Chapter 24: Crossroads
JJ and Caleb had to hurry to reach the small cafeteria, before it closed for lunch. JJ had only bought enough food for one meal. Despite their vows to ‘live on love’ the night before, their stomachs drove them out, in search of food. They sat in a back corner to eat, speaking softly, and basking in the glow of Caleb’s homecoming.
JJ wasn’t even aware of the people moving around her. Every few moments, she would reach out and touch his arm, as if proving to herself that he was actually there. Her world was centered right in front of her, and she wasn’t going to let him go again.
Caleb was equally focused on JJ, but he remained aware of everyone around him: at least enough to ensure that they didn’t pose a danger. He knew when the mess staff had finished cleaning the kitchen, and left for the afternoon. He knew when the young men started filing in, and rearranging the chairs for a briefing. His mind acknowledged and dismissed the presence of men that swept the room for bugs, as a security measure. He was even dimly aware of Bran walking towards the building that housed the cafeteria. He noted a person walking with Bran, and how tightly that person was closed to probing for identification.
There was no apparent danger, so Caleb didn’t really care who they were, or what anyone else did, as long as they didn’t pose a danger. His wife had created an amazing bubble of peace and happiness, and he wasn’t ready for that bubble to pop. He knew that it inevitably would, but he was going to stretch it for as long as he could.
Caleb felt it when Bran entered the room, and turned in their direction. JJ was laughing softly at a ribald suggestion Caleb had made for supper, and was agreeing whole-heartedly with him, until she looked over his shoulder and stiffened.
“Blake, honey, what are you doing here?” JJ demanded. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
Caleb turned, and saw Blake following Bran. Now he understood how the person following Bran could lock their mind so tight.
Blake’s body had been in its last throes of puberty when he received a Companion. Learning to shield his thoughts had been a necessary and very high priority to the young teen. His goal was to prevent himself from being embarrassed. His success was greeted by relief from the rest of the household! Everyone could get some sleep.
“Umm ... Volunteers for the space fighters were needed,” Blake answered with a guilty shrug. “My reaction times are in the top ten percent, even for hosts. I’ve worked with armor more than most Companion/host pairs. Mom, I got my Bachelors in Biomedical Engineering. They let me test out the last year, but I had to pay the price of the credits. It was easy. And ... I didn’t want to worry you. That’s why I didn’t tell you.”
“But ... But ... Don’t you have to get permission?” JJ sputtered. She didn’t wait for a reply, turning to Bran, demanding, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“JJ, he asked me not to tell you,” Bran explained gently. “Also, he’s over eighteen. He doesn’t need anyone’s permission. However, common courtesy to notify loved ones is still expected,” he added with a frown at Blake.
Caleb placed a hand on JJ’s arm, saying, “He’s right, honey. This is Blake’s decision to make.”
JJ’s face had a stricken look when she turned to Caleb and buried her face in his chest. Blake’s face looked just as bad.
“Bran, Blake, go on with your briefing,” Caleb silently instructed. “I’ll take care of her.”
Bran nodded before turning toward a chair beside the podium. Blake hesitated uncertainly, and then nodded forlornly before turning towards an empty seat.
“I’m sorry,” Blake silently apologized to Caleb.
“There’s no need to be,” Caleb reassured his step-son. “Mothers have gone through this since sons began going to war. I think it hit her particularly hard because I just got back.”
Blake only shrugged dejectedly as he settled himself into his seat, forcing his mind back to the briefing.
“Time to get started,” a Navy Commander ordered from the podium in a rough, gravelly voice. “I am Commander Ed Murphy, the wing leader for Space Fighter Wing One, also known as SFW1. My credentials are the reason I was placed in charge of SFW1. I am a certified test pilot and have flown test flights with three different prototype aircraft. Only one has made it to production. The other two were deemed too unsafe to transition to production. I have also trained in the astronaut program. I haven’t been selected for a space shot, but I do have the training. Now, I want to give you a brief overview of where we stand. Let me start by saying we have good news, and bad news.”
He paused a moment, allowing the prerequisite chuckles to run their course, before continuing. “First the good news; the armor upgrade seems to be a success. I’ll turn you over to Professor Hawthorn in a moment to discuss the armor and the upgrade process. It will be different than previous upgrades. The airframe of the fighter is finalized. Antigravity drives have been built, static-tested, and seem to meet our needs. We’ll find out how well during live testing. A rail gun weapons system has been tested and mounted to the airframe.”
The lines in Commander Murphy’s face grew deeper, and his visage morphed into a grim scowl. “The bad news is serious, and some of you may decide to not volunteer for this mission after hearing it. That is still your prerogative. Two issues have not been resolved. I’m told that suitable workarounds have been found, and work is continuing towards full solutions. The armor needs a specialized computer to manage the power requirements and armor manipulation. A quantum computer would be ideal, and should provide the same versatility and ease of movement as your current armor. What we have is a hybrid quantum computer. What does that means to us?” he asked rhetorically, shaking his head. “The star fighters will be less responsive, and less robust. We’ll have to live with it until more development is complete.”
He paused again, waiting for any comments. When none were made, he continued. “The other issue is power for the fighters. A fusion power supply is what we wanted. Capacitor power-packs that are easy to replace is what we’ve got! Think of a big battery, that charges and discharges very fast. Additional study of the fusion solution is continuing, but results are not promising at this time. The fusion power supply’s design will allow it to mount in the same space as the power-packs, if it gets finished. If the bugs can be worked out of the fusion power supplies before the aliens arrive, we’ll use them.”
He sighed before saying, “Last, for those of you that haven’t heard, we estimate it will be about four months before the aliens arrive.”
The Commander fell silent, looking at the twenty-five intent, young faces, both male and female. “Four months,” he repeated. “Normally, a project of this scale would take three to five years, and that would be pushing it. A resupply mission for the space station from NASA has a five year lead time! Four months is not enough time! Unfortunately, it’s all the time we have. Be ready for some long days and short nights. We have a lot of work to do. I’ll turn it over to Dr. Hawthorn to explain about the armor.”
“Each of you have armor, and have gone through several upgrades,” Bran began without preamble, as he stepped to the podium. “Past upgrades have been painless and simple. I assume this upgrade will also be painless, but it will not be simple. Past upgrades have been a one step process. This upgrade will be a three-step process. Our armor has always had a built in rudimentary AI. The AI ‘learns’ as you use it, and that knowledge has been passed on through each upgrade, as it will be with this upgrade. The extra steps are due to additional functionality requirements. The armor will have many more critical tasks than our traditional armor.”
Bran paused, waiting for questions or comments, and then continued. “The most obvious of the critical tasks for the armor is providing a closed environment for the host’s survival in space. It is also the exterior armor of the fighters. It must protect you from the harshest environment possible, from attacks from the aliens, and assist you in your fight against the aliens.”
“Specialized nanites programmed as a standalone AI computer is our solution to meeting all these needs. The computer will manage power for the vast number of nanites that will make up your space fighters. Currently, your bodies are essentially a battery powering your armor. Trying to handle all the nanites a fighter would need would be like setting a screw driver across the terminals of a twelve-volt battery. It would drain you! It would kill you instantly!”
Bran paused to allow them to absorb that bit of information. The young faces looking back at him varied from worried to determined. None of them showed a sign of backing out.
“Here’s the wild card,” Bran continued. “The memory of your current armor will integrate with the new armor and computer. Unlike previous upgrades, specialized programming will be included in the upgrade. The specialized programming must integrate with the ‘knowledge’ possessed by your current armor. That means each upgrade will be unique. We don’t believe that will cause a problem, but we don’t know that it won’t. Consider that before you take the final step to go through with the upgrade. Despite our need, we will still only use volunteers.”
Bran paused again, waiting for a comment. None came, so he continued with, “The computer is a quantum computer, but lacks the interface of a quantum computer. In practical terms, the computer will provide solutions faster than your armor can use them. Massive output buffers are used to prevent the computer from overloading the rest of the system with information. Doctor Kim Flannigan is working on completing the quantum computer interfaces. We hope to upgrade again prior to the aliens’ arrival. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know if she can finish in time. That is why we decided to proceed with the computer we have. All our tests show it is functional and effective. We believe a full upgrade will increase reaction time while in flight, and allow a direct interface between the computer and the Companion/host pair. Um ... I believe that’s all, for now. Commander Murphy, back to you. Would you like to give them their schedule?”
“Sir?” one of the volunteers questioned Bran. “Commander Murphy said that work is continuing on fusion power. Is there a chance it’ll be ready in four months? I would sure hate for my battery to die while I’m floating around in space.”
“I would say slim to none,” Commander Murphy replied for Bran. “I do understand your sentiments, and we are taking steps to mitigate that risk! We’ve been prepositioning automated supply points for the last two days. Those supply points swap power modules, reload rail gun sabots and projectiles, and top off environmental needs. Each facility also has a room that can be pressurized. Those rooms can be used by any pilot that needs to stand down, or shelter if your ship is damaged. They can also be used as a staging point. We hope to have two hundred in place before we begin testing the fighters in space. Our plan is to have five hundred in orbit before the aliens arrive. We do have protocols in place that will mitigate the chances of your battery going dead,” he finished drily.
Someone in the crowd murmured, “I still hope my battery is made by the Energizer Bunny!” and someone else snickered.
Caleb leaned his head against JJ and whispered in her ear, “I don’t think I was EVER that young!”
He could have told her that telepathically, but some things are better delivered audibly, in a breathy voice, right behind her ear where she was most sensitive.
JJ shivered, punched him in the ribs, and leaned her head against Caleb’s chest. “I’m afraid for Blake,” she said softly.
“I know, honey,” Caleb told her silently, with gentle thoughts. “I am, too. I’m also a realist. Look at those kids,” he urged silently, gesturing towards the class following every word of their Commander. “This is what young men do! And women, too, I guess. They find a challenge, a wrong that needs to be righted, and jump to meet that challenge. Sometime they’re misguided, or influenced in a bad direction by someone they trust, but they always believe in it. These kids know! They really know that they may be all that stands between the human race having a future, or becoming extinct. There isn’t a larger challenge they could face. Even if you were able to stop Blake from doing this, you shouldn’t. He would never forgive you! This is his time, honey.”
JJ sighed, took a breath to steady herself, and sat up straight. “Thanks, lover,” she said, patting his arm. “I knew that, but it wasn’t registering around the shock of seeing him here. I’ll do better; and when I don’t, let me cry on your shoulder.”
“Tell you what,” Caleb offered. “I’ll even give you your choice of which shoulder to cry on,” he kidded her gently.
“If you’ll follow me,” Commander Murphy said in a raised voice, “We’ll form up in the attached hanger. A star fighter is prepped to accept a Companion/host. Let’s take a look at what you’re going to spend most of the next four months in.”
The young volunteers bolted from their chairs, eager for their first view of a star fighter.
“It looks like a giant praying mantis!” one of the young pilots exclaimed, as the group entered the hanger.
“I think it looks like a hawk, ready to spring into the air,” another volunteer said quietly, in awe of what he was seeing.
“THAT’S IT!” Commander Murphy thundered.
All the young men and women jumped, and moved back from the grizzled Commander. They had not been militarily indoctrinated, and knew better than to stay close to someone who is unstable.
“Hawks!” Commander Murphy shouted, looking expectantly at the young pilots.
The students looked at the crazy Navy Commander with some uncertainty.
Commander Murphy threw his hands in the air, and muttered, “Kids, nowadays!” A little louder he said, “We’ve been trying to figure out a good squadron name. Everything we’ve come up with sounds kind of ... forced. ‘Hawks’ sounds right.”
“Nooo,” one of the young women spoke thoughtfully. “That’s not right! Hawks don’t go into space. But ... Maybe ... How about Star Hawks?” she wondered aloud.
“Ya mean we’d be the Star Hawks?” one of the other pilots asked with a deep Georgia accent.
“Sure,” the girl replied with an unconcerned shrug. “If they’re looking for a name, and we find one we like, then that’s what we’ll be. Is ‘Star Hawks’ okay with the rest of you?” she asked a little louder, looking around.
Answers came as ‘Sure’, ‘Why not?’, ‘Sounds good’, and various other forms of agreement.
“I guess we’re ‘Star Hawks’,” the girl said with another shrug.
“Cool,” the boy said, nodding his head before hurrying to inspect the air-frame.
“That was ... unusual,” Caleb observed, standing next to the Commander.
“I think we just witnessed why mothers question ever letting kids out of the crib,” JJ added drily.
The Commander chuckled quietly before saying, “Working with non-military pilots is really going to be a learning experience.”
“These are the most qualified of current and prospective hosts,” Al interjected in the conversation. “Companions guided the selection process. Military experience was not one of the criteria, though men and women with military experience were considered.”
“Why not?” Caleb queried, seamlessly switching to mental conversation between the three humans and their Companions. He was curious why such a key trait, in his humble opinion, would not be in the selection criteria.
“Engaging the aliens is much more complex than you may have considered. This will essentially be first contact between two species, if you don’t want to include the ship I was on,” Al explained. “Granted, we fear it will be a hostile first contact, and we must be ready to respond appropriately. These twenty-five humans, Companion/Hosts, are among the top in reaction time, spatial awareness, and a host of other physical attributes. They are quite capable of meeting hostility with equal or greater force. They are also the best representatives of the human race in our selection pool. A meld of Companions determined these twenty-five would have the greatest chance of a peaceful outcome, AND of survival if hostilities cannot be avoided.”
“What about me?” Commander Murphy asked. “Did I draw the short straw, or what?” he challenged.
“No, Commander,” Al replied, the smile felt in his thoughts despite him not having lips to smile with. “Every group needs a leader. Where else would we search for a leader, than in the military?” he asked rhetorically. “This operation is more than simply bringing a new flight wing on line. It may be more than you’ve considered. We needed a leader that can lead leaders! Every one of those young humans is a leader in their own way. Their unique blend of assertiveness, brashness, knowledge ... we need all that in space to meet the aliens. We need a leader that can unite them into a team, while not disrupting the gestalt they represent!”
“In four months?” Commander Murphy questioned unbelievably.
“Yes,” Al confirmed.
“Impossible!” Commander Murphy objected adamantly.
“We know. That’s why we chose you,” Al explained patiently.
“What’s so funny, Major?” the Commander demanded.
“It’s just...” he snickered again. “I do apologize, Sir. It’s just that it’s so good to see that happen to someone else for a change. I just couldn’t help but laugh,” he explained still chuckling.
Commander Murphy couldn’t help laughing himself, as he followed his twenty-five little chicks.
“I like the hawk image better than the praying mantis image,” Commander Murphy said loud enough to be heard over the buzz of conversation. Attention turned towards him, so he continued with, “Every group needs a symbol, and a Star Hawk has a better image, when you imagine it. We’ll need a drawing of what a Star Hawk looks like for a unit patch.” He pointed towards the girl that had decided on the name and ordered, “You’re in charge of that. Use whoever in the group you need. Get a few ideas to me, first thing in the morning.”
“Uh...” the girl started, startled. Then she grinned and said, “We’re going to have a patch? Okay!”
Their attention was still on the Commander, so he said, “Let me explain what you’re looking at,” he suggested, walking towards the fighter and waving for the young pilots to gather around.
“It does look like a praying mantis,” Caleb told JJ quietly.
JJ snickered before saying, “A very lethal praying mantis!”
The star fighter did look lethal, but was also skeletal. The main chassis consisted of two broad rails, tilted at an angle with the nose aimed slightly higher. The rails were sixty feet long. Each rail was six inches across, and eighteen inches deep. The rails curved outward from the nose to encompass the width of the cockpit, and curved back together at the tail.
The nose looked bulbous from a distance, but closer inspection revealed more detail. Two protruding extensions from each rail were the exposed portion of rail guns. The actual mechanism of the rail guns extended into the rails. Bluish metal pods encompassed the nose where the rails joined. Similar pods ringed the tail of the craft, near the end, and a larger pod encased the ends of the rails.