The Shang hit us hard. Real hard. We stood back up and the Peloran stood with us. We figured as far away as they were from home, all we had to do was hit ’em hard and we would have a short, victorious war. We were wrong. Of course we Cowboys don’t give up just ’cause the gettin’ gets tough.
Crickets welcomed the morning as a faint sound on the edge of his hearing. The lake spread out before him with waves gently lapping against the sandy beach, tickling his toes. The bonfire that filled all of his very best dreams now guttered in and out, failing as its fuel began to run out. Sunlight burned the mist away with sparkles of light glinting off the waves. The old friends who partied in his dreams had gone home already. Three beautiful young ladies rose out of the lake, water streaming down their shiny bodies. Jack smiled. Well, not all of them had gone. This was going to be fun.
Alarms rang, and Jack frowned. That sound didn’t belong on the beach.
“Warning, warning, this is not a drill,” a voice he knew did not belong near this lake announced in a calm voice. “All personnel to Battle Stations. This is not a drill. All personnel to Battle Stations.”
“Ah crap,” Jack said and reluctantly opened his eyes, sending the fantastic blonde, brunette, and redhead to wherever dreams went when he woke up. He saw the dull grey bulkheads and shook his head. This really sucked. He sniffed and slid out of his rack, avoiding the other Cowboys doing the same, and grabbed the bits of his uniform. He pulled it on, stuffed his feet into his boots, and ran out into the corridor ahead of the other pilots, still buttoning the last of his buttons.
“Warning, warning, this is not a drill,” Connie continued to announce over the speakers as Jack ran towards the flight deck, the other pilots behind him.
“Betty! What’s going on?”
“Right here, Jack,” the cyber answered in his right ear, her twenty centimeter tall holographic image appearing on his shoulder in full uniform. “There’s been another attack. The Shang hit Fort Wichita with a hyper missile salvo. They’re trying to sweep up the survivors now.”
“And we’re moving to stop them?” Jack jumped through the hatch. The inner hangar opened up before him and he whistled. After three months, he still loved entering the business end of the USS Constellation. “Wow,” he whispered. Pilots for the other eleven Navy squadrons spilled out of their sleeping quarters, making for their fighters in the massive open hangar bay that ran the length of the carrier. Looking towards the bow, he saw the multi-colored spectrum of hyperspace through the energy curtain that held the air in.
“Thank you,” Connie said from a nearby speaker. “It’s always nice to be appreciated. And to answer your question, yes, we are moving to protect Fort Wichita. Please get in your fighter. We are approaching the launch point.”
“Yes, Mom,” Jack answered and ran deeper into Cowboy Country. He came to a stop at his fighter and climbed up the ladder provided for him. He dropped into the cockpit and watched the displays come to life around him.
“Welcome, Jack,” Betty’s voice said from the fighter’s speakers as the canopy began to close. Her avatar jumped off his shoulder and landed on top of the instrument panel with a dancer’s grace.
“Status?” Jack asked as he smiled at her and buckled himself in snuggly.
“All computer and weapons systems are online and operational,” Betty said with a smile. “The reactors are still warming up to full power and should be ready in one minute. You beat me again.”
“Excellent,” Jack said. He scanned the hangar, watching the other pilots scramble into their fighters. The canopy finished closing and polarized, locking them off from outside eyes.
Betty stretched and the uniform faded away in favor of the yellow sundress she preferred. “Much better,” she said and sat down on the instrument panel, crossing her legs with a satisfied smile. “Now,” she said, her voice back to business, and pointed towards a display that came to life.
Jack saw the fleet holding in space over America, in combat with the Shang, and pursed his lips. An American destroyer drifted towards Earth, most of its power systems offline. A quarter light second below it, Fort Wichita belched flame and wreckage into space, damage caused by the surprise attack.
“That was two minutes ago,” Betty said and the scene shifted to show a Peloran battleship and her escorts smash into the Shang fleet’s flank. “And that was thirty seconds ago. We’re going to hit them in the other flank as soon as we are ready to launch.”
“Excellent,” Jack said with a dark smile that said just how ready he was to kill some Shang.
Betty’s eyes narrowed at the tone of his voice. “Be careful, Jack.”
“Careful’s my middle name, Ma’am,” he answered with a smile and began tapping displays to make certain the fighter was ready. It was make-work really. Betty had already done it all, but it was time to look busy.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she said in a scolding tone. “You know my terms. When this war is over…”
Jack raised one hand and met her gaze, his jaw set stubbornly. “When? How can you be so sure we’ll win?”
Betty pursed her lips. “I’m not. I’m sure the war will end though, win or lose, and when it does, you know my terms. I won’t be…this…forever,” she said with a wave of her hand towards the hangar around them. “This is our job. Don’t let it become your life.”
Jack set his jaw harder. “Tell that to the people who don’t have a life anymore thanks to those Shang.”
Betty gave him a sad smile. “I understand,” she whispered.
His eyes narrowed and he almost asked how she could. He kept his mouth closed and shook his head, though. He pushed the anger that almost made him say that away, took a deep breath, and let it go again. He closed his eyes, opened them, and met her gaze. “Yeah, me too.” He placed his hand on the panel next to her, apologizing for what he almost said.
She blinked, met his gaze, and he had the feeling she knew what he hadn’t said. Her smile grew happier though and she placed her small hand on his finger, turning the projectors in the fighter all the way up to solid so he could feel her. “Then let’s do our job, Jack.”
He nodded towards her. “Yeah. Our job.” He looked outside to see the last of the Cowboys climbing into their fighters. “Speaking of which.” The last canopy began to close.
“This is Cowboy One to all Cowboys,” Lieutenant Colonel Johanson transmitted from his fighter. “Do you read?”
“Roger,” Buckaroo Banno answered, and the light corresponding to his wingman came to life on Jack’s display. As each pilot added his “Roger” to the list, another light appeared until only one light remained dark.
“Roger,” Jack transmitted and his light came on.
“Excellent,” Johanson transmitted. “Datalinks are shiny. Now we have a special mission, Cowboys. Mom, can you beam us out?” he asked as his fighter pulled up off the deck.
“Your beam, Cowboys,” Connie said over the speakers as a beam of red light appeared in the middle of the hangar, leading out to the bow. “Good luck with your mission.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Johanson transmitted. “Snuggle up, Cowboys, and stay on my beam.” His fighter’s engines flared to life and he accelerated away.
Jack relaxed back in his seat as Betty took the fighter off the deck, slotting into line just below Christian Mack’s fighter. Betty accelerated to follow while maintaining formation with the other Cowboys and stayed on the beam. Ahead of them, the other squadrons pulled away from the beam, giving them clear traffic out of the hangar. The fighters passed through the energy curtain holding the air in and the multicolored gravity waves of hyperspace surrounded them.
Jack looked to starboard, where the USS New Jersey held station two kilometers away, even her kilometer-long bulk almost fading into the background in the multicolored kaleidoscope that was hyperspace. He could barely spot the rest of the task force escorting the Constellation, on the absolute edge of detection range. Detection ranges in hyperspace were so short that only the centermost ships of a standard formation could see everybody in the fleet. In really big fleets, fleet command depended on other ships to tell them where the rest of the formation lay.
“Stay on me,” Johanson ordered and pulled up. Jack and the other Cowboys followed the wake he cut into hyperspace, moving above the carrier. “Cowboy Flight is away, Mom. You are clear to maneuver. Good hunting.”
“Good hunting, Cowboys,” Connie answered and the Constellation turned towards the New Jersey, her engines twisting hyperspace around her. “Commencing surface action in…three…two…one…now.” Her transmission cut out as the fleet carrier flashed and disappeared. The other ships of the squadron flashed and disappeared as well, leaving the Cowboys alone in the kaleidoscopic sea of hyperspace.
“What are we doing, sir?” Jack asked, his plot still showing the last update of the battle, with the Peloran squadron driving deeper into the Shang flank.
“We’re waiting,” Johanson answered with an amused tone. “The Shang have to have a reserve. This is too small an attack force to punch us out. So we are waiting for them to commit that reserve.”
“Ah…and then we flank them,” Jack said with a smile.
“Exactly,” Johanson transmitted. “So right now, we snuggle up and wait for word.”
“Works for me,” Jack said and scanned his sensors. Ken Banno’s fighter was snuggled up close to him and Jack smiled. “How’s it going, Buckaroo?”
“I’m good, Jester,” Ken answered with a smile. “Ready to kick some Shang ass?”
“Always,” Jack said with gusto.
Then a message drone flashed into being in front of their formation. It flashed them a datadump and Jack winced at the story it told. The New Jersey and the Peloran squadron between them had hammered the Shang force into the defending line, destroying several Shang warships in seconds. And ten seconds ago, another Shang force had arrived to surround the Peloran squadron. The data cut, showing when the drone had been sent.
A beam appeared on Jack’s plot, aiming towards the point in hyperspace that correlated with the new Shang flank. “Cowboy One to all Cowboys. Stay snuggled and follow my beam,” Johanson ordered and accelerated down the beam.
Jack interlaced his fingers and cracked his knuckles, getting ready for action as Betty followed orders, maintaining perfect formation with the other cybers. He watched the display, marking their approach towards their target.
“Check your music,” Johanson ordered.
Jack turned to Betty and she smiled. The jammers were active. The fighter accelerated again, following Johanson’s fighter. He glanced at the displays to confirm that they were as shallow as possible in hyperspace, not moving more than a few meters per second faster than the same speed in normal space. They were approaching full correlation between the two, the point where it would take the least amount of energy possible to jump between them. Even at the wall though, it still took a lot of energy to translate, more than any other Terran fighter had ever been able to generate before.
“Surfacing in three…two…one…” Johanson counted off.
Jack watched the energy crackling down his Avenger’s nose and shut his eyes.
“Now!” Johanson ordered.
Jack saw a flash of blinding light behind his lids, and when his eyes opened the stars glinted in a black sky. He scanned the battle all around him, taking everything in. Earth lay below them just over a light-second away, America in full view. A map display showed the moon and her forts on the far side of Earth, too far away to be of much use here. He squinted and the view zoomed in to show him a squadron of Chinese warships moving in over the Pacific. Fort Honolulu fired across their bows, warning them away from the Hawaiian Orbitals. So far, only the Shang seemed willing to fight inside the Lunar Orbit and Jack really hoped the Chinese didn’t decide to join in now.
He turned to scan the main battle and had just enough time to recognize what he was seeing. Missiles from Earth, the Moon, and various Western Alliance Forts streamed into the battle, but when a missile’s flight time was measured in seconds it was real easy for point defense batteries firing from each Shang ship to kill it. The ground and low-orbit light or gravity-based weapons were quiet, too far away to hit anything if they fired. The Shang now surrounded the American and Peloran squadrons still protecting Fort Wichita, pouring energy and short-range missile fire into their targets. They’d brought in more reinforcements while the Cowboys moved to this location, and the wreckage of starships floated all around the battlefield, some falling deeper into the gravity well. This was going to be another rough day for the planet if those didn’t get pulled back up.
The Peloran squadron fought for its life directly ahead of the Cowboys and a single Shang cruiser lay between them. Jack squinted and saw the light shear around the Shang ship showing that its deflection grid was at full power. Nearly all of it was aimed at the Peloran squadron though. He saw laser batteries shooting down missiles and fighters between the two forces, and a Peloran destroyer belched fire and fell out of formation.
“Fire!” Johanson snapped and the universe turned inside out.
Jack had been told that, to all intents and purposes, a gravitic cannon grabbed the laws of gravity by the neck with both hands and throttled them. About all the physics he could remember was something about hundreds of gravities of gravitic shear compressed into a five centimeter “beam.” It was a decidedly unpleasant experience when two such “beams” passed within meters of the cockpit on either side and made the human inner ear think that “down” was to both sides simultaneously. The eggheads said there were no permanent side effects. Jack doubted them. The Peloran placed their grav cannons outside their ships after all, very far away from any fragile biological crewmembers. There had to be a reason for that.
There were twelve Avengers in Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, and each of them carried two grav cannons. The Shang cruiser had the vast majority of its deflection grid aimed at the Peloran ships, with very little power dedicated to the direction the Cowboys came from. Twenty-four cannons ripped through the deflection grid like it was tissue paper and drove deep into the ship’s structure. A moment later, forty-eight lasers began to fire, pulsing from one target to the next, running from nose to stern, destroying every external sensor, weapon, or engine port they could detect.
In the end, the laser fire wasn’t needed. One of the grav cannons breached the missile magazine for the forward missile bays. The missiles were in safety shut down mode, not yet sent to the bays for firing, but when the gravitic beam slashed through the magazine, it effectively tore several of the missiles apart and compacted them inside the beam’s area of effect, causing a large percentage of the missiles’ mass, some of which was energetically active when brought together, to combine in extremely unstable ways. Once the beam passed through, and hundreds of gravities of shear no longer held the missiles together, the pieces of former fusion-powered missiles once again became separate.
The separation was suitably explosive and the bow of the Shang ship vaporized. The ship slewed violently out of formation, spraying wreckage as it spun away from the battle.
Cowboy squadron spun as one, the cybers in charge acting in unison, and aimed at another cruiser. “Fire,” Johanson ordered and twenty-four grav cannons ripped into another target.
Their second target was prepared, spending the seconds it took for the Cowboys to kill its compatriot to reorient its deflection grid to protect itself from their attack. Twenty of the beams twisted off into space where distance and loss of control made them impotent after a mere few hundred kilometers. One of those slew through a flight of Peloran missiles and they exploded spectacularly in empty space. The other four cannons managed a direct hit and penetrated the grid, doing some damage to the armor, but none of them had enough power and control left to break through the dense armored hull.
The same could not be said about the four much larger grav cannons the Peloran battleship fired a moment later. The Shang deflection grid had held mere seconds before, twisting the Peloran weapons away in the most classic of all defenses, not being where the weapons fire arrived. Now a significant percentage of the cruiser’s total reactor load was spent holding the fighters on their flank to “mere” armor damage. All four Peloran beams smashed through the weakened deflection grids and hit the cruiser like the hammers of ancient gods. The Peloran capital weapons were not measured in mere hundreds of gravities, or in centimeters. The second Shang cruiser did not explode. The four beams sucked sections of the ship in, compressing the compartments inside each one, ripping the ship into ever-smaller sections. When the beams faded away, tiny compressed metallic pebbles and larger undamaged but no longer connected pieces of ship fanned away from where a ship of war had fought seconds ago.
“My God,” Jack whispered in awe.
“Yeah,” Betty answered in a low voice.
The displays flashed in warning and Jack’s eyes went wide. It hadn’t taken long for the Shang to send a couple squadrons of fighters their way at all.
“Go HOTAS and bring the fangs out!” Johanson ordered as forty Shang fighters bore down on them.
Jack smiled at the age-old order and placed his hands on the throttle and stick. If the Shang wanted a dogfight, they were going to get one. “Let’s dance,” he said and pulled the stick over.
“I think it’s time for the Tango,” Betty answered as the Cowboy formation exploded, fighters peeling away into flights of two fighters.
“Sounds good to me. You on my six, Buckaroo?” Jack asked and brought the stick hard over again.
“I’ve got you, Jester,” Ken answered as his laser turret burned down a salvo of missiles headed towards both of them.
“Let’s do this,” Jack said and felt the fighter buck around him from a near miss. He really wasn’t doing the lion’s share of the work, even now. Betty did most of it, with her near-light-speed reaction times maneuvering the fighter in a nearly random program of evasive maneuvers. The problem was that even the best cybers were simply not as random as a genetic human, and with enough experience they could be predicted.
Jack pulled the throttle back hard and the engines flared to life. If asked he would have said he had no idea why he did it. Well, he did actually. But who would believe he had a Bad Feeling about remaining where he was? It was much better to say that he was just embracing the randomness of life that he was best at. A split second later, a missile passed through where they would have been and went on its merry way.
“Betty, I do think someone’s trying to shoot us. Do you have an answer?” He flicked the stick over, altering their course just a little bit to starboard. Betty maneuvered them around that base course, thrusters flaring with each shift, while the laser turret spun and fired.
“Response on the way,” Betty returned. “Damn. Deflection grid held.”
“Do it,” Jack ordered and set his teeth.
The Avenger spun around on its axis, turning towards its attacker as another almost random flare of thrusters sent her up and over a salvo of missiles. The laser turret pulsed the deflection grid, bending away from the target with each shot. The grav cannons missed the Shang fighter that was desperately maneuvering to avoid being killed at first, but swept across its deflection grid, collapsing it instantly. The four barrels of the laser turret went to rapid fire, shredding the fighter in seconds as the Avenger spun back to face her general course.
Jack swallowed as a frigate came back into view, her laser turrets and missile bays spraying all over the Cowboy formation. He glanced at the displays to see that a quarter of the Shang fighters, one credited to Ken Banno, were down with no Cowboy casualties. Then a flash of light heralded a successful missile strike on Johanson’s fighter. Jack gritted his teeth as the Colonel’s Avenger spun out of control, deflection grid sputtering in and out.
“Cover him!” Jack ordered and Betty brought their Avenger around to fire the grav cannons at a fighter trying to take advantage of the Colonel’s situation. Lasers followed up and the Shang fighter ceased to exist.
The frigate focused fire though and Johanson’s fighter ripped apart under the assault. His wingman banked away, lasers playing across more Shang fighters, but the frigate’s fire turned to destroy it too.
“Damn,” Jack whispered, scanning the plot quickly. The only two Cowboys who had been pilots when The War started were just gone in a matter of seconds. The Peloran squadron was making headway against its attackers, and the Peloran fighter formation was reforming now that the Cowboys had pulled some of the Shang off their case.
But if they didn’t do something about the damned frigates, they were all going to be in a world of hurt. He took in a deep breath, readying himself to give the order. He wasn’t the highest ranked of those remaining, but somebody had to give the order to do it.
“Wait one second,” Betty said with a smile.
Jack let the breath out slowly, gazing at Betty’s hologram.
“Cowboy Three to all Cowboys,” Charles Edward Hurst’s voice transmitted into his cockpit as the frigate flashed on his displays, showing the whole datalink had locked it. “Let’s kill it.”
“Oorah,” Jack answered the man that was barely his superior without hesitation in chorus with the other Cowboys. He smiled at Betty. “I didn’t think he’d step up.”
“Neither did he until he had to,” she returned, her avatar looking towards the frigate in the distance. “Don’t worry, Jack. Your time will come. I have faith in you.”
The ten remaining Cowboys swung around, locked onto the frigate, and twenty grav cannons fired at once. It was a much smaller target than the cruisers they’d fired on before, but its true mission was fighter suppression. Real warships could destroy it with relative ease, while it lacked the heavy weapons to threaten them. That was probably why the Peloran warships had mostly ignored it and its sisters in favor of ships that were actually penetrating their deflection grids. Unfortunately for the frigate, the Avengers mounted gravitic cannons designed to take down larger warship deflection grids. A grid designed to deflect the lighter weapons fighters typically carried collapsed under the Avengers’ fire and the frigate belched atmosphere and fire. The laser turrets played across it and the frigate began to drift out of the conflict, power systems sputtering out.
The displays flashed and Jack glanced up to see Hula’s damage codes going red. That would be Drew and Jasmine. Her nose flew away, separated by the concentrated fire of a dozen Shang fighters. Her laser turret went with it. The damaged fighter swung away from her attackers, trying to open the range.
“Covering fire!” Charles ordered and nine Avengers swung around as they maneuvered randomly, avoiding enemy fire as much as possible. Gravity twisted through the Shang formation, ripping deflection grids and fighters apart, and thirty-six laser barrels sought out the survivors.
Jack brought the stick over after another Bad Feeling and scanned the displays. Two more of those frigates still harassed the Peloran fighters, ripping holes in their screening formation. Someone had to do something about them soon.
“Betty?” he asked.
“Almost certainly,” she answered.
A frigate flashed in the display. “Cowboy Three to all Cowboys,” Charles began in a commanding tone. “Flights Four, Five, and Six, focus on that frigate and kill it. Flights Two and Three, we will provide covering fire. Engage!”
“Oorah,” Jack said and swung his fighter around to face the last of the Shang fighters sent to harass them. Charles, Christian, and Ken spun with him and Jack smiled as he considered just how much those Shang were going to regret this. The other six Avengers, including Drew’s injured fighter with two very functional main cannons, charged deeper into the battle that raged around the Peloran squadron. He figured the Shang frigates would dislike today as well.
“Fire ’em up, Betty,” Jack ordered and kept his eyes scanning for threats as he maneuvered them wherever he felt like going at that particular moment. The grav cannons and lasers lanced out as the other Cowboys laid down their own pain, and four Shang fighters broke apart. The survivors broke away, leaving the rear of the Avenger formation unmolested.
The Cowboys in the lead fired and twelve waves of gravitic shear tore into the frigate. The frigate bucked under the assault, its deflection grid failing, and armor ripped away. A squadron of Peloran heavy fighters took advantage of the situation, hammering its other flank with lasers and breacher missiles, and explosions wreathed it from stem to stern.
Another squadron of Shang fighters swarmed in and Jack, Ken, Charles, and Christian spun to fire on them. Four more died but their buddies charged in, filling space around them with missiles and lasers. Christian’s fighter reeled from several near hits that ravaged his deflection grid, but laser turrets of all four fighters chattered away at the incoming missiles as fast as they could target them. It was a high stakes game of chicken and Jack winced as another salvo of gravitic beams tore three more Shang fighters apart. One managed to avoid destruction, but fell out of formation with one wing torn clean off by the near miss. Jack scanned the displays as he continued maneuvering, watching the frigate behind him break apart under the twin Cowboy and Peloran assault, and took in a deep breath.
The Peloran battleship and her escorts accelerated past the third frigate, her heavy fighters ripping into it on the way by. Massive rents in the Peloran ships’ flanks spewed wreckage and atmosphere into space. It was obvious they’d taken a severe beating in the last few minutes but they continued to accelerate as they fired into the rest of the Shang formation, missiles and grav cannons shredding the deflection grids with their gravitic interference. Lasers punched through, and for a second the Peloran ships were close enough they even fired kinetic lances at a significant percentage of the speed of light. More Shang ships and pieces of ships spun away and the formation scattered, individual ships diving into hyperspace with a flash of light.
A face appeared on the display and smiled at them. “Thank you. You saved me from taking heavy damage.”
Jack looked over at Betty with a raised eyebrow.
“That’s Hal,” she answered his unspoken question. “He’s the Guardian Light.”
“Ah. Of course,” Jack returned. “It’s a pleasure to help,” he said to the warship.
Betty cocked her head to the side before smiling. “New orders coming in.”
“Cowboy Three to all Cowboys. Engage datalinks with the Peloran squadron. Slot in and prepare to protect them.”
“Oorah,” Jack and the others answered without a pause. “Betty?”
“Way ahead of you, Jack. Datalinks are synced…now.”
The displays flashed and he saw the Peloran squadron arrayed in them with new codes that showed their situation. Bad. Nearly half their point defense was gone, most of their missiles and kinetic ammunition had been expended, and their armor was a memory in more places than he wanted to think about.
“Frak,” Jack whispered. “If that’s not heavy damage, I don’t think I want to see heavy damage.”
Hal’s smile deepened. “I do not wish to see it again either. Hence the reason for my thanks.”
“Yeah. I think I get that,” Jack said as the Peloran squadron turned and accelerated towards the American fleet covering Fort Wichita. Nearly half the American ships were dead in space and every single one of the others, even the mighty New Jersey, spewed atmosphere out of holes in their flanks. Even the battered fort continued to fire on the Shang, though. A quick scan of the displays showed that half of the Shang ships were similarly battered, drifting towards Earth and a very messy landing if they weren’t stopped, but they still had the advantage of numbers and the American forces were taking extreme damage.
Jack blinked as he saw something else appear on the displays. Squadrons of fighters from every major nation of the Western Alliance were rising up towards space. The Russians and Chinese were doing the same, and Low Earth Orbit was beginning to become a very busy place. Jack swallowed. If the Lunar Treaty fell, if war erupted inside the Lunar Orbital, it would be beyond catastrophic for every soul on Earth. If the treaty held, the Shang would lose their advantage in numbers in a few minutes at most.
A face appeared on one of the displays, a face every school child born in the last century knew very well. It was the face of the Peloran who made Contact a hundred years ago. The man smiled.
“This is Admiral Aneerin of the Peloran Confederation,” he said with the utmost care to seem quiet and passive. “Your attempt to destroy Fort Wichita was admirable but it has not succeeded. Your time is limited. I am free of the ships you thought would pin me in place and reinforcements are coming. You may destroy a few more ships if you stay, but the fort will not be destroyed. Should you continue to seek its destruction, your fleet will suffer greatly.”
Then Aneerin’s face and voice grew hard and far more direct. “This is your only chance to decide your fate. Leave this battle now, and I will let you go. Stay, and I will kill you all.” A Shang heavy cruiser flashed red in the displays. “All ships will fire on that target in five…four…three…two…” Aneerin continued, a hand raised and lowering a finger at each count.
A flash of light engulfed the ship and it disappeared into hyperspace. More flashes of light heralded the retreat of other Shang ships, first one, then two and three at a time. Ten seconds later, only the Shang cripples remained, floating around the field of battle.
The transmission faded away and Jack let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “My…God,” he whispered. A display showed the Chinese squadron moving away from Hawaii and back towards their orbitals.
“Yeah,” Betty answered.
“He stopped it,” Jack whispered.
“Do you think he was bluffing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me neither. I don’t think I want to play poker with him.” Jack leaned back in his seat as the surviving Shang fighters retreated as well, moving towards deep space and a probable pickup by their mother ships.
“Me neither.” Betty gasped and brought a hand up to get his attention. “Orders coming in!”
Jack raised an eyebrow at her as another face appeared on the displays. Charles. Cowboy Three. Woodchuck was the name they’d given him. It wasn’t the most complimentary, but he’d worn it without complaint.
“Mom has taken heavy damage,” Charles said. “Cowboy Country is a big hole in her side. We can’t land right now, but the Peloran have invited us to refuel and repair on their flagship.” He gave them all an aristocratic raise of the head. “I have accepted. Are there any who would disagree with me?”
Jack pursed his lips and glanced at Betty. She nodded towards Charles’s image. He was really just one of the new recruits, no seniority except for test scores and a rich family over the rest of them. And now he was giving them the chance to accept his leadership or challenge him. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do in a lot of ways, but it fit him. Jack nodded at Betty. “Not from this peanut gallery, Chief,” he said with a wry smile.
The other Cowboys echoed his statement and Jack relaxed in his seat, smiling at Betty. She gave him an approving look. It seemed Woodchuck had a new call sign.
“Ok, men,” Charles said, sounding like the heir of a wealthy family, and the Chief of fighting men. “Let’s go in tight, let’s put our best foot forward, and let’s make certain they don’t regret inviting us over to visit.”
“Oorah,” the Cowboys answered.