Sunday, May 3, 2009

20,000 Feet

“Green Five, this is Tactical. We register catastrophic AI failure. Confirm?”

Kailey pulled the fighter into a long banking turn, blinking to clear the smoke from her eyes. The grit burned at her eyes, even shielded as they were behind the helmet’s visor, and behind the contact-lens-like optical screens. Unfortunately, like contact lenses, they trapped irritants, no matter how teary-eyed she got.

“Tactical, Green Actual, AI is.. Uh.. Offline. Engaging using manual subsystems.” She coughed on the smoke still lingering in the cockpit. She’d have to talk with the maintenance crew about the extinguishers and scrubbers.

“Green Actual, we register no hits on your craft. Can you confirm?”

“Tactical, if you keep chattering, you’ll be registering a whole lot of hits on the craft. Shut up and let me fly.”

Twin flashes along the horizon, sunlight off the chromed outer shells of the training drones. Kailey blinked furiously, angling her fighter off to the left of the two drones. Stupid AI, wanting to tackle them head-on. They’d be shot down in about ten seconds that way.

“Green Actual,” a different voice crackled over her headset — she actually wore a headset under the helmet. They at least realized that she needed the full bandwidth spectrum to pull down all the data pouring into the fighter craft, and didn’t clutter it up with a lot of audio-chatter. Telemetry, tacticals, firing solutions. And now piloting feedback and procedures, Kailey thought with a grimace.

“Green Actual, this is Project Command,” the voice growled, a sound like gravelly sand. “Kailey, please tell me you didn’t pull the AI’s plug.”

“No sir, I did not pull it,” Kailey said, her voice straining as she pulled the fighter around in another turn. The radar-reflective skin was holding up, the drones hadn’t detected her yet, but the closer she got, the better chance they’d get to “see” her.

“I cut it, sir, along with the fly-by-wire feeds and the fire-control subsystems. All due respect, sir, the AI’s tactical assessment was crap.”

“Winters, you are there to babysit, to observe and take over if something should go wrong. You are not to judge—”

“Sir, I am a pretty good babysitter. I don’t let babies run out into traffic or get themselves shot to pieces at 20,000 feet. I’m just doing what you told me to do. Entering engagement proximity, and engaging radio silence, per exercise protocols. If it’s a dire emergency, then tap the feed to Guenevere. Green Actual out.”

She reached over and flipped the radio receiver off.

Then she gave the afterburners a squirt, sucking in a deep breath as the G’s forced her back into the seat.

Guenevere chimed in her ear — or rather, in her audio cortex. “Piloting feedback compiling complete. Standing by to run Dogfighter.”

“Stack Dogfighter, Ace of Aces, rename Red Baron.” Kailey said. Guenevere chimed in response.

She could almost hear the boys in the War Room. They thought all the time they were playing flight simulators with her were for relaxation, that the aerial combat video games were all fun and games. The commander would be furious.

He could be as furious as he wanted. It wasn’t his butt in the pilot’s seat, cruising at Mach 5.

Compiling complete. Standing by to run Red Baron.”

“Red Baron, go,” Kailey said, and braced for the brief tingling thrill through the carbon-filament nervous system as the program calibrated itself to her muscles. The shiver came and went, the information buzzing in her head like a tune she couldn’t quite remember fully.

* * * * *

Kailey’s teeth rattled as the fighter cut sharply to the right, the nose aligning with the rightmost of the two drones. She felt the fighter’s undercarriage thrum as the electron throwers spat bursts of static at the drone.

The two of them cut right and left, arcing back and away from her. Splitting up. Kailey was inclined to go with the rightmost drone, and apparently the Red Baron’s tactical assessment was the same, as her hand jerked itself to the right, pulling the fighter around in a hard turn. Kailey bit back the gasp, as her leg muscles spasmed, forcing the blood back up towards her head, working better than any pressure suit. The wonders of modern science, she thought drily.

She chased the drone through the clouds, dodging and weaving with it, giving it enough space that she’d be able to compensate if it did anything rash. Not that it would, the drones never did. The same team that programmed them had programmed the experimental fighter’s AI.

Proximiy alarm. Chrome-2 inbound at 3 o’clock high.” Guenevere flashed a rear-camera shot into Kailey’s short term memory. Eyes in the back of my head, too, she thought. She’d have to thank the Wizard for that trick when she made it back to the ground.

“Okay,” she muttered to herself, “let’s play with glide control.” She flipped two switches on one of the control panels, saw two green lights flicker on above them.

Antigrav pods and directional thrusters. This was an experimental space-superiority fighter. She pulled back on the stick, wondering just how loud the boys in tactical were shouting. Orbital controls weren’t supposed to be used inside the atmosphere — they weren’t even supposed to be online yet. They’d better hide the coding a little better, next time, she thought.

The figher kept going on its chase-trajectory after Chrome-1, but the air-breathing engine had cut out. The nose of the craft flipped up and over, until the cockpit was facing the New Mexico desert, 20,000 feet below.

Kailey pulled the trigger, sending electrons streaming at the incoming drone. They sparked off its nose and cockpit, scorching the plating. The craft gave a jolt, then banked away. Kill-shots. Their onboard computers would direct them to land if they took hits to certain parts of the frame.

Guenevere pinged in Kailey’s audio center. “Chrome-2 down, onboard AI redirecting to White Sands.

Kailey yanked the stick again, turning the fighter the rest of the way around.

“Le’t’s give them a thrill in Tactical,” she said to Guenevere. She killed the two orbital systems, but held down the engine choke switch.

Green Five began to drop.

Guenevere pinged, but the voice in her head this time was the commander.

“Winters, you bring that aircraft back online this instant. What the HELL do you think you’re doing? You—”

There was a white flash, the whole sky going blindingly bright. The audio feed burst into static.

Kailey’s optic screens darkened immediately. The Master alarm was blaring. She had no visuals — the optic screens had no feed from the cameras to paint into her retinas.

She jerked her thumb off the engine choke, then pushed it two or three times. Nothing.

The fightercraft’s engines weren’t restarting, and Guenevere was screaming in her head.

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