If there is one thing I have learned while fighting with the Peloran, it is that they are utterly ruthless in battle. They may seem like nice little tree huggers, the kind of old men and women you would trust your babies with, but once they get into battle, they are relentless. They will never strike where expected, and they will never hold ground that must be held. They practice deception like an art. Sometimes I wonder if Sun Tzu asked them for tips.
Jack looked out into hyperspace through the transparent hull of the Guardian Light’s observation deck. Gravity ripped and twisted around them, dim red waves slamming into the battleship again and again until it thrummed and set his teeth on edge. The battleship’s deflection grid plowed through the deep darkness of the deepest gravity well Jack had ever seen. A dim red wake of disturbed gravity fanned out behind them towards the rest of the fleet.
Jack turned to see the other fifty-one ships, assorted destroyers, cruisers, and light carriers, displayed in all their holographic glory on the walls of the observation deck. They followed in the Guardian Light’s wake, riding the waves of gravity broken by the battleship’s relentless charge. Man wasn’t meant to fly this deep in hyperspace. Man wasn’t meant to be in hyperspace at all, but they were too deep when the gravity waves were all dull red over a blackness so much darker than any black he’d ever imagined.
Jack swallowed carefully, not wanting to disrupt any of Hal’s attention.
“Charles, I need the Cowboys ahead of the task force. Surface, relay what is there, and engage if needed at your discretion.”
“We’re a little deep,” Jack said and waved a hand at the red bow wave ahead of them.
Aneerin smiled. “Your fighters are better than you think.”
Jack gave him a disbelieving look. “I think they’re pretty good, actually, but this is a whole new definition of crazy.”
Aneerin sighed. “You should speak with your fighter. You will find that we have performed significant upgrades to her capabilities during our time at New Earth.”
Jack frowned at the statement and turned to look over at where Betty and the other cybers stood against one wall. She turned from their conversation and nodded towards Jack. Then she glanced towards Aneerin. It was a none-too-subtle suggestion that he should get back into his conversation. He sighed and turned his attention back to the planning session.
“So we are going to be the diversion?” Jay rumbled.
“Possibly a diversion. Possibly the main attack. Definitely a test,” Aneerin said with a pointed look at Jack.
Charles and Jay followed his gaze and Jack sighed. “For all of the new recruits?”
“Indeed,” Aneerin answered with a nod.
“And for the upgrades?” Jack asked.
“Indeed,” Aneerin repeated with a knowing smile.
Jack returned the smile with interest. “And unless we detour to play whack-a-Wang along the way, that’ll be it before the Hyades?”
“Indeed. Though I can think of no Chinese targets along the way as important as the Hyades,” Aneerin returned and nodded towards the rear of the ship. “Do you believe them ready?”
Jack looked at Charles, the question written on his face. Charles smiled and cleared his throat. “All of the Cowboys are veterans, new and old alike,” he supplied and stepped up to stand next to Aneerin. “Every single one has fought and lived. I only worry how we will fight as a group. That said, we are at least as prepared as when we first deployed. I think the Cowboys on this ship are more than a match for the Cowboys who fought at Fort Wichita. Before factoring in the technological upgrades and our expanded numbers.”
“Agreed,” Aneerin whispered. “You have chosen well, I think.” Aneerin paused to take in a long breath, and Jack could see him studying the deep red waves of hyperspace intently. Aneerin finally nodded and turned a face determined to them. “It is time.”
Charles echoed Aneerin’s action and nodded to Jack and Jay. “We should return to Cowboy Country now,” he ordered and turned to walk towards the lift. Jack gave Aneerin an informal salute and followed his commander. The door closed behind a thoughtful Jay and the lift began making its way towards Cowboy Country.
“Aneerin is a dangerous adversary,” the big man said very slowly.
“Indeed,” Charles responded with a nod.
“I don’t think I’d want to fight him,” Jack put in his own two cents.
“Thank the Great Spirit he’s on our side,” Jay added.
“Is he?” Charles asked and met the other two men’s surprised looks. “Is he really on our side?”
Jack sighed and considered the question as they sped down the spine of the kilometer-long battleship.
“He has to be,” Jay said. “Think about it. He could have contacted any nation when he came. He chose the British Commonwealth. That’s not a mistake.”
“No,” Charles returned with a shake of his head. “That was not a mistake. He had his reasons for Contacting them.”
Jay frowned. “What do you know?”
“Not as much as I would like,” Charles said with a shake of his head. “But I believe he made Contact with the British for a purpose. Have you ever noticed that the Peloran language has…interesting similarities to one of English’s root languages?”
“What?” Jack asked in surprise.
Charles smiled. “Some have described English as a mixing of various Continental words and terms laid over a Welsh sentence structure.” Charles chewed on his lip for a moment before continuing. “The Peloran language is…very similar to Welsh. Similar enough that many do not believe it is a coincidence.”
Jack sighed. “Don’t tell me you’re a Contact Truther?”
“I am not,” Charles said with a definitive tone. “I do not claim to know anything about why they came. I merely have questions about facts that seem strange.”
“Look, if what you say is true, why haven’t we heard about it before?” Jack asked in an exasperated tone. “They’ve been here a hundred years!”
Charles aimed a serious smile at him. “That is a very good question.”
Jack’s spine tingled as one of Aneerin’s favorite statements rolled off Charles’ tongue. He licked his lips and shook his head, trying to clear the unease that question brought to mind. “You really are a conspiracy theorist, aren’t you?”
“I actually have very few theories,” Charles corrected with a shake of his head. “What I have are questions that most people are either too scared or too unwilling to ask.”
“Why did they really come?” Jay asked and Charles nodded.
“Yes. That is the question I ask myself on a daily basis,” Charles said.
“You talk to yourself a lot, then,” Jack quipped.
Charles raised an eyebrow at Jack. “Only on days I wish to have an intelligent conversation.”
Jack gave him a surprised look, caught between laughing and being offended. Then he saw the twinkle in Charles’ eyes and fell into laughter. He gave Jay a look and smiled. “Would you look at that? He’s turning into a regular comedian in his old age.”
Jay smiled but was saved from needing to comment when the lift came to a halt and the doors opened into Cowboy Country. He stepped out with a swift stride that took him through the main room in seconds. The walls of Cowboy Country weren’t a clean white like the majority of the Guardian Light. Symbols and flags and other decorations festooned the bulkheads, reminding the Cowboys that they were all American. The United States Marine Corps symbol, an eagle standing atop a globe with an anchor driven through it, dominated one wall in all its silver and gold glory. Another wall hosted the American, Texan, and Marine Corps flags, and the other two walls sported honors that Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112 had received from her creation in World War II, the wars in the Middle East, the Drug Wars on the old Mexican border, and numerous skirmishes across the Western Alliance and beyond until the Battle of Fort Wichita and the Battles of Alpha Centauri.
The first two battles at least. They were about to add a new one to the bulkhead. The thought that they might lose never occurred to him. He was Jack. They were Marines. And he had Betty and Jasmine on his side. He glanced back and forth at them with smiles that they answered. Not to mention Hal and his guns, of course. With all of that arrayed against them, the Chinese didn’t have a chance.
Jack left the main room behind and walked into a long corridor leading to the launch bay. Hatches on either side opened into the sleeping quarters belonging to each pilot. Sixteen private rooms in all. He idly wondered how Hal had built them. There had only been ten the last time he was here, one for each Cowboy on the Guardian Light.
Then the hatch at the end of the corridor opened into the launch bay and they stepped through into it. Jack scanned around the cramped chamber, taking in the stacked ranks of Avenger and Hellcat fighters in their cradles, ready to launch at a moment’s notice.
“Good of you to finally show up,” Jesse said, his voice coming from the small speaker in Jack’s ear.
“Well, you know what they say,” Jack answered with a big smile, looking towards Jesse’s Avenger. “Fashionably late and all that. And my fashion sense is fantastic.” Jack bypassed the ladders and walked to where his Avenger rested, not really wanting to abuse his aching muscles.
“Only if the judges are cows and corn,” Jesse noted with a shake of his head.
“Farms are good places to start with, you know,” Jack responded with a smile. “But I prefer the girls to judge my fashion.” He glanced at Betty, she smiled, and he felt the gravity melt away. He kicked against the deck, sending him floating up through the gantries to where their Avenger waited. He grabbed a bar to arrest his motion, spun around it, and landed next to his cockpit.
“True,” Jesse acknowledged as Jack came to a stop.
Jack chuckled and stepped down into the cockpit. “And you know the girls love a man in uniform.”
Jesse’s face appeared on one of the displays with a shake of his head. “You really do have a one track mind, don’t you?”
“What else would I join up for?” Jack asked with a smile.
“What about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Jesse returned.
Jack chuckled, sat down, and began locking his restraints. “That sounds great in a comic book, but this is real life.”
“I like comic books,” Jesse said. “The villains are much easier to recognize.”
“True that,” Jack answered with a shrug. “And the girls are more properly thankful to the hero of the day.”
Jesse rolled his eyes.
“All Cowboys,” Charles interrupted their banter. “Prepare to launch.”
Jack frowned and scanned his displays, making certain that all systems reported online. “We’re still too deep. I don’t want to surf these rapids.”
“Don’t worry about it. The dangerous waves are always the most fun,” Ken Banno interjected with a chuckle.
“Cut the chatter and report readiness,” Charles ordered with a sigh.
Jack looked at Betty and she nodded. But he had an important question of her. “Upgrades?”
She smiled and a display came to life with the weapons systems he recognized. There was a gravitic cannon in each wing and four laser pods on either side of the cockpit most often used for point defense. Then the display shifted and the gravitic cannons moved towards the outer wing assembly. Another cannon appeared on the tip of the nose, and a quad barrel laser turret came to life under the nose. And finally a pair of missile pods appeared in the wing where the gravitic cannons had once been. Jack blinked and realized they might be able to challenge Pre-War frigates for a test of firepower. Aneerin hadn’t been joking when he’d said there were upgrades.
“Mischief, here,” Katy interrupted his thoughts with her report. “We’re ready.”
“Buckaroo Flight is ready,” Ken’s voice said next, reporting for himself and the new recruit he was charged with acclimating to the squadron.
“Dutchman Flight is go,” Jesse added.
That made all six fighters of his division ready to fly. But he still had questions. “Are all of our fighters upgraded like this?”
Betty smiled. “Yes.”
“My God, they’re never going to know what hit them.”
“Precisely,” Betty said with pleasure.
Jack smiled and reported their status. “Chief, Jester Division is ready to fly.”
“Excellent,” Charles transmitted after a few more seconds, presumably after getting Jay’s report. “Launch as soon as Hal gives us a green light.”
“Roger that,” Jack answered, leaned back in his seat, and let out a long breath. He glanced over to Betty and she cocked her head the side. “Division,” he said and she nodded, bringing the entire division into a single conference line. “Looks like it’s time to do what we do best,” Jack announced. “Hurry up and wait until we get the green light.”
“So you have experience with that too?” Katy asked.
Jack shrugged. “Not as much as you’d think, actually. Aneerin ain’t one to have everyone stand at attention because he has the rank to demand it. I think his men would laugh at him if he tried that one,” he finished with a snort.
“How do they maintain discipline?” Ken’s recruit asked. Jack glanced at a display to confirm her identity. Dawn.
“They don’t,” Jack said with another shrug. “I don’t know exactly how it all works, but they really are genetically engineered super soldiers. They go from calm and collected tree hugger to stone cold killer in an instant.”
“Well, that’s fine if you want a mass of killers,” Katy interjected. “But how do they train them to fight together without proper discipline?”
Jack smiled at Betty and she shrugged back. “Well, you remember all those regulations we had to memorize that tell us how to stand or act when we’re interacting with anyone from a civilian to the commanding general’s wife’s foo foo dog?”
He thought he heard something that sounded like a snort from the other end. “I remember,” Katy finally said, sounding suspiciously like she was trying to keep from laughing.
Jack raised an eyebrow at Betty. She smiled back. “The Peloran don’t teach themselves that. They are born knowing it. And outside of a very few individuals, they are all very…team oriented. Put five Peloran together, and they’ll move as one by instinct. They don’t have to be trained to fight together. They do it without thought. It’s kinda scary, actually. I think that’s why their ambassadors always walk alone. They don’t want us to see a pack of body guards that remind us of sharks swimming through a school of fish.”
“Yeah,” Katy whispered with dawning comprehension. “That might make people question their peaceful tree hugger ways.”
The light turned green.
“It’s time!” Jack shouted. “Launch, launch, launch,” he ordered, slammed the throttle forward, shut his eyes, and hoped to God that they were high enough to maintain control on exit.
They shot out into hyperspace and bucked and rolled through the twisting gravity wake around the Guardian Light. But they did not die. He opened his eyes in relief to see the kaleidoscope of colors twisting through hyperspace. He saw the other Cowboys shooting out with him, and then frowned as something caught his attention. Each of the fighters had a different icon associated with them. Charles had the face of a wolf, Jesse a fox’s face, and everyone else had another animal. He had the face of a deer.
“What is that?” Jack asked, waving a hand at the icons.
Betty smiled. “Those are our Peloran callsigns.”
Jack frowned, not liking the way this looked. “We already have callsigns,” he reminded her, letting a little too much of his annoyance get through his voice. He’d earned his callsign after all.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “A Peloran callsign is an honor, Jack.”
“Right. I’m not an animal.”
Betty sighed. “So the Peloran have a thing for animals. But they picked ones that fit your personalities. It’s an honor, Jack.”
Jack’s frown deepened. “I’ve hunted deer. There’s nothing honorable about being food on the hoof.”
Betty laughed and shook her head. “No, silly, it’s a heart.”
Jack raised an eyebrow at her before scanning the displays with a skeptical eye. “No. I’m pretty sure that’s a deer.”
“Look at the antlers, Jack!” Betty shouted and laughed. “It’s a heart. H-A-R-T. Hart! An old stag. The King of the forests. A noble animal!”
Jack pursed his lips as he came to terms with the word she was using. “You mean a buck?”
Betty blinked and sighed. “Yeah. It’s an Old English term for a buck.”
Jack snorted. “I speak American, not Old English.”
“Don’t be difficult, Jack,” Betty whispered.
“I’m not being difficult,” Jack protested. “I earned my callsign.”
“Yes, you did,” Betty said with a beaming smile. “You earned both of them.”
Jack frowned at his logic being turned back on him.
Then his displays flickered again and he looked over to see more fighters launching from the bays or peeling off the Guardian Light’s outer hull. The Peloran fighters assumed wedge-shaped formations and slotted into position near the kilometer-long battleship.
The American fighters cut through the gravity wake and flew out to meet Jack and the other Cowboys and Jack gave them a long look. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112 had begun The War with twelve fighters. They had lost four pilots during the Battles of Fort Wichita and Alpha Centauri. He had helped Charles screen new applicants and now eight new recruits doubled their surviving numbers.
Major Tom Rogers had been flying longer than Jack had been alive, and Captain Ed Case was a transfer from the first frontline squadron to fly Avengers, the Black Sheep Squadron of World War II fame. Both of them flew Avengers. The other six new arrivals flew the Hellcats they were qualified with, making this one of the more unique formations he’d been part of in his very short military career.
And now nearly two hundred drone fighters identical to the American Avengers and Hellcats in every way began slipping into formation around the manned fighters. That was equivalent to the firepower of an entire Marine Wing, and far more firepower than the entire Fourth MSW that the Cowboys belonged to could have boasted when The War began. Jack idly wondered if they could even properly be called a squadron anymore. He frowned as the idea stopped being idle at all.
That was when Jasmine’s twenty-centimeter tall hologram flickered into existence on the console next to Betty and brought Jack’s attention back to more important matters.
“Good to be back in the saddle again?” he asked with a smile.
“Unbelievably good,” she said with an answering smile.
Charles voice cut into their witty repartee. “Cowboy One to all Cowboys. Fan forward, follow your beams, and watch for enemies”
“Roger that,” Jack answered as their beam appeared on the main display and looked to the one that showed Katy’s fighters. “Mischief, you ready?”
“I’m five by five,” Katy answered his question.
“Good,” he said and frowned at hyperspace ahead of them. “Stay on my six.”
“I’m tight on your tail,” Katy acknowledged. “Just lead the way.”
“Always,” Jack said with a smile and nodded towards Betty. She smiled and began accelerating away from the Guardian Light and he looked at the displays to see the Cowboys approaching New Washington. “I’m sending a drone up to scout for us. You stay in hyper for now. Hellcats aren’t supposed to be able to transit on their own, so let’s not let them know the rules have changed yet.”
“Got it, Boss,” she acknowledged, her voice betraying just how much she was going to enjoy showing them the new rules.
Jack turned to Betty. “Send a drone through.”
She nodded and he watched one of the drones moving forward. He glanced at it, focused on it, and watched as it disappeared in a maelstrom of roiling gravity. A second later, the displays of his fighter filled with information transmitted from normalspace.
New Washington dominated the view, a cold blue pearl in the starry night. Icons appeared around it, first a dozen, then two dozen, and more. Scores, and then hundreds of ships filled the skies around New Washington, and Jack swallowed the frog that appeared in his throat. The Chinese ruled the skies, surrounded by the wreckage of orbital stations and defense ships. It was Yosemite all over again, only this time the enemy was sticking around to make certain the point was made.
“Girls?” he asked and began to chew on his lip. This was bad. Real bad.
“Yes?” Betty and Jasmine returned, their voices sounding as nervous as his.
Jack licked his lips. “We’re going to need a bigger fleet.”
“Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Charles began transmitting, interrupting his train of thought. “There appear to be a few more attackers than we expected.”
A dark laughed escaped Jack’s throat at the understatement, and he heard it echoed back through the communications channels from the other Cowboys.
“I agree,” Charles said in an answering growl. “Aneerin needs a diversion to get their attention. I told him that we could do that. Are you ready to go in first like proper Marines?”
“Oorah!” the Cowboys shouted in unison.
The Shang formation closer to New Washington blinked on the displays. “That is our target,” Charles said in a commanding tone. “If you have any questions, ask them now!”
Jack swallowed and gave Betty a worried look. She shrugged. “Hey, Chief,” he began. “That’s fifty warships, and we don’t know how many fighters. We don’t have the firepower to kill them.”
“We do not have to kill them, Jester,” Charles answered with what sounded like a shrug. “We simply need to get their attention.”
“Right,” Jack said in a doubtful tone. “And while we do that, what about the Chinese?”
A dark chuckle came over the communication system. “Aneerin will deal with them. Now follow me.”
Charles accelerated forward and the rest of the Cowboys followed him through hyperspace. They snuck around the main Chinese formation, just close enough to examine the fleet while staying far enough away that they would not be detected.
“They’ve painted my drone,” Betty reported, annoyance written on her face.
Jack scowled. So much for not being detected. “Get out!” he shouted as weapons fire from a squadron of Chinese fighters and a scout craft bracketed her drone.
“Too late,” she answered, returning fire with her gravity cannons. The Chinese scout craft belched wreckage-filled atmosphere, even as the drone maneuvered to avoid the twenty fighters, spilling decoys to draw off or blind the enemy weapons. There were simply too many, though, and she was flying alone. Only ten percent of the missiles held lock, but they were enough to rip the drone apart as Jack watched.
Then the displays showing normalspace winked out and Jack sighed. The displays came back up after a second, showing information coming in from the other scouts the Cowboys had sent through. A quick look showed that the Chinese had killed two more scouts at the cost of heavy damage to six patrols. Three Avenger drones accelerated away from badly wounded scouts along with the other undetected drones.
“Should I send another drone?” Betty asked.
Jack licked his lips, but shook his head. “No. But…” he trailed off. If they sent someone to investigate in hyperspace, it would be bad. “Mischief, move to screening positions.”
“On it, Boss,” Katy returned and her Hellcat and drones peeled off to surround the Avengers.
If anybody came through, the Hellcats could destroy them with missiles before they knew what happened. The Avengers hadn’t been designed for fighting in hyperspace, a fact Drew’s death had brought into sharp focus. Jack glanced at Jasmine with a worried look, but she pursed her lips and six of their drones moved forward to hold position between the Hellcats and Jack’s Avenger. Jasmine smiled at Jack’s questioning look. “Just in case,” she explained, and Jack turned to ask Betty if she approved. She nodded and he leaned back in his seat, relaxing as he waited for the reports to come in.
They detected no one diving into hyperspace to find them and Jack smiled. The displays actually showed the Chinese turtling up to make themselves harder to attack. And that was all right by him. The Avengers flew deeper into New Washington’s gravity well and the multicolored hues of hyperspace darkened as gravity strengthened. The Chinese held the outer orbitals behind them, while the Shang held the inner orbitals below them. The Cowboys were well and truly surrounded, even if the rock behind them wasn’t moving. Still, rocks had been used as anvils in the past, and a Shang fleet was a real good hammer.
“Prepare to surface,” Charles ordered. “Full emissions control. Make it quiet and gentle. We do not want to be seen until we are in position to fire.”
“Roger that,” Jack answered and then licked his lips. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
“For we are the Republic of Texas Marine Corps!” Jay shouted, and only then did Jack realize that Betty had been transmitting.
“Oorah!” the other Cowboys shouted as Jack stared at Betty in surprise.
She smiled back. “Gotta love the guy,” she whispered.
Jack shook his head and smiled.
“Surfacing in three…two…one…” Charles transmitted and Jack closed his eyes as light began to build around the nose of his fighter.
The world shifted around him, he opened his eyes, and saw their targets in the distance. The Shang ships were bombarding the planet from orbit with missiles, projectiles, and lasers. Jack could see the explosions on the surface from space. The Shang were leveling the entire colony.
“Engage maneuvering thrusters,” Charles ordered. “No fusion drives. Keep it gentle.”
Jack nodded to Betty and she smiled as the Avenger accelerated towards the planet. The thrusters disengaged after a few seconds and they drifted towards the Shang fleet like holes in space. Jack sat back and tried to relax as the ships continued to pummel the planet with blow after blow. The planetary networks were still transmitting and their reports flashed across his displays.
Super-heated lasers evaporated lakes and sent clouds roiling into the skies. Missiles exploded over buildings and their pressure waves flattened entire towns. Solid projectiles smashed into the ground at mind-boggling speeds and the world groaned in protest. A volcano erupted after a sustained bombardment and Jack watched as the blast wave destroyed the camera transmitting the images. The footage went on and on from hundreds of transmitters and Jack shook his head in disbelief. This was worse than the Washington strike. It was even worse than Yosemite. The Shang were trying to eradicate life on a planetary level.
“Why are they doing this?” a voice asked.
Jack frowned and looked at his displays. That came from Virginia Adams. She was one of the new Devilcat recruits.
“Because they’re Shang,” Jay rumbled in response and Jack nodded in understanding. The big Indian had lost many of his tribe members when Yosemite fell all over his lands.
“No. I mean why aren’t they hitting the transmitters?” Virginia clarified. “Those can’t hide. We’re seeing everything they do from ground level. Why?”
“Because they want us to see,” Charles said in a grim tone. “They want everyone to see and know the cost of opposing their will. They want us to know they have the power to destroy our worlds if we stand against them.”
Silence answered his pronouncement and Charles gave it time to sink in. Jack shook his head.
“We will stop them,” Charles continued after a few silent seconds. “They have given us no other choice. We either stand as free human beings now, in this instant, or we bow before them as slaves. I will die a free man before I live as a slave.”