All my life, I wanted to loaf around home on my boat wearing shorts and sandals. I would use a guitar to impress all the girls with my mad musical skills. But I also loved to fly. Hollywood kept showing us “real men” in Hellcats vanquishing the bad guys of the day, so when I realized I might just be a pilot, I wanted to fly Hellcats. Then some politician with a hankering for pork got a reinstated reserve squadron assigned with something new….
Jack studied the fighter standing before him and the other pilots. It was too big to be a real fighter, twice as long as the Hellcat the United States Marine Corps had used the last few decades. Unlike the aerodynamic Hellcat, the Avenger was angular, with harsh lines showing that the design process was still ongoing. The long nose, as long as the Hellcat on its own, jutted out of the massive fuselage that housed the cockpit. Thick wings spread out on either side, carrying what looked like massive gravitic cannons, but Jack wasn’t certain he liked that. In fact, he was pretty certain he didn’t. He couldn’t see the missile racks that made the Hellcat such a powerful space superiority fighter. With gravitic cannons, the Avenger would be more of an attack craft, designed for anti-shipping duties. Though what looked like an engine tacked on above and below showed that it was designed to maneuver.
Then there was the heavy weapons turret, housing what looked like four heavy laser arrays, hanging below the nose. He didn’t like the idea of having all the weapons on a single turret. It would be too easy for a lucky shot to blow them all off, and then anyone piloting this thing would be in serious trouble. Jack pursed his lips and turned to the other pilots, wondering if they were as worried about all this as he was.
There was Charles Edward Hurst of Pennsylvania. And it was always Charles Edward Hurst. The whole name. His family was powerful on the East Coast, with plenty of political connections, and he just rubbed a Jack who’d grown up on Northern Minnesota lakes the wrong way. He was talking with the massive Jay Lovato of the Navajo Nation and Daniel Freemon of Dixie. Both their fathers were presidents of their respective nations, but neither one seemed to let it go to their heads. Jack liked them.
Then there was Buckaroo Banno from Los Angeles. The world famous Free Japanese surfer. He had a few grievances after a particularly large piece of Yosemite fell on Los Angeles and created a new crater lake. And the very nice young lady talking to him was the famous hula dancer from Hawaii, Drew Keawe. Jack had enjoyed her dancing for most of his life, and he hoped he hadn’t made too much of a fool of himself the first time he’d seen her. He was pretty certain that hope was in vain.
Jack on the other hand stood next to Jesse James, no relation to the famous outlaw, whose sole other claim to fame was being a farmer from Kansas. And he was built like a comic super hero, a fact that made the lanky and thin Jack just a little bit jealous. Jack wondered once again just what selection process had dropped them into a squadron with so many famous and powerful people in it.
At least he could see one thing from looking at the pilots right now, though. They were all worried and surprised at what they were looking at.
A colonel stepped forward, and every pilot and cyber came to attention, saluting him automatically. The colonel saluted back and frowned.
“At ease,” he ordered and the pilots and cybers relaxed. “I am Lieutenant Colonel Mathew Johanson, commander of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, the Cowboys. For those of you for whom the news blackouts actually worked, we just lost five more squadrons at Mars. Add those to what we lost in California and Washington DC, and we are commencing full mobilization of the reserves. You have been sent to Marine Aviation Group 41 as our first volunteers, and in their infinite wisdom my commanders have decided that you are an excellent fit for the revitalized Cowboy squadron.”
Johanson scanned the line of recruits as if he doubted the infinite wisdom of his commanders. “I understand that many of you have expressed a preference to piloting Hellcats. As you can see, the Cowboys are not a Hellcat unit. We have been assigned the first Avengers off the production line, by the supreme intelligence of the United States Congress and the personal politicking of the Senior Senator of the Great Republic of Texas. Oorah.” Johanson waited until he received a ragged series of Oorahs before continuing. “Congress has spent decades and fortunes building the Avengers and they want them in space. Understood?” The ragged chorus of Oorahs was even more ragged this time. “Now that we understand each other, Congress has sent us an expert on the Avenger to brief us on its abilities.”
Jack groaned at the last statement. They were about to get a speech from a political animal. Johanson waved a man forward and even the politically connected pilots groaned this time. It wasn’t a political animal. It was worse. It was an egghead, and it wielded one of the weapons of their trade like a sword. A laser pointer.
“I am Doctor Kevin Parrish, from the Office of Naval Research. Pilots, please refer to your pads for more information. Cybers, you should be getting the datadump now.”
Jack glanced down at the pad on his chair arm and his eyes narrowed. There were lies, damned lies, and statistics, and he trusted them all equally. He did not pick up the pad.
“This is the Grumman F-12 Avenger,” Parrish said with a wicked slash of his laser point across the fighter. He then settled it down by pointing at one of the fighter’s four main engines, on the wings. “These are Pratt & Whitney SF113 gigawatt-class fusion torch drives, the most powerful ever built into a fighter.” He aimed the pointer at the main fuselage, behind the cockpit. “The Alcubierre Class F5 gravity generator can allow acceleration from zero to one percent of light speed in five point three seconds without losing gravity wave cohesion.” The laser point slashed down the long nose. “And this houses a series of Casimir F3 Mark V hyperspace penetrators that can create a breach in the hyperspace wall on their own. No capital ship required.”
Several of the pilots and cybers alike shifted in surprise at that. Jack frowned with them. Fighters were too small to create a breach. He scanned the exaggerated nose, seeing the power couplings running up and down it, and began to nod. This really was a very big fighter. With enough energy, it just might be able to create two gravitic shears far enough apart to create an opening. He glanced at Betty and she returned his gaze, mulling something over in her mind, before looking back to the fighter.
The laser pointer moved to the turret under the fighter’s nose. “She carries a turret with four Kratos L23 laser emitters, that can fire in all directions in both anti-ship and anti-missile modes, allowing her to slot into a capital ship’s anti-missile defense grid seamlessly. She also has two General Dynamics Havok Class-51 gravitic cannons designed to penetrate any deflection grid,” he continued, aiming the pointer at a large port just under the cockpit on the forward edge of the fighter’s port wing. “A squadron of Avengers can focus fire to bring down even a capital ship’s deflection grid. No missiles required,” he noted with emphasis. “For protection, she is covered with Strabo R12 laser reflective armor and carries a Convair GF16C deflection grid.”
The doctor smiled at them and brought the laser pointer down to the floor with a wicked slash. “In short, the Avenger is faster than the Hellcat, more maneuverable than the Hellcat, carries more firepower then a Hellcat, is harder to kill than the Hellcat, and is capable of destroying capital ships in squadron strength. This is the ultimate heavy fighter, carrying the most advanced combat and defense systems ever placed on a fighter, that we will use to kick the Shang’s asses across the universe,” the doctor said with what could almost have been a wicked smile if he weren’t an egghead. It was a shame. He looked like he’d really practiced that last line.
Jack glanced towards the pad with a frown. Most of the names the egghead had rattled off his tongue meant little to Jack, but he could see what the man was promising. Jack just didn’t believe it. He glanced at the other pilots to see what they thought. They seemed to think the same as him. The Avenger was too big to be a proper fighter. He couldn’t believe it could actually maneuver the way the doctor said, not with all that mass to move.
Johanson stepped up quickly. “Does anybody have any questions?”
Jack looked around at the others again before sighing. “Look, I’m certain there is a really good presentation in here,” he said with a wave towards the pad. “How many gigawatts the main reactor can dish out and all that stuff. But she’s just too big to be a proper fighter. And I don’t care what he says, a Hellcat’ll turn circles around this thing. It’s designed to kill anything smaller than a destroyer. This thing is…just a big target. How can this turkey fight a Hellcat, let alone a Shang fighter?”
“Perhaps I can answer those questions.” The very strong southern drawl of Texas’ primary AI voice came from the fighter.
Betty smiled and Jack narrowed his eyes at her. She nodded towards the fighter. Jack pursed his lips, not wanting to listen. She lowered her chin and put both hands on her hips. She was not going to take no for an answer. He sighed and turned to the fighter. “Yes?”
“May I assume you think my…press agent’s claims are tall tales?” the fighter asked.
“I am not a press agent!” the doctor shouted in indignation.
“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to,” the fighter said with a sigh. “Your presentation works well on politicians, not so well on pilots.”
Jack frowned at the interplay, still considering the fighter’s question. Something about the fighter made him realize it was waiting for him again. He smiled at it. “Yes I do, but perhaps you can show me I’m wrong,” he said, laying the challenge out for the fighter.
“Challenge accepted,” the fighter said with what sounded like a smile. “Now if you will allow me to demonstrate, I will show you why I am far better than any mere Hellcat,” the fighter finished with a verbal sneer.
“You don’t like the Hellcats?”
The fighter harrumphed. “They are too full of themselves. Stuck up jocks who think they are the best thing since the recycler.”
“Pot?” Jack asked, his eyes shifting to rest on Betty.
Betty smiled back at him. “Kettle?”
“Okay. Fine. You got me,” the fighter said in annoyance. “Maybe we’re just built to know we’re the best, but I’ve seen the Hellcats’ stats and I know I’m better than they are.
Jack gave the fighter an appraising eye. “You’re bigger than they are. You won’t maneuver as good in a fight.”
“I’ve got better maneuvering thrusters than they do. And my main generator gives me better control over gravity than Hellcats have. I make up for the bulk.”
“Interesting. So you think you can match them in combat?”
“Mostly. I have better deflection grids than they do, though in pure numbers they have some maneuvering advantages,” the fighter said, reluctance in its tone. “I do make up for the bulk, but they have a lower starting point. They will however never be as good as I am in anti-ship operations. If all you ever want to do is fight other fighters, the Hellcats are great for you. If you want to kill big ships, and all the Shang on them, I’m the fighter for you. Also, I can translate through the hyperspace barrier. Fighters are real hard to see in hyper. Do you like sneak attacks?”
Jack gave the fighter an evil smile. “I love ’em.”
“Well then, imagine all the things you can do with a fighter that can fly through hyper and kill a warship when it arrives, without being detected through the barrier.”
“I’m imagining. I like what I’m imagining. How ’bout you?” he asked, turning to Betty.
“Me too,” she said with a smile aimed at the fighter. “You do a good job selling yourself.”
“Somebody has to,” the fighter said with a bit of a growl.
“May I?” Betty asked and stepped forward, her hand held up.
“Of course,” the fighter returned.
Betty walked up to the fighter and put her hand on it. She stood there for several seconds before turning to glance at each of the other cybers. She waved them forward and they followed her example. After a few minutes of low murmurs back and forth, Betty strode back to Jack, confidence in every step.
“She isn’t exaggerating, Jack.”
“Yeah,” he said slowly. “I just don’t know.”
“I do,” Betty said without hesitation. “I want to be that fighter.”
Jack frowned and looked at her for a long time. She returned his stare without blinking. Not that she really needed to blink of course, but it was real unnerving when she just stopped it altogether. “Are you certain?” he finally asked.
“The Hellcat’s a short range fighter, Jack. Only good for killing things.” She waved an arm at the Avenger. “She’s got hyper. She’s got fuel stores that are amazing. We can go places we’ve never been with her, Jack.” She finished, her gaze challenging him to dispute her.
He opened his mouth and shut it, remembering what her mother had said. He looked down at her feet, seeing the white sandals she still wore, a small rebellion against the uniform standards even cybers had to follow when on duty. The sandals she’d first worn right after he told her about going places he’d never been in the Boundary Waters. Right after her mother told him she did not want her daughter to be caught in a never-ending cycle of vengeance with him. He sighed and looked back up at her with a smile.
“Using my own words against me I see.”
“I’ll take every advantage I can get,” she answered with a wink.
“That’s my girl,” Jack said and patted the feathery edge of her holographic shoulder. He turned to the fighter and waved a finger at it. “I’m not saying yes. But my partner…well….”
“She’s a smart cyber,” the fighter supplied.
“Yeah.” Jack turned to take in the other pilot teams and frowned. “Um…You wouldn’t happen to have enough fighters here for everyone to have a go at you?”
The fighter laughed. “Do you really think we would come here without enough for that purpose?”
“We work for the government,” Jack said, deadpan.
“Touché. Yes there are enough of us. In the hangar.”
“But they haven’t been briefed!” the doctor wailed.
“Shut up,” the fighter ordered and the man stepped back to the wall again. “Colonel?” the fighter asked.
“I agree,” Johanson answered, giving the fighter an approving nod. “Proceed as you will.”
“Excellent,” the fighter said, lifted a few centimeters off the floor, hovering on its grav plating, and turned towards the wall. The wall split open, revealing a hangar full of eleven more fighters beyond the briefing room.
“Nice. You did come prepared,” Jack mumbled in the direction of the hangar.
Betty followed the fighter, her hand on its wing possessively.
“Betty?” Jack said in concern. “We haven’t even flown it yet.”
“I have faith in you,” Betty returned in a joyful tone. “You’ll like her when you do.”
Jack scratched his chin and sighed. “And if I don’t?”
Betty beamed at him. “You will.”
“Indeed,” the fighter said, sounding very smug. “In fact I think you’ll love me.”
“Quiet you,” Jack said with a glare towards the fighter. Then he turned back to Betty. “Betty, I promise to give it a shot, but if it doesn’t live up to the hype I’m going to push for something different.”
“Whatever you think is best,” Betty said with a smile that conveyed she already knew what was best. It was amazing how much like a real girl she could act. Jack rubbed his temple with the fingers of one hand, considering again that he’d really never considered what life would be like with a cyber before he jumped in feet first.
Jack finally looked back up and stopped in his tracks as the scene finally caught his attention. A dozen Avengers hovered on their grav plating, engine pods flush with the wings for atmospheric operations, their noses facing towards the hot Texas landscape shimmering outside the hangar doors. They looked ready to fly, ready to kill. They looked dangerous.
Jack smiled. He supposed he could live with that. If they flew well of course. Jack smiled at the fighter. “I do hope you fly as good as you talk. I am so ready to kick the Shang’s asses across the universe if you can.”