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Chapter 11

“As the hydraulics engage, keep your eyes on the HUD… the Heads-Up Display—a digital countdown will be running... If you’re ready, give a thumbs-up to command when they call for it. Look straight ahead, head back, chin tucked and brace for the hydraulic ram.”

“To abort, I pull up on this lever...?” Catherine confirmed what flight instruction prep had drilled into her all morning. Though she fought to portray a nonchalance she wasn’t feeling, her eyes were stark, staring ahead in terror.

“You’re not going to abort,” Ken assured, and something slid through her gut. He signaled the control room with thumbs up and Kim’s voice immediately transmitted to every corner of the operations complex;

“Standing clear for a-GO! I see a green light at launch command—do I see thumbs from simulator...? Delta-Foxtrot-Lima—the simulator—Miss Kaplan—do I see your thumbs?”

With an effort that felt like pushing into clinging mud, Catherine forced her hand within the glove to respond with the thumbs up sign. Her vision was hopping to the thunder of her heartbeat; so loud in her ears it blotted the launch announcements;

“And it’s a-counting... a-seventeen... a-sixteen... a-fifteen... ignition sequence start... a-twelve-a... eleven... ten-a...” a man’s voice spoke.

Ken continued standing alongside the open cockpit. Watching her prepare for takeoff, an erotic entree to the promised cyber-sex that drew closer by the day.

All the hardware necessary to produce the required body suit had already been assembled and were in surreptitious testing and undergoing software interface. Anton had promised to have it setup and ready for use within a fortnight.

Ken watched Catherine’s breasts heaving with the hyperventilation of fear. It appeared that they might at any moment burst their way over the lace bra restraining them.

Catherine at least had several hours of practical instruction under her belt in an abandoned bid to gain a pilot’s license. It was the reason she’d chosen the fighter pilot program from those on offer. It was the closest skill she had to match the library of possible options.

“...Delta-Foxtrot-Lima... it’s a-seven... you’re ready for takeoff... six... a-five...”

Catherine was looking down the impossibly short deck of an aircraft carrier. Ahead, out beyond the bow, lay a turquoise army of wind-flecked swells marching in long lines under the driving hull.

Disbelieving her eyes at the realism of the image, she looked to her left, and there was the launch officer in his ship’s control turret where Kim should be, his mouth perfectly synchronized with the strong Southern drawl of his count;

“a-four... a-three...” He winked at her, not missing a beat in the count. Winked! She couldn’t believe the detail to realism.

She looked fixedly ahead and gritted her teeth for the slam of the thrusters. The thud-thud of her heart slowing time, the pounding in her ears obliterating the count.

Something to her right where Ken had been a moment earlier caught her peripheral vision and she snapped attention onto it; it was a flight crew rating’s sleeve flapping as he crouched in the blustery wind.

“...a-one... Launch!”

At Launch! Catherine was hoofed in the back by what felt like a stallion; the deck exploded into on-rushing acceleration, the deck markings a blur as the end of the deck rushed under her and gone—with it, the familiarity of a base beneath her undercarriage fell away to the ocean.

It was only her spasm of terror that still kept the throttle wide open.

The swoop of the aircraft and its sudden roll to starboard galvanized Catherine into action.

Until that moment she’d been paralyzed by fear, but the treacherous tilt had her on an instant collision course with the waves that flashed by her dipped wing-tip only feet away. The cockpit heeled over to one side and she was compressed into her seat by gut wrenching centrifugal forces. Instinctively she leaned against the stubby joystick and pulled the plane out of the turn and into a rattling climb.

The sensation was like none she had ever begun to imagine. The craft jolted and snapped in response to the stick, shuddering with the pummeling forces of over correction. Her vision was filled with the blue of heaven and she remained jammed into the near vertical climb;

“JEEEEEES-U-S!” She was yelling over the deafening thunder of the jet engines, then, from the far reaches of her mind, she heard flight control confirming her successful launch. He had gone on to question her piloting skills.

Get fucked,” she thought and then wondered if the computer flight controller would be programmed to deal with that sort of message.

Every sinew and fiber in Catherine’s body pulsated with shock, every finger felt capped by a throbbing golf ball; terror supercharging adrenaline through her.

She’d managed to roll the jet into level flight and attempted to maintain a steady heading. Knowing that fear paralyzes and that she must fight to regain her nerve.

After a few minutes of level flight and a few giddy, sickening swoops when her concentration slipped, she began to relax. “I’ll be a passenger for the rest of the flight,” she cunningly thought.

Flight control piped up cheerfully, confirming her headings, the weather and her position according to his radar.

Nobody had told Catherine that she couldn’t simply admire the view from her bubble in the manufactured sky.

“And besides,” she thought, “it’ll be the best way to take my mind off of the inevitable landing.”

Worst thing was, she started hankering for the comfort of her cherry flavored juice-stick... or, better yet, “a real cigarette”; it was all she could now think about.

Looking about and above her, fine clouds wisped over the dome and around the wings. Nothing in the experience betrayed that this was all an illusion, taking place within four walls; so she formulated a plan to trick the computer, reasoning that if she moved quickly enough the sensors that monitored her movement wouldn’t have time to relay her actions to the processing unit and feed back images in other directions.

She chose an obscure place to look, reasoning that the computer would be least likely to have insignificant images in its data bank.

She leant far forward then suddenly whirled her head to look behind her. There, true to real life, was the seat’s upright back, complete with all the paraphernalia of oxygen pipes and wiring leading to the pretend-helmet she was wearing. It was attention to detail she hadn’t expected.

With her eyes off of the horizon, the plane yawed and swooped. Catherine quickly caught the drift and righted the path once more. Then after a further while she decided that it was time to execute a slow 180-degree turn and return to ship.

Gently she coaxed the thoroughbred into a long, banked sweep, and the sensation of G-forces gently pinned her into the seat. The compass rolled lazily as the nose came about, making the sun’s shadows swing around within the cockpit until they faced in the opposite direction. With the new course set, she settled into the homeward run.

Catherine had time to consider her predicament and, dreading the approach and landing, she instinctively backed off on the throttles. Immediately there was a sensation of deceleration. Intrigued, she bumped the throttle open a fraction and watched the gauges respond by several clicks as the gentle thrust from behind her seat confirmed the increase.

The ice of Catherine’s trepidation was now broken and a host of conservative experiments begged to be tried. She gave the joystick a minute wiggle and the plane jinxed. She elevated then descended in quick succession and the plane dolphined. “This is fun!” she squealed with delight.

“Say again? Delta-Foxtrot-Lima.”

“Err... tha... that’s a negative transmit, o... officer.” She’d forgotten that she was being monitored; “...out.

The computer copied transmission receipt.

Catherine felt like a fool talking to the computer, but all the same she hoped that her terminology was authentic, “What does one call a naval flight controller anyway?” she thought, “Admiral?”

Reminded that this was only an illusion she had another idea to trick the computer. Without warning she suddenly looked up toward the sky and sure enough there she saw her own helmeted image reflected back down to her by the canopy. “Well I’ll be buggered,” she mumbled under her breath.

The radio crackled into life once more, “Say again? Delta-Foxtrot-Lima.”

In her quest to trick the machine, this time she decided to run another test. She said nothing at all.

“Delta-Foxtrot-Lima, do you read me... over.”

Still Catherine maintained radio silence.

“Delta-Foxtrot-Lima, please confirm you copy me... over,” As if the statement were the product of an intelligent mind, the voice had conveyed a sense of urgency.

It was a major effort to avoid instinctively answering the urgent request, but Catherine bit her tongue.

“Delta-Foxtrot-Lima. Kindly establish...” Suddenly the voice of the computer was cut out and overridden by Kim’s concerned voice, “Miss Kaplan? Are you okay?!”

It gave Catherine such a fright that she jumped, making the aircraft swerve. “Y... yes Kim. Sorry, I’m being silly. I’ve been trying to out-wit the computer.”

Kim abruptly signed-off, apologizing for breaking into the illusion.

Remembering that the entire complex had witnessed her childish folly repeated on every monitor, Catherine cringed with embarrassment; glad for the helmet to mask her shame.

She sat for a while feeling as awkward as an adult in a child’s playpen with a stadium full of onlookers, but before long the illusion overtook her senses once more.

The HUD indicated she was flying at three thousand feet over an ocean with the aircraft carrier appearing like a toy just over the horizon on her starboard beam. With all the deftness that Catherine could manage she carefully tickled the throttle back, watching her airspeed drop away; wary to avoid a mid-air stall, she eased the plane into a long gliding descent.

The carrier was well in view as she leveled out at eighty feet. The blistering pace of the swell running under her belly was an inertial frame of reference by which to judge the plane’s breathtaking speed. The image was paralyzing, but worse lay ahead, much worse.

Ken had been standing on the scaffold surrounds of the mock plane’s cockpit. He’d scrutinized every movement that Catherine had made, noting how the whites of her knuckles had grown more prominent with each passing moment.

The contraption had hissed and shook on its pneumatic mountings. As the unit had rolled to its right in a nose floor-ward attitude, he’d tried to judge the feeling that Catherine would have been experiencing. He’d correctly guessed that she’d misjudged the end of the runway coming up in the launch sequence.

Then he’d seen her wrench the joystick over and back in an effort to correct the nose-dive of the craft. Watching the cockpit tip severely, coming to stand on its tail, he’d again guessed correctly that she had been seeing blue sky.

He’d watched her a while longer, but knowing what adrenaline had been doing to her time perception he’d quickly bolted up to the control center to have a view of the flight from Catherine’s perspective.

The main screen in the control room had been displaying an image that correlated with Catherine’s view. Ken had entered the room as Catherine had exclaimed what fun it was. He’d pulled up a chair and continued to watch, chuckling at her stammering reply to the computer “officer.”

When she’d suddenly look up at the canopy he’d asked Kim, “What’s she up to?”

“She’s trying to fool the computer I guess, Mr. Torrington. Most of the first timers do it, they don’t believe that the computer can be so true to life.”

“Not a bad little pilot either!” Ken had pointed out and Kim had nodded in agreement.

“Delta-Foxtrot-Lima, your heading is A-Okay but you’re closing too fast. Trim airspeed to One-Eight-a-Zero knots. Over.”

Catherine checked her airspeed. The dial read two hundred and thirty knots.

“Do you read me, Delta-Foxtrot-Lima. Over?”

“Yes! Err. Affirmative, Sir!” Catherine was beginning to panic, “O... Over.”

“Drop your under-carriage, Delta-Foxtrot-Lima. Over.”

Catherine checked and realized that the computer was correct. She pulled on the knob and felt the clunky machinery engage. The additional air-drag made the plane shudder and slow. She studied her horizon, the carrier loomed in the middle distance but the gap was melting quickly.

“Delta-Foxtrot-Lima, your range is two miles. Your ETA, forty seconds.”

The forty seconds took forever to pass and felt more like a week as Catherine ran her final approach checks. Her airspeed was down to 185 knots and the cockpit shook violently as the plane skipped over the wind eddies that kicked up white horses and chop on the water’s surface fleeting close and fast below.

“Delta-Foxtrot-Lima, adjust your altitude to Seven-Zero feet!” there was urgency in the voice again, “ETA touchdown, thirty seconds.”

Catherine’s heart was pounding. A bead of sweat tickled her tear duct before finding its way into her eye. Her vision blurred and the eye stung from the salt. She shook her head violently but the unpleasant irritation could not be dislodged.

The plane began veering dangerously and the controller shouted a string of commands that she tried to obey, “ETA, Ten-a... Nine-a... De-throttle. Seven-a... Descend! Five-a...”

In a moment of panic Catherine slammed the reverse thrusters into operation and instantly the plane stuttered and began to plummet out of the sky giving Catherine the sensation of riding inside of a glass elevator.

THROTTLE-UP! Two-a...” the controller yelled.

In that flit of a second she remembered her flight instruction; land under full power. Strangely, she also remembered seeing a television documentary years before about landings on carriers. The narrator had said the same peculiar thing, “planes must land under full power because, if the catch cable doesn’t engage, the engines must be ready to execute an instant takeoff.”

She rammed the throttles to full power as the deck came rushing up to meet her and the last glimpse of ocean flicked out of sight beneath the nose cone. The backbreaking jar of hitting the deck was an explosion of sound that drowned out the final count of landing.

Catherine was slammed into every bulkhead within the cockpit and the restraining crash harness bit deeply into her flesh as the mayhem of her broadside trajectory took her crashing through the catch barriers that had been pneumatically sprung to slow her momentum. She felt like a casual onlooker watching the scenery going by with resigned acceptance.

After what felt like minutes, the plane slid to a halt. The under-carriage evidently sheared, the cockpit lay cantered over to one side with the wing tip propping up the fuselage.

A deathly silence prevailed, broken only by the muted sound of running footsteps. Catherine looked through the cockpit dome to see a figure clambering up onto the listing wing. As he unhooked the canopy, the sound of the wind was the first thing that she could remember... the sound and the face of the man who had run out to meet her, it was Ken who beamed down at her.

Then, without warning, he lunged deep into the cockpit making as if to kiss her full on the mouth. On reflex Catherine twisted away from him in an effort to avoid his greedy tongue.

Suddenly, there was a touch on her arm and Catherine rolled her eyes to see the hand, but there was nothing there! Only then did the realization strike her that the touch was real, her visual perspective was not.

She unclipped and removed the helmet. As it came away Ken was still leaning into the cockpit of the micro-screen’s image. With the world of computer stripped away and the world of reality once more revealed to all of her senses, Catherine felt groggy with disorientation.

The flesh and blood Ken was standing over the open cockpit, “After a landing like that I thought that you’d at least be pleased to see me.”

Catherine was bewildered, her emotional mind not synchronizing with her intellectual one.

“…and to think that I ran to rescue you,” He teased, “you’d pull away from my kiss, would you?”

“It looked more like you were about to eat me!” she was forcing her mind to assign the illusion to its own context.

“Stick around!” he promised, extending a hand to help her out of the confinement.

Catherine looked about at the sea of fans smiling down on her through their glass fronted control rooms. It felt like being on Wimbledon’s Center Court.

“Bumpy landing?” Ken inquired sarcastically.

“Where should I send the doctor’s bills?” Catherine massaged her shoulder and he laughed. “Good God Ken, I’d no idea that it could be like that. Christ, I nearly wet myself for every second that I was up there.”

As she spoke she instinctively looked skyward where, four stories above, the ceiling of the complex capped out the sky. Catherine was still finding it impossible to reconcile the fact that all of the action had taken place inside a sealed room.

Ken identified her puzzled expression, “Imagine what it would feel like once Leon’s finished convincing you that it’s not a game. Imagine what it will feel like when you believe it’s reality.”

She thought about Ken’s comment as she walked, “A lucid nightmare,” she thought. “How long was I up? It felt like an hour,” she asked.

“Twenty three minutes exactly,” Ken confirmed, “Imagine again that this wasn’t a real-time program. Imagine that you were time dilated. What would it feel like if your mind had been sped up ten or twenty times. Where would that take you?”

“To Hell!” Catherine answered without any hesitation.

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