Blue. There is no end to this blue, he thought. The ocean far below gave no indication of his tremendous speed through that limitless hue. The only interruption in color came from the occasional wispy thin white cloud as the afternoon sun glinted off tiny ice crystals. Duke Devron expanded his awareness as far as he could see out into the horizon. Part of his cognizance included his flight lead, riding in the F-15 C just a 45-degree glance to his left. He flicked his eyes down to a miniature green square screen just above his left knee and took note of what his radar was telling him as the Airborne Warning and Control System controller buzzed information in his ears.

Today was his "check ride." This air-to-air fight would pit four F-15 Eagles against four F-18 Hornets. His performance in the dogfight would display to his instructors that he was ready to move on to the operational level. It was the type of test that stuck with you the rest of your career.

"Fight's on!" came the radio call—the verbal starting gun.

Every radio repeated those words in succession, and the blue resonated with the rolling thunder of eight aerial gladiators hurtling their jets across the sky at combat speed.

The mission was simple enough. Victory meant stopping four adversaries from reaching a point in space and deploying imaginary bombs on a simulated target. Duke went over the timeline for the intercept in his head once more as he confirmed the new information the AWACS controller was feeding him. The four F-15s would operate in pairs, each including a student and an instructor. Each pair would simulate taking long-range missile shots and then close to within visual range if any of the enemy managed to evade the initial salvo.

The Hornets were still over their starting point in the south at the moment, preparing their formation before they made their run for the target. A voice crackled over the interflight comm channel. "Alright, let's go around again, Sammy," said his flight lead and instructor, Major Dan "Otter" Fuller.

"Copy," Duke replied.

Sammy was short for his tactical call sign, Samurai, given to him because of his obsession with Japanese martial arts. Duke liked the name, as he considered the tactics of flying a fighter plane in battle to be simply an extension of his art. Battles in general depended on who could win the chess match in proper targeting, attacking from correct distance, and executing with perfect timing. Duke rolled his jet fighter–his sword cutting through the great blue–and prepared to make sure he started with proper targeting.

As they turned north, Duke knew that the other pair of F-15s would be turning back south to keep an eye on the adversary formation. It wasn't altogether necessary to run a defensive combat air patrol this way, he knew, because the E-3 AWACS, whose call sign today was Chalice, would be able to see everything and keep them updated with both audio and digital information. However, it was always nice to have weapons and radar pointed at the enemy.

Major Fuller said, "Passing," on the control frequency that all four F-15s and the AWACS controller were listening to. This was simply a timeline management call that meant that the two pairs of F-15s were now parallel to each other in their orbit. Duke could just make out the grey specks that were the other pair of Eagles in the sky to his left. Captain Carl "Fox" Whitten was flying the lead aircraft of the other flight, and his student was Duke's good friend, Lt. Mindy "Mittens" McAllen. Duke and Mindy were both members of the 60th Fighter Squadron, better known as the Fighting Crows. Today, the pilots of the F-15s were using the squadron's namesake as their call signs. The aircraft would be referred to on the control channel as Crow One through Four.

Duke jumped a little as the noise of the AWACS controller's voice interrupted the Zen and peace of his quiet cockpit. The crisp male voice updated the location of the adversaries, who had crossed into "friendly" territory and were now considered hostile according to the rules of engagement for this fight. They were coming in as a tight group of four at 27,000 feet. Captain Whitten's voice was next to be heard.

"Crow Three committed. Four, you sort the eastern contacts, I have the western."

This meant that the other flight was targeting the hostiles and was preparing a firing solution. Duke had great faith that Mindy could accomplish this quickly. He had known her practically his whole Air Force career, after all, and she was nothing if not the most efficient pilot he knew in his age group. Duke buckled his oxygen mask back into place over his chiseled facial features as he tightened formation with his own flight lead. It would be time to turn back into the fight soon.

"Crow Three, fox three!" Captain Whitten announced, sounding very gruff on the radio and using the pilot term for a long-range missile shot.

A moment later Mindy's crisp alto voice chimed in with "Crow Four, fox three!"

The computers on each of their planes began tracking the simulated missile shots. Duke waited patiently for the Crows Three and Four to guide their missiles by the book.

After several long heartbeats Duke at last heard the words he was listening for. "Crow

Three out!" followed by, "Crow One is in!" and he felt his jet tug at him as he turned to meet the hostiles.

Duke noted his lead was climbing and felt his belly drop as he climbed his aircraft to follow. The jet screamed skyward. Duke locked the easternmost target using a kind of miniature mouse by his thumb on the throttle in his left hand. This controlled a small cursor on the small green radar screen. He briefly checked to make sure he had long-range AMRAAM missiles selected one last time, and prepared to fire.

The E-3 AWACS is a peculiar looking aircraft. It isn't much more than a commercial airliner with a large and powerful radar attached to the top in the form of a rotating disk. The disk is painted black with a line of white bisecting the middle−a practical paint scheme dividing that powerful sensor array into halves according to function. The rest of the old Boeing 707 airframe is painted a light gray hue, and bristles with radio antennas and other sensor equipment.

Orbiting approximately 60 miles north of the small and nimble fighter aircraft lumbered an AWACS of the 963rd Air Command and Control Squadron. The interior of the aircraft buzzed with activity, as a crew of 30 scrambled to make sure all the assigned missions went smoothly. Towards the front of the aircraft sat eight airmen at display consoles arranged into rows of three. In the first row at the middle console sat a young man with his brown hair cut short so that it went spiky along the part-line. He wore black wire-framed glasses, which seemed to float on his lightly freckled and narrow face. His flight suit highlighted the fact that he was skinny, but in good shape, and he had sheets of paper with information on the day's missions in front of him on the fold-down desk attached to the computer console.

Lieutenant Jeff Andrews was fresh out of the schoolhouse, but he was grateful to be finally controlling on his own. It had been a long two-year process to get to this point, and he really felt like he performed better without someone looking over his shoulder. He watched his viewing scope, which to the untrained eye was a confusing mess of lines, dots and symbols representing aircraft. He could hear and see that the F-15s he was responsible for had lined up their long-range shots nicely and with good timing. The Marines were beginning to maneuver now, trying to both throw off missile shots and confuse the F-15 pilots. The F-18s split into two pairs, one pair headed east and the other west.

Jeff kept his pilots updated on the "enemy" maneuvers.

Moments later the west pair turned south, away from the F-15s, and was apparently descending. Suddenly the altitude reading leapt back up again.

"Ah," Jeff said to himself. "So that's what you're up to."

Jeff had seen this trick many times before. The aircraft in the west were trying to sneak one plane in low below radar coverage, while the other remained up high. The purpose of this maneuver was to sneak the low plane into the target area undetected while the F-15s were busy. Soon, Jeff knew, the western planes would turn around and head north again. For now, he let his pilots know of the situation and directed them to take care of the planes in the east while he kept an eye on those in the west.

Now Jeff was just listening for what the pilots needed, so he sat back a little, and noticed something strange. They were over the ocean, but the radar was picking up an unusual amount of clutter, or false radar indications, about 80 miles to the southeast. Usually one saw this sort of thing in mountainous regions, not over the ocean, so this piqued Jeff's curiosity. Using his keyboard, he sent an instant message to his direct boss, Captain Dwayne Hicks, the senior director of the weapons section. The message was accompanied by an arrow that would appear on the Captain's screen, asking if he could figure out what the disturbance was.

Captain Hicks was a tall, dark-skinned man with his head shaved completely bald. He had a large nose and looked to Jeff as if he would have made an effective bouncer in a bar. Sure enough, he heard Captain Hicks ask the surveillance section of the aircraft if they could figure out what was causing the clutter. The surveillance officer, who was in charge of the section responsible for adjusting radar settings and identifying aircraft, promised she would get on it. Jeff hadn't properly met the surveillance officer because she was new to the squadron, but he reflected as he listened to her voice that she was quite pretty, with short blond hair and blue eyes.

Jeff went back to managing the intercept. Yet he couldn't help thinking the clutter was very strange. Sometimes it seemed as if some of it was actually aircraft, but then the dots would jump around much too sporadically again. The F-15s were leaving their patrol now, and the lead and his wingman were getting close to the eastern two fighters. They would need his help again soon.

"Crow Two spiked one-six-zero medium!" Duke announced, as a single high-pitched tone filled his ears, letting him know an enemy radar was locked onto him. "Crow Two spike range twelve, twenty-two thousand, hostile," came the AWACS' reply. Good, Duke thought. It's the same guy I'm targeted to. Duke turned hard 90 degrees to the east, knowing shots might have been fired at him, but the tone in his ear soon went quiet.

"Kill western contact twenty thousand!" announced Major Fuller."

Then, over the interflight radios he heard his flight lead say, "That was a good move there, Sammy, now pitch back in and pop this other guy."

Duke was way ahead of him. The other Hornet passed below him and to his left in a blur of motion. Duke flipped his jet on its back and felt the blood rushing to his head as he pulled back on the stick in a very high-G left-hand diving turn. He grunted loud and low in his belly to fight the effects of the pull of the earth on his body and rolled out behind the Marine.

"Crow Two, tally one!" Duke blurted, letting his flight know he had a visual on the Hornet. Duke was almost in firing position, but the Marine would not be taken so easily. Duke followed the smaller jet through a series of rolls. As he concentrated hard on staying with his target, he was vaguely aware that his flight lead was hanging back, giving him support, and that AWACS had vectored the other pair of F-15s onto the low flying F-18s further west.

Duke barely cut his speed in time as the Marine reversed the direction of his turn. For a brief moment, this drop in speed gave Duke the chance he needed to lock on and fire. He didn't miss the opportunity. "Kill eastern contact at fifteen thousand in a right-hand turn," announced Duke triumphantly.

The other F-18s were also "killed" shortly thereafter. Major Fuller declared, "Crow One, terminate." He was followed by "Two, terminate," "Three, terminate," and "Four, terminate." Duke knew the Marines were also terminating with their controller on the AWACS.

Now that he thought about it, the controller that had been talking to Duke's flight had not come back over the radio with "Chalice, terminate." Major Fuller had to ask the controller if he had copied the termination of the fight. This seemed to Duke to be something uncommon for this controller, who had been spot-on all day so far. Duke paid it no more mind as he prepared with his flight lead to join up with the other F-15s and reset for another fight.

"Negative. It's not a storm," said the perplexed surveillance officer. "I've got all the filters at maximum. Short of completely blanking the area of RADAR coverage I can't get rid of it."

The clutter cloud of randomly jumping dots was now drifting within 15 miles of the airspace. The concern now was that the glitch might interfere with the ability of the controllers to keep awareness on the fight. The radar operator and technicians were tweaking the radar every way they knew how without using a complete restart of the systems. A thought occurred to Jeff.

"S.D., maybe we could check if Eglin mission or Darkstar sees anything similar," he stated over the weapons internal comm line.

"Alright, we'll try, but I'm not sure what good that will do," replied Captain Hicks.

Moments later, they had confirmed that both the other AWACS in the vicinity and the controllers on the ground had noticed the same clutter disturbance. Not only that, but Eglin mission was able to confirm several unknown clutter disturbances around the nation. Some were interfering with commercial routes, but most disturbances seemed to be occurring in the upper atmosphere.

"It could be some type of weird cosmic disturbance . . ." the senior director mused to the rest of the crew. "Like a solar flare?"

"Don't know," answered the mission crew commander, scratching the back of his head and running fingers through graying hair. "But a solar flare would mess with our communications, wouldn't it? Not our radar."

The female surveillance officer spoke up. "That's right, sir. Our radar would burn through anything like that."

"S.D. copies," acknowledged Captain Hicks. "Maybe we can get some intel from Cornerstone over SATCOM. I'll see what I can find out."

This was getting interesting, thought Jeff. SATCOM was militaryspeak for satellite communications. It came in handy when the crew needed to talk to command centers beyond normal radio range. Cornerstone was the name for the command center at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, home for all AWACS. Cornerstone had information on all military air activity going on at any given time, but they were also a good source of information for weather or other factors effecting flight. Jeff found it odd that with all the combined flight experience of the crew, no one had ever seen anything like this. This was something rare indeed.

"Front, this is the S.D. Let your fighters know what's going on and tell them if it becomes a factor, we might go autonomous."

"Front," acknowledged Jeff, for both himself and his partner controller, Lt. Jake Riley, who sat to his right talking to the Marine pilots. Jeff had gotten to know Riley pretty well already. Like many officers in the Air Force, Riley had been a prior enlisted serviceman who had chosen to go to officer training school to earn his commission. The man had youthful features for someone Jeff knew was in his midthirties, and Riley's blond hair and blue eyes gave him a very Scandinavian appearance. The third seat on the front row of consoles was currently empty and could be used as a spare, if needed. Jeff let his pilots know of the strange problem and that they might find themselves on their own in the next fight if the phenomenon drifted over their practice area.

"Terrific," said Duke to himself. "We simply couldn't have everything go right today, could we?" Shaking his head, he followed his flight lead through the turn to the south as they reestablished their combat air patrol. Leave it to some glitch in the AWACS to—

Duke's thoughts were interrupted as he looked out above him to the southeast. He keyed his internal flight comm button. "Otter, do you see what I'm seeing? Ten o'clock high."

"Yeah. That's the damnedest thing I ever saw," Major Fuller replied. "You ever heard of the old World War II Foo-fighters?"

"Yeah," said Duke absentmindedly. He stared at the phenomenon now. "But foo-fighters were never like those big ones. What are they?"

Duke was looking at what had to be to be at least one or two hundred tiny black dots darting back and forth across the sky. Strange yellow-green flashes of light danced back and forth between the raging swirl of unidentified objects. This odd sort of aerial ballet was focused around four gigantic objects. The objects were so large Duke thought they must be an optical illusion. Even ten miles away the dull bloodred behemoths filled his heads up display completely. The main body of the giants looked something like a curved spiny turtle shell, with the sides flaring out to form gently curved wings, giving them an almost dragon-like appearance. Every now and again some of the dots would flare bright red and orange. Duke estimated the activity to be few thousand feet above them, but it was getting closer, and fast.

"Better call this in," said Major Fuller, "I think we've found Chalice's disturbance."

What? thought Jeff, who could not believe what he had just heard. Was this some kind of joke? Reports of the strange atmospheric UFO displays were now being reported all around the nation, and not by just the usual trailer park resident with a cell phone, but on official FAA and military channels. As inconceivable as this was, there was no doubt it was real.

"Say again, Crow One. Confirm you have spotted over a hundred unidentified flying objects?"

There was a short pause, and then the F-15 flight lead replied.

"A-firm, Chalice, we are seeing multiple UFOs at about ten miles now. There are two types of smaller, oh hell—just call them spacecraft—and three much larger ones. We're seeing quite a light show over here, Chalice. I—It looks like a dogfight to me."

"S.D. are you hearing this?" asked Jeff.

"S.D. copies all," answered Hicks, a little bit of a bemused chuckle still in his voice.

"So much for the old weather balloon explanation this time, huh?" he added dryly.

"Weapons, have all fighters come up on the blue air frequency and knock off the fight. These things are for sure a safety problem for the fight now. I'll contact Eglin mission and prepare to send them home."

There was a short pause of static before Captain Hicks added an afterthought, his tone sounding like a man trying to give directions to lost tourists when he himself didn't really know the way.

"And have the fighters keep us updated on the situation. I—I'm also going to go on SATCOM and let Command know what's going on. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to say to them though, this is just nuts. How copy?"

Jeff acknowledged for his partner and himself, while the back rows also acknowledged they had heard the plan. Then the senior director asked the radio operator to set up the radios so that everyone could listen to SATCOM. In a few seconds the job was done.

In the meantime, Jeff focused his attention on his fighters.

"Crow One, Chalice. Copy the craft are fighting. Can you describe them?"

The flight lead's answer sounded distracted.

"Uh, yeah, Chalice, stand by—and we're going to start working our clearance now. There are several very close now—Jesus they are fast! Crow Three, Four, close it up. Let's descend to fifteen thousand. I don't want to get caught up in this—Christ, that's incredible!"

Jeff interrupted in a calm voice.

"Crow One, expect Vega Two-one up this freq shortly."

Vega was the aircraft call sign for the Marine fighters. Lieutenant Riley was telling his F-18s the same.

"You are clear to work your own clearance," continued Jeff. "Chalice is working on SATCOM now to relay your report."

Once the fighters had their clearance, Eglin mission would take over and they would be cleared to leave the airspace and go home. Until then, Jeff wanted as much information as possible. "Crow One, Chalice will continue to monitor this freq. Please describe everything as best you can."

The reply was full of static and broken. "—ice, copy. Vega Two-One is up with us—two types of craft—one dark and triangular like an arrowhead, others are dark reddish, curvy, kind of a stingray or floppy spade look. Something else very big—n't see—we're in the mi—ow "

Jeff heard the Marines check in and begin interacting with the F-15s. "This is Vega Two-One up with you Crow. You believe this? Whoa! That one bought it. What! No!—Oh my God! Everyone head for the de—"

The last sound from Vega Two-One was a scream that was cut off short.

The F-15 flight lead spoke up again. The voice was at the quick pace of a fighter pilot who had switched his intent into full-battle mode. He was breathing hard against tremendous G-forces. "Chalice, Crow One—Vega Two-one and Two were just att—no chute—exploding— Cr—defensive! Crow Three, watch your—shi—" The flight leads voice became a bit more frantic. "Chalice, get us some help! We can't fight ba—"

Jeff wasted no time. Two years of training kicked in automatically. He had just never expected to use it so close to home. He sent a transmission to Eglin mission, demanding they scramble armed fighters, explaining that Air Force fighters were under attack. To Jeff's frustration, the bored traffic controller on the ground at Eglin responded slowly, rudely asking for authentication to such an unheard-of request. Captain Hicks stepped in and dealt with Eglin, telling Jeff to concentrate on the fighters.

Jeff tried giving threat warnings to his fighters as best he could, but the unidentified craft leapt wildly on his screen far too fast for the aging AWACS computer to keep up with their movements. It was an impossible task. His frustration gave way to wonder as he noticed that three clusters of dots were moving slower, each was about a mile and a half across. Might these be the "something big" that Crow One had referred to?

As Jeff considered this, something else made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Some of the rapidly jumping dots were making their way towards the E-3 itself. Jeff activated his internal radio. "S.D., Three. Better have the flight deck get us out of here quick!"