Sidewinder looked over in mild surprise as the Commander sat down in the co-pilot’s seat—wearing a flight suit and secured helmet. Mathis turned towards him and cocked an eyebrow. “Mind if I ride up here, Sidewinder?”
The Raptor commander shook his head and turned back to his instruments. “When was the last time you qualified on a Raptor, Gremlin?” he asked, deliberately using the Commander’s call-sign.
Mathias chuckled. “It’s like riding a bike, Sidewinder. Or your first love—you never forget.”
“Roger, Gremlin. In that case, strap in and let’s run down the checklist—Kaboose, the rest of our guests secured?”
“Good to go, Sidewinder,” the EWO said as he closed and sealed the hatch and took his own seat.
The pilot and his commander—now his copilot—quickly ran through both the internal and external checklist, with all systems reporting green. He looked out the window and held up three fingers spread wide; Chief Sinclair yelled out instructions at the deck gang. A small tractor pulled the Raptor until she was seated atop of one of the elevator pads and disengaged the pull-bar before driving away. “Engage magnetic grapples, Gremlin,” Sidewinder ordered.
“Grapples engaged—good lock.”
Now Sidewinder held up his first and last finger and the deck gang rushed back to the ordnance mounted in the ventral bay and underneath the wings. When they came out, they held up one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven tags; two red, two green, two blue, and one black each on a chain with a plug at their end. “Ordnance safeties removed and visually confirmed, Flight,” he broadcast. “Close ventral bay door,” he ordered.
“Bay doors . . . closed,” Mathias replied as there was a thud beneath the Raptor and the doors sealed over the two drones and two missiles within. They—and the external pair of chaff launchers and the starboard KEW pod—could now be armed; until the safety devices were removed those munitions (both offensive and defensive) were just dead-weight. They couldn’t be armed or fired as long as the safeties were in place—removing them was the final step in prepping a bird for flight. He looked out the window again and held up a single thumb, and Chief saluted as the elevator began to rise, carrying the Raptor first to the airlock, and then to the deck above. The flashing yellow lights within the lock signaled that vacuum lay on the other side and the Raptor shuddered as the elevator locked into place, sealing off the atmosphere-filled hanger below. He looked up and the deck plates above parted, and then the upper half of the elevator began rising again until his bird was flush with the rest of the flight-deck.
“Flight Control, Sidewinder, requesting permission to depart port flight pod.”
“Sidewinder, Flight Control, you are go for launch—airspace is clear. Good hunting,” the voice of the CAG came back over the wireless.
“Release magnetic grapples,” Sidewinder ordered as he ramped up the ventral thrusters.
“Grapples disengaged,” Gremlin replied and the Raptor lifted up into the emptiness of space in the brilliantly clear airless void of the Flight Deck.
He tapped the thrusters twice and the Raptor accelerated down the deck directly over the inboard lane.
“We have cleared the pod,” Gremlin said as the Raptor flew into the space forward of the flight pod.
, Sidewinder. We have cleared the pod and are maneuvering for atmospheric insertion.”
“Copy that, Sidewinder. Is Gremlin on VOX?”
“Go Two,” the Commander answered.
“Watch your ass down there; I don’t want your job that bad.”
“Copy, Two. Gremlin out.”
“Here we go,” Sidewinder said as he pressed the throttles forward as well as the stick, and the Raptor’s nosed dipped as it accelerated toward the small planet below. “I hope you packed your parka, Gremlin—meteorology said its fifteen below at the landing beacon.”
“Parkas for everyone are in the troop bay, Sidewinder. Approaching atmospheric interface—ionization levels rising—wireless blackout in fifteen.”
“We’re in the pipe,” the pilot said as the nose began to glow and steam clouds streaked away mixed with the fires of reentry.
“High-altitude turbulence ahead,” the commander said from the right seat.
“I see it,” said Sidewinder crisply, “everyone best be strapped in back there—coming up on some nasty chop.”
The freight-train roar of the plasma fires shook the Raptor hard, but the veteran pilot kept a steady hand on the throttle and controls—and then small recon vessel shuddered, bucked, and dropped faster than the flight path allowed for, before rising just as abruptly on the thermal updrafts on the far side. “Lots of chop,” he said.
The Raptor soared down through the thick cloud cover and drops of ice and rain covered the cockpit panes. “Deicing on,” said Gremlin.
“Let’s bleed off a bit more speed, deploy air-brakes.”
“Air-brakes deployed,” Gremlin answered and every slammed forward into their retraining straps as the Raptor’s velocity plummeted.
Sidewinder watch as the speed and altitude gauges fell and then he nodded. “Retract air-brakes,” he ordered.
Suddenly the clouds broke and a wintery expanse opened up beneath the Raptor. “Approaching landing beacon,” said Gremlin. “Heading Zero Three Two, range forty-one klicks.”
“Got it. Not a very inviting place to live, is it, Gremlin?” he asked.
“No. Which probably means it is a really good place to hide, Sidewinder.”
The two flew silently for the next few moments and then Sidewinder spotted it. “They’ve illuminated our designated landing area with ground flares. Charon, Raptor One Zero One; we are on final approach from the south-south-west at speed One Seven Four, passing altitude Seventeen and descending. Request landing instructions.”
“Raptor One Zero One, you are clear to land—pick a patch of snow. Winds east steady at Two Two, gusting to Four Zero,” the wireless broadcast.
“Vicious cross-wind,” muttered Gremlin.
“Copy that, Charon,” said Sidewinder. “Deploy landing skids.”
“Deploying landing skids.”
The Raptor continued to slow and drop in altitude as she came in over the uneven marked area—Sidewinder diverted power from the main thrusters to the ventral thrusters to keep her up and flying once they had hit stall speed; the loose snow on the ground scattering between the exhaust of his thrusters and the wind as he settled the Raptor into a hover over the marked coordinates. And gently set the bird down on the solid rock and packed frozen earth beneath.
He leaned back in his seat and spun down the engines, killing the systems one-by-one. “Nice flying with you Gremlin,” he said.
“Any day I can crawl in a cockpit is a good day, Sidewinder. Kaboose, pass out those parkas. Doctor Sarris, how are you doing back there?”
“Gremlin, Kaboose. The Doctor really didn’t like the chop—he’s throwing up.”
Sidewinder groaned and Gremlin chuckled as he unbuckled the straps. And through the cockpit panes he could make out heavily bundled forms approaching. “Looks like our welcoming committee is here. Let’s meet them before the natives get restless.”
“Hope they aren’t hungry,” muttered Sidewinder. “Be damned if I get killed by a bunch of cannibals before I get a shot at a Basestar.”