Personal log, Lt. Kozue Kaoru (S/N 326-3827)
Colonial Forces Experimental Veritech Fighter Squadron VX-1
July 7, 2410
Muroc III. Officially surveyed in 2043 by the original Wedge Defense Force, along with most of the rest of the Slayton sector. The charts call it a Class H planet with negligible indigenous life (mostly scrubby plants; no animals at all) and minimal human presence. Even the most exhaustive planetary survey only lists one settlement, Crossfield City (population 52,500). It's hot, dry, and barren. It has no other cities, no seas, no mountains, not even any weather to speak of. Nothing but hardpan desert and empty blue sky.
If that sounds absolutely useless to you, you're not a test pilot.
The founders of the Wedge Defense Force were. They tested most of the equipment the WDF used in those days with their own hands. It gave them an edge when the time came to put that equipment to use in battle, or so the reasoning went. Given the track record they logged between 1992 and 2288, who am I to argue?
Anyway, being test pilots, they recognized the value of Muroc III the moment they laid eyes on it. Endless skies, empty desert. Nothing to run into except the ground, and no one to inconvenience if you do. It's the perfect place for a test field, and the WDF needed a bigger one than the one it had at the time—so they put one there. They spared no expense—then as now, the WDF was not known for sparing expenses—and neither did the various key contractors who were quick to set up their own shops in the neighborhood.
These days the Zukowsky Flight Test Center is one of the biggest and best examples of its breed anywhere in known space. Any outfit that's anything in the field of military aviation throughout human space has a shop there. The hangars seem to go on forever, flanking the five-mile runway that carves across the desert like a huge scar, its faintly defined extent burned into the hardpan by centuries of tires, skids, thruster blasts, and fireballs. Their roofs glint in the sun, visible for miles—more obvious from the air than the 600-foot aerospace control tower that dominates the complex when you're seeing it at ground level.
In official photos, the base always has a vaguely abandoned look, as if everybody's just stepped out for a few minutes. There are a few ground vehicles parked here and there, and a scattering of small craft on the apron, but you don't see a lot of people walking around or direct evidence that the place is inhabited. Mainly that's because nobody who works there is fool enough to stand around out in the sun. Those hangars aren't there to keep rain off the airplanes.
Of course, that's all different today... which is why I'm here.
I'm 200 miles out and Zukowsky ATC just gave me clearance to overfly the field. They call this a pass in review.
I call it showtime.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bacon Comics Group
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Rogue Squadron Vol. 1 No. 3
"Operation Supernova, Part I:
scripted by Benjamin D. Hutchins
pencils & inks by your visual cortex
letters by Benjamin D. Hutchins
editor: Benjamin D. Hutchins
Bacon Comics chief: Derek Bacon
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remaster © 2019 EPU
Zukowsky FTC, the principal test center for Wedge Defense Force starfighters, was never what anyone would call a quiet place, but it did customarily have a certain insular feeling about it. The cadre of test pilots, technicians, and support officers who made up the base's normal staff were accustomed to each other and their little world of noise, dust, and danger. The place's distance from the Core and the fact that there were no other settlements to speak of in the Muroc system gave the whole affair a sort of intimacy, and though the daily routine was fraught with hazards, it was still at heart a routine.
As such, the present situation was abnormal, and it gave the base a buzz of excitement and novelty it did not normally possess. With company crews, outside pilots, observers from the WDF and various allied forces, and a lot of interested spacers crowding the normally sparse outpost, the proceedings had something of the air of a festival.
The guests had been invited to observe or participate in the combat trials for the WDF's latest front-line Veritech aerospace superiority fighter, intended to replace the VF-11 Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt was a fine fighter, and would serve in second-line units and smaller allied forces for many years to come, but recent advancements in Veritechnology were pushing the performance curve in that field ahead faster than it had ever moved before. Some pundits thought the new trials might even see the mighty VF-1 Valkyrie, which had stayed on top of the heap for more than 400 years, dislodged at last. Stonewell Bellcom, the Valkyrie's manufacturer, had offered no comment when the contest was announced.
At any rate, since a competitive Veritech trial of this kind had never been conducted before, Fighter Command had decided to make something of a party out of the occasion, inviting dignitaries and observers from all over the friendly galaxy to watch the show. Some bright spark at WDF Headquarters had also thought to invite other aerospace vendors to show off their new products as well, and the result was a combat aerospacecraft trade show to rival the Royal Salusian Air Weapons Exposition held every other year at Saenar.
July 7 was arrival day—technically the first day of the show, but not one with any events scheduled. Most of the exhibitors and press had arrived by lunchtime, and now, in the early afternoon, the flightline was bustling. Exhibitors were setting up their displays, making sure the craft were parked just so and the booths set up to show them off to advantage. Pilots, observers, and reporters were wandering the line, sipping water, kicking tires, and looking for places to get out of the broiling sun.
Guld Goa Bowman stood a discreet distance from the Shinsei Industries area, watching the company's technicians arrange tables and displays around the gleaming white YF-19 Excalibur prototype. It didn't really help that he was maintaining a discreet distance, given that he was over seven feet tall, broad-shouldered, and topped with a distinctive flattop brush of lime-green hair—all souvenirs of his Zentraedi heritage. Lantern-jawed and gimlet-eyed, Guld looked like exactly what he was: an uncompromising hardass, humorless and grim, but also a hell of a pilot.
"Heh," said the much shorter man standing next to him. "Look at that. Thing looks like a museum piece already. It's practically an updated version of the VF-4." The man, who wore a business suit under a light blue lab coat marked with the General Galaxy logo, shook his head. "They might as well just give us the contract now."
Guld grunted. "The VF-4 was a good airplane," he said, not taking his eyes off the prototype.
"So was the P-51—500 years ago!" the General Galaxy man—Gerry Markham, chief engineer on the YF-21 project—said with a laugh. "I tell you, there's no way the Sturmvogel can lose to this thing. Especially not with you at the controls."
Guld grunted again, took a sip of water, and kept looking at the YF-19. He wasn't prone to crises of confidence—no fighter pilot ever is—but he knew it wasn't going to be as easy as Markham wanted to believe. The Excalibur was a solid-looking piece of machinery. Its design wasn't as radical as General Galaxy's candidate's, but that might work to its advantage. The WDF's management tended to be a bit conservative when it came to Veritech fighters. Hell, they were still using designs originated in the late 20th century, for the simple reason that nothing had ever come along that was demonstrably better.
When he pointed this out to Markham, though, the engineer only laughed. "Well," he said, "at least we don't have to worry about one thing."
"What's that?" Guld asked.
"Stonewell Bellcom didn't even send anybody," Markham pointed out, gesturing up and down the line. "I guess the rumors are true. They really have given up. They've finally reached the point where they can't make the old Valkyrie take another leap forward."
Guld frowned thoughtfully. He'd started out in VF-1s, and had always felt a mild sense of awe about the design. The Valkyrie was the first Veritech fighter in the galaxy, and it had withstood challenge after challenge to its dominance for more than four centuries. Though Guld himself had switched to the VF-11 Thunderbolt years before, he still found it hard to believe that the VF-1's day had finally passed. It was like watching a geological epoch end. The longevity of the VF-1 was one of the few things that could make a man like Guld feel humble.
He wasn't about to articulate any of that to Markham, though. The man was a brilliant aerospace engineer, but he understood practically nothing about a pilot's heart. Hell, like most laymen, he probably thought Guld didn't have a heart, and it was generally advantageous to let him go on thinking so.
Instead, the Zentraedi pilot merely nodded. "I guess so," he said.
Markham could tell he wasn't convinced, but attributed it to continued preoccupation with the YF-19, at which Guld was still staring. He laughed again, slapped Guld on the shoulder, turned, and moved off through the crowd. "I'm gonna check out the Kallon Industries booth. I hear they have some real lookers working PR this year. See ya!"
Guld was still looking at the YF-19 when, a few moments later, another man in a WDF flightsuit appeared at the back of the Shinsei booth. For a second, Guld took him for a regular WDF pilot who had come over to kick the tires, but within a few seconds, it became obvious that he, like Guld, was a contractor—an active WDF pilot who had taken leave in order to work for one of the competing Next Generation Veritech bidders. The way the Shinsei techs greeted him left Guld in no doubt that the newcomer was the YF-19's evaluation pilot.
He smiled slightly and took another sip of water. He'd been wondering who Shinsei hired to fly the YF-19 in this competition. There had been all kinds of wild rumors flying around the pilot community that Shinsei had pulled out all the stops and gone for one of the greats—that they'd lured Max Sterling away from Stonewell, or convinced Miria Sterling to take a sabbatical and come fly for them. Guld had figured all that was nonsense, and he had his confirmation now. Whoever this guy was, he had brown hair, not blue, and even from the back it was for damn sure obvious that he wasn't a woman. In fact... the way he held himself seemed... familiar.
Guld felt a momentary chill of dread. Oh, no, he thought. They couldn't possibly have...
The YF-19 pilot turned to talk to one of the other techs, giving Guld his profile as he did so, and the Zentraedi's blood couldn't decide whether to run cold or boil.
"Dyson," he growled between clenched teeth, startling passers-by around him.
As if he'd heard his name, or possibly just felt the searing touch of Guld's laser-like stare, Isamu Dyson looked up, then turned and saw the Zentraedi pilot looking at him. He looked momentarily startled, then covered it with a jaunty grin and flipped Guld a half-assed salute.
Guld stared at him for several long moments, his face a mask of wrath, then turned on his heel and stalked away.
"... and once we've got that locked down we—... Dyson? Hey, Isamu. You read me?" said the young engineer who had been talking to Dyson.
"Huh?" Dyson said, blinking. "Oh, uh... sorry, Jan. Yeah, go ahead. I just... spotted someone I used to know."
"OK, Blue Group, listen up. Zukowsky Field is 50 miles dead ahead and we're cleared for a pass in review. Blue Two, it's your show. Take us in. Blue Two has the group."
"Roger that, Blue Leader. Two has the group. Three, do we have any airspace conflicts?"
"Negative, Two. My scope is clear. We have the sky to ourselves."
"Excellent. Helo, who knows we're coming?"
"We're on Zukowsky Tower's screens for sure. Other than that, I'm not picking up any emissions. Nobody else is looking."
"All right, Blue Group. Tighten it up and let's get down to five hundred. We're gonna do a tower flyby from the southeast and then take it straight down the flightline. Red Leader, request you match us from the northwest at seven-fifty."
"Copy, Blue Two."
"Helo, a little tactical surprise music, if you would."
"Working on it. Who the hell firewalls the PA system? ... OK, I'm in."
Suddenly, all along the flightline, the public address speakers up on poles clicked, crackled, and let out a brief yelp of feedback. People stopped what they were doing and looked toward the nearest speaker curiously, wondering what announcement was forthcoming.
Instead of an announcement, what roared out of the speaker horns—at an entirely imprudent volume—was a guitar riff.
"Goldfish Warning in progress, Two."
"Good choice, Mr. Agathon. OK, Blues, here we go. Light 'em up now... now... now."
They came out of nowhere, exploding over the admin building and streaking past the control tower as if they'd just jumped out of hyperspace. Just as the intro of the old song peaked and the first chorus began, five gleaming white Colonial Viper starfighters with bright royal-blue stripes flashed over the flightline at minimal altitude, and just as they passed the first runway marker they all lit off their triple fusion turbines' afterburners simultaneously, filling the air behind them with brilliant blue-white shock diamonds and a brain-shattering transcendent roar.
Those at the other end of the flightline weren't spared. At the same instant, five more white Vipers, these with vivid scarlet stripes, screamed over the Sperry-Megavac electronics hangar at the edge of the base, heading up the runway from the northwest, only a little higher. They hit their burners at the same instant. The two groups, both perfect five-ship delta formations, crossed each other's paths at runway center and punched through the sound barrier almost instantly thereafter. The shockwaves walloped the ground, nearly throwing some of the astonished spectators off their feet, and for just a moment the formations drew opposing cones of force in the air itself—outlined against the retinas of the observers with tiny traces of water vapor wrung from the dry desert air.
And then, as suddenly as they appeared, the ten Vipers were gone, leaving behind dust, echoes, and the pounding music—now barely audible to the half-stunned crowd on the flightline.
Here I am!
Rock you like a hurricane
(Are you ready, baby?)
Here I am!
Rock you like a hurricane
Gerry Markham staggered out of the stunned crowd toward Guld, who was one of the few people on the ground still standing completely upright. As the Zentraedi pilot stared off toward the northwest, where the blue-trimmed group of Vipers had disappeared, he had clenched his fist around his cup of water, crushing it entirely.
"Jesus Christ, Guld! Who the hell are those guys?" Markham bellowed, partly out of shock and partly because it was the only way he could hear himself.
Guld ignored him, staring after the Vipers, which his eyes could just barely make out as pinpricks of exhaust glow in the distance. When he spoke, it would've been all but inaudible to Markham even if he'd had full use of his hearing at the moment, but the single word carried even more intensity than had the name of his old rival:
Dammit all, Guld thought. Could this day get any worse?
(As it happened, yes.)
It took about half an hour for the chaos caused by Rogue Squadron's big entrance to settle down, by which time the squadron had made a somewhat more conventional return to the field and put their birds down in a neat line on the far side of the flightline, all but one, which the Incom-Subpro engineers guided to the booth they'd been busily setting up all afternoon. By then, most people had shaken off the shock, so when the Rogue pilots disembarked, it was mostly to applause. The crowd at this show were mostly aviation types themselves, after all, and they could appreciate a gesture like that—once their ears stopped ringing.
The Viper Mark X drew an appreciative crowd of techs and pilots, who gathered around to admire its sleek, sharp lines. The Shinsei Industries guys, especially, seemed interested in the ship, and stood around in laid-back little groups checking it out. They weren't worried about showing how impressed they were with the design, because the VX wasn't competition for their prototype anyway.
The General Galaxy team wasn't as gregarious, possibly because they felt compelled to follow the example of their test pilot, who made a visible point of not going over to check out the VX. Indeed, as far as Guld was concerned, the Colonial delegation might as well not have arrived in the first place. The pilot busied himself with technical checks on the YF-21, demanding that all the techs snap to and get back to work.
"We've got a competition to win, starting tomorrow," he growled. "We're not going to win it by gawking at the Colonials' new toy."
Chief control systems engineer Vyrna Wills agreed. "You heard the man," she snapped. "Let's get to work!"
"Don't know why she keeps trying to impress Guld," one of the propulsion techs remarked to another as they pulled an access panel off the YF-21's portside engine.
"Yeah, seriously," the other replied, wiping sweat from her forehead with a sleeve. "Christ, is it always so hot here?"
"Uh-huh. Pretty much."
At around that same time, the Colonial pilots had dispersed into the crowd and were moving down the flightline in small groups, checking stuff out with everybody else.
"Wow," said Starbuck when they reached the booth belonging to the GENOM subsidiary Cygnus Spaceworks.
There lurked, along with a couple of uniformed GENOM MILARM personnel and some holos of the company's various famed products in the TIE line of starfighters, a spacecraft of a type the Warriors hadn't seen before. It was quite small by starfighter standards—barely bigger than an airspeeder—with a big high-visibility cockpit bubble and a sleek two-pronged disc shape. The front of the cockpit was flattened with a distinctive multisegmented window.
"A TIE that doesn't require a special recovery system?" Starbuck remarked, gesturing to the craft's twin retractable nose skids. "What's next? Cockpit life support?"
A gaunt, silver-haired man in a MILARM general's uniform, hands folded behind his back, said in a cool, polite voice,
"It's not a TIE; this is the prototype of Cygnus's new Eta-2 Actis interceptor, specially commissioned by the International Police for the Order of Jedi Knights. I assure you, the cockpit is fully pressurized. It has to be, since its expected pilots usually decline to wear environment suits." He gave a thin, ironic smile. "The Jedi as a whole lack a certain consciousness of what we in the Military Arm call the safety culture."
Starbuck gave him an inquisitive look. "A starfighter made specially for Jedi?" she asked. "What do you, steer it with the Force?"
"Not directly, no," the man replied, "but its performance is considered rather beyond what a... normal pilot would be capable of handling."
The blonde Colonial snorted. "Yeah, sure. You guys said that about the Avenger Plus, too. That's a hot ship, but you don't have to be superhuman to fly it."
The general arched an eyebrow. "Perhaps you'd like to take this one up, Lieutenant?" he asked.
Starbuck grinned. "You bet I would—but my squadron leader would probably have us both for lunch." She stuck out a hand. "Kara Thrace—Starbuck. You're Death Star Tarkin, aren't you? I've seen your picture."
The general shook the hand, looking faintly pained. "In my flying days, I preferred to do without a nickname—they weren't fashionable in MILARM at the time." He gave a very slight, very dignified sigh and went on resignedly, "Still, one does tend to be dogged by one's accomplishments."
Kozue Kaoru, also known in Rogue Squadron as Blue Two, grinned indulgently at her wingmate's badgering of Tarkin and wandered off down the line on her own. She was checking out the swag table at the Taim & Bak booth (all blaster cannons, all the time!) when a voice addressed her from behind:
"That was quite an entrance you guys made."
Kozue turned around to find herself confronted by legends of the Veritech pilot community. She blinked, taken slightly aback, then came to attention and saluted. She wasn't sure a Colonial Warrior technically had to salute WDF officers, but better safe than sorry—and anyway, these were people she would be pleased to salute on general principles.
There were two of them, both women, both so famous within the little world Kozue had lately immersed herself in that she recognized them instantly. The tall blonde with the ponytail and the slight smirk—as if she knew the punch line to a joke you hadn't heard yet—was General Patricia Currier, callsign Terror, one of the original Eight-Balls and the current head of WDF Fighter Command. On her right was a tiny, almost fragile-looking woman with short, dark hair: none other than Major General Cheryl "Dot-Z" Zukowsky, the base's namesake and the WDF's chief of aerospacecraft testing and procurement. They would be the primary judges of the YF-19/YF-21 fly-off.
Terror returned the salute with a grin. "At ease, Lieutenant," she said. "That's a hell of a ride you have. How long did you practice that pass-in-review?"
Kozue couldn't resist putting on her most wide-eyed innocent look. "Practice, General?"
Terror and Dot Z laughed. "Yeah, I can tell you learned the job from Wedge," Zukowsky remarked. "So I understand you're going to be flying the VX in our little contest."
Kozue nodded. "That's right. Shinsei Industries was kind enough to invite us and Incom-Subpro to show her off a little, since you guys decided to make an occasion of it."
"Shame we can't buy any," Terror observed. "I've always wanted to try a Viper, and now that there's a Veritech version..."
Kozue's grin had just a hint of a smirk in it. "I'm sure Commander Adama would be happy to sign you up for our next intake of Prospective Warriors," she said.
Terror rolled her eyes. "Given how much time I spend flying a desk these days, you have no idea how tempting that is," she said. "Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing what the Mark X can do. If the little taste you guys gave us earlier is any indication, it should be impressive."
"If you think you wish you could buy some now, you're going to be really miserable by Sunday," Kozue said. "What can you tell me about the competition? I've been so busy prepping for this week that I haven't had time to read more than the marketing slicks."
"That's about all we've got ourselves, right now," Zukowsky said. "Shinsei and GG don't have to give us the full specs unless we buy their fighter. We figured it was better that way—we can evaluate the prototypes based on what they actually do and not get bogged down in what it says in the documentation."
"The YF-19 looks like a solid evolution of existing technology," Terror said. "I like its lines. It's no Valkyrie, but then, what is? It's got an all-new airframe and engines, but a lot of its systems are direct descendents of stuff Shinsei developed for the VF-4 and VF-11, and most of that is good stuff. I'm looking forward to seeing how it performs."
"I like the YF-21," Dot-Z said. "Adaptive metallurgy, active stealth, full neural control—it'll be a huge leap forward in starfighter technology if it works."
"And if it doesn't..." Terror shrugged. "I don't trust full-interface neurosystems. Too much complexity, too much stuff to screw up. I wouldn't use a jack rig for anything beyond ship's status and maybe weapons selection, if it was a system I really trusted."
"Well, they say there'll be a configurable setting for that. So old fogies like you who insist on pushing buttons like some kind of stone-age hunter can stand on your dignity," Zukowsky teased. She was, in fact, a year older than Currier, though after the first century, that kind of piddling detail was hardly worth bringing up.
Terror smirked a little. "I didn't get to be this old by being reckless," she said. "Still, the 21's supposed to have some serious performance potential. I guess we'll see."
"That's what we're here for," Dot-Z agreed. "Well, that and the huge party."
Kozue's eyebrow went up. "Party?"
"You bet. We're having a barbecue out at Pancho's tonight, after all the teams get in. Get to know each other a little, unwind, cool out, get everything nice and loose and ready to go when we kick off the competition tomorrow afternoon."
Kozue tiled her head. "After all the teams get in?"
Terror smirked a little more. "Yeah. We've got one more coming." She glanced at her wristwatch, then shook her head. "And he's late."
Dot-Z snorted. "Probably stopped off at Zeta C to try for daughter number nine on the way."
"Cheryl," Terror said.
"What?" Dot-Z replied, spreading her hands innocently.
Terror might've said more, but then she suddenly looked up, eyes focusing on nowhere as she listened hard. Then she smiled.
"Here they come now," she said.
Kozue followed the two generals through the crowd and out to the flightline. By the time they arrived, she could hear it too, the sound of a group of aircraft approaching—and doing so in a much more prudent fashion than she and her fellow Rogues had done. Turning to look northwest, the direction Wedge's Red Group had come from on their pass, she saw a diamond formation of four craft coming in—small ones, probably fighters.
As they approached the runway, the three trailing fighters broke away, falling into line and entering a racetrack orbit over the field. That left the lead fighter to come in low and slow, variable-sweep wings outspread, then tip up on its starboard wing for a textbook beauty pass. It was sleek and trim, thermocoated in a brilliant blue with the classic WDF wing-and-body stripe in white, and its lines were instantly recognizable to everyone present.
The Valkyrie cruised the length of the flightline that way, loafing along in a casual and picturesque manner. Then, just as it reached the southeast end of the runway, it suddenly snapped level again, pitched up—the low whistle of its engines abruptly spooled up to a shriek, then became a snarling roar as the afterburners kicked in...
... and the blue Valkyrie was gone, streaking straight up into the sky and leaving behind a ring of vapor and a dull boom from its Mach 1 shockwave. Applause rippled down the flightline at the performance.
A few minutes later, the blue VF-1 returned with its escorts, a trio of VF-2s painted up in the white and red livery of Stonewell Bellcom, and made a perfect fighter-mode landing. As the Valkyrie taxied toward a parking space being hastily prepared by WDF ground crewmen, its canopy rose, revealing a pilot wearing an old-fashioned "destroyer prow" helmet, the kind worn by WDF Valkyrie pilots back in the old days. As it passed by, Kozue could read the neat block text printed under the cockpit.
Further back, on the side of the engine nacelle where it would normally have said WEDGE DEFENSE FORCE, white letters proudly spelled out, VALKYRIE MARK LXXXII. The aircraft's tail number was 10-001.
Kozue blinked. The Maximilian Sterling? Flying a brand new Valkyrie prepared in secret to compete with the YF-19 and YF-21?
This just got a whole lot more interesting.
A glance at the faces of Terror and Dot-Z confirmed that they were thinking exactly the same thing.
Down at the General Galaxy booth, Guld Goa Bowman actually smiled, causing several of the YF-21 technicians to wish he would go back to growling at them.
"OK, everybody, settle down a minute," General Zukowsky said, but the noise level in the room was such that no one heard her. She tried again with roughly the same net effect, then stuck her little fingers in the corners of her mouth and split the room with a deafening whistle that pulled all the conversations up short.
"Thank you," she said. "As I was saying, I've got a couple of things to get out of the way before we can really get this shindig under way, so bear with me for a second.
"We have four fighters on base for the Next Generation Veritech Evaluation Fly-Off," she continued. "Please join me in welcoming, etc., etc., the team from Shinsei Industries, makers of the VF-11 Thunderbolt, who are here with their prototype, the YF-19 Excalibur." Hoots and catcalls, most of them good-natured, ricocheted around the cluttered saloon as the Shinsei team stood up and bowed. "Their pilot for the evaluation will be Lieutenant Isamu 'Rodeo' Dyson, on loan from Killer Bee Squadron out of WDF Exeter." The dark-haired pilot got up and did a decent impression of a beauty pageant contestant's parade-float wave.
"Second, the team from General Galaxy—makers of the VF-6D Shadow Alpha since Lockheed stopped wanting to have anything to do with us—with their first all-in-house design, the YF-21 Sturmvogel. I'm sure most of you know their eval pilot, Major Guld 'Groundloop' Bowman. He's the guy we made a Veritech instructor in hopes of saving at least one of the YF-8Z prototypes."
A laugh made the rounds of the room. Guld didn't smile, but he raised his can of Coors in mocking acknowledgement.
"And of course our special guest stars," Dot-Z went on, "the guys from the Incom-Subpro joint team developing the Viper Mark X for the Colonial Forces. Some of you might have missed Rogue Squadron's arrival at the field this afternoon. They didn't want to call attention to the fact that the VX is a little underpowered." Another laugh. "Nevertheless, we invited them to bring their new toy to our little soiree here and show it off, even though we couldn't buy any of them if we wanted to. I suppose that's only fair. We lost the VX eval pilot, Lieutenant Kozue 'Duelist' Kaoru, to the Colonial Forces fair and square." The diminutive general shot Guld a look at this point, but the Zentraedi pilot resolutely ignored it.
"But that's not all," Dot-Z said. "We've had a surprise fourth entry show up, and we might even be able to buy this one if we feel like it. After milking the rumors that they weren't coming for months, our old friends from Stonewell Bellcom decided to show up after all. I'm not expecting much from them, though. All they brought was an old Valkyrie and some clown I never heard of to fly it. I can't even remember his name. Max something."
That got the biggest laugh yet, as Max Sterling—one of the most famous fighter pilots in the history of fighter pilots—got up and took a self-deprecating bow.
"Thank you, thank you," he said. "I'm just happy to be here with all you beautiful people. I'll try not to get in the way or bum anybody out too much." Then, peering around the room, he added, "By the way, has anyone seen my glasses? I can't see a thing without them."
Zukowsky waited for that laugh to die out, then said, "That's the opening remarks. You can figure out the rest among yourselves. Now let's get this thing started!"
With the exception of Wedge and Wes Janson, the Colonial pilots had never been to Muroc III before, and so had never had the unique pleasure of spending a boozy evening within the confines of the official unofficial watering hole of choice for Zukowsky FTC's pilots and ground staff. Most of them lacked the historical context to appreciate just why the test people were so enamored of a rickety, tin-roofed wooden shack of a roadhouse with a name as improbable as "Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club" in the first place.
Still, that didn't stop most of them from having a good time. Before long the place was louder than the engine test hangar at full bore, with a rotation of gleefully unpolished squadron bands rattling the rafters and several dozen conversations struggling to exist above that. The tin roof gave the acoustics a certain je ne sais quoi that was entirely different from the pressurized, atmosphere-conditioned environments the carrier pilots were used to.
Kozue had just finished explaining to her bunkies what the deal was with Pancho's, and why there were all those photos tacked to the wall behind the bar, when Starbuck got up to go for more beer. Taking advantage of the break in conversation, she leaned back in her wobbly wooden chair and took a look around the room. The pilots and ground crew were pretty well mingled by this time, and there was even a mosh pit of sorts over by the tiny, chicken-wire-shrouded stage, where the Radarbeams, a band from the sensor tech section, were belting out an iffy but soulful cover of "Pale Blue Eyes".
By this time she'd had a couple of beers and was feeling pleasantly buzzed. It didn't take much, with her body mass, and Starbuck alway teased her about being such a lightweight, but fuck her, Kozue thought; we can't all be gin-swilling bulldykes. On the other hand, seeing the mack Starbuck was laying on the weapons tech from the Stonewell team, Kozue decided the bulldyke thing might've been scurrilous and unfounded. Or at least too specific.
"Hey, Kozue," Boomer said. "Have you noticed? Guld's been checkin' you out all night."
Kozue snorted painfully into her beer glass. Fortunately, she'd just about finished with the beer in it, so there was no tidal wave of foam—which was really too bad, in a way, since it was as much as Boomer deserved.
"God, Boomer," she said. "Don't even do that." She shivered theatrically. "Do I look that desperate?"
"Honestly? You've been living like a monk since we all started PW," Boomer replied. "Starbuck and I are starting to fear for our own safety."
Kozue snorted derisively. "Keep dreaming, Valerii," she replied. "You're so not my type. And Starbuck? Pff. Her old man, maybe, if I was drunk enough."
"You'd have to be drunk?" Boomer said, surprised. "Anyway, I'm serious. Guld's givin' you the eye. Look if you don't believe me." She nodded toward the bar.
Kozue turned and looked. Sure enough, there was Guld—having somehow contrived to be off by himself at the end, despite the fact that the bar was packed—nursing another Coors and staring at her. He didn't even seem to care that she'd noticed him looking.
Well, OK, what the hell, she thought, raising her empty glass in salute. To her surprise, Guld cracked the tiniest hint of a sardonic smile and raised his Coors can in response.
"What's goin' on?" Starbuck asked as she returned to the table with the next round. She followed Kozue's eyeline, then looked back. "Uh... is there a subtext here I should be aware of?"
The Radarbeams struck up a faster tune—it took them a few bars to get their shit together enough for the music library in the back of Kozue's mind to identify it as "Someone to Love" by the Jefferson Airplane—and Kozue grinned a slightly spaced, devil-may-care grin.
"Keep an eye on my beer, Boomer," she said, standing. "I think Guld wants to dance."
Boomer gave her a look combining bafflement with mild alarm. "Uh... sure?"
Starbuck snorted. "Hey, why not," she said, slapping the small of Kozue's back as Kozue stepped away from the table. "I've had some of my best times with guys I hated."
Boomer rolled her eyes. "Starbuuuuck."
"What?" Starbuck demanded. "Me, Boxey, Colony Day? You were there for the part that was a fight. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned Taurian grudge fuck."
Boomer dropped her face into her hand and said nothing. Starbuck smirked and lit a cigar.
"Hey, at least one of us is gonna get some this week," she said.
Kozue, ignoring the byplay between her bunkmates behind her, threaded her way through the crowd until she was standing right in front of Guld. She was pleased that she still didn't find him intimidating, despite his huge height and weight advantages and the rather mean look in his eyes. She'd already demonstrated to her satisfaction that she could handle him.
Now, just to piss him off a little more—he did outrank her, after all—she came to attention and saluted. He gave her a puzzled look, then returned the salute sketchily with his beer can.
"Major Bowman, sir. I see the medics got your nose mostly right," she said. "It only lists a little to starboard."
Guld smiled thinly. "It's always done that."
"Ah. Well, a perfect repair job, then. Care to dance? I couldn't help but notice that you looked a little lonely."
Kozue expected Guld to get annoyed at that, since he had never displayed the slightest hint of a sense of humor and she was clearly screwing with him, but instead, he slugged back the last of his Coors, crushed the can, tossed it at the bin by the taps, and lurched away from the bar.
"Sure," he said.
Kozue's second shock of the occasion was that he wasn't bad at it. She'd sort of figured he would be, since he was a big lumbering guy and not the social butterfly type. Of course, it was a fast song, and rather sloppily performed, which helped—it wasn't exactly ballroom dancing—but still, the man had some moves. He wasn't even, now that she had the luxury of taking a look at him when not either working like a dog or trying to beat him unconscious, that bad-looking. Not really her type, admittedly—too tall, too many muscles, drank beer out of cans for God's sake—but his strong jaw and slightly forbidding cragginess reminded her a little of Corwin.
I think, she chided herself mentally, that has more to do with how long it's been since you were with Corwin than what Guld looks like. Besides, hello, he's your enemy?
Still, she had to admit, if only in the privacy of her own head, that she was enjoying dancing with him—more than she'd enjoyed anything she'd done in the company of a guy in quite a while. That was disquieting, but also undeniable. There was an... an energy present. Whether it was just because they hated each other's guts, she couldn't say, but she felt it all the same—and there was a strange glint in Guld's eyes as well.
OK, Kaoru, better put the brakes on this before it gets really weird, she said to herself, but when the song ended and the band struck up another one (Kiss's "Rock 'n Roll All Nite"), she stayed out there, and so did he. They stayed, in fact, until the Radarbeams quit, three numbers later.
At that point, Starbuck and Boomer got up, hunted around for a minute, dragged Wes Janson out of a pack of General Galaxy engine techs, and headed for the stage, and Kozue realized that they were going to haul her up with them any moment. Flushed and a little sweaty, she raked her damp blue hair back from her eyes and gave Guld a little grin.
"Well, thanks. That was... surprisingly good," she said frankly. "But I gotta go now." She turned to go, then was faintly startled when he reached out, grabbed her shoulder, and turned her back around.
"Kaoru," Guld said, his voice low but intense.
"Yeah?" she replied, shrugging her shoulder out from under his hand.
"I just want you to know," Guld said. "I know you're a good pilot. That was never the issue. And I know the VX is a hot ship." He stared her in the eye, his expression stern, and said in an even lower, even more charged voice, "And when we go head-to-head, I am going to smoke you anyway. No one gets away with what you did to me. No one."
Kozue felt a completely illogical little spasm of affection for the big jerk. She smirked and replied, "Give me your best shot, Guld. I'd be insulted by anything less anyway."
Then, resisting a truly ridiculous urge to kiss him on the cheek, she turned and went around to the side of the stage, where the door through the chicken wire was.
Given her heritage, it was probably inevitable that Kozue would end up involved in a band once she was through Warrior training and suddenly acquired a small supply of free time again. In the event, it had originally been Starbuck's idea, but Kozue had gone along with it readily enough, and by the time it was all said and done she'd somehow gotten roped into being the frontwoman for the group, imaginatively named (by sound tech Chief Tyrol) "No Step". They didn't have a ton of time to practice and their equipment wasn't great, but Kozue liked to think they had heart.
And tonight they also had a secret weapon. The big guy with the gunslinger mustache and the black leather jacket over by the jukebox thought she hadn't noticed him, but she had, and there was no way she was going to play a set at Pancho's without dragging him into it at some point. She had no idea what Lemmy Kilmister was doing at a pilots-and-techs party on Muroc III, but since he was here, she'd be a fool not to take advantage of it.
Grinning at Starbuck, Kozue started tuning up her Telecaster. She had the perfect tune in mind for Lemmy's unscheduled guest appearance, too.
She may have noticed him, but she failed to pick up on one other important feature of the room. On the other hand, unlike Lemmy, she'd never seen Vyrna Wills before in her life, and had no reason to take note of the General Galaxy systems engineer as she stood at the far back of the room.
Vyrna, on the other hand, had plenty of reason to take note of Kozue Kaoru. Especially since the Colonial tramp had been trying to put a move on Guld Bowman. Was she trying to tamper with the test, score (improbably as it seemed) some recreation, or just mess with Guld's head?
Well, no matter. Vyrna knew a way to fix her little blue-haired wagon but good.
Enjoy your last concert, bitch, she thought as she slipped quietly out of the roadhouse and cut across the scrubby desert toward the back of the hangar complex.
Isamu Dyson saw her go, but took little note of it. He'd noticed Wills earlier—with her height and the way she was rocking the full-on sexy librarian look in her lab coat, severe hairstyle, and horn-rim glasses, it would've been hard for a man like Dyson not to—but he'd given very little thought to approaching her. She looked too hardcore for his taste, and anyway, almost all the General Galaxy people had been going out of their way to be total dicks to him and the rest of the Shinsei team, presumably because of Guld's influence.
He'd also toyed with the idea of having a talk with Kozue Kaoru, especially after seeing her manage to get Guld, of all people, to dance with her. She had the look of a real firecracker about her, the kind of woman Isamu would like to know, at least for a few hours. Since she'd gone straight from dancing with Guld up onto the stage, though, he hadn't had an opportunity.
Maybe later, he thought, and scanned the rest of the band while he was looking at the stage. Or maybe one of the other Colonial pilots would be worth a few moments of his time? The blonde looked kind of mean, but the little Asian one was cute. Although, what was the deal with the three of them dragging the dude in the biker jacket up on stage? And how'd that guy even get in here? He's sure not a pilot, not with that stone-age 'stache.
Thus preoccupied, Dyson took a few moments to realize that the person standing next to him at the bar was looking at him. He turned to see Max Sterling watching him with a little private smile.
Isamu wasn't entirely sure how to react to Sterling. Naturally, he'd heard of the guy—Maximilian "Genius" Sterling was a legend's legend, second-element lead in the original Eight-Ball Squadron. Gryphon himself had once said that Genius was the best pilot in the whole Wedge Defense Force back then: better than himself, better than Dave Ritchie, better than Terror. Not for nothing was the WDF's highest piloting award, the Distinguished Flying Cross, known in the trade as "the Blue Max".
Dyson had to admit he didn't look like much in person. Sterling was a lanky character with long blue hair—hippie hair, Dyson's flight instructor had called it, the kind of hairstyle a pilot could only have gotten away with in the old WDF—and a calm, almost placid expression. He looked about 20. If not for the look in his eyes, the quiet but unmistakable confidence of a man who had survived thousands of hours of aerospace combat, Dyson might've taken him for a cadet, or a rookie just out of flight school. He wondered if the little wire-rimmed glasses the elder pilot wore were for show.
"And what might you be grinning at, General Sterling?" he asked with a cocky grin.
"You never power down your sensors, do you, Lieutenant Dyson?" Sterling asked, sounding amused.
Isamu snorted. "You know what they say, General," he said. "It's the bogey you don't spot that's probably going to nail you."
Sterling chuckled. "In that case, I'd say every woman here is safe from you. You're radiating like a SAM site with a rookie operator."
"Well, you've been out of the game for a while, General, so you may not know how things work nowadays," Dyson said, leaning his elbows back against the bar and smirking. "Today's women appreciate direct fire."
Sterling nodded. "That's logical," he conceded, then added archly, "It's much easier to dodge."
Dyson laughed. "General, I believe you're shitting on me," he said, holding up his Heineken longneck.
Sterling grinned and tinked the neck of his APA against Dyson's bottle. "I congratulate you on your perspicacity, Lieutenant."
The first day of the fly-off started out with the lighter work. The morning was spent on tech inspections, and in the afternoon, once the pilots and ground crews had had a chance to fully metabolize their anti-hangover medications, the flying began. Initially, the four aircraft would be flown and observed individually as they executed a number of baseline tests—speed, agility, mode-to-mode performance, gunnery. Only on Day Two would the ships start flying against each other, first in parallel tests, then in mock combat. Day Three, Saturday, would be an all-out free-for-all, a combination of spotting-power lasers and live-fire paint rounds, as the three candidate fighters slugged it out for the honor of being the WDF's next front-line aerospace superiority Veritech and the Mark X just strutted its stuff.
Isamu Dyson drew the first of the individual flights, much to Guld's annoyance. In fact, the YF-21 ended up drawing the last of the four afternoon flight slots, after dinner. The YF-19 would go first, then Kozue Kaoru in the Viper Mark X, and then Max Sterling and the Dash-82 Valkyrie.
Dyson flew a solid baseline run with minimal screwing around and almost no showboating—a first for him throughout the development of the YF-19, and a phenomenon that nearly knocked some of the Shinsei team down with surprise. He returned to the ready hangar and sloped into the pilots' lounge, still jazzed from the flight, nerves jangling. The room was nearly deserted. The only people there were Jan Neumann, the brilliant teenage chief engineer on the YF-19 project, and Max Sterling. Jan was getting a cup of coffee from the machine in the corner; Sterling was slumped in the end of the lounge's ratty couch, his feet propped up on the coffee table, eyes closed, listening to a portable music player, getting his Zen on.
Isamu grinned and shoved some change into the candy machine, then pulled the knob and collected his Zagnut bar. As he straightened up, he decided to have a little fun with Sterling. He'd enjoyed their little verbal sparring match the night before and had mentally flagged the general as a worthy adversary.
"Hey, General," he said as he walked by the end of the couch. Max's thumb moved, pausing the playback, and he opened his eyes and glanced up with a "yes?" expression. Pointing to his own ear, Dyson asked, "Whatcha listening to?"
Max held up his player and turned it so Isamu could see the little semi-holo screen, which showed the cover of the album from which the current track came. Isamu's eyebrows shot up.
"Woo!" he said. "Mylene Flare. God damn, man. She's one hot little number, am I right?" he said with a salacious grin.
Sterling smiled slightly. "You bet," he replied offhandedly.
Isamu laughed and clapped the senior pilot on the shoulder. "Right on," he said. "Wouldn't have to ask me twice." Tossing his Zagnut bar in the air, he caught it behind his back as he walked away, raising a hand in a backward wave. "Well, catch you later, old man!"
"Seeya," Max replied, then switched his player back on and sank back into the Zone.
Dyson was chuckling to himself and unwrapping his candy bar in the hall when Neumann caught up to him, looking horrified.
"Jesus, Isamu, you can't talk to General Sterling that way!"
Dyson looked confused. "What? What way? Why not? He's a man of the world, right?" he added with a grin.
Neumann gave the pilot his patented how-can-even-you-be-such-an-idiot look. "Isamu, you jerk," he said. "Mylene Flare is General Sterling's daughter!"
Dyson blanched. "What? Seriously?" He blinked. "Then how come her name isn't Sterling?"
Jan suppressed an urge to strangle Isamu. "It's a stage name, you moron!" he yelled.
"... Oh." Dyson blinked again. "Um, 'scuse me."
Max Sterling looked up and paused his portable again as the lounge door suddenly hissed open to reveal an anxious-looking Isamu Dyson.
"General? Um. Honestly, your daughter is a serious hottie," he said. "I didn't mean any disrespect. And I love her work."
Then, as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone again, the door squeaking shut behind him.
Max cracked a slight hint of a smile, said, "Hum," closed his eyes, and started playback again.
Kozue adjusted the throat tab of her pressure suit as she left the shade of the ready hangar and walked across the apron to her VX. She smiled as she did so, remembering that the first time she'd ridden a Mark X into combat, she hadn't had the luxury of a flightsuit. Like everyone else in her impromptu flight, she'd been wearing her duty uniform, which, in the event of a loss of cockpit pressure (or an ejection), would have been worth precisely dick. There had been a certain raffish élan about flying in shirtsleeves—Starbuck's father, Starbuck the First, had told her that the Galactica's pilots flew that way all the time back during the First Cylon War, though she wasn't sure she believed him—but Kozue had decided early on that she preferred the chance of surviving a bailout, thanks all the same.
The crew was still swarming around the fighter, making final prep for launch. Prosna had already done his usual thing, going all the way around the Viper pulling off all the REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT tags and clipping them to his web harness, so that by now he vaguely resembled a Communist parade float. Cally was buried up to her shoulders in the side hatch aft of the cockpit, making sure the instrumentation was in order. Chief Tyrol himself was giving the sensor cluster in the nose one last look. To Kozue, who had gotten used to seeing the crew and the Viper in the clean grey environs of the Aurora's flight deck, it seemed weird to see them all standing out in the bright sun, duracrete below, blue sky above.
"How do we look, Chief?" Kozue asked as she walked toward the ship.
Tyrol came to attention and saluted as she approached. It wasn't something he normally did—Rogue Squadron maintained a level of flight-deck discipline that placed practicality and productivity over form—but Tyrol was well aware of the scrutiny the Rogues and their fighter were receiving, and he wanted to show that he was a professional. Kozue respected that, so she returned the salute as snappily as she knew how.
"All systems check out, Lieutenant," he said briskly, offering his clipboard with its inspection record for her perusal. "You're fully fueled and armed for a standard attack mission. She's all yours."
Kozue took the clipboard, looked over the inspection sheet, signed the bottom with a flourish, and handed it back. Tyrol accepted it with another salute; Kozue returned it, thanked him, and went to the boarding ladder.
"Everything OK in there, Cally?" she asked as she reached the top of the ladder. Cally pulled herself out of the inspection panel, shut it, and nodded, grinning.
"Right where I left it," she said, then stepped from the wing to the boarding ladder as Kozue vaulted the coaming into her seat. Cally leaned over the side and helped her on with her helmet and seat straps, then climbed down and thumped the palm-sized pressure plate that retracted the ladder. She was the last to clear the ship, trotting back into the shade of the hangar where the crew had set up all the recording and reporting equipment for the Viper's test instrumentation.
"Comm check," Kozue said. "Ground station, this is Duelist. You got me?"
"Five by five, Duelist," replied Wes "Jester" Janson. "Telemetry looks OK. You're cleared to fire up anytime you like."
"Roger, starting now." By now the routine was polished, automatic. As always, she couldn't stop the smile that tugged at her lips as the keening startup warble of the Viper's three fusion turbines settled into a smoothly synchronized whistle, and didn't really want to stop it anyway. She checked her engine lights, reported three blue to Jester, ran down her final prelaunch checklist, then called the tower for clearance.
"Victor X-Ray One, you're cleared for takeoff," the tower controller replied. "Go to two-five-two once you clear the field and await instructions from Evaluation Control."
"Wilco, Tower," Kozue replied, and she was off.
The first flight's program was a simple one, the kind of thing she'd done a hundred times before on familiarization flights and just out screwing around to pile up hours. She showed off the VX's modes and flight characteristics, performed some basic and intermediate maneuvers, then went out to the gunnery range a few miles to the south and blew some stuff up.
Unlike most Veritech fighters, which carried air-to-air missiles as well as guns, the Viper was almost a pure gunfighter, more like the fixed-configuration fighters made by Incom and Subpro. Like Incom's T-65 Dragonfly, the VX carried warheads for the attack role, proton torpedoes in fixed launchers, rather than missiles intended for use on competing fighters. All of its aerospace superiority punch came from its two blaster cannons—but what blaster cannons! Lightweight cousins of naval turbolasers, they could wipe out almost anything put in front of them with a few well-placed salvos.
The Viper's unusual weapons setup, different from anything else in the field, would probably have counted against it if it were actually a contender for the WDF's contract, but Kozue didn't care about that. What the fighter lacked in conventional firepower it made up in speed and survivability. She had little doubt that, if nothing else, the VX was the toughest fighter on display this weekend.
Having savaged the gunnery range, Kozue turned for home.
"Anything else you'd like me to do this trip?" she asked Eval Control as she locked onto the field localizer.
"X-Ray One, go to flight level 400 and await further instructions," the controller replied.
"Roger, flight level 400," Kozue said, and began to climb. After a few seconds, she decided that her rate of climb was entirely too leisurely and tried to increase power.
Nothing happened. The throttle lever refused to move at all, remaining resolutely fixed at 30 percent power.
"What the crap?" Kozue muttered. She took her right hand off the control stick and tried to move the throttle with both hands, but it still wouldn't move.
"Well, hell," she said to herself. She moved her hand back to the stick, intending to level off, only to discover that it wouldn't move either.
"Control, I have a little problem here," she said.
"Go ahead, X-Ray One."
"My flight controls just went dead. Throttle and control stick are totally nonresponsive."
"Uh, copy that, X-Ray One, wait one... we have you 70 miles out and inbound, climbing through flight level 320. Confirm you can't change course or speed."
Kozue tried the controls again. "That's affirmative, Control. No throttle, no stick, no rudders. The controls are completely frozen. I can't even move them. All my indicators look normal, but... no control response." She glanced at her rate-of-climb indicator. "I don't have enough power on to sustain a climb, either. I estimate she'll fall off around 500."
"Hold on, X-Ray One. Switching to your ground crew."
A moment later Jester's voice came through. "I understand you're having some trouble," he said in an exaggerated impression of the classic, laconic CAPCOM drawl.
"You could say that." Kozue described her problem as concisely as possible. The next voice she heard was Cally's.
"X-Ray One, you may have a flight computer overrun. Recommend you try SCE to AUX."
Kozue scanned the panel for a second—that was a button she'd noticed once, but never actually used—then reached and pressed it.
"Nothing," Kozue reported. "The button doesn't even light—"
Suddenly, Kozue noticed a strange sensation of lightness. It took her a moment to realize that it was the Viper's upward arc beginning to flatten as the ship reached the limits of its aerodynamic performance capabilities. The fighter didn't have enough thrust on to escape Muroc III's gravity, or even to maintain flight in the upper reaches of the planet's atmosphere. With its stubby wings, the Viper was not the world's greatest atmospheric performer. It relied mainly on brute thrust to stay airborne in the soup, and most of its tremendous power was locked in front of the frozen throttle lever.
Kozue had just enough time to say, "Ohhh, here we go!" before the coasting Viper "fell off the top step", winged over, and started to fall.
It was a gentle fall at first, but that didn't last. With its control surfaces locked and reaction systems unresponsive, the Viper wasn't properly trimmed. As it stalled, it tumbled and began to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster as gravitational acceleration did its work.
"OK, not good," Kozue muttered. "Time for Plan D."
She reached to the left side of the control console, forward of the throttle, and yanked open the access panel, revealing wiring and circuitry inside. Blue-white lights pulsed here and there, the heartbeat of the Viper's photonic systems. Kozue pulled out a couple of isolinear program modules, flipped them over, and shoved them back in—a trick she'd learned during one of the Avalon Fall Classics she'd raced in. The flight control system she and Corwin had installed in her Headhunter was a cousin of the one in the VX, and reversing the primary and tertiary routing cards had cleared up a similar control jam she'd suffered after an unscheduled midair with one of the other competitors in a qualifying heat.
This time, though, not so much. She decided she might as well put them back the other way, but it was getting harder to reach the panel—the G-forces were beginning to mount as the Viper's spin accelerated. Gritting her teeth, she switched the tertiary card, then pulled the primary.
The Viper lurched as it plowed downward into heavier air, throwing her back against her seat, then slamming her forward into her straps. Alert sirens started going off—if the fighter's control systems were locked up, there was nothing wrong with its sensors and warning systems, apparently.
The common practice of running with the inertial dampening system turned down to the minimum safe level, so that the pilot could feel what the ship was doing, turned against Kozue now, and of course the control that should have ramped it up and shielded her from the violence of Newton's laws did nothing. With the last jolt, she nearly lost the isocard, decided it wasn't worth trying to reinstall it with the ship buffeting this way, and jammed it into the chest pocket of her pressure suit instead. Why she did that instead of just dropping it, she would never know.
Grabbing the flight controls, she tried once again to move them, but nothing happened. She twisted at the throttle grip, thumbing the button for mode selection; that, too, was unresponsive.
"Victor X-Ray One is declaring an emergency," she announced, silently pleased with herself for the steadiness of her voice.
"Kozue!" Janson's voice crackled in her ears. "We have you falling through flight level 150. Recommend you try a complete system shutdown. Can you read me?"
"Yeah—I hear you—Wes," Kozue grunted, feeling now as if Guld Bowman were standing on her chest.
Guld, she thought. I wonder if he had anything to do with this.
For in her heart, Kozue knew this was not a malfunction, not an accident. Someone had tampered with her Viper. She had no reason to be so certain, but just then, in a single, horrible moment of clarity, she was—absolutely convinced that what was happening to her right now was the result of sabotage.
Her attempt to shut down the Viper's systems entirely, in hopes that a cold startup would wipe away whatever bad mojo had locked it up, was useless, as she expected. She could barely reach the panel, and flipping the safety cover away from the master shutdown key proved nearly impossible. Once it was done, it was revealed as wasted effort: the button underneath did nothing.
With a sudden shuddering shriek of overstressed metal, the Viper's starboard wing tore off, imparting a whole new axis to the ship's tumbles and sealing the door on any remaining hope that its fall might somehow be recoverable.
Kozue was out of options and nearly out of time. Though every instinct in her screamed not to do it, not to give up, she faced the ugly truth: she had lost her bird. X-Ray One was going down and there was nothing she could do about it. Her only responsibility now was to avoid going down with it.
"X-Ray One," she said through gritted teeth, fighting with all her strength to make her hands move away from her sides and down between her knees. Snarling, eyes clamped shut, she forced her leaden arms forward and down against monstrous forces, then seized hold of the yellow-and-black-striped ring at the base of her seat with both hands.
"X-Ray One," she repeated, nearly unintelligible, her pressure suit all but crushing the life from her in an attempt to keep blood flowing to her brain. "Ejecting!"
With all the strength she had left, she pulled the ring. The howling and hooting of the various alarms was wiped away in an instant by a deafening BANG as explosive bolts blew the Viper's cockpit canopy up and to the left, the charges angled to ensure that the discarded canopy wouldn't hit the fighter's vertical stabilizer. A moment later the charge under Kozue's seat fired, blasting it clear of the tumbling Viper.
Things got very quiet all of a sudden, now that the violence of the cockpit was suddenly gone. Of course, now she was hurtling through space strapped to a seat that was rolling all over the place, like a six-sided die thrown across a table; but what the hell, at least she didn't have all those alarms yelling at her.
0.5 seconds after ejection, the computer in Kozue's ejection seat should have triggered the small attitude thrusters built into the seat itself. In a space ejection, these would try to stop the seat, holding it steady so that search-and-rescue craft would have an easier time of it. Here, in an atmosphere-and-gravity situation, it was designed to make sure the seat was falling upright, then release the pilot's straps and get the seat out of the way so that the pilot could do whatever maneuvering was necessary to parachute to safety.
Instead, it went insane, thrusters blasting randomly, going into a more violent tumble than anything the Viper had considered doing. Kozue screwed her eyes shut before the crazily tilting horizon could make her sick, for there is absolutely no situation that can ever be improved by vomiting in a pressure helmet. Cursing, she braced herself, reached up, and slammed the quick-release in the center of her chest, cutting the seat loose manually.
Instantly, as the seat's wild spin flung her away from it, she arched her body into a diving position, spreading her arms to stabilize herself, and trusted in gravity to straighten her shit out. After a few moments, she opened her eyes and found that she was falling more or less straight down. The ground was still an appreciable distance away—her flightsuit had no altimeter, so she couldn't really tell how far, but far enough that her emergency chute should be able to get her down in one piece.
She was just starting to think she'd gotten away with it after all when something smashed into the back of her helmet like a sledgehammer and everything went black.
NEXT ISSUE: Codename SERAPH BLUE
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bacon Comics Group
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
"Operation Supernova, Part I:
written by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with notion wranglin' and concept control by the Usual Suspects
and special aerospace geekery by Chad Collier
Bacon Comics chief Derek Bacon (Lightnin)
with much owed to lots of people
Vol. 1 No. 3
Bacon Comics Group 2410
E P U (colour) 2007