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“The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility.”

—Admiral Sir John A. Fisher

Marta hurriedly dropped her off at home, although Kendra was less than thrilled by the delivery. Mar flew her car low and fast around downtown not far from the buildings, swooped through several advisory zones without heeding the warnings and dropped to a quick landing on the grass in the complex’s quad. Kendra opened the door and felt a wave of fresh air that stopped the woozy feeling she’d developed. She wobbled toward the steps as Mar lifted off with a beep of acknowledgment. She decided not to mention her wooziness to Rob, and wondered how she’d let herself be talked into a vertol ride over a combat range.

“You look like you had a good time,” Rob leered at her. She blushed and shoved him. “Ready?” he asked as he effortlessly blocked her hands.

They drove rather than flew, which gave her time to try to relax. Heilbrun Military Base was northeast of town, and actually had a modern eight-lane road with automatic controls, although Rob didn’t use them. It was a sunny, warm morning and promised to be quite nice. They stopped at Pass and ID, which was located outside the gate, Kendra noted with a nod. Security actually appeared to be a concept given more than lip service here.

She was photographed and cleared through with a badge and Rob pointed out the standard facilities of any military installation as they drove. She felt homesick again. Something about a block of warehouses with lift pods and trucks and vertols floating overhead made her remember how much she’d enjoyed her service. She watched soberly as they entered the air facility.

The airfac had vertols scattered about. The UN aligned its craft neatly for easier caretaking. The Freehold spread them to make attacks and sabotage harder. She saw a tail number and remarked, “You have over six thousand of those things?”

“No. The tail numbers are changed regularly for security and do not reflect the actual numbers, which I can’t tell you,” he replied. They were just parking outside the Operations building.

Rob led her to the Life Support section, kissed her and left her there while he went to get briefed. She was handed over to a very capable corporal who sped her through the emergency training.

“Kendra is it? I’m Rita. First let’s get you a flight suit. Go ahead and strip,” she said as she turned for equipment.

Kendra removed her shoes and the few items she wore and stepped onto the grid. A quick scan sized her and Rita handed her a flight suit, then explained how to wear it. The lecture and demonstration was a whirlwind tour.

Suit. Connections for environment and oxygen. Waste tubes, if necessary. Medical monitor. Oxygen controls here. Temperature here. Microphone. Attachment points for the seat. How to sit, how to brace, how to relax. Position of the ejection system controls, not to be used without arming them here or by voice command, “Emergency Emergency Emergency.” Not to be used unless the pilot orders, “Eject Eject Eject.” Head back and eyes closed as the change fires. The strap will pull your head back, but its best to do so ahead of time to avoid neck trauma. Emergency kit here, contains transponder and radio, dye marker, smoke marker, surgical kit. Other signal gear, food, shelter section, water, basic weapon and full combat load, brush knife, instruction manuals for various terrains. Map of the range and convenient points to be found if necessary. Avoid these areas and these, as live fire and unexploded munitions may be present. Kendra wondered if she’d remember it all and fervently hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

Bundled up and sweating, Rita stuffed her into a small shuttle and ran her out to the flightline. “Keep your badge visible on your left shoulder at all times,” she warned.

Kendra climbed out and took the offered hands of the ground crew. She clambered aboard the vertol in a half-daze. Rob was at the nose of the craft, walking around with a checklist on his comm. The nose art she glimpsed briefly proclaimed the craft—an “Aircraft, Vertol, Attack, Design 12, Variant J, 3rd Generation”—as The Sword of Damocles, and had a painting of a cartoonish figure, obviously supposed to be Damocles, gorily beheading four opponents with a single stroke of a sword larger than himself, swung in a very Freudian manner. There were kill markers for missions further back and three battle stars.

Modern close support vertols bore slight resemblance to their paleontological ancestors of helicopters and tilt-rotors. They were blocky, tough aircraft, with lift fans kept inboard and armored in swelling nacelles. The ducts for directional thrust were also behind plate and poked out like fat pig snouts below the lines of the resting craft. Stubby wings, not intended for lift, bristled with munition clusters and blocks, twin rotary cannon protruded in front and every surface was armored.

The ground crew assisted her in, helped her into an environment helmet, slapped it, removed her line badge and closed the cockpit around her. She waited in near silence, listening to the air feed, smelling the disinfectant-and-polymer smell of the hose, noting the almost spherical view she had, the canopy wrapped over, under and around her. Several bumps declared Rob’s entry behind her. She tried to turn, but couldn’t move far enough to see. A turbine whine began, then another and she straightened back. The noise rose to a howl and his voice sounded in her ears.

“Ladies and men, this is your captain speaking. Hell Airways Flight six-six-six is now departing for the plain of Meggido. Please keep your lunches inside your stomachs. The no-freaking sign is lit, and will remain so for the duration of the flight. If an in-flight emergency occurs, it will be announced by my scream. How you doing, lady?”

She laughed briefly and replied, “Nervous.” She felt the craft move slightly around her. Then gravity increased as they lifted with a slight jolt.

“Don’t be. Nothing can possibly go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, Now cut that out! This is going to be a fun trip. If it gets to you, just do what I do.”

“And what’s that?”

“I close my eyes.”

Before she could retort, the craft rotated, tilted and accelerated upward. In seconds, she had an unobstructed view of everything from the coast to the mountains. Despite the gorgeous view, she felt her gorge rising and swallowed hard. A whimper escaped her lips.

“Want something to hang on to?” he asked, hearing the noise or perhaps anticipating.


“Your controls are dead. Grab away.”

She clutched the sticks nearest her hands and jumped as he said, “Not those ones! No, just kidding.”

“I am going to kill you when we get back,” she promised, while trying to control her breathing.

“Sorry. Pilot humor. Ordinarily, I would tell you to reduce your oxygen level to avoid hyperventilation, but considering your background, I don’t see the need. I will explain the controls and I’m toggling your helmet into the combat environment so you can see things my way. If it gets too much, just say ‘envi off.’”

The view became very disorienting. Her left eye showed normal field of view, overlaid with instrument readings, while her right looked at an enhanced landscape with symbols indicating buildings and “dense masses.” A target reticle followed the motion of her eyes and she could feel little touches rippling over her shaved temples. She had no idea what they meant, but Rob apparently took them as another input. He’d mentioned an implanted signal converter, and she assumed it helped translate the wealth of input into useable form. She could hear his breathing, and then he spoke to flight control as he began a turn. They passed across a chord of the bay in less than a seg, waves flashing below them, over the southern part of the city with a quick swoop near Marta’s house and then out across the empty plains. “How do you get used to the double vision?” she asked.

“I have an implant module that enables me to process the stereo image or even tri images. I get feedback from the controls and the seat, which you are probably feeling but can’t comprehend as a signal. Weapons locks also are controlled by it, and it helps me maintain control when orientation shifts, which is a fancy way of saying I can fly sideways or upside down without thinking I’m about to crash into the ground or yacking my guts.

“I can designate as many targets as I wish, by sight-aligning a reticle and numbering it verbally or by touch if I want other than sequential priority. It can prioritize for me by mass or distance or I can set up custom systems. It has a fairly fine snap-grid, so it will correct for errors in aiming. Weapons can be selected by voice or touch. Comm is by voice, either private scramble or ‘bro’ for broadcast. Data comes from ground and vehicle observation, other craft and satellite observation when possible. You’ll see all that in your environment when we get to the range in three segs. And it’s an interesting exercise today, too.”

Kendra was beginning to realize that Rob had different definitions of “interesting” and “fun” than she. Damocles angled lower as they flew over sparser and sparser settlements. Far to the south, they headed over foothills, and Rob took them down almost to the ground. It passed in a dizzying blur, as if they were riding an elevated rail.

As the hills grew, radio traffic came on. A woman’s voice announced, “Claymore Four, this is Gladius Six and Katana Seven. We have visual and will rendezvous in forty-three seconds.”

“Bro—Gladius, Claymore confirms. Exercise commence. I have report of enemy armor in grid seven golf. PARSON reports Avatar interceptors at three five mils. Close up and prepare to engage—break—hang on to your delicious ass, Kendra, we are about to be the proverbial fan.” He punctuated the statement by heaving Damocles into a roll to the left, and accelerating at what her helmet said was five gees. Five Grainne gees, she reminded herself, feeling the suit squeeze her lower extremities and forearms as her guts compressed and her vision started to pinpoint. It cleared shortly and she saw two other Hatchets. The other craft slipped out of sight behind, their positions became visible on a side screen of her helmet she could see by glancing to the left. One trailed behind the other, and then everything happened at once.

Rob spoke, in a clipped voice, orders, instructions and observations. “Bro—intel display, estimated, stand by for actual as I break the ridge. Arm weapons and test.” A roar shook Damocles and twin lances of fire shot out a good ten meters on either side of Kendra. She jerked and gasped as Rob continued, “Bro—Katana will charlie and overwatch. Gladius will follow me, then take the valley from the south. Now.” They swung viciously to the right and it appeared they would crash into the hill. Then gees pushed her hard, the suit viselike to compensate, and the contour of the hill was suddenly down. She grunted and gasped for breath and felt the oxygen delivery increase to her demands. They cleared the top by scant meters, surging against safety restraints, her stomach in her mouth, as Rob said, “Active scan. Share. Cease scan. Target one, target two, target three, main battle tank, main battle tank, target four, command tank, ammo carrier, seeve”— and everything except the grass disappeared from view. Her stomach dropped back down and out the bottom— “bunker, bunker, position, target five, ayda priority—” “Ayda” had to be ADA, which had to mean the air defense artillery vehicle she recognized from Mtali, and Rob fired a missile—“target six, target seven, target eight.” Two more missiles roared off, as Kendra swallowed her stomach and tried to determine what she’d seen. Nine targets, nine designations including the priority, had sorted themselves by color, number and flashing codes in her vision and three of them had winked out, including the “seeve,” which she found out later was “CEV”: combat engineer vehicle. They headed for blue sky again and pulled back into a loop. Before she could panic, they were aimed straight down under power and the command tank mockup was directly below them, dug into a revetment. The twin cannons belched again and smoke and flame erupted as Rob turned them horizontal and upside down through the cloud, hanging against the harnesses and the seat. As she gritted her teeth and clenched her fists, he rolled upright and launched two more missiles. A sweep right slammed her against the seat, then an opposite maneuver to the left did the same. Another burst of shells took out another vehicle, then the one behind it. Rob took them through a break in the woods and for less than a second, she could see treetops at eye level. She swallowed hard.

Rob spoke again. “Bro—Katana, confirm on command vehicle and my target number three tank and tank retriever for Gladius. Avatars in seven seconds. Suck trees, folks.” They flew through a pillar of smoke from another vehicle and Kendra glimpsed the carnage created by the number-two Hatchet. That craft then appeared directly ahead and Kendra gritted her teeth in a grimace as they passed each other at bare meters.

Then the ride became violent and she was thrown in all directions, seeing nothing but trees. Beeps sounded as a trailing interceptor tried to lock onto the rapidly viffing vertol. Rob suddenly yanked them hard left at the bottom of a valley, looped crazily back into an immelman and dropped down to the trees again, all without quite getting above the crest of the hill. “Goddess, I can hear him cuss from here,” he joked. Apparently, the trick had lost the faster but less maneuverable interceptor. There were more violent aerobatics, level flight, then Rob announced, “Bro—Exercise terminate. Katana, that was a commendable run. I think you are ready to try a second slot on the next game. We’ll check the results in the tank when we get back.”

“Claymore, thanks, Warrant,” the younger pilot acknowledged, his grin visible though the transmission was voice only.

“Bro—Okay folks, let’s go watch the fireworks.” As Kendra managed to get her shakes under control, forcing herself not to vomit, Rob sought altitude and headed over the mountains, then north.

A new road was being constructed to the west, an area currently serviced only by aircraft, and the contractors had bought military assistance. Orbital Defense was to utilize one of its older systems in a practice exercise and blast a cut through a hill that was on the route the road would take. Heavy blocks of metal would be decelerated from orbit and drop in a line along the surveyed area, cutting the path in question with kinetic energy. The military would get target practice and a large fraction of the old system’s cost back and the builder got a cut through a mountain in segs rather than days.

Prior to that, however, evac and transport vertols would patrol the area to ensure that any persons in the area were well clear. It was unlikely that anyone was in such an area, as they would be over a hundred kilometers from any major settlement, in deep woods. The precaution was taken, however, and would scare most wildlife away, too. The Hatchet pilots were there for fun.

“Kendra, I’m going to slowly increase your control sensitivity. Feel where my positions are, there’s a slight detent notch . . . now move slowly. You can fly us for a few segs.”

“Is that wise?” she asked.

“You’ll be fine. I can lock you out instantly if there is a problem and we have plenty of altitude. Here you go.”

Kendra felt the controls stiffen and the craft wobbled a little, until she adjusted to the delicacy that was required. Rob said, “I’ve made them less sensitive than normal, so you can’t maneuver too hard or too fast. Start gently and take it as far as you feel safe. Any questions?”

She discovered that the hands were for two-dimensional steering and vertical lift and tilt. Twisting the wrists was throttle, and it would trigger thrust to the sides when she pushed her elbows in the corresponding direction she wanted to go. Pushing with her feet provided thrust at the nose and pulling them did the same at the rear, apparently for combat maneuvers. The cockpit was almost worn rather than controlled, and the sticks in her hands were basically guides. She looked around and asked, “What are these things with tape over them?”

“What things?” he replied.

“These areas with oh-dee tape over some kind of readout,” she said, more precisely.

“I don’t know which ones you are referring to.”

“This area on my left, in front of the stick,” she insisted.


She concluded that whatever it was was none of her business and dropped the subject. Flying was fun, although she was much more cautious than Rob. She could understand, however, why he enjoyed flying it and why these murderous little craft had so intimidated the warring factions on Mtali. They packed a demonic amount of firepower, could outmaneuver anything in the sky and were flown by pilots utterly fearless and thoroughly insane. The exercise she had witnessed was more impressive than the air combat she’d seen the UN pilots engage in. She turned a few circles, did some swoops and a high-speed run. Slowly lowering the craft, she watched the instruments read “200 meters” and “1900 kpd,” which was no better when read as 700 kph.

At a warning from Rob, she felt the controls slip away. He headed in a different direction and joined several assorted other craft in a slow circle.

“Nineteen seconds, off to our left,” he advised.

Exactly nineteen seconds later, according to the clock in her environment, tremendous flashes, like an overenthusiastic string of firecrackers, caused her visor to polarize. The black splotches of impact and diagonal incandescent streaks of the incoming projectiles were surrounded by blue sky that almost instantly darkened with dust.

Close to thirty seconds later, her view almost back to normal, the shock wave from the impact slapped them, sounding louder than any thunder, and rumbled off for what seemed like forever. Rob warned her again and seconds later, another volley tore across the same landscape. As its blast washed over them, there came a third. Kendra found it eerie to be so close to energy equivalent to a medium nuclear weapon.

The fourth cut across their field of view and they were immediately slammed upside down and sideways. Kendra was numb, listened to Rob curse, and realized that something had gone wrong. Damocles shook and sounds that could only be warnings were shrieking in her ears.

One by one, the warning sounds ceased. The craft was righted and Rob shouted a combination report and chewing out into his mike. “Kendra! Your vitals look good, are you conscious?” he finished.

“I’m fine. What the fuck happened?” she demanded, surprised at her own vehemence.

“One of the bright boys apparently rounded pi off to three and missed the x. Ground zero was less than five hundred meters from us.”

“Trif. Are we okay?”

“Other than almost literally having the shit scared out of me, I’m fine. The craft is unscathed—these bastards are built to take near misses from stuff like that. Great Goddess, that was intense! Missile-lock warnings on my ass have never been that scary!”

He swung back in the direction of the strike zone and swapped relieved jokes with the other pilots. Two others had been affected by the blast and the three of them loudly discussed the intelligence and ancestry of the technician who had plotted the last fire mission. Kendra tried to slow her galloping heart and studied with interest the gash left by the four strings of impacts, now visible through a diminishing haze of dust.

The cut was a perfect line through the hill, surprisingly even at the bottom and close to one hundred meters wide, with trees blown down on either side for another four hundred meters. It was exactly aligned with the distant stretch of road that would connect to it. The entire area had taken on brown hues from the huge amount of ejecta thrown during the operation. Approximately 1,500,000 cubic meters of mountain had been vaporized in less than two segs. The UN EPA might have objected to the method, but it was a most impressively efficient engineering feat.

And, she thought to herself, a weapon that could do the same to a city for only a few thousand creds. That concept she quickly put out of her mind.

Rob took them over the single stray impact. The errant round had blown a crater seventy meters in diameter, with a bull’s-eye of trees around it. She stared silently at it as they swung back toward home.

“Rob?” she asked, as their course straightened.


“That near miss really has me freaked.”

“Well, it was a miss, so that’s good. Consider the top surface area of this beast relative to the four-hundred-meter radius we were from impact, and consider that as a fraction of the area contained in the ten-thousand-meter safe zone. Then the odds of an error like that happening—apparently it was a defective targeting mechanism. It was an unlucky event, but the odds of it coming close enough to kill are remote.”

“I guess.” What she didn’t say, and wouldn’t, was that she was bothered by the mention of “Avatar” interceptors for the exercise. The Avatar was a UN craft . . .

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