Christmas Mission

by Jason Corley <corleyj @>

Merry Christmas, everyone.



Q: You understand that this is a preliminary hearing, for the record, prior to judgment, and that this will have no impact on your judgment in any way.

A: I understand.

Q: State your name, rank and identification number for the record.

A: True name?

Q: Secure nomenclature will be adequate.

A: My name is Mark, rank GA-2Q, suspended, and my identification number is twelve thirty two.

Q: Please state the nature of your involvement in the operations on Day Zero.

A: I was the primary pilot.

Q: Describe, in as much detail as you can, the events leading up to Day Zero.

A: Well, it was the big one, wasn't it? We'd been training for this for a long time. I was assigned to the primary flight about two weeks earlier.

Q: The documentation indicates that the assignment was released on December 12.

A: That is correct to the best of my knowledge, yes.

Q: Please continue.

A: Well, like I say, we had been training for a long time, but I went in to get some simulator hours just the same. My wingman was Tom, he was good, maybe better than me. We were assigned to fly the new NXL6 unit, and we ran those simulators ragged. We must have logged a hundred hours on the thing.

Q: Documentation indicates one hundred twenty three.

A: The flight plan was simple. Primary injection, rendezvous at Glory Station to acquire payload, ten units of primary and a hundred units of secondary. From Glory to a ten target list, with the hundred units of secondary for discretionary targets.

Q: Describe the nature of discretionary targets.

A: It's not a simple idea. What we're trained to do is deliver the primary at all costs, but we don't want to screw up anything along the way too badly. Now the research boys developed this secondary stuff which is not quite so powerful, but generally fits right in and may actually help the primary do its job on the target. So you don't just fire it at anybody but you do have the choice if you think spraying a little of it around is going to help you get the primary to the target.

Q: Please continue. Describe your pre-flight activities.

A: Well, the briefing was short. We'd read the paperwork so many times that we could have given the briefing ourselves. We got the feathersuits on and headed for the flight line. Of course the hangar was packed, all the technicians and mechanics and servitors were there, and I had never really seen the NXL6 before, and there it was, big and golden and quiet. It was amazing. Sam was there: she rubbed my ring once and said "For luck." When we kissed, I remember, they clinked together. I haven't seen Sam since I got back. I've been in quarantine, so I haven't...

Q: Please continue with your description of the mission.

A: Okay. First of all, we got into the birds. It was absolutely unbelievable. The engines were purring like something alive and even with the flywheels disengaged you could feel it was as smooth as glass. Anyway, the buzzer went off and everybody stepped back behind the purple line and we started the diagnostics. Everything checked out.

Q: The documentation bears this out. Is it possible a mistake was made, or a warning light was overlooked?

A: No. Negative. Everything was double-checked. If anything was amber, we would have held countdown. We didn't want to screw up Day Zero, we weren't joking around, we weren't cracking wise on the commo. This was maybe the most important mission that had been flown since the Six Days,' and we weren't going to mess it up by saying something was okay when it wasn't.

Q: Please continue.

A: Okay. So when I thumbed the throttle forward a notch and eased her out, it was smooth and quick and...well, I don't know how I can describe it unless you've flown before. It was like it was supposed to be. And when I eased back to park it so they could strap the payload tanks on, it just stopped. Took my breath away, so to speak. The tanks went on without a hitch. Now, between the line and the injection array is a space where we generally do a few shakedown maneuvers, test out the speed, the gyros, that sort of thing, just basic action to get the feel of the suit. Nothing fancy. I'm telling you, the NXL6 is the best thing I ever flew since I got my wings.

Q: During the shakedown, did any sort of equipment malfunction present itself?

A: No. None. Even the heat indicator barely got off the peg.

Q: When you reached the primary injection point, there was a secondary diagnostic test scheduled.

A: Yes. The results were the same as the first.

Q: Was it performed with the same care as the first?

A: Yes.

Q: You indicated that you were more confident of the NXL6 unit's capabilities after the shakedown flight.

A: Yes.

Q: This confidence did not make you less careful in the injection diagnostic?

A: No. The primary injection is the most dangerous part of most missions, and if you don't get aligned properly in the accelerator, you'll get ripped apart on realspace entry. If anything, we are generally more careful at the injection diagnostic.

Q: Please continue.

A: Once we were within a few arcs of the injection point, we switched control over to the array crew and they locked us into place. Primary injection is a rough ride, no matter what you're flying. Everything goes white and black and it feels like you're falling, or what you imagine falling must feel like. Anyway, you're sure the thing is going to shake to pieces but it doesn't. Everything gets cold and then there's a jerk, and you're there, way up in orbit and the whole place looks beautiful, blue and big and beautiful, and then your stick lights up and you're back in control.

We dropped in on the head of a pin, right on target. The spires of Glory Station pointed down, and through the upper windows of the station we could see a big party, everyone laughing and dancing. Some of them put big signs up to the window, you know the kind, "Day 0", "Don't give them hell." "Come marching in." When the commo opened, some joker put on "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." It was pretty funny. But anyway it stopped pretty quick and we got down to business.

They assigned us to the designated orbit right on schedule. We fired the thrusters to bring us in line with the big dish. The song disappeared from the commo, and the voice came on saying he was Glory 1A and he was assigned to be our handler. We exchanged sign and countersign - it checked out.

Q: The countersign was given exactly?

A: Yes. Security was very tight around the whole operation.

Q: Please continue.

A: We got aligned in the array for the payload pickup. There was only a low hum and the NXL6 barely swerved when the tanks filled. I got a long row of green lights. Tom reported the secondary being properly loaded a moment later.

Q: Did you check your wingman's diagnostic to ensure the secondary payload was loaded properly?

A: No.

Q: Did he check yours?

A: I don't know. The telemetry bulb was nearly constantly flickering once we were in sync formation, with all the navigational data he was acquiring from my controls.

Q: Do you usually check the payload?

A: No. Glory Station has sensors that are a lot more sensitive than our internal systems. They would know immediately if something was loaded wrong.

Q: And nobody at Glory 1A told you anything was wrong.

A: Correct.

Q: Please continue.

A: After the payload was acquired, we began the navigational locks. The dirtsiders were right on the money as far as we could tell.

Q: Describe the navigational process.

A: Beacons of two varieties were left on the surface by intelligence operatives: reference and targeting. The reference grid was to facilitate the navigational computations - the targeting beacons would be placed as near the primary targets as possible.

Q: The navigational markers were properly set out and activated?

A: To the best of my knowledge, yes.

Q: Please continue.

A: We laid in a course for our first target, the governor of Syria. The beacon transmission said he was at home. We jacked up the throttle and turned on the stealth field.

I don't know if you've ever done any slowfall insertions, but it's an amazing sight. The whole planet tilting below you, the air ripping along your nose, tearing along your wings, it's an amazing feeling.

We hit the first nav point and started our approach. The mission profile said each target would receive one unit of primary, so I thumbed the switch to cycle the tank and load the tubes. That was when the alarm went off.

Q: What alarm was that?

A: The first one I saw was the primary containment field - before the secondary field could get powered up, the lateral synchronizers had already gone. I managed to tell Tom there was a problem when there was a squeal of feedback and the commo went dead. The nav system screen turned red and I heard the engines choke, and I knew something was seriously wrong. I had no visual contact with Tom and I was miles from the target.

Q: In other words, immediate and complete mechanical failure.

A: That's correct.

Q: Please continue.

A: I knew...I knew I had to do something, anything, trying to save the mission, so the Intel boys wouldn't have to scrub their insertion, so all of this wouldn't have gone for nothing, I didn't know what to do. I just didn't know what to do. Nothing like this had ever happened before. I didn't want to just eject, abort, and let the whole thing go to waste. I didn't want to be a total failure. So I brought what few sensors were left online and started looking for discretionary targets that maybe we could limp to before we went completely down.

I don't know how long it took...I managed to get a glimpse of Tom, reflected off the water of a lake once. He was still behind me in formation, so I guess the telemetry setup held even though the bulb blew. I was flying without any instruments, nothing, everything was dead. I hit the manual override on the payload delivery system and lined up on the new targets. There they were: about six or seven scruffy-looking guys out in the hills, some sleeping, some watching...there were these sheep...milling around. I didn't have time to think twice, we were still blasting along at insertion speed. I pulled the trigger.

There was a whoomph sound, and every light that was red went black, and everything that wasn't red went red. The autoeject was fused. I guess I must have pulled the handle because the next thing I knew, I was floating down in the feathersuit listening to Tom screaming into the headset the emergency signal to Glory Station. I felt blood on my face. Tom just kept yelling: "Glory 1A! Glory 1A! NXL6 - Day 0! Glory 1A! Glory 1A! NXL6 - Day 0!"

"Shut up!" I finally screeched. "I'm going to quiet running. Beacon's on. They'll get us." Tom stopped yelling and started sobbing, and a minute later, I did too.

Q: Thank you. That is all for now.

A: Can I say something?

Q: Yes.

A: It turned out all right, didn't it? I mean, it wasn't the targets we were hoping to get, but. It wasn't the rich and powerful that got the payload, but. Maybe the -plan- was wrong and the turned out okay. Do you know what I mean? Didn't it turn out okay?

Q: That's not for you to decide.

A: No, sir.

Q: Or I.

A: No, sir.

Q: That is all for now. You are dismissed.

A: Thank you, sir.

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