TO DIE AT A DISTANCE

by James Nathan Post







"Cowards die a thousand times;" says my wingman -- or wingwoman -- Calamity Jane Smith, "the brave taste of death but once."

"Yeah, I could make that my motto," I reply grumpily, picking up the cup of coffee she has brought me.

Alton Rickenbacker, our flight leader for this pre-dawn mission, plunks his pudgy butt into the chair opposite me in the squadron ready room. "So whatís the flap?" he asks. "Tell old Capín Eddie about it."

"Heís griping about the psych-log regs again," says Jane.

Rickenbacker laughs. "Still trying to fight city hall, eh, Buddy?" He fishes into his flight-suit breast pocket and brings out a small vial. "You could use a shot of Euph." Using a tiny spoon -- real antique silver, I notice -- he puts a matchhead-sized hit of the pale pink powder into his coffee.

"Stuffís illegal," I mutter. "If the major walked in here now weíd all get tossed on the open labor market."

"You donít seem to like the job all that well to begin with," says Capín Eddie, "so whatís the difference?"

"Big difference. I donít want to lose the job just because I donít like it -- it pays too well. I would just like to have the right to decide for myself how much of Buddy Swit I get to take with me."

"Sure doesnít sound like the old Bloody Buddy I used to know," he says, shaking his head sadly. "I remember when you were the hottest young butterbar to ever hit the Robey program."

"Iím still hot," I tell him, socking back half my cup of coffee. "Iím just not as happy about it as I used to be."

Calamity Jane chuckles. "Well, Buddy, you could get yourself a nice safe job somewhere."

I flip her the bird and she sticks her tongue out at me. No support there, thatís for damn sure. "Iím going on down to the line," I say, finishing my coffee and standing.

"See you in the wild blue," she says, picking up a magazine left by one of the other pilots.

Itís hard enough thinking clearly at three in the morning, and getting prepped for a hot mission doesnít help a bit. It used to be so much easier when I was young and full of jazz. I guess Iíve been in just about every major action the Robeys -- Remote Combat Units -- have been used in. My specialty is the Falcons, the fighter planes, though Iíve driven ground-walking Spiders as well. The job does pay well, and I sure canít deny itís exciting. I guess I really do believe that the use of United Americas mercenary remote combat troops by all these little countries for their wars is good for our economy, but itís hard to trust feelings like that. These days Iím never sure what I really believe and what is put in my head by the psycho-lognosticians. And that is the meat of my gripe. The psych-log boys write the programs that determine just how much of myself I get to take along with me on my missions, and they all agree on one thing: the only way to get the best out of a Robey is to see to it that when heís in the remote module, heís in the remote module.

The theory is pretty simple. The remote mod -- in my case, a Mach-3 fighter-bomber -- is equipped with a sophisticated array of sensory devices. Iíve got normal light vision, infra-red, spherical radar coverage with full secondary, tertiary, and archive capability, a set of "feel" sensors to tell me whatís happening to my internal systems, and a full range of combat communication senses. The works.

My command module looks like an upholstered closet with a recliner couch in it. The couch is fitted with a pair of pistol-grips on the arms, and a helmet on the back that looks like the hairdriers in the beauty-shop pictures of a century ago. The grips and the brain bucket have the electrodes that hook the sensory and control apparatus into my nervous system. In a sense, the remote mod becomes a kind of extension of my body.

And thereís the root of the problem. The psych-log guys have decided that a Robey works best if that fighter-bomber really is his reality -- subjectively, that is. So they run me through a pattern of stimuli, computer-analyze my neuron impulses, then generate a pattern that neatly nulls the sensations coming from my body. Then any pattern they superimpose on my nervous system feels like the real thing. When they feed me the sensory data coming from the Falcon, itís really just like being there.

Today Capín Eddie, Calamity Jane, and I are taking a light flight -- thatís three birds -- into Sri Niganda for a raid on one of their shipyards, hired by the Sovereign American State of Argentina. Now, I couldnít care less about that, but we get thoroughly briefed (thatís a pretty damned harmless word for the kind of programming we get) on the politics of any fight we get into. Thatís another of their bright ideas: a Robey ought to believe in the war he is fighting when heís on a mission.

My Mission Center is in a southern Florida city in an innocent-looking building downtown. I take a tube to work from my residence building a block away. My apartment is not large, but it is plush, and the party action in the rec sector is great. The bird Iíll be flying is sitting on a field in eastern Brazil.

I walk down the hall to the wing assigned for this job and locate my command module. Thereís still about ten minutes before the commencement of briefing, and I can hear Jane and the Capín coming up the hall behind me. I donít feel like conversation, so I slip into the couch and close the hatch behind me. Some pilots like soft lights and white sound in the module, but prefer darkness and silence. I lie in the dark trying to relax, trying to blank my mind. Pretty soon I get a warning light on the little panel before me, so I fit my head under the brain bucket and grab hold of the pistol grips.

I get the relaxer immediately, and my body melts into the chair. The sensation is warm and delicious. My previous apprehension dissolves, and I welcome the state like an old friend. Music begins, and images also, of a lush and proud highland, where men still work on horseback and sing patriotic ballads with tears in their eyes. My Father stands before a bright rippling flag and tells me he loves me for my service to our land. Then I hear the cries of our children, and behold the anguish of our women as a great black cloud sweeps across the land. I know I must stop it.

The changeover is quick -- a momentís disorientation, the rush you sometimes feel if you stand up too quickly, then a sensation of awakening...in the bird in Brazil.

Taking a look around me, I see the taxi lights extending off to my left and the two other flat stubby Falcons of my flight cranking up beside me.

"Eva Two, you up?" Capín Eddieís soft south-Texas voice asks friendly and eager in my ear.

"Thatís affirm," I reply. "You got the One Bloody Buddy."

"Eva Three is Calamity Jane, and sheís hot to trot," she says, warm and rich.

"Capín Eddieís got him two killers. Yeee-haw!" cheers our flight leader. "Letís get Ďem. Rocas Tower, Eva Lead with a flight for taxi."

I get a big swell of pride, and a happy lump in my throat. Damn, are we a team!

"Eva Lead, Rocas. Youíre cleared for immediate taxi to runway two-four; hold short."

"Roger, two-four and hold," says the Capín, and I take a deep breath. Here we go!

A few minutes later we are standing on our tails in a critical-Mach climb to cruising altitude across the south Atlantic. Iím not looking forward to the long haul to the target. Thereís just too much time to think. I watch the coastline fall away behind us and note a good-sized storm extending up to about forty thousand feet below us. I find myself wishing I had the sense to get into a line of business with a greater chance of some future. I mean, those guys fighting for Sri Niganda donít fool around. Damn the Nigandans anyhow, and their Islamibloc pals. I know nobody has to get involved in the war if they donít want to, but I just canít stand to stay on the sidelines and watch a great State like Argentina get treated like that by a pack of raghead sandhogs. I guess a manís got to die for something, and by God, I do believe in Argentina.

I keep a close watch on my radar, as they have sometimes been known to send out fighters to meet us even before we hit the African coast. Most of us have been getting onto the continent the last few weeks though, so Iím not really too worried about that. The target is another matter. That port is pretty well hardened, so weíll have to get in close to do any real damage. The heavy bombers just havenít been making it in, so weíre using the fighters for pinpoint work. The attrition rate is awfully high -- I donít even want to think about our chances of all three of us coming home tonight.

As soon as we can pick up the African coast on the radar, we roll inverted, let the noses fall through, and head for the deck. Six Gís pull the noses up again and weíre level on the water at Mach 2.2. The coast flashes past and weíre jolting along on the terrain-avoidance systems kicking up dust. I chuckle knowing the havoc our shock cones are making at this elevation.

Then I see them -- wisps of contrail five miles above us, telltale pips on the radar.

"Capín Eddie, Eva Two," I call. "Smarts at 11 oíclock. Iíve got their pips."

"Roger, Bud, theyíve got us spotted. Weíll use a Bravo pattern in ten seconds. Stand by...." The seconds tick off slowly and I have to fight the adrenalin knowing those mindless computer-driven phone poles up there have an idiotís fixation on getting to the same place in the sky as I am at the same time. If anything less than Argentina were at stake... "Now!" I yank my Falcon into a ten-G turn to enter the evasive manouver, count seconds, then wince as a blinding flash announces the end of Capín Eddieís career.

"They got Capín Eddie!" I shout, anger flooding over my fear.

"You bastards! Weíll get you for that," yells Calamity Jane, and I get an erotic rush from the power of her voice.

"If we get back from this..." I think. Then weíre diving to earth again, joining up at sandblower level to push on.

Weíve got to pull up to get a run on the targets, and they are waiting for us. The whole sky erupts with smoke and hunks of flying junk as we set up and nose in for the delivery. Thereís a slam, and my bird flips over on its back. I know Iím in trouble. Number One engine blasts smoke, the console lights up red all over the place, and the controls jerk and shudder. Forcing myself not to scream obscenities, I shut down the crippled tube and look around me. Where is he? Who got me? Good Lord! Heís right in my six oíclock and closing for the kill. My stomach knots and I cry out, yanking desperately on the controls. He overshoots and flashes past me, and I know for a moment the heightened fear that comes with new hope seconds before what seemed certain death. The Falcon shudders, the tube-temperature suddenly rises, and I hear my other engine shriek and grind. Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Harry Krishna, Iíve had it. I want to scream, beat my hands on the canopy and demand it not be true, but I bite my lip, choke back a sob and yell bravely, "For Argentina!"

Then I arm all my bombs and nose my stricken ship toward the city below me, forcing the last life from my tortured engine. Rounds from the fighter behind me are tearing into my ship, but I swallow my terror and scan the city spread out like a map below me. There, in the harbor, a tender of some kind with two smaller ships close aboard. If I can just maintain control another few seconds...my God, my last seconds! To my horror a bed-sized chunk is blown from my right wing, and the bird skids sideways and tumbles. "Oh God oh God!" I cry as the ground rushes up to meet me. "Oh no oh no no no!"

I wake up in the control module, safe but terribly tired. Thatís the third time this month Iíve augured-in still conscious, screaming for life. I guess I know how Iíll feel when the real one comes around. I open the hatch and step into the hallway, rubbing at my temples. Rickenbacker is standing there waiting for me, laughing.

"Brother, you sure do dramatize your ass off in the cockpit," he says, punching me on the shoulder. "You howled like a dog when that bird started to tumble."

"Up yours," I mutter. "You got off easy -- nice clean termination."

Capín Eddie nods. "Yep. But you got yourself five bonus points for that kamikaze stunt. Face it, Buddy, when the chips are down youíre hero material all the way, a real chump. No doubt you can use the bucks."

"I can use the bucks. Whereís Jane?"

"She picked up two points herself. Got through clean and nailed the objective, then got clipped by a smart on the way out. Sheíll be out of clearing in a couple of minutes."

I nod dumbly and head for the showers. Thereís still time to catch happy hour at the club, and I can sure use a few stiff ones. Damn the Argentines, and damn the psycho-lognosticians. Sure, itís a nice safe job, but I donít think Iíll ever get used to dying for a living.

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This story is included in KING'S KNIGHT --A Science Fiction Anthology.