I learned long ago that it is the chance encounters that change our lives. We can make all the plans we want, but what do we do when those plans go out the window? What do we do when life hits us upside the head and we don’t have time to think it through? We react. Our life is made of those reactions, those reflexes.
Lights shone down on the shouting and cheering crowd, playing every color of the rainbow across the shadows filling the dance hall.
The light cans spun to focus on a single point in the air, leaving the crowd in darkness.
A ball of pure glittering light appeared where the lights focused, hovering ten meters above the floor.
The ball began to lower towards the floor.
The lights spun back to light the crowd, creating living shadows of every color.
The lights cut out, leaving only the falling ball to light the room.
The light began to pulse on and off, creating dazzling afterimages in hundreds of eyes.
The light fell below head level and the strobing shadows of people seemed to teleport from place to place between flashes of light.
The ball pulsed on and off faster and faster until it was a constant flicker of light almost too fast for the mind to make sense of it.
The light cut out, leaving the room in total darkness. Only the leftover strobe effect of phantom lights remained in the eyes of the crowd.
Then fireworks exploded into holographic life, shooting through the crowd with trails of flame and sparkling heads. Jack blinked his eyes against the light as a firework shot through him. He spun to see it explode behind him, surrounding Betty and Jasmine in a halo of crackling fire. The light cans came alive again, strobing multicolored beams into the crowd in time with the holographic fireworks and the music that came with it.
People laughed and cheered and danced all over the floor. People threw their hats and scarves into the air. Scores of boys and girls enjoyed their first kisses of the New Year in joyful celebration.
A flash of red caught his eyes and he braced barely in time before a young woman he certainly did not know wrapped her arms around him and kissed him with laughing lips. It didn’t feel like she was kissing him though. She just wanted to kiss someone, and he was the first man she’d run into. Or maybe he was the second or third considering how fast she was moving. Well. He certainly couldn’t have people kissing him when they weren’t even kissing him. That just wasn’t right.
He placed one hand on her lower back, cradled her curly red head with the other, leaned in, and proceeded to give her a very thorough kissing. Bright green eyes shot open in surprise and she struggled, hands turning to fists and moving between their bodies. Her mouth opened to protest and the freckles on her pale cheeks flushed bright in a growing expression of outrage. He placed a foot behind her and stepped forward in a dance move he’d learned years ago. He held her in his arms as she fell backwards and her protest turned into a squeak of shock.
He froze, held her in mid-air, and kissed her again. Her heart skipped a beat and the breath left her lungs in a gasp. And that was when she really looked at him for the first time. That was much better. He smiled, kissed her a third time, and stepped back to pull her onto her feet with gentle hands.
She stood there for a moment on shaky legs and studied him. He smiled back with a confident posture and pulled his hands a few millimeters away from her body. The next move was up to her and he would give her whatever space she needed. She could step away or she could…
She gave him a sly smile and leaned into him, laying her head against the breast of his Dress Whites. And in that moment he finally recognized the smell wafting off her. He’d smelled it while on vacation to Atlantic City a decade ago. It was the smell of a stormy sea. The perfume suited her.
“Well, happy New Year indeed,” she whispered into his neck with a light Scottish accent and warm lips.
A keen awareness of every centimeter of her body filled Jack and he smiled. “You know, I thought about saying something like that, but then I thought that you might take it the wrong way so I kept my mouth shut.”
She patted his arm. “Smart boy.”
Jack chuckled. “That’s what my momma always called me. I was her smartest little boy in all the worlds.”
“I thought I detected an only child,” she said in a needling tone.
“Oooh,” Jack returned, impressed with her quick wit. “Touché.”
“My pleasure,” he whispered and wrapped his arms around her. He chewed his lower lip as she relaxed into him. “You don’t have any boyfriends hanging around here, do you?”
“Are you worried?” she asked in amused tone.
“I’m allergic to boyfriends,” Jack whispered. “They get all angry and clingy and bring out shotguns and stuff when you kiss their girl. Kinda like fathers only a bit more unpredictable.”
She laughed in his arms. “No boyfriend anymore,” she finally whispered.
“Does he know he’s not a boyfriend anymore?” Jack asked, just wanting to clarify the situation.
She laughed harder and patted his arm. “I made it very clear last week,” she finally explained.
Jack pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow at her. “So I was a rebound kiss?”
Her cheeks flushed again in the only answer he needed.
He aimed his best charming smile at her. “Wanna rebound again?”
Her eyes sparkled with amusement and she reached up, grabbed his head, and pulled him down so she could kiss him again. This time she truly did kiss him, and this time he felt his heart race as eternity passed them by.
When they came back up for air, Jack opened his eyes to see Betty and Jasmine standing next to them in their Dress Whites. “Hello, Jack,” they said in perfectly harmonized tones.
Jack thought he heard the girl squeak and most certainly felt a shiver run down his spine. “You know that can be a bit creepy, right?” he asked.
They rolled their eyes in perfect synchronation before Betty stepped forward. “Jack, we need to go right now,” she said.
Jack coughed and held the young lady a little tighter, his expression turning bullish. “I’m busy.”
Betty gave him a sad look. “The Shang are here. All leaves are canceled.”
“Frak it,” he swore and shook his head. He looked down at the young woman in his arms. “Sorry, but I really do gotta go.”
“Wait,” she said and kissed him again, hugging him so closely that every curve of her body electrified him from head to toe. Every hair on his body stood on end, and he felt his toes climbing up into somewhere that couldn’t have been much short of the stratosphere.
“Jack,” Betty said in an insistent tone that broke through the spell. “The shuttle’s coming.”
Jack pulled away, licked his lips, and let out a very long breath. She was a damn good kisser.
The young woman examined him for a moment and seemed to be measuring him for something. He forced a confident smile to his lips and spread his hands out in a “this is it” gesture. She nodded, pulled the scarf from around her shoulders, and hung it around his neck. She ran electric hands down the scarf until it ended somewhere near his belt. “For luck. Bring it back tonight,” she ordered and sparked a finger across his nose.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack answered with gusto.
She smiled, aimed a measuring look towards Betty and Jasmine for a moment, and then turned away with a “Later, Jack.” And then she disappeared into the shadowy crowd as quickly as she’d appeared.
“Wow,” Jack whispered, still rooted to the spot by that last kiss. “Did you get the name and number of that bus?”
“Yes, I did,” Betty answered with an amused chuckle.
“Now let’s go,” Betty ordered, grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him hard. He had no choice but to follow her. The dance club’s hardlight projectors gave her a form as solid as any avatar he’d ever run into, and she cut through the crowd like a shark through a school of fish. The only difference was that she didn’t leave any blood or guts behind her, which he supposed was a good thing. It wasn’t nearly as much fun to watch, of course, but it was a good thing.
They stepped out of the club, Jack’s uniform hummed as its projectors took the load of her holoform, and his arm slipped through Betty’s hand. She stopped cold for a moment, looked at her hand, and then met Jack’s eyes with an expression of profound loss. He opened his mouth to say he was sorry but she shook her head. “Not now,” she said and turned to walk out onto the street. The Peloran shuttle came down to land in front of her in silence. Only the sound of rushing air heralded its arrival as the ramp lowered just in time to gently touch the street. Betty stepped up even before it stopped moving and Jack followed her with Jasmine on his heels. The ramp closed as he stepped through the hatch and the shuttle shot back up into the air.
Jack turned to see he wasn’t the first Cowboy picked up today. “Hey, Buckaroo,” he said with a smile and an outstretched hand.
“Hey, Jester,” Ken responded and clasped the hand for a moment.
“You ready?” Jack asked and took the nearest seat.
“I was born ready,” Ken answered with a grim smile of his own. The Free Japanese had settled in Los Angeles after the fall of Japan. The fall of Yosemite all over his home gave him a lot of reasons to be ready.
The shuttle slowed to a stop, the ramp dropped, and Jesse walked up the ramp.
“Dutchman,” Jack welcomed him.
“Jester,” Jesse answered and the ramp lifted back up to seal them in again. Jesse’s eyes took in the scarf hanging down nearly to his waist. “New fashion statement?”
Jack shrugged. “A good luck charm from a very concerned young lady.”
“I see,” Jesse said with a chuckle and sat down next to Jack. Jack saw a small handkerchief sticking out of his pocket that most definitely was not uniform standard. It was pink and frilly and feminine perfume wafted from it.
“I see you found one too,” Jack said with a smile.
Jesse shifted his hand to cover the pocket and sighed. “She was very concerned,” he finally said with a wink.
The cabin darkened and Jack saw space through the viewports. He turned to where Betty, Jasmine, and the other cybers sat, a confused look on his face. “Where are the other Cowboys?”
“On the other shuttles,” Betty answered. “They’re in a hurry.”
“Right,” Jack whispered as the shuttle shot into one of the Guardian Light’s launch tubes and came to a halt next to an Avenger’s landing gear.
The hatch opened into Cowboy Country’s launch bay and the pilots ran out. Jack stopped and looked up at the Avenger, then to the small shuttle next to it, and shook his head. He’d forgotten just how huge the Avenger was. It made a shuttle designed to carry ten men look small. Jack let out a long breath and turned to run towards his fighter.
He saw the ladder to the gantry that ran down to where the Avenger’s cockpit waited for him, but smiled and jumped as hard as he could. He could actually jump very far, though nowhere near far or high enough to reach the cockpit. But that wasn’t really his plan.
“I’ve got you,” Betty’s voice whispered in his ear as he felt gravity shift around him and pull him up towards the gantry.
“That’s my girl,” he returned and landed on the gantry as light as a dancer. A quick step forward dropped him into the cockpit with a smile. “Always thinking ahead.” Jack sat down and reached for the five point restraints.
“Always,” Betty said with an amused smile as he began locking the five-point harness in place. Then she sat down on the console, her Dress Whites flickering away to be replaced by her comfortable yellow sundress.
“Better?” Jack asked and rubbed a hand down the dark scarf with a smile.
“Much better,” Betty whispered and examined the scarf. “She seems like a nice girl.”
Jack sighed. “Yeah. She does,” he said and felt her lips on his again.
“Cowboy One, to all Cowboys,” Charles transmitted and Jack blinked back to the present. “Report your status.”
Jack’s eyes flicked over to the displays that showed the British fleet, a quarter of it shattered and floating away from the Shang fleet that numbered over a hundred warships. Only a massive dreadnought and her escorting battleships held the British fleet together, and even as he watched another battleship exploded under the Shang assault. He looked up at Betty and she nodded.
“Cowboy Five is ready,” Jack said in a grim tone. He took several deep breaths, bringing himself totally into the present. He couldn’t afford to be lost in the past right now.
“Launch,” Charles ordered.
Jack held on to the throttle and stick as the world blurred around him. The lights inside the launch tube became long streaks and then disappeared altogether as black space and glinting stars replaced them. He turned to the side to see New Earth below them. He turned the other way to see the Guardian Light turning away from the planet.
Jack pulled in a deep breath. “Buckaroo and Dutchman, form on me,” he ordered and pulled the Avenger around to follow the Guardian Light.
“Got it, Boss,” Ken answered and Jack saw his fighter slip into formation.
“Roger that, Boss,” Jesse transmitted and pulled up to match course as well, bringing Jack’s flight up to three fighters.
He glanced to either side to see the other Cowboy flights moving into formation and syncing into the Guardian Light’s defense grid as well. More fighters flew in from their flanks and locked into formation with the Cowboys. Jasmine faded into existence on his console wearing her jeans, tank top, and a smile. “Hello, Jack.”
Her fighter waggled her wings at him and Jack chuckled. The Peloran had only had time to build a small number of drones so far. Their fabricators were stretched to the limit already and still hadn’t repaired all the warships. But they’d managed to build a few hundred short-range interceptor drone fighters, as well as some drones that looked utterly identical to the Avengers.
“Hello, Jasmine,” he answered with a smile. Her fighter wasn’t really a new build. She was the remains of Jasmine’s old fighter, rebuilt and upgraded to the newest capabilities the Peloran scientists had seen fit to give them all. And now she flew on his wing. “Ready to kill some Shang?” Jack asked. He guessed that made her his cyber too, from a certain point of view. He idly wondered what that meant for the future.
“Always,” she returned with a grim look.
Jack found his hand absent-mindedly running along the scarf and frowned. He pulled it away and focused on Jasmine. “You be careful,” he ordered.
She gave him a big smile. “Back atcha.” She was back in her element.
“Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Charles transmitted. “We are approaching engagement zone. Be prepared to enter combat.”
“Roger that,” Jack answered and ran his fingers over a console. The amazing tones of T&J began to play, and Jack relaxed as he focused on the Peloran Battle Squadron. The Guardian Light charged out of New Earth’s gravity well with a single cruiser, two destroyers, and several hundred fighters and drones escorting her. The French and German squadrons that had helped them track the Chinese down still flanked them on either side as they accelerated away from New Earth. A final flight of shuttles arrived from the planet, containing the last of the pilots returning from leave, and more fighters continued to spill out of every ship of the three squadrons.
“Aneerin has built himself an interesting little fleet,” Jack whispered, a frown on his face as he considered those consequences as well.
“Yes, he has,” Betty answered.
“I wonder what he intends to do with us all?”
Betty cocked her head to the side and crossed her legs. “Well, I’d think he intends to use us to defeat the Shang.”
Jack smiled. “Yeah, I know. But what about after that?”
Betty cocked her head to the side and aimed a proud smile at him. “Well, I think he would say that is a good question to ask,” Betty whispered. Then she frowned and kicked her feet together. “Do you trust him?”
Jack sucked in a long breath, let it out, and shrugged. “I suppose I do.”
The screens came alive with a broadcast from the Shang fleet and the upper body of a Shang appeared. His dark hair and slanted eyes looked familiar. Jack thought he was the commander who told the Peloran to leave or else if he remembered correctly.
“Your name will always be famous, Aneerin ap Taliesin,” the Shang said in his own language with a bow of his head. A translation of the words appeared on the screen beneath his head. “It is an honor to meet you one last time.”
“The honor is all mine,” Aneerin answered in the Shang language with a calm voice. “I had hoped we would not meet again.”
“As did I,” the Shang commander said. “We gave you the chance to leave. Instead we find you here, surrounded by the dead. If you leave now though, we will not pursue.”
Aneerin shook his head. “I am very much afraid that you will have to go through us to reach New Earth.”
The Shang sighed long and hard. “You only have four ships left. Your numbers are not sufficient to stop us.”
Aneerin returned a calm smile. “There are more than four ships before you.”
It was the Shang’s time to shake his head. “Their numbers do not matter.”
Aneerin sighed and seemed to lean back, though it was hard to tell. “And that is where you are wrong. They do matter, and they have a history of overthrowing those who say they do not. I predict that your people would find this out to your sorrow if you were to prove victorious here.”
The Shang’s eyes narrowed. “Their history is of being destroyers to everything around them. They will be stopped this time. You do not need to make your last stand here.”
Aneerin smiled and spread his hands out wide. “I intend no last stands anywhere. But here I will stand.”
The Shang frowned for a long time before answering. “Your death today will be regrettable. I am sorry.”
The communications signal cut out and the Shang fleet disappeared behind a wall of missiles. The concentrated salvo flew past the battered British fleet and bore down on the Peloran force at maximum acceleration. Jack flexed his hands on the controls and swallowed. The Guardian Light did not change course and he knew it was time. Eleven cruisers, eighteen destroyers, and over two thousand fighters charged the missiles with their point defenses in perfect sync.
The wave of missiles stormed in and what must have been tens of thousands of point defense lasers came to life. They weren’t visible to the naked eye, even Jack’s, but their effects were. The missiles turned into a rolling wall of fire and debris well short of the fleet. Space cleared between the fleets and the Peloran charged on, engines flaring.
“Actually,” Aneerin transmitted with a smile. “Today is not a good day to die. For me. It has been an honor to face you. Now open fire!” he finished with a wave of his hand and his communication cut out.
Every missile tube in the Peloran task force and the British fleet opened fire on the Shang. The Peloran Battle Squadron and her Avenger escorts accelerated away from the French and German squadrons, and Jack flexed his fingers again, swallowing his nerves down. They shot past the still fighting dreadnought, and the last of her escorts that comprised the remains of the operational British fleet, almost faster than Jack could register. The missile salvo erupted on the Shang point defense, filling space with fire, and they flew through it into the heart of the Shang fleet, gravitic cannons reaching out to tear the Shang apart. A boiling wave of Shang missiles swept back towards them and Jack held on tight to the stick and throttle.
“Oh, Lord, for what we are about to receive, may we be eternally grateful,” Jack whispered.
Jack saw the turrets on either side of his cockpit come to life, spinning to fire at the incoming missiles in support of the entire squadron’s defense grid, and a wall of exploding missiles rolled towards them. The Peloran deflection grids bent and flickered in and out as missiles got through. Jack held his breath and flicked the stick and throttle whenever he felt the need. He rolled to the side and a missile coming from above missed them by meters. He pulled up and another missed them by less. He spun them to starboard and one of the four laser turrets shattered another missile. And that was when the Peloran warships, the other Cowboys, and an Avenger-class starfighter piloted by a man named Jack penetrated the Shang formation.
It was a crazy quilt of chaos, missiles flying back and forth, exploding in deep space or next to a ship. Gravitic cannons ripped ship after ship apart, and kinetic lances flickered between the Peloran and the Shang so fast Jack’s eyes could barely track them. Betty kept their own grav cannons and lasers firing as fast as they could cycle at targets Jack barely saw before they were gone. And that was just the weapons fire between the Shang and the Peloran. Once the British, French, and Germans opened fire and grav beams and lasers linked them from outside, it added a whole new level of chaos to the situation. Missiles ripped through the point defense networks aimed towards the Peloran like Swiss cheese and a half-dozen Shang warships exploded in an instant. The pieces of flying ships erupting through the fleet tipped the balance of the battle from chaos to complete and utter insanity.
The universe flashed without warning and the multicolored kaleidoscope of hyperspace filled what part of Jack’s vision wasn’t temporarily light-fried. Jack licked his lips, blinked the stars out of his eyes, looked around, and made certain the entire squadron still existed. Two drone fighters hadn’t made it, but all the Avengers still lived. Another scan showed that one of the Peloran destroyers wasn’t anywhere he could see.
“Wow,” Jack whispered. “That was…”
The squadron continued to accelerate, cutting through the gravity bands of hyperspace without pity.
“How about a warning before the next time?” Jack asked as the squadron began to arc around.
“Okay, Jack,” Betty said with a smile. “Warning.”
Jack closed his eyes, his eyelids glowed, and he opened them again to see the Shang fleet from a whole new perspective. Flaming atmosphere poured out of a third of the Shang warships, and half of those spun out of formation with power flickering or out altogether.
“Wow,” Jack whispered as the Battle Squadron flew back into the Shang fleet in time with another missile salvo. Gravitic cannons opened fire again, this time focused on a single target. His fighter thrummed with power as their gravitic cannons joined the assault, and the most powerful warship in the Shang fleet ripped apart.
A swarm of missiles swatted the remaining Peloran destroyer out of formation, spinning out of control. Kinetic lances ripped all the way through three more Shang cruisers and they belched atmosphere and bodies. Shang fighters swarmed them from all directions. The images came faster and faster as the battle devolved until Jack simply couldn’t track everything fast enough. There were too many ships, too many missiles, too much everything, to even try to keep looking for threats.
He swallowed, took a deep breath, and Jasmine’s fighter exploded. “Frak,” he whispered and just stopped trying to see anything. He breathed out, forced himself to remain calm, and focused on absolutely nothing. He saw an attack coming from the starboard and pulled the stick to the left. The fighter screamed around him and their right wing ripped off.
“Nothing to worry about, Jack!” Betty shouted. “Just a flesh wound.”
A gravitic cannon exploded in the distance. He didn’t focus on it. It wasn’t the Guardian Light. That was all that mattered to him. Well, that and the fact that it wasn’t him of course. Missiles streaked by. Fighters cartwheeled in the distance. An Avenger exploded nearby. A Shang fighter shot in from below and he spun the fighter to rip it apart. A missile swarm came in from above and he dropped the fighter below their arc. He didn’t take time to think. He just moved, and their Avenger flew through the destruction like a wraith.
It went on for an eternity that couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Jack closed his eyes at Betty’s warning and the world flashed. He opened his eyes onto hyperspace and saw the Guardian Light floating in a field of wreckage, atmosphere streaming through dozens of rents. One of her overloaded gravitic cannons exploded before him, shedding armor plating all over space. Her kilometer-long gleaming white spire was scorched, battered, and holed from one end to the other, and her massive weapons ring was sheared off in places. If the damage was any indication of casualties, the crew would be cloning new bodies for weeks. Aneerin was out of The War for now.
Jack licked his lips and released the stick and throttle from trembling fingers.
“Whoa,” Jack whispered, let out a long breath, and tried to calm himself. Calm was a long time in coming. When it finally came, he felt a scarf held tight around his neck in the grip of both hands. “Frak,” he whispered as he tried to make sense of everything that had just happened.