Captain Fuchida Hideo's legs itched. They always did during his flight missions. It was the flight suits, he knew, but when he complained to the base doctor, he got a response lifted straight from the Lockheed marketing brochure. "...keep pilots warm and enhance combat functionality in high-G maneuvers...constrict the legs to keep blood from pooling in them during long combat missions..." Keep him from passing out. He got it. And the helmet wrapped around his bald pate had to pump pure oxygen into his system to assist in that duty, oxygen which only added irritated lungs atop his endless itch. It had to, because his cockpit was only "lightly pressurized" to guard against explosive decompression. The cockpit couldn't be strengthened because the engineers had to save weight. The plane had to save weight to be a better combat machine. The plane had to be a better combat machine so that Fuchida Hideo could live up to his namesake. "----," Hideo breathed into his headset. Always, always, always his great-grandfather would intrude on his private thoughts, as if the old gray gentleman was still alive, his ancient Nakajima B5N fluttering alongside Hideo's F-35, the leather-jacketed arm reaching out to fire the green flares signalling the swarm of two hundred planes behind him to vomit their deadly hail upon an unsuspecting enemy, the cocky voice breathing the three-word code phrase that would launch the American Era. Of course, no one at the base mentioned his great-grandfather to his face. And no one descended from his great-grandfather mentioned him. After the war, Fuchida Mitsuo, flight commander of the air group that bombed Pearl Harbor, had become a committed pacifist and Christian evangelist. Hideo was the black sheep in his family, the one who had, in his father's words, "thrown away the lessons that his forefathers acquired at the cost of three million dead." Being estranged from his family only spurred Hideo to train harder. Sometimes, it felt like Mitsuo's ghost was the only relative who kept him company. Sometimes, it would scowl at him when he tried to slack off in the mundane mechanical tasks of peacetime piloting. And sometimes, in the most inopportune of times, it would appear next to him, distracting him from the task at hand. "C'mon, pops. Not the time," Hideo muttered to no one in particular. Hideo was the best pilot in his unit. As such, he led the deterrence patrols against Chinese aircraft that tried to intrude on the disputed rocks some eight kilometers below him. Barely fifty meters to his right, a Chinese J-31 rocked its wings to tell Hideo that he was getting too close. Hideo ignored the signal. Eighteen hundred meters behind them, another J-31 and F-35 followed at a thousand kilometers an hour. The four planes had been flying concentric rings around, but just outside, the island's territorial waters for the past two hours, and Hideo's legs kept itching. The J-31 began to descend, and Hideo was followed to maintain contact. His orders had been the classic ones used in territorial disputes between countries since the deadly clockwork of the nuclear era had been first set in motion. Bug the other guy so much that he either backs off or is forced to shoot first. The American pilots called it "road rage with fighter jets." The J-31 kept dropping lower and lower, approaching the clouds. Hideo was glad. A lower altitude meant thicker air, which meant everyone would run out of fuel faster, which meant a shorter mission. Then the dark triangle kept dropping, disappearing into the fluffy white carpet beneath them, and Hideo's confidence wavered. He toggled his mike. "How low does this bastard want to go?" Hideo said to his wingman. The wingman, a fresh-faced trainee pilot, was some right-wing politician's son who was on the patrol mission to burnish his father's nationalist credentials. In spite of the nepotism, the lieutenant's response was crisp and professional. "I'm not sure, Captain, but his wingman is staying at eight-two-zero-zero. Should I maintain contact with him?" Hideo gave a curt "Yes", then resumed pitching his F-35 downward. The last two digits on his HUD altimeter blurred as the angle of descent steepened. He punched through the cloud cover, found the Chinese plane, and cursed. "Crazy son-of-a-bitch." To Hideo's left, the white band of the horizon had turned nearly perpendicular to his wings. He realized that the J-31 pilot was daring him to follow the Chinese jet into the flat, flawlessly blue ocean. Without terrain features, it would be nearly impossible to judge the distance to the water until it was too late. And Hideo had to closely watch the J-31, which meant he couldn't really keep an eye on the altimeter. Hideo tapped the air brakes and stretched the distance between the planes to three hundred meters. Now, if the J-31 pilot really flew into the ocean, Hideo thought, his splash would serve as a prior warning. At about one hundred fifty meters of altitude, the J-31 pilot suddenly leveled out. Gritting his teeth, Hideo yanked hard on the stick and followed. The suit did its job, fighting the G-forces and squeezing his lower body and torso so hard Hideo knew he would have marks on his skin for a week. Hideo began to pull closer to the J-31, and he saw the wings rock once more. He ignored it. He was now barely one hundred meters behind and to the left of the J-31. The J-31 began to descend slowly, taunting Hideo. He followed. The itch returned, much worse now. Hideo finally gave in and reached down for a scratch. At that precise moment, the Chinese plane began to bank right, passing barely a hundred meters in front of Hideo's F-35. The jet wash buffeted him around in the seat. Then his HUD flared red as warning kanji blanketed his field of view. The F-35's engine had flamed out upon breathing a load of concentrated jet exhaust instead of oxygen. At five thousand meters, this was a simple issue to fix--simply pull up gently and press the re-ignition button--but Hideo was at barely sixty meters. His turbines flared to life just as the stealth jet clipped the top of the waves. Hideo's last thoughts touched on how ironic it was that he was pushing on the gears which his great-grandfather had set in motion. [hr][/hr] Captain Kang Zongqi saw the F-35 break into a thousand pieces behind him and gasped with shock. He had never meant for that to happen. To him and his wingman, the job was just a dance to keep the netizens placated, to fill the weekly helmet-cam videos the Nanjing Military Region released on the internet showing how the Air Force was "defending the motherland's inviolable territorial integrity." His wingman spoke immediately. "Flight leader, what happened down there? My dance partner just started screaming at me." Zongqi dialed up the volume on the international comms channel. A sea of static, then the unmistakeable sound of angry Japanese cursing. Then his wingman cut back in. "Wait a sec, he's climbing and slowing down. He's on my six now, six o'clock high. What the ---- is going on?" Kang Zongqi responded guiltily. "My bogey crashed. I don't think his wingman saw it through the clouds, though." Zongqi's wingman responded brusquely. "Great. That's just ----in' great. He probably thinks you brought him down on purpose. What are we gonna do?" Zongqi fought to remember the vague and poorly-delivered lessons on incident management. "We need to contact higher to get a translator on the channel, and immediately disengage from the mission area." Just as Zongqi finished his phrase, the cursing stopped and became a phrase which Zongqi half-remembered from old Chinese propaganda films. "Tenno Heika, BANZAI!" Oh shit, Zongqi thought. "Watch out, watch out, I think he's about to--" The radio suddenly filled with hard thumps and screaming, then cut to silence. Zongqi was momentarily stunned, then awakened from his state of reverie by the triple beeps of his radar warning receiver. A cold sweat broke out across Zongqi's shoulders. At such close ranges, the relative intensity of radar illumination nullified the stealth shaping of both planes, and worse yet, the bogey was somewhere above him, giving his missiles a normally inescapable energy advantage. The expected pair of short-range missiles poked through the clouds, like the fingers of God. Zongqi popped chaff, then quickly wrenched the black jet into a hard turn towards the largest of the disputed islands, hoping the radar clutter off the rocky cliffs would throw them off. Hurtling over one of the cliffs at barely five meters of relative altitude, he saw one of the missiles impact the rocks, and the other plunge harmlessly into the waves. Zongqi grinned. "My turn," he muttered. Scanning the gray murk above him, he saw the missile trails and estimated the relative position of his bogey. His radar confirmed his hunch, a clear blip at his four o'clock. This kid must be new, Zongqi thought, as his radar indicated the Japanese plane was diving towards him, giving up its altitude advantage. Zongqi banked hard left in a twisting turn, then pitched his nose upwards. His J-31 slid across the ocean surface like an ice skater, flash-boiling a trail of seawater to steam under twenty thousand kilograms of vectored thrust. One second later, he toggled the afterburners, launching his plane in a near-vertical leap from the sea surface, then lobbed a missile into the gray clouds at an angle to Japanese fighter. Half a second later, the F-35 disappeared in a fireball. Zongqi blinked twice, then circled his plane around twice, checking for a parachute from the Japanese plane. There was none. His wingman's emergency transponder was silent, too. I'm the sole survivor, Zongqi realized. More beeping. He looked down at his fuel gauge, now running close to empty. Zongqi radioed into HQ, informing them of what had happened and that he was going to try and fly as far as he could towards the Chinese coast before ejecting. HQ's response added another dose of raw fear into his gut. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces had scrambled eight more planes, now only minutes away. His commander advised him to eject as soon as possible, turn on his emergency beacon, and await rescue operations. It was only after his parachute had already deployed that Zongqi remembered he was still in disputed waters.