BlimpsCopyright (C), 1985, 1988, 1996, 2004, J. Vilkaitis firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright (C) 2004
Border PatrolI sit in my bubble, floating low down over the bay, as the sun sets over the mountains, turning the cirrus clouds pastel shades of orange and pink. Sparkling traces of civilization begin to appear on the deep purple mountain sides as the street lights and house lights come to life. A thin white layer of fog forms just above the base of the mountains, slowly reaching out into San Francisco Bay.
Today is Thursday; this is a routine patrol for me, slowly pacing off the boundaries of our Mid Bay Sky Cycle Club territory. More a time for introspection, mulling over the day's events; why the computer system we are building and programming at work hiccupped, the significance of the drop in the price of coffee with respect to my soft drink stocks, etc. Or just plain enjoying the peaceful view of San Francisco Bay, as I lay in my reclined seat, pedaling my almost neutral buoyancy dirigible/sailplane out across the bay.
As you can imagine, we don't usually get much competition during weekdays. I often pace my North Bay counterpart along our common boarder. Today is no different, we met up just west of Berkely, as I floated down the mountain side. Now we are pedaling our bubbles against light summer breezes out towards San Francisco. The area behind the Golden Gate is sort of a no man's land due to the heavier winds. Sometimes we patrol the boarder north of it, sometimes south of it, as per the various treaties and the outcomes of our weekend battles. And who shows up first. (The ground crews just love this uncertainty...)
Looking south, I see the bright lights of airline traffic stacked up above us. We are much too low for them to pose a threat to us. The only problem we have to look out for is an occasional low flying fighter jet from Alameda Naval Air Station. The vortices they generate have been known to twist and roll our fragile bubbles over and over till they disintegrate. The bubbles are flimsy, mostly home made from saran wrap and balsa wood, and filled with helium; though there are three or four around that are variations of hot air balloons, but those are larger and harder to maneuver in battle. One of the helium versions recently went down when the pilot dropped a pen that pierced a gas bag. He managed to keep it in the air long enough for the Navy to move a boat underneath him, but it was close.
I look out over the mountains, the low night fog beginning to form as the colder air rolls over the warm waters of the bay. I am glad my counterpart showed up first, he may have to fight his way back north across the Golden Gate, and maybe through the fog if it gets high enough.
And I? I will head south along the mountains a bit, then meet up with another patrol, heading back to Oakland. Four hours of exercise, alone with my thoughts. Four hours during which I detach myself from the world and float free, living my dreams of flying, seeing the tiny toy like houses and cars pass below me, as words fade into the background and the forms of wind, mountains, skyscape, take hold of my imagination. Floating in my dreams. Dreaming, yet still awake and alert, yet apart from... that other reality.
Each of us watches the pastel beauty of sunset on San Francisco Bay, deep purple mountains rising blue and pink waters, trailing flat wisps of fog along their bases. Each of us sees the same sight, yet each of us sees a different world.
Then I see it. A black dot barely floating over a low mountain. No beacons. Is it a bubble? Too big for a kite, I think. I ping it on my radar scanner. We all carry foil radar reflectors in our bubbles so the Navy won't "disturb" us "too often". No Echo. Curious. Unreal. I look over at my counterpart, veering sideways a bit to get his attention, then point to it.
IntruderHe does not see it at first. I Bend my arm to the shape of the mountain, and cross it with my fist where it should be, then point again to it.
He looks again. A moment later he nods vigorously and reaches for his telescope. (He has the telescope, I have the radar.) I motion for radio silence.
He waves at me as if I am not being sensible. After studying them a bit, he points, scratches his head, then palms and shoulders up, indicating he does not know what that is.
I look again, but it has come over, and is now probably floating down the dark mountainside towards us. I will likely not see it till it is within striking range, if it is a fighter bubble.
Then two more appear. My counterpart, Harry, holds up six fingers. Six? I switch my rear flasher to modulated flash, hoping my team is tracking me. Harry's team still does not know we modulate our beacon flashes to communicate. I type "Invasion??? Six, with no echo or beacons. Please Advise." onto my laptop computer.
Nothing. My message repeats over and over endlessly as I sit, pedaling, sweating, and wondering.
My radar monitor picks up long range radar pulses from the rear, and the echoes from the hills, and airplane at 12,000 feet, and some odds and ends.
A message appears on my laptop's screen: "Mid Bay Control: No bogeys. Alameda Air Club advised. Observers being alerted. Observation car heading for Bay Bridge."
Alert!I check my watch. Forever took two minutes and fifteen seconds. Harry veers left and right to get my attention. Eight fingers. Clenched fists. CB Radio mike.
I give in, turn my set on, and motion, Steering Wheel, Bull's Horns.
"Breaker One Nine for a traffic report, hows about that Bay Bridge eastbound?" Harry says.
"Handle's Road Dirt," I say, "No smokey's yet, but they do come around if you need them."
"Handle's Iron Cross." he replies. "I lost my hell-met back there. Don't want to create no fuss if I be going back to get it now."
(Great, what's that supposed to mean?) "You turn back, and you'll get the fuss, all right. How fast you going when you lost it?"
"Hell, I ain't got no speedo-meter. How fast you suppose I was going?"
My laptop beeps as message pops up on the LCD screen: "Mid Bay Control: RED ALERT. Intercept one in 15 (fifteen) minutes. Sixteen, repeat SIXTEEN BOGEYS confirmed and located by long range visual. No Reflectors. No Beacons. Not per SF BAY air regs. SF Air Traffic Control notification under consideration. Unknown craft type. Delta wing, approx. two man size. Normal PHOTON DETECTOR configuration. TWO MAN FIGHTERS assumed. Making very good speed. Will be within your firing range in 15 (fifteen) minutes." And a table listing our pitiful response.
They will be over me long before we have anything airborne, and even then, Control places our odds at less than ten percent if all 16 survive. It is up to us, enemies ourselves, to lighten their burden against a nearly invisible foe.
"Breaker One Nine for Iron Cross", I say, "Is you that bald headed motor-cycle spouting flame from your tail pipe ahead of me?"
"That Is I, That I Isss" I hold up my pitiful laser pistol. He holds up his. A contrarian part of my mind smiles as it foolishly wants to shoot him, to gain all the glory! That would be Insanity! We will try to intercept them together. Neither of us arm our photon cannons, for that would turn on our combat beacons, alerting the enemy. Now, we are merely non-combatants. (I hate those blasted beacons!) Even then we would be like two kids with squirt guns against a crew with fire hoses.
My computer beeps again, a map is on the screen. I'm "A", Harry's "B", and there are sixteen "U"s coming at us in a tight delta formation. Range, eight minutes. And if I tell Harry, he and his team will figure out why a mere five of us routinely beat his twenty five.
OK, time to call an "official" red alert on the CB. "Candy Dancer, This is Road Dirt, I got stopped. Someone's handing out tickets, and it ain't a local smokey. Miss you." I say. "Lets go to the ball and dance dance, Hon."
"Road Dirt," a lady answers, "This is Candy Dancer, Did they take your big tricycle away from you again? I'll just have to come out and get you. You just stay put, or you'll be late for the dance dance."
I slow down, stop pedaling. Soon the winds sweep me backwards. "Hey Iron Cross, you wannna dat helmut o yours?" a gruff voice says on the CB.
"Ya, that Ah do, Ah do." Harry replies. "This here is Ram Rod. You just pull over at that reststop, and Ah'll and a couple of friends of mine'll hand it to ya in about fifteen minutes. Yo hears?"
"Ya, ah do. I'll picka da pieces!" "Right smart of you!" Ram rod is our guy. Why is he asking Harry to butt out? Harry turns north, into the fog, and fades away, his position barely visible as little glowing plops of light. Great. Well, it is my turf, not his. I reach up and arm my suicide switch, a great big flashbulb that will trigger all detectors within a few thousand feet. Maybe. But then the rules say I'll be grounded for two weeks and we're sure to have a little contest with Harry's friends during my absence.
Suddenly, the bogeys light their war beacons. They claim to be within combat range. So they interpret the rules their way? Our combat zone extends from the Pacific to about route 13 on the mainland. They should have lit their war beacons on the other side of the mountain. We will argue the point later, if we lose. (When we lose?)
(Beep) My computer beeps as another message comes in: "Rogers, Harris, Grybas, and Litas responding. Estimated 20 minutes to your position. Your contact in eight minutes. GET DOWN AND STANDBY. REPEAT: GET DOWN AND STAND BY. Strategy session in progress."
War is Deception, Greed, and FearThey can not help but see me. Why don't they break formation and take me out?
I look behind me a moment, HUH? There must be two dozen beacons back there, all flashing the war chant! "Where the heck did they come from? This can not be. This just can not be!" I mutter to myself. Slowly it dawns on me. Lasdinis is a professional photographer. They must be using every flash unit from his studio! I chuckle. War! War is deception, greed, and fear.
I sink lower and lower, moving North, hoping they might mistake me for a boat, as I get ready to hit the ballast dump valve. If I dump all my ballast, I should pop up just ahead and to the side of them, getting off a couple of shots as they break formation, and wheel to get me in their sights. I might even get a few points before I set off my self destruct flash and wipe most of them out. Whoever they are.
(Sigh.) A somber mood overtakes me. So brief shall my battle be. How like life this all is. We spend years setting things up all for a few brief moments of glory, before the roof falls in on us and wipes us out. How many miles have they pedaled, only to end in a brief flash of my light. And I, I will be "dead", sitting on the side lines the next two weeks. North Bay will gain advantage, the battle will not go well for us this weekend. All for a few moments of glory.
I type "Default strategy: Pop up and self destruct. Please advise."
I make them out now. Not just the beacons, the tiny black delta shapes against the darkening sky, as if they are all wing and gas bags, The only color is the regulation red reflectors on the two wing props and the overhead rotor. These are heavy fighters, judging from the speed of the overhead rotor, quite notably heavier than air, probably with two men inside. I wonder how far they have flown, how fatigued they are. And how hot they must be.
(Beep) "Mid Bay Control to #3: You are within range and time. You must activate war beacon. Repeat: # THREE, you must activate war beacons NOW to make legal kills. DO NOT Self-Destruct at this time. REPEAT: NEGATIVE ON S-D PROTOCOL. Computer simulations in progress. ARM AND STANDBY."
Grudgingly, I turn on the war beacons. My hit sensors are now on, but my cannons won't come armed for another five minutes. Rules. Damned rules. It was so much more fun when we merely wore Photon Warrior belts and pistols. (Sigh,) But there were a few collisions, I started making and selling long range photon cannons, and the spectators started showing up in hot air balloons and their own bubbles. Now it's gone as far as computer simulations to find the best strategy. Gone are those golden days of single handed combat and ambushes from the fog. (Sigh)
The invaders do not seem to notice me, they just lumber on, like heavy geese on the wing. Maybe they are tired. Well, another three minutes to go. I begin my check list and countdown.
(Beep) a war plan takes form on my laptop screen:
Mid Bay Control: War Plan: STRATEGY: Reduce at intercept 1. Eliminate at intercept 2. TACTICS: #3 - Attack from rear. 1. Wait for 3 beeps 2. Dump ballast 3. ATTACK FROM REAR as you come up. You are intercept 1. INTERCEPT position 1: Primary intercept (80%) *ENEMY* 16 fighters 3minutes out Mid Bay: 1 fighter ***ON STATION* (#3) Mid Bay: 4 fighters 18-30 minutes out (2 airborne) North Bay: 4 fighters 25-30 min. out (? airborne) 1 patrol5min. out (Harry) Peninsula: 1 fighter 25min. out (Eastbound) INTERCEPT position 2: Alternate intercept (20%) *ENEMY* 16 fighters 5-11 minutes out Mid Bay: 4 fighters 5-16 min. out North Bay: 4 fighters 10-17 min. out 1 patrol 10min. out (Harry, Eastbound) Peninsula: 1 fighter 45min. out (Eastbound)ADVISORY: Diversion beacons at Alameda to remain in effect till main body within combat zone. All fighters are to maintain BEACONS OFF till advised they are within enemy defined combat zone.
Enemy on visual, SEVERE FATIGUE WOBBLE noted. Will advise.
==> THREE: STAY LOW. BEACON ON. -DW-"
Yes... War is deception, greed, and fear. Our deception, their greed... and my fear.
Fear! How can HQ expect me to get 80% of them?!?!
Yesss... My fear fades as the moment grips my attention, as adrenalin pours into my veins. I hit pull the stick way back, pedaling furiously. I hit the ballast dump valve. As I pull up in a wide rising arc, I start firing my photon cannon at the rear of the invader formation. Six of their craft start falling back and sinking, their war beacons flashing at half speed, acknowledge their wounds. They are out of the game.
I turn and bank, cutting at the rest of them from the rear. Soon numbers seven, eight, and nine join the first six, then it's ten, eleven, and twelve. It is difficult to believe, but they still have not broken formation to fight. Something is not right. Four more shots, and they are all hit, all going down. A piece of cake. A five minute route.
Surveying my handiwork, fatigue and adrenalin making my hands unsteady, I mangle a message to Control asking if they are sure that is all, if there is a chance of a second wave designed to catch us all off guard. I am told that none of the observers have seen anything further. I am not relieved, it is nearly dark out.
A flashing form comes out of the evening mists. Harry is shooting madly at me! I try to turn tightly, to get my cannon into position when my self destruct beacon lights the sky. That idiot shot me, wiping both of us out. I... That flaming idiot knew it was armed!!!
As I look at the dying invaders, at Harry, and the invaders again, beginning to understand his raging frustration. I see the first of the invaders glide into the water and break open. The second follows. Stunned, I watch each of the delta forms glide down into the water, collapsing as the black skin tears off, revealing two white clad human forms.
I wheel and dive, grabbing my CB mike. "Breaker One Nine." I yell, "MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! Get a Coast Guard cutter out here Pronto, I have sixteen downed aircraft. Repeat sixteen downed man powered aircraft. Thirty two people in the water! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!" Then toggle my beacon to flash SOS as I begin circling overhead. I glance up, seeing Harry stalk off, utter rage apparent in the erratic wobble of his craft. I've seen it happen before, and wonder whether he will have the stamina to make it home, after his rage has spent him.
"Candy Dancer, advise Iron Cross erratic, repeat: Iron Cross erratic. Keep an eye on him for me." I choke. People are dying. Inside I know he won't make it either. Will I?
Their war insignia was Japanese. An image flits through my mind, an old Olympics video I once saw of a Japanese gymnast. He hangs by his arms on the rings, gyrating in a perfect performance. Then drops to a perfect two legged landing. Having thereby completed the technical requirements for that competition, he falls over. Moments alter, the commentator's voice over says he broke his leg the day before the performance, but concealed it so he would not loose face.
Fatigue. The Japanese crew held on as long as they could, long past the point where fatigue clouded their minds. The minute they saw it was over, they just let go. And crashed into the bay.
A shiver of fear runs down my spine. Did they leave out the life jackets, striving for every ounce of advantage? Will they be able to swim, exhausted as they are?
I hover for several hours, helping look for bodies and watching as two Coast Guard cutters fish our would-be opponents out of the water. Eventually, I too tire, and gently crash land on the deck of one of the cutters. One wing and all my rotors break, but at least my electronics package and I are ok.
Not so these new opponents. Three have drowned, all suffer severe dehydration and hypothermia. At best, they are headed for a night in the hospital; I get to go home. I think of Harry. Did he make it?
Much later, we learn from the Coast Guard that the Japanese took off from a freighter a full twenty miles out at sea. Their original plan had been to have the Japanese consulate announce their presence Saturday morning, then to take off as the freighter came in through the Golden Gate. They would have engaged both North Bay and Mid-Bay teams during their Saturday morning air battles within minutes after lifting. Unfortunately, the cargo was resold, and the ship's destination changed to Seattle; they had to get off or go back home without honor.
This was to have been their opening move, a grand attempt to prove superiority in our latest sport, having recently sustained dramatic losses against us in Baseball. Pearl Harbor comes to mind.
I can not help but admire their tenacity. And wonder, how many more times they will try, and from where.
Oh yes, The police found Harry, alive. As near as we could figure out, in his rage induced fury, he snapped off a foot pedal. It tore through a gas bag and was lost. As it broke, Harry lost his hold on the frame and fell off his seat. The sudden lurches tore three other gas bags loose inside his craft, bloating one wing and collapsing the other into a useless empty sack. The safety harness kept him from falling to the water, but without the extra gas bag or wings to give it lift, his bubble slowly sank to the water till his legs were immersed a little above the knee. He must have tried to walk ashore, being assisted by the breeze, drifting like some giant Portuguese Man of War!
Rumor has it he crossed the path of more than one pleasure boat that night, being variously taken as a prophet walking on water babbling about the upcoming destruction of the world, an advance man for a Martian UFO invasion stalking across the bay, or a ghostly harbinger from World War III with some kind of fantastic fighting machine hovering above him.
His treck ended when the police arrested him for making a public nuisance of himself, that is, after they untangled him from the telephone lines by the shore.
Using the films we took, the parts we managed to recover, and what we learned talking with the Japanese crew at the Customs and Immigrations detention center, where they are being held for illegal entry, we rebuilt one of their ships in a large rented garage.
Phil, one of our technical assistants, took meticulous measurements, and fed it all into a computer at NASA, where he works. The delta form give the Japanese significantly more gas space and lift per unit of surface area than our designs. And two people give them more maneuvering power. However, the frame needed to keep a two man ship together in tight turns ends up much heavier, negating some of the advantage. Like sharks, they can not float, they must keep moving.
The funny part is, there is no way the frames we salvaged would survive a landing. Nor did we find any landing skids, or anything else of that nature. These brilliantly designed, meticulously hand crafted wings can only be disposable.
The weapons package pretty much confirms this. Instead of elaborate electronic laser diodes, etc.; they use flash bulbs in the photon cannons, twelve per cannon. That gives them more power, hence a longer firing range while saving quite a bit of weight. But at the price of far fewer shots.
The decision was handed down not to try to fly our reconstruction, Its possible existence became a hot political issue. Instead, it is to be taken apart and given to NASA, who will wash it through Customs, and donate it to a museum of our choice. Phil has made some arrangements, and thinks one of us might get a chance to fly a computer model of the craft, possibly even in a real aircraft simulator rigged with a stationary Exercycle.
A NASA connection, tenuous as it may be, may help keep the FAA off our backs a little longer. And maybe the pesky press as well. This Japanese invasion has made big waves in both the sports and political arenas.
I rather suspect we will see more of the Japanese. And a lot more flaky weekend warriors.
I am out on patrol again, It's so beautiful up here, so quiet and peaceful as the thin mists begin to form up on the dark blue mountains. I'm so glad to be back.
It has been a long time, almost two months before I managed to rebuild my own bubble. Now, I've started building another, one with a large delta wing full of helium bags held in shape by fishing line under tension. Several of us are building better bubbles based on ideas gleaned from the Japanese and our visit to NASA. We even have semi-official support at NASA now. Quite a bit of computer simulation and other research has gone into studying these quasi- dirigible aircraft. Phil's status has taken a good turn, and he is now our official liaison. Alameda and Moffett Field Naval Air Stations are also involved, though not directly with our team.
Unfortunately for me, my act of crash landing on the Coast Guard cutter made my name public property. I wasted two weeks testifying to diverse Congressional fact finding groups in Washington D.C., a waste of time. But the publicity included an article in one of those super market check-out isle weekly newspapers, where I was described as a crazy alien invader and a few other things. I have a sharp lawyer suing them for five million dollars. He thinks we should be able to settle out of court for a few hundred thousand. Maybe a lot more.
Oh, yes, we also passed several rules requiring an official declaration of war before "any group consisting of more than twenty percent in number of the home team, invades said home team's territory." That still allows minor boarder skirmishes, those one on one fights I am so fond of, but blocks a major invasion like the Japanese Incursion.
Another rule, one I like a little less, requires war beacons to be on five minutes before any invasion party enters another team's air space. I thought the Japanese Incursion was a rather neat trick, one we might have considered pulling on one of our distant opponents. We do number less than twenty percent of most of the teams... And it does say air space, not territory...