Hello, my name is Jack.  All my life I wanted to loaf around home on my boat wearing shorts and sandals with a guitar strapped over my shoulder impressing all the girls with my mad musical skills.  But I also thought flying would be fun.  Hollywood kept showing us “real men” in Hellcats vanquishing the bad guys, 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 some new Avengers….


The Mighty Avengers


Jack studied the fighter in front of him and the other pilots.  It was big, much larger than the Hellcat the United States Marine Corps had been adopting over the last fifteen years.  It was aerodynamic, obviously designed to fly in atmosphere, with a long nose that flowed into a large fuselage behind the cockpit.  Long wings spread out on either side, with what looked like an engine above and below them.  And of course there was the heavy weapons turret, housing four repeating laser arrays, hanging below the nose.

That was twice the firepower of a Hellcat, assuming similar weapon ratings, but the Hellcat had two turrets.  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 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 this fighter as he was.  One look was all it took.  They were.

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, the Shang attack destroyed all squadrons in California and near Washington DC.  All regular and reserve squadrons have already been called to duty, protecting what we have left.  The Cowboys have been reinstated and we are recruiting new pilots.  You have not yet been assigned a squadron.  I’m sure you understand your reason for being here.”

Johanson scanned the line of recruits like he’d bitten off a particularly sour grapefruit.  “I understand that many of you have expressed a preference to piloting Hellcats.  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.  “We are looking for volunteers to fly in this revitalized unit.  Please note that my superiors have informed me that if we do not get enough volunteers, there will be voluntolds.  Congress has spent a crapload of money 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.  The rest of the pilots around him groaned as well, realizing with him that they were about to get a speech from a political animal.  Johanson waved a man forward and the pilots groaned again.  Not 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 gigawatt-class fusion torch drives, the most powerful ever built into a fighter.  They can generate right angle maneuvering while in combat, making the Avenger very hard to hit.”  He aimed the pointer at the main fuselage, behind the cockpit.  “The gravity drive here can accelerate from zero to one percent of light speed in five point three seconds without losing gravity wave cohesion.  It can also translate into hyperspace on its own.  No capital ship required.”

At that, the pilots and cybers alike shifted around in surprise.  Jack frowned.  Fighters were short-range jobs.  This was…something else.  He glanced at Betty and she returned his gaze, mulling something over in her mind, for a second before looking back to the fighter.

The laser pointer moved to the turret under the fighter’s nose.  “She carries a turret with four 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 system network seamlessly.  She also has two gravitic cannons designed to penetrate a 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.  “In squadron strength, when focusing fire, a squadron of Avengers will be able to bring down even a capital ship’s deflection grid.  No torpedoes required,” he noted with emphasis.  “For protection, she is covered with laser reflective armor and can generate a deflection grid more powerful than any other Terran fighter.”

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 twice the firepower of 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, a new generation of ships 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 the man had known how to make one.

Jack 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 torpedo bombers.  This is just…a torpedo bomber without the torpedoes.  How can this turkey fight a Hellcat, let alone a Shang fighter?”

“Perhaps I can answer those questions,” a calm voice said 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?”

“Do you come from the Showme State?” the fighter asked.

“Paul Bunyan’s State actually,” Jack returned without missing a beat.

“Ah.  Of course.  You are familiar with tall tales then.”

Jack chuckled.  “I’ve heard a few in my time.”

“Good.  I will not need to explain the concept then.”

Jack smiled at the fighter’s amused tone.  “I think I get it.”

“Then I assume you think my…press agent’s claims are such?”

“I am not a press agent!”

“Potato, potato,” 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 excepted,” 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.

Betty smiled.  “Kettle?”

“OK.  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, 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.

“The fighter isn’t exaggerating, Jack.”

“Yeah,” he said slowly.  “I just don’t know.”

“I do,” Betty said without hesitation.  “I want to fly 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.  “He’s got hyper.  He’s got fuel stores that are amazing.  We can go places we’ve never been with him, Jack.”  She finished, her gaze challenging him to dispute her.

He opened his mouth and shut it, remembering what he’d told her.  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 she’d told him she did not want 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 her on the 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.  “Ah, fighter?  You wouldn’t happen to have enough ships here for everyone to work with would 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 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?  A boyfriend already?”

Her cheeks blushed crimson.  “No!”

“And here I thought I was everything you wanted,” the fighter said in a hurt voice.

She glared at the fighter for several seconds before turning it on Jack.  “Not a boyfriend!”

“OK, OK.  I’ll take your word for it,” Jack said, holding his hands up in defense.

She continued to glare at him before finally letting it go away.  She replaced it with a sly smile.  “Fine.  You want to know?  He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s got big engines.”


“Hey, it’s your fault.  You made me want to go places!  And engines do that!”

Jack looked at the fighter for a moment before returning his gaze to Betty.  “Touché,” he said with a nod.

“Indeed,” the fighter said, sounding very smug indeed.

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.  When he looked back up, he 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 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.”