Virtual Victory, page 1
By Mark T. Skarstedt
Copyright 2007 Mark T. Skarstedt
1. The Briefing
"Good flying weather," said Krimby.
"Lovely," I acknowledged. Maundel grunted.
We were admiring the Gonwollod Forest, predawn, from the edge of Grand Mesa. Krimby on my left, his bald head and clipped mustache barely visible, warmed his hands round a mug of chocolate as he gazed rapt. Maundel, lanky and graying, drooped on my right, gazing likewise. Hundreds of feet below us, the tops of the huge drengle-trees of the Gonwollod formed a gloomy carpet to the east and southeast. To the southeast and south stretched the grasslands, over which we would be fighting today. The stars in an indigo sky were beginning to fade as Blaylock extruded his red-gold crown over the Wing-Hills some miles off. Blue Squadron's fifteen combat pilots, chatting in groups of three or four, were waiting for Snapey to blow the summons-whistle.
Krimby spoke again. "Bret. Do you still want to fly Spitfires?"
"More than ever," I said. "I'd love to activate a squadron, with you two at Face and Hub Vees."
Krimby nodded. "We're certainly game. Did you know there's a new volume out? Old Earth Fighter Aircraft. The author's a clandestine agent on Old Earth: knows what he's talking about. The volume covers a number of their wars. Bindrell’s actually has a few copies."
"I've seen them," I said. I didn't add that I had been asked to stop thumbing the book and buy it.
"Then you know there are structural layouts for several models of the Spitfire." He spread his hands. "If we went in together, we could commission a Design."
"It's an interesting idea," I said, "but . . ."
But my wife hated this hobby of mine already and hated the expense. And the whistle sounded at that moment anyway. Krimby tossed the rest of his chocolate over the cliff, and we broke for the Briefing Tent, scarves flapping.
Snapey, our chubby Base Commander, was waiting by his map-board.
"Right, men," he snapped when we were all seated. "Today we're up against the chaps from Township West." He paused. "They've got Zhenders."
We shifted in our seats and glanced at one another. The Zhender, developed toward the end of the Island Wars, flew a little faster and turned a little closer than our Decker's Tobs, which had started the Wars out.
"Nevertheless, we've got the experience," continued Snapey. He made play with his pointer. "Our target today . . ."
Our target today was an imaginary truck convoy going down one of the shallow southern canyons in the Wing-Hills. Our squadron's mission was to attack it. The Zhenders' job would be to intercept us on our way to it, somewhere out over the grasslands south of the Forest, and aerial tactics would decide the rest. If we came out of this elimination last plane up, we would go on to Prefecturals, and my wife would roll her eyes at me as never before. Suddenly I heard my name.
"Flight Captain Bretcher."
I loved the sound of my semivirtual rank. "Sir!"
"There's a chance to do a counter-interception today. Are you game?"
"Delighted, of course, sir," I said. The other pilots gave little, "Hear, hear"s and "Good-oh, Bret!"s.
"Right. Your call-sign is Eisenbeak. I'll trust you to keep us informed. Now as to our formation . . ."
Our formation and tactics were to be conventional and required little discussion. Snapey was an uninspired, if satisfactory, Commander. After Briefing, we streamed out of the tent and hastened over to the heavy tarp that served as our airstrip. I picked up my blue and black-painted Tob – a hand behind the propeller, a hand behind the cockpit – and set it down in Number One Position. I looped the grounding hook over the aft landing gear and crouched down to peer into the cockpit for a three-point final check: paired micro-cameras clamped in place; fuel topped off; ammunition canisters full to register.
I ran to my motor-carriage, settled into the pilot's chair under its dome in back, and donned my headset. I snapped switches on the control-panel: the carriage's engine and generator came on, lights came up, and the dome about me became the cockpit of my Tob. The tarp stretched out before me, now a vast landing field seen from the micro-cameras, and I knew the other pilots, now giants hundreds of feet tall, were behind me, checking their aircraft.
I engaged the ignition; the propeller kicked over and caught; that thrilling little puff of smoke flashed past the wind-screen, and I heard the engine-sound outside. I put pitch on the prop to exert tension against the grounding hook, and activated the landline circuit.
"Center. Eisenbeak here. To transmit, over."
"Center here," came Snapey's voice. "Transmit, Eisenbeak, over."
"Eisenbeak. Ready for take off, over."
"Center. Take-off is authorized, Eisenbeak. Good luck, and good hunting! Er, over."
I disengaged the grounding hook, added more pitch, and sped down the tarp.
Airborne, I looked left: dozens of miles away northwards, the Tanlands lay in dawn light, showing the various roads back to the Settlements – Dinnorbinn, Pinwallah, Shadener – like silver threads on a beige cloth. Dead ahead and bearing right stretched the Forest, with the shaggiest, loftiest drengle-trees on planet. Fully right and to the south were the grasslands, over which our combat would take place today.
I spread my map on my knees, just as the old Tutanian pilots used to do, and picked out some landmarks. Below me was a long east-west section of the Old South Road, a ruined highway to the ancient, abandoned Southern Settlements. I would follow it east and divert north at an appropriate turning point.
At a place I knew to be drifted deep with dust, I went into a power dive to test my new armament – a high-velocity firing system my wife had most grudgingly agreed I could purchase. I pressed the stud, and the BB-shot raised their gratifying puffs of dust right in the cross-hairs. The bark-bark of the guns was intoxicating. I pulled up and gained some altitude.
A few minutes saw me to my turning-point. I glanced down the Road before heading north and saw a vehicle - no, two vehicles - well off to the east where there was Forest on both sides of the Road. Odd. The Old Road was seldom driven; you had to go cross-country to reach it, and it was full of holes and soft-spots that had probably been there since a century or so after men had first colonized Ggell of Blaylock. I shrugged. Picnickers, possibly. I had to turn well short of them, so there was no time to investigate. I reached my turning point: a place where there had been a fire in ancient times; the drengles were sparser, the undergrowth heavier. Across the Road and an eighth of a mile south was a shallow lake.
As I topped the younger drengles, I noted a large system of mud-and-fiber nests among their upper branches. My lip curled in distaste: Hengston's Hornets. Aside from being savage pests, their nesting habits would eventually kill the young drengles here. I must remember to fly back and shoot up their dwellings, if I had any shot left after the fight. I banked and began to cruise slowly northwest. I activated the land-line. "Center. Eisenbeak. To transmit, over."
"Center here. Transmit, Eisenbeak, over."
"Eisenbeak. Have turned west of north to approach opposition from sunward. Over to you."
"Center. Good, Eisenbeak. The rest are en route to the target. Good luck to all of us, over."
I remembered hearing the take off noises through the doors of my motor-carriage.
"Eisenbeak. Very well. I'm . . . Hold it! Zhenders in sight! Position . . ." I smoothed out the map. "Five niner one; six four six. Course just west of due south. Low velocity. They must be coming from Wangrove Mesa. Three Vees of five craft each. Will keep you informed, over."
"Go get 'em, Eisenbeak! Ending transmission, out."
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They were stubby l
I picked the two rearmost craft in the third, or Post, Vee. They first knew I was there when several of my initial burst made score-marks on the nearer aircraft's wind-screen. His red hit-light began to blink, and I could imagine the Pilot back on Wangrove Mesa, cursing with surprise, forced to leave the fight before it even started. I instantly took my second target under fire: clean hits along the wings turned his hit-light on. When the rest of the enemy, responding to their fellows' frantic landline calls, turned to attack me, I up-bellied and dove for the treetops.
That's my special trick: getting below the canopy in mid-Forest. Most pilots won't even try it; the models are confoundedly expensive, as my wife is fond of pointing out. However, the branches are spade-shaped and two or three feet apart: plenty of room for a slow-moving semivirtual aircraft. Once you're through and down, into the cathedral gloom below, the scale distance between trunks is