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From the rear seat of the TF-15 the mountains of Utah looked like barren wrinkles of grayish brown, an old threadbare bedcover that had been tossed carelessly across the floor.
"How do you like it up here?"
Chet Kinsman heard the pilot's voice as a disembodied crackle in his helmet earphones. The shrill whine of the turbojet engines, the rush of unbreathably thin air just inches away on the other side of the transparent canopy, were nothing more than background music, muted, unimportant.
"Love it!" he answered to the bulbous white helmet in the seat in front of him.
The cockpit was narrow and cramped. The oxygen he breathed through the rubbery mask had a cold, metallic tang to it. Kinsman could barely move in his seat. The pilot had warned him, "Pull the harness good and snug; you don't want anything flapping loose if you have to eject." Now the safety straps cut into his shoulders.
Yet he felt free.
"How high can we go?" he asked into the mike built into the oxygen mask.
A pause. "Oh, we can leave controlled airspace if we want to. Better'n fifty thousand feet." The pilot had a trace of Southern accent. Alabama, maybe, thought Kinsman. Or Georgia. "Thirty thou's good enough for now, though."
Kinsman grinned to himself. "A lot better than hang gliding."
"Hey, I like hang gliding," said the pilot.
"But it doesn't compare to this... This is power."
Power. And freedom. Six miles above the tired, wrinkled old Earth. Six miles away from everything and everybody. It couldn't last long enough to suit him.
Ahead lay San Francisco and his mother's funeral. Ahead laydeath and his father's implacable anger.
Life at the Air Force Academy was rigid, cold. A first-year cadet was expected to obey everybody's orders, not make friends. No matter that you're older than the other first-year men. A rich boy, huh? Spent two years in a fancy prep school, huh? Well, snap to, mister! Let me see four chins, moneybags! Four of 'em!
Yet that was better than going home.
His father had refused to stop off in Colorado when he had taken his ailing wife from their estate in Pennsylvania to her sister's home in San Francisco. And Kinsman had delayed taking leave to visit his mother there. Time enough for that later, after his father had gone back East to return to running his banks.
Then, suddenly, unalterably, she was dead. And his father was still there.
Instead of taking a commercial airliner, Kinsman had begged a ride with a westward-heading Air Force captain.
If t'were done, he told himself, t'were best done quickly
Now he was flying. Free and happy.
Suddenly the plane's nose dipped and Kinsman felt his pressure suit begin to squeeze the air out of him. His arms became too heavy to lift. His head felt as if it would sink down inside his rib cage. He could hear the pilot's breath, over the open mike, rasping in long, regular panting grunts, like a man doing pushups, and Kinsman realized he was breathing hard too. They were diving toward the desert, which now looked as flat and hard and gray as steel. The pressure suit squeezed harder. Kinsman could not speak.
"Try a low-level run," the pilot gasped, between breaths. "Get a real ... feeling of speed."
The helmet on Kinsman's head weighed two minion pounds. He made a grunting noise that was supposed to be a cool "Okay."
And then they were skimming across the empty desert, engines howling, rocks and bushes nothing more than a speeding blur whizzing past. Kinsman took a deep exhilarating breath. The plane shook and bucked as if eager to return to the thinner, clearer air where it had been designed to fly.
He thought he saw some buildings in the blur of hills off to his left, but before he could speak into his radio mike the pilot blurted:
The control column between Kinsman's knees yanked back toward his crotch. The plane stood on its tail, afterburners screaming, and a microsecond's flicker of a huge tractortrailer rig zipped past the comer of his eye. The suit squeezed at his middle again and he felt himself pressing into the contoured seat with the weight of an anvil on his chest.
They leveled off at last and Kinsman sucked in a great sighmg gulp of oxygen.
"Damned sun glare does that sometimes," the pilot was saying, sounding half annoyed and half apologetic. "Damned desert looks clear but there's a truck doodling along the highway, hidden in the glare."
Kinsman found his voice. "That was a helluva ride."
The pilot chuckled. "I'll bet there's one damned rattled trucker down there. He's probably on his little ol' CB reporting a flying saucer attack."
They headed westward again, toward the setting sun. The pilot let Kinsman take the controls for a while as they climbed to cross the approaching Sierras. The rugged mountain crests were still capped with snow, bluish and cold. Like the wall of the Rockies that loomed over the Academy, Kinsman thought.
"You got a nice steady touch, kid. Make a good pilot."
"Thanks. I used to fly my father's Cessna. Even the Learjet, once."
"Got your license?"
"Not yet. I'll qualify at the Academy."
The pilot said nothing.
"I'm going in for astronaut training as soon. as I graduate," Kinsman went on.
"Astronaut, huh? Well, I'd rather fly a real airplane. Damned astronauts are like robots. Everything's done by remote control for those rocket jocks."
"Not everything," Kinsman protested.
He could sense the pilot shaking his head inside his helmet. "Hell, I'll bet they even have machines to do their screwing for them."
It was an old house atop Russian Hill. Victorian clapboard, unpretentious yet big enough to hold a hockey fink on its...