August 16, 0004 PPE: Dillon Air Base, OKC Sector East
1031.15 hrs 08.16.09 62.0 F
“Cadet Dalley William A 746-81-2369-3-2?” crackled the simulated Lieutenant from the speaker over the door.
“Present, sir!” said Bill. The door buzzed, but didn’t open.
“You’re eight late.”
Bill gulped. “Yes sir. I dropped my toothbrush down the—”
“According to your records, that is your ninth punctuality infraction this term. As you know, each infraction increases the number of demerits the next one will cost you. According to my calculations, one more punctuality or other infraction while under my command will drop your scores below passing levels for Flight Simulation. You will accordingly be dropped into the backup course which is currently— Kitchen Hygiene and Mess Preparation 101. Place your palm on the glass and acknowledge.”
Bill spread his hand on the glass plate beside the door. “I acknowledge.” The red light blinked green and the door buzzed open.
“Stand on the yellow line and step high.”
Bill gulped his first breath of colder, thinner air and caught his foot below the door as he stepped into the simulation chamber. Only a wild grab at the narrow doorway saved him from crashing before he even climbed into the cockpit. Damn and doubledamn!
A green arrow flickered on the ceiling: then another one a step ahead. His eyes were getting used to the dark.
Number seventeen: the looming simulator cockpit gaped open like a set of jaws. He reached for the pommel and felt for the stirrup with his sneaker.
1032.35 hrs 08.16.09 62.0 F
1. Lower and secure helmet to shoulder harness.
The glass canopy swivelled, closing over Bill’s head.
2. Secure shoulder harness to safety web.
The control panel gleamed in the dark, banks of dials and switches and gauges surrounding him on three sides.
3. Check radio: mike: phones: transmitter: receiver—
He heard static. Squinting, he twisted the dial on his helmet till the digits flashing in its visorscreen matched the ones on the panel.
“Do you read me, Charlie?”
“Code 7864, baker-able 819-zero,” said Charlie. “Over and out.”
Bill checked the code against the readout inside his helmet. One by one as he gave the correct responses the colored lights across the control panel were blinking on, showing that he knew his checksheet by heart.
Flight Simulation was his favorite drill, next to Ground Patrol. But Patrol rotation only came around every other week, and Bill’s squad practiced on the simulators three days a week. It was Bill’s only passing mark this term. So far.
He better not blow it. He got stuck with Kitchen Hygiene for a whole month once. He couldn’t stand to be stuck with it for the rest of his life!
Somehow, Bill was going to pass all his academics and sciences and math and even gym class: the Term Exam and everything. Somehow. Because only passing marks made you eligible for promotions, and only promotion to Cadet twelfth grade, first class, made you eligible to fly. And someday Bill knew he was going to fly.
1040.12 hrs 08.16.09 62.0 F
87. Check armaments. Laserblasters, starboard and port. Rocketlauncher. Firesweeper. Antipersonnel.
The canopy was folding down from the ceiling now to cover Bill’s cockpit. It lit up as he flicked the final switches, flashing his usual almost perfect score. “Way to go, ace!” Charlie chimed in like always, and suddenly the darkness of the simulated sky turned dazzling blue.
Then the voice in Bill’s head that added: Starbolt here. What’s the mission for today, over?
But it was hard to keep his mind on today’s mission. He kept remembering tomorrow. Standing in line for breakfast mess this morning he had seen his squad on the Patrol roster at last— 0600 hours, Sector 7, Subdivision 19. Way out on the western perimeter, at the very edge: they would have to fly across the whole huge spread of OK City just to get there!
Then he’d looked at the date again. Tomorrow.
His whole insides seemed to be twisting in two directions. Of course he had to do it. Eternal vigilance means everyone takes a turn. And Ground Patrol was his favorite drill. But just his luck. Tomorrow was the big rally: the parade. The airshow. The fireworks and everything. The rest of the Academy had the whole day off. Only line duties were posted on the giant mess-hall screen for a rally day, the eternally vigilant Patrols, Guards and Reconnaissance crews of the Purple Corps. And tomorrow it was Bill’s squad’s turn. Just his damn luck!
Unless the computers were out to get him again.
The Lieutenant was briefing him and Charlie on today’s simulated mission. But Bill was remembering all of a sudden how it felt to leap to his feet in unison with five thousand Cadets, giving the stiff-armed salute of the Corps as President Rockwell took the podium on the giant VT screen and the calm voice boomed from a hundred loudspeakers. The roar they made, answering the President's challenges with the chant of Honor, Dedication, Obedience! Just remembering it gave him goosebumps.
They might get back from Patrol in time for the fireworks.
But damn and double-damn. His father was coming this weekend. He was supposed to be caught up on his academics. And the Term Exam was in less than a week. Probably he should skip the fireworks and study. Starting with his makeup tapes.
1035.52 hrs 08.16.09 62.0 F
The control panel flashed him the go-ahead. He punched in today’s flight plan coordinate by coordinate as Charlie fed it in and the digital readout flashed on his visorscreen. Charlie could program it without him, of course. But knowing the manual override would save his ass if the system ever crashed somewhere out on Patrol.
Sector 7 West, Subdivision 19. He should look up the maps tonight. As if he needed one more thing to study.
He closed his eyes and remembered standing under the incredible vastness of sky in the cool early morning, watching the coptor lift off. His squad around him, mounting their bikes while Corporal Castor and Sergeant Kandusky logged in and took command of the Gate. Behind them the streetlights of the city: in front of them the stars spread out for millions of lightyears above the dark prairie, fading as the day’s light grew . . .
He’d been studying the stars. The Academy archive even had holos of the Southern hemisphere.
1036.06 hrs 08.16.09 62.0 F
The simulator jolted into action. Suddenly Bill was catapulting through 3D-enhanced cloud formations, catching glimpses of thick dark jungle cover below. His body-harness pressed him into the molded cushions, just like real acceleration. Forty meters off his wingtips on either side his squadmates flew, more or less in formation. Interdiction again: out of the mist ahead loomed a jagged mountain range. Bill gripped his joystick and watched for the signal.
Flight Simulation took every bit of his attention, every bit of his skill: that was what he loved about it. But today was different. He kept remembering tomorrow. Sure, he knew. Patrol was just for practice. Another kind of simulation. Still—
You never know when the terrorist will strike; you never know where . . . Didn’t Starbolt warn again and again that the terroristas target the place you feel the most secure? All you know is that he has a fanatical hatred for the more fortunate, and a twisted disregard for the sanctity of life and property . . .
The sectors Bill’s squad was assigned to Patrol were always residential, sealed gate, security clearance required. Electronic fences fifteen feet tall, topped with razorwire in case someone ever climbed that far. Sector Gates guarded by the pride of the Corps, the Imperial Purple Guard. Automated surveillance at the unmanned gates between subdivisions. And tomorrow was a rally day, when all the jets and missiles and manpower of National Security Incorporated would be parading across every single VT screen all day.
Well then, according to Starbolt himself: what better place to run into a suicide bomb squad, or a lone assassin?
Starbolt here. What’s the mission for today, over?
* * *