Somewhere out there a missile was bringing death. It might be coming for him, for Daniel. The realization came slowly, like a dream softly becoming a nightmare. The alarm clock of buzzers told him first, then flickering warning lights lighted the instrument panel of his ancient F-16S fighter jet. Part of the problem was that boredom had set in during the long and uneventful flight up from Cuba to this wasteland of Northern Canada. But mostly, Daniel just couldn’t get alarmed anymore, no matter how his instruments tried to scare him. For his whole life was now reduced to instrument readings, pre-flight checks, barking orders, fighting wars that offered no reward for victory but more wars. He had no passion. And no reason to care about this missile or what it might do to him.

For years he'd had a romantic notion that he wouldn't survive these wars. But he didn't think like that in the heat of battle. Cold and seasoned, Daniel had long since lost everything but his instinct. So training took over where his humanity failed him. Gradually the instruments ripped his imagination away from the icy blue panorama of the sky and forced his eyes to narrow their focus down to the green words in light projected on the clear glass of his Head Up Display:


So on he went into battle. A flick of his left forefinger and hot decoy flares launched from beneath the tail of his jet. Twisting his right hand around the joystick sent pulses of electric messages from the mathematical solution in his mind to the control surfaces of his aircraft. The rudder shot to the left and the ailerons slammed and suddenly Daniel’s mount answered the missile threat with a vicious left bank. With this hard manoeuvre slamming nine times the force of gravity down on him, Daniel’s blood rushed out of his brain and tried to stay where it had been a second ago. But that point was already miles away and Daniel was left seeing pin-prickly points of light, hearing the desperate pounding of his starving heart. But he fought his way back to consciousness just in time to see the missile streak past his canopy and blast into the decoy behind him.

The first arrow had missed and now another warning was being called.

"Yellow Five. Red Z targeted. Over." one of his squadron mates shouted. With the only warning of an enemy flight coming from the firing of one of their missiles, Daniel and the others knew that they were dealing with the Shadows; an elite squadron of stealth technology fighters; the Chinese designed CHU-5s. No radar could warn of their approach.

“Bogey! At 12 o’clock! Fox Two! Fox Two!” another pilot yelled as he launched his own heat seekers in return. “Fuck! I missed! Where’d he go? No Joy on the bogey! Over.”

So now it was a paradoxical game of micro-chip science and sharp pilot eyesight. Daniel craned his neck around, gazing out through the bubble canopy only to see the rest of his men doing the same. But so far the bogey was elusive. Rolling their heads and banking, pitching and yawing for a better view, the jets and their drivers looked like a circus of drunkards. But Daniel knew they were scared men trying to stay alive, dancing what usually became a tango of death.

They all had a burning question. As squadron leader, only Daniel could ask it.

"Red Z here. Who called Fox two? Over." he asked as calmly as a taxi dispatcher.

"Blue Two. Sorry Boss. T’would be me. Over"

"At who? A Shadow 5?" came from somewhere else.

"How many?" from another sweat-soaked cockpit.

Daniel hated this lack of radio discipline. He could lead pilots to battle, but he couldn't make them shut up.

"Who's `I'?" Daniel demanded, controlling the urge for expletives. But the radio chatter went on until Daniel finally took the plunge with a rarely used command.

"Knock it off! Knock it off! Red Z to all pilots. On my mark, engage CCI, level one. Repeat, level one. Five...Four..."

Daniel counted slowly. The pilots dreaded CCI, even though it moulded them into pure flying machines. They would need to psyche themselves the way they had been trained by the Air Force psychiatrists. CCI--Cortico-Computer Interface--was the ultimate embodiment of man-machine interface.

"Three...Two...One." Daniel watched the squadron of F-16's straighten their flight paths as each pilot imagined the "Thought Police" cruising their brains. For once CCI was engaged there would be no buttons to push or throttles to lean on. No looking around the cockpit, no ungainly muscle movement. They would be flying with their thoughts. And Fighting. And at Level One, reserved only for live combat, the computer wouldn't waste their time asking for confirmations on potentially deadly thought commands. Think the thought, fire missile, and you had already fired it.

"Engage CCI." For a moment, his squadron was silent. There was always the morbid feeling of losing their humanity, of surrendering it to the machine. It silenced the soul. Imagination, so much a part of every second of a person's existence, was banished. But it was all a deadly necessity. Imagining yourself firing a missile was not recognizable to the avionics. Imagining too strongly would be read as a thought, and suddenly your best friend might be

blasted out of the sky by your carelessness. In the 21st Century, Modern warfare had become that precise. And precision left no room for the soul. Only the enemy could drag it out.

"Blue Four. Tally-ho! Bogeys, 2 o'clock! Angels 55! Over." A frenzied pilot shouted. Daniel's fighter shuddered in the jetwash of two F-16's shooting past him, blow-torching flame from their afterburners. He understood their impulsiveness. Shadow 5s were rarely ever seen by anyone not already hanging from their parachute. The sight of those birds with their medieval angles of radar armour and sinister black wings inspired the beast in every mild-mannered fighter driver.

But Daniel, having seen the tactic before, saw the forest and the impending fire.

The Shadows were dragging his pilots up to the edge of their flight ceiling. Up there, the F-16's agility would be nullified by the thin air, matching the Shadows inherent lack of manoeuvrability. It would be a World War One "dogfight," but at ten times the height and at a velocity that pushed the edge of the sound barrier.

He needed to reel in his blood-frenzied comrades. "Blue flight from Red Z! Cut your burners! Bogeys are a decoy! Do you copy? Blue Flight! Cut your burners or I'll shoot you down myself! Over."

No use in the warnings. A smoke trail shot past Daniel and cruised up Blue Four's tailpipe. Along with million's of dollars worth of composite material and fiber optics, a man with two children and an amicable divorce; a pilot who liked to listen to Mozart on rainy afternoons, a soul named Effrem Sturgess was blown into an expanding comet of remains.

But with a single warning cry, Sturgess vanished in Daniel's mind faster than he had in reality.

"Break right!" Someone shouted. The warning could have been meant for anybody. So everybody broke together, including Daniel. But this time a maniacal wail of a buzzer shattered Daniel's ears with the message that he was the target. Daniel was the man singled out by the enemy missile lock-on.

9 right, he thought, wrenching the jet into a nine gravity turn so tight that the shape of the plane bent with the flow of the air. Blood rushed to all the wrong points of his body as he flung himself across a piece of sky the width of a large city.

Flares. On command, hot decoy flares shot from the tail, tricked the enemy missile once again and put Daniel out of harm's way.

He eased back to re-engage the battle, all instinct and adrenaline. A split second after almost certain death, he was focussed and precise. The radio chatter came back to his conscious mind.

"Where's Z?"

"Yellow two! Bogey on your six!"

"Yellow five! Break!"

"Fox Two! Fox Two!"


"Yellow five! I said break! He's fired!"

"Blue three..."

"Shit! Yellow five's bought it!"

Daniel didn't let the chatter in. At seven hundred knots, time suddenly shot to a standstill as a Chu-5 banked right in front of him, flashing a burst of sunlight off its razor-sharp wing. Too close for a missile. Too close for a shadow of hesitation. In training he might have taken in the wonder of it all for a second; the curving blue horizon line, the sun chopping prisms around the clouds and along the plexiglass of his canopy, the dark beauty of the plane filling his windscreen. He would commit the panorama to memory for a later moment of reflection.

But now he thought only two words: Fire gun.

That was all it took. The thought jumped from his brain to the receptors on his skull, into the computers and on to the Vulcan cannon, straight to its trigger. A stream of depleted uranium jumped the gap from Daniel's mind to the belly of the Shadow, ripping the enemy fighter apart.

Daniel flew through the debris, undamaged, drinking cold vengeance. But there was no time now to waggle his wings. Lights were blinking and buzzers wailed. Break right 6. Zoom 4. His teeth clenched, gums bled. Forces of physics pushed and pulled his muscles and bone, the enemy upon him now five to one. A missile shot past. Then another overhead.

"Z! pull up! I can get a lock." Daniel took the advice being shouted by some unseen comrade and shot toward heaven. Somewhere below him another Shadow was drawn away to battle with another F-16. But four shadows remained, still angry, and still hungry for Daniel.

He pulled into a loop before he ran out of lift only to find the buzzers still wailing their cries of warning. Three missiles streaked toward him at mach four. Two missed. The remaining arrow took his left wing away.

His cockpit was his office, his world. And it was torn from the building, spinning and whirling down with him still working at his desk, to the end of the world. All was suddenly bright with flame and shattering noise. The instrument panel was breaking apart, a seam down the center that showed the tip of the iceberg of Daniel's crumbling mount. In another second it would be his body ripping apart.

Eject, he thought, ending his day with a peaceful rocket ride into the silent sky.

Fifty thousand feet above the coast of Hudson Bay, Daniel, flying only his body, eased away from his chair and leaned forward on a couch of wind, debriefing himself while he fell to earth.

Mistake number 1: I let my guard down and let my flight get away from me while we were being boxed in. Mistake #2: I didn't clear my six before engaging the Shadow. Daniel continued analysing his mistakes until he opened his chute at two thousand feet. And only then, with the charred earth rising toward him, did he stop to wonder, What hell am I falling into?