Captain Henry Gallant
Streak Across the Sky
Cold night air smacked Rob Ryan in the face as he stepped out of the Liftoff bar—a favorite haunt of pilots. He was still weaving his way through the parking terminal looking for his single-seat jet-flyer when a familiar face appeared at his elbow.
Grabbing his arm, his friend said, “You shouldn’t fly. Let me give you a ride.”
Ryan straightened to his full six-two height and shrugged off his friend’s hand.
“I’m fine,” he said, swiping a lock of unkempt brown hair out of his eyes.
“Don’t be pigheaded. There’s a difference between self-reliance and foolishness.”
He pushed past his friend. “Nonsense. I fly better when I’m . . . mellow.”
As he left his buddy behind, he noticed a young woman who had come out of the bar after him. He had spent the past hour eyeing this smokin’ hot redhead, but she had been with somebody. Now she was heading out on her own. She glanced at him and quickened her pace.
A thought penetrated the fog in his mind.
I’ll show her.
At his Cobra 777 jet-flyer, he zipped up his pressure suit, buckled into the cockpit, and pulled on his AI neural interface—all the while imagining a wild take-off that would wow the redhead.
He jockeyed his jet along the taxiway onto the runway. When the turbo launch kicked in, the black-and-chrome jet spewed a cloud of exhaust and dust across the strip. He jammed the throttle all the way in and gave a whoop of pure joy at the roar and explosive thrust of the machine. The exhilaration—a primitive, visceral feeling—increased by the second, along with his altitude and speed. His love of speed was only matched by his almost unhealthy fascination with flying machines—too fast was never fast enough.
For a few seconds, his mind flashed back to his very first flight. The thrill only lasted a few minutes before the mini flyer spun out and crashed. Without a word, his father picked him up and sat him back down in the seat, restarting the engine with a wink and a grin. Clearest of all was the memory of his father’s approval as he took off again and soared higher and faster than before.
Now he sliced through the crisp night air in a military jet that had his name engraved on the side. He ignited an extra thruster to drive the engine even hotter. Riding the rush of adrenaline, he pulled back on the stick to pull the nose up. Atmospheric flying was different than being in space, and for him, it had a sensual rhythm all its own. As he reached altitude, he pulled a tight loop and snapped the jet inverted, giving himself a bird’s-eye view of the ground below.
But instead of reveling in admiration as expected, he found himself fighting for control against a powerful shockwave as a Scorpion 699 jet blew past him. The blast of its fuel exhaust was nothing compared to the indignation and shame that burned his face.
It was the redhead.
Damn. She’s good.
His pulse raced as he became fully alert. Determined to pursue her, he angled the ship across air traffic lanes, breaking every safety regulation in the book. Instinctively his eyes scanned the horizon and the edges around him, watching for threats or other machines that might interfere with his trajectory. Pinwheeling in a high-G turn, he felt the crush of gravity against his chest, yet still, his hand on the throttle urged ever more speed from the machine.
He lost track of the Scorpion in the clouds, and in mere seconds she maneuvered behind him. He tried to shake her using every evasive maneuver he had learned in his fighter training but couldn’t do it.
His eyes roamed the sky, watching for potential dangers. The night sky was dark, but several landmarks lit up the ground below him. Earth’s capital, Melbourne, glowed with activity to the north; a mountain range stretched across the horizon 50 km to the west, and an airport lay to the south at the edge of the ocean.
As he scanned the skyline, he noticed a radio-telescope antenna. Impulsively he dove toward it, the Scorpion on his tail.
At the last moment, the redhead broke pursuit to avoid the antenna, but in a moment of reckless folly, Ryan crashed through the flimsy wire mesh, no more substantial to his Cobra than a wisp of cloud.
“That’ll need a patch,” he chuckled.
But once more, the Scorpion blew by him. He watched it roar away as if he were in slow motion. As the redhead curved back toward him for another pass, he gritted his teeth in frustration. With thrusters already at max burn, he punched the afterburner to create his own shock wave and turned head-on into her path.
“Damn!” he screamed as the other ship twisted away.
His golden rule for staying alive while flying was “never yield but always leave yourself an out.” Folly had made him reckless, and he knew his reflexes were sluggish, but he was pissed at himself for letting this pilot provoke him.
Recovering his reason, he leveled off and threw down the skid flaps to reach a more reasonable speed. The jet took the torque and inertia strain, and the flashing red lights on his display turned yellow and then green.
Despite his irritation, he allowed himself a faint smile when his AI read the Scorpion’s registration: Lorelei Steward.
Good sense advised that he throttle back, but pride won out. Spotting the Scorpion silhouetted against a cloud, he jammed the throttle forward yet again.
Finally, behind her, his smile broadened. She wouldn’t slip away this time.
She pulled her jet into a violent oblique pop, rolled inverted until the nose pointed to the ground then returned to upright.
He stuck with her, move for move.
Abruptly she angled for the nearby mountain range. He chased her, low and fast, through a pass and down into a twisting canyon, rolling and pitching in a dizzying display of aerobatic skill. He kept close on her six until they blew out of the ravine.
In a desperate ploy to shake him, she turned back toward Melbourne’s airspace and headed straight into a crowded flying highway.
Ryan was so close behind that it took a few seconds before he realized her blunder.
She had turned into an oncoming traffic lane.
The cockpit warning lights lit up the cabin as Ryan dodged a stream of oncoming vehicles. Up ahead, Lorelei ducked under a passenger liner that swerved directly into his path.
Time slowed to a crawl as he foresaw his fate—he could escape by pulling up—but that would force the crowded passenger liner to dive and crash into the ground.
“Damn it all!” he yelled and dove—leaving the liner a clear path to safety.
Through the neural interface, his AI shrieked,
TOO LOW! PULL UP!
TOO LOW! PULL UP!
He used every bit of expertise he could muster to twist, turn, and wrestle his jet into a controlled descent. His vision narrowed as the lights of city and ships gave way to a line of unyielding rocks zooming toward him. In a blink, he ran out of time—and altitude.
BRACE FOR IMPACT!
The Cobra plowed a trough a hundred meters long across the desert floor. Ryan sat in the cockpit, stunned and disoriented amid the flames and wreckage until his lungs convulsed from the dense smoke. An acidic stench and the taste of jet fuel assailed his nose and throat, rousing him from his stupor. Fumbling to unbuckle the safety harness, he held his breath until he could release the hatch and climb out of his ruined machine.
Shaking hands searched his body for broken bones. To his relief, he was intact . . . if he didn’t count the ringing in his ears and the blood that coursed down his face.
The maxim from flight school ran through his mind: “Any landing you walk away from . . .” But as he limped away, his beloved Cobra burned into a twisted mound of molten metal, its nose buried in the dusty red ground.
He shook his head at the wreck. “Captain Gallant is going to have my ass.”