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Dale Brown's Dreamland, Chapter One
Chapter One: Down for Doubles
Air Force High Technology Aerospace
Weapons Center (Dreamland), Nevada
10 October 1995, 0530 PDT
Gravity smashed against his head so hard he nearly eased off on the stick. That would have been fatalthe butt of Major Jeff ``Zen" Stockard's Strike Eagle was dancing across the boresight of a pursuing fighter at optimum cannon range. Stockard's only hope was to yank and bank away, zigging and zagging in a wild twist across the desert sky, pulling between six and seven g's as he tried to escape. He tightened his fingers around the control stick and hung on.
Zen had done this a million timesin fact, he'd fought this very same dogfight on a simulator the day before. But that was then, this was now. The simulator could only approximate what the slashing maneuvers did to his body. His neck and shoulders especially-the helmet he had to wear to control his remote escorts weighed more than forty pounds. The helmet used holographic imaging to provide enhanced optical and sensor views from both his plane and the escorts; its oval master view could be divided in half or quarters by voice command or the push of a button on his specially designed control stick. The skull bucket, with its onboard microprocessors, thick layers of LEDs, and retina-scan circuits, was critical to his mission, but that was no comfort when the sudden slash of his maneuvers increased its weight exponentially. The F-15E's ACES II ejector seat had been modified to help support it, but Zen still worried that his head was going to snap right off his body as he pushed through the seven-g turn.
Even with normal gear, seven g's would have hurt. The cells in his pressurized suit worked against his body like a masseuse's hands, fighting to keep his blood in place. But he was out at the edge of his endurance. Zen's heart pounded violently in his chest as he rammed his F-15E Eagle back to the right, picking his nose up and then flailing back over in a barely controlled reverse dive.
Bitchin' Betty-the plane's English-language audio warning system-whined that he was about to become toast. Too many g's, too fat a target, too little airspeed. It might also have complained about his housekeeping, for all the attention he paid to it.
Stockard pushed the nose around, gaining just enough momentum to miss his pursuer's snap shot as he recovered. He had to hold on for at least another ten seconds before his escorts caught up. If he lasted that long, the fighter hunting him would become the hunted.
If he didn't: toast.
Major Mack "Knife" Smith cursed as Stockard's Strike Eagle once more slid out of his targeting pipper without cuing the signal that meant he'd splashed the SOB. If there had been real slugs in his F-15C's M61A1 cannon, he was sure he'd have nailed Stockard by now. But even though the laser designator had danced back and forth across the Strike Eagle's left wing and fuselage, the computer-controlled SiCS, or Simulated Cannonfire Scoring system, refused to record a fatal hit.
Only reason for that, he decided, was that he was supposed to be profiling an Su-27, with its notoriously inaccurate fire-control system. Had to be. That or someone had rigged the gear against him.
Knife tucked his Eagle down to follow Stockard into a rolling dive. Stockard was clever-he was trying to get Knife to either speed up and fly right by him, or slow down enough to let the two Flighthawks catch up. The Flighthawk U/MF-3's were the purpose of this exercise. Flying as escorts controlled by Zen, the two robot aircraft were supposed to keep Knife from shooting down the Strike Eagle. The exercise was designed to push the mini-planes and their human commander to the limit.
Which was fine with Knife. As long as he nailed the SOB.
Stockard's left wing slid downward, and the plane seemed to literally drop from the sky. Knife pushed his nose down before realizing what was going on. Zen was twirling through an invert as he dove, aiming to swoop off at close to ninety degrees. Knife had no choice now but to follow-anything else would let the escorts catch up.
He matched the spin, catching a glimpse of one of the Flighthawks trailing him. He ignored it-if he could see it, it wasn't in position to nail him, he decided-and concentrated on Stockard, whose rear tail fins were still disappearing below his HUD. Stockard was below ten thousand feet.
So much for the rules of engagement. Not that Knife would have let them stop him from winning either. But it was a relief that the other guy had ignored them first.
Stockard's fantail sailed into Mack's targeting pipper, and he pressed the trigger.
No good. Stockard pulled left just in time to duck the shot, recovering at eight thousand feet.
The g forces kicked up by the maneuvers tore Knife in all different directions; he felt like he was being pinched and pulled at the same time. A dark cloud began edging toward the corners of his eyes as he saw Zen flicking to the right. He pulled at the Eagle's stick to follow, worrying in the back of his mind that the extreme maneuvers would flame the Eagle's nearly unflammable engines.
And then he realized he'd blown it.
Zen pushed his stick to level his wings, feeling for the plane with his arms and legs. He'd faked Smith out, but the rush of gravity was nearly too much; he felt his head starting to implode. If he were flying only the Strike Eagle he'd be fine, but he had to guide the Flighthawks as well. Even with the computer guidance system carrying most of the load, it was too much work; his brain started caving under the physical and mental stress.
That was the point of all this, right? To find the limits?
Okay, he told himself, I'm here, I'm doing this. The bar at the top of his visor screen flashed green. It meant one of his escorts was now within firing range. Okay, he repeated to himself. I'm home. All I have to do is flick my thumb down and enable the Flighthawk forward cams.
If Zen could do that, the heavy visor in his helmet would project two three-dimensional holograms in front of his eyes, each view projected from the nose of one of the U/MF-3's. He'd say "Hawk One" or "Hawk Two," look directly at his target, select cannon, fire. End of exercise.
But before he could do that, the center of his screen flashed red, indicating that the F-15C behind him was firing its simulated cannon. He jinked left, his consciousness narrowing to a pinprick of pure white light in a round black night.
Smith had all the stops out. He wasn't flying the F-15C as if it were a Sukhoi, with its limited avionics and conservative flight regimes. He'd tossed aside the flight protocol and briefed plan and was flying like an American-balls-out, over the line.
Fair enough, thought Zen, pulling back left, swirling in a scissors. The green firing bar disappeared-the Flighthawks had lost the shot. The little planes were extremely agile, but the computers that helped control them were not yet as creative as human pilots in close-in furballs.
Zen yanked his nose down hard, barely escaping one more time.
His head started to float. He'd pushed too far.
Zen forced air into his lungs, forced his muscles to relax, forced the blackness away. The green bar appeared and this time he mashed his thumb downward right away, saw Smith's butt hanging fat in Hawk One's boresight.
"Hawk One," he told the control computer. "Cannon."
"Ready," replied the computer.
Knife cursed as the SiCS buzzer announced that he had been fried. He eased off on his stick and checked his power, leveling off as he reoriented himself. The dogfight had taken them to the edge of the restricted airspace Dreamland had set aside for the Flighthawk test; he began a bank south.
"Dreamland Playboy One, this is Hawk Mother," Zen radioed. "You're dirt."
"Yeah, no shit," Smith snapped. The transmissions were monitored as well as recorded, but at the moment Knife didn't care if anyone thought he was a sore loser. It was the first time he'd lost to Zen in three weeks' worth of mock battles. The point of the exercises was to test and improve the Flighthawk U/MF-3's, and it could be argued that his previous victories had greatly enhanced the unmanned escort program, helping to improve the combat computer programming so the miniature planes would be useful twenty-first-century weapons.
It could also be argued that three against one wasn't a fair fight. Nor were the exercise's rules of engagement, which called for him to approach the Strike Eagle as if he were an Su-27, slower and higher than optimum. Somehow, none of those things made him feel any better. "Let's go again," suggested Stockard. "Down for doubles."
"Oh, you got it," said Knife. He glanced at his fuel gauge to make sure he had gas, then ran his eyes over the rest of the Eagle's instruments. He knew from feel that the plane was at dash-one spec-but he also knew that relying on feel could be a quick ticket to the boneyard.
"Point Zero in zero one," added Stockard, meaning that he and his escorts would be back at his starting position in sixty seconds. Knife gave a terse acknowledgment and headed toward the end of the range. What he wouldn't give to be flying the Cheetah, the advanced-airframe F-15. Its forward canards and maneuverable thrust nozzles enabled the plane to cut nearly straight lines in the sky. He would have nailed Stockard on his first pass.
He would have nailed him if he hadn't had to worry about the Flighthawks. Three against one.
All right, he told himself. Stop making excuses and get to work.
Knife pushed himself forward against his restraints as he reached his starting point at the edge of the restricted airspace. He was ready. He'd nail that SOB, Flighthawks or no Flighthawks. This time he wasn't holding back.
From Dale Brown's Dreamland by Dale Brown and Jim DeFelice. (c) June 2001, Berkley Pub Group, used by permission.