, as deadly and purposeful as they seemed, Nocht was struggling when met with unexpected resistance. Though the Archers held advantage on the Garuda I, in a fight on Vulture’s terms, they faltered.
After breaking apart, the fighters had scattered away from their pair links and become erratic in their attempts to regroup. Anada and Malik drew blood first, but Vulture 2 were no slouches. Mannan and Sayyid conducted an over and under attack on a pair of Archers before they could link back up and inflicted visible damage. Both their prey sped away from the battlespace, engines fuming, and the Vultures then swung around.
Vulture-2 and Vulture-3 met the remaining Archers in a contest over dunes around the Oasis, trailing each other in the sky in a deadly dance. Firing all the while, pursuer and pursued turned, looped and rolled leaving trails in the air. Turning was the slightly slower Garuda’s great specialty, and ambushed as they were, the Archers were being prevented from climbing safely and forced to engage in a desperate turning match. As they weaved around, each turn granted the Garudas an advantage. While they fought on the horizontal plane, the Archer’s higher power and speed was going to waste.
With five fighters killed or routed, the dogfight was turning in Vulture’s favor.
All of this transpired in what felt like the quickest seconds of Sheba’s life.
“This is Mallard, we’re damaged, but rejoining!”
Even the once-panicking Mallards had been emboldened to join the fight.
Sheba answered quickly. “This is Vulture, relieving. Don’t push yourselves.”
“Thank the Ancestors for you, Vulture. We will help avenge our fallen comrades!”
From afar, the once pursued Mallard fighters rejoined the battle.
Sheba had a different prey to pursue.
She was sure the girls could endure for now.
Fixing her eyes forward, she pressed on toward the bombers, now well below her.
Dead ahead she saw Homa coming down through the bombers. She moved with such speed and grace that she seemed blessed with magic. Trails of bullets followed her every move but never struck, so that she appeared to be dancing on the green lines of the tracers. Her flying was inspirational, its economy of movement, its precision–
Sheba collected herself. She could not just watch. They were a pair. Homa needed her.
One bomber started falling from the sky, one of its engines blown off. Two more centered bombers were exhibiting damage. One was not shooting its ventral guns, so Homa had likely destroyed them. Another was trying to move closer to the left-hand trio of bombers in the combat box. Sheba planned her approach. Over and under.
Homa was attacking the center of the combat box repeatedly, hoping to force a rout.
But Sheba remembered the unkind words of Zakkari and Benali.
The Bennu could not sustain this level of activity for long.
So far the bombers were holding their ground, enduring her attacks.
One lone plane could be fought; but if a second split their fire and inflicted damage?
Waiting until Homa rose through the formation again, Sheba called her on the radio.
“Homa, attack the right! I’ll take left!”
For an instant she was unsure if Homa had heard because she was not responding.
She waited with breath held until Homa turned in mid-air to re-position for her next dive. She cast her shadow over the right-most Wizard formation in the combat box.
Smiling, Sheba tried to synchronize her dive with Homa’s and dropped suddenly.
She was off by seconds; there was no way she could keep up with the Bennu. But for the enemy the result was the same. Homa and Sheba descended on opposite ends of the formation, opening up with cannons and machine guns. Each targeted the bomber in the middle of the trio, the one least able to maneuver or aim its guns at them.
As a whole the Wizards responded with confused gunfire, its intensity now split in half.
Even the slower Sheba was able to avoid the gunfire in the dive and launch her attack. Holding down the stick, she loosed all of the Garuda I-bis’ gun systems on the enemy.
Sheba’s cannon fire shattered the Wizard’s cockpit, exploded among the crew and damaged the glass nose. She hurtled toward the bomber as its course grew erratic.
In the next instant, she rolled her wings just in time to graze the side of the collapsing Wizard and escape under the enemy’s formation. She managed to keep steady.
When she came out the other side the Wizard that she had barely scratched past had completely lost control. Its wings veered vertically and its nose dipped toward the ground. Without a crew to correct it the bomber would eventually end up on the sand.
She raised her head as she dove and cast eyes at the bombers above.
Around her target the remaining bombers moved wildly to avoid a collision.
Homa’s target seemed, also, to be falling at the same rate as hers and causing chaos.
On the rear of the Bennu, the flame was beginning to change colors/
“Homa, lets pull back!” Sheba called out. She knew Homa was running out of jets.
No response over the radio.
Suddenly a red tracer launched skyward past Sheba’s plane toward the bombers.
Sheba took evasive action, coming of her dive and turning away.
On the ground below, the paratroopers had set up the gun to fire at the bombers.
While they had been fighting, the battle had moved all the way to the training area.
“Apologies, Captain! We’re trying to help!” Minardo said, sounding mortified.
“It’s fine, I’m unhurt!” Sheba said.
Friendly fire was no joke, but she was too stressed out to press charges.
From the ground the 37 mm gunfire intensified as the ground crews put clip after clip, five rounds each of anti-aircraft ammunition. A sky full of bombers gave them a target-rich environment, and relatively close to the ground in an open airspace.
Sheba watched the red tracers strike the underside of several bombers, inflicting minor damage but giving the bombers a second source of shock. Likely their air route had been carefully chosen to avoid anti-air zones like Khet village proper or Tamir.
To be hit with flak in the middle of nowhere was not on anyone’s agenda.
“Captain, the fighters are fleeing your way! We must have made them dizzy!”
Sayyid came on the radio. Sheba was busy watching the bombers. Their response to the flak and Homa and Sheba’s attacks was to finally begin turning their formation around to flee by themselves. From farther east, having been exhausted by their fight with the rest of Vulture, the surviving five or six Archers of the Nochtish group rejoined their Wizards’ tight, defensive formation and began to pull away from the battle. All of the Archers sported a variety of scars and gashes, many limping away at lower power.
In the next instant Vulture and the bombers, flying in opposite directions, had put nearly a kilometer of distance between each other and were steadily drawing apart.
“Don’t pursue!” Sheba ordered. “We’re at the end of our rope on fuel as it is.”
“Wasn’t about to try it!” Anada said. “Those guys almost got me once or twice.”
Sheba looked over her shoulder at the enemy growing more distant.
She could scarcely believe that the past few minutes had transpired.
It felt like as sharp but passing as a slap in the face. Ephemeral. What had happened?
And yet it also contained what felt like an eternity of pain and stress.
Desperate survival meeting bloodthirsty zeal. Somehow they were alive.
They had won the day. An enemy engaged them, and they survived.
Or at least, she could only hope they all had.
“Everyone report, right now.” Sheba said. Turning back toward the nose of her craft, looking out over the gun sight she could see the rest of the Garudas moving. So she was sure that the Vultures were fine. Despite this, she needed to hear their condition.
“Don’t worry Captain, I survived, for all my fans waiting at home.” Sayyid said.
“I’m alive, boss. I can’t die, I’ve got a ton of work to do after today.” Mannan moaned.
“Wing’s about to come off, but no part of me is that loose.” Anada said.
“Shaken up.” Malik’s response was inimitably short.
One particular report remained missing.
Sheba searched the sky for the Bennu and found it coming straight at them.
“Homa, report.” Sheba said.
Her heart was struggling so much she forgot the code name.
She almost felt for an instant that she wouldn’t hear Homa’s voice ever again. That somehow despite everything she had lost her. Even with the Bennu flying back into formation. Because of this bleak fantasy, Sheba trembled at the sound of her voice.
“Quit your bellyaching, I’m fine, don’t worry.” Homa sighed. She sounded short of breath, exasperated. “My cockpit smells though. Janjid needs to seal this better.”
Pilots were used to the smell of chemicals and fuel, so for Homa to complain meant her breathing must have been compromised. Sheba felt both a great pity for her condition in that jet plane, but felt an incredible relief and elation to hear her again.
Sheba and Homa linked back up and returned to formation together.
Nocht were not the only ones with damage. Anada and Mannan had taken a few cannon hits. Luckily the Garuda I-bis was rather resistant to going up in flames.
Minardo’s transport plane had managed to stay out of the fighting.
Both remaining Mallard planes had damage but could stay aloft still.
“Captain, I apologize for my hastiness. My ground crews were not well trained with the flak gun, but we couldn’t watch idly when we had a means to help.” Minardo said.
“It’s no problem. Thank you. We lived, Captain.” Sheba replied.
She stopped transmitting just before her voice broke.
Her eyes filled with tears. She looked down at the control stick, wanting to double up over it and scream but knowing she had to keep it steady. Collapsing would cause her to crash. No matter what happened, she had to keep her grip on that stick and keep that aircraft flying not just straight, but graceful, precise and purposeful, at all times.
She wished the emotions that she needed to purge would just stream out of her brain with the tears and sweat. All of the memories were still there, flashing before her eyes.
Sheba was afraid. Because she knew this day meant that the enemy was coming.
Nocht was coming, and she was not going to be ready. She would never be ready.
For everyone’s sake, however, she needed to keep her shaking hands on that stick.
Ayvarta, Solstice City — Sickle Airfield
News of the engagement had arrived far ahead of the participants, and when the walls of Solstice finally came into view of the arriving Vultures, there were hundreds of eyes watching. The Garuda I-bis’ and the Bennu escorted Mallard over its own base area before turning back toward the city center where Sickle lay, overflying many buildings and streets. At last they touched ground on Sickle Airfield well into the afternoon.
Minardo’s transport plane was the last to land, and taxied on the runway all the way to the outer edge, where a larger hangar could support it. Over the radio, she bid a temporary farewell. “Girls, thank you so much. I wanted to say: I’ve seen and felt all this too. I wasn’t always an infantrywoman. If you need an older pilot to talk to, call on me.”
None of the girls gave more than a token response. While Minardo’s gentle care was appreciated, all the girls wanted was a soft place to cool off from the fever of battle.
Unfortunately for them, they had won Sickle’s first interception mission of the war.
A throng of fellow pilots quickly gathered at the runway as the Garudas and the Bennu came to a stop one after the other. It was a surprising scene out in front of the Vulture’s dingy old hangar. A hundred people clapped and cheered around the girls as they climbed out of their cockpits. Soldiers threw their caps and helmets in the air; by their excitement one might have been tricked into thinking the war had been won.
For their part, the Vultures were largely confused and unresponsive.
Their faces were red, their breathing was ragged. Their bodysuits glistened with sweat rolling off their shoulders and chests. When they touched the ground they could barely stand at first, they were so disoriented coming down from the adrenaline. After running on sheer nervous energy for so long, the stillness put them in a trance.
Everyone crowding around them patted them on the shoulders, held their hands, and there were a few errant hugs. There was a grand cacophony of voices, some offering congratulations and many asking how many imperialists they killed. There was hardly any reply from the girls, but they slowly began to recognize the gestures and smiled.
“Ah, it was nothing, it was nothing, I know I’m very good! I’m the best actually!”
Anada was of course the first one to recover enough to soak in the attention.
Even her voice was drained of its usual boisterousness.
Homa was mobbed with special fervor, with onlookers gawking at the distinctive Bennu and its distinctive pilot. She clutched a few hands much too strongly with the iron grip of her prosthetic, but was a little too knocked about to savor the reactions. Sayyid got a few girl’s names; Mannan threatened a few people. Malik said nothing.
Sheba finally shouted over the throng, and finally seemed to get through to them.
“We appreciate the support, but we’re all exhausted.” She said weakly.
From the crowd, a supportive set of male voices helped bring all the excitable pilots under control. “Listen to the lady! Comrades, all of us should celebrate by daring to do what the Vultures did. Let’s let them recover from their adventure. They deserve it.”
Abeer and Parveen were respected, senior pilots with military accomplishments, so everyone listened and agreed with them. Giving gentle farewells and their final congratulations, the pilots dispersed from around the Vultures and returned to their tasks. Abeer and Parveen gave the girls a thumbs up and a wink and turned around to leave as well. Once all was said and done the Vultures were left standing in front of their hangar, their planes worse for wear, their bodies aching and sweating, but alive.
A routine training mission had become a desperate, against-the-odds battle.
Somehow, they had all survived.
“We can leave the reports for later.” Sheba said.
“Spirits, I need some water, and meat. Am I dismissed, Captain?” Anada asked.
She looked at the Captain with tired eyes. Sheba nodded her head. “Dismissed.”
Anada smiled. “Thank you. By the way, your schoolmarm shout’s just like the Captain’s now. Congratulations! Now you just gotta learn to be a step ahead of me like she was.”
Sheba felt a little shock to her system. Anada’s tired gaze had an innocent fondness behind it, maybe even admiration. They all knew what Captain she was referring to. Even Sheba’s constant yelling did not bother her enough to nurse a grudge. Somehow, Anada seemed a rather pure individual. Or a goblin; probably she would have been disappointed to have had her antics go unacknowledged, Sheba suddenly thought.
Still, Sheba felt like something akin to progress had been made at that point.
“Good work. Thanks for everything. Blah blah blah. I’m going to eat now.”
Anada made a little mock bow, turned tail and wandered away.
Malik nodded her head in agreement, and shook Sheba’s hand before following Anada.
Sayyid and Mannan stepped up to Sheba next, and each of them patted her shoulders.
They were older than her by a few years, the oldest and most experienced of the Vultures. Neither had leadership skill nor wanted it; so they had been passed up and Sheba was promoted to Captain instead, despite their age and hers. Despite this, like a pair of mothers doting on their kid at a school fair, they looked on at Sheba with pride.
“Somehow everything went to shit the most that it could have. But you handled it like a pro, boss.” Mannan said. She squeezed Sheba’s shoulder and mussed with her hair. “Minimal repairs, good fuel consumption squad-wide. I’ll let you know how your ammo consumption stacks up, but you’re usually good for that. I’ll give it a tentative B+.”
“Coming back alive is bonus points.” Sayyid added, in good humor, digging her elbow gently into Mannan’s side. Mannan grumbled. Sayyid continued. “And– I’ve probably impressed a few girls enough to ask them out too. I can’t thank you enough, Captain.”
Sheba could barely respond. She did not know how those two swung right back into their usual selves so easily after a battle. It must have been their maturity at work.
She merely shook her head and laughed gently at them.
“Go on, stop teasing me. I’m too tired for this.” Sheba said.
“No teasing! I was so shocked at what happened. I thought we were outmatched.”
Mannan gave Sheba a thumbs up.
“You’re fast becoming a real Captain, boss.”
“Keep drinking your milk, and you may be tall and shapely as the old Captain one day.”
Sayyid of course had to butt in with her own sophomoric take.
Shaking her head, Mannan then left the scene. Sayyid went the opposite direction.
Sheba looked around. There was one person whom they had not spoken to.
Everyone was so busy with the new Captain they had all forgotten to talk to the officer who perhaps needed the encouragement most. That being said, Homa seemed to have momentarily disappeared. Sheba looked around the runway this way and that. Finally, she spotted her on the other side of the planes, looking at a bit of damage on the Bennu. A shell from a 13 mm Tosen machine gun had stricken the left wing.
Luckily it had not been able to penetrate the all-metal plane, and instead lodged in it.
Homa had taken the bullet from the hole in the wing and was looking at it.
Sheba sprinted around the side of the Bennu, calling out the new pilot’s name until at last Homa acknowledged her and turned to face her when she arrived. Nearly doubled over, gasping for breath, Sheba was clearly at her limit, her heart now racing just from this small exertion. They all had given everything they had in that battle. It had been terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. She hoped she could get used to it.
“Homa,” Sheba struggled to catch her breath. She was a little nervous. Bowing her head, she she held Homa’s hands in her own. “Homa, thank you. You saved us all.”
She had meant to be a little more circumspect, but the words came pouring out.
She had already laid herself bare to Homa before, and Homa to her.
So she felt she could be vulnerable; perhaps she could not help but be vulnerable.
There was sadness in Sheba’s voice, a tremor of doubt. Because it had taken Homa’s wild attack to resurrect their hopes; Sheba herself felt that she had done so little for the team. She could shout at them, give basic instructions, keep them in line, and personally put on a flying performance. But she did not inspire them. Homa had done it. This made it all the more bitter that they all congratulated her and not Homa.
She felt so unworthy. All of them had such a ways to go. This whole scene told her that.
However, the subject of her praise seemed to wither with every word said.
“Come on, I didn’t save you.” Homa said brusquely. She averted her gaze, awkward.
“Homa, you did.” Sheba said. She was barely regaining her breath. Her exhaustion was being replaced with shame and with anxiety. “Without you, I wouldn’t have been able to pull everyone together. When we all saw you dive, it told us we had a chance to win.”
Homa sighed, a bitter look on her phase. “Look, really, I don’t want this.”
Sheba’s face softened, and she blinked with surprise. “What’s wrong, Homa?”
Homa shook her head and turned away from Sheba.
“I don’t want you to praise me at your own expense. I’m not worth that.”
“Homa, right now, you’re worth the world to them. And to me.” Sheba said.
She said these words with almost painful sincerity.
At that moment in the sky, Homa had shone for them all. Sheba was captivated by it.
For a second, she let herself selfishly think that with Homa at her side, she could do this. She could take on Shurelis’ uniform, and conquer the skies with her comrades.
Homa could not meet that admiring gaze.
“Ugh, I don’t want to be anyone’s world. You don’t want it either. Just, stop this.”
Shaking her head solemnly, Homa suddenly walked away, hands in her vest pockets, head down low. It was almost like she was skulking away in shame from being praised.
Sheba stood shocked still, wondering if she had said something untoward.
All she could do was to sigh herself, play with a lock of her hair, and think desperately.
For all that everyone said she was suddenly like the Captain because she had killed in the air, Sheba felt less than a shadow of her. Because as much as she could kill in the air, when it came to the hearts and minds of her comrades, all of it was still so locked up and impossible to read. Watching Homa leave her behind, Sheba felt a mute pain.
Sheba felt nothing like a leader who led a victory; this did not feel like a victory at all.
Until she could lead them valiantly, until she could inspire them, she was no Captain.
Vulture squadron had a long way to go. And Nocht was no longer waiting idly for them.
13th of the Postill’s Dew 2031 D.C.E
Next morning the girls were up surprisingly bright and early. After a quiet night where even Command had the decency to leave the girls alone and seek its reports some other time, they found themselves lined up in front of the hangar in appropriate uniforms. There was some big-shot who wanted to talk to them, so there they were.
When the big-shot herself arrived, they were all stunned speechless before her.
A tall, fit young woman in uniform, flanked by a lovely assistant; by the visible rank insignia on her uniform, she was a Brigadier General and her assistant a Chief Warrant Officer. Behind the two officers was a fighter plane in Helvetian colors, blue and green with a red and white circle insignia on the wings. Standing beside that mysterious plane was a pretty girl with big, bright blue eyes and luscious, golden-blonde hair.
She was chewing gum and smiled when the Vultures’ eyes settled on her.
Their attention was then called to the General who had come to meet them.
“Greetings, Vulture Squadron. Congratulations on your first air victory. I am Brigadier General Madiha Nakar, and I have some news about your combat role henceforth.”
All of the Vultures looked at one another, at Sheba, and then at the plane behind Nakar.
Homa crossed her arms and let out a tired little breath. Things wouldn’t get any easier.
On the 12th of the Postill’s Dew of 2031, the Federation of Northern States launched a strategic campaign of bombing of the capitol of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, the city of Solstice itself. They called this campaign “Rolling Thunder.” In the weeks that followed, the ruinous, tragic cruelty of this campaign, that would forever change the Ayvartan psyche, would resist the Nochtish nomenclature, and even more descriptive names like “The Solstice Air Defense Campaign” or “The Air War Over Solstice,” and come to be known to history instead as The First Battle of Solstice.