Eagle Flight 717

Jackson Sylcar turned his hand over, flexing the fingers.  With the helmet off, the mechanical fingers didn’t quite feel like his own.  The muscles in his legs flexed one side at a time, partly a conscious test of his own body, and partly a nervous muscle twitch.  He didn’t realize it at first, but soon he was testing the muscles in his arms, as well.  He’d done it dozens of times in training- it had been Major Dressek’s suggestion for pre-mission nerves.  Jackson remembered nearly wetting himself on the first live-fire exercise.  And while many of the other pilots had been razzing him about his first patrol, the older guys and girls had just smiled, nodded, and occasionally winked.  The one useful thing that he’d heard in the past two days was an obvious one; “It’ll be just like training.  Training is just bloodless combat, and combat is nothing more than bloody training.”

But this time, when shots came at him, they’d be meant to kill him.  And not everything trying to kill him would be shooting.  In the simulators, he’d faced magicians throwing energy bolts, mutated creatures trying to tear his armor off of him, aliens who would cut him into pieces, and young dragons breathing fire.  And he’d come through almost every contest as the winner.

The chance of meeting dragons grieved him the most.  Among his most prized possessions were a handful of paper-book stories written before the Cataclysm.  His mother had found them as a little girl, and had secretly passed them along to Jackson when he was a teen-ager.  The stories were of a far-away world, where dragons and humans fought together against a common threat, becoming life-long friends.  He had always wished that he could have a chance to co-exist with dragons like that.

But dragons and humans had not met on a far away world; they had met here, on Earth.  And the dragons had been hostile, burning and devouring instead of befriending and protecting.  If he were to meet one of them this morning, he wouldn’t hesitate to attack it.  He wouldn’t be able to.

One of the deck crew began detaching the cables that hung from the ceiling, twisting and releasing their connection to his power armor suit.  He couldn’t see through the reflective gold face-plate of her helmet, but he knew who she was.  Even if he could have seen her, her eyes would have been distracted by the flood of data flashing on the inside of her face-plate.  Before each connection broke, she would confirm the readout from the hanger’s sensors and make sure he was ready to fly.  In training, each pilot had been put into the deck crew’s position, wearing that helmet and trying in vain to keep up with the information on even just the weapon system readiness tests.  Jackson had great respect for these people, because they would keep his armor from failing him when he was out there- wherever ‘there’ was.  When she was down to the last two connections, another figure dressed in the knuckle-dragger’s deck uniform approached, tapped her shoulder, and then began doing a visual inspection of Jackson’s shell.  After a two minute look-over, the new deck crewman lifted up his visor.  It was the grey-haired chief of the deck, Sgt. Raighn.  He nodded once to Jackson, cracked a thin smile, then moved down the line to the next.

Over the past few days, the chatter from the other pilots in his squadron pretty much fell into two types.  Some of them tried to terrify him, describing aerial dogfights with living gargoyles or mutated eagles carrying particle cannons – or captured SAMAS power-armor suits- older models than his, but still formidable- piloted by psychic warriors or techno-wizards.  One of the more brazen pilots, a loud-mouthed loose-cannon of a woman named Tiarica, had told him that if the Splugorth slave-raiders captured his patrol, he’d be the one with the highest selling price because he was the youngest.  The worst ones were the whispered conversations he would overhear about a newly-arrived race of human-sized, mantis-like insects with beam weapon technology of some kind, approaching their patrol area from the North.  Jackson had seen some of the reports himself, and was nervous enough without seeing the other pilots point their thumb over their shoulder as he’d walk by;  “Jackson there will be the first of us to see ‘em up close.”

And almost every time he’d come out of the ready-room, ears still ringing with the others’ laughter, one of the older pilots would clap him on the shoulder and smile.  “Nothing to worry about, kid.  9 of 10 patrols are as exciting as polishing your boots.”

There was no middle ground.

Captain Abraham’s SAMAS marched down the line, stopping at Jackson and bringing him back to the present.  The large air intake behind his head was humming, the engines idling but ready to go at any moment.  The wings were folded back behind him, looking like the wings of a flying bug.  The limbs of the power armor system were not proportioned the same as a human’s, but then an average human didn’t have to contain retractable vibro-blades in their forearms, either.  The upper arms and upper legs were only a little larger than the wearer’s, but the forearms and lower legs were much larger- weapons were hidden in the arms, and manouvering thrusters were in the legs.  The surface of the metal suit was mostly a mirror-polished black, with a white pattern suggesting a skeletal rib-cage on the armor’s chest.  For all its strength and combat power, the PA-07 SAMAS was a sleek, almost svelte machine.  The death-grin helmet that gave this model its nickname, Smiling Jack, faced right at him, reflecting the young man’s face in the black mirror-polished surface.  His commanding officer’s voice came through the intercom Jackson already wore.  The digitally-transmitted voice was crystal clear, like a voice in Jackson’s own head.  “Strap in, kid.  You know the drill.  Stay on Lt. Porram’s wing.”

Jackson nodded to his CO, then turned his head back to the deck crew as she lowered his own helmet over his head.

It was like a slow dive into dark water.  He would often close his eyes at this point, but this time he held onto his last eye-ball view of the outer world for a long time.  The helmet engaged the rest of the suit, locked into place, and for a moment there was only the sound of his own breath, exhaling slowly as the suit came up to full power.

The face plate lit up, showing him the same hangar he had just seen, but infinitely clearer and sharper, enhanced by the on-board computer to provide far more detail than the human eye could.  The computer system immediately began testing itself, querying and identifying the shapes of ordinance as it was wheeled toward a larger, bulkier Mauler-class power-armor suit 53.2 meters away.  Sound followed, attenuated to simulate his preferred volume but picking up more details of sound, digitally augmenting his own hearing.

“Good morning, Jackson,” the computer’s voice said.  He had customized the voice to sound a little like his own father, or what he could remember of his father.  It helped him focus.

“Hello, Ruth.  Ready to join the big leagues today?”

“Always.  Onboard systems are 100% functional, power is at nominal output level.”

“Another day at the office,” Jackson said with a smirk.

A wise man had once observed that no army was ever sent into battle with anything more than the absolute least that it needed to win.  In a way that both comforted and frightened Jackson, and he thought about it every time the weapon systems came online.  The CR-40 rail gun his armored suit carried would put large holes in just about anything he had ever seen in his life, except maybe the hangar deck itself.  And the rockets he carried on his wings, even just the six of them, would cripple all but the most heavily armored vehicles or creatures he’d encounter.

Abraham’s voice returned to his ears.  “Alright people, let’s saddle up.  We head north-northwest to patrol sector A7 for three hours.  The patrol we are relieving is call-sign Condor, aerial radar support is Helios 4.  No reported threats, so weapons are tight until I say otherwise.  That means you, Danielsen – not even potshots at trees.  The quartermaster of the deck tells me they’re going to start charging you for wasted bullets starting today.  Porram, Sylcar, you’re off the deck right behind me.  Danielsen and Leeds, follow.  Communications discipline goes up now.”

Jackson turned his SAMAS toward the flight-line, and marched forward until he was just out of the lift-off clearance circle.  His CO lifted off a moment later, the jet propulsion throwing fire downward as it drove him skyward.  Jackson’s face-plate filtered out the excessive light, giving him a strangely distorted view until the air cleared.  Then he and Porram stepped forward, onto the exposed deck, and into the sunlight.  The faceplate had already compensated for this, shifting the color balance of the display just enough to let Jackson know he was in the sun.  It took some getting used to, but that was what the training program had been for.

Porram’s jet thrusters fired at the same time Jackson triggered his own.  His body felt the inertia for just a moment, but the suit carried him well enough that the feeling didn’t last.  The wings on his back swiveled and locked into place four seconds later, and he arced forward and began true flight.  The face-plate superimposed a radar display in the upper-left corner, locating the other four SAMAS suits in the patrol.  30 seconds later, they had formed up and headed toward their patrol path.

“Eagle Flight, this is Helios 4,” Jackson heard over the general com-band.  “We show you 15 kilos out from your patrol sector.  Condor flight is returning to the barn, and will pass East of you in about 10 seconds.”

“Roger, Helios.  We have your beacon,” he heard Abraham reply.  The radar display zoomed out enough to show the position of Condor flight, approaching to pass them, and Helios 4, which was nearly 50 kilometers away.

The other flight of 5 SAMAS suits waved as they went by.  Jackson smiled to himself, allowing himself to relax a little.  He couldn’t stay tense the entire time, and so far it had been just like the drills and simulations.  Easier, actually – the simulations didn’t waste time on boring patrols, they prepared you for near-disaster of every imaginable kind.
Ruth spoke up a moment later.  “I show an odd ground-level magnetic signature 3 kilos west of us.”  Jackson was about to direct his sensors to investigate more closely when Porram’s voice spoke.

“Captain, I have a magnetic signature west of us.  Looks like a single SAMAS, an old Mark 6 version, on the ground.  Any other patrols we should know about?”

“Nope.  They wouldn’t send them out alone anyways.  Eagles 4 and 5, break west and check it out.”
“Yes, sir,” the two pilots said simultaneously.  Jackson resisted the urge to do something fancy in the air on his first real flight, sticking to Lt. Porram’s wing.  The pair peeled off to the left, dropping their altitude for a visual fly-by.

“What do you think it is?” Jackson asked.

“Probably just an old death’s head.  They’re still used for policing.  We’ll wave, he’ll wave, and we’ll get back on-station.”

“Roger,” Jackson replied.  No big deal, he thought to himself.

“Jackson, I’m…” Ruth said, haltingly.  “Something’s not right, sir.”

“What is it?”  The computers installed in the SAMAS power armor suits were very powerful, and could give the impression of human-level intelligence- most of the complex machines made by the Coalition States had this level of computing power designed into them.  But they never seemed to have personalities, and Jackson had never heard one of them speak as if it was unsure of itself.

“I’m not certain, but I believe something is interfering with my sensors.” Ruth paused again, and a moment later Jackson could see the form of the old SAMAS suit, standing in a meadow just on the edge of the thick forest they’d been overflying.  It turned to face them, raised its arm in a wave, then turned back to the direction it had been walking.  Something was nagging at the back of Jackson’s mind.  Another phrase from training came back to him, another phrase from his training instructor; “Better safe than squishy.”

“Give me the raw data from the sensors, Ruth,” Jackson ordered.  Immediately, another superimposed image blended with what he was seeing.  But the image shifted from one picture to another, in a way Jackson had never seen in training.  One moment, it seemed to be a normal, original issue Mark06 Death’s Head SAMAS power armor suit in perfect condition.  But the flickering image would show a 100% biologic form, not wearing clothes or carrying any metallic mass at all.  It looked vaguely humanoid, but Jackson knew not to trust something’s shape.

“Eagle 4, my sensors are acting funny.  Are you showing any sensor interference?”

There was a moment of silence as Parrom queried his computer.  “My computer reports it normally, Eagle 5.”

“When I look at the raw data, it shifts between a Mark 6 and something else – something 100% biologic.”  The two of them overflew their contact.

“Raw data is tough to read, Eagle 5 – that’s what the computer is for,” came the sarcastic reply.

“My computer is reporting some kind of sensor troubles.  Besides,” Jackson turned his head without leaving formation, “when was the last time you decided to walk, instead of fly, when you were on patrol?”

Jackson was about to turn his head back to his flight path when the figure on the ground raised its main weapon.  “Four, he’s lining up a shot!”

Parrom’s SAMAS turned its head sharply.  “Break right, Eagle 5!”  The two split up, making an air-burst explosion less likely to hit them both.  The power armor on the ground fired its weapon, but instead of the stream of rail-gun fire Jackson had anticipated, a single projectile streaked through the air and impacted Parrom’s right shoulder, spinning him over in mid-air twice before he regained control.

“Eagle flight, we’re taking ground fire here!” Parrom’s voice barked.  He and Jackson were both circling apart to fly back over now, approaching their ground target from two different directions.

Ruth spoke again.  “Infra-red and magnetic signatures are appearing in the woods – 8 isolated heat sources.  I can have ID at 800 meter range.”  The faceplate display superimposed 8 red circles over locations in the woods, scattered along the treeline.  The lone SAMAS still stood in the middle of the field, its weapon still raised.  This time, though, Parrom fired first.

The SAMAS rail-guns don’t fire tracer rounds for two reasons; first and most obvious, tracers work both ways.  You can see where the shots are going, but everyone else can see where they came from.  Second, the visual enhancements built into the armor track the paths of the rail gun fire more efficiently anyway – the pilots can see every shot clearly, walking their fire into a target as if every bullet was a tracer.  Jackson could see the stream of fire from Parrom’s main weapon tear up the ground as he flew over their target, but none of his shots hit home.

“Targeting system is getting strong interference now,” Ruth reported.  “Missiles will be unable to positively lock.  There is definetly some kind of deliberate interference in my sensor systems.  I believe it was concentrating on Lt Parrom as he flew past, and now it is directed at us.”  Jackson had been nearing that conclusion himself, but now had a more imperative thought.

“Eagle 4, there’s something at the treeline.  I think our target brought some friends.”

“Roger, Eagle 5,” Parrom replied.  Jackson watched the other SAMAS pull away from the trees, just as a half-dozen small missiles lifted off and began to chase him.  Jackson moved to help him, but had a hard time keeping up- Parrom had increased his speed to give himself more time.  At the same time, Jackson couldn’t just follow, because he knew Parrom’s next move would be straight out of the book- he would roll onto his back, point his rail-gun past his own feet, and shoot the missiles down.  After a dozen misses, with only one shot detonating a missile, he turned back over and increased his speed again.

“My targeting system is being messed with!” he called.  “Eagle 5, can you hit them?”

Jackson thought about that for a moment, then had a different idea.  “Hold on, Eagle 4, keep shooting.”  He banked hard to his right, swinging back around for the SAMAS – or whatever it was – still on the ground.  He fired directly past it, peppering the ground at the base of the trees with a stream of rail-gun fire.  He didn’t want to shoot into the trees until he knew for sure what was in there, but he might be able to rattle their concentration.  Apparently, it worked.

“Targeting is back up!” Parrom called.  Jackson turned back to see him shoot down the last of his pursuing missiles, then turn to rejoin him.  Off to his left, Captain Abraham was fast approaching with the rest of the flight.

“Eagles 4 and 5, report!”

“Eagle lead, this is 4.  I took a bad hit in the right shoulder, but the armor is doing its job.  Looks like some kind of biological acid attack, came from the SAMAS on the ground.”

Jackson was in the middle of his third pass over the target.  “Eagle lead, this is 5.  That’s not a Death’s Head down there.  I’m getting readings on it that show it 100% biological, but something is trying to confuse the sensors.  I’m also getting energy patterns from techno-wizard weaponry in the treeline.  It’s an ambush of some kind, and the guy out in the field is the bait.  And sir, our targeting systems are getting intermittent interference also.”

“Eagle flight, this is Helios 4.  Be advised, Condor flight is under fire 10 kilos to your south.  Reinforcements are on the way, and will be there in four minutes.”

“Roger Helios 4.  Eagle flight, weapons-free.  Let’s wipe these guys out, and get over to Condor Flight.  Eagle 2, carpet the treeline.”

“Roger, lead.”  Jackson could hear the grin on Danielsen’s face.  That guy lived to blow things up.  Jackson swooped down over the trees again, getting a better location on what was doing the shooting.  Four more rockets leaped up from between the branches, angling toward him, but also showing Danielsen precisely where to aim.

“Four away!”  Danielsen passed within two meters of Jackson, distracting the enemy missiles for a moment as they tried to decide which of them to chase.  Ruth was able to lock in on the missiles easily, and four precise shots detonated them at a safe distance.  He turned to rejoin the fight, just in time to see the tree line explode.

He was positioning himself for another run at their first target, out in the open in the prairie, when he saw it fire another shot, this time hitting his captain square in the chest.  This one was more powerful than the one that Parrom took, and knocked Abraham out of the air.  Then their support radar controller’s voice spoke in his ear again.

“Eagle flight, Condor flight, this is Helios 4… I’m showing multiple contacts headed toward our position.  We may be in trouble here.”  The controller’s voice sounded rattled.  Jackson swooped down towards his captain, ready to fire at the thing in the field- whatever it was- as he approached it.

“Eagle flight, this is lead – break off this engagement and get to Helios 4.” Abraham sounded short of breath.  “This was a distraction – the real target is the surveillance craft.”

“Roger lead,” Jackson heard the other three sound off, and then watched them turn South and increase to full speed.

“Eagle 5, you have your orders,” Abraham said.  Jackson’s eyes were on the dark shape of the old SAMAS standing in the middle of the field.

Jackson suddenly realized that whatever it was, it was standing almost completely still.  Throughout the fight, it hadn’t moved.  It hadn’t dodged fire, it hadn’t walked to get a better firing position, and it hadn’t taken flight.  It had turned in place a few times to fire, but that was all.  Jackson came in very low, almost kicking the treetops as he approached.  At 700 meters, he ordered Ruth to fire two missiles; one to arc wide to the right, one to the left.  The two missiles would hit almost directly from the sides.  The thing turned to face him, and just as Jackson lined up his rail gun, it began to change shape.

It kept its color, which was mostly black, but the wings and flight engines seemed to melt into the body, the arms lengthened and rose out to the sides, and the fingers grew wicked talons.  The legs became rounded, thickened and seemed to grip the ground like the trunks of trees.  The face turned from a skull into a serpent, a long black forked tongue hissing at him.  The head reared back, and then spat something into the air, directly at Jackson.  He banked hard, twisting over in a spiral almost quickly enough to dodge a glob of acid spit.  By the time he’d recovered from his maneuver, he had overflown his target and couldn’t get a good shot with the rail gun.  The missiles, however, found their mark on their own.  Whatever it was, it was blown into a thousand black fragments, scattered into the tall grass.

Captain Abraham lay where he fell, alive and uninjured, but in an obviously crippled suit.  The helmet was off, laying in the grass next to him.  Jackson dropped to the ground 10 meters away.  “Sir, can you stand?”  He turned as he spoke, looking toward the tree line.  A dozen or more shapes were charging out towards them perhaps 50 meters away, weapons of various kinds pointed their direction.  Ruth set to work analyzing them, classifying 3 as mutant, humanoid animals (2 were half-wolves, one a half-bear) and 8 as human or near-human- 3 of them as Juicers.

Ruth’s voice was rough, and broken with static.  “The acid attack has worked its way into the main computer system, and is breaking my power connections.  I am on backup power only, and will be able to function for 45 more seconds before losing power.  The SAMAS will retain power for 90 seconds before powering down.”  Ruth went silent for a moment.  “I’m sorry, Jackson.  I’ll shut down my own systems to preserve as much power as I can for the SAMAS to function.  Good luck.”  A power meter appeared on the left of his field of vision, and then Jackson could hear- almost feel- Ruth switch himself off.

Two of the juicers were leveling their weapons at him- intimidating, heavy, multi-barrel cannons of some kind.  The kind of heavy weapon that required the chemically-enhanced muscles of a Juicer to make good use of.  Jackson stepped toward them, putting himself between the attackers and his Captain.  The rest of the crowd was firing smaller rifles of various kinds at him, some of which missed widely while others peppered the skin of his armor harmlessly.  It was those two in front he had to worry about most- he had enough power/time to hit them with his rail gun if he could get off the first few shots.  He squeezed the grips of the weapon through his armored hands, then sent a long burst of rail gun fire toward them, not bothering to stop firing as he moved from one to the other, but sweeping across the field.  The advancing crowd dove to the ground, but the two juicers were hit.  With Ruth unplugged, he couldn’t tell how badly he had hurt them.

As the SAMAS lost more and more power, it disconnected functions in a precise order.  The next thing to power down was his flight engines.  While they had been idling, they still used considerable power.  Shutting them down would mean a 10 minute warm-up time, which was a long wait if you were under fire at the time.  However, every pilot agreed that if it came down to choosing whether to fly or to shoot, they’d rather shoot.  Jackson agreed, firing his rail gun again as the mutated bear stood up and charged again.  The bullets struck its leading shoulder, and it stayed down.

The wolves separated, moving wide to flank him.  Their teeth and claws didn’t worry him much, but he knew they wouldn’t come near him without a vibro-blade or some kind of weapon that would penetrate his armor.  The crowd before him continued to press in closer, and with Jackson in the open it was only a matter of time before someone scored a solid hit.

Jackson heard his CO shout at him to fall back.  He wasn’t sure what the precise words were, but that was the intent.  It wasn’t so much that his hearing was going, but his brain was prioritizing sensory input differently.  The power gauge dipped suddenly, and then Jackson’s face-plate went dark.

The terror lasted only for a moment.  His arms went rigid for a moment, but then his consciousness reached out into the power armor suit, feeling its skin and servos and connections.  His mind sought out the breach in power lines, but couldn’t close the circuit.  Nonetheless, he could see again, and the faceplate was responding to targeting data.  The sensors were pouring information into his brain, all at once, and for a moment he was almost overwhelmed by it- radio chatter from the aerial battle near Helios 4 as if those speaking were all standing in a small room with him; radar positions of Condor Flight as they went to full speed, closing on him and the captain; visual data from both the armored mask’s receptors, and the targeting sight bolted atop his rail gun.  As he moved the weapon from one target to another, he could see right down the barrel, and watched as every shot hit home.  The last three of the attackers- one of the juicers and two humans- turned to escape just as he put down the first of the mutant wolves.  The other was behind him, almost close enough to pounce, when Jackson fired his last burst for the engagement, two of the shots drilling right into the creature’s head.

After that, the faceplate went dark again, and Jackson could barely stand.  He felt the suit fall to its knees, and he tried to put one hand out to hold it up, but couldn’t tell if he’d succeeded.  The worst part was, he had no idea what had just happened.  The SAMAS had lost power, but he knew that  somehow, he’d brought it back on-line.  After a long silence, he felt himself being pulled upright, and a moment later his head jerked sideways, recoiling from a hard impact on the side of his head.  Someone in a SAMAS, he thought, had pounded the side of his head to wake him up.  He laughed to himself.  But their armored hands were too large and clumsy to work the release bolts.  They’d have to get him back to the hangar to get him out.

The SAMAS suit, internally, takes the shape of its wearer, conforming to their body and cushioning them so well that Jackson could barely feel it when he was lifted off the ground.  A long while later, he definitely felt the gentle shock of being set down on a hard concrete floor.  In another minute, he heard and felt the helmet being detached, then squinted against the shock of sunlight as the helmet came up and off of his head.

Lt Parrom was right in his face- still wearing his SAMAS, but with the helmet off.  “Kid- you all right?”  The other two of his squad were holding him up by the shoulders.  They hadn’t even bothered to take off their helmets.  He stood on the outer hangar deck, just outside the giant armored doors, surrounded by more than half of the deck crew.  Sgt Raighn was moving toward them, wearing a power-loader suit built from a stripped- down, decommissioned SAMAS Mark 06 unit.  Jackson watched as the deck-crew parted for him, and he knelt besides Captain Abraham’s defunct SAMAS.  He picked it up, slowly, and moved it back into the hangar.

“Kid!” Parrom shouted again.  “Name and rank, soldier!”

Jackson shook his head, once, to focus himself, and looked at his squad-mate.  “Sylcar, Jackson, Lieutenant j.g.”

Parrom smirked.  “Might be able to skip the ‘j.g.’ part after today, kid.  Think you can get inside on your own power?”

Jackson lifted his right arm.  The rail-gun was gone, carried back by his squad-mates, and already handed to the deck crew, but the motors in the arm seemed to be obeying commands.  “Don’t know.”  He lifted his leg to take a step, but the suit lurched forward, then stopped as his squad-mates caught him again.  They half-carried him back to his station, and four of the deck-crew began connecting the diagnostic cables to his back and sides.

“Primary power line is severed,” one of them said, looking at the large display over his head.  “Reactor core is pretty cold, considering- only running at 37% output.  The recording box is intact, good recording.  Here comes the playback.”

Sgt Raighn, out of his power-loader now, was striding over as the crew-hand continued speaking.  His eyes were on the display, but he stopped right in front of Jackson.  Jackson didn’t understand it all, but he could hear the confusion in her voice.

“Look at this, sir,” she said, changing the display.  “Power levels from the reactor are nominal throughout the patrol- it spikes right here, when they first make contact, but then backs off, and right here-“ she paused for a moment.  “Power output drops down to 35% and stays there.  No damage to the reactor core, just- demand load dropped.  The suit wasn’t using power from the reactor, so the reactor cooled down.  But the other sensors throughout the entire unit are all peaked- enviro, musculature, weapons… the vibro-blades were hot, even though they were retracted.  Even the flight engines had restarted.”  She paused again.  “Almost every other system was close to overload, but the power wasn’t coming from the reactor.”

Sgt Raighn raised an eyebrow.  “This is intriguing, too…” his voice trailed off, then he looked Jackson right in the eyes.  “How many shots you think you fired out there, son?”

Jackson shook his head.  “Maybe 30, maybe 35 bursts.  I’m sorry, chief, I don’t remember clearly.”

Raighn just nodded.  “30 standard bursts, 10 rounds each, you should have fired upward of 300 shots.”  He pointed up at the display.  “Your rail gun monitors agree with your guess.  But your ammo pack is nearly full- looks like you only expended 20 or 30 rounds.”  He took a deep breath, looked over at Lt. Parrom.

Parrom met the chief’s eyes, then looked back at Jackson.  “Relax, kid, and tell us what happened out there.”

Jackson closed his eyes, and rested his head against the neck-support of the armored suit.  “Power went down, one system at a time, and then the face plate went dark.”  He chuckled to himself.  “I almost pissed myself- but then it all came back on.  I don’t know how.  But instead of the computer relaying data to me, it was coming at me directly- I could see just the same as if the face-plate was working, but I could see out of the gun-sight at the same time.  Like I had an extra eye, bolted right to the top of the rail gun.”  He looked at Parrom.  “I could hear you guys on the radio, the fight near Helios 4, but it was like we were all standing around here talking.  All the sensors were sending stuff right at me.”

Sgt Raighn nodded, slowly, and exchanged another glance with Parrom.  They knew the young pilot would be getting a visit from the inspectors, and it would happen soon.  After what he’d done on his first real patrol, they couldn’t let him go into that interview unprepared.

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