(In the great void between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, a soul is lost. Telescopes on Io note the anomaly — a brilliant pinprick of light seven degrees off from Sirius. The popping of a flashbulb in the heavens. The spacestation Ulysses orbits Saturn in a cylindrical region of space known to be one of the Lagrange points in the complex gravity system of Saturn’s moons. The Station forever chases after the moon Hyperion, but never catches up. The tense minds aboard the Ulysses also watch the brilliant anomaly, and understanding it, they despair.)
“Damn,” said the computer.
I heard more quiet expletives. I glanced at the general, but he said nothing. There was no need to question the bio-processor’s single, dismal remark. I knew exactly how the computer and the general felt. The test had been another failure, the pilot had been killed.
I frowned and remembered Colonel Richard Boyd. Summertime beer-and-fishing trips, cruising the outboard around the delta. The time we took the girls to Catalina and Nancy fell overboard. The way his uniform always seemed to fit just right. The brownish burn scar on the back of his hand. Memories of a dead friend.
Another man killed. Another victim, smashed into the Barrier like a wineglass hurled against a concrete wall.
Soon it will be my turn. My chance to fly a human trash compactor, I thought. But I didn’t really feel that way. I didn’t feel-bitter. I felt-no, I knew that I would be the one to break the Barrier. As soon as the new ships were in, the latest models, I would get my chance to make history. I was scared, but inside a part of me ached to have my chance. I suppose the psychs wouldn’t have sent me out here if I felt differently.
“What were the losses like at Edwards, back in the fifties?” the general asked me, as if he didn’t know. Idly, his hands rubbed at the holster flap of the antiquated Colt. 45 that he always seemed to wear.
“The pilots trying to break the sound barrier? About one in four. We’re running one in three,” I replied. Not all of them died, not right away, at least. The old Demon usually gave them two or three shots at it before swatting them down with finality. “Sort of like playing Russian roulette with two chambers loaded,” I added, smiling grimly.
The general grunted his acknowledgement. Then he eyed me critically. “Cold feet, Major Davis?”
The general pulled out a pocket computer and tapped at it. “How many ships left?”
“Four, all obsolete models, sir. Plus two drones.”
“How many pilots?” he asked, knowing full-well the answer to the question, as he had the first one. He was a stickler for procedure, the general. I suspected that it helped to keep him going.
“Just you and I, sir,” I replied.
The general side-glanced at me.
“Two, sir,” I amended. The brief calm that had fallen over the control room during the test faded into memory and the usual clamor resumed. Everyone breathed freely again. The test had been a failure, yes, but it was over. Everyone knew that would be the last test until we received new ships and pilots. Another horrible failure, but at least we were finished for now. Technicians clicked at touchboards and slid styluses over reflective pads, checking results and reporting them. Acceleration chairs swiveled and creaked. Coffee cups were raised to dry lips.
I barely noticed them. My eyes, like those of General Crossfield, were gripped by the main viewing screen. There wasn’t much to see. The Ulysses’ computer-controlled cameras had finally caught up with the wreck and locked-in. They were tracking debris that was burnt, compressed down and mostly vaporized by the implosion.
Inside I felt a sick sort of shock, as if I had been punched in the guts while laughing at a joke. I knew I was taking Colonel Boyd’s death harder than most. I had never watched a real friend die before, not like that.
Oh sure, I had seen plenty of pilots die, but they were mostly fly-ins, dirtside hot-shots-not friends. There had been times of course, during the first Bug invasion, especially during the low-orbit battles over Sao Paolo and Stockholm, when I had seen a fellow pilot get hit and go down burning. But not like this.
When the Barrier got you, you were more than dead; you just didn’t exist anymore. Even if they did find a few of your molecules out there, maybe attached to some fused bit of collapsed matter, the molecules were changed. Pressed down into neutrons, mostly. It took theoretical physicists to figure out what was human and what was ship.
“Damn,” General Crossfield said as he surveyed the wreckage. We had all been saying a lot of that lately.
“Maybe we should try a few more of the drones, sir,” I suggested. “They don’t work past eighty percent, but the techs seem to learn a bit more each time.”
I pursed my lips and grimaced. Drones never worked because their computer systems crashed at about eighty percent of the speed of light every time. Fortunately, however, humans seemed to keep operating until the bitter end.
“Sir, the support bases on Luna have notified us that there will be a new shipment of test pilots and better-designed spacecraft here in less than a week.”
The general was silent for a moment, as if he hadn’t heard. Then he wheeled on me, the heels of his vacc-boots clacking on the plastic decking.
“We’ve got to break the Barrier, Major Davis. We’ve got to have FTL. We’ve got to have it now.”
“I know the Bugs got your family General,” I said, my mind reeling in disbelief as I spoke the words. “But that’s no reason to send us both out to die in obsolete ships we’ve proven don’t work.”
We both knew that all the eyes in the control room were on us now, but we didn’t care. The tensions, the deaths, the worry, it all came out at once, and the last two test pilots on the Ulysses faced one another in sudden flash of rage.
“You and I, Major,” shouted the general, stabbing me in the chest with his thick index finger, “will get into those ships out there and we will fly them and we will either break the Barrier, or run out of test ships, or we will die in the attempt.”
“Just like Boyd,” I yelled back, breaking every rule of protocol. “Without a hope.”
The general stepped up to me, putting his face into mine in the exact way that my drill sergeant had in boot camp, so many war-torn years ago. “Right, Major. Just like Richard Boyd.”
I decided right then that the General had gone bonkers. He was vacuum-happy and was ready to make us all walk the plank. Next he would be stuffing terrified techies into the cockpits of the airless drones, shouting ‘Go faster! Push her to the limit!’
“Why?” I asked simply.
His face fell then, and he seemed to deflate. He glanced around at the audience that watched us silently from their terminals. A green radiance bathed every one of their pale, hollow faces.
“I might as well tell you all,” he began, puffing back up a bit. “The Bugs have been sighted again. It’s a new fleet, a bigger one than the last, coming from the Tau Ceti region this time.”
My face drained of color. The mere mention of a second invasion was enough to freeze any human in their tracks. We had beaten back the first one, but back then we had been fat with population. There had been billions of us to throw into fight. It took me a moment to realize that the general was still talking.
“… many more than the first wave. The last time was really no more than an exploration group, you know. They’ve hidden it well in the press, but we haven’t seen a real Bug warship yet. Our warfleet is ready to fly, but if we have to fight again close to home, if our ships can’t move one-tenth the speed of theirs…” he shook his head. “Their weapons systems will tear us apart. Our ships will be blown from the skies like biplanes, like Sopwith Camels facing F-87 fighters.”
There was more, but I wasn’t really listening. I was heading for the hatch, heading for the test ships. If the Bugs were coming again, in force this time, the general was absolutely right. There was precious little time left for humanity to figure out the Rheeth drive system and get it into production to use effectively in the fleet.
The Bugs had screwed up and left us an FTL drive behind to study during their first invasion attempt. We had duplicated it perfectly, but could not yet control the power of the reaction. So far we had only managed to kill a lot of good pilots with it.
“Where are you going, Davis?” boomed the general as he followed me through the hatch.
“I want to fly this one, sir,” I said pointing to one of the lonely-looking huddle of test ships in the vast hold. “That weird-looking bird with the big nose.”
“Another frontal-armor theory job, huh?” snorted the general, coming into step beside me. Now that we both knew the real score, our differences were gone, and we were back to doing our jobs again. I had completely forgotten my anger, and the general had dropped his.
It didn’t matter that these ships had all been tried and failed. It didn’t matter that we would die. The entire human race was about to die. We had to try. We had to take the chance, even if it was no chance.
All that mattered now was getting past the Demon. That’s what they had called the deadly physics that destroyed their test planes when pilots had first tried to break the sound barrier a century ago. Their Demon had eaten many pilots in Old America. But they had eventually beaten their Demon, and I was going to beat ours.
The Barrier had to come down. We had to be able to travel faster than light. We had to have a working FTL drive in order to beat the Bugs.
The general and I stood looking up at our prospective flying coffin. The test ship was larger than most and carried an unusually large nose-cone on the front of it, which was just hollow space. The theory behind this one stemmed from the fact that our test ships that had failed early had all shown blast-scarred noses. Often the mix of molecules after a full collapse showed early damage to the nose section as well. The theory went that somehow these craft had survived the fantastic pressures built up on the craft by letting a frontal section take some of the shock for the ship.
In truth, it was more of a hunch than a theory.
“The thing does nothing for the physicists, you know. They can find no basis in to support the idea,” the general told me.
I shrugged. “True, but I believe in what seems to work.”
“Interesting, but it isn’t your turn yet.”
I turned in surprise, my eyebrows arching.
“I’m taking the next shot at the demon,” he told me.
“May I ask why, sir?” I felt cheated somehow.
“I’m a better pilot than you are. Here, hold my revolver for me,” he said, handing me his gun belt with his black-barreled Colt. 45 automatic tucked into the holster. He grinned at me. “No sense taking any extra mass, I weigh enough by myself. I’ll be back for it when the Barrier is history.”
I didn’t agree that he was the better pilot, but kept my thoughts to myself. Twenty minutes later the general was going through pre-flight in the cockpit of the ship I had chosen, while I paced the deck back in the control room.
The ship was eased out of the Ulysses frontal bay into space and boosted away, floating to a safe distance before engaging the drive. The countdown commenced. On the big viewscreen I watched as the general reached up to flip the switch which fired the core and released the Kheeth reaction.
The screen flipped to a serene view of the heavens as seen from behind Hyperion. The testship was a tiny streak. I moved with incredible rapidity. I watched for one second… Two… Three…
At six seconds it was over. Another brilliant flash of detonation. I lowered my head.
“He’s still transmitting, sir,” said one of the techies. Kumar, I thought it was. My head snapped up. Kumar pushed his sweat-sliding glasses back up his nose and pointed to the counter on the wall. It read 96.54 then 98.50.
“Is it right?” I shouted. “Has he made it?”
No one had ever passed 97.65 before. The speed of light was so near, he had to be compressed and slowed to a fraction of our space and time.
Kumar nodded vigorously, his glasses slipping again.
“Ease back down,” I whispered to myself, knowing that the general would never do it. Many of the pilots had gone up close and knocked on the Barrier before, then eased off the throttle and lived to tell about it. None had ever gotten so close before. I was sure that if he still lived after that initial detonation, as the transmissions indicated that he did, we had made a giant leap forward in reaching a solution. I wanted him to slow down, to return, but I knew he wouldn’t. He was going to knock down the Barrier and tweak the Demon’s nose, or die trying.
Then there was a second flash. The telemetry coming back from the General’s ship ceased. The final reading was 99.71.
I put on the general’s gun belt, which I was still holding. Somehow the weight of pistol felt comforting against my hip. For the first time I thought I understood why the general always wore it. In the act of buckling it on, I mentally came to a decision. I paused only a moment to grieve over him before rushing down to the hold.
The general had come close. Very close. Now it was my turn to see it through. I selected another craft with a very narrow profile, almost a needle-shape, and climbed in. Fixing on the headset, I contacted Kumar on the control deck.
“Test 968 ready to launch.”
“Sir, we haven’t had a chance for the pinnaces to locate and retrieve the previous wreckage yet,” objected Kumar, sounding nervous.
“Don’t worry, I doubt I’ll run into it,” I said soothingly, firing up the maneuvering jets to get out of the hold. “I want you to do something special for me this trip, Kumar. I want you to fly a drone right in front of my nose-cone.”
“Sir, regulations on this mission state that you can’t launch without first allowing us to recover the wreckage.”
“Screw the wreck, Kumar!” I boomed, my breath blowing over the mike and distorting the transmission. I wanted to just do it, to get it over with. I knew inside that I was probably committing flashy suicide and I suddenly had no patience for formalities. I was Earth’s last Kamikaze, and I was going to get after that carrier, right now.
“I’m in command now, and I order you to launch a drone!”
He did so, and I maneuvered directly behind it. Using the computers to synch-up the firing of the reactions, my ship and the drone sped off together, like two bike racers on a sprint, one following in the other’s wind tunnel.
The reaction started and I took off, only feeling a slight pain of acceleration due to the partial stasis field that the ship generated to keep my bones from pressing out of my skin. Even so, I had to be under a good eight gees of force as I watched the drama of a Barrier run play out in front of me. Only this time, I was in the cockpit.