We all do battle every day, even though most of us never realize it. Some of us use rifles, pistols or great warships. Some use the natural wits we are born with. We are most dangerous when we use every weapon at our disposal, of course. I am alive now because many people in my life taught me how to use all of those weapons to survive. In many ways, the battle of wits is the one I enjoy the most, as the vanquished always have a chance to return and do battle again.
Jack stepped out onto the tarmac, eyes scanning his surroundings. The three suns of the Alpha Centauri trinary system burned in the sky over Leif Erikson Spacebase, their light glinting off the buildings the previous night’s thunderstorm had power washed. Leaves and tree branches lay strewn throughout the base as if a careless giant had walked through depositing debris without a care. The spider-like shuttles, Avengers, and Hellcats on the tarmac gleamed like the day they were built, as if in protest against the debris around them.
Jack scanned the retreating forms of the ground crews and smiled. They’d been busy cleaning the shuttles and fighters all morning in preparation for the final supply run to the nice little pocket fleet Admiral Aneerin commanded. One of the older crew chiefs waited by Jack’s Avenger as he and Betty made their way across the tarmac.
“Sorry for the mess, Ma’am,” he said in a gruff tone that matched his appearance when they got within earshot. “We haven’t seen a blow like that in some time, so it took us a while to dig out. But everything’s buffed up and shiny for you now.”
“Thank you, Chief,” Betty returned with a half bow and the crew chief beamed in pleasure at her attention.
“You take care of her, boy,” the crew chief said as he turned towards Jack with a scowl. “She’s a good girl.”
“Don’t I know it?” Jack returned with a chuckle.
The other man’s scowl just deepened. “I’m serious.”
“Yeah. Me too,” Jack answered and met the older man’s gaze.
The crew chief nodded curtly and turned to take one of Betty’s virtual hands in his. He raised it to his lips and kissed it with a glint that made Jack roll his eyes.
“Ma’am,” the crew chief said in a soft voice that seemed out of character with his gruff exterior. “Your fire-breathing armored carriage of death and destruction awaits your approval.”
Betty smiled and said, “You have my complete approval.”
“Thank you,” the man nodded and turned to leave.
“What an old lecher,” Jack said and jumped up. Betty’s gravitic generator grabbed him in midair and lifted him up onto the edge of the Avenger’s cockpit. He sat down and carefully snapped his restraints in place as his bruises complained. The canopy closed around him and he nodded as the twenty-centimeter small version of Betty appeared on the console. She reverted to her favorite yellow sundress the moment the cockpit closed and Jack smiled. It was his favorite too. It just fit her.
“You know a girl could get to like having a nice, strong, handsome crew chief to look after her,” Betty said with an innocent smile and crossed her legs, leaning back on the console. She was home, literally, and she relaxed into it fully.
He averted his gaze from her virtual form and scanned the instrument panels. They showed everything ready for launch. “Cowboy Five, ready,” he reported.
Then he smiled at Betty again and shook his head. “Please. He just gave you all that special attention in hopes of nudie pics.”
“All Cowboys,” Charles’ voice came over the communication system, “launch and maintain overwatch positions over the shuttles.”
“Roger that,” Jack answered before nodding to Betty.
Betty sat back up straight, crossed her arms with a nod, and Jack felt New Earth’s gravity melt away as the Avenger’s grav plating powered up, making the massive fighter as light as a feather. The barest hint of maneuvering thrusters pushed them away from the ground with ease, and he kept his eyes peeled as they rose up into the air in near silence.
Jack looked down on Leif Erikson Spacebase with a critical eye. Litter floated in pools of water, clogging up drains. More than one vehicle huddled against the ground, smashed by a falling limb. And now that he could see the forest surrounding the base, he winced. Limbs, and even entire trees, littered the outskirts of the base, torn down by the mighty winds of the night before. They would be cleaning the mess up for a while.
Then he frowned as a thought came to mind. Betty hadn’t corrected him. “Betty?”
“What?” she asked a tone that was too innocent. She was hiding something.
“You didn’t give him any pictures, did you?” he asked as the shuttles floated up into the air, huddling under the protection of the fighters.
“I was covered,” Betty said in a defensive tone as their main engines powered up. The shuttles and fighters pulled up and rocketed up through the planetary soup the locals called an atmosphere on tongues of blue fusion flame.
“By what?” Jack frowned as he considered the point of discussion. “A ribbon?”
Betty blushed as the sky began to darken and stars appeared. “Jack! You have a dirty imagination!”
The Avenger’s engines levered away from the hull to give her better maneuverability in space and Jack smiled at Betty. “Yup.”
“Well, I’ll have you know I was completely decent,” Betty said with both hands on her hips in the universal posture of an offended woman.
“Please, you’re always way better than decent,” Jack said and continued scanning the sky. The last vestiges of atmosphere faded away and the main engines came to full power. Gravity pushed him back in his seat as the formation of fighters and shuttles accelerated away from New Earth, making for the Peloran task force in high orbit.
“Mmmm…thank you,” Betty said in the next best thing to a purr.
The displays came to life with the identifications of dozens of warships. British, American, German, and French cruiser and destroyer squadrons screened the formation, surrounding the six operational ships of the Peloran Battle Squadron. He even saw two British light carriers flanking the Guardian Light and nodded in approval. “So, do I get to see them?”
“Mmmm?” Betty asked, feigning a lack of concentration on their very important conversation. Certainly more important than some routine military resupply mission.
Jack considered exactly what she could be hiding and examined her holoform very carefully. Her yellow sundress was a thin-strapped affair that left her shoulders and arms exposed. And the vast majority of her very shapely legs flowed below where the sundress ended. There was an old saying that fit her to a tee. Pretty as a picture. Jack smiled and said, “The pictures?”
The engines went silent for a moment before firing forward, slowing them down to match the orbital speed of the massive warships. They passed through a wall of Peloran interceptors, parasite fighters deployed to watch the flanks of the task force. Betty nodded in time with a flashing display, bringing to his attention that the interceptors accepted their friend or foe identification. Once through the wall, most of the shuttles broke away from the Cowboys and made their way towards the warships their orders tasked them to supply. Only a single shuttle held formation with the Cowboys.
But Jack was not to be deterred from his line of thought by a mere fleet of war with the firepower to raze entire worlds. He smiled at Betty. “Ribbons it is, then.”
Betty gave him an outraged look of shock. “Jack! Do not imagine me wearing ribbons!”
“Too late,” Jack answered and gave her a mischievous smile. He had a very good imagination as it happened and she looked almost as fantastic in it as she did in real life.
“Bad Jack,” she scolded and waved an outraged finger at him.
Jack waggled his eyebrows, smiled, and said a single word to her. “Yup.”
Then he returned his attention to the outside world. They passed by the bone white spire of a Peloran destroyer covered in golden runes, and Jack focused on it, trying to read the name buried in there. He frowned as he couldn’t find it and grunted in annoyance. He’d been practicing the Peloran runes, but still just couldn’t read them in the wild. They left the destroyer behind and the massive kilometer-long battleship it escorted filled space before them.
A final burst of engines brought them around to match course with the Guardian Light and the fighters came to a halt relative to the fleet command ship. The shuttle pulled ahead and slipped into the large, bone-white landing bay in the rear of the battleship, slowing to a halt before lowering itself to the deck. Hellcats and Avengers belonging to the new recruits followed the shuttle in first, leaving the original Cowboys to cover them. Nobody really expected an attack at this moment, of course. They were just exercising an abundance of caution so it would become second nature. Then the veterans flew in on blue-white puffs of fusion rocket power, piercing the energy wall covering the landing bay with their long noses.
Jack and Betty’s Avenger slowed down to a soft landing, landing gear taking what little shock there was with ease. Jack breathed a sigh of relief as the canopy opened to let in the Guardian Light’s air. A deep breath of the air brought him home with its familiarity. He unbuckled his restraints and pushed himself gingerly to his feet. It was easy. The gravity was neither too strong nor too light.
“Well, give me pigtails and call me Goldilocks, but this is just right,” he whispered, stepping up out of the cockpit. He looked and saw a full-sized uniform-wearing Betty laughing at him with a wicked glint in her eyes. “No!” he added, waving an admonishing finger at her chest. “Bad Betty!” She just laughed harder. He raised an eyebrow at her.
She continued to laugh, not mollified in any way by his scolding, and nodded towards the floor.
Jack stifled a snort and jumped off the fighter. Betty’s gravitics generated an invisible wave of gravity he surfed down to the deck. He stepped onto the solid surface with an easy gait and turned to see the rest of the pilots climbing out of their fighters.
Jack moved away from the fighter and looked for Hal. The holoemitters in his uniform hummed to life as Betty transferred to it, and his eyes scanned for the Guardian Light’s cyber. He finally saw the cyber in the distance, walking out from under the giant tree at the end of the landing bay. Jack focused on the cyber and saw the soft edges of his form and the way the air moved around him. It was Hal’s real physical avatar, not a holoprojection.
“We should…form ranks and stuff,” Jack whispered to Betty.
“Agreed,” she answered and cocked her head to the side to signify that she was passing the message on to the other cybers. Every other cyber leaned in to their pilot and whispered to them in unison, and Jack smiled as the pilots turned to look at Hal. Then they allowed their cybers to shoo them into formation. Jack suppressed a chuckle at how easily they allowed themselves to be handled by their better halves, even Charles who took up his position ahead of the Cowboys without hesitation. Any thought of laughing ended when he caught Betty’s look and stepped into formation before it got any more deadly.
Jack cleared his throat, looked at Hal again, and caught a smile. Jack’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then he smiled back with a shrug. He looked around to see the shuttle’s ramps lowering and nodded slowly. He still had a little time.
He glanced back to Hal and whispered low enough that even the pilots around him could pretend they hadn’t heard. “I’d like to talk to you about something.”
Hal’s avatar nodded back, acknowledging that the ship heard and understood.
“Guardian Light,” Charles said, stepping forward as Hal approached with a waved hand aimed at the Cowboys. “I present to you, representing the United States of America, the Republic of Texas Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, the Cowboys.”
Hal smiled at the assembled pilots. “You are well presented. Your base of operation welcomes your return. I look forward to knowing those of you I have never met before.” A holoform flickered into existence next to the avatar.
“If you will please follow me to Cowboy Country,” the holoform asked and waved for the Cowboys to follow.
Jack began to move with them but stopped when the physical avatar caught his eyes and gave him a slight shake of the head. Jack nudged Jesse and glanced towards the Cowboys. The former farmer accepted the command with a tilt of his head and a smile before helping escort the Cowboys after Hal. That left two other pilots behind. Jack raised an eyebrow at Charles and Jay, wondering what exactly was going on. They shrugged and turned to Hal, waiting for the cyber to tell them.
“Aneerin would like you to join him on the observation deck, if you are willing, for a…planning session,” Hal said in explanation.
Jack looked at Betty in surprise and she smiled back, letting him know she wasn’t concerned. Or surprised. He frowned at her, wishing she’d told him this was going to happen. Her expression took on an innocent look.
“We would love to,” Charles said to Hal. “Come on, boys and girls,” he added and stepped off to follow Hal’s avatar.
Hal and the cowboys stepped onto a lift, the door shut, and Jack felt it accelerate for the kilometer-long run from one end of the battleship to the other. He felt it vibrate slightly as it hit terminal speed of just over 100 kilometers an hour before beginning to decelerate. Jack swallowed and felt his ears pop. Even with complete command of gravity, the Peloran still hadn’t licked that little side effect. The lift slowed to a halt, the doors opened, and they stepped out into one of the largest cabins on the battleship. The clear forward bulkhead showed them star-filled space ahead of the flagship.
Jack felt exposed despite the thickness of the clear armor. At least he could dodge in his fighter. Here, he would be a sitting duck if something shot at them. He intellectually knew he was safer now than he had been on Leif Erikson Spacebase, but that didn’t stop the inner paranoid from gibbering in terror. Jack stuffed the inner paranoid into a deep, dark hole and smiled as if there was no other place he’d rather be at the moment.
Aneerin, wearing the normal Peloran white uniform that blended into the white walls, cleared his throat to get their attention and waved them into the large empty cabin. “It is good to see you again,” he said in his stereotypically calm tone. He turned to face the stars with a smile. “We shall see battle soon, I think, and viewing hyperspace with friends is always preferable to doing so alone.”
Jack blinked in confusion, looking around to see the other Cowboys doing the same. Aneerin considered them all friends? For the first time Jack wondered how many people Aneerin counted in that column.
“I am sorry,” Charles said and cleared his throat. “We are leaving now? I thought we were planning an exercise with all of the squadrons in the task force.”
Aneerin chuckled. “We are entering hyperspace now,” he said with a smile. “We are not leaving.”
Jack’s instincts started to tingle. Something was going on here, something he’d not considered, and now his subconscious was trying to alert him to it.
“Hal?” Aneerin asked with a smile.
Hal nodded, and then his eyes began to flicker back and forth as he communicated with the other ships in the task force. “We are ready to dive,” the cyber finally announced.
“Then dive,” Aneerin ordered.
Jack closed his eyes, a bright flash turned his vision red through his eyelids, and darkness returned. He blinked stars away and peered into the chaotic, twisted rainbow of colors that was hyperspace. Gravity itself flowed and rippled, eddies brushing up against the warship viewable to the naked human eye. It was truly beautiful. Jack pulled in a deep breath and nodded. It was almost as beautiful as a morning sun bouncing off a mist-covered lake. Almost.
“Plot a course for the Hyades Cluster,” Aneerin ordered, pulling him out of his momentary lapse. “Maximum depth, maximum speed, and engage,”
“Engaging,” Hal answered.
Jack felt the ships go deeper into hyperspace, away from the wall that separated them from normalspace. The multihued colors of hyperspace grew more muted as they moved farther away from normalspace, deeper into the regions where hyperspace acted less like anything humanity naturally lived in. He felt the ship shudder around them as a band of stressed gravity smashed into them. And then they were moving forward into a mass of gravity bands so tight Jack couldn’t imagine how they were moving between them at all. And more than once the ship shuddered as Hal failed to completely avoid them.
Jack licked his lips, forgetting the beauty of a few seconds ago. “I thought we weren’t leaving yet?” he asked, really hoping for some encouragement.
“Oh we are not,” Aneerin answered in a brisk tone. “We are simply going deep to avoid Shang scouts. They cannot follow us this deep.”
“Of course, we did lose the couriers from Independence,” Hal supplied. “So it would seem they can now.”
“Yes,” Aneerin whispered, bringing a hand up to rub his jaw. “Most unfortunate that revelation is.” He nodded as if deep in thought. “We will have to go deeper then.”
Hal’s face seemed to tighten. “Of course,” he said without protest, though.
Aneerin pulled in a deep breath and set his jaw. “Go ten percent beyond standard maximum operating depth and look out for storms.”
Hal swallowed, placed his hands behind his back, and nodded. The ship dove down further, the intermittent bangs becoming a steady thrum of gravity slamming against the ship.
“This is not safe,” Charles said with a shade of worry in his voice. Jack glanced at his contacts to see them passing a depth his instructors had insisted no ship could survive.
“Absolutely not,” Aneerin answered, though his tone revealed no hint of nerves.
“If this is not safe for a Peloran ship, what about the rest of them?” Charles asked, waving a hand at the Terran warships in the Guardian Light’s wake.
Peloran pulled in a deep breath before answering. “We have upgraded every ship in this fleet. They should be able to follow us.”
Aneerin smiled. “It is best to find out if they will break now, before we have traveled far, rather than later when we are attempting to penetrate the Hyades Cluster.”
Jack shivered at the idea of testing the new systems like this.
Aneerin nodded towards Hal and chairs appeared in the middle of the observation deck, courtesy of the hard light projectors in the walls. Aneerin and Hal sat down in the ones with their backs to hyperspace and waved for the Cowboys to sit. His face took on a speculative look. “Do you know why we are here now?” he asked with a matching smile.
Jack and the others exchanged confused looks, and Jack poked his chair to make certain it was as solid as it looked before sitting down. He finished with a long look at Betty, who just smiled back at him as if she knew exactly what was going on. He blinked and frowned at her for a second, before shaking his head and returning his gaze to Aneerin.
“Do you mean the metaphysical question of why we exist?” Jack asked with a wry smile. “Or why we are at this spot at this moment in time?”
Aneerin smiled at him. “I think I understand the first question.”
Jack’s eyebrows rose. “Care to share the secrets?”
“Perhaps later,” Aneerin answered with a sigh.
“You said something about battle,” Charles interjected.
Aneerin nodded towards him. “Correct. The important question of course is who will we fight?”
Charles, Jack, and Jay exchanged confused looks. Their cybers just smiled. Of course they did. Jack sighed and rubbed his forehead. They were being tested. He hated tests. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.
Aneerin aimed a raised eyebrow at him. “Jack? Can you tell me your interpretation of The War for the Outer Colonies?”
Jack frowned, glanced at a smiling Betty, and rolled his eyes. Reluctantly, he gathered his thoughts, ran his mind over the reports he’d read over the last month, and quickly checked his conclusions again. “You know we’re not on the Pentagon’s preferred mailer list,” he commented.
“I know,” Aneerin answered with an understanding smile.
Jack grimaced, shook his head, and sighed. “Well, from what I’ve read, there’s a lot of wailing and very little gnashing of teeth going on out there.”
Aneerin gave him a questioning look, and Jack had the pleasure of actually, for once, catching the older man off guard with something. And that pleasure made him a bit more verbose.
Jack sighed. “Nobody has enough ships out there to really push a fight, so they’re doing more sparring over position than anything else,” he explained. “Avoiding big fights if they can. Really, no commander wants to be responsible for losing everything out there, so they’re not trying to win it. They’re waiting for the big fleets near Earth to decide the matter.”
Aneerin smiled. “Good summation. So they are irrelevant to The War?”
Jack almost answered in agreement, but something stopped him. He blinked, and looked at Betty with a frown. She gave him a pleased smile. He turned back to Aneerin, a mystified look on his face. He didn’t know why, but they would be important. “No.”
Aneerin chuckled. “Can you explain that?”
Jack shook his head and smiled. “Absolutely not.”
Aneerin nodded in approval. “Honesty. And instincts.” He turned to Charles and Jay. “Either of you?”
Charles smiled. “The Outer Colonies cannot influence who wins The War, unless our casualties are so catastrophic that there are no winners. But they will almost certainly have the numbers to influence the Peace that follows.”
Aneerin gave him a quizzical stare. “So you assume there will be a peace?”
Charles nodded. “No war can last forever. Sooner or later, one of us will win and one of us will lose and there will be a ‘peace in our time’ moment.”
Aneerin nodded in approval. “Your analysis is in accord with mine. Do you believe the same thing of the Inner Colonies?”
Charles frowned. “Mostly, yes, though there are some exceptions that could turn The War.”
Jay cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention. “I believe the Inner Colonies will be far more important,” he rumbled.
Aneerin smiled and nodded for the larger man to continue.
“The Chinese commanders near Earth thought they could beat us so they tried to destroy our fleets.” Jay grunted then, with a rather pleased smile. “They failed. The commanders in the Inner Colonies have been raiding our supply convoys in hopes of starving our Colonial forces out.”
Charles nodded in agreement. “The last report we received of any strike was two weeks ago. They have been silent since word of our victory here reached them.”
“Indeed,” Aneerin noted in a solemn tone. “So what do you think they intend now?”
Jack frowned and scratched his neck as an idea came to mind. He examined it against everything he knew, looked at it from all sides in his mind for any hole, and grunted as he found nothing wrong with it. It felt right. “They’re coming here,” he whispered.
Aneerin cocked his head to the side. “What makes you say that?”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know.” Then lightning struck and his eyes opened wide as the message from his subconscious finally got through. “Wait. Yosemite. That was just the first step to taking our fleets out of action,” he said with more intensity than he meant to.
Aneerin nodded in approval. “Yes. I agree. What is their next step?”
Jack frowned and glanced around the observation deck. He caught a shift in Hal’s demeanor and his eyebrows rose. He glanced at Betty, wondering if she’d caught it, too. She inclined her head marginally, showing she had. Jack smiled at Aneerin. “Well, I think he’s about to tell us.”
Aneerin smiled. “That is cheating, Jack.”
Jack spread his hands out wide. “Just making use of every piece on the field of battle,” he said with a wink.
Aneerin shook his head. “So now we are at battle with one another?”
“Every time we speak, it’s a battle of wits,” Jack said, once again with more intensity than he’d planned.
Aneerin bowed his head. “Touché,” he whispered before turning to look Hal. “You have news?”
Hal nodded. “The scouts are detecting movement.”
Aneerin turned back to Jack. “New Washington?”
Jack considered the Peloran for a moment before answering. It felt right. “It is a good target.” Then the realization hit and he looked out at hyperspace. “And that’s why we went so deep. They saw us leave. The coast is clear for them, isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” Aneerin answered and his gaze took in all three pilots. “Would you like to help disabuse them of that impression?”
The smiles that answered him would have given a shark a heart attack.
Aneerin smiled and turned back to Hal. “Bring us around.”
Hal nodded. “Changing course now.”
The ship groaned as it came around, and Jack could swear he felt it battering its way through the gravitic storm around them with renewed determination. He shook his head in amazement. While he’d been fighting a battle of wits with Aneerin, the older man had been fighting one with an enemy none of them could even see.
Aneerin was good.