When the Chinese struck, they killed three Peloran destroyers, a starbase, and every Peloran on them. It took us three weeks and five lightyears to track that fleet down. I had never left the Terran system in my life before this. So I made my first trip to our oldest interstellar colony at the head of a Peloran Battle Squadron pursuing a Chinese war fleet that outnumbered us more than thirty to one. That is one of the more interesting ways I have first arrived in a new-to-me star system.
Jack watched the multicolored bands of hyperspace flow over him as he and Betty took their turn on patrol duty. Ahead of them he saw the black mass shadow of a star sucking the colors into it like a maelstrom. The trail of their enemies led into that. He glanced around, confirming not a single ship was in sight. The new Peloran-upgraded sensors could see further into hyperspace than the ones the Avenger was built with, but they still detected absolutely nothing. He checked the displays that showed the locations of the other Cowboys, spread across a thousand kilometers of hyperspace. They also reported nothing in sensor range.
Jack frowned. The patrols just weren’t good enough. The Shang trap at the convoy had proved that. Neither the probes nor the fighters were really good enough to see everything around a fleet. He shook his head. They needed more hulls in hyperspace to keep an eye out. There had to be a way to get more sensor platforms out there so they could detect the enemy before they came up and started shooting. Accepting the situation as is was a good way to lose a war.
“Okay, Jack, enough obsessing,” Betty said.
Jack shook his head. “There just has to be a way.”
“I said enough obsessing,” she said in a more stern tone.
“Fine. Fine,” he answered with a defensive wave of his hands. “I just wish-”
“Jack!” Betty shouted. Her twenty-centimeter holoform glared at him, fists jammed in her hips. “Enough!”
Jack sighed and relaxed back in his seat. “I’m sorry, Betty. I just wish…”
“I know,” Betty said with a sad smile. “You just don’t like the situation. Trust me, neither do we. We’ve been trying to find a solution to it for over two thousand years. We’ve never found an acceptable solution short of throwing more ships onto the patrols. Either fighters or dedicated scout ships.”
“And that many scouts takes a lot of time to build and that many fighters requires carriers which take a lot of time to build.”
Betty spread her hands out. “And we are short on both time and hulls.”
Jack frowned. He’d read that every Peloran Battle Squadron was supposed to have a support element that included scouts and a carrier. He couldn’t remember what it was called but it was on the tip of his tongue. He shook his head in annoyance. “Where is his support?”
Betty sighed. “Aneerin is not in high favor on Pelora. He commanded their best Battle Fleet during the last war. But he and those who follow him have never embraced the peace that the rest of the Peloran have. And so they stripped away most of his fleet, leaving him with a single Battle Squadron.”
Jack chewed his lip and an idea began to form. “The onboard fabricators can basically build anything, right?” he asked, waving a hand at the Avenger that had been mostly rebuilt in just that way.
“Yes,” Betty said in a doubtful tone.
“Could they build more fighters?”
Betty winced. “I suppose they could. But there’s only twenty-four hours in the day, and the fabricators have been working at maximum to repair the damage we’ve taken. Rebuilding the Avengers with Peloran tech has taken up most of the rest of the cycles.”
“But if we get ahead of the damage, we could build more fighters, right?”
Betty sighed. “But we can’t just build more fighters faster. We have to train the pilots. We need a carrier for them to live on and repair facilities for the fighters.”
“Right, right.” Jack rubbed his jaw, turning his idea over in his mind, looking for holes. “And that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Getting transport for the fighters and pilots that give us eyes. Until then we’re just fighting blind.”
“Exactly,” Betty said in a sad tone. “We just have to hold out until the Battle Fleets with their carriers arrive. Then everything will change.”
“Yeah,” Jack said, still rubbing his jaw. “The people who took his fleet away to keep him in check will be so happy with him for pulling them into a war that they’ll give him a fleet and all its recon assets so he can do whatever he wants,” he continued in a sarcastic tone. “I totally see that happening.”
Betty glared at him before shaking her head. “Fine. You have a point there.”
Jack shook his head. “We keep on thinking that all we have to do is hold out until the promised Battle Fleets arrive and then we’re saved. What if they aren’t coming to save us at all? What if this is all we will ever have?” he asked and waved his hand behind them. “And even if they do show up, what if they just come to stop Aneerin from entangling them in some backwater? That Shang seemed real certain that Aneerin would back off.”
Betty met his gaze and chewed her lip. “I don’t like where you’re going with this,” she whispered.
Jack laughed. “Yeah, neither do I.”
Betty’s eyes went wide and she jumped to her feet, straightening her dress and hair with quick moves of her hands. “Hal!” she said in an excited tone as the communications panel came to life.
“Hello, Betty,” Hal said with a smile. His face turned to Jack and he added “Hello, Jack. We are approaching Alpha Centauri.”
Jack glanced back at the maelstrom before them. That fact was real obvious.
“Our last information on the situation there is eight hours old,” Hal continued. “We need real time intelligence. Are you up for it?”
“Of course,” Betty said, holding her hands behind her back. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”
Jack put a hand on his chin and smiled.
“Be safe,” Hal answered in an earnest tone.
Betty gave him a shrewd look. “You want us going in quiet?”
“Very,” Hal said.
The communications panel lit up with another signal. “This is Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Charles transmitted. “Clear for surface action. We are going in soft. Full EMCON, eyes only. Stay away from any large fleet formation if you can.”
Jack raised an eyebrow at Hal.
Hal shrugged. “So, maybe I was looking for an excuse to talk to my favorite fighter,” he said with an innocent voice. “Sue me.”
Betty gave him an amused smile, not seeming angry with him at all for finding the excuse.
“Well, I declare, Hal,” Jack said in a high-pitched southern drawl as he waved an imaginary fan. “If you keep this up you will make me blush.”
Betty turned a shocked gaze to him, but Hal chuckled and shook his head.
“Worry not, little lady,” he said in western drawl and tipped an imaginary hat towards Jack. “My intentions are pure and direct.”
Jack sniffed at him and continued to wave his imaginary fan. “Well, I declare, but you are a forward young man.”
Betty stomped her foot down on the console. “Jack, I swear I will throttle you in your sleep if you do not stop this instant!”
Jack waved his imaginary fan and gave her an innocent look.
Betty glared at him.
Charles interrupted their standoff. “Surface in three…two…one…now.”
Jack closed his eyes, felt the universe flash around him, and opened them to see the blackness of space with stars dotting it and the golden orb of Alpha Centauri A hanging in the distance.
“We’re not done,” Betty said in a huff.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack said and tipped an imaginary hat towards her.
“Better,” she said with a sniff and the displays began to fill with information.
The Alpha Centauri Trinary System was home to Earth’s oldest interstellar colonies. The Chinese had arrived first in the space race, and then the Western Alliance colonized it three years later. The Chinese still claimed the whole system belonged to them, though the Western Alliance ignored that claim. The tensions of that arrangement made it the most heavily fortified system short of Terra itself. It also happened to be the most heavily industrialized system short of Terra, and Jack swallowed as their sensors began to log the titanic amount of refinery and factory stations in stationary orbit over the world the Americans and their allies called New Earth. The Chinese had a different name for it but Jack neither knew nor cared what it was.
The displays continued to fill with tags for Western and Chinese installations, and finally starships began to appear. Jack frowned as the battle lines rendered and he realized they were warships. Flags began to appear over the Western Alliance ships, showing a massive British fleet of over one hundred ships, with a dozen or so German and French ships in support. Jack’s eyes widened as he recognized one of the British dreadnoughts, surrounded by a squadron of battleships that looked small next to it, firing broadsides of gravitic cannons and missiles like they were going out of style. Chinese flags began to appear on the massive wall of battle facing the British, and Jack licked his lips long before the sensors confirmed what he had begun to suspect. The Peloran had tracked their prey across five light years, a half dozen destroyed convoys, and now here the Chinese lay in his sights.
Nearly two hundred Chinese warships, half of them heavy cruisers, were arrayed in a wall of battle and firing massive missile salvoes into the British fleet. Light cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and fighters of both sides hovered between the two main fleets, intercepting missiles from either side with their point defense batteries, and sometimes with their own deflection grids. A French destroyer speared a Chinese destroyer with a grav cannon, and nearly a half dozen missiles homed in on the wounded ship. Jack blinked as its deflection grid failed completely and a dozen nearby British destroyers and light cruisers shredded it with rapid-fire laser arrays. It simply ceased to exist under the assault, but the British paid a price. Several Chinese missiles snuck through the momentarily reduced point defense and ripped into a British light cruiser. It bucked as explosions sunk into it and then something deep inside the ship exploded, ripping the ship apart from the inside.
Jack shook his head as another grav cannon salvo from the dreadnought and its escorting battleships ripped into a squadron of Chinese heavy cruisers, piercing their deflection grids and ripping armor away, flinging it away from the wounded ships. But their missile salvo died far short of the cruisers, and the Chinese screen easily absorbed them.
“Wow,” Jack whispered as he just took in the magnitude of the battle. Fort Wichita had been a mere couple squadrons compared to this and he thought it big. Now, for the first time, he could see true fleets of war at battle with each other, and the scope of it all amazed him.
“Yeah,” Betty answered. “This is what a true battle looks like.”
“Well, we caught them. What are we going to do with them now?” Jack whispered. They only had six ships compared to all of that.
Betty smiled. “We’re giving the Peloran a real-time feed from ten perspectives on everything going on right now,” she said, and the other Cowboys spread out and flashed on the screens. “They’ll know exactly where to strike.”
As if on queue, six Peloran warships flashed into normalspace right behind the Chinese formation. Weapons fire connected them and a dozen Chinese heavy cruisers reeled away, wreckage spraying from their ruined flanks. Fighters shot out of the Peloran launch bays and the plot came alive with missiles. Point defense batteries shifted to deal with them, and Chinese fighters swung around to meet the Peloran fighters. The Peloran Battle Squadron fanned out, spreading the fire across the Chinese fleet and more cruisers belched flame and atmosphere as the British missiles began to break through the point defense. Explosions wreathed the Chinese fleet from one end to the other.
The sensors began to note gravitic surges from the Chinese fleet and Betty gritted her teeth. “They’re running,” she reported as the Peloran fighters spread out, sweeping across the Chinese fleet. Missile tracks at point blank range appeared and disappeared almost faster than Jack could see. The Chinese fighters fired at them, but seemed more concerned with ducking back inside their motherships before they dove for safety, and only a few of the Peloran fighters spun away or exploded. Spread out as they were, the Peloran fighters could do little more than tag them with a few missiles apiece that did little more than dent armor.
Jack grunted. It might be good psychological warfare to show the Peloran could hit them all, but it didn’t seem to be doing much actual damage. A series of flashes worked their way across the Chinese fleet and it faded away, leaving behind a couple dozen smashed and spinning hulks.
“Well, that’s that,” Jack said with a shake of his head. “It’s a real pity we couldn’t destroy more of them before they ran.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Betty said with an intrigued look on her face. “I don’t think it’s over.”
Jack raised an eyebrow and waved a hand at the screens. “They’re gone. We can’t track ’em in hyperspace!”
“Not usually,” Betty answered with a smile. “But I think Aneerin just changed the rules.”
Jack was about to ask how when Aneerin’s face appeared on the communications panel. It showed he was speaking on a scrambled signal, broadcasting to the entire allied fleet. The man smiled. “I am Aneerin ap Taliesin and I wish you all good health, now and forever.” He raised a hand to forestall any answers. “And that is all the greeting we have time for. The Chinese are attempting to escape. We have seeded them with homing drones that can be tracked while in hyperspace. We will follow and destroy them. We welcome all allies to the hunt.”
With that, the Peloran squadron turned away and the fighters returned to their landing bays. A dozen German heavy cruisers and destroyers pulled out of the British formation and accelerated towards the Peloran squadron. A face that could have been the base for an artist’s stereotypical painting of a highborn German officer appeared on the comm. screen.
“I am Flottillenadmiral Axel Aarne,” the man said in a thick German accent that heavy metal singers wished they could copy. “Ve vill fly vith you.”
Not to be outdone, the French light cruisers and destroyers accelerated past the German ships. Jack rolled his eyes as the French commander appeared. “Better get out the white flags,” Jack said with a chuckle.
He felt something smack his arm and he looked at Betty in surprise.
“Jack, that’s mean,” she said in a stern voice. “The French have a long and illustrious military history!”
“Tell that to the Germans,” Jack answered with a smirk.
“Napoleon,” Betty said with an answering smile.
“A short man with delusions of grandeur,” Jack returned.
Betty sighed. “Actually, Jack, he was taller than the average person of his day. And do you remember it was the Russians who defeated him?”
“See?” Jack said as if that settled everything. “He lost.”
Betty pointed at the German fleet. “Who did he have to roll over to get to the Russians?”
Jack frowned and brought a hand up to rub his jaw. “Ah. Right. Good point.” He gave her an impish smile then. “Can we still have the white flags ready though?”
Betty shook her head. “You are impossible sometimes.”
Jack gave her a disappointed look. “Well, obviously I have to work on the times when I’m not then. I can’t have people spreading about rumors, after all.”
Betty sighed in an exasperated way. “No white flags, Jack.”
Jack pouted and she crossed her arms with a stern look. “Yes, Ma’am.”
The communications panel blinked and Charles’ voice came over the speakers. “All Cowboys, form on me. We have been ordered to support the German task force in this hunt.”
“Roger that,” Jack answered and nodded to Betty.
She smiled and sent them flying towards Charles fighter, which was moving towards the Germans.
Jack smiled again. “The Germans. So can we-.”
“No.” Betty arched an eyebrow at him.
Jack blinked. “But you didn’t even let me finish!”
Betty sighed and placed both hands on her hips. “I didn’t have to.”
Jack affected an outraged expression. “Why? It might have been something important!”
Betty gave him a shrewd smile. “You smiled.”
Jack returned her smile with a raised eyebrow. “Hey. I smile just fine when it’s important.”
Betty crossed her arms. “Not that smile.” She cocked her head to the side, daring him to contradict her.
Jack’s expression fell. “Oh.” She was getting too smart for him.
Charles’ voice returned to the communications panel. “And no practical jokes, Jester.”
Jack glared at Betty.
Betty answered him with a smile of pure angelic innocence that he did not believe for a microsecond.
“I’ll get you for that,” he mouthed. She waggled her eyebrows. “Of course, Chief,” he said out loud. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Chief.”
“Right,” Charles said in a disbelieving tone. Then his transmission shifted to cover the squadron. “Let’s move people!” Charles ordered and Jack watched the screens as the squadron came together at maximum acceleration. It didn’t take long for the fighters to match course with Charles. And then they came around with a final burst of acceleration and slipped in beside the German squadron.
Jack scanned the ships and pursed his lips. They were painted various shades of dark grey from stem to stern, making it hard for his eyes to focus on them. What he could see told him that these ships were not designed to be beautiful or graceful though. They were warships.
The communications panel flashed and the German commander appeared. “Ve are happy to fight vith you,” the man said in a voice that ground the words out like a cheese grater. Jack couldn’t tell if the man was mad or if that was just his normal way of speaking. “Is it true that your Avengers are hyperspace capable or is that propaganda?”
“It is very true,” Charles said in a helpful tone.
The German nodded. “Very vell. Ve shall see how you do.” He turned away from his camera. “Brandenburg! Beginnt countdown!”
The German disappeared from the screen to be replaced by another man who gave them all a stern look. After what appeared to be a quick scan, the man nodded and began to speak in a tone that matched his commander perfectly. “Drei…zvei…eins… einführung.”
Jack shut his eyes, the world flashed, and he opened them to see hyperspace again. He frowned in thought as the screens began to flash with data and the general location of the Chinese fleet slowly appeared. They were running towards Alpha Centauri B.
“Was that the cyber?” he asked.
Betty smiled. “Yes.”
“But…he’s a guy,” Jack said in wonder. He’d gotten use to the idea that the Peloran had some male ships, but it just didn’t seem right here. Ships were supposed to be ladies after all.
“He’s German,” Betty said with a chuckle. “German warships are always male.”
“Oh. Why?” Jack asked, keeping an eye out and watching the German fighters launching into hyperspace.
Betty shook her head as the Germans accelerated towards the Chinese fleet, cutting a swath through hyperspace that spread out behind them. Jack felt the engines power up, thrusting them through hyperspace on their own, the knife-edge of their long nose cutting through the gravitic waves with ease.
“There’s a lot of cultural reasons for it,” Betty said with a shrug. “The best I can tell from old linguistic records, everybody called any ship they planned on living on for a long time by a female name. The English with their months-long travels around the world are the best example of that. They made it normal for all ships, even fighting ships, to be ladies in the English-speaking world, which is why I am me,” she said and waved her hands down her very female form. “Germany was never a great naval power though, mostly made up of coastal defense boats, and I think they figured that men should fight. If I’d been born there, I would have been a much more proper masculine warrior like that Teutonic fellow,” she finished with a wink and a wave of her hand towards the communications panel.
Jack pursed his lips, looked at her, and nodded. “I think I like you just the way you are.”
Betty bestowed a pleased smile on him. “Why, thank you, kind sir.”
Jack looked around in mock confusion. “Okay. Who are you talking to now?”
Betty laughed and patted his hand. “Of course, I’m still trying to figure out why the French think of their warships as male.”
Jack frowned. “Weren’t they real big on the oceans back in their day? You know, before they started manufacturing white flags?”
Betty slapped him again. “Bad Jack. I take back the ‘kind sir’ bit.”
“Thank you,” Jack returned with an impish smile. “I’d hate for people to get the wrong idea about me.”
The communications panel blinked. “This is Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Charles transmitted and a navigation beam appeared on the screens. “Follow my beam. We are on forward recon duty,” he said and accelerated. The rest of the squadron accelerated away from the German squadron with him. “We will be providing targeting information for the fleet so secure to laser comms and maintain low power levels. We do not wish to be seen.”
“Roger that,” Jack answered with the rest of the Cowboys. He frowned at the screen that showed another squadron of fighters keeping pass with them. “What are they doing?”
“Those fighters on our starboard wing are our German shadows,” Charles answered. “It seems that the Flottillenadmiral does not think we can do our job and is sending someone he can trust to do it for us should we fail as he expects. I say we show him what Americans are capable of. What say you?”
“Oorah!” Jack shouted in chorus with the other Cowboys.
“Good. Now be careful. We are approaching our prey.”
Jack looked to his screens to see the Chinese fleet ahead of them. The Cowboys and the German squadron flew outside detection range, and far back out of their own detection range the German warships continued to close the range at a more sedate pace. He only knew where they were because of the communications relays flying behind them, forwarding their messages back and forth through the soup of hyperspace. Icons showed where the French and Peloran squadrons were, far enough off to the sides that only more communications relays kept the fleets in contact with each other. Smaller icons showed where the French and Peloran fighters did their own scouting for the exact locations of the Chinese warships ahead of them.
The communications panel flashed and Aneerin appeared on it with a grim expression. “All ships, prepare to move into firing range. Fighters. Acquire targets.”
Jack grabbed the throttle and stick as they accelerated towards the Chinese fleet. He peered ahead, watching the multicolored hues of hyperspace for any clue of what lay beyond them. The bands of gravity that rippled through hyperspace were so strong that they bent light itself, making it hard to detect anything more than a few kilometers away even with the Peloran upgrades.
Jack licked his lips as a shadow appeared ahead of them, followed by another and another. Betty slowed their approach and the shadows clarified, their gravitic engines calming the chaos of hyperspace and showing them the general shapes of Chinese destroyers and heavy cruisers. On the screens, more cruisers, destroyers, and even frigates appeared as the other fighters sent the results of their recon back through the communications relays. They knew what the edge of the Chinese formation looked like.
“Commence bombardment,” Aneerin ordered. “Now.”
Jack watched the screens where missile tracks shot out of the German, French, and Peloran warships, traveling in a long curve that brought them into attack range from a completely different angle than they’d been fired from. The missiles streaked in at terminal attack velocity and activated their gravitic generators. In their last second of life, they generated gravity equivalent to miniature black holes, shredding the bands of gravity around them, and then let go as their power ran out, exploding into a wave of gravity and shrapnel.
It was always impressive to see a well-placed missile salvo ripping a deflection grid apart, but Jack’s eyes opened wide as he lifted them from the screen to actually watch the Chinese warships. For a moment, the multicolored hues of hyperspace dimmed and twisted around the Chinese as the missiles’ gravity wells sucked all light into them. When they released their hold on gravity, he watched hyperspace itself recoil. The bands of color snapped back into their preferred course, free once more to flow from star to star as they had for eons beyond measure. And sometimes they ripped right through an unprepared warship.
The edge of the Chinese fleet literally ripped apart under the assault.
“Frak me,” Jack whispered in horrified wonder.
“Move in!” Charles interrupted in a tone that accepted no delays. “We need more targets!”
“Roger,” Jack whispered and Betty moved forward, slipping into the wreckage that had once been warships. They became even more effectively invisible than before in the clutter, and hazy intact warships appeared in the distorted bands of hyperspace. More missiles streaked in, hyperspace recoiled from the assault, and the ships came apart.
“Closer!” Charles barked.
They inched through the expanding wreckage and more warships came into view, firing missiles blindly in the direction the bombardment came from. The missiles never even came close to the allied squadrons. Chinese fighters flew into view as well, looking for any attackers, but most of them had to be focusing on the path of the missiles. The few who flew near the Cowboys were probably wishing they were closer to the missile tracks and not spending nearly enough attention trying to find the threat that lay right under their noses. More missiles streaked in and tortured hyperspace whipped through more Chinese warships and some fighters.
Jack swallowed. This wasn’t a battle. It was a massacre.
A series of flashes ripped through hyperspace beyond where he could detect anything, and the hazy positioning they had on the Chinese fleet faded away. They had fled back into normalspace to escape the utter destruction being visited on them here. A few seconds later, information trickled through the communications relays to show him what another squadron saw in normal space. Half of the former Chinese fleet hung in space, scanning desperately for the enemy who had found them in hyperspace. Jack glanced at the screens showing hyperspace and winced as the Peloran warships accelerated towards the remains of the Chinese fleet.
The communications panel flashed and Aneerin appeared on it again with a satisfied smile. “No mercy,” Aneerin ordered and his image faded. The Peloran squadron flew past Jack’s location, close enough he could see them with the naked eye, their gravitic drives causing eddies of darkness in hyperspace. They flashed out of hyperspace before his eyes, flashed back into existence inside the Chinese formation on the screens, and all hell broke loose.