The enemy craft was nowhere in sight. Only seconds ago it was on their six unloading what must have been its full arsenal on the small group of fighters patrolling the outskirts of their borderline. The blue skies, save for sparse cloud coverage, as well as the radar were all clear.
Max Metcalf of Patrol Unit Four was not so convinced that the fighting had ended for the day. Though his protests drew heavy criticism from his other four compatriots.
"I think you're being a little too paranoid up there, Number Four," Pilot Two, Barry Clarke, said with an air of amusement in his voice. "They had to have gone through all of their ammo on that go-around." His laughter finally came out. "I've got about a quarter of my supply left, and I'm sure you do as well."
While, truth be told, Max had more than three quarters of his ammunition left intact, he hadn't wasted a healthy portion on shots that merely penetrated the clouds their craft had danced around minutes before in combat. And a cloud is much, much larger than the broad side of a barn, Max did not reply aloud. His sparsely-used weaponry had either dealt some damage or completely taken out his intended targets; not much could be said about Unit Two (or even One and Five for that matter). The others in his squadron hadn't a clue how to engage an enemy ship it seemed. Pity.
It was especially a shame that Unit Three had to be blown away. Celia Daives, like himself, actually tried to conserve shots instead of throwing them away like cheaply-made toys. She hadn't been a slouch either; her maneuvering abilities were second to none. Max himself had a time keeping up with her positioning, she had him scoping his radar more often than personally observing her assassin's dance with the enemy. The group they were engaging never stood a chance. Between the two of them, Max reckoned, the opposing squadron were as good as dead—with Barry and the other two (Max hadn't caught their names in the emergency scramble minutes before, his hands shook while he fastened and buckled himself into his cockpit, heart racing, knowing that the real pros would be watching—and judging—his every move in the craft) serving as little more than a distraction from the other pilots swarming their territory.
Pretty soon they will only be a diversion, Max took the second to muse. Without any weapons at their disposal, they'd otherwise be completely useless. Though that wasn't entirely true; if the enemy craft made it perilously close to base or to the civilians, a bit of self-sacrifice was an appropriate option. He doubted very much any of them even so much as toyed with that notion. After all, what good was an evaluation if you ended up dead in the midst of the fray? Even if they were to eject nearing the impact, there would still be the matter of a multi-million dollar fighter to answer for.
"If Command was so sure there was no longer a threat, they'd have called us in by now," Max spoke up. "There's nothing on our short-range radar, but I'm sure there's at least one left—the one that took Celia—"
Barry interrupted with a raspberry into his mic, "Celia hardly engaged and wasn't willing to fire out rounds, she took too long lining up her shots, of course she got blown away. Besides, it was the only one left. It ran out of ammo and retreated."
"Didn't you notice anything different about it?" Mike questioned, praying that one of his remaining squad took the effort to observe in addition to the fighting.
Max sighed. "The one that just let off on us, none of you noticed how much that thing was firing throughout the entire battle?"
Not a word.
"Or how much damage it was able to take compared to the others?"
Number One replied, "Maybe it was a different model. Different specs."
"Nah-uh. All the ones in this group were the same. The armor and ammo count would have been the same. It was also faster and handled itself better than the others."
"Had to have been the leader," Barry said without an ounce of doubt in his voice.
"I do agree there, based on the combat, but that still doesn't explain the other points I'm—"
The high-pitched alarm rang out. Red light flooded the whole of the cockpit. Radar showed no less than 10 blips heading in fast from their ten. Max looked out to his left, a barrage of vapor trails stretched out, extending toward them, changing course gently to focus on an individual target—of which there were four to choose from.
"Split up!" Barry shouted, pulling up and right, breaking off from the group.
One and Five veered off as well, leaving Max flying dead ahead. The missiles started individual pursuit: two after Barry, four on One, one on Five, and the final three on Max. The on-board cameras zoomed in and focused on the approaching targets and put the live-feed on the display between the windshield and the radar.
"Ten Pollaxis missiles incoming!" Max confirmed to his squadron and Command.
"Ten!?" Barry shouted. Those short-range craft can't even support one!"
I told you something wasn't right, Max did not say aloud. Instead he fired one of his three remaining Hurlbat missiles and sent it dead ahead. As it screeched off into the distance he pulled back on his throttle, let off completely the second he was inverted and at one hundred eighty degrees, and righted himself. Max immediately checked his display screen (the cameras on the rear of the craft now took over): six of the ten Pollaxis gave fruitless chase to the lone Hurlbat.
Pilot One fired off another missile that covered the remainders.
"All right guys, good work," Barry said after—apparently—holding in a long-drawn breath. "Let's turn back and engage. There's no way he's got anything left. With a payload that heavy, there's no way that he's got any fuel left at this point."
The blips of his teammates immediately pulled in the direction of the missiles' origin.
Max swung his craft around at a more relaxed pace and lowered his speed. There still wasn't any indication of an enemy anywhere out there. Everything about the situation was shifty as all hell: a standard combat ship, much like his own with the power and armor of a full-sized carrier-class and the speed of a scouter. That equation didn't add up, unless the enemy was playing with a Game Genie on his side.
An alarm screech.
The world around him started to move in slow motion. From below the squad's formation, the rogue craft appeared—going straight up. A thin mist streaked from the bottom, where all the missiles were typically stowed.
Max pulled away just in time for the missile to strike One beneath the cockpit and Five's remaining armament. A brief flash of fire followed by countless pieces of every conceivable size raining in all directions. He didn't even get to maneuver his craft properly to face off the enemy when he heard Barry screaming and cursing, unleashing the last bit of his weaponry all at once. The displays tracked the action—hardly any contact made by his makeshift leader.
Too fast. Too much. No aim. Max repeated over and over again to himself.
The enemy—calm, calculating, and cold—was turned downward and facing Barry head-on.
Don't do it. Get out of there, get out of there…
One shot. One was all that was needed to take down the last of his teammates. A single fifty caliber bullet went straight through the windscreen and—presumably—through Barry. His ship tumbled off course. The next shot, probably more out of showmanship than necessity, Max would later presume, sent Barry ablaze and in fragments.
The enemy was on Max without hesitation, firing all of its impossible arsenal in his direction. He did all he was capable of to avoid them and even used one more Hurlbat to deflect a torrent of Pollaxis headed his way. The missiles did no damage to him, but bullets were another thing. They ripped and tore at the thick metal frame surrounding his body. Damage indicators and warning lamps clicked on and lit up the enclosed area around him like a casino. He struggled to keep his craft steady, the enemy in a reasonable range to his crosshair. He timed his bullets and fired the remaining missiles when he was sure the targeting reticle was over a significant portion of the oncoming craft.
Please, God. Please.
But it was to no avail. The explosions clipped the wings and the bullets pierced the armor, but it still kept coming, closer and closer. The number for the target range on his radar fell to a dangerous low. Mere seconds until impact. He was not going to change course. And he was sure the other pilot wasn't going to either.
Max kept on course.
The other pilot kept on course.
Bullets flew and hit their marks.
Then the enemy was gigantic in his windshield, not on the display screen. There was no time left, none to fire off a fatal shot, nor to move out of the way. Max braced himself in his seat.
In a fraction of one second a bone-splintering crunch rocked his craft, put him at a dead stop from five hundred knots. The front end of his ship pushed inward and fell around him.
Everything went black.
Beverly Gearheart exhaled after taking a drag on her cigarette. She and the other members of the teaching staff listened to the auditorium explode into cheers. The already dismal mood of the educators worsened all around at the sound.
"They're definitely eating it up," Albert True said, peering through the blinds of the window that overlooked the gymnasium. He reflected back on the days where he stayed after class to grade his students' reports, even during sporting events it was difficult to get the noise level up enough to be heard clearly from the adjacent building. That alone made what was happening next door much more frightening.
"Which gives me even less hope for the future," Beverly replied, taking a sip of coffee from her mug (given to her more than two decades prior, at the end of her first year as a grade school teacher. "And these kids here won't have a chance at all."
Uneasy murmurs swelled amongst the rest of the staff.
"Is it even legal for them to be subjecting the kids to this?" Albert questioned, coming back to the large sofa on the far end of the room, fresh brewed cup of tea in hand.
"Why wouldn't it be? They're not doing anything different than the spokespeople for all the businesses on Career Day. They needed to get the students interested and they found a way. Besides, what school is going to say 'no' nowadays? The unpatriotic stigma will hover over the school for years. Parents would pull children or stop them from being registered here in the first place, then the funding would be dropped and the money spent elsewhere." She took another drag from her cigarette and continued, "They look at it this way: 'what's the difference to putting a capable body out to war than at a textile plant or other factory or on a farm after a decade and a half of education? Either way those diplomas and degrees hardly mean a thing when they figure a bulk of the student body won't truly utilize them in the first place."
"I can't say I disagree with that logic—about the unused education, I mean," Albert quickly amended after drawing questionable stares, "but the whole idea of sucking them in at an early age to be used as machines for war… it seemed so inconceivable our government would stoop so low."
"Crazier things have happened when the threat of war looms so close. Lowering the recruitment age and practically brainwashing the kids before middle school. Hell, there'd no longer be a need for a draft ever again. All the kids will be dropping out and throwing themselves at the recruitment offices."
While the teachers lamented on one possible—but very probable—future for their kids, the children themselves were whooping and hollering and cheering for their fellow students as they were being pulled from the simulation pods spaced out along the gym floor.
The pods were egg-shaped, six feet in diameter at the widest point. Each one had dozens of cables and tubing, ranging from a centimeter in width to nearly a foot; they all ran from the gymnasium out the side door to a semi trailer parked in the rear lot. The generator provided the massive mounts of energy each machine took to run while several computers both fed the information for the combat program and took in the information from those in training. It measured everything from kill counts, hits, hits taken, shots fired, percentage of hits, reflex time, heart rate, brain waves, and so on (the first five were to be printed out and handed over to the kids in an official looking portfolio as a memento).
The cheers grew their loudest at the emergence of Pilot Four, Max Metcalf. "The one who fought bravely to the end and faced death head-on" the special Naval correspondent called him as the technicians opened the hatch and carefully removed the wiring from his head, chest, and hands. Replays of his final, bold action looped over and over in silence as he and the other four volunteers were helped out and brought front and center.
"Let's keep on with the applause for these guys and gals," the commentator said, taking a spot next to the five. "You all did very well against the very same program our own pilots train with on a daily basis. You had some trouble with that last one, but I'll be honest, we did stack the odds up against you with that one," he laughed.
Yeah, by cheating, Max didn't say, but kept a smile on his face.
"Yes, I'm afraid you weren't going against a computer, but our very own Navy pilot, Eric Wright!" The announcer gestured to the side doors the cables were running through, and in popped Lieutenant Wright, beaming and smiling to the cheers of the student body.
"We have our special sixth pod outside in the trailer for the Lieutenant here to show our potential prospects here what it's like to go up against a real veteran."
As this was being said the hidden sixth pilot came by and, one by one, shook the hand of each of the pilots. A little extra was spoken to Celia, but Max didn't hear over the continuing roar of the crowd. Finally, Wright made his way over to Max and took his hand and gave it a nice firm shake.
"Excellent skills you've got there, kid," he said earnestly. "Even some of the guys who've spent hours on these things crack sometimes, thinking that it's real. You handled yourself really well."
"Thank you," a sheepish reply came from Max, "You too." Even though you totally cheated in there.
The lieutenant laughed. "I hope to see you at the academy in a few years then."
"You definitely will," Max promised, "I want a rematch."
And next time, it'll be fair; then I'll beat you.