Author’s Note: So much has happened during the last 2 years since I last posted here. I want to do a post about everything that’s happened, but I’m choosing to prioritize writing over telling you about what’s happened to me since we last talked.
In that vein, I’m going to start posting chapters out of The Outsider for you all to tide you over until I get the book released.
Escaping the Society’s high-tech enclave the first time cost Skye both her mother and her innocence.
Going back required the betrayal of Brennan and everything Skye loved.
Now Skye is back on the outside. She’s on the run, isolated and hunted by new horrors that threaten the entire world.
The fate of humanity hinges on Skye finding Brennan, but doing so while being chased by the entire might of the enclave’s military may prove too costly, even for Skye.
If the ants had been really worried about their enemies obtaining true powered flight, I would have died with the first missile sent my way. As it was, Alexander’s engineers had long since abandoned the idea of needing an actual pure interceptor in their aircraft lineup, which meant the ant pilot who’d detected me, in spite of the clouds and my aircraft’s low radar cross-section, was using the wrong tool for the job.
I thanked my obsessive-compulsive tendencies for the fact that I even recognized the warning tone that sounded as soon as the computer sensed that a hostile aircraft had locked on to me with radar. I’d spent a lot of nights trapped on the ground unable to fly due to clear skies, but if I’d been like most people I wouldn’t have chosen to spend those days and nights reading all of the manuals stored inside my strike fighter’s flight computer. Without that, I wouldn’t have recognized the sound of a radar lock from an incoming ant missile, and I probably wouldn’t have reacted quickly enough to get the antimissile chaff launched.
Even with all of my preparation, I was a poor excuse for a pilot in comparison to the Society’s well-trained and much more experienced personnel, and it was nothing short of a miracle that I hit the right button to deploy chaff as I ramped both my throttle and my counter-grav up as high as they would go. It was the kind of maneuver that would’ve been pure foolishness in a twenty-first-century aircraft given that old-style planes had always been slower climbing than descending, but Hector had made counter-grav so efficient that most of the old rules had been thrown out the window decades earlier.
The radar-guided missile flashed by underneath me, moving at several times the speed of sound as it bored through the cloud of reflective aluminum my fighter had deployed to spoof its targeting systems, but even that success was only going to buy me a few moments of continued survival. The ant pilot who’d taken the shot at me wasn’t going to just turn around and go home because he’d been unsuccessful with this first missile, and unless he was even more arrogant than I was expecting, he would have radioed in the fact that he’d found me even before he fired off his missile.
If that was the case, then Alexander’s people had doubtlessly scrambled a number of additional strike fighters, which meant that I had only a short time in which to either evade or destroy this guy before I would be both outnumbered and outgunned.
I still hadn’t figured out exactly where the enemy fighter was, so I took the only evasive action I could think of that might buy me time in which to find him. I backed off of the throttle on the turbine that controlled the left side of my aircraft for just a split second, but that was all it took to flip my fighter upside down, at which point I pegged the left throttle again and cut my antigravity back down to nothing.
A quick juke upwards like I’d done to avoid the missile was the fastest way to change direction because it was a much less complex maneuver, and it had the benefit of being less scary because it put additional distance between the pilot and the ground, but nothing could match the sheer velocity obtainable when a fighter was upside down and had gravity augmenting the considerable thrust produced by the main engines going flat out.
An old-style altimeter would’ve been counting down the altitude at a rate that would have sent most pilots from that time into cardiac arrest, but the digital readouts that were standard equipment for a Society-fighter were even worse in a lot of ways. Rather than just spinning down towards zero, my altimeter was flashing at the same time that it displayed a time to impact with the ground in seconds that was already down to the low double digits.
That would’ve been bad enough, but this was the first time that I’d ever explored the full acceleration that my aircraft was capable of. The momentary thrust upward had involved just as much in the way of brutal acceleration as I was facing now that I was inverted and screaming towards the ground, but it hadn’t lasted anywhere near as long, and I was starting to realize just how much difference duration was going to make.
I’d learned plenty about the human body and its tolerance—or lack thereof—for extreme acceleration during my jump training back before I’d left the enclave the first time. Unfortunately, that had been nothing more than a surface understanding of the forces involved. I’d been more than happy to just take it on faith that the Society’s engineers hadn’t made any mistakes while calculating how much deceleration a nanite-infused body was capable of withstanding when jumping from high altitude in a grav chute. Tyrell had mentioned the need to avoid blacking out during high-G maneuvers when he’d oriented me on the dropship’s controls, but even that hadn’t really sunk in like it probably should have.
In my defense, even the highly maneuverable dropships in service with the ant military weren’t capable of exceeding my tolerance for acceleration in most circumstances, but I still probably should have clued in faster than I did once I buckled myself into the much more maneuverable strike fighter that I’d used to sneak into the enclave. As it was, my field of vision narrowed down to something less than forty percent of what I was used to before I realized just how much trouble I was courting.
The altimeter still said I had plenty of time in which to pull out of my dive, but that was all going to fall by the wayside if I blacked out before pulling up.
I still had no idea where the enemy fighter was, but I couldn’t afford to remain upside down any longer—even if righting myself might result in my opponent getting close enough to shoot another missile at me. Some half-forgotten fragment of training caused me to tighten up all of the muscles in my legs and midsection in an effort to force blood back up into my brain, but even that was nothing more than a stopgap, and I forced my head around to where I could see the terrain to my left.
It wasn’t promising—not with how close I’d drifted to the mountain during my descent—but before I could check the other direction a new warning tone told me that the other fighter hadn’t just stayed with me, they’d gotten into position to take another shot. The warning tone was similar enough to tell me that I was up against another missile—this time a heat-seeker.
It was stupid to count on my enemy being an idiot—unless I was hoping to die the first time I came up against someone who knew what they were doing—but that was exactly what I’d been hoping for. The Society’s radar tracking missiles were top-of-the-line in every respect, but there was only so much they could do against the stealth technology built into the aircraft I was flying. They remained in general use by the enclave because they were ideal for destroying surface targets that didn’t produce substantial amounts of heat, but in this situation they were nowhere near as dangerous as the shorter-ranged heat seeking missiles that my opponent had opted for with his second strike.
Given the shorter range and higher velocity of the missile currently screaming toward me, I had even less time in which to react, but fortunately I now knew exactly where the antimissile countermeasures were located on my control panel. I slapped the button to release half a dozen white-hot flares out of the back of my fighter, and then cut power to my right turbine for the split second required to rotate my aircraft ninety degrees around its long axis.
It was an insanely dangerous maneuver given that I had no idea if I was about to slam myself into the side of another mountain, but I had no choice if I wanted to avoid the missile headed my way. The flares were doubtlessly good, but the missile wasn’t going to lose track of me unless I changed course in a violent enough fashion to make the flares a more alluring target.
An instant after I rammed the throttle on my right turbine forward again, not just one, but two missiles went slicing through the space I’d just been occupying and slammed into the mountain on what had been the left side of my aircraft.
The projectiles had been moving so quickly that I’d gotten only the barest glimpse of their trajectory, but I was pretty sure I’d correctly plotted their vector, and even if I hadn’t seen exactly what I’d thought, it was incredibly unlikely that my enemy had fired the missiles from a lower altitude.
I changed directions yet again, this time moving horizontally like a traditional airplane in an effort to let the blood work back up into my brain before I passed out. I didn’t need anyone to tell me how unlikely it was for me to come out on top in a fight against an experienced pilot given that I was getting most of my learning on the job, but I had one advantage that just might be enough to get me out of the fight both alive and with my fighter intact.
I’d never taken advantage of the directional thrust aspects of ant technology in such a violent manner, and as I nearly drifted into an outcrop of rock several hundred feet off of the ground, I was faced with the understanding that just because I changed thrust vectors didn’t necessarily mean that my aircraft instantly moved only in the direction I was applying thrust.
In spite of having leveled off and returned to a more normal trajectory, my fighter had continued to drift in the direction I’d been going before, and only the fact that the engineers had designed it with exactly that kind of circumstance in mind allowed my aircraft to avoid being ripped into thousands of pieces from the force of air moving laterally across the wings and control surfaces. Flying was an inherently three-dimensional activity, but this was even worse than that. I was sliding through the air every time I changed my thrust vector, and even now that I was moving forward my velocity still wasn’t enough to provide the lift required to completely overcome the downward momentum that had come so close to blacking me out just moments earlier.
It was the worst kind of circumstance in which to be trying to access a new nanite protocol, but I did my best to do so in spite of sliding through the air like some kind of drunken buffoon on ice skates. I navigated command trees with lightning-fast speed, as I tightened my legs back up and swerved my fighter around, desperately trying to shake the other plane off my trail.
I’d tried at least a dozen times previously to map all of the different commands my neural computer was capable of understanding, but it seemed like every time I went back into the command trees, I found additional options that hadn’t been there the last time I’d needed to access my abilities.
I knew that the protocols I’d mapped so far weren’t going to give me the advantage I needed—which meant that, other than tasking roughly half my nanites to increase my reaction speed, I was free to ignore all of the familiar protocols and just look for something new.
After his initial failures to hit me, the ant pilot took a more conservative stance, but even just firing one missile at a time, he managed to get three more shots off at me as I juked and deployed countermeasures for everything I was worth. I avoided all three shots by the barest of margins, flinching each time one tore past me and exploded against some unsuspecting terrain feature, but I managed to buy myself enough time to realize that there was one protocol that I shouldn’t have been so quick to discount.
The ground below me was rising sharply, but I still managed to split my focus enough to activate the oxygen transport protocol I’d used in my assault on the second mobile command center we’d destroyed at the same time that I pulled back on the stick and ramped up my counter-gravity.
I had no illusion with regards to my nanites’ ability to enrich my blood with oxygen, and what it would let me get away with. With my nanites serving as oxygen carriers in the same way that hemoglobin worked inside the blood, there was every reason to think that what blood made it up to my brain during high-stress maneuvers would be able to better oxygenate my brain, but that would only take me so far. If I pushed to the very edge of my fighter’s capabilities, I would still go unconscious despite all that my nanites could do.
It wasn’t the magical solution I’d been hoping for, but between that and my superior reaction time, there was at least a chance that I’d evened the playing field enough to compensate for the other pilot’s advantage in experience and training.
The extra power I was feeding into my counter-gravity module wasn’t enough to make me completely weightless, but it had gone a long way toward reducing my fighter’s apparent weight and I was now climbing at a sharp angle without any noticeable loss in speed—something that was especially important because the ground ahead of me was rising at an even faster rate than it had been when I’d first started climbing.
With a tiny part of my concentration I was still running through the mental command trees that my neural processor had made available to me—desperately hoping that I’d somehow missed something—but most of my attention was now on the task of flying. I analyzed and discarded dozens of possible actions as I continued hurtling toward the mountain range in front of me, but nothing offered up a good enough chance of surviving the next few seconds given how close the enemy fighter had gotten.
Even ant sensors could only do so much to give me an accurate view of what I was up against while flying in such heavy darkness, but the holographic display in front of me was indicating that I only had a couple more seconds’ worth of altitude before I would hit the bottom of the dense cloud cover that I’d been hoping would let me sneak past the Society’s satellite network undetected.
That presented one of the more intriguing options that I’d come up with so far. In other circumstances I probably would’ve tried to simply climb up into the cloud bank and lose my pursuer inside the obscuring effect of all that water vapor, but I wasn’t confident it would do the trick when I had a hostile fighter following so close behind me. If I was even a little bit off in my estimation of the thermal sensors’ ability to track me, I would end up with an endless string of heat seeking missiles hurled my way without even being able to tell where they were coming from.
I needed something more substantial to put between myself and the other pilot, but I came up blank until the lowlight overlay on my display flashed into place and highlighted a long, dark ravine running between two of the mountains. I shifted my course to one side, moving laterally to avoid another missile a split second before it would have disintegrated my fighter, and then pointed the nose of my aircraft directly at the ravine.
The wonders of ant technology had equipped my fighter with special imaging radar that had much more in common with bat sonar than it did with the old two-dimensional radar systems used during the twenty-first century, and the computer processors inside my aircraft were more than capable of rendering the three-dimensional images in real time. When you added in the low-light overlay that was being layered onto my heads-up display I was able to see almost as well as I could have in broad daylight, but flying into narrow, twisting terrain that I’d never explored previously would’ve been suicidal even at a much more sedate pace than I was using at that moment.
The only thing that gave me any hope of pulling up in time to avoid being turned into a massive fireball if the ravine ended unexpectedly was my fighter’s thrust vectoring technology, but even that wasn’t a perfect get-out-of-jail-free card.
All the antigravity technology in the world wouldn’t do anything to change the fact that a multi-ton fighter moving at the better part of Mach 2 was going to continue forward and slam into a cliff in spite of my best efforts if I was even a fraction of a second too slow in responding to the readout from my radar pulses.
I entered the ravine a couple of heartbeats later, and was forced to throw my fighter hard to the right only a split second into the canyon in order to avoid an outcropping that had been invisible until the last instant. I gave my turbines a tad too much throttle in the process, and felt my right wing scrape against some of the scrubby vegetation that was all but invisible on my radar overlay.
Even a couple of inches’ difference in how far I’d gone to the right could have resulted in disaster. At the speed I was moving even the slightest impact between my wing and the edge of the ravine would have sent me cartwheeling into the rock face, and I finally understood something Tyrell had muttered the first time I’d run the piloting simulator on our dropship.
Flying—even in something as agile as an ant dropship or strike fighter—wasn’t just about figuring out how to make the aircraft go in a specific direction. Any properly trained idiot could send a variable thrust aircraft up, down, or in any other direction, but it took a real pilot to put an aircraft exactly where they needed to be at exactly the right moment.
Every instinct I’d been given as a result of the hundreds of thousands of years my ancestors had spent with their feet safely planted on the ground was screaming at me to slow down and take this particular obstacle course at a speed I had some chance of surviving, but I forced myself to keep the throttles pegged as I whipped the fighter through three dimensions in a way that I would’ve said was impossible even just fifteen minutes before the first missile had torn past me.
I lost count in the first thirty seconds of the number of times that I nearly collided with something solid enough to shatter my vehicle, but somewhere along the line I got out of my own way and started reacting on instinct. It was paradoxically easier to maneuver my fighter when I had both throttles pushed all the way up. If I’d been flying through the ravine during broad daylight without anyone chasing me, I would have been constantly changing my velocity and the amount of thrust I was vectoring in an effort to avoid approaching any one obstacle too quickly, and in doing so I would’ve added an extra layer of difficulty into the process of piloting the fighter.
This way, the odds were lined up even more heavily against me, but I no longer had to worry about how much thrust to vector at any one time. Now the equation for getting around each obstacle flashing towards me was reduced to a simple question of which direction to vector my thrust, and how long to do so.
Just when I thought that I had things figured out, and would be able to leave the other pilot behind, the ravine narrowed down by at least twenty percent. I had a split second in which to juke to the left to put my fighter more squarely in the center of the increasingly narrow ravine, and then the other pilot apparently decided he wasn’t going to get a better shot than the one he had at that moment.
The intermittent warning tone signaling that I was being alternately locked up and then lost by the other fighter’s radar targeting system had blended into the background noise to the point where I could barely even make it out unless I made a concerted effort to pick it out of the rest of the alarms screaming at me, but the blare of heat seeking missiles headed my way was something that I no longer needed to think about in order to execute the appropriate response.
I slapped the countermeasures’ release with the kind of speed that even most ant pilots would’ve killed for, but that was only one part of the equation. I needed to break off in one direction or the other if I was going to have any hope of generating a miss, but unlike all the rest of the times I’d been shot at, there were no longer any good options for evasive maneuvers. There was no room to go left or right, down would send me careening into the rock skimming only a few dozen feet below me, and forward would do nothing to get me out of the danger zone. My only remaining option was to go up, up into the clouds that would rob me of the lowlight visual overlay that had been the only reason I’d been able to make enough sense of the mapping radar to navigate safely for as long as I had.
With a flick of my wrists I rotated both thrust vectors so that they sent me howling upwards, but unlike the last time I’d performed that maneuver, I angled my vector backwards at the same time as my vision once again narrowed down to a tiny tunnel a fraction of its normal size.
All of the benefits conveyed by my nanites and all of my efforts to tense my muscles up to the point where the blood inside my body would have no choice but to circulate up into my brain weren’t enough to allow me to maintain the acceleration indefinitely, but I didn’t need to maintain it for forever, just for longer than my enemy.
My sensors conveyed the sound of missiles slamming into the mountain at some point while I was still climbing skyward, but I wouldn’t have even given that a second thought if not for the fact that my heads-up display pinged a spot below and more than a thousand yards ahead of me as being the likely location of the enemy fighter. I reacted instantly in spite of a tiny voice inside me that was screaming that it was impossible for my fighter’s computer to detect another aircraft through such dense cloud cover.
The other fighter hadn’t taken enough damage to begin showing up on my radar, and the pilot had chosen to climb with his nose to the sky in order to both camouflage his heat signature, and to ensure that his weapons would be pointed in my direction.
Everything I’d ever learned about piloting, technology, and combat told me that there was no way for my cockpit computer to have correctly calculated the position of the other fighter when I had so many things working against me, but I acted on the information regardless of all of that.
Instead of vectoring my thrust to move my fighter laterally or vertically through the air, this time I bought a page out of my opponent’s playbook and vectored all of my thrust behind me as I used my control surfaces to send myself barreling straight at the point in space where the other fighter was supposed to be located.
More than a century and a half before I’d been born, air-to-air combat had already progressed to the point where most kills were made at many times the effective range any unpowered munition could hope to reach. In fact, my suspicion was that the large-caliber rotary cannon installed in the nose of my fighter had been included more as an afterthought, or to humor the more sadistic of the ant pilots who liked to close to within knife range in order to execute the grubbers they’d been tasked with destroying, but the reason that the cannon had been included was far less important at that moment than the fact that it was there.
None of my missiles had any prayer of striking the enemy fighter—even assuming it was where my computer had indicated it should be—but this was precisely the kind of situation where an unguided set of ballistic projectiles might actually prove useful.
Even in just the brief instant between when the computer had painted a probable location for the other fighter, and when I got my aircraft headed forward and down instead of up and back, the other plane had doubtlessly managed to move dozens—or possibly even hundreds—of feet along whatever trajectory it had been sustaining up until that point in its climb, but I couldn’t just let an opportunity to inflict a killing blow fly past me—no matter how remote the odds of hitting my target.
I dove toward the spot where I expected the other fighter to be, and triggered a long burst of bullets that cut through the air with a visible line of tracers for a few dozen yards ahead of me before the line of fire vanished into the clouds. Up until that moment I hadn’t fully appreciated just how many rounds the strike fighter’s rotary cannon was capable of putting into the air at one time, and the shock as my downward motion slowed perceptibly as a result of so much weight being flung in the opposite direction was more than a little unexpected.
The turret I’d manned so many times in the dropship was capable of filling the sky with fire, but even that technological marvel hadn’t been capable of matching the rate of fire I’d just seen out of my fighter. Part of that was because the turret ran a pair of guns so that neither of them had to have quite as short a cycle time in order to put the same number of bullets into the air at one time, but it was mostly the simple fact that the dropship’s main weaponry had been capable of switching out to multiple different types of ammunition. When you could use flak rounds to drastically increase the footprint of your fire, it was a lot easier to hit something as small and agile as a strike fighter, or even a missile. That was even more the case when you considered the fact that dropships were inherently a much more stable firing platform.
Strike fighters—especially when gunning for something as small as another fighter—had neither of those luxuries, and the ant engineers had responded by ensuring there would be no possible way for a target to fly past the nose of a strike fighter and use the space between rounds to avoid being destroyed. Based off of just how much my strike fighter slowed down when I pulled the trigger, I wasn’t sure there actually was any space between the bullets.
I had no idea how much lateral separation would be required to stack bullets that close together, but it wasn’t something I was likely to ever find out without much better photographic equipment than Brennan and his people were ever likely to get their hands on. The most important thing was that I knew if my wildly moving nose had passed across the enemy fighter for even just a split second the bullets from my cannon would have torn a massive hole in the other aircraft.
The lack of any kind of explosion told me that my enemy hadn’t been where I’d been expecting to find him, and I started to lose hope in the split second before the two of us passed within mere feet of each other. It was the kind of feat we never could have replicated in a million years, and even as the other aircraft flashed across my field of view I half expected to have my fighter come apart around me, but somehow the two aircraft squeezed by each other without actually coming into direct contact.
I slung my fighter around with a reckless disregard for what the G forces were going to do to me. No experienced pilot would’ve countenanced that kind of risk, but impossibly, my gamble paid off—or at least it seemed to pay off initially. Not only did I get my nose around so that it was pointed at the other aircraft, I did so without blacking out.
Our frantic maneuvering had brought us both into an area where the cloud cover was just thin enough for me to see the other fighter at the insanely short distances we were dealing with, but even more importantly, I was finally at an angle where my infrared sensors were picking up the heated exhaust coming out of his engine. I was never going to get myself into a better position—now I just needed to find a way to avoid being shaken off of his tail before I managed to shoot him out of the sky.
A new pitch in my left ear alerted me to the fact that my targeting systems had locked onto his thermographic image and were ready to hand the lock off to my complement of heat seeking missiles. I thumbed the selector on the stick over to heat seeking mode, and then—mindful of the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to resupply myself with munitions at any point in the near future—fired off a single heat seeking missile.
As I cut the power to one of my turbines and slammed my controls over in an attempt to stay on the other pilot’s tail, I realized that I’d both underestimated his resourcefulness and overestimated my ability to deal with the acceleration I was subjecting my body to. The ant pilot reacted to my missile with all of the speed of someone who was running a top-of-the-line set of nanites and who’d practiced getting out of this kind of situation over and over until his actions had become reflexive in a way that I was still hundreds of hours away from achieving.
He launched a set of three flares to confuse my missile as he banked his aircraft into the kind of vicious turn that no lesser jet could’ve ever hoped to match. My missile ran into one of the flares with exactly the kind of showy but useless pyrotechnic display that I should’ve been expecting under the situation, at which point I realized my other mistake.
I’d already banked in an effort to maintain my superior position even before my missile exploded uselessly, but I hadn’t fully appreciated just how difficult it would be to keep my opponent in sight once my vision began tunneling down as a result of my brain being deprived of vital oxygen. It was the logical progression of everything I’d observed up until that point, but somehow I’d missed seeing just how difficult it was going to be to actually gun down the pilot I’d engaged.
My plane was every bit as fast as his was, which meant there was no advantage there for him to exploit. We had the same power-to-weight ratios, and neither aircraft was more maneuverable than the other. I was even willing to wager at that point that my nanites gave me an edge when it came to withstanding the titanic stresses being inflicted on our bodies with every violent turn or dive, but there was simply no way to catch something that I couldn’t see.
As soon as I began banking in an effort to follow the other plane, it abruptly changed direction and streaked across my disturbingly tiny field of view before I could react to the evasive maneuver. Now that I understood just how drastically the capabilities of strike fighters exceeded the limitations of our bodies, I could see that the advantage—at least at this range—was always going to rest with the person being pursued.
That wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d been part of a force with superior numbers, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t afford to hang around uselessly trading positions with my enemy while dozens of other Society assets moved into place so that they could box me in and safely destroy me from dozens or even hundreds of miles away. I might be able to successfully evade the first dozen or so missiles sent my way by this guy’s reinforcements, but eventually I would run out of flares and it wouldn’t matter how good a pilot I was, nobody could continue generating endless misses against computer-guided munitions without some kind of countermeasure to even the playing field.
I couldn’t break away from the other fighter without giving him the kind of distance he would need to lock me up and eventually shoot me out of the sky, but by the same measure I couldn’t afford to let the fight drag out for much longer—not if I wanted to make it back to see Brennan and the others.
Even as I realized just how difficult a predicament I was in, another warning tone sounded, indicating that the other fighter had somehow managed to get around behind me again.
I now understood just how easy it was to lose an enemy fighter in that position, and what followed over the next several minutes was an intricate ballet that had more in common with the flight patterns of dragonflies or hummingbirds than it did with any other flying organism. We didn’t just dive, climb, and bank. We each used the vectorable thrust provided by our cutting-edge fighters to execute aerial maneuvers that I hadn’t even realized were possible before that flight, but neither of us could manage to lock the other up tightly enough to land a killing blow.
Our attempts to knock each other out of the air were consuming precious seconds I couldn’t afford to lose, a fact I was so focused on that I didn’t initially realize that we’d both dropped down below the cloud cover once again. I contemplated trying to lead my opponent into the side of the mountain—or lure him far enough down that he would end up in the trees—but against someone as experienced as my opponent, those two options were even less likely to succeed than my attempts to get close enough to use my rotary cannon once again.
I needed some other equalizer, but I was fresh out of ideas.
“I fully recognize that you’re the only thing keeping me in the fight at this point, but it sure would’ve been nice if you could’ve provided me with something more than souped-up reflexes and slightly better oxygen transport up to my brain. Another couple minutes and it’s going to be too late for me to get away from the reinforcements even if I do manage to knock this guy out of the sky.”
Talking to myself was a rather dangerous habit that I’d fallen into at some point since I’d left Brennan’s territory, but I couldn’t get too worked up over my lapse. It wasn’t as though there was anybody else inside the cockpit with me, and even if there had been it wasn’t as though I was giving away anything important.
The fact that we’d dropped down below the clouds meant that the lowlight imaging sensors were getting enough to paint a much more coherent picture of both my enemy and our surroundings, but even at close range, I couldn’t see him well enough to anticipate his maneuvers, which meant that the extra visibility wasn’t going to be enough to save me. Even as I started to push the idea out of my head in the hopes that doing so would make room for something else, I realized that I was overlooking something potentially critical.
I couldn’t see the other fighter’s control surfaces well enough to predict which way it was going to move when the other pilot attempted to lose me, and even if I had been able to see, it was unlikely that I would be able to register and react to what I was seeing quickly enough for it to make a real difference in my attempts to close with the other aircraft, but I already knew that there were dozens of ways in which my fighter’s sensors were superior to my merely human senses.
In theory, it would be possible to program the fighter’s computer to not only watch for and register the subtle, quick movements of the other airplane’s control surfaces, but also to use that information to predict the direction the other plane was going to go before it even had a chance to really change direction. It was a logical progression of the kind of things ant technology was already doing, and the only reason I could come up with for it not having been tried before was the simple fact that the ant military had never been forced to fight enemies with similar capabilities to what they had.
If anyone from Alexander’s camp ever figured out what I was about to do and replicated my technique it would further solidify their control of the skies, but I had no choice but to try. I salved my conscience by telling myself that if I failed nobody was ever likely to recover enough of my fighter to piece together what I’d been working on in the moments leading up to my defeat. I pushed all other misgivings to one side and set about trying to modify my computer’s operational protocols while still avoiding the other fighter and keeping myself from slamming into any inconveniently placed mountains.
Someone like Hector—or even Craft—probably could have put together a rudimentary prediction algorithm in the course of an hour or two that would drastically increase the effectiveness of the Society’s strike fighters for this kind of combat, but they would have the luxury of both working without distraction and programming using a standard ant data console. I had neither of those advantages, which meant that my odds of succeeding—especially in the limited timeframe available to me—were vanishingly small, but I had no choice but to proceed the best I could using the fighter’s vocal recognition heuristics.
“Computer, are you capable of registering movements in the other fighter’s aerodynamic control surfaces?”
“What about the thrust vectoring, can you see what’s happening there as well?”
The strike fighter’s computer was better than anything I’d worked with before leaving the enclave the first time, but it obviously didn’t have the resources of the unit I’d experimented with inside the dropship we’d stolen only weeks earlier. It wasn’t going to win any prizes for improvisation, but at least so far it seemed to be registering my speech without any errors, which was better than I had any right to expect given that I’d never practiced with it and therefore prevented it from adapting its speech recognition files to my particular voice and manner of speech.
As the enemy fighter managed to once again get behind me and begin locking on with his thermal targeting system, I threw my fighter around in a corkscrew maneuver that ended with an abrupt reversal in direction that broke the other fighter loose, but which didn’t do anything to help me figure out just how exactly I was going to frame my request in a way that would have any chance of getting me what I needed out of my computer.
Without any better idea, I decided to just blurt out the request the same way I would have phrased it for Brennan or Tyrell.
“Computer, can you predict which way that fighter is going to go—in real time?”
“Question not understood, please rephrase your request.”
I would’ve screamed if it would’ve done me any good, but I didn’t have the concentration to spare—not considering that my opponent had already managed to reassume his position behind me and begin closing the gap between us. I made as if to climb back up into the clouds and then reversed my course at the last second and dove straight down, causing him to overshoot me.
It was becoming more and more apparent to me with every passing second that my effort to reprogram the targeting computer inside my fighter was doomed to failure, but I had no other real option but to continue trying. The other pilot’s greater experience and training was coming more and more to the fore and in spite of my best efforts I was spending much more time with him behind me instead of having him in my sights.
In all likelihood the engagement was going to be settled before any of the reinforcements arrived, but there was still a chance that the computer—working from the much less precise instructions I could provide while flying the fighter with both of my hands and my feet—would be able to jury-rig something workable where my limited programming knowledge would otherwise have failed.
“Computer, use the same flight pattern modeling and physics you currently use to predict the flight of this aircraft to model the probable flightpath of the other aircraft currently engaging us.”
My dodge had once again managed to break the other plane’s target lock, but it took him even less time than usual to reestablish his place behind me, and as I finished speaking a hail of red-hot tracers tore past my fighter only a handful of feet away from the spot I’d just vacated. As the hyper-velocity slugs sliced past me, the lights on my control panel momentarily dimmed and I thought for sure that some of the bullets had managed to hit my plane.
I juked again, hoping beyond hope that I still had enough control to keep my aircraft in the air. A quick check of the holographic readouts showed that everything was once again at full power, and that none of the aircraft’s internal sensors were reporting any damage.
“Command executed. Modeling program is currently predicting the flightpath of the other aircraft in this airspace with a seventy percent accuracy.”
In the shock of having come so close to being shot out of the sky, I’d forgotten all about the last command I’d issued my fighter’s computer, but fortunately it had continued working on its designated task while I’d been keeping us both in one piece. Even better, I didn’t seem to be experiencing any noticeable lag as a result of drastically increasing the computing load of a system that had been engineered to model only the flight of a single aircraft.
I yanked the stick to the side, and back, nearly blacking out from the effort of getting back around so that I was behind the other plane, and then I implemented the last phase of my plan.
“Computer, display the most probable flightpath for the other aircraft, and update the projection on a constant basis.”
There was a moment of silence where I was left to worry that my order had not been understood, and then the heads-up display in front of me added a glowing golden line signifying the most likely route that the pilot in front of me was going to take at any given moment. I was almost certain that the information being displayed so seamlessly before me was coming at a ruinous cost to the computational node I was depending on to keep my own aircraft in the air. That was concerning, but my chances of survival without some kind of extra edge weren’t good. Hopefully the processor would hang together just long enough for me to end the fight once and for all.
The computer’s prediction wasn’t perfect, but for the first time I could remember the other pilot was starting to have some difficulty shaking me now that I was behind him. The predictive algorithms only bought me a fraction of a second before the other fighter started to move, but that brief instant was enough to let me begin maneuvering in response. Even better, my computer was proving much more skilled than me at taking the other fighter’s momentum into account, which meant I was overshooting my target less frequently than I had been before.
A particularly violent evasive maneuver finally managed to get me off of the other pilot’s tail, but even that wasn’t as dangerous of a development as it had been previously. Rather than just trying to passively track the other fighter—a task that was all but impossible given the lack of both our radar cross-section and any kind of significant heat trail once I was no longer directly behind the other aircraft—the predictive algorithms seemed to be allowing my fighter to focus its efforts on a much smaller volume of space, and that was paying unexpected dividends.
With my holographic display clueing me in to both the likely location of my opponent and his probable course, it was stunningly easy to turn the tables on him once again. I simply maneuvered hard to the left, and then as soon as he had started turning in an effort to follow, I reversed direction and climbed back into position while he was still trying to figure out where I’d gone.
I had just acquired an incredible advantage, but it still wasn’t enough to guarantee my victory, and as I watched him avoid two more heat seeking missiles fired in close succession, I realized that I’d failed to anticipate two problems with my approach. The first issue was that there was no way for my computer to accurately anticipate what was going on with the counter-grav unit inside of the other fighter.
Without any good way to know just how much the other aircraft’s apparent weight had been modified, it was all but impossible to accurately predict how quickly the other pilot was going to climb or dive, but in a lot of ways that wasn’t as much of an issue as the other wrinkle—which I didn’t even realize was a problem until the predictive line headed one direction and the fighter headed off on a completely different vector.
My computer was trying to display a range of information through a methodology that was better suited to a binary kind of outcome, and I was making bad decisions as a result.
“Computer, display the probable flightpath not as a line, but rather as a gradient of probabilities.”
I was greeted with another moment of silence, but this time the controls to my fighter momentarily froze, and I realized just how far I’d over-tasked my computer with my most recent request. I had an instant in which to worry that my order had sent it into some kind of endless recursive loop and then my heads-up display repopulated.
I was now faced with a wonderful two-dimensional simulation that showed not just one, but two different evasive paths in gold with the most likely routes a markedly brighter color that faded as the simulation moved outward along the probability gradient. My edge had just become a towering advantage, but it wouldn’t allow my missiles to be any more effective than they had been only moments earlier.
I ran a quick calculation based off of what I remembered from my perusal of the fighter’s technical manuals and came to the conclusion I’d been suspecting all along. I didn’t have enough missiles to deplete the other fighter’s supply of countermeasures. I could continue sending missiles after the other pilot in the hopes that he would make an error and fail to avoid one of them, but that would leave me under-gunned at some point in the future and drastically reduce the usefulness of my strike fighter.
There was a lot to be said for ensuring I survived now and worrying about the future at a later date, but I couldn’t justify the expenditure of missiles given how badly I suspected Brennan and the others were going to need every available resource we could scrounge up in our fight to overthrow Alexander. Instead of continuing to futilely lob irreplaceable missiles at a superior pilot, I concentrated on narrowing the distance between us, reeling in the other fighter in an effort to get him close enough for me to be able to dispatch him with old-fashioned bullets.
Given the parity in our aircraft, there was no way for me to simply throttle up and run the other pilot down, so I was forced instead to gain ground in smaller increments by anticipating his evasive maneuvers and picking courses that wasted less thrust and velocity. I made steady progress, but it was a frustrating exercise that was made all the worse given that my most pessimistic estimates had the Society’s reinforcements only moments away from arriving.
As bad as that was, I was even more concerned by the fact that as I got closer to the other fighter it became increasingly harder to stay on his tail. The decrease in range meant that I had even less margin for error when the other pilot broke in one direction or the other, and while I’d managed to avoid losing him, the acceleration profile I was having to pick in order to do so was starting to take its toll on me. I’d come full-circle. In spite of all of my ingenuity and fortune in finding a way to offset the other pilot’s superior training and experience, I simply couldn’t sustain high enough G-forces to close with the other pilot.
The ‘historical sight’ on my heads-up display was designed so that it would show me where my bullets would land given my current speed and motion, which should have made landing a shot against the other pilot child’s play, but I just couldn’t get the sights to rest on the other aircraft for long enough to justify pulling the trigger and potentially wasting some of my limited supply of ammunition.
We continued snaking across the sky, moving in unpredictable spurts of acceleration that I knew had to be taxing the other pilot’s abilities nearly as badly as they were my own, and then—just when I thought all hope was lost—it happened. Something inside of my head pulled me back into the neural computer interface which was responsible for selecting nanite protocols.
I tried to resist the distraction, worried it was going to get me killed, but before I pulled completely back out of the interface, I realized that there was a new protocol that hadn’t been there only minutes earlier. I reflexively reached to activate the new protocol, and then stopped myself as I realized that there was no guarantee this new protocol was going to be the magic bullet I’d been so desperately hoping for.
In fact, the odds were heavily against the protocol having anything to do with the kind of changes that would be required to improve my ability to fly my strike fighter, and if I diverted the nanites away from either of the two protocols I currently had in effect, there was a good chance that I would lose my hard-won progress closing the distance between my aircraft and the other fighter. It was another risky wager built on top of a foundation that consisted of nothing more than desperate gambles, but in the final analysis I couldn’t afford not to re-task my nanites. I already knew that what I’d done up until that point hadn’t been getting the job done, and I couldn’t afford to just gamely hold on and hope that the other pilot would finally make a mistake.
I re-tasked half of my nanites away from the other two protocols and waited for what felt like an impossibly long five seconds before the new protocol started to take effect. Between one instant and the next my chest seemed to shrink to the point where it couldn’t contain my racing heart. I was almost convinced that I was having some kind of heart attack until the black borders around the outer edge of my vision started to recede once again.
I’d had no idea how my nanites could possibly make any difference in my fight against oxygen deprivation, but my neural computer had somehow hit upon the perfect solution. Faced without any way to use the microscopic robots to carry more oxygen to my brain, it had instead chosen to amp my circulatory system up nearly to the point of failure in order to ensure a more plentiful supply of blood to the single most important organ in my body.
I could only guess at the actual changes that were involved in the protocol I was running right then, but I suspected that there was more to it than just supercharging my heart. The sharp pain just beneath the point where the blood intended for the rest of my body exited the left side of my heart and headed downward certainly seemed to indicate that my nanites had somehow impeded at least some of the flow down into my other organs, but even if my racing heart was the only side effect of the protocol, I knew I couldn’t afford to waste any time. Managing to shoot down the other pilot would give me nothing if doing so resulted in some kind of cataclysmic failure of my overworked circulatory system.
I took advantage of my now superior acceleration resistance, and ratcheted down the distance separating me from the other fighter at a rate that would have had to be seen to be believed. All of the other fundamental variables inside the equation hadn’t changed. Our fighters were still completely matched in every way, but with both the ability to predict my opponent’s most likely course, and a resistance to blacking out that was far in excess of anything that should’ve been humanly possible, the other pilot never even had a chance.
He executed one mind-numbing evasive maneuver after another, but I no longer lost sight of him when that happened, and no matter what kind of acceleration he subjected himself to, I always had that little bit of extra capacity which made it so that I would be able to match him without blacking out.
I’d known going into the fight that my opponent was superior to me in nearly every way that mattered, but I hadn’t truly understood how good a pilot he was until those final moments. For him it no doubt felt as though I’d worked some kind of black magic partway through our fight. If his cause had been just the slightest bit less unjust I would have felt sorry for him as his evasive maneuvers continued to get increasingly more punishing with every passing second.
The other pilot executed aerobatics that I had a hard time matching even with all of my current advantages, and which I was confident were completely beyond my ability to reproduce, but I stubbornly maintained my position in his blind spot and continued closing the distance between the two of us as he tested every aspect of my abilities, looking for a weakness.
He was now well within range of my rotary cannon, and in spite of his best efforts the historical sight on my heads-up display continued to inch ever closer to his aircraft. It was only a matter of time now, and I found myself having to consciously rein in my desire to pull the trigger. In spite of the steadily mounting pressure for me to conclude the fight and get out of there before the ant reinforcements arrived, there was nothing to be gained by rushing the shot—especially not as unpredictably as he was moving.
As the holographic sights finally lined up on the enemy fighter, and my finger started to tighten on the trigger, the other pilot must have sensed that he was about to be executed. He threw his fighter into the most brutal change in direction yet, and maintained the punishing gravitational forces far past the point that was prudent, but it wasn’t until his plane started spiraling to the ground that I realized he’d finally overexerted himself and lost consciousness.
Part of me felt like I should feel a surge of elation as I tightened my finger and sent several hundred rounds screaming through the space between us, but all I felt at that moment was a kind of exhaustion that had very little to do with what I’d just put my body through.
The other fighter exploded in a white-hot ball of fire that momentarily lit up everything for more than a mile, and I didn’t need my sensors to tell me that the pilot who’d put up such a stunning fight hadn’t ejected.
I turned my aircraft, putting it back on the course I’d been flying previously—one that headed generally in the direction of Brennan’s jungle base while still masking my ultimate destination—and then instructed my nanites to release the protocol that had sent my heart into overdrive.
In spite of the length of time it’d taken to resolve my dogfight with the ant pilot, I still thought that I’d successfully managed to conclude things before the ant reinforcements arrived. I thought that I was home free.
Right up until my onboard computer indicated that it was picking up multiple radar contacts.