“It’s a bomb all right,” Hunter confirmed as he returned from the suspicious piece of luggage lying at the center of the airfield. “I’m gonna suggest we run, what’s your take?”
Colonel Coalfield whipped sweat from his brow and took a few deep breaths, staring down the weapon as if his gaze alone could somehow defuse it.
“We should move everyone back to a safe perimeter,” Jason suggested. “Given the size that bomb can’t be very powerful; a few hundred feet should be—”
“That road runs directly over the main ammunition magazine,” Coalfield interrupted. “Six hundred tons of munitions. Not to mention the fuel depot, the explosives plant, and oh yes, the uranium enrichment facility and N2 factory. That one explosive is in the worst possible place, poised to set up a chain reaction that could remove a sizeable chunk of this continent…”
“I got a look at the device,” Hunter put in. “It’s pretty complicated. Jason and I have worked some EOD, we might be able to—”
“Too risky,” Coalfield shook his head. “This is far too dangerous a situation to entrust to amateurs. No… we need BSK.”
“I’m not familiar with that acronym,” Hunter scratched his chin.
Ignoring him completely, Coalfield pulled out his hand radio and began barking orders into it, sweat and spit flying from his lips as he yelled. Several minutes later, a large black truck pulled up a safe distance away, and two men came out the back holding a large case on top of a liter.
They carried the burden very gently over to where Hunter and the rest stood, then one leaned in and whispered something to Coalfield. All Hunter caught were the muffled words ‘he’s sleeping’.
“Then wake him!” Coalfield snapped.
Finally the two handlers carried the container over to a large flat space and set it down. One of the carriers opened a small hatch on the front and gently reached inside, whispering something as he did so. A few moments later, a very small, extremely fluffy gray kitten wandered sleepily out and mewed at the group.
“HAAAAAAAAAA!” Cindy inhaled. “KITTY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Hunter moved over next to Coalfield and leaned in to speak quietly.
“BSK wouldn’t happen to stand for… Bomb Squad Kitten, would it?”
“He’s very good,” Coalfield replied. “A devoted specialist.”
The tiny gray feline closed the distance to the bomb at a trot, then slowly circled around it, pausing periodically to bat at different stray bits of the bag.
“I take it this would be the ‘cat scan’?” Hunter asked.
“Quiet,” Coalfield ordered.
The kitten finally made his way over the top of the bag and began scrambling around inside, apparently playing amongst the wires.
“This is a joke, right?” Jason shook his head. “You aren’t actually using a cat to disarm a bomb!”
“BSK is the best there is,” Coalfield replied. “He’s disarmed over fifty weapons, by some of the most complex designers I’ve ever seen. And he doesn’t use any tools or special equipment. He’s the best there is.”
“He’s a cat!” Jason half shouted. “He’s not even a cat, he’s a baby cat! You’re using a baby cat to disarm a bomb!”
One of BSK’s handlers put a radio handset on Coalfields hand, out of which an audible mew had issued.
“It’s all right,” Coalfield said calmly. “Listen to me, just cut the red wire!”
“Cat’s are colorblind,” Jason pointed out.
Coalfield took the radio away from his mouth and went visibly ashen.
“They are?” he whispered.
Another tense minute passed before a tiny grey head poked out of the large duffle bag and meowed, then the kitten hopped out and lay on its side in the sun, licking it’s paws and bathing itself.
“He’s disarmed it!” Coalfield shouted with relief.
Without hesitation, Hunter and Jason crossed the blacktop and examined the device, which did appear to be inert. Hunter removed the power source for the detonator, and Jason pulled all the blasting caps out of the high explosives.
“All clear!” Jason called, then turned to Hunter. “That was the most dangerous situation I’ve ever been in, and I can’t seem to feel even the slightest bit tense…”
“Me neither,” Hunter admitted. “I think though it was mostly because of the sheer absurdity of Coalfield’s solution.”
Cindy, meanwhile scoped up the kitten and began cuddling it furiously.
“That’s quite a trick,” Hunter shook his head. “Where did you find that little guy?”
“We didn’t find him,” Coalfield grinned. “He found us.”
Turning from the defused bomb and the enthused Cindy, Hunter and Jason began walking down the tarmac. A brief distraction from their original mission, the moment of tension and fear was now past and they were able to return to the mission at hand.
* * *
“Sensitives?” Hunter questioned.
“Physics,” Jason replied distastefully.
“Seers,” Gailen corrected. “They’re mages, and they’re good. They’ll be able to tell you which installations to strike when you make the attack.”
“Of course, call it magic and it’s perfectly all right,” Jason complained. “But paranormal? Forget about it.”
“Would you be quiet?” Gailen snapped. They left the shade of the hangar and entered the bright sunlight of the tarmac. Out in front of them, backs to the large metal building, eight young people, five girls and three boys, stood awkwardly at attention, dressed in ill-fitting flight suits and looking incredibly nervous.
The rest of the Eighth Power also waited, but looking significantly less uncomfortable in the familiar setting. Out behind them, eight sparkling, needle-nosed jet fighters were lined up, teams of technicians preparing them for takeoff. As annoying as this mission had to be, nobody said it couldn’t also be fun.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Hunter announced as he stepped in front of the group. “My name is Captain Hunter Jusenkyou, and I’ve been asked to return to fighter detail to command this little sortie.
“You’ve already been briefed on the details of the mission, so I won’t waste anyone’s time repeating them. But from what I understand, none of you has been in space before.
“Space is… the most hostile, forbidding, ad unforgiving environment you will ever set foot in. You will be flying a combat sortie aboard Harpy-class long-range bombers, traveling at upwards of seventy percent of the speed of light.
“Your space flight will be a brutal assault on your senses. We’re here today to give you a taste of that. Behind me is the S-forty-six tactical air-superiority fighter. It has a top speed of Mach two-point-four and a service ceiling of sixty-five-thousand-feet.
“This practice flight will involve taking the aircraft close to its operational limits in order to simulate what a ride is like in a harpy. For the next four hours, we are going to twist you, and we are going to spin you. We are going to flip you, we are going to bend your body until your bones hurt; and if you scream, we’re only going to fly faster and harder.
“You already have your aircraft assignments, so mount up and let’s be on our way. Operation Inner Ceiling is a go.”
Hunter paused as his muscles tensed momentarily, and he turned back to face the group.
“Good luck,” he added. “And good hunting.”
* * *
Hunter was only half paying attention as he went through pre-flight. He hadn’t been in an atmospheric fighter since Gailen stabbed him in the rib cage with an Air Medal and told him go learn how to fly star fighters. There had been those tests of the Allapa Dismissive, but that really didn’t count.
Then of course he’d graduated to commanding a starship, and aside from the occasional sortie, hadn’t flown any sort of fighter in a while. He didn’t miss it, really, but this was an interesting mission and he couldn’t pass it up. Also, Gailen was blackmailing him.
It was just like riding a bicycle, flying an atmospheric fighter. He guessed, anyway, Hunter had never actually learned to ride a bicycle. But the adage, at least, that was still good; he hadn’t flown in what felt like forever, but he still knew exactly what to do.
The S42 was a two-seat fighter, and this one was a training variant designed essentially for nothing but messing with a passenger. She looked about sixteen, and scared out of her mind. She wore shoulder-length curly red hair that had escaped in numerous wisps from under her helmet. The air mask wasn’t covering her face just yet, and Hunter could see the worry lines that surrounded her frowning mouth.
“Tower, this is IC-one,” Hunter said into his radio once he was satisfied that at least the odd-numbered steps on the pre-flight checklist had been completed. “Ready to start taxiing down the runway, awaiting clearance.”
There was no specific flight plan for this training exercise, Hunter had gleefully written “Just… wherever” into that space on the standard form. They had a certain airspace they were to remain inside of and all other traffic had been cleared, so each plane was on it’s own. All they really had to do was keep from hitting each other, which with Hunter’s crew was likely to be their biggest challenge.
The tower signaled that he was cleared for takeoff, and Hunter’s jet began picking up speed as the engines roared to life.
“You might wanna put your mask on, doll-babe,” Hunter instructed to his passenger. “No time like the present.”
The girl silently pushed the tinted shade down over her eyes and pulled the rubber air mask up onto her face. Now, she looked exactly like she belonged. Hunter stifled a laugh as he did the same, and almost unexpectedly the airplane leapt off the ground.
He took them on a steep climb, pushing the engines hard to demand altitude. He’d never actually flown one of these, while a good over-all air-superiority fighter, the S42 lacked the capabilities required to survive in a high-threat environment, so other planes were used on SEAD missions. It was somewhat disturbing to realize that every single combat mission he’d ever flown in-atmosphere was a SEAD-type.
“Who needs regular combat missions?” he snorted as the plane went into a barrel roll. His passenger squeaked fearfully at the sudden drop, and crossed her arms over her chest to grip the safety harness.
“What’s your name, doll-babe?” Hunter asked as he finally righted the plane. “Unless you’d like me to just keep calling you doll-babe while I try to make your skeleton warp.”
As he spoke, he went into a wide upwards helix, keeping a close eye on the altimeter. He was so used to flying Allapa Dismissives that it was hard to keep in mind the fact that he could not fly up into space.
“K-k-k-Kate,” the girl stammered against the g-forces pushing against her chest.
“Well, Kate,” Hunter grinned. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride of your life, m-kay?”
He leveled out and engaged the afterburners, pushing the plane through a wide loop and finally crossing the sound barrier. He let them slow down again to sub-sonic speeds as they came out of it, and finally leveled off and kept the vehicle steady to give his passenger a short breather.
Kate took exactly three breaths to catch her wind, and then let out an ear-splitting scream that made the radio crackle.
“Hmm,” Hunter remarked. “Well, if you thought that was scary, there is a very good possibility you are just going to hate this…”
As he spoke, the airplane began to tilt sideways. Gently at first, but finally going completely upside-down. The nose titled forward until they were completely vertical, ninety-degrees.
With the needle-tipped nose pointed straight down, Hunter used the rudders to make the craft spin and brought the afterburners up to full thrust.
“We call this tactical dive-bombing,” he explained. “The spinning like a top bit isn’t really necessary, but it’s a pretty common tactic on a harpy.”
They were up to about ten revolutions per minute, but the ground was approaching fairly quickly, and it probably wouldn’t do well for the mission if he gave the poor thing a heart attack during training. He stopped the spin and began pulling out of the dive, brushing more than ten thousand feet above the desert floor.
“How was that?” he asked as they began to climb again.
Hunter could see tears flowing out from under Kate’s eye shade and over her rubber facemask, and she seemed to be breathing very hard.
“Why are you here, Kate?” Hunter asked.
“I wanna see space,” the young girl’s voice strained. “No one on my planet goes into space. We travel to other worlds through the GATE or by magic, but no one flies in spaceships. I want to touch the stars!”
“And you think you’re going to get there by crying?” Hunter said. He knew he was being harsh, but this young lady had volunteered to ride on a combat mission for the benefit of her people, the last thing they needed was for her to freak out while traveling at over 70 PSL.
“I want to see space,” Kate insisted.
“Oh, you do?” another grin crossed Hunter’s face. They had already climbed close to the S42’s operational ceiling, but Hunter pushed the throttle all the way forward and began to pull back on the stick.
Pushing the aircraft into a zoom climb, Hunter felt the frame begin to rattle. The rate of climb was now greater than the engines could sustain, and in only a few minutes, they were going to sputter to a stop completely in the rarified air.
“You wanna see space, I’ll show it to you,” Hunter said.
In front of them, the blue sky began to turn black as they passed above 70,000 feet. The stars were visible, and they had even stopped twinkling, though it was impossible to focus with the violent shaking of the airplane.
Before they could flame out, Hunter carefully shut the red-lining engines down. These were regular air-breathing engines, just not designed to function above sixty-five thousand feet. The altimeter now showed they had crossed eighty-five.
With the engines stopped and the aircraft slopped at a forty-five degree angle, Hunter could feel the cockpit begin to depressurize. The air masks would deliver highly-pressurized oxygen to them and had a pretty good ceil around their faces, but that still left the skin of their hands and faces exposed to the rarified air.
They were well into the stratosphere, with air pressures as low as one-one-thousandth what they had experienced on the ground. The engines, which pressurized the cabin, were completely useless as they approached ninety-thousand feet.
“We’re maybe a quarter to a third of the way up into space,” Hunter explained. “Boundary is somewhat hard to define, but about fifty miles off the ground is where we put the lower edge of space. We just passed ninety-two-thousand feet, about seventeen miles up.”
When Kate didn’t respond, Hunter figured he had taken his little demonstration far enough. He wasn’t exactly proud of himself for delighting in torturing the poor girl, but Instructor Gailen’s orders had been very clear: prepare the ‘sensitives’ for space travel and combat conditions.
His grip tightened on the flight yoke and he pushed down to the level them off and bagin a shallow dive.
The plane continued to glide resolutely upwards, stiffly retaining it’s forty-five degree angle.
Experimentally, Hunter shook the stick around, then glanced out his window to ensure the flight surfaces were moving.
There just wasn’t any air passing over them.
“Oh… chock a snapper,” Hunter grimaced under his breath. The altimeter now read ninety-five-thousand feet and was still going up, while the speedometer was plummeting like a rock. There was not going to be a graceful dive, in a few moments the speedometer would hit zero, and then the altimeter would start reversing. The back-heavy fighter would turn from forty-five degrees to ninety, with the nose pointed straight up.
The air-intakes for the engines were on the front, while the business end was obviously in the back. The back, being the area pointed to the ground as they began to fall.
The engines could not start in this configuration, is what this is getting at.
As Hunter watched, the speedometer struck zero, and for one magical moment, the altimeter read ninety-seven-thousand, five-hundred-seventeen feet.
Actually, well above the record for this type of fighter.
And then they were falling.
Butt-first with a bit of a list to the right, Hunter felt himself rising out of his seat and straining against the straps. The speedometer went up a lot faster than it had gone down.
“Is this normal?!” Kate screamed.
“Kinda depends on how you define ‘normal’,” Hunter replied. Their facemasks kept a small, pressurized environment around their mouths, while radios and headsets kept them communicating, despite an almost total vacuum kissing their exposed skin.
“According to Fernel’s laws, yes this is totally normal,” Hunter confirmed, still working the flight sticks in a desperate hope that there would be enough air passing over the surfaces to give him some steering.
“Fernel, as in the guy who invented physics?!” Kate snarled. “Are you saying you’re not controlling our descent?!”
“Let’s see, gravity pulls at an increasing speed of thirty feet per-second-per-second,” Hunter calculated. “Let me do the math… carry the four… oh, yeah, AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”
A string of obscenities then flowed through Hunter’s headset that made him blush; it was more than a little surprising that such words were even in the vocabulary of what appeared to be a sweet, innocent young girl.
“Hey, you screamed in my ears,” Hunter snapped. He pulled on the control stick once again, and the plane flipped sharply on it’s side. He had control again.
Using all his innate skills, Hunter managed to level the fighter more or less, and tried to point the nose down. They had already covered about forty-thousand feet of their journey back to terra-firma.
The basic problem with aircraft like the S42 was it’s glide ratio, about zero-to-one. In other words, for every one foot the S42 dropped, it went forward roughly zero feet. They were spinning in circles roughly level with the nose aimed a little down, so there was no way he could re-start the engines at this point.
Reflexively, Hunter’s eyes darted towards the seat ejector.
All GS aircraft were equipped with a zero-zero ejector seat, designed to safely rescue the occupants even if the plane were at zero altitude and zero airspeed. It was comforting, and he knew he had plenty of time to activate it, but somehow he had a feeling it would look very bad if he crashed on his first flight in so long.
They were under forty-thousand feet now, and he had a decision to make.
Because it was a trainer, either control would activate both ejector seats. Once pulled, explosive bolts would blast the canopy away; then solid rocket motors would propel the chairs clear of the airframe. They would experience between twelve and fourteen Gs of acceleration. Further motors, in a carefully-timed sequence, would spin them around to ensure their arms were pressed against their bodies. The shoot itself was rocket-propelled, and opened with a small detonation. The whole escape would last only a few seconds.
He could prepare Kate for all of that, to some degree, or he could try to save the plane.
Kate didn’t really seem like she was in a particularly talkative mood.
Using the flight surfaces, Hunter steered the airplane into a nose-down dive, similar to the one he’d taken them into before. Only this time, he had to try and cold-start the engines while only thirty-thousand feet off the ground.
With the nose down and the airplane falling at terminal velocity, air was now flowing into the engines, making the cold-start possible. Add to that his foresight in shutting them down properly instead of letting them flame-out, and Hunter actually had a fairly easy time getting them back up and purring.
The jet had slipped into a forty-five degree angle again, this time with the canopy pointed at the dirt rather than the stars. They were also still falling straight down.
The ground seemed perilously close, but at the last second the engines kicked up to maximum thrust, the aircraft righted itself, pulled up hard, and kicked past the sound barrier with a fantastic boom.
Almost as loud was Hunter’s scream of victory as they roared back into the clear, blue sky. Hunter banked left, then right sharply several times in celebration, then went into a wide turn as they hit Mach 2. The fuel gage indicated that it was probably time to head home, and he began to push the craft into a gentle descent.
“So,” Hunter began casually. “Still ready to go for a ride in a starfighter?”
“You,” Kate’s voice huffed in a low growl. “Are an awful man!”
“I get that a lot,” Hunter admitted.