"Stable to White Horse One-Zero, you are cleared to taxi. Proceed to runway nine-zero and await authorization for takeoff."
"Stable, copy runway nine-zero", the young pilot replied, "White Horse out."
The pilot let up on the wheel brakes slightly, and eased the throttles forward. The F-15 Eagle began its slow roll toward the end of the runway.
At the end of the taxiway, he waited as the jet in front of him positioned itself, then screamed down the tarmac and into the dawn sky. Now it was his turn.
"White Horse One-Zero, cleared for takeoff. Good luck."
"Roger that, Stable." He gave a sharp salute to his ground chief, and pushed the twin throttles to the stops. The screech of the big turbofans came through his ejection seat as a muted rumble. At 200 kilometers per hour indicated airspeed, he eased the stick back, and the fighter lifted off the runway. Now passing three hundred kph, he yanked the gear handle up and increased his climb to fifteen degrees.
At four thousand meters, Lieutenant Tenchi Masaki leveled his plane out and unclipped his oxygen mask. He took a deep breath. Even after three years in the JASDF, the Japanese Air Force, the ride into the sky on the F-15's enormous engines was never less than exhilarating. It made him feel sorry for the poor sods who were dumb enough to dope up, destroying their own bodies just for a few minutes of rapidly fading pleasure. Who needed drugs when you had this?
Tenchi reached out and switched on the plane's radar, thinking about his path into the military. It was the last thing he had ever expected to end up doing. Hell, he thought with a smile, had it not been for a certain former space pirate, he would still be pulling up carrots on his grandfather's farm in Okayama. Ryoko Hakubi-expert pilot, Class-A criminal, and briefly his girlfriend, had sparked his interest in aviation by letting him take the controls of her starship once in a while. Okay, maybe driving a fighter jet at eleven thousand meters wasn't quite as much fun as cruising the stars with Ryoko, but it was still pretty cool.
He looked over his right shoulder, and saw Lieutenant Kagara, his wingman, sliding into the number-two position. "Finished your first scan yet?" Kagara asked.
Tenchi glanced at his radar screen: nothing. "Yep. Come on, let's take the next sector."
"Roger." Lieutenant Tsuchida Kagara followed Tenchi through a 2-G right bank, and the two jets leveled out heading south.
Tenchi smiled at the thought of how fate had played out in his life. Good old Tsuchida had followed him from his college years, through the academy and flight school, and now had ended up in the same wing with him.
"Uh, Tenchi," Tsuchida said, "switch your radio to the wing frequency right quick. I'm hearing something about trouble north of here, up near Hokkaido."
Tenchi looked in puzzlement at his instruments. What was going on? He switched to the wing's battle frequency, and listened closely to what snatches he could catch.
"Air Defense Force Hokkaido...entering controlled airspace," he caught, "alter course immediately, and expect escort to distance of one hundred miles from..."
Uh oh, Tenchi thought, obviously somebody had done something wrong, and somebody else was really burned up about it. An irate voice answered the call in a foreign language. What the...
"White Horse Lead to Stable," Tenchi radioed to the controller back at base, "we're picking up unusual radio transmissions near Hokkaido Island, request permission to investigate." As he spoke the words, he flipped up the safety cover of the Master Arm switch.
"White Horse flight, that's a negative. Remain in your patrol area. Hokkaido Sector air defense has the situation under control."
Of course, Tenchi thought. Now he understood. "What do you think, Tsuchida?" he asked. "Sounds like they're playing around with our defenses again."
"The Russians do that all the time," Tsuchida scoffed. "Bastards never learn."
Evidently, Russian fighters were testing Japan's air defense reactions again, and F-16Js from Hokkaido had answered the challenge, chasing away the agile MiG-29s.
Lieutenants Masaki and Kagara completed the rest of their patrol in silence, finding only two other aircraft, coming from the general direction of China, but nowhere near Japanese airspace. Probably a couple of those ancient Shenyang MiGs of theirs, Tenchi thought. When were they ever going to junk those rusty old things?
After going wheels-down back at Osaka, Tenchi and Tsuchida headed back to their quarters. Tenchi lay on his bunk, looking through his mail while Tsuchida fetched a couple of beers from the fridge.
Suddenly, Tenchi sat bolt upright, the can his wingman had tossed bouncing uncerimoniously off his forehead. He rubbed the rising knot gingerly, still looking at the envelope.
"Nice catch, Masaki," Tsuchida laughed. "Hey, what is it?"
"It's from...Sakuya," Tenchi said, still staring at the envelope. He hadn't seen that girl in years.
"Kumashiro?" Tsuchida asked. "You mean that hot little chick you were dating back in college?" He lay down on his own bunk, and gave a appreciative whistle. "Man, she could handle my stick anytime!"
"Knock it off," Tenchi grumbled. He returned to the letter.
"...doing alright, I guess," she had written, "...heard from some friends of mine that you're in the service, and I found out where you were stationed. Anyway, I have a favor to ask of you, and besides, I'd really like to see you again..."
Tenchi gasped. You've got to be kidding me, he thought.
"What is it, man?" Tsuchida asked.
"It's Sakuya. She's coming here," Tenchi breathed. "to Osaka."
Late that night, he lay on his bunk with his laptop computer, typing out the after-action report from his evening patrol. It was blessedly easy; there had been no action to report, not even a few stray MiGs like on the dawn patrol. Still, it was difficult to concentrate, between Tsuchida snoring away on the other side of the room, and his thoughts about Sakuya. So, she was coming to the base to see him.
Sakuya Kumashiro was one of Tenchi's assorted ex-girlfriends and, except for Ryoko, the only one he had been truly serious about. They had met in college, but were forced to break up when he graduated and returned to Okayama. It had been five years since then, and he had heard that she was married now, to a guy older than him, a police officer from Kyoto. Tenchi didn't mind, as long as she was happy.
But what could she want? And why would her husband let her come all the way out here, to see her ex-boyfriend? It was a mystery he decided to think about later. He was too tired now, and too worried about what the morning might bring.
The Third Fighter Sqaudron had been on high alert for more than two weeks, and like Tenchi, its pilots were mostly exhausted. Everyone was watching the news reports on TV, addicted to the flow of information, and chatting nervously about the political situation.
The Asian War had started a little over a year ago, while Tenchi was still in training, and only lasted a few months. But it had left in its wake a nasty cold war between the former combatants, namely the United States, China, and North Korea. And very nearly Russia.
The North Koreans had started it by throwing around what little weight they had, threatening the South because of Seoul's refusal to repatriate a group of infiltrators who had stolen valuable information. The Chinese, fearful of the American reaction if they supported the North, as well as the Russian reaction if they didn't, had decided incorrectly that Russia, with its thousands of miles of heavily armed border, was the greater threat. The North Korean army stormed across the DMZ, backed by thousands of Chinese regulars, and the result had been a short, bloody war between U.S. and Chinese forces on the Korean Peninsula, and in the western Pacific.
The end had come when some merry-wag terrorist had taken it upon himself to trigger the launch of a Chinese ICBM at Seattle. The nuke had only barely missed its target, and thouands of Americans died in the blast.
What the outraged administration on Capitol Hill had decided on, rather than the wholesale erasure of China from the face of the planet, was a limited response. A half-dozen cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were lobbed by submarine at Chinese military installations in the unpopulated region of the country. Cooler heads finally prevailed, and an armistice was signed.
But even though the war was long-since over, politicians on both sides were still yapping at one another, and everyone was now seeking support from the biggest economic power in the region: Japan.
Japan had refused, and now her ships and aircraft were being constantly harrassed by the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, and even the Americans.
It had to stop, Tenchi thought as he drifted off to sleep with the lamp still on, computer still buzzing away on his lap. If the other countries didn't knock it off soon, the war would flare up again, and who knew how many would die this time?