What does it take to be a fighter pilot in the age of cybers? Well, you don’t need to know how to fly for one thing. It’s nice to know of course, but the cyber flies your fighter. Reflexes? Instincts? Strategy? Yes, they are all needed to win. But never underestimate the influence of the cybernetic intelligence. Pilot and cyber are a team, and we rely on each other to survive. A good partnership is greater than the sum of our parts. We make each other better, and that is the secret to our success.
The Hellcat cut through New Earth’s bright blue sky, engine exhaust painting white contrails of water vapor through it. Maneuvering thrusters flared, flaps lifted, and she banked to the side, lines of ice crystals shimmering off the tips of her wings. They pulled away from the Space Force pilot that had shown him maneuvers he didn’t know Hellcats could do. He looked at the name again. Kathleen Reynolds. Well, she had moves the book said were impossible. He didn’t know how she’d figured them out, but she was most assuredly up to no good when she did. Jack wanted her on his team real bad.
The Hellcat really was a good fighter, even if she wasn’t an Avenger. He really liked the missile racks. That would have made them better hyperspace fighters since they wouldn’t suffer the backlash of grav cannons, but they didn’t have the power to get there on their own. And the Avengers hadn’t been designed to fight in hyperspace, just to travel through it on their way to hit the enemy. It made sense. With all the space taken up by the capacitors, they didn’t have the magazine space for dedicated missile packs like the Hellcat had, and capacitors that could push a ship into hyper could power grav cannons without working up a sweat.
Jack frowned in thought. “Betty?”
Betty cocked her head at his tone, smiling over the yellow sundress she loved so much. “Yeah, Jack?”
“I’ve got an idea.”
“I thought I smelled something burning.”
“Har, har,” Jack said with a shake of his head. “Seriously, what do you think of these missile racks?”
Betty shrugged. “Well, they’re certainly effective, though I miss the focused fire of a grav cannon.”
Jack nodded. “True. What if we could have both?”
Betty blinked and cocked her head to the side again. “Oh,” she whispered. “That’s…”
“I know…something to think about,” Jack finished for her. “Hellcats don’t have enough power to twist gravity for movement, deflection, and weapons fire.”
“While Avengers have more power than we can use in combat, but the capacitors take up all the room missile racks would need.”
“Not anymore,” Jack said with a smile. The Peloran tech was so much smaller than Terran tech that they’d been able to fit a power generator into the spot that used to be a laser turret. It could power the hyperdrive without drawing on their capacitors. “We could strip out all those capacitors and replace them with missiles. Imagine what a missile swarm would do to an enemy? We could even place a launcher in the nose for some serious missile action.”
Betty shook her head. “No, I’d rather use the extra power the Peloran generators give us. Besides, you don’t want missile exhaust flying over your cockpit do you?”
“Not especially,” Jack noted with a frown. “What do you have in mind?”
Betty smiled. “A third gravitic cannon of course. And while we’re at it, we could move the other two out to the ends of the wings so if they overload they won’t blow us to kingdom come.”
“And what if that one blows up?” Jack asked with a wave of his hand towards the nose. “I rather like my feet where they are.”
Betty crossed her arms and bestowed on him a raised eyebrow. “Jack. How many times have you seen an Avenger lose a nose and keep fighting?”
“Oh,” Jack answered in a subdued tone. “True.”
“Besides, we’ll put it on the tip of the nose so there’s lots of room for you to see the pretty colors of an overloading gravitic cannon.”
“Thanks,” Jack muttered. “I always have loved light shows.”
Betty gave him a sweet smile. “I know.” She shifted her head in thought and Jack held off on a response. “Well, what do you know? The next candidate is in the air.”
Jack placed both hands back on the throttle and stick and swung them to the side. The Hellcat banked and sliced through the air, following his commands like they were second nature. They turned to face Leif Erikson Spacebase and a Hellcat came into view in the distance. Jack glanced down to the screens to confirm that, yes, it was Devilcat Ten.
“This is Cowboy Five to Devilcat Ten,” Captain Jack said in a jaunty tone. “You may try to kill me now.”
“Roger,” the Devilcat pilot answered and his engine pods shot flame as he accelerated into battle, white contrails streaming after it. Maneuvering thrusters began to flare and the Hellcat started gyrating through the best random maneuvers her cyber could perform. They made the fighter hard to hit and sprayed streams of ice crystals off her wingtips.
Betty responded in kind and their Hellcat bucked through the atmosphere like an angry bronco. Jack swallowed, forced his eyes to focus on the enemy Hellcat through the maneuvers, and watched for the attack. He saw it coming and shifted the Hellcat to port at the last instant. Training lasers and missiles streaked by, missing him by meters, as their lasers chattered away in point defense mode, destroying anything that got too close.
“Too slow,” Jack transmitted in an easygoing tone, but held his attention on the Hellcat. “Don’t take so much time planning your killshot next time.”
“I’ll try.” The opposing Hellcat turned and slashed back in, disappearing behind another wall of missiles.
Jack pulled their Hellcat up and over the missile swarm and they flashed past the fighter before the Devilcat could fire again. “Too predictable. Shake it up next time.”
“I’m doing my best,” the Devilcat said in a frustrated tone and dove in, more aggressively than Jack expected. The attack would have been suicidal in real combat as it left the fighter too easy to shoot down, but in this simulation it had the chance of getting points. Missiles streaked in from the Hellcat’s wings and Jack dropped their fighter towards the deck, but the missiles had the arc on him and several managed to hit near enough to the deflection grid that it flickered. The screens showed the Devilcat with several dozen points and a possible kill from the attack.
Jack frowned in annoyance. “I would have gotten a confirmed kill on you in real life if you’d tried that.”
The Devilcat laughed. “I wouldn’t have tried that in real life,” he finished and fired again.
This time Jack saw it coming and arced around the missile’s flight path.
“You’re relying on your cyber to fight for you too much. You need to fight like a partner.”
“I’m trying. But I can’t think that fast!” the pilot blurted out and came around for another pass.
Jack and Betty avoided the attack again and Jack sighed. “You’re right, you can’t. None of us can.” He dodged another salvo of boiling missiles. “It takes time to verbalize our thoughts, to put them to words, to consider what we are going to do next. Voice commands are far too slow for combat.” He tried to drop under a missile barrage, but nearly half of them hit, giving the Devilcat over a hundred points and a probable kill on the sim ranking. “See what I mean? There I was talking and I might be dead if that was real combat.” He nodded and Betty fired, her missiles hitting the Hellcat’s deflection grid head with a series of direct hits that generated over a hundred points and a probable kill.
Then he felt the urge to move and dropped them down to hug the deck just before a dozen flaming missiles flew over them by several meters. Jack grunted. “Never stop moving. Keep the enemy guessing where you are going. Don’t think about it. Don’t plan it. Just listen to your feelings.”
“That makes a real good fortune cookie but how does that help me kill you?” the Devilcat asked as he fired another missile salvo.
Jack dodged it to the left. To port. Whatever. A handful of missiles managed a deflection hit, and a few points. The computers tagged it as a possible kill. Jack didn’t think it would have been fatal. His Avenger’s armor would have shrugged it off. He wasn’t so sure about this Hellcat, though. He pulled back on the stick and their Hellcat shot straight up into the sky. “I’m hard to kill. It’s the whole point of the pilot and cyber partnership. The cyber moves us faster than our brains can think about, while we add randomness and instinct to the mix. We are the descendants of hunters who defeated the most dangerous animals on our planet, and their instincts flow through us if we listen to them. We can sense danger. We know when someone’s looking at us. The hair rising on the back of our neck is our subconscious telling us that we are in danger. Listen to it.”
Jack felt that warning, deployed countermeasures, and pulled their Hellcat north. Betty’s wingtip lasers opened up a split second later, chewing into the missile swarm as it screamed past them. Jack sighed. Devilcat Ten was not Ageless. He did not have the reflexes that went along with that particular reaction to the Peloran Treatments. In one-on-one combat like this, the lack of those reflexes made the winner a foregone conclusion. He sucked in a deep breath, let it out, and nodded. “Okay,” he said to Betty. “Let’s take the gloves off and show him how it’s really done.” He flexed his fingers on the controls, and prepared himself to fire back.
Betty shook her head. “Jack, we don’t need to do this.”
Jack cocked his head at her. “Yes, we do. He’s not good enough to be a Cowboy.”
Betty aimed a displeased frown at him. “And you have elected yourself sole arbiter of that decision?”
Jack scowled back. “I’m supposed to make the cut here! He doesn’t have the skills,” he said as several missiles impacted their Hellcat. The Devilcat’s points went up by another hundred or so points. And a probable kill.
Betty crossed her arms and glared at him. “Okay. Fine. But we don’t have to humiliate him.”
Jack shook his head in disagreement. “That’s not my goal, Betty. But we have to show he’s not in his league here!”
Betty shook her head. “No. We don’t. You do.”
Jack shook his head and held on tight as more missiles impacted their wildly gyrating Hellcat. “I’m doing my job, Betty.” The Devilcat received another couple hundred points and a very probable kill. One more missile would have confirmed it, no question.
She aimed a sad smile at him. “No, Jack. You’ve done your job already.” She shook her head. “Now you just want to show everyone what a real pilot is. You want to show off. That’s your pride talking, Jack. You don’t have to let that control you, though.”
Jack looked away from her and rubbed his chin, not wanting to admit she was right. But she was. He swallowed and pulled in a deep breath. “I see your point.”
Betty smiled and ran her hands down her yellow sundress, straightening it with the air of a proud mother. “Thank you.” She pulled the fighter around in time to avoid an entire missile salvo and her smile turned angry. “Oh, that was just insulting!” she shouted and shook a fist at the other fighter. “We countered that gambit five centuries ago!”
Jack cleared his throat, smiled, and raised a finger. “What was that about letting our pride talk?”
Betty glared at him for a moment, before shaking her head.
He winced as two missiles shredded the deflection grid and chewed his lip. “Is one salvo enough to pass him?”
Betty cocked her head to the side and gave him a feral smile. “With both of us working together? Absolutely.”
Jack nodded and placed his hands back on the throttle and stick. “Let’s get behind him. Fire on my mark.”
Betty nodded. “That works for me.”
Jack pulled the Hellcat around in a swift motion that the Devilcat didn’t expect. They dropped on his tail in a moment and Jack smirked. He focused on the fighter, held the throttle and stick with light fingers, and waited for it to move. It moved all the time of course, but Betty followed it with the reflexes that only a cyber could match. It was the true randomness that Jack looked for, and he carefully guided them through the Hellcat’s contrail. It fired a constant stream of lasers from its wing tips, but his deflection grid dealt with them.
He just had to wait for just the right circumstances to stamp that Devilcat with a solid kill. He followed the man through turns and loops. The Devilcat dove into a mountain valley, scattering ice crystals across the sky as its wingflaps extended. Jack and Betty followed, bucking through the contrails, and high, mountain peaks towered over them. He flicked back and forth, holding the fighter in their sights, and Devilcat Ten could not break away from Jack’s superior reflexes. He had his target in sight and it could not escape him. He just needed a solid shot. He would have been firing like mad and looking for a lucky hit in real life, but this was a sim and Jack wanted to make a statement. He would kill Devilcat Ten dead with one shot. No question. He really did want to prove himself the better hunter. His eyes narrowed, his gut clenched, and he knew he had the killing shot.
Captain Jack pulled the trigger.
The Hellcat shuddered as the missile pods on the end of the wings erupted. The missiles ripple-fired out in a solid stream of flame from the launch rockets that accelerated them away from the fighter. The rockets flared out, the gravitic drives that made up the bulk of each missile came to life, and the missiles flew towards their target.
The Devilcat’s lasers opened up in point defense mode, and missile after missile exploded. But each successive missile died closer to the fighter. The wave of missiles closed in on the fighter and onboard sensors detected the gravitic shear of the deflection grid surrounding their target. Tiny artificial minds recognized the threat, switched their drives to overload, and the drives burned themselves out in a split second, ripping at the deflection grid with the power of miniature black holes. The Devilcat’s grid failed and the last of the missiles flew up and ripped the fighter apart. Kill sealed, stamped, and delivered like a boss.
Jack looked up from the screen that showed the computers’ analysis of the attack and locked his gaze on the Devilcat fighter in front of him. The still living missiles banked away and made their way towards home base on their own. Their mission was done for the day. Jack nodded and pulled their Hellcat away from the Devilcat fighter.
“Try out’s over, kid. Head back to base now,” he ordered.
“So what’s the verdict?” Devilcat Ten asked him.
Jack frowned at the communication display. “You lost.”
“And you’re Ageless,” the Devilcat said and slowed his fighter to match Jack’s speed. “I was happy enough to be hitting you. I even got some kills.”
Jack sighed and glanced at Betty with a rueful look. He thought about saying they were only probable kills, but Betty raised one eyebrow at him. She was right. He shouldn’t take that away. “How did you think you were doing?”
The Devilcat cleared his throat. “Well, at first you were really keeping me from getting hits. But then I started pounding you, and I thought I had it in the bag. That I’d found your weakness and could exploit it.”
Jack frowned again. “How do you fare against the other fighter squadrons on New Earth? I assume you fly against them in sims?”
The Devilcat snorted. “We do pretty good. We study them and take advantage of their weaknesses.”
Jack blinked and aimed a questioning gaze at Betty. She waved her hand towards one of the screens and he read it. The Devilcats had a fifty percent win rating against the other squadrons on New Earth, well above the Do Not Qualify rating. And considering they were a reserve squadron recruiting from the relatively small number of Americans that lived on New Earth, that wasn’t too bad at all.
“Impressive,” Jack said
“Thank you.” The Devilcat sounded pleased. “I like plans that take advantage of my enemies’ weakness. Always much more reliable than flying in and hoping to get lucky.”
Jack pursed his lips in thought, and smiled as his next question came to mind. “So what do you think happened in this test?”
“I don’t know your weaknesses,” the Devilcat said with what seemed like a verbal shrug. “And you’re Ageless, you lucky bastard,” he said with more jest than real heat.
Jack looked at Betty and she shrugged. He shrugged back in agreement. “Yeah, I suppose I am.”
“Did you get distracted during the fight?” the Devilcat asked, a truly inquisitive tone to his voice. “I ask because you seemed easy to hit for a while.”
Jack turned a smile towards Betty. “Yeah, we were arguing about a few things.”
“What were you arguing about?”
Jack shifted in his seat and sent a questioning look Betty’s way. She nodded. “Oh, how to tell you that you weren’t going to be a Cowboy,” Jack said, not sugarcoating things.
“I see. And what does she think?”
Jack chuckled and looked away from Betty. “That I was letting my pride get in the way of my better judgment.”
“Cybers are good at rounding out our rougher edges, aren’t they?”
Jack smiled. “Yes.”
“Tell me, have you ever regretted listening to her?”
Jack looked at Betty and chewed his lip as she awaited his answer with wide-eyed interest. He sighed. “No, I suppose I haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve missed not doing things because she’s talked me out of it…” He trailed off and studied her form for nearly a second. “But I can’t say I regret any of the times I listened to her.”
“That’s what I thought,” Devilcat Ten said.
“You know,” Jack began in a casual tone. “It occurs to me you know the people in your squadron. Could you give me a list of your best pilots?”
“Yes, I suppose I could,” the Devilcat said with a guarded tone. “But don’t you already have access to that information?”
Jack smiled. The man was suspicious of the change in the subject. Good. “I just have the statistics in the computer. But you know the people. Could you suggest the ones you would actually want to serve with, if you were a Cowboy?”
Silence answered him for several seconds before the Devilcat spoke again. “I believe I could, if you told me what qualifications you were looking for.”
Jack’s smile grew in pleasure and he nodded at Betty. The guy really did have a quick mind. “Well, first of all, we’re looking for somebody who wants to go home after this is done. People with something to live for. We don’t need any Big Damn Heroes out there.” He met Betty’s gaze and sighed. “We don’t want people who have a score to settle.”
Betty’s smile softened at his admission.
“I think I know what you’re looking for, after all,” The Devilcat pilot said, his tone sounding pleased. “I’ll have a report to you by this afternoon.”
“Thank you,” Jack answered automatically, his mind already considering what to do next. If Devilcat Ten gave him good intel here, he just might be able to find a position for the man after all. Not as a pilot. Not unless the man could get a lot better. But he just might have another position or two available. “You are dismissed to return to base,” he added in a more formal tone.
“Roger,” Devilcat Ten answered and banked back towards Leif Erikson Spacebase.
Jack followed the Hellcat’s progress until it dwindled to a dot in the sky before shaking his head. Then he looked down at the display to see the man’s name and rank blinking for him. Lieutenant Louis Mattioli. “Well. That was not what I expected.”
Betty just smiled.
Jack sighed and shook his head. “But these guys are never going to keep up with us. Or the Peloran.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Betty said with a knowing smile. “Charles has plans.”
“They better be some amazing plans,” Jack returned.
She just held her smile.
Jack shrugged as the sensors detected another Hellcat burning towards his position. He checked the screens to verify that it was Devilcat Eleven and nodded.
“This is Cowboy Five to Devilcat Eleven,” Captain Jack transmitted in his best jaunty tone. “You may try to kill me now.”