When they came in, they always came in fast. They skid low across the atmosphere like silvery stones, flushed with coldness and dawn. It seems like they had been coming for a few years now, and perhaps observing for some time before that. We knew what they had been doing for awhile, but due to the scale of the previous conflict their depredations went unnoticed. Unnoticed at least by nations and armies. The inhabitants of a remote farm would go missing. Bandits, of course. A fishing vessel might disappear, just before dawn on a clear calm night. Drift mine, most likely. However, the disappearance of all the human inhabitants from certain remote island chains seemed harder to explain.
As things were rebuilt, one missing person became ten, then a hundred, then a thousand. A sort of harvest was suspected. It took radar and collective will to finally see them clearly. Silent, swift, and hungry. We almost never saw them at all. We never found any trace of their victims. They came on calm nights, tearing across darkened skies, seeking with a purposefulness that spoke of long planning. Sometimes there was a burst of radio static across the upper bands, but more often there were just empty houses, drifting boats, and uneaten meals come dawn.
It was determined that Something Must Be Done by those that determine such things. Experts were called in. The wartime radar pickets were refurbished and expanded, and all eyes turned to the edge of the stratosphere. One of the reconnaissance balloons finally got a picture. They were about seventy feet long, and glinted brightly in the sunlight. Their ships were tapered and featureless, with skins of perfect mirror brightness. The shape gave them the only name we have: They were Teardrops.
Treichler had dreamed of Alma again. They were in Vienna, and it was June. The city seemed renewed and washed clean by a recent rain. The city center had been rebuilt, and she was waiting for him in the park. She was wearing white, and held something in her hand. The dream always ended before he could see what it was.
He snapped out of his reverie, and couldn’t held but notice the grayness of the landscape. It was always gray, but now it seemed exceptionally colorless. No more Alma, no more Vienna. He stretched and stepped out of the truck, nodding to the driver. The sun had not yet risen over the dead stubble and deserted buildings, but the sky gave a slight even glow. In the dimness of six o’clock the interceptor was being fuelled on the tarmac before him. They were blowing the fuel lines out with steam, and the lights on the airfield turned this into a halo.
The interceptor looked not so much sleek as purposeful, the stub wings supporting two oversize engines. Low and gray, it was a hunched thing. It had the appearance of being doubled over under the weight of the jets, mounted at the joint where wing met fuselage. The silhouette was that of a peddler with a burden. He would sit between the engines, and below and in front of the wing spar. The wings were swept back, tapering and drooping gently towards the tips. They were small for the size of the aircraft. The nose was glazed.
While the outside spoke of brutal elegance, from within the cockpit it was a rococo accumulation of scavenged parts, worn leather, and tube steel framing. The Soviets didn't bother taking off the Reichsadlers, and WESTSOC didn't bother taking off the red stars. There wasn't time for that sort of thing. There wasn't time for a lot of things. The seat was a high gee affair, reclined slightly and evoking the sense of being in an oversize catcher's mitt. Treichler put his flight helmet on, while he perched on, rather than sitting in the seat. Your range of motion is limited once you strap in, so it was easier to adjust your helmet, throat mike, gloves, and collar before you were in all the way. It was a comforting ritual. Once he was satisfied with the fit of his gear, he eased in and slipped his feet into the rudder pedals. Not an inch of space seemed to be wasted. Throttle at your left hand, Control stick in the center. Basic instruments in a cluster in front of you, navigation aids in a smaller cluster above it, just in front of the hatch. You arm the bomb from a selector panel below the main panel. The effect would be claustrophobic if it wasn't for the panoramic view that peeked at you from behind and around all the other artifacts. Treichler flipped on the main power and set the source to 'Ext'. He plugged in his headset to the familiar pop and faint hum of interference from the external generator. The panel lamps came on, and all instruments read normal.
Settling in, his mind drifted a little. He remembered neighborhoods of long acquaintance, avenues of crumbling brick and the bright water of the river at flood. The air here smelled of many things, but never of the cold clean water of April flood stage. The preflight check was like a mumbled prayer, perfunctory but meeting all the requirements of the form. The panel lamps warmed, illuminating the dials with an amber glow. Treichler exhaled and regarded the mist of his breath. Only just then did he realize how chill the morning was. He pulled the hatch shut, grabbing the tube steel handle with his right hand and bringing it down with nuanced force. He flipped the release latches at the front corners to lock them, looking to the left and to the right. Internal power on. A low hum from the generator behind him. Thumbs up to Old Trigby on the left, who then unplugged the electrical umbilical. The mechanic flashed him his usual grin and returned the gesture. There was something sad in his eyes, though it only showed there. Thumbs up to the man on the right, who removed the wheel chocks and gave his approval as well. He was new. Never caught his name. They moved to the left, past the wingtip and stood by with fire extinguishers.
The moment of truth. Treichler flipped the fuel cock to 'Main' and pressed 'Air Start'. Compressed air coughed the engine turbines into motion with a shudder. He set the throttle to five percent, and stabbed the ignition button. His mouth was moving, silently voicing words even he didn't know. A violent cough, and the engines belched a thick white vapor. Better be ready to get out in a hurry. You never strap yourself in yet, unless you want to burn to death. The right engine made a healthy whine, but the left stayed silent. He cut the fuel to the left engine with a curse, and advanced the throttle on the right one to ten percent. The compressed air system needed to recharge. This was bad. We didn't have time to waste. This would be a tricky enough intercept on its own without being ten minutes late. Thirty PSI. Good enough. Throttle to five percent. Ignition. A thump, then the whine became a two part harmony. This was much better. He advanced the throttle to thirty percent and the interceptor rolled forward with that massive but floaty feeling of a full wheelbarrow. He was moving at the speed a man walked, but not for long. He steered the nosewheel with the rudder pedals. The interceptor passed from the revetment to the end of the long runway, turning into the chill wind. Throttle to fifty. The walk became a jog. Through the pedals, he steered left slightly, pointing the acrylic nose down the center of the runway, slapping the release hooks of his harness onto the loops at the shoulders and crotch of the gee seat. Faster now. The interceptor vibrated, and Treichler slowly advanced the throttle all the way. Not too fast. They'll catch fire if you do that. The whine advanced exquisitely, and the engines keened like angels in pain. The faint smell of kerosene and ammonia wafted through the cockpit. Warm enough. Almost time. Faster, faster, faster the vibration diminished and the tires tiptoed a few final bumps. He was in the air. Needed just a few feet of altitude. The aerodynamics were messy when the gear was coming up. Okay. He rotated the selector and began raising the gear. The low roar of eddying air shuddered across the aluminum origami of the bay doors, then a clunk, then silence. Three red lights. The gear was up and locked.
He armed the booster and waited the eight seconds of eternity, the dead and empty fields racing by below him. All dark these days. The ready light was like a consummation. He flipped the safety up on the arming panel and tripped the rocket ignition. What happened next always surprised him. It surprised him not with its violence, but with its purity. Ammonia and hydrazine were both pumped into the ignition chamber, and combined explosively to give him the thrust he needed to reach the edge of the sky within five minutes. That really didn't capture the essence of the experience, though. There he was, trundling along in his cartoon jet, overburdened by fuel and foreboding, then a moment later perched atop a column of yellow fire big as a building, leaving a contrail that could be seen from the next state. Time to get to thirty degrees.
The controls were already heavy, the ailerons fighting to cut into the swift air flowing over the wings. Back. Pulling hard. He became aware that he was sweating. Kansas floated below him, a distant and faded patchwork. Ten thousand feet. The curve of the earth was already visible, ever so slightly. Another few seconds and the angle of the horizon lined up with a thin red line painted on the inside of the canopy. Thirty degrees. Time to stand on it. His left arm felt clumsy and heavy, reaching for the throttle. He flipped the release and sent the engines to emergency power. His arm felt like it was made of lead, and it was as if someone was sitting on his chest. For the next forty seconds the rocket and the jets were putting out enough combined power that he would be at the edge of the atmosphere at burnout. He clung to the immovable control stick reflexively. At this speed the air was so thick and viscous it might as well be wet concrete. The interceptor was fully ballistic at this point, with the stubby wings mere decorations atop a pillar of angry bright fire.
In the spectacle, Treichler had almost forgotten his oxygen mask. Wouldn't do to black out. He clipped his mask on with fumbling fingers against the gees. Flip of the switch, and a reading of normal flow. The rubber was cold against his face. Airspeed was 500 knots and slowly accelerating, arcing slowly upwards past 45 degrees. In less than a minute the rocket would burn itself out, having consumed two tons of fuel and oxidizer. He would be around 28,000 feet then, still accelerating on inertia and jet thrust. At 32,000 gravity and the thin air would betray him and he would hang in a stall for a long instant before beginning his terrible glide towards his quarry. He was at 60 degrees. He gently rolled the interceptor onto its back, the blue Earth above him, and the blackness of night spread below his feet. The stars were always out up here. The rocket rattled rather than roared, then made no sound at all. Burnout. The pressure on his chest lessened and he flipped the arming switch on the weapons panel from 'On', past 'Off', to 'Vent', purging the pump system of any remaining hydrazine. It was nasty stuff, and had to be treated with respect. He backed the throttle down to 30 percent, the engines leaning their mixtures automatically in the thin, cold air. Only 600 pounds of fuel left. Throttling down to ten percent, barely moving. Barely moving. The mach meter showed 0.8, but the sky was thin and smooth in the darkness. He was pointed towards Denver, with the rising sun behind him. Release would come at the foothills of the Rockies, with the intercept proper thirty miles west. Very cold now. His fingers felt heavy through his gloves, and his boots felt tight on his swollen feet. Time to get a target and get down out of the freezing night. He was the man of the hour, he thought, his face making something like a smile inside his mask. He thought of the look in Old Trigby’s eyes again, and of Alma, then dismissed it all with a shrug.
The interceptors didn't use radar, or at least not sets mounted on the aircraft themselves. They were too big, too heavy, and were something that the Teardrops could sense. When we (meaning WESTSOC) first seriously tried interdicting them, bombers were used, fitted out with missiles and search radar. The first couple intercepts were successful, with shootdowns on both the Denver and Mojave approaches. These initial victories couldn't be followed up though, and subsequent experience showed that the Teardrops would go into near vertical dives when the tracking radars were turned on. These dives were usually around Mach 3, and weren't something even the newer missiles could catch up to. In the end, it proved more effective to use ground radar and guide the interceptors with radio beacons. The ground radars were passive, which is to say that instead of sending out their own radio signal and waiting for it to bounce back from the target they painted their picture with signals from other radio sources. Usually we used one of the remaining commercial radio signals, but the medium wave weather band could be used too. You could even use background radiation, but your range really dropped off. If the Teardrop was coming in, Grand Junction and Rio Rancho would be triangulating the position and speed right now. So far, they hadn’t figured out that they were being tracked with music, which was heartening. They were fallible.
The Earth was a pool of blue above him, spreading slowly as if to welcome him. Treichler flexed his hands cautiously, one then the other. The swelling didn’t seem so bad now, but was still painful. He fumbled at the dial for the direction finder, rotating the aerial slowly through an ocean of static until he heard faint music. It was Rhapsody in Blue, which was appropriate enough. Lili Marlene would have been more welcome, if only for old times’ sake. Either way, that was his beacon, about five degrees to his right. The air was slowly thickening as he descended, making a thin hiss barely audible over the engines. It was enough to give some control again. He pushed the stick to the left, and the interceptor rolled slowly upright. The Earth looked lush and wet and was growing beneath him once again. The engine sipped fuel, throttle almost at zero. This was all gravity now. Just a little rudder put the nose on the beacon. Treichler flexed his aching hands and tried moving his feet, giving up on the tingle in his toes after a few tries. It was easy to drift off the beacon if you didn’t pay constant attention. The thick gloves didn’t help. It was deathly cold and almost silent. The engine’s whine seemed very distant, and the air outside was a thin hiss across the wings. Gershwin was scratchy and distorted this close to the ionosphere at dawn, and barely more than static.
The primordial blue of the atmosphere came rising up to embrace him again. A faint shuddering rhythm came to him through the wings. They had something to bite into again. Shivering slightly, he began the long descent back to warmth and life after thirty seconds in eternity. The interceptor falls in slow motion, grossly out of scale. The aircraft is tiny and gray, a secret thing gripping fifteen kilotons of ruin beneath it. A little fire to chase away your teardrops, Treichler reflected. This smile was no more successful than the last. He was on the right path now. He was triangulating from the Alberta and Fort Pleasant transmitters, faint metronymic beats hammering out a counterpoint to the old song.
It wouldn’t be long now. Treichler tensed slightly at this thought, or rather at the implications. All he had to do was turn his key to the red part of the dial and flip the arming switches and the bomb would be ready. The press of the button on the control stick would finalize everything. A successful intercept would prevent Teardrop incursions for between three and six weeks. It was a race. He fell faster now, quickening his descent with each moment. The stub wings whistled slightly, and began to shudder. Sound was catching up with him again. The sun was breaking across the mountains, fresh bright light on the last snows of winter. Each peak glowed like a beacon, calling him back to Earth above the purple whispers of the vanishing night.
There was vibration as he descended into warmer air, but it wasn’t too bad. The morning was as bright and clear as any he had seen, and he was the hunter this time. The wings started doing their job again, and his hands hurt a little less. He advanced the throttle to a more respectable setting and enjoyed the whine of the engines. Their precision, their power, and their seeming fury all comforted him as he raced above the bright peaks in a shallow dive. As fast as the Teardrop was, he was faster. Much faster, and accelerating. He would catch up to his quarry in about eight minutes, lobbing his bomb in an arc as he went into a steep climb. Interceptors rarely saw a Teardrop. If you did, it was because something was wrong. Getting the bomb within a mile of a Teardrop was close enough. There were two fuses: One was for altitude, and one was for proximity. The proximity fuse used radar, but it was a clever design that only armed itself once the first fuse did. The target didn’t have time to take evasive maneuvers, and probably not even time to become aware of the bomb before it went off.
He followed the beam, the faint murmur of a waltz turning to the occasional crackle of multipath as he descended. He was listening, straining, waiting for... There. The ping of the tracking station. He was on the right path, and closing as he should. He started sweating again. Another ping. The tones would get more and more frequent the closer he got. When they bled together into a single sound he was to pull up sharply, hit the release, and get away as best he could. Usually it was best to do a half roll and dive, heading back the way you came. You had to be at least five miles away when it went off, and ten was better. It was fused to go off about a thousand feet above the Teardrop, smashing it downwards into the jagged peaks with the blast. This would also keep the fallout to the east at acceptable levels, though there were few left to sicken. Utah was all but deserted by now. We were being nibbled away. Town by town, night by night, they disappeared. Never livestock or anything else alive. Just people. What the War did not harvest, the Teardrops did.
He turned his key to the red quadrant of the arming panel. His hand shook, or perhaps it was the turbulence. Four switches followed, and with each a name. Click. The lamp for ‘Preheat’ came on and an air hose fed hot air, bled from the starboard engine to warm the arming and electric systems in the bomb. Alma. With you it was always spring. Click. The lamp for ‘Lock’ went from green to red. The tamper could now move freely when the cordite was detonated. Theo. I’ll be joining you soon, just like old times. Click. Now ‘Elec Main’ glowed green and the detonator had electric power. Father. I did as you would have done. A pause, and then a final click. ‘Main Arm’ flicked, then glowed green. He could drop it any time now. Vienna. A small brass button on the control column was all he needed to press to finish things.
Treichler was close now, and still speeding up. At 375 knots he was almost level with the tallest peaks, and squinting into the sunrise. The wings were starting their vain protest, rattling and groaning in the thickening air. The tones were close together, and getting closer. Almost there. Sweat ran into his eyes. He took off the oxygen mask, chancing the thin air for the last few minutes. Almost there. He screamed through a jagged pass and a wooded valley stretched out below him, all tall pines and snow in the shadows. He was low, and getting lower, trading altitude for speed at usurious rates. The tones were so close they almost bled together. Wait. Remember the training. Remember. Make this one different. An icy river zigzagged below him, a bright and curling ribbon that heightened the sense of speed. The sun was painfully bright, the mountains seemed a dark wall, rising up to claim him.
Then he saw it. Treichler saw it. The teardrop. Close and cold, spitting a thin streamer of violet fire as it raced ahead, following the valley. It seemed tiny, just a garish pinprick in the long shadows. Tone.
With an inhuman sound Treichler heaved the stick back with all his might, and the wing spars groaned. He snapped his head to the left, eyeballing the alignment of the 35° line on the canopy with the horizon. Too many mountains to be certain. The groaning wings silenced his curse as he pressed the release. It made the tiniest click, and the next tenth of a second lasted years. Then the bomb released with a clunk, and four blank cartridges fired from their sockets, pushing the bomb clear. The next movements were all instinct. He was pointed almost straight up, and was losing speed rapidly. He had seconds to get away. Roll right. Dive sharply. The edges of his vision went dark with the gees. The valley floor slid into view, and began to fill his field of vision. The aircraft shook and vibrated. How long? How far? The instruments were blurs. A dud?
Treichler’s heart sank. Then a terrible light overtook everything. For a split second the world was white, and then it was dim. Afterimages burned into Treichler’s eyes. The heat hung in the air, content to curl and bubble the smoking paint from the underside of the wings. He realized that he was too close to the explosion. The next moment brought an avalanche of wind and fire. The interceptor was swatted from its dive and sent tumbling upwards. Spinning like a broken toy, it was outmatched and overpowered by the fury it had released. Trailing corkscrew plumes of black smoke, the interceptor began its final descent.
Blacking out from the blow, Treichler awoke to smoke and ruin. The glazed nose was shattered, and a hot wind whistled in through zigzag cracks. This alone dispersed the choking kerosene fumes from the leaking tanks. Engine temperature was pegged in the red, nozzles burning through and the turbine bearings starting to wobble and fail. The keening of the engines ascending to a scream as tortured metal entered its death throes. His face burned and cut, Treichler fought the stick to correct the spin. Reduce power, rudder opposite to the spin. His fuel almost gone, he squinted through the blood and could make out the pass he entered the valley through. He might make it, or at least make it far enough that he could bail out somewhere that wasn’t on fire. His leather gloves smoldered slightly, and the shattered instruments were obscured by an increasing amount of smoke. He was on fire. He slammed the throttle to full power. If he could get enough speed, he could blow the flames out, or at least keep them from creeping forward into the cockpit for a few minutes. The smoke cleared slightly, and he could see the small mirror at the top of the cockpit. The starboard engine was on fire, its aluminum fairing stripped away and jagged orange jets were poking out of holes in the shattered motor. The port engine was somewhat better, trailing black smoke from the overheated nozzle. Just a few minutes. Maybe seconds. He had come through too much to give up, though the valley floor was a carpet of fire and his aircraft a cinder.
The world was orange and blood red. The aircraft hissed and rattled. The vibration became pronounced. Then he saw it. Saw it again, when it should have perished in the blast. It had doubled back in a snap turn that should be impossible. The Teardrop was racing below him, the torch of violet at the tail longer, but irregular and jagged. Its mirror surface now seemed somehow cracked and veined, and it was shedding pieces of itself like droplets of molten silver. It too, was heading for the pass. Treichler knew in that instant what he had to do, and that he would die that day.
Their speeds were almost matched, and Treichler had the advantage of a little altitude. The pass seemed like the eye of a needle, a minute space between the dark mountains. He relaxed slightly. It seemed simple now. The jagged forest was unburned and green, the pines rising up to greet them as the valley narrowed to the pass. The Teardrop was very close, and getting closer. Rising slowly, it sought the same path of escape past the mountains. Treichler regarding the flaming reflection of his aircraft in the cracked mirror surface. The Teardrop was barely fifty feet away. It was time. Treichler applied emergency power and rolled to the right. Inverted, he pulled the stick back and pointed his nose at the wounded intruder. He collided with the Teardrop just as they crested the pass. He hit it just off center, at the base of his starboard wing. The flaming, screaming engine snapped forward and tore away from its mounts. The interceptor lurched crosswise, burying its nose deeper into the Teardrop. The mirror surface shattered and the acrylic nose disintegrated, bright sharp fragments filling the cockpit. It was like glass, but swirled as if alive. It writhed and danced in the air, as if was trying to reform itself into a solid shape again. The interceptor tumbled end over end, a pinwheel of silver and fire. The main spar tore away from the fuselage with a wrenching sound and the noseless, wingless fuselage tumbled through the pass into the next valley.
Treichler sat on the tube steel chair in what was left of the cockpit. For a moment, he felt nothing so much as confusion. Dazed and concussed, he wondered where his aircraft had gone and at the sky beneath his feet. The icy air struck him like a blow as the ruined cockpit tumbled into the wind, and the cuts on his face burned. This snapped him back to reality, though his vision was blurred, and his left arm was numb and likely broken. The canopy had been torn away, along with the glazed nose and most of the instrument panel. Everything was coated in silver. He was still gripping the control stick with his right hand. He was still alive. This thought finally registered as the wingless fuselage ceased tumbling and plunged into the steep shadowy depths of the silent valley. As if underwater, he fumbled the quick release on his harness and stood up. The slipstream peeled him away from the ruined aircraft, and time sped up again. The parachute that was his seat cushion opened with a snap and spread above him. The jerk of deceleration was excruciating, his left arm useless but as a source of pain. The fuselage shot away, hitting the slope five hundred feet below and disintegrating in a puff. It was silent again, but for the wind and a faint clanging echo across the pines, which faded quickly. Treichler soared down the slope, slowed by the icy draft that was rising to meet the pass behind him. He had bailed out far too low, but it wouldn’t kill him this time. The pines were small here, and narrowly spaced on the snowy slope. They seemed tiny, and perhaps they were. Nonetheless, they seemed much larger as they rose to meet him. It might hurt, but this one was survivable. Survivable. He mouthed the word in disbelief as he smashed into one treetop, then another, then another. After that he lost count, and decided he would like to pass out for awhile.
He woke up a few feet above the ground, suspended like a very battered spider by his parachute webbing. His arm hurt, but that seemed alright. The hike out would be tough, but this was April, and the pass would be clear. He realized he was covered in silver, courtesy of the Teardrop. He rubbed a little of the material between him fingers as he searched for the release for the parachute. It looked like quicksilver, but it felt like glass. It quivered slightly, and grew milky and stiff. Whatever it was, was no more. He raised his head to regard the sunrise, the slope bathed in shattered silver tears turning golden with the light of morning. Treichler tumbled awkwardly to the ground and began his long journey home.