“Now that you’ve all completed, to a degree, the simulator training, we’ll start with an air-to-air combat drill,” Flight Instructor Delphi announced to the twenty-four students gathered on the runway. “In order to illustrate the extreme need for skill in air-to-air combat situation, we will first be pitting the student who scored the best, Yuesf Coingie, against the student who scored the worst, Hunter Jusenkyou. Pilots, man your aircraft.”
Half the students giggled and snickered as Hunter walked, head low, towards the plane. His team members all shot disapproving glances at the other students as they quickly helped him into a flight suit. Hunter didn’t really care that they were making fun of him, he just couldn’t stand how poorly he was doing at this part of the education.
In the simulator he couldn’t make the plane do what he wanted. He couldn’t control it, at all. He’d crashed nine hundred and seventeen times and the instructor had almost removed him from the class. If it wasn’t for
Delphi’s incessant love of torturing Hunter by pitting him against Yuesf, he wouldn’t be on the airfield.
“Now, don’t worry about crashing,”
Delphi explained. “We here at Gudersnipe have what’s called the ‘rescue return’ system. At the instant of death the device removes your consciousness and soul from your body and implants them in a freshly cloned body. We don’t like it when our students die, so we built this system to help out some of our less talented people.”
He grinned wickedly at Hunter, who looked fiercely back. He wasn’t about to give
Delphi the satisfaction of watching him die.
Hunter had flown before, real planes. It was only twice, but he’d done it. And he’d done well; so well he remembered the observers being amazed. All he had to do was find that skill again and he would show
Delphi—and Yuesf—who Hunter Jusenkyou was.
He could only assume it was some trick of the flight simulators that had done him in. They were real, perfect, fully-accurate systems built on GS-simulator technology. For the life of him he couldn’t tell these simulations apart from his real flights.
And yet, despite a hundred attempts, he couldn’t make it happen again.
He couldn’t own the sky.
“Don’t worry, Hunter,” J’Nall said as she and Jason helped him into the cockpit. “You don’t have to worry, just concentrate on not crashing. Let Yuesf have his day, we’ll get him later, ‘k?”
“Just wait,” Hunter replied. “I’ll show the both of them.”
“Don’t do anything stupid, Hunter,” Jason cautioned. “You just need practice, you’ll learn to pilot someday.”
Hunter said nothing as he fastened on his helmet and velcroed the air mask to his face. As soon as J’Nall and Jason were clear of his wings he began taxiing down the runway with Yuesf.
“Ready to die?” Yuesf asked viciously. “I’ll make you pay for that embarrassment yesterday in hand-to-hand.”
“Someday everyone dies,” Hunter replied emotionlessly. “Until you know that, you are useless.”
“Guess that explains something!” Yuesf howled as his craft hit takeoff speed and rose into the air.
Hunter followed suit, taking a very steep climb up into the heavens. He had to find a way to bring it back, to do what he’d done before.
Yuesf leveled off and began a wide turn. The aircraft were equipped with lasers and sensors, so that the pilots could register killing hits on each-other without live ammunition. Yuesf was coming in to take the first shot.
“Stick go forward, buildings get bigger,” Hunter whispered under his breath. He pushed the flight stick all the way forward and pressed the jet into a nose dive.
“What are you doing, Hunter?”
Delphi asked cautiously.
Hunter ripped his mask off and disconnected the umbilical of the G suit. He was sitting in the cockpit, no compressed air and no pressure suit. The cockpit was pressurized, but imperfectly so, and the heat from the avionics gave the air a foul, electric taste. The reason for air masks was because cockpit seals were never perfect, oxygen was leaking out and he was already at an altitude where the air was unbreathable.
This had to be it.
This was just like before.
The acceleration pushed Hunter back into his seat despite heading straight down. His eyes tunneled as the desert floor filled up his whole field of view. It was exactly like before.
“Hunter, put your mask on!”
Delphi ordered. “Put your mask on and PULL UP!”
Hunter ignored him. Despite the extraordinary G-forces and the thin air, he was thinking perfectly. It wasn’t good enough.
Silently, Hunter took his hands off the controls.
“Pull up Hunter,”
Delphi said calmly. “You don’t have to prove anything to me. Pull up, now.”
Hunter closed his eyes, the ground approaching fast.
If it didn’t happen soon it wasn’t going to have a chance to. If it didn’t happen soon he would die. In that moment he made a silent promise to himself: this was it, if it didn’t happen this time he was done.
It wasn’t happening.
He was going to die.
* * *
J’Nall shielded her eyes against the bright sun as she looked up at Hunter’s plummeting aircraft. Yuesf was circling at altitude, unsure what to do.
“He’s going to crash!” J’Nall shouted. “There has to be something we can do!”
“He took his mask off and put his plane in a nose dive,”
Delphi groaned. “I think I broke him.”
The COM crackled on and Hunter’s voice came clearly over it. There was a strange quality to his voice, distant, far away, yet commanding. It was a tone that reached out, entered the minds of all those who heard it, gripping them by the very soul and shaking them until they understood and respected the message.
“The sky—belongs—to—ME!” he shouted.
The air was split by a resounding boom as his jet pulled out of the dive just above the desert floor and broke the sound barrier.
“He’s brought up the RAM jets,”
Delphi gasped. “And the afterburner! Together they can generate enough thrust to achieve escape velocity!”
“Holly shaii! You’re serious?” Jason shouted.
“They can, but the G-forces would kill the pilot,”
Delphi groaned. “And Hunter’s disconnected his suit from the aircraft’s support systems; he may as well be wearing his street clothes up there—”
“Look!” J’Nall pointed up to the spot on the horizon that was Hunter’s fighter.
It made a nearly ninety degree turn at top speed and came down on the other plane. The combat recorder registered two deadly hits on Yuesf’s fighter, then Hunter veered away.
Yuesf tried to come around and get behind Hunter, but he was too late.
Hunter jammed on the afterburner again and went unto a high loop.
Yuesf tried to slow his craft and force Hunter in front of him, but Hunter compensated and instead came down behind his adversary.
The system registered another lethal hit on Yuesf.
It was the ratio that made it so frightening. Yuesf had poured out hundreds of simulated rounds without landing a hit; but with Hunter, it was just three. One shot, one kill; one shot, one kill; one shot, you get the idea. Three shots, three kills.
Yuesf’s fighter finally managed to get behind Hunter, but its attacks were easily dodged by the agile craft.
Hunter went into a barrel role that ate altitude, and Yuesf followed a little more cautiously.
Less than a hundred feet off the ground Hunter pulled out and raced across the desert, swerving this way and that as Yuesf attempted to snipe him from higher up. Before he could land a hit, Hunter’s fighter broke the sound barrier a second time and disappeared from view.
He dropped in behind Yuesf and registered six more lethal hits.
Delphi shouted. “Yuesf, Hunter, come in!”
“This sky is mine!” Hunter repeated and activated the boosters again, taking his craft high into the atmosphere.
Delphi gaped as he looked at the altitude readings. “By all logic he should be dead. All right, how about I send up a few drones? Let’s see what he’s really made of!”
“Hunter, we’re sending up several unmanned air drones,” he said. “And switching on your tactical systems. This is a live-fire test now, don’t hold back.”
The three drones raced out of a launcher and climbed quickly to Hunter’s altitude.
“He’s at the vertical limit,”
Delphi explained. “If this were a round earth, he’d probably be in space right now, but on flat worlds there is a limit to how high aircraft can travel before their wings simply stop canceling-out the force of gravity. Lucky thing, to, that plane of his lacks the control thrusters or heat-shielding he’d need for re-entry.”
All three drones registered as destroyed.
“This man is unbelievable,” he admitted. “Hmm… looks as though he’s also out of fuel. Oh dear.”
“Out of fuel, already?!” Jason snapped. “He’s been up there like twenty minutes!”
“He’s also been burning the engines almost continuously,”
Delphi retorted. “I imagine there’s all kinds of warning alarms going off in his console right now, and, yes, there he goes.”
Jason followed the instructor’s gaze and watched in horror as the small craft plummeted, pulled up, and finally, crashed into the desert floor.
Delphi gasped as he stared at his console. “He’s still alive.”