Nineteen silhouettes traversed a sea of blue black sky in tight formation, held aloft only by the low drone of their props. Like a troupe of ballerinas, they sailed weightlessly across the horizon, arms outstretched, the pre-dawn sky their stage, the audience ten thousand feet below. Each moved in sequence with the prima, mirroring the opening steps to a dance that could be their last, while passing over an unfamiliar and unfriendly landscape below.
Within her cockpit, Yumiko quivered, palms clammy, hands trembling. She did her best to remain steady and level as her knees knocked repeatedly against one another. Her eyes burned from exhaustion. Last in the formation, her attention remained fixated upon the aircraft immediately in front of her, nearly invisible against the dark sky. If she lost sight of it, knew she would be lost forever.
A jumble of thoughts raced through her mind. Home. School. Her mama and papa. Would she ever see them again? Yumiko swallowed hard, her throat dry and scratchy. Radio silence kept the cockpit painfully silent, her only companions the drone of the prop and the rush of wind. Which was worse, the fear of death or the isolation of flying alone for hours? Tension kept her fingers strangling her flight controls until a painful ache reminded her to loosen her grip.
"Talon Squadron," a firm female voice came at last through her headset. "We are approximately ten minutes from target. Release your drop tanks."
Yumiko's throttle hand fumbled for the release, carefully probing its way through the dark like a blind child. In the dimness of the cockpit, all she could trust was touch. A moment later a mechanical clank signaled the loss of her wing mounted fuel tank. She was now on the clock, a long way from home.
They all were.
"Remember to only drop your bombs west of the river. Once you have, return to cloud cover and await further instruction." A long transmission of wordless breathing held the channel. "I realize that for everyone this is your first time. All I ask is that you stay calm and do your best. Thank you."
A terrible gnawing within, the exacting realities of war, assured Yumiko with a multitude of nauseating, twisting sensations that not all of them would be making it back. It would be naive to think, that with their limited training and obsolete, recycled aircraft, such could happen. Gone was her girlish optimism of youth. Who would die today? Would she?
“Prepare to descend.”
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