PILOT

Ray Anthony
Published by ACE
ISBN 978 0 9526287 6 7
eBook $3.99


ONE DAY HUMANS WILL MEET ALIENS...

Sapience, sa ´pi-ns, n. discernment: wisdom: judgement


CHAPTER 1

DOWNSIDE

The Sub Lieutenant sat strapped into his console and stared out at the star field. Over the months this view had lost most of its excitement. At the Naval Academy, he, like most Cadets Officers, had dreamed of graduation and a first tour on board a Battle Cruiser. When the postings were announced, he, like most of the graduates, was disappointed. His posting was to an Earth orbit space station and there wasn't much glamour in that. He supposed that it had something to do with his qualifications in electronics, or the lack thereof. Still, it could have been worse, much worse. He could have got a downside posting. If you got 'downside' on your first tour your naval career was over before it had even begun.

At first he hadn't thought this posting too bad; space station tours were usually short, normally one year. On these 'weightless' stations the tours were even shorter, usually four months. He was only seventeen; he had four months to show how bright he was. At the academy he hadn't really had a chance to shine and, anyway, at least he was in space, clocking up space hours, he felt confident that he would get a Battle Cruiser on his next tour.

He had been in space before of course, all cadets had space training. His first time as Officer of the Watch, had been the first opportunity he'd had to marvel at the beauty of the Milky Way. It was the first time he'd been in space without someone looking over his shoulder and assessing his every move. He used to enjoy staring out into the cosmos, thinking of the time when he would get out there amongst the stars in a Battle Cruiser. But he didn't do that any more. He'd quickly discovered why the weightless tours were only four months long - boredom; crushing, unending boredom. In zero G recreational activities were limited. Even movement around the station was regulated. When he asked why the station had to remain weightless he was told that an artificial gravity, or one induced by spin, would affect the delicate sensory instruments.

It wasn't as if he had a lot to occupy him. There were often days, sometimes even weeks when there was no traffic except one or two transit craft. Occasionally a flotilla or even a strike fleet would come in, then there would be round -the -clock activity. Unfortunately, that happened all too infrequently and, usually, all he did was count off the days until his posting ended. He no longer cared if he went to a Battle Cruiser; he wouldn't even mind a downside post. Anywhere, as long as it wasn't here or on another weightless.

The mass detectors' lights started flashing and an audible warning sounded. It had picked up a non-random motion at maximum range - just inside Jupiter's orbit. The Sub Lieutenant lazily turned to the console and absentmindedly waved his hands over the console. 'Scanning' identified the mass as a small vessel, still too far away to identify its class but it was heading towards Earth at trans -light speed.

Trans -light speed? Trans -light velocity inside the plain of the solar system was 'verboten'; it caused massive gravitational disturbances. If a naval Captain did that he would step out of his ship to find the shore patrol waiting and then he would step straight into a court martial. This could only be some Air Force jockey. He dialled up the emergency frequency, he was going to give this Flyboy a statute warning...

Hello Space Con Four. Space Con Four, this is X -Ray Tango One Five, squawking 200765. Request vector for entry Earth downside, over,” a voice crackled over the super -light comm.

XT? That wasn't a standard call sign. It could be one of these 'irregular' flights; flights that no one was supposed to know anything about. However, the squawk code was correct; he'd keep the statute warning up his sleeve. "X -Ray Tango One Five, this is Space Control Four. You are identified. What is your destination downside? Over."

"One Five. Destination AFB Oymyakon, over."

AFB Oymyakon? So, it was probably an Air Force ship, but he wasn't yet 100 percent sure. "Space Control Four, Roger. Destination Air Force Base Oymyakon. Wait." He checked his screens. "Wait." He checked his transit schedule. "One Five, zero space traffic for Oymyakon. You have priority over air traffic. You are clear for direct reentry. Decelerate and steer 0021/5628/1431. Oymyakon Control on 373 decimal 5, over."

"One Five, roger. 0021/5628/1431, 373 decimal 5. Thank you Space Control Four, have a nice day."

He was now pretty sure that it was an Air Force ship. Why should he give some pilot, who had been cooped up in bucket for God knows how many months, a hard time because that pilot was in a hurry to get downside? After the ship decelerated it would take about seventeen hours to make the Jupiter to Earth jaunt; seventeen hours before the Flyboys got some well deserved R&R. He had almost taken his eyes off the screen when something in the pilot's tone made him look again. Suddenly the ship disappeared off his screen... then reappeared at less than a quarter its original distance. It had made a super-light hop! Even in the Air Force that was an instant Court Martial. Super-light transit near a solar mass was dangerous to the point of being irresponsibly reckless. He stabbed wildly at the comms board and hit it on the second attempt.

"One Five, you are too hot. Too hot! Decelerate, decelerate! Acknowledge, over!"

There was only silence.

His fingers fumbled as they punched in 373, decimal 5. "This is Space Control Four. Override emergency! X-Ray Tango One Five decelerate, you are..." he stopped in mid sentence and watched open mouthed as the ship made a minor trans -light course correction. If he hadn't been strapped in he would have jumped out of his seat. The ship was now heading directly for the station!

Before he could say or do anything the collision warning sirens started wailing. It might have been just the sirens, but he could have sworn that he heard hysterical laughter coming over the comm. Three seconds later the ship passed the station at a distance of less than two hundred metres. A minute fraction of a second after that Space Control Four was hit by a gravitational shock wave.

Gravitational waves, like other wave forms, affected everything in their path. Even the smallest subatomic particles were individually disturbed. The disturbance was similar to the effect jumping into and out of super-light had on the crew of spaceships. But on a weightless the effects were greatly amplified, it played havoc with the central nervous system. Being caught in the wash of a trans/super-light ship was known in the generally understated parlance of spacefarers as 'having your day buffed'.

The Sub Lieutenant and the other six hundred and fifty-seven crew of Space Control Four were blasted insensible. Approximately one hour later they would regained consciousness. It would take another six hours or so before their vision returned to normal and for their pounding headaches to subside. It would take a further twelve hours before they could fully control their bowels or fine motor functions.

***

The Air Traffic Controller was most surprised when Space Con Four crashed his control frequency. The Space Con Four controller came on with an emergency override and was screaming a warning to some ship, X-Ray Tango One Five. There wasn't any X-Ray Tango under his control, so he checked his screen but there was no 'unidentified' in his sector. The Space Controller had stopped babbling in mid sentence. The Air Traffic Controller waited for further information. None was forthcoming. Had that Space Controller flipped? It wasn't unknown for these naval types to crack up whilst serving in a weightless. Because there was no immediate conflicting traffic with the aircraft under his control the Air Traffic Controller decided to devote some of his time to this 'situation'. A renegade controller wasn't just a danger to the spacecraft under his control, he could talk a ship in anywhere downside.

The Air Traffic Controller pressed 'call', this alerted the Control Officer that there was a possible difficulty in his sector. He knew that on the other side of the huge underground control room several Watch Officers would tap into the information displayed on his screen. Before he could explain the reason for the call, detectors picked up gravitational shock waves emanating for the upper stratosphere, so he punched into the ground and satellite based infra-red network.

As he'd expected, the infra-red detectors picked up a 'burner' - a ship had hit the atmosphere at high speed. It must have been the ship that Space Con Four was warning. He locked the infra-red monitors onto the ship. The detectors showed a streaking object, glowing white-hot, that had dived deep into the atmosphere. The Air Traffic Controller had witnessed a few burners in his time, but never one like this. This ship was moving fast, yet it didn't appear to be out of control, it was definitely being flown. The pilot was scrubbing off speed - using the atmosphere as a brake. Whoever was piloting that ship looked to be in a hurry to lose speed and get down.

The ship squawked 200765 for only four seconds, then pulled back out of the atmosphere. The Air Traffic Controller checked the aircraft in his sector, they were all still OK. On its next orbit the ship came down to 90,000 feet and squawked 200765 for six seconds, then pulled out again. At 100,000 feet a vessel came under Air Traffic control, so he prepared to hail the ship on the emergency frequency on its next pass but flashing warning lights on his console distracted him.

It was an 'all stations alert' from Naval TacCon. The Navy was telling every man and his dog that there was a full naval sector scramble on. Naval Air Station Bandar in the Persian Gulf, and the Maldives station in the Indian Ocean were putting up point defence space ships and supersonic aircraft. As the Air Traffic Controller got very busy steering the aircraft under his control out of the path of the Navy ships, it occurred to him that this wasn't a routine training scramble. Naval Air Stations didn't normally launch simultaneous scrambles. Plus, they were putting up nearly five times the normal number of ships. Was this scramble connected with the burner?

The burner came back on screen, it had slowed to Mach 19.3, and dived to 60,000 feet. Again it squawked 200765, this time for nine seconds. The infra -red detectors showed its deflector shields glowing at the very limit of their tolerance. He was about to press the transmit button...

"Three Eight. Without transmitting, I want you to hand over all your aircraft to Six Two. I think this bird is one of ours and I want him brought in soonest. Do you copy six two?" the Control Officer's calm voice came over the headset.

The Air Traffic Controller heard Six Two acknowledge and then, having been relieved of his responsibilities, turned to look across the dimly lit control centre. A large group of people were standing over the Control Officer's console. At this distance the Air Traffic Controller couldn't make out who they were but he guessed that they were Officers. More personnel in various states of getting dressed were rushing into the centre. The Air Traffic Controller's surprise grew as the Base Commander came in and went over to the Control Officer. The Base Commander was a pilot; she rarely came in here. After a few moments the Base Commander started walking directly towards him. The Air Traffic Controller suddenly felt self-conscious and nervous. What the hell was going on?

He turned and focussed his attention on his screen. The burner was climbing back out of the atmosphere. The Air Traffic Controller would wait until the burner's next orbit before trying to raise them. He could feel the base Commander's presence as she came to stand behind him. Sitting back to wait, as calmly as he could, he noticed that the Navy ships were breaking up their formation. They were fanning out along the expected trajectory of the burner.

He punched into the Naval Fighter Control frequency. The Fighter Controllers were going through the 'weapon armed' checks with their pilots. Once the checks were completed, they then told the rocket ships to hold station just outside the ionosphere and the supersonic fighters to cruise just inside. If the burner stayed on the same trajectory he would fly through a gauntlet of Navy ships. And, he would have to stay on that trajectory unless he'd had lost enough speed to be able to execute high -G atmosphere manoeuvres. Even if he managed to accomplish that, he'd have to be a red -hot pilot to evade that many Navy ships.

The Air Traffic Controller went back to his own control frequency and waited for the burner to reappear... but it didn't. He tapped into some other control sectors, it wasn't on their screens either. He went back to the infra-red detectors; a ship that had reentered at that speed couldn't hide. It would be a blazing white fireball, visible to the naked eye in daylight. There was simply no way that it could go undetected by the strategically positioned super sensitive instruments... nothing. He couldn't find it on the ultraviolet network either.

Had the ship flitted back into space? He returned to the Naval Fighter Control frequency. The controllers were asking their pilots the same question. The rocket ship formation commander was adamant that the burner hadn't got past them and was hopping mad that the fighter controllers had lost it. There followed a full blown shouting match until someone senior downside told them all to shut up and check for gravitational shock waves from a super-light jump.

If the pilot of the 'bogie' had jumped to super-light this close to a planetary mass, and survived, the grinning Air Traffic Controller swore to himself that he'd personally seek him out and buy the guy several drinks. However, there were too many residual shock waves registering from the burner's initial entry to tell if it had jumped. The Navy controllers confirmed the Air Traffic Controller deductions, and the normally disciplined Navy crews started cursing like there was no tomorrow. The Air Traffic Controller was about to request further instructions from the Control Officer when the Base Commander gently tapped him on the shoulder and leaned over the console.

"Stay with it son. I don't think this party is over yet," she said kindly.

Base Commander or not, she should realise that the burner must have gone to super-light or it would be showing up somewhere. But, saying nothing, he dutifully sat back and punched up a few other sectors as if he were actually looking for the burner. The Base Commander had now been joined by several other people; they were having a quiet discussion. Too scared to turn and look, the Air Traffic Controller had no such fear about trying to listen in on what was being said. Pretending to watch the Navy ships as they returned and stacked up for landing at their bases he leant back in his chair and scratched his head, slipping the headset off one of his ears in the process. The Officers were talking in that calm, unexcited, quiet manner that Officers tended to. It was difficult for him to hear clearly, but he did make out the occasional word or sentence. From what he overheard he surmised that they were talking about a possible 'goosing'.

Goosings were legendary, but they didn't happen in this day and age. To the Air Traffic Controller's knowledge it was at least two generations since the last goosing. Back in the days when the Navy had sole responsibility for the defence of Earth, the Air Force used to act as 'aggressors'. Air Force squadrons would run simulated attacks against the Navy's primary, secondary, and fall back positions. The hot shot pilots that managed to penetrated the Navy's defences added insult to injury by 'goosing' the Navy's weightless stations.

A space station full of puking, shitting and totally disorientated people trapped in zero gravity must have been quite a sight. And the cleaning up afterwards! Of course, the Navy always lodged formal complaints against the pilots. Nothing was ever done about the complaints. The Air Force's response was always, 'If this had been for real....'

There was one particularly bad showing by the Navy when a couple of stealth squadrons busted through their primary defences, ripped up the secondary defences and then sat waiting in the fall back positions. After mauling the remaining naval fleets, every single weightless in the solar system got goosed. The Navy lodged its strongest ever protest, directly to Supreme Command. Supreme Command made a few angry noises but took no action. The Navy promised that if nothing was done it would take 'firm independent action'. Nobody took them seriously.

The next Air Force pilot to goose a weightless was bounced by two Earth launched naval fusion rocket ships. Without warning they opened up with laser cannons and blew him out of the sky. The Air Force made no formal protest but within hours of this incident, seven fully armed Air Force battle wings, commanded by a Star Officer, appeared in the sky over NSMB1, (Naval Station Mars Base 1, the largest military installation on Mars). NSMB1 scrambled everything it had and the Air Force battle wings allowed all the Navy ships to get off the deck. What then followed was the wildest and most dispersed dogfight in Earth's military history.

The Air Force pilots each selected a Navy ship, locked on to it with full attack array, and then stuck to it glue. The Air Force didn't actually shoot down any Navy ships, they didn't even fire at them, they simply flew the terrified Navy pilots to exhaustion. Supreme Command intervened and ordered all ships back to their respective bases. From light-years around the Solar System hundreds of Navy crews limped back to NSMB1. The Air Force battle wings reformed and flew back to AFB Nereid, Neptune's moon that the Air Force had all to itself. On open channels they transmitted a continuous stream of abuse at the naval truck drivers, 'The Air Force took a very dim view of a Navy tub shooting down one of its unarmed spaceship and murdering four of its personnel. This had better have been the first and last time, “or else”.'

There was immediate censorship from the government over this 'totally unacceptable conduct' from the military. There was no Court of Enquiry and no Court Martial, but scores of Air Force Star, and Naval Fleet Officers took voluntary early retirement. Supreme Command issued the DIDAC Convention - the new rules on the arming of weapons and the discharging of munitions. What it basically said was that no weapon more powerful than a standard 100-kilo artillery shell could be armed or fired within 1.75 light-years of Earth. The only exception to this was during a General Recall.

Public opinion of the military plummeted from its normal low to a point where they were equated with criminals. Inter-service liaison between the Navy and Air Force was even lower than that. Goosings were never outlawed, but it was taken as read that they were to cease. Goosings were now associated with The Glorious Days; the time when the military had 'freedom' and wasn't constrained by a straight jacket placed on it by the government.

The Air Traffic Controller would concede that the incident with the burner, had all the indications of a goosing, regardless of how unlikely that might seem. And that would explain the interest shown by everyone in the Control Centre and the Navy's sector scramble. Still, he really didn't believe it was; the pilot would have to be insane. There was no way the Navy would allow him to get downside, plus, Supreme Command 'the military above the military' was almost exclusively made up of ex-Navy Officers. This jockey could never get away with it.

Randomly the Air Traffic Controller continued to patch into other sectors. In NS Corunna sector 21, he saw something that made him pause and look closer. An aircraft at 47,000 feet, doing Mach 1.8, heading east in the Green 7 air corridor. There was nothing unusual about the aircraft or its flight path. It was, however, squawking 469000. Could it be? He ranged in on that aircraft with the infra -red; its temperature was normal for an aircraft at that height and speed. Losing interest he was about to switch to another sector...

"What is it son?" the Base Commander asked over his shoulder.

"It's nothing, Ma'am. I just thought that ship," he highlighted its position, "might have been our boy. But it's cold."

"Why did you think it could be him?"

He didn't want to feel a complete fool in front of the Base Commander. "Just a wild guess, Ma'am. It's squawking 469000."

"And?"

"Well, the burner squawked for four, six, and nine seconds on each of its passes, Ma'am."

"I see. You were very quick to pick that up. Keep an eye on him," she encouraged.

"It can't be him Ma'am, it's cold. And anyway it is under Naval Air Traffic control."

The Base Commander pulled up a chair and sat next to him. "Is it heading in this general direction?"

"Not really, Ma'am. It's travelling along Green 7, but Green 7 only just intersects Oymyakon controlled airspace. I could go through to Spanish ATC and request its flight plan from NS Corunna, Ma'am."

"Let's not draw the Truckies attention to this one, stay with him."

"Yes Ma'am." The Air Traffic Controller thought it was a waste of time.

As he continued to monitor the sector he noticed that not all the naval aircraft that had scrambled were returning to their bases. Some were flying high altitude sweeps and then diving down for a visual 'ident', at random, on air traffic. Turning to the Base Commander, he said, "They're still searching for him, Ma'am."

"How long before that bird comes under our control?" The Base Commander appeared to be getting excited.

"If he maintains current heading and speed; approximately three-hours-forty, Ma'am."

"Is it likely that they'll get a visual fix on him in that time?"

He made some calculations on his screen. "If they continue to fly the same pattern, those interceptors," he pointed them out on screen, "will be searching in his area in about eight minutes."

The Base Commander reached for a handset and dialled the Control Officer. "Uri, I have a hunch that our boy is still around, so have the Truckies. They're continuing to look for him. He's going to need top cover. Keep everybody sharp." She replaced the hand set and sat back.

For five minutes he plotted the progress of the ship that was squawking 469000. The naval interceptors searched closer and closer to it. The fighters closed to within 90 miles of 469000 but it continued at the same height, speed and heading. This convinced the Air Traffic Controller that it couldn't be the burner. An Air Force spaceship had top line radars and would know that the Navy planes were around. Two naval interceptors started closing directly on 469000 from behind. 469000 didn't react; it was probably an airliner...

"Stand by Three Eight. If this is our boy, bring him all the way into the parking bays."

The Air Traffic Controller didn't realise that the Control Officer was still on his screen. If the Control Officer really did think 469000 was the burner, why was he leaving him to control it? Maybe the Control Officer thought him a better controller than he wrote on his annual assessments. The interceptors closed to 30 miles... 20 miles... 10 miles. What was everyone going to do when it turned out to be a false alarm? Suddenly, 469000 accelerated. It was the burner! An aeroplane couldn't accelerate that quickly.

"Oymyakon control. This is X-Ray Tango One Five. Position, twelve miles south of Kiel, flight level four seven, squawking 46900, over." The pilot sounded very relaxed in view of all that had happened and was about to happen.

"X-Ray Tango One Five, this is Oymyakon control, I have you. Stand by for evasive manoeuvres, over." The nearest interceptors had gone supersonic and more were closing. Oymyakon was scrambling its alert fighters!

"One Five, ready." The pilot sounded like he was laughing.

"One Five, turn right, one-four-five. Two fighters in your six, sixteen miles, flight level five-six-zero, Mach 4 and closing."

"Roger, right, one-four-five, I have them."

"Roll out, one-three-one. Four fighters, 2 O' clock, seven-four-zero, diving. Will pass four miles to your right."

"One-three-one... there they go." The pilot was definitely laughing.

"Reverse, zero-eight-three, go to Mach 5, climb to eight-zero-zero."

"Zero-eight-three, at Mach 5, passing seven two zero."

"Continue, zero-two-five. Three fighters 11 o'clock high, turn inside them."

"Zero- two-five. Not seen. Turning."

"Tighten turn! Come round to three-four-eight! Fighters now 1 o'clock level, six miles!"

"They've locked on. I'll take it from here."

The pilot was still sounding fairly relaxed about the whole thing. The Air Traffic Controller sat and watched incredulously as the moving dots on his screen seem to merge. A spaceship could accelerate and turn faster than any plane. But it couldn't use its anti-gravity inside a planet's gravitational well, so the crew would feel the full effects of a high-G turn. Nor could they use the ship's massive speed advantage. If the pilot went above Mach 9, he would need his deflector shield because of the heat generated by the friction with the air. He'd be flying virtually blind. In the dog fight the spaceship's advantages were neutralised and there were three Navy planes. Things weren't looking good...

"I'm in the leader's six at 1000 yards and have the other two on multiple lock-on. Is there any more trade?"

Wow! Some pilot! He was winning a three-on-one and was looking to beat up some more Navy fliers. The dog fight had drifted and was now over Norway. The Base Commander crossed her legs and, full of amusement, said, “Tell our errant scion that it's time to come in.”

"Negative, One Five. Other naval planes are being entertained by friendlies."

"Roger. Will play with these for a bit. Which door should we come in?"

The majority of the Navy planes were massing near Oymyakon. They had calculated that Oymyakon was the burner's eventual goal. The Air Force fighters were trying to disperse them. "The Truckies are waiting on the front lawn. Come in through the back door. Glide path three-five-five. Your path is clear. Come straight in."

"Three-five-five, Roger."

The Air Traffic Controller watched as X-Ray Tango One Five broke off the engagement, turned north, and accelerated to Mach 7. It came in over the North Pole, leaving the Navy planes hopelessly outpaced. "You're on the glide path. Fighters 150 miles behind. Decelerate."

X-Ray Tango One Five didn't immediately slow. It looked like it was going to overshoot the base. "One Five you're too hot. Break off for another approach."

"Negative. We're coming straight in."

In the depths of the Control Centre, the Air Traffic Controller couldn't have heard or felt the vibrations, but he could imagine the high pitch scream of a spaceship under full sonic braking. There would be a deluge of complaints from civilians all over North Eastern Russia. X-Ray Tango One Five slowed from Mach 7 to 80 Knots in 41 seconds. Now, that was some flying!

"Slow to taxi speed. Follow the trace lines. Your bay is sixty-seven. Go straight in."

"Bay sixty-seven. Roger." On the ground movement board the Air Traffic Controller followed the ship as it taxied down into the subsurface hangers. "In the nest. Shutting down."

"Roger One Five. Welcome home."

"Thank you, Scopie, that was very smooth handling. Out."

"Wait One Five. How did you manage to lose your reentry heat?"

"Scopie, how is your geography?" there was the same amused voice.

"Repeat question."

"Surely you were taught in school that the Earth's surface is three fifths water?"

"What?"

"We went for a little dip."

Both the Base Commander and the pilot started to laugh.

Propeller Communications