"We've got three, make that four major fires within city limits," said Blackbird into her radio. "We're going to need backup, big time."

"Wilco, Blackbird," came a voice in her earpiece. "Backup is on its way. Stand by; we're going to need you in a minute. Base out."

Maj. Aileen Finnegan, aka Blackbird, tightened her formation with the other two fighters in her patrol. They'd been dispatched to do recon on a Faction bombing raid in progress, only to find the Faction ships gone and the city in ruins. The major military bases were toast, and the civilian sector fared little better. Even up in the air, Blackbird could see people scurrying through the streets, trying to escape the destruction. At least three buildings looked on the verge of collapse.

"You doing alright, Football?" Blackbird asked her wingman.

"Copacetic," he replied. Then, after a brief pause, "I wish we could do something."

"Hey, as soon as our backup arrives, we're eyes in the sky," she said. She never liked to admit helplessness. But she was right.

"Agreed," said Crash, the third member of their patrol, her voice shaking slightly. Crash was a winsome, perky young ensign who'd just earned her wings. She wasn't accustomed to seeing action. In fact, as far as Blackbird knew, this was as close as she'd ever come to actual combat so far, and she didn't seem to be handling it too well. Blackbird made a mental note to keep an eye on her; maybe being a fighter pilot wasn't the best career for her.

Blackbird herself was different. She had nerves of steel, the result of years of experience in combat. She'd logged one hundred three hours in enemy airspace during the Colton wars, and fifty more during the current struggle against the Faction. A hard-eyed fighter jock, she was completely disillusioned and slightly jaded, and razor-sharp in the sky.

Football fell somewhere in the middle. He had just made lieutenant, but he'd seen his fair share of action. Too young to have served in the Colton wars, he'd nonetheless proven himself in combat more than once against the Faction, especially flying in squadrons. His radio call referred to his previous career as a minor-league linebacker, and he certainly still had the team spirit, something that was all too rare in fighter pilots. Knowing he would never go off on his own to steal all the glory, much less abandon her to save his own skin, Blackbird trusted him with her life.

"Patrol 55, this is Base," said a voice in Blackbird's radio. "We've got six airborne firefighting units on their way, eighteen search and rescues, and twenty-four medical units. I'm patching you through now; coordinate with them. Let's clean up this mess."

"Roger that, Base. Standing by."

"Patrol 55, this is Mobile Command," said a new voice. "Major Finnegan, right?"

Definitely a civilian, Blackbird thought. "That's Blackbird, Mobile Command," she said, her command instincts kicking in. "We've got five major fires burning, one in the east sector, one by the highway, and two in the downtown area. Do you have a visual?"

There was a pause and some static as the operator checked with the airborne firefighters. "Roger that, we have a visual," she said. At least she was using military terms now, though she'd probably learned them from the TV.

"Break formation," she said to her patrol. "Crash, do a couple of passes in the east sector; assess the damage there; Football, I want you over the highway; I'm on the downtown area. Relay everything you see to the mobile command."

They confirmed their orders and broke formation. Blackbird was a bit concerned about Crash, but now that their backup had arrived, what could go wrong?

"Mobile Command, status on the ground support?" she asked.

"Um, they'll be here in about two minutes," said the operator, reverting to civvie-speak.

"When they arrive, direct at least six medical and four S and R units to the downtown area; I see heavy casualties. Make sure they evacuate the larger buildings; they're about to collapse."

"This is Football, there are four major car accidents along the highway; we've got people trapped in vehicles."

"Crash. The fire in the east sector is spreading, and there are civilians trapped in homes."

They continued relaying information back and forth, coordinating the relief effort. They made major progress on the fires and car accidents, and their hopes were further renewed by the arrival of another wave of search and rescue units and firefighters. The mobile command operator seemed to be getting the hang of military terminology, and Crash's reports were sounding more and more confident.

Blackbird felt a smile creeping across her mouth as she scanned the ground below her. She flew a quick corkscrew through a cloud of smoke, professionalism be damned.

As her eyes skimmed across the soot-blackened sky, she saw a sight that made her blood run cold.

"They're back!" she shouted into her radio. "This is Blackbird; I'm counting eight, nine, make that twelve Faction bombers and an unknown number of escorts on the horizon, bearing eighty degrees north-northeast. We need military backup, now!"

"This is Base; recall all units. Return to base, repeat: return to base."

"We can't just leave them here!" shouted Crash, her voice rising in pitch. "We—"

"You have your orders, Ensign," Blackbird cut in. "Return to base."

"But—"

"We're patrol jets; here's no way we can take them all," said Blackbird. "We need to evacuate."

Though she wouldn't say it, it killed her to leave. All those helpless civilians were toast, as well as any ground units that lingered. That had probably been the Faction's plan all along, she realized, to pull out and wait for the relief effort to arrive, then bomb them too. Blackbird had seen the ploy used countless times before; it had been a favorite of the Azari during the Colton wars.

The pilots returned to formation and set a direct course back to base. Crash's position was off, and even Football seemed a little shaken. But Blackbird's flying was razor-sharp. She had long since learned not to let emotion get in the way.

This was war, after all.