LAST EDITED ON Aug-22-19 AT 01:02 AM (EDT)|
This item aired as part of the 2411 Avalon County NAS Society telethon. It was billed as a "Might-Be Future" continuation of Our Witches at War, in which capacity it was instantly and heartily controversial among fans of the show. Some of those who came out against it cried spoilers; others objected to its darker tone (there was significant overlap there with the people who didn't like The Fall of Petrograd). The piece raised the most money by far of any individual segment of the telethon, however.
Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Program start_/* Buddy Holly & the Crickets
"That'll Be the Day"
Brunswick 9-55009 (1957) */
Tuesday, December 10, 1963
Los Santos, San Andreas
United States of Liberion
Earth, dimension GCC #332/S
The street running just outside Los Santos International Airport's northern perimeter fence had a split personality, Senior Airman Craig Randall decided. Its eastern end, closer to the terminal, was fairly upscale, with a couple of expensive-looking hotels, a few buildings that looked like offices of one kind or another, and the parking lot for the airport rental cars. As Randall headed west, though, the neighborhood's character changed, and pretty abruptly at that; one cross street past the last of the hotels, the buildings turned to warehouses and stayed that way right down to the dogleg turn where the road swung north toward the city, detouring around the Vespucci Beach Marina's boat basin.
Right there on the corner, just as Randall had been told, stood a car dealership, the most compact one the airman had ever seen in a big city. The showroom held all of three cars, with a dozen more parked outside, and the tall HY-WAY PONTIAC sign out by the road was on a scale proportional to the rest of the operation. The only visual indication that anything about this tiny dealership might be out of the ordinary was the second row of that sign, below the name, which said simply SPEED SHOP.
Driving onto the lot, Randall saw that the service department was in a separate building, a low structure backed up to the airport fence that the airman had at first taken for some neighboring business. The showroom was deserted and locked up, a Sorry We're CLOSED sign in the door, even though it was late morning on a Tuesday, but the overhead door on the nearest service bay was open. As he climbed out of his Air Force official vehicle, Randall heard music and the distinctive sound of a ratchet wrench coming from within.
There was a red convertible, one of the big Pontiacs, in the middle of the bay. Because the hood was open, Randall couldn't see whoever was working on the engine from the doorway, but he decided to take a chance and said loudly, "Excuse me. Colonel Yeager?"
The sound of the wrench paused for a moment, then resumed. There was no other acknowledgement that Randall had spoken. After waiting in increased perplexity for a good twenty seconds, he was just about to try again when the person working on the car finished up, closed the hood, came around to the driver's side, and said,
Randall blinked. He'd never met Colonel Charlotte E. Yeager in person, it was true, but he'd seen her picture enough times in his twenty-two years on this Earth. Even dressed in a grubby mechanic's coverall, and with her orange hair bobbed in a modish style since her last file photo was taken, the woman standing there by the Pontiac, regarding him with calm blue eyes while she wiped her hands on a rag, couldn't possibly be anyone else.
"Excuse me?" the airman repeated, a little lamely.
"I said, 'nope,'" the woman replied casually. Turning away, she stuffed the rag in her back pocket, then went to a tool chest standing by the wall and started putting things away from the other pockets of her coverall. "As in, nope, you are not speaking to Colonel Yeager." Her pockets emptied, she returned to the car and started picking up other items from the floor, carrying on in a conversational tone while she did so, "Colonel Yeager ceased to exist in 1958."
Randall could find no response to this for a few moments, as Yeager finished policing her tools and putting them away. Only once that task was completed did she address him again, remarking, "So unless you want to make your car faster, Airman, you're in the wrong place."
The young man blinked a couple of times—this wasn't going anything like he'd been rehearsing in his head for the last two hours—and then declared, "General Phillips sent me."
"Oh, how's old Sam doing?" asked Yeager, her tone still friendly, but not very interested. "Still playing around with rockets? Trying to beat the Orussians to the Moon?"
"He needs your help," Randall said, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice.
Yeager leaned casually against her tool chest, arms folded, and chuckled. "Unless he's in the market for a souped-up Pontiac, I very much doubt that, friend. I'm retired, and besides, I 'don't meet the educational requirements' for his operation. That's a direct quote," she added helpfully, and then, with a dismissive gesture, "Tell him to ask Ursula Hartmann."
"Professor Hartmann is missing," Randall blurted.
Yeager looked hard at the young airman for a few seconds, the intensity of her gaze almost making him quail.
"Dammit," she muttered, then pulled the rag from her back pocket, tossed it on top of the tool chest, and hurdled the Bonneville's door into the driver's seat in one long-legged bound.
"Get that shitbox Dodge out of my way," she said, starting the engine.
"Colonel—" said Randall, but Yeager, looking back over her shoulder, cut him off with another moment's eye contact and a sharp:
Randall did as he was told, backing the Air Force car out of the garage bay doorway. A moment later, Yeager's red Pontiac surged out, reversing at terrifying speed, then slewed into a tight J-turn, halting with its nose pointing toward the street in more or less its own length.
"Shut that door," she ordered, angling a thumb back at the garage bay.
Baffled, Randall obeyed, working the chainfall furiously, then left the garage by the side door.
"Let's go! Double-time it, Airman!" Yeager called.
"Leave it here. I'm driving."
Yeager didn't speak again until they were out of the city and busting north on Highway 14 at ludicrous speed. When she did, her remarks weren't really addressed to Randall, so much as through him to the entire organization he represented:
"I live practically on the airport at LSIA, and you idiots send a car to bring me to Edwards." She glanced at him, then returned her eyes to the road and went on, "You do remember you're the United States Air Force, yeah?"
Randall didn't answer, assuming correctly that she didn't really want to hear any explanation the likes of him might offer. Besides, he was too busy being mildly terrified by the speed they were going. Highway 14 wasn't terribly busy in the middle of the day, but it wasn't deserted either, and Yeager was threading through the light-to-moderate traffic at pretty much the (very considerable) best speed a late-model Pontiac Bonneville with the Super Duty 421 engine could do.
"OK, so what's going on?" she asked once they were clear of Agua Dulce. "You said Hartmann's missing. What does that mean?"
Almost shouting to make himself heard over the roar of the car's slipstream, Randall admitted, "I don't know, Colonel. Whatever she's involved in is above my level. I only know that General Phillips personally ordered me to make best speed to Los Santos, find you, and bring you back to Edwards, and if you refused, to tell you what I told you."
"That figures. Never tell the help what they need to know; it's the Air Force way." Glancing at him again, she cracked her first smile of their brief acquaintanceship (albeit an economical, preoccupied one) and asked, "What's your name, kid?"
"Randall," he replied. "Craig. Senior Airman, 1124th Test Squadron."
"Well, nice to meet you, Airman Randall," she said, offering a hand across the car's center console. "I'm Charlotte Yeager. When the brass isn't looking, friends call me Shirley." As Randall hesitantly shook her hand, she added, "Don't take it personally if I'm not in the best mood right now. Sam Phillips has that effect on me, even on days when one of my best friends isn't in some kind of unspecified jam the Air Force needs me to get her out of. Ya know?"
"... Roger that, ma'am," Randall replied, completely flummoxed.
They covered the hundred-plus miles from LSIA to the front gate of Edwards Air Force Base in fifty minutes flat. The gate guard seemed to be expecting them; at the Pontiac's approach, he opened the gate and waved them through without stopping them.
Shirley hadn't been on the base for almost five years, and even preoccupied as she was, she noticed a few new buildings as she headed for the admin center. The flight test business, it appeared, was still good, at least for the people in charge.
The situation at the admin building was the same as at the gate. The guard recognized her on sight and didn't ask to see her ID; he just stood aside and saluted as she swept past him, Randall trotting at her heels, and made straight for General Phillips's office.
The general's outer office was empty, and the man himself awaited her at his desk. He hadn't changed much—a little older, a little greyer, but with the same serious demeanor and well-pressed uniform. As Shirley entered the office, he rose to his feet.
"Colonel Yeager, thank you for coming," he began, but she interrupted,
"Sam. What kind of a jam is Ursula in? The kid you sent to get me says he wasn't told."
Phillips blinked, a flicker of a scowl crossing his face—he might have known she would ignore protocol. She'd never been much good at that when she was on active duty, never mind as a civilian. Then, putting it aside, he looked past her to Randall, who hovered in the doorway, and told him,
"Wait outside and close the door." Returning his attention to Shirley, he added, "Take a seat," and sat down behind his desk.
Shirley sat unwillingly, impatient for him to get to the point—which, to his credit, he did as soon as Randall finished his appointed task.
"For the last year, Professor Hartmann has been working on a test series codenamed Project Excelsior. Its purpose is to test a new parachute system she's developed for high-altitude, high-speed ejections from the new generation of stratospheric conventional aircraft."
"Spare me the technical details," Shirley told him. "Randall said she's missing."
"That's not entirely accurate," Phillips replied, unperturbed by the obvious detail that he had provided the airman's inaccurate information himself. "We can't get to her, she can't get back, and we don't know her exact status, but we know precisely where she is."
"And where's that?" asked Shirley.
Phillips pointed at the ceiling. "A hundred thousand feet above Test Range C."
Shirley blinked at him. "... Eh?"
"A balloon?" Shirley demanded.
She was walking along the back of a row of hangars, new ones built after her time, along with a technical officer Phillips had handed her off to: a bespectacled, fiftyish flight surgeon who introduced herself as Joan Stapp.
The flight surgeon nodded, unaffected by the disbelieving tone of Shirley's voice. "That's correct, Colonel."
"I'm not a colonel," Shirley interjected automatically.
Stapp paused fractionally, then went on as if she hadn't spoken, "Specifically, a helium gas envelope, capacity three million cubic feet. The operation is simple, in principle: Professor Hartmann rides the balloon to a predetermined target altitude, waits for the balloon's aerostat system to stabilize it, and jumps out of the gondola. The purpose of the test—"
"I don't need to know that," Shirley cut in. "I do need to know what went wrong."
"According to our last radio contact with the Professor, she reached the test altitude of 105,500 feet—ground radar confirms that—but was unable to egress the gondola. She said the hatch was stuck. We suspect thermal contraction may have jammed the lock mechanism."
Shirley stopped in her tracks, giving Stapp an incredulous stare. "She's trapped in the stratosphere because she can't open the door?"
"So it appears," Stapp replied. She resumed walking at a brisk pace, forcing Shirley to trot to catch up, and went on, "We lost radio contact shortly after that report. Not entirely sure why, but we've had comms problems at altitude in previous tests as well. There's a lot going on that high up, electromagnetically speaking. It was never a serious problem before, because she wasn't spending very long up there."
"And how long has she been up there this time?" Shirley demanded. "When did this happen?"
"1322 hours yesterday," said Stapp.
Shirley halted again, giving her another stare, to which the surgeon gave a solemn nod.
"Yes," she said. "Your friend's been above 100,000 feet for nearly 24 hours now."
"Jesus," Shirley said, and Stapp wondered what on Earth that meant; it was some kind of an oath, she could tell from the witch's inflection, but she'd never heard the word before. Now it was her turn to catch up as Shirley set off again, almost at a run, before it occurred to her that Stapp was the one who knew where they were going.
"She's wearing a heated pressure suit," Stapp went on, "but the mission was only supposed to take two hours—90 minutes to altitude, 15 minutes of prep, 15 minutes to fall. The oxygen supply and heater batteries will have failed sometime yesterday afternoon. Of course, she's an Alternative Magic Source adept, but you know as well as I do that a witch can only maintain her concentration for so long. Our arcanologists have run four predictive simulations."
"She didn't survive the night in two of them. I won't sugar-coat it for you, Yeager... you may be going up there for nothing."
Shirley snorted. "Ursula's tougher than your slide rule kids think. Besides, even if she didn't make it? Doesn't matter. She and I were both in the 501st together." Her eyes glinted like glacier ice, the muscles of her jaw tight, as she said flatly, "We leave no witch behind."
Stapp had no reply for that. She turned off the path and led the way up the side of the last hangar along, toward a door guarded by a pair of Air Police and a bright red NO ADMITTANCE paint job.
"Back in '45, we went up against a Neuroi that was 90-some-thousand feet tall, with its core all the way at the top," Shirley said, as if reminding herself as much as telling Stapp. "We used a gadget from Karlsland, a kind of magic rocket booster, to get at it. It took the whole wing working together to get two of us up that high. Tell me how I'm going to go higher than that all by myself."
Stapp unlocked the red door, thrust it open, and gestured Shirley inside, replying, "With this."
Shirley stepped past her into the hangar, taking off her sunglasses and blinking a couple of times in the dimmer light. The space beyond was mostly empty, devoid of the aircraft and maintenance equipment she would have expected to see. Instead, parked in the center of the room was a tarmac mule, a wheeled vehicle built to carry a Striker stage. These had come along after the war, with the bigger, more elaborate stages required by the newfangled jet units of the '50s. This one had such a stage mounted on it, and in that stage was a gleaming silver Striker Unit of that modern kind.
"Lockheed NF-104A," Stapp informed her. "A modified F-104 interceptor Striker, fitted with integral rocket boosters and enhanced control and life-support systems. They built three of them to set altitude and time-to-climb records." She paused for a moment, then added gravely, "This is the only one left."
Shirley didn't need a picture drawn for her. Her face grim, she climbed the stage, stripped off her coverall, and started working her way into the Striker.
One very hasty technical briefing later, Shirley Yeager stood on the apron in front of the hangar, her Striker glinting in the desert sun, and collected herself.
She'd always felt a little weird flying these modern Strikers. During the war, witches had largely ignored the rigors of altitude, the low air pressure and cold temperatures, using their magic to shut such inconveniences out. The new jets could go so much higher and faster that this required too much energy to be efficient, so modern doctrine was to equip the Striker to mitigate environmental factors like that. Unlike the shirtsleeves regime of wartime, she was now sealed from head to toe in silver, a fully enclosed, semi-rigid suit that blended seamlessly into the hard leg parts which, in her day, had been the whole aircraft.
The sound of her breathing felt too loud, too hollow. The weight and stiffness of the pressurized suit and its integral parachute pack sat uncomfortably on her shoulders. The view through the tinted facebowl of her helmet seemed distant, unreal. And she had taken no time at all to develop a maddening itch right at the base of her tail, which was of course sealed inside the suit with the rest of her. It was all a far cry from the days when she had occasionally sallied forth to fight the Neuroi in just her underwear, or even, on one particularly memorable occasion, nothing at all.
Shirley had felt all of these sensations before, of course. Many times, during the years she'd tested the prototypes for that modern high-speed hardware, high above this very desert. She remembered bitching at length about all of them to her engineering officer, the thought of whom now brought a wry, sentimental little smile to her face.
Hey, Ridley, you got any Beeman's? she thought, and though Jack Ridley had been dead for six years now, she heard his Oklahoma drawl reply in her head,
Yeah, I think I got me a stick.
Well, loan me some, willya? I'll pay ya back later.
Shirley closed her eyes, concentrated, and felt the Striker's Miyafuji engine engage. That, at least, still felt the same as ever. With that done, she brought the NF-104's main engines online, first one, then the other, bringing them up to temperature and testing the Striker's hydraulically assisted control surfaces. Everything checked out.
Time, she thought, to make the donuts.
She reached with her chin and keyed her radio. "Edwards tower, Whiskey Kilo Two-Eight requests clearance for takeoff."
"Roger, Two-Eight, you're clear to take off," the tower controller replied at once, and then, "Godsspeed, Colonel."
"Thank you, tower," Shirley responded, not bothering to object to the use of her old rank. Then, marshaling her strength, she opened the Striker's throttles, feeling the airframe quiver and strain against the stage's hold-downs. For three seconds, she held it there, bolted down at full throttle, the turbines' shriek rattling windows all down the flightline...
... and then she triggered the release, the afterburners, and the rockets all at once, and the NF-104 was gone, catapulted into the sky faster than the eyes of the observers on the ground could follow it. Her sonic boom walloped the ground, shattering a fair few of those windows, and then all that remained was a dazed, reverberating silence and a column of white smoke.Bill Conti
"Yeager and the F-104"
The Right Stuff: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2013)
Shirley passed the service ceiling of her old P-51 Striker in seconds, heading straight up like a bat out of Hell. To her, the ride was oddly silent; she was leaving the banshee scream of her Striker's jets and the roar of the rockets far behind her, back down there with the dust and echoes and everything else in the everyday world. Her magic kept the G-forces mostly at bay, but even with it and the pressurized suit's help, her field of vision darkened at the edges—or was that just the sky going black? Because presently it did that, and the stars came out in the early afternoon, with the sun still blazing high overhead.
There, ahead of her, she could just make out the silvery blot of Ursula's balloon, hanging high, still so impossibly high, above her. Now that she'd noticed it, it didn't seem to be getting any nearer, though she was still streaking upward at better than twice the speed of sound.
The rockets cut out just when Stapp had warned her they would, shutting down automatically to keep from overheating and setting the airframe on fire. Shirley was still heading up, her jets wide open, the supplementary thrusters built into the palms of her gloves providing the only real stability she had this high up. Her Striker's control surfaces would be all be useless in air as thin as this. She could both hear and feel the jets starting to strain and falter. Magic-fueled or not, they still needed air to burn, and there was precious little of that up here.
A hundred thousand feet, far higher than any witch had ever flown on wings. This was as high as the NF-104A was designed to go, and no test flight had ever reached its theoretical limit before. No other witch could get it going fast enough in the low-level climb to get up this high. Now, with the rockets out of action and the air getting thinner with every second, she was running out of time... and Ursula was still more than a mile above her.
Teeth gritted, Shirley reached for everything she had been taught, calling on the universal oneness her teacher called the Force to back her will with the strength of the cosmos.
There is a fire inside you that will not die. It is greater than distance or time.
Close enough to see details of the gondola now. USAF and the Liberion flag painted on the side, along with a code number, meaningless to her. It was a metal capsule like a diving bell, suspended below the balloon on cables, with a side door secured by a T-handle latch. Nearer now. Jets sputtering, their falling whine weirdly muffled by the near-vacuum. Dull ache in her upper back, at the crux of her shoulder blades. The handle on the gondola door looked to be bent. No idea how that happened; don't really care, either. Door opens outward. One lucky break.
The NF-104's left engine flamed out. Alarms beeping inside Shirley's helmet. We never had that in the war, either, she thought irrelevantly as she shifted all her concentration to the right one. Push. Harder. Harder. Thirty feet to go now; vertical speed almost gone. Twenty. Ten. Left hand maintaining balance against the uneven push of her single working engine. Right hand reaching, straining... closing on the gondola door handle.
Right engine flameout.
Shirley closed both hands on the gondola door handle and yanked as the full weight of her body and the advanced Striker suddenly took effect. Not much leverage, action and reaction, but whatever was wrong with the mechanism gave with a grinding snap and the whole damn door came flying off, the gondola recoiling on its cable in response.
As she fell away, tipped over on her back with head down and feet up, Shirley saw the dark figure of a person in a green pressure suit lurch out of the hole where the gondola door had been and start to fall after her, hunched into the posture of a person sitting in a chair. She had just enough time to savor the satisfaction of a mission accomplished before her frozen control surfaces started getting into slightly denser air and she began to tumble, then spin.
Right. Stapp mentioned this. The parachute Ursula was testing was designed to stabilize people falling from this height, so that they wouldn't get into an inescapable flat spin before reaching a low enough altitude to use the main canopy.
Like you're doin' right now, Jack Ridley's voice mused helpfully in her mind.
Well, hell, I got me a couple minutes here, Ridley, Shirley thought. Maybe I can relight these ol' engines.
She tried repeatedly, but no soap. It was a chicken-egg problem; without engine power, she couldn't move her control surfaces and get enough flight authority to position the intakes properly, and without the intakes positioned properly, she couldn't get enough airflow into the turbines to get a relight. She wrestled with it for a good two minutes while she plummeted toward the desert, twisting and turning; trying to brute-force some aerodynamic control by body positioning, like they'd done it in the old days, but she was going way too fast and the Striker was way too heavy for that. Trude Barkhorn could probably have done it, but not Shirley.
Let's try those rockets again, she thought, but they wouldn't fire. Temperatures still above the safety margin, she supposed. Well, there was a time for safety margins, and there was a time for just doing things, and this, she judged, was the latter time. Gathering the Force, she, well, forced it.
All right, Shirley thought philosophically a few moments later. Now I'm in an unrecoverable flat spin and I'm on fire. That's not ideal.
Losses-cutting time. Forcing her arms inward against the spin's tendency to throw them outward, she closed her hands around the emergency handles on both her hips, steeled herself, and pulled. Instantly the crippled Striker's Miyafuji engine cut out, the explosive bolts fired, and the operational parts of the Striker's leg modules were gone, blown into three pieces each and scattered into her slipstream, leaving just the inner pressure envelope behind. For a few confused seconds, Shirley and the pieces of her Striker formed a chaotic cloud, all falling together but tumbling around independently as they buffeted in the ever-thickening air.
Shirley caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned just in time to take one of the Striker's heavy turbine units upside the head instead of full in the face. One side of her helmet's facebowl shattered anyway, more of the glass blowing outward with a terrific noise as the pressure inside the suit escaped. She felt a heavy impact and a starburst of pain as a jagged edge of the wrecked and burning Striker bit into her forehead just above her left eyebrow, blowtorch flame licking into the broken visor for a split-second before the wreckage spun away again. Now she had blood pouring down the side of her face, she'd lost suit integrity, and the lining of her helmet was on fire. And the goddamn pressure system was trying to fix the second problem by stepping up the flow rate. Pumping pure oxygen into the fire.
Struggling to open the smashed visor and get the helmet unlocked and off, she fell into a thin cloud layer.
Jack, she thought to the shade of her dead friend, this just ain't my day.
The Right Stuff: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2013)
The crash response ambulance, racing across the desert with siren wailing, reached Ursula first. By the time it pulled up alongside her, she'd already gathered up her parachute and was waiting calmly for its arrival, looking none the worse for her adventure.
"Professor Hartmann!" Craig Randall called from the driver's seat, but the man he'd been told to take with him jumped out before the ambulance even came to a complete stop.
Randall had no idea who the guy was; he'd just appeared, showing up in an almighty hurry on an old Indian motorcycle, only a minute or two after Yeager took off. He didn't look particularly special: just a white guy around 30, average height, stocky build, dressed in blue jeans and an old sheepskin flying jacket from the War. General Phillips seemed to know him, addressing him as "Mr. Hutchins". This suggested he was a civilian, though no one even seemed to think of challenging his right to be in one of the most secure places in the continental United States.
Whoever he was, Phillips treated him with a respect Randall had never seen him accord anyone before, ordering the airman to take him along; and now Professor Hartmann, normally so reserved, embraced him like a long-lost brother.
"Are you all right?" the mystery man asked Hartmann.
"I'll be fine," she replied. "It's Shirley that I'm worried about."
Randall kept silent, but inwardly, he thought the professor was right to worry. The only sign of Yeager on the whole face of this desert was the column of black smoke rising into the sky from an indeterminate point a few miles ahead.
"Drive," Hutchins ordered Randall gruffly, once he'd helped Hartmann into the ambulance and climbed back in himself. The airman did as ordered, heading toward the smoke.
They jounced across the dry lakebed in silence for a mile farther; then, squinting toward the heat-hazed horizon, Randall pointed, crying, "Professor! Sir! Over there! Is that... is that a woman?"
Hutchins and Hartmann both peered in the direction Randall was pointing. In the distance, sunlight twinkled on something covered in silver foil. Distorted by the ground mirage but stark against the blue sky, a figure: the unmistakable silhouette of a person walking toward them, an orange and white smudge of parachute slung over one shoulder.
The mystery man smiled.
"Yeah, you damn right it is," he said.
"Higher, Faster, Farther" - an Our Witches After War Might-Be Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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