The Shang played a real heavy game with us. They wanted us dead or slaves. We disagreed. We fought back. And you know what? We Cowboys were real good at playing our own games.
Jack let out a long breath, watching the warm air from his lungs crystallize in the cold front washing over the ruins of New Washington’s capital. He sucked air in through the clear filter masking his face against the dust in the air. He looked up, barely making out the dim glow of Alpha Centauri A in the dust-shrouded sky. He shook his head and returned to examining the capital. The Shang’s sustained orbital bombardment had left nothing standing.
A cold wind howled and Jack shivered despite himself. He zipped the leather flight jacket up to his neck and stuck his hands in its pockets. Betty and Jasmine echoed his motions at his sides, even though they didn’t need to. It was just their way of fitting in, and he had to admit it felt a lot better standing out here with them than alone. Dirty snow swirled in the wind, wrapping around him or driving through their holoforms to dust the ground at their feet. Jack sighed as the temperature continued to drop. It was midday but the darkness was enshrouding all. Winter was coming thanks to another Shang bombardment.
Jack shivered again, wondering how many innocent people had died under the Shang bombardment. As many as had died on Earth? It seemed hard to imagine, but this was America’s oldest interstellar colony. A lot of people had lived here. Jack had joined the military to stop the Shang from doing this again, and the elation of winning in space was gone now that he could see what they’d done down here.
He’d failed to stop them. A part of him knew it was stupid to think that. He’d never been in command. He’d never been in a position to do anything other than shoot where he was told, when he was told. And the more rational part of his brain told him he would have done the same thing if he’d had the chance. But that didn’t affect the part of him that wished he could have tried. Knowing didn’t stop the voices that said he’d failed because he hadn’t even tried. He’d followed orders like a good little soldier and now other people were dead while he was safe and warm as dust and ash filled the sky and brought winter to an entire world.
The sound of footsteps on the rubble came to his ears and Jack turned to see Jay and Winona leaning into the wind as they trekked up to the hilltop.
“Aren’t you going to come in?” the big Navajo Indian shouted over the wind. “It’s getting colder!”
Jack shook his head, wishing they’d just leave him alone. “This isn’t cold yet,” he returned, making a show of not noticing what actually was beginning to be a bit chilly.
“Oh. Right,” Jay said with a dark chuckle. “You know you Minnesotans are crazy, right?”
Jack forced a smile against the gloom ahead of them. “Everybody knows it ain’t cold until it’s thirty below.” Jay shivered and Jack shook his head slowly. Well, he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to try to show the man at least a little bit of humor. “Can’t tell you how many times I snow shoveled in shorts and a tank top because I didn’t want to get heat stroke.”
Jay answered with an exaggerated shudder as he and Juliet reached the top of the hill. “You shoveled snow?”
Jack shrugged at Jay’s attempt to make him laugh. “My parents wanted me to develop a good work ethic.”
“It must have been some con job to make them think it worked,” Jay said.
Jack snorted as the joke poked a hole in his depression. “One of my best,” He answered with a shake of his head. Then he sighed and nodded at the destruction. “What do you think?”
Jay’s playful act disappeared immediately and he followed Jack’s gaze towards the ruins. “The Shang should read more Sun Tzu,” Jay said in a low tone.
Jack blinked at the odd answer, trying to fit it into this. He’d never read Sun Tzu though. Ancient Chinese generals were simply outside his interests. “What?” he asked in complete confusion.
Jay sighed. “You should read his works. One thing he said was to ‘Never do your enemy a small injury,’” he said with a nod towards the ruins of the capital.
Jack turned with a shocked look and waved a hand at the destruction. “This is small?” he spat out.
Jay met his gaze and nodded. “They did not kill all of my people, and now we are united against them. Every time they kill a small number of people, they make far more enemies that will fight them tooth and nail. Like me. Or you.”
“Jay is right,” another voice said and Jack turned to see Charles and Dorothy walking up to their observation point, waving his hands towards the north and the rest of the colony. “Aneerin miscalculated. The Shang fleet was larger than he expected and New Washington’s defenses fell too soon. By the time we got here it was too late to stop all of this. But this is one planet among many. Even this is but a small injury compared to what they promise to show us.”
Jack shook his head and turned to walk away from the hilltop. He didn’t want to talk about small injuries versus large injuries. People were dead and he’d failed to save them.
“Jack,” Charles called after him. “I need you to keep an open mind and listen to me.”
Jack turned back to Charles, knowing he was showing far more anger than he wanted to. He held his voice under control and spoke in a quiet tone that he knew they would both pick out of the wind. “If it means thinking that all these people are just small injuries, I don’t think I can do that.”
Charles’ eyes widened as he obviously recognized Jack’s frayed control and the older man brought both hands up in a placating gesture. “Fair enough. All I ask is that you listen. And then think about it.”
Jack set his jaw and held Charles’ gaze. The feathery weight of a hand touched his shoulder and his jaw twitched. Betty leaned forward until he could see her face. A part of him wanted to tell Charles to stuff it, but Betty held position until he sighed and turned to her. He met her gaze and she smiled. Then she flicked her eyes towards Jay and Charles. Jack gritted his teeth, knowing his face looked far more mulish than he liked. He just couldn’t help it. She raised both eyebrows at him and pursed her lips, asking him if he really wanted to argue with her at the moment.
A low growl rumbled in his chest, but no matter how much he wanted to walk away from Charles and Jay at the moment, he really couldn’t ignore Betty too. She was his partner. That meant he had to trust her, even when he didn’t agree with her. Jack pulled in a deep breath and turned back towards Charles and Jay. “Betty tells me to listen, so I’ll listen. But you better have a fraking good argument.”
Charles nodded, accepting the challenge. “First, if the Shang had spread out, englobed New Washington, and fired at it from all sides, they could have done far more damage to the colony. Killed many more people.”
Jack frowned at the other man and shook his head. “Two problems with that idea. It would have been harder to overload the capital’s defenses without concentrating their fire. And spreading out like that would have left them vulnerable to a counterattack. We could have rolled them up. As is, because they held together, they managed to get half their fleet out.”
Charles nodded in approval. “You are right there. Those are definite problems. Of course, they thought we were gone, no longer a threat. They might not have considered protection against our counterattack to be a priority.”
“So maybe they were just being careful and it paid off for them this time?” Jack countered with one raised eyebrow.
“Maybe.” Charles sighed “But I can not help but notice the differences between this attack and the one that hit Earth. Here they performed a general bombardment on everything they had line of sight on, including that new volcano over there.” Charles waved towards the east where the gloom was thickest. “They only targeted America’s capital and orbital infrastructure, but not the rest of America.”
Jack couldn’t keep the growl out of his voice this time. “They dropped Yosemite all over America. I’d call that a big target.”
Charles nodded again, very slowly. “Yosemite dropped. The question I have is why it dropped all over America.”
Jack snorted at the idiotic question. “I think it dropped because the Shang blew it apart.”
“Oh, yes,” Charles answered without a pause. “That is definitely why it dropped. But you know Yosemite was not actually in orbit, right? Not a classic orbit at least.”
Jack frowned at the sudden change in subject, but it temporarily disarmed his skeptical side and he nodded after a moment. Yosemite Yards had been a constant beacon in the sky, day and night, for nearly a century. Massive gravitic generators anchored it in the sky above California where everyone could see it, a sign of American prosperity and power. But it wasn’t a true stable orbit. That was part of its legend. It floated above the coast of America on the pure power of gravity generators. That power had failed when the Shang blew the Yosemite’s heart away.
“Good.” Charles measured his expression for a second before continuing. “If we had anything truly orbiting as low as Yosemite Yards, it would be flying across the sky, not staying in one point.”
Jack’s frown deepened as he considered that. He didn’t know where Charles was going with the argument, but gave the man a doubtful nod. “Yeah, I know the theory,” he muttered back.
Charles sucked in a deep breath before continuing. “When a true orbit degrades, the object spirals down until it hits the atmosphere, and then friction and heat break it apart as it flies across the sky, scattering it all over the place. A satellite coming down like that over the West Coast would leave pieces at least as far as the Mississippi, perhaps all the way to the East Coast depending on size, trajectory, and many, many other factors.” Charles paused to make certain that Jack understood.
Jack glanced at Betty and she nodded. And then she gave him a look that said he really needed to take another step. She was right of course. He turned back to Charles and forced a smile onto his face. “Old school orbital mechanics was never my specialty, but I’ve seen a water skier totally frak up a landing at seventy klicks. I think I get your meaning.”
Charles shook his head, but smiled as he accepted the olive branch. “Sometimes I forget how hard you work to act like a dumb country hick.”
Jack accepted the sidelong insult in the way it was intended and shrugged. “More like differently motivated. The skier in question was a real nice girl.” Jack actually managed the ghost of a real smile for a moment. “I fished her out. She was a real mess, but the docs fixed her up good.” He shrugged and shook his head, the smile fading again. “She’s dead now. Yosemite.”
Charles let out a long breath. “I am truly sorry,” Charles said, his voice colored with true sorrow.
Jack looked away and turned to the ruins of the capital, hand rubbing his chin. “So what doesn’t make sense to you?”
Charles stepped up beside him to follow his gaze. “That girl of yours. If she had been hovering above the water rather than flying over it, on a gravboard when it failed, what would she have done?”
Jack shrugged. “She would have fallen.”
“Straight down?” Charles asked in a very pointed tone.
Jack turned to raise an eyebrow at Charles. “Yes. Straight down.”
Charles smiled, and Jack was certain he sensed triumph in the man’s expression. “Well, Yosemite was one giant gravboard that failed.”
Jack blinked as he considered the fall of Yosemite again. He’d never thought of it like that, and the realization brought a shiver down his spine. Or maybe that was the cold finally seeping through his flight jacket. Yosemite hadn’t just fallen. Once again he watched the wreckage flying east across the sky towards Minnesota. He shook his head to clear his mind. Charles couldn’t be right. “Yosemite didn’t just fall. It got hit by missiles. There were explosions. Lots of them. Those would push it around a lot.”
Charles tapped his temple. “You watched it happen with our eyes. Yosemite accelerated to the east after the missiles hit. Where did the missile fire come from? Did they come from over the Pacific? Could they have pushed Yosemite east when they hit? Or did the missiles that killed Yosemite come from the same ships that leveled Washington D.C., from the east?”
Jack brought a hand up to rub his temple, remembering the missile fire coming from the east. “You know the answer to that.”
Charles nodded. “And that is why I wonder why Yosemite fell like it did. My family has connections. I have seen the data that was not released on the news. It was secondary explosions that brought Yosemite down like that. Not the missiles.”
Jack chewed his lip. “The missiles could have set them off. It was a yard. There were all kinds of things that could blow up on it.”
Charles smiled. “Yes. They could have. I would like to know if they did or if something else did.”
Jack shook his head, tired of the run around. “What are you getting at, Charles?”
Charles sighed and shook his head. “The facts we have do not make sense, Jack.” He gained determination as he went along, and Jack knew he was about to do something he rarely did. Answer a question with full and complete honesty. No double stepping. “I do not believe the Shang meant to drop it the way they did. Yes, they killed it, and everybody on it, and they wiped out Washington D.C. too. But I do not believe they could have foreseen the fall of Yosemite all over western America. And I do not think that was their plan. Because it would be a stupid plan if it was.”
Charles snorted, and his breath crystallized in the air before him. “I knew the man that would have become President after they bombarded Washington. I knew what he was made of.” Charles paused, met Jack’s gaze, and willed Jack to trust him. “That man never would have stood up to them. He would have surrendered in a second.” Then a very dark chuckle escaped Charles’ throat. “Instead, because Yosemite fell on him, we all got…this.” He shook his head and shrugged. “They pissed us off. They killed millions of us. They left us primed and ready and waiting for a junior Senator from Colorado to stand up, call them out, and rally all of us to fight a War to the Knife against them.”
“The President,” Jack whispered in almost reverent tone.
“The President,” Charles repeated, his tone almost as reverent about the woman who rallied America to take The War to the enemy. “They could not have foreseen her, but I can not believe they would have been stupid enough to purposefully prime us for someone like her to set against them. Because I think they are very smart.”
“Fine,” Jack growled, trying to keep the anger from showing. Trying and failing. “So either they were stupid, or…what? An accident? A chain reaction that went out of control?”
“That is one possibility,” Charles answered, his voice very grim. “Another possibility is that somebody other than the Shang wanted Yosemite to fall as it did.”
“But…why?” Jack asked in complete confusion. “You already said it would be stupid. So why would anybody want that?” And with that one question, he realized Charles had him. Because that was a good question. Why would anybody, even the Shang, purposefully drop Yosemite? He was right. It was a small injury. It killed millions but left hundreds of millions of others alive to seek revenge. Just like him.
“I do not know,” Charles said firmly, but his relieved expression betrayed the fact that he realized Jack was with him. “But either the Shang are stupid, and they deserve the ass kicking we are going give them, or it was an accident and they are going to get blamed for all eternity for something they never meant to happen.” He sucked in a deep breath and steeled himself. “Or someone else planned to drop Yosemite all over America and the Shang got the blame.”
“My God,” Jack whispered. “That’s some crazy conspiracy territory you’re walking in.”
“Yes, it is,” Charles returned with a shrug. “And God help me, I hope I am wrong. But my family owns satellites and I have seen the direct feed from them. The computer models that have been made public do not match what I have seen. We are being lied to, and I must know the truth,” he finished with a grave expression.
A shiver ran down Jack’s spine and somehow he couldn’t just blame that on the cold. He looked Charles in the eyes and the older man nodded. Charles meant every word. Jack looked at Jay who inclined his head towards Charles. Jack considered the argument and nodded as he began to see where it could lead. Real, live, conspiracy theories and the like. And all the crazy that went along with that. Jack rubbed his forehead and considered it again. Then something else came to mind. He snorted and smiled. “You need to break into secure computer networks to get the info don’t you?”
Charles smiled. “Yes.”
Jack looked towards Betty and Jasmine with a smirk. “And we just happen to have some of the best computer infiltration specialists in the Western Alliance right here.”
“Yes,” Charles said once more. “We do.”
Jack asked Betty and Jasmine what they wanted by cocking his head to the side in a questioning manner. They merely nodded and Jack sighed. He turned back to Charles with a snort. “It isn’t going to work.”
Charles frowned. “Why not?”
Jack shrugged. “We’re too big. And we’re too concentrated. We’re going to need to datamine a lot of places to find the information you need. Assuming it’s out there at all. And we can’t do that as one big group. We’re going to have to split up.”
Charles and Jay shared an approving look. Charles turned back to Jack with a smile. “Agreed. Do you have an idea?”
Jack looked out towards the ruined capital. “If we operated in squadron strength we could cover far more space. Get into places we can’t as one large group.”
Charles frowned. “We already are operating in squadron strength.”
“No, we aren’t,” Jack returned with a smile. “We’re operating in wing strength. Think about it. We’ve got sixteen pilots right now. And each one is going to have twelve fighters again real soon. That’s a couple hundred fighters all told. But if we split up into individual squadrons of one pilot and twelve fighters we could be in many more places at once. We could access more computer systems to dig up the information you want. And even if we get nothing, we’ll still be showing everyone how the drone fighters work. Imagine a single pilot taking up a single bunk on a cruiser or small carrier bringing a full squadron of Avengers into battle. That’s force multiplication right there, and any warship squadron would be happy to have us.”
Charles nodded very slowly, then sighed. “Our fighters are operating at full Peloran technologies right now. There is no American starship that can fabricate the parts we need to keep them flying.”
Jack sighed. The man had him there. Then Betty got his attention with the floating image of a horse and rider wearing a cowboy hat and a bandanna. He recognized the insignia instantly. Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 41, the Desperados. They would have been performing fighter maintenance if they had been ready to deploy when the Cowboys first shipped out. Now they were trying to spin up with the rest of the squadrons in their aviation group if he’d remembered correctly. Then the image of one of the new C-4 Galaxies appeared in his vision and he blinked in surprise. He looked to Betty to make sure he understood her and she nodded. Jack scratched his chin and nodded very slowly as he realized exactly how all of that tied together.
“Care to let me in on your ruminations?” Charles asked with a bemused expression.
Jack cleared his throat. “Oh, my better half just let me know that the Desperados got some shiny new Galaxies recently. Aren’t those big enough to carry a small Peloran fabricator? And they’re hypercapable to boot.”
Charles blinked in surprise as he considered that. “They could not replace destroyed fighters with those fabricators,” he finally intoned.
“No, but they could keep the ones we have working,” Jack returned. “And maybe even hand out a few upgrades. Tweaked sensors or better laser arrays. Once the scuttlebutt got around, ships would be fighting to get us to fly with them.”
Charles looked towards Jay again and they exchanged smiles. “So all it would take is convincing headquarters to activate the Desperados for deployment with us. Do you have any ideas on that?”
“Nope. That’s your job as big wig,” Jack said with a smirk. “But consider another thought. Getting the Desperados out there with us would mean that many more boots on the ground when it comes to researching your theories.”
Charles gave him a long and thoughtful look. “But our public reason for this is to help spread the wealth of Peloran technologies and show everyone how the drone program works?”
“Of course,” Jack said with an innocent smile. “Who would ever think we have some ulterior motive about researching shadowy conspiracy theories nobody believes in?”
“Including you?” Charles asked with a grim expression.
Jack shrugged. “I don’t disbelieve you, but it’s a big pill to swallow in one go.”
“True.” Charles nodded and looked back towards the destroyed city. “Assuming we go with your suggestion, how do we start?”
“Well, first we have to announce that we’re not really a squadron anymore. We’re a wing. Marine Fighter Attack Wing 112, the Cowboys,” Jack said.
“That does make sense,” Charles said.
“Then we state our intention to deploy in squadron strength anywhere there is need. Under Peloran orders, of course. With the Desperados.” Jack gave Charles another innocent smile. “And remember, the President tasked us to train people in Peloran technologies. We’d just be doing what she ordered us to do.”
Charles chuckled and shook his head. “You have an amazingly devious mind when you let yourself use it.”
Jack frowned, not entirely certain if he’d been insulted or complimented right there. Or maybe a bit of both. Well. Time to give him another thought to chew on. “And we’d need new squadron names of course.”
Charles blinked. “Excuse me?”
Jack looked towards Betty with a raised eyebrow. She frowned in thought for a moment before a slow smile covered her face. She agreed. “We’re all Cowboys to start out with, of course. But every squadron has a name, and we’re going to need that real quick. And it just so happens we have some names waiting to be used.”
Charles frowned. “Explain that.”
Jack shrugged. “The Peloran gave us all callsigns. I suggest we put them to good use. You would be the leader of Wolf Squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Wing 112, the Cowboys.”
Charles looked to Jay for comment.
Jay shrugged. “It reinforces the fact that we are working with the Peloran. I like it.”
Charles nodded and returned his gaze to Jack. “I think you have a good idea there. So does that mean you are in?”
Jack sighed and looked out towards the winter that was coming to New Washington. “I’m in.”
“Thank you,” Charles said and looked out towards the ruined capital.
They stood like that for a long time, taking in the devastation. For being such pint-sized midgets, those Shang could organize a real bombardment.
“But I’m still going to enjoy playing Whack-A-Runt whenever I can,” Jack finally said.
“Of course you will,” Charles responded with a sigh. “But we have to leave something better than killing for the next generation.”
“Agreed,” Jay said from his view of the capital.
“Yeah,” Jack said as a stiff wind blew in and stirred up the mix of ash and snow around them. Jack gave Charles a very long look. “But I think there’s one thing you haven’t thought about.”
Charles frowned. “There are many things I have not thought about.”
“True,” Jack answered and returned his gaze to the devastation around them. He’d never before been the kind of guy who could make a real difference in anything important. He’d just wanted to play around and have fun. That had been his world. He’d joined the military to get revenge on the Shang for Yosemite. But that wouldn’t make a difference either. Not really. Not where it counted. He saw that now.
“Would you care to elucidate on this point?” Charles asked.
Jack smiled. The boy he was couldn’t make the worlds better. The survivor who joined the military couldn’t either. He hadn’t thought things through back then. He’d just been living for the moment. The joker he’d been for over three decades was simply not the person who could make a difference in the universe. Which made him perfect for their needs. Jack turned to look at Betty and she smiled at him. She was tracking him. She was a good girl.
“I’ve never been what you might call the model of a modern major general or anything. People might get suspicious if I suddenly started taking all of this seriously.” Jack smiled at his commanding officer. Then he stood up straight and tugged the collars of his flight jacket just right. “So…for those times when you need someone no one would ever expect to be involved in a shady operation like this…I think that Captain Jack of Hart Squadron needs to spend his life being…”
Jack flicked his collars once more for effect and saw the dawning comprehension in the eyes of his commander.