"HOME PLATEto Romeo 1-1 sauntersnap 195 for bulls 132 on 110, comma what state over?"

Bob "Black" Olgren, 22, listened to the frequency comm through his high-tech bucket, pressed the little button that switched on his ability to transmit even as he rolled the plane and pulled for south, the blocky shape of his wingman staying with him on his right even as the combat element cruised at 500 knots, or Mach 0.849, which was very much slower than what he would've liked given the small number of present company.

"Romeo 1-1 roger, commasnapping 195 for bulls 132 on 110, comma no joy,comma two fox three, comma two fox one, comma feet dry, comma 90 playtime over."

"Fence in, radio in if engaged, out."

He was now flying dark.

Olgren watched his heading on the ergonomically painful tactical display screen of the F-35 Lightning II, otherwise known as the do-everythinger flying trashcan which got stealth and sacrificed aerodynamicness, rolled left when the number reached 193 and flattened out on 195. The craft was automatically trimmed, and he could take his hands off the joystick to spin the dials and flick the switches that armed his missiles, removed the limiters for emergency power and enabled the weapons display in his HMDS and DAS. A solution to the age-old problem of the inability of a pilot to see behind and beneath him, the DAS let him see through cameras on the exterior of the plane. It was as if he were observing the outside world through the airframe, as if he really were the machine.

On most days. Now the costly, high-tech system wasn't working at all, which could've been user error except that he'd trained on this plane for years and he knew exactly what he was doing.

There was a private, wingman frequency set up on laser (they couldn't have normal radio communications like anyone else because of the need for stealth), and he switched to that, communicating with Juan E. "Genir" Dolores. "The DAS quit again," he said, looking right and back and what should've been straight through his wing, but wasn't.

"Turn it off and on again, Black," said Dolores.

"You sound as if I don't know how to use this thing. Ha ha, very funny."

Olgren could do this with his eyes closed, though he didn't, and suddenly he had switched modes from being inside the cockpit to looking around from outside it, to where if he looked forward and stretched he could see the very top of his helmet popping up over the black stealth radar retardant.

"We could be running four planes right now but nooo, brass says we need to minimize squadron detection signatures."

A pause, then Dolores said: "Maybe it's not as stealthy as they've led us to believe."

"Even for all the money that disappeared into Lockheed Martin in the flash of a lightning bolt?"

They shared a chuckle.

"Mach 1.6… what a joke. Less talkin', more lookin'."

They flew on for a while, nearing the coordinates given after having slowed down to Mach 0.81, and then Olgren saw, dead ahead, the contrails of some kind of aircraft.

"Bogey, bogey, groupconsat -" he checked his helmet Heads Up Display to make sure - "187, 20, level thirty-five hundred, leaning on us."

It could be another set of F-35s – or it could be the enemy. One of the faults of the Lightning II was that it had no easy way to identify aircraft when the radar was in passive mode until they were close enough to stuff twenty millimeter cannon shells down the pilot's throat, as stealth target identification depended upon some other radar painting the plane in front of it so its radar would catch some of the reflection.

They were perpendicular to Romeo flight, two contrails at least a mile above them and, assuming the distance was about twenty miles, cruising at just over their Mach 1. Then the bogeys turned in, closing the distance faster to speed up the ascertainment process. Flying slower and at a disadvantage of at least five thousand feet, Olgren's squadron would be in a disadvantageous position if the group turned out to be hostile.

"Go to spread," said Olgren, "vert fifteen hundred, buster."

Understanding the wing leader's intentions, Dolores pulled further right and let Olgren climb, both planes throttling up to mil spec power. Which was, in the Lightning, pretty dang crappy. Olgren zoomed in on the bogies with the DAS.

"Bogies are twin-engine; no friendly Raptors or Super Hornets confirmed to be in the area."

Somehow he knew by his sixth sense what would happen before it happened, and had switched to the base radio frequency and started transmitting even as the unknown planes went active and revealed themselves as Shenyang J-20s by their unique radar signature.

"Romeo 1-1 to HOME PLATE; tally, tally, bulls 135 on 115, engaging two hostiles."

In a second both Romeos were active;friendly intelligence had vectored them to their targets, and now that that was done Olgren's flight actually had to destroy them.

The distance was improbably close for modern engagements; fifteen miles, probably within the range of – and there it was; enemy missiles in the air. The plane's thermal sensors picked it up, buzzed Olgren's ears with the missile tone.

"Hostiles are hot, fox three," he said, keeping the plane straight for three excruciating seconds as he crossed the Mach barrier. Those three seconds were all it took for him to cross over half a mile of Oriental ground.

An AIM-120 AMRAAM dropped out of the internal weapons bay, targeting information already fed into its targeting computer by the Lightning's avionics. From there it would run with its seeker head off, directed by further data transmitted by radio until it reached its activation point, whereupon it would lock on to anything and everything in sight like a mad dog.

Olgren pulled left as soon as that was done, desiring to be nowhere near the enemy warheads, now revealed by his helmet display to be radar-guided.

"Fox three," said Dolores, lighting off his own missile.

Everything went incredibly right until everything also started going horribly horribly wrong. Romeo's flight had pulled an F-pole maneuver, committing the missile to one path and then switching to another, which would cause it to run out of speed and chances.

But the five thousand feet of altitude the Shenyangs had meant their missiles would stay supersonic far longer after their boosters ran out, and moreover, Romeo's missiles were experiencing the exact opposite.

Olgren swore as he mashed the chaff button and hard broke to the left, pulling ten sustained Gs to throw off a missile that could do nearer fifty of them than forty-eight. Again his sixth sense warned him and again he acted, pitching down into a Split-S as a gleaming sliver flashed by at Mach 4.

His RWR screamed and he threw the plane into a series of rudder jinks, going through chaff like water, saw the missile pass and saw Dolores launch another AMRAAM, felt rather than heard the guy say Fox three, saw the indicator on his HUD that told him Romeo 1-2's status had suddenly gone from alive to dead.

But the plane continued to fly.

"Dive out!" cried Olgren. "You're down."

Dolores cut the power and pitched towards the ground in a descending spiral, eyes doubtless glued to the fight above, which he believed must obviously be short.

"They've got you outnumbered, the poor bastards."

Seated in what felt like a sealed teakettle about to explode, Olgren didn't think so. Incredibly slippery, the Shenyangs had evaded both of Romeo's missiles so far, at a range of less than ten miles.

Had they counted on there being a third?

Yes. One of the Shenyangs popped chaff and effectively vanished from the missile's radar, yet Olgren still had his painting the J-20s, and as it emerged from the chaff profile in a loop it found itself reflecting kilowatts of electrical energy, out of airspeed and out of options.

Missile magnet.

"Splash one," said Dolores over the comms, attentive to who was getting the credit for what. The enemy fighter was trailing false smoke from both engines and going noticeably slower now.

Unwilling to repeat his opponent's mistake, Olgren went for speed, putting his plane in a straight line and a shallow climb, giving him options as the RWR buzzed with the fourth enemy missile of the fight. Break again, split-S, chaff chaff chaff, sixth sense, dodge that way, made it. Now he hung the Lightning on one wing, minimizing his target profile while making a slow right turn and using the DAS to see past his wing and up at the second enemy fighter.

It was descending, getting closer for the surety of the kill. The enemy pilot knew that Olgren couldn't pitch up because he'd make himself an easy target, and he'd also probably figured out by now that the foot-pounds of the sorry single engine on Olgren's plane amounted to Jack All in a real dogfight, and so he had this 'kill' all to himself.

Once again the sense saved him, and Olgren jammed the stick down, running out of chaff halfway through the process and hearing a little tone announcing that the missile had exploded close by and put debris in his engine and he had about five minutes until engine failure and that according to the system he was already dead on the strategic map – well, if he was going down he was taking that guy with him, and as the Shenyang looped around for the finisher Olgren went in for the yo-yo and aligned his nose with the Shenyang's lead vector and pressed his trigger for the first gun kill since the Cold War.

Literally.

Red cannon tracer leaped out from the nose of his craft and perforated the Shenyang in the fuselage, blew off the wing and sent debris flying in all directions as the remains of a once-proud Chinese plane twirled downwards in particles.

"WHO THE HELL PUT IN LIVE CANNON ROUNDS!" yelled Olgren, hoping, praying, repenting to Heaven Almighty about everything he'd ever done just so he could see a parachute open.

None did.

"Well then," said Dolores. "Time to bug out now?"

"Time to bug out now," said Olgren. He put on the afterburner and dived away from the 'down' J-20 above him, flying the plane with his eyes shut as he frantically asked for the Chinese not to have put any actual missiles on their planes during war games.

The United States was now at war with China.