Smiling Jack
The Smiling Jack is the official replacement for the original SAMAS, the Death's Head model.

No, it's okay. Laugh. Spend a good five minutes pounding the table with your fist and laughing your ass off. Get it out of your system. Everyone has to after hearing that.

In truth, the Smiling Jack is more treated as the slightly dim younger child of the SAMAS family. Now, it's not really the Smiling Jack's fault. It's exactly what was asked for, a more compact, lighter version of the SAMAS with similar or slightly improved capablities. But when they ordered it they also ordered the Super SAM and the Striker, so they outmoded the little one by default.

The problem is one of doctrine. The Smiling Jack gets stuck doing odd jobs it's not really meant to because everyone loves the Super SAM a whole lot more. If they had issued Smiling Jacks to the Commandos and ISS as well as support for units going into an urban environment or other tight quarters where its smaller size would have been useful, everyone would have been happy. It would be a respected addition to the Coalition States' arsenal. But they didn't and don't.

If there was a counterforce to the SAMAS, something else of similar flight charateristics, the Smiling Jack would be highly regarded. Not as fast and tough as the Super SAM but highly manuverable and smaller, it would be considered the premier dogfighting machine. But there's nothing out there with a similar role or similar flight characteristics.

Instead it's treated as something to give new RPA Flight graduates before they graduate to the Super SAM. Kid stuff. It is, admittedly, somewhat suited to this role. The Smiling Jack is the easiest to fly, and the easiest to adapt to. It's not much more bulky in fact and certainly feels no more bulky to wear then a set of CA-4 infantry armor.

On the other hand, if I had a promotion for every time I've seen a kid killed because he couldn't run away fast enough for his lighter armor to be enough to save him, I'd be able to treat God and Emperor Prosek like PFCs. When the law of the land is that you live, you learn, you die, you're fucked, the less survivable option is a horrible training tool.

Everyone knows it. Everyone hates that poor, maligned PA-07 suit they're first issued because they know there's a very good chance they're going to die in it before they learn enough to be able to properly defend themsleves. It's an ugly, stupid way to run an army, but nobody at the top is young enough to have gone through the meatgrinder they created so they don't know any damn better.

Today, a training run out of Chi-Town, and pray to god this is one of the Old Chicago Ruins' better days. So far no Rifts, no giant rampaging monsters, just light stuff, nonsentient critters that had moved in and weren't welcome due to their size, that we marked the posistion of for the attention of regular patrols. We practiced building assaults, entry method mainly. It's not easy to crash a suit through the wall and come out standing up. You have to learn confidence and learn your wingspan too, judge where you can and can't go, how quick you can stop and land.

The goal is to be able to make any kind of transitional manuver in three seconds. Officially. Unofficially, most people make it two, because if you spend three seconds hovering somebody with a missile launcher can blow your head off and use it for an ashtray. Two seconds is exactly how long it takes the wings to fold in or deploy and so asking new kids to do something involving that in less is judged unrealistic.

In case you're curious, an experienced SAM pilot typically lands on the fly, folding his wings before, after, or during without slowing down. The suit can hover without wings. We teach the rudiments of this as part of the building entry methods. You do not crash through a wall with your wings out. You fold them and let your momentum carry you the last two or three seconds of flight. Some folks get it and start trying to apply it to other situations. Some don't, and typically wash out to a non-flight PA unit.

So as we formed up from another practice assault, we got shot at. Railguns and particle beams. I heard at least one muffled curse from someone who took a hit, but if they were cursing they were still flying. Another one rippled off his minimissiles.

"Tell me you killed something with that launch." I said.

"I don't know sir." My turn to mutter a curse. The good news was they all remembered enough of their Flight RPA Training to do what any good SAMAS pilot does when shot at: get lower. If they're shooting at you, you're not low enough. Only a Super SAM belongs in the clouds. The rest of us come back with green on the feet.

"Vector left, two one six, and stay between the buildings. If you see something shoot it."

"We going back, Lieutenant?" one of the newbies asked.

"You leave something? Nobody asked us to kill stuff on this run, just mark it." I often wonder why anyone in their right mind wants to get shot at gratitously. It's surprisingly common condition, even among those professions that one would assume require greater than average mental competence like Flight RPA. My job was to bring all these fresh-from-training lunatics back alive and that was what I intended to do.

More fire, but not much. We rushed through it, weaving a little, and put more buildings between us and the location, then marked it for attention from heavies; combat robots with Super SAM support at the least. "Call it in order."

"Deuce. Left arm glanced, it's glowing but it's not serious."

"Three."

"Four."

"Five. My right wing took a hit at the base. I'm not sure it'll close if I need it to."

"Six." The pain in her voice told me all I needed to know. "Penetration. Left foot. I can still fly for now."

"Four, Five, drop back behind Six." The unspoken part of the command was simple: if she starts to crash, catch her. "Skim the rooftops, direct course back to Chi-Town." I switched channels. "Chi-Town Control, we're going to have to cut this hop short. I have wounded."

"Medical will be standing by. Do you need assistance or extraction?" The controller was probably glad to simply have something to do. No major patrols out in the Burbs or the Old Chicago Ruins today.

"Not yet. Have a Locust ready though." The bigger of the Coalition's two helicopter gunship/transports would be enough to carry all our damaged suits back to base and carry a four-person med team out, where as the smaller Lightning would be barely able to fit a couple of medical guys and our lone wounded Smiling Jack pilot and her suit.

"Lieutenant we got big trouble here! Fast-movers!" Karl Prosek on a crutch! Jets this close to Chi-Town, non-Coalition jets, this was the worst day ever.

Rapid switch back to the other channel with a glance at the comms menu I had up. "Dive for the deck and scatter by pairs with whoever's closest there! Six, stay with me." We didn't all make it. Missiles caught Two and Five about level with the rooftops. Of Five, I saw nothing more. Of Two, a pair of legs and a wing emerged from the fireball. "Six, talk to me."

"Hurts Lieutenant." Pain but no slurring. Her suit was doing what it could most likely, built-in medical gear dispensing stimulants to keep her awake and alert and coagulants to try and stop the bleeding.

There was a risk in continuing to talk. You could track RF, triangulate, hunt down the user. There was also a risk in not talking. If another pilot is injured, if they're losing blood, they could pass out with little warning. You talk to them, talk them through things, anything to keep them alert. "How bad are you bleeding?"

"Don't know sir. Foot's still there." Six took the lead for the same reason I had detailed two others to drop behind her before: there was a chance if she passed out I'd be able to catch her before she crashed. At the very least, I'd see her crash and be in a position to makr it and stay with her until extraction. Crashing a SAMAS is rarely dangerous, one of the few things it has going for it over a conventional aircraft. We're slower and lower and very well shock-protected, so it's hard to kill yourself crashing. It is, however, easy to get knocked out. Being unconcious and alone in Old Chicago is its own death sentence.

"Doesn't look too bad." I said reassuringly. There was a hole in the bottom of the foot with the edges pushed inward. It was a stupid design flaw, they'd assumed since we wouldn't be stepping on things like landmines we didn't need much protection on the bottoms of the feet and forgotten that anything facing down was subject to ground fire, which was our real greatest threat. It was a through-and-through. If it hadn't been, what looked like a railgun round would have bounced around inside the foot and lower leg and absolutely shredded both of them, killing Six rapidly. There was blood, but not much, nothing like the stream I'd feared.

"El-Tee, please don't bullshit me. It's fucking awful." Six wasn't happy at all.

"You know full well that I'm nearly thirty percent bio-systems by weight. You'll be fine." I shot back. "Come on, not much further now." Chi-Town's defenses had responded to the incursion with a storm of heavy laser and missile fire, and though I couldn't say whether they'd actually killed the jets or just scared them into hiding, it didn't much matter from my perspective. We were going to make it back.