This week will see the start of something a little different for Fiction Friday. Today will be posted the first part of the story “Hornet” which will be continued over the next few Fridays until the complete story is posted. If things go well the serialized format may be used again from time to time. “Hornet” is a light sci-fi story I hope some of you enjoy.
Hornet: Part One
by Desmond Manny
The Hornet was at it again which made Sara glad she wasn’t “piggybacking” in the Cradle for three more hours. Protocol requiring her to be in the observational gallery three hours beforehand was enough of an inconvenience. Even though the source of her irritation was the idle time before the change-over, she recognized the necessity of having the incoming operator on-deck so early in case something unforeseen occurred. Signing on, each operator understood the important and complex nature of the work and generally accepted the vigorous rules, regulations, and requirements surrounding the project. It required a certain degree of discipline which was why each operator had been culled from military and para-military organizations. Sara herself was Air Force, seconded out of Langley on the recommendation of her CO. Still, she hated the idle time.
Comprising one entire wall of the viewing gallery was an oval window of three-foot thick smart-glass that dampened sound and appeared opaque on its reverse side, ensuring the occupant of the room it looked onto wouldn’t be distracted by conversation or the scrutiny of people on it’s other side. Sara stood in front of the window now, at her back the tech and support teams clustered around banks of equipment and monitors scrutinizing real-time data in hushed tones and intense concentration.
Right now O’Connell was in the harness. Sara could see him in the control rig, one moment hunched nearly fetal then suddenly straightening his body rigid so he resembled a diver after the jump off the board. His form was suspended in a womb of elastic webbing and cabling, and she knew he would be agitated. Out of all the operators O’Connell took the Hornet’s appearances the most personal, which was damned silly in Sara’s opinion. There was nothing personal about what they did.
O’Connell made slow, studied movements from where he was suspended nearly ten feet above the operations gallery. By his movements he appeared almost to be swimming now, performing some form of underwater ballet with esoteric and haunting motions that at times looked smooth and graceful, and at other times sharp and perfunctory . In reality each movement corresponded to a command relayed through telemetry to a distant receiver aboard the unmanned reconnaissance drone dubbed “Yellow jacket” due to its insectoid profile. Countless times Sara performed those same maneuvers, and would perform them again countless times again in the future.
Sara was intimate with the feelings O’Connell was experiencing in the harness. It really was like a womb, all that sensory input and telemetry, it enfolded you and buoyed you up when you were connected while at the same time leaving you feeling a little detached from your body. Mostly, that was the reason the other operators had taken to calling it the Cradle long before she had been assigned to the project.
In operations O’Connell made a sharp jerking movement with his left hand that made her smirk. He was getting frustrated and would be making it harder on himself. She really didn’t like O’Connell, and he vocally and passionately reciprocated, so his frustrations were her delight.
“Cochrane, there’s an engagement on. If O’Connell can’t wrap it up you may have to wait to go into harness. Captain, did you hear me?”
Sara turned to Doctor Arad, the lead engineer on the project, and faked her best smile. “I did, Doctor Arad. The Hornet again?”
Arad pulled a face, showing his distaste. “The enemy Remote Engagement System, yes.” Dr. Arad was always chiding the operators to be less romantic in their descriptions of engagements with the enemy and their language when speaking of the project. Sara thought he could go hang. The day he spent a shift in the Cradle was the day he could dictate how they described it.
Sudden movement from O’Connell drew their attention back to the window. He was twisting fitfully in the cabling and his movements were becoming increasingly jerky. Arad left Sara watching O’Connell and joined the techs. Sara could hear snippets of conversation, phrases like “Losing cohesion”, and “synaptic feedback”. Sara still had eyes on O’Connell. O’Connell’s left leg was extending straight behind him, rigid as though he were having a seizure when suddenly his whole body went slack and a team of medics flooded the observational gallery to disconnect him from the Cradle. Over the PA system a voice calmly made the announcement; “Confirmation of destruction of Unit 02 by enemy forces. Operator on-deck stand by for further orders.”
O’Connell had lost his engagement with the Hornet and the drone unit he was piloting had been destroyed, the telemetry feedback hitting him almost like a physical thing. With technology this new there was a danger that the mental whiplash affected by the feedback from the units destruction could do permanent brain damage. Every operator understood this before they ever went into harness. Sara stood close up to the window and watched O’Connell being tended to. From experience Sara knew that if he wasn’t dead O’Connell would wake up in a few hours with the grand-daddy of all headaches and a healthy share of embarrassment.
Sara was walking away now, ready to return to quarters as there was nothing else she could do here. With Unit 02 destroyed and Unit 01 non-operational due to repairs there was no reason for her to remain on deck. Just as she was reaching the door Doctor Arad’s voice came at her from behind.
“Where are you going, Cochrane?” the man actually had both of his hands on his hips like a frustrated school teacher. “You are on-deck are you not? The telemetry rig will be ready for you shortly.”
“There’s no operational units left, Doctor. What do you expect me to do?”
Arad sighed theatrically. “We don’t just rest on our laurels here, Captain. Not with the rate at which you operators lose Units. You will be using the prototype. Unit 03 just came on-line.”