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

Michelle Colpo
23:57 Jan 16, 2022

Beautiful story. You don’t often come across these war stories from the Japanese perspective. Well done!

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Alex Sultan
02:28 Jan 18, 2022

Thank you! It is a challenge to write war stories of the opposing side. I appreciate the read and comment.

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Charlie Murphy
02:07 Jan 16, 2022

Great action!

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Alex Sultan
21:22 Jan 18, 2022

Thank you, Charlie.

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Charlie Murphy
21:46 Jan 18, 2022

YW! Can you read mine?

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Annalisa D.
05:38 Jan 15, 2022

This was well written and had lots of really nice descriptions. It seems like such a difficult situation to be in with him accepting his death and all the things he would miss. I'm glad that he survived.

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Alex Sultan
22:06 Jan 15, 2022

Thank you. While there were a lot of soldiers willing to die for Imperial Japan during the war, I'd assume there had to be some who saw past it. I appreciate the comment as always :)

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Tommie Michele
03:50 Jan 15, 2022

“I first learnt of my death on a beige slip of paper”—what a way to start a story! This is probably my favorite hook of yours so far :). It’s amazing, the way you tell so many stories from different perspectives—as an American, reading your stories (especially your war stories) is always really refreshing and a good reminder that there are two sides to every story. Something tells me you’ve found your niche in historical fiction, although your fantasy is also incredible. I feel like you could pull off an amazing war fiction, or general h...

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Alex Sultan
21:59 Jan 15, 2022

Thank you! I've been trying to make my stories more engaging, and went through a list of different hooks before coming up with the beige slip of paper line. I'm glad I could share another take on war - in Canada, school never really went into depth other than we participated in ww2, allies = good axis = bad, so I see what you're saying. Another perspective can be humanizing reminder that war is terrible for everyone. You're nearly spot on with the novel comment! My first book - most likely - is going to be fantasy/war/historical fiction. I...

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Tommie Michele
19:40 Jan 23, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist! Definitely well-deserved :)

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13:40 Jan 13, 2022

I cannot wait to read more of your historical fiction pieces! "'I first learnt of my death on a beige slip of paper'" was an excellent hook. Kamikazes are definitely one of the most horrifying concepts to come out of war. I loved the line, "Within a breath from becoming unwound, he found a moment of clarity. He could live." Great job!

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Alex Sultan
20:22 Jan 14, 2022

Thank you for reading! I went through a couple of lines for the hook, but none of them were near as engaging as the beige slip of paper one. I agree with your take - kamikazes are a prime example of inhumane warfare. I'm glad you liked the story, and I appreciate the comment :)

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Suma Jayachandar
07:29 Jan 13, 2022

Alex, as usual an engaging , well researched story. Your craft in embedding your reasearch is growing with every successive piece. I could feel many cultural and linguistic elements woven into the narrative seamlessly. Great job!

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Alex Sultan
20:24 Jan 14, 2022

Thank you, Suma. I'm glad the research paid off. I do like to think I'm getting better & better at this genre, learning from the last story and such. I really do appreciate the comment! Thanks again for reading :)

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Wow. Just wow. Two critiques: [The Zero’s twin 20-millimetre cannons shot.] Perhaps replace [shot] with {fired}? I think it would make this stronger. [lighting the wings ablaze.] I would replace [lighting] with {setting}. An amazing story, very well written. Masterful as usual. Great job!

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Alex Sultan
03:10 Jan 13, 2022

Thank you! Great feedback as always - I've swapped out both words. I felt like something was missing there, and I'm very glad you pointed it out. Thanks again for reading - I'll have to read your newest story when I get the chance.

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20:20 Jan 12, 2022

Ok, here goes...I'm doing this on my phone so will post it at various intervals in case I lose it. I'll tell you when I'm finished..... It ruled the skies. Uncontested design. The allies found themselves at a loss to deal with them. - I think the final "them" should be "it", for consistency. I think the inconsistency stands out more than the repetition would. Steam rose from the water; a sweet, floral smell. - consider rewording to drop the filter.... Steam rose from the water; sweet and floral. The Zero fighter plane swerved through th...

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Alex Sultan
22:39 Jan 12, 2022

Thank you, friend. I made every change you suggested! I really think you should write more historical fiction. From your comment here (and 'The Mother Goose Murders' story) I think you'd be very good at it. The reminder to cut filters is great. I do have the habit of adding 'coloured', and will watch for it. Your comment on the 'gold leaves' made me laugh. Good catch on 'nonetheless' too. I read a ton of old Japanese pilot letters before writing it, and looking at what I wrote now, 'nonetheless' does stand out as odd. As for the speech, do...

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23:09 Jan 12, 2022

Just reread it. It's got a smoother feel to it now, I think the edits have helped. Great job on this one! I feel a shortlist coming on ....

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18:25 Jan 12, 2022

Hi Alex, This is great. A wonderful take on a potentially limiting prompt. But as always, you write without limits. I love the grandfather's story and the plane and battle details, you've done some research here, I can taste it. The line the memory opens with: “I first learnt of my death on a beige slip of paper…” is superb. If I wasn't attentive before that point I certainly was after it. I'll look to do line by line later tonight. I did spot a few things on the first read through, but this clearly deserves a second look when I have ...

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Alex Sultan
20:14 Jan 12, 2022

Thank you! I did more research for this than any other piece, and hit many walls along the way. My original opening line to the memory was "Us pilots trained harder than any other branch of the military," but it didn't feel as engaging. I'm glad this one worked better. If you have the time for line-by-line feedback, feel free to be as negative as possible/hold nothing back. I do want this story to be good. While Japan was very cruel, I find it an interesting viewpoint to write about.

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Dorsa S.
17:59 Jan 12, 2022

this is a great story, alex! the imagery was masterful, as if i was right next to heiji in the fighter plane. the vulnerability in the letter was potent, especially when you emphasized where he struck out the line. it was a perfect addition to this. here are a few minor things i caught. i hope this doesn't come off as negative, and these are all optional. :) Heiji raised his goggles, [prints] left over his eyes. - 'imprints' might seem more fitting instead of 'prints.' Panicking, [alive,] water filling his lungs, he punched at his buckle[...

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Alex Sultan
20:10 Jan 12, 2022

Thank you, Dorsa. I'm glad you could read this one - I know you read Iriewani, which is obviously similar to this, so I really do value your take on this story. I've edited in your suggestions. I'm glad you liked the letter/reflection scene. I wrote a couple different variations for it and was unsure if this worked. Thanks again - I'm looking forward to your next story :)

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Dorsa S.
17:24 Jan 21, 2022

congrats on the shortlist, by the way!

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Alex Sultan
17:32 Jan 21, 2022

Thank you! Here's to winning the next one 😁

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Keya Jadav
11:43 Jan 12, 2022

Alex! This is good. I loved how you twisted it according to the prompt yet came up with such a wonderful piece! It was fast-paced with excellent descriptions, painting a good image. I liked the concept of the grandfather telling his story to his grandson. Personal notes (not crits): Steam rose from the water a sweet, floral smell. ---This works as it is but if I were you I'd go with a (;) after water, just for the impact. and pushed his foot on the left pedal. --- pressed? (again, it's just me, I see you've later written 'his foot press...

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Alex Sultan
20:06 Jan 12, 2022

Thank you, Keya! I'm glad you could read this one. I do appreciate the feedback, and that the imagery worked out - I tried to vary the description of the sky for each flight. The letter/Heiji taking a moment to reflect was a challenging scene to write - I went through many different variations of it. Thank you again for the kind words! I like your first suggestion a lot and have implemented it.

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Keya Jadav
15:56 Jan 21, 2022

Ay Congrats again!!! You keep on hitting the perfect string. GREAT!!!! Congratulationsss 🥳

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Alex Sultan
17:40 Jan 21, 2022

Thank you! Next one will take home gold 🏆

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Daniel Hafertepe
14:36 Jan 18, 2022

Accept or ignore this feedback: // ... with a plane fuelled up just ... // my word processor says fueled // He spiralled, altitude plummeting, ... // my word processor says spiraled // No more spell-checking given the diversity of English on Reedsy. // // When Japan’s fighter plane—the Zero—first appeared // consider a re-write ... // When the Zero first appeared, the Japanese fighter plane outmaneuvered ... // The change to first sentence might help you avoid the awkward punctuation. // Uncontested design. // Fragment // A terror t...

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Alex Sultan
20:51 Jan 18, 2022

Thank you for the feedback! I appreciate the effort put into this comment - it is kind of you to go through my story in such detail. I'm always very open to these comments, positive or negative, and have taken your words into account. I think you bring up some very good and interesting points. Here is what I have for reply: A lot of spellchecks will - as you said - be diverse considering the diversity of English. A lot of my spelling in Canadian English will differ from American and UK. As for sentence fragments, I do use them a lot for sty...

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