“How does it feel?” the question crackled in on the radio.
“Seat could be comfier,” I said, tilting the flight stick next to my right leg to the right ever-so-slightly. “And I’m worried about this cup holder – won’t it spill my drink when I bank? C’mon guys, that’s just bad design. Who thought of that? I want names.”
I heard some chuckling through the radio.
“Not sure that’s the kind of feedback DARPA is looking for, ace.”
“Oh…well…it hangs a little to the left, then.”
“Noted. Do we need to end the test prematurely?”
“Nah, easy to handle. Just keep it in mind.”
“Affirmative. Proceed to the live-fire testing zone to begin the weapons testing.”
The █████████ was 22 tons of experimental jet, and I was the lucky son of a bitch who got the opportunity to stretch its wings. Although, truth be told, I’m wary of experimental craft; they put however many shiny new doodads onto these planes and I hope they’ll still get me up and down without a problem. We had been brought out to the ██████████ desert for the test, sand stretched out in all directions, a featureless face of the Earth. There was no need for a runway with this baby’s VTOL technology, just lifted myself right up into the air, and shot off like a bullet. It was a nice day for flying at 1600 knots, and I had been waiting an uneasy a week to uncage this bird. Clouds sat high in the sky, as if they knew we would be there, and cleaned up the airspace ahead of time just for me. Cool sky stretched out as far as the eye could see, meeting the sizzling earth with a steamy kiss. The heads-up display in my visor blinked, highlighting the objects left by the test crew for me as targets, which I was previously briefed on. Two or three other markers appeared above the testing zone, and then disappeared. I figured they were just a glitch in the hardware, a digital spoof of the markers below, and made a mental note.
I was instructed to eliminate a target using the jet’s standard weapon, a single Vulcan cannon, when I was in range. I centered on a derelict delivery van the crew happily painted a target on, and took a deep breath.
“Going live,” I announced.
“Copy that, fire at will.”
“Negative, command; I will not be shooting Will for you today. You’re just gonna have to talk things out…over”
I squeezed the trigger, and listened to the calming hum of the Gatling gun spitting hot death from the underside of the jet. Slivers of gold spiraled off, lost in the cerulean sky, and in the distance, dirt shot up from the desert floor leading up to the van, until the bullets tore through the vehicle itself.
“Confirmed hit.” I zipped past the remains of the van, streaking through the cloud of carnage I created. “Target is Swiss cheese, over.”
“Copy that,” control responded. “Any possibility you could be a little more official in your reporting? This is being recorded.”
“Hey, I didn’t come all the way out to ██████████ for you to judge my vocabulary, over.”
I pulled up on the stick, rising higher into the sky as I banked to the left. I nearly lost control because of the jet’s penchant to pull left on its own, but I evened out with little problem, ready to make another pass.
“Starting sidewinder run,” I said, leveling my sights on another target. The HUD beeped again with the anomalies from before, but they vanished as quickly as they appeared.
I flicked a switch cover on the flight stick with my thumb, and the HUD changed for missile aiming. The missile bay clacked open on either side of the cockpit, under the crotch where the wings met the fuselage. After the guidance system locked onto a pickup truck, I pressed the button on top of the flight stick. A flash of fire seared out on my right, leaving a streak of white in its wake. A plume of orange erupted from underneath the truck, bisecting the vehicle into flaming chunks.
“One away,” I said. “Turning around to fire left bay.”
“Copy. So far the jet has remained invisible to radar.”
I twisted the craft around, and set up to target another decrepit vehicle left for the jet to shower in a hail of ruination. I tapped the button on the flight stick again, and another missile screamed out of the jet’s left side, highlighting a white strand in the blue canopy over the desert. Another explosion followed, and I flew through the plume that erupted from the target’s destruction.
“Payload away, what’s next on the docket, command?”
“Maneuverability testing. Take the jet through some rigorous flying.”
“You sure this thing can handle me? I’m not a gentle lover.”
“We need to check out what it can handle and if those maneuvers will betray the radar shielding. Do whatever you can.”
“Fly crazy, got it.”
More chuckles. That wasn’t even my best material, but I’d imagine this is pretty boring if you’re not the one zipping through the sky in a million dollar experimental aircraft. I let my hand relax on the flight stick for a moment, which caused the jet to tilt down to the left before I gripped the stick again. The HUD flashed again with objects ahead, and to my left. The problems were concerning, but it was better than the engines cutting out or the flaps locking down and shooting me straight into the ground.
I glanced to my left, and just outside, at the tip of the wing, was a figure. A young woman, with silver, windswept hair grazing against two pairs of venated, insect-like wings, kept my pace. Her skin was that of a cloud, both cool in color and calming in countenance. Her wings flickered up and down, a brilliant refraction of every color in the spectrum gleaming on their surface.
“Repeat? Didn’t quite catch…” command crackled.
“She” turned her head, and gave me a big smile. Her ears were long and pointed, and just barely out of sight by my wing, a spinning band of air wrapped around her waist, tapering into a trail of vapor. She didn’t just ride the wind, she was the wind. Was my oxygen malfunctioning? Could I add that to the growing list of problems on this thing?
“Command…uh…are you pinging anything else up here?”
Silence. I took a deep breath, oxygen still coming in like normal.
“Command, you copy?”
And then a radio disconnect. My love for this jet lowered as the intrigue over whatever the hell was next to my left wing grew.
“Command? Ah, you space-age piece of junk.”
I flew forward past what my HUD had notified as two other objects – two more figures, male, wrapped up in a veil of wind like the first. My breathing became heavier when the three of them crowded around the windshield, one on each side and the young woman floating overhead. In the back of my mind, I took stock of what weapons I still had onboard, in the off chance that these “spirits” were less than friendly – no more sidewinders, but a nearly full cache of 20mm rounds. I pushed the worry away the moment the girl situated overhead waved at me, and gestured as if she was laughing. The figures broke formation and gave me a wider berth, if only to get a better look at the craft. One figure ahead began spinning in place; I knew the maneuver as an aileron roll. To my left and right, the figures stared at me, beaming smiles on their faces.
“Are you…?” I wondered aloud.
The figure ahead looked back at me, flying with his back to the ground and his chin to his chest.
I tilted the flight stick and rolled the jet three full spins. The jet’s new tech to reduce pressure worked wonders. As I righted myself, the figures cheered, flying over to spin around the nose of the plane in jubilation.
“Y’like that, huh?”
The spirits waved their hands for me to follow, and then they filed ahead the jet, the girl taking up third in their formation, right in front of me. The leading male started to spin in another aileron roll, and the second figure followed suit, and then the girl, who looked back at me. I tilted into a roll with them. We all spun, one after another, the four of us. I broke away from the trail and began a barrel roll, circling around the three figures. It served the dual purpose of impressing my new friends and getting a decent look at them. As I rolled, I had them above my cockpit so I could keep them in view.
“Command…I hope your still reading…” I futilely replied to the radio.
They watched me, clapping, cheering, and pumping their hands. Were they angels? I couldn’t be sure, honestly. They had wings, albeit like a bug’s, and looked sort of human-like, but does that really mean anything? They looked as if they were emerging from, and propelled by, the tornadic wrap around their waists – the air was their element. Whatever they are, they didn’t seem the least bit hostile; in fact, they wanted to play. I had to test this plane’s capabilities, might as well entertain these whatevers at the same time.
“Alright you three, let’s play,” I called out, unsure if they could even hear me.
I slid back towards the flying figures, and they broke formation to allow me to pass. I started another barrel roll and the three of them circled the jet, taking turns passing the cockpit and waving as we soared. Leveling out, the girl of the group took position in front of the nose, with the other two above each wing, and we dipped down in formation to skim the desert floor. The spirits spread out, gliding over the sand themselves, their cyclonic abdomens kicking up magnificent spirals of dust.
“Ready to take this higher?” I pointed up towards the sky.
They immediately tilted up and blasted off towards the clouds, and I followed suit, climbing out of a cloud of dust that exploded in their wake. The g-forces were strong, but the ██████████ tech in the flight suit helped with the pressure as it thrust me back into my seat. I pierced through the bottom of a silver cloud, and when I erupted from its head, the three figures were beside me again. I looped backwards and then righted the jet, taking in the sight above the clouds. The sun blanketed the tops of the pillows with a golden sheen, like a rolling field of wheat. The figures, too, held the glow of the sun on their skin. The girl flew next to the cockpit, and rolled in place while watching me. The other two spun around one another, and invited me to join in again. I obliged, rolling the plane and trying for another somersault, when the roar of the engine grew higher before subsiding. The lights of the console dimmed, and the flight stick yielded no results when I pulled it back. I instinctively inhaled hard.
“Command…? Your shit’s not working.”
I jammed my fingers across the console, hoping to get a reaction out of anything. I even pulled the trigger on the flight stick, to no avail. I didn’t care if I ended up loosing a payload of chaff into the air – anything would have been preferable at this point. The craft’s backend dipped, and I watched as the three figures drew further from me. This was the first time that I had ever been in a plane that fell this way. Being unable to see the ground approaching was oddly unnerving, on top of the whole plummeting-out-of-the-sky-to-my-death thing. I throttled the flight stick in a vain attempt to level the jet, but the flaps were locked. The figures dove down to chase me. One of the young men reached out with slender arms to hold the left wing, but his hands turned to intangible tufts of cloud as the wing ripped through his limbs. His arms reformed and he continued to chase with the other spirits.
I didn’t want to do it, but I was going to have to eject. I wasn’t about to let this million dollar jet turn into a million dollar coffin. I reached between my legs and wrapped my fingers around the ejection handle. I pulled back hard, but the handle wouldn’t give. I tried again, panic strengthening my pull, but still nothing.
“IS EVERYTHING DIGITAL?!”
The figures gathered around the cockpit, and the girl shared a concerned look with the other two, before looking at me. The two young men began circling the crafting, leaving long strings of glittering vapor in their wake. The girl pressed her hands onto the hull just underneath the windshield of the cockpit. She eased herself closer to the jet’s frame, and her body slowly began to break apart, falling away into the air as bubbly clumps of mist. Up against the jet, her body dissipated like a warm breath against a cold window. Just as soon as I lost sight of her, the jet fell into a thick cloud. A dim light was all I had for a moment, and the only sounds I could hear were the wind whipping outside, and my panicked breathing. At least the oxygen system held out.
The jet dropped out of the cloud, and I could see the horizon. I watched the curvature of the earth flatten out, rising in my view. Moments later, the center console lit up, and the HUD in my helmet flashed. Instinctively I gripped the flight stick again, and the jet immediately twisted in my hand. The jet jerked forward as the engines spit a stream of fire into the world. I pulled back to get some elevation and grazed the bottom of the clouds to level my trajectory. Gathering my nerves, the two male figures dipped into view as I steadied the plane, which now tilted a little to the right in my instinctual overcompensation for it previously having favored the left. The two figures and I shared a look, and they both rested a hand close to the craft’s nose.
“…o you copy!?” the radio cut the silence.
“Jesus Monkey-fucking Christ! There you are.”
“We lost communication with you.”
“Is that what happened? I thought you were upset with me.”
“Visual says you dropped out of the sky, what happened?”
“I’ll tell you when I land – which is gonna to be damn soon. Over.”
I took the plane low and began the landing procedure, getting ready to switch the VTOL. The spirits stayed at the nose of the jet, but when I started to descend vertically, they kept their elevation, watching as the craft and I lowered down to solid ground as if we were a coffin lowering into a grave. Upon landing, I pulled my helmet off and looked back up at them. I nodded, and they returned the gesture before blowing away into the sky. I looked at my console, and switched the entire system off.
“…you’re here, aren’t you?” I cocked my head to the side.
A light near the top of the console blinked twice.
“You saved me and this hunk of junk. Thank you…whatever you are.”
The light blinked again.
I sat in silence while the crew made their way to me. I could see the cloud of dirt kicked up by the trucks inching closer, and I let my head drop back in my seat.
Trucks skidded to a stop, boots trampled the dirt, doors slammed, and people shouted. I opened the cockpit when someone brought the ladder up to the side of the jet. A tall man trotted up as I stepped out of the plane.
“Well?” he asked.
I rolled my neck and stamped my foot on the ground.
“Well, let’s see…everything was going fine until the radio cut out, and then the entire thing just locked up while I took it higher.”
“Altitude interfering with the systems?”
I shrugged and walked away from the craft to stretch my legs, and the tall man, along with a woman carrying a tablet, followed.
“You mentioned something about it pulling to the left, as well?” the woman repeated, reading off of the tablet.
I stopped, thinking back to when I regained control of the jet, after the girl “entered” it. It didn’t pull to the left after that moment.
“No, that was my mistake,” I answered. “Oh! The ejection seat didn’t work either.”
“It didn’t…?” the tall man asked.
Before I could answer, the windshield of the cockpit shot off, and the seat blasted from the jet’s frame. Everyone watched with craned necks as the empty ejection seat unfurled its parachute and drifted back down to the sand.
“Oh…well it’s working now.” I grinned.
“Back to the drawing board, I s’pose,” the woman with the tablet lamented.
“Nah, it’s just fine now. I can’t wait to fly with her again.”