Bobbing in the wake aft of the enormous jinn which had materialized out of the darkness, hands gripping tight on the gunwales, Farokh gave thanks to God for his unmerited deliverance, checked the compass and once more shaped his course southwest, towards Bahrain. There was a trade to make.

Damn, that was close, thought the squadron CO as he taxied aft. His legs were still shaking on the rudder pedals and it took extra concentration to follow the director’s signals. Finally he was passed off to the Assistant Fly-3 Petty Officer, who’d seen none of what had just transpired up on the bow and was in any case a rather phlegmatic sort. Got to take it easy now, one step at a time, get back on the checklist. It’d be nuts to save oneself from falling into the sea on a heavy roll, only to omit some critical step and meet the same fate off the catapult. Life’s short, he thought, paraphrasing John Wayne, and adding “it’s shorter if you’re stupid.

Damn that was close, the Fly-1 petty officer thought. Not my fault, but the Handler will have my ass anyway, just you watch.

Damn, that was close the Handler thought. Few more inches and we’d have had a jet over the side and all hell to pay. What on earth could have gotten into their heads up there on the bridge? It wasn’t like this in the old days. Officers knew their jobs and troopers knew their places, at least they did the way he remembered it. Can’t pick a fight with the captain. “Who’s on Fly-1?” he demanded of the duty flight deck chief.

Damn, that was close, thought the carrier’s Commanding Officer. No reason at all we didn’t hit that guy, sending him to his death and having a lot of hard questions to answer afterwards. People have been relieved for less, he reflected, and a quarter century’s hard work flung into the dust. He thought to himself that if there had been a mishap, they would have to submit to an investigation, maybe even a board of inquiry. Such a board would have discovered things during their process which would have contributed to the collision, and which would have been used against him, and by extension, his ship. It would have been an investigation run by the fleet staff, manned by other captains not currently in command at sea, some of whom would be looking for a hide to nail to the wall as a way of demonstrating their own superior qualifications, some of whom would never be eligible for major command and envious of those who had the chance, none of whom would look upon the actions of the last 15 minutes kindly. Maybe I can have my own little investigation, the CO thought, as though we had actually had a mishap, and capture the lessons learned. Not exactly an impartial jury, but worth a try, perhaps. To his left the annunciator console buzzed and a light flickered from red to amber: The Air Boss was requesting the deck for launch. The Captain checked the winds, took note of the course and speed and punched the button in return, turning it green: “Green deck fixed wing,” he announced to the world in general.

“Green deck fixed wing,” replied the quartermaster of the watch, checking his chronometer and bending his head over the logbook to make the entry. There was no requirement to log events that never occurred, and so he hadn’t put anything into the ship’s official record about the near miss that everyone on the bridge had just witnessed. Still, he didn’t think he’d ever forget it, the tension, the helplessness.

On the bow cats, the lieutenant junior grade saw a yellow-shirted director walk up to his jet, with a single light want pointed up: “Is your jet up?”

The JG took his red-lensed flashlight out of his chest harness, fumbled for a moment before turning it on and then moving it in a rapid circle: “Up jet.” The director responded with an upward thrust of his wand, followed by brushing motions across his forearms: “Off chocks and chains,” followed by crossed wands over his head: “Hold brakes.” The young pilot felt his heart jump in his chest. He’d heard that in the old days, during Vietnam, there had been an experiment wherein the attack pilots were wired to measure their pulse during combat, as a way of determining their stress levels. It had surprised the flight surgeons to discover that, almost to a man, all of the pilots had manifested higher pulse rates during their approach to land aboard the carrier at night than they had during final attack run of a defended target under flares, with the terrain rushing up to meet them as they refined their targeting solutions in 45 degree bomb runs, the altimeter unwinding crazily even as the SAMs and AAA rose up to meet them. He didn’t have any idea how that might have felt, the JG reflected. But he knew that his heart rate had to be at least a hundred and twenty just at the signal to break down the jet’s chocks and chains. Once he started rolling forward, he’d be committed to the cat. Once on the cat, he’d have to launch. Once airborne, he’d have to land. And he hadn’t been landing very well lately. He knew he didn’t have many more chances to prove that he could. You either hack it or you don’t, he thought. Sooner or later, non-hacks get scraped off. Nothing personal. Just business.

A Hornet rattled down Cat-3, afterburners shouting in the darkness. “Departure, 304 airborne,” said his commanding officer.

“Roger 304, passing angels two-point-five, switch Red Crown, check in.”