From a thousand different backgrounds, many keeping a secret for months or even years, along a thousand different paths of enlightenment, it had finally come down to this. All of them would have the satisfaction of drawing attention to their cause and to their willingness to sacrifice for it.
It had that much going for it.
Fred closed the passenger manifest and muttered something.
Barney snorted, having read the thing right alongside of his captain.
They had a mix of M.A.D.D. people, Right-to-Lifers, Pro-Choicers, animal-rights activists, and one or two who had steadfastly labeled themselves tourists and kept their motivations to themselves. There were quite a number of Ovaltine Party Members hoping to score some points as it was budget time again in their country.
A small contingent of jilted lovers, with kind of a disproportionate number from Pajan, rounded out the ensemble.
The bulbous form of the Airbus 640-P for Pilgrim sat poised on the end of the runway at Brobdinak’sInternational Airport. The runway shimmered in heat haze, but the interior was cool enough.
The Pilot, Fred and his Second Officer/Copilot Barney, strictly humourous code-names but useful still, ran through the pre-take-off check-list one more time. The heavily-modified aircraft was unlike anything they had ever flown previously.
They had never seen each other before being selected for this mission, and hopefully, would never see each other again.
Yet they had grown into a strangely intimate friendship over the past few months.
With the 640-P stressed for seven golly-gees, and capable of spanning well over half a globe un-refuelled, they had spent a thousand hours in the flight simulators and hundreds of hours in real-time cockpit familiarization for this inaugural mission.
Aboard were a thousand of the faithful, each to his own persuasion, all of whom had paid a million Upottsian dollars for the privilege of this one-way flight.
Fred looked over with full confidence evident in his features. That’s not to say there weren’t a few butterflies in either man’s stomach.
The copilot touched a button and spoke into his throat microphone, his features obscured by his combat helmet, flash goggles and face-mask, still hanging loose from one side as it wasn’t necessary to do it up yet.
Not for minutes would they need it.
In the meantime, they had taken the place of a regularly scheduled flight, flight number six-seven-one, Brobdinak to Upottsia. Timing was crucial, but so far nothing had gone wrong.
“Tower, this is Pilgrim Airlines six-seven-one, requesting clearance for takeoff.”
“Roger, tower here. You have clearance for take-off. Proceed to altitude thirty-one and please do not deviate while transiting military area B-67-f-niner-smegma. Over.”
“Roger that.” Barney repeated the instructions, which were simple and familiar enough to the former airline pilots.
The men reached up and snapped on the masks.
With Fred holding the yoke, Barney began sliding the four coupled throttles and then the plane began to move…ever so slowly at first, as he stopped the throttles against the end of the gate, and then it went faster and faster until the lines, lights and markers coming up under the nose were just a blur.
The numbers on the speedometer soon cleared the safety zone, a figure calculated according to fuel load, number of passengers and their total weight, and then it was time. For this flight there was no luggage, and little in the way of disposables, just three days worth of meals and coffee for the six crew members, which included four flight officers and two stewards/bouncers. One guy had specifically asked for chocolate milk, and in fact it had been provided.
Fred pulled back on the stick, using a bit of left rudder to counteract a light crosswind, and then the big jet began to climb out, the dim shape of the city dropping away in their peripheral vision.
Barney kept an eye on the speed, angle-of-attack, engine performance and altimeter. All the radio and navigation systems were fully functional as Fred turned the yoke and the plane rolled into its first clearing turn, continuing to gain altitude all the while.
Barney glanced over, noting the sheen of sweat on the small patches of skin visible around the eyes and forehead.
“How does she handle?”
“Not bad. Pretty much the way she did in the simulator.” Actually, the controls seemed a bit heavier, but he was convinced that was just his own stress.
You could throw the ship around pretty easily in the simulator, but the price of a mistake was nil. This was different.
“Yep.” Fred turned. “God is great, my young friend.”
They were on their way and once out of Brobdinakian airspace, they would follow a Great Circle route, over the bulk of East Midwestern Eurasia and then over the vast Specific Ocean.
“Thirteen-point-one hours to first destination.” Barney checked all of his figures repeatedly, but it appeared he hadn’t missed anything.
For security reasons, if there was a problem, now was the time to turn back.
“All systems are go.”
“Thirty-one thousand…coming up. Mark.”
“Huh?” Barney looked around in confusion, but then grinned slyly. “Oh. Right.”
Fred had a small smile on his face. His young accomplice was incorrigible. Whatever the Seven Purgatories that actually meant.
Fred eased his pressure on the stick and levelled the aircraft. After a sweep of the instrument panel, he engaged the autopilot and then he could finally relax.
The men took their masks off as if by some unspoken agreement to heighten the Victorian melodramatic effect of it all.
“What?” The shock of adrenalin was small, the tone wasn’t all that urgent.
“Message from the Monkeyman.”
Fred grunted, albeit with a calm, neutral visage. His copilot wasn’t all that enamoured of their Fearless Leader, who, if truth be told, was more of a puppet of the corporate mullahs and conservative public opinion—the only kind there was in Brobdinak, or Upottsia either, not these days.
“We’re supposed to play it over the whole system.” This would allow passengers and crew to hear what the fellow had to say, probably something fatuous and ostensibly inspirational at the same time. “Holy crap, he’s thanking all of our sponsors.”
Barney pushed the button and as the deep, sing-song, oddly nasal voice of Fearless Leader harangued them one more time, both crew settled in to try and catch some sleep. They had a long night ahead of them. The message, predictably, was a long one, and after a minute or two he turned the sound down.
He had a rough idea of what he would be saying anyways.
At their cruising speed of five hundred eighty-five knots, there was plenty of time for a meal and some rest, but both were in their seats, taking over from Beta Crew for the run-in to the target area.
Observing all normal flight rules, descending as if they were indeed landing at San Upottsia, when the big aircraft disappeared off radar, the well-trained Upottsian air controllers, assuming a crash in the sea, immediately declared an emergency and scrambled all available search and rescue craft to the last known point on their flight path.
If they had any inkling that the Airbus was now flying nap-of-the-earth, down to three hundred and fifty knots, and weaving its way in through the coastal mountains and then out over the desert, the reaction if anything would have been much stronger.
As it was, two pairs of fighter jets were scrambled as a precaution. The Upottsians had been taken by surprise before, but all they did was to climb and orbit in a racetrack pattern, waiting for further instructions, while ground staff tried to confirm the facts and locate the crash site.
They watched, giggling, on the radar warning sets, but their plane had been designed to absorb radar and all kinds of stuff.
Since dawn was still two hours away, and there was nothing to find, this might take some time.
The big Airbus had been designed, a one-off prototype, as a bomber, or at least that was what all of the North-Western and even the Southern-Midwestern/Eastern intelligence services thought. And it was even true and everything, but the nature of the load they carried would have surprised the most jaded and sanguine intelligence analysts. They might have figured it out all on their own, one never knew. Of course it was a question of timing and surprise. Both men had dropped hard bombs before, and Fred had once even machine-gunned a school bus full of Salivian tribes-kids, all of this earlier in their careers, but this was something just a little bit different.
By that time the Martyr Charter would be approaching the target area…at that time there was nothing that could stop or seriously interfere with the mission.
The aircraft streaked low over the desert, the morning sun just below the horizon but the sky lightening perceptibly. Using the terrain to mask their presence from the ever-watchful radar, jinking through valleys and scraping through the mountain passes, the golly-gee-forces were at times considerable.
In a steep, low-level turn, with the one wing pointing crazily skyward, and the other one seemingly inches from a cliff-face, Fred noted a small creak from up somewhere in the right corner of the cockpit, but with its bamboo-fibre laminate construction and considerable internal strengthening from the launch tubes, he wasn’t too worried. It was just his job to observe and make notes and so that’s what he did.
The impression of speed was magnificent, but with accurate celestial mapping, the machine knew everything that lay ahead of it, and if a little minor altitude or speed compensation was necessary, it was more than capable of doing it in good time.
A small buzzer sounded in Fred’s earphones.
“We have reached the Initial Point.” From here on in they must really keep an eye on the thing.
Fred nodded. He keyed the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please leave your seats now and enter the drop tube located directly in front of you. We have seven minutes until drop.”
The nose camera was already picking up a gleam of white far off in the distance. In all simulations, it was found that people could get into their luxuriously-padded yet easily-washable tube within two and a half minutes.
Both pilot and copilot watched the graphic display in awful suspense until all the green section lights flashed on.
The voice of the senior flight attendant came over their headphones.
“All secured. Confirm ready to drop. We are in our seats and strapped in.”
“Any problems?” Fred was concerned with this part of the mission, which was out of his control.
“Naw. Had to knock a couple on the head, but that’s about it.”
“Thank you.” Barney was feeling left out.
“All secured. Ready to drop.” Barney glanced at the chronometer and reached for the microphone button.
“Ladies and gentleman, four and a half minutes to drop. God is watching! And thank you for flying Martyr Airways.”
They watched as the readouts on time and distance clocked downwards towards zero.
Red lights came on over the bombardier handle—there was no other way to describe it, although if things continued to go well, the drop would be fully automatic. The pilot gripped the handle firmly, just in case.
Fred marvelled at the calmness in his heart, although there was tension in his midriff, and a cold, icy feeling at the base of each kidney. He kept his left-hand fingertips lightly touching the yoke.
“I have it on visual.”
Fred sat up a little straighter, being shorter than Barney, and peered over the high dashboard.
“Ah…beautiful.” The target, Keebler Dam, was dead ahead. “If this doesn’t send a strong message to the dirty Imperialist heathen East-South-Central/Western dogs, I don’t know what will.”
“Two minutes.” It passed more quickly if you watched the numbers and forgot that your own fate was involved, Barney found.
Fred looked over quickly.
“You left out infidels.”
“Hah!” Barney spit theatrically, careful to keep it pretty dry and spotty because of all the electronics.
There was the slightest change in pitch of the background noise. Rows of yellow lights turned green.
“Drop doors open. All are green for go.”
Fred spoke without looking over. He was totally focused on the machine’s performance.
“Thank you, my friend.”
Barney nodded in a professional manner.
“Damned glad to be here, sir!”
“It don’t mean nothing.”
They loved Upottsian movies.
They grinned like idiots, and then the last thirty seconds were winding down with a strident ‘wheep-wheep-wheep’ in the headphones. Barney was thinking of saying something about just wanting to learn how to cook but thought better of it.
The plane surged upwards as a thousand pilgrims launched into heaven and found their way to fame, to forgiveness, to paradise, perhaps even to eternal bliss, for surely ignorance is a kind of bliss.
For whatever reason, they were gone.
On tactical screen one, the scene was observed by a small, pilot-less, camera-equipped aircraft, dropped immediately prior to the full passenger drop, showing a cluster of white-shrouded objects spinning and tumbling through the air…the signal was strong and clear and they were getting good pictures.
“Schmuck!” Fred looked over, a sick feeling in his guts, but what were you supposed to do?
A big gob of what looked like nothing more than strawberry jam slowly oozed down the face of the dam.
The water at the bast of the power-house foamed red and there was gore all over both sides of the canyon, and even rolling up and over the lip of the dam. The screen went fuzzy and the picture went black.
They had just made history, and in his own case, a hundred million dollars, although the other was said to be getting somewhat less.
A beatific grin came over him.
“Let’s see that again.”
Barney’s hand obligingly reached for the controls on the recording device.
The right wing came up and the nose came down again, and then they were streaking for the Kanatski-Terra border and ultimately Humpson’s Bay and a trans-Blarctic trajectory that would bring them by a circuitous route to rendezvous with a tanker orbiting over Greeseland. With a substantially smaller load now, the speed crept up reassuringly.
From Greeseland, it would be down the Schmedlantic, around the Crape and up the Indjun Ocean, and finally home in about a day and a half. Apparently they were having noodles for dinner and Fred was really looking forward to that.
Barney looked over.
“Send data-packet?” This would include all flight and drop information, including that from their drone.
With the throttle to the stops, it looked like they would be over Kanatski-Terra before the Upottsians could figure it all out and get some fighters in the air. Surely the authorities at the dam would be screaming into their telephones by now…screaming their damn-fool heads off.
Barney had earned some unofficial recognition, at least in Fred’s eyes.
“I’ll tell you what. When we get feet wet again, I’ll let you fly it for a while.”
“Can I sit in your chair?”
Fred nodded brightly.
Unable to speak, eyes shiny with the suggestion of tears, all the other could do was to nod in speculative appreciation, grip Fred’s forearm strongly and bite his lip in anticipation of unforeseen eventualities.
“Thank you! I’m quite looking forward to it.”
There was still much that could go wrong. Yet Barney’s gut instinct was that they had gotten away with it so far.