Taisia didn’t turn around as Grace entered the cockpit.
“Take any seat, Protector.”
The pilot faced forward, her attention focused on the yoke in her right hand and a flashing keypad just below the throttle on her left.
“You said you needed my help?” Grace asked. “What’s the trouble?” She strapped herself into one of the crew seats.
Taisia turned to face her. “I forget, when we plan, that I do not have my crew. I need you to point the forward microwave antenna toward Nikolai’s transmitter. You do this while I skim Severomorsk, make it look like I am on different flight path.”
“Why? Can’t the ship’s computer keep it locked on?”
“Computer does not participate in hoax.”
“Da. Failsafe will attempt to lock off the nose, so you must override.”
Taisia typed a command, and the screen to Grace’s right winked on. It was black except for a glowing green reticle with crosshairs. It looked like an academy simulation.
“When we get close, blue dot will appear. Keep dot centered.”
“Will it be hard?” Grace asked. She grabbed the side-stick.
“Perhaps. Best to do it first pass. Second pass increases chance of detection.”
The Waltz vibrated as Earth’s atmosphere buffeted against its hull. Taisia turned back to her control panel, hands still on the yoke. The pilot’s vid display went orange as the arctic vanished, replaced with a schematic of the continent below. Vectors winked into view, some labeled SEVEROMORSK APPROACH, others flickering too fast for Grace to understand. The horizon crept slowly toward the top of the display as their altitude dropped from twenty kilometers, to ten, to two.
From the viewport beside Grace’s panel, the ship flew above a dark blue sea.
“Get ready, Protector. Going subsonic.”
The Waltz rumbled as it flew, descending until it seemed to Grace that they were skimming the water. As they approached land, Taisia gently banked to port, aligning the cruiser with new approach vectors that suddenly winked up in red. Nikolai’s work, Grace presumed.
“Zoom out to five kilometers,” said Taisia, not turning around. “Blip will appear south-southwest.”
Grace tapped the screen with her left hand, producing icons along its perimeter. The NAV controls were similar to those she’d used flying on Mars. She zoomed out until a blue dot appeared near the lower left corner.
“Good.” Taisia tapped the mic on her headset. “Bear-zee-fifty-two to echo-one-five-five, you commence chatter.”
The cockpit filled with electronic hiss, punctuated with chirps and warbling tones. Grace nudged the control column, moving the blue dot toward the center of her display. Taisia banked to starboard and Grace pulled the control column to compensate as the word UPLOAD winked near the top of the display.
“Uploading,” Grace reported over the noise. A countdown timer appeared next to the word. “It says seventeen seconds.”
“Damn,” Taisia said. “We go too fast.”
She eased up on the throttle. The change in velocity caused the Waltz to descend further and Grace had to work to keep the blue dot in her crosshairs.
“Nine seconds,” Grace said.
Taisia grunted. “Come on, Nikolai, you can transmit faster than that.”
As they drew nearer to Severomorsk, Grace found it more difficult to keep the blue dot centered on the display. It would wink out, then reappear in a seemingly random spot, off-center.
“Taisia, I’m having trouble—”
“You do fine,” the pilot cut her off, her accent thicker than usual.
“Two seconds,” Grace reported as the blue dot winked and gamboled. The noise of the unintelligible chatter was distracting: it was like the trendy electronic music that always blared in Bod Town. She tried to focus on the screen as she chased it. Her eyes ached from not blinking.
Suddenly, the cruiser climbed and banked hard to starboard. The chatter ceased, and the blue dot disappeared from Grace’s display.
The cockpit fell silent.
“Did I…?” Grace’s voice sounded too loud to her.
“Da. Upload complete.” Taisia tapped the mic again. “Echo-one-five-five, echo-one-five-five, give mama hug from me.”
The cockpit displays blanked and flickered one by one as they restarted.
Taisia erupted with laughter. “Nikolai! He is funny.”
“What?” Grace asked.
She pointed to her display. “Welcome aboard the good ship Obman!”
“Obman?” Grace asked.
“Hoax.” Taisia turned around, still grinning. “Now, Protector, let’s take you home.”