One good thing about being part of the military of one of the worlds’ greatest superpowers is that your handiwork gets plastered all over the net and people think it’s great. They think you’re a Big Damn Hero. When things start to get shaky is when they think they want to be a Big Damn Hero. Fact is, it ain’t all fun and games. There are times when everything is shiny, and then there are times when we are praying and trying to dodge bullets. It’s harder than it looks when you don’t have access to slow motion cameras, let me tell you.
Guardian Light and her escorts plowed through the rainbow hues of hyperspace, bow waves of manmade gravity imposing order on the natural chaos. Jack leaned back in his seat and shut his eyes. He didn’t want to think. He breathed in and out, holding the scarf wrapped around his neck, and forced himself to relax. The battle was over. He still lived. That was all that mattered.
He sighed, pulled in another breath, and opened his eyes. He scanned the screens showing normalspace above them. The Shang were gone, leaving a field of wreckage behind that the British, French, and Germans were already busy combing through. He shifted screens to confirm the locations of the surviving Cowboys. They’d lost an Avenger. He flicked his eyes over to the ready screen and saw Cowboy Eleven’s line faded. Bad Chad and Julie were gone. Just gone and dead and no more. Jack didn’t know what to say about that so scanned again to see that, yes, Jasmine’s fighter really had been destroyed. It had been her and Drew’s fighter and now it was gone too. He brought his eyes up to look at the cyber wearing her normal jeans and tank top.
“I’m sorry, Jasmine.”
Jasmine shook her head and chewed her lip. Then she sighed. “I can live without our fighter.”
Jack placed a hand on the console next to her. “I’m still sorry.”
Jasmine smiled. “I know. Thank you,” she finished and laid her hand on his.
“Always,” Jack said with a nod.
“Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Charles transmitted. “We have been recalled to the Guardian Light. Back to the barn!”
“On it,” Jack answered. He turned to the screen showing Ken, Jesse, and their drones on his flanks. “Buckaroo, Dutchman, you heard The Man,” he transmitted and brought the fighter around to close with the Guardian Light.
“Got it, Boss,” Ken answered.
“Roger that, Boss,” Jesse added.
They approached the battleship together, and Jack shook his head in amazement at the massive rents running up and down her hull. Even her weapons ring was dark and twisted, ripped entirely away from the warship in more locations than he could count. The Shang had done a true number on the warship. He doubted an American warship that took that much damage would still be moving under its own power at all. They flew into the battleship’s massive landing bay, and Jack’s eyes focused on the large tree at the end. It still felt strange to see a tree inside a warship, but it was beginning to grow on him. He sighed, relaxed back in his seat again, and watched Betty bring their Avenger down to a smooth landing next to the other Avengers. The cockpit opened and Jack popped his restraints.
“Betty?” he asked.
“Ready,” she answered with a sad smile.
“Thanks.” Jack stepped off the side of the fighter and Betty’s gravitic generator lowered him down to the deck as light as a feather. He cocked his head to the side and frowned. It didn’t feel right to do that at the moment. He pulled in a deep breath and stepped away from the fighter. He scanned the Cowboys on the deck and saw their subdued actions. Nobody pantomimed brushes with death or amazing shots.
He stepped over to where Jay towered over the surviving Cowboys he’d led into battle. The pilots and cybers looked in shock, and Jack felt the urge to do something. He didn’t know what yet, but something had to be done. He clasped hands with Jay, looking up at the mountain of a man. “I’m sorry, Bull,” Jack said in a clear, strong voice.
Jay rumbled something under his breath and nodded. Winona put a hand on his arm and smiled at Jack. “Thank you,” she said and patted her pilot’s arm.
Jay pulled in a deep breath and Jack saw his eyes pop back into focus. “Let’s go,” he barked and made his way towards the lift.
Jack watched Jay’s Cowboys following and turned to Ken and Jesse. He jerked his head towards Jay and company, and the two nodded as they followed. Jack moved in their wake, timing his entry to match Charles. The doors closed behind him and Jack looked at Charles. Charles glanced towards Jay with troubled eyes, but didn’t say a word. Jack nodded and leaned back into the doors, his mind racing.
Bad Chad and Julie were dead. They could have lived centuries or more, and their deaths reminded Jack that it could come calling for any of them at any time. There was nothing they could do about that now, but go on and be ready to fight again. He glanced at Charles again and saw the worry in the man’s eyes again. The Cowboys weren’t in fighting trim right now. Charles set his jaw. He knew it too.
The lift came to a stop, and Jack pushed himself off the doors as they opened into Cowboy Country’s break room. Comfortable couches and chairs filled one area of it, while a pool table dominated one end. A mini-bar jutted out of one wall, and Jack strode towards it with a single purpose in mind. The Cowboys needed a drink.
Jack grabbed several mugs from the cupboard and began to fill them with the amazing honeyed ale the Peloran made. He took a sip from one mug, smiled, and continued filling the others. He checked to see that Jay and his people were already sitting, back to moping around. Charles stepped up, caught Jack’s eye with a look of approval, and grabbed two mugs. He carried them over to Jay’s men and came back for two more.
The rest of the mugs disappeared into the hands of other Cowboys, some smiling, others frowning, and they made their way to the couches or chairs of their choice. Jack took his mug, topped it off again, and stepped away from the bar. He caught Betty’s gaze from across the room and she gave him an approving look. He strode over to his favorite chair and sprawled into it, careful not to spill any of the thick Peloran drink.
Jack drank and scanned the Cowboys with each pull, waiting for something to happen. He didn’t know what it would be. Maybe someone would say something stupid and a fight would break out. Or maybe someone would do something stupid and a laugh would break out. He watched for signs, drank the amazing ale, and kept himself from smacking his lips. It wasn’t the right time. His gaze caught on Charles and the two looked at each other for several seconds. Charles cracked a ghost of a smile.
Charles came to his feet and caught everyone’s attention. He walked over to the wall where holograms stood in perpetual watch over Cowboy Country. Drew was there, along with Major Randalf, Colonel Johanson, and their cybers. Three pilots. One quarter of those who had left Texas that one hot day. Charles tapped the wall and Chad and Julie made it one third of their number. The surviving eight Cowboys raised drinks to their fallen comrades. Cowboy Eleven would be missed, just as the others before them.
Finally Charles cleared his throat. “May their names never be forgotten.”
“Oorah,” the Cowboys said in subdued tones and without exception took another gulp of their ale.
Jack frowned at the silence that followed. Movement caught his eye and he smiled as Jasmine and Betty walked over to his chair. They sat down in chairs on either side of him and Jack took another gulp of the ale.
“Julie…was gone before we got back,” Betty said, in a soft tone that carried throughout the silent room. Jack saw several eyes jerking to look at them, and then shifting away almost as quick.
Jack glanced at Jasmine. “I suppose that was the easiest way for her,” Jack returned softly, matching Betty’s tone and volume.
Jasmine nodded. “It was.” She returned his look and sighed.
Jack glanced around, gauging the atmosphere in the room. They were close to the edge, but not there yet. He touched the scarf with one hand and set his jaw. “Do you…regret it?” he asked, looking at Jasmine in the last instant.
“Yes…and no.” Jasmine shrugged. “I want to see her again, to see something new with her, to see her learn something. I miss the dawning look of comprehension in her eyes. I’ll never see that again, outside of memories. That hurts.” She sighed. “But…she was right.”
Jack cocked his head to the side, his interest truly captured in spite of his worry for the other Cowboys. “About what?”
“She said it would be different.” Jasmine smiled at Jack. “God knows, you’re different than she was.”
Jack felt something click in his mind and he smiled back at her. She’d given him the perfect opening to say something completely and utterly inappropriate and he could feel the timing was right. “Yeah, she wore a grass skirt way better than me.”
Jasmine laughed. It was a laugh filled with grief and humor in equal measure. Ken and Jesse laughed as well, shaking their heads at Jack’s out-of-the-blue comment. Jack’s gaze flicked over to Charles, to see the man looking at Jay. Jack shifted his eyes over to see Jay staring back at him in shock. The lack of respect Jack showed at what amounted to a wake froze the big man for a second.
And then Jay laughed. “You bastard,” the big man rumbled, shaking his head. And then the rest of the Cowboys laughed and shook their heads. It was a short laugh. It only lasted a few seconds, but it broke the dam.
Jack chuckled with them until it died down and took another drink from his mug. He looked at Charles to see a smile of approval. He felt a soft touch on his shoulder and turned to see a matching look on Betty’s face. He took another drink, kept himself relaxed, and watched and listened as the Cowboys began to talk about Chad and Julie.
They spent the next several minutes drinking to their lost friends, talking in hushed tones. Jack smiled and joined in, letting the wake do what it was meant to do. They were never there for the dead. The dead didn’t care. Wakes were for the living, to give them a time to get over the loss. He emptied the drink, filled it at the mini-bar, and smiled as the Cowboys began to move on.
As the minutes stretched out to a quarter of an hour and beyond, the Cowboys grew louder and more animated. Hands pantomimed close escapes and amazing shots. The sound of men and women laughing, really laughing at amusing stories, filled the room as they remembered Chad and Julie’s lives.
Jack had just finished a story about a bar fight back in Texas, when Betty tapped him on the shoulder. He looked at her and she moved her head to the side, pointing out his favorite chair. He smiled and followed her hint, sitting down in it and relaxing as she occupied the chair next to him. He aimed a questioning look at her.
Betty smiled and looked back at the group of Cowboys.
Jack followed her gaze and saw Charles and Dorothy already occupying their seats. He shifted his eyes to watch as Winona pulled Jay over to his couch, and the two sat down as well. Jack chewed his lower lip and watched as the cybers guided their pilots out of the discussion one by one. He smiled and patted Betty’s hand. They did it masterfully, one pilot at a time, letting the wake slow down to silence across the span of minutes.
Charles stood up again and cleared his throat after the last Cowboy sat down. “I know this is a hard time for all of us.”
The Cowboys nodded and most took another gulp from their mugs. Jack smiled. It was a good thing the Peloran ale wasn’t very intoxicating, or they’d be in serious trouble by now.
“It will not get any easier,” Charles added. “So are you ready to get back into The War?” he asked in a serious tone.
He received several subdued nods and seemed to accept that as good enough.
“Good. Because if you were not, I would have told you tough luck and to be ready,” he said in a dangerous tone.
The Cowboys laughed and saluted him with their mugs.
“Good,” he said with a smile and paused for several seconds. He finally let out a long breath, nodded, and began to speak again. “I have received some interesting reports that could affect The War and you need to know them.”
The Cowboys sat up straighter in their chairs and couches.
“Based on those reports, only twenty-four of the Shang ships escaped. We are going to need to watch for them, but their strength is broken for now. We do not know how many ships they have out in the colony regions, but we have accounted for the vast majority of every single ship we believe they have near Earth.”
Jack smiled and took another sip from his mug. It was good to see the Shang reduced after what they did to Yosemite.
“Our estimates on the Chinese are more complete,” Charles continued. “We know we just destroyed their entire Earth-based fleet. They may have twenty warships left within fifty lightyears of Earth. They will need to call in fleets from the colony regions to make up these losses, and that will take weeks, if not months. Unless both they and the Shang are hiding something, I believe we have bought ourselves enough time for the Peloran Battle Fleets to arrive.”
“Oorah,” several of the Cowboys said. Jack smiled and drank more ale.
Charles smiled at them and raised a hand before continuing. “The important thing is that since we controlled the fields of battle, we obtained the salvage. I received estimates that up to fifty of the Chinese and Shang warships are in repairable condition. Aneerin has claimed ten of the Shang ships too damaged to move. They have working fabricators and he intends to use them as the nexus for a new repair base. The British, French, and Germans are claiming the rest, and intend to refit them for use against our enemies. This will take months at best though. We have to rebuild our own combat effectiveness in the meantime. I have been working on reinforcements to make up our combat losses. It has been…complicated,” he finished with a wince.
“How?” Jack asked and took another swig from his mug.
Charles rubbed his chin. He finally grunted and shook his head. He sat down on the arm of a chair and sighed. “I will be honest here. The nets all over the Terran and Alpha Centauri systems are full of our battle footage right now. At Fort Wichita, we rose out of hyperspace and blew away the Shang flank.” Charles shook his head again. “The talking heads are saying we saved the Peloran with that maneuver.”
Jay grumbled something that Jack couldn’t translate. It was probably in Navajo, but Jack understood exactly what he meant. He was willing to bet that if Jay’s momma was here she’d be washing his mouth out with soap right now.
“I could not agree more,” Charles answered with a wry smile. “Then we fought beside the Peloran and saved the British. Every red-blooded American likes to remember all the times we have saved them.” Charles rubbed his forehead as the Cowboys chuckled. “And then we destroyed a Chinese squadron without help, incidentally while taking the pressure off another British fleet. And I can tell you that the nets are full of our latest escapade, flying through the middle of what they are reporting as the Shang Grand Fleet and ripping it apart. Once again saving the British fleet from complete destruction.”
“Crap,” Jack muttered, not liking what he was hearing at all.
“Exactly,” Charles answered with a chuckle. “They are turning us into Big Damn Heroes on the nets. And the fact that we only lost four pilots doing this makes us all the more ‘Bad Ass’ according to the nets.” He waved a hand at Jack. “Your meeting with that kid was merely the tip of the iceberg. We have volunteers climbing out of the woodwork. Everybody wants to be a Cowboy now.”
“Please tell me some of them can fight,” Jay rumbled.
Charles smiled. “There is a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron here on New Earth actually. VMFA-911, the Devilcats. They were part of the screening elements during the fighting here. The entire Devilcat pilot roster requested a complete transfer as a group to the Cowboys after we destroyed the Chinese.”
The Cowboys looked uncomfortable at the idea of an entire unit coming over to them. Charles raised a hand to stem off any words.
“Do not worry. Leif Erikson Command did not approve the transfer.” Charles sighed and shook his head. “But we have more volunteers than we could ever hope to use. Complicating matters is that the Department of Defense realized they have lightning in a bottle with us. They seek to copy us closer to home. They have established an entire new wing based out of Pasadena flying Avenger fighters. All new Avenger production is going to that wing.”
“They do realize that a Texas-built Avenger could never do what we did, right?” Jack asked.
Charles grimaced. “They are aware that the Peloran upgraded us. I am not certain they realize the difference between an Earth-built Avenger and an upgrade though,” he finished with a shake of his head.
“We’re going to lose a lot of people if they don’t.”
“I know.” Charles shook his head. “I am trying. But we are not going to receive any support at all from home. Without Yosemite Yards…what we have left is strained to the limit right now, and they have decided back home that if the Peloran are willing to support us logistically, they can have us.”
“That’s…troubling,” Jay rumbled. “Are they…dropping us?”
Charles laughed. “We are too much of a recruiting tool for that. But reading between the lines, things are worse back home than have been reported. I have been receiving messages from my family. They can say little because of censors, but we have a code. We have been polling all of the American manufacturers and matters are not as well as we could wish.”
“Well, we lost Yosemite,” Jack said with a shrug. “Of course it looks bad.”
Charles smiled. “Yes, but it is worse than it looks.”
“That would be pretty hard,” Jack said.
Charles gave him a dark chuckle. “You are right. It would take some very diligent work to make it worse.” He shook his head again. “And we did it.”
Jack blinked in confusion. “What?”
Charles shrugged. “We did it.” He grunted. “We wrote environmental regulations that made it too expensive to build factories on planet so we built them in orbit. Then the orbital regulations made it expensive to pollute the spaceways, so we moved them to the Yosemite Point to keep them inside the Lunar Treaty Zone.”
“And the Shang never signed the Lunar Treaty,” Jay rumbled.
“Exactly,” Charles said, arms spread wide.
Jack chewed his lip for a few seconds. “So what you’re saying is that American industry in the Terran System is…gone?”
Charles raised a finger. “There are still many older factories left on the ground, but they are not as good as what we had. They are devoted to keeping the ships we have alive. We will not see new warships for a very long time. We have enough lighter industry to build as many small arms and Hellcats as we need. They are fast tracking pilot and infantry training alike to keep up with production.”
“Earth isn’t sending us any replacements?” Jay asked.
Charles frowned and shook his head. “No.”
“So that leaves us with what’s at Alpha Centauri, right?” Jack asked.
Charles let out a long breath and smiled. “Exactly. While Leif Erikson Command did not approve a full transfer, they have given tentative approval for up to four Devilcat pilots to join us. It is up to us to choose those pilots, not including their commander of course.”
Jack raised a finger. “Are any of them Ageless?”
Charles grimaced. “No. But they are fully trained and experienced in fighter combat.”
Jay shook his head and rumbled, “I don’t know. We’re barely keeping up with the Peloran as it is.”
“We will make do,” Charles answered. “We just have to test them to see if they are compatible with us.”
“They will never keep up with us,” Jay grumbled.
Jack smiled at the byplay. “A good cyber can make up for a lot, you know.”
“Yes,” Charles answered with a nod. “The skills are important, but so is their temperament. Someone who wants to be a Big Damn Hero is more dangerous than someone who is merely slow.”
Jack nodded. “So we need to go down there, right?”
“Excuse me?” Charles asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, we need people who can relax with us in here just as well as fight out there,” Jack said with a wave of his hand around the room. “We need to find out who they are, and to do that we need to go to their base and observe them in their natural environment. Which is Leif Erikson Spacebase, right?”
Charles frowned in thought and turned to Dorothy with an upraised eye. His cyber cocked her head to the side before nodding. Charles grunted. “You may just be on to something, Jester.”
Jack blinked. Charles had agreed too quickly. He glanced at the other Cowboys to see the same confusion on their faces. “Sir?” he asked.
Charles ignored him and turned to an empty wall. “Hal. I assume you have been monitoring?”
The Guardian Light’s cyber flickered into existence in front of the wall and smiled. “Of course I have. Am I right in assuming you have taken the argument to its logical conclusion?”
Charles smiled. “I hope so. We need more pilots. We need to know them. Best way to do that is to live with them. We are not leaving system soon are we?”
Hal shook his head. “Not with the damage we have sustained. It will take some time to complete our repairs and the salvage operations. You will have much of it to recruit.”
Charles nodded. “Good. I would like to formally request a temporary change in duty station of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron VMFA-112 from the Guardian Light to the Leif Erikson Spacebase, there to remain until the Guardian Light and other associated units are ready to leave system.”
Hal smiled, cocked his head to the side, and waited a few seconds. He finally nodded and returned his gaze to Charles. “Aneerin approves. Pack up and launch when ready. Six new pilots you say?”
Charles sighed. “Up to six. I hope to find that many we want, but I cannot guarantee it.”
Hal nodded. “I understand. I will have Cowboy Country expanded to support fourteen pilots while you are away.” Hal blinked. “Which is of course easier than expanding while you are still here. Funny how that works, is it not?”
Charles smiled. “Hilarious.”
Hal returned the smile and gave Charles a half bow. “We will keep the home fires burning. Choose well and return with greater strength. We will need it soon.” Then Hal faded back out of existence and left Cowboy Country to the Cowboys.
Charles turned back to the Cowboys and smiled. “That settles it. We are all going to New Earth.”
“Ooorah!” the Cowboys shouted, excited at the idea of spending time on a real planet again.
Jack found himself holding the scarf again and smiled. He could think of some good points to being on planet. He glanced at Betty to see her smiling at him. He gave her a half shrug. It would do no good to profess innocence in this case. She’d caught him red handed, in a manner of speaking. He patted the scarf and her smile grew. She knew exactly what he was thinking. As usual.