Nichols relaxed his grip on the canopy’s handgrip as his VT left the Prometheus, and began accelerating into a climbing bank as he rendezvoused with Harper. The two were supposed to be flying a routine CAP, so he was looking forward to a milk run. The past few days had been rough, and the squadron had only managed a few hours of sleep. He understood why the op tempo was so high, but he felt as if he was being personally singled out. He knew it wasn’t true, but Foley always seemed to be nearby when he cracked a joke. His access to a bunk had suffered accordingly.
He pulled up alongside Harper and gave a wave. Harper was somewhat of a royal screw-up, from what he had heard. Demoted at least thirty times, or something like that, and most recently for a training accident during their first week. This was one of the few times he had flown with the guy because of their training flight assignments. “If mom was his CO, that guy would never be in a cockpit unless he was cleaning it”, he thought to himself. He still missed her, even after all these years.
A soft alarm tone interrupted his thoughts. He glanced at the panels and saw that one of his displays was acting up. The quadruple redundancies built into the Veritech’s systems meant it was a minor inconvenience. He would just have to remember to look at one of the other gauges if he wanted to know his exact hydraulic pressure. He slightly rocked the wings and figured nothing was amiss. Rudders checked out. Damn glitchy systems! Apparently, the rest of the squadron had been reporting similar malfunctions to the maintenance crews, but they were having trouble finding the root of the problem. Some guys had been unlucky enough and had to RTB because of smoke in the cockpit. Flying on instruments was one thing, but it got a lot harder when you couldn’t even see your instruments.
He debated switching on the autopilot and setting an alarm so he could catch a quick nap, but then the telltale ping reached his ears. “Hey Harper, I’ve got multiple bogies at 3 o’clock low. Want to check them out?”
“Affirmative. Let’s go say hello to the guys”, said Harper. Nichols had to shove his throttle forward to catch up. If nothing else, Harper was not one to shy away from a fight.
They barely had time to react when the TWS lit up and his screens took on red borders. He hit the master arm switch and toggled his radio. “I’m going hot Harper – they’ve got me locked up!” He began a series of evasive maneuvers in an attempt to break the lock.
“Dammit, they’ve got me too!”, yelled Harper. He inverted his plane and started jinking towards the bogies. “Alright, you sons of bitches. Let’s see what you got!”, he muttered. Nichols followed him in. He still had not gotten a visual on their bogies, even though at least one of them had him locked. The opposition had either stopped holding back, or his hydraulic pressure gauges weren’t the only things acting up.
As his eyes scanned for targets, he saw Harper’s plane popping decoys like they were dead weight.
“I’m out.”, sighed Harper. “Heading to angels 20 to watch the fight from there. Good luck, Nichols.”
Nichols was too busy to respond. The g-forces were putting a strain on him as he went into his AGSM. Air was escaping his lungs in controlled hics, and he felt his world going dim around the edges of his peripheral vision. He caught a glimpse of incoming missiles on his radar and started to pop decoys. Unfortunately, his hand slipped off the stick as he was trying to turn tighter, and all his displays light up to signify multiple impacts. As the g-forces eased up, he did a quick damage assessment and saw he was also out of the fight.
“Hey Harper!”, he laughed, “hold up. Let me join you.”
So much for a milk run.