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´╗┐Title: Routine for a Hornet
Author: Berry, Don
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Routine for a Hornet" ***

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                        ROUTINE _for a_ HORNET

                             BY DON BERRY

               _Hurtling through space to meet the enemy
             in equipment too delicate to step on, without
              enough fuel to get back, and knowing you're
                  completely expendable is just_----

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
             Worlds of If Science Fiction, December 1956.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Alarm bells filled the wardroom, screaming off the metal walls and
filling the room with their flat, metallic clang. Cressey leaped up,
spilling the table with its checkerboard to the floor.

Running to the suitlocker, he wondered if the bells had to be loud
enough to jar a man's mind. The other on-duty men in the wardroom were
running with him, and the corridor outside reverberated to the sound
of pounding feet on metal. As his hand automatically manipulated the
zippers on his G-suit, he noticed that his heart was beating furiously.
At this point, Cressey had never been able to tell whether he was
frightened or not. As far as he could know from what his belly told
him, there was no physical difference between plain old chicken fear
and the body's normal preparation for action.

The men pounded 'up' the metal stairs to the Hornet's Nest on the
satellite's rim. The Hornet's Nest. Cressey thought suddenly how
irrational it was. When a nickname stuck, it carried its aura to
everything around it. He didn't know what live-wire journalist had
first used the name Hornets for the Primary Interceptor Command, but
now, inevitably, the launching racks were Hornet's Nests and the sleek
missiles Stingers.

He suddenly felt slightly nauseated. He hated this light-headed,
slightly sick feeling, listening to the roaring of blood in his head
and the thundering of his heart. The medics had told him these physical
symptoms were just nature's way of preparing the body for sudden
activity. Cressey didn't know. It felt like fear to him, and he was
afraid now.

His ship this run was PIC-503, and when he reached it the Stingers
were just coming up the loading elevators. Long, slim, twenty-foot
pencils of death, glistening in the harsh glare of the overheads. They
had their own sort of lethal beauty, those Stingers, and a power about
them, as if they were quiescently submitting to these puny men for now,
for their own mechanical reasons.

Each Hornet carried two Stingers, slung beneath the stubby delta-wings.
The Stingers were twice the length of the Hornet itself, projecting
fore and aft of the ship for five feet in either direction. The Hornet
looked ungainly, riding atop those slim needles, like some grotesque
parasite hitching a ride on two silver arrows.

_They're--quite small._ Who had said that? Mackley. Captain Mackley,
the glib Information Officer who'd told Cressey everything he was
allowed to know about Hornets before he saw one.

_I'll be frank with you, Mr. Cressey. Strategic Command has Hornets
listed not as aircraft, but as portable launching racks. Their job is
to take Stingers to the Outspace ships. There's a man in them because
we can't build a computer as efficient as man at such light weight. And
we couldn't afford to if we had the necessary knowledge._

Cressey remembered his shock at being told he was a light-weight
computer, and some of the bitterness. He watched the loading crew lock
the Stingers into position beneath the Hornet's wings and throw the
hooked boarding ladder over the edge of the cockpit. Cressey mounted
past the red-painted NO STEP signs on the wings and settled himself in
the cramped cockpit. As the crew carried the ladder away, he flipped
the switch by his left hand and listened to the hum as the canopy
rolled forward and locked into place with a metallic clack. NO STEP,
he thought wearily. His own god-damned life, entrusted to a piece of
equipment too delicate to step on.

He swung the fish-bowl over his head and locked it into place. He
coupled the hose leading from his right hip to a similar hose which
disappeared into the floor of the cockpit, and partially inflated his
suit. No detectable leaks. If his check crew had done their job, he was

Opening the communications channel, he listened to the other 'hot'
Hornets checking off.


"Ready out."


"Ready out."


"Ready sir. Out."


"My fuel gauge doesn't register, sir."

"Scratch 501. 503."

"Ready out," replied Cressey. He wondered what was wrong with 501. No
fuel? Or gauge just out of whack somehow? The way the Hornets were
built, you could never be sure of anything. They were made for one
trip, no more. No matter how the intercept worked out, they never went
home again. There was not much money wasted in their construction.
Mackley had easily justified that, too.

_Cressey, you must understand one thing. We are desperate. The
Outspacers caught us totally unprepared, and some of the measures we
must resort to are not what we would normally desire._

_When the Outspacers came into the system, six years ago, we had only
two manned satellites in operation. Within two years this was increased
to six, and it was still inadequate. For this reason, another ring
of stations was set up, this time one-man Detector Posts. There are
twelve of them, two reporting to each Satellite Base. Their orbit is
roughly half-way between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Two concentric
circles about the Earth, do you see? When an Outspacer crosses D-line,
a signal is flashed to the nearest Satellite Base and the Hornets

_The point I'm trying to make, Cressey, is this: it took nearly forty
years to set up the first manned satellite, and that after all the
means were in our hands. Then, in just over two years, we put up four
more satellites and twelve D-Posts. We were not geared for that effort._

Translated into personal terms, Mackley had meant that the planet could
not afford to enclose Cressey in an adequate ship. Too much would be
lost if the Outspacer weapons caught it.

The loading crew had retreated into the sealed cubicle from which they
would watch the launching. The huge, curved walls of the hull began to
roll back, and even in the cockpit, Cressey could hear the air roar out
into space with a brief explosion of sound. The air hissed out of his
cockpit, and his suit inflated full. Still no leak.

He felt a momentary panic as the launching rack swung him out, pointed
away from the Satellite directly into the emptiness of space. Now he
could not see the reassuring bulk of the mother ship. He was alone,
with only the incredible myriads of stars before him, and the two
needle points of the Stingers projecting full into their mass. The tens
of thousands of bright specks that seemed so close gave no comfort.
His eyes told him space was full, crammed to bursting with stars, and
his mind told him it was as empty as death.

Pointed out into loneliness, riding the two graceful arrows, Cressey
heard the Communicator rasp, "Gentlemen, you are on an intercept to
an Outspace ship. The safety of your world rides with you. Do your
job well." The hypocritical son-of-a-bitch, thought Cressey angrily,
sitting in his snug control room telling _us_ to do our job! Well,
maybe it made an impression on the first-timers, he couldn't remember.
This was his third, and he could no longer remember any farther back
than when he climbed into the cockpit. It was better not to remember
his other missions, much better.

The roar seemed to come a split second before the pressure, and then
Cressey was slammed into his acceleration cradle by the sudden impact.
His body suddenly weighed over a thousand pounds, and his blood sloshed
wearily in his veins as a straining heart refused to pump such a load.

       *       *       *       *       *

_"Captain Mackley," said Cressey, "I've heard it said that Earth is the
aggressor in this war."_

_"Have you ever seen the London Crater?" asked the Information Officer._

_"Pictures, yes, but what I want to know is, who attacked first?"_

_"It doesn't really matter, does it Cressey? There is a war, and we've
got to fight it, no matter how it started."_

_"Yes sir," said Cressey, "but I wanted to know."_

_"All right, I'll tell you then. The Outspacers contacted this system
roughly six years ago. The first eighteen months they spent on the
outer planets. During the second year they came in as far as Mars,
and established a base there. Six months later, one of their ships
left on an obvious course toward Earth. It was destroyed by a missile
launched from Satellite II." Mackley shrugged. "You know the rest. They
retaliated. Satellite II was vaporized."_

_"But Earth fired first?"_

_"I told you, it doesn't make any difference now. One Outspacer later
got through the defense rings, and now there's nothing from London to
Cambridge but glass. Whatever the hell they use for weapons, they're

_"So we don't know whether or not they were originally hostile."_

_"No, we don't. It had to be assumed they were. We were not in a
position to make allowances. You must realize, Cressey, we were dealing
with something totally unprecedented, a completely unknown force.
Common sense is enough to tell you the Outspacer had to be considered
inimical to us, until proven otherwise."_

_"They weren't given much of a chance to prove it."_

_"That may be. The point is irrelevant at the moment. We are committed
to a line of action, and we must follow it through. On their part, the
Outspacers are doing the same."_

_Cressey was silent for a moment, and Mackley continued in a softer
voice. "Look here, son. I don't have to tell you all this. I could just
as easily shoot you full of starry-eyed patriotism and send you out
to save the world from the Bug-Eyed Monsters, but the military isn't
doing things that way any more. There is a possibility that we've made
a mistake, I'll admit that, but we're stuck with the consequences of
the original action. We're defending our planet with everything we've
got. The Hornets are the only weapon that has proven even remotely

_"I'll have to think it over, Captain."_

_"Of course," said Mackley. "It's not an easy decision to make. Come
back again, any time you like, and we'll talk it over some more."_

And Cressey had gone back.

       *       *       *       *       *

Acceleration pressure abated, and Cressey's face resumed its normal
shape. The red haze in front of his eyes cleared, and he could see
out through his canopy again. The thick blanket of stars remained
motionless, though he knew he was moving with tremendous speed toward
the Outspace ship.

In front of him behind the instrument panel, he could hear the
insect-like buzzing as his course computer was fed information from his
Base Satellite. With both the outer D-Post and the Satellite tracking
the enemy, fairly precise positioning was possible. Unfortunately,
because of the enormous distances involved, not precise enough to
pinpoint the Stingers themselves. You had to be closer to do that, and
the way to get closer was in a Hornet.

For a few minutes now, Cressey had only to watch his own scope for
the first pip, and consider his insane position. It was his third
mission. Of nearly a thousand Hornetmen, forty-three had more than one
mission. If he got out of this one, he had two more before compulsory
retirement. He was not sure he could go two more missions, even if he
survived physically.

Five missions, then retirement. It had looked good to him, a year ago.
When he left college for Primary Interceptors, it had seemed the very
best kind of an idea. Five missions as a Hornetman, then home. Home as
a hero, as a king. At twenty-one he would never have to worry about
anything again. The pension Mackley had mentioned was so high as to be
inconceivable. And that was just from the government. Being a hero had
other, less official compensations. A shack in Beverly Hills, worth a
hundred thousand or so? Hell, they'd force it on him, just for being a
hero. A woman? What woman could resist a five-mission Hornetman? Every
daydream he'd ever had, and a hundred he'd not thought of, free for
nothing. Or free for running five intercepts.

It had looked good to him until his first mission. Then it had suddenly
lost its charm. He had learned why, so far, there were no five-mission

Abruptly he heard the "ping" telling him his radar was tracking. The
Satellite had guided him true enough. He was within the limited range
of his own radar.

"Radar contact made," he said into the lip mike. "503 going on manual
control. Out." He clicked the Com switch and settled down to fixing on
his target.

From the size of the blip on the screen, he could see the Outspace ship
was huge, as all of them were. Funny, there had not even been enough
contact to know how many different sorts of ship the Alien had. They
were not battleships, nor cruisers, nor anything else specific. They
were simply Outspace, and he had to seek them out and destroy them.

A single ship, as usual. He wondered why they had never sent more than
one ship at a time. Perhaps their thinking was so completely foreign
it had never occurred to them. No one knew anything about how they
thought, except that they retaliated when attacked.

Cressey wondered how the conflict looked through Outspacer eyes.
Perhaps they were completely bewildered by attack. Perhaps those
god-awful disruptor beams were meant for some other, more peaceful
purpose, and were being pressed into use as an emergency weapon by
frightened beings. It was even possible the aliens did not know they
were under attack by sentient creatures, and wrote off the loss of
their ships to natural calamity of some unknown nature.

There were a thousand maybes. It was useless to speculate in the total
absence of data. You couldn't be sure of anything, so you couldn't
take any chances. You had to act as though they were hostile just to be
on the safe side. The malignant neurosis of humanity, making it behave
as though all things unknown were dangerous. Or perhaps just realistic
thinking. You couldn't know, unless you knew all about the universe.
Perhaps the idea of conscious animosity was incomprehensible to the
Outspacers, but there was no way to tell. He reached between his legs
to the cockpit floor and threw the switches there, arming the Stinger

On his first mission he had actually gotten within visual range of the
Outspace ship, launching the Stingers at not more than three miles
range. The ship had been bulky, almost grotesque by his own standards,
covered with lumps and bulges of indeterminate purpose. There had been
no lights visible, no ports. Perhaps the Aliens did not see in our
spectrum, or perhaps they had radiation screens across the ports, there
was no way to tell.

Cressey smiled ruefully. This miserable war was turning him into a

On his second mission he had not seen his target. He had launched at
six miles, out of fear, trusting to the followers in the Stingers'
noses to track. He did not know what the result had been either time.
He had turned and run for home at full acceleration, and he fully
intended to do the same on this mission. There was such a thing as
pushing your luck too far, and he needed all he had.

The pip on his screen drifted to the left, and he gave a short burst
to center it. He begrudged having to use his infinitesimal fuel on
tracking when he needed it so desperately to go home. He looked through
the canopy, but saw nothing, and returned his eyes to the screen. The
telltale pip had drifted slightly to the right. He had overcorrected.
Cursing, he fired another burst, shorter this time, with the left bank,
and watched the pip center. That was good enough.

His ranging said only twelve miles, his speed two mps, relative to
target. One second, two seconds, three--there it was, occulting a tiny
area of star patched sky.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a bright flare as some other Hornet
disappeared in the wave of energy released by its molecular disruption.
Then another, in another quadrant. The Alien was fighting back. He
jabbed violently at the Stinger release, and saw the two pencils
roar fiercely out ahead of him on their own power. He cut his flimsy
launching rack into as tight a turn as it would take. The familiar red
haze clouded his vision, and just before blacking out he fired another
last long burst on the rockets to head him toward home.

       *       *       *       *       *

_"You understand," said Mackley, "that the amount of fuel we can pack
into a Hornet is severely limited by the size of the craft. There is
not enough to perform the complicated braking maneuvers necessary to
return to the Satellite._

_"Therefore, the Hornets make no attempt to return to the Satellite
from which they were launched. Instead, they return directly to Earth.
This may sound contradictory, but remember that the planet has a heavy
envelope of air, which the Satellite Bases, of course, have not. We use
that air to brake the ships, through friction."_

_"But Captain, wouldn't the Hornet burn as soon as it touched

_"Ordinarily, if it plunged directly in, yes. But there are techniques
for slowing your flight through friction without heating excessively.
Basically, the operation is the same as skipping a flat stone on a
lake. The Hornet actually only skims the atmosphere, entering at a very
shallow angle. The entire delta-wing of the ship is a control surface.
That much area, even at such extreme heights, gives a certain amount of
control, and the pilot can pull up out of the atmosphere again before
heating has become too extreme. He has also been considerably slowed by
the same friction which causes the heating. Do you follow me?"_

_"Yes, I suppose so, but it seems pretty tricky."_

_"It is tricky, Cressey, and you never want to forget it. It takes a
very considerable amount of piloting skill, but it can be done."_

_"Captain, how many Hornets do you lose trying to get in like that?"_

_Mackley hesitated momentarily. "Our losses are right around
thirty-seven percent. That's due to enemy fire. It's high, but under
the circumstances, it isn't extreme. We're fighting at a disadvantage,
and combat is not a gentle affair. Men's lives are lost. That's been
true ever since two cave men took after each other with stone axes.
It was true with bows and arrows and muzzle loaders. It was true with
tanks and machine guns, and it is true now._

_"It is expected in a combat situation that men will die. One of the
aims of military strategy has always been to keep as many of your own
men alive as possible. This has not changed either. But combat is,
after all, combat; and there are some unavoidable risks."_

_"What's the total loss, Captain? I mean from enemy action and from the
hazards of this skip approach you were talking about?"_

_The Information Officer stared at Cressey for what seemed like a long
time before he answered. "Our total losses, Mr. Cressey, are roughly
ninety-three percent."_

       *       *       *       *       *

When Cressey regained consciousness, the Earth was a great globe,
filling his entire field of vision. He could not estimate his distance,
though he thought he was within the Satellite ring. His speed would
plunge him into atmosphere shortly, too shortly.

Within seconds he began to feel the warmth as he entered the region
where a few air molecules began to brush over the surfaces of his ship.
He rotated the delta-wings full, but there was no response. He was not
yet deep enough into the sea of air for the control surfaces to react.
He watched the tips of the wings, so ridiculously close to him, though
he knew he would not be able to see anything. Soon he began to feel a
gentle bucking motion as the wings met resistance. He flattened them
out, horizontal, and began to draw them up again slowly, so they would
move the tiny ship upward instead of simply tearing off at the roots.

The heat was already uncomfortable, and he was slowing. Now he was
pressed forward against the seat belt as deceleration increased. The
control surfaces bit into the thin air more solidly now, and Cressey
thought the nose had come up a bit, but it was so slight he couldn't be
sure. The bucking motion was more pronounced, but there was nothing he
could do about that.

Slowly, slowly. The wings had to tilt so very slowly, or they would be
ripped from the pod-like hull, leaving it to plummet into thick air and
glow briefly like a cigarette in the dark before it plunged down to
earth. His face was wet behind the fish-bowl, but he could not reach it
to wipe the sweat away. Nor could he have taken his hands away from the
controls in any case.

The nose had come up, he was certain of that now. He was definitely
rising, but the heat was becoming unbearable. Imperceptibly, a thin
shrieking had arisen in the cabin, almost out of sonic range, just
enough to make a man's nerves feel as if they had been dragged across a
rough file. The heat transmitted through the body of the pod and into
the bucket was beginning to burn his legs. He was being held out of
the seat itself by the force of his deceleration, but the backs of his
calves still touched metal. He thought he could smell the fabric of his
suit burning, but realized it was probably his overwrought imagination.

His cheeks felt too large, puffed out, as though strong, implacable
hands were pulling all his loose flesh forward. His eyes strained
forward, threatening to come out of their sockets. The red haze
began, and he had a sudden frightening thought that he might lose
consciousness before the Hornet had well begun its rise out of
atmosphere. The red darkened into black.

He regained consciousness. The first skip had been made. The ship began
to settle back into atmosphere again, and now its speed was lower.
With each pass the heat would become more intense, as the plane would
not have a chance to cool completely before it began to heat again. He
had to maintain a delicate balance between going deep enough to slow
him, but not so deep he couldn't bring the ship up before it burned,
cherry-red. His body was drenched as by a shower, and the inner lining
of his suit felt soggy from sweat.

The second skip was worse than the first, and he lost consciousness
almost too soon. The third was worse than the second. After the fourth,
he could not lift high enough to clear atmosphere. He had gone too
deep, and was now bound by the great mass of Earth below.

He was still at a shallow angle, relative to the ground. He estimated
he would make at least one complete orbit, perhaps two, before his
spiralling trajectory brought him to the contact point on the surface.
If he were still conscious, he would leave the aircraft at 30,000
feet, and hope. He knew his speed was still too high, well over Mach 2,
higher than it had been on either of his other approaches. The ship was
threatening to tear apart under the furious pounding it was taking from
air and shock waves.

Hobson's choice. Bail out high, and suffocate because the automatic
chute release would not allow him to make a delayed opening. Bail out
low, and the thick air would pound his body to a pulp, and below the
steel webbed chute would hang nothing but a suit, full of a still, red

The timing had to be precision itself, but it had to be done by
guesswork. There was no training that could prepare a man for this. It
was all new. He uncoupled the air hose leading to his suit, and placed
his hand on the ejector lever. He knew he was too high, but the wings
showed quivering signs of buckling under the strain.

He pulled the lever, releasing the canopy and arming the seat
cartridge. The canopy disappeared miraculously from over his head.
He was deafened by the thunderous roar of air that entered the
cramped cockpit, like an explosion peak that remained constant, not
diminishing. Instinctively, he ducked his head, recoiling at the sound.
He did not remember triggering the seat ejector.

Cressey fell. The seat dropped away from him, the incredibly strong
parachute opened, all automatically. He fell forty-five thousand
feet into the Pacific Ocean, unconscious. His face was battered by
windblast almost beyond recognition, and his body equally so. When
the rescue team pulled him from the water, three hours later, they
thought he was an old man. His eyes were a mass of red, from dozens of
sub-conjunctival hemorrhages. He would see again, but not until after
weeks of near blindness.

But he was alive. When he woke up in the California hospital four days
later, he considered ruefully that that was about the best one could
expect in his business.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Cressey, can you hear me?"

"Yes, I can hear you. Who is it?"

"It's Captain Mackley. I've come to see you."

"Well--thanks, Captain."

"You got the Outspacer, Cressey. I thought you'd like to know."

"Frankly, Captain, I couldn't care less. But thanks for telling me,

"It means a lot, Cressey. There were a lot of people's lives riding
with you."

_Yeah, I'm a hero. I'm a Hornetman._

"Thanks, Captain."

"Was it pretty rough?"

_Rough? Like birth and death and all of life, rolled into minutes._

"No more so than I expected, Captain. Pretty much routine. Routine for
a Hornetman."

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