“You’re certain your Montauk Station wingman will not be present for this operation?” Captain Maros had never flown in one of the rare, secret aircraft that the Liberty Corps had inherited. Featuring advanced space-age propulsion and a kinetic-energy weapons system that recouped almost thirty percent of the power spent in its discharge, there had never been more than one hundred Sun Talon fighter craft built. Each cost over 150 million dollars to build, and that had been before the collapse of the well-oiled military industrial machine. The Corps had inherited fewer than twenty.
“It is against protocol to commit that number of assets to a pursuit operation unless authorized by a colonel rank or higher, but the Quiet Zone guys are good.” Lieutenant Melville, the Drone Minder Maros had recruited for the Nimauk operation, traveled across North America in his Sun Talon and knew all of the Corps guidelines. Melville recited them from practiced memory. Maros knew he was not the first captain to ask Melville to bend the rules. The only reason Maros himself managed to secure the one and only passenger seat – actually a secondary gunnery position – aboard the ship was a purely practical matter. The Drone Minder had flown the Talon from Montauk to Pennsylvania to aid Maros. He had flown alone. Consequently, there was one seat open. The second fighter, the one sent from the Quiet Zone, was entirely out of Maros’ jurisdiction. He watched it with almost as much apprehension as he did the Aesir.
“If we shoot them down with conventional weapons,” Maros said. “You’re certain they and the films will survive the crash? I have no wish for bloodshed.”
“They are still hundreds of feet in the air, on average.” Melville never so much as glanced away from the controls. “They are in an aircraft that does not obey conventional aerodynamics. Who can say?”
Melville knew his own craft, intimately. He’d flown it between every one of his Corps assignments, sometimes jetting from one side of the North American continent to the other, alone, in a time without much air traffic supervision. Rumor had it that this man had been an IHSA pilot, that he had been one of the pilots who fought Thunderworks above New York City.
In any case, Melville knew his business. As focused as he clearly was, he flew with the polished ease of a master, a true professional. Despite the nauseating turns and twists from the Aesir, their quarrynever kept away from him for long. Maros had fired many shots from his cannon, toward the other ship. But Melville only fired when he was certain his shot would connect. During the dozen-plus minutes of the chase, he had never missed. Not once.
“What’s next?” Maros watched the second Talon fly over the Aesir and blast off into the far distance. “What are they doing?”
“Standard procedure.” Melville kept their craft tight behind the Aesir. “Captain Gregory has shown himself to be an erratic flier. He’s flying low on purpose as his escape strategy, so we’ll box him in close to the ground, shoot him down. It’ll decrease their chances of escape and increase their chances of surviving the crash.”
An energy blast left the Aesir’s top cannon and slammed into the front of their ship. The shields absorbed most of the damage, but the light left a horrid afterimage in front of Maros’s eyes and rattled the craft around them.
“They’re improving.” Melville pressed a button on the ship’s radio. “Marked increase in both flying and marksmanship. We need to end this soon.”
“Copy that,” the other pilot answered. Maros couldn’t see the other ship, due to both the unending afterimage and from the skill of the second pilot.
When the young captain’s eyes cleared, he switched on his borrowed, outdated helmet’s night vision. He saw that the Aesir had led them down through an even, narrow expanse of river valley, bordered on either side by snow-covered trees, their branches drooping low over the rushing water. The bizarre camper blasted right along at water level, sometimes crashing through branches, but usually skirting beneath them.
The Sun Talons were a good deal smaller than the Aesir. They packed a punch, but were designed to be miniscule, to slip through enemy defenses, to be light enough to strike anywhere.
Another blast from the Aesir’s roof gun again temporarily blinded Maros. He knew Melville’s helmet, unlike his own, was the very best that could be found in the world and likely could withstand the intense glare of the energy blasts from the Aesir, but he admired the unwavering hand on the small fighter’s yoke.
“Cliff face in five kilometers,” the other Talon pilot spoke over the radio. “Keep ‘em busy, Sharpshooter. We’re going in.”
“I copy, Looker,” Melville said. “We’re on them.” The pilot flipped a switch on his console. Suddenly the small barrier between Maros’s seat and the pilot’s own lit up. “Use both secondary cannons. Don’t worry about power usage. We just need to keep them busy.”
“Right.” Maros took the controls. “This other pilot, Looker, you called him – can they really force the Aesir to the ground?”
“You can count on it.”
* * *
Orson laughed when he saw the secondary barrage of energy come hurtling out of the Sun Talon that had followed them into their wild race along the river.
“Called it,” he said. “This is gonna be tricky, but I think it’s working.”
“Good.” Enoa couldn’t manage more speech. She constantly rotated the stick, keeping it even with the ship flying just behind them. The little craft was fast and tiny, but her hands were steady, her mind focused, and she’d gotten at least a couple good hits on them.
“Here we go.” The self-assured edge had reentered Orson’s voice, but this did not reassure her. His confidence was often rewarded and his experienced guesses were frequently proven true, but she’d seen him wrong too. Wrong now meant dying or capture.
She couldn’t help wondering about her aunt’s secrets. If she’d already studied the film library, could she have found some power, some way to save them in the event of a crash?
“Keep firing at the guy back there,” Orson said. “The other one is coming in.”
Enoa kept firing on the ship behind them, but she couldn’t ignore the other red dot appear on the screen, as the second fighter came screaming down into the river valley, flying right at them. This second ship had already begun to spit energy and fire of its own.
Orson started laughing and cheering, his hands still on the controls. He took hold of a small circular device, set just above the steering column. He didn’t turn aside, but kept the camper barreling straight for their second attacker. The energy barrage from the second ship began to sizzle and strike against the Aesir’s shields, blasting so bright that Enoa struggled to maintain her visual focus on her controls. But still, Orson did nothing to turn aside and kept them locked in the same deadly game of aerial chicken.
Orson pulled back the circular controls above the steering column. This was the fire control for the hidden repeating guns in the camper’s front grill and side doors. Orson activated these guns, true guns, firing physical projectiles.
Orson sent a barrage of these projectiles into the ship that hurtled toward them, the ship that was only thousands of feet away. The heavy, repeated strikes from the projectiles, dozens of times in a few seconds, overwhelmed the fighter’s shields, overheating them before the pilot could turn aside.
The second Sun Talon exploded, sending a cascade of charred metal down into the river. The roar of the destroyed ship was deafening even inside the camper, and Enoa’s ears rang. Still, she could hear Orson when he spoke.
“I won’t clear the whole debris field,” he said. “Hold on.” The windshield had darkened to save them from the dangerous brightness of the explosion, and Orson managed to pull the ship up and away from the river, but their underside shields were bombarded by micro-fragments of the destroyed enemy fighter. Enoa crashed back into her chair.
The ship rocked around them a second time, and Enoa realized she’d been distracted and had stopped returning fire toward the Sun Talon that pursued them from behind. She quickly realigned the roof gun and sent a series of blasts toward their other pursuer, as Orson flew them away from the trees and higher over the darkened landscape.
“One down,” he said. “One more to go.” He removed his hand from the fire control and jetted them away from their pursuer. “Hey, Warning Lady Voice. Can you please find something for me?”
“Certainly,” the Warning Lady Voice replied. “Feel free to call me Ruby. What do you need me to find?”
“Uh, okay, Ruby,” Orson said. “Find me somewhere we can land in a hurry, with cover from the air. I need to do a full shutdown so I can fire out an ion field. Can you help me out?”
“Certainly!” Ruby said again. “I’ll find you a place to do a full shutdown with air cover.”
“Thanks.” Orson flew the ship lower again, just over the treetops.
“You didn’t know the Voice’s name?” Enoa fired back toward the Sun Talon. The enemy ship had fallen to a greater distance since its fellow’s destruction, but they’d begun to edge forward, once again. Enoa sent another blast toward the red dot, but with the Aesir flying so low, she feared she’d accidentally ignite the tops of one or more of the trees.
“I haven’t needed this much help.” Orson didn’t raise the Aesir any higher. “There aren’t many people with air power. I do almost all of my fighting on the ground. The only time Ruby speaks to me is when she’s upset the ship’s taking a beating – hence the Warning Lady Voice, thing.”
“Oh.” Enoa sent one blast directly into the Sun Talon, her third direct hit. But the red dot kept coming. Were these ships better prepared to withstand an energy barrage than physical projectiles?
“It’s not like she’s a real AI or anything.” Orson lowered his voice. “Some of those exist, but I actually knew the girl who lent her voice for this.”
“If she’s not a real person, why are you whispering?”
“Because I’m politely rude, and I don’t like when things have names and I don’t…”
“Be honest with me,” she interrupted. “Have you been in sky chases before? You seem less prepared for this than you were for personal fighting.”
“One or two,” Orson admitted. “Nine times out of ten, once I got back aboard this boat, I was safe. There weren’t many who could get off the ground after me, and never did they have genuine space tech. Those things chasing us have some elements that were reverse engineered sci-fi stuff, serious tinfoil hat government conspiracy nonsense. Do you follow me?”
“I’m not sure.” Enoa was too occupied by Orson’s inexperience in aerial battles to worry much about the technical specifications of the craft that pursued them. “UFOs?”
“Basically,” Orson said. “Anyway, once this is over, we need to get you pilot ready.” Enoa was spared from speaking. A shot from the Sun Talon hit them hard enough that she physically bounced in her seat. The fighter hit them a second time and a third, as the explosive drumming resumed.
“Shields are depleting by one percent every three seconds,” Ruby said. “At this rate…”
“I know!” Orson pulled back on the wheel, sending Enoa back into her seat. Then he slammed the wheel forward, sending them downward again, like he was trying to simulate a roller coaster’s hills. When he reached the bottom of the arc, the Aesir began climbing again.
“Ahh, what are you doing?” Enoa tried to fight nausea and get a clear shot at the red dot.
“The leaping dolphin.” Orson pushed the wheel forward, sending them over another ‘hill’. “If they hit us now, it’s more likely they’ll only get the shields on the periphery.”
“Dolphin?” Enoa spoke through gritted teeth.
“There’s a squirming salmon maneuver too, but it almost burns out the inertial dampener to use it.” He was pushing and pulling the wheel faster now, always different heights, sometimes with a turn to the left or right, sometimes dead on. They fell into a nonsensical undulation. Not one shot hit them from the Sun Talon, though some blasts flew visibly close.
“How long are you planning on doing your dolphin thing? I can’t shoot, and I don’t want to be sick on your dashboard.”
“I’m sorry! The setting’s really low on the inertial dampener. I’m trying not to waste power, but it won’t be long now. I just gotta buy enough time to find a place to put down.” Enoa gave up on firing. She braced herself as Orson continued his undulating flight pattern
“How will you get away long enough to put down?” Enoa yelled. “They’re right on us.” She felt no more explosions or strikes from the Sun Talon, but the red dot maintained a steady course only a short distance behind their wobbling green arrow.
“I have found a place to shut down with air cover,” Ruby announced. “Pre-Thunderworks map records show an abandoned Penna Turnpike tunnel nine-point-seven-four miles to the southeast. According to archived atlas report from The Kitschmaster’s Guide to the American Road Trip, the tunnel is two lanes and roughly a mile long. Would you like to learn more details about the abandoned Penna Turnpike tunnel?”
“Sounds perfect,” Orson said. “Plot course on my map control.”
“Right away,” Ruby said. “Do you need anything else?”
“Not right now.” Orson turned the Aesir into a nauseating turn to the side. Enoa heard the bag she’d failed to collect slide further away from them. She watched her console. Suddenly, the red enemy dot was to their left and came screaming toward them. She tried to get the roof weapon aimed at the enemy, but the camper rocketed away before she could, now headed toward the tunnel.
“Once we’re in there,” Orson said. “I’ll fire off an Electromagnetic Pulse wave, and that’ll knock out every electrical device for a mile or so. It should take out that fighter.” He pushed the Aesir even faster now, still low over the forest. Enoa was shoved back into her seat. She watched the red dot disappear from the screen, lost behind them.
“This might be bumpy,” Orson said. “I’m really supposed to let the Flight Core come to a full stop for a landing, but there’s an emergency computer procedure that gets the wheels turning for a quick land getaway. Hopefully it works.”
Enoa could still see nothing out the windshield but the vague shapes of trees, the horizon obscured. But then Orson sent the camper down through a gap in the branches, shapes she couldn’t see, hurtling down to a small, broken roadway. They touched down with a jolting bounce that felt like the road was trying to throw the Aesir into a forward tumble from the rear. But then they switched back to camper mode. Orson stepped on the accelerator and sent them along the heavily pocked and potholed surface.
In the distance, Enoa could see a new darkness, even deeper than the darkness that had surrounded them since their hasty departure from Fort Mayhill. They’d arrived at the tunnel.
“If I screw up the tires, I have spares, and we can get more where we’re headed next.” Orson drove them into the tunnel, as fast as he dared go, headed deeper and deeper under the ground. Enoa’s console showed her the topographical rings of the great rock mound.
“Alright.” Orson braked, put the camper in park, shut off the engine, and leaned up toward the top of the dashboard. He pressed a small glowing circular button. “Let me grab my IF-Maker, and we should be done with…”
“Orson!” Enoa tried to tap his shoulder when she saw the red dot return to the screen, but she misjudged the motion and slapped his arm instead. “They’re here. They’re back. I think they’re in the tunnel too.”
“That’s not possible.” He looked at his own radar. “What the… Ruby, bring up rear infrared. What the hell’s going on?”
“The aircraft designated foe is in pursuit,” Ruby said. “Some Sun Talon vessels had attached docking legs that allowed the craft to operate on land. The aircraft designated foe has just entered the abandoned Penna Turnpike tunnel. I advise reactivating defenses and raising shields.”
Orson reached for the Aesir’s dashboard before Ruby had finished speaking. The camper roared to life again, but before it did, Enoa distantly heard an odd slapping sound, like several metal feet stamping against the tunnel floor, far behind them.
Orson grabbed the flight lever again and Enoa felt the slamming at the floor. She thought about arguing against flying inside the tunnel, even with the enemy ship pursuing them, but anything she would have said was drowned out by the deafening sound of laser fire under the earth.
Energy from the Sun Talon rammed against their shields again, but the drumming was much louder, both from the enclosed space and from the close proximity of their attackers. Orson grabbed the controls and gunned them away from the enemy ship.
“Couldn’t you have used your electro weapon?” Enoa scanned her own console but didn’t fire back. She didn’t know how safe it was to discharge the weapon under the mountain.
“No time,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll do. If they take off after us, we’ll be in the same damn chase again. We need to put some distance between us somehow and – I know!” He reached out and snapped his fingers in the direction of the roof gun’s joystick. “When I tell you, I want you to fire up at the tunnel roof. Bring it down.”
“Won’t we be crushed?” Enoa hit the wheel and aimed the cannon at the ceiling.
“Hopefully, only they will be.” Orson sent them toward the exit. Behind them, she could hear the metal feet running furiously. Ahead, Enoa could see a lesser darkness, a pale half-light, starlight. Far ahead of them, the tunnel ended. Out there, the sky had cleared.
“Do it now!” Orson hit the accelerator, just as Enoa fired again and again, up into the roof, as they passed, until an immense rumble began, a churning, grinding, explosive sound, louder than the Aesir and the Sun Talon and any of their weapons. The tunnel was collapsing around them.
Orson accelerated further. He pressed the ship on toward the starlight. Enoa turned away from the red dot. She couldn’t resist the fear of the collapse. She had to stare at the pale light as it got closer and closer.
The Aesir blasted free of the tunnel.
The great explosion continued behind them. Orson wheeled the ship around toward the mouth of the tunnel. Enoa could see great plumes of dirt and smoke exploding out of the abandoned passage’s mouth. She saw no sign of the red dot on her console. Her ears ringing, she watched the smoking ruin until Orson was satisfied and turned them away, back westward. They flew.
“What now?” Enoa kept staring at her console, half-expecting to see that same damned red dot reappear at the bottom of the screen as the Sun Talon continued its pursuit.
The dot did not return. She removed her hands from the controls, but they shook so much from adrenaline and exertion that she put them back on the control stick again.
“We need to regroup before we continue on,” Orson said. “I’d hoped the Liberty Corps were an issue we’d left way behind. But with ships like that, I think we have to assume they’re a major threat that can follow us anywhere.”