LT Karen “Buster” Reynolds turned her F/A-18H inbound toward the carrier and flew at low cruise airspeed into an empty sky filled with stars. It was always beautiful to see so many stars in the sky this far from land. She moved her head to see whether a blur was a smudge on the canopy or a distant nebula. Not a smudge. Combat Air Patrol could be tense, but what could go wrong on a night like this?
“Alpha Tango Four Six, this is Alpha Tango Three Five,” Dave “Reef” Black called over the CAP frequency, “I’ve got a bogie on my heads-up display!”
Karen glanced at her Heads-Up-Display. Reef was thirty miles away, headed outbound from the carrier.
“Three Five, Four Six, gimme a break,” Karen replied. “I’ve been looking at that piece of sky all night. There’s nothing out there.”
“Alpha Tango Three Five, this is Crystal Ball,” Carrier Air Traffic Control radioed. “What’s the classification of your bogie?”
“Crystal, Alpha Tango Three Five, contact possible extraterrestrial.”
“Roger, Three Five,” CATC replied. “Take immediate action to identify the intruder.”
“Shit, Hack,” she muttered over the intercom to Jim McNeil, her Weapon Systems Officer. “We’re gonna be out here all night,”
The intercom was suspiciously silent. Soft snores were the only sound from the rear cockpit.
Karen slammed the stick left, then right, rocking the aircraft abruptly.
“What the…” McNeil blurted.
“I’m awake now,” he snarled. “You trying to break my neck?”
“You hear any of this?”
“Lemme see,” he mumbled. “Something about a bogie?”
“Dave Asshole Black thinks he’s spotted a UFO.”
“Lemme guess,” McNeil said. He sounded awake now. “It’s right in the center of the HUD in the fifty-mile range mode.”
“I’ll find out. Let me send ’em a text.”
“Okay, let me know.”
She continued her pattern inbound toward the carrier. When she got there, she’d reverse course and continue the racetrack pattern she’d been following for an hour already.
“Yup, just like I thought.” McNeil chortled. “They say it’s right in the center of the display, fifty-mile range.”
“It’s a known software glitch,” Hack said. “Raytheon sent out a bulletin. Didn’t you guys get a briefing?”
“That’s why I love flying with you,” she said. “You keep track of that shit for me.”
“Reef’s flying with Thumbs tonight. Thumbs isn’t big on technical details. That’s probably why Reef doesn’t know about it.”
“We got two choices,” Karen said. “We can bore holes in the sky ’til we’re down to bingo …”
“We can have some fun with Reef.”
“When he turns inbound,” she said, “we’ll be turning outbound. We kill the rotating beacon, fly right at him with just the low vis position lights on. He’ll see our lights right where the bogie should be. He’ll think we’re the UFO.”
“I dunno, Buster,” Hack said. “Reef might run into us while he’s staring at the tactical display.”
“You worry too much. We’ll know where he is. If we get too close, I’ll break it off.”
After their outbound turn, Karen shut down the beacon, nudged the airspeed up and wished she could see the expression on Reef’s face when he thought he was being chased by a UFO.
She shifted left and right in her seat, trying to get comfortable. As if. The stiff foam pad on top of the survival kit felt like granite. The price you pay for being able to eject in an emergency.
“Hack,” she said over the intercom, “have a look further out. I don’t really expect the Iranians to do anything tonight but I don’t want to be caught napping.”
She moved her head around, looking forward, trying to see if she could pick up Reef’s aircraft visually. He was on her HUD, but the range was close enough she might see him.
There! No, that one was moving right to left. The HUD showed Reef’s aircraft dead ahead, still heading outbound. The errant light went behind Reef and failed to emerge. Must be her imagination.
“Buster,” Hack said, “there’s something weird going on here tonight. The radar seems to be picking up multiple targets dead ahead, but the range fluctuates in big jumps. It could be interference with Reef’s aircraft, but the HUD’s showing him rock steady.”
” Three Five, Four Six,” Karen radioed, “it’s about time for your turn inbound. Hack thinks we might get a better look at your bogie if you turn toward the ship.”
” Three Five, roger,” Reef called. “Turning.”
Reef’s aircraft slid left on the HUD, turning back toward the ship. Reaching down, she killed all her external lights except the low visibility ones.
“The bogie’s still dead center in the HUD,” Reef radioed. “Nothing on Earth can move like that.”
“Okay, Hack,” Karen said over the intercom. “I’m going radio silence and turning five degrees left. Let’s see if we can give Reef a scare.”
“Okay,” Hack replied. “Just don’t give us a scare. You can’t afford any more air discipline infractions on your record. I’m not interested in any trouble on my last week in the squadron.”
“Shut it. I can take care of myself.”
The intercom clicked twice, the only reply she got.
“Crystal, Three Five,” Reef’s voice rose in panic. “I see it. It’s heading right toward me. I’m taking evasive action if it gets any closer.”
“Reef,” Karen radioed, “try a gentle turn. Maybe that’ll shake it off.”
She saw Reef’s anti-collision beacon move left. She turned to follow it.
“It’s after me!” Reef shouted into the radio, call sign discipline forgotten.
“Knock it off, Buster,” Hack said from the back seat. “We’re getting too close.”
Karen banked hard right, simultaneously turning on the anti-collision beacon and external lights. After fifteen degrees of turn, she turned back left to pass alongside Reef, missing by a comfortable margin.
“What the…” Reef radioed.
“Three Five, Four Six, this is Lion Tamer,” said a low-pitched, gravelly voice over the radio. The Air Group Commander. “What’s going on out there?”
“Nothin’, CAG,” Reef responded. “Uh, this is Alpha Tango Three Six.”
“You two are our combat air patrol. What’s this about ET?”
“Lion Tamer, Four Five,” Karen radioed. “Nothing, CAG.”
“Three Five, concur,” Reef said.
“Get your asses back here,” CAG radioed. “I’m sending the five-minute alert aircraft out to relieve you. You’ll both have a week to think about how this is going to be written up.”
“Hack, have you got anything on the scope?” Karen asked over the intercom
“I got a couple of blips, dead center, but they came and went.”
“What was it?”
“Damfino. I’ll have to check with Thumbs when we get back.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to check,” Karen said. “I’m guessing we’re all going to be shitty little jobs officers for a week.”
“That was close,” First Officer Ndrang said. “I told you not to get so near those Earth aircraft.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Third Pilot [email protected] whined. Insofar as a sneed, whose vocalizations were lower than human infrasound, could in fact whine. But some behaviors are pan-specific, even though their expressions may be unrecognizable to any but their conspecifics.
“It most certainly was your fault,” Ndrang thundered. Insofar as a Krrring could thunder. Their extremely high-pitched voices, when angry, sounded much like two rocks dragging against each other. “I specifically told you not to place our vehicle in a position where it could be detected. But did you listen? Noooo.”
“The Galactic Overlord will not be pleased,” [email protected] rumbled. “The last time this happened, three of their conspecifics ended up being embalmed by these barbarians.”
“Galactic Overlord, my middle appendage,” Ndrang screeched. “What they call themselves when they communicate with the barbarians means nothing. How can something that stupid be overlord of anything? They’re nothing more than a political hack who got sent here as punishment for screwing up the Spiral Arm negotiations. They’ve been here eight nines of this backwater planet’s years and we’ve had one crisis after another.”
“Fortunately, we can cover this one up. If not, you’d be here until the Overlord is relieved.”
Hack McNeil climbed out of the back seat of his F/A-18. He reached pulled out a small black plastic box from his helmet bag and pressed a button on the box. A light blinked on and off, and the nullifier erased all evidence of their UFO encounter from his aircraft’s system memory. He activated the nullifier again as he walked past Reef Black’s aircraft and wiped its memory as well. He’d write up another gripe about the fifty-mile range glitch and his work would be done.
As he stepped over the tie-down chains of a parked helicopter to get to the island, he sighed. In a week he’d be headed back to Area 51 where he could shuck this human disguise. The Overlord owed him big time.