Marta cursed under her breath as the radar warning receiver chirped once again, this time indicating that radar emissions were locking onto her aircraft. She quickly glanced over to it and saw a “29” on the small display, right inside the middle threat ring. Slot Back. Fulcrum or Flanker. Either one isn’t good, but the Flanker can reach out and touch me from a bit further.

Marta pressed and held her microphone button. “I’m being locked up,” she mumbled aloud.

“Brevity codes,” Phil snapped back over the radio.

Marta let out an annoyed sigh and shook her head. “Green 8, spike bearing 120, 3 O’clock, Slot Back.”

“Roger. Maintain current heading and let’s see what he does.”

“Copy.” Marta nervously glanced to her right, trying to find what might be locking her up, but trying to find anything in the sky or the ground was nigh impossible for her. There’s just not enough contrast! He’s either too far away or I’m not looking hard enough! She felt herself tempted to veer out of formation and search for her oppressor, but knew doing so would result in Phil berating her for not following procedures — again.

“Phil- Green 7,” Marta asked, “shouldn’t we turn into this guy? If he’s locking me up, I doubt he wants to have a friendly chat.”

“He’s on our three,” Phil answered. “He might try to engage, but he’s going to have a hell of a time doing much til he gets closer. If he does, we can draw him into a close fight and bag his arse.”

“What if he shoots first?”

“One of us turns cold, the other continues. Figure out which of us he’s engaging and the free one comes around and goes after him.”

Marta frowned in uncertainty. “That means one of us might get shot down.”

“Exactly, so I’ll turn cold and you stay true. Easy kill for me.”

“What if he’s locking onto you? We’re close enough together that he could be locking either one of us.”

“Then I’ll shake the man loose,” Phil grumbled in response. “Quit thinking about ‘what if’ and do your job. We’ll deal with him when the time comes.”

Marta gritted her teeth and hardened her grip on the control stick. Damn it, Phil. Why are you such a pain in the ass and how did I get the misfortune of being your wingman?! She looked back to her radar warning display and noted that not much had changed; the “29” was still solid on the display, a threatening diamond around the numbers, with a firm tone was emitting over her helmet speakers. She glanced over to her left multi-function display, seeing the small navigation page up and observed their range to target as 20 miles away. Blow up the target or get into a defensive fight with our new friend — we can’t do both at the same time!

“Green 6, running in,” Cris firmly said over the radio, indicating she was starting her attack run over the target area. She and Ronald were the door-breakers, the ones who would clear a way into the target for Marta and Phil, catching the attention of any air defenses and playing bait. They would destroy what they could, but by and large they were a diversion intended to attract attention away from Marta’s flight.

Marta switched her left display over to the tactical situation mode, showing her where everyone else was relative to her as well as any threats they had detected. There were no indications over Cris’ position on the display, indicating that she was attacking something her sensors hadn’t found — or something she hadn’t bothered to share with the others.

“Green 6, Green 1,” Ronald said over the radio, “watch yourself. I see some triple-A down there — don’t get yourself shot up.”

“Just got to attract a little attention,” Cris mumbled back. A few eternal seconds passed, then she shouted over the radio, “Bombs away!” and let out a laugh.

“I see secondaries. Good hits,” Ronald remarked. “We’ve got company — time to lead them on. Green 7, 8, get in here and hit your targets. We’ll cover you.”

“Roger, we’re on our way,” Phil replied. “8, let’s do it. Forget about our little friend back there; I’ll get another shot at him on the way out.”

“What if I get another shot at him?” Marta grumbled back.

“Then I’m dead and you’ll soon be joining me. You aren’t good enough to go toe-to-toe with a Fulcrum.”

“‘Fight the man, not the machine.’ That’s what you said. Fulcrum or not, I’m sure I could get him!”

“And? You think you’re as well-trained as a Russian fighter pilot?” Phil laughed, the small distortions over the radio doing little to mask the ego in his tone. “Please. You’ve barely done any flying at all. I’m amazed that Ronald even took you on, with as much as you have to learn.”

Marta snarled and almost crushed the radio transmit button to return a snarky reply, but pulled her thumb back and let out a sigh. He’s just being his usual self. Let it go. Enrico was right when he said I needed to control my temper. She looked over to her heads-up display and made note of the target waypoint — she and Phil would split up over that point and attack their respective targets, then form on the exfil point and join up with Ronald and Cris. As a four ship they would then punch out of the target area, if everything went to plan.

“I’m getting my weapons ready,” Marta mumbled over the radio, pulling up the stores page on her right display and selecting “Mk84LD” from the options. She carried two of the large 2,000 pound bombs, same as Phil, with four AIM-9 air-to-air missiles for defense. By contrast, Ronald and Cris were carrying a slightly lighter load of four CBU-99 cluster bombs with the same allotment of missiles, to better emphasize their light target mission. She selected the options to arm the bombs as the others had instructed her, then verified that the settings were all correct. She would dive into the target for maximum accuracy, but still had to respect the 10,000 foot altitude hard deck — any lower and she ran the risk of being hit by low altitude air defenses.

“Remember, delayed fuse,” Phil said, betraying his distrust of Marta.

“Delayed fuse, tail,” Marta replied. “Drop them both with one pickle. CCIP.”

“Right. Don’t drop them too late.”

“Understood.” Marta allowed herself a grin. Don’t feed him and he won’t have any reason to snap. Still, I’d prefer to fly on Ronald’s wing over Phil’s.

“Green 7 and 8, Green 1,” Ronald said over the radio, getting Phil and Marta’s attention, “be advised that we’ve got a hornet’s nest stirred up here. We’re going to have to alter our plans; once your targets are destroyed, you’ll exfil per the plan, but we’re-“

“Ron, check six!” Cris frantically interrupted over the radio. “I’ve got him! Fox 2!”

“Missile launch! Your 4 low!” Ronald shouted.

“Green 1, Green 7, we can ditch our bombs and come help,” Phil mumbled back.

“Focus on your targets! We’ll handle this!” Ronald replied.

Hijo de puta,” Marta mumbled under her breath. What the hell is happening up there?! She glanced back to her RWR and noted that the “29” was still active and tracking her. And is this guy going to have anything to say about our little incursion?

“Let’s push to burner, 8,” Phil instructed. “We’ll lose some gas but we should have enough if we invade the reserve.”

Marta looked at the fuel display above her right knee and shook her head. “No, we do that and we’re not going to have enough to get home. We’ve got no place to divert.”

“If we don’t get there any faster we won’t get home at all! Do as I say, damn it!”

Marta closed her eyes and sighed in frustration. “Fine, fine; following your lead.” She looked out the windscreen to see bright orange plumes emit from Phil’s aircraft, the afterburners lighting up and accelerating the aircraft as fast as it would go — which wasn’t much better than their existing speed due to the drag from the weapons they carried. Wasting a bunch of gas is all we’re doing. She followed suit and pushed the throttle forward, seeing the engines surge and the speedometer begin ticking faster. The dull roar of the engine reminded her of just how hard it had to work in order to drive the aircraft at the speed she desired, on top of the fuel gauge rapidly ticking down toward bingo. If it hits bingo by the time we’re over the target, we’re in serious trouble.

A new tone emitted over the RWR and Marta glanced over to see a new icon: a “10” displayed prominently on the 11 O’clock position. Her heart sank and she felt her legs begin to shake at the sight. SA-10. A Grumble. How did Cris and Ronald not see that?!

“7, 8,” Marta said into the microphone, “confirm you’ve got a SA-10 ahead.”

“Roger,” Phil curtly replied. “Looks like we’re well and truly fucked now.”

“Suggest we hit the deck. We can’t stay there forever but we can-” Marta began and then was cut off by a rapid warning tone from her RWR. She glanced back and expected the SA-10 to be launching, but instead it was the MiG-29 — he had apparently changed his mind and was firing on them. “Missile launch!” she called out, glancing over her right shoulder in the vain hope of catching sight of a missile plume.

“Break right, I’ll go left!” Phil shouted back, pulling hard to the left while releasing chaff. Marta pulled her stick to the right and then pulled back, pegging the G meter at 5 G’s as she made a 90 degree turn to the right. She looked above her head, the sudden forces making her vision slightly impaired, but managed to catch a visual of her attacker — the Fulcrum was coming full bore at her, keeping his nose right on her canopy. Her hard turn had apparently fooled the missile well enough that it streaked behind her, likely launched at too short a distance to follow her turn.

“He’s all over me!” Marta frantically shouted, still pulling back on the stick. She glanced over to the emergency stores release and momentarily thought about pressing the hazardous looking yellow and black button, but thought better of it. If I do that, we’ve lost. Better to just try and bear it while Phil deals with this guy.

“Keep him busy, I’m just coming around… Damn bombs,” Phil mumbled.

Marta pulled her stick to the right and watched the ocean over her head, then fought her instincts and pulled back toward it. The ocean rapidly approached, but she quickly pushed the stick left and leveled out, followed by another pull to come back around, just barely glancing over the wave tops as the altitude warning let out a series of loud, shrilling beeps. She looked around for the Fulcrum, finding him above and behind her — he had instead gone past her to engage with Phil. Damn! Is Phil watching?!

“He’s coming for you!” Marta shouted.

“What? I don’t see him!” Phil replied.

Marta hesitated as she tried to locate Phil’s aircraft, but her attention went back to the Fulcrum when she saw a missile plume emit from the wing. “Missile launch! Incoming!”

“I don’t-” Phil could barely get a word out when a crackle emitted over the radio and Marta saw an explosion in the distance. She pulled hard on the stick, orienting her nose right with the Fulcrum, then cued up an AIM-9 with a punch of a selector hat on her stick. A growling sound emitted over the speakers, followed by a circle bouncing over the HUD. C’mon, baby! Give me a good tone! She put her steering cross right on the Fulcrum, who was now just starting to come around to finish her off. The missile’s seeker finally locked onto a good heat source and emitted a solid tone, which in turn caused her to pull the trigger. The missile let out a hiss and shot off the rail, streaking out to the Fulcrum; he began to emit flares, but it wasn’t quick enough — the missile went right into his left engine and exploded. The aircraft bellowed smoke and began an extreme roll to the left as the right engine pushed it into a spin, then crashed into the water with a splash.

“Green 1, 8,” Marta mumbled over the radio, “7 is down. I’m continuing with the mission.” Blank static came back over the radio and she frowned. Am I the last one? What happened? She checked her tactical display and found that she was the only remaining one left in a sea of hostile threat markings. She let out a depressed sigh and closed her eyes. It’s all over. Her vision went black and she rubbed her face.

“Well, that could have gone better,” Phil grumbled. “What got you, Marta?”

“Nothing. Sim shut down as soon as I saw I was the only one left,” Marta answered.

“That was me,” Ronald remarked. “Only option for Marta was to run. No sense continuing a doomed mission.”

“What was the point of all that?” Cris asked. “I got two Fishbeds, but a Gauntlet popped me as soon as I got low.”

“A rapidly changing situation where we can’t predict the next move,” Ronald replied. “Intended to put our evaluation skills to the test. We failed to adapt, as our deaths would indicate.”

“Yeah, Marta just got lucky,” Phil grumbled. “Probably should have engaged our friend the moment he locked on.”

“Lucky?” Marta incredulously asked. “You couldn’t even see him!”

“It’s a damn computer screen, you can’t see a thing,” Phil growled back.

“Like everyone in the real world is just gonna sit there and let you shoot them up!”

“Who’s got more actual shootdowns in this group?! Me or you?” Phil let out a disgruntled laugh. “Pixels on a screen have nothing on me!”

“Enough,” Ronald interjected, his voice ringing with authority. “We’ll analyze the simulation data later. It seems that we need remedial lessons, you in particular, Mr. Collier.”

“I don’t need to learn anything!” Phil grumbled. “I’ve already proven myself compared to the rest of you!”

“You’ve learned so much that you can’t even beat a computer!” Marta shouted.

“A computer can cheat! This isn’t my fa-“

“Mr. Collier,” Ronald interrupted, “that’s enough. If you’re going to be a flight lead, you’re going to have to learn responsibility. I don’t want to lose half my unit to your grandiose ego. Unless you would rather Marta be the flight lead for your section.”

Phil let out a defeated grumble. “Fine, fine. What now?”

“Let’s try again. With enough repetitions, we should eventually find a strategy to beat this scenario — and keep from losing anyone in the process. There’s always a solution.”

Marta sighed and looked back to the screen, not looking forward to yet another run in the sim as Phil’s wingman. Being fair, it wasn’t exactly his fault. But by the same token, don’t claim you’re superior to everyone else when you’re not. That’s what got him killed that time. The screen came to light and she momentarily winced as the sim restarted the scenario. She grabbed the stick and throttle, once again steeling herself for whatever diabolical scheme the computer planned to throw at them. If we can’t beat a computer, how the hell are we going to beat someone for real?

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