NASA sent the first of dozens of Vulcan Missions in 2170. It was the last grand gesture of a proud agency. Those Astronauts probed The Wall that enclosed us, seeking a way out of our giant prison in space. A single rocket ship, the Independence Seven flew through the worst gravitic interference we’d ever seen and made it through The Wall. They arrived in the Tau Aurigae System, landed on a Goldilocks World and named it Independence. And there to this day, the crew claims they made First Contact with the Peloran.
The Hellcat cut through New Earth’s atmosphere with a deadly grace, engine exhaust painting white contrails of water vapor across the bright blue sky. Maneuvering thrusters flared, flaps lifted, and she banked to the side, lines of ice crystals shimmering off the laser turrets on the tips of her wings. She maneuvered like a dream, reacting to her pilot’s commands without hesitation.
“Any regrets?” Jack asked, examining the inside of the cockpit with a proprietary air. He’d wanted to fly one of these since he was a kid and it felt good.
Betty shook her holographic head from atop the console. “None. Oh, this is a nice little bird for shooting other birds down, but there is no way she could do what we do.”
“Good,” Jack said with a smile.
She cocked her head to the side and smirked. “You? Any regrets?”
Jack pulled in a long breath and let it out before answering. “No. Yeah, I grew up wanting this. The Hellcat was always a fun ride in games, so of course I wanted it.” He smiled at Betty and shook his head. “But the things the Avenger can do…” he faded out and whistled. He sighed and released the throttle to brush the scarf hanging around his neck. “Trust me. No regrets at all. We never could have ‘saved’ the Peloran with Hellcats, and we certainly wouldn’t be here now.”
Betty smiled at the scarf. “Of course. Perish the thought.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have met Hal,” Jack said with a smirk. “I think we’re even on that score.”
Betty smirked at him. “Well I at least…” She stopped and cocked her head to the side. “The next fighter is incoming,” she said in an odd tone.
“What’s up?” Jack asked in concern.
She shook her head. “She’s coming down from orbit, not from the base.”
“Interesting,” Jack whispered. “Well, patch me in then,” he added with a shrug. “This is Cowboy Five to…” Jack trailed off as he read the screen showing its IFF signal and looked at Betty with questioning eyes. That couldn’t be right. She nodded to say it was. He shook his head. “To Independence Seven. You must think you’re a good pilot to use that name.”
“I do actually,” a confident voice returned.
“Well, then you may try to kill me now. Just know that we’ve got some pretty stringent qualifications requirements.” And if this guy thought taking the name of that ship would help, he had another thing coming.
“I’ve heard,” the other pilot said, banked his Hellcat to the side and dove towards Jack faster than anyone he’d seen yet, missiles rippling out to engulf the fighter.
Jack jerked to the side as the missiles exploded all around on the sim screen, followed by lasers strobing up and down the Hellcat, racking up hundreds of points. Jack laughed, brought the fighter around, and nodded at Betty. “Well, if he wants it like that, let’s do this. Give him the full treatment.”
“Full treatment, aye,” Betty answered with a mock salute and began to ripple missiles back at their target in a steady stream of a few at a time.
Jack dropped them in behind the other Hellcat, but it shot off to port before the missiles could track it. Jack pulled to starboard on a whim, despite his wish to follow, and a swarm of missiles boiled up where he would have been. “Ooooohhhh…tricky,” Jack whispered as alarms went off. The man was behind and above them, firing another salvo. Jack pulled up this time and brought the Hellcat around in a tight loop the missiles couldn’t follow. They came out of the loop above and behind the other fighter.
Betty fired a full salvo of missiles and Jack pushed the throttle forward, cutting the pilot off from replicating his tactic. The fighter pulled to port again and Jack frowned in thought. The other pilot seemed to prefer portside maneuvers. He might be able to take advantage of that.
His hand swung right and the fighter rolled to starboard a split second before another few missiles passed through their previous location, trying desperately to claw their way back into his fighter. But they were going too fast to turn, and sailed off into the blue sky.
“Betty, do some soft launches to his port side whenever you get the chance,” he ordered and dropped into a valley, buzzing over some trees.
“Got it,” Betty answered with a smile as the other Hellcat latched onto their tail.
“And cold launch above him now,” he added.
Missiles tumbled out of the racks, pushed out by the small magnetic rails in the wings, and fell behind the fighter as atmosphere clawed at the powerless hunks of metal. They tumbled until their tiny minds picked up the target behind them, and then their drives exploded to life, throwing the swarm of missiles at the enemy Hellcat.
Jack pulled the throttle all the way back and the engine pods ceased their burn for a moment, before filling the air in front of him with blue fire. Jack’s Hellcat slowed to a halt as the other Hellcat accelerated through the swarm of missiles, managing to avoid most of them. The other Hellcat flew straight into his sights and Betty fired another volley of missiles straight into his engine flare.
Jack began to twitch to port, but had a bad feeling about that again. He shifted starboard instead and found himself on his enemy’s tail, Betty sending a salvo of lasers into the denuded rear deflection grid. Points rolled up on the simulation screen, showing direct hit after direct hit.
The enemy fighter pulled to port and Jack tried to follow, but once again Jack lost him and a salvo of missiles rained into their flank. More points ran up the screen for the other guy, keeping him in the lead, and Jack swallowed. He was really going to have to take this seriously. The guy was good.
Jack flicked the stick to the side, took a deep breath, and stopped trying to plan anything. He opened his eyes wide, relaxed into his seat, and let his hands move whenever he felt the need. His sense of time faded away, and he became only dimly aware of the outside world, while at the same time hyper-aware of everything. He didn’t take time to consider anything, to think about anything, or to let what he saw affect his mind in any way. He simply reacted to what he saw, taking no time or energy to ponder it.
An alarm sounded and he came back to full awareness. He blinked dry eyes and pulled stiff fingers away from the throttle and stick, working his fingers back and forth to restore circulation. He looked at one screen to see that a half hour had passed since the trial started, kicking in the automatic alarm to end it. He cleared his throat, feeling phlegm break loose, and licked his dry mouth. He glanced down on the sim screen to see he’d lost, by a few hundred points. The score was higher than he’d seen in any sim before. Of course, it had gone longer than the others too. He blinked, looked again, and shook his head as he turned to look at the Hellcat flying next to him.
“Congratulations, Independence Seven,” he said with a smile and cleared his throat again. “You beat me with that first strike. You are a dirty and underhanded fighter.”
The other pilot laughed. “I was beating you the whole time.”
Jack chewed his lip and shook his head. “Yes, but some would say you cheated to take the lead.”
“True,” the other pilot said in an amused tone. “But if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”
Jack chuckled and shook his head again. “Truer words have never been spoken,” he said and cleared his throat one more time. He needed a drink after this. “I think it’s time to return to base.”
“Roger, that, Cowboy Five. I need a drink.” Independence Seven banked away, lines of ice crystals flaring off her wingtips, and accelerated towards Leif Erikson Spacebase.
Jack followed with a flick of his wrist. “Betty, keep on his six and follow him back to base. And patch me through to the Chief.”
Betty smiled, crossed her arms, and nodded. “He’s on the line.”
“Chief here,” the commander’s voice said over the communication system. “Why are you calling, Jester?”
Jack worked his jaw back and forth several times. His whole body felt sore. He really needed to get up and walk around to work the acid out of his muscles. “Have you been following the trials?”
“No…I have been doing paperwork. Give me a second to…holy frak! Who is that guy?”
Jack smiled at the confusion in the other man’s voice. “I have no idea. But he came in from orbit, not the base, and given the name of his ship, he thinks he’s as good as he is.”
“Yeah. Let me get Bull and we will meet you at the landing strip. This needs face to face.”
Jack nodded in approval. “Agreed, Chief.”
“Chief out,” Charles finished and the communications line cut out.
Jack looked outside the cockpit to see the other Hellcat dropping towards the spacebase and relaxed, working his legs and toes against the lethargy in them. He watched as they came down to a landing and his jaw dropped as he saw the crowd ringing the landing area.
“Frak. People were watching, weren’t they?”
“Yup,” Betty said in a proud voice. “You two did really good.”
Jack looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “I lost in front of them all.”
Betty still gave him a proud look. “Yeah, but you lost going all out and big.”
“True.” Jack shook his head. “I just don’t like losing.”
Betty smiled. “None of us do, Jack. But sometimes we do, and that’s due to no failing of our own. That is simply life.”
Jack sighed as the fighter settled down for a soft landing and the canopy began to open. “Thanks for the fortune cookie.” He unbuckled his restraints, stood up, and saw the other pilot vault out of his fighter to land with a shoulder roll. “Damn. He’s good,” he added with another shake of his head.
“Jack,” Betty said in a warning tone and shook her head.
“What?” Jack asked in an innocent tone and mentally measured the distance to the ground as the other pilot rose to his feet and brushed something off the shoulder of his blue uniform.
“Don’t do it,” she said and he turned to see her plant both fists on her waist.
“You don’t think I can do it?” he asked with a smile.
Betty sighed. “I think you haven’t practiced it, and it’s stupid to do something in front of an audience you’ve not practiced before.”
Jack cocked his head to the side and nodded. “Good point.” He measured the distance again. “Grav flight then?”
Betty smiled. “Yeah, we can do that.”
“Good,” Jack said, stepped forward, and felt Betty’s gravitic generator lower him to the ground as soft as a feather, leather flight jacket flapping in the wind. He came to a stop and adjusted the tie that matched the khaki shirt and green pants of his service uniform. The other pilot gave him a nod of approval and ambled forward to meet Jack as his cyber jumped out of the fighter to land beside her pilot.
“I’m Juliet,” she said and held out her hand to Jack.
Jack took her feather touch hand in his and raised it to his lips. “And I’m charmed.”
Juliet smiled and looked at her partner. “See? He knows how to treat a lady.”
The new pilot shook his head at Jack with a wry smile.
Betty stepped up, dressed in a uniform that matched Jack’s, and held her hand out as well. “I’m Betty.”
The man took her hand with an elaborate bow and kissed it. “And I’m Major Tom Rogers, and it is a very great pleasure to meet you.”
Jack blinked in confusion as the name registered.
“Wait…the Astronaut?” he asked, the shock driving introductions from his mind.
Tom smiled and spread both arms out wide. “In the flesh.”
Jack shook his head in wonder. “The…NASA Astronaut?” He glanced over at the fighter. “Independence Seven’s actual pilot?”
Tom chuckled and nodded his head. “Yes.”
Jack examined Tom for a couple seconds and sighed. The man had beaten him in a mostly fair fight. That meant he was either very lucky or very good. And somehow he didn’t think it was just luck. “I didn’t know you got all the fun side effects of the Treatments too.”
“I don’t advertise,” Tom said with a chuckle as Charles and Jay walked through the crowd. The ties of their service uniforms flapped in the slight wind, and Dorothy and Winona kept to their sides. After a quick glance their way, Tom smiled at Jack. “Looks like you ordered up a committee.”
Jack shrugged and shook his head. “Well, you’re pretty good.” He glanced at Tom’s fighter again. “And now I know why.”
Tom chuckled one more time before the other Cowboys stopped in front of them. Dorothy held out her hand and introductions and handshakes passed back and forth. “And yes, I’m that Major Tom Rogers,” Tom finished and tapped the NASA patch on his uniform. Jack recognized it from his history classes, but had never expected to see someone actually wearing one.
Charles appraised the man for a second before nodding. “It is an honor to meet you, Major. Might I ask what you are doing here?”
Tom smiled and raised a black leather briefcase cuffed to his wrist for all to see. “Someone decided they were going to ruin my retirement by starting up a war, so the President asked me to come here with new orders for you.”
Charles examined him again, with an upraised eyebrow that showed he was running through all their permutations of what that meant. “You talked to her?”
Tom smiled and spread his arms out wide. “Well, I am the official Ambassador from Independence. It happens.” He brought his arms back down and looked around at the crowd of watchers. “Do you have a secure office here we can speak in?”
“Of course I do,” Charles said and waved a hand in the way he’d come from. “Please follow me.”
“Lead the way,” Tom said and followed as Jay’s hulking form took up point, clearing a way through the crowd.
“He’s a big boy,” Tom whispered as Jack slid into step next to him.
“That’s one reason we call him Bull,” Jack answered with a chuckle, feeling his composure come back.
“And the other reason?” Tom asked.
Jack chuckled again. “Don’t get him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.”
Tom smiled. “Ah, I see now.”
“So, weren’t you born in…2140 or something?” Jack asked after a quick glance at the man’s young face.
Tom shifted his head to the side in a half shrug. “2145, but who’s counting?”
Jack whistled. “You don’t look a day over forty, Sir.”
Tom aimed an impish smile at him. “Well, you know what they say. You’re only as old as the one you’re feeling.”
Jack chuckled. “Remind me to keep you away from my girlfriend then.” He blinked then as the realization of what he’d said sunk in. Girlfriend.
Tom laughed and patted Jack’s shoulder. “Haven’t had many girlfriends, huh?”
Jack grunted and shook his head. “Oh, I’ve had lots. I just…never…” he trailed off, lost in thought, and let out a long breath.
“Never considered her one?”
Jack focused back on the present and saw Tom’s knowing smile. He sighed, knowing he couldn’t disagree. Mostly. “No I didn’t…at least I hadn’t thought it,” he added with a shrug. “But I obviously do or I wouldn’t have said it. I guess that just snuck up on me.”
Tom laughed again and slapped him on the shoulder. “One small step for man, Kid. One small step…”
“Yes, Sir,” Jack muttered, lost in thought again.
“Call me Tom, Kid,” he said in an amused tone.
“Yes, Sir…Tom,” he added with a wince after his mind caught up with his reactions.
Tom laughed once more and laid his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “The good ones always get us the worst, Kid.”
Jack shook his head in bemusement. “Ain’t that the truth?”
They entered Charles’ office behind Jay and Charles like that, and Jack had a feeling they were going to end up as friends. Charles waved for Tom to take the chair in front of his desk and Jack and Jay sat down on either side of it. Jack watched the cybers taking chairs of their own in a corner of the office. They leaned in close to each other and Jack realized they were talking to each other as only cybers could. Betty aimed a knowing smile at him and Jack nodded back.
Charles took his chair and leaned back in it. “Now what exactly is this about?” he asked in a serious tone with eyes that put the lie to his relaxed body language.
Tom opened the briefcase and pulled a sheet of paper out of. He placed it on Charles’ desk with a smile. “In brief, the President has decreed the expansion of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112 to whatever size the commander deems appropriate to support the Peloran. She has also decreed that the commander of this squadron has the authority to request, pursue, and accept any volunteers from any other unit, whatever service they are in.”
Charles nodded in understanding and steepled his fingers. “I see. So I assume that you have been sent here to take command of this squadron?”
Tom smiled. “Not exactly.” He pulled another sheet out of the briefcase and placed it on the desk. “In very brief, all pilots of Cowboy squadron, living or dead since Yosemite, have been awarded a permanent promotion of one pay grade above their previous permanent rank. That makes everyone but you a silver bar,” he said with a waved hand at Charles. “Your acting promotion to captain is permanent now.”
Charles nodded in acceptance. “Thank you.”
Tom shook his head. “Don’t thank me. Thank the President.” He shrugged. “Assuming you still feel like thanking her when I’m done of course.”
Charles’ eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
Tom looked at Jack and Jay for a moment before pulling out another sheet. Jack felt a chill go down his spine at the sight of those orders, even though the Major skillfully kept it at an angle he couldn’t read. There was just something about them he knew he wouldn’t like. The man dropped the sheet on the desk with a smile. “After studying the reports of how these two marines have handled the demi-squadron commands you tasked them with, which by the way she was most pleased with, they are being granted acting commissions to captain.”
Jack shivered again. Two ranks in one day, even if one was just acting, did not sit well with him. It was too fast, and since the President ordered it, the brass would not be happy about it. And if he ever made a single mistake, they would take it away and never give him another chance to get it back. “If it’s just the same to you, Sir, I’ll pass on that acting promotion.”
Tom gave him a sad smile. He knew how hard this could be on a career. “It’s not the same to me though,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’m sorry, but once other pilots start arriving, you’ll need all the authority you can get in dealing with them. The brass won’t like it, but there won’t be many Marines saying you don’t deserve the promotions after what you’ve done. Yes, they’re too early, and I’m sorry for that, but we don’t have time to do this slowly. The Cowboys need two captains, right now, and you two can do it, so we need you to do it.”
Jack and Jay exchanged glances for a second, and then turned to Charles. Charles nodded, a bitter taste in his mouth, and nodded towards the briefcase. “I gather there is another sheet there,” he bit out.
Tom smiled and pulled one out. “Yes. I’m being assigned to Cowboy squadron, with a strong suggestion that I be placed on the wing of the squadron commander. He will be the only member of the squadron that I don’t outrank, after all.”
“I see,” Charles said, sounding very displeased. “So I am being promoted from acting Captain to acting Major?”
Tom pulled out another sheet, laid it on the desk, and nodded. “Yes.”
Charles shook his head. “This is crazy. The brass will not forget it, and if we make any mistake, they will take it all away and our careers will be over. I am sorry, but I can not accept the promotion.”
Tom sighed and let out a slow nod. “She said you might be difficult.” He pulled a small holobase out of the briefcase and laid it on the desk. “So she sent me with this,” he finished and tapped a command into it.
A holofield flickered to life and The President appeared in front of them, arms crossed in displeasure.
“Hello, Captain Hurst. If you are seeing this, it is because you are showing reluctance to accept your acting promotion to major. I understand the objections you have probably stated. The brass will not like it.” The President smirked. “The brass have been most unhappy with much that I have done in recent months. You do not feel ready for the rank. You did not volunteer to become a major within months of joining the military. It is too soon. I trust I have covered the most important objections.” The President sighed and shook her head as Charles returned a rueful smile.
“Trust me when I say that I really do understand. When I ran for election against a popular incumbent for Colorado’s junior Senate seat, I never conceived of standing in this office. I did not volunteer for it. I was not ready for it. And it was too soon.” The President gave a curt nod. “But it is our job to do the job we have to, not the job we want to.”
She waved her arms to encompass the office she was probably in. “I don’t want this job, but I am running for reelection. I am running, because there will be an election, and I’d rather have myself as President than…well…any of those that want it. There will be an election, and there will be another one after that, and the elections will continue on and on and Presidents and Senators and Representatives will come and go because there will be a United States of America to elect them. This is the oath I made to myself when I became President.”
She crossed her arms and glared at Charles. “To see that possibility through, I need Peloran military technology, and Peloran military training to use that technology. They are unlocking their tech for us, and some of it we can even build. What we can’t build is the training to use it.”
She aimed a finger at Charles. “This is what I need you for. The Cowboys. In a month of serving with you, a pilot will learn more about how to use Peloran tech than in years of study here at home. We need more Cowboys, many more Cowboys, and we need them to come home and show us what we’re doing wrong. And you will accept the acting promotion to major because the Peloran trust you and will work with you, and I need someone they trust in command.
“Do your duty, Major Hurst,” she finished and faded out.
Charles sat in his chair for several seconds as silence reigned in the office. Finally he shook his head and said “This is-”
“If you say this is crazy one more time,” The President’s disembodied voice spat out, “I will personally fly to Alpha Centauri and bitch slap you!”
Jack looked at Betty in alarm. “Are we sure that’s a recording?”
Betty gave him a wry smile. “Yes, Jack, we are. Instantaneous interstellar communications is science fiction.”
Jack pulled in a deep breath. “Right.”
“This is…not easy,” Charles said, manifestly unhappy with the situation, but he finally nodded towards Tom. “I will accept the acting command.”
Tom nodded. “Good. But for the record, while the rank is acting, the command is permanent. The President was impressed with the poise you used when speaking with her, and with the command you have shown since. The Cowboys have survived well under your command, and they are yours.” Tom smiled. “And if half of what I’ve read is true, I will be happy to fly with you.”
Charles took in a long series of breaths, looking back and forth between Jack and Jay, before finally nodding in a manifestly unhappy way. “I understand.”