We fooled the Shang so well they never saw us coming. Of course, they fooled us too. They’d hit harder and in larger numbers than any of us suspected. So we hit them harder and in larger numbers than they suspected. We fought to hold their attention. We fought to stop them from bombarding New Washington. We fought to keep them guessing. We fought to beat them. We fought to break them.
Jack leaned back in his seat as he considered what Charles had said. Jack agreed of course, though he never would have thought to say it like that. Charles was better with words than he was, and a better leader. Not that Jack would admit that in public. But Charles had been the right man to take over at Fort Wichita. He could make people want to follow him with just a few words. He was a born leader.
Jack was a born rebel. He looked towards Betty and she just smiled at him. He had no idea if she was thinking the same thing he was, but he was so completely happy that he had followed her advice that day. He’d waited and Charles had stepped up. And today the man stepped up again.
Jack shifted his eyes to study the displays again. He now saw that the Shang fleet was separated into two formations. A larger force of thirty ships hovered above the other one like a protective umbrella. It was a mix of heavy and light cruisers screened by destroyers on the edges of the formation. The second group held position below the larger one, just above the atmosphere where they could pound the planet with every weapon they had.
The twenty smaller ships began firing at another target as he watched. Electromagnetic rail cannons fired hundreds of balls of metal that dropped into the atmosphere and began burning down towards the surface. They plunged into the ground and sent ripples over the landscape. Dust exploded into the air and all twenty ships glowed on the displays.
“Those bombardment ships are our primary target,” Charles said in a dark tone. Then one began to flash on Jack’s display. “Focus fire on your designated target,” Charles ordered. “New targets will be supplied as each one falls.”
“Roger that,” Jack answered without hesitation and nodded at Betty.
She nodded back and he saw their circular target zoom in on one of the displays. It was short and round like most Shang warships. The term flying saucer came to mind and Jack shook his head. Charles and his conspiracy theories were starting to affect even him. Jack pursed his lips as rail guns and laser clusters came into focus. They fired again and again, pausing only to cool down or reload. It was a devastating warship and Jack wondered what mindset it took to build a ship that seemed designed to level continents.
“Stay on my six, Mischief,” Jack ordered as they drifted towards the Shang ships.
“On it like glue,” Katy answered and her Hellcats used their maneuvering thrusters to slip into formation behind him.
“Promises, promises,” he said with a smirk and flexed his fingers, preparing for the next stage.
“The Shang are painting us with sensor sweeps,” Betty reported and glanced towards one of the displays where it showed a complex diagram of colors. “We’re scattering and jamming below detection levels. But I think they’re getting suspicious.”
“Prepare to break and attack on my order,” Charles transmitted as they continued to close the range. “Use old weapons packages only. Let us keep our full capabilities to ourselves for now.”
“Roger that,” Jack returned with an approving smile.
“Approaching detection levels,” Betty reported as the sensor display began to flash. “I can’t keep them in the dark much longer.”
“Break in three,” Charles ordered.
Jack tightened his hands on the controls and ran his hands over a display.
A T&J song about bad guys biting the dust began to play.
Power flowed from capacitors, flooding defensive and offensive systems with enough power to light up small cities.
“Break! Break! Break!” Charles ordered and the world exploded in time to the screaming of a steel-stringed guitar.
Deflection grids came alive and fire control systems locked onto their targets. Gravitic cannons reached out and twisted the very fabric of gravity between the Shang formation and the incoming Cowboys. Deflection grids collapsed and armor buckled as focused gravity tore the plates apart. Laser turrets pulsed into unshielded flanks, vaporizing armor and weapons alike, and gravitic cannons sucked the debris away.
The Shang formation recoiled under the surprise assault.
“Now, Mischief!” Jack shouted to a thrumming bass beat and her Hellcats opened up with lasers and missiles. Hundreds of small missiles billowed out of the fighters and drones, and closed in on their Shang warship. The missiles passed through the smashed deflection grids and exploded against its tortured skin in wave after wave. It shuddered as the explosions worked inward, flash-frying deck after deck as the Cowboys tore at the ship.
Jack scanned the displays as their target came apart. Five of the twenty bombardment ships no longer existed. Three more staggered out of formation, their flanks ripped wide open from stem to stern. The entire bombardment fleet recoiled away from the Cowboys in a frantic series of maneuvers and he watched in satisfaction as they ceased their bombardment of the planet.
“Secondary targets, now!” Charles ordered and a new target flashed on Jack’s displays. “Maximum acceleration!”
“Tally ho!” Jack shouted as Betty brought them around to face their target and flared their engines to full power.
“I’m on it,” Betty answered, her mouth grim, and the gravitic cannons opened up again. “They’re targeting us!”
Jack watched the gravitic cannons rip through the deflection grids again, flexed his fingers, and let out a long breath. Then he felt the need to be elsewhere and swung them to port while pulling the throttle back. Blue fusion engine exhaust lit space ahead of him as they slowed and his entire formation of Avengers began to maneuver for all their lives.
Missile plumes exploded from the Shang warships. Laser clusters spun to target him. Another warning blared and he looked to see the thirty Shang ships above them maneuvering to engage. This battle looked like it was about to go sideways. Well, two could play that game. And right now felt like the right time to start playing.
“Scramble them!” Charles ordered and Jack smiled.
He nodded to Betty and their fighter began to shudder as decoys launched into space and began telling all the worlds that they were big, bad, Avenger-class starfighters. Clouds of chaff glittered around them. Electronic countermeasures lashed out with raw power to scramble the space waves of any communication that wasn’t friendly.
Jack glanced at a display to see their couple hundred fighters multiply into a thousand sensor returns. Then ten thousand and more. The Shang were going to have to work to shoot him now and Jack smiled.
“Stay with me, Mischief!” Jack ordered and slammed the throttle forward, feeling the engines flare again, hard enough that he actually felt the pull of gravity. They began ducking and weaving around the drone Avengers in a complex pattern designed to further confuse enemy targeting system.
“Like you could get away in that turkey!” she shouted back as her Hellcats began to fly through his formation on random maneuvers of their own, spitting out missiles at their target.
“That sounds like a challenge,” Jack said and swallowed as the displays began tracking more and more missiles flying towards the Cowboys. This could start to hurt a bit. That was when their second target exploded and a new set of targets and movement orders showed up on the displays.
Jack glanced over to see four exploding starships and another four falling out of formation with flames pouring out of their flanks. That left four untouched bombardment ships, seven wounded enough that they could no longer hold formation, and thirty very upset warships above them about to come down like the hand of God on the fighters that had just dared to interrupt their perfectly good planetary bombardment.
A flick of his eyes to another display showed the Chinese accelerating down the gravity well towards New Washington. They’d gotten everybody’s attention it seemed, and they all wanted a piece of American pie. Jack pursed his lips and considered if maybe it was time to tell them who exactly they were dealing with. It would be fun to broadcast it out so everybody would know. A nice little taunt.
The display flashed again with new arrivals behind the Chinese fleet. Gravitic cannons, missiles, lasers, and even the kinetic rounds of mass drivers smashed into the Chinese fleet from behind. Dozens of enemy ships tumbled out of formation, spewing armor, weapons, atmosphere, and even crewmembers into the void. The Chinese turned frantically to bring their weapons to bear on the Peloran task force.
Jack shook his head with a smile. The old man was doing it again.
Then the primary display blinked for his attention and he saw a new target. He frowned. Charles wanted him to kill one of the cripples. Jack wanted to take down more dangerous ships than that, but the cripple obviously wasn’t going to kill itself. He nodded to Betty.
Betty winked back and they accelerated towards their new target. Gravity twisted around him and reached out to tear at the Shang ship. Jasmine’s drones opened up as well, and the weakened deflection grid covering the Shang’s starboard flank came apart. Focused gravity ripped deep into already smashed armor and tore the atmosphere out of the warship. Then Katy’s Hellcats fired another salvo of missiles that spread out and attacked the Shang cruiser from multiple vectors as it desperately tried to avoid the gravitic cannons tracking it. It failed.
Jack looked up from the disintegrating enemy to see three surviving bombardment ships retreat behind the screen of thirty fresh warships, and one of them was venting atmosphere from dozens of deep rents in its armor. That hadn’t been a bad strike at all. They’d wiped out a major threat and gotten everybody’s attention so Aneerin could kick them in the butt.
A glance towards that display showed he was doing a very good job of that. A British cruiser squadron harried one side of the Chinese formation while a German squadron pinned the other side. The Peloran Guardian Light and her five remaining escorts were busy tearing through the Chinese fleet like sharks munching on a school of fish. And a combined force of French and American warships followed on their heals, picking off survivors with focused blasts of gravitic power. The Chinese fleet was getting seriously fraked up. Shiny.
But it looked like the Shang wanted their pound of flesh. They launched a wall of missiles towards the Cowboys and Jack watched the displays fill with threatening icons. Then every missile exploded into scores of tiny anti-fighter missiles and Jack swallowed.
“Deploy laser turrets!” Charles ordered. “Prepare to receive missiles!”
Jack felt the Avenger shudder again and looked to a display showing the main laser turret lowering out of the nose. It locked into place with another shudder and the four laser arrays deployed to either side, finally extending their barrels towards the oncoming missile swarm. The turret flashed green to signal its readiness for battle and Jack let out a long breath.
The Avengers and Hellcats maneuvered around each other in the best random patterns that cybernetic intelligences could devise as their point defense lasers and missiles reached out for the incoming missiles. Nearly two hundred fighters faced the combined missile barrage of thirty dedicated Shang warships and destroyed hundreds of them. But there were thousands of missiles coming down on them and no point defense network could stop them all..
“Oh, Lord, for what we are about to receive,” Jack whispered and held onto the controls with a tight grip. And then it was time to just go anywhere that wasn’t where he was. Jasmine’s drones moved ahead of his fighter, lasers firing in full point defense pattern, as he moved them from side to side and up and down without thinking, whenever he felt the urge to be somewhere else.
Missiles spiraled towards him in an attempt to kill him. Gravity beams and counter missiles ripped some of them apart, lasers cooked others, but some broke through everything to charge in at Jack’s flight. The fighters and drones maneuvered wildly, a mix of cybernetic and genetic reflexes guiding the random movements that tried desperately to avoid any place a missile was about to be. One drone lost a nose to an explosion, and another lost a wing. Two drones exploded to direct hits. Another drone swung in front of him with lasers and gravitic cannons sweeping space before him until a single missile leaked through and blew it away.
Jack closed his eyes to protect them from the flash of destruction. He opened them to see clear space ahead of him. The missile salvo was over and he was still alive. A quick check of the displays showed all of the Cowboys still lived, though they’d lost nearly twenty drones. And another twenty or thirty were broadcasting various damage codes that told the tale of missiles that had made it through.
“Return fire!” Charles ordered and the displays flashed, highlighting one of the Shang heavy cruisers.
Jack swallowed and nodded at Betty and Jasmine.
They smiled and the remaining drones turned to aim at their new target. Gravitic cannons lanced out and smashed into the deflection grids. They didn’t go completely down this time. The ship had better grids than the smaller bombardment ships, and they didn’t have enough drones left to rip them open.
“Mischief,” Jack ordered with a grunt. Her missiles boiled in from behind, some exploding just short of the remaining deflection grid, miniature black holes shredding it with gravitic interference. The rest tore deep into armor and weapons systems, ruining the heavy cruiser’s flank.
The displays flashed in warning and he flicked his eyes over to see hundreds of Shang fighters pulling up and away from New Washington, their engines burning long trails in the atmosphere below them. They shot up out of the atmosphere, closing in on the Cowboys, and Jack swallowed. This was going to hurt.
“Prepare to receive fighters,” Charles ordered in a tone calm. “Continue firing on warships until I give the order. Then spin and engage the fighters with all weapons. It is time to show them what the Cowboys can do.”
“Oorah!” the Cowboys shouted back.
Jack smiled and returned his attention to the job at hand. Hurting the Shang warship in his sights. He flexed his fingers as another salvo of gravity reached out to tear deep into the heavy cruiser. It convulsed as Katy’s missiles followed them in and exploded. And through it all the lasers pulsed again and again, melting armor and internal structure alike. Then something gave inside the heavy cruiser and he watched it just break. The entire forward section shifted, snapped, and tore away from the rear of the ship. Atmosphere boiled out, debris spewed into space, and the two halves of what had once been a warship careened away from the battle on courses that would never converge.
Jack let out a breath and scanned his displays again. Five more Shang warships were out of the fight, utterly destroyed or helplessly drifting away from the fight. Further up the gravity well, the Peloran continued to tear at the Chinese fleet and Jack smiled as he counted more destroyed and dying ships. They were taking the enemy apart.
“Engage fighters now!” Charles ordered and Jack’s fighter spun without any further warning.
The warships flew out of his vision and New Washington came back into view. Engines burned and pushed him back into his seat Covers snapped back to reveal the new missile pods built into his Avenger’s wings, and the third gravitic cannon deployed from the nose as Jack scanned the oncoming Shang fighters. Hundreds of them charged the Cowboys and Jack flexed his fingers as they began to fire. Missiles rippled out of their ragged formation and Jack smiled. They had no idea what they were charging into.
“Open fire!” Charles ordered and over one hundred Avengers and Hellcats unleashed every weapon they had on the Shang fighters.
Hundreds of gravitic cannons hammered into the formation, cracking deflection grids like eggshells. Thousands of missiles corkscrewed in and miniature black holes tore at fighters and shields alike. The Shang had thought they were facing merely American starfighters like those they had already swept from the skies of New Washington. They’d been assured of their ability to weather the assault and flown in to attack with that in mind. But the Guardian Light had spent weeks upgrading every Avenger and Hellcat with full Peloran technologies, and both the gravitic cannons and the missiles were simply an order of magnitude more powerful than any pure American fighter had ever carried. They cut through the fighters like the hand of God and tore the Shang apart without any warning at all.
But they’d fired a full salvo of missiles before dying and those screamed in at maximum acceleration, seeking to reduce the amount of time the defense grids had to pick them off. Surviving decoys lured some of them away, and clouds of chaff confused more. High-energy jammers burnt out others, but hundreds of missiles broke through everything and swept in towards the Cowboys with a cold purpose. And in those last few desperate seconds, defense grid laser barrels glowed red from heat as they pulsed in point defense mode against the incoming Shang missiles.
Jack pulled in a deep breath, loosened his grip on the controls to a light touch, and weaved them back and forth to confuse the missiles. Then he felt the danger that had become such an ever-present part of his life in the last few months. He slammed the throttle to the left, maneuvering thrusters flared, and his Avenger slewed to port to avoid a swarm of missiles. They shot past, trying desperately to follow him, but point defense lasers spun and blasted them out of space. More missiles followed and he pulled the throttle up. The Avenger shot straight up to avoid another swarm, but there were still more missiles. One of Katy’s Hellcats shot across in front of his Avenger, filling his view as it turned to show its full cross section to the enemy. Then it exploded as five missiles dove into it and tore it apart.
Jack licked his lips. He wouldn’t have been able to avoid that swarm. A quick glance showed Katy still held formation just behind and to the side where she could continue firing at the enemy. But the missiles were spent and the surviving Shang fighters turned away. Jack blinked and shook his head to clear it. Then he looked again and his jaw fell open.
The fighters were accelerating out of the gravity well as fast as they could go. And above him the warships were doing the same. They accelerated without turning as the Shang always did, simply changing course and moving away as fast as they could. The decimated remains of the Chinese fleet further up began to scatter away from Aneerin, trying to escape the gravity well so they could enter hyperspace.
Well, they still had time to kill some more before they got away. Jack smiled and flexed his fingers as he prepared to follow them.
“Let them go,” Charles transmitted. “We have done our job here.”
Jack blinked in confusion. “What? We can kill them right now!”
Charles’ face appeared on one of the displays and frowned at him. “Look at our readiness levels. We’ve lost fifty percent of our drones. Ninety percent of our decoys. Our ammunitions levels are depleted below fifty percent. Chaff dispensers are below thirty percent. Our capacitors are at twenty percent.” Charles shook his head. “Yes, we could destroy them. But we could lose people in a battle we do not need to fight. We have beaten them. Is that not enough?”
Jack glanced over the displays and saw all the red and orange flashing lights showing fighters and drones at questionable combat readiness. The black marks reporting destroyed and expended drones or decoys. Even several of the piloted fighters reported yellow status and Jack sighed. They’d taken no real casualties in this fight. If they pushed it, they could lose people dead. And it was real hard to come back from that.
Jack turned back to Charles and nodded. “You’re right. We’ve done enough for today.”
Charles returned his nod and disappeared from the display.
Jack leaned back in his seat and looked to Betty and Jasmine. They smiled and relaxed back onto the console. They were done for now and they knew it. Jack let out a long breath and looked beyond them to where the surviving Shang ships left New Washington behind. Then he watched the haggard remains of the Chinese fleet begin to flash back into hyperspace and let out a long breath.
Jack nodded once more and allowed himself to slow down.
They had won. That was good enough for now.