I was one of the first twelve Cowboys. A lot more came after. We’re all American. We all flew with the Peloran. Others flew with them too. British, Scottish, French, Polish…in the end, every nation in the Western Alliance sent pilots to fly with the Peloran. But they were not all called Cowboys. I remember when I met the first German to fly with us. That Teutonic fellow always did consider himself a knight in shining armor. It’s no surprise what they’re called now.
Jack sat in the cockpit of his Avenger, watching the multicolored bands of hyperspace drag the wreckage of the battle away. Pieces of Chinese warships floated away and disappeared into the distance, where they would almost certainly be lost for all time. Nothing lost in hyperspace ever came back. His screens showed the Peloran ships flash into existence inside the remains of the Chinese formation hiding in normalspace. The Peloran slashed through them, firing gravitic cannons, missiles, kinetic lances, and lasers. Fighters launched to meet the Chinese fighters and normalspace filled with the explosions of fighters and warships.
“Frak,” Jack whispered and shook his head. There were still nearly one hundred Chinese warships to the six Peloran warships. Or not. The Peloran squadron shot out of the Chinese formation, their rear grav cannons and lasers smashing through the grids of ships that had been frantically forcing power to their other deflection grids until moments before. The Peloran warships spun and came back, their weapons rings glowing as their lasers and gravitic cannons connected the two fleets. The forward edge of the weapons rings fired nearly constant barrages of pulsing lasers that ripped into one Chinese warship after another. With deflection grids already ravaged by the grav cannons or missiles, the lasers burned deep into the Chinese ships, causing puffs of atmosphere to escape. “Remind me to never piss off the Peloran,” Jack said with a shudder as two more heavy cruisers fell out of formation, spinning and shedding wreckage and atmosphere into space.
They didn’t go down alone though. One of the Peloran cruisers on the Guardian Light’s flank shuddered as several hits penetrated her deflection grid. The upper grav cannon exploded under the punishment, and the weapons ring connecting it with the other two cannons peeled away. Those two sections of the ring went dark, the lasers failed, and more missiles began to rain down on her. Or him. Jack frowned, annoyed that he didn’t even know who that ship’s cyber was.
That was when hyperspace flashed behind him, and a few moments later the German cruiser squadron appeared on his screens. Their missiles and grav cannons ripped into the Chinese flank, and more ships spun away from their formation. Jack glanced back to see the wounded Peloran cruiser, the rest of her weapons ring ripped away and atmosphere billowing out of its flanks, flash and disappear from normalspace. He hoped she found the safety that had eluded the Chinese.
The Peloran Battle Squadron slashed back into the Chinese fleet, sowing confusion and keeping them from organizing a missile-spewing wall of battle that would have overwhelmed the point defense of the German squadron. Normalspace flashed again and Jack flicked his gaze over to see the French squadron slinging missiles and grav beams into another flank of the Chinese fleet. He had to hand it to them. They knew how to rise into battle at the right time.
“I guess these guys forgot their white flags at home,” he said in an impressed tone as one Chinese cruiser and two destroyers exploded under the French guns.
“Hush, Jack,” Betty answered and slapped him again. “Be nice.”
“I am,” he protested.
Between the Germans and French bombarding the Chinese from long range, from different vectors, and the Peloran slashing through them again and again, Jack watched the Chinese formation fall apart. They didn’t fall alone, of course. Jack winced as an entire swarm of missiles engulfed a single French cruiser and exploded. When he could see again, the cruiser was simply gone. A German cruiser broke in half in a spectacular flash, and Jack wondered if his ammunition bunker had blown. A Peloran destroyer ate a salvo of missiles that sent her spinning out of control. Jack sucked in a deep breath as the ship spun into a Chinese destroyer and ripped through it like a buzzsaw. She came out the other side of the expanding debris, still spinning with weapons ring and grav cannons torn off and trailing in an expanding field of wreckage.
“Holy frak,” Jack whispered and licked dry lips.
“They’re running!” Betty shouted and Jack shifted his eyes as a series of flashes appeared in the middle of the Chinese fleet. He waited for the beacons to appear on the screens but nothing happened. He frowned.
“Forward!” Charles shouted. “Fan recon now!”
“Oorah!” the Cowboys answered and accelerated out of the wreckage that remained of the battle in hyperspace. Jack held on to the throttle and stick and watched the Cowboys spread out in a giant fan as they flew towards where the Chinese ships had dived back into hyperspace. He wondered if they’d found the beacons and turned them off or if the beacons had just died of old age. Whatever the case, this had just become a lot more difficult.
“We’ve got them!” Mary shouted from the fighter she shared with Jesse James. Then the screens filled with a sight of two Chinese heavy cruisers escorted by three destroyers and two frigates running for dear life.
“Keep them in visual range,” Charles ordered. “We are coming.”
“Yes, sir,” Mary answered and Jack saw more data streaming onto his screens.
“Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Charles began. “Form on my beam and prepare to attack.”
“Oorah!” Jack and the others answered as their Avengers accelerated to follow his fighter. “Great,” Jack said in a more reserved tone. “We’ve got them. Now what do we do with them?”
“Look on the bright side,” Betty said with a smile. “The Germans kept up so we have double our normal number of fighters to deal with them.”
Jack glanced at the screens that showed the German fighters assigned by the German commander to make certain the Cowboys didn’t screw up.
“Great. They’ll be so much help,” Jack said in a sarcastic tone. He looked at the screens showing normalspace and gulped. They were blank. The Cowboys had gotten out of range of the communications relays. They couldn’t keep anyone updated on where the Chinese were running. “Well, that’s just shiny.”
Jack brought up a control display and ran through a listing of files. He found what he wanted and pressed it firmly. T&J began singing about bad boys always going it alone and Jack smiled as Betty rolled her eyes at him.
“What’s your status, Buckaroo?” Jack asked as his eyes fell on the display showing Ken Banno’s fighter.
“I’m ready to go, Jester,” Ken answered in his normal relaxed tone. Then he got more serious. “What are we supposed to do out here? We don’t have any missiles.”
Jack winced, thinking he just might know exactly what they were going to do. “That’s a real good question.”
“We’re not supposed to fire gravitic cannons in hyperspace, right?” Ken asked.
Jack cleared his throat. “Yeah, that’s what the manual says.”
“So we’re not going to do that, right?”
“I sure hope not,” Jack answered as his mind flashed over all the warnings. Bad Things tended to happen when you fired gravitic weapons inside hyperspace. “Let me ask the Chief.”
“Got it,” Ken said and went silent.
“What’s the plan, Chief?” Jack asked. “We calling in reinforcements?”
“The fleet is too busy,” Charles answered as the Chinese began to fling missiles at them. “They have seen us now. We will have to deal with them ourselves before they escape.”
“Great.” Jack gulped as their lasers began shooting down missiles far short of the squadron. “Little ol’ us and a squadron of warships. Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Chief?”
“I think so, Jester. But what are we going to do with all the pieces?”
Jack winced. “Hope we’re not the smallest ones?”
“Exactly,” Charles answered. “And this is why firing grav cannons in hyperspace is a Very Bad Idea.”
Jack gulped. So Charles was thinking exactly what he was thinking. “Great. Just wanted to make certain we were on the same wavelength here.”
“Desperate times,” Charles answered and clicked his tongue. “All Cowboys, spread out and close to firing range. We will get only one shot at this so make it count. Sternwaffa. Fall back. You do not want to be close when we do this.”
“Vhat are you doing?” the commanding German fighter shouted as the Cowboys banked and broke their defensive formation, spreading out into attack formation. “Ve are fighters! Ve can’t take on varships alone!”
“You are fighters,” Charles corrected with an iron tone. “We on the other hand are Avengers. We were built to kill warships. Now fall back and give us room.”
“Affirmative,” the German said and Jack saw their fighters falling back on the screens.
“I thought we weren’t going to do this,” Ken said on their private frequency.
“Someone’s got to stop those Chinese from getting away, and we’re the only ones in range,” Jack said.
“Well, that’s just shiny,” Ken said but didn’t argue the point anymore. “You be careful.”
“You too, Buckaroo,” Jack ordered as their fighters began to pull apart.
Jack jiggled the stick in his hand, feeling the Avenger shift around him in nervous anticipation of the battle about to start. The missiles were getting closer with each wave before exploding on the point defense fire the squadron lay down. Soon they would be on the squadron. He watched the Germans fall back until they faded into the multicolored bands of hyperspace. Only the relays kept the two squadrons in communication with each other.
“All Cowboys,” Charles began as targeting solutions appeared on the screens. “Bring deflection grids to full power. Concentrate forward.” He paused as the Avenger hummed up to full power around Jack, and all deflection grid power shifted to the forward screens. “Open fire.”
“Hang on to your shorts,” Betty ordered and the grav cannons began to twist gravity on either side of him.
Jack released the stick and throttle and grasped the shock frame in the cockpit. He licked his lips as the grav cannons came up to full power, punching through their forward deflection grid and ripping into their target, a Chinese destroyer.
“Oh God,” Jack whispered and held on tight as hyperspace itself bent to the will of their weapons. Looking at anything in hyperspace was always an exercise in trying to focus on something that was by definition out of focus, especially at longer ranges where it became impossible to correct for the light bending. Everything just went completely out of focus until it blurred into the background multicolored hue of hyperspace. Even at short range, you had to squint and concentrate to see anything clearly.
When the Avenger’s twin gravitic cannons fired and hit the Chinese destroyer, they calmed hyperspace. They brought order and as the gravity bands bent to his fighter’s will, the Chinese destroyer came into perfect focus ahead of him. He watched the grav beams pierce the deflection grid and saw them rip armor panels off the warship.
“Betty?” he asked.
“Hold on,” she answered and her lasers began to fire in rapid-fire pulse mode, sending a spray of destruction through the holes to punch deeper into the destroyer. Atmosphere belched out, flash freezing into crystals that reflected the multicolored hues of hyperspace that seemed to rage against the edges of the gravitic beams.
“Holding on,” he answered, swallowed, and set his teeth. This was going to really hurt.
“Release!” Charles ordered and ten Avengers disengaged twenty gravitic beams in unison. Hyperspace lashed back into the calm enforced on it, gravity bands whipping through anything in their way. Deflection grids shorted out in instants, armor buckled, bent, and ripped, and the Chinese warships came apart as hyperspace slashed through them in dozens of places.
Those same bands of gravity ripped down the path left by the grav cannons and snapped into the formation of Avengers at its origin. Deflection grids failed and whips of gravity lashed through the Cowboys. Jack saw the nose of his fighter split open and the left wing sheer off. And then another whip of gravity snapped, sending the Avenger tumbling backwards through hyperspace.
The universe spun around them, alternating bands of color that never ended, and Jack shut his eyes to keep himself from throwing up all over the cockpit. The motion he could handle, but there was something about spinning in hyperspace that made his stomach go into flips. He didn’t know if it was the thought of being lost in space, never to be found, that did it, or if passing through so many bands of gravity without control just physically made him sick.
Whatever the reason, he held on tight and concentrated his mind on a bonfire on a beach with people partying. It was a beautiful sun, amazing music, and good friends. He held that vision as he felt his knuckles go white. After an eternity of tumbling, they slowed down and came back under control.
“Thanks,” Jack whispered, gulping for breath and blinked his eyes, focusing back on the here and now. A meter in front of him, the nose of the fighter was a jagged hunk of metal and wires. He looked over to the left and saw their wing twisted, with most of it ripped away entirely.
“That wasn’t me,” Betty returned and pointed up. “Almost all my systems are fried.”
Jack followed her finger and looked up to see a German fighter hanging directly above them. “Ah.” He waved at the fighter. “Hey, thanks,” he said weakly.
“Mein Gott!” the German shouted, his voice sounding like he was clearing his throat while talking. Jack always had subscribed to the idea that some jokes were based on a kernel of truth. “How do you do this vith fighters?”
Jack smiled at Betty, took a deep breath, and answered. “Clean living and American engineering.”
Betty smiled and slapped him. “Hush, Jack. You never had a clean life.”
Jack gave her his best offended look. “Betty, I will have you know that is baseless libel.”
Betty raised an eyebrow, crossed her arms, and tapped a toe on the console. “You know I’m just quoting the fathers.”
Jack shrugged in a dismissive manner. “Well, there it is! They’re always biased, thinking their poor innocent daughter would never-”
“You two quarrel like married couple,” the German interrupted with a growl.
Jack blinked, looked at Betty, blinked again, and looked at her again. She returned his gaze, arms still crossed though her foot wasn’t tapping anymore. He cracked a smile and pulled in a breath to say some joke about why they were just no good for each other.
Betty uncoiled like a viper and aimed a finger at his nose. “One word and I will strangle you in your sleep,” she said with a glare.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jack said quickly.
“Ha!” the German said with a laugh. “You even-”
“Shut up!” Betty ordered.
“Ja fraulein!” he reacted without hesitation.
“Better,” Betty said in a huff. “Now the truth is, we’re designed to kill capital ships. The only reason we’re not designated bombers is because the military wanted fighter pilots to perform the initial testing and God knows fighter pilots would be too proud to fly a bomber.”
Jack opened his mouth to protest and Betty glared at him. He shut his mouth again. She nodded her approval.
“Ich sehe,” the German said in what Jack thought might be a thoughtful tone. It was certainly a less “strangling stray cats” growl than his normal tone. “Ve had trouble keeping up vith your maneuwers. Do you alvays manuewer like this?”
“Whenever she wants to impress someone,” Jack sneaked out under Betty’s glare. He gave her an innocent smile and she rolled her eyes.
“You fly like fighter,” the German transmitted. “I think name is goot.”
Betty smiled and gave Jack a “see, that’s how you talk to a girl” look. Then she answered the German. “Why, thank you, kind sir.
“I vould like a test flight. Vould that be possible?” the German asked, his tone betraying a lot more yearning than he probably wanted to admit. Either that, or he had a pain in his stomach. Jack couldn’t tell for certain.
Jack shrugged and looked at Betty. This was all her decision after all.
Betty sighed and looked out on her ruined structure. “Anything for a kind sir like you. Just wait for the Peloran to fix me up first. I’m not presentable right now.”
“Of course, fraulein.”
Betty pursed her lips and gave Jack a questioning look before continuing. “You do realize by the way that the only way you would get to fly something like this is if you fly off a Peloran ship? There is no way your ships could repair or otherwise support something like this. They don’t have the infrastructure. Seriously. I couldn’t fly off an American ship right now the way my systems are wired!”
“Ja, fraulein. I understand.” There was that same tone. Jack didn’t think the guy was in pain. Or at least not the kind of pain you got from bad food. Maybe the kind of pain you got when you realized you were riding a dinosaur when a Corvette shot by though.
Betty frowned at Jack, seeming deep in thought. “And this is acceptable to you?”
There was a long pause this time, before the German answered. “Ja, fraulein. For the purposes of cooperation among allies, of course, fraulein.”
Betty gave Jack a sly smile at that.
Jack rubbed his chin and suppressed a chuckle. Cooperation among allies was not his primary concern here. Not at all.
“Yes,” Betty said in a pleased tone. “Cooperation, of course. Well then, prepare to have your mind blown.” She chuckled. “I’m told I’m very good at that.”
“From vhat I see today, I vould believe it, fraulein.”
Betty smiled at Jack. “See? He knows how to talk nice to a girl,” she mouthed towards him.
Jack rolled his eyes. “Look, this is fun and all, but ve really….” Jack cleared his throat as Betty laughed at him. “We really need to get…somewhere,” he finished, at a loss for words.
The German laughed, a deep guttural laugh that would have made a row of beer steins, Honest to God German beer steins, clatter against each other on a shelf. “No vorries for you,” he finally said. “Ve are getting close to battle site. You did not fail as the Flottillenadmiral expected. Ve are pleased to fly vith you vherever and vhenewer you vish.”
“Great. Ve…” Jack cleared his throat and glared at Betty as she laughed on the console. “We didn’t fail. So glad to know we had such a low bar to pass.”
“Vell, as I said, ve vill be happy to fly vith you again. After you are all presentable of course.”
“Of course,” Betty said with a smile. “Thank you for your consideration.”
“Alvays, fraulein,” he said in a very earnest tone.
“He is such a nice guy,” Betty mouthed and Jack brought a hand up to rub his forehead. He had the feeling that this was going to be a long day.