The Outsider – Chapter 2

Author’s Note: With the release of The Outsider on the horizon, I’m posting a new chapter each week here for my readers to enjoy. You can find Chapter 1 here.

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.


Chapter 2

The next couple of hours were some of the most stressful of my life. I had no hope of beating multiple experienced pilots at one time, which meant that I had no choice but to try to make a run for it. Unfortunately, all of the advantages I’d come up with during my first air-to-air combat experience weren’t going to help me with that.

I was back to facing a situation in which the hardware being used by my enemies was exactly equivalent to my own aircraft, and all of the impressive capabilities of my nanites were unable to sway the outcome in the slightest. The contest was going to come down to nothing more than experience and native intelligence. I was less than confident that my intellect was going to be superior enough to overcome the experience and numbers deficit I was up against, but I had no choice but to try.

The ant fighters had adopted high-altitude approaches in an attempt to give themselves the greatest visibility possible, which meant that there was a chance they hadn’t seen me yet. Counting on the cloud cover to at least temporarily mask my thermal emissions, I dove down dangerously close to the ground and proceeded to fly a nape-of-the-earth course that should, with a modicum of luck, make it impossible to distinguish my tiny radar signature from all of the ground clutter at my extremely low altitude.

Under other circumstances I would have given myself at least even odds of surviving, but the ants doubtlessly knew the exact location where their fighter had been shot down, which meant they were headed right at me, coming in from multiple directions. My survival was going to hinge on whether I could put enough distance between myself and the spot where I’d shot down the ant pilot before his reinforcements arrived.

Increasing my speed was dangerous for more reasons than just the possibility of crashing into a mountain. I’d used up an uncomfortably large percentage of my fuel reserves during the high-speed maneuvers that had been required to avoid being shot out of the sky, but even that wasn’t as much of an immediate concern as the fact that increasing my speed would drastically increase my thermal emissions. Despite that, I pegged the throttles and simply did my best to stop my increased speed from either resulting in a crash or pushing me up to an altitude where I would be more easily detected.

I aimed for a gap between two of the incoming planes and hoped that I was making the right choice. There was a much bigger gap along the original course I’d been flying, but I was betting that was the direction that would receive the heaviest scrutiny once the ants arrived at the crash site and realized that I’d managed to slip away.

The closer physical proximity of the planes in the direction I was currently headed would increase their probability of detecting me, but if I could luck into the right set of terrain features there was still a chance that I would be able to evade detection. It wasn’t much of a chance, but it was better odds than I would have going up against half a dozen fighters at one time.

I spent a couple adrenaline-filled moments thinking that just maybe I was going to manage my escape, and then one of the intermittent radar contacts that I suspected were the ant fighters peeled off and headed in my direction. The urge to panic was almost overpowering, but I’d spent an awful lot of time—both before and after I’d left the enclave the first time—learning not to lose my head even in situations that were the next best thing to impossible.

I brought up the best data available in my fighter’s databanks regarding the nearby terrain, and ran through a revised situation analysis. The ants had obviously seen something that they thought bore investigation. I was willing to bet, based off of the vector the pursuing plane had chosen, that I’d momentarily shown up on radar with a clear enough signature for them to register my presence, but in the grand scheme of things it probably didn’t matter whether they’d actually picked me up or were headed my direction in response to some other spurious contact. The most important thing was that they were only investigating a tentative contact. They didn’t know that they’d found me or they would have sent a lot more than just one fighter out to my position.

Ant fighters had tremendous data storage capabilities to go along with their impressive computing abilities, but standard operational protocol was to only load in truly high-resolution data for the area that a given aircraft was expected to operate in. The dropships contained higher-quality maps of the entire world, and I suspected that the mobile command centers probably were equipped with every scrap of geological and geographical information that Alexander’s people had ever managed to acquire, but my fighter was severely lacking when it came to topographical maps of this particular area.

I had maps, of course, but they didn’t have anywhere near the resolution I would’ve liked given what I was about to try. It was going to be chancy without more data than I possessed, but I couldn’t afford to just continue on as I had been or the fighter headed my way would eventually get close enough to pick me up on its thermographic sensors.

I momentarily considered just pegging my throttles again and making a run for it, but I knew that was a losing proposition. I wouldn’t have any problem staying ahead of the six or seven fighters that had just reached the crash site and were only now fanning out in a computer-driven search pattern, but my aircraft being just as fast as theirs wouldn’t save me in the long run, not when Alexander’s people were probably already vectoring additional assets into the area.

If I ran now I was just as likely to be intercepted by some strike fighter that hadn’t shown up yet on my sensors as I was to be able to make a break into open sky. Even worse, if I did somehow manage to avoid being intercepted during the first couple minutes of my flight, once I was running flat out like that there was no hope that I would be able to fall off the sensors of the planes pursuing me.

I couldn’t keep running indefinitely, and even under the best-case scenario, once I was forced to land my plane my odds of survival would go down dramatically. It was one thing to hide from the ants on something as large as a continent or even the entire planet, but it was something else altogether to evade their search efforts inside a grid that was only a few dozen miles across. The best camouflage in the world would only go so far to hide my presence, and even my chameleon protocol probably wouldn’t be enough to keep me hidden once Alexander’s people brought in dogs to help them look for me.

Even if I somehow went to ground and evaded capture, that would just leave me stranded out in the middle of nowhere with no hope of ever making it back to Brennan and the others. No, making a run for it wasn’t an option. I needed to use stealth and guile if I was to have any hope of ending this encounter on terms I could live with. I was just fortunate that the cloud cover hadn’t dispersed yet, or even stealth and guile wouldn’t have been an option.

I’d been so focused on trying to avoid running into something while traveling so quickly at such a low altitude that I hadn’t paused to register just how much the terrain had changed. Somewhere in the last couple of minutes the mountains I’d been flying through had changed to something much more like desert Badlands than any place I’d ever visited before.

A quick check of the limited topographical data I did have seemed to indicate that the uncommon rock formations went on for more than two hundred miles in every direction, which was the first good news I’d received since I’d realized that I’d taken too long to blow up the ant fighter that had intercepted me. If I could lose myself in the Badlands, there was a better than even chance that I could continue to evade detection until another heavy bank of clouds rolled in and gave me a reasonable chance of leaving the ant search grid behind permanently.

I dropped my speed by more than half as I switched from a more traditional flight mode to something that directed nearly all of my vectored thrust straight down, and then I moved down into the maze of rocks that I was hoping would serve to hide me from the other fighter.

It took me only seconds to realize that I’d bitten off more than I’d been expecting. The flight earlier through the canyon with an enemy fighter shooting missiles at me every few seconds had been a difficult test of my piloting abilities, but it had nothing on my current situation.

The rocks I was trying to navigate around were packed in much more tightly than I’d been expecting, and that—combined with their irregular shape—was playing havoc with my short-range radar imaging systems. That would’ve been bad enough, but I was also realizing that a strike fighter in a purely vertical configuration was a very different beast than one which was driving most of its thrust aft and using its control surfaces for the bulk of its maneuvering.

I’d used the thrust vectoring capability of my strike fighter on previous occasions, of course, but never for such an extended period of time, at such a low altitude, or when so much precision was required. Contrary to my expectations, switching to vertical takeoff and landing mode in order to bring the fighter down in a particularly tight landing spot was nothing at all like what I was trying to do now.

Not only did the controls feel different than what I was used to, it turned out that I’d severely underestimated the amount of difficulty involved in controlling the fighter’s momentum. When the fighter was moving at speed—either in a forward direction, or ascending or descending—the flow of air around the hull had a natural stabilizing effect that was completely absent when dealing with an almost stationary hover like I was attempting.

Each movement I took to skirt around the fuzzy radar overlay representing the rocks in my path had to compensate for any and all momentum I’d generated up until that moment, and there were several times when it was all I could do to avoid sending my fighter skidding into one of the monoliths I was trying so hard to navigate around.

There wasn’t anything I could do about the difficulty of controlling the fighter at such low speeds but hope I survived long enough to get the hang of it, but there was definitely something I could do about my other problem—assuming I was willing to deal with the increased risk of crashing. It took only a second to decide to proceed, and after taking a deep breath and attempting to bring my aircraft as close to stationary as possible, I flipped off my radar array.

Between the clouds and the lack of moonlight, there wasn’t a lot for the night vision components of my fighter’s sensors suite to work with, which drastically increased the odds that I was going to eventually slam into something, but the difficulty I’d had getting my radar array to map my surroundings was probably a blessing in disguise.

Ant technology was as cutting-edge as anything else that had ever been seen on the face of the planet. I knew that my fighter had been confining its radar pulses to a very narrow band in an attempt to prevent the incoming fighter from being able to confirm my presence, but the only sure way to make sure that a stray radar pulse didn’t give me away was to shut the array off altogether, something that I probably wouldn’t have thought of if my hand hadn’t been forced.

I switched on the thermographic vision mode and overlaid the result on top of what I was getting out of the lowlight systems with a thirty percent transparency, but that didn’t help nearly as much as I’d been hoping. In theory, the rocks’ vertical orientation would mean that they would gather more light from the setting sun than the ground beneath them, but it had apparently been dark for too long. Most of the excess heat had been bled off—probably hours earlier—which meant that I was getting only the barest extra bit of information for my trouble. If I was going to fly through the dangerous maze of rocks, then I was going to have to do so on nothing more than what my lowlight imaging systems were able to provide me.

Reminding myself once again that all of my other options were even more dangerous and insane than flying into the tangled forest of monoliths, I gritted my teeth and resumed the forward motion that I’d bled off only seconds before. I was going to have to move even more slowly than I’d been planning on, which meant it was going to be all the harder to lose myself far enough inside of the Badlands to prevent the rapidly approaching ant aircraft from finding me.

Less than two minutes later the Society pilot got close enough that I once again started picking up his radar pulses as he scoured the area in an effort to flush out whatever radar ghost had caused the others to dispatch him in my direction. The radar pulses were unequivocal proof that I had another very dangerous pilot almost within striking distance of me, but paradoxically seeing them come through calmed me down.

There was still a risk that I would be detected, but the sheer paucity of pulses registering on my sensors told me that my plan had a chance of succeeding. The tangled warren of rocks around me was absorbing the vast majority of the other fighter’s radar pulses, which meant that it would be almost impossible for the ant pilot to localize my fighter unless he was already right on top of me, and if that was the case I would have much bigger concerns than the vanishingly small radar signature of my aircraft.

If anyone got that close to me, they would probably pick up my thermal signature before anything else, a fact that seemed to argue I should be setting my plane down and powering off all of my systems, but I knew better than that. Without compelling evidence that I’d made it out of the area, the ant fighters were going to focus their search on the region immediately around the crash site I’d left behind me.

A properly concealed and powered-down strike fighter was usually very hard to find in the dark, but there was as added complication this time. Even once I powered off my turbines, it would take time for them to cool down to the point where they wouldn’t stand out to anyone who got close enough to get a clear view of me with any kind of thermographic sensors.

I had to keep moving if I was going to have any chance of surviving to see the next night.

I kept expecting to adjust to my situation, for the adrenaline to peak and start receding, for the shakes that kept threatening to impair my piloting ability to disappear, but it was as though the ants were operating from some kind of script designed to make sure that I would never regain my equilibrium. Every time I began to think that I’d made it far enough away from the crash site to have escaped their search grid, a renewed set of radar pulses would hit my systems, putting me on notice that the ant fighter I’d been playing hide-and-seek with still hadn’t given up and moved on to a new section of their grid.

Each time my onboard computer warned me of an incoming fighter I desperately scanned my surroundings for a spot with enough of an overhang to shield my thermal emissions from overhead view, and then backed myself up as tightly against the rock face as I could in an effort to prevent myself from being seen. Once there, I was always faced with the conundrum of whether to just shut my fighter down or continue hovering dangerously only inches from a collision that would ruin my fighter and result in me being stranded smack-dab in the middle of an ant search effort for however long it would take for them to find and capture me.

I always started out with what I felt like was the minimum safe distance between my fighter and the rock I was hiding under, and then invariably as the radar pulses getting through the labyrinth of rock got closer and closer together—signifying that the ant fighter was closing in on my position—I found myself slashing my safety buffer again and again in desperate hope that I would be able to skate through one more search undetected.

My piloting abilities improved more rapidly than I would’ve believed possible—driven more by necessity than any innate talent on my part. Hovering only one small gust of wind away from destruction as I tried to balance the thrust vectors from my turbines so that my fighter would remain stationary was a special kind of hell, made all the worse by the fact that I had nothing to distract me from the steadily dropping hydrogen levels inside my fuel cell.

The prospect of running out of fuel before I managed to lose myself in some quiet corner of the globe was another reason to set down my plane while I waited for the other aircraft to move off to some other section of the Badlands, but I could never quite manage to convince myself to give up my dangerous hover. If the ants found me, I was going to have next to no chance of successfully making a run for it as it was, but shutting down my engines would take that small chance and completely eliminate it. Once all of my systems were offline, it would take precious minutes to fire everything back up—time I wouldn’t have if I was detected—and I couldn’t bring myself to give up my ability to fight back, however futile the fight was likely to be.

I’d been slowly moving through the Badlands in fits and starts for more than an hour and a half when it happened. An increase in the number of radar pulses striking my aircraft signaled that I had another enemy pilot coming around to investigate my section of the Badlands, and I was faced with the problem of finding a safe haven capable of screening me from detection.

There were two likely locations visible from where I was at that moment, and a third that I’d passed less than five minutes previously, which was much more in the way of options than I’d ever had before, but in some ways having options just made things harder. All three of the potential hiding spots would serve about the same when it came to screening me from being seen by someone flying directly overhead, which wasn’t to say that any of them would completely conceal me, but that was only one of the concerns I needed to be cognizant of.

It took me only a split second to eliminate the hiding spot I’d passed by on the way to my current location. There was a lot to recommend it, but the enemy fighter would be moving many times as quickly as I could hope to manage in such close quarters, and the last thing I wanted was to be caught flat-footed out in the open because I didn’t make it to shelter in time.

The other two locations were similar in a lot of respects except for the fact that one offered better concealment from a searcher moving north or south, while the other was superior with regards to evading detection by someone moving along the east-west axis. I queried my computer, hoping against all odds that it would be able to give me a clear answer regarding the direction from which the other aircraft was approaching, but the radar pulses coming in to my sensors were still far too fragmented for my systems to make any sense of them. By the time they’d bounced off of metallic particles inside the rock around me a few times, there was nothing in the way of usable data, which meant that the only way I’d have any chance of localizing the enemy fighter would be to switch back over to active sensors—which was the one thing I definitely couldn’t do.

It was a simple decision, the kind of thing that could have been decided by flipping a coin if I’d subscribed to that method of decision-making, but for an instant I completely froze up. I’d made any number of more difficult and dangerous decisions getting as far as I had into the Badlands, but I was suddenly incapable of deciding between even the simplest of possibilities.

What I was feeling was disturbingly similar to when I’d frozen up during the initial assault on Cutter’s territory, which had implications much further-reaching than I wanted to consider. I’d been telling myself that I’d only locked up during the assault on Cutter’s territory because I’d been through nonstop fighting for days, and I’d been forced to eliminate a target up close and personal rather than executing him with a single pull of the trigger.

I’d taken a lot of comfort from that analysis of my actions, and even more solace in the fact that I’d managed to spend so much time inside the enclave before having to kill anybody. In some ways, I’d thought that my successful elimination of the tactical response team inside the Icebox had indicated that I’d recovered from the posttraumatic stress that had caused me to freeze up the first time, but that apparently wasn’t the case.

For three long seconds that felt like an eternity, I hung almost motionless above the ground—completely visible to anyone flying in on several different vectors—and then something inside of me changed. Moving with a calm detachment that had escaped me since even before I’d started my lethal game of hide-and-seek with the ant reinforcements, I slipped my fighter in underneath the overhang that provided the best cover for anyone traveling along a north-south axis, and powered down to the point where the bottom of my aircraft was only inches off of the ground.

It was only then that I realized what had changed. I hadn’t suddenly made some kind of mental breakthrough; the white noise that I’d used to finish out the assault on Cutter’s territory had returned. I knew that the detachment I was feeling was temporary, and that its reappearance would worry me once I’d had time to regain my normal emotional state, but in that instant I didn’t care about any of that; I was just relieved that I was going to be able to function long enough to have a chance of surviving yet another reconnaissance pass.

If I’d been the slightest bit less detached from my emotional state, I probably would have missed the external changes that had taken place since the last time I’d had to suffer through an ant flyby. The frequency of radar pulses I was picking up were continuing to rise, but at a much slower rate than I’d been anticipating, which probably meant that the other pilot had elected for a much slower vector than he’d been using previously.

There were only a few reasons an ant fighter would be approaching at such a slow speed and none were good when it came to my chances of long-term survival. The simple fact that I’d continued to encounter radar contacts after so long indicated that the ants were still looking for me, and they’d either picked up something to tell them that I’d headed into the Badlands, or their computers had tagged the Badlands as a location with a high probability of being where I’d gone to ground.

I’d been hoping that this far into the search the ant tactical computers would have vectored most of the ant fighters out in an ever-expanding grid to reflect the fact that each passing minute theoretically gave me more time to run and evade the search, but either the ants had dedicated a lot more in the way of assets and manpower to the search than I’d been expecting them to, or someone was convinced that I hadn’t ever made it outside of their initial search pattern.

Either way, I didn’t like my chances now that they had switched over to such slow flybys. Not only would that give the computer in each fighter more time to gather and analyze data, it would also give the pilots themselves more of an opportunity to take a serious look at the terrain they were flying over. Society computers were remarkable, but there were still decided limitations to what they were capable of doing without human intervention. I rather doubted anyone had thought to tell their cybernetic henchmen to start looking for overhangs like the ones I’d been using to evade detection so far, but it was only a matter of time before that happened, and a pilot flying slow enough to take in the sights was much more likely to add that particular wrinkle to his computer’s parameters than one who was buzzing along at Mach 3.

It wasn’t fair to say that I was worried—the static between my ears didn’t allow for anything like that—but as the approaching fighter continued to get closer and closer, the white noise that had been cushioning me from my emotions started to fray a little around the edges. That only became more the case as a low rumble filled the air around me, and nearby rocks started to shake off of their temporary resting places on the nearby monoliths.

I’d briefly worried earlier that my leaving the engines of my fighter on would result in somebody detecting me simply because they would be able to hear the turbines running, and for a split second those concerns resurfaced and I was forced to remind myself that no fighter—even one chock-full of ant technology—was going to be able to hear my fighter over the sound of their own engines. In fact, it defied belief that I’d been able to pick up as much sound as I had over my own engines unless…what I was hearing wasn’t a fighter after all.

It was only a few seconds later that I was able to confirm my fears. As I worried about the possibility that I was going to lose a turbine if one of the falling rocks hit one of my blades, a full-on assault dropship came slowly drifting over the top of my position.

I found my fingers moving over to activate my weapon systems, and I had to force myself to stop from bringing them up far enough to begin using active sensors. I probably should have anticipated that Alexander’s people would deploy more significant assets to the area than just strike fighters and fighter-bombers, but somehow I’d never even considered the possibility that I would be dealing with anything other than smaller aircraft like what I was flying.

Realistically, given the security risk that I represented, and how eager Alexander had to be to get his hands on the hardware I had tucked away inside of me, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that he’d ordered the Society’s last remaining mobile command center to make its way this direction, which meant that I’d been operating under all kinds of mistaken assumptions. A mobile command center would allow the ant aircraft to refuel without going all of the way back to the enclave, and if Alexander was willing to order it down below the cloud cover, it would provide much better sensor coverage than anything else inside the ant military machine.

Not only that, the presence of dropships might indicate that somebody had ordered the deployment of troops, which would further complicate my task. It was always possible that the dropships had been drafted into service simply as a way of increasing the surveillance envelope, but if I was wrong about that and somebody had thought to scatter soldiers at strategic points throughout this area, my odds of surviving had just taken a significant hit.

Ant ground troops didn’t typically carry any weapons capable of bringing down something like a strike fighter simply because there had never been any need for them to worry about such a high-tech threat, but they wouldn’t need guns to sign my death warrant. My only way of escaping revolved around being able to sneak out of the area, which was hard enough when all I had to worry about was satellite surveillance and low-altitude flyovers.

Any troops looking for me wouldn’t even need to get close enough to see me in order to call in all of the firepower they would ever need to shatter my fighter into tiny scraps of metal and turn me into unrecognizable bits of charred organic material. All they needed to do was get close enough to hear me, and I would be a goner.

Powered down to minimal levels like I currently had them, my turbines didn’t make a ton of noise, but they would still be much harder to hide than any of my other emissions, and I once again considered powering completely down as the dropship’s bottom turret slowly moved into view.

I’d spent enough time inside of a similar turret to have a pretty good idea of the capabilities being employed to look for me, and my hope that I would be able to see Brennan again took another beating as I realized that those superior sensors were paired with an individual who had no need to concentrate on anything else. The gunner wasn’t responsible for flying the dropship, or communicating with central command, or any one of a dozen other things that might cause someone to miss some tiny scrap of data pointing directly at my hiding spot.

The only reason I hadn’t been found already was that the turret was pointed in the opposite direction, but I could already see it slowly rotating about its axis, which meant it was only a matter of time before all of that surveillance equipment—both organic and otherwise—would be pointing in my direction. I had a very limited window of time in which to take action, or my options would begin narrowing even further.

Fight-or-flight instincts that had been hard wired into my DNA tens of thousands of years before the first caveman had learned how to control fire were screaming for me to do something while I still had a chance to influence the course of events, and I found myself drifting downward in an effort to line up a shot capable of bringing down the dropship.

I knew the odds of succeeding were nearly as slim as my odds of surviving to see the sunrise, but I was never going to have a better chance than I had right at the moment. I still had a full complement of radar-guided missiles and half a dozen heat-seekers, all of which would continue on in a straight line if they failed to acquire a target.

I could conceivably fire off several missiles at this range and count on hits even without switching to active targeting, but if I was going to take my shot then there was no reason to hold back on anything that might improve my odds of destroying the dropship.

Once I pulled the trigger it wouldn’t matter if there were any active emissions, if I destroyed the dropship before they could transmit a warning to the rest of the ant assets in the area, or if I just missed altogether. No matter what else happened, the ants would know exactly where I’d been at the time that I took my shot, and they would vector in every remaining aircraft into an ever-tightening perimeter that I would have almost no chance of escaping.

Firing on the dropship was as good as committing suicide, but failing to shoot didn’t guarantee my survival, and might very well mean that I wouldn’t have a chance to take anyone with me before I came under fire.

Survival instincts warred with the tattered static that had allowed me to react dispassionately to everything so far, and I couldn’t have said in that moment which force inside me would come out on top. Trading my life for the lives of the dropship crew felt like a terrible outcome, but it was far superior to simply dying unavenged. Even more importantly, I knew that the losses Alexander had sustained so far had to be putting incredible pressure on his empire, both militarily and economically.

The mobile command centers had been linchpins of the Society’s strategy for maintaining control over the globe for longer than I’d been alive, and losing two of them had to have reduced Alexander’s ability to respond to perceived threats among the grubbers. With the destruction of at least two of the mobile resource-extracting units added into the picture, it would take decades at the very least for the Society to replace their losses so far, which meant that dropships like the one hovering in my sights had to be picking up the slack, a task for which they were ill-suited.

Even if Brennan and Tyrell failed in their attempt to bring down the enclave, it was entirely possible that they would take Alexander’s eyes off of the rest of the world for long enough that some other grubber city could begin to mount an effective resistance. In that kind of future, even one dropship more or less could have a fundamental impact on the course of history. There were compelling reasons to sell myself as dearly as possible and all of my training and experience cried out against dying to no purpose, but in the end my desire to see Brennan was stronger than anything else.

Instead of opening up on the dropship with missiles and guns in a maelstrom of destruction that would guarantee that I would never see Brennan again, I brought my fighter back deeper inside of the overhang where I’d hidden myself. I’d made my decision only moments before the turret on the dropship finished turning in my direction, but I was fairly confident that I’d managed to react in time. Now it was just a question of whether or not my concealment was good enough.

Working with exquisite care and an almost glacial slowness now that I was back in the position where I’d started, I ramped up the counter-grav even further, trying to pair it with additional decreases to the thrust I was vectoring almost straight down. It was a small change in the grand scheme of things, but it meant that there was even less dust and other debris whipping around underneath my fighter. It might even mean that someone looking straight at me could mistake what they were seeing for just another random dust devil, but all of that would be a moot point if they actually caught a glimpse of my fighter.

I was already dangerously close to the bottom of the overhang, but I nudged my plane up an additional few inches, hoping the entire time that I would be able to avoid slamming any of my control surfaces into the unyielding rock. Placing myself so incredibly close to the rocks both above and behind me was nearly as dangerous as taking a shot at the dropship would’ve been, but I had no choice if I wanted to remain unseen, and even as it was, there was no guarantee that I would manage to escape detection.

My world narrowed down to the rock above me and the video feed from the camera on the back of my plane. I was so focused on avoiding a disastrous collision that I almost didn’t notice when the dropship reversed course and started coming back in my direction.

The growing rumble from the dropship’s engines would’ve been enough evidence of what was happening all by itself, but someone had decided that I merited a front-row seat, so I got even more than that. As the gunner in the belly turret realized that getting closer hadn’t done anything to give him a better sight line into my little alcove, he must’ve gotten on the com to the pilot, because the dropship proceeded to undertake a series of extremely dangerous maneuvers in an attempt to wedge itself down far enough into the canyons to give the belly gunner an unobstructed view.

I listened as the engines on the dropship thrummed unevenly. It was hard to say for sure what was going on, but inside the theater of my mind I could easily see the dropship as it wobbled from side to side in an effort to drop the last few critical feet the gunner was no doubt demanding, but in spite of the other pilot’s best efforts, the belly gun never dropped quite far enough for me to be able to see it. That still wasn’t a guarantee that the gunner hadn’t been able to see into the alcove far enough to pick out the bottom of my plane, and as he flipped on a pair of incredibly bright spotlights, I thought for sure that he’d seen something on his thermographic display, but after several seconds he turned the light back off and the pitch coming off of the dropship’s massive turbines changed.

The temptation to drop down slightly in order to give myself more margin for error was almost overpowering, but I wrapped what was left of the white noise tightly around me and forced myself to maintain my position. It was fortunate that I had, because a few seconds later the gunner cut loose with a long salvo of cannon fire that ricocheted around inside of my alcove. I was sure some of the bullets had come within inches of tearing through my aircraft fuselage, but if I’d followed the urge to drop back down to a more comfortable spot inside of the alcove, then my fighter would’ve doubtlessly been shredded.

For a moment I thought that the gunner had seen me, and that the dropship was going to hover there a short ways off from my position and use armor-piercing rounds to cut into the rock around me until they finally managed to bring the alcove down on top of me, but after several seconds the gunner ceased firing and another change in the rumble from the dropship’s engines indicated that they’d begun moving away from me again. The gunner hadn’t seen anything, so he’d fired into the alcove in an attempt to flush me out.

I forced myself to remain in position for thirty seconds before exiting my alcove and flying off at right angles from the course the dropship had just taken. As tempting as it was to assume that I’d seen the worst the ants could muster, and that my little alcove was safe, I knew better. The dropship was eliminating as much ground as possible from the search pattern, but there was every reason to believe that they would send someone else to take a closer look at any terrain feature that had triggered such close scrutiny by the dropship. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter whether the observers they sent were infantry or another fighter. Either way, if I was still there when they arrived I was as good as dead.

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