What's the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story? A fairy tale begins with "Once upon a time"; a sea story begins with "No shit, this really happened!" -- Navy saying
An old saying has it that a soldier's life is 99% boredom and 1% stark panic. That's mostly true; though the proportions may vary slightly, most of a soldier's or sailor's or airman's time is spent waiting. That time hangs heavy on person's mind; to ease the weight, some drink, some craft things, some read... but most just talk, sharing experiences and secrets with their friends and comrades. Stories never written get passed around the barracks, the bunks, the lounge, the club.
There are Air Force bases in the northwest where they tell stories of training exercises turned suddenly real when F-15s painted in primary colors joined the flight--those jets, and if you were lucky, the alien planes wore the red markings and just wanted to play a bit. If you were unlucky, they sported purple sigils and you'd best just get out of their way. If you were very unlucky, they wanted to play...
At least they were real--jets that fought, crashed or not, and the others, retreated or just continued on their way, perhaps damaged, perhaps not. There were cannon holes and laser burns for all to see, and sometimes a metallic chunk of the others blown free to be claimed by unnamed men in unmarked fatigues who used too many acronyms. It was like the old days, when sometimes a Flogger or a Foxbat would play games with the combat air patrols far out to sea. Sometimes the games got too serious, and planes were lost and pilots died in 'accidents'. Such were the risks of a warrior's life.
When it was late at night, and the wind blustered, or a thick fog hung about the club, and most especially if it was Halloween night, pilots would sometimes trade stories about another jet--the jet no gun could hit, that radar couldn't pick up, and that no heatseeker could track.
It flew by night, a dark jet that skimmed low over the sea and always seemed to follow highways over land. Only on moonlit nights could it be seen; some pilots swore it was half transparent. Others swore just as vehemently that the mystery jet looked as solid as their own. All agreed that radar couldn't get a lock on it, and infrared sensors didn't see it.
"I've seen it by daylight," said Lieutenant Patrick O'Connel, during once such Halloween-night conversation at the bar in the pilot's lounge. He was a Navy pilot, working a cross-service training assignment at the Air Force base.
The oldest pilot involved in the tale-telling session looked at O'Connel and raised one bushy red eyebrow. Major Thomas "Red" Jorgensson leaned back with his beer and said, "Paddy, you're telling me you've seen our ghost jet in broad daylight? How do you know it wasn't something else?"
"Well," O'Connel said slowly, turning his empty beer mug around in his hands as he spoke. "Your ghost jet--it's got blue wings and purple intakes and underbelly, right? Can't pick it up on radar or anything but the old Mark I eyeball, right?"
Red nodded. "Yeah, that's him. Hard to make out colors in the moonlight. Where'd you see him in daylight?"
O'Connel smiled in anticipation. "Off the Carolina coast--and he looked as solid as my jet, or you or me."
He was well rewarded by the exclamations of disbelief.
"You're kidding!" said Red, along with the others, blond, sunny-natured Lieutenant Mike Train, and slender, dark Captain Rajeev "Raj" Svandawahama.
"Nope. And you know something I saw real well in that bright sunny day that you can't see in the dark?" O'Connel leaned forward, lowering his voice slightly. "A big purple marking on each wing. And you know what marking I mean."
"No shit?" Red looked stunned. "Our ghost jet is just a lousy Decepticon??"
O'Connel looked at his empty beer mug and finally shoved it over the bar for a refill. "I wouldn't say just a Decepticon, Red. I was flying nearly wingtip-to-wingtip with it--running an intercept. That's when I saw there wasn't a pilot, and that it had the purple marks. Then--" O'Connel looked a bit sheepish, "um, this next bit's a bit embarrassing."
"You're in too late to back out now, Paddy!" Red warned him.
O'Connel took a swig of his bear. "I goofed. I was so rattled when I saw I was flying in close formation with a Decepticon that I, um, kind of jerked on the yoke. I was too close to it, and my wing should have smacked his wing... Red, my wing swung right through his without touching a thing!" He took another long draught of beer.
"So what happened next, Paddy?" Lieutenant Train asked eagerly.
"Guys, you've got to promise the next doesn't go any further, because I'm not sure I'd keep my wings if there was any official notice..." O'Connel looked worried.
"Not a word, I promise," Red answered.
"You got it," said Mike.
"Ditto," said Raj.
O'Connel put down his beer. "Guys, I flipped out. I lost it. That ghost jet just kept cruising along, ignoring me. I lit my afterburners and took off, then swung my jet around and came right back for him. I played chicken with that ghost Decepticon at Mach 2."
"I really hope the punchline to this story isn't 'And now I'm a ghost too.'" said Raj with a grin.
"If it is, he's a mighty thirsty ghost," Red chuckled, and the others laughed.
O'Connel grinned. "Nah, not hardly. He didn't sheer off, kept tooling along like I wasn't even there. I flew right through him--didn't stir a hair on my head or a bolt on my jet. Except for the hairs that were standing straight up, that is!" The Navy pilot shivered. "It was like flying through the coldest, dankest winter air you've ever felt--chilled me to the bone."
"Sweet Mother of God! Paddy, you're a lunatic. You're stark raving nuts, you know that?" Red took a big gulp of his beer.
"Yeah, I know. Told you I lost it. I must have startled him, though; when I banked to keep my eye on him, he transformed--changed to his robot shape--and then he just... faded away." O'Connel finished his beer with a gulp.
"Makes you wonder," said Captain Raj, "robots having ghosts."
"I don't wonder," Red Jorgensson said. He stood up and walked over to the wall, where certain photographs hung in place of honor in the pilot's lounge. He nodded at one in particular, that showed two Air Force F-15s flanking another F-15 between them, this one colored brightly in red and blue on silver-gray. Purple Decepticon markings showed prominently on both wings.
"Evans was taking archive photos of the exercise that day, or we'd never have gotten this picture. The one on the left is my jet. The one in the middle... well, they don't tell mere majors what's in the Top Secret files at the Pentagon, but I've got some friends, and they tell me that one's been involved in nearly every major incident since the Decepticons first turned up. He's one of their commanders." Red looked at the younger pilots. "His name is--or was--Starscream. No, I didn't hear that from my friends in Washington. He told us his name when he showed up that day and challenged us to a contest of flying skill. Guess he was bored."
"What happened, Red?" Paddy voiced the question they all had.
"What do you expect? He outflew us six ways from Sunday--he was good, very good. Almost cost me a jet--Starscream didn't settle for getting fire control illumination to show he could have scored a shot, he used one of his weapons--something that knocked out my engines. Had to do a deadstick landing on State Highway 27--and wasn't that fun to explain to the investigators!" Red took a drink from his beer. "They're not just machines--they've got as much personality and quirkiness as any human I've met. And maybe he was up to more than just playing around--after that little demonstration, our Rules of Engagement got changed. We weren't to attack robots that were just traveling--only engage ones that were directly threatening American lives or property."
Captain Raj, smiled and lounged against the bar. "Red, I can't help but notice you very carefully referred to Starscream in the past tense."
Red drifted back over to the bar and got his mug refilled. He chuckled. "Not much gets past you, does it? Remember that big fracas a couple years ago at Autobot City? He hasn't been seen since, and my friends in Washington tell me that the word from the Autobots is that particular jet flew his last mission that day." He lifted his mug in a toast. "He was the enemy, but damn if he wasn't the best flier I've ever had the pleasure to meet. I have to respect that."
"Amen!" The other pilots joined Red in his toast.
O'Connel said, "So even if he wasn't a ghost then, he is now?" He grinned and tossed back the rest of his beer.
"Funny you should mention that," said Mike Train, who had been very quiet all through Red's story.
"Oh?" said Red.
"Mike's got a story," Captain Raj said. "I'd put money on it."
"Sucker bet," said O'Connel.
Mike swirled the beer in his glass and squinted at the bottom of it. "This was recent, and I haven't talked about it because I didn't want anyone to think I was bucking for a Section 8."
"Sounds like a good one!" Red commented, drinking his beer slowly. "Tell it, Mike!"
"Just a few months back, flying a night patrol. Pitch black and raining on the ground with a heavy nimbostratus layer at 5000 feet. Broke through that layer, and it was a beautiful, bright moonlit night up above. Moonlight off those clouds made it look like a giant field of misty snow drowning all but the mountains." He smiled, swirling his beer again. "It's one of those moments I wouldn't trade for all the money in the world."
Mike took a draught of his beer. "I wasn't the only one up there enjoying the view. Our old friend the blue and purple ghost jet was up there, skimming just above the cloud layer." He glanced over at O'Connel. "Just to add my two cents to the argument, he was semi-transparent; I could see moonlight through him."
Captain Raj frowned. "If he was just above the clouds, you were above him if you saw him, so how could you see moonlight through him?"
"Damn it, Raj, don't spoil a good story with logic!" Red snapped.
"He didn't stay just above the cloud layer, Raj. He pulled up and came after me. I gotta tell ya, I thought I was going to need a change of underwear when he did that! He didn't attack though; he just pulled up beside me on the left and waggled his wings." Mike grinned.
"So what's he got to do with Red's old playmate?" Raj asked.
Mike grinned even more widely.
"Well, then I turned my head and saw what was flying just off my right wingtip--" He stood up and walked over to the photo; he tapped the jet in the center with his index finger. "Him, Starscream--just as transparent as our old friend on my left... and he waggled his wings at me!"
-- FIN --