Contest #128 shortlist ⭐️

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East Asian Historical Fiction Sad

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

When Japan’s fighter plane—the Zero—first appeared, it could outmaneuver any aircraft it encountered. It ruled the skies. Uncontested design. The allies found themselves at a loss to deal with it.

Yet, Japan did not prepare for a long war.

Shirua picked up an antique teapot, careful not to burn his hands. He poured out two cups. Steam rose from the water; sweet and floral. He placed the cups and teapot on a tray, then walked to the living room, sitting down on a cushion across from his grandfather.

He handed him a cup. His grandfather sipped. Sunlight broke through the windows, birds chirping in the early dawn. Shirua brought out his laptop from his bag and plugged in a charger, then launched a word program.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes,” his grandfather said. He held onto the teacup with his right hand, his left missing its fingers. His grip shook, and he breathed in to steady himself.

“I first learnt of my death on a beige slip of paper…”

Shirua began typing.


- - -


The Zero fighter plane swerved through the air.

Heiji pulled back on the centre stick, raising the fighter’s wings, and pressed his foot on the left pedal. The Zero rotated in the ocean blue skies, turning on its side. His target came up ahead. Heiji readied his hand on the trigger and lined up his sights.

Speeding by, he fired the twin machine guns, bullets striking the funnel-shaped cloth used as a training target. He pushed the centre stick forward, his foot pressing the right pedal. The dial on the turn-and-bank indicator swayed to the left—his plane evening out.

He lowered speed over an Okinawa runway, altitude dropping low, landing gear extending. The Zero hit the tarmac, its propeller coming to a stop. The engine slowed. Heiji slid back the canopy—the other university students standing on the runway cheered. He stood up, stepped onto the Zero’s wing, then jumped to the ground.

Heiji raised his goggles, imprints left over his eyes. He turned back to the Zero to marvel at its engineering. Sharp turns and high speeds. Light armour, but what need is there for plating when you’re not getting hit? A verdant-green paint job with a crimson Hinomaru disc over each wing, and one on the hull.

A terror to the skies.

He first engaged the enemy in the Philippines. Clouds above, mountains below. He sped over forestry, an American fighter on his tail. Machine guns fired behind him. Heiji slammed his foot down on the right pedal, leaning to the side, pulling the centre stick. The Zero twisted in the air, avoiding the attack. 

He gained altitude, flying through clouds. Droplets of water formed on the glass. The American plane, a shark’s jaw painted below the propeller, lagged behind, unable to keep up with the Zero’s speed. Heiji cried out. He brought his fighter around in a loop. He dove, pulling back on the trigger. 

The Zero’s twin 20-millimetre cannons fired. The rounds punctured the hull of the American aircraft. Its pilot lost control—a bullet struck the fuel tank, setting the wings ablaze. The plane descended in a ball of flame and crashed into the forest. 

An aerial victory over the Philippine sea.

Yet, as the war progressed, Japan’s air superiority degraded.

The allies advanced their technology to take back the skies. Zero’s were shot down by the hundreds—their weaknesses exposed. An officer handed out beige slips of paper to the remaining university pilots. The Americans advanced on Okinawa, and every plane that could still fly would be made useful.

Heiji read the slip over. An assignment to the Special Attack Force.

He would give his life for the emperor, dive-bombing a Zero into a battleship. A suicidal crash with a plane fuelled up just enough for a one-way trip. 

In a moment of respite, he sat by a stream, golden leaves drifting down around him. Sunlight reflected off the water, orange and white koi fish swimming by. He wrapped his arms around his legs and stared at his reflection. An attempt to come to terms with death.

After an hour had passed, he penned his final letter.

Rina,

I will not be returning home as promised. There has been a sudden change of plans, and we’ve all been transferred into the special attack unit. I have no say in the matter. I’m terrified by how it will end. I will perform my patriotic duty in high spirits. 

Please forgive me.

My thoughts continually return to you and our soon-to-be-born child. I wish only for your happiness in the times to come. Please be cheerful and fight off all the pain and sadness. I desire that you live with a strong heart.

Burn on through death, Rina, and animate in my shade.

Heiji.

The following day, a battle raged over Okinawa. American warships bombarded the shores—kamikaze planes took off in waves. Heiji stood alongside a group of pilots at base, each given a ceramic bowl filled with saké. An officer stepped forward.

“At the very moment of impact,” he yelled, “do your best! Every deity and the spirits of your dead comrades are watching you. Before collision, it is essential that you do not shut your eyes for a moment so as to not miss your target. Many have crashed into their targets with wide-open eyes. They will tell you what fun they had.

“Each of you will follow in their lead. You will tolerate the intolerable, bear the unbearable, for the sake of eternity.

Banzai!

The pilots shouted it back. Each drank their bowl of saké, then smashed the ceramic at their feet. They turned in unison and marched to their fighter planes. Heiji lowered his goggles, breathed in, and stepped into the Zero. He affixed a picture of his wife to the centre console.

Men and women cheered on the runway, waving the Imperial Flag. Heiji took off into the rose-coloured sky, surrounding clouds as light as tendrils of smoke. Grass and ground miles below turned to water. The blue of the ocean. He looked to his right. A pilot in a nearby fighter turned to him, smiling, and saluted. He saluted back.

They broke off, separating from one another, prowling across the sky. He watched as an ally performed their duty, being shot down by a battleship’s anti-air before reaching their target.

His fuel ran low. A warning light blinked on his left. He steeled himself, prepared to destroy the ship while it recovered.

His wife would regard him as a hero.

Heiji pulled back on the centre stick and cried out.

He dove at a sharp angle. A flak cannon clipped his right wing. He spiralled, altitude plummeting, losing control. The cannon fired. It missed. The fierce winds and the drone of his engine disoriented him. The picture of his wife remained steady on the console.

Within a breath from becoming unwound, a second from terminal speed, he found a moment of clarity.

He could live.

Heiji pulled away from the ship with what control he had left. He forced himself into a landing and crashed into the ocean. The glass of his canopy exploded, shards slicing the fingers on his left hand. A fragment of steel lodged itself in his goggles. Water struck him in the face like wet concrete. He bit his tongue to the point of bleeding and feared he’d slit it in two.

Panicking, water filling his lungs, he punched at his buckle, his vision a blur. His aircraft sank deeper into the ocean. The buckle came undone. He swam up from his broken Zero, lungs burning, and choked on the air above. 


- - -


“I never thought I’d have such luck,” Heiji said. Shirua continued to type out his grandfather’s story. Crickets buzzed outside, moonlight shining through the windows. “I swam for hours, resting to float and breathe every few minutes. I was afraid of Americans shooting me from atop their carriers, but mostly of sharks. There was a trail of blood for them to follow.”

Shirua nodded, tapping on his laptop keyboard.

“An American submarine found me. I’d been swimming away from Okinawa—right into their operating zone. They took me as prisoner. Since that day,” Heiji said, “I have never asked for anything more in life.”

Shirua typed out the last words and closed his laptop. He packed it in his bag, stood up, and bowed as deep as he could. His grandfather raised a hand.

“Shirua,” he said. “Thank you for listening to me. In the years to come, my generation will no longer be around, and while I have no pride in how my country acted, I’m happy I could tell somebody my story.”

“It deserves to be told.”

He bowed once more, and Heiji smiled.

January 12, 2022 07:06

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74 comments

Michael Regan
21:41 Jan 12, 2022

I couldn't help but thinking how many service men, on both sides, went to their graves without ever telling their story. A great story

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Alex Sultan
22:51 Jan 12, 2022

Thank you for the insightful comment, Michael. I'm glad you read this through.

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Deidra Lovegren
17:58 Jan 13, 2022

You are brilliant at this. Historical fiction is definitely your genre. Watch out, Ken Follett. The crossed out lines were a clever touch, and showed another dimension to the MC. Love reading your stuff! The time and effort you took researching this shows in every line.

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Alex Sultan
20:13 Jan 14, 2022

Thank you, friend. This was definitely the most time and research I've put into a piece. I do enjoy writing historical fiction for the right prompts, and there are definitely a lot more stories to tell. Thanks again for the kind words.

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Catherine Kruger
15:19 Jan 16, 2022

This was gorgeously written. Haven't found many stories written from the Japanese perspective on the war--I would certainly recommend this one to anyone.

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Alex Sultan
21:00 Jan 16, 2022

Thank you for the kind comment! Imperial Japan was very cruel during the war, but I'd like to believe there were soldiers who kept their humanity. I appreciate the read :)

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Sharon Harris
14:15 Jan 14, 2022

This is such a strong opening. The contrast of the Zero fighter plane and the cup of tea is a cunning use of imagery. And the beige slip of paper reeled me in. How important it must be for people to tell their stories...you seem to tease out the comfort in the bleakest of backdrops. Another good one, well done.

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Alex Sultan
20:14 Jan 14, 2022

Thank you, Sharon. I wanted to make the opening scene as engaging as possible, and reworked it a couple times over to do so. I'm glad it worked out! I appreciate the kind words.

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Delia Tomkus
12:42 Jan 13, 2022

I love this story! I'm not usually one for historical fiction, but this felt powerful

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Alex Sultan
20:05 Jan 14, 2022

Thank you! To be honest, I much prefer writing fantasy, but switching it up does seem to work out for me. I'm glad you enjoyed reading through.

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Delia Tomkus
20:21 Jan 14, 2022

:)

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Alex Sultan
07:08 Jan 12, 2022

Out of all the stories I’ve written, this one took the longest. Multiple drafts. I’m not too sure if it’s good or where it went wrong. All feedback appreciated.

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Coffee Mc Cann
19:06 Jan 16, 2022

I love the opening hook. Great story. Thanks!

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Alex Sultan
20:28 Jan 16, 2022

Thank you! I like the hook a lot too. I appreciate the read & the kind words.

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Becca Ward
07:57 Apr 01, 2022

I really got into this story. Your narrative is strong--you tell the story without telling me how to feel, which I love. I just finished reading Human Kind, and in one of the chapters Bregman discusses statistics connected to war. Something like 2/3 of fighters don't even shoot at the opposing side (I may have made that up, but it's a large percentage), and stories about people in war who merely pretend to engage. Do we really want to kill each other? This is a story of hope, to me. Love won over a sense of duty. Whilst duty can be good wh...

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Denyze Ling
16:08 Jan 31, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist! This is amazing, it's nice seeing you explore different genres. This was a great read, it had me hooked from the start. The letter to his wife was heartbreaking, I was afraid he would actually sacrifice his life for the sake of his country and comrades but thank goodness that did not happen. Your descriptions are on point as usual. This was an entertaining read.

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Alex Sultan
18:30 Feb 03, 2022

Thank you, Denzye. I appreciate the read. I'm glad you liked my letter scene - I read through tons of different WW2 letters from Japanese pilots to get a feel on how to write this one, imitating the style and everything. Your comment is very kind. All the best 😁

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Ruth Smith
01:52 Jan 31, 2022

This story is very well written. I liked the perspective.

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Alex Sultan
18:31 Feb 03, 2022

Thank you, Ruth. I appreciate the read and comment.

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Sarah Winston
15:02 Jan 29, 2022

Hi Alex, just discovering this story this morning (during a blizzard) and you've rendered a magnificent, realistic-feeling story once again. I was hoping Heiji would 'defect', if only for his own life, and for that time I was sitting in the cockpit with him, thinking, how do I get out of here, where do I go? I want to live! To hell with the emperor! He'll still be alive tomorrow morning, sipping his hot tea, and I'll be ashes.

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Alex Sultan
18:34 Feb 03, 2022

Thanks for reading, Sarah - I appreciate the comment! It's very kind of you. I did a lot of research for this one, watching movies and documentaries, reading pages and pages on the Zero, so I'm very glad the realism came across. Thanks again - your comment made me smile.

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Russell Norman
11:12 Jan 26, 2022

Great story. Loved the many levels. From the super personal to broad geo political US v Japan, both in war and technology of planes.

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Alex Sultan
17:54 Jan 26, 2022

Thank you, Russel! I did get lost in researching this one - I really do think the aviation aspect, aside from war, is quite interesting. I appreciate the read and comment.

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Tommie Michele
03:14 Jan 25, 2022

Hey Alex! I hope you're well--I've been sick the past week, and I know it's going around again. I just wanted to let you know, I (finally!) posted another story. I don't know if it's contest-worthy, since I haven't written anything in a good while, but if you have time, I would love to hear any feedback you have. I hope to hear another story from you this week, too--I can't wait to see what you write to follow up this one :)

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Alex Sultan
22:51 Jan 25, 2022

I'm glad to see you're back - I'll definitely check out your story. I'm finishing up mine for this week, but when I have it posted I'll leave my notes for yours.

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Craig Westmore
22:13 Jan 24, 2022

Congratulations Alex! Great story and I love your writing style.

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Alex Sultan
17:55 Jan 26, 2022

Thank you for the kind words, Craig. I appreciate the read and comment.

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15:00 Jan 24, 2022

i am wesly and i approve this story

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Alex Sultan
17:54 Jan 26, 2022

i appreciate the approval, wesly.

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Alice Stannard
21:20 Jan 23, 2022

Very well done. I loved the unique perspective of the grandfather's POV. But I suppose, as an American, it is unique for me. Perhaps not for a Japanese soldier. Sometimes, it is a challenge to be sensitive to the "other side's" humanity. Congratulations!

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Alex Sultan
17:56 Jan 26, 2022

Thank you, Alice. Imperial Japan is one of humanity's darkest periods. I'd like to believe, somewhere within it, some soldiers saw past the veil - I do think it is a challenge to convey it in a story. I appreciate the read and comment.

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17:16 Jan 21, 2022

Congratulations on another well deserved short list! 🙂

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Alex Sultan
17:27 Jan 21, 2022

Thank you, friend. I appreciate the help on it - I'll write a winner for this week's prompts 😁

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10:09 Jan 22, 2022

Hi Alex, the prompts are pretty good this week. I already wrote a draft for one of them and might do a second in a few days. I'd be grateful of any feedback if you have time.

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Alex Sultan
20:49 Jan 22, 2022

For sure - I would be happy to write feedback. I'm a bit busy right now, but later on in the week I'll have the time to do so.

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Deidra Lovegren
16:05 Jan 21, 2022

CONGRATULATIONS AGAIN -- Well done, for your amazing research and narrative voice. Loved it

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Alex Sultan
17:26 Jan 21, 2022

Thank you! The next one will be a winner 😎

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Deidra Lovegren
19:08 Jan 21, 2022

You're the writer to watch!

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Anna Nonymous
01:10 Jan 21, 2022

Gosh, you're good. This line "Burn on through death, Rina, and animate in my shade" gave me goosebumps. You have such a talent for voices - not only of your characters, but your own writing voice as well. I think this is a winner.

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Alex Sultan
17:28 Jan 21, 2022

Thank you, Hannah! This comment was so kind of you. I may not have won, but words like yours are very inspiring. I appreciate it :)

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Anna Nonymous
18:09 Jan 21, 2022

Shortlisted though! Not bad!

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Ernie Olson
17:53 Jan 20, 2022

Alex...well written. I'm a nasty critic, brutal, actually, and all I can say about your story is that you deserve every 'Like' you got...including mine. Thanks for honoring a wounded warrior.

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Alex Sultan
18:06 Jan 21, 2022

Thanks, Ernie. I appreciate the read and comment.

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