This short story was originally published in 1979 and was republished in 1985 in the anthology There Will Be War Volume IV (Currently available here.)
THE MAN IN THE GRAY WEAPONS SUIT
by Paul J. Nahin
The warrior gently ran his hands over the smooth flanks of his love. She responded not in any physical sense, but still he knew that deep within, under the flawless skin, she felt his presence. With a single flowing, graceful motion, he mounted her. She opened wide and he slipped inside. The fit was narrow: his bulk squeezed tightly against her sides. But to the warrior, it was cozy, snug, warm. The plexiglass cockpit housing slid back down over his helmeted head with barely a hissing of its electric motor.
He inserted the digital communication umbilical cable from his biosensor body box into the female connector on the floor and became as one with Red Striker Five.
Snapping the throat mike down against his neck, he called the Combat Information Center on the nuclear carrier. “CIC, this is Red Striker Five. All weapons stores on board, fuel topped off, and set for launch. Give me your ready-status readouts.”
“Roger, Red Striker Five, we have you on first launch. For your ready status—wind over the bow at forty-two knots, sea state at level three, cloud cover starts at five thousand, solid to eight thousand five hundred, and clear from there up. You are initially on weapons tight, with a required visual verify of a bogey before authorized to perform a weapon release. No voice communication in the clear allowed—perform all data transmission to the fleet on GPS LINK Ninety-nine. Set your security-level switch to antijam position three. Ship radars show a clear screen out to one-five-five miles. Prepare to launch.”
The warrior felt the passing of a momentary irritation. Weapons tight, with a visual verify! Damn! His air superiority platform could detect, lock on, and track twenty-three simultaneous targets out to three hundred line-of-sight miles. His frequency hopping, pulse-doppler, lock-down radar could pick enemy infiltrators out of the massive clutter background echo of the ocean, even if they attempted to penetrate fleet defense by coming in 100 feet off the deck at Mach two. His “fire-and-forget” Eagle-Six missiles, with home-on-jam radiation-seeker heads, could attack and kill with probability point nine, nine, nine at 170 miles, at hypersonic speed.
And he had to identify a hostile visually before weapon release! Even with his electro-optical visual aid, that meant a maximum attack range of ten miles. Maybe fifteen if he used the narrow-field zoom lens with autovideo tracking. Damn! It was his ass on the line, not those of the political toadies who soiled their pants at the thought of a mistaken ID. Having to close that near to a potentially deadly hostile dropped his survival probability by at least ten percent.
But maybe the hunting will be good today. The use of the Global Position System satellite, and its antijam, encrypted digital data link meant that something was up. His pulse rate elevated and the surface of his skin wetted slightly with perspiration. Small biosensors in his body box picked these reactions up and routinely filed them away in the on-board flight computer. The gray weapons platform called Red Striker Five would need to know everything if it was to help the warrior survive.
The flight-deck tractor was already hooked up to his aircraft, and the warrior waited as the twenty-one-ton Red Striker Five was attached to the steam catapult. Eight hundred feet ahead, just faintly visible in the dim, early glow of daybreak, was the edge of the flight deck. From there it was 93,000 feet straight up to his operational limit and possible death, and ninety feet straight down to certain death. No in-between. Just up or down. He briefly thought of what it would be like, sealed in his cockpit as he made that short, yet long fall into the water, and then he imagined the essentially infinite inertia of the 87,000-ton CVN as its stately mass crushed him under at thirty knots. No real need to worry about that—the fall alone would kill him all by itself, without any help.
His eyes and mind turned to the red-glowing cockpit displays. Soon, as he climbed out of the cloud cover and burst into sunlight, he would turn the night-vision lights off. As the final seconds before launch slipped away, he made the last run through his checklist. Red Striker Five was ready, a deadly air and near-space machine of precise, electronically guided death. Her companion tensed as CIC warned him of launch, and he braced for the high gee acceleration that would fling them up to takeoff speed. Theoretically, it would take only a bit more than half the flight-deck length. But the warrior had witnessed launches that hadn’t worked. His mouth felt dry and his heart pounded as he brought the throttle levers up to sixty percent of full military power. More than that would dangerously stress the catapult mechanism. Red Striker Five roared her pleasure as she gulped the JP-4/nitro mix.
The blast of launch pressed him back into the body-contour seat, the details of his peripheral sight faded in a tunnel-vision readout as blood flowed away from his optic nerves, and the edge of the flight deck rushed toward him at incredible speed. And then, as Red Striker Five lifted free of the launcher coupling, the warrior’s left hand shoved the throttles forward, his right pulled back on the stick, and he accelerated up and away. Pulling a thirty-degree attack angle, he rode the twin jet-engine exhausts at an initial climb rate of 20,000 feet per minute.
He could feel the whining turbine shafts under his buttocks, one cheek over each roaring monster. He used the feedback through his backside to even-up the shaft rpms to balance out the engines. Balanced engines gave better handling, less fuel consumption, and minimum vibrational abuse to his spine.
The rear-view closed-circuit screen showed the carrier rapidly falling behind and below him. As he hurtled toward the clouds, the massive ship was soon no larger than a postage stamp, and then, as he flicked on the afterburners it disappeared in seconds. He was riding a tornado now, each engine thundering 42,000 pounds of thrust. At two pounds of thrust per pound of platform weight, Red Striker Five was like no aircraft that had ever flown before. Her limits were set by the endurance of the warrior, not by technology.
He punched through the top of the cloud cover with a vertical velocity vector of 30,000 feet per minute, and the airspeed needle passed the Mach-one line. His only indication of breaking the sound barrier in a climb was the funny behavior of the altimeter—first it lurched upward 2,500 feet, and then wiggled its way back to normal. The engine vibrations on his butt, the pounding roar in his ears, and the instant response of his craft to the stick, throttle, and foot controls gave him the same pleasures a passionate woman would have. Except that no woman could ever be so perfect.
When Red Striker Five passed 30,000 feet, the warrior returned to normal engine power as the afterburners wasted too much fuel for just cruising. He nosed the craft over gently until he was in level flight at 33,000, with an indicated airspeed of 1,200 knots.
He flipped off the night-vision lights, set the surveillance radar to its long-range search mode, and turned his MARK XII/IFF beacon transponder on. The beacon could be interrogated by coded transmissions from properly equipped observers, and Red Striker Five would automatically broadcast her mission number, altitude, bearing, and airspeed. Her echo would also be enhanced on the observer’s radar screen. Failure of an interrogated aircraft to respond to such requests could bring an infrared missile up the tailpipe!
“CIC, this is Red Striker Five. I’m at start of mission run. Going now to GPS LINK Ninety-nine.”
“Roger, Red Striker Five, we have a solid track and now going with you to LINK Ninety-nine.” There was a pause, and then, “Good hunting, Red Striker Five. Take care.” The warrior heard the strange metallic bang on the voice circuit as the digital link took over—he was now in direct communication with CIC’s computer. It would talk to him by audio tone cues through his headset, which he could react to faster than an oral command. He was now getting the situation normal cue of a continuous up-down frequency sweep from one kilohertz to five kilohertz each three seconds. The sound was comforting to the warrior, like the humming of a mother to a baby. He snuggled happily in his seat.
Red Striker Five flashed through the sky, serving as the eyes of the mighty naval fleet miles below and behind. Part of the always-flying combat air patrol, CAP war missions were top-priority tasks. A billion-dollar carrier, and its hundred-million-dollar companions of missile destroyers and cruisers couldn’t afford to let the enemy get close enough to launch a tactical nuclear-tipped cruise missile. CAP missions extended the fighting reach of the fleet from the fifteen-mile range of naval gunfire to the hundreds of miles that were Red Striker Five’s combat radius.
Ten minutes after launch, the warrior heard the audio tone cue in his ears change to a frequency-sweep period of one second. The first-stage alert cue. Three bogeys were beginning to edge onto his cockpit radar screen, and the pre-engagement weapons program in the fire-control computer switched the radar from surveillance to track-while-scan. All of Red Striker Five’s radar updates were now being automatically fed up to the GPS satellite, 22,000 miles over his head, and then back to the CIC computer. There, integrated with sensor data from surface, subsurface, airborne, and space platforms, CIC had an accurate, realtime picture of everything that moved in a water-air-space volume of over 2,000,000 cubic miles.
The bogeys were flashing red on the multicolored radar screen now, the computer’s visual cue to the warrior to pay attention. His left hand punched the Mark XII interrogate button—seconds later, the flashing red switched to the steady yellow of a friendly response. Good. But the enemy had been known to spoof the IFF by making recordings of friendly replies and then retransmitting them when their penetration aircraft detected the interrogation request.
The warrior went to the HOARSE GOOSE mode and hit the interrogate button again. Now a new, special-coded signal was included that would inhibit a friendly from replying. A reply would be a fake. But these were friends, as their images on the screen now changed to green and the audio tone cue reverted to three seconds. The radar returned to routine surveillance, the tracking computer dumped the stored trajectories of the identified bogeys, and the fire-control computer relaxed its electronic finger on the trigger. Red Striker Five streaked on.
Four hundred miles out, with the radar’s constantly searching fan beam picking up nothing, the audio tone cue went into a continuous ping-ping-ping. LINK Ninety-nine was calling. The warrior pushed a red button next to the cockpit video screen, normally displaying a rear view of the aircraft. The screen cleared of the flashing sky, and an encrypted digital message streamed down from the GPS. LINK Ninety-nine was a spread spectrum, time-division, multiple-access channel, with hundreds of users tied into it on a time-sharing basis. With a spectral width of four gigahertz, and a signal level forty db below the background noise, there was no way the enemy could jam it, even if he could find it in the infinite electromagnetic spectrum. Unless he was willing to devote the entire electrical output of a 2,000-megawatt nuclear power plant to the task—a highly unlikely event. The decoded message scrolled in milliseconds onto the screen:
MULTIPLE HOSTILES AT HEADING 079. SUBSURFACE ACOUSTIC SENSORS INDICATE VELOCITY VECTOR OF 1450 KNOTS, AT 500 FEET, ON FLEET INTERCEPT BEARING WEAPONS. FREE DOCTRINE NOW IN EFFECT. ENGAGE AND DESTROY
This was more like it! This is what he was waiting for—he punched the red button again to acknowledge the message, and the audio tone cue changed to a rhythmic six-kilohertz pulse, with a period of one-half second. The GPS would watch for surface-launched missiles directed at Red Striker Five and warn the warrior by modulating the pulse rate, intensity, and tone frequency in each ear.
He put the radar in its high-power burn-through-jam, track-while-scan mode, five degrees around both sides of 079, from Sea level to 1,000 feet. Eleven flashing red spots appeared on the radar screen in a vee pointed back toward the fleet. They were 620 miles from the warrior’s home ship and 215 from Red Striker Five, to his left. The warrior pushed the HOARSE GOOSE button. There was little doubt: the attack pattern was characteristic of the enemy, and no friendlies would roar into the fleet in such a clearly provocative, hostile way. But he was going to kill them, and he had time to be sure. Red crosses appeared, superimposed over the flashing hostiles! They had replied to HOARSE GOOSE, thinking they were being normally interrogated. Too bad for them, thought the warrior. Let’s go get’m, baby! The warrior snapped on the power switch for his heads-up display. Normally a clear plastic shield extending from the top of his instrument panel to just below the canopy, it now became a remote projection output of the fire-control computer. Once combat started, there was no time to keep moving eyes and head between instrument display and cockpit windshield. The HUD showed the warrior the radar-screen image, Red Striker Five’s gun-cannon status, and projections of the proper launch envelope for the Eagle-Six missiles against all tracked enemy targets.
The warrior looked at the computed intercept course and saw that he was already within attack range. He elected to go in closer. That was his only mistake.
Hitting the afterburner switch, he lit the tail of Red Striker Five and went into a sixty-degree banking turn-dive. As he passed through 20,000, he was hitting 1,900 knots and accelerating. The titanium/boron fiber skin of Red Striker Five was a dim, yet visible cherry glow. The projected intercept course, computed by the dedicated radar computer operating at a memory-cycle time of forty-three nanoseconds, kept pace easily.
The warrior flipped the red plastic cover off the missile arming/firing switches with his left thumb and threw the leftmost of three exposed toggles. He couldn’t hear the cryogenic pumps, but he knew the infrared sensors on the missile-seeker heads were now rapidly cooling down to the ten degrees Kelvin, where they operated optimally for the terminal-attack phase. He asked for a launch countdown from fire control to achieve missile intercept at approximately seventy miles’ range, and large numerals projected on the HUD. As the numbers flickered by, he flipped the middle target-attack toggle to designate all displayed radar tracks as hostiles. When the flashing red zero appeared on the HUD, he threw the rightmost toggle on the missile switches, and the Eagle-Six weapons came off their wing pods, two at a time, from each side.
Fump! The first double pair streaked off, each missile locked onto its own target. Guided by control signals from Red Striker Five’s radar computer, they would fly their own way in on the last 2,000 meters of intercept with the infrared seekers.
Fump! The second double pair raced out and away, their exhaust trails leaving a crazy, swiftly dispersed pattern. Each missile quickly accelerated to 4,000 knots, its body glowing red-hot with the air friction. The warrior loved night-attack missions; the blazing missile skins looking like jewels. But even in the daylight he could follow them for a few split seconds. Then they were gone.
Fump! The last three missiles launched, two from the right wing, the eleventh from the left.
The warrior watched, fascinated, as thin, spidery purple lines, marking the missile paths, weaved their way on his HUD toward the flashing-red, hostile symbols. At first the enemy vee stayed on course, but then their electronic warning systems picked up the inbound missiles. The vee started to break up, the pattern spreading apart. The warrior knew that some were diving, others climbing, but all were being flown by men as good as dead. An Eagle-Six missile could pull thirty-seven gees in a chase-down maneuver; greater even than Red Striker Five could take without disintegrating. And the enemy platforms were inferior to Red Striker Five. But the doomed men tried. And the warrior had no pity. They were the enemy!
One after the other, the purple filaments reached out and touched a desperately twisting, whipping, spinning red dot. And then they both slowly faded from the display. The searing explosion, the vaporizing metal, the carbonized flesh—all were reduced to a quiet decay of glowing colored light reflected in the cold eyes of the warrior. The tracking radar computer performed an automatic-kill assessment of each strike, looking for the highly characteristic fragmentation pattern of a successful intercept. As a backup, for attempted kills at ranges under 100 miles, a spectrum analyzer also examined the radiation from the explosion fireball, looking for a suddenly enhanced carbon line. The last blaze of glory of an enemy warrior before the mist that was once a man’s body dispersed forever. A low-level kill assessment would bring a secondary missile attack, but none was needed. All eleven hostile markers had vanished. He flicked off the afterburners and let his machine coast down to 1,000 knots. No need to waste fuel.
And then the warrior felt Red Striker Five shudder, and his surprise was unbounded as he saw fireballs bigger than his fist stream by his cockpit above and to the right of his head. He’d been jumped from the rear and was taking high-cyclic 37mm cannon fire! With his attention diverted to the earlier attack, a twelfth enemy aircraft had somehow avoided detection. The bastards must have learned how to defeat LINK Ninety-nine! Maybe those were decoys I just took out!
As he realized his peril, the right wing took two hits: one on the tip and one on the trailing edge near the wing root. Red-hot, searing metal fragments tore through Red Striker Five’s body, and one, the size of a man’s thumb, ripped into the warrior’s right leg, just below the knee. Muscle tissue, bone, and arterial fragments, mixed with shreds of flight-suit fabric, splattered the cockpit, and blood gushed from the wound. Instrument-glass splinters ripped into his body. Blinding pain tore at the warrior, and he would have screamed but for the paralyzing shock.
The warrior knew, just before he passed out, that his survival was out of his control. He retained enough strength to slap the emergency combat palm switch at the side of his seat, and then he rapidly slid into unconsciousness. It was up to Red Striker Five to get them both home.
The palm switch activated the autonomous-combat program in the flight computer. Immediately Red Striker Five examined all biosensor outputs on the warrior’s body, determined the presence and location of blood loss, and pumped compressed air to the proper imbedded circular tube in the right suit leg to create a tourniquet. The blood flow slowed to a seeping.
Simultaneously Red Striker Five lit her afterburners, blew away all external weapons pods, and dove for the deck. The enemy war plane followed her down, too close for a missile attack but well within gun range. It was the enemy’s mistake.
Red Striker Five leveled out at two hundred feet, moving at 1,500 knots, weaving, jinking, humping in a manner determined by a random-number generator in the computer software. Desperately trying to keep those 37mm fireballs away from her warrior!
The enemy pilot was good—but Red Striker Five was better. Hurt by the loss of streamlining from the ragged metal edges where she’d been hit, Red Striker Five was melting at 1,500 knots. The enemy was 1,000 meters behind and closing at 1,600 knots. Red Striker Five dropped to twenty feet above the ocean, letting her surface-following radar keep her at altitude. The enemy stayed on her tail. The enemy pilot was very good, rough-riding through the near-surface thermals on an attack run.
The two screaming metal bullets raced over the water, cannon bursts rocking Red Striker Five violently. The acoustic shock wave each was dragging along was incredible, and a boiling wake of dead fish bobbed to the surface long after the hunter and the hunted had passed. And then Red Striker Five fought back.
When the enemy was only 700 meters behind, Red Striker Five popped her air brakes and lost 300 knots almost immediately. Simultaneously she pulled into a climb and did a full inside loop, coming down behind and on the tail of the snookered enemy aircraft. The defeated foe had a few milliseconds to realize his fatal error, and then Red Striker Five ripped him apart with two dozen strikes from her dual 20mm cannons. The flaming enemy debris flared out along a ten-mile track, but by then Red Striker Five, bearing her dying warrior home, was gone.
Racing for altitude, she climbed to 5,000 feet and started squawking on all clear broadcast channels:
EMERGENCY-EMERGENCY-EMERGENCY. RED STRIKER FIVE CAP WOUNDED PILOT ABOARD. REQUEST PRIORITY LANDING. REQUIRE FLIGHT-DECK MEDICAL.
Over and over she transmitted her urgent message as she bore in toward the fleet with her burden. The warrior flickered in and out of consciousness, but knew neither where he was nor what his fate would be. He put his trust in Red Striker Five and passed out.
She didn’t fail him. The flight deck was cleared, and with guidance signals from CIC’s computer, Red Striker Five made a perfect landing. The Navy medical personnel gently lifted the warrior’s torn body from the shattered cockpit and placed him carefully on the deck. After emergency aid, as they prepared to take him below for permanent surgery, he temporarily regained his senses once more.
“Take it easy, son,” said the medic. “You’re hurt pretty bad, but you’ll be okay. I saw it all on the radar screen—that’s some aircraft you got there. She fought her way out and back like nothin’ I ever seen!”
The warrior smiled weakly through a pale white face lined with pain and shock. He looked up at Red Striker Five and saw not a technological marvel of electronics, armament, metallurgy, and computer programs. He saw both a warm and loving creature, and a being that had killed to save him. Killed with savagery and intelligence. His body filled with emotion, a feeling of passion that only later he would just barely begin to understand.
He looked at the battle-ravaged Red Striker Five, and just before he slipped into darkness again, he knew. He knew she’d be there when he came back. She’d wait for him, and he loved her. And he knew she loved him too.
Pournelle, Jerry. There Will Be War Volume IV