The cat fires and the lieutenant rattles down the deck and into the morning air, whooping with the savage joy of an alert launch in a tactical environment, of being first airborne, of a good, hard catapult shot, of flying fighters, of being young. The Air Boss clears him to cross the bow, and he reverses his from his left hand clearing turn (”Right off the bow cats, left off the waist”), raises the gear and flaps and deselects the afterburners: No sense wasting fuel on the front end.

The E-2 ACO is awaiting him on tower frequency and takes control: “Hobo 404, hot vector 045, take station Casper, Hot Dog Red at 35 miles.”

On the bridge, the CO checks his watch, and nods. Very well done. He calls down to the TAO in Combat, “Probably ought to spin up the alert tanker, while we’re on this course - work it through TFCC.”

Around the corner from the TAO, the third class operations specialist turns his gouge card over and proceeds to his next warning: “Unidentified aircraft 20 miles south of Bushehr, speed 500 knots, heading 250: You are approaching U.S. naval warships operating in international waters. Your identity is unknown, your intentions are unclear. You are standing into danger…”

“U.S. Navy warship, this is Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force aircraft,” good English, almost unaccented, the E-2 Mission Commander notes. Probably trained in the U.S., before the Shah’s demise. Surprising he hasn’t been purged. “I am on a routine training mission in Iranian territorial airspace. This is my home - you are the stranger here.”

Down in Combat aboard the carrier, the Combat Direction Center Officer has joined the TAO at his console, listening in. Hearing this last, he catches the TAO’s eye, pulls a face, shrugs, “Man’s got a point.”

The TAO shrugs in return, “Guess so. But he keeps this up on that heading and speed, he could find that he’s not only right, but dead right. It’s a big planet - if it was me and I was him, I’d point it some other direction.”

Over aboard the Cruiser, the Force TAO tells his commanding officer that the second alert aircraft has launched. The first will do an en route turn for the formation rendezvous, and they’d proceed together to the CAP station and await further events. The FTAO then asks his CO, “What do you think about his intentions, based on the comms?”

“Can’t know,” replied the CO, ” and wouldn’t hazard a guess. Back in the Cold War, the plan of the day was to ‘trust but verify.’ These days we just skip step one. The instant he crosses over from Iranian airspace into international waters, I want those fighters all over him like a bad rash.”

“Like a cheap suit,” offered the FTAO.

“Like white on rice,” added the Air Defense Officer.

“Like…” the Combat Systems Officer started.

“Focus, kids,” the CO interrupted forcefully, frowning on the outside. But smiling on the inside - based on his intimate knowledge of the crew on watch, the next simile would have undoubtedly been, “Like a hobo on a hot-dog.” He had heard that particular simile misfire in front of one of those grim, humorless, perpetually aggrieved officers during training back on the beach. That worthy had misheard the subject of the simile and then taken umbrage at the new meaning imparted by its pairing with the object. “Let’s get back to the task at hand - air defense, if I’m not mistaken?”

“Aye, sir,” in a chorus.

On the carrier’s bridge, the CO takes the deck back from the Air Boss as the alert tanker roars into the sky. The CO is still not used to the idea of a fighter, even one so advanced as the FA-18E, serving as a tanker, but that’s the Navy these days. Everything is at least dual-mission, and the S-3’s have nearly all retired. He calls the Air Boss on closed-circuit phone and asks him, “Well, what do you think?”

“About the launch?” asks the Boss.

“No, that’s history. I’m interested in the next go. The CAS mission.”

“We’re all over it, Captain,” assures the Boss. Crossing his fingers. The Handler is a good man - if anyone can pull it off, he will. But he’ll complain about it through his fourth beer in Australia, on the way home. First things first, though: A 0900 alert launch means a 1030 recovery, if the fighters don’t tank. The recovery will require an open deck up the angle and 1030 is painfully close to the 1200 CAS launch. One and a half hours to spot the deck. He grimaces - only one hour, really: The fighters have to crank 30 minutes prior to the launch. Well, it could be done. They’d done it before. The Boss adds, “Captain, it’d be better if we took them right at 1030, the fighters and the E-2. Later is harder.”

“Roger,” replies the CO, hanging up the phone. Another phone rings. The caller ID says simply, “Admiral.”

Down in TFCC the admiral congratulates the CO on a successful alert launch, queries him about how much fuel was taken on, and how much left behind after the unscheduled break-away. Satisfied that the ship will be able to support future tasking without a schedule change, the admiral asks, “Who is in the lead of the alert fighter section?” He nods thoughtfully at the Captain’s reply, adds, “Make sure to tell him ‘One war at a time,’ ” and hangs up.

Up on the bridge, the Captain says “Aye, sir,” and hangs up at his end, thinking to himself, “No shit.” But thinking this privately of course, as always. He looks around the bridge, notes that everything is as it should be on all the several watch stations, everyone attentive to their tasks. But he also knows that while his back was turned, every pair of ears on watch had strained to hear what they could of the conversation he had with the admiral. The CO shakes his head - his ship, like all of them was nothing more than a small town, a village really. Every village had its share of gossips, and he was morally certain that everything he said and did would be repeated later on, sifted and weighed. By people in the mess decks, in the berthing spaces, in the wardroom. He pursed his lips and shook his head, slightly. No, no need to editorialize in front of the people.

Leveled off at 20,000 feet, the lieutenant finally feels the flight deck sweat starting to dry off his face. One turn, one turn only for his wingman. After that, it would be “catch me, screw me.” Can’t wait all day. His radar warning receiver burps at him, and glances down to check the indication: His wingman is behind him, has a lock, speaks on the aux radio: “Buddy-lock heading 060″. “Spiked,” the lieutenant replies. He turns back towards the ship, back towards his wingman and goes through his short-range radar acquisition drill, the one that has been schooled into him by flight leads and weapons school instructors ever since he started flying fighters. He is rewarded by a near instant acquisition: 10 nautical miles back, nose hot, azimuth corresponds to RWR spike. Decides he’ll give him 30 seconds. That should be enough, combined with the turn back to threat axis.

In the E-2, the ACO updates his track video and speaks into his boom mike, “Hobo 404, group Baltimore 195, 20, low, track west, bogey. Hot Dog red at 20 miles”

Turning back into the threat, the lieutenant snaps his visor down against the sun well-risen in the east. He selects his Sidewinder missile, hears the raspy growl of an uncooled seeker head, switches the coolant on, hears the growl fade to a reptilian hiss. He changes missile mode to AIM-120, the advanced, medium range air-to-air missile. He turns his HUD tape on and selects the master armament control switch to “arm.” He arms his chaff and flare dispenser. Whatever happens in the next few minutes, he will be prepared. And he will by God have it on tape. “Leads’ fenced,” he says on the aux radio, prodding his wingman to complete his own combat checklist, and to report it complete.

“Standby,” replies the wingman.