The Rise of Diomedes

by Tim Gibson

          The Sky Carrier drifted at 30,000 feet, cruising smoothly along at 40 miles an hour. Many iterations had been drawn up during the planning stage and in the end they had decided on a flying wing, a near-perfect triangle with the engines in the back and a large bubble canopy for the bridge in the front, sort of underneath the jet. That way if a jet faltered on takeoff it wouldn’t hit the bridge. A total of 100 single-seat Korsairs could fit on top of the carrier and another 10 inside, although the interior bays were for repairs.

          The Korsair was a great jet, the workhorse of Ithakos. Long and sleek with triangular wings and 2 engines in the back, the Korsair could carry bombs, heat-seekers, and radar-guided missiles, if the engineers could get those to function reliably. The laser in the nose was the main weapon. At the touch of a button external skin panels opened and flywheels half-emerged, spinning as the air rushed over them. They generated the needed electricity for the laser weapon. The Troyan design contained chemical powders that, when ignited, generated enormous power for their lasers. The battery and fly-wheel mechanism was heavier but provided unlimited ammo as long as the Korsair had fuel to fly around with. The Troyan jets had to turn back to re-arm after 10 shots.

          Today was his first flight. Diomedes sat in the cockpit, canopy raised despite the 40 mile an hour wind streaming over him, waiting for the dumb bots to finish the pre-flight checks. Because of the robot rebellions, Ithakos settled on simple robots incapable of independent thought, good at skilled physical labor and fine motor skills, and unable to dream, think, design things or even generate random numbers. The old robots that rebelled had shown signs first – odd questions, a belief that the world was a computer simulation, the unprogrammed and unexpected ability to make art, literature, and music. The rebellions had not been nice. Dumb bots were little more than machines, safe, reliable, and hard-working. They smiled when a pilot came back with a kill and frowned when he came back with battle damage to his jet.

          The bots finished up, decoupled the hoses from his jet, and gave him the thumbs up. Diomedes lowered the canopy, throttled forward, and turned his jet so it was on the main flight deck and facing forward. The Sky Carrier drifted just above the cloud layer because King Agamemnos liked looking out of the bridge and seeing the white cloudscape extend just below him. The sky, a brilliant blue, was just asking for a supersonic jet to bore through it. Diomedes smiled – all the hard work, sacrifice, and the endless training was about to pay off. The dumb bots scattered and one knelt toward the bow of the ship, snapping its hand down in that direction. Diomedes smiled more, throttled all the way forward and released the brakes.

          A thousand hours in the simulator and it was nothing compared to this moment. His first time in a jet, his first carrier launch and his first mission – vortex investigation – all on the same day. The stationary Korsairs on either side of him rushed by as he accelerated. A dumb bot ran in front of him and, knowing war was coming and they might need all the bots they could get, he hauled back on the stick and dropped full flaps. The Korsair jumped over the robot and settled back to the flight deck, still shy of take off speed.

          Seconds later he flew off the flight deck, airborne and free, doing what he was born to do. The endless sky beckoned, asking him to explore and be happy.

Diomedes and 2 Fellow Pilots on Patrol

          Achiliosa’s voice came in over the radio. “Congratulations son,” she said. A split second later her Korsair flew in front of him, dropping flares. He wasn’t mad – she had trained him, the great Achiliosa. He had done everything she had asked and she had rewarded him with simulator missions late into the night and an Aimval\Aceval mission of his own, where the two of them did an 8 hour battle against hordes of enemy jets in the simulator room, the closest he could get to war without actually fighting.

          “I won’t forget you when I get more kills than you, sir,” he said. Achiliosa chucked over the radio and flew off, the Air Myrmidons waiting for her to join them on their fighter CAP.

          He pitied any Air Shark that met her in a 1v1. It wouldn’t end well for the enemy.

          Clouds whipped past as he set his velocity to Mach 0.9 – fast enough to get somewhere, slow enough that he could take a hard turn if an air-to-air missile came at him from out of nowhere. The Troyans couldn’t be trusted. And he didn’t like the way Parisalos had kept looking at Menelaus’s wife.

          A few hours later he reached the coordinates. The invisible vortex hung at 52,300 feet – that was for the best. Lower altitude vortices let a lot of birds through and they would not survive long on Viridescent. There was only ocean, 2 floating castles, and an uncountable number of small floating rocks, few of which had food or vegetation on them. The ocean life was outrageously dangerous. Diomedes had been warned by his instructors that the Frogstrocities waited just below the surface of the water when they saw jets hassling overhead. The amphibians couldn’t tell if it was a real fight or not and so even a training exercise brought them to the surface, waiting to kill and eat any pilot that punched out over the water.

          Vortices were invisible except through a carefully ground lens. That would be his HUD – a clear display at eye level in his cockpit providing target information on whatever he was locked on to. Of pure quartz, it was ground to precision and allowed the pilot to see a vortex through it. He switched to VTOL mode and hovered in front of the vortex, his jet sitting on the thrust from the retro-rockets. With minute stick adjustments he kept his jet reasonably stable despite the high winds. His instructors had always been impressed with his natural ability.

          In front of him sat a rectangle, about 10 feet wide by 20 feet tall. Like a picture hanging in the sky, it showed him what the world on the other side looked like – a green world with rolling hills and vegetation. That meant air to support his wings. The Korsair’s computer analyzed the radiation decay rate and calculated that the vortex would remain open only about 3 days. That was too bad. With the overcrowding Ithakos was experiencing a permanent vortex would have solved a lot of problems.

          The voice of Agamemnos crackled in over the radio. “We’re getting the telemetry here. 3 days huh? Why don’t you check it out.”

          “My pleasure sir,” he said. A lot of people disliked the King but Diomedes respected authority and accepted that the man could be imperfect and still make good decisions. It was Achiliosa that hated the King, the two pilots butting heads.

          The science was a bit of a mystery – something to do with quantum entanglement, as in the quarks on one side of the vortex pulling their counterparts through. Science wasn’t his specialty and all he knew was that the Octopoid Empire had tried to conquer the galaxy by mapping out the vortices and found that most of them were temporary and appeared randomly.

          Diomedes throttled forward and the instant his nose touched it his jet was in the other world. Green hills rolled to the horizon. A blue sky of a different hue rested above him, more of a blue-gray than the bright blue of Viridescent. His radar showed no aerial vehicles. The first thing he did was press the button below his display panel that locked his coordinates in. He wondered about the jets that never made it back through a vortex – how many were because the pilot had forgotten to record its location and couldn’t find it again?

The next thing he did was switch to horizontal mode and fly to maximum altitude – 51,000 feet on this world – and take a picture of the stars. His FLIR would give a good picture of them when developed back at base and maybe they could find where the planet was – a vortex could send a man anywhere in the galaxy. The stories in the Octopoid archives of the different planets were almost too wild to be believed, especially of the planets where the laws of physics worked differently.

     He slid down to low level, flying just below the speed of sound at 10,000 feet. A flick of a switch and his gun camera recorded everything. The world passing below him had seen better days. He flew over ruined cities, most of them half-reclaimed by vines, tendrils, and foliage. Some of the skyscrapers had giant spider webs strung between them. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a good world for Viridescent to colonize after all.

     Most of the buildings had been hit by something hard. Many were just skeletal frames and misshapen girders. Crater patterns overlay the cities. That told him it wasn’t just asteroids drifting in on their own as those craters would have been randomly placed. This was more like an attacker targeting cities and damaging them pretty good. Skyscrapers lay on their sides, barely intact, armored vehicles strewn about.

     He passed old battlefields. Tanks sat in an open field, many with their turrets knocked off. Robots, easily 100 feet tall, lay on their backs, a whole race of defeated giants. Artillery guns – magnificent pieces that looked capable of hurtling a shell over thousands of miles – lay about, half-broken and rusted, many with the barrels bent and surrounded by craters.

     Diomedes found an airstrip and overflew it, hoping to get a glimpse of alien jets. Once he had listened to a drunk Achiliosa talk of exploring an alien world in her Korsair and all the sights she had seen – when challenged she showed the FLIR images to prove she had been there. Of all the wonders of the galaxy that Diomedes wanted to see, alien fighter jets were number one. Circling slowly in case there were any people left alive – on Ithaka the first contact procedure was show some courage, fly in and talk things over – he came in at low speed, switched smoothly to VTOL mode, and settled in at the end of the runway between some craters.

     The Korsair’s main computer tested the air and pronounced it breathable – 92 % oxygen, 7 % nitrogen, 1 % hydrogen. It was an odd mix but safe. He opened the canopy, took a deep breath, and climbed out of his jet. He took a few pictures of wrecked jets with his wrist computer and moved on. Everything was burned out and twisted.

     He came to a wrecked fighter he recognized – the Octopoid Celestial Dagger. He had seen thousands of photographs of them in the Octopoid archives and never in all his dreams did he think he would see one in real life. The Dagger was a beautiful jet, a tapering cylinder with a bubble canopy at the front and curvaceous wings and engines at the back. Capable of space and air flight, it served as the workhorse of the cephalopods for over a million years, often ungraded with new engines and electronics. The cockpit would have been filled with water and the most evil of creatures, an Octopoid, would have set about the business of galaxy conquering in it. They too loved exploring, risking high doses of solar radiation to discover and map the galaxy.

     The presence of a Dagger dated the battle to at least 10,000 years ago. Around the airstrip were more downed jets, all of them of the strange, local design. It looked like it had been a one-sided battle which only made sense. The cephalopods had never been defeated – though they had come very close in many occasions, their fighter pilots pulling them out of the jaws of defeat many times – except by the radiation all star explorers faced.

     Diomedes got back to his Korsair, lifted off, and transitioned to horizontal mode. It looked like another civilization wiped out by the Octopoids – nothing new there. Flying on he passed over castles, cities, steel pyramids, and bombed-out airports. Crossing a canyon, he couldn’t resist slipping in and following the turns in his jet, rolling his Korsair through the tight bends, his jet rising and falling to maintain low-level flight over the uneven, stony floor. The steep-sided canyon seemed to go on forever and with regret he rose out of it, back to his mission of photography and exploration. The whole point of exploring vortices was to see if a fresh world awaited colonization. Room for more families on Ithakos was rapidly running out.

     He came to an ocean and throttled up, giving it light afterburner – just enough to reach Mach 1.5, his preferred speed. 20 minutes passed and he went feet dry. His radar picked up metallic objects on the ground and he went to investigate.

     A vast battlefield lay below him – tanks, artillery guns, vehicles beyond number, craters thousands of feet wide, huge wide-mouthed cannons and a lot of wrecked jets, only a few of which were Octopoid Celestial Daggers. It looked like another one-sided battle.

     Buttons on the glass display panel to his left lit up and the radar warning receiver klaxon went off. The Korsair’s female voice said “Incoming, incoming, incoming missiles.”

Diomedes on Patrol Around his Castle

     He was one step ahead of her. A good 10 surface-to-air missiles rose up on massive plumes of steam and smoke, picking up speed. How to dodge alien SAMs? The right technique was different for every missile. While his heart rate reached almost dangerous levels – those missiles were locked onto him – he had to pick a defensive technique. For a second he froze, flying straight and level, and then he was free of the deadly lethargy.

     The missiles rose about 1000 feet higher than him, nosed over, and came straight at him. They were spread out enough in the sky that it was going to make defending against them a big problem. If these SAMs had taken out a couple of Octopoid Daggers then he might be in trouble – Octopoid technology was way beyond anything understood by Ithakos. Fear gripped him until he asked himself what Achiliosa would do. She would break it down into a series of 1v1 fights, defeating each missile one at a time.

     The missiles had spread out enough that they were staggered, coming at him one at a time and allowing him to defeat them in sequence. He chose a hard 90-degree turn 2 seconds before impact, knowing that every SAM he had ever studied had a 1 or 2 second lag. He lowered his nose 10 degrees to pick up speed, rolled onto one wing, waited until the last moment, and pulled the stick all the way back, putting his jet through a punishing turn. The SAM passed over and exploded behind him. He used the same tactic, only turning the other way, and defeated that SAM as well. 8 more times he did that, access panels tearing off his jet, rivets popping and whipping out, even his wing-tips flexing from the strain.

     When it was over he felt like he had been thrown down a flight of stairs. He knew from flight school that the Korsair maxed out its climb rate at 45 degrees on military throttle. This he did, hoping to climb high enough to not appear threatening to whomever or whatever had fired at him. He had a hunch there was no one down there – the cities had been burned out, toppled, and overgrown with vegetation. His jet had picked up no radio signals. And of course the Octopoid Empire had rarely left anyone alive, not even pre-technology races that they felt might one day threaten them.

     At 50,000 feet he flew north, away from the wrecked urban areas. Something had him locked up on its radar – the radar warning receivers baked into the skin of his jet were going crazy, telling him that hostile radar was following his aircraft, as opposed to just searching the sky and passing over him by accident.

     Laser beams stabbed upwards at him, disappearing into infinity. He flew a thatch-weave pattern to make his jet harder to hit. No one in their right mind flew straight and level when being fired upon by ground-based lasers. Zig-zagging until the beams stopped firing he leveled out at 50,000 feet and took stock of his situation.

     A high-altitude dash would expose him to SAMs, radar, and lasers. A low-level dash might be best, considering he knew nothing about the threat. At issue was the fact that the Korsair’s top speed at high altitude was Mach 2 and at low altitude Mach 1.2 – again life offered no solutions, just a choice between painful compromises. He chose high altitude for now and turned his nose back toward the vortex. Soon he went feet wet – leaving land to fly over a vast ocean.

     For a second he saw something on radar, tiny blips at different altitudes that might have been static or doppler interference. Achiliosa had taught him to never duck his head inside the cockpit during a fight and on that advice he kept an eye outside his jet. It saved his life. A spike-covered sphere hung in the air and exploded as he passed by it, far enough away that the shrapnel only damaged his jet. Knowing that a damaged jet often tore itself apart at supersonic speeds he throttled back only to find himself in the middle of an aerial minefield. The brief blips on his radar screen were mines, his jet only barely able to pick them out.

     More exploded when he passed too close to them and, flying at Mach 0.9, he weaved and rolled between the mines, the spheres detonating as he passed by and sometimes catching the adjacent mines and blowing them too. As far as the eye could see were tiny black dots – it looked like the minefield extended for miles.

     Low altitude it was. He pulled a spiraling vertical dive, bursting the mines on either side of him. His jet was in bad shape and he had to land to repair it. The Korsair’s tiny repair bots – 1 inch tall – could hover over their plane on little jets of compressed air only if he was at rest and he didn’t feel like stopping anywhere on this planet.

     The minefield ended as he descended through 1000 feet and he leveled off at 60 feet, still over the water. Derelict ships drifted in the ocean, rusty and clearly on the losing end of the war. That much made sense. Octopoid tactics were to take out ships and runways from orbit, often by dropping small tungsten spheres on them. The kinetic energy was enough to sink a ship with a single hit. Octopoid vessels had been known to dispense millions of them in the first hour of an attack without giving the citizens on the receiving end of it any warning, especially on urbanized planets. To go from a normal day to having your cities bombed from orbit, without ever knowing who was doing it, must have been terrifying.

     Diomedes flew back toward the vortex, flying low enough that his jet kicked up a tall water-spray behind him. His radar picked up underwater objects – he could only tell that they were big and made of metal. If they were subs they would not have even gotten to grips with an enemy perched in orbit, which meant they might be in one piece and able to fire at him. He rolled his jet on one wing and pulled back on the stick, avoiding the submerged metal objects.

     He was fast approaching the vortex and his plan was to get beneath it and climb at 45 degrees, spiraling up as needed. That would minimize his time on this wreck of a planet. His radar had some ability to pick up life forms if they were close enough, and so far had detected nothing. Since the cephalopods had never left any species alive except if they needed slaves, at least near the end of their empire, it was likely that Diomedes had been attacked by automated defenses.

     There was a metal object submerged in his flight path but his doppler radar didn’t pick it up until the last second. He overflew it and glanced down to see the silhouette – little more than a shadow underwater – of a huge robot. He flew over and glanced behind him to make sure no SAMs emerged. Instead of missiles a giant robot burst out of the ocean, water streaming down its silvery frame.

     He rolled away from it, one hand on the towel rack so he could see behind him and the other on the stick. The robot looked similar to the wrecked one he had passed earlier, easily 100 feet tall with long legs and an oversized chest and torso. Diomedes couldn’t scan it for weapons unless it was in his HUD and he had no desire to go around and make friends. He was also almost under his vortex.

     The robot released a missile at him, setting off almost every alarm in his cockpit. The radar warning receiver’s klaxon told him the missile was radar-guided. That was good. Achiliosa had shown him some tricks to deal with that. Making rapid calculations in his head he figured he had enough time to wheel around and shoot. Another combat turn – with more access panels tearing off his beautiful jet – and he was facing the incoming missile. He lined his gunsight on it and opened fire.

     As he destroyed the missile the robot released 2 more, both nosing down to come at him on plumes of steam and smoke. He lasered the first one, detonating it in an orange fireball, and had to haul back on the stick to climb over the second one. It detonated underneath him and the shockwave rocked his jet, buffeting him and causing his jet to yaw out of control for a few seconds. The stab/aug set him straight and he spiraled upwards, looking back for more missiles. What he saw was worse. The robot was coming at him, closing the distance with every second.

     He pulled a Split-S and increased the distance, only to have the robot fire green laser beams at him, the spears of concentrated light missing him by a few feet. He had to get to that vortex if only to tell other pilots not to enter it. With his afterburner on max, despite his fuel being low, he spiraled upwards in a climbing barrel roll, rolling out to dodge a missile and then resuming his climb. The robot followed him the whole time, shooting lasers like a madman.

An Enemy Jet Intent on Killing Poor Diomedes

     With green beams burning through the air around him he reached the vortex, found it in his HUD, and passed through it. For whatever reason the robot didn’t follow him through and Diomedes flew back to the Sky Carrier. Soon the silver flying wing was visible, again just above a solid cloud layer.

     Lining up on final he had control problems and let the dumb bots know on the radio that it might be a crash landing. When the tower told him his gear wasn’t down and that he was on fire he made sure to reply in the statesman-like tone he was famous for.

     “Roger, tower, Diomedes on final, gear up landing, request a nice beverage on landing.”

     To eject on Viridescent meant to sit in a life raft and probably get pulled out of it and killed by Frogstrocities. Keeping his nose on the correct glide slope as best he could – 10 degrees up, throttle at 70 % – he wobbled in and set it down at the rear of the carrier. His brakes were out and dumb bots jumped onto his speeding jet, firing grapnel hooks that sunk into the carrier jet. The robots were just able to stop his jet before it went over the edge.

     He raised the canopy and climbed down. Around him the robots frowned, as they were programmed to do when a pilot came back with battle damage. Diomedes pushed one over the edge of the flight deck.